Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Pedal-Powered Cider in Cascadia

October 22, 2014

A fellow named Steve Haeseker in Vancouver WA sent me a note mentioning his very cool experiments with pedal cider equipment, and sending a link to his video:

The craftsmanship looks really nice. They use a small wood chipper coupled to a bike to grind the apples, and a pedal-hydraulic press made from a log splitter to do the pressing.  Then they feed the pomace to some cows.  The chipper is a neat idea, though the grind looks a little coarse (similar to our first-year results with the antique cast iron press).  I bet it could be modified to make a finer grind by grinding down the cutters and then tightening up the gap. But, given that a lot of apple grinding equipment (including ours) isn’t self-feeding, he may be on to something with the wood chipper concept, and I can see how fabricating a flat disk and mounting cutters to it could be a lot simpler than the multi-step machining process we used to make our cutter drum.

The press is made out of thick hard maple recovered from a bowling alley – major style points for that.  Unlike our press, they count on the wooden uprights to take the full tension of the press; it looks like they use a smaller cylinder (maybe 2.5″?) so the load will be less, but they still get good pressure by using a smaller cheese.  In watching the video it’s not clear why they need their cheese frame, since they aren’t really packing the cheeses full.  We have some instability in our cheeses that sometimes requires re-stacking the press; I wonder if we could do better by cutting the cheese frame down to 3″ from 3.5″ thick.  Alternatively we could make some shims that enforce a certain minimum cheese thickness until the stack is down to ~1/2 thickness; by that point the viscosity of the pulp will be much higher, and I’d think the stack would be less squirrelly.

Anyway, hats off to Steve for joining the ranks of pedal-cider enthusiasts!


The Dirty Life

October 30, 2011

I borrowed “The Dirty Life” by Kristin Kimball from Kelsey, and I started reading with my teeth on edge, for a couple reasons. First, I can’t stand chicken-pimping, after grinding my teeth about this from the NYT – why do photographers insist on spotless clothing and improbable intimacy with chickens when presenting agricultural stories to the general public? I mean, the book is called ‘The Dirty Life’ after all – the author is an urbanite who falls in love with a farmer and moves to upstate NY, where they build a CSA.

I first learned about the book when Andy (who is a professional farmer, and has about as much tolerance for this sort of thing as I do) read a couple of over-the-top food prOn passages from early in the book at dinner. One of them involved jacklighting a deer (presumably on some kind of ag nuisance permit), preparing a rustic-yet-luscious meal of its liver, and consuming it in an intimate setting, with the scene fading as it enters the bedroom. But, by halfway into the book Kimball won me over, basically by the sheer volume of work that she and her husband (Mark) took on, and how they not only persevered but kept adding more and more aspects. Their CSA model is to provide customers a whole diet, which means providing grains, maple syrup, meat, dairy, eggs, etc, in addition to the usual vegetables – one of the primary limitations of common CSA practice (and most casual gardening) is that it doesn’t actually produce a lot of food on a percent-of-total-calories-required basis. At least by their own account, these guys are actually delivering the calories to feed a lot of people.

Farming is cool these days – everybody and their hipster cousin has chickens in the backyard, and not too long ago I witnessed a well-dressed woman walking goats on the green in Lexington MA. But doing it for real is a truly amazing amount of work – actually getting up every single morning at the crack of dawn, doing the milking, washing up, processing the milk, etc. Making maple syrup using buckets instead of a tube system means staggering through the snow with heavy containers of what’s basically water, processing the massive quantities of firewood needed to boil it off, and keeping a constant eye on the evaporator for days at a time. The Essex Farm folks are actually doing it all, and they’ve been doing it for near on ten years now. She also scores points by freely acknowledging how many people helped them out, and how lucky they were – but what really comes through to me is how hard they work.

Back to the fiddle; Malcolm Gladwell

November 14, 2010

I’ve been busy with work and away from the fiddle for a few weeks. Just now getting back to it, easing in with a couple of mellow but beautiful jigs, Kerfunken (or Kerfunten), which is I’d heard so many times on a Martin Hayes album but never thought to play, and Le Tourment, which I learned from Jeremiah McLane and company. I was in a bookstore a week or two ago and read the first couple chapters of Outliers, a book that proposes that exceptional ability in a given specialized field (like playing fiddle, or programming) is largely a matter of putting in the time practicing – at least 10,000 hours, according to the author. If true, it’s sort of comforting and depressing all at once – comforting because it suggests that sounding like Martin Hayes might be literally within reach, if I dropped everything else and played constantly from now until somewhere around 2015; depressing because given the amount of practice I currently fit in, I’ll be sounding pretty good about the time I die of old age. I wonder about the 10,000 hour thing, though – a working year is about 2000 hours, and there are a lot of people who do the same job for longer than five years. If that’s all there was to it, every engineer over the age of thirty would be a bloody rocket scientist. Maybe engineering is too non-specific to be comparable to, say, playing celtic fiddle, and it could be true that after five years of, say, designing injection molds or doing DOE for drug trials, most people will be pretty darn good. But it’s probably more of an emergent evolutionary phenomenon than a recipe, though – anybody who has put in 5000 hours at some task and still sucks at it will probably be fired, or transferred to a task that matters less if they screw it up.

Farming with horses?

March 1, 2009

For Christmas my sister got me a subscription to Small Farmer’s Journal, which is charmingly written by a character in Oregon name of Lynn Miller.  The quarterly magazine (large format, mostly black and white) contains tons of information about small farming, reprints of old articles on how to grow certain crops, and narratives from people who went back to the land and stayed there.  It took me a little while to realize that the editors have a serious soft spot for draft animals (the older issues carry the subtitle “featuring Practical Horse-farming”); in fact it seems to be a large part of the purpose.  The pages are peppered with photos of large hitches of beautiful horses plowing and harrowing soil, with a few oxen thrown in.  Now I have nothing against draft animals.  My uncle always has a team of oxen up in Mt. Vernon, and I freely admit that to a person given to romantic tendencies there is something fantastically stirring about these images of draft power.  And I am hardly one to throw stones, as a person who not so many years ago spent most of my spare time for over a year building a seventeen foot traditional wooden dory, which now sees the water once or twice a year.  And it means a lot to me that most of the wood in that boat was cut sustainably off of North End land by my father and mother, and that since we used copper rivets instead of iron nails the dory may well outlast me, given care.

All of that is by way of establishing my credentials as a person with tendencies toward picturesque anachronism. But little alarm bells go off in my brain when folks like me start promoting some anachronistic activity on grounds of practicality – to the extent of making claims that horse farming is cheaper or more practical than tractor farming – and when it begins to take on the dubious contortions of religion.  For instance, the Amish have a charming tradition of using draft animals and shunning power, but they also have a strong instinct for economic survival.  For a long time (until less than 100 years ago), it was reasonable to farm with horses and ground-driven implements – where the rotary power to run the mower or manure spreader or other implement came from the livestock, but via a rigid shaft attached to the wheels of the implement.  But as farms got bigger, horsepower could not provide enough power to drive the larger implements, and a curious contraption known as the power forecart has come into existence – a horse-drawn 2-wheel wagon with a seat and a gas or diesel engine, with the engine driving a PTO shaft and a 3 point hitch (and probably hydraulics for good measure).

Now, I have nothing against the Amish or power forecarts.  I just want us to be honest with ourselves, and say “We love working with horses and this chimerical horseflesh/motorized contraption allows us to get our farming done at a sufficient scale to be profitable while allowing us to work with the animals we love.”  Or maybe “This forecart system lets us strike a balance between economy and tradition that allows us to keep our children in farming and our social institutions intact.”  Or follow our not-so-conservative conservative rabbi friend, who might say “We use this forecart system not because it is practical, but precisely because its impracticality embodies and demonstrates our devotion to god.”  Those seem like honest, self-aware answers.  Similarly, I freely admit that my cider orchard is little more than an overgrown hobby, that I will never produce cider apples at less cost in time and money than I could buy cider, and that it would be a lot less work and more straightforward to hook my pedal-powered apple grinder up to a nice, quiet quarter-horse induction motor (hell, the flywheel already has a v-belt groove machined right in!)

So, no complaints here about anachronism, acknowledged honestly and with good humor.  But switching over to my engineering hat, my interest this morning is to try to understand whether draft livestock on small farms can and should be a part of a localized intensive agriculture future.  Out of familiarity, I’ll take the land the nascent orchard is planted on as an example – this is about 30 acres of land, but only 5-6 are cleared, and of that less than 1 acre is in any kind of active production.  By way of background, in earlier posts, I did a rough calculation suggesting that intensive agriculture would require at least one half acre per person to provide a well-balanced vegan diet.  This paper (which seems to be written by an intelligent, practical person) indicates that an average horse consumes about 4 tons of hay per year.  Most of the people in Small Farmer’s Journal seem to be using workhorses, and typically in teams of 2 or more.  A percheron being at least 50% heavier than a mill-run sporting horse (and putatively working much harder), we’d need to provide at least 6 tons of hay per year.  Yield for hay nationally appears to be around 2.5T/acre, and Maine being colder and less sunny than many places, probably 2T would be as much as you would want to assume.  So 3 acres of ground would need to be set aside to keep just one workhorse going – and it’s common to put several in a hitch to perform common farm tasks.  That’s not too surprising since even a small cat1 tractor is ~25 hp.  More than half the available land would need to be used to feed the workhorse, even though we would only need to use it every once in a while – and this is on a much bigger piece of property than many people doing local intensive agriculture will ever work.  (Eliot Coleman’s rule of thumb is that one person can tend around 2 acres maximum.)

So, it seems that the basic problem is that the quantity of land required to keep even one workhorse dwarfs the scale of a typical cottage farm.  Further, a family doing small-scale farming won’t need a horse all the time (I imagine most use is concentrated in spring and fall), but the horse will eat all that time. In contrast, a tractor only eats when you use it.  I’ve never worked with draft animals, but based on my experience doing small farm tasks with (and maintenance on) a 30-year old used diesel tractor, it is hard for me to see how draft power will be truly practical until fuel is well over an order of magnitude more expensive than it is now.  More than economics, though, the main issue is practicality.  I read somewhere that small farms taken as a whole have a -30% profit margin; that is small farmers farm out of love, and subsidize their farming with work off the farm.  Now, people who farm out of love are welcome to use whatever form of power they want, and god bless them, but my interest here is to understand whether on-farm horse power would make sense in a hypothetical future where people were operating small farms as a significant (though perhaps minority) share of family net revenue.  For many, maintaining a source of off-farm income is likely to conflict with optimal care, and a only a limited number of people will be willing to sign up for the twice-daily-without-fail routine of keeping livestock.  Even my parents (who once kept pigs, sheep, and goats) have whittled down to chickens, as the one type of livestock neighbors can be consistently found to tend (so that they can take a vacation).

One effect of the high baseline feed requirement of draft animals is that the economics improves substantially as utilization increases – that is, if you are going to have draft animals, it makes sense for them to be working much of the time.  So (again in a hypothetical future world where there were a lot more small farms), perhaps a more workable system would be to have a few teamsters in any given region, who hire out to a number of local farmers on a daily or hourly basis, perhaps partially in trade for hay and feed.  (The same thing could theoretically be arranged in cooperative hippie communes, should a scalable model ever arise for how to form and maintain them.)  But in a thought experiment comparing [guy plus two workhorses and tack] with [guy plus 20hp tractor], it’s hard seeing how the guy with the horses wins, again excepting the situation where fuel costs $100/gallon.

A renewable energy engineer tries to make sense of economics

February 10, 2008

With all the talk of recession in the mainstream press these days, I have been attempting with very limited success to concoct a defensible narrative on how economies work from an engineering perspective. In part this is motivated by what seems to be a reflexive sense on the part of many in the left/environmentalist/social justice set that something about the economy is fundamentally unsustainable in an acute way; that “it’s all bound to come crashing down, any day now”; that consumption of fossil fuel along with widespread affronts to social justice and ecological vitality are bound to bring Business as Usual to a screeching halt, and (some will admit) “the sooner the better”. I recall even hearing a few people who’ve never taken a thermo class claim that the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that the profligacy of the modern age will soon be a distant memory. All of this accompanied at times by a sort of gleeful anticipation, to the effect that “the greedy bastards will finally get what’s coming to them; pretty soon they’ll be scratching gravel just like the poor folks”.

Now, I will freely admit that I have a lot in common with the folks who promote this sort of thinking. I live in a small house heated mostly with wood, I drive an efficient car, and I grow organic vegetables where my front lawn used to be. I spend my days working for a renewable energy startup dedicated to producing cheap, efficient solar cells, and I am freaked out about global warming and petroleum scarcity. But, I’ve read enough evolutionary biology to understand that we aren’t going to reprogram our human nature in historical time, and I am painfully aware that when times get hard, it is the downtrodden who suffer first and most deeply. Besides, as an empiricist, I want to understand how things actually work, and I’d like to get a realistic sense for what’s actually going to happen, separate from what I wish would happen, or what might be imagined to happen were there a global spontaneous enlightenment that overthrew human instinct and the laws of physics.


Winter Projects

January 7, 2007

It’s January, and despite the ridiculous weather (showers and in the 60s today in New Hampshire), there’s little to do orchard-wise beyond dreaming of spring.  The site would quickly turn to a mud-wallow if we so much as drove the tractor over it.  We climbed Mt. Cardigan this afternoon in shorts and t-shirt, but the short days put me in mind of The Oxcart Man, a children’s book that describes the seasons of a New England Farm.

We came out of the holidays at least a bit more relaxed than we went in, with a visit to Maine for Christmas and a blitz trip to St. Louis before New Years, and we distributed cider wherever we went.  For the most part it seemed to be well received; I think it would be a bit more accessible if it were a bit sweeter and more akin to the commercial stuff folks are used to.  I am almost ashamed to admit how happy I was to find that the Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon serves the local Farnum Hill Cider for four bucks a pint.  The food and beer are not what you’d call inspired, but the people are friendly and some of Alexis’ friends frequent the place so we’ve gone a couple of times.  It is inspirational to drink high-quality, unadulterated hard cider less than a mile down the hill from where it is grown, pressed, and brewed.  I do miss the legislated no-smoking policy that kept bars in Massachusetts and Arizona fresh; none of that for Live Free and Die.

I’ve been spending more time with the fiddle recently, mostly working out of The Portland Collections, great compilations of contradance music from Oregon.  I also found a tunebook recently for Crossing To Scotland, a wonderful album of Celtic cello music by a gal named Abby Newton.  I am only just becoming able to read music at a painfully slow pace, and converting from the bass clef is throwing me a bit, but the tunes are worth it.  Someone up in Sharon, VT is doing a class on contra music starting tomorrow, and I think I’ll go; having something to practice for would be a useful incentive.

I started a blanket box of half-inch maple plywood with douglas fir trim, but I am fetched up at the stage of mortising some brass hinges for the lid; one of these days I will push through and finish it, and the closet will be significantly less crowded for it.  Woodworking is much more inspiring when the finish can be applied outdoors.  Alexis is rapidly filling the bookshelf I made last year with medschool texts; one of these days I’ll make another matching one, but the oak veneer plywood at Home Depot is of such pitiful quality that I can’t bring myself to pay $50 for a sheet of it.

Every couple weeks I’ve been baking bread using a modified version of my grandmother Ummy’s recipe, Sherwood Inn Dark Bread: [2c rolled oats, 1c bran, 1/2c cornmeal, 1-2Tbs canola oil, 1Tbs salt, 1/4c flax flour, 4c boiling water] mix it up in a big bowl and let it cool.  [1.75c lukewarm water, 2Tbs dry yeast, 1-2tsp molasses] mix in a measuring cup, let it proof for a few minutes, then add to big bowl.  [1c molasses, 1/4c wheat gluten, 2c whole wheat flour] mix into bowl.  Add white flour 1c at a time and mix till you can’t mix it with a spoon.  Then start kneading; keep adding flour as necessary to keep it from sticking.  After 10-15 mins when the dough is smooth and elastic, oil it and put it aside to rise.  When doubled, punch and form 3 loaves.  When they have risen, bake at 325 for 1 hour.

Alexis gave me The Lobster Chronicles for Christmas; a book by Linda Greenlaw, who grew up on Isle au Haut, an island off the coast of Maine.  She apparently went to some decent Maine college (Colby, maybe) but then pissed off her parents by going to sea and becoming a swordfishing boat captain.  I understand that she wrote a book about it (which I have not read) and it became somewhat popular along with the Perfect Storm craze a while back.  Anyway, she quit the swordfishing business and goes home to live with her parents and try her hand at lobstering; Chronicles is the story of her first season on the island.  It wasn’t bad writing and I was happy to finish it, but it didn’t really have much of a narrative arc to it.  There’s a bit of drama about the lobsters being scarce; her mom gets breast cancer, and she tries to get some mileage out of a vain hope of cultivating a love interest on the tiny island, but then it just sort of ends with a passing mention of her having a house built on the island; presumably with the proceeds from the sale of her first book.  I couldn’t help but think that after the apparent success of her first book, her editor prodded her to serve up another helping of quaint personalities and salty humor for the Barnes and Noble crowd in Boston, and she obligingly turned it out.

I also read Shoutin’ Into the Fog, a memoir by a guy who grew up in Five Islands during the depression in a family featuring unrewarded ambition, insufficient nutrition, and excessive parturition.  It was fun to catch some glimpses of what life was like 80 years ago in the place I grew up.  One thing that struck me was how much more integral the community was back then; there was a one-room school in the village and an active general store and post office at the Five Islands wharf, where now there is only a lobster shack for the tourists.  I can just barely remember going into that store when I was a young kid; old men used to play cribbage in the back.  At some point in the 80s someone figured out that the place was full of asbestos; the place was gutted and the volunteer Fire Department burned it down.  The whole town turned out to watch; somewhere I have a picture of it that I took with my first camera.

Reading Material

December 6, 2006

Thought I’d make note of some useful reading material. 

Cider by Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols contains a lot of useful information on a broad range of topics, from selecting varieties and rootstocks to press construction and various fermentation techniques.  It’s the Annie Proulx of The Shipping News and Close Range; I’ve enjoyed her fiction so it’s cool to know that she’s into cider as well.

I got The Apple Grower by Michael Phillips for my birthday last spring.  He’s a guy from up in northern New Hampshire who is creating the beautifully-named organic Lost Nation Orchard in Northumberland, up north of the White Mountains.  In pictures he looks awesome, like some kind of pomological elf, and his writing is compressed and maybe a bit scattered, with a tendency to edge into the supernatural, but the book is packed full of hard-won knowledge about growing organic apples, which is considered the final frontier of organics, especially in wet climates where pests and disease predominate.

The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman has next to nothing to say about apples, but it has a lot of useful basic information about organic growing technique, and an encouraging, innovative attitude.  Maybe even a bit too encouraging – it reminds me a bit of John Gardner, whose Building Classic Small Craft and other books of plans and comentary can leave the unsuspecting reader with a firm sense that building a classic wooden boat is among the most sensible activities possible.  Coleman is at least straightforward about the economics: $8000 per acre per year of gross revenue from intensive vegetable gardening, $2000 per acre per year of expenses not including the cost of land, and a practical maximum of 2.5 acres to be cultivated by one person, or $15,ooo/annum for all that hard work.  This is why I aspire to be a gentleman farmer rather than a real one, and why I am still an engineer.