Sunday, September 23, 2012

First "walk in the woods" of the season

It may come as a surprise to readers, especially British ones, that we don't take very many walks around here in the summer.

It just isn't very pleasant.

Maine summers are hot and humid.

And if the 80-plus degree F temperatures and 60-70 F degree dew points don't put you off, the bugs certainly will.

Our bug season starts with blackflies in May. Then in later May or early June, we get mosquitoes. Son after that the first no-see-ums, a kind of midge, show up. Then, while the mosquitoes and no-see-ums are still going strong, the deer-flies and horse-flies ("clegs" in Yorkshire) appear. Finally, we get the stable flies, which come in the late summer and last until First Frost. These I think I hate the most because they draw blood, but also because they come in the house, otherwise a refuge. They crowd the windows, which have to be open, and find a way in through the screens, or any door left open for even a second. Then, while you're quietly reading or watching TV, there's a moment of sharp pain and a drop of blood, and you know you've been bitten by a stable fly. I'm totally anal about screens and shutting doors, but they get in anyway.

All are aggressive, but particularly the stable flies and clegs.

If you're foolish enough to go for a walk, there's just no way to not get bitten. Badly.

You have to be covered up in clothing and wear some kind of nasty chemical to avoid the bugs. But then you'd be very hot indeed, and sweat buckets. With that kind of humidity, the heat is much more intense that anything you'd experience in Britain. Unless we get some drier Canadian air and a strong breeze, it's just not that much fun to walk in the summer around here.

So the Womerlippis pretty much give up walking in May, and don't start again until First Frost. This is hard on me, because I've walked for exercise and peace of mind my whole life, and there's nothing I like better than a good yomp in the woods or on the hill. There are, however, plenty of farm chores, and pulling weeds or firewood or throwing hay bales makes for perfectly good summer exercise, so I don't think we suffer too much on the health front.

But come First Frost, and I'm up and running -- or walking -- again, happily.

I can't remember which day of the week it was, probably Monday or Tuesday, when I went out at 4am or so to walk the dogs and saw the hard white stuff on Aimee's Camry. I was immediately pleased. I'd like to pull our potatoes and get them safely stashed in the cellar, and make a start on the other fall chores, especially "putting the garden to bed," but more than anything the dogs and I needed a good walk.

I'd been able to take a nice hike on Harris Mountain the week before with a search and rescue colleague, planning a training exercise, but the dogs weren't allowed.

Then our good neighbor Ham got out with his trail-mower. Every fall he runs this useful contraption, which drags behind his four-wheeler motorcycle, up and down the woods pathways to make it quiet for his hunting season, clearing out the brush on a couple miles of woods trails behind our house. I'm always grateful to Ham for this, although I know he does it for his own purposes.

Actually, it's the only useful purpose I can think of for a four-wheeler. You wouldn't catch me dead on one of those things. I can't imagine any way to more easily spoil a hike in the woods than to employ a four wheeler. Or snowmobile, for that matter.

But without this treatment, our walking trails would soon become choked by blackberry brush, golden rod, and tansy, and would eventually disappear into the forest. So I'm always happy to see the job done.

I found out that this chore had been done while checking our sheep fence on Friday, and knew I could now get a decent walk in.

Come Saturday, though, I had a honey-do list several yards long. Stuff piles up, when you work every day and two nights a week, my current schedule. I hate to say it, but I was pretty durn tired by the time I gave up on the list, around three-thirty pm. I didn't much feel like a walk.

But I set off and acted as if I did, and the dogs certainly felt like a walk. They took off for the start of the woods trail as if we'd been down there every day since May, and I followed on, distinctly plodding.

But the plod melded into a stride, and the stride soon had me puffing, and became a hike, and then a short yomp. We only went for our usual mile down to the brook and back, but it was the first walk of the official walking season. Hurrah!

And, although there was the slight matter of some unexplained (and unseen by humans) encounter with a porcupine that left them with a few quills each, not very deep (did they roll in a dead one?), the dogs thoroughly enjoyed their walk, and slept soundly all night.

As did I.

Mission accomplished.

I think I'll go again today.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Going tankless

Aimee was upset the other morning to discover that the Womerlippi's propane hot water heater had gone out. Unable to take her pre-work shower, she retreated back to bed, having informed the husband, who was happily reading his morning paper online, of this most unsatisfactory situation. Doubtless she had faith that the husband would plod on down to the basement and relight the pilot, which blows out a lot in the drafty basement, and that she could then take her shower and go to work.

The husband did dutifully plod on down, and did indeed faithfully strike match after kitchen match, to no avail. The pilot wouldn't stay lit. Once the safety button was released, it went out, every time. Something was wrong, because although this pilot goes out often, and although there is a knack to relighting any pilot, I'd done this particular one so many times, I knew very well how to do it, and, well, it just wasn't working.

So the husband checked the date of manufacture and the warranty status of the tank. This unit was here in 2006 when we first bought the house, but it was a good quality, high efficiency item, and might indeed have the nine-year warranty, not six, that is routine for better-quality examples. But husband was shocked to discover that the machine had in fact been produced in 1996. You can replace the thermocouples and even the regulators on these things, but after a while this is no longer worth the effort because efficiency drops over time as a result of sedimentation, and in any case, we'd had an enormous amount of trouble with pilots in the drafty basement.

There wasn't going to be any way to avoid it. We needed a new hot water heater, and pronto. Wifey was duly informed of this fact, and grumped off to work, taking a towel and soap with her, to use the shower in the gym.

There was some urgency to the situation. In the middle of our busy work season, we just didn't have time to mess around taking showers at work and not doing laundry for a week while said husband researched heater prices and efficiency. But luckily, we'd already been thinking about replacing the hot tank, and I already knew more or less what I would do. Several times now I've collected the brochures from various outlets for on-demand propane hot water heaters, also known as "tankless" heaters. These are expensive, it's true, but I'd crunched the numbers and worked out that we probably would save money after the first couple of years. And we had the dreaded Home Depot card, and so could finance it. The college "owes" me some time for all the extra weekends and nights I've been putting in lately, so I wouldn't lose any sleep over taking the afternoon off for a household emergency.

So off to work I went, and when my first class was done at 10.20am, I checked my email one last time, then drove right to the store, quickly checked over the feasibility and cost of the various units, settled on the one I'd already picked out, a Rheem "Ecosense 180" LP gas model, checked for additional hardware needs, bought a few extra unions, connectors, and bits of pipe, came home, removed the old tank, fitted the new one, and hey presto, by 4.30 pm we had hot water again, and so I took a hot shower using the new heater, then went back to work and delivered my second class, a night class, with virtually no interruption for students and only a small pile of grading to catch up on.

It was that easy.


Actually, there is the small problem of a pressure release valve that is soldered in place the wrong way around. Duh. And there is the extra length of flue that is on back-order. And there was the strange programming trick in the small print that is needed to get the water temperature to heat above 120 degrees (F) that took half-an-hour to figure out. Go figure.

But other than that, it was that easy. Not bad, eh? That old RAF training paid off, again, the gift that keeps on giving. The flue will be here next Wednesday. Until then we are using the old chimney for the old hot tank. The re-soldering/reconfiguring of the pressure release valve can wait until Saturday.

After that the only thing left to do will be to audit the efficiency. Because of course the Womerlippi Farmers always keep data, on everything.

In this case, I run an online efficiency model using the US Department of Energy's Home Energy Saver program. I'll need to go in and switch out the base data for the old hot tank, and enter the new data for the tankless heater. I ought to be able to predict some savings here.

We'll see. The new heater cost about $700 more than a nine-year warranty replacement hot tank would have. So we need to save around $30/month to pay the additional cost of the unit off in two years, or $20/month to pay it off in three. I'm sure we'll get $20. We may even get $30. We buy around $60 a month total for gas, and the propane is only used for cooking and heating hot water. Either way, it's less than the seven years that is usually used as a profitable payback threshold.

And so we got what essentially will be a free, new hot water heater.

All's well that ends well.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Calming Orion and the Perseids

It's the start of fall in Maine and as usual the silly season for our working lives. We are run ragged, and getting frayed around the edges. The porch hasn't been swept in days and seems knee-deep in dog hair, while we are barely keeping up with the continued harvest from the garden and as a result are losing some of our crops, particularly cabbage which peaked two weeks ago before being chowed on by rodents. But the tomatoes are still coming in - and going out to customers and friends. The potatoes can wait for First Frost. Carrots can wait forever - I don't plan to pull them this year, just cover them with hay and leave them in the ground.

Although they ate all the green and Savoy, the rodents left the red cabbage alone so far, so I hope to get that in this weekend and so save it. Three ewes surplus to our breeding program failed to sell as breeders and so went to the butchers instead, and are now ready to pick up - over 150 pounds of prime lamb packaged to sell. I hated to butcher such well-bred animals with so much breeding potential, but we don't have the land for them, and there aren't enough people around here wanting to get into the sheep business. Where's their sense of adventure?

The pigs are fattening quickly and must go too in the next three weeks. The boar in particular is one prime pig.

In amidst all the craziness there are some compensations. Our freezers, fridges, and canning shelves are filling rapidly. We're already well-stocked and can now sell more vegetables and meat than ever. I like having some extra pocket-money as a result.

And if I ever get too overwhelmed, well, I can just go look up at the night sky. A bright Perseid meteor zooms overhead at least every second or third time I go out with the dogs at night. Woosh, and it's gone, but I am delighted each time, like a little kid.

While in the very early morning, when I can't sleep or when the dogs are restless, like today, then we go out to look at Orion, rising proudly to the south, our winter constellation.

Orion is a helpful constellation, coming as it does as a harbinger of fall.

When you see Orion this time of year, you know that First Frost will soon come, and then everything will calm down after that.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hello. Welcome to your new career. Now catch your sheep.

Yesterday was the annual introductory animal handling workshop for the brand new, first-year, Captive Wildlife Care and Education class at Womerlippi Farm. We've a large entering class for this major this year and the workshop sessions were a little shorter because of that, but the basic format was the same as in previous years (examples here and here).

Students entering this major as first years fresh out of high school (there were some students present from other majors and some transfer students, but not many) may require a good solid dose of what the military would call "indoc." That would be the introductory briefings and attitude adjustments that are, in that service context, delivered through the first few days of "Basic" training.

What boot-camp briefings and attitude adjustments might be required for a brand new CWCE major?

We have multiple goals with this workshop, we being the major professors, Doctors Cheryl Frederick (AKA "Fred", and Sarah Cunningham) as well as the Womerlippi farmers. And surprisingly, but not unusual for anyone properly familiar with experiential education practice and theory, they aren't very much to do with animal handling. Animal handling theory and practice is probably only the fourth or fifth outcome on the priority list.

The first outcome is that these students must understand that they are now trainee scientists and engage with that career identity and goal?

Why would someone show up to a science major degree program and not identify with being a scientist? Good question. I jokingly blame "Animal Planet" as kind of a catch-all placeholder for the mentality that says that fuzzy animals are cute and meant to be cuddled like teddy bears, but there are probably multiple overlapping cultural factors at work, from the sheer raw power of commercial teenage culture, to the delinquency of science in many high schools, and the general collapse of civilization. Of course I'm being hyperbolic here. But the fact remains that a number of students show up to this particular degree program with a fairly unrealistic idea of what the kind of work is that they'll be getting into, what kind of skills and attitudes are required, and why. Science tops the list for remediation.

Of course these majors are scientists, when you think about it. Duh! The degree could be titled "Applied Biology," subtitled "Animal Care Concentration" and that would perhaps be more accurate.

Scientific practices are used to work out animal care routines, nutrition, animal behavioral protocols, and of course medical care. One reason zoos are in existence in the first place is educational and scientific. These majors are first and foremost applied scientists in the field of animal care, as well as science educators, and research scientists, once they get out into the workforce.

But. of course, science is considered "hard" and scary, especially, surveys show, by teenage American girls. This is truly tragic, and so we do our best to fix it. We do this by straightforwardly demonstrating to the students that it is purely vital to know your science in order to take proper care of an animal.

And there's nothing quite like being told to grab your sheep and check them for a parasite with a long scary Latin name, Hemiconchus contortus, or being asked to give an injection of a strange substance you are told is a special kind of medicine called a vaccine, to protect against another organism with a yet-more-difficult Latin name, Clostridium tetani, all the time hearing the instructor's words ringing in your ears, telling you, not for the first time but perhaps the first time that you actually listened, that you already are a scientist, if only a trainee.

The real power of experiential education is that it works better.

Even for what might seem like outcomes that could be delivered in the classroom.

The sheer scariness of the experience, and the adreneline rush of catching and holding your first "wild" animal (our sheep can be pretty wild), will drive the lesson home forever. I think it entirely possible and even likely that these young women and men will remember this into their old age as the day they became scientists.

I still remember some of the similar experiential educational experiences I had at the hands of military and outdoor activity and yes, science teachers.

The next outcome is that students identify with the proper level of professionalism and learn to employ a gutsy, can-do attitude. We want them to be "switched on," engaged, organized, thinking all the time, willing to get "stuck in", and above all, not distracted.

A new notion for this year's class was that they were told that anyone answering their cell phone would have it dropped in the deep sticky hole in the pig-pen. I doubt I would actually have dropped anyone's cell phone in pig poo, but I did get their attention.

They were given some quite strict warnings about paying attention, about proper workplace safety, about why they needed to be one hundred percent engaged, for their own, and for the animals' sakes.

And no-one dared to answer their cell phone or text another student.

Today it was sheep and lambs. Tomorrow it will be lions and tigers and bears, oh my, and safety must come first. Distraction is lethal.

One of the unfortunate aspects of today's commercial teenage culture has been the way that it has dis-empowered the high school teacher and infantalized the teenager. In ancient and even in more recent American societies, teenagers were trainee adults, and their culture was little different from that of adults. Actually, there was simply no such thing as a "teenager" as we know it today. There were just young adults. They had adult responsibilities and adult work to do, and distractions like cell phones, fashion, and video games simply didn't exist.

You'd think that at Unity College we wouldn't have too much anxiety over fashion and popularity and the hierarchy of teen society and that kind of stuff, but we do, especially among the first years. By the time they graduate, they've more or less discarded all that nonsense and are much more professional. But the process has to start somewhere, and if we hit it hard in the first few weeks, we can get them to begin to drop the habits of distraction, and become focused instead on learning, which is where we need them to be focused.

Again, there's nothing like having this brought home to you because the very nice outfit you assembled for your day out at the farm got spattered with sheep blood or manure. Hopefully you'll never forget the lesson and perhaps even develop the fortitude to pass it on to your own children.

Lets talk about that, too: Fortitude. Guts. Gumption, whatever you want to call it, today's is a competitive society and the CWCE field certainly no less competitive than any other and perhaps more so. Students can't be shrinking violets and expect to succeed. Animal care can also be a dangerous profession, where adversity and difficulty rein, and where it's entirely possible for you to go to work one day and do something stupid or have a workmate do something stupid and get hurt or killed, or have an animal get hurt or killed. Being switched on and engaged is part of safety, but being simply brave enough to actually grab your animal and get stuck in is also part of it.

And it can't be taught easily in the classroom, and certainly not by computer. You have to do it to learn it.

In particular, if you are half-hearted or shrink back, your animal will struggle and escape and likely hurt itself or you.

And if you shrink back from grabbing a sheep, or wilt at the thought of a dung tag, this might not be the career for you. Better to learn that sooner rather than later. There are plenty of less physically challenging careers.

It was a good day to be alive at Unity College. My faith in human nature is undiminished, and my basic and innate feeling that all young people can be good and brave and true, if they try, was of course proven once more, replenishing my own faith in the world. The kids got stuck in and did the work, and although many confessed to being scared of the sheep and particularly of "not doing it right," most realized that, as we said, again and again, "'s time to get over all that, isn't it?"

Here are some of the best "action" shots. Aimee has many more on her Facebook album which you can access here.

Here (above) is one of the CWCE young men catching his first sheep. Note the hesitant body language. This is where we say "'s time to get over it."

Here's Bentley the Womerlippi ram, our most dangerous animal, demonstrating the sheer effectiveness of the basic control position for sheep. Bentley probably weighs 250 pounds, and can be violent, especially with his head. Another good lesson. Animals are not your fuzzy friends.

This is what we like to see. Total concentration, total engagement. Everyone using the proper tools and procedure, everyone getting stuck in. Well done.

One aspect of professionalism is to listen whenever a briefing is being given. You don't want to miss anything, especially the safety instructions. We're all very seasoned teachers and so our built-in radar can pick up a distracted student at fifty paces by body language alone. Here students are being shown how to clip chicken wings to help keep the birds safe. if their wings are clipped, they have a much harder time getting out of their pen. Some, I'm sorry to say, are more focused on the birds they're holding or watching than the briefing, and may have to be told once more what to do.

Here's a little more concentration on the part of one particularly switched-on student, as well as a great photo of Aimee doing what she does best.

We had a good day out with the students and were pleased to have them over to the farm. We made sure, of course, to show them the other animals and the garden operation, and to show them a selection of farm products. There are lots of great lessons to be had at the farm. We touched on some of the sustainability lessons, including the nutrient cycling as well as the general human ecology of keeping several types of animals in combination with a truck farm or market garden operation. We were a bit rushed for this part because the vans of new students kept coming, but everyone got a little of everything, and the Unity College curriculum will drive home the goods later in their careers.