Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thank-Yous for 2015 & Hopes for 2016


A year that began badly, with Nancy injured from a workplace fall, could not end better. She is walking well, and working hard to resume hiking and other outdoor sports. It was great to see her again in Yoga class!

On the farm things also came along well. We show a modest profit for 2015, our second year in business as Beepasture Farms, LLC. Next year we will ramp up production of Thai Dragon hot peppers and add Kabocha squash to our crop for restaurant customers.

We expanded our flock of chickens to 10, with four pullets recently acquired from the fine folks at Eden Farms. If you live around here and need chickens or supplies, get out and support them.

Daniel, Jen, and Dominic really worked hard on our property to fill in when Nan was under the weather. Many thanks and blessings to them all.

Mugsy gets a shout-out for helping me find the perfect livestock guardian, Vela, who watches over the flocks and has already sent a whistle-pig to groundhog heaven. She gets on well, and is adored by, Max and Mo, the kittens we adopted this year.

I am thankful to Nan and to AJ out in Washington State. She did not murder me and he got me a good car at a fair price. I bought a 1974 Buick Apollo, set up for street racing; it's a far more potent version of the car that I first drove as a teen. I'm writing a series of articles about getting and restoring the car for Hemmings Daily.

For 2016 my biggest hopes are vast. I'd like to see the nations that just bellied up to the bar in Paris actually begin to take action on global climate change, the biggest existential threat to our civilization.

Other than that, it would be delightful to have some additional clarity on neonic pesticides. I'm waiting to see what the moratorium in Europe does to bee populations.

Finally, and this is a small and probably attainable hope, I want to see the momentum for local food and slow food continue to grow in America. Yes, we can.

Okay, this is starting to sound like one of those Christmas letters. Peace out and happy 2016.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Garden Journal: Eating Seasonally

What an interesting cool season it has been. I did a salvage harvest of our last hot peepers before setting the chickens loose in the beds. Our one customer has bought 80 pounds so far. Meanwhile I fenced our greens and covered our tender ones though the short freezes we have experienced.  We are doing our best to eat seasonally from our garden and chicken coop.

December looks warmer than average, which gives me the chance to enjoy more greens. I'm thankful to Dominic Carpin of delli Carpini Farm for pointing out to me that one should harvest late in the day and on a sunny day if possible, which is now my practice, to avoid picking greens with too many nitrates in them.

So in the spirit of the holidays, here's a recipe for winter greens over pasta. I adapted it from a Martha Stewart recipe for creamed chard and I've added more of a Mediterranean twist. I suggest a top-quality egg pasta from Italy. You will not be disappointed.

Braised Autumn Greens in Cream Sauce
  • 1/3 cup sweet onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 1/2 pounds (big bunch) of coarsely chopped Broccoli Rabe, Swiss Chard, or Broccoli leaves. Remove large stems from the chard before chopping. Chop any Broccoli stems finely.
  • 8 oz. whole milk
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp salt & 1/2 tsp black pepper
Sautee the onion and garlic in the oil and garlic and, when translucent, add the greens and stir until their volume is greatly reduced. To me that means "wilting but not dark." They should retain their color and most of their texture.

Remove greens and onion/garlic to a plate and add milk to skillet, stirring in flour, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir over low-to-medium heat until mixture begins to thicken a bit, then add back the greens mixture. Heat thoroughly, and serve over pasta. Top with grated Romano or Parmesan if you wish and a dash of red pepper.

This makes a great main or a side dish. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

DMCA Reversal that Helps the DIYer

Ironic, isn't it? At the very time of "Maker Fairs" and a renewed DIY culture, it takes Federal action to insure we can work on our own modern cars and tractors.

Glad to learn from Hemmings Daily's Terry Shea that the Federal Government has clarified the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to permit owners to work on their own cars.  I am not joking.  To crack the code of a modern computer-assisted vehicle--for the farm or the road--risked violating Federal law, because the code and many of the tools used were proprietary to the company making the original equipment.

John Deere apparently was among the firms fighting to keep the safeguards for their profits in place buy penalizing any customers who worked on equipment they owned. Shame on Deere. At one time, as with my 1950 M, the company deliberately designed all machinery so a small farmer could do any repairs that did not require a machine shop. I saw that on a friend's Farmall Super A as well, where we pulled the cam and replaced the cam gear with hand tools.

Modern computer-assisted systems make such tasks harder, but not out of reach of the enterprising DIYer. Go at it, friends. Check YouTube for how-to videos. I learned to reverse-flush the power-steering system on our Honda after the dealer told me doing so would run $120. NAPA had a sale on the Honda-only fluid at $3 per bottle, so for $12 and 30 minutes of my time (plus 15 more watching videos) I did the job myself.

I would be the first to say that we should not return to the engines of the 1950s. They ran dirtier and consumed fuel at rates that would make us stagger today. Car engines might last 50K miles before being shot. Yet at a time when our phones have more power than any early PC, we should be able to get diagnostic tools and connect them to our cars to repairs and other modification, including, yep, hot-rodding. I felt damned good after rebuilding my first carburetor.

There's a hunger for this out there. I see it at festivals and meetings. Perhaps we can blame Steve Jobs.

He helped to make many of us even more helpless, and in the age of mobile phones I'm actually seeing my students LESS able to write code, manipulate software, or fix hardware-software problems than their peers 10 years ago. Jobs, unlike Apple co-founder Wozniak, wanted enclosed boxes with proprietary hardware--damned well made and lovely hardware. The look of Apple speaks to me like the lines of a '67 Pontiac GTO or a current Audi coupe.

Maybe I'm shallow, but I buy cars that look fast and trucks that look like trucks, not toys.

Apple fanatic I am, mostly for the hackability of their UNIX-undperpinned OS and durable hardware, I should not be a critic. Yet Jobs never wanted ease-of-modification in his hardware. I've come to realize that it was an anomaly of the late 90s when he came back to Apple. My wife has owned two Mac desktops that have worked well for a total of 16 years. But I was able to update their hardware. I added Firewire to a "gumdrop" iMac in a lickable grape color that lasted us a solid six years until it could not run the newest Mac OS. A parent in Alaska bought it on eBay from me and his daughter continued to use it. I then replaced the beloved gumdrop with a G5 that lasted nearly a decade. I put a power supply in that second machine, using a unit from a mom-and-pop repairer in New Jersey, and sold the G5 for a handsome sum on eBay to a guy who was going to replace all the capacitors on the mother-board (my soldering skills are pretty good but not that good). It was near the end of the line for Macs that could be opened easily and upgraded. I'd still have that G5 and bought a new set of capacitors if the generation of computer ran a current operating system or applications.

Jobs' plans for his customers resulted in my being unable to hack my iPhone or sleek MacBook Pro easily. Though Nan's amazing new MacBook Air looks ready to last a long time (partly due to having a solid-state hard drive) it's as incomprehensible inside as our Mini Cooper's engine bay.

Microsoft is going the same route with Windows 10 and its alluring-looking Surface laptop, it seems. I do love the docking-station / keyboard aspect of Surface, something that steals a march on Apple's designs, yet I expect Microsoft to emulate Apple's model under the hood. Hacking Windows' Registry has, after all, always been far more daunting than getting deep into Apple's OS.

Making us consumers brings profits, and DIYers can be dangerous to the bottom line.

The allure of early PCs, the Apple II, and the Macs of the 90s-early 2000s was how one could open the cases and have fun tinkering. Given the DMCA changes, some upstart maker like Tesla will figure this out and make vehicles for tinkerers again. I'll be in line to buy one. For the small farmer, I'd say buy old equipment if your operation is small. Careful repairs and maintenance can keep the old stuff going nearly forever.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Heritage Harvest Festival 2015: What I Learned

This event at Monticello is one, like Maymont's Herbs Galore, that I look forward to for months. I only attended two classes this time, a free one on fermentation by Sandor Katz and a paid workshop with Lisa Kivirist (pictured above) and John D. Ivanko, authors of Homemade for Sale: How to Set Up And Market a Food Business From Your Home Kitchen. The Wisconsin couple has made a living by gradually building up a market for their processed foods. Along they way they became writers, relying upon their experience in marketing to effectively craft words and lobby politicians to change state laws that hurt small businesses.

They answered a question I had about amortizing equipment costs. I guess it surprised them that I'd spent so much already getting started, but my project does not involve merely canning a few cases of pickles in the kitchen or selling home-baked goods. To farm, I needed equipment to cultivate, protect, and water our first cash crop. The idea of selling some pickled peppers or honey have been there all along, and this is where the authors' advice is pure gold to a beginner.

States have gradually loosened laws for "Cottage Foods," though anyone trying to get raw milk will tell you how difficult regulations can be. Luckily, that's not in the works for us. At most, we'll sideline our honey, pickles, and a few other things to supplement our income when the field is not producing vegetables or herbs.

What craft brewing has done for the drinking landscape, Cottage Foods and the broader local-food movement could do to big agriculture, an industry that exacts a heavy toll on the soil, water, and diversity of food.  It may feed the world, but I've yet to be convinced that we could not feed ourselves in a more sustainable manner.

Sandor Katz has me happy that I've been fermenting food from my own soil; Kivirist and Ivanko make me proud that our little LLC has a business plan. As I felt last year, at Heritage Harvest 2015, I came away optimistic about a better world waiting to be born.

An actor portraying Thomas Jefferson strolled the grounds and talked to visitors. I didn't get a chance to ask Mr. Jefferson what he thought about today's local-food movement, but he was a fan of the American yeoman and our self-reliant streak. That philosophical stance, as much as his Deism or the founding of my alma mater, makes Jefferson one of my culture heroes, despite the contradictions and compromises of his personal and political life.

I think that he would approve of how entrepreneurs are taking on the established tyranny of factory food to bring commerce to our communities and variety to our pantries.


Friday, August 21, 2015

First Lessons in Commerce

Despite the happy looks on the farmhands' faces, it was a tough harvest at the start. With no pumpkins, we got no income from one customer.

Squash-bugs were a horror this year, and from 18 vines we harvested exactly 2 pumpkins. Only one went into the root shelter, while another one had a bad spot. I cut up the rest of it and froze it for our pumpkin soup or pies.

Lesson learned: to continue an organic regimen for squash and pumpkins in the garden, I'm going to have to start with insect netting over them and have diatomaceous earth down as soon as I put in seedlings.

Luckily, our little venture as an LLC has sold some cucumbers, lettuce, and now hot peppers. That said, even with these cash crops we'll not realize a profit this year. I must next year or will revert to "Hobby" status for IRS purposes. Thus I won't hire farmhands next year, my major expense, and do the picking myself.  My main helper does other work, anyway, on buildings here and helping to split wood, so he can be paid by me and not the LLC.

Next year will be interesting, however, as a new customer is about to open a produce stand just down the road. He's an Iranian with family who help him, and they'll sell produce from local farmers. He wants whatever we can provide.

It will be called "Garden of Eden," and I've high hopes for him and whatever I can contribute. The other lesson learned, then, is to have a couple of high-volume customers and diverse offerings. If the peppers had not come in so well, we'd hardly have any income for 2015.

Luckily, I still have a day job. For now.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Abundance and The Root Shelter

It's been a year with a lot of summer rain. The rain-barrels are brim-full with water we don't need, the garden bursting with produce and more than a few harmful insects. Every time I put down diatomaceous earth to murder the squash-bugs, the rain comes down and washes my powder away. I am using a slurry of 3 tablespoons to a gallon of water, and spraying it over and under the leaves, as well as around the bases of the plants. The pumpkins are coming in early, as a result. The first two are sun-curing in the garden for a few more days before they go into long-term storage.

My canning skills are well honed by putting up about four gallons of tomato sauce annually, so it has been a busy month for putting up pickles. I've a professional pressure-canner for the low-acid foods, and we've been using a simmering or boiling water-bath canner for produce that can be safe with that sort of treatment.

We froze a lot of green peas and now are doing the same for blackberries that grow wild around here. I am going to try to recall all of this abundance when winter arrives. It's easy to forget!

One trick to keeping things going will be our new "root shelter," a dry windowless room in the basement of a building where we store equipment. It's completely below ground.

It's not a true root cellar, since it lacks an earthen floor. The 8 by 8 room, of cinder-block walls was, in fact, a fallout shelter from the 60s. It never got finished, since it has no venting to the outside, which makes it less than perfect for surviving a nuclear attack or for getting air circulating for other purposes.

After I made the old door tight but before it got a coat of paint, I knocked out the panel over the transom and lined it with a layer of hardware cloth (a stout metal screening with 1/8 or 1/4" holes) and also window screen. This keeps out rodents and black snakes, one of which chases mice around our building and occasionally leaves a skin draped over the tractor seat or rafters.

With a drill bit used to bore holes in doors for lock-sets, I bored three large holes in the bottom of the door. Those too got covered with hardware cloth and screen. Shelving is basic: with low-humidity in the room, old 2x6 pine boards and cinder blocks serve us well. A small electric fan blows air out the transom, and that encourages cool air to enter the bottom of the door.

I plan to keep early-harvest pumpkins in there, since we have a local market that will buy all I grow. My garlic harvest, only about a dozen bulbs, and some onions I pulled after curing them in our utility room will also go on the shelves. This sort of "root shelter," as I call it, will store winter squash and sweet potatoes.

A damp root cellar would be perfect for vegetables that need more humidity. With a backhoe, a hillside that faces northwest, and lots of cinder blocks I think this will be a future project for my LLC's harvest. And it will vent to the outside world. No nuclear attack needed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

30 Months of Lessons

It has been two and a half years since we began living here; three since we began taking care of this piece of rural land. I had no idea then what lessons I'd have learned, this far along. I was already somewhat handy and very Type-A about learning things that interest me. If something or someone does not interest me, I won't recall it or them. I'm bad at names that way.

What follows is not a bragging list but a taking stock. I've failed at most of these things too. Still, how much of this would I have learned had I sat before this screen and played video games? Obsessively checked others' Facebook profiles?

What really counts in life? Socrates said that only the examined life was worth living. I am not very social, so you can guess that I'd pick items on this list over more time with online "friends." Sometimes over seeing people I cherish face-to-face, when I'm on-task, a habit familiar to every successful academic.

Anyhow, see how much of this arcana of DIY life would be new to you:

Financial:
  • Setting up an LLC and learning the basics of State and IRS rules
  • Learning to scour Craig's List like a pro
  • Honing my haggling skills with equipment suppliers, sellers of used gear, and repair shops. I will blame my Middle-Eastern heritage here for being tough when haggling.
Mechanical: 
  • Cleaning points in a distributor
  • Straining all gas and diesel through paint filters
  • Knowing the difference between load needles and idle screws in a carburetor
  • Learning how to set the gap on a spark plug
  • Painting with an auto-paint gun
  • Helping a friend tear down a tractor engine, replace a cam gear, and finally see how valves, tappets, and a cam dance together to make a big heavy machine move.
Garden:
  • Watching the life-cycle of pests such as squash-bugs and beginning to interrupt it
  • Keeping ground hogs and raccoons out of the garden.  Improving head-shots when these critters enter a trap. Live-trapping and safely releasing a skunk without being sprayed (skunk seemed to think it was a game and appeared to enjoy it)
  •  Learning how to air-cure garlic and onions and store them in a root cellar
  • Building that root cellar
  • Living with black snakes (those great mousers) in every out building
  • Installing 400' of dog-pen fence and an equal amount of wooden-post-and-wire garden fence, using a tractor-mounted post-hole digger
  • Figuring out how to hand-bale hay and straw
  • Continuing to avoid pesticides and herbicides (we still paint stumps of Tree of Paradise with Roundup and will spray our apple trees next year--once, when not in blossom--with Captan)
  • Expanding out rainwater-collection system to 1200 gallons (and getting closer to a goal of 3000 gallons for the main garden).
Kitchen:
  • Getting much more serious about canning. Mainstays now have grown from tomato sauce and pickles to include green beans,  apple sauce, and grape leaves
  • Freezing peas, squash, butter beans, and blackberries with success
  • Drying and saving seed from hot peppers and string beans.
Handyman:
  • Cutting out areas of rotten wood and repairing with Bondo
  • Planing a sticky door until it closes and looks good
  • Building sag-free garden gates 6' tall by 8' wide
  • Learning to use well a router and planer
  • Figuring out what to reuse and what to toss with 10,000 square feet of barns and out buildings.
  • Installing a hardwood floor of salvaged oak flooring tucked in a corner of the barn.
The next 30 months will bring more adventures, and I will return to this list to see what can be added.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

First Light Lessons

Montpellier sunrise, photo courtesy of Dominic Carpin, the pater familias at Delli Carpini Farms

"Living six months inside a dog's mouth," is how Novelist and public intellectual James Howard Kunstler describes life in the South during the summer. I have a newly adopted 90 lb dog at my side, an Anatolian / Great Pyrennes mix. She is breathing on me, and there's no way in hell I want to live in that mouth.

Thank God for air conditioning. Yet I can't carry the AC outside on days like tomorrow, when I have to pour 600 pounds of concrete into trenches to make footings / blocks by the dog pen, so the enormous dog does not dig her way out. That means an early start. I will be up at 5am, and my Millennial helper, who has the surprising ability to start early--such a credit to his generation!--will join me at 7.

His peers in my classes cannot bestir themselves before 10 am. Even then they are bleary eyed and feckless. Now what on earth would I do with one of these pampered children on a farm? They'd quit inside of 10 minutes on a day like today, where I was loading 12 bags of quickset concrete into the bed of the pickup while the thermometer read 97and the humidity was at least 80%. But the hard work was already done.

At 6 am, I hung up a trolley-cable run for the dog, so she can stay outside with us tomorrow while we work on her pen. I also took care of some other chores of watering and staging gear for tomorrow, and I was done by 10. It was hot work, but not unbearable. I took a little time to squash some squash bugs and pick cukes for a batch of icebox pickles that I put up after lunch.

I wonder how many of my college kid have even seen a sunrise, unless it was after an all-nighter? It can be a magical event. Last summer, approaching Iceland, I saw the red line of sunrise as a Boston night receded before the Midnight Sun. The sunrise took many minutes, from that bloody line on the curve of the earth to a fully flowering garden of purples and reds. I was stunned enough to not want to nap. I asked the beautiful Icelandic woman serving coffee to bring me a refill. I wanted to see night become day. A nap could wait.

It can be as magical, if not as exotic, to see first light from the seat of a tractor or from the back of the garden. The chickens are already awake. They need no prompting to go on a bug-hunt before the scorching heat of midday drives them into the hard shade under the coop. That is the time to mow hay by hand, to work the chores in the garden, to put soap and oil sprays on young plants before the sun hits them.

The dew is a constant feature of a Virginia early morning. With transpiration rates of about 1 inch weekly in Central VA, and the rainfall ever less certain in our time of rapid climate change, the dew can mean life or death to small plants. I work with wet boots often, dragging hoses to water or, more recently, trucking 35 gallons in the bed of the ATV up to tree-bags around our newly planted fruit trees.

By 10am, unless we are really working it, I'm inside for a shower and another cup of coffee. Some days the heat proves so intense that by 1pm I take a nap. That's an academic's luxury in summer, when we can stay away from the office more,  but then I'd be doing none of this if I were in some cubicle in the land of corporate slavery.

I cannot imagine those poor folks working my garden, either. They'd simply perish. Their experience of heat is that of moving from the car across the parking lot to an air-conditioned office, just in time for the petty humiliations of the work day to commence.

What would have happened if we had no air conditioning in the South? Jim Kunstler has predicted that we'd again become a rural and agricultural backwater. Jim has visited my class and worked with my students; he has a strange fascination with the craziness of The South, and though he and I disagree on some issues about the future, in this regard I find his arguments compelling.

I do know one thing: without air conditioning we would have taken strident action to mitigate climate change. On days like today, the sauna is simply not bearable.

It's the shape of things to come, but for the years I have left, I will have the solace of the cool of day at first light.

Here's the Icebox-Pickle Recipe I pinched from a very old Pillsbury cookbook. It has never failed me:
  • 7 medium pickling cucumbers, thinly sliced. I used gherkins and Asian cukes today.
  • 1 tablespoon pickling salt (DO NOT use table salt, Cheap-Ass. Buy the right salt)
  • 2 medium (2 cups) onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped (I omit this)
  • 2 cups sugar (I go light on this)
  • 1 tablespoon celery seed
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seed
  • 1 cup vinegar
In a large bowl, mix the cukes and salt well. Let it stand for 30 minutes, then drain well. Meanwhile, combine the other ingredients in a bowl. After draining the cukes, pour the mixture in the bowl over the pickles. Pack into pint jars and be sure the veggies are covered with syrup. I add a bit of vinegar if it is low. This will keep 3 months in the refrigerator.

Yield is about 3 quarts. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hay Making Experiment!


A few times each year, we mow a couple of fields of pasture grass, with very few weeds, in Buckingham Country. I would like to mow less often and keep the hay. On second cuttings, we could get straw, with fewer seeds and more potential as garden mulch. If we start keeping a few goats next  year, we'd want hay. What's the difference between hay and straw? Read all you would EVER want to know, right here.

The inputs into our food matter, and when we can we grow our own food or buy organic. For animals we feel the same way. I am confident that our grass here and in Buckingham is free of pesticide and herbicides, so the fields we mow can provide good fodder or animals or mulch for our rows of plants.

Sounds great until one prices out a baler and tedder. I don't own a sickle mower for the tractor but the other implements can set one back $20,000 new. Thus I'm not likely to go that route for might amount to 100 or so bales annually (not that we currently use more than 20). Luckily, not all of the world has turned to massively expensive techniques. This page from Ethopia, for small-scale herding operations, shows some techniques I plan to adopt.

While I think a hay tedder for the tractor may be a reasonable investment, so I can windrow the hay easily after cutting with the rotary mower on the tractor, a baler is big money. I'd rather pay a farm-hand a couple hundred dollars a year to help me hand-bale the hay. Stacking would we really fun, if the fields were near where I have gardens and animals. Scratch that: it's 50+ miles from field to farm-site.

My research on this turned up the Rev. J.D. Hooker's article about how to build a baler-box. It's very similar to the box shown on the Ethiopian page. It was a snap to make. I only needed a few screws and some 3/4 plywood. I added L brackets around each side since I'd be standing IN the box, stomping.

We cut and transported the grass to dry at home, but I'd prefer to windrow the hay and bale it at the site.  I  turned the hay once and checked for moisture. If it rots or gets moldy, it will go out for mulch or be spread in the chicken run.

My experiment produced three 2'x2'x18" bales out of 3/4 load of hay from the pickup's bed. With its 8' bed, the truck will hold 16 bales. I baled three in 15 minutes, so when I next mow a few acres, I think I'll take a farm-hand and get 50 or so bales done. We can stack and cover the ones we don't trasport with a tarp, though a farm wagon for moving our tractor will one day double for moving bales.

I've ordered a European-Style hay rake and will now hand-scythe some rye-grass right here at home to see how well it does. I will get a few more bales locally before practicing on the big field at Buckingham.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Farm Auction

Yesterday we attended our second-ever agricultural auction. I'd been discouraged the first time, seeing a post-hole digger soar past my $300 maximum in about 3 bids. The irony was that I found an even nicer used one for $500, including extra auger bits, a few weeks later at an equipment dealer in the mountains.

If one is beginning to farm casually or professionally, however, there's no better place to learn the prices of used equipment.

At auction, tractors can be had for great prices. Yesterday a really nice John Deere 850 with just over 1800 hours on it went for $4100, a real steal. Similar machines bring $6000. I don't regret buying a new tractor when we began our rural adventure, but that payment to Mr. Deere reminds me, every month, of how much I have learned since then. I can easily maintain equipment now and know what will run well, as opposed to what merely looks good, in farm equipment.

This tractor looks great, doesn't it?

If you ever consider bidding on such machinery, bring along someone experienced with tractors and implements. This machine had a hydraulic leak from the left rear axle. An auction company employee claimed he'd overfilled the reservoir and parked on a slanted surface. I'm not so sure; he'd have to vastly overfill it because the incline was really slight.

The tractor was hurriedly and recently painted: gas dripping form the carb, which can cause a fire, had worn off the new paint under a drip. From here I can see that gas-leak. I don't think they rebuilt the gravity-fed fuel system, a $100 job within reach of a skilled amateur. Doing it right can save you from a fiery death; I only learned this when rebuilding the fuel system on my old John Deere M.  Replacing the fuel lines and rebuilding a one-barrel carburetor are simple, unlike fixing hydraulics or axles; those require a tear-down and new seals. These are repairs costing many hundreds of dollars.

Though the tractors did not tempt me, this time I did bid! I tried my hand at snagging a stack of old-school milk crates, not the cheap-ass ones from Staples but from actual dairies. I have about 10 but you can never have enough! At $15 I dropped out, as I did for a lot of galvanized carriage bolts (one can simply not have enough fasteners at such prices).

It was fun to bid. The day got too hot to stay around for a PTO-attachment, a nice tiller I will need when I expand my garden to field-grown crops. I bet it went for around $300,  a real bargain.  Maybe next time. In any case, the crowd made the day: salt-of-the-earth types who all know each other and that one never sees in town or even in numbers at a country store.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Cheap-ass

Gardeners and other DIYers grow fond of good tool that do the job well.  If a tool lasts years, however, it becomes part of one's life. For my part, I hate cheap tools like the "Garden Plus" one pictured. This week, the welded-on head the cheaply made Chinese hoe I'd found in our barn broke clean of its shaft. A search at our local Southern States turned up nothing forged except a $50 hoe with the blade attached to the handle by a really flimsy looking metal collar.  I passed. For $50 more, I could have a tool to last a lifetime.

I began learning this lesson from Andre Viette, the famous gardener of Viette Nurseries and the radio show "In The Garden." He gives workshops just over the mountains from us, in Fishersville, and I recall one where he held up an impressive looking shovel.

"Bulldog!" Viette exclaimed, showing us the brand name. This was not the well-crafted British line of forged tools you will find here; it was a relic from a big-box store. Viette's prop for a tool lesson cost less than twenty dollars.

Then he pointed out every detail about the shovel that made it less impressive than its canine namesake. It lacked a forged head, and the collar was merely bent steel. The rivets were wimpy. The handle was not quite long enough. But it was painted a vivid color!

Viette noted, wryly, that men like to buy tough-sounding tools, and he advised us to avoid sidewinders, rattlesnakes, sharks, and lions.  I have followed his policy every since.  I made that choice for a Spear and Jackson digging fork and spade. A local greenhouse stocked them for many years, until they realized most of their customers preferred cheap-ass tools made in cheap-labor nations.

Not me. We only presume that we can infinitely go to buy whatever we need, whenever something breaks.

What if globalization broke? I hope it does not; I'm no "Doomer." My Japanese Yanmar diesel in our small tractor, and the bigger Yanmar in the backhoe, brought the very best international technology to our farm.

Whatever the origin, I'm going to find the right tool and hold on to it. Kudos to companies like Duluth Trading for bringing that philosophy back to clothing and tools. An unnamed cheap-ass relative admitted about my Duluth socks, which are amazing, "they are expensive."

Exactly the point. You get what you pay for in work-socks, mechanical watches, tractors, and garden tools (all obsessions of mine). Incidentally, I never lend my tools, from tractors to chainsaws to garden spades, unless I come along to use them. But that is another post for Tractorpunk.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Old Technologies That Should Go

As Spring comes on full-force in VA, I find time between planting and pruning to get a lot of things fixed that I cannot mend myself. Just today, I picked up two pairs of boots from a cobbler (yes, I know where to find THREE such shops) and a rainproof jacket from the alterations section of my dry cleaners. The jacket, one I have used since 2006, had a ripped pocket-lining.

Other less frugal folks would just buy another jacket and new shoes. They might call me a spendthrift, noting "Joe! you paid $225 for getting two pairs of boots resoled!" Worth every penny, I'd reply. Both sets of boots, ones for the office, not farm, do feel great all day long, and they are in styles you will never find in shoe-stores nowadays. One pair is 20+ years old and drop-dead cool.

Of course, I might fairly be accused of hating change. The John Deere M I will use again this season to mow is 65 years old. The restoration and repaint are nearly done.

Fashion and my love of antique technologies aside, I do find that some older tech needs to perish from the earth. Here are a few examples, randomly.

Sweating Pipes: I never learned this art, one that threatens to engulf a home in flames if done poorly. I have to repair a run of copper in an outbuilding, and it's delightful to do that with push-to-seal copper fasteners that will also work with pex or pvc pipe. I predict that no American will have to melt solder into a pipe in a generation. I also predict the demise of copper pipe, generally. Pex is an amazing replacement, taking below freezing temperatures and offering flexibility that pvc never had.

Using AC fence chargers: I have no  desire to run underground lines to my electric fencing. I had the circuit board in my solar fence-charger fixed last year, after many years of good service. It's ready to go again.  I want things that are sustainable. I understand some systems use deep-cell Marine batteries to charge a fence. That's a better option than a buried line from the house, but I prefer to turn to the sun.

Pushing Around Gasoline-Powered Lawn Mowers: I have a talent for getting old gas mowers working well. I service my little fleet of four (!) annually. Two live here, trimming around walls and other spots I will not take a tractor; one lives at a home we rent; another lives at a country place that our friend Bunny mows for us so I can focus on thrice-annual bush-hogging of a large field.

That said, gasoline mowers are fussy, polluting machines. If one burns ethanol-addictive fuel, they need constant care to avoid trouble; I burn only eth-free gas in our small engines.

Home owners dispose of mowers at the first sign of trouble, unless they own a really fancy model.  With battery charges being what they are, why on earth won't we all use cordless electrics in a decade?

I'll predict autonomous mowers, too, outdoor versions of Roombas that will do work for suburbanites, much to the chagrin of neighborhood kids who mow lawns (do they still exist?), "mow-blow-and-go" services, male waistlines, and the occasional squirrel who fails to escape a lawn robot's blades.

So what other old technology needs to die, because we simply have better ways of doing things?



Thursday, February 26, 2015

Wood Stoves Safe in Virginia

Sitting by my wood stove and typing this, I'm actually delighted with Conservatives I usually find rather insane. We know the sort, who tend to block any environmental laws, deny climate change, and take behind-the-back payola, I mean campaign contributions, from corporate polluters.

Usually, I want to pour that sort a toxic-waste Martini. But today, I will reluctantly raise a glass to them. I actually believe they led a worthwhile effort, by protecting citizens' right to heat their homes with wood. I have been using this source of heat since December 2012, and in the coldest weather it saves me $200-$300 per month.

That's not big money for me, and I do have to cut, transport, and season my wood. For poor citizens in my part of the state, however, wood is the only source they can afford. In a cold winter, my neighbors and I each need about four full cords: a stack 32 feet long by four high by four deep.

Wood stoves may well contribute to local air pollution, especially in areas subject to temperature inversions that trap smoke. We've a newer stove that is efficient and burns hot with good seasoned oak. I burn other stuff in a pinch or as kindling, of course.

If Virginia lawmakers had not acted, we might have EPA regulations that would affect new stove installations, not a ban but regulations about the types of stoves that could be used. In theory, I do not oppose that. The poor with older stoves would be grandfathered in, including my current stove that cost us about $3000 for the stove and installing a stainless steel chimney liner. It has paid for itself now, even with an annual chimney and stove cleaning that runs me $250.

My fear is, however, rather like those of some gun owners. Over time, initial regulations would tighten and threaten my right to burn wood.

Government has a role in protecting public health and insuring the natural world is not damaged. I'd like stronger and faster action on climate change, but burning coal is a far worse threat to our planet than tens of millions of wood stoves in colder parts of the nation. Coal ash spills into rivers when containment fails, and mountain-top removal is a great evil of our age. Unlike coal fields, commercial forests can be managed in a way that is sustainable for fuel and the environment; my stove consumes about two matures oaks per year.

We have made progress with new cars that are more fuel efficient, thanks to CAFE standards recently adopted, and that initiative too reduces pollutants. For wood stoves, EPA might work with industry and provide tax incentives for innovations that reduce emissions.  If the car makers manage to do it, so can Dutch West, who built my stove.

Just don't come for my stove, ever, let alone those of my less affluent neighbors. For now, my state officials have "got our backs" on this issue.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Time Enough? Time for February

I have heard people despair out loud about the "wasted month" of February. I guess they want time to run faster so they can get on with whatever business awaits in March. I am not so sure. First, the second month of the year is perfect for trimming woody plants back, perfect for outdoor projects too dangerous when the snakes begin to crawl in the thickets.

Second, the light creeps back into the day, to encourage us all. But I like the dark half of the year enough to use a good bit of February for reading by the wood stove. One of my pursuits involves writing down what writers a lot smarter than I am say about time.

Here are a few favorites from my book of quotations. Naguib Mahfouz called the course of the years "careening, unstoppable Time" and that is my favorite metaphor. These other meditations about time are also quite fine. I end with Annie Dillard's, perhaps my second favorite.

Find some time, take some time, borrow some time, steal some time, save some time to read this month. Just do not waste time.

"And what are two thousand years? What, indeed, if you look down from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one's boot with outlast Shakespeare"

     Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

"We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once."

     Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

"Time slides past, slides past beyond recall, while, spellbound, we drift off among details"

    Virgil, The Georgics I: 284-85

"When the waves receded, the shores of Time would spread out there clean, empty, shining with infinite grains of memory and little else."

     Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah

"Pass through this moment in time in harmony with nature, and end your journey content, as an olive falls when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew."

     Marcus Aurelius, Meditations IV, 48

"Time itself is nothing; the experiencing of it is everything."

"Time itself, that weightless thing, could only go in one direction, no matter how you defined it or tried to step on its tail--that much at least seemed certain. Nobody knew what time was, but even if you placed all the clocks in the world in a circle, time would still run straight on, and should there be a finite end to time it was not one that could be imagined by human beings with a sense of vertigo. But what then were memories? Time that had been left behind and had now caught up with you, or that you yourself, by moving against the tide of time--doing the impossible in fact--could retrieve."

     Cees Nooteboom, Nomad's Hotel

"He would explore the lateral byways now, the side doors, as it were, in the corridors of time. There months could be an eternity."

     J.G. Ballard, "The Voices of Time"

"Hold to the now, the here, through which the future plunges to the past."

     James Joyce, Ulysses

"We sleep to time's hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if we ever wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it's time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it's time to break our necks from home."

     Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

Friday, January 23, 2015

January Garden? Waste Nothing.

With luck, our lettuce may last until it bolts in May. My fellow Virginians will declare me daft for saying how mild our season has been, without real snowfall other than a dusting twice. I miss snow greatly and the hard freezes that were once more common. At least, in both November and early this month, we did get a good freeze. It heaves the soil well for spring, when I'm going to get serious and plant our entire 6500 square feet of garden.  Yet even now, in the deepest part of what passes for "winter" here, there is something stirring in the garden.

Mostly it is fallow, though a few brave onions and garlic wait out the dormant season. This time of  year means letting the chickens turn soil on rows that have nothing as I peek, on warmer days, into the row-covers where we have some real food waiting. With only a bit of work in fall, any gardener around here can manage it. This year, I have harvested beets and radishes (now done), plus we continue to get lettuce, collards, and broccoli.

My focus for this post is the final item. We long ago harvested the main heads of broccoli; the side ones got nipped in the last really cold weather, even under the row-covers.  But something else remains: the greens. They taught me a small lesson this year.

Americans who enjoy broccoli rabe probably have not given much thought to the tender leaves and small stems of broccoli itself. I found, when making broccoletti this fall, that the leaves work really well when chopped and sauteed. My recipe uses pine nuts, lots of garlic, and sometimes, since we have strong palates, anchovies. We top it all with aged Romano or Parmesan.

As we came to crave this pasta dish as much as we do pesto, I wanted to stretch my supply of broccoli. I was delighted to see that the leaves are great for cooking. They compare well to my collards and kale, so it would be a shame to toss them in the compost heap.

My interest in that part of the plant made me think about what other edibles we casually discard in the garden. In the leanest part of the year, every little scrap counts. Partly my attitude comes from not wanting to waste anything in soil I prepared myself. Partly it comes from a family story of the Depression, when my father and his mom, not long arrived in the US from Lebanon, went to open fields to pick Dandelion greens so they would have a vegetable for dinner. It shamed my dad and he did not tell the story too freely, but it did not shame me. Nature is an abundant gardener, if we know where to look.

If you have a garden, be sure to go out as soon as the wild onions are up. Eat them and be thankful that the lean months are behind us. And then think about what you don't want to waste from every plant you grow. I guarantee you will both eat well and throw a lot less food away.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Small Farms And 2015

Having just set up Beepasture Farms LLC, I do want 2015 to be the year of small agriculture. I've now a personal stake in it, as we move toward retirement from academic work and toward a "sideline income" from producing food without inputs of pesticides, herbicides, or petrochemical-based fertilizers.

Today is a watershed moment, as California's Proposition 2 bans some of the worst practices involved in the intensive rearing of caged animals. Americans have long been distanced from their food, and animal-welfare issues are only the visible aspect for an industrialized method of producing what we eat. I am as concerned with the invisible and slow effects of GMO crops; we do not know the long-term effects of trace amounts of herbicides that build up in our bodies from eating mass-market food. I suspect that in my remaining years, we'll find out and the results will not be pretty.

Writer Bill McKibben has urged America to become a nation of small-scale food producers again. We began that way. With our LLC I'm the only member, and it shields a producer from liability against his personal property. Only the assets of the LLC could be seized in court. It gives a member the flexibility to write off expenses, as long as the firm shows a profit at least every third year. A hobby, on the other hand, can only cancel income with expenses. It cannot show a loss. But mine is no hobby; it's a future small business and part of a much larger future for how we produce and eat food.

An LLC also provides a method to license with the state; some Libertarian friends disliked my doing that (it's not any of their darned business how I conduct my affairs, which should be a Libertarian principle, but I try to be cordial on Facebook). My incentive is licensing with the State Corporation Commission is to establish the firm for the long term. If I pay a few taxes now, it makes it easier to scale up to a larger operation when I begin to lease or buy more land for production nearby.

For now our horizon is small: 400 pounds of hot peppers for one restaurant in 2015 and a small annual profit after the loss shown for starting up in 2014. We ordered seeds, bought a post-hole digger for the tractor, and had several other incidental expenses related to fencing. It's a very hopeful start to the new year.