Steady round of farm chores fills winter days

After the harvest, farmers have time to catch up on work

January 02, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The grain is harvested, the last of the autumn vegetables are picked, and a farmer can kick back in the easy chair for the rest of winter, right?

Not quite. The equipment that ran full steam at harvesttime has to be cleaned and repaired. Cattle and hogs still need to eat. Dairy cows have to be milked twice a day, every day. And then there are all the little things -- including family time -- that went by the wayside during the rush of the harvest season.

"Some people think farmers are on vacation from harvest to planting," said Genevia Meeks, whose husband, Lawrence, runs his 2,000-acre grain farm in Silver Run, north of Westminster.

Winter may slow things down on a farm, but that means a work week that more closely resembles the norm -- eight hours a day, five days a week -- instead of the consuming seven-day pace of spring through autumn, Lawrence Meeks said.

Meeks and his three full-time employees have a winter to-do list that includes the following:

Clean and maintain tractors, combines and other equipment, much of it coated with the brown dust of soybean pods.

Put away tools that have been used and left out during the busy seasons when there was no time to be neat.

Haul grain to the various buyers -- whoever is paying the most or has a contract with the farmer. In some cases, farmers might still be calling around to find the best price.

Load hay bales onto the truck every Tuesday to take to the Westminster hay auction. It might be delivered to the buyer that day, but many buyers are horse owners who are at jobs during the week, so delivery has to be on a weekend.

Paperwork: recording the yields, nitrogen levels in soil, figuring out finances and taxes. In the coming years, farmers will have even more paperwork in order to comply with state regulations on fertilizer and manure use.

Clear trees from the woods at the edges of fields. Storms knock down trees and blow them into fields. At harvest time, there's no time to do anything but move the trees out of the way of the combine. These days, the farmers go back to clear them.

Attend meetings. Meeks is active in the Maryland Grain Producers Association and the National Corn Growers Association.

Time for family

Grain farmers such as Robert Bounds make a point to slow down in the winter, as a way of putting family first.

"We don't get to spend the time with the family during the planting and harvesting," said Bounds, who raises grain and beef cattle in Uniontown. "We try to make that up this time of year."

This winter, Bounds will spend a week on vacation in Western Maryland with his wife, Connie, and their three children, Jeffrey, 21, Laurie, 19, and Kimberly, 17.

Bounds took a rare opportunity last month to go to England for 2 1/2 weeks with Ellel Ministries, a Christian organization. In order to do that, he moved up his crop schedule to be able to harvest all but a very few fields by Nov. 6 -- normally the work takes him to the end of the month.

He came back just before Thanksgiving and still had a few fields of his own to harvest, as well as some for a fellow farmer who pays him to harvest his grain.

But even in the slow winter season, Bounds has 40 head of beef cattle to feed twice a day every day, and the other chores that go with that.

"We had a barn that needed to be cleaned out" and filled with new straw for bedding, he said.

Feeding cattle

"We have other cattle that have to be penned up for finishing," he said. "That means more work because they're inside, not outside."

Finishing means the last two or three months of feeding before an animal is slaughtered for meat. Bounds pens them in a barn for a more controlled grain diet, to get the "grass taste" out of the meat, he said. The more sedentary life in the barn also means the meat will be more tender and marbled with fat.

Bounds times the finishing stage of the cattle to coincide with the slow period for the grain crops. He raises 500 acres of corn and soybeans.

As farmers attempt to diversify to compensate for dismal grain prices and wildly fluctuating milk prices, some are going into nontraditional crops that don't have the typical seasonal rhythm.

Branching out

Tommy Albright, a Baltimore County farmer, planned to start planting in his greenhouse in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day.

In addition to the traditional beef cattle and vegetable farming he does, Albright has been expanding his nursery operation because of increasing demand. People are gardening more, and they want flowers.

For Albright, the pace slows, but there is still work to fill the days. Just a week or so ago, he finished picking the last of his kale, broccoli, turnips and cabbage.

Over the next month, he'll plant tomatoes, flowers and bedding plants.

He sells the plants and vegetables at his Jacksonville farm store on Sweet Air Road and at the farmers' market in Baltimore under the Jones Falls Expressway.

Any spare time farmers have in the winter, he said, is bound to be eaten up once the state's new nutrient-management regulations take effect, beginning in 2001. Farmers will have to take courses and be certified to apply fertilizer and manure.

They already have to take classes to be able to apply herbicides and pesticides.

Albright spent one recent morning doing some electrical work in his greenhouse, feeding his 100 beef cattle and trying to stay around the farm for the expected delivery of potting soil.

"The pace slows down," he said. "It's not as hectic."

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