Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fire up your (chicken) tractors

Today we made one of the two animal shelters we are to make for MOFGA this summer. Here are some shots of the construction process. This chicken tractor is designed to be for show only, ie, to display birds at the fair, so it doesn't need a weasel-proof coop like the one we have at home, just a shelter and some perches.

I was helped by Aaron, who also drove truck, getting out of the office for most of the afternoon. The design is a copy of Sara's nationally famous chicken tractor, which appeared in Organic Gardening magazine as well as the MOFGA newspaper.

The weather here in mid-Maine was an improvement for work like this. The mug cleared right out and the air dried up nicely, after days of high humidity. Unfortunately, I finished getting my firewood in yesterday, so I was done with the last of the really heavy work for a while. Still it was nice to be drier while working in the sun. And we had a nice gardener's summer shower at least at Unity if not in Jackson.

Also pictured are the Womerlippi Farm sheep, using a picnic table as a shelter. This in preparation for tomorrows job: to make a sheep shelter for use at the fairgrounds. This will differ from our picnic table by being on wheels so the college's shepherds can pull it around easily. As you can see, sheep aren't fussy about shade. They use whatever they can find close at hand, even if they have access to formal shelters.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Another one bites the dust...

Another series of tree murdering pictures. This one was a large ash that had lost it's main trunk in a storm years ago, probably the Ice Storm of '98, and which was well and truly blocking the light to about 1/4 acre of potential grazing. But all twisted and with hung-up dead branches, it wasn't going to go easy.

I notched it and put a rope on it with the hand winch -- called a "come-along" here in the 'States, but that wasn't enough to pull it over in the direction I wanted to go. I'm normally not fussy about trying to drop trees against their own weight. If the tree wants to go south, it can. In this case, I was trying to save the Great Farm elm behind it. A 12 inch DBH American elm is not a tree anyone should wish to cut or damage, even accidentally.

But the ash wouldn't cooperate. possibly it wondered why elms were so privileged around here. The tree shifted back on it's hinge cut and trapped the chain saw. the rope, only a 2,000 lb breaking strain utility line, threatened to part. More muscle obviously needed.

Right. So I called in Aimee and we dusted off the 9,000 lb winch we use for raising wind turbine towers. You can see the aftermath.

All's well that end's well.

After cutting this tree up -- known as "bucking" for you Brits, my hands were a teensy bit tingly, and I only had the energy to split one load of logs. The rest can wait until tomorrow. The ash, by the way, had a basal width of 24 inches, but was only 30 years old.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Peaceable kingdom

Where the lamb lies down with the... lamb, and the chickens feel free to step right over.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

New pictures, and a net zero logging job

Aimee's new mailbox, very artistic and even comedic, with pictures of various Womerlippi farm residents, including an impression of a chicken standing on a sheep, which believe it or not happens regularly around here. She also made three cedar bird boxes like this one.

And then a series of shots of the demise of a medium-large wild cherry tree, made into a cord of firewood. The tree was shading out some of our semi-wild Great Farm apple trees that we hope to semi-domesticate. It was on the south side of the apples and had the upper hand, so it was either the cherry or the apples.

The only difference between the way we make firewood and the way other Mainers make firewood is the sheep.

The sheep like to eat the leaves of downed trees, almost as soon as they're down, so if you give them a chance to do their job, there's less volume of brush and leaves to pile. But you have to get them out of the way as the tree comes down. Luckily, they don't like the noise of the chainsaw much, so that does the job. Chickens, however, are another matter.

The white Bolen's lawn tractor is the unsung hero of work around here. It only cost 600 bucks, and the red trailer $150, but together they can haul a half a cord of firewood, essentially a pick-up load, from the bottom of the main field to the top, a 1 in 5 slope, and in places 1 in 3, and in the last week they have moved more than a ton of chimney debris to the bottom of the yard, as we wrecked out our old chimney, ready for a brand new one.

Oh, and it also cuts grass. But not often, because the sheep generally do that.

Between running the tractor and the chainsaw, and running me own own pathetic, spotty fat body, the fuel needed for today's cord of cherry firewood was about a pint and a half of gas, plus a bowl of granola pour petit moi. In return we got, according to the nifty table I found on Google, 14 million BTUs worth of firewood, a three-week supply at the rate we have been burning it each winter, although I'm hoping our various modifications/repairs to the chimney and basement reduce that by about a third.

At 115,000 BTUs per gallon of gas, that makes an 87,500% Energy Return on Investment (EROI). (Ignoring the granola which I would have eaten anyway.) In other words, we got a whopping 875 times the energy out of today's operation that we put into it. Eat s..t, ethanol lobbyists. And a cord of wood costs 200-250 bucks, so for my 2 hours work, we were paid $125 an hour.

(Problem is, splitting a cord of wood in 80% humidity and 75 degree heat is all you can do for a whole day, never mind if it only takes you ten minutes of maul-ing. After my energy was dissipated, I went to town to run errands, then I puttered around doing nothing hard. Although I did dig up our first spuds of the year. German Butterballs, Aimee says, very good spuds.)

And our firewood system ss sustainable, since we have 15.5 acres all with young trees that probably grow about 15 cords a year, and we only take five or six. In fact, we are probably sequestering more than enough carbon to make up for the tiny amount of heat oil and propane we burn. (Although not the gasoline for our two cars.) And, since we're on hydro, this makes the house at least carbon neutral. (If not the vehicles -- where is my cheap electric car? I keep looking on eBay.) We'd like to keep up with the cutting of trees, so we are in effect clearing land, but we only are making a dent in the area closest to the house right now, and would have to increase our rate of cut by a factor of four or five if we really wanted to get more grazing lands. Old timers simply burned trees to make grazing and arable land. That would be silly today since firewood is more valuable than the food you can grow on Maine farmland.

Still, it is getting more open close to the house.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


I always knew that haircuts were dangerous. Check out the unexpected consequences:

Friday, July 11, 2008

Latest pictures: High summer on the farm

Summertime, and the living is easy... NOT! The weeding, woodcutting, wood stacking, livestock management, and all the work of running a homestead, while also fixing up a 108 year old home, is about as easy as you would think. But it keeps us active, and we are eating our own fresh veggies again. The garden, thoroughly fertilized with about two tons of sheep manure and bedding, is growing like Topsy, the tomatoes are now taller than Aimee and the pole beans are outgrowing nine feet poles. These are the most advanced tomato plants we know of in the neighborhood. Most other tomatoes around here are just a couple feet right now. Amazing what you can do with good soil-building techniques.

Just shows that the old fashioned mixed livestock-and-crop farming system does have it's advantages over today's monocultures, but also over the fashionable vegan idea of excluding livestock from agriculture. And the pigs get to eat the weeds, the chickens eat the bugs, and the sheep get to mow the lawn. All as nature and 6,000 years of northern European/American agricultural knowledge intended.

Now if there were just a natural control for potato bugs....

Enjoy the pictures below.

Aimee hiding in the beans: a green imp?

How we dispose of weeds: to the pigs! And they scoff them up.

The dreaded Colorado potato bug. Evil little buggers.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Don't get in the way!

Long time, no post. Neglecting the blog.

Because it's summer and we're busy, that's why. In the last few weeks Aimee and I have:

*finished rebuilding and remodeling our porch
*finalized planting the garden, and then kept it up against repeated quack grass and potato bug onslaughts
*sheared the sheep
*replaced our septic system with a new one for less than $6,000 (thanks to Tim the "Tractor Artist")
*gutted, insulated and completely remodeled our bathroom (if we were going to have a new septic, no point keeping that old toilet!)
*repaired freeze-thaw damage to our old rubble-and-stone foundation
*replaced a portion of our sill damaged by carpenter ants

Still to come in the late summer and fall:

*adding R16 of cellulose insulation to the eastern, southern and western walls of the main part of the house, bringing them up to R30-40 all round
*cedar shingling the barn
*getting in another 4 cords of firewood (at minimum) for the winter
*replacing either the kitchen chimney or its liner, depending on prognosis
*bringing in and "putting up" the harvest, including around 500 lbs of potatoes, lots of tomatoes, and assorted beans and pickles
*purchasing 200-300 bales of hay "in the field," picking it and trucking it, and slinging said hay into barn attic
*slaughtering and butchering three lambs and two pigs

This heavy seasonal workload is one reason why family and friends from urban areas of the "lower 47" who come to see us in Maine in the summer are often disappointed by our lukewarm response.

You want to come see us at our leisure, come in January or February, not in June or July.

Come the rains and winds in late October, we may start to slow down a bit.

Now if you plan to show up with a tractor-trailer load of chainsaws and yard and farm equipment, or firewood, or hay, and are prepared to sling said equipment, wood, or hay thyself, with no supervision, and not much thanks, while we get on with our other chores and projects, then come on up!

Welcome, friend!