“Do You Get Raindays”: Introducing the first in a series of Frequently Asked Questions About Working on a Small Farm

I find that when I tell people that I’m working on an organic farm, they have a lot of questions: what kinds of things do you grow, do you wear overalls to work, are your parents upset that you’re not doing more with your liberal arts degree? (Answers: we grow all the best heirloom vegetables; with pride; and …erg.. maybe?) People are so curious that I think a good series of blog posts for the next month would be answers to Farming FAQ.

So, where to start? Well , one question that I’ve been getting a lot lately is “what do you do on the farm when it rains?” My aunt even called me the other day to ask if I got rain days.

After what was an almost worrisomely dry March, it’s suddenly an fairly relevant thing to ask, and the answer, I think illuminates a fair amount about what it actually entails to run a chemical-free farm. The fact is that we do not get rain days on the farm. However, rainy days– and, often, the days that follow them– do vary drastically from the rest of the week, because we cannot really do too much work in the fields when they’re wet without compromising the health of our soil. Stepping on wet soil compacts the earth so that there is less air and less room for the organisms that promote soil health to move about. To illustrate the point, imagine a well-traversed path. How much grass is growing there? Also, we’re also pretty wary of getting our three ton tractor stuck in the mud. (Just try getting a tow truck to clean that mess up.)

So what could a farmer possibly do? I think that people have a conception that all farming work is planting, watering, hoeing, and harvest. The fact is though, that running a small farm is like running any small business: there is always something to be done, and it’s often not what you’d expect. We take rainy days to do a number of things. On the routine side, there’s work to be done seeding into transplant trays the new crops that will start their lives in our greenhouse. Wednesday, for instance, we seeded our second round of 15 varieties of tomatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, and six kinds of basil. Basil-flecked succotash, anyone? (Is your mouth watering, because my mouth is watering.)

Inside our high tunnel, where we can work in most weather.

And, because we are fortunate to have two tunnels on our farm, we have the ability to step inside when inclement weather hits without having to stop working with some of the soil.Tunnels, being in that there are covered in plastic, are micro-environments that are generally protected from external conditions. They get their water exclusively from drip-line and not from rain, so we don’t really risk compacting the soil in their as long as we haven’t watered recently. (This is, for instance, why we can grow lettuce late into the fall and early in the spring). Rainy days are therefore good opportunities to get whatever work needs to be done in the tunnels out of the way so that we can focus our attentions on the fields when everything dries up.

But there are stranger things to do as well. Like, last week, we found ourselves out in the rain with handsaws, harvesting saplings to trellis our peas with. We can wash eggs on rainy days, fix broken things around the farm, adjust the implements on our tractor, brainstorm marketing strategies for items that we think you’ll like but might not know how to use, fold brochures, transfer our seeding and watering logs to their computer database, make the field trips to the hardware store and livestock supply warehouse that we don’t generally feel that we have the time to make when there is work that could be done with the crops. There is bamboo to harvest and pea trellises to build and even some arts and crafts to be done (speaking of, does anyone like the new sign for eggs that we’ve had up at the Chestertown market?).

Some mighty fine bamboo trellises.

Rainy days are also days to be grateful. Not only are they a respite from the fast pace of work under a hot sun, they allow us a moment to admire how far up their trellises the peas have climbed and the bizarre beauty of the Egyptian Walking Onion when it flowers. We are reminded that– try as we might– we are not actually the masters of our small universe, and that despite our desire to control everything, we remain reliant on the weather and on our own luck in this endeavor. My grandmother grew up farming, and her favorite saying is, “You want to hear God laugh? Just tell him your plans.”

That being as it may, even though rain sometimes prevents us from completing tasks that we feel need to be done, it also does the nuanced work of nourishing that no farmer can quite replicate with technology. Rain is the harbinger of harvest, and so as muddy as his pants may get (and they get really, really muddy), as hard as it may have been to drag himself our of bed, and as long as his to-do list remains, I don’t believe that any farmer can ultimately be anything other than secretly joyous in the face of a sprightly spring rain.

Egyptian walking onions in bloom.

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