Monday, April 27, 2009

Signs of spring so far

The temperature the last couple days has been up in the 70s, although it's supposed to cool off again soon. It hasn't frozen at night for a while. I expect it will again, but maybe only a handful of times between now and May 18th, the average date of last frost and the official start of the growing season.

These are in no particular order, except the order in which I thought of them.

1) Lambs, of course.
2) Peepers, no doubt. UK readers should have a recording, so they can appreciate how loud these small frogs are. Maybe I'll make one.
3) Crocuses, then tulips, followed by daffodils. For some reason the tulip/daffodil order is reversed over the UK. No idea why.
4) Aimee's plant spouts in the greenhouse.
5) The sore, sunburned spot on the hair-thinning place on top of my head.
6) Juvenile mosquitoes, seen night before last for the first time. One of these little buggers tried to bite me.
7) Leaf buds and/or flower blooms on poplar, red maple, elm, lilac, oak. No full fledged leaves as yet.
8) Phoebes inspecting the barn, seeing if it will make a nice home. Completely ignoring Aimee's purpose-built phoebe-nesting shelf. Phoebes are a kind of flycatcher.
9) The frost-sown clover sprouting in the various paddocks.
10) Green grass here and there, not long enough yet for sheep to graze. Only 30 bales of hay left. The grass had better get growing!
11) Potatoes in the cellar growing "eyes." I need to get the garden composted and tilled.
12) No heat needed in the house. Fire has been out for days.
13) Heat needed in the greenhouse, still.
14) Can open a window in the house during the day without freezing.
15) Cats let out to patrol. Dead rodents brought into the house.
16) Mick outside working all day, except when napping or blogging or eating.
17) Aimee drying clothes on the line.
18) Firewood pile now growing again, not shrinking.
19) The occasional stroller or four-wheeler comes by on the woods trail. No snowmobiles.
20) Blossoms on apples and cherries seem ready to pop out, but haven't yet. We have beautiful spring blossoms, which is one reason I often spare the bird cherries when working in the woods.

Working stiffs

It's the penultimate Saturday before graduation. One more week of classes. Easy classes, too: summarize, generalize, connect to the outside world, conclude, hand out evaluations, give early examinations to the seniors so they can walk at graduation.

Then another week of relative ease, punctuated by occasional panicky meetings, as committee chairs realize they haven't got all the information they need to write reports, tie a big bow on them and send them up, or down the pike.

Thank heavens for the chain of command. Decision making? Not my job, mate.

Even as worker bees in this particular hive, we are catatonic, and have been for days. We can't even finish a conversation. The penultimate week of class is always the worst.

This last week was definitely the worst for me. It included a 26 hour day, if you can imagine, and if you count being stuck in a rainstorm in an airport grading papers, and driving home from the airport at 3am, as work.

Which I most definitely do.

Every other day was a 10 or 12 hour day, as I struggled to write good memos and reports and do otherwise halfway-decent professional work for committees and for outside partners. I tend to do this work at 5am, which is when I have time and patience to think things through and solve problems. If the day before has been stressful, I tend not to sleep well and get up at 2am or 3am to try to make some progress, and so lose sleep all week. But that means I'm pretty dull by 5pm. Which is when Aimee usually wants to talk about how her exhausting day has been, and about which student or other faculty member did the most lazy or bad-tempered or otherwise outrageous thing today.

We made it home at 5pm Friday and fed the sheep and just stood quietly leaning over the fence watching lambs for a while, not talking much, letting the poison stress leak out of some secret drain hole in our lower extremities somewhere. At least that's what it feels like. Then we went in and fed ourselves and watched bad TV. I fell asleep during both the BBC news, and again during a detective show.

This happens a lot.

This morning the sun is shining and rising high, and we really ought to spread compost on the garden and till it in, and make the new vegetable and flower beds and fill them full of a mix of dirt and compost, and change the poor neglected ducks' filthy water in their paddle pool, and replace the fence that the snowplow tore up around our neighbor's veggie garden, which we maintain because the only reason they need it is because we have free-range chickens and ducks who would otherwise eat their plant sprouts, and castrate six boy lambs already too big to knacker, and we need to put up six-seven cords of firewood, and seed the upper paddock, and de-stump and rake and seed the big paddock where I logged off last years firewood, and take the dogs for the nice walk they haven't had all week and did they even get one last weekend I can't remember it was so long ago... and... and...


And I think I might make it out of this nice safe armchair in my nice safe stress-free den, when I've had another cup or two of nice hot coffee and read some more papers and blogs online (cartoons!), and generally relaxed for another hour or two, had a nice breakfast and an unhurried stress-free bowel movement (yes, that too gets affected -- thank you for sharing, Mick) and a nice long shower, and put on my nice comfy overalls and soft worn t-shirt with stains and holes, and wellie boots, and generally made myself comfortable with life again.

Life in the fast lane. How many more years can we do this for?

No wonder old professors are supposed to be cranky and grumpy and distracted and dysfunctional.

Still. Only one more week of classes, and one of exams, grades and meetings, and then the bagpipes and shining happy families at graduation, and then we'll have time to get some of this farm work done. I cannot imagine how anyone manages to do this professor job twelve months a year, the way they do at for-profit and community colleges. The quality of the education and other work done must drop rapidly.

I honestly think we would die of this job if we had to work at this pace all year.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Poor old hen

One of the Rhode Island Reds got caught in the sheep's hay feeder. She got all twisted up and couldn't walk after that. She wasn't in pain, so we kept her fed and watered and bedded down for a few days, but she didn't get any better, so I slaughtered her today, plucked and dressed and cooked her.

Should have known better than to roast her though. Very tough. I guess what's left her will be curry as soon as I get a chance.

Today was warm and sunny, so I spend much of the day outside tinkering and tidying. The farm has more or less recovered from the winter, although the grass and trees are not green yet. A few more days should do it. I saw popple (aspen) trees in bloom today, and the peepers are loud down by the river.

Can't beat those eggs!

Here's a photo of Aimee's egg operation, the cleaning and sorting stage. Like most Womerlippi farm business it is carried on at the butcher block table in the kitchen.

Up until recently we have given more eggs away than we sold. We have co-workers who like the eggs, many of whom are willing to pay for them, but for some perverse reason we decided the best procedure was just to take them in a couple boxes at a time and give them away. We really don't need the money, which would only be a few dollars a week, and it's nice to see the looks on people's faces when they get a box of a dozen farm fresh eggs they were not expecting. Easily worth the money, in fact.

When people ask why we give our eggs away, we usually respond that we are trying to subvert the capitalist system.

Which is a slightly offbeat, very gentle Zen koan, if you like that kind of thing.

The chickens don't seem to see very much wrong with the scheme either. At least, they seem perfectly willing to do their bit for a re-conceptualized economy.

We do sell a few, in summer on the farm stand. $1.50/dozen, for farm fresh free range eggs. We file taxes as a farm, and carry farm insurance, and comply with whatever regulations there seem to be.

But we don't seem to work very hard to turn a profit. I guess there must be something wrong with us. But I don't really have the time to worry about it. The sun is shining outside.

No doubt some raving idealogue will now write to me some angry email, to try to put me right on my failed political and economic conceptions of how to run a farm and just be in the world.

That might even be amusing.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

American the beautiful

Here's the mess of grape vines and trash that I meant to deal with today. I got most of it done.

The elm tree in the foreground is a good marker. Watch that tree.

We (me and the chickens) cleared out the vines, then started excavating what turned out to be a partially buried trash dump/burn pile.

You can see the kind of trash we had to deal with. Household kitchen trash, bagged or not, some of which was burned.

Notice the flags. Somebody buried a couple of small American flags.

The only way to handle this shtuff, short of just burying it which is illegal, is to sort out the trash from the dirt and wood that will rot, and then push the dirt into a new place out of the way. I used the tractor loader to dig up the trash and then sorted through it by hand, finally pushing the dirt away with the tractor.

The sheep, for the most part, just watched.

At the end of the day we had sifted through about five yards of mixed dirt and trash. The trash, two pick-em-up truck loads, was hauled off to the transfer station. As I understand it, we've had a street legal transfer station in Jackson for many years, open every Sunday, so this trash should not have been dumped like this.

The old lady who lived here was ill towards the end, and we think that the way this stuff got piled up was because her developmentally disabled brother was looking after the chores while she was ill, and, unsupervised, just started dumping stuff out on the land. There is a time discontinuity in the trash we find, and a disparity in the way it's placed. Stuff from the seventies and earlier, before the transfer station, is relatively neatly piled in a series of dumps. Stuff from the early 2000's was instead just randomly dumped everywhere.

What makes sense to explain this is, when the old lady was well, she made the brother take the trash to the transfer station. Later, when she got ill, the brother forgot the transfer station part, but still "took out the trash."

The soil beneath the main trash pile is not usable. There were batteries and household cleaners and other sources of toxicity. We will probably just put some grass seed down. But there is much cleaner soil that was previously beneath the grape arbor that is now available. All in all, this project added about a 80 foot by 20 foot patch of land that can be used for garden patches, between the camera and the tree, plus a similar-sized piece that can be used for compost heaps or a small lawn, on the far side of the tree.

That seems to me like a good day's conservation work.

The militant industrial complex

I didn't get to make bubble and squeak on Friday night. Instead we got not-very-good take out pizza from one of the several outlets in Unity that supply it. We were pretty tired, poor things, and, after the usual twenty-thirty minutes of lamb-watching and a chat with neighbor Jean, we flopped on the couch to watch bad TV until it was time for an early night.

Meanwhile the neighbors were out being productive, tidying up, burning scrap wood on a bonfire, and generally making good use of the later daylight hours. This despite the fact that Jean is far older than a lady should ever have to reveal, while her handyman Brian is in his fifties.

If I'd had more energy, I might have been able to help out, and I sure could have used to burn some of our own brush on that bonfire. A missed opportunity. But I was bushed and so was Aimee.

This time of year, that kind of thing happens a lot around here. Our work lives, which for nine months of the year follow the usual dysfunctional overworked American pattern, are slightly out of sinc with the seasonal round on the farm, and this makes for occasional difficulties like us (usually me, but increasingly Aimee) falling asleep on the couch in full daylight at 7 pm, when there are acres of jobs to do outside, or being up and wide awake (like right now) in full dark at 3 am, when the only thing that can be productively done is catching up on emails, paperwork, grading, or blogging.

The primary problem is that all the stress and overwork of the end-of-semester crunch leads to poor sleep habits. The secondary problem is just too much work. In order to properly fulfill our responsibilities, we have to work at least ten hours a day Monday through Friday, and sometimes twelve, when we really could use some energy and daylight time to make a better start on spring farm work. Actually, Monday, for me, tends to start at 5 am with my usual early morning email correspondence, letter and report writing, and the like, and finishes at 8 pm when my last class is done. Every other day is 5 am or earlier through 5 pm, more or less. Aimee tends to work from 7 am through to 7 or 8 pm, or later, every weekday.

Saturdays, for me, are usually free but not always. There are always events, like Open House, or, next week a statewide SAR event I have to go to. Aimee always has grading on both Saturdays and Sundays.

I have a big report to finish, due Wednesday, which I could profitably do right now, so I guess I'm procrastinating. But procrastinating at 3 am on a Sunday is clearly my business, and mine only, so I don't feel so bad about it.

Still, even with what are obviously serious jobs, we still manage to find some time to get the farm up and running.

Aimee has the tomato and pepper plants and other starts growing in pots on a shelf in the south facing window in my den. There are grow lights to help keep them warm and well lit. And she does all the laundry, shopping, and baking, and most of the cleaning. We always have home-made bread, one or two loaves a week. She picks and sorts the eggs. All this gets done in the time she has between grading introductory biology and genetics papers from about 100 students.

I do most of the farm work.

Once I had gotten an OK night's sleep on Friday night, I was able to pry Aimee away from grading, and we were off to the feed store to stock up on store oats and sweet feed. We picked up our usual 1,000 lbs of Arroostook County oats (about $120), and two bags of 16% protein coarse sweet feed. Our sheep love this stuff, although they shouldn't have much -- we mix it 5 or 6 to one with the local oats to add vitamins, selenium and other minerals. About one pound of this mix each daily, with all the hay they want, is their breeding and nursing season diet, and it makes for sturdy, healthy, trouble-free lambs. We also picked up the protein licks we like to use for extra protein, vitamins and minerals when we switch to the summer diet of green grass and a little oats for the nursing mothers. We checked on the availability of weener pigs at the Farmer's Union -- discontinued this year, so we will have to use the agricultural advertisers again to find our summer feeders. That's always an adventure, since we tend to find a new place every year.

Farm supplies in hand, Aimee wanted to get some groceries, tolerating my presence on a grocery shopping trip just barely, and then we came home. I then turned my attention to organizing and tidying jobs. I shoveled the store oats into the feed bin, always a good workout. I put away the rest of the grain. I took the big white cap from our utility trailer that I made in the fall, and converted it to a useful sheep/pig shelter or arc, this in anticipation of getting a new trailer this year.

I began getting the sheep's springtime pen ready. With the longer evenings, they are getting rambunctious and hard to get in the barn at night -- last night I needed to use Haggis the not-very-good sheepdog to help me and the mischievous buggers ran around the north paddock about five times before they would go in the barn. They don't really need a barn for shelter anymore. We could easily still get snow, but it wouldn't last long, and it couldn't kill a newborn lamb because all the lambs have now been born. So they can go into the big pen we have in the center of the farm, which has a small shed if they want to get out of the rain, and now the second shelter I just made too. This will be fine for them to eat hay in until there is some green grass to eat, and will save work in rounding them up since they'll be in the pen already. I also want to rake and harrow the north paddock and seed it with clover and new grass this year, so it will be good to get them out.

That was enough work for a stressed-out guy who hasn't been sleeping well, so I took a nap from about 2pm through 3.30. Then I started over. I tore down the grape arbors in the garden, and dismantled them for lumber, and pulled all the dead grape vines up, or down out of the one American elm that lives in the veggie garden. I took up the fence between the garden and the north paddock, and started to bulldoze, using the loader bucket on the Kubota, pushing all the vines and other organic trash over the stone wall into the brush piles on the other side.

I'll put the fence up again when I'm done raking and picking up and tilling and composting these new garden lands, twenty or so feet further into the north paddock than it was.

This exercise is part of a plan to extend our overall garden space by about a third. It certainly did produce more space. And the sheep were happy to get through the fence and eat even some old dry grass from all the edges and verges in the garden.

So far so good.

But once the bulldozing began in earnest, there became revealed some of the trash the previous occupants used to just dump out in the yard. This is not the ancient, nicer sort of antique-y trash of old bottles and cans. We have plenty of that, and it's relatively OK to deal with. No, this is the recent kitchen and house trash from around 2001 and 2002, when the old lady who used to live here was ill and a shut-in, looked after by her developmentally disabled slightly younger brother, and it's nasty stuff.

What seems to have happened is that the brother, who did all the heavy chores, would get told to take out the trash, and he would obediently take it out and, once out of the house, just dump it out indiscriminately on the land somewhere. There was no particular place he would pick. Mostly we find this trash, bagged or not, close to the house, within 100 feet.

We've taken out whole dumpster loads of this stuff already. This is just the last little pocket, a spot we had managed to ignore because of the grape vines that hid the trash. The trash itself is naturally getting cleaner and more sterile as time goes on, but there's still food and clothing and other crap in there, all decayed and moldy.


(There's also a lot of older trash further away from the house that we are picking up too, including a much older dump site, circa 1950 or so, about thirty feet wide at the foot of our hill, which will have to wait until my firewood logging/pasture clearing operation gets that far, maybe by early summer.)

But for now, I have to pick up more trash, bag it, and take it to the transfer station. Nasty work. Which by 5.30 pm defeated me, and I went in for more pizza and bad TV. Feeling, however, a little refreshed from the exercise and fresh air.

And this is how we keep making progress. In between all the stress and overwork. In some ways, it's the antidote. Industrial life, with all its high pace and disruption and destruction, is the trash in the yard and the poor night's sleep, and the stressed-out wifey crying in the car on the way home from a bad day's work.

The real life is underneath somewhere, a soft soil that grows good food and fuel and fiber, and healthy lambs who play in the sun. Many people never get to see it anymore, which is terribly sad. But we are lucky, as well as hard-working, and not particularly prone to drugs or cigarettes or bad TV or emotional denial, or indeed any of the usual blinders, and so we are privileged to see it and feel it.

But you have to pick up the trash first. Once you sort through all the superficial trash, pick it up, and get it out of the way, you can find the soil of life itself again. And because even a modest farm costs more than it should, you have to work for money too, to pay for the farm. So you have to find a way.

One option we have is just to work less hard. Our lives would be much nicer if we worked only as hard as the average American college professor. Most Unity College professors only work about this hard. But most of them aren't as involved as we are in making this little Maine college the best college it can be. Which, funnily enough, as well as also contributing to the general sustainability of society, is also a job of trash-picking: picking up and sorting through all the intellectual and administrative trash that accumulates in any educational institution, trying to find the soft productive intellectual soil underneath.

Patrick Geddes, an important British intellectual of the early 20th century, once said something to the effect that the only real human wealth was in farms and gardens and sustainable housing for people organized around farms and gardens, even in the cities. The rest of what we consider wealth, or capital, is really just there to facilitate farms and gardens and sustainable housing.

Now there's a radical notion whose time might just have come.

Because what people really want from an economy, first and foremost, is a safe, pleasant sunlit home, food, fuel, clean water to drink, and some sense of community. Our homes should have nice things in them, for sure. But the physical home must come first, to keep the family safe and well and sheltered, and then the food and fuel, then the nice things, and the nice things should be things that serve well and are made to last, not to waste, certainly not to throw away out on the land, effectively reducing the amount of ground there is to grow food and fuel and fiber for clothing and shelter.

A prerequisite is the mental stability to see all this for what it is, to see what really matters.

Unfortunately, a lot of us are unable or disinclined, like the brother who took out the trash, for want of time and money and mental stability, to see all this for what it really is. In particular, we are unable to see how dependent we are on that soft fertile soil that grows real wealth once the rain and sun come each spring.

Maybe I'll take some pictures tomorrow so you can see what we're up against here with the trash.

It really is more than just a metaphor.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Offal the point a bit

When I have time, usually when I can't sleep for some reason, I read the NYT online, mostly to remind myself that I'm so glad I don't live in the big shitty.

Their latest offering includes a bit on a very fashionable New York eatery offering up all the kinds of British working class and rural foods I grew up with, and a few truly weird ones I didn't, like "cullen skink."

How the tables turn!

For years I've been considered very weird by my American friends for making my own haggis and other delights, or for enjoying black pudding, steak and kidney pie, and all that British offal-based cookery.

Most Americans approach haggis or black pudding like a bomb disposer going up to a suspicious package!

I guess the dish I eat most frequently that is considered very strange by Americans is plain old bubble and squeak. That will probably be tonight's dinner, since we currently have about a gallon of home-grown left-over mashed potato to eat up somehow.

That would be if I'm not completely exhausted from the trials and tribulations of preregistration week at Unity College and instead succumb to the need for take-out pizza and self medication with fermented grape juice. Take-out pizza, perhaps unfortunately, can be a fairly frequent Friday night resort around here, except that Aimee makes herself a blender batch of pina colada instead of wine.

But bubble and squeak makes plenty of ecological sense on our farm since we grow potatoes, cabbage, onions and bacon, the four primary ingredients, as well as sage and rosemary, which I like to use for flavoring.

Why is it thought so weird? I don't get it. It really is just a kind of potato hash.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Lambs gone wild!

I made a couple movies of our lambs playing and posted them to Ewe-tube. Have fun watching the little buggers run about.

In this clip, one of our older ewes decides to play too. Never too late to have a happy childhood!

(I made Super 8 movies when I was a kid too, with my dad's camera.)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Pastures in the sun

As predicted, winter did come to an end after the usual four or five months of snow. Now with temperatures in the 40s and 50s F, we can sit outside on our bench and watch lambs play in the sun on the bare ground between the snow patches. The ducks are enjoying the vernal pools that have formed everywhere from snow melt. Bits of green growth are starting to appear, such as the many day lilies on our "traffic island" formed by the school bus turnaround that is our driveway.

While all the other animals enjoy the end of winter, husbands are picking up the wreckage in the yards. This year there was so much firewood debris and road gravel on lawns and verges I had to use the York rake on the tractor to get it all raked up efficiently. But I have it all picked up now, and reseeded with clover, the first of the pasturage seeds that can be sown in the spring. Later we'll add some pasture grasses.

Once all the other pens and paddocks are clear of snow and sheep can be moved, we'll rake up the rocks and twigs in the north paddock, spread manure, and reseed there too. This year we can get our pastures and paddocks in good shape, and recoup the investment, because we'll be fencing four new acres to the east. Every other year we've had to graze them too hard. But the upshot is, the old grasses are weak and down to a nubble this spring, which gives the new seed reduced competition. The frost will work in the clover. The new grass seeds, if they follow hard on the heels of the spring rains and just before the last frost, should replace some of the old.

Aimee, meanwhile, is getting on with the plant starts and the greenhouse has occupants for the first time.

I don't have any pictures of these spring activities, but I do have one of two lambs playing king-of-the-hill on top of the water butt cover, and another of Aimee cuddling one of Mollie's twins. These are out of Snorri the stud, pictured below.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Hippie moms and disciplinarians

Aimee has a new theory of sheep motherhood.

Some ewes are "hippie moms," and let their lambs run, don't mind who comes to visit, are willing to feed other lambs, and generally have low standards when it comes to the amount of supervision required. Nellie, apparently, falls into this category.

Other ewes, like Tillie, are super-nanny types, always subjecting their own, and other ewe's lambs, to sharp discipline, head-butting unwanted drinkers away from the udder, and generally making sure they know where their lambs are at any particular time.

Since it's lamb city on the Womerlippi acres, with a nine-lamb strong lamb pack running around, Aimee will have plenty of opportunity to test out this hypothesis, at least observationally.

Actually, that's what we do for fun around here: watch lambs.

This wet weekend we look forward to some lazing around. I for one am grateful for some real time off from being a college professor. It's a temporary respite, but you can literally feel the stress dissipate in the muscles of your back and neck, a bit like a slow crack spreading across a car windshield.

I had a very busy week, with lots of meetings and reports due, and, worst of all, business travel: a night in a business-travelers motel hundreds of miles away in the city; while Aimee had her usual stress-filled time just staying on campus.

If we have a nice rest and watch some lambs this weekend, we might just be able to last the semester. Only four weeks left!