Archive for November, 2011

almost Advent

Saturday, November 26:

   The warm weather is nice, but the mud is wearying.  Where the spring development project is drawing to a close, the hillside is churned to gumbo, very slippery.  Antidote to this is to take the cover off the stock tank and watch the water pouring in – and out.  Surely, and if I was really sure I wouldn’t have to say so, surely at this rate of flow the water will resist freezing in all but the most arctic weather.

   We are watching the classifieds for laying hens cheap.  That infernal fox carried off so many hens last summer, and left even more to be buried in the composts bins, that we simply don’t have an adequate laying flock for our needs.  The eight Speckled Sussex which are all that are left of the fifty with which we began the summer have only just come on to lay, and the four or five pullet eggs, along with a smattering of eggs from the three-year-olds, do not meet our needs in the egg department.  It goes against the grain to buy eggs, but buy eggs we must, and meanwhile we are in the market for hens.

    Not afraid to fill traditional roles, the girls – that includes me – spent most of the day inside doing the Saturday housework and baking pies.  Tomorrow begins the season of Advent, and we dug out the big candles, purple and pink, and polished them with turpentine and crumpled newspapers.  They will light the wreath which decorates our table for the four weeks before Christmas.  The men, meanwhile, worked on S-5’s big project, the construction of a multi-purpose platform back in the woods where we light hot dog fires and play in North creek.  No mean structure, it will be eight feet by eighteen, and two stories high, and progress on it depended upon the help of tall people with big muscles.  Enough was done today that now said son can work on it alone for a while.  It is a noble edifice, and I am thinking we should christen it with a barn dance.

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Friday, November 25:

  At long last we see the end of the spring project.  For the better part of a month it has absorbed our spare energy and time, what there was of it, and now at last it is about done.  The process of transforming a wet place on the side of the hill into a stream of running water flowing at the rate of four or five gallons a minute has been long and uncertain.  Deep ditches miles long had to be dug and tiled (“tile” here means perforated pipe, like in a french drain system).  The part most fraught with difficulties was the plumbing of intake and overflow and cleanout pipes into the settling tank and stock tank; as Shawn observed, when you cut holes in the bottom of a barrel, you just have to expect it to leak.  We will post a more detailed account of how the project was carried out when we get time, and we apologize in advance that we are not more committed to picture-taking, but we mostly forget until the interesting part is done.

   The long warm autumn is giving us time for a lot of cleanup work we don’t usually get done before snow flies.  The chicken house, built this summer and sided with clapboard, but not battened, got its cracks covered with batten boards and its windows covered with six mil plastic sheeting.  This, and the dry floor, should mean cozy chickens this winter, and I’m trying to forget for the moment that they need to be culled soon.  Culling chickens, around here, means we try to determine which hens are not laying, and can them.  Literally.  Old laying hens are butchered and put up in mason jars – perfect for making chicken enchiladas.

   The new woodshed – not to be confused with the old woodshed, still doing duty outside the basement door – is not only keeping next winter’s wood dry, but provides a roof to keep the weather off our rare luxury, an old but seaworthy pop-up trailer which has many times paid for itself in saved hotel bills when some of us have to travel.  The trailer has been stored previous winters in the lane in the woods by the creek, where the local squirrels were sure to find it sooner or later and maybe move in.  In the big new barn – it was a summer for construction, because of the sawmill we acquired last November – hay and feed and pigs will keep dry and warm.  Isabel and Baby Belle and the steers will probably lounge in the middle bays of the barn when the truck isn’t in the way, which will make a mess, but what is a barn for?  And the running water to the pigs will mean someone can keep his feet dryer when feeding them this winter.

   The gardens have actually been cleaned up, and two low tunnels and one high tunnel are protecting carrots and lettuce for our winter use.  The low tunnels are just six mil plastic over hoops of wire or PVC, and the high tunnel is plastic over stock panels, high enough for a person to walk into.  We made sandbags out of woven plastic feed sacks containing about ten pounds of sand, rolled like a jelly roll and tied in several places.  These are used to weigh the sides of the plastic sheeting on the low tunnels, and seem to do the job of holding it down very well.  To harvest the vegetables inside, we just move a sandbag, lift up the plastic, and reach in.  Since we seldom get as much as two feet of snow laying at a time, we think this won’t be too inconvenient.

   Today was warm and beautiful and we took the opportunity of the men being off work for Thanksgiving to backfill the ditches on the hill and move the potatoes into the cooler of the two root cellars.  In the one we call “the cave” some of them were already getting little sprouts, which we rubbed off as we sorted them.  Any that looked compromised we put in a bucket to cook for the pigs, but there was less than half a bucket of these.  We are going into the winter with about six hundred pounds of good potatoes, which should carry us well into next summer, without touching the potatoes set aside for seed.  Stored food gives one a feeling of security.

   On the frivolous side, we piled up all the scrap lumber and trash wood we had flung into the bonfire pit, and we are ready to bring in midwinter with a blaze big enough for the cops to see it in town.  We like their visits; they are an intelligent force, only stopping by to say hello in a disinterested way.  This year we hope they come while the doughnuts are still hot.

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Sunday, November 6:

   You can find videos on Youtube demonstrating how to palpate a cow, and some of them are very helpful.  Some are just mildly humorous.  Actually palpating the cow is pretty simple, but kind of like working a problem in calculus; when you’re done, you wonder if you got the answer right.  Before we undertook the operation, we asked a friendly farmer for tips.  “It’s pretty simple,” he told us.  “I hire it out.” 

   Our local farm supply store sells obstetric gloves, which come all the way up to the shoulder; finding these for sale reassured us that ordinary people actually do palpate cows, despite how unlikely such a thing seems.  The gloves come in packs of ten, and we hope the one we bought will last at least thirty years.  There is just something about putting your arm in a cow’s rectum that makes you hope it will be some time before you have to do it again. The evening we picked to do the deed was one when we had visitors, family who are themselves interested in cottage farming; we could think of no fitter introduction to the lifestyle.

   We won’t go into the details of the process, already ably set forth in the instructional videos on the internet, but we will say here that it isn’t as simple as you might think.  Imagine trying to find by feel a pair of socks in a very full army kit bag, and you will have a general idea of the problem.  We’ll leave it that Beth felt around for some time, and thinks the thing she settled upon as the uterus contained a small, firm mass about the size of a rat, the approximate the size of a cow’s fetus at around three months.  Feeling what you can through the rectal wall of a cow is like feeling something with your hand in an innertube:  details are fuzzy.  An empty uterus might have been approximately the same size and shape, but should have two horns, or fallopian tubes; and repeated sweeps over the floor of the rectum failed to bring these into evidence.  So, we hope this pregnancy test was positive.

   The refrigerator is groaning with all the cream that has backed up since Friday, when our trusty Sears Roebuck butter churn went on strike.  It is we don’t know how many years old, having been purchased by us at a yard sale in our pre-Isabel days and put away until we had a use for it.  It remained in storage all the years of our goat dairy.  Goat milk contains very fine fat particles which tend to remain suspended in the milk, rather than rising to the top where you can skim them off with a dipper.  One can, we understand, separate the goat’s milk with a centrifugal separator, but we never tried.  One reason is that we don’t have a centrifugal separator; another is that if we did have one, we wouldn’t want the job of cleaning it every day.  So we drank our goat milk, and cooked with it, and made chevre with it, but never tried to make butter with it.  Then we got Isabel, and when she freshened with her first calving, out came our long-stored butter churn, and we were in business.

   We have been making butter at the rate of six to ten pounds per week, for about six years, and our feelings when on Friday the act of plugging in the churn brought no results, were like those of a crew of sailors in finding water rising in thebilge and the bilge pump out of order.  Death by drowning seems the next item on the order of business.  A day’s skimming produces about three quarts of cream, and it doesn’t take very many days for an alarming amount of cream to back up.

   The churn had given us fair warning that it had internal problems.  When in storage, it has the cord wrapped around the churn, and years of flexing gradually broke the wires where the cord entered the housing.  For the last few months the churn has only operated if the cord was carefully draped over the spoon jar and held in place by the knife block.  A couple of times one of our family mechanics assayed to fix it, but the housing is not easy to get into.  On Friday the issue went from academic to critical.  Some fairly cayenne argument then took place about whether it could be fixed, and what, in the event that it could not, we were going to do about it.  Mom was all for building a new one out of a drill and the kind of drill attatchment used for stirring paint, but was shouted down.  Curious.  In the end, S-3 and a pair of vice grips got the motor housing open.  An evening with the parts spread out on the kitchen table and we have a better-than-ever butter churn, and we are stretching the Sabbath to include getting two gallons of cream out of the refrigerator so there will be room for other things.

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