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Credit Robert Frost for the proverb “Good fences make good neighbors.” This may actually be true. I would fine-tune it and add that good electric fences make good, cautious neighbors and can supply a fair amount of entertainment. This windfall of amusement was discovered with the electrification of the fences around our farm when I was a kid.

My Old Man always worked under the assumption that if you were going to do something, then by all means, do it up proper. If a fence is going to be electrified, make sure it has enough juice to give a cow a realistic preview of what barbecuing is all about. This strategy also cuts down on the time spent keeping grass and weeds from touching the fence and grounding it out. Get the current hot enough and any offending weeds will be cut off shortly after contact. There may be an occasional grass fire to battle, but this serves to supply yet another opportunity for entertainment and exercise.

The brand of electric fencer dad used was called “Weed Chopper.” It could just as aptly been named “Cow Stunner,” “Crotch Burner,” or “Kid Taser.” I once saw one of our heifers make the poor choice of swishing her tail at flies whilst standing too close to the mega-charged fence. Her tail snagged on the top wire. She dropped to her knees with a moan, jumped up with a bellow, then lit out like she was running in the Preakness, leaving a clump of tail hair smoking on the fence.  

Then there was the time my Old Man and our good farmer friend and neighbor, Garth Perkins, needed to enter one of our pastures to check on the health of a cow. Dad stood 6’ 2” and when he came to the two-strand electric barbed-wire fence, he easily threw one leg over, then pivoted a little on it as he swung the other leg over to cross it. Garth was only 5’ 8”, and he tried to imitate dad’s maneuver. He came up shy of the necessary clearance. I’d never seen a man become so animated so quickly, nor viewed one who danced so well on his tip-toes while yodeling outside of the theater.

As owners of the fence, or “keepers of the flame” as Garth once referred to us after the coverall episode, it became my duty to warn friends and visitors of the stunning quality of our fence, should they be in the vicinity. If they were a dumb-ass cousin or a neighborhood nemesis, this warning could come a bit belatedly, if at all.

“Is that fence electric?” One of my many annoying turd cousins would ask.

“Yeah, but we only turn it on at night to save electricity. It ain’t on now. Go ahead and touch it.”

Being the low-wattage chumps most were, they’d take hold and get their battery boosted. 

“Yeeow! You said it was off!”

“Oops, sorry. Could’ve swore I shut it off this morning. My mistake.”

I always made sure I could out-run whoever got jolted or at least get a good head start while they were recovering their senses.

The most painful application of electricity to a singular body part that I ever witnessed occurred late one summer afternoon. Lute Bouchard, his younger brother Twitch, Dickey Hawley, and I were heading home from a jolly good time spent at the swinging tree in a ravine between our place and the Hawley’s. We all took turns going under the fence. As we gathered on the other side, Lute announced he had to “squeeze the weasel.”

Of course, when one kid takes a whizz, others are free to join in, which is what his brother did. And as Twitch was squirting away, Lute came up from behind and grabbed him by the shoulders and pivoted him to change the direction of flowage to intercept the fence wire. The result was reminiscent of the little piggy that went “Wee! Wee! Wee!” all the way home. Though this did add credibility to Twitch’s nickname, I’m happy to report that later in life he was able to sire numerous children.

I still have nightmares about the unpleasant incident that may have stunted my growth enough to cause me to be the second shortest pupil in class throughout grade school. A bunch of us were playing hide-and-seek over at the Hawley’s one summer evening. Unnoticed by us, Mr. Hawley had extended his one-strand electric fence about thirty feet into the hay field to give his crow-bait horses something to eat as his regular pasture looked like a putting green. When whoever was “it” commenced counting, three of us took off running to hide in the deep grass of the hay field. We were trucking flat-out in a skirmish line when we hit the fence. I was short enough that it caught me right in the throat. We ran into the fence so hard and fast that we stretched it out like you see in a Road-Runner cartoon and we couldn’t get away from it. By the time I got untangled you could’ve lit a cigarette off my nose. I was spitting sparks for a week.

The days of the serious electric fencer are long gone. Used to be you could drive along the road past a farm with the car radio on and hear the pulsing static of a fire-spitting fence buzzing along to the beat of the music, a sizzling reminder that the farmer there had himself a proper fence that was respected by man and beast. Now they have solar powered fencers that barely make a chicken cackle. With the reliable old Weed Chopper you could fry an egg. And the chicken that laid it.

Saw Starting Instructions by Bill Torrey

We got this note today from Bill:

A good friend is having trouble starting his saw. I sent him some instructions on how to proceed. I thought you might want to write this down for future reference. They are as follows:

I’ll tell you how to start it, but don’t let this get around. First, you must appease the chainsaw gods. Take the top left tooth from a young female beaver killed under the light of a full moon, and needles from a hemlock browsed by at least an 8-point buck. In an old work boot, use them to brew a tea made from stump water from a red oak that grew on a north facing slope. A white oak can be substituted, but it should be of at least 24” in girth. While standing over the offending saw, take a played-out 7/32 saw file, stir in 5 drops of 10 wt. bar and chain oil while chanting three times, “Start you motherf*****!” Leave the file in the boot while holding one end against your temple and slug down the contents as quickly as possible through clenched teeth so as to strain out the beaver tooth and hemlock needles. You’ll need these later. Contact me when you’ve got this part done, and I’ll tell you how to proceed to the more involved second phase.  – Raker Bill

Brush Hogging for Dummies

I’m proud to say that I’m a sixth generation Vermonter and a second generation brush hogger. My dad first introduced me to this activity when I was around eleven years old. For those not familiar with a brush hog, it is a two bladed mower mounted on the back of a farm tractor. If you can run it over with your tractor, this thing can mow it. Dad had purchased 32 acres of land in West Bolton with a variety of terrain. Woods, scrub fields, and beaver ponds. He bought a five-foot-wide Sidewinder brush hog to go behind his 1953 8N Ford tractor. The brush hog’s blades are driven by the tractor’s PTO shaft, and on an old 8N that does not have live hydraulics, the PTO shaft can continue to drive the tractor forward by the momentum of the spinning blades even after the clutch pedal is pushed down. My dad learned this quirk when he ended up buried to the axles in a beaver pond. Once he was extricated from the pond, he acquired an overrunning clutch device that mounts on the shaft and this solved the problem.

Soon he commenced to reclaim the grown over fields and woods roads with his much loved tractor and brush hog. For dad, it was almost like a sport to see what he could hog. But, as he pointed out, not a spectator sport. Stuff would be thrown out the back and sides of the brush hog at amazing speeds and directions. One occasion when he was hogging he hit something substantial and broke a blade. I’d heard the racket and went to check it out. As I wandered around in the area where it happened to try and find the busted off piece, he asked me what I was doing. “I’m looking for the broke blade. Maybe you can weld it back on.” I replied. “Thanks for the effort boy, but I believe you’re looking in the wrong county.”

When I began working in the woods, I bought a 60 horsepower four wheel drive tractor. I soon purchased a brush hog and started to take hogging jobs while I was resting. Savvy woodland owners knew the importance of retaining their forest openings — that supply critical edge habitat and open areas for songbirds, deer, and turkeys. I always tried not to mow until August 1st to allow birds to be done with raising their young and fawns to be up and moving more with mom. If possible, I tried to make just a couple passes around the field and let it set for a day. This sort of warns the critters of what is coming and gives them time to vacate the premises. Waiting until as late in the summer as possible also saves the milkweed for Monarch butterflies to use.

I learned some things about brush hogging the hard way, just like my dad did. Like that it pays to walk some areas if you suspect there might be hidden drainage ditches and mark them. Even in places that I’ve mowed year after year, I still walk with a roll of blue masking tape and fold a small piece of it back on itself on a stem of goldenrod or timothy to mark an old stump or rock. I’ve found it’s better to take the time to do that than to shear a pin or break a blade. For a job well done, slow down the speed of the tractor but not the RPMs of the tractor’s engine. Plus, if you get in trouble, and you’re going slow, things happen slowly. And for the love of Mike, sharpen the blades now and then. Nothing looks worse than a hogged field that looks like it has been fluffed instead of mowed.

I now live on those 32 acres dad bought. When he passed away I sold my brush hog. Now I use his old Sidewinder which is still in amazingly good shape despite being nigh onto fifty years old. I always grease the PTO shaft universals and check the gearbox for oil before each season of use, just like dad taught me. And I can’t help but smile every time I mow my way past that spot in the beaver pond. — Bill Torrey


Grow a Pear

When I semi-retired from logging in the fall of 2013, I decided to pursue a longed-for endeavor of growing some of my favorite fruit. In the spring of 2014, I began planting like the dickens with my oldest daughter Morgen, who lives next door with her husband and my two favorite (only) grandchildren. Thirty blueberries, some raspberries, two plum trees, a cherry tree, six apple trees, hazelberts (a cross between a hazel nut and a filbert), elderberries, goose berries. And pears. When I was a kid, an uncle of mine had an old pear tree hanging on next to the milk house on his dairy farm in Hinesburg. The pears were the best I ever ate – I never had a store-bought pear that came close to them.

Today we have four pear trees that are doing quite well: a Golden Spice, two Ure, and a Waterville. The Waterville variety was started from a tree growing in an old orchard up in Waterville, Vermont, so we know it’s tougher than wang leather. The Ure’s trace their roots back to Siberia, so pretty tough, too. Both started blossoming earlier this week. And if the frost is gone for good, I’m thinking we might get a decent crop this year.

Our pears have been some of the easiest trees to grow. They seem to have fewer insect problems than other fruit trees. Pollination can be tricky (part of the reason for this is that the blossoms aren’t that sweet, so honeybees don’t love them, especially compared to apple blossoms). But if you plant several complimentary varieties together, it helps stack the deck. It typically takes five to seven years from planting to produce a full crop. And while we’ve only gotten a few pears in the last two years, right now I’m feeling optimistic. These trees have taken the worst that our tough West Bolton weather has thrown at them and came through it.  Ain’t lost a one. It makes me trust that there will be sunny, fruitful days ahead.

– Bill Torrey