Sunday, August 28, 2011

Canning some sunshine

Our tomato crop looks history, but I wasn't going to go without my winter tomato stews and such, so I went to my Amish friends and bought twenty pounds of good canning tomatoes.

I was also able to get thirty pounds of prime Maine peaches for rather much more money per pound, from an "English" farmer though, not an Amishman.

Yes, that's right. I said "prime Maine peaches." Haven't you heard of climate change?

All this summer goodness got canned up today. Eight quarts peach halves, three peach pie filling, nine quarts tomatoes.

We'll put up some more tomatoes later in the week. I want at least twenty and preferably thirty quarts on hand.

Tropical storm Irene is very nearly upon us, and it's poured with rain all day so far, so this was a good use of my day, the last free one before term starts.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Other updates

Other than the excellent news that the pigs went quietly, lots more has happened, good and bad, around the farm.

Under "good", our lamb and sheep management has paid off in spades for pasture quality for the first time ever.

In the past, we've always found ourselves with too much head of stock by the time the grass starts to slow down in the fall, and as a result we get overgrazing, and need to supplement grass with hay and grain earlier than is cost-effective.

You have to give a little grain. This time of year the less hardy breeds of sheep need a little supplemental grain if you're to get good lamb numbers.

Hardy types, Herdwicks and Swaledales and Welsh Mountains can pretty much fend for themselves year-round if there's winter grass, and indeed that's the proper management for those breeds in Britain.

Here in Maine, we'd ordinarily give the hardy breeds a winter shelter and just hay.

But slightly less hardy types like our Corriedales need a little grain before breeding, if you want to have high lamb productivity, lots of twin lambs. This is called "flushing." I began graining our ewes and lambs lightly a few weeks ago, for flushing, and to keep the shearlings and yearlings in good condition for sale.

The sale animals went for a decent price, which, with the weaner lambs sales in spring and the one fat lamb sale, also a few weeks ago, and last but not least my project of culling the large number of superannuated ewes we used to keep; all this reduced the flock count to ten, down from sixteen.

The pastures were looking tired so the remaining sheep went into the North Paddock and onto hay for a short while to give them a rest. A bit of rain and some sunshine later and we have grass in abundance, and fewer sheep to eat it. Our ewe-lambs are fat and fluffy and happy as a result. In a few weeks time we'll catch them for dagging and hoof-trimming, and check their eyelids, and I don't expect to see any anemia, except perhaps for Nellie who seems unable to fatten this year for some reason. I've already drenched her once, and am not sure what else to do except perhaps to give her a rest year. Her twin lambs are still nursing, the greedy buggers, and once they stop, or she gets wise and makes them stop, she may have a little more to spare for herself.

In other "good" news, Aimee had a birthday, although I'm not sure how good she feels about getting older. She liked her presents for once, especially that cute little lime-green li-on screwgun I bought her.

Aimee loves her tools. Must have gotten that from her dad.

In bad news, with that recent rain that helped the pastures, the late blight has struck again and we'll lose ninety percent of our tomato crop. I walk around the tomato patch looking for odd berries that have escaped the fungus, and it's just a miserable feeling. I love my tomatoes so much. I get that from my Dad, I know, and my grandfather, both of whom raised tomatoes every year.

The potatoes, otherwise susceptible (Phythoptera infestans is the "potato" blight after all), will be fine as long as I leave the harvest until after the first killing frost. The fungal spores don't penetrate the ground unless you disturb it, or unless the blight hits while the tubers are first forming.

And the potato productivity is well up. One plant alone that I pulled for eating now produced a five-gallon bucket full. We also have plenty of other vegetables.

And we have lots of apples, mostly because of a piece of bad news. A storm Monday took out our best eating apple tree, a big, tippy, split-trunk disaster of a tree that just happens to produce nice big Golden Delicious-type apples. This tree, overgrown like all the many apples we have, was on my list to be deadheaded -- pruned back to a pollard. They all are eventually. This was just higher on the list. But I postponed the job until I could see what the results of this very harsh treatment would be on the Granny Smith-type in the front yard. I cut that tree back to a near-pollard several years ago, and thus far there had been no apples to speak of. A few appeared this year. Until I know how long it takes to get a tree back into production, I can't put them on a rotation for deadheading.

The problem is, we really don't know, and probably can't ever know, what varieties we have here, or whether or not they were grafted, and so it's very hard to know if or how to prune them.

When I say they produce "Granny-Smith" style apples, that just means the apples look and taste like modern Granny Smiths. In reality, the tree is probably some much older, forgotten variety.

The orchard plantings probably took place between 1806, when the farm was begun, and 1880, when the original Great Farm mansion burned. What we have are likely the daughters and grand-daughters of the original and later plantings. Some of the trees we have would have been deliberately cultivated, others would be volunteers. At least a couple are obvious grafts, such as the two-trunker in the Back Forty, where one trunk produces some kind of Russet, while the other has pale yellow, sweet eating apples of some other kind, possibly the same kind as the tree that just fell. We can guess that any grafted tree was deliberately planted, and so dates back the last time this place had a serious and knowledgeable farmer or farm manager. The Granny Smith, fifteen inches or more at the base is also probably 150 or 200 years old. Others are likely fresh "sprouts" of 50 or 75 years only.

Anyway, long story short, my favorite apple tree came down in a storm, weighed down by lots of fruit. Neighbor Hamilton was the one to find out when his morning run was blocked by the tree fallen across the fence, and the sheep were out as a result.

He was good enough to clear the tree for me and even managed to round up most of the sheep. I came home to find him trying to get the rest put away. I relieved him of that duty, and then we finished clearing his driveway together. After that I stripped all the good apples off the down branches and pruned what was left of the tree back to a kind of triangular pollard, where the main trunk leaves the ground at 45 degrees, and the one remaining branch turns back at a steep angle to balance the trunk. The sheep were then set to clean up the hundreds of smaller wormy apples, which job they have not been able to complete.

Other bad news, I think I have a CV joint going out on the Ford Escort wagon, and so am considering doing that job and some other body and brake work to get the car in good nick for the winter. I went through our superannuated Nissan farm truck pretty thoroughly this summer, so that vehicle is now my daily driver while I decide what to do with the Ford.

And last but not least, we will get a hurricane or a tropical storm sometime Sunday or Monday. Monday is also the first day of class, so we may finish up with a search and rescue call-out on the first day of class.

The three not-so-little pigs

So much has happened since I last posted here, it will take me a couple of posts to get updated.

The first big thing that happened was that the pigs went to the butchers. And they went quietly for the first time ever. Previous posts have told of my routine difficulties due to the need for a proper livestock trailer.

I still don't have a proper trailer, but I have a home-built lash-up that is much better than any I've used before.

I realized in July or earlier that the money -- $2,000 or so -- for even a used traditional metal livestock trailer wouldn't be there, so I started to plan. I bought a used utility trailer and added a wooden box sturdy enough for pigs and sheep.

I put a sliding door on the back with a pin-on-a-string thingy that works as a drop catch, as well as a cunning trapdoor in the roof at the front that allows you to drop in special treats.

On the appointed day, which was last Sunday, I placed the trailer in position at the front of the pigs' pen, and dropped in some corn cobs and watermelon rinds. Sure enough, two out of three pigs climbed on board, so I pulled the string, and just like that they were trapped.

Off to the butchers they went.

Then I came home and repeated the process without incident for the last pig.

Let me just say that again so I can enjoy the words: The pigs went without incident this year. It was totally routine. And my blood pressure was only slightly elevated.

In the past, the butchering days have left me just shattered. It was always bad enough to have to take the poor buggers to their deaths, but then add bad equipment on top of that, and you're talking a seriously unreasonable kind of stress for me and the pigs.

The only problem with this trailer is that it's a bit too cramped for three pigs, so the third pig doesn't want to come in, however nice the treats might seem.

Once the pigs were gone, I cleaned out the barn. I did a better job of that than usual -- the cobwebs in the ceiling/hay floor joists were just a little too numerous for my tastes, and Hallow'een isn't for a couple months yet.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Apple harvest

I'm not sure when harvest season began. A few days ago. We just kind of blended into it without fanfare.

First I pulled the onions. Didn't do very well there, I'm afraid -- the sheep had gotten about a third of them by sticking their heads through the fence, and what was left was small, or had split into several bulbs like shallots and kept hard stalks. I hung them on the wire platform in the garage to cure.

Then I harvested a bucket of potatoes to see if they were ready, more or less, and they were. The haulms haven't all died yet, but there's a couple of friends from work we always invite to dig a few spuds for themselves, and I wanted to do that before the fall term began.

Next I noticed a lot of smaller but bug-free apples on the Golden Delicious tree in the North Paddock. This is our best tree for eating apples. It always has larger, less buggy fruit.

So I made apple pie filling with some of these, just because I could.

This is our peeler-corer-slicer thingy. It works well. You can peel, core, and slice a whole pot of apples in minutes. I put them on a slow heat with cinnamon and sugar for several hours, and they cooked down nicely. I set the mix to cool and today I'll bag it and freeze it.

I'll need to make a lot of apple pie filling this year because we heard from our blueberry farmer that their blueberry crop has failed.


Saturday, August 13, 2011


Here's Aimee, perhaps two days' work shy of completing the cedar shingles on the front wall of the house.

She's been beavering away quite eagerly at this job since we re-organized the ladders and scaffolding. It's now much safer up there, which I think is why. The weather is also much nicer, not nearly as hot and humid.

She stopped work again a short while after I took this picture. She was tired, but she also ran into a wasps' nest, which the husband must now sort out. Unfortunately the two numpties that have completely ruined our village hardware store, running down all the stock so that there's hardly anything you need, haven't any wasp killer either.

I guess I'll have to run to town.

Thirty miles is a long way for a can of wasp killer.

Here are the sheep lazing in the shade of the barn this morning. They're looking pretty sleek except for Nellie, who may need to be wormed again soon.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mary piddle problem

Our redbone coonhound, Mary, is a very lazy dog.

(You must say "redbone coonhound" with a southern accent, adding extra vowels throughout, to get it right.)

This is no great surprise, indeed only natural, given her sad life story.

She's a former hunting dog that we rescued one winter's day from St Mary's Wilderness in VA. She had either become lost on a hunt or her former owner had had abandoned her. She was starving, skeletal, and had well-healed bite marks that could only have been made by a bear. She was hanging around the trail head, and when we climbed out of our rental car to go for a hike, she followed us up the trail, refusing to leave us be, and so we took her.

She probably knew we were her last chance.

A trip to the vets and a plate or two of dog food saw her quickly on the road to recovery. We were surprised to see what happened next. We gave her a temporary bed in my in-laws house. She took to it like a fish to water, and has seldom gotten out of bed since.

Mary sleeps almost all day, every day.

Almost immediately after arriving at our home in Maine, she took to Aimee's "papa san" bamboo couch, and now spends at least 12-16 hours of every day there. Her day bed is on the porch, where this time of year, she spends all but thirty minutes of her remaining 23 1/2 hours.

Occasionally, she will sleep on the lawn.

In bug season or when the snow cover is deep, when dog walks are unpleasant or impossible, a maximum of about thirty minutes of her day is spent not sleeping. The rest of the year she gets a forty-minute walk once or twice a day. It takes her about five minutes to eat, and she occasionally will have a roll on the lawn or a stretch.

That's it, all she wrote -- her entire life.

The rest of that half-hour, especially in bug season is spent with me, trying to get her to piddle outside. There's a routine, of course, as there always must be with dogs, especially rescue dogs, to keep them content.

The routine goes like this:

Between 2 and 4pm: Mick comes home from work or from working in the yard, and feeds Mary and Haggis. In season the dogs may get a one-mile walk.

After eating, Mary goes back to bed on the porch.

About 6.30pm, after Mick eats his own supper and lets both dogs in the house.

Mary goes straight to bed on the "papa san."

About 9pm or 9.30, Mary is made to go out and piddle.

Mary goes straight back to bed on the papa san.

About 6.30 or 7am, Mick takes Mary and Haggis out to piddle before going to work. In season, the dogs get a one-mile walk.

Mary goes straight back to bed on the porch, where she remains all day until dinnertime.

And that's it. No more, no less, the entire life of a Mary-dog.

She seems content with it: enough food and clean water, her own private bed, and no bears, that's all she asks for. A simple life.

But lately I've been waking up and coming downstairs each morning to find a massive great pool of Mary-piddle on the kitchen floor.

She's not incontinent. She just doesn't want to piddle outside. She may not be piddling before she goes to bed. Some of the time she may get kicked out at 9 or 9.30 and forget to do so.

I routinely go out with her and Haggis at bed-time to make sure they do have time to piddle, but now it seems I have to start checking up one her with the flashlight. That's a little annoying.

The second remedy is to drag her out of bed at 4 am each morning and take her out to piddle then. You have to physically remove her from the papa san. She will not get up of her own accord, not that early. Understandably, I've been reluctant to do this, but I'm getting tired of piddle on the floor.

Poor Mary.

But poor Mick, having to clean up piddle before I've even had a cup of coffee.

Dragging her out of bed is quickly beginning to seem the lesser of two evils.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Simpson Dura-Vent Failure: Dura-Vent or Dura-crap?

Keywords; Simpson Duravent, Dura-vent, DuraVent, Duratech, failure, melting, breakdown, rip-off, scam, chimney failure, lawsuit, consumer report

Herewith a tale of modern woe and Kafkaesque bureaucracy with which to scare your children:

Two summers ago we were told by our insurance company that they needed a chimney inspection on record, if we were to be heating with wood fuel.

"OK" we said, good doobies that we are.

Only problem was, no-one really works as a qualified chimney inspector in the great State o' Maine. The state doesn't issue qualifications. Neither do municipalities. Local fire chiefs will occasionally take a look at your chimney, but they're not really qualified.

We got a little frustrated trying to find someone to do it. One guy and his shifty-looking buddy came out and looked at it and cleaned it and charged us $150, and left us with a receipt that might have been printed up by a child with a potato stamp, and a feeling that our "joint" had just been "cased."

So we called in a "proper" chimney contractor, Mr. Mike Peete, of Peete's Clean Sweep of Newport Maine.

Mr. Peete recommended a complete demolition of all our existing flues and rebuilding from the ground up.

I was sort of expecting he would put a liner in our kitchen chimney, which although cracked here and there, was otherwise sound. But no.

What followed reminded me of "Right Said Fred," by Bernard Cribbens.

"That there chimney's going to have to go."

There was a huge mess and a lot of dust and a massive pile of masonry demo in the back lot, which remains for me to deal with one fine day, but the chimneys were duly replaced with "proper" contractor-installed chimneys. Our insurance company was happy.

We weren't. The two new chimneys cost $3,500 we probably didn't need to spend. As soon as we could we switched insurers. Given what happened later, we were right to do so.

Because less than a year later, I happened into the attic one day, to find the kitchen chimney rusting out aready. The outside chimney followed suit shortly thereafter.

Mike Peete returned my first call but never made it out to the house to look at the problem. After that he stopped returning my calls.

The makers of the chimney, Simpson Dura-Vent, returned my first email and a very legal eagle called me at home, to bring my attention to the warranty where it says that the manufacturers instructions have to be followed completely or the warranty doesn't stand.

I got the manual and of course found a couple of areas where Mr. Peete's installation didn't match the original.

Artistic license, I guess. I wish he'd stuck to the script.

But it's pretty clear to me having inspected the faulty pipe on the bench (and given my engineering background I feel qualified to say), that the product itself is at fault here. It was made in such a way that hot gases from the inside can clearly reach the insulation, through an area just above the join between pipe sections, eventually melting said insulation, and then burning the galvanized coating off the outer layer of metal, eventually causing the rust, as well as extreme structural weakness.

The pipe that looks toppled over in the picture? It is toppled over. It fell over as soon as I disconnected the supports.

I can't imagine that a product as badly made as this hasn't been a problem for the company, but I can't find any record of other failures on the Internet.

A clue lies in the fact that we have two unharmed sections of pipe. It must have been a bad batch of product.

Yet even if my particular batch of chimney sections had some unique fault, there would likely have been others. Why aren't there any? Did the company settle with them and not with me?

I don't have much recourse. If Mr. Peete had followed the manual, I could sue Simpson Dura-Vent. I could sue Mr. Peete for not following the manual, but I'm not inclined to do that -- except for the bad product, his installation was workmanlike and proper. I could make a claim against my own homeowner insurance, let them sue Simpson Dura-Vent, and risk a higher premium, or I could just replace the sections with new ones.

Aimee and I talked it over and decided the best thing to do would be to replace the kitchen chimney with a different company's product, one that looks sturdier, and recycle the good sections of Dura-Vent into the garage for now.

But it's still going to cost me $500. Which is enough to make me want to write it all up on my blog.

If Simpson Dura-Vent doesn't like it, they can pay for my new chimney, then I might take this post down.

It's not like I don't have proof. The pictures speak for themselves.

And that ridiculous insurance company diktat to get an inspection in a state that doesn't have inspectors?

How much more dangerous is the new chimney than the old?

Last lamb gone and what good did it do us? A cost-benefit analysis

I took the last male lamb to the butchers yesterday, the poor wee mite. His ultimate destination is our friend Lois's freezer. This final sale made this a bumper year for sheep sales. We've sold a total of six animals, one two-year old, two shearlings, one fat lamb, and two weaners.

How much did we get from this activity? About $430. Gross.

How much did we net? I don't want to think about it. Really. But I will.

This many sheep sales represents at least part of the cumulative production of the last three years. If I were to add the gross receipts from last year and the year before, and then subtract the costs and divide by three, making some allowance for the extra shearlings kept on this year (current "inventory") minus those we had at the beginning of the three years (inventory at the beginning of the time period), I might get close to a number that represents our losses or profits.

I keep a spreadsheet of costs versus revenue from which I compute our income taxes each year. If I count only those expenses that go towards sheep feed of one kind or another, and exclude the cost of fencing and barn, pick-up, tractor and trailer maintenance, I get about $3,000 of expenses for this three-year period.

Against which I get about $750 of sheep and yarn sales.

Meaning we lost about $750 per year on sheep.

To be honest, I thought it was going to be worse.

As the owner of these few acres, and caretaker of a few more, I tend to think I'm going to have to spend some money on grass and brush management, which right now is done primarily by our sheep.

How much would it cost me in lawn-mower and brush-hog maintenance and depreciation and gas to do this work myself? I have no clue, to tell you the truth. I hate mowing lawns.

But to begin with, I'd need a riding mower and a brush hog attachment for the tractor, and I'd need to calculate depreciation and expenses for both. A mid-range riding mower starts at about $1,500, the brush hog would be about $900, and our small Kubota tractor, which is second hand, cost $6,000. That's $8,400 of capital expense, which would probably average about a ten-year lifetime, or less given our land is so rough.

Call it $800 a year, plus another $50 in gas and oil.

And I don't account for our own meat consumption anywhere in this estimate. I'm not sure I eat $750 worth of lamb and mutton.

But how much do I eat? I would guess I eat lamb or mutton products perhaps once a week.

If I were to estimate that consumption as a third of a pound per week for 52 weeks, then that's about 17.5 pounds per year, which at $3/pound is less than $60 dollars.

So my $750 of excess sheep-care expenses is offset by $850 in avoided lawn and brush-management expenses, as well as $60 of meat.

There's also the sheeps' contribution to the gardening effort. We make between two and four tons of compost per year, but I think the majority of the nutrients in that material come from the pigs. Still, we do grow an awful lot of tomatoes and potatoes and onions and other crops in that garden.

But this is getting too complicated. I was breaking even at the previous stage, sheep vs. lawn-mowing and meat expenses.

I think I should quit this calculation while I'm ahead, don't you? All this calculating helps me justify my existence as a sheep farmer, but it doesn't help poor Molly out there, still bleating for her lost lambie. I'd better go feed her, to distract her from her loss.

She'll feel better -- they always do.

Sheep have short memories. As a result, they don't do cost analysis.

And that's probably a very good thing.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


My last week of summer field research is coming up. Following that, a couple of easy weeks. And then the fall term will start and we'll be back in the grind. I'm getting that anticipatory feeling that I always get at the end of summer.

It's always interesting at this very pleasant time of year how little we remember our feelings at the end of spring term, how tired and frustrated and upset we were with one another, and with the educational process in general, students and faculty alike.

Education is a process fraught with inherent conflict, internally and externally, or it isn't education.

It should come with a government health warning.

Warning: Participating in education can change your mind.

Changing your mind can be painful. Symptoms include but are not limited to headache, blurred vision, backache, perspiration, shivering, pallor, migraine headache, and feelings of inadequacy.

I'm always amused by the politically correct among us, even at Unity College, who seem to think that all life's activities should be pleasurable,
especially academics.

But, student or teacher, if you don't occasionally have some of these symptoms, you're probably not doing it right.

Newsflash! Serious college is hard. Hard things take effort. Effort hurts your mind. They also require feedback and criticism, particularly self-criticism.

But then that's how your mind gets better.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

MOP gear

Aimee got a good chuckle out of my antics last night.


My job in life definitely seems to be to entertain my lovely wife.

But no, I'm not out to rob a bank or hold someone up.

(Although the girls at our actual local bank were just robbed by some low-life tea-leaf.)

My aim with this particular fashion statement is to defend hearth and home against a sea of outrageous and very aggressive paper wasps that have set up home in the barn attic. Every time I go to feed or check on the animals, these buggers sting me when I leave. The door sticks and needs to be slammed a little bit, which rocks the building and makes a loud noise, which rocks their nest and out they sally, stingers primed.

There's only one thing that really works with this problem, and that's good old fashioned, tasty organo-chloride pesticides. Never mind your organic farming BS -- that stuff is anti-intellectual mind-pap anyway. Nature is full of nasty chemicals created by perfectly organic, perfectly natural living beings.

We had a can of something in the shed somewhere, but I wasn't sure how much. Not wanting to start the job and not be able to finish, I went to the hardware store to get a fresh can.

I don't care to be stung either, so I took further precautions, suiting up in some ad-hoc NBC-protective gear -- yet another use for military training! When will the usefulness end, I ask myself?

I waited until dark. I even tried to use a red flashlight on the questionable semi-scientific grounds that I thought I remembered insects couldn't see colors, but my flashlight batteries were out, so that part of the plan was a bust.

In the event, all I needed to do was wait until dark. The wasps were sound asleep.

This morning's first job will be to remove the contaminated debris and any dead bugs. I don't want our chickens eating them. I eat eggs. I may not agree with some of the pseudo-scientific nonsense spouted by organic and anti-GM food advocates, but I don't care to deliberately become the last stop on the bio-accumulation chain.

In other news, every summer there's a day each year when the harvest provides the first completely home-grown meal of the year. This year that day was Sunday. Blackened, crisp-grilled pork chop, shell peas and new potatoes.