Saturday, 26 April 2008

One Girl Went to Mow

Went to mow the meadows,

One girl and her big red tractor,

Went to mow the meadows.

Yes folks today was get the big fields mown day. Since the tractor hadn’t been used since ploughing a good few weeks back it was a main check over for that, oil, fuel, grease front transmission joints, grease PTO, check hydraulic fluid etc. I also greased all the rotating joints on the lift system. After that I turned my attention to the topper; that hasn’t been used since the end of last autumn. A bit of grease on all of its lift joints and then I needed to attach the lift mechanism so I could lift it up and look underneath and oil around the blades.

Usually this takes me half an hour or so but today it only took a few minutes, I was really impressed with myself. After oiling the blades and greasing the rotor that fits onto the PTO it was time to connect the rotor to the PTO so that the blades would turn.

Would it go on; no way, I tried and tried, I checked the catches were opening but it just refused to fit. I thought back to last year and remembered I had a problem one day but it had then fitted after I had to move the tractor, which in turn rotated the PTO. I started up the tractor and engaged the PTO, disengaged the PTO and turned off the tractor. It still wouldn’t fit so another ten minutes ensued while I fought to get it to fit, all the time getting greasier. Why is it I inevitably pick my lightest coloured clothing to wear on a day like this? I decided to spin the PTO again; start tractor, engage PTO, disengage PTO, switch off tractor. This time it worked, everything lined up perfectly and the rotor slipped onto the PTO really easily.

By now it was mid-day and I was sweating like mad from wrestling the rotor so decided to break for lunch rather than get an hour or so mowing before lunch. The main reason was to cool down a bit. The tractor cab is enclosed with glass and in the sunshine it gets rather warm in there. I find when I’m overheating I make mistakes, not the best scenario when out on the tractor.

After lunch I set off for the 3-hectare paddock; on the first cut I managed to scalp the field in two places. It’s been so long since I’ve cut the field I had totally forgotten that up the first edge there are a couple of dips that are just right to bottom the cutter. You go into the first dip and it bounces you into the second. Never mind, I can seed it again and it’s only two very small areas. I also wear ear defenders in the tractor and I find that I don’t react as quickly to the cutter catching the ground as without because I just don’t hear it.

There were more problems to follow; as I cut the first length along the top of the field I came to a patch that was wet. The reason I know it was wet was because the tractor started to slide sideways down the hill, gouging a channel with the topper, even though the tractor was in 4WD. The patch was only about 2 meters long so I was very quickly on firm ground again.

Before anyone tells me, I know that you work fields up and down the slope to stop tractors rolling over but you do need to cut a border too. There was one other short area that gave a little problem but nothing much. Once the border was in I then started up and down the field at the southern end. View on the way down, the weird line to the left of the front of the tractor is a reflection on the glass windscreen.

The grass there was very tall and also had a couple of areas of rapeseed that I was particularly keen to cut before it re-seeded its self. In total I sprung 3 hares from there, this is the 3rd one making a dash for the border at the top of the field.

I managed to get the majority of the field cut, it turns out there are quite a few small wet areas and when I started to tear up the field I knew it was time to stop. Once it dries a bit more, I’ll have to go up with the spade and level where the tractor slipped and then cut the remaining area.

Having finished there I headed for the 2-hectare field where I’ve started creating the wood. Last year it had a really good crop of thistles; this year I don’t want to let the same thing happen. Last year I had problems with the tractor and I also was much more nervous about using it. I’m sure my neighbour will appreciate the lower weed seeding in his adjoining field. Whereas he is happy to weed kill his field before planting again I am not so it should also reduce the weed burden in my adjoining 5-hectare cereal field.

I didn’t take pictures of the finished fields until about half past eight so they are a little dark but you can just about make out the uncut areas at the top of the 3-hectare field in this one.

This is the 2-hectare field; the new wood is at the top of the field behind the 3 poplars. The area of long grass to the right of the picture going up to the pond is a marsh area that I wish to keep as a wildlife area. I need to dam the breach in the pond but will channel the pond overflow back into this area. Along the left, between my field and my neighbour’s wood I’ve left a wildlife corridor. I’ve seen a hare in the field and a pair of deer has taken up residence in my neighbour’s wood. I’m really pleased about that as I’d not seen any deer for ages and wondered if they had all been shot during the hunting season. Whether I’ll still be happy to see them if they start eating my new trees remains to be seen.

I really should go to bed now but a day of sitting in the tractor leaves me shaking slightly, nothing to do with fear but just the vibration and the noise. The seat is sprung but older tractors are not known for the comfort of their ride and the noise even with the ear defenders is rather all encompassing. I usually spend the night dreaming and feeling I’m still in the tractor.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Chop, Chop

A back post today as I was just too tired last night. The day was spent grass cutting; not the pasture field as I gave it another day to try and dry out. By the end of the day it was a little dryer but still squelchy in places. I gave the bits of grass a good tug and they are very firmly rooted now so it should be able to be cut and I’ll just hope the tractor tyres don’t rut the field. When I went for my walk across the field in the evening I was accompanied again, this time by Patches and Hazel. Hazel is quite nervous and calls out if she gets separated from me and then races to catch up and stay near me but Patches just walks along. They always appreciate me stopping and letting them catch up and really enjoy exploring through the long grass.

Not doing the pasture field didn’t mean no grass cutting, there was plenty more to do, this is my ‘lawn’. The grass, there is some in there somewhere, (this is near the bird feeder so has a much higher proportion of other growths, elsewhere it’s moss), was just too long and lush for the mower so it was time for the trusty scythe which made short work of the area.

While that area was drying I scythed down the edge of the new vegetable patch where no mower can reach and then mowed the garden extension with the ride-on mower. After that it was back up to the lawn. I’ve tried mowing that with the ride-on but with all the close planted trees and the orchids I’m leaving to grow it was far to difficult so that was done with the walk-behind mower.

The dividing line between the lawn and the garden extension is a rough area of ground that has daffodils and narcissi in it. I was hoping to leave the leaves growing a bit longer to feed the bulbs for next year but there were far too many weeds there so that area was scythed too. Walking along using the scythe is quite relaxing and I find it less strain than using a strimmer. The other advantage is that you don’t need to wear eye or ear protection, both of which I find really uncomfortable in the heat. This is one of the weeds, a type of vetch – no book to hand to identify it at the moment. I have already seen a few ladybirds and hoverflies this year so I hope the weather stays fair so they can eat this lot.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year getting a good edge on the scythe but it still doesn’t cut how I would like along the whole length of the blade. Finally today I realised why and it’s all down to simple geometry. The sharpening stone I use is about 10 inches long. I keep the angle of the stone against the blade very low to get a fine edge. The blade has a lip round the back to give rigidity and as you can see the depth of the blade diminishes from one side to the other.. Because the stone is long I was lifting it to clear the ridge, the closer the ridge to the front of the blade, the more I had to lift the stone and the greater the angle I was grinding the edge. The greater the angle of the edge, the blunter the edge. The solution was to use a half stone which I can use in front of the ridge. It will take a while but I should eventually get the fore part of the blade as razor sharp as the rear.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Kitchen Nil, Weather Won.

Not strictly true but why waste a good title – I find it hard enough to come up with subjects for e-mails, let alone a title for each blog.

Today it was dry, today it was warm, today the sun shone and today everything seemed possible.

Today started with the usual animal husbandry and I then went for a quick coffee with Ann to go over the MSA form that needs to be in by the end of the month. MSA is the body that covers the health insurance for me. The form was this years version of the one I filled out earlier showing what I was growing and on what area. It’s nothing to do with subsidies, the Common Agricultural Policy or PAC as it is here, this is just to assess what level of health insurance you pay. In the end, we decided that a trip to the office in Villeneuve would probably be the best bet.

I came home and got on with sowing some more seeds. Here the folklore says don’t plant things out before the 15th of May to avoid the risk of a late frost. In fact, in the town by me, some plum growers have lost 80% of their crop due to one frost on the 11/12th April. It is really quite a disaster coming on top of the harvest last year when hot dry weather was followed by a couple of weeks of rain, followed by sun again. The fruit split and rotted on the trees. Many growers lost half their harvest that way and then had a quarter of what they did harvest rejected during the drying process. So if you like your Agen prunes, (and believe me they taste nothing like the prunes in the UK, they are gorgeous), then stock up now, there could be a shortage.

Back to the planting, I reckon that by the time most of the things I’ve planted germinate I should have ground ready and the risk of frost will be gone so they can be transplanted out really quickly.

After lunch I made the trip down to Villeneuve and filed my form, one down, just the DPU, the form that will give me any subsidies due, to do. I think that’s about a weeks worth of work on it’s own as there is an accompanying booklet saying what our esteemed commissioners in Brussels have decided should be grown this year. There’s no way I’m going to understand all of it so I think I will be off to Agen to the Agriculture department there and see if they will help me. Last year they were wonderful and walked me round all the offices and date stamped all my forms as I had been sent down there on the afternoon of the last day for registration (I’d only agreed to plant the field with sunflowers that morning when the local co-operative rep came round to suggest it). I don’t intend to cut it that fine this year.

I did do a bit for the kitchen today; I was feeling so good that I decided to cut the work surface substrates. Measure, check, double check and then again for good luck. Then check measurements against those I’d got the other day, yes they matched so out to the garage to cut. Once I’ve posted this I will put the pieces in place. The one long piece will have to wait till Ann or someone comes round as there is no way I can lift the 2 metre 40 piece myself.

I finished off the outside work with a walk around the seeded pasture field. I was planning on running the topper over it tomorrow but the surface is still sodden in places and caked my boots. I wasn’t really expecting that as it’s southwest facing and slopes. I did however spring a hare and a bit further on I found the hollow where it had rested and another hollow next to that with droppings. No photograph though, I took my cup of tea (and Cid) for the walk and completely forgot to take the camera.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Oh So Slow

When I ordered my fuel oil yesterday, I was asked if it was urgent. I said no as I had a couple of days worth left. OK they said, how about tomorrow morning! I suppose if I were out of oil they would have tried to deliver that afternoon. Anyway I was up early and sure enough the tanker arrived at 8:30 so I now have a full tank and am 800€ poorer.

I’ve just looked back through my receipts and when I bought my first lot back in January 2007 it was 59.5 centimes a litre, today it was 89.5 centimes, that’s about a 50% increase over the year. Hopefully though that is enough fuel to cover my tractor usage over the summer and still leave me a bit of fuel for heating going into winter.

The slow part of today was of course the kitchen. All I wanted to do was put the doors and dummy drawers on the sink and corner unit. Three hours later and I’m still not there, the hinges for the door to the corner unit just wouldn’t click together and the door fell off every time I tried to open it. Eventually I took the bit of the hinge that is screwed to the unit off and tried to fit it to the other part of the hinge where I could see what was happening. It just wasn’t clipping in securely at the end; it was a fraction of a millimetre too small. Then I realised that the little arrow that was on all the other similar bits wasn’t on these. A quick sort through all the remaining bits and I found two hinges that again were very slightly different to all the rest. My guess is that these were from a different supplier. When I’d finally matched up the odd hinges with their latches the door decided to stay on. Now all I have to do is get the false drawers to the right height, none of the predrilled holes seems to put them in the correct place. Tomorrow I think, yes definitely tomorrow.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

A Middling Monday

After I’d posted yesterday, Cid decided he would like to try out Snowy’s spot on the monitor. Snowy, not one to give up her position as top cat decided to jump onto the other monitor despite the top being covered with bits and pieces which went flying everywhere.

Today been a very middling sort of day today, nothing outstanding but progression has been made. The glossing of the work surfaces isn’t fully dry, as I found out kneeling on it, so my hand and knee prints will be there for posterity. It was dry enough that I could start filling the holes in the wall behind. I still need another coat of whitewash under the sink and to fill a couple of large holes there where the water pipes used to be. The holes are large and deep so will take a couple of goes to fill but as you can see, the shelf is there in the corner unit.

While pottering round on that and mixing chicken feed I had another go at bread making and I just had to show you the results. I’d followed up Debra’s tip about the bread flour in Netto’s and had got myself some multigrain flour. I decided to stretch it a bit, having read a lot of the tips on the Old Style forum of MoneySavingExpert and made up a 50:50 mix with plain flour, adding a teaspoon more yeast (the multigrain was a ready made mix), sugar, a tablespoon or so of olive oil and a touch of salt. Then it was a really good kneading and two rises. I don’t have any loaf tins but chucked it into a couple of cake tins and et voilĂ !

I hadn’t seen Mr Tibbs since last Tuesday when he finally came down from the loft but today he was back again and I just called to him from the kitchen and he came in, all be it very gingerly. There are four other cats who are not actually anti him being here but are a little jealous over me. After a quick bite of food, he climbed onto my lap so he has had his flea and worm treatment too. This afternoon he was on the patio when I went out to feed the alpacas and I was able to call to him and he came in via the front door. I still have food for him in a separate place to the other cats so that they don’t feel too threatened but it’s looking like he will soon be an inside cat. In fact, as I write this, he’s curled up on a cat bed in the kitchen.

Early post tonight as I need an early night so I can be up in case my oil delivery comes first thing. I’ve done well over the winter but now the tank is nigh on empty so it will be around 850 litres tomorrow – shudder, and the price is still rising. But while I can do without the heating I can’t do without my tractor yet. Just how long would it take a couple of donkeys to plough 5 hectares?

While I’m Away, The Mice Do Play

I’ve had to change how I feed the chickens. Back in the UK I hung their food in a feeder in their hut. It was well off the floor and never attracted any rodents. Here I did the same thing but I started noticing some droppings on the roof of the feeder. The only way they could have got there would be for the mice to run along the beams and then down the string suspending the feeder.

I decided to mull over what to do. I moved the feeder to another beam that was more difficult to traverse. This did the trick for a while but after a couple of weeks I noticed the droppings were back.

One night, I wasn’t back until after dusk and went straight up to the hen house to lock them in. As I approached I heard the rustling of many mice as they darted through the straw and out of the hen house. I shone my torch in to check the chickens and to my great surprise there were still about a dozen mice still in the feeder, feasting away at my expense.

Needless to say they scarpered once the light hit them, well all but one baby who sat there on the feeder looking round as if to say “Where’s everyone gone’. That gave me time to go round to the main door and go in and I was in time to see him head for a hole in the floor, so I now know where to cement over the summer but the design of the sheds, breeze block with very old wood plank doors (i.e. half rotten) and a very old corrugated roof is going to be very difficult to vermin proof. Oh I forgot to mention it’s on a bank that is collapsing too so until I get the retaining wall sorted I’m not going to do much to it.

The short term fix has been to move the feeder outside and suspend it from one of the cherry trees in their paddock and to only put a days food in, bringing the feeder in with me if there is any left when I put them to bed.

That brings me on to feeding chickens. I’ve a couple of books that cover the subject and I’ve read around on the Internet and the options range from feed them nothing and letting them free range to the other extreme of giving them just layers pellets, I’ve gone for an in-between way. The chickens free range on the paddock I’ve given them, it’s not large, but large enough that they’ve not converted it to bare earth. I then give them a mixed feed and again I’ve ended up deciding on my own blend. The current mix is 4 parts wheat, 2 parts layers pellets and 1 part whole maize to which I add a sprinkling of oyster shell grit every so often. One of their treats is the seeds from the squashes, or if they are really lucky a whole slice of squash and the odd scrap of bread. Whether it’s right I don’t know but they are laying well and look fine so I’m going to stick with that until I find anything better.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Rain Again

As the weather is not at its best I spent most of today either glossing the work surface or whitewashing part of the kitchen walls or collecting feed for the alpacas and chickens. Kitchen progress is slow but I would rather it was that than rush it and have problems later. All the cats have stayed in too and I really don’t blame them today.

During the late afternoon we had one of the torrential downpours I’m beginning to get use to. The rain comes down like a white sheet, 3 or 4 or more millimetre in 10 - 15 mins and today it contained hail as well. The Dordogne, to the north of me is on flood alert and some of the rivers there have already burst their banks and inundated the towns.

Here it’s just filling the ditches but ensuring that I can’t get onto the land to start working it. The rain is also heavy enough that it beats the surface flat so that when it dries there is a hard crust, which if allowed to dry, sets like concrete. The weather is due to change for the weekend when we’re forecast temperatures of up to 25°C so with luck I will be able to get outside and get going. This is a picture of my neighbour’s field just below the house.

The furrows where I’ve ploughed the new vegetable garden have successfully channelled all the water to the bottom end so I can see that I will have to sort out the drainage there before next year. At the top of the vegetable area is where I tried to cut a ditch with the plough as my first go at using a plough. It wasn’t very successful as again the ground was far to wet and I couldn’t get any grip but even so it has diverted the majority of the water into the ditch and kept it away from the pump house. The ditches do channel away an amazing amount of water; this is the main ditch that collects the majority of the water from my little valley and it’s been running like this for the last week.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

No News is Good News

So what have I been doing the last few days? Well after my Dordogne trip on Wednesday, I’d come home to find a note on the doorstep from my friends S & C who were down for a week with C’s brother M. As I’d been out they had invited me round for after dinner drinks, or in my case, after locking up the chickens drinks to catch up on news. It was a lovely end to a very enjoyable day.

Thursday I was out gallivanting again, this time to the Lot where another friend, SD, was holidaying and had invited me for lunch. I’d met SD on an alpaca judges training day back in the UK before I’d come out here. We had a wonderful time talking about alpacas, home schooling and generally putting the world to rights. So good that we had no idea of the time until the church bells started ringing out for 7 pm and I had to set off back in order to feed the alpacas. Before leaving though, SD let me have some of the saxifrages and sempervivums she had in her garden for me to propagate. I have a vague idea of planting a living roof sometime in the future and am going to start growing some plugs.

Friday was the day my car went to the garage to get the ABS sensor fixed. The sensor had decided to start working again on the way back from C & S’s and didn’t come on once on the trip over to SD, but I wasn’t going to risk having it fail again as you can guarantee it would fail at the most critical moment. I’d arranged for C, S & M to come over and see how the work was progressing in the kitchen and when they telephoned to confirm a time I was able to forewarn them that their help was going to be required.

As I said in the earlier post, all the screws were out between the sink and the corner unit. I spent quite a while Friday morning trying to get the corner unit out. First I found yet another screw holding the two units together but after removing that, the two were definitely independent. I tried sliding it out, nothing happened. I got a torch and looked under the unit; a waste pipe had been plumbed in round one of the legs of the corner unit and there was no way I could lift it out – a job for C & M.

To cut a long story a bit shorter, C & M couldn’t lift it either, the pipe had been put in so tightly the leg wouldn’t pass through the gap and had to be dismantled. Even so, where the electric point for the cooker and the tap for the dishwasher had been put, stopped the unit from being pulled out. Eventually they took a hammer to the side of the unit and got it off, I’d glued it but not with loads of glue, just a bit to act more like loctite.

The shelf was then put in, with required cut-out to miss the plumbing and electrics and the unit side re-assembled.

Did I panic during this; well I was a bit worried until S told me that M was a kitchen fitter by trade!

So I am now on the next bit, not progressing as fast as I thought I would. I’ve not got pre-formed work surfaces but a sort of compressed chipboard onto which I will put the tiles I’m going to use as the work surface. M suggested that 2 coats of gloss paint would be an excellent idea to protect the chipboard around the sink unit from absorbing any spilt water and then disintegrating.

After I’ve done that, I’ll do my best to squidge silicon sealant into every gap possible and then I’ll get on with cutting the worktops for the other units. It might be taking a bit of time, but I’m getting there, so many, many thanks to C, M & S, hopefully by the time you are back again I’ll have a complete kitchen to show you.

Awards Sunday

Time to catch up on awards. It’s always difficult to decide which blogs to send awards, I obviously like all the blogs on my reader otherwise they wouldn’t be there but here goes.

So first a quick return to my Blog of Distinction award from Debs at Lehners in France.

The rules are simple, pass the award on to five blogs that make you laugh, cry, think or sigh.

It was a tough decision, but I have decided that the 'Blogs of Distinction' will go to:

Big Blue Barn West

Breezy Break Blog

Down to Earth

Musings from a Stonehead

Hedgewizards Diary

Then on Friday, VP at Veg Plotting awarded me the E for Excellent award, so many thank to you VP.

I’m passing this one on to:

Dordogne Painting Days

Stinking Billy

The Contrary Goddess

Move to Portugal

Mud Walls and Beams

Clarabelle Sprinkles

Hit Pay Dirt

Seasons Eatings Farm

Farming French Style

Growing Your Own