Saturday, November 12, 2011

Local Energy

Whenever we wanted to cook something before, the local coal fired powerplant threw a few extra nuggets on the fire for us.   Out their stack came a few more wisps of mercury to end up in the next fish we eat.  A few more pounds of CO2 wafted in to the atmosphere to keep the polar icecaps melting and the subtropical deserts moving northward into the US.  Or perhaps the Palisades nuclear power plant threw another fuel rod into the reactor for us, and vented a little extra radioactive tritium like they did a few weeks back. (that's how they do their part to encourage mutations and foster evolution)   Our son's chance for a viable future dimmed, just a little. 

We haven't reached cooking perfection, but we're a little closer now.   The 1918 Kalamazoo ("A Kalamazoo, direct to you!") woodstove we rebuilt last winter is now installed and in regular use, with our electric stove soon to go on the craigslist free ads, or perhaps to the local metal recycling bin. 

Our kitchen is now a little warmer in the winter (let's not think about summer temps just yet).  We're also trying to catch up on some hastily prepared cookstove wood, which must be shorter and of lesser diameter than the wood for our regular heating stove.  The stuff we're burning now is a little green yet, as we still haven't quite worked up enough of a reserve.  We're also using corn husks from our field to light most of the fires.

Impressions so far?    Woodstove cooking tends towards the "medium" heat range.   You really have to work to get something hot.  But, on the plus side, things do tend to taste better when cooked at lower temperatures for longer times.  It takes a little more lead time, particularly if I've been negligent in cutting some dry kindling out of scrap wood from the barn.  Starting the fire with green kindling is possible, but takes a few applications of paper or corn husks.  We've been using it for about 6 weeks, so it's starting to feel normal now.   I usually get a fire going first thing in the morning.

Eventually I plan to plumb a water heater into the stove, which has a water jacket on one side of the firebox (essentially a hollow cast iron box for water to circulate through).   That'll give us another way to wean ourselves ever so slightly from the grid.  It also happens that our electric dryer was haphazardly wired through the old electric stove outlet, so getting rid of the electric stove gave us an excuse to stop using the dryer.   It wouldn't take me more than an hour to rewire it, but the default path for now is to leave it be.   We used it very rarely anyway, and find that the clothesline and wood drying rack both work great.

Fall is about over now.   The leaves are off the trees, which now shriek when the wind blows like it's doing this evening.   I miss the colors, but they'll be back again next year.  Just had our first snow this week, which lasted less than a day.  Snow is beautiful too, especially outside at night under a full moon. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Tell-Tale Calf

 There was just no good way to do it, so I'd been putting it off.  Maintaining one herd on pasture is difficult enough, and I never really designed our farm to maintain separate herds.  We have four calves, aged 3 to 13 months, and they were all actively nursing as a result.  9 weeks is the standard weaning age.  On the plus side, everyone is fat and happy, but on the downside... we were averaging just over a gallon of milk per cow each day.   Some of that is the fact that we're feeding only grass (that's about a 40% drop compared to the usual grain diet), part of it is the fact that we milk once a day (about a 20% drop) as well.   But the four biggest problems with our production were merrily bouncing and jiggling around the pasture betweeen frothy mouthfuls of milk.

Even though we sequestered the calves at night, we weren't getting half of our cows' production.   Some of the cows were better than others, but a few of them would hold back their milk.   Their teats would go dry while the udder was still bulgingly full.    Hmmmmmm...

With our ever-growing herdshare requirements, something had to give, so one morning I shooed the cows back out of the barn after milking and moved the calves to a newly fenced off part of our yard.  The mooing ensued.  Momma cows were angry.   Kids were angry.   I just felt like a jerk.

The bellowing followed me back into the house when I sat down for my other job (the one that actually makes money).   Despite the heat, I had to close the windows.   The bellowing came through the walls -- a constant reminder of my cruel and abusive actions.  It really didn't stop until about the third day.  I'm sure the neighbors loved it even more than I did.


The new combine worked beautifully on our oats, which we forked from the hay wagon into the combine, essentially just using it as a threshing unit.   We discovered, however, that the hull-less oats have small hairs around the seed which the fan on the combine sprays all over.   Think itchy fiberglass-dust.   Even after putting everything through the wash, we could all tell when we put on the same clothes we were wearing on threshing day.

Though this is still a small-scale operation, it's much bigger than most anything we've done before.    "Real" farmers use massive propane or natural gas grain dryers to get their grain down to a suitable moisture content for storage.   In our case, I had to cycle it through the oven in small batches, which took nearly a week.   Not sure how they did it before the advent of grain dryers.   Corn is easy -- just put it in the corn crib while it's still on the ear, but with oats.....?   Maybe leaving it in the shocks a while longer was the trick.

Earlier in my life, I joked about writing a "cookbook" which would contain only meals that could be prepared and consumed in under 5 minutes.   I didn't see a whole lot of point in spending time on anything related to food.   Food was fuel, and who would want their life to revolve around gas stations? 

Now every day of my life is devoted to food in one way or another.  This is exactly what our ancestors have done for centuries, though most of us born in the 20th century have been lead to believe that it's below our dignity to grow or process our own food in the age of machinery and cheap labor from illegal immigrants.  I think that this is what people should be doing instead of looking in vain for some sort of fulfillment from watching TV, or having a "hobby".  I think we're all programmed to focus on food, whether we realize it or not.  I think it's why fishing and hunting are so popular.  While I was growing up, my stepmother would use up her vacation time by picking berries.   At the time I thought she was wasting her precious vacation.   Now I think she's on to something.

Our khaki-campbell duck, quack-quack, went broody this summer and stayed with a clutch of eggs for several weeks until she finally hatched two of them.   Rachel summoned us all to the barnyard when she took both of them down to the puddle for their first swim, which was really neat to see.   Peeper (the ducks' father) was swimming in the puddle as well, and immediately ran over to the chicks and tried to kill both of them as we watched in horror.  He suceeded with one before we could intervene, but we managed to save the second.   Animals don't always see the world as we do, I suppose.


I've felt a bit frustrated as of late with my own inability to ditch my pickup truck for good.  I know full well that we're teetering on the edge of human extinction if we haven't already committed ourselves to it.   I also know that most of the gasoline I'm burning here in Michigan is probably coming from tar-sands, making it *extremely* carbon intensive and damaging -- much more so than the gasoline from conventional oil that was running my car just a few short years ago.   Reading articles like this makes me all the more determined to do something, but then I start to think about trying to haul lumber home, or feed, or fencing, or....

The truth is that 99.9% of my ancestors had none of these "needs" that I claim to have.   I really shouldn't have them either, but I doubt that I could live like my ancestors in the society that we've built for ourselves.   There's no doubt about it -- our lives in most countries are fully dependent on fossil fuels in hundreds of different ways.  Choosing the low carbon option at this point -- as we should -- will mean the death of *billions* of people on this planet.   The other option -- and the one which we look to be following -- will mean the death of all 7 billion of us along with most other life on the planet.  We don't have good choices at this late stage in the game. 

Next time you're wondering why no politician is capable of doing anything substantial to combat global warming, just ask yourself how long you think they would live if they actually did do something substantial, such as phasing out all fossil fuel use over the next year or two.  They'd be hanging from a light pole in a matter of minutes, I suspect.  This sort of change has to come from the grass roots, or it will never come at all. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Learning Curve

Our first and second cuttings of hay are all safely in the barn now. Both cuttings were made with a clear 5 day forecast which changed to include rain a day after the hay was down. In both cases we just managed to squeak through and avoid the thunderstorms that make up most of our rain at this time of year.  Perhaps it's a good lesson in humility for me, as there's really nothing you can do if your hay gets rained on.  On the other hand, it has lead to a serious case of OCD as I fight the urge to check the latest radar animations every few minutes.

The first cutting was 100% horse powered. The second cutting was about 50% in the barn when the hay loader suffered a mechanical problem that I wasn't sure I would be able to fix, so we opted to finish with the assistance of our great neighbors, Stan and Sharon, and their baler. When the equipment you use hasn't been manufactured for 70 years, you can't just run down to the local tractor supply and find replacement parts. 
The new 1951 Allis Chalmers "All-Crop" 60 combine -- yet another Craigslist find

I'm still learning a lot about growing small grains. The oats we planted earlier this year did well, but the weeds grew worse and worse as harvest time approached. I ended up purchasing an All-Crop combine, and learned that weeds will make combine harvesting difficult, due to their high water content making a mush in the threshing cylinder.

In Gene Logsdon's excellent Small Scale Grain Raising book, he suggests cutting the oats and windrowing them (as with hay) before harvesting, which allows the oats to ripen while drying out the weeds. I cut and windrowed the oats along with our second cutting of hay last week, so they're ready to be picked up by the hay loader now for manually feeding through the combine. Guess I'll see how that goes.

Yeah -- I know. Combines aren't exactly in line with my low carbon goals. The problem is that there don't seem to be any good low-carbon methods of threshing any significant volume of grain. The Amish in this area typically use a grain binder, and then take the shocks of grain to an old fashioned stationary threshing machine powered by a tractor. Not a bad solution, but I figure if I'm going to use gasoline for one part of the process, I might as well use it for the whole process.  Stationary threshing machines are huge (and all very old), and I'd need another barn just to store it along with the grain binder I would need. I can justify this one on the fact that we purchase grain for our chickens and hogs anyway, and this should be somewhat less carbon intensive due to the fact that I'm doing most of the fieldwork with horses. When the gasoline dries up, I'll be in almost as bad of shape as anyone else, but at least I still have my grain cradle and a bathtub to thresh in!

Our corn was a bit of a challenge this year. Equipment problems delayed the planting, and the local crow and turkey population quickly discovered that each young sprout had a tasty kernel attached to it -- a problem I haven't had with my last two plantings. I ended up re-planting the corn very late (June 5th), and put up a scarecrow. I'm not sure if the scarecrow did any good or not, but the end of the field where I placed it does seem a little less sparse than the other end now. The corn is up about 7', but still has a way go go, with no tassels yet.

Our garden buckwheat patch (with white flowers)
 The small patches of buckwheat we planted at either end of the garden are producing lots of seed now, but the plants are so green and lush that I can't imagine how we'll be able to dry them for threshing. Many of them lodged as well, so might be difficult to harvest.

I think this is the first truly miserable stretch of weather I've experienced since moving to Michigan 3 years ago. Temps have been in the 90's with heat indexes in the low 100's. I'm sweating even before I make it to the barn in the mornings, and am very much looking forward to fall now!  Putting up hay in this kind of weather isn't particularly fun either.  Bam-Bam (our merino ram) wants to get into the cool and bug-free barn so much that he started ramming the doors.  This behavior was bolstered by some initial success before I finally got around to reinforcing them.

Our batch of Freedom Ranger chickens (a meat variety) went exceptionally well this year, with *zero* mortality (except for butchering day -- where we had 100% mortality). We took them to 11 weeks again this year, which makes for quite large birds. We've started another batch of cornish cross birds, which will be our first experience with this breed. Thus far we've lost a half dozen, though that may be a result of the awful heat we're now experiencing. On the plus side, they haven't needed a heat lamp. They'll be going out into the pasture pen here in about a week, so hopefully the mortality is all behind us now.

I’ve been looking ever since we arrived in Michigan. I figured that somewhere on our plowed fields I was sure to find an arrowhead eventually, but no such luck. I finally found one, while hoeing in our garden. It’s a 1” triangle point, a little lopsided but clearly handmade. I see it as a memento, from the last people to live here without trashing the place.  They lasted 10,000 years before we gave them smallpox and shot them.  We're looking as if we'll have the place trashed in 200 short years.  But hey, look what we can do!

Speaking of arrowheads, I've noticed an ever growing contingent of people who have arrived at the same conclusion that I have, that we need to return to a non industrial society.  Our problems arent simply that we produce too much carbon, or that we overfish the oceans, or that we like to raze the rainforest to grow chemically intensive soybeans for our factory farms.   Our problem is that we are an industrial society which is relentlessly spending our environmental capital in a million different ways.  We're driving the oceans to complete extinction with acidification.  We're the primary culprit in the massive extinction event which is now underway before our eyes, and which will likely include ourselves within the next century, unless we manage to alter course.

This is the same idea now embodied in the movie "END:CIV", and in the writings of Derrick Jensen among others.  It sounds ludicrous to many of the boomer generation, who seem to be almost universally convinced  that the cornucopia of technology will solve all problems, but many of the folks in my generation or younger are seeing this as self evident.  It's an idea worth exploring, if for no other reason than the fact that our society's current course is clearly suicidal. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Around the Farm

After work this evening, a storm started to brew outside.  To my dismay, it managed to wrap itself around us and leave us with almost no rain whatsoever, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, and snapped a few photos.  Everything is so lush and green right now, and it looked dramatic against the dark sky with all the trees whipping around in the wind.   Here's our new hand pump, looking out over the barnyard pond (aka Peeper the Duck's romantic puddle o' lovin) and the pastures.

 On the left is our plot of naked oats, on the right is our hay/dandelion field, nearly tall enough to cut already. 
Another spring delight -- one of the many dogwoods scattered around our woods.  Henry took great pleasure in telling grandma (who loves dogwoods) that I cut one of these down to make a mallet.

The barnyard, looking back towards the house.   The oaks are just breaking bud.  The horses are lamenting the fact that I just locked them up to keep them from getting too fat.

Our ladies enjoying the nice tall grass.   All the grazing books talk about letting the grass reach a certain height, and then pulling the animals off once the height has been reduced x number of inches.   Our cows haven't read these books though, and often ignore the tall grass while concentrating on the short grass.  If I had endless free time, I should be mowing the pastures after they're grazed, but that hasn't happened yet this year. 

I thought that this year I would finally be able to keep the grass from getting too tall and going to seed.   Should be easier now that we have a total of eight cows and calves, along with 3 horses and 8 sheep grazing.   Well....   the reality is that the grass jumps by about a foot in height over the course of a week, and much of it is heading out already.   
 On a jaunt through the woods at this time of year we find Jack-in-the-Pulpit growing near one of the marshes on our property.   Neat looking flower!
A terrestrial crayfish burrow.  My grandparents had these living in their front lawn in southern Illinois, miles from any significant body of water.  I would take a piece of bacon on a string and lower it down the hole until I felt the crawdad take hold and try to pull it.  Then ever so slowly, pull it back up in a match of tug-o-war.  I got them up high enough to see, but never high enough to catch before they let go.   If I had more time I'd love to try that again. 

We took a day earlier this month to check out a stream near our house.  Had a beautiful walk through the woods to reach the creek.  Found some musclewood -- a strange tree that has bark looking like muscles on a skinned animal, and a box turtle with red eyes.   The creek meanders through a large meadow ringed by tamarack (which turn a beautiful yellow in the fall before losing their needles), where we saw no people whatsoever.  Henry and I each caught a nice brown trout, though his managed to snap the line just as he was being landed.  

Just before I caught my fish, a 3' northern water snake came floating down the creek, writhing around in the water and landing in the muddy bank right at my feet.   He couldn't see me because the bullhead catfish he'd just caught had its mouth over his nose and eyes.   He eventually managed to get it off and swallow it before continuing back into the creek. 
Back in February while we were boiling maple syrup, I took advantage of the time between attending to the sap and fire by making a ladder to go between the basement and loft of the barn, using only wood from the farm, all mortise & tenon with wedges holding each rung.   Much more aesthetic than the aluminum ladder it replaced, and it doesn't clang and scare the animals anymore when I throw a straw bale down from the loft.
Henry with the pile of wood he split himself.  He worked on this for over an hour on his own initiative.   Quite impressive for a kindergartener!   Next year I'll save him a couple more cords to split.


I keep hearing phrases these days such as "when the economy gets better", or "when gas prices come back down".   I wince a little every time I hear things like this.  People are holding on to investments, or waiting for the job market to improve, or making new business investments that I think are doomed to failure.  I'm not always right about everything, but I'm pretty sure that the economy will not be getting any better over the long term.  Ever.  I also think that's a good thing, so perhaps my own desires are clouding my judgement?    Let me explain...

The economy was we know it today is the economy of an industrial society.  The lifeblood of industry is energy.  The more energy we use, the wealthier we become.   Consider the fact that a ditch-digger from a century ago had a shovel to work with.   That same ditch digger today probably has a backhoe or an excavator, and can easily do the work of 20 people with shovels.   The productivity of this one person is dramatically enhanced.   The same is true of all sorts of industry.  Over the course of the 20th century, home sizes more than doubled or tripled in many cases.   We have so much material wealth that it means nothing to us.   A screwdriver that was once the prized posession of a father from 100 years ago can be purchased for pennies today.   A box of nails was at one time worthy of bequeathing to your relatives in a will, for instance.  People were poor, and we're all going to become poor again.

We're going to return to historical norms of wealth because our energy supplies are running out.   Nonsense you say?   Consider the fact that Mexico, our #3 oil supplier of a few years ago, is projected to have no more oil for export within 3 years.  The oil fields of the north sea are in similar decline, as are the fields in Saudi Arabia and much of the middle east, to say nothing of US oil fields (we peaked 40 years ago). 

Yes, we're finding new sources of oil all the time, but it's just not making up for the amount of oil production we're losing every year.  We've been burning more than we find each year for over 30 years now.  Canada, now our #1 supplier of oil, will simply be unable to meet our demand despite being having reserves "larger than Saudi Arabia", for the simple reason that they don't have enough water to process the tar sands at a rate which would meet our demand.   The kerogen in their sand isn't even really oil, but is rather the precursor to oil that would need to be cooked within the earth's crust to make oil.   They cook it with natural gas coming from wells which have dramatically decreasing EROEI's. 

That says nothing of the horrible environmental impact of strip mining areas the size of whole states and creating rivers of processing effluent.   Nothing could be worse than tar sand oil from an environmental perspective.   It's probably the dumbest thing humans have ever done.  We're like the alcoholic that has been reduced to drinking listerine and is now eyeing a jug of kerosene.  As Dick Cheney liked to say, "The American way of life is not negotiable".  At least not until we end up in the gutter or the morgue, apparently.

As goes the oil, so will go our industrial economy, and so will go our retirement investments, our industry, and our jobs.  Despite increasing demand, oil production has not increased since 2005 (or 2008, depending on what you count as "oil").   As the Shell geologist M. King. Hubbert predicted in the 1950's, we've hit the peak and are headed downhill.

Why is this a good thing?   I think it's good because the industrial economy is killing us.  It doesn't take a genius to see what carbon emissions are doing to the ocean that feeds us and provides our oxygen.  Nor should it take a genius to see that most of our coastal cities will be inundated as the polar icecaps melt.   It shouldn't take a genius to see that the complete loss of our arctic ice-cap (likely to happen this decade) will dramatically change weather patterns (this is already happening).  Peak oil is our best chance at averting human extinction, because it's quite clear that we like our cars and electricity too much to give them up voluntarily. 

While I'm in doomer (or is it optimist?) mode, let's explain the concept of overshoot, and why I think this century will finish with somewhere between 0 and 1 billion humans regardless of how we play our hand.   Before we discovered the wonders of oil, the planet was more or less at capacity in terms of humans, and our population was roughly a billion people depending on the year you pick.  Like a sugar packet being poured into a vat of yeast, oil has become our food, and we've responded just as the yeast would.  We have 10 calories of oil used to create 1 calorie of our food nowadays.  So it's safe to say that 6 of our 7 billion people are now here because of the oil we're consuming.  As the oil disappears, so will most of us.

Only it's not that simple.   In most biological systems, when a massive influx of food results in such a dramatic increase in population, there is a loss of base carrying capacity.   We read about this in the news on a daily basis, whether that's dying coral reefs, depleting topsoil, overfished oceans, Fukushima, or BP's little oopsie in the gulf.  Oil is the crumbling crutch that supports 6 billion people.  When it breaks, our population will most likely drop below the original level of 1 billion as a result of this degredation in our planet's carrying capacity. 

Another pet peeve of mine these days.   People seem to think that the electricity we've grown to like over the last few decades is now a "need" rather than a want.   My local utility likes to talk about meeting our energy "needs" in their monthly newsletter.  What amazes me is that people were able to survive before electricity ran our lives.  The fact is that our "need" for electricity is little more than a want, and it's also suicidal.   We need to stop presenting ourselves with the false choice of "alternative energy" vs. nukes or coal plants.   None of the above is the only answer which might avert human extinction.

This is much like the question of how we'll "feed the world" that Monsanto likes to present.  If we feed the world, we all know what happens, because it's been happening for centuries.   We make more babies, and thus have more to feed.  There is no end to it, until we reach the point of feeding so many people that they destroy the planet with the byproducts of their existence.  Feeding the world is suicide, but we won't voluntarily stop doing it.   The decline energy supplies will do it for us, however.   Famine won't stay cooped up in Asia and Africa much longer.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Working for Fun

I suspect most of my old climbing and skiing buddies back in Washington think I've lost a few marbles after trading my former life of sailing, skiing, and climbing for a new life of manure, teats, weeds, and hay.  I certainly wasn't going to waste my life watching TV and mowing the lawn like so many people I knew, and running a farm seemed just a shade more tolerable than mowing a lawn for the rest of my life.  I would've never wanted to tie myself down with daily milking chores.  Every spare dollar and minute I had was devoted to play.

Something changed for me.  Maybe it was just getting older.  Terrifying Rachel on one especially stormy sailing trip made it tough to take the sailboat (which doubled as our house) out for a weekend.  The arrival of our son Henry added a new hurdle to any trip to the mountains (Are the diapers packed?   Sippy cup?  Oh wait -- it's his nap time now!).  Then there were my nagging doubts that driving 100+ miles to get to the mountains and back wasn't exactly a model of environmental responsibility, particularly in light of new knowledge about ocean acidification and the acceleration of climate change.  Playing on the weekends also seemed to lack a sense of purpose that became increasingly important for me.  Added up together, the reasons began to make my usual "fun" a little less so.  

Around 2004, a friend loaned me a couple of books by Richard Heinberg (The Party's Over and Power Down).  At the time I had pretty much written off any concerns over peak oil.   I was smugly confident in the fact that alternative energy sources would be found, just as my economics classes suggested they would.  Heinberg's books did a good job of shooting down that idea, and made me think that I might want to alter course in preparation for what was coming. 

Another event played a role as well.   My son started bringing home the "disease of the week" from daycare.  A chronic sinus infection set in, and I made repeated trips to the doctor for an antibiotic which would resolve my constant fever and fatigue.  I had a CT scan of my sinuses to see if there was anything requiring surgery.  The CT scan came back with notes of a "possible meningioma", which didn't exactly brighten my mood.  After 9 months I finally found an antibiotic that worked, and a year later I went in for an MRI to settle the question of the brain tumor, which didn't exist after all.  In the elapsed time, I decided that it might be a good idea to take my health a little more seriously, and that meant taking my diet seriously.   I discovered the Weston A. Price foundation, which dramatically changed my views on good food vs. bad food.  

So did I in fact trade a life of fun and adventure for a life of monotony and drudgery?  Not at all!  Well... not most of the time anyway.   The many animals on our farm ensure that there's never a dull moment, and continuously amaze me with their intelligence and affection.  Every day I'm learning something new and interesting about them.  It turns out that even the "drudgery" of forking manure isn't that bad either.   Just this evening, our border collie pup decided to try and catch every cowpie I flung on the manure heap, which turned it into a game for both of us and an unwelcome bath for her.

Working with horses has been a real learning experience, and taking Bobby out in the buggy is a blast as well.  On our last trip this week, we were flagged down by an Amish man who was working on a house nearby.   He was surprised to see a buggy so far away from the usual Amish haunts, and perhaps even more surprised to see that the driver wasn't Amish.  When I explained that the buggy was one of my ideas for dealing with energy scarcity, he agreed that it was a good idea, and lamented the fact that many of the Amish are just as dependent upon fossil fuels now as are their "English" counterparts ("English" is the Amish term for all of us non-Amish).

So what's new on the farm these days?

We've put up a greenhouse alongside the garden, which we're really looking forward to using.   That should extend our growing season by a couple months at the very least, and allow us to produce salad greens year-round now.   It's nothing huge (16x28'), just a hoop house, but should meet our needs for now.

The well we put in last year is all ready for the hand pump, which should be installed here in about a week.  Considering that we typically go through 100 gallons a day for the animals alone, I don't think we'll shut our electric pump down anytime soon, but it will be nice to have a manual option, particularly when the grid goes down in a couple years due to the upcoming solar storms, at which point it will likely stay down

Okay, okay -- chances are that such a storm wouldn't affect the whole US, but it's a possibility.  I wouldn't need electric lights when the grid goes down, 'cause the nearby Palisades and Cook power stations will keep the night sky glowing with their meltdowns.   As this nuclear engineer notes, nukes don't do well without a functional electric grid.  Each nuclear power plant is a bold statement that there will never be another war, terrorism incident, natural disaster, or dumb mistake.   Maybe us humans deserve the fate we've created.   Back to the farm...

The garden is all ready to go;  peas are planted, and potatoes will likely go in tomorrow.   We just planted a half acre of "hull-less" oats, which will be our first experiment with small grains.  My only harvesting equipment is a grain cradle for now.   Chances are we'll be hand-tying the sheaves and threshing with flails.  I keep thinking that an old pull-behind combine like an Allis Chalmers All-Crop would be nice though...

Field corn will be going in here in a couple weeks.   This year I've decided to try Reid's yellow dent instead of the Henry Moore (both open-pollinated varieties), for the sole reason that it will fit the seed plates on my planter better.  It's either that or find a new planter, because my 100 year old Deere & Mansur planter is too old and obscure to find new seed plates for.  Otherwise, I think we'd continue planting the Henry Moore.

While plowing our garden with the horses a few weeks ago, I realized that the left line wasn't responding due to a buckle hooked on the check-rein.   Losing steering is always a bad thing with horses, and this was no exception.  Horses naturally like to freak out.  They took the walking plow for a spin through the orchard (fortunately missing all of the trees) and ended up coming to a stop in the raspberries I'd just wired up.  The only damage was to a couple wires and some raspberry canes, but both of the old leather harnesses had multiple tears. 

I decided that it was probably time for a new set of harnesses anyway, so we're waiting on those at the moment.   The new harnesses use a different design to avoid the problem we encountered, though I'm sure I can still find a different way to screw things up.  But every cloud has a silver lining.   While we're waiting for the new harnesses, we've been super productive while we use the tractor for everything.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Winter Update

Our ewes started lambing a little early this year, with two that popped out the last weekend in January while I was taking a blacksmithing class at Tillers.   Temps dropped to -4F last week.  Though the lambs were under a heat lamp, that's still pretty cold. 

They both developed a cough which we feared was pneumonia (the most common cause of mortality among lambs), but they seem to be holding out alright and don't have a temperature.  One of them is a ram, who I just banded this morning.  "Banding" is the nice term for castrating with a special rubber band.   All things considered, he took it very well.   Better than I would anyway.

The herdshare dairy is doing well, with new customers trickling in as well as existing customers purchasing more shares.  We've purchased our fourth cow, a Jersey we dubbed "Rosie".  She's expected to calve in about a week, which should be just in time.  If we count the calves, hers will put us at 7 cows.   

As a matter of curiosity, I counted the number of teat squeezes it takes to fill our milk bucket. It's about 2,000 squeezes per cow or  roughly 1,000 per gallon.
The cows are going through a lot of hay, which forced us to venture down to the hay auction in Middlebury.  We bought two nice loads which all the cows like (that's been a problem before -- they're *very* picky cows!).

Just as I was leaving the office at the hay auction, I was accosted by the Amish puppy-peddlers who had exactly what I'd been recently contemplating.  Now we have a 9 week old border collie.  "Clover" likes to tinkle a lot, so I've been getting a little less sleep this week while trying to make sure the tinkle action is mostly outside. I'm hoping that someday she'll be able to round up the sheep or cows for us, but for now she's content to terrorize our carpets and barn cats. 

Bobby and I have been getting out pretty regularly, and I decided it was finally time to try a trip into Constantine, the less threatening of our two nearest towns.  The drive there is wonderful -- most of it on gravel roads through a game area, with the balance made up of low-traffic roads through farmland.  We only had about 1/4 mile of "scary" road, where we have to be on the highway to cross a bridge.

The trip to town went well, but it was cold (temps in the teens).   I tied Bobby up to a tree at the boat launch, and then ventured across the street to a cafe for lunch and warmth.  I kept a nervous eye on him, as Bobby has managed to loosen his lead rope and escape when tied up before, but he behaved well this time.  A little girl convinced her mother to stop the car so they could get out and pet him.

As we turned back onto the highway for the trip home, I took the left lane over the highway bridge, knowing that I would have to turn left shortly after we crossed.  Bobby doesn't like semi trucks, btw.  One truck came up on our right and slowly passed us.  Then another line of trucks came at us in the opposite lane.   Bobby started galloping through his own personal hell, despite me pulling the lines back as far as they would go.  I unclenched my bladder muscles and thanked him for staying in his lane as we turned off of the highway and slowed back down to a trot. 

They say sailing is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror.  Driving a buggy is a lot like sailing.

Rachel has been taking advantage of the recent snowfall (which looks as if it will be melting this week, unfortunately) on her x-c skis, with me tagging along when I finish my morning chores early enough.  Bilbo the sausage-dog goes along too, but has managed to maintain his portly physique despite the new exercise regimen. 

Henry and I took some time this last weekend to check out the local ski area -- a whopping 10 minutes from our house, with a dramatic 225' of vertical.  He became master of the rope-tow, and by the end of the day was already making parallel turns. 

In case you hadn't noticed, Mother nature is starting to swing her axe, solving the problems we refuse to face with her somewhat unpleasant methods.  In the last 12 months, we've seen major climate related crop failures on nearly every continent but Antarctica, which suffered a 100% crop loss.  Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan, China, Brazil, Australia, and now Mexico have all seen significant losses.  The current political turmoil in Egypt is in many ways a result of these crop failures, as they're the world's largest wheat importer.  They also lost the ability to export oil (and pay for their food) last year.  Jeff Rubin, former chief economist at CIBC bank in Canada, has an excellent article that spells it out.  Mubarak was the least of their problems.  James Kunstler penned a fantastic blog on Egypt as well.  The first paragraph alone is an absolute gem!

It's only a matter of time before this hits the US, and will likely collapse our questionable dollar which is already burdened by our massive debt and the need to import 2/3 of our fuel.  Do you think the already strained electrical grid will remain running if that happens?  Could you still get clean water if the grid collapses and fuel becomes unavailable?  Food?  Heat?  For most of us, the answer is no, and the results will not be pleasant.  Our fully automated society isn't as resilient as it was even 50 years ago.  Now is a good time to cover your bases, because you won't be able to do it afterwards. 

On the plus side, a collapse of industrial society is our best chance throw a monkey wrench into the processes that the climate models are warning of.  Business as usual will otherwise raise us by 4 degrees C by mid century - which the geological record suggests will drive all large mammals (like us) to extinction.  Isn't it nice to know that us humans are smart enough to avoid such a terrible mistake?