One Storm Can Change Everything

One of the driest springs in decades finally ended two nights ago, with a rain we have been waiting for what feels like an eternity. Seven weeks passed with virtually no rain, and an unceasing wind drove what moisture we had into the air. It was beginning to look like we were entering what may have been a devastating drought. All that changed on Wednesday.

As of Wednesday night, anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 inches of rain fell across our farm. Only 20170615_075256 a few years ago this kind of rain would have been a serious problem, with saturated soils unable to absorb it; this time, our parched ground soaked up almost all of it, with only a small amount pooling in low-land.

This post is a recurring one on my blog, but this may be the first time I have written it in a positive sense. Usually the “one storm that changes everything” is a torrential rain that causes all sorts of problems. This time, this one rainfall event saved our crops from certain failure.

When you talk to farmers like my dad, who started farming in the late 70’s, it seems they are always afraid of the next drought. I started farming in 2009, in one of the wettest cycles this area of the Prairies has seen in centuries, so my first concern is always too much rain. This is the first time I have seen what the beginning of a real drought looks like, and we had the benefit of high subsoil moisture to carry us through to the rain. Farmers that farmed in the 1980’s know very well what a drought looks like.

Dad often talks about the 80’s, about the summers hauling water for the cattle from any source he could find. They would run pipe for miles from a random deep slough that just happened to have water, just to get enough to keep the cattle going. The crops, in several years, were near write-offs, wilting and dying before they could even produce a single seed.

The worst of them all was 1988. Scorching heat and wind in early June, with temperatures regularly in the mid-30’s, obliterated a crop that was already struggling to get out of the ground. That is a year many farmers will remember for the rest of their lives. It didn’t help that grain prices were poor and interest rates were ridiculously high. Many farms didn’t survive this terrible time, and I am glad I have no memories of those days (I was born in 1988).

So, when we get a dry period like we had, that is the mindset farmers of that generation go to. There are few things in farming more terrifying than a drought. It is a dark reminder of the exposure we all have to the whims of Mother Nature.

This rain was a tremendous blessing, and saved the year for this farm. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky, and many areas are still in desperate need of rain. Maybe this storm will move us into a wetter cycle. For now though (as soon as it dries up), we will be very busy out in the fields, applying fertilizer, killing weeds, and protecting what is now a crop with real promise. This is what farmers like me live for – raising crops to their full potential.

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An Unwelcome Frost

Frost. The only good time for this word to be thrown around is at the end of harvest; when the growing season is all but over, our time in the field is winding down, and we look ahead to the coming winter with contentment. When it comes in the middle of May, and when it hits as hard as it did last week, it is far from welcome.

We were on our last day of seeding last Thursday, and we were excited for the end. It isn’t often that we get a run like we did this year. It rained right at the start of seeding, and then it stayed dry right through to the end. We never stopped once, despite numerous forecasts for rain throughout our planting season. The incorrect forecasts were unfortunate, as we pushed hard through all the way through, continually expecting what seemed to be an inevitable rain delay. The result? We were exhausted, mentally and physically, and seriously needed a break. It was time for the end.

My excitement Thursday morning was sharply dampened by the extreme cold. Forecasts had initially been calling for a low of -2 Celsius, which wouldn’t have been a problem at all. At this time of the year, crops are tough, and mild freezing temperatures are rarely a problem. But, later on Wednesday afternoon, the low was suddenly changed to -4. Thursday morning, I realized it was much worse: it had dropped to a low of -7 C. That is a frigid temperature for May.

At that point, I had no idea what the damage might be. All we could do was go out and finish seeding and hope for the best.

On Monday, the severity of the damage was apparent. The winter wheat had been hit hard, with a number of browned-off leaves and severe damage in any low-lying areas. The early-seeded durum and lentils were injured as well, which is very rare – these crops are tough in the spring. The frost must be substantial to injure spring cereals and lentils.

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I’ve never seen winter wheat damaged this badly by frost. Notice the brown leaves. It will recover with probably zero yield loss, but it will take time, and good conditions.

It was the canola that I was most concerned about. Unlike cereal crops like wheat and durum, canola’s growing point comes out of the ground pretty much at emergence. If that growing point dies, the plant is dead. And canola is not a crop that tolerates extreme cold.

After an entire morning on my ATV, taking plant counts and carefully examining the plants, I knew there was only one thing we could do. We had to reseed.

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Those little brown things in the photo are canola plants. That is not the colour they should be.

There are few things more frustrating than seeding into perfect conditions, far enough into May to not really be concerned about frost, and establishing a near-perfect stand of canola, all to have to go back in 3 weeks later and do it all again. Now, we are seeding into dust, praying for a rain to get the crop out of the ground. It is not a fun experience.

One of the most challenging things about making the reseed decision is that it is rarely black and white. A frost will almost never completely wipe a field clean. In both of the fields we had to reseed, and in one that we decided not to, we really didn’t know what the right decision was. Sometimes, if conditions are absolutely perfect, you can get away with a very small number of surviving plants. We just don’t know.

The bottom line of all this is that we need rain and we need it pretty soon. Yes, there are always parts of the season where we get too much or not enough precipitation, and it truly is rare for everything to be perfect, but you still have to get that initial rainfall to get the crop out of the ground. Imagine planting your garden, or flowers, or anything like that and not being able to water it. You have to hope that the rain will come.

Farming is unpredictable, and despite all our technological and genetic advancements, Mother Nature still holds all the cards. All we can do is the best job possible out in the field and hope the weather is favourable.

Another Wet Harvest

There are few things more frustrating to a farmer than having a crop out in the field, ready to harvest, and not being able to go get it. At this point, all the inputs are in. All the dollars are spent. The equipment is ready, the bank account is empty, and it is time to harvest everything you have worked for for more than a year – but you just can’t get out there and get it done. That, my friends, is why farmers complain so much about the weather!

This was supposed to be a dry year. Winter was absent, spring came in March, and we started seeding in mid-April. All the forecasts I read had the Canadian Prairies in a drier bias this year, with the general gist being that whatever rain we got, we should be happy to see! That has not turned out to be the case, with some of our fields seeing substantial rainfall throughout the growing season, challenging the survival of some of our crops.

Despite the excessive rainfall, most of our crops fared well – just not our lentils. Lentils do not like wet feet, and persistent rainfall took a hefty toll on them this year. Unfortunately, mature lentils also don’t handle water well; severe losses can result from quality declines.

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Waiting for another shower to pass so I can finish pre-harvesting a field of lentils. Weeds, flooded out acres and variable staging make timing difficult.

We have now been harvesting for about 3 weeks, and it has been a struggle. The winter wheat came off fantastically well, with a nice dry stretch to harvest it and tremendous yields. It was when we started the peas that the metaphorical wheels fell off. It took us nearly two weeks to grind through a crop that should have been in the bin in five days. Shower after shower rolled through, plus a hurtful little shot of hail that peeled some yield off. Peas like to pod very low to the ground, and the ones that don’t pod low just tip over and lay the pods on the ground anyway. Suffice to say, you need the header on the ground. While combine headers today are marvels of engineering, even they struggle with mud.

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It may be hard to see from the photo, but these lentils are flat on the ground. These MacDon flex headers are amazing – they shave the ground with no human input.

Nevertheless, we fought through them and pounded through as many lentils as we could before the next rainy spell arrived (which happened to be today). So, we sit again.

Here’s the thing: while this harvest has thus far been frustrating, it is nothing compared to the extremely wet conditions we saw in 2014. We sat for weeks that year, waiting and waiting for things to dry up. And, unfortunately, it seems that some other areas are experiencing those very conditions this year. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

One thing I’ve learned over my farming career is that moderately dry years tend to work out better than moderately wet ones. When it’s dry, harvest is quick, quality is good, and equipment sees smaller repair bills. When it’s wet, harvest is long, quality disappoints, and equipment is tortured. And, yields are never quite as good as you think they should be. One other factor: stress is much lower during dry harvests.

We farmers all know what we signed up for when we decided agriculture was the place to be. We know weather isn’t perfect, and we know the risk we take gambling on Mother Nature. In spite of this, it is still very frustrating to watch your crop downgrade from rain after rain. On a moderate-sized farm, a drop in grade on a cereal crop like durum can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and lentils can be even worse.

All we can hope for now is for the weather to change for the better so we can get back out there and get the crop in the bin. The forecast looks good – here’s hoping it verifies!

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One Storm Can Change Everything

Even the best laid plans can be ruined by a single storm.

Seeding had been going fairly well for us and for the area. After a solid 8 days of seeding, we had planted about 50% of the crop. A rain shut us down at that point, which was actually quite welcome. A nice, slow rainfall that gave us 3-7 tenths of an inch was just about perfect for germinating our freshly seeded crops, and even gave us a nice little break to catch up on sleep.

Last week we got going again, seeding another 20% of the crop. We knew another rain event was a high probability, so we went as hard as we could, but showers and surprisingly wet soil slowed our progress. We had a goal of getting our durum and soybeans all finished before the next rain… but we didn’t quite make it.

On Saturday, we had two drills going in different locations, as usual. Our SeedMaster was planting soybeans over east, and our John Deere was sowing durum out west. A freak thunderstorm popped up right on the edge of our soybean field and basically stopped there. Sitting in the truck, I could see a yard only 4 miles away that was basking in sunlight as rain poured down on our field. Talk about frustrating! The cloud sat there, dumping rain on us for what seemed like an eternity before finally moving on. So, then comes the question; clean out the drill, switch crops and move, or wait for the ground to dry?

Opting for the latter, we parked that outfit and continued on with the other drill out west, which interestingly saw no rain at all. The showers continued off and on throughout the rest of the day, eventually hitting just about every field. The JD finished its field that night and came home. We had plans of moving it east, but the morning brought more showers, which not only complicated seeding but also stalled spraying. After an annoying amount of rain and a 10 minute futile seeding attempt with the SeedMaster, we finally had to give up and go home. Later in the day, we did do some spraying, but the drills accomplished nothing.

Yesterday we had more difficult decisions to make. Rain was forecast for the afternoon, so why move and switch crops if we would only seed for a couple of hours?

But, we are farmers after all. So we switched the SeedMaster from soybeans to canola and moved 20 miles to another field. We managed to seed about 1 round around the field before this monster reared its ugly head:

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Storms like this are many things at the same time: beautiful, fascinating, dangerous, and expensive. Tearing my eyes away from the extraordinary magnificence of the power and wonder of nature was difficult, just as was quelling the apprehension and fear burning in my gut at the knowledge of what was to come. The storm approached slowly from the west, veering north so much it almost seemed as though it would miss us entirely.

Then the wind died. The temperature dropped like a stone. A shiver ran up my spine that was not entirely due to the cold. As the wind picked up again, we quickly moved everything we could into shelter, and ran for cover. A wall of rain slammed into the building we were in like a locomotive, a pounding roar so loud it sounded like the world was ending. Sheets of rain blew across the ground like a hurricane had landed upon us. Thunder roared through the sky, and flashes of lightning lit up the darkness like searchlights. Nature’s fury had been unleashed, rather unexpectedly.

At the end, rain reports were all over the place. In Fillmore, where I was at the time, 1.5 inches had fallen, while at home, only half an inch had been deposited. North of us, where friends of ours farm (Osage), 2.25 inches was recorded, while a neighbor between us and Weyburn found 4 inches(!) of precipitation. Hail formed little snowbanks around Creelman (southeast of Fillmore) and ditches ran like rivers. The rain caused a run-off event greater than the snowmelt had, with water tearing trenches through fields like little canyons.

One day. One hour. One storm. That’s all it took to wreak serious havoc on our seeding plans and even cause damage to what had already been seeded. One storm may have changed the course of the entire year; perhaps even the course of our farm’s future. That is how difficult farming can be; everything can change in a split second by something totally out of your control. Now we have many questions to answer: when will we seed again? Will we be able to finish seeding? How much damage has been done to our crops?

None of those questions will be answered for a few days. For now, we will watch the skies and pray for sun, wind and dry weather. More rain in the next few days could put the proverbial nail in the coffin… And more rain is forecast for Thursday. Once again, for the fifth time in as many years, the question lurks in my mind: will we finish seeding this year? Time will tell.

 

Is There Such A Thing As Perfect Weather For Farmers?

Weather. It’s the beginning of seemingly every farmer’s conversation. It’s too dry, too wet, too cold, too hot, too cloudy, too sunny…. and on and on. It’s pretty easy to pick on farmers for that. I know I’ve heard that weather is the lowest form of conversation. But what if your livelihood depends on it? What if every move Mother Nature makes can change your fortunes for years to come? Perhaps weather is a more interesting topic than you might think.

Usually, the discussion about weather is… well, that it sucks. Seldom do we farmers get what we want for weather; indeed it’s almost always not “perfect”, which of course is next to impossible. It usually rains too much, or too little, or at the wrong time. Yet, sometimes the weather does do exactly what you want it to do. Sometimes, there just isn’t really much to complain about.

This week, we got that weather. After a ridiculously long and cold spring that saw us start seeding two weeks later than normal and into soil temperatures that would make a polar bear flinch, we finally got going. We had a pretty good run, despite some problems (well, maybe more than “some”), and in 8 days we seeded half of our crop. To be honest, I’m still shocked at that number. After two days of what was my most horrible nightmare of starting seeding, with a new drill that I was ready to drive off a cliff, we managed to average 650 acres a day, or a little more than 6% per day. We have never seeded half of our crop in 8 days. And then, to cap it off, we got a perfect rain. A nice, slow, light rain that totalled between 3 and 7 tenths across our farm’s geographic area.

I know, rain does stop the seeding operation, and yes, it is already late in the season. It rained overnight Sunday into yesterday morning, and we probably won’t get going until Thursday. We can live with a delay with the progress we made. A rain like that will germinate all of our seeded crops, it will get the weeds growing so we can get a better kill, and it will ensure our winter wheat doesn’t run short of moisture.

Yes, I am not afraid to say it: it was a perfect rain (at least for us, anyway; I know some people south of here who were not happy to see any moisture, and I know how that feels, believe me!). The only thing that would cause this rain to be a real problem for us is if it rained again right away this weekend. We still need at least another week to get the crop in, and June is coming up awfully fast, so rain could just go ahead and stay away for awhile. But, let’s be real about this; Mother Nature really couldn’t care less about what I or any other farmer wants for weather. The weather will just do what it does, and we just have to go ahead and get over it. That doesn’t mean we can’t complain about it though!

There’s a quick update on what’s going on for the Leguee Farm. Hopefully we can get going with the drills the day after tomorrow. We hope to get spraying and tillage work done tomorrow near home, where it rained less. I’m excited to get back out there; I live for this time of the year!

A Year In The Life Of A Farmer

For many years, I wondered how agriculture could get its message out to the public about what exactly it is that we do. Why do we spray pesticides? Why do we grow GMOs? Why are farms so large, and what does that mean to food safety and rural communities? It seemed that there was no simple way to get these answers out to the consumer, and I pondered this as I went through university and after; until an idea came to me, a little more than a year ago. Why not just… tell them? And what better way is there to do that than to post it online?

So, I started a blog, here on WordPress, to explain just what it is a farmer goes through in a year, and all the excitements, the frustrations, and the disappointments therein. Of course, this wasn’t the only reason I started this blog. I also wrote it as a form of therapy. Writing my frustrations down was a way of venting for me in an industry that can be very punishing. Mother Nature doesn’t care how hard you work, she doesn’t care how much you love what you do, and she certainly doesn’t care what kind of weather you want. Weather, and climate, just… is. It acts the way it does simply because it does. It’s a chaotic system so complicated that despite hundreds of years of study, nobody really has much luck trying to predict it.

The realities of weather, combined with the difficulties in running equipment that can break down at any time, and working in an industry so heavily scrutinized by a critical public that sometimes seems to believe we should go back to farming like my grandparents did, can be exhausting, not to mention incredibly stressful. This blog has been a release for me to contend with the stress, and it has actually been quite effective.

I guess those are the reasons I started this blog. And as I look back through the year that was, I realize that I accomplished that goal. Starting on April 18, 2013, I wrote my very first post about a winter that wouldn’t end and a spring that wouldn’t come. I poured out my frustrations and concerns about the dangers of weather like that preventing us from seeding, and what that would do to our farm.

As the spring progressed, things began to improve (after the snow at the end of April, of course), and seeding actually went well until rains delayed us. It’s funny, looking through those blogs, how up and down last season was. I wrote a lot of posts in May, going from asking for wind and heat, to wanting for rain, to begging for the rain to stop! Fortunately, it did stop (just in time) and the crop went in. We dodged hail, plow winds, tornadoes and frost, finally getting the crop to harvest, when we learned it was the largest crop we had ever grown.

The excitement over the massive crop was dampened by collapsing grain markets and plagued railway and elevator systems, causing what looked like a financial windfall to be reduced to a moderate profit. Then, thoughts turned to the 2014 growing season, and we purchased and booked fertilizer, seed and chemical for the new year. Finally, we have come to April once again, where once again we are delayed by a late spring!

What is so interesting and exciting about farming is exemplified so perfectly in the 2013 growing season: weather that swings from one end of the pendulum to the other of wet to dry; the rush of trying to get the crop in and to harvest it; and the craziness of world financial markets that can cause you to swing from profit to loss in a matter of days. Farming is perhaps best described as a rollercoaster, with the ups and downs so extreme sometimes you wonder if you made the right decision getting on it in the first place! It is all one big adrenaline rush, with winter as the reprieve. Sometimes Mother Nature can knock you on your back, but you just have to get up and keep going.

In my time writing this blog, I have learned a lot. I learned about other bloggers, some doing much like what I’m doing, writing about the day-to-day life of a farmer. Others focus more on advocating for agriculture, getting our positive message out there. For a long time, I wrote this blog quietly, keeping it mostly to myself and using it as a therapy session. In reading all the other blogs out there, I came to understand that writing a blog about a year in the life of a farmer should be more than just the basic day-to-day life, and that it doesn’t hurt to explain my own views and opinions on broader ag-related issues, such as GMOs and pesticides.

Making this blog more public was a hard thing for me to do as well. I wrote a lot of personal stuff in it, talking about my own emotions and the hardships our farm has faced. I am not an open person when it comes to this, and I was afraid of the ramifications of doing this, and that it might diminish the ability of this blog to be a release for me. It was my wife that convinced me to try and get this blog out there, to get people to read it. How could I get my message out there without telling anyone about it? It was because of her that I made the effort to get my blog posted on AgMoreThanEver, an excellent website full of positivity for Canadian farming. From there, it amazed me how many people were- and are- interested in what farming is all about. I publicly posted all of my new articles after that, and was shocked at the positive reception.

Having said all that, it has been difficult recently to figure out just where to go with this. I set out to write about a year in the life of a farmer, and I did that. I didn’t really have any long-term plans or goals with this blog, I was just writing because I truly love to write. Originally, I wrote for the stress release, which I don’t really seem to need anymore. I guess I found out that if we can get through everything that our farm has over the past 5 years, we can get through just about anything.

For some time, I considered closing out this blog, with this as my final post. It has taken me awhile to figure out how to write this one, especially since I knew it may be my last. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if I really loved writing anymore,  and that I may not need it anymore.

Despite this, I think I need to keep writing about farming. I love what I do, and farming is a fascinating and vibrant business, and learning new things is a daily occurance. Furthermore, I love writing, and I love sharing my story about agriculture with anyone who will listen, even if its only a few people. To write something that touches someone’s life, or teaches them something new, is an experience that is hard to put into words, and this blog allows me to do that. As one of my close friends told me a few months ago, “just keep writing,” and that is what I intend to do.

So, as we enter into yet another growing season, I will be talking about the joys, trials and tribulations of the life of a farmer, just as I have before. Paralleling that will be more thoughts on the broader world of agriculture, and why and how it affects us as farmers in our daily lives. Finally, I will keep explaining why we do the things we do, which sometimes may seem strange or questionable to those outside of agriculture.

Agriculture is a fascinating industry, and farming is an incredible lifestyle. In this blog, you will find the daily thoughts, activities, and stresses of a farmer in Southeast Saskatchewan, Canada, from the little town of Fillmore. I hope you enjoy reading this blog as much as I enjoy writing it. Thanks for reading.

Harvest 118

P.S.: Listed below are links to some of my favorite ag-related blogs that helped me develop my own. Check them out!

AgMoreThanEver.com

RealAgriculture.com

Agriculture Proud

Janice Person – A Colorful Adventure

Prairie Californian

LipStick & Tractors

Daddy’s Tractor

Rural Route 2

 

Is Winter’s Grip Finally Breaking?

It was in early November that winter settled in. The days slowly turned colder and shorter, and the ground rather suddenly turned white with fresh-fallen snow. Fieldwork had been stopped, whether one was ready for it or not, and equipment was quickly tucked away for the winter months. The majestic season that is winter had arrived.

That was over four months ago- four months of cold, snow, heavy clothes, cold vehicles and expensive energy bills. It has been one of the colder winters I can remember, with near record days below -30 degrees and precious few days of negative single digits. Nevertheless, as we reach the mid-point of March, we are finally seeing signs of winter failing. The Sun actually feels like it is creating heat now, and the days have grown longer, with sunlight persisting even after supper. And, finally, the snow has begun to recede under the glowing heat of the Sun.

Yes, as winter begins to draw to a close, a glimmer of excitement begins to appear in people’s eyes. Conversely, we have just realized how much work we have left to do before spring break-up begins!

After such a massive harvest, we had a lot of grain to move. And with the pathetically slow movement of it, due to incompetent railway management, we still have a lot to move. Our Red Pete Unloadingbins at home are still full, and consequently we still have grain bags out in the fields. You can imagine what happens to these long, plastic tubes when the ground starts to thaw. After being mauled by birds, raccoons and deer all winter, they are not in the best of shape anymore, with multiple holes and tears perforating them like Swiss cheese. As the snow melts and the fields turn to water and muck, the bags will not fare well, and we may lose some grain to spoilage. In short, it is time to get them emptied out.

Out of the ~20 bags we had in the field after harvest, only six remain. One bag of soybeans, one of durum, and three of spring wheat are all that we have left. So, we began the arduous task of emptying the bags and moving them into bins. Why not to the grain companies? Because they are still full. What bins will we move it all to? Good question. Fortunately, we have close neighbors, and we therefore will be able to use some of their bins and a few of ours that aren’t still stuffed full.

The snow-dozer tractor has been busy, cleaning out all around the bags and the back roads to get to them. On the weekend, we got the first bag cleaned out and moved home. Soybean bag: check!Quadtrack Moving Snow

Fortunately or unfortunately, the weather has warmed up faster than was anticipated. A couple of days have already leaped above 5 degrees Celsius, which, especially if the sun is shining, can melt quite a lot of snow. The areas pushed out around the bags have quickly turned muddy, and the roads have become very wet and dirty. Our semi trucks are no longer clean!

Red Pete Grain BagOver the past few days, we have gotten two more bags cleaned up. Only one bag of wheat and one of durum remain. The durum has nowhere to be moved to, and sadly must remain where it is for now. The only goal now is to get the final bag of wheat moved out. It is vital that it be moved out soon; it’s located in the back corner of a field that only dirt trails go to. The ground is low down there, and if we don’t get the bag out before spring arrives, we will be in trouble.

As we move further into these warmer days, it becomes more and more difficult to move grain. Limits are already in place as to how much weight can be loaded, and eventually no trucks will be allowed on the roads until the spring thaw has completed. Consequently, our days for hauling are becoming shorter and shorter.

Entombed SeedMaster 2014On the flip side of all of this is the excitement that comes with spring. Seeding is only a month and a half away, and much must be done before this occurs. The air drills still sit entombed in snow, and one of them in particular will need significant work before seeding can begin. The sooner it melts out, the sooner we can get it ready.

I should point out one other thing about the spring melt. Although a few warm days quickly settle a great deal of snow, it takes a great deal of time to melt the white fields. The sunlight reflects off of the snow, slowing the melting process. Sometimes, it can take a long time to draw down the snowpack enough to get black ground to show. Once that happens, the melting process really speeds up. So, the more melting that goes on in this current warm spell, the better off we will be.

Notice I said, “current warm spell”? I have a feeling that winter isn’t done yet. It is rare in my experience that winter lets go so suddenly. No, Mother Nature doesn’t give up that easily.  She will give us yet another blast of cold air yet, and maybe even more snow. Just a hunch, anyway.

As we finish up the last of the grain bags, preparations will truly begin for spring. Excitement is brewing in all Canadians for the end of winter: but none more so than farmers, waiting to get another shot at growing the crop of their dreams. Light and dark, glowing warmth and bitter cold, death and rebirth. Winter, a time of cold, dark, and bare and empty trees and fields, is finally coming to a close. Spring, a time of rebirth, is coming. And I can’t wait.

A Cold Sunset 2014