I never did set up an engineering job for this summer. Instead, I worked at Sandhill Farm, an agrarian cooperative and community in rural northeast Missouri. I went there to learn about small scale food production. Folks at Sandhill grow upwards of 80% of the food that they consume. To pull in some income, they produce and sell condiments (horseradish, mustard) and sweeteners (honey, maple, and sorghum syrup). I also went to learn about modern alternative culture. It's been a while since the 1970s and 80s, when many books on natural building, alternative living situations and homesteading were published.
|front to back: echinacea, green beans, and salad greens|
That was pretty much that. I spent most of my time on most of my days in the garden, usually hoeing, weeding, or mulching in some vegetable bed or another. The folks who I worked alongside (both residents and interns) knew a lot about plants and agriculture. I enjoyed hearing about different ways to control weeds and pests while persuading the crop to grow. Their knowledge was both wikipedian and experiential. I learned that many plants are thinned or culled to promote new growth or larger fruit. We spent a while thinning the peach and apple trees, ultimately causing the trees to yield fewer, but larger fruits. Sometimes the ratio of thinning to keeping was as high as 8:1! We experimented incorporating the under-ripe fruit into pickles and sauces with mixed success. Garlic can also be treated to promote larger bulb growth. When the garlic wants to flower, the shoots (called scapes) can be removed so that the plant will not flower, and will instead put more energy into making a bigger bulb. We began cooking with garlic scapes a month or so before the first garlic of the season. Scapes are quite potent and spicy when raw, but mellow out once cooked. I chopped them like green beans.
Young squash in the foreground and garlic in the background. The beds are mulched with straw and the paths are mulched with pommies.
Other kinds of garden work were: harvesting, bed preparation (hoeing, turning, and sowing seed), staking (for climbing beans or tomatoes), squashing squash bugs/eggs (an unending uphill battle), hilling potatoes, digging potatoes, turning compost piles, and sometimes scything.
Occasionally I'd get to spend some time in the blacksmith shop. Sandhill farm started coming together in the mid seventies, and a guy who was into blacksmithing lived there in the 80s. He'd moved on, but the forge and anvil were still there and good to use.
here are some photos of tools I made while there:
In spite of the wheel's poor design, he managed to get couple of bowls and a cup out of it.
Check out some of his work here.
Together, we hit up Dog and Gun, the local (monthly) flea market. It was an excellent place to find old woodworking tools as well as various other oddities for a few dollars.
My acquisitions included a side axe, a block plane, some sharpening stones, a few files, a cast iron skillet, a hand cranked grinding wheel, a gun case (which I gave away), and a large bag to put all of my newly acquired junk in.
There were lots of tidbits of old technology from before and during rural electrification, as well as your usual harbor freight-like flood of new stuff.
Now, a few months later, the eye of the handle has shrunk, leaving the head a bit wobbly. Perhaps the wood I took from our firewood pile was not dry enough.
By the end of the summer, I'd made a few instruments, accumulated a small pile of tools, and learned a few new shop tricks.
The neck is honey locust and the fretboard is osage orange. Those are two of the most rot resistant woods in North America, and as a result, they're commonly stuck in the ground as fenceposts. The banjo is fretless and uses fishing line strings. The pseudo-round is a pair of stacked and offset nonagons, forming something similar to an 18-gon when viewed from above. I cut the precisely angled segments of oak on a table saw after some trial and error with the angles. They were fixed together during gluing by a strip of bicycle inner tube, wrapped around the outside with ever increasing tension.
The tuning pegs were made with peg shaver and reamer, not unlike Tim Anderson's.
A good chunk of my time in the shop was spent working on a fiddle, on which I posted an instructable.
Mealtimes were probably one of my favorite times. We were on a cooking rotation with one person cooking dinner each day and leaving enough leftovers for lunch the next day. Everyone at Sandhill shared an immense appreciation for the local, homegrown food. I grew to love pickles and relishes for their ability to enliven almost any dish.
Field crops (i.e. cultivated by tractor) included wheat (hard & soft), oats, a few types of corn, black, pinto, & soy beans, and of course, sorghum.
I did a bit of tractor work, mostly the unskilled job of mowing. However, mowing on a tractor was new to me. The tractor was a 1940s? Massey Ferguson named Desi. The mower swung enormous 3 foot long blades leaving a 7-8 foot wide cut. The blades were 5/8" thick and "sharpened" to a ~50 degree double bevel. I put sharpened in quotes because the blades were deemed sharp when they had a 1/4" radius on the cutting edge. It was towed behind the tractor, and took power through the tractor PTO, through a couple of universal joints, and into a gearbox containing a pair of bevel gears. Raising and lowering the mower was done with a hydraulic jack, connected to the tractor's hydraulics. With the tractor in second gear, the mower could take down a row of 2-3" thick saplings. I made sure to hit it up all of the bearings with the grease gun every session as was recommended.
Another tractor job I got to do was chisel plowing. When a field is repeatedly worked (driven over) by a tractor, it gets compacted some. A chisel plow digs deep (6-12") and breaks up the compacted layer (hard pan) that something like the disk can't reach. The chisel plow (with seven tines) also takes an enormous amount of force to drag through the earth. This was done with the biggest tractor named Cathy. Cathy is a large 1970s Allis Chalmers tractor with a hydraulic bucket on the front and tires with calcium chloride in them for ballast. She grunts and hems and haws when you lower the chisel plow into the earth, even in second gear, but then just keeps on going. It would have taken one hundred of me many weeks to do the work that Cathy did in five hours. She consumes about three gallons of gasoline per hour, perhaps more while chisel plowing.
All in all there were no more than ten people living at Sandhill while I was there. They ranged in age from 5 to 65. All were very knowledgeable folks with interesting stories and pursuits. On the whole, there was a lot of work! I'd say it was comparable to a 9-5 job with all of the chores and daily routines factored in.
There are some nearby communities: the ever growing Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage (abbreviated as DR) and its neighbor, Red Earth Farms, where folks are more interested in alternative energy and natural building. Both communities consist of steads, where people buy or rent a piece of land that is owned by a collective of people. Each has their own sets of rules for things like new construction, land use, and conflict resolution. Together with Sandhill, these three are known as the tri-communities. There was also the Possibility Alliance, a small community a bit further away that uses no electricity and attempts to avoid things that were produced with, or consume fossil fuel. They don't even use the internet!
Outside of our bubble, there were endless fields of corn and soy with roadside signs displaying the name of the seed company from which the farmer purchased their seed.
I found it humorous that the Bayer company produces an herbicide called Liberty, and to go with it, a set of GMO traits called Liberty Link.
"What do you spray?"
Coming back to school sure was a change of scenes. I was hoping to gain some clarity, perspective, or perhaps just more of an appreciation for school and the resources there. Maybe I have. I never ended up feeling any overwhelming pull towards or away from school as I had expected to. Instead, school started, and now the semester's almost done. Quickest one yet. With finals season approaching, I managed to end up with 3 technical classes, one music class, and no final exams. Absurd! Am I not working hard enough at school? I've always had at least two finals in the past. This time, I booked a bus ticket home early. Looking forward to getting some tinkering in.