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Homesteading observations: Life in the off-season

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 February Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Testing bean seed viability by Karen Blakeman

“What do you do on the homestead in winter?” a friend recently asked. After running out of breath listing my activities, I thought it might be a good topic to share. We always think that this will be a major “down time”, and it is, somewhat, but never as much as we hope. Which is probably a good thing as we all know how rusty things get if they are idle too long! So here’s how we keep ourselves oiled-up and ready for action.

Of course there are the daily chores of caring for the chickens, keeping the fire going and hauling cordwood, shoveling and sanding the paths, monitoring the temperature & moisture in the greenhouse, harvesting, plus getting out for exercise. Before Thanksgiving I injured my knees and have been forbidden to kneel or squat (I’m very glad gardening season is over!). So, I also had to fit in trips to town for physical therapy twice a week. I’ve been faithfully doing knee-strengthening exercises and am happy to report much improvement. So far, I’ve been increasing the amount of my walking but hope that cross-country skiing and snowshoeing will not be far off.

It’s always wise to spend time looking back and evaluating the state of the homestead, how plans, large and small, turned out. What needs tweaking (or major overhaul) for next year? This is actually an on-going process, but during this off-season we can give it greater thought and use the time to re-evaluate. This leads to the planning process: what are our hopes and dreams for 2016? And what are the practical steps needed to accomplish them? We’ve found that good planning and forethought will help create the desired outcome.

Now that we know where we’re headed, it’s time to order seeds, trees, and supplies (thanks to the NOFA Bulk Order). I want to make sure I have what I need on hand when it’s needed - both seeds and potting supplies. An advantage of ordering early is that you’ll have a better chance of securing some of those seed varieties that are in short supply.

Part of my seed ordering process is checking what I have on hand and whether they are still viable. Sometimes I’ll conduct this simple germination test to make sure. Soak 10 seeds overnight, then drain and place between dampened fabric, place in a dark warm place keeping it damp, and then count how many germinate. If a high number of seeds sprout, say nine it’s a 90% germination rate and good to save for planting. If fewer than seven sprout (a 70% rate) it would indicate poorer germination and the seeds are less viable. I wouldn’t plant anything below 70%. To compensate for a rate between 70-80%, I might increase the amount of seed I sow thus insuring I’d have the number of plants desired.

We spend time reading and keeping up with ideas/changes in the way others are preceding with their homesteads/farms. I’m energized by much of the material that is becoming available on the topic of soil health/soil carbon/regenerative agriculture. This material is so hopeful and is a great boost to help get me through the darkest season. A recent short video shows how a regenerative organic farm in Brazil not only increased farm productivity but also actually created a microclimate that is positively affecting the surrounding area. If you are looking for other inspiration, check out the soil carbon resource list on the NOFA/Mass website.

We are also examining and repairing our infrastructure and tools. It’s a great time to fix that loose gate, mouse proof (is that even possible?) the greenhouse and shed, oil wooden tool handles, sharpen shovels and hand tools, repair trellises, build some bird boxes to encourage the insect eaters, and so on.

In the near future we will start pruning the fruit trees, grape and kiwi vines and berry canes. Every year is different. Will we be trying to set up the ladder in four feet of snow or will it be icy or dry ground? Of course we try to work with the weather conditions, but sometimes things have to be done whether or not it’s convenient for us!

It’s almost time to tap our small sugar bush. We tap between seven and 10 trees, which usually boils down to around three gallons of delicious syrup. It’s a lot of work and we don’t do it every year as three gallons usually lasts awhile. If it’s been a hard year for the trees (insect damage or poor climatic conditions), we don’t tap-out to give them a rest to build up their resiliency.

And let’s not forget off-land opportunities. It’s a good time to get some extra quality time with family and friends; eat and savor all that good food in the larder; join or start up a book group; help with community projects; spend more time working on climate issues like the opposition to various proposed pipelines through our state; go to the dentist; and you name it.

It’s also time to update paperwork, create the garden planting schedule and plot plan, update the website and develop our workshop ideas and schedule for the year. We are still in process of deciding whether we’ll conduct workshops in 2016, as we will be very busy with our latest project. Our big new adventure is building a smaller house closer to the road, which will be more accessible as we age. Those knees brought it all home. Right now we are doing the design work and going through the town’s permitting process. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about this as it is taking up a lot of headspace! This will also give us a rental for folks wanting to live the homesteading life while helping us on the land.

Anyway, as you can plainly see, the life of a homesteader doesn’t really have an off position. Enjoy your slow season, whatever form it takes.


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