Poplars verus weeds, poplars win!
The barn door installation was just in time for a hard frost and the first birthday of the Bluecircle. More importantly, it was time to harvest the sunflower garden and getting the place enclosed was essential to keep the neighborhood raccoons from making off with the half-dried heads. The cool, damp mornings are ideal for mold growth on the sunflowers and I underestimated the size of the job – 4 full wheelbarrows even after losing some to storms and leaving smaller heads for the jays. This year we will try drying them in a large sling attached to the side of the barn and supported by posts.
The carpentry began with red chalklines snapped on the slab at the open ends of the tractor barn and ended with trim around the windows. Including trips to local lumber yards the job took about 70 hours and now frames the opening for a door that hopefully will be installed before the first snow flurries. Steel angles anchored to the bolts of the metal roof proved to be the key to anchoring the 2×6 and 2×4 framing for this project. This step would have been easier if the distance between the bolts had matched the hole spacing in the steel, but the end result was sound walls anchored at the roof peak and corners.
Stony ground at the crest of the hill that rises from North Watervliet Road may have once been the site of a barn, but so far I have not uncovered evidence of a foundation. When it was time to plan a tractor barn other sites looked more attractive since this high ground is swept by winter winds and without orchards access to the road was not needed. Our home overlooks the lake from just beyond the southwest corner of the farm, so we chose a location on the south side that would be a short walk from the breakfast table. A couple of adolescent 30-foot oak trees will eventually shade the barn and help it blend into the adjacent small woods.
Our local building inspector provided helpful advice on the high snow load capacity (50 lbs/sq ft) required by local lake-effect snows, and in early September a flatbed truck delivered the 18-gauge steel shell of the new barn. There were immediate similarities between the building and the Erector sets I built with years ago – lots of evenly spaced bolt holes, about 60 pounds of nuts and bolts to fill them, and large angular foundation pieces. While the Erector screwdriver and wrench were not supplied, the “Erection Guide” a well-written set of construction instructions and structural drawings were. With these in hand I negotiated with Charlie Sample, an affable local builder and self-described entrepreneur (and tree lover!), to lead his crew to move sand and pour concrete.
Charlie and men efficiently built the barn’s slab. After studying my calendar, the jumble of steel in the field and the two full buckets of nuts and bolts Charlie and I renegotiated the plan and agreed they should also erect the building’s arches. About 1000 bolts and 100 hours of project labor later his progress report was “It’s done! Whew “. In medical school there is a saying: “Watch 1, do 1, teach 1″. I think Charlie has now had a chance to both watch 1 and do 1 on the same job, so should be ready to serve as instructor if anyone needs him. A website advertises that 4 salesmen for a steel building company erected one of these buildings in a weekend, or presumably in about 60 hours. They must have had a seasoned foreman!
A few years ago the view over the crest of the hill on the north side of the farm was blocked by two large featureless storage garages built just across the property line. This part of the farm was a perfect site for some fast-growing trees. Cottonwood thrives as a native tree here so the closely-related hybrid poplar seemed like a good choice. We ordered enough hybrid poplars from the Berrien County Conservation District April tree sale to plant a couple of barrier rows, and on a cold and rainy April morning planted them as quickly as possible. There was no need to water them in the soggy, freshly tilled ground.
During winter evenings of web reading I had discovered “Forest-in-a-box”, a kit of 100 dormant poplar cuttings advertised (hybridpoplars.com) as a practical way to get started in poplar growing. When the kit arrived it contained rubber-banded bundles of 2-inch sticks about the size of broken pencils, growing bags, labels, and trays to hold the bags once they were filled with planting soil (fertilizer-free). Dipping the “hybrid OP367″ cuttings in rooting hormone and planting them was an evenings work, and within a few weeks a leaf or two had sprouted from all but 3 or 4. In mid-April we moved the trays to a neighbor’s outside porch to harden them against the cold. Two weekends later each 2-4-inch “tree” was teased from its nursery bag and into a hole created with a planting bar. The race between the Conservation District poplars and the OP367 cuttings was on.
Regular rains and a few windy storms have made it relatively easy to care for the poplars this first summer. Although there was nearly a 2 foot difference in height between the bare root and the bag-rooted trees when they were planted by the end of August they were almost indistinguishable. The tallest poplars are about 5 feet tall, and off to an excellent start.
My first year of tractor use has brought experiences worth remembering as well as a few I’d like to forget. The deep parallel furrows and scattered remnants of black plastic mulch left on most of the Bluecircle land are reminders of the years it was used to raise tomatoes and perhaps squash or similar vegetables. Accordingly, a slick red 38-horsepower McCormick tractor with 4-wheel drive, a front loader bucket and brush mower were among the first tools on the inventory of the new farm.
The furrows demand slow travel from place to place on the hill, but this reveals field mice, rabbits, snakes, and reluctant groundhogs and allows them plenty of time to get out of the way. The tractor’s combination of a clutch, 4 separate shift levers and both hand and foot throttles contrasts with the “steer and go” of our SUVs and makes driving a skill again. During its the first 100 hours of operation the McCormick diesel has been trouble-free, starting easily whether moving snow or in August heat. Every month there’s been a new use for the front loader, and new respect for the skills of construction equipment operators.
I learned to respect April mud when it and the tractor’s weight threatened to “sink the Bismark”. Fortunately a combination of 4-wheel drive, the front bucket, sand and some old-fashioned shovel work got us out of this predicament. The same tire treads that helped out in this situation created trouble later. After a heavy rain a shortcut over the lawn left deep footprints – months later the turf was still in recovery. The lesson here, that the McCormick is “just not a big lawn tractor”, was repeated the day George and I decided to change its 6+ gallons of oil in the garage. A shallow plastic tub for cement mixing looked like a good place to drain the oil, and might have been except for the crack in one corner. As oil poured from the tractor into the tub it formed a rapidly-growing pool on the floor! Only twenty pounds of kitty litter kept the entire floor from flooding with tired oil.
This entry would not be complete without acknowledging the mentoring and support of my neighbor George, whose substantial wisdom and experience with equipment are matched by his willingness to share the fun and work of using and maintaining the Bluecircle tractor.
Some of the family’s farm roots were the subject of a recent post, and these paragraphs will try to capture how planting seedling trees on fallow ground led to the naming of Bluecircle Farm.
For ten of thousands of years trees grew here. Between 1864 and 1887 a local papermill and other uses for the virgin oak, tulip, and walnut stands led to clear-cutting and initial cultivation of the hilltop. A successful apple orchard planted by Sebastian Smith survived for about 80 years, although the land was owned by a Chicago banker in the 1920s. Around 1970 the orchard was replaced by vegetables cultivated by the Israel and Marion Dixon family who also owned farmland a mile to the east. Following Mrs. Dixon’s death in 1987 only scrub honeylocust, cottonwood, stunted maple groves, groundhogs, snakes and mice survived periodic mowings of the field by its new owners.
A last rough tearing, cutting and burning of high piles of brush and trees in mid-summer 2010 prompted our purchase of the farm. In a song written during the VietNam War, Harry Chapin speaks of the cycle of living and rebirth :
All my life’s a circle;
Sunrise and sundown;
Moon rolls thru the nighttime;
Till the daybreak comes around.
All my life’s a circle;
But I can’t tell you why;
Season’s spinning round again;
The years keep rollin’ by.
It seems like I’ve been here before;
I can’t remember when;
But I have this funny feeling;
That we’ll all be together again.
No straight lines make up my life;
And all my roads have bends;
There’s no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.
I found you a thousand times;
I guess you done the same;
But then we lose each other;
It’s like a children’s game;
As I find you here again;
A thought runs through my mind;
Our love is like a circle;
Let’s go ’round one more time.
As in our lives, time and the changing seasons impose a predicable circle of life and rebirth on the land. The opportunity to plant again on ground once home to native trees, and to so restore both a family heritage and a small part of the dignity of the place is a gift. It is an opportunity to celebrate and live in a Bluecircle between the adjacent lake and clear autumn sky.
My paternal great-great grandfather John Myers owned our first farm in the U.S., probably in Fairfield County Ohio where his son Lafayette was born in 1861. It likely was was a few acres of low rolling hills that still are better suited to small farms than large-scale grain production. To this German-speaking immigrant from Basel the land must have looked like home – even today it resembles the fields east of Munich. A surviving family portrait from about 1912 is framed by the white porch of a farmhouse in Ridge Twp, Van Wert County Ohio. This remarkable photograph includes John, his son Lafayette, Lafeyette’s wife Elizabeth, and the oldest (William J.) and youngest (Jennie Mae) of Lafayette and Elizabeth’s 10 children.
A biographical sketch of William J. Myers, my grandfather, written by my father describes him as “a farmer at heart” although he worked at a variety of jobs over his 86 years. Between 1925 and 1965 he farmed up to 80 acres. I remember only two of my grandfather’s barns. Both were well-seasoned, having housed working horses and cattle, corn and hay. For a boy growing up in Detroit time spent there with gram’pa offered a glimpse of his completely different lifestyle, a first tractor ride, and the smells and sounds of the livestock. There was also a sense of his ownership, from the heavy barn doors that took a man’s shoulder to open to the high stacks of baled hay in the loft that was my playground.
In late October 2010 deep old furrows and groups of bush-hogged stumps bore no relationship to the irregular outlines of the property that was to become the farm. A survey showed that nine corner posts would be needed for property lines created by multiple adjacent plats and subsequent divisions of ownership. The northwest corner was defined by an old oak tree, another was a bend in an otherwise straight boundary on the north. Because the southwest corner was at the crest of a small hill new markers would be needed to define the south and west boundaries, and at some points the “rediscovered” property line was closer to decades-old summer cottages than we, or their owners, expected. When the last leaves had fallen in the wooded area to the west dense underbrush was no longer a barrier and a few posts were driven to identify the boundary of the adjacent Woodland Conservancy. Lake-effect snow is abundant at Paw Paw lake, and as it blew off Lake Michigan and buried the stubble and stumps it was time to begin planning the Bluecircle farm.