What do Canadian farmers do in the winter? The smart, financially stable “Snow Birds” follow the geese south. Most farmers are less fortunate and have to somehow find a way to make an income and pay the never-ending bills. I’ve heard tales of a few hardy souls eking out some form of a living on Vancouver Island selling their meat products, storage vegetables, and winter greens. For 99% of the rest of the country they are mostly shut down for many months. Sure there’s fences that may need mending, chickens to feed, and things to preserve. These chores however don’t bring home the bacon. (Hopefully their freezers are already stocked with protein). Self-employed farmers don’t qualify for EI, so most need some side seasonal jobs.
I’m one of the lucky ones who get to farm in the snow. I’m a groomer. My Pisten Bully Snow Cat is one of the warmest, most comfortable, sophisticated state of the art tractors in the world.When it breaks, I get to grab another machine and a team of mechanics usually have it up and running the next day.
We as a crew plough and till over 500 acres of terrain per mountain each night. What, when and how we accomplish this is very weather dictated.
Our tractors’ accessories are referred to as implements. The blade is our shovel. The combing on the tiller is our rake. We use farming terms such as passes, windrows, berms, deposition, compaction, cut and fill. We farm snow — that’s what we call it — from the bottom of pitches, hollows, roads, snow fences and secret stashes and transport it to where it is needed. We sculpt and landscape the mountain, combining science and art. Anyone who does both mountain biking and winter sports will attest that snow is so much cleaner and softer than dirt. Grooming is a cushier, enjoyable, better compensated and less risky form of farming.
Grooming shares lots of prerequisites with conventional farming. First of all you must be mechanically inclined, tolerate the smell of diesel, and be adaptable to changing weather conditions. It involves long hours of unsupervised solitary repetitive work. The thing I appreciate the most is the knowledge and intimacy with the natural environment that is aquirired over the long term. The sense of freedom.The privilege of getting to create something within nature using my own poetic licence. It puts me in the same semi-spiritual yet productive happy place that farming does. The greatest part of the great outdoors. Understanding microclimates, the effects of wind, sun, temperature and precipitation. The technicalities of snow vs dirt, mountains vs valley. The feeling of connectedness with my surroundings. It’s a perfect fit for both a farmer and a ski bum. I have the inside scoop on the best forecasted snow conditions in real time for every area on the slopes. In the spring I’m double dipping. I can experience my farm in full bloom, and get chores done during the day and extend my winter at night, or ski whenever its good. Bliss.
Being a “packer” is a lifestyle more than a job.We could all make a better wage running machinery in an industrial setting. Nonetheless there is little turnover and the majority return year after year all for similar reasons. I’ve seen more winter sunrises and sunsets than most temperate rainforest mountain dwellers. My office has a constantly changing and usually spectacular view. I get 3 days off a week, can ski any afternoon and it allows me the opportunity to be a dirt farmer for 7 months. I can save a little money for the lean spring when expenses far exceed income. For half the year I get to enjoy benefits that other farmers could only dream of: a family (lifetime) Epic ski pass, extended medical and dental, short and long term disability, a small RRSP contribution as well as food and retail discounts. If I get injured or sick on or off the job in the winter I’m covered. If it happens from May to November, I’m screwed. If it wasn’t for my grooming job, I don’t think I could afford to be a farmer. Thank you ULLR (the norse God of snow) and Whistler/Blackcomb for 27 years of employment. Time flies when you’re having fun.