July 22, 2014

An Experiment With Solar Dehydrating

I admit that I never thought solar dehydrating was a very good option for me. We have too much humidity. But when I ordered my solar oven, the preparedness accessories kit was too good a bargain to pass up. It included dehydrating racks, so I thought I might as well give this a try.

The accessories kit included drying racks and parchment
paper, as well as two enameled cooking post with lids. 

July is blueberry harvest so blueberries were a good choice for my first experiment. Solar cooking is a moist cooking method, so it is important to vent the moisture. This is done by resting the oven lid on top of the latches.

Latches used to vent moisture.

At night the lid is secured tightly, and the process is resumed the next day. The biggest challenge was keeping the oven temp low enough. Recommended dehydrating temperatures are 100 - 150° F / 38 - 65° C. If aimed at the sun, my Sun Oven easily reaches temps of 325 - 350° F / 165 - 175° C. Even aiming away from the sun didn't guarantee low enough temps.

Fortunately we had low humidity for several days. After 48 hours, the top rack had dried perfectly,

Blueberries after 48 hours in the solar oven/dehydrator.

but only the top rack. It took a couple more days to get the rest of them dried properly.

The biggest problem was that this tied up the oven for quite a few days. I use my solar oven every day for cooking, if there is sun, so not being able to was an inconvenience in that regard.

Humidity is a big factor for dehydrating here anyway. Even in my electric Excalibur I can't make crispy veggie chips; they start becoming soft as soon as they cool off. Things still keep however, which is good.

I think this experiment was successful enough that I would consider building a dedicated solar dehydrator in the future, rather than use the solar oven. There are some nifty DIY dehydrator plans here. I'm sure I'll have some spare time to do that within the next decade or so.

July 20, 2014

Rainwater Catchment Update & A Few Garden Photos

Last summer it rained so much that we used very little of the water we collected in our rainwater tanks. This summer, we've used it all. We had good rainfall in May, and in June the garden still looked good.

June: Amish Paste tomatoes in front, Zuchetta summer squash behind.

Until last Friday July had been hot and dry and everything looked it. Our highs have been in the low 90s F / 30s C and rain has only been scant drizzles. The ground has been thirsty. That's worrisome for a gardener.

Remember the ground Dan plowed with his new 2-wheel 
tractor? I planted Amaranth and it's doing splendidly
in spite of no rain. This crop will be for feed grain.

We used all the water in the rainwater collection tanks. We have five, 275 gal / 1000 liter tanks, which were full at the beginning of summer. That 1375 gal / 5000 L seemed like a lot then, but during two months of no rain it didn't seem like enough! Even things in mulched beds were wilting. It was hard trying to decide where to use the last of those gallons. I felt like a mother who has only enough food to feed one of her 12 starving children. I finally decided on the okra, which hadn't received any yet.

Okra being watered from the rainwater tanks with the new irrigation pipe.
I hadn't mulched it yet because I did a 2nd planting due to poor germination.

The PVC pipe you see in the photo above is what I'm using to irrigate. I got tired of wrestling with soaker hoses, so Dan drilled a series of small holes in a length of pipe and fitted it so I could attach the garden hose. This works very well and I'd eventually like to have them permanent in every garden bed (I have 30 beds in the main garden).

We were concerned about the corn and decided to set up one of the empty tanks in a front corner of the house.

This 275 gallon tank collects from from a larger area
of roof than the 1st tanks. One inch of rain fills it!

Dan made some changes with this one. He lowered the clean-out plug and you can also see the overflow pipe. It's full because thankfully it started to rain Friday night. We got 1.85 inches of slow, steady rain all day yesterday (just for fun, you can see what Sam did in the rain here.) Temperatures dropped too, so that it was almost chilly.

Garden grown Tendergreen green beans, sweet basil,
Zuchetta summer squash, and Boston Pickling cucumbers. 

Our rainwater collection is something we definitely want to expand. In fact, that's one nice thing about a rainwater catchment system, it's easy to add on to. We've discussed 1000 gallon tanks, but tanks run anywhere between $1 - $2 per gallon, so that would be over $1000 for one 1000 gallon tank. The other possibility is making our own with ferrocement. No plans for that at the moment, but it's a thought. The totes are cheap (about 25¢ per gallon) and stackable. So for now, something is better than nothing; a favorite phrase of mine.

July 18, 2014

Of Routine and Spontaneity on the Homestead

About 15 years ago I managed a food co-op, i.e. bulk food buying club. It was a small club, where we put in a monthly order, met at a local church, unloaded the truck, divvied everything up, paid the treasurer, cleaned up, and went home. Like all groups we ran into problems along the way and had to make decisions from time to time. Something I observed was that members seemed to fall roughly into one of two groups: those who like rules and those who don't. Those who liked them thought they made the ordering and delivery processes orderly and efficient. Without the routine, they saw only chaos. The other group was the "go with the flow" folks. These seemed to thrive more on spontaneity and believed problems would work themselves out. They disliked rules because they felt stifled by them. This contrast was interesting to me and fortunately we all got along well and never had any knock-down-drag-outs because of our differences.

On the homestead I am learning that we need both routine and spontaneity. Animals, especially, thrive on routine. If things aren't predictable, they aren't happy. I try to set my routine according to their species nature and stick to it. If I'm late, I hear about it! Their care and feeding are my daily chores. They are the foundation of my day. No matter what else I'm doing, when it's chore time, it's chore time. Everything else must be set aside for another time.

Spontaneity on the homestead isn't exactly the same as it is in the rest of the modern world. We can't not do chores for the spontaneity of it, or load up the car on a whim for a weekend getaway. Our spontaneity must exist without the framework of our routine. Even so, interruptions in routine often happen when unexpected things present themselves, such as goats getting their horns stuck in a cattle panel, goats getting their horns stuck in each others' collars, guinea fowl squawking in the middle of the road and blocking traffic, or animals getting hurt or sick. All of these demand immediate action, and the day's plans are delayed if not down the tubes. We've learned that it's not so much spontaneity that's required, it's flexibility.

Weather is an unpredictable factor which requires flexibility on the homestead. In the typical modern lifestyle, weather is considered either cooperative or uncooperative; peoples' lives go on regardless. On a farm or homestead, weather determines everything. It's why we got so much done on our master suite last summer - rain! If rain looks imminent, we'll jump to projects that will be effected by it: raking in the hay, getting that building project covered, garden picking, etc. We try to schedule working with the soil around it. Unexpected rain or snow can put a halt to the day's plans and make us change direction. That's why we keep an outdoor project and an indoor project in the works at all times.

Our routine is so intertwined with the weather and the land that I have gradually come to see ourselves differently in the grand scheme of things. I no longer see nature as something we simply observe, appreciate, and preserve; nature is something we are a part of. It isn't something we can put fences around, scatter educational placards throughout, and build pathways with a donation box at the end of the trail. It was never meant to be that way, but modern life, which is all wrapped up in technology, pretty much thinks it can go on without it.

One challenge to flexibility is work style. Dan and I have very different work styles. When Dan commences a project, he sticks with it until it's done. He doesn't like unfinished, loose ends. I'm the kind of person who has several projects in the works at any given time. I'm not actually a good multi-tasker, it's just that there's always a gardening project, kitchen project, housework project, and writing project all floating around in my day. Dan tells me he couldn't work like that, but I remind him that my projects are ongoing ones, while his are start-to-finish ones: new fencinginstalling a wood cookstove, installing a rainwater collection system, or building a new chicken coop. For me, there will always be dishes to do, weeding to do, laundry to do, meals to cook, food to plant, pick, or preserve, errands to run, etc. I suppose it's part of why that saying came to be "A man works from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done." Dan's projects can be marked with check boxes, mine are a lifestyle.

That doesn't mean developing a homesteading routine has been easy for me. I tend to get distracted by things that suddenly seem urgent, such as, "Oh no! The library books are due today!" In the beginning, especially, it was hard because there was so much to do. Then we got animals and were so thrilled when they ran up to us to beg for attention and food - so cute. One day I realized that the animals were dictating my day. The goats kept hollering to be fed earlier and earlier, and the chickens were jumping the fence to see if I had some tidbit to eat. I realized they needed a routine just as much as I did.

I do think there's a difference between spontaneity in the modern way of life and flexibility in an agrarian one. I think the worldly minded usually want flexibility to suit themselves. On the homestead, flexibility is required to suit everything else. I suppose that's why so many folks left the farm in the first place, for the freedom to not have to be flexible for the sake of everything else. Life appears so much simpler when everything appears to be predictable and one can be spontaneous simply for the fun of it.

Both Dan and I are still learning how to mentally balance routine with flexibility. There's a fine art of switching mental gears that neither of us has yet perfected. Sometimes we're mentally and emotionally set for one thing, but must switch to something else without losing motivation and enthusiasm. Hopefully we will someday be able to take it all in stride, simply saying, "It's all in a day's work".

July 16, 2014

Pig Alert

It started with chickens under the blueberry bush. Not that I haven't had chickens there before, hunting for fallen blueberries, but this time they weren't supposed to be there. I use gates and cattle panels to route animals (chickens, goats, and pig) to the areas where I want them. That way I can rest an area from being overgrazed, or, as is the case this time of year, keep the bucks and does separated by more than one fence to keep the bucks from getting too rambunctious, if you know what I mean. Somehow, the chickens had gotten into the front pasture.

I didn't think much about it until later in the day, when I heard the kids hollering. Initially I didn't think much of that either, because goat kids will holler about everything: they can't find their siblings, they can't find their mom, they can see their mom but she's too far away (so they expect her to come to them and holler about it), or simply because somebody else starts hollering. Zoey's Li'l Red was getting pretty worked up, however, so I thought I'd better go check. As I approached the gate, all nine goats ran past. Something must be going on. As I got closer, I saw this...

How did he get in there? He came running up to greet me when he saw me, apparently very pleased with himself for being there. A quick walk of the fence and a gate check revealed this...

Somebody (or some pig) had pushed his way through the log barricade and wiggled his way under the gate. Pigs are notorious fence crashers and obviously our gating situation isn't pig, chicken, or baby goat proof. I blame the uneven land with all its bumps and ridges, but also we were pretty new to fence and gate installation when we did this one.

No pig wrangling took place, but after Waldo made his way back I added a few more rocks to the under-gate log barricade. I can see why he liked it with the girls. Their pasture has quite a bit of clover in it and pigs love clover. My plan has been to allow Waldo and his bride in here anyway, shortly after she arrives. In the meantime I figure no harm done, other than startling the goats.

So far, the girls and their kids have made it a point to keep their distance. But I reckon they'll get used to him soon enough.

July 14, 2014

The Keep Cool Piggy Pool

Remember this "Around The Homestead" photo?

Waldo in his water dish. 

We tried to make him a proper mud wallow, but no spot near the shelter holds water very well. So until we can get to that, he has his piggy pool.

Waldo is telling me he'd like more water please.

This is the same dumpster find we used for a chicken heatwave wading pool a few years back. They never appreciated as much as Waldo does.

He can still have his mud if he wants it. He jumps out of the piggy pool and dives into a little bare patch of dry, loose dirt. He trots off coated with his DIY mud, just as happy as can be.