Wintertime in Minnesota: that wonderful time of year when we Minnesotans proudly brag about our frigid climate, huge piles of snow, and the short, dark days we endure throughout this season. I'm one of those crazy Minnesotans who loves winter. To my surprise, since we moved to the farm I have grown to appreciate it even more.
On the farm, the dormancy of winter gives us much-needed time to rejuvenate. During the spring, summer, and fall, we make many decisions each day based on what we think Mother Nature will require (should we tap the trees? Plant the tomatoes? Water the apple trees? Split the bee hives?). But during the winter, Mother Nature is free to express herself as she desires. All we have to do is clean up the snow occasionally, when she dumps on us.
This doesn’t mean that life on the farm at this time of year is easy, or that there's less work to be done. Quite the contrary -- there's still a lot of work to be done, but we shift our attention from growing and nurturing crops to planning for the year ahead. This is a welcome change of pace after all of the work we do during the growing and harvest seasons. As celebrity farmer Joel Salatin describes in his book You Can Farm: “About the time we get tired of one thing, it’s time to start something new. This keeps a freshness in your mind and a spring in your step because you know that this job will give way to a different one.”
I find this especially true when it comes to beekeeping. I absolutely love working with the honeybees – opening up their hives each week to see what’s been happening in their lives since my last visit. But as the summer progresses, the hive populations get bigger, the brood and honey boxes get heavier to lift (and much harder on my back), the colony becomes more challenging to manage, and I’m just plain tired of wearing a bee suit in the sweltering heat and constantly getting stung. It’s at this point of the season when I delight in knowing there is an end in sight and I can take a break from it all. After winterizing the hives, I leave them to survive the winter on their own. (Although I do decorate the hives for the holidays, which I'm sure the bees appreciate).
The daily chicken chores remain unchanged during the winter. The only difference now is that the girls hang out inside the coop, being too (ahem) chicken to venture outside into the cold and snow. But that’s okay; the chicken chores have never been overwhelming -- in fact, I find them quite fun. I just keep the inside of the coop at 40⁰F (using a small milk house heater) and keep the chickens' food and water bins full. In return, they keep their nesting boxes full of eggs, and a smile on my face.
Firewood is the biggest chore we have throughout the winter. Our first crop of the season is maple syrup. The sap harvest begins in March, so we need to have a minimum of five cords of firewood split into kindling-sized pieces and stacked inside the sugarhouse, so that it's very dry and ready for the sugaring season. We also heat the house and utility barn with a wood-burning boiler – an exterior appliance that looks a lot like a fancy dog house with a chimney. We don’t remember the origin, but over the years, we have affectionately named our boiler “the pig.” We feed this pig twice each day, and it consumes about 15 cords of wood each winter. (A cord of firewood is 128 cubic feet, which equates to a neatly split-and-stacked pile approximately 4’ deep x 4’ tall x 8’ long.) We go through about 20 cords of firewood every year, a total of 2560 cubic feet – a stack of split wood 8’ tall x 8’ deep x 40’ long. My muscles ache just thinking about cutting, hauling, lifting, splitting, stacking, and the hoisting the wood twice each day to feed the pig. The majority of this wood comes from gathering dead fall right around the farm, especially from summertime storms when Mother Nature was in a particularly bad mood.
Knowing that the bees are snuggled together in their hives, the chickens are fed, and the pig is fed, I can relax inside the warm house and turn my attention to planning the vegetable crops for next summer. What should I plant … Brussel sprouts? Beets? Corn? Cabbage, broccoli, or cauliflower? Definitely tomatoes. Thanks to the dormancy of winter, I have the opportunity to take some time to plan my farming adventure for the upcoming year.
Debbie Morrison is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty. She and her husband Jim own and operate Sapsucker Farms, where their certified organic crops include maple syrup, honey, apples, plums and vegetables. Debbie's last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Modern Technology and This Year's Deer Hunting Opener. Follow Debbie on Twitter at @sapsuckerfarms