Home and Shop Companion 0043

letter from a small corner of far away

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

With an 80% chance of heavy rain this morning, we have put the building work on hold for a few hours, but when I went out to the field after breakfast it was still dry. As usual, there was a nicker from Molly as I neared the gate, always a good sign, and as I open the gate I glance over to where Lucy is, and she looks happy too, dirty from where she has been lying down, but content. First check over and done, Molly turns and follows me, breathing and walking normally and tucks into her feed. This morning I catch Lucy, she drops her head as I reach over for the poll strap and buckle it up and then she follows on a slack lead rope as we head to the barn.

The job today is to gather some of the manure from the track round the outside of the field, but first I have four bags of sand I need to bring home, which I load onto the sledge, and once delivered I load the same number of bags of rubble to go back to a muddy part of the track. The bags must weigh at least half a hundred weight each, added to the hundred weight of the sledge itself, then with me standing on top, an additional hundred weight and half, [plus a bit more if you are really counting!], it makes a good load. With a sledge, depending on the surface you are going along, the load in the traces which the horse has to pull is about half the gross weight, so with me standing on the sledge, the pull is about 250 pounds. For a horse of about 1800 pounds, Lucy could reasonably be expected to pull 180 lbs, equivalent to 10% of her weight when expressed as a force on the draught chain over a whole working day, so the combined sledge load was about 40% more than this, not a problem for a relatively short period of time but I did get off some of the time which reduced the load by 90 lbs. It’s one of the great advantages of a sledge as a training and conditioning tool that you can change the pull so easily and quickly, but with a wheeled vehicle on solid ground or a road only requiring 10 to 15% of the load when expressed as a draught force, [with pneumatic tyres on a road it is only 5%] you can see why wheels became popular.

Home and Shop Companion 0043

At the field I leave the sacks of rubble near the muddy hole, put the sides on the sledge, pick up a fork and drive to one of the dunging areas along the track. As we pass Molly who is eating hay, Lucy does a double take at the sacks and walks slightly sideways for a few steps as she organises her eyes and brain to this new apparition, although she saw me unload them from the sledge only minutes before. I gently keep her going with a little more line pressure on the side of the bags and she passes by and I start filling the sledge.

I had hoped to finish this job sooner, though in reality moving manure is never really finished, it’s just that the opportunity for spreading it has run out because the temperature is too low for the soil biology to take up the nutrients. Winter spreading of manure used to be a common thing, but organic farmers stopped doing it thirty years ago or more. It’s not surprising, since they want to make the best use of the nutrients, rather than allowing much of the manure’s value to be washed away by winter rains. Others were just as concerned about the nitrates entering rivers and the ground water, a problem then dismissed by the big farming lobby, who seem to resist any changes that inconvenience their members. But, resistance overcome, now more than half of England is recognised as a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone, which amongst other things, means you aren’t allowed to spread manure in winter. Interestingly though, these vulnerable zones coincide very much with the areas of the country which are under arable cultivation, where there is very little livestock and therefore little manure, but where one whole lot of artificial fertiliser is used.

The other job I theoretically should have done this week is to harvest mangolds. Traditionally, mangolds were lifted at the end of October, before the heavy frosts. Although they can stand a little frost, as long as they have a couple of days to grow afterwards they are fine, but by the time it gets properly cold they need to be in a clamp, covered with a thick layer of straw and then soil. In recent years, however, we haven’t been getting anything but a light frost until late November, so I have been leaving the mangolds to continue growing. This year however, they are so poor it is not worth harvesting them. They were slow to germinate because of the lack of rain, then the weather of the summer didn’t suit them. Surprisingly for a crop that is mostly water, if they get a reasonable start in spring, they do best in a hot summer, the deep tap root extracting enough water for them to grow big enough so that some of them grow so heavy you need both arms to throw them into a cart. But this summer was anything but hot, and then Lucy got out and took a bite or two out of many of them, so it is a sorry sight.

In other news this week, the Prime Minister announced wide ranging measures to decrease CO2 emissions, including a trebling of offshore wind farms, a ban on sales of petrol and diesel cars from 2030, increasing insulation levels in new homes and the planting of large numbers of trees. I think I should be delighted, but I can’t help but wonder how much commitment is behind these measures when they are announced by a man who six years ago said, ‘I don’t really get climate change.’ But maybe he is like some of the farmers who changed to organic methods in the ‘90s purely because they could see better profits, for whom the organic guidelines felt like imposed restrictions, but once involved could see the value of it with their own eyes. But maybe that is wishful thinking – as my mum used to say, ‘you can convince yourself of anything if you try hard enough!’

Also in the news, which you will know already, there has been great relief and excitement surrounding the probable success of two Corona virus vaccines, ushering in a potential return to normal, but in a recent survey only 6% of people wanted things to go back to just how they were. I didn’t hear any more than this headline, but it is a stark figure, 94% of people wanting life to be different afterwards – perhaps they haven’t been trying hard enough to convince themselves that it all used to be just fine!

Take care,


William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.

Home and Shop Companion 0043
Home and Shop Companion 0043