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. 


Kristen said...

Hi! I found your blog through the EatLocalSWMich Yahoo group, and subscribed. I live halfway between Galesburg and Augusta on a small farm that my family started renting two years ago. We're just getting started, but I love reading about people that already have their farms in motion - and you're doing a lot of the things that I'd like to do eventually, and share some of the same opinions on the state of the world. Thanks for blogging! :)

David Veale said...

Hi Kristen -- glad you like it. Feel free to stop by if you're ever in the neighborhood!