Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Water Water Everywhere

And not a drop to drink until you boil it 5 minutes or run it through a filter.

If you get your water from a well, you are effectively a water-quality manager who oversees a water-treatment facility.  And when things go wrong, you learn about hydraulic engineering, geology, and pathogens.

For the past three weeks that has been our life, since seven inches of rain fell in a few days' time. Our dug well had developed a crack and a bit of missing casing, most likely from the earthquake of 2011, and that meant fecal coliform bacteria in the drinking water rose to levels that are not necessarily healthy. We had a water test last year, through a Virginia Tech extension agency program, and that proved marginal for coliform. The heavy rain changed things, fast.

Soil filters rain water, and coliform bacteria are present in most soil. Yet that can present an issue for Dug wells, commonly found on older properties, which are more prone to contamination; I understand that some banks will not issue a mortgage to a home that does not have a modern bored, deep well.

That's not us. Our well is only about 30 feet deep and 3 feet in diameter. I tested again when the heavy rains made our water cloudy. Test kits are cheap, and the consequences of not testing regularly? Serious illness in the worst cases.

In my home test after the rains, we failed. So what to do if you suddenly find yourself living in the 1840s? Digging a new well or even repairing this one would cost many thousands of dollars we do not have handy.

Time to boil and filter, as I would on a backpacking trip or, more ominously, after some disaster.

There's an entire section at Cabelas I call "The Doomsday Aisle" full of "survival" rations and gear, including some serious water filters and purifiers. The the distinction is critical; the latter remove bacteria from water. Most simple filters do not. I have used prefilters when camping, if rainwater has debris. An old Melita coffee filter does the trick.

I suppose The Doomsday Aisle gives suburban preppers the same false confidence that a backyard bomb shelter provided in the late 50s or, today, a seldom-fired handgun tucked in the nightstand or worse for the untrained, waistband. But I have found that these same folks also vainly try to "tick proof" their manicured lawns, killing helpful insects in the process, and panic at every tick bite; I keep a jar of the four or five that get me, weekly.

Thus I have decided to give up on telling such people that you cannot buy skills. But if you are still reading, here's a tip: only buy gear that you actually use sometimes, not tuck away in the utility room. The test of such supplies and, in our case, water filter, need not be the coming of Mad Max. It might simply be a hurricane that interrupts power and potable water for two weeks, as happened in 2003 during Hurricane Isabel. My nephew Chris, with Homeland Security, gets blue in the face trying to explain that two weeks of supplies are all one needs to mean the difference between life and illness or death.

That photo is so reassuring looking, isn't it, to those fretting about apocalypse? Yet no supplies will help you without potable water. I got a $60 purifier at Cabelas, made by Sawyer; I like their backpacking purifiers a lot. Like the smaller units, the big one is reverse-flushable and good for 100,000 gallons. More than enough! I like that it could be mounted to a bucket and gravity fed into a container to drink.

The first step in addressing problems such as ours was to "shock our well." Those of you on city water may imagine me sneaking up and yelling "boo" into the well house, or telling an off-color joke to the plumbing. As the Centers for Disease Control's site makes plain, however, it's a rather lengthy process.  You make a bleach-water solution (in our case, 3 gallons of bleach), pour it in the well, wash down the inner casing, and run the taps. A lot.

Eventually the bleach smell vanishes, and our shower tiles were cleaner. But a week later, I tested the water again for bacteria.

Another Epic Fail.

We had our well service visit, the folks who fixed the well several years ago. They suggested that short a very expensive repair, we install a UV light in the well, at the cost of $1100 and with an annual maintenance fee of $150.

Of course we said "yes. NOW." As for timing, we are still about two weeks out from installation, perhaps another from when I test the water again.  We have gotten adept at filtering drinking water nightly, using tap water to wash pots and pans, and running the dishwasher on "sanitize." So it's less 1840 and more an inconvenience. We could, in theory, go on this this forever.

But I am thankful that we do not have to.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

When You Have to Put an Animal Down

One of the hardest things any pet owner must do is make the painful decision to end an animal's life. That is most often done by injection at the Vet's. But what if you had to do it yourself?

Without going into the (blessedly non-gory) details, I had to euthanize a sick chicken (not any of the ones pictured) a few weeks back. It was harder than killing a wild animal, something I do with varmints or, for food, with deer.

Our Vet performs necroscopies, which confirmed cancer as the culprit for the creature's visible pain.  It's not likely systemic to our flock, but we are keeping an eye out.

That's only the fourth chicken we have lost in four years, with two to heat and another to a sudden illness, but it's the first where I had to end the animal's suffering. We really think so little of chickens, don't we? Those nuggets hardly seem to have come from something that once made noise and walked around, though industrial-production chickens lead lives of horror.

For many of us, however, the most personable pampered hen lacks the warm feeling of a loyal dog or purring cat, but they do have individual personalities and often follow you around clucking for treats.  We don't eat our birds, so they have become pets even after the flock grew to nearly 20 animals, with our first rooster and about 7 more hens on the way.

Chicken keepers may have a tough time finding Vets to treat a bird, unless one lives in town where urban chicken-keeping seems to have replaced beekeeping as the ecological hobby du jour.  I phoned one of those in-town vets and they treat animals but do not do any postmortem exams. Luckily, our  country Vet here was more than happy to assist.

As for the death of the hen, it was painless for her. There's a great blog post here with advice I used to euthanize the bird. When I have to process my surplus roosters I cannot re-home, I'll use the same technique. No hatchets or helicoptering for me. I treat living things with respect, and the method shown really keeps the animal comforted and tranquil until death. Yes, a chicken will thrash after severing its spinal cord, but that's involuntary. The deed is done and if animals go somewhere after they leave this world, our hen made the passage.

Since we began raising chicks, I've not eaten any chicken. Oddly, euthanizing the bird bothered me little more than killing a fish for supper. But I'm not quite ready to eat one of our flock.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Dehydrating Food: First Efforts

As much as I love canning, I have been eager to try my hand at dyhydrating food. It offers some advantages for processing, and unlike my canned goods, dry ingredients do not need refrigeration after opening.

Originally we'd set our hearts upon a solar dehydrator, to the point where I'd purchased a book on how to build one. That ran into a snag right away, though "damp and horribly moldy blanket" might be the preferred metaphor. Central VA summers are too humid for solar dehydration to work, though getting an oven to 125 degrees would be as simple as sitting a box outside on any sunny day from late May to early September.

The Cabelas sporting goods chain sells units that range in size from a large toaster oven to a full-sized range. All of them circulate air over the food as it dries out. For small items like garlic flakes, I put parchment paper on top of each wire tray. Do not use waxed paper unless you enjoy making a melted mess. I was happy to discover that online before my first attempts.

We chose a mid-sized unit the size of  dishwasher that holds many trays of fruit or vegetables.  at 80 pounds boxed, I could easily lift it onto a small table in our shop, where mice won't crawl as easily into the works to make nests.  Plus we have at least one black snake there, on the prowl, helping me with mouse-management strategies.

Our first efforts involved a bunch of organic bananas, and the results impressed me. I set the unit to dry the overnight, and by breakfast we had bananas dry but not crunchy; they maintain good flavor and we stored a quart jar of them out of the sunlight in our cabinet. No sign of mold, yet.

We do not grow bananas, but we do grow several pounds of garlic that I cure in an unheated utility room off the side of our house. It stays warm without freezing; the year before, I hung the garlic up from the ceiling in our root shelter to keep mice at bay. This season, however, I used a lot of the garlic and just stepping down into the utility room made the process really easy.

Two sites advised me on drying garlic. I found the advice at Self Reliant School excellent overall, but I did not wish to vacuum seal the jars. That step adds an expensive piece of equipment. Then I asked Dave, the author of the Our Happy Acres blog about this processing. He assured me that sealed jars left out of daylight would keep a year. That's enough for my purposes. Here are my results.

We used the hand-cranked food processor advised by Jennifer at Self Reliant School; Amazon seems short on them, but I found one on eBay for under $20, new, with free shipping. It made short work of the process, though there was no short cut for peeling 5 pounds of garlic cloves! The processor was sturdy enough to endure the work and cranking it required no great effort. I did freeze all but the center jar; dried garlic thaws well and can be put right into the pantry.

My next week involves peeling and chopping about 5 pounds of carrots that overwintered in the soil. I cooked a few and they taste great. Now we'll extend the harvest with them, as well. Look online and  you'll find many recipes. Unlike canning, this food is simpler to process. It will be safe as long as you dry it thoroughly and store it well.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Old-School Tools: Hatchets and Axes

To a novice like me,  not long ago all hatchets and axes looked alike. yes, I use both, as well as a maul, to split a lot of smaller logs that don't merit the hydraulic log-splitter with its 27 tons of force. All of my modern tools, as well as a 1930 Keen Kutter "Half Hatchet" inherited from my father-in-law, work wonderfully.  As I began to auction off his collection of tools, however, I found out a lot more than I ever guessed about wood-cutting technology.

There's a great deal of pre-mechanized history here.  We often think of hatchets looking something like one of the two pictured below. Axes might have one blade or, more rarely today in the States, two. There is also the famous fireman's axe, a tool unlikely to ever vanish from regular use.

In fact, a study of a 1930s tool catalog reveals specialized hatchets for shingling, for flooring, and even a "produce" hatchet whose use may be lost to time.  A favorite I no longer see as what is called a "broad axe" head.

Hammers, wrenches, and pliers, other hand tools that survived the coming of power tools, at least has several examples for sale in any modern hardware store, but modern hatchets seem to have dwindled in purpose to the sorts just pictured. So few of us split our own wood in the age of gas logs.

For those who want to know more about the terminology of axes and hatches, I found a Swedish toolmaker's site with an excellent page on the subject. You may find yourself spending more hours there than you should, when you should be out splitting wood!

Friday, January 5, 2018

I Mark the Line

Every year, once the snakes vanish after frost, I tell myself "this year I need to walk the property lines and mark our boundaries."

Easier said than done on 100 acres. Our home has 11, so that was not a big deal despite a few creek-crossings in temperatures that hovered in the low teens.  I put on blaze orange to alert any late-season hunters and grabbed some "no hunting" signs.

On the other hand, one could wander in circles for days on 100 acres  in Buckingham County and die of exposure. Yet marking one's property is a very good practice. All rural land-owners whose property ends not in fences but in woodland should do it, regularly.

With my brother-in-law and our neighbor Bunny, we trekked the boundaries of the family's property in Buckingham. The family had just purchased two more parcels that had come on the market, so I toted along two spray cans of paint, a compass, and my usual hiking swag. Our property map would not suffice except for vague references; plats may have notes such as "large stone with paint blaze" or "metal rod" with vague (or no) GPS coordinates.  In any case, the land is far beyond any sort of cellular reception.

One thing I had forgotten that day was our surveyor's wheel, a must-have for this work.

Still, we slogged along old logging roads, followed streams, and soon had used all our paint. The timber-company neighbor had marked a good deal accurately, but some of the blazes were old and needed renewing before the next harvest. They plant only Loblolly Pine, so that helps them identify where their land ends and ours begins.  We also wanted to post no-hunting signs, a must if you want to deter hunters. If caught hunting on posted land, they can face stiffer fines than they do otherwise. We do hunt the land ourselves, as does Bunny, which is why he was so eager to help; though I did not bag one during my abbreviated season of three days in a stand, it's thick with whitetail deer.

I'm not paranoid, but when I walk alone I take a holstered revolver. I was attacked by a pack of dogs in Spain, and though I drove them away, without injury, using a satchel of textbooks, that awful memory lingers. Poachers may also be detained by a landowner until the cops arrive (good luck with getting them swiftly, with no cell reception). A friend once held a pair of men until the sheriff came for them.

So usually we walk in pairs or trios.

The most useful part of this exercise was learning landmarks. If you do walk your land regularly, you spot large trees, water courses, and other useful things. We IDed a couple of oaks in decline or in places where they can be felled without hurting the diversity of the forest. With my brother-in-law's little sawmill, we can make boards for our buildings.

We also began to make plans for a few ATV roads we can use to skid logs out. In winter, you can really see the best routes, which are often the old roads that are lost in the undergrowth of summer. 

Get to know your land, and get neighbors involved. It's a good way to make friends. Bunny does a lot for us, because we gave him permission to hunt on our property. His help is worth its weight in gold.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Garden Lessons, 2017

2017 was a year of many lessons, not all of them good. I don't know that my experiences will help others, but here's what happened.


With a challenging summer, first hot and wet, then hot and arid, it was good that we had 1200 gallons of stored rain water. One tropical system moved west, only giving us perhaps half an inch of rain when we could have used two.  We tapped the 500 gallon cistern once, pulling about 200 gallons out after we'd been through another 300 in our smaller rain barrels.  We'll see about adding another 250 gallon tank next year, so we can water young trees as well as the garden.

Our harvest, save for white potatoes, was still very good. Frost arrived a month after the average date, so I was harvesting tomatoes and peppers later than ever. I save a window-ripened green tomato in the fridge now, in time for Thanksgiving.

Hot Peppers: 

Let's start with the bad news. Despite beds that grew into thickets of hot-pepper bushes, it's likely my last season growing them in bulk for a local restaurant. At the prices I can get per pound, we are better off giving up some of the garden for increasing our flock of laying hens. We just cannot meet demand, and if we even sold two more dozen per week, we'd make as much money as we do with the peppers.

The hours of work starting seeds in the greenhouse, transplanting to larger pots, then harvesting the peppers simply do not add up to economic sense. I've yet to tell our customer, but he may want a different source in any case: despite cross-pollinating our Thai Dragons with super-hot peppers, the heavy rain early on and the later-than-normal harvest may have made their heat content too low.  I watered deeply once per week when the dry weather came and stayed. That should not have been excessive, but the peppers lacked the bite we want.

I've learned an adage that my friend Dominic, at Dellicarpini Farms, told me: focus on crops that provide more pounds of harvest. Thai Peppers are small and difficult to harvest. I'll still grow a few for myself and to continue my cross-pollination ideas.

We also lost a verbal contract for a crop of super-hot Ghosts and Scorpions. The would-be buyer had told me he'd buy "every pepper I grew" the year before, then turned about to say he'd not need any at all. I sold a few pounds, but about 20 pounds froze on the plants and are now compost.

So next year several raised beds dedicated to peppers will go to other plants, as we rotate our garden and let the soil rest.  Two beds will be given up entirely, as we expand the chicken run to add a coop for a laying flock and our first rooster.

One good thing that came from the pepper crop was a method I learned for curbing weed growth. We rolled out 4 oz weed-block fabric from A.M. Leonard, and then we cut slits in the fabric for transplanting. It's labor-intensive at first, but in the long run we saved hours and hours weeding. The fabric gets rolled back in winter, so our chickens can scratch up the raised beds.


Okay, I gotta cage the beasts; next year it will be welded wire cages. We had good luck with Mortgage-Lifters, Long Keeper, Yellow Pear, and Sungold Cherry varieties. I saved seeds from the best plants; some of the Yellow Pears had wilt and others did not. So I chose wisely when saving seed for 2018.


We experimented with using Doctor Bronner's Eucalyptus soap (1 part to 9 parts water) on the plants weekly. We did not pickle this year, but we had slicers until the vines died in the heat of early July. Squash bugs were rare this year. I'm going to try the same treatment next year on our cukes and our squash; we did not put in any this year.

Our Lima Bean harvest was sufficient for the two of us, and there too I sprayed the Dr. Bronners a couple of times. It's cheap enough on the scale we grow.


While our multiplier onions only produced enough bulbs to replant this fall, we hope that next year we'll expand our crop enough to actually eat some!  I need to side-dress the onions a bit, as the bulbs were small.

Garlic, however, proved a real bonanza for us. I credit Ira Wallace's workshop from the 2016 Heritage Harvest Festival. She plants late, up to mid-November in prepared beds. We more than replaced our seed garlic this year, both hard-neck and soft-neck varieties.

I froze a lot of last year's crop, in March, that we stored in our root cellar. I put the peeled cloves in olive oil and froze that, in small tubs. We used that all summer for a weekly pesto dinner.


These have been another ongoing success. We ate lettuce (Slow Bolt) into June, and I replanted with seeds (that variety plus Tennis Ball and Spotted Aleppo) in September. We are eating lettuce now that we put under a row cover.

Chard survived the summer, looking horrid and blasted, to feed us again in Fall. The freeze nipped it, but we keep cutting and cooking good leaves. Our mustard and collards, however, are thriving after the freeze and are very sweet. We put them in in the bed that had the garlic and onions until harvest.

Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes:

I stupidly planted the white potatoes in not enough soil, over a layer of weed block. We got four small tubers and ate them in one meal.

The Becca's Purple sweet potatoes, however, were amazing. In a raised bed I got nearly 60 pounds that will carry us through the winter. They are great weed-blockers, only needing attention when the drought got really bad or when Japanese Beetles really got after them. We handed picked the plants daily, and the crop shrugged off the pests.


Our first year of jam! We had a nice early crop, and we'd have had more had I weeded more later. That is the plan next year. The plants draw critters, and I shot one groundhog in the patch, despite good fencing: the whistle-pig found a gap at the gate.

Rabbits also had fun in there, but with a scoped small-bore rifle I rid the garden of a few of them. Our livestock guardian dog got others, to judge by the skulls at the back of her run.

That, too, is nature. Everyone has to eat.

Our wild blackberries came in heavily. This winter I need to bushhog two thickets of old canes, so we'll get young canes and new fruit. We got enough as it was to freeze several pounds for winter.

So next year I'll put these lessons to work and see where 2018 take us all. In dark and difficult times, full of so many disappointments and tragedies in our nation, it's good to at least eat food you grow yourself.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Homesteaders of America Conference, 2017

We had the great pleasure of attending the first-ever national conference of the Homesteaders of America.  I've been delinquent in my conference reviews this year, especially of the recent Heritage Harvest Festival.  I will cover that event soon, but I have to say that the Homesteader gathering was a Tractorpunk's paradise.

We attended two speakers' presentations and talked to a lot of vendors. The event sold out, so I'm glad we bought tickets in advance.

Warrenton VA hosted the gathering at their Fauquier County Fair Grounds. It provided a perfect rural setting. The area there is building up fast with DC commuters, but it's not all awful sprawl. The twee little downtown area, as well as a sentimental favorite of mine, Frost Diner, show that suburban and rural can coexist. I hope they can maintain that balance.

The balance between a hurry-scurry life of consumerism and debt vs. the potential freedom, monetary and spiritual, of the homesteading life was central to talks by Doug and Stacy, the stars of the YouTube Channel "Off the Grid with Doug and Stacy," as well as author, farmer, and rural philosopher Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms.

Now just a moment. Folks living with no internet connection or electric power but with a series of YouTube videos? Oh yeah, and using their own drone to film the event? At that moment, I knew I was in the right crowd: no Luddites here, just, to paraphrase Howard Rheingold's point about the Amish, very clever techno-selectives.  Think: farm truck to charge electronics + unlimited data for Verizon cellular users. Makes at least as much sense as me building my own shaving horse to do woodwork.

The couple talked about our culture as one that rewards staying in debt, becoming dependent on technology we do not understand, of severing our ties with the soil and the rest of nature. Salatin continued that with his talk later in the day. I grinned at both of their references to "The Man," which propelled me mentally to the early 70s again.

And yet, they are correct. As Doug put it, "barter is what The Man is scared of," and Salatin later chimed in that we are desperately in need of "relationship rather than consumerism." Fine and good, that, thought I, preaching to the choir.  As if anticipating my very snark, Salatin added that the choir did need some preaching-to, so we would be energized to share with others our foodways, our practices that build wealth in the soil and self-reliance in the home. Homesteaders are gentle missionaries of a way once taken but left behind after the Second World War. I was greatly moved by Salatin's remarks, for which he noted Michael Pollan's ideas, that "we know that eating like Great Grandma is healthier and safer."

Yes, I too worry about the slow accumulation of pesticides and herbicides in our bodies without any longitudinal studies of their impact. As Salatin noted, in his Christian-Libertarian way that I found suddenly reasonable, our government now sells us on the safety of GMOs when, just a generation ago, it found that margarine would be safer than real butter and all of the carbs at the bottom of the food pyramid--an innovation of 1979--were equal nutritionally: Twinkies and taters apparently sustain us equally.

It's easy, when on the mass-comsumption treadmill, to dismiss homesteaders as crackpots. One of my colleagues who toured Polyface with Salatin found him to be half visionary, half crackpot. And he charmed my colleague utterly. I agree. It may seem ludicrous to tell a culture seemingly content with morbid obesity, car-based lifestyles, and land-use plans intent of paving our best farmland that "you are insane." Jim Kunstler has been doing so for years. Salatin does it with a different method of delivery, and Stacy and Doug live that vision of a world (almost) made by hand.

So I came away inspired. There is much left to do, but each step adds something in a movement toward more self-reliance. Next year for us? Food dehydration and cooking with a solar oven. We found an inexpensive one available from a vendor. My own plans would cook but not dyhydrate, so having one professionally made tool will be the route I take in 2018. We will also be raising chicks from incubated eggs.

This year we've expanded our seed-saving to tomatoes, begun reloading ammo, and I'm about to hunt deer for the first time in 30 years. Others will pick different skills from our frontier history, but one or two steps at a time will get us closer to what worked for our ancestors. I've critiqued the myth of self-sufficiency here before, so it pleased me that the speakers discussed the need not to build bomb-proof silos but rather resilient communities where we develop some of the skills our grandparents had. In the end we might create collapse-proof communities, if the worst that they and Kunstler fear comes to pass.

I learned a whole lot and, true to the spirit of the event, did not spend a lot of money beyond buying a really nice gardening knife to replace my easily broken hori-hori (replaced once already under warranty).  I will use the new tool this weekend to weed as I harvest hot peppers for our one restaurant customer.

A few quibbles about the event are inevitable, and I think the organizers can iron them out. Next  year, I hope they offer more food. We plan to pack our own food--very rural-thrifty of us--but a hot cup of coffee on a foggy morning would have been ideal. The one vendor with that beverage was overwhelmed by a long line at his food truck. The same problem occurred at Monticello in September, for the Heritage Harvest Festival. I hope the organizers of each event can lure more food trucks--so often a source of farm-to-table fare--to their gatherings.

We who paid ahead for admissions and speakers got first dibs for seating. It was not a problem but being a "Green Wristband" and thus encouraged to get seating made me uncomfortable. I'd recommend just charging one price next year; luckily no fights erupted because we call got seats. I'm looking forward to my own tour soon of Polyface with my fellow crackpot, Joel Salatin. I just wish I could get that "visionary" part going for me. The crackpot part I have down just fine.