Home & Shop Companion #0028
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
The last couple of mornings I have been spreading manure. Because I have no manure spreader, this is a steady job with the sledge, filling it with a fork, driving the horse to where the manure needs to go, looping the lines round the post on the sledge’s dashboard while I throw it out with the manure fork or ‘gripe’ as it was called where I grew up. It soon becomes a steady routine, I push in the fork, weight on my left leg, pivot round to my right transferring my weight to my right leg whilst turning the cross piece on the end of the handle in my right hand, so the manure divides as it flies through the air. Then step back with my left foot, like using a scythe but backwards, and repeat. Then I click my tongue, we go forward a few steps, ‘whoa’, and then I get another few forkfuls, and so it continues. This might seem hopelessly inefficient, but it is great work to accustom a horse to a stopping and starting, and to variations in the load. It’s not a bad job for the human either, filling a sledge is easier than filling a cart or manure spreader, and you get a little walk in between the work, or ride the sledge back to the manure heap. Having said that, a manure spreader is one of those tools it would be really nice to have, partly because it does such a good job of breaking down the manure before spreading it, but it would be quite an expense, considering no horse drawn models are made on this side of the Atlantic. Anyway, my system works well enough for me.
Before spreading manure, Saturday’s job was cultivating the vegetable patch in the field. The day started cool so I started early, but we didn’t get anything near the 90º heat which has hit the south of England the last few days. The two patches which I ploughed three weeks ago after growing oats as a green manure are now dry and lumpy, exactly the wrong conditions for making a seed bed, but good for drying out and killing off perennial weeds. It is mostly couch grass that is the problem here, but working the spring tine cultivator more deeply than last week has brought what I hope are the last of the roots to the surface to dry out. I also cultivated the potato bed, but having worked the ridges while the potatoes were growing, there weren’t many weeds. The worst of the four beds for couch grass is amongst the root vegetables, so although I like to sow a green manure over the top of the vegetables in late August before the final cultivation so it can establish itself and form a green blanket before winter, this time I might just keep on at the weeds and sow the green manure in November, or even wait until the spring.
The only bit I didn’t cultivate was between the two rows of onions, because the rows are very narrow, too narrow really, and I don’t want to knock the tops over while the onions are still putting on some bulk. I will probably use the wheeled hoe or a hand hoe in the next day or two, even though the tops will soon start to dry out and fall over, because by the time the onions have been pulled out and laid to dry, that is plenty of time for some of the weeds to set seed.
Next to the onions there is still one row of potatoes. This row will be kept for our own use over winter, though there is not much to see now as I took the scythe and cut all the tops off last week. This is to stop the blight from spreading down to the roots and spoiling the potatoes, the tell tail signs of browning, withering leaves having started to affect most of the plants. They won’t grow any more, of course, but at least we will have some of our own unsprayed potatoes which I will lift when the skins have set in three weeks’ time.
With the last of the new potatoes sold, I have now taken down the sign on the roadside and brought in the wooden box. The sale of potatoes doesn’t provide much income, sometimes I wonder why I go to the effort of growing them, and sometimes I wonder why more people don’t stop to buy the freshest, tastiest and cheapest potatoes around, instead of buying them at the supermarket, but I guess for most people it is just easier to carry on with their normal routines.
One of the people who does stop to buy potatoes is a dairy farmer who grazes some of his young stock near here. A couple of years ago when the price of milk was so low that it was generally agreed to be below the cost of production, and many dairy farmers were selling up, I asked this man how it was affecting him. He was not worried, his routine, although unusual for dairy farms, was working for him. I am fairly sure he owns the farm so isn’t making payments on that, but he did say his costs were low because except for a relief milker who works every second weekend, he does all the work himself. This is unusual around here, most farmers getting someone else to cut their hedges, and all their silage is made by contractors, who come in with enormous machines, drop the grass very quickly, then come back the next day and pick it up and put it in a clamp, all of which is very expensive. This man, by contrast, uses his own mower, leaves the grass for 48 hours, so losing more of the moisture and increasing the dry matter, which lowers the amount of liquid slurry the cows produce, so reducing the work at every stage – fewer bales to make, more dry matter in every bale, less plastic, less weight to move when feeding and less water to move when spreading slurry. He uses his own machines to bale and wrap, and he can move the bales whenever he has time. Happy with the system, when I spoke to him, he had just decided to buy a new baler and wrapper. The biggest downside of his system is the amount of plastic used, though I can imagine using a self-loading silage trailer, also a rarity here, would also be a possibility for single handed silage making, depending on the set up at the farmstead. But perhaps most telling in his approach is that he has enough time to stop and buy some quality potatoes, and a few minutes to spare to talk about his farm.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.