Saturday, September 27, 2008


It's a misty, moisty morning in Maine, with the oaks and maples glowing at the edge of the fallow fields. Yesterday morning, before the rains came, I started my day with the glimpse of a very fat porcupine waddling home after a long night of carousing amongst the orchard trees. What happens to porcupines when it rains? Do their little quills soak up the water and get all soft and bendy? They look awkward enough, waddling around all spiky and dry. Being a waterlogged porcupine can't be at all comfortable.

I've been thinking a lot about staying dry--and staying warm. The hurricane season has graced New England with torrential remnants of several major storms, causing unusual flooding and big paychecks for anyone doing post-flood remediation or roof repair. To add to the fun, the just-published Farmer's Almanac for 2009 claims our coming winter will be a very cold one--at a time when heating prices are extraordinarily high. Our response has been to embark on a building project that has all the bankers scratching their heads: the conversion of an outbuilding into a serviceable, easy-to-heat house and the accompanying conversion of our 1830s farmhouse into... an outbuilding. We refer to this as "rural real estate flipping."

The out- building-- a twenty-year-old post-and-beam woodshop with a metal roof-- is being transformed with the help of many ready hands, clever minds, and some very creatively-sourced building materials. A few weeks ago, we removed the old tongue-and-groove boards that formed the woodshop's cathedral ceiling. This past week, they've been reinvented as subflooring for the 3/4 story created by dropping the ceiling down. We've also made several spelunking trips to our two nearest "ReStores.," On our first trip we scored a beautiful casement window for our woodshed-turned-bathroom. It was priced at $45, but we made use of a $10 coupon and gleefully absconded with a window worth at least $200 for a mere $35. It looked brand new, too--the ReStore gets a lot of new windows donated by contractors due to improper sizing. We are happy to take an off-size window, as we can adjust our plans to make it fit!

Rare is the home construction project that adheres to its timeline as planned. Ours is no different; the move-in date has skipped down at least one full page in the calendar. We had hoped to complete our move by November first--the Celtic New Year--but now we've set our sights on the Solstice instead. Regardless of the day we move, however, it will be a celebration of Tanksgiving. No, that's not a typo. Our move has been made possible by a very important donation by my parents: the donation of a new septic tank. There's a lovely bit of synchronicity, here, as my mother's standard requested gift for any holiday has always been "a load of manure." (She's a passionate gardener cursed with clay soil and therefore in constant need of soil amendments.) The septic tank was the one obstacle that even our most creative sourcing skills couldn't surmount. Now we can peacefully plan for its installation and forge on ahead!

Meanwhile, the old house gets colder and colder--and increasingly less functional. The bathroom floor is rotting out, the north wall is literally going north, and we don't have a single door that both latches reliably and doesn't require a series of careful tugs, lifts, and/or kicks to make it function. The soapstone stove is cracked, the kitchen faucet leaks, and the horsehair plaster ceiling drops random crumbs of plaster and chips of lead paint. See why we want to get out?

That said, we're thankful for what we have: a wonderful circle of friends to lend a hand, a beautiful expanse of land, and a good roof over our heads. We've benefited so much from the kindness and generosity of others--and we look forward to improving our lot so we can turn around and give something back. In the meantime, no matter what happens in the months ahead, at least we won't be waddling around with soggy quills!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Hummer and the Sickle

After battling the Big Tech Boys all summer long, it's time to reclaim my personal FarmGrrrl power. Time to shake the cobwebs out of my brain and work my muscles well. Now, there may be some big-shot tractor men in Maine who drink diesel fuel for breakfast, but they've got big fuel bills and probably some serious credit to pay back. I, on the other hand, have a scythe.

My scythe came from an outfit in Perry, Maine called, strangely enough, Scythe Supply. It's a custom-fit model with a Maine-grown, handmade ash snath, or handle. The blade comes from Austria, where they've been making scythes for over five hundred years. It is a sharp and shining example of low-tech sophistication--well-balanced, exquisitely well-designed, durable and easy to maintain or repair with a small amount of strength, skill, and patience. Mine was custom-fit using measurements like "cubit" and "height of hip in workboots."

I sallied forth into a weed- choked field, the field we'd hoped to have tilled and planted long before now. I surveyed the chest-high weeds, all golds and reds in the early morning light. I lowered the snath down from my shoulder and set the blade at the base of the weeds, close to the earth. I eased my weight from one foot to the other and started the slow, swinging dance of scything. Where they met the arc of my sharp blade, the woody stems began to fall, and fall, and fall. Almost before I knew it, lulled by the gentle, easy rhythm of the work, half an acre was cleared. Oh, it felt good--more than good. It felt WONDERFUL.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Making Hay...?

"No, I never said that." So claims the woman at the end of the line, bringing me to the end of mine. Back in June, she said she could get us a winter's worth of haylage from her fields. We were jubilant--the favorite winter food of our cattlefold, sourced locally from another Farmer Woman. "Put us down," we said, meaning, "Add us to your official customer list."

Yesterday we learned that she had, indeed, put us down... that is, she dropped us.

We had called at the request of Iona, Cattlefold Matriarch, who announced with insistent mooings that the pasture grass was about used up, and the musty henhouse hay just wouldn't do. How lovely--how luxurious-- it felt to ring someone up, knowing we'd planned in advance. How wonderful it felt to rest and wait for an answer, knowing her supply would be there to meet our demand... Then came the awkward pause, followed by denial. "I never said that! No, I don't have enough to feed my own!" Turns out the fellow who was supposed to hay two of her fields never did the job.

We asked who, and she gave out a name we've heard for years. It's Farmer Drown, the same guy we tried to get hay from last year, the same guy we get referred back to EVERY time some other tractor operator claims they're just too busy to work our fields. "Why don't you call Farmer Drown?" they all say, "He lives near you." Then we explain, once again, that we have indeed called him. For three years, we've been trying to buy his hay, trying to hire him for tractor work. Farmer Drown never calls back. That's the point where the other guy usually scratches his neck, looks away for a sec, then says, "Yeah, he IS kinda hard to get ahold of..."

"So," we ask Hay Lady, "what's up with Farmer Drown?" After a few choice but unprintable words, she finally blurts what we've suspected, but never dared confirm: "the guy's crawled inside a bottle by noon." Now the familiar knot of anxiety rises in our throats, the well-known dread sinks back into our bellies, and the fragments of the tale fall into place: One man--one capable, strong, experienced local man with barns, livestock, good equipment and fine farmland--has allowed his personal demons to hold not only his own farm hostage, but ours and others as well. Because of his bond with the bottle, animals and families go hungry all over town. Because of this, we must thumb back through old phone logs and retry last year's exhausted list of potential hay suppliers. All this unfolds as the Almanac trumpets a coming winter of bone-chilling, mind-numbing cold.

The cold has settled over us early, indeed, though the thermo- meter shows the mid-sixties. We are cold in anticipation, shivering with stress and fear. We walk outside when the light is most golden, trying to warm ourselves with the beauty of the farmstead. We murmur appreciations at the well-feathered hens strutting in the green September grass, the fattening pigs with their deep bass welcoming grunts, the dear shaggy cows that come running... Then we wearily admit that their affections depend largely on being fed. Our minds spiral back to bald pastures, empty haylofts, and ever-higher grain bills. Back and forth we perilously swing, hoisted and hanging between two passionate extremes: "Why the hell are we farming?" and "Oh, we love this farm so!"

How grand it will be, someday, to look back and laugh at this year's comedy of errors. We'd been congratulating and comforting ourselves all summer over the hay--securing this supply was the one thing we'd done right. Meanwhile, we made the rounds of the aforementioned tractor-operators, trying to find anyone who could disc-harrow our newly-stumped fields. Most had traded in their disc harrows years ago: "Good luck finding one. Nobody uses them now." A few guys had disc harrows, but--curiously enough--were overbooked with work. A handful actually had the grace to come walk the fields and talk the job over, but they all admitted a hearty disinterest, citing other projects with better payback and less "fussy-work."

The last guy showed up two weeks before the last possible pasture-seeding date. We walked down and perambulated the potential pastures. Yes, he had the right equipment, and yes, he could do the job, but it wouldn't come cheap--see, he'd rather be working on his own house, to have it ready for the winter, so he'd charge us a premium for his time! Trying to hide our shock, dismay, and a fair amount of disgust, we continued on with our little farm tour, taking him over to see the orchard and the pigs. "Well, shoot," he said, shoving his John Deere cap back on his balding head as he caught the scent on the mellow breeze, "you didn't tell me you had PIGS."

Leaning towards us with a confidential air, he adjusted his bombast to an almost conciliatory tone: "Now, I'm always happy to save folks money if I can. You don't need me. You don't need my fancy equipment. You've already got most of the equipment you need. Here's what you do: get your lime spread, then lay out some temporary electric lines and fence those pigs out in the new fields. They'll work it over and till it up real fine. Send 'em off to the butcher, hunker down and let the snow fly, then--come Spring--it'll be plantin' time!"

Well, didn't we feel dumb. Good little Luddites like us, spending a whole summer in thrall to the Big Lie of Heavy Equipment, when we could have had our pigs out there tilling. Worst indignity of all--it took a Big Ol' Tractor Man to point the whole blessed truth out to us!

September 15th is the last frost-free sowing date for our "hardiness zone." We still have the pigs, but not enough time to get grass established in this calendar year. That means we can't fulfill the requirements of our farm's Conservation Plan, which had us scheduled for completion of "pasture/hayland planting" in 2008. Our farm has benefited from conservation programs--without them, we could not have afforded good fencing or the field hydrants we had installed last year. Unfortunately, due to this summer's misguided and fruitless tractor-quest, we'll miss out on this year's cost-shares. The money spent for stumping and lime delivery in preparation for tilling, (over $4,000), will haunt us like a phantom limb, aching long after its severance.

So, time to wrap up this entry and get on the phone. Time to see who, among the farmers in nearby towns, might have some hay or haylage they're willing to sell. Then it's time to finish off this year's pigs--maybe with a few weeks in the new fields--and sell all the pork to pay for that hay. Come February, sure hope those cows still appreciate us!

Some farmers make hay while the sun shines. Some farmers make way toward the cheap wines. And some farmers--like us--buy hay while we stun swines.

Wait 'til next year!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Failte! Welcome to the Tir na nOg Farm blog!

Strange it is for a Luddite like myself to go a-blogging, but here we are, and here we go!

Like many women farmers, we are "undercapitalized." We are careful to manage our debts and strenuously avoid taking on any more. We own few pieces of farm equipment other than a gloriously inadequate assortment of hand tools. Our lack of a tractor, in particular, provokes much eye-rolling and head-scratching from the non-female farmers hereabouts. (Admittedly, it provokes some occasional hand-wringing from us, too, but we delight in the related lack of payment books and fuel bills!) Without a tractor, we are forced to use other tools: the telephone, our wits, and our computer. These tools allow us to banter & barter for the services of others in our local agricultural economy.

Poverty and isolation have always dogged those who choose the farming life. Celts have always struggled to balance a love for the land with a hunger for exploration and innovation. We look forward to flexing some new "connective tissues" as we test this particular tool. A computer may not be able to harrow a field, but it can help us plow through possibilities. A blog may not scatter or secure a crop's worth of seeds, but it may scatter a few useful ideas and help them grow... (I hear it's pretty effective as a manure-spreader, too.)

The original Luddites did not reject technology altogether. Rather, they resisted those technologies which would harm, rather than contribute to, a healthy & well-lived life. Now, I'm not sure how the "carbon footprints" of computers and tractors compare. I'm also not sure we'd resist the purchase of a tractor if an affordable, easy-to-maintain model showed up. In the meantime, the computer is the one piece of serious farm equipment we have, so we aim to use it as best we can.

With that, my friends, we welcome you to Tir na nOg Farm and our farm blog. Bear with us! Enjoy the adventure along with us and all our lovely Celtic creatures. Watch for pictures and see how the farm takes shape, the gardens expand, and the animals grow. Step out into the field and dig your own roots alongside us as we explore Celtic cultures, traditions, and ideas. You never know what might turnip...

P.S. Our Scottish Highland cattle would have preferred a presence on MooTube, but they found videography didn't really behoove them.