Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Over the last two years a few men have come courting our scrap metal. I don't know how any of them knew what was hidden in the deepest, darkest pockets of our woods. Even I haven't seen the second pile, a crescendo of tires and old cars cascading over a steep bank. People know people, and word gets around, I suppose. Most of these offers have come and gone in vain. Either the scrapper loses interest, or the fields are too wet to go scavenging in when the offer is made. We had told one guy that he could have everything, as long as he was willing to dig it out. But, his offer came after heavy rains and again, it fell through. This time it's different.

Two men approached Edmund offering to haul everything away and split the profit with us 50/50. We talked it over at dinner and everyone agreed it was a fine idea. To our surprise the guys called us on the phone the next day to seal the deal. No scrapper has ever been this tenacious. We gave them the go ahead and the two of them showed up a day later. They jumped on our pile of truck axels and hog fencing with a mammoth saw and had everything in manageable pieces within a few hours. They came back to us with a receipt and $300 in cash.

Because they haul so much volume, they were offered a dumpster from the scrap metal place and were able to lock in a better price per ton than other people get who bring it all in truckloads. When the dumpster arrived an hour after we agreed to it (who are these guys?), we gave them permission to take all the metal in the barn: head gates, drinking tubs, industrial fans, the manure trough mechanism and the hay elevator. A few other characters have showed up to help with the whole ordeal. It strikes me as a lot of work for a small profit, split between four men, but they are obviously into it. One of them has a very small dog. After getting permission to bring the animal along, he yelled coarsely through the cigarette in his mouth, "Rocky! Get in here! It's time to rocky roll!"

Edmund and Normandy have begun building the walls of their house out of cob (a mixture of clay, sand and straw), and it's reminded me that we are as unusual to some people as they may be to us. These guys had never seen anyone do anything like that before. They said they mentioned it to a friend, that a guy they know is building his house out of dirt, "but if you want to see that you'll have to come junkin' with us."

The old cars have all been extricated from the weeds north of the stream. The only metal we've got left is that pile I haven't seen. We told them that if they took the tires, they could have all the cash they could render from that heap. I assume they'll be here to finish it off soon because the scrap place just delivered our third dumpster today.
I read something a few months ago about how the industrial age is phasing out, and how the next era's economy will be based on restoring or repurposing what's left over - relics from a time of seemingly infinite energy and resources. It certainly seems that way now.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Shelling Beans

September has settled in. There's a sheen of heat on the cool air. The whir and whine of the insects has become dull. I have to think to notice it. It's like a greasy feeling on my fingers, only it's in my ears.
I recognized these things as I sat on the porch with Normandy shucking our shell beans. We grew two heirloom varieties this year, Kenearly Yellow and Jacob's cattle. We ordered the yellow ones from Johnies' Seed Company, and the other we bought to eat, but saved a few for a trial planting.
The timing was touchy. The plants had yellowed and most of the pods had ripened and begun to dry. They could have dried completely on the plants if the weather had been more gracious, but instead we got ten inches of rain within two weeks. Many of the plants had been pushed over. Some of the pods on the ground became so wet they started sprouting. Between the two storms we resolved to pull all the plants and dry them on the porch. They lay stacked about two feet high in three foot rows. We had each done a bit of shelling individually (Normandy had done far more than the rest of us), but the effort tended to feel endless when we worked alone. So the five of us (including our carpenter house-mate and hero Joram) split open the pods together in one final push.

The happy surprise was that some of the Kenearly Yellow plants had undergone a mutation that rendered their beans almost entirely golden, the color of popcorn. We separated those out and intend to plant them all next year to see if we could have a unanimously ochre crop.

The Jacob's Cattle beans are luminous.

We spread the harvest on our desk in the living room with a fan to dry them thoroughly before they're stored.

As far as the energy balance goes, I am not sure we are in the black with beans. It takes hours to separate and sort the good from the bad. Even though the desk is covered, it will be a caloric drop in the bucket for our year's consumption. But the effort is cloaked in good feelings. Our venture here on the farm is distinctly communal, but it is never more apparent than when we sit working to obtain the food we will enjoy together. There is also great satisfaction in taking a crop from seed through harvest. This quality is a color that lingers and pauses my mind. The quantity won't do the same. Today, the former matters more. Tomorrow? We'll see. Maybe we'll get better, and faster, and maybe next year, the weather will cooperate.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Them Apples

I can still vividly remember the day that the four of us walked this farm for the first time with our realtor, Frank. We saw numerous farms in the summer of 2009, and were no strangers to degradation and neglect: rotted-out beams, heaps of trash, and foul-smelling houses. The process of assessing and purchasing a run-down farm must filter out those inclined to cynicism. This probably is a good thing, because I've noticed that farmers foster a gambler's sense of optimism. I've heard at our kitchen table "This project won't take long.", and "This will probably hold." often enough, along with all manner of optimistic predictions concerning rain and sunshine.

Pulling up to the driveway with Frank, we were greeted by a wildly barking dog. It was a Maremma, which is a large sheepherding breed (they look a lot like Great Pyrenees). With three legs and one eye*, this rascal must have been the closest a dog could come to being a pirate. It's one good eye fixed upon us, and bulged as it barked. Vertically through an empty socket ran a devilish scar. Argh, and Blackbeard be his name. He had a fleet of swarthy friends, for it seemed that every building on the property had a chained and barking dog to guard it. Later we learned that the owner had close to 20 of these dogs. Each had it's own tale of woe: burrdock snarled in their coats, patches of dirt pawed away, and discarded meat bones.

I could go on about the dogs.

That day was early June, and the grass and weeds came up through the trash piles and old fencing in tangles. Frank told us that before he got into realty, he was a dairy farmer. He must have cultivated his own sense of optimism because at one point his beefy arm waved over the weeds and commented, "You never know what treasures you're going to find out there." Our four, stoney faces followed his wave. I stared hard into the grass growing through the agricultural rubbish, trying to envision something desirable hidden there unseen. Then I looked at Blackbeard who wasn't barking anymore, but standing and staring at us with his one eye. I was sure that if there were any "treasures" hidden on this farm, this pirate-dog would take them to his watery grave.

To be sure, there were plenty of things that missed our critical gaze that June afternoon. There was the tire dump in the woods we found last year. And the other dump on the hill. Those weeds ended up containing yards and yards of bailing twine which was a nightmare to extract from the grass and ground. And did I mention the dead cats behind the refrigerator?

But assuredly, this week, we discovered treasure. There are apple trees bearing big, delicious apples on our hillside up the road. Last May we got a terrible frost just as the deciduous trees were all leafing out which must have killed the apple blossoms. This past spring had no such sudden dip in temperature. Many of the trees have small fruit, barely larger than a walnut. Some are green and blushing pink; some are striated and bright-red. Edmund discovered a tree bearing tiny apples with a deep red flesh and almost purple skin. Those ones are too tart to eat and remind me of cranberries. I'm convinced that with proper fertilization and pruning, all of these trees could bear much bigger fruit.

It has been my habit for several months now to eat an apple with peanut butter as part of my breakfast every morning. There are times when the work we've done seems to barely have scratched the surface. Discovering these apples seems to me like such a wonderful and unseen treasure.


* I've now been told by Edmund that there was a three-legged dog and a different, one-eyed dog. In my memory these two dogs just melded into one, and the storyteller in me just had to write it this way. I believe (ahem!) that it's a family trait. Also, the one-eyed dog's name couldn't have possibly been Blackbeard. That wouldn't have made any sense seeing that Maremmas are white. Edmund tells me it was Clyde.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Egg Mobile Reborn

Hurricane Irene's visit to Upstate NY and New England has been in the news this week, so some of our dear readers may wonder how we faired under the onslaught. We lucked out in that we're far enough west that the major force of the storm spent itself crossing other parts. This is not to say we didn't sweat it out waiting for a terrible wind gust or torrential downpour, but neither of those potentialities struck us. We did have a day of high wind and 5+ inches of rain, so we didn't get off scott free, but all in all it could have been a lot worse. Even in the southern and eastern ends of our county the picture of down trees, powerlines, and outages is very different.

Our one mini-disaster befell our egg mobile. There are a couple of pictures of our old mobile hen house, built on an ancient set of hay wagon running gear, floating around this blog somewhere. We had it parked halfway up our big hill, on a moderate incline, when Irene rolled in. At some point in the afternoon Alanna looked out the window and let out a cry of dismay. The "vehicle" was on its roof, wheels to the sky like some huge, dead, sheet metal and rotten rubber beast. It had a shed roof, and the incline was such that it sat pretty well upright while lying 180 degrees to its proper orientation. We hadn't let the chickens out that morning because the storm was raging and they wouldn't have left the shelter of the mobile given the opportunity. None of the birds were hurt in the revolution and they hunkered down in the wreckage while the storm blew itself away.

The next day I took the tractor up the hill and tried to right it, but it collapsed instead. So I took that as a sign it was time for a new egg mobile. I used the rafters of the old Bennett house (another previous post on this blog) and built a tidy little barn on the same running gear, as that part of the vehicle was undamaged by the inversion.

The new get-up is taller than the previous one, which is good for our backs but will require that we be more attentive to hill inclination and wind-speed if we intend to avoid another flip. As you can see from the photos I went with a gambrel roof as it spoke to my inner muse more than shed roofs do. It also allows for more roosts which will accommodate more chickens when we increase our laying flock.

I'm pleased with the outcome, well everything except how long it took me to build it. Assuming it lasts for more than a decade it will be time well spent.