Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Who are all these people? and stress in our lives.

I added a blog feature (see left) that allows me to see not only how many readers I've had in the last 24 hours, but where they're from.

What a surprise to see how many readers there are from all over the US and even the world! Here's a somewhat random sample, just the most recent 24 hour clip:

Location Time
Morrill, ME, United States Wed, 30 Sep 2009 04:13:42 -0500
Central District, Hong Kong Wed, 30 Sep 2009 01:43:26 -0500
Palmerston North, New Zealand Wed, 30 Sep 2009 01:08:58 -0500
Dixmont, ME, United States Wed, 30 Sep 2009 00:09:23 -0500
Biddeford, ME, United States Tue, 29 Sep 2009 17:31:40 -0500
Vancouver, BC, Canada Tue, 29 Sep 2009 14:49:53 -0500
Paducah, KY, United States Tue, 29 Sep 2009 14:26:20 -0500
San Antonio, TX, United States Tue, 29 Sep 2009 12:12:18 -0500
Monrovia, CA, United States Tue, 29 Sep 2009 12:01:13 -0500
South Portland, ME, United States Tue, 29 Sep 2009 11:44:28 -0500
Casselberry, FL, United States Tue, 29 Sep 2009 06:56:30 -0500
Harrisonburg, VA, United States Tue, 29 Sep 2009 05:53:41 -0500

Harrisonburg is easy. That's my father-in-law, Aimee's dad, Dick. Hi Dad.

Someone from Morrill, close by, checks in almost every day. Hi! Nice to "meet" you.

The rest of you are presumably random visitors, although a minority might be regulars. I would have to analyze the results every day to find out, which I'm not likely to do.

But I am surprised to see how many folks, from all over the planet, check in to see what, if anything has been happening on a small farmstead in the Maine forest.

I hope you find something worthwhile.

As for what is happening on this small farm, the answer is not much. We're already tired from teaching. Aimee was particularly exhausted yesterday. A couple months ago, in midsummer, in a fit of "leading from the front," she assigned herself (she's her own boss, now, as Director of the Center for Biodiversity) to teach Cell Biology, a class for which she is only marginally qualified to teach. As an evolutionary ecologist, Aimee works mostly with whole animals, their DNA, and the environment they live in, not their cellular structure and function.

The upshot is, not only does she have to work her butt off just to stay a page ahead of the students, but she also has to prepare laboratory experiments in a field in which she has barely ever worked. That and her Director duties have her close to the end of her tether. It doesn't help that she cannot ever do anything half-way. She just isn't built that way.

But she is setting a good example, making sure the quality of teaching is good (better than it would be with a random adjunct hire -- the other option), and saving the college money.

Still, it's definitely a bit OTT and we had a conversation yesterday about what we could do to cope while she gets done with the class.

As for me, I am just plugging away with students at our barn project, which goes well, and doing my best to stay ahead of my other classes, while almost all my research and service work is on hold. I'm not at the end of my tether, but I have very little extra time in my day and am usually content to get done with my work, come home, do the farm chores, check on the animals health, and collapse on the couch with a plate of dinner to watch the BBC news, a detective show, Jon Stewart, and go to bed.

Couch spud.

All of my former idealism about how bad TV is for people is out of the window. For years, roughly from leaving my parent's home in 1978 to late 1996, I never even owned one. For years after that I just watched video movies on weekends. These days, I still only watch about two hours a day, but it helps me relax. If I had to do a hobby or read a book, or even make conversation with my lovely wifie, in those two hours, I wouldn't get to the totally passive, absolute wet rag state that I achieve before bed and all the poison stress would invade my sleep, resulting in a downward spiral.

Corticosteroid, I believe, especially cortisol, are the chemicals the body produces under stress. I am long familiar with high stress in the workplace, and I believe these days I can tell when my body is under the sway of additional cortisol. I can also tell when I have successfully bled most of it away.

That happens around 8.30 pm most nights when I turn the thing off, usually after having watched Jon Stewart's "moments of Zen" on our DVR, and stumble outside to taste the air, look at the stars, and walk the dogs.

I also find blogging relaxing, which I suppose takes me back to my original thought about who the audience is for this here farm blog.

Having an audience is nice. I'm glad I'm not writing to myself all the time.

(Although I suppose I am in some ways, since this is a journal or diary of sorts.)

But don't expect great thoughts or great writing this fall, or you'll be disappointed. We will be in a kind of survival/shut-down mode until the college vacations arrive.

Luckily the first of those comes soon, the President's Day holiday, for which we have a four-day weekend.


Let's hope Aimee uses it to get some rest. I'll try to make sure, but as Dick knows well, she's impressively stubborn and doesn't always do what is good for herself.

6.05 am. The day just began. Aimee got up to take her shower and I must eat my breakfast and also get ready. Another day on the line.

Wish us well. We could use it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Wooden wedding and fair weather fair

Today marks the date that Aimee and I were married, five years ago. Our wooden wedding, according to the system by which weddings were marked that I grew up with -- but was it too invented by Hallmark and am I just hallucinating?

Either way, it's a good thing. We were married in front of family, friends, students and other professors at Quaker Hill Church in Unity, under the care of Belfast Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, or the Quakers. As far as we know, ours was the first proper Quaker wedding in Unity for eighty years or so, the original, 1827 meeting house in which we were married having been sold to the Baptists for a church in 1927. The joke of the day was there were more Quakers in the graveyard than in the meeting-house. Our guests signed the traditional home-made wedding certificate, which Aimee had painstakingly hand-drawn herself. We had a reception at the Unity Community Center with contra dancing, my home-made carrot cake, wine, and potluck dishes.

An older Unity student, Bob, still around, who had been injured on Army service in Iraq, but was demobbed and looking for work, was our caterer for the day. He did a sterling job.

One snotty mainline, birthright Quaker guest distinguished herself by saying "you wouldn't have wine at a real Quaker wedding."

Actually, it wouldn't be a real wedding without a guest or two like that!

We never had a honeymoon. Fall is teaching season at Unity, and we are definitely serious teachers, working many long hours, especially Aimee who constitutionally cannot even occasionally do something half-assed. (I can!)

But instead we did as we always do the last weekend in September and went to the Fair.

Aimee's mom and dad, and my sister, represented the two families, and also went to the fair. It was fun to see them all wandering around. My parents were already too frail to attend, but their forty-fifth wedding anniversary was two weeks prior to our wedding. I just went to see them for their fiftieth. Aimee's dad is battling leukemia from his wartime service in Vietnam, and his health comes and goes with the chemotherapy, but he was well enough to come to the wedding and to walk around the fair a little. He is still battling leukemia, but he will almost certainly read this post.

And all was well in the world for one sunny September day, and as much as it should be as it possibly could be. Which, I tend to think, is the art of a family event such as a wedding.

Now we are tired as usual from teaching and from faculty work. Aimee is more tired than I am because I get to work outdoors a lot this particular fall. No honeymoon for us. But we will be at the fair all afternoon on Saturday, and if you're looking for us you can find us at the Unity College table in the afternoon.

And all will be well in the world and as much as it should be as it possibly could day, for one sunny September day in Maine at least.

We are very lucky to have our health and meaningful work and good neighbors and a pretty and productive place to live. This came home to me this week when I got some letters from an old buddy I had served with in the RAF, who had a motorcycle accident and was badly hurt and paralyzed.

A long time ago we used to run and hike and climb and drink together. He was very, very good at all four.

But I'm the one who can now still walk, even if I can't run any more.

I choose to walk through it all with Aimee.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Early fall on the farm

Today, while Aimee did shopping and laundry, I trucked out first to prep for my barn-building class Monday at college, then with that out of the way, settled down for some harvesting.

This is me taking a quick shot out of the car window as I pulled in our driveway. Aimee was playing with Mary-dog on the lawn. You can see the construction paper and scaffolding which will be the view of our house until Aimee gets the shingles done. She won't let me do them. Says I don't get them straight enough.

She's right. I'd use a nail gun and knock the whole house out in two days and no-one but her would be able to tell that they were not perfect, but they would actually get done.

That's not fair. Aimee will get them done. In her own sweet time. And they will be perfect. No fault could be found, not even by the world's only professional shingle inspector. In the meantime, I will probably have to redo the construction paper twice. Some already blew off.

As for the harvest, well, delayed there too. We can't pull our spuds yet, because the tomatoes right next to them still have active late blight, Phytophera infestans. If blight spores are allowed to touch the newly harvested potatoes, they will rot too, in the cellar while being stored. Right now with the dirt still relatively dry they are safer in the ground than they would be in the root cellar.

We are still eking out a tomato harvest, the few berries that survived the blight are harvested every few days, a twentieth of our usual supply. No canned tomatoes for us this year, although the late tomatoes in the greenhouse are blight-free, so we should have fresh tomatoes up through Thanksgiving.

When the outside tomatoes are done, next weekend or the one after, I will pull their stalks and compost them, allow a few frosts to pass, and a few days after that, if we have dry weather, the blight will be gone and it will be OK to pull and store the spuds, if aired out well before put up in the cellar.

That left cabbage, carrots and beets to do today. Cabbage was cut, peeled to clean leaves, dried on the bench, wrapped in cling-film and put in the garage fridge. Easily twice what we had last year.

The pigs ate the waste cabbage. Yum.

Carrots and beets were pulled and dried briefly in the barrow and then went straight to the cellar. The pigs also got beet leaves. Lots of carrots and beets, as much as we will use or more.

There was a pitiful handful of cukes to go with the pitiful tomatoes. I could weep over the toms, but I'm consoling myself with fresh ones from the farmer's market. And we do have lots of other food.

The old British saying, "what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts" doesn't translate to American.

(It's a carnival analogy.)

But I think it holds up.

Weighty decisions

All our growers have been weighty this year so far, and the remaining three grower pigs seem no exception.

The four fat lambs, of which three were sold live in the spring and contract-grown here on the farm, dressed out at 45 pounds, 36, 35, and 35. The 45 pounder, Picasso, who wrenched my arm last week during loading for the ride to the butchers, was out of Snorri the rental ram, and born quite early, which explains the weight difference.

Van, the home pig, dressed at 162 pounds.

The remaining three look at least that weight. One, Gus, seems more.

The extra gains were of course passed on gratis to the customers. They paid for the animals already, so they share the risk with us. They were told at least 20 pounds of meat for a lamb, possibly 25, at least 100 for a pig, but that it could be more in either case.

I didn't say, "It could be much more." Maybe I should have.

At the price we initially charged, $138/lamb, and $280/pig, the lamb worked out to $4.70 or so a pound, the ham and pork around $2.80.

Now it's turning out a good deal cheaper. One customer, the one who bought Picasso, got 45 pounds of lamb for $138, or $3.07 a pound. If we had sold Van instead of putting her in our own freezer, that would have been $1.70 a pound.

However, this bonanza may cause a little anxiety over the next few weeks as freezer space is freed up in preparation for the pigs' arrival. Most of our customers have only standard American fridges with a two or three cubic foot top- or bottom-freezer, and the lambs are coming back needing up to two cubic feet, while the pigs definitely need five.

So I sent out an email with a few bits of advice, like eat all the old stuff as soon as you can, borrow some freezer space from a friend, plan to eat a little fresh ham or pork in the first week, etc, or, obviously, "have a barbeque."

This is the kind of problem most people should be glad to have, I guess, in these days of high food prices and hunger all around the globe, including even here in the US where our local food bank does a serious trade and our local unemployment rate is above ten per cent.

Did Womerlippi Farm make a profit? Aimee seems convinced the lambs were profitable, since they ate mostly grass, apples and a little oats all summer. I'm not so sure if you take into account the winter feed for ewes and rams, but you'd also have to account for the very much less lawn mowing we do than our neighbors.

As for the porkers' profitability, we will sort though all our receipts for pig feed next March, in time to pay our taxes on April 15th, so I'll be able to tell you then. The pigs ate through many hundreds of pounds of much more expensive feed, so I doubt we made out at all. Probably we broke even. But that was our business goal, to grow more food for our friends and neighbors and break even.

Snorri the Rental Ram certainly seems to have paid for himself. He cost us about fifteen pounds of meat in trade, and we got what seems to have been an extra 25 pounds in one lamb out of him, never mind a very nice little ewe-lamb called Polly to boot.

In case you'd forgotten what he looks like, here's a photo of us unloading him back at his home farm last winter. What a chunk! Named for a Newfoundland Viking, he's an amiable fellow and we're looking forward to having him back.

All except for Abraram, that is, who will be furious.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lambs to the slaughter

Yesterday being Sunday, and Sundays in fall being our butchershop's animal delivery days, I took the four ram lambs to our butchers. Three of these animals are already sold according to our "virtual pig and lamb" scheme, and we've been growing them on contract since May. The fourth is for our freezer. Lambs only take a week to process. They'll be ready for the owners to collect Saturday.

I decided to accelerate the timetable when it was clear that these little lambs were more interested in their mothers, aunts and sisters than propriety and good breeding practices permit. This is the first year we've deliberately not castrated all our ram lambs, and so the sex effect in the fall has not usually been as marked as we discovered it to be this year. But we've raised some uncastrated or cryptorchid lambs in ones and twos each year and the flavor of the meat has not been tainted, so we began to question why we should castrate at all.

It may not be traumatic since we use the "Elastrator system" but it is a source of possible infection.

Anyway, it only took one of their mothers to come into heat and the downside of not castrating manifested itself quickly in the form of poor old Tillie, a rather aged ewe, having four unwanted suitors. They dogged her all the end of last week, and I was faced with the choice of a day's fencing work to make a separate pen for these "sex offenders," for which I lacked both energy and funds for materials, or a swift drive to the butchers.

Although we had planned on the former, we hadn't taken into account the high costs in both time and labor at a time in the school year when labor time is hard to find, and when the time came I chose the latter solution instead. Aimee concurred, and in two shakes of a lamb's tail, the evil deed was done.

One reason we choose contract growing as the format by which we run our livestock operation, when we clearly could make more money selling packaged meat, is because our butchershop is conveniently located, and so the animals don't have a long scary drive.

We consider ourselves reasonably experienced sheep operators at this point, having survived most of the traumatic experiences that nature's lowliest critters (an Ed Abbey quote, from The Brave Cowboy) can produce. But we still get surprised from time to time. We had guessed that we would need to separate out the ram lambs this fall if we kept them intact, and even posted about it, way back. But we were surprised by how quickly they became a pest to the older ewes. I suppose too, I was not expecting how big they would be by this point. They were certainly market weight, after only five months, the result of good feed, and possibly, keeping their testicles.

Now they're gone (you evil b*****d, Womersley), balls and all, and the next surprise is how little their moms miss them. Usually when lambs go, there's a noisy period of two to three day's mourning among the ewes, but these guys were not missed. Barely a bleat came forth in their memory. Perhaps because they had become so pesty?

Who knows what goes on in the minds of sheep? Still, I'm glad there is no mournful bleating. It always only served to remind me of what an evil lamb-stealer I am. Guilt, guilt.

We still have three lovely new ewe lambs from this year's P-crop, Penelope, Poppy, and Polly, of which two are to our Rental Ram, Snorri the Great. Possibly that's the consolation.

It will be interesting to see how the new blood from Snorri affects the herd in two year's time when we breed these girls. The two ram lambs that were out of Snorri seemed a good ten pounds heavier, and were definitely wider, than the two out of Abraram. I'm interested to see if this perception, felt mostly in my right arm, which was slightly strained from picking them up and putting them in the paddy wagon. The butchers always reports the final, dressed-out weight of each critter, so we will know for sure soon enough. A larger-sized lamb chop from the Womerlippi Farm would not be such a bad thing.

We're not done with slaughtering yet, though. The three contract-grown pigs have still to go. For months now I've been wishing for a livestock trailer for this job, but neither funds nor trailer having manifested themselves, I guess the old pig crate will get one more year's use.

What an evil animal killer I am, lamb-stealer and pig murderer.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Last o' the lamb

I deliberately cleaned out our freezer Wednesday, in preparation for our annual-greet the-new-students smoke at the College. Our Center, Sustainability and Global Change, has one great advantage if you think about it: we study the food supply. One of the other profs bought a cider press, and we had smoked leg of lamb, pork kebabs and apple cider, with salads and chips (crisps).

All that remains in the meat freezer is fatback and pre-haggis (ground up lamb's organs). I have no plan to use either right now. I could use a gas ring outdoors to render the lard from the fatback, but I haven't used all the lard I made last year yet. Aimee won't use it in baking, and I prefer olive oil (the greener the better) for frying, so it's only good for my odd baking moments, usually biscuits, soda bread or the like.

Now it's time to go get the start of the new meat, our ex-pig Van, who is ready today.

Cycles of nature, cycles of nurture.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


I just returned from a very brief trip to Wales to celebrate my parents golden wedding anniversary. I had only the US holiday weekend, because it's not reasonable for me to take time off this time of year with term just starting. But we made the most of it, with a slap-up dinner of the new British cuisine, and a visit with my father's one remaining brother and his wife.

I also visited my favorite place in the world, except for this small farm, which is the Centre for Alternative Technology.

Aimee stayed home to save money and look after the farm. This was a very expensive three-day weekend for us, and will put us back a bit on our family goal of paying off all our debts. A second $1,000 airfare would have done no-one any good, not the least because both my parents have senile dementias of different degrees, and sometimes can't even remember my wife's name.

But the most striking thing about the trip was how the two countries blended together for me. It was surreal. I started Monday driving in the dark and the rain back towards Heathrow airport through the hills, dales, woods and fields of west Wales. Then there was the inevitable delay at the airport, including a fifty minute wait for a "courtesy" van at the rental car return (Budget -- don't shop there!). The plane was only twenty minutes late leaving, and only an hour and a half late arriving, which was not bad service considering the speed of the jetstream this last weekend.

But then came the late night drive through the hills, dales, woods and fields of mid-coastal Maine. In my drowsy mind's eye, the two blended into one another, until I came somehow to believe that I had driven all the way.

At which point I snapped open the window and plunged my head out into the slipstream to wake up!

But that gives you an idea, perhaps, of what it is like to be me, neither fish nor fowl, not American, not British, but both, a kind of mid-Atlantic citizen.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

School in the swing

Unity College has started up, hale and hearty despite the recession, and we're nearly done with the first week. It's been incredibly busy, and I haven't had much time to catch my breath. My schedule is packed because of several practical projects I'm doing with students, including the building of a barn for the college's farm/garden/local food program, a good deal of community wind power planning and related GIS mapping for various Maine towns, and developing several sites for full scale wind assessments. There's also the training of the SAR Team with large numbers of new students to get oriented to emergency search and rescue.

The schedule is better by far to deal with than last fall's, however, because of some tweaking of my responsibilities. I've shed quite a few items that used to lead to large amounts of paperwork, which has freed me up to actually concentrate on teaching and learning with students as we do these practical and experimental projects.

Just naturally, however, the postings on the Sustainability Blog, and the Womerlippi Farm Blog, may decrease a little. I hope to get some more students posting on the Sustainability blog as the semester goes on, making up for my own reductions.

The Farm Blog waxes and wanes with the seasons. I notice I post much more regularly in winter. Which is reasonable because that is when I have time.

Fall is Maine's best building and outdoor season, though. Summer is hot and sweaty and high humidity and bugs and rolling thunder, and hard to deal with. Fall is cool especially in the mornings, clear, dry, sunny, and above all productive, and I plan to be outdoors with students much of the time until the bad weather comes.

I can hear Aimee's alarm going off up in our bedroom, so it's time to get on with the day, although I've been up for a while. I enjoy the calm of the early morning when I have time to think and let my mind wander a little, which is how I tend to solve problems and catch up with myself and otherwise keep sane.

Today's day will start with sheep and pig feeding on our own farm. There will be some barn work, spreading gravel on the foundation pad and raking it to level, starting with students at 8am prompt. There will be a class to teach at 9.30, in which we will take a short field trip, more of a countryside walk, to talk about human ecology in Maine and reading the Unity landscape for signs of past human uses. A faculty meeting will interrupt an otherwise decent morning at 11 am. This afternoon we will get back to work on the barn. This evening I will be on hand at a Town Meeting in Jackson, Maine to answer technical questions about wind power planning. Hopefully the anti-wind power versus pro-wind power factions, which are vociferous, do not attempt to machine-gun each other with me in the middle.

Democracy: Love it or leave it.

And that, dear readers, is a typical day in the life of this particular college sustainability professor in Fall 2009.