Frozen Farming

“How is winter going for you?” one of my graduate school friends from Virginia writes in a Facebook message.

“Good, but it’s been awfully cold. 33 below wind chills today.”

There’s a pause as the three little dancing dots on the screen indicate he’s typing a reply.

“33 below what?”

It’s not the first time I’ve received that question. “Below freezing?” No, keep going! Another 32 degrees below that!

Old farms are full of idiosyncrasies, but they seem to be even more accentuated with the extreme cold. The metal on the greenhouse shrinks to the point where the front door only barely latches with great coaxing (the latch simply can’t reach the door frame!), doorknobs that grumble about turning in summertime take even greater strength to coerce open (which usually means taking off the glove for a better grip on that cold, cold, cold metal), and of course there’s frost heaving, so even once the door is unlatched, you can barely get the darn thing open!

Another door that gets cantankerous in wintertime is the south east door on the hen coop. Repurposed from a hunting shack, the wooden door warms on a sunny day, taking on moisture from all those little chicken breaths inside. But then night falls, temps plummet, and the water freezes, expanding. The door expands too, at the oddest times. I think that door lays in wait for me, just to be mischievous. I use this door to get to the water dishes I set outside for the ducks (yes, the dish one of those ducks got stuck in last winter!).

I take a bucket and trudge over to the water hydrant in front of the barn, all bundled up in my extra 17 pounds of winter gear to survive in weather that creates frostbite within 15 minutes of exposure. Hanging the bucket on the spigot, I give the hydrant a good pull, but it’s frozen down. More pulling, coaxing, even an exasperated sign, then POP, the frozen seal lets go and the water come spraying out in a frantic hurry, splattering droplets onto my glasses that instantly freeze into balls of ice.

Then I trudge back over to the coop, trying not to spill too much water on my insulated work pants (which also instantly freezes, making the pants stiff and the side zipper impossible to open), come into the coop, then out the mischief door, then pour the water into the pans. If too much of it froze from the previous day, I use an axe to chip out the ice enough to add fresh water. The ducks parade around, quacking raucously. It doesn’t much matter about the temperature to them, water is always great!

Then I come back in through the door and try to close it. Now, I’ve been out less than a minute, and the door won’t close. It’s somehow a quarter inch wider than when I opened it. Even using the chunk of baling twine I have permanently tied to the latch so I can get a two-fisted pull, it won’t go, not even a budge. And this is after years of Grandpa adding T and L brackets to all the joints to try to stabilize the bugger. This is not nice! Time to get the wood planer out and slice off a little more of the door so it will close again.

The cold also makes chores miserable for Kara. The frost heaves up the concrete under the barn, making the doors stick and near impossible to move. More bedding needs distributing to keep all the animals warm, and they often eat more hay when it’s cold. Kara’s been using the Bobcat to skewer round bales and move them into the sheep pens, but when it gets too cold, no amount of coaxing will make the machine turn over…so it’s back to square bales and sleds to lug the feed around.

Heated waters are often only rated to 0 degrees, so sometimes there’s no other option than to haul the bucket (ice brick in a bucket) into the house to thaw on the porch or in the bath tub after a night in the negatives. It even got so cold that the computer in one of our cars froze, showing every imaginable alarm light on the dashboard. So much for a ride back to the barnyard from the Creamery…another round of walking in the cold.

But even walking can be a challenge. The ice storm left many surfaces treacherous, and then there’s the challenge of handling the produce in the cold. While the aquaponics greenhouse is only a couple dozen yards from the Creamery, frigid temperatures with a wind chill can instantly flash freeze lettuce, herbs, and other delicate produce. When preparing for the farmer’s market and packing CSA shares, I’d load up my bin of greens, pop on the lid, then make a mad dash from greenhouse to shelter. That is, as fast as I dared go on the icy path!

Even the wildlife wants to seek shelter in these extreme conditions. Every morning, the turkey coop is filled with songbirds that took shelter in the evening. They chirp and flit about, anxious to be let out into the fresh air. Squirrels hide in the wood shed, trying to avoid our sheep dog Lena, who is eager to give them a hearty chase. And all the rabbit trails head for the woods and the hay bales across the fresh, powdery snow.

I’m enjoying shelter too—fires in the wood stove in the evening, time to crochet prayer shawls or read a book, time to write and think and dream. The dogs spend more time inside too because their feet freeze. The working dogs get a bit stir-crazy, but Steve’s cockapoo Bo is perfectly happy to spend more time lazing about, watching the snow fall.

It’s winter. This kind of weather is expected up here. Bundle up against the cold and wish us well as frozen farmers while we keep things going until spring. See you down on the farm sometime.