The day even started hot, muggy, clingy. A steady breeze helped keep the climbing heat from being entirely unbearable, but this was going to be one of those days where just keeping the animals alive and in the shade would be the major accomplishment of the day.
We threw on sunhats and drug what felt like miles of electric fencing beneath the barnyard maples, red pines, and the spruces along the lane so that ducks, lambs, and ewes could have some shaded reprieve. Less-than-pleased teenaged turkeys were marched into sheltered, shaded nooks by the chokecherry bushes, and we even spread a rug over the penthouse for the celebrity chickens at Farmstead Creamery to cast a bit more shadow.
And then we filled water buckets and filled waterers and filled kiddy pools, hosing off the pigs. The heat and humidity was absolutely relentless, with heat indexes in the 100’s of degrees. Finally, by 6:00 p.m., we had crested the wave of nature’s convection oven and celebrated by heading to the lake for a swim and a picnic supper.
Yet despite these relaxing moments, part of us still knew that such heat and energy meant that storms would be coming. Just rain, we hoped, no drama…but that wasn’t likely. The evening was still muggy and close, so it was impossible to batten down anything tight. A cloud bank was encroaching on the sunset, which left us hoping that something would break the weather for a better northwoods day tomorrow.
It was about 2:00 in the morning when the first wave of rain hit. Just rain, gentle, lapping at the south side of the house. But behind the sprinkle, the sky was lit with strobe lights, flashes beating everywhere to the north and west—streaking in all directions. I trundled down the dark stairs to grab our trusty IPod-touch for monitoring the aquaponics and keeping tabs on the weather. Who cares what the predictions and hourly guesses might be, I wanted to see the radar!
In a great arch, sweeping from Minnesota to Canada, a thick band of yellow, orange, and red was headed our way. The warning issued included penny-sized hail and 60-mile-an-hour wind gusts. After surviving the last major wind event the evening of the PBS filming, which had tried to run off with the chicken tractors and tore pieces out of trees, this didn’t sound like something we’d want to find ourselves caught in way out in the pasture.
It was dark, no moon, and still thick with heat and humidity. We threw on pants and shoes and began the mad hatch-battening that precedes dangerous storms on the farm. Snagging the trusty old farm truck, we pulled up to the wood shed and began throwing T-posts into the back, the infernally heavy fence post driver, and a wad of baling twine.
Pat-Pat, the first few raindrops splatted against my glasses. I dashed through the lamb pen to turn off the fence energizer while Mom rounded the corner from behind with the truck. Out in the middle of the pasture, the strobe light lightning was flashing everywhere, blinking with blinding brightness our frenzied work.
In the back of my mind, I could hear the NOA weather radio voice saying, “Remember, lightening can kill. If you can hear thunder, you are in danger of being struck by lightning.”
“I don’t like it out here!” was Mom’s version of the situation. “Where is my string?” I grabbed another T-post and began pounding it at an angle to one of the corners of the chicken tractors so they could be cross-tied and anchored.
The pre-storm gust hadn’t quite reached us yet as we lashed layers of baling twine from tractor to post, threw our gear into the back end of the pickup, and hurtled over the bumpy terrain back to the barnyard. Kara was there, closing the sides on the lamb barn. It was a mad dash to throw anything loose into a building, wedge the new people door on the farmhouse garage (with no latch yet) shut, roll down the sides of the high tunnel, and stuff any lightweight lawn furniture or precious garden art objects into safe nooks and crannies.
“Come on Speckles,” I chided while Mom was cranking down the sides of the aquaponics greenhouse. Little miss chicken thought we’d camp outside in the penthouse that night, but that wasn’t going to be a good idea with the oncoming storm. With little ceremony, I opened the hutch, grabbed the sleepy hen, and stuffed her into the sheltered room above. And then we also grabbed the rug before it became a veritable sponge.
With the threat of hale, we tried our best to squeeze as many vehicles into shelters as the rain began to pour. Others, we moved away from the trees, remembering the limb-throwing events of the last storm. Again, the NOA weather radio voice reappeared, “Damaging wind and hail. Take immediate shelter in a central room in the lowest level of your home.” Yes, I know, but how many farmers actually get to do this?
As the downpour instantly soaked my hair and shirt just running from the garage to the house, I was feeling quite relieved to have started with tying down the chicken tractors first when we did. Huddled together back at our house, damp and panting, hoping we had everything tied down or squirreled away, we watched the radar. A deep red finger had dipped down into the Chequamegon National Forest, heading our way. But in that finger was a small gap, like an exclamation point—a gap which neatly drifted right over the farm.
I did hear hail on the skylight, but it didn’t last more than a few seconds. Torrential rains followed, and some winds. This morning, the air feels refreshed and the dry soils moistened. Hopefully, we won’t find any damages to the farm or livestock this morning, making our two-in-the-morning scramble worth the effort and risk.
Sudden storms can pop up at any time on the farm. We’ve seen them head straight north in the middle of butchering chicken, watched frightful soup-green banks pelt in from the west while making hay, fled deep-blue banks from the north, and survived tempests blown in from the east. But whichever way they come, angry summer storms can wreak terrible damages on homestead farms. This round, we responded in time…and got lucky. 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