Farm report

Another blessed day of rain, and boy, do we need it. We had a bit of rain last week, enough so Chris could quickly till the moisture in and then build the raised beds we’ll need for this winter’s garlic crop. But it’s still been far too dry to plant, so rather than soaking down the beds ourselves we’ve been stalling. It looks like we’ll end up with close to an inch, which will be just about right. Most likely we’ll lay plastic mulch on the beds on Monday, get it as secure as possible, then plant the cloves later in the week.

This morning I drove to Lexington to deliver produce. I have to say that one small benefit of the current crisis is that NPR news is now almost totally focused on economics, which interests me far more than the American politics or world turmoil that usually dominates their coverage. I listened to nearly all of Morning Edition today, some of it twice, and for the most part didn’t feel that usual yearning for some other news station. Well, there was that one story on a small Republican-leaning town in Missouri … and a way too long segment where Pennsylvania voters got honest about the matter of race in this year’s presidential contest ….

During the summer when I drove produce I was waking up at 3:45am, leaving the house by 4am, arriving at Jerome’s by 4:30am, arriving at Good Foods in Lexington by 6:30am. This was partly to avoid the warmth of the day; much of the stuff I take goes from Jerome’s cooler to the Good Foods cooler but is not refrigerated during the ride up.

Today I didn’t arrive until 8am, partly because the mornings are now dark and cold, but also because there is now no one in produce to receive the delivery before 8am. Worker hours are being cut back. On Tuesday I arrived just as the produce fellow was clocking in; he took a quick look at the schedule board, said “Let’s see who’s working with me today … hmm, looks like nobody.”

A couple of years ago I bought two 2000′ rolls of plastic mulch, and we just used the last of it this spring. So after getting back from Lexington I drove over to Martin’s Produce Supplies to get another roll. It was pretty quiet there; I asked Edward Martin if the rain was keeping folks inside, and he said that in fact it had been a surprisingly busy morning for him. He fetched a roll of mulch, and said the price had gone up—it was $72 now, rather than the $40 I had paid before. Wish I had invested in a few more back then.

I asked if he thought that prices would continue to go up, and he said probably not on the mulch, but definitely on the drip tape. Seems that a major supplier (John Deere) had just bought another major supplier, leaving only one other in the field (Toro). And John Deere always prices things high, and Toro always takes the opportunity to match their price. So we’ll be doing some calculations in the next few days and then stocking up before the price increases come through.

Our neighbor Mr. Scott has a pear tree, and a couple of weeks ago he gave us a bushel of so of pears. We ate some, and they were delicious, gritty but otherwise as sweet and juicy as the fancy Harry and David pears someone gave us one year long ago. We already had plenty of canned fruit and don’t usually eat canned pears, so we decided to turn them into pear syrup. As they became ripe Debbie would put them through the steam juicer, then boil down the pear juice into syrup.

After we had some, we tested it out as a sweetener and decided that it was good, more than worth the effort to make, somewhere in the neighborhood of sorghum molasses. I like it in my morning oatmeal; a couple of tablespoons gives it a good, slightly fruity tang while being less sweet than the brown sugar I usually put in. Yesterday Debbie made pancakes for lunch, and it made a fine maple syrup substitute. I’m sure it would be especially good on a buttered biscuit.

Perhaps someday we’ll be in the same position with pears as we are now with apples, able to count on twelve or so bushels. That would give us maybe twenty quarts of syrup, something close to what we would use in a year for breakfast and other occasions.

Popping garlic cloves is the ongoing business right now. We will plant about 2400, then slice and dry the rest. Garlic has been a multifaceted experiment for us, teaching us not only about garlic as a crop but also about growing in quantity. Last year we planted 8000 plants, but only about half of them made it. Although that’s a pretty poor yield, it was still way more than we needed to sell to our current customers. This year’s goals are to figure out as best we can how to get a proper yield, and how to store it so that it is saleable later in the year (right now our garlic is fine until mid-September, and then it begins to go downhill cosmetically).

Despite the many books and web pages that have been written about the basics of farming, it is often difficult to find a good written explanation of a particular thing you need to know. Any novice homesteader needs to be ready to ask what will in retrospect look like the stupidest of questions, at least from the point of view of the traditional farmer. So much of what a farmer knows is never learned through any sort of schooling; the knowledge is passed on however unwritten traditions are passed on, and it is peculiar to them that someone could have been raised without coming to know these things.

Producing good compost is much on our minds these days, and so one of this year’s experiments will be to keep the cows in stalls over the winter, so as to keep their manure off the field and in a place where we can collect and use it. Now, as far as I know there is no book called “Keeping a Cow in a Stall Over the Winter.” And we haven’t yet been able to scare up much written information about the hows and whys of doing it.

So we are going to do the usual thing—start in on it, then ask dumb questions of our farming friends as the puzzles and mysteries and difficulties begin to manifest themselves. Not having any space in our barn …. [pause]

Here’s a funny note that shows in miniature why we try to get on with things rather than planning them out in advance. I was going to write, “Not having any space in our barn, we intend to set up the currently unused greenhouse with stalls for the cows.” But as I began that sentence I began to think, “Why exactly don’t we have any space in the barn? Well, it is currently full of the hay we’ll be using this winter. Hmm. Should we consider moving the hay to the greenhouse, and setting up the barn with stalls for the cows?” I walked into the kitchen and talked it over with Maggie and Chris and Debbie, and for now that seems like it will be the better solution in a number of ways.

It’s almost time to start burning the wood stove again. We’re blessed with being near a gate company that uses a lot of 4×6 lumber and creates a lot of unusable cut pieces that it then sells cheaply for firewood; in fact, what we pay is mostly to cover the haul bill. The wood burns hot and clean, and one truckload will get us through a mild winter.

But we like to be prepared for a severe one, so we want to have two truckloads on hand. Well, it’s difficult enough to get one truckload delivered; Debbie has to call time and again to remind the fellow that we’ve been promised a load but haven’t received it yet. And they are reluctant to deliver a second load until all their customers have received their first one (they only get one truckload a day from the gate company). But Debbie was persistent, and the year’s second load came last week.

Between May and October, though, the price of a load has doubled, from $100 to $200, I assume to cover higher diesel costs. We’re still happy to get more than a winter’s supply of wood for $300, but those $100 truckloads were nice and we’ll miss them.


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