Winter Work: the Mexico Myth

in 2019/Current Issue/Farmers' Markets/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Past Issues/Winter 2019

Anna Helmer

Here’s a question I hear a lot: So, what are you going to do now that winter is here and there is no more farming? Leaving aside the irony that I most often hear it while selling potatoes at farmers’ market, not to mention its (alarming?) assumption that farming is not a full year occupation, why do I struggle to find a good answer? I start with an earnest assertion that there is plenty of farm work to do and as I move on to mumbling something about markets, a ripple of uneasiness passes through the thought process and I begin to lose the thread of my theme, which as always has to do with me being a hard-working farmer. My answer becomes yet more bumbly and borderline indignant as I try to cling to and insist upon this image. A little tension develops in the space between my eyes.

The tension tells a truth and the truth is that for certain there are farm related tasks that I ought to be doing right now, and I have not been doing them. In the process of answering the question eventually I am going to get to the part where I have to explain that I have been choosing baking, reading, and in fact a whole bunch of things over farming. It will become clear that farm work is coming second, or perhaps even dead last, on my list of things to do. I resist telling people about that, however, because I don’t want them to think they are right, that there is no farming in the winter.

It’s not like there’s nothing to do. Oh my, no. It just means that most of the farm work is not due until spring. The weekly mandatory work consists of attending the winter market and servicing a few restaurant orders. This I can do in my sleep, having done around 1,000 markets lately and perfected the art of weighing out 50lb boxes of potatoes. It’s the only work with any immediate urgency and even that has been reduced to a whimper.

This long deadline is a problem. Spring is so far distant as to be ephemeral. As a deadline it seems ignorable. It is, however, firm. Anything not done by spring will not get done at all. I will be behind before I even get started. I am aware of the consequences yet struggle to produce.

It may be just a function of this particular week, which is featuring deliciously short, slushy, and dusky days. The wood shed is full, prompting lavish firewood usage which in turn demands I read in front of it. Then there is the seasonal requirement to bake cookies. I am not the least interested in: pruning raspberries, clearing a fence line, re-lining the drum washer, washing and sorting 10 tons of potatoes outside…

That work can wait. Or so I tell myself.

In two days, I will be at market again, and someone is going to ask me the question, and that flicker of irritation is going to betray my uneasiness about a lack of productivity. I really need to heed the warning. I need to do some of the farm work on that long deadline list.

My advice to myself is to do a farm job every day. We farmers get to measure work-life balance over the course of a year, rather than a day. It’s a privilege and the steep price is that you need to muster some motivation when it is hard to come by.

So I started small today and ordered next year’s carrot seed. Some would think this is early, but obviously I am partial to a variety and will need to know as soon as possible if it is not available. I ordered 300,000 seeds, which is mathematically more than we need, but allows for the fact that I have been planting carrots for several years now and made a whole variety of mistakes that have resulted in needing more seed.

And wouldn’t you know it, that led to some other jobs getting done that I hadn’t even listed yet. Because I had the farm binder open to compare last year’s order, I noticed that the field notes were not up to date, which led me to check field sizes—a source of on-going angst at our organic inspections. For some reason, although the actual farm boundaries have not changed in 125 years, when we list the fields on the organic application, we can’t settle on their actual size. Dad’s notes say one thing and mine say something slightly else. Drives inspectors crazy and causes an embarrassing amount of confusion.

“Get the field size sorted out” is an absolutely essential job that might not have been done before our spring inspection. Thank goodness I ordered the carrot seed today.


Anna Helmer farms in Pemberton with her parents and other family and has finally eaten more cookies than potatoes.

Feature image: Frosty farm fields. All photos: Anna Helmer

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