Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ranting about Country Respect

   Okay...time for a good rant!
   If you've been following this blog, you might remember me writing about people going off the road by our house. This morning was another one of those days. A friend and neighbor of ours went off the road and flipped her car. And the most unfortunate thing is that she was hurt. She was able to call for help on her phone and Marty was still doing chores so was able to be right there also. The sherriff deputy showed up. Then two fire trucks, two ambulances, about six EMT's, and about a dozen firefighters came. They were able to get her out okay. (You guys are AWSOME!)
   But, here's my rant. Who was that idiot that was coming from the south (you know who you are babe!), that couldn't wait for the emergency vehicles to get our neighbor out of her car and to the hospital, and decided to drive thru...yes, through...our yard to get around them.
   Then she got her car stuck in our yard while doing so.
   Now...the deputy, bless his heart told her to stay put and Marty also asked her what she was thinking. Her response was...get this!..."this is how we do it in the country". SAAYY WHAAAT?! Oh yeah, if I'm stalled behind a life threatening emergency I tend to drive thru someone's yard to get around also. Would she do this in town? Is my yard less valuable than someone in town? What "country" is she from anyway? Are the firefighters and EMT's not having to worry as much about our neighbor's life and go push this lady's car out because we are in the country? Is she some kind of friggin idiot?
   Well. All I have to say is that it is a very good thing - no a GREAT thing - that I wasn't there. I tend to have a temper with stupidity, not to mention disrespect for personal property, not to mention disprespect for another's life. I think I could've come up with a handful of charges such as 'willful distruction of property' and 'impeding emergency personnel', just to name two. I think the cop let her off pretty easy.
   I also think I would've let her sit and think about those charges while she waited for the tow truck to come pull her out and she could pay for that as well as the property damages.
   If she was truly from "the country", she would've known she could turn around, go less than a mile south, east a mile, then back north and into town, taking probably less time than it took for her to sit there in our yard. Idiot.

   Now...with all that said, PLEASE pray for our neighbor's quick recovery from her injuries. We are really really hoping and praying that she is okay and can go home from the hospital soon.
   And, if you are the lady that drove thru our yard, you might want to thank the powers that be that I wasn't the cop there at the time. Or that I wasn't there at all. And, also that you weren't the one in the car that flipped over and are being sent to the hospital. And, you should thank those firefighters for pushing your car out of the yard and taking time away from them doing their jobs!
   It's all about respect people. RESPECT for others, "country" or not.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cat Tracks

   Cat tracks this morning in the snow. I follow them to the basement door, to the bushes where the birds are flitting, to the shed, the chicken house and around the side. Then they lead me to the small barn door, under the hog hut, to the old hog shed. I lose them there.
   On the way to the big barn I pick them up again, stopping at each of the three doors. Then they lead towards the woods, along the prairie path and turn in towards the syrup house. A little jaunt around the syrup tank to the syrup house door and then turn and peek into the shed, then back to the prairie trail.
   Off and on the trail, thru the woods on a deer path, up a branch and down the other side. On and on I go - hope in my heart, trying not to cry. At the gate to the road I stop as they get lost on the road. I peer across at the neighbor's house, call a couple of times, then give up.
   Was she looking for me? Was it her? Or was it just the other farm's midnight watch cat doing its rounds. Disappointed I go back to the syrup house to start the day. Spunky...where are you? Are you okay? Will you be able to come home?
   I miss my cat.

Spunky Brewster...missing Thursday, Feb. 23rd, 2011.
Farm cat extraordinaire. Very much missed.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Exciting Days of Syruping

   It feels like weeks since I last wrote. We are really going at it now, twelve to fourteen hours a day of syrup making. It is long days but well worth it!
Here's a typical day for us right now...
   I get up at 6:30 and get my breakfast put together, load up with stuff, and head for the woods. When I get to the syrup house I work on opening the roof vents, clean the evaporator flues and take out some of the ashes, and get a fire started. Then I start up the little generator borrowed from our friend John Carroll (thanks a ton, John!) and fill the blue barrel full of sap, sucking it out of the large steel tank that sits outside the syrup house. While that fills and the fire gets started, I quick wolf down my waffles (with syrup of course).
   When the guys get the chores done, emails answered, and heat the houses, etc., they come down to help out. We all take turns watching the evaporator as the sap boils so it doesn't boil over. We also take turns with putting wood in and cutting more wood, an ongoing task. And, yes ladies...I run the chainsaw also! (A regular old Rosie with the muscles here!)
   The idea is to keep the sap boiling as hard as possible without boiling it over and out of the pans. When the sap in the front pan is thick enough, we all work together to draw it off into a bucket and filter it twice into the finisher. Everything works a lot easier with the three of us working together. While Marty continues to watch the sap boil and control that part, which he is very good at, Will and I work on the bottling part of the operation.
   Will is really good at testing the syrup to make sure it is done. We do this with a hydrometer that tells us just the right amount of water (or not) to have in the syrup. Too much and the syrup spoils, too little and the syrup crystalizes. It is a very exacting science, and also dependant on the weather. After Will gets the syrup at the right consistency, we work together on the bottling. I fill the bottles and then later clean them off and label them at the house.
   At lunch time Marty fixes something spectacular and we all eat together picnic style in the woods. In order to not have the sap boil over, we crank it down...that means we cool it off by either adding more sap or closing the front damper. It really takes a lot of keeping an eye on things. And, even tho it might seem that watching sap boil would be boring, we are going on our feet almost all day.
   We keep track throughout the day of the sap boiled, the wood used, and the gallons of syrup made. We also write down the weather conditions and little things like when the first redwing blackbirds start singing. That all helps us the next year to do a better job with the syrup and to make sure we pay attention to spring coming.
   At 5:00 we start to shut down, not adding any more wood to the fire. The guys go up to the farm to do chores. I sweep, close the vents, wait for the fire to go down, clean the counters and equipment, make sure chairs are hung on the walls and trash taken up to the house. We keep everything as clean as we can. That is what I'm good at. Then I pack up my stuff and track up to the house to help wash filters and equipment, to have dinner, and to collapse.
   Up again the next day for the same. But, the syrup is heavenly tasting! Buttery and rich. No sugars and additives, just pure maple syrup. It is well worth it...did I already say that? Well, it is!
Marty and Will watching the pans.

Buttery tasting beautiful brown sap...almost syrup!

Lunch time in our office in the woods.

One day worth of firewood...maybe.
   The best days for boiling are days like today. A little sun, cold and in the upper 30's and with dry dry wood. Wet wood makes the process a real chore. Today is ideal. So...back to work!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Syrup season 2011

   Once again, I've been waiting for our internet to get fixed so I could tell you the news about our syrup season. We are trying another method for hooking up to the internet, having the little internet box on the first floor. We'll see if that works. But, in the meantime, things have gotten extremely busy.
   On the 11th the Prairie Central Community High School Ag classes came out to learn about the syrup season from Will. Will does a great program with these classes every year thanks to the coordination with their teacher, Darren Ropp (thanks Darren!). The kids helped tap the 151 trees on the 11th and then Will, Marty and I finished tapping the other half of them over the weekend. The total trees tapped are around 322. (We ended up with some extra buckets so we'll have to do a recount at the end of the season.)
   We always have questions about the tapping of the trees and the most popular one is...does it hurt the tree? So, here is what we think. It is kind of like giving blood. You go in, get jabbed in the arm and it hurts for a minute. You give some blood, then go home and the blood helps someone else. The trees give us their supply of sap (blood, in a way) that helps us make a living so we can continue to live here and take care of the farm and the woods. And, take care of the trees. It is a nice support of each other. I like to (yes, I'm one of those) hug the trees and tell them thank you for their support and participation in making the farm a great place to live. I know! Sounds corny! Or maybe I should say sappy.
   After tapping the trees, we began putting out big 55 gallon blue barrels and measuring 100' between them. Last year the mud bogged us down and we were having to carry 5 gallon buckets of sap through the mud to the syrup house from over 600' away...did I say thru the mud? The mud was ankle deep in some places. So, this year we got brightened up and decided to put out these barrels. We got a new hose to syphon from barrel to barrel with a little generator and a pump. That will help tremendously to cut down the back breaking (and ankle breaking) work of hauling the sap across the woods.
   We dump all the sap into a huge stainless steel tank that holds 400 gallons. The kids came out again today and collected sap, just about filling the tank. Then they'll come back again after we begin to boil it down into syrup and see that part of the process. We had to order a piece for the evaporator so won't be able to begin boiling until it arrives, hopefully this weekend.
This is our syrup house down in the woods.

This is our small wood fired (door in the front) evaporator.
We'd like to get a bigger one. Maybe next season, they are kind of expensive so we are saving up.

And this is a tap in a tree, the bucket is hooked to it.
The tap is "tapped" into a hole drilled just barely 1" into the tree.
   The days are getting longer, not just the daylight but also our work days. We typically work 14 hour days and 7 days a week during syrup season. But, the time enjoying the woods with spring coming, and the time working together as a team and family, is definitely worth it. Last year we were able to make and sell almost 50 gallons of syrup. This year we hope to be able to double that. It all depends on the weather tho, as does all farming. We need days in the upper 30's at least and night below freezing for the best syrup season. The freezing causes the sap to go back down the tree into the ground, the warm weather up into the tree during the day. Our 2010 season was only three weeks long. We are hoping for double that also!
   I'll work on getting some more pictures so you can see the process as it happens.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A great cache of carrots!

   What a glorious day! Well, it was about three hours ago. (Now it is 15 degrees and snowing!) We were in our shirtsleeves and sweating it up earlier. It was sunny and balmy…at least 70 degrees. That is in the hoophouses...of course!
   The west hoophouse is going to have early potatoes. The goal is to harvest them the first of May as new potatoes and then put our peppers in that house. We cleaned out the carrots that were still in there. Boy was that a surprise! 

   The tilling went great!

Marty tilling the west house for potatoes

The soil was nice and soft, beautiful. But, getting the tiller from the equipment shed to the hoops was a challenge. Will got his wooden toboggan and he and Marty sled the tiller to the houses. They lifted it over the threshold as we haven’t gotten our ramp built yet. But, it started up okay and the tilling was done.

Looking at the barn from the hoophouses...the four foot snow drift!

   Then we cleaned up the yucky smelling greens in the east house. We checked our Stella Natura calendar and today was a “leaf” day, meaning we should plant leaf plants. Great!  
   We tilled the middle section as we still have onions and garlic on the west, a few herbs, and some arugula on the east side. We planted a row each of red mustard, komatsuna, rapini, and cress. It’s an experiment to see how they do. We’ve never had a hoophouse in winter so we are testing everything this year to learn all we can.
   This weekend are “root” days so we will plant our potatoes in the west house and the radishes in the east one. This is soooo exciting! We had a great time. It felt so much like April in there!


Our delicious hoophouse carrots
There were over 34 pounds of juicy carrots about 6” long and about 1” in diameter. Nice orange ones that we planted last fall. We thought they would be a little soft due to the freezing temps, but they were fine.

Sorry Boys

    You boys out there might not want to read this one. It's a sorry fact of farm life tho. Today was the day...the big cut. Yep, the five little boy pigs got the wack. Ouch. 
The little boys in nicer weather.
They didn't suspect a thing!

   About a year and a half ago, Will and I went to the vet with our first batch of three little boys to get them casterated. We had heard two different stories. One was that if you casterate them, they won't taste as strong and musky. The second was if you didn't casterate them up to a year, you would be okay and they wouldn't taste too strong. hm. We opted for the first on the first batch, just to be sure. We took them to our GREAT vet, Dr. Susan Albright in Chenoa, IL (Hi Dr. Susan!). She is the best vet we've ever had because she listens to our organic needs. We don't do the usual shots for our livestock, we use herbal remedies for them, and she is a holistic vet. Not to mention super nice.
   Well, she taught us how to hold them up by their back legs, make the incision, and do the dirty deed of taking out the testicles (like I said...ouch!). It wasn't hard to do. She squirted them down with disinfectant and we put them back in the dog crate, brought them home, and they were fine. We kept them on clean straw in the barn for three days and then they went back outside.
   Then the second batch we sold the two boys as breeders to two other farmers. Got lucky there. But, this third batch had five boys. We are going to butcher them all for food for ourselves and a chef friend. So, we decided we'd be on the safe side again and casterate them. When it came down to it, Will and I looked at each other and said "nuh, uh!". We cringe at the idea of trying it ourselves. Call us wimps... we are.
   So, today Will took the boys to Dr. Susan and got them done. Now they are home again. Doesn't take but a quick minute. They are in the barn because of the snow drift over the outside cages and because it is to be really cold the next couple of days, so they'll be fine.
   Maybe sometime we'll try one or two without wacking them and see what the taste difference is. Maybe we'll wait until we have quite a few on hand tho so we aren't stuck if it is nasty tasting!
   Oh...and thanks to the super nice lady at Verizon Wireless (Latesha - I think) for helping us get back online!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Triangle

   You may have heard of the Bermuda Triangle. And how it sucks up technology and ships get lost in it and never come's here. Yep, our farm is the techno triangle of Central Illinois. There must be something about the word "historic" that makes technology think it shouldn't set foot here.
   The last few days I've been struggling with getting online so I could write these delightful blogs. No such luck. Marty called the server (Verizon Wireless) and spoke to some very nice people that finally decided to send us a new box, thinking this one has a problem since it "roams" for 3/4 of the time. We are still waiting on the box. But, after five hours of trying to get a book order through...I did it! And now, strangely enough, it is still working. If I blip off, you'll know it.
   I was trying to update some of the pictures for you to see our farm Swee on there! I'll keep trying over the next few days. This year one of my goals is to get a new smaller camera and take more pictures. The techno stuff isn't my strong point anymore and I think the internet hates me. I used to work ten hours a day on the computer. About ten years ago, when I moved here, decided to be free of all of it. We don't wear watches, we don't carry our one cell phone that I can't remember the number for, and we only get online about once a day for a little bit to do some research and business. Needless to say...the techno demon is getting back at us. We basically live like people did when I was a computer, no internet, no phones that didn't have a cord, etc. The problem is now that we are in the age of everyone using it...we are struggling with it.
   But,'s the news...if you want pictures and a description of the blizzard, check out the Midlife Farmwife blog (to the left). Donna has great pictures and a funny description. And, since she isn't that far from us, you'll get a very good idea of what it looks like at our farm also. We had our neighbor, Tom, plow our two lanes and out to the barn yesterday. Thanks Tom, you're GREAT!! We still can't get our tractors out yet, but will work on that today. And, there is a five foot drift between our north and south lanes.
   We had moved the pigs and cows into the barn before the storm...thank goodness. But, my littlest runt piggy, Feobe, wasn't feeling good anyway and the move was too much for her. She died on the 2nd. Everyone else is doing okay so far. And, they are loving the warmth since it was -1 degrees yesterday morn and only 8 this morn when I looked out.
   Being a sustainable farm is great! We have food for months in our freezers and canned in our pantry, we have firewood for about a week and then can find stuff around, and we have stuff to do. We are loving it! Being snowed in is a great vacation and a great excuse to just hang out. There are the chores, and the nice walks outside in  the sun (like today), and the knitting/reading/furniture fixing. I was able to finally finish fixing the bathroom floor yesterday and then took apart a chair and am re-upholstering it today. Marty is going to play in the snow and try to get the loader tractor started to bucket out the massive drift. Then he's enjoying his hobby of cooking (I need to get out in the drifts and lose the weight tho!).
   I hope to be able to write more again later...wish me luck!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Preparing for the Blizzard

   They are saying on the radio and online that we are in for 14" of snow, some sleet, thunderstorm, cats, dogs, frogs, whatever. We don't tend to get too excited about the weather, but we are smart enough to prepare for it. Yesterday we cut and brought in three loads of red elm firewood. I hated cutting that tree down. It was hu-mun-gus! I kept the wedge from the cut and counted over 100 rings, or over 100 years old. I had wrapped my arms around the log and still had over a foot to reach. It was 14 feet to the first branch. Now that large, majestic tree is heating my house.
   I asked Marty to keep the log out of it so we can mill it into lumber. I just couldn't bear to know that it would be burnt up and not enjoyed as beatiful wood. I'm not sure what we'll make from it, but I'll think of something. I also kept the wedge and plan to sand it smooth and re-count the rings to make sure of the age. It will go in my honey house as a piece of art...nature art. Simple, majestic. The closest I have here at the farm to the sequoia.
   We also decided to bring the cows into the barn yesterday. Luckily, as a small homestead farm, we only have two. And, even though Dini's attitude makes up for about three more, we were able to get them into the barn stall with some hay. Then today we decided to move the pigs into the barn.
   Stalls were planned and started late last year but we hadn't finished them. We got the post pounder out and finished putting up the oak pen sides, tied to metal posts driven in the soil and lime floor. Lime was put down many years ago and has hardened into an almost concrete substance, so getting the posts in took some work. Then I tied the pen sides to them while the guys attached little gates to the front of the pens. The pens for the little boys, little girls, and Swee don't have to be extra sturdy. Sam, however, is another story.
   For Sam, we put up the sides in the corner where I will build the turkey house later this spring. We added an extra post, attached a more sturdy gate, and found a large crate and cement block to put against the gate. He is super strong and smart. His pens and gates have to have a much stronger construction.
   We then grabbed each of the five little boys and the five little girls and popped them into the pens. We just picked them up. They squeal like crazy until you start to rub their cheeks and then they calm down. They are so like little dogs. For Swee, we opened her cage, offered her an apple and she followed us into the pen in the barn. She's great.
   Then Sam. Not a problem. The guys distracted him by rubbing on him until I could get his cage clips undone. Then he followed Marty into the pen in the barn, following the bucket of apples that Marty was carrying actually. What a great pig!
   I think our animals are very easy to take care of. I gave the chix and ducks extra food, the cows extra water, the sheep extra hay, and that was that. It is great to be a small homestead so we can get all the animals into the barn. I plan to build a couple more pig pens later this year so we can put more pigs in if needed after Swee has her next litter. As soon as the weather clears...hopefully soon...they will go back out to their cages and the cows to their cow area.
   Then we got two more loads of firewood from the stack by the barn, collected the extension cords, brought the gas generator up to the garage from the syrup house, and got extra gas. We have lots of our own food so don't worry about running to the grocery store. The generator will help run the heater's blower outside and keep the downstairs freezers from thawing if we need it. Otherwise, I've collected my books, my knitting, my tea and have snuggled in for a nice snow storm.
   Hope your weather is better than ours!!