Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hog Butchering Day

My country experiences mainly come from living in South Georgia when I was in the school grades, 5th through 9th. Just like Corn Shucking Day, we’d gather once a year for butchering hogs. Mr. Bruce, our close family friend and farmer, often gave us a pig from his farm each year. On a cool day, we’d all gather at the home of his father-in-law, Mr. Grooms, the neatest old man you’d ever want to meet. (He wore coveralls, and black suit jacket and a fedora to church.) Mr. Groom’s house was an old farmstead and had the setup needed for butchering hogs.

Three or four pigs waited in the trailer. Mr. Bruce would lean in carefully and tap one in the middle of the forehead with a 22 rifle. I don’t remember the other pigs even noticing. The stunned pig was pulled from the trailer and quickly hoisted under a beam. Funny, that out of the six adults present, Mrs. Grooms, who had to be in her late 70’s or early 80’s was always chosen to wield the knife. Her hand, steady from a lifetime of butchering, made the cut to bleed the animal.

The next task especially showed how appropriate the old homestead was for butchering. Under a nearby shed, Mr. Grooms had a large steel basin mounted on top of a low brick fire chamber. I don’t remember the exact dimensions, but it was large enough that I could have taken a bath in it. The wood fire below heated the basin’s water, and the carcass dipped in that hot water was much easier to scrub clean and butcher. Long tables set up outside served as butcher blocks.

I was too young to help much. Back then, no one trusted me around sharp objects, so I mainly watched and played with the other kids. Maybe I ran some gopher errands.

As the carcass divided into the various cuts of meat, any trimmings or cuts not intended for regular consumption got tossed in the sausage pile. Mrs. Grooms had a metal meat grinder that clamped on the edge of the kitchen table, and after those meat pieces were well ground, the moms would mix in sausage spices by hand and test fry small pieces. Once they hit the spice combination and amount they liked, the sausage was sent through the grinder again and extruded into casings. But with hungry children pacing just outside the kitchen doors like a pack of wild animals, some always got mysteriously diverted into the fry pan and into waiting biscuits for everyone to enjoy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Blackberry Picking

Growing up in South Georgia as a child, we often enjoyed blackberry pies in the summer. It usually began with us begging Mom to cook one for dessert. If she had the inclination and an extra pie shell in the freezer, we’d get the green light.

When picking blackberries in the wild, it’s important to have the right tools.
  • An empty milk jug with the spout cut out.
  • A long stick or pole.

I bet milk jugs were originally designed to hold blackberries. Some plastics developer back in the 50’s was probably using a prototype container to pick blackberries one summer and had an epiphany, “I bet this thing would be great for holding milk!” They’re lightweight, deep, waterproof, large enough for a good haul of blackberries, and have a convenient handle for carrying. All you have to do is cut out the spout with a razor to make an opening big enough for a handful of berries.

We also each carried a tall stick or pole for testing the brambles for snakes. The best berries grow lower in the bush, but you never stick in your hand until you poke in the stick a time or two. We were often reminded that rattlesnakes hung out in blackberry brambles. As I child, I accepted the weird notion that rattlesnakes would eat blackberries. I just couldn’t see it in my mind’s eye. It never occurred to me that rattlesnakes eat the rodents and birds that eat the blackberries.

We usually walked the sandy back roads until we found a good patch of blackberry brambles (or stickers as we called them) in the ditch or beside a field. It was a foregone conclusion that you would get scratched, and like the monkey with the coconut, I often found myself grasping a load of ripe berries and no way to extricate my hand from the thicket.

If the crop was good, it was one for the milk jug, one for the mouth. And in the end, we ambled home loaded with berries and with purple lips. Mom took possession of the crop and our work was done. Nothing left but to wait for dinner. I’ve added a recipe below similar to what Mom used. If you get the chance, give it a try.

So let’s recap: Exploring the countryside, fresh blackberries eaten right off the bramble, homemade blackberry pie for dessert. This is what you call a win/win/win situation. You can’t beat it with a stick.

Blackberry Pie Recipe

4 cups blackberries
1 to 2 cups sugar (depending how sweet the berries are)
2 Tbs flour
Dash salt
2 or 3 Tbs butter
Thawed pie shell

Wash the berries well and drain. They sometimes have ants or little mites on them. (We’d blow them off when eating them in the field.)

Mix the berries, sugar, flour and salt together, and mound into the uncooked pie shell. It will be heaping. Dot the top with butter and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until the berries cook down and the pie shell is done - 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Odd Crop

I don’t have land yet for fruit trees, a parcel of field corn, and my square foot gardens, but I did manage to plant this odd crop. It’s a bit wormy, and I’m pretty sure it’s moldy inside.

The post hole that Sam hid in.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Homestead Livestock

Farmers like to talk about their animals. I’ve seen whole forums dedicated to discussing the different livestock; poultry, bovine, swine, and other more exotic types. When we find our ONE ACRE FARM, we’re going to be severely limited by space (and probably zoning) on the types of animals we can raise. I’m hoping for chickens and geese. Here’s my reasoning:

Chickens – They are easy and cheap to purchase from a hatchery like McMurry. 10 female chicks costs less than $25, and the trusty US Post Office delivers them. 10 chickens should produce at least 1/2 dozen eggs a day for about 2 to 3 years. I don’t think it's feasible to keep a rooster, because although it would both protect the hens and service them to create new chicks, it also makes a lot of noise. And one acre isn’t large enough to shield the neighbors from unwanted noise. Also too many chickens on a plot of land will scratch it to mud in short order. If I put half of the acre to pasture and fruit crops, 10 chickens can free range and hopefully not cause too much damage.

Also for a short-term project, I might also order 25 for meat. Chickens take some time to reach egg laying maturity, but for meat purposes, they reach the proper weight in just a couple of months.

Geese – They eat grass. Some varieties are less noisy. And I just want one. They’re good watchdogs and can be raised for meat as well. Mother EarthNews has an interesting article on geese.

Guinea fowl – I’d really like a couple of these. I understand they’re excellent bug catchers, even in around edible garden plants. (Chickens and geese will both eat the garden produce and plants.) However, Guinea fowl are known for their very loud calls, something I’m sure the neighbors will not appreciate.

Goats – Nancy wanted goats. But I’ve read that solitary animals get destructive for lack of company. We could raise them for slaughter, but I'm not sure I can serve that much goat meat to family and friends. Nancy thought they would make cute pets, and they would,but with limited browsing range, that's a boatload of feed every day for years. I think having a daily supply of fresh goat's milk is their best argument. How cool would it be to experiement with cheese making, not to mention a supply of butter, yogurt and icecream? But neither Nancy nor I are ready for the investment of time required to milk them at least once a day, no breaks, no vacations. Hmmm. We changed our mind.

Cows – Too much animal, not enough room.

Turkeys – I’ve heard they can be mean. And beside we’ll already have chickens.

Pigs – Now this is a possibility. As with chickens, pigs are often raised to slaughter weight. This can be done in a summer. I’ve read that allowing it some free range and giving it plenty of carbon (hay) in its diet greatly reduces odors. We’ll see. I’d have to find a place that would butcher it, a task I could do myself, but there are issues with weather temperature, firearms (if we end up within city limits), how visible we are to neighbors, cool storage, etc. Walter at Sugar Mountain Farm has a wealth of knowledge and a great perspective on raising pigs.

Rabbits – Many homesteaders use rabbits as a meat source, but they all seem to keep the animals in cages. I want any animal I keep to have as good a life as possible. Chickens should lead chickeny lives with lot of scratching space, greenery and bugs. The same goes for pigs, cows and geese; each should have space to forage and do what comes natural to them. So…no rabbits.

Fish – One of the healthiest forms of animal protein. I got all excited about fishing locally here in Florida until I read warnings limiting the amount of freshwater fish you can eat because of contaminates in the water. That astounded me. Then I researched aquaculture and I think it can be tailored to small farm or even to an individual household use. In many parts of the world, it seems that fish is the first and often only source of protein people seek out. It can often be caught, free fro the taking. The farmers let nature grow their livestock for them. But in a more controlled environment, it is still economical in terms of space, feed and time. You need a large tank of water, a source of fish fingerlings, a method of filtering waste, and a source of feed. It’s just a large scale aquarium. (And when I say a large tank, I’m referring to 1000 gallons or more.) James Rakocy wrote an interesting technical article on tank aquaculture of Tilapia, and small scale aquaculture is even promoted in urban settings.

Ducks – I seriously considered ducks for a while, and may come back around to them again. From what I’ve read, they can be a good an egg layer as some chickens and are excellent meat birds to boot. But I’ve also heard they can be messy and I’d want to provide them with a small pond; something I’m not sure I can buy or build.

Bees – Yes, there is the honey, but I’m more interested in keeping a small hive for pollination. The goal of a farm is to produce food, and the better pollination, the better the crop. Zoning laws determine how far away hives must be kept from other residences, but I think it’s closer than you might imagine. Think of it as a larger, more complicated version of an ant farm that produces honey and pollinators. Honey bees are not pests like yellow jackets; they just want to get about their business of seeking nectar. Michael Bush has a great website on apiculture.

So, keeping the above in mind, I’m thinking my ONE ACRE FARM will include approximately:
  • 10 chickens for eggs
  • Occasionally 25 additional chickens for meat
  • Tank grown tilapia
  • A bee hive
  • 1 goose
  • Perhaps an occasional pig

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Does Homestead = Packrat?

In making the house ready for sale (and our eventual move), we continue to work at improving and cleaning it. Our immediate goal is to get the house organized and clean and keep it so for prospective buyers. The counters and dressers are completely clear, the closets clean and organized, shelves neat and tidy.

I have thrown or given away scads of materials we don’t need: decade’s old training manuals, clothes that no longer fit, VHS movies we’ll never watch again. We’re not packrats, but stuff accumulates over time. I wonder if homesteaders are packrats as a general rule. Truly, how easy is it for you throw out bits of this and that?
  • Maybe that slightly rusty bolt will save me a trip to the hardware store one day.
  • Maybe I’ll fit into that shirt when I drop 20 pounds.
  • Maybe I’ll remember to give that book to my brother when I see him next year.

There are a lot of maybe’s associated with the packrat mentality. Bits of wood, old screws, leftover string, unused paint. I must admit, though, when the conjunction of need and availability collide, and you actually KNOW where the item is when you need it, it can be very satisfying. More than saving money and time; there’s rightness to that type of recycling. Yes, I think the world is a better place because that old rubber washer destined for the land fill instead fixed Sam’s bike perfectly.

That’s why it’s particularly hard to get rid of the things now. I know those cinderblocks and plywood and paint would come in very handy once we reach ONE ACRE FARM. But, no pain, no gain. We’re not on a farm yet, so out they go.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Homesteading Wojo

Do you remember Det. Stan 'Wojo' Wojciehowicz on Barney Miller that mid-70's detective sitcom on TV? Wojo was always driving Captain Barney Miller crazy because he would never tell the story from the beginning; he always forgot something or told it in little pieces as it occurred to him. Barney would ask if everything went OK while he was out of the office, and Wojo would say, "Yeah, there's hardly any more smoke."
"What smoke? Was there a fire?" Barney would ask and then the story would painfully develop.
"Well, it wasn't my fault the monkey got loose."
"What monkey?!"
"You know, the one the circus mimes brought in."
"What circus!!"
And so it would go, bit by bit.

I live a series of Wojo moments. For instance, I'll firmly assure Nancy I haven't seen a rental movie, and as the film unfolds, I'll say, "I think I remember this scene. Oh yeah, that character seems familiar..." Nancy hates it when I do that.

Today I tried to fix the jeep. It's been overheating recently, and yesterday I discovered a hole in the top heater hose. I remembered it happening before; the thermostat gets stuck, the engine overheats and a hose pops with the pressure. So I buy a new thermostat. No problem, two bolts worth of work and $15 for a new thermostat, seal and heater hose.

Then, as the parts counter tells me they don't have the heater hose, I vaguely remember last time also having to buy a length of generic hose and bending it to fit. Later, as I tried to coax off the broken hose, I remember (immediately after doing it once again) breaking the heater assembly. Another trip to the parts store.

All this culminates in finally realizing I can’t get to the bottom bolt that reveals the thermostat and remembering that last time I made it to this exact same point before giving up and taking the jeep to the mechanics.

If I wasn’t so much of a Wojo, I’d have remembered all this $47 dollars and 3 hours ago.

Reading homesteading websites and blogs, I find that as a group, homesteaders are an industrial, capable and frugal group of people. This means you fix your own vehicle/tractor/generator/washing machine/well pump/ nuclear reactor whenever you can. My online search for instructions didn’t work; I think I’m going to get a Chilton book and figure out how to loosen the serpentine belt to get to that bolt.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Corn Shucking Day

We had Corn Shucking Day most every year when I lived in the South as a child. A wonderful family friend who farmed crops and hogs would drive his pickup into the field and my Dad and older brother would help fill the big truck's bed with a hill of corn. When they dumped it into the middle of the farm yard under the shade trees, it seemed like a mountain to a little kid like me.

Everyone helped; some shucked, some silked, and the moms cut the sweet, white kernals off the cob into large enamaled dishpans. Then they would scrape the knife's edge down the cob to get out all the sweet corn milk and bits of endosperm that was the cream in the creamed corn. It seemed like tubs of of the stuff, which they blanched on the gas range and then spooned into one quart freezer bags. I helped with that, too, twisting each bag and tying it off twice against leaks. The warm bags were laid row upon row in the big freezer chest among similar bags of butterbeans and fieldpeas.

It was a lot of effort, mainly on the grownup's part, but come December when Mom pulled a package out of the deep freezer and cooked it down with pat or two of butter and salt and pepper, it was just fantastic. It made store bought cream corn taste like melted plastic. Pair up that sweet creamy corn with crunchy fried pork chops and buttery field peas, and there was no such thing as leftovers. Getting hungry?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

One step up - Two steps back

Even though the house is being sold "as is," we're continuing to try to improve it for salability. So instead of putting in new gardens, I’m actually taking them out. Seven or eight years ago, I came across Mel Bartholomew’s square-foot-garden and put one in. Here is last year’s:

In the garden:

  • Cucumber and tomatoes on the trellis.
  • Cayenne peppers to the left.
  • A marigold peeping from behind the peppers.
  • Oregano outside the square on the far left.
  • There are a few radishes in there, too.
  • I used pine straw because at the time I couldn't find any other type of mulch.

I think Mel did an excellent job in repackaging a concept that’s been around awhile. He made it easy for the common gardener to grasp the concept, implement a single garden square and experience success, and expand as time, money and effort allowed. Still, at its core it’s really just intensive planting, which a lot of gardening models emulate. I bought three or four of Mel's books and gave them away to friends and family.

This past spring, I put in a second 4x4 square, and then allowed them both to go to pot because I was out of town and not available to upkeep them. Neither Nancy nor Sam is much into weeding. The vegetables have gone to seed, grassy weeds have moved in, and the few tenacious okra plants still point huge pods up in the air.

I’m going to raze the whole thing to the ground, toss the lumber, and lay sod. It’s only 32 square feet. That way, the yard looks smooth and uniform and prospective buyers can dream of their own gardens.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The History of the PLAN (a.k.a. How to Get from Here to There.)


Our original dream had seven exciting parts:

  1. Sell the house quickly.
  2. Quit my job or work part time.
  3. Buy ten inexpensive acres with open pasture, a small wood and fish pond in the nearby country, 15 minutes outside of town.
  4. Build a new energy efficient block house on site or renovate existing structure.
  5. Play in the garden with all my free time.
  6. Buy a barnyard of animals.
  7. Become trim and fit with all the fun physical farm work.

We're still on step 1. OK, my early plans were a bit unrealistic. I see that now, but some of the elements are still in the mix.

How to Get from Here to There

"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." I think the most frustrating part of dreaming is that we often want the big dreams to happen quickly. It's easy to take refuge in a dream, it's harder to put in the work and time and patience to make it happen. But we're still committed to making the change. Here's why:

First, I'm tired of working in corporate business. Work invariably involves being out of town; clients want you to work where they are, not the other way around. I began to think about taking a local job, which would pay substantially less, perhaps as little as half or even a third. But that's not practical with our current debts and bills.

Our house is a good house. We like it a lot, but it has a very small yard, with very close neighbors. And although there's a great park at the end of the street, I'd be brain dead to let my 9 year old play down there unsupervised in this day and age. So no land, suburban house, no privacy, no elbow room, and a lot of house and other debt requiring me to work abroad; the house needs to go.

Once we made that decision, the dream flood gates opened, and Mr. Research hit the Internet. I quickly came across the word “homesteading” online and followed every Google link I could find. This was for me. This rang true in the compost of my soul. I saw an immediate way to blend in my green inclinations. Homesteaders welcome alternative energy and off the grid living with open arms. I could envision it:

  • Rambling over my 10 acres of wooded hills, a large pond, and grassy meadows.
  • Energy efficient block house with a deck on the roof.
  • Solar panels would flood the house with electricity.
  • Water would pour off the roof into underground cisterns.
  • Healthy fruit and vegetables for the picking.
  • Goats for milk and cheese, chickens for farm fresh eggs, geese to keep down the yard weeds, a guinea fowl or two to keep the garden clean, cats to keep out the mice, dogs to keep out everything else, a pig or calf for fattening.
  • Sam could play in safety to his heart's desire.
The homestead dream lasted a number of months, even with most homestead sites plainly stating how much work was involved. I then finally took a closer look at what was reasonable, even possible:

When the house sells, we’ll have funds for one choice: either a down payment for a new homestead (YEAH!!!!) or payoff for essentially all of our debts (…crickets chirping…) I knew the answer all along deep down inside; we are, after all, ultimately pursuing a more practical, down to earth lifestyle. Going back into heavy debt hardly seems practical. Then, other uncomfortable realities became apparent:

  • Could we even find suitable property close to where we wanted to live, and if so, could we afford it? Looking online and driving around the places we wanted to live gave a bleak answer, probably not.
  • Are we willing to move to where land is that we could afford? Again, probably not. We still want some of the benefits related to living near the city; availability to current friends, restaurants, theaters, and other interests. I want a decent Internet connection; she wants to ramble in the shops with her friends sometimes.
I began to realize that we are not true homestead material. Is that shameful? I kind of always looked down on cityslickers, thinking inside that I was a heartier breed. But it seems then, no solitary, country farm for us. No broad acres, wandering pastures or rambling woods. So what are we? I was forced to take a closer look at what we wanted from life and what we were willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

This called for another Internet search:

Off-the-GridSustainable living separate from utilities, especially electricity.

I like this concept, but we certainly don’t have the resources for the initial outlay of materials on an entire home system. However I could start small and build slowly, perhaps beginning with solar heated water or a solar system for part of our electricity needs. Living in the southeast, this is especially attractive during hurricane season.

Self-sufficiencyLiving close to the land, with an emphasis on frugality, recycling, and self sustainability.

Some of these sites got a little weird, although I agree with the premise. I’m not into dumpster diving or eating out of reused pie plate tins. However, I think frugality is sorely missing in America, the land of plenty, and we should make better do with what we have rather than filling up Sam Walton’s pockets.

Organic FarmingGovernment regulated farming geared towards producing produce that meet strict guidelines of production.

I think the idea of food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizer and gene tampering should appeal to anyone conscious enough to breathe. Our society's dependence on chemicals is a Pandora’s box. I fully expect that one day we'll find that many of our current illnesses are linked to chemicals in our food, water and air. In organic gardening, though, you must be certified. Even small farms have to comply with strict guidelines to be labeled “organic.” Plus I don’t think I want to put in the money or time needed to farm full time, and frankly although organic produce sells at a premium, I don’t know that our local farmer’s market or restaurants could support it.

Customer Supported Agriculture (CSA)Providing periodic produce and animal products for local residential and commercial customers who pre-pay for the service.

I'm still thinking half-seriously about a CSA. It might be an attainable goal, one that could start small and grow. Similar to Organic Farming, I could benefit from the concept of clean and healthy, locally grown produce, but not have to deal with government restrictions. Unlike catering to restaurants, since no single crop is promised, if one performs poorly, another can substitute its place. Also, the members share the risk by paying in advance, allowing the farmer to start up with a minimum of personal cash outlay. I may yet try this on a small scale.

HobbyFarmingOwning a small “working” farm, but supporting it with a sideline or fulltime occupation.

I’m a chagrined to say I think hobby farming probably best defines our goals. Many homesteaders keep pantries stocked with two years of provisions, grind their own flour, and make their own clothes. We’re not willing to commit that amount of time and change from our current lifestyle. But we do want to live as close to it as we can, where we can. I would like to:

  • Grow our own vegetables as close to organic as possible.
  • Raise fish for eating in a protected pool.
  • Raise hens for egg and meat production.
  • Grow a large assortment of fruits and nuts.
  • Possibly raise a pig for butchering.
  • Incorporate energy and water saving devices as possible.
  • Raise small crops for home and animal consumption.
  • Can and dehydrate our produce.
  • Raise bees.
  • Possibly sell extra produce and honey at at a roadside stand or a small CSA.

I think we can do this on a much smaller scale like an acre. This fits in much better with our finances and also what’s available within a reasonable drive of the city. But, the house hasn't sold yet. It’s been on the market since late June, and we're hopeful. Some repairs are needed and we’ve priced it accordingly. Selling it will get us out from under an exorbitant house payment and help payoff numerous other debts that drain our finances. Until that happens, everything is on hold. Even then we may be looking at a year or two of apartment dwelling to raise the necessary down payment.

Sometimes it seems like the dream gets further and further away. That's when I go surfing homestead sites and blogs.