Polar Plunges and Heart-Shaped Kisses



Welcome to Iowa, where fifty-degree temps mean shorts in February and parkas in August.

January really surprised us at our little family farm, with a record-breaking twenty-four inches of snow within three days and wind chills in the -45°F range. Just a week prior to that, it was nearly fifty degrees out, and we were working in shirt sleeves. Right now, it’s hovering just above freezing, and we’re catching ourselves talking about how warm it is. 

chicken scratching in hay in a chicken coop
A thick, fresh layer of straw is applied to every building, cage and pen just prior to adverse weather events to increase the comfort of our animals. Even though they quickly foul it, the mixture of straw and manure adds a little more heat from decomposition to keep our animals a little warmer.
– Photo by Joe Villines

During our polar plunge, it wasn’t safe for us to travel to look in on our animals. Thankfully, we’d prepared for that with automatic waterers and oversized feeders filled to the brim, just in case. We had some losses of poultry, and we lost dozens of eggs to freezing. Every loss hurts, yet it’s expected. I was once told: “If you have livestock, you’re going to eventually have dead stock.” It could have been much worse had we not lined animal pens with fresh straw and chosen to raise animals adapted to our region.

So that’s farm life in a nutshell, where we treasure the good perhaps a little too long and are somehow still surprised when things take a drastic turn for the worse. The dead birds and wasted eggs found their way into the compost pile, where they’ll either be reincorporated into nutrients for our ground or picked apart by scavengers looking for an easy meal instead of trying to grab one of our live animals. 

The extremes of the Iowa climate make spring and fall extra welcome for us. There’s nothing like fresh, crisp spring air loaded with the delightful odor of humic acid (the wonderful smell from good compost) and just a tinge of cold. There is also something really special about summer heat breaking, making way for cool fall temperatures, when we see the animals and plants respond to easier living. The winter cold is enough to slow life down a little, which means we’ll likely never have the hustle and bustle of big cities and vacation destinations, so that’s nice. It’s not that I don’t want people to visit, I just enjoy the pace of winter.

turkeys on top of large mulch pile
There's no picture that does this compost pile justice. It is thirty feet long, fifteen feet wide and eight feet high. Under a mountain of wood chips is decaying material from last year's garden, spent mushroom blocks, the few poultry that didn't live through the polar vortex, and a little food waste. It's set up to catch runoff and slow it down while it heats up to recycle our waste into compost. The birds enjoy digging for insects in the top layer and probably enjoy the warmth as well.
– Photo by Joe Villines

In February, my beloved wife Lydia celebrates her birthday, followed by Valentine’s Day, which is peppered with hearts, her very favorite shape. In January, we celebrated our wedding anniversary, and there’s no one with whom I’d rather share a healthy case of cabin fever. It also helps that Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been live streaming archives of their show since Christmas Eve 2023. We’re dorks, and we know it. 

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Through the adversity of the polar vortex, general exhaustion, and trying to assist my aging parents, it has been difficult to get back into the state of mind needed to finalize our plans for our farm in 2024. We must, and we will, get our heads back in the game soon and feel the optimism and wonder of the new life and sense of hope one gets from springtime on a farm. We have a growing list of new friends’ farms to visit, which is always good for inspiration.

As I’ve written before, exhaustion is a good thing if you’re paying attention. It’s your mind and body telling you what the problem is, and it’s up to you to fix it. Since we, as our accountant constantly reminds us, have spent enough money setting up our place to buy a jewel encrusted pitchfork, we’re always trying to get the job done more efficiently. How do we do more, spend less, and be less worn out? These questions are always part of our decision making process. We always search for five alternative solutions to a problem before digging out our wallets, and we keep labor requirements in mind before enacting a plan. 

chickens and turkeys forage in a pile of leaves
The chickens and turkeys love to find a pile of leaves to dig in once the snow recedes. We're finding green grass and earthworms under the piles still; another irregularity from an extra mild fall and brief outburst of a winter storm followed by almost fifty degree weather two weeks later.
– Photo by Joe Villines

It takes about twenty-one hours a week just to feed and water all of the animals. We spend just over an hour a day collecting, washing, and packaging eggs, so let’s call that nine hours a week. Moving wood chips, turning compost, and sorting logs for firewood is another ten hours a week. That’s forty hours for one person, not including an hour or two a day for travel time and errands. Lydia has a full work schedule with up to ten hours of overtime at her day job, and Junior is in school, has a part-time job, and participates in school sports. That’s all before we even think about the garden tasks — moving broiler chicken pens, processing animals and vegetables for sale, bundling firewood, or building projects. 

farmer joe villines standing on the farm in the fog
Shortly after this picture was taken of me in 2018, everything started going wrong. The 2024 season feels a lot like 2018 did with unseasonably warm winter weather followed by violent spring wind, late snow and rain. Fortunately, I learned a lot from that year.
– Photo courtesy of Joe Villines

Nothing is ever really completed to my satisfaction, and we’re always worried about the welfare of our animals and the investment we’re making in our land. But soon our little seedlings will emerge from their planting trays and reach for light. By March, we’ll be hearing regular peeps from the incubator. We’ll be potting up tulip bulbs we’ve kept in cold storage for our Easter flower sale. Bunnies will be born. The cycle will repeat and we’ll be back in the thick of it, enjoying every moment.

A look back at January 2024 during our big freeze and enormous snow event. The wind chills were -45 at times, blowing 24 inches of snow with 50 mph wind gusts. It was hard on everyone. – Video courtesy of Joe Villines, Halfacre Farms

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Joe Villines
Joe Villines
Joe Villines is a father, husband, US Army veteran and co-owner of Halfacre Farms at Armadillo Acres with his partner Lydia in Indianola, IA. He attended college for commercial horticulture to further a lifelong interest in growing food. Villines was a photojournalist and broadcaster in the Army Reserve where he served tours in Bosnia, Iraq, Kuwait and other assignments all over the world. Exposure to world strife and world agriculture informed his resolve to raising animals and crops using holistic methods for sale locally.
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