The land told us it was time to rest

The beds at Common Table Farm under snow.
The Common Table Farm, located on the property of Our Saviour, Don Mills, rests under a blanket of snow.
 on February 29, 2024
Melodie Ng

As I walk through the farm, crusty snow crunches beneath my boots. Browned leaves rustle on dried corn stalks as I pass. Animal tracks of varying sizes crisscross in front of me – despite appearances of being abandoned, the farm clearly remains a frequented place. The farm’s garden beds stretch long and white, the mounded snow covering layers of leaves and straw mulch. Our field work at Common Table Farm wrapped up in mid-November. When people learn that I work at an urban farm, inevitably the question pops up: What do you do in the winter?

It’s a question posed in genuine curiosity, but nevertheless it tends to stir up some inner defensiveness in me. I feel a need to explain that our farm staff are still busy; that our labour hours and employment are justified. If I take a step back, however, I realize that this question opens up an interesting space for reflection. The farm in winter offers a precious invitation – the call to rest from productivity. In Toronto, our climate cycles through four seasons. There have been some years when our farm team tried extending the growing season, using hoop tunnels to grow greens into the winter. While this was a worthy experiment, it taught us that just because you can do something doesn’t always mean that you need to. It’s highly unpleasant to harvest kale when ice cements your hoop coverings to the ground, and your fingers freeze as you work! We realized that it was ridiculous to keep pushing, when all around us the trees were bare and insects were hibernating. The land told us it was time to rest.

This time of “not doing” is still full of meaningful being. While our farm looks inactive, underneath the insulating blanket of mulch and snow are worms and microbes who continue to break down organic matter. For some plants, germination is improved by a period of experiencing cold – a process called vernalization. Garlic is a crop that benefits from being planted in the fall, which gives it a head start in establishing. Lying dormant over winter, the garlic is ready for quick growth in the spring. Land, plants and creatures alike are waiting and readying for the next season in different ways. Meaningful work is still happening in winter; it’s just of a different nature from the activity of spring, summer and fall.

For the farm team, the time of “not doing” is also full of meaningful being. We are resting our bodies. By the end of the season, as we rush to finish harvest and close up the farm before the cold hits, we are stretched thin by an accumulative mental and physical exhaustion. Common Table Farm operates on a human scale, striving to grow produce in ecologically sensitive ways. For us, this means extensive manual labour and an avoidance of heavy machinery and products such as pesticides. We lean into the joy and challenge of doing many tasks with simple hand tools and by the sweat of our brows. It might sound idyllic, but it also means aching backs and sore muscles! Our approach requires that we lean into the need for community. Our farm relies on the passion of volunteers, neighbours, groups and youth – together, we manifest the people power needed to grow food in ways that support the health of the soil. In order to sustain this approach from season to season, it is essential to allow for rest and recovery.

Since stepping into the seasonal life of a farmer, I’m struck by how differently I now experience time and work rhythm. Previously, I had been normalized to a round-the-clock work schedule with no significant changes in rhythm. Work weeks simply kept going, aside from vacation and holiday time. Since becoming a farmer, it’s been beautiful to experience a workflow that closely embodies the seasonal time of the region in which I live. I love how this line of work allows me to become more aware of the natural world, with all its transitions in temperature, amount of daylight and weather patterns. I am invited to notice how other living beings respond to these seasonal changes and take my cue accordingly.

As I write this in January, I’m reluctant to begin thinking about the upcoming season. I’m still at the stage where exhaustion leaves me never wanting to see another vegetable again! But something switches around late February and March. Maybe it’s that the daylight hours become noticeably longer. Some uncanny magic happens: there’s an itch to get back outside and an excitement to look through our store of seeds. What could we grow this year? Is there a new crop to try?

In truth, during the winter months we are still quite active. Our farm staff support Flemingdon Park Ministry’s other community programs. We take time to do much needed organizing of our storage space. We work on crop planning, write grant reports and brainstorm for new projects. We collaborate with students and facilitate workshops. In February, we begin seeding leeks and onions. By March, our seedling production begins in earnest. Our “off time” can often feel full of bustling community activity.

But when I return to the farm on a snowy day and stand on the land, I am called back to stillness. The true value of this time is the pause that calms the churning drive for productivity. Our North American culture prides itself in achievement and growth. These are not necessarily bad things. But pursued without balance, the relentless work culture can be soul-crushing. I take in a breath of cold winter air. The land speaks through its muted colours: Hold up. Stand still for once. Breathe in the fullness of all that’s been given in the past season – all that nourishment, hard work and collaboration. Hold that for a while, in rest, before you begin again.


Keep on reading

Skip to content