Setting Corner Posts in the Back Field

June 30, 2013


It has rained here almost every day of the past month. This always seems to happen when I have heavy equipment on the farm.

However this year I have not minded. Because we had the lovely gift of the use of an excavator, my friend Allen and I did not have the usual time pressure — the rental meter is ticking! — and were able to space out our recent project work between the rain drops, in two- to three-hour stints. On our second morning we put up corner posts in the back field.

Allen stumping the field in April, 2010

Turning these ten acres of scrub forest back into pasture (they were “rough pasture” in the 1930s, according to maps) has been a long, slow process over the last four years. Allen has helped me almost every step of the way, so it is extremely satisfying to be working with him on these penultimate steps.

In the top photo, Allen is driving the tractor, but only because I am on the ground loading the treated lumber. In fact, on all these mornings Allen was running the excavator while I drove the tractor to carry our materials. (I might have used my truck but Allen decreed that I needed the tractor practice.)

127223The field will be fenced with electric rope hung on steel T-posts. T-posts are one of the least expensive fencing options, and the only real option available to me as I can pound them in myself between the rocks without machinery. However “least expensive” does not translate into “cheap.” New T-posts are about $5 each, which is reasonable but quickly adds up when you’re fencing a large area. I calculate I need 150 – 200 for this pasture. Thus I have watched Craigslist religiously. Two years ago I scored 100 used T-posts for this project for $1.50 apiece. They have been waiting in a pile for me in the back field.

These T-posts will be my line posts, but for corners, angles, and gates I need something heavier to absorb the tension of the electric rope.

Thus Allen and I set treated 6x6s four feet deep at all the field corners …


… and treated 4x4s at the bottom of slopes and in places the fence would have to turn. My job was to set the posts and keep them plumb while he back-filled around them.


See the mud hole behind that post? It has been there ever since the ground was bulldozed in the fall of 2010. Even in last year’s severe drought, the low swampy area resisted drying out.

Allen’s brows knit as he looked at it. He shook his head. I was driving the tractor to the next post location when I realized he was not following.

This is one of the many reasons I treasure Allen. He can never pass a problem without stopping to fix it.


I drove back.

“Y’need some ditchin’,” Allen shouted briefly over the roar of our machines.


He quickly dug a ditch to run behind the future fence…


… punched a hole through the giant earth berm …


… and drew the water down the ditch and away.


Then he trundled the excavator back to the mud hole and added scoops of earth from the berm to raise the ground level…


… and smoothed the ground with quick swipes of the bucket.

Two weeks later, despite rain every day, that ground is dry.

Allen’s meticulousness has spoiled me for any other operator. I was shocked when I hired someone else and the new man only did exactly what I told him.

We got all the big posts set in a morning. The excavator struggled and bucked against the underground rocks.


But without a machine, each of these ten post holes would have taken me a full day to dig by hand.

It’s a huge step forward. Hooray!

Diabetic Chocolate Cake

June 29, 2013


Lucy and I made a sugar-free, flour-less chocolate cake for a diabetic friend’s celebration. The secret ingredient of this cake is beans! (Plus ten eggs.)

I found the basic recipe here at the Healthy Indulgences blog. Instead of the regular black beans called for in the recipe, I used Eden black soy beans to lower the carbohydrate count even further. Soy beans have fewer than half the carbs of other beans.

Lucy was our cake decorator.

The only problem with cakes is that you can’t sample them before giving them away. I’m a bit nervous to know how this one turned out.

I hope it’s good!

LATER: I got a text from the family saying the cake was “awesome” and “tasted like normal cake.” Hooray!

Half Done

June 28, 2013


Yesterday I mowed fence lanes and moved the sheep onto fresh grass first thing. Then I spent eight hours mucking the deep bedding out of the sheep stall so I can move the steers into it before Moxie’s calf is born. Working steadily, with my hands wrapped in the usual duct tape against blisters, I got half the job done.

The bedding in the stall is waste hay, a foot thick, dry on the surface but wet and steamy underneath. To remove it I have to break the matted material into manageable chunks with a pick-axe. Last year I’d found an extra pick-axe at a yard sale for $3, and in trying it yesterday I learned that the type of pick-axe makes a difference.

The new pick-axe has a broad blade like a shovel, and a short point. You don’t want a shovel blade. It will bounce uselessly off the springy surface of the bedding. The pointy end is too short to be effective in deep bedding.

What’s needed is a pick-axe with two long pointy ends. In other words, my old pick-axe.

If you swing this type of axe over your head and hit the bedding with a hard thud, the point will bite deep. Then you throw all your weight against it and lever the point back up through the matted hay, ripping the layers. (The trapped ammonia that is released with this maneuver will make your eyes water, but after a while your nose becomes accustomed to the horrific stench.)

After ripping a heavy clod free, you spear it with your pitchfork and carry it to the waiting wheelbarrow in the barn aisle. Often you can’t free the clod without prying it off the tines with your boot or even your hands. Soon you are smeared with aged slimy manure — but one of the prerequisites of mucking deep bedding is a lack of concern about such things.

It was 80° F outdoors but hotter in the barn. Sweat ran down from under my hair. More sweat soaked my clothes. Each time I stumbled outside to dump a fresh wheelbarrow-load I pulled my clinging coveralls away from my skin. These summer coveralls are made of light, parachute-type material that dries in minutes, but yesterday they stayed damp all day.

I was a zombie by the time I put my tools away, fed the pigs, closed the barn doors, and drove home to shower and cook dinner.

Today it is pouring rain. Though I could add the joys of wind, rain, and mud to this task, I’ve decided to take the morning “off” and just clean my neglected house and pay bills. I’ll put in a few more hours this afternoon.

Countdown for Moxie

June 27, 2013


My little Jersey cow, Moxie, whom I rescued back in 2010 (as a result of her rough childhood she’s missing one ear and half her tail), is due to calve soon.

In the photo above, taken yesterday at evening chores, she is munching on some poplar in a newly-fenced section of the back acres.

A blood test last fall told me Moxie was pregnant, but because she was field bred, I had no idea of a due date. About ten days ago I noticed that her udder was beginning to fill out — in cows this is called “bagging up.” Three days ago the udder suddenly swelled to become tight. Now the ligaments around her tail are relaxing. Instead of the month I was planning on for preparation, I think I will be lucky to have a few days.

Last year, in her first calving, Moxie’s udder swelled to such proportions that by the day she calved she was squirting milk with every step. We’re not quite there yet. But almost.


Before the calf arrives I have to rearrange the stalls in the barn — the steers will go into the big empty sheep stall, I have to reassemble the milking stanchion, and Moxie’s stall must be scoured and renewed with hay over shavings to prepare for the new calf.

The sticking point is that before I can take the first step, I have to muck out the old deep bedding in the sheep stall. This tri-annual job is a back-breaking one even when it’s not over 80° F with thunderstorms. But it must be done.

I think I’ll have another cup of coffee as I gird my loins for this day.

Allen Days

June 22, 2013


I once wrote in these pages that some of my happiest times were “Allen days” — days that I was lucky enough to hire my retired friend Allen to operate heavy equipment on the farm. That is still true.

Allen is a gifted operator. He is careful, vastly experienced, and always, always does more than I ask.


But perhaps what I treasure most is that there is no one in my life who makes me laugh so much.

Allen will be 75 in the fall. With strangers he is shy and silent, all business. However once you get to know him, you find he is very kind, thoughtful, and warm, with a mischievous sense of humor. He giggles like a child.

Oddly enough, I’ve never captured this side of him on film. In most of the photos I’ve taken over the years, Allen is serious, frowning in concentration. For some reason, the laughing pictures have invariably turned out blurry.

I have finally realized that when he’s laughing, I’m laughing, and the camera is shaking.


Both Allen and I are a little slower and creakier than we were five years ago. I’m limping painfully on a bad knee and his health is held together with gossamer threads. Neither of us could manage the ten-hour days of old, even if I could afford to rent the big machines.

However, Allen’s son D kindly lent us his mini-excavator, and over the past fortnight, in short stints, we’ve accomplished three important jobs that have advanced two different projects. Day by day we inched forward.

Now the excavator is gone and I’ll finally have time to post pictures of the work and catch up on neglected house chores.

But already I find myself missing the jokes and teasing of the happy Allen days.

A Birthday Tractor!

June 20, 2013


For my birthday this year my “big present” from the family was really big. A 1988 John Deere 1080 tractor!

I have wanted a tractor for years, but it has always been out of my reach financially. Though I told them this, my friends Allen and his son D really could not imagine why I did not have one. For them heavy equipment is as essential to life as books are to me. D, in particular, was disgusted. “What kind of a dumb farmer ain’t got a tractor?”

D was always reading ads and watching roadside offerings as he traveled our surrounding counties on his equipment delivery runs. He would report his discoveries to me, in mostly incomprehensible detail. It was all moot because the prices were beyond my reach. Then one day this spring he telephoned to say he had found my tractor, and that if I didn’t buy it, he would. (D already owns both an excavator and a tractor, but he can never resist a good deal.)

A widow forty minutes away in the Champlain Valley was selling her late husband’s tractor and its implements. It was a twenty-five-year-old tractor, but tractors hold their value. In this case the price was low because though the tractor was basically sound, it needed some detail work. D promised to do this work in exchange for being able to use the tractor occasionally on outside jobs. I talked to DH, clutched my tax refund, and decided to take the plunge.

D and I drove over to pick it up. In our first trip with D’s big dump truck and trailer, we hauled home the implements. The tractor came with a wonderful array: a loader bucket, a back blade, a brush hog, a sickle bar (D calls it a “snickle bar”) mower, and a backhoe attachment. The former owner even threw in a set of disc harrows and a wagon for free.

D used the tractor to lift and load all the implements.


It was a time-consuming puzzle to get them all to fit on the trailer…


…and then to get them all chained down securely. Luckily, this is a job D does almost every day of the year.


We thanked the widow and rumbled out of her farm driveway with our first load. All was serene on the long ride home until we reached the top of Spruce Hill, a steep, two-mile hill that plunges down into the nearby town. I heard a click and turned to see D unsnapping his seat belt.

“What’s up?” I said idly.

His voice was calm. “Take off your seat belt, and if I say jump! then open your door and jump out.


D’s teeth flashed white as he grinned at me. “Trailer brakes are shit —”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“—and this truck’s a fuckin’ automatic. I got it in low but it may not hold. All that iron, it’s a fuckin’ heavy load.”

I unclipped my seat belt with shaking hands and stared down from the high seat of the big dump truck, trying to imagine jumping out onto the unspooling highway far below. I couldn’t imagine it.

D was cheerfully telling me runaway-truck stories as we slowly crept down the long hill, the motor straining at a high whine — “Automatics are shit, gotta be able to gear down” — until finally we reached the bottom. I could feel the cold sweat on the back of my neck when I sat back, relieved.

Then I remembered, Oh no! We still have to go back for the tractor.

But at last the trailer was unloaded for the last time and the tractor was safely at Fairhope Farm. A week later Allen came out to inspect my new toy and help D take off the backhoe.


They put on the back blade. This should be hugely helpful in the endless road maintenance of the dirt farm driveway.


Since then, Allen has been giving me tractor lessons.


It’s funny how easy it all looks when he’s doing it!

Too Busy

June 19, 2013

Tonight I finished barn chores by truck headlights at 9:30 PM.  This is not sustainable.

Planting Lilacs

June 17, 2013


I planted 48 lilac whips in the rain yesterday. Two more will go in after I pull a rock the size of a microwave that I was too tired, wet, and muddy to deal with at the end of the day.

My hope is that in twenty years these lilacs will be a fragrant, blooming hedge fifteen feet high and over a hundred feet long. I wonder if I will be alive and on the farm to see it. Planting seedling trees and shrubs is an act of optimism and these days I’m feeling a little battered.

Still, I love lilacs, a quintessential feature of every New England farmyard. In the springtime as you drive back roads, you often see gnarled lilacs blooming beside old cellar-holes or abandoned cottages. The Latin name is Syringa vulgaris — common lilac — but in fact lilacs are a foreign import, a member of the olive family and native to the Balkan peninsula. Lilacs only made it to America in the 18th century. However they are so hardy they quickly naturalized and today are indeed common. The Soil and Water Conservation Service sells lilac whips for $1 apiece — my kind of pricing.

I planted these along a rough retaining wall Allen built out of odd rocks when we were installing the septic system in 2009 and needed to terrace the sloping ground. This wall was an afterthought, a utilitarian feature built in less than an hour, and not as beautiful as the rest. With luck the lilacs will grow up to hide the rocks, while providing spring beauty and a shelter-belt for birds.

In the meantime there is a lot of clean-up to do around the baby shrubs: liming, mulching with compost and then a layer of newspaper covered by woodchips, weedwhacking encroaching weeds, tidying away all the turned-over rocks and sods. But that can wait for another day or, more realistically, days. I have so many projects going at once that all of them end up being drawn-out affairs — in some cases, over years. At this point I’m pleased simply to have the lilacs in the ground.

It’s worth the day in wet clothes and the mud-smeared bug bites.


Jon’s Birthday!

June 16, 2013


Yesterday Lucy and DH competed in a 3.5 mile race up and over a mountain, while I baked a tiny vegan cake from a recipe I found on the internet. (I actually baked the cake twice. The first time I forgot the baking soda! My chickens enjoyed the resulting chocolate rubber pancake.)

After the race I picked up my runners and we headed downstate to see Jon and celebrate his birthday.

Jon’s new apartment is conveniently located in the center of town. Together we walked to an Indian restaurant, where we happily over-ate.


As we walked back to Jon’s apartment, we all declared ourselves “too full to eat any more” — but naturally, with the appearance of cake and ice cream, we all tucked in anyway.


This indulgence led to sleepiness reminiscent of Thanksgiving. I lay down on Jon’s bed. (I’m pointing to a reading light I’d wired for him earlier.)


DH stretched out on the twin guest bed.


Unfortunately, all too soon it was time to leave for the drive home while we could still prop our eyelids open.

Happy birthday to my Number One Son!


The Water Wagon

June 13, 2013


Ten days ago, on our last sunny day, I got my five piglets out on grass. They were thrilled to root in the damp earth.

Notice the mulch hay bales blocking the route between the skids, so the piglets don’t wiggle underneath the Pig Palace and get stuck? I do learn, eventually.

This year’s Progress in Pig-raising is a water wagon.


When I made a big purchase last month, the seller threw in this worn and rusty wagon for free. “What do you want that old piece of junk for?” grumbled my friend D, who kindly trucked it home for me.

A water wagon!

The wagon is far from road-worthy but works perfectly to hold a 325-gallon water tank (which I also got for free, five years ago, because it had been hit and cut by a plow blade and now only holds 200 gallons).


This new set-up means that I only have to truck water to the pigs once a week, and after that there is a plentiful supply of fresh water to re-fill their tub whenever I am passing.  (I only need to find a ten-foot scrap of hose to leave permanently in the pasture.)

The piglets approve!


I spend so many hours a day tending to mindless chores, real improvements to my systems are always heartening.