I’m not trying to be dramatic, but it’s colder than colder than cold outside today. Schools are canceled across the state and even in Chicago, eight hours driving time to the south. A pure arctic blast sweeps across the Northland, plummeting temperatures so low they kill the outdoor digital thermometer—never to rise from the grave again. Why they sell such a wimpy model up here, who knows!
Even though it’s too cold for the school kids to venture outside, I still have chores to do. Bundling up for 50-below wind-chill weather is no small task, layering on 17 pounds of boots, insulated pants, down coat, headband, hat, scarf, and the new chopper mittens I got for Christmas. It only takes 15 minutes for skin to be frost bitten in this weather, so I peer through a mere slit in my downy attire, like a medieval knight armed against the warring weather.
Alternately, life inside the heated aquaponics greenhouse (when the sun is shining and the eager green plants offer their mid-winter oxygen high) sits snug and steaming in the morning sun. Shuffling about with a watering can or bending to pull a head of fresh lettuce in this little micro-climate seems like a blissful heaven compared to the frigid world between my back door and the chicken coop.
Our winding, trudged-down trails make navigating the farm an interesting endeavor, especially when the winds drift them over in places. Accidentally stepping off the trail as my glasses fog over from steamy breath, I find myself in the less-than-amusing predicament of sinking in over my knee.
Yes, I remind myself, I like Wisconsin winters…really I do. Every type of weather has to be good for something, right? How about surviving this cold means no flea beetles attacking the broccoli this summer, ok? No cucumber bugs? No Colorado potato beetles? How about no ticks? I’d take that as a fair exchange for freezing my eyelashes together while doing chores the first week in January.
But you know it’s getting bad when the hairs in your nose freeze together too, beneath your scarf! Inside the non-insulated chicken coop, though, it’s nearly 20 degrees (above zero), due to the 130 little warm, feathery bodies inside, south-facing windows, and the bright sunshine today. At 42 BTUs per chicken, the ladies are helping keep each other warm. But I notice that the heated waterer is being cantankerous, its rim frozen solid, which means I get to lug the beast to the farm house bathtub to thaw it out…again.
Yes, I tell myself, winter has good qualities. I actually get to have some sleep because the sun sets before ten o’clock in the evening. I’m not being eaten alive by mosquitoes. There are no weeds to pull. And I’m not making hay in 90-degree mugginess. Yes, I remind myself, this is an improvement. Can you feel the enthusiasm before it freezes over?
The ice building up on the inside of my polar fleece scarf is becoming suffocating. Goodness, it’s crazy cold out here today. I can tell by the biting westerly wind that it’s best to dash between buildings rather than stay out long—or at least when you can. But now we have to jump-start the car again because the battery died in the cold. Oh goodness, where is a warm dog when you need one!
But none of the dogs are eager to stay outside long. They hop on three legs, then two. Our little dog Sophie wonders if she can hop back to the house on one leg, her paws are so cold. They’d much rather curl up in their soft doggie beds on the heated basement floor. I can’t blame them, but the chores have to get done sometime.
The sheep have frosty noses, with a light dusting of ice crystals adorning to the edges of their warm wooly coats, just as it clings in frosty tendrils on the wayward wisps of hair escaping around the sides of my face. In the distance, I can hear the trees popping in the forest, the last bits of sap expanding and splitting the wood from within.
And here I am, just a medium-sized mammal, floundering around in the snow, bundled up because I haven’t much fur, lugging a half-frozen chicken waterer. This must be some form of madness! I’m keeping sub-tropical birds in a little wooden building in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin’s winter—the harshest ever since 1996! If this crazy cold keeps up much longer, we’ll be watching out for the edge of the oncoming glacier!!! (Don’t worry, glaciers move rather slow, so you should be able to stay ahead of it.)
But once inside, all warmed by the wood stove with a steaming mug of hot chocolate in hand, the glistening snowiness in the sunshine outside still seems like a magical fairy world. And out of that ice-blue sky, tiny snowflakes are falling from nowhere, drifting and dancing lazily in the westerly winds. A chickadee darts to and from the feeder, happy for the sustenance, while the cat watches from within the safety of the window. The tip of her furry tail twitches, keeping time with her feline thoughts.
But it won’t be long before the sun begins to set, and I’ll pile on the bundle of protective clothing to face this crazy cold for evening chores. Wasn’t I just out there? Be safe, stay warm, and hopefully things will be a little bit warmer when we 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