29 September 2008

Proving our bread wheat

Mr. Fritillary set himself the task of figuring out how to thresh our bread wheat this rainy weekend. Surprisingly, the meat grinder did the best job of it. The blades chop the heads, but very few of the grains. And we were threshing some of the last of the wheat that was harvested damp, so not the easiest to thresh.

This is the chaff and kernels after going through the meat grinder once.

We winnowed it a few times using a small house fan. The chaff easily blew away, leaving behind a mostly clean grain. This is where Mr. Fritillary brought it into the kitchen and let me take over the fun part, as he dilligently ground away a rainy day. After picking out a few bits and blowing away some of the finer chaff, this is the end result. It is actually cleaner than the organic grain we have been buying.
We always knew that the locally grown organic wheat kernels we were buying were a bit on the small size, and I could never make a decent loaf of bread using these kernels alone. I had to add some commercial bread flour, or end up with either a dense undercooked loaf or a gaping cavern in the middle. Here is a comparison of the purchased organic kernels on the left and our homegrown wheat on the right. Judging by kernel size and the amout of gluten inside of them, we were pretty confident it would make decent bread flour on its own.For now I am just using a roller mill to grind my flour. Mr. Fritillary is busy setting our little stone flour mill up on a bicycle, it is hard cranking by hand.
The flour is coarse and full of bran. It can be separated into flour and bran, but we enjoy a more rustic bread.
It makes a sticky dough, unkneedable. I mix it with a spoon until I can see the strings of gluten forming and it begins to come away from the sides of the bowl.
Beautiful rising loaves. This dough is very delicate and can easily flatten.
I got it in the oven just a few minutes late, and the top flattened out a bit. But overall, not a bad loaf. I think it needs to be baked at a higher temperature. This is not prize winning bread, improvements will be made. But our homegrown wheat proved to be worthy of bread flour!

Apple Butter on a steaming slice of bread?

24 September 2008

Keeping the home fires burning

Our trusty workhorse Pilgrim got harnessed this morning for the first time since spring. He is a willing and intelligent horse, we were lucky to find him. At 12 years old, he is still in his prime, and he must have been treated well during his years on the harness race track because his tendons and feet are sound. He gets most of the summer off due to the horseflies, they flock to him 20 and 30 at a time and make steady work very difficult. And he gets winter to himself as well. But come spring and fall we certainly rely on him to bring wood down to the homestead. Wood is our fuel for heating, cooking and hot water, and we use bush timber to build barns and outbuildings. On the wagon behind Pilgrim is about three-quarters of a cord of wood. It was his first time pulling the wagon so we didn't load it up. He easily pulled it so we will be able to bring our wood down one cord at a time. In a year we burn about six cords of mostly birch and poplar, and use fir thinnings for building material.

This is the beginning of the winter wood pile, we make sure there are some good sized birch logs for the cold nights in January and February.The home fires are burning all year round in my kitchen. But we are beginning to keep the fire burning at night as well. In the summers I get the fire going at 6am and aim to have all of the cooking done for the day by 8am, including a thermos of tea and summer meals we don't mind eating cold. We work outside in the morning and the house is cooled down by noon for lunch, and a bit of a nap in the heat of the day. I bake quick breads, crackers and pasta in the summer, and save the yeast breads for cooler weather. August pickles get the place a bit sticky, but I have them prepared the night before and get them done on the morning fire. This time of year I start baking again, not quite loaves of bread, but at least english muffins and cinnamon rolls. Winter is the height of baking luxury, I have a pre-heated oven ready for my every craving!

Bring on the apples. Pilgrim always gets a carrot or an apple for his work.

22 September 2008

After the Frost

After 126 frost free days, we got a killer Friday morning. We expected a light frost, the weather predicted 2C (35F). I picked my ripe tomatoes, covered the peppers and figured the frost would burn some of the plants, but the unripe fruits would likely go unscathed. We woke up to a killer frost, -4 or -5C (25F). Everything was white and crisp, frozen squash leaves folded like cardboard. Although the leaves blackened as the sun rose in a clear blue sky, the fruits were mostly undamaged. Tomatoes continue to ripen on dead vines, until the next frost anyway.

Here's a tour of the damage, it is a bit of a morbid celebration. Harvest is celebrating the fruits of summer, and harvest is also the dying time.
Cosmos just starting to bloom
Squash patch

Green survivors

Just the tips of the peppers burnt under a plastic hoop house

I was surprised that the cauliflower leaves got frost burn, not the broccoli, cabbage or brussel sprouts though.

Even my lemon balm got a little burned, now that's cold!

Two days after the frost, the tomatoes keep ripening.

16 September 2008

Generating Alternative Power

Generating your own power is much like growing your own food. The first step is to change your relationship to your power, much like your relationship to food is changed by eating seasonally and locally. Most households use more power than can be efficiently or affordably produced by alternative sources, so the most important thing to do is to reduce and reorganize your power needs. Reducing the first 50% is the easy part, like growing your family's fresh produce needs for the summer. After you bring your power consumption down, somtimes through outright sacrifice, but mostly through a creative process of doing things differently, then you have a chance at going off grid.

After reading reports from the UN lead Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, and other independent sources, it appears that we should be setting our greenhouse gas emmission reduction goals at 80% or more. That means we need to get extremely creative, and look around at what we can use and afford right now.

We are off grid. We are not fossil fuel free yet, but we are carbon neutral. We have one Sharp 80 watt Solar PV panel, a 1200 watt gas generator, running through a 40 amp battery charger to boost the power, six 6V deep cycle batteries in a 12V configuration, and a 1200 watt moderated sine wave inverter. All of this cost us about $2000. We run the generator an average of 40 minutes a day, and are looking at pracitcal ways to replace it, using 1/2 liter of gas a day (200L or 50Gal a year). With this system we run 1-2 compact flourecent lightbulbs, radio, electric fencer, occational TV and DVD player, charge a laptop, cell phone, ipod, use a fan in the summer, and run kitchen appliances like a cream separator, blender, etc. We do not use electricity to move water, heat water, heat air, cook food or preserve food. Generally speaking there is usually a better source than electricity to provide these domestic needs.

Producing your own power also means looking at what resources you have locally. Wind, sun, water, wood, vegetable oils and human/draft power are all sources of energy, and one or more is bound to be abundant or at least available anywhere on this earth. Generating power is one side of the equation, storing and using the power is on the other side. Below are some things we have learned about renewable energies.

Power Generation:

1. Wind power: HAS TO BE in the right location. Look closely at the startup speeds on individual generators to match it to the average wind speed in your area. Get a wind meter and measure your own wind, don't rely on what other locations experience. If the average wind speed is 12 mph then you are going to be on the low end of wind power generation. You need a consistent 12-25mph wind speed to get real economic and efficient use out of any wind generator. Best to be on an open plain or ocean.

2. Solar voltaic PV generation: With PV technology changing in material composition, efficiency and cost within the next 5-10 years, it may be best to wait or take this into account when investing in a PV system. A general search on Photovoltaics will give you more of an idea of what is going on in the industry. Possibly some exciting stuff. Other important factors to take into account regarding PV's are pollution, smog days, contrails, and climate change. We have found that living under a flight path has cut out our power from 6amps to 3.5amps on high flight days. And they don't have to be directly over you, they can spread out from hundreds of miles away.(see The David Suzuki Foundation). For climate change, if you are living in a climate model expected to go dryer or wetter (meaning more or less sun), then take these into your estimates.

3. Draft power: We have looked into the possibilities of using draft animals: oxen, dogs, horses and donkeys. We have come across a few websites that have interesting ideas and working systems, it may be appropriate for many areas or situations, most possibly as as a seasonal, portable standing motor for farmwork, more than a daily home power source. We have a working standard bred horse, and have worked on some designs to power a DC generator, but not one that would be efficient enough in both time and money. Our horse would be better employed to pull in firewood or cultivate the garden than to waste time and energy on generating power at this stage.

4. Steam: We have looked into it as a stable power source, being that we have an abundance of wood. But anything under pressure has it own state regulation and safety issues. Steam has a lot of potential for small scale sustainable carbon neutral generation, especially for community shared power systems.

5. Bio fuels: At this point a controversial issue. Large areas of rainforest are being cleared in Indonesia to grow Europe's demand for biofuels. This is not sustainable or ecological. Biofuels can be grown on the homestead. They would never have sold a tractor if farmers could not run them on their own corn oil or homegrown ethanol. One acre of sugar beets can produce 1000 liters of ethanol, but again state regualtions apply.

8. Pedal power: We are looking into the possibility using a pedal powered generator to replace our gas generator.

9. Geothermal: This is not likely a realistic option for a single household, but on a community or urban scale it may be the best source of power available. It is constant, and can be used to create electricity as well as heat and cool both water and air. Wikipedia gives a good overview of the technology as well as links to more research and working geothermal power stations around the world.

More on batteries next time....

10 September 2008

Homesteading Skills: Building Barns

We moved onto a bare piece of land in the fall, two years ago. Before us were 10 acres of clover and Timothy grass pastures, 90 acres of mixed woodland regrowing from clear-cut, and an 80 year old hand-drilled shallow well with a hand pump. The rest was up to us. We put our homesteading skills to the test.

We brought with us a modest but temporary mobile home, a good wood cook stove, a milking cow in calf, a Standard bred workhorse, a dozen hens and a few hand tools. Our first priorities were to design an affordable power system, and build fences and a barn to winter the animals. We did not do this with very much money behind us, so we relied on effectively using what we had, and experimenting with new ways of doing things.

Since there was an abundance of small timber that needed to be thinned for the health of the regrowing forest, we used "bush timber" to build the barns. But lacking the skills and hand tools that built thousands of beautiful barns before gas motors and electricity, we used a less ideal, but effective power saw. The cost of the power saw was more than covered by the savings in purchased lumber. I would have loved to build our barns "the old way", but with winter coming, I had to sacrifice an ideal for the necessity of getting a thing done. The small amount of gas used to power the saw is significantly less than the amount of gas required to drive to town to purchase eggs, milk and meat.

We experimented with different methods of milling and building, using 4-6 inch diameter poplar and fir thinnings. Mr. Fritillary learned to cut decent free-hand inch boards, posts, and rafters in just about any size and shape we needed. We brought lengths of wood down from the forest with our trusty horse Pilgrim, who puts in honest work for his oats. Log cabin type walls were the design we settled on, and before winter arrived, a curious and generous neighbour donated some used tin sheets to cover our 256 square foot shed roof barn. It wasn't much to look at, but it brought us and our animals through winter and each year we have continued to improve it.

We learned to build inexpensive roofs with a layer of boards, tar paper and a tarp. We learned how to best insulate the animals from the bitter winter winds by organizing our hay storage. We learned from a few mistakes. Not including the saw, our barns cost us about $150, and we now have a 1200 square foot barn that provides hay, grain and shelter for a horse, a dairy cow or 3 goats, and a small flock of hens. And more than this, we have the confidence and knowledge that we gained from the experience. Above all I have learned that homesteading skills are less about method, and more about resilience and commitment. In other words, there is always a way to get something done, and you may not do it the best way, the first time.

Our power system was a challenge of a different sort. We are still improvising, experimenting and researching appropriate renewable home power systems. I will detail that story in another blog.

04 September 2008

The Hunger Project

We have recently been reading about the work The Hunger Project does around the world. They provide a sustainable framework that does so much more than fight poverty. Simply fighting poverty with aid leads to a continual struggle, and invites corruption, inefficiency and creates an industry around Poverty. The Hunger Project seeks to place a foundation upon which families and communities can feed and sustain themselves. We in the West need to give more than aid, we need to restructure our values. Please read their vision...

Our Vision

The vision of a world free from hunger does not look like our present reality minus the problem of hunger.

Our vision of the future is not based on everyone achieving a Western-style, high-consumption lifestyle, which is environmentally unsustainable even for the one billion people who now live it. Nor does it permit one-sixth of the human family to continue to live in abject poverty.
The Hunger Project is committed to transcending this polarity — to creating a future that rejects the inevitability of hunger and recognizes the limitations of a consumerist society.

Achieving the sustainable end of hunger means nothing less than creating a new future for all humanity, a future where

  • every day, every person has enough of the right food to be healthy and productive;
  • babies are born healthy and strong, and girl babies are prized as much as boy babies;
  • children stay alive, so parents can have smaller families;
  • women and girls are full partners in society;
  • people have control over their own lives and destinies, and all individuals have a chance to contribute;
  • the values of honoring human beings and nature flourish.

Our Homestead

This is where we spend our days and nights. We both fully employ and engage ourselves at home.

We have a diverse garden where we organically grow all of our produce for the year. It also sustains a growing ecology of birds, insects, bats, toads and snakes who provide invaluable service keeping the garden pests in balance.

We have begun to grow small scale grains in 2008, both traditional feed grains such as oats, wheat and rye, as well as grains for the kitchen. Golden Amaranth is shown in the picture, we are also growing dry peas, dry beans, sunflower seeds, hulless pumpkin seeds, quinoa, hulless oats, and hard red spring wheat for bread making.

Our pastures border on 90 acres of mixed forest that was clear-cut 15 years ago. We have been sustainably logging and thinning for firewood and building material. In just two years we have observed a change in the diversity of undergrowth, as well as more nesting birds in the summer.

Our standard bred horse helps us bring wood out of the forest and does some cultivating in the garden.

We keep a small flock of Isa Brown hens and a Plymouth Barred Rock rooster. We hatched out 13 chicks this summer showing strong Barred Rock characteristics.

We have kept a Jersey milking cow for 4 years. She provides an abundance of milk and butter. The realities of a small homestead do not fit well with the Jersey breed, and we are looking to change our dairy herd to goats this fall.

03 September 2008

Out here

Everything is set in motion out here:
this earth turns before my eyes,
it rocks beneath my feet. The sun
advances and retreats its horizon,
and winter, like a long shadow, is cast
then evaporates easy as birds
wing their way home. Out here life is simple,
and a poet's sweetest metaphor
is trite because life is everywhere.
Why are we not all out here?
Where life can clench us in its firm grasp
and hold us together, hold our racing fighting hearts
from turning against one another.

We are spitting cats, clucking hens
all stacked on top of, packed too tightly in there:
where the earth is flat and still
where the clocks march blindly
over a dancing sun. In there, a poet's most trite metaphor
is a miracle of sweet clean water.
I was born in there;
but my life began out here.

What makes sense in a dream
is insanity upon waking.

In there we are sleepwalkers,
disassembling the very systems we need to survive
and reassembling them as disposable toxins,
when all the while there is no where left
to throw them and the toxins seep inside.

Out here simple needs awake us
and the madness that we carry with us,
like a weight of snow upon our shoulders,
evaporates easy as we walk towards home.