I’m a lousy farmer

So I’ve planted my potatoes, butternut squash, field pumpkins and melons. Late, as usual, but given that it was a long winter, with a late spring it’s not as bad as it seems looking at the calendar. Looking around I can see a lot of people have only just put them in so I’m not doing as bad as I thought. Alec is the exception of course – he’s already harvesting his lettuce and kale and had his potatoes hilled two weeks ago, but Alec is Alec and sets the standard that others follow. Come to think of it my last neighbour was like that too, and Laura’s grandad as well… so maybe I am a bit of a slacker.

Anyhoo, the sun dried out the top inch or so of my tilled beds, or more accurately at this stage ‘strips’. Underneath was wet but not waterlogged, which bodes well I guess. I did three more passes with the tiller (a week after the initial tilling) before the soil was light enough and relatively clump-less to poke stuff into it.

I have a rather handy attachment for the tractor that is a mid-buster and a hiller on the same toolbar. What you do is you run down your prepared bed with the mid-buster on, which is a sweep on a pole in the centre of the tool, you lay your potatoes or whatever in the furrow you’ve created then you raise the mid-buster and lower the hilling disks, meaning that you don’t have to unhook one implement and hook another up. Very handy.

I aborted my first pass as my hilling disks were set at too great an angle, causing the dried organic material to lodge and drag behind the tractor instead of bunch up into a nice long hill. This also had the undesired effect of dragging my painstakingly spaced potatoes along and scattering them willy nilly along the bed. I could have dug them all out, re-spaced them and hilled them again but I didn’t – I just replaced any that were visibly out of line and kicked the dirt back over them, resigning myself to another cocked up potato harvest later in the year.

Once the discs were set right though the hill formed fine so I trundled back to the shed, hoiked off the hiller/mid-buster affair and hooked up my seed drill. This is an iron framework constructed to hold up to three Earthway seeders and hook up to the tractors three point hitch, enabling you to plant your rows in your prepared bed with ease and accuracy. It also has a little jump seat on it so some poor sod, er I mean brave helper can sit on it and watch that the seeds are flowing through the hoppers and not jamming, thus ensuring that you have an evenly spaced crop. This spacing control is achieved by a set of disks that spin in the hopper, collecting one seed at a time, dropping it into a tiny furrow made by a piece of angled alumimum and covered by a loop f chain that it drags along behind it. Very clever stuff. What’s more is that it comes with several disks for just about every seed you can plant with it.

Except I couldn’t find the disk for melons and squash. On googling for which disk best to use the very first page stated a very reassuring and long list of what seeds it was good for before stating ‘Of course the Earthway seeder is not able to plant seeds such as melons, pumpkins and squash as these need to be planted in hills’. Ahem.

So I unhitched the seeder and dragged my hiller back over to the tractor, re-attaching it and only once dropping the pointy bit on my wellie clad foot. I made hills down the entire lengths of my beds and proceeded to plant the butternut squashes, field pumpkins and melons. I was rather chuffed with this because that’s it, it’s done. My gardening for this year. Apart from the cultivating, hoeing, iriigation and harvesting. If I get my hands on a plow and can borrow the rototiller again I’ll prepare the beds in the fall for next year, adding seaweed and maybe planting a cover crop to boot. Plus I want to do the same for the orchard we’re putting in this fall, so maybe there’s a little more tractor time to come.

As it is it’s in and rain was forecast for today and tomorrow, which can only be good. Oh, no, wait – the forecast has ben upgraed to a hurricane, with 80mm of rain and 100km/h winds. Bugger.

 

From pasture to Raised Beds

TractorBurnout

This is something I’ve been wanting to  do for awhile. First I had to get a tractor, then I had to get a tiller and a few other implements, then wait for the weather and tie that up with some spare time. All of this between the short period of ‘ground frozen solid’ and ‘planting too late for cr0ps to mature’.

We had a long bitch of a winter, and a short wet spring and I haven’t found a rototiller for sale locally, let alone an affordable one, so I had to wait until one my friends had finished with theirs. Luckily Paul from The Top of The Mountain came to my rescue and this Wednesday we loaded his rototiller onto the back of my pickup. It took some doing, but with a pallet and a set of forks on his three point hitch we managed it. Unloading back at my farm was a lot easier, using some rachet straps and three 2×4’s.

I had previously marked out the longest point of my hayfield that vaguely ran North-South, more Northeast-by-Southwest but beggars can’t be choosers. You want to have nice long runs for efficiency so you don’t have to keep stopping and turning the tractor around. This turnaround space is called ‘headroom’ and is just a waste in terms of crop yield.

Speaking of which if you look at the two runs I’ve done so far you can see a tractors width grass strip in between them. Many people would think this a waste too but I plan to run Salatin-style chicken pens up and down it as per my previous adventures in chickenery. If we don’t then I can always till them and crop them at a later date, assuming Paul lends me his rototiller again, or I manage to find one on the cheap.

I mentioned the short wet spring and the ground was still too wet to till efficiently, and it rained an hour through the tractortime so I had to abandon the run and come back on the weekend, hoping that 30 degree heat would have evap’d the water from my silty soil. It didn’t, but I carried on regardless.

When putting potatoes in on a different patch of ground last year we ploughed the ground, cutting and turning the topsoil over before running a rototiller over it to pulverise it into a seedbed of sorts. We hypothesised that we might get away with just tilling it this year. Largely, we were wrong. The first few passes earlier in the week just kinda tore up the sod a little and left huge clumps of broken grass. A few more passes over each bed today and there was an improvement, but 8″s under the layer of sod is clay and pebble, so I needed to drain the water away somehow. My solution was the a subsoiler.

SubsoilerThis thing is a little like a midbuster but instead of having a sweep it has a thin but sturdy blade like a chisel. It does the same job as a mole-plow of old, that is it digs down and opens up a groove or a channel in the soil for water to drain down. It’s very useful for breaking up hardpan from too many years of plowing or tilling, it aerates the soil and crumbles it allowing roots to penetrate further than they would otherwise. Incidentally if you weld a little doohickey on it you can also use it to lay cable, but I’ll cover that in another blog once I’ve actually done it!

When using the subsoiler adjust the toplink on the three point hitch so the blade points downwards and as you drive the thing will just dig in until your tractor can’t pull it anymore. I found crawling forward in first low with one hand on the draft control, waiting for one of the tractor wheels to start spinning then raising the draft until we lurched forward again worked. It was a bit like trying to find the sweet spot in the shower but you didn’t have to think about it after a run or two.

So now I’m waiting for a few more days of scorchio heat, for the water to drain off a little more and for the last of the grass clumps to degrade a little more. Another couple of runs with the rototiller and we should have a seedbed good enough to use a few more of my toys, er, implements and put some crops in. Mind you it is a little late in the season so I might just put some oats and vetch in as cover crops, and hit the ground running next year… in theory!

 

Forgive me father, for I have blogged.

How long has it been since your last blog son ?

A long time father. Too long. I had not planned for such a long absence, but life, y’know…

Life my son, is what happens when you are making other plans.

Wha-? Father, that’s insightful… It’s like you  can see into my very soul.

Well son, this is an internal dialogue. After all you know full well that if you ever did step into a church you ‘d burst into flames.

Yes father, ah, I mean… What do I call you?

Aw just get on with the story!

-sigh- Okay. Where to start? How about the present:

The present

Spring 2014. Officially, although Sheila is arriving tomorrow with 40cm of snow and 100km+ winds to spread it about a bit. Still, that stubbly brown stuff hasn’t been seen around here since last November and in a month it’ll be green and perky.

We are however Townies at the moment. Winter came early you see, and has hung about a lot with only a week of respite in January that allowed people to take the pencils out of their nostrils and stock up on canned goods.

Every four winters is like that here, so they say. And this is our fourth. Long, hard, with lots of snow. And our water froze way back in November. I spent five or six weeks chasing it back to the wellhead, which if you recall is buried six feet underground. When we came here in 2010 the footer valve was stuck open. This winter it has been stuck closed so after spending christmas bouncing between friends houses we found somewhere in town that we could rent on a short-term basis. Problem is Laura has developed a taste for running water, heat, white walls and convenience and has burrowed right down into her townhouse, refusing to leave it until we’ve doubled our current 25’x25′ footprint on the farmstead, or at least put some storage in, a working kitchen and some wallboards.

Our business has also changed. We’ve spent much of the last fifteen months or so building and running a cafe & bakery on the waterfront in Port Hawkesbury. We built up a great following by making honest food from scratch using local ingredients wherever possible. Then for a variety of reasons we felt we had to move it from the waterfront to a busier location in the mall. We’ve been open for a month now and the response has been positive.

Our lack of running water and attending farmers meant that we put all of our remaining animals on the truck to Truro or in the freezer. This has meant that we can rethink the farm and are going to try vegetables this year instead. After all they don’t tend to trample my neighbours prize vegetable patch or run out on the highway and we have a market already in our own cafe so we’re hopeful this will work as another source of income, then we can just get a few pigs or lambs to raise seasonally for our own cupboards.

We’ve learned lots of things and have lots to tell you, so hopefully there won’t such a long hiatus this time.

 

When is a car shelter not a car shelter?

When it’s a barn of course.

Car shelter to Livestock shelter

Meet Jericho, the holy cow.

She’s not ours. I don’t see how anyone can truly own something with a soul, and you could take it further and say that nothing in this world is really ours, that we are just guardians until it passes on or we pass on. But either way, it’s not ours. We’re just test driving it.

Jericho is a Jersey cow, who’s milk I believe is comparable only to it’s island neighbour, the Guernsey. Oddly enough we have a friend from Guernsey who’s name is Nick de Jersey. I never tried his milk but his beer, wine and conversation made for fine times.

Anyways, we have tenure over Jericho for another week and a half, during which time she’s getting Bucky, our Jersey calf, and Patch, our Holstein calf, off to a good start. And when I get a nice stainless steel bucket I might try some of her milk for ourselves. Then, I suspect, we’ll ask her to stay a while longer.

New Adventures in Bovinity, or how to bucketfeed a calf

Ok, so far it’s just cute pictures and I promised you an adventure, or at least a quick tutorial. So Norman pulled up the other day and when he has something for me he always says ‘Where are you? Well, I’m right outside…’. I glanced at Laura who took a nano-second to guage the look and said ‘No, nothing, just no. We can’t have whatever whoever it is has, especially if it’s Norman.’ I took that in the good hubris that I’m sure was meant and came back in five minutes later with two Jersey bull calves. Really, I did – we could’ve had three.

So these bull calves really have no value – they go for $20 each at the auction and are made into peperoni that day. Yes, each time you bite into that tasty spicy sausage you are committing bovicide. Infantibovicide, in fact. Whatever, it’s one of these cute fellas with a few secret spices wrapped in a sheeps intestine. Yum.

The economics behind buying one these guys to fatten into next years hamburger are shakey, but here goes: you can buy a bona fide beef calf for $250, put $400 of feed into it and have $650 worth of beef in the end, or you could buy one of these chums for $25, put $400 of feed into it and have $425 of beef. If you’re not keeping them for breeding and improving your flock then it’s all the same. More mince, less steak but less money upfront… less at stake if you’ll pardon the pun.

Anyways, you can’t just give them a bucket of grain and say ‘grow some’. Like any babies, they need milk. And like any babies they like to drink it straight from the tit, however dairy calves are generally separated from the momma cow once they’ve had their colostrum, about four hours after birth. They then either go onto a nurse cow (rare), are straight up culled, sold at the auction or are raised on bottles, or in my case buckets. How to get them to switch from an ergonomically pleasant nipple to a supersized serving in a bucket? It’s easy – your fingers are strikingly similar to a cows nipple and the calf will gladly suck on them if they’re hungry, so all you do is take your wedding ring off, insert surrogate nipple into calves mouth, lower said nipple (now with calves head attached) into bucket of warm milk (or milk replacer) and voila, after 2 or 3 goes it realises that it doesn’t need momma anymore, much like a university freshman it can drink all it likes in one go without anyone telling it not to, and it does. Two litres of milk gone in a minute.

Unless of course you have one that is wary of sucking a strange thing that is obviously not a nipple and attached to an even stranger thing wearing a large yellow rainjacket and a wide brimmed hat, desperately leaning towards you with a weird round black thing full of sloshy white stuff, then of course you just do everything to kind of avoid it, at all costs.

In this case I grabbed the naughty little thing, pinned it gently with a Judo move, stuck my fingers down it’s throat until it thought ‘oh, hang on, this might be a nipple’ then dunked said fingers into said bucket of luke warm milk. Slurp slurp slurp, these calves could suck the chrome off a ballhitch.

Apparently a few days of doing this and they’ll be jostling to get their heads in the bucket before you’ve even tied it to their stall.

Here’s some cute pics…

Ketchup.

I used to be annoyed when my favourite blogs would stop posting just when I needed them the most, just when the wind, rain and snow abated enough for you to step out and feebly prod the soil with a trowel, a rake or a backhoe, deluding yourself that this year you’ll get a jump on the weeds and maybe get enough of a garden in to supply your family more than the single meal you managed to harvest last year.

And now I’m guilty of the same thing. How the heck it got to become August September already I don’t know. And all I can offer is a paltry precis, but it’s better than nothing and who knows, it might just provide the impetus to write all those full length blogs that I’ve been storing up.

Um, the really busy time started about the beginning of May, when umpteen million Farmers Markets starte, and we decided to do all of them. Well, four in total, which obviously wasn’t enough so we jumped on the bandwagon and helped start a fifth one in Port Hawkesbury. Honestly, I seem to be forever baking… I think I have one day off a week, in which I do my farming stuff.

So what’s new?

Our daughter Rose continues to grow, and is a smiley happy beacon in everybodies lives.

Charlie has started school, and he loves it. We learn more and more about him as a person every day.

Evan is blossoming into a proper comedian, and loving being a big three year old.

We have sheep. Five ewes, a ram and two midget lambs, which we might use as toothpicks.

We’ve hatched a load of chicks this summer, sold some, culled some but we generally have a vibrant and interesting looking flock of porch pooers.

I got the home two-acres fenced in, partly with standard pagewire and partly with Gallaghers new Electra-lock fencing.

Our boar proved his pistola works even if we didn’t catch it on camera – we have a fall litter of 13 piglets.

Our baking on the farm goes from strength to strength, partly fueled by the farmers markets, partly by commercial orders and special events like Right Some Good and the Incredible Picnic.

Our hugel garden is a success, at least the part that we broadcast seeded as a polyculture as opposed to transplanting two or three varieties into.

Our trailer tenant scarpered in the night, leaving more than just a bad smell and heaping several tonnes of bad karma upon himself.

We were granted some cash under the Homegrown success program, now we just need to borrow some bridging funds, implement the changes and claim back 25-65% from the department of agriculture.

Our fiddler friend moved to Glendale, got married and they’ve had their first baby.

We’ve made many new friends at different markets and enjoyed many, many fine meals to boot.

And finally deep, dark and mysterious plans are afoot which I must keep schtum about for another week or two…

We’re finally in our new kitchen!

No more struggling along, hauling flour from one side of the kitchen to the other, scaling dough on four square feet of stainless and baking a mere eight loaves at a time. Now we’re rocking with acres of stainless steel, a triple sink that the mixing bowl actually fits into, storage for flour and ingredients where you need them and a Duke 101e convection oven that bakes 24 loaves at a time, and maybe 32 if I can get another shelf for it! Being a professional oven it also takes the full size sheets so a world of possibilities opens up to us and it means that we can bake to scale for the Mabou, Sydney, Antigonish, Whycocomagh and Port Hawkesbury farmers markets. And once it’s inspected it opens the door to retail sales as well as supplying restaurants with our tasty breads and sweets.

And it doesn’t stop there – an inspected kitchen is an inspected kitchen so we’ll be able to value-add to our farm produce by turning our fruit and veg into sauces, purees and snacks, our pigs into bacon, ham and sausages, and our chicken and beef into pies and burgers, all furthering our vision of providing our local community the best quality food with lowest environmental footprint.

Have you ever dropped an industrial mixer on your nuts?

I have, and I don’t recommend it. In fact, I would steer well clear of dropping anything with ‘industrial’ in the title onto any part of your reproductive organs. Initially it hurts, but once the sickness passes, you realise nobody is coming to your aid and you still need to get this mixer off your driveway and into your bakery you just tend to get up and carry on. It’s not until eleven hours later when you’ve finished putting your professional kitchen in and try to stand up after reading your kids a bedtime story that you find that you can’t stand up. You laugh and turn it into a game so as to not scare your children too much then wait two hours for your wife to get home o help you into bed. And as this wave of blogs testifies that is where you will probably stay, for a few days at least.

And if you were wondering yes, this is cast iron and yes it does weigh a tonne. It’s so heavy that it bent the axle on my fridge trolley. My right testicle copped the lot.

How to make an automatic chicken feeder

Well, I may be stretching the word automatic here but I noticed that one set of chicks with free access to feed had a better weight gain than another set whose trough I filled once or twice a day. I know, it makes sense but I like to see the proof before I truly believe. Anyway, I remembered something I read somewhere once but haven’t been able to find again then set about cobbling it together from memory.

What you’ll need is,

  • a 5-gallon bucket, with lid
  • some bits of wood, plus screws to attach
  • a toilet plunger

And that’s it.

Drill a hole in the bottom of your bucket. I did one slightly larger than the plunger handle then had to expand it lots, until it’s about two or three time the handles diameter (but obviously smaller than the rubbery bit). Oh, and ignore the two red water nipples poking out of the bottom of this bucket, they are from last years feeble attempt to make a chicken waterer, but I found the nipples clogged and the chickens got thirsty.

Anyways, next attach the legs to the sides of the bucket, by screwing them from the inside out.

Next time I will also make the legs longer then sharpen them  into points so I can spike it into the ground.

Okay, insert plunger, fill with feed and release the chickens.

You’ll have to train them to it by shaking the plunger. Food will fall out, chickens will dive in, knocking the plunger and causing more food to fall out.

First there will be one…

…then there will be many!