Monday, December 23, 2013

Darkening of the Days & Our Little Lights

I'm really fond of a Christmas tradition hearkens back to pre-Christian cultures: the bringing of lights into the home until the sun returns and the days lengthen.

When I was a child, I read about the ancient customs of kindling bonfires and putting lights on trees, in an act of sympathetic magic until the light in the sky increased. For Christians and European pagans alike, that light is the Light of the World, the hope that comes amid darkness. The season of the Winter Solstice must have been both a fearful and hopeful time: the families and animals they brought indoors in the much deeper winters of those times, the sharing of scarce food put up in the harvest months, the act of celebration under many faiths--Jewish, Christian, Pagan--to hold up a few lights in the dark.

That's a time we forget, as we tend to get nostalgic--thank you, Charles Dickens--about the Victorian traditions we trot out with every school play of "A Christmas Carol."

I played Scrooge in 6th grade, incidentally: both my acting debut and finale.

Today, I'm feeling more like Bob Cratchit: Yuletide is more about family and the warmth of the hearth than about fancy gifts and conspicuous consumption.

As our first full year here in the countryside ended ended, we stop where we began: with the annual Christmas-Eve celebration. We have been trimming our trees and putting up lights, late in the season when compared to most folks. As a child I helped with the tree every Christmas Eve; my family lacked spending money but the tree lots offered good bargains the night before Christmas; we'd get a tree that remained, often too tall or too short, then bring it home to decorate before midnight.  It came down barely a week later; in our one room fit for a tree, the same room that our whole-home gas stove occupied, a cut tree dried out fast.

I hated to see the tree go down, but the very brevity of its time in our house made me look forward to its next arrival as much as Santa's. It was part of that suspension of disbelief, combined with a child's belief in magic. Never mind that our single heat source meant Santa would have to squeeze through a metal pipe and into a burning gas stove before entering our house.

A child can believe in such miracles. Perhaps other miracles of a minor variety remain all around us whenever plants germinate or we get a good harvest. It's a miracle when an ancient tractor starts up while my new one gets repairs. It's a miracle to find just the right disc-harrows in the woods, abandoned and overgrown, to pull out and use that very day. It's a miracle to have enough firewood for winter. Thus it's been a good year learning about rural life first-hand and full-time, in spite of a wet summer and the promise of another see-saw winter as Virginia's climate continues to warm.

I hope, as bad things happen in the years to come, we all, individually, hold up a light and share it with others against the darkening of the days. There's been enough rage and hatred. One friend told of a Christmas party at which everyone made a wish. The guests were all wealthy, yet they all, to a person, wished for "abundance." Let me wish differently.

How about "may everyone be free from fear and suffering. May everyone have what they need"?

That's my 2013 Christmas wish. Light your own candle. I suspect that we will kindle a collective fire one day. I'll keep putting up my lights until then, and try not to say "Humbug" too often.

Here's to a Blessed Solstice, a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a Joyous New Year!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Out Go the Lights

It had to happen sooner or later: a reality of country life involves hooking up a generator.

I just wish it had not been a thirty-something day, with very cold rain coming down, for me to bring current back to a dark house. At 6am, the icy power lines must have sagged just so, and the transformer up the road exploded in three large blasts that sounded like a raid by WW II fighter-bombers.

At least we have heat, I thought, considering our well stocked woodpile and warm stove.

Even with surge protectors, once the power begins to flicker, it's time to race around and unplug all the electronics. Then it's time to get some power running through the wires again.  We never planned on an expensive whole-house unit, figuring that well-pump, refrigerator, and lights were first priorities, hot water second. Our generator is a wheeled unit I was push or pull up a slope with some huffing and puffing, and I opted for propane because it can be stored almost indefinitely.

Those without generators need to understand that they can't operate indoors and can't be left uncovered in wet weather. That means 20 minutes to erect a canopy we've used for camping, then tucking the generator under it. After 30 minutes of trial-and-error, and tripping the generator's breaker a few times in the process, I had lights and a working refrigerator. Then I took careful notes about which of our labeled, but not exactly informative, breakers controlled which banks of lights.

Within an hour the power company phoned: the transformer had been replaced. With a little reluctance I shut down the generator and brought the outside world back in.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Before the Next Storm

Ever since climate change began to show its effects locally by ever-warmer winters, we have spells of very warm weather followed by a crash. This year, however, the temperatures have been closer to seasonal normals, and that means we may actually get some snow and ice. We only had a little here last winter, enough to coat the old oak out back.

Right now, in late Autumn, we're seeing the sorts of weather I call "Wimpy Richmond Winter": it snows north and west and we get "sleeze": a mix of winter goop that coats things with a little ice, then turns to rain. While the next storm looks like mostly a rain-maker here, with temperatures just above freezing, hard experience has taught me that one nudge by the system could mean an inch of ice or several inches of snow (I hope I hope!).

That is when I find myself stacking wood on a freakishly 70-degree December day, checking the generator, and watching the sky.

I guess city people do these things. I did keep a woodpile in town, but with Krogers at the end of the street, there was no urgency to stock up. Here, however, we already have enough non-perishable food for a storm and after.

Let's see what the weather brings. It always brings something.

Monday, November 25, 2013

More Wood

It's that time when, I'm happy to say, the weather promises to stay cold for a while. That means the wood-stove gets a constant workout to keep the house warm and the heat-pump off.

In honor of that season, I found Dillon Bustin's lyrics to his song, "More Wood." It's something I'm thankful for, that song, as well as his recording, "Dillon Bustin's Almanac," a call to the land when I was a grad student in Bloomington, Indiana that I never forgot. Bustin's Web site notes that the Almanac, so long unavailable in any format, will soon be released for the first time on CD and as MP3s.

Anyone who heats with wood will understand the sentiments well. "What do you think your saw is for?"

More Wood

in the fall of the year
when you feel the winter near
and the days are clear
it surely isn't good
to sit by the fire
and want to stroke it higher
when you could be cutting more wood
from November to March the winter winds are harsh on the fields and the marsh they're covered up with snow when you trudge to the shed you have to scratch your head because the dad-blamed pile's getting low on

wood (hardwood)
firewood (dry wood)
there's not a stove in the world
that's going to do you any good
with out wood (stovewood)
we could (you should)
be out cutting more wood

when the kindling is dwindling
the bottom logs get soggy
those ricks of sticks and racks and stacks
it makes you wonder where they go
and barnfuls of armfuls
they only last a week or so
and then you'll be hurting for wood

well the sassafras it burns too fast
it starts the fire but never lasts
and swamp oak likes to smoke
you blow it till you think you'll choke
but hickory its just the tree
to remind you of the ecstasy
of having a pile of good wood I said

wood (hardwood)
firewood (dry wood)
there's not a stove in the world
that's going to do you any good
with out wood (stovewood)
we could (you should)
be out cutting more wood

well the Scandia and the Jotul brands
are made so far across the sea
the Fisher kind and Timberline
are made here in the country
with all the rest put to the test
the one I like the very best
is the one my Uncle Wade he made for me

he took an oil drum and welded some
piping from the septic tank
and fore and aft he cut a draft
and then me made a damper crank
with an old broom from the back room
he painted it fire engine red
and said now watch her consume your

wood (hardwood)
firewood (dry wood)
there's not a stove in the world
that's going to do you any good
with out wood (stovewood)
we could (you should)
be out cutting more wood

when the spring rolls around
and I spade the muddy ground
I have often found
I lay my saw away
the shed is empty and yet
you can make a bet
that I'll forget to be cutting more wood

the old-timers say
to split a little every day
and stack it away
to season well but
from March to November
I rarely do remember
December will find me in a rut

without wood (hardwood)
firewood (dry wood)
there's not a stove in the world
that's going to do you any good
without wood (stove wood)
we could (you should)
be out cutting some
throw it in the oil drum
what do you think your saw is for?
you can always use some more wood.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Campaign-Season Row Covers

Virginia's off-year elections have passed (my guys won) but I'm perfectly bipartisan about one thing: stealing as many campaign signs as possible.

I don't so much want the red-and-blue reminders of our partisan divides. They go into the recycling. I do want the metal u-shaped frames from the signs. With the resulting row-crop covers, I can extend my lettuce-picking season far into the cool months.

I'm no Eliot Coleman, who picks lettuce in a New England winter from his cold frames. I have done that here, but this season of moving we did not get the cold frame up in time.

So we'll enjoy lettuce for another few weeks this  year, cabbage and collards longer still. With the groundhogs decimated or hibernating and the raccoons scarce, it's a good harvest a few times each week.

The trick to row covers is to let the sun in on warm days and replace them before dusk. The results are not lovely, but they are tasty.

We'll enjoy some greens come Thanksgiving.  Thanks, Dems and GOP! I love my bipartisan row-covers!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

e.e. cummings and the Log Splitter

At the memorial service for my dear departed friend Steve Gott, I sported a lovely and livid scar just over my left eye. It was so recently acquired that I had to be late for the service to stop the bleeding. It added some levity to explain why I was late. In short: I fought the log, and the log won.

Anything with 27 TONS of downward force deserves respect. Lots, in fact. Not all logs look as docile as the one in my picture.

I recall looking at the log-pile and thinking "these are nice straight ones. I don't need my goggles."

Force of habit made me don them. Just as I was finishing up (when such things tend to happen) a twisted bit of wood caught my eye, literally and figuratively.

I looked it over, fine-grained. It evoked driftwood, not a trip to the emergency room, so I popped it under the splitting maul.

Being hard-headed, again literally and figuratively, I kept the pressure going on the wood as the splitter began to squeal.

Oops. the wood split with an enormous pop, as an errant bit sailed toward my left eye like a planet-destroyer out of the original Star Trek series. Joe played the role of Commodore Decker...

My goggles saved my eye, and the wood skidded up my forehead. Now I'm going to be wearing the forestry helmet too.

Moral of the story? I'll leave that to e.e. cummings:

OSHA told him; he couldn't
believe it
(his sister told him; he
wouldn't believe it)
the Stihl chainsaw company certainly told
him, and his
(yes mam)
and even
(believe it or not) you
told him: i told
him; we told him
(he didn't believe it, no sir)
it took
a corkscrewed bit of
the old fallen oak
tree; in the top of his head to tell

(to wear his damned forestry helmet)

Friday, November 8, 2013

Your Ride's Here: Farewell, Steve Gott

It's the sort of light that breaks your heart, a painter's light. It makes the remaining leaves gold and crimson, but those words are poor substitutes for the colors I mean. You can taste the color, just like the crisp air. The light goes fast at this time of year, so it's best to savor every second.

What a time to leave our world, but my good friend Steve Gott did, tragically, in a motorcycle accident. As we all know, we have no motorist to blame, some dunce who was texting while driving. Steve simply did not respond in time to road conditions. Faced with this twist of fate, I have to say something appropriate at his memorial service. I have tried and tried, as I work out watering a little stand of trees planted in his honor at our rural home.

All I can think of is "Steve, you picked the worst time possible to leave this beautiful world."

I begin writing this at my blog, about my life learning to live in the country as I prepare my retirement as a homesteader, organic farmer, and beekeeper. It's appropriate to write this in such a public venue for two reasons. First, I want it to reach those won't be able to attend the memorial service. Facebook is no place for lengthy reflections, though it has sprouted a touching virtual shrine at Steve's profile page. Second, by drafting these remarks online, others who never met Steve will have a sense of his personality and dedication to live life as he pleased.

Steve was a talented zookeeper, a man who spent a good deal of his professional life protecting creatures that have no voice when humans hunt them or destroy their habitats. I am not as nice a person as Steve. I can think of many who should be gone, instead of Steve. All too often, while the evil, venal, and simply greedy live on, we lose our best.

We may ask “why?” again and again. I don’t think there is a why here, and there rarely is when the good and beloved among us suffer or leave us in the prime of life. I can only quote a minister I know, who spoke at the memorial service for a young man at my university, a boy who died at not even half Steve’s age. At the service, the minister reminded us that “God’s heart was the first to break.”

I know that Steve would call me superstitious if I claimed that our universe contains a creative and loving spirit that suffers when we suffer. Call that God if you wish. That’s what I call it. I think God’s heart broke when Steve left a world he loved so much that he dedicated his time and intellect to becoming a naturalist.

Steve's death leaves a huge hole in our lives and I have no idea how we’ll fill it. Steve would, however, be the first to say “move on.” As I will explain, he did during his years with us. Yet I cannot imagine the suffering of his family and Lisa. Any words I write will be poor medicine for them, but I do think I can celebrate who Steve was and how he remains in my heart.

There’s the first Warren Zevon reference of mine, an oblique one to “Keep Me in Your Heart for a While,” one of the last songs Zevon wrote as he bravely faced the last stages of cancer. Zevon was one of Steve's favorite composers, and he inspired Steve and me in many dark and many humorous moments. The singer-songwriter famously reminded his friend David Letterman to “enjoy every sandwich.” Steve often said that to me. I repeated it a lot in the last week.

But now those of us who loved Steve are, as Zevon wrote “in the house when the house burned down.”

The house burned down. And here we are. How to rebuild it?

Take a cue from how others thought about Steve. Even those who had only met him a few times when he returned to Richmond recall him well. One friend e-mailed me her vivid if brief impression of Steve as “kind, quirky, funny, and ageless.”

Ageless. That’s a hard word to use for someone with whom I wanted to share a crusty and irascible old age. Now I’ll always remember Steve as he was when I last saw him, in the parking lot of MacLean’s on Broad Street, arranging his long hair and pulling on his motorcycle helmet. Yes, just like that. A geeky kid like me who, as an adult, turned into Billy Badass. Now those are words I bet you never get to hear at memorials. Deal with it.

Here's a moment I want to share. When Steve came to campus one day, stepping off his bike in black leathers, then shaking out his long hair, I saw a bunch of co-eds about to swoon. Later, a student of mine, smitten after seeing Steve, asked who that man was who came to lunch with me. “Just my buddy Steve,” I said, basking a little in his aura. On other occasion, for a week I had to wear an eye-patch following some minor procedure. Steve said "trying to be like me, eh?"

I have to say that I am more delighted than jealous at Steve's transformation. Learning to live well was not merely for Steve the best revenge. It was simply living as he wanted to live, not as others would ordain it. My dad once said "that boy has some hair." What he meant was that Steve might not get a good job with all that long hair. Guess what, dad? He did get a great job, and his employer and co-workers will also keep him in their hearts for a long while.

Memorial-service reflections are supposed to include a lot of humor; they are for the living. Dad had a shiny head like mine. We bald dudes think about Steve’s ponytail and can only say, as Zevon once did about a Werewolf, “his hair was perfect.”

So was Steve's heart.

As I have listened to Steve's favorite music for the past week, lyrics to one song keep coming back to me. It is Zevon's "My Ride's Here" and the theme is pretty clear:

I said, "Man, I'd like to stay
But I'm bound for glory
I'm on my way
My ride's here..."

Damn it, Steve, you rode off far to soon. But somewhere down that lonesome and endless road, I’m looking forward to my next sandwich with you.

Friday, October 25, 2013


Our first light frost hit in the wee hours, and yesterday, while I was getting wood for the stove's first burn, I should have also put row-covers on our basil "bushes." They were huge, but today they are frost-bitten and brown. Only a small plot of basil close to the house survived, and I've trimmed basil to dry and covered the rest, for a pesto-finale this weekend.

In the garden, under earlier-laid row covers, lettuce, collards, and cabbage soldier on, free of 7 ground hogs and 3 raccoons (one a rabid animal) who have gone to meet their maker by my hand. I'm not too keen on that last part, but even with excellent fencing, they got in. Welcome to country living.

Next  year, electricity and dogs are in order.

Timing is everything. Had we baited traps earlier or covered the basil, we'd have lost less from what was, admittedly, a good first-year harvest.  The seasons of nature and all the critters under those cerulean skies of Autumn don't wait for homesteaders to check their Facebook profiles and e-mail.

There are consequences to not paying attention. Most of the time, we just don't notice them because technology insulates and numbs us.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Tree of "Heaven"

I'm not a native-species purist. I love my Japanese maples and, for that matter, the basil in our garden. But some intruders are simply intolerable. Chief among them these days is "Tree of Heaven," or Ailanthus altissima. 

While a mature example is a pretty tree, it has many vices. For instance, Ailanthus tends to make the soil around it toxic to other plant life. Such a tree evolved carefully over the eons to compete with other plants. The Wikipedia entry cited notes the tree's many useful properties, but like mint in the herb garden, a little of this tree goes a long way.

And you can't just have a little of Ailanthus. Here is my "after" picture of the little colony shown above.
Left to its own devices, a mature tree can produce up to 325,000 seeds in a single season. The National Park Service's page on the tree has many shocking facts. But around here, I've got a couple of groves of the tree where soil was disturbed over the decades.

Control of this plant is not simple. Cutting simply leads to multiplication, like the Hydra of Greek mythology. Spraying is not efficient for huge groves, and I don't use chemicals in that manner.

Yet here my organic practice bends; we have an invasive species out of control. My technique, gleaned from several sources, involves cutting smaller trees to a height where I can treat the stump with Roundup concentrate, using a paint brush and great care to not get chemicals anywhere else.

This needs doing in late summer/early fall or in the spring. A few large trees will get a half-cut to the trunk that runs 2" deep, so I can treat the trunk with Roundup.  I plan to check my cuttings for sprouts in Spring and re-treat them. I have to wade into some really "snakey" thickets to get to some of the trees, so snake-proof chaps are mandatory gear.

We'll see if we have fewer next year. Luckily, there are not huge groves here, as one sees along I-64. I'm probably dealing with 100 trees...for now.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pancakes at Home: Lessons of a First Summer in the Country

Some years ago, a ladies' garden club invited me to give a talk about shade gardens. The club membership covers an affluent older neighborhood, full of old homes, old shade-trees, and old money. Jags, Benzes, and Volvo SUVs line the driveways of yards kept manicured by yard services.

I put on a nice tie and sport coat, and I even remembered shirt, shoes, and pants.  The meeting was delightful to me, since the appetizers were catered, the wine carefully selected and plentiful,  the ladies lovely and welcoming. Give me a room full of girl-talk anytime, so I don't have to discuss sports, about which I know nothing and care about even less, or find out how little my male companions really know about things I do really love: fast cars, World War II history, the space program, good liquor.

At the club meeting, as the setting sun made us all aglow with our wine and good cheer, I covered the basics of how to work with shady yards, emphasizing native plants, reduction of chemical use, and ways to conserve soil and water in Central Virginia's fickle weather.

I thought I'd knocked my "gig" out of the park, taking questions, drinking in moderation to their success, listening as everyone said it was a great talk.

I was never invited again.

It proved no great personal blow; I forgot about this one-off talk until one day, on the tractor mowing, it came to me: I told these gardeners what they did not wish to hear. They wanted me to recommend non-native species, discuss how to best remove healthy trees that were "in the way," and generally affirm what they already wanted to believe, what they already knew and did.

There on the tractor seat, I saw a fundamental difference between urban and suburban life and life "out here," where the land is Boss, water depends on a well, time moves differently, and the knowledge is acquired, often in harsh ways, never assumed.

So in the spirit of that realization of a fundamental difference between what the country and metropolitan areas teach, here are my lessons from year one in the country.
  • Work with the land or it works you to death: Perhaps the very wealthy can simply hire enough help to tend many rural acres. The Amish, scarce around  here, can lend each other a hand. Unlike the garden-club ladies, however, I can't spray or bulldoze my way to a "better" yard without breaking the bank. The land has a will of its own.  A large plot of land necessitates hard work with machinery, something Michael Pollan discusses well in his early book, Second Nature. Even there, however, it would be easy to ruin the character of land and soil with too much scraping and cutting.

    Old-timers used the first tractors and backhoes and bulldozers to push back the woods to what I call "bowshot range," as if some ancestral memory of Indian raids haunted them. While I do provide the local raptor-birds with a good "kill zone" around our garden and house to cut down on the population of rodents and snakes, I also don't try to make the land into a golf-course or Japanese tea-garden.
  • Local really means local here: Ours is not the meritorious "locovore" movement in town and the DIY ethos of hipsters (I say that with admiration, not irony).  The local businesses here offer limited goods and services rather than boutique goods, but in nine months I've gotten on a first-name basis with my butcher, hardware-store manager, and deli owner (where the food is drop-dead fabulous, he being Lebanese-American like me). I support our tiny post office to keep it open, as do many neighbors. It means a job with benefits for another neighbor. 

    I think one of our biggest adjustments has been "making do or doing without" so we don't have to drive to the suburban hell of Short Pump on a night I want left quiet. If Food Lion only has one type of really good cheese, so be it. I pretend I'm in 1970 at the A&P, and I make do. I do my "town shopping" in clusters to save gas and during  the off hours, when even Short Pump "Towne Center" can be as pleasant an excursion, almost, as loitering in Cary Town.
  • Time slows..and then slows some more: From a county extension agent, I got a booklet about making the transition to rural life. One fact stands out as impressively accurate. Locals don't hurry, and they look down on the "oh, I'm SO busy" attitude of urbanites. One is expected to linger, share news and, more importantly, listen. This will probably erode over time, given the always-online culture of kids here, but who cares? I'll be gone to whatever reward awaits me, by then.
  • Holding your tongue is a good thing: Local Tea-Party activists, mostly older white folks, meet in our deli. They could not be further from me, politically, but they are pleasant and not grumpy. We say hello and I eat my felafel while they bash Obama (rather politely).  In town I'd have fired off a verbal salvo. Not here. I've learned not to talk about religion, politics, or tractor-preferences save with close friends. That is reported to have once been a nice part of American life.
  • Being older has its advantages: I no longer feel the urge to be part of a scene that excludes those my age. That means it's fine to make my own pancakes at home instead of driving 30 minutes just to visit the latest hip place for pancakes that would cost me $10.  And my batter recipe is good enough, when paired with the locally made sausage.
Perhaps I expected real transformation, spiritually and emotionally, out here. Instead, country life means the slow accretion of the "facts on the ground" and a gradual calming of life through acceptance and hard work that builds the body and clears the mind.

Not bad for nine months. If the ladies of the garden club ever ask me back, I'll make that my focus.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Year Without Flowers?

We've noticed something strange this season, the wettest summer I can recall: the land is as green as Ireland was in 2011, my last visit to that side of the Atlantic.  It's lovely in August, but it has also meant we are coping without forage for our bees.

In short, the clover is not blooming and the wildflowers are absent. I don't know if others have had this issue, but we'll be feeding the hives sugar-water all Fall now, since a "nectar flow" looks as unlikely as it would be in a year of drought.

The last of our harvest is coming in, and fall greens are in the ground, even as I cut grass as steadily as I would in early June.  I can only guess what Winter might bring: something seasonably cold and snowy, I hope.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

That Change in the Air

Every year, when the annual cicadas start up their late-July chorus, I begin to grumble that 1) school is about to start and 2) the good weather for working outdoors will be coming, just as I get busy with my day job.

But in 2013, it's been a strange season. I cannot recall a summer when it was actually fun to be painting a metal roof, as I'm now doing in this crisp weather. Soon enough, an old wreck of a building used for painting cars will be reborn as a barn-red paneled gem with a dark green roof.  Getting that building done is worth a summer of labor, but what a summer we have had.

I should have known that an odd summer was coming. It was heralded by the seventeen-year cicadas who emerged with the first really hot weather. While no swarm came closer than a quarter mile from our farm, so we heard only a strange echo of their trilling in the distance, but just five miles west it was deafening, their song that of a squadron of UFOs landing.

Those insects have burrowed down into the earth again, and I'll get to hear them, most likely, once more before I join them underground. Yet their appearance was just the start of the strangeness. For the past several summers, I can't recall letting the garden water itself from the sky or leaving the house windows open nights after, say, mid June.  And yet, in a cool wet summer, punctuated by spells of tropical humidity and heat, the rain barrels went un-tapped and the windows have been left up repeatedly.

What IS this late-September night-breeze, coming through my kitchen window in mid-August?

So we count what good fortune we have. I sold a science-fiction story, my second sale in the past three years. That was magic enough, but then our hilltop garden, a curse in a dry year, is abundant. The tomatoes in Fort Tomato are only now showing signs of excess rainfall: some are splitting, but we've probably gotten out a bushel and a half from a dozen plants.  That means more pots of sauce for winter. I usually can at least two gallons, and I'm almost there with more fruit on the vine.

If I do have to give 3 or so hours weekly to run the tractor to mow the grass in the fields around the garden and in front of the house, it's small payment for such an abundant harvest.  If next summer brings drought and disaster, I'll think back to that cool breeze and the vines  heavy with fruit from 2013.

Monday, July 29, 2013

"Fort Tomato" Nearly Complete, and Just in Time!

Readers may be familiar with an annual tomato-fight in Spain, La Tomatina, held in the Valencian town of Buñol. Spain has lots of tomatoes, as I found out when I lived there for a year, but I'd claim that no one has enough to simply wallow in them. I certainly don't. Each year, depending on our harvest and time, we put up in pint and quart jars between two and four gallons of my Mediterranean tomato sauce, a slow-cooked delight that serves as the the basis for everything from pasta dishes to Lubee (a baroque Lebanese concoction of string beans with lamb).

That means I need a lot of tomatoes. Some years, when the garden is lean or the weather poor, I hit the farmer's markets near closing time; last year I got a twenty-five-pound box of "crooks" for  $10. These are the mishappen tomatoes from the bottom of the vine. My dad was a produce wholesaler who taught me to savor these oddballs from the tomato patch. Their flavor is exqusite.

This  year, we have no shortage of plants or produce, but I'm watchful after two "corn raids" by racoons and earlier incursions by groundhogs. If they finish with the corn, the tomatoes may be next. And that means all-out war.

Note for the non-snarky: that's a plastic Johnny Seven rifle that belonged to my old buddy, the late and legendary Gary Braswell. Before his executor sells his antique toys, I had to pose, just once, with the toy gun every little boy craved in the mid-60s.

Firearms aside, the groundhogs cannot penetrate our new fence, over or under, but raccoons have a little advantage: thumbs.  I've trapped and shot one already, since it's illegal to relocate animals in Virginia. As I write this, I've two traps outside ready for the bandit who gobbled down half our corn last night. I picked the rest, as I wait for the next rows to come in.

Tomorrow "Fort Tomato" will have a finished garden gate. Next year, it will have electric and some dogs to run around 3/4 of it, after I do an outer fence that includes our little apple orchard.

More money, but worth every penny to grow one's own food. Even if the critters get some of it!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Garden Comes In

And it comes in all at once, too.

There's great satisfaction in seeing so much abundance, in a year when the rain has fallen in buckets. Bunny in Buckingham lost his garden, and he blames it on near-daily rains there. We had torrents, but then a dry-enough spell to get the tomatoes to begin ripening.

Tonight Nan is freezing squash and beans, and I'll soon be making gallons of Middle-Eastern tomato sauce by the gallon. It cans easily.  We probably have enough cukes to pickle but last year I put up a lot. So we'll eat cucumber soup and make gazpacho.

The work of building "Fort Tomato" and the groundhog invasion (one most certainly shot dead, another probable, two remaining) seems worth while. The invaders got about 12 ears of corn but more is on the way and the fence and traps seem to be working.

The year has been odd, as so many summers and winters have been since climate change really began to influence Virginia's two seasons of extremes. I'm happy for the cooler and wetter summer, but there will be hell to pay later.

And then there are the tart blackberries, growing wild everywhere, to contrast with a bowl of ice cream. It does not get much better in a Virginia Summer, our first in the country.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Conversation with a Groundhog

Today a groundhog pulled up in a pint-sized BWM sedan. He wore a spiffy suit and carried a little briefcase. Soon I was looking at prison-time in a whistle-pig burrow.

Groundhog: Mishtur Essit? Is that you, sir?

Blogger: Among other things. What can I do for you?

Groundhog: Do? I hopes you don't DO to me what you done did to Lucius T. Groundhog, offspring of Phyllis T. Groundhog. Namely, shot and killed! Twice!

Blogger: You have evidence of this crime against your species? Blogger then mutters under his breath: second shot is always to be certain.

Groundhog, presenting papers: Evidence, you say! Oh Yesh I does! I is a attorney you knows! I gots testy-moany (Phyllis bein' both in a testy mood and moanin' about her dear dead boy) that you done trapped and killed little ol' Lucius, on account of him nosing around a garden you claims as your own!

Blogger: I admit to live-trapping, then shooting and killing a varmint, yes. He did not give a name when confronted.

Groundhog: He was just a pee-wee, and didn't know nuffin' about gardens, 'specially ones that ain't been fully fenced.

Blogger: That's his problem. Human law lets me remove pests, lethally.

Grounghog: That am SO cruel! An' we ain't humans! You could o' sent him to Miami Beach instead!

Blogger, looking for trap and rifle: I asked the kind-hearted administrative assistant at work if SHE wanted him, when she quailed over my planned use of lethal force. No dice.

Groundhog: You ever seen Caddyshack? We demands restitushun! Demands it!

Blogger: That was a gopher, and this ain't no golf course. See you in court, fuzzy-wuzz.

Monday, June 10, 2013

It Takes a "Bunny"

We are overwhelmed, at times, with nearly 100 acres to manage in one county and 11 at our residence. "Poor you," I hear some readers saying, but while such rural land is a blessing, if one plans to use the land for anything but scenery, a great deal of back-straining work must be done regularly and in all weathers. You can see what our land in Buckingham County looked like, from the photo above, in 2001. Today, thanks to a lot of family labor, the house looks very different indeed.

Ironically, I am trying to type with two very sore arms, the results of weeding, setting live-traps for ground hogs, and helping a contractor renovate an out-building into a usable and snake-free garden house and place to extract honey from our bee-hives.

That would never get done without having paid help one can trust. Try dealing with several 80' pine trees that topple in a snowstorm, all by yourself.

No one can do it all, and a first lesson of country life I've learned involves finding and sustaining community.

I read a great deal about sustainability and homesteading, and some on the fringe of these movements veer into what today the popular media call "Preppers," though I still prefer the term "Survivalist." There is nothing wrong with being prepared for natural or man-made troubles, but one curious fact emerges: many of these folks strive for self-sufficiency that seems improbable. If a chain-saw were to break, the game would be over.

Recently in Buckingham County we confronted about five-acres of waist-high grass that needed cutting. Had we time and equipment, we could have rolled hay.

Even with two passes of a rotary cutter, the grass near the house remained daunting. We'd contracted with our neighbor, Bunny, to cut the grass after that weekend, since renovating a city home to sell and maintaining our new homestead (and editing a book at night for publication!) take every second of my free time.

Bunny is the sort of African-American guy who is the anchor of a local community. Everyone within 20 miles of his home knows how capable Bunny is. His name is ironic, of course: he has reportedly rolled a refrigerator onto a blanket, flapped the blanket over the top, grabbed the four corners, and carried the refrigerator up a flight of stairs. He has helped me build a spillway, move huge logs and boulders, and generally keep our sanity as we do so much hard work.

As my wife despaired of the cut-but-still-formidable grass where the tractor would not reach, she heard another motor. Up roared Bunny on a riding mower with a weed-whacker in a cradle alongside it.  No knight of Camelot looked more heroic.

As I learn more about country life, I find that friendships like Bunny's are to be cultivated on their terms. He gives us cabbages and we give him honey from our hives. We pay him and let him hunt on our land, and he phones whenever trees fall or something else happens nearby.

In the City we had great neighbors and always looked out for each other. The terms of community are different in the country, but the rules don't change: it's a quid-pro-pro system and it works well. No one lives alone, isolated, and can get things done well.  It takes not only community and trust, but some anchors like Bunny, who can do nigh anything.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Praise for Owner's Manuals

After being exasperated about the rotary cutter's manual, especially its lack of clarity for a potentially expensive repair unless maintenance is done, I found a gem.

An old, but never used, Marlin 783 rifle with a nice Bushnell scope came my way. It's a varmit gun par excellence, in case Phyllis and her groundhog family manage to get past the Mountains of Mordor...I mean past the ramparts of what I am now calling "Fort Tomato."  Yes, cute as they are, I'll methodically yet with regret kill ever one I see if they begin destroying the garden.

That's another post I hope I'll never write, since for now, the groundhogs are cute and graze on clover.

Meanwhile, owner's manuals. Guns are even more dangerous than mowers, and though I'm familiar with long arms and pistols, I'm still thankful for this gem from the 1975 edition manual's section to load the weapons with "the bullet end toward the muzzle."

Shooters know what that means. Would a novice? Luckily, a handy photo shows a close up of loading the rifle.  Only a dunce--and there are dunces in abundance--would simply ignore the brief bit of advice and put, say, a bullet in backward. Yet I suppose it has happened, so it has spawned both The Darwin Awards and the titanic owner's manuals of our decade.

Such manuals bother me. By the time a reader wades through 20 pages or so of safety instructions, only then can a new piece of equipment be operated. My concern is that most won't read the manuals at all, facing such a daunting task.

I do read them, but then I wonder if I'm at all typical.

In addition to reading the manuals, I do Internet-based research, plus I chat with old-timers, before I begin with a new piece of gear. Thus I'm working on a chain-guard, common on the fronts and rear decks of newer rotary mowers, to add some protection for me when I pull an antique rotary cutter we have. It cuts grass like a master barber clips hair, but it not safe until modified with a chain guard.

There is no need to have one's name added to the Darwin Awards: read your manuals.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Read The Owner's Manual, Or Maybe Not?

Having convinced myself that I damaged the gear box on my rotary mower (machines commonly called by one brand's name, "Bush Hog") I opened the owner's manual.  Yes, I read them, partly to see the illustrations for what can go wrong on the farm.

I've a Frontier 2060 that cost us over $2000 new, and it's the sort of implement that one would expect to give many years of service. I've used these types of mowers for many years, without incident and without doing more than adding gear oil to the gear box or lubing a few grease fittings.

Little did I know, and little did the dealer tell me, that my new mower arrived with a slip clutch. It's a device that has gradually replaced an older technology, a protective bolt designed to shear when the mower hits a stump, big rock, or other obstacle. Lawn mowers have a tiny version of one, and even as a twelve-year-old clueless boy, I helped as a neighbor replace a little one-dollar pin that I broke on a sapling's stump. It's a simple procedure and a logical one. The operator using that sort of mower must sometimes hammer out the old bolt with a punch, but then the mower can be restarted and used.

Slip clutches, conversely, require maintaining, something not explained in my manual but only found online. The farmers at online forums seem to love the things, which can save a tractor or gear-box damage, if the clutch is adjusted and allowed to "slip" a few times a year. Otherwise, it seizes up.

Mine has, and I'm looking at a serious repair. But the antiques again beckon: I've an older rotary mower, with the bolt and not clutch in place. It is as safe to the operator as the new technology, so it will go back into service while the new-fangled one is in the shop.

The new one sure is pretty, but pretty is as pretty does. I may get so angry that I'll sell the new mower!  While old tractors can be dangerous, many old implements are not. Yet dealers do want to sell us new stuff, don't they?

I've got fields to mow, so our little family of groundhogs (Phil ended up being Phyllis, with three offspring) don't grow too brazen about coming near the new garden. Open ground being a farmer's first line of defense, there's cutting to be done.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Garden Journal: Late Planting

I used to keep a "Garden Book" of my observations on paper, and I still may record facts there, but a blog provides an excellent record-keeping device in the form of tagging and fodder in case this project morphs into a book. So here goes for what has been a brand-new garden.

We had to pony up for a cubic yard (about 1500 lbs) to good bedding soil from a local firm specializing in soil, mulch, and gravel. That began but did not end the Kitchen Garden just outside our back door. We fenced with short, green-enameled welded wire, fastened to 4' tall treated posts set in quick-setting cement. That took only a day and the seedlings are now in there.

Yesterday we also seeded the back half of the big garden, really a field, with yellow clover as a soil amendment and as forage for the honey bees. The big garden, 88' by 42', awaits fencing 10' tall and with subterranean barriers for Phil, our groundhog. I don't relish shooting Phil, but the second he gets into the garden, Phil will learn "Rule 303" as quickly as any character in the old film Breaker Morant.  Groundhogs can excavate 700 pounds of earth for a single burrow and dig down a foot, so the old chain-link sections, rolled and buried about the field's perimeter, should keep Phil at bay.

Given our recent move to this land, I did not get my basil and tomatoes germinated on our porch but instead purchased them from firms doing business at Maymont's annual Herbs Galore show. In particular, for my fellow Central Virginians, I recommend Amy's Garden for veggies and A Thyme to Plant for herbs of all sorts. I tend to raise from organic stock or seed, but in the case of tomatoes I went with old favorites among the hybrids suited for a clay soil. Heirlooms have brought tears to me and mortality to my plants, so I  chose Mortgage Lifter, Big Beef, and a Roma variety. In my experience, they have all shown good VFN resistance. The only amendment these plants will need is some calcium spray as they flower and begin to set fruit. This will prevent blossom-end rot.

Tricycle Gardens, a local urban-farming nonprofit that has revitalized empty lots all over the metro area of Richmond, sold me rhubarb.  I love the plant and recall it fondly from my grad-school years in Indiana. In a couple of years, our patch should produce enough for pies and rhubarb divisions for friends.

With a cool and generally wet Spring, I can get away with planting this late. Corn will be sprouted indoors and transplanted to deter crows from picking seeds, and cukes will grow up and over a trellis. Soon the hot weather will arrive. We are lucky for this rain and coolness, even if it delays our gardens.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Pressed into Service: Bring Out the Antiques!

I've read in one of the coffee-table books about old tractors that unlike other collectibles, antique tractors often get pulled out to do useful work. This happens most frequently at planting or harvest time on a large farm.

Our property is modest in size and ambition, but when a broken hydraulic connector on our new tractor put it into the shop, the grass and weeds would not wait for it to return. Thus a 1950 John Deere M, very much in need of TLC scheduled for this summer, got to bask in the glory of a lovely Virginian April. It's a unique machine, having been modified by a local contractor so my father-in-law could step into the saddle after his injury. An M is no easy mount, so I am very thankful for the "back stairs" it now sports.

A big adjustment from city life is the need to stay on top of a large property. To fail at that means a cascading set of failures when it comes time to harvest one's food. With little "critters" eager to get into our new garden if they could be sneak close enough, I wanted a big "kill zone" for hawks and other predators, including snakes, to cut down on our squirrels and mice and voles. I also wanted said snakes at the wood's edge, not near my back door in tall grass. We mostly have non-venomous black snakes, but last year, on open ground and in plain sight, I nearly put my foot down on a Copperhead. Grass too tall only would increase that possibility.

I hold true to my earlier post about tractors: all but the most experienced farmers need a modern machine with safety features to work rough terrain. Luckily for us, only billiard-table flat spots and one gentle slope needed mowing.  The old tractor, despite a seeping oil pan, crazy wiring setup, and leaky carb, did admirably. It's earned a long-overdue servicing and a new set of front tires.

Thus a new homesteader might consider a back-up plan and equipment if one's primary tractor is out of service. An M like the one I'm riding would only set an owner back a few thousand dollars and give many years of service. Now that my new tractor is back, I'll still run the M weekly a bit for light duty. Old farm machines, like older skilled people, seem grateful to be of service.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Plowman's Hunch

 Watch the skies. That sounds like the line from a 1950s flying-saucer film, but it also applies to working the soil.  This late winter in Virginia has been a soaker, and the soil was become a mire where a tractor could sink up to the steering wheel.

Dry spells have been infrequent, so when we had one and our future garden-spot looked right, I hooked an old two-bottom plow found in the woods to my John Deere 3038 utility tractor.  I have plowed exactly one time before, with the Ford 8N mentioned in an earlier post, and I found plowing to be a precise art.  The purpose of a plow is to break new ground, not work in compost, manure, or other organic matter. For those trying to work the land sustainably, plowing is, by definition, something seldom done. But doing it well can make all the difference between a new mud-hole and a new field of dreams.

A plow has very few parts. A cutting edge breaks the soil, followed by the plowshare we all know is beaten out of an old sword, and above the share is the curved moulding board, which turns the sod grass-side down. It's a brilliant invention. In my collection of antique farm implements left out in the woods, I have two plows.

For the new field I chose not a two-bottom without a wheel, but one with a trailing wheel behind and a coulter wheel before, a clever addition that cuts the sod and leaves a knife-edge line on the final cut. I could see how straight my plowing was, and then correct accordingly.

The sod was plowed in 30 minutes. Sounds easy? It was, but if you look at the first photo, the soil is full of hummocks that are far from ideal for planting.

I started thinking about how much a small disc harrow would cost, since they are usually the second step in preparing a field by breaking clods and smoothing the soil. There was not way to take a tiller out there. I follow a minimum-till practice with soil, except when new or when I need to lightly turn some organic matter into the two few inches of soil.  Trudging by our beehives, I saw just what I needed, a large disk harrow buried deep in the forest, but not deep enough that the tractor could not back up and get hitched.

This shows the disc-harrow along with some other implements that got saved. They'll get wire-brushed, primed, and painted in John Deere green in about a month, a yearly ritual for all of my equipment (the Ford gets its gray and red colors, of course).

Before posing this "beauty shot," I went ahead and harrowed the field first, knowing that I'd not have a chance for many days: rain, and maybe snow, were in the forecast. The photo below shows me working with an implement that really pressed the 3038, even in 4WD, to its limit. I went slowly and listened to the motor.

We have a really large tractor available, a 2155 diesel, but it's hooked to a large rotary cutter for other work. I already had the disks on the smaller tractor, so this fool rushed in.

The old fencing on the ground, taken down from our apple orchard, will soon be buried for a groundhog barrier. I avoided it of course; snagging it would have made a mess. Though the front wheels spun in a couple of times, soon the whole field was done. 


Not a moment too soon, either! Here's the same field the next day. I'm glad I'm learning to pay attention to the weather.

When the ground gets dry again, it will be time for some lime and slow-release fertilizer. 

My long-term plans are to avoid any inorganic fertilizers, but for the first year, given the soil test showing low-PH and missing minerals, the garden gets a cocktail. Next time, it's manure, wood ash, and compost only.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Roman-Road Building on The Farm: Festina Lente

Image source: "Looking down the Roman Road 3 km from Calderbrook, Rochdale, Great Britain" by Nigel Homer. Creative Commons License for reuse.

It worked for the Romans, who began their road bed with a course of packed sand, then piled on rubble and tamped it. Thus the fate of their enemies' buildings that the ever-pragmatic Empire wanted gone! Here's an extant bit of Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, where I made a brief visit in 2009 during a longer walking holiday in the Yorkshire Dales.

My local, Central-Viriginia bit of Roman engineering is neither so malevolent nor thorough. After moving to the old family farm, I found myself in possession of many piles of broken masonry, chunks of cinder-block, and odd stones with a bit of mortar attached. These oddities congregate in un-mowed areas and crop up every winter.

As I clear areas for planting or an expanded bee-yard for our hives, I began to tote the rubble to a road that runs through bottom-land below one of the out-buildings. It's been churned to mud by my tractors as well as a few heavy trucks bringing contractor dumpsters. I've been dealing with a Depression-era predecessor who bordered on hoarding, as many of his era did.

We have a lot of non-useable debris on the site too. I find old boards ripe with rusty nails, thousands of feet of of soggy insulation, decayed plastic containers in heaps that the prior owner wanted to save up "just in case" but never got around to re-using. Getting this stuff--and there are literally tons of it--out requires a heavy vehicle to travel over soft ground.

The bottom road is now the sort of mud that the Soviets honored, in their remark that their two best generals during the German Blitzkrieg were General Winter and General Mud. I've seen photos of Panzers up to the top of their treads, mired deep, in mud that later froze them in place.

We don't have tanks rumbling around or the Red Army to come "remove" them, but to keep my pickup truck or tractor from vanishing, gravel alone--at $400 delivered for 20 tons--won't do.  For the purposes of illustrating futility, I took a small scoop of "crusher run" gravel in my loader and spread it on the sea of mud.

 This will vanish quickly, as would a thin layer of larger #3 stone, purchased for roughly the same price. We are only a few miles from the quarry, and they know me well there. But before losing expensive stone deep in mud, an inexpensive road-bed needs to be established.

My technique is simple: toss in the free rubble I have, with flat sides up, break down larger chunks with a sledgehammer, then run the small tractor over it while doing chores. Here's the shot of the muddiest spot after a few passes:

With work, that will get smooth enough to hold a level bed of #3 gravel;  I will pay the boys at the quarry for 10 tons of that stone; placing it will be the subject of another post.

Timing is key here: if I wait until the dry summer we will likely have, the grass will be tall and the road dry. Setting stone now in late winter works beautifully to establish a road bed to last for many, many years.

I wish for a cohort of Legionaries under my orders, at times like this. Not to conquer the next county, but to get our pathways and roads sorted out. Every soldier carried tools that could make a road, and it was common practice to keep the legions employed doing public works for the Empire. It kept them busy and out of the sort of trouble that armed men, in groups, are likely to stir up.

Without such help, save for a fellow named John Deere, I get to work. Yet as the Romans would say, my practice is "festina lente." I make haste, slowly, before the weather warms, the snakes and the grass emerge, and the garden must go in. Thinking before doing will make a good road, as I am no Roman.

But how I love their roads and fashion sense.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Best Tractor: One That Does Not Kill You

They are so lovely, but they can be so dangerous.

Ken Johnson presents several excellent recommendations in "Thinking About Buying An Old Tractor For Your Homestead?" in the March/April 2013 issue of Countryside Magazine. He only short-changes two essentials for new homesteaders contemplating a tractor purchase: horrible injuries and death.

What follows here grows out of a letter to the editor of that publication.

I maintain two rural properties, one in the process of becoming a homestead, with both antique and modern equipment. Both pieces of land feature hills, gullies, and stream beds. Any of these can equal a roll-over, especially if a row-crop tractor with a narrow front end gets employed improperly.

Even a low-slung tractors with a wide front axle, such as my 1952 Ford 8N, can roll sideways when used incorrectly on a hill. I'll never forget my first experience when a front wheel lifted off the ground on an incline. It was a moment of stark terror I won't repeat, because I never mow that spot now except with a weed-eater and push mower.

Here I am mowing, carefully, with this fine old tractor. The biggest problem nowadays is getting it to start after too long a "rest."

New rural residents without much experience on tractors need an apprenticeship, something I gained in two decades as a city-boy working with my father-in-law. That taught me the rudiments of old equipment and its use. I'm still learning. But for the most serious uses, I use a new tractor with several features I love and that reduce the likelihood of injury when something bad occurs.

So while Johnson's article does note how side-mount tractors and PTO systems can save both effort and injury, much of his other advice works best for old hands who already know tractors. I'd recommend the following specs for those who haven't put in too many hours in the tractor seat:
  • Roll-over system (roll bar), seat belt, hand brake. Our 1970s and 80s John Deeres all feature them, and I am fairly certain that similar vintage Internationals,  New Hollands, and other makes do, too.
  • Wide front axle, period. For most hobby farmers and homesteaders, the triangle setups for many row-crops invite disaster unless the property is really flat and level.
  • Utility tractor for small properties. Tractor owners, in their red or green caps, will disagree for hours over the merits of a particular setup or make, but a modern utility tractor will be lower to the ground than a row-crop. That center of gravity, plus weights as needed, can save a novice's life.
  • 4WD if the tractor will use a loader or work wet ground. Getting stuck in mud is a pain, but flipping the tractor by sliding sideways down a hill is worse.
  • Volunteer work and classes. Seek out a local farmer at the farmer's market, dial up the community college or extension agent, and just ask.
These have been my methods. I ended up with a new John Deere 4WD utility tractor for $25K, far more than Johnson recommends, though good tractors of the sort, as well as 4WD earth-moving equipment, can be found for $10K.  But, hey. The Deere dealer gave me some free hats.

If I were to employ only one tractor, I'd save up to spend the extra money. My antiques now pull wagons or mow grass on the flat spots.

All that said, no tractor, modern or old, is safe if not used safely.

My father-in-law, with all his years of experience, still got pinned under the rear wheel of a 1970s vintage tractor set up with a backhoe, and featuring both a seat belt and cab. I still use that tractor for digging holes, moving tons of dirt and stone, and more. It's the sort of machine that should NOT hurt you. In this photo, I was working on drainage around a barn, with that machine in the background. Note how its is parked, with the front bucket down to prevent rolling on its own, if the shifter got knocked into neutral. That happens! 

Once the Ford 8n, unhooked from any mower, decided to roll away on its own. I watched first in horror, then in amusement, as it took a little trip down the hill, finally coming to rest, gently, against the very tree to the right of the backhoe below.  Nothing was hurt, but to see a tractor run away on its own teaches more respect than any words here could.

When the accident happened to my father-in-law, after he came out of his coma he explained that he tried to move the tractor a foot or two, engine off, by operating the clutch with his hand and standing beside it.  A tire-tread caught his trousers and pulled him under the machine.

Had he climbed into the seat to do the job, he'd not have been hurt. He barely survived the accident, and was never the same man. Moral to newly rural folk: buy as safe a tractor as you can afford, take lessons from responsible old-timers, and use the equipment properly.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Woodsmoke and Work

Making the fateful decision to heat with wood is not one lightly taken, we've found.

While we have a two-zone heat-pump system to keep the temperature at something above freezing, as well as a restored and tight house, there is much more to do to keep things cozy.

A great part of the transition to rural life involves the constant splitting and storage of wood. I opted to make the side walls and part of the back of a three-bay tractor run-in into wood storage. With sustainability and lower costs in mind, I made the racks from the crates in which the farm house's new standing-seam roof arrived.  Even with that much ready storage, consider that a home in Central Virginia can use up to four cords of seasoned wood in a winter; that is not far off the figure given for upstate New York given in Bryan Alexander's Scaling the Peak.

A cord of closely stacked wood measures 8' x 4' x 4'; quadruple that figure for one heating season.

On the plus side, a single stove can heat an entire home, especially when it gets paired with a stovetop fan. We purchased the larger of two models available from Plow and Hearth, then added a stove thermometer. Finally, after I stupidly broke the glass on the stove with an overly long log, I ordered not only replacement glass (at nearly $200) but a spare piece. Our stove is side-loading too, so unless I am starting it from cold, all wood goes into the side and the glass should be safe. Should be.

I've mentioned Audrey and Michael Levatino’s book The Joy of Hobby Farming and the authors' list of farm essentials. They advise against a power splitter, and there we must, well, split company as we split wood. In town, splitting was a hobby and exercise for me and my maul, but in the country, I split when chores and day-job do not interfere. This means volume and speed become essential. The $1200 invested in a 27-ton Troybilt seems like peanuts now. I got the oak for this and next winter free and I'm probably saving at least $200 per month in electric bills, when compared to what we spent in town with our heating system.  One caveat for all small engines these days: either find ethanol-free gas or run the tool until it's dry, to avoid crystallization in the lines and carb. It's a terrible and mostly preventable problem for small engines, and locally I've two sources of petrol without the ethanol.

On a good day when we are home all day, the heat pumps now never come on, and the farm house maintains a temperature of 65 degrees or more just from the one stove.

And when time permits, I heft the maul and split by hand, using my axes only for kindling. Yet even stacking and moving wood from the gas-powered splitter provides a workout to rival any gym.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Perfect Farm Truck?

Audrey and Michael Levatino’s book The Joy of Hobby Farming provides a list of essential gear for the would-be rural homesteader. I think "hammer" and "tape measure" are on there, forged from the author's experience at Ted's Last Stand farm, up the road from us in Gordonsville.

It was pleasing, in a culture that often makes a fetish of the pickup truck, to see the vehicle in the book as just another essential tool.

So which truck should a Tractorpunk own?

First off, there probably is no such thing as a perfect truck. I could also care less about brand loyalty. I'm partial to Fords because my dad drove big ones to haul produce, but any truck that runs well is a good truck to me.  Every truck owner can describe the truck that felt right, that did the best work before, sadly, it  had to be "put down" like a beloved farm animal who had reached the end of its life.

Second off, I've never owned that perfect truck. My closest-to-perfect one was a '95 white contractor's F-150 called "The Bull" (that's me and The Bull outside Brewer's General Store in Camp, VA). It came pre-dented and lacked four-wheel drive. It also rode like a buckboard wagon, though in the end getting stuck in mud too many times in the back parts of the property, even with a locking differential, meant a change had to come. I'll probably buy it back one day if Jimmy, the present owner, tires of it.

My current truck, an '03, Chevy, has 4WD but also the personality of a recliner. It's unassuming and useful, but rather bland. I miss the old buckboard ride and hand-cranked windows of The Bull or a '98 Dodge Dakota that was great on gas and the right size, not too big or small, but very unreliable.

I'm surprised how few miles we drive our truck, which is good because it drinks gas. I'm also surprised how often it hauls things about. It would seem that work-trucks have three categories:
  • Small four-cylinder haulers for dump runs or moving stuff from house to barn or field. Often I see older 2WD  trucks in this role, since compacts are scarce on the late-model market. These trucks won't tow much.
  • Larger contractor or used trucks like The Bull or my Chevy. They are great for lots of purposes, including light towing. The 8' bed on many of them makes hauling lumber, gravel, or firewood a reasonable chore.
  • The big dogs, often full-sized diesels of the "one ton" category. These can tow a big tractor or haul lots of gear in the bed or on a trailer.
I don't include any ideas about trucks for commuting. In fact, I think that to be a great waste of money. Buy a car. The older rural folk I knew scoffed at the idea of trucks for "going to town," partly because when they came of age, all trucks rode like The Bull.

I suspect that many new homesteaders would love to go straight to the big dog, since it could do anything, but we decided against that sort of expense ($40,000 plus). We do occasionally move farm equipment, but we found that for $100-$200, the guys who service the tractors (when I can't) will transport them.

In time, I'll find the perfect truck. It would be something like the diesel Hilux Toyotas I see in England, or my dream Jeep pickup, like the J12 concept they rolled out last year. . . maybe one day, and used, given my budget and propensity for punishing my trucks. I don't want to put in the first scratch.

Before buying a truck, my wife and I made a list of what we absolutely needed. It ran:
  • 4WD: not everyone needs it, but if you go back into the mud to work the truck, you'll thank yourself for the extra expense
  • Extended cab: even with a nice roll-down tonneau cover, water seeps into the bed. Things that need to stay dry could go into a tool box (especially on a beauty like the J12) but extended cabs still permit a truck bed that is not a joke
  • 8 Foot Bed: at the time, we planned to renovate our farmhouse. I saved thousands of dollars by running the crew materials. When I ran into 16' lumber, however, I had to have it delivered. But a 6.5' bed would still have worked, had I installed a ladder rack on top.
Your list will be different, but if you farm, you are going to need a truck in the toolbox, along with a hammer and tape measure.