Remembering Ummy

September 13, 2019

This weekend family and friends will gather to celebrate the lives of my grandparents, Bill (Poppy) and Emily (Ummy) Herman, following Ummy’s peaceful death on July 4th of this year, just past her 100th birthday.  (I wrote about my memories of Poppy on this blog in 2016.)  Ummy’s life overlapped with Z for just over 2 months.

Because she lived without her memory for the last several years, it seemed she slipped away long ago, though until close to the end she could sometimes manage a few words hinting at her long, full life.  Ummy grew up in Boston; her father was a chemical company executive and an obsessive old-school sportsman. He hunted and fished throughout the world, but with a special love for Maine, where he built a rustic cabin on an island in Cundy’s Harbor.  There he introduced Ummy and her four younger siblings to a range of outdoor pursuits, and it’s with her family that I most closely associate my love of the water and sailing, perhaps inspired by early bedtime readings of the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons series.

My first memories of my grandparents date to holiday visits to the large red farmhouse where they lived in Lincoln, MA. It seemed ancient and stately, with creaky stairwells, a booming grandfather clock, and a secret room that my cousins and I searched for in vain.  They made occasional appearances on the land in Maine where I grew up, vacationing in small cabins they had built, and became a central part of our lives when they retired to the land in 1983.

I grew up thinking of my grandmother as the picture of refinement and class, in stark contrast to our rough-sawn, whole-grain existence half a mile away.  Ummy studied at Smith College, still knew some Latin, and set her table with monogrammed silverware and napkin rings. She even kept a spiral notebook to record details of her entertaining, to ensure she never served guests the same meal twice.  On the other hand, her own family kept to a set schedule, with the same breakfast consistently on each of seven days of the week (boiled eggs Monday, poached eggs Tuesday, pancakes Wednesday, scrambled eggs Thursday, cereal Friday, fried eggs Saturday, French toast Sunday).  She put on extravagant feasts at the holidays, including Yorkshire pudding at Christmas, and always kept a full cookie jar (to the delight of me and my cousins).

While my grandfather dabbled at oil painting, Ummy was a serious amateur photographer; she always had a giant Nikon, and she volunteered at the Maine Maritime Museum Apprenticeshop, documenting the wooden boats that were built there.  She had a darkroom upstairs in their house to develop her photos when they moved to Maine, and when I was young she gave me a small camera and showed me how to develop film and make prints.  I later graduated to a cast-off Pentax, and while I never got too serious about it, that darkroom experience was a special way to spend time with my grandmother, and my first of many ‘exposures’ to a detailed technical practice.

And while my grandfather was not known to raise his voice, Ummy was more volatile. She was opinionated (particularly about beards and long hair on men) and fiercely competitive – both vicariously, as a lifelong frustrated fan of the Red Sox, who until 2004 had last won the World Series in 1918 (the year before she was born), and in the flesh.  Her family had a tradition of whittling small wooden boats with leaf sails (‘chipboats’, originally from the chips left over from building the cabin in Cundy’s Harbor), and racing them in coves and tidepools, and her prize possession was a particularly speedy hull, ‘the Umiak’, that won several years in a running rivalry with her flamboyant younger brother Jack and his ‘Born Winner’.  The chipboat race evolved into a Labor Day lobster picnic tradition that attracted aunts and uncles and cousins from afar, with the race run in multiple heats for the prize of a coffee mug full of peanut M&Ms.  Raised in an organic household far from other families, both the fame and the candy appealed to me, and during the summers of my childhood I took the design and construction of chipboats to ever more complex technical heights.  In what proved to be a sign of things to come, I experimented with radical rudder designs, evolved my hulls to paper-thin wooden shells slicked with beeswax, and developed an elaborate system of birch bark sails, leading to a string of wins.

In addition to her photography, Ummy kept a beautiful flower garden, which she tended while listening to the Red Sox on a small transistor radio. She also knit steadily (including everyone’s Christmas stockings, mittens, and sweaters for babies), and volunteered for the Georgetown Working League, which sewed and raffled off a beautiful quilt every year to fund scholarships for island students.  In the fall my sister and I would help my grandparents gather apples from the trees in the yard, and grind and press them using her father’s antique cast iron press, setting the stage for future adventures in cider.

On into her eighties Ummy got gradually more forgetful, losing names, repeating questions, and slowing down, and despite their traditional roles Poppy took up household activities to a heartening degree.  Things got tougher when he had a minor stroke, and my parents started helping out increasingly, until eventually they both moved to the same nursing home in Bath.  Ummy’s 100 years started in an age when horse-drawn wagons still delivered milk and ice, and she lived to use email.  She brought refinement, art, and zest to a childhood where my companions were mostly goats and chickens, and I’m grateful for that.

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The Times and chickens – again

June 23, 2019

The NY Times is at it again, serving up photos of improbably well-dressed folks snuggling chickens, but this time with a twist – the story is from the western coast of France, and the issue is vacationers complaining about the early-morning exclamations of a local rooster.

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I have ranted again and again about this trope, which seems calculated to charm the urban reader while annoying the snot out of me.  To review:

https://fiveislandsorchard.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/a-chicken-is-not-an-accessory/

https://fiveislandsorchard.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/yup-nyt-pimping-chickens/

https://fiveislandsorchard.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/the-dirty-life/

https://fiveislandsorchard.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/more-photogenic-chickens-at-nyt/

https://fiveislandsorchard.wordpress.com/2015/12/13/me-with-a-chicken/

 

 

Captive on a carousel of time

June 2, 2019

Circle Game 2019: ERH is 100, ZCC is 0

Ummy Dave Zephyr

Cider Weekend 2018

January 1, 2019

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A damp but willing crew including old friends from afar put in a fantastic effort back in October to make the 14th annual Cider Weekend a success.  We produced about 197 gallons of cider with just over 70% yield, and enjoyed great food and great company in the big barn on Saturday, despite a soaking rain.

With other facets of life imposing, preparation for cider was largely on autopilot this year.  Holly arranged the delivery of two bins (about 1200lb) of mixed eating apples from Autumn Hills Orchard, packed in heavy-duty cardboard boxes that previously held ultra-pure silicon from his work.  With the help of the amazingly intrepid Jim Serdy he also picked and shipped a few boxes of Golden Russet for the cider mix.  And I am ever grateful to Steve Wood and the crew at Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Cider, who despite a crummy growing season came through with a bin of Dabinet bittersweet apples for the cider mix.  We combined this with at least a bin of fruit my parents picked from the Five Islands orchard; however this was a shadow of the previous banner-year production.

On the mechanical side, the one area of advancement this year was a pedal-powered chain drive apple conveyor, quickly assembled out of scrap wood and driven by the same bicycle that runs the tumble washer, that served to lift apples out of a receiving tank and deliver them into the washer drum.  The idea was to avoid the laborious handling of individual apples into the washer, previously one of the more annoying tasks. With the new conveyor, clean apples can be dumped directly into the receiving tank without further attention, and the kids found the conveyor absolutely riveting.

I’ve had the chain and sprockets for the project for years, and had been mulling over the design with the help of creative folks including Gene Kaufman.  I finally put it together in a couple of evenings this fall.  It consisted of a loop of 50-pitch chain with 12″ wide oak paddles mounted via special connecting links, running on a wooden frame with sliding facilitated by PEX water pipe.

The weekend kicked off with roll-your-own burritos in the big barn on Friday night; between the October wind, the larger crew, and the build party activities, dinner has migrated to the big barn for the last couple of years.  Some of the kids are old enough to be a real help:

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After dinner, the intrepid team of Rachel Taylor and Steven Tobias executed the final assembly and drive details on Friday night, and the conveyor came together nicely:

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Meanwhile, Eerik and Holly were engaged in an intense effort to hook Eerik’s Erg (“Concept II” professional rowing machine) to the grinder.  The rowing machine project had its origins in the observation last year that when the whole system was running smoothly, the grinder appeared to be the rate-limiting step.  Eerik retains his love of rowing from his collegiate days, and dreamed of boosting the performance of the grinder with a rowing machine in parallel with the two bicycles.  There were several complexities, including the large size and relatively low stature of the rowing machine, the fundamentally pulsating nature of its power flow, the fact that its chain-driven flywheel spins the opposite direction of a bicycle, and the mechanical details of its flywheel, which is surprisingly softly mounted and not designed to deliver power beyond the squirrel-cage fan riveted to it.

Undaunted, it occurred to us that the hydraulic hoses on the pedal-powered cider press do an admirable job of physically decoupling the pedal powerstand (which also grinds grain) from the press, and inspired by the success of the press in general, I secured the necessary components from Surplus Center, and we contrived to couple a log-splitter pump to the flywheel, and deliver the power directly to the grinder using a small hydraulic motor.

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Holly and Eerik executed both sides of the erg-to-apple-grinder powertrain, and with great fanfare we charged the hydraulic loop and Eerik took an inaugural pull on the chain. Unfortunately, while we were able to spin the grinder with the Erg, the losses in the hydraulic system (seemingly primarily in the motor rather than the pump) were such that it was not able to contribute significantly, and we did not end up using it on Saturday.  It appears that human-powered hydraulics are much better suited to high-force applications than high power applications, and in retrospect this is not too surprising.  And realizing how simple the mechanical drive of the Erg is, we resolved next year to figure out how to mechanically couple it to the press and realize Eerik’s long-cherished dream of grinding apples by rowing power.

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Keith Richtman contributed his considerable knowledge of bike hacking all around, including the surprisingly effective technique of using a piece of PEX tube to guide and deliver the slack side of a chain drive directly to the sprocket, avoiding the need for a more precise and sensitive contrivance.

All that being accomplished or not, we reconvened Saturday morning to enjoy Kelsey’s delicious breakfast burritos, and set to work grinding and pressing apples.   As usual we got rolling between 9 and 10AM, and work proceeded with minimal mechanical issues.  A steady rain that started mid-morning limited the typical influx of day-trippers to the most hardy and dedicated souls, but the large population of overnighters carried the day – at most we had probably 50-60 people, who fit pretty comfortably in the barn, whereas recently on a sunny Cider Saturday we probably have close to 100 – the event seems to be nicely self-regulating in that way, so long as there isn’t too much fruit to process.  Still, the cold and rain this year suggests that we work to move the event closer to the middle of October than the end.

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This year, all of the apples could be rolled around, either with a pallet jack or on the increasing assortment of wheeled dollys that Dave has built – this made handling much simpler, and we made ample use of forks on the tractor for moving apples and equipment before and after the main event.  Once we got rolling, the kids loved pushing the apples into the elevator/conveyor with paddles that Dave improvised for the purpose:

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The pressing process was streamlined by the addition of specialized press cloth squares purchased by Holly from a cider supply company, which both flowed more freely and seemed much more tear-resistant than the muslin we’d used over the previous thirteen years.  Instead of depositing pomace directly into the loader bucket of a tractor outside the window, we used a large reclaimed plastic bin outside the window, which limited the tractor trips to the compost pile that were needed in the rain.

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The manual diaphragm bilge pump that conveys the cider from the press into the 100-gallon conical bulk tank was also a big hit with the kids as always (though a brief scare at setup made it clear that getting a spare from Hamilton Marine would be valuable insurance), and the tank filled quickly.  As we broke for lunch, headlined by the traditional Nebraska Cream Can Dinner, more than half of the apples were ground, and we quickly spun up the sweet cider bottling operation to empty the bulk tank.  Thanks to Dave and Emily’s foresight and the help of intrepid recycler Jim Coombs, a large array of clean plastic jugs with matching lids were at the ready, and there was only a brief delay before switching over to the hard cider apples in the afternoon.  About mid-day, the sun being over the yardarm, we got the bottling of 2017 cider underway, substantially streamlined by Eerik’s innovation last year in counterweighting the filler heads:

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Things were wrapping up by 4PM, and the crew hosed down the equipment and hoisted it into the loft, while Holly and Becky prepared the usual delicious chili/cornbread/apple crisp dinner.  As usual, the grain was ground using the big aluminum grain mill on the hydraulic pedal stand:

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Lots of folks including three generations of the Jones/Joukovski family pitched in to help:

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After dinner, folks with young kids retired to the cabins early, while others sat up talking by the fire in the red barn.

Sunday morning dawned dry, and with blueberry pancakes and armloads of cider we bid the cider crew farewell by about mid-day.  The rest of the day was spent in unhurried cleanup that somehow always seems to take until sundown, when I loaded the truck and trailer for the return trip to Gorham, said goodbye to the orchard, and headed south.  It was a great year with lots of old friends and an increasing flock of kids, and no shortage of potential for further innovations:

  • The major remaining annoyance of the process is the manual cutting out of bad spots; this mostly applies to the wild and home-grown apples which are not sprayed as assiduously as the professionally-grown apples.  Last year I did pretty well on the organic spray routine with Surround, BT, etc., but with a lighter fruit set and frequent rain I didn’t stay on top of the pests as much as I could have.  We’ll see how I do next year, given everything else that will be going on.
  • Agricultural nozzles from Tractor Supply replaced the finicky improvised garden hose sprayer in the apple washer; Joshua and Gene recommended a more thoughtful arrangement of these nozzles to better rinse the apples after the emerge from the tumbler.
  • The large cast iron frying pan remains a key piece of equipment, but it could use some kind of diffuser to spread the heat more evenly – a valuable junk-scrounging/minor welding project.

The biggest difference next year will by that my folks have built a new maple syrup/cider barn between the house and the current barn, so they can kick the pesky cider operation out and finally bring in the livestock that was its original purpose.  The new barn is not quite as large overall, but it will have a larger open space, and also a large wood-burning firebox that could even be used for boiled cider.  There are other exciting changes in the works as well – always so much to look forward to!

Thanks to Holly and Eerik for photos, and to everyone, near and far, who continue to make this tradition so much fun. Happy New Year, and much love to all!

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Assessing The Good Life

July 13, 2018

As my folks were doing a big cleanup of the house I grew up in, an old copy of Living The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing turned up.  I had heard this book mentioned as a venerated bible of the 1970s, but had never actually read it, so I was interested to finally get to the source.  In poking around on the internet after reading it, I came across a related memoir called Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life by Jean Hay Bright, who was invited (together with her husband at the time) by the Nearings to homestead as their neighbors on the Maine coast.  This led me to another memoir, This Life is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman, daughter of Susan and Eliot Coleman, who were likewise invited by the Nearings to farm on their land. Eliot subsequently became a guru to the organic growing community in his own right.

Like Melissa, I grew up on an off-grid homestead in a then-remote corner of the coast of Maine, and soon after I entered into the island’s K-6 elementary school I understood that the way our family lived was unusual.  But I knew that we were not alone in our unconventional habits; many of my parents’ friends also lived in funky home-built shelters, kept livestock, and grew vegetables, and some likewise lived without electricity.  And as I read these books I was struck by the similarity, down to remarkably uncanny details, of their memories to the way I grew up, and I came to more fully understand that in my childhood I was unwittingly part of a significant cultural moment and movement.  As a student of the energy and resource issues that motivated many people in the black-to-the-land generation, I’m interested in questions about the significance of the practices and habits of that era, what can be learned, and what it suggests about the future.

The Nearings were a couple from comfortable urban backgrounds who moved to rural Vermont to homestead in the 1930s, when their radical politics drove them from more conventional occupations.  There they homesteaded, grew food, produced maple syrup and sugar as a cash crop, and cultivated an austere lifestyle and philosophy that they laid out in Living the Good Life, which was published in 1954.  As the rural economy recovered from the Depression and WW2, and the New York City culture encroached on southern Vermont with skiing and vacation homes, the Nearings moved to the remote coast of eastern Maine. There they took up their habits in relative obscurity, until young people searching for alternative ways of life following the cultural upheaval of the 1960s discovered their book and began flocking to their homestead on Cape Rosier for knowledge and inspiration in the early 1970s.  Eliot and Sue Coleman and Jean and her husband Keith were two of these couples whom the Nearings took a particular interest in, and they sold them plots of land to build and farm on.

One of the themes that emerges in Bright’s book is the significant gap between the Nearings’ idealistic prescription for organizing home economic and social life, and the reality of what actually works.  The Nearings claimed that one could live well on four hours a day of ‘bread labor’ to earn or produce basic needs, four hours a day of artistic, cultural, or activist pursuits, and four hours of social engagement.  They claimed to meet their economic and spiritual needs by following this plan, promoted it fervently, and scorned those who fell short in various ways (excessive participation in the cash economy, living on the proceeds from invested capital, eating meat, etc.) But Bright lays out a detailed case that the Nearings were essentially trustafarians – at various key points they received inheritances or other financial boosts that allowed them to buy large tracts of land, hire help, take shortcuts, and generally live much more comfortably would have been possible without that ready source of transfusion.  As a particular example, when the Nearings moved from Vermont to Maine, high-bush blueberries replaced maple syrup as their notional ‘cash crop’, but she shows that the crop never broke even, let alone sustaining their lifestyle and allowing them to build a spacious stone house.

Bright’s book is not a hatchet job; she clearly had and has a lot of regard for the Nearings, but also the scars of a person who has attempted to live by following an idealized prescription, combined with a reporter’s nose for the real story.   And I’m sympathetic to her instinct that it’s important to pay attention to the distinction between what is actually true and possible, and what people are motivated to believe is possible.  Richard Feynman said something along the lines of ‘the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’  The Nearings laid out a path that was attractive and salutary in its broad outlines, but deeply unrealistic in its details, and they had what is surely a natural human tendency to plaster over rather than expose and troubleshoot the places where reality fell short of the ideal. Bright’s book explores how their actions had profound impacts – both for better and for worse – on thousands, perhaps millions of people.

One of the most interesting aspects of both the Bright and Coleman books was the amazing degree of commonality in fine detail with how I grew up, three hours further west along the coast, including:

  • Practical daily use of an antique Glenwood wood cookstove
  • Drinking goat milk, and other people thinking goat milk was nasty
  • Amateur goat obstetrics
  • Trauma of butchering animals in the yard
  • Racoons in the corn at night, wrangling of electric fences, and usually-futile attempts to shoot them in the dark
  • Being the only kid in class with heavy whole-grain sandwiches, while the other kids have Hostess Twinkies
  • Keeping a freezer on the porch of a neighbor in town who has electricity
  • Concerns about a nuclear reactor uncomfortably close to home
  • Newspaper reporters coming to write human interest stories about your family (I was too young to actually remember this, but the aluminum printing plate with a faded image of my mom cooking over a woodstove is still tacked to the wall in the back of the pole barn).
  • The Tomten, and other children’s books that I have not come across elsewhere

These were among the quirkier resonances, but there were broader and more poignant ones as well.  Bright’s conclusion is that it is possible to live a fulfilling life on the land, foregoing many of the conveniences of modern society, but that unless you have a trust fund, it’s not realistic to do it by working only four hours per day, and that it’s all but impossible to do it without materially participating in the cash economy.  And so a related theme is how homesteaders find their craft and their place in that economy –  for Eliot Coleman it was market gardening and related promotions, and for Bright and her husband Keith it was writing and carpentry respectively – exactly the same trades, as it happens, that my parents found for themselves.

A related question that preoccupies me at the interface of ecology, economy, and culture is the question of which back-to-the-land practices represent true advances from a sustainability and social progress perspective, and which are solely cultural badges.  The Nearings were surely serious about ending war, alleviating social ills, and living in harmony with nature, and organizations like MOFGA were explicitly set up to change things.  So it’s fair and important to ask whether they/we were on the right track with their prescriptions, and to what extent they’ve been effective.

Surely a nuanced view is appropriate here.  Some of the cultural practices of that time (such as a whole-grains-based vegetarian diet) are surely improvements from an ecological perspective, a great number are surely neutral (e.g. the colors and patterns one chooses for their clothing), and a few are probably counterproductive (e.g. frequent trips to India in search of enlightenment).  Rather than painting in broad strokes, it seems necessary to look at individual cases, consider realistic alternatives, and actually do the math.  And to be effective, prescriptions must be socially as well as ecologically sustainable.  Another word for subsistence is poverty; sustained, austere, backbreaking labor of the sort the Nearings advocated is not going to catch on broadly in a world where mechanized assistance is cheap and readily available.  The Bright book is chock full of accounts of visitors who tried out the life and then went back to the city, and while some people (e.g. Eliot Coleman) find the hard work of farming viscerally compelling, most others (e.g. Jean Hay Bright) do not. Even those (like my family) who took to the back-to-the-land life gradually reintegrated themselves into the modern economy to a large extent, although many maintained back-to-the-land interests and cultural practices as well.

One thing that has struck me after attending the Commonground Fair off and on for close to 40 years, is how much of it is the same every year – the sheep dog demonstrations, the dry stone demonstrations, the spinning and weaving demonstrations, the draft horse demonstrations, the guy selling high-end Italian walking tractors, and so forth.  The Fair is extremely valuable as a gathering place and a venue to meet old friends and affirm cultural affiliations, but how effective is it as a mechanism to drive real change?  Forty years later, only a vanishingly small fraction of Mainers live off-grid (even though technology has made it quite comfortable), very few grow a meaningful amount of their own food, spinning and weaving are still oddities, virtually everyone still drives everywhere, and very few farmers are using horses for their tillage – and would we want them to?  I’m wary of the tendency to turn sensible-sounding sustainability concepts like Local Food into talismans or cultural badges rather than theories that should be soberly assessed as possible means to a particular set of ends.  As an example, I’ve calculated elsewhere on this blog that even fairly serious amateur gardening has only a marginal quantitative effect (even for the families that practice it), and speculated that it could be fairly easy to overwhelm any positive benefit by e.g. driving a truck repeatedly to a garden center for supplies.  It’s not hard for me to imagine that the greatest quantitative benefit of home gardening might come not from direct effects on the carbon impact of their diets, but rather from capturing the attention of the gardeners and reducing their inclination to take long trips by air during the growing season.

Another resonant theme is the challenge of maintaining relationships through the challenges of hard work, personal discovery, and parenting – particularly among the freewheeling communities of vibrant young people attracted to the Good Life scene.  With the exception of the Nearings, the couples at the center of both books grew apart and split up (perhaps hastened in the case of the Colemans by the tragic drowning death of their middle daughter in a farm pond).   I remember this phenomenon likewise as one of those mysteries of the adult world as seen from kid height – how families that I knew as inseparable social units would suddenly spin apart, with fragments moving to far-flung places, and newly-wise children solemnly explaining custody arrangements. But despite the unconventional mores of the back-to-the land community, I have no reason to believe our families were any less permanent than those in the mainstream, and the question of why certain couples weather these challenges while others do not remains a mystery toward which these books can only offer particularly detailed singular case studies.

There’s a lot more that could be said, but in any case, I heartily recommend this three-generation sequence of books as a thought- and memory-provoking journey for anyone who lived or is interested in the 1970s back-to-the-land movement.

Spring Planting 2018

May 6, 2018

Despite limited preparation on my part and very soggy ground conditions, a small but powerful crew came together in Five Islands in late April of this year and made significant progress on the orchard.  Thanks to all who participated, the orchard is in good shape, and our fingers are crossed for another good harvest this fall.

We set up about 330′ of permanent woven wire fence defining the western boundary of the orchard, took down the ratty plastic deer netting that had protected the orchard until now, and planted about a dozen new interstem trees with varieties recommended by Holly and David Buchanan, a local professional cidermaker. (David’s Portersfield Cider operation in Pownal is definitely worth checking out, both for the high quality cider and the beautiful reclaimed timberframe barn full of gleaming stainless steel equipment.)

The kids, led by Bodhi and Nola gathered an impressive quantity of rockweed at low tide, and this was spread along with organic fertilizer and lime around the new trees, which were then mulched with cardboard and wood chips.  Hopefully this will keep the weeds and grass at bay for a season and help them get established.  The crew also cleared a bunch of rocks, roots, and old fencing material in preparation for turning over and seeding the rows in the new ground in the northwest corner.  I hope to put this area in buckwheat and clover for the new bees, which hopefully will arrive in time to do the pollination.  We transplanted five of the Cornell high-octane sugar maples that had been temporarily growing between apples trees at the bottom of the orchard, moving them outside the fence and protecting them temporarily with cattle panels rolled into free-standing rings.

We also moved the last of the apple trees that had been planted in a five-gallon bucket with the sides split and splayed four ways; I came up with this technique after learning to graft, when I didn’t have enough space prepared for all the trees I made.  The usual approach is to dig up the trees bare-root and transplant them, but especially for larger trees it sets them back pretty significantly.  I started using the buckets in hopes of keeping more fine root tissue intact when doing the transplant.  Inevitably as these things go, the trees sit in the nursery for more years than you plan, and in this case the tree (a Wickson) was over 2″ in diameter.  But the roots find their way out between the split sides of the bucket, and the location of the splits gives a good idea where to go looking for them with the shovel.  Emily and I dug out the roots as generously as we could, and between us we could schlep the bucket, tree, and roots onto the platform extension on the front end loader of a tractor.  There was one remaining open spot on the original grid of Seedling rootstock trees (had been thin soil over bedrock, but we piled some extra loam there a few years ago), and we set the tree in this spot, peeling away the bucket at the last moment.

The bucket technique seems to work surprisingly well, and I think it could be the basis of a local small-time nursery business, since the Transfer Station could probably turn up an unlimited supply of used buckets.  But recently I’ve gone over to planting out new benchgrafts directly in their permanent location, resigning myself to replacing the few that don’t make it.

With three sides of the orchard enclosed in permanent fence, and the remaining north side hemmed in by an outcropping of ledge, the natural extent of the orchard is defined.  There is still a bunch of area inside the permanent fenceline that isn’t yet planted; my folks are contemplating adding some berries, and since the peaches seem to be doing well for us, we might plant a block of those in the northwest corner.

On Sunday I put on a hundred gallon tank of dormant oil and copper, with a pound of BT mixed in to knock back the tent caterpillars which were already starting to spin their webs.  There was a light shower as I did the spraying, so I hope it holds on until the first dose of Surround (organic clay protectant) that I will put on when the apples are nickel-sized.  Surround is literally a high-grade kaolin clay product that I sprayed for the first time last year.  It forms a patchy layer of white powder that turns the entire tree a ghostly shade, but apparently the diminished sunlight doesn’t affect the photosynthesis significantly, and I found it to be quite effective against the various curculios and maggots that attack unsprayed fruit.

Speaking of peaches, the peach buds were coming on fast in Five Islands, and when I got back to Stroudwater I was distressed to see that the -25F lows we saw this winter seem to have killed or severely damaged both of the peach trees we have there.  This is an example of where the marine climate on the island is a big help; lows were probably 10F warmer in Five Islands.

The resistance of the Five Islands peaches to a pretty bad winter makes me think I should take peaches a bit more seriously there; to this point I’ve been interplanting them between the apple trees in the rows, which has worked well since the peaches grow significantly faster but die off unpredictably.  But the new block of interstems has a tighter spacing that doesn’t have room for peaches, and the older apple trees are getting bigger, so it will be harder and harder to keep them from getting overspray on them when spraying Surround.  Last year we found that once the peaches get Surround on them, it never comes off.  This is a just a cosmetic issue that doesn’t matter for freezing the fruit, and Surround is nontoxic (I can’t taste the difference eating them out of hand), but if we ever wanted to sell them at Joanna’s farm stand or Heidi’s store, the chalky spots would be a turn-off.

So I’m contemplating doing a block of peaches in the northwest corner, which combined with whatever the folks do with the northeast corner will pretty much finish out the enclosed space.  Our favorite variety so far is Lars Andersen, which is apparently a Local variety that only Fedco offers, but I’ll ask around for other advice before moving ahead.

Thanks again to everyone who pitched in to make the 2018 Orchard Weekend a success!

Back to Back to the Land

January 14, 2018

There was an interesting article in the New York Times today about folks living off the grid in western Washington State.  Some of the images reminded me of photos from when I was a kid – old woodstoves, rough-sawn boards, rough-and-ready privies, outdoor showers:

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The article lacked the Times’ classic farmer-holding-chicken shot (a small dog stands in), but it had the same voyeuristic vibe (literally in one case).  I guess it’s a good thing that the paper exposes it’s striving 21st-century audience to positive images of people trying to live low-impact lives, but as usual I find myself wondering about the practical/energetic aspects – how are folks supporting themselves; do they manage to keep driving/flying to a minimum, what aspects of the economics and culture they’ve developed are scalable?

A fresh-looking 20lb propane tank and a beautifully ripe avocado suggest they haven’t strayed too far from global supply chains.  Beyond rustic settings and soulful portraits, there are elements of rural living of the sort I experienced growing up that are climate-favorable (not eating much meat; heating with sustainably-cut firewood), and others that aren’t (driving 15 miles each way to the grocery store); careful city dwellers can do as well or better on a carbon basis.

Another article I saw recently in Vox pointed to data that suggests that the largest factor by far is wealth.  Here is a key graph:

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Americans in the top 10% bracket of income emit about 3X more household carbon than the average American, and about 6X more than the bottom 50%.  I suspect a huge chunk of the difference is frequent air travel – per that article, one weekend getaway to Europe blows more carbon into the atmosphere than you can save in a year of driving an electric car, and nearly as much as going car-free entirely.  The average German or Japanese person manages to live a very nice life on half the carbon as the average American, and the top 10% in China use less energy than the bottom 40% in the US…

Another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat – 2017

November 26, 2017

As is our recent custom we gathered at Stroudwater on Thursday for a feast representing the combined culinary forces of five families:

2017 thanksgiving

The disadvantage of this approach is that even if you only take a couple bites of each dish, you end up stuffed to the gills, but complaints were of a good-natured variety, and we took a nice walk along the river and through the woods before dessert (not shown), consisting of 12″ pies (apple, pumpkin/squash, and chocolate cream) and some sinful variety of chocolate coconut caramel bars.

Local content included Stroudwater potatoes (mashed, and also in gnocchi), butternut squash (for the pie, far superior to actual pumpkins) beets, and pesto, and Five Islands apples (plus sweet and hard cider, naturally).  I hadn’t yet retrieved the pedal grinder for the winter, or we could have done virtually all the baking with Five Islands grain (we have rye and corn from this year, and wheat from last).  It would be fun to try to grow the brussels sprouts next year, using Bt to keep the worms at bay.  My folks were given a hoophouse by a neighbor, which should open up possibilities for a greater variety of homegrown greenstuff at Thanksgiving next year.

Given that we have close to a bushel of corn left from the patch I planted in the newground by the upper cabin, it would be tempting to figure out how to make tortillas or something for next year (Joanna made a very nice dish of enchiladas). The relative ease with which we produced this amount of corn even on a first attempt in indifferent soil brings makes me think it wouldn’t be overly difficult to produce enough to feed a flock of hens (though we would also need to grow some soybeans or other protein source).

 

 

 

Holly’s Cider Year 13 writeup

November 9, 2017

Holly did a super nice writeup of the recent Cider Weekend at his blog – see here:

http://tooling-up.blogspot.com/2017/11/cider-13-2017.html

Cider Weekend 2017: The Fruit Of Our Labor

October 30, 2017

2017 cider corn shellerLast weekend we gathered with friends and family for the thirteenth year running to make cider using bicycle-powered equipment, and for the first time, the majority of the apples came from our orchard – a major milestone in a project that began in 2006, with the first trees planted out in the orchard in the spring of 2008.  It’s been a long time coming, and in the years since the Cider weekend has evolved and grown significantly.

The weather was amazing, sunny and mild, and we had a good crew to help.  In total we pressed 275 gallons on Saturday, with a yield of approximately 69%.  100 gallons went into glass between our root cellar and Holly’s basement, and the balance went into freezers and refrigerators across New England and beyond.  The equipment behaved fairly well, and we also made significant advances in both growing and processing grain.

2017 cider pressing

Friday night we gathered as usual by the cove for a picnic and campfire, then Alexis, Holly, Steven, Eerik, and I worked for a few hours in the barn on last-minute details.  By prior arrangement Eerik brought some linear guide assemblies made from rollerblade parts and T-slot extrusion to significantly improve the action of the dual counterpressure bottle-filling apparatus, and while he was assembling it I improvised a foot-pedal-operated mechanism out of scrap wood.  Previously the filling head assembly was supported on janky linear guides made from copper pipe with wooden bearings, and a hand-operated screw was needed to clamp the head in position so the pressure of the CO2 wouldn’t blow it out of the bottle in a volcano of carbonated cider.  Now the filling heads moved smoothly up and down, and a heavy counterweight reacted the pressure until it was released by stepping on the pedal, and it all worked brilliantly.  We contemplated how it could be further improved by automation driven by bicycle-compressed air; we’ll see if we get anywhere with that next year.

Meanwhile, Holly fit an antique cast-iron corn sheller to the bike-powered stand that also ran the cider press and the high-quality grain mill we added last year.  As usual he did an amazing job of cleaning up and restoring the cast iron, and he fit a crummy aluminum pulley to the shaft by manually matching the square taper of the handle.  The sheller worked amazingly well on the wheelbarrow-load of corn we had previously harvested from the patch of newground by the Upper Cabin.  It has an amazingly clever and hilarious mechanism whereby the spent cob is ejected upward diagonally so that it doesn’t fall into the bin of shelled grain.  The only issue was that kernels went everywhere; we solved that problem by sacrificing a plastic storage bin to confine the flying grain.

With the equipment in good order, we turned in, returning at dawn to get things spun up.  No matter the preparation, it always seems to take a couple of hours to get everything ready to go (and a pause for Kelsey and Beth’s delicious breakfast burritos), but by shortly after nine we were in operation.  As usual, the first stage of the process is washing the apples; we resurrected the pedal-powered, astroturf-lined rotary wash drum from last year, with the addition of a couple of finely-balanced soft-bristle brushes that may or may not have actually made much difference.  The crew sorted apples on the way into the drum washer, composting the bad apples and cutting out bad spots; this attention to detail is probably a big part of why our cider tastes so good.

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Tubs of washed apples were hand-carried to the grinder, where two folks pedaled while one more fed apples in, two at a time, and a fourth forced them into the grinding drum with a wooden plunger.  With vigorous pedaling the chains and forks popped off now and then; a more rigid assembly with less wood in the compressive path would probably eliminate these issues, but in any case the freewheels on the driveshaft prevented injury or damage.  I did get the sense that when the process was running smoothly, the grinder did seem to be the bottleneck, indicating that a third pedaler might be in order (or perhaps Eerik will come through with a rowing machine as promised for next year).

2017 apple wash and grind

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From the grinder, tubs of fine, soupy pulp were carried or dragged to the other side of the barn, where they were baled into cloth-lined forms, folded into cheeses, and fed into the pedal-hydraulic press.  Holly did buy new press-cloth this year, but it seemed to be too impermeable, leading the stack of cheeses to get squirrelly, to the point where some of the wooden grates suffered damage.  He says it’s the same stuff per the internet fabric site where he ordered it; next year we will need to try some different fabric.  In any case, we reverted to the old cloths, and the press settled down to its work.

2017 cider pressing

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All the while, the same hacked Schwinn exercise bike that ran the hydraulic pump was also grinding corn and rye (both grown in the orchard this year) for dinner; it was relatively simple to pulse the valve on the hydraulic pump to get the desired flowrate of cider while pedaling steadily for the grain grinder.  All in all the new multipurpose pedal hydraulic stand we built was a great success.

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Increasingly in recent years the overnight crew has been reinforced during the day on Saturday by a surge of day-trippers, including lots of locals, family friends, and this year a delegation from the Rand family. Many hands make light work, and despite a leisurely lunchbreak (complete with Nebraska Cream Can Dinner) and a near record supply of apples, we were done in time for dinner; we hoisted the gear into the loft of the barn, set up tables and benches, and served Holly and Becky’s amazing feast of chili, cornbread, and apple crisp, baked in the barn using a used electric range secured from Craigslist.  We also had a temporary sink with hot running water from a Craigslist hot water heater, and even an improvised outdoor shower so folks could rinse off the sticky apple mist.  Folks with kids retired to various cabins and tents after dinner; others hung out by the fire in the mild evening.

Sunday morning another beautiful day; pancakes, homefries from Stroudwater garden potatoes; more cleanup as well as orchard tours, and playing by/on the cove.  Ela even conspired to get Holly and me to break out our fiddles and play in the sun, a reminder of times when somehow there seemed to be time for music.  Leftover lunch, and goodbyes capped a fantastic year, with great people, great food, and delicious cider.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in, and thanks to Eerik and Terran for the photos in this post. Here’s a link to Eerik’s photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/P75i6RIaVTHwCzbt1 if you have others in a world-readable place, please put a link in a comment – thanks again!

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