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Irons in the fire: What I learned from the winter of ’17

Paul Marchant for Progressive Forage Published on 27 February 2017

This winter has been one for the ages; at least it has been in my neck of the woods. In the years and decades to come, we’ll talk and reminisce about the winter of ’17. She was kind of late arriving, but once she got here she made it clear that she was serious and intended to be in charge – not completely unlike an obnoxious mother-in-law or the shirt-tail relative who shows up at funerals and brandings.

In the past, we’ve had some wicked cold stretches and some vicious blizzards that have piled up the snow, but I don’t remember a winter that has been so consistently rank for so long. I’ve seen winters where the kids have begged in vain for any kind of rotten weather to cause at least one canceled day of school.

This year, we’ve had four- and five-day stretches where every school in a seven-county area has been closed. If it wasn’t because of deep snow, it was for wind and drifting snow or temperatures that were so frigid the buses wouldn’t start. So I guess it hasn’t been all bad news.

The latest malady has been a rash of flooding caused by melting snow from suddenly warmer temperatures and buckets of rain. Entire fields, planted in winter wheat or alfalfa, look more like lakes than fields. In western Idaho and eastern Oregon, it’s been even worse. Record amounts of snowfall have been followed by more snow.

Literally hundreds of structures have collapsed under the weight of unprecedented amounts of snow – sale barns, tool sheds, houses, grocery stores, bowling alleys, loafing sheds … you name it. If it has a roof, it may be in trouble. The area’s onion industry has been devastated by the collapse of dozens of storage facilities.

High-desert ranchers, who rarely have to feed in the winter, are scrambling to find hay to feed their cows and even get through the weather to feed them. That’s to say nothing about the struggles of calving in 2 feet of snow.

Bitter cold weather, deep snow and mud complicate everything. If a job normally takes two hours, you can pretty much count on needing four hours in miserable conditions. I’ve been delaying sorting heifers in anticipation of calving season; first because of bitter cold and deep snow, and now because of sloppy, muddy pens, corrals and facilities. I can’t put it off any longer, however. We’re sorting in a couple of days come hell or high water – and it seems we have a little of both.

We’ve been pretty lucky, though. It seems like nearly every friend and neighbor in the county has it worse. Flooded basements and sandbags are the latest home decorating fads. Facebook and every other social media avenue is flooded (pardon the pun) with pictures and posts of neighbors helping neighbors and strangers as they fill sandbags, pump water, clean basements and dig ditches.

No matter your destination, you can count on some sort of detour because in every direction, there’s a washed-out road. Even the freeways have been closed for days because of flooding.

Now, my purpose here is not merely a weather report or an audition for the local TV weatherman spot (although, if you’ve ever seen the Twin Falls news, you might believe that I’d have a pretty decent shot). My purpose is to pass on what I’ve learned and re-learned many times over throughout this ordeal.

For starters, I’ve been impressed and overwhelmed and uplifted by the goodness of people. It’s truly heartening to be witness to the better side of humanity, especially when the popular action of the day seems to be protest, criticism and ridicule. I’d like to believe that this isn’t unique to rural southern Idaho.

I believe the same thing would happen in Detroit or Los Angeles or St. Louis. I would hope the light of a few good, honest people would shine brighter than the darkness of selfishness, self-pity and bigotry that so often accompanies any sort of tragedy.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, I’ve figured out that you can do what you have to do. You can do hard things – even if you have to do it alone. And, most likely, if you adopt that attitude, you won’t have to do it alone.  end mark