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Thoughts from the field: A Snowy Reprieve for Winter Wheat

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

A welcome, winter blast gave us historical farmers in New Jersey, USA, a bit of help this past Saturday, by covering our field of winter wheat with a 5" layer of snow.

View of 2022 wheat field after snow on Saturday, Jan. 29th

Howell Farm Winter Wheat field Friday, Jan. 28th, 2022

The wheat is good eating for the White-tailed deer and Canada geese who are regular visitors this time of year, when nutrient-rich forage is hard to find. In Hopewell Township New Jersey, where Howell Living History Farm is located, deer density is 84 per square mile -- one of the highest in the state. Goose populations are also high, in part due to warm winters when migrating geese don't have to fly very far south to find food ... and elect (unfortunately) to 'winter over' in Mid-Atlantic States like Delaware, New Jersey, and southern New York.

Deer on a whiet field at Howell Living History Farm

Canada geese flying over Howell Farm

Losses to winter grain crops occur when deer and geese graze in our fields and pull up the dormant plants by their roots -- something that happens when the ground isn't frozen, or not covered by snow. There's a slightly better outcome when the ground is frozen and grazing animals wind up nipping off the exposed part of the plant, leaving the root system in place below the surface.

But it takes more than favorable weather conditions to protect our fields.

We've held muzzleloader hunts since 1985 -- the year after we became a historical farm. For the county park system we're part of, the decision to allow hunting in a public park was controversial. As farmers, and as the park's operator, we argued that it was necessary if our educational programs were to succeed. The programs are built around actual, full scale farming operations reflective of our 1890-1910 period of interpretation. Without crops to harvest and process, essential parts of the farm's mission -- and operating budget --would fail. The hunt set the stage for the introduction of a deer management program that today is used throughout our county's parks, and that includes bow and shotgun seasons.

For us, hunting helps but fencing offers the best, and realistically the only, protection from deer. We use 7' tall, portable plastic mesh fencing around our corn, oat and wheat fields. Besides being costly and time consuming to install, it of course lacks historical authenticity -- something that requires our visitors to engage in some serious "willing suspension of disbelief" under the guidance of our interpreters, whose job is to immerse them in the realities of farming in New Jersey, past and present.

We find geese equally challenging to manage. Hunting them is permitted in New Jersey, but isn't seen by farmers as an effective method of control. State-funded goose removal programs involving the netting and euthanasia of geese are available, as are private 'goose-moving' services entailing the use of dogs to chase geese from one property to the next. Noise deterrents like goose canons are good until geese get used to them or the neighbors complain. And then there are those scarecrows appearing as silhouettes of foxes, coyotes and bobcats ... or Farmer McGregor.

Right now, with snow on the ground and our wheat safely tucked under, we can set our sights on other fields -- perhaps the one we'll circle during our upcoming Valentine's Day rides program. It looks like it will be sleighrides this year, instead of wagon rides down a frozen lane.

Bobsled ride at Howell Farm

In the meantime, from snowy New Jersey, we wish those of you who are farming in climes (and times) like ours a good, hard winter with plenty of snow and ice. For those farming elsewhere -- and everywhere -- we hope that your 2022 is off to a good start ... and a perfect Year on the Field.

Pete Watson

Howell Living History Farm

Mercer County Park Commission

70 Woodens Lane, Lambertville, New Jersey 08530 USA

Coordinates: 40°20′23.0″N 74°53′56.0″W


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