Saturday, January 31, 2009

Superbowl and super-annuation

We're taking it easy.

Having worked all last weekend, and pretty hard all week, ten hour days except for the snow day on Wednesday, we need some down time. Today being Saturday and no weekend meetings scheduled, we don't have to work, although we often do grading, updating web pages and other college teacher chores on weekends. Aimee does it all day sometimes. I tend to do it in the mornings, if at all, then do farm chores.

It's snowing lightly too, which makes it easy to take it easy. I already watered and fed sheep, shoveled the snow off the porch roof (so it won't collapse -- a necessary chore to take care of many Maine buildings), and defrosted the pork ribs I plan to eat during tomorrow's Steelers/Cardinals game (the Superbowl).

Aimee is a big Steeler's fan, hailing from western PA. So I am one by marriage. Then, next weekend, England vs. Italy to kick off the rugby internationals. Aimee supports England, and Wales only tepidly. Mostly because she can't figure out a lot of what is going on. Not enough advertisement breaks, I guess, compared to American football.

I keep trying to count how many sheep are pregnant by looking to see how fat they are. It seems I usually come up with the same number. Six are "showing," four obviously. One two year-old, Nellie, seems way too slender to possibly be pregnant.

But we've been surprised before.

So, we're rooting for the sore, frostbitten hen, the Steelers, England and Wales, and six, or seven, pregnant ewes. A lot of support.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Henny Penny, the comb is falling

We now have an indoor hen. That poor hen whose moult cycle started early was deteriorating, and Aimee brought her indoors.

I should mention that the arctic air came right back the afternoon of our previous post and it stayed well below zero at nights until yesterday afternoon.

So the hen is in a big tupperware. She gets locked in the bathroom during the day, away from the cats. At night she stays in the living room where we can keep an eye on her. She's in a bad way because she's silent. Hens usually cluck.

I could just quickly wring her neck, which is what I usually do with sick or injured hens, but Aimee reckons she has a chance. And so she's watching TV with us.

Now we're expecting snow. Eight to fourteen inches. But precipitation requires warmer air, so that's nice. Mainers say "it's too cold to snow."

At 2.30 pm yesterday it was a warm and sunny 25 F. (-3.5 C). Not too cold to snow.

Positively tropical.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The long slow climb

Spring is already arriving back in Britain, at least in the southern part of England and Wales, where they have snowdrops already.

(Aimee said "what's a snowdrop?" The picture above is a snowdrop. A snowdrop is a very small white lily that blooms in very early spring, and is beloved in Britain for its simple beauty, and because it means winter is nearly done.)

Oh, snowdrops....

I miss snowdrops so much I could cry and maybe will right now.

Considering that they're 10 degrees of latitude further north than we are, this is a major testimonial to the Gulf Stream.

Go Gulf Stream. Yea!!! And such good countryside planning by those clever Brits, to put in an entire-country underfloor heating system.

As for us poor frozen Mainers, well....

The real cold Canadian arctic weather of a week or so ago left us, thankfully. We had one warm day followed by a big storm of a foot and a half, and we are now in our stable late January/most-of-February pattern of bright days, crisp clear nights, and a storm every two-three weeks. Winds are variable, but when they're light, the suns rays do their job and it is nice in the afternoons, although you need to keep your hat and gloves close and layer up.

The mornings are frigid. Our poor moulty hen hasn't fallen off her perch yet, although she seems to have adapted by burrowing into the hay. The other afternoon when it was windy out and as a result quite cold, I found her sitting in a shaft of warm sunlight inside the barn. Poor hen. But if she made it through the worst, she'll make it through the rest. And she wants to be with her sisters.

This weather is harsh on hens and humans, but can be quite tolerably nice if you have the time to get outside and snowshoe, ski or hike.

Which last requires post-holing around in the deep snow we now have, but you can get good exercise that way too.

Now if I could just get an afternoon off! After a week of our regular 10-12 hour days, I had to work all weekend, while Aimee had to put in a Saturday, and a lot of homework Sunday. I will be working very late tonight, so I'm feeling very sorry for myself.

This feeling relieves itself in two ways.

One is pure Yorkshire piss-and-vinegar for some of our work colleagues who can be super-smug about having time to exercise and rest. There's a bit of a smell of burning martyr about this, I know, but our college administration still hasn't figured out what to do about the 70/30 hour-week disparity, the one between the workload they assign to administratively competent faculty and the workload they assign to the less competent. My resentment only goes so far, and manifests itself more when I'm tired. The college is in a big curriculum revision, long overdue, and Aimee and I find ourselves at the center of things. We both want to see the curriculum revised, so we have to put in the work. It's an investment for the future, even if the workload disparity created is patently unfair.

The other manifestation is longing for a nice long late winter/early spring walk in the muddy, but relatively snow-free British countryside.

I'll take mine with snowdrops, please.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Fear the haggis

Aye, well...

One tradition we keep alive in vestigial form around here is Burn's Nicht. It's a fairly secretive enterprise, an underground movement, because my lovely wee wifie does not approve of nasal accents in song or poetry, nor does she particularly appreciate the Scots musical tradition.

Although she did get a kick out of Canadian band Enter the Haggis at the Maine Highland Festival and few year's back, and she also liked Gaelic Storm when they came. And she aquiesced in the naming of Haggis the sheepdog.

But she definitely does not like Burn's poetry, nor will she eat haggis.

I took the precaution of having the butcher ground up our three lamb's plucks this year and freeze them so I could make haggis more easily. He was a little taken aback at the request, but when I explained it was for a sausage, it made sense to him, butchers being much the same the world over even if they've never heard of the immortal haggis.

So. Officially Burn's Nicht is Sunday, but since I'm working both days this weekend, and Sunday night, it will have to be Saturday afternoon we make haggis, and Saturday night we (I) will eat it. I'll be sure to let you see the haggis pictures.

In the meantime, enjoy this how-to here from the Guardian.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Chimney triple

Here's all three chimneys going flat out at 22 below this morning, looking like a Victorian industrial scene in Sheffield or Manchester.

It's not as bad as it looks. The wood stoves are just getting going after the night's shutdown, while the oil burner is carrying most of the heat. The smoke is mostly vapor in each case.

This is where you want to be when its that cold - the man-cave, my den, with a good book and a cuppa coffee.

Finally, there's Haggis modeling a Womerlippi farm t-shirt, such a stud.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Brass monkey just lost 'em

According to our porch thermometer, it's 25 degrees Fahrenheit below zero out there right now at 4.10 am. That seems correct, too, not a broken thermometer because Bangor Airport, 350 feet lower in altitude, has 22 below.

About minus 33 degrees Celsius here, minus 30 in Bangor.

If our brass monkey was equipped, they just cracked off.

All through the woods, trees are popping and even exploding. The pops are sort of friendly-sounding, not too scary, but one big explosive crack sent Haggis the dog running for his mum this morning during our regular constitutional.

One of our older hens foolishly began to molt a couple weeks ago, and we'll see later if she made it through the night. The ducks and sheep will be fine; although the ewes are beginning to be uncomfortably pregnant, they're not due for several more weeks, thank heavens. Keeping newborn lambs alive when the weather is this cold can be very hard. They are born wet from amniotic fluid, which prevents their coats from working, and have to dry off before they can regulate their heat. They can go into hypothermia so every easily and just sort of drift off mildly, if you don't get them in the house and under the wood stove.

Poor little buggers. There's probably green fields in Yorkshire or Wales right now, places where lambs belong. (Although I hear it's been cold in Britain too.).

We won't see green until late April.

The oil furnace thermometer base temperature was reset a little higher last night to keep the frost off the two water pipes that run very close to the sill under the east side of the kitchen. There's a hot air duct in that space, just a four-inch one, but it does the job if you let the furnace do its job by keeping the thermostat at a sensible setting. Keep it set too low and the wood stoves will do the job instead. They don't have ducts pointing at the pipes. I also have a four-inch duct pointed right at my hot water heater and all the rest of the pipes. And my basement is sealed tight.

The one pipe I can't reach is the main supply pipe from the well. Maybe it's time to run the tap a little. It wouldn't hurt to do that for the sake of the well pump too.

The pressure tank and well pump are in a concrete space in the garage, heated with a 60 watt rough-duty incandescent bulb. I just re-covered that whole space with a new hinged, insulated lid and frame.

We ought to get through this with pipes intact. We'd better. Once they freeze, they'll stay that way for the winter unless we dig them up.

I expect some of our friends and neighbors will see their pipes freeze tonight.

The other thing that doesn't like to work in this kind of cold is a car battery. The electrochemical reaction that causes the power to flow slows right down in the cold. We keep 12 V battery packs for starting recalcitrant cars. And then engines themselves. Oil is the consistency of slow honey or even jelly, and despite what the manufacturers say about not needing to warm up the engine, I always give it at least ten minutes.

Outdoor plastic, in this cold, becomes brittle like glass, and will shatter. We've been using some plastic rope handle tubs for firewood lately, but they're not up to it, and an even slightly thrown or dropped log goes clear through.

Finally, this is a great time to weatherize your house from the inside, because with a 40-dollar laser thermometer you can find every tiny seep of cold air coming in, and every cold patch on a wall where the insulation has failed inside the wall. This time of year my wife thinks it's funny how obsessed with that thermometer I am, trying to find and fix the leaks that have so far eluded me.

So those are the sports we engage in and the sights and sounds of a Maine cold snap around the Womerlippi place.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Completing circles: "Our" Amish

It's been a delight for me to have the Amish families move to Unity and Thorndike. I appreciate it for lots of reasons.

One is that I have had Amish neighbors before, when I lived on and helped look after Peter Brown's farm on Pea Ridge in western Maryland. I got to know the four grown boys of one large family, and spent time hunting and talking horses with them. I learned a lot about life and homesteading from them and from the local Peace Church culture.

The other reason is because of the connection to the Shenandoah. Aimee hales from that ilk, as well as western Pennsylvania, and we really enjoy the Mennonite farmer's market and the Peace Church historical scene whenever we go there. There's even a new Brethren-Mennonite museum in Harrisonburg. Some of our Amish share names and ancestry with the Shenandoah and western PA communities in which Aimee's Summy and Showalter roots sink deep. You won't have to go too far back to find a family connection. Brethren and Mennonite peoples have always been good neighbors and are considerably intermarried. Aimee has Mennonite relatives even today. The Amish are in many ways just conservative Mennonites, and have always remained connected to their more liberal cousins, Mennonites and Brethren.

Some of "our" Amish women even seem to look a lot like Aimee does. Family resemblance?

Finally, I see it as a kind of rebirth for the Peace Churches in Unity. Few people realize that Unity was founded in part as a Quaker town, and back when Quakers were plainer than they are today to boot, far more Amish in all kinds of ways. The Civil War and outmigration to Ohio and the "west" killed Quakerism in Unity. Although this is a good place for certain kinds of farming, the soils out in the new territories were deeper and the fields flatter, and the best farmers both before and after the war lit out for the west, abandoning barns and fields all over Maine. To see folks on the streets in plain and home-spun clothing and broad-brimmed hats would have been normal, in say, 183o, in Unity. Now it's normal again.

Come to think of it, this is a rebirth for farming in Unity and Thorndike too. And for the homestead life.

(What would be really great would be a small Amish store, so we could get Yoder's meats and bulk foods locally, instead of loading up every winter in Harrisonburg.)

The Peace Church connection is the widest circle to complete, although few neighbors would know it. Aimee and I had what was probably the first true Quaker wedding in Unity for 70 years. We even metaphorically blew the dust off the old meeting house to do so. (We borrowed it from the northern Baptists, who've had it since 1927 when the Quakers sold it to them.)

The joke of our wedding day was that were more Quakers in the graveyard than there were in the congregation.

I expect there's a few Quaker ghosts that are as happy to see the Amish as I am.

Welcome, Friends.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Snow track treat

The snow here is not so deep, so far this winter, which allowed me to take a hike in an hour that might take three or four in a normal winter.

We have about 8 inches on a firm base. Easy hiking. Usually we post-hole around, or ski, or snowshoe, this time of year.

Animal tracks make for a fun hike.

The first photo is the complex of beaver ponds on Great Farm Brook a mile from the house. The line of sticks in the foreground is the dam. The tracks are coyote.

Then an obvious small rodent, a deer mouse or vole.

Snowshow hare and small rodent.

Finally, a good shot of the difference between a dog and a coyote when the coyote is going somewhere on a trail. See how straight-as-a-die the coyote tracks are compared to the dog, and how the rear paw falls in the same line as the front?

Mary in the foreground. Mary is an official Redbone Coon Hound, so she likes to follow tracks.

You have to say Redbone Coon Hound with a southern accent to make it work.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Industrial pigs and small farms

Last year's Womerlipp pigs sort out some compost.

Here's a pretty nasty Guardian article on the banal cruelty of large scale industrial pig farming in Europe. Sows kept in cages so small they can't move

Poor sad pigs. How anyone can accept this as normal is beyond me.

It isn't much better in this country. There are plenty of CAFOs, which is where most folks get their bacon.

We've seen some pretty horrific conditions on local small scale farms too. One barn cellar in a local town was dark, wet, full of manure that was never cleaned out, and teeming with piglets of all sizes and both sexes, no attempt made to regulate breeding, injured pigs, pigs with huge boils.

What a nightmare.

Pigs are terribly intelligent critters, smarter than a lot of people I know, and always the ones that give the most amusement around the farm. They're good at working over manure heaps and other animals' bedding because they love to root. They're also good at working over soil and can be used as part of garden soil or field preparation. But you need to have more than one operation on your farm to take advantage of this tendency. A small scale mixed farm environment, in which pigs are used with ruminant animals and arable farming or horticulture as part of the fertility cycle, is much better.

The sooner we realize that most large scale factory techniques aren't good for animals or the land or people, the better. We're going to need to pay more for food, and have a lot more people in farming to achieve this, but it's at least an honest life.

And we need to give farmers more time for countryside conservation activities. A farmer who looks after land well is doing a lot more for the community than just growing food. She's also protecting water quality, recycling wastes, protecting biodiversity, growing fuel and fiber, providing young folks a connection to the land and the place their food comes from.

The list goes on.

Here on what's left of the Great Farm, I'd like to think we're taking these tasks seriously. But we do also plan to grow a few more pigs this year, with our virtual pig theory.

Some of our "customers" for last year's bacon and ham were very complementary yesterday. "Best bacon my wife ever tasted." I was very proud. (Aimee said this was silly of me, because all we did was feed and care for the critters. The butcher was the one who made the meat taste good, with a little help from the pig.)

I say customers in quotes because we only had one real paying customer for meat last year, the purchaser of one of our lambs. Everyone else got meat for free because we used a non-USDA butcher. We're still working up to this farming business thing, and are trying to get the systems worked out nicely, particularly with the grower pig operation which has the potential to damage our land if we go too quickly with it, and trucking and butchering is a bottleneck. It's sixty miles to the USDA-approved butchers.

This year we want three-four customers for grower pigs and about the same for fat lambs. Customers will buy their animals from Womerlippi Farm at weaning. They can be taken then, or boarded here for a price. Once each animal reaches the customer's target weight, they will go to the butchers. Customer pays for the animal, the boarding and picks up the meat and pays the butcher's bill themselves.

For the customer, the advantages are that you get the knowledge your animal had a very happy life, good healthy feed with quality and variety, lots of sunshine and rain, a nice warm barn, activities, fresh water, good daily care, and companionship of a small herd of fiends and siblings. You get a custom cut, so within natural limits you can opt for more bacon or more pork, more or less lamb-burger, and so on. We haven't worked out the full costs yet, but it will something in the region of $70 for each animal, lamb or pig, $100/lamb to $300/pig for board, and the butcher's bill is $50 for a lamb and $150/pig. So a final price of $210/processed lamb, versus $470/pig.

We get 100 lbs of meat from a pig, around 25/30 from a lamb, so this is a little over $4.50 a pound. You can get cheaper meat, but not as good, and literally, you don't know where it's been.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Raucous roosters

This was sent by friends in MT.

Certainties in life?

The homestead life has its essential similarities all around the world. I find this very comforting in an uncertain era.

Colour it Green diary is fixing up their greenhouse, just as we are making a new one.

Stonehead understands their weather is not yet as bad as the weathermen say it is, just as we did a day or two ago.

Throwback at Trapper Creek, having recovered admirably from a greenhouse collapse, is appreciating wood stoves and wood furnaces, just as we have done several times this winter.

Life at the end of the road
has lost a sheep temporarily, and a runt pig permanently. They are also experiencing difficulties with cars. We've been manouvering to replace one of ours for months.

All very similar to recent posts on this blog. And all good reading. Recommended, says me.

I also say the homestead life should be written up, praised and cherished for its self-reliance, for its intensely experiential joy and learning, for its contradictions of complexity with earthy simplicity, for being real when all around is fake (including most of the people), and just generally being the only way I want to live.


Friday, January 2, 2009

Here's the view of the valley made by Great Farm Brook from the top of our barn. I had to get up there to fix the roofing (again! ruddy cheap stuff), and it was so pleasant without the nasty wind we've had lately (that caused all the roof trouble in the first place), I lingered to take pictures.

It's still cold, although it got up to 25 F today. But clear as it is the thermometer is dropping fast now the sun is gone.

You can see our whole desmense from up there. Jackson Town is made of rolling hills and dales, much like South Yorkshire, only with more trees and far, far, less people. The whole city of Sheffield could fit within the town lands. But there's 800 instead of 800,000 people.

Hi sheep! And ducks.

And here's a chicken losing its head over a dust bath.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Just how cold does it get in Maine?

Well, today was mild, historically speaking. The outside temp probably got up to 10 F. Last night it might have been -5, enough for me to check my pipes when I woke. But the winds of about 15mph sustained, gusts to 20, made it feel like about -18 F all day.

A thin wind, we say in Yorkshire, because it can go right through you.

How cold is -5 F? That would be -21 C. While minus 20 F is -28 C.

The sheep didn't go outside much. They, whoever they "they" are, say sheep can do without shelter in Maine, but I don't believe it. Whenever I did go out, to feed and water the beasts, walk dogz or bring in firewood, it took just a few moments for gobs of frozen breath to form on my beard.

But the wood stoves are drawing very well indeed.

In Britain, if I ever experienced this frosty face thing, it would be at the top of Cairngorm or the Ben. We get weather here at 500 feet that only occurs at 4,000 feet back home in the yUKe. I can well remember the coldest temperature I ever experienced at an inhabited altitude in Britain, during an arctic blast experienced while camped in a byre close to Braemar with the RAF Mountain Rescue. It was -33 C, and set a record for the town, getting on BBC Scotland, which is why I remember it.

We get that kind of cold almost every year in Maine.

A real cold night around here, which we usually get once or twice a winter, would be -20 or -25 F, or -28 to -31 C. Those kinds of nights we use the oil hot air furnace to keep the pipes from freezing. I have hot air outlets set up to blast air wherever there are pipes.

That's the only use, really, we put that furnace to, except for when we get house-sitters inexperienced with wood stoves.

When it's this cold, though, those woodstoves will go through a cord of wood in a week. It's a good job it usually doesn't stay this cold for very long. We'd go through a lot of trees.