A visit to Porter Farms in Elba: Working on the farm in winter
On this particular Wednesday morning in February, a thermometer posted outside the School for the Blind in downtown Batavia reads an air temperature of nearly five degrees below zero. Cold enough to freeze the spit in your mouth before you can even get out the words: cold enough...
Cold enough that the steering wheel on my '93 rustbucket of a wagon needs more coaxing than usual to make a full left turn. Still. I make it to Porter Farms whole. Shivering, but whole. I'm not sure what to expect, though I've got an image of farmhands tucked into woolen socks, sitting around the fireplace thumbing seed catalogues and dissertations on soil conservation. I've got what you might call a novelistic imagination that doesn't often sync up with the way things really are.
Of course, there's too much work to be done to sit around the fireplace.
The farm's patriarch, Mike Porter, looks over paperwork in the cab of his pickup. He's got the engine running for heat. Inside the barn behind where he's parked, the hundred or more sheep mill about in their stalls, caterwauling like the dullards that Porter assures me they are.
After he shuffles a few of them out into the bleak white light of day, they start to cough. Agitated from the rush to get outside, they stir up some of the dust in the feed they just sucked down. They sound like old men, hacking up a lifetime's worth of lung tar.
I ask Mike what life is like on the farm in the middle of a desolate upstate winter. He shrugs. It's much the same as what life is like on the farm in the middle of a grueling humid upstate summer. Only, you get home by 6 o'clock instead of 10 o'clock.
"We're busy in the winter, but not as busy," he says. "I don't get here until between seven and eight, and I'm home by six. That's a short day."
Winter work is much like work the rest of the year for Mike. Only he's not in the fields pulling or planting crops in addition to doing everything else he does. As I said, I came expecting quiet study indoors while the fields outside crackled in the frost. Not so.
"We have livestock," he says, "so we're busy every day of the year."
They've got lambs and beef cattle. They're also still packing and shipping onions and cabbage. Plus they'll be starting the greenhouses in a few weeks. Then there's the work on the farm equipment that is about due to start... and the renewal for the organic certification... and all the planning. Always planning. Planning on what to plant, when to plant it, where to plant it.
So yeah. They're not sitting around darning socks and learning about soil erosion. "It's always a work in progress," he says. "If you stand still, you go backwards."
Porter Farms also maintains a Community-Supported Agriculture program that keeps folks busy throughout the year. They're about to start their 14th season. They wrapped up last year with 650 members. A CSA program allows folks in the community—some join from Rochester and Buffalo, too—to pay a lump sum to receive 22 weeks of farm fresh produce. They can pick up a bag of mixed vegetables from the farm every week from about the middle of June up until the week before Thanksgiving.
They grow everything for the program: beets, bell peppers, poblano peppers, summer squash, pumpkins, beans, lettuce, roma, heirloom and sun gold tomatoes, swiss chard, butterscotch melons, cucumbers... I could go on. You get about 10 to 12 pouns per bag. Plus they give you recipe suggestions and a weekly newsletter about the selection.
Mike's daughters take care of most of the work for the CSA program. He's busy with the livestock and the day-to-day running of the farm. A couple times of month, he makes the trek down to New Holland, Penn., where most of his sheep go to auction. Those are the really long days, he says. Some nights he may even end up staying over and driving back in the morning... to start it all again.
If you want to find out more about the CSA program, please check out the Web site for Porter Farms, which has all the info you need on how it works and how you can do it.
And now... some sheep butts for your viewing pleasure: