Farm Journal: the bean harvester, illness and pushing on

The long, slow process of cleaning the bean harvester lasts into the night. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.

The long, slow process of cleaning the bean harvester lasts into the night. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.

This is part of a series of farmers writing about life on the farm , week to week, through the season. Courtney Grimes-Sutton is co-owner of Mace Chasm Farm in Keeseville. Read all of Courtney’s journal entries here. And you should check out her really fun Facebook page.

August 26

It’s good to hear rain now. The stream had just about dried up, and the grass was thirsty.

This week we’re feeling the special pinch of trying to prepare for something we’ve never done. There’s a crop of edamame out there, looking beautiful. The beans are filling out their pockets in their pods. Now the race is on.

We're restoring the old, seized-up mechanical bean harvester that arrived here last week. We finally had the cash to bring the machine here from the farm where it sat still, slowly sinking, for eight years, since the barn fire that devoured most of the other necessary equipment in the farm’s bean production line.

The machine is missing some parts, and its joints are like the tin man’s when we first see him in the Wizard of Oz. There are hornet’s nests, and some weeds growing in an inch of soil on the bottom conveyer belt… But we’re cleaning her, greasing her, and hoping she’ll spring to life like the tin man did, in about the course of one song. As I go over the zerks with a wire brush, I’m silently promising that if she could just pick the standing crops, we’ll keep improving her condition, we’ll replace the hydraulic ram, we’ll get the parts we need on hand, and we’ll park her in the shed from here on out.

Rows of edamame at Nace Chasm Farms, Keeseville. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.

Rows of edamame at Nace Chasm Farms, Keeseville. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.

I visited a seasoned bean grower today, just over the Canadian border. Couldn’t have been a nicer person to visit for advice. He generously ran me through his whole bean harvesting process, examined his crops with me, poured on the advice, brought me to visit his packaging supplier’s plant to buy bags, made me a copy of his picker’s manual, and sent me home with a tote of freshly picked beans, after supplying a cup of tea and a snack. I had that warm feeling of having basked in the golden light of a farmer’s kindness. We’ll grow up to pass it on, of course. Someday, we won’t be frantic, and we’ll be able to share what we’ve learned if anyone asks.

We were supposed to have fixed up our picker last week, you see, but I got so sick last week that I could hardly remember the farm or myself as a farmer at all.  The first diagnosis was kidney stones, and, with painkillers, I readied myself to ride it out. The next diagnosis was a kidney infection and, with antibiotics, I readied myself to ride it out. Well hot diggity dang, didn’t it just end up being both, with a stuck stone & a terrible backup, and the need for some midnight surgery in the ER.

I stayed in the hospital for three days. I don’t have any health insurance. The Canadian farmer I visited just can’t believe how we have it. His father in law had recently required a quadruple bypass surgery, and he owed nothing in bills for having been spared his life. At some point, we’re all likely to need some expensive care. Why not pay taxes instead of insurance bills, and allow that every one of us be guaranteed the care we need when we need it?  It’s too bad that something like this caught me between health insurance policies. I usually maintain insurance, and was twelve weeks into being without it, thinking I’d get to signing up for some after this or that… Talk about a leak in farm profits!

Our eyes are on the prize of the beans for this week, but of course there’s pressure from elsewhere as well; from tax time (for LLCs who applied for extensions); from a huge, organizational paper push needed for the several parties involved in the imminent closing on our sale of an easement on our farm (this one’s the most stressful, because it’s the hardest for me, sorting past chaos, naming past expenses); from the fields ready to be sown to pasture seed & the areas ready to be brush hogged; from the construction project I’m trying to get underway, if I could only find a reliable carpenter to work with; from the truck that needs fixin’; to the regular, weekly rhythms of butchery & preparation for the markets that support us. This is a flow time in the ebb and flow of pressure.

In my forced slowing down last week, I thought about our farm from a bird’s eye view, about what we learned about it this year, about where we spend time, and why, and about the work we want to do & the fruits we want it to bear. Thought about design, and got really excited about some ideas that I found.

Beans! Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.

Beans! Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton.

I shifted some goals, and took a couple of long, slow walks around the farm, thinking about where we’ll plant fruit trees & perennial crops, where we’ll build our next fence lines, where we’ll plant our sugar bush, and where we’d dig a pond. My goals around our butcher shop changed, and I realized that I’d like to finish our shop as a USDA cutting room, rather than a slaughterhouse. Much energy was gained from having taken the opportunity to look at the farm from a still place.

Our onions are small this year. They sat for too long with wet feet, like the many plantings of beans that we invested in only to disc under in the end, into the soil that lost so many nutrients in the wash out. We must tile some acres if we’re going to do any tilled crops. Many farmers would say that it pays to tile your hay & pasture land as well- we can’t consider that just yet, but we can design any drainage we put in to accommodate the possibility of more, should we ever decide to take that plunge. I think I’d like to drain five acres to start with, tied in with the much needed drainage of our barnyard, which seems to float on a generous aquifer.

I’m on the fence about cropping, but it’s hard to let go of – it’s such a creative, awesome process to plant, tend, and harvest annually – to grow a row of your favorite flowers & all the tomatoes we put up for winter, along with the crops that one specializes in. However, the presence of the tilled crop requires a separate line of equipment from the rest of our farm’s livelihood, a separate schedule of needs to integrate, a set of eyes upon it, a separate budget, and another marketing choreography. Can it pencil out, and do we like the work? Is it too much work for our small labor force? How can we better preserve the soil?

Back to those small onions… Many thanks to our friends who came out while I was laid up to harvest small onions with Asa. I set to work creating recipes for pickled onions, and I canned up samples on Saturday. We’ll have a taste test of that recipe on Thursday, and test the PH to report to Cornell to top off the paperwork one does to can & sell pickles in a commercial kitchen. Soon there will be shelves full of the pickled onion crop in our farm store. Hey – if ya get lemons, make lemonade. I’m a half British kid, and I grew up loving pickled onions in the pubs during family visits. If your hands are feeling idle, come on over to peel some onions!

I’ve got to head out to buy a new grease gun. The Pixall Pull-Pix calls from her seat in the barn, where she was carefully cleaned & examined under clamp lights as the rain pounded the tin roof last night. Now for that tin-man musical, where grease is applied, a new PTO mounted, and she springs to life, shockingly spry, a smooth-operator, masterfully delivering the beans to the person riding the platform in the back. We shall see. Here’s hopin’!

Over & out.

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  1. Great story. I'm sorry about the surgery and I understand about the health insurance issue. Hope you're well enough to cook up some of your sausages on Sunday.
    Take time to recover though.

  2. It's always good to look at your process from another perspective…here's mine, Planting the sugarbush should move way down the list. There are lots of maple trees, just waiting for your attention. The payback curve is too long…like 30 to 50 years, but much shorter on fruit trees, like 5 to 10 before the returns start. I planted raspberries a few years ago, and as garden crops go, I've never been happier with a crop decision. Raspberries bear in their first year usually, and the trellis building and annual pruning are quite good, considering the return.
    Planting trees is good. Good for the planet, and good for the next generations, but not as an income investment.

    • Micheal – maples take a tap in 8-10 years!