Monday, October 15, 2018

winding down the garden season

Almost done with the garden this year. Still to do: harvest Brussels sprouts, plant garlic for next year, and lay down composted cow manure in the rows to mellow over winter. We've had a very wet fall, with the area having record flooding. Lucky for us, we are not in the flood plain, so no damage here, but it's been hard to work in the  garden or stay on top of mowing.

We are trying one more ( always one more!) thing this fall. Because of the slope of our land, and easily eroded silt soil in some areas, we do not till the entire garden. We leave sod everywhere except right in the row. It looks funny, and the rhizome like grasses constantly move back in to the rows, but it's the best thing to do if we want to keep our soil. So we mow our garden all summer.

The new thing is taking the flattest fourth of our garden, tilling it all up, and planting winter wheat.
Luckily, the heaviest rains finished before the tilling, but we've still had some erosion. I hand broadcasted, and raked in as best I could, aiming for one inch ( 25mm) of cover.

The wheat has sprouted, and the stand is not too bad for how it was done, I just hope it was thick enough to crowd out weeds next spring.

Because the rest of the garden areas are too steep to risk full tillage, this is the only place where we'll attempt it, so it will make our rotation scheme a bit tricky for the next year. We have come to realize that we are planting a bit too much for the two of us, anyway, so a 3/4 garden will also be a good move.

We'll hopefully be grinding our own wheat next summer. I'll report on how it goes.

The last of the root crops: Beets, cabbage, rutabagas, and parsnips for the root cellar.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

one hen

one hen

Our oldest laying hens are now 3 and one half years old. Our oldest rooster is also. While we have lost a few to undetermined illness, the losses have been rare and isolated, so I haven't felt the need to intervene. Overall, they are doing fine.

The old rooster though, has had it rougher than the hens. He's lost a claw or two in fights, and lost some comb to winter freezing.  He has been a good protector, and is pretty deferential to us humans.When he was young, he would lead the flock all over the place, from barnyard to south lawn of the house. All in all, a good rooster.

A couple younger rosters have slowly worn him down with challenges, and so this year, we have a new top rooster, and the old guy has been relegated to the fringes. Frankly, we have a couple too many roosters. Ongoing negotiations on whether to eat surplus roosters have stalled out.

The new top rooster however, is a bit selfish when finding food, and doesn't seem to be the guardian that the old fellow was. He also just hangs near the barn, leaving all the crickets, grasshoppers, and other potential goodies a bit further afield go to waste.

And of course, chases off the old guy when he tries to hang out with the flock. So the old fellow still comes down by the house, finding plenty to eat, and crowing every once in a while to let us know he is still on the job.

Interestingly, there is one hen that still follows him each day on his foraging rounds. They are both Black Australorps, and one could engage in some anthropomorphism and almost think of them as one of the bird species that mate for life. But chickens do not do that.

So why does this one hen still leave all the rest of her twenty odd sisters, and follow this old fellow around the farm?

Chickens seem to us to be a confounding mix of smart and stupid. In general, they do learn, and develop patterns that work for them, but any new twist can really cause them to lose it. Maybe we aren't all that different??

My mind wanders while doing the daily farm chores, and one thing I've wondered this fall is, why that one hen?

What extra little brain activity, genetic variation,  or chance occurrence caused her and only her to stray from the flock and hang with the deposed leader? Is it more than pure statistical probability?

There is still so much we don't know about our own brain workings, that it seems a bit presumptuous to declare that this or that animal is not thinking, or that it is complex "instinct" we see and no more.

Intelligence, or sapience is obviously a spectrum, and a dog is clearly "smarter" than a chicken, but maybe intelligence is composed of many more variables and axes of progressive change than we currently envision?

I am sure tempted to think that that one hen is just smarter than all the others.

( not my chickens, just an image of black australorps from the internet)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Mine, yours, and ours

Recently finished reading a post industrial civilization collapse novel. It was ok, pretty typical story arc, but it did get me to revisit the whole personal possession versus communal possession balance that all civilizations try to figure out.

We have generated many words describing the tragedy of the commons, the power of private property to motivate hard work and creation of wealth, and other aspects of how humans derive their livelihood, but one observation I'm mulling over is the fact that it may be more a case of the situation decides the best balance, and there is not as much choice in each culture than we might think.

Since we just happen to be living during a once in a planetary history event, it is really hard to keep perspective about what "normal" might mean in the long haul. The rugged individualism archetype of American culture may blind us to other possibilities that would be better suited to the predicted future.

When you think about it, the whole idea having a choice in creating a system with equitable opportunity, of a chance at a comfortable life, or picking a fulfilling career, is really only afforded to us because of the respite from hard daily toil to feed ourselves provided by fossil fuels. The proportion of our populace that is not working on the direct production of food and shelter is anomalously high because of the productivity multiplier that fossil fuels provide.

I think it is no coincidence that much of the progressive, or liberal change in the last ~200 years is majorly based on the fossil fuel energy we've tapped. All the newly available ability to do work helped end the (official, government sanctioned) era of slavery, and created so much wealth that there was enough to share with a greater portion of society. It also freed up many human resources to stop growing food and focus on inventing, innovating, researching, and otherwise leveraging the resources we have extracted. ( It also creates image consultants, assistant assistants to the undersecretary of diversity, and myriad other tertiary and quaternary roles to keep a complex, wealthy economy rolling).

It's a bit more complicated than that, and I've read many essays covering various aspects of the ascent of "Western" phenomenon, but I think the norms around personal property, shared commons, cooperative group behavior will all change as we descend the energy curve, not so much from considered choice, but by survival forces.

I'll once more share my observation of the nearby Amish community, where collective effort for large tasks, the balance of personal and community responsibility is much different than the rest of us. Amish do not pay in to Social Security, because they take care of their own aged and infirm.

They pay most other taxes, but do not participate in insurance, as they have internal means to share risk.

They are the rare ( possibly unique?) case where the personal/community balance has been intentionally chosen in spite of the conveniences afforded by cheap energy driven technology.

In a low energy future, will we all become a bit more Amish?

Friday, July 27, 2018

trail building

About 15 acres (6 hectares) of our land is a brushy, sloped, rather poor quality woods. I am told that is used to be nearly all clear, and used for pasture, with a few trees sprinkled around. The few large trees are elms ( which are dying from Dutch Elm Disease), black cherry, and just a few oak, black walnut, and shagbark hickory.

 It was neglected, not used for pasture, and when we took ownership, had filled in with briars, prickly ash, grey dogwood, and sumacs. These are all early succession plants, a bit invasive, but over time would be replaced by the eventual climax vegetation.

The thing is, I would like to hurry that process up a bit, and maybe encourage those plants that are also of use to us. Looking at the dense stands of brush, I wasn't sure where to start, or what the best direction was. Then I got advice from a nearby homesteader who is also a forestry worker. He showed us how he was cutting in trails on contour through his steep wooded lot, and was using that as a beachhead to thin, plant, and improve the overall health of his woods. The contour trails made it much easier to bring tools and materials in and out, and if well built, will minimize erosion and would last for years.

So now it all became a lot clearer what to do, and we have started a multiyear project to create these incursions, and plant trees all along the new paths. I don't need to cut all the brush out, just enough to clear a spot of sunlight for each new sapling to take off and eventually shade out the brush species.

Her are a couple photos of the trail.

I should point out that while these photos were in June, the work was done in late winter/early spring. It's so much easier to see the lay of the land and rough out the route when the leaves are off, and also, it's not hot and buggy. An occasional run through here with a mower or weed wacker will keep the woody plants from filling back in ( and they will do it so quickly!).

A glimpse of the casa. By chance, one good trail route is the same elevation  as the house, so will be quite easy to access, maybe even when the time comes I'm using a walker.

(current) end of the trail. This is what most of the woods looks like before we cut in the trail. This is as far as we got this spring. As you can see, dense stands of young trees, and since much of it is prickly ash, very painful to walk through.

A close up of the prickly ash. You might be able to see a couple of the thorns, but I'm sharing this photo so you can see the clusters of small, reddish tinged berries that they are producing this time of year. To me, plant taxonomy is confusing, and the plants that are related to each other but look nothing alike is bizarre. Turns out these are in the citrus family, and I can tell you that these berries smell wonderful when rolled around in your fingers. A bright, flowery citrus smell, mostly of lemon or lime. They are used in some alternative medicines as supplements, but I'll pass till I see more science on what exactly they do to you.

Here is a new young oak in one of the small clearings we've made alongside our trail. Soil minerals and soil biota are important for tree health, but the absolute first things are sun and water. Once the saplings are tall enough to reach the top of the tree tube, and the growing tip is out of the reach of deer, the tree will be fine on its own without our help.

In times past, each farm had its own dump. They would dump things into the least useful land, like the ravine. The elm in this photo has been dead a couple years, but grew up through the old coil of discarded fencing. No telling how old the fence is. The tree is probably around 30-40 years old.

Next post will hopefully cover the terraces we've been building, as soon as the current section is done.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Grinding coffee

A few years ago, when thinking of things we could do to reduce power usage, I decided to try to find a hand powered coffee grinder. (Yes, we are becoming coffee snobs, fresh ground, organic fair trade, the whole bit) Grinding coffee is in reality a small part of our electricity use, but sometimes, a change like this can be kind of fun,  and keeps the idea of reduced electricity use in the forefront of our thinking.

There are plenty of modern designs on the market, but why not find a used on or an antique, and avoid consumption of new materials? When I began the search, we would stop in antique shops every once in a while while traveling, but many of these antique grinders were no longer functional, merely nostalgic decoration.

Finally found one that was in good working order, and have been using it for the last six years. This particular grinder is over 100 years old, and build of cast iron and very rugged gearing. The design is simple, and once the grind adjustment is set how you like it, no more worries. Grinds fine every time.

Our wall mounted Universal #24 coffee grinder.

This is but one example of designing for the long term, or, as I like to think of it, for the low energy future. There are very few household items built today that have long term durability and low or no electrical energy use as part of their design criteria.

The next possible question is, how can I justify buying coffee, which is an imported luxury? Happily I can afford it, but for now, I feel ok as buying fair trade coffee gives better support to farmers, and coffee is not a commodity that ships by air, so the shipping impact is (relatively) low. However, it is a luxury, and not local, so at some point I will experiment with chicory root as a substitute, and see if I can adjust to that, as chicory grows all over the place here in Wisconsin. I would miss the caffeine though.

What other small, incremental steps can we take to reduce consumption, reduce reliance on fossil fuels? There are dozens, and all it takes is some imagination and being more aware of our daily routines, and thinking about how we could modify them to be more simple and human powered. A bit of research on how things were done in the past also helps.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Beyond our ken

My last post was about tapping trees for sap, to make syrup.  It was a good productive year, with good weather , but what else might account for it? It got me to thinking about nature's patterns, and how out of tune we are to noticing all the harbingers and cause and effect relationships all around us. Some are easy, and we still recognize them, but how many others are more subtle, or of a time scale we aren't able to follow?

An example: I know that the mast crop trees ( nuts, acorns) have an odd cycle, some years with lots of crop, others not so much. It seems like weather is not the only variable affecting the output, but even scientists aren't sure, thought they have some theories.

Are there some signs for the cycle that we just haven't picked up on yet?

Layman speculation alert: someone probably already knows this, but here are my thoughts on how we got here.

Our big homo sapiens brains have the ability to store a lot of memories, and maybe that was our Darwinian tradeoff for loss of keen senses. Maybe our compulsion to find patterns, coupled with the big memory, enables our forebears to remember locations and timing of food, anticipate fruiting, and in general survive even better than if they still had the ears of a deer, or eyes of a hawk. I know the big brains are also thought to have evolved to enable managing complex tribal relationships, but you still have to eat!

In fact, we got so good at it, we figured out the life cycle of certain plants, patterns of a few animals, and ended up doing agriculture, complete with seed saving and animal selective breeding. So recognizing many of the natural patterns in the "wild" became less important.

I usually attempt to keep science front and center,  so I think we need to distinguish between harbingers and causative agents. There is folk lore that wooly worm's color can indicate how severe the coming winter can be. While I don't think this is a real correlation, it would be considered a harbinger, as I doubt wooly worm color can make the polar vortex shift south! Other things would be more like a cause and effect, if we can only notice the patterns that repeat and hopefully understand the mechanism involved.

The Fox Fire series of books collected lore from pioneers and settlers in the Appalachian mountains, and much lore like that of the wooly worm sign existed, but how much of it was based on real cause and effect, and how much was coincidence or bunk?

Maybe there really are deeper senses, other species tune to a vibration we will never sense, or have grown deaf to. We now know that some birds and insects actually navigate for their migrations by sensing the earth's magnetic field. Wow. What other signals are we blind to?

One challenge for us is that some patterns are long in playing out. Long time span pattern recognition would really require good memory and patience. We know that some cicadas go 17 years between emerging. Good to know if you like to eat them and can count ( and don't starve in the mean time). What other long term or multi step patterns are there that we haven't recognized yet?

What might the application to sustainable food production be? Well, if we are to try use less fossil fuels, to work more in concert with natural systems, then tuning in to the various cause and effect patterns will be very useful.

This past year, a large ( I thought) healthy black cherry tree died. Over the course of several months, I saw where woodpeckers began to chip off the bark, obviously going after insects. Was there an earlier sign of disease that I didn't notice or even recognize? Did the insects infest and kill the tree, or were they opportunists, bypassing the normal defenses that waned after a disease was already killing the tree? If I had the habit of actually looking at all the trees and plants around me as part of my daily routine, might I be able over time to catch the patterns, the signs of disease, of changes important to me and my farm?

I think I need to pay more attention.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The amateur tapper

We have a couple maple trees near the house, but they are red maples, not sugar maples. We also have a few box elder trees of middling size. Our wooded area just doesn't have any maples to speak of, but I still wanted to try tapping and making syrup, so three years ago, tried it for the first time, with ok results. I'm strictly an amateur, and small scale, but it is fun to boil down and make your own syrup. One more thing to add to our self reliance.

So many of the commercial maple tappers in the area have switched to these tubing systems spiderwebbing up the hillsides and gravity flow down to their collection tank. Much less work. With only six trees, I'm using buckets.

Weather this year was ideal for tapping. Best weather is when it gets above freezing and sunny during the day, and drops down below freezing at night. We've had that pattern more or less for two weeks, and I just stopped collecting day before yesterday.

Box elder syrup is sweet and mild, pretty similar to maple, and my blended syrup tastes just fine on pancakes or waffles.

BUT, since I'm only making small batches, I really have to watch the pot, as it doesn't take very long to complete the boil down. This year unfortunately, one time I got distracted, and let the batch go. I use an outdoor propane burner, and it gets hot. Here is what happened with that batch.

You can see a shiny little projection at he base of the pot. That is Aluminum (or aluminium)

Stainless pot with aluminum laminated to the bottom for even heat distribution. Aluminum melts at 1220F (660C). I had no idea the burner got that hot. So this pot is shot. Good thing I wasn't using my wife's good pot, or you wouldn't be reading this entry.

I am told that syrup is done when it passes the sheeting test, or when it reaches 219F (104C). I haven't seen the sheeting test done, and don't bother with a thermometer for such small batches, so sort of eyeball it by the bubbling at the end. Some of my batches go a bit long, with some crystallization happening, and some are on the thin side, but it's just for us, so no big deal. I also don't bother filtering out the sugar sand, so the jars below look a bit cloudy or vary in color. I'll be leaving them in the fridge to avoid spoiling, since I didn't sterilize the jars either. I plan to try harder this year to identify and eat more foraged wild foods, but this one is so easy, it doesn't count.

Maple syrup tapping- another key sign of spring. On recent sunny days, we haven't even started a fire, and our sunroom is getting warm enough on sunny days, we open the door and let it warm the house.

Monday, February 19, 2018

seven generations

The Great Law of the Iroquois is said to be the origin of the admonition to think of seven future generations in any decision made now. More generally, deliberations of the leaders are to consider the whole community, the whole nation, and not be swayed by relatives or other personal benefit. To a rough approximation, this was considered 140 years. Seven generations might be a bit longer here in the developed world right now, as people are waiting a bit longer to start families. Let's say 150 years.

When political and economic policy discussions circle around to "sustainable" these days, I think we have become too lax in confirming that we all have a common definition of "sustainable". When you start trying to pin it down, lots of assumptions have to be made. The devil is in the details, as always. But what if we used 150 years for a thought experiment.

All the infrastructure, all the manufactured goods, all the energy sources, all aspects of our busy, comfortable lives would need to be fully replaceable ( and presumably with no reduction in ability to continue replenishment)  over 150 years if we were to try to meet this criteria.

Does anyone think we are on track to meet this target? Of course, we aren't even on a stable, level track of population, consumption, or average consumption. In my estimation, if we ( it ain't going to happen, but IF we did) stopped growth right now, and merely projected current population, resource use and impact on our planet, could we make it 150 years? The answer is no, in case you were not sure. Forget fossil fuels, which draw the most attention. Many other key inputs in to our economy are nonrenewable resources, with dwindling easily obtained stores. Many metrics on the state of the ecological health of the planet are trending down, and some are close to collapse.

For those thinking that raised costs will bring newly economic resources to market, this only works to a point. Demand for some items is inelastic, and there are some resources that don't react to the substitution effect like the economic alchemists and philosophers would like to think.

So current lifestyle in the developed world, and especially the U.S., is not sustainable by this seven generations definition. Probably by any definition. To reach that level would be the end of the world as we know it. And yet, Some cultures in the past lasted for centuries, though they eventually declined. Life would not have to be nasty, brutish and short, but would be quite a bit different. We have the germ theory of disease now! Maybe we could figure out a way that was not so bad?

Nah, probably not going to happen. Not sure if it is too late to change course, though many are sounding the alarms and trying to do so. I wish them luck in grabbing the wheel and pulling a hard u-turn.

My personal response to the dilemma we face is to plant trees. Trees can be used for building materials, stabilize soils and moderate microclimates, they suck CO2 from the air, produce food for humans, as well being the backbone of a system that provides food and habitat for a complete ecological community. All for free!

Here is a Handy list of average tree lifespans. It's for Virginia, so my neighborhood in Wisconsin would be a bit different, but close enough.

The white oaks I'm planting live an average of 300 years, and as much as 600. The chestnuts live 100 years, and as much as 300 years. Sugar maples ( next year's project) live from 300-400 years.(lifespans are probably a bit shorter here in the north)

Plant trees. Your great, great, great, great great grandkids will appreciate it.

Some of the oaks I planted in tree tubes last year. Without the tubes, the deer will kill them all.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

soap and cider

This fall, I'm working on two new skills. As I mentioned in the last post, we are having a huge apple year, and have already bottled one batch of cider, with a couple more planned as the next varieties ripen.

I am also trying to make soap the old fashioned way, with pig lard and wood ashes. Anyone who is familiar with the foxfire book series ( ) knows that early pioneers in the American wilderness had to make a lot of their day to day essentials, and making soap was one of those things that was cheaper than buying if it was even available.

Mix lye, water and any type of fat in the right proportions, and you can make soap. Most homemade soap these days is made with purchased lye and various vegetable oils or goat milk. I wanted to try the old school, no "store boughten" ingredients.

Here is my setup to leach lye out of the wood ashes I've been saving for a couple years.

In times past, they would have filled a hollow tree log, or made a wooden bin with a sloped collection trough underneath to catch the lye dripping out the bottom. Straw or some crude filtering material was used to keep the ashes in, but let the liquid drip past. While I used an old scrap piece of PVC pipe, I did use straw for the bottom filter media.

First, I sifted all the small bits of charcoal out of the ashes, then filled the pipe with ashes.

The last time we bought a pig from a neighbor ( We didn't butcher it, the local locker did. Maybe next time? ), I asked for the lard to be saved. Turns out there wasn't that much, but I rendered it out easily enough. Slow and easy is the trick.  Not sure if the pig was just lean, or the butcher didn't save as much as he could have.

On the cider side of things, our cider making turned out well this fall. I actually followed a recipe. For a 5 gallon batch, I first killed the wild yeast with Campden tablets, then used purchased champagne yeast and then a lot of brown sugar. Ending alcohol content was around 4.5%, but the taste was tart, dry, and had a clean aftertaste.

Here was one batch during fermentation.

We used cleaned and sanitized beer bottles we had been saving, and capped with a simple capper.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

horatio alger, social mobility, and gini indexes

Horatio Alger is famous for the many novels he wrote that conveyed the idea that hard work  and moxie would result in a rags to riches ( or at least middle class) success, that is, a slice of the American Dream. 

Unfortunately, while many Americans believe we are still the land of opportunity, and are exceptional, it is not the case.

We have become as class stratified as many other countries we think ourselves superior to, and data confirms this.

When  combined with the fact that America has a poor gini index, I see the potential for troubled times ahead. Gini index is a calculation of how evenly, or equitably income is distributed through the population. A zero index mean everyone has exactly the same income, and a one would be all income to one person, and nothing to everyone one else. Obviously, there are no ones, but comparisons and trends still can tell us how GNP is being shared.

Gini index does not tell the whole story, as a nation could be desperately poor, but very equitable about it, for  zero score, but that isn't a situation to strive for.

You can see the run up in the late 20s and 30s, till speculation and overreach caused the great depression( OK, it was a bit more complicated than that at which point things remained more equal with help from the New Deal and WW2, but took off again in the 80s. 

That chart shows the evolution of the U.S. gini index over time, but how does the U.S. compare to the rest of the world? Well, it turns out from my brief study, it is complicated. Data from many countries is suspect, or calculated differently, or spotty and out of date, so it's hard to do comparisons. Just generally, from the sites I did find, the U.S. is rather high compared to the developed countries, but I saw several different results. Here is one. 

So what made me look in to this?

I was traveling a while ago, and picked up a Wall Street Journal for the first time in several years. It still is the paper of record for the wealthy and the elite. After I skimmed through the headlines and main section, I found a section headed "Mansion". I thought, weird, some sort of special edition? No, it turns out that this is now the header for the WSJ real estate section. And it's just what you would think, a real estate section focussed on only the very top of the housing market, and the woes of trying to find that perfect mansion.

Most intriguing and maybe telling for what is on the minds of the wealthy, there was an article titled "Luxury for the Apocalypse". It described a large planned community going in in Texas that was comprised of underground condos, with a secure perimeter and many self reliance features. There are similar ones in development in other states as well. 

In the past, and not just here in the U.S., when there is too much inequity in society, revolt, violence, and rebellion can occur. At some point, it doesn't take gini comparisons, or other data crunching, it is in the wind. Sometimes you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  The wealthy are aware of this, even as they continue to work the system. 

So, what's a poor working stiff to do? Pay attention to history, and plan accordingly.

out with the old, in with the new

A while back ( Dec 2016) I posted about the demographics of farmers, and the possibility that we might be seeing the early stages of a resettling of Americas rural areas. The article at the link seems to indicate others are seeing the same thing. 

One point I did not make before, is that in addition to relearning farming with low input, sustainable techniques, many of these new urban to rural migrants were not raised on farms, so have even more to learn and will unfortunately have higher failure rates than if they had started from conventional farming.

On top of that, access to land, capital to buy land, are both hard to get. Even back in the 70s, my dad said that to be a farmer, you had to either be born to a farm family, or marry in to a farm family. 

We haven't reached that point where fossil energy is cost prohibitive and human and animal labor move to the fore yet,  and it may be quite a ways off, but it is inevitable. Once this trend is further along, many more farmers will be needed.