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Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Composting Story

   Years ago we made the move away from chemical fertilizer and pesticides,this increased the amount of compost production greatly.Living in a very traditional small farming community that has dumped lime and fertilizer on gardens for years this strange practice from this new comer caught quite a few stares from passing cars and trucks.The bigger our piles got the more I tried to keep them manageable and neat.My first pile was made from old pallets found in a storage shed turned on edge and tied together with wire.Wire rings made from left over sections of fencing worked well however it made them difficult to turn.When my neighbor,who has a mowing service,asked if I would mind if he occasionally dumped some clippings on site the piles quickly grew in size.Not long after that I started buying cut off lumber from a man with a saw mill up the road,the eight and ten foot boards were cheap and made large boxes when notched and stacked.Fall came that year and the trees were giving us all the leaves we could shred along with droppings from the chicken coop and kitchen waste these boxes filled up.The amount of compost we were making covered my main garden 70'x100' with a two inch layer and we still had enough left over to use as mulch over the gardening season.
   This year we broke down and purchased a tractor with a front end loader,now turning these piles would be a snap,one problem,the boxes had to be taken apart in order to get in with the tractor.I started looking around and pulled out some cedar post we had cut last year and decided it was time for a new design.I took the tiller and turned the ground where I wanted the bins located and set my first three post.With the help of my girls we went through a pile of boards from the old bins.We set our last few post and started putting up the boards leaving one side open.Now I have two compost bins back to back 9'x8'x36" that we can drive into in order to fill,turn,and empty with ease.Time to start getting busy filling these so we can create more of that wonderful soil building additive that gives back as much as we put in to it.
                 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

ThE WonDeRfUL WoRlD of LaUnDrY


Last year I started making my own laundry detergent and I'm quite satisfied with both the cleaning power and the cost.  The added bonus is that I don't have loads of plastic bottles cluttering up the recycling bin (and they never seem to last as many loads as they advertise anyway).  My recipe?

1 box borax
1 box laundry booster (Arm & Hammer)
3 bars of ivory soap, grated
essential oil for fragrance (optional)

One heaping tablespoon is all it takes for a full load in the washing machine, and it works beautifully in the newer high efficiency models as well.  One batch lasts my family a little more than 2 months (family of 4). 

Next chapter in laundry....  the dryer went out about 2 weeks ago.  This one is a used one that we bought several months after moving here.  My mother just about had a stroke when I told her we were drying on the line.  My mother grew up living simply out of necessity and can't understand why anyone would hang clothes out if there is a perfectly good dryer to do the job for you.  She also used to think that "green living" was for people that lived in green houses.  We did try line drying exclusively, but after several months my skin would get irritated, especially with my jeans from the scratchy line-dried clothes.  So we abandoned the line for a used dryer, and that poor sucker finally gave out the week before last.

After that, I only line dried occasionally because it was never convenient (but when is laundry ever convenient anyway).  A couple of years later Steve installed one of those whirly, space saving line dryers in the backyard.  I still only used it occasionally, and mostly for sheets and so forth.  My excuse was that I was working full time I'm not in the habit of hanging out clothes in the dark.  Truth be told, the dryer was usually full of a load all day that I would have to fluff again anyway just to get the wrinkles out.

So my dependence on the clothes dryer hinged on my ability to produce soft, fluffy clothes that line drying did not.  So when the dryer blew the other week, before rushing out to buy a new (or used) one I researched online some homemade fabric softeners.  I came up with this recipe courtesy of http://www.oldcentennialfarmhouse.com: 

2 cups of inexpensive hair conditioner
3 cups of white vinegar
6 cups of water

I mixed the three ingredients up in a gallon jug and used the name brand fabric softener ball that came with my machine.  Presto.  It did work.  Now behold, I did not get the fluffy results of an electric dryer but at least my skin is not irritated and the bath towels don't double as sandpaper.  So, for now it's working.  Just remember to shake it up every time you go to fill the ball.

There was one last drawback to hanging out clothes that I'm not crazy about that I haven't addressed yet.  Because of my busy schedule, I'm not always able to hang clothes out when it's sunny or get home in time before it starts raining.  Out of necessity, I was forced to hang up some clothes last week that had not quite dried on a cold, overcast day on hangers in our laundry/pantry/mud/craft room.  In this multipurpose room, Steve had already hung up some white metal shelves used for closets up on the walls for storage that he bought at an auction very cheap (storing our mason jars and canning pots, also purchased at auctions or thrift stores).  They were the perfect distance from the wall for a hanger and you could hang your clothes perpendicular to the line rather than on the line.  The shelves are up higher so there is plenty of room to hang jeans, etc. with the hangers with clips on them.  Best part is that an extra step is saved when those clothes that hang up are already on hangers!  And I can hang clothes out in any weather at any time of day, no worries about the rain.

Well, so far so good.  I'm not ready yet to say that I absolutely will not go get a new (used) dryer.  But after several rounds of air drying and line drying exclusively I can see that it's totally doable.  I'm also thinking that the spot where the dryer was would make a good spot for a .....

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

say CHEESE!

Steve got me a cheesemaking kit from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company at http://www.cheesemaking.com/ for Christmas.  Yay, me!  I went to a seminar at the MENF in September and the speaker recommended this company.  The kit he bought was VERY affordable and not intimidating at all:  http://www.cheesemaking.com/store/p/167-Ricki-s-Basic-Cheese-Making-Kit.html.

After reading over the directions about a dozen times, I borrowed a stainless steel pot from my friend Suzi (my next investment), bought some milk and rolled my sleeves up.  What's the worst that could happen?  Right?  The feta cheese was simple to make but the process did involve many hours which worked out perfectly because I was still off work yesterday.  When we finally drained the cubes this morning they have a perfect texture, although a little on the salty side.  The recipe calls for letting the cheese set for a day or two at room temperature and then storing at 50 something degrees or in a light brine.  I'm going to see how the cheese tastes tomorrow and if still too salty hopefully the water will draw some of the salt out.

Yesterday's feta was so successful that I felt ambitious again today.  But being a work day (I'm an elementary school librarian) I didn't have the hours to dedicate to some of the cheeses in my kit, but I thought I'd give some mozzarella a whirl.  All this depended on being able to find citric acid.... score!  At the Amish store in Lexington (http://youtu.be/nHAAyM4198o) I was able to find a small amount of citric acid for just a couple bucks.  I pulled up the Cheese Queen's 30 min. recipe:  http://www.cheesemaking.com/howtomakemozzarellacheese.html.  Note:  there is a disclaimer on the top of the recipe that stresses the importance of local milk for mozzarella.  Too late for that since it was already close to dinner and it's a school night, so I used what I had.  All went well, but I should have heeded Cheese Queen's advice.  The mozzarella had trouble holding the curd and the consistency turned out more like ricotta.  Still delish, but a little unexpected.  That's o.k., because I'm still learning.  And, we get to eat the mistakes.

The next time I think I will opt for http://www.homelandcreamery.com/, a local milk producer next time.  The cost is not really a problem ($5) but I have to think ahead because the nearest store that sells it is about 10 miles away.  Now, I just can't wait until SATURDAY!!!  Yes, that's because I will have some time to try out the cheddar recipe.  Now that I've gotten over the initial fear, I'm looking forward to more adventures in cheese as well as trying my own yogurt.  I found an easy tutorial at this site:  http://www.makeyourownyogurt.com/, but I'm open to suggestions.  I really don't want to invest in a yogurt maker when I already have all of the materials that this site suggests.


But, stay tuned to see what's next....

Monday, January 2, 2012

Happy New Year!

As we wind down our holiday season, I would like to reflect a little.  Steve, the girls and I spent our first Christmas in New Orleans since 2004.  Almost all of our family lives there, so it's quite different from the cozy foursome that we've had in recent years.  Although we had a great time, enjoyed visiting family and had a chance to eat some wonderful food there are some things we don't miss:  traffic, crowds, and the overconsumption of just about everything.

I was sad to learn that the New Orleans area does not have curbside recycling as it did before Hurricane Katrina.  So those noble folks who would like to recycle have a tough time doing so.  Steve's great aunts actually give their recyclables to his mother on Wednesdays so she can recycle them in her bin on the Northshore of Lake Ponchartrain.

I did notice in the grocery store that there was a fair amount of local produce available such as Louisiana grown sweet potatoes, cabbages and citrus fruit.  I liked the fact that it was labeled as such and right out in the center for customers to choose.

The French Market in the French Quarter has been all redone.  It was very nice with lots of permanent stalls for local artists and produce salesman.  My girls enjoyed perusing the tables of crafts and goodies, this being a new experience for them as they were really too young to remember the last time they were there.

The cost of living is much higher that it is here in rural NC.  Property taxes, homeowners insurance and food costs are significantly higher and makes it refreshing to come home to our 7 acres.  A bit of land to have some chickens and grow some food is all we had ever wanted when we lived there, but in order to have that much land you would have to be a millionaire.  Here we were able to afford such for about the same that you pay for an empty lot down there.

Home sweet home.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Post Thanksgiving....

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving.  We did here, although it was quiet with just us and the girls.  We did cook primarily homegrown foods for our dinner, with a certified organic free-range turkey as a side.  Claire did persuade us to cook her mashed potatoes even though we ran out of those last week, so I guess you could say we cheated.  But nevertheless.... we have much to be thankful for.

We have some Chinese cabbage, turnips and Mesculin mix salad greens growing out in the field.  In recent weeks we have processed not one but three deer here at the house (one Steve got and two others were given to us).  We ended up saving the backstrap and the tenderloin for the freezer, we canned over 30 jars (giving that a try tonight) and made 20+ lbs. of sausage.  Steve and I usually run out on a Sunday to the grocery to pick up our groceries for the week and we can usually check out in the express line we have so few items.  

We have also recently given up boxed cereal for the girls.  They never got free reign on the cereal aisle.  We always checked labels for sugar content, whole grain, etc.  but they are getting increasingly more expensive and even the more "nutritious" cereals are highly processed.  We have started to make muffins at home as we always have with whole wheat, whole oats, wheat germ etc.  We can add just about anything such as pumpkin or zucchini and the girls will eat them as long as I throw in a handful of chocolate chips.  What I have started doing is making a couple dozen and putting them in the freezer.  They can pull one out and heat it quickly for breakfast and toss another in their lunch bag and it will have defrosted by noon.

We are about to make our second batch of homemade laundry detergent.  We made it about 2 months on the first batch.  It probably would have lasted longer but I was a bit more generous than the one tablespoon the recipe called for.  Three simple ingredients:  borax, laundry booster and grated soap.  Last time I used my scrap soaps but this time I'm out of scraps so I'm substituting ivory soap.  I also tossed in some essential oil for smelly stuff.

My next blog post will be about our Christmas gifts.  We have decided only to purchase a couple things for our girls and for the angel tree at the library, so anyone else we will be giving a gift to it will be homemade.  

The next few weekends we will be working at the Denton Farm Park at the Christmas Train:  http://www.countrychristmastrain.com/.  I'm working the train (yay!), the girls will be elves and Steve will be a floater, likely alternating spots in the living nativity.  So, we will have to post pictures.  I'm not the best at posting pictures as it's a pain on this computer, but I will try to do so more often.  




Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Combat Increased Utility Bills

When we moved into our house just over 6 years ago, our electricity bills averaged about 120$ per month.  That figure climbed gradually, and after about a year we began installing compact florescent bulbs a few at a time.  Once we had one in every socket we noticed a nice drop in the bill.  But over the years the bills began to creep back up again.  Now our local energy company has announced a %17 rate increase at the beginning of the year!  Yikes!  Sure solar power is ideal, but for the regular Joe that is not always practical or affordable.  So what does the average family do?

Well, last winter our electricity bills ran about $200 per month for our 1800 square foot house.  I called the power company to ask what was up and they claimed it was my heating costs.  But our heating costs were zero, right?  I shook my head and figured that once winter was over the artificial inflation of electricity costs would level out.  Did this happen?  Of course not.  The $200 bills kept on coming!

Steve and I heat our house with wood stoves in the winter and we have a couple of high efficiency window units for particularly sweltering days in the summer (being from New Orleans, we are pretty tolerant of the North Carolina summers).  As long time treehuggers, we always felt that we did a pretty good job at saving energy, but the larger than comfortable bills and impending costs meant that our monthly utility bills were going to run nearly $250 per month forced us to take a harder look at our wasted energy.

The first thing we did was explain to our girls, ages 10 and 12 what was happening with our energy costs.  I think we've done a pretty good job at teaching them to not be wasteful, but explaining the actual dollar cost hit home with them.  Simple trickle down economics means that the more money we spend on electricity means less money we can spend on them.  They limit their television use to about an hour a day now and do a bit better job turning the lights off in their rooms.  

We finally dismantled the prehistoric desktop in the family room with the non-wireless printer that ran out of ink.  The computer stayed on far too much and actually got used far less than our other devices, so we uploaded all of our photos from that computer to an online photo website and we recycled the lot.  

We installed surge protectors on the two televisions (I've been threatening to throw these things out for years!) and other audio/video equipment.  Those switches are kept off unless they are being used.  Many modern appliances draw a small current when they are "off" because they really more "asleep".  One electronic device might not draw a whole lot of current, but when you add together all of these "sleeping" devices around the house it adds up.  

Steve and I love our ceiling fans.  We literally have them in every room.  Not only does it circulate fresh air, but it helps to distribute the air from the wood stoves and keep rooms more comfortable.  We used to keep them running 24/7 but now we turn the ceiling fans off in each room when no one is in there.  Although turning off the fans more often should save us money, the drawback is that now we will be able to see the dust so I will have to clean them much more often.  

We also delayed replacing the hot water heater because we were hoping to install that solar hot water system sooner rather than later.  Our intentions are good, but time and money are short around here so we decided to go ahead and replace that too.  Steve removed the old hot water heater from under the house (turns out the thermostat was broken and it never was insulated) and ran new lines and installed the new hot water heater inside the house.  We wrapped it in an insulated cover and wrapped the new copper lines under the house.  If all goes right, the $350 we put out for the hot water heater should be recouped within a year.  If we do get to install that solar hot water system (we have a used system we purchased from a homeowner a few years ago for $250 - but that's another story) then we already have a brand new holding tank!  We also turned the heat a few degrees lower than the previous unit, and kept the size of the tank to 40 gallons.  With a family of 4, we can all get a shower one after the other if we don't linger.  This not only saves on electricity but water as well!

When I was younger, my mother always used to keep a lamp or two on in different rooms in the house when we went out.  This was in case we got back after dark passers-by would think someone was home and also we wouldn't stumble into a pitch black house.  I somehow inherited this practice and have since abandoned it.  No one can see our house from the road so passers-by are irrelevant, and I've discovered stumbling in a dark house is really not that big a deal, not when you know where you're going.

We have an electric clothes dryer in addition to our solar dryer outside.  Steve and I both work full time jobs outside of our home, so hanging our clothes out isn't always conducive to our schedules.  Most of our washing takes place on the weekends so we are trying to use the sun to dry our clothes as often as we can.  

What we haven't done but plan to do in the coming weeks is to blow another layer of insulation into the attic.  We rented a hopper and used the bagged insulation made of recycled materials shortly after moving in, but that original layer has settled quite a bit.  We would have done that by now, but yet again, time and money.  

One thing we can do to combat the high costs of electricity is to reduce our consumption, but an even better option is to find cleaner alternatives.  We do think that some solar options are in our near future, beginning with the solar hot water.  We already have the panel and the heat exchanger, but what we are lacking is the schematics.  Luckily a neighbor friend  is a machinist and seems to think he could help us with that in the coming month.  We also want to experiment with some solar electric panels and have room in the new hot water heater closet for both a heat exchanger and some batteries.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, time and money - again.  

The day we installed the hot water heater, we received our bill from the previous month.  It was already down to $120, and that was without the improvements of our hot water system!  I couldn't believe that the few changes we made, that anyone could make, would add up that much!  And we still need to wait another month before we see the impact of the hot water heater.  This is adding up fast.  Maybe what we can do is bank the money we save off our electricity bill and put it towards an off grid or partially grid tied system?  Now THAT sounds like a plan.....




Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I must confess....

I must confess.  It's been more than a month since my last blog post.....

I must admit.  I had really high expectations of this blog.  I anticipated writing a series of quirky and amusing vignettes about life on our farm, I would amass hundreds of followers that would check my blog daily to see what was new, and hopefully get a book deal out of it.  But what happened?  John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans."  That's what happened.

It's not that nothing happens worth writing about.  Quite the contrary.  New and exciting things happen everyday around here at Five Roosters Farm.  I think of something to write about everyday, but the few blogs I subscribe to clog my inbox and I find very little time to actually read what others are into let alone write about what I'm into.   So in fact many of the blogs posts that come in my inbox actually go straight to the trash.  Lack of interest?  No, lack of time is more like it.  I think what I am most afraid of is that whatever I might post will fly into the inbox of the handful of followers and discover the same fate as those wonderfully articulate and witty blog posts that arrive in my email.

So, I digress.  I will just brainstorm a list of developments that have happened here at Five Roosters Farm in the last month:

  • canning venison for the first time
  • experimenting with pumpkin recipes
  • baking bread
  • attended a dry canning class (awesome!)
  • losing our pet turkey, as faithful as a dog and as sweet as a kitten, to a hawk attack
  • building a new closet out of reclaimed barn wood
  • installing a new hot water heater, a down-payment on solar (in efforts to stave off the 17% rate hikes from our power company)
  • making homemade apple sauce
  • splitting wood
  • cleaning the chimneys
  • fall garden 
  • perusing the local estate auctions for cool, old stuff we can reuse
  • harvesting beans, potatoes and the last of the summer tomatoes
  • starting in the greenhouse
  • researching heritage pigs
  •  and of course all of the crafts.
    • teaching a Christmas card class at the library
    • making jewelry our of vintage buttons discovered at the junk shop
    • the girls making doll clothes from scraps
    • upcycled fabric flowers
Seriously, it's clear that tons goes on around here.  It's finding the time to blog about it is the trouble.  I recently went on a scrapbook retreat (a graduation gift from my parents for finishing my masters in library science) where all I do was eat, sleep and play with paper.  I would love to get some of our stories down on paper (or flashdrive, cd-rom, cloud, what-have-you) but I think I would need to set aside a week or two to do so.

In the mean time, I will try to be a bit more diligent in my blogging.  One thing to celebrate is that our Five Roosters Farm facebook page has grown to 135 fans!