I wake to another drizzly morning on the farm. Even the roosters haven’t bothered to start crowing yet. The air is cool, and I long to stay snuggled under the covers…just a bit longer. It’s the first Saturday after the farmer’s market season, and everyone else is sleeping in, right? But, alas, those rules don’t apply to farmers. It’s already October, and there is much to be done before the snow flies.
And that little voice inside is reminding that there’s no use putting it off until spring—that crammed-full-of-projects-and-baby-animals time of year when leisure for sleep evaporates like puddles in August. It’s time to start checking off items on that autumn list as fast as possible before the ground freezes.
The biggest chunk of the before-ground-freezes assignments focus in the garden. October is the month for planting garlic, which means preparing a bed that has raised neither garlic nor onions nor shallots this year, picking out the best heads for planting, and getting down on one’s hands and knees with the dibble to push next year’s promise of a crop into the ground. Then haul out old hay and mulch the bed nice and thick to protect the buried cloves from severe cold.
It’s also time to dig the last of the carrots and potatoes for the root cellar. Last year, our potato patch was quite ambitious, since we were expecting to sell 50 pounds of potatoes each week to a local restaurant. When that arrangement fell through, we found ourselves with more potatoes than we could imagine using! Our CSA members enjoyed potatoes each week well into the winter, we sold potatoes at our farm store, and we served potatoes in pasties and pot pies. And still there were more potatoes sprouting in the basement. It looked like some story by Dr. Seuss!
This spring, therefore, we vowed to curb our potato overdosing habits and planted a patch about half the size of the previous year’s undertaking. Box-fulls of those sprouting basement beasties were returned to the earth to grow anew (a practice that only works for one year before scab sets in), sprouting tendrils included. With the help of our summer interns, we mulched the patch religiously and picked potato beetles. Now our interns have returned to college, and we are left with the bulk of the patch still needing to be harvested by hand with a garden fork! No small task, for certain…any volunteers?
Fortunately, harvesting the patch of winter squash can be checked off the list. I was hoping to give the plants a bit more time with the warmer weather, but when the mice and voles decided to begin nibbling craters into the sides of a handful of buttercups, that was it! We hauled out a hay wagon and began piling the green, orange, blue, and yellow squashes, pumpkins, and gourds on top. Rolling the wagon into a shed keeps the precious harvest away from most gnawing creatures, as well as frosts. The timing was fortuitous, actually, because the ensuing days of drizzly rain would have been the perfect setup for molds to attack any squashes still in the field. Safely tucked in the shed, along with boxes of apples and palates of onions, garlic, and shallots, it’s easy to slip inside and snitch enough for supper.
And then there are the other sundry jobs of emptying out rain barrels and squirreling them away in the shed for the winter, pulling out the electric mesh perimeter fence and in-ground soaker hose irrigation system, and hauling the pump for the sand point into the garage before it freezes.
Autumn is also butchering season, reducing the summer population down to winter breeding stock. The last of the chickens are ready, and soon it will be turkey time. Over the years, we’ve butchered our own poultry in every kind of weather—90 degrees, wind, sleet, hail, even a snowstorm. But everyone much prefers a sunny, crisp autumn day for the task. Winter housing for poultry is a finite situation, and folks have already placed their orders for pasture-raised Thanksgiving turkey.
It’s also time for the winter-season piglets to arrive, courtesy our neighbor’s sows. That means fencing needs to go up, housing needs to be winterized, and feed needs to be ordered. Not long after that it will be time to sort the ewes into breeding groups and turn in the rams, preceded by barn cleanings on a massive scale. Every time we turn around, something else gets added to the autumn to-do list—often the adding happens faster than the subtracting!
There are apples to pick and sauce and jellies to make, wild plums to gather and cranberries to make into jams. The last of the basil needs to be whipped into pesto and frozen for pizza enjoyment all winter long. Winterize the tractors and change the oil in the golf cart, then rip out the old garden plants and rake the leaves. Either we’ll have to switch to a 24-hour shift or find a few more persons to help us “get ‘er done” this autumn. What’s that you said, we have to add canning tomatoes to the list now too?
Just when you thought the growing season was winding to a close, there is yet one last push before winter truly closes in around the homestead and blankets the pastures in white. But there’s also room for a little fun—crunching through the fallen leaves with our herding dog Lena, carving pumpkins into golden glowing Jack-O-Lanterns, watching the flock of Sandhill cranes dance in the pasture. Autumn can be such a magical and fleeting time of year. Soak in the colors now so they fill your spirit with joy and wonder through the wintertime.
I can smell wild plums on the stove. Time to help make another batch of jam. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com