The Wonder of Winter on the Prairies

We knew it was coming.

As harvest draws to a close in the Prairies and the sounds of flocking geese fill the air, the days grow shorter and the nights colder. The beautiful mosaic of colour once present on the trees has now all but vanished, replaced instead with empty branches and open air.

Photo from: billywoerner.wordpress.com
Photo from: billywoerner.wordpress.com

The grass, once a brilliant green, has faded to a deathly brown. The fields, once full of golden wheat and lovely swaths of canola, have been stripped of their cover, left with only the cut edges of what were once stems. The wind brings with it a bitter chill, and the mornings bring a sharp bite to every breath. The sounds of change are in the cold air; winter has arrived.

Don’t tell me to look at the calendar. I know what day it is. I know that the winter solstice is over 6 weeks away. Today, we have seen the first snowstorm of the year. Well, maybe not here, but in Alberta and Northern Saskatchewan, winter has come. The forecast calls for daily highs around zero, and the lows will dip down in the double digits. We have truly begun our inexorable, inevitable plunge into the deep freeze that is a Saskatchewan winter.

Soon, it will be dark by 5:00 PM and the sun will not emerge until 8:30 AM the following day. Blizzards will wreak havoc on travel. Sitting in cold vehicles will be commonplace. And worst of all, power bills will become awfully expensive.

20130406_160755Perhaps the worst part of this winter is that winter really didn’t end that long ago. We had 8 foot snowdrifts and white fields in early May, which by my math, wasn’t very long ago. In fact, we will have more days of winter in 2013 than spring, summer and fall all put together!

Despite the cold, and the wind, and the shortness of the other seasons, there is this tiny, evil little part of me that is… looking forward to winter. With winter comes the knowledge that fieldwork is finally complete. The tractors and implements can be put away, with the recognition that they will be out of mind until spring. The rush is over; the crop is in, the fields are ready to seed (kind of) and the equipment is ready to put away (mostly). Yes, this time of the year brings a sigh of relief; a chance to sit back and relax. No doubt, the work is not over. We have hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain to haul throughout the winter, and to do that unfortunately likely means moving mountains of snow. But that’s okay. That means 2013 was a great crop year.

Photo By YellowcloudI believe that we are lucky to live in a place that experiences winter. How boring would it be to just live in summer all year, or to never see what fresh snow looks like? How empty would the Christmas season be without all the lights and snow? There is something so magical to snow falling from the sky; the unique and wonderous snowflake, slowly descending to join its companions, already waiting for it on the ground; joining with it to create one unvarying drift of snow.

Winter. It is the ending and the beginning. Death and rebirth. White and black. The contrasting themes of this season are compelling, and each and every human must someday experience the wonder of winter. For truly, how can you see the light without knowing the darkness?

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The Harvest of a Lifetime

If I could sum up the 2013 growing season in one word, it would be this: rollercoaster. As I look back to my very first blog post on April 18 of this year, it’s hard to believe what came from such a crazy start to this growing season. We had snow until late May, heavy, pounding rains that disrupted seeding and caused severe flooding in our crops, and we had the constant threat of storms and frost hanging over our heads for the entire summer. This season has been so full of ups and downs and twists and turns that it still makes my head spin. Despite all of the hardship, frustration, devastation, anxiety and fear I have experienced over the past 7 months, and the very real risk of severe economic trauma to this farm and my family, we may just have harvested our biggest and most profitable crop ever.

A Spring from Hell

I took this picture on the second of May. Usually we have started seeding by then. Seeding looked very far away at that time.

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Yet, somehow, it all melted, and we were in the field in only 11 days after this photo. During seeding, heavy rains pounded our fields, delaying us and damaging already seeded crops. Despite this, we got the entire crop in, just as we thought we would fail, and leave vast tracts unseeded once more. As the crop grew, more rains pooled water into small lakes in already saturated fields, choking our crops to the point of death.

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A Summer of Stress

The crop managed to recover from the less than ideal spring surprisingly well. The weather improved drastically once July rolled around, with warm (but not too hot), sunny days becoming the norm. A stressed, damaged crop was coming around very well; so well in fact, I began to see real potential develop in our fields. However, the crop was a long, long way from the bin yet.

Severe summer storms pummeled crops south, east, west and north of us, seemingly on our doorstep every day. Apocalyptic hail storms stripped bark off of trees and killed birds right out of the sky – but not here. Somehow, we slipped between seemingly every storm that rolled through, which desecrated farmers not so far from here. But even as that threat began to fade, another took its place. Cold days and near-freezing nights came oh-so-close to devastating the Prairies, keeping me and every other farmer on edge. But the early frost I feared so greatly never came.

“Bumper” Doesn’t Quite Cover It

There is a saying in agriculture for good crops. The best ones are referred to as “bumper crops”. To quote the infamous Western Producer, for this year, “bumper” doesn’t quite cover it.

Two days ago, we completed harvest on our farm. It was a long process, interrupted by rains and cloudy weather that damaged our sensitive durum crops. Indeed, it was 50 days ago today that we started swathing canola. It seems like a lifetime ago.

Today, every single bin we have, good and bad, along with every grain bag we could find are all packed full of the largest crop we have ever grown. It is not an exaggeration to say that this may very well be the biggest crop ever produced in Saskatchewan. This has of course reduced the price for them, but nonetheless we are looking at record profits. The woes and hurts we went through over the last decade have finally been put to rest by two consecutive years of record-smashing profits. We still have a long way to go; our farm is still tight on cash, and this winter will be a cash-flow challenge. We are only just now getting close to the place I want our farm to be at, which has been a goal now for a few years.

Farming truly is an incredible business to be in. You can start off a growing season prepared for disaster, only to wind up with a financial windfall. Don’t worry, the opposite is true too, which we have also experienced not so long ago. The pendulum can swing so far from one extreme to the other, in weather, markets, and emotions. Dealing with the stress of it all is a difficult thing to master, but it is a necessity if you are to survive the ups and downs. This year was one of our greatest ever. But next year could be a disaster. All we can do is plant the next crop and hope for the best. After all, who are farmers if not eternal optimists?