SHAFER, Minn. – Andrew Hanson-Pierre was only back on the farm for a brief period after his morning job as a substitute school bus driver when Margaret, his wife and fellow farmer, had to leave for his own off-season work . as a substitute teacher.
They shared a brief hug before Margaret headed to Chisago Lakes Elementary School one morning in early December, leaving Andrew to think about how to keep busy all day at their vegetable farm just west of the Sainte-Croix river.
Minnesota’s annual plunge into deep frost forces farmers to leave fields fallow for almost six months. This is when non-farmers start to wonder: what are you doing all winter?
“I get asked this question all the time,” said Matthew Fitzgerald, a grain farmer near Hutchinson.
The four seasons dictate the work flow of the farmer more than most professions. As winter falls in Minnesota, farmers are shifting gears to focus on their business transactions – and maybe even to take a much-needed respite.
“I’ll read. Go for a hike later,” said Andrew Hanson-Pierre, standing in a weak winter sun as the wind swept over Clover Bee Farm. “Yesterday I made bread. In the summer, there is not much time to cook. There is brush clearing in the yard. And we’re renovating the farm, which is sort of going on and on.
A farm is a small business, Fitzgerald likes to remember. The four winter months of not planting, cultivating, harvesting or hauling crops are the time he can focus on the demands of the front office. It means planning, marketing, aligning buyers, preparing taxes and finances, networking with other farmers, and learning the latest farming techniques and technologies.
“At the end of the growing season, I’m tired of being in a tractor and my body is shot,” Fitzgerald said. “At the end of winter, I’m tired of staring at a screen and filling out Excel spreadsheets.
Many Minnesota farmers are now taking a look at what they did right in a year that ended with good crop yields for many despite a lingering drought.
And while some might even carve out a little real downtime, not all types of farmers get such a long break from outdoor demands. Cattle must still be fed and cared for daily, and dairy farmers must continue to milk throughout the winter, often several times a day.
“We always say we cut it down to just one and a half times during the winter months,” said Joe Borgerding, a longtime dairy farmer in West Stearns County. “It’s our choice – I’m not complaining. I never wanted a job where I had to sit in traffic or try my luck with a boss.”
Borgerding recently sold his dairy herd to his two adult sons. He still cultivates with them, but said it finally allows for a slightly lighter daily schedule in the winter. Even in the busiest years, he said, he and his wife – who manages the finances of the farm – made a point of going somewhere warm for at least a week in the winter.
“I have seen too many farmers who are exhausted and don’t know it,” he said.
Anne Schwagerl, who operates a farm near Brownton, said most of the farmers she knows find it difficult to stand still, even in the colder months. She rolled out a long list of winter chores, but said it wouldn’t be all work.
“I think we’ll be launching Netflix a bit more,” she said.
Cattlemen who want even a day or two away from the farm should come up with a plan. A few weeks ago, Dale Stevermer, a pork farmer south of Mankato, met a neighbor who will take care of the pigs as he and his wife head to Florida.
“We’re out there with the animals twice a day, every day,” said Stevermer, who owns around 2,000 pigs. “If you can’t be there, you have to find someone else to do the job.”
Stevermer also cultivates around 450 acres of corn and soybeans. Growing season is “when things can get really busy,” he said.
Even as the Florida sun was rising, the Stevermers were heading for work at a pork farmers’ conference. For many farmers, bonding with colleagues is another mainstay of the winter schedule.
“I tell people all the time that we have two seasons: the crop season and the reunion season,” said Tim Dufault, a grain farmer near Crookston. Her part of the state was hit hardest by last summer’s drought.
Dufault said his wheat yield was a little better than expected, around two-thirds of normal yield. His soybeans yielded only about half of what is typical.
It was a whole different story elsewhere. Fitzgerald, the Hutchinson-area grain grower, said he had reaped record yields this year in corn, soybeans and wheat.
“This is the question I’m going to sit down on this winter. We had record yields during a drought. Why ? Fitzgerald said. “I’m going to spend a lot of time reviewing our crop varieties. “
Dufault is also expected to spend quite a bit of time this winter planning for next year, hoping for better weather. But he sees other potential hot spots: Fertilizer prices are skyrocketing, and a herbicide dealer recently warned him of possible shortages next spring amid the disruption in the supply chain. In progress.
Winter, spring, summer and fall, one of the first things a farmer learns is how much is really out of his control.
“It’s all out of your control,” said Eduardo Rivera, who grows vegetables on his farm near Stockholm, Wisconsin. “You spend your winter planning, and then by the time May or June rolls around you switch to Plan B or Plan C.”
Andrew and Margaret Hanson-Pierre bought their farm from Shafer a few years ago in an attempt to keep it on a scale that allows for some semblance of work-life balance. They grow a small mix of vegetables in the winter in naturally heated greenhouses, but that’s not a huge time commitment.
The time may come when they will no longer take part-time jobs off the farm, said Andrew, although it is not uncommon for farmers to do so to supplement their income. These second jobs bond with their community and provide extra money for vacations, he said.
“But it’s really important to remember that for six months of the year we work 10 to 12 hours a day,” said Hanson-Pierre. “So why not spend the offseason taking some extra time to do the things that help you relax?” “