The (Early) Education of a Homesteader

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I have heard several questions along the lines of, “how did you learn how to do that,” “where did you learn to do that,” “when did you learn to do that,” or “did you grow up on a farm,” and so on.  The short answers to the “where and how” questions are, between the covers of books, on YouTube, or by trawling the internet, and by asking folks who know more than I do, either in person or in on-line forums.  The answer to the “when” question is, recently, in most instances.  And to the final question, the answer is “no.”

In fact, in my inaugural post I stated:  “I also realized that what I do for money, provides directly for precisely none of my or my family’s needs, in fact I am quite practiced in doing nothing that can be bartered for anything, except for money.  This last piece of the puzzle is tantamount to having one’s “man card” revoked, or at least it was in my opinion.  Until 1995 I had never had a vehicle in a repair shop, I had never had a maintenance man of any sort in a home I owned, I had never paid anyone to mow my lawn, I was a fairly proficient welder with oxygen and acetylene, and could recharge my air conditioner properly with Freon, I had fairly recent memories of successfully hunting and fishing, and if I dug deeply enough, trapping.  Until only recently though, I had done none of that for the better part of 20 years.  And for food that is grown from the earth, I was almost completely blind to its sources; I didn’t know that broccoli was a seed head, or that Brussels sprouts were a bud and the plant a cultivar of the cabbage group, and worse.”

So in short, my ignorance, and lack of skills, or at least a lack of recently practiced skills, were key to my decision to homestead.
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Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part III, Beekeeping

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The initial bee install took place the weekend of 5 April 2014, and I added a box to the hive the weekend of 12 April, as documented in the post, “Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part I,” dated 23 May 2014.  I checked on the bees regularly, and there was plenty of activity, with bees coming and going, and the bees were carrying in loads of pollen from their foraging activities.  The hive appeared to be very healthy.  I knew that I should be adding more boxes to the hive, and as the weeks went by I became more and more anxious that the colony might swarm because there was insufficient space in the hive for the growing colony.  Finally, adding the boxes rose to the top of my work list, and coincidentally Nathan was available to help me in the process.

Nathan (L) and I suiting up, inactive hive box after step 1 just to my right in the background

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Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part II

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By mid-April, spring was in full swing, and I began to think again of working in the woods.  The cleared area around the house, in the shape of an egg in profile, with the fat end uphill and to the south and the small end to the north reaching to the lake, the yard if you will, totals between 2.5 and 3 acres.  Surrounded by old-growth trees, American Beech, Sugar Maple, and Tuliptree dominate, as well as some more recent introductions, 20 to 25 crab apples, and several willows closer to water’s edge.  It seems the forest would overtake the yard in just a few short years were the property to be abandoned.  Occasionally, it adds up over time, trees would fall, or branches would break off and fall into the yard, for a variety of reasons.  Since none of the woods was being put to directly productive use, the idea seemed to be to make the “problem” go away; the result of clean-up of the dead fall being large piles, 3 to 4 feet high, of brush and larger branches and main stems having been dragged just into the forest, and surrounding the clearing more or less completely, anywhere from at the yard’s edge to 20 feet into the forest.  I have made it a mission to deal with the piles more effectively.  Specifically, anything that is dry and 1 to 3 inches in diameter is used as stick fuel, green and 3 inches and less in diameter is chipped for use as mulch or on pathways, 3 to 4 inches in diameter and larger is bucked and split for firewood.  Odd-shaped pieces in the larger diameters are set aside for use in the fire pit, wood too rotted for use as fuel is set aside for use in Hügelkultur.  Virtually all of the wood can be reused in one form or another; waste not, want not.

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Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part I

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It has been almost 8 weeks since I made a post, and I offer my humblest apologies; really, there has been little to write home about.  Well okay, perhaps, just maybe, that is a not entirely true statement.  Actually, the homestead has been a veritable hive of activity, in fact our life has been very busy over the past several weeks, and that level of activity seems likely to continue into mid-June.  And, it is wearing on me a bit that I have two blog posts to complete, “Warré Bee Hive Construction – Part II,” and “Winter 2013/2014: Lessons in Hardening Homestead Electrical, Potable Water, and Heating Systems.”  I will get to those eventually, promise.

Meanwhile, I will start where I left off, at the last post containing

homestead content, which was in late March, 26 March to be precise.  The weekend of 29 March offered the opportunity to evaporate yet more sap to the state of delicious maple syrup.  The yield was 16 cups of syrup.  While we stopped collecting sap on the 6th of April because temperatures were routinely staying above the freezing mark, and because sap had largely ceased flowing as a result, the business of evaporation continued through the weekend of April 12th; at that point there was no more snow to maintain the sap for extended periods of time without refrigeration.  In fact, we still have about 30 gallons of sap in the chest freezer awaiting processing.  We learned a great deal about maple sugaring this season, and I hope to be able to expand the operation significantly next year.  Our first season was great fun, and allowed us to connect with so many people while engaging in such a traditionally American endeavor; we will treasure the memories. Read more

Very Early Spring 2014 – Sugaring! Part II of Tapping the Sugar Maples!

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Geri and Nancy being sappy!

After two weeks of collecting more sap than we had anticipated, approximately 100 gallons from thirteen trees (7.7 gallons/tap), we desperately needed to process at least some of the sap to make room for more. The “rule of thumb” is 10 gallons of sap per tap, per season, if the tree is in a forest, so just two weeks into a four to six-week season we are well ahead of pace.  We managed to process approximately 21 gallons on a Saturday, and 27 gallons that Sunday and into Monday.  The weather has been below freezing since we started evaporating, so we have gained some ground on the trees ability to produce.  Our current capacity to store sap stands at 100 gallons more or less, and about half of that depends on having snow on the ground sufficient to maintain containerized sap at low enough temperatures to prevent fermentation and souring of the sap. Read more

Thoughts on the “permacultureVOICES Conference March 2014,” aka, PV1

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Diego giving his inspirational message, “take on your
impossible,” to open the conference

Right at the top, I must tip my hat to Diego Footer, the founder and organizer of the conference; he said that the preparation consumed a year of his life, and I can believe it. Diego has a full-time job, and together with his family, put permacultureVOICES together in his “spare” time; it must have required Herculean effort. I cannot recall a single significant glitch in the event organization, and with over 600 participants and a Who’s Who of permaculture in attendance, the success of the conference represents an amazing accomplishment. In his closing remarks, Geoff Lawton offered that in his 30 years in “this movement,” he has never attended a better conference. That is saying something. Diego has already indicated that there will be a PV2, so if you were not in attendance all is not lost!  http://www.permaculturevoices.com/ Read more

Very Early Spring 2014 – Tapping the Sugar Maples!

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Yes indeed, spring has sprung!  And not only because we set our clocks ahead, but more importantly because sap is flowing from our maple trees which is a more certain sign of spring!  We are very excited, especially since maple syrup will be one of the very first “products” of the homestead.  I am convinced that it will be well worth the work involved in its production.

Maple tree sap flows when daytime temperatures exceed freezing, 32 deg F, and nighttime temperatures dip below the freezing mark.  The temperatures above freezing create a “positive pressure” within the tree, forcing sap out of the tap, while temperatures below freezing create a “negative pressure” within the tree, causing more sap to be pulled up from the roots and into the sap wood. [1]  The optimum variation is said to be a high of 40 deg F and a low of 20 deg F; we tapped Sunday morning at about 9 a.m., after an overnight low of 17 deg F and leading to a daytime high of 42 deg F, and sap was flowing by noon the same day!

Sugar maple leaves and fruits (samara, also known as
“helicopters” when we were kids) 

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Late Winter 2013/2014 – Weekend of 1 Mar 2014

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The weekends provide opportunities to take on more time-consuming projects, and this weekend was no exception. There is much forest management work to do on the property leading up to planting in the spring, and winter has also traditionally been a time when the fuel-wood stores were stocked.  And, I want to show just briefly, a plumbing repair I substantially completed this past weekend.  Later I will make a very detailed post regarding the cause(s) of the damage.

The largest of four trees, an American Beech.  Some of the four smaller trees
in the upper right corner, one of which was a Sugar Maple.

Saturday morning I spent about 4 hours working the slope just south of the house; two reasons, the first is that we needed some firewood, and secondly, I am removing dead-fall and live trees selectively to bring more light and life to the forest floor in the spring.  There is a tremendous amount of dead-fall, with many trees having been broken off by wind 20-30 ft off the ground.  I identified four trees, two with the tops broken off 30 feet or so above ground, and two others that had been damaged by the fall of the first two. Read more

Warré Bee Hive Construction – Part I

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From relatively early in the process of planning for greater self-sufficiency, it became clear that honey bees would be would be an important part of the design, and implemented early.  Of course the honey harvest is eagerly anticipated, but their service as pollinators cannot be overrated; according to EcoNews,[1], “Honey bees—wild and domestic—perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but the best and healthiest food—fruits, nuts and vegetables—are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees.”  The EcoNews article claims an estimate higher than most I have read; nevertheless it seems inarguable that the impact is significant.  Another key reason for early implementation, even before we might be permanently on-site, is that bees are relatively low maintenance.  Depending on the type of hive employed, and whether or not the beekeeper chooses to feed and medicate the bees, only a few visits to the hives may be necessary each year.  As a general rule, we intend to let our bees fend for themselves, save for a feeding upon initial installation of the colonies this spring; a sole harvest would be made in late August or early September each year.

This is a photo of our first Warré
hive almost ready for exterior finish

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Spring 2013: In the beginning…

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…it took a long time and a lot of discussion for a sufficiently complete picture of a desired future for my wife and me to form in my head.  No doubt each of us comes to a decision to hit life’s big red “reset button” in our own way and time, and does not come to the decision lightly; I have hit the button before, and it is not always a pleasant experience.  In April of 2013 I wrote in my journal, “It seems that in the past two to four weeks, I am heading in a direction that suits me, in the direction that perhaps I should have been heading for a long time.  For months Geri and I have been talking about moving out of the area, having a second home, or both.  It feels like I have been walking around in the dark, groping for who I am, what I should be doing, and where I should be doing it.” Read more