LittleField Notes: Farm Log Summer 2017
text and photographs by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
I find myself considering how the farmer/columnist, mired in the busiest season of the year can meet his deadline at no expense to the work of the farm or to the farmer’s own sanity. Perhaps it is by keeping a log: a sort of ship’s log- or farm log as it were, a daily record of the doings here on the farm, a snapshot of a week or so of work, with notes made sometimes in the field while horses rest, or at the barn while waiting for harpoons to be set, or other quiet in-between moments.
June 30, 2017
I’ve been watching the weather and not trusting it. A steady, sure flow of Pacific Ocean air has lately given us a low marine cloud layer that does not burn off until two or three in the afternoon. Gradually though, over the last couple of days the clouds have lessoned and temperatures have increased and now all of a sudden it seems time to mow. And true to form, the I & J mower sits in the shop with last year’s dull sickle sections caked with mud from a late season mole-hillinfested- wet-pasture mowing. It does seem to be a rule, despite my best intentions, that many jobs get pushed back and back and back until, with time run out and no place left to push, the task must actually be done because the work is at hand. So while the sun shines, I work on the mower to ready it for the field. How lovely it would have been to have done this last December when it was rainy and cold. Alas even in the depths of December there were plenty of other projects to keep me busy and July was a long ways off, as yet a figment of my imagination. And so the mower sat, unattended.
While pulling the twin sickles for the purpose of sharpening them, the bottom one hung up for a moment and it sliced my finger as easy as you please. I painfully reconsidered the need for sharpening. In that instant the knife sections seemed plenty sharp alright. It’s a tricky business, manipulating a sickle in or out of the bar with bare hands, teasing it into place, pushing and prodding firmly, but gently. Slicing a finger while removing a sickle is akin to the classic busted knuckle syndrome – when a stuck bolt suddenly comes free and bare knuckles collide at a high rate of speed with a nearby immobile chunk of iron – only when a stuck sickle lets go, instead of blunt iron, flesh and bone collide with keenly sharpened steel. You might reasonably suggest that I wear gloves, but I feel the same way about working on machinery with gloves that I do about playing the fiddle with gloves: simply unacceptable. I may change my mind someday when I slice my finger off and can no longer play the fiddle.
Because Donald is just recovering from a nasty and elusive hoof abscess on his right hind, I decided to put three fjords (well…two fjords and a fjordpunch) to the I&J mower this afternoon and mow a bit of hay. It was Stella’s first time in a three abreast hitch. Predictably, she did just fine. She’s game, she’s levelheaded, she’s hardworking, and for a two-year-old, I’m really liking the way she is progressing.
Today the cool marine cloud layer was back in spades and I was regretting the two acres I mowed the previous afternoon, though happily the clouds finally burned off around 2:30. I hitched Stella to the tedder and gave the mown hay a good fluffing; there may yet be hope. I naturally decided against any more mowing today.
Continued working on the tractor this morning while the gray clouds loomed: the beautiful big red Farmall M. She hasn’t run in four years (good thing we have horses), but with Donald out of commission, I decided that I had better try to get her fired up and running to use on the hay loader on the chance he didn’t make a recovery in time. Though it looks like Donald will be ready after all, now I am obsessed with making the old girl run again. Unfortunately, I’m not much of an engine mechanic, though these engines are fairly simple. I have now removed, monkeyed with and replaced the carburetor no less than five times, and I think there’s mathematically only one thing left I can tinker with, a suspect needle valve, which I will do tomorrow, after which, hopefully she’ll fire up and come to life.
By rights that hay should have been ready to pick up this afternoon, it felt dry and looked dry in the windrow but when the two boys and I hooked up to the hay loader and the crop started flowing onto the wagon we could see that there was still an unacceptable amount of uncured hay and a general dampness throughout. We left the wagon and loader in the field with a partial load and I hitched Stella to the tedder again and fluffed the hay in the windrow. We’ll try again tomorrow.
So it’s Independence Day today and everyone is taking the day off, in fact because it falls on a Tuesday this year, many folks are taking a long four day weekend and going boating or camping or suchlike. I was thinking that I maybe have never taken a Fourth of July completely off. The work of a farm doesn’t lend itself well to taking days off in the middle of the week. It’s hard enough to lay off on Sundays. Back when I was playing a lot of music I always had a gig at a party or a wedding or dude ranch campfire on the Fourth as well. Today we are picking berries because they’re ripe, and picking up loose hay because it’s dry. We are freezing some berries and making jam with others. The hay we are stuffing in the old barn because that’s what we do. I don’t feel sad that I’m not “taking the day off. “ And really, what else would I rather be doing than picking berries and making hay? There will still be burgers, kids lighting off fireworks and general merriment this evening.
Back in the hayfield this afternoon…we had been rolling for about 10 minutes when all of a sudden the hay loader seemingly grabbed hold of the ground, quit moving, kicked forward on locked up front wheels, and everything came to a screeching halt. The culprit: a broken drive chain wedged between drive wheel and frame. So it’s run to the shop for flat chain anvil, punch, hammer, the roll of extra number 62 flat chain links. I’ve been here before; I know the drill and work quickly. An hour later and the hay is flowing again like a waterfall, cascading down in sheets onto the wagon.
Pretty routine day: tedded one field, raked another, and mowed a third. With no breakdowns, solid horses and perfect weather I could not ask for more. However, after sauntering down to the barn in the evening to tie up a few loose ends, I saw on my way back something slinking across the road in front of the pump house. Given the time of day and that I had just been wandering around the barnyard not being particularly quiet, I was a bit startled and it took me a moment to realize what I was seeing: a big grey coyote in broad daylight slinking along between the house and me. After the recent deaths of our old rooster Rex, our long tenured peahen Luna, and the brazen broad daylight killing of Dolly the fluffy brown Dachshund, coyotes are not on my current list of favorite people. I will be watching for him.
Saw Slinky (I think I’ll call him Slinky) again this morning, this time in the field up behind the house. He knows I’m on to him, since he bolted as soon as he saw me. He didn’t know I’d left my heat in the truck and I was only opening the greenhouses.
Dragged out the old Oliver dump rake and got it lubed up today. I used it to rake the scattered hay (scatters) left after the hay loader picked up the windrows day before yesterday. The dump rake is certainly one of the most iconic pieces of antique farm machinery. Probably it, along with the walking plow were the two most common implements on North American farms 100 years ago. They are ubiquitous even today rusting in people’s yards. I enjoy using it, with it’s simplicity and quietude. I also like the clean and tidy look of a field after the scatters have been raked into windrows and gathered. I left a lot of hay in the field before I started using one.
Liz thinks Slinky is a female and she’s trying to feed her pups and I’m not to shoot her, even if she did kill Dolly. There are saints among us turning the other cheek and loving their enemies. I respect the saints in my life, so I put my grandpa’s old Winchester back in the gun safe and locked it.
This afternoon while driving the fjords on the rope pulling up a nice load of hay into the mow I heard the load release early. I could hear the trolley go flying down the track 90 miles an hour where I later found that it knocked off my improvised preventers (two c-clamps) and gone all the way to the end of the track where it fell halfway off. The track and trolley are at least 100 years old and probably more like 120, and the last section of track is almost half gone in places due to corrosion from pigeon guano. I’ve known this for sometime, but repairing it is a big deal, and as of yet I don’t actually have a spare piece of track. Knowing this, I always try to dump the hay in the front 3/4 of the barn and never allow the trolley to roll all the way back.
I raced aloft up the board ladder at the north end of the barn, and after a quick survey decided this time it was serious. It was too much for my weary mind and body to tackle after an already long day. In the morning I’ll go up when I’m fresh and see if I’ll need to resort to buying an old baler (Heaven forbid!) to get through this season.
After ruminating on my breakdown du jour while trying to fall asleep last night, I realized that I would have one chance to get the trolley back on the good part of the track. It was going to be touch and go when the trolley had to traverse the track with one side almost completely gone. One false move and the whole outfit would fall to the barn floor. It fell completely off one other time and required a Herculean effort involving blocks and tackles and several people and more trouble than I care to go through again without fixing the track properly. So I thought it through, and thought it through some more, then I very carefully gathered my tools and placed them in a bucket, took some rope and a small pulley and went aloft. Threading the rope through the pulley and attaching it to one end of the bucket I drew it up behind me and secured it from the barn rafters. What followed felt like a sort of barn brain surgery. There was me, perched precariously on a couple of shockingly thin boards some 28 feet above the barn floor tying knots and loosening bolts, moving slowly, ever so carefully, acutely aware of my one-chance opportunity. Get this right.
I removed the last track hanger and temporarily suspended the track with rope, removed the safety stop at the end of the track, carefully lifted up the trolley and slid it on from the back. Then I re-bolted the track hanger and stop and ever-socarefully inched the trolley as far out as I dared until it was suspended, minutely balanced, over the yawning pigeon poo crevasse. I could only push it so far or I would be unable to remove the fall-preventer rope which I had affixed to the trolley itself. The fateful moment arrived: I had a helper pull the haul-back rope gently from outside, and while I held my breath, the trolley slid right across the gaping hole and onto solid ground. Just like that we were back in business. We finished unloading the wagon and went immediately back to the field for another load. I made the decision today to only fill the front half of the barn for the remainder of this season. Over the winter I will be hunting up another piece of track, erecting scaffolding and doing a proper repair job. There is an old barn of the same vintage as ours just up the road, and I have a good idea that it’s the same F. E. Meyers track and trolley system that we use in our barn. If that indeed is my good fortune, I already have permission from the owners to commandeer parts as needed.
Sunday. Sabbath. It was a beautiful thing yesterday afternoon when the last load of hay slipped through the hay mow door, especially after the recent hay trolley trials and tribulations. After the horses were un-harnessed , brushed and turned out, I walked to the house with a sense of accomplishment and anticipation of a day of rest. Even God himself needed a rest on the seventh day, and indeed it is good for us and good for the horses as well. For the work is hard, and the work is long; and with long hard work comes the need for good rest. Of course there’s still chores on Sunday, and other little odds and ends to tend to, but it is really the spirit of the day that is important: take a walk, a deep grateful breath, sit under a tree, sing a song, say a prayer. The weeds will still be there tomorrow, as will the reaping and the sewing and the mowing. Today though, we rest.
As I look back and consider the little successes and failures of the week, I note with a smile that the tractor remains broken in the shed, refusing to start, while the horses have willingly and predictably started every day and put their hearts into the good work of making their own feed. Bravo! I say, let’s do it again next week. Maybe I’ll get that old tractor fixed next winter…