Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Line In The Sand

Everyone has a line in the sand which, once crossed, takes you into a behavior zone different than how you'd normally act.  In our house, for instance, we try and conserve electricity whenever possible, as do most homesteaders. Because of that, we frequently sit in an 80 degree house in summer, waiting for the sun to go down, the winds to pick up, and the temperature to drop, at which point we open the windows and let Mother Nature provide us with some free, clean and green air conditioning.

But I have my limits. 80 degrees is my line in the sand as far as the inside temperature goes.  At 81 degrees, all bets are off and I reach for the switch that will start up the air conditioning unit...the giant, electricity-sucking air conditioning unit.

As you can see, today the inside temperature hit 81 degrees, something which had not happened in 2014 until today, which is actually pretty good.  I broke a sweat, and I reached for the switch. In addition to the heat, we've also had a little monsoon moisture, which has made the air especially sticky. Sticky.  Yuck.

It's bad enough that I have my own internal summer most of the time.  When the temperature inside the house rises too much, I do what I have to do. I suppose if I were to be in a survival situation, I'd find things to help me deal with the heat, such as losing my temper with my loved ones and sulking in a sweaty heap in a cool hallway.

But until that time, I make no apologies for using the air conditioning when necessary, which can happen when the air inside reaches 81 degrees or I have a hot flash and my internal temperature flares to roughly what the surface of the sun's is.

It's called the Hot Flash Homestead for a reason, ya know.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Mormons, Survivalists, and Overproducing Homesteaders

There's a funny thread that runs through both survivalists and the Mormons' food storage methodology, and that is the idea of the Two-Year Plan, or having enough goods to last you two years, without needing to visit the grocery store or raid the neighbor's pantry at gunpoint. 

I pondered this Mormon/Survivalist common idea for a long time, wondering who started it first, and why.  And then there was this summer, and now I know exactly how and why the Two-Year Plan developed.  At least I think I do.

Both groups took the Two Year idea from earlier agricultural societies.  Back in those times, you put up two years' worth of a crop whenever you could, in case the next year produced a shitty crop -- or no crop at all -- due to circumstances beyond your control, like weather.

My tomatoes, as well as the tomatoes of most of the folks around here, may be heading for such a year.  It's been extremely windy, also warm, but also quite humid.  We can go from a 70 degree day to a 106 degree day in 24 hours.  

And the tomatoes are responding by producing a lot less fruit than normal, and losing a lot of their flowers before they even have a chance to be pollinated. With this weird summer happening now, it appears that the fruiting season is going to be substantially shorter than normal, and if frost happens at approximately the same time as usual, we will still lose our ability to grow tomatoes at about the same time as we normally do. Meaning there are going to be a lot less tomatoes produced for canning. 

Last month (before the weird weather had really set in) I went through the pantry to figure out exactly how many quarts of tomatoes we'd used these last 365 days, and found that we used exactly half of what I put up last year. 

It turns out, I actually carried out a two-year plan without ever intending to, which means in addition to survivalists and Mormons, there is actually a third group that has a Two-Year Plan, and that is homesteaders who got out of control with their canning and accidentally oversupplied themselves. Can I see a show of hands?

But this is not a bad thing to do, when you think about it, so don't be too hard on yourself if your hand is up. It turns out, the Mormons, survivalists and your great-grandparents were on to something.

Especially in these times of extreme climate uncertainty, having a two year supply of things you can preserve from your land is great, because as temperatures and other conditions grow more and more unstable and unpredictable, you never know when that shitty season is going to happen.

Add to that potential disasters, such as the huge solar flare we missed a couple of months ago (by nine mere days!) and there's a certain wisdom found in the habits of some Mormoms, survivalists and accidental overproducing homesteaders, who manage to put up more than they can use in one calendar year. When Mother Nature gives you more, preserve more.  

You won't be sorry you did. But if you don't, you may very well be sorry you didn't when that inevitable shitty season hits.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wire cages and tales of caution

Fruit Guantanamo

A couple of years ago, when we put in our 30 berry plants and 15 fruit trees, we decided to construct chicken-wire cages to go into the ground around the plants to protect the roots from gophers.  It made planting a lot more difficult (especially making sure the dirt was packed firmly with no air pockets as we filled in our holes) but seemed a prudent insurance policy against vermin.

One of our original raspberry cuttings never sprouted, so last year I pulled it out (along with its wire cage) and re-planted the hole with a new raspberry bush -- no wire cage this time.  Since gophers had left all the plants alone for a year, I figured we'd been too paranoid about the whole wire cages thing.

And then two days ago I spotted gopher mounds in the pasture.  All the plants were fine -- except -- you guessed it, that one raspberry bush which did not have a cage around it.  It was dead and withered. When I dug about a foot away from it, I clearly found the underground gopher hole that had allowed the little critter to tunnel in and eat the root system of the bush -- enough to kill it from the ground up.

This is a common theme of farming, where you begin cautiously, have success, and let down your guard a little, or sometimes a lot.  It happens with livestock, it happens with canning, and it happens with vegetable growing.  Oh, you're supposed to rotate your crops every year?  But you've grown tomatoes in the same spot for three years with no problems!  So you plant in the same spot, one more year, and find you're devastated with soil-borne disease this time around.  Sterilizing the Mason jars before canning?  Well, you used to, but over the years you kind of stopped doing it....and then one of your jars pops open in your pantry because it's become so ripe with bacteria it de-pressurizes itself.

It's an almost-guaranteed human behavior.  We get away with letting our guard down until one day, it finally catches up with us. 

The best farmers only have to learn the hard lessons once, or not at all.  The truly excellent ones can learn from others' bad and good experiences without having to experience things for themselves.  You know, kind of like the hot stove analogy.  They see someone else get burned and don't touch the thing.

Terrible farmers have to learn their lessons again and again as each season presents its classic difficulties:  the fox in the henhouse, the grubs in the planter beds, or the gophers in the raspberries.  It's Groundhog Day, and sometimes with actual groundhogs. They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome.  But perhaps another definition is when you tamper with proven success by slacking off and expecting all will be well.

Next spring we will be expanding our berry bushes and you can bet there will be wire cages around everything -- maybe double wire cages, and perhaps even sentries with shotguns in perimeter towers.  (OK probably not that last one.) 

The point is, while I can't always help when mistakes get made, I sure as hell can make sure they don't happen twice.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Listeria Recall

Just heard a warning issued that the California-based Wawona Packing Company has discovered Listeria bacteria in some of its peaches, nectarines, plums and pluots. The fruit was distributed across the gamut of supermarkets, including Sam's Club, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods.

One more reason to appreciate having a food life that's significantly off-the-grid, so to speak. We have no Listeria here. It gives me a very real sense of personal empowerment, well-being, and independence to see stuff like this on the news and know it doesn't effect us in any way. Of course my heart goes out to all those injured or otherwise affected by something like this, but one of the reasons I keep this blog is in case anyone ever reads these words and thinks, "well I could plant a fruit tree or two." (or grow a lettuce, cauliflower, or tomato plant or two, etc.)

It's not just the well-being that comes from a diet grown within feet of where it's going to be consumed; it's the freedom from worry that comes from never having to take a bite of fruit, or a vegetable, and worry that it might make you sick, something which is becoming more and more commonplace in the commercial world as larger and larger shipments of food are crammed together, or processed together, and shipped thousands of miles away from where they were grown.

Sure, plenty of blog posts here are about the work it takes to make food, but it's also about the freedom that comes from doing the work. Which is worth it in every way.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Lotion experiments

I'm a regular soap-maker, and have really enjoyed learning the whole process that's involved with making a great bar of soap, but my next challenge is to teach myself how to make a nice hand lotion.  And by lotion, I don't mean body butter or salve, both of which are fairly easy to make with the right oils, some water, and an immersion blender on a double boiler.  But I want lotion that can be used in a lotion dispenser -- so convenient, and more hygienic since you're not dipping your fingers into the mix every time you want to use some.

Step 1: When using cocoa butter, be sure and eat some chocolate to stop yourself from biting into the delicious-smelling (but NOT delicious-tasting) cocoa butter wafers.

So yesterday I made a salve with cocoa butter and shea butter, plus lavender and tea tree essential oils, which ended up completely solid once cooler.  To get it into a more liquid state, I then took a couple of tablespoons of it and put it into a cup or so of olive oil and some additional water and blended.  Once cooled, it was still completely liquid and fairly thin, so I added some more of the salve and repeated the same process. I'll continue doing this until I get a texture similar to most hand lotions, and then I will put it into my lotion dispenser and enjoy.

Step Two: A Melting Pot -- like America, only better-smelling.

This is the kind of thing I love doing in summer, when the day is slow and there is time to experiment.  If my lotion comes out decently, I will put the recipe on here, but this is still a project in development, as far as I'm concerned. 

Step Three: Finished salve. Time for some wine, this was hard work.

 That's the beauty of homesteading; you are free to play and experiment to see what works and what doesn't.  It's possible your experiment won't work and you'll continue buying what you were trying to make, but it's also possible you might just invent the best soap, lotion, or whatever in your history, and will be the happy benefactor of some homemade luxury.

Step Four:  Do this the next day if ended up having too much wine after making the salve. Salve is now mixed with olive oil and water. Will it turn out?  Who the hell knows! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Hmm.  Made a peach cobbler in the solar oven.  Sampled it. Quite a bit of it, actually.

Once the cobbler was out and cooling, I popped a melange of leftovers into a granite wear pot -- cooked salmon and chicken from a few days ago, and added some fresh sliced zucchini, mushrooms, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, chili oil, olive oil and salt and pepper.  Put it in the solar oven for an hour. 

It came out so good -- and right at noon -- so I ended up eating my portion for lunch instead of waiting to eat it when the family has dinner later on today.

I have no willpower where good food is concerned.  And I'm not a bit sorry.