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Saturday, February 23, 2013

This week's progress

Our calendar for the Spring, while marked with pre-printed dates of import like President's Day, Ash Wednesday, or even Town Meeting Day; those are not the dates that we are focused on.  Circles and highlights mark our important farm happenings - nest boxes to first four does; first batch of eggs; start group A plants this week, etc.

Last week - the first of the does were bred for an early March delivery.
This week - the incubator has been started for a mid March delivery; the second set of does was bred for a mid March delivery; doubling our taps this year required additional sap buckets, those were ordered Tuesday; orders will be placed for the first batch of meat birds for mid/late March delivery.
Next week - the third set of does will be bred for a late March delivery.

This weekend I will be catching up with my cousin to transfer ownership of a large piece of plastic and the forecast snow storm permitting, the roof will be put onto the greenhouse. Fellow market farmers and friends of ours who use supplement heat in their greenhouse already have tomato plants 3" tall.  I am jealous - but our progress continues.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Forecast for tomorrow - 45 degrees!

I purposely omit the frozen precipitation they so ominously include since at forty-five degrees there is little chance of it hanging around very long.  Unfortunately, Friday will be the last of the warm days anywhere in the extended forecast.  I am eager to use this day to its fullest and get outside and tackle every project on the to-do list including ones which require far more time than I will have available. 

My lofty goals include small projects like putting the roof on the rabbit shed - by myself, while the ground is still frozen and icy, while I am the sole person home to take care of Little Man - and the nearest ambulance is more than fifteen minutes away.  Along comes the common sense fairy with a smack on the back of the head like Gibbs to Dinozzo, 'Pick one, Jen.'  There is only so much one can accomplish with Little man in tow or during the short 90 - 120 minutes that he is snoozing.

While I still have the desire to jump head long into my to-do list weather be damned; I waffle between taking the evaporator pan out of the basement and cleaning it up outside or working on the chicken coop.  Both smaller projects which can, ideally, be almost completely accomplished in less than two hours.  All will depend on how much regular farm maintenance Little man and his father were able to get done today while I was working off the farm. 

The plans for the chicken coop include removing the rotting/damaged floor, removing ill planned chicken nesters and replacing them with roosting poles and installing fewer, new, well-placed nesting boxes.  I like some of the Chicken Chick's idea's in this post and hope to incorporate a few of them into our coop before summer.  A complete overhaul of the coop (a project which has only been over a year in the making) WILL happen before the snow flies this fall.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The conversation turns to sap

With the impending arrival of mud season, the predominant conversation in Northern Vermont involves sugaring.  Temperatures have been flirting with forty degrees.  Days above freezing and nights below are ideal for the clear, sweet liquid to pour forth from the tree.  Traditionally a small hole was drilled in the tree and a metal tap similar to this one is inserted.  Sap is diverted from the tree into the waiting bucket below.  Most small farms and some larger ones still collect sap in this traditional manner.  But there are some who collect it by gravity or even by vacuum pump.

In every industry efficiencies are developed and what used to be accomplished by trekking through the woods with a bucket in hand or accompanied by horse and sleigh, can now be accomplished by electrical or gas powered pumps and plastic pipeline.  A sugar wood can be developed in even the most treacherous terrain, pipeline strung and either gravity fed or vacuum system applied to move the sap from the trees into a waiting collection vessel.  This vessel can be at the roadside or even right in the sugar house.  No longer is the processor required to arduously trek through the woods to collect sap. 

Applying reverse osmosis technology to syrup production now allows the processor to remove upwards of 75% of the water from the syrup before boiling it.  This reduces boiling time significantly and produces finished syrup at much faster rates.  Those using RO often use oil or gas to boil instead of wood, thus making the processing of concentrated sap a financial necessity.  By the time one has invested in an RO unit and an evaporator large enough to process multiple gallons of syrup per minute; the value could easily exceed that of a medium sized house and a new 4 x 4 truck.  While the financial windfall from selling several thousand gallons of syrup at between $40-$50/gallon (depending on the year) is impressive, it must be carefully weighed against the cost of these jumbo evaporation units.  Then, if you have a bad year, the weather doesn't cooperate, the wind blows down trees and limbs onto your pipeline, the price of oil goes through the roof, etc.  Your couple to several hundred thousand dollar investment in sugaring equipment can collect dust and the bank or finance company still expects their payments on time. 

What does vacuuming syrup from the tree do to its longevity?

There comes a time when one has to decide whether they want to work hard or just plain be stubborn.  Sometimes I find a happy medium, other times I can't see the forest through the trees and end up repeatedly rapping my head off the branches until I realize there was a much easier way to do this!  Then there are traditions.  I collect syrup in a traditional manner with metal buckets and taps.  I do; however, take the tractor with my storage buckets out to my maple trees in order to collect it.  If we were farming full time then perhaps we would consider doing away with the tractor and employing horses to do more of the work around the farm.  Until then, the horses would not be worked enough to keep them in shape and their feed would cost more than several years worth of tractor fuel, overhaul and maintenance would cost.  Maybe someday.

In the meantime, Mother Nature has provided us with two days above freezing and the forecast foretells two more.  On my way home from work Monday night I saw my friends and neighbors rushing to get their taps in and get the last fixes to their pipelines completed before the flow of sap which will probably happen this week.  When I got home I took a long look at the longer range forecast and predictions are for temperatures to dip back into the twenties for most of the weekend and next week.  Since we tap our trees with the traditional metal spigots, DH and I were both concerned that any taps we might have installed this week would dry up or freeze up in the colder weather and we would either have to re-tap (hurting the trees) or call the season a bust.  The decision to wait was made.  Tomorrow, Little man and his father will search out the ten taps from last year as well as the additional 25 taps we purchased over the summer.  Buckets will be examined to determine how many can no longer be patched and how many more we need.  Extra egg sales this week have supplemented the farm fund which will be used to purchase those buckets and covers.  The taps, storage barrels and buckets will all be washed on Friday and Saturday and made ready for their seasonal debut, probably at the end of next week.

Finally, the decision will need to be made on whether we will try and make the evaporator pan - which I thought would certainly fit the wood stove in the basement - work with our current stove, purchase fire brick to make an arch for the pan or buy some other kind of food grade pan to fit into the barrel stove.  Perhaps if the weather stays warm enough I might be able to see if the plastic my cousin has will work for the greenhouse.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Spring chickens

Our chickens are currently providing us with a dozen or so eggs each day.  This is ideal since we are soon planning to start the incubator.  We can take half or more each day for hatching and keep the other half or less for sale or consumption.  Nothing fancy, our incubator was purchased at Tractor Supply (I think) and cost around $25.00.  It doesn't have a fan nor an automatic egg turner; however, it has served us well for the past several years.  We started with a plan to hatch about fifteen new laying hens.  33 eggs were placed into the incubator and we diligently turned them morning and night for eighteen days.  The last three days you don't turn the eggs so that the chicks can get their bearings and plan their escape.  About half of the eggs hatched and only one didn't make it due to a genetic anomaly or other such problem.  This first batch was a successful rooster breeding venture and of the fourteen chicks, I think nine were male.  They tasted pretty good.

For the past two years we have run out of eggs during the summer for farmers market sale.  Last year I thought I had planned accordingly and started our incubation early, by my standards, in March.  At the same time as I had planned for extra egg laying birds, we had a lot of interest from friends and neighbors to purchase pullets for their own home flocks.  Three batches of eggs went through the incubator and none of those birds remained on the farm to augment our flock.  Seeing that I wasn't going to have laying hens would still be laying for mid-summer 2013, in July I ordered 25 birds from a hatchery, thirteen hens and twelve straight run (a mix of males and females).  Those were not sold and after predators and one with a broken leg, we ended up with thirteen laying hens.  They are currently producing the majority of our eggs.  I put one last group of eggs through the incubator in mid-September and those birds, nine or ten hens and two or three roosters (one of them is confused I am sure of it) remain in the garage in a makeshift coop.

Chicken eggs take 21 - 23 days to hatch when properly incubated at 99.9 degrees and proper humidity.  Counting back from a March 15th hatch date, as opposed to a March 15th start of incubation date, we will be firing up the incubator over the weekend of the 23rd.  We will plan on running at least four batches through the incubator with our last planned hatch date being June 15th.  Assuming that we plan ahead and if our roosters are doing their jobs properly, we will have enough hens ahead to provide us with some stewing chickens for the freezer.

Our flock started with a mixture of Orpingtons and Rocks.  We had a couple of Leghorns added to the mix and then were blessed with two Red Laced Blue Wyandotte roosters.  These boys have the most wonderful heft, gorgeous coloring and appear to be very effective at doing what they are supposed to do.  The roosters that resulted from their breeding last year were fantastic roasting chickens.   We have only a few Rocks, no Leghorns, and only one Orpington left; the girls I ordered this past summer are Wyandottes making them the primary breed in our flock.  Roosters resulting from our incubation this year will be added to traditional Cornish cross meat birds, which I will have delivered, both for sale and for family consumption.

Plans for a second brooder box and two more chicken tractors have been completed and will be constructed once the snow has melted.  The tractors will travel between the Christmas trees adding not only wonderful nitrogen rich fertilizer but having the added benefit of decreasing the amount of mowing required between the trees.  The forecast for this week predicts an early start to the sugaring season and incubation will start before sugaring is complete.  Spring looks like it will arrive early on the farm this year.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

It's hanging on the wall in the garage

Little man had just gone down for his nap so I headed outside.  While fresh air is excellent for growing children, it is not so advisable when the temperatures struggle to reach the double digits and the wind is blowing steadily above ten miles per hour.  The rabbits and chickens were fed and watered.  Our snow storm had spared us the worst of what New England was hit with, but still the snow measured around eight inches where the wind hadn't blown.   Where it had the snow was drifted to just below my knees.  I thought I would make a quick pass or two with the tractor in hopes of keeping the worst of the drifts at bay.  I went outside to find that neither little man's father nor I had plugged in the oil pan heater.  The weakened battery in the tractor had little chance of firing the glow plugs long enough for the tractor to start with the temperatures this low.  Back inside the garage for an extension cord and then out to the tractor to plug in the heater...

No heater. 

It is a small, black, magnetic box which slowly warms the oil pan, making the fluid more viscous.  Oil and hydraulic fluid become thick when the temperatures are cold, making it harder for the mechanics of the tractor to pump the fluid.  Warming them slightly makes them move that much better and allows the tractor to start with ease.  The heater was not attached to the tractor.

Back inside to look on the work bench, the shelves, the nails in the wall where we hang a lot of the tools - no heater.  Inside the house to the work shop where I checked the work bench, the shelves, and more nails on the wall where we hang various things - no heater.  Into the cellar way, where we keep very little in the way of outside tools or supplies, but I figured I would check there anyway - no heater.  Now more than an hour into Little man's nap, time was fleeting and I still had bread and rolls to make for lunch and dinner.  I called his father, interrupting him at work,

"Honey, where is the pan heater for the tractor?"
"Hanging above the workbench in the garage," he says with the utmost confidence.
"I checked there, and in the shop, and in the cellar way, and I still can't find it - but I will check again"  I said.  "Oh, and can you bring home a gallon of milk please?"  Back out to the garage where I knew I had already looked in hopes of it magically appearing on the wall because Little man's father was assured that was its current location.

No heater.

One of the things I am learning as we travel further into our journey of farming is the need for both organization and communication.  Even the best of marriages can encounter bumps in the road when these two things are present and functioning at optimum levels.  Now add starting and growing a fledgling farm to that mix and the lack of, or at least the very slow progress towards either effective communication or basic organization and it can leave you hoping for a pillow for your seat, new shocks and probably some new leaf springs.  Going on ninety minutes into Little man's snooze, I headed back into the house.  The hood of the tractor was left open in hopes the sun might help to warm the fluids even at the current air temperature.  The driveway would have to wait until the afternoon nap or until after his father gets home. 

As I put my jacket onto its hook and my hat and gloves into the crate that holds such things, I noticed a black electrical cord dangling from the side of the crate.  That is an odd thing to be in with the hats and mittens.   I wish I could say I was surprised to find the pan heater in such an odd place, but such is the story of organization or lack thereof here on this farm.  After I have gotten bread and rolls made and fed Little man his lunch, I will run outside and plug in the heater.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Time flies when you are flying by the seat of your pants

Colleague: "What happened?  Did you give up farming?"
Me: "Heaven's no, why?"
Colleague: "It has been more than a month since you posted anything on your blog.  I miss it!"
Me: "A month - no, it was only a week or so..."  She was right, more than a month has passed and I lost complete track of time.  Days have, passed into weeks, and now over month without my realizing it.

I endeavor not to talk about my perceived misery on this blog.  So, I didn't post when I was in a bad mood, nor did I post when I thought I had nothing positive to say.  What I didn't realize is that there are people out there who are really eager to hear about not only my adventures but the misadventures as well.  So I will be posting much more regularly, they may be short, or they may only have a picture with a short comment, but I will be posting.

The new year arrived and with it an over abundance of rabbits.  Our processor had not been accepting rabbits since the beginning of deer season; they were busy with not only processing venison but also everyone who contracted with them for processing of their fall beef and pork as well.  48 extra rabbits consume copious amounts of feed, especially when they are weeks past their regular processing weight.  Feed costs are high and I was very worried about putting propane in the tank and making sure the bank wasn't going to come after the car in addition to feeding extra rabbits.  Finally, two trips to the processor, cleaned and repaired cages and racks; 72 rabbits had dwindled to a manageable 24.

This one is so much less rusty than the one I have

A sugaring pan was acquired, very inexpensively, on Craigslist.  It is a little bit rusty, but significantly less expensive than purchasing one new.  It is the smaller part of a much larger boiling rig so it will require some valves and caps in order to hold the clear, sweet liquid which will become maple syrup.  For now it rests in the garage waiting for a day near freezing when it can be cleaned and made ready for sugaring.  Ten below zero on the farm last night and a decent snow storm predicted for the weekend give the false impression that spring is still a ways away; I am not so confident.

DH found a full-time job off the farm.  I was worried about mounting expenses and lack of farm raised income.   His off-farm income will help toward heat and feed bills.  It will take a little getting used to as we attempt to divide chores for those rare days we both work off the farm; however, it is nice to have a tiny bit more financial wiggle room.

At least that was until the car went to the mechanic to make the repairs necessary to get it inspected.  'Jen, you can't put this car back on the road,' said the mechanic that my uncle uses for all of his cars and has for almost two decades.  I figured he was being overly cautious.  I took it to a second mechanic who told me that I was nuts to even drive the car home.

That was where all progress slowed.  No, more like halted.  Maybe more like stopped on a dime.  Actually - slammed head-long, 75 mph into a rock ledge.  After fighting for most of the fall just to keep our heads above water, getting hit with yet another - NO YOU CAN'T - was about all I could take.  A couple of bottles of wine and a few bad days of self-pity later, I screwed my head back on straight, dug in my heels and decided, that what was happening in my life was not going to beat me.  

My dream is to live life on the farm and if I didn't decide to make that happen, no one was going to make it happen for me.  For now I am back on track.  I still worry far too much.  We have not received an inheritance nor have we won the Powerball so the money concerns are still there.  Thankfully, little man is healthy.  My body is getting stronger by the day as I carry totes full of frozen water bottles into and out of the house sometimes twice or three times per day; although I still have a long way to go.  With DH out in the working world, a new potential market for farm products is being developed.  The car payment is still late, the current rig still needs repair and both it and the newly acquired used rig need tires, the rabbit shed still doesn't have a roof and we are down to less than 20% in the propane tank - but I am not giving up!