Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mighty Hunter

I've been watching for this. Orion is on the rise.

This is a sure sign of approaching winter in the north. Generally, by the time you can see Orion in the evening, it's hunting season. So far I have only seen it in the early morning, when I walk our piddlesome dogs at 4 or 5 am, but bit by bit it will advance, until I see it on the evening constitutional too.

Everywhere I've lived my life, this constellation has been a feature of fall and winter. As a herald of colder, cooler, more comfortable weather, I am always happy to see it.

But I'd better get those tomatoes in.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Wet spot woes

Daisy-dog, our old M3 (Maladjusted Malamute Mongrel) has developed incontinence. We first noticed a strange odor, then saw her rug would be wet every morning.

In our battle to maintain a sane and normal homelife despite having a piddlesome dog, we first took minor countermeasures: rug-washing, floor cleaning, general additional besoming.

Then, when that proved insufficient, we bought new dog beds and instituted a rotation. But the odor remained.

So we now clean her spot and change her bed daily. We have sheared off her stinky fur and bathed her several times. And she doesn't get let back into the house until late. When I wake in the night, usually around 3 or 4am, to tend to my own aging bladder, she is let out and not allowed back in except to the porch. Then I change her bed.

We also took her to the vet, who prescribed antibiotics. I doubt these will work. Privately, I think she has hip dysplasia or some other local paralysis. Her tail end is a bit withered and her back legs don't always work quite the way they should.

You know you have a dog piddle problem when you start buying Odo-ban in bulk!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Other Mainers ride snowmobiles or ORVs or Harley-D's

I like to drive my Troy-Bilt tiller.

This was an ancient machine that was given to the college gardener's but they could not get it to run. I took the engine apart, freed up the valves which were rusted to the guides, and reground them like a good ex-RAF sumpy should. It started and ran, but not well. And it was very loud.

Later I was able to salvage a newer engine from a gas alternator that burned up. This has a couple more horses, and the new machine says no to nothing once up and running.

The new motor is a Tecumseh 9 horse, and these have a habit of sticking their needle valves and floats. SOP is to clean out the float bowl and flick the needle valve a few times before firing up after any hiatus.

Other than that, it gets left in the field all summer.

This was the potato patch. Now it will be fall kale and spring spinach.

Next picture is our ducks trying to stay cool in the woods.

Must be wood ducks, I guess.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Back to school

Today is the day we have to begin regular work hours again. It'll be a 16-week grueling marathon of meetings, teaching, and stress until Christmas, followed by about four weeks of sanity, followed by another 16 week marathon until next summer, when we will again be relatively sane.

The Toad Work.

I never minded work much because I long ago mastered the trick of only doing things I actually enjoy doing for money. I love teaching sustainability and ecological economics, and really there's only an imaginary firewall between my work life and homestead life. And I certainly can't be accused of not practicing what I preach. That means that I tend to blend fairly seamlessly from one activity to the other, the big difference being that at home I work alone a lot, while at college I'm always working with someone else.

Aimee has a slightly different approach. She keeps a stronger firewall. And she also puts more overall effort into her career, I think. I don't skive, but I do try to take things steadily, and I usually manage to get my work done in less time.

No, the difficulty in being a college teacher is neither the teaching nor the students. It's the other faculty. There's so much management by committee, and so little able, practical leadership in college and universities. Such a lot of fuss and bother. As a former tradesman and aircraft engineer who regularly has to take on big building or retrofit projects, I generally don't make a big fuss about actually doing something. I just get it done. Some of my colleagues, on the other hand...

Gary Wareham, a famous RAF Mountain Rescue troop, once noted the American military's much higher propensity to hand out medals than the British. A US Air National Guard squadron, flying Corsairs, had a practice deployment to RAF Leeming, took over Number 1 Hangar, and operated out of there on practice missions for a few weeks. We were amazed that all these part-time airmen had long rows of medal ribbons, while we RAFMRS full-timer airmen, who regularly rescued people from mountaintops and cliffs at some risk to life and limb, would be lucky if we got even one medal in a life's service to mountain rescue and the RAF.

Said Gary, very contemptuously in his Sussex accent, "these Americans, they get a medal if they do two s...s in a day."

Now before I get inundated with nasty comments, remember folks, this is Gary speaking, not me. My admiration for the American military knows no bounds. And Gary was just a bit jealous.

But some of our college colleagues seem to think they deserve medals for doing the slightest bit of work beyond their alloted classes. And they never get anything done! It makes life difficult for those of us who are in the habit of getting things done. And it's a self-reinforcing cycle. After a while, the Administrators and bosses, who are always hard pressed for time and money, realize that some individuals can never get anything done, so they hand out the extra jobs, committee assignments and chairships, reports, paperwork, to the ones who can.

The upshot is, some folks easily work twice as hard as others. I generally am not afraid of hard work, but it feels pretty lousy to be stressed and pressed for time when you look around and see the nice easy time some of your colleagues are having. It can also be annoying to have to put up with some individuals complaining about how hard they work, when you know for a fact they're never at work before 9.30 am and they leave at 3.30 pm, and no, they don't really do a lot of work at home.

That's the problem with the college teaching life. It's the same everywhere I've been. The great Universities of Montana, Maryland and Georgia all have much the same problem as little Unity College when it comes to these extra jobs. Nowhere I've seen has a fair system.

Still, there are only 32 weeks of the year when I have to put up with this. While I still do academic work, especially renewable energy and sustainability work, during the breaks, I get to pick who I work with.

And the students are generally a lot nicer to deal with. Not that they are universally free of human vices. Some students lie, cheat, and steal, especially ideas, others are lazy, and some are just dense. But generally speaking, I enjoy the company of young people in the college setting. It keeps me feeling a bit younger myself. And I find their antics humorous.

Anyway. Enough. I have one and a half hours more freedom before the onslaught. Time to prepare.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cheeseheads click here!

This is Aimee's cheese-making page.


Very cool. And tasty too. Highly recommended.

And the winner is...

Maine's very own "Kennebec" variety won the potato sweepstakes this year, with over 50 pounds for a twenty-foot row.

Close second was "Green Mountain."

"Sangre" not recommended if you need yield, but grows nice big red spuds.

Total potato harvest this year, about 250 pounds.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Great steaming heaps of s...e

It rained about two inches on Thursday afternoon, and so the big pile of sheep bedding in the pig sty that I had recently shoved out there was all fired up. Compost needs water as much as plants do, but not too much or it will start using the very different anaerobic decomposition system, which stinks. Believe it or not, this pile doesn't smell bad at all.

The hotter the pile the better, because that kills the disease organisms, and any remaining hay and grain seeds. I expect it's 160 degrees F. in the center of this pile right now.

Aimee devised a system with an old grain sack to deflect the chickens from going up the barn steps to the hay loft, where they poop on the hay and try to hide eggs from us. A very puzzled chicken still tried to hop up, to no avail.

Finally, some ducks arrived for a spell. I guess we're house-sitting these guys for Aimee's student Meg, pictured, whose landlord won't let her have them at home just now. The ducks liked oats soaked in water, and dabbled away like mad for it.

I think if we have ducks, we will need a duck-pond, and if we had a duck pond, it might as well be a fish pond too, and if we were going to have a fish pond, I should get a backhoe, so I could build it myself, and then I could also more easily pull up stumps, etc, around the place.

But that might mean I needed a bigger tractor. Aimee thinks that seems like a lot of money just for three ducks. So they have a kids paddling pool for now.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sale successes.

Yesterday was our big day out of the year: The Damariscotta Miles Memorial Hospice Association Rummage Sale. Here are the pictures to prove it. Check out the crowds in the crockery tent, mostly women, and the long check-out line.

We rummaged happily from 8 until 12 am, and spent around $100 to get the following:

Two dining chairs from the State Prison workshop that match the ones we have. (Aimee especially chuffed about these.)

A Stanley brand electric plane. Works, too!

A pressure cooker large enough to can half-pint jars of chunked lamb and pork. Perfect for rushed midweek dinners, especially curries and stews.

Ten hardback books, mostly history for me, including three for my Churchill collection.

About twenty articles of clothing. Aimee especially happy with a reversible skirt (if she wears it to school and it get dirty while she's teaching Bio lab, she can just whip it around).

I got a really nice wool winter jacket with a fleece lining, and unhappily for our flock, a sheepskin collar.

Thirty or so mugs for the college snack bar, which likes to use recycled mugs. About twenty plates for the same purpose.

About ten items of crockery for our own use.

Numerous items of hardware:hinges, spare wheels for chicken tractors, two tool boxes, a small brass oil can with plunger...

A TV to replace the one in Aimee's den. (A ten year old second hand TV to replace a twenty year old one that's almost kaput.)

A DVD player for Aimee to use while on field station, where the rooms don't have cable and only one and a half broadcast channels.

A small glass-cased thermometer on a brass plinth for indoor use. Slightly ornamental but also practical. On the shelf in me den.

Etc, etc...

Oh, yes. Picture frames. As advertised (see below). About ten of the buggers. I put these in the shed already with their buddies.

Here's the pickem-up truck loaded to the gunnals. More inside behind the seats, of course. I had a burger not a hot dog, and spoke with a nice old Yorkshire fellah delivered at an early age to America from Hull (and Halifax, apparently, but not Hell. Two out of three ain't bad.) It took five wheelbarrow loads and several hand loads to get everything to the truck, so I got my exercise pushing a heavily laden wheelbarrow up hill and down dale for about a mile. (The MMHA thoughtfully provide the additional transport.) We topped off our day with ice cream from Round Top Dairy and a drive through Appleton.

All in all, a very good day out.

Such materialists!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rummage Sale Day

Today is the day for the Damariscotta Rummage Sale, by far the best such event in the state of Maine, with about two acres of rummage, all very cheap. We go every year and always clean up. This is also Aimee's big Birthday Treat.

The Rummage Sale experience goes something like this:

5am ish: Get up early, have a light breakfast, and do all the farm chores so you can be on the road about 6.45 or so.

7.30: Stop at Borealis Bakery for coffee and a breakfast treat.

7.45: Get in line with all the other happy sales-goers.

8.00 Gate opens. Punters flood in. Watch out for the occasional desperate "sales fanatic" types, usually a lady, who can be pushy. Arguments do break out over who 'saw it first.' But 99.9% are easy going.

8.01: Aimee disappears. I catch fleeting glimpses of her for the next three hours or so.

8.02: I'm in the tools section, about 2 minutes behind the vanguard. I generally find one or two nice power or hand tools I want in the first five minutes or so. Then I mooch around looking for bargains on secondhand hardware, more tools, books, clothes not a big deal for me becaus most of what's there is for smaller guys. The furniture section can be interesting.

8.45: I'm getting about done. Aimee still not to be found.

9.00; I go around again, just puttering now. Pick up some more stuff, start making a pile of boxes of books and tools in some strategic and secure spot.

9.15: Aimee still shopping somewhere.

9.30: Aimee still shopping somewhere.

9.45: Brush past Aimee in the crockery aisle. She doesn't speak.

10.00: Glimpsed Aimee for a second among the womens clothing. I decide to take a nap next to my boxes. Hot dog, maybe?

10.15: Aimee still shopping somewhere.

10.30: Aimee still shopping...

10.45: ....

11.00: Aimee appears with big box and several bags and piles of stuff. Tells me to stand in line at the check out.

11.15: Still in line.

11.30: I pay for all the stuff. (Aimee's birthday treat.) It'll be something like about $36.50 for a pick-up load including about thirty items of clothing, some crockery, picture frames (we always get these: have about fifty at home already) one power tool, several hand tools, a box of misc. hardware, twenty hardback books, ten paperbacks, may two items of furniture, etc, etc.

1.45: Moving the stuff to the car and loading it always harder than you think. But we get it done.

12.00: We go home

1.00 pm: Arriving at home, we now have to find places to put all this stuff. Boy, we sure do have a lot of picture frames.

It's a great Maine tradition, and we love it. Aimee loves it for about two hours longer than I do, but naps and hot dogs are good too. And it makes deciding what to get her for her birthday really easy.

Onions and apples

I harvested the onions, Molly is harvesting apples.

Onions need a nice dry airy shed with lots of circulation, so I made chicken wire shelves.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Meat and veg

It's the time of year when we have to begin to keep up with the harvest. Unfortunately for us, the college season begins before the harvest season ends. Before it even really gets going.

Rather poor planning, that.

That really makes life in the beginning of September pretty busy. There's been a small hiatus of sorts these last three weeks, with weather too rainy to work outdoors every day, and no harvest work yet. Aimee and I have kept busy getting ready for the college term. We're not officially on the payroll until next week, but every judiciously spent hour now in prep time is an hour of time later for farm work, an hour we don't have to be at school.

Today I didn't bother with college. The garden is starting to produce, and we need to keep up with it pretty much daily for the next few weeks until it's all in. I hiked with Haggis in the rain on Mount Harris, moved the MOFGA sheep to a nice patch of clover, again in the rain, cleaned up the MOFGA operation a bit, and then came home to harvest. Todays haul was about eight pounds of broccoli, two red cabbages which are not pictured because they're drying off on a rack in the garage prior to being refrigerated, a couple of pounds of tomatoes. Also pictured are red potatoes and cucumbers from yesterday.

About 20 pounds of veggies.

In order to make room in the freezers and fridges for this stuff, I cleaned out. This is me making lard out of that last of our pigs from two years ago. I like to keep the fatback for this and other country cookin' purposes. I grew the poor old pig -- Braeburn was his name because he liked apples -- he died for my carnivorous sins, and I'm going to eat as much of him as I can to redeem myself. The lard will keep in the fridge, and save me a bit of freezer space. I also made three quarts of dill pickle slices, and one lonely half-pint of pickled Hungarian wax pepper slices, which are canning right now in the water bath canner.

Actually, if I look I probably have a picture of good old Braeburn. Yup. There he is. In his prime. A very good pig, was he.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Scientist by a nose

I've mentioned that my better half is such a dyed-in-the-wool scientist that she keeps exceptionally detailed data on farm produce. Here she is weighing eggs! Every egg gets weighed and recorded. Our record is 125 grams!

She hates to have her picture taken, so I got chased for my temerity with the camera The last picture is just as I was getting caught!

Deeply bedded

Here's a series of shots of today's farm project: cleaning out the Womerlippi barn with the small 12 HP Kubota tractor.

It's a small barn, so you need a small tractor. I'm a big guy, so I look pretty silly on a tiny japanese tractor. But it works well.

This is a custom-designed system, and the barn, the tractor, the pig sty and the garden all work together in linear fashion, a compost assembly line. We will build a similar system into the new college barn.

The material being "cleaned out" is actually being prepared for use, to be prized as next year's main agricultural input to the garden and potato patch.

This is deep bedding for the sheep from last winter. We use a modification on a European farm system called "Swedish deep bedding," that I learned about in ecology class field trips as a schoolkid, in which fresh bedding is added each week to cover last week's accumulation of manure. This doesn't smell bad like a regular barn does, and it helps concentrate the soil nutrients and capture fertility that is otherwise lost. The sheep do their deep bedding job for about 5-6 months of late fall, winter and spring, after which the pigs and chickens get to go at it. The pigs have been working it over now for about four months, and so we started to clean it out a few weeks ago, but it's getting very concentrated and ripe and even just a little smelly for the very first time, and is attracting flies, so it's time to move it all out!

Deep bedding is a great system for a small farm/garden combination, especially if you use a secondary processor like our pigs. You'd think that pigs would be upset to have to live in and sleep on used sheep bedding, but they love it, and dig and root in it for all kinds of unmentionable piggy treats, which keeps them happy pigs. They really enjoy the day we push out a fresh pile of bedding into the yard, and Ophelia, the livelier pig, goes skipping around in it like a piglet.

The Kubota tractor can move around in the 20 by 30 foot barn, especially if it has no rototiller or other rear attachment on, and so it does most of the heavy work. Still, cleaning out the edges and corners is hard work. About two hours was all that was needed to get 3/4 of the material out into the outdoor sty, where it will compost rapidly in what remains of summer. Next spring we'll till the finished compost into the garden using the bucket loader and the custom Kubota tiller that came with the tractor. There'll be too much so we will put some in the herb garden too, and possibly gives some away to the neighbors. That seems to me to be a lot less work than cleaning it out weekly, and a superior compost product is the result. The Kubota uses a small amount of diesel -- less than half a gallon -- to do this job.

Although I am a little tired from my exertions. Nicely so. That green gym workout again.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The toad work...

It's August 3rd, and time to consider the various things I need to do before college starts up again -- early this year, first day the 27th.

One reason I wanted to be a college professor was the annual schedule: the only professional job I can think of where you can have time each summer to homestead. Of course, I'm supposed to be doing research and public service activities during this time, and I do (really -- promise I do!). But I enjoy the long days in the garden or working on household and other projects. This summer was my first real summer off in four. The previous three were contaminated by work, two by full time work as Interim Provost of Unity College, the third by a late start while the permanent provost came on board, and then by the need to keep checking back in to uncover files, help solve problems, provide information for the transition. That was last summer, and we still managed to build the barn between July 1 when my interim contract ended, and the end of August when school started up. This summer we've completed any number of smaller scale but equally important projects: the new septic, the porch, the bathroom, the herb garden, etc, etc.

All good things must come to an end. Said Frost,

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
That's out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losers, loblolly-men, louts-
They don't end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
They seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets - and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout, Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don't say, one bodies the other
One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
When you have both.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Biogas experiment, stage II

Here's Abraram on the loose, not a problem, since I wanted to move the sheep, he was intentionally free. But moving at a fast clip. Action shot.

Then the motor and digester for the biogas genny. The shredder blade fell off the motor after a bit of cutting with the stick welder. It wasn't cut through, just red hot enough to loosen the heated fit.

I made a lid for the digester out of Lexan sheet. Since this is a science project, students need to see the poo fermenting inside. The connector is a threaded brass pipe fitting which cut it's own tread in the Lexan, secured by a nut on the other side.

Then I got some small helpers. For some reason, the chickens like the inside of my workshop. It makes for a little chicken crap in the place, but I like the company.

Woefully unproductive

This is a good photographic record of yesterday's activities -- and difficulties.

First up, when I went out around 6am to let the dogs piddle, I noticed that my firewood pile had come crashing down in the rains last night and I had the best part of a cord to tidy up. I've been resting my duff knee for a couple days since tripping over the lawnmower deck and spraining it, so this was not a happy sight. But I put it off until the afternoon because I'd been planning a trip to Bangor to see some Listeroid diesel engines for sale at Central Maine Diesel. These amazing super-efficient low rpm utility engines, built to an ancient British design by Messrs Lister & Co, now defunct, are cloned in India, and will run on diesel, kerosene, waste veggie oil, and biodiesel or various mixtures of all of the above. They also look to me to be capable of conversion to CHP (combined heat and power) uses, since, although they come without a radiator, they are water-cooled, and so I could run the waste heat through household hot water baseboards. I want one to build a stand-by genny, and to experiment with household CHP, and I'd been looking forward to this trip for days and no woodpile was going to spoil my fun.

Next up is my biogas generator project stage one, the motor retrofit. This is a 9hp pull-start Craftsman, probably made by Tecumseh, since it looks just like the one on the rototiller, and once I even switched out the carbs while I waited for a rebuild kit to come in the mail, and the tiller worked fine. Anyway, this now has a dicky carb which probably only needs a clean-and-rebuild, but attached as it is to a rusty shredder blade (its original purpose), it's no good to man nor beast. Gotta get the durn shredder blade off.

Back in the day, when small equipment was mostly pully driven and pullys were secured with hex bolts or woodruff keys, they came off easily. But far too many entrepreneurial farmers just reused engines when equipment died, and so the companies switched to direct drive and used taper shafts and put the drive end on hot so they shrink to the shafts, and they can be murder to get off. In this case, I picked up new pully-puller in Bangor, but that didn't do the job, the soft steel blade bent easily without coming as much as a millimeter off the shaft. so I started cutting through the blade with the stick welder until I ran out of rod. I didn't want to get back in the truck, having spent all morning in it, so decided it could wait until today.

While in Bangor I also picked up the bits needed to build the biogas reactor, and some literature on tankless (on-demand) hot water heaters. I plan to run an analysis of our current propane-powered tank heater to see if it can profitably be replaced with a tankless, either propane or electric. I expect it can cost effectively be replaced with an electric system, since our propane costs have gone up from $62 every six weeks or so, to $75, while Central Maine Power is promising to keep electricity prices stable for five more years. We get 100% Maine hydropower through a green tariff system, so our electricity is squeaky-green, while propane is propane and a petroleum distillate.

And then finally, some success. I harvested about ten pounds of potatoes for dinner, dutifully recording the quantities in Aimee's little black book. My wife is a scientist through and through, and keeps a record of all data pertinent to homestead operations, especially yields and harvests. She has one book for veggies and another for animals. Somewhere hidden, she probably has one for me, for the amount of work I get done every day.

Today's would have been a small entry, since I did nothing that could be considered vaguely sueful by Aimee's standards except pick up a mess of fallen firewood and pull some spuds.