The Farmstead in Winter

By Axie Barclay

My grandpa used to tell me stories, like his great-grandfather used to tell stories to him. So much of the farm life, I realize, is in stories. We tell one another stories about our day, the cow with the bad udder or the dog sitting on top of a footlocker to look in the window at my dad feeding the baby. An old family story that I dug out of the closet, quite literally, is a stash of my great-great-aunt’s diaries. I needed a project while staying home through the winter unemployed with my 4-month old. Creativity stalled, brain mush, I needed a project. Transcribing the antique handwriting, half my brain escaping into farm life of 1909, preserving the words inked onto brittle taupe paper, seemed like the perfect distraction from dirty diapers, screaming child, and being marooned inside while a Michigan winter clenched around us.

One thing I’ve learned from this project is that over time, people don’t change that much. The way we do things does. The characters change. But overall we stay the same. For example, every year, almost immediately after the New Year’s confetti settles, my grandmother and dad start fretting over the taxes. And they will continue to fret until the check is written to the government or the return is cashed at the bank. After that is done, they start talking summer. Gram starts wondering when she can get outside and fiddle with her flowers and Dad starts transitioning from cutting and splitting wood to perusing the chickens available from hatcheries for spring hatchlings. We all start jonesing for fresh asparagus and sweet peas as we watch the weather report for higher temperatures and wait for migrating birds to return.

I used to make fun of them for getting so wrapped up in the paperwork. After all, it happens every year. How does the old saying go? Can only count on death and taxes? Well, there you go. But then I realized something. My dad is the most outdoorsy person I know. Not in the can-survive-with-only-a-pocket-knife-and-a-pinecone type survivalist, but more the type where if he can’t get outside at least once for a long stint during the day, he gets impossible to be around. Literally. He’s like watching a caged animal, pacing the enclosure, rubbing along the walls. Even on vacation, he’s got to get out away from other people for a decent amount of time during the day or he goes a little nuts. So the days the old man spends working on paperwork are few and far between and, I noticed, usually limited to only the coldest, the wettest, the miserablest days of winter. When it’s not fit for man or beast and the cattle all crowd into the barn and can barely be enticed to go out and eat. Clever old man, I said to my significant other. That’s what he’s doing, he and Gram both. Great, he replied. Did you take any meat out for supper?
But it felt very much like both the octo- and sexagenarian were on to something.

The farm in winter is a very still thing. Aside from daily chores – the hay feeding, fighting frozen hoses, and cutting, splitting, and storing of firewood – most projects are fairly limited. If you look at the old time calendar, the natural cycle of seasons on the farm starts to slow down just after the growing season ends, sometime after Halloween, and there’s a fallow rest period where not a lot happens again until after Easter. It’s not that nothing gets done. There’s always a lot of work and indoor projects, things that are related to maintenance or that get neglected during the busier outdoor months. Everyday tasks take longer in winter. Take my great-great-aunt for example. They still did laundry outside then, so where in the summer laundry was not as arduous, in winter it might take all day and several more people to help. Fighting a combination of the cold, the overcast, and the shorter days just makes everything seem tougher. Alternatively, my great-great-aunt and her parents spent a lot more time visiting and playing cards with neighbors when the long, dark cold set in. They might draw blocks of ice from the river during the day but they had music and cards at night. Winter is kind of a necessary trade-off: the weather is terrible but it forces you to slow down, take stock, and maybe spend more time with the family and friends around you.Or at least do your taxes.

Which brings us to where winter, creativity, and taxes intersect. It’s all about goal-setting. It’s easy to make to-do lists and tick things off them, albeit sometimes it’s easier than others. But it’s easy to lose the forest through the trees. In the frenetic scramble to make hay while the sun shines (literally and figuratively) the larger picture can be neglected if not forgotten all together. The winter slow-down is a time to relish instead of curse. Yeah, not a lot is getting done, but alternatively there’s time to evaluate where you’ve been and make plans for where you want to be. In other words, there’s time to remember that there is a forest. (And there is, I promise.)
Not sure where to start? We do it by perusing seed catalogues, catching up on the stack of magazines that have gone unread since July, and figuring out what the latest chick offerings are. I’ve drawn countless garden sketches and called dibs on materials for building raised seed beds in the spring. If you have less of an agricultural slant, think about it like giving your interests a break. Take time to wander through bookstores, revise your reading list, clean out a closet or drawer, organize your spice cabinet or clean behind the refrigerator. Fallow does not mean unproductive. It means a period of rest with the purpose of restoring fertility and output. Let your mind drift and interests expand. While it’s nice to dream about raising milk goats and (oohhh the fresh cheese would be fantastic!), it’s also helpful to come back to reality and realize that with a job, stack of books, herd of cows, and a small baby, milking twice a day is out of the question. Let alone the fact that I’m not even sure any of us really like goats. But dreaming big helps put reality into perspective. It also helps realize your goals and have some time to reevaluate where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’d like to be. And if you end up telling a story at Sunday supper about a sheep following you around like a dog and helping herd the cows to the barn… well, welcome to Barclay Farm

Axie Barclay is a Michigan writer with a cow-habit. Having discovered the joys and potential for growth inalternative agriculture, she quests ever longer and harder for ways to combine farming and writing into a business. When not milking cows, making disgruntled noises at the latest disgusting thing the heeler dogs dredge up, riding horses, or keeping the fence up around her small beef herd, she’s holed up reading an eclectic array of books or tapping out pages. When not working, she enjoys kicking back with her honey, family, and friends at a bonfire with some beers. Chat her up on Twitter and Facebook, /axieb, or where she delves into literature and agriculture with a relish… and occasionally ketchup. Soon to be homemade.