Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Adventures in Farm Maintenance

It’s high time for a farm story…don’t you think?

In the fall after the CSA is done, the garlic is planted and the fields are cleaned up we usually set to work on maintenance projects…there is no shortage of those around here! After all, I inherited a rather dilapidated farm. Don’t get me wrong, I think the farm is really cool but it’s definitely a work in progress, my husband Cass says by the time we retire (in like 40 years or so) we should have a real nice place here.

So last winter I enlisted my dad to help me with some structural issues in one of the barns. I wanted to get the barn shorn up so that I could have it roofed the following spring. At that time, the roof was the original tin one and it leaked terribly sending a cascade of water or snow down to the lower level which confused cats, dogs, chickens, cows, sheep and goats alike. Why is it raining inside? I’m sure they all asked that question whenever they came into the barn to get out of the rain and found it raining there too in spots.

The barn I tackled last winter is the oldest structure on the farm. It was already built when my great grandparents moved here in 1927. No one knows who built it or when exactly it was built. Several folks estimate that it is at least 100 years old.

The barn is dug into the ground on two sides. The other two sides have been built onto over the years. In the 1950’s my grandpa built an addition onto the old barn. We call that barn “the new addition” it’s the newest building on the farm.

Also at some point in the 1950’s my grandpa bought a building at an auction and then hauled the whole works to his farm where he deposited it right next to the old barn. That building was used as a milk house and calf pen for many years. I now use it as a packing shed for the CSA.

So if you can imagine it, the old barn (which is also the tallest building on the farm) is connected to two other structures (the 1950’s barn and the auction-bought shed-thing). Because of this situation I felt it was very important to fix up the old barn otherwise it might bring down other buildings as it decayed.

My first step was to clear out the haymow. It had been used as a storage area for old junk…errr, I mean treasures for quite a number of years. Underneath the treasures, was a layer of loose hay about one or two feet thick. The loose hay effectively hid all the holes in the floor and made clearing out the hay mow really pretty exciting. I just never knew if I was standing on the floor or a layer of compacted loose hay that could give way underneath me at any second. Luckily, due to my cat-like reflexes and some strategically places boards I never made the plunge to the lower floor.

Anyway, after hauling away a lot of junk and pitching out a mountain of ancient hay I was ready to assess the situation. I learned that two major beams that ran from the hip in the roof to the floor of the hay mow were completely shot and just sort of dangling there. A section of wall near one of these beams had rotted off at floor level. This 10 foot section of wall waved in the breeze. Additionally, both of the main sill plates (pretty major boards that support the roof rafters and wall studs) had disintegrated in spots as well. And lets not forget the holey floor.

After patching the floor so that I could actually walk around up there, I had my dad over for a consultation. We decided that one of the big beams could be salvaged but the other had to go. The sill plate could be patched and once we had the sill plate patched we could nail the waving-in-the-breeze wall back together.

While all this may seem straightforward, this project took about four weeks. It involved fabricating (from scratch!) several giant metal brackets, modifying a pole jack, the use of several bottle jacks, buying customized lumber at a sawmill and really quite a lot of swearing.

At every turn we had to jack up parts of the barn in order to remove damaged pieces and put new lumber in. If you’ve ever jacked up a building you know how creepy this can be. The building makes all kinds of noises and sometimes you can even see it moving which is really pretty freaky when you are standing inside it! As a result I always get nervous when the jacks come out.

One day my dad and I were working on tearing out the beam that was totally rotten. My dad was up on a ladder prying nails out of where the beam joined the roof. He asked me to go get something out of my garage. I was in a state of nervousness since we had had to jack up a major portion of the barn in order to get this big beam out. So I scampered out of the barn and jogged over to the garage.

While I was rummaging around in the garage, I heard the most peculiar sound…hopefully I never hear this again. It was a series of snaps...real quick like giant dominos falling…about 20 of them or so. At about number 10 I thought “oh my God the barn is falling down and dad’s in there standing on a ladder!!!!”. So I ran out of the garage just in time to hear three big crashes.

As I skidded to a stop in front of the barn, which appeared to still be standing, my dad stuck his head out and said “Holy shit, I think your machine shed just fell over”. Sure enough, it did…damn it. Sometimes it’s like pissing on fires over here…seriously.

We went up to look at the machine shed which had been built by my grandpa in the 1950’s. I had known the shed was in bad shape and also in serious need of a new roof. Cass and I had attempted to stabilize it for the winter by cutting down a tree and bracing the log inside the building. But apparently that was not enough. We’d had plans to restore the building…I sorta wanted to turn it into a party shack.

Even though I was bummed that the building had fallen over, it was interesting to see how it had happened. One wall had leaned out to such a degree that it simply broke free from the rest of the structure. At that point each of the roof rafters snapped in turn (that was the domino-sounding thing I’d heard). After all the rafters snapped the wall that had originally separated collapsed (the first big crash), then the two other walls fell in succession (the other two crashes).

After we finished surveying the damage, there was nothing else to do but go back to working on the barn and hope a similar fate wouldn’t become of it. We headed back up to the hay mow and very soon my uncle, who lives down the road about half a mile, came hurrying up the driveway in his jeep.

He had heard the machine shed collapse. But figured it was the barn that had gone down since he knew we were working on it. We all had a good laugh at the irony of trying to keep up one building while another falls over.

In May I hired two roofers to come put new tin on the roof. It looks great! And doesn’t leak! We put 450 square bails up there this summer…sure feels good to use the old barn. As for the machine shed, the rubble has been cleared and we were able to salvage some pretty nice lumber. Miraculously, one corner of the building is still standing. Perhaps a party shack is still possible….