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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!  

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A weekend at Five Roosters....

Emma just started middle school, and she is adjusting quite nicely.  Steve and I?  Not so much.  We went from elementary school to class representative, spirit week, first dance, and oh, by the way can you drop me off at the game.... whaaat!?!?  I told her to slow down to give us some time to process this, but she turns 12 at the end of this week.  Time marches on....  So she needed a few things for this spirit week.  Everyday is a different theme and the kids are dressing up.  That meant a short road trip to Asheboro to visit the local thrift shops (thank goodness she inherited her thriftiness from us).

Our first stop was a junk shop in town named "Antiques".  The shop looks like a retail version of "Hoarders", but I mean this in the most sincere and friendly way.  I didn't catch the old fella's name that owns the place, but Claire got his autograph (illegible).  You see, he showed us his racing photos and according to him he is the last surviving driver from the very first NASCAR race.  Floor to ceiling were the treasures and we walked away with a little something for everyone.  Emma came away with some vintage cowboy boots ($6), hat and belt($4) for cowboy day.  Steve found a pair of garden shears and I scored two mayonnaise jars of antique buttons ($8).  He threw in a cheese grater for me to grate my soap, and a platter sized belt buckle for Emma's outfit.  Awesome.  I only wish I would have taken pictures so I could recapture that hour in the scrapbook.

Our next stop was Goodwill in Asheboro where we found a mod dress and knee boots for 60's day and a suit and heels for career day.  She had those cowboy boots and hat on ALL DAY, and only took them off to put on her pajamas.  Emma was walking on cloud 9 with all of her treasures and did not stop thanking us all the rest of the day.  She was happy and we still had a little change in our pockets.  A good day.

Well, enough of that.  Back to the projects:

Steve rebuilt the carburetor on his cub cadet and tilled up some of the garden to plant.  He was thrilled to get in his seeds he ordered from Southern Exposure Seeds.  He plans to put down some cover crops to overwinter and put back some nutrients in the soil.  He also spent about two hours working on the old Universal sewing machine for Emma.  This machine is close to 50 years old and we bought it at an estate auction shortly after moving here for just $2.  We spent 60$ getting it serviced and another $20 for a manual from ebay.  It still needs some tweaking, but Emma is only playing with scraps making clothes for their dolls.

And me.  I made some homemade laundry detergent with borax, laundry soda and some of my grated soap bits.  I've yet to try it as I am going to try to use up what I have.  I've looked into making some dish detergent and shampoo, but again living in the country is wonderful but it's not very convenient for shopping.  Thank goodness for the internet and home delivery.  I'm looking at ordering some citric acid for dish powder and possibly potassium hydroxide for shampoo.  I bought a book on making liquid soaps at MENF last week to hopefully learn how to make shampoo:
http://www.amazon.com/Making-Natural-Liquid-Soaps-Conditioning/dp/1580172431/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1317592972&sr=8-1
The ingredients are hard to find without ordering online, but I did try the no poo method today.  I mixed a bottle of "shampoo: consisting of baking soda and water and a bottle of conditioner using apple cider vinegar, water and a few drops of EO for scent.  It feels nice and clean, but I'll give it a few days before I give you my verdict.

We also tried a no-knead bread recipe found in one of MEN publications:  http://www.motherearthnews.com/shopping/detail.aspx?itemnumber=5623
Making homemade bread is something I've enjoyed for years, but having a full time job it's difficult to fit in making fresh bread on a work day.  This pleasure is reserved for leisurely days like we've had this weekend [sic].  The recipe was so incredibly easy I think I can pull one of these loaves off everyday.  Saturday's loaf was unbleached white flour and today's was half whole wheat and half unbleached using King Arthur's flour.  http://www.kingarthurflour.com/  Everyone LOVED the bread, however who doesn't love fresh bread?  The girls preferred the wheat version to the all white, so that was a big plus.  It was so easy:  the five minute prep time and the 8-14 hour rise time fits into my work schedule.  I'm going to give it a try in the morning.

Our lunch today was omelets made with our chicken eggs with climbing spinach, tomatoes and onions from our garden with the whole wheat no-knead bread.  We are just about to sit down to a dinner of meatballs and pasta.  The meat we buy is from a butcher in Asheboro that sells local, grass fed beef:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Fresh-Cuts-Butcher-and-Seafood/187577638657.   We rolled in some ground venison from last year and made the sauce with some whole tomatoes we canned this summer and some dried herbs.  We fought over the last crumbs of the bread from lunch.

Finally, the girls just came in from walking in the woods.  They've been collecting rocks and wood for the fire ring for their camp out this weekend.  Both girls are having a friend over and they are going to camp out in the yard for Emma's birthday.  I suggested the front yard but Steve has strategically placed the tent site so its within earshot and view of our bedroom window.  He did so just in case any young boys get any ideas.... what?!?!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mother Earth News Fair #2

Well, here we are at the end of the 2nd Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs.  Steve and I are sitting side by side on dueling laptops looking up websites, posting pictures and so forth.  At this very moment Steve is looking at the archive CD-rom of all Mother Earth News articles published from the very inception of the magazine in 1970 until 2010.  I'm not sure what has him more thrilled, that he finally got the CD-roms he's been wanting... or that the discs were a gift from his new friend Hank Will, editor of GRIT magazine.  Thanks, Hank wherever you are.  You made Steve's whole weekend.


Over dinner, Steve and I were comparing last year's festival to this one.  A number of people we ran into were surprised that we would drive 400+ miles for this event, but for us this was a no-brainer.  Steve had been an avid reader of MEN for at least a decade, and when the magazine first mentioned they were planning a festival we called that very day to book a room.  This was a big deal for us because Steve never likes to leave his garden or animals for more that half a day.

So back to that conversation.... at the time we attended the first festival we were already well on our way to a sustainable lifestyle.  We had been heating our home with wood for 5 years, we had grown vegetables, canned and composted for as many years or more.  We kept chickens and goats and so forth. But after closer examination we began to look at what has changed in our homestead since this weekend last September.  Let's take a look....

In October, Steve began forming the foundation walls for his greenhouse.  He used stones collected from our property along with some reclaimed windows we found on freecycle.org.  The wood milled was either reclaimed or from our neighbor Charles Garner that has his own mill down the road from us.  The door had to be custom made to fit the short roof so Steve fashioned one out of some tongue and groove from the barn and he reused old doorknob hardware from a door we took off the house.  He even built the shelves from some cutoff cedar and installed the little potbelly he's been toting around since before I met him.  This little potbelly has been a plant stand for 15 years just waiting for Steve to find the perfect opportunity to put it to use.  The only materials we bought new were the corrugated sheets for the roof, some gravel for the floor and maybe a few screws.  Total material cost:  just under $400.




Next, I learned how to make soap.  I was one of dozens of women crammed in a lecture room to hear Deborah Neiman-Boehle impart her wisdom and experience in soap making.  Later that night I ordered 10 pounds of sodium hydroxide from Essentials Depot and set to making my soap making plans.  My first go at soap yielded a huge boiling, caustic mess all over my glass top stove and one hysterical phone call to Steve begging for help.  My next go was slightly better, and to my credit in the months to come I  finally poured about a dozen more successful batches.   I think I sold a total of two bars, but all of my friends and family have reaped the benefits and now my girls won't use anything else.  My soap making adventures have sparked interest from all that know me and several people have asked me to teach them how to make their own.  Reminder:  need to pour soap next weekend.  
 



Steve switched exclusively to heirloom variety seeds.  He discovered Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (actually the weekend before the first fair) and was impressed and overwhelmed with the selection and variety of heirloom seeds the group offers.  Steve had a number of conversations with Chris and bought quite a bit of seeds at the fair.  He has subsequently placed several orders for different seeds and has dog-eared the catalog.  After growing exclusively with heirloom seeds since last year, he swears he won't use anything else.  The quality of the produce (on the plant and on our plates) was very clearly superior to any we had experienced before.  Apparently, once you go heirloom you never go back.  Bye, bye GMO.


The rain barrell project.  Steve refused to pay the prices for manufactured rain barrels, so he fashioned his own off the back of the greenhouse.  I think the total cost for rain barrel and gutters were about 100$.  The barrel itself is an industrial grade trash can, brand new and he installed the brass fittings with a drill and some silicone from the plumbing department.  When we had the first rain a few days later he couldn't wait to see how much water he had collected.  It was a few gallons, but the next good rain it was full to the top.  On our project list is to install rain barrels on the house.  This involves a bit of expense because we need to put up new gutters at the same time.  The greenhouse rain barrel provides water to the raised beds in our kitchen garden as well as inside the greenhouse.





And finally, the bees.  Steve had taken a beekeepers course in the spring of 2010, but the class finished sometime in May and it was rather late to order bees and we weren't really prepared for the start-up costs either.  After the fair in 2010, bees were something that we really wanted to add to the farm and Steve continued to read up on the topic.  We purchased a couple of hives in early 2011 and picked up our first package of bees in April of 2011.  It was a new experience for both of us, especially since the beekeepers course involved only lectures and theory, no actual bees.  I stood back about 30 feet or so snapping dozens of pictures... I felt like I was sending my child off to kindergarten, watching Steve with his first bees.  I told the girls that this was a big moment:  there would never be another first time Daddy installed his first bees.  That was a really cool day.








So here we are again with a second fair under our belt and I sit back watching the smoke swirling from Steve's ears, his brain working overtime on the projects he has yet to come.  Will it finally be a guest house?  Making our own shampoo?  Building a pantry or kitchen island out of reclaimed materials?  Or finally installing that solar hot water heater?  That remains to be seen.  Check back in another year and we'll see....

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Well here we go...

Steve and I have been thinking about writing some of this down.  You see, we are still relatively new to the  country and many of our exploits have been quite comedic.  Our name for instance....

We moved to rural North Carolina shortly after being displaced from Hurricane Katrina (that's another story).  Our little place was everything we had ever dreamed about...  a little bit of field, a little woods, a little house.  And no neighbors!  A far cry from the 66x113 lot we had in Mandeville.  Our main garden is bigger than that now (yet another story).

Well, anyway... a couple months after moving in someone had gifted us a pet rooster.  Our girls (Claire was 4 and Emma 6) curiously named him "Pecker".  We readily took him in because there was already this old chicken coop on the property with a few nesting boxes inside and a perch for roosting.  A ready made start for our first chickens.

We were told that the 11 acre flea market in Thomasville was a great place to find a few farm animals.  Never in one place had we ever seen such a place that you can find laundry detergent, new shoes, fresh fish and vegetables, dresses for a quincenera, bras fit for Jennifer Lopez, and be able to pick up a nice rabbit or chicken.  Our old neighborhood was too Starbucks-AnnTaylor-BarnesandNoble for that.

After a couple of hours we found a lady in the back that had cages upon cages of animals.  She had puppies, bunnies, ring necked doves and tons of chickens.  We asked how much and I think it was 4, 5 and 6 dollars each.  We picked out a few, she boxed them up and the girls fought over who got to hold the box in the back of the truck.  We picked up some fresh hay, some laying mash and let the chickens go in their new home to get acquainted with Pecker.

A couple months later Steve was chatting with a local fella that had stopped by to pay a visit when the man looked over at our henhouse.  "Steve?"  he asked, questioningly in particularly thick Carolina accent.  "That thar ya got is five roosters."  Did you see that coming?  Well, we didn't... but we did get quite a laugh out of that.  Hence the name.

Our next go at chickens led us to buying some older hens as to not make the same rooster mistake again, however unbeknown to us the girls we bought were of the geriatric variety and about the only thing they were good at was eating and s****ing.  So several months into the chicken adventure and we still had no eggs and a bunch of very frustrated and irritable roosters.  Poor Pecker.