Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Is it super nice?

It depends who you ask. A week and a half ago, when the snow looked like it was going to make a hasty retreat, I decided to photograph its progression. You can see that progress is sure, but it is awfully subtle.



While I am aware that our pastures could be much greener by now, our chickens waste no energy on ideas like these.

Here they are taking a communal dust bath in the newly exposed soil. They are already foraging for a lot of their food. I put grain in their trough every day, but they are less interested than they were a week ago, preferring to roam broadly and nibble away at whatever they find. The difference is obvious. The yolks of our eggs have already deepened in color. I had one yesterday that would have rivaled an egg from the heat of summer.

Despite the fact that Spring is slow coming, we have begun preparations for the garden. Garth compiled a chart of everything we want to grow and divided our garden log by week. Every week in April begins with the question, "Is it super nice? consider planting..." It is wonderful to have the timing sorted out already. He seeded these soil blocks on March 13th with plants that require more time than our season allows: celeriac, celery, leeks, and cherry tomatoes. Everything has germinated now. Below are the leeks, bringing their heads up and out from under the surface.

Our 'Sweet Meat' squash, just days after harvest in September.

Our 'sweet meat' squash today.

And last year's garden is still giving. Apart from a softening collection of potatoes in our basement, these three squash are what remain of our haul. Their skin and flesh have changed drastically over the course of the last 6 months, but on the whole, they are still kicking. About a month ago we noticed that one had started to rot. Luckily, the undesirable parts are cut out quite easily, while the rest of the squash remains delicious. Perhaps this year's labors will go even further. That would be super nice.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Mini Egg

Nature offers many variations upon its own themes. Of particular interest is always the mini version of whatever we are used to. Among the eggs Alanna collected yesterday was a very small egg, it's circumference about the size of a silver dollar. It met its end like most of our eggs do: poached, with a little salt and pepper.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

the greenhorns

Last night Garth and I went to a screening of the greenhorns. It is a documentary made over the last three years, directed by the farmer and activist Severine von Tscharner Fleming. She was there to discuss the film and take questions afterwards. There was a lot of information to take in, and I am apprehensive that I will misrepresent the details here, so I have linked to their site above and below.

Severine, disappointed by the fact that so many films about America's food are horrifying and depressing, set out to make a film that showcased young farmers across the country- hence the moniker greenhorns. It was so vivifying to see people succeeding in many roughly sustainable ways. The USDA stipulates that anyone who has been farming for 10 years or less be considered a beginning farmer. I would agree with that. The average age of the American farmer is now 57 and it is estimated that tens of millions of acres will change hands in this country within the next ten years. There are a lot of educated and motivated young people who would like to make a go of farming, but more often than not, these same people do not have the buying power needed to acquire land for themselves. The network Severine and her fellow farmers are creating (The National Young Farmers' Coalition) could assist tremendously in this transition. For instance, after the screening, three audience members came up to Severine to say that they owned land and that they wanted it farmed. She may very well know people who are looking for a favorable land lease agreement that would permit them to begin farming in earnest. There is so much potential here!

The film is just one arm of a larger movement aimed at supporting, educating and connecting young farmers to each other. They have an interactive map where you can place your farm and possibly find other new farmers near you. They participate in public events to show off sustainable ideas for farming and life. I heard they will be demonstrating a bicycle powered wool carder and a bicycle powered sewing machine at the New Museum in early May. They are working to level the agricultural playing field and advocating for a new farm bill. This is exciting stuff and it is so integral to a successful future in this country. I can't wait to get involved. Please support them (us)!


Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Bennett House

As a newcomer to both this area of the country and to farming, I have found it a particular pleasure to hear our elderly neighbors talk about their pasts. Having an intellectual understanding of the transition from a largely agrarian to an industrial to a post-industrial (whatever that means, exactly) society is one thing, but talking to a man who remembers the arrival of tractor powered agriculture is quite another. I find some of the information relevant to my ambitions going forward, as when learning about the measures taken in the past to put up food for the winter, while other stories, though less applicable, perfectly evoke a time in this specific place - childhood games of Cops and Robbers played on horseback around a waterfall, or driving deer the length of the valley the first day of hunting season. Throughout these stories names crop up, of wives, friends and acquaintances who have passed away, and I am struck by how ephemeral, incomplete, and easily lost this sort of modest history is.

To an extent the landscape mirrors this cultural legacy, tired barns with their sagging roofs and houses with walls made of peculiar round stones held together by thick bands of mortar, a building style I have not seen elsewhere. On our farm we have two old barns, the house we are living in and, until recently, another small house house. In considering the future of these buildings, it is difficult to know how to balance practicality against nostalgia, the anticipated needs of the future against these physical conduits to the past.

We know that the hops barn was used for drying hops back when Central New York was the main source for that crop in the country, and that it was later converted into a shop and storage space. The large barn - made of one very old section and one more recent - held a tie stall dairy with hay storage above. The house we are all living in has undergone endless modifications over the decades. The kitchen used to be the woodshed, and at one time there were two separate, unconnected second floors. These three buildings are in varying degrees of health, and in the future we will have to decide whether to attempt to repair them at a steep cost or tear them down.

But the small house across the street, known as the Bennett house, presented no such difficult choice. Though the Realtor who sold us the farm claimed the prior owner had determined that the structure had "good bones," a conclusion he supposedly reached after climbing up to the second floor and jumping up and down, it was obvious to us from the hole in the roof and the extensive rot throughout that we would need to scrap it.

Last weekend my friend Ivan came up, intent on demolition. We started by throwing out the scraps of corrugated roofing, the remnants of an old vacuum line and the other bits of metal, as well as the sheets of plastic and other bulky trash that had accumulated over the years.

We next began tearing the splintered clapboard siding off, revealing the wide planks beneath.

Though hardly pristine, these boards were hefty enough to mill into quality lumber, so we set about removing and stacking them to the side.

Destroying the interior lathe and plaster wall was dusty, dirty work, but it was gratifying to scrape away this moldering skin to expose sound lumber beneath.

We removed more and more of the siding, revealing the frame. The timbers were hand-hewn, and the design was very simple. The rafters, with no ridge beam and no poles over the bents, would never be up to modern building codes, though that hadn't stopped the house from standing. Unfortunately, half of the frame was almost completely rotten. At one point the bones had certainly been good, but a decade or two of constant water damage had taken their toll.

Ivan left after two days, having helped remove all the exterior siding and a good bit of the interior lumber. On the third morning Edmund and I went to finish up, and he noticed that the frame had started to list on the rotten side - it appeared the thick siding boards had been playing a structural role. We debated whether or not to continue working on the first floor, and in the end we did, albeit only on the side where the supports were still sound. By lunch we had removed all we wanted, and a cold, driving rain had started to fall.

Inside, before we sat down to eat, Edmund said he did not expect the house to stand through the night. As he spoke he looked out the window and saw that it had in fact already collapsed. None of us saw it fall, so we do not know whether we would have had time to get out. Regardless we felt lucky that our nascent farming careers were not squashed.

From this wreckage we tore out a good stack of rafters and floor joists, as well as the last bits of interior wall. All that remains now is a whole lot of cleaning up.

Hidden beneath a section of plaster on the second floor Ivan and I found some flaking bits of newspaper pasted to the boards. They were too torn up to read the columns, but the date, 1859, was legible. While taking down the building was the only thing to do, and while I do not feel sad about it, I nevertheless have a sense of awe at putting an end to a structure that stood at the start of the Civil War and kept standing quietly at the bottom of a hillside pasture ever since.

We know a little about it. At one point the house, along with 27 acres, was its own farm, and more recently it served as housing for hired hands and their families. Though it had running water and electricity, it never had a bathroom. The windows were single pane, and the walls had no insulation at all. I wonder if its owners and occupants were content, and I wonder if I would be in such modest circumstances.

I try my very best to do away with any illusions that the past was in any way perfect, but I also do not hold to the idea that all or even the majority of changes have been for the better. For several years, but particularly since moving to the farm, I have been interested in the question of how to properly live in a place. Much of this involves looking forward and planning, as we decide what animals to get and how to manage them, what infrastructure to focus on and where to put it. But I hope to be aware of what has come before, and to give the past particular to here the consideration it deserves.