Cheap Amateur Radio. The FT-450D and holy s**t it’s cold! And some flowers and stuff

Okay, can we stop with this nonsense already? It’s only Nov 8, for pete’s sake! Normally we don’t get really cold weather and snow until mid to late December. Usually it’s in the mid 30s to low 40s this time of year and you can still go outside without freezing your bits off. Last night it was 10 degrees. Night before that it was 11 degrees. And snow? Really? A lot of years we’re lucky if we have snow by Christmas. In the last two weeks we’ve had a total of about 12 inches here. Most of that melted off, thank goodness, but now that the temperatures have plummeted it’s sticking around.

There’s so much we didn’t get done outside this fall. Between MrsGF’s knee surgery and everything else that’s been going on, I just didn’t have time to get everything done. I didn’t get some of the dahlias dug up, so those are probably going to be a total loss. Didn’t get any of the leaves raked because I was waiting for both the pear tree and the maple in the backyard to shed their leaves. Only they didn’t this year for some reason. It’s been a strange, strange autumn.

On the plus side, MrsGF’s Christmas cactus is in full bloom and it’s gorgeous. I know a lot of people who just can’t get these things to blossom no matter what they do, but MrsGF has a real knack with plants. I’m not sure what it is. I suspect she could take an old, half rotted twig, shove it in the ground, and in a few weeks it would turn into a healthy tree. This thing just keeps going and going. Some years it blooms twice.

And she has a rose bush in the living room this year, also in full blossom, in November. I don’t know how she does that, either. But it does make me grin like an idiot to have a rose in full bloom while it’s 10 degrees and snowy outside.

But I was really going to talk about amateur radio stuff when I started all of this so let’s get on with this…

Yaesu FT-450D hooked to the SCU-17 interface. It’s been in production for a while but it’s still one heck of a nice little radio for the money

Oh, before that, though, I thought I’d just throw this in even though it has nothing to do with the headline starting this off. This is what it looked like here on Oct 31 a little after 6 AM.

Last day of October in Wisconsin.

Now I know this is Wisconsin and the weather here is a bit, well, odd, but still, really? Ick.

Now, finally, the amateur radio stuff!

The Dilemma

Whenever I start talking to someone about amateur radio, whether they’re other amateur radio operators or people who know nothing at all about it, invariably the topic turns to cost, and it becomes clear immediately that a lot of people, including a lot of hams, think that amateur radio is way too expensive. A lot of people I know who would otherwise be interested in getting into the hobby think it’s so expensive they could never be able to afford it. And that simply isn’t true.

I can’t really blame them for thinking that because some of this equipment is indeed expensive. The top of the line transceivers that the manufacturers and owners love to show off can quickly push up into the $5,000+ range or more. The Kenwood TS-990 sells new for just under $8,000 and iCom makes one that sells for more than $12K, for heaven’s sake. Once you add in other things that you may think you need, if you believe the ads, like amplifiers, computers, morse code keys, etc. you can quickly end up sinking $15,000 or more in a top of the line set up.

But here’s something the manufacturers don’t want you to know:

You don’t need any of that high priced junk.

Seriously. You don’t. If you want to get on the air on the HF bands (shortwave) you don’t have to spend a fortune. That little Yaesu in that photo up there costs literally less than one tenth of what my TS-990 costs new, and to be perfectly honest, does everything you need. Granted, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles the 990 has, doesn’t have the fancy displays and all that, but when it comes down to actually communicating, those bells and whistles aren’t really necessary and the 450 will do everything you need.

I was looking for a fairly full featured, small, full power (100 watts output), 12V powered transceiver to lug out to field day and special events or whenever I feel like it, in situations where the little low powered 818 wouldn’t do the job. I love that little 818, but let’s face it, with a maximum of 6 watts output (3 watts or less running digital), any kind of communications using it is going to depend more on luck than anything else. I ran across someone talking about the 450 and it sounded like a nice little transceiver so I looked into it more and decided it was just what I needed. It sells new for about $750 – $800 which is, as I said before, one tenth of the cost of my TS-990. You can find them used for about $500 or even less if you look around.

And for that price what you get is not some stripped down little radio, either. This thing has a lot of features, including a built in antenna tuner, decent filtering, good noise reduction features, etc. In fact, just about everything you might need in an HF transceiver is packed into this little unit. True, it doesn’t have many of the goodies my 990 has, but I have to admit that in real life I don’t use a lot of those goodies anyway. If this were the only transceiver I had, I would be more than satisfied with its capabilities.

But for me the main question was how well was it going to work using digital modes like PSK, FT8 and JS8Call because those are pretty much the only modes I use. And it turned out it deals with digital very, very well indeed. It took me all of 10 minutes to get it up and running with the SCU-17 you see sitting on top of it in that photo. It was just a matter of plugging in the cables, setting the baud rate in the menu, firing up the computer and setting things up in the software there, and I was on the air. Now granted I had only just fairly recently set up the Yaesu 818 with the same interface, computer and software, so I already had experience working with Yaesu equipment which certainly made it easier. But still, for me, getting a rig up and running on digital modes in under 10 minutes is a bit of a miracle, really. It took me days to get my TS-2000 working properly with digital modes when I first started this years ago.

It’s currently set up in the basement, hooked to the Titan Gap vertical antenna, and it’s been doing a very, very nice job. I’ve made contacts all over the place with it using JS8 and FT8, putting out about 40 watts.

Sidenote: The 450 may be capable of putting out 100 watts, but you never run full power in the digital modes on any transceiver because the power ratings of all transceivers are seriously misleading. Those maximum power ratings they give you are for single side band, which does not stress the transmitter in the radio. With SSB you’re actually averaging far less power output than advertised. Your signal may peak at 100 watts, but you’re actually averaging 50 – 60 watts or so because of how SSB works. Unlike SSB, most digital modes are considered to be 100% duty cycle. A general rule of thumb is when using digital, always dial your power levels back to less than 50% of the radio’s maximum. Sometimes the recommendations are as low as 25%. Otherwise you risk overheating the radio and damaging it.

Anyway, I’m very pleased with this little radio. I didn’t really expect much from it when I got it, and it has certainly exceeded all of my expectations. I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, and I’ve been using it more than my TS-990 of late.

Lets see, what else? Oh, yeah. This showed up courtsey of our friendly UPS delivery person the other day.

I picked up a Raspberry Pi 4 to play with to join the RPi 3s I’ve already been playing with. I have a specific goal for this one. There are Linux versions of FT8 and JS8Call that, I’m told, run just fine and dandy on the RPi. I’ll find out this winter as I experiment. My eventual goal is to put together a compact QRP digital system that is backpackable that I can take along when I’m out on the trails with the bicycle. I’d thought about configuring the Rpi as a tablet computer with just a touch screen and no keyboard. I’ve done that before with the Rpi3s I’ve had, but I think that might be a bit awkward, so I’m looking at compact keyboards and maybe a small trackball or touchpad for mouse control. We’ll see. This is still very much a work in progress.

I know, I know… The used Lenovo laptop I picked up was supposed to serve that role, and it does, but while it works just fine it is also big, heavy and clumsy to lug around. I can squeeze a RPi into a package not much bigger than a small tablet computer and a fraction of the weight. We’ll see how it goes.

And that’s about it for now. I’ve been boring you long enough with this.

Chilton Antique Tractor Show and Well, It’s Been Busy…

… here over the last few weeks. I’m not sure what the heck happened after I retired. I was supposed to have all this free time to play with amateur radio, do gardening, dabble more in photography, go fishing, etc. Instead it seems I have less time than when I was working full time. Oh, well.

We did go up north last weekend to visit some friends, although we did run across this —

We came across the rolled over milk tanker about 10 miles from the house. Fortunately no one got seriously hurt. I think he was empty because there was no leakage when we came across the scene just after it happened. It was on a roundabout, and this happens on a regular basis with these big trucks. They hit the roundabout too fast and flip over trying to make the corner.

The annual Chilton steam engine and antique tractor show was this weekend and that’s something I try to get to every year even though it makes me feel so old sometimes to see equipment that I used to run when I was a kid or teenager now classified as “antique”. Although to be fair a lot of the equipment we had on the farm back then was probably already antique by the time we got our hands on it.

This year the big surprise was this —

Now if you’ve never seen anything like that before, it’s for a good reason. They never made many of these, and there are only three of them left in the world from what I learned talking to the guy who was operating it. When I first saw it, it was largely blocked from sight and all I could see was part of the front with the engines and I thought someone had lugged a Shay type locomotive to the show.

Yes, it’s fully operational. This isn’t just a static display, it actually runs.

What the hell is it? It’s a log hauler that was used up until the 1930s to pull huge sleds carrying logs through the woods during the winter. Only about 175 of them were ever built. It could pull up to 300 tons of logs on as many as 25 sleds at a time. I ran across this when I was looking up more info on it-

I can’t even begin to imagine what it must cost to keep that engine repaired and operational. It must be incredibly expensive. I’m very glad they do, though. If it weren’t for people who support the preservation of equipment like this all we’d have are photos. They show it at Wabeno, where its home is, but they also take it out to at least one of these shows a year.

As I said, sometimes it makes me feel very old when I go to these and run across equipment I used to use, like this Massey 44. I used one of these when I was a kid. For a long time it was our primary tractor that did everything from hauling out manure to chopping feed to plowing. And while it may look pretty and make me feel nostalgic, when it comes down to it it was a nasty, nasty tractor to actually use. The front end was too light. Those front wheels would be entirely off the ground as often as not when it was pulling a heavy load. It was difficult to steer. It had mechanical issues. The engine was decent, but ours tended to overheat and the transmission wasn’t very good. And it sucked gas like you wouldn’t believe.

What I like about these shows too is that it gives us a glimpse into what life was like for our not so distant ancestors. Just the simple job of washing clothing was a major operation not that long ago.

Yes, that’s a washing machine being powered by an ancient gasoline engine. And while that engine might be a bit elderly for this setup, washing machines running off gasoline engines was not uncommon in rural areas. You have to remember that a lot of rural areas didn’t get electric service until the 1930s or even later.

On the amateur radio front, I’ve been fiddling with antennas again. Well, sort of. I’m finally getting around to getting the Gap Titan vertical finished and hooked up.

It successfully survived the winds we had during the recent storms. After 60 – 70 MPH winds hit us during those storms I more than half expected to see it laying on the ground when I got up the next morning, but it made it through unscathed. We almost forgot to put guy lines on the thing. If we’d neglected that I’m sure it would have come down.

I got the counterpoise/ground plane installed finally and, well, it takes up a wee bit bigger area than I thought it would. Going to be fun mowing lawn through there. But that area is going to be part of an extension to the existing flower beds anyway so I only have to worry about it for the rest of this season.

And I still don’t have the dopey thing connected. I got started, got all the tools out and began to work on putting the connectors on the coax and… Sigh…

I had the wrong one. I needed a female and only had the male variety, so I either needed a female or an adaptor. Not a big deal, but mildly annoying nevertheless. In any case, I didn’t really like the style connector they sent with the antenna in the first place. Thankfully, Farm and Home, the big hardware store down in Chilton has a big electronics section (used to be a Radio Shack store) and they’ll probably have what I need.

As for the weather – this has been one of the wettest summers I can remember. The lawns should all be brown and dormant from a lack of rain this time of year. Instead they’re all lush and green, as you can see from the photo there. I’ve only had to water the gardens about three or four times all summer long so far. Most summers watering is something we need to do every two days or so.

The rivers and lakes are all abnormally high around here because of all the rainfall.

This is the river down by the old stone bridge the other day. Normally this time of year the river is so low and stagnant that it’s choked with algae and weeds, and so shallow it would hardly be halfway up your shins if you tried to walk through it. It’s a good four feet deep or more, though, and had more than enough current to keep the algae from accumulating.

That’s about it for now. Hopefully by the next time I get around to writing something I’ll have some amateur radio stuff to talk about. I should have that antenna finally set up. I should have the new Yaesu 818ND up and running with the laptop using FT8, JS8Call and PSK.

And hopefully I’ll have made some progress in moving all my equipment down into the basement. MrsGF found a matching set of old, heavy duty tables at St. Vinnie’s that might make good work benches. They’re about 4′ square with heavy duty 4″ square legs. They’re beat up but look solid, and I can get ’em for $5 each, so I’ll go take a look at those on Tuesday.

Still have to make a decision on where the electrical outlets are going to be placed down there, but I didn’t want to do that until I had an idea on where the work benches were going to be, how tall they were, etc. Probably at least 4, four outlet boxes fed with 20 amp circuits, plus at least one 240V outlet for amplifiers. And need to rewire for better lighting. Want to put in LED lights to replace the existing fluorescent tubes that are in there now.

Garden Stuff

The hostas loved the cool, wet spring. They’re wonderfully lush this year.

Despite all the water we’ve been getting the gardens have been doing pretty good. We’re still a bit behind schedule because of the cool weather we had up until now, but the gardens at the house are definitely doing better than what the farmers around here have been experiencing.

When we bought this place some twenty or so years ago the front of the house was a mess. The space between the front of the house and the sidewalk was a nasty little border type flower bed mulched with small stones, sort of curved and indented, with some of the worst grass I’d ever seen between that and the sidewalk. It was a maintenance nightmare. The plants up there were some of the worst you could possibly select for a border, and because of the stones it was impossible to properly weed or do anything to improve the horrible soil.

We finally got fed up, went in with the tractor and ripped everything out, scooped up the stones with the front end loader and hauled them to a friend’s farm where he used them for fill, and we put in the cedar rail fence and the hostas. No bushes to trim any more, the fence has weathered to look like it’s been there for generations, and the only maintenance is to go in with a hoe and knock the few weeds growing in the mulch down once in a while. There are a couple of spots where I want a bit better coverage so I might throw in a few more hostas.

The tomatoes are looking pretty good. We put in a lot less of them than last year because we were nearly overwhelmed by them last year. We still have enough canned tomatoes to last us probably through 2019, although all of the soup and pasta sauce got used up.

With fewer tomatoes we had some extra room in the raised beds so we put onions in along the edge and they’re doing beautifully. We tried raising them in a different spot but they never got enough light and didn’t do well. They’re looking fantastic in this new location. They’re big enough now that I can run outside and pull a couple whenever I need onions for anything. I love green onions so they may never reach maturity, but that’s okay.

Every year I have to put in something different, this year it’s this, something that the label says is a “hot salsa pepper”. And that is literally all it says. I don’t know what variety or anything else about it. It is starting to produce pretty little yellow peppers, so that’s something. I picked one yesterday and tried it and it is most definitely not hot. Not by any standards. I’m not one of those people who loves peppers that make your face turn red and your eyes bug out and necessitate a trip to the ER because they’re so bad, but I do like a pepper that bites back at least a little. Jalapenos are about the limit of what I can handle for heat. But these, well, there’s just nothing there at all. Hopefully they’ll get better as they mature.

Speaking of jalapenos, I got another experiment going in pots on the front steps, a “mild” jalapenos. The two plants are doing quite well, both are in flower now and one is starting to develop fruits. The blurb on the tag was “all of the flavor without the heat”. I’ve tried variations of peppers like this before that claimed they still had flavor without heat, and they were disappointing. Usually when they breed out the heat, they also breed out the flavor, alas. But we’ll see what happens with these. They certainly are looking healthy.

And then, of course, there’s the water. Oh brother… The ground is still so saturated that you can audibly hear it squishing when you walk through the grass. And the whole area back by the raised vegetable beds still had standing water under the grass as you can see in that photo. If we didn’t have the raised beds nothing would be growing back there this year. I don’t think we’ve gone more than three days in a row without significant rainfall since April.

Let’s wrap this up with this one:

I end up with dozens of photos of that lily every year because I love the color, the shape of the flowers, and just about everything about that plant. It certainly didn’t disappoint this year.

Stuff

If you live in the midwest in the US you don’t need me to tell you that the weather hasn’t been very good. Unusually cold temperatures and seemingly non-stop rain has been hitting large parts of the midwest. Corn and soybeans were, for the most part, planted late or even not at all. Ohio seems to have been hit the worst. Looks like almost 25% of the Ohio corn crop isn’t going to be planted at all. The situation with soybeans isn’t quite as bad, but the numbers there aren’t looking very good either.

The exact numbers are uncertain because a lot of farmers and people in the ag industry are being openly, even brutally skeptical of the data coming out of USDA. There are claims USDA is including acreage that has been planted but is under water and will never grow, acreage that has been planted with cover crops instead of corn because it’s already too late to plant, etc.

I can’t confirm or deny any of those suspicions. All I know is that when I ride around the countryside I’m seeing a hell of a lot of fields that look like the picture there on the left; lots of mud, lots of standing water, and lots and lots of weeds. It is too late to do anything with fields like that except to try to plant a cover crop to keep down the weeds and prevent erosion. You aren’t going to get any kind of economically viable crop planted in this area, this late in the season.

What about hemp, you ask?

Well, okay, you didn’t ask, but I’ve had a couple of people ask me about what the situation is with hemp. It is now legal to plant, harvest and process hemp here in Wisconsin, and despite the fact that a lot of people have been hyping the hell out of it and claiming that it is going to be the savior of agriculture, well, hemp, so far at least, has been pretty much a total bust for those few farmers who’ve tried it. Raising hemp for grain was a total loss last year from what I heard. Because of wet fall it was almost impossible to harvest the stuff. And what they did get harvested was hit by mold because of the damp weather so they couldn’t sell it at all.

Instead of depressing stuff, how about some pretty flowers instead? This is alyssum growing in my backyard. Wonderful stuff. Beautiful tiny, tiny flowers that produce some of the most amazing scent imaginable. I love this little plant. Those flowers are very small, about the size of a match head.

Raising it to produce CBD oil didn’t work out too well either for a lot of farmers. One farmer I heard about did successfully get his crop in, but trying to actually sell it was a different story. It seems no one actually wants large amounts of the stuff. Or none that he could find, anyway. None of the CBD oil producers he’s dealing with seem to want more than a few pounds of it at a time, and you can’t make money that way. His problem is marketing, of course. It sounds like he jumped into production before he was even sure if he could sell the stuff.

Hemp isn’t going to be “the savior” of agriculture. It is, at best, going to be just another crop that some will have success with. And all of the hype about CBD oil seems to be mostly that, hype, with few actual facts to back up any of the claims. There seems to be some indications it can help with epilepsy and discomfort from arthritis, but that’s about it.

Antenna Stuff

Strange things are growing in my backyard behind the garage. No, that’s not some kind of weird sunflower, that’s a GAP Titan DX vertical antenna which has been laying around for years now. Eldest son and I finally got the dopey thing put up over the weekend. That thing has been laying around for, oh, lord, has it really been three or four years? Sheesh… Talk about procrastination…

It replaces the Comet 250 vertical that was back there since 2013. The Comet – people like to complain about it but to be perfectly fair it wasn’t a horrible antenna. It is exactly what they claim it is, a multi-band vertical that doesn’t need radials or a counterpoise, that works from 80 to 10 meters without an antenna tuner, and can handle up to 250 watts. It is unobtrusive, the neighbors probably won’t complain about it, and under the right conditions it will even work as an antenna. Sort of. Not a very good antenna, true, but it will work.

The Titan has a pretty good reputation. It too is an all-band vertical, but you can see that it isn’t exactly simple, with all kinds of stubs and wires and stuff coming off it. But it is much, much more efficient than the Comet. And I can feed this one up to 1,500 watts if I want to without damaging it, where the Comet, well, I heard reports that if you tried to put more than 100 watts into the Comet you’d melt down the coils. Anyway, I still have work to do on this one. I need to get the counterpoise installed, need to get some connectors on it, need to tune the stubs. Hopefully it won’t take me another four years to get it hooked up!

It’s up high enough so it won’t interfere with the flowerbeds behind the garage. The counterpoise will take up a bit of space so I imagine MrsGF will not like that, but I’m hoping to get her to upgrade to a general class license now that she’s retired and if she does she’ll get as much use out of that antenna as I will.

Speaking of flowers, (well, okay, I wasn’t speaking of flowers but what the heck) the lupins have just gone nuts this year. They’re everywhere. It looks like someone bombed the entire backyard with seed. We didn’t plant any of these, they just came up by themselves. Not that I’m complaining. Those flowers are spectacular.

Let’s see, what else? Oh, yeah…

Stuff On The Air

Amateur radio operators can be a bit, well, odd, shall we say? (Personally I suspect it’s solder fumes.) Some of them seem to be obsessed with lugging their equipment out of the safe environment of their basements where spouses have exiled them and into the great outdoors with the intent of doing “Things On The Air”. They do SOTA (summits on the air), IOTA (islands on the air), POTA (parks on the air) WPOTA (Walmart parking lots on the air), and, well, the list goes on and on.

I’ve decided to join the ranks of these intrepid and brave explorers going to exotic places and sticking still more letters in front of “OTA”, risking life and limb outside of the safety of my normal operating location. Yes, I’ve started FPOTA! Front Porches On The Air! Ooo, the excitement! Ah, the thrills!

The plant there is important. It adds about 0.001 dB to the gain of the antenna.

Well, okay, I’m being silly here. (But to be honest I’m getting really tired of these “OTA” things and people running around “activating” parking lots and hills and parks and bridges and I don’t know what all else.) Still, we had a very rare nice day so I set up the mag loop and the 818 out on the front porch with a cup of coffee, a copy of “The Bathroom Reader” and and contacted, well, no one, to be honest. Chris over at Off Grid Ham tells me he’s been having similar results and not to feel too bad about it. Propagation on the HF bands pretty much sucks because we’re at the bottom of the solar cycle.

By the way, if you’re at all interested in solar power, batteries, solar controllers, and alternative ways of keeping your radios running, battery charging systems, etc, Off Grid Ham is the place to start.

The Great QRP Saga Continues

If you’ve been reading this nonsense for the last couple of weeks you know about my efforts to put together a portable QRP (low power) radio setup that’s small enough I can throw it into the back of the car and take with me when I go fishing and stuff so I can do PTOCCOTA (Picnic Tables Of Calumet County On The Air). Okay, I’m being silly, but I have long wanted to have a nice QRP set up that I could take along with me to play amateur radio while out enjoying the glorious environment of Wisconsin’s great outdoors and it’s swarms of blood sucking, disease carrying mosquitoes and ticks.

I’m mostly interested in digital modes of communications like PSK, FT8 and JS8 because despite the fact my hobby is communications technology, I don’t like to actually, well, talk to people. Yeah, I know. Weird, isn’t it?

So as you may recall, the ancient Toshiba laptop I was going to use decided it was time to go to that great recycling center in the sky. So I’ve been scrounging around for a cheap (emphasis on cheap because I already got way too much money invested in this project already) replacement and came up with this:

It’s a refurbed Lenovo that I picked up for $300 and, frankly, it’s ridiculously nice. I mean this thing looks and feels literally like brand new. There isn’t a single scratch or smudge or physical defect anywhere on it. Has a core i5 processor, 8 gig RAM, 500 gig SSD drive, DVD drive, 4 USB ports and seems entirely too nice to lug around out in the field. I have FLDIGI, JS8Call and FT8 software installed on it already. And I think I have the right cables to hook everything up to the SignaLink and the 818. So this weekend I’ll be taking over the dining room table for a few hours and see if I can actually get all this to work together.

I am not looking forward to that because, well, it’s embarrassing. I’ve been working with computers since 1979, both hardware and software. I’ve been fiddling with radio for even longer even though I didn’t get my amateur radio license until 2013. I was an electronics technician. I repaired laser scanners, set up computer networks, worked with ridiculously complex point of sale systems. So I ought to know this stuff, right? But whenever it comes to trying to hook a computer to a transceiver it quickly turns into an extremely frustrating experience. It never, ever works the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth… Well, you get the idea.

I spent days trying to get Ham Radio Deluxe to work with first my Kenwood TS-2000 and then later with the Kenwood TS-990 and a RigBlaster Advantage interface. It was so frustrating that at times I was ready to just give up and then, for no apparent reason, the damned thing would just start working, with the same settings and cabling that didn’t work the day before… Arrgghhhh! The last time I had to rejigger stuff was when I got the new gaming PC and was trying to hook that up. Same settings, same cables, same everything, and, of course, it wouldn’t work right. Ham Radio Deluxe worked just fine and dandy until I wanted to transmit. Then it would key the transmitter but nothing actually transmitted… I struggled with that problem for way, way to long. And then it just started working for no apparent reason… I still don’t know what the hell happened there.

Anyway, enough of that. I’ve been boring you long enough with this stuff. Hopefully come Monday or Tuesday I’ll be able to report that I’ve got the 818 working flawlessly with the ThinkPad and I’m making contacts all over the place.

I doubt it, though.

Gardening Catch Up

Wow it’s been busy here. Well, at least when it hasn’t been raining, which it seems to have been doing almost the entire month of May. I’d say we’ve had maybe 5 nice days out of the last 30. The rest of the time it’s either been raining, or cold with temperatures never getting much above 55 degrees, or both at the same time. The farms around here are running weeks behind with planting. Well, so is most of the midwest. This time of year we should have just about all of the corn crop planted. Instead we have about 45% of the crop in the ground because the fields around here look like this:

We’re at the point now where if farmers can’t get the corn in the ground in the next few days they might as well not bother at all. Every day’s delay means a significant reduction in yield, and it isn’t going to be long before even the faster growing varieties won’t reach maturity before we get frost in the fall.

The commodities markets were so distracted by the trade wars going on that they didn’t notice the weather problems we’ve had, but they sure have now. Corn prices have shot up over $1 per bushel in the last week and a half, and are now sitting around $4.30 on the Chicago market.

But I wanted to talk about gardening, not farming, so let’s drop that and get on with this.

It was a hard winter here, which was easy to tell from looking at our yard, especially behind the house. The decorative plantings got especially hard hit, and the decorative area back there was an absolute mess.

The bark mulch had disappeared, for the most part, probably floating off in the heavy rains, the rest was discolored and deteriorating badly, parts of the area had sunk in where the old koi pond had been, the irises were drowning, it was pretty bad back there. So we decided the whole thing had to be redone. So we started digging up the old plants, moving rocks, putting in something like 250 retaining wall blocks, and about a week of work, and this is what we ended up with.

Still a lot of work to do but we’re getting there. You can see the raised vegetable beds off to the right.

We still have a lot of work to do to finish it off obviously. Some of the block have to be straightened up, some things moved around, but we’re relatively pleased with the result. One problem is that boulder sitting there. I moved that sucker there when I still had the tractor because it seemed like a good idea at the time and since the tractor got sold, well that’s where it’s going to stay, so we’re stuck with it and have to work around it.

It’s still pretty messy back there and we have a lot to do. We’re debating whether or not we want to put capstones along the top of the retaining walls. We have probably several more yards of dirt to haul in to fill the planting bed, a lot of crushed rock for the area around and behind the boulder, lots of plants to transplant into there and buy, and probably a truckload or two of mulch.

The old stone wall containing the garden at the back of the garage isn’t in good shape either any more. You can see what’s left of it here at the back of the garage. It’s just barely hanging on and needs to be replaced. But we’re pretty sick of putting in retaining walls at the moment so we’ll let this go another year and worry about it next spring. Despite the cold, wet weather you can see the raspberries are doing pretty good back there.

The 55 gallon drum you see in the background behind the lilac at the corner of the garage is our rain recovery system. There’s a piping system attached to the rain gutters that diverts water into the barrel that we use for watering plants in the dry season. Works pretty well. That’s generally enough to handle all of potted plants around the house. Not enough to deal with the vegetable gardens as well, but it helps a lot in keeping the water bill down during the summer.

We’ve cut back on the vegetable plantings this year. We had ridiculous amounts of tomatoes last year so we cut way back on that. Lots of pepper plants, though. We seem to go through a lot of those. But tomatoes? We still have quarts and quarts of canned tomatoes on the shelves from last year, although we did run out of soup and spaghetti sauce.

That opened up space in the raised beds so we put in a variety of onions this year to see how that works. I love being able to just go out in the backyard and dig up fresh onions when I need them during the summer. But the area where we were planting onions until now didn’t work very well because it was getting shaded out by the trees. The onions would start out well but would never grow very big because of the lack of light.

But then I have this going on right now —

She’s been sitting there staring at me for the last half hour waiting for her breakfast so I suppose I better feed the little goof.

Autumn

Autumn is finally here. With temperatures in the low 80s or even higher and high humidity for large parts of September, we were beginning to wonder what the heck was going on. But we’ve had a couple of hard frosts now and daytime temps are about where they should be for this time of year, around 45 – 50 degrees, and at night down in the mid 30s. It’s something of a relief after the hot, humid summer we had.

And the mosquitoes? OMG — they were horrible this year, especially starting in August and going through September. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. Walking through the grass would cause clouds of the little blood suckers to rise up around you. Getting close to any kind of bush would result in an immediate attack by swarms of the things. The bug repellants did no good at all. Deep Woods Off and the others we tried didn’t seem to deter them in the slightest. My wife’s sister and her husband started to wear their bee keeping suits just to go out in their garden to pick berries or tomatoes. Even the hard core environmentalists I know were so fed up they were resorting to chemical warfare and fogging their bushes and yards to try to get any kind of relief.

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 6.24.53 AMAnd while it seems we’re finally getting a dry spell, it was raining almost every day for the first two weeks of October. There is still water standing everywhere. Down by the old stone bridge where the river is usually almost completely dry this time of year the water is 4-6 feet deep and running fast, and it’s well over it’s banks in some places. But at least the farmers have been able to get out and get their soybeans off around here.

We still haven’t gotten all of the gardens cleaned up yet, but there’s no rush on that. We’ll probably get most of that done this weekend unless something comes up or the weather gets nasty.

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 6.23.36 AMThe sedum — what amazing plants those are. This time of year the color is absolutely astonishing, running from a brownish red to a deep, rich burgundy. And if you get out right after sunrise in the morning and see the flowers covered with frost crystals, wow, they look absolutely magical.

Speaking of mornings — My body and I have this argument going… I want to sleep until about 6 AM. It wants to get up around 4:30 for some stupid reason. It isn’t a big deal, more annoying than anything else. But, well, why? MrsGF thinks it’s because I spent so many years having to be up around 4:30 or 5 AM to do chores on the farm, but that’s silly. I haven’t actively worked in farming for ages now. In my last job I worked 2nd shift, working until 11 PM and not getting up until about 8 in the morning, and I had absolutely no problem at all with that. I liked it, in fact. But now that I’m retired and could sleep late if I wanted to, my body decides it needs to be up at 4:30 again? Sheesh… My doctor says maybe that’s all I need to sleep. Everyone is different. Not everyone needs 8 hours of sleep. If I’m healthy, which I am (sort of) and I’m not getting tired during the day, and I’m waking up feeling refreshed and comfortable, well, don’t worry about it.

Let’s see, what else — Oh, someone asked me about the new iPhone XS Max and was wondering if it was worth all the hype and what it was like to actually use. After living with this thing for a month or so now, it is a pretty slick piece of equipment.

The camera is quite good. Not up to the standards of a dedicated mid-range or high end camera, but for a phone? Yeah, it’s good. It has a semi-decent real telephoto lens, up to 4X. Color rendition still seems a bit off to me, but that’s a personal opinion.

As a media device it’s excellent. The sound quality out of those tiny little speakers is, frankly, astonishing to me. I have no idea how they get sound like that out of something that tiny. I sprung for the AirPod thingies, Apple’s wireless ear buds. I find those astonishing as well. To me the sound quality is amazing. They were ridiculously easy to set up. Just bring them near the phone and they automatically link up. I didn’t need to do anything. No issues with those as well. But whenever I use ’em I’m always worried one of them will fall out of my ear and I’ll break it or lose it so I’m always nervous when I wear them outside. Are they worth $150? Hell no. The sound quality is good, but not that good. To my ears the sound quality isn’t any better than the $40 wired earbuds I used with my old iPod.

The screen is absolutely fantastic. Crisp, clean, outstanding color rendition, incredibly high resolution. Streaming movies or TV on this thing is a joy. It isn’t as nice as, oh, a 40 inch high-def monitor, but for a device this small it’s wonderful. I find myself reading my Kindle books on it all the time now because I don’t get eye fatigue from trying to read a fuzzy display. And for the first time the auto-brightness functions that are supposed to adjust the brightness of the display to suit viewing conditions actually works on this phone.

So it has a good camera, it’s a fantastic portable media player, how does it work as an actual phone?

Badly. I’m sorry, but as a phone it just isn’t very good. Cell reception is horrible. And I’m not the only one who’s been having this problem. There have been a lot of reports that cellular reception with the XS models is pretty poor. Frankly if the phone didn’t have WiFi calling I probably wouldn’t be able to use it as a phone at all here in the house. But that being said, WiFi calling is amazing. Just flip a switch in the settings and it turns on, and talking to someone on the phone is as clear as if they were in the room with me. But still, it isn’t, well, a cell phone then, is it? It’s using VOIP and damn well should sound that good.

Face ID – everyone knows by now that the new iPhones starting with the 10 series unlock by facial recognition. This seemed to freak some people out for some reason, but I’m not going to go down that road. The question is does it work, and the answer is definitely yes. Even wearing my bike helmet and wrap around sunglasses it recognizes me. Occasionally there will be an issue for some reason, but then it just goes to the standard PIN number unlocking system.

Wireless charging – the model I have, the XS Max, supports wireless charging and charging stations are available for well under $40. The one I have cost all of $24 and seems to work pretty well. Just put it face up on the pad, wiggle it around until you feel the phone buzz, and it starts to charge. The only issue here is that it won’t charge when it’s in a case, and who in their right mind doesn’t put a $1,200 phone in some kind of protective case?

But maybe the whole issue of needing a case is becoming unnecessary. I’ve seen tests where the XS phones have been drop tested and they’re pretty impressive. The ones that I’ve seen show the phone surviving drops of 4 feet or less on a concrete floor with no damage at all. In one test they kept increasing the height of the drop and it wasn’t until they dropped it from over 10 feet that there was any damage at all, which was slight. And the phone wasn’t actually destroyed until they dropped it from 20 feet down a stairwell to a concrete floor.

I’m sure as hell not going to try that, though. Nor am I going to test the water proofing. The XS is supposed to be pretty water resistant, but I’m not about to dunk it in a bucket of water to see if it really is.

The question is, is this thing worth the cost? This is, after all, one hell of an expensive piece of equipment. The model I have goes for around $1,200 retail. The only reason I can afford the thing is because I don’t buy my phones, I lease them and get a new one every 18-24 months under the leasing plan.  So is it worth it? Frankly, no. You can get a phone that does pretty much everything this one does for half the cost or less. It wouldn’t sound as good, wouldn’t have the beautiful display, wouldn’t be as fast, but it would work just fine and do everything you need a phone to do.

But that being said, despite the reception problem, holy cow it’s fun to play with. It’s so fast, the display is so good, the sound quality is so good, that I find myself using it more and more.

Farm Catch Up

It’s been a while since I did one of these so let’s see what’s been going on in the agriculture industry.


Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 5.43.30 AM.pngI’d be willing to bet there are a lot of people over at Bayer who are wishing that they’d never thought of the idea of buying Monsanto. Before Bayer completed its purchase of the company, it was already involved in a lawsuit in California claiming that RoundUp ™ caused the plaintiff’s (a school groundskeeper) cancer. The company lost and was hit with a $289 million dollar judgement against it. Bayer is trying desperately to get the judgement voided, claiming that there is little or no evidence to prove the product causes cancer and a lot of evidence proving it doesn’t.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, is facing dozens of similar lawsuits. There are apparently about 8,700 people in the US who directly blame the herbicide for their cancer, so Bayer could be in court for a long, long time over this unless the company can figure out a way to get out from under this.

Note: The day after I wrote the above item a judge in San Francisco has indicated she is inclined to set aside a $250 million punitive damage judgement against Monsanto and even reopen the case. In a preliminary statement the judge said the plaintiff’s lawyers did not present clear and convincing evidence of malice and suppression of information by Monsanto.


The Farm Bill – The farm bill has turned into more or less a very unfunny joke over the last few decades. It has less and less to do with agriculture and more and more to do with social welfare programs, especially SNAP (food stamps). Something like 80% of the funding in the so-called farm bill actually goes to the SNAP program, not to agriculture. So while the collection of laws and regulations that has become known as the “farm bill” does indeed deal with things like crop insurance, ag subsidy programs and other ag related programs, the vast majority of the money involved is funneled into the SNAP program.

This means that when it comes time to redo the bill, the political bickering gets intense and it’s gotten harder and harder to get the thing passed. It is currently bogged down over, surprise, disagreements over the SNAP program, and doesn’t look like it’s going to pass any time soon. You aren’t going to see any action on the FB until after the November elections, and there’s a good chance it could be pushed off into next year, which means the whole bill would have to be rewritten and the whole mess would have to start all over again.

One of these days I should really write an article about what the “farm bill” really is and how it was transformed from a collection of programs to help agriculture into a program where 80% of the funding goes to non-ag related support programs, and why there is so much resistance to splitting off the welfare related parts of the whole mess and making the farm bill really about agriculture again.


Sales of the abomination that is “American Cheese” are declining according to an article from Bloomberg over at AgWeb. As a friend of mine once said when confronted with so-called “American cheese” for the first time, “I don’t know what the hell that is, but it isn’t cheese.” A lot of people have said even less flattering things about the stuff, with some justification. With a list of ingredients that reads more like a chemistry lesson than something you should see in a food product, the muck was invented back in 1916 and was canned (yes, canned) and sold to the US government to feed soldiers during WWI. I’m not sure why sales are declining. Perhaps it’s because people are finally finding out that it doesn’t really taste like, well, much of anything, really. Except salt. Certainly it doesn’t taste like actual cheese. Perhaps they’re concerned about the fact that a lot of those ingredients in it shouldn’t be anywhere near any kind of product you put in your mouth. Or perhaps it’s just a trend. But whatever the reason, restaurants and even the fast food joints are moving away from the stuff and switching to actual real cheese for their products, and have been for quite a while. Except for McD’s and a few other fast food places, restaurants switched to using real cheese some time ago, substituting cheddar, swiss, asiago or blends of different cheeses for their cheeseburgers, grilled cheese, etc.


Sears Files for Bankruptcy. The Sears bankruptcy didn’t really surprise anyone. We’ve seen that coming for years now. The only really surprising thing is that it took them this lon to do it.

Why talk about Sears in a post about farm news? Well, if you grew up on a farm in the 60s like I did, Sears was the place you went for just about everything from work clothes to hand tools to car batteries to household items. I’m sure there will be (if there aren’t already) books and scholarly papers written about the decline and fall of what at one time was the biggest retailer in the country.

It is popular these days to blame Amazon for the failure of retail stores, but even as early as the 1980s the company was showing signs of serious problems. The quality of the store branded products it was selling began declining. Craftsman hand tools which had been of good quality and came with a lifetime warranty, became less polished, less well made, and that famous lifetime warranty which had always been a major selling point for them, disappeared. The company seemed to lose focus. It moved into areas that made no sense. It started selling glasses. Portrait studios began popping up in the stores. The stores started to look more and more shabby as the company tried to cut costs, and Sears’ reputation declined rapidly. The only thing its cost cutting measures did was drive more and more customers away. And the worse its financial situation became, the more strange the decisions of management seemed to become.

The purchase of Kmart (I’m not really sure who bought who, if Sears bought Kmart or Kmart bought Sears. Not that it really matters) was pretty much the last nail in the coffin, really. Who in the world thought that a failing company buying a retail chain that was in even worse financial shape than it was made any kind of sense at all?


Weather – Up here in the midwest the weather has been, well, odd. By Oct. 9 we’d already had more rain than we normally get in the entire month, and it still hasn’t stopped. We’ve had rain every day for the last 14 days or so and we’re getting a bit tired of it. Soybean harvest should be almost done by now, but a lot of fields are still standing because the farmers can’t get their equipment in the fields without burying their combines in mud.

Over in the Dakotas they got hit with a snowstorm that dumped 5-9 inches of snow on them right in the middle of soybean harvest.


E-15 On The Way – The administration announced it was going to approve the use of E-15 fuel (15% ethanol blend) during a campaign rally in the midwest. While it’s been approved for limited distribution during certain times of the year already, it will, apparently, now be available all the time. While some corn farmers (and the ethanol makers, of course) are cheering the decision in the hope it will boost corn prices, a lot of other people don’t think it will have much of an effect, if any, on corn prices in the long run.

There are a lot of problems with the whole ethanol fuel idea. It isn’t a very good fuel, it isn’t really very “green” as far as the environment is concerned, it’s a government mandated program so it can be ended overnight at the whim of congress, and, when it comes down to it, it’s a dead end technology. The future of the automobile appears to be electric. Once Tesla proved it was possible to make a vehicle with a realistic travel range at a fairly reasonable cost, the big car makers began to jump on board and now just about all of them have at least one EV or they’re going to be coming out with one soon. I suspect that the next vehicle I buy will be an EV. I’d probably already have a Tesla if they had a normal dealer network where I knew I could get the thing serviced.


Dicamba Lawsuit Coming Up – Monsanto put it’s dicamba resistant seed line on sale a year before the government approved the dicamba blend herbicide Monsanto intended to be used with the new seeds. Apparently that didn’t stop some farmers from using regular dicamba with the new crops, resulting in widespread damage to adjacent crops and other plants. The problem with dicamba is that it vaporizes easily and can drift over very long distances, causing widespread damage. So, of course, there are lawsuits. The first of these is coming to trial in October of next year. The plaintiff blames Monsanto (now Bayer) for the damage, claiming that the company should have known that as soon as it started selling the dicamba resistant seeds, farmers were going to use unapproved mixtures of dicamba on the crops.

While I think Monsanto should not have started selling the new seed lines until the herbicide blend was approved, as far as I can tell the company did indeed warn farmers, seed dealers and herbicide applicators that there were no legally available dicamba blends approved for use at that time with the new seeds. The damage was caused by growers and applicators who illegally used dicamba blends that were not approved for that use at that time. So I don’t know how Monsanto can be held responsible for that damage.

But that being said, there are serious problems with even the approved dicamba blends of herbicide. Even the approved blends seem to be drifting over long distances, damaging tens of thousands of acres of crops. While the company continues to claim this is due entirely to improper use by the applicators, states and the feds are putting ever increasing restrictions on the use of the stuff, and some states are thinking of banning it entirely.

Well, that’s enough of that. You’re probably getting as bored as I am already😜