The cereal harvest is gathered and the world outside has become unpleasant and cold. The winter seeds have long been sown and spring is a long time away. What do Europe’s farmers do in the cold season, when nature takes a break? Do they hibernate in front of the fireplace? Or is it business as usual?

The image of a picturesque winter retreat on the farm fails the reality check straight away: “In summer, we work up to 14 hours; in winter we have an 8 hour working day, just like everybody else,” says Jochen Weibeler, certified agriculturist and farm manager at a 370-hectare farm near Cologne.

Thanksgiving might be over, but the harvest still goes on for Jochen Weibeler. In December, he is out in the field with his team, taking care of the savoy cabbage. 30,000 cabbage heads per hectare need to be harvested by hand – a harvesting machine has yet to be invented for the delicate vegetable. At a speed of 300 meters per hour, the tractor slowly moves through the field. Half a dozen farm hands keep pace with the vehicle, cutting the cabbage heads above the lower wrapper leaves, which tend to be discolored. A conveyor belt transfers the heads onto the trailer, where two farmhands gently pick them up and place them in pallet boxes for cold storage.

Once all the boxes are filled, the tractor drives them home, where a nice cold shower is waiting for them. The icy water makes the heads freeze easily and savoy cabbage needs a little frost for good taste. The boxes are then transferred to the cold storage house where the cabbage will overwinter at temperatures of minus 0.5 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, the harvest in the neighboring sugar beet fields is already completed. Huge sugar beet mountains are rising from the field boundaries, fleece covers protecting them from the cold. The “golden fruit of the Rhineland” is now waiting to be picked up by the trucks of the nearby sugar factory for processing.

All set for snow and ice

In Europe, hobby gardeners and professional farmers alike need to winter-proof their equipment, buildings and plots. This means covering frost-sensitive plants, draining water pipes and water containers, and taking care of their equipment – cleaning it, repairing it and removing rust streaks, if necessary.

For Pau Salze Trepat, a farmer in the north-east of Spain, this involves checking his irrigation system for damage and leaks. “We irrigate 100 hectares of summer cereals,” he says, “so you can image that checking the pipes is a major job every year. But we always handle this type of maintenance ourselves; otherwise, the costs will soar sky-high.” 
In a neighboring field a delicate green fluff covers the soil like a carpet. The winter cereals have emerged. The local mice appreciate the wheat and barley plantlets as an appetizing source of food.

“These fields are like a richly laden table to them, and they polish it off, if we let them,” says Pau Salze Trepat. This makes mice control one of the necessary and recurring jobs of a farmer in winter.

 Snow on the other hand, does not present a problem for the winter seeds – not even in Ukraine.

On the contrary: Oleg Malyarenko, whose farm is situated in the southern Nikolaev region, loves “lots and lots of snow in winter”. As long as his little wheat plants sleep underneath a blanket of snow, they are protected against frost, wind and dehydration. “Snow is best for them, when it’s dry and powdery,” he explains, “for powdery snow contains lots of air and protects the wheat like an isolating blanket. Even if the snow layer is 30-40 cm thick and outside temperatures are down to minus 30 degrees, temperatures close to the soil will not drop much below the freezing point.” On the other hand, icy crusts, or strong wind without snow are not welcome. They can cause great damage and farmers like Malyarenko are wary of them.