If you’re tucked back in the woods, sometimes it’s hard to see the weather coming. If you’re on the lake, you might have a great view of impending clouds (especially if they’re coming your way across the water). But many people who have visited the farm for longer periods of time realize that our fields offer a unique view of the building and changing of storm clouds. This is a good thing, since having fair warning of hazardous weather can be quite critical for farming!
Why do farmers always begin by talking about the weather? Too much wet and you can’t get into the fields to work. Too much dry and the crops may fail. Too cold and freak frosts can damage sensitive plants or prolonged bouts stunt tomatoes and peppers. Too much hot and many plants bolt or animals suffer from heat exhaustion. Hail and wind can wreak havoc, as well. The list never ends!
This spring, the weather’s bipolar tendencies have made life quite interesting, to say the least. Loads of snow, gusty winds, hot and dry, wildfires, soaking rain that lasts for days, chilly dampness, and steamy sunniness all in a month’s time can send farmers like us into a dizzy dance to keep-up. Open the windows to the chicken coop, then close them again. Cover the portable shelters for our poultry with tarps, then uncover them. The sheep dash out to play, then dash in again. Mild bouts of spotty rain aren’t too much of a concern, but when the weather turns foul, that’s when farmers get worried.
Every farm has storm stories. Invariably, I’m out in the worst of the fray, trying to save plants and animals from harm, getting drenched and a little bit terrified. Once everything is safe and secure and I finally make it back indoors…the rain lessens, the thunder ceases, and soon I’m back out opening up the hatches I’d just battened down. When the clouds change their shapes in springtime to rise puffy as cauliflower heads—that’s when we keep our eyes out for the next storm.
The dark underbelly of the clouds has much to tell about their temperament. Most times, they float in from a westerly direction, across the long North Field with the rain dragging behind them. But this spring, nearly all the storms have trailed up from the south, popping over the green ridge of pine trees like a prowling lion in the Sahara grasses. Often our eyes are glued to the online radar images, watching the progress and growth of storms. We’ve learned over the years that getting a head start makes a difference for storm preparation.
I remember in the early years of farming for us—before we’d equipped ourselves with headlamps and generators—dashing out in the middle of the night in a storm to quick close down doors and windows in the barn or coop, scooting along the edge of the garage bent near double. I didn’t want to be the tallest object in the barn yard! Lightening flashes, and the black-and-white-lit image of the top half of a balsam tree lays like a corpse across the yard, broke clean off its trunk beside the wood shed. The smell of wet raincoats, mud, and the feel of water between my toes in my sneakers mingles with the tingling in the air from the storm’s power.
Turkeys are especially prone to mishaps in storms. They gawk at the clouds, facing upwards towards the rain drops. Without proper precautions, turkeys can literally drown because the rain runs into their nostrils as they look skyward! So often I find myself with a long stick, herding turkeys inside amidst pelting raindrops. Last summer, the rushing gust of a storm’s front caught me just as I was in the turkey pen. Looking up, I saw a great tree behind the barn rip in half—the top thrown as if a toy to the side. I herded the turkeys even faster that time.
The old saying goes that if you place a horse, a cow, a pig, and a sheep on a hill, the sheep will always be the one struck by lightening. This may have a connection with the buildup of static electricity in their wool coats, but no one knows for certain. Either way, we are always careful to bring the sheep into the barn when a thunderstorm strikes. But apparently you don’t always need clouds to have lightening! One day while cleaning dishes at the kitchen sink in the farm house, I looked out the window into the field. From the blue sky came a small bolt of lightening, right down to the middle of the field, followed by a poof of smoke. I didn’t imagine it, honest! I even found the scorched spot of turf later that day!
But our queen of storm stories comes from two summers ago while making hay. Yes, yes, yes, you are supposed to make hay when the sun shines, and it had been shining! There were no predictions of storms for a three-day stretch. The grass was cut, raked, and dried—the exact time you don’t want it to rain on the hay because the moisture will ruin the crop. That afternoon it was hot, muggy, and rough work for baling and stacking on the wagon under the July sun.
Then we looked up to the west to see a pea-soup-green wall coming our way—fast. The leading edge curled upwards like a massive dog tongue, any sunshine behind it completely obliterated. We revved the tractor and tried desperately to crank out as many bales of hay as we could before the beast struck.
Sarah, our intern at the time, and I frantically pulled a load into the Red Barn just as the leading winds hurled into the farm. As fast as we could run, we pelted out into the field to tie down the chicken tractors, pounding T-posts into the hard earth with the vigor of 19th-Century railway workers. The lightening flashed, and I imagined myself as the perfect lightening rod in the middle of the pasture as the hammering rains descended like a gray wall, blanketing the farm in water. The wind howled, carrying with it tarps and buckets.
Sarah remembers thinking, “I’m going to blow away!” as she chased the last of the laying hens into their movable summer coops. Then she looked at me clamoring after a tumbling tarp and thought, “No, you’re going to blow away!” We hurried to close the walls on greenhouses, the windows on my studio yurt, and to save the turkeys. Out in the field (about 10 bales from being finished), a mound of hay jammed in the baler, a pin sheared, and Kara left the rig in the field to pull in the last of the finished bales. The rest would have to be sacrificed.
We drug ourselves into the house that evening, sweaty from the day’s labors and covered in hay chaff, drenched and windblown and a bit out of breath…only to discover that the power was out so there was no shower and likely no supper. Oh the life of farming, it’s not for the faint of heart!
This week, take some time to remember your favorite (or at least most memorable!) storm stories with friends and family. Stay safe, and maybe we’ll 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