Archive for March, 2012

Wednesday, March 28:

The fan in the greenhouse is not working.  This is a real problem; it means that on hot days the greenhouse does not vent itself.  Already its failure has had bad consequences; before we discovered the mechanical failure the seeds we started in four inch pots must have overheated, and most of the tomatoes and peppers have not come up.  We waited a week, and then today we replanted what we could.  There was enough seed left in most of the packages, but we will have to get more bell and hot pepper seeds when we go to town tomorrow.

The early spring-sown greens in the hoop house are about two inches tall and doing well.  Against the stock panel hoops the peas we planted last week are just beginning to sprout; in a few weeks, when the weather has turned reliably warm, we will take off the plastic and the peas will climb the panels and shade the maturing lettuce, postponing them bolting for a last week or two.  In the low tunnel over bed #2 you can see the results of spreading rough compost; dozens of tiny weeds are sprouting in and around the beet and spinach seedlings, making cultivation difficult.  Our compost making technique needs some adjustment; a better layering of wet and dry, coarse and fine materials is needed to make piles that will heat up to a temperature that will kill weed seeds.

This life is not without its adventures.  Two nights ago, responding to a frost warning issued by the National Weather Service, people in our area were scuttling about covering tender perennials and blossoming fruit trees with burlap, row cover, and old bed sheets.  Our peach trees are still small enough to be covered without the use of a crane, and these we wrapped in row cover.  The apple trees are too big for this treatment, so for these we made smudge pots:  we filled tin cans with rolled corrugated cardboard, soaked them in kerosene and lit them.  Okay, we don’t know how well it worked, but we’ve read of big orchards in Florida where they do this, and anyway it looked fabulous.  Twelve torches were set out under five trees, orange flames fluttering against the black hill as around a camp besieged.  At five we refilled them, following our flashlight downhill to the barn, then up the steep pasture from tree to tree adding fuel.

Sure hope it did some good.

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Monday, March 26:

I have been guilty of a capital crime.

Father, forgive me, for I have sinned – I have omitted to document our failures, putting others at risk of discouragement.

For penance, I will publicly accuse us of all the recent dumb mistakes, near-catastrophes, and downright failures I can think of in the next ten minutes.

Failure number one:  the ten eggs we put under the first broody hen of the season not only failed to hatch; when we carried them over to the pig pen and opened them one by one, only two of them appeared even to have been fertile.  A complete waste of nearly a dozen eggs, unless you count the screams of appreciation with which the three pigs greeted their unexpected treat.

Two:  the second “broody” hen didn’t even stick to her nest for a week.  When the girls realized she was promenading more than she was setting, they turned her loose, but forgot to lodge a notice with the management, so those eggs, too, eventually went to the pigs.  Happy pigs.

Three:  maybe we told you this one already. Isabel (our older milk cow) was bred twice last fall, to the tune of fifty bucks a pop, and remained open, as evidenced by her monthly attempts to climb whomever was milking her.  Not our fault, but when a farmer wastes a hundred bucks, that counts as a failure.  After attempt #2 failed to take, we determined to milk Isabel until Baby calves and begins lactating, and then see what’s what.  Some of our customers have been asking for quarters of beef . . .

Four:  let’s see.  How about our letting the chickens invade the orchard all winter, with the result that they have done material damage to the new strawberry patch we set out last summer.  Thank goodness we haven’t yet pulled out the old strawberry patch.

Five:  if we’d watered the carrot and lettuce seedlings as we should have last September, the germination rate would almost certainly have been higher, and we’d still be harvesting winter vegs.

Five-and-a-half (this one was not quite fatal):  We walked out of the house on Sunday intending to load up for Mass, and saw one of the yearling calves on his back and upside down on the hill.  He couldn’t get up.  This is one of the hazards of living in hill country; cows are heavy and awkward, and they can easily get their weight into positions from which their awkwardness prevents them getting out again.   The second half of this hazard is that cows which find themselves upside-down for extended periods of time, die.  In this position their gastro-intestinal tracts stop functioning, they bloat, and the pressure this puts on their internal organs kills them alarmingly quickly.

This is what it is to be responsible for other living beings.

Happily, when S-5 sprinted up the hill in his dress pants, vaulted the fence, and heaved the steer onto his chest, the feeble twitch of his tail which had been the only detectable movement when he was spotted was transformed to a scramble of legs and in a moment he was on his feet, shouldering his way in among his fellows for his share of a flake of hay.  He can’t have been down for long:  as I say, in the upside-down position they die, quickly.  Maybe we weren’t responsible for his awkwarkness, but if he had died, we’d still have felt like failures.

Rule number one for living a philosophical life while farming:  the more creatures that live on a place, the higher the death rate.  It stands to reason.  Yet this does not prevent us feeling like failures when an animal dies.

Ten minutes are up, but rest assured that, had we but world enough and time, this list would be a lot longer.

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Friday, March 23:

Let no one disparage the minions of the government indiscriminately.

Last night the grassroots Eastern Ohio Grazing Council held its March meeting in the back room of a little restaurant in Carrollton.  Fifteen or twenty farmers of various ages, sexes, and backgrounds ate a little dinner, drank a little coffee, and reviewed the past three years in which they and many other local farmers of modest means have met, to walk one another’s farms and study grass farming and the responsible stewardship of the land.  Our leaders in this enterprise are six or eight young farmers who, in addition to farming, work for the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), the University of Ohio Extension Agency (“the Extension”), and, yes, even the USDA.

In other words, the Enemy.  The Government.  The cause of our taxation.

We find friends in the strangest places.

Don’t think of them as government employees.  They are farmers, some of the most determined and informed graziers we have met in person or in print, and they are devoted to making their experience and learning available to the rest of us.  They are committed to the renewal of our soil, the responsible use of our water resources, the husbandry of our animals without pharmaceuticals, in a word, to sustainable, local farming.  They are just like us.

I wonder if The Gubment knows.

With the warm winter and this strange, early spring, many of us are thinking ahead to a summer which may strain our water resources.  One topic addressed last night was a review of the various ways we farmers sequester and utilize water for our stock.  The term “jury rigging” might have been coined just for the farmer’s vocation, and this is no more evident in anything than in our methods for accessing water.  Gravity-fed systems and powered systems of many kinds and hybrids deliver water to the grazier’s livestock.  Since there are resources out there describing water systems conventional, creative, and downright ridiculous, we will leave you to investigate these on your own, and describe here the system we presently use.  You can decide for yourself to what order of creativity it belongs.


These were our first resource for watering livestock, twenty years ago when the livestock were goats and chickens.  Two small, rainwater and spring-fed streams enter our property from the north and west to merge about half-way across, flowing thence another mile and a half, to the great Ohio River.  In the beginning, all paddocks and tether radii had to include a section of riparian water.  In the driest summers we set half-barrels in the creek beds and filled them by directing water from higher up into our vessels through gutter pipe.  As many as eight or ten goats and kids might at one time have accessed the creek, and our concern for the integrity of our stream banks put fuel to our search for watering alternatives.


We presently sequester rainwater from two of our barn roofs, catching the runoff in BCI’s (these are those aluminum-reinforced plastic containers with a capped opening in the top and an outlet with a tap at the bottom).  The roof downspouts are directed into the BCI (hereafter to be referred to as “water hog”) and the overflow does just that – overflows.  Not a very sophisticated system, but as each hog will hold 275 gallons, this rainwater cachement means we can water stock for about two weeks in the absence of any other water source, and with two creeks on the property we are seldom in the absence of any other water source.  Actually, the water from these hogs is used mostly to irrigate the gardens when necessary, but we mention it here as part of our overall water system because it is our backup for watering livestock.



Technically speaking, our principle source of stock water is not a developed spring, which would imply water rising of its own accord from one or a few fonts, but an improved seep.  An improved seep, again technically, refers to a French drain laid down above a wet place on a slope, with the collected water running into a tank or a series of tanks.  This is our piece de resistance, and our most complicated hydro-technology.  Our collection pipe is about thirty feet long, passing at its lowest point into a settling tank.  From there in the winter the water passes through twenty feet of solid pipe thirty-six inches underground to rise in a collecting tank at the back of our barn.  Two outlets from this tank feed, one, the pig nipple in the pig pen (this is a stem valve watering device for use with low pressure water) and two, to a French drain under the barnyard that empties at the confluence of North creek and Jeddo’s run.  A third outlet is planned to feed a stock tank we will sink in the hillside a few feet from the collection tank.  This in the winter.  In the summertime, the settling tank empties into a water hog also behind the barn which, when full, is emptied by a jet pump into yet another water hog up the hill from the barn.  From this we run flexible hose to any point in the pasture, where it fills a half-barrel through a jobe float valve, another device for controlling water under low pressure.  The half-barrel is dragged along when we move the polywire temporary fencing that encloses each small paddock in the summer.


We have one small spring-fed pond, from which the animals water by preference when we don’t fence it off.  When they do water there they break down the banks and muddy the water, so we usually keep them out of it.  Plans this summer include directing the overflow of this pond through a half-buried seventy-five gallon stock tank, so as to make yet another water source available when needed.  The pond itself is a good place for ducks and frogs.  It is these latter that sing us to sleep on spring nights.

So much for our water system.  It has the virtue of being almost off-grid, it does not utilize fossil water, and, being from a number of sources, has many insurances against failure.

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Wednesday, March 21:

The unseasonably warm weather has us out in the garden every available minute, hauling compost, raking raised beds, and starting early lettuce and spinach.  Given the heat, I only hope it doesn’t bolt immediately.  The hoop houses are open day and night to keep them from overheating, and the low tunnels have their covers off entirely.  All the fruit trees are getting ready to blossom, which will mean disaster if we get another freeze.  The pond peepers, which usually sing only at night, are so confused that they shrill all day, a buzz almost like that of a locust, making this early heat wave even more surreal.  Only the asparagus, living as it does ‘way down where the soil is still cool, is far enough from the sun that it is still in dormancy.

The greenhouse, I need hardly say, is hot as Tophet.  On Monday we started the tomatoes and peppers in four inch pots and a sterile mix of vermiculite, perlite, and peat moss.  They will like the heat, but the six pots of onion seedlings may find it too warm.  We don’t want the squash and melons to get root-bound, so we usually don’t start them until the end of March, but it we knew the weather was going to stay warm we would get them in, too.

Baby Belle should be calving soon, exactly how soon we don’t know.  We fidget and twiddle our thumbs.  We sigh and turn over out-of-date magazines in the waiting room.  We want to get on with it.  For one thing, when Belle calves we will go fetch some baby bulls, and Mom will be done with cheese making for a while, because when there are calves to feed, what’s left is only just enough milk for the table.  There’s not the glut we have right now with the warm weather increasing Isabel’s production, so that Mom has four and a half gallons a day to find a use for.

In addition to the usual eight-to-ten pounds of butter, two gallons of yogurt, four or so pounds of mozzarella, and all the cream you can think of a use for, this time of year we make two or three four-pound hard cheeses a week, and the dairy refrigerator is getting crowded.  I think there are eight cheeses in there right now – paisano, Appalachia, Belle, and the gouda we are testing – and there’s another Appalachia in the press.  These will last us a couple of months, beginning around the end of April, as they ripen; then in June, when the grass is abundant and the calves are weaned (and, incidentally, the garden is in, the first hay cut, and there will be some breathing space), we will start another round of cheese-making to provide our fall and winter cheeses.

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Wednesday, March 14:

Spring is here.  The calendar may lack a week until the seasons officially change, but the grass and the trees know already, and the robins, who are always the first to hear, are so ubiquitous as almost to be underfoot.  The soft, wet ground is prime hunting ground for worms, leaving aside only our compost bins, which yield dozens of red, squirmy worms in each forkful of decaying plant matter.  Cardinals and chickadees no longer provide our primary bird companionship; song sparrows visit the feeder outside the kitchen window, or sit in the small cherry tree, vibrating to their own song.  The late quarter moon illuminates the early morning as we go down to milk, while in the cleft of our valley Mars glows pink.  Our weather has been in the sixties and seventies for two days, and the four-year-old, S-6, announced the news in glad treble:  Spring is here.  Out come the water pistols.

Only two or three weeks ago we were feeding the bees pollen patties; today when we got into the hives, many of the disturbed insects had full pollen baskets on their legs.  Almost certainly tree pollen; the only flowers to be seen are the tiny white ones of rock cress , the pure blue of speedwell, and a few purple crocuses.  But the late afternoon sun illuminates clouds of particulate around the maple trees on the hill, which we assume is windborne pollen.  Don’t quote us.  The bees seem to be doing well.  They still have lots of honey from their winter stores, and there is quite a bit of capped brood in each hive.  The pattern, which should be almost solid, is a little spotty, which could indicate an old queen, but there is a great deal of younger brood, and we are not sure how long ago the mother bees will have started laying again after the winter hiatus.  We made sure there were plenty of empty cells around the brood cluster so that the mamas wouldn’t start thinking about leaving, and put a queen excluder and a super on each hive.

The pruning gets done in stages.  This morning we took on the three overgrown, ancient trees in the south pasture, unpruned in human memory until last year.  Drastic pruning is supposed, we read, to be done over a period of several years – three is the number we have seen most often – so we contented ourselves with removing all the dead and damaged wood we could reach, ditto suckers, and all the ingrowing branches under about three quarters of an inch in diameter.  Two of the trees have substantial branches at the top broken a year ago, when a tulip tree the men were dropping deviated from the line chosen for it and glanced off the apple trees.  Removing these was beyond the tools we had taken up with us, and we will have to go back and finish the job.

We pulled and raked weeds from the raised beds in the kitchen gardens, and raked compost into the asparagus bed.  In the afternoon the men brought hay from Neighbor B’s.  We cut and bale his south pasture on shares, and his horses have not needed all he got of last summer’s harvest; so he, with typical generosity, gave us permission to use it.  That is a savings for us, who will have another month at least before the cattle can go out on pasture.  In the meantime they are fenced into the barnyard, which is as muddy as a sacrifice paddock usually is this time of year.  For relief they go into the barn, which is relatively dry and solid, but they look wistfully through the fence at the thin greenup, and the young cow finds devious ways to escape.  Makes us wish for a heavy-duty fence charger to give her a good jolt.

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Saturday, March 10:

There will be no hyperbole today.  This is pig butchering.

Find one or two friends who like good, clean pork and working with manure and guts.  Raise a few pigs with them, making arrangements to share costs and chores, and when the pigs reach roughly the proportions of an upholstered sofa and the weather takes a turn for the cold, gather all available forces and butcher them.  You can find a manual to describe how you find a point equidistant from the pig’s ears and its snout, etc, details which we will not describe here because we do not want hate mail from people who feel sensitive about other people eating piggies.  In this post we mean to describe the operation known politely as Scraping Casings and impolitely as Cleaning Hog Intestines.

This job is smelly, tedious and long and reserved for the sissies who spend Hog Butchering in the house making coffee and cinnamon rolls for the Real Men of both sexes who work outside with the blood and guts.  These latter are the people who find the point equidistant, etc, and their jobs include blooding, scraping, gutting, hanging, splitting, piecing, grinding, wrapping, salting, and smoking.  The inside crew are kept to a tight schedule delivering doughnuts, coffee cake, cocoa, and other, more substantial substantial fare promptly at ten, twelve, three, and six o’clock to the real workers.  And, as I say, scraping casings.  Less important than the jobs above-named, but indispensable to the making of sausage links, and an art in danger of being lost to posterity.  So, we will describe it here.

First of all, before the intestines come inside the real butchers have to separate the hog’s intestines from the other parts of the switch – parts taken from inside the animal – hook one end to a hose pipe, and turn it on, first making sure everyone within a radius of fifteen feet is out of the way.  The tap is allowed to run until what issues from the nether end of the intestines is clear water.  Then the intestines, which are held by connective tissue in neat loops, are cut at two roughly opposite points, severing each and every loop at both points.  If this is not clear, imagine running over a coil of garden hose with a circular saw, leaving a bunch of short lengths of hose of more or less equal length, and you will have the right idea.  The resulting mess is submerged in a pan of cold water and sent to the house, where the people are warm and so they deserve it.

What do we do with such a thing in the house?  First of all, don’t let it be brought in the kitchen.  The smell is not fecal, but it is visceral, and it tends to linger.  We use Mike’s kitchen, because he deserves it too.   The method of cleaning is this:  first, get a baking pan, or maybe three baking pans, and put one in the sink.  Now take a wooden cutting board or a length of maple or beechwood plank long enough to span the sink diagonally,  the right-hand side sitting in the baking pan and the left end resting on the edge of the sink.  If you are left-handed, reverse the sides.  Take a length of intestine, to which we will refer hereafter as “casing”, and hold it at the top of the cutting board slope so that three or four inches of casing hang down the board.  With a (preferably old and unloved) table knife with a flat cutting edge, scrape firmly down the thick, squishy, pinky-grey tube.

Stuff will come out the end.  Lots of stuff, thick, gooey stuff, the lining of the intestines.  Remember, this tubing was thoroughly cleaned by the people outside.  The guck you are looking at is pig, not pig excrement.  Tissue, not poo.  Scrape the casing again, more firmly.  Keep drawing the knife blade flat down the board until the casing is clear, or faintly pink.  You will probably be surprised to see just how thin – much more than paper-thin – pig casings are, and you will certainly be surprised to find out how very tough they are.  When you think about what they do, you will realize that this must be so.  I mean, suppose you were designing a system where a hose of some really toxic guck was going to run through the interior of a living being, you’d make the hose strong, wouldn’t you?  And so it is.

You are going to scrape the whole length of the casing, a few inches at a time, and you are going to scrape it hard.  Push the soft lining tissue out at the bottom end (this is the reason for the baking pan).  For reasons which will be obvious if you think about it, you will probably want to reverse the ends when you get half-way up the tube.  When nothing more will come out, hold one end of the tube over the faucet and run water through it.  Keep cleaned casings in another baking pan of clean water.  If no one helps you with this job, you are going to have a sore arm at the end of the day; and if you’ve never done this before, it may take you all day, too.  But the effort is worth it; natural casings are the only kind worth having, and if you buy them they are costly as sin.  Scrape your own casings.

Or be a Real Man and join the people working outdoors.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012:

Spring is putting its nose through the climactic door with the full moon.  Today temperatures reached into the sixties, the sky was almost cloudless, and consequently all our winter-bleached faces and arms are wearing red, and stinging just a little. We prepared raised bed number two last week and put hoops over it, and tomorrow we’ll begin sowing spring lettuce and carrots. Baby Belle is due to calve this month, and some of the steers will go out to their summer pasture.  Already the south pasture is showing a mist of green, and the animals must be fenced off it to let the young grass get some height to it.

The Sow’s Ear came to us seventeen years ago today.

Some noises can wake you out of a sound sleep.  For a mother, one of these is the sound of a child beginning to retch.  This can rouse a woman from a sound sleep and materialize her with a bath towel in her hand in a room one floor and two closed doors away, in time to catch vomit from a child too sick to make it to the bathroom.  Every mother knows that while it is disgusting catching vomit in a towel, it is much more disgusting having to wash it out of bedsheets at two o’clock in the morning.  The ringing of a telephone can move a toddler to light speed, especially if he has previously been forbidden to answer the phone.  And for the farm wife, the squawking of a chicken in fear for its life can cause her to rocket from her warm sheets like a rising pheasant and sprint through a dark house vaulting furniture, bringing up barefoot in the snow against the back fence from which she has a more-or-less clear view of the chicken house.

Such was the event of last Friday night.

We straggled in in shifts Friday night, all tired and fuzzy-minded from the second day of pig butchering.  Little wonder S-4 and Mom, unofficial custodians of the chicken house, forgot to shut the poultry door.  It is an easy matter to close it, most nights, the small door being hinged at the top, and the hook and eye closure being released by pulling a handle and string which run up the back of the hill to the woodshed behind the house.  Fifteen steps from the back door, on the west side of the woodshed, and a quick yank results in the satisfying thump of the door closing.  It is a model of technology which is commensurate with its job.  But, as I say, Mom forgot about it.  We washed off the worst of the smells and stains, set all the alarm clocks in the house for an early hour, and fell into our beds and a sound sleep.

Four o’clock ack emma something goes off outside like all the Iroquois in the New World roasting a convention of Jesuits.  From vague pig-dreams of scraping sausage casings (find more on this uplifting subject under Pig Butchering) the farm wife passes instantaneously to a state of multiple awarenesses, of her unclosed chicken house door, of her neighbor the fox on the ridge of the south hill, that she is half-way down the basement stairs, and that, once she pulls the string and shuts the fox in the chicken house with the poultry, she is going to have to get a gun and go shoot the bloodthirsty canine.  Something she has often expressed, vehemently, a desire to do, but which would go better on a full stomach and a beer, not in pajamas and bare feet in half-an-inch of snow.

She reaches the fence in a state of adrenal shock and leans over the frosty honeysuckle.

The night is silent as the tomb and the chicken door is closed.  The full moon would reveal such in any case, but as it happens the timer for the chickens’ night light has gotten bumped and no one has bothered to set it right.  The sixty-watt bulb which is glowing through two layers of six-mil plastic sheeting on the windows also shines dimly through the hens’ door when it is open, and it is not open.  It is demurely, completely, and properly closed.  And, as I say, the night is without a sound.

What am I doing down here in my pajamas?

Already almost asleep again, the farm wife falls back into bed with some notion that the three tom cats who keep our rodent population in submission must have been testing their yowls again.  Darkness descends on body and mind, for about three minutes.  Then the Iroquois attack is renewed.

Not being taken so completely by surprise, this time the farm wife is able to assess the noise as coming not from the back of the house, but from the west side, and she investigates through a window.  The moonlight, as has already been observed, is at its best and brightest, and the front yard reveals two rat terriers in a state of some excitement.  Also more of the blood-chilling noises.  With a whispered command to the four-year old Sherlock who has joined her to go back to bed and be quiet, she takes the cold stairs for the second time.   The frosty gravel drive is like knives to bare feet.  The dogs want to play.  The noise has stopped again.  But, nattering up and down on the wrong side of the white picket fence in the moonlight is one adolescent Rhode Island Red, somnambulating.  And nothing to show what she is doing there.  She seems to be unharmed, and with a sleepy logic which will later evade me, I shove her into one of the dog houses on the porch, block it up with an abandoned sled, and go back to bed.  And, believe it or not, to sleep.  I confide my nocturnal adventures to S-3 when we meet over the milk bucket in the morning, and then forget about it.

He returns to the house twenty-five minutes later with the milk and the report that there are in the barnyard one dead RI Red, and one on the injured list.  Speculation is that the miniature horse Bridget, who is never happy if she is not annoying someone, must have knocked the chicken door shut in one of her forays into the poultry yard.  Fifteen of the layers have spent the night on the chicken house steps.  Some local predator, ‘possum being my favorite candidate since the corpse is undamaged, if an undamaged corpse is not an oxymoron, has made a raid on my birds.  The dead and wounded may not be the only casualties; other birds may be missing.  The chicken which I found sleepwalking on the parking area is still a puzzle; how, frightened from sleep in the middle of the night, did she move herself seventy horizontal and fifteen vertical  yards, not to mention at least three fences, to the north?

To those who know chickens, this implies both more decision and more resiliency of purpose than is commensurate with the chicken psyche.

The four hogs hung in at one-thousand seventy-three pounds, and were some twenty-two hours in the processing.  The hams and sides are brining, and the freezers bulge with pork.  We grilled chops for dinner to celebrate.

We spend our time in funny ways, but we eat really well.

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