Winter at Root Down Farm
A time of prep and planning
Steve and Erin Blabac, owners of Root Down Farm
Photos by Luke Copping
Bustling farmers markets are a staple of summer in Western New York, with farmers replenishing tables teeming with greens, meeting the people whose dinner tables will exhibit their wares, and shooting the chard with their compatriots. But what do fruit and vegetable growers do over the winter when the markets are closed and fields lie dormant?
The answer varies by farm, but it mainly involves turning attention toward tasks and pastimes that simply aren’t possible during the dawn-to-dusk working days of the growing season: planning, equipment maintenance, infrastructure improvements, home projects, travel, and a farmer’s version of rest.
Steve and Erin Blabac, owners of Root Down Farm on the northern end of Shimerville Road in Clarence Center, fill the shorter days with a long list of important tasks that help their ten-acre vegetable farm run like clockwork come spring.
The massive white former dairy barn has been renovated to add a washing and packing shed and better storage for dry winter vegetables.
At the root of Root Down’s efficient, sustainable produce production is an intricate sixteen-page spreadsheet Erin masterminds to ensure there are enough vegetables to feed 300 community-supported agriculture (CSA) members every week. It’s based on hundreds of meticulous notes she takes during the season about crop yields, fruit size, early or late bloomers, how new varieties performed, and what veggies the CSA members preferred over others. Maybe the broccolini wasn’t big enough on the date it was supposed to be harvested, so she’ll make a note to start seeds a week earlier next season.
This Excel-based gameplan governs when thousands of plants get seeded, transplanted, direct-sowed, and harvested; it even specifies what size seeding tray to use in the green house and how many seeds go into each hole. In December, Erin hibernates with tea and blanket in front of her computer and starts plugging in all the data, figuring out how every dollar, day, and acre will be used as soon as warmer days return.
“Vegetable farming is fast,” explains Steve. “The veggies don’t care how much time you don’t have, and there can’t be decisions on the fly. This is where Erin’s organization is amazing—she gets everything set, down to the day. Obviously, things will happen. A tractor will break or something won’t germinate, but, for the most part, everything is ready to go.”
Once every single plant is planned out, the Blabacs pore over seed catalogs and order enough seeds to fill a four-by-six-by-two-foot cabinet in their dining room. They buy from seed companies headquartered in growing climates similar to that of Western New York and understand the inner workings of smaller CSA farms that use organic practices (versus large-scale operations that buy hundreds of pounds of seeds, or home gardeners who order just a few packets). Their shopping list includes tried-and-true favorites with dependable qualities—tomatoes that burst with flavor and resist wilt, sweet carrots that germinate reliably, winter squashes that churn out good-sized fruits that store well, and cutting flowers to keep members in bouquets in droughts or downpours. The Blabacs do give into every grower’s whim of trying some of the exciting new peppers, eggplants, and oddities that come out every year; a few smaller test fields are set aside for experimental crops, some of which win their way into regular rotation.
While Erin sorts through the nitty gritty, Steve tends to the farm’s nuts and bolts processes, infrastructure, and equipment. He’ll look back over the season’s notes and feedback from farm’s tight-knit group of employees to see what issues arose and how to solve them.
“Is it a labor problem? A money problem? A mental problem?” Steve asks of every concern. “I hate harvesting vegetables, for instance, which sounds odd because it’s supposed to be the rewarding part of farming. But I just have a huge mental block around it, so I work out ways to not let it get me in a bad mood.”
This past winter, Steve renovated a section of the massive former dairy barn to add a washing and packing shed and better storage for dry winter vegetables like winter squash and sweet potatoes. Produce storage, says Steve, is the biggest challenge for farms like theirs that strive toward year-round local eating. He also looks at what tools or machines need to be fixed, a job he considers more of a hobby than a have-to.
“If I had some other job, I’d still have a tractor to work on at home,” muses Steve. “It doesn’t feel like a hobby when the thing breaks in August, but it’s relaxing to work on equipment when there’s no time pressure.”
Erin and Steve also use this time to read non-farming books, turn some TLC toward their 1860s timber-frame farmhouse with a 1930s addition, and travel. They visit family for the holidays and aim for a week off the farm someplace warm, an impossibility come summertime. Despite the relative respite, while the ground is frozen solid, Root Down is still farming.
A series of five plastic-covered high tunnels extend the growing season and supply the farm’s CSA share members with fresh produce nearly all year round. The structures provide enough protection from the elements to grow greens, radishes, scallions, herbs, and more in all but the bitterest cold weeks to supply a handful of restaurant customers, supplement storage vegetables in winter CSA shares, and shore up the very first spring CSA pickups before the fields can be harvested.
High tunnels extend the growing season and provide fresh vegetables to CSA members and restaurants nearly all year round.
The Root Down Farm CSA is market style, which means members come to the farm’s cozy, cheerful pickup room every two weeks over the winter to help themselves to their share of bins full of carrots, squash, onions, kale, and more. Between the high tunnels and hosting CSA pickups, the Blabacs can grow produce and supply their patrons with fresh produce every month except March.
As Root Down Farm enters its tenth year, the Blabacs feel rested and ready, despite the fact that, for farmers, there really is no “off” button in the offseason.