The Local Trail Ride

Posted by Nick  | 28 Feb 2015  | 3 comments

The fundraiser the locals have for the upkeep of the nearby hall is an annual motorbike trail ride, up over farmland and through bush. A few hundred people turn up, which is quite the sight (and sound) out here in the middle of nowhere, where the number of vehicles to pass by on any given day can be counted on one or two hands.

There were so many entrants this year that we were asked if they could use a couple of our paddocks for overflow parking. It was odd seeing throngs of people on our driveway; the kinds of numbers usually encountered at an event in town. Unlike city crowds, however, these visitors picked up after themselves and left without a trace.

Most riders were decked out in colourful gear and almost half wore helmet-mounted GoPros.

We didn’t really fit in with the hustle and bustle, but from behind a camera you can seem to belong anywhere, so we observed from behind the security of our lens. We snapped some action shots around the hall, but unfortunately most of the real action itself was up in the hills and trees. There were, however, one or two show-offs which our camera took a liking to.

There was a kiddies’ track, too, which was routed over a neighbour’s hilly land.

Look at those little tykes go!

They were as kitted-out as their enthusiast parents, and actually pretty impressive riders for how small some of them were. It makes me think about how sheltered a lot of suburban kids are. There were just as many girls on bikes as boys, which was nice to see.

So wee!

When the main track for adults opened up, they raced by in noisy vibrant swarms.

We caught some of them getting a little air at the start of the track before they disappeared up into the hills.

It was a pretty bizarre occurrence to have happen out here next to our little slice of paradise, and once the crowds had all gone home it seemed like it hadn’t happened at all. The countryside was reset to its default tranquillity. It may have been a crowded noisy event, but at least it only happens once a year, and it’s actually kind of exciting to see some thrill-seekers in this otherwise perpetually meditative environment.

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Posted by Nick  | 17 Feb 2015  | 11 comments

Some of you may not know this simple fact (e.g. city-slickers): Hay is livestock fodder for over winter (or in a drought) when there isn’t enough pasture to go around. This may seem like common knowledge, but you’d be surprised. Whilst assuming this in the back of my mind, I realised I knew nothing at all about haymaking.

Warning: The following material contains a lot of hay. Sufferers of hay-fever beware.

I recently learnt that it’s usual for farmers to close up a number of paddocks over summer to let the grass go to seed. The seed heads in the grass contain abundant nutrients, distinguishing hay from plain old straw. It’s then cut, turned, and baled – all with the use of a tractor and three separate pieces of perplexing machinery, respectively, in tow.

Two of our paddocks were “shut up” for hay for a couple months, and for the past week the farmer who leases our land has been popping out every day to process it. Part of the lease arrangement was that we’d get to keep the majority of the bales but we hope to sell quite a few of them.

In the area, where hay is plentiful, a bale goes for around five bucks. Back up in Auckland these are usually twice the price, and when they’re scarce potentially triple. Perhaps we’ll pay the Auckland pony clubs a wee visit in a transport truck over winter… Hay-ho!

Here’s our farmer doing the first part of the process, cutting:

The attachment being used is basically a giant lawn mower except with two big spinning blades instead of just one.

Afterwards, it looks lovely all in rows.

And here’s the farmer the next day, turning the hay with a different attachment, which helps to aerate it and dry it out:

These instruments of farming confound me. They appear at once simple and puzzling, yet their design is so effective that there has been few improvements in almost a hundred years. When I look at something like this, and how well it does the job it was intended for, I can’t help but be awed by the idea of ancient farmers who, for thousands of years, achieved the same result with little more than hand tools and horse-drawn cart.

Lastly, before baling, he turns the mowed hay again and this time combs it into tidy rows:

Time to bring out the hungry baler!

This thing eats people. Seriously. A local told us the horrifying story of a recent baler “mishap” in which one unlucky fellow got his shirt snagged on the spinning PTO driveshaft and was sucked through, only to be spat out in pieces. Needless to say, he did not survive. Right around Christmas, too. Not cool, baler. Not cool. I will be giving this bastard a wide berth.

We actually bought this old machine from the previous owner of our farm. We figured we’d be needing it and we might as well save ourselves the trouble of sourcing one elsewhere and dealing with the transport. It’s pretty beat up and needs some spare parts, but apparently it does the trick. It seems the thing to do when you have missing parts is to substitute them with the likes of a soda can, such as in this tractor hub cap. Whatever works, fellas…

There were a few hiccups before they got it going. Namely threading the baling twine correctly and plopping dollops of grease here and there. The whole thing, we thought, seemed like a giant sewing machine. I suppose it’s more like a parcelling machine, you might say, since it compacts hay into neat cuboids and strings them up with twine. The farmer had his brother with him to help out. As you can see by their attire, these are real country gentlemen.

We had no idea what they were actually doing. We’d catch a word here and there, but I think we’d better study this thing’s manual. In depth.

“Ah, there’s your problem. The jig-hickey isn’t wound onto the watchama-bob, and your doodad’s gone all giddy.”

Once it got going it was entertaining to watch our very first hay bales being tidily pooped out the bum-end of this contraption. I was eager to lift one to see what kind of weight I’d be having to heave a few hundred times. I’d say each weighed about twenty kilograms.

In preparation I’d lined the barn with some junk wood to keep the bales off the floor. The last thing you want is moisture wicking up from the ground and rotting them all. Apparently I’d put them in the wrong direction, however, because when I came back later I’d found that someone had repositioned them to run short-ways. Not sure why. I think it perhaps has something to do with how the bales would be stacked.

On the first day of baling a bunch of neighbours turned up to help. This was surprising to us city-folk. Apparently that’s just how things are done. Baling is so weather-dependent that you can’t risk your bales getting wet, so it’s all hands on deck if there are ominous clouds looming. Even in good weather it seems that help from across the road is expected. It is a momentous task, after all, and many hands make light work. So long as there’s a beer for everyone at the end, we were told, they were happy to assist.

I tried my best to pull my own weight, especially since they were going to be our bales, but I felt like I was just getting in the way of the pros. Like I was butting into the middle of a very efficient assembly line. They had done this a hundred times since youth, and they had a rhythm and process that I felt my cumbersome ineptitude only hindered.

When the second paddock was baled a couple days later, I was more confident in my hay-hauling abilities. It was quite fun, actually, jumping on and off the trailer, heaving the bales aboard in a joint effort to get them stacked in the barn. Bloody hot work in the middle of a summer day. Char was free to help with a couple of loads over her lunch break, too. She took to it with greater knack than I. Farming’s in her genes.

The first paddock filled almost half of our barn. The bale count was two-hundred-thirteen. The lease farmer took a trailer-load with him, and we sold fifty to our neighbour.

The second paddock gave us another two-hundred-eighty-one, putting our tally close to five-hundred.

Even our kitty, Mica, came to investigate the new jungle-gym. Beware, nesting swallows.

Amusingly, Mica was leaping across rafters when she suddenly miscalculated. Next moment there’s this little kitten hanging on for dear life by her front paws. I lunged out to save her, but I wasn’t fast enough. She fell to the floor of the barn from four metres up, hitting a piece of timber with a thud on the way down. Half-laughing and half-concerned, we rushed to peer over the edge. She looked up, confused. We jumped down and inspected her for injury. Needless to say, she’s a cat. Nine lives. A few minutes later she was happily shitting in the paddock and bounding through the long grass.

Next summer we’ll probably have to do all this ourselves; cutting, turning, baling, and stacking. We have a few friends in mind to come help us with, what will undoubtedly be, a sluggish and laborious effort. You know who you are.

Slapdash Woodcutter Rig

Posted by Nick  | 11 Feb 2015  | 2 comments

Do I write about wood a lot? Well, that’s because we have hoards of it. Dealing with it all has taken up large portions of my time lately. So hold on to your hats, because here’s another wood-related post! You’re welcome.

You may have seen the log holder we got for sawing fat rounds, or in the case of this photo, awkward offcuts of excess sapwood:

But I needed something to hold the thinner offcuts such as this lot:

…Something that would allow me to cut lengths fit for our fireplace. I’d seen a few designs around, so decided to wing it with some timber I found lying about in a paddock. This is the rig I whacked together:

The idea here is to have each H section thirty centimetres apart, so when the wood stacked across the H’s is sawn I end up with ideal lengths. Here, maybe some pictures will explain better:

So first I trim off the ends, just eye-balling the lengths.

Then saw down between the H’s.

It actually worked better than expected. I thought the long strips, being so thin, would bounce around from the aggressive chainsaw. Surprisingly, the sides of the H’s along with the weight of the pile held it all together no problem. Only a couple of the top pieces jiggled a bit.

First lot done!

Three loads later and I had finished this particular pile, which had been dumped by the chicken coop from the milling. Why not with the rest of the wood near the barn, I’m not sure.

There’s plenty more where that came from, so my time constructing this handy device won’t be going to waste.

As a bonus, I found some delectable thick slabs of macrocarpa hiding beneath the pile, which just needed their shoddy ends chopped off. Score!

Let’s Build a Woodshed Wall

Posted by Nick  | 04 Feb 2015  | 4 comments

One thing this farm came with a lot of was wood. Wood, wood, wood. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good thing. It’s one of the most valued resources on a farm. The problem is, where do we store it all? We can’t just leave it outside to rot in the elements.

We have a surplus of useful odds and ends which we’ve compiled in the barn, sourced from around the farm. I’m always in there fossicking through material for various farm fix-ups. Firewood was also plentiful when we moved here, readily seasoned and piled in a woodshed adjacent to the barn. This abundance grew to absurd proportions when we cut down some large trees for the sake of getting broadband. As you might have read, the offcuts of those trees after milling gave us a heck of a lot more wood to contend with:

Now that we’ve almost finished chopping/splitting this hoard of cypress, we need a place to keep it while it seasons for the next year or two. We couldn’t just biff it in the old woodshed with the other firewood, because that lot is already dry and ready to be used. We noticed that one of our unused sheds could be divided if we built a wall.

I spent a good while searching the barn for some suitable building materials, and found two long posts which would be perfect for the supports. These we had salvaged from the old water tower we’d dismantled earlier. I dug them into the ground and nailed them to the rafters above.

Then I found some cross beams and screwed them on. Getting these level by myself was a little tricky. It was made easier, though, with our new cordless driver – no more tripping up on power cords!

I put a third vertical support in because it seemed a little wobbly in the middle. Unfortunately I didn’t have another long round post, so I had to be inventive by using spacers on the middle support.

I called it a day at this point, since we needed to buy some more wood (ironically) for the vertical slats.

After we picked up some appropriate lengths of cheap wood from the nearest hardware store, Char joined me for the remainder of the build. The lengths we brought home were odd, so we first had to cut them all.

It didn’t take too long with Char measuring and me sawing. Never underestimate the utility of an extra pair of hands.

It’s a good thing Char was with me on this occasion; her suggestion of using a string line saved us much time and labour.

We really should get some proper clamps. We’ve needed some a few times already, and have resorted to using the one that came with our jig set. It worked fine for this task, but needed constant adjustment. The right tools for the job can save you from a lot of stress and wasted time.

Along with the clamp to hold the wood in place while we screwed it on to the cross beams, we used a wooden spacer so the distance between the planks would be uniform. This took a bit of dirty math, because when working with imperfect wood, it’s never exact. Sometimes you have to just eyeball it.

Halfway there!

We had a good rhythm going; I’d hold the plank while Char directed it flush with the string line, we’d fiddle with the spacer between the slats, then I’d bang a screw into the centre and a couple into the base, then pass the driver up to Char to bang in the top two screws. Swish.

Woodshed wall complete!

We chucked some old pallets on the ground to keep the firewood from absorbing moisture and rotting.

We’ve commandeered about what looks to be a third of this shed for firewood. We may use the space on the right of the woodshed as a make-do animal shelter at some stage.

Now we’ve just got to finish chopping and splitting this ridiculous pile of wood…

At least we have some place to store it all now. Let’s hope it fits.

A Plenitude of Plums

Posted by Charlotte  | 02 Feb 2015  | 3 comments

The orchard by our house consists of six very old, and very big plum trees. When we first came to see this property, before we put an offer on, we tasted one of the plums. It was tasteless and unappealing. So, come winter, we put a wheelbarrow-load of cow manure as well as some fertiliser around the trees, in the hopes that it would improve the flavour.

Come summer this year, the plum trees have been absolutely laden due to the dazzling flowers they put out in spring, and the flavour has definitely improved. The plums are sweet and juicy.

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It seems we have four different varieties of plum trees in the orchard. They are well-timed so we’ve had fruit all summer. When the last of the fruit is about to drop on one variety, the first are beginning to ripen on the next.

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The trees aren’t small like the manicured ones you’d find in many modern orchards. Instead they’re quite large and probably haven’t seen a pruning saw in years. This makes it difficult to access the higher fruit, but those hanging at head-height have been plenty enough for us. There’s so many that even the birds haven’t been problematic. They peck the fruit randomly, taking only the tiniest sample from each fruit, leaving them on the tree. But when we go picking it’s easy enough to leave those particular fruit and move onto the undamaged ones, which are more plentiful.

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While the height of the trees makes a mission out of getting to the majority of the plums, the shade they provide in summer is ideal for sitting under, especially during the heat of the midday sun. Sometimes we’ll eat lunch under these trees and look out over our farm vista. What bliss.

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With such a glut of plums on our trees I figured that I really should make an effort to preserve some for the rest of the year. Making plum jam was the first thing on my list to try.

How to make plum jam

I figured the first place to start when making plum jam was to gather some plums, so out to the orchard I went with a small wicker basket in hand. Choosing only the non-bird-pecked plums, I quickly filled my basket. When making jam, however, I only ended up using about a third of these. I didn’t want to make too much, especially since I had no idea how it would turn out.

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I washed the plums and removed their stalks, then cut them in half and dug out the pips with my fingers. The recipe I was following called for 1.5kg of plums, but since I’d never made jam before and neither of us are big jam eaters, I thought I’d start with 1kg of plums instead.

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Into a large heavy based pot I put the plums, a small amount of water, and a squeeze of lemon juice. I mashed the plums up a little and then brought them to the boil. I wasn’t sure about leaving the skins of the plums in the jam, but I did and it worked out nicely – they break up and add a nice texture to the jam when it’s ready. Not really noticeable at all.

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Turning down the heat I let the plums simmer while I prepared the jars. It’s important to sterilise both the jars and lids, so I washed them with warm soapy water, and then put them in the oven at 120°C on a baking tray to dry out. I wasn’t sure how much jam the recipe would make, so I made sure to wash a few extra jars just in case.

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After about 40 minutes of simmering, the plums were really soft. I dumped in 500g of sugar and stirred to dissolve. The recipe I was following called for the same weight of sugar to plums, so technically I should have used 1kg of sugar. However, we prefer a nice tart jam (if a sweeter jam is preferred then it’s easy to add more sugar). I also dropped in a knob of butter which is supposed to help reduce frothing, and brought it to a rapid boil, stirring continuously. I scooped any ‘foam’ that appeared off the top.

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After about five minutes the jam should reach it’s setting point. To test this you want to cool a small amount of jam and see if it thickens or if it’s still runny. Have a small plate pre-chilled in the freezer, spread a small teaspoon of jam around on the plate, then run your finger through. If it wrinkles up then it’s ready, if it’s still runny then leave it boiling a bit longer.

Once ready I found it easier to use a big spoon to ladle it into the jars rather than pouring. I made sure to leave enough space at the top of the jars to create the vacuum that will seal them as they cool. I also made sure to get any air bubbles out.

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I ended up with two jars of jam plus a bit left over which I popped in the fridge. Within the next couple of days the one in the fridge slowly disappeared as Nick decided it was delicious and ate it by the spoonful.

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And he’s right, this jam is delicious, if I do say so myself. The tartness makes it perfect on toast with cream cheese, and the texture is just like what you get in the shop.

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The only problem is we’re half way through the first jar already – time to make some more I think!

 Plum Jam Recipe

Prep: 15min  ·  Cook: 1hr  ·  Ready in: 1hr 15min  ·  Makes: 2 jars

Ingredients

  • 1kg fresh plums
  • 500g white sugar for a tart jam, 1kg for a sweet jam, or any amount in between depending on personal preference
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 ½ tablespoons butter
  • 100ml water

Instructions

  1. Wash plums and remove stalks.
  2. Cut the plums in half (vertically), then twist to open and remove the stone.
  3. Place fruit, lemon juice and water in a large, deep, heavy-based pot and bring to the boil, stirring frequently.
  4. Reduce heat and simmer until the plums have softened, about 40 mins.
  5. Keep on low heat and add sugar. Stir continuously until sugar has dissolved.
  6. Stir in the butter to help reduce frothing. Turn up the heat and stir continuously until the mixture comes to a rapid boil.
  7. Continue stirring on high heat until the jam reaches setting point. If you don’t have a jam thermometer – this is obvious when the mixture starts to stick/set on the sides of the pan or starts to set when you drop it from your wooden spoon.
  8. To test, place a teaspoon of jam onto a plate that’s been chilled in the freezer. Allow to cool, then push your finger through the jam, it should start to congeal and wrinkle up – if you can push your finger through and its still runny, you haven’t yet reached setting point. If still not set test again in a few minutes.
  9. Remove from heat and pour gently into clean, sterilised, warm jars leaving a small gap at the top. Check for air bubbles and remove. Seal and label while jars are warm. Allow to cool completely, then store.