In the Big Garden

In the Big Garden
The Farmer at work...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fun with a Three Point Hitch, Dusting off an Old Well for Action

Something you learn about bigger tractors pretty quickly is that you don’t glean the most important things from the manual. People learn about big tractors from using them, working on them or watching others work on them- period. They should put THAT in the manual. It would save people a lot of time… and maybe a finger or two.

This reality dawns on me as I contemplate the 3 point hitch on the rear of my 30 HP Yanmar. Let me set the scene: I am sitting in the grass, twisting the pages of the instruction manual into a frustrated Origami project as I search for the procedure to marry my first implement- a 40 gallon Fimco sprayer- to the rear. I can’t find a goddamn word about how to do it. The manual superciliously waves me away to the sprayer’s manual for advice, all 2 pages of it, and that route leads me precisely nowhere. Gnats are gang rushing every orifice above my neck line. It is hot, I mean Florida hot, and there is sweat dragging sunscreen into my stinging eyes. I have been at this for 40 minutes and counting and still the sprayer mount sits facing the tractor’s business end like a petulant 5 year old that refuses to play nice.

Harry Ferguson invented the 3 point system in Britain in 1926 as a way to provide a sturdy, dependable connection between a tractor and any PTO powered implement, be it a mower, post-hole digger, plow or pump. His invention was so popular that it would become, thanks to Henry Ford, the standard way to connect any implement to a working tractor. A 3 point hitch, if you’ve ever seen one, looks almost inviting at first blush. Two hydraulic draft linkage arms reach out, slightly spread, as if to embrace you. A third linkage on top provides stability. All three points should, in a perfect world, match up and couple with their counterparts with the help of a few lock pins. I know that much- what is much harder to discern is how I get to that penultimate point.

Let me digress, because I think some background will enrich the story. I bought the sprayer because as any good hobby farmer (read “greenhorn”) knows, the simplest way to solve problems is to throw heaps of money at them, gobs of it. And problems on a hobby farm are like weeds…weeds that grow on weeds. For me, it started last fall when I had the brilliant idea to add an entirely new garden to our operation- “weed” number one because I overlooked the fact that gardens don’t just happen by themselves. So I spend the hot fall breaking my back to cut the tenacious sod and then plow and till- all by hand- a brutal physical exercise. Then of course, I remember that the new plot will need deer fencing to protect it- “weed” number two and that after THAT is done, I will need to till in wheel barrow after creaking wheelbarrow of composted manure, and dig wide, rock free planting beds- “weeds” three and four respectively. See what I mean?

Erin shook her head patiently at me the whole time, but I wanted to grow more…needed to grow more, all the better to cram into our freezer with all of the stuff we didn’t eat from what I grew last year (you will soon see that as I hobby farmer I excel at anti-pragmatism). I persevered. I toiled. I swore and limped and groaned. But I got it done and in the winter with my tools cooling in the barn, I studied my catalogues hungrily over steaming cups of coffee in the darkness of early morning…drooling in my mind’s eye over the flavors of the crunchy Super Sugar snap peas that would be growing there, the peppery sweetness of the heirloom Waltham Broccoli and festive, Christmas colored Cherry Bomb peppers. But the one “weed” that I did not anticipate in my pre-prandial planting bliss and optimism, and even during the early months of spring as I assembled my seeds, sets and seedlings and sowed and tucked them lovingly into the damp earth, was the historic heat wave of 2010.

It didn’t start out that way. Memorial Day dried out spectacularly as we moved into planting our warm crops, our Triumph De Farcy filet beans, Brandywine, Pineapple and German Stripe tomatoes and oh so much more and Erin and I enjoyed our first wedding anniversary in beautiful sunshine and uncharacteristic heat. That glowing weekend stretched into almost a week without rain- rare for us here- and while I wasn’t concerned at the time, I began to roll out hoses and tap our well to keep our several large vegetable and ornamental gardens watered. But as anyone who lives off the water grid knows, water is precious, water is good. And water is not in endless supply. As the hot days continued and July arrived with a fiery, parched string of days, I realized that drawing from our house well to cover our growing gardens was not a sustainable strategy. I needed a solution and I needed it fast.

We are fortunate to live on a beautiful old property in the northern Catskills of upstate New York that was once a small cattle farm. As you might expect, a source of constant excitement for us are the discoveries that we make almost daily on our hilly 50 acres, treasures be they bits of discarded antique machinery, ossified cow horns or feathery patches of wild asparagus. And about two years ago in the woods behind our barn, as I was investigating the crumbled stone foundation of what we call the old barn, I made another find.

All that remains now of the old barn is a barely recognizable intersection of flat, lichen spattered stone walls but at one time it most likely served as the center of the original farm operation. We estimate that the structure is probably 200 years old. Today, large birch and elm trees grow up through the dirt floor of the site as part of the mature surrounding forest and provide a shady, cool, dark, quiet canopy. Wild birds flutter in the tangles of vine choked sumac and wild honeysuckle and deerflies hum and whir in the air. It is very hard to imagine that this was all open fields at one time, but it was.

Squeezing through the dense growth for a closer look that day I spied a rough, man-made bulkhead of stone, and atop it a large flat rock which was simply too conspicuous to have been randomly placed. Feeling like some sort of archeologist, I pushed it aside and as I did so, was met by an a gentle puff of cold, damp air. Through a perfectly cut circular hole in the flat large stone below I saw my shimmering image looking up at me on a canvas of water. It turned out to be a well, hand dug, stone lined and deep (I measured it with fishing line and a weight to 30 feet). Neat discovery yes, but at the time I simply pushed the stone back and figured at some point I would find a use for it later.

Fast forward to the drought.

I needed water, I needed it stat and that well was the answer- but how to pull water from the well and get it to my gardens, almost an acre away? “Weed” number 5 had spouted.

The first idea that popped into my head seemed most logical and leveraged my investment in my new Yanmar. I had seen sprayers used for watering plants in our town, large 40 and 50 gallon tanks that were hitched to the back of small tractors. What if I was to back up the sprayer to the well, fill it using some kind of sump pump and then capitalize on the maneuverability of my tractor to get water to all the beds? This seemed like the right line of logic, but it would cost me. Sprayers of the size I thought I needed that I looked at in Northern Freight catalogues went for 500 bucks minimum. And then what about a pump for the most important job- getting the water up and out- and what kind of pump would be required? After looking through some books and turning to the internet, I was more confused than ever. Would I need a regular submersible pump? A jet pump? A centrifugal or trash pump? The costs widely diverged. I was lost.

I stalled, hemmed and hawed and nervously watched the weather. But the dry days had unpacked to stay and I had to do something. And then the stalemate broke. At the family Fourth of July party, my Father in law John showed me an old electrical Gould pump that a farmer had given him (John is a self-proclaimed “garbologist” and works at the local dump). The pump looked ancient and skeletal; an incongruously heavy black unit with a large black belt connecting two spindles. The wiring was frayed and replete with an antique plug. It looked like an electrocution waiting to happen but we looked at the lube points and they seemed functional. We checked the priming cylinder and wrapped electrical tape to reinforce the wire. I decided to give it a go. Miraculously, John had also collected some heavy black plastic pipe that fit the 2” in and outtakes, and those he gave to me as well.

With an advance on the how-to-get-the-water-out-of-the-well front, I decided (of course without testing it) that I would pull the trigger on the sprayer, 500 bucks be damned. I made a trip to the local Country Tractor store, which is the absolute worst run retail store in our country, and that says more than you know. The first nimrod I spoke to, a spindly beanpole of a hick with zero knowledge of product was entirely useless. He could not tell me the tractor hitch rating on the sprayer, which was critical and one would think something that he would know. He couldn’t or wouldn’t look it up and there was no box, which I’ll get back to. I decided to take a leap of faith. I called for the manager. The manager was even more unhelpful. Because there was no box and just a small jumble of parts with no instructions, I asked him for a discount- again because it was CLEARLY out of box and the last in the store. He flatly refused and informed me that it wasn’t officially “out of box”; he had just removed it from the box this morning for display. I sucked down a flare of irritation because by God my plants needed water, paid the cashier and waited for help to carry it to the car. That’s when the fun started. I asked him how I would know that all the parts were there and he told me solemnly that the instructions would help. I agreed wholeheartedly but pointed out again that there were none. Flustered he disappeared to his office and appeared 20 minutes later with something he had printed out. I asked him with sarcasm why he had to print out instructions when in his own words he had just removed this unit from the box this morning. He had no reply and it wouldn’t be the last time for him either.

Not long after I got home (a thirty minute drive by the way), I of course realized that parts were missing. First a 96” powering cable that would convert the tractor’s battery power to the 12 volt sprayer pumps. I called the Manager but he wouldn’t take my call. A cable magically appeared at the service desk in Tractor Supply for me the next day. Getting home for the second time I realized that it was not long enough. Cursing, I made a trip to Napa Auto Parts and purchased primary wire and wire nuts and added several feet of play to the cable.

On try number two, I realized that the tank drainage nut was missing. Same drill. The manager hid in the back room, and the nut was left for me at the cashier. He was lucky.

And so here I was today. All parts apparently in play. All players ready for action. No instructions that help me understand this vital 3 point connection and start the party. So I decide the try John’s donated pump first. My plan is a simple hookup to see if it will draw water from the well. I cut the plastic piping into two sections, one for both the input and output, and slide them on, secure with band locks, and then drop the former down into the rock lined darkness. The difficult part will be the first leg, 15 feet straight up from the well water surface to the transfer, a steep climb for a heavy column of water that will have a weight of 8 pounds per gallon.

In preparation for the test, I spend the cool early morning with my chainsaw and brush cutter clearing out around the well bulkhead, enough room to back in my tractor when the time comes. Next, I run 200 yards of wire from the new barn outlet to the well staging area and prime the pump. I have no idea if this thing has been used in the last 50 years- it certainly doesn’t look like it. I consider how much it would suck to be found face down in the stubble, dead of electrocution. But my tomato plants are wilting day by day. And then, I connect the wires. To my surprise, the old pump whirs to life without effort, spindles spinning with the lubricated whir of a comfy old car engine. Victory!

To the output end, Batman! I run and pick up the warm out pipe and listen, the way you would to a garden hose to hear the water coming. I can detect small burping in the line and for a moment, a pristine, joyous moment I can taste, almost, the sweet feeling that comes when the hobby farmer executes according to plan. But it is not to be. I wait and wait and then return to check the input- only to discover that the water column is halted about midway between water surface and the transfer. Game over.

Before I continue here, I need to emphasize, that often things do go according to plan, especially at lunch and dinner time- so let me take you through some of that. Because at Stony Creek, we eat good- real good. Some of that is a function of our mutual passion for great food and some of our insistence on the absolute freshest ingredients- most of which we grow ourselves. I am fond of calling our food style “Catskill Country Artisanal” because we do most everything from scratch and we do it with flair and simplicity- every day. The area we live in is part of the Schoharie River Valley and is widely considered to be one of the most fertile patches of growing land in NY State. We have access to some amazingly fresh and exciting ingredients through our gardens, farmer’s markets, local artists and artisanal food producers. So, while I come from the outdoors sometimes in massive defeat or exhaustion, I am soon salved by preparing a fabulous meal with my beautiful wife and son- accompanied usually by one or more libations in the form of Gin and olives. I will share some recipes throughout these postings. You can pour yourself a glass of wine and try them any time. Here’s a couple from a recent dinner. I choose these because as everyone knows, Zucchini, Squashes and tomatoes are the order of the season now:

Summer Squash and Chipotle Soup

Tired of Zucchini bread yet? This is a great way to start a summer meal for many reasons: simple, flavorful, spicy, uses up all of those incredibly prolific squash plants you thought you needed of in the spring. We make it all the time during the summer and freeze into lunch and guest sized portions for a quick appetizer.

Start with 3 or 4 medium squash, preferably a combination of zucchini and yellow squashes, but you could use pretty much any of the varieties that can be grown. Cut them into half or whole rounds of about ¾”. Slice 1 very large or two medium white onions thinly and toss those in some butter to soften, about 5 minutes. At that point, add about a ¼ cup of your crispest white wine, and the squash. Toss to circulate the onions and season with ¾” tablespoon of cumin and a good shake of ground coriander. Allow for 3 more minutes and then add your best beef stock (chicken stock is fine but beef just adds a whole different depth) and then 1 and ½ chopped Chipotle in Adobo chilies and stir in. Cover and simmer until squashes are just tender. Remove the lid, toss in three or four handfuls of crushed stale tortilla chips (you know you have them lying around). Allow to incorporate and use immersion blender to blend soup until you have a chunky, chowdery consistency with some squash chunks still recognizable. Add salt or pepper as needed. I like to garnish this with the freshest minced Cilantro that I can pick from our herb garden. Super good!

Grilled Blade of Veal with Marinated Heirloom Tomatoes

We’re all about economical, fresh, flavorful and fast, easy cooking here. A lot of people have a chip on their shoulder about veal but I eschew any moral arguments. We generally source our meat from local producers and trust that everything has been done right. This is a great recipe. Veal shoulder blades pop up as a trimmed cut fairly often. They look like large, thin pork chops and most people overlook them or consider them only for braising. They are super cheap and super flavorful.

Start with your shoulder chop and marinate it for at least two hours in white wine, olive oil and some lemon zest. Separately, seed and cut a mixture of your favorite heirloom tomatoes (you can use regular cherry too) and toss in a bowl with some fresh thyme, mint and parsley, minced garlic, a pinch of brown sugar, olive oil, and good rice wine vinegar and let this sit for a long time, stirring occasionally.

Throw the chops on a hot grill after seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper (we always use an authentic Mojlcajate for this) garlic and onion powder and grill until medium. Remove to a plate, top with the tomatoes and you are ready to roll.

Ok, so back to my tales of weeds, wells, water and woe. With my re-purposed pump below task I am back to square one. I decide to make another investment (remember, this is what we Hobby Farmers do best) and purchase a lightweight Honda gas pump for another cool 500 bucks. I am dimly aware that this will be expensive water but the little unit is a powerhouse, and once primed, oiled and gassed, delivers an astonishing jet of cold clear water. I am back on track.

And so here I sit with my sprayer, the penultimate job. Without directions for consummating the 3 point hitch and the implement, I improvise. I start the tractor, lower the linkages and then attempt to wrestle the tank unit forward to where the holes in the draft arms holes line up with the sprayer frame pins. I am dimly aware as I am doing this that there are no link clips (these little pins hold the linkages together) for them, yet MORE missing items from this sprayer but with jiggling I am able to join all parts. I can worry about the clips later. I then lengthen the top linkage and connect to the unit and tighten down the lock nut. And that folks is when my luck runs almost entirely out.

I have to emphasize one thing here- and take it from a greenhorn who has learned a lot doing this stuff. Never, ever, NEVER ever operate a big tractor and/or its implements without ALL of the parts and pieces, no matter how seemingly mundane. When I complete the top linkage, my sand castle crumbles. The left bottom draft arm ball , unsecured by the locking pin, and lubricated with a hefty dose of liquid wrench, pops free from the implement pin and somehow- although I cannot remember for the life of me why- my thumb is below and between the bottom edge of the steel sprayer frame and the steel tow bar. The 100 pound sprayer and steel hitching frame smash down on my finger, crushing it against the immovable bar and the pain is horrifying and immediate, so horrible that at first I cannot breathe and then when I can I am screaming. I weigh 185 pounds, none of it fat. At one time before a shoulder problem last summer I was doing 500 pushups a day and able to throw up 265 plus pounds on a bench press multiple times with ease. Not a “tough guy” but man enough. All that weight down hard in one place, steel on steel brings me to my knees. The pain is so bad that I am blinded and in fact cannot remember now how I moved the frame off and freed my finger and then walked to the house with blood spurting in every direction. Erin, horrified, is at the sink and runs my hand in cool water but the pain and shock is so bad that I am forced to kneel again and fight the urge to vomit as she drapes cold compresses on the back of my neck.

Don’t want to spend too much time on this but it is hours before the blood begins to slow down and we are able to see an angry crack in the purple black of the smashed nail bed. After the initial pain there is no feeling whatsoever in the finger; it is pressed grotesquely flat and we debate going to the emergency room. I decide in the end to wait it out and heal at home. At the time of this accounting, after many days, the feeling and color have returned slowly to my finger and the nail has predictably died away. I’ll just say it one more time- make sure you do things carefully with big equipment. Every year, thousands of farmers lose not only digits and limbs, eyes and teeth, but their lives.

It takes me several hours of dealing with pain to focus all of my anger back at the source: Country Tractor and their poor customer service, inflexibility and the parade of missing parts. This has been a long episode but I will tell you that I make a surprise visit to the store the next day and find the invisible Manager hiding behind a check-out counter. He is cornered and turns white even before I get to him, which means he remembers me- and he clearly does. Holding my unwrapped, mangled finger in his face for ambiance, I explain to him as calmly as I can the sequence of events that led to my being here and that I want my money back fast, real fast. I think I am fine until that point but somehow, in a panic, he decides to rest in the comforting arms of “store policy” and ask for my receipt which I don’t have. I consider his fat sweaty, trembling face for a moment and then, for a few minutes I can’t remember exactly what I say (many people who know me well will probably giggle here) but then there are several people from the back of the store around us, including the assistant manager. They probably save the man’s life. Anyway, the Assistant Manager takes care of me immediately and issues an immediate refund.

I go home and the next night figure out the final solution to my watering problem. I have a series of 50 gallon rain barrels that have been in my barn forever. I place three of them in the back of my pick-up truck and back up into the well site. Using my new little Honda pump, I draw cold clear water up into the barrels. I drive my truck up into big field, park next to the gardens and start the pump again. Erin, my beautiful (and very pregnant) wife stands in the bed and transfers the intake to one barrel after another as they empty, and I maneuver the hoses to make sure the plants get a good, old fashioned soaking. Long journey to success, but victory is victory and a win here on the farm for me is always extra special.

And here I will leave you with one more recipe for this edition, so that we end on a double positive. I call this “Summer Stuffing”. Italians call this a Panzenella or bread salad. It makes use of the best of the season- your tomatoes and fresh herbs. I do all kinds of great variations on this…but consider this garden variety :)

Summer Stuffing”

Take a half loaf of good artisanal Italian bread and cut into 1and ½ to 2 inch cubes and spread out on a baking tray. Add salt and pepper and bake at 375 for about 20 minutes until toasted. In the meantime, head up to your garden and pick your best tomatoes (right now we are exploding in sugary cherries). If using cherry tomatoes, slice in half and add to a large mixing bowl along with 1 large minced clove of garlic, half of a small minced hot pepper (we grow Cherry Bombs but you can use whatever you can find) 2 minced anchovies, about ¾ of a cup of mixed and finely chopped fresh Parsley, Thyme, and Rosemary in combination with a few leaves of torn or chiffonaded Basil. How you apportion the herbs depends on what you like but I go heavier on the parsley and basil, and lightly on the other two for this recipe. Throw in some chopped cured black olives and then add olive oil and rice wine vinegar to taste, along with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Let this mixture sit for an hour.

When you are ready to serve, add the toasted bread cubes to the “dressing” and toss well. Serve as soon as possible with a sprinkling of good grated Romano. Believe me, if you have never had anything like this, you will love it and you will never be able to make enough for your guests!

See You Soon. Happy Farming



  1. Lenny-

    Your torturing your overweight friend with these recipes. Last night around 10pm you inspired me to fire up the oven and roast garlic which I then proceeded to use in my mashed potatoes. was an excellent late night snack!


  2. Awesome Mike.

    BTW, one of Erin and my favorite recipes is your mom's pasta with Bacon, Peas and Onion . Erin forces me to make it all the time, we love it. It is incredibly good. I call it Pasta alla Libecci. Think I want some tomight!!