December 04, 2019
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How Maine farmers stay busy and make money in the winter

In the winter, when snow and ice cover their fields, you might be excused for thinking that northern farmers would have abundant time on their hands to relax and dream of warmer days to come.

But that’s not really how the cold months are for most farmers in Maine, who keep busy and make money with many different types of jobs that help them tide over until spring. Growing numbers of farmers are extending their farming season through winter farmers markets and tools such as high tunnel greenhouses, which can allow a four-season harvest — but even those who don’t stretch their season this way find other work to do.

“Every small farm, you’ve got to have an outside job or something else through the winter to really help you make it through,” Kevin Weiser of Hubbard Brook Farm in Unity said Friday. “You do anything you can do.”

Weiser, 60, spends his summers tending and selling his fruit and vegetable crops. Every winter, though, he switches gears, traveling around New England pruning fruit trees with a small crew of helpers. They go to pick-your-own and commercial orchards in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine, using extendable saws to prune the trees, keeping the height down and opening up the orchards for sunlight and spray penetration. They leave on Mondays and don’t come home until Friday night. It’s not easy work, but it has been fruitful for Weiser, who gets paid by the tree.

“You have to wait until they’re dormant, which is in the wintertime, and that’s when we go,” he said. “If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be doing it for 37 years. [It] is our mainstay for the winter.”

Maine’s farmers, independent in almost every way that can be enumerated, including in what they grow and how they grow it, are likewise independent in how they keep busy and make ends meet in the off-season. Many farmers fill orders and pack seeds at one of Maine’s busy seed companies, including Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Winslow and Fedco Seeds of Clinton. Some plow driveways, others cook at restaurants, do construction or work on their other passions, including making music or spinning yarn. Some even use their draft horses to do logging for themselves or for others.

But very, very few are idle — even the ones who primarily stay on their farms during the colder months.

That’s the case for Christa and Mike Bahner of Belmont’s Bahner Farm. They have a winter buying club, which takes some of their time, and they grow winter greens as long as they can in their unheated greenhouse. Through Christmas, the couple is not quite “August-busy, but full-time working busy,” Christa Bahner said.

When January rolls around, she focuses on doing the farm’s paperwork, including their taxes, their seed orders and doing crop planning. The couple also has a long fixit list and renovations project wishlist that they tackle in the wintertime, as there are no spare hours once the growing season starts ramping up.

“When we were first starting out, we had a lot of downtime in the winter and we both had other jobs,” she said. Mike Bahner worked at Johnny’s Selected Seeds and she milked cows for a central Maine dairy farmer and worked at Mainely Poultry in Warren one winter. “But now we’re getting busier and busier here.”

Ken Lamson and Adrienne Lee of New Beat Farm in Knox have a year-round enterprise. They have livestock and sell storage crops and cold-hardy greens through a winter farm share in the Portland area and through winter farmers markets in the area. Still, both need to take on off-farm work, he said.

“We still need to keep a cash flow in,” he said. “The winter markets slow down, and the CSA [farm share] money came in months ago. Just like in the other parts of the year in Maine, some people have two or three jobs.”

This year, that’s the case in their family. Lee works at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in the winter and Lamson is cooking at the new Neighborhood restaurant in downtown Belfast, which has just opened for business. He also does something that used to be common in Maine but which is fairly unusual — he uses the farm’s draft horses to do logging in the winter. According to BDN archives, logging by traditional horsepower is a method that some small woodlot owners prefer. It’s efficient, renewable and often easier on the land than skidders and other machines. The horses pull logs stacked on rigs that ideally roll cleanly over the snow, meaning there are few signs of the logging operation in the springtime aside from brush piles and a few stumps.

“I’m not making anywhere near the money made by mechanized loggers,” Lamson said. “My volume is so much less. But my costs are so low.”

But that’s not why he takes on logging jobs with his horses, even on days so cold that feet can feel like blocks of ice if you put the wrong boots on in the morning.

“I really like the work,” he said. “Sometimes getting your horses fed, into a truck, going down the road, getting them to a place, it can be challenging on a cold winter morning. When it’s 15 degrees and the sun comes out, though, I really feel like I’m getting away with something. I love it. I like to be outside and working.”

Winters, though, are not the way they used to be, and there are fewer days when the conditions are cold and snowy enough to allow him to pack up his horses and his sled.

“I’ve had winters when I was able to go from logging job to logging job,” Lamson said. “In the past three winters, it has really varied. I’ve gone from three weeks of work to 12 weeks of work with the horses. We don’t really have a four-month winter anymore. It’s tough. The winters are changing, and the ground is not freezing as much. We don’t get as much snow.”

And that is not good, from his perspective.

“If I could be doing one thing in the winter, it would pretty much be doing just this,” he said.

Despite the variety of work Maine farmers do in the off-season, winter does offer something that the rest of the year does not: time to take a breath and get ready for what’s coming. Christa Bahner said her family also treasures the colder months, when they are without employees and the lion’s share of their customers, as it gives them the chance to visit friends and family and spend time together doing fun things such as sledding and cross-country skiing.

“We always do make downtime a priority,” she said. “It’s just us in the winter. We’re on our own schedule, which is fantastic.”

 



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