Archive for July, 2019

An Eggy Batch

Monday, July 29th, 2019

Each summer we use half our garden space for gardening, and sow the other half in buckwheat. This grain grows quickly with luxuriant foliage and has a tiny root system, which makes it a very good green manure. Once the buckwheat has blossomed, I rototill it under, wait a while, and till it again a few times until it is ready for the next sowing of seeds. I usually get a couple of crops per summer, and sometimes 3. The next season, we garden the previous year’s buckwheat side, and buckwheat the previous year’s garden side. We’ve been doing this for years with good results.

Between green manure crops this year, I took the opportunity to empty the compost drum. It is always a good moment, because we’ve been feeding the drum with kitchen scraps, pulled weeds, and other organic stuff for some months, all in anticipation of having a batch of rich black compost to feed the garden. When I dumped the first wheelbarrow load out, I noticed a lot of white specks in it. I’d not seen the like of it before. Then I remembered the egg shells.

A neighboring farm in Pelkie has been providing local eggs to our community for a long time. This Mennonite family worked hard and had thousands of birds until some bad luck hit them. The barn where their laying hens were located caught fire and was a total loss. So our local Tapiola community got together and put on a fundraiser pancake breakfast for them. Alice and I learned about this fundraiser at a July 4th parade meeting a few days before the event. We asked if they needed help, and they said they did, so we showed up at 6:00 am with our sleeves rolled up.

The event was well attended and we were glad we came. We were busy the whole time mixing pancake batter, baking sausage, and moving food from the kitchen to the serving area. We raised a nice chunk of money to be put toward a new barn, and went through a lot of eggs in the process. Pictured here is the woman that made the scrambled eggs for us. We kept all the egg shells on a paper bag. At the end of the event, Alice and I were given the egg shells, so I dumped them in the compost drum when we got home, and promptly forgot about the whole thing.

It turns out that not every egg got broken. After about 6 weeks of tumbling around inside the compost drum, one egg was discovered intact. It was discovered by me as I was spreading the compost in the garden prior to rototilling. I gathered up handfuls of compost from the wheelbarrow and tossed them out onto the garden. When one handful hit the ground, I heard a pretty loud POP, and smelled a smell that no one should ever have to smell. I thought about it later on, and figured I had been lucky. As I was grabbing that handful, I could have ruptured the intact egg when it was close to my body, and the contents could have sprayed all over me. I might have had to take a tomato juice bath just like the dog when he gets skunked.

As it was I was kind of ripe when I came in from that project. What with the compost, some peat moss I also spread, and various other tidbits. Ted-the-farmer looked and smelled the part. As I explained to my ever patient spouse, it could have been worse.

It’s a Beautiful Thing

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

My friend suggested I stop by the store in Tapiola and look at a recent delivery.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” he told me.

And he was right. Not only was it lovely as it came off the truck, but it was even nicer burred in the ground and hooked up to the building. It was our new septic tank.

1,500 gallons with manholes, all in a row like ducks marching toward the lake. This will be the core of the septic system in our new firehall. Our volunteer fire department has been saving for this dream for decades now, and this summer we are making significant progress. If things continue to more forward, we should be inside by the time winter rolls around.

While a septic tank might not be everyone’s idea of beauty, it surely is to some. Which makes me think about art museums and the eclectic mixture of items on display. Alice and I have visited Chicago many times, and every chance we get, we try to visit the Chicago Art Institute. It has a little of everything, although now that I think about it, I don’t recall seeing any septic tanks. I must have a word with the curator 🙂

Objects of art in museums take many forms, from paintings to hang on walls, to vessels that hold liquids, to furniture for sitting on or storing things. We enjoy surrounding ourselves with beautiful things, some of which have a purpose, and some that are just pretty.

The most beautiful thing to someone who’s house is on fire is a firetruck coming in the driveway. Someone who is sick probably likes the look of an ambulance outside her window with lights flashing. One person’s beauty is another person’s every day item. And who is to say which is right? The important thing, in my opinion, is to seek out and enjoy beauty wherever you find it.

I Guess I’m a Farmer

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

One advantage to living in this rural part of the UP of Michigan is my acquaintance with farmers. Folks that make their living off the land are a special breed, and I’m privileged to be friends with some of them.

In my professional life, I was able to control many of the variables that could affect my success. My farmer friends also have that luxury to a certain extent, but the weather, that unpredictable ally/enemy, is mostly beyond control. There are strategies available to prepare for the weather, but when the weather rolls over, about all a farmer can do is hope for the best, and roll up his sleeves in the aftermath. A special breed of folks is attracted to this profession, and a still more special breed manages to stick it out.

This maple syrup season tested my mettle. When I made my first trip to the sugar bush to look things over, I saw that one of my 4 firewood sheds had been destroyed by the snowload. The other 3 had survived because they were full of wood. The empty one just couldn’t take the strain, so down it came. Even though the maple sap was running, there was still a lot of snow in the woods. I hang the buckets on my trees in two positions, 2′ and 3′ above the ground. I alternate between these two positions as I move around the trees year-by-year to keep the trees healthy. The 2′ positions often meant the top of the bucket was below the snow line. This made hanging and gathering the buckets challenging.

Good sap weather is below freezing nights and above freezing days. From the day I tapped until I pulled my buckets about 5 weeks later, I had good sap weather every day except 2. On those two days, the daytime weather stayed below freezing, so I was able to stay inside and bottle syrup. I normally get several more days like this during the season, but this year the sap just ran and ran. So I gathered and boiled, day in and day out. I thought I had plenty of firewood, but as the days went by, the firewood evaporated from my piles.

Many of my sap days were above average production. From my 70 taps, a good day would be 25 gallons of sap. It takes me about an hour to gather, but my little evaporator can only boil about 5 gallons of sap per hour. So 25 gallons means 5 hours of boiling. There is no tubing or other labor savers in my little operation. Buckets collect the steady drip drip drip of sap, and repurposed stainless steel milk pails (5 gallon capacity each) are used to move the sap from the buckets to my collecting barrel. With all the snow I was on showshoes much of the time, but sometimes if the weather was cold enough, I could walk on the snow crust without too many mishaps.

Above average days would sometimes throw the whole system into a panic. I had several days with 50+ gallons of sap. My storage barrel is only 55 gallons, and I like to empty the barrel of the previous day’s gather, and rinse it out, before I start gathering the next day. Some days I couldn’t do this because the buckets were close to overflowing. When there was no room for more sap and the buckets were getting full, I had to roll up my sleeves and spend more hours tending the evaporator.

Then there was the ice. On very cold nights, if sap is left in the buckets overnight, I can get several inches of ice on top of the buckets. The deal I’ve made with the trees (yes I talk to my trees) is if you give it to me, I’ll boil it. Many syrup producers throw out their ice believing that the ice contains less sugar, and therefor is a bonus, since the liquid sap that is left is sweeter and requires less boiling. Towards the end of the season, the barrel was mostly full, the trees were really producing, and I had to make a hard choice. The top 25% of the barrel contained ice, and I really needed that space, so I grabbed my hand sieve and strained the ice as best as I could, tossed it on the ground, and continued through the storage barrel until there was nothing but clear sap left. Sorry trees.

For 5 weeks this continued, day in and day out. I did my best to keep up, but was steadily losing ground. My philosophy of not storing sap more than 24 hours went out the window. It was coming so fast I didn’t have the luxury of completely emptying the barrel every day. Sometimes 3 days went by before I found the bottom of the barrel, and then wham! One more gather and the thing was full again. The syrup was coming out of the woods in 1 gallon glass jars and being stored in the refrigerator until I could get it bottled. I was running on the ragged edge of a knife blade, and still the run continued.

When the sap started turning yellow after a few warm nights, I pulled my taps and called it a season. After the last quart jar was filled and sealed, I counted up the year’s take. Seventeen gallons! My previous high was 13 gallons, but this record will surely stand unless I upgrade my equipment.

Since the season ended in mid April, I’ve sat down and attempted to write about it several times. My butt was so thoroughly kicked by the 2019 maple syrup season, that I couldn’t seem to collect my thoughts enough to put a coherent story together. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever write again. My respect for my farmer friends went up several notches this year. My season only lasts for 5 weeks, but these guys go year round. It their luck holds out, they can make some money. If not, they just roll up their sleeves and put in the extra effort to salvage what is salvageable. My hat is off to them.