Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Water's for Fightin'

Paso Robles water basin in decline, darkest colors indicating a drop of 70 feet over 15 years

If you have lived in California for any length of time, the chances are you've been involved in, or at least heard something pertaining to the issue of water rights.  Water is scarce in the middle-to-lower portion of our state, and like any scarce natural resource (think oil!) it's often a topic of contention.

As rural residents, we were concerned when we heard about well water levels dropping in our area.  The couple who owns the land kitty-corner to us has had their well go dry, as have several other neighbors. So far our faucets have remained running, and everyone is hoping for a wet winter.  But our neighbors with the shallow well (a scant 360 feet) will have to dig deeper -- probably to eight hundred feet or so -- which will cost them about $35,000 once all is said and done.  That's a huge expense.  Our own well sits at about 600 feet, so we're probably good for awhile.  But not forever, at the rate the water table is dropping.  Time to start saving for that big, wet $35,000 investment.  Yikes.

The other side of the equation is an important one, and it's where the fighting begins:  Recently the corporate wine world has discovered our area and has begun buying up land and buying out quite a few of the small, family-owned wineries, in order to plant as many acres of grapes as possible.  Where once our hillsides used to be mainly oaks and coastal scrub dotted with a few wineries here and there, we now have seas and seas of brand new, rippling green vineyards, beautiful to behold, but oh, so thirsty.

So the water table has been steadily dropping and our local government has been at loggerheads at what to do about it.  So have families.  Big Ag's brother works in those big, new vineyards, providing equipment and supplies.  But Big Ag and I are rural homeowners, concerned with dropping residential well levels and the over-expansion of the grape plantings.  And so we find ourselves on opposite sides of the table on this issue.

So there have been arguments, accusations and hurt feelings.  Just like every California family before us, going all the way back to when this area belonged to Spain.  If we're going to fight, we're going to fight about water.

As long as there have been farms and ranches here and above them, in those almost-always blue skies, the limited rainfall that comes with our Mediterranean climate, there have been water wars, against the government and sometimes pitting families against families.

Last night the Board of Supervisors declared a "water emergency," putting a hold on new plantings and development.  We will see where that gets us.  Hopefully it is not too late to put the brakes on all the water use, and allow the water basin to recover.  

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Twin Heavens

When we moved here, one of the things that surprised me the most was our close proximity to some of the most beautiful places on the coast of California.  Yes, the vineyard hills and oaks are lovely, and we are blessed to live among them. But just to the northwest of us lies the twin heavens of the Monterey Peninsula and Big Sur, which are absolutely spectacular.

For the last two weekends we've taken off for the coast, two weekends ago to the south entrance to Big Sur on a Sunday drive, and this last weekend to Carmel By-The-Sea, which lies just south of Monterey.    The idea that we can leave here mid-morning for lunch in Carmel absolutely makes my head explode (in a good way!).

Friday, August 23, 2013

A setback and some tomatoes

After a long wait and several misunderstandings between the countertop maker and our contracter, we fired the countertop manufacturer and have a new company coming in early next week to give us an estimate on some granite.  We've had issues with this countertop company from the get-go; they are six hours away and only come up to our area a couple of times a month, they insist the cabinets and sink be seated absolutely perfectly before they'll install (farm sinks are notoriously uneven and most installers will work with that), and they charge a whopping $250 every time they come through the door to check and make sure everything is perfect.

So while this is the recommended company our designer gave us regarding our countertops, regrettably, we have had to part ways now and will be using a local company to install them for us.

Farm sink temporarily rigged up with the old faucet -- it works!

New granite choice - Santa Cecilia, over new cabinets and hardware
But as of today, we have a working sink, we have plywood over the cabinets to give us some kind of countertop, the stove is back in its place and is functional, and so I canned 6 quarts of tomatoes this week, my first canning effort of the season.  

We've got nothing if not a bit of pioneering spirit in us. Preparations for fall continue, with or without a finished kitchen, because that's just how we roll, don't you know.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Sun-dried goodness

Sun-dried tomatoes

My tomato harvest is currently going like gangbusters, but my freezer is already filled with tomatoes to be canned at a later date, when our kitchen is finished.  So I've been forced to get creative -- deliciously creative, that is!

Last year Big Ag bought me a Food Pantrie solar food dehydrator, and one of the easiest foods to dehydrate is tomatoes.  Sun-dried tomatoes are good on so many dishes, from pizza to bruschetta, and so I decided to put up a decent amount this year (last year I think I ran out by the holidays).

So I set up the Pantrie last week, cut up several pounds of tomatoes, threw on a bit of salt, and voila.  Sun-dried goodness! 

I will probably put up another batch this week, just to make sure I have enough to get me through winter.  And now that my husband has rigged a temporary fix which is allowing us to use our new farm sink and dishwasher, I can even think about thawing out those frozen tomatoes and getting them into the canner. 

If you are considering sun-drying tomatoes, I'd recommend a big, meaty variety, like Mortgage Lifters or Pink Ladies.  They have plenty of meat and dry out nicely, leaving some residual plumpness without being wet.  My San Marzano tomatoes (which are heirloom Romas) will be great for canning but when it comes to drying, turn into nothing but skin and seeds.  Not sure why that is, but it's definitely something I've taken note of.

The increased pace of harvesting and preserving is partially because it dawned on me recently that apple season will soon be in full swing, which means there will be several quarts of apple pie filling to put up (if we want those traditional July 4th apple pies, that is).  So I've got to move through this tomato glut quickly and efficiently before apple season comes.  The average supermarket apple is anywhere from 6 - 14 months old, making it one of those fruits that's best bought fresh at your local orchard or farmer's market, in season and at no other time. Who wants to eat old, cold-storage apples?  Blech.

And am I the only one who has noticed, or are the days getting noticeably shorter now?  I used to head outside to water the crops at 8 pm and if I wait that long now, it's dark long before I'm done.

Either way, it feels good to be starting on the creative task of putting up this season's bounty.  It's a great reminder that cold, dark days are coming, always welcome after several months of summer's heat.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Homestead Kitchen a.k.a. Looking Forward to Fall

If you've noticed this blog has been a bit sparse on posts lately, it's because my lifestyle has undergone a temporary change that has left my homesteading activities on the back burner...well, they'd be on the back burner if I had a working stove and range hood, that is.  Which I don't at this time.

When you begin homesteading, in fact, one of the first things you notice is how much time you're spending in the kitchen.  I happen to love doing that, so homesteading and I fit together like hand in glove.  Making soap and laundry detergent, canning food and making stuff from scratch are all kitchen-intensive activities.  That's one of the main reasons we remodeled the kitchen -- to make it more user-friendly.  But the project that started the first week in July hit a snag when the farm sink we bought (on the designer's instructions) did not fit into the sink cabinet, and the cabinetmaker has now been tasked with creating a "fix," which should be here later this week.

Once the sink is placed, the countertop people can measure for a template...and then a couple of weeks after that, we will have a countertop, all the little odds and ends that need to be finished will be, and life in the kitchen can resume once again.

Maybe I should be surprised about the delay, but I'm not.  After all, I've seen enough DIY TV to know that when some things go wrong, the fix can take weeks, and it's no different here.

So I've focused on other things, like getting the house really organized, seeing friends, traveling a bit and doing some serious beach time.  

We have several early indications here that we may be on tap for an early fall though, and so I am really looking forward to the days when the temps will slowly start to cool off and I will once again be in the kitchen, doing what I love best, which is making things the simple way, like my great-grandmother did.

And of course I'll still be posting until that happens, it's just that some of the more typical homesteading posts may fall by the wayside until we have a kitchen again.

Sigh.  I really hope this kitchen is worth the wait.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Brooding, reloaded

So it appears we have a second broody hen -- our other Buff Orpington, Ellen.  Actually this is not news, she's been broody for a couple of weeks, but with the kitchen remodel and its assorted issues we've been too busy to concern ourselves much with breaking her of her brood. And so she's sat in the roost, every day,  except when we'd physically remove her from the roost and put her out to free range every day.  

But after her free range time, she'd go right back up to the roost to brood again.  It's not harmful so much as annoying, since she lays no eggs during the time she's brooding.  And of course with the summer heat I worry about her sitting in a hot roost every afternoon, instead of down at ground level in the cool breeze and shade with her other hen friends.

You might remember we dealt with this same condition in our other Buff Orpington hen, Portia, a few months ago.  At that time, we tried numerous tricks to break the brood and get her back to normal.  Bottom line, there's a lot of old wives' tales and hocus-pocus remedies out there which do not work, so if you search the internet looking for brood-breaking fixes, be prepared.

Ellen in Chicken Guantanamo

What does seem to work is putting the hen into a cage with a wire bottom, thereby keeping her cooler.  Brooding relates to female hormones, which in turn causes the hen to produce enough heat to hatch a clutch of eggs.  A wire-bottomed cage prevents the hen from becoming too warm, and eventually the hormones seem to just give up and return to normal.  Cool baths also help, but the fact is I think a brood has to run its cycle.  In other words, you may shorten the cycle by taking these two steps, but you won't eliminate it completely.

Buff Orpington hens are great layers but they are prone to broodiness, so if you're buying hens purely for egg production, this is a consideration. They will produce like crazy...but they will also brood, and during that time you'll get nothing.

 Of course if you are hatching chicks, broodiness is a great sign, since it usually indicates the hen will make a protective and caring mother.  But I will also say that broodiness does disrupt the general harmony of the chicken coop, as a brooding mother does not like to share the roost area with others.  Just one more thing to factor in when choosing a chicken breed for your laying flock.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Beach Girl

This is a photo snapped on my birthday last week. Sure, you can't see me all that well, because I'm kind of mysterious that way.  But the point cannot be missed:  I have always been, and will always be, a beach girl at heart.  Even at fifty-something!

Relish and other goodies

Living without appliances or a kitchen sink presents certain challenges, none more so than preserving our summer bounty of cucumbers and squash.  My solution thus far has been to pull the chest freezer into the equation and freeze things instead of canning them.

This will allow me to can them later on, should I wish, and will let me put up what I need for winter.

This morning was relish-making.  I had about 10 pounds of cucumbers and decided freezer relish was something I could accomplish easily.  I used a pre-made relish base (hated to do it but, again, the lack of a kitchen loomed large) and added the pulverized cucumbers, cooking it all on the side burner of the barbecue until it was ready for jars.  Into the jars it all went, and into the freezer they went after cooling.  The plastic bags were used over the jars as a precaution in case they burst and broke, but I'm happy to say all went well and the jars held up just fine.

I may re-batch it all and water-bath can it later on, but this has at least preserved our harvest for now.  I've been really lucky that we are having an extremely late tomato season, and most of my tomatoes are set, but still green.  What a blessing.  But the tomatoes I do pick will also go straight into the freezer, to be thawed and canned at a later date.

And squash was shredded and frozen for quick breads and my famous zucchini chocolate cake.  It will be nice to have it available throughout the year, since it's kind of a family favorite.

All in all, we're surviving without a kitchen, and hopefully, we'll be back into a new and better kitchen soon!