Monday, January 16, 2012

"What do you do in the winter?"

Whenever I tell someone I am a small-scale, diversified, farmer, I inevitably hear one of two questions. This is one of them. To which I respond, "I farm". This question is one of the most obvious indicators that our culture is completely separated from its food. Some people seem to think that farming is just showing up at market with great tasting veggies. But obviously, there are months of work that go into that day at market. From the seed order in the fall to planting, to cultivating and weeding and more. But there is also a lot of work that doesn't necessarily portray itself as 'farm work' because it doesn't directly affect the crop. These are the things that are accomplished in the dark, cold months of winter. Because once spring seedling planting time comes along there is no time for this type of project, despite the fact that it all needs to be done. This weekend was a great time to get a few 'odd jobs' done. Snowy and freezing rain on Thursday/Friday and then colder than you know what on Saturday and Sunday. A great time to be in the workshop crossing things off the 'off-season list'.

Here is one project I've been meaning to do for a while. I've created a filing system for my seedling tray labels. I determined that I waste a lot of time each spring and fall searching for labels that I know I have (I use discarded vinyl siding to make indestructible, reusable labels). Usually, I cannot find the one I want and end up erasing another one and writing the variety, date, etc. Then, I always find the one I wanted soon after that. This is a massive waste of time when you add it all up. So I've created this.

As you can see, I used chicken wire stapled to plywood backing and stick the labels down into the chicken wire. They are organized by variety and will eventually be fully alphabetized. Everything about this project is thrifty. The plywood and frame wood are salvaged from the kindling pile here at the farm. The chicken wire is something I've kept from an invention that was a colossal failure. (That happens you know.) I've kept it all these years and finally had this inspiration. Now, all I have to do is find the variety I want and change the date!
And another time saver for the same reasons. When I plant out transplants into the garden I need bigger signs to note all the relevant information. I was having the same trouble with these except it was worse because of the awkward shape. At least with the seedling tags they all fit into a small bag or box. Not so much with these which are also completely salvaged. The vinyl is from construction debris and the stakes are stickers (this is something you have cut when you get lumber milled by a sawyer. They help to dry the lumber when it is stacked.). Jim has been working the past couple of weeks to increase our supply of signs, which I never seem to have enough of at planting time.

I hope to have these all organized and alphabetized by spring too. Everything on this project is salvaged from the burn pile too with the exception of a box of screws with I did have to buy since I was running out of salvage screws backed out of the wood of old projects. Also, the two vertical pieces of cedar come from the pile of lumber I had milled out last winter from the farm.

Another project I am nearly finished on after this weekend is an insulated, custom-built seed safe. Seed viability decreases quickly in less than ideal storage conditions. Ideal storage conditions include cold temperatures and very low humidity. So, I've built this shelving unit which I intend to enclose in insulated foam board and then sheathing. I will then copy a technique from my friend Mark Allen of Living Land Farm in Winterport, ME. He buys plain white rice in bulk and dumps the entire container into the bottom of his seed bins. This absorbs moisture and keeps it from the seeds.

Once again, everything here is salvaged with the exception of the screws. As you can see, this lumber is from old projects that I dismantled, or asked someone else to dismantle (thank you Becky!). There is a light colored streak just to the left of the nails. That is a spot where the wood broke as I was backing out a screw. The particle board and strapping all came from the burn pile. As such, some of the shelves are piecemeal and took longer to construct because I had to fit pieces together like a puzzle (which can mean several trips back and forth from the table saw).

Another project that I've been working on over the last few weeks is repairing old and constructing new seed ling trays. I'll be using the individual sized milk cartons that I get for the pigs from a local grocery store. They make great 2" pots but with a deeper root capacity than plastic cell trays.

Once again, everything is salvaged here. As you can see, not all of the plywood was exactly the right length. But for some projects, close enough is good enough. The small corner missing from this piece is indicative of the types of creativity you need when working with salvaged materials.

This used to be common practice amongst farmers and homesteaders from the dawn of the last century backward through time. There is a wonderful book by Eric Sloane called "Diary of An Early American Boy". I recommend this book to anyone! It's an amazing work with wonderful drawings and amazing research. One example of the thriftiness that was commonplace in earlier times; they used to burn down old houses that were no longer fit to live in and then go through the ashes to find the nails. Nails were handmade on the farm and very expensive. Only recently have farmers adopted a strategy including the words, "I can just buy more." I don't know when that transition started to take place but my belief is that we must move back toward the mentality that my great grandmother seemed to have after having survived the depression as a child. "Can I used this again? Can I use this again? Can I use this again? And now that I can't use it again, what else can I use it for if I change it slightly". In our modern world we are coming to realize that infinite resources are a myth. We must return to a mentality that allows for ultimate recycling philosophy.

And when it's -3 degrees F outside and you've worked in the workshop all weekend and just got back in from checking on the pigs (who are fine by the way) and chickens (also fine and warm), it's nice to take advantage of a nicely stoked up fire in the milk house workshop.

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