Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Farm for the Future

Here's a great new BBC film -- very nicely done, showing the west country farm of the Hosking family, and chronicling the farm daughter's exploration of what it might mean to run the place without fossil fuels.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hay and other forms of cellulose

When I realize how important the cellulose chain is to our lives, it makes me wonder why I don't know more about it that I do. I even went to Forestry School, but I can't for the life of me remember what the structure of this polymer looks like.

(Time for a quick Wikipedia search.)

Here in the woods and green fields of Maine, of course, cellulose is most of what we see every day, all year, at least until it gets covered by snow.

Anyway, it's been even more prevalent lately than usual around the farm.

First, we were able to get the hay in. It was a sweaty, tiring afternoon, but with the help of Friend Alysa and a friendly truck, we now have 272 bales of freshly compressed cellulosic product stacked in the barn attic.

Right where it needs to be. Victory over the weather, too. Score one for the good guys.

Timing is everything, and in this case it was our farmer who watched his fields and the weather like a hawk. He mowed Sunday when the weather had been dry and windy since later Saturday. The crop lay for less than 24 hours in 80 degree sun and low humidity. It was tedded (turned) once the next day, left for another hour or two of sun, and baled.

This procedure of course was risky, and the outermost rows of bales, the ones that had felt some shade from the trees that surrounded the field, were damp and heavy. But the bales in the center of the field seemed just fine. We bought the bales right off the field and so had to lift them and haul them ourselves, but we save money that way, around $300 less, in fact, so the labor pays for itself. We took only the dry bales. The farmer kept the damp ones. He probably sold as much hay off each field as he normally does, despite these unsold bales, because of the heavy crop.

Thanks to Alysa and the Maintenance Crew at UC for help with this vital project.

The next kind of cellulose I had to wrestle with was the insulation kind. This is recycled newspaper and paper factory waste, and I've been blowing it into the walls of this old house.

You can see the apparatus that does this job here, which you rent from a rental yard.

I suppose I'm a bit of a fanatic about insulation.

(The local hardware store manager was commenting recently on the number of containers of spray foam insulation I've bought from him, dozens and dozens. That stuff is so useful. I even use it to fill the tires of small items of farm equipment when all else fails.)

In the case of these walls, the cellulose is only part of the procedure. There's also a whole system for shoring up the sills against damp and carpenter ants. The sills in this house are six by six hemlock, 109 years old, and except for a four foot section that got attacked by carpenter ants and had to be replaced, are as sound as the day they were laid. But we need them to last another 100 years, so we are stripping the siding and sheathing off to expose them, spraying them with pyrethrin, covering them with "Plytanium" pressure treated plywood, and then adding another layer of two inch pink Styrofoam (polystyrene) insulation.

All the stripping, spraying and re-sheathing has to be done before the celluose can get blown in. Each layer of plywood and foam is sealed tight with spray foam, too.

After the foam board insulation, which make the house a nice but temporary shade of hot pink, there's a final layer of oriented strand board, #30 construction paper and cedar shingles. The OSB is really just a nailer for the shingle nails.

The cellulose blower is a tricky beast. To get the stuff inside the walls I drill 2-inch holes with a thirty-dollar augur bit and a very heavy duty power drill a few inches from the top of each stud bay. There's a reducer nozzle on the blower pipe that goes in these holes. You load up the machine with product, take your hose and remote control switch to the top of the ladder, push the nozzle in the hole, hit the t*t, and wait for the cellulose to come rattling through the blower. You can tell when you're getting product and not just air because the hose will shake violently. If you let the bay fill up and don't withdraw the hose at the right moment, the nozzle will block. It's possible to actually block the entire hose, if you don't shut the machine down. All this, and filling the hopper, means you have to be up and down the ladder like the proverbial underwear in the house of ill-repute.

You can see from the picture how much of this gets on me! At the end of the session with the machine, I have to go hose myself off with the garden hose. The material, which has borax in it to repel insects and rodents and reduce fire risk, stings like salt, too, if you get it in a cut or a scratch

I like American poet Gary Snyder's idea of "the real work," by which he means the work of community and household building through, among other things, Zen meditation. I think there's a Zen to the art of using machinery for the common good. In this case, the good is not so common, mostly just Aimee and myself and the indoor animals, dogs and cats, will benefit. The occasional clever mouse that escapes the cats might be a little toastier this winter.

But he'd better not be living in my nice rebuilt walls!

However, at the college where I work we teach students how to do this kind of work in public service projects, and so they go out and insulate houses for local folks, especially old people, using federal government "stimulus" money.

Which I think is a very good deal. Definitely the real work.

And of course, since Maine is a major producer of paper, the likelihood that the cellulose originated here is fairly high.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Whether it will or won't...

The endless Maine spring rains this year have finally given way to dryer air and an early version of the kind of dry heat we often get in August -- a dry windy 80 F during the day, and cool nights around 50 F. The weather scheme this year seems to have skipped over the high rolling humidity we usually get in July, with those sunny, wringy-wet, hazy days, low visibility and sweltering nights non-existent this year.

The best measure of this is that we have only used the bedroom fan twice this year.

The extra moisture and less sunlight hasn't created too many difficulties for us. I've been able to switch between insulation work, school work, community wind power work, and motorcycle tinkering as weather and whim allow. Some tomato plants are unhappy, a combination of blackfly and mold which should clear up this week, allowing them to get a second wind, hopefully in time for harvesting berries. The bloody sheep stuck their heads through the fence and scoffed the first row of onions. There's still one more full row, though. Pigs are all sold now and getting fat, boy lambs are almost full grown, fool-grown and ram-bunctious, and could probably go to the butchers anytime now, new potatoes are available, as is broccoli by the pound. The pigs get all the broccoli and lettuce and potato plants after we're done with them. Happy pigs.

Fat city. Despite the rain.

Our only problem is hay. I've been checking in almost daily, doing drive-bys of our hay farmer's fields to see where it's at.

Not so good, is where it's at.

The grass is knee to thigh-high and all gone to seed. Some species, like reed canary grass, are way past their prime. The timothy is holding, just, another week and it'll be gone too. There's plenty green leaf mixed in with all the stem, but a lot of stem.

But it's fodder. There's certainly plenty of it, a really heavy crop this year. It has to be cut. It's still worth cutting, and I think we have to buy it because there's nothing much else we can do. Who knows whether we'll get a chance to buy second cut? The sheep will eat the leaf and drop the stem and that will be their winter bedding. There'll be too much ripe seed in the bedding, and the compost we eventually make of it will make the garden weedy.

And the garden is always weedy.

Maybe next year will be the year we skip composting the garden. That wouldn't hurt, to let the compost mature another year and kill the weed seeds. The garden has a reserve bank of fertility at this point, after three years of heavy composting. Or we could till a couple more times in the spring, after the grass has germinated, but before we plant.

There's a way around every problem.

There's even a way around the hay problem, if this plan of waiting for dry weather had failed, but now it seems we won't have to struggle with balage or silage or round bales that we're not set up for.

It was probably a mistake to set our system up so it was so dependent on old fashioned square bales, but it is what it is.

With rain every other day it simply has not been possible to make hay, but this break is what the hay farmer and I have both been looking for. He started cutting yesterday, and I agreed to get the crew and big truck in hand by Tuesday afternoon for baling.

Hay day is our biggest longest workday of the year. The hay fields are five miles from our farm, not very far, but still requiring a lot of shuttling back and forth. We pick the hay off the fields as soon as it's baled, stack it and truck it, throwing it into the barn through the hay door. We sweat like stevedores, or at least I do. As we drive back and forth, we re-hydrate, drinking fluids by the gallon. We generally get all 300 bales of hay thrown up and stacked in less than five or six hours of late afternoon and evening labor.

The next day, I usually move very slowly indeed.

The sheep never seem particularly aware of all the work we do on their behalf, ungrateful buggers. But in winter they do love their hay, crowding around the mangers, getting their heads stuck in the bars. The chickens eat the grass seeds that are in the hay and lay their eggs in hay, the pigs re-use the sheep's winter bedding. The bedding-made-compost fertilizes the garden. The mice nest in hay and the cats eat the mice. Apart from the grass and clover we grow ourselves, which is summer fodder, winter fodder in the form of hay is the ecological foundation of everything everybody does around here.

Most essentially, we truck in these 300 bales of fertility from five miles away, and with them we bring in enough additional nitrogen and other nutrients to run the farm without artificial fertilizers or chemicals. The only artificial input is the gas taken to run the truck and the diesel that runs the tractor.

Hay is the basis of our fertility, the base of our food chain.

Each year we import from a few miles away the natural fertility created each year by around ten acres of only lightly-managed Maine grassland, a more or less self-cycling mix of grasses and legumes that is not itself fertilized artificially, not even reseeded often if ever. We concentrate this fertility by running it through sheep and pigs, taking a share of the biomass that results in meat, and then use what's left as compost to grow other food and build our soil.

Which makes hay day the most important and vital day of our farm year.

In the past Aimee and I have done this all alone with our small pick-em-up truck which only takes 31 bales at a time, fully stacked according to the patented technique we worked out a few years ago. This is tiring and inefficient.

This year I'm trying to get some help from some friends who are also farm animal customers. And a bigger truck. We'll perhaps trade labor for one of their projects, insulating a rental. Or we'll pay in extra produce. Or they'll just do it for fun and exercise.

And together we'll bring in the hay.

If the rain holds off, that is.

So far, so good.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

This Old House re-runs

When Aimee and I bought this old farmhouse we only had time to do about half of the work we needed to do in terms of rebuilding before we had to move in.

If you check out Aimee's page of photos here, you can see what we did manage to get done. It was quite a bit of work -- and that was a summer I worked about 45 hours a week at the college too. But we concentrated on the interior, although we also blew 2 feet of cellulose into the upper crawl space and later that year rebuilt the attic above the kitchen with two layers of R19 fiberglass.

One of the jobs that was saved "for later" was rebuilding the exterior walls of the house and adding insulation. The house had vinyl siding when we bought it, in a sick shade of green. Even so, the exterior, with the vinyl, was more or less bombproof on the outside and could safely be left for a while. But we knew we wanted a super-insulated house.

Eventually, as we could afford it.

This week I began the job of rebuilding the exterior walls. I'm adding both 4 inches of cellulose inside the walls and 2 inches of pink foam board insulation outside. There is 1/2 inch shiny foam board insulation on the inside already -- done before we moved in as we replaced the drywall. The inside insulation has the 3/8 inch airspace that bumps the value up to R6.1, so with the R15.2 of the cellulose (studs are actual 4 inch rough cuts) and the R10 of the pink foam and two inches or so of wood, we will have roughly R34 walls. The ceiling of the main house is already more than R60 with the two feet of cellulose (R 3.8 per inch).

So when this new job is complete we will not quite be officially super-insulated. But still, we should be nice and warm.

The first part of the job was to wreck out the parts of the old wall we were not going to keep. I removed the vinyl and it's underlay. Then I tore out the bottom few siding and sheathing boards, which I removed to inspect the sill -- nice and sound after 109 years -- and plan to replace with PT plywood, while adding lots of sealant and carpenter ant repellent.

Moisture and carpenter ants will do for an old house in Maine very quickly. We had already to trade out part of the sill on another wall because of ants, and I'm very careful now to spray the pyrethrin-based repellent compound each spring all around.

This job has to completed before Saturday's predicted thunderstorms to be on the safe side, so I'm under the gun.

Here's the kind of mice nest we find in these walls when we take them apart. I used rubber gloves to get this out. There was even a bat sleeping under the vinyl. He was pretty groggy to have to come out in the daylight.

Then there's a shot of the completed wrecking job, the sills all nice and clean.

The next thing I did was drill the 2 inch holes for the cellulose blower at the top of each stud bay. Then I stuffed fiberglass in the spaces under the windows and closed it all in with PT plywood and glue and nails from the nail gun.

This morning first thing, I will go get the blower machine from the rental yard. I have today and Saturday to get the wall closed in again before the rain.

Once the new foam and sheathing is up, Aimee will shingle the walls with cedar shingles. She's an excellent shingler, and not too shabby a finish carpenter either.

But she doesn't like framing, or what she calls "big jobs."

This is a fairly painstaking way to do this work, with all the checking of structure and glue and sealant, and then the time-consuming shingles. But when we done these walls will be good for another hundred years, or more. The materials we're using are modern and more inert than the pine and hemlock that have brought us thus far, and not as tasty to critters. Cellulose is actually impregnated with Borax which repels insects. The new materials are also put together differently: tighter, sealed better, well insulated.

This is definitely the way to go.

I realized yesterday that I don't perhaps need to be quite as worried about my firewood pile this winter, because if I can get this job done, we won't need as much firewood. Or heat oil, either.

Now that would be a good thing.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Funny weather continues

Today is supposed to be the first full clear sunny day of the last five or possibly six weeks. The weather this summer is beginning to be a problem.

Way too wet.

We can't finish our firewood chore because our woods are too wet to drive a tractor. The mid-Maine hay crop on which we depend absolutely for winter fodder isn't in yet except for a tiny handful of farmers who wisely took advantage of a two-day dry window in mid-May. Our gardens are doing OK compared to some of our friends, but the beans, tomatoes and especially the peppers are being held back by the cold. Our compost heap, which we keep in the pig's outdoor area so they can help process it and add nutrients, was stinky until I risked a stuck tractor yesterday and turned some new hay into it.

All in all, nature is being her usual uncooperative, willful self here in Maine.

Now today has dawned and the overnight low was below 50 degrees F, which seems like fall to me. I was actually cold outside this morning while doing my chores at 6am. Very surprising.

I'm starting to think I may have to buy some firewood. Hay is the big problem, though.
What to do if the weather keeps this way? We might buy round bales from some other state or from the northern part of Maine where they've been having different weather, but our operation is set up for square bales, not round. We would need to rig a hoist to get them in the barn.

I did make provision for both a hoist and a round-bale sized door when I built the barn, but never really expected to use it.

We can probably find local balage (hay silage in round, plastic wrapped bales), which local farmers are already switching to in desperation. I expect that the minority of grass farmers around here that have balage equipment are working overtime. Luckily, balage can be stored outdoors.

I guess we have a few more weeks yet before we have to make this decision. And what we do will depend mostly on what kind of cured fodder we can find, and at what price.

If we get lucky we'll have a dry early fall and make lots of too-thick, late, first cut hay. It will be poor, stalky stuff but they'll eat it, and what they don't eat will make winter bedding, and we'll feed more oats to make up for the poor hay.

I imagine I'm not the only agriculturalist around here hoping that this comes true.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Down at t'mill, laddie

Eee bah gum. T'were yesterday we took t'auld waggon to t'mill we alus wool fer to spin. A reet nice day out for t'lass and me.

Yorkshire dialect
aside, we did go to the woolen mill yesterday with our wool clip, which we duly traded for wholesale yarn. There's a fee. You don't get the new yarn for free, but you do get it a lot cheaper than you'd pay retail, less than half price.

So, knitters all, we now have 130 skeins of yarn to sell in different colors, mostly natural light and dark grey like our sheep, but some dyed stuff too. The wool all goes in a pool at the mill, so it's not all our fleece, but it's possible that some of ours from the year before last is mixed in.

It's really nice yarn. Lots of pictures of this yarn are online: just google "Bartlet Yarns. The price is $7/skein plus postage or shipping. We have at least ten skeins of each color.

Email with orders, or look for our ads on eBay coming up soon.

In related news, the wikipedia page on Yorkshire dialect relates the following:
"An April 2008 survey found that Yorkshire accents are now ranked above Received Pronunciation for inspiring confidence in the speaker."

Ah, well. Twas ever thus, weir ah'm from.