Monday, December 12, 2016

Intensity or Communion?

"The search for intensity is the shadow side of the healer."  One of my Yoga teachers, Nitya, said that, something she'd learned from one of her teachers. Now I share it here.

So what in the Sam Hill does that principle of Yoga have to do with DIY country life?

A lot, actually.

Modern farming--to feed a nation of more than 300 million souls--does involve a great deal of intensity, not all of it sustainable. Yet food is the best healer I know.

I suppose that if farmers saw themselves as healers, fewer of them would engage in practices that are fouling our rivers and depleting our topsoil. They'd put back in windrows and riparian barriers around waterways.

If consumers saw that food was healing, those who could afford it would pay more for local food grown sustainably, even if it meant cutting portions and losing a bit of weight. I joked that for our Thanksgiving turkey, I felt as though I knew the turkey. I did now which farm it came from.

If county councils saw the land is what heals us now and will sustain the next generations, they'd not rezone things so suburban sprawl, that odd mixture of cancer and cannibalism, engulfs prime farmland. These "public servants" would thus serve future generations, not merely the next election cycle and the pressure from deep-pocketed developers. As Edward Abbey, whose work so influenced my thinking in my 20s and 30s, put it, "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."

It's a dream that we'll change our ways, but dreaming is good. In the dark years to come following a disastrous election, we are going to need to keep our own long visions as the evil in high places destroys itself. It so often does.

I'll keep turning the soil, but keep in mind that Shadow, the shadow of intensity.  Edward Abbey also advised us to "Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards."

I plan to do so, and I dream of those days to come.  Begin your own journey by healing yourself, and then spare a little healing for the soil that birthed you and sustains you still.

Blessed Solstice, all.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Best Home Canning Site, Ever

Canning is a science, even if recipes are an art.  This time of year is the time to get the last canning done. To make a mistake may, at best, spoil the food. At worst? You kill someone or at least make them seriously ill.

There are a few principles I follow, based upon my reading of the University of Georgia's amazing site, The National Center for Home Food Preservation.

I send that site to anyone canning their harvest for the first time.

This post is short because any advice I can give pales next to that. I will add the following ideas for those determined to use Granny's yellowed index cards:
  • The science of food preservation has come a long way in the past few decades. See if you can adapt granny's recipe to modern techniques. That probably means adding lemon juice or citric acid.
  • Modern tomato varieties are not as acidic as they once were, so you will have to add lemon juice or citric acid.
  • No one I know recommends canning in any containers larger than a quart. Save granny's old half-gallon Ball jars for dried herbs or beans.
  • Try to use canned goods in a year, maybe two. I have figs in honey that I still trust ten years on, but honey is a perfect antibacterial. I'd not use tomatoes or pickles after that many years!
  • No matter how Granny canned, if the site I've listed says "pressure cooker" go with that. Don't go with a boiling-water-bath technique unless the U Georgia site gives you a thumbs-up.
Enjoy your harvest!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Fall and All That

Around this time of year little weekly and freebie papers (as in newspapers, remember them?) that usually focus on phone-sex ads and supermarket coupons give their beleaguered staffs a little freedom. These writers then run sentimental pieces about the season.

Let me essay that with my quivering quill, "The russet leaves of the towering oaks, 'neath which the scampering squirrels nimbly put away their toothsome treasures against the bitter blasts to come. Oh, as I once told Linda, my lost love, summer hath all too short a lease..."

Alliteration. Adjective strings. Really bad infusions of pseudo-Elizabethan English.

Out, damned feel-wistful columns and a pox upon thee! I have other sentiments to express about  Autumn. Namely, that it sucks to lose two old colleagues in two days. And all your squash.

First, the humans lost. Both were here at the university when I arrived in 1991; one had been here when my late brother enrolled in '66, only to be booted two years later right into the US Army and, but for the deescalating grace of Richard Nixon, all the way to Danang. Nearly fifty years have flown since then.

Our campus flag flies at half-staff one day for each of my old academic commiserators. A day later, the little slip of paper with information on their lives and accomplishments, put in an acetate holder on the flagpole, goes right to the recycling bin.  Game over.

With all that in mind, 'neath the towering oaks around Westhampton Lake, I took a pleasant stroll today to think about what is really important not on a college campus, but beyond its boundaries. For me, it was I learned in a difficult summer about working the land.

The clouds did indeed look like October, and the lake has grown more woodsy since I began walking around it, 'neath various moons, with girlfriends back in the 1970s.  Days like this, with a good northwestern breeze, invite reflection. The light is slanted so the blue deepens in the sky.

To a Deist like me, it becomes consolation enough. There was a time thirty years ago, however when I stopped believing in a Providential God and nearly went full-on Paul Bowles into existentialist atheism. You know, The Sheltering Sky. That sky is there, Bowles claims, only to keep us from recognizing the horror beyond it. That type of nihilism is terribly easy.

Today I am less Bowlesian, but I still repeat, in my first-year seminar on The Space Race, the bald fact that we each are specks, in a crowd of other specks, who live on a speck circling a hotter speck, itself on the outskirts of a speck in a cloud of hundreds of billions of specks. Each sentient speck must think that at some point it is the center of creation. Then it is gone, as surely as my wiping out the compost bin under the sink and its clusters of fruit-fly eggs. Poof.

In 30-plus years, my particular speck will be as gone as my departed colleagues. What will I leave as a legacy? Some furrows where I grew hot peppers fairly well for a local restaurant? A restored tractor that someone will buy at an estate sale?

Or maybe these blog posts, gathering pixeldust in Google's bowels, until some purge or merger leads Blogger, Blogspot, and associated content to vanish?

Say, maybe I'll put them together, with transitions and new content, into a popular book that I'll sign at events like the recent Heritage Harvest Festival! Then tour the entire country, giving talks about buying the right tractor or the right farm pickup! That's it, Immortalitatem Ex Libris!

Or the book will be remaindered for $5 on a side table at Barnes & Noble and I'll report my travel expenses to the IRS and go back to growing peppers.

Thus, the turn to the squash. That, friends, I can not only control under the sheltering sky but even enjoy.

We planted 100 row-feet of Kabocha Squash this  year for a customer who wants a few bushels a year for a restaurant special. I was wary of squash bugs, so half my plants began under row cover. These were new beds never used for fruiting plants before. I planted late in the summer to try to avoid the bugs' most prolific weeks. They multiply not arithmetically, but exponentially.

And so they did. Some wilting in the uncovered rows warned me of catastrophe at hand. I opened the covered rows and it rivaled a zombie's feast out of a Roger Corman film: the dead vines, with thousands of squash bugs and nymphs. No application of diatomaceous earth could save the remaining plants. One day I came out to find all the rest withered. So what did I learn? Stop using organic practices and hit the aisle-o-death at Home Depot?

No. A friend brought me a perfect Kabocha she'd grown. I stuffed it with a Middle-Eastern tomato sauce, lamb, and rice, and baked it. And I am drying and saving all the seeds. She used one part Dr. Bronner's Eucalyptus Soap to 9 parts water, spraying weekly.

Bowles, in a haunting and disturbing (like all his work) piece called "Next to Nothing," says "no one can know where he is, until he knows where he has been."

So the desire just to keep going on, mindful of where he has been, can be enough. Try again with different variables: late planting, Dr. Bronner's, crop rotation. Read the paper on the flagpole and remember Irby's hilarious imitations of James Dean, "the worst actor ever to be famous," or Harry, who wrote dozens of well regarded books but never learned to drive until he was in his 40s. His belches in the Dining Hall were Rabelaisian.

These are the lessons of Fall, on campus or on the farm. Remember. Despair is easy in a bitter season, when anger and stupidity contend to see which force is mightier.

Endurance is a harder lesson still. Learn it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Heritage Harvest Festival, 2016: Good Lessons for a Tractorpunk

Two years ago, I  waxed poetic about this annual event at Monticello. This marked the 10th anniversary, and I think we have only missed it one time.  I have to credit the speakers I have met there with so much of what we put into practice here at Beepasture Farms.

The weather was hot, unseasonably so as much of 2016 has been, and attendance seemed a little low as compared to last year. There was a bit of room left in most of the classes I attended. Here's what was on offer, to tempt you to join us next year.

Going on Friday before the main day of the event, or Sunday after, offers a more laid-back experience. One can park at the Monticello Visitor's Center instead of riding a bus from Piedmont Community College. While there are no vendors, there are few competitors for the speakers' attention after a talk. This year, on Friday I drove up to attend an excellent workshop on raising onions and garlic (alliums to us plant geeks), offered by Ira Wallace, a writer and gardener with Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. She convinced me that by accident I'd done some things right with our garlic (such as not over fertilizing the soil) and provided valuable advice for preparing a bed, advice that I plan to use for onions next year.

Our onion crop was a flop but I'll try again with a different perennial variety. From Ira I learned to harvest a little earlier than I have done for garlic, when one or two of the plants' green leaves are turning brown. Digging then insures that the bulbs will have sufficient skins over the cloves and not fall apart. I will also cut and eat the scapes from our hardneck garlic, then be ready to harvest a few weeks later. This was all news to me.

We began to prepare the bed for our alliums this weekend, in order to plant in mid-to-late October. I plan to keep rotating so my garlic never repeats in the same beds for four years, five if possible.

My 2016 changes involve smothering all weeds in the allium bed under thick weedblock fabric for a month, then taking it up when I plant garlic and onions as I did last year, under 4-6 inches of straw. This technique works well for Ira. Already, with my haphazard approach in a raised bed, we harvested about 40 bulbs of garlic, almost enough for a year (we eat a LOT of garlic).
Ira's workshop, pictured here, followed with one by Cindy Connor of Homeplace Earth. She gave an inspiring talk on cover crops and green manures. As with my alliums, I have been uneven since 2012 about putting nutrients back into the soil of our raised beds, beyond adding compost, ashes, and rock dust. Luckily, success involves little more than a few pounds of seed and some rain (or for us in drought currently, saved rainwater).

Next year I plan to follow our winter cover crop of hairy vetch, winter rye, and crimson clover (seeds went in this week and are sprouting) with Buckwheat going in for the Spring. Before our summer vacation, the wheat will be ready to scythe by hand and thresh. Connor's thresher is a grandchild with a plastic baseball bat and a sheet of plywood. She uses a fan to winnow the wheat, as she pours it from one bucket to another. Finally, the remainder of the harvest makes excellent locally sourced straw.

Given how much straw we use for our chickens' coops, I had better buy a plastic bat and hire a local kid to thresh.

For the second day of the festival I went to a really powerful talk about sustainable pest-remedies by Tanya L.K. Denckla, author of The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food, as well as other books and articles. Tanya and I then exchanged ideas about the vagaries of soil and weather in Central VA; she lives just up the road "a piece," meaning 40 miles, from us.  I plan to test some of her pest remedies on our squash bugs when I next grow squash (2018 season). This year we lost every single squash, despite our use of diatomaceous earth and other natural techniques such as floating row-covers and delayed planting!

Much of her advice would be a delight for the home gardener. Some simply will not work for our market-gardening operation, at least until I begin to remove weeds by some of the planting techniques and cover-crop ideas Connor advocates. I did notice this year that my Thai peppers had to fight much harder against weeds when I planted with recommended spacing. Next year, I'll go back to my 2015 method of closer planting and plant through heavy weed-block fabric. Last year I experienced some mortality because of reduced air circulation, but no plants toppled in storms and best of all, the deep shade under the the pepper plants stymied the growth of weeds.

Patience pays off. This weekend I saw two large worms covered with the larvae of parasitic wasps. We planted to attract beneficial insects this year, and it payed off. The picture below is nearly identical to one Denckla showed us, but it comes from my pepper patch.
The same day I also visited vendors and listened to Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms have an imagined dialog with Thomas Jefferson about being a productive and sustainable farmer. Even on a mountaintop, a place that Salatin said only a dreamer would try to run a farm business!

Except in spirit, I did not see Thomas Jefferson this year, but we had Naturalist William Bartram courtesy of someone's time machine. Bartram strode manfully past me as I waited, in vain, to hear a talk by food journalist Corby Kummer. Kummer, of The Atlantic and my favorite writer about food, was unable to be present for his talk. It was my only disappointment of the the 2016 Festival.

I should have chased down Bartram. Even in facsimile, I would like to pay homage to a writer we environmentalist should know better. He had a real sense of both the wonder and fragility of the New World's ecosystem.  We need a bit more of what Bartram began and that continues every year at Monticello.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

On The Country's Own Terms

I ran across an antique postcard (remember them?) today. A couple has walked out of a country house and needs to visit “the Necessary.” That means crossing a moonlit yard to a little building labeled “this is it.”  Just don’t drop that lantern and spill the oil. The Honeypot might go right up in flames.

Having recently visited a preserved 1930 Farm at Peaks of Otter, VA, I have to say “that was not so long ago.” Yet trips to the outhouse are forgotten. So is carrying a lantern. So are my rituals of country life, including, as I recently discovered, always double-checking for snakes.

The country slowly makes you live according to its terms, though on a beastly hot and humid day like today, I am very grateful for air-conditioning. The router is unplugged for a passing thunderstorm, something we never did in town, but otherwise we might be in the middle of a city.

Until you step outdoors.  When I did that the other night, about half past nine, I stepped on or just beside a poisonous snake stretched out on our kitchen steps.

Fate was kind to me; either the Copperhead struck and missed (they do miss sometimes) or chose to slither off. I heard the sound and figured it to be a black snake. That elicited only a gasp of surprise and a loud curse, as I’m accustomed to the non-venemous snakes that eat our mice and live in barn and garage to festoon the rafters with their shucked skins. A bite would mean a tetanus shot. I did not let fly a blood-curdling scream, as it might had I spotted the markings on the serpent’s back.

Then I did see the snake clearly. It was a steamy night, but suddenly I felt very, very cold. My wife grabbed a flashlight and spotlit the intruder against a cement wall—no place to fire a shotgun— while I got the longest-handled garden hoe in the shop. Several chops later, I was more than certain it was dead. It’s possible our snake was heading for a White Oak to eat cicadas. Copperheads like to do that between dusk and midnight in the summer. I’m going to check at the base of the tree (from a safe distance) with a spotlight to see if I find a snake party.

Once I refused to kill a Copperhead my late father-in-law turned up when he moved a fallen branch way back in the woods, where part of a tree had fallen across a farm road. It was a tiny thing, perhaps a foot long. It just looked up at us, not coiled.  He walked on and I caught up. He said “kill it?” and when I said no he asked why. “We’re in his house back here,” I said. His reply, with a glare, was “this is MY house.”

I still could not have killed that snake unless I had to. But in or by my house? Every single time, just as I’ve sent to their just rewards chicken-killing possums and raccoons. Just as I've dispatched dozens of garden-ravaging groundhogs.

These are the terms of the country. Not all wildlife is cute close up. Watch your step. Keep the grass short near the house. Sweep up the maple leaves falling early in the mini-drought we get every July. Copperheads are marked to look just like those leaves.

Never forget the above. Never. Yet when suburbia overtakes rural areas to ruin them, the newcomers (and I’m a newcomer of a different sort) clear, mow, poison, pave until the Wild is at such a remove that it will not come back, at least until our unsustainable civilization wises up to the need for living in harmony the Wild or collapses into a new Dark Age.

In a way I’m glad for that snake. He can stay in his house, and even cross the grass to the oak tree. I use a flashlight at night in the yard. But the step? Too close.

I tell city people “you could not live out here happily.” First, they’d not be able to wear flip-flops in the yard. Even the mention of ticks terrifies. Have you noticed how often in home-improvement stores and advertisements for home products that the white suburban families cavort on their hardwood floors or lawns barefoot?

Do not try that here. Ever.

Now I check the steps with a flashlight when I go to bring in the dog from her guard duties, thankful of all the places too far for commuters to drive to jobs, places where agriculture is still viable on scales large or small, places that cannot be so easily tamed into “Deer Run,” or “River View” or whatever place or species has been ruined to leave only a name.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

No Till? I Think Not.

I've been fascinated by small-scale successes with no-till gardening, such as lasagna gardening, but so far on our little farm, it is simply not working for commercial growing. I have 7000 square feet of raised beds now, and more on the way. In time, however, I will greatly reduce tillage. I cannot even fathom how my friend Dominic would manage 3 acres without tilling. He uses a cultivator on a row-crop tractor.

In my case, the tractor goes into the field once, when I first busted the sod. First I plowed, then harrowed. To get raised beds ready, I tilled, then amended the soil before planting and mulching. Since we use no herbicides, the weeds still creep in, particularly Cynodon dactylon, AKA wire grass, AKA Bermuda Grass and, yes, AKA Devil's Grass. It grows up and through the wire mesh we keep around our raised beds and colonizes new areas but growing roots from its runner through layering.

You cannot get rid of it without chemicals. On our patio, far from our food, I do spray Roundup on calm days. I've used it concentrated and carefully for years on stumps of Tree of Heaven.

In the garden, however, poison is out of the question. So I reach for the tiller whenever I replant a bed.

Wire grass can be reduced or even killed by shade, but that's no help in a sunny vegetable garden. Some plants form a dense canopy, such as sweet potatoes or our big crop of Thai Peppers, but the wire grass is still around, biding its time even under 6 inches of wheat straw mulch.

We own two tillers, a walk-behind with rear tines and forward and reverse gears. It's a beast. I use it for new beds or those badly overgrown by wire grass. For other beds during rotation, I use a handheld tiller to break the weeds' hold on the soil, then rake out with a for-tine cultivator or field rake. I then add amendments, usually four parts of our homemade compost, one part rock dust, one part fireplace ashes. That yields the holy trinity of gardening: Nitrogen, Rock Phosphate, Potassium.

I call this method "low till" and it does keep weeds manageable.  I try never to till too deeply.

But who wants to live on a golf course? No one that I'd want to drink with. Or have as a neighbor.

My method of low-till cultivation has kept weed pressure manageable, though I have to go around after rain and pull long runners of grass out of and around our beds.

Nature will win this battle in the long run. So be it. Wire grass is excellent in lawns and shakes off drought and even dog-urine attacks that leave brown circles in our field.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

First Season With a Greenhouse

To be honest, this post had to wait a bit because I feared disaster. Luckily, our first season with a greenhouse has been a near-complete success.

Purchase and Assembly

We purchased a kit from Farmtek. In particular, we got a 9'x12' model shown here. It was not cheap and we added a base that gets attached to the ground by long metal stakes. I highly recommend that, because greenhouses act like sails in a heavy wind. Imagine a $3000 investment blowing across the  yard in a storm, to end up a tangled mass of bent aluminum and cracked poly panels. Buy the base.

The kit requires patience, as well as a few common tools. I used some ratchet-driver wrenches and screwdrivers. Since the poly panels are held against the metal frames with spring-loaded clips, only a fool would not wear goggles when working on that part of the project. A carpenter's square is a must, too, for early work. If the frames are not straight when screwed together, the panels won't fit later, and the builder will need to loosen screws, move things, and lose time in the process.

It took me about 30 hours of work, half of that with a helper, to get the thing built. We started in late winter. Before I began I leveled the area and put several inches of rock dust, then gravel, over weed-block fabric. A few weeds have still found the site comfortable for sprouting, but they have been easy to pull out.

The panels were the most difficult part; screwing together framing is easy, if time-consuming. The panels have open cells to trap air and edges that fit into plastic channels resembling the binding for acetate report covers. The edge-channels got easily mixed up in the bags and we had to unnecessarily cut some down that should have been saved for larger panels.  They are wickedly difficult to slide on at first, but once we had the hang of it, that got easier.

The company provided several tubes of excellent silicon caulk for sealing out air; the metal clips alone for the panels do not suffice when the winter winds blow. And we often start seeds in February. The finished greenhouse had two loads of snow on the roof from late-season storms.

Overall, most things fit well until we got to the roof-vents. They were cheaply made and ill-fitting. I cut down some poplar strips and painted them white. They braced the vents and sealed them fairly well. Water will still drip in during downpours, and one stream ruined a small tray of Ghost-Pepper seedlings that I grow to heat up our Thai Dragon peppers: no small loss if you hate hot food!

I did not have time to install the automatically opening vents that respond to sunlight; when the plants are all in the ground, I will go to work.

Controlling Temperature

Seeds will not germinate when the soil is too cold or hot, too wet or too dry. I found that my Thai Dragon peppers, our cash crop, were particularly finicky. 2015 seed I saved did well, but not Thai seed  left over from last year's bulk purchase, then frozen. 2016 seed purchased as a last-ditch effort to have enough plants did wonderfully. Then some of the Thai-sourced seed from 2015 made a late emergence.

This troublesome seed may be from plants that were not open-pollinated in Thailand. My local plants were. That could affect germination rates, but I think more than anything it was our cold spring. The first sprouts came up in a freakishly warm stretch of days in February, then a really hard freeze. I used to start seeds indoors around Valentine's Day.  I mist the trays of sown seeds and cover the trays with clear tops, cracking them as soon as germination begins. It has worked for 20 years for my basil, without a hitch, and tomatoes too. When the seedlings start to get a couple inches tall, I move them to individual pots, anything from old yogurt cups to reused planing pots.

Bigger growers use heating pads under trays, and I think I will too for peppers next year.

A key element for any greenhouse is a max/min thermometer. It reads those ranges and can be reset daily. One cloudy morning I left the vents and door closed. By noon the sun was beaming down and I raced home to find seedlings wilting. I nearly lost 100+ plants since the greenhouse was at 120 degrees. I got lucky and saved them all, by opening the greenhouse wide and misting everything little and watering the rest. Still, it was a close thing.

Damp Soil But No Floods

Mold will kill your seeds fast. The rule I've heard from professional growers to to mist the soil only when it is dry. On cloudy days, the soil may not dry out completely. On sunny ones, I found myself misting the seedlings again in late afternoon, when I got home from work.

The right mix of soil is everything. I used some planting mixes for some trays. For others I put a few inches of garden soil, from a 20 ton pile we had delivered. I smoothed that layer, added the seeds, then topped it with seed-starter mix to the depth needed by a particular seed (1/4 inch for peppers).

When the seedlings get tall, I just use a common metal watering can and water the lot. I have always liked to keep my potted seedlings in trays with a half-inch or so of water in the bottom. I found this develops really good root systems, as compared to only top-watering the seedlings.

Now we are hardening off the seedlings and planting at a breakneck pace. I think I raised over 1000 plants this year. Yikes. I'm giving away the extras.

Would I do it all again? Absolutely.  I might have looked for a different vent system. When all of our plants are in the ground, I'll unbox the automatic vents I purchased from Farmtek and install them; they respond to daylight and are solar-powered.

And, I did say "Buy the Base," right? And stake it down, right? Here's what happened to Scottish greenhouse, an image I found online, in a big Scottish gust. I'd need more than a wee dram if I came outside and found that.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Old-School Tools: Fire & Fuel

In working on Project M last year, I had to rebuild a carburetor, a one-barrel Marvel. I did it twice, in fact, after messing up the first time around. For once I did not curse, because the job was so simple. There were two little adjustment screws to manipulate whenever the tractor ran poorly. I tune the tractor frequently now, and the 1950 John Deere mows grass like a new tractor.

Enter a Quadrajet four-barrel in my wife's '68 Chevy C-10. The truck gets driven about 1000 miles per year, but in winter it sits a lot. So when we took the truck out the other day on a mission to pick up some 93-octane non-ethanol fuel, the vehicle "stumbled" at high speed, surging as if the engine were being starved for fuel.

"Uh-oh," thought I. We've had the Chevy since 2003, and that particular curse had never afflicted it. In fact, it never has had any problems.

Safely home with the gas, I began to do some research. It looked as though two things might be at fault: the carb needed tuning or the gas tank had some water in the bottom. That can happen even in a nearly full tank that sits in our changeable weather.  Fool that I am, I ignored Occam's Razor, the principle that the simplest explanation is probably the place to begin, and starting reading about tuning carburetors. Time to earn some gearhead points, since I'm writing a bit for Hemmings Motor News.

Spoiler alert: I got it right the first time. I must credit Super Chevy's Web site, where there are easy-to-follow instructions for the three main types of carbs. I purchased a vacuum gauge and as I do when cooking a new dish, I followed the instructions to the letter.  Soon I had a truck that idled with maximum vacuum pressure at 850 RPM, the guidelines for four-barrel carbs.  Then I took it on the road.
image credit: Super Chevy

It stumbled again. I made a round-trip drive of 20 miles, and on the way home, the truck ran perfectly with better power than it had before.  I began (finally) to employ Occam's Razor.

As a brother-in-law once explained, with old motors before sensors and computers, two things affect running or not: getting spark and getting fuel. Spark and fuel sound rather primordial to me. It's amazing that a vehicle as new as our 68 truck, or for that matter, my 74 Buick Apollo have more in common with my 1950 tractor than my Mini Cooper.  But that's how it worked for decades and decades of internal combustion.

I'd assured myself, then, that the truck was getting ample fuel; the carb was well tuned and clean. The gas was new. The electrical system was delivering spark; the motor never missed.

Thus is was back to the bottom of the gas tank, a place I could never go with human eyes. What to do, so the motor gets the RIGHT fuel?  For those using old equipment, water is always a threat, but there are products like HEET that absorb water and safely burn in the cylinders. That's my next step, and since all three of our old vehicles have high-output GM 350 motors with four-barrel carbs, HEET and a bit of tuning will be part of my old-school rituals from now on.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Illusion Is Real To Me

This post began with some musings at Wagner James "Hamlet" Au's blog, New World Notes. Au has also covered the utopians and skeptics of virtual reality in a piece at Wired, "VR Will Make Life Better--Or Just Be an Opiate For the Masses." Some proponents of the Occulus Rift 3D viewer are claiming that a virtual world good enough is as good at the life we lead without goggles and a fast internet connection.

Since this issue involves both of my blogs, I hope readers will excuse the cross-postings. I have also been thinking about how Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is very much invested in Occulus tech and why the picture of him, striding among a crowd wearing Rifts, chills me to the bone.

Here was my reply at New World Notes.

Even a happy virtual life would neglect the agons of a happy real one.

Yesterday I labored a few hours on a farm tractor I'm selling, checking for issues and eliminating possibilities in the electric system. I used a lot of stored knowledge in the wetware of my brain to trouble-shoot. I was in a place without reliable wireless, so double-checking hunches with the phone was not possible.

Then I went to work on the fuel system, turning wrenches and skinning knuckles until I had the likely culprit. At night I went online, into a flat virtual community, to check my assumptions. This weekend I'll clean out the fuel tank, blow compressed air through all the fittings, and restart the old diesel.

Simulating all that with an Occulus might eventually be possible. Doing so might even feed me if my virtual farm supplied RL (real life) income. But you know what?

Virtual is still FAKE. Always will be until someone really does achieve the Singularity. Hence my consideration of SL (Second Life) and more advanced forms of virtual worlds as just something nice for entertainment, like a novel or film but more immersive.

As for the possibility that our RL world is a Matrix? Let me quote a famous fake person, Conan the Barbarian. I only slay groundhogs and cold beers, but the rest is apt:

"I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Don't Hit Me With Them Negative Waves

I would be a rich man if I had $20 for every time someone told me "you will never enjoy that" or "that will never work."  

While keeping my my first principles stated here at Tractorpunk in 2013, to remain positive and "light on snark," I do want to cite a few instances of "negative waves" shot my way over the years. 
  • You will hate living in the country
  • You have to grow up farming in order to do well at it
  • Small farms have no future
  • You are too old to learn how to do mechanical work
  • No one cares about the origin of their food. They just look at the price
  • You will never find friends in the country
  • You cannot live sustainably any more
  • In three months, you'll hate that old pickup truck you just bought
  • Organic food is a fad
  • You will never be able to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart.
I married a very positive woman. She smiles at these predictions when I snarl. So to you negativists, I say "have a little faith, baby."

Friday, January 22, 2016

Snowstorm in The Country

I had the bad luck to be on a suburban commercial six-lane the night before our big storm of the winter hit. The traffic around the grocery stores was hellish. Even the day before, when I did a little shopping, I found nearly no milk or bread at two stores I regularly visit.

Being well-stocked on both, I just shrugged. I did, however, snag fatayer, lavash pita, and some kibbie at my Mediterranean grocer. One can never be too prepared for a Southern blizzard, a rare-enough event to make folks get a little crazy.  I got in my usual quips in person and online about my favored season to folks who'd just as soon have our state's climate resemble Florida's.

Not me. For a day or two, I can revel in weather that is not all about making us feel comfortable, weather that shows us the universe is not about us and cares little for us, yet is pure and lovely in that indifference. The snow began after 9am, about the time I put up my wife's car in the garage and helped her get a little shelter ready for our flock of pullets, just beside the little coop the four of them use. The older hens, who are just beginning to mingle with the new girls, have a fancy shelter we built  last year, but they are not the sort to be sharing.

As I write this I think we have about 8 to 9 inches on the ground, not bad for 13 hours of snowfall with many more hours of snow on the way. Weather sites online were full of photos like this one I snagged from, of stores practically looted by folks who would only be in their houses, at best, for a day or two. A month ago, shelf-pegs at our locally owned hardware store were groaning with unsold snow shovels. The temperature then was in the 70s. Now I'm betting those cheap shovels have sold out.

The differences in city and country behavior have taught me a lot, every time it snows. We do not loot the stores here, and drivers generally know how and when to employ four-wheel drive. I try to fit in, but I had lessons long before I moved out to the sticks. Most of my life I was a city boy, but my dad, who was never handy in other ways, always had a knack for being prepared. He was the only man on our block who found decent drinking water during Hurricane Camille in 1969, when Richmond had no potable water for weeks and the Army brought in tanker trucks of foul-tasting stuff. Dad said he never wanted a shovel that would break, so he bought two excellent shovels I still own, 35 years later. I repainted them this summer and rubbed Danish oil into the handles.

My own preparations began a few days ago, getting our last big unsplit logs into the barn to dry out a bit, moving split and seasoned wood up the porch, and putting finishing touches on a greenhouse where I'll start plants for our LLC in just a few weeks.  I ran a last load of wood up to the porch in the first snow, checked our root shelter for mice--we've bagged three since my last post--and tidied up the house while watching the wonder outside.

Partly I do these chores to focus me. I think that is why the ritual of looting the supermarket happens, too. It might be too much, emotionally, to think about what Nature tells us about our little personal lives during a blizzard or hurricane.

It can be depressing to think that we fade as fast as fallen snow after the temperature rises. No, I am not at peace with that. Things might end in ice, Robert Frost said in his poem, yet for me ice does not suffice. It does, however, make me appreciate Spring.

Everything ends in ice, according to The Second Law of Thermodynamics. It's daunting to consider that hypothetical ninth plant that astronomers are now hunting, way out beyond the Sun's Kuiper Belt. Its orbit is so distant that Planet Nine could take between 10 and 20 thousands years to circle the sun.  Any snow that far out is not just water and it is eternal.
After that sort of pondering, plowing the driveway and drinking some hot chocolate are more than welcome. Those are things I can influence.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Mice in the Root Shelter!

I check our "Root Shelter," fashioned from a Cold-War Fallout shelter, weekly. So far the pumpkins and garlic in there have held up well, but I've had a special concern about the small harvest of sweet potatoes (no more than 25 pounds) that we gleaned this year. A neighbor gave me another 25 pounds, and I've kept them in a cool utility room. I've been planning to move them to the Root Shelter  but have been rather lazy about it.

Finally I went to check things today.  I am glad I did. The tubers already there were wrapped in newspaper to absorb any moisture and put in bushel baskets with lots of air circulation. The door is tight and features breathing holes with 1/4" hardware cloth. The walls are cinder block and the whole thing is underground.

Imagine my disgust when over half our sweet potatoes had been gnawed by mice!  I took a basket full of basket cases out to our compost heap.

Our pumpkins, garlic, and pearl onions were fine, untouched by the little gluttons.

This warning meant going back to the drawing board about the Shelter and how food get stored.  Baby mice can squeeze through an opening the diameter of a pencil; adults, I've read, can get through a hole the size of a human pinkie.  They can gnaw wood and plastic with ease. Metal will stop them. So will our building's resident black snakes, which are hibernating now, and barn cats.

We don't have a barn cat with access to the building, since we keep it locked. Killing mice myself poses no moral problems at all, but I won't employ poisons. A dead mouse could be eaten by our predators, killing our pest control service! Poison could also find its way onto the food in the shelter. I am not squeamish at all about setting snap-traps, but the potatoes still needed better storage. Next year we will harvest a large number of Kabocha Squash for a local restaurant, and I don't want this happening again for a cash crop.

Homesteading and survivalist forums are full of tales about how to store things in root cellars. Mice can gnaw through plastic, so a simple ventilated tote would not do.

Some folks employ metal trash cans, which I have used with great success for feed for our chickens, cats, and the dog. Drilling lots of holes (no more than 1/4" across would not be too onerous, but I had a tote and hardware cloth. So I got right to work.

My invention involved using a tote with a removable, one-piece top, rather than a hinged one. I cut away all but the rim, so the contents would breathe, and put hardware cloth inside, fastened to the plastic by screws and washers. Next I lined the inside of the tote with more hardware cloth, after drilling lots of 1/8" holes all over the tub's bottom and sides.  The metal sides come up high enough to meet the wire on top.

I plan to check this frequently, especially now that I have some snap-traps down, baited with peanut butter.  I hope we have sweet potatoes come spring! None of our seed potatoes were eaten, so we'll be starting fresh for a bigger harvest in 2016.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Winter Chores

We did not have too much of a winter until last week, thanks to El NiƱo. I don't much care for warm Decembers, but some Fall chores did get done. My old friend Dominic and I began working to paint a barn roof and I was able to service some equipment that gets harder to do when the mercury drops below freezing.

It has been pleasantly refreshing to hear people note, usually at the cashier's station in rural stores, that this warm weather "just ain't right." In town, however, one does not hear as much of that. It's tempting to give someone a tongue-lashing, so instead I just say "enjoy the season for what it is."

Out in the sticks, my answer is to use the cold weather we finally got for that which is best done in the cold. On the farm that means clearing land for future planting or to prevent saplings from shading our garden out of existence. Winter means getting into places that will certainly be "snakey" in April and May. Having nearly stepped on a a basking Copperhead in 2012, I now appreciate better where serpents like to have a home, and I respect that as long as they respect my space.  For now, my resident and nonpoisonous black snakes are under ground or in a cozy barn-corner, waiting for mouse-hunting season to resume.  The barn, meanwhile, gets filled with additional firewood just in case March surprises us.

In our soggy low places, the ground often freezes nicely.  I can then tromp around and post no-hunting signs and clear an old road to get through the woods to the beeyard. Two junked cars block it for now, but they'll be gone soon. Lots of other junk gets pulled out of the woods to be discarded or reused (mostly, junked). We cut a road to an old run-in full of overly seasoned but usable firewood. It's a pile I dare not disturb after April Fool's Day.

The nicest accidental discovery of the season came via Nancy's looking online about blackberries. She discovered that they fruit best on second-year canes, and that fact provides a great method to keep two huge "patches" in production, yielding jam, pies, and cobbler for us and provender for the wildlife.  I will run a rotary mower (aka "Bush Hog," a brand name) over 1/3 of each patch annually.  That will cut in lanes for harvesting without stepping on snakes or getting tangled in thorny canes. One only picks blackberries at the edge of a patch, though the best ones always seem just out of reach! There's a lesson of something.

All these things and more are possible in the coldest months, as long as the snow does not fall too deeply. This week, as Dom and I put window panels in our new greenhouse, a flurry blessed us for a few moments with the wonder of the season. It hissed down and reminded us, as it piled up quickly, that the universe is both indifferent to us and, with the right attitude, lovely in its indifference.

And later there will be blackberries.