Tuesday, April 27, 2010

April is a three-season month

There is a good-looking greenhouse on Rt 22 near our farm called Sweeney's. I pass it every time I drive to Cooperstown. Two weeks ago when the weather was in the 60's, I stopped in, wanting to buy flower and herb starts for our front gardens. Ever since the snow melted off, I have been itching to plant something. I found the owner watering tiny dalias in a humid greenhouse at the back of the property. He sent me away with a wave. "It's too early. It still might snow, you know! Write down what you want, and I'll put it aside for you, but do yourself a favor, and don't plant anything until Memorial Day."

I left disappointed. It seemed unfair that the noxious weeds I watch springing vigorously from the garden beds can tolerate cold just fine, but anything I want to plant is at risk!

Today, the words of the greenhouse man proved a fair warming. Here is a picture of the snow shower we got. The thin, white sheet we have covering our soil blocks now seems dangerously skimpy.

Maybe next week I'll do some planting....


Monday, April 26, 2010

Father Oak and Daughter Scone

A few days ago, Edmund found an e-mail in his inbox from Oikus, a company that sells trees. They were advertising 20 trees for 30 dollars. This was a great deal! Only certain trees qualified of course, but among them he found the hybur oak and the burr English oak. I remember Edmund talking about planting an edible forest more than 7 years ago. What a compelling idea! We have foregone some measure of ‘freedom’ by planting ourselves here on a farm for the foreseeable future, but we have also stepped into a commensurate freedom to actualize the dreams that have been tantalizing us for years. In this spirit, Edmund ordered 40 oaks today. We plan to plant them beyond the apple orchard, bringing the edge of the forest a bit closer. Hopefully in 20 years or so, they will litter the ground with their acorns and satisfy the mouths of man and beast alike.

In keeping with this theme, I thought I would post the Acorn Scone recipe that I have been baking lately (back by popular demand, i.e. Normandy). With any luck, you could come to our farm in 15 years and harvest enough acorns to make them yourself (or better yet, in the meantime, find a burr oak in your neighborhood and reap the benefits!).

Before I share this recipe, I must give credit to Garth and Edmund’s mom, Dorothy Brown, for having the wherewithal to realize that acorns were worth the energy. Every Fall she spends days harvesting gallons of acorns that have fallen from local burr oaks. Picking them up is the easy part. What follows is the process of working them into an edible meal. This involves smashing them with a hammer to break their shells, chopping up the good ‘meat’ inside and separating out the shell and any rotten parts, consecutive boilings that persuade them to release their tannins, grinding this boiled acorn mash, and finally spreading it on a baking sheet to dry it in a low oven. When this is accomplished she is left with a fragrant meal, which can be stored in jars for months. It is jealously guarded while in abundance and sorely missed when the stock is depleted. That said, Dorothy has been more than generous with her acorn meal. Having not harvested any acorns myself this last fall, her generosity is the only reason I have any acorn flour to bake with today.

Acorn Scones

-heralded, “Best Scones Ever!” by Normandy Alden.

¾ cup acorn meal *I grind the coarse meal in the spice grinder until it is very fine before measuring it.

1 ¼ cup whole -wheat flour **I used freshly ground flour but this shouldn’t matter much.

2 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp baking soda

½ tsp table salt

Zest of one lemon

Combine the dry ingredients (including lemon zest) and set aside.

8 T frozen butter, grated

Unwrap the top half of a stick of frozen butter. Hold the bottom half and grate it with a box grater until you have 4 tablespoons left in your hand. Repeat this with the second stick. When you have grated 8 T place the bowl of grated butter in the freezer until you are ready to mix the scones.

½ cup whole milk yogurt

¼ cup heavy cream

¼ cup whole milk

3 T. honey

Mix the wet ingredients together well.

Currants and toasted pecans come later (as many as you wish, or any other fruit or nut combination you fancy)

Remove the grated butter from the freezer. Toss the dry ingredients with the butter. Combine the wet and dry ingredients. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead 6-8 times until it comes together. There is no need to over-do it. Generously flour the surface you are working on and the dough. Roll the dough into a roughly 15 x 15” square. Fold the bottom third up into the middle (having a dough scraper to assist in this process is very helpful) and fold the top third down. You will have made a rectangle. Fold the left third of the rectangle into the middle and fold the right third over these two. Flour your surface and the dough and roll it again into another 15 x 15” square. Press currants and toasted pecans into the dough. Begin at the bottom edge and roll the dough into a cylinder. It helps to encourage the dough to come away from the board with a dough scraper or sharp knife. Gently press and shape the dough into an elongated rectangle. Cut the dough into 5 smaller rectangles and then cut each rectangle on the diagonal. Slide these onto an ungreased baking sheet. Melt 2 T of butter and brush the tops of the scones. Bake for 18-25 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes before transferring the scones to a rack. Eat at least one of them when it is still warm and have additional butter at the ready.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sowing Seeds

Where we are the night still brings frost with it, and so we had to assemble a few things before seeding the soil blocks we just made. We went with this bizarre product called 'Agribon'. It is some conglomeration of poly-blah blah blah. It is meant to protect things down to a temperature of 26 degrees and will let in 70% of the available light. It catches the wind extremely well, which Garth and I found out when we tried setting it up during yesterday's gusty afternoon, but now that it is tied down it does protect our little seedlings from the windy world. It also traps burdock seeds extremely well (who or what doesn't, really?). Maybe we will get inspired and by a mile of this stuff. We will hold onto either end and just sweep our land free of that burly scourge. Maybe not.
Here is Normandy sowing sweet peas, calendula, basil, dill and sunflower seeds this afternoon.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Apple Trees

Today we planted 34 apple trees, though we've been working on it all week. Almost as important, we had planned on putting up a fence to protect them from the deer that roam all over our fields. Though they don't populate these parts as densely as some suburbs, and so might go after the planting less voraciously, our chosen orchard site has enough hoof-trod paths and pebble-like scat to make a good protection plan prudent.

The trees came on Friday, shipped UPS in a 4' box with a sort of plastic swaddling to keep their roots moist.

On Tuesday I went up and cleared the brush we had cut this winter, while Ed fixed a 20-year-old weed-whacker. After lunch he went up to mow the future fence line, while I used the tractor to fill the pickup with some of the beautifully rotted manure that is piled up about the property. I then attempted to drive this to the site, but I bogged down. I pulled the truck out with the tractor and tried again, and again I failed. Once more I dragged the truck out and backed it down in defeat.

Of course, those three sentences took hours to unfold, and by the time I had taken the tractor and some lime and tools up the hill, the afternoon was waning. Ed grabbed a shovel and I grabbed another. He put his to the earth and pushed down with his heel, but the blade only cut a few inches before stopping dead. I tried with the same result, and I could feel the metal scraping against rock. We laboriously cleared a circle the size we thought we needed. The ground seemed to be three quarters rock and one quarter dirt.

"Maybe we should use the backhoe," said Ed, and I nodded. He went and worked on building shelves in the barn, and I went and dumped the manure on the garden.

Wednesday morning we got up. I won't speak for Ed, but I was optimistic. Out in the hops barn where we park the tractor, we also have a backhoe attachment. As these things always seem to, it took longer than expected to get everything hooked up, and longer still to figure out how to engage our tractor's hydraulics. But it wasn't too late in the morning when we pulled out, certain that we now had the advantage. That's when Ed noticed the hydraulic fluid dribbling down from beneath the controls.

"Maybe it's just a loose fitting," I said. I removed the metal plate from the front of the backhoe. It was definitely the hose itself that was dripping, not the fitting. (To be clear, the tractor was off, so there was no possibility of pressure coming through the line.)

We resigned ourselves to a tough day of work and trudged up the hill. But to our surprise the hole we had dug the previous day was aberrant - just fifteen feet down the slope we hit much less gravel, and and in a few minutes we had readied a second circle. Normandy came up and helped, and by midway through the afternoon we had the holes all dug.

Perhaps the ground had dried out more, or perhaps Ed moonlights as a monster truck driver. Either way, he succeeded where I had failed, and suddenly we had everything we needed to plant.

Thursday (Earth Day as it so happens) all four of us set about planting, driving stakes and mounding the soil around the roots. Because the trees were grafted - the rootstock determines the ultimate size - we had to make sure to keep the union above the soil level.

There has been one more setback. I left a message for the guy who had supposedly been making our fence posts all week, just to confirm that I could pick them up the next morning. His wife had called on Tuesday and asked if we could wait an extra day on them, since her husband's partner was in the hospital. But sometime in the past few days they had decided that they could not actually make the posts but had seen no reason to call and tell us this. So if anyone knows where to get some locust fence posts, preferably in central New York, let us know.

But the trees look good for now, and hopefully we will figure something out before the deer find the orchard.

We planted eight types of trees, some for eating, some for cider, and some for both.

This is just a picture of me on our awesome tractor.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

2 x 2 x 2

While it looks like I have just baked 400 of the world's most delicious and personally sized chocolate cakes, they are actually soil blocks. Last summer Garth and I ordered this soil block maker after reading Elliott Coleman's book, The New Organic Grower. In it he describes the process of making soil blocks and gives a recipe for turning out these nutrient dense little squares. There are many compelling reasons for starting seeds this way. The blocks create ideal conditions for germination. They are very good at retaining moisture, yet incapable of becoming so moist that you worry your seeds might drown. They also enable you to start seeds without an assortment of #5 plastic containers. The roots of plants in plastic containers will often outgrow their small confines and begin strangling themselves by running their roots around in circles. When the time comes to transplant them, they can suffer transplant shock after having 1/2 their roots ripped off in the process of untangling them. This stunted period of growth can negate the time you gained from starting your seeds early. When the roots of seeds in soil blocks have grown to the edges they sense the air and sunlight and they don't get all up in a jambles, so to speak. Transplanting them is gentle on the seedling because the entire block is submerged in the soil without any disturbance to the roots or shoot. Beyond these practical considerations the blocks are fabulously attractive, as you can plainly tell. Before we start seeding them though, we are going to plant the 35 apple trees that just came. They too are fabulously attractive.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Town Meeting

For the past four years, Edmund and I have moved every year. Just when we began to settle in somewhere, we would move again. Believing as I do in the power of local government and wanting to be involved in creating and maintaining a sense of community, I have wanted to participate in local politics. However, it never seemed to make sense to get involved because we always had this plan to buy a farm - somewhere else.

Well, here we are.

And last night we attended our first Plainfield town meeting. We were approached a few days before by Vern, a fellow Plainfield tax payer, who wanted our signatures in an effort to halt the land revaluation that is being done in Plainfield 2010-2011. I will not bore you with the litigious details of state taxes, school taxes, agriculture subsidies, and something called a "star rebate", and how they all intertwine to create a crushing choke-hold on working families. Everyone in the room last night could agree that school taxes in Plainfield are WAY too high, but there was confusion about just what to do about it. Many people showed up to protest the land revaluation, dumbfounded that their "dungheap" (her words, not mine) could have appreciated 150% in the last few years.

I have been thinking a lot today about the meeting last night. There were an array of emotions, personalities, information and misinformation. Not having my camera with me to capture the event, I drew a small cartoon of the town meeting, with the four of us pictured in the back row.

Despite it all, I actually feel inspired. I still believe that getting involved with the issues of one's community is important and necessary to create the kind of world I want to belong to. It feels good to have a town, a place, a farm to become involved with. The town meeting has made me think about the larger political and economic context within which our little farm sits. The issues of our world, as impossibly large and unwieldy as they seem (Anyone out there listen to Democracy Now! on a regular basis?!) must be addressed somehow. What better place to begin then in one's own backyard?

That is exactly what I intend to do.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chicken Tractor #1

The chickens had been growing, and the weather had been improving. The brooder in the milk house, once more than large enough, had become inadequate, as several of the chicks had managed to flutter out of it. Most of all, it had started smelling rank.

When we spent several days moving truckloads of wood that Ed had spent years squirreling away - 2x4s he'd taken from construction dumpsters, the remains of the trellis that had stood outside our childhood home, old barn beams - I wondered if it was worth the effort. I admit that a small part of me even felt like we were simply cluttering up the barns we were finally getting clean.

But the usefulness of random piles of wood was driven home when we decided to build a chicken tractor. There was no going to Home Depot, no making a materials list and then halting the project because we forgot something. Instead we could just grab an armload of wood and start building.

The difference between a chicken coop and a chicken tractor is that a chicken tractor has an open bottom. This allows the birds to scratch around for insects and clover and other things they love to eat, and since they have fresh ground every day, their manure doesn't build up, and they consequently have fewer parasite problems.

All of this is contingent on portability, and while the tractor turned out beautifully, we may have gotten a little carried away. The cedar shake looks great, as do the double doors on the front, the built in nesting boxes and the siding with a built in hatch to access the boxes. But the result is a structure that, while mobile, is emphatically not easy to move.

My friend Kristian and I fabricated a dolly that should make it easier, but I still need to put wheels on it. We'll see.

I titled this post "Chicken Tractor #1" because we anticipate having several of these. Though all the birds are in it right now, this opulent one will be for Ed's prized Silver Penciled Plymouth Rocks. We will build a far simpler one for the meat birds, and some sort of larger chicken coop for our larger flock of layers, the first installment of which arrives in about two weeks.

As for the chickens themselves, they are doing well, though wellness is a relative term in this case. The Cornish Crosses are growing at a terrifying rate, they have such thin feathers that considerable swaths of raw pink skin are visible, and they mostly lie around until they feel like waddling over to the food.

The plumage of the Dark Cornishes and the Silver Penciled Rocks is diverging, but they are still about the same size (about a third that of the Cornish Crosses), and they seem more interested in scratching around.

The picture above is shortly after they had been moved out and were still a bit confused about their new surroundings. The one below shows some of the differences, though does not adequately convey the disparity in size.


Friday, April 9, 2010

The Tractor Arrives...

The last two days I've been a road jockey in a truck with a bench seat designed by spine surgeons to increase their business. I planned to collect both the 5 ton Gatormade trailer and the Kubota tractor on the same trip by driving a triangle of sorts. Unfortunately getting the trailer took far longer than I expected due to two complications. The first was the lights and brake hook-up on our truck was "tractor-trailer" standard, not light pick-up standard. If we'd told Gatormade they could have had it wired ahead of time, but we didn't. The trailer dealer and I spent an hour or so swapping out the plug that came from the factory for one that he kindly donated to the cause of me getting home without a traffic ticket. It seems that using standard colors for wiring trailers is most decidedly not en vogue. Selling trailers is a sideline business for this guy, whose main deal is mechanical fabrication of all manner of metal contraptions. Anyway, we parked the trailer out in front of his shop and poured over two dated, torn, and not entirely trustworthy wiring diagrams. The one that went to the plug we were removing had his pencil notes for which color wire belonged to each trailer component (turn signal, brake lights, brakes, etc), and didn't match the "standard" printed there. Two of the six colors were just plain absent... Eventually we managed to figure the whole mess out and wired up the new plug. There were enough times where he tried to put the wire in the wrong spot on the core or had the core turned around backwards that his "I know the red wire is for brakes" rang a bit hollow on my ear. I had no better recommendations though so I figured I'd better just let him be sure about it. Also, my confidence declined a bit due to his repeated reference to me as "old boy" and us as "the wire doctors". Somehow though we managed to muddle through. Between the two of us, the indications on the core, the old wiring diagrams, and the circuit tester we figured it out on our first time through the wiring. It was a minor miracle for sure.
Then right at the end he asked if the "brake controller" lit up. We soon discovered our truck doesn't have a brake controller. It must have been removed by the previous owner. At least it was wired to recieve one though. I stopped in Elmira on my way back to buy one, but by the time I did that and muddled around seeing if I could install it quickly (I couldn't), it was too late to get to Honesdale, PA where our tractor waited.
This morning I wired in the brake controller and then set off for Penn's Woods to the south. I was grateful that the tractor collection went more smoothly than the trailer did yesterday. I had no hang-ups at all. The truck towed beautifully and the trailer rode smoothly with nearly 3 tons of tractor filling its bay. I did find myself feeling queasy for a few minutes shortly after setting off with the loaded trailer. I eventually figured out the truck was sloshing slightly on the road from the extra weight behind it (though it never felt dangerous like the trailer was pushing it around). The feeling passed and I made it home uneventfully. Here is a photo of the fully loaded rig upon arrival.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Spring Surprises

For most of the winter, our farm was piled with snow. Clean lines and drifts were our only indications of the contour of the land below. We came to know intimately every shade of gray, as every upstate New Yorker must do.
With the coming of spring, our view of the farm has outgrown our winter window glazing. There is warmth in the sunshine and a spring to our step. Garth and Alanna have been digging the beginnings of our vegetable garden. Edmund replaced our mailbox. Today I spent the afternoon raking up leaves and pulling thorns and burdock from around some of the buildings. With delight, we have all witnessed crocus blossoms growing in the yard. But where there is joy, there is also disgust: trash, burdock, and bones have also been revealed by the melting snow.
While gardening today I collected on the front step just a few of unnerving items found in our yard: a broken knife, a chain, broken glass and metal, plastic and wood. At every turn, there is reason to wonder at (and curse) the stewardship of the previous owner. And equally as often I find myself hopeful for the coming months and grateful for the beauty of this land.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

What Is That Infernal Light?

For the past fortnight or so I have on many nights noticed a strange glow.

It appears always in the windows of the milk house, a small structure appended to the stern, gray side of the barn proper. At some point in the century before our own this room held the tangled wires and vacuum pump that ran the milkers, as well as the snaking pipes that reached through the wall to siphon milk from the sixty odd cows interred in tie stalls, pulling it into a gaping bulk tank from which a truck would retrieve it. But these Baroque machinations had been removed years prior, and I saw no way that, even had they been intact, they could have turned the windows to smoldering red eyes.

More recently the building had been used to house dogs, evinced by the scratches gouged on the interior of the doors and the rotting feed bags that were matted a foot thick on the floor when we first came to the farm. In addition, it must have been some sort of makeshift veterinary clinic, for when cleaning it out I found boxes of syringes still in individual wrappers and their used counterparts scattered amongst the other detritus. There were foil envelopes of expired medication, and scalpels with thin, curved blades, like rusted toenails.

Though not prone to fears of the supernatural, I could well imagine one of the large dogs - already white and filthy and menacing - slipping across some metaphysical boundary to haunt this shabby prison. Or perhaps the spirit of a goat that had met a grisly end therein had risen from a shallow grave, a hellish aura hanging about it, bleating ominously and waiting for some poor fool to open the door to its domain.

Two nights ago, summoning all of my meager courage, I finally made myself confront whatever horror awaited within. I had hoped the milk house would appear less ominous as I approached, but the dread only built in the chill wind of that spring night, for the demonic windows glowed brighter and brighter.

Okay, I made that all up. We have two heat lamps for the chickens in the milk house. But you must admit, it does look really creepy.

The chickens are all growing at a tremendous pace, but it is frightening how fast the Cornish Crosses are putting on the pounds. My guess is that they weigh about twice as much on average as the other breeds. They still look kind of cute, but much less so, which is probably for the best given our long term plans for them.

We hope to build a chicken tractor in the next couple days, at which point we will be able to move them outside. We've already tried giving them clover and grass, and while they go crazy over it, they aren't yet very adept at eating foliage. They mostly pick up and drop the same leaf repeatedly, or chase each other around snatching a particular stem back and forth, as if it was somehow superior to the rest. They are far more entertaining than anything else on the farm and will likely remain so until we get a donkey.