Archive for the ‘overview’ Category

2016 pruning, remembering Poppy

March 12, 2016

Today was the day for the annual spring pruning, and it was a great occasion to remember my grandfather, who died peacefully earlier this week at the age of 95.  William F. Herman (‘Bill’ around town, ‘Poppy’ in the family) was a big part of my life as a kid, and his love of growing things inspired me to plant the orchard when we moved back east over 10 years ago.

Pops and my grandmother, ‘Ummy’ grew up and lived their professional lives in eastern Massachusetts, but spent a lot of time in Maine – her father was an avid rod-and-gun sportsman. In the sixties they bought a slice of land on a remote island in the midcoast, two miles beyond the end of the electric power lines near the village of Five Islands.  When my parents decided to settle down after some years of teaching mountain-climbing in the mountains out west, Um and Pops invited them to homestead on the land in Five Islands, and I grew up off the grid, surrounded by the natural wonders of the Maine coast.

In 1983, Pops retired from a 25-year career at Polaroid, and my grandparents joined us in Maine.  By then electricity had come to the North End, and my father built them a passive solar home.  Though rocky and overgrown, the land had been a farm until early in the 20th century, with stone walls, foundation holes, and odd bits of pottery and rusted iron in evidence. Over the years the family cleared land and planted gardens, berries, and apple trees, and some of my earliest memories of my grandfather relate to agriculture.  He kept a very neat vegetable garden, which he would weed in khaki pants and a button-up shirt (he’d shower and put on a jacket and tie for dinner every night until he was far along in years). He grew masses of vegetables – great sweet corn, bowls and bowls of shell peas, and so many cucumbers and tomatoes that he put a wooden box at the end of the driveway and wrote ‘Help Yourself’, to the joy of the neighbors.

The garden was surrounded by semi-dwarf apples – Cortland, Winesap, Rhode Island Greening, Red Delicious, and he showed me how to prune the trees.  There was also a big wild tree behind their house that was saved in the construction, and it gave great green apples that were my favorite kind when I was a kid. In the fall we would collect the fruit in bags, and Poppy, Ummy, Joanna, and I would press them using a hand-crank cast iron press that had belonged to my great grandfather – the same press that Alexis, Holly, Becky, and I used back in Cider Year 1.  I think he tried to ferment some a couple times, but it was a casual attempt in a plastic milk jug and I don’t remember anyone thinking it tasted good.

In all the years of living and romping around as a kid, I can’t remember Poppy ever raising his voice.  He became a respected character around town, serving as selectman and sometimes as moderator at the old-fashioned town meeting. An engineer by training, he loved to keep careful records – of the amount of firewood he burned each month of each winter down to the tenth of a cord, of the number of quarts of blueberries his waterfront bushes produced, and of gallons of maple sap we collected each spring.  He taught himself to play ragtime piano by ear, and made some pretty nice oil paintings in an engineer’s realistic style – I think he said Norman Rockwell was his favorite artist.

If I drank another pint of this 2014 cider I could probably go on all night, remembering Poppy teaching me how to build kites and drive a tractor, and ‘messing about in boats’, fishing for mackerel in the Sheepscot river out of a 13′ Boston Whaler – he loved the water though he famously would never swim no matter how hot the summer. As the years went by, Poppy’s world gradually compressed; the boat trips shorter and the garden smaller and weedier, but he stubbornly kept at it. I remember a couple years ago when I was working in the orchard, I looked back toward the house and saw him at the edge of the field, using his old-fashioned scythe instead of a cane – he’d take a couple of swipes at the overgrown brush, then lean on the tool to catch his breath.

As Poppy slowed down my parents increasingly picked up the slack, mulching and pruning the berries, planting the corn, and splitting the firewood. And in 2006 I asked him if I could clear some land off to the the south to start a new orchard for cider apples, and he was happy to let me get started. For as long as he could walk, he’d totter up the woods road to the orchard gate to see what I was up to, and we’d talk about trees and plans.  I’m grateful to my grandparents for the opportunity to grow up in a unique and beautiful part of the world, and for the sense that tending and caring for the land is a project that can last more than a lifetime, and build connections across generations.

 

 

Cider year 10: 232 gallons in a day

November 2, 2014

Last weekend marked the 10th successive year when Alexis and I have made cider with Holly, Becky, and a steadily growing crew of enthusiastic friends.  I am amazed by how this tradition has taken root, and how ever-increasing quantities of cider are produced and just as rapidly disappear.  Below you will find the annual report; thanks to everyone who sent photos; please send more if you have them, and I’ll link to other peoples’ blog posts if they make them.

Late in the week the weather was cranky, so I borrowed a friend’s box trailer, which was very handy for hauling the large number of cardboard boxes of glass bottles and open tubs of miscellany which always accumulate before cider. Between that and two bins of apples I was heavily laden for the trip to Five Islands.

truck and apples

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Cider Weekend, year 8: in the big barn

October 22, 2012

Thanks to everyone who pitched in to make the 8th annual Cider Weekend run remarkably smoothly. The weather was downright damp on Friday and Friday night, so my folks dragged the cider equipment into the big new barn they’ve been building, while I made the annual run to Poverty Lane. Work prevented me from making the usual improvements to the pedal-powered equipment; I barely had time to assemble everything and make sure it still ran. Joshua and Kelsey got things kicked off right on Saturday AM with delicious breakfast burritos and chocolate pastries, and then we set to work.  We set up a nice little process flow, with washing, grinding, pressing, and bottling running counter-clockwise in the first two bays of the barn. We pressed sweet cider first, then the bin of Yarlington Mill I brought back from Lebanon. Thanks to Brenda, Steve, and the crew at Poverty Lane for finding us a bin of bittersweet despite the weird spring weather.

MomJones made a big pot of mac and cheese for lunch, which was washed down with copious quantities of cider.  More and more folks kept arriving, and taking turns at each station, and the jugs filled quickly. We bottled four kegs of 2011 cider in parallel with the pressing, using the dual counterpressure rig. We were cleaning up by 4PM, and the total production was approximately 200 gallons, with approximately 73% yield (plus however much went straight into peoples’ mugs right off the press).  Holly led an epic production of wood-fired pizza and delicious apple pie for Saturday dinner at #70, and Jake ran an extended tomahawk training session and contest, which was won promptly by Narath, who carried off the prize, a brand new ‘hawk hot from the forge. The kids got their turn at the tomahawks, and when the crowd thinned out a bit we played some old time music.

Sunday morning saw apple pancakes at #5, then more cleanup and some folks paddled around in Robinhood Cove.  Heli made a nice lentil soup to go with leftover pizza for lunch, and folks departed laden with cider. I sulfited the newly filled carboys, transferred them to the root cellar, and made a starter for Emily to pitch the following evening.

Thanks again to my folks, grandparents, and Joanna and Jake for hosting, to the folks who made all the delicious food, and to everyone who pitched in to make this year’s Cider Weekend the biggest yet.

Winter 2011

January 7, 2011

Happy new year! – and apologies for neglecting the blog. Lots of exciting stuff going on, just not in the orchard. Work has kept me busy, and since cider weekend I’ve managed to do the racking, rake around the trees and put on the spirals, and mend/upgrade the fencing for winter – but that’s about it. But, days are getting longer, I just ordered a honeybee hive nucleus from Merrimack Valley Apiaries, and it’s getting time to put in a Fedco order. I’m tempted to do a bunch of grafting, but technically I don’t have any new ground to set them out in, so I would have to nursery them while I got the section to the south of the orchard ready. I would like to do some thinning in the woods past the south stone wall, in preparation for fencing that area in, maybe as a goat pasture for a couple years before I plant any trees in there. There should be plenty of critters around, since my folks recently acquired two pregnant dairy goats, they are very cute, gentle, and increasingly round as they approach their February due dates.

Fifth Annual Cider Weekend – Overview

October 27, 2009

KM SG BR ES operate tandem pedal grinder

The fifth annual cider weekend took place October 23-25 in Five Islands, Maine.  Thanks to all the participants for generous contributions of time, expertise, equipment, apples, and comestibles, despite adventures, trials and tribulations, the event was a smashing success – literally.  It’ll take a few posts to tell the whole story, but here are some highlights:

  • About 40 people participated over three days
  • The oldest person was 90; the youngest was less than a week old
  • About 140 gallons of cider were produced in one moderate day Saturday and an hour or two Sunday
  • A test batch delivered 75% yield; estimated yield for the weekend as a whole was over 70%
  • The cidering equipment was completely overhauled for 2009
    • The grinder was all new, fabricated from plastic and stainless steel, with high speed drive from a Trek tandem bicycle
    • The press was entirely new, 20″ square working area with a 20″ stroke, 4″ diameter 3000psi hydraulic ram powered by a Bontrager hardtail MTB through an 11GPM two-stage hydraulic pump.
      • On Sunday the press was upgraded with a soft-seat check valve with manual bypass, and a high-pressure accumulator, resulting in much greater ease of use.
  • At least five serious mechanical issues which could have derailed the whole project were averted by the intrepid engineering efforts of the assembled talent pool
  • Delicious food was provided pot-luck by the participants
  • The weather was as agreeable Sunday as it was disagreeable Saturday.  In contrast to the open-air festivities of past years, cidering was held in an open-ended pole barn, with auxiliary tarpage.

Holly Ellen Leeann Matt work the grinder

Kauf and Alexi work the press

illana fills the jugs

Um and Pops test the cider

alex drives the chewdigger

Johanna and a fine mist of apples

Posts I could write

November 8, 2008

Six carboys are ticking away happily in my office closet, and today I took apart the pedal grinder and scraped the apple sludge out of the crevices – hopefully by next year we’ll have a more streamlined, easily cleaned assembly based on this year’s successful architecture. A lot has been going on, and I haven’t had the chance to do much of it justice in this blog. As a placeholder, here’s a list of posts I’ve thought to write recently:

  • I picked out five new apple trees from Fedco to plant in the empty spots in the orchard next spring.
  • The garden is pretty much cleared out; I harvested about a bushel of root veggies (potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips) from an area smaller than our small kitchen. This makes me unreasonably happy. Root vegetables seem to have a dietary and spiritual substance that other garden vegetables lack.
  • Alexis is half way through her last year of med school, studying for the national exam. Soon she will be interviewing with residency programs around the New England area.
  • I’ve been playing a lot of music recently, and today I bought a decent quality fiddle and bow to replace my rock-bottom beginner hardware. Probably one of the bigger discretionary purchases I’ve made.
  • At Kauf’s suggestion I recently read Deep Economy by Bill McKibben. I’m generally sympathetic to McKibben; long ago I was influenced by his End of Nature. But I can’t decide whether the book is potentially prescient, or merely hopeful.
  • Meanwhile, the actual economy continues to falter. Venerable financial institutions have stumbled; a fifth of mortgage holders owe more than their property is worth, and folks are too scared to shop – it seemed the day would never come.
  • On the work front, Holly and I have made what may turn out to be a modest advance in an aspect of solar cell processing technology.
  • The financial crisis has dramatically changed the landscape facing renewable energy companies. The birth rate of cleantech startups may be slowing, and existing companies are being advised to cut costs and prepare for a rough time.
  • The US just picked a smart, progressive black guy to be the next president – how cool is that? Unfortunately, he’s taking office just as a once-in-a-century multifaceted shitstorm blows in. On the bummer side, California wrote marriage discrimination into their state constitution.

There’s probably more, but I’m grasping for some sense of how it all fits together, what the scene taken as a whole portends. So much is up in the air. On the one hand, the headwind that cleantech faces as a result of the financial crisis confirms a suspicion I’ve long felt. I worried that the general public’s appetite for clean energy was merely a pocketbook issue (in the case of fuel prices) and a good-times magnanimity (in the case of climate change), and that interest would evaporate at the first sign of adversity. And, at least anecdotally, that indeed seems to be the mood at least among venture capital types. On the other hand, there seems to be a reasonable chance that Obama could make renewable energy a major focus of a massive Keynesian intervention to prop up the economy, which would obviously provide a major boost to our efforts.

It’s not at all clear just how deep the economic problems will go, or how fundamental the causes are. A glance at the Case-Schiller index indicates that the inflated housing situation was pretty much doomed to come to a sticky end given the huge leverage involved, but it’s debatable the extent to which food and energy scarcity and global warming are feeding the flames.  As oil crept up on $150/bbl the historical comparisons were mainly to the 1970s; now with housing and energy deflation folks are talking more about the 1930s.  For several years now Holly, Keith, Brandon, and I have kept up a running semi-joke about “The Hard Times”; a sort of worst-case scenario in which energy and climate factors cause an economic collapse that throws much of modernity for a loop and leaves small communities to fend for themselves with improvised technology.  For the most part the HT (or, for Brandon, HTv2.0 – postulating Hobbes’ State of Nature as the original release) are good for a reliable laugh, and provide a satisfying narrative tying together many things that I like to do anyway – e.g. pedal-power contraptions, growing fruit and vegetables, playing home-made music, developing small-scale renewable energy, brewing, etc. (I was pleased to find that barrels of homemade hard cider were the primary item of regional trade in Jim Kunstler’s recent fictional account of tHT.)  But it is a bit disconcerting that a tale we were kicking around in pre-Katrina, pre-oil shock, pre-cleantech bubble era seems to get more and more plausible by the month.

Fourth annual cider weekend – fantastic!

October 27, 2008

Cider year four: we went to Five Islands this weekend with trailer in tow, carrying the pedal grinder, screw press, and several hundred pounds of cider apples from Poverty Lane.  Around 15 friends joined us to help pedal, press, eat, and drink cider, and it was definitely the best cidering we’ve had so far.

(more pics to come – grabbed the wrong CD from my mom)

We arrived mid-afternoon on Friday; Joshua and Kelsey had arrived a day or two before.  Other folks turned up over the course of the evening, and we caught up around the fire at the old homestead, played some old-time tunes, and of course drank cider.  Saturday morning dawned mostly clear and pretty warm; there was some thought of getting an early start, but we had been up pretty late the night before, and it was nearly ten by the time we got going.  Folks set to work washing apples in the great flexible multicolored tubs that my mom got me for Christmas, then feeding them into the pedal mill. We started off with a couple hundred pounds of fruit from the two trees in our NH yard, to make sweet cider.   Alea’s friend Amit turned out to be a champion pedaler, but most folks got a chance to pedal and force the apples into the grinder’s maw.  The modified press with serrated cutters and polyethylene post-crushers performed as before, producing a fine pulp with almost no crunchy bits.  Soon we switched over to the (hard) cider fruit, and were perhaps half way through the apples by lunch, which featured a very fine vegetable soup prepared by Sharon and Brandon, sandwiches, and of course cider.  Grinding and pressing resumed, and it soon became clear that we would finish comfortably on Saturday afternoon.  Kelsey, Joshua, and Andy did yeoman service on the pressing side, and Shefali was mix mistress, distributing each type of cider among nine carboys.   Ultraviolet toddled around and played with the dogs, while Jeff and Ellen (very old family friends) dropped by to check out the scene, and Jason and Nancy stopped by with their new baby.

We finished sometime after four, having produced about 87.5 gallons of cider.  A rough calculation of yield put the numbers in the low 60s, a bit of a disappointment after the 70+ performance at Pete’s a few weeks back, but we were working faster and the fruit was not so ripe.  There’s definitely more work to be done in the pressing department though – I’m still interested in the continuous press concept, but I’m beginning to think that maybe the key is just overwhelming pressure – and that a pedal-powered hydraulic press might be in order.

After cleaning up the press and loading it back on the trailer, we retired to my folks’ house for dinner (fajitas and cider), merriment, and more old-time music.  Saturday night featured a wild wind and rain storm which cleared my mid-morning, by which point we had eaten our fill of blueberry pancakes.  Finding ourselves with no more apples to press, we took a leisurely walk around the North End, and returned for a nice lunch provided by Team Elgart, whereupon the majority of the revelers dispersed.  Alea and Amit stayed to enjoy what turned out to be a glorious warm, sunny afternoon, then they too departed.

Regarding cider equipment performance, things went so well on the grinding side, so much so that it’s not obvious that much needs changing.  A couple of minor failure modes were observed.  The set screws holding the drive sprocket on the primary post-crusher drum loosened up a couple times, causing them to stop spinning.  A key or more robust set screw arrangement is in order for next year.  Second, with some types of apples (primarily Baldwin, which were the hardest and least ripe), the pulp seemed hesitant to feed through the post crushers, and it pooled somewhat in the grinder portion.  The Baldwins could be fed through in combination with other apples, and it wasn’t too big a deal, but worth tinkering with to get better performance.  I have a suspicion that if the crushers were positioned to receive the material that’s flung off of the cutters directly in the nip (rather than at a ~45 degree angle as at present, for convenience given the pre-existing hardware), it would feed much better.  For an experiment, we removed one of the post crusher drums at the end, which resulted in a much freer feed of Baldwin pulp, and a somewhat coarser pulp, as would be expected, though fine enough to be respectable.  The added sprockets and additional timing chain added significantly to the noise, and it seems reasonable to propose that the primary drive chain (the one that transmits power from the jackshaft to the cutter drum and the primary post-crusher drum) be replaced by a stout timing belt.  The design may be sufficiently refined at this point to warrant rebuilding for next year in plastic and corrosion-resistant metals, with a construction that’s better suited to washdown and provides a stiffer interface to the bicycle.

On the pressing side, the rate was much improved by the dual-stack design, as evidenced by the fact that we produced as much cider this year in one day than we made last year in two, but the yield was still not up where we’d like it to be.  As mentioned above, a hydraulic solution may be called for, but this will have to be the subject of another post.

Many thanks to all who pitched in – cider should be ready in time for Christmas!

Harpooned, harrowed, seeded, watered

June 9, 2008

We’re headed back to Leb for the rest of the summer, so I took Friday off to make it a three day weekend of agricultural madness.  I ended the day Sunday utterly whupped but hopeful that the orchard is in good shape, thanks to generous help from my parents, Alexis, and my aunt Lucy, and enthusiastic oversight by my grandparents.

Friday I took apart the tubing that formed the siphon from the farm pond to the orchard, reassembled with silicone and better hose clamps, and put another ball valve on the pond end, so even if there’s a vacuum leak at the top the system can’t drain down. The only trick is to remember to open the pond side valve first and close it last. The siphon makes an impressive flow at the bottom of the orchard, filling a 5 gallon pail in perhaps 15 seconds. Sadly the top of the orchard is actually above the pond, so lacking a pump (plan to build bicycle version someday and I’ve got a small 4-cycle honda pump on order as backup) it’s fill buckets and lug in the meantime.

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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 http://hornbeammountainfarm.wordpress.com.  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.

Turning in the PVO

September 20, 2007

AC was on call for her surgery rotation, but there was a lot to do to get the orchard ready for winter, so I blitzed up to Maine last weekend with the larger of the two dogs and set to work.

  • I moved the 2000lb of dolomitic limestone and 200lb each of greensand and phosphate rock up to the orchard site and tarped them over.
  • I pulled my grandfather’s old lime spreader out of the pole barn and rehabilitated it.  This primarily involved worrying the flow control gate slide mechanism to work the rust out of the bearings and get the cable working again.
  • I used the Kubota with the spring-tooth harrow to break up the moosemaple root clods that were left in the northeast corner by the excavator last spring, and carried the roots to the edge of the orchard by hand
  • I also gathered up a lot of small rocks by hand, and twitched one giant rock out using the tractor bucket.  I exposed a couple more that didn’t want to come out by tractor.
  • I used some old truck tire chains to make a heavy chain drag to smooth the soil
  • I hooked up the double-bottom plow and turned over the entire orchard.  I had been worried that the plow would bog on the many roots left in the ground, or the shear pins would break when I hit rocks, but to my delight it worked quite well.  It was surprisingly satisfying to see the area of broken ground spread across the orchard site, until I reached the far edge, and took a couple passes around the perimeter to break up roots of the nearby trees.
  • I then hooked up the disk harrow, with a 12″ chunk of 4′ maple firewood as ballast, and harrowed the site across the furrows to smooth it out.
  • I used the chain drag to smooth the soil to get it ready for the lime spreader
  • The Kubota battery seemed to be on its last legs, and the  small Mitsubishi tractor wouldn’t start at all, so I took measurements for new batteries
  • I unpacked the 11 boxes containing 20 bags of tree prep mix, 50 pounds of fall cover crop, and tree protector spirals
  • I put the spirals on the trees in the orchard; there are a few spares for some of the other random trees around the place
  • On my way out I got a couple of bags of tomatoes out of my grandparents’ garden; I ground these up at home and cooked them down into 6 pints of good thick sauce