Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hill farmers and green growing things

We have five days, including today, left of our Spring Break "staycation."

At least for me it's been a staycation. Aimee went to a marine science conference in Savannah, GA, where she presented a poster with a write-up of her rockweed study so far. She has photos posted on her Facebook page. She had a nice time, and was in good spirits when she came back, despite the fact that we still have snow on the ground here in Maine, while Savannah is of course several weeks into the spring growing season already. I think we'll make it to Finals Week and Graduation, although it's going to be insanely busy.

I was a little jealous of the flowers she saw, and the warm weather, but of course I get to go to conferences too, so there's not much point being jealous. I used to live in Georgia, and didn't like it much, so I was happy enough to stay home and watch for lambs.

We rarely go anywhere together (except to see Aimee's family in VA once a year), since someone always has to stay home to look after the animals.

So, I was "it" this time, and stayed home and looked after the animals, and vehicles, and house, and even did some college work, a large important report that will need to be polished up some today.

The Ford passed its safety inspection yesterday, rust and all, sailed through in fact, as did the Nissan pick-em up truck. Another year of legal driving for both. I'm not sure if I'll get another year out of the Ford after this one -- those Maine rust mites will eventually spread to a major undercarriage mounting point and that will be all she wrote. The Nissan has some rust on the body, but nothing terminal, while the frame and undercarriage are still solid. I'll wash the salt off it as well as I can, drive it only sparingly this summer, spray it with Fluid Film underseal in the fall, and she should be good for another sticker next year.

The Ford will have to be replaced with another daily driver when it rusts out. Something that gets good gas mileage, is what we'll need. I'd like to get an electric car or a hybrid, but we probably couldn't afford one as they remain still too expensive (except possibly a secondhand Prius or Insight -- we'll see). More than likely, we'll get another newer car for Aimee and I'll take her Camry into its second hundred thousand miles.

The Nissan is not scheduled to be replaced, except by a large agricultural trailer that the Land Rover can pull, to carry hay and transport heavy equipment and building supplies. I imagine I can get a few more years out of the truck before I actually need the trailer, but if I see a nice one going cheap enough, I may get it early just to make my haying a little easier.

Spring is coming more slowly this year in Maine than in past years. We're scheduled for another snowstorm today, albeit just a dusting. Our lambs are staying firmly inside their mothers, and I don't blame them. The gestation period for a sheep is five calendar months, give or take a couple days either side. I checked the sheep book to see if we had ever had an early lamb, and there was one year where twins were born at something like 142 days, but never any earlier. The online lambing calendars (yes, even shepherds have online calculators these days) all point to March 29th as the due date for the ewes that were bred first.

There are some pretty horrific stories in today's paper about hill farmers in Britain losing thousands of lambs to the cold weather they're having. An old service buddy, Geoff A., is a freelance press photographer in North Wales and he has some pictures of snowbanks on his Facebook page that are more like Maine than Wales.

The farmers that are losing lambs are the ones that don't lamb indoors and don't lamb in the in-bye pastures, usually because they don't have lambing sheds or enough in-bye. These are the hill farmers that still lamb on the fell, and still use the traditional and hefted breeds that can handle that kind of treatment.

Here in the hill farms of Maine there's no such thing as a hefted flock, the weather sucks for lambing early, and all we have is in-bye and woodlot, no fells, so we lamb indoors. The Womerlippis are extremely careful about this, with night checks and constant vigilance this time of year. The minute a sheep shows signs, she's pulled into a pen by herself and kept there until she lambs, or proves to be a false alarm. So far we've had one false alarm, and as a result poor Molly spent a night in isolation with nothing to show for it. 

The hill farmers in the UK would ordinarily be able to handle a spring snowstorm, but they've also recently had an outbreak of Schmallenberg virus over there, a midge-borne illness that causes abortions and birth defects in the first few years, until flocks become immune. This bad weather comes as a second major blow, and unless the government does something, many hill farmers will have to sell out and go on the dole. Ordinarily a UK government could be relied upon to help farmers out in any situation like this with some kind of compensation or insurance scheme, but this current government of the "feral elite" is a nightmare. Despite most of them living in rural Oxfordshire, at least on weekends, they make the stupidest decisions about rural affairs.

The RAF is dropping feed from helicopters to try to save some lambs, but the government just made the decision to privatize my beloved SARForce in 2016, a stupid, stupid decision, considering that the current Sea King squadrons are the pride of the country, especially since Prince William joined SARForce. The RAF Mountain Rescue community is bemoaning the decision today, all over Facebook and the blogosphere.

Happy seventieth anniversary, RAF SAR! 

Seventy and out. Brought to you by your friendly coalition government. I've half a mind to write to my MP, but since the MP for Sheffield Hallam, my home ward, is bloody Nick Clegg, the Deputy PM, I don't think I'd get very far.

I'd like to see them get Bristow, the US firm that won the contract, to drop feed to sheep in winter.

Here in Maine we still have snow, but it's melting rapidly and should be gone by the end of next week.

The Womerlippis do have some green growing things despite the cold, albeit under glass, with heaters and heat lamps.

Here's our spring plant start set-up in my den, where there's a south-facing window.

The picture is blurry, I know, but you get the idea. We invested in new lamps this year, not cheap at $14 apiece, plus between $10 and $15 per bulb. We used to get by with small bulb-holders, not strip lights, but the plants would often be spindly as a result, and hard to transplant later. I had to go to four different hardware storees to find all eight bulbs (two per unit), since these are not common items. I expect we'll get a visit from the Maine DEA, since this is the kind of operation the local nasties use to grow pot. We're of course only growing tomato starts, plus a few brassicas and squash. We don't plan any new nefarious business enterprises, just a slight improvement to our veggie operation.

Once the plants get going, they can go out to the glass greenhouse, which has been refurbished with new plastic sheeting inside, as well as some floating row cover, to trap the air and cut the light intensity. One thing that happens this time of year in Maine, with all our snow and sun, is that there's often actually too much light for plants that have been begun inside, and when the full March sun is at the zenith, an unprotected glass greenhouse will actually get too hot for most plants.

I think I may have spent all of $80 building this greenhouse years ago (pictures here, here, and here). It was cheap because I used all the leftover storm window glass we had, after putting all new double-glazed windows in the house. After a while though, the storm windows cracked and had to be replaced, and lots of air leaks opened up as the cheap wooden frame shifted around. The plastic sheeting solved the air leak problem, and this year it seems to be working well. 

I should think that one day we'll want to demolish this old thing and buy a nice new metal framed greenhouse, but for right now this is doing just fine.

The tomatoes and squash will stay in here until they're quite large, then get planted out and in the new hoophouse, built only last year. We'll grow early and late toms in the hoophouse, and the main crop out in the garden.

The brassicas can be put out in the hoophouse anytime now. I have a soil thermometer out there and the soil temps about 40 degrees F in the early morning, even after a hard frost.

And so begins another year's round of modern small-scale agriculture on the Great Farm of Jackson, Maine. 

1806-2013, not out.

Wassail and Amen to that.

Keep watching. Lambs will come soon.


  1. Sorry to hear about the homeland Mick, it seems to be a symptom of the times.

    P.S. You don't want to hear or see how large my tomatoes, peppers, peas, beans, lettuce, mustard, cilantro, and everything else is in my garden, it wouldn't make you happy. At least you've got some stuff started early though. Keep rockin in the "free" world.

  2. Sorry to hear about the homeland, it seems to be an unfortunate symptom of the times. Keep your eyes out for a nice PA made diesel Rabbit pickup! Mine is still kicking out 45 mpg, and with some reinforced leaf springs you can really load her up!

    P.S. You don't want to hear or see how large my tomatoes, peppers, peas, beans, lettuce, mustard, and everything else is in my garden. It wouldn't make you very happy. But at least you've got a good head start on the seedlings.


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