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I was reading a story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine recently about turning standing trees into firewood. It was a short, how-to type piece, like something that might appear in Vermont Almanac. But it was written by someone who had clearly never put up much firewood. The tips were banal at best (“Never take down trees when it’s windy”) and troubling at worst, like the idea that “you’ll want to take trees that are already dead,” which sounds eco-friendly to a layperson but is really dangerous advice. If you’re new to felling, never cut a dead tree. They’re unpredictable, and the whole top can crumble out of it and crush you. Not to mention that dead trees are often best left to the myriad creatures who live in and slowly decompose them.

I’m using a story from the New York Times as a strawman because the Times is truly a world-class publication. I’m a regular reader. The point is that no one, no matter how good they are, can write well about things they don’t know intimately. And as the small-town, small-state print publications that intimately document the rural experience disappear, the big urban ones that are left can’t fill that void. I won’t even get into the false choice that is the Internet, where a Google search on tree felling will turn up a bunch of videos by people who are proudly cutting trees for the first time, documenting the experience, and sharing it with the world. (The worse things go, the more popular the video will be.) I’ve known dozens of loggers in my life here in Vermont who are masters with a chainsaw, but I’ve yet to meet one who carried a video camera and filmed himself on the job. 

We created Vermont Almanac because we think rural Vermonters should have a publication that’s resonant and relevant to their lives. And we exist because you saw fit last year to not only prebuy a copy, but to donate something extra to help us get off the ground. We did it together. Now, with Volume II in the works, we’re going to do it again.

The business model that’s supporting this non-profit venture is much like the CSA model that supports small farms in the state. We both need money up front to grow and nurture a product before it exists to sell, so we both depend on people like you who appreciate this reality and who see the value in what we’re doing beyond the commodity that sits on the bookstore or farmstand shelf. 

We are about as lean as a non-profit can be. The money you donate goes directly into the creation of an annual book, and what’s left over supports the writers, editors, photographers, artists who are using their talents to document and celebrate rural lands and rural ways.

Please give what you can to help us create Volume II. And thank you.

Dave Mance III

Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 5

There’s an old axiom that to be a good builder you need to learn to think like a drop of water. Farming and home gardening can be similarly reduced to: you need to learn to think like a weed. There’s hundreds of years worth of cultivated plant knowledge at our fingertips, and expert growers who can tell us exactly what each garden plant wants and needs. But unless we’re growing in the controlled conditions of a greenhouse, this knowledge is partial at best. Out in the cruel, bare dirt of our short Vermont summer, the art of eliminating competition is where the garden is going to be made or broken. 

We’re working on a story for Volume II about all this; talking to professionals about their tricks of the weed-killing trade. But in the meantime I thought I’d share some thoughts from my own garden this year in the hopes that they’re useful to other backyard growers who might be new to this. The plot is 1,800 square feet, and this particular garden is two years old. So far I’ve been able to keep on top of the weeds, and to quote the late Kenny Rogers, knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em is probably the biggest reason.

I kept my cards folded all of last year. I broke ground in the spring of 2020, but then cover cropped instead of planting. This plan was based on respect for the established perennial vegetation that was being plowed under, which was going to rise again. It didn’t come to dominate that particular patch of ground by accident. This garden was built on a lawn, so crabgrass was the toughest plant of the bunch. But in a weedy meadow out back, in a different planting I did at the same time, the endemic goldenrods, milkweed, and fern all pushed back in a similar way. Patience was key. Had I tried to grow before the sod had broken down, it would have been a nightmare to fight the crabgrass. By spending a year letting the soil mellow while smothering the weed base, I was able to start the weed fight this year in a position of strength.

This year’s weed control efforts started right away, which is another piece that seems key. If I’d waited until the weeds  looked like garden plants, I’d have lost the edge and it would have become real work. The truism here is that if you’ve got a weed-free garden in July, it’s because you put the time in in April and May. 

Weeding the 1,800 square feet in this garden probably took a couple hours a week in June, but I’m probably down to an hour a week now that the plants have taken off. I do 20 minutes a morning on my way to the chicken house. I don’t squat unless I absolutely have to, and do 95% of the weeding standing upright with this tool. 

I’ve heard them called a bunch of names, including a loop hoe and a push-pull weeder. It’s basically just a two-sided blade that you can work while pushing or pulling. If you hit the crabgrass when it’s this big:

You can kill it with one hand. Those same plants, three weeks from now, would require hand digging.

As I planted, I made sure all the rows were wide enough to accommodate the tool – I use it as a cultivator, too, when the beds are just getting established. I don’t cultivate the paths that are in between the beds deeply – the paths are permanent and I don’t mind soil compaction here. When weeds grow in the paths, I run the loop hoe over lightly so they’re cut near surface level because I don’t want to dig in deeply and aerate the soil and stimulate microbial activity.

Any place in the garden that didn’t get planted this year but might someday got covered. In some beds that meant planting buckwheat or sunflowers, which grow fast and dense – they’re placeholders that bees and birds love. Other areas got covered with old newspapers and then any biomass I had lying around, like old leaves or planer shavings. The point was to eliminate bare dirt as much as possible.

The danger of these kinds of pieces is that the writer can come off as smug – it’s like the way Facebook makes everyone’s life seem more photogenic and perfect than it really is. So let me assure you, this garden has plenty of imperfections. I mulched a bed of peppers with newspaper and planer shavings in late May, and I think I set the plants back at least 2 weeks because the soil temperature couldn’t get warm enough under the mulch. I didn’t look closely at the straw I used last fall to mulch garlic, and the weed seeds in it – weeds I don’t recognize – have been a pain to deal with all summer. That was very much a self-inflicted wound. I could go on. 

Still, I’m happy with how things look, and I hope there’s something helpful here for people who are new to all this.

Trout Fishing

My friend Kris and I met in Mrs. Kevorkian’s kindergarten class, which means I’ve been a bad influence on him for three decades now. When I suffer from panic attacks brought on by the realization that another summer’s slipping through my fingers, I often find myself dialing his phone number. “Wrap it up,” I said on a Friday morning, “we’re blowing off work.” About an hour later we had the rods in the back of his Jeep and were pointed up a wood road, climbing into the hills.

As the jeep bumped and bucked over the washed-out macadam we puffed bug-spray cigars and told fish stories: that Boy Scout trip to a remote Vermont pond that may or may not exist anymore, where as a 10-year-old I hooked an 18-inch brookie on the day’s first cast; a sinkhole in New York’s Beaverkill river where monster browns torpedoed from the depths like sharks.

We parked near a small brook and followed a tannin-stained ribbon of water into a birch glade. You hunt trout in water like this. We stalked on tip toes to the head of each pool and made offerings without casting shadows. More often than not the cagy brook trout would scatter with the rods first motion – quicksilver shapes, there then gone – but a few hits set. When hooked these little trout danced across the surface of the water on lean, wild muscles.

Eventually we hit a chain of beaver ponds and fished them, too. Beaver pond trout fishing is ephemeral. If the water is cold enough, and the conditions are right, these ponds can be jewels. But then overnight, maybe the fishing’s gone. Maybe you get a year out of a pond, maybe two, or five. But maybe the conditions will never be right, or never be right again.

We fished three ponds that day, big expansive wetlands that lay sprawled out on a plateau that was about 2,000 feet above sea level. There was no human sound anywhere. Just the whisper of a light, steady wind. Bird song. The whipping sound of the rod as it cut through the air and the occasional click of a turning reel.

We stood on the dam and cast dry flies onto a tea-colored canvas. Fifteen feet from shore a beaver trolled back and forth, his keen black nose trying to make heads or tails of us. In the middle distance, beyond the pear-shaped contour of the pond, the wind pressed its presence into the lime green saw grass: feathered naps and cowlick whorls; look at the hair on your forearm and see the wind blow through this grass.

Rods bent and lines sheared through the tannin-stained depths. Lines sheared.

I found this old essay in a pile of papers while cleaning my office. It was written in July, 2008. Kris and I both have four-year-old daughters now, and those carefree days of being able to blow off and go fishing seem like a lifetime ago. With luck, though, and time invested in passing on our passions, the girls will someday be blowing off work together to find the same ponds we did.

Eyes Wide Open

The idea that chickens and gardens are symbiotic is more than half bunk. They do eat bugs, but both good bugs and bad bugs. If your ratio of bad to good is such that you’re willing to play the odds, consider that they don’t eat many bad bugs when they have a belly full of layer pellets. And if they are hungry, which would be the way to get them to eat your potato beetle larvae, then they’re also going to be hungry for your garden plants. They like the same foods we do, and seem to especially like the same foods we especially like, like berries and heirloom tomatoes. They do cultivate and drip nitrogen, but they’re also destructive. If someone showed up at your doorstep and offered to sell you a bunch of tiny tractors driven by mentally-deficient drivers to turn loose in your summer perennial garden so they could randomly cultivate and spread manure you’d tell them to take their crazy idea and get off your lawn. But we’re suckers for the allure of a good complimentary system – especially natural ones. So it’s easy to put aside our logical minds and convince ourselves that our freeranging chickens must be benefiting us somehow.

To be clear, there are advantages to freeranging your backyard flock. You don’t have to build a run. You get the satisfaction of letting the little dinosaurs live their best lives. You probably save some money on chicken food bills – actually, strike that last one, since the inevitable mortality you’ll eventually suffer will cancel out any food-bill gains over the long haul. So there are two advantages. The point, if you’re considering chickens, is not to suggest you shouldn’t let them freerange. Just don’t get deluded into thinking they’re little garden helpers.

Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 2

Year two of the garden project started with a decision: was I going to keep using a tractor to work the earth? 

Like many of you, I grew up thinking that you needed to deeply till the soil to grow things in it. As a boy, I remember being beat up by the family roto-tiller, the thing pitching me around like a bull as I tried to hang on to it. In my twenties I worked on a vegetable farm, and we basically used the same techniques as we used in the home garden, just with better equipment. Every spring, we broke the earth with a three-bottom plow. We then disked, then spread manure, then used a tractor-mounted tiller to make fluffy beds. The soil was so soft and loose when you were done that you wanted to lay down and take a nap in it. 

Of course the downside to soft, loose dirt is that there’s no structure anymore, which leaves the soil vulnerable. Without a plant layer to act as a roof, topsoil can dry out and blow away, rain water gushes in instead of trickling in, ecosystems full of mycorrhizae and microbes and insect life get all smashed up. A no-till farming/gardening advocate would tell you that the plow is a pariah, and best practice involves keeping dirt as green as possible for as long as possible, then work only the top few inches of soil, leaving the subsoil as intact as possible. 

We want to dig deeply into the topic of soil in Volume II of the Almanac, talk to some growers with different perspectives on best practice and report what we hear. My sense is that it’s not a case of right or wrong, it’s a matter of scale, technique, available resources, and what trade-offs you’re prepared to make.  

In the meantime, where it comes to this garden, I decided to pursue a modified no-dig approach. Instead of plowing and disking this year, I simply scratched the soil surface with a York rake to break up the dead buckwheat litter. I blew my budget by investing $100 in a broadfork – basically a pitchfork on steroids that lifts compacted soil. And I borrowed a twist tiller, which is a tool you plunge into the earth and twist to break up a planting bed. If the hand tools work, I’ll be able to recoup much of the cost by selling the old roto-tiller that sits in my garage.

April, Part 1

In early April,  when the snow recedes, you can finally see the earth, which really only happens for a few weeks each year. You see it through and around the crushed thatch in the meadows. In the forest it exists in halos around tree trunks and as little islands in the deteriorated leaf litter. Buried things – old bottles, plowpoints, license plates – get heaved to the surface, and there’s this brief window where the past reasserts itself. Then the spring rains come, and the first blushes of green start to obscure things. 

The winter snow disappeared in southwestern Vermont in late March, and by mid-April the earth-seeing window had passed. Early April was jarringly hot. There was a 5-day stretch from the 7th through the 11th when highs soared into the 70s each day — about 20 degrees above normal. But then a spring snowstorm on the 16th restored something of a natural order, though it stayed dry.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 6

Stress tends to distill us, accentuating our base personality traits. Maureen Dowd wrote a political column about this recently, pointing out that the stress of the Presidency made Jimmy Carter more preachy, Bill Clinton more self-indulgent, George W. Bush more insecure, Barack Obama more professorial. 

But you certainly don’t have to be a president to experience some version of this. I tend to lose myself deeply in things, and the stress of pandemic life, combined with the stress of the maple season, have certainly magnified this trait. As I’ve lost myself in sugaring, it’s been a struggle to be a good father, and partner, and friend, and good teammate to people I work with on the Almanac. There’s some of this every year, but this year more so. I’ve neglected emails for a month because in my down time I couldn’t bring myself to even turn on the computer. Friends would ask if they could help lessen the sugaring load, but I couldn’t think of how they might – there was just no capacity for peripheral thought. The part that stings the most were all the times I’d have to stop in the house to work on a broken pump part, or get a tool, or get wash water, and my four-year-old would be there and say: “Dad, let’s play!” and I’d respond numbly with: “I have to work, honey.” And then I’d go back to work, over and over again, a lot of days from before she woke up to after she went to bed. In hindsight it doesn’t seem like it would have been that hard to spare 20 minutes, but I just kept grinding. It was what-not-to-do parenting right out of a Harry Chapin folk song. 

This is weirdly personal for a maple blog, I know, but I’ll bet you anything you recognize some stress-induced distillation in your own life these days. We’ve spent a year now being isolated from one and other, which is its own sort of trauma beyond whatever financial and health-related traumas people have endured. Of course it’s changing us.

There’s something to note here, too, in that farming in general and sugaring in particular is immensely stressful on a professional scale. That’s something that’s often glossed over in the PR copy. Rick is the name of one of the guys at XR Maple I sell sap to, and I don’t think he sleeps during the season. I got texts from him at night during tapping season from the woods, tapping in the dark with a headlamp. I’d deliver a load at 9 pm and he’d be there starting the RO and heading out to haul sap. I’d bring another load at 4 am and he’d still be there. I have this image as I write this of him standing in front of the heater in the RO room, cigarette hanging out of his mouth with a long ash on the end of it, absorbing the heat while looking just bone tired, before a wave of energy courses through him, and he whirls off for another 20 hours of climbing mountains and hauling sap and emergency repairs and making syrup. 

There’s joy in this work, some of it the same sort of adrenaline-fueled, masochistic joy that endurance athletes crave. But when that adrenaline subsides, you’re sometimes left feeling despondent and alone.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 4

We made our first syrup of the year on March 10. Dad used a wheeled walker to get out into the sugarhouse, though he suffered from a lack of mud tires. We still use wood to fuel our evaporator, and fire loading is out of the question for him with his injury. He tended the reverse osmosis machine and filter press, though. And canned the syrup once we had a system set up right. 

After two months of deep cold and snow, we endured a three-day stretch of 60-degree-plus warmth that only a sugarmaker could complain about. One day touched 70 degrees here in southern Vermont. Sap runs are a Goldilocks-type proposition: we don’t want things too cold or too hot. If forced to choose one, we’d choose too cold, since that just puts things on pause. When it gets above 50 degrees, the sap starts to degrade, so it’s a race to get things processed. This degradation also creates a slime on the inside of a taphole which eventually stops the sap from flowing out of the tree. This is a weeks-long process, but the wheels get set in motion by high temperatures, and every high temperature accelerates the process. 

In light of this, the deep snow that we fought all spring getting tapped became an ally. The deep snowpack around the bulk tanks served as refrigeration – on the third day of the heatwave, the sap was still 39 degrees when we fed it into the RO. The color of the syrup we made with it suffered as it warmed in the bulk tank before boiling, but the flavor had the sweet, buttery, delicate profile you’d expect from first run sap.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 3

One marker of a healthy rural economy is the existence of markets for secondary or minor products. If you’re a hardwood sawmill, your business, in theory, is producing furniture-grade boards. But at times the difference between red and black will be markets, or a lack thereof, for mat timbers (disposable beams used in the construction industry to stabilize the ground beneath heavy equipment), or pallets, or even the sawdust you produce. 

All Ag is like this, including sugaring. In theory, I’m in the business of crafting the maple syrup that sells directly to the consumer on our website or through the stores that carry our product – “table syrup,” in the industry. But I also need markets for the off-flavored “commercial grade” stuff that’s produced at the end of each season when the weather turns. On a year like this, because I’m a one-man show, a market for raw sap is playing a crucial role. I’ll be selling the sap for pennies a gallon instead of the dollars per gallon that any syrup I made from it would bring, but I’m also being paid in time that I can then use to both get woods work done and make what syrup I can.

I’m selling the sap to XR Maple, in the town of Arlington which is just north of here. It’s a family operation, where the father and son run around 9,000 taps and the father’s brother runs an adjacent retail store where they sell a good chunk of their crop. They’re all in on maple, with plans of expanding to 20,000 taps, so they have plenty of RO capacity and the storage to buy a large chunk of my crop and process it. It’s a cool example of two businesses helping each other out, which is the rule in so much of the ag world. It can be lean out there, so there’s strength in numbers. 

I was able to sell 4,700 gallons of sap last week while I finished tapping in the warmth, but then a ferocious cold arrived on 60-mile-per-hour winds that ended the first run. While there was some damage to the sap lines from falling limbs, I got most of it cleared up. The snow glazed over, and the hillsides glared sharply. If you dropped a tool on a hillside, you could count on it sliding 50, 60, 70 feet before it came to rest. 

I came across a coyote bed in the upper reaches of the Hall bush, and saw evidence where it had ripped a maybe 4-foot section of sapline off and then chewed it to bits. One of the intact bits still read “food grade,” which I imagined the coyote reading and misinterpreting. Bad jokes aside, it’s that time of winter where you start to worry about wildlife, and in a dark moment I could imagine the coyote starving and desperate for food. But I don’t think that’s what was happening here. I think it was more play – the tubing a chew toy not unlike what you’d buy in the store for the family dog.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 2

The first sap runs of the year came right on schedule last week, though because I’m still trying to get tapped and achieve good vacuum levels, I didn’t capture the sap. On a normal year Dad and I would have divided the labor; he’d have collected and boiled, I’d have stayed working in the woods. But he’s nursing a leg injury this year and largely unavailable. In light of this, it made more sense to me to try to get the woods right first and then worry about the sap later. 

 So what does good vacuum level mean? Technically-speaking, it means a system that holds over 25 hg (inches of mercury). “Inches of mercury” is a standard measurement that expresses the difference between ambient atmospheric pressure and the pressure that’s being created by your vacuum. At 25 inches, you can pull a tap from a tree and the vacuum roars. If the sap’s running, it’ll arc from the hole and into the spout. Stick the spout to the end of your finger and it bites a bit. But it’s work to get to those levels. Sugarmakers who work on a commercial scale leave their lines up all year, and squirrel chews and fallen-tree-limb damage and cracks from aging infrastructure all degrade the system. Once we’re tapped, the vacuum level is usually around 10 to 15 inches; we then have to go back, line by line, over the whole system to get it tight. What’s the payoff? Sugarmakers throw around the statistic that every inch of mercury equals 5 percent more sap. I think the reality is more nuanced than that simple statistic, but it gives you an idea of why someone would let the first sap of the year run on the ground and work on lines instead. It’s a short-term loss that is, in theory, overcome by long-term gain. 

Turning from the practical to the poetic, there’s something endearing about this year’s deep snow if you can overlook the loss of efficiency. On low-snow years, you navigate the woods haphazardly, following the straightest line from point a to point b. But on years like this, you create snowshoe-packed highways that are essentially a road system through the woods. Little snow-rooms develop where you’ve beaten down a whole area – these places are where you cache equipment or break for lunch. The animals who are out use the paths, too. Each morning you’ll see fresh deer tracks, or coyote or fox tracks, along your highways. Last Tuesday, a raccoon made its way out of a big maple cavity tree and meandered the trail system.