By Jeff Wolfe
The winter of 2013-2014 will for many, be one they want to forget, but likely can’t help but remember. Words like “relentless”, “unforgiving” and “never-ending” are just some of the ways it was described.
There were many consequences and after-effects for a winter that was felt as late as March 25 with a small snowfall. In all, going by measurements at the Philadelphia International Airport, this winter was the second snowiest in the region’s history at 67.6 inches accumulated as of March 24 according to the National Weather Service. The snowiest winter in terms of measurement came during 2009-2010 when 78.7 inches fell at the airport.
But in many ways this one was worse.
“Those days of high snow are difficult to deal with,” said JoAnn Laughlin, who along with her husband Joe, own and manage the Stratton Hall 1794 farm on Kings Highway in Woolwich. “Just trying to get a wheel barrow through the snow with hay on it was really hard. This one was definitely one of the worst. It was endless. It seemed like it snowed a couple of times week or more.”
But as Laughlin points out, it wasn’t just snow, it was the extreme cold, brought on by what weather experts called the Polar Vortex, which normally affects the extreme northern states’ and Canada’s weather, dipping down into the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions and causing temperatures in the zero degree range.
“It was not only just the snow, it was the bitter cold,” JoAnn Laughlin said. “It was like a double-shot with the cold and how often it was snowing. It seemed really relentless and is probably the worst winter that I can remember. This has been horrible with the frequent snow and all of the single-digit (temperature) days.”
For the Laughlins, it wasn’t just a matter of waiting out the weather so they could work the ground like many farmers who plant in fields. They had to deal with as it happened. That’s because they raise sheep, chickens and ducks. Providing even the basic necessities such as water to the animals also became much more of a chore than normal.
“We had to haul water to them, buckets and buckets of water were hauled out,” said Laughlin. “Then you would have to break the ice and do things to keep the water from freezing. There were many buckets and water bowls that were frozen. And everyone got fed twice a day.”
The Laughlin’s have a flock of about three dozen sheep, including a dozen lambs. JoAnn Laughlin said that sheep generally don’t mind being out in the snow, but the extreme cold caused an adjustment in the way they were taken care of this winter.
“The sheep are very hardy,” said Laughlin. “We have heritage breeds, which are old fashioned breeds, so they are very hardy and have full fleeces. We won’t shear them until this weekend (March 29-30). They actually do well in the winter. As long as they can get out of the strong wind and blowing rain, they are pretty good. They will even lay out in the snow storm and chew their cud.
“But this year I did bring them in the barn for some of the worst storms that we had. I remember bringing them in the afternoon and letting them spend the night in the barn sometimes.”
Laughlin said the sheep also have a run-in where they can voluntarily go in and out of the barn if they want. And then on the days when it would warm up and make the ground soft, it made for muddy ground in the pens where the sheep were staying.
“We kept them in different pens,” Laughlin said. “Then we would have to move them around when it got so muddy. I’m glad this winter is almost over.”
Another issue the extreme cold and snow caused was with electric fences. The Laughlin’s couldn’t depend on them working when the ground was frozen.
“We use a lot of electric fences and it was bad for that,” JoAnn Laughlin said. “We use portable fences, so we would roll it up and then put it back out when the ground was not frozen.”
Laughlin said the chickens and ducks also usually don’t mind the colder weather, but it was a problem for them as well.
“The chickens are also heritage breeds, and they are pretty hardy, too,” Laughlin said. “But I would let them out during the day and then lock them up in the coop at night. But on the days there was a lot of snow, the chickens didn’t want to come out of the coop. They stayed in.”
Laughlin was a bit surprised at how warm the coop would stay in the extreme cold as well.
“With their body heat, I would go in to feed them, and it would definitely be warmer,” she said.
And while chickens generally do take a break from laying eggs in the winter because of lesser daylight, Laughlin said she had a few that kept on laying.
“Our primary breed is Dominques,” she said of her about three dozen chickens. “I joke around and say they usually take a vacation during the holidays. But we have a few Leghorns, which is a more modern breed for just laying eggs, and they kept laying all throughout the winter.”
Laughlin also said that their about two dozen ducks generally do well in the winter, but couldn’t do all of their regular activities either.
“The ducks, they are better in the cold than even the chickens,” Laughlin said. “They like to get in the water even in January. They just don’t like to walk on the snow. Because of their feet, it’s very slippery for them. They also stayed in the coop as well on a lot of the snowy days. They were just sliding around on the snow.”
The farmers who plow and plant fields spent much of the early spring just waiting for the snow to melt first, and then for the ground to be dry enough for tractors to do their work.
“I would say we are two weeks behind schedule on field work and plowing and getting the ground ready,” said Anthony Maccarone, who is part of the family that runs Early Acres Farms and its 260 acres in Woolwich Township. “The ground was frozen, up until just recently. You don’t want to plow when it’s too wet. There’s still a bunch of wet spots and areas where we still can’t get into. Today (March 23) was the first day we did any plowing. We basically have just started. What we need is some hot and dry, or at least warmer and dry weather.”
Maccarone said at least one area this has increased expenses is for gas to keep greenhouses warm.
“The cold has made our fuel costs go up for the greenhouses,” Maccarone said. “We have been burning a lot more fuel because of that.”
Early Acres Farms plants tomatoes, egg plants and green peppers in its greenhouses.
“When we get toward the middle or end of April, when the weather is not forecast to have freezing temperatures, we put those plants out in the field,” Maccarone said of the greenhouse crops. “Right now, we are just sort of waiting to see how things go. Sometimes the plants get too big in the greenhouse. The first day you think there is going to be no more frost or freeze, that’s when you put them out.”
The other primary helpers on Early Acres Farm are Anthony’s brother Mike, father Sam and brother-in-law Tony Battaglia. Early Acres expects to increase to eight workers later this spring and then to 14 in July.
Anthony Maccarone said the increased fuel costs this winter is just one example of how prices are rising in everything for the everyday farmer. “All of our expenses and labor and just everything has been going up,” Maccarone said. “There are not going to be any farmers left if we don’t get some more money for our work. Insurance and health insurance is going up, too.”
One type of farmer that the winter didn’t have a big effect on was Gem’s Zoysia Grass Farm on Tomlin Station Road in Mickleton.
“It slowed my start up just a little bit,” said owner and operator Dominic Licciardello, who says he gets customers from as far north as Maine and as far south as North Carolina. “Because of the weather, I didn’t get any customers until about March 10. Zoysia is a very durable grass for extreme cold and extreme heat.”
And that type of grass, is much like the farmers who endure the weather conditions, whatever they may be.
“It’s an ordeal,” Anthony Maccarone said of dealing with the various weather conditions. “We grew up in it (the farming business). We don’t know any better. It’s what we have always been doing. Somehow when you are behind, the works always gets done.”