On camels, bearing gifts? Well, this is true in the first Christmas story, but for life on the homestead in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, the wintry gifts from the east are usually in the form of snow—in copious amounts. Being able to read the weather through observation has been an important skill for farmers throughout the ages at any time of the year.
In the summer, our eyes watch the clouds to the west as they climb over the towering red pines behind the barn. Puffy cumulus clouds (what Grandma calls “God’s sheep”) ho-hum by, hoping for enough warmth and moisture to grow into something grander. The towering cumulonimbus, with its gargantuan anvil shape and lightening-illuminated bulges are the culprits of summertime scurrying to cover and bring the animals into the farm for safety. I have spent my fare share of being outside in the worst of storms to save turkeys from drowning or greenhouse doors from being blown off their hinges.
But in wintertime, the storms come more subtly. There might be little forewarning by a leading edge of high, wispy cirrus clouds (wintry skies are often filled with them, without too much meaning regarding storms), or the preceding flock of little cumulus collections. There is no visible tower of nimbus-ness to warn of impending snow, and no rush of sudden wind from the west. A light dusting or minor snowfall may be blown from this direction, but the real worry lies in the storms that that blow from the east.
Winter is full of mystery. Sometimes, in the midst of chores on a cloudless, sunny morning, I’ll look up to see lacy, glittering flakes dancing down from nothing—literally “thin air.” At other times, moisture-laden clouds will hover for days, dropping nothing. My Uncle Jon, who is a naturalist, always says that he can tell the wintry weather by the size of the snowflakes. Large, lacy flakes indicate that the snowfall will not last long, whereas tiny flakes suggest a greater likelihood of a longer snow and more accumulation. This larger-is-less and littler-is-more theory is not unlike the farm saying about rain—if the chickens dash for the coop, it’s only a passing shower. If the chickens stay out in it, it’s going to rain for a while.
What kind of snowfall and how much is no light matter for farmers. Just a few winters ago, the snow fell so fast, deep, and heavy, that it collapsed barns in Minnesota. The winds blew the drifting snow to the lea side of the barn, causing a great imbalance of weight on the roof. Farmers raced in to try to save their cattle, but many were injured or lost, including some of the farmers. One dairyman remembered the terrifying sound of the nails popping out of the rafters as the roof gave way. Still others were lost from falling off roofs as they tried to remove the snow before structures collapsed.
The worst types of winter snows on farms are preceded by ice. Sticking to every surface, it fills latches and freezes doors shut and creates a layer on which the snow can securely stick instead of sliding off. It is the same type of weather that downs trees and power lines, making roads particularly hazardous. Add to this a boisterous wind, and now there is lowered visibility and gathering drifts to complicate the situation.
But the chores still need to be done! In pioneer days, ropes were tied from the house to the barn, so farmers could hang on as they made their way through blinding snow. In Vermont, some farms solved the problem by connecting all the buildings together. This way, in winter, there was no need to go outside at all! The oldest methods for livestock housing in Scandinavia put the human living quarters right above those of the animals—conserving heat and need for care, as well as providing watchful eyes against cattle thieves.
Of course, years ago, the snows were quite spectacular compared to what we commonly experience today. Grandpa remembers coming up to the farm in the 1960’s for hunting season. He made the mistake of stepping off a trail and found himself swallowed in a snowbank. After considerable struggling, Grandpa managed to rescue himself, but he never made that mistake again. Other stories tell of tying brightly colored objects to the radio antennas of cars to alert other vehicles of approaching traffic at intersections—the snow was so high that it was difficult to see the actual car!
But why should the recipe for such heavy snowfalls come from easterly winds? This is because the “backside” of winter storms hold the most moisture. Just when it seems that all has passed, the snowload arrives. Such a glut of frozen water crystals arrived during one of my March residencies at college in Vermont. Grandma and Grandpa were helping hold down the farm, and they sent pictures of the two-and-a-half feet that had fallen overnight. It took our friend Jon several hours of laboring with his snowplow to make a path back to the farm and our house. We even had to shovel trails to the chicken coops, just to get through. The snow slowly curled off the southern wing of the barn roof, like a tidal wave in extremely slow motion with little foamy ice formations at its tip. The sight was both magical and alarming—I did not want to be standing beneath that ice wave when it finally broke free from the edge of the roof! If you hear a rumble, run!!!
Today, as we prepare for the weekend’s threat of “winter weather alerts,” the beehives are snuggly wrapped beneath their insulation and tar paper, the last of the panels of hog fencing are drug into the shed, and the stashes of firewood are heartily restocked. The shovels await, and the sleds still listing in the rafters dream of frosty piles that announce the transition from wheelbarrows to skids for hauling this and that across the barnyard.
And as the storm approaches, our eyes and thoughts will be turned to the east, in expectation. Is that a big snowflake or a little one? Which way has the wind sock atop the barn turned? How gray grows the afternoon sky? It’s time to hunker down, stay warm, and make certain the animals are comfortable and well-fed before a long winter’s night. It’s also a good time to sit by the fire with a good book or play music with friends and family.
As the snows settle in around us this winter, imagine the days when tunnels were carved in the drifts to access Main Street businesses or when country folks had to climb from their second story windows for a bit of fresh air. Maybe someone in your family has memorable snowstorm stories—the day Mom made it to class only to find the campus was closed and hazard the long walk back home or the time the snow blew so hard no-one could open the back door onto the porch for days. Winter is a wonderful time for such tales as well as for making new memories amidst the blustery winds from the east. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com