Night Farming

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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 Bringing in the sheep from pasture at dusk.   

This shortening daylight routine is a real problem on the farm.  It’s a problem especially since the to-do list is only growing longer as we hurry with late autumn tasks before the ground freezes.  Now there is less and less time to accomplish those mounting tasks in the daylight hours.

This is coupled with the dilemma of Farmstead Creamery being open most days from 9 am to 5 pm.  This means getting up in early half-light, doing all the chores, then cramming in at least something in the late afternoon before nigh-fall descends like a dusky curtain.  On cloudy days, evening seems to come even earlier.

“I think I’ve been doomed to night farming,” I sighed, strapping on the head lamp once again (this time to dig the last of the onions to store in the root cellar).  “I’m doing inside jobs during the day and outside jobs during the night.” 

It feels funny to call it night, though, when it’s dark before 7:00 pm.  In peak summer, there would be three to four hours of light left to go!  Now it feels like midnight by eight or nine pm.  It really seems like a racket—giving us so much daylight for part of the year then taking it away and withholding it for the rest.  Is there some kind of seasonal ransom happening I don’t know about?

With the sudden dip into cold weather (or maybe it’s a tumble, since there doesn’t seem to be a warmup coming yet), all those pre-freeze projects moved up the to-do list several notches.  Thursday after the Artist Way workshop gathering and cleanup, I headed out to the garden.  Everything was already quite dark, but the impending cold was coming like a garden Grim Reaper, and there were all those unripened tomatoes dangling in the high tunnel. 

Unlike our aquaponics greenhouse, the high tunnels are single-walled and not heated, so when it gets down into the 20’s at night, they freeze.  While the tomato plants had held in there as long as they could, there was no vegetation buffer left to spare the fruits from frost.  I’d kept hoping more would ripen, but with the cool, wet (and therefore not terribly sunny) summer, all the tomatoes were poky about ripening.  Needless to say…that didn’t work out as well as planned.

So they had to be picked and brought into the warm basement to attempt to ripen on their own (or be relegated to pig food if rot came before ripening).  The next morning would bring the weather that made Lake Superior look like an angry sea ready to eat another Edmund Fitzgerald alive, so there was no time to waste. 

Kara joined me for the project.  We strapped on the trusty headlamps, pointed the golf cart’s beaming headlights at the side of the 50-foot high tunnel, and pulled our hoods up against the driving mist that would turn to snow overnight.  Two loads and 12 large boxes (and one bucket of squishy or squirrel-chewed ones for the pigs) later, we had all the tomatoes safely in the basement and sat down for dinner at 11 pm.

The headlamps have been out almost every evening this week:  mulching the carrot row for spring harvest, unloading pumpkins harvested for the pigs, fixing pens and building paddocks, moving hens from summer to winter quarters, bringing round bales off the fields for winter feeding, storing away outdoor furniture and fixtures.  The list goes on.

By the time I get back inside, my hands are frozen through and completely numb.  My chore gear is wet and muddy and stuck with snow or ice.  It’s almost as irksome to take off the soppy gear as to have it on.  Right to the woodstove I go and light a fire to scare off the damp chill in the house.  What a change from the 70-degree weather earlier this month!

“First snow in October in seven years” a client informed me the other day.  We all know that this weather is coming…we often just wish it would wait until November, giving us a bit more time to get ready.

But even if the cold and the snow had waited a couple more weeks, it wouldn’t have helped the daylight situation.  I’d still be out there working in the dark.  And it certainly doesn’t help knowing that it’s going to get worse before it gets better!

Cold Weather Means No Bugs!

There are a couple nice things, though, about the change in weather that must be accounted for.  There are no longer any gnats or mosquitoes mobbing my face while doing chores or working in the garden.  Snow doesn’t make my chore jacket as soppy and heavy as rain.  And I no longer have to pick zucchini every other day for fear of garden sharks growing amongst the giant foliage, waiting to get me.

Wintery accommodations do mean that chores start to take less time.  Animals move into warmer quarters closer to the house.  I no longer have to trek half-way across the pastures to tend to hungry hens.  The meat chickens are all done and in the freezer, along with most of the turkeys (still have a few looking for Thanksgiving homes!).  With fewer mouths to feed and tractor pens to pull, chores wind down from two hours each morning to one hour, and eventually in winter to half an hour if I’m lucky. 

The ducks need to move off their garden patrol first, but they don’t want to leave all the muddy fun yet.  Let them enjoy their seasonal play just a little longer.  Soon they’ll be moving in with the hens—a roommate situation where both parties get along mostly by ignoring each other, but it works.  Temporary fences are coming down and being rolled up for storage in sheds, and soon the duck fence will be added to the pile.

Ah, but is that to-do list getting any shorter?  Good question, but I’m almost afraid to look at the list yet.  Over half the potatoes are dug, but the other half?  It’s crunch time for certain, even if most of the tasks get accomplished in the dark.  We did contemplate finishing apple picking by headlamp tonight but decided against it.  Never know, though, might be worth a try to add to the arsenal of night farming!  See you down on the farm sometime.

Photo by Kara Berlage.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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