I don’t think that Mother Nature was listening when I made my rant about the omnipresent condition of the mud this year. She turned a deaf ear, continued on with the rainy, cloudy, dreary schedule, threw in some snow just for fun, and simply wouldn’t let up.
The mud continued through the rush for winterizing the farm—cleaning coops, moving hay bales, mulching carrots, picking Brussels sprouts, gathering fallen apples for the pigs. Sometimes I’d have to wash my chore overalls every night, there’d be so much mud caked on the cuffs and knees. No wonder walking became laborious—there was a lot of extra weight on board!
For two days, we dug up all the rest of the potatoes, kneeling in the mud with soggy gloves, piling the buried treasure in cardboard boxes and hauling them down to the farmhouse root cellar before conditions grew too cold. Volunteers joined in, bringing their clean, new potato forks and work gloves. Well, they weren’t so clean and new looking by the time we called it a day!
Kara hauled loads and loads with the skid-steer of soppy, muddy manure pack to pile up for compost beside the garden. By springtime, it will be ready for spreading and turning into the sandy soils for growing next summer’s cucumbers and broccoli. The mound made an earthen berm, just north of the duck pen. It blocked the wind, which the ducks rather enjoyed during their last days by the garden.
And then, well, Mother Nature decided she would try on her winter wardrobe, liked the fit, and just didn’t put it away in the closet again. Just when I thought that surely the pigs would simply disappear into the muck or that the golf cart was no longer going to be able to make it up the small hill to the barnyard, slipping and sliding in the greasy soil beneath the wetted grass, nature’s costume change arrived.
Sloppy turned to crunchy, mucky turned to firm crystals. Instead of sliding around in the ruts, the vehicles now bounce over the uneven soils. Unheated water dishes have to get the ice chipped out of them in the morning. And the pumpkins and squashes we brought home to feed the pigs are so frozen solid, we have to slice them apart with a shovel because they won’t even break open when thrown onto the ground!
The hens moved into the winter coop, followed by the ducks. The pigs all got cozy straw in their winter pen houses, and all the temporary electric fencing came down and is stacked in the shed. Rain barrels (exhausted from their summer efforts) were tipped over to drain, then filled with fallen apples and pig squashes to be doled out over the coming weeks. Tarps were folded up and stored away, the last of the necessary T-posts for fence fixing pounded into the ground, and all the usual signs of summer on the homestead picked up and stored away from the oncoming winds and snow.
Now, I know that northern Wisconsin has four seasons: summer, deer season, winter, and mud season. But this year, mud season consumed all of summer, and here we are at deer season once again. Autumn has shaken off the last of her leaves, and the trees stand stripped and shivering, knowing what is soon to come. But whatever the season, at least it has put an end to mud season!
The deer have certainly become more active on the farm. Two large does have been frequenting the remnants of the garden, cleaning up the last nubbins of cabbage, kale, and brussel sprouts. They leap past the headlights of the golf cart as I pass by for evening chores. There really isn’t much left in that garden after their munching handiwork, what could they be finding?
Their tracks are now permanently imprinted into the autumn mud, frozen into their cloven shapes as proof of the quadruped trespassing. The cloven-hooved Kunekune pigs appreciate the hardened surface as well, trotting along during morning chores, instead of slogging through the accustomed mud.
I’m finding it easier to walk about the farm as well, at least before the heavy snows set in. Now it’s time to get those projects done that need a hard surface—bringing in the last of the second crop round bales off the hay fields, hauling away the stack of old palates, and bringing in the firewood for splitting.
It is better on the farm to get the ground firmed up a bit before the snows come, so the mud is stabilized and doesn’t stay all gooey underneath a blanket of snow. But the snow cover is necessary for the health of perennial crops like fruit trees, berries, and pasture grasses. Too long of a cold period without the protection of the snow, and the frost drives deep into the ground. “Winter kill” can be a real and devastating result from this type of condition. But winter kill is often worse in dry soils (where the temperature can fall faster further) than in wetter soils (which take longer to cool down), so there’s no terrible risk to crops yet.
But the ground freezing has its real effects on the farm. I can’t use the hose to fill up the sheep water buckets in the morning because it’s frozen solid. Time to go back to lugging buckets. And if I want to scrub up a chicken waterer, that will have to come inside to the utility sink because it’s far too cold to be doing that in a Rubbermaid tub outside with bare hands.
Still, all things put together, it’s a tremendous relief to finally have an end to mud season. Farewell slippery, slimy companion of the sunnier days! May you rest well beneath the frosts. I’m sure we’ll be meeting again in the thaw of the spring. See you down on the farm sometime.
Photo by Bryan Neuswanger.
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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