Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What to Keep, Toss, or Sell: How to Clean Out An Old Barn

McCollum Orchards has a beautiful barn. Built in the late 1800s, it has wide virgin timber floorboards, rough ax-cut support beams held together with wooden pegs and square handmade nails. It has withstood many Western New York winters and begs to be used again for its intended purpose.
Old Barn, late 1800s, Erie Canal stone foundation

The problem is that we cannot use it for farm jobs because it is filled with generations of old stuff – broken furniture, lead windows, rusted kitchen utensils, old books, photos, trunks of molded clothing.  It has gathered about 80 years’ of dust and squirrel nests. We’re pretty sure it has become New York’s largest squirrel condominium. To be able to use the space, we have to clean and organize it and perhaps evict some angry squirrels.
Stuff to be organized

How do you clean out an old barn? How do you decide what to keep, toss, or sell?

Asking those questions while standing in front of a barn full of stuff conjures up some surprisingly strong emotions – even when it is not your stuff! To do this right and not get overwhelmed, we had to deal with the knee-jerk sentiment to keep it all or the frustrated urge to toss it all. We also had to play nice with those chattering squirrels.

First, we developed an action plan to keep ourselves realistic. We designated areas of the barn for certain types of things. 

Then, we created a decision matrix for each item:

  • Is it obviously trash? Move it to the garbage can.
  • Can it be sold for scrap? Move it to the scrap pile for drop-off.
  • Can it be reused for another farm purpose? Move it to the tractor shed.
  • Can it be sold at an auction or yard sale? Clean off and move to a dry side of the barn.
  • Does it have family historical significance? Take a photo and set aside for family.
  • Is it worth the cost and effort to repair? If no, then move to yard sale pile.
Finally, we donned industrial cleaning gear – coveralls, gloves, shoe covers, respirators, and goggles – and got to work. We moved like with like – farm tools with farms tools, books with books, and broken pieces altogether. Some decisions were no-brainers, like to toss a rusted metal bedspring, but to keep family wedding photos from the early 1900s. While we worked, little squirrel eyes followed us from room to room. 
Sweeping up a 80 years of squirrel nuts

The process was helpful both in putting the farm’s long history in perspective and in preparing for its future. We uncovered relics that can be salvaged. At the same time, we created space to live in the present. Now, if we can just disable those walnut slingshots the squirrels set up…
We're watching you!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Parsley in the Pantry, Basil in the Bathroom

Until we move to the farmhouse in August, we are renting an apartment one mile away. It sure seems like our apartment has become an extension of the barn, as auxiliary storage for muddy boots, tools and seedlings.  Plants are growing in every room. Those of you who know Rich are not at all surprised, right?

Planting Basil seeds for greenhouse
There’s parsley in the pantry. Who knew that parsley likes 28 days of darkness to germinate? There’s basil in the bathroom. It loves the humidity from the shower. Its neighbors are lemongrass stalks that Rich got at a Burmese market as an experiment. After four weeks, they suddenly sent out new leaves. The trick was to separate the hard outer stalk into three pieces, so that new shoots could grow.

Then, there’s the greenhouse in the bedroom. A 4-tier shelving unit takes up the entire window and fits 8 pallets of seedlings.  This winter, Rich, along with all the other cooped-up farmers and gardeners dreaming of summer, purchased seeds from online catalogs, like Johnny’s and Victory. Now, some of the following have already sprouted:

  • Heirloom tomatoes (Brandywine and Purple Cherokee)
  • Red cabbage and summer squash
  • Artichokes
  • Onions and shallots
  • Potatoes and peppers
  • Beets, beans and peas
  • Kale and carrots
  • Watermelon and cantaloupe
  • Giant Atlantic pumpkin
  • All sorts of herbs, like basil (Thai and Italian), dill, oregano, sage, parsley, rosemary, thyme, catnip, lavender and Echinacea
Our leafy roommates will be transplanted or directly sown in the garden on Memorial Day weekend. We tilled a 30x60 foot test plot with good sun exposure and planned wide, raised rows with companion plantings, which like to be planted next to each other or inter-planted in the same rows, like tomatoes and basil. The book, The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food, and the garden planner on Mother Earth News were helpful resources. In this cold, wet weather, “dampening off” disease has struck down some tomato and cabbage seedlings. To stop it, we opened the greenhouse to get more air circulation inside, and put a little jar of Kanberra Gel, a tea tree oil gel, next to the door flap. Hopefully, the seedlings will make it through the next few weeks! (And that frost that Farmer’s Almanac predicted for the first week in June doesn’t happen.)

Hops in the Ground

Separating rhizomes for planting
 The most exciting planting news at McCollum Orchards is that the hops are in the ground! This week, we planted 50 Cascade, 40 Centennial, and 8 each of Fuggle, Nugget and Perle in a row-trellis system. Next week, we will experiment with maypole and planter systems with the Golding variety. It marks the first major planting season on the old farm in nearly two decades. But, we are just happy all the rhizomes are out of the refrigerator.

Planting Cascade rhizomes in rows

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Social Media for Better Carrots

A technological revolution has occurred on this 180-year-old farm. We bought smartphones. They have become an important farming tool. Throughout full days in the field, constant access to information and people helps us stay connected and has quickened our learning curve.

As new farmers, we have 100 questions for every activity. Being able to quickly find answers has saved a lot of time. A few examples from this week:
  • Will the dry weather hold long enough to finish tilling?
  • How do you safely attach tractor equipment using 3-point hitch?
  • What kind of snake is this? 
Now, we simply check the weather app on our phones. Or search for instructional videos on YouTube. Or take a photo and ask friends on Facebook. (Consensus is that it’s a milk snake.)

Small organic farmers, such as we plan to be, are influenced by county, state and federal policy as much as by local market demand for fresh food. Our collective education has prepared us in some ways to understand the marketing, sales and organizational side of farming. The rest we have to learn hands on. 

Luckily, technology has helped us bone up. We became members of county ag-support organizations with extensive online resources, like the Farm Bureau and the Cornell University Agriculture Extension Agency, which runs the Northeast Beginning Farmers Project. Their science-based focus has given us much to consider. We know who to turn to for pest reduction (those pesky Potato Beetles), weed identification (that Hairy Nightshade), and good growing practices (Basil in pots or ground rows?).

By April, McCollum Orchards was online through this blog, Facebook, and Twitter (@mccollum1824). Through social media, we tapped into an interesting cross-section of beer/hops, farming and sustainable ag folks. Hops growers on Facebook have told us about weed control. Twitter feeds, like #agblog and #agchat, prepared us for the new Farm Bill 2012. Following online updates, like from this blogroll, we learn when actual farmers till, plant, and which products they are growing. Finally, we can share timely articles, like this one about young people becoming farmers, or this one about NY-grown hops used in tea.

In some respects, the farm has always been ‘cutting edge.’ Back in the 1820s, the founders cut virgin forest and drained swampland in order to plant the first crops. Over the last 19 decades, the crops here have doubtless followed the latest trends of ‘what’s in.’  Tools that no longer have a use, like a weathered ox yoke, wooden apple ladders and ice pond picks, sit in the barn. They seem vintage compared to the electric polesaws, tractors, and camera phones of today. The founding fathers would have no idea how to use these new things, but we think they would approve of our new technology that helps with production. Just as our single tractor sits in a stable that once held several draft horses, this old farm has made another leap in its continual evolution.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Splashing around in the muck and the mire

Oh, how we want to be careless in our summer clothes, like the song says, but we are still knee-deep in the rain and the mud. What a pain. While the pears unfurl their first leaves in the upper field, we realized the lower field was severely flooded. Stagnant pools of rainwater sat right where we wanted to plant the hops. Constantly driving the tractor over the mud during clearing was causing deep ruts in the topsoil that would inhibit growth later on. The pressure was on to get the hops in the ground. With warmer temps, the rhizomes would not last much longer in plastic bags. So, we put on our galoshes and our thinking caps to improvise a solution to drain the hops field.

We knew an old drainage tunnel ran through in the woodlot next to the hops field. The tunnel eventually led to the ice pond about an acre south. We decided to dig a trench from the hops field to the drainage tunnel area to release the pooled water and give it somewhere to flow.  In the midst of a not-warm spring rain, I dug a 50-foot with the Kubota tractor.  Rich shoveled out areas that were too muddy for the tractor to cross. It took over five hours. At the end of the day, as the rain fell harder, we watched thousands of gallons of pooled rainwater gush down the trench and spread into the woodlot. It drained so quickly that ripples formed on the water surface. Even cold and exhausting, it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve done here. 

Draining the field smoothed the way for the next steps. Rich, his cousin and a friend worked through the weekend to clear the rest of the field. Our friend, who happened to go to forestry school, brought over his chainsaw and felled the 21-foot pole-trees for the hops trellis system. Rich’s cousin pulled out the remaining tree stumps and pushed cleared trees to the fence line. Without their help, the field wouldn’t have been ready in time. Now the field is cleared and ready for planting and the trellis system.

Spring 2011 weather has been hard on many farmers and people across the South and Midwest. Our hearts go out to the thousands affected by the tornadoes in Alabama and the farmers in Missouri who lost 133,000 acres farmland due to the levee blasts this week. In just seven weeks at McCollum Orchards, we realized first-hand that growers are as guided by the weather as they are by the land. (Lockport is still cleaning up from the windstorm last week.) I wonder at how the generations before us weathered these storms without the help of modern tractors and chainsaws and weather apps on Smartphones. It must have taken a lot of friends. So, here’s to friends, family and sunny days!