SHAFER, Minn. – Andrew Hanson-Pierre was only back on the farm for a short period after his morning concert as a busy school bus driver when Margaret, his wife and countryman, had to leave for her own work out of season as a substitute teacher.
They shared a quick hug before Margaret headed to the Chisago Lakes Elementary that morning in early December, letting Andrew consider how he could stay busy all day on their vegetable farm just west of St. Louis. Croix River.
Minnesota’s annual deep-freeze dive forces farmers to leave fields fallow for most of half a year. This is when non-farmers start wondering: What do you do all winter?
“I’m being asked that question all the time,” said Matthew Fitzgerald, a grain farmer near Hutchinson.
The four seasons dictate the farmer’s workflow more than most occupations. When winter arrives in Minnesota, farmers shift gears to focus on their businesses – and perhaps even to take a much-needed respite.
“I’m reading. Take a hike later,” Andrew Hanson-Pierre said as he stood under a faint winter sun as the wind swept in over Clover Bee Farm. “Yesterday I baked bread. There is not much time to cook in the summer. The yard needs to be tidied up a bit. And we are renovating the farmhouse, which has been endless.”
A farm is a small business, Fitzgerald may like to remind people. The four winter months in which he does not plant, grow, harvest and transport crops are when he can concentrate on the front office requirements. This means planning, marketing, setting up buyers, tax preparation and finance, networking with other farmers and learning the latest in ag techniques and technology.
“By the end of the growing season, I’m tired of being in a tractor and my body shot,” Fitzgerald said. “At the end of the winter, I’m tired of looking at a screen and filling out Excel spreadsheets.”
Many farmers in Minnesota are now reviewing what they did right in a year that ended with a strong crop yield for many despite a persistent drought.
And while some may even rule out a bit of actual downtime, not all types of farmers get that long a break from outdoor demands. Livestock still need to be fed and cared for daily, and dairy farmers have to keep milking all winter, often several times a day.
“We always say we get it down to only one and a half times during the winter months,” said Joe Borgerding, a longtime milk producer in western Stearns County. “It’s our choice – I’m not complaining. I never wanted a job where I had to sit in traffic or take my chances with a boss.”
Borgerding recently sold his dairy herd to his two adult sons. He still farms with them, but he said it is finally allowed for a slightly easier workday in the winter. Even in the busier years, he said, he and his wife – who manage the farm’s finances – made a point of going to a warm place for at least a week in the winter.
“I’ve seen too many farmers who are burnt out and do not know it,” he said.
Anne Schwagerl, who farms near the Brown Valley, said most farmers she knows have a hard time sitting still even in the colder months. She spoiled a long list of winter tasks, but said it all will not be work.
“I think we’ll fire up Netflix a little bit more,” she said.
Livestock breeders who want another day or two away from the farm need to come up with a plan. A few weeks ago, Dale Stevermer, a pork producer south of Mankato, met with a neighbor who wants to take care of the pigs while he and his wife go to Florida.
“We’re out there with the animals twice a day, every day,” said Stevermer, who has about 2,000 pigs. “If you’re not able to be there, find someone else to do the work.”
Stevermer also grows about 450 acres of corn and soybeans. The growing season is “when things can get really busy,” he said.
Even as the sun in Florida waved, the Stevermer family traveled to work for a conference of pork producers. For many farmers, making connections with colleagues is another cornerstone of the winter plan.
“I keep telling people we have two seasons: agricultural season and meeting season,” said Tim Dufault, a grain farmer near Crookston. His corner of the state was hardest hit in last summer’s drought.
Dufault said his wheat yield was slightly better than expected, about two-thirds of normal. His soybeans yielded only about half of what is typical.
It was a completely different story elsewhere. Fitzgerald, the Hutchinson area’s grain farmer, said he harvested record yields this year in corn, soybeans and wheat.
“That’s the question I’m going to be sitting with this winter. We had record yields during a drought. Why?” said Fitzgerald. “I’m going to spend a lot of time reviewing our crop varieties.”
Dufault is also likely to spend some time this winter planning next year in hopes of better weather. But he sees other potential problems: Fertilizer prices are sky-high, and a herbicide retailer recently warned him of a possible shortage next spring in the middle of the supply chain.
Winter, spring, summer and fall, one of the first things every farmer learns is how much is really out of their control.
“Everything is out of your hands,” said Eduardo Rivera, who grows vegetables on his farm near Stockholm, Wis. “You spend your winter planning, and when May or June rolls around, you switch to Plan B or Plan C.”
Andrew and Margaret Hanson-Pierre bought their farm in Shafer a few years ago with a goal of keeping it on a scale that allows some balance between work and private life. They grow a small mix of vegetables in the winter in naturally heated greenhouses, but it is not a big time commitment.
The time may come when they no longer take part-time jobs from the farm, Andrew said, though it is not uncommon for farmers to do so to supplement their income. These other jobs create connections to their community and provide extra money for the holidays, he said.
“But it’s really important to remember that for six months a year we work 10-12 hour days,” Hanson-Pierre said. “So why not spend your free season taking a little more time to do the things that help you relax?”
Earlier versions of this story failed the location of Anne Schwagerl’s farm.