Dangerous Storm

Fewer and fewer are the drizzly days of the Northwoods. More often, water comes in copious quantities, accompanied by thunder, lightning, and wind. It’s all part of changes to our planet’s climate that are making conditions challenging for farmer’s across the world—too dry here, too wet there, too windy, too buggy.

This summer has certainly leaned towards the wet here in the Northland, despite almanac predictions of a wet spring followed by a dry summer. Flash flooding normally only seen during the spring thaw has become a repeat performance in the newspaper, and here on the farm, we’re still waiting for a long enough dry spell to make first crop hay!

But Monday was exceptional, and it left a lasting scar on the homestead’s serenity. The story of the day’s events will stay etched in my memory banks, not unlike the epic storm of two Septembers ago. That blast of wind and dashing of hale with continuous thunder like a freight train struck at 8:00 in the morning. Monday’s storm didn’t reach the farm until 7:00 in the evening—but like the first, its arrival was dramatic.

Being a Monday (our “barn mucking, chicken plucking, hay baling” day), we were scheduled for the chicken plucking endeavor. 68 Cornish-cross broilers were ready for processing, hanging out in their mobile “chicken tractor” unit in the pasture. We knew a storm was coming, so we started up the propane scalder early to heat the water for dunking and made ready for butchering.

With one eye on the birds and one eye on the sky, we worked as diligently as we could, ferrying chickens in groups of 15 back to the barnyard for processing. Like a well-oiled machine, everyone in the family (plus our apprentice Sam) has a specific task in the process. Soon, the cold water baths began to fill with cleaned chickens, chilling before bagging.

An oppressively hot morning and muggy, the gathering clouds cut the sun and the breeze made the work more bearable. The clouds grew thicker, and we watched as dark banks plowed across the northern sky, skirted by low-hanging white puffs like escorts. Would it all track north and miss us? But then the clouds changed from gray to green, an impending wall of darkness began to rise up over the western trees, and we knew that the storm would be upon us shortly.

With only eight chickens left to go (we had saved the smaller ones for last), we abandoned further butchering and began buttoning down the farm. Kara and I bagged up the 60 chickens we’d processed, and I drove them over to the Creamery to label and chill in the cooler. The winds were picking up, and I had to weight down the labels to keep them from blowing away in the frantic attempt to finish the work. I kept looking up at that ominous storm wall, coming closer and closer.

“You have to wait until I’m done!” I told that wall of angry water coming. My hands were shaking. Thunder rumbled as the sky darkened with an ominous green tint, and as I tucked the last bird into the cooler, it hit the farm.

The wind caught umbrellas and tossed over picnic tables like they were toys. I grabbed the rain coat I’d left at the Creamery for such emergencies and began dashing about, pulling off the canopies and getting things laid down on the ground so they wouldn’t go airborne.

Gusts from the northwest blew the rain so hard it was nearly impossible to see as I hopped into the utility golf cart and flew back towards the farm. Because the day had been so hot, I had the chicken coops wide open and the little turkeys were out. I had to be sure they were safe and inside. I clutched at the neckline of the raincoat because the wind wanted to turn the hood into a sail as rain pelted my face. But as I came around the corner, I found the way blocked off.

One of the massive sugar maples in the barnyard had broken off about 12 feet up and dropped straight down, right across the road. This is the tree one of our farm tour guests said must be 250 years old and was the “swing tree” when Kara and I were little. Now here it was, broken by the winds like a fallen soldier that had stood guard beside the north field for so long.

I skirted around its edge, close to the farmhouse, and found that someone else had had a moment to shut in the coop and lock up the turkeys, so I retreated to the garage. Winds whistled and lightening clapped about the farm as we tried to find each other in the melee. Kara and Sam were in the farmhouse, where Kara had watched the tree fall from the kitchen window. She thought for sure it would hit the porch, but somehow it managed to land (after being whipped back and forth like a giant screwdriver) where it hadn’t hit anything.

The storm continued, almost relentlessly with long periods of dashing rain and pounding thunder, until about 3:00 in the morning. No-one slept well, agitated by the storm and concern for the farm making it through. In the morning, we crawled out of our shelters to assess the damages and begin the process of cleanup.

Now we could fully see the massive tree’s demise, and tears welled up in my eyes.  The chicken tractor where the eight remaining birds had been left was picked up by the winds and thrown 20 feet away.  Those poor birds had drowned–there was just too much water too fast.  Part of the pasture was flooded (something that only happens in the spring thaw), and the creek was gushing under the road, the water level well over the top of the culvert.


We closed the shop for the day and focused on cleanup.  This dangerous storm that ripped through the area left many folks stranded with destroyed roads, so we counted ourselves lucky considering how the entire Northland had been affected.  My heart ached for the terrified chickens we’d lost (playing out many “what if” scenarios had there been more time or had I had a different presence of mind), and we all were hit by how the barnyard will never look the same again.


That maple must have been “just too small” when the loggers came through; it survived the droughts of the Great Depression; it offered maple sap to make syrup and housed countless birds and other wildlife.  Its shade was a comfort for both people and livestock, and the swing offered a little breather amidst all the labors—a time to reflect and gaze out at the waving grasses of the pasture, caught in the golden evening light.  Now all that’s left is a scarred obelisk-like stump and memories.


Slowly, the giant tree had rotted on the inside, which was likely why it couldn’t withstand those particular winds.  Now we’re working through cutting it up and hauling the branches away.  The logs will be dried and split for our wood-fired pizza oven, and the branches will make good homes for wildlife along the edge of the back field.  As Steve and Mom were cutting up the tree, they kept a huge shelf mushroom for me (known as an artist’s conk), which when dried will serve as a reminder of what was once a majestic and treasured landmark on the farm.


We’re still here, the buildings are all standing, and the animals (except for those poor chickens) are safe and dry now.  But the scar of the tree will remain as a testament to the dangerous storm we won’t be forgetting anytime soon.  I hope you and your family weathered through okay­ and stayed safe.  See you down on the farm sometime.