Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Farm Tires and Farmer Fixes

Tires are still kind of a mystery to me. In high school, when I competed in a couple of triathlons, I developed a fondness for racing tires on my bicycle that completely lacked treads in order to reduce “rolling resistance”; I think the bald tires made more of a difference in my mind than on the road. I didn’t own anything with more than two tires until well into my 20th year, when I got a little Subaru to drive from the farm I worked on in Santa Barbara back to college north of Death Valley.

Now, I find myself surrounded by tires. Farms run on them. We’ve got four on the delivery van, four on the harvest van, and four on the Toyota Echo – my subcompact-cum-farm truck. There are twelve on the tractors – plus four more on a rented tractor that’s been sitting for two years. Two on an Italian two-wheeled tractor that looks like a rototiller but does much more. Six on various handcarts around the place. Eight on hayracks. Four on two other trailers. Four on greenhouse wagons. Two to hold the water wheel transplanter at the right depth. Two to hold the field cultivator at the right depth. Two to hold the track sweeps (they kill the weeds in the tire tracks when I’m cultivating) at the right depth. Two more to hold the carrot seeder at the right depth, and two to drive the bean seeder.

Of course, every tire needs air and maintenance. (Tractor tires cost upwards of seven hundred dollars each, so we try not to leave our knives in the field.) On Tuesday, we had to get out the water wheel transplanter – with large hollow wheels that punch holes in the ground and fill them with water – to get some challenging crops into the ground. Just to prove that I am human (okay, not really, I just made a mistake), I didn’t check the tire pressure in one of the tires on the transplanter. Under twelve-hundred pounds of water, this dramatically under-inflated tire promptly rolled right off its rim. I didn’t cuss, even though I wanted to. Ben drove the transplanter back to the shop.

If you’ve ever dealt with a tire that’s come off of its rim, you know that you are up against the laws of physics. You need to put air in the tire, but the tire isn’t sealed; in fact, it’s got a huge gap between the rim and the rubber. Faced with a similar situation a few weeks back, I had found some ideas on the internet about how to fix the problem. So we tried tying a rope around the tire in a way that would let us compress the middle, forcing the “bead” of the tire against the rim. Unfortunately, thirty minutes of dinking around did not result in even pressure around the rim and we gave up. I told Ben that we would give it fifteen more minutes effort, and then I was going to send him to town to have somebody who actually knows what they are doing fix it.

We decided on a dramatic farmer fix. A good farmer fix requires at least two tractors, a come-along or a handyman jack, no money, and some degree of sketchiness. It usually falls into the do-not-try-this-at-home category. I took the tire off of the transplanter, and we parked two tractors facing each other so we’d have two solid anchor points, then attached a come-along (a winch with a hook to anchor the winch, plus a cable with another hook that you ratchet along to move heavy things) to one of the tractors. We tied a nylon rope to the other tractor, wrapped it around the circumference of the tire, and tied it to the come-along. As we ratcheted the rope tighter, Ben used a metal bar to keep the tire from rotating and popping out of the rope. (Okay, I admit that we had to learn that one the hard way…) When we had it as tight as we thought we could get it without damaging the tire, I attached the air compressor hose to the valve stem to try to inflate it. Alas, we heard only the whoosh of escaping air until Ben suggested I squeeze the sides of the tire as well – and all of a sudden, the whoosh turned into the satisfying susurration of a tire filling with air. I let out a whoop heard throughout Highland Township! Ben noted that we had actually spent sixteen minutes on the project, but we both felt pretty exhilarated by our success.

Farm Happenings

Weather: Windy. On Sunday morning at four, I woke up to check on temperatures. Outside of the transplant house, nine feet off the ground, the thermostat registered 26 degrees (!), but the tomatoes inside of the unheated greenhouses were doing just fine, so I went back to bed. By Tuesday afternoon at four, we were sweating in 80-degree plus temperatures under a hot May sun. The wind blew the whole time.

What We Did: Transplanted onions, onions, onions, celeriac, and parsley. Put more tomatoes in the greenhouses. Repaired some black plastic mulch that Chris laid last week, which had blown out in the high winds. Seeded carrots, salad greens, and beets.

Observations from the Field: The cover crop of barley and peas that we seeded all over the farm this spring looks great. The earliest seedings are about 12 inches tall now. I pulled out some peas this morning, and was pleased to see the root nodules on the peas formed by the rhizobium bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form that can be used by plants. I love to see the soft pink coloration on the knobby growths that indicates a truly healthy bacterial colony.

In the Farm Kitchen

I love the way a bunch of French Breakfast Radishes looks when cleaned up and beautiful. This week’s radishes are some of the nicest we’ve grown in years, so it was great fun to pick them, and even more fun to see them after Sarah finished washing them in the packing house. French Breakfast radishes have a very mild but quite delightful flavor.

The new crop of Peppermint that we planted last summer has finally come along, another sign of the cold, cold soils we have this year. Peppermint is a relatively recent addition to the herb scene, having been first found in a field of spearmint, its much more common cousin, in England in 1696. The leaves of this week’s peppermint may be a little dirty. We usually try to keep the dirt on our farm, where it belongs, but the oil glands on the leaves that hold the peppermint flavor will burst when the leaves are washed, and the flavor components can break down if you wash them too long before using.

Chocolate Chip Mint Cookies

3/4 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 bunch fresh peppermint, chopped
1 1/2 cups white flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350 and lightly grease a cookie sheet. Cream together butter and sugars with an electric mixer at high speed. Beat in the egg. Stir in vanilla and peppermint. Sift together the dry ingredients, and add this to the butter mixture along with the chocolate chips. Stir until well combined. Drop by rounded teaspoons onto a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake 12 to 15 minutes at 350. Remove from the sheet immediately after baking, and cool on a rack.

The hard freeze on Sunday morning destroyed all of the Asparagus that had poked itself out of the ground since the last harvest on Friday. We took the opportunity to rototill very shallowly to knock back the weeds; the asparagus will continue to produce, since the crowns where the shoots originate grow far below the ground. We got some cool new asparagus knives in time for Wednesday’s harvest. Until this week, we harvested with paring knives, slipping them under the soil to slice off the stalks. With over a mile-and-a-half of asparagus to cover, that’s a lot of bending, especially for the small spring crew! Our new asparagus knives look like an especially-aggressive dandelion weeder, with a very sharp fishtail blade on the end of an 18-inch shank; now, we grasp the top of the spear, and jab the fishtail into the ground under the spear. This saves a remarkable amount of bending, and really speeds things up. Now that we are moving through the field so much faster, we rigged up a system so that pickers can drag a box behind them with a rope tied to their belt, leaving both hands free to harvest asparagus.

Garlic Greens this year feel like a little bit of grace. The garlic we planted last fall mostly winter-killed, so we will have a very small crop this year. But the garlic greens we harvested on Wednesday came out of a cover crop of barley and peas that we planted on the ground where we harvested garlic last summer. Use garlic greens just like you would scallions. These are nice and tender.

Garlic Greens Vinaigrette

1 garlic green
1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
salt and pepper

Slice the garlic green very thinly, and place it with the vinegar and oil in a bowl and whisk vigorously. Let it sit for about thirty minutes, if you’ve got time, for the flavors to infuse. Add salt and pepper to taste.

This week we harvested the last of the Overwintered Spinach, and are probably serving up the last of the stored Carrots. Our running-behind crops all over the farm are starting to get caught up now, and we are looking forward to some exciting offerings soon.