Friday, July 25, 2014

A Few Words From the Farm Before Bedtime

I'd love to write the full story of how we finished haying, but I just can't in one sitting.  I will share some of the highlights.  The rest will just have to perk in my mind until I can pour you a strong cup of memory brewed from the experience. Maybe some winter day when I'm half crazy from being locked in by the cold. The details would curl your hair, involve compassionate neighbors, a divine intervention and two 14 year old boys driving my Ford pickup full of hay bales without adult supervision.

For now my story will focus on the old hay baler I named Senora. Senora is probably as old as I am. An antique as farm machines go. But she's still game to bale a field and has a language all her own.
The problem is, I don't speak her language fluently.  Yes, we've worked out a few things over the years but she has secrets nobody really understands.  And the men who know how to translate are getting harder to find.  Senora glided through about 4 acres of hay field that was neatly cut and raked, missing a bale about one in a hundred.

Now what you need to know is that Senora picks up the dry, raked hay from the field, sweeps it over into a plunger that compacts loose hay into a square, cuts the ends off with a knife and squeezes each section she picks up into the bale. At the same time she pulls a length of the baling twine that wraps around the bale and, get this, ties a knot and cuts the twine for each bale. Except when she doesn't.

Talk to any farmer with a square baler and you can go on for ours about the knotters.  These are the twin mechanical features that must simultaneously tie a knot and cut the twine.  This is mechanical voodoo. You can't do it in hand and the mechanics are baffling.

Senora had it down until she choked near sundown with a hundred bales to go.

So I called a neighbor.  "Hey Adam, you remember when the pickup reel on your baler got jammed and you had to clear it? What did you do?"  Adam said,  "I'll be down in half an hour".

Mean time my wife had seen the delay, called neighbors and the kids in and they were picking up bales off the field and pitching them up into the barn loft. The 14 year olds were delighted to be given a pickup truck to load with bales in the field and return to the barn.  Yeah, and dad learned to keep his mouth shut as junior learned to back the truck down the lane to the barn.  Both outside mirrors are still intact.

The neighbors who dropped everything on their own farm came running to help and loaded our loft.

And then Adam drove up and took Senora in hand.  You can't know all the tricks of an old farm machine. And you can't know what a farm hand knows about desperate repairs with hand tools. I learned a lot from the local hands in a few hours about how not to be beaten at sundown with rain on the horizon. It was pretty damn impressive.

All told we got the hay in.  Not as much as we wanted.  Not with the ease we expected.  But we won. When we were stuck, people came and helped.  Not because they had to, not because there was money in it.  But because we needed them. We might be poor in hay this year, but we're rich in friends and neighbors.  What a blessing.        


You might wonder about Senora.  Well, she did her best up until she broke a drive chain on some heavy clover hay.  That's alright. We'll get her a new chain and we'll pick up a few more bales another day.  And like I said. she's got her own language. She hums though a light windrow of dried grass, and when we hit the heavy cutting she complains, "There's no Room. There's no Room. There's no Room."
She might be an old thing now, but she once was a dream in red paint and I named her after a 1961 hit by Harry Belafonte.  This link below should explain it all.



Sunday, July 20, 2014

A few Words From the Farm Before Bedtime.

Some notes.

The sheep have grazed their way through ready pasture. Yesterday Susie wondered where to put them. I pointed to the front yard.  Our shady lawn was looking shaggy and the weeds are up under the cherry and the apple trees.  Today the view from the kitchen is of sheep grazing on the lawn and dozing in the shade and there isn't a weed to be seen under the cherry tree.  One of our regular customers came to get a box of farm produce with her daughter.  She laughed when she noticed the sheep were mowing the lawn. I said, "The John Deere runs 'till it's empty.  The sheep run 'till they're full."

I started cutting hay yesterday. I have a formerly broken but newly reformed cutter bar mower, older than I am, to do the work.  It won't do on a modern farm. To small, too slow, too fussy about ground speed and the angle of the bar.  Unlike today's machines this one is full of secrets and peculiarities a man has to know if he wants hay in the barn. But it's nimble in small plots of grass and clover, compact enough to get down an over-grown lane and forgiving when a turn at the end of a row doesn't go just right. I hooked the end of the bar on a thick stand of weeds and the built-in mechanical precaution of a friction bar released, a design included to prevent damage when striking an obstacle in the field.  Push as I might It would not go back into place.  I drove home with the mower on the tractor, reversed into the Maritime Electric pole in the yard and heard a satisfying "click". It's taken me 4 years to learn how to cut hay with a mower everybody used to know.

I'll finish cutting hay tomorrow.  Then I'll use an old hay rake to turn the hay to finish drying and set it into windrows for baling.  That's when my cantankerous old baler "Senora" enters the scene.  Dowager that she is, one never knows exactly what she will do so I'll save the rest of this story for a full report on her behavior and let you get some rest.



Friday, July 18, 2014

A Few Words From the Farm Before Bedtime

If you have a cat, a dog, a pet iguana, a patio pot with a tomato plant, an award winning rose, a few rows of potatoes or a million acres of wheat, sooner or later Nature will tap you on the shoulder and remind you of the facts. "Hey bud. We have a deal."

I was reminded of that today by our otherwise carefree barn cat, Sean. Sean can't read the fine print but he knows the terms of our agreement. Man says, "You are a barn cat.  We hired you because rodents steal food, damage buildings, eat baby chicks make a mess generally and aren't contributing to the program here. You seem to be pretty good at hunting rodents, cat.  Here's the deal.  We'll give you enough food and health care to keep you strong and able.  You'll be free to come and go as you please and use your talents at will to eat rats, mice, voles and whatever else comes your way.  One more thing, we'll be clipping your junk." So cat looks at the deal and says, "Sweet.  Feed me on schedule, don't act crazy and don't try to pick me up or turn me into one of your stupid, fat, house cats and I'm your barn cat." Sean is as free as Huckleberry Finn.

Last fall the fur trappers in our neighborhood legally set traps in the neighborhood.  Trapping for furs goes on here as a traditional way of earning income sometimes for bounty and varmint control.  I don't have much to say about it.  But I do appreciate it when a trapper comes to me and lets me know his traps are out and we're good enough neighbors to exchange the courtesy of allowing trappers to work by asking them to keep traps away from our farm yard, kids and livestock.  Seems rational enough.  But Huck Finn can't read a map and Sean disappeared.

We were out in the barnyard in the morning 2 days later when Sean came home.  He slunk weakly into the barnyard and made a dizzy beeline to safety in the hay loft.  We were glad to see him and realized pretty fast he was in trouble.  Panting, starving, one eye bulging out but ever so grateful to be home. He was bundled up, taken to the vet, tested and observed and then released home for care with a guess that maybe a glancing blow from a car on the road had nearly done him in.

A few days later a neighbor came by and mentioned that he'd found a cat in a trap in a neck hold and set him loose.  Turns out it was Sean. The type of trap used and a neighbor gave him a chance.  And when he was set free he came home.

Sean was let into the house for the first time ever and closed into the bathroom with everything he'd need to recover. He was patient with being confined.  He was fed and loved and nursed back to health and was eventually more than happy to go back home to freedom in his barn.  

Afterward, last winter, Sean would show up on the porch in the bitterest cold, visit and talk with us, take a bit of petting (Not too much because rubbing his fur pushed the warm air out of his coat) and then off he'd go to his lodgings in the hay loft.  Sean lost the rounded tips of his ears to frost bite last winter. But he never asked to be let in the house.  He knows the deal. Some day, if we're both lucky, Sean and I will retire. I suspect we'll both earn a spot by the fire and have no regrets. Until then, we both have work to do.

This is just a short story about a cat.  It's also a story about all of us.  We have a deal with Nature and Nature holds the stakes.  We promise to care for and look after Nature in return for what we need and we take what we get. We're a wife and husband, nurturing the little lives we are given and as long as we recognize the terms of our survival all is well. But If we hold ourselves apart from Nature, if we forget that people spent 10,000 years negotiating a living and if we believe we cannot be held to account for ignoring the contract, we'll lose everything. Even a silly barn cat with squared ears knows the facts.  He's free to come and go as he pleases. But he follows me everywhere.  And I admire that little cat.  




Saturday, July 12, 2014

A few words from the farm before bedtime.

It was payday today.  For a farmer that means selling at the market. The big farmers are in a whole different game than we are, but the facts on the ground are the same.  You plant, grow, and try to meet your buyers price in the market.  When we go to market and sell crops for cash we get paid for our work.  It's that simple.  But it's not that easy.

Somebody once said that Farmers are the only business people expected to make a profit buying retail and selling wholesale.  What that means is that farmers pay fixed retail costs for seed, machines, fertilizer, bank loans, hardware, mechanics, clothing, electricity, food and fuel. But the price for the animal or vegetable crop can be set by the buyer - before it's produced for market.  In Iowa, the State has just redefined the laws to make it clear that a farmer, working on contract for a big agricultural corporation, is actually an employee of that company.

What does that mean? Let me give you an example.  If I were a hog farmer under contract with ABC Corporation, the corporation would buy and own the little pigs I raise for them to market.  They would give me explicit instructions about the conditions under which I would raise their hogs. The stock barns and buildings, infrastructure, drugs and antibiotics applied, feed requirements. It would all be spelled out and the price set in advance. If they decide the farmer hasn't met their contract - they can cancel it. In essence firing the farmer "employee" before delivery. And the State has mandated that the farmer is a contract employee who agrees to take all the risk. Win or lose.  You can see where this leads.

And then there is our farmers' market. I've had several people ask, "Will you please grow chickens for me?" A lady at the market began scolding me because there were no more organic eggs for her to buy.  I apologized and explained I'd sold all I had in the first 2 hours. My hens lay the only certified organic eggs in the county. "When will you have organic new potatoes?" Next week I said.

We sold out our stock of everything we brought to market today. And we got the retail price.
If you want to know how to create local food security, I believe I've got some ideas.





Thursday, July 10, 2014

7.10.14 A Few Words From the Farm Before Bedtime

Well, I won't go into detail about today.  Let's just say it's 10:15 PM, there's still light in the sky, it's humid and about 80F.  It's Eastern Canada, where winter comes from the North Pole and summer comes from Louisiana.

My California friends will be surprised to find the water here is warmer than summer in So Cal.  And my Canadian friends doubt us when we describe the beaches in So Cal and say, "There are no biting bugs".
The bugs are biting here tonight.

I'm taking a friendly word of advice and moving my words to the blog.  Sort of against better judgement really.  It's easy to sit on facebook and poke out a few words. Kind of like writing a letter to you. And that got me thinking...

If you're my age you remember getting letters.  And if your're my age you probably have letters, saved by your family that you've never read. Somewhere in my mom's house is a box of letters my mom and dad wrote to each other in 1944-45. I've never read them.  A record of who my parents were as young marrieds in World War II.  And I'm not sure I want to know...what's in them. I'd like to leave them their privacy and innocence.

When my older brother went to Viet Nam, he wrote infrequent letters home. I remember my mom wrote him back asking him to please just write about the ordinary things he did. We were hungry for news about him. Not about the war.

On my birthday, I often got a small gift and a letter from my Dad's father.  It is the letters I remember.

When I was young, my mothers' family had spread far and wide.  They wrote letters to each other as uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters.  A package of letters would be forwarded to us with a new letter from the sender. We got the family news in California by post from mom's family in the east. A very old school format dating back to when my mom's family were immigrants on the plains with roots in the east.  And when we arrived here in PEI the old folks came to visit and shared local news on Sunday after church. In the States, years ago, the home folks sat down after church and wrote letters with local news to loved ones "far from home". We received them at our house into the 1970's. And I recognized the same tradition on PEI when I moved here.

I appreciate that some think my words are important. But really, they're not. All I'm doing is writing a letter to you every few days. I'm writing letters to you as your family used to write to you. I'm sharing the news like our families once did so we can stay close. That's all.