There’s no way around it, this week has been so hot and muggy you could just about cut the air with a knife. Last night’s rainstorm was a blessed relief, but now the air is heavy and close like the tropics. All the humans are doing their best to stay inside for the air conditioning and drink plenty of fluids. But for the farm animals, escaping the heat really isn’t an option.
This is one of the reasons we order our meat chicks early—usually starting in April—so that butchering is pretty well over before August. These fast-growing birds have extremely low tolerance for hot, muggy weather, especially as they grow to maturity. Congestive heart failure, belied by purplish combs and wattles, can lead to an early demise. This is especially heartbreaking after all the time and care than has gone into raising these birds, only to lose them in the last days due to heat stress.
Currently, my portable chicken tractors are filled with teenaged turkeys of varying sizes. Tarps tied over the top of the tractors offer shade, and the water buckets are kept full. The turkeys pant with beaks wide open and spread their wings to allow air to flow past their bodies, but the heat is bearable for them. Shade, plenty of water, and access to a breeze is really the best farmer’s can do in this kind of weather.
I was giving a farm tour earlier this summer (on another hot day) to some folks who came from the cities. The sheep were hiding from the heat in the barn, lying down to discourage biting insects from eating their legs (so they ate ours instead while we observed the sheep).
“Why does that one have its mouth open?” one of the ladies with fluffy golden hair and wearing high-heeled sandals asked. “It doesn’t look good.”
“Well, as you’ve probably noticed, it’s pretty hot out today. The sheep is panting, like a dog, to help cool off. Dogs and sheep don’t sweat, so panting is a way to evaporate water and release heat.” At this point, in my sweat-drenched shirt, I was wishing that panting might work for me as well. But the lady did not seem convinced that what is suitable behavior for her Golden Retriever might be equally applicable for the domestic ovine. Perhaps she wanted to invite the whole flock of sheep into her air-conditioned new car?
Interestingly, pigs can’t sweat either—except for the very end of their snout. That is why it’s important to leave them a waller or large mud puddle in their pen. The pigs roll and flop or sink into the water so that only the very top of their back, head, and snout sticks out. They stare at you from this position with their beady dark eyes like half-submerged barnyard alligators. Sometimes they’ll even put their snout in the murky water and blow bubbles…because they can.
The ducks love water, all the time, but especially on hot days. They clamor into the kiddie pools and dip and duck, letting beads of water slide down their backs, wagging their tails like a dog and flapping their white wings. Water flies everywhere amidst raucous quacking and splashing. Then someone gets spooked and they all climb out in a hurry, only to run back again with renewed glee.
But even with a pool full of water, ducks are dependent on having shade, so I keep them in amongst the pine trees by the farmhouse or beneath the spreading apples by the garage. They lounge beneath the trunks, tongues sticking out as they pant, waiting for evening. The ducks, like most of the animals on the farm, consume very little feed during the hottest part of the day. They snarf down a bit in the morning, then wait until the coolness of evening for supper. The rest of the day is consumed with doing anything to keep from overheating.
That’s our goal as well, as farmers, while doing chores and other necessary outdoor activities. But sometimes you just plain old get stuck butchering chickens, making hay, or harvesting in the heat because it has to be done. Thank goodness for a cold glass of water and a chilly basement to retreat to at the end of those projects. The dogs agree—they happily stay there most of the day!
Spells of steamy-hot weather are a blessing and a curse for the garden. On the one hand, sensitive crops such as lettuce, spinach, or peas have very little tolerance for high heat and humidity. Those lovely heads of romaine, which you thought were just about ready for picking, suddenly sprout forth tall green spires from their core. Known as “bolting,” the lettuce is doing its very best to flower and make seed (instead of grace your table for dinner), and the seed stalks can grow as high as me!
On the other hand, there are many garden crops that love—no need—these hot and sticky days. Zucchinis love it, doubling in size so quickly it seems that you could watch them grow. Eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and winter squashes also thrive in the tropical environment. Our 150 tomato plants in the high tunnel on the north end of our garden are producing boxes and boxes of red, pink, and yellow heirloom tomatoes. Every time I turn around, it seems that something needs harvesting again!
Still feel that you are melting from the heat? Here is a traditional English recipe for lemonade that might help you recover.
3 unwaxed lemons
1/3 cup sugar (or ¼ cup honey)
2 ½ cups water
Sprig of fresh mint
Chop the whole lemons and puree in a food processor with the sugar until the mixture becomes a fairly fine pulp. The processing helps pull the oils from the lemon for enhanced flavor. Place pulp mixture in a glass jar and stir in the water. Refrigerate overnight before use. Serve in a pitcher with ice cubes, steeped with a sprig of fresh mint. Enjoy!
However it is that you try to keep cool on these hot summer days, remember that the folks out there raising your food are doing their best to keep everything going, despite the heat. Personally, I’m looking forward to autumn, but it looks like it’s going to be another hot one today. 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