My sister gave me a bunch of plants the other day. Years ago, she moved into a house that previously belonged to VERY serious gardeners, and inherited beautiful perennial beds full of all sorts of useful and beautiful plants. One of them is rhubarb. At my request, she hacked me off a chunk (all you have to do to divide rhubarb is drive a shovel through the corm and replant - it's pretty hard to kill. So I hear. I might manage it - I can kill almost anything.).
People tend to either adore or despise rhubarb. I am firmly in the former camp. I love it's tart, citrusy taste. Rhubarb is one of the earliest spring crops, along with asparagus and young greens. Just when we are all dying for a taste of fresh food, rhubarb offers it's beautiful ruby stalks, bracingly astringent and delightfully healthy. Although a vegetable botanically, it is a fruit culinarily. Chopped, stewed, and heavily sweetened, it can be eaten as is or added to quickbreads, cake batters, pies (of course), or served over ice cream or stirred into yogurt.
There was a large rhubarb plant in the garden of the house I grew up in. It is a nostalgic plant for me. That garden is the setting for most of my memories of my father before the divorce, when I was seven. I remember harvesting rhubarb with him and taking it into the kitchen and giving it to Mom, who made it into strawberry-rhubarb pie.
I also love rhubarb for it's beauty, and for the fact that it is a hardy perennial. I am trying to grow as much food as possible from long-lived perennials (fruit trees, nut trees, berries, asparagus, artichokes, et cetera) because I am so very very lazy. Why break your back every year digging and hoeing and raking and mulching to raise short lived annuals when you could do the same work once and get increasing returns every year for decades? Rhubarb lives a long time.
My sister also gave me a whole bunch of raspberry canes, which I am thrilled about. Raspberries are probably my favorite fruit. But I'm not going into a lot of detail about them because everybody knows and loves raspberries. They don't need a cheerleader, whereas Rhubarb kind of does. Here is some information I dug up on the medicinal properties of rhubarb - seems like quite a handy plant, all told.
From The Rhubarb Compendium:
Rhubarb has a long history of herbal usage. The primary result of rhubarb root as an herbal medicine is a positive and balancing effect upon the digestive system. Rhubarb is one of the most widely used herbs in Chinese medicine. Rhubarb roots are harvested in the fall from plants that are at least six years old. The roots are then dried for later use. The root is used as an anticholesterolemic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antitumor, aperient, astringent, cholagogue, demulcent, diuretic, laxative, purgative, stomachic and tonic. Rhubarb roots contain anthraquinones which have a purgative effect, and the tannins and bitters have an an effect that is opposite that of an astringent.
When taken internally in small doses, rhubarb acts as an astringent tonic to the digestive system, when taken larger doses rhubarb acts as a very mild laxative. The root can be taken internally for the treatment of chronic constipation, diarrhea, liver and gall bladder complaints, hemorrhoids, menstrual problems and skin eruptions due to an accumulation of toxins. Note that this remedy should not used by pregnant or lactating women, or patients with intestinal obstruction. Used externally, rhubarb root can be used in the treatment of burns.
People have further claimed that Rhubarb enhances the appetite when it is taken before meals in small amounts, that it also promotes blood circulation and relieves pain in cases of injury or inflammation, inhibits intestinal infections. and can also reduce autoimmune reactions. The impact of the rhubarb depends on how it is prepared. More recently there have been claims that rhubarb root (Rheum officinale) can be useful in treatment of Hepatitis B.
Psyllium Seed 3 parts
Licorice Root 3 parts
Rhubarb Root 2 parts
Senna Pods (crushed) 2 parts
Angelica Root 2 parts
Drink as a simple infusion in evening.
Cascara Sagrada 2 parts
Oregon Grape 2 parts
Cayenne 1 part
Ginger Root 1 part
Lobelia 1 part
Rhubarb Root 1 pt.
Stimulates peristalsis for chronic constipation of long duration. 2 "00" caps with water, morning and evening. When feces soften up go to 1 capsule twice a day.
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
This morning, the last-born buckling of Flopsy's new triplets was laid out flat off in a corner by himself. I thought he was dead, but no, just cold.
I almost wish he were dead - Flopsy can't feed triplets and I don't want a bottle baby. I brought the poor little thing in the house and warmed him up by putting him inside a plastic garbage bag and dipping him in a sinkful of very warm water (vet trick). I wrapped him in a heated towel and put him in my bed, under the down comforter. Homero was able to get about two ounces of colostrum from Flopsy, which I fed to the baby with a syringe. Now we just wait and see if he revives.
I hate triplets. Two years in a row with all three mamas throwing triplets, and three dead/dying babies. I'd much rather have twins. Not as hard on the moms, either. Growing triplets and then feeding them is an amazing feat, and the goats always get skinny and ragged looking, no matter how much I feed them. Free choice grass hay, plus alfalfa, plus grain.
I think I may take a year off from babies next year.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Flopsy and the "twins"
Bad presentation: Head alone, feet back. I had to pull this kid, but she's fine now.
Mama goat love. Flopsy is a good mama.
Flopsy gave birth this afternoon- about an hour ago. This morning when Homero and I went out to milk and feed, I knew it would be today. It's funny - you just develop an eye after a while. Her belly had dropped about four inches toward the floor, and her udder was suddenly bigger and tighter. After dropping the girls off at school and running a few errands, I came back home and went straight out to the barn to take a look.
All the other goats were out grazing, but Flopsy was in the barn, standing still and looking preoccupied. That was enough for me - I hustled her into the mama barn and sat down to wait. Within a few minutes, the string of goo appeared. The string of goo is your A-1 indication that labor has not just started, but is progressing. You want to see kids on the ground within a half hour of the first appearance of the string of goo.
Unfortunately, what shortly appeared at Flopsy's backside was not the normal nose-on-two-hooves presentation, but a head alone. That means the legs were back - not a terrible presentation (like last year: http://newtofarmlife.blogspot.com/2010/03/scary-sad-and-happy.html), but not something you like to see, either. The kid was stuck with her head sticking out for a few minutes, and she looked dead - but when I touched her she rolled her eyes and flicked her tongue. Then I knew I'd have to pull her. Damn. The head was out to the shoulders - it wasn't going back in. I just had to grasp the poor little beastie gently behind the jaw - aiming downwards - and haul. I waited for a contraction (always work with the uterus, not against it) and applied a medium-serious amount of force. Maybe thirty or forty pounds? The kid slid smoothly out to the hips and dangled there for a moment, until I decided to finish the job and yank her.
When I noticed Flopsy was straining again, about ten minutes later, I assumed it was the placentas. But a bubble appeared; and I know there was another kid. At least this third kid was well-presented - the only one of the three that was. But the poor little thing had been inside a long time and was almost dead. It took him quite a while to start snuffling and sitting up, and Flopsy wanted to ignore him. I thought about letting him quietly slip away - Flopsy has a damaged udder from mastitis as a primipara and I doubt she can feed three kids - but I just couldn't bring myself to watch him die. I wiped him down with hay and shoved him under Flopsy's nose, and she began to take an interest and nicker and lick him.
Last thing I saw, the two early kids were up and nursing, but the last little guy was still struggling to stand. I held him up to the udder, but he didn't even really try to nurse. There was no butting reflex. I squirted some colostrum into his mouth, just so I'd know he got some, and I'll just let them all be for a while and see how they do. I won't cry if the last little buckling doesn't make it - in fact, as soon as I sign off here, I'm putting an ad on Craigslist for a free bottle baby. I'm fairly sure Flopsy won't be able to feed three, and I really don't want to watch one of the triplets slowly starve to death.
I LOVE the looks of the little doeling. She looks just like Storm Cloud, but female. I've been waiting forever for a little spotty doeling like this. I might have to keep her... risky genetics and all.
Friday, March 25, 2011
For a long time, I've been interested in foraging wild foods. I've collected a fair number of field guides and amassed a pretty good knowledge base, but I haven't done as much actual foraging as I would like. Berries; now, everyone picks berries. Besides blackberries, I can recognize salmonberries, thimbleberries, and huckleberries. Blackberries are by far the best, of course, and I try to put away at least a few gallons in the freezer every year, besides making as much of them as I can fresh during the season in the form of pies, smoothies, jams, and bowls and bowls of berries and cream.
A few years ago, I discovered that the large patch of mushrooms which springs up every fall out by the back fence are shaggy manes, a delicious variety. I always make a big pot of soup (these aren't very amenable to drying, alas). Other mushrooms I can recognize include field mushrooms (the grocery store variety) and puffballs. Not to mention the "special" kinds unique to our area - not that I've much use of them in the last two decades.
Growing up on the shores of Puget Sound, I've done my share of clamming and gathering of mussels. And that's about it. I tried young wild dandelion greens, but found them extremely bitter and just about inedible. Nettles have been on my list forever; they are easily recognizable, and anyone who has ever been stung by them relishes the idea of wreaking some vengeance.
Their sting, which is horrible, disappears after blanching, so I've always read, but the threat was enough to deter me until now. Today, walking the pasture to see if any of the grass seed I sowed had sprouted (apparently not) I saw that a good crop of nettles was up along the fenceline, and it seemed exactly the right stage to pick. About four inches high, tender and bright green. So the girls and I took a paper bag, a pair of gloves and some scissors and set out. It didn't take long to snip off enough tops to almost fill a grocery bag. It was a good opportunity to talk to the girls about nettles, how to recognize them and what to do if they got stung (make mud and slap it on the sting.). They thoroughly enjoyed the outing.
After looking up a few recipes on the internet, I decided to make avgolemeno soup. It was absolutely delicious and everyone had seconds - even Homero, who usually eschews all foods green. This is one of those foods that tastes so muscularly healthy that when you swallow it you can feel the strength running down your throat into your body. Nettles have always been considered a powerful spring tonic, being one of the first greens available in the early spring, and now I can see why they are held in such high esteem. Nettle soup will be on our spring menu from here on out.
Nettle and Spinach Avgolemeno Soup
1 grocery bag at least half full of young nettle tops (use gloves and scissors.)
Similar amount baby spinach or other tender greens (if you have enough nettles, omit other greens)
1/2 medium yellow onion, minced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 quart good quality chicken stock (bullion cubes are okay if that's all you have)
juice of two or three lemons (1/2 cup minimum)
1 big spoonful sour cream
salt and pepper to taste
red pepper flakes (optional)
Bring a pot of water top a rolling boil. Dump in the bag of nettles and use a wooden spoon or tongs to submerge. If using spinach, add immediately and submerge as well. Let cook one minute. Drain in a colander in the sink and run cold water over to stop cooking. Drain well, pressing on greens with a spoon to remove water. Dump onto a cutting board and chop finely.
In the same soup pot (now drained, duh), heat butter and olive oil. saute onion and garlic until just soft. Add stock. Bring to a simmer. Add greens.
In a medium bowl, crack eggs and add lemon juice. Beat with a fork until smooth and bright yellow. While beating, add a few tablespoons of hot soup to temper. Then pour egg mixture into soup and stir rapidly. Add salt to taste and plenty of fresh ground black pepper. Ladle immediately into bowls and top with a small dollop of sour cream and sprinkle with red pepper flakes.
Not only delicious, but absolutely beautiful soup!
Thursday, March 24, 2011
A small break in the weather these last few days has allowed me to get a few chores done.
I bought a grapevine off Craigslist and planted it on the north side of the greenhouse. The sun come in from the south even in high summer, so the vine won't block much light, but it will eventually provide an area of filtered sun inside the greenhouse, which some plants will enjoy. Also the grape will benefit from the warmed air inside the greenhouse. Plenty of folks do grow grapes up here - just down the road, in fact, there is a small commercial grape nursery that develops and tests different varieties for this climate. But even so, I can't see my place as being particularly hospitable to grapevines. Our "microclimate" is colder and more exposed than most others around here (see last post). This particular grape is a local eating variety called "Lynden Blue." Even if I don't get many ripe grapes, I'd be happy with the leaves. I love grapeleaves and if I had better access to them I'd use them more.
I also did some turning of the ever-expanding compost pile and took four giant carts full over to one of the unused garden "beds" (really they are just frames set out on the ground). I'm going to try "mulch gardening," which means I lay a thick covering of half-composted hay and poop from the barn on the area, which will prevent weeds from growing. Leave it for another month or so until I have starts ready to set out. Then I just rake back a clear spot and dig a hole for the plant. I got this idea out of a book (vegetable gardening 101, I think) and like most ideas that I get out of books, I assume it won't work in practice as well as it does on the page. I'm willing to try it, though, because it uses a lot less muscle power to prepare beds and theoretically less time weeding, which is a job I hate more than I hate cleaning the bathroom. Well, as much as.
I also planted some cucumber and canteloupe seeds in the greenhouse, and have moved my pepper starts out there from the house, though I still bring them in at night. All in all, spring is proceeding apace.
Monday, March 21, 2011
About a month ago, we had a windstorm. That's not news; we have windstorms every couple of weeks from October on every winter. We live on a high, exposed ridge and seventy mile an hour winds are nothing exceptional in the fall, winter and early spring - usually accompanied by stinging rain or hail. Sometimes I wish I had paid more attention to the man who inspected our house before purchase. He grew up just down the road and told us "you get a lot of weather up on this ridge." I guess he thought he was warning us, but the man had a gift for understatement.
Apparently it's the kind of thing you just can't understand without experiencing it. I remember thinking "Sure, sure, a lot of weather. Whatever THAT means." I didn't really try to puzzle it out. After all, I grew up around here myself, and I'm no stranger to rain. Turns out, I was blissfully ignorant of what a local boy means by "a lot of weather." It means having to literally propel yourself against the wind by main force, unable to hear a thing except for the shrieking and howling of the moving air. It means cold rain driving itself into your actual eardrums at fifty miles an hour, giving you earaches. It means that you can't carry a bucket of water ten feet without getting soaked. By the time you reach your destination, the wind will have removed the top half of the water from the bucket, and it will have landed on you, anywhere from the chest down. If this happens in the dead of winter, your pants will be frozen solid against your legs by the time you reach the house. It means laying awake at night listening to the banshee wail of the wind around the corners of the house and wondering when the power will go out; or if you are losing roof shingles; or how the animals are coping.
This year, it meant losing a baby goat to hypothermia. Not this year but two years ago, we had such a prolonged stretch of extreme weather that I had to sit the children down and talk to them about what to do if they had to come outside and find us while we were attending to the animals. Do NOT leave the house, I said, without putting on your coat, your boots, your hat, and your mittens. Come STRAIGHT out to the barn and go inside right away. If you ever get stuck outside and you can't get in the house, go STRAIGHT to the barn and close the door. Once, coming back from chores, I found Paloma, then three years old, stumbling around outside in the driving snow trying to come find me. She was crying and very cold. That episode terrified me. I realized that you don't need to live above the arctic circle for your children to die of exposure. Really, any old freezing weather will do, especially when combined with precipitation. A three year old might suffer severe hypothermia in as little as half an hour.
All of this is by way of preamble: our bees dies over the winter. Both hives. In the windstorm that I mentioned, one of the many, the tops blew off of both hives. In spite of the "bee glue" - propolis - that the bees use to seal the hive. In spite of the cement blocks that we placed on top of the hive lids. The storm blew the lids off, and I went out to find that the interior of the hive was exposed to the cold rain. At the time, I knew the bees were still alive because I could hear them humming, trying desperately to dry out the interior of their home by fanning their wings. I replaced the lids, not knowing what else to do. The bees died. I didn't know for sure they were dead until this past week, when I cooked up a strong sugar syrup for the feeders. After three days, the syrup was untouched. There is only one explanation for that, and it's a hive full of dead bees.
Of course I haven't opened the hives; I won't do that until we get a really warm day. That looks like it might be mid-June, at this rate. But I fully expect, when I do open them, to find a lot of dead, decomposed, wet bee-bodies. I am not going to try again with bees. My husband and my teenage daughter both expressed enthusiasm for beekeeping, and then they both did exactly nothing to help. Personally, I am not excited by beekeeping and never was - I like honey, but I'm scared of bees. I got the equipment because I felt like bees are part of a self-sufficient homestead and I thought I had family members willing to take on the duties. Oh well. Maybe we can salvage some honey and then sell the equipment.
Meanwhile, we have decided to try meat chickens. Homero has always felt that chickens are meant to be eaten, and we have been sadly disappointed by our attempts to turn our birds into something worth eating. Look at the sidebar for links to chickens, meat eating for a log of our past attempts. I told him, finally, that we just didn't have the right kind of birds - our skinny little chickens were great at pumping out eggs but really not worth the twenty minutes it takes to dress them out when it comes to meat. So, this year, we decided to give meat birds a try.
IN GENERAL, I am philosophically opposed to the whole idea of breeding an animal that can't even live to maturity because it gets so heavy that it's legs will break trying to hold it up. However, I have to face the fact that if I am to eat chicken at all, I will either have to eat our skinny, hard-as-nails birds (something we have already decided is damn-near impossible); eat supermarket chickens, which are the same meat birds raised in factory-farm conditions, or eat meat birds that we raise ourselves in humane conditions. From a purely philosophical point of view, raising our own meat birds looks like the lesser evil. It may or may not turn pout to be practical - we'll see.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Greenhouse from the Outside
Greenhouse from the Inside
The Seed Drawer
Today was the first day I have seen the sun in more than a fortnight. We here in the extreme Pacific Northwest have been suffering through a long, chilly, windy, stormy, wet spring. The weather has not changed appreciably since mid-February. I read in yesterday's paper that we have already received more than the average precipitation for all of March. This news did not surprise me: I have been wading through the freezing mud for weeks now. I know how deep it is.
Today, however, the sun actually came out. And it is still out, at five in the evening. Thank you, daylight savings time! I don't care if you cause incrementally more heart attacks, I am all for you! Rock on, light after four P.M.! Inside the greenhouse, the temperature rose to somewhere around seventy degrees. I decided to plant some more seeds.
Weeks ago, I planted pepper seeds inside the house. I thought they were never going to sprout - we keep the thermostat at 63, and they need a soil temperature of 75, according to the package. But finally, most of them did sprout, and now I have a lovely little bed of seedlings all straining towards the sun on the kitchen table. About half the plants are jalapenos, and the other half are thai peppers. If even half the plants bear fruit, we will; have enough peppers to use fresh and dry for the winter.
In the greenhouse so far, I have planted radishes, spinach, snow peas, and swiss chard. All of the above are up, though I don't see any serious happy growth. All the plants are about where I would expect them to be if I had sown them outside in a regular year. It hasn't been warm enough to plant the warm-weather crops I have wanted to try - until today. It probably still isn't warm enough, actually, but I had to try. I cut an egg carton in half and planted cantaloupe in one half and tomatillo in the other. Then I decided it really wouldn't be warm enough in the greenhouse overnight and brought them all into the house.
My greenhouse, handsome though it is, and happy with it as I am, isn't really very effective. It isn't well sealed. I didn't know how much that mattered, until I was at a community pea-patch last week, on a raw thirty-six degree day, and stepped into a well-sealed greenhouse. It was lovely, balmy, delicious. A thermometer was hanging from the ceiling and it said 76 degrees. My drafty greenhouse keeps things about four degrees warmer than the ambient temperature. I spent some three hours last week squeezing silicone gel into the cracks, making a bloody balls-up of the job, using fourteen times as much silicon as should be needed, and gluing my hair to my pant legs. Even after all that, I hadn't managed to make a dent in the draft, so I said the Hell with it and decided it would be easier to nag my husband intro submission.
He's actually rather busy with things like making money, so I don't know how long it might be until I have a real greenhouse. In the meantime, the four degrees difference will be enough to give me about two weeks head start on cold weather crops, and eventually will allow me to grow things I wouldn't be able to otherwise; like peppers and cantaloupes.
Frankly, I don't know why I bother. I am SUCH a black thumb. I know that defeat and despair awaits me in the prettiest part of the year, but I persist anyway. Why? Because it is there?
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Yesterday morning, Homero went out to do the morning chores and discovered that Django had given birth. She had twins on the ground. The poor little things were born outside in the cold, because I have had all the animals in the sacrifice area. I am reseeding the big pasture, and need to keep all hooves off of the newly seeded ground. There are two shelters in the sacrifice area, but neither one is very good - an 8x8 foot three sided field shelter open to the north, and a calf hutch. Django chose the field shelter to give birth in.
I was taking the kids to school at the time, so Homero hustled Django and the twins into the mama barn and made sure there was food and water. He called me to let me know and told me there was a boy and a girl. Of course, when I got home, I ran right out to take a look. There weren't twins, however - there were TRIPLETS! I guess Homero moved Django before she was quite done with the job! Now we have three new babies, two bucklings and a doeling, all just as healthy as all-get-out. These babies, alas, are marked as meat because as crossbreeds, they just aren't worth very much. Well, you never know - last year I was able to sell Django's triplets at quite decent prices and we only ended up eating one of them. Either way, we will have the pleasure of their company while they are young and cute.
There was only one strange thing, and I am still a little bit worried. Django's last placenta did not fall out on it's own. It emerged, and lay dangling alongside her hocks for some four or five hours, but it wouldn't completely detach. And (I'm sorry to get all graphic and gross here) it did not look like a normal placenta, either. I've seen enough placentas now to know what's normal. Something that looks like a movie-set bag o' blood is normal. Veins and cords are normal. Bluish-white membranous sacs and various jelly-like globules: all normal. Not normal - large, very hard and solid, irregularly shaped grey lumps. I have no idea what was coming out of my goat, but my first guess would be an ossified stillborn kid.
I know, that's disgusting. Yes, it kind of was. But the goat herself was not bothered in the slightest; she was clearly fine, nickering and taking care of her three perfectly healthy kids. All the kids stood up quickly and are vigorous nursers. No problems there. In fact, Django has always been the best mother I have. She is so sweet and attentive to her kids. She was totally absorbed in her new babies - she didn't know or care about strange alien grey lumps hanging out of her rear quarters.
I, of course, didn't stay out in the mama barn all day long. I had been in and out of the house, and I figured the placenta situation would take care of itself. When it hadn't, by four in the afternoon, I called my sister for her opinion (I didn't tell her about the alien lumps; just that the placenta hadn't detached). She said leave it alone. So I left it alone. But later that night, Homero came in and told me he had pulled it the rest of the way out and threw it over the fence into the bushes.
I'm glad the scary grey lump is gone, but I'm a little worried about Django. Most likely, what Homero removed was the last of the placenta. But if he just broke it off and there is some retained placenta still inside the uterus, well, that could make her very sick indeed. I'll be keeping an eye on her.
Friday, March 11, 2011
The Insert (Promotional Photo)
I'm taking a break from the "State of the Homestead" series, which is starting to feel suspiciously like work. Instead, today I'm going to talk about one of my planned great leaps forward in self sufficiency. I've known for a long time that our heating situation is totally inadequate. We have a nearly new high-efficiency propane furnace, which is nice as far as it goes, but it is not sustainable in the long term. For one thing, it doesn't work when the power goes out. The power goes out here with predictable regularity. Usually in the middle of a winter storm, of course, when the temperatures hover around twenty degrees. We need some way to heat the house - or at least a portion of it - without electricity.
But that's only a minor consideration, really. Propane is very expensive, and only likely to get more so in the future. This winter we managed to squeak by on only about $1,500 worth of propane, but that involved extreme scrimping, and never setting the thermostat higher than 62 degrees. I know there a lot of people out there who set their thermostats even lower, but for my hothouse flower of a husband, 62 represents a real hardship. He shuffles around the house in a wool hat and mittens, sniffling pathetically. Practically martyrdom. We have already done what we can in the way of weatherproofing - last winter we got all new attic and crawlspace insulation and had all the ducts wrapped.
So partly as a matter of economy and partly as a way of reducing our dependence on externals, I decided that this is the year we will be converting to a high efficiency wood burning stove. This house has a large, lovely, stone faced open fireplace. It's a total waste of time as a heater - it sucks more heat up the flue than it can possibly produce. It is handsome, however. What I wanted to do was to remove the shelf in front of the fireplace, use the stone contained in it to build a floor-level hearth, and install a free-standing woodburning stove in front of the fireplace. Today, however, the gentleman who came over to give me an estimate patiently explained to me why that would be impossible.
All of the new EPA approved wood stoves have a pipe that exits the stove vertically, not horizontally. Therefore, we wouldn't be able to use the existing fireplace to run the stovepipe, but would have to have it rise up and then drill into the wall above the level of the fireplace. I'd lose my hearth and my mantel. Secondly, removing the masonry shelf was a much bigger job than I thought. The man said it would add at least $1,000 to the price of the project as a whole. And it wouldn't be possible to fill in the fireplace with stone to match the wall behind it. No matter what, he said, it would look patched-together. He suggested a simple sheet metal backing and said it would probably look better than anything else, no matter how much I spent.
He asked me why I wasn't considering an insert, a much more practical and frankly economical option. There are two reasons: one, I just love the aesthetic of a free-standing woodstove. That's what I grew up with. They are beautiful and romantic. Secondly, but more importantly, I wanted something I could cook on in case of emergency. All of our cooking apparatuses (apparati?) are electrical. When the power goes off, we can't even make a cup of tea. That's unacceptable.
Mr. Fireplace showed me his brochure and suggested a particular insert. I believe I have found an image of the same insert on the web, and that's it, on the top of the page. It's extremely high efficiency, clean burning, can get a 2,500 square foot house through a mild Pacific Northwest winter on three cords of wood, and has an eight-inch wide shelf for cooking. Well, it isn't designed for cooking, but it could conceivably be pressed into use in an emergency. That is, I could boil water. And if I can boil water, I can make rice, or pasta, or soup of many kinds. Also, the insert will be cheaper, because of the non-necessity of doing any masonry work, and it will preserve my mantel and the look of my hearth.
I think we will go for it. It won't be cheap, by any means. It will cost us, in fact, about three years worth of propane. Still and all, that's not a bad payback period.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
After my long, rambling, non-specific entry yesterday, I think I'll settle down to brass tacks and just quietly talk about our provisions for Alternative Utilities as plainly as I can.
Of all the areas I outlined (Alternative Utilities, Knowledge and Skills, Supplies, Security, and Food Security), this is the one on which we have made the least progress. We still depend on municipal, county, or private corporate services for basically all our utilities - the county comes and collects our garbage; we buy propane (and lease the tank) from a local company for heat; Puget Sound Energy supplies our electricity. We have a septic system which, although maintained by ourselves alone, is subject to yearly inspection by the county. Our water is supplied by a very local water association - about 150 homes are supplied by a few good, local wells, and the very nominal monthly fees pay for maintenance, meter reading, and water testing. Actually, the water association is a good example of the kind of small-scale, semi-public utilities I see being the wave of the future. More on that later.
Of course, we are still dependent on fuel from the fuel station down the road. Transportation is a "utility." There is no public transportation that comes within three miles of our house, which I find ridiculous since we are on a state highway midway between the freeway and the county's largest employer. But that's a rant for another day. So, if we break it down, here is the state of the homestead as regards:
Electricity: no progress. I spent many hours researching solar options and discovered, basically, that we can't afford a system that would be independent of the grid. And I don't care to spend a year's income installing a grid-tied system. Last year, a really cool opportunity came our way to lease space to a small independent company - owned by a family friend - who wanted to install a large windmill capable of powering some 40 or 50 homes on our windy ridge. We would get free electricity plus 5-10% of the profits reaped from selling excess capacity to the grid. We were sold, but then the county inexplicably imposed a moratorium on windmills. We were sad - not only would this offer us income and independence, but also a chance to be part of the solution, creating medium-scale renewable energy generation to replace dirty methods. Alas, it was not to be. Currently, we have no plans to get off the grid, or even to generate any of our own electricity here, but we will continue to look into possibilities. Our situation is so perfect vis-a-vis wind power that it would be a crying shame not to take advantage of it. This is Homero's bailiwick - he is excited by the idea of a biomass gasifier, whereby we could make electricity from our livestock's manure.
Heat: Tomorrow, I have an appointment with a local company to get an estimate for converting our open fireplace (which we do not use) into an efficient heat system by bricking it up, sheathing the chimney, and installing a free-standing woodstove with a cooktop. We will still keep the propane furnace, of course - but right now, we have no provisions for heat, hot water, or cooking if the power goes out. Last week, it went out for a day and half. We went and stayed at my sister's. What with all the wind here (see "electicity", above), we can count on losing power a few times a year. And looking into the future, I expect that restoring power will take longer and longer as utility budgets decline. I don't intend for us to use wood as a primary heat source, but it is important to me that we have options. Homero has ideas in this area too - last year he got a brand new, never installed oil-burning furnace off Craigslist for $200. He says it will be relatively simple to convert it run off of waste veggie oil. We'll see, but that would be totally cool! Because, Homero has done a great deal of work in the area of sourcing
Fuel: not just for transportation! Some three years ago, Homero built a biodiesel processor out of stuff he got for free off Craigslist (ladies, if you're single, seriously consider marrying a mechanic). He also built a really cool device we call an "oil-sucker" that is basically a 50 gallon drum fitted with tubes and valves that goes in the bed of a pickup. He can use the truck's engine to create a vacuum inside the drum, and then just stick the tube into a dumpster full of waste veggie oil, open the valve, and suck up enough fuel to drive about 1,500 miles. He has an arrangement with a couple of local restaurants and at any given time, we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 gallons of oil waiting to be turned into biodiesel. Biodiesel which can not only power our cars, but also our diesel generator (so I guess we DO have some electricity generating capacity) and our (so far theoretical) diesel furnace. On the list of equipment we want (more on that later) is a small diesel tractor. We could run that on homemade hi-test, too.
Water:I don't anticipate trouble with the water supply anytime soon, but nonetheless, I invested in 2,000 gallons worth of storage tanks. The idea is they will harvest rainwater and be used for non-potable uses like gardening, washing, flushing toilets, etc, and that we will continue to be able to source potable water. I'm sure that that will be true for my own lifetime. My kids may have to look into serious filtration and purification systems.
Waste Processing: We have not made any provisions for processing waste, by which I mean garbage as well as sewage. We would be in trouble if for some reason there was no longer septic tank pumping available. Our tanks were pumped last year, and should be good for at least another 4 years. Long term, I would like to install a composting toilet. If you haven't heard about these, they are pretty amazing! They can take the annual output of your average 5 person American family and turn it into an amount of dry, crumbly, odorless compost that would fit in a five gallon bucket. Not kidding. I've used them, I've stayed in houses where they were the only amenities, and I can attest that when well functioning, they don't smell at all. It's a little weird not to flush with water, but just imagine you're at the county fair using a magically non-disgusting port-o-potty. Cost about $2,000.
As for garbage, well, we could do an awful lot to cut down on the amount we produce. I have not yet taken the obviously necessary step of eliminating plastic from our lives. Or, to be more honest, of drastically reducing the amount of plastic coming into our house. Bellingham is looking into a plastic-bag ban - hope it passes! We already compost or feed to the animals all food waste. We recycle what is recyclable, although to be honest we are nowhere near as conscientious as we could be. My husband, in particular, has a lot to learn concerning what is and is not actually recyclable. This is an area where I am not at all happy with our efforts, yet where I have a hard time seeing myself taking on all the extra work that it would mean to - for example - haul glass jars to the co-op to buy in bulk. As a matter of fact, we are one of those households which is continually threatened with being overwhelmed and literally buried in trash. I don't know where it all comes from. It's a vexing mystery to me. I am always whining about how we need to go to the dump. In fact, just this week, I made a deal with my husband - anytime he makes a dump run, I make him chiles rellenos for dinner.
You can find my chiles rellenos recipe by searcing the sidebar for "Mexican Food." It's my grandmother-in-law's recipe. I highly recommend it.
Tomorrow: Knowledge and Skills!
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
"In the future, we will need to have new functioning systems to replace the old systems that will presumably not be available or not be affordable. I'll call these alternative utilities. We will need new knowledge and skills. We will need supplies, and we will need to have some provision for security. Lastly, we will need to provide for food security. It might go under "supplies" but because of the size and complexity of the issue, it gets it's own category."
The above is an excerpt from my other blog, "the worry book," way back in 2009. I was attempting to formulate a plan for creating a more or less independently functioning homestead on these, our then recently purchased five acres. My goal was - and is - to build a place (no other word I can think of is right ... Compound? too scary and militaristic. Commune? too open-ended, too public, too hippy-dippy) where my extended family and progeny can survive and thrive despite the upheavals of the near-to-medium-term future.
Long ago, I looked around me and decided that the future of America was going to be a pretty scary place. Without going into detail and without inviting debate, I can say that I expect that the America of my children and grandchildren will be a poorer place; that they will not be able to depend on services that my parent's generation took for granted. I hope that things will not be so drastic, but I have to prepare for a possible future in which my children and grandchildren may have to live without health care, without reliable utilities, without police protection, without the security of a well-stocked grocery store down the street, and without easy, cheap transportation. Not to mention access to higher education. Even basic public education is beginning to look like a thing of the past.
I assume that the very well off will still be able to purchase the above amenities for several generations into the future; but I do not have the ability to amass the kind of fortune that will place my descendants among their number. Although I have the very very good fortune of being born into a well-to-do family, I am well aware that by the time my children are raising their own families, my savings will look paltry. I cannot count on leaving my children enough cash to establish themselves among the new world elite. Even if I thought that would be a worthwhile endeavor, which I do not.
Instead, I started thinking about what kind of security I COULD offer my descendants. I said my family was well-to-do. My grandparents and great-grandparents made their money in real estate, and it was passed down to me in my mother's milk that land was the ONLY real form of wealth. "it's the only thing they aren't making any more of," my mother used to say. Now, it may seem that the recent housing crisis and real estate bubble gives the lie to that sentiment, but I beg to differ. It's true that urban housing has suffered a crushing decline in many areas, but that's not "real" real estate. "Real" real estate, my friends, is in potentially productive land.
Don't get me wrong, urban housing will come back... at least in strategic markets. I wouldn't count on Phoenix, Las Vegas, L.A., or the Southwest in general, where water will become a pressing issue within ten years. I wouldn't count on border states, which will be subject to serious issues surrounding immigration as climate refugeeism becomes more common. But northern areas with historically mild climates, good water supplies, and liberal (read generous) governmental traditions will be extremely desirable in the next twenty to forty years. If you have a house in a market like that, hang on to it.
But no typical urban property is really potentially productive. Forgive me, but the entire "urban homesteader" movement is unsustainable. It depends on cheap water and other utilities, on cheap police protection, and basically on the survival of the intact infrastructure of 20th century cities as they exist today. God willing, that infrastructure will survive another generation or two, but I'm not particularly hopeful.
Therefore, I decided to try and create a more independent lifestyle on a larger piece of property outside of any city limits. I looked for land that was within striking distance of a decent sized city (We decided on Bellingham or Olympia, and Bellingham won out), that had easy access to major highways, that had good soils and good sun exposure, and was within the catchment area for a good school system. We were extremely lucky to find such a property. We were slightly less lucky in that said property had a house on it - an old farmhouse - that was pretty much falling apart and would require major maintenance for many years into the future - but the advantages of the land were enough to outweigh the drawbacks of the residence.
All of this is backstory, and available to those who are interested in details by searching the sidebar. This post is meant to detail our progress so far, and what you need to know is that when we moved in, we had a falling apart, leaky house; five acres of beat-to-shit ex- dairy farm land; tons of concrete, rubble, and other debris plowed into the ground, and nothing else.
After putting many thousands of dollars into basic repairs on the house (new roof, plumbing fixes, updated wiring, rot repair, et cetera), we were able to start thinking about creating a real homestead. The categories above (Alternative Utilities, Knowledge and Skills, Supplies, Security, and Food Security) do not provide an adequate framework for writing a chronological narrative of how we proceeded, but they do provide a decent framework for outlining our progress so far. So, beginning with "alternative utilities," here we go:
The basic utilities, for an urban dweller, are those that s/he pays for every month: electricity; water, sewer and garbage; gas or propane or heating oil; telephone, and whatever I might be forgetting. When we moved here, we decided not to hook up a land line, since we both had cell phones. Water is unbelievably cheap- $20/month for un-metered usage. Garbage is cheap too- especially since we opted for once-every-other-week service. Electricity is the same as it was in the city - good old Puget Sound Energy. Heat is the main difference - back in Seattle I had a natural gas furnace which cost me virtually nothing, even though it was twenty-something years old. Where I set the thermostat just wasn't an issue, financially. Up here, we have a big fat 500 gallon propane tank out back and have to pay cash up front tom fill it. Minimum delivery is $150 gallons, which works out, most recently, to - oh hell can't access the calculator but a lot, even at an indoor temperature of 63 degrees. it's not that it's so awfully expensive, it's that you have to come up with $500 just to get a delivery.
Oh I've been writing for an hour and a half now and I haven't even even begun to outline our actual homestead. But it's getting late and I have to get supper on the table, so it will have to wait for tomorrow. Stay tuned!
Monday, March 7, 2011
Spring is a time for taking stock; for walking the perimeter, checking the stores, cleaning house, and generally saying goodbye to winter and to the old year with it, while saying hello to the new year and getting ready to face the work that comes with. "Spring Cleaning" is still a very real, important concept for those of us who live in four season climates. Even if we no longer literally have to remove the dust and deritrus of a long winter spent indoors, it is still helpful to clear out psychic debris and clutter that accumulates over the long, dark months. I find that taking stock - mental as well as physical - helps me to face the new year with vigor and cheer. I can abandon old, half finished projects whose usefulness is dubious, and replace them with newer ideas for which I have more excitement. If, for example, my winter long attempt to get into lacto-fermentation was a flop (nobody here likes kim chee but me) then spring is a good time to admit failure on that front, wash out the jars, and use them for making sprouts instead.
None of this is to ignore the very real "spring cleaning" jobs that do actually still exist - today I tackled the refrigerator. It is a great feeling, on the first warm-enough day of spring, to open all the windows wide and sweep vigorously - not the just the floor but the walls, and the corners of the ceilings where the cobwebs gather. In olden days (well, my grandmother's generation) this would be the time to take down the curtains and run them through the wash; to carry the rugs outside and beat them with a broom; to empty the cupboards and bleach the shelves. My house would surely benefit from all of the above, but I'm not going to do it. I don't even have curtains; I have venetian blinds. Yeah, I know, those would also benefit from a quick swipe with a rag dipped in vinegar. Okay, okay! I'll mop the wood floors with Murphy's oil soap, at least. My "spring cleaning" bears an ominous resemblance to other people's "weekly cleaning."
None of this is what I started to write about. I started to write about my big "spring cleaning" project this week - taking a State of the Homestead survey. We have now lived on this piece of land for nearly four years, and I have made considerable progress toward my goal of creating a self-sufficient - or mostly so - homestead. Although there is still a great deal of work to be done - probably more than half - I feel sufficient pride in my accomplishment to want to document it. Of course, the process of documenting my progress will also show up the areas that need more attention. It's a spring-cleaning mental exercise, meant to help me get organized and energized to forge ahead in the coming year.
Writing a full State of the Homestead report will take more than one blog post. So today, I'll write an outline, and spend bits of the the next week writing the actual report. I plan to follow the outline I laid out long ago in my private planning blog, "The Worry Book," in which I name categories of necessary preparation. Here's an excerpt from that blog, from 2009:
When I think about the differences, I mostly think in broad categories. I'll list them as I see them now, and then go over each one in more detail. In the future, we will need to have new functioning systems to replace the old systems that will presumably not be available or not be affordable. I'll call these alternative utilities. We will need new knowledge and skills. We will need supplies, and we will need to have some provision for security. I lost my train of thought for a while while I was having coffee with my guests, so I think I've temporarily forgotten something. It'll come back to me. I think, actually, the fifth thing is food security. It might go under "supplies" but because of the size and complexity of the issue, it gets it's own category.
My next blog post will detail the progress I have made on the "alternative utilities" front.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
The First Crocuses I have Seen This Year
I have been taking long walks around town. I'm a terrible voyeur, I love to look at other people's gardens. Bellingham is a great gardening city - almost everyone has some kind of garden, even if it's just a wooden box on the planting strip. In another post I'll share pictures and talk a little about Bellingham as a great place to be an "Urban Homesteader."
There are definite signs of spring around, if you look closely. Crocuses and snowdrops are up, at least in the sunniest areas, and daffodils will not be far behind. I saw a forsythia bush in what I could almost call full bloom, with just a little bit of wishful squinting. Pussy willows have passed the green fuzzy stage and are into the creepy green caterpillar stage.
If the bulbs and trees have got the message that the Earth has tilted back towards the sun ever so slightly, however, the weather hasn't. We have yet to break fifty degrees this year, and nighttime temperatures are below freezing more often than not. February's average temperature was a full 10 degrees below the thirty-year norm. I did plant some radishes in the greenhouse, and they sprouted, but then a hard frost killed them. Radishes! The sun has made a few anemic appearances, but mostly, this is what Spring looks like around here:
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
I apologize for the out of place, unintegrated photos - I am having issues with Blogger. The first photo is Mt Baker off the southeast, meant to emphasize how lovely our situation is. The second photo is deer poop in the grass at the "other" five acres. Lots of deer there. The last photo is my very own leg after an hour spent brushwhacking at the other five acres. I'm not sure what my problem with Blogger is, or if it is them or my computer, but in any case when I upload photos or videos, I can't see them, but only large, consolidated blocks of HTML text. So forgive me - I can't even tell where one photo ends ands the next begins, or I might be able to copy and paste them into the appropriate places in the post. Hang with me - I'm sure I'll figure it out!
Two years before we bought this old farmhouse, we bought a five acre parcel of raw land just a couple of miles from here. Our original plan, when we decided to move up here from Seattle, was to build a house from the ground up - a nice, modest, three bedroom house, incorporating as many green principles as possible and using as much reclaimed material as possible and doing as much of the work ourselves as possible.
We spent a happy summer - the summer of 2004 - driving around Whatcom County looking at land. Real estate prices were high, 2004 being three years away from the peak - and quick decline - of 2007. Of course we didn't know that at the time. Still, there was a decent amount of land for sale in our price range. Although I had spent some time in Bellingham here and there and knew it to be a pretty nice small-to-medium-sized city with progressive politics and a gorgeous natural setting, I had never lived in the area and didn't know very much about where exactly we might like to live. Over the course of several months, we narrowed our options down considerably, learning, for example, that we needed to be located in unincorporated county, with close access to the freeway, on land that had no CCR's (private building restrictions). Wow, when I lay all those conditions out in a line, it sounds like we were planning some sort of criminal enterprise, but in fact it was all quite innocent. Many CCR's are incredibly restrictive and dictate such things as minimum square footage on any home or deny any and all manufactured homes. We wanted to keep all our options open.
Finally, we found a fine and private five acre parcel at a reasonable price. The owner was a Canadian who hadn't visited the property in many years, and the land itself was heavily covered with brush - native roses, snowberries, native blackberry, et cetera. About half of it was treed, in mature alder, birch, and scattered evergreens. There were several small pockets of wetlands, thickly overgrown with native wetland plants. While we were there, we saw bald eagles, various species of hawks, signs of deer and coyote, and small animals like garter snakes. There were wild strawberries and wild tiger lilies. We heard choruses of frogs. It wasn't perfect - we had already learned enough to know that the wetlands might be a problem - but it was pretty, private, devoid of CCR's, and in our price range. Plus, we had been searching for many moons, and I was seven months pregnant. I was eager to close a deal - any deal.
Over the next couple of years, we learned, to our chagrin, that building in Whatcom county would be difficult - and building while serving as our own general contractors and mostly our own labor force would be damn nigh impossible. Our property perked for a two bedroom house, but the wetlands delineation report (ka-ching) showed scattered, small, isolated wetlands - each of which required a fifty foot setback, leaving precious little room for building. The county would require a mitigation plan. The mitigation plan would cost a thousand dollars to design and some twenty thousand dollars to implement (ka ching). All in all, the cost of building would be nearly prohibitive - and the hassle would be totally over the top uncontrollable. At least for me - I'm sure a more naturally even-tempered woman would be able to handle it fine, but I am slightly high-strung (stop laughing, dearest husband, I can HEAR you in my head!) and at the time was dealing with being heavily pregnant, a still-nursing and still-in-diapers toddler, and a newly pubescent girl of thirteen. I had enough on my plate.
Tears flowed. A baby was born. We put it on the back burner. Meanwhile, my sister and her family, who lived only a mile from us in Seattle, began to put into motion their own plans to move to the Bellingham area. They put their house up for sale and started the search in earnest for a place to live up north. I hated the thought of my sister moving far away. By chance and bad luck, all three of my best girlfriends had moved out of the Seattle area in the past year and my sister was the only close contact I had left. I was terrified at the thought of losing her, too.
Luck struck! We came into some money unexpectedly, which made it possible to look for a piece of property with an actual house on it. As much as we had learned about building, we knew that it wouldn't be much more expensive - or possibly even less expensive - to buy a property with a house than it would be to build from the ground up. We resumed our weekend drives around the county. As it happened, there was a particular stretch of country road which we had driven many times - it was one of the principle exits off the freeway - and damn near every time we slowed down to marvel at the view. A long, slow incline gave way to a broad, flat hilltop with a commanding view of the Canadian Cascades, behind rolling green hills and glimpses of the water off to the west. Mount Baker loomed to the southeast, and a wide open horizon offered dramatic sky-scapes and a half day's notice of any coming weather. There were a few "for sale" signs here and there along the road and back when we were looking for raw land we would turn to each other and sigh, saying "Man, I wish we could afford something along here." But we knew it was unlikely.
Then one day, we noticed a for sale sign that we hadn't bothered to take note of before, as we had been looking for raw land and this was a house and property for sale. Since we were now looking for a property with a house, we called our real estate agent and set up an appointment. Well, the rest is history. The house had many major issues, which we are still - four years later - working on fixing (http://newtofarmlife.blogspot.com/2009/07/handy-man-is-good-to-find.html). But I for one couldn't care less. This beautiful property is right smack dab in the middle of the best part of the hillside. We have views in every direction and can see the weather coming twenty miles away. People regularly stop their cars right in front of our house to take pictures of the mountains. It's a beautiful setting, even if we do suffer from more severe weather and winds than anyone around us. We live in the epicenter of a quarter-mile circle on top of the hill which receives twice the precipitation and high winds of anybody else just a little ways down the hill in either direction.
We tried to sell the other property - the five acre piece down in the valley below, but we missed the peak and real estate prices in the county fell through the basement. After listing it at progressively lower and lower prices for two years, we decided to pull it off the market. As raw land, it has virtually no costs to us - there is no maintenance, and the taxes are minimal. If we have any plans for it, they are vague and distant - it would be nice to put in a driveway, and power and water - maybe in the form of an RV hookup. But there isn't any money for that in the current budget, and it certainly isn't urgent. In my daydreams, I see one of my daughters living there, some twenty years hence, with her young family. Although it isn't useful today, it will make a dandy inheritance.
Yesterday, I went by there. It had been awhile - we tend to forget about the other five acres, even though it's quite close by. There's no real reason to go there, except maybe for wild strawberries in June. But yesterday, I was driving by,and I suddenly wanted to see if any of the trees we planted there have survived. Back when we thought this property would be our homestead, we did what any intelligent homesteading family does and planted fruit trees. An apple, a cherry, and a plum. Only the cherry survives, alas. The others have been ravaged by deer. The one Christmas tree we planted there is hanging on, but just barely. It has also been stripped of half it's bark by deer.
I was only able to find all this out by pushing my way through acres of thorny brush. The native roses are pretty in season, but an absolute bitch-kitty to try and forge your way through. I have the scratches to prove it. One thing I know from experience is that goats adore roses (they ate all the roses here first off) and so maybe it would be a worthwhile idea to transport the goats out there on sunny summer days to take things down a peg or two. It would be easy to toss a few goats in the van and bring a book and a sandwich, and maybe a blanket, and spend several fine summer afternoons drowsing among the roses while my herd fattens itself on my theoretically useless property.
Yeah, I think I'll do that.