Sunday, July 23, 2017

Putting the Farmer Back in The Market

I cannot grow everything I eat, and since I do a lot of canning, I have to buy extra tomatoes, green peppers, and, some years, cucumbers. We usually get our own produce at a farmer's market. It can be  great bargain; I've snagged 25 lb. boxes of locally grown canning tomatoes for as little as $10, as the markets wind down.

Though you'd not think it from the crowded Saturdays around here, there's been some discussion at major newspapers that these are in decline nationally, and that bothers me for many reasons.

First, eating well should be more than a "lifestyle choice," as the author of the piece to which I've linked noted, when talking about the younger customers visiting the DuPont Circle market in DC. I don't want the less affluent to have to settle for less than the pouty fusspots who insist on nary a single worm-hole in their arugula.

Second, the "lifestyle" may not have a lot to do with cooking food.

The DuPont Market is a bustling place, but according to some of the vendors, the younger visitors seem more interested in the scene than in supporting local agriculture. They tend to buy prepared foods more than farmer-grown produce. That would be fine if the farmers could make a living; many are saying it's getting tougher. gives many reasons for the decline.

Granted, I do see Millennials eating out, a lot, and I don't know too many of my students who cook, though I'm sure they are out there. I only really began to learn to cook in my last year of college, and my Middle-Eastern sauces in the 1980s were nowhere near as good as what I cooked all day long today, using my own tomatoes plus some farmers' market peppers.

It's more critical than ever for all of us to support local food, and I'm not sure the best venue is that artisanal and hip restaurant that buys up all the locality's micro-greens.  If you want to really know about your food, find the growers and then prepare the results yourself.

At the farmer's market you should chat with producers. Make sure, too, that they grew what they sell; resellers are getting more and more common, and it's something I don't like one bit. It dilutes the entire premise of a grower's market.  I'd argue that if a farmer cannot fill the table with fresh produce, then add prepared foods, dried herbs, jams and jellies. But make it all yourself.

It's now a question I ask at the market.  If I want to patronize a reseller, there's a nice old guy who runs a fruit stand near my university. The food is well selected and quite fresh. I've been buying melons from him for years.

Finally, the best way to appreciate a farmers' market is to learn how to cook.

Cooking is one of those essential skills we all need at some point. I'm no professional chef, but I'm a good cook. I can look into the refrigerator and canning shelves and produce dinner from leftovers. I can follow a recipe as I learn, too. If you claim you cannot cook, go out to the piles of used books at the thrift stores and pull down a copy of something basic, like The Joy of Cooking. Start with something basic, like meatloaf. I'm not kidding; when well prepared and paired with potatoes and a green salad, it's a time-machine to a simpler era.

Learn to can and preserve, too. Our grocery stores stock only three days worth of food. It would not take an Apocalypse to  make a lot of folks very, very hungry fast.  Wouldn't it be nice to have a few weeks' worth of produce in the cupboard, socked away against that next big hurricane or snowstorm?

After reading these articles about farmers' markets, I'm more determined than ever to buy more this year at market. Please join me.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Old School Tools: The Perfect Book for DIY Farmers

Every sharpened a knife with a whetstone? Want to learn how? I've just the book for you.

What a surprise that after 90 minutes of being overwhelmed in Powells Books in Portland, OR, I found Professor Mack Jones' 1945 guide Shopwork on the Farm, just as I was leaving the store. It was like finding The Rosetta Stone. Suddenly, all of these mysterious objects in our shop or barn began to make sense. Professor Jones, at the University of Missouri, would have encountered many landowners and tenant farmers doing things much the way their grandparents had done.

There was a time when most small farms operated nearly as a closed system; the farm was also an amateur mechanic, blacksmith, plumber, and carpenter. At the end of WWII, many rural areas still lacked electricity, so hand tools were the rule and remained that way for a long time. Power tools were expensive, and farmers on small holdings tend to be a thrifty lot. Sadly, with the passing of generations, the coming of cheap big-box-store tools, and the movement off the small farms to large industrial operations, many old-timey skills have faded.  That's why this book is such a treasure to me. I own so many of the tools described, yet for some I had no idea how they might be used.

To any Millennials who want to try rural life, I'd recommend doing a lot of research first. This book would prove an excellent starting place. Nearly everything I have done with a circular saw, a table saw, a power drill, or an electric planer can be done by hand. And simple tools we rely upon, such as an electric bench grinder, can be put safely to many uses I'd not considered before. Jones' advice is well presented and easy to follow. I realized that all these years I've been using a whetstone incorrectly!

He has advice on everything from using an anvil properly to heating and bending metal in a hand-pumped forge; these are skills I will be putting to the test in the next year when I next shape metal.

While you may not wish to make your own lead-based paints, there is a recipe if you can find enough white lead for the job.  Forgotten those lessons on tying knots in Scouts? Mack Jones has you all set.
Before you ask: I don't loan books or any form of media, even to the closest friends. You'll have to snag your own copy cheaply, at ABE or at Amazon. If  you live in the country and want to do so as off the grid as possible, or if circumstances force your hand, this book will be worth its weight in gold.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Farewell Robert Pirsig

This post began as a comment at Hemmings Motor News, which announced the passing of the author.  At this distance, I can say with certainty that Robert Pirsig's book had a long-lasting impact on who I am now, though at the time I did not recognize it.

Just the other day, I noticed my lilac-colored copy of Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the other day: when I was the worst aerospace-engineering student ever to attend UVA, the book was required reading for all engineers. It’s the only book I saved from that part of my education, and I reread it once while living abroad.

Funny how Socrates’ dialog with Phaedrus means a lot more to me now than anything Pirsig wrote then, but the name did stick and I got curious about why Phaedrus was so important to Pirsig. In a nutshell, Phaedrus was a punk kid who thought the new technology called “writing” was spiffy, while Socrates derided it as a block to really remembering things. It was an early warning against the cheapened, the simulated, the virtual.

What did Pirsig teach me that I most recall? The story of climbing a mountain with his son. The boy only wanted to summit, while the author was content with enjoying the journey and knowing when to turn back. I’ve lived by that philosophy ever since, as well as the need–a nearly glandular one–to avoid Interstates and mass culture when I travel. Blue Highways, by Least-Heat Moon, did me in for all that, permanently. I read it not long after Pirsig’s book.

As for motorcycles? They still terrify me and I’ll never ride one. As for books? I am a colleague of Matthew Crawford’s wife, which is NOT why I recommend Shop Class as Soulcraft for a better take on this topic for gearheads or beatnik-farmers like me.

So farewell Robert Pirsig, and thank you for helping me along my crooked and continuing journey away from the boring and banal.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Shaving Bench & Hand Tools

I did not know who L.P. Hartley was until I searched for the famous dictum "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Hartley wrote a number of books, some very well received; his obscurity now makes a writer pause and think "why bother?"

But why bother at anything? In 100 years, anyone old enough to read this post will, at best, be a half-recalled series of stories told by descendants and an inscription on a stone, somewhere.

Now that I have depressed you thoroughly, let's hop into a time machine and cheer ourselves up a bit. It's one way I find solace as I face, as we all do, the final erasure of ourselves and our accomplishments. I'll use Rod Taylor's gizmo from the George Pal film; I think it best captures the intentions of H.G. Wells. I look forward to teaching the novel in my course on Science Fiction and Fantasy, this Fall. It puts human vanity into perspective.

So did William Faulkner, when he claimed that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I feel that way whenever I visit Colonial Williamsburg. It always gives me a strange hope that whatever our species does in the near future, short of nuclear catastrophe an interesting and more sustainable life for our descendants will be possible.  I am beginning to regard the Past as a foreign country, but one we can visit.

Beyond Williamsburg's occasional theme-park dissonance, as bored or dumb tourists meet very savvy historical reenactors, I find something precious for the future of our civilization going on: the conservation of old-time skills. I've become increasingly obsessive to learn a few, myself, from scything and baling hay by hand to acquiring more skill with hand-tools. These were skills that most rural residents possessed in living memory. As a Williamburg employee, working on a hand-built sawpit and barn, reminded me, you don't have to go back 200+ years to find the skills he used. In 1950, my late father-in-law built structures using most of the same techniques and many of the same tools.

After a recent visit I decided upon a hot-weather project: building a "shaving bench" or "shaving horse." That's not for shaving oneself or anything equine, but it holds wood for smoothing out with either a hand planer or a "spoke shave." This site shows how one can be made easily in a home shop. It should last a lifetime, unlike many modern power tools.

No, it is not as cool-looking than George Pal's rendition of Wells' time machine, but it serves a similar purpose: adventuring into another era. Whereas The Time Traveler went into the dim and grim future of the human race, then, heartbroken, beyond to the end of the Sun, my Shaving Bench will take me back no more than a century, so I can begin using hand tools for more woodworking. I'm learning to be good with our hand-auger and have long been decent at hand-sawing, but it's a journey to unlearn muscle-memory honed with table or chop saws, drill-presses, and jigsaws. I will use some of these power-tools to fashion the shaving bench, in both the interest of time and in order to conserve materials.

There is a focus all tools engender, simply because you can too easily nip off a finger or worse by not paying attention. Hand tools add something to that focus, because the experience is quiet enough to eliminate hearing protection and, depending on the tool, bulky safety glasses.

At times like that, I realize that as hard as our ancestors worked, the experience was less mediated. The world was a wooden one, as ours largely is, but the experiential distance from tree to board to finished good was much shorter. 

I plan to travel back to that foreign country, increasingly.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Apple-Tree Pruning

I am rather astounded that so far in Tractorpunk I have not said a word about apple trees. Perhaps it was humility; a few years and two classes later, I am only starting to understand the principles of managing a few trees.  My trees all looked like the mess shown above, at first.

The rewards of good pruning are immense; there are few locally grown foods with more lore, and more taste, than a good apple.  I began my quest to raise apples with a few varieties purchased from Albemarle Cider Works south of Charlottesville; we planted three trees in a fenced area near three very neglected older trees, intending to bring them all into production. Earlier we'd put two more in a very wild location, a seldom-visited meadow in Buckingham County, where I once saw a mama bear and her three cubs dining on the fruit from a pear tree. At least we'd feed the bears there.

Over the past few years I have attended two pruning workshops. I've learned that must be patient with apple trees, and some pruning must be done annually and carefully. In time apples can be harvested every year, even with the organic methods I currently use. I may eventually resort to one spraying of the fungicide Captan, after bloom and pollen-collection, each year. Otherwise I will just fertilize and maintain the trees.  Our climate in Central VA is changing, whatever some politicians ignorantly claim, in ways that may not permit apple-growing in a decade or so. In the mean time, I'll see what happens.

This time of year, the earliest part of Spring, is best for pruning. Much of what I learned about pruning can be found here, but here are a few other things I have discovered. 

1) Pruning really does help with blight. Our older trees were full of "Shepherd's Crooks" and blackened foliage, indicating Fire Blight. It's hard to eradicate with organic methods, but not impossible.

Last year I pruned all three trees heavily and cleaned up all the debris, then put it in the landfill in a plastic bag. I was told by an orchard manager that burning the trimmings can just make blight-spores go airborne again! Tools have to be clean, so I reach for rubbing alcohol and wipe the blades of pruners and pruning saw frequently, or I make a 1/9 solution of bleach and water and dip the tools frequently in a bucket.

2) Do not fertilize too much. Pruning makes one want to put down fruit-tree fertilizer, but that can be counterproductive. My reading indicates that fertilizing after heavy pruning will produce water-sprouts and lots of foliage growth; such young growth is susceptible to Fire Blight, one of the factors that led me to prune in the first place. Also lots of new leaves in the wrong places block sunlight and air from getting into the center of the tree, something essential for good health.

3) Could a little kid climb your tree? The answer should be "yes." I loved that bit of advice from our extension agent. Here the goal is to make a tree with an open center and not too many branches.

I aim to create a "vase shape" such as in this illustration from Stark Brothers.

While my trees did not get as severe a pruning as shown on the left, I did cut them hard again this  year.  This close-up shows how crossed and cluttered the branches were on a five-year-old tree we planted in Buckingham County and have only pruned one time before:

After pruning this tree, it's probably too long at the ends, but now the tree has room for air circulation and light. Next year I'll step back the main branches to keep them from getting too long; long thin branches often break under the weight of fruit.

4) Apple trees are tough. In the classes I took, the extension agents and apple growers stressed that many novices are terrified of pruning, yet trees can bounce back from poor cuts.

In my case, I am certain not all of my cuts are right, especially high in the trees where I cannot get a close look at the buds. There I use a pole pruner. Where it is safe to climb a pruned tree, I will step up to the first branching of major limbs and inspect, or lean a small ladder against a tree. Mostly I use my Felco #2 pruners or a set of bypass loppers, keeping them sharp always with a few passes from a Bergamo sharpening stone I found at One Scythe Revolution.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Guns, Varmints, and the Farm

Almost no subject divides Americans as much as firearms. I probably use one more often than most civilians I know, mostly for shooting four-legged varmints at close range.

Yet I hesitate to write about guns here; the issue is so fraught with disagreement.

If you live on a farm, the answer to "what gun do I need?" probably does not mean "no gun." I leave that up to you. To me firearms are tools and owning them is not about defending one's property from humans; it means shooting critters. As I've written before here, my state's laws prevent me from "re-homing" varmints caught in my live traps. I do release skunks right where I find them, because shooting them is a nightmare of chemical consequences. Besides, they are cute and seem to enjoy my method of releasing them (itself worth an entire post). The same goes for the rare squirrel I catch; the hawks here make them a rarity.

Groundhogs, possums, and raccoons? Not so much. Kaboom.

In writing about shooting, I will not discuss the uses an urbanite or suburbanite might have for a firearm: deterring another human being or, failing that, killing him and not yourself or a family member. All I'll say on that count is "take some basic classes, shoot a lot at a gun range, rent various semi-automatics and revolvers, then pick a weapon with which you feel comfortable, not the coolest-looking or biggest gun. Keep it locked up and near where it can be gotten quickly by the right person." And though I have a conceal-carry license, I have yet to tote around a handgun. I might bag one to go to the range, but conceal-carry is a fine art. One needs to take holster-qualifying and defensive handgun classes. Such training is worth every cent, as your life or another's may depend upon your skills.

There are few classes in good judgement, so I leave that up to you and your inner conversation to resolve.

I also don't have enough recent experience with deer or waterfowl hunting to advise anyone there who might want to bag a buck or be wet and miserable in a duck blind. More on deer next year, as I'm going to haul my WWII era Lee-Enfield .303 up into tree stands and, if lucky, get some venison for our freezer.

For pest animals that can elude even well designed fences to murder your chickens, little ones can be live-trapped and then shot at close range with a .22 LR. I use a simple bolt-action Remington, a single-shot weapon that had been in my wife's family for many years. At 12 feet or so, it's deadly accurate though I swiftly dispatch my "visitor" with a single round to the head and a second round to make sure the creature does not suffer.  Such .22s are not expensive, and they are simple to maintain. Most such bolt-actions are.

Then there are venomous snakes. After my close calls last year, I've decided to open-carry a Taurus Model 85 .38 Special with #6 shot shells. I do not wish to get in garden-hoe range of a big Copperhead again. They can move FAST, so I'd prefer ten feet with the .38.  In the picture below, the shooter apparently had a "near disaster" at 5 feet. I'd, for one, have stood further away and not shot at anything crawling over cement.  Perhaps he posed the dead snake there, but he killed a 5' long Copperhead not unlike the one that nearly bit me.

I'll keep the gun on my hip when mowing fields and when working around brush-piles. The weapon holds 5 shots. One could, with practice, carry a specialized snake-killer of the sort shown here. If you want to save money, however, go for a used .38 revolver. What is called "Gun Culture 2.0" with its love of tactical rifles and high-capacity polymer guns has pushed these older and dead reliable (pardon the pun) steel guns to the side. One only needs a few shots for a snake encounter.

Such a simple weapon can still be upgraded; I'm in the process of zeroing in laser sights integral to the revolver's grips. Such sights are not cheap, and if the batteries die, you had best have trained with the "iron sights" native to your gun. Moreover, do not be a skinflint on a holster. I've no recommendations there, though I like what I read about the traditional leather belt-holsters from Wright Leather works.  There's also a local company right across the river from me, Master's, that makes some nice products. I'll let readers now how they work out.

The only "cool" gun I'll note is the Taurus Judge and Smith and Wesson Governor. These large revolvers shoot .410 shotgun shells or .45 Long Colt rounds. I give a slight edge to the Governor because it also shoots .45 ACP, my favorite handgun caliber for human varmints. You would need a BIG snake for either the Judge or Governor; I'll pass but I'd love to shoot one.

Like these large revolvers, larger critters are beyond my scope(s) but for smaller ones I spot and can safely shoot at a distance, I have used an old Marlin .22 Magnum rifle with a telescopic sight. That round is longer than a .22 LR and packs a bigger punch, especially in a hollowpoint. Just because one chooses to shoot an animal does not mean one should be cruel. Practice until you can be sure of a killing shot, or don't take the shot at all.

Once I saw a rabid raccoon stumbling around in broad daylight. I hit it twice with the .22 Magnum and, in a Zombie-Movie moment, the animal flinched, then turned to stare at me as my wife said "get a bigger gun." My shotgun was far away at the time. Thankfully, the raccoon staggered off to die. I'd not recommend an AR-15 for such work but if you prefer a rifle, some new bolt-actions chamber the AR's .223 high-velocity round. Whatever the weapon, you'll need to zero in your scope well, and nothing I've found works better than a laser bore-sight. It goes in the barrel of an (unloaded!) rifle. The shooter need only adjust windage and elevation of the scope until it lines up with the laser's dot.

I've not spent much time writing about shotguns, though I own a very old Mossberg New Haven 12 gauge pump shotgun that I used for sporting clays as well as goose, deer, and duck hunting thirty years ago. It's reliable and simple, though there's little I need it for these days as I rarely need to shoot anything at range. My chickens and garden would be downrange now when critters appear, which is why I adopted a "trap and shoot" policy. My mantra for shotguns has always been "the simpler the better," and like the Remington .22,  one cannot find a much simpler weapon.  I admit a fondness for double-barrel shotguns. Nothing could be simpler, except throwing a rock.

So how much for a simple Tractorpunk arsenal? For used guns checked out by a competent gunsmith, less than a thousand bucks will buy a long arm, revolver, cleaning supplies, and ammo to equip the rural landowner, not including training and a gun safe.

Then, mindfully, let the lead fly if and when you must.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Before the Heat: Late Winter Chores

Seventy degrees outside. Yep. Today. Convertible top down on my car, I ride into town when I should be skipping school to do some farm work.

In our part of the country, especially as the climate continues to change for the warmer, Spring comes earlier. That means what follows--the hellish heat and humidity of the Mid-Atlantic states--hits sometimes in early June and does not let up until September. People who do not work outside praise the warmth. I dread what it means.

That means I have a LOT to do in February and March. I find myself trimming trees, cutting back vines, cutting down trees, chopping wood for the next winter.  On warmer days I paint things, as long as rain is not about to fall.

Soon the weeds will sprout and last year they choked out some of our kitchen garden, even imperiled our cash crop of Thai Dragon Peppers.  This year I'm going to ready our raised beds early; some are already done. I surface-tilled, weeded, and amended the soil in December, covered it with the thickest weed-block fabric that A.M. Leonard sells, then topped that with a bit of straw for both aesthetics and UV protection. We built new arches for our eagle netting, and the chickens' run has one new gate and another on the way.

Imagine doing all that in July!  My next gig will be to disassemble and repaint our 1952 Ford 8N tractor, a stalwart from our land in Buckingham County that is going into semi-retirement with us, coming out every few weeks to run a bush-hog. Our big Allis Chalmers will take its place on the remote property.

Summer is great in the early morning, dew and all. After 10am, however, I'm done until dusk most days, though when the sun hits the treeline I often get on the tractor to mow for an hour or so. At this time of year, as little as I like the freakishly warm water and what it portends for the next generations, I get out there and work all day long.

Good luck planting and growing this season. It's been a bitter fall for our nation, but there will be change and progress, whatever setbacks we encounter on the way.