It's Too Hot to Hay

Recently we farmers decided that it would be a fine time to take a break from the Marvelous Year of Maintenance. We thought we might attend to some other minor farming matters, such as weeding, harvesting, haying, and fall planting.

However, the farming spirits seem perfectly happy to tailor maintenance issues to our every activity. Take haying, for example.

Early in July, we had a stretch of sunny haying weather. Unfortunately, it was also a stretch of 95 plus degree heat. We knew we ought to make hay, but we were feeling mighty hot. Plus we discovered we had a lot to do just to get ready to make hay.

First, as my fellow farmer was cultivating the broccoli with the horses, the team suddenly swerved out of the pathway. Crunch! Crunch! went the broccoli plants as the horses stepped merrily on them.

“Whoa, whoa!” my fellow said urgently.

“Everything all right?” I called worriedly from across the garden.

“The lines broke again,” answered my fellow. “I couldn't steer. But the horses stopped right away. I think we only lost maybe five plants. Hey, will you get the duct tape?”

Oh, geesh. Duct tape. By the time I got back with it, the teamster and the horses were at the end of the row, and the rest of the broccoli was nicely weeded and hilled. I was surprised.

“I just stuck the old tape back together,” said my fellow. “It worked! But I'll still take that roll.”

I handed him the tape, wondering what he was planning.

With a flourish, my fellow hung the roll on the hames of the harness. “There!” he said. “Just in case I need it!”

I couldn't help laughing. A roll of duct tape hanging from the harness: what a perfect symbol of the Marvelous Year of Maintenance!

It was funny, but I was worried. My fellow was planning to mow hay the next day, which is not an easy task for the horses, and involves a 6 foot long razor sharp sickle bar. I didn't relish the idea of the driving lines breaking yet again.

“Did you order the new lines yet?” I asked.

“Not yet. I keep meaning to.”

“Let's do it right away. Maybe they could be shipped today, in time to mow tomorrow.”

We ordered the lines, and then my fellow looked the mower bar over. “I guess I have to replace the pole,” he sighed. “The end of it is rotten.”

But we had used up our last home-cut pole, when we replaced the pole on the spreader earlier in the Marvelous Year of Maintenance. “Maybe I could just shift the neck yoke back a little, to a better part of the pole,” my fellow said.

“I thought you already did that last year.”

“I did, but maybe I can do it again. I looked it up, and you only need 9 feet 6 inches between the neck yoke and where the evener is attached to the pole.”

“Did you measure it? Do you have that much?”

“More or less,” he said, not very reassuringly.

Meanwhile, it was getting hotter and hotter. Even discussing the potential repair made us break into a sweat.

Then we remembered that it was going to take a morning's work to clear out the barn floor so we could get the haywagon in the barn. The hay wagon itself was loaded down too,with all the wood we bought to replace the baseboards in the greenhouse, which we hadn't yet accomplished. Plus the wagon needed a repair, as it broke on the very last load of last year, in preparation perhaps for the upcoming Marvelous Year of Maintenance.

We stood in the shade, doing nothing, wiping our brows. Our horses stood in the barn, doing nothing, wiping their brows.

“It's too hot to breathe, let alone hay,” I said.

“Let's check the weather again. Maybe now it's going to rain?”

We checked the weather again. Still very very hot, for the next three days. But there was a slight chance of thunderstorms the next day!

And there were the broken lines. And the rotting pole. And the clearing of the barn, and the unloading and repair of the hay wagon.

“And our horses are getting pretty old,” I suggested, “to work so hard in this heat.”

“And we are getting pretty old,” my fellow suggested, “to work so hard in this heat.”

My fellow farmer looked at me. I looked at him.

“Let's not mow,” he whispered. “Let's wait.”

“All right!” I whispered back, guiltily, gleefully. Of course, it is not wise to miss any haying weather, as we never know when, or if, we'll get some more. But fueled by our tremendous relief at not haying in the terrible heat, we get an enormous amount of weeding, harvesting, and fall planting done in the terrible heat. And we might even get to those haying maintenance tasks before the next stretch of sunny, yet cool and breezy, haying weather . . .

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Aug 1- Aug7,  2018

Jollying Up July on the Farm

It would be easy to be overwhelmed on a vegetable farm in July in New England. What with five garden sections, four greenhouses, three hayfields, two farmers, and one hundred million weeds all in full swing, a farmer might feel a wee bit daunted.

Thus, July is a most excellent time for some really funny farmer jokes. On this farm, we have one farmer who makes a lot of silly jokes, and one farmer who laughs a lot at the silly jokes, which is a fine combination.

For instance, last year we won a farm award from the Cheshire County Conservation District. The award recognizes farms that have implemented multiple conservation strategies on their farms, promoting sustainability in the local economy, environment, and agriculture. It was wonderful to be recognized for our various efforts. It was also kind of funny, since the award is called “Cooperator of the Year.”

As my fellow farmer said, “Wow, that's the first time anyone's ever called me cooperative!” 

This made me laugh, a lot, as my fellow and I have been farming and living together for some time now. There are many ways I would describe him: kind, cheerful, hard-working, optimistic, fiery, well-mannered, handsome. Cooperative? Hmmm.

Funny, though, would be high on the list. I have been laughing at my fellow's jokes since the beginning. He has a way of lightening up things when the melancholic farmer, me, gets worried about not getting enough work done. Of course, there's always way too much work this time of year, and I start saying things like, “I don't have time to write today. I'm going to come out first thing and work on stringing up the peppers with you.”

“Nah,” answers my fellow, “I don't need you. You don't do much, anyway.” 

This makes me laugh a lot too. Then I do go to my writing desk, and my fellow goes out to the peppers, pleased with both his joke and the fact that he's avoided working with an extremely cross fellow farmer, me again, who has not been able to get enough writing time to keep her spirits up.

After my writing, when I feel much better about the state of the world and the state of the farm, or at least much more able to keep it all in perspective, sometimes I make funny jokes too. Once, when we were clearing out all the machinery and junk that had accumulated in the barn over the winter, in order to start bringing in loads of hay, in the summer, I found a wrench that should properly have been hanging in its designated spot in the tool area.

Now this tool area has been left entirely to the devices of my funny, good-hearted, and very disorganized fellow farmer. It has been knee-deep for several years, and it is a small miracle when he finds what he's looking for there. On the day when I found the wrench, I called out, “Hey, watch this!”

My fellow farmer came over. “Yes?”

“I'm going to put this away! Watch!” I said, and then, from a distance of twenty feet, I flung the wrench into the gaping maw of the tool area. The wrench was immediately swallowed, and I collapsed into laughter.

My fellow farmer looked long at the tool area. He looked long at me, rolling around in laughter on the ground.

“Really funny,” he finally said.

“I know, I know,” I gasped, laughing and laughing.

What a fine way to jolly up overwhelming old July on the farm.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, July 4 - July 10, 2018

Fixing It All Up on the Farm

This season, on our New Hampshire vegetable farm, we are well into the Marvelous Year of Maintenance. All the farming forces seem well pleased with the year's theme, and are doing their utmost to give us good fixing up projects.

First, there was the greenhouse: a big windstorm ripped off the plastic last month, which caused a three day flurry of panicked maintenance activities, replacing hipboards, tie-downs, and plastic.

Second, the manure spreader, or shall we sustainably say, the compost spreader: on the very first trip out to the field early this spring, there was a big bad noise. My fellow came walking back, minus the spreader and the horses. Then the two of us farmers returned to the scene, with two manure forks.

Sigh. It is a little daunting to have to empty the very first of many, many loads by hand. The horses didn't mind, however, as the whole operation is much slower-paced when compost dispersal depends on two forks and two disspirited farmers, rather than a wonderfully working spreader.

Once the spreader was cleared out, we could see that a link on the bed chain had broken, which meant taking out a corresponding link on the other side. We have made this repair before, but it was so long ago that we couldn't quite remember how to do it efficiently. Despite two come-alongs, two crowbars, two screwdrivers, two hammers, two farmers, and a lot of swear words at our disposal, plus a morning of concerted effort, we still didn't have it fixed.

Desperate, one farmer resorted to searching the Internet. Lo and behold, there was a Youtube video on taking links out of a too loose bed-chain, as well as several pieces of sage farmer advice. Just as the one farmer was collating the useful advice, the other farmer came triumphantly into the house.

“I fixed it!” he said.

“Great!” I answered. “I was just going to tell you how everyone says it's a lot easier to work the part you need to fix around to the bottom of the spreader, so that there's a lot of slack. Plus it's a good idea to have little kids to wiggle under the spreader so you don't have to.”

“Oh yeah, that makes sense. Oh well. Next time, we'll have to get some little kids. But I had another great idea, and it worked!”

“Yeah? What?”

“I took the grinder to it!”

“Oh,” I said, a little doubtful. “Is the chain really going to stay together after you've ground part of the link off?”

“Sure it will. I only shaved off a tiny bit. It'll work great.”

It did work great. For two loads.

On the fourth load, my fellow came back sans spreader, with horses.

“Yes?” I said.

“Pole broke. It's a good thing the horses listen well.”

“What happened?”

“Well, the pole broke, and the spreader stopped, and the horses kept going, and I leapt off the seat still holding the driving lines, and said 'Ho! Ho!' And the horses stopped.”

“Wow,” I said. “That must have been quite a leap."

"It was a really big leap," said my farmer fellow, looking a little pained.

I patted my good clever fellow on the back, and then I patted the good clever horses on their backs.

Luckily, we didn't have to unload the compost by hand to make this repair, and we had a new pole ready to go. The horses got a nice long rest in their stalls, and we tackled the project right away. We drilled holes to fit the bolts for the neck yoke and the evener, and then drilled one more hole, to connect the pole to the spreader itself. It was all pretty staightforward. Except. We couldn't get the bolt through the last hole we'd just drilled.

We wiggled it. We jiggled it. We kicked it and we pounded it and we cursed it. Nope. We drilled a little more here and a little more there, to widen the hole. Nope. It seemed so stupidly easy, yet it would not go, and we were hungry, and it was getting dark, and there were no handy little kids making us supper. We gave up.

The next morning my fellow was out early trying again. This time he used a smaller drill bit, and it worked just fine. Huh. What do you know. It's amazing what a little food and a little rest and the morning light will do for a project. Our spreader is fixed, for a while at least.

And our marvelous year of maintenance is off to an excellent start. The farming forces sure are helping us achieve our goal for the year. Why, the whole universe seems to be helping us break things so we can fix them. Isn't that nice. 

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, June 6 - June 13, 2018

The Marvelous Year of Maintenance

For the past several years, on our very small New Hampshire vegetable farm, it seems that we've taken on very large projects. For too many seasons, we have simultaneously juggled cultivating and planting, and weeding and harvesting, with other big schemes: building new greenhouses, installing a new irrigation system, clearing new pasture, constructing a new fence/fortress around the garden to keep out the deer.

But this year, we have been loudly proclaiming, is not going to be about anything new. It's going to be all about the old. Fixing up the old, shoring up the old, patching up the old. It will the Marvelous Year of Maintenance.

Yes indeed, maintenance: on the scale of duct tape, say, and lengths of wire, with maybe some baling twine thrown in for good measure. That would take care of most of our repairs. Oh, ha ha ha.

Not too long ago, we came home after dark one windy evening, and the electricity was out. Rats, we thought. The tender seedlings in our greenhouse need the heat from the propane burner, and the propane burner needs electricity.

Well, maybe the electricity would come back on soon? No, it would not, according to the power company's phone message. It wouldn't be until the wee hours, too long for the plants. All right, we would bring in the most tender of the tender, tomatoes and basil and eggplant, and probably the hardier crops, kohlrabi and cabbage and onions, would be fine.

My fellow farmer and I started ferrying flats of plants into the house, and putting them on the kitchen floor. It wouldn't be too bad. We could take the flats back out bright and early in the morning.

But then the wind started picking up. And picking up. And picking up. And then our greenhouse plastic started picking up. And picking up. And picking up.

“We're losing the plastic!” my fellow farmer hollered, above the roar of the wind. “What are we going to do?”

“Oh no!” I hollered back. “I don't know!”

By now one side of the plastic was flapping loose, with big metal pipes attached. We dove in between gusts with concrete blocks to try to anchor the plastic. Nothing doing. We dove out again when the metal pipes came crashing by. My fellow farmer dove in once more, intending to sit on the plastic, to keep it down, while I got more heavy things. Nothing doing. Now my fellow farmer was picking up.

“Come away! Come away!” I called, in a panic, wanting to lose my fellow farmer even less than I wanted to lose my greenhouse. He did, in a hurry.

“I'm going to cut all the plastic off, or we'll lose the whole thing!” he yelled.

I nodded my vehement agreement, and he started in, amongst the crashing and banging. Tables turned over in the greenhouse, dumping flats of plants. I grabbed still full flats and raced them to the house.

Once the plastic was cut, there was no more danger of flying pipes, and now my fellow farmer and our farmer daughter and I hunched over every little flat, trying to get them one by one to the house before we lost them to the wild wind. We scooped up the dumped plants too, until finally we had 78 flats, all over the downstairs of our house, with tiny trails through each room.

Then my fellow went back out into the blast to feed the horses a very late hay supper. I peered worriedly out the window, wondering what was taking so long. He was by the greenhouse again. What now?

I went back out to see. The plastic had taken out the electric fance, and the horses were quivering in a corner. We hauled the plastic out of the paddock, fixed the fence, and hoped the horses' hay didn't all blow away before they could grab a mouthful.

At last we went to bed. It was midnight. My fellow farmer and I held hands, in bed. None of us had gotten hurt. We hadn't lost the whole greenhouse. We hadn't lost our entire spring crop.

In the next three days, we would replace the hipboards in the greenhouse, which were considerably rotted, and where the problem might have started.

“Well, we've been talking about replacing them for years,” we said.

We replaced the tie-downs, screwing them in firmly.

“That, too,” we said. “We should have done that a long time ago.”

Then we replaced the plastic, on Sunday morning, thanks to a fine crew of volunteers who began at seven a.m.

“Well, we had to put new plastic on pretty soon anyway, in the next year or two,” we said. “So that's something.”

Six hours later, the plants were back in place in the greenhouse. They were looking bedraggled, after the wind and three days with little light and no water, but they were alive. We had lost only ten plants out of the thousands of seedlings.

“We're pretty lucky,” we said.

Then we glanced around, warily.

Who knew what would be next in the Marvelous Year of Maintenance?

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, May 9 - May 15, 2018