Archive for the “The Farm Report” Category

The weather in our part of Tennessee has been, uh, interesting lately. We had a spell in February when the daytime highs reached 70 degrees. Then we had below-freezing days again, including one day with snow.

I assumed that was an unusual weather pattern. But shortly afterwards, I happened to be listening to a book titled Jack Hinson’s One-Man War, which tells the true story of a Tennessee farmer who was a Union loyalist during the Civil War … that is, until two of his young sons went hunting in the woods one day and were captured and executed by Union troops who assumed they were guerilla fighters – simply because they were carrying hunting rifles. After that, Mr. Hinson became a sniper who terrorized Union troops for the remainder of the war. He killed dozens of officers – including the lieutenant who ordered the execution of his sons.

Early in the book, the author mentions that “as often happens in February in Tennessee,” the days were as warm as June days in Iowa. The Yankees assumed spring had arrived and abandoned their heavy wool coats and blankets. A few days later, “as often happens in Tennessee,” winter returned and the Yankees were fighting battles in freezing rain and snow – without their wool coats.

Okay, so the “unusual weather pattern” has been around for at least 150 years.

Along with the wild variations in temperature, we had a tornado touch down in the area one day, and a couple of hellacious thunderstorms with high winds. Last Sunday, I was yanked out of a deep sleep by a BOOM! that seemed to rock the house. Boy, that one must’ve hit pretty close, I thought. Then I went back to sleep.

Turns out the BOOM! knocked down a big ol’ tree.

And as you can see, it landed rather close to the house.

Well, I can’t complain. Shift the angle a few degrees, and that tree would have bashed in the window of my office upstairs. Instead, it landed just outside Sara’s bedroom window. Naturally, the girls had to climb out the window and onto the tree.

So in addition to a film to finish, I now have a big-ass tree to cut up. It’s a pine tree, so we can’t use it for firewood. Chareva wants to save some of the long, heavy branches to serve as barriers around the chicken yards. Perhaps the local predators will be discouraged from digging under the fence. I’ve had to shoot two chicken-killing predators in the past few weeks, so I’m all in favor of discouraging them.

I also have to cut up the tree that fell in our side field awhile back. That one will become firewood.

Meanwhile, Alana took delivery of a new batch of chicks this week.

Some of them are Bantams, which means they’ll grow to perhaps a pound-and-a-half and look something like this:

I asked Alana what purpose a flock of itty-bitty chickens is supposed to serve. It’s not as if we’ll make big breakfasts from their eggs. She ended the discussion with “I wanted Bantams because they’re cute.”

Cute, sure, but I don’t envision them putting up much of a fight against predators. I’d best start cutting up that pine tree to provide Chareva with reinforcements for the chicken yards.

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When we finished Chareva’s big spring project a couple of years ago, we had two chicken yards and two areas for gardens, all within a big square surrounded by fences. In addition to being talented egg-makers, chickens do a bang-up job of fertilizing the ground. So part of the plan was to eventually rotate the chicken yards and the gardens.

Most of our weekend and evening time lately has been dedicated to the book and the companion film, which is why I’ve only been posting once per week or so. But on Super Bowl Sunday, Chareva asked if I’d mind spending some time before the big game working outdoors, preparing the chicken yards for the big rotation.

“If we’re going to rotate the chickens and the gardens later this year, we really need to break up the ground in those chicken yards so I can plant my vegetables. I know we have a tiller, but it’s just too much of a bucking bronco for a little ol’ gal like me to handle. I need a big, handsome, masculine male to rescue me from this awful situation and tame that beast of a machine. Would you be willing to step into that heroic role for me, my dear, wonderful, impressively strong husband? I’d be ever so grateful.”

That’s not exactly what she said, but it’s what I heard.

So even though the Guinness Extra Stout was already cold and the pre-game shows were already mildly interesting, I replied, “Well now, don’t you worry your pretty head, little lady. I’ll slide on my boots and tame that beast for you.”

That’s not exactly what I said, but it’s what I heard.

The tiller is heavy and doesn’t roll especially well, so I’d already gotten a leg workout by the time I finished dragging it up the steep hill to the chicken yards. The nets I put up over the chicken yards have sagged (raising them will be another weekend project), which means I often had to duck as I took the bucking, jumping tiller for a first pass around one of the chicken yards. As usual when tilling ground in our part of Tennessee, I turned over more rocks than soil.

I was stuffed up from my first real head cold in a couple of years, so I took a break after the first pass to catch my breath. I told Chareva that with the hard ground broken up, I’d take the tiller around a second time. Then I’d do the same for the other chicken yard. Then I’d call it a day and get back to Super Bowl festivities.

“Actually, I only used that story about needing a big, strong man to do the tilling to lure you out here in your work clothes. We’ve had hay piling up in the chicken coops for two years, and now it’s thoroughly mixed with with chicken $@#% and urine. That’s perfect fertilizer for the gardens. So even though you have a runny nose and sound a bit like a deep-voiced Elmer Fudd with your cold and all, I want you to stop the relatively pleasant job of tilling the ground and spend a couple of hours in the chicken coops — stooping of course, since you can’t possibly stand up in there — and use a pitch fork to dig up all that $@#%-soaked hay and toss it outside so I can start spreading it on the ground.”

That’s not exactly what she said, but it’s what I heard.

“Are you @#$%ing kidding me?”

That’s exactly what I said.

She explained that it had just occurred to her that yes, we should till the chicken yards, but we should get the large loads of chicken-generated fertilizer out of the coops first.  That way we could till it into the soil.  I tried to think of a reason her explanation didn’t make perfect sense, but couldn’t.  After all, our old chicken yard in the front pasture became a jungle once we moved the chickens out back. That’s how fertile the ground is now, thanks to all the chicken droppings.

So I grabbed a pitch fork and squeezed myself into the first chicken coop, then began excavating layers and layers of old hay. I banged my head and elbows a few times in the tight quarters, which gave me the opportunity to hear what a deep-voiced Elmer Fudd sounds like when saying words the Warner Brothers censors would have never allowed in a cartoon.

The chickens were delighted by the whole process and jumped on each new pile of hay I tossed out the doors, looking for (and apparently finding) yummy grubs and bugs to eat. They also began spreading the hay around for us by kicking and scratching at it.

Meanwhile, Chareva took some of the hay and spread it over what will be her spring gardens. The current chicken yards will become summer gardens, and we’ll build new coops and hang new nets before moving the chickens up the hill.

I finally finished pitch-forking and shoveling the old hay out of the coops sometime in the mid-afternoon. By the time I sat down in front of the TV with my first cold Guinness, I was pretty sure I’d earned it.

Sometimes farm work is chicken-$@#% work. But that goes with the territory. I’m pretty sure the fresh vegetables will be worth it.

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Good to be back in the Fat Head chair after some time away.  I spent a chunk of that time working with Chareva on the book and the film.  Reading The Older Brother’s guest-host post reminded me of why we’re banging away on a project directed at kids.  Perhaps we can convince a few of them to stop eating those carbage-laden “heart-healthy” school meals before they become fat, diabetic adults.

But there’s more to life than work, so I took an actual vacation as well.  Jimmy and Christine Moore arrived the Sunday before Thanksgiving to spend the week in Franklin.  That’s two years in a row, and I hope it’s now firmly established as an annual tradition.

They came bearing gifts – a lot of gifts:  a printer, a Ninja coffee maker (which the girls love because it froths milk), various flavors of Quest bars, various flavors of Mark Sisson’s Primal Kitchen bars, Primal Kitchen oils, mayonnaise and salad dressings, walkie-talkies for the girls, a water purifier, and some Bulletproof coffee.  Jimmy insisted the booty was supplied for free by his sponsors, but I happen to know he bought some of the stuff himself.  He’s been showing gratitude for the success of the Keto Clarity books by buying gifts for both friends and occasional strangers.  That’s the kind of guy he is.

I looked at the load of gifts and said all I could offer in return was a disc-golf course with no waiting and no green fees.  He replied that it was a fair trade, and we began the tournament with three rounds on Sunday, four on Monday and five on Tuesday.

After those first three days, we had an Election 2016 situation:  Jimmy won some games by a huge margin (nine strokes in one case), but I won several games by a stroke or two.  So he had the better overall score, but I was ahead in the victory column.  Or as I like to put it, he won the popular vote, but I won the electoral college.  Jimmy considered staging a protest in downtown Franklin and possibly smashing some store windows to express his outrage at the result, but then remembered he’s an adult.  He settled for threatening to demand a recount of all the strokes on the 17th hole.

You may have noticed the Cubs World Series Champions sweatshirt and hat I’m wearing.  Those showed up as anonymous gifts on our doorstep awhile back, and I posted a note on Facebook thanking whoever sent them.  Turns out it was Jimmy.  I’m pretty sure his sponsors didn’t supply those.

There’s not much to do on the farm these days.  Between the two flocks of chickens, we’re getting a few eggs per week.  That’s because Chareva elected to let the chickens rest for awhile instead of encouraging egg-laying by heating the coops.  Once we get winter temperatures, she’ll turn on the heat.

The ladies did, however, harvest some sweet potatoes from Chareva’s garden while Jimmy and I were busy in the front pastures, trash-talking and trying to beat each other in disc golf.

Hoping to get into Jimmy’s head before the next round, I pointed to the sweet-potato harvest and said something like Boy, those farm-fresh sweet potatoes are going to be delicious.  Too bad you can’t eat them, huh, Mister Keto Clarity?  Huh?

Turns out Mister Keto Clarity eats sweet potatoes during holiday weeks.  Well, good.  They were delicious, by the way.  Everything we grow tastes better than the grocery-store version.

The weather for the week behaved so nicely, you’d think I bribed someone in Climate Control.  We had 60-ish temperatures all the days we played disc golf.  We’d planned to take Wednesday off to rest our arms, and that happened to be the only day it rained.

The rainy-day storm left us with an unexpected present:

Here’s how living on a little farm changes your attitude about things:  Any other place I’ve lived, I would have viewed that fallen tree as a major pain in the arse, something I’d have to pay to have hauled away.  When I noticed it on Wednesday afternoon, my first thought was Wow! Look at all the free firewood!  Sure, I’ll have to get out the chainsaws and cut it up, but I’ve grown to enjoy that kind of work.  The wood stove awaits the proceeds.

It did occur to me later that I had no idea the tree was dying and could topple.  Given the size, it’s what folks who know about such things call a Widow-Maker.  Any one of us could have been in that side field when the tree landed.  So I’m thinking it’s time to have a tree expert pay us a visit and identify the other Widow-Makers on the property.  I know from painful experience I can survive a whack on the noggin from a t-post hammer, but a tree punches in a much higher weight class.

Thanksgiving was a real treat this year.  Jimmy and I played six rounds of disc golf while the ladies prepared a feast of turkey, ham, green-bean casserole, sweet potatoes, mashed cauliflower, dressing (made with gluten-free bread), cranberries, and three pies.  (Before any of you other ladies get all righteously indignant about the division of labor, I should mention that we didn’t expect Chareva and Christine clean up the kitchen afterwards.  I had my daughters do it.)  Chareva’s mother gave me a bottle of single-malt scotch to say thanks for the help getting them settled into their new house, and I enjoyed some of that while watching football on Thursday night.

Jimmy and I played our final rounds of the 2016 Thanksgiving tournament on Friday.  I finally put that popular-vote/electoral college controversy to rest by shooting some good rounds and dropping my average score.  Our final average scores for the week were so close, I’d call the difference statistically insignificant … although I’m sure a Harvard nutrition researcher could perform a few math tricks and tease out an association or two.

Thanksgiving is supposed to be about gratitude, and I have many reasons to feel grateful.  I’m thankful to have friends like Jimmy and Christine.  I’m thankful Chareva’s parents found a lovely home just four miles down the road from ours.  I’m thankful that at age 58, I can play 22 rounds of disc golf (which means walking about 26 miles up and down our hilly land) in a six-day span without feeling tired.  I’m thankful to see the book coming together with Chareva’s excellent cartoons and graphics.  I’m thankful The Older Brother fills in when I need a break from the blog.

And as always, I’m thankful to have intelligent and engaged blog readers who keep the conversation going.  Happy Holidays, everyone.

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I’ll be brief. Saturday was a perfect day for working outside: 65 degrees and partly sunny.  So Chareva and I made more progress on finishing Sara’s cabin. The side walls cover the corner gaps for the front and back walls, so I was extra careful cutting the planks.  I intentionally made each cut a little too long, then shaved the plank once or twice to get a tight fit in the corners.  That mostly worked.  In the few places where it didn’t work, we’ll make good use of some wood filler.

Afterwards, we locked down a couple more chapters of the book, which is coming along nicely.

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Sunday was Chareva’s birthday.  When I asked several days ago what she wanted for her birthday, she thought for a minute, then replied, “You know what I’d really like?  I’d like us to start finishing the inside of Sara’s cabin this weekend.”

I immediately recognized how considerate she was being.  Instead of shopping for an hour and spending, say, 100 bucks for a present, I could now spend several times that amount on building materials, then put in two long days of manual labor to start, with several more to follow.  You’ve got to love a wife who doesn’t take advantage of her husband’s generosity.  So I enthusiastically agreed to the plan.

She then informed me that building materials are supposed to “acclimate to the environment” for a few days before being installed.  When I asked for a translation, she said it means we should buy the building materials no later than Wednesday and put them in the cabin.

Well, okay then.  It’s Sara’s cabin, so it was up to her to decide what we’d use to finish the inside.  Some kind of paneling?  Vertical planks?  Horizontal planks?

Chareva was rooting for horizontal planks because she likes how they look.  I was rooting for horizontal planks because I have no flippin’ idea how to cut and fit paneling around windows and doors.  After much hemming and hawing and walking around Lowe’s looking at different options, Sara decided she liked horizontal planks.  Whew.  I did some quick math and estimated that 100 pine planks would do the trick, with enough to spare for the inevitable mistakes.  We also picked up several rolls of insulation, an extra hammer and a shootload of panel nails.

The primary task was to cover the inside of the cabin with the planks.  Here’s what the inside looked like before we started.

But before tackling that job, we needed to build a set of stairs. In its previous location, the front of the cabin was near the ground.  Now it’s on a hill, and without stairs, that would be quite a step up.

We began the interior decorating with the back wall.  The planks aren’t as long as the wall, so we had to choose where to join them.  Sara was quite opinionated about where the joins should go.  She wanted them staggered.  Here she is explaining the correct pattern.

We’re not exactly what you’d call experienced carpenters, so I wondered how many panel nails we’d bend and have to yank out, then try again.  I’m happy the say the answer is: only a few.  Sara hammered away all day and did a fine job.  So did Chareva.  I did some hammering as well, but my primary job was to cut the planks with a miter saw.

The insulation is 18 inches wide.  That’s because in houses, the 2x4s are 18 inches apart.  In the cabin, the distance between 2x4s varied from 16 inches to 24 inches.  So we ended up turning the insulation sideways and cutting it to fit, then stuffing it behind the planks.

By the end of our workday on Saturday, we had the back wall done.  Here’s Sara pounding in the last nail.

Even though Chareva was happy to make the construction project her birthday present, I suggested we head out Saturday night for a nice dinner.  October happens to be Wild Game Month at Rodizio Grill in downtown Nashville, one of those awesome Brazilian steakhouses where they keep bringing meat to your table until you tell them to stop.  In addition to the usual variety of meats, we got to sample wild boar and rattlesnake sausage.  That’s the sausage below.

Here’s the birthday girl with her husband outside the restaurant.

On Sunday, we decided we’d best tackle the front walls of the cabin, which include the front door and the windows and therefore require a bit of precision.

I observed the measure-twice, cut-once rule to avoid wasting wood.  I also did more hammering on Sunday, and managed to only smack my thumb once.  Not bad for a amateur.

By the end of the day, the front walls were done and looking pretty good.

We still have the side walls to cover.  I don’t expect those to be much trouble.  The interesting part will be figuring out what to with the upper part of the cabin.  Here’s why:

I have no idea how we’ll cover those angles.  But I’m sure we’ll figure it out.  And I’m sure when we’re done, we’ll be enjoying a state of Dog-Tired Satisfied.

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My jungle-battling efforts on the farm require a division of labor, at least as far as the equipment employed. I use The Beast to take down wannabe-jungle areas like this:

The Beast is awesome for tearing through nasty stuff, but the lowest setting is about four inches above the ground. So for ex-jungles that have been thoroughly reformed and seeded with grass, I’d been using a Toro mower.

Trouble is, the Toro was apparently designed for tame suburban lawns. After about a year in service here on the farm, it broke apart on me. Based on looks alone, I thought the base of the engine was made from some kind of metal. Nope. I’m pretty sure it’s just hard plastic disguised as metal. Here’s the evidence:

Other parts around the engine also shook themselves loose recently:

I didn’t smack the Toro into big rocks or fallen branches. The snap-crackle-pops were caused by nothing more than running it over our bumpy back pastures and hills. So I decided it’s a case of you get what you pay for and went looking for a beefier mower engineered for rough terrain.

After reading reviews, I settled on a Cub Cadet model and ordered it online. Based on the pictures (I didn’t look for the dimensions), I figured it would be about the size of a souped-up mower with a more powerful engine and bigger back wheels. I knew I’d figured wrong when I picked it up at our local Tractor Supply. The thing just barely fit in the back of the van with the seats down. It was also way too heavy for the clerk and me to lift. He went back into the store for a ramp, and the two of us pushed the thing into the van.

I was almost home when a thought occurred to me: I’m a moron. I don’t have a ramp at home. How the @#$% do I plan to get this out of the van? I should have bought a ramp while I was still at Tractor Supply.

I finished driving home and shared my theory about being a moron with Chareva. She disagreed with the moron part, but did wonder how we’ve managed five years of small-time farming without a ramp in in our repertoire. So it was back to Tractor Supply to get one.

As you can see, the new mower is juuuuust a smidge bigger than the old one.

It’s actually about the size and weight of The Beast – which makes sense, since it cost nearly as much as The Beast.

As a red-blooded male with a new engine-powered toy, I of course had to take it for at least one spin around the back pasture right away. I turned the key …. Ohhh, yeeeahhh! Listen to that engine. We’re talking about some serious power.

Unlike the Toro, which I had to push up our steep hills despite the self-propelled mode, I simply followed this thing uphill. Those big back wheels kept right on gripping the ground.

Since I was only going once around the property for the maiden voyage, I didn’t bother wearing long sleeves or spraying myself with Deep Woods Off. I paid for that sin with several chigger bites on my hands and arms. Lesson learned.

I was impressed, but unsure what to call this new machine. Beast II? Son of Beast? Since it’s made by Cub Cadet, I eventually settled on The Bear.

Yesterday was the first weekend day where I had both the time and the weather to put The Bear into action. Compared to a wimpy ol’ suburban mower, there are pros and cons. The pros are the power, the big wheels, and the wide cutting base – 33 inches, as opposed to 21 inches with the Toro. The wide cutting area comes courtesy of two blades instead of one. That means fewer hikes around the property to get the job done.

The cons are the weight, the weight, and the weight. If I cut sideways across a hill, the thing wants to drift downhill and I have to manhandle it into holding a straight line. If I cut straight up and down a hill, the uphill part is a piece of cake. But going downhill, I have to lean back and resist with my legs to keep it from accelerating downhill. It’s also not easy to pull it out of a corner. There’s a reverse gear, but I like being able to back up by just pulling backwards.

Those cons aside, it’s exactly the kind of mower we need on this property. It rips up sticks and small branches easily and, unlike the Toro, it tears through deep grass without becoming clogged. Even though we had heavy rains on Saturday and the deep grass was still damp on Sunday, I never once had to stop and yank clumps of grass away from the blades in order to continue.

I did, however, manage to drive The Bear over a big rock hiding in some tall grass. Something went WHAM!, then I heard the blades bang against each other and stop, then I smelled burning rubber as the belts continued trying to turn blades that could no longer turn.

Since the rear wheels can turn with the blades disengaged, I steered The Bear back to the house. As I suspected, the rock had jammed one set of blades, while the other set of blades continued turning until they collided. The manual told me the blades should be at 90-degree angles to each other. It also told me if something causes the blades to collide with each other, the cure is to take the machine to a Cub Cadet dealer for service.

Well, to heck with that. I’m a born-again Tool Guy, after all.

I was pleased to discover that The Bear, like The Beast, has a top cover that lifts off to expose the drive belts and such. I was equally pleased to discover that Alex, Chareva’s younger brother, was outside and curious to give it a look. Like his dad (builder of the train line), Alex is quite adept with tools and all things mechanical.

After poking around for a minute, he pointed out the spring that keeps the timing belt tight. I loosened a nut that locks the spring in place, then Alex shoved the spring aside so he could rotate one set of blades independently of the other. Bingo, they were back at 90-degree angles to each other. Yeah, I would have figured that out. Eventually. I think.

Alex also noticed something called a “stop nut” wasn’t extended far enough to do any proper stopping and took care of that for me. Then he oiled some stuff that needed oiling to prevent rust.

Bing-bam-boom, cover back on, and it was back to the mowing while listening to an audiobook. The Cub Cadet mechanics will have to wait for something more serious to happen before getting my business … at least as long as Alex is here.

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