Many boardfeet of wood was left over from deconstructing the sides of the barn that became the greenhouse. I thought it’d be a long time before I used it up, but I’ve just concluded a week of reusing most of what was still available to me.
First was a marathon project of cutting four-foot-long 1″ by 1.5″ stakes for my 525 young grape vines. I can’t put in the 1600 feet of trellising until late August (far too late, but there you go), so I needed to get tall stakes for them to climb, as soon as I could.
“Scale” changes an awful lot, I’m realizing. 525 of anything requires a different approach than 5, or 10, or even 50.
I started out using scrap boards on the tablesaw, one at a time, sharpening as I went. But I quickly realized it would take me forever, that way, adjusting the table saw repeatedly, picking up the stakes as they fell, spending far too much time and energy doing nonproductive tasks.
Soon I’d devised a methodology: cut six or seven four-foot lengths of the rough 2x4s, then shift the tablesaw width to 1.3 inches, collect the lengths in a barrel as they fell off the tablesaw, then cut those in half, lengthwise, to about 1 inch. Then sharpen all of them, into the final pile.
A small exercise in process engineering, which I managed to do without losing even one finger. Overall, perhaps three times as efficient as doing one-by-ones.
It taught me (again) that I need to think hard, and frequently, about the nature of scale.
Pruning ten trees, or twenty vines is one thing. Pruning 430 fruit trees, 150 nut trees, and about 900 vines, bushes, and berries is another thing entirely. If I take a thoughtful three minutes per tree, that’s 1740 minutes — that’s 29 hours of tree pruning. If I take only two minutes per bush/vine left, it’s still 30 more hours of pruning.
And while February and March are best for most major pruning, it’s a task that should go on all spring, summer, and fall — once every few weeks, ideally, to remove unproductive directions of growth.
If I had a huge-scale monocrop — only 1000 apple trees, or only pears, or “only” anything — then I could focus on squeezing out every last % of efficiency toward that single goal. But we have decided to emulate biodiversity, have a wide variety of possible fecundity, and hope that at least a few of our perennials do well, in any given year’s weather pattern.
But such diversity raises the bar significantly, regarding appropriate knowledge, efficient operation, at this appropriate scale.
It’s clear that I’ll have to get good at that pruning (and other stuff) the way I once got good at two-handed selection of spoons, or forks, from the tray of mixed silverware fresh from the dishwasher at the cafeteria in the dormatory, where I worked in college for a year.
The goal was to grab all spoons from that tray as fast as possible, and put ‘em into the spoon racks, then gather the forks the same way, because then the knives could be just swept up easily.
That was an exercise in muscle memory and scale. I had to teach my brain to recognize certain visual patterns fast, because there were a lot of spoons: something like 1200 freshmen ate in the cafeteria, three times a day. I got so I could alternate grabs as fast as my eyes could find them.
Here at the farm, I’ll need to develop a rhythm, and an approach (first main branches, then remove spurs? First excess, then training?) that will scale, and quickly become muscle memory.
I’ll need to be sure to have good hand tools — sharpen-able pruning shears so that I can keep the cuts clean; the right kind of cart to collect the prunings, etc….
Will it differ with nut trees? “More research is needed,” I’m afraid. I already know it’s different with raspberries, and grapes.
More research will be needed with each different tree and vine and bush and berry — and each may take a different strategy. With most, the scale is sufficient to justify the research, and the special treatment. But oh, my, as I confront scale, I’m also acknowledging the commitment I’ve made, in the strategy we have committed to, by planting as we did.
Back at the farm, once I’d recaptured my breath, the next major project is quickly determined: the garlic is ready to cure, and we have potatoes ready to harvest and dry.
In the past, we’ve done pretty poorly at this last part — curing and drying. “Storing” is another question altogether — but just getting the garlic to have a good skin has been difficult, in this damp climate.
This year, because we built the Poultry Hotel, we decided to use the structure of the old first chicken coop (affectionately named “version 0.9″ by me) as a frame to construct a drying shed for garlic, potatoes, onions, and the like.
Of course, this needed doing *now*, because the garlic and many potatoes were ready to come out of the ground.
I still had excess wood, but things had changed. This wasn’t a “scale” issue — it was a one-off. I had a mix of 1×3, 1×4, and 1x6ish wood. I’d be building this once (with the presumption that I’d repair it, over time, of course), not over and over — but it would be used repeatedly, harvest after harvest.
The goal: to have a space that got good air circulation, but very little direct sun. That gathered heat, but never overly hot. That provided protection from rain, but also allowed good air movement through it….
The Internet gave us some clues, and we seemed in good shape to build it.
But this was *not* a “scale” task — this was handcraft.
Because the wood was of different sizes, every board had its accommodations. I didn’t have 24 1x4s, or 1x6s at 8′ or 12′ lengths — I had a bunch of different sizes, which might fit a bunch of different size requirements. We wanted bott0m-open, top-breezy, not-much-sun.
Here is the result:
And here’s what’s in it:
That pic was taken very late in the day — there’s about 20-30 minutes of direct sunlight through the board gaps at that time, for a small percentage of the potatoes and garlic, when the sun is setting. Is that too much? I hope not, because there’s more to do (as always). I hope this is sufficient for our purposes.
Building the drying shed took about half as long as the creation of those grape-vine posts. Which is the better investment of time?
Hard to say — the vine posts will become moot very rapidly, as soon as the trellis wires are in place, but they were keenly needed. Garlic and potatoes (and onions, etc.) will dry year after year, with only minor maintenance to the building. Which time-dollar is better spent?
On a mixed farm, a close approximation can be as good as on target, I think. The drying shed demanded to be built, because things needed drying. The grape vines needed to be pruned and to grow up a stake, into the sun, because the vines require a certain amount of attention, especially in the early seasons.
What the grape vines and the potatoes taught me was that there are middle grounds, approximations that could be sufficient, for what we’re trying to accomplish. And that I need to pay attention to scale as early as I can.
Farming as triage — I think that’s fairly normal.
There is no perfect answer — only doing the best we can, to result in the best fruit, and nuts, and berries that we can muster. I suspect we can accomplish 90% of the efficiencies of specialized growers (since the last 10% of choices usually costs the most, overall), or even just 80%.
Later, we’ll be able to select the best grapes, or peaches, or pears for market, as they grow. We may have fewer of them early, if I don’t do the pruning and care well — but a year or two later, that will all be forgotten.
We may in fact have more than we can handle already.
And so close approximation, in this context, will hit the barn door.