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January thaw

By Ken Root

Early this month, we had our most serious cold spell in the past 20 years. It was called a “Polar Vortex” by some and an “Old Fashioned Winter” by others. Either way, it was unmercifully cold. The hardship to humans and danger to farm animals was extreme and showed the mettle of those who live in “American Siberia.”

Then, it melted! The weather moderated and we had a reprieve that was as appreciated as a stay of execution. Although my mindset was that it would be cold until June, the Arctic blast, which had been trying to get through the doors and windows, suddenly retreated hundreds of miles northward. I was shocked to find that I could stand outside or take my time in walking from place to place. The temperature was still cold, but it was so much less cold that it seemed warm. This is a classic example of human ability to adapt to extreme situations and treat them like they are the norm. The ultimate in this behavior is exhibited by North Dakotans who act like they relish the cold. I was told by a native NODAK that they have nine months of winter and three months of tough sledding. TV programs show them outside in horrendous cold with cups of hot water that they toss into the air and laugh as it turns into ice fog and floats away. I am convinced that everyone with a bad attitude left North Dakota, so they are all above average in their euphoria.

But, as Jimmy Buffet said, “Changes in attitude, changes in latitude” is a key to happiness for most of us. That is why the warm weather that visited us for a brief period was so important because it brought just a wee bit of hope. Sort of like that flat spot where they put the golf green and the little flag. There may be 200 yards of bunkers and ditches and ponds between you and there but the vision is enough.

My Oklahoma upbringing allowed me to enjoy a January or February thaw during most winters. It would sometimes get into the 70s right after being near zero. The problem with such a fluctuation is that non-native plants don’t know it is going to get cold again. They pop their buds and get ready for spring. Then the cruel north wind comes back and we get another month of winter. When the plants finally get to spring, their ability to bear fruit is trashed. Apricots, peaches, pears and apples are rarely produced in abundance in the Plains because of the unpredictable conclusion of winter.

There is another method of getting a winter thaw and that is by getting on a plane or in a car and going south. The birds have known this for a long time but Midwesterners only figured it out in the 1970s when they changed their crop rotation to corn, soybeans and Florida. It is a great elixir to get on an airplane in a blizzard and get off in a dazzle of green grass and gentle breezes. Commodity organizations always hold their winter meetings in warm climates so they can get a crowd. Using farmer psychology 101, it is easier to justify a trip south when you can also attend a farm meeting or tour a tradeshow where you might buy something for your crop or livestock enterprise. If you are a keen observer at these events, you will notice that there are a lot of men and women with grandchildren along with them. They are the farmer’s parents and children. The working generation was left home to cut ice and tend the frozen farm.

For those of you who go south for a portion of the winter, a word of advice and logic: “Leave before it gets cold and stay till spring.” We love you but we don’t like to see you bounce back with a tan in December and then scamper away on New Year’s Day. It doesn’t help us for you to be here to share the cold when we know you have been wearing shorts and going barefoot while we were layered up.

I don’t know what it would be like to spend a winter in Alaska where it is cold and dark. I do know that man lives because of hope and any hint of spring, like the arrival of a seed catalog, causes the surroundings to be a bit more bearable. In 1936, E.K. Gaylord, an original settler of Oklahoma and founder of Gaylord Broadcasting, wrote down his vision of the future of communications. Generally quoted, he said, “I think there is a possibility of television broadcasting so that a man, sitting in a gold field in Alaska, can see a woman on a diving board in Hawaii and witness her jumping into the water and hearing the splash.” He apparently thought that was enough visual and auditory stimulation for a crusty old miner to get him through the long and icy winter. He didn’t realize that future generations would take our gold, trade it for a plane ticket, and fly to Hawaii to jump in with her!

Winter is coming back, so stay warm.

Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at kenroot@gmail.com.

Date: 1/20/2014



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