Mike to the Rescue

May 30, 2010

Yesterday the battery in my old truck was dead, for the third time in two weeks. My friend Mike had charged it once, jumped it once, and here it was, cold and clicking once again. Naturally, I discovered this after I had laboriously filled the manure spreader. When I called Mike to ask for his suggestions he explained that his own truck was currently dismantled and waiting for parts. But never fear! He jumped on his motorcycle and roared the 8 miles out to the farm. Super Mike!

For ten years, Mike has been the friend who has rescued me at odd hours more times than I can count. He is the one who came for Jon and me when the fuel filter broke down on the highway an hour away. He is the one who magically appeared when I had two small children in the back seat, a Christmas tree tied to the roof, and a dead engine. Flat tire? Out of gas? Failed brakes? Broken starter? Mike has coped with it all. He plows the driveway and chainsaws fallen trees. He has met airplane flights in Albany, picked up my dogs at the vet, helped me set up for parties, driven Jon to school. He has repaired all my small engines forever and once dropped everything to come out to inspect a lawnmower that suddenly refused to start.  (He looked at the lawnmower and then looked at me. “Engine won’t turn over if you have the blades engaged,” he explained patiently. “Oh, Mike, I’m so stupid!” A cheerful giggle: “You said it, Sis, not me!”)

Last night he came out to remove the dead battery because I didn’t know how. I’m going to try to buy a new battery this morning after barn chores. If I’m successful, he will zoom out on his motorcycle again to install it.

I am so lucky. In my life, Mike is not just a friend, but a superhero.

A Sidecar

May 29, 2010

My father always used to refer to small gifts as “sidecars.”  A sidecar, in Dad’s lexicon, was not the main present, just an add-on.

I have been enjoying a lovely sidecar while moving my sheep every day around Betty’s pastures.

The sheep are so happy when I first let them into a new section of lush grass they make little grunting noises of pure pleasure. One ewe, Blackberry, rather than troubling to graze, just flops in all the green and eats lying down.

It makes me very happy, too. I often sit down in the grass and just watch them for a while.

Two days ago I was sitting, watching, when I heard a faint twittering and cheeping. Baby birds somewhere. I stood up and followed the sound to a rotted birch snag about twelve feet high. About eight feet up there was a drilled out hole. Hearing me, the babies redoubled their calling, more loudly. “Feed us! Feed us! Feed us!”

A woodpecker’s nest.

Soon I heard a woodpecker scolding frantically. A female Hairy Woodpecker had flown into the birch behind me and was skittering up the trunk and fluttering around the branches, berating me.

I was moving the next day’s fencing so I had to stay in the vicinity of the snag for several minutes. The woodpecker swore and screamed.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I won’t hurt your babies.”

Shielding my eyes from the setting sun I could see the male Hairy had arrived in a nearby tree with a bug in his beak. The female was still screeching.

I felt like a trespasser and was hurrying as much as I could. But on another level I don’t like being yelled at, even by a bird. “You know, if you keep up that noise, every crow and raven in the area is going to know just where your nest is,” I advised her.

Finally I had the fence set. I moved away and sat back down in the grass. The male swooped to the hole carrying his bug, and a chorus of excited little voices greeted him.

I sat watching the parent birds fly to and fro for quite a while. All was quiet now. The golden light slanting through the birches was soft and warm. The sheep behind me tore the grass happily.

I’ve never seen a woodpecker’s nest before. Wouldn’t my mother have been thrilled? It was a gift to my day. A wonderful sidecar.

A visit from the lime truck

May 28, 2010

This was a milestone week. Lime was spread on my upper pastures!

I’ve been dreaming about liming my fields for years, even before I was told by a state biologist that I’d never grow grass on my rocky land, and before I got results from a soil test that said I would need 13 tons of lime per acre to sweeten the acid soil, just in order to try.

Back in 2005 I purchased a ton (50 forty-pound bags) of pelletized limestone from the local hardware store and spread it on my upper 2-acre field with a dinky plastic lawn spreader. The spreader bounced and tipped over all the rocks. Just ripping open the bags and dumping them one at a time into the tiny hopper stretched the job to two days. This was a very expensive, slow, frustrating way to spread lime.

Farmers do not use lawn spreaders or pelletized limestone. They use tractors and pulverized (powdered) lime. Pelletized lime costs $3.99 a bag. $3.99 x 50 = $199 a ton. Pulverized lime, delivered, costs only $40 a ton.

Last fall when I was driving his college carpool Jon and I watched a farmer on a tractor load and spread a giant, 30-ton pile of lime at the side of his hayfield. Every day when we drove by, the pile was smaller, and eventually it was gone. I was so envious. I knew lime was necessary to improve my soil — and improving my soil was key to having a successful homestead farm. However that farmer had a few things I didn’t have: flat land, a tractor, and a multi-ton lime spreader.

Googling lime spreaders and searching Craigslist became new preoccupations. I also discussed the problem with my friend Allen during our coffee breaks. He explained that lime was so heavy that a pure load would break my manure spreader. He thought it might work to mix some lime into each load of manure that we spread. The prospect of taking on another labor-intensive project, however, gave me pause.

So the idea languished. DH had promised me a load of lime as a 25th wedding anniversary present, but I couldn’t figure out how to spread it — so it remained unordered. And then one day this spring, Allen and I were drinking our coffee in my pickup, looking out at cold rain, and I brought up the lime problem again.

“How come you don’t get the delivery truck to spread it?” Allen said.

“A big tandem truck? On my land?”

“Sure. Now I got the rocks outa there, oughta be able to make it. Long as it’s not wet.”

“The hill’s not too steep?”

“Nah. Gotta be dry, though.”

Dry? When are the swampy Adirondacks dry?

But then this week I opened the weather report and saw a stretch of five sunny days. Unbelievable! I called the agricultural dealer right away. A woman took all my information and said “Jerry” would be in touch. Sunny hot day after sunny hot day went by. No call. Thunderstorms were gathering. Once it rained I would be sunk. I was beginning to despair when my phone rang, and a voice said, “This is Jerry. I’ll be there, loaded, in an hour and a half.” Yowee!

Jerry was a big, sunburned man. I told him my friend Allen thought he’d be able to get up and down the hills. Jerry chewed his lip thoughtfully. “I’ll give it a try,” he said. He pulled into the big pasture… and floored the gas. The truck practically disappeared in a cloud of lime.

Maybe that’s why Jerry drove so fast — to outrun the cloud?

He slowed briefly to inch past the cabin…

and then he was rocketing down the slope and roaring across the open field.

Up and down he went, at top speed.

Down into sloughs and up over rocks and brambles. Occasionally, as he bounced, I saw Jerry’s elbows flapping up near his ears.

I wished Allen were there to see.

Allen thinks I drive between the boulders and rocks like a stock car driver.

Compared to Jerry, I am a little old lady out for a Sunday constitutional.

Within fifteen minutes, Jerry had spread 13.5 tons of lime on about 7 acres. He pulled the truck up next to me, slightly out of breath, and handed me the paperwork to sign.

“Wow, land’s a bit rough,” he said. “Ya got a lot of stone here, don’t ya? That’s why I went slow.”

I moved the sheep!

May 25, 2010

Today I wormed the sheep and moved them to pasture a mile down the road. They will be at sleep-away camp, grazing the fields of my neighbor Betty this summer.

Long ago Betty’s husband raised Herefords for beef. When Harry died twenty years ago, the cattle were sold and the fields were in danger of going to brush. Annual mowing has kept them under control but fifteen acres is a lot of grass to keep for lawn.

Betty has offered the use of the fields to me before, but I’ve always hesitated. I am uncomfortable being beholden; I worry when my animals are not under my eye; and I have always wanted my livestock to be dropping their manure on and fertilizing my poor starved land.

However, I’m working so hard on my fields, spreading manure everywhere, liming, and trying to seed grass, that my available grazing has shrunk. I could simply buy more hay but money is very tight. I told myself that I was being stupidly contrary and that I should just accept Betty’s generosity gratefully. So, almost to my own surprise, I listened to reason. I borrowed a horse trailer today and moved the sheep.

Doesn’t that sound simple? However, it was 86°.  First I brought the 22 sheep into the barn, tricked them into a horse stall, and wormed them all. In the cool of the barn they were already so hot in their wool coats they were panting. Next I set up fencing at Betty’s. Then I went to fetch the horse trailer.

I wished so often for Allen and Mike. “Look, boys! Look what I’m doing!” I can drive any trailer forward but I have always needed Mike to hitch up the trailer for me and Allen to back it. Today I did it all myself. I felt like a proud child. It took forever, worrying over the hitch and testing the brake lights, backing to my barn, backing into the woods, but I did it. Twice, actually (Ioan the ram and one ewe refused to load with the first trip).

When it was all over, hours later, I was wet with sweat, but I wanted to call up Allen and Mike and crow with glee. Of course either of them could have done it in 1/10th the time — with their eyes shut. But they’d both know how big a deal it was for me, scaredy-cat and mechanical dim bulb that I am.

The ewes and lambs were astonished to be offloaded onto lush, springy, soft grass under birch trees. Clearly they’d been transported into a parallel universe.  Betty’s fields have been under cultivation about 100 years longer than mine, and they look it.  Just beautiful.

I hope this proves to be a good summer decision, for the sheep, for Betty, and for me.

A Small Mystery

May 23, 2010

This morning when I was tending my sheep flock I noticed something a bit out of the ordinary. In fact, quite extraordinary. Half a waffle was floating in the sheep water trough!

Now, the farm is rather secluded, down a small private road. As I pondered this mystery, several possible scenarios suggested themselves in explanation.

1) A stranger came to the farm, decided to eat breakfast in the sheep pasture, and was knocked flying by Ioan, my belligerent ram, causing his waffle to sail through the air into the water trough.

2) A stranger came to the farm, walked out to admire the sheep in their pasture, and threw them waffles for a treat.

3) A crow or a raven found half a waffle on a neighboring compost pile, flew overhead, and accidentally dropped the waffle in the water trough.

I was hoping for (3). Tonight I was at a student recital and happened to see the neighbors who run a lovely bed and breakfast a mile down the road from my farm.

I told them the story of the waffle-in-the-sheep-water. Tony reported that ravens scavenge their compost pile every day. Nancy exclaimed, “I put leftover waffles out there two days ago!”

I am betting that crows chased a raven carrying his prize. (Though humans can have trouble distinguishing between crows and ravens, the birds themselves never do — crows mob ravens just as they do any other bird of prey. I have often seen a raven crouching defensively on the ground, croaking defiance upward as a squadron of crows divebomb his head, or doing long, looping barrel rolls through the air, trying to avoid crows harassing on the wing.)

I could just picture the scene. The mobbing crows darting and swooping, the raven opening his beak to roar his rage, and then his chagrin as his lovely waffle fell through the sky and landed in the middle of the water trough, from whence he could not retrieve it.

Did he walk around, surveying the problem? (Both crows and ravens walk with a wonderful swagger.) Or was he hassled and chased right out of the neighborhood? I’d love to know.

*     *    *

DH is going to be away this week. As a surprise he bought a bottle of champagne and after putting Lucy to bed we drove down to the cabin and drank a couple of glasses sitting on the deck, watching the sunset.

The sheep were leaping and gamboling in front of the cabin. There was a beautiful dusk chorus: peepers singing in Neddy’s pond, white-throated sparrows calling from the woods at the edge of the pasture, tree frogs trilling. The zzzzzzzap! of two courting woodcocks.  The twitterings of small songbirds settling themselves for the night. The air itself seemed to pulse and crackle.

Yesterday I saw a slender garter snake whipping through the grass and picked it up to look at it closely. This morning there was fox scat outside the chicken house. Tonight a toad was hopping up the side of the driveway in the truck headlights.

So much life! I love spring!

The Rubber Meets the Road

May 22, 2010

OK, now we’re down to it. I’ve got to spread manure!

For the moment, I’ve decided I’m only going to worry about the manure piles near the barn. That is, my winter pile, which I figure is about 20 tons, plus the first and smallest load of compost from Larry’s barn that he and I dumped nearby before we realized the immensity of our project, and moved to the back acres.

Last year, Allen and I spread my manure pile. He loaded my spreader with his tractor. We were planning to do the same this year, but he’s not feeling well. He was going to send his son instead — but of course I said, Nonsense! I can do it with my pitchfork! I didn’t want to be a bother, and that’s how manure has been spread from time immemorial, after all.

Tractors didn’t transform farming in the United States until after World War II, and weren’t common in these mountains until the later ’50s. Manure spreaders themselves weren’t invented until 1899. Before that, farmers forked their manure up into a wagon and then stood on the wagon-load as work horses pulled it across a field and forked it out again. And you wondered how farm families could eat those enormous breakfasts?

Here’s the school farmer, “Uncle Jesse” Taylor, loading a manure spreader drawn by the farm team, Mick and Buck, in 1943.

You’ll notice I have a few advantages. Rubber tires. Four-wheel drive. But his power source responds to voice commands! Also, his manure spreader is much larger.

(I love to read old newspapers and once came across the obituary for Jesse’s wife. I was startled to see that in 1929, someone could pass her entire life in our town and still be known only as “Mrs. Jesse Taylor.”  No first name at all! Eighty years later, we’ve come a long way. My married name is so difficult, I’m immediately on first-name terms with everyone! On the other hand, I’m still forking manure.)

I am guessing there are forty spreader-loads in the winter pile. Last year the job was done before lunch. I expect this year will take a little longer.

We are due for a stretch of sunny days. It takes me not quite half an hour of sweaty labor to fill the spreader — and five minutes to spread it. I have spread six loads so far. I think if I spread six loads a day (an hour and a half, morning and evening) I can get it done this week.

I’ve got a bet going with myself. We’ll see!

More Manure Compost

May 21, 2010

Another long, fun, tiring day with Larry. The weather was perfect. Blue skies, warm sun, no bugs. We hauled (or “drawed,” as Allen would say) another ten trailer-loads of manure compost from Larry’s horse farm to my back acres. We started at 8:30 AM and quit at 5 PM, so I would have time to milk before cooking supper. There are still about three more loads to go. Larry is going to bring those when he has time.

We figure each load is between five and eight tons. This means we will have brought between 105 and 168 tons of manure compost to my farm. I’m thrilled. Our town dump sells manure compost (after our town’s annual horse show) for $5 per yard. In Vermont it goes for $15 per yard. What a fabulous, generous gift Larry has given me.

Still, it is chastening to look at the huge pile and notice how very, very small it appears in the context of my future field. Larry remarked on this many times.

It reminded me of my friend stumping those acres and saying that he daren’t look up to see how much there was still to go, because it was too disheartening. These +/- 150 tons will probably dress a tenth of the back field. To haul that compost took two full days — and to spread it without a tractor will take me weeks, if not months. If I think about it too much I get daunted.

Much better just to rejoice in the gift and in the moment. I know I’ll figure it out somehow.

Thank you, dear Larry!

Fun with Larry

May 20, 2010

My friend Larry made me a present of his manure pile yesterday. Allen and Damon had given me a dump-truck load of manure last month. Some guys really know the way to a girl’s heart.

Larry is the farm manager for an upscale horse barn in town. I hadn’t realized how much dirty bedding five very expensive, very pampered horses would create in a year. Using a tractor and trailer, Larry and I moved manure compost from 9 AM until 5 PM and we’re not done yet. I am happy and grateful to have so much organic matter to enrich my thin, sour soil.

Larry filled the borrowed trailer with bucket after bucket of compost.

(It’s interesting. I have talked to a number of people who farm with draft horses. The one piece of machinery they all can’t do without is a loader. I don’t have a tractor, with or without a loader, and with each bucket-load, as the trailer sank on its axles, I kept my thoughts firmly averted from the thought of forking it all by hand into my manure spreader.)

Then we tied tarps over the load, drove it seven miles to my farm, and dumped it.

Each pile became a long line as Larry pulled the truck forward to empty the trailer.

One of the trailer tires was soft. Back at his barn, Larry dragged out his air compressor and filled it. We took another load out to my place; the tire seemed to have deflated again. This time I filled the tire. I have bursitis in one knee; when it jabbed painfully I shifted to get off it while holding the compressor nozzle in place. Oh, dear. The valve stem of the inner tube ripped completely off the tire. Within seconds the tire was really deflated. As in, the rim was sitting on the ground.

I was ready to burst into tears. The whole day, the plan, the borrowed trailer — all ruined. By me. However one quality I have noticed about really fine workers is that they don’t lose their temper over setbacks. Larry was calm.

“Somet’in'” — (he’s from Ireland) — “always goes wrong, and we can fix a flat. Didn’t you tell me you don’t know how to change a tire? Now you can learn.”

He showed me how to jack up the trailer, loosen the lug nuts, and pull off the tire. Then we drove it to the local garage. If I had taken the tire in, the repair would have taken days. Larry knows everyone in town, however, and the owner of the garage did the repair himself, immediately, while other men stood around cracking jokes with Larry.

We were back in business in an hour.

Naturally, our predicted warm sunny day was now cold and rainy. I was freezing. Larry lent me his volunteer Fire Department jacket. He never gets cold. I’ve seen Larry skiing in the dead of winter without gloves.

The composting manure steamed in the chill. Tying down the tarps you could feel the heat radiating like a stove.

“Phew! It stinks!” Larry said.

I actually didn’t mind the smell of fermented pine and horse manure at all. “Smells like future fertility for my farm!”

We now had a rhythm going. Loading, tarping, driving, folding tarps and bungie cords, dumping, driving. We took seven trailer-loads out. Larry figured each load was between five and eight tons.

On the eighth load, the battery that lifts the trailer lifted it about five feet and suddenly went dead. We still had to get the manure out.  That became, necessarily, our last load of the day.

At first we hoped that just poking the load with a fence post would start it sliding.  No.

Then I tried dog-kicking it down the slope.

Nope. Then, tired, I sat down and tried kicking and poking.

Still no.

Finally I hiked up to the barn and brought back a pitchfork and shovel. I climbed on top of the load and forked it down to Larry, who shoveled it out.  As I grew more exhausted, my abilities became more erratic. At one point I threw a steaming forkful of manure on top of Larry’s head.

A voice from below said merely, “I was t’inkin’ I’d take a shower tonight!”

He is a very dear person. We should finish the job today.

Taking Turns

May 18, 2010

Last night DH and I went out to dinner with a visiting alumnus and another guest. Though I can schmooze if I have to, I’m not someone who particularly enjoys it, and as far as eating out goes, I’d just as soon have a chunk of sharp cheese and an apple and curl up with a good book at home. However this was supposed to be casual and I try to be supportive to my husband.

DH was driving us to the restaurant when the visiting alumnus, who is also a pilot, suddenly said, “Would you like to go up over the mountains?”

Now, we live in a tourist town with a tiny airport, and sightseeing rental flights are common. Working outside down at the farm I wave at the small planes as they fly overhead all the time. But as mentioned before in these pages, I am both terminally cheap and unimaginative, and in 25 years it had never occurred to me that I could go.

“That would be great!” I exclaimed.

DH gave a small, embarrassed chuckle. “Actually —”

It was the oddest thing to me. DH was afraid to go up.

What a complete role reversal! I am the one who is afraid of everything. Heights? I feel sick on a first-floor balcony. Speed? — forget it, I am whimpering. I won’t go on a rollercoaster. I won’t watch a scary movie. I worry constantly. If DH is late coming in from a trip, I am so distraught I generally have his funeral planned down to the hymns.

He is the one who dangles off sheer granite walls or crosses icy crevasses on glaciers. He is the one who skis down things that look like cliffs to me. He never worries.

But now he wouldn’t go up in the plane.

There was a part of me that couldn’t believe he was serious. To me, going up in fine weather in an airplane piloted by a doctor who worked for Medecin Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) was hardly more nerve-racking than going for a drive down the Northway. Not for DH, however. I was astonished. But he stuck to his guns.

We other three taxied out of the postage-stamp airport (the runway seemed about the size of a school parking lot) and flew up over the mountains at sunset.

It was glorious, the mountains spread in green and purple folds in every direction, glints of snow still gleaming in hollows. We banked and flew over our farm. We soared along rocky ridges. I was thrilled. I wished DH could have seen it.

But it’s OK for him to have a rare turn being the nervous one.

Next Steps in the Back Pasture

May 17, 2010

My friends Tom and Alison walked the farm with me yesterday, and Tom took this photo. (As always, double-click to enlarge.) It got so warm I have my coverall sleeves knotted around my waist.

If you look closely, on the right you can see the 1/4 of the pasture that didn’t get stumped and cleared, due to weather. You can also see the giant berm of material pushed up to rot all along that south property line.

I had hoped to rake the land with a tractor and york rake. I know someone who would lend me his york rake and someone else who would rent me his tractor.

However Tom made the good point that if any land would break the tines of a york rake, mine would. What isn’t broken logs, roots, and sticks is rocks. It’s probably wisest if I don’t go borrowing. I will have to clean the surface as I have done it everywhere else on the farm: slowly and by hand.

Besides, I am going to need any cash I’ve got for seed. Even cheap pasture grass seed goes for $125 for a 40-lb bag — way too expensive for me. I’m going to put down perennial rye, also known as winter rye. It’s much cheaper ($30 per 50-lb bag, with a possible discount on a large order) and will grow even on my Adirondack acid gravel. Rye is not as palatable to livestock, but as my friend Allen said, the important thing is to get something growing — “Get some oxygen into that dirt.”

And, as I told Allen, if the animals don’t like rye, I can open a deli!

I am thinking of trying to smooth the surface a bit before I spread the seed. Allen suggested chaining a large log horizontally behind my truck and pulling it as a drag. The man from the rental store suggested using an old steel I-beam in the same fashion. I am going to look at the trees that fell this winter and see if there is anything heavy enough to work. Otherwise I will follow up with the I-beam idea.

At the same time I’m going to try to spread one load of manure back there every day.  Allen is not able to come out to the farm right now so I’ll just load the spreader with a pitchfork. (Farm gym! A lot of people pay for this sort of workout!)

So much to do. Lists of lists fall out of my pockets. But it’s deeply exciting to me.