Archive for October, 2011

Monday, October 24:

   Okay, sometimes we’re not frugal.  This part of Ohio gets cold in the winter, and people who do a lot of farm chores need warm feet.  Muck boots are the best tool we know for keeping feet warm and dry in winter, but warm feet are running $100 a pair now, and there are nine pair of feet on our farm.  We bought two pair for the growing feet which had none, but we are darned tootin’ going to figure out how to patch Muck boots, because we don’t spend that much on our complete wardrobe in a year.  Ouch.

   Ouch number two would be the cost of all the PVC fittings we just bought for the spring development, but it is easier to see that as a capital investment, because God willing we won’t have to do it again in our lifetimes.  Tomorrow we plan to take a bunch of pictures of the ditching, and more as we lay in the pipe, gravel, and geotextile fabric.  If this project means we have running water in the barn all year, or even almost all the year, it will be worth whatever it costs.

   Isabel is down in her production today, and skittish.  This makes us nervous that she may have failed to conceive to the artificial  insemination in August.  A cow not bred will not be dropping a calf in the spring, so her milk yield will not go up; in fact, it will probably go down.  Many years ago we had a failed AI breeding, and in the spring there was no calf.  That time, we didn’t dry her off  as we normally would  before calving, and she continued to give us about five gallons a day for the second year.  We bred her back in the late summer and got a little heifer the next spring, so all was not lost; but she’s not going to miss calving this year if we can help it.  The only way we can be sure whether she’s bred or not is to palpate her, which is to make a rectal examination, feeling her uterus through the rectal wall to see if there is a calf inside.  We can picture this, in theory, but are a little uncertain that we’ll know for sure what we are feeling when we are actually inside.  Don’t expect pictures of this one.

   The threatened frost of last Saturday failed to materialize, saving the green beans for another picking.  The beans are beautiful this year.  We will get all we can off of them in the next few days, but we are pulling three or four plants a day to feed to the pigs, who love them.  We’d like to feed all one hundred row feet to them before they freeze and are worthless as pig food. 

   The pigs are too fat.  They have to go on a diet, which is all to the good, because it means the dairy waste and slops will go even farther.  We would like to reduce their bought in grain feed to the smallest possible number.  To date they have had about one hundred seventy-five pounds of feed since they were bought in early August.  Just for comparison, the four pigs we raise on commercial feed with our wonderful neighbors have eaten over a thousand pounds.  As we get  a firmer grasp on the rate of feed for milk waste, we expect we will be able to make the process even more economical.

   Rain much of today, but the clouds have passed off, and a few bright stars stand out in the misty sky like lamps in far-off windows.  Tomorrow is supposed to be clear, and we hope to move the spring project a long way toward completion.

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Saturday, October 22:

   The autumn race to get things closed up for the winter continues.  A warm bedroom was built for the pigs:  really just an enclosed space where they can get away from the wind and capture some body heat.  Lots of digging was done on the spring system, which, because its draw-down pipe has to go somewhere, will connect with the french drains the east barnyard so desperately needs.  All of which means that we have to trench all the way across the east barnyard before we can hook up our new spring system.  It is taking a while.  Thank goodness the weather was nice for it. 

   There is a frost warning tonight.

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Friday, October 21:

   Picking green beans in the cold they snap off crisply in your fingers like they do when they come out of the refrigerator.  I stopped before I got to the end of the first row, but I think I have enough to give to the TOR’s tomorrow when the boys serve for Bishop Zubik.  There must be about fifteen sisters living in the big house, so it takes a lot of green beans to go around.

   The weather has been overcast and drizzly for a couple of days now, and the cold has soaked into the bones of the house.  The fire we lit this morning had to be nursed through the day; whenever it was let to die to coals, the house cooled off too much.  Armloads of firewood have to be carried in from the woodshed out back and stacked in the iron-pipe woodrack in the basement to dry and warm before tomorrow morning when the fire will be relit.  One chunk is curly maple, shimmering under the basement’s incandescent bulb like tiger’s eye.

   All this wood was gathered, split, and stacked a year ago in a long rick at the bottom of the driveway, where now is the new woodshed the men built this summer.  When the new woodshed was undertaken, the cured firewood was brought up in the back of the pickup, and ferried around the house in wheelbarrows.  It has to go through three gates to the old woodshed out back, but then it will be only ten steps from the basement door, close for the morning’s fire.   Seven feet high and nine deep, and twenty-three feet from end to end, the old shed holds about a winter’s wood.  A full woodshed is like a wall between the family and the cold, each log stored heat to be released slowly; all except the occaisional chunk of curly maple which will instead be given to knife and sawblade.  On the rosary shelf in the living room is a bent wood box made of maple rescued from the woodpile; and another box, small, square, and carefully joined in dovetail, is in the study.  When opened, it plays Pachelbel’s Cannon in D, thinly.

   Early as we go down to move the cow’s paddock it is already getting to be dusk, because of the cloud cover and our position under the hills that close our valley the south and west.  We stop at the chicken house.  For fifteen years this was a simple shed-roofed structure of scrap materials, fourteen feet by twenty, soggy with mud in wet weather; this summer it was replaced with a warm, dry pole-barn, small but with sawdust litter on the wooden floor and ample roosts for the laying hens.  Pausing here we trip the string that unhooks the chicken door and allows it to swing closed.  The luxury of that string is still fresh on us, as it was last Tuesday when I was reminded at eleven o’clock at night that the hens hadn’t been shut up yet.  Dangling from the last post at the back of the bread oven shed, only twelve steps from the back door, is the wooden handle S-5 whittled for his creation.  A single tug against slight resistance, then a give, and the comforting thump of the hen door swinging down and wedging shut.  All the hens, and two arrogant roosters, are shut in for the night, away from the curiosity of fox and raccoon and ‘possum. 

   We shift the cow’s paddock daily to new grass, striving always to enclose with her in her corral of electrified twine just as much sward as she will make good use of in a day, no more.  Best results to be obtained if the cow will eat, step on, defecate on, or urinate on, every step of each paddock.  Grazing this way imitates the movement of large herds of wild ruminants.  Isabel is about as far from a herd of wild ruminants as you can imagine, but grazing her this way is having a remarkable effect of our five acre pasture.

   This hillside is about the worst land you can imagine for grazing anything, short of a Walmart parking lot.  It is steep and rocky.  Six years ago the previous owner had the hillside above it logged by people who were no doubt driven out of central America for their barbaric logging practices, and these people, in addition to leaving the woods an impenetrable tangle of lopped branches and wild grapevine, made concrete out of the clay and shale of the pasture.  When they left, the regrowth consisted largely of tough, hard-stemmed weed varieties unpalatable to livestock:  ironweed, ragweed, milkweed.  We grazed our animals there in spring and fall, when the growth was young and tender enough to interest them, but winter and summer we had to supplement with hay.

   Now, one year into our rotational grazing, the bare ground is almost completely covered, much of the growth being clover, timothy, and orchard grass.  We have not planted these varieties.  Joel Salatin discourages tilling and planting pasture in favor of allowing the native species to come into balance under the influence of rotational grazing; Gene Logsdon points out that in Ohio Dutch white clover will come without planting. Such has been the case here.  Some of the grass seed has been imported from our hay meadows via the hay we bring home every summer.  Fed out over the winter in our sliding manger, it passes through our animals and leaves seed spread over the pasture.

   Tonight S-5 and I only have to pull half the fiberglass posts and leapfrog over the lower half of Isabel’s fence.  We unhook the polywire and reel it up, then flip back the ratchet so the line will feed out, fasten it to a new section of fence, and stretch the new paddock.  With two people working, it takes about five minutes, including pulling the water tank down the necessary twenty-five feet so it will be included in the new paddock.  Moving paddock must be done every day, but every time the cow is rotated across the pature, the forage is being improved:  manure and urine are spread over the entire field, and the cow is grazing forage varieties evenly, not over grazing her favorite forages and leaving others to grow until the preferred varieties are crowded out.  How many things can you do in a day that you are absolutely sure are good for the world?  The man who rotates his cattle leaves the world a better place.

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Monday, October 17:

   We are convinced we should try to get the spring piped underground before the deep frost sets in; that is, I am convinced, and I am pushing everyone else to make noises of agreement and come out with a shovel and help.  After breakfast this morning, when my Beloved Spouse set off for a tense meeting, and the self-starters got out their books, I headed down the hill with a pick and shovel to see what one small forty-seven year old woman could do in the way of trenching.

   The frost-free tank we are trying to build will go – if things work out – off the east corner on the north side of the barn.  Higher on the hill, the improved spring tank — with underground inlet, draw-down pipe, and berm, — will be installed next to the present spring tank, principally so that we can keep our running water as continuous as possible.  We will trench, lay pipe, and set both new tanks, all before we cut through the seep trench that fills the spring tank and divert the water.  As I stood off the corner of the barn taking sight lines, I hoped that just eyeballing would be good enough.

   The overcast weather of the last few days broke last night, and when the people responsible for this  chaos – Mom and Dad – got up this morning to milk, skim, make tea ,and fry the breakfast hash, a three-quarters moon waning poured down like whitewash out of a deep black sky.  Now, four hours later, the sky is a perfect bowl of blue, and the sunlight and the trees are competing to see which is brighter gold.  My fleece vest is too hot after only a few minutes of digging.

   By evening, with the boys (S-4 and S-5) coming down during the afternoon, we were far enough on the job to make us think another day or two should do it – if Mom’s arms still work after today.  Answer to the question “how much can one woman dig?” is, in five and a half hours she can drop a two-foot trench, one shovel-width wide, twenty-odd feet.  And when the five and a half hours are over, she will be very tired, and her arms will hurt. More of the same tomorrow.

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balanced-budget farming

Sunday, October 16:

   Jeddo’s Run Hollow falls through a narrow neck eastward into the Beautiful river. This time of year the sunrise pours directly into the valley, casting long shadows from the owl-haunted oak trees at its foot.  Early this morning the air was brisk but not cold, and cloudcover pressed the pink dawn low in the sky.  When you feed pigs, you know you have done something; the noises they make are vigorous and appreciative.  Think of two new terms for pork:  “heritage” and “milk-fed”.  I can see it becoming the rage.

   Two weeks ago we went to the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.   We went less for any great information we expected to glean than because we thought it sounded like a good weekend date.  This was, we think, perhaps the first time since Luke was born that we have gone away overnight without at least one baby. 

   I called the number listed online for Seven Springs and asked for room rates. 

   “All our regular rooms are booked for that weekend, ma’am.  We have suites available.”

   That might be nice.  What are the rates for their suites?

   “Our smallest suite holds up to twelve people and rents for $2,000 a night.”

   Well.  We took a modest room in an inexpensive chain hotel thirty minutes away.  Quality of weekend not diminished.  Surprisingly, we had a lovely time.  Not surprisingly, since we really like being together, but surprisingly since our expectations of the event were very low.  In the circles in which we move TMEN is often characterized as a slick magazine for people who want to read articles detailing how to build an $1,800 chicken house to hold their fifteen heritage-breed egg-layers, thus becoming part of the green-earth-friendly-sustainable-and-frugal brotherhood.  It is supposed to be very big on telling the reader how to save ten dollars a month on his power bill by having installed a $20,000 solar array on the roof of his home.  Sort of a Town and Country for the eco-minded.  Not really a good fit for dirt-under-his-fingernails Scrap-Wood Louie and his wife. 

   The drive into the Laurel Highlands took us through some lovely farmland and some unlovely small towns of the village-overrun-by-car-dealership-and-funeral-home type, with every other business selling beer.  The carwash sells beer, the hamburger joint sells beer, the lawn furniture boutique and dog-grooming salon sells beer.  You would expect the post office to sell beer.  Between towns the land climbs in a series of ridges up to a high point from which you can see practically to Chesapeake Bay, the ridges wearing thick pelts of hardwood forest strewn with expensive vacation homes like brooches on a mink stole.  

   The Fair filled three floors of Seven Springs’ large mock-alpine ski-lodge and spilled out into courtyard, patio, and green lawn.  There were dozens and dozens of vendors and display booths.  One knowledgeable and friendly gentleman with a beautiful baritone voice was exhibiting a small wood-fired brick oven the building of which he had demonstrated at this event a year ago.  A beautiful young woman in the next space fabricated a straw-bale wall over the course of the two-day event.  On the patio side, the Zendik booth displayed some bright, delicate jewelry made, it turned out, with rolled-paper beads.  I hate to give this one away, because the girls and I will probably be making some of these for Christmas presents, and I don’t want you doing them for yourselves, but these were tubular beads, made by rolling tapered pieces of paper wide-end first, gluing, and then finishing with shiny floor-finish.  They were then strung on wire or filament with glass beads for spacers.  We stopped to see how they were done, and if they had any hair-clips in colors other than pink; they hadn’t, but what they had was a lovely young married couple who told us that Zendik was an intentional community established to make the world better through art and stewardship of the land, or something like that.  Very nice people, and they told us about Ossabaw pigs, which are a rare heritage breed from “an island in Virginia” (Beth was a little confused).  They showed us pictures of these bristly pigs, which look as though they took their hairstyle inspiration from Bill Waterson’s Calvin.  They are one of the breeds listed by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, and were one of the important things we learned this weekend.

   In the Livestock Breed Conservancy tent we met a pleasant and well-spoken young man from central Ohio trying to squeeze enough money out of a farm that had been in his family five generations so that he could buy it from the relatives who had inherited it and wanted to sell it for development.  Diversity, good stewardship, raw-milk sales through herd share, and raising heritage breeds were part of his overall plan for success, but he was frank in saying he needed something to give.  He and his young wife carry off-farm jobs to pay for the priviledge of raising other people’s food.

   Also in the livestock tent was the president of the Poultry Breeds Society, a gentleman of the old school and a little hard of hearing.  From him we got lots of good information on heritage breed chickens for brooding and foraging.  We also got a poultry-feed recipe formulated by some granddaddy of poultry breeders, along with the information that a gallon of milk is all the protein one hundred chickens need per day.  Membership in the Society is $50 a year and not allowed for in our budget but we left feeling very friendly toward the organization.

   Midday we sat on the floor in a narrow hallway eating yogurt out of mason jars while someone we couldn’t hear talked to an overflow crowd on Farming Diversity, and latecomers wandered up and down asking in whispers where they could find the talk they were interrupting.  Two of the addresses we most wanted to hear were cancelled; probably the farmers who were slated to give them had to stay home and farm.  Our favorite evangelist Joel Salatin held the crowd in his palm for three hours telling people in terse quips what they already knew and agreed with, and telling country stories in a delicious southern drawl.  Across the way an attractive young woman shared with charm and candour the lessons of two years raising heritage cattle.

   We checked out four separate and distinct talks with titles including the word “dairy” or “cheesemaking”, two of which addressed the development of government-inspected artisan cheese factories.  Another was intended to encourage timid people to consider keeping goats.  Only one venue addressed kitchen cheese making; it drew a big crowd in one of the largest spaces.  The couple who were presenting own a raw-milk dairy in eastern PA where they and their five young children make cheese.  We were more interested in them than in their talk, since it didn’t go beyond what we already know about cheese making.

   What we didn’t find anywhere was an expert on cheese making for the farm kitchen, nor anyone speaking on synergistic, whole-farm ecology for the homestead, what I think of as the “cottage farm”.  Gene Logsdon uses this term for the small acreage managed principally for the family subsistence; farming not for cash, but to reduce the need for cash.  No one there, so far as we could see, was speaking to people looking for a recipe for food independence.  Many topics were well-handled which would be of interest to the cottage  farmer – organic gardening, season-extension gardening, bee keeping, alternative energy sources – but we could see no one who was suggesting, or suggesting methods for, small independent sustainably managed grazier/dairyman/ gardener farms with a balanced budget. 

   Would anyone care to hear about this?

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Saturday, October 8:

We finally got the supers off the hives on Thursday.  I say “finally” even though some people in our area will not take their supers off until the goldenrod is through blooming;  we have to move when we see an opportunity, else we may lose our chance.  So, we pulled the supers off on Thursday afternoon, discovering as we did so that somehow – how, we can’t guess – the queen in the colony on stand number five was above the queen excluder, not below it, where she belongs, and where she would have plenty of room for brood.  This is something that happens if you don’t get into your hives often enough; when you do, sometimes you find out things have gotten a little weird.  A queen in a super means a scattered brood pattern, since she has to move around a lot to find empty cells to lay in.  more work for her, more for the young bees in charge of nursery operations.  Hoping the colony has not been mortally weakened by this situation, we moved the super with the queen in it to a position under a hive box containing seven full frames of honey, and three of drawn comb.  We hope queen and court will move up into the empty comb, and winter will find them concentrated in the middle of a good store of honey.

We have spent the week trying to fit some school into the gaps between winding up things for winter, and to fit some final farming tasks into the gaps in our school work.  The split focus is something we always have to deal with, and don’t much like.  So, as  Wednesday was beautiful, we spread a ton of lime at the TOR’s, pulling our antideluvian spreader behind the F-250.  It is a little cheaper to spread our own lime there, but it will save us time and trouble to get the rest of it spread by the Co-op, in those parts of the property where their tractors can go.  In the home pastures, we have to spread it ourselves, because the Co-op equipment can’t even get down the lane.  We told you this is the most worthless acreage in eastern Ohio.

We are very hopeful that the lime we have spread will mean better vegetative growth for several years to come.

The lettuce and spinach in the raised beds has not germinated very well – there are a lot of empty spots.  Or maybe that blamed RI Red that comes up the hill to the yard is defying the garden wire we have spread over the raised beds and is picking out the seedlings through the wires.  If we catch her at it, she’s for the soup pot.  We waited until late July through mid-September to plant lettuce and spinach, as per instructions in The Winter Harvest Handbook, and now I am worried that the salad greens won’t grow well enough before the days are too short, and we won’t have winter salads.  Argh.  On the right side of the ledger, the July planting of beans has given us some thirty or so quarts of beans to put up, and lots to eat fresh.  As long as the warm weather holds, they should go on producing, though not so generously as the first picking.

There is always some freak thing to add to our already long list of jobs.  The ceiling fan on the porch was found to be running on high speed, and investigation revealed that the chain by which it turns off and on had been snapped off — inside the motor housing.  Inquiry drew from the little girls that they had been up on the table, yanked the chain with more beef than necessary, and thus broke it.  When asked what they were doing up on the table, they admitted with charming frankness that they had climbed up there in order to put Picky, the half-grown mouser, on the fan blades.  “We wanted to give him a ride,” they said.

And they love this kitten.

We wonder what kind of mothers they will make.

The same kitten nearly met his maker this morning.  One of us went out at six a.m. to light a fire in the bread oven, so that it would be hot enough by nine thirty for us to bake loaves.  S-5 had split wood for the fire the previous night, and being a thorough person, as well as a thoughtful one, had laid a fire in the oven all ready to be lit – all it needed was a match.  Bleary-eyed, the morning baker struck a match and drew an orange flame along the edge of the wad of newspaper stuffed in the tipi of kindling wood.  Orange flames licked orange fatwood, which caught immediately, crackling from the sap.  The oven glowed.

And then something caught the attention of the fire starter.  Orange flames, orange wood – wasn’t there something else orange in the oven, behind the firewood?  Had the responsible son put wood to the back of the oven?  Holy angels and saints — it was the orange kitten.

The cat didn’t even know his danger.  He never broke from the comfortable couchant position he had assumed.  Even after we squealed and grabbed a poker and raked all the fire out of the entrance to the oven, we had to reach in and grab the kitten bodily and pull it out – purring.

That cat is technically a tom, but there are a lot of times when he really reminds us of the girls.

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Saturday, October 1:

The weather is unseasonably cold today; if the temperature has risen above fifty degrees, we couldn’t tell. The men who were working outside wore lined jackets all day; S-3, who was mowing at the TOR’s, came in shivering, and with his fingers still clenched as they had been on the steering wheel of the Sisters’ Kubota. S-4 finished building the cages for broody hens which are now installed in the chicken palace. There being no broody hens at present, we have put in them a dozen of the young pullets — the replacements for the Speckled Sussex pullets slaughtered over the summer by our marauding fox – to keep them out of the way of aggressive Rhode Island Reds, but let them get used to thinking of the hen house as home.

The last planting of green beans – made in July with the beautiful Sarah (one of our nieces from Illinois) – is justifying itself, and we have canned nineteen and a half quarts, with buckets more to process when the Sabbath is past. These late plants are just beautiful, vigorous, and with far higher germination than the early and mid-season plantings. They are also much less bothered by our unwelcome visitors from the south, the Mexican bean beetles, which have left only skeletons of leaves on the old bean plants. These we have pulled up, and fed with vindictive pleasure to the ever-hungry pigs; but the July beans, although they have a few beetles on them, are so thick and flourishing it is hard to find where to put your foot as you wade in to pick them.

They are also, we take this occaision to admit, a living evidence of the axiom that a single moment of carelessness may be redeemable only by hours, months, or even years of hard labor. We have the truth of this rule before us in palpable form more often than Mamma, who is its most devoted acolyte, likes to admit. This year, for example, our sauce-making and salsa-making, and we make gallons and gallons of sauce and salsa, have taken more than the normal amount of time due to the fact that, somehow, the tomato plants we started in the greenhouse this year were not, as Mamma planned and expected, Romas and beefsteaks, but romas and cherry tomatoes. Just try peeling and seeding cherry tomatoes by the five-gallon bucket-full, if you want to know what incidental labor is like.

Similarly, the green beans she planted this year, expecting to get all bush varieties, include at least one variety of pole bean. These are the beans in the July planting and despite being trellised, rather late – and that was a bit of extra work – they sprawl pretty freely over the three long beds allotted to them, making it something of a chore to pick the pods.

Last weekend Mamma and Papa went to Pennsylvania to attend the Mother Earth News fair at Seven Springs. Funny – we don’t take the Mother Earth News, associating it as we do with articles on how to save on your electric bill by installing a fifty-thousand dollar solar plant, and we never visit resorts, having no reason in the normal way of things to do so. But we heard good things of this event last year, and when we saw that several of the workshops were cheese-making related, we decided to give the thing a whirl. As an effort to learn more about home cheese-making, the trip was a failure; but as date with spouse, it was a great success.

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