Today is winter solstice—the darkest day of the year.
Here in southeast Saskatchewan, where my family farms, we’ll see about eight hours of daylight. The sun rises a little before 9 am and sets around 5 pm, local time.
It raises a question that I sometimes hear from friends who don’t work in agriculture: What do crop farmers do all winter?
Teachers sometimes joke that they went into education for three reasons: June, July, and August. There’s a similar gag in farming: Our seasons are April, August, and Arizona.
As much as I wish I could boast about relaxing all winter by the pool in Phoenix or Tucson, the truth is that I work on my farm year-round—even during the winter, when the nights are longer than the days.
The job of a farmer never ends.
It’s true that we’re busiest during seeding and harvest, and the busy summer months in between. Our days can often stretch to 18 or 20 hours, as we farm 13,000 acres of canola, wheat, durum, peas, lentils, soybeans and flax. We try to spend as much time as possible in the field, making the most of Canada’s short growing season. The more time we can spend looking after our crops, the better they will withstand the countless stresses our climate hits them with.
This is the farming that most people understand intuitively: putting seeds in the ground, nurturing and protecting crops as they grow, and gathering them up when they’re ready. Our harvest usually wraps up by the end of September, as the temperature turns chilly. Sometimes it runs much later – Nature decides when we can get into the fields.
Then what happens?
One answer is that we become truckers. We devote much of the fall to hauling our grain to buyers—about half a million bushels to customers both nearby and far away. We own a couple of semi-trucks and trailers for this purpose. We could hire trucking companies, as many farmers do, but we think it’s more economical to handle our own transportation.
When we’re not driving our trucks, we’re preparing for winter, putting away tools and protecting them from the snow and cold that’s to come. We also stock up on fertilizer for next year, receiving shipments, unloading them, and placing them in storage. For a farm of our size, this is a big job. We will receive 40 semi-loads to fertilizer during late fall and winter, and semi-trucks don’t like the snow in our bin yard. We will often run our dozer tractor entire days moving snow for them.
Next we become mechanics. Modern farming requires machinery, from ordinary tractors to large and complicated combines with hundreds of moving parts that are always vulnerable to malfunction.
So running a farm also means operating a garage. We employ a full-time mechanic, who helps us keep our equipment in working order. During the growing season, this involves both routine maintenance and unexpected breakdowns. This fall, for instance, one of our combines suffered a catastrophe when a bearing failed, allowing an engine fan to fly off and collide with the radiator. It led to a costly repair, worsened by the fact that we couldn’t use the combine for two weeks.
We couldn’t have predicted this setback—in farming, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected—but we also know that if we spend our winters making sure our equipment is in top shape, we’ll minimize our problems in the field. We check belts, pulleys, chains, and bearings, replacing them when they’re worn out. A bit of prevention in January can save a huge headache in July.
Finally, we become planners and strategists. Right now, we’re analyzing our 2017 data, learning how different crops performed in a variety of fields, weather conditions, fertilizer rates and countless other factors, and using this information to improve our decisions in 2018. We’re also tracking commodity prices, thinking about how to rotate crops, reviewing our finances, preparing our taxes, and making sales. We go to meetings and conferences: This is a great time for networking, education, and collaboration. We even publish a newsletter, which helps us stay in touch with our land owners.
We check the weather, too. We subscribe to a few private forecasting services and keep an eye on the public predictions as well. While the accuracy rate is dubious at best, it’s still the best information we can get, and sometimes helps us determine which crops fit best on which field.
So that’s our winter work. It’s like having full-time employment, calling for about eight hours per day, which is a nice slow-down from the rigorous demands of the growing season. And yes, we do sometimes fit a warm holiday in, too.
If we do our jobs well now, we’ll grow more food later, when we’re in our fields farming.