Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Deadlines, Naturally

For much of my life, I've been motivated by deadlines. It's something one learn early on in school: Turn things in on time, or else. The deadline is always something definite and stated. The rewards and punishments are reasonably clear.

After public school, vo-tech and college furthered my tendency to live by deadlines. "Just in time" management was a way of life as I struggled to make ends meet with both money and time. My years of work in the printing industry accustomed me to daily deadlines, esp. working for a daily newspaper. I juggled "multiple complex tasks simultaneously" working for an environmental consulting firm--which ment keeping track of dozens of deadlines, from the contract proposals to the final reports. Just managing a household involves a lot of deadlines: the due dates on all those bills, the date the sale ends, when property taxes are due.

The deadlines in farming are often very different. Those related to dealing with "the outside world" are basically the same as for any household or workplace: clearly defined, though sometimes negotiable. Bills, order dates, ad deadlines.

Natural deadlines are another matter. I know they lie ahead of me, I know about when they'll be, but they are unknowable until they occur. Some of them are instantaneous: when the temperature hits 32 degrees, the frost-sensitive plants die. Some are more vague: the time at which it's too late to plant peas in the spring.

And yet they are the unshakeable framework of each farming year.

Frost is the main one looming before me now. Actually, before that, "pre-frost"--the mid-30's temperature at which basil plants dissolve into black goo, as though they've been frozen, when actually the freezing temperature of water is still several degrees away. And even before pre-frost is the time when the household has to begin to remember to close the windows when the sun starts to go down, to keep in the solar heat of the day and postpone the lighting of the wood stove.

Our usual first frost is in mid-October, though one year we had a hard freeze in late September. That year the trees turned crispy gray-green and dropped freeze-dried leaves long before their natural colorful senescence. Another year I sold field-ripened tomatoes right up through the first Saturday in November. I watch the forecasts almost daily now, tracking the gradual, wavering decline of night-time temperatures. I watch the evening sky, hoping for clouds: a cloudy night sky reflects heat back onto the earth, while an "open" night sky lets all the residual heat of the ground and other earth-bound objects radiate out into the universe, attempting to overcome absolute zero.

After the first frost, sometime, then there will come the day that the ground freezes, and digging operations will cease for the year. This is a vague deadline; for awhile the frost in the ground will come and go, morning and afternoon. The soil will be slushy but still diggable. But then it will be solid.

A light frost will not freeze hoses or hydrants. But as the frosty nights grow colder and more frequent, the livestock watering system must transition from automatic waterers and hydrants on 24/7 to stack tank deicers and hoses drained each time they are used, lest ice inside them prevent the flow of water to a tank.

In spring, these wintertime restrictions are released, an even fuzzier kind of deadline. Somewhere between February and June is the last frost...but how do I know in April, instead of June, that it was the last frost? When will it be "safe" to plant the heat-lovers and install the automatic waterers again?

The greatest challenge I face in living a double life right now--half in, half out of the rat race--is "planning" for these unpredictable deadlines.

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