Wrong Direction Farm

Return of the Geese

Last year a Canada Goose couple adopted our pond as their nesting site. We see large flocks of geese passing through, but this is the first breeding pair that have settled here. The pond is still iced over, but a few inches of open water are now showing around most of the perimeter. Soon enough they’ll be swimming in open water.

We keep an old bale of hay on top of the connections for the pond’s siphon plumbing as insulation, and the geese used the bale last year as their nest. The goose sat on the eggs for two months, then finally abandoned them in June after they failed to hatch. I’m curious how successful they’ll be this year. Perhaps the gander is sterile, or perhaps the goose wasn’t sitting on the eggs consistently enough. Canada Geese normally mate monogamously for life, so if this couple has fertility problems I’m wondering if they’ll keep trying the same routine year after year.

Last year’s eggs after the geese abandoned the nest.

A Renewal

As the snow releases its grip on the fields, the laying hens are ranging farther afield each day. There are tantalizing little hints of green among the brown thatch of grass. It is instructive to watch the hens forage at this time of year. Surprisingly, their first objective isn’t to eat all the tiny green shoots. They actually are eating a lot of the old dead grass. But their favorite thing is to scratch through matted leaves and sticks that have been plastered to the ground all winter. Under the leaves they find the first insects and worms of the season. It looks to me like they are eating wispy fungal strands, although it is hard to be sure because they go after everything so quickly. That all makes sense as something deep inside their bird brain reaches back to their jungle fowl ancestry.

Command and Control

This year I’m making efforts to approach our farming operations more systematically to make things easier on everyone. Chicken production is the focus since that’s where we’re putting the most work these days, and that’s where things have always been the most chaotic.

I finished wiring the newest chicken brooder trailer today. Our brooders have evolved steadily, but the system for controlling heaters, ventilation, cooling fans, and lighting schedules has gotten out of hand. I’m adding more electric controls to the system, but in doing so my goal is to reduce the complexity of the daily workload. In our other brooders things are so tricky that I am the only one who knows how to work all the doodads, and sometimes I stump myself. I want to make it something that AJ can easily handle with daily checklists and that he can maintain when I’m away from the farm. All the controls will be labeled and each checklist will have the settings for the chicks at their stage of life for that specific day. Since we are using automation, I also am planning for overrides or workarounds in case any of the controllers fail.

In the course of planning out the control system, I realized that one important requirement in making the brooders easy to operate was putting knobs on all devices. Too many timers, thermostats, lighting controllers, etc., are moving away from knobs to LED/LCD screen readouts. The problem is that each device uses some weird programming sequence, and no two devices use the same sequence. Hold down the PRG key for 5 seconds, then scroll through a bunch of forgettable abbreviations, then hold down the RUN key for 2 seconds to set the program. Wait, was I supposed to hold down PRG again before RUN? Just checking the temperature settings can require pressing ten key strokes. This is stupid.

Knobs are just a far better interface for this application. If today I need to set the brooder thermostat to 90 degrees, I don’t need to study a manual to understand the keystrokes; I just point the knob’s arrow at 90. In two days when the chicks need less heat, I can twist it back to 85. Simple. Easily remembered. Easily verified. Easily communicated. Perfect.

Also, for the daily almanac, we all enjoyed being outside on an extraordinarily warm day. I chopped a path in the ice at the bridge to ensure that the meltwater had a place to go. The ice and water was up to 3 inches from the underside of the bridge and I was concerned that it might wash the bridge out. After I got a channel carved in the ice, the rushing water cleared a path and after a few hours dropped the water level to a safer height. Later, because the weather was so warm I was able to caulk the leaks in the brooders’ roof. The kids climbed up too. I’m not sure what there is about a roof, but roofs demand to be climbed upon. Maybe it is something about the new perspective. Everything looks different when standing on a roof.

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.