Saturday, April 27, 2013

A "new" camera!

The college was cleaning out its (only partly) proverbial closet, getting ready for science laboratory refurbishing this summer, and some bright spark decided to have a "yard sale" of old science equipment.

Ever the scrounger, I investigated the cache before the big day. On top of the pile was a 1999 Olympus Camedia 2500 digital SLR camera, previously assigned to Dr. Potter, a fisheries professor.

Having destroyed at least five privately-owned small digital cameras, several of them on college business, I felt entitled to appropriate this particular camera before the official yard sale began, and did so (with the begrudging permission of the organizer).

If anyone complains, I'll just point to all the photos I have on the college's website and in various publications, made with my ill-fated private cameras over many, many years. Two of them were actually dropped into the sheep's water tub, having slipped out of my jacket pocket. At least another two quit after being banged about in my book bag.

It took a little Internet research to figure out how to connect this rather ancient camera to my computer. It's so old, the modern plug-and-play protocols don't work. But after about an hour of web research, and $16 plus shipping at for a "Pixelflash Superspeed" USB 3.0 Compact Flash memory card reader, we're in business.

And, despite the hoots of derision from my lovely wife (who herself has spent at least $2,000 on cameras and camera-related accessories in the nine years of our marriage), it works! I'm very pleased with the results.

I've always wanted a digital SLR. If I'm good, I can make this one last a long time.

Here are the fruits of my labors, the week's activities on the farm:

Charlie-cat on the pouffe

Regina's first-ever, named "Tango" in honor of the RAF Leeming MR Team call-sign

Shaky on his feet and not as robust as other lambs this year, little Tango gave us a moment or two of worry

A new hay supplier, Simon Stoll, Amishman, of the Palmer Road in Thorndike. This is the first cut. The ewes prefer the second cut

Tango tries out the outdoors for the first time

I shifted four tons of well-rotted pig-manure compost on Thursday afternoon, after a tough morning at work. Very cathartic, is moving compost piles. I recommend it.

This is one Kubota-B6000 bucket-load of pig manure compost, ready to be tilled in. Black gold.

Aimee's cosseted plant starts in the big greenhouse for the day. At night they go back to the smaller heated greenhouse.

Lamb city. Lambs feed, frolic, and nap in the waste hay. It must be nice to be a Womerlippi lamb

Nap time

I "de-horned" this apple tree for the second time. Of all our ancient apple trees, this is the one I most want to keep, but it's not easy to keep it down to size and get a decent shape. But it shades too much of our lawn and we can't reach apples at the top of the tree. I'm going to see how well this one responds to the savage de-horning process before I try it on any other trees.

The lawn finally beginning to green up. It's been a late spring.

Watch this space for more purloined-camera photography. In your face, Best Buy!

Sunday, April 21, 2013


Lambing continues on our small farm and part-time agricultural science demonstration center. A three-year old Womerlippi farm ewe named Quetzal had given birth to two lambs when I came home from work on Thursday. I think it was Thursday. It's been a bit of a blur, this lambing season. Both were ewe-lambs, making a total of seven out of eight females.

The one boy, part of the first set of twins born on the farm this year, reminds me of a guy I once knew when I was in the British military. This airman, a London Irishman, had six older sisters who all liked to play "mother." This was in the 1960s and 1970s, so gender stereotypes were still powerful norms. He'd been the subject of so much attention as a kid, he could barely look after himself. It's going to be an interesting experiment in nature versus nurture to see whether the lone ram actually expresses male behavioral traits or not, on time, as he normally would.

We now have only one remaining mother yet to give birth, a two-year old named Regina. She isn't terribly large, so it's probably a singleton, and I'm expecting a hard time for her since this is her first. Night checks are still needed, as well as regular visits to the paddock during the day, all to check that the lambs remain safe and that the last mother has not gone into labor.

The requirement to visit in the middle of the day remains the hardest part of being a part-time shepherd and a full time college professor. You essentially spend your lunch break driving home for a quick look-around, then driving back to work. It's a lot easier when one or the other of us is free to work from home. Then you can just put down your grading or reading or whatever it is that you're doing, and pop out the back door for a look-see, a nice break from work.

This year we messed up on timing. Pre-registration period, when students need their academic advisors to meet with them and choose classes and talk about careers and graduate school and wotnot, coincided with lambing. This was an artifact of other college work, particularly our accreditation review. With our professional personas up to our professional armpits in both advising and the (successful) re-accreditation campaign, as well as admissions events and and the academic hiring season, shepherding time was hard to come by for the Womerlippis.

We should "get real" here.

In a "real" world, or at least in my ideal academic world, my colleagues and the college would see the true value of lambing season to sustainability studies and find ways for the students to cut classes too so they could see the shepherding process up close and personal.

Then they'd learn some applied mammalogy!

Students could then be there for the whole birthing process, learning at least some of the formal and instinctive midwifery required of every livestock farmer. In an ideal world, they'd even learn to warm cold lambs and intubate. This kind of experience is really hard to come by, and vital to the commercial success of a sustainable farm.

But the fifty-minute class schedule, the secret ogre of college life, the anti-education schedule, intervenes, every time, with such things, as to a lessor extent does the regular round of administrivial work.

This, to my mind, is the greatest failure of critical thinking in American education today.

At our small college this failure manifests itself in several forms. One is that we have an excellent learning opportunity going begging on our farm, and no way to take advantage of it. Despite the fact that we have numerous students at our small college that want to be livestock farmers, and despite the fact that numerous others wish to work in general sustainability and sustainable food systems in particular, the best the Womerippi teacher-farmers been able to manage this year is showing our slides of the birthing process in one or two classes.

We really have to do better next year. We've made a start on livestock programming for the campus farm, and will soon begin operations, but there's a natural limit to what we'll be able to do on campus. Students need to learn to care for animals on campus, because then they have the opportunity to learn the constant daily care regime discipline. This is the professional ethical imperative of the farmer and the zookeeper -- you have to be there for your animals. 

But we won't be able to have examples of each and every kind of animal on the campus farm. We'll still need to take advantage of our local resources: MOFGA and local farms, as well as our own Unity College teacher-farmers.

Monday, April 15, 2013


Apologies for lack of communication.I haven't been able to post an update because we're having trouble with our Internet. The modem disconnects every few minutes.

But that isn't going to stop lambing season. Lambing waits for no man, whether or not he wants pictures for the blog or not.

We already mentioned Quinn's two lambs born last week, one ram-lamb, and one ewe-lamb. Molly went into labor early Saturday morning and popped out two more, both ewes.

Then Nellie did the same Sunday morning. She had a little more difficulty because one of her lambs was breached. In a first time mother this might have been bad. In this case, the back feet came out first, followed by the hips and two front feet together. This was a tight squeeze to say the least, and I was ready to hop the gate and help rearrange everything, but Aimee told me to hold back an extra moment and everything came out alright in the end.

Here's the drama in its last moment, as the lamb's head finally comes out.

So we now have six lambs out there. There are two more ewes bred, at least, possibly a third.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Two lambs (so far)

Here's Quinn, a three-year old second time mother, whose time has come again. You can see the lambs feet and head sticking out. She's been off her feed all afternoon. Some amniotic sac started to reveal around midnight, when Aimee went out to check before coming to bed. She woke me. We both watched for half an hour, but then Aimee, who hadn't slept at all yet, went back to bed. 

As an energy boost for my vigil, I made myself tea in my "Rosie the Riveter" mug, a thank-you gift from some students long ago.

A very British beverage for a lambing (in a very American mug). But Quinn must have taken heart, albeit nothing to do with Rosie. A few minutes later, she hoofed the bedding a bit, made a nest in the hay, lay down, had six or seven good pushes, and popped out a big white lamb. I made sure it was breathing and went to get Aimee.


There was then a little drama as the wee thing tried to first stand up and find the teat. She managed the first one alright, but the second proved more difficult. Quinn wasn't helping since she felt her lamb still needed a good licking, so it was all head and no teat for lambie. A couple of times she crept close enough to get a hold on. It was wasted effort, because then her sister interrupted, and Quinny was preoccupied for a short while yet.

The first lamb was growing cold, while Quinn had her hands full with the second, so I hopped over the gate, lay Quinny down, and put the first lamb on the nipple manually. Quinn, of course, was having none of this and fought and bucked, but I was sitting on her, so she couldn't get away. Aimee handed me the lamb and we tried to get some colostrum from Quinn into her mouth. I think we succeeded in getting maybe one or two teaspoons. 

Enough, anyway, to go back to bed, sleep some more, and wait and see. We were back in bed before 2.00 pm, and I slept until 4.20. When I awoke and went back outside, both lambs were warm and standing firmly on their own small hooves. 

It always occurs to me that what we have just witnessed is as old as the hills, literally, a very mammalian experience. Even the human shepherding is quite old, perhaps ten thousand years or more. 

There are many celebrated (or otherwise) contenders for first the first human occupational specialty: soldier, priest, and prostitute generally top the list.

But I vote for shepherd.

It took a while but lambing season is begun. It will be fun to see these little buggers run around the place this spring. Soon we'll have apple blossoms and lambs together -- a very beautiful time on the farm. 

Makes the tough winter seem worthwhile.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Spring flinging (of yard gubbins) and other endeavors

The cold Canadian weather finally broke for the last two days of our two-week spring break, and I used those days to get rid of a lot of waste lumber and other yard trash that we had stored in what I call the "bomb dump," an area of waste ground behind our workshop that we've been using for storing large potentially useful items for years now. 

(The RAF bases I worked at all had bomb dump areas, left over from WWII, used for much the same purposes.)


Our bomb dump needs to be cleared out since it's basically the access route to this year's building project, the house extension that wifey ordered up just before Christmas. 


Here's the area at the top of the garden where we're now keeping the more useful items that were previously stored in the bomb dump.

I'm not quite sure that Aimee truly understood, or understands, just what a chain of events she placed in motion, once she made that order. The bomb dump clear-out is just the beginning, really. There's also the big "refi" project, by which we consolidate our current two mortgages into one, for the cost of only one payment (interest rates having declined significantly since we bought the place) over the same fifteen years' length, and so free up monthly income to pay for the extension. That paperwork is almost done, a major effort. Then there's the septic pumping and the plumbing permit, which processes I must now begin, since the septic and drainfield are now clear of snow and ready for inspection. Then the building permit, the excavation, the foundation...

All of which, I can confidently predict, Aimee will remain more or less ignorant of, since all of these jobs have "husband" written next to them in bold capital letters, somewhere deep in the pages of the (unwritten) Womerlippi Strategic Plan. 

It must be nice to be married to someone as useful as me.

Of course, once you begin a process like this one, other problems soon reveal themselves to add to the list. In the case of the bomb dump, all the trash and gubbins we had stored there prevented maintenance access to the rear wall of the shed, which was also made damp by the lack of sunshine and the high Maine humidity. The paint began to peel, and will now need to be sanded down and repainted. I probably have a gallon of this paint down in our basement paint storage tubs, but expect that it has solidified by now. So we'll have to match the paint. At least it won't be hard to get a paint chip for that job.

Once the bomb dump was more or less cleaned out, it was time to do the more usual spring chore of grading the driveway and raking the winter's road salt and gravel off the grass verges. This is a job I do with the '73 Kubota B6000 tractor and the York rake. When we first bought the house I tried to do it by hand with a leaf rake, but that was a serious work-out, and left me gimping for a few days while I recovered. The York rake does a better job and saves all that effort. It came with the tractor and is one of the reasons I bought this particular second hand tractor, that and the Kubota-made rototiller that also came with it. I usually take the opportunity to grade the driveway too, which helps in drainage and reduces the mud around here when it rains.

Yet another job that would be pure misery without this wonderful old tractor, forty years old this year. 

(It must have been difficult for all those American World War II Pacific war veterans, once these tractors appeared on the market in the 1970s. On the one hand I know from talking with many of these old fellows over the years that they truly came to hate the Japanese soldiers. Most British Pacific War veterans did too. There were just too many murders and too much torturing of POWs. All the Burma and island war vets detested Japanese folks as a result. And then, just a few short years after the war, all these amazingly useful and cheap Japanese products began to appear in the US. I expect there were some old timers who just could never bring themselves to buy anything Japanese. I know I won't touch anything obviously Argentinian to this day. Maybe I'll allow myself a can of corned beef again, once they admit that our Falkland Islanders have a right to democracy and self-determination. But not until then.)

I wish our old Bolens 1669 lawn tractor was as reliable as the Kubota, but it's always given me grief. The design is very solid, lots of heavy steel in there, so it won't wear out. But mower deck parts are expensive and hard to find, while the engine is just a rickety old Briggsy-Stratton 16 horse "Vanguard" twin.

Despite starting up first time after a winter stored outdoors (all I had to do was put in fresh gas and a fully charged battery), and despite running perfectly for several loads of gubbins that we took up to the top of the garden, one the forth or fifth load the Bolens suddenly wouldn't start. When I finally did get it to run, it was only running on one cylinder and back-firing through the carb. 

This was a minor disaster, since the Bolens pulls the yard trailer, which is how we get heavy stuff from one part of our farm to the other, and since the bomb dump wasn't yet completely clear, and firewood-getting  season is nearly on us. I used the Land Rover to take the last trailer load up to the top of the garden, driving very carefully so as not to hurt my beloved Rover. I then ran the Bolens, shuddering and banging along on only one cylinder, right up into my shop, where I promptly left it for a whole week, to wait until I had time and gumption to do something about it .

It took the best part of Saturday afternoon to remove the Vanguard engine from the Bolens chassis, and another hour or so to strip down the two cylinder heads. Eventually I found the problem, or at least the symptom, a bent push-rod for the exhaust valve on number one cylinder. I had to ask Aimee to help me remove the valve-keepers (I think my valve spring compressor is over in the work shed at the Bale House), which was not a request she particularly appreciated, since it meant getting greasy hands and standing around in the cold shed.

Eventually I figured a way to use the vice to compress the spring. Something had happened to the valve stem oil seal, and a bit of coiled wire, that I assume was part of this seal, came loose. Assuming this was what caused the push-rod to bend, I removed the wire and ordered a replacement push-rod online. Once the push-rod arrives, we'll re-mantle the cylinder heads and see if we can't get everything to turn over properly by had. If so, I will probably just put the engine back in and hope for the best.

Another theory is water in the gas tank. This beast was stored outside all winter, open to the rain and snow. If even a few cubic centimeters of winter rain got sucked into a cylinder, the cylinder might have "hydraulic'ed", bending the push-rod. Too much raw gas from an overly rich carb can have the same effect. So might internal oil build-up in the cylinder. But we don't need a perfect diagnosis. As long as the valve isn't also bent, the push-rod took the brunt and the engine will run again once the new push rod is in.

I may take the motor to the car wash first. It could do with a good pressure washing.

None of this mechanical and gubbins-hauling endeavor has phased our sheep much. They're still keeping their legs crossed and their lambs firmly inside.

Indeed, the only obvious change in behavior has been an increase of about half a bale a day of hay consumption. I expect this is down to having lambs inside to feed, but also perhaps because it's still a little cool around here and they no longer have their winter coats on.

Spring is, however, well on its way.and there's no turning back now. 

Here's the positive proof: Green growing things in our greenhouse.

Amen to that.