Littlefield Notes: Fall 2012
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Joe D. Finnerty
A quiet garden walk in the late August twilight; high above blue-grey clouds hurry along propelled by some stratospheric wind unfelt here below. Momentarily splashed with pink, the clouds glow and like summer, quickly fade. I wander thoughtfully through the bounty of summer. Here stand the brussel sprouts, each plant tall and noble, holding an unlikely weight to an unexpected height waiting for the dark of the year when I will gratefully snap off the compact baby cabbages to complement a winter meal. Now I stroll among the tomatoes, sprawling and falling off stakes I so dutifully placed back in May, each tied with care only to be forgotten in the business of summer. Each year I vow to dutifully prune and stake, side dress and mulch; yet each year I fail, inevitably leaving each plant to fend for itself where they eventually fall, overgrown and sprawling. But I remind myself that tomatoes and their wild cousins grew for centuries without proper pruning or staking; besides my undisciplined tomatoes are as delicious as any. Now I gaze on the bare patch of earth from which I recently pulled the garlic. The brown soil waits expectantly for my attentions: additions of compost and a winter cover of rye.
I marvel at the fact that I have not watered the garden all summer; nor has any measurable rain fallen for six weeks. Native of the arid west that I am I feel, despite all evidence to the contrary, that I simply should water the garden; yet when I dig down through the dusty top layer of soil I find to my delight that the soil remains moist. I look at the size of the cucumbers that have been overlooked while harvesting, they are plump and full; I turn my gaze to the ginormous leaves of the costata romanesco zucchini: erect and turgid; pumpkins swelling; beans long and fat; all is well. After all, the farm lies between mountain and river, the water wending its way from the heights to the river below must tread an underground path through the farm. As a consequence our fields and lawn remain green while many nearby turn brown.
The kitchen garden is a marvel to me: an entire supermarket produce section right outside the door with nary a trace of chemical residue or stain of petroleum-fueled overland travel. In this mild Northwestern maritime climate it is not unreasonable, with a little planning, to have something fresh to eat in every month of the year.
Recently I hooked up Star and Clark to the McCormick Deering binder and began harvesting the oats — that is — what is left of the oats. We experienced pretty severe lodging from some rains of significance back in July just when the grain was beginning to head out. I feel somewhat sheepish about how last year I blamed the deer for ruining half the oat crop. I was sure they were bedding down in the field when really lodging was to blame. Lodging happens when the grain heads become too heavy and the whole plant falls over. One falls into another and another and so on down the line, like dominoes, until whole swaths of the field are lying down. Interestingly, even in a small field like ours, the damage is visible from space. If you were to look at Littlefield Farm on Google Earth the latest picture shows not only half of last year’s oat crop crushed flat to the ground, but you can readily discern a team of horses digging potatoes and a whole gaggle of kids out picking up the freshly dug praties.
The McCormick-Deering binder we use is a seven footer and really is too much machine for two horses; but I wanted to introduce the thing to Star who had never before pulled one. (For those wondering what happened to Fred and who this Star is, suffice it to say for now that there has been a horse swap). Not surprisingly she was a bit of a nervous Nellie about the whole thing. After a couple of laps around the field though she settled down to it. It was too much of a pull to stay worked up for too long.
The binder is a tricky machine with a lot going on: chains and gears turning, canvases spinning, needle tying, reel turning, knife cutting, horses pulling, levers to adjust, bundles to dump. It is important to think about safety perched high up there on the seat. I have an extension that I buckle on the ends of the lines to give them a little longer reach and to eliminate the risk of dropping one line. I have found that with the horses so far ahead and with the way the handy line-holder keeps the lines together, it is all too easy to accidentally get the lines reversed in-hand, especially after stopping to make an adjustment or otherwise setting the lines down momentarily and picking them up again. A bit of colorful tape on the right-hand line solved this. The last thing you want is to pick up the lines and intend to come “haw” and see your horses go “gee.”
We ended up finishing the binding with the Farmall since to finish with the horses would have been unfair to them. It is important to know the limits of your animals and to not ask more of them than is reasonable. More big horses are in our future, but until then we will have to be content to use the old tractor on that most marvelously complex machine, the binder.
I have wanted to build a stoneboat for some time now but never seemed to get around to it. As with so many farm tasks, need dictates the to-do list. The chickens are fat and must be butchered; the grain is about to start falling out of the husk — better get the binder greased up; just put my foot through that rotten board on the wagon bed — time to replace it. And so it goes with one job after another, each dictated by weather, ripeness, breakdown or some other poignant urgency.
So when a bunch of wild cherry trees were toppled last winter by heavy wet snow and fell on the alley fence that leads from the barn to the Shire pasture, I knew I would have a job of getting all the trees bucked up into firewood lengths and out of the alley. The alley is flanked on one side by a steep hill and on the other by a fairly significant bog. Additionally there is a restrictive dogleg entrance to the alley between the chicken coop and barnyard. The farm does own a Kawasaki Mule, though we don’t use it much on the working end of the farm, preferring to use the horses. We do however, make occasional use of it as need arises. I had in mind to back the Mule down the alley, load it and then drive out forward. It seemed like a fine plan until the mule broke down: yet another case of the folly of relying on motorized vehicles.
While pondering my dilemma it occurred to me that this was just the time to build that stone boat. There certainly was not enough room to turn a stone boat around in the alley, but I realized that if I made it double ended I could simple hook a single horse to one end and drag it in, unhitch the horse and load the sled, hook up the horse to the other end and pull the load back out.
I went to work and built a double-ended stoneboat out of native rough-cut red cedar and scrap iron with removable sides and chains at either end to which an evener or single tree could be attached. It worked as advertised and in no time we had the alley cleared up.
Cliches don’t become so by accident so I will hazard one here. Necessity is truly the mother of invention. Or put another way — necessity puts a quick end to procrastination; indeed necessity will prioritize your to-do list in a hurry.
Why horses? We are knee deep in threshing oats and rye when I find after lunch that the tractor won’t start. Press the ignition switch — nothing; not even a click. I cancel the day’s threshing and drive thirty miles to the tractor store and pick up a genuine-after-market IH part (Farmall parts made in China? Has it come to this?). Come home, put in the new ignition switch and still nothing. I scratch my head, pace around the cantankerous machine a few times and finally decide to shine up the positive connection to the starter. She roars to life. Shut her down, try again: nothing. Scratch my head in a different place, do a couple more laps the other direction, grab a crescent wrench and lightly tap the starter while holding down the ignition switch. Voila! I have achieved internal combustion. So it’s the starter after all.
With tentative optimism I replace the big flatbelt on the pulley (with a twist), ramp up the RPMs, jump on the wagon and toss a bundle of rye into the yawning mouth of the separator. The sheaf disappears into the rumble of the machine but I know right away all is still not well with the Super M. At high RPM she is sputtering, missing and gasping for… fuel? spark? air? I grab the toolbox and go back to work. I disembowel the carburetor trying to clean it of sediment seeping in from rust in the tank, gas dripping at a furious pace. The air intake hose is so old and worn that there is not even enough of it left for me to replace the hose-clamp. By now it’s long past too dark to see and I decide to wrap up for the evening. With rain in the forecast, I bail on finishing the threshing and decide instead to collect the remaining bundles and store them in the barn. We can thresh later after I have had time to methodically work the old girl over, or just feed out the grain as-is, in the bundles.
I do not seem to have a knack for fixing motors. Where horse-drawn equipment is concerned, I feel pretty confident that I can fix most any breakdown. Nothing scares me anymore. But when explosions occur in an invisible cylinder ignited by a hidden spark there exists a layer of complexity that just doesn’t exist with a ground drive implement. Even the binder, no simple machine, wears its heart on its sleeve. All is there to see. You can follow this wheel to that gear to this chain to that canvas and so actually see what is supposed to be happening and make necessary amends.
If I am to continue threshing with the big McCormick separator I will continue to require the belt power that the old Farmall provides. That said, I would do well to get comfortable with its essential nature. With each machine on the farm there inevitably comes a time when I am faced with no choice but to get intimate with, and truly come to understand each machine’s inner workings and true nature.
So now you know why I had such a ridiculous grin plastered on my face this morning as I watched Joe drive Star and Clark, the big chestnut Suffolks, out of the barn and over to the waiting wagon. When we need the horses they start right up, without complaint — every time. I could still faintly smell the gasoline odor on my hands as we headed to the upper field to load bundles on the wagon. I didn’t worry though, because I knew that by the end of the day the gas smell would be replaced by one of horse sweat and oat chaff.