Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Customer service

                                                                           
                                                                                 photos by Gautam Dantas
We're installing a solar photovoltaic system on our farm. The two man crew from All Energy Solar spent four days here. Their major tool was a skidder with a bucket for landscaping the area,  an auger attachment for digging the 24" diameter holes for footings, and a trenching attachment to dig the  trench for the electric wires. Our grandsons, Kieran, Jasper and Simon were entranced. They liked the clay that was uncovered, the holes, and the trenches. They were even more impressed with the concrete pump and the concrete mixer.

The crew kept us up to date on what was happening so the boys could watch. We planned our day around the concrete delivery. They even brought us a monarch caterpillar they found while grading the field around the collector array. But their most amazing act of kindness happened the day we were gone. The men noticed that two of our does and their four kids had escaped from the pasture. The guys found the hole in the fence, rounded up the goats and encouraged them back through the hole. Then, they fixed the hole!

It's too bad that all companies don't have the same customer service instincts as All Energy Solar.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

If one boy can

Dave's Grandpa Greene used to say "one boy can do half a man's work, but two boys, working together can only do a quarter of a man's work."

Last week we called a young friend who wanted to help with baling. We asked him to bring a couple of boys. He showed up with four friends. They all came in the same car and all were eager to earn some money, so we hired them all, but we kept thinking 'if two boys working together do a quarter of a man's work, what happens with five boys working together?'

The first thing we teach them is how to move the bales from the wagon onto the bale elevator. If they lay the bale on straight, it travels up the elevator and into the hay mow without falling off or getting hung up in the narrow doorway to the mow.  Some years more bales end up on the ground than in the mow. Next  we teach them how to stack the bales in the mow. The bottom bales lay on their sides so the twines don't rot, all running north and south. The next layer, stacked on their bottoms, run east and west and the next layer north and south continuing in that pattern until the barn is full. It seems like such a simple pattern, but if one person starts to stack the bales wrong, everyone who follows him carries on the mistake. It wouldn't be so bad, but a stack ten bales high and two bales wide can be very unstable if it has no cross ties to connect it to the rest of the pile. Some years, we've spent as much time rearranging the hay as stacking it.

This year, with these boys, after a few reminders, the barn is in perfect shape. we had a freshman, several sophomores and eleventh graders and a new graduate. They paid attention and learned the patterns. They worked together, solved problems together and chattered the entire time in Somali. They watched Dave and I keep working when we got hot and tired and they did the same. They watched us throw bales and took pride in learning the technique. At the end of our week of work, Dave and I baled a wagon-load on our own while they filled the barn on their own; they were 100% successful.

Baling hay was a real pleasure this year, because of our crew of five boys.  Even if one boy can only do half a man's (or woman's) work, these five boys can do the job.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Make hay while the sun shines




(a preview of my first adult fiction book, Tangled Web a novel, due out in September)
           
 I watched the world go by, standing at the back of the hay wagon, or at least our corner of the world. It was an amazing day! Summer blue sky stretched on into infinity. A cooling breeze brushed past my face and touched the leaves of the quaking aspen at the edge of the field. They fluttered and twirled, whispering on their flexible stems. As we rolled past the pasture fences, the sheep raised their heads to watch us. Stupid was grazing right along the woven wire grid of the fence line, tempting fate.

The alfalfa plants that had escaped the path of the mower were blooming, colors shading from light lavender, all the way through the purples to dark, midnight blue. Yellow sulfur butterflies floated from flower to flower. The scent of the alfalfa flowers carried by the breeze was sweet, and somehow, green.

I smiled at Mindy as she dragged a bale from the baler chute at the front of the wagon to me at the back. "Doesn't the air smell great?" I asked. She took a deep breath and sneezed. "Stand back here by me,” I added, “so you can smell the air before it picks up all those little bits of hay."

Mindy staggered a bit as the tractor pulled us over a rock in the field. "Mom, I think you have strange ideas about haying."

"What do you mean?"

"Well," Mindy explained. "I think it's fun when cool guys come to help us."

"You mean like Arlene's son, Gavin, or Mick and Tony?"

"Yeah. They're fun to work with. But I don't get all excited about the smell of the air or the flowers at the edge of the field.” We bumped over another rock and staggered to regain our balance. I grabbed at Mindy’s shoulder to steady her.

"Mom, look!" Mindy pointed over my shoulder, suddenly excited. "A deer!" A tiny fawn sprinted toward the brush at the edge of the field. His long legs wobbled. He stopped, looked back at us and then took off again, vanishing under the draping leaves of a willow.

"Wow, that's the first time I've seen a fawn in the hay field," I said, awed.

"It was sleeping in a windrow," Mindy interrupted. "I didn't see anything, and then suddenly it jumped to its feet right in front of us and raced off, just before the baler picked up the hay it was lying in."

"It was exactly the same color as the hay in the windrows," I said.  "If we hadn't had rain on this hay it would still be green and the fawn wouldn't have been able to hide there. Neat."

Mindy and I looked at each other and smiled. Then she turned to grab the next bale.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Connections


The connections between different parts of the farm are fascinating and many.

Yesterday, Dave and I cleaned the hay mow of our barn. We raked out the spoiled hay and mixed it  with sheep manure in the barnyard. After it composts, the mixture will be wonderful fertilizer for our garden.

The wind blew hard out of the northwest and kept us cool. It also drove the insects into the deep grass for protection.

The ewes were in the home pasture, grazing the tall grass and they disturbed the insects. When the insects flew up, barn swallows swooped down to catch them.

The swallows fed the insects to their babies, tucked away in nests made of hay, manure mixed with mud, and feathers.

When we work in the barn, we enjoy hearing the barn swallow babies cheeping and the rush of their parents wings as they swoop through the barn going to and from their nests. Everything is connected and we are a part of those connections.



Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Why we are using solar power

Back in the early 1980's, my dad installed solar hot water panels on his house. Dave and I were so impressed that we had solar hot water panels installed on our house. It was a great investment. Our water has been heated by the sun for most of the last thirty years. The system paid for itself many times over. I wash clothes when the sun is shining. We bathe the dog and sometimes ourselves because the sun is shining.

About 18 years ago, we invested in a wind generator. It has also worked very well (though not as carefree as the solar hot water). The wind generator provides about 1200 kwhr electricity. We use what we need and sell the rest to the power company. We expected a twenty year payback on our investment and that's about what we got. With a few updates and repairs, our generator is now working on its second twenty years.

We expected that more and more people would invest in solar and wind power, and although the numbers are rising, it is a slow climb. Several things limit the expansion of these alternative energy sources One is initial cost. Wind generators are expensive and up until the last year or two, photovoltaics have also been extremely pricey. Government subsidies and encouragement by the power companies (that buy our excess energy at a good rate)  have helped, but there is still a big gap between the promise of alternative energy sources and reality.  Why we aren't using solar power, a video by Alexandros George Charalambides, uses yarn to explore one of the problems with solar power.

Even if the topic wasn't of interest to me, the yarn intrigued me. So if you are interested in solar energy or in what you can do with yarn, check out  Charalambides'  site. Then get out your yarn and begin making pictures or look at your home for opportunities to use alternative energy sources for your power.


Friday, July 11, 2014

When the wind blows


The wind blows a lot in west central Minnesota. It is good country for wind generators. We installed ours in 1996 and it has given us many years of  electricity since then. When the wind blows more thn about 5 miles per hour, we are generating power. When it blows 25 miles per hour, our generator is at peak production.

When the wind blows, we use as much electricity from our generator as we can and sell the rest to our electrical company, helping them meet their renewable energy requirements. It's a good deal for everyone.

One day each year, when the wind doesn't blow, Dave and I go out to service the generator. It is not a light task. Dave wears a climbing harness and his heavy hiking boots. I belay him from the bottom as he climbs the 120 foot tower, anchoring himself with carabiners every fifty feet.

When he reaches the top, Dave attaches himself  to the tower so that he can work without me belaying him. Then I can use a pulley system to send a five gallon bucket and a length of hose up to Dave. He attaches the hose to the drain valve on the generator and then opens the fill valve on the very top.. When the bucket is full, he unscrews the hose and tosses it to the ground. As it tumbles to the ground, 2" diameter balls of rose colored oil fall through the air, glinting in the sunlight.
Then I lower the bucket of old oil and send up a bucket of new oil.


Dave stands spread legged on one inch wide supports as he works.  After changing the oil, he uses a grease gun on the zirc fittings on the spine hub of the windmill and at the base of each of the three blades.Next he climbs down a little ways and greases three bearings under the shroud cover and checks the bolts to make sure they are tight. When he moves from one job to the next, he goes back on belay and releases himself from the tower. When he is in place and tied to the tower again, I am free to run back to the house to get supplies that we've forgotten or that we've decided we need for the job.

Standing at the top of the tower waiting for me to return with a wrench seems like it would be exhausting and boring, but Dave spends the time admiring the view of our farm spread out below him, and the fields and sloughs and hills beyond the borders of our farm.

"I wonder at the view," he says. "It is a good reason to have a wind generator. Be-
cause of the generator, I love it when the wind blows" (except on days when we service the machine.)


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Thistles

We've been talking to Doug, a friend who works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, specializing in prairies. He's been part of a ten year study on what affects thistle growth in prairies in the Midwest. Is it the time of the seeding of grasses and forbs? Is it the seed concentration as they are planted? Is it the type of prairie? Or is it related to something else that no-one has even thought of  yet?

We have at least five different types of soil on our farm and the thistles grow everywhere.One possibility is soil microbiome, the bacteria that live in the soil. Plants live in a reciprocal relationship with the bacteria in the soil. Our son-in-law, Gautam, is studying these soil microbiomes. They can vary from sample site to sample site. The microbiome a meter away from your sample can be as different as the microbiome of a site half way around the world.

So what does that tell us about thistles? I'm not sure but the fact that experts don't know is certainly reassuring to me. If it's necessary to do studies to figure out why and where thistles grow, then we're not the only farmers who can't keep our thistles under control. A month ago, I sprayed four pastures to kill thistles. Three weeks later, I resprayed to get the thistles I had missed the first time. Yesterday, Dave scythed the remaining thistles in those pastures. In three weeks, the tiny rosettes of golden spine tipped leaves metamorphosed into thigh high plants bristling with thorns and ready to burst into bloom.

Hopefully we have sprayed and cut them early enough that the seeds won't open and I can sleep easy in my bed, content that I haven't been the Typhoid Mary of thistle seeds this year. If not, I'll enjoy the beauty of the blossoms and try to do a better job next year.