Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pig power

Here's our final three piglets. We decided to have four feeder pigs this year, so we could have plenty for our friends and neighbors.

They came from only a few miles away, albeit down a bad dirt road. They settled in pretty well. Van (Gogh), our other, slightly older, ear-less piglet, was very happy to see them. Now they're busy playing piglet games in the mud.

Primary productivity

Today was official "fish for free" day in Maine, so I went. Generally you need a $25 license, but today you could legally fish without one, if a Maine resident.

I don't fish much anymore, not compared with my youth, but Haggis and I had fun down at the beaver ponds trying to find a decent sized brook trout for supper.

Actually, Haggis was fishing for frogs. I was after the fish. Haggis likes to catch frogs, although he doesn't like to kill them. He just picks them up in his mouth.

One the way down there the vegetation was lush, growing over the trail, and threatening to erase it.

For comparison, look at this photo from an almost identical position taken this winter.

Amazing what a difference a few degrees of planetary tilt can make to living things.

Now it's time to go to the pig farm and pick up our remaining three feeder piglets.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Odd pictures

Ewes and lambs hanging out in the new paddock we fenced on Jean and Hamilton's land to the north. The rock ledges are good for playing "King of the Hill," or in British "King of the Castle."

Followed by a shot of the spray foam tractor tire repair. Is it a good system? How long does it last? Ask me in the fall.

Spray foam, cable ties (tie-wraps) and duct tape (bodge tape) are essential supplies for running this old homestead.

And then the piglet, lying down with the chickens. We put this little girl in the big pig pen and right away she started relating to the birds. She slept all night right next to and even touching our currently-broody Buff Orpington.

She must be lonely. More piglets coming the weekend, should fix that.

Disaster log

First, the sheep got out. Haggis the half-wit sheepdog and I were moving them to a hot-wire corral on the front lawn, where a nice feed of oats awaited them. Oats in front, man and dog behind, are usually enough to get sheep where you need them to go. Not this time. Haggis screwed up as usual; jumping the gun, he split the herd, leaving three in the night-time security pen, and before I could get them out of there, I'd missed seeing which way the others went.

Thinking somewhat automatically, I put what sheep I still had together in the barn quickly, then went in search of the others. Haggis and I went up hill and down dale and all around the houses. No sheep, nowhere.

So I went to move the few sheep I did have out of the barn and back to the security pen, where they had no food and so would loudly bleat and bring the missing ones home. It was only after I got them all in there and counted, I realized I had them all after all. No-one had actually run off. They were all in a group when I put them in the barn. There just seemed to be less sheep than before. Probably because we just sold two lambs.

Then, sheep finally grazing more or less safely on the front lawn, I went back to the firewood chore. The tractor I use for hauling wouldn't start, a dead battery. Breathing my first big sigh of the day (but not the last), I put it on a charge and went in on foot to cut trees.

The first tree I cut leaned backwards and trapped the chainsaw. I was able to topple it by cutting in from the notch with the other saw, but not without mangling the first.

So I worked on the first saw and fixed it. Then I dropped a nasty old widow-maker dead cherry with loose dead limbs aloft. I wore my hard hat for that one. Once at Pea Ridge farm in Maryland, I was once almost killed by a hickory limb falling out of an old dead tree as I felled it. Only the fact that I was wearing a hard hat saved me. Even so I still could only crawl to the house to call an ambulance. The saw fixed, the widow maker down safely, things were looking up!

I cut about 2/3 of a cord before lunch-and-a-nap. I was tired from splitting cherry logs. Getting done with the nap, I came out to a flat tire on the lawn tractor. Sigh. This front tire has been partly filled with spray foam because it won't hold air and I'm too cheap to buy a replacement, but the spray foam was quitting on me. And then, as I was kneeling to hammer out the pin that holds the wheel to the axle, I felt my arthritic knee give way. Again. This trick knee, the worst of two I own, is a legacy of my days on RAF Mountain Rescue. If I was an American veteran, I'd get a Purple Heart. As it is, all I have is a couple of wobbly legs and thanks for the memories.

Again. Bloody hell. Sigh.

Not one to give up on an interesting hypothesis too easily, and needing to run to town to get chainsaw gas, I picked up a whole can of spray foam, which I duly emptied into the tire. Looking good, nice and plump. Spray foam tires need to sit for 24 hours so there was no more logging for that day. I sharpened chainsaw blades instead.

Before I did that, I took the sheep off the front lawn and put them in the main paddock to eat the leaves of the ash and cherry limbs from earlier. Then I sharpened blades, and then went in to make supper. Only I didn't quite secure the garden gate. Of this fact, more later. Sigh, in anticipation.

While I was making supper, Aimee came in to tell me a mouse with newborn babies was trapped in the oat pail from this morning. My fault, of course, What did I think I was doing, dufus that I was? Trapping a poor pregnant mouse. There was off course no mouse in the pail when I set it down, and heaven knows how it actually got in there, but I just heaved another big dutiful sigh and went to find a safe place to release a poor trapped mother mouse and family.

While I was mouse-freeing, Aimee says "Mick! The sheep are in the garden!"

Now sheep in the vegetable garden is one our worst nightmares, and there they were, the woolly buggers, muching all our brassicas, newly planted.

Bloody. F*&^%$k. Hell. I kicked them out, of course, but the damage was done. I was furious.

I did my best to reset the onion sets, and put out more lettuce seedlings to replace the ones that we gone, but the cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprouts were history.

Huge monster sigh.

Aimee was catatonic and didn't speak to me until bedtime. Except of course, when I went to lock up the barn for the night and found the cat chasing the poor mother mouse. Thinking this merely interesting, I reported this to Aimee on my return. Who told me immediately I must go rescue said mouse.

Of course, I was too late. By then, the cat had caught the mouse and was heading for points west with the still-struggling mouse in her teeth. Luckily, that was that. I wasn't required to go chase after the cat and save the mouse.

Small mercies. Sigh. But that mouse's death was clearly on me. Another sigh.

Mouse murderer.

And then what? This morning I put the sheep out again, only this time I left a gate open. I was munching granola with Aimee in the living room, she now willing to converse, me thankful for restoration to the status of person, when I saw them out of the corner of my eye heading west at a high clip.


Today, I'm sore and still upset. And my dicky knee doesn't want to work. F$#k it. I think I'll do some nice safe office work instead of farm work today.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Drizzling sort of day

It's a nice soft early summer rain of the kind we really like and need that is falling, which is good because the realtive heat of the last few days, especially Thursday, had turned the newly tilled garden a little dusty. So much so, that I had used a sprinkler last night to water in our newly planted bedding plants just to make sure they got enough soil moisture.

We use tilling for compost management and weed control. Each year we till the previous year's composted bedding into the garden plot with the "big" tractor tiller (if you can call a 12 HP Kubota "big"). That main tilling was a couple weeks ago now.

We add between 2 and 4 yards of composted material to the soil each year. This material is winter sheep bedding, hay soaked with urine and manure, that is then worked over by piglets and chickens for two seasons, further enriching it. It is piled up four-five feet high and watered in the mid-fall, and by late spring it is well-rotted compost, and I spread it with the tractor loader and till it in.

Then I make beds. Using a modification on the old "French Intensive" plan, we use deep beds for everything except potatoes. The beds are made by digging out about 8-10 inches of soil for a walkway where the humans will be, and piling the resultant material where the plants will be. The deep bed that results is then re-worked. Previously we did this reworking with a spading fork. This year, with the overal depth of soil in the garden increased quite a lot after a couple of years of adding compost, and so less need to pile up soil, I chose to make wider beds that the tiller could work.

Our soil is now of such good quality in most of these beds that after the final tilling and raking you can push your hand in 8-10 inches before meeting resistance. It feels soft and almost spongy or feathery. In bare feet, which is how I like to be when planting, it feels so nice underfoot, it's almost sexy. It holds moisture beautifully, but also drains well. A real French Intensive deep bed would be 10-12 inches, but that would take a lot more work, and it's only really a help for root crops like beets and carrots. In any case, these beds are much deeper, and of much better soil quality and texture, than the regular tilled beds for row vegetables that are the norm in Maine.

So yesterday I dug the last trench for walkways and tilled all the unplanted beds a second time, turning in all the tiny weed seeds that had sprouted since the last rain.

Then in the evening as the sun was leaving the garden, I planted out all the brassicas and some of the lettuce sprouts that Aimee had started in the greenhouse, and then fussed around trying to get a sprinkler that worked well to water them in. We have bad luck with sprinklers. They always seem to quit and get stuck, making a lake in one place and leaving everything else bone dry. I fussed with two different ones and failed to get satisfactory results. Eventually I just gave up and drove to the store and bought a new one.

The plants were all still standing this morning. This nice rain will help get them settled.

A good day's work, and very satisfying.

Now for the tomatoes. We usually wait until the first week in June for those, but this year has been mild so far, so we might take a chance late next week.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

First real weekend of the summer

Although I have community wind power consulting to do every single day next week, that's still not work like teaching is work, and so this was the first real weekend of the professorial summer break, and it was also the start of our growing season.

Mean last frost around here is usually given as May 18th, but we're a good deal higher here in Jackson, 525 feet to be exact, in our dooryard. I expect June 1 was the standard date used by gardeners and farmers for generations in Jackson.

Out early lettuce and spinach being in the greenhouse and nearly ready, it was time for the early row crops outside: peas, potatoes, onions.

I put up a pea and bean trellis, made the tomato bed for later, and planted seed potatoes, six different varieties, yellow and red onions, and peas.

Aimee almost finished the shingles on the barn, her work carefully inspected here by a chicken.

Vincent (Van Gogh) the gilt had fun tearing up a paper bag Aimee gave her. Piglets like toys, and until this one gets her sty-mates in two weeks time, she's a bit bored. But a lot safer than her last home, where she had her ears chewed off by big pigs.

Now we're waiting for a cold front to blow through with a big downpour. Tomorrow should be a good bit cooler. Today the thin spot on top of my head got sunburned.

Monday, May 11, 2009

It's been a while since I posted any pictures. Here's a few shots of current activities and new.

First up, ewes and lambs mowing lawn. We hate to mow lawns. Sheep are so much better at it than humans.

Then our silly ram lamb that has perfected the rear approach to nursing. It works fine except his face is rather shitty. All the time. Aimee christened him "Pongo," which, since that's UK service slang for a soldier, is fine by me, although don't write me nasty emails about it if you are a UK soldier. I didn't invent the nickname!

His mom is tired of him, and we want him cleaned up, so we sold him on to our buddies John Mac and Nancy. He'll be going soon, along with one of the other ram lambs.

We were too late to knacker this year, so it will be good to thin out the rams early. less knuckle-headedness when the time comes.

Then there's the firewood operation, about 1/6 done. Aimee thinks my use of this old Bolens mower.trailer combo to haul firewood out of the woods half a cord at a time is pretty silly. I think if she wants to carry 6 cords of wood 100 yards herself, she can, but that would be really silly.

Then there's Vincent (Van Gogh), our new piglet which is a gilt but we have hens named George and Harry so why worry. Van Gogh because she has lost her ears. She's a runt. We do well with runts. They're usually a few bucks cheaper, and Aimee babies them so, they soon catch up. This little girl is still afraid of us. She was in a yard with big pigs, turkeys, chickens, getting picked on. Now she sleeps and eats all day.

Finally, the new greenhouse. Aimee has all our starts in here. As soon as it dries up so I can finish tilling, some of these will be going in the ground, specifically the brassicas, along with the spuds I have saved in the root cellar.

Monday, May 4, 2009

All stiff and sore...

One of the disadvantages of my misspent youth in the British military is that I have songs that run in my head and no-one to sing them to. Here's one:

Well the sailors looked out, they were all stiff and sore,
They'd drunk all their whiskey and could get no more,
Singing row, row bullies row,
Them Liverpool judies have got us in tow.

This is a British sea shanty, one of several we used to sing while getting tossed around in the back of RAF Mountain Rescue Land Rovers driving back to some campsite, bothy or village hall from some pub in the mountains of Scotland, England or Wales. It came to mind this morning when I got out of bed, since movement was painful. I'd been logging off firewood all day for two days, and my usual spring creakiness was apparent.

This spring strain is the punishment meted out for all those middle aged men with winter office jobs whose summer is spent doing more outdoor pursuits. It takes a few weeks to lick the old muscles back into shape. And every year after 40 it gets harder and harder to do so.

But we'll get there. Six cords of firewood and a 80 by 80 foot garden patch is usually enough exercise to lose about 10 or 15 pounds and tighten everything up a good deal. And I feel better already, while the area I'm logging is already more pleasant to walk through, having also been cleared of stumps and roots and seeded to clover and perrenial ryegrass.

My green gym philosophy. Man is not designed to occupy a desk all day, every day.

Another song that came to mind during the logging and clearing, rather less salubrious, to the tune of Bless em all, which itself is a British military song dating to the demob period after World War Two:

Shackletons don't bother me,
Shackletons don't bother me,
Clapped out abortions with flaps on their wings,
F**k all their pistons and their piston rings,

Now they say that the Shack is a mighty fine kite,
This we no longer doubt,
When you're up there with a Mig on your tail,
This is the way to get out...
Da da ra dada

Just stay cool and stay calm and sedate, mate,
Don't let your British blood boil,
Just open the throttle right up to the gate,
And smother the bastard in oil!

The song commemorates the little-known fact that the Royal Air Force kept flying a variant of the piston-engined Lancaster bomber, in a combat role, no less, well into the 1980s and for all I know the 1990s. That a major contributor to NATO would put a 300 mph airplane up over the North Sea in face-to-face showdowns with much faster and well-armed airplanes flying out of northern Russia is remarkable enough. The Shackleton was first an anti-submarine platform, and as long as the subs were not bait for Mig 21s or 25s, could probably do its job well enough. Later it became a flying radar platform.

No, what is most remarkable is how beloved the Shackletons were. The Shack ground crews had a mystique all of their own, a kind of string-and-baling wire approach to engineering. Some of the legends of Shackleton maintenance still circulate, like the fact that each Rolls-Royce Griffon engine had a 50 gallon supplementary engine oil tank that had to be topped off after each flight due to oil consumption. What a monster that engine was! An in-line 12 cylinder. I took the course to work on the engine, although I was never posted to a Shack squadron.

And, of course the song.

What has this to do with Maine farming?

Well, according to rural legend in these parts, the official Maine state bird is the blackfly. Whose season is upon us.

This was what was running through my head yesterday as I was merrily logging away...

Blackflies don't bother me,
Blackflies don't bother me,
Pesky small critters, such bothersome things,
F**k all their buzzing and biting and stings,

'Cos were saying goodbye to them all,
As back to the farmhouse we crawl,
All bloodied and bothered and crippled and weak,
What price for a Stairmaster now, you old geek?

The cost of a good cordwood stove is not cheap,
And the firewood fuel is itself a bit steep,
For to get four, or six, or more cords, if you would,
There's a Maine tax that is meted out in pure blood!

Obviously I have a little less to occupy my mind now that the semester is over and the summer begun.

Old time doctors used to believe in bleeding the sick to reduce the amount of blood. "Too much blood," apparently, was a diagnosis that covered a multitude of sicknesses.

I think they could have used blackflies instead of leeches if they wanted.