The Dirt Issue 36 – Do Farmers Get Spring Fever?

Posted on February 27, 2019
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No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.
These words from an old proverb have a certain poignancy when faced with another dreary, dark, and deeply cold day, but all of us relish the first hint of spring that heralds release from winter’s grip. All of us, yes, but no one is more so than a farmer. It’s spring fever in the most positive sense.

A bit of background
First, let’s explore this often-confusing term, spring fever. According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the phrase was in 1859. It was applied to symptoms of disease, specifically listlessness, joint swelling, poorly healing wounds, and loose teeth. These symptoms were generally seen in the spring and hence the term spring fever. The only thing the season had to do with the disease, however, was that winter stores of food were running out before new provisions, farmed or foraged, were available. What was lacking in people’s diet was vitamin C and the actual disease was scurvy. It, like so many ailments, was misconstrued as moral failure; someone who was weak and failing was viewed as malingering, not ill. So “spring fever” took on another meaning:  lazy and unfocused.

Most people today, however, view spring fever as a time of heightened energy and elevated mood. As daylight lengthens, humans undergo hormonal changes; melatonin (the sleep hormone) decreases, while serotonin (the happiness hormone) increases. Until the body adjusts to these changes, people can be all over the place—gleeful, on edge, goofy or bursting with energy.

Spring is the time of plans and projects.
Or, so said Leo Tolstoy, and well he might have said it of farmers. Spring is the busiest time of year on a farm. There is no end to everything that needs doing. For many farmers with livestock, there are newborns to care for and mothers to look after while it is still too cold or wet to let them out on pasture. The animals are eager for spring, responding to their own biological demands and restless to get outside. Even chickens lay more eggs as the temperature heats up.

Crop farmers are, when practical, jump starting the spring by setting seed in greenhouses, hoop houses, and temporary seed-starting setups. “The greenhouses provide a much needed temporary solution to the farmers case of spring fever. It does a soul good to seed and watch for sprouts, to water and see daily green growth, and to nurture and feel the hope and promise of a new season. The farmers need that NOW, as that is the motivation they’ll use to face Mother Nature and help them” begin the growing season (vonthunfarms.org).

Whether farmers with transplants or farmers who sow directly into their fields, spring is a challenge. Mark Twain identified the problem very well, even if a bit over the top, “In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours.” Trying to assess when the fields can be safely worked to prepare them for planting, then timing the actual sowing, can be a stress-filled time. No one knows exactly what the weather will do, or for how long. As one farmer noted, “Spring is a hectic season for farmers, with many tasks to do and unpredictable weather to do it with.”

Farmers have a reputation of being conservative, even risk-adverse in their endeavors, but few of us have to risk our financial well-being as a farmer does with weather. They need and hope for rain, sun, and warmth; just not too much.

Spring fever for farmers
By way of analogy, a farmer is much like an athlete who has used the off-season to rehab, repair and get in condition for the marathon that is the active farming season. The preparation is now done, every necessary plan has been considered and made, and the farmer is ready, eager and flat-out excited to get on with it.    

When farming is not just one’s work, but is also one’s very way of life, spring fever is “a unique combination of excitement, hard work, anxiety and optimism.”