Home Again: Of Winter and Discontent

If two people in their mid-thirties decide to start a farm and a family at the same time with no land and no money, how long will it take them to go broke and completely insane?

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For farmers, there are really only two seasons: work season and worry season. 

Work season starts in late February, when there are tiny seedlings to sow. Soon, there are fields to plow, irrigation systems to set up and tractors to fix. Then, the baby turkeys arrive and from there, it’s a whirlwind of transplanting, weeding, harvesting, selling and chasing fowl off of rooftops until the end of November. 

There’s too much doing to really think about much during work season. And, if something is chewing at you, then you can act. You just need to find some time to dive into whatever it is that’s nagging and voila, the worrying is gone.

That opportunity for accomplishment is what gives work season a certain air of freedom. When you come in for the day, when the sun is down, your work is actually done. There’s still much to mull — customer service, strategy, expansion and the like – but after a full day of doing, the permission to take a little break from thinking is easy to grant.

In the winter though, the delineation between head work and hand work is erased and that means every moment is available for figuring and planning, scheming and fretting. 

The week following our final big chore of the season — turkey slaughter and delivery in late November – we usually manage to find some relief. Maybe a longer-than-usual stay with family or a weekend trip to clear the heads.

But it doesn’t take long before winter’s worry work sets in. It starts in early January, if not late December. How many acres should we plant this year? Did we order too much onion seed last year? We planted broccoli too late, how can we get it in the ground earlier this year? Does the combine have another year in it or is it time to try to fix up the other one? 

We have plenty of time to plan and when we add that to a lack of weather or space to actually work on the plans, it produces total madness.

Take for example, our most recent conundrum: How and where to start our seedlings. 

Prairie Heritage Farm
During the winter, we worry — in part because it’s too darn cold to do anything else.

Two years ago, we started them on the farm, in the potting shed of our greenhouse. But, there’s no heat to the greenhouse and no water until the reservoir is filled and the threat of frost has passed. 

So, we either wall off a portion of the greenhouse and heat with electric heat — the greenhouse within a greenhouse concept, as we refer to it — and haul in water, or we come up with something else. “Something else” is a popular idea with me this year because a majority of the early plant care is my responsibility and right now we live three and a half miles from the farm and have a five-month-old baby. Commuting seven miles roundtrip three times a day to monitor the seedlings, baby-in-tow, in sub-zero temperatures sounds like pure hell to me. 

So, we could think about what we did last year (when I was pregnant and similarly opposed to the frigid commutes), which was to set up a system for early starts in the sun porch of our rental house in town. 

Also, not the best idea. Heating that space was just about enough to break us, not to mention the humidity it created in our house. Plus, the glow from the florescent lights started all manners of fun rumors about those organic farmers and their  “grow house” on Virginia Street that we’d rather not perpetuate.

Next up is a small, portable greenhouse plopped in our backyard. But, do we build our own or buy the one for $1,200 we saw on craigslist? And, if we do build our own, is it worth just rigging the carport we’ve used as a turkey shelter, piecing together leftover hoop-house cover and corrugated plastic?

If it weren’t 24 degrees below zero and blizzarding, one of us would just start building and see what happens. But, it’s worry season, not work season, so instead of doing something about it, we mostly just talk, preferably in elevated tones. 

A typical evening in our house in January goes a little something like this:

Husband comes home. Kisses wife and baby. Two-three minutes of conversation then takes place about the baby’s naps, her new spit bubble trick and a quick recap of wife’s or husband’s day, whichever was more interesting. 

Then, the real conversation begins, and it almost always starts with, “What if we…”

As in: What if we bought the craigslist greenhouse? What would we heat it with? Will the milk-parlor heater do the trick or what if we borrowed your dad’s cast-iron wood stove? Would we be able to vent the wood stove? Would it get too hot? 

Once we’ve exhausted that conversation, we step it up a notch. 

Prairie Heritage Farm
Should we buy this tractor? Or not?
What if we bought that Case tractor? Would we be able to add enough direct grain customers to make farming an extra 80 acres worth our while? Could we buy that 80 acres? If we do, could we finally live on the farm? How long would it take us to build a house? Or, is a mobile a better option? Would we be able to move the hoophouse to the 80 acres if we did buy it?

Soon, it escalates to the real questions, like how are we going to survive a season, let alone expand, with one of us with working full-time off the farm, the other working part time and don’t forget, raising a tiny human too? 

This time of year, our lives start to feel like a series of math story problem. 

If the farmer buys a $1,200 greenhouse on craigslist, she could get a three-week jump over last year’s seedlings, giving her customers vegetables approximately two weeks earlier. Assuming each customer buys $10 of vegetables a week and the farmer has 25 early-season customers, how long until that greenhouse pays for itself in extra sales?

What all of these logistical questions really get at though is the subtle, but perennial fear that we might not be able to make all of this work, no matter what our greenhouse setup is or what size tractor we have.

The real story problem looks a bit more like this:

If two people in their mid-thirties decide to start a farm and a family at the same time with no land and no money, how long will it take them to go broke and completely insane?

Our first box of seeds arrived last week, so for now we’ll get to work on putting them in soil and watching them grow. Soon, the to-do lists will overshadow the to-figure-out list and the all the worrying will fade. 

That last story problem isn’t likely to go away though. Let’s just hope it’s a trick question.

Courtney Lowery Cowgill runs Prairie Heritage Farm near Conrad, Montana, where she and her husband grow vegetables, turkeys and grain.

 

Topics: Ag and TradeFood
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