Saturday, August 30, 2008

On the job at last!

Here's a series of photos of our work day activity Friday.

I hadn't intended to have students doing such advanced work so quickly, but since we will be delayed somewhat in breaking ground by waiting for the DEP permit, and since MOFGA Facilities Manager Verne LeCount was asking for help, it made sense for our first big workday to be helping Verne and his crew finish off their barn.

That was good because it meant that the students who signed up for this got to work right away on a real building, and a real job site with all its hazards and need for safety consciousness.

The new MOFGA barn is a pole building, in which the foundation is cedar poles set in the ground. MOFGA, in a specialty I haven't seen anywhere else, scarfs the cedar into 6 by 6 hemlock posts, attaches 10 or 12-inch hemlock beams about ten or twelve feet on center, and eight inch hemlock rafters. Our job was to help fit the purlins to the rafters in time for the metal roof, in time for the Fair in three week's time, and once done with that, to build the stalls.

Everyone worked hard, including the old man, who got more than his fair share of what my good wife calls "Mick-yoga," stretching and sweating in strange contorted positions on the roof.

Several students went aloft, and also learned to wield a nail-gun. I had not intended to teach the use of air tools, since they are inherently dangerous, but the job of fitting purlins is more dangerous with a hammer and nails, for which you must use two hands, than it is with a nail gun, which only needs one, leaving you a hand free to help keep your balance.

All went very well. We had a great crew and good team work, and knocked out Verne's purlins in double-quick time, with no safety incidents.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ground plans now in

The ground plans for the DEP Permit have arrived. Civil engineer Boyd Snowdon went over them yesterday with Roger Duval and myself.

I'm not going to post these online as I don't have electronic copies, but we will go over them in class during the first week.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Toolroom and workbenches

These are the facilities we'll use for the first phases of building the barn. Having a properly planned out, electrically wired, and well-lit working area will keep us safer, help control and safety-check our tools, and give us a dry place to work so we can still make progress if it rains.

Here's the toolroom/stockroom.

A dayglow "shadowboard" will help make sure we don't lose tools or leave them out in the rain. When a tool is missing, its dayglow outline lets you know. This saves money on lost tools, and helps you get into a routine of checking tools as you put them properly away.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Cleaning out the barn

Here's a series of shots of today's farm project: cleaning out the Womerlippi barn with the small 12 HP Kubota tractor.

It's a small barn, so you need a small tractor. I'm a big guy, so I look pretty silly on a tiny japanese tractor. But it works well.

This is a custom-designed system, and the barn, the tractor, the pig sty and the garden all work together in linear fashion, a compost assembly line. We will build a similar system into the new college barn.

The material being "cleaned out" is actually being prepared for use, to be prized as next year's main agricultural input to the garden and potato patch.

This is deep bedding for the sheep from last winter. We use a modification on a European farm system called "Swedish deep bedding," that I learned about in ecology class field trips as a schoolkid, in which fresh bedding is added each week to cover last week's accumulation of manure. This doesn't smell bad like a regular barn does, and it helps concentrate the soil nutrients and capture fertility that is otherwise lost. The sheep do their deep bedding job for about 5-6 months of late fall, winter and spring, after which the pigs and chickens get to go at it. The pigs have been working it over now for about four months, and so we started to clean it out a few weeks ago, but it's getting very concentrated and ripe and even just a little smelly for the very first time, and is attracting flies, so it's time to move it all out!

Deep bedding is a great system for a small farm/garden combination, especially if you use a secondary processor like our pigs. You'd think that pigs would be upset to have to live in and sleep on used sheep bedding, but they love it, and dig and root in it for all kinds of unmentionable piggy treats, which keeps them happy pigs. They really enjoy the day we push out a fresh pile of bedding into the yard, and Ophelia, the livelier pig, goes skipping around in it like a piglet.

The Kubota tractor can move around in the 20 by 30 foot barn, especially if it has no rototiller or other rear attachment on, and so it does most of the heavy work. Still, cleaning out the edges and corners is hard work. About two hours was all that was needed to get 3/4 of the material out into the outdoor sty, where it will compost rapidly in what remains of summer. Next spring we'll till the finished compost into the garden using the bucket loader and the custom Kubota tiller that came with the tractor. There'll be too much so we will put some in the herb garden too, and possibly gives some away to the neighbors. That seems to me to be a lot less work than cleaning it out weekly, and a superior compost product is the result. The Kubota uses a small amount of diesel -- less than half a gallon -- to do this job.

Although I am a little tired from my exertions. Nicely so. That green gym workout again.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Work begins!

This is the kick-off for our barn-building project. Students in a second-year general education course will build a small animal barn to shelter our college sheep herd, and provide housing for pigs, chickens, cattle or indeed any other small scale sustainable livestock project the college might like to pursue in the future.

The barn will also help make sense of our composting system, which has always had problems, mostly due ton the high volume of waste. By feeding pre-consumer kitchen and garden waste to appropriate animals like pigs in a controlled barn-based system, we can reduce the volume of waste, and its attraction to undesirable critters. Barns also help collect and concentrate animal manure and bedding for use in gardens and on fields. It's a lot easier in general to make good compost if you have a barn.

I wanted to be well-organized for the beginning of class, because nothing can be quite so disheartening for students than a project class that uses up three or four of the first few weeks in organizing, making plans, and in mundane tasks like getting materials to the site. So hopefully, if I do my work well, everything will be in place when class starts. Students will have to study safety precautions and regulations for a little less than a week, but then, on the first Friday of term, they will actually get right down to practical work.

First job was to take the existing animal shelter, a pole barn, and prepare it for use as tool storage and as a temporary workshop where we can still get things done if it rains. I almost forgot to take a photo of this first job, but remembered a few minutes into my work, and here's the shot (above).

As you can see, although sturdy, this run-in shelter doesn't do it's job well. It's enclosed on three sides only, so the snow blows in unless you use ugly old tarps like the ones on there right now. It's hard to clean out, because you can't drive right through with a loader. And it's built on clay soil, which is by far the worst feature. Clay acts as a seal for water so it doesn't drain, and so you get wet conditions, which damages the animals' hoofs and makes them prone to hoof rot. Our sheep had bad hoof rot this year, which didn't clear up until they'd been on the dry sandyn soil at MOFGA for a week or so. And I almost lost my shoe today to the boggy spot right in front of the black tarp.

None of this is the fault of the FFA students, who built this shelter with the help of the club advisors. Back then, before the college had the Agriculture Food and Sustainability degree program, all they had to work with was a tiny bit of club money. The students wanted a college farm, and this is how it started. They had the guts to get it going, but with so few resources, this was the best they could do.

Well, as a job site workshop, it'll do just fine. The animals have been removed (to MOFGA -- see the Sustainability Activities page for details), except for our Hampshire ram "Mikey", who's king of the back pen for now, and the fence and gates in the home pen have been taken down and removed, leaving a wide open space where the new barn will go.

Today we took down the tarps on the old shelter, removed some of the feeding equipment to make room for shelves and a workbench, and wired the building for shop lights and electrical outlets. Tomorrow we'll keep working on benches, and make a locking toolroom.

Any Environmental Citizen students already in the area for fall semester who'd like to help are welcome to come down to the site. I'll be working regularly this week and next. I'll generally be on site at 8am or 8.30 (depending on whether this is a day the sheep need moved (at MOFGA) or not, and on any other UC commitments).

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Monday, August 4, 2008

Syllabus posted

The syllabus for this class is now available at my course documentation page right here.

Email me with any questions at