Well, we've muddled through our first year in northern Minnesota. Mother Nature was good to us and gave us a mild frost-free summer and a plentiful garden, but we still have a lot to learn about the special problems of farming and living where the winters get down to 50-below — and even July may bring a light frost. If you're still thinking about making your great escape to the North, you may appreciate a few homesteading tips that we've learned by doing.
Staying warm up here in the winter is hard enough. Don't complicate it by purchasing a big old rambling farmhouse. There aren't many in this region for a good reason: they're harder'n the dickens to heat when the wind is blowing 60 miles an hour straight down from the arctic. Most of the homes in our area tend to be low, flat boxes which are well-sheltered by windbreaks to the north and west. Whatever you buy, check the building's insulation. It could mean the difference between spending your winter chopping twice as much wood as you really need or sitting in a warm kitchen watching the snow pile up outside.
Wet and unseasoned wood doesn't burn well and the resins from green, pitchy logs can even accumulate in the chimney and catch fire, so if you're going to heat with wood plan on cutting the fuel at least six months before you need it. You'll find it even better if you can stay a full year ahead on this detail. If you haven't the time to season your firewood the first year, cut dead wood for immediate use. Figure on at least ten cords of oak, tamarack pine, birch, or other hardwood, or fifteen cords of softwood.
Your livestock must have snug winter quarters and any solid, draft-free building should do the trick. As long as the animals get plenty of food they'll generate their own heat. Goats, in particular, need large amounts of roughage with which to maintain this winter body heat. I solve the problem by cutting a tree every week during the winter. We then tote a goodly pile of trimmings into the barn for goat munchies and let the main part of the tree cure into fuel for next year's fires.
If you're planning to build on your northern homestead, give some thought to attaching the barn to the house Scandinavian-style. The stock will benefit from the house heat that seeps into their quarters and you won't have to walk so far to tend the animals on frigid winter mornings.
We've learned that water pipes here in northern Minnesota will freeze unless buried at least three feet deep. Double that if there's any traffic over the line (traffic packs the ground and allows the frost to penetrate deeper). If you don't care to dig six-foot-deep trenches for your pipes, you can build a bridge of some kind (a bale of hay or boards raised off the ground will do the job) over the lines where traffic crosses.
Summers up here are short and therefore, most welcome. Spring starts in April, but it may frost or snow after the middle of May. June through the end of August is usually frost-free and September brings frost and, perhaps, light snow.
Cold weather crops like peas, cabbage, potatoes, broccoli, lettuce, onions and turnips thrive and may be planted in April before the last frost. Corn, tomatoes, and other vegetables which need a longer growing season do well nine years out of ten, but that one year may see a hard freeze in June or August ... and there go the more delicate crops if they're not protected. It pays to keep a large supply of bushel baskets handy for covering plants. Cold frames or even a small greenhouse would be a good investment for anyone homesteading this far north.
Insect life practically explodes up here in the summer and mosquitoes, deerflies, and no-see-ums can be a great nuisance. Commercial repellents, while fairly effective, taste and smell awful and last only a short time. No wonder the old-time Indians and trappers used to coat themselves with a thin layer of pitch in the spring and avoid water until the pests disappeared in the fall. The pitch formed a horn-like coating which the insects couldn't penetrate.
Mostly, my wife and I have just gotten used to the pests, except in the evening when the mosquitoes are at their worst Then we go to bed early, spend fifteen minutes swatting the little devils that sneaked in under the fiberglass netting with us, and enjoy the rest of the night in peace and comfort.
The insects are offset by the stunning variety of wild fruits and berries which abound here each year. In spring, the countryside is washed in white and pink from the chokeberry and wild plum blossoms. By late summer the tree line, windbreaks, and woods are full of these fruits, wild raspberries, blueberries, and rose hips. Wild rice crowds the shallows of the lakes. There's so much volunteer fruit free for the picking in fact, that planting your own is almost unnecessary.
We did put in a few apple trees, though, and from talking to the local people learned that it's best not to give an orchard too much protection. An open northern or western exposure is best for the trees as it will cause them to bloom later. Orchards placed in a southern or eastern exposure or otherwise given too much protection will blossom too early and may easily be wiped out by late frost. Always buy local nursery stock, too: imported plants may not be strong enough to make it through the winter.
The deer, 'coon, fox, bears, wolves, occasional moose, and other wildlife in this region are nice to watch in the evening, but they consider everything from asparagus to zucchini as fair game and can prove to be pesky garden raiders. The only foolproof method of cutting your losses to these critters, strange as it may seem, was taught to me by a dog.
Dogs, you know, mark their territory by peeing around its edges, as do many other animals. If you use the same technique along the boundaries of your garden, deer and most other warm-blooded creatures will heed the warning and stay out.