Good weather, good work, good food, good life

There are hard days on the farm, and then there are days like Tuesday. Sunny, temperatures soaring to near 60º on a warm southerly breeze, the snow & ice of a long winter melting rapidly with the delightful gurgling of awakened streams. We’ve been getting a lot of useful things done lately, but this temporary relief from the cold made everything seem even better. Here’s a photo essay of some mid-February farm conditions and projects.

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The field re-emerges; the second bed from right holds overwintered spinach under row cover, which was quite sweet in mid-January, but it could really use some good sun to recover after its long, dark sleep. If this thrives in spring, it will likely feature in an early share, but the stand is smaller than usual, and it has to make it past the voles first. We’re also waiting to find out whether any parsnips, leeks, or Jerusalem artichokes survived the winter and the voles.

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Road conditions are always interesting this year, usually becoming worse once snowmelt starts, as repeated freeze/thaw cycles convert snow to ice. Here, under-ice flow in our stream has gradually flooded the crossing and crept up the banks, thanks to an ice dam formed by plowing the snow off the driveway. This can make it difficult to get worker help at times, but is quite pretty.

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Logging is always a major winter job, clearing pastures and thinning forests to produce lumber, mulch, biochar, and more. Cedar mulch goes on our pathways, while hardwood mulch goes to the fruit trees and berry plants. Above, we work on chipping a large pile of branches generated from opening up a pasture edge. We actually prefer to do this work when the ground is frozen, to minimize soil disturbance, and hustled over the few days to get a lot done before the expected warmup.

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Mid-February is maple tapping time, as the best chance for the daily freeze/thaw cycle needed to get sap flowing. It’s also when we really start cutting and collecting next year’s firewood supply. Much of this batch of firewood was a side result of cutting the 40+ logs we’ll soon be inoculating with shiitake mushroom spawn. It doesn’t get much better than splitting wood in a T-shirt while flocks of the first northbound Snow Geese stream regularly overhead.

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No one’s happier about the thaw than the goats, who have been unable to browse any fresh pasture for a very long time. It’s been a long, cold, boring winter for these ladies, who will get some fresh pasture as soon as the deeply-frozen ground thaws enough to allow for moving the electric net fences. Right now there’s about 1/2″ of mud on top of many inches of frozen soil. We’re thrilled to have several clearly pregnant does, including wide-load Quartz on the right, and are strongly looking forward to ending the past year’s milk drought. Kidding should happen by mid-April.

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The produce season has already begun, with many trays of onions (above) started in our seeding room. Sooner than we’d like, our work load will be shifting to preparing beds for spring planting and transplanting, and so the clock is really ticking on the myriad winter projects left to be completed.

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Farm food this time of year is wonderful, as we can tap into the full variety of our preservation efforts over the rest of the year, drawing on our wide diversity of vegetables, fruits, meats, and more. We need it, as we burn a lot of calories on outdoor logging days. Above is Tuesday’s especially satisfying lunch, ingredients 100% produced on-farm except for the salt.

Deluxe chili: onions, garlic, ground pork, dried peppers (Ancho, sweet, and home-smoked chipotles), tomatoes (fresh Mercuris, plus frozen & canned), sweet potatoes, sweet corn, nixtmalized dent corn, mixed heirloom soup beans, chicken broth. Two gallons of this will keep us going for a couple days, at least.

Home-fermented sauerkraut: Fall cabbage, daikon, onion, garlic, coriander seed, dill seed, salt.

Fruit mix: Our frozen strawberries, melons, blueberries, black raspberries. A special treat!

Don’t let anyone tell you locally-sourced meals are boring. Who needs a grocery store when you have a good farm? Meals and days like this really help make everything else worthwhile.

2 thoughts on “Good weather, good work, good food, good life

  1. Beautiful photos! Glad you are getting warmer, more enjoyable weather. Sounds like (looks like) you made good use of the frozen conditions. I’ve sometimes thought a wood chipper might be a good idea on our farm, but when I looked into time and fuel required, it seemed a lot for the amount of chips you get. I decided to leave chipping to people with bigger equipment and trade for chips. I’d be interested to hear more about how you view the trade-off. When you have time! Thnaks,
    Pam

    • Great question, Pam. Generating wood chip mulch is a lot work for the result, and the equipment requirement is substantial. It makes sense for us because we’re doing so much tree clearing anyway. Our orchard started as a cedar thicket, and now we’re moving on to pasture improvement. We also heat with firewood and grow shiitakes on hardwood logs. Given all of the branches that come down in the process, it is nice to be able to do something with them other than create rabbit habitat. There are benefits to doing our own mulch, too. We know what goes into it, and just as importantly, we know that herbicides or other nasty things haven’t gone into it. (Can’t say that about what comes from the power lines or road right-of-ways around here.) Also, we can be as picky about our mulch as we want. For orchard use, we can do exclusively hardwoods, and we can exclude walnut, cedar, diseased trees, or anything else we don’t like. The size that our chipper handles best is precisely the size to produce the “ramial wood chips” that Michael Phillips describes in The Holistic Orchard as being best for feeding beneficial soil fungi. Cedar mulch is less useful agriculturally, but makes great paths and outbuilding floors. It also happens to be what we have in abundance.

      We do certainly drool over the giant wood chippers that we see road crews using. I feel like we see them jamming giant untrimmed trees into those, and that’s an efficiency that we don’t have. The biggest time input for making mulch is prepping the branches to make them efficient to feed into the chipper. A well prepared pile of branches can be fed into the chipper pretty quickly; it takes under an hour of tractor time to fill our truck. We use two people to minimize the time we have to run the noisy equipment: one person pulls branches or groups of branches from the pile, and the other person feeds them into the chipper.

      Our equipment is a DR wood chipper that runs off our tractor PTO. Overall, we’ve been very happy with it, though we’ve learned about a few quirks along the way. (Never try to use it to chip okra stalks! But doing so just before the warranty runs out is better than waiting for after; the support from DR was extremely good, as one would expect from a Vermont-based company.) Every fall when crop residue is heading for the compost pile and we’re chopping it up manually, I really wish we had a shredder, but I’ve read/heard that the chipper/shredder combo isn’t as effective.

      The economics of a load of our mulch work out to be on par with the going commercial rate (certainly not meaningfully cheaper) if you count labor at minimum wage. We sold a couple of loads to friends of the farm last year, and at the time we checked the prices for bulk mulch from the hardware store, which worked out to something around $70 for a load that would fit in our truck. To fill our truck with cedar mulch, it takes a bit of chainsaw work (1 person), about 4 or so hours of branch prep (1 person), and ~1/2 to 1 hour with the chipper (2 people). Say 7 hours @ $8/hour is $56, leaving $14 to cover fuel, equipment use, etc.

      But add in the other benefits we’re gaining: the branches have to be dealt with anyway to expand pasture, reduce fire danger, etc., and it reasonably makes sense. Plus, we’d never dream of buying the amount of wood chip mulch we use, but we really like what it adds to the farm. That’s a long winded way of saying that we think it makes sense for us to have/use a chipper, but it’s certainly not for everyone.