Wrong Direction Farm

Send Me Dead Flowers

I’ve had Townes Van Zandt’s rendition of Dead Flowers stuck in my head all day, ever since I came across a patch of dried Black Eyed Susans in the hay I was feeding the cattle. I suppose the combination of the dead flowers and the “little Susie” reference made the connection inevitable. There are a bunch of other Black Eyed Susan songs in the folksy or rootsy that could have been contenders, but today Dead Flowers just seemed to demand that I keep humming it as I fed the cattle and worked on the chicken brooder. Perhaps writing this post will finally get it out of my system.

Flowers are typically more broken up by mowing, raking, and baling, but I was surprised to find dozens of intact specimens in this bale. Hay bales are time capsules, archives of the plants that were growing at a particular season and place. They vary from field to field and even within the same field. Seeing these colors, faded as they are, provided a little boost of expectation for the coming summer when we’ll be surrounded by blooms. Winter is great, but summer is always better.

The cattle didn’t offer any comments on the presence of Black Eyed Susans in the hay. They simply ate it.

Beef Sticks Are Back

Last fall we tried a small batch of beef sticks and we completely underestimated just how popular they’d be. We sold out in a few weeks.

We’ve restocked with a bigger stock of beef sticks. We also tried a small test run of a slightly spicier beef stick. Individual sticks and ten-packs are listed on the storefront here.

The beef sticks are produced with traditional charcuterie techniques using lactic acid starter cultures and allowing the meat to ferment briefly. This is the same bacterial fermentation process employed when starter cultures are used to make sauerkraut, pickles, or yogurt. Meat doesn’t have much in the way of available carbohydrates so we need to add sugar to feed the bacteria. As the sugar is consumed it is converted into lactic acid, that pleasantly sour taste we crave in our favorite fermented foods. The combination of lactic acid and salt, along with the smoking and progressive air drying processes that follow, make the beef sticks naturally shelf stable without the need for any nitrates or other chemical preservatives.

The Old Man and the Sea, and Me

“You give me much good counsel,” he said aloud. “I’m tired of it.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

The hoophouse roof was whipping in the wind and the building’s framework hummed and shuddered while I held onto the corner of the tarp, scrabbling to keep my feet under me, to prevent the roof lifting me with it. I had the end of a parted anchor cable wrapped around my hand. I could feel capillaries busting in my finger tips, but after a few minutes the loss of circulation made my hand go numb. If I released the cable, the entire covering was liable to tear free as the wind would sequentially overload each of the anchors down the line.

“Be patient, hand,” he said. “I do this for you.”

I had arrived home from a trip to the hardware store to find the cover of pigs’ hoophouse torn free from its anchors. The windward side was billowing up several feet above the metal framework. The nearest weather observation point in Hessville shows that the wind at that time was gusting up to 70 mph and holding steady around 35-40 mph. I ran into the house to call Rachel and then grabbed a handful of straps and some fence wire, and rushed back out.

“I may not be as strong as I think,” the old man said. “But I know many tricks and I have resolution.”

Once Rachel came out we worked together to slip a ratcheting cargo strap around the end of the cable and we winched the tarp back down. It isn’t a repair that is certain to hold, and this storm is still blasting us with stronger winds forecast overnight. But it is battened down for now.

The wind is our friend, anyway, he thought. Then he added, sometimes.

Santiago’s monologues in The Old Man and the Sea resonate with our experiences farming. We end up in ridiculously lopsided scenarios, faced with elemental forces. We identify with his predicament, poking around the bottom of the skiff trying to kill a shark with just a fishing knife and some scraps of wood.

Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.

As hard as it is to face these situations, there is an exhilaration from having improvised a way out of a near-disaster. Avoiding near-disasters altogether might be a wiser way to live, but I haven’t learned the knack of doing that yet.

I think the Great DiMaggio would be proud of me today.

“The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.”

Duck Eggs are Back, Sort Of

The ducks have come out of their winter break as the weather has warmed up and they are laying eggs again. I’ve added duck eggs back to the inventory. The “sort of” disclaimer is because we only have a small flock of ducks, so the quantities available are limited.

Hay: It’s Not Just for Horses

In the mild season, our farm is all about moving animals to grass. In the winter, it flips and we’re moving stored grass to the animals in the form of hay bales. I hate the term “superfoods” because of the snake oil connotations, but for the critters on the farm there’s no denying that grass is the superfood. It is an abundant, renewable, locally-sourced superfood at that.

I prefer the summers when we’re moving herds and flocks between pastures. But I also enjoy these cold, brilliant days when I can get off the tractor and stand quietly among the cattle, listening to them contentedly eating hay.

The cattle are the biggest hay consumers on the farm. This bale started rolling down the hill leaving a trail of cattle charging after it as it unraveled. I’m happy when I see cattle running with heel kicks; it indicates their diet is providing energy to spare.
The pigs use up a fair amount of hay both for bedding and for eating. They burrow under it on cold nights and endlessly nose around in it looking for tastier bits of clover. We typically feed them stemmier, lower quality hay since so much of it ends up on the ground. In the spring we compost the bedding for fertilizing the fields.
The hens also get a little hay on the side. If I dump it in thick mats they start laying eggs in it and then the eggs will be filthy or cracked from trampling, so I try to scatter only a few armloads at a time and thus seems to prevent them from getting the idea to use the ground for nesting. Here they are enjoying hay and scratching through some chipped tree branches dropped off by the power company’s line trimming crews. Whatever doesn’t get eaten will become high quality compost in the spring.

Menaced by Mechanisms

I hate trucks.

I hate tractors.

I hate depending on machines that break.

Today the pickup truck’s transmission or transfer case (still undetermined) banged and then failed as I parked the borrowed stock trailer (our stock trailer has a gaping crack in the aluminum subframe) after a trip to the slaughterhouse. That’s also the plow truck, so it failed at an inopportune time. The only consolation was that the big bang happened as the truck was backing the trailer into the parking spot, not when it was out on the road in the middle of today’s snowstorm.

Just for catharsis, let me enumerate my current list of necessary equipment repairs. Doing this work in the gravel driveway is never fun, but repairing equipment outdoors in winter is the worst.

There are plenty of other repairs, but this is the hot list:

  • Pickup truck needs either a new transmission or a new transfer case. I think transfer case, but I’m not sure yet.
  • New tires on pickup truck so I can get the overdue inspection completed. It has a crack in the manifold (again!), but I think I can get through inspection with that.
  • Delivery van needs new ball joints on the left and a realignment. Also needs new front tires since the bad joints have worn the tires unevenly.
  • Delivery van shows some seepage on the differential. Need to see if it has lost any fluid.
  • Minivan needs a new alternator. The head gasket is leaking oil onto the alternator. So it really needs a new head gasket.
  • Tractor is overdue for a fluid change.
  • Tractor has a crack in the quick attach bracket that needs to be welded. Now that I’m using it for pushing snow because the plow truck is disabled, I need to be careful not to overstress the broken weld.
  • Tractor’s seat sensor froze and failed. I’ve got it hotwired, but I need to replace the safety sensor.
  • Tiller I use to stir the chicken bedding has a bad tire that needs a tube.
  • Hen’s feed wagon has an ancient mobile home tire that is off the rim. Need a new tire.
  • ATV needs a lot of work – fix 4×4 switch, replace front ball joint, fix brakes, figure out coolant overheating problems, etc. I can procrastinate a little on this, but it needs to be in good running condition by spring since Rachel uses it every day for hauling fences and other grazing supplies.
  • Evaporator fan in one of the walk in freezers is broken. There’s a second fan on the coil, but I need to get the broken one fixed.

In a well-managed business I’d focus on doing farm work and I’d hire mechanics to fix things. I really ought to get to that point. But it is hard to pay mechanics $90 per hour when the farm still hasn’t turned a profit or paid us a cent. I have a feeling that practicing the behaviors of successful businesses even if I don’t have a successful business might help me get to a successful place with my business.

Still, it is hard to accept that I’m at the point where I can’t do all my own work if I also hope to have the time to do all the other farm work. I’m stuck on this as part of my self-identity. Honestly, building a farm from scratch seems to be more about giving up on hopes and dreams than it is about living the dream. Perhaps that’s the downer view from a nadir vantage, but that’s about the way things seem to measure up on days like this.

Into the Winter Woods

Long-johns top and bottom, heavy socks, flannel shirt, overalls,
steel-toed work boots, sweater, canvas coat, toque, mittens: on.

Out past grape arbor and garden shed, into the woods.
Sun just coming through the trees. There really is such a thing

as Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn. And here it is, this morning.
Down hill, across brook, up hill, and into the stand of white pine

and red maple where I’m cutting firewood. Open up workbox,
take out chain saw, gas, bar oil, kneel down, gas up saw, add

bar oil to the reservoir, stand up, mittens off, strap on and buckle
chaps from waist to toe, hard hat helmet: on. Ear protectors: down,

face screen: down, push in compression release, pull out choke,
pull on starter cord, once, twice, go. Stall. Pull out choke, pull on

starter cord, once, twice, go. Push in choke. Mittens: back on.
Cloud of two-cycle exhaust smoke wafting into the morning air

and I, looking like a medieval Japanese warrior, wade through
blue smoke, knee-deep snow, revving the chain saw as I go,

headed for that doomed, unknowing maple tree.

From Happy Life by David Budbill, 2011.

Two Doors in One

When I used to remodel houses, I allowed myself the time to be a perfectionist. These days I’m dealing with too many projects to obsess with detail. The hectic schedule requires that many things be slapped together just to move on to the next task. But I am most pleased when I can take the time to think through and execute a design that includes details that matter to me.

The chicken brooder trailer needed a door. It has a full overhead door on the back, but it also needed an easily opened door for the daily feeding chores. I needed a door that is easy to open, even for the kids, and easy to shut securely to keep out all the creeping, crawling, and flying animals that love to eat chicken. But I also wanted a door that was big enough to easily clean out the brooder at the end of each batch.

I cut the door panels using an aluminum-rated blade, spraying lubricant
liberally all the while because the insulation in the panels prevented the blade from dissipating heat. I bent some flashing around each of the panel edges to reduce the risk of snagging clothes on the way through the door. On the hinge side I used a piano hinge salvaged from the turkey trailer project. The door latch is standard and I added top and bottom barrel latches to secure the door when it is used in overhead mode. The bottom panel remained in place because I need to prevent the chicks from escaping when the door opens.

With the door closed and latched it still works as it was originally designed as an overhead door. For wider door panels, cutting this section would have reduced the strength, but I don’t think I’ll need to add any reinforcement for such a short span.

The test of everything is in the use, but I’m optimistic that this door will be one of the features that make this our best brooder yet. It was a good challenge to step through the design and then to find that it worked as well as it did.

It all needs is a good scrubbing before putting it into service, but I’ll wait until I’m finished making construction messes first.

Duck Snow Bathing

While I was working on the new chicken brooder trailer the flock of ducks marched up the hill, enjoying the bright, warm day and especially enjoying the snowmelt puddles. They primarily focused on splashing and bathing in the puddles, but when they grew tired of that they would switch over to snow bathing as well. They quickly wriggle through the snow to work it into their feathers, and then the ducks would shake it back off. Here’s a clip:

Farmers in Conferences Getting Coffee

Ever since the year before we started our farm, I’ve made it a point to attend one farming conference annually. This year I went all out and attended two, both this week.

At the pastured poultry conference in Dallas.

Farming conferences involve all the usual things you’d expect from any other conference: squeally microphones, polite but forced applause after each presentation, people standing around a projector trying to connect it to a laptop, and of course lots of coffee. Blah coffee in the morning, and burnt coffee for afternoon break.

At the grazing conference in Albany

On Monday and Tuesday I attended the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association meeting and on Saturday I was at the Cornell Winter Green-Up Grazing conference. At the beginning of my farming career I went to these sorts of meetings to learn basic farming fundamentals. Now I’m there principally to talk to people. I’ve got my list of people to see for specific questions, but beyond that I try to meet at least a few strangers. I’m often amazed by the variety of situations and backgrounds at these events. The general feeling of these meetings includes a refreshing openness to share plans and ideas. Farmers don’t have trade secrets, rather they trade their secrets.

Now I’m back to the farm and I’m all done with conferences for another year. The next objective is to buckle down to finishing the chicken, turkey, cattle, and pig planning for 2019 and early 2020. Although we’re in the depths of winter, spring is coming, and we have a lot of new projects to have ready by then. As always, I’m intimidated by the scale of the plans we have for this year, but I’m also feeling enthusiastic to meet the challenges.