Monday, December 30, 2013

Winter wonderland

Some nice photos of the farm so far this winter. Click on one to see all as a slideshow. I've been enjoying the outdoors, mostly clearing snow and ice, but also walking the dogs and looking after the animals. Indoors, it's time for crafts. Aimee is knitting by hand, and I'm using the knitting machine.

A sparkly day just after the ice storm. Sheep are happy in their barn.

Down trees on the snowmobile trail.

Pine needles seem to attract more than their fair share of ice!

The neighbors very hungry cows wait for a hay bale. They're eating frozen tree tips from the down tree above, after the neighbor sawed it up and heaved the branches over the fence. The bale will come eventually, but only after the access road is plowed and the neighbor brings a truckload over. Must be hard to keep warm with an empty belly.

Flamey stops running for a second to contemplate the cows. She's not sure what to make of them, but as they seem big and scary and don't seem to want to play, she'll soon lose interest.

Ernie breaks the snowshoe trail. If only he'd stay on it and stop deviating into the woods, he'd be a help.

The cows follow me home, saying, "Can we come how with you and stay with the sheep? We like barns and oats and  hay and sweet feed too! We'll be nice to the sheep, promise!"

One of these days they'll realize they can just hop across that silly bit of hot wire and show up in our dooryard to ask for for a handout.

Snoeshows in various states of experiment and repair. I long ago switched out the bindings on the traditional ones for some heavy-duty plastic ski-mountaineering bindings from the seventies or eighties, and they work well, but the cheap aluminum and plastic snowshoes can't handle the cold. The plastic long ago began to crack, so I fixed it up with some duct tape. I like the metal ones for certain snow conditions --- they're lightweight and have good crampons -- but I think they're going to have to be replaced with some better ones.

A child's hat I knitted up on the machine. The machine itself in the background.

"Selfie" with smurf hat, also knitted up on the machine this year.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Scruffy husband sets dessert on fire

Aimee said I shouldn't post this because it shows me in my food-stained lounging-around-the-house sweat pants, albeit after cooking and eating Christmas dinner yesterday, but I'm not proud and have never been a fashion plate, so I doubt it will come as a shock to readers that we like to be comfy here at Womerlippi Farm.

I was hankering after a proper Christmas pud, literally like mum used to make. I didn't have her recipe -- sister Carol probably has that in one of mum's cookbooks -- so I had to find one. I used a BBC recipe from here. The Beeb has a great online recipe system, and each one comes with how-to pictures and videos.

In the past I've used a microwave recipe, but I wanted to try a proper steam-it-for-hours-and-hours pudding. Mum used to make Christmas pudding like this, as well as chocolate and treacle pudding, all very traditional British stick-to-yer-ribs stuff. This, and the fact that I grew up in a sweet shop ( a candy shop for you Americans) may explain why I was a fat kid.

Of course, once said pud was done, it had to be lit with flaming brandy, to the tune of "God rest ye merry gentlemen." Look closely to see the flame. The kitchen is actually in the dark while we're doing this, but you can't tell from the camera's flash. All very festive, except we needed a few more pudding eaters.

Aimee of course didn't partake. She thinks this is all very silly, hates cooked raisins in pretty much anything, and, to boot, can't understand the British use of the word "pudding," mostly because its traditional usage for savories as well as sweets has been lost to American idiom.

Most Americans who were not otherwise familiar with the concept would think "black" pudding, or Yorkshire pudding, were a dessert.

That's a whole realm of global cuisine that's been cut off to them, just by semantics. Poor old yanks.

For the record, Aimee hates black pudding even more than raisins in dessert. She thinks it "stinks."

Doesn't know what she's missing, is what I think. But at least she took the shufties without complaint.

The pud was good, but needed a tad more sugar next time. And that is definitely some very cheap brandy. We could have used some proper cognac. Not five star, but not gut-rot either.

Never mind. All is well on the farm and we have time and power for such frivolities. Lots of our neighbors don't.

That's what counts.

Happy Boxing Day!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hunkering down for the holidays?

Here are a few photos of our various efforts yesterday to thaw and chip our way out of the ice that has encased central Maine. The actual ice storm itself occurred in our absence -- we were down in Virginia to see Aimee's family for the holidays.

Although I like my in-laws and most of Aimee's relatives, and enjoy the food and fun we have there, I can't help but deeply dislike leaving home and hearth in the middle of the bad weather season, and driving eight hundred miles away from everything and everyone I'm most responsible for looking after.

It just seems too much like asking for trouble. But Aimee has to see her folks, so all you can do is prepare.

Accordingly, our house-sitters get very long lists of instructions and careful training. Aimee feels much the same, and contributes considerably to the list, particularly where the dogs and cats are concerned. But house-sitters are, by definition, people that don't have their own house and farm to look after and so are not necessarily switched on to all the dangers, while some of the difficulties that might ensue can be hard to predict and prepare for, and so even with the most painstaking of preparations, bad things may still happen.

In this case, a major ice storm appeared several days into our visit. Maine gets ice storms every year, and usually they aren't a big deal. You stay off the roads for a day or two, the ice melts or is scraped away, and life goes on. A weather event that would bring Washington DC or New York (or for that matter, Harrisonburg, Virginia) to their knees, snarling traffic and stopping services, is just a normal Maine winter's day. But every once in a while, the great ice storm of 1998 being the most recent example, enough ice falls to coat trees and power lines with enough weight of frozen water to bring them crashing down. If this happens after a major snow fall, the weight of ice and snow combined can bring down a roof or flatten an outbuilding. And, while the power is out, your house and water pipes will freeze.

This storm was forecast to be one such storm, possibly as bad as the 1998 epic. In the end it wasn't quite so bad, but it was bad enough.

So it was with some urgency and trepidation that we began our long drive home very early Monday morning in Virginia, where the highs had been in the sixties and seventies over the weekend -- weather so ridiculously warm we almost couldn't grasp it mentally.

Despite a warm start, the drive back was no picnic, with torrential rain and spray and the usual horrible and dangerous traffic on Connecticut's crowded freeways. But we made it home after one and a half days of sheer nasty slow 50-60 mph slog, down to 30 mph, 20 mph, and even a dead stop in many places. The closest shave occurred courtesy of a careless Manchester, CT, Christmas shopper, whose last-minute lane change tested the poor old Camry's brakes, as well as my reflexes, which after ten hours of driving were none too good. Whoever you are, Ms. Ultimate Shopper, get some therapy. Whatever holiday pressure you're under, it isn't worth an accident.

But eventually, and several hours early thanks to our worry, we pulled into our own driveway. I'm always deeply grateful to finally be safe at home after these holiday treks across the country. In this particular case, however, some hard work would be required to make everything safe. The first storm-related task, after greeting the house-sitter and the dogs, and checking on the livestock, and after the car was unloaded and the holiday haul of gifts and of that compensatory kind of shopping rural people do when on a urban "spree" was all brought in, was to reduce the weight of ice and snow on various roofs. 

I started by watering the livestock, then turned my attention to the hoophouse. Each section of cover between the rafters was supporting about two or three hundred pounds of unwanted snow and ice, and the whole flimsy structure was groaning under the strain. I was able to shake it off a little at a time, from the inside, first punching hard to break the skin of ice, then pushing and shaking to clear the snow. The cover was damaged badly in three places where the rafters rub against it, and will eventually need to be replaced, but I think I can get another year or two out of it using some patches and glue.

The next job was the porch roof. With some difficulty I broke out the ladder, chipping off the two inches of ice on the rungs, moved it into the right position and climbed up there to evaluate the damage. Several hundred pounds of snow and ice had already torn away part of the gutter and was threatening the rest, hanging off the edge of the roof in giant heavy icicles. Not one to mess around with fine detail when it comes to something like this, I broke this material off with the sharp end of a claw hammer. (On my RAF fitters course and thereafter on various squadrons we techies were repeatedly told, "Always use the correct tool for the job!") Then I used the roof rake and claw hammer to remove about two thirds of the material on the roof itself. I couldn't get up there to get the rest because the metal porch roof we fitted several years ago is too slippy to walk on, so I had to be content with removing what I could from top of the the ladder. Although it's Christmas, I may go back up there today and try to get some more. Even though there isn't that much weight left up there, the danger is that we get another heavy snowfall later and add to the load. Better safe than sorry.

Here's the finished result. You can see about two hundred pounds of ice and snow left where the two roofs meet on the right. That would be the material I need to remove today.

The next job was to "exercise" the generator. Our house-sitter had experienced about a three-hour outage Monday, and at one point more than a hundred thousand households were without power in the state. Although ours was soon back on, much of Maine's power was still out, and with the wind getting up, adding to the existing stress on the trees and power lines, it seemed like a good idea to make sure this machine was ready.

This is a brand new genny but it runs on propane and the last time I'd tried to start it, at about -10 F, it had balked and I had to stop pulling the cord before I threw out my "trick" shoulder again. Propane doesn't like really cold weather. Yesterday, at a positively tropical 22 F, it started right up.

I'm going to have to work out a system for warming this thing in really cold weather. They must make a block heater or something like that for small engines. I'll look online.

The Land Rover was covered in hard ice and needed to be thawed out. Rather than idle the engine for the several hours it would have taken, I simply placed the kerosene heater in the back and lit it. This is what that looked like, except of course I closed the door while the operation was underway. This simple procedure worked a treat, and, accordingly, will have to be stored away in the long list of memorized ideas for dealing with winter I keep in my head.

Once the Rover was ready, I needed to go get some salt for the walkways. The house-sitter had used what we had, which wasn't much. Aimee also wanted some cream cheese for mashed potatoes to go with Christmas dinner. Thinking that there might have been a bit of a run on salt lately, I called ahead to our local store and was pleasantly surprised when the lady said they had some. Accordingly I carefully drove the 3.5 miles there in the Rover, weaving between the sagging birch trees on Great Farm Road, the dogs coming along for the ride as they often do, only to discover there was no salt. The lady who answered the phone had bad information. That ticked me off a little, but at least Aimee got her cream cheese, and at least the Rover was in good shape in case we needed it.

After all that, everything and everyone safe and sound, tried and tested, it was time for a well-earned nap.

Here's the "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree that the house-sitter left for us, along with some Christmas cookies. We're lucky to have power to light our little tree, and that the only damage was to a gutter and the hoophouse, and relatively minor. A lot of Mainers are going to be spending Christmas without power this year. There are warming shelters set up in the main towns, and the linesmen are out hard at work, for which we're all grateful, but there's nothing like Christmas in your own warm home. I feel bad for our neighbors.

I think Gaelin, our youthful house-sitter, did very well to survive the ice storm and power cut without help, a proper Maine girl, but even so it must have been a bit bleak from time to time. Hopefully her tree cheered her up!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Cold and snow, pipes and frost

On Friday night the thermometer dropped well below zero. We're not sure how far below because all our outside thermometers have stopped working. Then late Saturday it began a cold fine powder snow, until we had a good solid foot on the ground.

Maine can be like that. Thermometer-breaking.

I've been making regular trips to our various basements. Since we moved the on-demand hot water heater to the new extension's bathroom, and re-routed the main water supply so that it first enters the house at said bathroom, I've been concerned to get all the frost protection right.

I had thought that the new basement crawl space might be cold, because the concrete foundation wall there is only a foot deep at its shallowest point, where it hits bedrock very close to the surface. But I tested the temperature in there Thursday, after several days of very cold weather. It was still 43 degrees F over by the entrance, which is forty feet from the nearest source of man-made heat, the kitchen wood stove, and isolated from said source by two inches of foam board. The conclusion was, the temperature down there is the soil temperature, and it's just not going to freeze this winter. I had wired a light bulb to the joists, just in case, and was ready to turn it on and leave it on for the winter, but there was no need. The high level of insulation and air sealing I'd used was working very well indeed. Score one for building design success.

Here's what it looked like before we built a building on top of it:

The rest of the news is less good. From the new crawl space the water supply now enters the new bathroom, where the on-demand hot water heater is located in a chase in one corner, along with the various stop valves (nb: stop "cocks" in British English). It then runs inside the walls, which are very well insulated, until it reaches the kitchen sink. Here's what that looked like before the drywall went in:

That's when the problem starts. From the kitchen sink to the old bathroom the water supply runs through the old kitchen crawl space to the old basement. The old kitchen crawl space is heated by the uninsulated floorboards, which themselves are heated by the wood stove. There is also an eight-inch uninsulated hot air duct running along down there.

But the old basement is another story. We've insulated all the heat ducts and removed a propane hot water tank-type heater. It's now about ten degrees colder than it was when we had an active propane burner down there. I tested the temperature with my handy dandy little ray-gun "laser" thermometer. In one spot where there was an air leak through the old wall it was 12 F. Over by the pipes it was only 36 F.

Ouch. Too close for comfort, that!

Off I went to get a heat lamp, which after a quick installation, rapidly brought the temperature up ten-fifteen degrees in that corner. If I get time later today, I'll wander around down there with a can of spray foam and block off some more holes. I've been blocking off holes down there for years, but it's a very old building, and the rubble foundation wall wasn't particularly well-made when it was new. The old stones shift and move with the frost. Blocking of holes never ends. You can see why I was anxious to get the water supply entrance to the house out of this space.

This is the Maine life. You spend a lot of time worrying about home sealing, insulation, and heat. Even in the mid-summer, when we built that extension crawl space, we were worrying about frozen pipes. But, for once, all the worry paid off. the new water entrance to the house is a lot more protected, and fail-safe, than the old.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The cold begins

It's probably about 11 or 12 degrees F outside right now, which is not that cold for around here, but cold enough that we can begin to get the idea. Winter is here. Friday night is supposed to be around zero F.

I already plowed snow once, too. Another sign.

The new extension, as yet unused and unheated, is acting as a bit of a heat sink, but not as bad as I thought it might. When we finally finish the unending finish work, and finally can afford to buy some furniture to go in it, then we'll probably also add a small electrical heater in the far corner, to take the chill off and even out the cold gradient.

I'd rather not do this, of course. Running an electrical heater much of the winter can be expensive. But the shape of the house is all wrong for that. If our house had properly designed, instead of being built in stages over 114 years, we'd have made it as square as possible and put an efficient wood stove right smack in the middle of the square. But back when it was first built, it appears the main house was built first and the kitchen added as an extension. Part of the intent with the original kitchen design was probably to provide a place to cook in summer that was cooler than the rest of the house. It's essentially a separate wing. Now we've added another separate wing. The wood stove is not really in a central position, and so you either heat the kitchen to 85 degrees to get the corners up to a comfortable 68, or you add a little boost. We use little electrical baseboard-type heaters to take the chill off in the corners, and I don't have one yet for the extension. I need to pick one up, which means a run to town, something I won't have time for until school gets out Friday.

The sheep are feeling the cold a little too, but what they want isn't heat but more food. They've been going through two bales a day on the coldest days, which is too much, plus about half a scoop of oats mixed with a little sweet feed each. New hay comes Thursday, organized through the Unity College Woodsman club because we're too busy to get it and because the truck is on the fritz still. The sheep will be more economical to feed once we get them out of their mating season and back into the barn. They'll eat a little less, and waste less hay because feeding will be centralized.

I'm pretty toasty right now, though, with a cup of hot coffee, and the oil heater running. The woodstove had died down overnight, and I knew I needed to run the furnace a little to test it out -- it get used very little -- so this was a good opportunity. And it might be a good day for oatmeal. Or maybe pancakes. High carbs. That's what we need.

Winter hasn't changed much for country folk over the centuries. The antidote to cold is still to burn things, inside and out.