Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘preparing for winter’

Monday, September 2:

   We have been praying for rain for days, and now the first drops are making dark spots on the stones of the walk and rattling on the red metal roof of the summer kitchen.

   The summer kitchen has seen much activity in the last week or so, with dozens of quarts of tomatoes being processed, jam made, and lard rendered.  In addition, onions and garlic are drying there, the garlic loosely tied in bundles and hung on the pegs of a market stand, the onions on racks of lumber and hardware cloth, propped up off the floor, with a fan keeping the air — heavy and humid for weeks now — circulating underneath.  Canning is so pleasant there, cooler than in the kitchen and with no penalty for spills:  when the day is done we swill the concrete floor with a bucket of water and sweep it down the floor drain.

Read Full Post »

Saturday, March 2:

We took Poppy back up to the monastery after her pregnancy check, and shifted the young animals around to the west side of the soccer field.  They are making good use of the stockpiled forage and their condition is much better than that of the milk cows, who are on hay, demonstrating the superior food value of standing fodder.  Grass that is cut, cured, baled, and moved (several times) cannot compare with mature grass that has been frost-cured standing in the field.  In the cutting there is loss of nutrients; in curing, there is further loss every time the grass is wet and dried again, as with heavy dew or rain; in baling there is much shattering of leaf and resultant reduction of food value, and the tight packing of hay in bales encourages mold and consequent loss of quality; more leaf is lost every time the hay is moved.  Seeing the difference in condition of our various animals brings home these facts in a way that merely reading or hearing them cannot.

This is wet season, the late winter winding down into early spring, longer days loosening the hold of the frost in the earth.  The barnyard is a sea of mud and muck in which you may lose a boot if you don’t take care.  Rain and snow make a pond in every hoof mark, all running together and running over and seeping in where not wanted, under the door of the dairy, under the wall of the lounging stall, into the holes in old chore boots.  This is the time to visit a farm if you want never, never to be tempted to live on one.  The compost bins, sodden with a winter of snow and sleet, full of stall sweepings and undigested orange peel and coffee grounds, bleed peaty brown water with a sour smell.  Where the winter cabbages were abandoned to the snow when we took their covers to protect a row of carrots, now rot sodden, limp bouquets of bleached cabbage leaves, answering unequivocally the question we asked when we chose to leave them in the garden, rather than feeding them in December to the pigs:  are cabbages winter-hardy on this stretch of the Beautiful river?  The perennial borders hang in dejected clumps of black sage leaves and leafless catmint and only the hopeful or inquisitive can find the blunt tips of daffodils pushing aside clumps of frost-heaved mould.

The stores of plant food, for animals and for humans, are growing thin.  In the basement the rows of full jars which weighed down the shelves in November — tomato sauce and salsa, green beans, sauerkraut,  jams, chicken, pickles — are giving way to rows of jars upside down, clean and empty, awaiting next summer for fulfillment.  The root cellar holds only seed potatoes now, and for the first time in several years we are reduced to buying potatoes; we plan an even larger potato patch and vow it will never happen again.  In the cave the last of the winter squash and pumpkins are breaking out in spots like a rash; we will eat what we can before they spoil, and feed the rest to the pigs. Braids of garlic festoon the kitchen and storage room, but the there are no more onions.  God willing, this year five hundred row feet of copras and yellow Spanish onions, assiduously weeded, should yield the three hundred pounds of onions we eat in a year.  Even in the freezer, where there are still ample quantities of sliced pie apples, you must dig for the frozen corn and okra and bell peppers which are growing scarce.  Of meat, however, there is a generous plenty, and the garden tunnels are still full of carrots and salad greens.

Read Full Post »

Friday, October 12:

Two frosts blackened the pumpkin vines and late green beans up at the monastery before we felt a frost in the hollow.  It was a light one, just brushing the top leaves of the trellised zucchetta and those winter squash vines which were laid out in the open.  Under the peach trees the rampant butternut and Long Island Cheese squash are still green and vigorous, and we are reluctant to cut the fruits while the stems are not dry.

Most of the bean plants have been pulled and fed to the pigs, the best-fed animals on the farm at this time of the year.  Now and for some time to come they will feast daily on plants pulled from the gardens, on frost-burned squash, limp tomato plants and green tomatoes, and unripe watermelons.  When these are gone there will be sugar beets and turnips, and those late cabbages we don’t need for the table.  For protein there are milk, buttermilk, and whey in plenty, now that the three fall steers are weaned.  And the proprieter of the late steers, S-5, who has been raising them for sale, is happy now to be in a warm bed at six a.m., not carrying buckets of milk to the stalls in the calf barn.

Every day work is done to finish the summer season and ready us for winter, and still the list of jobs on the black board that covers one wall in the kitchen gets no shorter.  What cannot wait takes precedence over what can, or what must.  Two or three bushels of apples have ripened on the porch which need to be peeled, sliced, and frozen, but these are less apt to spoil than the buckets of green peppers we are cutting – chop, slice, and chunk – to put up in the freezer.  The need to sow a last bed of spinach is urgent, but so is our urgency to get those chickens no longer laying out of the chicken house before cold weather makes butchering out-of-doors too difficult.  There are sandbags to make – these hold down the plastic of our tunnels, low and high – hoops and stakes to manufacture – and still every day people have to eat – at least three times – and wear clean(ish) clothes, and no one can rest well in a very messy house.

Culling laying hens for non-layers is not a straightforward job.  Combs – full and red or dry and withered? – legs, yellow or bleached — vents full or puckered, and so on.  The pubic bones should be at least two fingers’ width apart, but whose fingers?  Mine are thickened with years of pottery and farmwork, and Shawn’s are massive, like sausages.   We keep the hens shut up in the hen house on butchering days until we can examine all the older birds, hoping to find clear and unmistakable signs of their state of lay, but most leave us feeling ambiguous, and we carry a crate of Rhode Island Reds up the hill with doubt in our hearts.  The first six we butchered, we are grateful to note, were egg-less, but another dozen and a half are scheduled for dissolution to lessen the burden of providing feed for them and to make room in the hen house for the fall flock of layers.

Orion climbs over the eastern horizon about midnight now, but we are seldom awake at that hour to see him.

Read Full Post »

Tuesday, September 25:

The last three nights have been cold, not frosty but in the forties, and the zinnias which burned all summer with the intense pinks and oranges of cactus flowers or those enormous crepe paper blooms they sell in Mexican marketplaces look stiff now, dull and scorched with the cold.  The Beautiful river reflects the sky in infinite shades of blue, here laid down with palette knife, there dotted in with the tip of a brush.

Leafless tomato vines hung until today with the uncomfortable knotted boniness of skeletons from the stakes in the big garden; this afternoon, to cure a fit of discontent brought on by intractable chickens, we cleaned out that garden.  Vines were yanked and piled in wheel barrows, stakes were sorted and stacked against the fence:  whole ones, broken ones to mark the ends of rows, and rotten ones for the bonfire pit.  The fall cabbage was weeded and hoed, the carrots picked over painstakingly for tiny young purslane and gallinsoga – so hard to pull without disturbing the baby carrot roots – and the okra that will soon succumb to some unknown nematode was stripped of every pod, however small.  The piled weeds and waste were carted around to the pig pen and thrown in for the pigs to eat.  They did so, fastidiously, like a diner nibbling a sprig of parsley.

The chickens defy – at present – our attempts to cull them for non-layers.  Some years this culling is a simple matter, a perfunctory glance at vent, wattles, and pelvis telling us all we need to know about a hen’s present state of lay; not so lately.  The examination is performed as we turn the birds out of the hen house in the morning.  The Sussex and Australorps are all too young for the hatchet and are turned out at once with a can of cracked corn scattered over the bare ground for their breakfast; then it is the turn of the Rhode Island Reds.

They are hungry and mill impatiently around the chicken house complaining.  We catch them one by one, beginning with those whose pale yellow legs and thick red combs indicate that they are in lay; but when we examine eyelids for a bleached appearance, vents for a similar lack of color and a wide, wet, generous appearance, we are stumped.  Of the eighteen Reds, counted off by tally marks chalked on the side of the laying box, only four show consistent signs of their state of lay.  These are, or should be, the slackers, those hens marked by destiny to make chicken pie for tonight’s dinner, but are they?  The other chickens have us confused, uncertain; they show some of the attributes of hens presently laying, and some of the dry hen.  If their skin is bleached, indicating that the yellow pigments in their bodies are being deposited in the yolks of the eggs we so badly want them to be laying, then their pelvis, instead of being loose and three fingers wide is stiff and tight, scarcely admitting the width of two fingers.  If they have the thick yellow legs of a non-layer then their vents are wet and smooth like those of a hen in lay.  So we suspend the jury until tomorrow, hoping that somehow by then they will have settled into something more consistent.

We hate cutting a hen open and finding eggs inside.

There have been none too many eggs on the place this summer as it is; with forty mature birds we should expect at least twenty or more eggs a day, rather than the measly dozen, or ten, or seven, we have been seeing lately.  And yet we started off the summer so well, the baskets coming up with almost three dozen eggs every day, and like wise virgins we kept them by us, filling cardboard egg cartons with dozens and dozens, fifteen or eighteen dozen at a time, selling none, knowing the day was not far off when the superabundance would be a dearth and nothing would compensate us for the lack of those eggs.  And the dearth came, and now we are sometimes even reduced to the humiliation of buying pale, flaccid store eggs so there are enough eggs for baking.

We killed a snake by the pond today.  S-4 took off its head, suspiciously triangular, with an eye-hoe, leaving the writhing orange-and-brown mottled body where the pastured pigs whose paddock we were setting up could eat it.  I guess they did, but we took the head away and prized open the hard grim mouth with a stick and couldn’t assure ourselves it had fangs, as we have done in the past to make sure the snake was a copperhead.  It hurts us to kill a non-venomous snake; we are fans of the snake in general, but this farm is home to lots of children and we take no chances.

Moral:  if you aren’t dangerous, try not to look as though you are.

Read Full Post »

Wednesday, September 5:

The young cabbages are set out and watered with the hose off the creek.  Constantly running water – free, and not drawn off the aquifer – is a blessing we feel every day.  Eight dozen cabbages and seven hundred row-feet of carrots, mostly Napolis, need lots of water, every day even, water we could not give them from the house well even if we wanted to burn electricity to do it.  We are properly grateful.   In October we will cover the winter vegetables with low hoops and row cover; in November, or December if the cold holds off, we will cover them again with high hoops of welded wire and six-mil poly twenty feet wide, making a high tunnel about five and a half feet tall and almost ten feet wide.

That’s a big tunnel, much bigger than last year’s, and we hope it works.  In a high wind it could be a disaster.

The big pile of waste wood at the foot of the hill, in the curve of North creek we call “the bonfire pit”, has been reduced to a thin layer of cinders edged by a few half-burned lengths of two-by-four.  It went up in flames thirty feet high, lighting the whole valley with tongues that tore loose from the parent fire and expired in showers of sparks.  The alchemists of the Middle Ages who classified all matter as either Earth, Air, Water, or Fire, can’t have been too far wrong;  at the Sow’s Ear fire is employed almost as often as the other three, multiple times a day.  In the kitchen, of course; and under the fifteen-gallon brass kettle out back where we cook swill for the pigs and chickens.  In the oil lanterns we carry down to light the way when we close up the ducks and chickens, and in candle lanterns on the porch for prayers.  In the grill to sear the good red meat that, with potatoes and fresh vegetables, refuels us after a day of hard work.  In the rock oven by the creek for hot dogs and marshmallows; and, as last night, for joy, and to clear the farm of those things, comparatively few, which cannot be recycled and for which we can no longer find a good use.

Read Full Post »

Sunday, January 22:

Shawn’s business trip meant some of us could go along for two days of luxury – no farm chores, and an indoor pool.  The older boys stayed home to milk and do their own cooking – bacon and eggs for every meal – while S-5 and Mom took the small people to the pool three times a day, and watched movies crowded four across the top of a hotel bed – S-6 occupied a lap. You had to squeeze in close because the audio on the Dell is very quiet.  We all came home with very clean fingernails, and the skin worn off the tips of our toes on the bottom of the pool.  Four inches of new snow smoothed the contours of the south hill pasture, and the pigs had been into the tack room, leaving behind them unmistakable evidence; still, it is very good to be home.  We live so far outside the world of business and hotels and movies that they can be a little disorienting.

With the third steer in the freezer we can stop and assess our hay consumption this winter.  Good rainfall last summer meant that we didn’t have to give the animals hay until November; so far, so good.  Warm weather well into December meant we didn’t dare butcher the two-year-old steers until December and January; not so good.  Those big boys consume a lot of hay, hay we didn’t budget for when we were putting it up in May and July.  We are discussing two strategies to avoid a recurrence of this situation:  one, buying our baby bulls very early in the spring, and butchering them at baby beef stage in November or December; or, two, buying them very late in the fall and overwintering them when they are still tiny and milk-fed.  We’ll let you know.

Read Full Post »

Tuesday, December 13:

   In the Roman calender this day is the feast of Sta. Lucia, an early Christian martyr.  The young Franciscan priest who said mass at seven fifteen was vested in red, and we broke meditation to whisper anticipation of our morning cinnamon rolls, which turned into afternoon ones because the morning was so full.  Normal things, mostly:  laundry and dishes and the daily chore of lighting a fire under the big copper kettle outside and cooking ten gallons of swill for the pigs and chickens.  A trip to the recycle bins, a stop at the library, another to post Christmas cards, and it was almost eleven, and just time enough to roll out the dough, spread it with soft butter, cover that with a thick layer of brown sugar and cinnamon, roll it, slice it, and set it to rise, before the wolves were howling for their lunches. 

   In Europe there is a traditional sweet roll called, we believe, a luciakattern — ? – prepared for the breakfast of this day.  Twenty-some years ago we found a recipe for it, along with a description of the ceremony for its distribution, which includes girls with wreaths of lighted candles on their heads.  Having no girls at the time, we did not have to make up our minds whether to risk burning their hair off, and by the time we had daughters we had already come up with our own traditions.  We are not by nature adventurous about foreign foods, so it was easy to substitute cinnamon rolls for the luciakattern, and we keep the candles on the table, where we can enjoy them without risk to the girls’ coiffures.  Our traditions, festive though we find them, have to fit into the rhythm of seasonal work and the comfort zone of a mother who sees her children taking enough risks to life and limb in the course of our daily farm work without absolutely tempting fate.

   Demands of the university are beginning to wind down and the men were outside for several hours today making room in the big garage for two of the three deep freezers presently lodged in the basement.  Lumber and scrap metal were shifted down the hill, and equipment shoved around.  Electrical bills have been outrageous, and, always slow to respond to stimulous, we are, after hosting furnace/freezer duels in the basement every winter for twenty years, taking advantage of the low temperatures to help ice down the masses of beef and pork we are putting up.  The second of three steers is hanging in Barry’s barn, almost ready to cut and wrap, and if Nature can help freeze it, more power to Her.

   The buck S-4 brought down a week ago is now marinating in a witches’ brew of every spice and sauce in the kitchen, and will go into the dehydrator in small batches over the next few days.  We sorted the winter squash and pumpkins, sadly few because of last summer’s plague of squash bugs, and brought up one that was compromised to cook for dinner.  A single pumpkin, deceptively round and bright orange, was found to be in an advanced stage of decomposition, and the boys launched it off the back of the hill as a sort of wet pinata for the chickens’ pleasure.  Large-scale, long-term food storage requires regular quality checks to prevent spoilage from spreading. 

   The spring tank on the back of the barn is running at a good rate, and the floating thermometer reads just at forty degrees.  S-3 and 4 plumbed the new pig nipple through the back barn wall, only to find that the instructions for theuse of the three-foot length of pipe heater we bought to keep it from freezing warn against flexing the element or wrapping it around the pipe.  As the extension for the nipple is only eight inches long, this leaves us with almost two and a half feet of element we have to find something to do with.  We have had no experience with electric pipe heaters, but are pretty sure that if we don’t use one on the galvanized metal extender it will freeze.  We are also thinking of floating a stock tank de-icer in the spring tank if it looks like freezing in January or February.  The use of these gadgets will be worth the compromise with technology if they help keep running water in the pig pen for the bulk of the winter.

   The moon is past full, standing out brightly against a slate-blue early morning sky and setting two hours after sunrise when no one is looking any more.  At five o’clock this morning it poured over our frosted fields in a silver wash like snow.  Isabel steps painfully over the barnyard where the pocked mud is frozen hard as iron, and we could use a few inches of snow to cushion her footing.  The sliding manger, really just a roofed hay-rack on skis, is pushed around the pasture to ensure even distribution of waste hay and manure; it too will be much easier to move once we have a base layer of snow on the ground.  The hens don’t like snow, and put themselves to bed early in this cold weather; eggs are getting scarcer.  It’s about time to eliminate the remaining three-year-olds, and put up some canned chicken and broth for hot soup on cold days.

   Some chores are full of satisfaction.  The Rube Goldberg chicken house door closer — sixty foot of string through a series of staples and eyebolts, with a  wooden handle at the end on the woodshed — gives a most satisfying thump when you yank it.  This, we consider, is an appropriate application of technology.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »