Thursday, May 30, 2013

The cornerstone

Here's the cornerstone of our new extension. I needed to place it so I could have a more tangible datum point from which to take measurements. Mason's line is alright, but it can be hard to get everything square with just a bit of string.

The fact that we couldn't get a normal poured concrete footing (from a normal concrete mixer truck) placed in such a crooked hole meant that I had to send back about half the block I ordered and instead get bagged cement. I also rented a much larger cement mixer. 

We'll have to struggle to custom fit the footing to the contours of the ledge, a few feet at a time, pinning with rebar as we go, making eight inch steps to take in each rise of block. The big cement mixer will make lighter work of making that much cement by hand. 

Luckily the ledge is nearly flat and solid for about one third of the length of the foundation wall, and has a well-defined natural rock trench for about another one third, so the amount of concrete needed is much less than for the planned footing, which was going to need three yards. I hope to get by with less than two now.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In the hole

We broke ground for our new extension yesterday. Our buddy Tim P came with an almost new John Deere and dug us a big hole. It took only five or six hours total.

Here he is just getting going.

Here's the new pressure treated carrying beam/ledger board set up on the old building. This is two two-by-twelve boards thick, all tied together with nails and screws, and tied into the sill and studs. If you go back a post or two, you'll see that this tidies up what was one heck of a mess. This and the new sill section that was scarfed in underneath.

Getting deeper. Unfortunately, we already hit ledge. ("Ledge" is what Mainers call bedrock.)

No chance for that new, cleaner, drier root cellar, I'm afraid. But we adjusted our expectations quickly. We had a pretty good idea we'd hit ledge, just not quite as much of it as we did. I thought we might get a small section of cellar.

No such luck.

Tim is a dab hand with the loader. he did most of his digging facing forward. The back hoe was used for the worst stuff.

Here's the deepest section of the hole, in the shade. Five feet to bedrock, but only two feet wide. At the shallowest point, bedrock was just below the soil surface.

For an idea of the scale of the hole, here's the little Kubota tractor.

The only serious problem was that we hit the water line. The backhoe found it at only a foot and half below the surface, not nearly protected enough from the frost. That meant I had to scurry around until very late trying to get parts to repair it, and even then it didn't work. We went to bed without serious bathing. I put my shorts on and used the hose outside. A bit nipply, as they say in Wales. Aimee used the hose to fill pots which she heated on the stove, then filled her bath a couple inches deep, no more..

Before I gave up trying to get it running, I began to realize that debris from the dig had plugged the line. It took half of the next day to get it all clear and I had to dismantle almost all the water appliances in the house. Each time I dismantled a hose, I'd point it to a bucket and turned on the stopcock and watch the muddy, gravel filled water fly.

But we are now back to normal, and the only concern I have is making a serious start tomorrow on fitting an awkward, multi-level concrete grade beam around that huge slab o' rock that lives in that hole.

A serious piece of Maine, that.

But we'll be the people that built their house on the rock.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Rotten sill in rotten weather

We've had some very British weather in Maine lately, constant rain or drizzle for days. I suppose that may be why they called it New England.

I have a backhoe coming Wednesday, to dig the cellar hole for the extension, and so I need to be ready for it. It's not a particularly deep excavation, so there's no need for shoring, or there shouldn't be, even if the rain continues. But we will need to dig right up next to the foundation for the existing kitchen. This presented a slight problem that would need to be addressed.

When we bought this old farmhouse there was a massive hole in the kitchen floor. This was where the condensation from cast iron water pipes that used to run along a chase where the baseboard should have been had sweated, probably for generations, all through the floorboards. I expect every summer, in the Maine heat and humidity, those pipes dripped all season long, whenever cold well water was run through them. The chase probably didn't help matters, because it simply confined the water and slowed any drying that would otherwise have taken place.

The old timers undoubtedly did this otherwise silly thing to avoid running pipes through the crawl space, where, in the days before insulation, they almost certainly would have frozen every winter.

I repaired the floor with a new set of joists, rerouted the water through the crawl space in properly insulated copper pipes, and allowed the air to circulate freely in said crawl space each summer and fall, "banking" it up for the winter like a proper Mainer.

I hoped that was enough.

I should have suspected that the damage had reached the sill, but I'd been down under the kitchen floor numerous times with a flashlight and screwdriver looking for damage, and found none. But I knew that if I was to dig away at the foundation close to this sill, then cover it up with an extension, I'd better inspect it, and repair it if needed.

This is what I found by the time I stripped away three layers of old siding and some spring boards.

You can see that a whole section of 6 by 8 inch hemlock sill has rotted out. There's just enough solid wood on the back side of the sill to fool me into thinking it was solid, looking from inside the crawl space.

A decade or so ago, finding damage like this in my home would have given me night sweats, but today, with years more experience, I know what to do.

I used the second-best chainsaw with a freshly sharpened but disposable chain, and a four-foot pry bar, to wreck out the rotten section, which was fully nine feet long, counting the joints. There was a handy scarf joint on the left hand side. All I would need would be a piece of 6 by 8 long enough to do the job as well as some time and good weather to fit the new section.

Unfortunately,  I had only one of those three things.

I found the replacement sill easily enough; a nice well-seasoned piece of old hemlock was right there in my gash wood pile.

But with the backhoe coming Wednesday, and the incessant rain, I wouldn't have decent weather, and that, I'm sorry to say, ate into my time, as well as my precious patience.

Here's the primary source of my lost time and patience, a damaged section of the propane pipe to our on-demand hot water heater.

I managed to cut part-way through it with the chainsaw while sawing out the new scarf on the right hand side of the sill job. I blame the conditions. My eyes were filled with sweat, rain and sawdust, the water was dripping on my head from the roof line above, and my patience, well, I leave you to guess how many swear words were used. Not enough to turn the sky blue, unfortunately. It's still bloody raining out there now.

Poor Aimee was just about to pop two loaves of bread in the oven, completely unsuspecting that her loving husband was doing his best to blow both of us to kingdom come!

It took me far too long to realize what was happening, and it didn't help that I was burning wreckage in an old oil drum I use as a brazier for such things not twenty feet away from the leak. But the wind and the rain made an explosion unlikely, and as soon as I figured it out, I ran over to the propane tanks and turned them off.

Then it was a trip to Belfast to pick up repair fittings, and the repair itself, a waste of at least two hours, durn it.

At least I was warm and dry in the car. I did myself the favor of changing my clothes before I left, and that made me feel better.

Years ago, I could have driven only three miles to Paul's hardware store in Brooks, but nowadays, with Paul retired and the store long closed, it's fourteen miles to Belfast and back to get hardware on a Sunday. It's only eight miles to the nearest hardware store on a weekday before three pm, when Buxton Supply is open in Monroe. But Buxton caters to the contractors, not the weekend DIY crowd, and so they open and close early each day, and don't open at all on Sundays.

Still, a trip to town, a few twists of my flaring tool, and disaster was averted. The bread got cooked, the new sill section fitted, and all was well that ended well.

And Aimee was even good enough to bring me a life-saving cup of hot sweet British tea.

After she was done laughing at me, that is, for chainsawing through our gas pipe.

Never mind. The worst is over.

Tomorrow I'll sister a carrying bean made of double-thick twelve-inch pressure treated lumber boards to this sill. This new supporting member will run from the corner post of the main house all the way over to the garage, and will be capable of supporting the entire wall should it need to. Then we can do what we like to the foundation Wednesday. The new beam will also act as a convenient ledger board for joining the new extension to the old kitchen.

As I was pounding the new sill into place (with a four-pound lump hammer) some more debris fell out of one of the stud bays, which have acted as our own private museum stash.

Apparently Dr. Carl S. Stuart's hen liniment was useful around here, circa 1917, good for scaly leg and bumble-foot, no less.

I have some pretty bumbly feet right about now, after all my exertions today. Maybe it would help perk me up.

Or your Edwardian Mainer could read a newsprint copy of "Good Stories", with a lot of advertising for clothing, fashionable dresses and so on. Looks like costumes for Downton Abbey, or The Village. The consumer society, circa the Great War era. Just before the great influenza epidemic of 1918. Farm produce prices were high, then, with the war and all. I remember that from my Montana history studies, years ago.

It might have been a relatively prosperous time on the Great Farm too, for Perry Amsden's dad and uncle and their families.

If it was, it's a pity they didn't invest some of their profits on pipe lagging. I expect you could have bought some for less than a quarter back then, enough to stop that old pipe run from sweating.

Enough to save all this trouble!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rainy day jobs

Photo: Our Bolens 1669 yard tractor in happier days.

We've had several days of wet weather, none of which were particularly helpful to agriculture, considering that the three week drought in late April/early May was already relieved by earlier rains. I managed to get the tomato transplants in the ground Monday -- emboldened by no sign of another frost in the forecast, and the May 18th average last frost date now passed. I'd be very surprised now if we had another frost, until at least late August.

But what our plants need now is warm sunny weather.

With the wet weather our building project has been on hold. I've busied myself, finalizing the septic, plumbing and building permits, running down to Topsham, Maine to buy a $50 cement mixer found on Maine Craig's List -- I'd been looking out for one for several weeks now -- and getting in the first truck load of block and bagged concrete and mortar. When the rain stops, however briefly, I'm all set to dig holes and set new concrete block piers under the east perimeter of the kitchen, to stabilize the foundation.

The kitchen of this old house is an interesting example of the Maine handyman's art. We originally thought it had been built first, before the rest of the house, and it still may have been, but based on the fact that the floor joists are tied into the sill for the main part of the house, that they don't have their own sill on the connecting side, the best explanation right now is that it was either built at the same time as the main house or later.

Whoever built it either had no money, or was trying to use up materials left over from some other building, or just didn't know very much about building. They took pine round-wood poles ten inches in diameter and twenty eight feet long, and simply notched them into the sill of the main house on the south side, setting the other three sills on a rubble foundation. The sub-floor boards are nailed to these "joists."

Why they didn't run the joists the other direction, where they would have been only 14 feet, well, we just don't understand. The floor isn't that bouncy as a result -- the former kitchen chimney had a proper foundation and footing, which anchors the middle of the floor. But it was a strange choice of materials and layout.

The ceiling joists are no less strange. These are of random widths. The largest is a three by six. Others are two by four, four by five, two by six, and so on.

The rubble foundation held up on two of the three sides, but on the east side it has weakened and partially collapsed. The kitchen has probably fallen by as much as two inches on that side. Before we attach our new extension, I'll need to stabilize this older building. If I hadn't already repaired walls and floor on the inside, I'd use this opportunity to square up the building with jacks, but as it is, that would just cause cracking and straining. I'll leave it askew. It isn't the saggiest Maine building I've seen by any means.

In other rainy day jobs, I've been repairing the motor on our old Bolens yard tractor. This huge beast of a lawn tractor is a workhorse around here, so I was upset when it quit on me in a clatter of noise and blue smoke earlier in the spring. I pulled the engine and stripped it down to the cylinders, finding a bent push rod on the left hand cylinder, which must be number two cylinder since the engine sits facing backwards in the frame.

I ordered the replacement push rod, and have been plugging away at the reassembly in odd hours for a while. On Tuesday I was able to get the motor in the frame and test start it, but it ran badly and leaked oil, so out it came again. The poor running was easily diagnosed -- the needle valve had fallen out of its setting in the carburetor during one of the times I had the engine upside down during the rebuild. (Note to self-- needle valve falls out when this motor is turned upside down!) The oil leak was obvious: A brass fitting had sheared where the drain pipe attached to the engine block. The needle valve was re-set, and the stub of the fitting drilled out except for the last thirty thousandths of an inch. I went to the hardware store to buy a tap, and re-threaded the remainder of the brass to accept an undersized fitting, essentially making a thread insert of the brass.

Only problem was, my undersized replacement fitting also bought at the hardware store, didn't fit. Looking around for a suitable threaded object that would fit, my eyes fell on an old spark plug on one of my parts shelves. In went the plug. I broke the ceramic head off, for ease of fitting the motor to the frame -- the head was sticking out too far -- and called it good.

Here's a shot of the plug setting at the bottom of the engine block:

And a close-up of the repurposed spark plug itself:

I have to say that this partial engine rebuild was cathartic for me after a hard year's work as an educator. It's nice to get to do a job where success -- a well-running tractor -- is so easily defined. 

I didn't start the tractor again yet. That will be today's job -- the battery is charging. But I expect it's fixed.

Now what I need is some drier weather so I can get on with this foundation. I need to get those piers in, then get a backhoe on site to dig the cellar hole for our new extension.

Monday, May 20, 2013

More Great Farm history

From the 19th Annual Report of the Secretary for the Maine Board of Agriculture for the year 1874, found on Google Books. Click here to go to the page.


A hard few days' work

Friday last, the 10th, was the last day of formal classes for the year at our college and place of work. Monday morning was our Student Conference, a combination of poster session presentations, and a kind of Prize Day event, with awards for the best academic work of the year. Monday afternoon and evening, Tuesday and Wednesday were for exams and grading. That made Thursday and Friday my first official days off of the summer. So last Thursday night, of course, the phone rang and I was asked to take the college Search and Rescue team the next day to a call-out for a missing girl in Bangor. This happens only four or five times a year -- we're not a busy team like the Lake District teams I used to work with, or even Bay Area Mountain Rescue in CA. But the timing was awful, with graduation on Saturday, with the rest of the students not staying for the commencement ceremony well on their way home or home already.

I was able to rustle up one student team member, young Rebecca Z, experienced by now after three years on the team, as well as my own Rover for gear and a college twelve passenger van for people. The van proved the most useful at the search as we were able to easily shuttle large groups of searchers around all day. My group, comprised of members from various teams around the state, all experienced, ran three large grid search patterns through the woods and bogs. It was nasty thick, boggy country, but we had good folks, including a lot of guys I've worked with before, so it was easy on the brain at least -- no great efforts were needed to teach folks how to search properly.

Here's 'Becca and the team starting a grid around some cabins on Pushaw Lake:

And here''s me in the woods during a brief break, taken with the cell phone:

I'm no longer a young pup, and so several miles of grid searching swamps and thickets will tell eventually. I got back home late that evening good and tired, and went right to bed after a PBJ sandwich and two glasses of milk.

The next day I was busy all morning in the garden and dooryard, doing odd jobs and setting out sheep fence for grazing. By noon I was all cleaned up and soon on the stage at graduation, making the short little speech that the Faculty Moderator gets to make each year. It's a nice little speech, encouraging the graduates to thank their parents and teachers, and I quite enjoy giving it, but was too tired still to hang around much for the garden party afterwards. Apologies to all the graduates and alumni who wanted me to stay and chat. Aime and I got pizza on the way home. I had an early dinner and fell asleep in front of the TV twice before getting to bed early, around 8.30, but not before getting a phone call telling me that Sunday's annual SAR training, at which I was scheduled to give a talk on the new Search Team Leader training program, had been cancelled, so all the teams could instead help with the ongoing search.

Without any search team at all now for the duration of the summer, that left me off the hook for Sunday, but there was another call from my firewood source, Ricky H., who would arrive just after noon with two cords of green hardwood for me to put up. That meant I'd have my work cut out for me Sunday afternoon, since the wood couldn't be left to block the driveway. In the morning I was able to take my last large truckload of trash wood to "Brown Goods Day" at the Jackson transfer station. Brown Goods Day is the one day a year when you're allowed to drop off large items of furniture and construction waste without being charged, and for nearly a week I'd had the truck pre-loaded with the last of the "bomb dump" gubbins.

The cancellation saved Aimee a job, since she had been scheduled to take the load in while I was off giving the talk. Her plan was to plead weak womanhood, to convince the brown goods day attendants to off-load the waste for her, but in the end there was no need for such subterfuge.

Ricky's giant dump-bed truck arrived around 1pm, leaving a daunting pile of nice oak, ash and beech in our dooryard. I set to, and was able to get it all picked up. I used the tractor loader to help out a little, to push the logs closer to the pile so I could stack without also having to carry.

While this stacking business was going down, Aimee gave the dogs a bath. Earlier I'd pressure washed one of the animal water tubs for this purpose. Here's Ernie getting a good course, as soon as the dogs are done, they go off to try to find some sheep poop to roll in, so the SOP is to confine them on the porch until they dry.

A second night's dinner of left-over pizza went down very well. I was pleased not to have to cook after stacking all that wood. But again, I fell asleep on the couch while watching Grand Designs. That's usually a show that can keep me awake, so I must have been tired.

Today's a slightly soggy rainy day, so I think I'll take it easy.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A historical surprise

One of the unexpected pleasures of running a weblog, if anyone still uses that term, is that people, out of the blue, sometimes contact you about things that you're interested in. In this vein, the other day I received an email from an older gentleman who apparently lives not far away in Brewer, Maine, who grew up in our rural hamlet, known as the Great Farm. His name was Perry Amsden, short for Perham, and he was the son of the original Perham Amsden, whom we had originally believed to have been the builder of our home.

Perry provided us with clues to some historical mysteries that are of more than just passing local or regional interest.

I should explain a little, for newer readers. As we mention in the sidebars, this isn't A Great Farm Diary because we actually believe our humble agricultural efforts to be such a great example of farming (although said efforts are used in agriculturally-related classes at Unity College).

The rather grand name name of our blog comes instead from the original name of the property on which our small house sits, the Great Farm of Jackson, Maine, which in its heyday, probably around 1810 to 1830, was a major center of agricultural excellence and a byword for elegant living. The humble rock-wall enclosed area of 3.5 acres that comprises our farm or smallholding was probably a paddock, orchard or vegetable plot close by a very large mansion house, which itself was the summer home of one of America's Revolutionary War heroes and early industrial magnates, a fascinating character called Israel Thorndike.

In addition to being a privateer during the war, and one of the earliest American adopters of the factory system, Thorndike was one of the original Gerrymanderers, inventors of the devious system for manipulating congressional districts to sway the vote, in this case for the Federalist Party, and an agricultural improver or experimenter on a grand scale. At one point he owned pretty much all of Waldo County, Maine, along with his two partners, Messrs Sears and Prescott, having bought out Revolutionary War general Henry Knox's interest on a mortgage repossession of the original colonial land grant, the Waldo Patent.

Thorndike took part of his share of the land and had it cleared up for a giant farm, two thousand acres in all, where he built a mansion, said to have had a large number of rooms and even piped water, an unheard of luxury in post-revolutionary Maine. The buildings that the current, much more humble denizens of what is still called the Great Farm occupy sit amid the grassed-over foundations of Thorndike's mansion and outbuildings. It's our collective efforts to interpret this ruined landscape that were aided by Perry's email. Although the foundations of the mansion are clear to see, we've struggled for some time to locate the sites of the original barns.

One such barn was so large that it went down in local legend. The settlers, of whom a large part were Revolutionary War veterans, nicknamed it "Egypt," a strange name for a barn. An important historical work, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors, provides a clue to the naming. The revolutionary rank-and-file soldiers were largely late colonial-era working men and small farmers, whose philosophy of liberty was only slightly modified from that of their ancestors in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They were in a word, levellers, British Revolutionary soldiers from the lower rungs of colonial American life whose ethos was egalitarian, anti-aristocratical, anti-monarchical, and linked closely to their low-church Puritan or Presbyterian protestantism. Thorndike's barn, which they were expected to fill with produce as means of working off their mortgages, could have been so named because Thorndike himself became to them a kind of Pharoah, an oppressor. We'd love to know where "Egypt" sat, but we have very few clues. We still don't know, but Perry provided a few more clues, and gave us some glimpses into life on the Great Farm in the first few decades of the 1900s, long after Thorndike's demise, but fascinating nevertheless.

Here's the photo of the second Great Farm farmhouse in the late 1930s that Perry sent us. Perham is the man seated on the porch step. The original Thorndike mansion burned down in the 1880s. This is a more modest replacement, and it looks much the same as it does in the photo. Our neighbor Jean Richards lives there now. Her son Hamilton and I are the ones who are trying to figure out the history of the property. You can see a lean-to shed directly to the right, which Perry says was a tool-room and outhouse, and another obvious barn to the right of that.

But is this the famous barn called Egypt? Or a newer building?

And here's what Perry said,
"It was with some interest that I stumbled onto your 2007 blog about the Great Farm. Since I grew up there as the only son of Perham Amsden (my name is Perham, also. I have a different middle name). I was born in 1927 and we lived there until 1938 when my folks purchased a farm in Belmont, ME.

There are a few things that stand out in my memory that you may not be aware of. My grandfather, William Amsden, moved from Fort Fairfield to Jackson in the early 1900's - probably around 1907. He passed away in 1923.  I have no recollection of when Perham and Emery divided the farm. Since Emery was older and was married with 5 children, it was probably less of the brothers having a falling out than of necessity for more space. My Dad and Mother were married in October, 1923, so that may have been a contributing factor, too. My recollection is that their relationships were amicable - at least in the early and mid '30's. It was probably around 1935-36 that Emery purchased a farm in Detroit and moved his family there - or at least those that were still living at home. Emery has one surviving son, Raymond, living in Lewiston.

Both farms had a barns that were very close together and formed an L. Emery's barn faced East, Dad's farm faced South. Emery's barn was essentially empty, but Dad's barn stored his pair of horses, some cows, lots of hay and grain, his farming equipment and tools. I forget the date, but it was about 1937 that Dad woke up to find both barns ablaze. He always believed that the new owner of Emery's house, a Mr. Gilmore, set the fire to collect the insurance. No proof, however. That was what brought Dad's move to Belmont."
So what we see in the picture is Perham's barn, since it faces south.

This more or less confirms what we knew about the Great Farm ownership in the early 1900s. Perham and Emery were the sons of William Amsden, who bought the land from Eugene Fletcher, who got it from an Ezra Carpenter in 1894. Ezra got it from his father Nathanial, a Civil War veteran. There were two prior owners, then Thorndike himself. The date on William Amden's deed is actually February 20th, 1909, but he may easily have moved here earlier in 1907, as Perry recollects.

Perham and Emery formally subdivided what was left of the Great Farm in 1929, and we have that deed too. At that point our small three-and-a-half plot became a separate property for the first time, although it had been clearly delineated as a separate field or paddock for some time.

Was one of these barns the famous "Egypt?" It seems unlikely. But take a look at this aerial photograph:


Although you can't clearly see a barn still standing to the east of the main farmhouse, you can see a long, light-colored rectangular plot. 

To make this a little easier to see, I've circled the outlines of what may have been Perham's south facing barn and Emery's east-facing barn, making an "L".

There's a faint shadow, so these may be the actual buildings, and if so they are obviously before the fire, which dates the photo to before 1937. Given that our house is about 50 feet from north to south, Perham's barn, if it is the longer, north-south oriented one, may have been as much as 75 feet long.
Comparing the other distances with those in the photograph above, in the aerial photograph, the door of Perham's barn is about 150 feet from the front porch of the main house. If the rectangular shape is Perham's barn, then the background of the photograph must be optically foreshortened a little, because it looks a good deal closer.

Perry's email suggested it was certainly far enough that the house wasn't at risk in the barn fire incident, so I find the possibility of foreshortening the best explanation so far.

If these are the Amsden era barns, neither is big enough for "Egypt." Also, Perry says that his father was too young to have been involved in building our home, which is "officially" dated to 1900. So, the mystery continues, and deepens. But it's nice to have more information and a picture we've never seen before!

In particular, it's pleasing to me to learn more about how the land and buildings were used to make homes and grow food. barns in particular are the heart of the farm, and the primary mechanisms of farm fertility, if used properly for collecting and cycling bedding and manure. I've built three barns now in my life, and I'm very fond of them. I'd rather be in a barn than just about anywhere else, expect perhaps a field or a garden.

One final nugget: perry says that Daniel Webster, another of the "Boston Associates," came to the Great farm in its heyday, and fished in the brook!

I hope he had better luck than I do.

Having said that, I'd better get to some farm work. It's past 7am and daylight is burning.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dodging frosts and cursing pigs

We've had some changeable weather lately, after a three-week long spell of really nice sunny weather. I didn't get much use out of the nice weather since that was during the regular semester with fifty hour weeks and sporadic weekend work, but of course as soon as the semester was nearly done and I had things to get done around the farm, the weather changed for the worse.

The main difficulty this time of year is knowing when last frost will be. We have a fairly large chunk of our garden and hoophouse unplanted still, waiting for the go-ahead. Tomatoes, peppers, basil, and eggplant are not at all hardy, and couldn't stand a frost if we were to set them out too early. Statistically our last frost date is May 18th, but that would be down in Unity and Brooks, not up here in the "heights" of Jackson. Experience has shown that we can get a frost after May 18th, but recent years have also seen last frosts as early as the last of April. This spring, however, the jet stream has been doing weird stuff as a possible result of a negative phase of the arctic oscillation -- essentially weakening of the circumpolar circulatory winds -- giving us both the long warn spell (an "omega" block) and the recent frost warnings.

Last night was mild, but the two previous nights we had a mild frost, enough to hurt tomatoes had they been set out. Now the forecast has cleared up and the plan is for warm through the end of next week. Ordinarily, looking at a weather report like the one we have now, I'd be setting out those tomatoes, but I don't trust that the jet stream is done doing weird things, so I'm going to wait a while longer.

I'm pleased with our tomato starts this year, the result of some timely intervention, and some hard graft. Ordinarily we start tomatoes indoors in the den where there's a south-facing window. We make a shelf system with grow lights. After germination, when the plants are an inch or two tall, we carry them outside to the greenhouse daily, until the threat of frost is past.

Even so, they still don't get as much sun as they should.

This year we upped our game.

In the past we've used the small incandescent grow light bulbs, but this year we shelled out a hundred or so extra bucks for florescent strip lights and proper wavelength bulbs. Then I added floating row cover and plastic to our glass greenhouse in an effort to moderate the sunlight and seal up the air leaks. This old glasshouse was built using recycled panes six or seven years ago and hasn't held up well. The glass is cracked and leaks have appeared in the woodwork. The row cover and plastic would help a great deal.

The result of the new bulbs and the repaired greenhouse has been that the starts are much sturdier and less spindly than in recent years.

Even so, the glasshouse still gets too hot on sunny days and so we've carried the trays of plants out to the hoophouse every morning, each time the forecast has been for sun. During the warm spell we were able to leave them there during the night. The last couple nights of frost saw me worrying about the plants all over again. The first frosty night, Monday, I stumbled out there tired and late having given a late exam. Trying to save myself a job, I attempted to carry the kerosene heater out to the hoophouse, rather than carry the plants in to the glasshouse in the pitch dark, one trip rather than several. Of course I tripped over the plastic sheep fence and went sprawling, kerosene heater and all. A fine set of British military curse words rent the night poetically, scaring the sheep and the hoot owls. Luckily no oil was spilled.

The next night, although I had to give another late exam, I was a shade earlier and still had some daylight in which to carry the plants back, for which small mercy I was thankful.

My next opportunity for a good cussing came yesterday. Our annual pig-rearing efforts have been on hold for lack of piglets. There is apparently a major piglet shortage in Waldo County, the result no doubt of renewed interest in backyard pigs. Pigs are increasingly fashionable accessories, along with backyard chickens, these days. We've shopped the Maine Craig's List and Uncle Henry's classified advertisement outlets for piglets, as well as the local word-of-mouth networks, since March, trying to line ourselves up with the three shoats we Womerlippis and our friends and coworkers need for our pig club.

Eventually, after a bunch of dead ends and failed leads, vigilance paid off, as it usually does in such things, and yesterday morning at about 7.15 Zulu I was able to locate a litter of porkers advertised in Uncle Henry's that hadn't yet been sold. Operation "Piglet" was a "go!" But they were quite far away, the other side of Farmington, Maine, all of seventy-five miles. The furthest we've gone for piglets before has been Exeter, Maine, about forty miles.

Even so, I didn't want to delay too much longer because the garden weeds that our pig club pigs usually eat were beginning to pile up. I was worried about not having enough pig-assisted compost for next year's garden. Apart from the fun of raising young animals, and bringing home some bacon,  the compost is the primary additional benefit the Womerlippis get from hosting the pig club each year. Were it not for that wonderful gardener's black gold, I should think we'd just raise a pig or two for ourselves and be done.

I woke Aimee gently and told her what I was doing, loaded the second-smallest cage in the Land Rover, and drove off to get pigs. An hour and a half later I pulled up in the driveway of a nicely painted farmhouse on the western edge of Farmington, to be confronted by two Asian ladies, mother and daughter, only one of which had English.

Now this was not at all what I was expecting.

Usually pig breeders in Maine are of obvious British-Isles extraction, from obvious yeoman-peasant stock, and occupy one of the obviously lower rungs on the socio-economic ladder of Maine agriculture. This isn't prejudice. The signs are unmistakeable. We've had some interesting anthropological encounters in our pig-finding travels over the years. Aimee routinely considers our annual piglet shopping a small subsidiary branch of Animal Rescue. The average Maine pig breeder's farm-let is a cash-only operation completely unbeknown to the USDA and the IRS, whose Head of Operations greets you in smelly sweatpants or dungarees and leaky mud boots, among a yard full of rusting ancient trucks and rotting farm equipment, his head buzzing with pet blackflies. He (always a he, never a she, women being generally too smart for this pig lark) nevertheless catches the squirmy piglets quite easily for you as they run freely in and around the junk cars and piled trash, while drinking coffee nonchalantly with one hand, and gesticulating to accompany a wicked storm of chat about the weather and the flies and the price of pig feed with the other.

It's a retirement lifestyle I quite aspire to, no doubt the the brave tradition of generations of my own ancestors. Aimee, of course can see the writing on the wall and is putting up a brave fight against the slippage of standards. We'll see who wins. Gravity, of course, among other forces of nature, is on the husbandly side. But wives are a force unto themselves.

But these ladies, as well as being Asian, were clearly much more middle class than the average, and possibly just a little out of their depth in the pig business. Neither, apparently, were qualified pig catchers, so I would have to catch my own piglets. To boot, the piglets were somewhat unattractive as piglets go, with red eyes and dirty coats, signs of overcrowding, lack of bedding, and a dirty pen. Finally, I discovered that the males were not yet castrated.

Now I'm sure that your average  Chinese peasant woman can catch and castrate a pig in her sleep, so that was the clearest indication that these fine gentlewomen were more of the bourgeoisie.

Either that or they were just trying to save themselves some work on both counts, and I, as usual, was the patsy.

By the time I discovered that testicles were still firmly attached, I'd already decided to take the pigs, substandard health or no. I didn't have time to drive all the way back home empty-handed and start pig-shopping again the next day, and they'd be healthy again in just a few days in the clean and breezy barn at our farm.

"How hard can it be to castrate a pig?", I asked myself. No doubt another fun-to-read blog post will be the result of me finding the answer to this question.

I like to provide my readers with suspense.

I'd already agreed the price over the phone with the husband of the house, a hundred bucks a pig. There was no point dickering; I could see I was outgunned there. One fat six-foot two Englishman versus two five-foot nothing Asian ladies, one elderly, all in Chinese? No contest there, not even worth a try.

So I counted out my fifteen twenties one at a time in the proper legal international way, no translation needed, to the full and obvious satisfaction of the recipient. After just a little trouble finding just the right spot in the pen to trap them I caught each pig by the back legs, just the way the owner's manual says, and loaded them in the cage in the back of the Land Rover. All this effort was of course to the tune of a non-stop barrage of Chinese commentary, and the squealing of outraged piglets. I wished I'd had a tape recorder handy, dear reader, so you might hear this cacophony for yourself.

The drive home was about as smelly as expected but the piggies were thankfully quiet. A quick stop for grain meant a two-hour ride home, but I was supposed to be in a meeting at college by 12.30pm.

Long story short, I pulled into our driveway with the pigs safe and sound around 11.55am. Only five minutes to unload, wash up, find some lunch and get on to work!

Still, all would still be well, if the unloading went well.

Of course, the unloading did not go well. To save time (save?), I decided to gently pull the crate off the back of the Rover into the barn, pigs and all, shut the barn door behind me, and then lure them quickly into the pen with some feed and Bob's your uncle, right?

Wrong. Unfortunately, the crate got caught up in the barn door and would not be freed. I broke the plastic floor of the crate pulling on it. The pigs were squealing again, and I was fit to spit.

It was at this point that another stream of pure British military invective rent the air for the second time in as many days. I cursed the Asian ladies, their husband, their piglets, their piglets' intact bollocks, the committee whose meeting I would be late for, and most of all my wife for not sharing this fun family outing and for not being there to hold up her end of the jammed-up pig crate.

This last of course was the most unfair of all, since she did have to go to work that day, but she got a proper withering nevertheless. As I explained later, "All's fair in love and war."

Besides, she wasn't there to hear. No harm, no foul.

Of course, other than make me feel just a little better, cursing did neither me nor the pigs any practical good at all, nor did it save a second of time. But improvisation did. Even though the cage was now all broken and messed up, I was able to free the pigs by bending on the wire a little here, a little there, and by sticking a handy hay bale in the remaining gap in the barn door. I shooed them into their pen, jumped in the Ford, raced to college, parked up, hiked briskly across the lawns, and still got to my meeting on time, albeit smelling a little of pig poo, and way too bad-tempered to be of any help to rational decision-making.

And so, to misquote Orwell, "such, such are the joys" of pig-rearing in modern Maine.

All's well that ends well?

We'll see, after I've looked for YouTube videos on pig-castration.

How hard can it be?

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Our regular semester just came to an end, and I'm having the usual decompression interlude. I don't plan to do very much at all today. Aimee, for her part, is still in bed. I expect she plans to stay there, although I know she has grading.

This semester has been particularly wearying, the result of a schedule which gave me 8am classes Monday through Friday. Early classes for me means earlier prep, since I like to do an hour or so of prep before every class. So 8am classes meant 7am prep, which meant 6.30am commute times, which meant chores had to be begun at 5.30 or 6am depending on how many tasks needed to be done as the spring progressed, and so if I wanted to drink coffee and read the paper I had to be up by 4.30am.

I'm not ordinarily one to complain about getting up early, but the main problem with 8am classes is 8am students. Students are not at their best at that time in the morning. One particularly somnolent young man could not stay awake at all. The rest could be roused, but only by more strenuous efforts at engagement than would normally be the case, and that kind of effort is hard to maintain.

I long ago learned the value of being at least somewhat entertaining in class, of trying to use humor and even provocation to try to get students to think. I even flatter myself into thinking I'm good at it, and in fact my classroom evaluations generally show that the very great majority of my students appreciate these efforts.

But the inevitable result is that a) you wear yourself out more teaching, and b) you don't concentrate as much on the more mundane process of working through complex scientific material using analysis, breaking it down into small chunks and explaining each chunk methodically, as you should.

Education suffers as a result.

But on the other hand, the classrooms have to be efficiently used (or tuition must be raised to pay for extra buildings in which to teach at easier times), and that means someone must teach at 8am. I am at least constitutionally able to do this, just one of many helpful consequences of my years in the military. Other faculty, experience has proven, may like most students also not be at their best at 8am. As a result I do tend to get a disproportionate amount of 8am starts.

Next time I'm told I must deliver five consecutive 8am classes, I'm going to bring an espresso machine to class.

On the college's dime.

On the home front, we are now able to get on with various projects, including the usual smaller and regular ones of raising chicks, lambs and piglets with the Big Project of building a home extension.

Lambs are in fine fettle. Here they are playing King of the Hill the other day, after all the sheep were let out to graze green grass for the first time:

The brush hog mower made a great King of the Hill platform...

but so did the chopping block...

A more close-up shot, a second later

The sad, destructive, and climate-unfriendly de-forestry operation continues apace, and has reached our southern fence-line, prompting some worry and concern from our other neighbors, whose own line is an extension of ours, but lacks the sheep fence that more clearly marks our boundary. Did the loggers know where the lines were? Had they been properly briefed? 

These worries were not of course necessarily rational, but a obvious and natural consequence of new neighbors with big ideas and destructive technology and land-use practices. 

I'm a social scientist and natural observer of people. I could have told and indeed tried to tell our new neighbors that our old neighbors would be concerned and upset. If it were me trying to set up a farm like this, I probably would have planned to stay further away from the fence line. 

I guess the requirements of neighborly relations were trumped by the farming requirements. 

Here's the feller-buncher from our fence-line.You can see how close it is.

Here's the old forest floor after the trees have been removed. The neighbor's line is ten feet to the right.

All in all, this was probably not the best decision in the world, considering the long-term knock-on effects of upsetting neighbors are usually worse than those of taking things at a slower pace in setting up a farm.

Rationally, then, the farm had better work out, or the destruction and neighborly discombobulation will have been for nothing. 

I have to say, I still find success unlikely, for economic and ecological reasons. Economically, the only way that beef production can be cost-effective anywhere in Maine is either a) to become a large industrial operator, b) to be a part-time operator and not expect liveable returns, or c) to be an organic operator. The strategy applied here is c), but we've since learned that our organic certification organization, MOFGA, is debating whether forest conversion can be certified, because of the climate emissions involved. 

As a local climate expert and MOFGA member, I'm hoping to be asked to comment. I've begun to pull the figures to determine just what the emissions are likely to be from the forest conversion versus using a regular Maine grassland farm already established. 

It will be on the order of several tons of carbon more per acre, all for the initial set-up.

The other unlikely notion our new neighbors are working with is that this forest soil can become a working agricultural soil without heavy industrial equipment, chemicals or fertilizers being used to pull out stumps and roots and re-seed. Experience suggests that this is not actually, or at least not easily, the case. 

We've been unable to make grass grow consistently where we've cut down trees like this, not without removing stumps and roots, tilling, seeding, and fertilizing. Stumps prevent the use of tillage equipment, usually required for grass fields. Without tillage every few years, the soil structure just doesn't build as well, if at all, while the grass cover ecology remains fragile, and prone to weed encroachment and overgrazing. 

Our small areas where we've removed trees and sown grass among stumps have all reverted to moss and thistle except in the wettest parts of the year when we get a little grass. It's just hard to build a good soil without tillage.

Here's the soil after the equipment has passed. This looks like a good seed-bed but is in fact compacted and likely to be nitrogen-depleted.

Here's a shot in the other direction, showing the previous forest cover showing a healthy and productive mixed-species Maine woodlot.

The question is, which is the best use? It seems at least plausible that some Maine forest land conversion will be desirable as we shift to a more climate-adaptive agriculture. But the difficulties might be greater than supposed. My own approach to the failure of our initial forest conversion effort was to slow down and reconsider.

We began our own farm with the theory that we'd like to eventually clear most of our own woodlot for arable and grazing, while buying more land for a woodlot. This is still our plan, but the slow progress in building a grassland soil and grassland ecology in our own small cut-over areas convinced me that I'd need to wait until I could afford to get a back-hoe and dig up the roots, spread compost, and till.

Instead, we have put effort into our garden soil, which effort has paid off in spades, no pun intended. We've added probably ten-twelve tons of compost to that area over the years and now have a real agricultural soil of serious value. I take great delight in this soil, which is like a deep black-brown sponge. You can feel the superior soil structure with your fingers.

The root of the problem isn't, then, with the new neighbors. It's with the economic incentives that make it seem desirable to clear forest land rather than buy pasture land when trying to set up an organic farm. We'll need a carbon charge to rectify this, or we'll have way too much forest clearance in Maine in future years. Those trees soak up an enormous amount of carbon. The growing New England second-growth forest soaks up over a tenth of the total US carbon emissions per year. At this point, in the year 2013, that's more than ten times as much carbon as the entire current (and benighted) Canadian tar sands operation. We can't afford to reverse this process.

The problem is also with the organic requirements that have this loophole whereby forest clearance is not taken into account in the certification process.

It's within my power as a local and regional academic to work on both problems and I will.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A busy weekend

No photos this weekend. I was too busy most of the time to take any. I cheated by posting one of Aimee's movies from her FaceBook page.

The main thing happening on the farm right now is spring fence repair and reorganization. The old ram pen, which generations of Womerlippi rams have battered until unserviceable, needed to be taken down and either rebuilt from the ground up or moved. I have been plugging away at it for several weeks now, taking a panel here and there. I took out much of the rest of it this weekend.

This was pretty good exercise for this time of year -- I'm still recovering from the winter's forced confinement, and could use to lose some belly fat while I'm at it. The hard part was getting the posts out of the ground. These were well-set cedar posts, as much as ten inches around.I'm going to be pleasantly stiff today, just enough to remind me I did some work this weekend.

The pig panels that had been added to this pen over the years -- ordinary field fence having proven inadequate to holding a ram -- needed to be recycled into the pig pen. There were enough left over to replace part of the sheep's main area, where Aimee has been unwittingly damaging fence by feeding treats. The sheep, anxious to get treats, crowd the fence and have been pushing it over. Pig panels are a lot studier and should provide extra security. There were also around seven or eight cattle-panels left over. These are taller than pig panels, with bigger spaces. These can be used for a ram pen later.

I noticed the dirt in the old ram pen was quite good under the waste hay. This is an interesting find. When we first bought the place, this was the location of one of dozens of large piles of yard trash and even kitchen trash, as well as a nasty burn pile, and yielded a least a dumpster load of trash all by itself. I have to say I never thought it could be completely rehabilitated, but time cures all wounds. Now the dirt has improved to the point where this could become another small garden.

I've been looking for somewhere to add some fruit bushes and possibly vines. This might be it. I'd better dig out the fruit tree catalogs.

In other news the long-anticipated logging of the old Great Farm property has begun. This is actually a relogging -- the place was originally cleared up 200 years ago when the Great Farm was founded. The remaining 200 or so acres of the original farm that doesn't belong to either the Womerlippis or our neighbor family, the Richards, has been purchased by a couple of very young and quite starry-eyed farmers who intend to return it to agriculture, organic beef and lamb, no less. This means they need pasture, and so they have retained a logger, who is busy chipping all the trees for pulp and pellet on site, trucking the chips off to the mill directly, as if they were truffula trees.

Although the use of a chipper like this is something relatively new, the resulting "stump farm" will be something that hasn't been seen in the human ecology of Waldo for a hundred years or more.

Stump farms were once ubiquitous around here. The old-time frontier settlers used stump farming as a way to clear up land -- they cut down or girdled the trees and then farmed among the stumps and snags until the roots rotted and the stumps could be removed and burned off. Corn could be grown between the stumps or sheep and cattle could be grazed. Pigs would be used to help till and convert the forest soil to an agricultural one. It might take twenty years, but eventually you'd have open fields and pastures, usually bounded by traditional New England stone fences. Our new neighbors intend something like this.

So our beloved forest is becoming a stump farm. Not sure how we feel about that. When you're used to living among woods, the sudden and very industrial conversion to openness is quite a shock. The noise of the chipper is loud. There are trucks on our road. Aimee has lost her beech tree test plots -- one of her science experiments. The new farm will surround us on three sides, and some of our favorite walking trails will be extinguished. And then there are the carbon emissions that result from such a massive land conversion. It may be organic, but it can hardly be claimed that it's sustainable.

Still, we've done a little of this ourselves, to be sure, having cut down enough trees to open up part of our own land for some more grazing, so we probably have no right to complain. And one right-of-way will however be retained, so whatever our new neighbors decide to do, we'll still be able to take a walk in the woods, or what's left of them. I for one will be interested to see them make a go of it, if they can.

I have to say though, common sense says that if a person could make money raising cows and sheep on cut-over land in Maine, a lot more people would be doing it. The income from the deforestry operation will eventually run out, then reality will hit.

Our worst nightmare isn't the logging. It might be the subdivision that would result as the new farmers try to finance their dream from selling off house lots.

We'll see, won't we? Aimee and I wanted to buy this 200-acre piece ourselves but just couldn't afford it.

As a result, we have to put up with whatever happens. That's the way capitalism works.