October 18, 2021

Farmers spend winter lining up the eggs for spring

First snow, then sow

Alpaca Farm

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Cheryln Hills Alpaca Farm owner Cheryl Neal reaches out to pet Summer Spirit, one of her 10 alpacas.

As snow coats the rolling hills of Cortland County and the year comes to a close, one might think it’s a good time to reflect on the year gone and enjoy the quiet natural beauty.

For farmers, winter is a slower time than the rest of the year. That’s a good time for them to plan for the future, the next growing season, and what the market will bring to bear.

Farms sold $69.5 million worth of their products in 2017, an 11% increase from 2012, federal data show, even as government payments dropped 40%. The county’s 536 farms account for about 1% of New York’s agriculture sales.

But just because it’s coming on winter doesn’t mean the farm business goes dormant.

“It’s just a time to have a game plan for when the whether breaks, you have to rock and roll,” said Brandon Brown, co-owner of Trinity Valley Dairy.

How farms do this along with what work they do varies from farm to farm and the needs of each farmer.

Trinity Valley Dairy: Cows and catch-up

Brown’s work at Trinity Valley Dairy farm in Homer begins at 3:30 in the morning during the winter.

He milks, feeds and cleans the 220 cows and their barn. It’s similar to work he does throughout the year, but with one big difference: the weather.

“You’ve got enough work as it is and then you add a foot and a half of snow,” he said.

What is normally a 12-hour chore routine becomes an hour or two longer, especially when it snows, he said.

During the rest of the year, Brown must milk the cows, grow soybeans and corn for feed, make sure the cows aren’t having calves and checking fences to make sure the cows remain in the pastures.

The winter has fewer tasks, but they take more effort.

“It’s just longer days of maintenance,” which includes plowing snow and taking care of the cows inside the barn, he said.

When things do calm down, the winter lets Brown get an early start on spring.

“It’s kind of your catch up time to get ready for the busy season. It’s a lot of being proactive and getting all your eggs in a row,” he said.

Preparation means performing maintenance on equipment and looking at the budget to “hopefully do better next year,” he said. It is also the time that Ken Poole, Brown’s father-in-law and a co-owner of the farm, plans what crops are going to be planted and orders parts for equipment.

Projects that have been put off throughout the rest of the year can also be worked on during the winter, Brown said. He is repairing barn stalls and replacing water lines for the cows’ drinking buckets this winter.

“You have time to work inside, work on projects,” he said. “It makes you feel good to get stuff done you put off.”

Cheryln Hill Alpaca Farms: Preparing for spring

Cherlyn Hills Alpaca Farm owner Cheryl Neal uses winter to prepare for the following year at her Virgil farm.

Neal spends the winter halter training her 10 Huyacaya alpacas for shows along with getting them ready to sell in the early spring and late fall.

Her winter routine focuses around the weather as well. This means plowing snow around the doorways of her barn, heating water buckets the alpacas drink from to prevent freezing and providing hay for them to eat instead of grass.

Neal is still new to raising alpacas — this is just her second winter. But that’s OK: Alpaca have long wool to keep them warm, even if they spend more time in the barn.

Neal had been an accountant and wanted a change from life “in an office … in front of a computer,” she said.

“It’s just me learning along the way,” she said. “It’s a slow business to start with. It takes year to grow your alpacas and then a year for them to have babies.”

The change in temperature during winter is what downstater Neal has noticed the most in her four years living in Virgil.

“Each one seems to be more frigid,” she said.

Main Street Farms: A year-round operation

When the snow comes, most vegetable farms close for the winter. Main Street Farms in Cortlandville is an exception.

“Traditionally, a lot of vegetable farmers have taken winter off in the past. That’s good for farmers to recharge and take a break. But we find that if you want to employ good employees, employing them for ninth months of the year, they don’t come back,” co-owner Robert “BobCat” Bonagura said.

The farm grows more than 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables through the year. Lettuce, spinach, kale and swiss chard are grown in high tunnels, similar to a greenhouse, during the winter, Bonagura said.

Carrots, beats and onions are grown and harvested throughout the year and then stored in winter.

The winter also serves as a busy time for the farm’s CBD oil brand, Head and Heal.

The hemp is grown and harvested in the warm months before the buds are stripped and stored in a lab for processing. Extracting the oil and then turning it into commercial products is work through the winter. Bonagura said.

That’s not to say running the farm in winter is without challenges.

“Everything’s just harder. Even though we’re spending lots of time inside, moving from place to place takes longer and we also have to shovel,” he said.

Bad weather and shorter days reduces the light crops in the high tunnel are getting, affecting their growth, Bonagura said. But winter life has changed over the nine years he’s owned and worked the farm, or so it seems.

“We have snow that wants to come earlier and is heavier,” he said. “This past year was extremely challenging as it felt like winter went on forever.”

But the winter work isn’t unnoticed.

“As tough as it is, our customers appreciate it that much more,” he said. “We’re local and organic and providing them and their families all year round. It’s a pretty cool thing that makes it all worth it.”