November 26, 2011

Black Friday Wasn't Black At All

This post is late - I'm sorry.  I wrote it the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but didn't have any pictures to put with it.  I was hoping to get some but we were sooo busy!

I got out of bed this Saturday morning and my feet said "Now, Lisa, you know we weren't built to carry 400 pounds!"

Then my back said, "Lisa, you weren't meant to work like a pair of mules for 10 hours straight!"  My legs said, "Lisa, you are most definitely not a marathon runner!"  My arms said "You are not a weight lifter!" get the idea, I'm sure.  I'm sore in places I didn't think I even had muscles.

I had a long conversation with the rest of my muscles and joints.  I finally convinced them to do their jobs. See, we harvested pecans again yesterday.  We had to cram in a lot of work because it's supposed to rain the rest of the weekend, and for once the local meteorologist got it right.  It's clouding up right now.  Thank heavens. I couldn't take another day like yesterday - I'd be stove up solid like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.

I didn't have it as bad as the guys, though.  They had to constantly lift/drag/push/pull 100 lb. sacks of pecans and stuff.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

As you can tell from previous posts, our entire focus in life right now is harvesting pecans.  I'm to the point of dreaming about it at night.  Jeff keeps wanting to take time off from his day job to get it done.  My Dad keeps dashing around buying stuff he thinks will help.  (Some does, some doesn't.  Thank heavens the shopping channels and infomercials don't have things considered useful for nut growers!)  Doug is an accommodating, happy-go-lucky guy who works when we want him to and doesn't worry about it the rest of the time.

All week we'd been gearing up for a whole weekend of "official" nut-picking.  Official means we bring out the heavy equipment. (Hand-picking with the rollie thingies goes on all the time.)  We discussed the upcoming weekend's strategy on Monday; on Tuesday; and on Wednesday.  Jeff would have four days off - we could get a LOT of nuts harvested!  I don't talk much about Jeff in these posts but he's an absolutely essential part of this farming thing.  He's the youngest, the strongest, and the smartest of us all.  (And he's my soulmate.)

All week Doug, Dad and I had got out with the rollie thingies at various times and picked up nuts.  We'd had rain last weekend and Dad had discovered an article on the internet by a member of the Alabama Pecan Growers Association (we're not in 'bama, but close enough).  It talks about how pecans mold if left on wet ground.  I'm a bit suspicious of that because if it were true there wouldn't be little pecan tree saplings everywhere, but OK.

We'd picked up a bunch of 5-gallon buckets of wet pecans.  Now, how were we going to dry them?  (Dad had ordered a hygrometer, which is a little machine you put things into that measures the percentage of moisture in whatever you've put in it.  Pecans for storage need to be at around 4%.  I know, you probably don't care about that.)  Anyway, we don't have a commercial nut dryer.  Putting them in the clothes dryer was out of the question - it gets too hot (yes, we actually considered it).  Ditto oven-drying.  Hmmm.

So Dad came up with the idea of just spreading them out on the front porch of the big house.  Surely the sun would come out, and since there's a bit of breeze they'd dry OK anyway.  I was very unhappy with this method because about a thousand squirrels live in the eaves of the big house, and I pictured those pecans as a smorgasbord just laid out for the tree rats.  (Turns out they stayed out of them because my cats and Dad's dog kept lurking about.)  Anyway, the nuts dried but it took a couple of days.

One of the most-discussed topics this last week was "Where are we going to store all of the nuts so the mice and so forth don't get into them?"  (Notice "where", not "how"...)  Well, we could put them in the metal-clad room in the barn that used to be where we stored cattle/horse feed?  Nope - pesticides have been stored in there (phew!), plus the metal's rusted away in places.  What about the big freezer that doesn't work?  Nope, not big enough, though it's a good backup.  The garage?  Nope, not rodent-proof.  Aha!  The back of Dad's pickup - it has a canopy and he's done it before and never had mice get in.  Problem solved.  (Remember that...)

We all took Thanksgiving off except for thinking about harvesting and one (long as usual) discussion with Dad about what our first tasks would be on Friday and what time we would all get started.

See, Dad's one of those abnormal people who habitually gets up around 4 a.m.  He's never been a full-time farmer, so I don't know why that is.  And the worst part is he thinks everybody should get up at 4 a.m. just like he does.  He wanted us to get an "early start", which meant get up at oh-dark-thirty.  That way we'd all be working when the sun comes up.  I have never, ever been a morning person (Dad knows this) and never shall be (Dad keeps trying to change this), and Jeff can't really function until he's been up at least an hour, but we told him we'd get out as early as we could. (It turned out to be around 8 a.m., which is very early for us.)

My first task yesterday was to shovel the now-dry pecans on the front porch into buckets so they could be run through the cleaner when we fired it up later.

And we hadn't been happy with the performance of the harvester two weeks ago; it was sweeping up basically everything that didn't have deep roots.  So Jeff's first task was to adjust the height a bit higher.  He'd read about it in the literature Dad downloaded off the internet (if there's a manual for the harvester, Dad doesn't know where it is).

Dad's first task was to talk to us about our first tasks (again).

Doug's first task was, apparently, to sleep in because he'd inadvertently been left out of the decision to get a very early start on yesterday's harvesting.  Doug's a lucky guy.

Adjusting the harvester apparently required a screwdriver.  I'm certain there are dozens of screwdrivers on this farm, but it took a little time to locate one.  Then Dad (who hadn't read the literature recently) had to instruct Jeff how to adjust the height.  My husband is a polite man, but he's a grumpy bear first thing in the morning, especially when he hasn't had a pot of coffee yet.  He didn't snap at my Dad, I don't think, (remember, I was on the front porch shoveling pecans) but when I showed up his face was red and I swear I saw a bit of steam coming out of his ears.

When I finished shoveling pecans into buckets I went around to the harvester where Jeff was still trying to adjust it.  (That's when I noticed the steam coming out of his ears.)  Dad and I talked about how and where we should get started (again).  He told me the first thing I should do is get the pecans off the porch (again).  To which I responded, "Oh, I'm done with that."  Oh, Dad says.

Then followed a discussion about whether or not the ground was dry enough to run the mechanical harvester over it.  We're standing in the driveway, not the orchard, so it was sort of pointless except we agreed that the harvester shouldn't be run over wet ground.  (Again.  And I'd read the literature, too.).  As usual, I was rarin' to go and the standing around talking things to death got to me - I snapped at Dad.  I told him this is all well and good, yes, we all need to be on the same page, but none of the work is getting done while we're standing here talking about doing it.  Ouch.  I had to apologize - I was rude.

About this time we started talking about what we were going to put all the harvested nuts into.  (That's the "how" part of storing the nuts.)  In all the week's jawin' we hadn't got to that very important part.  We had burlap sacks and we had actual red mesh pecan bags (think the plastic ones onions come in) "somewhere in the barn".  Oh, goody - wonder how old those are?

Dad wanted to save the burlap sacks for the cleaned pecans; my point was - what are we going to put the dirty ones into??  Jeff disappeared, and came back with a bundle of fifty of the red plastic ones.  They actually even said "Pecans" on them!  So we compromised - we'd use some of the burlaps for dirty ones, some for clean ones, and the red ones for cleaned and/or finished nuts.

Meanwhile, Dad had to clean out the back of the farm pickup so we could put the bags in there.  Oh-my-gawd.  It was full to the top of the bed sides with stuff, including an ancient hand-seeder with an iron wheel and big wooden handles that Dad had bought as a yard ornament.  We had to discuss where that was going to be stored until it could be put on display.  (It will have to be anchored because somebody will steal it.)  And I was rude again - Dad is notorious for just putting things any-old-where, so I said, "OK, you're going to actually organize this stuff, right?  Not just dump it in a pile somewhere?"  Ouch again.  But Dad took it in good grace (I think).

Jeff and I went to get the rest of the red bags.  Of course quite a few were ruined because they'd been there for who-knows-how-long, but most were good.  We got sidetracked; they were stacked behind piles of absolutely fascinating junk.  Some of it was stuff we'd heard Dad say, "I've got one of those around here somewhere but I can't lay my hands on it right now."  Some were things we don't know whose they were (like the big aluminum kettle thing with a bail - ??)  Some was trash (including a huge cardboard box that looked like someone had been living in it), so we ended up bringing out not only the red bags but a pickup bed full of garbage.  Not on the day's agenda, but every little bit of work counts.

Dad hadn't got 1/4 of his truck cleaned out when we got back.

About that time Dad wanted to revisit the whole "Is the ground dry enough for the harvester?" question.  So we went to the orchard.  And looked at the ground.  And kicked around in the leaves.  And picked up a few nuts to see how wet they were.  Dad decided we'd "try it and see how it does."  (That's one of Dad's favorite phrases.  I like it because he's open-minded.  Sometimes.)

Then we walked around some more to decide how many and which trees to harvest.  I was all for doing 10 or 15 of them, but because of the rain coming in we settled on 7.  After much arguing about which trees had the most nuts and were, therefore, worthwhile to shake.  (I did the arguing.  I'm kinda hard-headed.)  In the middle of it Jeff got disgusted and went to check on Doug.  By this time Doug should have shown up because of the motor noises, it's just his habit, but he hadn't.  (He slept in...)

Dad and I then got into another argument.  This time he was doing the arguing.  He said the trees further down in the orchard didn't have any nuts.  I said they did.  Dad wanted to go get his binoculars so he could look; I said there's no need, I can see the darned things though yes, there were a few that appeared to be bare.  Another conversation that had absolutely nothing to do with that we were trying to accomplish that day, so we tabled it.

My second task, once the area to be harvested was settled on, was to take Trusty Rusty and the cart, and go pick up branches from the area we were going to harvest.  Pecan trees are very messy; they drop more pieces of themselves than they do nuts.  So Dad was going to "blow" the area with the mower.  He sets the blades too high to cut but low enough to blow leaves and such into piles, so the harvester picks up less junk.  We got started.  Finally.

When that part was done and Dad went off to get Big Daddy and the tree shaker, I decided to pick up branches a little further into the orchard than we planned to work.  I stopped and looked up at one of those bare trees.  Yep, Dad was right - there were hardly any nuts up there at all.  Then I looked down.  Ye Gods!  There weren't any nuts on the tree because they were on the ground under the tree.  I couldn't take another step without crunching pecans underfoot!

Of course I had to run ask Dad if we could harvest those trees too.  The ground under those trees hadn't been finish-mowed, so the grass was pretty tall.  Dad said no.  I said damn.  That's OK, I know where I'm going to pick up nuts with the rollie thingie this coming week!

Dad went back to shaking trees.  I went to get supplies (burlap bags, the can of ethanol-free gas, which won't gunk up our old motors, a toolkit.  And some Cokes.)  Somewhere the wires got crossed, because a couple of trees got shaken that had already been done once.  (This is what happens when the boss turns her back, even for a minute!)

And about the time Dad finished shaking the first couple of trees, Nancy and her husband showed up to pick up nuts on the thirds.  (They're special family friends; nobody else is being allowed to pick up as of yet.)  So Dad finished shaking trees and went to talk.  They chatted a while, and I went to (successfully - I thought) prod Dad into going back to cleaning out his pickup.  Jeff started running the harvester, and all went well.  For about twenty minutes.

Then the motor on the harvester quit.  And wouldn't start.  Then it started, ran for a couple minutes and quit again.  Then it started and ran rough, and quit again.  (Remember, Lisa - you can't get there from here...)

Jeff, who doesn't have much patience for that sort of thing, was cussin' and stomping around.  Doug was helping (mechanickin', not cussin' and stomping around).  Since I realize (ok, I lied - I've been told) that my mechanical abilities are limited to annoying the mechanic with dumb questions like "Does it have gas?", I stayed out of the harvester motor issue other than to make sure nobody gave up.  While they each took turns watching the others work on the motor and providing helpful hints which were received with varying quantities of good grace: "Yeah, I know!" or "I already checked that!".

About this time I took off to get Dad, who'd had a visitor pull in and was jawin' with the guy even though he doesn't like him and was busy cleaning out his pickup.  I was hoping to get the visitor to leave, then point Dad back towards the truck, not the harvester motor.  The harvester would just be my excuse to interrupt and get rid of the guy.  No luck.  The guy knows all about engines, so he had to come help.  Now we've got our usual Farm Confab - all work halted, four of us standing around while Jeff worked on the motor. Offering helpful input like "Does it have gas?".  That didn't come from me, no sir - I was assisting by handing Jeff tools like a scrub nurse.  He'd bark "10 mm!" and I'd hand him the socket.

Sometime in here I pointed out to Dad that he really ought to finish cleaning out his pickup.  I don't think he could make himself leave; all of the repair talk was too exciting.  I couldn't leave because they'd all get to jawin' and work would stop.  Can you see the steam coming out of my ears yet?

Long story short, the harvester motor was repaired and put back in service.  It had been set at the right height and Jeff was doing circles under the trees, grumpily trying to work around Bill and Nancy who have the uncanny ability of knowing exactly when we're going to shake trees so they always show up to pick up nuts within ten minutes of the first shaking.  Hmm, wonder if they're being tipped off?  I heartlessly told Jeff to just drive, that they'd get out of the way.  (Bill and Nancy are in their seventies I think.) Dad disappeared, to clean out his pickup (or so I thought).  Everything was ticking along.  Doug was rolling up any nuts the harvester missed so I was kind of at a loss.

Then I remembered that Dad had been wanting us to pick up the cultured walnuts from the 4 trees in the front yard.  So, casting a guilty glance over my shoulder to see if anybody was watching, I snuck off with a bucket to pick them up.  These aren't those pretty, reasonably-soft-shelled walnuts you get whole and have a nice time cracking and eating during the holidays.  These are crossed with black walnuts, which you have to take a hammer and a chisel to, to get to the meats.

Now, if you've never harvested walnuts, you probably don't know that the husk of the walnut (that's the soft outer shell) was used during colonial days to dye clothing, well, walnut brown. It's a beautiful color, but it's permanent.  I had gloves on so I thought, "I'm safe.  No black hands for me!".  Unh-unh.  The hulls were all squishy so I was squeezing the nuts out, leaving my gloves coated with pitch-black walnut sludge.  One of my gloves, unbeknownst to me, had blown out.  When I got done I had one brown hand (including under my fingernails), and one regular hand.  Oh, well.  It'll wear off.  By next summer.

Things went well for quite a while (several hours, actually); we had a system.  We also had our nut cleaner back from the guy we'd loaned it to (he finally found one for sale and bought it).  The sack on the harvester filled up, it was taken off and dumped into the cleaner hopper, and everybody but the harvester driver picked debris out of the nuts that the cleaner missed.   Until the cleaner motor wouldn't start. Oh, fer Pete's sake!  Dad must've heard the silence because he showed up in his (not-yet-empty) pickup.

While Jeff and the others had another stand-around trying to fix the thing, in the interests of getting work done I got on the harvester.  First time I'd driven the mower (a big orange thing that tows the harvester).  Dad must've not been feeling well because he just pointed me towards it instead of giving me the usual instructions. And about this time Nancy had showed back up with a piece of homemade coconut cake for me.  What a sweetheart!  She appeared to be fascinated with the cleaning process because she hung around for quite a while, jawin' and helping pick out debris.  (Doug told me later that her husband was watching the football game and she's not into football, so she probably just came back because she was bored.)

I only ran the harvester out of gas once.  But I kept forgetting to stop by the cleaner and have the full bag removed and replaced, so a couple of times I had to go back over the same ground because the harvester just picked the pecans up and dropped them right back on the ground when the sack was full..  Hey - at least the pecans were all in a neat row, stacked and ready to be picked up!

We got a lot of pecans harvested, considering it was another Keystone Cops day.  I'm guessing 600 pounds or so.  We sold some pecans this last week and we have pending orders from local candy makers and nut roasters.  Nancy has been spreading the word far and wide.

The weather ain't lookin' too good, though.  Rain for the next three days and Dad says maybe even snow for Tuesday night.  It won't hurt the pecans much, but it won't let us harvest, either.  Darn.  Guess I'll have to spend more time at my day job...

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