AND SO IT BEGINS…
Every winter a moment arrives when we realize that the dark days of hibernation are over. It is a bittersweet moment. The opportunity for leisurely outings will decline slowly at first, and then become rare. On the other hand, the depression of being cooped up indoors will begin to yield to the joy of moving our muscles outdoors again, then the satisfaction of the tiredness of a good day’s work and on to the exhaustion that will have us yearning for hibernation again.
This year the moment came with the forecast of four dry days with highs in the sixties. Four days is usually just enough to dry the soil enough to begin working it again in preparation to plant. With the wet winter, we are late planting the garlic, and so we made plans and began preparing for the effort. But alas in the words of one of our favorite farmer- poets, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley!”
This year’s MOMENT reminded us of Nathan Lane’s character in the cult comedy MOUSE HUNT. With hubris, the self confident chef lights the duck l’orange and boasts “Timing is everything! Attention to detail — vital!” Behind him, a cockroach from a box of cigars crawls into Mayor Kinkle’s lobster almondine, sealing Chef Ernie Scmuntz’s doom.
The question is, “When the moment comes, will you be ready?”
For weeks Diane had been nagging Jim to install the new drive belt on our aging Troybilt Horse rototiller. Jim kept searching for the new belt we had purchased at an auto parts store, but couldn’t find it in the usual places he would store it. As the first sunny day came to a close, he finally found it stored with the auto supplies rather than the farm supplies.
Now Jim had already come up with a temporary fix, that would have allowed him to till up an area for the garlic, but he has developed a certain pride in keeping up on the maintenance of his farm equipment.
Initially he planned to roll and “drive” the tiller down to his work area in the granary that would provide a dry place to work, with electric light so he could work late if he needed to get it finished before the rains returned. Rolling down the hill he realized a tire was low making the rolling difficult. It was getting dark, and his search for a hand pump that worked proved futile.
The next day, he found a pump and filled the tire and continued the roll to the granary. He hit a bump a few feet away from the granary door. In the pause the bump created, he decided to change the belt first, so he could boast to Diane about completing the tardy task. Then he would finish the maintenance and till the garlic bed when it was dry enough.
He laid a tarp in the wet grass, for comfort and to be sure he didn’t lose any tools or parts in the grass. Then he went to look for the maintenance manual to review the procedure for changing the belt. It was nowhere to be found. He had an old version that called for removing a part to aid the clearance needed to stretch the belt over the pulleys. That wasn’t part of the new instructions, he was pretty sure, but whatever.
He got the belt changed, but in doing so, had loosened and removed a couple of parts that now left the belt in the tight “drive” position, with no ability to loosen it into neutral. Something was amiss. He went looking for the new manual again and found it had fallen behind the five gallon bucket of hydraulic fluid he had laid it on the last time he was using it.
Jim consulted the new manual, but the pickle he’d gotten himself into wasn’t described in the book. Eventually he managed to pry the belt off and follow the instructions to get it back to the way it should be.
Next our work was interrupted by an event at which we thought we could market our CSA shares, since we are looking to increase our numbers this year. This meant dragging out our display boards we hadn’t used for years, printing up brochures and business cards, physically cutting and pasting a color picture on the brochure, so we wouldn’t have to pay for color copies, and preparing a display basket of produce to highlight our wares.
These things always seem to come along during the week the sun is out.
Meanwhile, the four sunny days got re-forecast into two sunny days and two cloudy days with a slight chance of showers on the the third day.
By now the tiller was in pieces. The maintenance manual warns that you can’t accurately adjust the belt tension before you clean and re-lubricate the moving parts of the control lever. Jim knew he could fake it, but the pride in maintenance kicked in. He thought to himself, “A small farmer maintaining his tiller is like the soldier cleaning his gun, attention to detail — vital!” He dug out an old pair of briefs for a rag, a couple old tooth brushes to scrub out the caked dust that covered the machine, mixed with residues of lubricants. A fresh can of WD 40 completed the cleaning kit. He laid down to get the appropriate parts at eye level and began scrubbing them to a polish.
Each morning through this dry spell he would go out and dig a shovelful of dirt from his prospective garlic patch and perform the squeeze test. If you squeeze a ball of soil together, then drop it, it is ready if it falls apart. If it clings together in a sticky mass, you will only make more sticky masses by tilling.
On the third day, one corner of the patch passed the test. A few years ago, he would have started turning the soil over by hand and leaving the turned clods to dry further, but at a creaky 57, the task looked daunting. He went to the barn to check on the Farmall. The spring toothed harrow was attached to the big tractor. The harrow will begin loosening the soil without churning it like the tiller, then the loosened soil can continue drying until it is ready to till.
On the other hand, the Farmall is very heavy, and driving it across the surrounding moist soils is bound to cause compaction. The next question was will it start? Or put another way, “When the MOMENT comes will YOU be ready?”
Often when the Farmall sits for the winter, the battery drains down, and it doesn’t have the oomph for a cold start. Jim cleared away all the other equipment between the big red tractor and the doorway, checked the oil and antifreeze and climbed up to the high seat that put his head near the joists of the loft above. He pulled out the electric switch and tapped the starter pedal. The Farmall roared to life. Old faithful!
Gingerly Jim stuck to the most sod covered routes to the garlic patch. He carefully planned how he could harrow the area in the minimum number of passes, avoiding the fragile beds that had been cultivated in the fall. Within fifteen minutes he had loosened a small triangle of the driest soil. It wasn’t a lot, but it was a start.
The soil would have to dry another day to be ready for the tiller. A few sprinkles fell that day, but nothing serious. Jim returned to tiller maintenance.
There was a lot of caked dirt and grease. He was going to do it right. Besides, by now it was beginning to look light we might not get enough sun to take the next step. The now “mostly cloudy” was being re-forecast as light sprinkles with rain to follow the next day. At the end of the day, Jim threw a tarp over the tiller to keep it dry in case the forecast was off.
By the next morning the forecast was for rain in the afternoon. But rain in the afternoon in Portland can be rain in the morning in Brush Prairie, and it was. The tarp stayed over the tiller for the next two days. This morning Jim went out to finish the job. He got far enough that he could wheel the tiller into the granary. Some cleaning would have to be done before there would be room to work. In pushing things around, he knocked over the antique living room light that doubles as a shop light in the granary. The milk glass shade covering the empty mogul socket shattered into a few large chunks and a thousand tiny shards.
Timing is everything! Attention to detail — vital. Back in the Movie, after the dust settles, Ernie Scmuntz whines, “I can’t control everything.” To this Jim would repy, “Hell, Ernie. I can’t control anything!”
And so IT begins . . .