A funny thing happens to many farmers this time of year. They take a long overdue deep breath, as if the growing season was a weight that had been lifted from their chests. This in itself is not the funny thing. Rather, it’s that this breath is finally allowed by the first hard frost, the sweet release of death.The frost is the ultimate excuse. You cannot protect every plant and you cannot harvest the blackened leaves. So what can you do? After the final scurry to harvest the last tomatoes and peppers, to pull the row cover over the semi-hardy greens, to make sure the water lines and troughs for the livestock don’t ice over, to make sure the storage crops are cellared, to make sure the irrigation lines are drained and the greenhouse is tight and the tractors are winterized…it’s time to breathe.
Following the months of pell-mell planting, cultivating, harvesting, and selling, and painful mornings and, in years like this, wondering when the rain will end, it can be a hard acclimation. Farmers have to remember how to relax all over again, and often it is not their strong suit. The alarm clock is off, but the worry cortex flips on around 4:00am regardless. It becomes harder to pass out at day’s end if the body has not been put through its usual labors. And how could you possibly turn off the instinct to weed? Yet the ground mocks you while you try to pull out a withered lamb’s quarter, the freeze holding its roots fast in the earth.
Farmers know, of course, that the work is never over. Hopes and plans for next year have already been kicking around for months (jotted in the margins: “adjust cultivator to get closer to rows”; “acre of wheat into cover crop rotation –> wheatberries for sale?”; “try ducks!”). There are records to be kept and coolers to be washed down and invoices to attend to. Nevertheless, your health and wellness are your greatest asset; you cannot have a sustainable farm without sustaining the farmer.
With that said, here are some tips for embracing the frost and the quiet times it affords. Some of these are my own, while others are scoured from other farmers. Remember, this is not a to-do list; that’s what we are trying to avoid!
- Get off the farm, and not for errands. Go into town, have breakfast and let the waitstaff keep warming your cup up.
- Read a book, but let me recommend reading something for escapism. I am currently reading the Lord of the Rings series for the first time. John Eisenstein of Jade Family Farm in Port Royal, PA tried Shakespeare (though he describes King Richard III as the “worst detective novel ever”).
- Go for a walk, but not in the familiar fields. Walk leisurely in a new place. John Bliss, my old boss at Broadturn Farm in Scarborough, ME, likes to “re-wild” by walking past the fields and into the woods surrounding his family’s farm.
- Have some boozy hot chocolate at lunch, and maybe take a nap. Go on. You know you dreamed about it during the season. Take the opportunity while it’s here.
- Pick one new dish to make for Thanksgiving, get the stove cranking, and make the kitchen the best room in the house. Really, it already is, but when it’s full of the heat and aroma from all of your Thanksgiving market shopping, why would you ever leave?
- Make time for friends and family, near and far. Call an old friend while you’re sweeping out the barn or write a real, honest-to-goodness paper letter (may I again recommend the boozy hot chocolate while you’re at it?). Play some board games or teach your kids how to play the harmonica. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to play; if you can exhale, you’re on your way.
When you’re ready to get back to work, ease into it. Leaf through the new seed catalogs, shell some dry beans, chop wood, and re-enter your diligence with deliberation. You know it will be hectic again soon, and by spring you’ll be antsy to see the earth erupt with life. Last fall’s desire for the killing frost will seem like the distant wish of some crazy, unfamiliar farmer. But right now, you ARE that crazy, unfamiliar farmer. Embrace the freedom of the frost, and take care.
Blue, at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, who is honestly the worst at relaxing. Never a dull moment with this guy.