Thursday, December 22, 2011

What's in your wheelbarrow?

It’s December. It is certainly the time of year for snow. But first, there are just a few more things to wrap up. It’s a proverbial slippery slope, certainly, for the list of last-minute tasks could be nearly endless. But yesterday’s work was non-negotiable.

I spent the early morning hours making space in our Clivus composting toilet. In other words, I was wheeling partially composted humanure out of the basement tank and into our humanure pile atop the upper field. You see, the toilets in our community building are not quite the standard plumbing. Rather than employing the customary waste of water for a net loss of available nutrients, we have installed a composting toilet system. A large tank is housed in our basement where human waste collects in a “direct deposit” system. Wood shavings are added with each use, and no water is squandered with a flush. Rather, a pump diverts liquids into a separate tank (which we drain and disseminate amongst our numerous compost piles). The solids/woodchips mix, meanwhile, sits in the tank where it is turned on a weekly basis to assist the active composting process.

All told, we have a sophisticated outhouse inside our home. And it works.

As the material within the tank composts, we extract it via shovel and wheelbarrow. A more substantial humanure pile is located in our upper field, the site of the final composting stages. Before winter – well, before the snow arrives – a partial emptying of the tank must be undertaken to ensure sufficient space within the reservoir for the coming months. Once snow has accumulated, moving humanure to another location becomes much more challenging. With the approach of winter seeming more imminent, the task at hand was gaining urgency.

Within the Clivus tank, material becomes well-compacted. Removing partially composted humanure requires a fair amount of shoveling, knocking, & raking material free of itself. Doing this, however, was merely a warm-up for the long walk that followed. Each wheelbarrow load had to be pushed through a few inches of new snow, on top of wet, slushy ground, past the North Orchard, down the road, behind the Red House, along the Medicine Trail, up the hill to the Upper, across the wettest field we have, until, at the wood line, I arrived at our humanure pile. Here each wheelbarrow load was shoveled out. The return trip was significantly easier, downhill with no cargo.

It is in this wood line pile that the humanure will finish composting. We are in no rush, and let it sit for months at a time between turnings. When soil is finally rendered, we will merely spread it about these upper fields. Used for periodic oxen grazing, our pastures are of poor quality. With time, this intermittent application will boost fertility.

After eleven loads, I cleaned my tools and returned the wheelbarrow to its parking space in the barn eaves. Vital nutrients were successfully sequestered for future application, and we’ll have space to accommodate everyone’s indoor bathroom needs for the coming months. The cycle will continue.

as published in North Country News

Thursday, December 8, 2011

winter's coming...

A Day Under Plastic

After a quiet night and deep sleep, I woke to snow on the corners of the Silo’s northern windows. Stomping out a path as I completed my morning chores, the thrill of early season snowflakes complemented the otherwise simple tasks at hand. Looking ahead to the days’ work, the to-do list was considerably altered thanks to the blanket of fresh snow. Dirt was suddenly inaccessible.

Except in one place: D Acres’ upper hoop house.

I’d been saving the weeding and mulching of these beds for just such an occasion. The plastic covering proffered dry, unfrozen soil, and housed plenty of weeds to pull. I loaded a collection of garden tools into the lightest wheelbarrow we have and began the uphill slog. The snow was heavy. Wet. Dense. I pulled the wheelbarrow behind me, sweating as I crested the hill to the upper fields.

Using my foot as a shovel, I freed the door and slithered inside. While it was certainly a grey day under the falling snowflakes, the interior of the hoop house was thoroughly immersed in shadow. The early snow must have slid from the plastic during the night, piling up along the building’s sides while the more recent snow continued to accumulate on the plastic covering. The faint suggestion of sunlight in the morning sky did little to penetrate the hoop house’s interior.

Furthermore, the once jungle-like verdure had been replaced with the skeletons of eggplants and tomato vines. A few clover flowers and a handful of late-season greens were the only vibrancy amongst beds of dead annuals and dying weeds. Still, it was dry and unfrozen. Garden fork in hand, I set about the task.

Which entailed a variety of jobs. First, tomato and eggplant plants – belonging to the nightshade family - were pulled from the ground, bundled up, and carried to a pit in the woods. Nightshades are toxic in quantity, thus we avoid feeding them to the animals. These plants are also prone to harboring diseases. Fear of the consequences keeps us from adding the foliage to compost piles. If the compost failed to reach adequately high temperatures, we could be facing a problematic situation.

Once the foliage was disposed up, the stakes and twine supporting the tomatoes was removed from the beds, and the task of weeding began.

In my mind, though, this was simply the backdrop, the setting of the stage for the real work to come. What happens next year? And the year after that? And on and on. It is a process that demands imagination for the future and creativity in the pursuit of abundance. The duty at hand is to design for the coming seasons, to plan for improved soil health, and to fill the hoop house once again with color, flavor, diversity, and fertility. With acuity and diligence, each season will be more productive and vigorous than it has been prior.

Thus today’s weeding is the foundation for plans that will be concocted during the depths of winter. And winter’s designs will lead to many meals to come.

as published in North Country News

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Living with the Dirt

The farm. That’s how I’ve been referring to it anyway. To the majority of my acquaintances, there is no way to live outside the walls of a city apartment or suburban home. Dirt is considered dirty, food comes from lit aisles lined with tile, and a tent is not a home, but something you put up once a summer for two days while sitting around a campfire. Well, I’ve been living in a tent for five months and as my stay at D Acres nears its end there is a lot to reflect upon.

Life in a tent has been rewarding—night after night spent in the woods, with only a thin layer of polyethylene separating me from the outside, hearing what nature has to offer. Temperatures permeate the small enclosure leaving only my sleeping bag to protect me from the cold. There are no walls of two-by-fours and sheetrock filled with insulation to keep me warm. No central air. No plumbing. I do not mind it, however. It’s life before electricity. Without so many commodities I learn to live outside of the everyday box. I feel a strong connection to the place I sleep.

The projects undertaken have been educational. Taking knowledge discovered in the classroom and applying it to a real world problem is invigorating. Going beyond formulas and derivations stimulates parts of my brain that don’t usually get such attention during the school year. Learning applicable skills, such as welding and metal fabrication, has given me opportunities outside of a computer and a desk.
Living and working in the same environment is also a different experience.

It is commonplace for an individual to have their “home” and their “workplace.” A separation exists. Conflicts at home could be forgotten at work and vice versa. It takes a sense of community to be able to make progress through such difficulties. I am very lucky to have experienced such a community. As compared to working for a large company, making a product that will pass to the hands of someone merely labeled “consumer”, I shake the hands of the people I design for. I know the people that my work impacts.

D Acres has been a wonderful experience. It has exceeded my expectations as an internship through its people, projects, and lifestyle. And although my life after the farm may not be a rural one, the lessons and know-how from living with the dirt will not be forgotten.

-Joey Kile