Don't Alert the Universe

Sidehill Farm News

Don't Alert the Universe

We have a running joke here at Sidehill that you must never make travel or vacation plans too far ahead of time. Planning ahead only serves to alert the Universe to an opportunity to wreak havoc, because in this Sidehill-vacation-centric understanding of the world, the Universe is sort of like the Empire, or the Dark Side. It is lurking just around the other side of the planet, accompanied by a low brass orchestra playing ominous music, waiting to glide on to the scene at the last minute and vaporize your plans. Invite us to a picnic two weeks ahead of time - we’ll never make it because a cooler compressor will go down just as we are pulling out of the driveway. Summer wedding planned for 6 months? Guaranteed tractor meltdown in the middle of baling hay. But invite us to come for dinner in half an hour? - we’re definitely there. Spontaneous flies under the Universe’s radar.

And so, with bated breath, we enter February. February is vacation month. We’re closing the creamery for a week during school vacation so Craig, Shahid, and Brian can spend time with their families. Stella is taking a week to go skiing and hang out at a bluegrass festival. Paul and Amy are leaving the country for 10 days. None of this can be spontaneous, and so we go into February with full knowledge of the truth. The Universe has Been Alerted.

Now, we have learned a few things about the Universe over the years. The first thing we’ve learned is that once the Universe has Been Alerted, there are just some things we can’t control. Like 4 feet of snow in 24 hours. Like an entire electrical panel failing so that Cecilia (Celia-of-all-trades-but-not-previously-including-electrician) has to rewire a 200 amp service with only Paul on the other end of an international call and a flashlight held in her teeth. The parlor wastewater system freezing solid so Hansen is in the ditch on his knees in 6” of poop water in zero degree weather. Or a state-issued a travel ban so we can’t deliver yogurt, which means everyone needs to deliver yogurt on the next day when they should be making yogurt, which means we won’t have space in the bulk tanks for the next few milkings because yesterday's milk didn’t get made into yogurt. We no longer stress about this type of thing, because they are just going to happen, no matter how we plan and prepare. And a little adventure is good for team-building and morale. Right team? 

The second thing we’ve learned, is that the more things that go wrong in the week before vacation, the better. It’s like the Universe puts a bunch of energy into preparation, and then runs low on calories when actual vacation occurs. So far, things are looking good. Three of the four delivery trucks have been in the shop this week for everything from bad wiring, to faulty transmission oil sensors, to locked up brakes. The PTO shaft on the bale chopper snapped in half. The tractor trailer got stuck on the ice at 6:00 am, and in the attempt to pull it off, we ripped the lift arms off the 100 horse tractor. The new waterers in the barn leaked and dumped an inch of water behind the headlocks and froze all the cow’s hay to the floor. Then at noon on Tuesday, the power went out. In the 4 years that we have been farming in Hawley, the power has gone out only twice before - once on a weekend, once at night. Yesterday, however, we were right in the middle of packaging yogurt. Now once the cultures go into the milk, we have only 2 and a half hours to get it in containers before it starts setting up and getting too firm to go through the filling machine. When the power went out there was only one hour left of culture time, and sixty gallons still to package. A quick call to National Grid told us that there was “damage to the underground infrastructure” - (read: someone dug up a buried power line), and power would not be restored until after midnight. Gulp.

So we pulled the big tractor mounted generator out of the machine shed, and drove it over to the main service panel. We’ve all been through the exercise of hooking it up before, but for some of the team, this was the first time for real, and under a significant amount of time pressure. We shut off grid power, hooked up the generator, and got power flowing back into the creamery. Lights came on. Milk pumps ran and filled the hoppers. But Sheldon the filling machine spit and fizzed, and shut back down. We shut off everything else on the panels. He still wouldn’t run. Paul was on the phone with C&S Electric motors, Craig with Sheldon’s manufacturer, both yelling over the roar of the tractor. Stella ran home to send emails and phone calls that had to go out that day. Things were not looking good, when Paul guessed that maybe the voltage was too high. He knocked the RPMs on the tractor down, and suddenly, Sheldon hissed and clanked to life. Yay! Craig and Shahid jumped into action and managed to get the yogurt packaged with less than a minute to spare.

Then, feeling confident, we restarted the walk-in cooler. Very, very bad electrical noises crackled from the controller boxes. But now, being experienced generator trouble-shooters, we guessed the voltage was too low. We revved up the tractor, and the compressors rattled into action. Next, heat pumps to the incubation room, the wash pumps, and, most desperately, the teakettle so we could make coffee. Then we figured we better stop, so we didn’t overload the generator. We were just putting our heads together about how we were going to get the cows milked, cool the milk, and cool the yogurt tonight, when the power came back on. Whew! 

The Universe has made some pretty good attempts this last week - and we’re hoping that as a result, it’s party-pooping resources are seriously depleted. But thanks to the Universe, this week we remembered the most important thing we’ve learned about going on vacation - that we have an amazing team here at Sidehill Farm. It’s a group of smart, generous, hard-working, fun-loving people who aren’t afraid of an occasional adventure and a chance to put their heads together and puzzle their way out of a mess. Craig and Stella, Sha and Brian, Faye and Phil, Anne and Dennis, Ken and Dave and Steven, thank you for being awesome. May the Force be with you this February.