Archive for March, 2008

Why do all these engineers think they want to be farmers?

March 30, 2008

Some time ago a renewable engineering colleague remarked that he and his girlfriend (an architect) had just been discussing whether it was possible to find fulfillment in “the modern condition”, or whether they should decamp to the countryside and live the simple life. I confess to entertaining thoughts along those lines at times, and as I pondered the other parallels among our lives I began to wonder whether it might be more than a coincidence. Perhaps it is the odd crowd that I run with, but I seem to know a lot of technical professionals whose interests tend anachronistic and agrarian. One coworker (an electrical engineer) has a hand-cranked grain mill, crafts butter and artisanal cheeses in his home in the city, and hand-sets type for a hundred-year old cast iron printing press. For a time he and his wife (a chemist) fantasized about moving to the country and buying a farm. She cooled on that idea after observing how much spadework is involved in The Country Life, though she still speaks longingly of old-fashioned kitchen work. Another guy I know is a PhD candidate in organic solar cells who would rather be an organic farmer, though he has a suspicion that the human race took a wrong turn when it invented agriculture. His girlfriend was also a grad student doing a dissertation on quantum dots, and she actually made the leap; now she works on an organic farm west of Boston.

What’s going on here? Are we all crazy? Is it just a case of the grass being greener on the other side of the cubicle wall? Maybe every 30 years collective memory fails and a new generation falls victim to back-to-the-land madness, or perhaps there’s something about record oil prices and economic upheaval that triggers an impulse in the brainstem, but apparently we aren’t alone (NYT article).

In any case it’s a question that’s likely to bear heavily on the course of my life, and as it happens I may have a unique perspective from which to consider it. My folks were in the wave of back-to-the-land types who moved to the country and lived “the good life” in the 70’s. They built a 600sf house with no electricity or running water, with solar and wood for heat. We had a hand pump on the well, kerosene lamps, and a lot of cold trips to the outhouse in the winter. They cleared some acres and grew vegetables, squash, spuds and beans, and pumpkins for market, also had a few sheep and a herd of dairy goats, made cheese, sold milk and eggs to the neighbors, and raised me and my sister. My father worked as a carpenter to provide some hard currency.

Looking back on it I think it was a great way to grow up, and I was a happy kid. I didn’t mind chopping wood, but I remember hating to pick potato beetles. I think the folks enjoyed what they were doing but it was hard work and when modernity came along they signed up – power lines came down the road when I was six or so and we hooked in. For the first few years I remember it as being a chest freezer, three lightbulbs and a digital timer that my mom used when she froze veggies. Then came running water, and when I was about 15, a septic system and a flush toilet. When we were up in school my mom started as an elementary school teacher, and my dad built up a business as a general contractor. Gradually we/they added TV, computers, the internet, and finally cell phones and a microwave oven. By comparison to most people they still live a very rural life, though with the benefit of a lot of modern conveniences, and most of the food (and money) come from the conventional economy.

Seen in historical perspective, you could say that in twenty years we lived the whole 20th century in fast forward. It seems like there should be some wisdom to be mined from that, but, what does it mean? In a broad sense, I read it to mean that we voted with our feet, and we voted for a large measure of modernity. We made similar decisions as the society as a whole made, and I think it’s important to note that none of the choices were really forced moves – the Man didn’t put a gun to our head and force us to hook up to the electric grid, get with the program, and start buying stuff. Sure, there was economic pressure from college tuition and the like, but a lot of my classmates were in far worse straights economically than we were. Personally I was ambivalent about the changes – I was a good student and was fascinated by technology, but I identified with the lifestyle and I had a strong romantic streak. For a time late in high school I had the idea that I was going to live in a cabin by the water and make a living building wooden boats. Cooler and wiser heads prevailed, and I shipped off to MIT, but I still had a soft spot for salt water, wilderness, and farm fields. When I took some time off to work on the carpentry crew I envisioned days of purposeful toil with evenings walking in the woods or reading Gary Snyder. As it was I ended up doing timber framing on a huge waterfront house exposed to the full blast of the north wind in the dead of winter, and spent my evenings sprawled and staring at the wood stove trying not to drool on myself. The engineering profession started to look pretty good. So I finished my degree, futzed around for a while in medical devices, and then dove into renewable energy R&D engineering. I could have done a lot of things, and I felt free to choose among a myriad of possible futures, and that’s what I chose.

But though I spend my days in front of a computer, designing, specifying, and inventing, the call of the land and the romance of old ways still have their hold on me – otherwise I wouldn’t have built a wooden boat when I lived in a garage in Cambridge despite the evident superiority of fiberglass; I wouldn’t have torn up my front lawn and tilled in 2000lb of horse manure to make a garden, and I surely wouldn’t be clearing land and planting an apple orchard in Maine. Perhaps it’s subconscious rebellion against the rampant specialization of modern life, or maybe it’s a natural reaction to the growing energy and climate crises. Perhaps it’s something burned into my spirit in childhood – for my sister who cared nothing for farming in childhood now finds herself compelled to grow vegetables despite foreboding conditions 7000 feet above sea level in Idaho. Perhaps it’s what E.O. Wilson calls biophilia – an innate love for natural living things. But in any case, it looks to be a permanent part of what I am, and it seems that I’m not the only one.


Spring notes

March 30, 2008

After warming moderately for maybe a week, it turned cold again and snowed another four inches Friday – this winter just doesn’t know when to quit.  But I was down in Pennsylvania for business last week and the grass is greening up, forsythia starting to show, etc – so it’s inexorably working its way north.

I received my seeds from Fedco Friday, and yesterday I started some tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, broccoli, and cabbage on a heat mat under a grow light in the kitchen window.  It’s good to have the clock started on that effort.

I’m happy to report that my uncle Geoff and aunt Susan have joined the blogosphere at  They live on an old farm in Mt. Vernon and keep a team of oxen – in this case Jimmi and Eric (Hendrix and Clapton) for working in the woods.  They also have a big vegetable garden, and they’ve experimented with wheat and oats.

This afternoon I’m taking my fiddle across to Vermont, where accordionist Jeremiah McLane holds contra dance music classes at his house in Sharon.  Recently we’ve been working on a couple sets of reels (Reel des Menterries/Brenda Stubberts/Return to Chernobyl and Rannie McLellan’s/Father John Angus Rankin/Seamus Conley’s), and today we’re going to play a jig set (Timmy Cliffords/Gallowglass/Calliope House) and a tune of Jeremiah’s called Honey Bee.

Yesterday I did a pile of cooking – 3 loaves of the usual Sherwood Inn Dark Bread, plus I made a couple pans of bread pudding with scraps that had been accumulating in the freezer.  Bread pudding is one of those great foods that’s somewhere between meal and dessert, especially if made with skim milk and healthy whole grain bread.   I also made a double batch of homemade bean burgers – these are much tastier than the store-bought variety and perhaps 1/10 the cost.  I froze a couple tubs of them for later use – I’ve taken to eating them in a bun with melted cheese and a couple leaves of savoy cabbage.  Every winter around January or February I rediscover cabbage, and end up eating a lot of it (in stir fries, as salad, etc) all the way through spring.

It’s hard to believe, but the new batch of Fedco trees should be showing up in Maine in a couple of weeks – then spring will start in earnest.

Tractor maintenance, and a start on the fence

March 26, 2008

Last weekend we went up to Maine, we did some service on the tractor, and got a start on the electric deer fence. The weather was sunny and cold, with a howling northwest wind. We changed the fuel, oil, and air filters on the tractor, changed the oil and transmission lube, and vacuumed a bunch of dust and crud out of the radiator. We also greased up the zirc fittings on the suspension, checked the coolant, and replaced a rotted-out manifold gasket that had been leaking exhaust. Earlier in the winter we also replaced the right front tire, which had some sidewall damage presumably resulting from a rock or stick in the orchard or surrounding woods. At the same time we cleaned out the right bay of the red barn, pitched a lot of trash, and swept out the dust. Dave reported that the tractor had a lot more pep following the service, presumably because of the new air and fuel filters.

Sunday morning Dave and I loaded some tools and a generator onto the back of the tractor, and moved some treated 4×4 and 6×6 lumber up to the orchard. We plumbed up 3 4×4 corner posts against the trees we’d selected previously, shimming with scrap lumber as needed, and attached the posts to the trees with long 1/2″ galvanized lag bolts. I laid out and drilled holes in the corner posts, the first at 8″ off the ground, and from there at 8″, 16″, 26″, 36″, 48″, 60″, and 72″. I then dug two gate post holes on either side of the entrance road, planted 12′ 6×6 timbers in them, plumbed, and backfilled.

By that time my aunt, uncle, and cousin arrived for Easter dinner with the grandparents, so I cleaned up and called it a day. Next time, I’ll cut the gate posts off level, spike them together with a large cross timber, and stiffen the structure with angle braces. I’ll set the fourth corner post, which is a bit more complex than the others because it can’t be attached directly to a tree. Then it will be time to attach corner insulators to the corner posts and insulated eyes to the gate posts, string the wire, and install the Zareba solar fence charger that I bought. I’ve got tensioners that should be sufficient to carry the wires between the posts, but the ground isn’t perfectly flat, so we’ll need to put up small intermediate posts to adjust the height of the wires conformal to the ground. These posts may also carry light-duty deer netting on the inside of the wires to further deter animals in the winter, when the electric fence won’t work so well. We’ll eventually make nice swinging gates, though I suspect initially something more expedient will suffice. With the fence functional, it will be time to transplant the trees – we’re floating the idea of another orchard weekend for early May.


March 18, 2008

The garden is still under 8″ of snow, but I ordered some seeds last night.  Generally I order from Johnny’s, the catalog I remember from when I was a kid, but this year I went with Fedco.  They recently took a stand and ditched Seminis after it was acquired by Monsanto.  I like the quirky commentary and the prices are much lower; less than a buck for a small packet in some cases, where commercial seed companies rarely let a mini go for much under 3 bucks these days.  One of these years I’m going to set up some side-by-side comparisons of open-pollinated vs. F1 varieties; maybe I can convince myself to do all open.

Electric fence design

March 15, 2008

Snow is melting (except when it’s falling), spring is in the air, and we might go down to Maine one of these next couple weekends to do some tractor maintenance and prep work for the fence. Up to now we’ve cleared to the fence line, pulled the stumps, and left four well-placed trees to serve as corner posts. The basic fencing concept is to make a stout electric fence with as little permanent infrastructure as possible; given that the orchard may expand in coming years, it would be great to be able to reconfigure it with relatively little work.

One of the things that irk me about fences and trees is when you see a nice big tree with fence wire buried deep in the bark; it lets disease into the bark, it’s dangerous to fell it, no sawyer will touch it, and it’s more trouble than its worth even to turn the butt into firewood – it is destined to lay around for decades. So, my concept goes like this: Lay a treated 8′ 4×4 up against each corner tree, plumb it up, and fasten it to the tree with three large galvanized lag bolts. Depending on the cant of the trunk, it may have to be spaced away from the tree at one end or the other, but the bolts will be big enough to take some shear. As the tree grows, it will close the gap between the bark and the 4x, but so long as you remember to back off the lags a couple turns every few years, the tree will be fine, and even if you abandoned it entirely it would have to grow over a foot in diameter before the lags were unrecoverable. Anyway, the next step is to install corner insulators on the 4x4s at intervals suggested by Montana State, and using insulators like these.


Pedal-powered belt press: design concepts

March 8, 2008

Cabin fever is in full swing on a rainy Saturday here in the north country.  I took a walk up the hill this morning; little ephemeral waterfalls emerged here and there, but the snow is still knee deep in the darker parts of the woods.  On returning I made some whole wheat blueberry pancakes for breakfast (Tassajara recipe, plus wheat germ and milled flax), and now I’m settled in by the fire in a rocking chair to put down some notes on how to make a pedal-power belt filter press for next year’s cidering.

I’ve been toying with a couple of top-level design concepts for the geometry of the pressing components.  One is a pair of large drums, at least one of which is porous (perhaps made by assembling a series of plastic disks at intervals on a shaft, then wrapping a rectangular sheet of perforated stainless steel around the disks and welding them edge-to-edge.  A cloth-wrapped sausage-like package of apple pulp is introduced to the nip between the rollers, and pulled through like the wringer on an old-fashioned washing machine.  (My mom still has one of these, a James washer that she used to do all our laundry and diapers in, before electricity came to the North End.)  The other involves two rows of much smaller solid round rollers, arranged side by side to form slotted racks.  These racks would be arranged with a tapering gap between them, such that the juice would be gradually forced out of the pulp as the sausage is pulled through the assembly.


Final kegs bottled

March 2, 2008

Well, on the first day of March I finally bottled the last of the 07 batches – a keg of strong single-variety Roxbury Russet cider (9%) which I put up still in Bordeaux bottles, and one of the curiously sweet stuff from blended juice I bought from Poverty Lane.  The later I carbonated to about 25 psi (at garage temperature) and put in cap-able champagne bottles.  Two kegs, 8 carboys, and a couple buckets full of random cider equipment are corralled in the corner of my office, ready for next fall – cider season begins again in about 7 months.  Of course, by that time we will have built a gate, fenced the new orchard, and planted or transplanted about 27 trees, so I’m sure the time will go quickly.

Running the counter-pressure bottle filler is starting to get tiresome, and while filling bottles I’ve been tinkering in my mind with a design for a two-position semiautomatic counter-pressure rig.  The basic idea is to have one bottle filling while capping and replacing a second.  A further refinement involves a valve and a sensor on each one (either weight-based or capacitive) such that the flow of cider is cut off automatically at the right point and the bottle begins to decompress while you’re doing something else.  I’ll see if I can pull it off before next December.