Tips for Organic Farmers in January

Already it is January. Maybe in the north country organic farmers can take a break from the routine. But in the south it is time to rev up and get ready for planting the spring crops.

I would be DOING some of these things with my farmer friends,except my bronchitis and vertigo have not let go of my body yet.  So these tips are along the lines of “do as I say, not as I do”. Nonetheless, these tips for organic farmers are based upon genuine activity, experience and the expertise of others as well.  So, trust me. It is worth reading and making your January list if you have not done so already. (Ideally, you made your January list when you reviewed your notes in December.)

I have three priorities for January which are based in the real world, not book knowledge.

  • Equipment
  • Facility
  • Seeds

Equipment:  January is the prime time to inspect and overhaul ALL of your farm equipment and tools. I do mean ALL. 

Clean and sharpen all hand tools and if you did not already put them in an organized single location last season, NOW is the time.

I know one farmer who has a spare empty silo which he converted to a very well organized tool shed. He put a good layer of wood chips on the clay floor and cleaned it out last fall. After observing a season of how often each tool was used he organized a really neat system for hanging hoes, rakes, shovels, pitchforks, etc. It is easy to remember because he painted an outline of the tool above each hanging location. Cutting knives and treated with special care and stored as if they are high grade kitchen cutlery.  Gloves were inspected and cleaned and put into baskets on metal shelving. Sun hats were stacked on another shelf, these are essentials in the south. Volunteers and temporary workers do not always come prepared. Mud boots were placed on top of crates (bread crates, milk crates, whatever). But before they were stored for the season they were cleaned. So now, in January, it is a good time to inspect things to be sure they are ready for action. Hoses hung on reels according to type, just as ropes and electric cords Ask yourself, what needs labels? Identify which tools need to be replaced or repaired. Sharpen everything that needs to be sharp.

Near the entrance to the silo was a series of galvanized buckets with sand of different degrees of coarseness.  All tools should be cleaned before they are put away and that is where the sand comes in handy.

I really liked the way he separated the hand tool storage from the power tools. Near the door was a clipboard where farmers and volunteers recorded what maintenance was done and when.

Give your power tools the same attention to detail in terms of cleanliness and readiness for the season.Really they all ought to be in full operating condition at the start of the season, including the farm truck. If you don’t know how to clean or maintain some equipment yourself, get help. There are plenty of other people around who DO have this knowledge.

Facility: Sometimes during the growing and marketing season it seems there is no time to pay attention to the condition of the buildings and plumbing, etc. So make it a practice to walk the grounds and give a thorough inspection of all structures, from top to bottom. When you see something needing attention, make a note of it. At the end of the day you can sort out which items need immediate attention and what needs to wait until warmer weather. Look for rotting wood, or window sills. Do the doors close completely and securely? Are there any water problems or irrigation needs? Are there animals on the inside that belong outside in the natural wild spaces?

Do you have bluebird houses on your property? Get them cleaned right away for this year’s family. Fence or gate or sign repairs? You get the idea. First you focused on the tools from top to bottom, now you are looking at the larger structures and the overall infrastructure of the farm.

Seeds: I saved seeds til last in this article even though they are especially important. On a chilly winter day it is too tempting to stay indoors and keep browsing through those seed catalogs. So, save the seed searches and seed assessments for really stormy days or quiet evenings. You will be thinking of your garden plan and your planting plan as you order certified organic seeds. Remember to include companion plants and barriers for insect pests. If you are not able to find certified organic seeds, you will need to document your search of at least three other sources prior to choosing a non-treated, yet organic seed source.  If you have doubts, look it up in the National Organic Products List or give a call to your certifying agency or your consultant.

KEEP TRACK OF YOUR SEEDS. Store them properly. Keep them LABELED. You want to KNOW where each seed is planted in the greenhouse and then where it goes in the field. (Yes even on a hectic garden harvest day, which plants are being harvested and what is the yield from THAT SEED.) This kind of detailed record-keeping is often what causes potential farmers to go organic. Yet this is precisely how YOU the FARMER can be certain of quality control. You want the documented path from the seed package to the product to be as clear as can be. There are several ways to keep track of your seeds, but it will take persistence and commitment to follow the plan.

For example, in the South it is often uncomfortable to work in the field in the middle of the day. So, take a break. Get a good meal. Get re-hydrated and take time to record what you did in the morning. That way, when you come in weary from a long day of work you will already have a head start on your record-keeping.

There will be future posts on some strategies for keeping good records and some helpful software recommendations too.