Roger VanHaren: Snow and cold snap remind us of other bad winters

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Roger VanHaren

“The weather outside is frightful …”

As I’m writing this, the outside temperature is minus-27, and the wind chill factor is making it feel like -50. Frightful! I’m thankful that I don’t have to be out in the cold for any amount of time, but I did go out to fill my bird feeders because the frenzy of activity out there has been nearly triple what it has been leading up to this cold snap. Perhaps some of our neighbors have not braved the elements to fill their feeders, so all the birds are making their way to our yard.

I was outside for less than than 10 minutes in the knee-deep snow. Mother Nature dropped a foot of the gorgeous white stuff, and the wind has piled it up drifts in the back yard. It’s well above the tops of my boots. I was wearing cotton-lined leather work gloves, and by the time I’d finished filling the feeders, my fingers were so numb that I was having trouble holding on to the scoop.

I’ve been around for 80 years, and I don’t remember many winters when it was colder than this. In winters past, it would get cold and we’d have a few days in a row when it would get below zero, but it didn’t seem so brutal because winter was always cold. This year we’ve had a relatively mild winter, so this cold snap has seemed extra harsh.

I went back into my “archives” and found this column from March 22, 2008, when we’d had a particularly cold and snowy February:

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This horrendous winter, with its record snowfall and bitter cold days, brings to mind all the times I’ve said, “When I was a kid …” and then went on to describe the bad winters that clog my memory: those miserable long walks to and from school in heavy snow on unplowed roads; the deep snowdrifts which piled up in front of the barn doors and prevented us from letting the cows out for some exercise.

Well none of those winters was worse than this one, I suppose, but that “good ol’ days” mentality still prevails, and I remember some real problems from back then.

One thing which sticks in my mind is a winter when I was about 14 0r 15 when we had so much snow in a couple of back-to-back snowstorms that we were forced to dump our milk. The snow-removal equipment in those days was not as efficient as it is today, and we were totally snowed in. We had a long driveway that we couldn’t get open. But even if we could have gotten out to the road, the milk hauler’s truck couldn’t get through anyway, and we ran out of room to store our milk. All of our milk cans were full, but the darn cows kept on producing.

What could we do? We had no choice; we had to dump it outside. All that work, and all we could do was dump it on the ground. We had white ice coating the barnyard. Two days’ worth of morning and evening chores – gone! What a waste! But besides that, it was like throwing money away. Our livelihood depended on the sale of milk, and we were being forced to throw it away.

Farmers take many gambles – especially with the weather. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. When you put in a crop, you’re gambling the cost of your seeds and fertilizer (plus your labor!) that the weather will cooperate so you can get a return. A drought or too much rain. Too much heat or an early frost. An infestation of insects or grubs. There are so many things that can impact your success.

But winters were different. The weather affected you in different ways. I can remember climbing up into the silo to throw down silage and having to chop it loose because it was frozen solid down through the first 6 or 8 inches. Or wheelbarrowing steaming manure out onto the growing mountain of dung in the barnyard over icy 10-inch planks. Icy conditions in the barnyard made it dangerous to let the cows out. They weren’t very graceful animals!

But the worst was probably that winter when we had to dump the milk. In a couple of previous storms that winter, we’d had to take the milk cans out to the road with the tractor and wagon, but to have to throw it away was awful. I felt really bad for my dad, who worked so hard to try to make a good life for us. To develop a great herd of high-producing cows and then to have to see his profits running in a white torrent into the barnyard!

Yeah, the winter this year was bad, but it won’t beat that one! How cold was it?

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Well, that was 2008. How does this one compare?

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.