Saturday, June 27, 2009

Farm produce

Here's whats going on down on the farm

First up, I took the last ham from last year's feeder pigs out of the freezer to defrost. I need to get the freezers emptied and ready for the new year's crops. This was a big one, so it must have been Hamlet. It looks like it might take a couple days to thaw. I'll cook it up on Monday or Tuesday, whichever day looks to be coolest. It's no-see-um season in Maine, so we had to close all the house windows for a week or two, and no-one wants to cook a ham in summer with the windows closed.

No-see-ums are the North American version of the British midge. They are perhaps a little smaller, but just as annoying. For me at least, their bites irritate for longer than a mosquito bite. There was a big hatch this year because of all the wetness, and one night we got hundreds of them in the house. The next day I was cleaning them of the windows with kitchen towel and Windex, and the windows have been shut tight ever since.

They do have some advantages over midges in that they go away during the daytime, and they never seem to appear in clouds. But i don't remeber midges ever coming in your house and biting you while you're trying to get to sleep. Brits don't even need bug screens on their windows.

Then there's this year's hams, still firmly fixed to their owners, rooting away in the compost we make out of the sheep's winter bedding. It's already breaking down, but the constant rain lately has made it smell pretty bad. Anaerobic compost is not a good thing. The pigs are helping out by turning it over with their snouts, letting some air in.

If farm animals had any idea of how they would end up, they wouldn't root and play nearly so happily.

The garden is looking green, especially the cool weather crops, potatoes and brasiccas. The brocolli is almost ready to eat.

We had to dry our sheep's fleece this year, the first year we've ever had to do that. Still, it was a good excuse for cleaning out the hay loft, which will now be ready for hay next month, if ever the rain stops long enough to make some. This fleece will be spun into yarn by a local mill. We will then sell the yarn, no doubt giving some of it away, much as we do with all our produce.

Eventually we plan to get a knitting machine and make some sweaters. Like most of my ilk and kin, I like British-style heavy wool sweaters for hiking and farm work in late fall, winter, and early spring and you simply can't buy them in the US where everyone wears cotton. It never used to be this way, and in fact there was a mill just down the road in Brooks for decades in the 1800s turning out woolens, but things have changed, and few people actually need to work outdoors in inclement weather anymore.

Finally, there's my motorcycle, mostly in one piece, just waiting for it's needle valves. I don't think it looks too shabby for $300.Aimee thinks it's a complete waste of money.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Virago vanity

Those regular readers who tune in for our environmental lifestyle are going to be disappointed. This is about a nasty greasy mechanical fix-job.

So I worked on my Virago the last four days. It was fun, and the only reason I stopped is because I have to go to Augusta today for business and I'm waiting for parts.

(By the way, the bike is for sale and you can find out about buying it by emailing

First I ran through the regular small engine diagnosis. First removing the dead battery and putting it on a charge to see how dead it really was, I hooked up a car battery that I salvaged from the demise of Aimee's Mazda earlier in the year. Then we put gas in and tried for a start. No luck. Gas tank leaking from small rust holes. Try not to worry about it while testing other systems. Pulled the plugs, Good fire. Put them back in, still no start. Pull them again, squirt a little gas in each cylinder, replace plugs. The bike fired but wouldn't start.

Carbs or compression, then. Since it was stood for five years, I expected to have to pull the carbs. The motor turned over well enough and made all the right wheezy noises, although it was hard to tell because the starter was grinding loudly and kept kicking out. But there was no major engine damage to hear, a thrown rod or valve or anything like that.

First thing next morning, set the valve lash and check compression (by hand -- my compression tester is over at our other house sitting in the back of my old VW bus), then pull the carbs. Easier said than done. It took me four hours of trail and error, lacking a manual, to figure out how to get them off the cylinders and away from the engine and frame. That night I bought the manual off ebay.

Stripped the carbs. Yech. All tarnish and resin. The front vacuum piston diaphragm is torn in two places. Goop up the holes with glue, let glue dry. (Yes, this does work, if you are careful and use good glue -- you can also use a patch. Condoms make the best patches. No kidding!) Use same glue on gas tank.

While waiting for glue to dry, remove starter for the first time. Bench test. Seems fine, actually. the noise is in the engine case, where some kind of weird starter clutch resides. Re-mantle starter for now, because I need it to test my carbs.

Clean and reassemble carbs without rebuilding too deep, just for starters. I don't beleive in fixing too much. If an engine was running well before it sat, it can usually be made to run well again without getting in too deep or risking the chance of breaking something expensive. Reattach carbs to bike. try for a start. Starts and runs on one cylinder only. But this is progress. Gas tank still leaks.

Remove carbs again. Attempt partial rebuild without a rebuild kit (too cheap to buy one -- lets see if I need it first). Goop more glue on gas tank leakage.

Find sticking needle valve and detached vacuum piston needle jet. Obvious. Duh. I missed the needle jet on the first go-around because I was distracted by the torn diaphragm find. Lots of jets and passages. Clean them out as best we can, replace needle jet. Re-attach carbs, try for a start.

Bike will start, but runs badly and cuts out at idle. See gas pouring from carb. Needle valve stuck open. Gas tank leaks from new place, from the petcock, now we have vaccum on the automatic shut-off valve. Fix that by massaging the petcock vacuum valve gasket with veggie oil. You'd leak too if you had to sit and dry up for all those years. Guess I'll have to pony up for that carb rebuild kit after all. Consult computer. $180 bucks OEM, $38 on ebay. Go figure. Order rebuild kit from ebay. Also order new battery. I figure now I can get this bike running, so it's worth the $58 investment.

Yes, the bike will run well enough when I get the carbs dismantled and remantled a fourth time, with the new needle valves in the rebuild kit. Now let's fix that starter.

Read up on Virago listserve threads on starter problems. Sounds complicated, but faint heart n'er won fair lady.

Remove starter a second time, dismantle on bench, JB Weld (epoxy glue) rig gear to main washer as detailed in

Thank you Dr. Piston. What would we do without the Internet? How did we live before?

And what would mechanics do without JB Weld?

While waiting for glue to dry, remove right engine cover. This is the first time since about 1979 that I've been this deep in a motorcycle engine. Lots of other engines, of course, but not motorcycles. But it's all coming back to me. Find weird starter clutch thing. Puzzle it out, with aid of Dr. Piston.

Use Dr. Piston's patent starter spring-cutting fix to reduce resistance on starter throw out gear. If the gear can throw itself out easier, and engage more positively, then it won't detach from the flywheel so quickly or make that grinding noise. Seems risky, but I can see it will work.

Carefully reassemble engine cover. Put in fresh oil. Try for a start, leaky needle valve not withstanding. Rear cylinder hydraulics. Too much gas in cylinder from float valve needle.

First hook up bike to car battery while car is running, jump-start style. The Mazda battery has been sitting in the shop for three months already, although I keep putting it on a trickle charger so as not to waste it, it still doesn't last long. If we get a stronger battery on the job, we might get an easier start. All the listserve threads emphasize that the Virago has a weak starter system and weak ignition and so needs an exceptionally good battery to make up for this.

Cylinder still hydraulics.

Pull the plug, turn engine over to remove surplus gas. Not so bright. Gas sprays in face. Glad I'm wearing my shop teacher glasses. Aimee will get a laugh out of this. Emergency run to sink to wash off gas, and now I stink like a refinery. Oh well. Builds character.

On return to bike (glutton for punishment), replace plug, try for a start, bike starts and runs well enough except for the failure to idle, which is to be expected with a leaky needle valve, and the starter noise is gone.

Dr. Piston, you rock. And I should know. I'm a doctor.

So it looks like I got a decent bike here for $200 plus $27 (manual) plus $38 (carb rebuild kit) plus $58 (battery) plus some glue and oil. A bike worth about $500-600 on the market, from what I can tell. Including five-six days work. Far less than minimum wage, but the practice at being a mechanic again, and the pure Zen is priceless.

Problem is, this bike is too big. I want a smaller, more efficient and easier to handle street bike. But by the time I get that new battery and rebuild kit in, the thing should run start and well enough.

Anyone want to buy a Yamaha Virago or trade a smaller bike?

I guess I'll have to get on Craig's list when I get those new parts in.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Rain by the week-load, and the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance

We've had almost an entire two weeks and a half of rain, puctuated by the one dry day in which I managed to get some science work done.

This has put the tomatoes back a bit. Still, a wet spring -- this is really still spring in Maine -- is not unusual, and the tomatoes that are planted outside will form sturdy stems and roots, and when the real muggy heat of July comes, they will take off like weeds.

Summer in Maine may be as little as one-and-a-half months long, July and half of August. First frost can happen quite early in August, and spring rains may continue through the end of June. Still, we make up for it with our superb 4-month long fall season, in which the weather in my opinion is just perfect for human beings, 30-40 degree nights, crisp mornings, dry warm days, no mugginess, only a little rain (and the occasional hurricane remnant or even a hurricane).

The lambs, also growing like weeds, are huge, and rambunctious. Two ram lambs got out last night and got caught between the hedgerow and the fence, bleating away to be rescued. We have the windows closed against the rain and so we couldn't hear them, fo who knows how long. I went out to take the dogs for a whiz and they bleated very sadly at me, so I went to investigate. Lifting up the fence to let them shinny under, I had to stand there holding it for a while before they figured out that they could move again.

Maybe lambs don't see well in the dark.

The nice thing about this spring, and what makes it different from previous ones, is that our rotational grazing scheme is working well, with three functioning permanent paddocks, and a fourth and fifth temporary ones on the lawn and the island in the middle of our driveway turn-around. But the lush feed makes for very active lambs.

We went second-hand shopping Friday and yesterday. The school board has built a fine new high school building, now nearly finished, and the old one is to be demolished, so they were selling off the old furniture and some equipment. Aimee went round to buy bits and pieces for her biology lab work. She also got a big wooden cupboard too for our garage, and she is ridiculously happy with this $5 purchase. It's so fun to see someone so pleased with such a cheap and sensible purchase.

Me, I have more expensive tastes, I guess (and believe me, I'm hearing about it too).

Yesterday, I bought a second hand motorcycle, more to tinker with than to ride. It had sat unused in the back of a friend's workshop for half a decade, and so I get to make it run again, which is making me happy. I like fixing things mechanical. They're like big messy jigsaw puzzles. If I was wealthy and had nothing better to do with my money, I would have the nicest, cleanest shop in the world with all the best tools, and then lots of things to tinker with, airplanes, helicopters, boats, bikes. I doubt I'd use them much. Just tinker. Except maybe the helicopter. I'd like to learn to fly a chopper.

I can't do that, don't have the moolah, but I do have all kinds of farm equipment to fix almost constantly, which makes me happy. And now this bike, which we bought home on the back of the pick-em-up truck.

I would like a motorcycle to commute to work on and save gas on warm dry fall days, but this is not the motorcycle I ultimately want. It's a Yamaha Virago, one of those semi-customized street bikes from the eighties, and too low in the seat for a fat Englishman. Although it's a V-twin, which is a nice configuration for a motor. Other than a vertical single or a flat four, the V-twin is my favorite configuration. What I would like is a more basic single cylinder, perhaps an Enfield traditional. But for now it's fine, and if I get it running well I expect I could sell it after a year or so, and get another fixer-upper, and sell that, and so work my way up to the bike I'd like.

The Virago needs a good clean, a new battery, a rear tire, a carb rebuild, and a starter rebuild. Other than that it's all there and seems to be working. Only 34,000 miles. I paid $200. Not too shabby.

When I was a very young droog and fresh out of Basic at RAF Swinderby in December 1978, the RAF gave me papers and a train ticket and sent me to Number One Technical Training School, RAF College Halton, as a Direct Entrant Fitter trainee. The idea of the direct entrant program, now defunct, was to take older guys with mechanical training, give them a truncated year of engineering training, have them bypass the boy entrant apprentices who trained for three years, and graduate them as JT's (lance corporals) with immediate responsibility for supervision.

This would have worked fine if each entrant had actually been experienced, but recruiting sergeants bent the rules. In my case, it was enough that I'd finished O-levels, came from Sheffield (a city renowned for mechanical engineering) and a technical high school (metalwork, woodwork, plastics and technical drawing), and had rebuilt motorcycles for a hobby. In reality, I was pretty poorly prepared. Almost all of APD 34, my entrant, was of the same ilk. Only one guy had really worked in mechanical engineering of any kind.

However, on the way to RAF Halton, I had to change trains at, I think, St. Pancras, and so I perused the WH Smith bookstore. There was this strange little book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It said it was a best seller, so I picked it up. I thought it was about fixing motorcycles. I had a Fantic Motor 50 cc Italian-made trail bike at that time that I used to tear around the moors and edges of Sheffield on, making mud everywhere. The Fantics were crap, always breaking down, but beloved trail bikes when they ran well. I thought the book would help me fix my bike.

Boy, was I ever wrong. And did that book ever change my life.

It's probably due to the ideas and philosophy in that book that I'm now a PhD and an applied scientist. Still, as a definite Sheffield lad, with a Sheffield lad's education, it took me twenty years or more to read it to the point where I understood everything in it.

Even as philosophers go, Pirsig is cranky and rambling, and I think that the only reason he manages to get out any good points at all is the juxtaposition of the second and third plots, the trip and the motorcycle maintenance. But what he has to say about science, daily life, and even Zen has stood me fairly well.

And to this day, if I want to absorb myself away from the world with a demanding but calming and meditative project, the best place to be is in the shop with a piece of machinery.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Well-labeled pigs and lambs

One facet of Womerlippi Farm life is that every critter gets a name that somehow reflects their individuality. I'm not sure the animals appreciate this, especially those that finish up in the freezer, but Aimee insists on it.

And, as in most things Aimee insists on, I am careful to follow along enthusiastically.

If left to my own devices, I'd probably come up with names too, but it's fine by me if Aimee chooses to do it, and the names are thought up a good deal quicker than otherwise.

These pictures are from Aimee's web page of farm photos where she keeps a sporadic photo diary. I thought them rather helpful.

I should explain that lambs get names organized alphabetically by year. This is the P-year. We may have some trouble with Q, next year.

Pigs get whatever names Aimee chooses for them. Aimee can tell the three smaller piglets apart based on their tails. Here's the caption. To see the whole photo diary go to

"We have four pigs this year. We got Van in mid-May. She was a runt and quite abused by her fellow pigs who chewed off her ears and somehow caused a big scratch down her back. We couldn't decide if her name should be Van Gogh or Evander, so we settled on Van. The other three came from a different farm and are Vera (with the left sided tail curl), Ruby (who doesn't curl her tail, but likes to wag it), and Gus (who curls to the right)."

Pretty cool, huh? The "we" part is of course largely rhetorical, Kemosabe.

As in "we felled, bucked and split a cord of wood yesterday."

No, "we" b****dy well didn't. "I" did.

Womerlippi Farm society exhibits sexual dimorphism when it comes to occupation. If that's the right term. Sex roles. Whatever. Men bring in the firewood and eat the bacon. Women stay warm and give pigs names.

But they also shingle barns, grow tomato starts, make pie. Very useful critters, women.

Not that I remember all the names. There's just too many. Men can't remember that many names. Takes up too much brain. I need all the brain I have just to remember to do all the things I'm supposed to do.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Shearing day

Our sheep shearer came by today. We've been trying for nearly a month to schedule a shearing for all our grown sheep, with no luck because of the rain.

Wool can't be put up wet, or it molds.

Yesterday it poured, but by the afternoon it was dry and sunny. Another few hours of sunny breezes and body heat and the sheep were dry enough to shear.

The shearer is Rob Manner of Gentle Manner Farm. He is as good as his name. He does a fine job with few second cuts and nicks. His partner Michelle came too. They work as a team. Rob works too fast for the camera in the low light of the barn, so the pictures are blurred. It looks like he's going really fast indeed but it is only the low light.

We also gave tetanus shots to the ewe labs we mean to keep. The four remaining ram lambs will be lamb chops by October/November. We didn't knacker them or dock tails, so no need for a shot.

Finally, all the grown sheep got a hoof trim.

Now they are all walking around fairly gingerly on their new short hoofs with their new shorn fleece, wondering what happened to them. Here is Tillie taking it all in stride. One time we were dung-tagging her out on the grassy terrace with students in this position and she started eating grass.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Aimee's homemade pizza pie

It's heaven for me when my wife doesn't work too hard at her professor job, because then I get more of her good cooking.

I'm a decent cook, but I tend to use up the staples that we grow ourselves, and so my own fare is plain and repetitive: pork and beans, lamb curries and chili, mashed potato, fries, bacon and eggs, stewed lamb, ham, pork and beans....

Aimee is much more flavorful. Here we have her homemade pizza dough with homemade pesto and homemade mozarella cheese slices. Only the tomatoes are shop-bought.

This pizza was so good, we ate it all in one sittings.

I say we, Kemosabe.

I mean, I ate it all in one sitting. Aimee had two slices. I ate the rest.

Another recent delight has been strawberry rhubarb-pie.

There should be a Bach "Ode to Rhubarb." If I were king, I'd commission a compose to write one.