Thoughts on homesteading: next year

It’s been a late garden year for us. Most of our market crops were “second plantings,” i.e. first plantings for us but intended to finish a few weeks after everyone else’s first plantings. A number of small growers, particularly the Mennonites, seem not to like doing second plantings. Perhaps it’s that they’re tired of the crops after the intensive first plantings they do. Or perhaps it’s that they don’t want cash crop harvests extending into the early fall, when they have other things they need to be doing. For whatever reason, there is often a shortage of crops like tomatoes in September, even though demand hasn’t flagged a bit.

So some of the lateness was intentional. But some of it was due to inexperience. We thought that to harvest three weeks later, you planted three weeks later, but this fails to take into account the ever-shortening days of summer and early fall, meaning the time to maturity gets ever longer; to harvest three weeks later, we probably need to plant two weeks later. And then there was this year’s unusually dry weather, which made everyone’s crops behave strangely.

Around the second half of August things began to ripen, and from then until now Mondays and Thursdays have been mostly devoted to picking, processing, and packaging produce for sale—tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, garlic, and numerous varieties of squash. What struck me, though, was that while we were occupied with reaping the fruit of this year’s harvest, it wasn’t where our thoughts were. Instead, as the crops come out of the garden we spend most of our time discussing how we plan on doing things next year.

I’ve noticed the same thing when I see Jerome on the days when I’m taking the produce delivery to Lexington. Although there’s some talk about how well this year’s crops did, even that is mostly focused on what went wrong, what could have been done better, what needs to be done next year. In a very real sense, there’s not much to be said about the harvest beyond expressing our gratitude for God’s faithfulness; our creative role in the harvest was finished long ago, and even our nurture (watering, weeding) has diminished in importance over the summer. The diversity and nature and quality of what is coming out of the field hinges on decisions and actions taken—well, last year. And even now, in the heat of late summer, we are taking the first steps towards next year’s harvest.

There’s something comforting about farming’s significant temporal disconnect between actions and results, especially in these uncertain times. Although there can be small emergencies that need a rapid and intense response (such as Almanzo Wilder and family working through the night to save the corn crop from a freak June frost by pouring water on every plant), mostly the maintenance work is predictable and must be done steadily, e.g. if you leave off the weeding, soon enough the weeds will be out of control. Mostly there is no temptation to respond to trouble with “Do something!” because any something that might favorably affect the outcome would need to have been done long ago.

Although farmers live by this disconnect, it is not because only farming has this quality. All life has this quality, but I think only farmers understand that. Most of my corporate life was lived in crisis mode, every day spending long hours trying to somehow ameliorate the effects of mistakes or bad decisions made long ago. Similarly, today’s financial crisis is the result of mistakes and decisions and trends that have accumulated over the years, but rather than adopt a farmer’s resignation to paying for past mistakes and enduring a crop failure, we think that surely there is some technical fix, some radical step yet untaken, which will reverse our circumstances and transform failure into success.

Better to embrace the farmer’s outlook, I think. It teaches faithfulness, as well as contentment. Each year we are diligent in our learning and prudent in our planning, knowing that the results are yet far off. And each year we are satisfied with the harvest, knowing that it is the result of the best that we knew to do last year, that most of the factors that led to success or failure were in God’s hands rather than ours, and that each year presents another opportunity to do a better job preparing the next harvest.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on homesteading: next year

  1. Rick,
    Very interesting post. We have certainly noticed the same phenomenon with our chicken efforts and, to a lesser-but-increasing degree, with our gardening. We also did it when we baked for the Farmers’ market in Minnesota.

    The funny thing is that each year I’ll start saying to Vern, “Don’t we need to plan? When do you want to sit down with the calendar?”…. and each year he is steady and when we ‘sit down with the calendar’, everything falls into place as we just implement what we had already decided to do last year.

    But….until you wrote about it, I hadn’t really figured it out.

    I’m sure Vern will be glad!

  2. Hah! How right you are. My fall garden is coming in, ate my first fresh fall lettuce the other day. I am down TX way so we have until mid Nov. before our first frost, but I do seem to talk and think more about the work coming up in Jan-Feb in terms of seedlings, and dates for this and that, and how I am going to prepare X plants and try to put out this or that many early and hope they survive but will plan this or that many for later. Great fun! My imagination so far always larger than the harvest, but I have a very small garden and a big imagination.

  3. I have been involved with farming of some sort or another most of my 38 years, at least a good 28 or so of them with some sort of major hands on activity. I think the planning for next year and looking at what things could be done better and what things went wrong this year or were a little off are in general just a way of life for the farmer. I can remember grandparents talking about the same kinds of things before I was ever involved in things myself.

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