Lathe, Flowers, and Miscellaneous Stuff

(Where the grouchy farmer rambles on and on and on about misc. stuff because he’s bored.)

What Is the Future of Ethanol?

Someone asked me about the long term future of the ethanol fuel industry, and I think I rather shocked him when my reply was that it has no future. None. Within ten to twenty years the entire ethanol fuel industry will be dead if current trends continue.

The entire transportation sector is on the cusp of a major change as consumers become increasingly interested in electric vehicles instead of gasoline and diesel cars and light trucks. The current generation of EVs are extremely good for the most part. They now have significantly expanded ranges, often on the order of 200+ miles before needing to be recharged. They’re good looking, comfortable, nice to drive, and are far less expensive to operate than gas/diesel vehicles, and require little maintenance. The biggest problem right now seems to be the lack of fast charging infrastructure, and that is a problem that can be rather easily solved.

So if current trends continue, the era of gasoline/diesel fueled transportation is nearing the end. And that means people using ever decreasing amounts of gasoline and diesel fuel. And that is going to cause huge problems in the farming business because almost 6 billion bushels of corn goes to make ethanol. That’s not a typo. In 2018, the last year I had accurate data for, almost 5.8 billion bushels of corn, more than 40% of all corn grown in the US, went to making ethanol. And in a fairly short time, that market is going to come to an end.

You’d think that the ag industry would be concerned about this. But the ag industry doesn’t seem care. As far as I’ve been able to see, the ag industry is doing absolutely nothing to prepare for the day when literally half of their corn market is simply going to disappear. And that kind of scares me. Apparently they seem to think they can keep bribing lobbying Congress to keep propping up the whole market through increasing blending requirements and other government intervention in the markets. What they should be doing is looking to the future and examining alternative crops to take the place of corn. Not even the government is going to be able to bail them out of this situation.

Lathe Stuff

Walnut and white oak

I’m having way too much fun with that new lathe. I’m new to using this thing so I’m still in the experimental stage, learning how to use the tools properly, how to prep the wood, etc. I’ve managed to crank out a few items that are actually pretty good looking, but that’s due more to the woods I used for the project than my skills as a wood turner. It’s hard to really screw up a lathe project when you start out with wood as nice as in that bowl up there in that picture.

The biggest problem is getting my hands on cheap wood to play with. So far I’ve been using up scraps left over from other woodworking projects, but I have actually spent real money on some premium hunks of wood. Really good wood, with excellent grain patterns and good color for serious projects gets expensive pretty fast. I’ve seen some hunks of “artistic” woods going not for tens of dollars or even hundreds of dollars, but thousands of dollars. But then again I’ve seen people glue up bits and pieces of old shipping pallets they got for free and turn out some pretty respectable looking stuff.

wow, I really need to learn how to do better lighting when I take these photos.

This bowl is a work in progress, made from ambrosia maple, and yeah, that little hunk of wood up there was expensive. I think it cost about $25 for a 6 inch square, 3 inch thick piece of that stuff. And I was surprised to get it that cheap. The stuff seemed really too good to be true when I read the ad, but, well, heck, I thought I’d give it a try and ordered four pieces of the stuff and, well, holy cow it’s nice. Incredible colors and grain patterns. It’s absolutely spectacular.

I’m still in the learning and experimenting phase of all of this. Not every attempt at turning something has turned out good. Some have been complete failures. In one case I was turning piece of oak and it literally exploded. If I hadn’t been wearing safety gear I’d have probably ended up in the emergency room with face injuries. Learning how to properly use the tools takes considerable practice. You can watch all of the training videos you like, read all the books, etc. but nothing except actual practice will get you to the point where you can do this with some skill.

Sometimes things turn out pretty good, though. Like this one.

This one turned out a lot better than it had any right to. I still need to make a lid for this one. MrsGF is telling me I should be trying to sell some of this stuff. Yeah, I don’t know about that. If I start trying to sell it then this turns from a hobby into a job. And sell it how? Etsy? Ha! There’s so much competition from similar products on Etsy I don’t see how anyone would even find my stuff. Just look up wooden bowls over there and you’ll see what I mean. And prices are brutally low, with decent wooden bowls selling for less than $30. Sometimes a lot less.

There is something not quite right going on there. I suspect a lot of those “hand made” bowls are mass produced junk being bought up wholesale by the vendors. You can’t turn hand turn a bowl, sand it, finish it, pay for the raw materials, equipment costs, supplies, plus your time, and then dump it for $20 – $30 and still make a profit on it. Add in Etsy’s fees… Sure, there are “art pieces” going for hundreds of bucks, but how many of those actually sell? Few if any, I’d suspect. Considering the amount of time I have in that bowl up there, plus the cost of the wood, wear and tear on the equipment, supplies, etc. I’d have to get probably around $150 to break even on that bowl up there.

Tree Problems

Speaking of wood, our pear tree is literally collapsing under the weight of the fruit. It just went completely nuts developing fruit this year. It’s almost impossible to get a decent photo of the damage because most of it is up at the top of the tree. Looks like at least three major branches have completely collapsed, snapping off or cracking because they couldn’t support the weight of the fruit. I knew the tree was overloaded but I didn’t think it would get this bad. It’s going to be difficult to see just how bad it is until the leaves start to fall. We’ve actually been thinking of taking that tree down. It’s leaning at a crazy angle that seems to get worse every year and it shades out areas where we’d like to grow other things. And while having fresh pears in the autumn is great, a few pears go a long way and probably 95% of the pears end up in the compost. Well, we’ll see.

Gardening Stuff

The gardens are going through one last burst of color before autumn comes. But some things are already starting to die back.

The hostas are starting to look pretty nasty up in front of the house. One thing with hostas is that once a leaf is damaged by bugs or anything else, it never grows back, so the accumulated damage from an entire summer of bugs, rain, etc. is pretty apparent. Still they do amazingly well for most of the summer. Once the frost hits in the fall they’ll die back and we’ll just leave them until spring. The old foliage can then be raked up easily.

The tomatoes are starting to die back as well. They’re still producing but they aren’t going to be around for more than another couple of weeks. They did really well this year. We cut way back on the number of tomato plants we put in, and even so we still had more than we really needed. And we’ve learned to use a calcium supplement to fix the problems we’ve had in the past with blossom end rot.

This is where we had the pattypan squash. While the plants did well, the squash themselves were a disappointment as far as eating is concerned. I’ve never had a squash before that literally had no flavor at all. No flavor, no aroma, nothing. I don’t think we’re going to grow those again. We don’t have a lot of space here to begin with, so growing something with no flavor doesn’t make much sense.

For the last few years we’ve been growing full sized sunflowers right outside of the south window of the living room. Not only do we get to see huge, brilliant yellow flowers right out the window, we get the added bonus of seeing flocks of goldfinches come swarming in to eat the seeds this time of year. They’re little acrobats, hopping and clinging upside down to the plants to get at the seeds.

And they’re chattering away at each other all the while. I think a couple of them got into an argument about politics the other day judging from how loud they were yelling at each other.

And that’s about it for this time!

A Little Bit of Everything

I have a ton of stuff going on around here, but none of it is important enough to make a single post so I’m just going to shovel everything into this one [grin].

Cheap crappy lathe

I’m working on another lathe project, this one a bit larger than the last two, and that cheap Harbor Freight lathe is showing the strain rather badly. I got this as a gift so I shouldn’t complain… Oh, hell, sure I should complain. This thing is just plain nasty.

Harbor Freight has a reputation for selling cheap, cheap tools of questionable quality. My experience with HF tools has not been good, and this lathe certainly hasn’t improved my opinion of their stuff. While it worked fairly well for tiny stuff, putting a substantial chunk of wood on it has brought out all of its faults. I already knew it was made from cheap, thin, stamped sheet metal, including the base. In a real lathe, the bases are made from heavy, cast and carefully machined cast iron or steel. So this thing flexes and vibrates and shakes and rattles. The bearing are worse than awful. The motor is woefully underpowered. According to the label on the motor it’s rated at 1 HP. I’d be willing to bet it’s not even a quarter of that.

So I have to decide now if I like woodturning enough, and will do it enough, to justify dropping about $500 – $700 on a good lathe. I still haven’t made up my mind.

MrsGF tried something new this year, pattypan squash. We really like squash, but we haven’t had much luck growing it here. Last year our acorn squash was overcome by powdery mildew, and other years we had other issues. So she thought to try this. And it seems to be working beautifully. The plants are ridiculously healthy and absolutely loaded with fruit. We’ve never eaten this variety before so we’re looking forward to trying it. We have about three now that are ready to eat so this week we’re going to try them.

Biking as Meditation?

Everyone thought I was nuts when I dropped about $600 on a bicycle after I retired, figuring it was something I’d do for a couple of days and then it would end up hanging in the garage and getting in the way. Instead, several years and about three sets of tires and three thousand miles later, I’m still at it. And I have to admit that even I am a bit surprised at how much I enjoy it. But I’ve always been a bit of an outdoors person. I spent most of my childhood at the farm down in the woods, watching tadpoles in the streams, sitting in the woods watching chipmunks gathering acorns, watching frogs, listening to birds and trying to spot them in the trees… It was a journey of learning, amazement, wonder, and beauty. Well, except for the mosquitos. And somewhere along the way I lost that, only to have rediscovered it now. I get out on the country roads around here, especially down on the trail, and I can start to lose track of time.

And birds everywhere! Especially down along the river by the old stone bridge on Irish Road. Herons, ducks, egrets, even pelicans come down to the river. Yesterday I was watching a belted kingfisher perched on a telephone line running across the river, eyeing the water, and every once in a while diving down to try to snatch a small fish. I can hear the cardinals calling in the trees, but rarely see that flash of red. I see more of those in town where the trees are more sparse and it’s easier to catch sight of them.

And the smells… I am blessed with (or cursed with, sometimes) a hypersensitive sense of smell. As I’m out riding I can smell everything – the chicory and clover along the side of the road, the corn, the alfalfa fields, people mowing their lawns or cutting hay, a whiff of tractor exhaust wafting across a field from a distant farm, the fuel the RC airplane guys use in their planes as I get close to their flying field off Hwy 57, the wood preservative on the wooden bridge over the river on the trail, the occasional dead animal in the ditch, the asphalt outgassing on a hot day. And more often than not, an undercurrent of manure from some farm emptying its storage pits miles away.

I took up biking originally for the exercise. I went from a job where I was on my feet all day, walking for miles a day, to essentially nothing, almost literally overnight. So I figured I needed to do something or I was going to blow up like a balloon. And while the exercise is important, yes, the other benefits of being outside, the sights and smells and sounds and all that goes along with it, probably does more to keep me healthy than putting on 10 miles or so a day.

Gardening Stuff

It’s been a spectacular year for growing stuff this season. Weather has been just about perfect so far. We’ve had an unusually high amount of rain so we’ve only rarely had to resort to dragging out the hose and watering cans. We’ve been blanching and freezing wax and pole beans about three times a week for a couple of weeks now. We’re rather sick of it, to be honest. MrsGF came up with a bean salad recipe that is absolutely fantastic, so she’s been using up the beans, along with some of the peppers and onions we’re also growing, and canning that. Holy cow that stuff is good.

The tomatoes are just starting to come in. Not enough to process into a batch of sauce or soup, so I’ve been dicing them up and throwing them in the freezer. Just wash ’em, core ’em, slice or dice them, throw them in freezer bags, and then pull them out whenever we need tomatoes for something.

Pretty soon though we’re going to be deluged with tomatoes, so we need to decide what we’re going to do with those.

And flowers. The whole yard is alive with flowers this time of year.

Anyway, that’s about it for now. Stay safe out there.

New Lathe Project

So I’ve embarked on a new project on the lathe, and we’ll see how that turns out. As with most of my woodworking projects, it starts out with a mess:

Gads, does that look nasty!

It starts out looking like this glued up mess and will, hopefully, end up as a rather nice bowl. I started actually turning it this morning and currently it looks like this.

That lathe leaves a great deal to be desired, alas. When working on small items it’s not bad, but as soon as I start working with anything with some significant weight to it, the issues with the really bad, cheap bearings and poor balance quickly become obvious. And the whole thing flexes. The base is cheap, thin, stamped sheet metal. This blank is only about 5 inches across and is about 6 inches long, and this lathe has trouble handling even something this small. If I’m going to keep on playing around with wood turning I’m definitely going to have to look into a better lathe. But considering what lathes cost, the good ones anyway, I’m not going to stick that kind of money into this unless I’m absolutely sure this is something I’m going to do a lot of.

And in case you’re interested, and you probably aren’t, this is what I look like after spending an hour or so woodturning.

Is all that safety gear overkill? No, not really. NIOSH certified respirator and cartridges, goggles or face shield, are the minimum you need when doing stuff like this. It isn’t just chips and shavings flying off when you’re turning, it’s the very fine wood dust that’s generated when doing just about any kind of woodworking. Even with a dust extraction system and good ventilation the dust can wreck havoc with your lungs. Some woods are actually toxic and can result in severe allergic reactions with some people.

And those whining little crybabies complain about wearing a surgical mask in stores? I have no sympathy for them at all. They should try wearing this getup for a few hours. And to be perfectly honest, it is not that uncomfortable once you get used to it.

Crazy Gardens and Stuff

Well, it’s official. The gardens here have gone nuts. This is probably the best growing season we’ve had since we moved into this place twenty or so years ago. The ornamentals, the vegetales, fruit, everything is looking pretty much spectacular.

We put in a few raspberry plants a few years ago because MrsGF’s sister gave us some, or we wouldn’t have bothered because I can’t (or am not supposed to, anyway) eat raspberries because I have diverticulosis and seeds and nuts can cause it to flare up. They sit in a little 8ft by 8ft patch of the garden behind the garage and they never really did that well. Until this year. For about a week now I’ve been picking a bowl full almost every day. They’re starting to slow down now and will probably stop producing by the middle of next week. Beautiful berries. Just wish I could eat ’em. Sigh…

I wasn’t going to put squash in this year because we haven’t had very good luck with them. But MrsGF found a different variety and put in a few plants and they’re doing good too. So far no sign of powdery mildew which pretty much ruined them last year.

We cut back on the number of tomato plants we put in. Last year we put in 12 or 14 plants and even though it wasn’t a very good year for tomatoes we still had more than we could ever possibly use. We only put in six plants this year in the raised beds and, well, so far it looks like we’re going to get more off those six plants than we got off a dozen of them last year. They’re just barely starting to come ripe now and I’m looking forward to having fresh tomatoes again.

And dear lord, the beans… We put in two varieties this year, a wax bean and some pole beans and we over planted those as well, it seems. The picking season is only just getting started and we already are getting more beans than we know what to do with and are looking for ideas of dealing with ’em. We’ll probably be giving away a lot of produce this year.

We put in a few different varieties of peppers, and it looks like they’re going to be ridiculously prolific as well. I’m not really sure exactly what variety these are. They were labeled “hot pepper”, but no variety was listed. They aren’t really hot, though. They’re actually quite mild. There is a tiny bit of heat there, but they aren’t even close to jalapeno peppers. Nice flavor, though. I think I might try canning some of these as pickled peppers.

I’m a bit concerned about the pear tree. It’s so loaded with fruit that branches that normally are about head height are already being pulled down almost to the ground by the weight of the fruit. I think I’m going to have to start snipping fruit off the branches I can reach before we start having branches breaking off.

I call this the finch corner. The cone flowers and sunflowers are finch magnets, or will be in a week or two as the seeds start to develop more. In a fairly short time this whole corner will be swarming with finches coming for the seeds. Great fun to watch out of the windows of the house.

Let’s see, what else… Oh, I made a – a thing again!

Bottom part is cherry, top is… Well, to be honest I’m not sure what kind of wood the top is made from. It’s a piece of scrap I found down in the shop and thought it made a nice contrast with the bottom. You can see an indentation around the middle of the bottom part. That is going to be stained very dark, almost black, to add contrast.

What the heck is it? Who knows? It isn’t useful as a bowl or anything. It’s a sort of, oh, art piece? Maybe? Kinda?