Handling winter storms on a homestead farm

Two strong winter storms over the past week offer an excellent chance to examine how a farm like ours can both benefit and suffer from winter weather. While these storms created a variety of problems for us, our long-term focus on diversification and self-sufficiency in both business and personal life really paid off under these conditions. Here’s a look at what happened, and how it’ll affect us in both the short and long term.

feb_winter_storms_1System #1: the good storm
It had been a mild & dry month until the first storm arrived on February 21st, dropping about 12” of powdery snow during a day of rapid accumulation accompanied by repeated lightning & thunder. The snow was light and dry, causing no damage but representing a most-welcome infusion of moisture during our ongoing drought. Snow is ideal for this, because its slow melting releases water gently into the soil rather than the inevitable runoff of heavy rains. We were absolutely thrilled for this storm, which gave us an excuse to get some indoor work done (taxes, website, organic paperwork, house-cleaning, etc.) without feeling the distracting pull of gorgeous weather. And the prospect of a gently melting snowpack into our pastures and soils seemed wonderful, assuming the weather warmed up again once the storm moved on.  Snow can also deliver nitrogen to the soil; this is overall a good thing, with the exception that it might make the overwintered weeds (including an outrageous stand of chickweed) grow even more vigorously when they next see the sun.

Another positive factor at this time was our ongoing battle with a strong cold/flu, which had felled first Joanna and then Eric, for a week each. The storm gave us both a chance to rest and recover while doing quiet, non-physical work, though it did delay any attempts at clearing our roads and paths until Eric felt well enough to operate the tractor again. And then a blown tractor tire put a premature end to that task anyway.

One minor annoyance with the first storm was the arrival on the same day of the first live plants of the year, some ramps from West Virginia that we’re planting in the woods as a long-term experiment. We like to plant live plants ASAP on arrival, but these poor things are going to have to sit in a refrigerator until the ground melts off enough on north-facing slopes to get them into the ground (weeks?).

Short-term, the storm was a minor problem for animal management, as it forced the goats and chickens indoors, where they consume more feed and generally aren’t as happy as when they can be out on range. Still, it’s quite reasonable to expect some snowy times like this, and the winter had been so mild up to this point that this wasn’t a major concern. Thankfully, we’d recently bought some more (expensive & rare) grass hay for the goats as a hedge against bad weather, which turned out to have been a very timely investment.

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System #2: the bad storm
Overall, storm #1 was a wonderful thing, bringing many benefits and only short-term annoyances. Then storm #2 arrived four days later in a very different way, dumping a thick load of heavy, wet snow mixed with sleet, rain, and ice, along with high winds. Comparing the two panoramas above, showing our orchard clearing & chicken pasture above the house, you can clearly see the differences between light, dry snow (storm 1, top) and heavy, wet snow (storm 2, bottom). This storm caused significant damage around the farm and the region, with over 12,000 households in Boone County losing power (including us), mostly due to downed trees and limbs. We suffered significant damage to trees, fences, and other infrastructure that will take a while to repair. For example:

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Electric fences down, and posts bent or deformed. We’d already turned the power off all our fencing after storm #1, as they’re ineffective in deep snow, but this kind of damage will take time to rebuild.

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More deformed and damaged fencing, much of which will have to be restrung. The snow snapped virtually all the fence extensions around our main vegetable field, which will all have to be replaced and restrung with lines (these extensions raise the fence to around 8’ to keep deer out). Many of the fences that had problems were temporary &/or in need of repair anyway; we knew they needed to be upgraded, but having to do so all at once wasn’t part of the plan. The good news is that we saw what fence-building techniques were pretty resilient and which weren’t, so we can focus on repeating the methods that can stand up to abuse.

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Tree damage was significant as well, including these large tangles of branches which fell across our main road and had to be immediately removed before they froze in place and blocked plowing. Eric started plowing the road almost immediately after the overnight storm, even as a near-freezing drizzle was still falling, as the wet snow on warm ground was producing thick layers of slush that would have frozen into solid sheets of ice along the roads, making later clearing much harder.

One unknown impact of the storms is what the voles & other burrowing rodents are doing to our crops under the snow. They are always voracious, but it often seems that snow cover gives them an opportunity to do extra damage on crops. When the snow fell, we had a very nice stand of overwintering spinach; we desperately hope that most of it will still be there when the snow melts (the snow itself won’t bother it). We left a small plot of overwintering parsnips as a test, and snow doesn’t help the odds of those making it past the voles. At times we’ve had vole damage on overwintering onions, as well. We diligently stomped down snow around the base of each of our young fruit trees to try to deter tunneling among their root masses. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Handling storms at home
On the homestead front, storms like this affect us very little. Living on our working farm meant no concerns about commuting, driving, or shopping in inclement weather. We only visit a grocery store once a month or less in the winter anyway; we already had on hand copious quantities of home-produced/preserved vegetables, fruits, meats, cheese, milk, and more (frozen, home-canned, dried, cured, & fermented) that were a legacy of our hard work throughout 2012. Combined with a supply of firewood & various other advantages inherent to our chosen lifestyle, we had the flexibility and self-reliance to deal with these (and potentially worse) conditions.

When the power went out, we simply hooked up our small backup generator to keep a chest freezer and refrigerator running (something we keep on hand as a farm insurance policy against summer outages as well, given our significant needs for produce cold-storage through most of the year). We cooked basic meals on the wood stove (like a breakfast of pepper sausage and eggs, below), and kept on plugging away at indoor work and shoveling, along with lots of reading. We have a variety of lanterns & flashlights for basic lighting needs, and are not tied to electronic entertainment like so many folks; while outside power is convenient, we could have gone without it for much longer before mild inconvenience gave way to meaningful problems. We got our power back a lot faster than many Boone County residents, though we’re probably among the least needy. Such is the nature of storm recovery; someone’s always at the end of the queue. We certainly feel for those who will go much longer without power, but we’re also pleased with the resiliency that our chosen & planned farm life provides.

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The biggest concern regarding the power outage was the maintenance of seedlings that we have started under grow lights. Last year, Eric built a small greenhouse on the front patio, but it isn’t fully winterized, and we’ve been hanging onto the crutch of electricity & the predictability of indoor conditions to get plants going early in the year. Thus, we had quite a few flats of baby onions (example above) along with some just-germinating cabbages that needed both light and air flow.

Joanna brought the seedlings upstairs to the warmest part of the house & positioned them on shelves to get as much natural light as possible. With power out for just 24 hours, little harm was done, but for a longer power outage, the lack of air flow from a fan that we typically run 24 hours a day could have been a real problem. We’ve also been holding off on the seeding schedule a bit, given that conditions in the 2 week outlook are cool, and we don’t want to end up with too many overgrown transplants on our hands.

Assessment
Events like this really help us value our chosen lifestyle and independence. By focusing significant time on self-sufficiency rather than outside income & expenditures, we remove most of the ties to the wider world that cause problems for so many other people whenever things go wrong. And we’re set up to handle the loss of remaining ties like power or internet for a reasonable time. We’re quite grateful to have a steady supply of rural district water that isn’t linked to our power supply; both of us grew up on well water that vanished whenever power died, and that’s a more significant hardship. Eric’s family lost power at some point in most winters, and had to drive to an all-weather spring several miles away to haul back water, sometimes for a week or more. That’s no fun at all. But with reliable water, we’re set up to handle most nasty weather with minimal disruption.

In the long term, these two storms represent the balance between useful and problematic winter weather. Most of the benefits are represented by storm #1, such as the significant but gentle moisture input to pasture and field conditions and the chance to get indoor work done before true spring arrives. The major downside, mostly represented by storm #2, involves the time & fuel wasted plowing roads, the time that will be spent re-grading the road to repair significant plowing damage, and the time that will be spent repairing most of our fences.  All of those hours are time we could otherwise have spent on more productive farm work, or even taking some time off, now destroyed by the capriciousness of moisture content & temperature within two otherwise similar storms.

These subtle but important differences show just how much farming is linked to the vagaries of weather, and why diversification & self-sufficiency matter so much to us as long-term investments in stability. Most of the factors that let us weather these storms with only minimal inconvenience are directly related to the kind of farm we run, and we’re very happy with that integration. Now that an unplanned amount of fencing work has inserted itself into our agenda, we may call on willing CSA members to help with an anticipated pulse of spring weeding once the snow melts & the weather warms.

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