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.