Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tractor Time in Mosquitoville

On Monday, Claire taught me two new skills:  using the broadcast seeder, and driving the tractor!

The broadcast seeder is really just a big shoulder-strapped bag (that holds the seed) with a disc on the bottom that turns as you crank it, throwing seed up to 7 feet or so, depending on how fast you crank it and how quickly you walk.  I used it to broadcast buckwheat seed on two large sections of the field: where the peas used to be in section 1, and on the triangle field out back.

Seeding looks like a pretty easy task.  You're just randomly throwing seed down, right?  Wrong.  Since the seeder only throws at a certain radius, you need to carefully measure the distance between passes down the field to get even coverage.  Then there's the matter of cranking at the correct speed to get that 7 foot range.  All the while, you need to walk fast enough so that you don't use up too much seed in one place.  Buckwheat seed is expensive.

It turns out that the speed I needed to walk to cover such a large area was at a near clip, causing me to appear as if I was leaping all about the field clumsily.  In actuality, walking that quickly caused me to trip several times, as the soil was uneven and 'trashy' from the last tilling.  I never fell, I just used the momentum to propel me ever forward.  At that rate, I used one bag for each field.  We have one bag left to cover small patches here and there as the crops on them are harvested and no longer in use for the rest of the season.

Once the seeding was done, Claire taught me the ins and outs of the farm tractor.  First, she inserted one key into the battery at the front of the nose.  Next, I climbed up and sat on the old, springy seat, complete with padding.  Claire inserted the second key into the ignition.  All around me were gears and levers, cranks, and dials.  Starting at the center were the gear shifts.  There were two; one for high and low which I didn't need to worry about since I would always be driving in low, and one for first, second, third, and reverse.  I wasn't planning on leaving first gear.  On the steering wheel was a throttle lever, and on the floor on the right there was a foot throttle, also not to be used.  The brake was next to the foot throttle.  On my right was the hydraulic system to raise and lower the tiller.  Claire told me to keep one hand on it at all times, as a reminder to pull it out of the ground when reaching the end of a bed or when stopping mid-field.  On my left was the gear that would engage the PTO, or Power Take Off, which in this case was connected to the tiller.  And on the floor to my left was the clutch.  Press halfway down to shift gears, and press all the way to the floor to engage the PTO.  Watch this video to get an idea of what I'm talking about:

Once the orientation was complete, Claire had me drive the tractor around the back fence towards the triangle field.  I got off and Claire completed the first pass of the field for me.  I got on and tried for pass number 2.  Going down the field in a straight line was pretty easy, as was turning for the return pass.  Getting in position for the next pass, however, proved difficult, as the field is in a triangular shape and this was the tight corner.  Also, the amount of room available to get in position was small, and the hitch from the tractor to the tiller was rigid, meaning that the tractor needs to be lined up before any moves are made, as turning it will cause torque pressure in the tiller, increasing the odds for damage.

After about six passes or so, I started to get the hang of it.  That weird angle basically meant that I had to go in reverse to line myself up before starting a new pass, so I got to practice going from first to reverse and back many times.  I completed the entire field, then went back for one last angled pass to clean up the edges of this oddly shaped piece of land.  We'll see next Monday whether or not I did a good job on both of these tasks.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, the mosquitos have gone into phase 2 of their operation, swarming us with the latest round of their reproductive efforts.  All the rain has compounded into multiple problems: there are so many weeds this year that it has been difficult to keep on top of them; standing water between and on the plants has made for many places for mosquitos to lay new eggs; now when we go into the field to harvest or weed, we disturb these mosquito nests.  We wear long sleeves and pants, spray ourselves with OFF and DEET, wear nets over our heads and necks, and the little buggers still manage to create havoc with our skin.  Yesterday, I counted twenty bites on my face and neck alone.  It is very tough to stay concentrated on the task at hand when you are swatting at mosquitos all day.  Their buzzing is nearly intolerable.  Apparently, this is something that happens every other year or so.  It makes me want to invent a body net, though such a thing is probably impractical.

In other news, we finally constructed the hoop house!  Heavy snows collapsed it last winter, and this week we put up the walls and the faces, covering it all with heavy duty plastic.  Now we are ready to cure onions and garlic, and we have another space out of the rain.  The only drawback is that apparently, mosquitos tend to create an intense community within its walls.  Hopefully we missed that problem since it wasn't up until this last burst.  Here, Jake, Claire, Rosemary, and Michelle put the finishing touches on the construction:

Summer is definitely here!  On field tour this week, there were ripe tomatoes:
Ears of corn:
Even brussels sprouts are forming, though we aren't going to harvest them any time soon, since no one wants a brussels sprout in August.
We even got a visit from some sandhill cranes.  I tried to snap a photo as they flew by:
On Tuesday, we had a discussion regarding our field trip to Tipi Produce a couple of weeks ago.  I am in the process of trying to get this discussion online, but I'm having problems with my software.  Hopefully I'll get this fixed in the next week or so.  Until then...

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