Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
In Wisconsin, they say we have four seasons—Summer, Winter, Deer Season, and Mud Season. With the way things have been going, this year may see most of winter consumed by Mud Season. Freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, with the snow not sticking around. It makes for a real challenge on the farm.
Hard winters certainly have their hairy moments—frozen water buckets, endless shoveling, and the need to bundle up with 20 extra pounds of gear just to stay warm enough to get through chores. But the extreme cold of an “old fashioned” Wisconsin winter has its advantages too, including keeping the apple trees dormant longer so that they don’t bloom too early and the flowers freeze, garden pests that can’t take the cold die off, and the frozen ground allows us to drive farm equipment for bigger chore jobs without getting stuck.
But mud season, well, there’s just no way around it. It’s a mess. The gathering mud sucks at my boots, drags at my sled or wagon filled with fodder and feed, and pulls our little car around on the twisting, soft lane. The compost and manure piles wake up too—there’s no mistaking that mud season has its own farmy perfumes.
In the depths of a real winter, the bedding packs in barns and coops stays frozen, waiting for a spring cleaning. This year, it freezes, then thaws (turning damp and soggy), then freezes again. While I used to be able to clean out the coop twice in a winter, this year I’m out shoveling every month with another thawed, rainy spell. Rain every month this year—not normal folks.
Early road bans are a clear indication of the “not normal” status of this winter. On a farm, these weight restrictions have immediate impact with critical deliveries, especially feed. Even if they’re not loaded to capacity, the fed trucks aren’t allowed to traverse the country roads, which means that we either have to meet them somewhere and transfer the order in several trips, or they arrive with smaller loads in a pickup, which means more running around for everyone—let alone trying not to get stuck on the gravel lane!
If the mud keeps up, winter boots will trade out for high-topped rubber muck boots (otherwise known as Wellies), and it’s an on-again-off-again relationship with Yak Tracks…followed by a half-hour search for that one you must have lost somewhere while doing chores. The remaining snow is crystalline, chunky, and slowly revealing the lost bits and pieces buried in all the winter storms. There’s where you must have spilled a little feed or where that mysterious hammer went off to. The melt-off makes its own form of springtime archaeology.
The wild turkeys prance and dance on the lane, and my own turkeys think spring has arrived, which means the males start fighting for their ladies, and that means I’m out there breaking up nasty turkey fights. Maybe the only animals on the farm that are happy about the odd weather are the ducks. For them, the more puddles, the better!
And Then It Rains!
One year, the frost was deep in the ground, despite plenty of snow. And then it rained, and rained, and rained. Our turkey coop, which sits in a low spot in the barnyard, was soon encircled by a moat. More rain, and the water continued to rise. When the tide began to seep into the front door of the coop, we knew we had to act. Running to town in the truck (there was no way we’d make it out the half-mile driveway in the car), we dashed to the rental center in town to pick up a trash pump and several lengths of fire-fighter hose.
With shovels and hoes, we dug a low spot in the crusty snow below the water for the pump to set. Chunks of bobbing snow, like gathering mini icebergs, bumped against our rubber boots as we stretched the hose out towards the hill beyond the yard that slopes down to the marshland. But when we plugged in the well-battered beast, it pulled the water so hard that all the ice collected and choked the system. So we bared our teeth against our freezing feet, standing nearly knee-deep in the frigid mess, armed with canoe paddles to keep the icebergs away. Plumped hoses carried gushing water past the woodshed to blast down the hill in a torrent that washed away channels of sod beneath the snow.
It continued to rain, and for two more days we had to extend our rent, wade the tide, and keep our canoe-paddle vigil. We’ve since made some landscaping adjustment, but a turkey coop moat is still an annual spring occurrence. The turkeys hardly seem to mind, so long as their house is dry. Guess that’s what those long legs are for!
But despite the flooding, the mess, the slipping and sliding, and all the rest, Mud Season reminds us that spring is on its way. There may still be a few more snows before we’re through with this roller-coaster winter, but the sun stands stronger in the sky, the banks are receding, and someday eager blades of grass will poke through the mud, followed by crocuses with their cheerful purple faces. Hopefully the grass won’t wake up prematurely and then freeze off, harming the first pasture growth and hay crop. While it was terribly tragic that my bees died of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) last fall, but this would have been an impossible winter to keep a hive alive. Warm, cold, warm, cold. I really feel for all the wildlife trying to make sense of this season too!
The first lambs are due to be born March 20th—a sure sign of the spring season. My chick order is in to the hatchery, we’re planning the garden, and the summer season’s schedule is almost finalized. But it’s hard to know when to spring for spring. We’ve been farming long enough to have watched eager growers plant early only to watch all their seedlings and transplants freeze out, causing them to have to start all over. Maple syrupers must be having a terrible time, with some night not cold enough, with other days not warm enough. Where is this all going?
One thing is certain—mud. It oozes around my boots, tracks in with the dogs, and flies through the air as they attack the puddles. If I go missing, check the muddy spots first! This messy season is not my favorite, but it’s part of the bumpy road to spring. See you down on the farm sometime.
While we’re all looking forward to the greening pastures of spring, every farmer knows that between here and there…is Mud Season.
Historic photo courtesy the Fullington family.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com.
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