When the Cold Sets In

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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An aerial view of our farm, before Farmstead Creamery was built. 

It’s cold outside.  Yeah, just a bit.  Just a little bit.  No, a bit more than that.  I got excited yesterday when I learned the high would be zero!  Whoo-hoo.  Is that still, like, jacket weather? 

While the farm animals would prefer teens and twenties for daytime temps, no one has had that luxury lately.  And projects that should usually take five minutes can seem to take FOREVER in this kind of extreme cold.  Or, well, some of them just don’t happen at all because the equipment refuses to start up.

Here are 20 sure signs it’s gotten pretty darn cold on the homestead this past week.  See how many of these you’ve tasted pieces of recently!  Or they might remind you of days back on the farm:

Even the heated waterers and water buckets are freezing up. Whoever makes the heaters only rates them to be good down to zero degrees.  And this is inside the coop or barn!  What were they thinking, I mean, we’re not the only place where it gets colder than zero.  Well, either way, it means lugging the brick-hard beast into the bath tub and running hot water until it’s all thawed out and ready to return to duty…at least for a bit longer.

My eyelashes freeze together just walking from our house to the chicken coop. Leaving the glasses behind, knowing they would only fog and freeze over, my hat is pulled down over my eyebrows and my purple Turtle Fur scarf is over the top of my nose, leaving a protective slit opening for my eyes—not unlike the view of medieval knights looking out from their helmet.  Even here, aided by my warm breath, ice forms on my lashes and, blink, blink, soon they start getting stuck closed.  But you know it’s REALLY gotten cold when your nose hairs freeze!

Even the winter-hearty water hose can’t come out in this polar vortex, so I’m back to hauling gallons and gallons to chickens, pigs, sheep, cows, and donkey in five-gallon buckets. Trotting through the uneven snowpack, the water sloshes and spills onto my Carhartt insulated chore pants.  After 45 minutes of ducking in and out of barns and sheds with this routine, the frozen sloshes and splashes have formed enough of a crust that I can hardly bend my leg anymore and the pants can stand up all on their own!

The bursting of trees in the woods as any last vestiges of their sap in trunks expands with a loud POP make me jump, thinking a gunshot has gone off. Three of these awaited me just this morning as the sun sparkled on the hoarfrost. 

If your leather glove or mitten gets the tiniest bit damp, good luck getting it back off the metal bucket handle.

I try everything I can NOT to take my hand out of the glove or mitten to latch the chicken coop door at night, which is covered with frost from the breaths of 200 laying hens and 20 ducks. This ice has formed into a jagged crystalline structure like the back of a frosted hedgehog. Invariably, after several minutes of struggle, I hold my breath and pull out the bare hand to just bloody get the job done before I freeze anymore.

The frost has heaved the turkey coop’s cement floor. I can no longer close their front door enough to latch it.  Instead, I devise an alternative latch involving a length of baling twine tied to the door knob that stretches out to the welded wire of their run pen, affixed with an S-hook.  No latch involved to freeze up.  Good, that will work.

The only vehicle that will work in the morning at all is the 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee. It’s the oldest vehicle on the farm. 

I wonder if they make snow tires or tire chains for my utility golf cart, so I can still…maybe…get by using it to haul water instead of this frozen pants and buckets deal.

Even the compost piles have snow on top of them. Typically, the decomposition process continues through the winter, which makes fairly high amounts of heat.  I’ve seen compost piles steam!  But this cold?  Nope, even compost microbes go dormant.

Even the 2-year-old sheep dog with puppy springiness in his step gets too cold to finish chores. All the dogs try to see if they can walk with the fewest number of feet on the ground.  Can I walk on three legs?  Can I walk on two?  Couldn’t I just hover please?

After collecting eggs from the coop, whether it’s morning or evening chores, I have to RUN with them to the farmhouse as fast as possible, before they freeze in the ice cream bucket and split their shells. Meander around too much and you can hear them pop, like miniature versions of the trees in the woods.

While it’s cold walking from Farmstead to the aquaponics greenhouse, it’s always colder walking back! Invariably the bottoms of your shoes are wet, sticking to the bare concrete entry way, and your hands are damp, sticking to the door latches!  Can I get that door latch with my elbow?  So THIS is why they made us put ADA compliant latches on all the doors!

You realize why in Vermont so many of the houses are attached to the barns, so you can walk completely inside back and forth. Smart people.  Why didn’t we think of that too…or the Fullingtons when they laid out the farm over 100 years ago.  Inflatable tunnel anyone?

There never seems to be enough wood brought inside for the wood stove. Wait, last piece?  I thought I just went and got a sled load?  Where did it all go?

The few songbirds left all seem to be roosting in the rafters of the turkey coop at night. When I open the door, they bolt out like freed prisoners.  The rest are in the barn above the sheep, only venturing outside when they need to.  I hope that they are finding enough to eat.  Any feed I spill while trying to transfer from 50-lb. bags to 5-gallon buckets is all cleaned up by morning.  So it goes as we all try to make it through the winter season.

None of the icicles have grown an inch this week. They’re just hanging there, waiting for the action to resume like jagged teeth off the side of the barn roof. 

There’s white frost, a quarter of an in thick, on the INSIDE of our front door’s striker plate. That’s, like, in the house.  Not even in a mud room.  And I’m totally serious.

That moment when you realize the water splashed on your chore pants has made it through the zipper and your whole leg is actually wet. How long do I have until frost bite?  How fast can I finish these chores NOW!!!?

That moment when you cannot pry yourself away from sitting in front of the wood stove like a lizard soaking up the desert sun. Chores?  In a minute.  You hear the wind howl, shudder, then tip the other shoulder to ease the sore muscles with the wood-fired warmth.  Maybe I’ll just get a blanket and sleep right here.  Maybe the dog would make a good pillow?  It’s the one real haven in a cold, white, windswept world.

Sound familiar?  One morning this week, I thought, whew, that was an especially cold chores day!  And what was it?  26 below! “Below what?” an East Coast friend once asked me.  “Below freezing?”  Em, no, a bit below that.  Quite a bit.  So if you have to venture out there into that bitter cold, bundle up, duck into shelters often, and try to avoid the perils of the endless splashing water buckets!  See you down on the farm sometime.

(Follow Kara on subzero chores!)

Photo by Jana Reeg Steidinger.

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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