Winterizing the Farm
As the season comes to a close, it can be hard to find the motivation to properly shut down the farm. Steps taken in the fall to organize and protect tools, equipment, and supplies will be rewarded with more efficiency when getting started in the spring. While all farms and gardens are unique, there are many commonly used systems and tools that connect us to one another at certain times of the year. In the late fall, even if the crops don't completely stop for the winter in your region, the summer season has ended, the weeds are slowing down, and precautions should be taken to preserve the integrity of tools, machines, and production houses during the winter months.
Below you will find some suggestions on closing up shop and some added steps in fall and winter that can set you up for success in the vibrant growing season to come after the New Year.
Preparing High Tunnels, Hoophouses, and Greenhouses
Whether you are putting your greenhouse or high tunnels to rest or preparing them for overwintering, the end of the fall season is a good time to clean up. This can mean tackling the weeds that may have found a nice home along the edges or in the rows of the high tunnel, cleaning up left over plastic, frost cloth, broken irrigation pieces, and/or discovering all of the lost harvesting knives and tools that may have been buried during the heat of summer. In the greenhouse, pots and transplant trays should be cleaned and sorted and any supplies that will be needed for spring germination should be secured for ease of discovery as the days begin to lengthen in late winter. Late fall is a great time to establish (or re-establish,) systems of organization so that the chaos of the season can be managed with more intuitive flow.
Plastic or No Plastic
Keeping plastic on your high tunnel or greenhouse for the winter or taking it off has a lot to do with the region where your farm is located. If you are located in a place that receives an excess amount of snowfall, taking the plastic off for the season can prevent damaging snow loads that can overpower the support structures beneath the plastic. If leaving plastic on, and the greenhouse or high tunnel is heated, it is best to deflate double poly layers to expose the snow more directly to the heat source, allowing for a quicker melt time during heavy snow showers. Going out and continually removing snow with brooms or sticks also helps take the pressure off the frame. In moments of emergency where the structure faces collapse, cutting the plastic can be a proactive measure to salvage the structure of the high tunnel or greenhouse, even if it runs the risk of damaging a crop below.
In regions where snow is less of a prevalent threat, plastic can often be left on the frame and this can provide space for overwintering greens and roots. Even without the snowfall, wind events become more of a threat as the buffer of tree leaves and other vegetation are less available to break up wind patterns. Using 2x4 or 4x4 lumber to reinforce end walls and hoops can help brace the structure during storms and against prevailing winds. Using rope or cordage to zigzag over the structures can also help stabilize the plastic over the frame. Keeping the structure closed prevents the plastic from acting like a sail and destroying the frame by pulling on its connection points and bending the metal scaffolding.
Insulate and Fix Broken Bits
As the season begins to slow down and the air begins to cool, a slower pace can bring more opportunities to deal with problem areas that may have been neglected during the long days of summer. Because Hoophouses, High Tunnels, and Greenhouses are made out of plastic, they are vulnerable to puncture wounds, rips, and tears and the fall season can be a good time make repairs. Sometimes a repair job will require a brand new piece of plastic, and sometimes the issue can be resolved with the application of greenhouse tape. The fall is also a great time to think about ways to add additional insulation to your structure by fortifying potentially leaky door frames and seams with weather stripping and tightly securing roll down sides.
Storing Frost Cloth, Drip Tape, Netting, and Tools
Floating Row Cover
Floating row cover is an amazing tool when it is in use but can be a bear to deal with at the end of the season. Laziness and lack of care when putting frost cloth away can result in tattered material resulting in wasted time and money in spring. Frost cloth is delicate and provides great insulation for rodents and other small animals to build nests in during the cold winter months. To prevent this damage and protect the material from other potential threats, floating row cover should be gathered intentionally, stored securely, and labeled for easy selection in spring. Check out our blog article Philosophies on Floating Row Cover for a great resource describing proper use of the material and methods for successful storage.
Drip tape offers growers many freedoms during the growing season, watering in crops with the flip of a switch while reducing the possibility of foliar diseases that are sometimes spread by overhead irrigation systems. While setting the system up can require some tinkering, the ease of use and reduction in water waste make drip tape a go to for diversified farms. Picking up the plastic lines and reusing them the following season presents its own set of challenges. Drip lines should be drained of all water. Places where the line may have been punctured by tools or severed by the mower should be repaired with couplings. All lines that are worth saving may then be rolled up around a piece of rebar or other round object, serving as a reel. Lines that are of the same length should be labeled and stored in the same place, potentially even on the same reel. It is best to avoid folding them as the creases caused by drip tape being folded for extended periods of time can promote breakage of the line.
Whether the netting was used to trellis the peas or was electrified and used to keep animals out (or in,) movable netting of all kinds have become a staple on many farms across the United States. Netting that will be stored with the intention of using again the following season should be cleaned of all plant debris that may be left over from things like old cucumber vines, pasture grasses, or weeds. Any places where the netting was broken by tools, equipment, or creatures should be repaired. Once the pieces have been mended, the material can be rolled onto itself and tied together to ensure that it does not get tangled up or suffer any more damage by snagging on things in storage. Netting should be stored somewhere off the ground, protected from the introduction of rodents and other small animals that may attempt to use the material as a nest.
Putting away hand tools, garden tools, and power tools properly allow these pricey farm investments to contribute to the productivity and efficiency of the farm, season after season. Developing a storage system that keeps tools off the ground, keeps them protected from humidity, and shields them from the possibility of rust, can keep well made tools in use for years. A well organized tool shed is a satisfying exertion of control over a seemingly chaotic lifestyle.
Hand Tools like hammers, wrenches, and screwdrivers and Garden Tools like scuffle hoes, post hole diggers, and pruners should always have a designated place they are returned to as they are the easiest to abandon at the project site. Tools can be cleaned with soap and water so long as they are properly dried. Cutting edges should be sharpened and any screws connecting pieces to wooden handles or associated with moving parts should be tightened to prevent breakage. The metal pieces can be wiped with a biodegradable oil such as vegetable oil spray or Felco Lubricant Spray and any wooden handles can be rubbed with linseed oil as a protective coating during the winter months. If these items are placed in a drawer, a silicon pack can be placed in the drawer to absorb excess moisture.
Power Tools require their own tune ups and care before winter storage, with a little more caution to prevent damaging the tools or injuring yourself. Power tools need to be cleaned from time to time, but soap and water is generally not the answer. Ensuring that the tool is completely disconnected from its power source, a clean, dry rag can be used to remove build up on the tool that has collected from use during the season. For tools that are a little more difficult to clean with lots of nooks and crannies, an air compressor can get into tight spaces and move debris clear. Biodegradable oils can be used to lubricate working parts and specialized tools can be used to carefully sharpen cutting edges as recommended by the tool manufacturer or as designated in the owners manual. Storing power tools in their original cases is their best first defense against rust and keeping them stored off the ground and under cover helps these powerful players maintain peak performance.
Long Term Small Engine Storage
We'll leave you with this special note about putting your small engine powered tools and machines up for the winter from farmer and High Mowing Commercial Sales Rep, Paul Betz.
Here in Vermont, time is dwindling for field work as the ground is tightening and will soon be covered (we hope) with snow. Much of the work left to do is getting ready for winter and next spring. Picking up where the snowplow runs and putting tools and equipment under cover is a priority, but long-term storage is also a concern. For farm equipment with gasoline engines, a few extra steps now make a big difference in how they fire up in the spring.
Any discussion about small engines needs to include a section about ethanol blended fuel. Federal mandates require a 10% ethanol blend, and plans are to increase the amount added to gasoline in the future. The ethanol can cause lots of damage to small engines as a result of its aggressive nature. It attracts water through condensation, which can pollute the fuel in the tank. Ethanol attacks rubber seals and hoses as well as liberating older deposits in carburetors and fuel lines, introducing them into the fuel system. I would recommend using an additive to your fuel for any small engines on the farm. Recently I have been able to source ethanol free fuel with 99 or above octane from our local gas stations and have used this in all of my small engine machines, regardless of stroke. It is high quality fuel that does not require a stabilizer.
The first step for putting equipment away should be a cleaning. Pull the spark plug wire first. Get the dirt, grease and grime off the tool. Then put the plug boot back on and start the engine and let it run for a minute or two to warm up. Then change the oil and oil filter if the engine has one. Lots of small engines don’t have an oil filter, which increases the importance of changing your oil at the recommended interval. Replace the filter and refill based on manufacturer’s specs. Inspect the air filter and replace or clean as needed. Check and replace the fuel filter if needed. Add fuel stabilizer and fill the tank. Run the engine for a few minutes to give the new fuel a chance to get through the entire system. Keeping the fuel tank full reduces the air space in the tank, which reduces the available area for water to condense. Some people suggest draining a metal tank, because the fuel can eat at the tank and cause problems in the future. Use of an additive should lessen the aggression of the fuel, and this shouldn’t be too much of a concern. Having the tank empty does create more space for water to condense as the tank heats and cools, which will definitely cause problems.
If you are working on putting away a tractor, or something with hydraulics, now is the time to check your fluid for any water. If it’s brown or frothy, change it now. The water can separate and freeze, as well as cause corrosion to internal machined parts, neither of which is good. If the quality of the fluid looks OK, change it based on the manufacturer’s specs. Also test your antifreeze to make sure you have the temperature protection you need for your area. If you need to add coolant, be sure to run your engine until your thermostat kicks in to fully circulate the coolant through the block.
Let the engine cool, and then pull the spark plug, or plugs, one at a time (if you do one at a time, you will lower your risk of hooking up the wrong plug wire) and spray the inside of the cylinder with some fogging oil. It will cling to the cylinder and be there for the first start up in the spring. Check the plug and replace if necessary, then put the boot back on.
Then hit all your fittings with a good quality grease, and call it done.
Spring gets closer every day. Better to have the season start with one pull.
All my best,