Thursday, October 31, 2013

Tractor Shed

I recently completed the construction of a shed for the tractor. This has been on my to-do list for quite some time, and is the biggest project I've undertaken. Luckily I had my dad to help, else it would never have gotten built.

We initially considered having one of those metal frame 'carports' installed. After talking with my dad, however, we decided that building a wooden shed was a much better option, even though it would require a great deal of work.

I started prepping the spot for the shed even before we decided to build it ourselves. Levelling the area required digging down the high side, and using the resulting dirt to fill in the low side. I was able to do all of this work myself, using the tractor with a box blade attached.

I created the design for the shed using the 3d modelling software SketchUp. Having a 3d model of the structure really helped me make some key decisions regarding dimensions, etc. I also found it was very useful when putting together a material list, since I could see where each piece of lumber needed to go, and figure out what to purchase to reduce waste. The overall design was mine, but I did have some very helpful input from my dad.

I scheduled an entire week off from work to build the shed. My dad came down Monday morning, and we got started right away. The task for the first day was to determine where the holes should be drilled for setting the posts. I was afraid this might take up most of the day, but after a couple of hours of measuring and marking we had it figured out. The post hole auger I had schedule to rent wasn't going to be available until the following morning, so our first day on the project turned out to be a short one.

On the second day we left early to pick up the auger. I had hoped to get a PTO-driven auger for the tractor, but the equipment rental place did not have one available. We ended up with a towable post hole digger and 12" auger. On the third pull of the rope, when trying to start it for the first time, the rope broke. I called the rental place, and they said they could fix it quickly if I brought it back in. That was going to kill another 2 hours, or more, though, so we decided to find a way to get it to start on our own. Luckily we were able to do so. Unfortunately, though, the machine was not well suited to what we needed it to do. I thought the ground would be fairly easy to dig, since it had been worked recently, but that was not the case. The auger would stall when encountering even fist-sized rocks or tree roots. After an hour we gave up, and finished the holes up by hand. The auger had given us a good start, which made finishing them up go easier, but I suspect we could have completely dug them by hand in the time it took to drive to and from the rental place, figure out how to start it with the broken rope, and then do the little digging with it we were able to do. My set of Fiskars Post Hole Diggers and Truper San Angelo Bar cost less to purchase than the auger did to rent, and were much more effective.

On day three, after returning the auger, we started setting the posts. To ensure a minimum clearance of 8' I had purchased 10' posts for the high side, and 12' for the low side. We used treated 6x6s for the posts, which are quite heavy. In most cases we were able to slide them off of the trailer into the holes, but they often required being repositioned once we had them in the holes. The 10' posts weren't too bad, but the 12' ones were very nearly more than I could lift myself.

Physically setting the posts in place wasn't very time consuming, but ensuring they were square, plumb, and in line was. Once we had a post positioned exactly the way we wanted it, we attached two 10' long 2x4s as braces. Once the eighth, and final, post was set we took diagonal measurements to check for square. I was concerned that we would have to make adjustments, and was starting to consider just how out of square the posts would have to be for me to suggest we reset one or more of them. You can imagine my relief when we found that the measurements were within half an inch of each other, which was certainly close enough to square for me.

Instead of building beams to use as top plates to tie the posts together, I decided to use an approach I had seen on another similar shed. We attached 2x6s along both the inside and outside of the posts, so that the tops of the posts we sandwiched between them. This was much easier than building and installing beams, although I'm not sure how they compare in terms of strength.

On day four we were able to install the trusses. This was the task I had been most dreading, but it turned out to go fairly easily. We were able to transport the trusses with the tractor, by sitting three at a time on top of the box blade, and strapping them in place. I thought we'd also use the tractor to lift them in place, but we found that setting them in place by hand was easier than trying to use the tractor.

As is always the case with trusses, since they are top heavy, we had to turn them by hand and hold them upright until they were attached. Initially I tried doing this completely by hand, from a ladder, but found that I was not comfortable enough on a ladder to be handling so much weight without something to help me balance. After considering a couple of options, I finally came up with a solution that worked well. I was able to use the tractor's front end loader to raise the peak so the truss was close to vertical. I then positioned the ladder so that my body would be square to the truss when I was standing on it, allowing me to hold onto the tractor bucket with one hand if I needed to steady myself. With the other hand I was able to raise the truss on into place, with the comfort of knowing the bucket would catch it if I lost my grip or had to let it drop for some reason.

Since we used the 6x6s in place of a top beam on the posts my Dad came up with an idea for making the trusses easier to attach. We cut some 6x6 scraps into 18" to 24" lengths, and positioned between the 6x6s, perpendicular to them, so the trusses could be screwed into them. Once attached, this helped the trusses to remain upright without the need for additional bracing.

Once the trusses were set we began installing the laths. We didn't make much progress, though, and finished that up on day five. To save money I chose to space the trusses four feet apart, and then use 2x4s for the laths instead of the typical 1" thick lumber. It took us most of the day to install the laths, partially because we had used some of the 2x4s for bracing and so had to install some permanent bracing so we could take the temporary bracing back down. I also had some 8' 2x4s from a previous project which I dug out and used for the laths, so we didn't have to remove more of the temporary braces, which we really wanted to remain under we were completely finished.

Once the laths were installed we began installing the metal on the roof. I am not comfortable walking on a roof in the best of conditions, and the slick metal and distance between trusses was far from good conditions. My dad handled all of the on-roof work, while I helped from a ladder. Progress was slow, while we figure out a good process. This wasn't helped by the fact that he had trouble keeping his footing on the slick metal. We managed to get six of the seven pieces on one side installed before calling it a day.

We had hoped to finish in five days, but we had realized a couple of days prior that it wasn't likely. We woke up on day six to a heavy frost, which prevented us from getting an early start, especially since the the moisture would cause the metal to be even harder to walk on than the previous day. We were able to do work on some other tasks while everything heated up and dried off, though, including installing the rest of the permanent bracing and pre-drilling the holes in the remainder of the metal.

Once the time came to climb back onto the roof, my Dad changed into a pair of tennis shoes with clean soles. This made a tremendous difference, and allowed him to much more easily walk on the metal. The first few pieces of metal went up much more quickly than the pieces on the previous day. I asked Andrea to help me carry the remaining pieces to the shed, so my Dad didn't have to climb down and risk dirtying his shoes. I had tried carrying a piece by myself, but at nearly 14' long I wasn't able to get a grip on them that allowed me to easily carry them. The remaining pieces went up just as quickly as the first ones of the day, and it wasn't long until I was cutting the final ridge cap to length so it could be installed.

The entire build took my Dad and I approximately 30 hours. In idea weather, and without having to wait to rent the auger, we could probably have finished in three days, or four at the most. The total cost for the project was approximately $1650. Around $200 of this was spent on tools, including the rental of the auger, and the purchase of the digging bar and drill bits for the metal, of which some will be returned since they were not needed. The purchase of a metal carport, on the other hand, would have cost $1500-$1600, and would have been slightly smaller, without the flexibility of being able to easily add a section onto the side later and without the overhead storage provided by the trusses.

At 24' wide and 20' long the shed provides 480 square feet of storage. That should easily be enough to store the tractor and all of my implements, plus the big mower, four-wheeler, and wood chipper with plenty of room left for stacking some bales of straw. I plan to later add a 16' by 20' shed off of one side, which we'll partially enclose for storage and possibly as a summer kitchen where Andrea can do some canning.

Monday, October 28, 2013


Its hard to believe that I haven't done a post in 2 weeks. I was busy all last week, working on building the shed for the tractor. My Dad came down and helped me, and even though it took six days, we finally got it finished.

I was tempted to just rest on Sunday, but the weather was nice so thought I should be productive. Andrea helped me take some measurements of the garden space, and mark out a section so we could figure out where the garden bed needs to go. After finishing that I did a bit of finish work on the shed, and took down the extra braces that were no longer needed.

It rained today, so I didn't get out and do anything. Andrea did schedule to have someone come out and look at our furnace, which isn't working. She also found a local garage to replace the brakes on the truck, which is something we just found out needed to be done.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


I'm starting to feel like my daily posts are turning into weekly posts instead. I may consider switching to weekly updates, if I find that I don't have enough to report every day. I'm sure this will vary depending on the time of year, though.

On Monday I had to work late, so didn't do much else. We did, however, take some time to collect some hickory nuts and butternuts from around the property.

On Tuesday we drove to Berea for a Field to Fork Festival Planning Committee meeting. I had actually met everyone who was there, as two of the gentlemen taught workshops I attended at the 2013 Field to Fork Festival. The meeting went well, and I think we can put together an even better festival next year.

I worked in London at the office on Wednesday, so didn't really accomplish anything else.

On Thursday I spent a couple of hours working on more levelling of the area where the tractor shed is going to go. I have it in pretty good shape, and think that with just a little more work it'll be ready.

My parents came down again this weekend to work on tearing down that old house, so that took up Friday evening and all day Saturday. On Sunday we did get out on the property a bit, so my Mom could collect some butternuts. We then drove up to to a nearby recreation area and explored the backroads there.

After my parents left on Sunday Andrea and I went back out to the old house and spent a couple of hours stacking salvaged lumber under a shed that is out there. We hope to use the lumber to build a chicken coop, so wanted to be sure to get it in the dry.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

2013 To-Do List Update #3

When I did the last update on the To-Do List I stated that four of the thirteen items had been completed, with two more being roughly halfway finished. Not a lot has changed since this, as now I'm counting five completed projects, and one than is nearly completed. This leaves seven projects that have had little, to no, progress made. Of those, I think that three of them can realistically be completed this year, with another being completed either this year or Spring 2014 at the latest.

Build a chicken coop
I suppose I have made a small amount of progress towards this goal, since I have started collecting some salvaged lumber from the old house we're tearing down. We plan to use as much of the salvaged lumber as possible in the building of the chicken coop. I still hope to get to this before the end of the year, but am starting to suspect that it might be pushed back until Spring.

Build a hugelkultur bed
We need to do a garden plan to figure out where to put a hugelkultur bed, and that hasn't happened yet. I'm hoping that we can get to it this winter or next spring, which means the hugelkultur bed will definitely have to get pushed out to the 2014 list.

Repair the ditches and gravel the driveway
This project has been completed. The repairs to the ditches I made earlier in the year have helped a lot, so I finally had a load of gravel delivered several weeks ago and finished the task. It has been a huge help, and I'm optimistic that it will last for some time.

Complete the expansion of the herb bed
This project was complete when I did my last update, so no further progress has been made since then.

Make and install rain barrels
I'm calling this goal 90% complete, since I have constructed all four of the rain barrels, and have three of them installed. I'll make it a point to install the last one before the end of the year so I can mark this project as complete.

Buy and start using a lawn sweeper
This project is complete, since I ended up buying both a lawn sweeper and landscape rake, although I'm still not sure I made the right decision. I have more experimenting to do to figure out the best approach for collecting different materials in various locations. The lawn sweeper does work great for collecting grass clippings in the yard.

Finish clearing along the front edge of the yard and plant bushes
This project is complete, but will require some additional work as not all of the bushes survived. I'm also suspecting that the use of clover as a green mulch may not be sufficient, in which case we'll have to apply a fairly serious layer of traditional mulch, or I'll need to continue mowing around the bushes with a string trimmer.

Purchase or build a shelter for the tractor
This project is planned for later in the month. We have decided to construct a 20' x 24' wooden shed with metal roof. I plan to take a week off from work, during which time my Dad is going to come down and help me build it.

Fix a route to get across the road with the tractor
No changes to this since the last update, at which point I was considering it complete. I need to do a bit of work to be able to get the truck over there, but I can get the tractor over there with no problem, which was the goal.

Build the pallet compost bin
I haven't done any work on this, but still hope to complete it by the end of the year. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I'll get to it before winter sets in.

Make a worm bin and start vermicomposting
I still have made no progress toward this goal. I'm not willing to write it off yet, though, since it is something I can easily do later in the year when the weather is too bad, or its too dark, to get out and do anything else.

Install solar panels on the shed
This will definitely be pushed back until 2014, or later. Now that I'm building a sizeable shed for the tractor, which I plan to later expand, it may make more sense to install a PV system there, rather than the smaller tool shed, I'm just not sure yet.

Replace the siding on the shed
I suspect that this project is going to end up getting pushed back until 2014. It should go fairly quickly, but I'd like my Dad's help and building the new shed and the chicken coop will definitely take priority. Now that we are also tearing down that old house I don't know that we'll find time to replace the siding before winter gets here.

Book Review - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: An Easy Household Guide

Several weeks ago Chelsea Green Publishing had a huge sale on books, during which we purchased several. Some of those books were ones I would not have purchased at regular price, but thought it was worth giving them a shot at a deeply discounted price. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: An Easy Household Guide by Nicky Scott was one of those.

This is a small book, measuring approximately 5" x 6.5" and with only 94 pages. Nearly two-thirds of the book, 60 pages, is taken up by the A-Z Guide, which is an alphabetical list of various products with ideas of how to reuse or recycle them. The A-Z Guide is, at times, oddly specific, in ways that makes me think the author was trying to just fill space. As an example, a quarter of page 52 is taken up by the following:
Herbicides - see Chemicals
Household Cleaners - see Cleaning
Hypodermics - see Needles 
Personally, I can't imagine ever looking up hypodermics without even considering to check needles, when I didn't find a match. This sort of thing happens often throughout the A-Z Guide.

Most of the info in the A-Z Guide, though, is helpful. I can't say that I learned a great deal, but I have been recycling for quite some time. For someone new to recycling, I think this guide could be helpful. I'm sure the same information is readily available online, but it could be handy to have it compiled into one book, which is small enough to carry in a pocket.

The main reason I purchased this book is its promise to answer the question "What happens to the stuff you recycle?". I know very little about the actual recycling process, including sorting, availability of facilities to recycle various materials, uses for end products, etc, so was interested in learning more. Unfortunately this book failed to really answer those questions, although that isn't surprising given the small number of pages. The book does make some of the same statements about mixing of certain materials causing an entire load to be un-recyclable that I've heard before, but I have my doubts about the accuracy of this due to the variety of pre-sorting requirements of different recycling centers. The book was published in 2007, so it is very possible that many improvements have been made to the recycling process in the years since its initial publication date.

I can't really recommend this book at normal retail price, because I just don't feel that it contains enough information. However, I picked it up for, literally, a couple of dollars, so feel it was worth my investment. If you can pick it up cheap, you may find enough helpful tips to justify the cost. There is one situation, however, in which I think the book may be worth the full cost. I think it could make a good gift, especially for someone who isn't already recycling, or is just getting started.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Kentucky Beginning Farmer Conference - 2013

This past weekend we attended the Kentucky Beginning Farmer Conference at the Kentucky State University Center for Sustainability. The conference was created through a partnership between the Cooperative Extension Service FarmStart Program and Community Farm Alliance.

This was the first year for the conference, but the organizers are hoping it will become an annual event. They seemed genuinely surprised by the turnout, which I estimate was approximately 80 to 100 people. I was happy to see the good crowd, and am hopeful that it was enough to ensure they make the event a regular thing.

There were seven presentations, ranging in length from forty-five minutes to one hour each, with a few shorter talks sprinkled throughout the day. For the last two sessions of the day the group was split based on interest, with one attending the horticulture track and the other attending the meat production track presentations. Topics for the day included a keynote address by Ivor Chodowski of Field Day Farm, record keeping, grants/loans, alternative approaches to acquiring land, and farm legal issues. The horticulture track, which we attended, included sessions on retail vs wholesale and meet the buyers, with the meat production track also having a meet the buyers segment in addition to one on the cost analysis of grass fed beef.

Most of the presentations included multiple presenters, each with his/her own perspective on the topic. Initially I thought this was a good approach, but I don't think it worked very well in practice. In most cases each presenter spoke for some predetermined amount of time, then yielded the floor to the other speaker. I think this could have been accomplished more easily be scheduling a separate slot for each presenter, which would have had the advantage of ensuring equal time to speak.

The biggest complaint that I have, however, about the conference is that the speakers spent far too much time introducing themselves and their business or favorite cause, and not enough time providing practical information. This was especially bad in some situations when two or three people were splitting a forty-five minute or one hour block, and each would spend five to ten minutes of their allotted time talking about themselves or whatever they were trying to promote. I realize that the presenters volunteered their time to speak at the conference, and saw it as an opportunity to spread the word about something they likely feel passionate about, but I would have preferred having them spend the time speaking about the topic at hand, and using brochures or business cards as a way to give people a way to find out more info about them and their business or cause after the conference.

Another issue is that there was one attendee who felt the need to repeatedly interrupt several presentations to ask questions. That isn't to say that he was the only one asking questions, because others were as well, although the other questions were typically related to topic and added to the overall conversation. This gentleman, however, often seemed more interested in being argumentative, than anything else, and when the answer did not suit him would continue asking questions or posing anecdotal evidence to suggest that the presenter was wrong. This was especially bad in the Selling Retail vs Wholesale presentation, during which someone finally stepped in and asked that all questions be held until the end. When the floor was re-opened for questions after both presenters had finished, he started again, often without giving anyone else a chance to ask a question or waiting for his request to ask a question to even be acknowledged. The most surprising part of all of this is that this was an older gentleman, who I would have thought would have had respect for the others in attendance. I found myself feeling bad for the presenters, who at times must have felt they were being heckled by this man, who clearly should have known better.

Unfortunately I've found that disruptive participants is more common at such events that one might think. I'm sure that the organizers assume that attendees will be respectful adults, who will be able to get along with the presenters and other participants without causing trouble. It seems, however, that event organizers need to consider the possibility of such disruptions, and have a plan for dealing with them so they do not get out of hand and have a negative impact on the experience of others in attendance.

Even with the issues I've mentioned, I feel that the conference was well worth attending. I do wish it had started a bit later, since the two hour drive required us to get up at 4:30 AM to get there on time. That is just a minor annoyance, though, and is not something that would prevent me from attending next year. I learned some useful information, even though some of the presentations turned out to be quite different, and much less useful, than what I expected by the title and descriptions. For a first year conference, I'd say it was a moderate success. I'm hopeful that some of the kinks will be worked out by next year, making it an even better event.

Ultimately I'm just glad to see new events such as this one being held in the state. I'm always pleasantly surprised by the turnout. This gives me hope that we'll continue to see more similar events pop up in the state, and that the people attending will put the information to good use.


I've been somewhat productive over this past week, but am just now getting around to doing a daily update. I completed a few small tasks, and have enjoyed this wonderful fall weather.

On Tuesday I finished prepping an area for drying logs. I'm hoping that we can start cutting some trees soon, to get the garden spot cleared for next year. On Wednesday I worked in London, so didn't really accomplish anything else. I did make a trip to the home improvement store to pick up some 2x2s for a project Andrea has planned. On Thursday I helped Andrea cut some of those 2x2s to the correct lengths for constructing herb drying trays. She also made arrangements on Thursday for a dumpster to be left at the old house we are tearing down, so we can use it for the debris we're tearing off. On Friday I finished cutting the pieces for the herb drying trays, and then we collected black walnuts from around the property. We attended the Kentucky Beginning Farmer Conference in Frankfort on Saturday, which pretty well took up that entire day. Finally, today, I finished constructing the last two rain barrels, and placed one of them. Afterwards we hulled the walnuts picked up the day before, then Andrea rinsed them and spread onto trays to be dried.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Another Lost Kitten

When I wrote about losing Mari a couple of weeks ago, I hoped that would be the last such post I had to write for some time. Unfortunately that is not the case. On Monday we lost Lilly in an unfortunate altercation between the cats and dogs.

Typically the kittens do not venture outside of the yard, at least not more than a few feet. The dogs have accepted the fact that they are not to bother them, and have done very well with that. On Monday, however, the kittens decided to venture much farther into the woods, presumably to get to us. We were working near the garden, and the dogs were there with us. When the dogs ran into the woods, towards the creek we thought nothing of it, as this is normal behavior for them. A few minutes later, though, we heard hissing and meowing, and knew something was going on. Andrea went one direction, and I went another, through the woods. I found the dogs in the creek, and Lilly on the ground, not moving. When I got to her she was breathing shallowly, but she was clearly badly injured. Within a few minutes she was gone.

I led the dogs back to the garden, so that Andrea could have some time alone with Lilly, and carry her body back to the house. When she got back up here, she noticed that Tiger was limping and called for me. It seems that he was involved in the altercation as well. We don't know if he was simply attacked, and managed to get away, or if he could have been attempting to defend his sister. I like to think the latter, because he has demonstrated a protectiveness of them.

After a call to the vet we decided that keeping him at home for the night was best, since they would not be able to do anything until the following morning anyway. He was very alert, and did not seem to be in obvious pain, which seemed like good signs. Andrea took him to the vet on Tuesday, and they did some x-rays, which revealed a fractured pelvis. He was given some medicine, and we were told to keep him contained, so he doesn't do further injury, and just to watch him. He has been living in Andrea's room, since the incident, along with Rosa, and seems to be doing very well. He has good appetite, and is able to move in or out of his house when he wants. There is still some risk, but I'm feeling good about his chances of recovery at this point.

This incident has been more traumatic than the last for both Andrea and I, for several reasons. At this point most of our focus is on caring for Tiger, which I think has helped to distract us from thinking about what we could have done to better protect Lilly.

As easy as it would be to place blame on the dogs, I don't think its warranted. I realize that their conditioning only extends so far, and once they are in chase mode, their instincts kick in. They had no reason to suspect that whatever noise caught their attention in the woods were the kittens. They've ran into those woods dozens, if not hundreds, of times in chase of wild animals, and there has never been a problem. It was unfortunate that this time, the kittens were in an unexpected place, and when the dogs arrived there, their hunting instincts had kicked in.

Andrea and I are certainly receiving a lesson in the realities of sharing our home with animals. Sometimes I wonder if the sorrow of the inevitable losses outweigh the benefits. I quickly find my answer, though, after interacting with one of them and being reminded of why we open our home to them in the first place. Death naturally accompanies life, as sorrow does joy.