Broken Down and Busted Up: The Marvelous Year of Maintenance Blues 

It seemed like such a good idea: after years of numerous big new projects, we farmers decided to proclaim this the Marvelous Year of Maintenance. Perhaps we were proclaiming it a little too loudly, because far too many things on the farm have broken down or busted up this year.

Here is a partial list:
greenhouse plastic blows off in windstorm
greenhouse heat mat thermostat goes awry, killing many seedlings
broken bed chain on spreader
busted pole on spreader
busted pole on sickle bar mower
busted pole on hay wagon
busted pole on forecart (Granted, we did run over the forecart pole with our car, which is why it busted, but never mind that.)
broken hay wagon hitch
broken driving lines

Then there was the horse fencing. The horses love being out on grass, so we never expect any pasture break-outs early on in the season. However, they also hate the bugs, and on their very buggy second evening in the field, we heard some brisk trotting down the dirt road.

Luckily, we were working in the greenhouse along that very road. My fellow shot out of the greenhouse, catapulted himself onto the eight foot high garden fence, and shouted and waved as vigorously as possible without actually falling off the fence. The horses were so startled by this shouting, thrashing farmer on the fence that they halted and milled in the road. We were able to round them up in short order, and it was so close to dark that we led them back to their winter paddock for the night.

In the morning light we searched for the break in the fence. But there was no break in the fence. This was because there was no fence. We had cleared some brush the year before, and we had forgotten that there was no longer any fence along a short stretch of the road. Sigh.

We tried several semi-fixes over the next week, such as tying an unelectrified electric line across the gap, ending in a tree. We flagged the line with highly dangerous white cloth scraps, which did not scare the horses at all, and they got out again. Finally my farmer fellow gave in and decided to put in proper new wooden posts, including a sturdy new gate post, as the old one had given up.

“How's it going?” I asked, when we came in for lunch from our respective fencing and weeding projects.

“You're going to laugh at my gate post,” he said.

My fellow was right. I did laugh. For some reason he had chosen the spindliest, crookedest post in creation for the gate post, which needs to hold some weight, and which also sets the tone for a sturdy, convincing fence.

“Why did you pick this post exactly?” I asked.

My fellow scratched his head. “I don't know exactly. I thought it might be easy to get in, it was so little. But it was really hard to get in.” He went on, “But, hey, maybe it'll be easy to get out!”

It was easy to get out, as the rocky ground hadn't allowed for much of a hole. My fellow replaced the post with a slightly sturdier one, requiring a bigger hole, and taking far more time than he had allotted in the garden's busy season. Then he put in a second post, another lengthy, rocky task. Then he tried putting in a third post. Then he gave up.

“It's solid rock,” he announced, “all the rest of the way down the line.” In a desperate attempt to finish the fencing before an entire season of gardening had passed by, he squeaked some electric fence posts into the solid rock, and strung up an impressive two lines of the same unelectrified wire along the gap.

Now it was the horses' turn to laugh, at this next suggestion of a fence. They went gaily through it. All right, said my fellow, and put up a single line of barbed wire, chest high, so as not to endanger the horses' legs, but to make a stronger, pokier suggestion of a fence. Happily, this worked.

Much later on, the horses got out again, this time in a different field. Again, we were surprised, as they had just been switched to a lush new pasture. Again, we found a stretch of no fence, which we had forgotten to repair after pulling out firewood.

This does not reflect well, I know, on either our fence-fixing or our farmer memories. But what I'm really getting at here is that all these maintenance tasks in The Marvelous Year of Maintenance were entirely unscheduled. We have an enormous list of planned maintenance chores, and we have not yet accomplished one.

Still, the Marvelous Year of Maintenance is not quite over; we have a chance even yet to get some good stuff done. But the best part, I must say, is that in all this broken down and busted up year, we are very grateful that neither the horses nor the farmers have broken down or busted up. We're not doing so badly after all.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Oct 24-Oct 31, 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