Wednesday, April 17, 2013

farm hack @ northland

The past two days, we’ve been working on the poetic project of converting an antique tractor into a piece of horse drawn, ground driven machinery. We bought a 1941 Case VC from a retired guy with a barn of fifty tractors, pumped up the tires, moved a couple pieces of machinery out of its way, and pulled it out of the dirt that had flowed around the wheels and hardened, cementing them to the floor of the barn. Roger was kind enough to trailer it to our farm the next week. When we parked in front of the shop at Northland, Donn hopped into the seat to steer and, not sure whether the brakes worked or not (we still don’t know), we pushed it down the ramp and onto the driveway where it rolled to a stop.

Less than a week later, on Saturday morning, a small group assembled around the tractor to begin. Our event was a part of FarmHack, an open-source community of farmers, engineers, tinkerers, computer programmers, artists, and others who work to share innovations that support the small scale, sustainable farm revival in this country. Ours was the fourteenth Farm Hack event since the inception of the organization in 2010. Most of the events are a mix of project showcases, design charrettes and brainstorming sessions, good food, project builds, and the opportunity to meet like-minded people in your region. If you’re interested in sustainable agriculture, I highly recommend seeking out and attending a FarmHack event.

On day one of our hack, we split the tractor in two, removing the front end (engine, clutch, and steering), from the back axle, rear differential, and transmission. We wrapped chains around the Case, put a jack under the transmission, broke free the six bolts that hold the front and back together, and, slowly backing our other tractor away, split the Case in two. We propped the front end up in a bay of the barn and turned our attention to the transmission.

The week before, in the first five minutes we had the tractor on our property, we shifted through the gears, marveling at how well it worked for such an old machine. We had to see whether when we pushed the tractor forward, the PTO shaft would spin (this was what we were counting on to power our hay tedder or rake; as the horses pull the tractor along the ground, the PTO shaft should be driven by the wheels). We pushed and it spun! We wondered if we could shift it into reverse, push it forward, and have the PTO spin the opposite way. We did, it didn’t, and suddenly we could only shift into reverse. All of the other gears were completely locked. It took us a couple of hours, a cup of tea, a search of the google machine, and a couple of phone calls before we solved this one—with the transmission cover off, we manually moved the gears into the neutral position, with none touching each other, set the forks, slipped the cover back on and were able, again, to shift into all four speeds.

It was great to have people on the farm to work on the forecart—the group was small the first day but people came out for the paella party (thanks to Maryrose) Saturday night and we had more people arrive, including Severine of the Greenhorns, Sunday afternoon and another delicious dinner Sunday night with that crew.

In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be finishing the cart, welding up the frame, bolting on the tongue, building our bench seat, hooking up and pulling it with horses. Keep an eye out for more updates about our progress and many more photos which are soon to come! 

Explaining the project 

Friday, April 12, 2013

support young(er) farmers (than us)

Our friend Heidi back in Carlisle, PA is starting this great project to teach youth about sustainable farming & food. Specifically, the program will give 14-18 year olds a paid internship for six weeks this summer to work on some great farms we know and in some area restaurants to get hands-on experience with the implications of farming, food culture and the food system as a whole. Not trying to tell you what to do but you should totally donate to this project (tax deductible!) The USDA stated that the average age of American farmers was 57 in 2007- teaching young people about farming and encouraging a culture of food at a young age are two of the most important things that need to happen in order to advance positive change within the food system. Go Heidi & L.E.A.F.!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Kale seedlings on their way out
A couple of days ago we made our first (likely of many) mistakes as beginning growers. We've been really happy with the success of the hotbed system, for its simplicity, its cost (for us, free) and for its effectiveness at keeping seedlings and germinating seeds at optimum temperatures. Unfortunately though, we overlooked a small but important detail when we turned the pile and added new manure on Monday- the pile gives off ammonia for a few days after having been created, which at high levels is toxic to seedlings.

Very sad tomato seedlings, vigorous only two days previous. Apologies for the out-of-focus photo
This is a little ironic, as plants need nitrogen for growth and ammonia is the plant-soluble form of nitrogen produced via the infamous Haber-Bosch process. Provides further evidence for the axiom "everything is poisonous, depending on the dose." 

Fortunately we did not lose much, only a couple flats of tomatoes, kale, and scallions, and we should be able to recover with no problem. It should also be noted that our kohlrabi seedlings, planted at the same time as kale  (and the same species as kale) look great. Yet another reason to love kohlrabi. 

The indestructible kohlrabi 
Anyway, lesson learned. We thought initially that we had killed them by letting them get too cold- the pile takes a few days to heat up, and we thought it had not gotten hot enough to keep seedlings at the right temp overnight. But Daniel correctly identified the ammonia (which you could smell quite readily upon walking into the hoophouse) as the culprit. If we could do it over again, we would have built a new pile, waited for the pile to heat up and for the ammonia to dissipate, and then transferred the seedlings to the new pile, instead of just turning the old pile and putting the seedlings back on it the same day. But the most frustrating part of this whole thing is that the info about ammonia toxicity on hotbeds was out there- just on a document we didn't find until last night...

The light at the end of the tunnel is that all of our very young seedlings appear to be fine, it was only the fairly mature ones that were affected. 

Seemingly unaffected germinating onions

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

welcome pete + welcome lambs + welcome 1941 Case VC & farmhack

Greetings everyone,

Today: spring weather. To be able to work outside in the sun again is great (Plus the peepers were out in earnest last night!). A slew of other happenings preceded the recent shift, most notably the birth of the long-awaited mule foal Pete. Pete was discovered Friday morning in Lady's box stall, healthy, bright, new and fuzzy. We have been watching him gain energy and rambunctiousness, venturing outside yesterday for the first time and prancing around like he owned the place. Ample photos of the jet black pistol below.

The first two lambs have joined the farm as well having alerted Daniel, slumbering in the haymow because it was so warm, to their presence early yesterday AM. The 1941 Case VC for this weekend's Farmhack arrived yesterday also. It was all certain farmers could do to keep from starting the conversion before the actual event.

Also, a hotbed update: it has been about a month (March 12) since we started the hotbed and in the last few days we've noticed drop in temperature (from about 120 F to 100 F) so we turned a portion of the pile and added some fresh manure. We'll see if those actions will be enough to cause a rise in the temperature again, and if not, we'll just build another one of similar size. It's been working really great for us; with four layers of remay and a layer of plastic over the bed at night the temp stays around 50 even when its below freezing outside. Today we are seeding basil, bok choi, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, endive, ground cherries, head lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, napa cabbage, radicchio, romanesco broccoli and shallots to add to our cache of flats on the hotbed.

Daniel and I drove Connie and Polly singly together (sounds like an oxymoron but each of us was driving a horse in the same area) on Saturday to skid logs for firewood. Though we are by no means experienced teamsters yet, we do appear to be learning some concepts and driving is getting more comfortable each time we go out. The diversity of equipment these animals pull increases in the summer, and I am constantly walking around the farm seeing cultivators, plows, hay tedders and rakes, etc and thinking about how fun it will be to learn to work those implements with the horses.

One last bit: farmer/ The Dirty Life author Kristin Kimball visited Donn and Maryrose last week, it was great to talk with her about Essex Farm and farming in general. The very impressive Essex Farm does a full-diet CSA (vegetables, meat, milk, flour etc; a complete diet) for over 200 families with the help of horses in Essex, NY (across the lake from Burlington). Kristen chronicles the birth of Essex in The Dirty Life and all your cool farmer friends (not just me and Daniel) highly recommend it. Your library totally has it. What, are you reading the Hunger Games? This is more interesting, I promise.

That's it, I think, except that the Farmhack is this weekend (you should come, also if you're coming you should RSVP). Check out the project description on the Farmhack website if you're somehow on the fence about not coming. Or perhaps the photos below will convince you.

Two Spruce for you, Bruce.

Pete getting some milk from his mom. 
Donn takes Lady and Pete out for a walk.

See? Only three days old and already running around. 

Lookin good, Pete. 

The season's first two lambs. You can barely see the one on the left, she is spotted black and white but will fade to all white as she grows.
The '41 Case VC arriving
Donn steers her off the trailer
Pushing her into a good spot so we can cut her in half on Saturday. 

In case you forgot. 

Prepping (the slightly less hot) bed for turning
Small debate in the hardware store over bolts. 
Recent dinner at Northland: Pork loin with apples, cider and calvados (actually, apple jack). Thanks Dad, Saveur, and Maryrose for recipe help. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

driving polly + farm rhythms

My first two months at Northland have been an exercise in immersion. Over more than a decade, Donn and Maryrose have built a deeply satisfying life here on their farm. They have worked to create the environment in which they like to live. They have built barns and a house, raised horses and mules and sheep with whom they share the work, developed the fertility of their fields, and cultivated deep connections to this community while expanding on their personal visions of their farm, their lives, and their livelihood.

They are also people who seem to recognize the value in a rhythm and routine. Chores take place at 7 am and 4 pm, breakfast is after chores but before the main work of the day, market is every Saturday during the season, lambs arrive in mid April, and during the summer, the horses graze at night and are in the barn during the day so as to be close at hand. Parts of the systems here have places, times, cadences.

As apprentices at Northland, we become parts of these rhythms. We help with chores, we learn from Donn, and by and by we are becoming integrated and immersed into the lifestyle that Donn and Maryrose have here. Though admittedly I don’t yet wake for chores every day at seven, becoming a part of these farm rhythms feels good to me. It feels like belonging, it feels comfortable, and it’s starting to feel, too, like I have a stake in this place and this place has a stake in me.

Yesterday Scott and I worked with Polly, a percheron mare, without Donn for the first time. The work was not difficult or demanding and took only an hour after breakfast. Taking turns, we moved logs across the pasture to where Scott has been sawing and neatly stacking them to sell as firewood in the early fall. Working a single horse is almost always more difficult than working a team. When you’re driving more than one, they tend to balance each another. When driving singly, there are only two intentions at play, yours and theirs. It is not so much a tug of war, but a patient insistence on the part of the teamster and a willingness on the part of the horse that accomplishes the work you’ve set out to do. Since I’m just learning to drive, sometimes I’m not patient at the right time, or insistent in the right ways, and often I send messages through my voice, and the lines that are opposite my intentions. Because we are new to Polly, she is not always willing to accept our authority. We accomplished the task, though imperfectly, after an hour and afterward, I unharnessed Polly in the barn, removing first the lines, my primary mode of communication with her, then the harness, and finally the bridle and collar.

Today, with Donn and Kristen, we freed the disc from the frozen mud which has held it all winter. With a team of three, we towed it, jangling, across the road and left it at the edge of a field which Donn plowed from sod last fall. In the coming weeks we’ll disc this field, preparing it for wheat and oats and the coming of summer.