We have all we need for everyone to live well.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tired Iron

I traveled with our good old Mom east of Columbus, Ohio through Franklin County, past signs to all the little places around which Dad and Uncle were born and raised – Reynoldsburg, Etna, Wagram, Pataskala. Then into Muskingum County where the land begins to lift and roll and hardwood forest closes in on the highway. Outside of New Concord live longtime family friends George and Helen. George and Dad met at Muskingum College in about 1947 and only later realized that their grandmothers were sisters.

George collects, restores, displays, and operates antique traction engines, the early versions of which were essentially railroad locomotives without the rails and which eventually became the modern farm tractor. Most of his collection is steam powered – external combustion.

From the operator's station.

Power take-off has always been an important feature of traction engines. On modern tractors, a PTO implement is connected with a steel shaft. These old engines powered belt-driven implements of all sorts from a rotating drum PTO.

The boxes behind the rear wheels hold water for the boiler and wood for the firebox. These engines typically were rated in the 10-40 horsepower range.

A belt driven sawmill. The red section houses a flywheel.

This is just a portion of the belt drive mechanism for a threshing machine that separates grain, chaff, and straw.

Another threshing machine.

 This Aultman-Taylor has an early gasoline engine – internal combustion.

An early portable gasoline powered engine.

A little later gasoline powered garden tractor, with a cultivator attachment.

The steam engines are really beautiful examples of 19th century manufacturing.

Whistle and steam vent.


One of George's everyday tractors.

Back home, everything is growing big and fast.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Disposal and Reclamation

I have in mind to produce biochar and synfuels from pyrolysis of wood waste, for soil amendment and to power machinery. As a first step I want to learn to make charcoal, which involves burning wood under reduced oxygen conditions. A large brush pile in the far corner of the northwest field seemed a good spot to begin my experiments but beneath the brush were the leftovers of years of dumping and burning and burying. A common enough practice on farms but one that violates my aesthetic and conservative sensitivities. This is a large topic but today I'll confine myself to practicalities.

So, I got out the big tractor, pushed and hauled the brush to the side and began excavating, uncovering, and removing decades' worth of junk of every description. In the end I had to go about four feet down before the big metal stuff gave out. I wasn't exactly deft with the bucket's hydraulic controls when I began but I'm a lot better at it now! This was a day-and-a-half's work.

I sorted some of the stuff as I went, the plate glass in particular and other household items that might find a place in art projects.

Enameled cast iron basin. Thermos. Door bell. Christmas tree stand. Flatware. On and on.

We have some other stockpiles established near Baby Grave and I'm making a new pile there, a testament to how not to reduce, reuse, recycle.

West garden update.

And the east garden. Check out the tomatoes. Behind them are pickling cucumbers, melon, squash, and sunflower.

Summer Solstice

We took the occasion of the longest day of the year to begin work on the observatory. Here Alan adjusts a guy line at the principal observation point in the center of the terraced field.

Checking for verticality.

Then we prepared to set a stake on the west fence along a line to the horizon point where the sun would set, but an enormous cloud bank quickly moved up and into the way.

We made an approximation then watched the clouds boil.

The forecasted thunderstorms never materialized. We got a few sprinkles of rain overnight and the overcast this morning kept us from setting a stake for the sunrise. Oh well – this is a 40-year project and by successive approximation we'll establish points for the equinoxes and cross-quarter days as well as the solstices, and who knows what else.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Diversion II

This weekend we traveled north out of corn country, across the Mississippi River and into the driftless region with its old rock bluffs and dales, past dairy and hay farms, and beyond to the paper and timber lands of the North Woods. This is where the legends of Paul Bunyon and Babe, his blue ox, were born.

Our destination was Chippewa Falls, WI. Our purpose was the ninth annual Leinenkugel's Family Reunion, where we met family & friends from Chicagoland and conducted some practical research on brand creation and customer loyalty and retention. It was a very pleasant, low key affair on the grounds of this mid-19th century brewery, with plenty of free beer, food, and music.

I made some new friends, played catch with a couple of my little nephews-in-law, and swam in beautiful Lake Wissota whose clear waters have the merest orange tint from naturally occurring iron in the underlying geology.

We returned yesterday and were grateful to find an inch of rainwater in the gauges, enough to have filled the soil profile to a depth of fifteen inches or so. A lot of the second planting has already emerged: corn and pole beans intercropped, bush snap beans, turnips, mustard, Swiss chard. Today brought high winds and extreme heat. Relative humidity was 70% at dawn, plummeted to 18% by noon. Two hours' work beginning to clean up the big brush pile in the northwest field, and all the junk buried within it, completely sapped me. I gathered more spearmint and it's drying in the garage – strong stuff.

As the sun set and we ate our dinner outside, the bunnies came out to engage in several parties and frolics, most amusing.

The pond is eminently swimmable. Y'all come down now, hear?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Middens and Grave

I have a better appreciation for the problems of archaeologists – we've established a couple of our gardens on middens. The word literally means "dung heap" so little wonder such sites are later used as gardens. Every soil stirring operation brings more to the surface. The layers get mixed and the contents removed and replaced. We collect and sort it for...something, our Fred Smith project. As Fred said, "... for all the American people everywhere. They need something like this."

An elderly neighbor, Ron, who grew up on this place, told us there was a house fire long ago. We'll have to ask him where they disposed of the debris. That might account for the hinges and nails, maybe some of the ceramics, probably not the crowbar or bicycle chain or who know what that other stuff is. Some of it is big. Ron says they kept a small dairy herd, grew apples and strawberries, and tomatoes for the Heinz plant in town. At that time everyone grew tomatoes for Heinz but now they're trucked in from out of state.

Ron's brother Robbie died in infancy. His headstone is back behind the gardens. Baby grave. When anything mysterious happens around here, the explanation is: baby grave.

Before we met Ron, Donna had done some detective work and discovered the rest of the story. Baby Robbie wasn't buried on the farm but in a cemetery in town. When a family plot was established there, a uniform set of headstones was placed, and the baby's original stone brought back to the farm.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Old Growth, New Growth

In the woods on this forty acre parcel live about twenty old growth individuals, including burr oak, shagbark hickory, white oak, and cottonwood. Our consulting forester estimated their age at well over 200 years. By removing other trees that are interfering with the giants' branch structure, each can become a little park, to be visited by a network of old tractor paths that we're gradually restoring.

This is long-settled land. Many of the farms and towns around here were established in the 1830s, and less than five percent of what is now Iowa remains more or less as it was before folk of European descent set down roots. On the coasts of this big nation, it's called flyover country.

A small thunderstorm cell blew over about four o'clock this morning and produced some good flashes and booms. There was rain enough to suppress the dust on the county road but not enough to make puddles in the lane.

The family of land beaver moved from under the barn – a recent party may have scared them off – but are nearby. As we watched from the kitchen yesterday afternoon, an adult came right up the front walk and around the house on some errand.

The thistles, those I missed with the spade, are flowering so I've been out with a machete to decapitate them before they can go to seed. This took me for the first time into the interior of the 11-acre terraced field, where the alfalfa and clover have grown chest high and are making the bees very happy, or at least very busy. I believe even a diligent search would now find very few flowering thistles on the property.

Yesterday morning we drove up to Moscow for a load of manure and soiled bedding from the farm of a horse-raising acquaintance. It was dry and well-composted with no objectionable odor, and now awaits incorporation into the garden soil for the second planting, which we'll do this week. Tilth! Fertility!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

No one here got a very good sleep last night due to the incessant bellowing of a cow somewhere along the north fenceline. There's a skeleton next to the creek on our place that speaks to the possibility of cows getting caught in fences, or foundering in mud and water, or getting sick and being brought down by predators. It was so loud, and sounded so unhappy, that I seriously considered getting dressed and going out with a flashlight to see what I could find. Don't the owners account for their animals at night? Would one deliberately leave a single member of a herd at the back of a remote wooded pasture?

It's a mystery.

How does one become a farmer? Either you pick up the skills from your forebears, or you partner with an experienced farmer, or you just figure it out on your own. We're half a generation removed – our father farmed with his father until his early twenties, then became an academic and international consulting engineer. I, too, have degrees in agricultural engineering, but they're not degrees in farming. I've gardened intensively, but that's not farming, and it doesn't scale up. Permaculture offers a path from the one to the other, and that's where we're at.

(Oh! There goes a firefly.)

So then, we read our books and manuals, talk to the agency folk and anyone else with experience, and make a practice of trial and error.

Today saw the completion of the rabbit fencing around the vegetable gardens, with 5-foot wide gates that will admit the little tractor if necessary. If we've done it right, we'll stop cursing and once again celebrate the crepuscular bunny parties.

Research continues into biochar and synfuel production through pyrolysis of wood chips. I need to take a welding class.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

This and That

Venus' solar transit was obscured but these skies were also surely something I won't see again in my lifetime.

The vegetable gardens are not yet fully enclosed by fencing but already overnight the rabbits burrowed beneath one completed section, and deer knocked down another. I'm thinking bloody thoughts. Could the Dalai Lama be a farmer?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Incremental Progress

A trip to Menard's and the dock deck is now fitted with a beach umbrella.

The east garden has most of its rabbit fence installed, all but a gate, and both gardens should be protected in another day or two. Effectively? We'll see.

A second rain barrel has been plumbed and with the new stand we'll have enough head to water the top of the west garden.

The front yard is looking fine.

Research continues into U.K. West Country style cider and the special varieties of apple that make them: sweet, bittersweet, sharp, and bittersharp. Typically, a cider is made from a single type of apple and then several ciders are blended to produce a commercial product. Everywhere but the U.S. the term cider means "hard cider" and non-alcoholic cider is just apple juice. Our taste testing of currently available U.S. offerings continues as well, and the big challenge seems to be making a cider that one wants another after the first – most are made from dessert apples and are too sweet for hop-loving craft beer drinkers.