The arrival of fall sends us farmers scurrying to stockpile supplies for the coming Long Cold. I like to think of us as large and mostly hairless squirrels. I always admired the story of Noah. Not so much for Noah’s ark-building skills, but because he was able to lay in enough forage to feed all those huge herbivores during the months they would spend in his floating barn.
Thanks to the advent of superhighways and supermarkets, some folks might think preparing for winter means picking up an extra box of DVDs for the kiddies and buying a box of wine for mom and dad. Livestock farmers have a distinctly different perspective when it comes to preparing for winter. When I was a kid growing up on our dairy farm, getting ready for winter was a chore that began almost as soon as winter ended.
The first cutting of alfalfa occurred in late May. After the hay cured, we raked it into windrows that looked like gigantic, half-mile-long emerald snakes. These snakes were then gobbled up by our ravenous baler, which expelled an endless stream of bales that had approximately the same density as a black hole. We then hauled these super-massive bales to our stanchion barn and stacked them in its loft.
It breaks my heart to report this, but our parents violated child labor laws by forcing my seven siblings and me to assist with the task. Baling always took place on the hottest days of the year. The hayloft was an oven of chaff, dust and kids who were struggling to stack bales that weighed as much as the kid. But it was worth the effort because in the dead of winter, we could break open a bale for our Holsteins and revel in the pent-up aroma of curing alfalfa and warm summer sunshine. The hay was about as nourishing for us as it was for the cows.
Come midsummer, Mom would begin to can the veggies harvested from our acre-sized garden. The kitchen would become a steamy cauldron of gleaming glass jars and sinfully scarlet tomatoes.
The stone fruit season would arrive and the pantry would fill with lugs of peaches and cherries, along with pears, for Mom to can. Once, when a box of deeply purple plums sat waiting their turn, I bit into a plum and found it astoundingly sweet and delicious. Within minutes, I consumed nearly a dozen plums. Within hours, I discovered why one should practice moderation when it comes to eating plums. Lessons learned the hard way are those that endure the longest.
The days would grow shorter and our corn would begin to ripen. A crew of neighborhood men and machinery would mysteriously materialize in our farmyard and begin to make silage.
I loved silage-making season. The men were in high spirits and a carnival-like atmosphere prevailed. An enormous galvanized steel pipe was hoisted to the top of our silo and attached to a tractor-powered blower. Wagonloads of silage soon began to arrive from the field, and the men raked the sappy stuff into the hopper that fed the insatiable blower.
As a little kid, I wanted nothing more than to be one of those men. Each of them was a Hercules, swinging their mighty silage rakes in an epic battle with chopped corn. Between loads the men would take their ease, leaning against a tractor tire, joking and smoking roll-your-own cigarettes.
An uncle of mine who was part of the silage crew was an inveterate tobacco-chewer. I watched in rapt fascination as he ritualistically carved a slice of delicious-looking tobacco off the plug he kept in the pocket of his bib overalls. Thinking it was chocolate, I asked if I could have a piece of his “candy.” Winking at the other men, he replied, “Sure. Here you go.”
I popped the morsel into my mouth and immediately regretted taking candy from a relative. I coughed and sputtered and ran in circles and wiped my tongue on the ground as gales of laughter filled the air. That was another lesson which has endured.
When winter arrived, I would be sent up into the silo to shovel the fermented fodder out through the small concrete doors and into the tunnel-like steel chute. The wind always seemed to be blowing up the chute whenever I had to shovel silage, lofting the fodder back into the silo, making me feel like I was trying to bail out the Titanic with a teacup. Bits of silage would frequently make their way into my mouth (yes, I’m a mouth-breather). I could never understand why cows like silage so much: The stuff tastes awful.
Another task we performed each autumn was making our farmhouse ready for winter. The first step of this process was hauling the storm windows out of their storage place in the basement. The storm windows were invariably occupied by legions of humongous basement spiders. We’re talking spiders that were large enough to drive a Humvee.
Once the storm windows were muscled up the basement stairs, we washed their panes to remove the layer of dust that had collected. This dust layer was often thick enough to support a crop of radishes.
Removing the screens and installing the storms came next. This wasn’t an issue on the ground floor, but presented a bit of a problem for the second floor. Dad solved the problem by putting a couple of us older kids and a storm window in the bucket of his tractor loader and hoisting us up to a height that nearly qualified as low earth orbit. It was a bit scary, mainly because we knew full well that Dad didn’t carry workman’s comp.
The final step for winterizing our farmhouse was to place a row of insulating straw bales around the perimeter of the house’s foundation. When we removed the bales the following spring, we would uncover vast communities of mice. Mice who must have looked at those straw bales the previous fall and joyfully squeaked, “Look! An ark!”
Jerry Nelson is a former dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, live on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in 1887. They have two grown sons. He enjoys gardening, traveling, and putting around on his 1949 John Deere “A.” Jerry’s new book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.