Farmers prepare for winter: Strawberries, cover crops, conferences and Farm School

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 8, 2019

By Michael O. Fine

Rowan Cooperative Extension

As the 2019 growing season comes to a close, vegetable farmers and hobby gardeners across Rowan County have busied themselves preparing fields for the winter season ahead.

The public’s general notion that farms all but halt during the winter can be quickly dispelled with a quick ride around Rowan County’s beautiful farmland. For farmers, winter time offers a transition from planting and harvesting to other important aspects of farm management: planting strawberries, cover cropping fields, repairing and servicing machinery, and attending educational conferences and programs like N.C. Farm School.

After September’s heat wave, strawberry fields across the county were planted just in time to benefit from October’s mild temperatures and adequate rainfalls. October is a critical time for young strawberry plants to establish root systems as they prepare for winter dormancy. October was kind to our county’s strawberry fields and farmers are happy to report that young plants are well on their way to a promising 2020 season.

Another priority for farmers and gardeners during the fall is establishing cover crops on next year’s production plots. Cover crops are an important tool to maintain good soil health, which is the fundamental base to any farming operation.

Cover crops not only protect soil from erosion, they also extract nutrients from the soil that would have otherwise leached out and seeped into adjacent waterways. These nutrients are held in place in the form of plant biomass, waiting for spring plows to turn those nutrients back into the same fields in which they were extracted from.

Root systems often go unnoticed since they are expanding under the soil’s surface, but for every blade of green grass or legume on top of the soil surface, there is a vast system of roots underneath the soil that add to soil aeration and organic matter.

Farmers who work the dense red clays that dominate our county’s soil profile rely on these roots systems to loosen up the soil for next spring. One such cover crop is the daikon radish, a tapping radish that can drill deep into the soil. Diakon radishes should be planted with a mix of clover or rye during September to ensure good establishment before the limiting daylight hours and temperatures of winter arrive.

Once established, they will slowly expand their root system into the subsoil until extreme freezing temperatures (less than 20 degrees) kill the entire plant, leaving cavities in the soil for water infiltration and aeration, which improves soil texture for spring tillage.

Lastly, farmers and gardeners are always learning. Wintertime is the preferred time for serious farmers and gardeners to expand their understanding of crop management and evaluate their farm’s business plan for the season ahead. Educational opportunities are offered through grower’s associations via conferences and trade shows as well as through N.C. Cooperative Extension workshops and programs.

One such opportunity for new and emerging farmers is N.C. Farm School. N.C. Farm School is a program offered through the North Carolina State University and the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. N.C. Farm School is designed for both new farmers who wish to explore the business aspects of starting a new farm or for existing farms that are venturing into a new enterprise.

The N.C. Farm School program consists of eight classroom sessions which cover budgeting, legalities, insurances, farm tax assessments, marketing and more. Also offered are four field days to established farms in which farm operators gladly share tips, insights and realities that many people face when starting a new venture.

These fundamental principles enable farmers to get started with a solid plan as opposed to a “figure it out as we go” mentality. Since 2014, over 130 new farms have been established across North Carolina and are currently in operation.

N.C. Farm School 2020 is now accepting applications. The school starts in January and runs until May (essentially two classes and one field trip per month). If you or someone you know would be interested in this opportunity, please go to WWW.NCFARMSCHOOL.COM to learn more.

For any clarifications with the application process, please feel free to call your local extension office at 704-216-8970 and ask to speak to an agent about N.C. Farm School. Let’s make 2020 into another exceptional year for improving the health and culture of Rowan County’s agricultural sector.