Tuesday, December 11, 2012

rotten apples

Here are some hedge apples, being left out for the winter to rot. I got some from brother Tom and some from sister in law Brenda. The plan is to start experimenting with living fencing. I've read a bit about Osage Orange, aka hedge apple, and its history as a windbreak and hedge, but don't know how well it will do this far north. If it works out, the periodic pruning and coppicing will provide excellent firewood, as it has by far the highest heating btu content of trees in North America. You are supposed to let them decompose through the winter, then turn them into a souply mess, and dribble the seeds into a furrow in the spring, thinning as required after they get started. The technique requires close planting, and severe pruning to keep them from getting out of hand and to encourage lower level branch growth. You can then get as fancy as you like, bending over and weaving, and even laying hedge like in England, but I don't know how far down that road I'll go. The other experiment will be Hawthorne. I'm finding it harder to get "free" starts, so may go slower with that stretch till I find a good source. Just fencing the 25 acre field will require about a quarter mile of fence, depending on how much I want to enclose, so this is a long term project.

Of course the other rotten apples are the ones from our apple tree that never did sweeten up, even after frost. They looked good on the tree, but did not taste good. After a hard freeze, they turned brown and softened up, so they will be deer food. Gotta make a cider press. The backlog for my yet to be built workshop is getting longer.....

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

choose wisely

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade- The ancient knight says "you must choose, but choose wisely".

So, it always helps if someone else goes first, right? Make note of others mistakes and DO NOT repeat them. The next memorable quote from the movie "he chose..... poorly". Indy then gets one of those under pressure leaps of insight that only happen in movies, and picks the right goblet. Would that life were like that more often. We make mistakes our whole lives, some big, some small, some are of the game over variety. Because of the upcoming discontinuity I think might happen, this is not time to copy what others are doing, and just go along without thinking 20 years out.

So in my preparations to get a permaculture farm up and running, I have been talking to our local permaculture expert and serious hands on practitioner, and reading books. Some books will be useful reference to keep on the shelf, but some will give me reason to alter current plans and deepen my understanding of the system aspects that must be accounted for.

The excellent advise and shared wisdom I am gathering right now is from the book by Harvey Ussery "The Small Scale Poultry Flock". I recommend it ( for what that is worth, this blog is more of a diary than anything) for anyone with the room and inclination to raise chickens. The book is both filling in the detail of what I only had a general notion of, as well as making me realize I have even more work to do than I thought to create a productive efficient biosystem on our farm.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

the apple cycles

Last year, we got quite quite a few apples, and still have some canned apple sauce from them. This year not so much. I think everyone knows that the spring was weird, with an abnormal early warmth, followed with a late hard frost. This hurt fruit trees to varying degrees in the midwest, and then we had a very dry summer. These seem like the most obvious variables that would cause yield to bounce up and down from year to year, but I imagine there are others I don't recognize yet.

We had very few apples on several of the trees this year, but one had a middling yield, but had a lot of the disease shown above. I still know practically nothing about trees yet, so don't know what it is. Adding to the oddness, one tree, off by itself around 50 yards from the others, is absolutely loaded, and no sign of any disease or insect damage. We will probably harvest this next weekend. The apples are rather small, probably more because they should have been thinned some.

I hope to be better prepared to do a decent thinning job next spring. (After some hard pruning this winter, these trees had no attention for years).

It seemed like out tomatoes took forever to start ripening, but we ended up with an ok yield. We had to pick the last of them while green, since we wouldn't be back up before the likely first frost. Here is what they look like as they slowly ripen. Every couple days, we process a small batch, and as of today, they are almost all done.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

pole barns

We need a building. We need under roof storage, so the garage can resume its normal function, we plan to do livestock, and I need a workshop area. Hence a barn. Since we don't live there yet, and a pole barn is a big project, we will use a local contractor to build it for us next summer.

So now I'm learning that pole barns ( or pole sheds, as many insist on calling them. I guess in my size range, maybe "barn" is a tad presumptuous. ) are apparently such a standard and well known commodity, that everyone just assumes we know all the details involved. I really have avoided revealing I'm an engineer, but rather trot out the yuppie from the suburbs schtik to explain my ignorance. To inquire about the design basis, or how they determine the truss size or spacing evokes hesitation and a slightly embarrassed perplexity as to how to answer.

I am doing parallel study in the internet, but haven't dug too much yet. I know that many details and standard methods are driven by building codes and years of knowledge passed down, and are fine if done to code, but how do I know whether an individual guy is making it up or is cutting corners? One more reason I'm getting three quotes.

And one of the contractors is Amish, which brings a whole new layer of communication difficulty. I drove out to his house twice just to initiate discussions. He will be mailing me his quote in the next few days. I was fortunate that he is one of the Amish who uses phones, though I believe the phone is in a little shed outside the house. Turns out that because of where we live, he figures he will use the horses to come to work. Beyond a certain radius, he hires a "English" driver to haul him, his crew and tools to out place.

We also have had a heck of a time choosing a flat, accessible location. As it is, we'll be doing some dirt work and recontouring part of the pasture. The issue with getting a building permit deserves a whole other post.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

saw buck

Here is the sawbuck. I'm getting the hang of the best saw stroke, but still need to come up with a good way to quickly grip the wood during cut, then release for the next piece. Current setup works, but is a kludge. This is all large branches left from the wind downed trees in July. It's soft maple, so easy to cut.

Here is a bonus photo of our earlier garlic harvest. With the heat and drought, garlic finished early, but the size was good and we had a pretty good crop. It's all cured and stowed away now. We'll actually be planting from some of these bulbs soon, probably our trip in late October.

Friday, September 21, 2012

crosscut saw

I got the 42" one man crosscut saw I ordered, so had to then build a sawbuck to hold wood for cutting. I found a few example designs on line, and built one.

To these unschooled eyes, the teeth looked sharp enough, so I started cutting, Man, chain saws are a great invention.

I quickly found out that sawbucks are fine for cutting wood with a chainsaw, but crosscuts put lots of lateral force on the wood, causing the wood to rotate, and the sawbuck to want to tip over.

I jury rigged a chain and some weight, but need to come up with an efficient scheme so make the routine faster, Photos to follow after I get that done.

I also got the basic sharpening kit, but need to build a saw clamp to hold it while I sharpen. So many things that used to be common you either have to buy on the antique section of ebay, or make your own. Sharpening crosscuts is rather a chore, and I've never done it before, so I hope the saw stays sharp a good long while.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

speak of the devil........

Well; In my last post, I mentioned the concern of dry weather the first year new trees are planted, so we have had the worst drought in 50 years. Many trees are dead, some have died back, and we will need to wait till spring to see if they went dormant enough to resprout. We won't know the total loss till then, but it looks like it is at least one third. And of course, the deer browse isn't helping. We talked with Mark and were looking at a plan B option of buying a large plastic tank and drip hose to try to save them, but a couple big rains in late July made us decide to save our money and cross our fingers.

Here is one of the little guys in late spring, before the drought started taking it's toll. We had already had a low snow winter, so the ground was not starting out wet as normal anyway. The white plastic tube is to keep rodents from chewing the trunk. I understand that will primarily serve it's purpose in winter. We are heading up this weekend for garden tending ( the garden didn't do so well either, that is a whole other post) and preserving tomatoes. We knew that remote gardening would be a suboptimal experiment, but this year has been pretty lousy because of the drought.

Friday, June 22, 2012

water and energy

This spring, our field was planted with hundreds of trees, aligned with the rain capture swales that were put in last fall. Long term, the rain and snow melt will collect in the swales, making the soil just a bit wetter, making them a good place for plants and our especially trees to thrive, and get through dry spells. But this is only once their roots are spread into the wet zone. So till then, the new trees are at risk of dying in dry weather. As with farmers everywhere, we are at the mercy of mother nature's statistical averages.

Until we move permanently to the farm, our garden is at risk also. We drive up and weed, water when we can, but sometimes it's weeks between visits. Not a huge loss at this time if the tomatoes die, just the cost of seed and our hours of labor. The garden is an annual experiment, it is our learning curve, getting us ready for when the food we grow will be a major part of our sustenance. But once we live there, what will we do in dry spells? This is where energy and water converge. To get water where it's needed for our crops, it takes energy. We can use the well, and energy from the electric grid, or we can capture rain water and carry it to the plants, using muscle power. Or we can hope the rains fall when needed.

We will figure out clever use of gravity, natural systems, be frugal with our use of fossil fuel energy,  but in the end, it will require some use of energy to beat the statistical odds and assure our crops make it through summer.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

heavy lifting

Our big projects this year are landscape ones. We will continue to convert and expand the old raised beds to a terrace system. We also are going to terrace the back patio area and create an herb/kitchen garden. Patsy has moved most of the blocks so far.

Here are some more of the blocks. We'll be moving them this summer one wheelbarrow at a time around the house and up the hill for the terraces.

Friday, April 13, 2012


a little something I wrote for a newsletter I contribute to.

Petroleum, especially in the form of gasoline, is one of the most useful, dense sources of energy that we have. People knew about oil seeps and crude oil for quite a while. They had been daubing tar on roofs for water proofing, and were starting to learn how to thermally crack crude and distill lamp oil. But, it was a minor commodity until 1858, when Edwin Drake figured out how to drill and collect significant amounts of crude oil. The whales were of course thrilled, and we have been on one heck of a rush since then, replacing untold hours of backbreaking labor with fossil fuel energy, and completely transforming our lifestyles. People quickly invented things to make use of this abundant energy source. No need for slaves, no need for chopping wood for heat, no need for horses and the accompanying mess in city streets. What was not to like?
A central key to this renaissance is that the amount of effort (energy) needed to find and extract the oil is much less than that which is then utilized. If Edwin had needed to burn a barrel worth of crude oil in his steam engine drill in order to get a barrel of crude out of the ground, he would have been wasting his time, and we would still be riding horses. However, the amount of energy returned for the amount of energy invested, “energy return on energy invested, or EROEI ” was very high, and got even higher as technology improved and large, easy to pump oil fields were found. Once people realized you could drill and find oil, and get rich, they drilled everywhere. During the heyday of discovery of gusher oil wells and discovery of the largest oil fields, it was common for the EROEI to be 100. The energy equivalent of one barrel of oil would net back energy of 100 barrels. Well, as we all know, the easy, best fields were found first, creating several millionaires.
Unfortunately, as we have used the best oil fields, the remaining oil in the ground is not only harder to find, its EROEI is getting lower by the year. At some point, it will no longer be worth drilling for. So think about that. Even though we might have lots of oil still technically recoverable, it will be so deep or so diffuse, it will take as much energy to extract as what is recovered. That is the inevitable trend that we are facing, and is really more relevant than “peak oil” to how long we can rely on crude oil to power our society.
Now, energy accounting can get complicated, because the flexibility in use and the ability to convert from one form to another more useful form are also important. Also, calculating all the energy that was invested to get “new” energy gets into the area of embodied energy and emergy - a term that describes the quality, or usefulness of energy. Wikipedia provides more details on emergy, for those who would like to dig deeper.
Where are we today? How soon will we reach that point of diminishing returns? Keeping in mind the above-mentioned difficulty in its calculation, EROEI is still a critical metric for evaluating how easy it will be to keep our economy going without major disruption. For crude oil in the U.S. EROEI is as low as 3 now, and even in Saudi Arabia, it is only around 10-20. Efficiency retrofits (both industrial and in the home)have a good EROEI, wind turbines come in around 20, biodiesel and ethanol are only a little above 1.
So, we have some tough choices facing us right now. What will we do? Until we figure out the path forward, I would recommend maximizing efficient use of oil in everything you do.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

weekend trips

Until we move to the farm ( can't wait!) we run up as soon as we can, working on projects and checking on things. This first shot shows how we need to plug a few holes, bring the cats when we move, and in general take control of the house. This guy almost got away from the electrical trap. We aren't sure how he even got that far, as they are supposed to get zapped instantly back inside. And yes, that is a chocolate chip, flung from his grasp as he bought the farm.

And here is a shot of the spinach we planted in February in the sun space in our self watering planters. Next trip up we might have some baby spinach to toss in our salad. That's some sage doing well behind the spinach sprouts. It did fine all through winter. We still need to experiment with fertilizing plants for longer term production, as we just used plain potting soil. Design of the planters is a takeoff on the Earthtainer. I'm sure we will fine tune the design and operation, but the main reason we built these was because we needed something that would keep plants watered between our trips. Once we move, I don't know if we will use them as much.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

hedging bets

At some point we will be raising livestock. Chickens are easy and will undoubtedly be our first foray. The existing coop is large enough for a reasonable flock, and just needs a bit of repair. We will be sure to get a breed or two that thrives on foraging. Maybe down the road we make a mobile coop and do pasture poultry, but not at first. Anything bigger will need proper fencing put up. We debate sheep versus goats, knowing from the reputations that there are tradeoffs for either. In general, goats are harder to keep in, and if we ever do pigs, we really need good fences. So, I've been reading about hedges. They are the long term, natural solution, but would take a lot of initial cost and work. Maybe I'll just start with a manageable stretch, and extend it over time. Our permaculture expert recommends Hawthorn, but Hedge Apple ( Osage Orange) intrigues me. more than likely in our climate zone, the Hawthorn will end up the best choice.

Friday, March 16, 2012

chipper update

So here is the chipper attachment for the BCS I've mentioned. Last couple trips to the farm we've been clearing brush and chipping it. A lot of prickly ash, dead apple, and wild grape were overtaking the area we want to put the barn, and also crowding the apple trees. We also whacked a few sumacs to round out the day. Sumacs are creeping in everywhere, and they chip easy, so we'll always have them for mulch. The chipper works ok, but extra work is needed to cut up branches so they feed well. I got spoiled using the big one we rented the first two springs. That's ok, this one we can fire up whenever we want, and we can also shred smaller stuff and large weeds to make a fluffy mulch. The lower feed chute is for larger, woody material, the bigger chute is for small branches and weeds. So far the Honda engine is a steady workhorse. Gotta remember to change the oil this spring before tilling season.

I've stockpiled a good bit of chips to use on the fruit trees from St. Lawrence Nursery when they arrive shortly. We'll be getting some more cherry, some aronia, and some more nut trees. I've also started adding chips around the more established trees, just so they aren't competing with the grass and weeds.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

fine tools

In order to sharpen my own hand saws, I searched for saw sets and files, and read several websites that also sold them. The best selection and most informative site happened to be in Germany. http://www.fine-tools.com/index.html

Even though similar tools and pricing were available elsewhere, I felt the extra information they had amassed and shared were worth supporting.

Fine German craftsmanship and engineering right? So I decide to order, and just got my set and file yesterday. The set was made in China, and not a single word on the packing was in German OR English.

Ah well, at least the file was made in Germany.

Friday, March 2, 2012

equipment that runs on oatmeal

Here is the scythe I ordered from Scythesupply. Will try it out on the yard this spring, but eventually it will be used to cut hay, and we will also be planting some small grains for us and the chickens. I still am reading up on the other steps of grain processing. We will need to bundle, dry, thresh, winnow, and grind the grain, and in some cases, figure out how to dehull or pearl it.

We are committed to the permaculture approach, and Mark will be planting a lot of trees for us this spring, and I plan to experiment with amaranth and quinoa, but I really like wheat bread. I have been pleased with Scythe supply so far, the book that comes with the scythe is very informative. We'll see how long it takes for me to figure out the sharpening, honing, and actual cutting motions.

One more step towards delinking from fossil fuels. I'm reading up on cross cut saws now, but my old McCulloch is still running fine, and it doesn't use all that much gas.....

Went to the doctor this past week for a general checkup, and decided to work on the back again. The pain is not that bad, but a weekend of hauling stuff will make it hard to sleep with the ache I'm left with for a couple days. I tried exercises and chiropractic manipulation several years ago, but didn't have much improvement, so stopped. He referred me to an orthopedist, who is now going to run me through a few weeks of specific exercises to see if I get improvement. I really don't want to move to the farm and find out I'm too hobbled up to do what needs done. I know I'm out of shape and sit too much with my job, so hopefully just getting more active will strengthen my core and ease to pain.

Next hand tool to get is a saw sharpening tool kit. A saw set and saw file should be enough for now. Both my hand saws are getting dull, and no one sharpens saws any more, so I will figure it out myself.

Monday, February 6, 2012

how do we harness America for the righteous cause?

This is actually from a couple years ago.

As I write this, I am sitting in my hotel room in Houston, Texas, the dynamic, energetic center of the hydrocarbon economy. My job brings me here because I work for a company that helps the big oil companies ‘gitter done’. Yeah; There is a lot of oil in the Middle East, and elsewhere, but the technology and boundless entrepreneurial zest of the U.S. has been the primary enabler for getting it out of the ground. I have an admiration for the competence, gutsiness, and business acumen which past generations brought to the challenge, even if it was not thought out too well for the long term, and has generated some Faustian bargains. But my puzzlement of late has been how will we bring this powerful force to bear on the real long term energy solution? I am all for efficiency and conservation, but we will still need a good bit of energy for even a sustainable economy. This will be a very big challenge. Are we up to it? Pres. Kennedy fired us up with the vision of getting to the moon as a driver for technology, but I think it was the fear of the red menace that really got the money flowing in to science and innovation. Pres. Carter talked about the moral equivalent of war to try to point out how important energy sustainability was and is. He had a knack for seeing the right things to focus on, but not knowing how to work the political machinery effectively, so that initiative was not successful. And now, the issue becomes ever more prominent in current events and the media, but who will drive the needed change? While we are to some extent spectators of the events on the world stage, we absolutely can take steps ourselves to begin transition to a sustainable future. I try to pick one or two things each year to try or change in how we do things.
Here is what my wife and I did to reduce our carbon footprint this year. Our old washing machine died, so we bought the front loading machine, which is supposed to be more energy efficient. I went on line and read up on the choices in Consumer Reports and the gov’t energy star website. Turns out the real efficiency is that when the wash and rinse are done, it spins the bejeezuz out of the clothes, so the dryer hardly has time to fire up and spin a few times before they are dry. It is working quite well, and didn’t really cost much more than a good quality top loader. But, that wasn’t enough for me. I did what few in suburbia would consider. I put up a clothes line. Now, truth be told, I was raised on a farm in the sticks, so everybody used clothed lines, and thought nothing of it. With the distance between neighbors, no one saw your underwear or faded dishtowels ( just how faded do you let them get before you toss them?). So I did have to think about that a bit. Some things we aren’t drying outside just yet. Anyway, that’s worked ok also. If we do laundry on a weekend, and it’s rainy, well we just use the dryer. What about you, would you put up a clothes line? Is there anyone in your neighborhood with a clothes line? Does your town even allow them? Talk about free solar energy, this is low hanging fruit we could all be bending over to take from the laundry basket.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

a year of commutes ll

One thing I noticed about my mileage in the time I kept track, was that even with the regenerative braking, mileage still suffers the more you start and stop. If I got out the door before traffic started filling in, and could time lights and coast to lights, I had much better mileage than otherwise. It is dramatic, and I think if everyone had instantaneous and daily mileage instrumentation, even without a hybrid car, they'd be shocked at how much their mileage suffers in stop and go traffic.

One day the mileage might be 56 or 57 MPG, and the next 45. That is a huge % variance, and just because of "bad luck" in traffic and maybe a cooler day with the defrost on.

Now that the administration has set some serious mileage goals for the next decade, it should be interesting to see how the manufacturers chose to meet these targets. We'll see more hybrids, but I think so much can be improved by better instrumentation, which I think will drive people's driving habits. I can't tell you how many times I'd see the light ahead turn red, start my coast, and have cars zoom around me to then slam on the brakes at the light. Sometimes, I'd even pass them up without stopping if I happened to be in the lane that cleared quicker.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

preservation and eating local

Here is a photo I took representative of food we preserved this year. Left to right,

the pasta sauce was from our tomatoes, onions, garlic, and some CSA green peppers. Patsy did some large batches of canning this summer, boiling a lot of the tomatoes down to sauce, so we'd use less jars, and to be quicker to use.

The next, apples sauce, was from our big year for apples. We have lots of apple trees on the farm, but did not know which were good, and have only just begun to prune them back in to health. This was for reasons that I still don't recognize, a big year for apples in our neck of the woods. With the big year, we now know which are good for eating, and had so many we only preserved a fraction of them.

Apple slices, dehydrated and stored in jars, was another way to save some of the big crop. We don't bother with dipping them in some solution to prevent browning. Just doesn't matter to us. I will be interested to see how they taste when rehydrated, compared to storebought dried apple. So far we've been working on the frozen apple slices, and the apple sauce, so haven't tried the dried ones yet.

We grew entirely too many cayenne peppers this year, here is one jar of the dried peppers. I've made some fermented hot sauce that turned out well ( well, two out of three batches did) and I've ground some of the dried pods ( less seeds) to powder. We will grow more green and mild peppers next year, but a few cayenne as well.

Patsy has been experimenting with herbs. This jar has mint leaves, which she will try to use in tea.

Just making the seed list now for this spring, so it won't be that long till the lights and heating pads get set up again in the basement.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Oh yeah, the throne in the works

Working on the composting toilet, here it is drying in the sunroom after I gave the wood a good coating of urethane. Still making things out of left over materials from the prior projects. (I did have to buy the plastic buckets).

I have a small store of sawdust to get rolling, but need to secure a free, substantial source. Negotiations are underway regarding where exactly the toilet will be located........
Trial run was in the garage, which was rather chilly.