31 August 2014

Robust August

What you can't see is the horses drooling over the beautiful hay.

What a summer and how it has flown by!

As Kate and I get our first full season under our belt, we seem to be learning how to refine our vision for the future every day. Farmers markets take a lot of time with only two full time people; most especially when you are doing three!  We will be reformulating how many markets we will be doing next year. We will also hopefully continue to be making loose hay like above!  Post on this by itself in the future...

Hay!  Stop having so much fun!

We are finding that we also enjoy having the farm stand here at the Bridge Farm.  Less time to set up and break down and much more time at the farm to do the things we need to do.  Plus it's always nice to have visitors at the farm!  Kate has a very good eye for aesthetics in the farm store and at our farm stands.  She loves making bouquets; you can tell by how much they brighten the atmosphere in the store (and at Ship's Chow Hall right across the bridge in Dresden Mills.  Lennie does a good job using local ingredients where he can and makes a pretty mean omelet!)

Ponies! (mmmhmhmhmmmh)

The horses have had a break in work as there hasn't been much more hay to make and cultivation isn't very difficult work for them.  Therefore, they are puffing up a little bit.  We will hopefully be making some second cut the next stretch of good weather.   Our neighbor Bruce thinks we've probably got enough hay already for our three horses, but it won't hurt to make a little more!  Plus the second cut will be a treat for them in the deep winter.

Kinda loud, kinda intense, but what a thrill!

Tony and Jess have had a little bit of work over the summer helping plow and prep a garden for our neighbors down the road.  It was nice to just walk them down the road for 15 minutes as a warmup and cool down to sandwich the work they had to do in the neighbors' garden.  I was also able to plow with the walking plow and team by myself; a major accomplishment for the three of us!

Happy Farmer

The only other bit of work they have had is dragging out witch grass in a field we have just seeded oats on as a cover crop.  It is hard work as we have to set the spring-tooth harrow deep in order to pull out as much of the witch grass rhizomes as possible in order to make it workable for next year.

Hogs! (weh weh)

I dare you to scratch me!

Our pigs are almost ready to become pork.  They are set to go to the butcher in two weeks. That means setting up a little den for them in the trailer so they won't be afraid to get on when the time comes for two of them to go for their one way trip off the farm. They're about 220 pounds at this point.  A nice size for all.

We are trying not to get too attached to them as they have been very friendly lately; especially after a couple of them came down with a very high fever for a couple of nights.  It turned out that they were fine, but it was scary seeing one pig's temperature at 105F when it's normally supposed to be 101F!  After that, they never seemed to mind a good scratch on their flanks or behind their ears.

Layers (rawwwwwk)

Don't tell me that chicken isn't a little scary looking.

Our layers meanwhile are spritely, curious, and active. They still won't be laying eggs for another couple months. I don't know if I can wait that long. While I walk around the barnyard, there always seem to be a couple of hens that think I will dispense food from my boots. They seem to particularly like the barn interiors. I'm not sure if the horses like sharing their space with the chickens yet...

Edible leaves

In between all this stuff going on at the farm, Kate's been helping out at weddings here and there, I've been volunteering on the MOFGA Low Impact Forestry Steering Committee, and we've been looking at purchasing a farm in Richmond.  Pure madness!  We're very excited to have a chance to have our own farm with a farm stand already set up and fields that have been used for vegetable production already.  We shall keep you posted when we hear back from the FSA (Farm Service Agency).


Thanks to everyone who has been supporting us this year so far!  Despite the long days and few and far between off-days, it's been exciting, invigorating, and rewarding to be sharing food with friends, family, and local townspeople.  Photos courtesy of Kate's iPhone.

17 May 2014

Spring Plowing 2014

This event took place over the course of the last two days. We just picked up a new Belgian a little over a month ago to phase out our older mare who we got from our mentors. We knew he hadn’t done much work this winter, although neither did our other two horses. His overall health seems good and his demeanor in harness when ground driving and on lighter loads was good. I think he will be a good fit for us.

We had done chores with our young team for a few days a week since we’ve gotten him and even spread some manure. This we did based a bit on what we had heard from Doc Hammill at a workshop at the DAP Field Days last fall and interestingly enough on Kate’s dad’s suggestion while he was helping me get the spreader going. We had them follow the spreader behind my truck; first with nothing engaged, then with the apron on, and then both the beaters and apron on. They didn’t mind the noise. Then we had the truck with the spreader follow the team in the same sequence. No problem.

Looking back, while we were loading, the new horse Tony didn’t like standing with the spreader behind him while we were loading and tried to move many times and I had to back the team back up to the manure pile a few times. I made a note, which went to the back of my head (maybe too far), to remember this later when we put him on new implements and heavy loads. The spreading went fine and after just one late afternoon load, I decided this was a good lesson to end on for both horses.

Fast forward to today:

Today we plowed for the second day in a row. Yesterday almost ended disastrously. Luckily we ended up with nothing more than a bent square tube pole on our sulky plow due to an equipment failure on a wooden neck yoke and a few scrapes on myself after bailing off the plow. We were fortunate to have two of our mentors Mitch and Max over. It was actually Mitch’s neck yoke and evener for plowing that he came over to lend so that the draft on the plow would be set correctly. We tried the same two horses on this plow earlier, but couldn’t get it set right without more experiences eyes and these two know a thing or two about plowing. They didn’t seem antsy or to mind it much at all the first time around so I thought they’d be good with the plow again.

Things were going ok, the plow was slowly starting to scour, and the horses were starting to get it. Our newest horse, the Belgian Tony, took off a little faster than I liked and as I was trying to hold him back I also realized the neck yoke on the off side, in front of Jess, broke and I immediately became concerned about flipping the plow as the horses were no longer responding to my commands. As I felt the plow starting to bounce around I decided to bail and jumped off to the right and not far from where I landed, the pole dropped into the ground and the horses stopped. I was glad they at least didn’t run to the barn.

We reset things after making sure the horses were settled and Mitch suggested we bit Tony down on his Liverpool bit. We then harrowed a small piece to make sure they learned that the incident was nothing more than a blip and that they still needed to work. We were all exhausted and so called it a day.

Max came back today and came with his nice Wyard walking plow and we went right back to the same piece to plow. After we were able to scour the moldboard and get the plow set right, the horses settled right into it and boy did that feel good! It was a high and a low in the last 24 hours, but we’re lucky to have great mentors nearby. Kate and I couldn’t help but keep remarking how good we felt during lunch. It’s moments like these that we live for as teamsters.

Spring 2014 Walking Plow Photos

Mitch and Max here to help.
End of 5/14
End of 5/14

Finishing up the Maple Field 5/15

Finishing up the Maple Field 5/15

Plowing the River Field at Bridge Farm
Almost done!

Spring at the Bridge Farm

A lot has changed since the last post.  Kate and I are leasing Bridge Farm in Dresden for a couple of years.  We will be growing organic vegetables, herbs, flowers, seedlings, eggs, and pigs.  There are two barns on the 28 acre property right on the Eastern River.  Since we have been here, it's been busy.

Kate's been working at Johnny's part time, I've been doing some carpentry part time, and in between we've been planting lots of seedlings and tending to them.  The greenhouse (and our house!) is full of seedlings already and the cold frames are also almost maxed out with seedlings hardening off for transplant.  We're realizing how much time is actually devoted to greenhouse management and planning; necessitating leaving a portion of the day in the morning and night to water, cover, move, and monitor seedlings.

We also have a few new additions to the farm, a new horse named Tony.  We got him from a horse trader in Vermont at the beginning of April.  In a way it was a birthday present to ourselves, mostly due to timing.  He is getting used to the new farm and horses, and is great when in harness.  Hopefully he will continue to get along with Jess as they will likely be workmates for a while as Molly remains as our backup.

Tony after his arrival.

The other new addition(s) are 50 Barred Rock laying chicks.  They are tiny, and very cute.  Especially when they run around their brooder.

I have also been busy moving our equipment over here in a piecemeal fashion.  Some of it I've worked on and tuned up, most still needs some attention, and I've acquired more as the season starts gearing up.  This year we have acquired a new John Deere #4 mower as of yesterday, a single-row potato digger, a John Deere side delivery rake, and a single gang horsedrawn disc that is in much better shape than the one we had before.

It's overall been a late spring with it being cold so late into the year (lows in the low 30s last week) and now it's been rainy.  Every time it rains, the timing for plowing, harrowing, and planting gets pushed back a little further.

28 January 2014

Hard Ground to Fall On

Winter never leaves a dull moment.  Everyone's been wondering what is going on with the weather.  These very cold spells sandwiching a very warm few days have taught me that you really can't predict the weather.  It seems the earth we depend on is sending us a reminder of who is really in control.  Some people don't seem to understand as they continue to try to carry on their normal routines as if the below zero temperatures don't change a thing.

Power was out around Christmas time in Maine due to a pretty heavy ice storm weighing branches down and tearing down power lines.  Fortunately for Kate and I, we were in New York visiting my family.  Meanwhile, her family and our housemates were dealing with no running water or cook stove.  Many people in Maine were dealing with the same issues.  At least with a wood stove or furnace for heat, you can still keep your house and pipes warm.  It is a nice excuse to sit inside, stay warm, and read a nice book.

We are glad we have a nice wood stove and plenty of wood at our house here on the farm.  We could always melt some snow for water.  However, this can be arduous in terms of also maintaining water for the horses.  The frost-free hydrant in the barn froze while I was gone and when I tried to turn it on, I broke something inside it.  I plan on repairing it once there is another thaw, but who knows when that will happen.  In the meantime, we've had to bucket water up; a task eased by snow and a sled.

However, I haven't been doing most of the chores as was our normal routine.  The Monday after Kate and I got back from NY, we wanted to take the horses out for a ride to get everyone some exercise.  We should have know better given the circumstances: the horses had extra energy from not being used or handled for a couple weeks, it was snowy, Kate and I's muscles and joints were a bit stiff from being sedentary New Yorkers for a week.  All these factors added up to Jess bucking me off twice and spraining my right MCL.

The culprit.

What. A. Bummer.  I have been very inactive since, squashing my hopes for logging in these pretty good conditions, doing some carpentry, and doing some cross country skiing and ice skating.  I've noticed that besides getting a bit flabby, my mood is down.  I believe my body and mind are so used to being engaged by chores and moving around that the contrast in how I feel is remarkable.

My knee injury, as most ligament injuries do, will take a while to recover and repair itself, another 2-4 weeks of rest, ice, and strengthening exercises punctuated by hay visits with the horses in their pasture.  They do seem to be bored just standing around in their pasture, but Kate and I have at the very least been taking them on an hour ride on the forecart every week.  Nonetheless their muscles have atrophied a little as well.

Exhibit A: Bored Horse

The injury has been a blessing in disguise as it has forced me to focus on "inside work" like business planning, crop planning, and acquiring a place to farm.  It is satisfying and empowering to figure out cash flows and what our overall farm vision looks like leading up to the coming season.  We feel like we're in an overall good spot and are setting the stage for marketing and income in the future.

In regards to our land search, we are close to finding a place to farm and plan to move out of the house we're in now by March.  We won't make any announcements til we sign a lease, but we feel pretty good about the location we might be heading to. In the meantime, I'll be reading some Wendell Berry.

07 July 2013


King Corn visits Whitefield

I've been in Whitefield for the last 8 months.  It's where Kate grew up and the area we'd like to have a farm.  We're working at Sheepscot General Farm and Store for our friends Ben and Taryn. 

It has been extremely busy; especially this past week with us growing what were reputed to be the only organic strawberries available in the state of Maine.  The weather has been tough for strawberries.  We started off with a bang with hot, hot weather that created some sweet and very flavorful berries.  Then came the rain for a week.  The moisture and lack of sun created moist conditions that encouraged lots of rot in the berries.  They still managed to ripen during the wet spell, but did not taste as sweet or flavorful as they had the week prior.

The weather itself has been odd; rainy for a week straight, then hot and dry for a week straight.  It has been consistent, but in a less farmer-friendly way.  We can't get too worked up about it.  It is the weather and the weather is what it is.  I will say that the climate has seemed to shift and become less predictable even in my short lifetime.

Kate and I also have a second horse named Molly, who came to us from our mentors last year at New Beat Farm.  She is a 22 year old Belgian who has seen and done it all when it comes to farm and woods work.  She has been a good partner for Jess who still seems to be building up his knowledge and confidence when it comes to pulling many different kinds of farm implements. 

Molly with Jess pondering the amount of grass he's eaten today.

They are both the same height (which is a nice coincidence), but do not walk the same speed.  With Molly being twice Jess' age, she walks at about 2/3 his normal pace.  The difference in pace makes working them together difficult sometimes because it means Jess is often pulling harder than Molly.  On one hand he can handle the work just fine.  On the other, it isn't the best for him to be doing most of the work as he will tire faster.  We can't complain as Molly is still showing Jess how it's done on a vegetable farm.

Everyone's learning something

Work for the team has been inconsistent to say the least.  The weather is partially to blame as we cannot get them on the ground when it's wet unless we want to risk compaction of the soil.  However, when we can make the time and the weather is OK we still have been driving them around the neighborhood on the forecart, visiting neighbors on the way.

Thursday and Friday, we were able to do some single-horse cultivation with Jess and Molly.  They were in much better shape three weeks ago when we were doing heavy tillage with the two of them.  This week, not so much.  Nonetheless we've seen marked improvements in Jess' ability to work singly with the cultivator. 

At first, we harnessed both horses up and drove them up and down the rows to get them warmed up to the task.  Afterwards, I drove him while Kate handled the cultivator on Thursday.  We only worked him for about half an hour with the cultivator (an hour total of driving time), which seemed to be the right amount of time his attention could hold onto the task.  We were able to cultivate around one of the greenhouses, peas, kale, lettuce, and greens.

Strike a pose

On Friday after harvest, Ben and I harnessed both horses up again.  This time we intended to cultivate with both of them.  It was a hot breezy day, ideal for cultivating potatoes in wide rows with Jess.  I taught Ben how to harness the horses and had him drive Jess up to the potatoes while I drove up the cultivator in the pickup.  Jess initially didn't want to go down the row, but I was able to drive him down at a nice speed without having to adjust where he was walking very much.  In the past, I had to ask him to slow down a lot as well as deal with him tossing his head around all the time.  He did wonderfully even with an audience of strawberry pickers nearby!

After a water break at the barn, we took Molly out and cultivated a wetter area near the tomato high tunnel.  This (and most fields on the farm) needed weeding badly as the rain and warmth has caused all the plants to explode out of the ground.  There were lots of taller weeds so we needed to go several passes on each of the pathways to knock them down.  Molly walked slow and steady down each of the rows, tiring a lot near the end as the ground was hard from being a wetter, heavier area.

Mmmmm clover....uh what?

One of the things I noticed was that she was reluctant to turn around back towards the field and away from the barn.  This was one of the things Jess was having issues with before Thursday and Friday.  I began to realize that maybe having the field so close to the barn was distracting the horses from their work because they always want to go back to the barn (food, water, security).  Jess' lack of proximity to the barn when cultivating the potatoes was likely a larger factor in his improved behavior than I thought.  We will test this theory next week when we cultivate the onions and cabbage with him.

The farm has been on autopilot with weeding, harvesting, and planting at this point and this is enough to keep us plenty busy.  Kate and I have continued our farm search and have a very good prospect in mind for next year and perhaps the foreseeable future.  We'll keep you posted!

24 December 2012

Processing the Pigs

Things as as settled as they can be here in Whitefield.  I've started training at Johnny's Selected Seeds to work at their Contact Center and this has taken up most of my time.  All of a sudden all the time I thought I would have to devote to winter projects and business planning has disappeared.  Nevertheless, I have decided to make time to write another post mainly because it feels good.

As previously promised, I will write a post on butchering.  I am by no means a professional and I will confess that at times it got sloppy.  What do you really expect from a guy who lost sleep the previous two days about the logistics of killing, skinning, gutting, and cutting up a pig?  Combine that with cold weather that makes your hands work a little slower and it makes for a long day.

My previous post details how we got the pigs into the trailer, etc.  After the long day of driving, we still had to set up a physical pen using 16' long metal hog panels that we borrowed from a friend.  They were setup using 2 panels we had already set up as a funnel towards the trailer for the other 6 pigs.  We added two other panels to close off the two ends to form a trapezoid where we could trap one of the two remaining pigs and exclude the other.  We distracted the second pig by putting out grain a distance away from the pig we were about to dispatch (she was very hungry because we didn't feed her the night before; this makes it less messy to gut afterwards).

The night before we also had to set up a couple of tripods using long poles, rope to tie the poles together at the top, and a couple of block and tackles to pull them up.  This seemed like a pretty easy and ideal setup...we wish.

WARNING: The next few paragraphs describe scenes that may be disturbing to some people.  Not any pictures though.

Ken, Adrienne, Kate, and I were all there at about 8am.  I had spent a few minutes practicing shooting the .22 Ruger pistol we borrowed from Kate's dad.  I pretended a plastic milk bottle label was the pigs head.  It is recommended that you use a higher caliber bullet, but I read in several places that a .22 is enough provided you fire at the right angle and aim correctly.  You basically imagine an X drawn from the ears to their respective opposite eyes.  An old trick is to make the pigs hungry and then lure them with grain.  Kate passed me a small rubber trough with some grain in it while I was prepared with the loaded .22 trying to stay calm and collected.

I placed the trough on the ground and eventually the pig started eating out of it.  Nothing is as easy as it seems.  The pig's head of course moves up and down every time it scoops a bit of grain into its mouth and chews.  The key was to be really patient and wait until it picked up its head for a split second while it was chewing.  I put the barrel about an inch away from its head, waiting for the right moment, angling the gun so that the bullet would enter its brain perpendicular to its flat forehead, and pulled the trigger.  A puff of smoke and like that it dropped and would no longer feel pain nor be conscious.

Kate quickly passed me the sharp, sturdy, foot-long knife that I would use to cut it from ear to ear after I adjusted the carcass so its head was slightly downhill to facilitate blood flow.  It died quickly and painlessly.  At the same time, the other pig didn't have much of an idea of what was going on since it was busily eating in the woods 100 feet away.

We repeated the procedure with the second pig, which went even more smoothly.  This time Ken made the killing incision after I shot it.  From here on was the real hard part.  There is a fair pressure to complete skinning and gutting pretty quickly as the guts can quickly start rotting and make a mess if left to its own devices in the carcass.  Before we could even gut, we had to skin after cutting the head off by slicing neck meat, twisting, sawing, and pulling.

The tripods were not as high we thought they were.  They were 10' tall and we really needed them to be at least 11' tall to be able to work on the pigs at comfortable working level.  One of our blocks was actually a comealong that ratchets up a steel cable with a hook.  We tied the hind legs of the pigs to a singletree.

We then had the arduous task of trying to ratchet one up.  This took two different tries and two other people to support some of the weight of the pig so that I could get enough leverage to ratchet the ~300 pound pig up to 6' in the air.  This was the easier process of the two.  The second pig had a simple block pulley with a wheel; therefore we had to hold back the weight ourselves.  The tripod didn't cooperate with all the sideways force we were putting on it in order to pull the pig up so we tied the rope to the back of a truck while i held the tripod down.

Ahhhh so it was mid-morning and we hadn't even started skinning or gutting.  At least it was around freezing temperatures.  Skinning the pig took really long.  Really, really long.  Combined with cold hands and greasy pig fat, starting at the anus and ending at the head, skinning took a total of almost 3.5 hours.  Several times during the process you have to stop and sharpen your knife because it dulls very easily on the pig skin and especially hair and bones.  Skinning around the limbs is especially tough because it is tighter to the muscle and has a very curved surface.  Once one gets to the back and belly it gets a little easier.

Fast forward to the gutting.  This is my least favorite part because if you puncture any of the organs it is messy and can ruin the meat if allowed to persist on any of the surfaces.  It is also difficult and nerve-wracking to carve around the anus and make an incision down to the chest plate.  Pig poop stinks and you obviously don't want it on your meat.  This also took a really long time on the male pig because his anatomy is a little less obvious to cut around.  After you open up the abdominal cavity, you kinda stick your hands in there and free up all the connective tissue inside and start pulling things out into a container so you can save the liver and heart.  This is a smelly job, but a nice opportunity to warm your hands up.

By this time it was getting dark around 4:30 and we still had to cut the pigs in half down their spine with a handsaw.  Sawing was pretty easy.  Then we had to rinse the carcasses with cold water down at the house and hang them to dry and cure for a few days in the barn.  Of course there were like 5 other things we had to do so we broke down the "breaking down" of the carcasses into several stages.

First we broke the animals down into primal cuts: the head, the shoulder (roasts and hocks), the midsection (pork belly, bacon, ribs, chops), and the hindquarters (ham, hocks, ham steaks).  This way we could control their temperature in our chest freezer and fit all four halves into it.  A few days later, the four of us would proceed to break the carcasses down into the cuts we are familiar with; also a whole-day process.  We also made our own sausage which was a fun family activity.

Any questions?  No?  Good.  Thanks for reading!

PS- We made lard.

PPS- We own a horse!!  More on this later.