The best of autumn has come and gone, yet remains my favourite season on the farm. The moderate temperatures let us work as hard as we want, the lack of biting flies is a blessing for man and beast, and the colours are spectacular. Yet, like most ants in temperate climates, we spent that idyllic time preparing for winter.
First on our list were our gardens. Our main garden is about ¼ acre with intensive beds and grass paths, surrounded by split rail fence. A secondary garden is about the same size and also fenced. Together, they produce potatoes, corn, peas, beans, asparagus, zucchini, leeks, pumpkins, squash, broccoli, cucumbers, onions, kale, and mustard.
Behind the house are kitchen gardens that provide herbs, tomatoes, salad greens, and peppers. As we harvested, we covered the beds with well-rotted manure shovelled out of the barn a year ago. This was an especially good year for potatoes. We spent several weekends digging five bushels of Yukon Gold, Red Pontiac, and Kennebec, more than we will ever use. Now everyone who visits goes away with a bag of freshly-dug potatoes.
The last to come out are carrots, leeks, squash, and pumpkins. The main and secondary gardens have the lushest grass on the place, and I stop mowing them in September. After everything is harvested, we put the cattle in there for a couple of days as their fall treat. They munch on any remains, mow the grass, and leave behind their generous offerings.
In the spring, we gradually graze the cattle on pastures farther and farther from the barn. In autumn, they make their return trip. They clean up the back pastures first, and the walnut grove next to the woods, then we move them closer and closer to the barn so they will be in the open and highly visible for any myopic hunters that might wander by during deer season. We generally load the two-year-olds in the trailer for slaughter in October. This year we had two fine animals slightly less than two years old. The steer dressed out at 697 and the heifer at 636, which made their live weight around 1200 pounds. I didn’t think they were quite that big but it’s hard to tell when you are around them every day.
It’s always a bit sad to watch animals go, especially when we’ve pampered them for two years and learned their personalities; some are quiet and gentle, others like to test both us and the fences. This year they granted family, friends, and ourselves halves and quarters of clean, grass-fed beef with no hormones, pesticides, or antibiotics.
The last to go in November are the meat chickens, grown to eight pounds in ten weeks from tiny balls of fluff that barely made a weight in our hand. Even free range, they can grow so fast that their hearts give out if you let them go too long, or try to mature them in hot weather. Bred to eat, and that’s about all they do. And bred to be eaten. For me, chicken is one of the best, the biggest improvement over those tasteless store-bought carcasses with who knows what in them. I couldn’t eat commercial chicken again after dining on what we can grow ourselves.
Every other year we buy new laying hens, usually as day-old chicks, then nurture them for five months or so until they begin to lay. This year we bought grown pullets that began laying a week after adjusting to their new home. We couldn’t get our favourite breed, Barred Plymouth Rocks, which are smart, hardy, and aggressive. The pullets we bought this year are a light golden brown with white bands, something like Golden Montazah. They seem very shy and slow to catch on where their feed and water were, but they may turn out all right. This winter should tell the tale of their hardiness.
One morning I was just finishing the chores when the 30-foot black walnut tree next to the driveway caught my eye. We had a frost overnight and, as the sun came out and melted the frost, walnut fronds began falling from the top of the tree, knocking others off with subtle clicks on their way down.
I call them fronds because the leaves are a compound form, called pinnate, where 10 to 20 leaves form on both sides of a stem one to two feet long. I stood there mesmerized as these stems gracefully snapped off and, with a gentle rustle, fell through the tree, brushing companions to follow them. Several fell every minute and they were rapidly covering the grass. Then I snapped out of it, remembering I had promised friends some of the walnuts. I ran to the house, grabbed two buckets, and quickly filled them with bitter-smelling green nuts. Finished, I sat on the grass to watch the stems continue to fall. Within half an hour, the tree was nearly bare, having shed almost all its leaves in one glorious morning.
The other two major chores are putting in enough hay for the winter and cutting wood. Most years we buy hay. This year was so dry, and hay so scarce, that we cut the field of reed canary grass across the road. Canary grass typically grows in low, soggy areas, and the genus Phalaris is notoriously unpalatable. It can produce an illness associated with overconsumption called Phalaris staggers, a nervous disorder that sometimes affects sheep and cattle and is caused by the ingestion of tryptamine and beta-carboline alkaloids.
However, this year we had no choice. The haying was productive, the six-foot tall grass gave us 250 bales from one small field, but we will have to mix it with bought hay and watch the cattle carefully.
Our wood cutting was the easiest in ten years because the county is going to widen and improve our road. They will cut and skid trees over six inches in diameter, but none smaller. So we just went along the road cutting the trees between three and six inches. Many were maples growing thickly with hardly any limbs. This meant no brush, no splitting, and easy transportation to the wood pile where it will dry for 12 to 14 months. I can hardly wait to burn that nice maple next winter.
On our off-the-grid farm, recharging batteries from our solar modules and discharging them daily is like filling and partially emptying several buckets of water. If you keep doing that, soon the buckets will all contain slightly different water levels. So, every six months or so, we equalize the batteries by giving them a sustained overcharge to make sure they are all working at the same level. This takes nearly two days of generator running and sunshine to charge the battery bank completely.
Then there is the semi-annual parade of gas-powered tools to and from the barn. The tiller and mower go in after winterizing them by stabilizing the gas in the tank and adding a teaspoon of oil to each cylinder, and the snow blower comes out.
Bringing in the wind chimes, placing bales of straw on the ground to insulate our water line, and stacking the porch furniture are the last stages before we dig out the boots and gloves, cross-country skis and skates to enjoy another winter and wait for spring.