Archive for August, 2013

Thursday, August 29:

   The young calves and the sheep are together again in a paddock at the bottom of the south hill pasture.  For two weeks we have been moving the sheep across steep hillside where ragweed, asters and lemon balm offered mixed forage for sheep, but nothing for the little steers and the heifer calf; now at last they are back with the steers.

   Some of us are particularly glad because we will no longer be moving two paddocks in the home pasture, on top of the two at the monastery:  one in the front pasture for the lactating cows, where the whole herd passed in June and the regrowth is green and lush, and one for the dry cows on the back of the monastery hill, where the grass is coarse and fibrous and there is still much cane to be trampled down.  In total, there are now three paddocks, with a total of four moves, most days, because the lactating cows get a new paddock after every milking.  This sounds like a lot of moving fence, and it is, but because the paddocks are small, the time involved is not more than we can manage right now.

   Actually, it is sometimes the part of a job which would seem to make that activity a cert for the scrap pile – like walking a quarter mile out to the dry cow paddock and back, twice a day, to watch for one of the heifers to go into heat – that ends up contributing the greatest benefits.  The top of the monastery hill gathers in breezes like a seine gathers in fish, and each one passes through our sweat-soaked hair.  Sun on our backs and the feel of the ground coming up through our boots, damp and soft or dry and sunbaked, tells us about the weather, the condition of the forage, whether the cows need to be moved to a shady spot, and the expectations for autumn regrowth.  The long swing of legs in boots is different from the shuffle of sandals across the kitchen floor, and the difference is welcome to our feet and hips as the sight of the distant horizon is welcome to our eyes.

   And the pause, hitched up on the top of a water hog, while a small stock tank fills for the spring steers, is not a taking-out from work time, but a built-in moment of alertness and meditation and relaxation.  There is a feeling of accomplishment when one tends animals which is satisfying on a level not like the satisfaction of a perfect baking of bread, or a thick layer of rich black compost spread across a garden bed, or a cheese knocked out of the hoop and set to dry on the cheese rack.  All these are good; together they are very good.  Variety:  it is a nourishing thing, like Hopkins’ pied beauty or Whitman’s praise of the labor of hands.

   The tide long ago turned on the basement shelves, and the neap tide of empty jars has become a spring tide of full ones, of salsa – over forty quarts in the last two evenings – and sauce, peaches, a bumper crop, jam of several varieties, something like twenty quarts of honey, more than dozen old laying hens, ditto broth – food for many occasions to come.  And we are just getting started; the tomatoes are only half in, and the green beans for canning won’t start for another week or so.  There is cider to be put down, as much as we can squeeze out of the small, sweet apples that grow in the south hill pasture.  There will be beets to pickle.  The onions and garlic are drying in the summer kitchen before we braid them and hang them in a cool corner of the basement.  And in the cave, the small, dry, dirt-floored cellar under the east end of the house, there will be winter squash and pumpkins on long shelves of plank and cinder block.

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Monday, August 26:

   We are a houseful of sore people.  The boys who baled and brought in the hay today are sore; the one who ran the Tough Mudder on Sunday is sorer.  Two with bellyaches are sore in another way; the ones who spent the day on their feet in the kitchen are very footsore and stiff about the knees.  But the loft in the white barn is full of sweet baled clover and orchard grass, and there are fifteen more quarts of peaches to weigh the shelves in the basement.  There is butter, and ricotta and mozzarella in the refrig for a lasagna tomorrow, when we will be harvesting tomatoes and putting up more sauce and salsa.  Frenetic as is this time of the year, it redeems itself in the form of food for months to come, and such food, too.

   The half-inch of rain that fell on Thursday night should have replenished the water hogs behind the monastery, but did not.  Finding that the water level in the tanks had not risen for all the rain that fell, we investigated, discovering that the black flex pipe that carries water from the roof drain to the tanks was cracked in several places.  We replaced that stretch of pipe and tested the system with a hose and spigot, with the result that, still, no water reached the hogs.  Before we had time to wonder whether this resulted from a suspension of the laws of nature, we found we were standing in running water, running, it turned out, from a slash in the black pipe where it passes under a thick clump of bindweed and cane.  A little incaution with the Stihl blade weeder had left this egress for the roof water.  So tonight, as there is rain in the forecast, and on top of baling and taking up the hay, one of the men had to go down and fix the water system.  The black flex has been replaced with four inch rigid drain pipe, and we hope – and the cows hope – that their drinking water supply will make it through another week of high summer.

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Sunday, August 25:

   We are beginning to feel the near approach of the Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs, and the presentation we are making of our successes and failures in the sustainable smallholding endeavor.  Time to get out our notes and update them, and, what is much harder for us to do, to get out the camera and take pictures of the farm and its arrangements.  We are looking forward to spending time with other folks interested in reclaiming a measure of the independence natural for those who grow their own food, build their own spaces, chop their wood and carry their water.

   The sweet corn is in the freezer.  We only planted one hundred row feet of the hybrid corn – there is OP corn in the monastery garden – eating what we can when it comes ripe, and freezing the excess for winter.  Sweet corn out of season is a luxury food on our table, since it requires freezer space, and we only put up twenty pounds or so; our usual starch veg is the Irish potato, blessedly versatile.

   Shawn brought the onions up from the garden last night and spread them in flats in the summer kitchen to cure, propping the boxes on the thick sill plate to allow circulation underneath, and turning on the fan to increase air movement.  There are perhaps one hundred fifty pounds of sound yellow storage onions, twice what we stored last year, but Beth already thinks it will not be enough to last the year, not when the requirements of canning tomato products are taken into consideration.  Next year we plan to double the garden area committed to onions, aiming at harvesting at least three hundred pounds next summer.  Any excess – is there ever excess? – is just one more thing to feed the pigs.  In moderation, at least – we understand that too many onions may be toxic to pigs, or is it cows?  We don’t let the cows anywhere near garlic or onions; having once inadvertently given Isabel access to some garlic, we know very well not to let dairy animals have alliums, it makes the milk nasty.

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Friday, August 23:

   The day has been hot and muggy, but at the monastery, high on its own ridge, a breeze turns the sweat to coolness.  The rows of beans, mangels, and turnips stand out in bold green stripes against the bare tilled earth in the big garden, and the Country Gentleman and Golden Bantam corn at the back is tasselling.  The yellow-green of the corn tells us that it is low in nitrogen and will probably bear only marginally; after harvest we will sow that area to some legume or other.  Four of the cows still need to be bred, so we have to spend some time every day at the back of the farm watching for signs of heat.  When someone gets frisky we hope we’ll see it.

   In the garden the onions have been pulled and would be drying if it hadn’t rained last night.  Tomorrow we’ll take them up and spread them on racks in the summer kitchen to finish drying.  We are freezing corn in stages, eating corn on the cob twice a day, and plying toothpicks between meals.  There are okra and squash and beets and beans, peppers and lots of tomatoes, and there are peaches, peaches, peaches.

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pintos and pigs

Thursday, August 22:

   Did we mention we were sometimes a little inadequate when it comes to research?

   Raw pinto beans contain enzymes which are mildly toxic to pigs.  People, too, if it comes to that.  Feeding raw cull pintos to pigs severely reduces the animals’ weight gains (note:  our further research would tend to indicate that rates less than ten percent are acceptable; some sources seem to indicate that whole plant feeding is fine, possibly because feeding the whole plant is consistent with the low overall feed percentage.  My, my, maybe Nature knows what she’s doing).

   Along with the mangel wurzels, sugar beets, turnips and corn we planted to follow the potato crop, we put in many rows of pinto beans.  These were to serve as green manure, but also as a fodder crop for the young piglets we will put in the garden in November.  Who would have thought of the possibility that beans would be bad for pigs?

   Fortunately, because of the late planting date – early August — these pintos will be immature, or green, beans, which consist principally of pod, and are an acceptable pig food, although they will not, as we had hoped, supply protein in significant quantities.  They will still add nitrogen to the garden soil, which will be a benefit next spring.

   So all is not lost.  Far from it; we feed the pigs and the soil at the same time.  But if those pintos had gone in a month earlier, we might have a problem, because every source we have consulted (we have not been exhaustive) has been very clear that raw pinto beans are detrimental in the diet of the pig.  After all our work preparing the pig garden, we would not have been able to pasture the pigs there.  In our experience, you never know enough to take your eyes off the road.

   There’s always something lurking in the underbrush ready to bite you in the leg.

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Wednesday, August 21:

   Canning tomato sauce and peaches kept us up until past midnight, and threatening rain made us venture out in the dark to bring in laundry hung out this afternoon to dry.  It is getting to be difficult to step posts into the ground, so we could use the rain, but first we would like to get the hay we cut Tuesday in the bale and in the barn.  Tomorrow we have to bring in sweet corn and freeze it if we don’t want it to get starchy; three times a week there is cheese to make, filling the cabinet in the cellar with five pound rounds waxed red or black.  There is no break in the constant employment of this time of year; one thing follows another so close they overlap, and we need to bi-locate like a blessed saint to get it all done in a timely way.  The pigs glean all the waste and overflow, so they, at least, are living luxuriously.

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Monday, August 19:

   There is no rest at this season, and we milked at five a.m., the dark made less dark by low hanging clouds reflecting the glow of mercury lights on the next hill.  It is too warm for long sleeves, and late summer though it is, fireflies flit at the woods’ edge.  The glow worm under the rock pile behind the dairy barn gleams greenly.  Five gallons of milk have to be made into cheese today, and ten gallons of tomatoes, with appropriate proportions of garlic, onion, basil, and oregano, turned into fifteen quarts of sauce put up in glass jars.  The onions are to be stepped over, ending their growing season and starting the necks to drying.  They will sit in the sun for a day or two; on Friday those three beds must be spread with compost, turned, raked, and sown to fall carrots.  The pigs in the big barn receive dividends in the form of windfall peaches, tomato seeds and skins, and shucks and cobs from the first dozen ears of the summer.

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