Chaos & quietude
Blending Serenity and Mayhem since 2019
It’s a predictable enough question and is frequently asked of us in polite conversation, usually when catching up with old friends or distant relatives. But giving an appropriate response is more difficult than you’d probably expect, even though we have quite a variety of potential flora and fauna to mention:
Our Jersey milk cow(s) probably takes the most amount of effort followed by the girls’ horse, which, eats as you can imagine, like a horse. Then, of course, we have a whole flock of assorted birds, chickens, ducks, and whatnot to look after. We’ve husbanded a number of feeder pigs to butcher weight each summer and are now trying our hands at a breeding pair. Then there’s the sheep. Though a small flock of just six or so, they still require the basics of food, water, shelter, fencing, and fresh bedding. In other words, daily work. Furthermore, I’ve tried and thus far utterly failed at raising both rabbits and honeybees. Beyond the animals, we grow a large vegetable garden each summer and tend to a two-acre orchard full of fruit trees, nut trees, and berries, which needs yearly pruning and care, and furthermore, enjoy cooking off gallons of maple syrup every spring. We’re also making strides towards producing our own hay. Beyond cutting, raking, baling, and storing, our fields merit regular fertilization by spreading all the manure of our stock. Finally, we try each year at planting patches of field corn, wheat, potatoes, turnips, ginseng, oats, rye, or assorted other crops with varied amounts of success.
So, there’s plenty going on around our modest farm to keep the wife, our three daughters, and myself busy and to provide ample topics to chat about. However, simply listing all these things misses the point entirely. Especially because many of our relatives are (or were) real Wisconsin dairy farmers and have risen hundred’s of cattle. By contrast it sometimes seems like we’re merely playacting at this whole farm thing. But, unlike most of our kin, we’re not growing crops to make a wage. Making a little money is certainly nice, but our purpose is more lifestyle oriented. We like living rurally and puttering around on our own land. We strive to be independent of feeble supply chains. We’re trying to cultivate a large chunk of our own food, bypassing much of the chemical-laden, nutritionally dispossessed over-processed foodstuffs on supermarket shelves. We get adequate exercise and enjoy raising some relatively spoiled animals, while hoping to convey life-lessons to the kids. In short, we’re striving to create a healthy wholesome environment for our family.
So what are we raising? I typically reply flatly: “Girls.”
Bringing Home the Baler
Have you ever tried making hay by hand, the old fashioned way with a scythe and hand rake? I have and will readily vouch that producing any respectable amount that way is pretty darn hard work. For that reason we made a mutually beneficial arrangement with one of our neighbors years ago; he would use his modern equipment to turn our lush fields into large round bales of hay, fill our barn with what we needed, and take the rest. We’d get the bulk of our hay, enough to sustain us through the winter and he’d get plenty of extra feed for his Red Angus steers. Neighbors helping neighbors, the way it should be. But depending upon someone else, even a friend and neighbor, was also contradictory to our goal of being as independent as possible. It was time now for us to try to filling our own barn, it's time to get a hay baler.
I decided to go with a small square baler for several reasons. Not only do they tend to be much cheaper than the more contemporary round balers primarily used by farmers these days, but the small square bales they make can be moved by hand verse needing heavy equipment, lending itself more to our homesteading style. Additionally, there seems to be a market for the old square bales among those with just a few goats, cows, sheep, or horses. Being able to sell our surplus would be a big win.
Not particular about the brand or model, I just wanted something that was going to work and not be too large for our old tractors. I watched the ads for months, followed some leads, met a few dead ends, but finally found what I think was a great deal. After some genial back and forth, I arranged to come and see a New Holland 273 Hayliner. This machine was not quite as old as many of the other’s I’d been considering. Plus, it had been used successfully last season and attractively had had the knotters, probably the most problematic part, recently refurbished. The only problem now was how to get it home.
Old square balers and not the kind of thing that you can just throw on a trailer. They’re too big and heavy and require a large low flat trailer and probably some state permitting. Which meant I’d have to higher it out, which meant I was going to have to find a different way. After a bunch of research, I decided the best thing would be to simply tow it behind my truck. After I verified with the seller that the wheel bearings had been serviced, we waited for a snow storm to clear out and an extra day for the roads to be plowed. I headed down with a slow moving vehicle sign, a bunch of tools, and some anxiety about breaking down on a desolate state road. Though not very pretty, I found the condition of the 273 to be as advertised. So, after hitching up, inflating a tire, I said a little payer and headed home, very slowly. I kept my flashers on and my speed to around 30 mph, stopping every 20-30 minutes to check things over.
For once, I had no problems. It took about 2 hours or so, but we now have a nice means to store our hay, and if all goes well, perhaps we'll be able to make a little profit this season.
The other day the snow was really coming down with lots more in the forecast. We were expecting company the next day and I just had to get our long driveway clear. So of course, after a cough and a whiff of smoke, my 651 Workmaster tractor I use for snow plowing simply refused to start. I tried and tried with no luck. I messed with different choke settings, I glanced quickly in the gas tank and saw some fuel (there’s no gauge), I even let the tractor rest for a while in case of flooding then came back to another attempt. Eventually, I wore the battery out with no joy. Great. Though plenty old, this had never happened with this tractor before. After spending the requisite 20 minutes to find the lost charger and getting it hooked up, I decided that I’d better put the chains on my other tractor, a ’52 8N, in case I had to use that old girl for the plowing. This was problematic since I didn’t have a set of chains ready that would fit the 12.4x28 tires. What I did have was some secondhand semi-trailer chains rusting away in a bucket that I’d picked up to make a set out of, someday. Putting chains on my tractors is not a chore I enjoy, particularly when they have to be fabricated first, but I guess today was someday. With the snow coming down in ever larger flakes, I spent the next couple of hours fighting with the rusty fetters; measuring, grinding, cutting, cursing, tugging, grunting, and trying to find bits of hardware and wire sufficient to Jerry-rig the chains in place. Worn out, cold, wet, and much dirtier, I returned to the Workmaster reasoning that enough time had past to try her again. Crossing my fingers still didn’t help, so I finally went into a more indepth troubleshooting mode. I cleaned the air intake and was glad not to find a mouse’s nest (as I have on other occasions) blocking the inlet. I pulled a spark plug and examined it. The plug was not soaked and appeared normal, so at least it wasn’t getting flooded. I checked for spark and that too was norm. Ok, the tractor should be getting air and it sparks. I can assume the compression didn’t suddenly go bad, and if it did I couldn’t do anything about it anyway, so that leaves fuel as the remaining villain to subdue. I tried a squirt of staring fluid and got just the fainted hint of a puff. Thinking that just maybe I was on the right track, I then stared hard at the ancient carburetor trying to will it into revealing the esoteric mysteries contained within. I considered pulling it off for a cleaning, but thankfully got scared and retreated to engage smaller dragons first. The fuel bowl looked clean, or at least cleanish. Maybe there was something blocking the line? I traced the gas line, played a bit with the broken shutoff valve, and sighing slightly, peaked into the tank again, this time with a flashlight to look pensively at the petcock. That’s when I finally discovered the problem: It turns out that tractors still need gasoline to run. Apparently, when I check earlier I had seen just a small pool in the otherwise completely dry tank. I topped the thing off today.
We recently celebrated one of our kid’s turning 11. Birthdays are a big deal in our household and without spending a fortune; we’ve been known to throw some decent parties, from the perspective of an eight year old at least. Though our festivities involve many of the elements of your typical party; presents, cake, etc, we also incorporate a few novelties shared below to help make the survivor-of-another-year feel extra appreciated.
Attention to Orders
The fanfare begins with the birthday kid (or parent) being spoiled throughout the day. On the farmstead, this means foremost that their standing assigned chores are divided amongst the rest of the family. The VIP also gets to pick the meals and deserts for the day, dictate most ancillary activities, and are excused from attending to their studies, a benefit of homeschooling. I expect these things listed so far are predicable, but we go beyond that. In a transfer of power rivaling monarchs of old, the birthday celebrant also has the statutory authority to issue commands to other family members. I don’t remember how this tradition came about, though I’d guess it was inaugurated on the spur of a whim just stuck. In any case, our girls delight in being able to say“I birthday order you to do xxx ” to their siblings. There are parental limitations imposed, but for the most part, the privilege is not abused and is undertaken with playful goodwill by both sides.
A great time-killer that has been popular with my own kids and typically with guests is to let the kiddos take turns riding a sled (there is usually snow) pulled by our tractor or snowmobile. I can take three or four at a time and though a few young’uns have been too intimidated, most seem to really get a kick out it as a novel experience. There is the added benefit that giving rides affords me a productive excuse to circumvent small talk with folks I don’t really know that well. I should mention however, that to avoid potential unpleasantness, I’ve made a habit of obtaining permission from the moms before offering these rides but have yet to find one unwilling to let their offspring participate.
Treasure Hunt with a Whack
What kid doesn’t enjoy a treasure hunt? I put one together once as a side amusement, and to my chagrin, it has become an expectation ever since. Methods, themes, and styles change from party to party, year to year and the clues have ranged from party balloons with directions inside them to poetically versed hints hidden throughout the acreage. A simple method is just to take a bunch of quick pictures of various objects throughout the house and property, ideally of objects with a special significance to the birthday kid, then print off reduced versions. These images are then fastened and usually hidden to these objects in the desired order of discovery. The key is to not attach a photo of an object to itself, which would result in a dead-end, but arrange them so that one leads to another. Tying clues to live pets and/or livestock can make things a little more interesting, and I’ve occasionally been inspired to lay booby-traps or an ambuscade with fireworks to spice things up even further. The one constant so far with these treasure hunts is that I have always had them end with a real treasure; that is to say they lead to a piñata. Stuffed with candy, party favors, small denominations of money, or most recently seed packets, the piñatas have been another hit. We’ve made them ourselves some years out of decorated cardboard or papier-mâché, but most often they get purchased online. Some brands can really take a whacking to crack open, but pull-string varieties are an option too which is helpful when younger children are around. It can be a challenge to keep a dozen excited children away from the candy-laden prize, even when another kid is wildly wielding a club in its vicinity.
All these things take a bit of effort, but in the scheme of things they have been worth it. While we can’t take our girls to Paris or even Disneyland, we can certainly deliver a few pleasantries to shape satisfying memories.
I remember a family outing to a local park, many many moons ago. It was slightly odd for my siblings and I to be taken to out to play because we grew up surrounded by acres of forest that served that purpose very well. Whatever the reason though, we were there on picturesque day in the early fall. It was a large park with hills, a playground, and a small creek meandering along the edge of the woods. The watercourse was shallow, generally less than knee deep to a child, and across it spanned the vestiges of a narrow, broken-down footbridge or old dam. Other children were playing in the vicinity but what makes this visit particularly memorable was the multitude of parents hovering very close at hand loudly admonishing their precious little Tommy’s and Jane’s to “be extra careful” and to “go slow” on the debris. Then, at full speed, over the dilapidated structure and through the middle of this tranquil scene of familial watchfulness, plowed my brothers and I, pursued close at hand by our father who was (playfully) pelting us with acorns as we scrambled across the rocks.
I aver that over-protective parenting stifles children, and it was with this attitude that I erected a barn swing for my kids soon after we made this place home. More akin to a circus trapeze than your typical swing set, a properly constructed barn swing combines impetuous adventure with a dash of elegant simplicity. It is an entirely different animal from those anemic play sets typically adorning public parks. A real barn swing ought to command a certain amount of respect and awe, at least in the heart of an eight year old. Our barn is perfect for it.
Pretty typical of other barns in this area, our cowshed is around 100 years old, large, over two stories tall, with a gambled roof and a stone foundation. The framing is of monstrously solid rough-hewn wooden beams and it is covered in hemlock boards that have long since turned gray from weathering. The one aspect that I find unique about it, at least as compared to the barns I remember as a kid, is that there is no hayloft. The inside of the main portion is entirely open from floor to ceiling, excepting those huge framing posts and beams that jut out every so often. Length-wise along the peak of the ceiling runs a rusty cable with some kind of pulley system attached that I suppose the old-timers used for lifting and stacking hay (probably via horse power). Because we don’t need all the space our barn affords, a large portion of it remains clear. As a consequence, the barn makes for a natural play-place in inclement weather, with the swing serving as centerpiece.
To set the swing up, I climbed as high as I could on the exposed beams and then using a long spruce pole, I managed to loop a stout rope over the cable and secure it with a slipknot. The single length of rope then stretched inside the barn from the peak to the ground. For a seat, I drilled an appropriate sized hole in the middle of a plastic pail lid with a wooden washer and secured it with a stopper knot. I performed a few trial goes, and, voila: happy kids!
So now the title question: Is it safe? If you’re genuinely wondering, you’re reading the wrong blog. I wouldn’t exactly call it a death trap, but no, it is decidedly not safe. At least not when compared to such things as playing video games in the house or the typical lame (and seemingly strictly ornamental) schoolyard playgrounds. The swing traverses a wide arc and the intended launched point is high up in the hay bales. If one doesn’t paying attention, it would be easy to smack headlong at full speed into a wall, a solid beam, or other kids running about through the fly zone. Yes, there have been numerous bumps and some crying fits. Yet, our girls congregate out there even now, years after it’s commissioning, especially on dark winter evenings following chores. It also continues to remain a particularly favorite attraction for visiting children.
In these days of parents vociferously petitioning their school boards to remove what lackluster playground equipment still exists, I contend that such over-protective parenting does not engender the kind of adults we need. Kids ought to be allowed to fall down once in awhile if they’re going to learn to pick themselves up again. This is a nation descended from pioneers, explorers, revolutionaries, and patriots. Now our young adults are clamoring for a basic universal income and the paying off of their personally incurred debt with public funds. In our excessively safety-obsessed society of today, I fear that we are only encumbering the future. I don’t advocate throwing out all sense of caution or common sense, but kids need to be kids. Plus, the swing is just plain fun… as long as I remember to not park the manure spreader too close.