Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Home free

A great big long sigh of relief was audible over mid-Maine yesterday evening as we finally got through the last of the chores and the immediate unpacking from our annual pilgrimage to the Shenandoah Valley to see Aimee's family. Thirteen hours in a car, even when spread over two days, is a long time. Maybe one year soon we could afford to fly and rent a car to get around when down there.

But if we could afford that we could also afford to go to the Valleys west of Cardiff to see my folks, Christmas in Wales.

All was well back at the ranch when we arrived home, Spfc. Jennifer, our soldier/farm-sitter having proven herself quite competent, with the assistance, as always, of our helpful neighbors who keep an eye on things too. The heavy snowfall that hindered our journey south a week or so ago is still on the ground, albeit much diminished. Neighbor Hamilton plowed Jen out early last week, and so I have only a little snow to move today, just enough for the sturdy northern work-out I need after Christmas excesses in the bloated south.

The next storm is forecast for Friday, and I'm looking forward to it. I could use a real northeaster, a two-three-four foot rip-roaring 48-72 hour blizzard, with all the trimmings, just to make sure I don't need to go any where for several days!

(Be careful what you wish for. This very sad blog post depicts what happened to some Oregon farmers whose superb blog I read regularly. Not a great Christmas present. But we get two-three foot snowstorms most every year in Maine, and are built for it. Perhaps if I wish for a snowstorm here in Maine where it belongs, it won't fall in Oregon or some other place where it doesn't.)

What next in the Womerlippi seasonal round? Not much, thankfully. I could use some old fashioned winter down time.

There are a few things to do. School starts early this year, in the second week of January. Spring semester is usually a slow start, but I do have to be ready for one new class I've never taught before. Plant start time is still a ways off here in Maine, at least the way we do things, but the greenhouse I built Aimee for Christmas must be finished soon so it will be ready when needed. If I save that job for the sunniest days, it will be a pleasure. Most of what is left to do can be done from the warn inside of the new greenhouse. Seed catalogs will come soon, and Aimee will perform the vital yearly ritual of checking over last year's leftover seeds and ordering this year's new seeds. What she orders in January is pretty much what I eat for vegetables from the following September for a whole year. The first plant starts combine with Six Nations Rugby to make for an interesting February and March. Another ritual. We cheer on England, Wales, and the baby Black Krim Tomatoes.

Then there will be lambs. Lambs are bliss, especially when playing lamb-tag with each other on patches of hay-strewn ground between snowbanks on a bright sunny cold afternoon in late March. This year we should have lots of lambs because we have seven ewes that are likely bred.

Ten is a nice round number.

In the meantime, nothing much will happen around here except for the steady movement of firewood from woodstack to stove to chimney to atmosphere, and the steady movement of hay bales from barn attic to hay crib to sheep belly to sheep poop to compost-pile.

The Carbon Cycle, up close and personal.

One way or another, it's the breaking of hydrogen bonds in the cellulose and sugar of hay, oats, corn, and firewood that keeps the entire farmstead and its residents warm.

We can measure the progress from midwinter to spring and lambs by the steady diminishing of hay and firewood stacks, by the onset of Six Nations, and by the tentative growth of tiny green plants in newspaper pots.

In the Bleak Midwinter
Text: Christina G. Rossetti, 1830-1894
Music: Gustav Holst, 1874-1934
Tune: CRANHAM, Meter: Irr.

1. In the bleak midwinter, frost wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

2. Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

3. Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
but his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

4. What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Brits discover rural roots via urban hens

Womerlippi farm hens: this year's Buff Orpingtons.

Here's an interesting Grauniad article about how many of my fellow countrymen and women are rediscovering the helpful hen, even in urban settings.

Following on my grandad's heels as a young tyke, I grew up partly in what I thought for many years was a long-gone world of terrace streets and allotments (community gardens), where old men like my grandfather, World War I and II veterans for the most part, practiced a Yorkshire kind of urban self-sufficiency with great efficiency and expertise. Hen coops and rabbit hutches were commonplace in the allotments. During WWII, mother kept rabbits as a young girl, while dad kept bantam hens, until he was bombed out and evacuated to the country.

Now apparently the allotments are making a comeback, and so are the urban hens.

Grandad could grow massive amounts of good food on his patch, not to mention huge quantities of cut flowers, dahlias, chrysanthemums, and the like. Flowers and veggies alike were wrapped in newspaper bundles and carried home, some distributed on the way to various folks he knew.

Growing and giving away food is a family tradition.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Rental Ram Return

Taking Snorri the rental ram back to his home farm was Friday's big job. Snorri is a very mellow fellow and we'd like to keep him but you can't easily have two rams on one small farm, so he had to go home after doing his duty by our second generation Womerlippi ewes this fall.

This is one of his family back home, a very fuzzy ram lamb, the other series is of the unloading, as Snorri jumps out of our pickup and runs back into his own home barn.

Aimee loved the ram lamb and wanted to take him home a little because he was such a cutie, but settled for knowing that some of Snorri's offspring, due as early as eight weeks from now, will look like him.

Hopefully they're as well-behaved and mellow. Snorri was a great improvement in character on our own dude, Abraram, who will butt you anytime you turn your back, and is big enough to do real damage.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Womerlippi Farm Promotional Products

Aimee is going into the promotional product business in a big hurry. She devised the farm logo on a whim one day: a chicken standing, somewhat victorious, upon a placid sheep.

And once we had a logo, we needed t-shirts, of course.

This is the t-shirt making process. Quite ingenious of her, I think.

Our kitchen is now festooned with drying t-shirts. A veritable sweat shop. Some of you, the elect, may get one of these for a Christmas stocking stuffer.

A serious fashion statement!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Happy Holidays!

It's getting to look a lot like Christmas at the Womerlippi Farm.

We now have fully lit, fully decorated trees, one in the house, one outside. Aimee has wrapped most of her gifts, and begun addressing cards.

The indoor tree was a balsam fir I found on our leased land. The outdoor tree is the one that lives at the bottom of our lawn.

I like to decorate with lights. My one energy weakness. I guess you could say we save energy all year, so we don't mind a small splurge at holiday time.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Half Time Break!

(This post mirrored from the Unity College Sustainability Blog)

With some time off coming to me now the semester is over, I have in mind to do some long-postponed sustainability projects.

The first is catching up on my sleep! This last two weeks, with the lowering of our NRG wind assessment tower, a four-day conference trip, repeated Introduction to CLE map-reading finals, numerous other final projects, I've been feeling a little "wore down" as Huck Finn might say.

And that is definitely not sustainable. Teaching is a stressful occupation, and the long breaks are needed to recharge your batteries.

Then I have some farming and homesteading to do. Regular readers will know that I keep a second blog at www.womerlippi.blogspot.com where my partner Aimee (also a UC professor) and I post pictures and stories from our adventures on a 15 acre homestead in the deep greenwood of Jackson, ME. My main project is building a greenhouse for Aimee for a Christmas gift, but we also have seven bred (that would be "pregnant" to you city folk) ewes to care for, and a borrowed ram to return to his own farm 60 miles away.

Lambs will arrive soon enough, so we have to pay close attention to the ewe's welfare at this time of year. They get extra feed, and we make sure their water doesn't freeze and so on. Daily chores get harder to do as the snow and cold creep on. We still have to move snow, pipe or carry water, deliver feed, and move manure and bedding, even when the thermometer reads below zero in a white-out.

But when the spring finally comes, we won't miss it. We'll be right there. We live lives that are very close to nature, and thoroughly enjoy the changing seasons on our small farm.

The next is mastering the wind assessment software world. This is an indoor job. With a year's data from two separate sites, the Mt View High School site and the Kinney Farm site, I have the opportunity to create a good wind resource report for the Knox Ridge area. Problem there is, NRG only makes software that works in IBM-clone computers, and I use a Mac. No worries, the new Macs allow the evil Windows to be loaded on a segregated hard drive. For the first time, I can dink around with NRG's products in the few hours a day when I actually have time, early in the morning in my own den. Finally, I can begin to learn how to use the software. I also will be looking to find a new community wind site for my students to put up the tower and read the wind for another year. The logistics of wind assessment are formidable, and this coming year our new site might be on a Maine island, which will be beautiful, but three times as difficult to plan out.

Not sure how I feel about having Windows on my Mac, though. I'm deliberately not connecting the Microsoft partition of the hard drive to the Internet, except via the Mac partition, so as to avoid viruses. Let's hope it works.

There are lots of smaller things I want to do, like catching up on my reading. Right now I'm reading The American Future by Simon Schama. Schama, a British jew, is an interesting combination of social liberal and political libertarian, with an eye for the intricacies of the "special relationship" that I've lived out loud the 22 years I've been in this country. The book traces the recent Obama victory (how did he get it out so fast?) back through American memory to look at the peculiar mental pathways that define the roots of American freedoms. Shades of David Hackett Fisher. whose Albion's Seed is positively my favorite work of American history.

And then there's family Christmas. Most regular readers will know that Aimee comes from a German-American Church of the Brethren backgound, and her family are located in the western PA and Shenandoah Valley homelands of the Brethren, Amish and Mennonite communities. We'll travel to the Shenandoah, where we'll go to the Christmas Eve service with her immediate family, visit the Amish and Mennonite farmer's markets, loading up on "plain" food, kitchen goods, seeds, and other products not routinely available in Maine, but useful to homesteading, and visit with her extended family in the retirement community at Bridgewater College, the Brethren-run school in the town of the same name. I always enjoy touching back in with the history of the Peace Church societies in the Shenandoah. Unity itself is an old Quaker town, founded by Quakers, who helped choose it's name. The old meeting house belongs to the college now, and I use it for storage. The new meeting house is where Aimee and I were married, the first Quaker wedding in Unity since at least 1927, with a silent meeting in the old Quaker tradition.

And now the Amish are moving to Unity, Thorndike, and surrounding parts. I met their school teacher the other day. He has the same last name as the Amish family I was friends with in western Maryland. I'm glad to see them, because they feel like home. Funny how the Peace Churches always run through my life. Even when I lived in Missoula, MT, I discovered some Amish history, specifically of their involvement in WWII firefighting for the USFS. There some Amish boys even became smokejumpers during the war, as alternative service, and I made friends with one of these characters though my work with the senior center's Friday forest outings, which I ran as part of my work for Wilderness Institute, but which were paid for through a Forest Service grant.

Peace Church history weaves itself like a thread though my life. I'am also looking forward this break to reading Peter Brown and Geoff Garver's new book on economy and environment from a Quaker perspective, which I helped organize. I think it will be an important new book, and I'm excited to see how well it sells. There will also be a number of educational meetings held to discuss the book with Peace Church communities, and I may be involved. Peter gives an interview on the book at this video site here. Plain speech.

Soon enough all this relative freedom of time will come to an end, and we'll be back at college, on the starting blocks for the race to graduation in early May. The academic year, like the fall semester, always comes to an crashing, grinding end with a big last minute rush. It's never pretty. But it does always end, for which I am always grateful, just as I am now for this upcoming month of freedom.

And a new crop of UC graduates will go out into the world, hopefully to make as much of a difference, or more, than previous generations. If you want to know how successful this college is, well, you might not know, until you go to a National Park, or National Forest, or perhaps a small rural school, or an environmental summer camp, and ask around. Pretty soon you'll find one of ours. Or two, or three.

Unity graduates are everywhere and anywhere the environment needs to be protected.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ice storm update

Photo: All the nasty weather meant it was time to move the tractor to the barn where it can be kept snow free and ready for plow work. This chicken found it a handy perch for observing goings-on outside the barn.

Well, in the end it wasn't our power that we lost, but our telephone and internet connection. Fairpoint, who runs the local phone lines, had it hooked up again pretty quickly, but then it went out again last night sometime, and was again restored this morning.

Even so, when the phone goes out, you either do without, or go find a phone that works to tell the phone company. I had to do the latter Friday, even after I posted saying I wouldn't, since we both had college work to do for which we needed the Internet. I drove to college to tell the phone company, but ended up staying all day. Not at all what I had planned.

This bendy birch tree was on Great Farm Road as I left. Someone took care of it by the time I came back, probably our neighbor to the north, Hamilton. We have excellent neighbors, which we do not take for granted, after experiencing our neighbor at the Bale House who threatened to shoot our dogs. I try to help Hamilton and his family out whenever I can, and he reciprocates.

In Maine, you need your neighbors. The normal atomistic individual view of American life falls down when you have blizzards, ice storms, wind storms, floods and hurricanes, four or five regular weather emergencies every year.

This afternoon's trip to the hardware store provided the neighborly intelligence that lots of other folks around here lost their power, and are still without now, almost 48 hours after the event. Crews are driving our way from neighboring states, but it may take a few days. Our house happened to be on an unaffected spur line. For once.

Some Mainers without wood stoves or some form of back-up heat will get cold houses as a result, and have to go to motels or to the various shelters the state has opened. The weather is good for driving, if cold, so Mainers won't be hurting too much. Generally, we're used to it, and plan for it. At the Womerlippi farm, we use wood stoves for heat and cooking and oil lamps for light, as well as inverters running off the truck, and so we'd be fine, albeit reading books rather than watching TV. But we would never go to a shelter, unless the house burned down. We have animals to look after.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Anyone who has not experienced a full-blown New England ice storm can do so vicariously via these pictures. Yesterday was our last final examinations, and so Aimee and I don't have to go to work today. Not that we could, since even the 4WD truck would have a hard time on the icy roads, and is in any case encased in half an inch of solid ice.

The cure for ice is of course, fire, and so I intend to tend ours carefully all day, and keep the house especially warm to keep the ice melting off roofs and windows.

The clock on the kitchen stove keeps a helpful record of the minutes elapsed since the last outage. By my reckoning, 33 minutes of un-interrupted power is our record so far this morning. Every time a tree falls or leans on a high voltage power line, the breaker between that line and the next highest in the grid hierarchy will pop, and cut off power to one or the other locality. Everyone else in that power district will know what happened because their power will flicker off and on as the breaker pops.

And trees will lean or fall, all across the frozen landscape. Generally, the birches and young popples ("popple" being aspen to you westerners) will bend, being adapted to ice. Other trees will snap. Several tons of frozen water can be added to the live weight of a tree during an ice storm. Or a building, or a fence. Even a poor old rototiller abandoned in a corner of the garden might gather a hundred pounds or two, although it won't likely suffer as much as the apple tree behind might.

Despite the weather, animals must always be fed and watered and checked upon, and so we human farmers must venture out. As I took these pictures this morning, this ice was starting to turn to rain. If a cold front is behind the ice, though, everything will snap back to ice later, and we'll be locked in a for a few days until the ice melts.

Generally, like most genetic northerners, I relish bad weather. Remember, I'm from northern Old England, born ten degrees of latitude further north than here, even. In Yorkshire we get freezing fog, which is another interesting form of atmospheric ice, and the occasional polar air stream, which is a phenomenon of great beauty, although equally as dangerous.

Once, high on the Yorkshire moors, my RAF Mountain Rescue Team were locked into a warm pub until the wee wee hours, singing old songs, oblivious as a polar gale swept in. The next morning, we staggered blearily out of frozen tents into a true arctic blizzard in which we could barely stand up. The duty cook was gamely trying to cook bacon with one hand and hold on to the ridge pole of the NATO 12 by 12 tent with the other, essentially running the risk of becoming a human kite in the process. Not wishing to stay long in such a terribly exposed place, the best we could do was to pack up as quickly as possible, rolling the tents into giant snowballs, several men throwing each ball into the back of a three-ton truck.

We left the pub, which was built of stone and four square to the wind, far behind. But that pub was already four hundred years old at the time. It managed just fine.

Luckily all the vehicles started, after a few jump-starts, and we headed for lower altitudes.

Elsewhere in Britain, on a different moor, a group of boy scouts froze to death in their tents that night.

No-one will freeze on this farm today. As you can see, our barn is warm and bright with the lights on, safe shelter for all the indoor animals, and the extra hay and oats I gave the few outdoor sheep this morning will keep them warm all day. They also have a small shelter.

You can tell which sheep chose to spend the night out. Nellie! Silly girl. She's tucking into a good feed of hay though, so she's none the worse.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Aimee is a great photographer, a skill she puts to work for her in the classroom and in science research.

But her favorite muses are our animals. Here's a selection of what I found on her camera yesterday.

The big blond fluffy hens are our Buff Orpington layers, who were babies this spring.

They all get names, although it takes a while for Aimee to figure out which bird gets what name. She generally waits until they distinguish themselves in some recognizable way.

This is "Spike" and "Skippy." Spike has a spiky comb. Skippy likes to skip.

The next shot is Shenzhi-cat trying to catch the water coming out of our basement sump pump.

That cat will catch anything and everything.

Then there's Mo, laying an egg in the hay rack, followed by a shot of the chicks in the new greenhouse, partly constructed so far.

I've decided that this greenhouse is Aimee's Christmas present. Aimee. for her part, bought me something on eBay, but won't say what. I hope it's a Land Rover.

Back to the pictures.

Finally, there's a shot of Buela, who is our most aggressive, cock-like hen. The aggression really comes out in the shot. I think that hen wants to peck the camera.

Buela likes to fight with Aimee. Aimee pretends to fight back, and they have a kind of fake cockfight regularly.

I guess you have to be there to fully enjoy the sight of a tiny hen fighting a short German-American farm-wife. But I recommend it.

Like I said, we entertain ourselves around here. Animals are better than TV.

It may seem lame to some more sophisticated types, but it's a life.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Getting the wind up

It's been windy down on the farm lately, enough so two nights before Thanksgiving to take some roof off our sheep barn and bring down some trees on our power line. We're second to last house on a spur line, off another spur, deep in the woods, a forgotten enclave as far as the tree trimmers seem concerned, and so we're used to short power cuts every few weeks or so, but I was still worried as my sump pump wasn't doing its job and I have several hundred dollars worth of farm-fresh meat in my freezers and this seemed a longer outage than most.

So when the linesmen showed up I was very glad to see them. This despite the fact that they showed after quite some delay, about 20 hours of no power. About half the county was without power, and our little outage was a low priority job compared to others that would have restored power to hundreds of people, not just a handful.

This logic of electrical triage we understand and appreciate, and we also are mindful of the responsibility to be self-reliant when you choose to live so deep in the deep woods.

We choose to live here. If we and other rural folk demanded the same services and amenities enjoyed by urbanites and complained every time the power went out or the snow didn't get plowed, everyone's utilities and taxes would be that much higher.

And we'd be what our students would rudely call "lame."

So when the linesmen finally showed up with chainsaws and a cherry picker truck, I was delighted, and set to, helping them clear the trees. They were all young guys, and they didn't mess around, expertly wielding chainsaws and winches and other useful implements to clear the trees. Even so, it took them about three hours to fully diagnose and fix all the ground leaks on our five-hundred yard spur, there were so many down and leaning trees. The power came on and off again several times, and we even heard the main breaker crack loudly once, like a gunshot, down on the main line, as the linesmen tried to switch the power on before they'd cleared all the trees.

All very exciting.

Luckily, electrical power, like many other energy problems, succumbs to logical trouble-shooting, and so you know that eventually, if you keep asking the right binary questions, and proceed by elimination, it will get fixed. There's a good lesson there. Reason still works! Surprise! When lots of perfectly intelligent people in academia have tried to make it go away for many, many years. But these are not people who have to fix things and keep them running. Those of us who do, love reason because it makes our lives easier.

Question: How many postmodernist and deconstructivist academics does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: None. Because if you don't really believe in logic and reason in the first place, you'll be so busy thinking up silly notions of why the light ain't on, you'll never get around to fixing even the simplest problems.

I've been fixing things since my dad taught me the basics of my first trade, electrical wiring. Dad rewired houses, and I was his crawl space boy, expertly fitting junction boxes into tiny dirty places at the tender age of eleven. Now, a dozen skilled and semi-skilled trades later, from airplane maintenance to barn-building, I remain thoroughly appreciative of practical things and practical people.

Postmodernists never seem to actually do anything useful or practical. They depend on others for all that. And of course, if everything is relative, and there's no such thing really as wrong or right, just differing viewpoints, well, what's to stop me eating my neighbor if I get a little hungry in an emergency? Why should I have to contribute anything important to society and to community, if there's really no such thing, if it's all just a simulacrum.

Obviously, deconstructivism begins to fall down when you realize even the best deconstructivists are dependent on the ordinary con-struction trades for shelter.

Reductio ad absurdum.

Another good lesson was found in not having power for twenty-three hours, this one in ecological systems. Everything is connected to everything else, in our house, and around the planet. As with ecological systems, resilience and redundancy are key. If you don't have power, the things that still work are wood stoves, flashlights, and oil lamps. Appreciating resilience and redundancy, we have all of these. Our propane kitchen stove still works, although its oven does not. When we bought a wood stove, we opted for a practical Norskie model with a hotplate built-in. Those Norwegians appreciate the absolute value of heat. Inverters and generators are also useful things, mostly made in China these days, and we own several inverters and a good propane generator. Practical folk, the Chinese. Admirably productive and adept at engineering usefulness out of steel and plastic. And a sensible hot water tank by GE that runs on propane and still works just fine when the power goes out. Remember when America was the workshop and factory floor of the world?

Unfortunately, some folks have borrowed the genny for quite a while now, and so we were left trying to use inverters hooked up to a pick-up truck motor to run the essential systems of the house and that's where our otherwise careful preparations fell short..

These essentials, in our particular farmhouse, comprise two chest freezers, two refrigerators, a sump pump, and a well pump. The various food coolers are needed to store our farm surplus for the winter. The sump pump is needed twice a year when the ground water begins to rise in our basement. Mostly, we use it to keep the water away from the furnace and hot water tank and one of the two freezers that live in the basement. And we need to run a deep well pump to get water for humans and animals. Our eleven sheep in particular need about ten gallons a day.

If all else fails, we're just two hundred yards from a year-round creek. We wouldn't even have to carry the water, just let the sheep go. They can go get a drink and come back. They're good sheep and they would come back.

Of course, even with all this resilience and redundancy, things never go quite as well as you want. I managed to burn up the larger of our two inverters trying to get it to run the well pump, which had I thought about it, I would have known would happen, that pump drawing about twice as much power as the inverter could supply. I was more careful with the other one after that. We gave up trying to get the well pump to run and used rainwater collected in pools here and there for the animals.

Other than that, all went well and we even enjoyed our electrical hiatus. We heated with the wood stove, shutting down the heat systems that needed power. We cooked on the wood stove and the propane burners and used flashlights and oil lamps for light. We were able to stay warm and fed and to properly water and feed all our animals. We missed our TV a little, but instead made conversation and read books. It was actually quite pleasant at times.

Still, I know now I need to be more forceful about getting that generator back. It's silly to be the owner of a 1500 watt generator, if you can't use it when you need to. I would have been much happier about it all if I could have used the genny to run the sump pump to clear the water from the basement and to run the well pump.

This was a good test, and we were not unprepared. A passing grade. We have a thing or two to tinker with, to be even readier for the next emergency.

So much for the Womerlippis. How resilient is the rest of society? And how redundant are our systems for food, water, shelter, energy, health care and emergency services? Because we are for sure going to need them more and more these next few decades.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Crawling in the crawl space

I wanted to work indoors today because the weather was too bad to mess with our greenhouse. So I hung the new front porch door I made over the weekend. No pictures of that because I got too busy insulating the crawl space above said porch.

I cut two hatches in the ceiling, bought some insulation and made ready. But I wanted somebody around in case my ladder fell, so I waited for Aimee to get back from college where she had been doing some prep or grading or something.

But the sight of my legs dangling as I struggled up into the crawl space was too much for Aimee. Instead of watching my ladder (and my back) she ran for her camera and started snapping shots, effectively blinding me with the flash up in the crawl space.

She got roundly berated for her trouble, but was not fazed.

Nothing new. You can see at the bottom what she's generally like to me. Bad girl.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The new greenhouse

That stinking cold abating for the time being, hopefully for good, and the weather having improved, it was time to begin framing Aimee's new greenhouse.

Last year she made do with a half-hoophouse, but it was forever getting damaged in our regular winter gales. This new building will be made of cedar, glass, and polycarbonate roofing.

Aimee likes to grow plant starts in the spring of the year. She grows enough tomatoes, peppers, and basil to meet our needs and the frozen and canned tomatoes and pesto last all year.

This building will serve double duty, because as a half-scaffold, I can use it to more easily put asphalt shingles on this half of our barn roof. There's just cheap roll roofing up there right now, nowhere near good enough. Actually, you can easily see where I recently had to put two new sheets down to replace two that blew off in a gale. One more bit of scaffolding on each side will suffice to reach the entire length.

Of course I had a lot of helpers. Especially when it came to unload the half ton of oats we got today at the feed store.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Can't beet that soup; and feeding other kinds of beasts

Here's our four young ewes Molly, Maggie, Lark, and little Nellie with visiting ram-bo Snorri, eating hay. As you can see there's some kind of strange white stuff on the ground.

Hmmm. Wonder where we've seen that before? Ah. that's right. Only for about five months last winter.

It's baaa-ck!

Cold and windy with blowing spindrift out there, I spent much of the day in the shop making a new front door for the porch. I was sneezing the whole time, cold and snotty, so I finally came in to make beet soup.

That should help my cold. And I made Mick-bread.

Mick bread is any hearty bread made by a Mick, best served hot with butter. This has pinhead oatmeal and rye.

Want to buy a "virtual" pig or lamb?

Making this farm pay is a real headache, but I think I may have a partial solution.

We get a lot of interest in the meat and eggs we raise from colleagues at college and in the community. We raise a lot of food here, and would like to make some money off the surplus. Given time to get these old overgrown orchards and pastures back into productive grass and apples, we could raise more, much more. We do sell some food already. We sell eggs. We also sell Aimee's plant starts and raw fleece. And then we just give some away, quite a bit, mostly because we can and because we like to. The eggs and chops we give out are extremely popular.

(Aimee has a kind of rough schedule so everyone she knows, close friend or not, gets eggs once in a while. I tend to give chops to those who ask, but also as a kind of thank-you to anyone who's been helpful to me recently. I guess Aimee is more of a democrat, while I'm looking for a return on my investment. Capitalist.)

But we can only legally sell the surplus meat if we truck the animals live to a USDA approved butchering facility some sixty miles away. This is not really very sensible right now for two reasons. The first is, we'd need to shell out nearly two grand for a suitable, street-legal, safe, heavy-duty livestock trailer. We have a tiny home-built box trailer that's legal and that cost a couple hundred dollars, but we can never take it more than a few miles. I accidentally twisted the frame, so the tires wear out too quickly. I can make it to the butchers and back, but not much more.

There are a gazillion things we need right now more than we need a livestock trailer, including a new car for Aimee to get to work. A non-starter.

The second reason is, sixty miles is a long haul for an animal that's already terrified and going to die soon.

The first problem could be overcome if it were a good investment, if we thought we could sell the meat at a good price. The second, well, it would make the animals and us pretty unhappy. Butchering season already makes me miserable.

But recently a colleague asked us if we'd grow out an extra pig for her and her husband, possibly in consort with another couple we know. I told her, sure, probably not a problem. For our own use we usually grow two pigs every two years because one pig is lonely and two pigs is more than I can eat in a year. But we can comfortably get two pigs every year and grow one extra for a friend or consortium of friends.

And this year, with seven breeding ewes and two rams at work we will have between six and ten lambs. Some of those, the surplus males, can also be "virtualized:" sold soon after birth, but "boarded" here until slaughter.

And then the animals can be trucked just the fourteen miles to our local butchers who does a great and legal job for half the price if the person using the meat actually owns the animal that is delivered. I still could use to get a new trailer, but I can keep my eye out for around for a small box trailer in Uncle Henry's, our local classified weekly. Maybe I can find one for under five hundred bucks.

A sensible solution.

And then I read on Stonehead's blog that he's working out much the same system.

It's the wave of the future. Virtual livestock. And it could be really helpful to my farm development project.

I want to eventually have a farming operation that grows all our own fuel and most of our bulk food, and makes a couple to three thousand dollars cash a year. This is realistic. We already grow all our own fuel: five cords of wood a year, worth about $1,000 to us in offset expenditure. We already do pretty well on food. Meat, eggs, potatoes, cabbages, frozen and canned tomatoes, and beans are the key crops that keep most or all winter, comprising about half to two thirds of what I eat and about a third of what Aimee eats. This is a lot of offset expenditure, and it makes for an interesting shopping trip for Aimee, since most of what she gets for me is premium stuff like coffee, a bottle or two of cheap plonk a week, some bread, some granola. That's about it. I really don't eat very much bought-in food.

But we only make a couple hundred dollars a year on eggs and fleece and plant starts.

Livestock is our best option right now for income. I keep imagining a terraced vineyard on these well-drained south-facing slopes, but right now, realistically, we're best at growing animals, and the meat we raise is premium quality and very valuable. We raised about 400 pounds of pork and lamb this year, which at, say, an average of six dollars a pound is worth $2,400. We probably spent about half that much to raise it and butcher it. Figure we can make one or two dollars per pound profit.

The money we make can be reinvested into the operation. We need that trailer, we need more fence, we need a new bushhog, we need just a ton of stuff to help us get this land productive again, that we can't afford because farming is only a second income for us, not a first, and because our primary jobs pay the mortgage and pay down consumer debt and give us savings but not much more. Certainly there isn't any money or additional debt load we could afford to accelerate the farm development project.

Even so, it will be a long haul.

I wish I could have gotten my hands on this place twenty years ago, before the real decline set in. I'd have been able to get up to a decent level of production in three years instead of the ten it will likely take, and could then retire earlier on the farm income and my service and college pensions.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Burning season

It's going to be 10 degrees F tonight.

Time to burn s..t.

I finally gave up and fired up the furnaces. We have an oil forced air furnace, a wood stove, and a wood furnace. We'd been doing OK this fall with just the wood stove, but it lives in the kitchen and is 30 feet and around a 90 degree bend from my usual seat on the left hand side of the couch, which also happens to be right next to Aimee's cat door, visible to the left of the TV.

The freaking cat door leaks air, but herself banned its removal for the first part of the winter. The cats' excursions take priority over my comfort, it seems.

It was 55 degrees in that corner when I came home from work today. It didn't get much above 59 there last night.

Poor old duffer, freezing his ass to let the cats have their day out.

Alright then. As long as they kill the mice that would otherwise eat the roots in the cellar.

So I fired up the oil furnace for ten minutes to take off the chill, while getting a fire going in the wood furnace, and opening up the wood stove full blast.

Haggis is getting the benefit. And you can tell Aimee is toasty because she's not covered with her blankey.

I like the orange glow from the two wood burners. It makes me feel all pleistocene.

Awesome. Burn! Burn!

Beet soup

Mick's Cold-Cure, Anti-Viral Beet Soup

Challenged by the rhinovirus lately? Here's an option that will at least make you feel better.

Take 3 pounds fresh beet roots, and dice to 3/8 inch cubes. Set aside.
Dice 1 pound carrots, set aside.
Optional: 1/2 pound parsnips. Slice these. They'll taste better sliced than diced. Set aside.
Chop finely 1 pound yellow onions. Fry these in olive oil in the bottom of a large soup kettle until translucent. Do not caramelize
Add the root vegetables. Cover and reduce heat to lowest setting. Cook very gently for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not allow vegetables to brown.

Add the following seasonings and stir in:
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 heaping teaspoon cumin seed

Add 1 20 ounce can of chopped tomatoes, or one quart jar of home-canned tomatoes, and stir well.

Add sufficient water to cover all the vegetables and then some.

Bring to boil, and simmer gently for at least an hour, preferably more. This is a good time to put the whole thing on the woodstove for a long while and go do something else, like take a walk for the benefit of that cold. The dog wants to go too. Don't forget the dog.

When you're almost ready to serve, add chopped fresh dill if you have it, and let it sit on top of the simmering soup for about five minutes to bring out the flavor. Serve a lot of the life-saving liquid, and a little of the roots in each bowl, piping hot.

Garnish each bowl with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream if you wish. Refrigerate whatever you don't eat today and save it for the next day, when it will taste even better.

This soup won First Prize in the Alliance for the Wild Rockies recipe competition, 1994. The extra ingredient that got the attention of the judges was Scots whiskey. But that was just a gimmick.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Walking the cat back

Our she-cat, Shenzhi, likes a nice walk almost as much as the dogs do. In this case she accompanied all three dogs and I on a walk in the woods.

But she was upset that we only went a few hundred yards.

Poor cat. But it was dog-dinnertime. The dogs all ran home for their food, leaving me and the cat alone in the woods.

How cat-astrophic.


Wanting entertainment on a wet Sunday, we noticed that a small pond had appeared on our front lawn, courtesy of the night's rain.


Just right for some ducks, we thought.

A little quacking and duck-carrying later, the ducks were in the pond, although they were not enjoying it, and took off back to their pen at the first opportunity.

We need to get a life. But this was terribly amusing for us.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bubble and squeak

Hmmm, what do we have for dinner...

cabbage and onions from our garden

bacon from our pigs

last week's mashed potato from the fridge but originally the garden

our own eggs

In a cast-iron skillet, using deep green olive oil, fry onions covered until translucent, add cabbage and cover and steam for 10 minutes, add mashed potato and cook until crisp in places. Au gratin, or as my college buddy Rab always said, meaning "with burned scrapings." That's for the first day. Save some. It's better the next day.

The second day, cut the bacon up to one-inch pieces and fry up until crisp. Add yesterday's bubble and squeak until hot, then serve. With eggs over easy if you can.

But, if you can at all help it, don't get chased by your wife around the kitchen.

(What for? For leaving the kitchen stool in her way, that's what for. How unjust. The stool, meanwhile, was sent to the porch.)