Wrong Direction Farm

Grazing Grapes


Cattle readily eat wild grape (fox grapes, Vitis labrusca) leaves and vines any time the plants are green, but as the grapes start to ripen they seem especially motivated.  Only the vines growing six feet above ground remain unscathed.  While they aren’t as resourceful as goats, who manage to gain extra reach by standing on their back legs or even stacking up on each other, the meticulousness with which the cattle strip out every possible grape and grape leaf within reach indicates that this must be a particular favorite.




We picked chokecherries this weekend.  Because they are small and usually located on hard-to-reach branches, we don’t make them a centerpiece of our diet.  They provide a welcome accent.

Cooling on the sideboard today:  a thick, rich crabapple-chokecherry jelly.  We use Pomona’s pectin, so we can get by with very little sugar or honey (still a lot of C6H12O6 and C12H22O11 compared to what we normally eat, but a far cry from traditional jelly recipes that specify equal parts sugar and fruit).

Here is our general recipe:  Place 5 lbs chopped crabapples in 5 cups boiling water, then simmer about 15 minutes until they are easily mashed.  Press the mash through a jelly sieve and reserve.  Place 2 lbs chokecherries in 2 cups boiling water for 10 minutes, then mash through a jelly sieve and mix with the apple squeezin’s.  Based on the amount of liquid you end up with, scale according to the standard apple jelly recipe amounts for pectin and calcium.  We ended up using 1-1/2 cups sugar, 3 tablespoons of pectin, and 3 tablespoons of calcium water.


Keep Going in the Wrong Direction

[Note:  There is a naughty word below, quoted in context.  Please don’t read any further if you are offended by such.]

There are probably people like this in your life too.

I am privileged to know people with whom I can talk shop about farming, and even when we don’t agree we can have worthwhile conversations.  But there are a few who vociferously express their unassailable, unalterable opinions.  I used to be more mild mannered in dealing with these characters, but I’ve realized that I have nothing to lose in telling such a person that I disagree.  Most of the time they’ll never listen.  But talking back to them gives me the opportunity to examine my thoughts and clarify my purposes.

Lately I’ve been dealing with someone who has been telling me that I can’t graze cattle in tall grass without starving them, that cattle can’t handle summer heat or winter cold, that beef steers will lose weight unless they are fed corn meal, and that if I had any sense I’d be plowing my fields and planting genetically modified soybeans.  His lectures are generously salted with patronizing instruction and advice, like this gem: “There’s a word for what you need to be doing here, it’s called management.”  “Maaanagemennnt” is pronounced slowly and clearly, just in case I need a little help processing a big word. Obviously this is the sort of person who sees the “Wrong Direction Farm” sign and thinks that the only thing I’ve done right is selecting the farm’s name.

When he told me that I need to use tillage, pesticides, herbicides, nitrogen, and genetically modified crops instead of pasture, I replied that I am more concerned about conserving and improving the soil biology, that all those techniques are ultimately deleterious to the soil biology, and that my success should be measured in the number of earthworms per square foot, not in the bushels of soybeans per acre.  His retort was one of those memorable statements that helps me focus on why we’re doing what we’re doing:  “Fuck earthworms.  Let mother nature take care of earthworms.  You need to make money.”

Presto!  That was just a perfectly antithetical statement to reassure me that I need to keep going in the wrong direction.  Earthworms matter a lot.  And so do the innumerable microscopic biological interactions between bacteria and fungi.  Everything about our current brutalist approach to agriculture conspires against soil health (if you have 1 minute and 12 seconds, I strongly recommend watching this soil health demonstration by agronomist Ray Archuleta).  When I told my antagonistic interlocutor that I disagreed, he changed the topic and made a quick exit.  He realized he was casting his pearls (and he actually referred to his advice as pearls!) before swine.

My apologies, gentle reader, if this post was too self-indulgent and smug.  Sometimes going in the wrong direction wears me out, so thanks for putting up with cathartic ranting.  I’ll let this rest with a quote from the final paragraph of Charles Darwin’s unambiguously titled book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits:  “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.”

Labor of Love

The kids helped with the harvest.  Our preferred method is to place a clean tarp under the tree and then to shake the branches to dislodge ripe fruit.

The kids helped with the harvest. Our preferred method is to place a clean tarp under the tree and then to shake the branches to dislodge ripe fruit.

Last night I stayed up to 2:30 making crabapple cider.  We haven’t been able to find someone willing to custom press apples, so until we can buy or build a grinder and press, we make do with a 1960’s era Acme Juicer.  It does a great job of extracting juice, leaving a very dry pomace, but the process is time consuming as it is only good for a little less than a quart at a time.  Making a six gallon batch requires hours and hours washing and selecting apples, pre-chopping in the food processor, feeding the juicer, and cleaning out the pomace.



It is a labor of love.  We have a few crabapple trees, but our favorite tree has abundant, large red-fleshed crabapples.  I believe this is the Nipissing apple variety.

Apples chopped before juicing.

Apples chopped before juicing.

The apple cider is too astringent to drink more than a sip at a time, but it makes an fantastic (and slightly pink) apple cider vinegar.  We’ll make about five gallons of vinegar.  Like wine, vinegar benefits from some ageing, so we’ll need to wait about eight months for the entire fermentation, acetification, and maturation processes to complete.

Bucket o' blood

Bucket o’ blood

We also set aside and froze a gallon to blend with some cider from our local cider-maker.  We’ve been making hard cider for the past few years, but the apple blends that make for tasty fresh cider seem to end up as bland hard cider.  We’ll see if the crabapples add the right sharpness to the finished product.


No, I’ve never eaten a placenta, human or otherwise.  No, I don’t haven an opinion on whether postpartum humans should consume their recently expelled afterbirth, raw, cooked, pelletized, or otherwise.  I’d definitely try it if Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall prepared it with shallots and garlic on foccacia.  His River Cottage Meat Book has a place of reverence in our gastronomic library, so I’d try anything he cooked.  But I don’t think I’d undertake to prepare a placental pâté on my own.

Most land mammals eat placenta, including all classes of domesticated mammalian livestock except camelids as far as I’m aware.  On the farm it isn’t surprising to see the pigs chowing it down; they are omnivorous and they are famously open-minded about food.  But it is weird to see herbivores eating placenta, trying to hork down a six foot long composite of membranes and bits of glop and glorp.


This heifer calved just an hour before I took this picture. Notice the triangular concavity on her right side behind the ribs and below the backbone. We watch this spot during calving season to know who has recently calved. Before birth, the right side will be filled out; after birth it all collapses down.

Cows are inconsistent placentophages.  Many cows don’t touch it at all, some chew on it for a while.  I’ve never directly observed a cow eat the entire placenta, but occasionally the placenta is missing the next morning so I assume that unless an opportunistic coyote, dog, or vulture has stolen it, the cow has eaten the whole thing.  Ruminants aren’t well suited to consuming meat, so the process is awkward.  They do a lot of chewing and slurping.  Since they don’t have upper incisors, they can’t take a good bite.  Other herbivores with upper and lower teeth (rabbits, horses, etc.) might be better at it.  Back when we raised rabbits, the does would always clean up the placentas promptly and completely.  After licking and gumming it for a while, cows seem to satiate whatever unknown instincts drive them to do so, and then they leave it alone.

Newborn bull calf wondering what his mother is up to.

Newborn bull calf wondering what his mother is up to.

There are different theories as to why animals eat placenta.  I am suspicious about anyone claiming to know “the” answer, but I favor theories positing that placenta provides something specifically suited to the nutritional needs of the mother.  One oft-cited theory strikes me as particularly inadequate:  that prey animals eat their placenta to obscure the fact that a vulnerable baby has been born.  Even if we ignore the fact that non-prey animals also have the same placenta-eating instinct and thus there must be a different motivation for predators to eat their afterbirths, it also ignores the fact that birthing areas always have some residual blood, mucous, and placenta pieces, all easily found by olfactory-acute hunters.  Consider that many herbivores naturally live in migratory herds with defined birthing seasons and that these herds are tailed by persistent predators.  It wouldn’t take a particularly intelligent wolf or lion to notice that a whole lot of babies are being born, placentas or not.  In fact, it might be a better adaptive strategy to leave the placenta behind so the predators would have something to eat other than newborn calf.  I’ve suggested this idea to the cows, but they just look at me with bland expressions and keep trying to ingest that slimy, unwieldy, stinky organ.

Pre-stocking the Pond

The water in the new pond is only about a foot deep (which apparently qualifies as deep enough for Allie and Harry to go swimming every time they go out there) and the banks are bare compacted clay.  Along with using the pond for stockwater, we would like to be able to fish it eventually.  Based on what we’ve seen with other ponds, it will take a few years for the pond biome to develop, but we’re trying to give it a bit of a head start.

I’ve broadcast oats on the banks to encourage some initial vegetative growth and to prevent erosion as the pond fills.  The kids wanted to give the pond a jump start on its animal population, so they caught a jar full of frogs down in our stream and assigned these frogs the role of colonists.  Frogs seem to be able to find ponds on their own, but I encouraged them because I like seeing them undertake projects.


As with most machine-dug ponds, the pond lacks enough structural variation to encourage a diverse ecosystem.  To get around that, we’ve been adding some of these elements post-construction.  The kids built several rock piles and a few skull piles out of the dairy cow graveyard we inherited.  Some of their structures are not quite what I would have built, but again I think there is more value in them doing things imperfectly, so long as they are doing things (note that I’m not consistent with that magnanimity).  We built pallet structures, ballasted by boulders.  We also added a few tires, concrete blocks, and broken clay pipes.  All of these things will provide shelter for smaller fish and hunting grounds for larger fish, encouraging a tiered food system.


Spud Light


Dave saved me a week’s worth of hot digging.

I admit that after about 10 hours of shovelling dirt to get at the potatoes last year, I wasn’t eager to plant them again. Potatoes are a lot of work. Once the seed potatoes are cut and put in the ground, and the plants have grown about a foot, they need to be hilled. From the time they sprout, they need constant observation to keep the Colorado Potato Beetles at bay. The eggs of these insects are hidden on the underside of the leaves, so every leaf has to be turned over.  We check them every second or third day, and I pay the kids a nickel for each beetle, larva or clump of eggs they discover. This year we didn’t see many, thanks to the diligent work of the kids, and we stopped checking leaves about three weeks ago.

Then, thanks to Dave’s preference for having the right tools for the job, we spent just over an hour harvesting 87 pounds of potatoes that we grew from a five pound bag of seed potatoes. We still have 2/3 of the hills to harvest, but I no longer dread it.

adjusting the plough

adjusting the plough

so easy

so simple

We gathered most on the first pass, followed up by ploughing on either side of the first row, and finished up with minimal work.

We gathered most on the first pass, followed up by ploughing on either side of the first row, and finished up with minimal effort.

Dried Food for Man and Beast

These August apples grow on one grafted limb of an ancient apple tree.  The other branches have  two other varieties of September apples.

Our early apples.  We’ve picked four bushels (with a few more bushels still ripening) from one branch on a grafted apple tree in the front yard.  The other two main branches have been grafted with September apple varieties.

Late July and early August bring the rush of winter preparations.  Night temperatures have come close to dropping below 50 degrees several times and we feel the drive to step up our work of stocking up.  Rachel posted recently about dehydrating herbs.  We also like to dehydrate apples.  We have many apple trees, some wild crosses and some cultivated old trees.  Of these apples, only the Northern Spy variety are really good eaten raw.  The others are either soft-fleshed and tart or just rather bland.  But we’ve found that the less palatable apples become vastly improved after dehydration.  Removing most of the water leaves behind a far more intense apple.  We especially like the tart apple varieties when they are dehydrated.  Considering that most of our apples are not storage varieties (we’ve tried, without success), this gives us the ability to preserve our late summer and fall apple abundance well into the spring.

Dried apples are starting to pile up in the pantry.  By the end of the season, we should have about ten times as much piled up.

Dried apples are starting to pile up in the pantry in half gallon jars and 5 pound honey jars. By the end of the season, we should have about 30 or 40 jars stashed away.

Commercially available dried apples always have the skin removed, but I prefer to leave the skin on.  The skin adds the right counterpoint flavors and textures to the flesh of the apple.  I don’t know if there really is anything especially healthful in the skin, particularly after the fruit has been subject to rigors of the dehydration process, but it is nice to think that it is healthier.  The real reason for leaving the skin on is that it is a hassle to remove, but I can mask my shortcut-taking by asserting some smug superiority because I eat the skin.  Becoming habituated to eating apple skins and bread crusts is part of that universal childhood indoctrination in character-building, moral fiber, and all that.  Before you know it I feel nearly as virtuous and stoical as Marcus Aurelius, and all from eating apple skins.

Besides our food, we’ve been stockpiling food for the animals too.  They also get most of their winter feed in dehydrated form as hay.  We’ve still got two hay fields that are woefully late in getting their first cutting, so the quality of that hay is going to be abysmal.  The rest of our hay is more appropriately harvested first cutting grass and second cutting grass/clover mixtures.

The upper hay pile.

4×4 grass hay bales

4x6 grass/clover bales

4×6 grass/clover bales

Getting Back to Normal

There was a brilliant sun coming up this morning when I moved the cattle.

Over the last two weeks, excavating contractors have been digging a pond and building a road across the farm.  As they have been doing their thing, they have kept me extraordinarily busy trying to work around them.  The construction has required that we remove lots of fences, relocate equipment, and re-route buried pipes and conduits.  The cattle rotations have been disrupted and the pigs have been stuck in the same paddock longer than I’d like.  We’re glad that the construction has wrapped up; now we can start to get things back to normal.

I had to park the cattle for a few days in a hayfield and feed them a couple round bales to get them out of the way of the construction.

I had to park the cattle for a few days in a hayfield and feed them a couple round bales to get them out of the way of the construction.  While there, they did a great job clearing out the encroaching brush on the perimeter.

They were eager to get back into green grass after a few days eating hay and brush.

They were eager to get back into green pasture after a few days eating hay and brush.

Apparently there's a Caterpillar D6 at the end of the rainbow.

Apparently there’s a Caterpillar D6 at the end of the rainbow.

There was a brilliant sun coming up this morning when I moved the cattle.

There was a brilliant sun coming up this morning when I moved the cattle.

Red Tractor Blues

I kinda miss my 45-year old Case 530 backhoe.  It was always either broken down or on the verge of breaking, but the business ends of the machine (the implement attachments) were built much tougher than anything on our new tractor.

The new Case 65A has a 25% horsepower advantage, far more traction and stability, and a lot of other advantages going for it.  But I wonder what kind of longevity it will realistically have.  With just 80 hours on the clock, I tore the front loader bucket off while doing some not-especially-taxing loader work.  I don’t think it is unrealistic to expect a machine to last more than 80 hours before needing its first repairs.  Since it wasn’t like I was abusing it ramming tree trunks or something like that, the bucket and loader should have been factory-designed to handle the stress that this machine is capable of putting on them.

The quick attach tab on the loader cracked and bent.  Rust at each end indicates that this problem started earlier, probably as early as I started using this tractor.

The quick attach tab on the loader cracked and bent. Rust at each end indicates that this problem started earlier, probably as early as I started using this tractor.


The other bracket hadn’t bent, but cracks are starting to form at each end.


The mating surface on the bucket stretched out of shape when the quick attach connection failed. I hammered this flange flat again and then welded a 2×2 angle iron across the entire flange.

After investigating my neighbor’s skid steer and its bucket, I found that the connections on this tractor are (1) too flimsy, (2) lacking reinforcement at critical points, and (3) not wide enough.  I can’t do anything about 1 and 3, since there is no straightforward way to thicken the metal on the hitch or to widen the attachment pads.  But I could add some reinforcement, so I did the best I could with that strategy.  I reinforced the top flange on the bucket with a 2×2 angle iron.  Then I welded a 5/16 rod on the inside cove of the loader’s attachment tabs.  My welder is a bit underpowered for this kind of work, so I took it slow, gave the machine plenty of rest, and built up the welds in steady layers until I filled in the entire cove.

Here is what the the repaired loader tabs look like.

Here is what the the repaired loader tabs look like.  It will take a lot to collapse this bracket now.

One final observation:  the hydraulic hoses on the loader are already starting to wear through.  Two hoses are worn down to the reinforcing wires.  Replacing hydraulic hoses isn’t normally a difficult task, but the inconvenience of a disabled machine and the hassle of making a trip to a shop to get a new assembly is not trivial.  It is ironic that this machine was so poorly designed that the hose guards actually caused premature wear to the hoses.  On a well-designed machine, hydraulic hoses easily last a decade or more before weather degrades the rubber.  Failure in a few months is unacceptable.

Note the wear on the hose on the left and on the second from right.  The rubber is worn down to the reinforcing wire on both hoses.

Note the wear on the hose on the left and on the second from right. The rubber is worn down to the reinforcing wire on both hoses.


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