Saturday, February 26, 2011

Scrum for Kubota

Another snow day off from work yesterday, which was a good excuse to get some extra rest -- a long afternoon nap while the blizzard howled. Not that I don't have work I might do at home, but I was tired and needed the rest.

Once the storm was done, which wasn't until this morning, I went out to survey the scene. We received another foot of snow on top of two-three feet of consolidated pack.

Time to plow out the driveway, dooryard and barnyard.

It was pretty outside in the sun, but pretty cold too. I needed to wear my mitts to run the tractor. Insulated gloves couldn't hack it.

The garage was well-festooned with icicles.

Once I have the driveway plowed I like to drive the vehicles out from their berths before I clear the snow off them. It's a lot easy to sweep snow off of vehicles if you can walk all around them on level, already plowed, ground. Then you can clean out the parking spaces with the tractor and drive the vehicles back in, free of snow and ready to go do whatever you need them to do.

But the Ford couldn't make it over the snowbank, and so had to be tugged out with a chain. The little Kubota made fairly short work of moving the Ford.

I then had to change the sheep's water and clean a little inside the house. Aimee for her part went for the week's groceries.

Then of course the Six Nations rugby on BBC America.

England 17, France 9.

Say no more.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Spring, everywhere but here

The four other farm blogs I like to read are making me jealous with their warm weather and pleasant outdoor activities, including planting.

We won't plant a thing outside for two more months at least.

Life at the End of the Road on my favorite Scottish Island of Raasay, where I was once a regular at the Outdoor Center, is digging with his wifie in his garden and tinkering with his generator.

Musings from a Stonehead is turning over raised beds.

Throwback from Trapper Creek
has green grass growing! I'm so jealous of that green grass!

And Colour it Green Diary is planting starts in her greenhouse. Ours is still snowed in.

But this too shall pass. It's now so light here in the evening that the chicken coop must be locked up for the night after dinner, not before.

But those snowbanks are still mighty big out there.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Snowshoe, sunshine

The snow had set up pretty well after the recent rainstorm and thaw, and it was a sunny Sunday afternoon today, so Haggis and I tried to go for a snowshoe hike in the woods. I was having fun, but Haggis was floundering, so we turned back and hiked the snowmobile trail instead.

That was fine for both of us, and so we did our same-old, same-old hike for the upteenth time this winter, down to the brook and back.

The shiny ribbon of ice in the second picture is what our neighbor Ham has for a driveway for the foreseeable. Looks like a bobsled run. I reckon you could skate it easier than walk it.

After getting back, I was still hoping to go someplace different, and so when I got Haggis safely back home, I took off into the woods next to the house. I thought Haggis would stay home and just wait in the dooryard, but he tried to follow again. If you look hard at the picture with our house in it (click to enlarge) you'll see him struggling to catch me.

Poor old dog.

So I took a picture from this different vantage point, a view of the place that we haven't been able to see for two months or so, while waiting for the snow to set up.

Then I went to help my dog get back to the house.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Get your cramp on

Aimee and I have been on a slippery slope recently -- the one outside our front door.

An ice storm came as forecast on Thursday night after a day in which the sun shone and temperatures approached 50 F. Then after the ice storm Friday we had rain and drizzle and fog much of the day.

That 45 degree fog we get this time of year eats the snow and makes it go away, which is good and what we want to happen, but the combination of ice and fog and drizzle and general melting and refreezing made for a slick mess in our dooryard this morning.

Aimee could barely walk out to the car to go do the shopping.

So before I could get any other thing done today, I had to take care of it. I put down sand with salt and it's now possible to move out there.

To get this job done, and indeed just to take the dogs for a walk, and do every other chore, I've been wearing crampons on my snow boots the last couple of days.

These are not the ice-climbing crampons I used to wear for mountaineering. They're just rubber stretchy-thingummies that slip over your boots. They have small metal studs about 3/16ths of an inch long, just enough to get a grip.

It's fun to see Haggis sliding around on these slick surfaces. He gets going just fine, but then when he tries to stop, he can't and somehow his back end catches up with his front end and he ends up in a messy pile on the floor.

Haggis has worms, so he and Mary will no doubt get dosed today when Aimee comes back. He doesn't seem to mind, and hasn't lost any energy. But he was chewing on the fur around his bum for a few weeks before we noticed the worms.

Funny that they get worms this time of year when there is zero biological activity outside. They must have been carrying the nasty critters for quite a while and just recently experienced a population boom.

Poor puppy. But at least he's not lonely.

He's carrying quite few new friends around, actually.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Penobscot sunrise and heat dollar doings

This time of year, waiting for the thaw to take hold, it's hard to see over the horizon. Particularly, it can be hard to see why we choose to live here, when other, warmer places are already farming and gardening for the year, while we must eke out our stored sunlight as best we can (see Sunday's post below).

But yesterday's beautiful sunrise, caught while driving to work, was a good biogeographical lesson.

For one thing, the direction is already east of south-east. The sun is advancing leftwards each morning across that eastern horizon. By March 21st it will be due east at dawn, and due west at sunrise, and the days will begin to race a little less each day until June 21.

For another, the sunrise illuminated the deeply wooded landscape of northern Waldo County, the Great Forest of Jackson, and the Penobscot River drainage. Although cold in winter, this is fertile northern hardwood forest land, and will grow fuel yet for generations to come, while other places will suffer from climate change. Of course, our forest's species composition will change too with changing climate, but there's a good chance that it will remain a forest.

For which any Englishman who likes to be warm should be thankful. My ancestors were forest people, and I love my woods.

Finally, there's the better weather, of which this red sky at dawn was a harbinger. Yesterday topped out at 30 F. Friday is supposed to get up to 45F.

Forty five degrees! We can't actually remember what that feels like.

Of course, we still have three more heating months to go. We will run out of firewood this week. It's been cold this winter, and we burned it all up. We ordered oil, 100 gallons for $328. which has come, so we won't be cold. I also ordered another cord of dry firewood, for which I will pay $250 to a local logger who runs a small lumberyard. It should come by the weekend, and I look forward to stacking it on Saturday and Sunday.

I didn't enjoy parting with the extra money for oil and firewood. Thus far, our household heat has cost only the two or three weeks' moderately hard labor that I put in during June and July, plus about $200 extra on our electricity bill. Luckily, we will get a decent federal tax refund this year. I did our taxes on Sunday and although it took me six hours to do the farm books and file the resultant taxes online, and although it about drove me crazy to spend so long indoors on a weekend, I was pleased with the results.

So I'm not worried about the extra $778 in unexpected heating costs. I easily paid for it with my six hour's work Sunday. Most of the oil and some of the wood will remain unused and be available for next winter, so it's probably more like $400 in additional heat costs just for this year, which with a couple more months of higher electicity bills might top out at $800 total.

Eight hundred for a year's heat is nothing around here. It's been cold, and lots of people around here with less well-insulated, well-sited houses will be facing much, much more in additional heating costs.

So the sunrise showed that the end of winter is in sight. Another Maine winter survived, more or less.

Of course, now that I wrote that, Sod's Law says that Friday's warmth will be canceled and we'll get another two feet of snow instead.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunshine in a canning jar: The way we get by

Here's a jar of our Juliet tomatoes, canned last fall, that I opened for breakfast this morning.

Juliets are a Roma-style plum tomato that I find hold up exceptionally well when canned, although because they're small, it's quite labor intensive to peel them. But once peeled and properly canned, it's a very great pleasure to eat them, especially when the warm days of early fall are long gone and there's four feet of snow on the ground.

I had mine with home-grown pork sausage and fresh eggs from our own hens.

This is one way we get by here in the frozen north.

Blog readers living and farming or gardening in warmer climes are probably surprised by the harshness of our winters here in Maine. It seems like every blog post for quite a while on A Great Farm Diary has been about snow.

It took me, an immigrant, a long time to get used to this. It will be daffodil time in South Wales, where my family lives, in a very few weeks. Some of the farm blogs I read from Britain are already planting seeds.

Here we're eking out the sunshine, stored or returning.

The sun is returning -- I have to keep telling myself that to believe it. All those massive mounds of snow will melt, and that water will go away, although it all seems very unlikely right now.

The returning sun is now around 30 degrees above the horizon at noon, up from 21 just a few weeks ago. By this time next month it will be 40 degrees.

The afternoons can be markedly warmer now, with the thermometer reading around freezing or just above any day the sun shines. Today is sunny, so I expect a pleasant afternoon. February sunshine is another way we get by.

The tomatoes are just one form of stored sunlight we collect around here. Hay is another, collected in square bales from fields round about, as well as oats from The County. That's what the sheep are eating. That's how they will get by until May when the grass begins to grow again.

(Aroostook County, known as The County, is where Maine grows most of its grain.)

Firewood is what was keeping us warm, more stored sunshine, but that's getting low, so we ordered and received a delivery of oil. Another form of stored sunshine. Fossilized sunshine, to be precise. It's been so long since we had a delivery -- three winters ago, in the winter of 2008-2009, to be exact -- the truck driver didn't recognize the house. His data sheet says that ours is a house with green siding. It's now cedar-shingled, the fruits of Aimee's labors over two summers.

100 gallons of oil still isn't very much. Not over three years.

I can get by, getting by on 30 gallons of oil a year.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Battery blues

We went over to the Bale House to switch out the batteries, which had failed.

This is a small solar power system, using six volt golf cart batteries only two years old or less. The batteries would last longer of they were treated well, but the previous occupants let the house freeze, and discharged them too deeply, too often and the batteries failed early. The new occupant has been having trouble with the solar power system ever since she moved in, despite me switching out almost every other component.

Aimee wanted to do some shopping in Bangor, and we needed to get the new batteries there, so we made a trip of it, and picked up the groceries and some sheep and chicken feed.

Our nicely liveried farm truck got a little attention parked outside the grocery store.

This second photo shows the vehicle we used for a farm truck before. This is an old 1975 VW "Campmobile" van I drove as my primary vehicle from around 1992 to 2003 or 2004.

The Campmobile was an American conversion of the stock German-built van, and was made for a few years in the mid-1970s.

I loved this vehicle. Except for a yet older VW I had once, this is the only vehicle that I've ever had that you can sleep in and carry 20 full sheets of 3/4 plywood flooring. And other than money for parts, I never paid a dime for it. It came to me free.

Back in the day, I used to get given a lot of free vehicles. I could repair them, and folks I knew would rather give them to me at the end of their life than to the junkyard, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s when steel prices were low and so you had to pay a junkyard to take your scrap car.

This vehicle was not quite in such bad shape when it was given to me. It was perfectly drivable, but had a few tricks needed to keep it running. I fixed it up, and with "only" five or six top end rebuilds and one bottom end rebuild, once second-hand gearbox and any number of CV drives, got about 500,000 miles out of it, including four or five cross-continental trips.

There just never came a time when the cost of repair exceeded the value of the vehicle or the price of a replacement.

It ended it's days at the Bale House not because it couldn't have been repaired. It was still running when it was parked. But once the days of first two and then three-dollar gasoline came to stay, I couldn't afford to drive it. At its best, it would only get eighteen miles a gallon. And the lack of an effective heating system made it impossible to drive in Maine five or six months out of the year.

I keep saying I should fix it up again, but Aimee probably wouldn't allow it. Too much money, too battered a relic, not enough emotional bond for our Aimee.

Poor old bus.

And what a lot of snow. Pretty soon that bus will just become a snowdrift.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Warmer, and the sun returning

We're into the racing days, and over the hump. It will be equinox in five week's time, and each day the sun climbs a little higher and stays a little longer in the sky.

More importantly, the jet stream is predicted this week to flatten out and retreat into Canada for the first time this year, which will give us much warmer air for much longer. It's snowing out there right now, but warm, wet snow, not cold, dry snow.

(I think you have to live here for a while to appreciate such fine distinctions!)

Yesterday at the college a slow thaw set in for much of the day and the ice in the parking lots, assisted by salt, was melting fast and making a slushy mess.

But you've no idea how much nicer it is to see water in the liquid rather than the solid state.

Winter isn't over by a long chalk. But it is abating, and becoming more manageable. During the recent cold weather, for instance, we had to use the oil furnace quite a bit.

Now we can keep the house pretty cosy with the wood stove at one end and an electrical heater at the other.

Of course, this all comes with downsides. There isn't much chance of a snow day this week, so we'll have five full days' work.

Water from melting snow banks has penetrated the shed, and threatens to keep things wet in there for a while.

And the driveway will be a muddy mess when those snowbanks begin to melt for real. Generally snow melt around here is a gradual process driven by sunshine, but accelerated by rainstorms that come in March and April. If we were to get a muddy rainstorm before the snowbanks are reduced by the sun, we would probably be in pretty bad shape for a while. They can be moved further out of the way, but right now that would be difficult since all that wet stuff over the weekend has set up like concrete, and our 12 horse, compact Kubota can't easily move that kind of snow.

But anyone in Maine who has time and a big enough front-end loader is busy moving snow as far out of the way as they can, getting ready for the thaw. Last night on the TV news they gave out a warning about snow crews working to truck snow out of city streets and away from freeway on- and off-ramps.

Getting ready for the thaw. Or more snow. Another two-footer between now and April is not at all out of the question.

Today is a night lecture, so I get some time to do farm chores during the daylight, see how the land lies, and possibly even take the dogs on a decent walk. Hopefully a snowmobile has been by on the trail and packed it down.

The last time I looked, the trail was still covered in deep stuff.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Moving snow, again

We had a snow, slush, and ice storm last night. No big deal, but with five inches of new wet, but very clean and white snow, icy trees, and sparkling air, it was pretty out this morning, especially on the high ground between here and the town of Brooks, Maine, where all the ice was heavy and glistening on the trees.

And warm. Above freezing almost as soon as the sun came up.

So it wasn't so terribly unpleasant to have to plow all that snow out of the way.

As reported earlier, it's taking longer to move snow with the tractor, because I have to go further to find a snow pile small enough that I can reach over it with the loader. This means making a lot of three point turns in our dooryard.

As you can see, the tractor can pick up a couple-three wheelbarrow's worth of snow at a time, especially when it's wet like it was today and so sticks together well.

If I had a full-size tractor, with a more powerful engine and a wider loader (and a modern, cushioned tractor seat), this job would go faster. I'd get one with a backhoe, too, so I could grub up stumps, to landscape around the farm and make new gardens and the like.

That purchase is probably going to have to wait a while. I don't think Aimee would agree that we have money for a second tractor, even if it would save me from a numb bum.

I needed to dig a pathway over to the oil tank filler. We are down to a quarter tank and need to get it filled. The tanker truck driver probably won't want wade through four feet of snow to do that job. I dug a snow trench instead.

That was enough exercise for a morning. We'll wait for a couple of snowmobiles to go by on the trail, and then walk to dogs this afternoon.

This tank hasn't been filled in three years because we use it so little. I expect the oil truck driver has forgotten where the filler cap is.

It's our Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Green Bay Packers in the Superbowl tonight. Two working class teams. Should be a good game. Aimee bought in extra chips and avocado pears (for guacamole).

If the Steelers lose, better not try to talk to Aimee for a day or three.

According to the Internet, 100,000,000 Americans will watch the game.

More importantly, between them they will consume 8,000,000 pounds of avocados during an average Superbowl.

It didn't say anything about how many chips or how much beer.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Surprise on the snowmobile trail

Here's what our farmyard looks like after the most recent snow storm and clean up. I generally plow the snow up into these big banks with the tractor's front-end loader, but two of the banks visible in this photo are already too high for the loader. I had to start pushing the snow in the other direction.

Surrounded as we are by fields and woods, we're not likely to run out of places to put snow. But it is getting inconvenient to mover. I have to move it further than normal. The old system that has worked every other winter is no longer working.

We've had a lot of snow this year.

I went for two walks with the dogs today. The first was uneventful. The second, just before dusk, came with two surprises.

The first surprise was these tracks, which took me a minute to identify. When I got to the big apple tree at the start of the snowmobile trail, it was obvious that someone had been knocking the apples that remained down to eat them. But who?

Then I figured it out. We've been seeing wild turkeys lately, wandering around the various dooryards here on the Great Farm.

The prints of turkey feathers in the snow proved it. They must have been jumping up into the tree to knock the apples off.

The next surprise, of which I have no pictures, came later on the second walk, when I spotted Haggis "pointing" like a silly old pointer dog at something in the deep snow off to the side of the trail. He was very intent on whatever-it-was, all concentration and quivering nose.

But all the stupid human could see was an old dry oak leaf, and then just a little behind that, the kind of hole made in powder snow when some snow falls off a tree.

But right then, as I craned to see what was in the hole, a grouse flew out! And directly, too, no running start. It just leaped out of the hole like some kind of missile out of a tube!

Made me jump.

I expect it might also have been a ptarmigan, because I certainly didn't see it well enough to know.

But I sure figured out what Haggis had been staring at.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Snowstorm pending, so an early walk

Haggis and I decided to get a walk in before the snowstorm hits. Aimee and I have a snow day from work, and the storm, a big one by all accounts, was scheduled to hit hard around 9am, although we've had preludes in the form of light snow and spin drift all night.

A little light stuff is no impediment to a walk around here. The deep new powder we will have by this afternoon will certainly slow you down, so sooner was going to be better than later.

Being sociable fellows, we invited Mary-dog on our walk. Mary demurred to begin, but I insisted. She did get off the couch, but hesitated again at the door. Again, I insisted. Mary, a former bear-hunting dog that was kept outside, is perfectly happy to piddle and poop in the house if you don't make her go out.

Once outside, Mary balked at the walk. I kept calling her, but she wouldn't come. She didn't like the 10 F weather, the nasty cold wind, the new snow and the spin-drift, which admittedly was all a good deal worse at her height than mine.

But Haggis and I had a good heart-pumping stomp along the snowmobile trail.

I'm not fond of snowmobiles per se, nor any noisy smelly machine that gets between you and seeing, hearing, and feeling the outdoors, unless it's a Land Rover, or the chainsaw that gets me my winter firewood.

But Aimee and I have lived on the edge of the same snowmobile trail now for over eight years, and we've learned to live with it and even appreciate it.

(We've only been in this house for just under six years, but this trail goes straight to our other house in Monroe.)

The reason is, the snowmobile club grooms the trail, and the packed snow allows you to walk for miles in the woods without skis or snowshoes.

We're perfectly content to both ski and snowshoe our way around, but neither are ideal in Maine conditions. Ski trails here need to be groomed to work properly -- the untreated snow pack is generally either too deep and soft to ski easily, or too hard. As for snoeshoes, they only work well in the early spring after the snow pack has consolidated. There's about a three-four week window each spring where you can snowshoe anywhere you want, as fast as you like, on deep, hard snow pack.

(Sometimes, when conditions are just right, there might even be a week when you can hike anywhere you like on really hard snow, mountaineer's neve snow, really, but that's a little rarer an event. When it occurs, the feeling is a bit like walking on air, and after a whole winter of post-holing, you feel like running around on top of the snow!)

The rest of the winter, snowshoes are better than hiking, but still clunky and uncomfortable and slightly unnatural. Like clown feet.

So the snowmobiles are unpleasant, but their trail is a boon.

Haggis enjoyed his walk. He always does. He's very pleasant to hike with.

Mary refused to come and instead stood outside the front door and howled until Aimee let her back in, and then headed straight back for the couch.

What a wuss! And doesn't she look guilty in this picture?

These Maine woods we live in are mostly second growth agricultural land that was part of the 2,000 acre Great Farm of Israel Thorndike. The biggest ash grove we have used to be called the Hundred Acre Hayfield. These days it's a hundred acres of 90% white ash, all no more than twenty years old -- a great firewood resource. But there are places where the tree cover is more diverse, and individual trees are older, with the ground showing the hummocks left by former fallen trees, and you can guess that although the wood was perhaps harvested, the primeval forest was never cleared.

Haggis and I usually like to hike to the first such place (pictured), about two thirds of a mile there and the same back. The ground is too steep for the plow, and there's a small seasonal brook with a wetland just below, and so this is essentially wilderness. The forest cover is more diverse by far than above on the Hundred Acre Hayfield, and the trees are on the whole larger.

I think it's an acquired taste, to properly appreciate the Maine forest, especially this cut-over or cleared land, and especially in winter snowstorms. The colors are fairly monochrome. We may as well be seeing the world in black-and-white, like an old photo, or on an old black and white TV.

I was watching a PBS show last night on the Klamath country in Oregon, a place I've visited where the redwood and Douglas fir trees can be tens of feet around, and the country is always green and lush: a rain forest. I was happy to see it all on the TV again, and I wouldn't mind another visit one day.

But I was content enough today to take my exercise with my one good dog, in the deep snow, in the deep Maine woods behind my own house.

Oregon can wait. It's not going anywhere.