Thursday, March 31, 2011

Burn baby Burn

   Ah, another sunny and beautiful spring day! Yesterday was pretty nice too. But really dry. And with dry weather in March, it is perfect for a prairie fire.
   Our prairie is about four acres in size and is a re-created one. There is less than 1/10th of 1% of original prairie left in our "prairie" state of Illinois. Augh! We planted over 100 species of prairie flowers back in 2001 and maybe in another 200 years it will look a little like it did 200 years ago. At least that tiny four acres will anyway.
   The last four years have been pretty wet for us and we haven't had a good burn to get rid of the weeds and help the flowers along. The prairie plants thrive with fire, so the weeds were really taking over.
   With the help of Darrel Coates from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, we were able to get a really hot burn this year. Darrel brought a drip torch and helped us get the fire going hot.
   We first burn a small area on the south side so the fire wouldn't get too hot and melt our hoophouses. That would be a really BAAAD thing! And, with the wind from the north and east, the fire would've really wooshed into the woods...right toward that wonderful new wood shed we are working on.
   So, after burning a strip along the south side, Marty and Darrel laid a strip of fire on the west side along the woods. This is called "backing". The fire blows to the west due to the easterly wind, but the fuel for it is on the east side so it slowly backs into the wind. That laid a "black line" which is a burnt area that helps keep the fire from crossing. No fire. Remember those science lessons? Then the guys went all the way to the north side laying fire and that's when it really lit up.
   A truly good burn is one where no one gets hurt, and you don't have to work too hard for the fire to do what it is supposed to. This was great! Will and I pretty much stood around and watched little smoke tornados skip around. They always remind me of the Tazmanian Devil cartoon. Rabbits were running out of the fire area - nine were counted. And we counted a couple of Woodcocks also that flew into the woods...sorry guys.
   Thanks Darrel for helping us get a really nice hot burn. Most of the weeds are gone and it is pretty clean. Now the prairie plants can come on stronger. We are planting some prairie grasses today by sowing seed. The grasses will hopefully help the fire be hotter in the future.

This is Marty with the Prairie Central 5th grade students last fall.
They are collecting prairie seed and discuss the eco-system of the prairie as part of their program.

Beautiful prairie flowers.
Thanks to Lisa Predko (c)2008 for this picture!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

B-52's anyone? Bright and Shiny today

   It's bright and shiny out this morning and a frigid 32 degrees. Ach! I'm going to be a wimp and stay inside today. Yesterday was cold also and we got pretty chilled working down in the woods on the syrup buildings.
   Syrup update...I'm not done scrubbing the evaporator. Taking a break. Okay - wimping out on that also. But...we did get the lean-to on the syrup house. We also put a wall on the north side (the far back side with the horizontal pieces, wall not in the picture) to block the weather on the wood a little.

Looks pretty darn good and we are excited that it will keep a LOT of wood dry next season.

   Here is a picture of the old wood shed that Will blew apart. He took out 8 nails and took off two pieces of metal and this is what happened!

   I'll post a pic of the new one as soon as we get it done. We have the posts in, the horizontal pieces attached and the west wall on (wall would be on the right side of the picture). Unfortunately when we got to looking at the old walls, we weren't able to salvage them. Too rotted at the bottom. We wanted it to be 6 feet tall in the back so Will wouldn't bang his head on the ceiling, so we decided to just make new walls. We are saving the little old door tho. We also put the new shed on the same foot print as the old one (posts in the same holes) so it will look similar but not as "rustic".
   Poultry news...I hear Bubbie, our survivor rooster, crowing this morning. Two of the three ducks are still hanging in there and we are keeping an eye on them. Everyone is happy to be in one house together. I think they feel safer together. They are definitely a little warmer!
   Piglet news...she is the MOST stubborn pig! We haven't figured out how to tell when she will have the piglets. The pigs are pretty secretive for when they are breeding so we don't always get the date right for when she is going to have them. When she starts to look a little on the big side (not fat but pregnant) then we put her in the stall. Her first litter was two months late. So far this one is two weeks late. Hm. Any suggestions anyone?
  That's the farm news for now. Have a great day!!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Just a Note

   Thanks to all of you who have offered to help us get new poultry. We'll be getting chickens and ducks in May and Turkeys sometime in the summer. We really appreciate your offers and your support! Thanks! I'm so very thankful that we have so many good friends and such good family, and that we have so much.

   Putting it into perspective...

   It was hard to lose so many ducks and chickens to a blood bath by a mink.
   It would be devastating to lose EVERYTHING to an earthquake and radiation.
     If you pray...pray for the people of Japan and area. If you don't...send them well wishes and good energy. Send them whatever you can. To them...blessings...they need it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Poultry Demise

   Some days it is hard to write about what happens on the farm. This is one of those days.
   Yesterday we had a mink in the duck house. We lost all of the black Cayuga ducks. The three white Pekins are looking pretty tough. One is just sitting around but didn't want to be put down so we left him in the chicken house. The other two are walking around but we'll see if they get better. The carnage...well, you don't want to know.
   The chicken house, unlike the duck house, is on a cement slab. The duck house is wooden with a flip door and a dutch door also, and double walled with metal walls on the inside. The mink (smart little bugger, and that is not even close to what I've been really calling him today) chewed an area at the edge of the window. It was only about three inches long and about 1 1/2 inches high. If it is big enough for his head to fit through, he can get in. And, he did. 
   When we realized the mink was still under the duck house, we removed the bales of straw around the outside and lifted it with the loader tractor. Marty looked under it but didn't see him. We had no choice but to just leave it. We left the duck house wide open and I'll clean it out today. So, we put the three remaining alive white ducks in the chicken house last night with the one turkey and about 15 chickens.
   At 2:30 am I woke up thinking I should go out and check the chickens. I had checked them at 9:30 last night. But...some of you will understand this...I'm a worrier. So, I laid there and worried. Marty always tells me everything will be okay. He is usually right and I am usually just lying there worrying for no good reason. At 4:30 I listened for the rooster crow. None. I thought maybe I was too early so at 5:30 I was still listening for it. Still none. By then I was too scared to go out and see. Not scared of the mink, just what I might find.
   At 7:30 Marty got up and went out. I watched from the house. Sure enough, he opened the door and then shut it again. He started toward the house. I knew.
   I got my coat and went back out with him. Eight lovely little chickens gone. All three of the "little kids" including my favorite chicken Belgie were gone. And, my big rooster Glory Be also. (Named so because I would tell him "Glory Be you got gorgeous legs" and he did.)
   We got the mink wedged in the wall. He had eaten a small hole, same size as on the duck house, in the bottom of the west door. He crawled inside the wall and then ate another hole into the chicken house thru the wall. Well...needless to say, he was beautiful. A male, and very stinky. Minks stink. In more ways than one. They just kill and don't eat the poultry after they kill it...they just kill.
   My second favorite chicken (or my favorite large one) Dee helped me count the casualties, line them up, and do the memorial. She's seen some pretty tough stuff in her five years. She's my girl friend chick and is always there to help me out. I'm glad she was okay. We'll clean the chicken house today too.
   To answer the question...we already have 30 chicks on order to arrive in May. I'll have to see if I have any money to get ducks. Maybe not this year. I'd really like more Cayuga ducks, so I'll have to save up some for them.
   Here's to my kids...Belgie, Glorie Be, Little Guy, Napoleon, Sister, Dot, Lang, Choco (the chicks) and Speck and her sisters and brothers (the Cayuga ducks).
Marty holding Belgie
(photo courtesy of Lisa Predko 2008)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The First Day of Planting (outside)

   Wow, two days in one week! Surprise!! Sorry that I can't figure out how to get the new syrup label on here. I cut and pasted and tried different methods...I'll keep trying. It is in my Publisher program - any ideas you design artists? Once again - computer - 1, Kris - 0!
   Yesterday was a whirlwind. I didn't feel like working since it was a typical true blue Monday. The day started out like today, dreary and misty and colder. But, it brightened up later. There was the usual paperwork, errands to the post and the bank, and laundry. I was determined after all that to get my act together and see what could be accomplished. And, that's when spring happened all over again.
   For us, spring begins when syrup does. That is when we see the trees pushing up all that energy to create leaves, drip by drip. And, the birds begin to arrive and hats are a necessity. Then a whole month after all of that, we see spring all over again.
   Now the grass is greening up. I got the picnic tables out...I KNOW - 'they' are still predicting a light snow this weekend, but what do 'they' know. Another sign of spring was on my way to the syrup house to scrub a little on the evaporator. I saw some trilliums unfurling their leaves along the woods trail. That was really a nice surprise. I'll try to get more wildflower pics later when they are really going good.
   The ducks are leaving little piles of eggs in the corners of their house. I hate to take them out and am hoping one of them will set on the eggs and hatch them out. But, I also need to clean the duck house...really! I might just take the nest out and try to replace it again. Sometimes that works and sometimes they get finicky and don't want to use it. We have black Cayuga ducks and they lay dark charcoal colored eggs. Really pretty looking. When I wash the eggs the charcoal color comes off a little and the eggs end up looking spotted. Kinda gross looking, but it isn't poop stuck on them. I like the way they look before the washing.
   Yesterday we also cleaned out the pig stalls in the big barn. They were only used for a few weeks around the time of the blizzard so they didn't have a lot packed down. I pitch forked the nasty stuff (not too smelly) into a wheel barrow and took it out to a pile. Then Marty used the loader tractor to take it to the bigger pile down by the woods that we will turn into compost. I know that all you women are wondering why he got the easy job...brains! Mine. Yep...the wheel barrow has power stearing (me) and the tractor doesn't. And, he still had to scoop it some into the tractor bucket. My brain tells me I actually got the easier job. Besides, it was great exercise and I feel pretty good today. It enabled me to work off my three donuts from the morning.
   Cleaning the barn is a sign of spring for us. Now I just have the sheep stall to finish. They have their "bedroom" in the barn and watched me from the comfort of it. They also asked why I was being "baaad" and not clean theirs too. Maybe today I'll get to some of it. They are in it longer than the pigs so it will be packed down more and harder work. Have to beef up for it.
   Will worked on spraying an organic booster stuff on the wheat and then worked on fixing the sprayer. Another sign of the season...fixing equipment. The sprayer pump broke, the mower had a flat tire, and the loader tractor has an arm on the digger that needs welded today. Our neighbor says..."if you have equipment, you have maintenance". So true. Will is our mechanic and does a good job at all of that type of stuff.
   While Will tilled the new areas in the north field, Marty and I got out the Allis G tractor and the little push seeder and planted. (Sorry I don't have a picture of this method of planting. But I can't take the picture while on the tractor.) Marty drives. I sit on the front of this tiny tractor and hold the seeder in place. YES...this is NOT a good example of farm safety. He isn't going fast and I'm pretty wedged on there. It is WAY faster than walking the seeder and trying to hit a straight line between tire tracks. We got radishes, turnips, beets, and onions planted. The onions we just walked along and dropped onion sets in the row then covered them later. So...the first crops are planted in the field! Yippee!

This is the Allis G tractor.
 I sit on that little triangle on the front.

And this is the seeder that I hold in place.
Tricky and takes talent!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Didn't Jack say something like..."I'm Baaack!"

   Okay...I'm not sure if Jack in the Shining said quite that, but here I am. It's been a while - eek! - okay a LONG while and we've been pretty darn busy. But, today is a nice slow (I'm lying) Sunday morn. I got up bright and shiny at 7am and mopped the upstairs after having swept it last night at 9pm. It is absolutely amazing how busy those bunnies are when I'm not using a room. I think I made one bunny for each room! We are trying to play catch up a little this week. That means catch up on cleaning too.
   I have to say THANK YOU to all of you who were waiting patiently for the updates and who read this mumbo jumbo. You are a terrific group of moral supporters! And, it isn't that I didn't write the blogs when we were in the syrup house, I just couldn't get the time to dump them on the internet. I excuse. I've never been very good at journal writing either. But, here is the update...

   This is our chalkboard that we keep in the syrup house...say Hi to Donna's pigs (in the corner picture). What does all this blah blah mean? Weeellll....I'll try to decipher it for you. You'll see on the right side of the chart the number of trees tapped, when we tapped, when we collected sap first, how many total gallons of sap we boiled (2,255 is about two hundred more than last year), when we started boiling the sap, the number of loads of firewood (about one wagon full is a load, approx. one load used per day), how much sap it took before we could get our "base" and draw some syrup off for the first batch, and the supplies we used.
   Then the bottom blah blah is our little notes to ourselves about the boiling point of water. Did you know that the boiling point of water changes according to the weather every day? Yep. So, every day we boiled water in the house in the morning and sometimes at noon to check it. Some days it was 212 degrees, some days not. Then we thought we would experiment a little and record the temperature we finished the syrup at and the barometer reading. We use a hydrometer to check when the syrup is finished. That way if the boiling point has changed, the syrup should still be the right consistency. The hydrometer, a weight in the bottom of a glass tube that has a paper with numbers on it stuck in it, is put into the syrup which is in a long tube and it will float at a certain thickness of syrup. Scientific stuff. So, anyway...that is what that is about at the bottom. And...the flues in the back pan hold 4 gallons of sap. The whole evaporator (we think) holds about 15 when it is at the correct level.
   Onward...on the right...the days we finished syrup and how many gallons finished. Usually it is 40 gallons of sap per 1 gallon of syrup. That depends on a lot of other scientific factors tho. Our goal was to get 3 gallons per day and over 50 gallons for the season. Darren Ropp's Prairie Central high school agriculture classes came out a few times to help (that is the number of kids that came out total) and there is a tiny HS next to the days they came. The number of visitors is recorded and a "V" next to the days we had visitors.
   We are truly sorry that we couldn't do a public program or programs for other groups this year. It was just too much with our already long and tiring days. We are really glad that all the visitors that came out helped collect sap and firewood some and were part of learning the process. It made for a nice exchange, giving us a little break from the work while they got to learn what was going on. Thanks a ton to all of you! We hope you enjoyed the time in the syrup house.
   At the very bottom is the nature report: Redwing blackbirds arrived on 2/19, killdeer arrived on 2/27. Not reported were the peeper (little frogs that make a peeping noise) that started the day we began to clean up on the 16th. It was a nice farewell to the season...their send off. Or...maybe they were chearing that we weren't tromping around their woods, who knows.
   So...the total (not on the chart when I took the picture cuz we were trying to sqeeze out another 1/4 gallon) was 53 gallons. More than last year (50), but not as much as we wanted (100). We learned this year that our evaporator just can't do more than we are doing. It is the size of it. We run it super high boiling all the time for about 12 hours a day. It just can't go faster. Another scientific thingy...the rate of evaporation only occurs at a certain rate due to the surface area and such. So, we determined that we need to come up with about $4,000, sell our evaporator for $3,000 and get a larger one (2'x8' is the dream size costing about $7,000). Then we could produce more than twice as much, possibly even four times as much. That would be WONDERFUL!! And, wonderful for all of you who aren't getting this delicious stuff.
   All of the syrup was delivered on Friday. I made cool new labels that read "Uncle Willard's Sticky Yum-Yum" and have a picture of Will's great-great-grandfather, WD, and his buddies next to the old syrup house. (Thanks to Riley for the great idea!) Marty and I trekked to the jungle of Chicago to deliver gallons to the chefs and Will went around home and to Champaign to deliver. We have a few jars to send out to people on Monday. But, the season is done...sorry we didn't have enough for all of you...maybe next year.
   I know this is very lengthy but the rest of the update is this: no Spunky return (I really miss her), no more crazy stupid people driving through our yard, no piglet babies YET (hopefully soon), lots of little "frankenstein" greens (as Scot would say) in the basement coming up nicely and being watered and tended daily (throughout the syrup season also), and lots of clean up to do.
   The syrup clean up takes a while. Marty got all the 300+ buckets cleaned (and lids and taps) with help from mom (thanks mom!). Will sprayed the floor and walls, cleaned out the big tank, and has done lots of other clean up. He also started work on the new lean-to on the syrup house and exploded the wood shed. I say exploded for a good reason...but that might be another story.
   And me...I just sit and supervise...NOT!! It looks like that in the pictures cuz I take the pictures. But my job this season is cleaning the evaporator. Call me the Fool for volunteering to do that! I did the buckets last year and that was back breaking. The evaporator tho is another whole back breaker. It is a huge job of scrubbing for hours and hours and hours.
   Try this...turn on your oven to 200 degrees or so, then constantly dribble watery syrup on the bottom, letting it evaporate and harden. Do this for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 4 weeks. Hm. You will begin to notice after the first few hours and couple of days, a very hard mineral deposit building up. It got about 1/16 thick this year in spots. That is the easy part to get off, just soak some vinegar on it and it chips off. The HARD part is the little thin residue of minerals around the edges...AUGH! Jack from the Shining looks sane compared to me when I'm scrubbing!
   I have worked on it about 7 or more hours so far and got one bottom (there are three) and four sides (there are twelve cuz of the dividers) in the front pan. That's just the Front Pan. The back pan I started on and Will has been kind enough to help some. It comes off a little easier as it boils thinner sap. Thanks to mom Willa for the Shaklee scrub stuff that smells like raspberries and works like Comet but is all natural. It is helping a TON. I figure now it will take two weeks to finish instead of two months. Well, we'll see. 
   We hope to get the syrup house lean-to and wood shed done before moving on to the next big projects of field work. And, that is as soon as it dries enough to get the tractor in the field. Hoophouses are weedy as it was too wet to get in there and walk around. The water had run under the sides from all the snow melt. They are drying out and, of course, it is to thunderstorm today and tomorrow. We'll try to get them weeded soon. Stuff is growing super slow so far, green garlic is being slow and that is the next large crop we will harvest. Animal pens and houses get cleaned out this week (peee-yeww!). They will be very happy about that. And I'm on a cleaning rampage, getting the house done and starting on the buildings one by one. We've been so busy the last five years with all the extra-curricular projects that we just piled stuff and now it is piled to the ceilings. I'm cleaning out so check back for the latest goodies on sale soon!   
   Oh yeah...Our Allis Chalmers 1944 "C" tractor, with side arm mower is FOR SALE for $3,000 (see picture on home page "cool equipment"). Email us thru our website if you are interested.
   And, Will's diesel truck (has used bio-diesel) is FOR SALE. Contact him thru the email on our website if you are interested. Here's a pic...