Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A layer of protection from the elements

One thing I learned about farming right at the beginning was the importance of an extra layer of protection.  This is true for me, the farmer who must be out in the elements no matter what they happen to be on any given day.  It is also true for the plants, for some cultivars, throughout their lives here at the farm.  Eliot Coleman talks about this in several of his books.  One more layer of protection can be the difference between survival and a good harvest, or wilted, dead plants.
A layer of protection is helpful, it turns out, to many things at the farm and I've tried to apply one to as many things as possible this season.  Some of these ideas are well practiced here at the farm but others are new experiments this winter in an effort to try and make certain chores more efficient.
Something I do every year is take cuttings from some of our fruit and nut trees during the pruning process.  These cuttings are called scion and they can be grafted onto other specimens to duplicate the genetic characteristics of the tree from which the scion came.  Storing the scion is an issue because it needs to remain very cold but not freeze and it also needs to be protected from drying.  The way I accomplish this (and many people do this same thing) is to put the scion into reused plastic bags (labeled!) and pack them in snow inside a cooler.  It works quite well.  As the snow melts (eventually) the water is still cold but helps to keep the scion moist. 

A perpetual problem in our climate in the winter is keeping things from freezing.  While there are many things I want to be frozen such as the skating pond and the top few inches of soil in the garden (pest control), there are also innumerable things I don't want to freeze.  One example is the pig milk.  Each week I go to a local grocery store to pick up their spent dairy products which would otherwise go into the trash compactor at the back of the store.  This is something the pigs really enjoy and it also helps to lessen the staggering statistics on food waste in the U.S. (There is a brief discussion of this in the most recent ACRES http://www.acresusa.com/magazines/magazine.htm).  But in the winter the milk obviously freezes.  This has led me in the past to bring it into the basement of the farmhouse.  This adds about an hour to my labor each week because of the extra walking, not to mention it's up and down a flight of stairs and through my in-law's living room, etc.  Not the best set-up.  So this season I took some insulation I had from another project and built a small 'warmer'.  I took two windows (seriously, I never throw away anything that might have a future use) and framed up an insulated box facing south through one of the barn doors.  The glass acts as a solar collector and the insulation keeps just enough heat from escaping to prevent the milk from freezing.  The milk crates are black and that helps too.  Thus far, nothing has frozen!

The other project I mentioned above is this new closet for the water pump.  One of the yearly rituals has habitually been unhooking the water pump in the fall, bringing it to the basement and storing it until spring when the process is reversed.  This has always meant that I've simply 'made do' by lugging water from the house for the couple months of late winter when it's too cold for the pump but the seedlings have been started.  But as I've begun to grow more and more this has become a non sequitur.  I could spend all day every day hauling water 10 gallons at a time all the way from the house, pouring them into watering cans and then watering the seedlings.  I have also had to bring water for the animals.  This new closet has saved me countless hours already just for watering the pigs and chickens.  I'm also building a new seedling house (another post about that will arrive at the Thought Grower soon) and once it's up and running I'll need water. This closet along with some black hose and electric heat tape (powered by the farm's 6 Kw photovoltaic array) will allow me to be much more successful in the beginning of the season and that translates into stronger, healthier, less stressed seedling being transplanted into the garden when the time comes.  
The lumber for this closet came from the farm which made building it even more rewarding.
You may also be able to see the black extension cord draped over the wall and going down into the insulation.  This is a key feature.  It's a light bulb which I plug in when the weather is going to be particularly cold for a particularly long stretch (not unlike the stretch we're in right now).  With the layer of protection provided by the insulation, this light bulb produces enough heat to keep the water pump from freezing.

Projects like these are definitely getting crossed off the TCWUW list left and right this winter.  I'm also hoping to construct an ice house and a new packing shed which will also save me countless hours in the long-run because I've always used the old milk room in the barn (fairly distant from the garden) to store veggies.  That's a lot of wasted time walking back and forth to/from the garden.  Hopefully, all this will be done by the end of February!