Farmer’s Diary: Winter on the Farm—Management and Materials
People always ask, “So, things quiet on the farm this winter?” They seem to think we spend our hibernal days drinking coffee and knitting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Well, apart from the coffee bit.
Particularly in the colder months when they cannot forage for themselves, animals need water, food and shelter. Keep them dry, warm, hydrated and fed. And the greenhouses still need attention even as the tender plants lay mostly dormant under row covers. Come February, when we start seeding down our flats, we keep the greenhouse woodstove going from sunrise till midnight to counter the chill.
Therefore, winter on a diversified farm with a variety of animals and active greenhouses revolves around two words: management and materials.
All winter, we manage the land and structures: We plow and shovel, spread sand and gravel. We keep the greenhouses free of snow and ice buildup. Little known fact: More greenhouses collapse in late winter with a couple of inches of heavy wet snow or ice than under a thick layer of drier snow. So when it snows, we get a great upper-body workout, wielding the long snow rakes to clear the sloping Gothic sides. Of seven structures… Throughout the day and night... I love that deeply satisfying whoooosh as the snow cascades down the smooth plastic.
Some storms drop so much snow that we bypass our plow truck and use the tractor to carve through the deep roadside wake left by the town crew and to excavate snow piled against the greenhouses. Occasionally we load our dump truck with the snow and cart it away to a far corner of the property. Managing snow has taught me to prepare for three storms ahead and push the piles as far back as possible.
We also have Materials Days, which involve gathering the components on which our farm runs. Firewood for home furnace and various woodstoves; hay for the cows and sheep; sawdust, wood shavings and shredded office paper for animal bedding. Sand and gravel for driveways and steps. Throughout the fall, we harvest, split and stack the firewood from trees on our own land. Six wagons of hay arrive from a neighbor in early July, and we stockpile all 1,500 bales in a barn a few miles away. Sawdust, shavings and shreds come from local businesses that are happy to supply us in exchange for some bartered poultry.
Each week we load these invaluable resources into the mighty dump truck or sturdy pickup and deliver them where needed on the farm. Exercise comes on both ends of the process. At night when I finally remove my boots and pants, the vestiges of the day spill from my cuffs to the floor.
Water also merits our constant attention since animals drink more in the colder months. We are constantly lugging five-gallon buckets of water to our animals. The laying hens and ducks get five or six buckets twice a day, and the cows and sheep slightly less. FYI, a full bucket weighs 42 pounds. Who needs the gym?
However, winter inevitably freezes our water sources. Here on the hillside, mountain springs provide our water, and our ponds are spring-fed as well. Most of the year, that water runs free and clear except for deep winter. A 150-yard black plastic pipe snakes from one of the springs to the laying hen greenhouse further downhill. The water within that pipe usually flows until December, and just before it freezes, we fill a 500-gallon stock tank inside the layer house that provides enough water for about 10 days. Of course, we need to wait for a day with enough sun to melt the ice within that black pipe so we can replenish the tank. So from January through late March, we keep that black lifeline from snowdrift burial and our eyes on both the tank’s level and the 10-day forecast.
On the other end of sourcing materials is their subsequent removal. What arrived in pristine condition, I truck off as soiled bedding, rich in nutrients for my compost windrows. Every few weeks, I take the tractor and load the dump truck with the pile of manure from the cows, and I shovel out the sawdust/shredded paper and chicken poop from the laying hens. This organic goodness becomes the basis for next fall’s finished black gold.
Thus we occupy ourselves through those “quiet winter months.” Sometimes it’s a battle, sometimes a game. And yet, amidst the obligations come moments of breathtaking and unexpected beauty.
Crunching across squeaky snow en route to chores, my black Lab romping at my side, radiating pure joy. The opaque greenhouse bathed with milky moonlight while I stoke the fire. Blue-white snow under a crystalline sky at midnight. Smoke curls from the farmhouse chimney. Silent but for the whisper of wind through the stark trees.
The days will gradually lengthen and the sun will strengthen. But for now, I will embrace the gifts and challenges of winter.
And maybe learn how to knit.