Winter on a New Hampshire farm

There are some parts of the country where, between late November and sometime around February, you just can’t get anything to grow. Call it a lumen lack. During those bleak months, the sun’s weak, pasty arms don’t reach far enough up into the northern latitudes to get the plants the juice they need. I hail from one of these places: a small town in central New Hampshire sandwiched between the Lakes Region and the White Mountain National Forest. It is named, appropriately (given its location as well as my love of said food item), Sandwich. As in, The Earl Of.

Sandwich was settled in the late 1700s by agrarian folk who found ways to deal with the sunlight problem: they put food by. That tradition has carried through to today. Root cellars, dried beans and garlic, canned green beans and eggs and pickles and dilled carrots, berry jams and apple butter are common winter fixtures in the houses around town. And if you can dig through the snow before the hungry deer do, you may find chard and brussels sprouts that over-winter there, in decent enough shape for a family meal.

Aside from a small population exodus in 1816, the year the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the Indonesian archipelago clouded the atmosphere with ash and brought a summer of frost and starvation to the Northeast, early Sandwich did OK as far as small, isolated New England towns go. Its population boomed to 2,700 by 1830 (more than twice what it is today), full of farmers, carpenters, artists, and Quakers.

It was also full of rocks. A walk through the forest near my house finds stone walls running every which way all the way up the side of the mountain my family lives on. Settlers cleared the land for grazing and cropping and found more rocks than they knew what to do with, so they built walls and still more walls. And then they left them. By 1860, Sandwich’s population had heard rumors of a place where rocks did not grow, but the crops did. They went by road to upstate New York, to the St. Lawrence, and took the river to the Great Lakes where they wended their way around to the bustling city of Chicago. Just south of Chicago, they settled in a new town with plenty of deep, rock-free topsoil: Sandwich, IL. The Sandwich (NH) historical society recently got in touch with their brethren in Illinois and found a wealth of old photos and relics from the original Sandwicheans, the ones who fled the rocks.

Although many of the town’s original farm families are now Midwesterners, farming in Sandwich, NH, is still going strong. While I was home for the holidays, I found myself under a record 51 inches of snow, with 12 more that came on New Year’s day as I tried desperately to drive to the airport. I  took the opportunity to snowshoe over to my neighbor’s organic farm and learn more about what farms do during these bleak and sunless months. 

Despite the lack of lumens, I found things to be far from dead.


Germination

One of the main activities that takes place during the winter months on my neighbor’s farm is deciding what to grow next season. They have two working greenhouses that go unused during the winter (without energy-intensive lighting, there’s no way to overcome the sunlight deficiency) but allow them to start crops earlier in the spring than the frozen soil would otherwise permit. Johnny’s is their main source for certified organic seeds. In winter, the seed catalogs cover the kitchen table.

The selection available to commercial organic farmers in the United States has gotten much better in the last few years, making it possible for my neighbors to grow and market a wider variety of crops to restaurants, the regional supermarket, and consumers who come to their farmstand. Talking with my neighbors about seed selection drove home for me how much our access to certain types of food hinges on the decisions of seed companies. Yes, farmers can save and preserve lines of heirloom crops, but commercial-scale organic farms rely at least in part on seed companies to supplement what they save themselves. If the seed companies decide demand is low for a particular crop and it’s not worth carrying — which they did frequently when organic farming was a less common practice — then it’s unlikely most of us will ever get a taste of it.

My neighbors have been experimenting with the three sisters, corn, beans, and squash — a traditional Native American combination in the Northeast. The three are grown together and benefit from each other’s presence. (The beans vine up the corn stalks and provide nitrogen to the soil while the squash shades the ground, controlling weeds and keeping the soil moist.) This year, the organic corn seed they had been buying from Johnny’s for the past few years was found by the company to have been contaminated with a very small amount of GMO seed. Responsibly, Johnny’s pulled the variety, and it’s no longer available. It was the right thing to do, but it means that my neighbors have to scramble to find another corn variety for this season. And the knowledge they’d built up about the original strain — how it interacts with the other crops, its nutrient and water needs, how it holds up to drought, hail, or the local pests — is useless now. Thanks, Monsanto.

Birth

Sheep, chickens, and the occasional pig grace my neighbor’s farm. The sheep are more or less barn-bound at this time of year, what with the several feet of snow, though they have a fenced-off yard behind the barn that’s kept shoveled and full of hay. The week I left to come back to California, my neighbors were waiting with anticipation for the birth of the first lambs of the year. I only wish I could have stayed. This picture is from last year, but it gives you a sense of how amazing, and how cute, the lambs will be.

As on many small farms, the sheep next door are multi-use animals. My neighbors shear them for wool that they card and spin to sell at the store in town. Many of the male lambs are used for their meat, slaughtered on the farm and then either eaten by the family or bartered for other goods: the promise of a Thanksgiving turkey in the fall, half a cord of wood. And they’re fabulous weeders. The rotating pasture system that my neighbors employ starting in the spring helps keep the pesky plant invaders under control. It was purely out of self-interest that we offered up our yard as additional grazing space, helping to string the electric fence corridor that funnels the sheep from next door up onto our weed-ridden lawn. The day they first ventured up, cautiously and then joyously munching, was the day we retired the lawnmower and my father celebrated his liberation from its frequently-malfunctioning reign.

Sap

No New Hampshire farm is complete without a maple syrup operation, and my neighbors boast one of the state’s best (that’s said with complete objectivity). It’s not a large or high-tech operation, and you won’t find the end product in a store. But you can buy it at their farmstand or at the farmers market in town, and you won’t regret it. Getting the taps and buckets in place and ready for the first big snowmelt is a major, and time-consuming, winter activity.

Once the sap starts running, my neighbors drive the sap route through town with their truck, carrying a giant plastic tank on the back. The truck is parked, family and helpers spread out among the trees to pull down heavy buckets, and sap is poured from the buckets into the tank. Then it’s on to the next maple grove. (Folks around town are happy to donate their trees to the cause, knowing they’ll be thanked with a quart or two of the final product.) The day’s sap goes into a giant wood-heated metal vat in the sugar shack (right), where it boils and steams — as good a sauna as our small town has ever seen.

More "advanced" syrup operations run sap directly from the tree tap through plastic tubing to the collection vat, keeping bugs, bark, and other detritus out of the sap buckets. But to the traditionalists, syrup made that way is as soporific to the palate as pasteurized apple cider. Dirt is what makes maple syrup taste good.

Keepin’ it in the family

The average age of a farmer in the United States is close to 60. My neighbors, who are in their 40s and have been farming for 20 years, are already an anomaly. But even more unusual (and wonderful) is the decision that their daughter and son-in-law made this year to come back to the farm.

Helped along by a tanking real estate market that sent Boston vacation-home buyers scurrying back to the city, the young couple was able to buy 40 acres directly across the road from their parents. This winter brought the first of many collaborative projects for the older and younger generations: the felling of trees and the clearing of what will be, before too long, a curving dirt driveway. The kids’ return will bring new demands (lots of wood for heat, the prepping of new fields, house construction — which, if my neighbor’s house is any guide, they’ll build from wood they fell on the property and mill in town — and, someday, greenhouses and a pottery studio).

Something tells me they won’t have any trouble finding things to do in the winter for a long, long time.

8 Responsesto “Winter on a New Hampshire farm”

  1. Charlotte says:

    Hey! I’m from the next town over from Sandwich Illinois! My grandmother lives on our family farm in Leland — two towns down the road — Sandwich is where we went to the grocery store, and to the fabulous Sandwich Fair (3 counties! rides! lemonade!). Hail fellow well met … (and yeah, no rocks, deep black Illinois topsoil, everything grows …)

  2. Kim says:

    Greetings from neighboring Moultonborough, Elanor! Enjoyed the snapshot of our little region at this time of year.

  3. Elanor says:

    That is so great! Kim, fabulous to hear from you- Moultonborough is one of my favorite places and I was happy to get to spend some time with friends there over the holidays. Hope you’re doing OK digging out from under all of that snow. Charlotte, that’s a crazy coincidence! I’d heard that you guys had a Sandwich Fair– we have one too, a three-day fried dough/ferris wheel extravaganza over Columbus Day weekend (it’s actually probably the only reason that people in other parts of the state have heard of Sandwich), but your fair is much older, as I recall. So we have you guys to thank for the inspiration!

  4. Looks like home! Although we’re in Vermont now I spent many years, growing up years, in NH. Can’t grow much in the winter but it’s the time to plan the next year. I like to say the advantage of winter is it kills off the alligators and mosquitos… :) Okay, so one of the two.

  5. Jess says:

    Thanks for this! It reads like Kimball’s essays for Cooks Illustrated, but without the snark.

  6. Paul Green says:

    Wasn’t it just some sort of Winter ?  I’m just down the road a bit in Center Tuftonboro.  Your portrait of life from this past winter is the stuff from which memories and nostalgia spring.  ( Pardon the pun, I couldn’t resist)

  7. Howling Hill says:

    Wonderful account of the winter, though if I’d written it there would’ve been a lot more swearing about the snow. I live by Franklin.

  8. Deb says:

    I just came across this wonderful and realistic account of life in Sandwich.  A reminder to my husband and I as to why we are in the process of finding a homestead there, now that we are empty nesters, just over the border in Maine.  Despite the snow and its rural location, to us its magic.  For me it will be a coming home of sorts (I was born in Rochester and my extended family hails from Tamworth, Jackson and North Conway).  My husband tells the story as a young boy he frequented the area with his family for summer vacations (around Meredith).  Each year he would head back to CT announcing to all who would listen ‘everyone should live in NH.’  Thank you Elanor…..