Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Finally A Roof For The Coop....But At A Price!

In early April of 2009, I walked out into our back yard and pounded some stakes into the ground at the edge of our woods. I was marking where I planned to build a super-deluxe chicken coop. Driving those stakes was the first thing that we had done since moving onto our new farm that would permanently alter the landscape and begin the process of turning it back into a working farm. After more than 75 years of growing wild, the land would slowly be transformed to produce food once again.

At the time that this all began, I had no idea that growing commercially was in our future. My mind was full of dreams of self-sufficiency and the chicken coop was simply intended to provide eggs and meat for our family. Of course, if you were to see it today, you would wonder at it's size and the expense that it took to construct it for such a humble purpose. That's exactly what a number of my farmer friends appeared to think when they first heard of my overblown plans. The most common chicken coop design in these parts is a sheet-metal garden shed. Those who have known me for a while are aware that I don't do anything small or by half-measure.

The coop project absorbed much of my time and energy during that first summer. It grew in fits and starts as the days went by. With my attempts to protect my handiwork and the birds within from the elements it became quite an eyesore with its flapping blue tarps, white Tyvek and chicken wire. With plenty of help from visiting friends, the building gradually took shape and was eventually wrapped in attractive red and white sheet metal.

This past spring, as the still incomplete project moved into its second year, the thing that made its unfinished state most noticeable was the roof. In the fall, I had rolled out tar paper to protect the plywood roof beneath with the assumption that the sheet metal roof would soon follow. That was not to be and the winter winds eventually ripped it all off and threw great strips into the woods beyond. With the spring thaw our poor long-suffering hens did their best to stay dry as they dodged drips from the rain-soaked ceiling.

All of this provided handy material for the good-natured ribbing that my neighbor Tim passed out whenever our respective chores brought us within earshot of each other across the property line. What's worse, his property is neat and tidy with not one half-completed project in sight. Having no foothold for a clever comeback, I was reduced to defensive excuses about how many things I had going on. Somehow I just never was able to find a way to bring that project up the priority list.

Then my longtime buddy and favorite handyman Fred stopped by for a visit. He took a look around to see how he could make himself useful and said, "Hey, why don't we put a roof on that coop?". I jumped at the offer and we started right into it. We gathered up ladders, tools and extension cords and got down to business.

The building is quite tall, built on a slight slope and raised a few feet off of the ground on concrete piers. That means that even the lower edge is between 11 and 14 feet off of the ground. We worked our way around the edge installing white fascia covers. Having that complete, we climbed on top and began screwing down the heavy black sheet metal for the roof itself.

The work progressed quickly as we talked and joked to pass the time. The grade of the roof is quite steep and walking on it was tricky. We took turns gingerly creeping down toward the bottom edge laden with tools to place the screws into the lower portions of the sheet. No matter how hard we tried, we were constantly dropping screws, hammers and other tools. These quickly zipped down the slick metal surface and disappeared over the edge with our hopes that they miss any hapless chickens below.

Despite the hazards, the project moved along toward completion. Now and again we would straighten our stiff backs to look back over our progress and comment on how nice it looked. Although we only had a couple of sheets to go, we decided to take a break and head in the house for a drink.

As we relaxed inside for a bit, life returned to normal in the coop yard. Chickens are very curious by nature and will investigate anything left in their reach. As soon as we were gone, the birds rushed over to walk all over and peck at the last remaining sheets that we had left on the ground. Chickens are also messy. As they explored the strange new material, they scratched in the dirt nearby and chased each other on and off of the metal and relieved themselves a time or two for good measure.

When we returned from the house we urged our tired muscles into the task of placing the last few sheets. We noticed that a light rain shower had passed over our work site while we had been away. Since our break had gone a little longer than intended, most of the water had already evaporated as the sun heated up the black surface and only a couple of droplets remained. Thinking no more of it, we climbed the ladders for the last time to finish our work.

As it happens, it was my turn to do the dangerous bit of carefully walking down the roof surface to install the screws in the sheet while Fred held it in place. After getting a few screws in place to hold my weight, I stepped onto the new sheet as I had been doing all day to fasten down the far side. That is when everything went awry.

In my perception, the next few moments crawled by in slow motion. Once events began there was little I could do to change course. Although I could swear that the surface of the newly attached sheet looked clean and dry, the moment that I transferred my weight to the foot I had placed there, I knew that it had been a mistake. The foot whipped out from under me and I began a slow-motion flail for the security of the roof as gravity reached up from the ground like a gigantic invisible claw to drag me helplessly out into space.

By this time both of my legs were out from under me and I hit the roof surface with a bang. Fred's face became animated with alarm as he reached out from above in a vain attempt to save me from my fate. Actually, it is good for him that I was a couple of feet out of reach or he too would have found himself helpless in the clutches of the gravity monster.

The clarity of moments such as this and the speed at which your mind hunts desperately for salvation is amazing. I twisted toward the roof surface and made a few scrabbling attempts to find purchase only to rip my palms on the heads of a few screws as I began the long slide downward. Finally realizing that there was no other solution for it, I twisted in the other direction to face the peril before me as I slid helplessly downward and over the edge.

Time began to thaw and take on speed once again as I ramped off of the roof and flew through the air beyond. The ground rushed up at me with grim resolve to deliver the final blow for my carelessness. Unlike the long moments of my dance with possible rescue upon the sheet metal above, I was now helpless to do anything other than brace for impact and hope for the best.

I came to earth in an upright posture with the ball of my left foot absorbing much of the shock. I fell forward to the ground and lay there face down for a moment while Fred raced down the ladder to my aid. Not too long ago, I was in a serious head-on collision that totaled my car and left me with cracked ribs, a cracked sternum, a cracked nose and a dislocated jaw. In both that instance and this, my brain urged me to get back on my feet and insist that I was fine when in truth I was too shocked to conduct an accurate inventory of my parts.

As I walked it off and laughed at myself, I could tell that all was not well with my foot. In response to concerns from Fred and my family that I should probably go to the doctor, I insisted that I would be fine. I said that I would go to the doctor if it didn't stop hurting in three days time. Of course, in three more days it felt sufficiently better that I revised my pledge for the doctors visit to give myself more time to heal. In the end, I never went.

Later that day after Fred had gone home and I was fuming to myself in the living room. My foot was hurting but I just couldn't stand to waste precious weekend hours because of an injury. I asked Freya to bring me crutches and I made my hobbling way out to the field where I had long overdue tilling to do.

We have a 1970's vintage Troy-bilt Horse tiller that weighs a ton but it gets the job done. Once I had it going I found that I could leave the crutches behind and keep up with the machine as it made slow progress across the field by mostly standing on my good foot. I wasn't able to wear a shoe on the injured foot so I was grateful for the soft earth that the tiller left for me.

I worked out there for quite a while before I noticed that Janet and the children were standing in the driveway looking at me with expressions of disbelief. I shut down the tiller and insisted that I was fine and could still get things done. In attempting to convince them, I likened holding on to the tiller handles to using a walker. My son Aidan knowing how much the tiller jumps around, responded by saying, "Yeah, if your walker was powered by a jackhammer!".

It took fully three months until I could say that the tenderness had finally gone away. Unfortunately it has also become apparent that I did indeed break one of the fine bones in there, from the feel of it I would say that it was the third metatarsal. To this day, when I arise each morning it is very apparent that the break did not heal correctly. It takes several minutes of hobbling around until things stretch out enough for me to hide my new limp.

This all may sound foolhardy and I assure you that it is. What began as a resigned belief that there was nothing that the doctor could do turned into a dread supposition that the only thing that could be done would be to rebreak the badly healed bone in order to align it properly. In hindsight I should have handled it differently, but at this point I'd rather just limp.

In any case, the end of the story is that we finished that darned roof and I'm as proud of it as can be. I think it's a beauty of a coop and I paid for it dearly. Recalling my father's admonition to climb right back on the horse when I'd been bucked off, I scaled the ladder to the roof and only Fred's kind insistence that he could finish the last sheet on his own prevented me from hobbling back up there.

In the end the chickens are drier, the neighbors are happier and I'm just a little bit wiser. Maybe next time I'll use some safety ropes or at least give in when those around me say that perhaps I should let somebody "take a look at that" instead of being so stubborn.

Breakfast With A Cause

Janet and I emerged from our car onto the sunny residential street on the west side of Ann Arbor. It was Good Friday morning and a rare weekday off for me. Instead of sleeping in or starting up one of my many farm projects, we had set aside this time to try something new. We crossed the street together and made our way along the sidewalk. A little unsure of what was in store for us, we talked pleasantly about nothing in particular as a way to distract us from our nerves.

We were headed to the home of people that we had never met to have breakfast. I had emailed and talked briefly on the phone with our host but it felt strange to be walking up to their house on this early morning just the same. Jeff McCabe and Lisa Gottlieb are people of renown in our area for their knowledge and leadership in the local food movement. I heard of them through some of our CSA members who said we just "had" to meet them.

A search on the Internet revealed that the couple were the founders of an organization called "Repasts, Present and Future". Among the many other things that they do, each Friday morning they pull together a volunteer staff and open their home to the public as a local food cafe serving as many as 155 meals! They host these breakfasts, called "Friday Mornings @ SELMA", to raise funds for their efforts to rebuild the local food infrastructure in the Ann Arbor area.

As we approached the house we could tell something different going on. A steady stream of people were coming and going through one of the front doors. On closer inspection we could see that the front lawn was landscaped with vegetables and herbs growing everywhere! We made our way up the drive and walked right in.

We found ourselves in a small side-room of the house that was crowded with people who were waiting to be seated. The walls of the room were plastered from floor to ceiling with name tags and bits of masking tape with names written on them. We were instructed to see if we could find our names so we could reuse them. Janet managed to find one for herself and I made a fresh one from masking tape.

We were soon escorted through a room dominated by a large table where people were enjoying breakfast and into the front room where several other couples were waiting. A small display at one end of the room offered products from local farms. Before long Lisa appeared to welcome us and offer coffee to enjoy while we waited.

The house buzzed with a pleasant energy from the activity and dozens of conversations from those seated throughout. Janet and I stood there next to the couch sipping our coffee while browsing the decor including family photos and books. It was easy to see that this crowded waiting room functioned as our host's living room during the rest of the week. We quietly wondered at what sort of people could withstand this level of intrusion into their private space every week. To us it was a measure of their commitment to their cause.

After a short wait and a little small talk with others in the room, a young woman asked us to follow her to our seats. We threaded our way through guests and busy volunteers to a massive kitchen and dining area at the back of the home. We took our seats on the far side of a large, wooden breakfast bar that doubled as workspace for the volunteers who crowded the kitchen just opposite. Rapidly growing accustomed to the space and the friendly atmosphere, we realized that we were perfectly situated to observe the heart of the operation.

The large and nicely appointed kitchen was well-ordered chaos. Volunteers were washing dishes and chopping vegetables while a couple of cooks turned out plate after plate of delicious looking fare. Jeff was positioned to one side of the counter and was clearly keeping it all working smoothly. He and Lisa were amid a crowd of volunteers with orders coming in, plates going out, problems being dealt with and still the charismatic pair found time to greet an unending stream of acquaintances who couldn't resist saying hello.

It was exciting to be there and see all of this happen. We conversed with others around the bar and watched the volunteers busy at their tasks. Soon our plates were placed before us and we dug right into a delicious breakfast of cheese omelets with locally grown veggies, potato puffs, locally grown greens and bacon.

While we relaxed and savored our meal, Jeff made his way across the kitchen to the large meat slicer on the counter next to Janet. We introduced ourselves while he sliced pieces of his homemade prosciutto and handed us a sample. He told us that the money that they collected for their breakfasts went to local farmers for the breakfast produce and then the remainder (about $50,000 thus far) was being used to build hoop houses on farms in the area.

Hoop houses are similar in appearance to greenhouses. They are metal framed buildings covered in clear plastic and can be used to grow food year-round without heating...even in Michigan! The efforts of Jeff, Lisa and their many volunteers are beginning to rebuild the local growing capacity in the Ann Arbor area with the aim of reducing the need for gas-guzzling importation of food from warmer climes.

At the end of our meal we stuffed our donations into a mason jar on the counter and made our way toward the door. We waved from across the room to our hosts and thanked them for breakfast. We returned our name tags to the wall in the entryway and headed out.

As we drove home we talked excitedly about the new community of amazingly giving and motivated people we had met. We resolved to make it back to SELMA for another breakfast for a good cause as soon as we could.

Photos courtesy of Myra Klarman



Time To Get Caught Up!

You may have noted that my blog fell silent quite a few months ago. Back in the spring, the work on the farm suddenly picked up in intensity as the weather warmed up. At the same time, things started changing at work due to improvements in the economy. My company survived the downturn by reducing its workforce and having those who remained double up on job responsibilities. As business began picking up, we became swamped with work that overflowed into evenings and weekends.

Up until that point, my blogging was done during my lunch hour. With the increased workload, I have been forced to work through most of my lunches in an effort to get enough work done in a given day that I wouldn't have to stay late. The work on the farm also became so overwhelming that there was little time left for sleep, let alone blogging.

I can't really say that things have let up very much although it is true that we have grown in our capabililities to keep up with the farm work via the sink or swim method. All the while, I have had a growing sense of dissapointment that I have not had a chance to share the stories and experiences of the summer on the farm.

This week I am working in central Mexico, in a city called Queretaro. As such, I have found myself on a forced vacation from my usual evening farm work. Therefore this seems like the perfect time to get some writing done and share some of what we have been experiencing. I have a number of posts in the works and they will appear here shortly. Then hopefully when I get home again next week I will feel all caught up and motivated to squeeze some blogging time in somewhere to keep you all up to date.


Dismissing The Butler

I am happy to report that as of last week I have fired myself from one of my daily duties. The grounds of the dismissal were that I was tardy and inconsistent in my job performance. My responsibilities have since been eliminated by workplace automation. The job of which I speak is that of "Chicken Butler".

For the past year, the need for letting the chickens out each morning and closing them in at night has been a source of stress and anxiety. At twilight each evening the chickens file into their respective coops to begin squabbling over the best roosting positions for the night. Shortly thereafter the nighttime predators begin their rounds with little on their minds other than eating my chickens!

This is a game that I can win if I happen to be home and paying attention. Unfortunately there are evenings when I have been unable to be at my station outside the coop at the appointed hour. On those occasions I have found myself speeding homeward on dark bumpy roads expecting to find a scene of disastrous carnage.

I knew that sooner or later I was going to lose more chickens if I didn't find a better solution. Turning to the Internet, I ran across discussions of automating chicken coop doors. I saw a number of different schemes before settling on what appeared to be the most reliable and cost effective. The concept centers on a purchased drive unit that was originally designed for opening and closing draperies. It is basically a motorized spool with adjustable limit switches.

My longtime friend and CSA member, Fred stopped by to help out with the task of building two coop doors. Despite the rainy day, he and my son Sean and I gathered our tools and headed out to get the project done. I knew that the drapery motor units are rated to a maximum of four pounds so I picked up a couple of pieces of sheet metal to act as doors.

After a trip to the coop to take some measurements, we stood around for a little while exchanging opinions on the best way to build guide tracks for the door. Fred devised a method of using some thin wooden strips as spacers and before long we were cutting and nailing them together. We positioned the guide tracks in front of each door and then attached the drive units above.

I had run electricity to the coop when we built it last year so it was easy to provide power to the drives. During the winter we had used an electrical heater base in each coop to keep the water from freezing. The Spring weather has warmed sufficiently that they are no longer needed so we decided to employ the cords in our latest scheme. Sean, who at thirteen is already as tall as I am, rerouted the extension cord through the rafters while I retrieved a couple of electrical timer switches from the house.

We all contributed final touches to the contraption by connecting the power, threading the string through the hole in the guillotine-style door and setting up the timers to operate the doors at the proper times. When all was ready we stood back to survey the results. Since we didn't want to wait for darkness to fall, I triggered the motor remotely by unplugging and reconnecting the extension cords. As the little motor whirred to life and the door began to rise, we broke into wide grins and exchanged back-slaps of mutual congratulations at our achievement.

The doors have continued to perform in my stead with few problems. I still wander out to the coop each evening a little after sunset with a flashlight in hand to make sure that the doors have closed. In the end I have to say that I am glad to have been dismissed from those duties. Now on the occasional dinner out away from the farm, I am able to relax with the knowledge that the doors are most likely...almost certainly...well, I'll just check to be sure when I get there...closed.

Late Night Horror From Above

It was a busy Easter weekend here at the farm. Our major projects were fence building and outdoor planting. In each of these projects we were joined by about a half-dozen members of our CSA who came to help. Last evening as the shadows grew long and stretched across our fields, Janet, Gwynne and I sat in the dirt transplanting the very last of two thousand red and yellow onion seedlings. We were sore, dirty, sunburned and tired but feeling satisfied with our accomplishments of the past days.

Gwynne is a fellow Master Gardener and a valued advisor. As she was departing for the evening she expressed concern that the little onion seedlings were very dry and would need to be watered if they were to survive. I assured her that I planned to water them before going to bed, saying that I would be out here in the field until late watering them by the light of my trusty headlamp.

In the twilight, Janet and I rounded up the last of the tools that had been scattered by the weekend's activity. As we worked, we discussed the likelihood that the thundershowers that were forecast to pass through our area overnight would be sufficient to water the onion seedlings. Referring to the western clouds highlighted in the sunset, she pointed out that it appeared that we would get rain. Despite the looming clouds, my worry that the plants would never make it if the rain merely blew over led me to decide that I would be staying up to water them anyway just in case.

She wished me luck and headed upstairs for a shower and bed. I plopped down for a few moments on the couch in the basement to check my email and rest a bit before heading back out to the field. I was exhausted and very sore from a cracked rib and pinched nerve in my back that had been nagging at me all weekend. Predictably, as I sat there reading my email, my eyelids began to droop. In my mind the usual conversation began as one part impotently urged me that there were still tasks to be done while the other won out with the oft repeated refrain...."I'll just close my eyes for a few minutes...."

Hours later I was stirred from my uncomfortable slumber by a deep, rhythmic and insistent "whump, whump, whump, whump" sound that I could not identify. I opened my eyes to a world filled with confusing noises. As I grimaced from the pain of pulling myself upright against the protest of my rib, my mind grappled to make sense of what was happening. Finally coming upright and somewhat awake, my mind announced its conclusion that a jumbo jet was roaring by overhead. By the volume of the sound, it could not have been clearing the roof by more than a few feet.

Right away I began to find problems with the explanation that my mind had reached. The primary issue was that although it did sound just like a jet engine at very close range, complete with the high pitch whining sound that you would hear on the tarmac of a large airport, it did not seem to be fading away. Instead it seemed to be stationary, as if suspended there in the sky.

Without my glasses I staggered to the basement doors and cautiously swung one of them out into the darkness. What greeted me was a scene of murky and unfocused fury. The wind was absolutely howling. The jet engine sound roared down from overhead accompanied by what I can only describe as the sound of the very sky being ripped open. From out in the dark I could hear crashes and bangs of things being hurled about. I remember calming myself by thinking that there was no use in fretting about the damage and that I would just take it in stride and begin repairs in a morning.

I turned my head to the north and concluded that the whumping sound that had awoken me was my steel-framed tractor tent whipping in the gale-force wind and slowly tearing itself apart. In the light flooding out of the basement doorway I could see the trays of green onions that were waiting to be planted and saw that they were about to blow away. Having nursed them along from seeds since January, I quickly decided that I should retrieve them into the relative safety of the basement.

I stepped into the wind and focused on the task of moving the trays. I really can't say that I had woken sufficiently to think that the storm might be a tornado, nor did it occur to me that perhaps I should wake everyone else and move them to a safer part of the house. As it turns out, they were all awake as well and sitting up in their beds equally confused about the source of the bizarre noises.

When I was about halfway through the task of moving trays, I became aware that the sound overhead had shifted and was no longer directly overhead. I straightened and stood there in the doorway looking up into the dark and featureless sky. As I listened, the sound passed over the back yard and then over our forested acreage to the east.

I had the impression that the source of the sound was narrow, as if it was only a few hundred yards wide. In my immediate vicinity the wind suddenly died away and a calm descended. Out over the trees, the roaring sound continued to move away to the east. It left me with the impression of a huge train speeding away on a track just above the treetops. I stood there listening for a while longer as the noise receded. By the time the sound had moved a mile or so downrange, the peepers resumed their courtship cacophony as if nothing had happened.

I turned on our outdoor floodlights and sulked about for a while expecting to find terrible damage. For one, I was positive that the chicken coop had received some broken windows and perhaps worse. I was also quite sure that we had lost a portion of our new roof. To my surprise, very little damage was evident, mostly loose chairs and trashcans had gone flying.

Before lying back down I checked my favorite weather website to see if any tornado warnings had been issued. The National Weather Service showed nothing more than a severe thunderstorm. I even consulted the online data log from a weather station about a mile from our house and found that the winds had not exceeded 30 miles per hour at that site. That confirmed my impression that whatever it was that passed overhead was very localized.

In the end I'm happily left with no serious repairs to undertake and little more than a strange experience to relate. In the worst of it, I had imagined the wind scouring the fields and killing every one of those little seedlings that we had spent so many hours planting. Instead, they greeted the morning sunrise well-watered by the storm and seemingly happy in their new home.

Vanishing Resolve and Loom Restoration

My wife Janet has been interested in fiber arts of one form or another as long as I have known her. She does cross-stitch and she also knits. Her specialty has mostly been knitting socks and hats. Lately she has taken an interest in weaving.

Over the winter she took a weaving class and the interest intensified. She brought home projects and proudly showed all of us the things that she had made and talked about the different weaving patterns and techniques. While I was obsessing over my farm planning, she was cruising the Internet and dreaming of owning her own loom.

On some evenings our paths would cross and we would have simultaneous one-sided conversations about our consuming interests. I would go on and on about my planting plans and farm research, no doubt an exceedingly dull topic for someone distracted by the lure of websites full of looms for sale.

True to form, I always responded to her talk of buying a loom with a predictable dissertation on our financial priorities and the laudable goal of me making a loom for her from scratch with my woodworking equipment in the garage. Undaunted by my reasoning, she correctly pointed out that it would probably be years before I would have the time to take on such a project. My weak rejoinder of "...yes, but how many opportunities will I get to build a loom for you?" had little effect.

The stalemate existed for quite a few weeks until she trumped all of my arguments by pulling the Ebay card. Wearing a skeptical expression, I leaned over her computer to peer at the image of the loom for sale. It turned out to be right here in Michigan. A glance at the very reasonable price tag and the vintage beauty of the simple loom that was advertised brought all of my objections to a swift end.

Before I knew it, I was drawn in hook, line and sinker. I asked her how much she was willing to spend on it and then I secretly put in a bid for considerably more. We impatiently watched the hours crawl past until the end of the auction and were delighted to learn that we had won. The price ended up being considerably less than either of us had been willing to spend.

I called the seller of the loom and set up a time to pick it up. That evening after work I met the man and his father at a church on the outskirts of Detroit. The loom had been purchased by them years before from an elderly woman who could no longer use it. It sat in a side-room in the church and was occasionally used by the children. Ultimately it was deemed to be taking up more floorspace than they could spare and they put it up for sale.

A stamp on the back of the loom indicates that it was built in Michigan in 1938 by an obscure and short-lived "Fredrikson pattern shop". I've been unable to find much of anything about them and would not be surprised if this is the only surviving loom of their manufacture. To my engineer/woodworker's eye it is extremely well-designed. We were able to dismantle it for transport without any tools as the entire thing is cleverly held together with simple wedges.

Unfortunately the loom is missing a few critical pieces. The previous owners confessed that they accidentally gave away the frames, heddles and supporting pulleys with another loom that they had sold earlier. I didn't really mind because the missing pieces creates an opportunity for me to employ my woodworking skills without being too big of a project.

Janet and I spent a few nights reading up on the finer points of loom design. We concluded that our new loom is a "counterbalance" design and is extremely similar to one sold by a Swedish loom company called Glimakra. After sketching out my ideas for the missing pieces, I headed out to the lumber store to pick up some maple boards for raw materials.

Now we just need to clear enough time in the crazy farming schedule for me to get those few pieces made. In the mean-time, the loom has become a conversation piece in our farmhouse living room. Janet is doing her best to withstand the wait.

Leading Economic Indicator - No More Tarps!

We purchased our farm in the Fall of 2008 amid turmoil in the housing market. In fact, the steep downturn in housing prices was the only way we would ever have been able to afford it. Little did we know how severe the economic catastrophe would ultimately become. We saw an opportunity and decided to take the chance. It was a wild and frightening ride but we appear to have made it across the chasm mostly unharmed.

The farm was purchased as a short sale and showed signs of neglect. The worst of all was the roof on the house. Our building inspector marveled at the poor condition and stated that he had never seen such a high level of degradation on a roof so young. His opinion was that the shingles had been defective before they were ever installed.

On a portion of the house the shingles had disintegrated leaving only the tar paper as the last defense from the elements. Most of the material had either blown off into the back yard or accumulated as sand in the gutters. Our mortgage company reluctantly agreed to our purchase of the home as long as we were willing to take steps to correct the roofing problem right away.

I would like to think that I am a frugal man although there are some who would say that I'm merely cheap. Whenever possible I prefer to do work myself to reduce the costs and roofing is no exception. Since we didn't move into the house until December of that year, I concluded that it was already too late in the year and the weather too unpredictable for me to replace the roof. I saw no other choice but to install tarps on the roof to keep out the weather until spring.

I spent some time trolling the Internet for information on the best way to go about the project. Luckily I happened on a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website that showed exactly how to do it. The information was intended for use in the wake of tornadoes or hurricanes but seemed suitable for my purposes as well.

Per the instructions on the website, I bought a very large blue tarp, some long framing nails and a stack of 2x4 pine lumber. I climbed up on the roof one late evening and had it wrapped up in a few hours. This was undoubtedly the first time any of the neighbors saw me and despite my pride in a job well done, I can't imagine that their first impression of us was a very good one. I shrugged my shoulders and assured my embarrassed wife that it was only for a few months until spring.

Then the roller-coaster economy headed straight downhill and picked up speed as it raced hell-bent for leather into a seemingly bottomless pit. Layoffs began in earnest at the automotive company were I worked and soon I was furloughed as well. We held on with all of our might and tried to keep our fears under control as companies fell, storefronts were boarded up and thousands of my coworkers and friends were hurled out of their once comfortable lives. All of our extra funds evaporated and the roof obviously had to wait.

As the first anniversary of our move to our little farm rolled past, the winds of Autumn whipped the faded blue tarp until it disintegrated into tens of thousands of blue confetti strips. They rained down on our back yard and made an incredible mess. I can't even walk by a cigarette butt without stooping to stick it in my pocket and now the children and I had many hours of cleanup before us. I climbed onto the cold and windy roof once again with a pile of supplies and tarped it for what I hoped was the very last time.

Winter came and the snow piled deep. In the dark of the year, the economic gloom reluctantly released its grip. The outlook for my employer and the general economy is finally looking as if the worst is over. A few weeks ago Janet called me to say that she had seen a billboard along the highway by a major roofer in our area advertising cheap winter rates.

For a few moments I considered beginning my customary mantra about how I could do it myself for so much less money. Then my thoughts turned to our new CSA venture and the massive pile of farming tasks that I am trying to accomplish this year. My resolve melted away and I agreed that she should give them a call.

A few days later the trucks drove up our driveway and disgorged a crew of friendly and hard-working gentlemen. They swarmed over our house while I was away at work. They removed my blue plastic work of art and peeled away what little remained of the original roofing. Their compliments about the job I had done in protecting the roof and their marveling that no plywood sheeting even required replacement puffed me up with pride as I momentarily forgot the sting of paying for somebody to do the job for me.

In the end I am greatly relieved and glad it is all behind us. It's good to know that the roof is now whole and the house protected. It is also no small relief that the task is off of my to-do list. Each evening I turn into my driveway after a long day at work and take in the view of our home and the farm. The sight of that nice new roof without any tarps makes me feel that the worst is behind us and we are moving forward once again.



Woman Trapped By Snow Magic

I grew up on a sleepy street in a small town in southeastern Ohio. Our neighborhood had a motley collection of kids who were just a bit younger than me. We spent a great deal of time together and were always up to some kind of caper. Our imaginations ran wild with pretend games of all sorts and to us it seemed that anything was possible.

One wintry Sunday afternoon we hatched a scheme to force the schools to be closed on the following day. The weekend had seen a decent snow fall but the dreaded snow plows had long since cleared the roads. Some little genius among us reasoned that we should be able to reverse the work of the snowplow and render the roads impassible again.

After a brief huddle, we scattered in all directions to retrieve the necessary implements from our homes. Before long we had amassed a collection of shovels, buckets, hand trowels, sleds and a wheel barrow. We dove into our work with grim determination and the thrilling sense of doing something that would simply amaze and dismay the entire town when they awoke to find that everyone was going to get the day off!

We worked against the clock. We knew that the afternoon was getting long and soon our neighborhood would echo with the voices of our mothers leaning out of back doors and calling for us to come home for dinner. We shoveled and carried, pulled and dumped. Back and forth we went into the middle of the street as a small pile of snow grew there. Before we knew it, the time had expired. We shouted in response to our mother's calls that we would be there in "just a minute". We swore each other to secrecy and briefly made plans to meet up and play tomorrow during what was sure to be a Snow Day.

Of course we were sadly disappointed when our parents urged us to get up the next morning. Somehow, against all odds, the snow plow man had been alerted to our scheme and had come during the night to clear our street. In defiance of our brilliant plan, the Superintendent declared that the schools would indeed be open.

This past Sunday evening I was taking a break from the care of seedlings in the basement to watch some of the Olympic events on television. It was approaching the children's bedtime and I knew that I would have to tear myself away from the broadcast in order to tuck them in and read to them. It was then that I noticed excited whispering and the sounds of drawers being opened and closed in the kitchen. I rose to my feet and headed out of the room to investigate.

Entering the kitchen, I spied Freya and Aidan with spoons in their hands and wide grins on their faces. They were clearly up to something and I soon found that Freya was the ring leader. To my inquiries they responded that they were doing snow magic to cause school to be cancelled the next day.

They certainly weren't dressed to go outside and there wasn't a shovel or bucket in sight. I told them about our failed attempts at the same feat when I was a child and then I learned how much more sophisticated their approach was. Their technique involved three actions. They collected ice cubes from the kitchen and flushed them down the toilet. Next they each took a spoon, licked it and then placed it upside down under their pillows. Lastly, they put on their pajamas but wore them to bed inside out!

Unlike our much more direct approach, theirs seems to have worked! Upon waking the next morning I discovered that a massive snow had fallen during the night and that school had indeed been cancelled! They celebrated and congratulated themselves while I prepared myself for a long and difficult drive to work. There wasn't time enough to get my tractor out to clear the way, so I got out the best I could and headed off through the blizzard.

The snow kept falling throughout the morning. After a few hours I heard from Janet that it had accumulated so much that she could not get her small car out. She and the children were snowed in for the day and the kids were having a ball playing outdoors.

I spent the evening on the tractor shoving huge piles of snow out of the way. I mused to myself about our long-ago childhood efforts to cover the road. I can't imagine that we even created a pile big enough to have been noticed by anyone and yet we believed so fervently that it would work. It was nice to remember a time when great feats seemed so easily attained. I smiled to myself and thought how glad I am to know that my own children have been able to share in that point of view as well.

At Long Last, The First Firing!

At the end of another long week at the office, I pointed my van west along the freeway while my mind wandered over my many choices for farm chores to fill my evening. From deep within one of my many pockets, a furious bumble bee buzzing told me that a call was coming in. Unhooking my seat belt, I began a race to find the phone before the caller gave up, patting pockets and urgently contorting within my many winter layers.

The call turned out to be from a couple of our new CSA members who had been watching the weather. They told me that the forecast predicted a thaw and generously volunteered to come over to our farm with their four-wheeler to help us haul the sap in. Jeri and Liz live just a few miles down the road and are helpful and friendly at every turn. We only met them a matter of weeks ago but our friendship has been growing rapidly due to our shared interest in backyard sugaring.

On Saturday morning, I busied myself with a few chores until at last the low hum of the four-wheeler could be heard coming up the driveway. Attracted by the noise, the children emerged from the house to join us as we rigged up our sleds and a cooler to serve as a sap hauling reservoir. Having that accomplished all five of us trooped out through the snowy fields toward the Sugarbush.

This turned out to be the first of two days that we would spend collecting and hauling sap from the woods. On Saturday the temperatures were low enough that the sap was frozen in large chunks in the sap sacks. This made the collection a little more difficult because the sacks had to be disassembled from their holders to permit dumping of the ice into the cooler. By Sunday the air had warmed sufficiently that the sap remained liquid. This greatly simplified things since we could simply tip the sacks over to pour out the contents.

On both days, the work of gathering and emptying the sacks went quickly. We talked and joked as we moved along. Now and then one of us would shout and proudly hold up an especially full sack for all to see as if we were contestants in a fishing derby. By the end of each trip, the cooler was full and heavy with sap.

As if triumphant hunters, we emerged from the woods following the four-wheeler with our prize in tow. Carefully picking our way over the bumpy field that I had plowed in the fall, our little parade headed for the sugar shack where the gleaming new evaporator waited. Bringing up the rear, our jovial imp of an eight-year old son lent a merry air to our progress with a harmonica that he had secreted in his pocket.

Jeri and Liz were unable to stay for the evaporating part of the weekend. They departed with our thanks and we began our preparations. We poured the sap into the preheating reservoir at the back of the evaporator and Sean did the honor of opening the spout to begin filling the pan. Once sufficient sap had accumulated to prevent scorching, I put flame to the kindling. Within a few moments we scurried outside to watch the first whisps of smoke escaping from the stack.

It seemed to take a very short time for the first tendrils of steam to begin rising from the pan. Next came that rumbling and hissing sound from the middle of the pan as the flame licked the underside and drove the sap toward a boil. Finally the boiling began as the boys and I huddled excitedly around the pan to watch.

I tended the evaporator for two long evenings, concluding this run at 2:30am this morning. Despite the long hours, the novelty never wore off. I thoroughly enjoyed fussing over the appliance as it did its work. I occasionally adjusted the valve that allowed a trickle of sap to enter the pan to replace what had boiled away. I poked about the firebox and kept it full of wood and red hot. I skimmed and discarded the foam that accumulated on the surface of the boiling sap.

I haven’t managed to rig up the vent fan into the ceiling of the shed just yet, so the only way to allow the steam out of the building was to leave the double doors open wide. Late in the night I sat there tending the firebox and gazing absentmindedly out into the night. A spotlight on the roof of the shed highlighted the aerial dance of clouds of steam billowing skyward mixing with a blizzard of snowflakes swirling down.

When the supply of fresh sap was nearly gone I refrained from adding any more wood to the fire. I let the unit cool down and left the sap in the pan. We had probably processed about 30 gallons over those two days, but the resulting syrup wasn’t thick enough to be drawn off. Before turning in for the night, I tasted a tiny sample of the liquid and was rewarded with that familiar sweet and rich taste. Despite the work that is involved in collecting, hauling and evaporating the sap, I am eagerly looking forward to the next warm day so we can begin again.



Ready For The Sap

While I was off at work at my engineering job this week, one of our CSA members was hard at work here at the farm putting the final stages on our new maple equipment. Fred took on the project, all the way from taking measurements and ordering the piping to cutting the hole in the roof and installing the stack. It was a wonderful feeling to know that this task was being taken care of and it saved me a ton of time for other things.

As you can see from the photos, he did a great job. All that was left for me to do was to install the gasket material to the top of the firebox, clean out the boiling pan and set everything into place. With those things done, we entered the weekend ready for a couple of warm days to get the sap flowing and excitedly looking forward to building the first fire in our new arch.


Some Assembly Required!

I have been wishing for a real maple evaporator for a couple of years now. My cobbled-together rig made from an old woodstove left much to be desired, including the fact that it was incredibly slow and ugly. Family and friends have complimented the flavor for our maple syrup but most had never seen how it was made. Thanks to my arranging to get access to a much larger sugarbush and the starting up of our CSA, I finally had justification to purchase a small but honest-to-goodness evaporator built by a real evaporator company!

The maple sugaring supply store in our area has three gleaming stainless steel beauties in their showroom. Each time that I have visited, I have lingered over them admiringly. The largest ones are absolutely huge and encrusted with lots of complicated looking controls and gadgets. After paying my respects to the most impressive units, I always conclude with visit to the little Half-Pint "hobby" evaporator in the corner that is far less glamorous but more appropriate for my little operation and budget.

On the happy day that I went to pick mine up, I removed all of the seats from our van and headed off to the store. Day-dreaming to myself along the way, I imagined the scene as they wheeled the pretty little appliance up to my van and helped me load it in. The reality was much different. When I backed up to the loading dock, the workers had stacked a large assortment of cardboard boxes, stove pipes and over 100 firebricks for me to load up.

As the numerous boxes foretold, the process of assembling the evaporator and preparing it for its first firing was pretty involved. Sean and I were able to get the basic sheet metal stove together in one evening. After that, things progressed far more slowly due to the unexpected task of building up the interior of the unit with firebricks and mortar.

I knew that I was in trouble when I read in the instructions from the manufacturer that a total of three tubs of mortar would be required. The local dealer had only provided me with one and seemed to think that it was enough. That resulted in me skimping on the joints and trying to stretch the insufficient mortar to complete the job. At about the three-quarters complete mark I finally gave up and headed to the hardware store for more mortar. Regrettably, I couldn't find anybody who had high heat refractory mortar in stock. In the end I had to ask Janet to make the trip back to the evaporator store to get more mortar.

The biggest moment of satisfaction thus far came when we placed the stainless steel boiling pan and prewarmer on top of the completed arch. There is still more work to be done because the stove pipe hadn't been run out through the roof. For that, I've been getting some great assistance from my chimney sweeping friend who has been generous with his time and skills.

By the end of today, we should be pretty much ready to go. I still need to attach a vent fan to the existing roof vent for removal of the steam. Eventually we hope to relocate the whole rig into a new building that will house our commercial kitchen. In the mean time, we have certainly made a giant step forward. Now we just have to wait for the weather to warm up enough that we can begin to collect those sweet drops and give the new evaporator a test run.
I can hardly wait!

All Potting Soils Are Not Created Equal

Last year I was only growing food for our family. While it was all organically produced, the relatively small quantities of materials needed to start things indoors: lights, transplant flats and seed starting mix didn't warrant much more effort than running out to the local hardware store. Now that we have started a CSA, the much larger scale of our operation has me looking carefully at everything we are using to keep costs in line. That led me to turn my attention to potting soil.

At this time last year I was just getting started planting seeds in trays under lights in our basement. By the time spring rolled around, my little indoor garden had expanded to 16 flats on a couple of tables. This year is a completely different story. My planting plans call for more than 350 flats! Realizing that I was going to go broke buying the little bags of organic potting soil in the stores, I started researching alternatives.

It didn't take long for me to run across some excellent articles on making your own seeding mix. After reading up on the details, I picked a recipe that looked easy to do and began calling around to find out how much the materials were going to cost. I was imagining that I would buy bags of sphagnum moss, peat and vermiculite and just mix up batches in a 55-gallon drum. It seemed that I would save a bundle!

Unfortunately the folly of my thinking was soon clear. The pricing for the materials to make up batches of potting soil at home were adding up to rival the high prices charged for the bagged material at the store! There is obviously an economy of scale at work here and the only economical way to go would be to buy truckloads of each material and mix it up with heavy equipment. That would still have resulted in me spending a fortune and ending up with far more potting soil than I needed.

It was then that I recalled seeing a booth at the Michigan Family Farms Conference by a local family that runs a composting business. I looked up their number and gave them a call. The fellow who answered the phone, Justin, was knowledgeable and excited to talk to me. As it turns out, his family produces a wide range of products that start with rich composted dairy manure. To this they add a number of organic ingredients to produce custom blends for every application.

Unfortunately they are located a couple of hours away from our farm but Justin offered to meet us on the weekend when he was passing through a nearby town and bring us a few bags to try. I have now planted about thirty flats and I am very impressed. The soil is deep and rich, but the nicest thing about it is that it wets very easily and holds moisture far better than what I had been using. In comparison, the national brand might as well be made of ground up cork! I find that I have to water those trays every day since they dry out quickly and most of the water just drains out of the bottom.

On top of great performance, the potting soil is a fraction of the cost of the national brand. I also am very happy to be supporting a local family operation. The struggling Michigan economy certainly needs every dollar that can be retained in the state. I also have to assume that even though we will have to drive several hours each spring to stock up on potting soil, the carbon footprint still has to be considerably smaller than the truckloads of potting mix that are hauled all of the way across the country.

As you can see, our red, yellow and bunching onions are getting a very nice start. This weekend they will be joined by trays of celeriac and leeks. In another month we will have flats of green growing things crammed into every conceivable space awaiting the day when we can take them outside and finally start them growing in warm sunshine. As for me, I'm looking forward to taking a trip up to visit this new supplier and strengthen my connection to my local sustainable agricultural community.

Snow Drifts And Cold Starts

Winter here in Michigan really wasn't measuring up to its reputation...until this week. January and the first week of February were so devoid of snow that I was beginning to think we were just going to ease into early spring without it. Two mornings ago, Freya and I emerged from the house in the pre-dawn hours beneath a sky sifting tons of tiny flakes. At work that day, I kept glancing out of the windows at the ceaseless curtain of white while co-workers talked excitedly about the predicted accumulation.

I arrived at our farm that evening to find the driveway under ten inches of snow with more falling. I knew that I would have to put off any snow removal activities until later because an old friend and member of our CSA was stopping by to help me with the smokestack for our maple syrup evaporator. Fred is an all-round handy guy, but his expertise as a professional chimney-sweep is very handy for just this sort of project.

As we worked, our conversation turned to discussing my tractor and my use of it for plowing the driveway. Fred asked if I employed a block heater to help get it started in the cold weather. I recounted my conversation with the tractor dealer who scoffed at the idea of a block heater but never did get around to telling me how to cold start the thing. Eventually I made an attempt at starting it up but quit due to fear of wearing the battery down. I ended up turning to YouTube videos of people cold-starting their tractors (it's amazing what you can find on there!) to see how it was done.

Some of the farmers in the videos sprayed Ether into the air intake. I went out and bought a can of it but have never tried it because the air intake on my Massey Ferguson 255 is buried inside the battery compartment and requires removing the grill to reach it. My only experience with ether involved a particularly foolish episode in my teenage years. I won't go into the details but let's just say it resulted in a VERY large fireball!

After having read accounts of farmers bending rods and shattering rings with ether, I put the can aside. Instead I simply crossed my fingers and held the starter in as the cranking got weaker and weaker. Luckily it kicked over and started before the battery was completely dead. That was back in December on the occasion of our last decent snowfall.

Now I sat in the seat of the tractor and counted the weeks since the tractor had been started. Even though I had replaced the battery in the late Fall, I knew that it was still likely to have lost some of its charge in all of those idle weeks. I opened the tractor tent flaps, set the tractor to neutral and pressed the starter. Rur..rur....rur......ruur.........ruuur...........ruuuur.... The battery just didn't have enough juice to get there.

Luckily I happened to be in the sort of mood that let me take this problem in stride rather than getting upset. I headed out to the hardware store, picked up a battery charger and snaked extension cords out through the snow. Once it was charging, I headed to bed with plans to get up early in the morning so I could get the plowing done before heading off to work.

At 5am I checked that the battery was fully charged, climbed onto the seat, pressed the button and got absolutely nothing in return. It was as if the starter button had been disconnected. I checked the battery again and then stood there trying to figure out what was happening. I tried shorting across the starter with a screwdriver only to find that there was no voltage reaching the starter motor at all. Beginning to suspect a wiring problem, I used a pair of jumper cables to connect the starter directly to the battery. The cables couldn't handle the large current draw, but I got enough of a response to confirm that on top of everything else, the tractor's starter cable had gone bad.

I drove off to work through snow that was now deep enough that it was higher than the front of the minivan. I snowplowed my way through but knew that there was no way that Janet's compact car would make it. Since school had been cancelled for the day, they simply stayed home and snowed-in until I could get home that evening.

I picked up a new battery cable at an auto parts store on my way home. The wind had been blowing all day and the snow on the driveway had drifted to a couple of feet deep in places. I barely got through. After dinner, Janet and I headed back out to the tractor. She held the light for me while I performed the minor surgical procedure of replacing the battery to starter cable. I climbed back up into the seat and the engine started with ease. It seems that the weakened electrical cable may have been the primary problem all along.

Janet gave me a smiling thumbs-up and headed back to the house. I donned my headlamp (I still haven't managed to repair the tractor lights) and drove off into the snowy darkness. The buildup of snow was impressive but no match for "Massie" when she's running well. I cleared the drive in no time and mounded up huge piles of snow with the loader. Upon parking her back in her tent, I headed into the house for an evening of planting onion seeds in flats and dreaming of warmer days to come.

Tapping (Way Too Early) Day

Hindsight is so clear, but three weeks ago it sure looked like we were in for a week-long heat wave. The forecast called for unseasonably warm weather in the upper thirties. Worried that we were going to miss out on the first major maple sap flow of the season, I resolved to go ahead and get the taps in the trees. I suppose my jumping of the gun was fueled by my excitement to try out our shiny new evaporator as well!

On Sunday afternoon, the boys and I pulled out a couple of the wooden sleds that I had mailed home during one of my working stints in Germany. We loaded them up with tools and supplies and headed for the woods. There was enough snow on the ground to help the sleds glide along without being so much that it was tiresome to walk through. The boys pulled the sleds and chattered excitedly. It was nice to be out in the woods together rather than cooped up in the house.

We threw ourselves into the work and fell into a good rhythm quickly. I scanned the forest for the green ribbons that indicated which trees we had picked to tap and chose a route by which we could visit them all. I stopped at each tree, measured its circumference, logged the data and decided how many taps each would get. With Aidan's assistance, I drilled the holes and placed the tabs before moving to the next tree.

Sean followed along behind with his sled and completed the operation. At each tree he assembled the blue sap sacks to their holders and placed them on each of the taps. He also wrote the log book number of each tree on the bags to help us with our record keeping. His was the more laborious of the jobs. I was careful to keep my pace slow enough that we could talk back and forth as we worked and I could lend him a hand now and again.

Things went pretty smoothly except that the sleds kept tipping over. The heavy boxes on the tall sleds made them top-heavy such that any little branch in our path would topple them over again and again. After a while I finally tied the two sleds into a double-wide arrangement and put an end to the constant need to right our burdens and collect our tools from the snow.

About half-way through we broke out the thermos that we had prepared and sat down in the snow for a much-needed hot chocolate break. The woods were beautiful and our spirits were high. We joked and laughed together as we all enjoyed the time together and the adventure of the day.

Eight-year-old Aidan is a master of making ordinary sticks into fantastic playthings. After our break was over, Sean and I resumed the work as Aidan stalked us from behind the trees with stick rifles, stick rocket-launchers, stick light-sabers and stick bow and arrows. Now and then he would emerge from cover to charge toward us with a war whoop and a snarl. After collapsing into giggles over our pantomimed terror, he would bound off to take cover in the woods and begin the game all over again.

It was a pleasant day even if it was a bit early in the season. We emerged from the woods just as the light was fading in the sky. With a sense of satisfaction of another task behind us, we trudged back toward the warmth of the house and the looming prospect of another week of work and school.


Mother Nature Catches Us Unprepared. . . . Again!

I am astounded at the difference in the perceived length of winter between this year and last year. Last year we had just moved onto the farm and had little to do but sit indoors dreaming of all of the things we would do once the weather warmed up. Of course, there was lots of snow shoveling to do and we were poorly equipped to handle it. I spent the entire winter removing deep snow from our 1,000 foot driveway with a plastic bladed snow shovel. Given all of that, the winter seemed to drag on and on.

This year has been a completely different picture. Somehow I was expected a winter like the last and was looking forward to having lots of time to relax, develop plans for the coming year and spend extra time with my family. Instead, the winter seems to be going by in a flash!

Many projects from the Fall stretched well into December and some are still waiting for more attention. Far from having lots of time to relax, every spare minute has been spent on my computer formulating plans for our first CSA season and worrying that I wouldn't get the seeds ordered in time to get them started indoors. Most of those orders have still not gone out!

Due to the purchase of our tractor, the clearing of the driveway has become a breeze. What took me as much as 11 hours of sweating, miserable shoveling now is completed in 20 minutes! In addition, there have only been two snows thus far that were big enough to justify starting it up.

The inspiration for this post is the arrival of our first major indication that the Spring season is upon us. A few days ago we had a day where the temperature climbed above freezing. That prompted a call from a friend of mine wondering if the time had arrived for us to tap the maple trees. I assured him that it was normal to get a few solitary days of warm weather interspersed with cold snaps before things warmed up in earnest.

My answer had come from my experience tracking the temperatures in the early spring last year. It may be easier to read on the Sugarbush page of our website.

Janet and I attended the Michigan Family Farms Conference on the west side of the state yesterday. As we were driving home, I was noting that the temperature had continued to be warm. I resolved to get our 2010 temperature chart started before going to bed last night. To my surprise, the chart shows that the warm temperatures are being projected to remain for at least the next week! I'm sure that a cold snap is still in our future but I have concluded that unless we get the taps in the trees today, we are going to miss out on first flow.

The problem is that I was sure we had a couple more weeks before the temperatures would climb high enough to start tapping. I have been spending my time hurriedly finishing up the planting plan so I could get the rest of the seeds on order. As a result, I had delayed our preparations for Sugaring and now we have been caught by Mother Nature with our coveralls down!

There are two major items that now have been moved to the top of the priority list. The new evaporator that we bought is still in boxes and needs to be installed immediately. As well, we have no practical way to haul the sap out of the woods so I need to purchase a four-wheeled drive ATV over the next few days.

Today is the only day in the next week when I will have enough time to set the taps. Therefore, the boys and I are now preparing to load up a couple of sleighs with taps, equipment, hanging bags, thermos of hot chocolate and snacks. Then we will head off into the woods for a long day of measuring trees, installing taps and collection bags and creating tapping logs.

I'm going to do my best to slow down and enjoy the day. If all goes well we might even get back home in time to start assembling the evaporator. In any case, it's clear that whatever time the winter had offered for rest is now over!

Master Gardener Class

In the interest of honing my gardening skills and increasing my involvement in the local gardening community, I signed up for the Master Gardener Program offered by the Extension Office. After paying the program fees, being interviewed by the Extension Agent, providing three character references and having a police background check, I was accepted into the program. The program involves 48 hours of classroom time plus 40 hours of field work.

The date of the first class finally arrived to find me excited to get started. Unfortunately, that was also the day that we got our first major snow storm of the season. From my office at work, I checked the weather forecast and watched the flakes stack up outside the window. My commute from my office in Livonia to the classroom site would normally take about 45 minutes, but I decided to leave early to allow for slower traffic.

Little did I know what an incredible snarl the traffic would turn out to be. As soon as I turned onto the freeway, I could see that it was crammed to capacity and making extremely slow progress. I watched with mounting frustration as the estimated time of arrival on my GPS ticked the minutes away past the start time of class. At one point, I exited the freeway in the forlorn hope that I could find a quicker way through side-streets and back roads. Unfortunately those routes proved even more backed up than the freeway! I merged back into the freeway traffic and tried my best to relax and tell myself that it just couldn't be helped.

After nearly a three-hour struggle, I arrived at the Extension office about 30 minutes late. I found the packed classroom and took a seat along the wall. To my relief, they were just concluding the introduction to the course and I hadn't missed any of the lectures. The Extension Agent who was teaching the class knows me from previous courses and said she was confident that I would show up eventually.

The first class covered plant physiology and classification as well as an overview of major epidemic pest infestations and devastating disease outbreaks in the region. I found the topics fascinating and picked up many new facts that I did not know. We were also provided with a huge textbook roughly five inches thick. I'm looking forward to reading my way through the assignment in the next day or two.

Among my classmates were two of our CSA members. It was nice to see them and it's good to know that we will have so many well educated members to help and advise us. I also made acquaintance with another woman who is establishing her own CSA in the region and was eager for us to work together sharing ideas and helpful resource contacts. Her enthusiasm for her project was a good match for my own. We stood out in the parking lot talking excitedly until snow-covered and cold. We decided to continue our chat the following week.

It feels good to be getting to know so many people with similar interests in our region. The feeling of excitement among this growing network of farmers is infectious. Everyone I have met has been helpful and supportive, with effusive information sharing and offers of assistance in one way or another. The impression that we are all part of something new and exciting, a movement that is growing by the day does wonders to shore up my own energy for the massive amount of work we have ahead of us in our first CSA season.


Wrestling With Ambition

I know that I will look back at this post a few years from now and laugh at myself. I am currently engaged in a wrestling match with my enthusiasm for our new CSA and am struggling to balance practicality and business sense with the overwhelming desire to do it all!

For the past month I have been spending every spare moment pulling together the planting/harvest plan for our little farm. We have had wonderful success in attracting and signing up a great group of people to participate and now we just have to deliver the goods, on time and in the proper quantities. Figuring out just how to do that is proving to be much more complex than I had imagined.

It all began with a survey to see what our membership would like us to grow. In my typical overly exuberant fashion, I put together a series of seed catalogue files containing well over 600 varieties of plants from which to choose. Amazingly, a large selection of the membership actually took the time to pick through all of it and provide me with feedback. With the help of that information, I winnowed the selection down to 90 vegetable selections that are currently on my not-so-short list of things that I would like to grow.

My next step was to lay out a schedule of starting, transplanting, harvesting and distributing each vegetable. Using the information from my survey, I developed a weekly plan for the entire year. I started with the most popular vegetables, maximizing the time they would be available and then working my way down the list filling in the schedule with progressively smaller amounts of the remainders. At this stage, I have a plan that shows us providing up to twenty items per week at the peak season.

This is several times the number of varieties that most CSAs grow for their customers. My understanding is that seven or eight items is more the standard. I know that I need to pare it down considerably but I just don't want to. We normally grow a large variety of things just for our family. Last year we grew 53.

According to my time-table, this task was supposed to be completed by January 1st. To buy myself a little more time, I went ahead and ordered the seed for those things that needed to be started indoors in January. Now I just need to get the rest of the plan out of the way so I can move on to preparing for the maple sugaring season that is looming just around the corner.

I am aware that there are numerous risks of growing too much. Besides the obvious risk of having production costs exceed income, there are also concerns with annoying members by overloading them with more than they can use. We have come up with a plan to deal with this and are arranging to sell/donate anything extra outside of the CSA. There is also the risk of creating unrealistic expectations which you can't practically support in future years. I know all of that but I still am just so excited about the whole adventure that it is hard to be practical.

I'm sure I will get this thing whittled down to something reasonable ...eventually. It is just much more fun to add things than it is to take them away. Whatever shape the final plan takes, I'm anticipating being far wiser at this time next year after spending a year trying to make my crazy plans work out.


Barn Envy

In my opinion, barns are the steam engines of the architectural world. They fascinate me. I don't know exactly what the draw is, but I feel it everyday. They evoke a sense of nostalgia for sure, but it is much more than that.

I grew up in the country and around barns. My father had a sprawling one-story horse barn. My grandfather had an old barn for his cattle with a loft for loose hay. Our neighbors had a more modern steel barn loaded with hay bales that were perfect for making forts and secret hideouts.

On my drives to and from our farm, there are beautiful barns in every direction. I never tire of gazing at them and wishing I could take a closer look. I size them up, note their features, and dream of building the perfect barn of my own.

Unfortunately the farm we purchased last year did not come with a barn. I have enjoyed hours of reading and thinking about the perfect barn for our purposes but I know it will be a number of years before I can afford to build one.

One of the features of my barn plan will be a space to shelter our equipment from the weather. Our tractor and implements have been sitting outside for the six months that we have owned them. I know that many farmers leave them outside year round, but my engineer's sense is that they would stay in better condition if they could be dry and out of the sun most of the time.

The onset of snow and bitterly cold weather finally forced me to consider some temporary shelters. The day after Thanksgiving, the local farm supply store had a sale that included steep discounts on their "Garage-In-A-Box" shelters. They are heavy-duty tents with steel frames intended primarily as shelters for automobiles. They were perfect for my needs and the price was right. After verifying that my tractor would fit inside, I happily purchased two and loaded them into my van.

The primary project of the past two weeks has been constructing these shelters and moving our equipment inside. Aidan and I had a memorable day setting up the first one in the rain. The frame of the second one was assembled on a cold night beneath brilliant stars with the help of my new friend Andrea who is one of our CSA members. Yesterday, Sean and I completed the job by attaching the cover to the second shelter and filling it up with implements.

I'm not sure how long those tents will last, but it is reassuring to know that all of my equipment is protected and out of the weather. Our next task will be to transfer the contents of our shed out into these tents so we can begin converting the shed into a "sugar shack" for the quickly approaching maple season.


Bumps In The Road

I have known about this flaw in myself for a long time and have mentioned it before, but I still can't seem to do anything about it. I guess it is a symptom of having too many projects on my plate from which to choose, but it is annoying just the same. The problem is simple to understand and probably common, but the solution evades me.

The problem is that I tend to leave projects uncompleted for long periods of time because I choose to shift my attention to something else. With few exceptions, the point at which I switch to something new is when I make a frustrating mistake or come up against a seemingly daunting obstacle. I generally do manage to get back to things and finish them up after a long period of time has passed, usually finding that the intimidating task wasn't so tough after all.

Running power to the chicken coop is a prime example. Way back in April, the project began with the task of cutting two trenches through the back yard to provide the coop with power and water. I spent much of the summer building the coop at the far end of the trenches, but the power and water were never connected due to obstacles at the near ends.

In the case of the electricity, the obstacle was a six foot wide concrete sidewalk. I needed to tunnel under it to be able to connect the underground cable to the wiring of our shed. I had never tunneled under anything like that before so that is where the project stopped. The wire lay there in the ditch, neglected for eight months while I found other things to do with my time.

I must have told myself hundreds of times that I just needed to get that task done as I walked past the wire on my way to work on the coop or garden. It wasn't until the bitterly cold weather of early December hit and I started worrying about the chickens keeping warm enough that the uncompleted wiring project finally rose to the top of my list.

In the end it was a very simple task. I stopped by the hardware store and picked up length of PVC pipe and an end cap. I placed the end cap on the leading end, stepped into the ditch and hammered the pipe through the soil beneath the walk until it emerged on the other side. I cut the end of the pipe off to remove the cap and fed the wire through without a hitch.

Aidan and I finished up the project by running the wire through the ground to the shed wall, up out of the ground through a protective conduit, through the wall and finally connected it up. We hooked up a heat lamp from the rafters of the coop to shine down on the roosting area. We turn it on when the weather falls well below freezing in the hopes that it will make the birds a little more comfortable and help prevent them from getting frostbite on their combs and wattles.

The water line? It's still waiting to be connected. The intimidating task at that end is the fact that I plan to splice into the main water supply line from our wellhead to our house. I have been mowing around the unsightly ditch and pipe all summer. At this point it is clear that we will be carrying water to the coop well into next spring before I will finally break down to finish it.

I do know of one solution to prevent these delays. I am far less likely to abandon a project when I am working together with someone else. The recent triumph of getting the siding put on the coop when a friend came to visit is a good illustration. I guess I may just have to schedule an annual volunteer work day for the CSA members to come push me to clean up all of my loose ends!

Longing For The Light!

Somewhere back there in the distant past it was first explained to me. Some adult in my life took the time to patiently relate the mystery of the seasonal shortening and lengthening of daylight. I can imagine myself wide-eyed and innocent as my consciousness struggled to take in the complex astronomical concepts that caused my outdoor playtime to be cut short as a consequence of living on an orbiting, spinning and tilting world.

Eventually my turn came around to be the adult in this age-old exchange. I have struggled to find a clear way to help my children understand why they were made to go to bed in the summer when it was still light or go to school in the winter when it was still dark. Unfortunately for them, their father is one who has always preferred the long and complex answer to the simple one. Eventually I get down to the method that always works, the demonstration with the flashlight and the wobbling basketball.

As with all of us, I am well schooled and long experienced with the facts of the changing seasons. That is why it seems odd that it took half a lifetime to finally feel the full force of planetary happenstance. For most of my adult life, I have led an suburban existence where indoor living and artificial lighting have reduced the changes in daylight to a mere curiosity as I occasionally glanced toward a window. Now that my life has changed to a much more rural, much more outdoor existence, I find the shortening of the day has an oppressive impact on my productivity.

I am aware that these feelings are exacerbated by the fact that I am attempting a dual existence of holding down a full time job away from the farm during the weekday and struggling to squeeze my beloved farming into evenings and weekends. I'm sure that the full time farmer feels the impact of the shortened day as a limitation of how much he can accomplish. For me, this season means that I never see my farm by the light of day except during the weekend.

As such, I find myself struggling mightily to keep up the pace on my projects. I keep a headlamp in my coat pocket all of the time and most evenings will find me out in the darkness trying to work by its dim beam. I have even resorted to mowing my entire two-acre lawn in the dark by attaching a flashlight to the handlebars of my push mower!

As much as anything, I am looking forward to the coming holiday season because our wobbling basketball world will finally reach the point where the night will give way to increasing daylight once again. Until then, I guess I should be spending a little more of my time on those nagging indoor chores or perhaps even slowing down just a little. I would like to think that my life will progressively adjust to one more harmonious with the weather and seasons, but that just may have to wait until that happy day when I can retire and take up farming full time.
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