Bundled in 17 pounds of boots, insulated pants, down coat, hat, gloves, and face scarf, my glasses iced over by steamy breath, facing winter chores can become daunting even before leaving the back door.
External faucets are frozen closed, so we fill five-gallon buckets in the utility sink with warm water for the pigs, lifting them high over the lip of the sink, then trundling them out to the orange sled waiting outside. That hearty, toboggan-long sled sure does get a workout in wintertime, hauling water, hay, feed, fodder, and wood this way and that along our paths and trails across the barnyard.
These paths are packed tightly where we’ve trodden them down for months, but should a stray foot wander off—poof—you’ve sunk in above your knee. This is especially hazardous when the trails have drifted over and it’s hard to know exactly where that curve in the path used to be. It is equally obvious when you’ve guessed incorrectly.
Shoveling has been a daily practice for chores this winter. As rigorous as it can be, I wonder that some form of shoveling isn’t featured at the Olympics. The bend, the scoop, the throw…and then the tamping and scraping for the sticky snow that won’t let go of the shovel. There’s the deck, the paths, the stoops in front of the garages, and a long stretch in front of the barn to keep the banks at bay. Either the land has risen or the barn was always built on land a little downhill from parts of the barnyard, and spring flooding can be a real issue. Every year, we hope for a slow melt that will allow the snows to sink gracefully into the aquifer rather than running in a torrent down the gravel road, washing out the culvert, or pooling like a lake inside the barn. While I’m not quite ready for spring and its mounting workload, a little break from the snow and bitter cold would be welcome.
Shovel, shovel, shovel. The high tunnel where we raise vining tomato plants in the summer is half buried in a drift. I can only see the top portion of the door. But with the huge pre-Birkie storm on the way, we had to make room for the new snow to be able to slide off the top and not continue to crush the arching structure. Just wading out to the high tunnel was hip-deep in places, past the row of wind-breaking spruces sheltering mounds of dismembered pinecone tidbits that the squirrels have left.
It’s tricky shoveling out a plastic-film sided greenhouse. Dig along the sides and the snow still lingering on the top slips and slides and flops down in your trench, so you get to shovel it out again. And it’s soooooo easy to poke a hole in the side with the corner of the scoop, just as you hit a chunk of ice that refuses to give way. We’ll have a few nicks to patch in the spring, but at least the snow has a place to go, rather than collapsing our precious growing structure.
Drifts on rooftops have grown dangerously heavy—two feet deep in places! In the news are featured stories of barn and outbuildings collapsing under the tremendous weight. Borrowing a roof rake from a neighbor, we take turns chopping and scraping, trying to make a dent in the snowload. The long and rambling woodshed (originally used to store horse-drawn farm machinery because it was easy to back into) was the first on the list.
There was no chance at a sudden rush of releasing snow as happens on the south side of the barn roof—rumbling and thundering and smashing in an avalanche against the side of the machine shed beside it. So it was chop, chop and chop, chop at the drift above, wading through the snow. The stacking pile below now leaves but a modest gap between the roofline and the ground! The woodshed is very nearly just a tunnel! Seriously, it’s looking rather like a polar expedition around here, rather than a farm.
My other running joke lately is that we’re farming in the trenches. Veritable high-sided louge tracks for the sled are guarded by great mounds of snow banks. Sometimes it’s hard to know where Mom or Kara are in the farmyard because you can’t see over the sides of the trenches, even though the packed trails raise my shoulders higher than the top of the five-foot woven wire chicken fence.
Just a few days ago, chores turned into an experience of quicksand. It was evening and quite dark except for the brilliant pin-pricks of stars above. I entered the frosty-sided chicken coop to sadly find that one of my ladies had died (likely in a fight with another hen over nesting box territory…sometimes freaky things can happen with chickens). I carefully wrapped her in a feed sack and endeavored to take her out to the old pump house for safe keeping until we could dispose of her properly.
The pump house still has the old hand pump in it but the hand-dug well collapsed years ago thanks to a raucous population of woodchucks. Long past its days as a milk house, we use the shed to store garden tools, bins, extra boxes, and odds and ends (there always seems to be an endless supply of odds and ends on a farm!). With my poor deceased chicken wrapped in a feed sack in hand, I faced the silver-sided pump house. Between me and my destination lay the cliff of snow shoveled away from the front of the barn. It seemed like rock climbing gear might be necessary, but I bravely embarked up the face, over the edge, and then sank nearly out of sight into the soft drift on the other side.
Hollering for help was to no avail, for the rest of the crew was well off at the Red Barn with belloring rams and the donkey. Would they hear my snow-muffled cries? Nope. So now what? My left leg twisted behind me, my right leg straight down to the waist in fluff, my arms holding the chicken, this was feeling like a predicament. I tried to push with one hand against the snow, but it was so soft it too only sunk deep without resistance. What if I simply disappeared without a trace? How long would it take someone to find me?
I set the chicken aside with a poof of white, icy fluff and tried rolling on my back, then from side to side, in an effort to pack down some of the snow. What I really needed was a set of snowshoes, but those were quite a ways away…all the way back at the house. So, my mind raced, how could I make instant snowshoes to get out of this drowning mess? It’s amazing the odd, scary, and funny things you mind can think up when you’re completely stuck in a snowbank.
Managing to pull one knee underneath me, I braced all of my left lower leg and foot into one long knee-to-toe “foot,” then drug my right knee out of the drift. One bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken, the next bigfoot step, drag the bag of chicken. The process was awkward, to say the least, but I managed to reach the shed (thankfully the door opened inward), deposit my package, and wade back to the safety of the shoveled walk, plopping down panting.
Mom and Kara rounded the bend with a sled full of hay bales, their water buckets clanging. “What has been taking you so long?”
Well, I tell you, this has sure been a winter for extreme chores. And yes, Farmstead Creamery is shoveled out too, so you can always come on over for fresh greens, eggs, pastured meats, delicious bakery goods, and more. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com