Winter is not downtime for local farmers who have lots to keep them busy: Andrew Coppolino

No, farmers don't get to kick back and relax during the winter months as they await spring. Food columnist Andrew Coppolino spoke with several local farmers about the important work they get done when their fields are snow-covered.

Colder months a time to fix things that were broken in summer and ensure 'creature comfort'

Jennifer Pfenning is an organic farmer in Wilmot Township. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Standing inside a large, open vegetable-packing facility in cold and icy February, organic vegetable farmer Jenn Pfenning jokes that farmers don't take time off from their chores, including in winter.

"I think sometimes were adrenaline junkies. We tend to keep the pressure on the whole time," Pfenning says.

She quickly adds that farmers "love doing what we do" and that includes keeping people in jobs, especially in winter.

But with shorter days and frigid temperatures, what keeps the region's farmers busy during the coldest period of the year?

For Pfenning, it's packing the locally-grown root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes and onions that have been stored  in customized coolers.

Pfenning's team trims the cabbages, boxes them and ships them for sale in Waterloo region, Collingwood, the GTA and across most of the southern half of the province.   

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There are no sunny Florida or Arizona extended vacations for most farmers, she says. There's paperwork and taxes to be done, research on new crop varieties and field rotation to consider, StatsCan surveys to fill out, supplies to inventory and order and even looking at long-range weather patterns.

Fields may be covered by snow right now, but it doesn't mean farmers in and around Waterloo region are taking a break. (Submitted by Matthew Compton)

Ensuring 'creature comfort'

Down time is often used for forward planning, but it's also for catching up. Farmer Mark Gerber says winter is for "fixing what you broke during the summer," while you continue daily care for your livestock.

"As an animal farmer, I have to ensure that they're well fed and that their water is thawed. It's creature comfort," Gerber says of his primary focus, which comes before acting as handyman and mechanic to get, and keep, his equipment in good operating order.

Operating Oakridge Acres Country Meat Store in Ayr, and its 80 head of bison, doesn't really slow down in winter, he says — and winter work includes plowing the snow from his long lane so customers can get to the store.

Most important, however, is taking care of the bison and making sure they have food and water that isn't frozen in –10 C. days and even lower temperatures at night.

"Bison are unique and well-suited for a winter climate and grow a thick fur coat. I think winter is probably one of their favourite seasons of the year," Gerber says.

While his choice to move from a cattle ranch to bison several years ago was so that he could offer customers a healthier red meat, the nature of the massive animals themselves makes his job a bit easier because he doesn't have to keep a barn for them: they spend all of their time outside.

"Take a look at where they're laying or standing," says Gerber. "They're up top of the hill trying to catch the breeze, and it's –10 or –15 C. That greatly reduces the work I need to do for them."

Thinking about focus

While winter doesn't necessarily prompt a farm to change its business model, it allows farmers and staff to focus on other elements of how they generate revenue, remain sustainable, and, importantly, employ staff.

The retail store at Oakridge Acres was an earlier shift in the farm's business model which has paid dividends in terms of a revenue stream, especially during the pandemic: Gerber is often in the store with customers, another winter chore that he sees to.

According to Tim Barrie, at Barrie's Asparagus in North Dumfries, lots of snow on the ground is very good for one of the first crops of the season: it protects the wildly popular perennial from sudden, late-spring frosts that might interrupt and damage its growth.  

But the snowy months have allowed Barrie's to drive sales of another important berry: roasting coffee. It started as a school project for one his kids and has grown to sales of roasted coffee in 100 stores, Barrie said.

"Fast forward to 2022 and we're going through a pandemic. People have been at home drinking coffee that they make themselves. Our coffee business, especially now, has helped our business stay sustainable during the last two years," he says.

Apple farming is quiet, but only for a few more weeks: in mid-March crews will be outside pruning and preparing trees for their spring shift from winter dormancy to early fruit-set, says Kevin Martin, president of Martin's Family Fruit Farm.

"It's quiet on the farming side now, but February and March are busy with pulling apples out of controlled-atmosphere storage, washing them, packaging them and shipping them to retailers. Apples are a unique produce in that they are really year round," Martin said.

Modern apple storage facilities remove most of the oxygen from the room, allowing them to remain fresh for months after harvest. Around us, the air is about 21 per cent oxygen. In a sealed apple storage facility, it is about two per cent. 

Spring harvest: maple

While apples are among the favourite produce of autumn's bounty, the first harvest of the spring will be maple syrup. Accordingly, the winter work in wood lots includes repairing and honing the pipeline systems for collecting sap and fixing evaporators and other sugaring equipment.

For Kevin Snyder at Snyder Heritage Farms in Bloomingdale, forest management is currently underway — which includes cutting firewood this winter for sale next year.

Snyder says he's always busy on the farm, but making maple syrup is about 20 per cent of his farm operations.

"Right now we're between crops, but we're preparing for the upcoming season," he says.

Soon, he will flush the plastic tubing that forms the network of pipelines in modern sap collection, and tap new spiles into roughly 3,500 trees (and there are much bigger operations elsewhere).

A tap is a drill hole about the diameter of a pencil in the tree; each season, the trees must be newly tapped, which leaves a "wound" from the previous spile, Snyder says. 

However, there is no winter work there for Snyder with healing the wounds, he says.

"Mother Nature takes care of that for us," he said.

New season, new work 

The food we eat locally has specific seasons but there is always work to do on the farm, even if it's not the more conspicuous activities such as seeding, pruning, weeding and harvesting.

It's often about a larger economy and jobs for people in the community, notes Pfenning, adding that a restricted seasonal operation would be much different.

"We wouldn't be able to keep the people who work with us employed year round," she says. "It's about gainfully employing people and fairly employing them."


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.