Archive for March, 2011

MOFGA scionwood exchange, this Sunday noon-4 in Unity

March 24, 2011

This Sunday at the fairground in Unity, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners are putting on a free swap event – folks will bring scions to share, and Fedco will be selling rootstock etc. I’ll be heading up to share some scions I cut off the orchard (mostly cider varieties, which I figure will be in short supply), and to get some Antonovka rootstock.

I learned how to do grafting at a MOFGA workshop last April, and it’s really magical – a little knowledge and a few simple materials almost gets you something for nothing. Scion is just a fancy word for the scraps of one-year-old growth that you trim off apple trees in the March pruning. Instead of throwing them on the compost pile, you put them in ziplocs with wet paper towel, and stick them in the fridge. Then, to make another apple tree, you just take a scion of the desired variety, make two simple cuts on the end, and splice it to a rootstock with the particular character you want – whether that’s robustness, dwarfing effect, etc. The rootstock gets the same two cuts, and they fit together as a ‘whip-and-tongue’ (google images knows what it looks like), with a bit of plastic tape around to keep the moisture in and hold them together. You only need one bud on the scion (or two to be safe) so it’s possible to make several new trees from a scion the size of a pencil. One important aspect is that the scionwood should be more dormant (e.g. because you kept it in the fridge) than the rootstock (which has been in a warmer place, enjoying the coming spring), so the rootstock has a chance to begin to heal the union before the scion wakes up and starts demanding resources from the roots.

A chicken is not an accessory

March 22, 2011

An interesting NYT article on a new generation of young, idealistic farmers. But the accompanying photo is over the top:

Nobody I know works around their barnyard in nice leather jackets, and a chicken is not an accessory. Nothing against the folks that are the subject of the article, but to me it looks like the paper sent the style page photographer, who was more interested in catering to the frustrated fantasies of NYC hipsters than in making an accurate portrayal of small farming today. The article was short on practical detail, too – what are they growing, on how many acres, and can they net enough to live on?

pruning, scionwood, chips, syrup, goats

March 20, 2011

A busy, productive weekend in Five Islands. It’s the season to prune apple trees, so my mom and I pruned my grandfather’s orchard. Per the advice from the MOFGA class on pruning I took last year, we started by making the big decisions, lopping off redundant arm-sized branches with a very handy Stihl ‘chainsaw-on-a-stick’, then climbed around in the trees and on a ladder to lighten up the parts that were left. The goal over all is to open the trees up and let light in, get rid of tired old fruiting wood, and encourage productive new branches. At the end of a good pruning job, you’re supposed to be able to throw a cat through the tree without it hitting any branches (but not a dog). I don’t know if we’re getting any better at pruning, but at least we’re getting more confident. There’s a significant amount of slow-motion strategy involved; since you’re supposed to be looking for promising small branches that can be trained to replace existing branches as they grow tired, while maintaining the older wood while it’s still fruiting. For the smaller trees we experimented with a technique learned from Michael Phillips’ book; we hot-glued clothespins to tennis-ball-sized rocks and used them to weight down watersprouts to give the growing trees the right form. We learned that the secret is to heat the rocks in the oven first, to perhaps 350F, so that the hot glue can stick (if you try to hot glue a cold rock, it just peels right off, even if you wire-brush the rock first). I also collected a couple dozen ziplocs full of scionwood (which is a natural byproduct of pruning), for our own use and for the MOFGA swap next weekend. The scions go in the fridge, which keeps them in a dormant state while the rootstocks wake up in the spring, such that the rootstocks get a couple week jump on healing the graft union before the scionwood wakes up and starts demanding nutrients from below.

In other news, with the growing goat population, larger cider operation, and increasing stable of tractors, my parents and grandparents have decided to build a new barn on the west side, and they’ve been making a clearing for it this winter. Yesterday my dad rented a 12″ Vermeer wood chipper, and we reduced a huge pile of brush and pine chunks to mulch. Stuffing the chipper is serious work, and my arms and back will be a few days getting back to normal.

We also got out the maple sap evaporator, since the weather has been pretty good and my folks have accumulated over a hundred gallons of sap in plastic drums. The evaporator gets fired by cut-up slab wood that’s a byproduct of when the crew comes in the spring with the bandsaw mill to make lumber out of the logs that have accumulated over the winter. The traditional approach to making syrup is frightfully inefficient from a thermodynamic perspective, and I still have it in mind to someday make an optimized evaporator that makes much better use of the thermal energy in the firewood.

The kid goats are rapidly getting larger and more energetic, and at four weeks they have apparently just started to eat hay and chew cud. They still get bottle-fed three times a day, but there is enough extra milk for my folks to drink it at every meal, and in another month they will be weaned, and my folks will have to start making cheese. The goat milk is very rich and tasty, compared to the skim cows’ milk that I’m used to drinking. Dairy is really a remarkable invention, and it’s hard to appreciate how remarkable it is, until you witness first-hand asthese friendly little critters take hay and a bit of crude grain and turn it into top-notch food.

Tunes for St. Pats

March 17, 2011

Had to bust out the fiddle in honor of St. Padraig, and play some Liz Carroll tunes – ‘That’s Right Too’, and a current favorite, ‘The Golden Legs’ (you can get the gist of both from the free snippets on Amazon). Another great Liz Carroll tune, ‘Lost in the Loop’, is high on my to-do list.

apocalypse here, and there

March 13, 2011

Today I visited my friend Andy at his CSA outside of Boston, to get a tour and help diagnose some issues he’d been having with the cooling system in one of his greenhouses. The farm is in a suburban neighborhood on the site of a former agricultural research station (home of a famous butternut squash), which has fallen somewhat into disrepair, with several decrepit metal-and-glass greenhouses – apparently they were built with toxic putty, toxic insulation, and fly ash in the concrete, a whole panoply of environmental headache. The overall effect of barren winter fields, abandoned buildings, looming smokestack, and decaying glass houses behind chain-link fence gave a distinct post-apocalyptic flavor – and apparently film students have actually used the site for that purpose:

But the action is out in the fields, on 8 flat, productive acres, where Andy and friends turn minimal infrastructure into serious agriculture, producing several hundred shares for a popular CSA, and providing fresh produce for local charities as well. We saw their fields, including cover crops already starting to re-awaken, compost piles, greenhouses, small homemade cooler building, and tractor shed, where they keep a couple old cultivating tractors and an array of specialty implements, many of which are the better part of a century old:

They also have a couple of newer 40hp tractors for PTO implements in one of the greenhouses. The second greenhouse was the focus of our afternoon’s efforts; it didn’t have as much cooling power as the first (reference) greenhouse, despite being larger, and my job was to figure out why. The reference greenhouse had two thermostatic switches; the first of which opened one louver at the west end of the greenhouse and turned on one fan at the east end to exhaust heat. The second thermostat, set to a higher temperature, opened two more louvers, increased the speed of the fan that was already running, and turned on a second fan.

The second greenhouse also had two thermostatic switches in a similar configuration, but only one of them had a discernible effect, which was to open all three louvers and turn on two relatively tepid exhaust fans at the far end. Andy assumed (reasonably) that the second thermostat was supposed to have the same effect in that greenhouse as the equivalent one did in the reference greenhouse, but had not been able to get it to do anything.

We opened up the thermostatic controls, and determined that the second thermostat wasn’t doing anything – its relay terminals weren’t wired to anything; in fact the only thing wired to it was 120V power. Then the question became whether the fans at the other end of the building had the capability to run faster, that was simply not wired. We opened up their junction boxes, and determined that they only had two wires plus ground (live and neutral); then we inspected the motors, which were just plain half-horse 1725 rpm induction motors. By comparison, the motor on the reference greenhouse had three wires plus ground (presumably high, low, and neutral), and were substantially larger as well.

So, that part of the mystery was solved – the greenhouse had never had adequate cooling – and it would require at least a different motor (and probably a whole new exhaust fan unit) to upgrade it. We then looked at the much smaller internal circulating fans on the greenhouse – the ones on the north side worked normally, but the ones on the south didn’t work at all. We traced the power from the circuit breaker to the fan junction box, and found the problem in a cheap solid state speed control that was wired in series with the fans. We then shorted across it, which caused one of the fans to come on, but not the other. The other got hot when powered up, though, and the shaft turned, but with significant friction – and that solved the mystery of what killed the speed control: a bearing seized in one of the fans, which increased the current, and fried the speed controller. We set it up so the one circulation fan could run at full speed, and shut off the other – hopefully Andy can find a new motor for it, or just replace the unit.

Meanwhile, I’ve been horrified and transfixed by the images of an actual apocalypse underway in eastern Japan, complete with walls of muck and embedded burning structures racing across the countryside, exploding natural gas tank farms, and smoldering nuclear plants. The human tragedy, loss of life, and physical destruction are truly staggering. We are used to disasters happening in far-off lands, often in relatively undeveloped circumstances – but Japan is every bit as modern as the US. Some years ago I spent some time doing engineering in Japan, living for a few weeks in a seaside town effectively interchangeable with those that have been completely destroyed. I found the people friendly, generous, and civilized almost to a fault – and I have no doubt that their disaster response is at least as capable as would be mustered here, but any human effort pales against the magnitude of the destruction that has been unleashed. In our tightly optimized, risk-averse normal mode of life, it is easy to forget how indifferent and utterly inhospitable the vast majority of the universe is to the needs of a fragile hairless ape.

Although the nuclear angle is unlikely to even register on the total death toll from the disaster, the struggle to maintain control of the reactors is especially captivating to an engineer. I grew up just five miles downstream from a nuclear power station of similar vintage to the Japanese plants (a PWR, not a BWR), which was permanently shut down for safety problems. As a student Alexis briefly considered taking a job at MIT’s nuclear reactor – she needed money, and they would basically pay students good wages to study and sit for the NRC reactor operator’s license. I’m trying to imagine what sort of effort is happening on the ground there – are they sitting in the classic movie set control room throwing switches? Or is that control room full of muck and lobsters, and they are desperately trying to unbury the junction box enough to hot-wire the feedwater pumps? How do you plumb seawater into the core of a nuclear reactor? Is there a fireman’s connection somewhere, and guys are hooking up a giant trash pump with a tube into the murky sea? Or is it already plumbed for that eventuality? And the probablistic nature of radiation sickness adds a certain poignancy – there’s a smooth Shrodinger’s cat gradient from “these levels are significantly above background, but hopefully I won’t get cancer” to “I’m a dead man walking, I guess my duty is to keep this plant from poisoning my fellow citizens”.

There’s also the question of how all this plays into the global energy situation, already reeling from revolutions in 3 Middle Eastern countries (and counting). In the last year we’ve seen riveting disasters associated with three top sources of energy (coal mine disasters, gulf oil disaster, now nuclear reactor meltdowns). While lots of folks are uncomfortable with nuclear power, it seemed like things were moving in the direction of resignation, with many people accepting that increased use of nuclear might be a lesser-of-evils calculation, as part of a multi-pronged approach to tackling climate change. As a renewable energy engineer, I have a hard time getting behind nuclear power, and it’s basically impossible to see it as a workable solution on a global scale, given the degree of instability in many parts of the world and attending proliferation risk. But regardless of its actual cost/benefit breakdown, it’s easy to see the partial meltdown of multiple nuclear reactors as putting the kibosh on a nuclear renaissance for many years. Nuclear already faced an uphill battle, because of NIMBYism, high capital costs, cheap natural gas, etc.