Winter on the Farm

The songbirds have left. The fields are brown and scruffy. The sky is an overturned bowl of colorless gruel.

Winter isn’t exactly the farm’s most flattering time of year.

Our place is much lovelier in summer, when the Bermuda grass is deep and green from warm rain and rich fertilizer. Row-upon-row of golden hay bales stretch across the fields like yellow brick roads. Leafy branches teem with fluttering birds. Long-necked herons tiptoe around the pond.

With summer in bloom, you don’t notice so much the barns and houses that need painting and the fences that need mending. Winter strips away all that camouflage and reveals a stark, gloomy landscape.

And yet, in some ways I prefer winter to any other season on the farm.

When the days are short, I know the hardest part of making hay is behind us. The rest – selling the hay we stored in our barn over the summer – is all downhill. We do a little advertising, but mostly we simply have to wait for a phone call or knock at the door. That’s the payoff for Harvey’s blood, sweat and tears: His hay gets good word-of-mouth, so the product mostly sells itself.

Not to mention that miserable weather is great for business because farm animals need more hay for extra food and warm bedding when the temperature dips. In the past few years, our only marketing challenge has been keeping up with demand. We usually run out long before spring, when livestock can go back to grazing pastures.

So as far as I’m concerned, drab, depressing scenery is no problem. If anything, it’s a cheerful reminder of all the things that can’t go wrong.
On a dank, bone-chilling afternoon, no hay-baling equipment can break down for three hours with customers lined up in the field, impatiently waiting to load their trailers. There will be no worries, as in early summer when we can’t sell every bale directly out of the field, about how to get a few hundred leftovers into the barn before sundown when the dew and fire ants set in. (Not owning one of those divine hay-moving machines that eliminate the need for manual labor creates a constant dilemma.)

Here, in the dreary light of January, I can take comfort in knowing no drought-stricken pastures will wither and die under a merciless sun. I don’t have to lose sleep over losing a crop because it’s too muddy to get a tractor into the field or because the weatherman was dead wrong when he said it wasn’t going to rain.

Winter brings a welcome respite from all manner of routine farm stresses – from relentless fuel and fertilizer bills; from equipment repairs costing way too much; from insects that devour fields, weeds that refuse to be killed and plant diseases that spread like a medieval plague.
Yes, the weather outside is frightful, but a break from farming is delightful.
I relish the cold months for silly little reasons, too.

Just being able to step outdoors without my hairdo and makeup spontaneously combusting is cause for jubilation in itself. I realize that everyone in South Louisiana – rural, urban or otherwise – struggles with the smothering heat and humidity. However, when you are someone who doesn’t merely “glow” but actually sweats like a starting left tackle – a person who can perspire while loading the dishwasher in a 68 degree kitchen – to live on a hay farm is to be one big, hot mess from April to October.

It’s not that I do hard manual labor every single day of the summer – I don’t. It’s just that when I am called upon to help with the slightest task, whether by Harvey or a customer, I usually end up looking like a coach who just got doused with an ice chest full of Gatorade. Thus, I anticipate cold weather a little more eagerly than most. To get through entire days without needing at least one wardrobe change is nothing less than a luxury.    

Not having to watch out for our no-shouldered neighbors is another bonus. Until recently, I rarely gave snakes a second thought. In fact, I rarely saw one. I always assumed that with 225 acres of woods, ponds and river, snakes didn’t have much need or desire to come nosing around the human habitats.

That changed last year when Harvey and I each had run-ins with poisonous snakes virtually in our backyard. While trying to get a stranded cow out of a muddy ditch, Harvey suddenly spotted a water moccasin floating on the surface 3 inches from his hand. Miraculously, it
did not bite him. And I came disturbingly close – again, mere inches – to accidentally grabbing a cottonmouth moccasin while cleaning up limbs after Hurricane Isaac. It was so perfectly camouflaged, coiled up in the grass and leaves, that I only noticed it because the ground jumped under the flimsy little branch I picked up. We and the boys had been walking right by that nasty little viper for two hours. I saw snakes out of the corner of my eye for weeks.

I’m guessing the increase in snake sightings had something to do with last year’s wussy winter. In my book, that’s just one more reason to appreciate a good Arctic blast. At the very least,  I can breathe easier for a few months knowing the snakes are hibernating. A trip to the trash can is less likely to turn into a trip to the emergency room.

Certain pleasures of farm life only come around when it’s cold. I’m thinking of the weekly visits from Harvey’s brother and his family from Baton Rouge during hunting season. They sleep in their camper in the woods, but our families spend most of the weekend together. Nobody enjoys it more than our kids, who get to run wild on the farm with their out-of-town cousins from Friday night until Sunday morning.

Firewood outings are another happy family activity I associate with winter. The boys ride on the tailgate, and the dogs, not about to be excluded, follow the truck into the woods. Harvey saws up fallen trees with a chain saw while the rest of us stack the pieces on the truck. It’s work that feels like play – and one of the moments when there is no doubt in my mind that the sweat, the work and the worry is all worth it.

Our farm looks much better in the summer, but it takes the still and cool and quiet of winter to make me appreciate what we’ve really got.