Monday, October 17, 2011

Autumn Planting Festival, or What I Learned From Killing a Chicken (part 3 of 3)

And so, I was the first one up. I reached in and after a little bit of shuffling around managed to get ahold of one of the hens. We decided to do the rooster last, since he would likely be the hardest to kill and we wanted to refine our method. I walked over near the table and began swinging the chicken. Then as I contemplated bringing the chicken’s head down on the table, I realized that I was swinging it underhanded, so I was going the wrong way. Stop and try again, swinging overhand. Around ... around ... around ... bring it closer to the table ... miss ... around ... closer still ... smack!

Wings flapping wildly ... look at it ... eyes still open ... struggling ... around ... smack!! ... still fluttering ... around ... smack!!!

Get it on the table ... still flopping a little ... grab cleaver ... what do I do now? ... get knife under the feathers ... cut? no ... pull cleaver back and bring it down hard ... hit with the heel of the blade, draw blood, but little else ... is it going to spurt? ... put the cleaver on its neck ... push hard ... nothing happens ... pull the cleaver back again ... aim is good, hit the neck with the front of the blade ... goes through most of the neck ... it’s bleeding, but slowly ... there are three or four splatters on the table ... bring the knife back for another blow ... there’s blood on the knife ... Oh My God!, There’s Blood On The Knife ... bring it down again ... no effect ... the head is off except for the skin of the other side ... set the knife in the gap ... there’s a gap between its neck and its head! ... slice and they’re completely separated ... push the head away from the body with the knife ... set the knife down next to the head ... I’m done ... step away from the table.

I remember stepping away and everyone coming down to the table. At some point I picked it back up and there was discussion about how to drain the blood. In the end I just put it feet up in a bucket.

Then I realized that I was breathing heavy and fast. My heart was beating fast. I as giddy, maybe hyper-ventilating. I don’t really know what I was feeling. It wasn’t triumph or exultation. I didn’t feel particularly accomplished. It hadn’t been difficult, either physically or emotionally. I hadn’t felt bad for the chicken or like I was doing something cruel. But I definitely felt _something_. And pretty strongly.

Kelsey was up next. She had a little trouble getting the chicken up and around, but she did it. It took a couple of tries to stun the bird, but she eventually got it. The video shows me helping her cut off its head, but I do not remember that at all.

Layla took the third one and it (or maybe it was Kelsey’s, I don’t remember now) was really active even without its head, managing even to flop its way off of the table.

The rooster was last, and Doug decided that he would take on that beast. He had a little trouble getting out of the dog carrier and the only way he could get it was to grab it by the neck. I guess that gave him an idea because then on the walk over the to table he suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, just wrenched the rooster’s neck around, first one way then the other. It was over very quickly and with a minimal amount of kicking and flopping around. It bled a bit more than the others, but still there was very little blood, even once we started cutting them open.

Once all four had been killed there was a definite party atmosphere. The spectators came down and got a close look at the birds. They took pictures and got close up looks at the bloody tools and table. We talked. We laughed and joked. We reminisced. It was a lot of fun. There was a certain amount of closeness and togetherness among us that I have rarely felt. Maybe this is why people go out on team-building events. But the emotions going through me (whatever emotions they were) really made me feel something special with everyone there. It was especially true with the Portland folks, Doug, Jon and Gwynn, who I didn’t know nearly as well, but by the end of the day I knew we would all be lifelong friends.

Still flush with our victory over chicken-kind it was time to butcher them up and turn them into meat. The first step was the de-feathering. We dunked them into hot water to loosen them up and then began that messy job. The smaller feathers came out very easily, but the larger ones on the tail and the wings were stuck on there good. Many of mine broke before coming out and had to be pulled out with tweezers later. The process was easier, work-wise, than I had expected, but more tedious and time consuming than I had thought.

The real time consuming part was the butchering. Doug, Gwynn and I (and maybe someone else, my memory is a bit hazy already) did this part. Kelsey was there helping, because she had at least seen it done before, while Chris stood on the porch with her laptop giving us unstructions (that was a typo, but after seeing it and remembering how not helpful they were, I decided to keep it) off of the internet.

The first step was to get the neck and crop out. The crop, I guess, is some sort of second stomach in the chicken’s neck or high up in its chest. The goal was to get it out without piercing it so all of that half-digested glump didn’t get all over the bird. These birds had recently fed, so the crop was full of grass and grain. There was a lot of slow going and being extra careful with the knife, trying our best not to puncture it. I wound up cutting into mine, but it was near the top and containable.

The next step was cleaning out the intestinal cavity and that wound up being a lot of work. It started with cutting ope a large hole in the bird’s abdomen, all the while being very careful not to cut too deep and puncture the intestines. So once again, not really knowing what we could and could not cut deeply into, we cut very slowly. Our knives too, were not the sharpest. These chickens had a ton of fat on them, especially in their bellies that we were cutting through.

Once the hole was made, we had to insert our hands into the cavity and separate the internal organs from the walls of the cavity. The worst thing about it? They were still warm inside. It was a very disconcerting reminder that this bird had been alive two hours ago. Once the guts were out, a few quick knife cuts removed the whole kit and caboodle from the chicken. And there you could see everything, much clearer and more obvious than in 10th Grade Biology class frog. Liver, heart, intestines, kidneys.

Meanwhile, it was starting to get cold. The sun had gone down behind the house and the wind had picked up. Most folks had gone inside, both in search of warmth and there were things to do in there. Christine cleaned and did some of the detail de-feathering that we hadn’t. Kelsey and Layla finished up the bread and got it into the oven. Kelsey get her Rosemary Chicken all prepped and ready to go. I’m sure other stuff happened in there too, but Doug and I were outside and didn’t see most of it.

I got a second chicken that had been cut open, but nothing removed, and knowing what I could and couldn’t do a lot better, made quick work of getting those guts out. Doug, meanwhile, had gone to work on the rooster. Now he turned out to be quite a bit different on the inside than the hens had been. His breastbone was a lot longer meaning that the opening to his internal cavity was smaller, which we were initially worried about, but wound up only being difficult because Doug has big hands. Why? Because he had practically no fat on him. The hens had been covered in fat, both under their skin and surrounding their intestines. Bright yellow, shiny masses of it. But the rooster must have been a lot more active because he had none of that and once Doug was able to get his hand in there to loosen everything up, his guts came right out.

And there we had it. Four chickens looking much like they would have in the store. Not exactly, as I realized as I began chopping them up into pieces to go in the various dishes. The breasts were very small. The skin was tougher and more yellow in color. The dark meat was much darker in color. And they were a lot fattier, at least the three hens.

One went in the soup pot. One went into a baking pan whole, flavored with rosemary. One went separated into a baking pan covered in white wine and apricot preserves. And the rooster went into a ziplock bag and into the freezer. After all, we’d only expected three chickens for dinner.

There was some time for hanging out and talking while the chickens cooked. The mulled mead, my regular mean, watered down and with cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, whole allspice berries and nutmeg mixed in and heated, was a big hit, so we made another batch of that. There was some playing of Rock Band.

I was just glad to have my hands washed and be warm. By the end there, it had gotten bitchly cold outside and I had disembowelled two chickens and chopped into bits three more. I’ll be happy not to have to do that again for a couple of weeks. I was a little disappointed that we hadn’t been able to get to the planting of the grains, but that was pretty minor. We’d been busy!

The chickens cooked for an hour and we had two more people arrive -- Ali and Erik, friends of mine. The chickens were all done at that point, but I realized that I’d forgotten to make noodles to go along with the one dish, so we whipped those up quickly. We also hadn’t made any plans for what we were going to eat off of, but at last I found some old paper plates, two more than we needed.

We all stuck in and ate. The chicken was ... disappointing. It was very tough. This had been a concern of mine. Several websites had said that the chicken needed to be aged for 48 hours after killing to let the rigor mortis and other death processes run their course. Other websites and forum posts had said that it wouldn’t be a problem. Well, it was, or at least something was. Even the chicken in the soup was tough, so we decided to forgo the soup and just keep cooking it, and see if it would soften up. It eventually did, but not until the next morning.

Also, the chicken did really taste different to me. Some people said it was “gamey” but I didn’t taste it. It’s one of those things: people go on and on about how much better fresh food is and how it’s worth the extra price, but you know, to me, it just tastes the same.

But the bread was a big hit and there was enough food for everyone to get their fill. We sat around a talked for another hour or two, split up into two groups. Eventually the Seattle people had to leave, so we said our goodbyes. But the Portland crew was staying the night on our couches and they were up for some TV, so we watched quite a few episodes of Black Books and had Cake Martinis. And that was the Fertility Festival.

I did actually forget a couple of things. At some point before dinner, Doug and I were cleaning up. It was after dark and there was still a big tub of water in the yard with the guts of one of the chickens (my second one) which had accidentally fallen in the tub while I was cutting it free from the chicken. We looked at each other, wondering what to do with it, and then Doug suggested we bury it in the field. Christine, earlier, had emptied one of our bowls of knife cleaning water into the field, with a brief invocation to Demeter. Both of these remembrances of the field meant a lot to me.

My daughter, Becca, had left the party after the killings were over, because she had a big school event going on, but before she left she said that she wanted one of the heads so that we could render down the flesh and get a chicken skull out of it. Now, we all knew that by ‘we’ she actually meant someone who was not her, more than likely me. But we took the rooster head, since it hadn’t been smashed against anything and put it in a pot on the barbeque’s stove. We wound up throwing the other three heads in as well, because ... why not? They simmered there all through dinner with no change in fleshiness and wound up stinking pretty bad (maybe because they still had some feathers on them?) We quizzed Becca the next day about whether she would help out to get her skull, and she vehemently declined. So, I decided to take them and bury one in each corner of the field, my little sacrifice to the grain spirits.

So what did I learn? I don’t really know. I picked up some skills. I could probably butcher a chicken in half the time it took that first time. Medievally, I guess I learned that there isn’t really that much meat on a regular, somewhat natural bird, but there can be a lot of fat, which in the medieval/iron age mind is a big thing. I gained some new respect for butchering a bird like that. I mean, our knives weren’t very good modern ones, how hard would it be with an iron one? But I can certainly see that a couple eggs a week would be a lot more valuable than the meat off of the chicken.

What did I learn about myself? Share more. Invite people into my world. Everyone had a great time. Not because I kept to myself and expressed the interests of the herd. But because I shared what I was truly interested in and it turned out that other people were too. Several of us commented afterwards that we’d remember that day for the rest of our lives. Does that happen by being boring? By doing what everyone else does? By keeping those ideas hidden away inside? Nope, only by sharing them and making them happen.

The other thing that I ‘learned’ or may yet learn from is that emotion I felt after the killing. I’ve been thinking about it all day as I write this and I still don’t have a good explanation or description for it. I guess it feels like exhilaration, except that I had no expectation of feeling that way, no ramp up ‘this is going to be so exciting’ feeling before hand. And so it doesn’t quite feel right to call it a thrill. (It’s also mildly disturbing to call it exhilarating when it was murdering a living thing.) I would expect that such a feeling would dissipate as I did it more and it would become mundane, which was how I was expecting it to feel.

And everyone had a great time. It was a memorable experience that brought us all together. I think the lot of us that killed and gutted those chickens in some way bonded over that experience, and that feeling, that effect doesn’t need anything else. Even if we hadn’t learned anything, or felt anything, that bonding was enough to make it a wonderful day. Thank you, everyone, for being there and sharing it with the rest of us.

Autumn Planting Festival, or What I Learned From Killing a Chicken (part 2)

We got to sleep late that night and there was a little bit of panic when I woke up and realized that I had slept in by a few hours. I got out my laptop with the intention of writing myself a script of what I would say later on and then wound up taking to Chris and then Doug and Jon and Gwynn as they woke up. Before I knew it, it was 9:40 am and time to get the chickens.

I had borrowed a small dog carrier from Kelsey a few days before, so I loaded that up in the car and drove down to get the chickens. Google maps had suggested one route, but it had seemed to go in circles, so after a bit of futzing with waypoints I got it to give me a route that looked much more direct. Except that it wound up taking me through the parking lot of a huge apartment complex which would have actually worked, except that the back entrance/exit to the parking lot was blocked off with a locked gate. Fifteen minutes later, I finally found the place.

I was met by a very nice Transylvanian lady (I kid you not) who took me over to a small coop containing four chickens. We talked for a bit, her pronunciation of words was excellent, but her grammar was not so good, and wound up coming out sounding like someone doing a bad Romanian accent. Her best line was, “Planning trip back to old country soon. Be gone six months, maybe more. Men, they cannot be trusted to keep care of chickens. Must sell them before.”

She also said that her husband had said to give me a good deal, so she was throwing in a rooster along with the three hens. Four birds for $60. Seems like a lot to me, but Gwynn thought that the hens at least were some pretty prime poultry. She tried to talk me into buying some ducks too, which were quacking up up a storm, but I begged off of those. They were pretty mellow birds and were easy to corral into the dog carrier. It was probably just as well that I hadn’t noticed the huge, mean-looking bone spur on the rooster’s legs until near the end.

I got them home with no problems; they barely made a cluck on the drive.

Once home, there was a bunch of work to be done. I got the bread started rising. I got all of our buckets and filled a big tub with water. Pulled around a big wooden table into the back yard. Got the gas burner on our barbecue working so we could have hot water to help with the feather plucking. Chris made the cheese and meat plate. We put the others to work as wee needed them, but Becca was getting them in the historical mood by showing them the video game BrĂ¼tal Legend.

When we first came up with this idea, Kelsey and I had decided that we were going to do it in costume. So, a little after 1:00 pm (as the others were going to be arriving about 2:00 pm), I locked myself in the bedroom and got into my Anglo-Saxon garb. Which, I have to say, looks pretty damn good. I still need a few things. I could use an undertunic and shoes and maybe a cap. I love the woolen leg wraps, though between those and the long tunic, you can barely see the trousers. I got it together just as Layla and Kelsey arrived (both of their boyfriends were forced to go into work, so neither of them made it). We hung around and chatted for a bit, and nommed our way through the cheese and meat platter. By about 2:30 pm, we were ready to get down to business.

Gwynn was the only other person who donned a costume, although Doug made himself a blood-splatter tunic by cutting holes in a black plastic garbage bag. So I was feeling a little exposed and embarrassed, but it wasn’t to bad.

We went out into the backyard. The weather had turned out to be great -- sunny, but cool with a bit of a breeze -- which is a lot better than the dark grey with scattered showers they had been forecasting earlier in the week. I gathered everyone around and told them I had a few words to say. Becca and Jon videoed.

This was the moment that I had been working up to all week, even more than the actual chicken killing itself. There was a brief moment of panic just before I started and then again about half a minute in where I forgot how to speak for a couple of seconds. But I got my focus back. I got into character and said what I had wanted to say.

The gist of the speech was to ask everyone to imagine that we were in the 6th Century. Once there, I got into character as the Germanic head of household of a small farm. I went on to explain that my son had traded our last cow for some magic grain that was supposed to grow through the winter (I haven’t been able to get a good handle on when these strains actually came into use in Europe. Are they modern? Not sure.) and that he didn’t know what kind of ceremony to use to bless his field with the strange wheat. He gave a brief overview of the ceremonies that his people would have used for summer grains, and then asked for help in extrapolating out to the winter grains.

I thought it went well, that I said what I had wanted to say and that it had come out in an entertaining and interesting manner. I delivered it well enough and didn’t make a complete fool out of myself. So that was all good. I invited everyone into my head for 13 minutes.

Then our attention turned to the chickens. Now, one of our Portland friends, one who hadn’t been able to come, had sent us a link to a how-to website that had given very good and explicit instructions on one method of killing the chicken and instructions on gutting it as well. I had found a YouTube video that did much the same thing, though with a different killing method. Another website had offered an outrageous sounding procedure. And the good Transylvanian woman had suggested a different method. So we had five basic methods to choose from:

1. Hit it on the head to knock it out. Then either take it’s head off or bleed it out. (Website #1)
2. Find it’s jugular vein just under its chin and slice it. (YouTube video)
3. With the chicken on your lap, grab it by the head and yank hard, dislocating its neck. (Outrageous website)
4. Pinch the carotid artery in its neck until it fell unconscious, and then chop. (Transylvanian lady)
5. While still alive, chop its head off. (Commonly known, that’s what everyone knows about chicken killing method)

We had all looked at the website of #1, so we decided to go with that method.

I guess that I’m being a little inexact with that method decription though. Hit it on the head needs a little more detail. You can’t just hit it with a hammer. They move too much and there would be a real chance of hitting yourself or the other person holding the chicken. So, this method had you grasp the chicken by the feet, twirl it around at full force and then bring the chicken’s head down on something solid, like the edge of our table.

Autumn Planting Festival, or What I Learned From Killing a Chicken (part 1)

This is the first time I’ve done this, and I not going to make a habit out of it, but in this case, I think it’s appropriate. I’m crossposting this post to both my personal blog and my historical recreation blog. Just so you know....

Remember a few posts ago when I talked about reading the Golden Bough ( link ) and mentioned that it was listed in the Call of Cthulhu RPG book as causing a loss of sanity? That’s silly, right? Books don’t drive you crazy. They don’t make you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Right?

Oh, but that is the power of books, isn’t it? To teach. To inspire. And that is exactly what it did. Inspire me. ::insert maniacal laughter::

But, back to beginning of the story. I finished pulling all of the weeds -- my nemeses, the ivy, the dandelions, and especially the European Buttercups --
and was thinking I was done preparing the field. But then I realized two things, that the ground was a little hard and that the weeds were coming back very fast. So, instead of just going after the weeds as they pooped up, I decided to take the shovel to the whole field again.

Not double digging this time. That took too long and was too much work to do every year. And plus, it may have made my weed problem worse. No, this time my bright idea was to single dig -- just scoop up dirt, turn it over and rake it back in the hole. But as I raked, I made a strong effort to pull out any roots or creeper vines that were in there. The raking actually wound up being the hard and time-consuming part of the operation. I pulled out tons of roots and vines, at least 6 wheelbarrow loads of them. It took just about a month, working in 1-2 hour sessions, 2-4 sessions per week. Estimate it at about 18 hours for my 750 sq. feet.

I also soil-tested the ground, and it came back as being very low on nitrogen. So I added some fertilizer. Anyone who’s interested about the fertilizer, I’ll make that a sperate post.

And I picked a crop. I decided on winter red wheat and winter spelt. They both recommended being planted by October 15th. The 15th happened to be a Saturday, so I aimed for that day as my planting day. So far so good.

But then a friend of mine, Kelsey, started talking to me about The Golden Bough, especially about the animal sacrifices. We had talked before about wanting to go through the process of killing an animal, butchering it and eating it, and so, one thing led to another and we decided that the two of us (and probably my wife, but she hadn’t actually been asked at this point) would get together on Oct. 15th and have a little planting festival. We’d kill a chicken, plant some wheat and spelt, cook, and probably drink a lot of mead.

And we’d probably dribble the chicken blood in the field and say a few words to the grain spirits about giving us a good harvest.

Now, I’m not religious, not religious at all. I don’t really believe that there are grain spirits or that Jupiter or Ceres or Horus are looking after my field or the fertility of my field. But, perhaps just because of that, I am very curious about religion, about feeling some connection with the absolute or the hugeness of the universe. My roleplaying game is largely about playing immoral characters in a moral world and the paradoxes and punishments that go along with that. I’m also very interested and respectful of traditions and rituals. So I wanted to try and get a little of that from this planting party.

And then Kelsey and I told another friend, Layla, about our little get together and she wanted to come. And then Kelsey’s boyfriend wanted to come. And then Layla’s boyfriend and another mutual friend. And my wife thought it would be a hoot. She mentioned it to some of her friends in Portland (200 miles away) and they thought it sounded like fun, so three of them made plans to drive up. Before I knew what hit me, my little 2-3 person get-together and mushroomed into a nine or ten person party.

And it totally stressed me out. The entire week leading up to it I was a basket case, just going over the plan, marshaling all of the little details of food, snacks, prep work and that kind of thing. But also, what was I going to say. What kind of a little ritual was I going to put on over my field. That was where the major anxiety was.

Thursday morning, I realized what I was really stressing over. It wasn’t so much the performance anxiety of getting in front of all of those people and talking. It wasn’t that I was worried about my talk being inaccurate. Messing up the logistics wasn’t really the thing that was bothering me. Oh sure, all of those things were on my mind, but they weren’t what was causing the lion’s share of the stress.

It was the the idea of opening myself up to these people. Of coming right out and saying, “This is the crazy stuff that interests me and this is what I think about it. This is where I am when my eyes glaze over and I’m spacing out. This is the special place I go when the real world is being too difficult to take and I need a few minute vacation. I go to a 6th Century, Northern European farm.”

And once I realized that thoughts such as these were the ones getting me all anxious, it was a lot easier to deal with and the stress greatly decreased. And that was good.

Kelsey and I came up with the basic menu for the day. We’d get three chickens and turn one into soup, bake one fairly simply with rosemary and oil packed in under its skin and the third would have a wine and apricot glaze and be served over pasta. Yes, I know, not 6th Century, but the purpose of the day wasn’t to be perfectly realistic. It was to have fun first, and then to get a glimpse into what life might of been like a millennia ago in Europe, or even just get an idea what life would be like in rural parts of the world today.

Christine, my wife, added a summer sausage, cold-cuts and cheese platter to the menu while we were getting set up and that was a great addition. I made two different kinds of bread. There was mulled mead and raspberry wine. There was supposed to be a wheat berry salad, but that got canceled. There was a green salad planned, but we forgot about it in the heat of the moment and it’s still in our fridge. Gwynn and Jon from Portland brought sour apple cupcakes which were a big hit. I think we went through something like three dozen of them.

None of us had any idea how or where to get live chickens, so I made a posting on Craigslist. I only got one response, but it was from a nice enough sounding Eastern European immigrant family not too far away from our house here in the suburbs. I made an appointment to meet them Saturday morning at 10:00 am.

I took most of Friday off of work. There was still a lot of work to be done. There was still a 3’ x 8’ section of the field that hadn’t been turned over. I hadn’t fertilized yet, or made furrows (I decided that I would try to plant the wheat and spelt in rows this year, to make the continued weeding and harvesting a little easier). I needed to grind grain into flour for the bread. There was last minute cleaning to be done. My daughter, Becca, had an appointment to take her driving test in order to get her driver’s license. The Portland folks would be arriving. I still had to figure out what I was going to say in front of the field and the chickens. And my desktop computer, the one that I was doing all of the layout of Ellis on, had died the week before, and the replacement was due to arrive on that Friday. So, it was a busy day.

We managed to get nearly everything done. Furrows didn’t get made and only about half of the flour got ground. Becca failed her driving test and was extremely disappointed about it, but handled it very well. There was a lot of “Just let me do one more thing involved in setting up the new computer, and while it’s processing, I’ll do other work.” But even with that nearly everything got done.

Doug, Jon and Gwynn arrive a little after 8:00 pm and we ran out to our favorite Mongolian grill for dinner before they closed. There was much joking about the day-to-come’s festivities and everyone seemed to be looking forward to it.

Which I guess still surprises me. I suppose it shouldn’t. Maybe that’s the lesson that I really need to take away from this whole experience is that I’m not as alone as I think I am and that if I was actually to share what I think and feel, other people would actually find it interesting. .....

Actually, that is the lesson I’m going to take away from this and do my best to keep it to heart, because it is a valuable and important lesson.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Soil Testing

The other day, I went out and bought a soil testing kit from my local garden supply mega-store. I was curious, because there had been that crop circle in last year’s wheat crop, and I wondered if the soil wasn’t in poor condition, especially since those damned European Buttercups are supposed to really eat up the nitrogen in the soil.

So I bought a testing kit and on Wednesday I used it. It came with four plastic test tubes, each for testing a different aspect of the soil -- ph, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. For each of them, with small amounts of variation, you put some soil in a tube, add in some water, drop a chemical pill into the water and shake for a long time. Then compare the color of the water to the laminated color chart and read the results.

I took four samples from around my field and it took about 90 minutes to run through it four times, and by the third time through I had streamlined the process pretty well. My results were:

PH: between 6-7 across the field.
Nitrogen: no reading. Either my chemical were bad or there was no nitrogen anywhere in that field.
Phosphorus: Medium.
Potassium: Medium.

So what does that mean? According to _Small-Scale Grain Raising_ wheat likes a ph of 6.4, so that’s not too bad. It needs nitrogen, certainly, but how much I don’t know. SSGR says a “typical” nitrogen supplement would be 30 lbs. of nitrogen per acre or 3+ tons of manure per acre. After some quick math that would be 0.017 x 30 = 0.51 pounds of nitrogen or 0.017 x 6000 = 102 pounds of manure. But that’s only “typical” and I think I am “desperate”. So I think a trip to my local garden store or coop is in order.

SSGR gives advice on adding phosphorus to a regular rotation of wheat, but doesn’t say what it wants, so I’m going to assume I’m okay. And it says that wheat doesn’t see to respond to artificial additions of potassium, but I’m probably good on that anyway.

So the big problem is nitrogen, which could be fixed by crop rotation (SSGR suggests rotating it with soybeans) but I’d really like to at least get a good harvest of grain before growing the peas or lentils.

So, off to get advice!

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Long Overdue Post

Well now. How long has it been? Over a year? Damn, that’s terrible!

Did I really not post any harvest pictures? Or say anything about it?

So what happened? Well, at this point, I’m sure no one’s wondering. But I do feel like I owe an explanation, and a recap of what did actually happen.

The why is easy, I got a second job to help pay for a really expensive, emergency home repair (a new roof). Plus I was selling a bunch of stuff on eBay, so I was really working two-and-a-half jobs. I kept up with the field as best as I could, but in the end, somethings had to get neglected and the wheat was one of them. Unfortunately my family life was another of them, but that is more in the present than it was (at least in the front of my mind) last summer/fall.

But I quit that job back in June of 2011, and after a long vacation to Europe (including some medieval farming related stops) and some time off to rest and much time spent finishing my roleplaying game (I really do have a bad habit of biting off more than I can chew!), I finally have time to get back to my wheat field.

What happened? The bald spot continued to stay bald. I didn’t have the time to properly weed, and the ivy, THE DAMN IVY, got into the field and took over. It didn’t look too bad at a casual glance -- it didn’t seem to be hurting the wheat, strangling it or dragging it down, but when it came to harvesting, the ivy was so intertwined and wrapped around the individual stalks that you had to pull the stalks out of the icy one at a time.

Harvesting in the ivy free portions went well. I used an electric hedge trimmer as my scythe, and it worked quite well, though it was hard on my arm, using one hand to grab a clump of wheat and the other hand to hold the heavy trimmer and bring it under the clump. But I got help from my wonderful wife and had a good time doing it.

A few days later I bound the stalks into sheaves and stacked them out to age, dry and harden in the sun. But maybe I waited to late in the season, or maybe it was just a wet season, because a day later it started raining. We moved the sheaves into the shed (actually my daughter did it, on her own initiative, even though she hates the whole garden/wheat field. Thanks again Becca!), but it never got warm again that year, and the grains quickly became speckled with black mold.

Perhaps if I’d paid more attention to it, spent more time fussing and watching it, it wouldn’t have come to that, but there it is. I was disappointed, but not beaten, and told myself I would try again.

By Spring, we had mice living in the sheaves and when we drug the wheat back out into the field, we disturbed the mouse nest and killed a bunch of newborns. It was actually very sad.

And so there the field sat. The ivy grew. The dandelions grew. But mostly the buttercups grew. I still had fantasies of planting a new crop, but I was exhausted, the family problems were erupting and I just didn’t have the time or energy. Everyone once in a while I would buy a book, or read some webpages, but that was about it.

From one of those pages, I did learn that Washington State considers the European Buttercup to be one of the 10 most dangerous invasive, non-native species of plants. They are very fast spreading, nearly impossible to kill and the worst thing to do with them is to till them under, either mechanically or by hand, because every little bit of one can regrow itself into a brand new plant. And guess what I had done...

But finally, I got some time. I had also been re-inspired my my visit to the Ullandhaug Iron Age Farm in Norway (more on that another time) and really wanted to get some grain going.

So I started pulling those weeds. Hard back-breaking work. Grab handfuls of leafy greens and yank until you can see the ground. Then scrape your fingertips along the ground, trying to get under those ivy and buttercup creepers. Then pull -- not with your arms, because your handful has enough resistance that you need your legs. Repeat. Over and over again. I figure it took about 16 hours all told for my 750 sq. feet.

And then I cheated. I got some Roundup and sprayed it. Actually I sprayed it as I went, so now the early portions are very vegetation clear and the recently cleared parts still have green shoots poking out of the ground. I’ll go after them more as the days go on. Put here’s a picture of how things looked yesterday, when I finished the “weeding”.

The today, partially because it sounded like fun, partially because I really want to kill those bastards, I went out and bought one of those propane-powered, weed-killing flamethrowers. It wasn’t hard, though once again there was a lot of using a heavy implement one-handed, but I’m not convinced how well it worked. Plus, I was pretty paranoid about setting the yard or the fence on fire. According to the websites I’ve read, you don’t actually have to burn the weeds to a crisp, you just have to get the 500,000 BTU exhaust over the weed to scald it, and that will kill it. So we’ll see how it looks in a few days. Here’s a pic of the field after the torching.

And I smell like I’ve been roasting marshmallows in a brush fire.

More about my plans and the next steps in a future (yes there will be a future) post.