Random Notes from Spring 2009

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Well, we didn't get moved in last fall, and it cost a couple of thousand dollars to heat the old farmhouse. I did get 4" of foam on the roof with a temporary rubber roofing membrane over that, and I put sheet metal over the thermal umbrella to keep most of the moisture out. I didn't have a tamper so we jumped up and down on the backfill as we shoveled it in. This was insufficient and the soil has settled about 15%. I am filling in the gap but I won't place insulation and pour concrete until I am positive that it will not settle more. I doubt that this will be this year.


Challenges: We chose to leave lucrative city jobs in order to live and work at the farm. On the one hand, I wish I had spent the "easy" money more wisely; on the other, I wish I had moved back a year earlier. I knew the "downturn" was coming but still wasn't as prepared as I would have liked.

My wife found breast cancer in late May, had surgery in early June and was then pronounced "Cancer free." She had trouble with her right shoulder though, and we attributed this to the chest and underarm surgery.
Then I lost my son in August. He was 25 and had been married to a wonderful young woaman for 5 months. She was pregnant.
These things really took the wind out of our sails. We were both offered low-paying-but-local jobs in education and we jumped at the offer to work together close to home. Together we made a little more than half what I made alone in industry, but we only had to support one household, and we were able to drive together and eat lunch together.
Still, winter was tough, emotionally and practially. We kept getting a few warm days and then long cold snaps. The roller coaster was tough. Our cow would hold her legs together when I milked in weather below 10°f, not that I can blame her. The dogs and cats tried to stay indoors (one cat needed to check both doors just in case the weather was better outside the other one).

I lost my wife to (breast) cancer of the liver on March 18. That story (not for the faint of heart)


I've not really put in a crop this spring. I planted a little corn and barley, Ruth had planted a little winter rye and winter wheat in September. I haven't had the wherewithal to do much in the garden. The Chinese tractor turned out to have a cylinder head that was surfaced with a belt sander. With 165 hours on the tractor the gasket seal was worthless. The high school shop class took the engine apart and had the head resurfaced here, but the school year is effectively over and I do not have the tractor back yet (May 26). I will till and plant green manure on land I do not grow crops on as soon as I get it back. Ryan Batalden has been talking about oilseed radish as a plow-down. I will probably use that or chickory as both pull minerals from down deep. The Albert Lea Seed House used to be a great place to buy seed by the pound but last year they started charging exorbinant fees for "opening" a bag, and while the catalog still gives a by-the-pound price you can't actually buy the seed for anywhere near that price.
Here's a hint to whoever wants to be the next big thing locally. People will be moving back to the country and planting lots of things in small quantities. Alfalfa, clover, and some other things are just too expensive to buy by the bag when you only need a few pounds. Charge enough to make it pay, just be honest about the costs.


The Photovoltaic experiments have been very successful during the sumer months (I haven't had anything substantial running over the winter, small fans and lights only). Night lights and water (bilge) pumps have been running in the house and the grape vinyard on PV alone. I have not had the money for deep-cycle batteries (or high amp-hour batteries) so I'm still limping by on old car batteries. I did buy 35 watts of bare solar cells that I will install at the top (north, high) side of the greenhouse where they will get great light but not really shade anything growing inside the greenhouse. I have some salvaged ¼" glass I can install them between. I've not assembled my own from scratch but I feel taht I need to be able to do this.

So far I've only found 2 grape vines that didn't survive the winter. Both were very small and I won't replant for a while. We did get a pretty damaging frost two weeks after the vines began sprouting. The older leaves survived but the newest ones died and in many cases the cane they were on died too. So far none of those plants died but a few have had to resprout from very close to the ground.
The general paradigm I'm following is that the first year (last year) you are growing to establish root structure, the second season (this year) is dedicated to a tall, strong vine structure and to that end I have been pinching off the flower buds (which hurts me!). The third year will be the first in which I harvest grapes. It is possible that the fourth year will be the first substantial harvest, but there are sure an awful lot of flower buds to remove even this year. Some of the better plants have dozens. Any replants will be in thier "first year" this year.

We planted small grain between some of the grape rows last fall and this spring. Winter rye and wheat should be harvested long before we need to run hired help in the grapes and we can still work the edges anyway. The alternative is early root crops or the traditional mowed lawn strips to control erosion and avoid packing the open soil. I can't see lawn out there as being very practical in my situation, but time will tell. Not all of the medians have even been rototilled yet, most that were tilled last fall have been planted with some crop. A load of rocks or old railroad ties would help by allowing me to terrace some of the steepest parts of the vineyard.

I need to cut firewood for this winter. I had set aside enough (estimated) for one winter in the earthship but used half of it (and all the leftover wood from the previous year) in the cookstove in the studio this last winter. I have a lot of "stickwood" available, but it doesn't keep well. A few years sitting out and it is punky and does not generate much heat. Traditionally this is what is used in poor regions as it can be collected discretely and without tools. Our idea of what a park should be like probably comes from the European forests which have been gleaned of stickwood by the locals.
The other big need this summer is to get the permanent greenhouse (south of the earthship) up and sealed, and then the first hoophouse up over the barn pad and area between the barn and earthship. This hoophouse will be where I store hay, alfalfa, and firewood through the winter.
My contract for next year is supposed to be an improvement over this year that will allow me to save up enough to pour the concrete thermal umbrella cap early next spring (2010) and finish the mudroom (and "cool storage"). The following year (2011) I hope to build the commercial kitchen (second floor, "three season" room).

A major project this fall is building a gobar unit to collect methane from the winter's cow manure. This methane, unlike "clean" propane, is carbon nuetral having been extracted from the manure of cows fed grass from the farm. This grass is grown from this year's sunlight, water, and atmospheric CO2. The methane will be used to heat the dairy and perhaps run the house stove. We'll see. I will be selling plans online after I get the prototype working and the technology that I'm using has been "proven".

¤ ¤ ¤

Ruth's cancer: (This is not for the faint of heart)
As I mentioned, Ruth found breast cancer last June and had surgery for it in early July. She was pronounced "Cancer-free".
Then Ruth started getting sick in February. She missed a couple of days work in early March and we went to the clinic to see what was wrong. Neither of us had health insurance, at almost 40% of our take-home pay it was much too costly.
The triage nurse at the clinic sent us to the ER because Ruth was in so much pain. At the ER they did a sonogram to look for gall bladder blockage. They found "a couple of spots" on her liver.
We scheduled an appointment with the surgeon to have a medi-port installed for chemo. That took an hour to insert but two weeks to schedule the insertion. After the minor surgery we went upstairs for the first round of chemotherapy. They gave her 3 different drugs, the middle one was the "risky" one as far as allergic reactions went. She got through the first two OK but collapsed during the third, the Herceptin. Her chils were so bad the staf surgeon kept her "for observation." This was good because I would not have been able to carry her to the truck, and it was a 45 minute drive to the ER.
I went home and milked, then spent the night in a chair in the hospital room. The next morning she was no better. We spent that day and night in the hospital room as Ruth slowly faded.
Eventually they moved her into the ICU unit where she could be observed remotely by camera. Someone on the other side of that camera )I never did find out who) decided that she should be moved to the major Avera hospital in Sioux Falls. She was loaded onto an ambulance, I went hoe and tought a neighbor how to do milking and feeding chores for me. I was an hour or so behind her in arriving in Sioux Falls.
She went through a night and day of absolute torture. THere were at least four doctors assigned to treat different issues she might have. One was concerned with her kidney function (very bad), another with the posible (but non-existant) infection, another with liver function and yet another with the reaction to chemo. Avera is a training hospital and the ICU is full of new, energetic, new nurses. One thing they have all learned is that nurses do not question doctors. At one point four different doctors prescribed a bolus of saline for different reasons. The charge nurse obediantly hooked up all four. Ruth swelled up like a balloon. Finally I was able to get her kidney doctor to listen to me, to look at what was being done, and to look at Ruth, and two were removed.
In the midle of the night they cut a large slit in a neck vein and put her on dialysis. Kidney function was near nonexistant, liver function was extremely poor. The dialysis helped some. She would slip down and nurses would lift her back up (after a half hour of my pestering), but each time I would have to remind them the they could not drag her by the right arm. (In Marshall they put a plastic band on her right wrist that said "Do Not Lift," but they removed it in Sioux Falls.)
A little after noon the next day (Friday) her original Oncologist came by (the first time) and I was able to talk to him about her care and the confusion caused by the group of noncommunicative doctors. He listened, but he also pointed out that the liver-kidney combinatin was very bad. THey could treat either at the expense of the other. In Ruth's case this was not an option.
An hour or so later another doctor one with serious authority came by. He went over her charts for a half hour. He pulled up her CT scans and her test data. When he did talk to me he told me that there was nothing more that they could do. He showed me a CT scan of Ruth's liver and there were dozens of obvious tumors.
He told me that they could move her upstairs and keep her on dialysis and she might live for another two weeks, or, we could go home. She chose to go home.
She got to spend some time with two of her brothers (the doctor brother declined to visit), her sister and her mother over the weekend. Saturday was our anniversary. Sunday she was no longer able to get out of bed at all. Monday her attention was very short. Tuesday night we exchanged our last words to each other. We talked of love.
Friday we buried her, in sight of the farm, next to our son. It was a rainy day, but fairly warm.


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