Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Raising Cane

About six weeks ago, I helped Eric, a farmer buddy of mine, plant 95 acres of sugar cane. Right after college, Eric worked in the precision ag research department at Auburn, and still has some good friends at the university. When Auburn wanted to put in a sugar cane trial, Eric became the local farmer in charge of making it happen. Since I owed him a favor, Eric drafted me to drive a cane wagon.

Planting sugar cane is much more labor intensive than anything planted (legally) in this part of the country. Planting soybeans, for example, consists of me backing the planter up to the seed tender, starting the conveyor to fill the hoppers with seed, turning on my iPod, and planting until the hoppers are empty. Not exactly difficult. Sugar cane is quite different. You start with a crew of 11 cane planters from south Florida, four tractors pulling cane wagons, a knuckle boom log loader, and several truckloads of cane from Louisiana. (the drivers of which were known by some as "the coon a-- connection.") The wagons are loaded with sticks of cane and three planters who will each toss cane into one row. The stalks of cane are dropped about three wide into a furrow and each joint in the stalk will sprout a new plant. Two more planters walk behind the wagons with machetes to trim twisted stalks and fill in any skips in the row. Walking with a machete isn't terrible--I did that for half a day or so. Tossing cane is a different story. The cane we used was twisted by hurricane Gustav and full of mud and fire ants. Pulling a few stalks off the wagon to fill in skips was as close as I wanted to get to this job.
The purpose of the whole cane experiment is quite interesting. The trial is on the prison farm (several thousand acres just laying idle--I don't have time to go into all of that) which years ago had 800 acres of cane farmed by inmates. The state sold the cane syrup, and the inmates used it to brew bootleg liquor in the toilets. Governor Bob Riley learned that a company called Amyris had developed a way to make synthetic diesel fuel from cane juice that was stable in cold weather and 80% cleaner than conventional diesel. In addition, Amyris is working on a process to make jet fuel. The Air Force wants to have 50% of its fuel from domestic, renewable sources by 2018. Governor Riley would like that fuel to come from Alabama sugar cane. The only problem is that the largest commercial cane patch in Alabama was five acres--not quite enough. The Governor met with Amyris, and the state funded a grant through Auburn to plant 100 acres of cane for seed stock. The idea is that this 100 will provide seed cane for 1,000 acres next year, and 10,000 the following. If the local area can support 50-60 thousand acres of cane, that will be enough to build a cane mill, with the goal of having 150,000 acres in the future. Will it work? Who knows. It did, however, provide me with some very interesting experiences.

I got to learn about the sugar cane industry.

I got to go flying. One of the extension agents from Auburn flew his homebuilt RV8 down to the project. He took me flying. He let me take the stick. He let me do a roll. People with questionable judgment make me happy. Prior to this, I had never been in control of anything more than three feet off the ground--and that was my four-wheeler jumping a dirt pile. Four-wheelers are fun, but they do not compare to flipping an airplane upside down and diving straight at the ground.

And I got to meet the governor. About two weeks ago, Governor Riley came down to tour his pet project, and Dad and I were invited to attend the presentation.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Peanut Harvest

Jason and his dad are finished with peanuts for this year!

Because peanuts grow underground, before they can be combined, they have to be dug up and turned over. Then they are left for a few days to allow the roots and vines to dry so the peanuts will separate from them easily. Unfortunately for y'all, I didn't get pictures of the digger. Just imagine a tractor moving very slowly in a linear fashion across a field.

This is the peanut combine. It's Owen's favorite piece of farm equipment. Unfortunately for him, it's a one-trick pony, and is only used once a year, but that doesn't stop him from talking about it year-round.

A close-up. Don't ask me how it works!

This is the nut cart that is used to transport peanuts from the combine to the truck. This is a huge timesaver, since the combine moves so slowly.

A peanut dump.

This is where your Jif comes from!

Another peanut dump in progress.

Get the scoop shovel ready! Bubba missed a little.Peanuts are dirty business! In the evening, the dirt from combining hangs in the air like fog, and is actually kind of pretty. All that pretty dirt will settle--right onto the clothes on your washline, through your screens and onto your furniture. Pretty, pretty dirt.

Some neighbors asked for some peanut hay for their cows. They picked up a bunch of missed peanuts too. She was roasting them in her oven.

A tailgate party. Tip I learned from Mom: pack a jug of warm, soapy water for washing up. She always did this for berry picking and picnics. Here I had used an empty 2-liter, just so you know we weren't washing our hands with Coke.

Jack the chick magnet.

And here's that ruggedly handsome farmer I've mentioned before. He might kill me for this picture, but I'll take the chance.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Now I know...

...why I bought all those $1 Dover paperbacks and covered them carefully with contact paper--so Helen could pull the whole stack of Thornton W. Burgess children's classics down several times a day. She de-books the shelves regularly. I'm not sure whether she is delighting in pure badness or if she is searching for just the right story. Several weeks ago, she latched onto Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, and paged through it very seriously on the recliner. Her attachment to that particular book lasted for several days. I became interested in it, and she grew territorial.

On another literary front, Owen is listening to Little House in the Big Woods. He snuggles into me while I read, and points at the pictures. "What's thay-at?" he asks in his cute southern accent. He is very interested in Laura, Mary, Ma and Pa, and their life in the woods of Wisconsin. Helen, however, tries to distract us while I read. Yesterday she threw toys up in the air and laughed a bad little laugh, then threw a sideways glance to see if she had our attention.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Guitar Smashing

Owen turned 4 on Sunday!

Unfortunately, he was sidelined by a case of hand, foot and mouth disease. So was his sister and his mom, and his baby brother had a mild, intermittent fever. I was very surprised to have gotten it, since it is a common viral illness among children. I must be lending my immunity to Jack while he is nursing. It's not the worst virus there ever was, but it is annoying. I have blisters on my palms and the soles of my feet and inside my mouth. The ones on my hands and feet feel like paper cuts. The ones in my mouth feel like I scalded it or I bit my cheek. I also feel like I got hit by a truck.

We had to adjust party plans. His cousin Abby was born the day after he was, and we were going to have a big shindig. Instead, we invited Jason's parents over for lunch after they came home from church. Owen's outlook improved once we told him our new plans.

He loved the card he got from us. His gift is still on its way.

Owen was so! excited! about his guitar cake. He could hardly take his nap while I was making it on Saturday.

We had cheese puffs! I don't remember buying these ever before. The label said, "Made with real cheese." Hmmmm. The kids had never tasted anything so good. I dignified them with china.

We had my final freezer casserole that I made before Jack came, an uninspiring pizza-rice combo, but it was something to eat. Ruth brought some yummy purple hull peas from her garden. I made garlic bread, and we had punch I had made for the big party.

Owen actually blew his candles out! He has never been able to do it before. He huffed them out one at a time. We love you, Owen! Happy birthday. We're glad you and Helen liked the cake.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Heather over at livin' the dream tagged me with this little number(s).

8 things that happened yesterday:
(I'm doing Thursday--it was more exciting, and besides, I was tagged on Friday.)
1. Jason took Owen to work with him until lunch. They hauled a truckload of peanuts to the buying point, then combined more peanuts.
2. I took Helen and Jack to the Health Department to get their immunizations. Helen got 6 shots and Jack got 3. Helen went first and cried, but was very brave. She almost cried for Jack's sake, too. She had a precious lower lip quiver and big teary eyes, all for him.
3. We went to McDonald's for a yogurt parfait treat for Helen. A lady behind the register gave her a Barbie Happy Meal toy, and a kind elderly gentleman sympathized with her shots, remembering the ones he got during Vietnam.
4. I went to Hudson's Dirt Cheap and found 6 large racks of new clothing priced at 25 cents a piece. I didn't make it all the way through, since I didn't see them until I had already gone through the $1 racks.
5. Jack screamed all the way home, since it was way past his feeding time. Owen cried too when I picked him up from the field. Helen fell asleep.
6. I typed like a mad woman after the kids were fed and tucked in for their naps. I do a little medical transcription for a local doctor, and I like to have it all done as quickly as possible after I get the tapes on Wednesday morning.
7. Helen presented us with a medical "mystery." I found a suspicious blister/sore on Helen's left heel and she had a low-grade fever. She had walked on top of an ant bed the day before, and they had nailed her right foot. But I had also found multiple brown widow spiders on our back porch this week--(freak out!) She had also had her immunizations that morning. Her nose was getting snotty. And she had a weird rash on her legs that had been there for a week, presumably from the cat. We figured out she had the hand-foot-mouth virus that has been going around--the weird blister and the fever. *Sigh of relief*
8. I served leftovers for supper.

8 favorite places to eat:
1. Red Lobster (cheddar biscuits)
2. The Original Oyster House (gumbo)
3. Mom's
4. Mom-in-law's
5. My house--with my family around the table
6. Greasy-spoon diners
7. Cock of the Walk (fried dill pickles and perfect coleslaw!)
8. Tailgate suppers in the field

8 TV shows I like to watch:
1. The Biggest Loser
2. What Not to Wear
3. You are What You Eat
4. How Clean is Your House
5. Uhhhhh.....

8 things I am looking forward to:
1. The end of the hand-foot-mouth virus in our house.
2. Going to Indiana for Thanksgiving.
3. Sunday--church, and a day off work!
4. Meeting our first baby in Heaven.
5. Losing the rest of this stupid pregnancy weight.
6. The next date with my husband (not on calendar yet.)
7. Sewing a dress.
8. Seeing Owen's face tomorrow morning--it's his birthday and I hung streamers after he was in bed.

8 things on my wish list:
1. A food processor attachment for my Bosch.
2. The words, "No, you go to bed, honey. I'll clean up the kitchen."
3. Unlimited $ for fresh fruit and veggies.
4. I wish I could understand everything my son says.
5. I wish Owen didn't have to miss his birthday party. (That hand-foot-mouth thing again.)
6. I wish genetic disorders were curable.
7. I wish I could take a pottery class.
8. World peace. (said with dreamy eyes and pageant hair)

8 friends I tag:
1. Whoever gets the urge.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Yesterday I was messing with my camera, and I found the sepia tone. Then I found the happy-but-blurry-baby tone.
And I already knew where the video function was. (And so did Owen.)

This was taken yesterday, on my Mom's birthday. (I called her!)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Family Fun

Once upon a recent Saturday, our family found an evening at home, all together.
Owen snuggled with Mommy on the couch after accidentally head-butting her.
Then he tore up some concrete with his tricycle.

Jack humored Daddy's babytalk. (Jack is laughing now.)
Then Jack reminded Mommy it was time for his monthly photo shoot.And Helen put on her crocs "all by self!"

On another evening, Jack's activity of choice was his bouncy seat with the toy bar, while kitty warmed his toes.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Cotton Harvest

Cotton is a favorite crop of mine.
It's southern snow!

The fields are all white after a defoliant is sprayed. This makes the plants drop their leaves, so the cotton can be picked more cleanly. They are also sprayed with a boll opener to open late-maturing bolls.
Here is an open boll. Note the five locks. Imagine positioning your fingers in order to pick it with one grab.
This is a closed boll. This poor little guy won't get picked. He was too stubborn to open, and now he'll be missed.

The locks fluff out into puffy strands when picked.
This is a hard-locked boll. The fibers inside will not fluff out and will not be picked. You can imagine how the boll looks at a younger stage. It develops in sections, sort of the same shape as a wedge of citrus.
These are the seeds that are contained within the cotton. Picking them out is time consuming. You can see the cotton fibers, which are actually hollow. Cotton is graded by staple length, how long the fibers are, and by micronaire, the diameter of the fibers.

Here are some little cotton pickers:
Here is what the empty cotton stalk looks like. It has a beauty all its own.For the farmer in you:
This is a real cotton picker. It is 4-row picker that Jason and his dad adjusted to pick their skip-row planting. They plant two rows and then skip one. They have a better yield that way, and also a lower cost of seed, fertilizer and chemicals.

The cotton is dumped from the cotton picker into this module builder. (Some farms have "boll buggies" that haul the cotton from the picker to the module builder.) The fluffy cotton gets stomped down with a hydraulic press that is powered by a tractor. It is packed into a giant block called a module. When a module is completed, it gets covered with a tarp to protect it from rain. The back of the module builder is opened, then the whole thing is raised off the ground and driven away, leaving the module behind. The module is tagged and marked with a specialized spray "paint," identifying it with the correct farm. The cotton gin takes it from there. A driver picks up the module and takes it to the gin, where it waits to be processed into bales (500-pound blocks of ginned cotton.) Farmers are paid by the bale, according to the quality of the cotton.
This is inside the module builder, before the module is totally finished. It was mostly packed, or you wouldn't see Jason and the kids at all! They would be in over their heads.
Jumping into cotton is a lot of fun. Years ago, Jason would climb on top of one of those posts, then get someone to raise it all the way up before he jumped. Here we were falling backwards into the cotton. It's such a funny experience. I always feel like I have to plug my nose before I jump!
Jack was oblivious to the action. In this picture, you can see how dirty the cotton actually is. The dirt is mostly dead, crunchy leaves, called pepper trash.

This year's cotton crop was a beautiful one. There was no rain to destroy the open bolls. It picked very cleanly, and you can clearly see the difference between the picked and the unpicked. If a field doesn't pick very well, sometimes farmers will do a second picking after a few more bolls open. This is called scrapping.
Owen is in the command seat of the module builder.

Here is Maggie. She doesn't like to miss out on anything.

Here is my cotton bowl. Heh heh. Clouds for supper!

And here is my attempt at a still life: