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There's Work to be Done in Winter

by on January 30, 2017 9:50 AM

Over two weekends each October, people from across the area head to Way Fruit Farm’s pumpkin patch. It’s a busy time and place for bucolic Stormstown. Hundreds of cars make temporary parking spaces in the dirt along state Route 550. Area police stop traffic so the steady stream of would-be pumpkin-pickers can cross the road to get in line for a tractor to haul them to the patch.

While waiting for a tractor, some pay a buck to slingshot a few apples at an old pickup truck. There’s also a craft fair, a petting zoo, and the farm’s store that sells their produce and locally grown meats, fruits, vegetables, and more.

When the pumpkin-seeking crowds are long gone and the cold weather of winter begins to set in, the work on this farm and others in Centre County still must go on.

“We don’t slow down at all,” says Jason Coopey, co-owner at Way Fruit Farm. “We have so much that we need to get done over the winter.”

In the winter months, farmers tend to their land, animals, and crops, which is integral to keeping their operations going. Here is a look at what some local farmers say keeps them busy this time of year.

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At Way Fruit Farm, the signature commodity crop is the apple. More than 1 million pounds of the fruit are harvested for sale from 20,000 trees each year. The picking starts in August, and the 21 varieties — gala, McIntosh, honeycrisp, granny Smiths to name a few — are for sale inside the store here.

The upkeep of the orchard trees that are spread over 130 acres, much of which is on Skytop Mountain, is what Coopey says is job No. 1 in the winter.

Coopey, his wife, Meg, and two others hand-prune the 20,000 apple trees. The pruning began in November, once the fall festivals are over, and it will carry on through April. 

Pruning, Coopey says, makes it easier to pick the apples the next fall. It also helps keep the trees at the size to grow the best fruit possible.

“Trees are solar panels,” he says. “They’re using the sun’s energy to make fruit. You want as much of that tree to be in that sun as possible. You want that sunlight to penetrate throughout everything, and that’s what’s going to give you better color.”

Pruning isn't quick — Coopey says it could take 20 to 30 minutes just to prune one tree. The larger trees take longer, possibly an hour.

Most of Way Fruit Farm’s apples are grown to be sold at the store, which is open six days a week year-round. 

“Apples are a great winter-time fruit,” Coopey says. “It stores naturally. It’s something people can have all winter long.” 

Additionally, the farm sells wholesale to some local school districts, such as Bald Eagle Area, Bellefonte Area, and West Branch in Clearfield County.

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About two miles east of Rebersburg, off state Route 192, there’s Lyn Garling, someone who had always wanted to be a farmer since she was a child. Her dream did not materialize until 1998, when she bought a small five-acre farmstead and 21 acres of crop fields in this area of Penns Valley with its Amish farms, horses and buggies, and country air. She transformed the fields into pastures for grazing, and that is how Over the Moon Farm, a 26-acre grass-based organic farm, came to be.

“It was kind of a latent dream for some time,” says Garling, who started the farm while working full time at Penn State. She retired from that job at the end of 2016 and now focuses on just the farm.

She produces pasture-raised chickens, turkeys, and pigs to be butchered for their meat. The chickens are sold fresh May through October, and the turkeys are sold right before Thanksgiving. In 2014, she starting keeping pigs in the winter, in addition to the other seasons of the year. 

“There’s quite a big demand for our natural pork, so we’ve had to grow pigs year-round,” she says of the local market.

She buys what are called feeder pigs in the fall, when they weigh about 40 pounds. She will keep between 30 to grow over the winter until they get to 250 to 280 pounds. Then, she will send them in two groups to be butchered, one in February and the other in March.

She feeds her animals non-GMO feed that’s sometimes also organic. She avoids antibiotics, although pigs sometimes need to be wormed while living outside.

“They don’t get any nonfood additives in their feed. People really want and like natural pork for different reasons,” she says. “Some customers like how we treat the pigs. Others are more concerned about the pigs’ diet.”

Over the winter, the pigs stay in an indoor facility on the farm, where they can stay warm and dry and have room to move around. She calls it a “giant day care” for pigs.

“Pigs are quiet, playful animals, but they don’t like to be crowded,” she says. “However, many people don’t like to raise pigs in the winter. It’s much more work and they also eat more because they need to stay warm.”

Garling’s cuts of pork are sold directly to customers as pork chops, roasts, spare ribs, bacon, many kinds of sausages, and more. She attends the Boalsburg Farmers’ Market year-round and the North Atherton Farmers’ Market in the summer.

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When their 2,500 cows are producing 10 million gallons of milk a year, there’s no time to slow down at Evergreen Farms, a dairy farm owned by brothers Abe, Andy, and Aaron Harpster that is of the largest in the state. They manage about 7,000 acres, the majority of which is in Huntingdon County but also in Ferguson and Halfmoon townships in Centre County.

“We have to feed, milk, and take care of cows every day of the year — Christmas, New Year’s, Fourth of July. It doesn’t change,” says Abe Harpster.

The farm employs about 90 full-time workers, many of whom are involved in animal care. While care an essential part of running the farm all year, it is especially important in the winter.

“The worst thing in the winter is long periods of high wind or extreme cold,” Andy Harpster says. “We can take a day or two of real cold, but if it’s extended, it can really impact the production of the animals.”

Cows will divert their nutrients to maintaining their bodies and produce less milk. It could be as much as 10 percent of a cow’s normal production.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’re pretty well equipped to manage through,” Andy Harpster says. “We’re pretty good at alleviating that by knowing ahead of time.”

When the temperature drops below 25 degrees, crews check that the cows’ water isn't frozen or that anything could be frozen and prevent the cows from being able to eat or drink.It’s not just the temperature the Harpsters have to worry about in the winter — snow also presents obstacles. If milk trucks can’t get to the farm to pick up the milk to be processed because of snow on the roads, the Harpsters have to figure a way to get the milk to the milk plant.

Just as adverse weather in the winter can affect the farm’s operations, harsh summers can have the same impact. Abe Harpster says the farm harvests much of its corn, which is used to feed the animals. They use the rest of the plant to create a bedding called corn fodder that’s used to keep the cows warm. If the harvest is low and they have fewer corn plants, they won’t have as much corn to make fodder. Then, they have to buy it, which is an added expense.

This past summer was particularly acute, Harpster says.

“We lost about 50 percent of our crop due to a lack of rain,” he says. “It’s been a tough year for the farmers of Central Pennsylvania.”

Evergreen Farms’ milk goes into a variety of products, such as cheese for pizza, yogurt, milk powder for export, and infant formula that is sold across the Northeast. The farm is a member of the co-op DFA, which owns the Borden Label.

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Similar to operations at Evergreen, there’s no letting up this time of year at Tait Farm, a mixed vegetable farm on US Route 322 between Boalsburg and Potters Mills. This past January marked the start of the fifth growing season.

Here, they grow year-round 50 to 60 different kinds of vegetables and herbs and sell the produce at the Tait Farm Harvest Shop and the Friends and Family Cooperative online farmers market. Everything is certified organic by Pennsylvania Certified Organic.

In the winter, farm manager David Hopey says the farm mainly grows leafy greens, such as spinach, arugula, scallions, leeks, and more. They’re planted inside hoop houses or low tunnels, which are covered from the elements and do not require supplemental heat.

In addition, Hopey says, the farm is preparing root crops grown in the fall, mainly carrots and beets, for sale. Typically, there are enough of those crops to sell through May, when the farm is producing spring root crops.

While the winter doesn’t see as much of a workload at Tait, Hopey says there’s still plenty to do to keep things running, including preparing produce orders and the community-supported agriculture distributions, annual equipment maintenance, and determining crop rotations and how much to plant the next season.

And, of course, this season’s most important task, says Hopey: “Taking advantage of the reduced workload in winter to rest, spend time with family, and prepare for the next growing season.”

 

 



Mike Dawson is a freelance writer in State College.
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