July 16, 2019

Summer! (Is It Over Yet? LOL)

Oh my, but the heat of summer has set in and it's no fun. Our daily highs are in the mid-90s (35°C) and the humidity has been high with false promises of rain. It isn't so bad if it cools down to the upper 60s at night (20°C), but once summer kicks into high gear with its nightly low of around 75°F (24°C), it's difficult to cool down the house. Using window fans at night to vent the heat and pull in cooler air helps. So does keeping curtains closed on the sunny side of the house. So does venting the attic with our solar attic fan. And so does keeping our ceiling fans going all the time. So does using my summer kitchen or solar oven instead of cooking inside. Needless to say, it's still hot.

Living without air conditioning (why? here) has both negative and positive sides. The negative is obvious; the house gets hot! It's cooler than outdoors, but by the end of the day the inside temp is around 85°F (30°C). The positive side is that there isn't as great a temperature difference when we go in and out, so no shock to the system. It's warmer outside, but not as wilting as on errand day, when I'm in and out of the frigidly air conditioned stores.

I do most of my outdoor work in the morning when it's coolest. Afternoons are for house projects or at least things I can do in the shade. If the humidity is low and there's a breeze, even those low 90s aren't too bad. When the humidity goes up and the air is still, it's horrible. I work up a sweat just hanging laundry on the line!

We pace ourselves, take frequent breaks, and drink lots of water. Although I have to say that by later in the day I'm tired of drinking water. It just doesn't seem to quench well anymore. I often get a craving for something carbonated then, although I'm not sure why. Does anyone else experience that? Something about the CO2 bubbles that satisfies. Instead, though, we drink switchel. It's an old fashioned homemade electrolyte replacer that really does satisfy thirst and keeps us going. There are lots of recipes for it, but I thought I'd share mine, along with options for ingredient substitutions.


Ingredients for two quarts:
  • Ginger - 1/4 cup shredded fresh or 1 tbsp dry powder
  • Raw organic apple cider vinegar (with the mother) - 1/2 cup
  • Honey or maple syrup - 1/2 cup
  • Himalayan pink salt - 1 teaspoon
  • Water to make 2 quarts

To make:
  • Simmer ginger in about a pint of water. Cool and squeeze out the ginger water.
  • Mix ginger water, vinegar, honey, and salt in a 2-quart container.  Mix well. 
  • Add water to fill container.

Ingredient notes:
  • Adjust ingredients to taste
  • May substitute:
    • lemon juice for vinegar
    • Celtic or sea for salt 
    • coconut palm sugar for honey or maple syrup
  • Sodium chloride content in salt varies:
    • Sea salt (like table salt) is 97 to 99% sodium chloride
    • Himalayan salt is roughly 87% sodium chloride
    • Celtic sea salt is about 85% sodium chloride
    • The remaining percentage is minerals.
  • Table salt isn't recommended because it contains sugar as dextrose and sometimes aluminum as either sodium aluminosilicate or calcium aluminosilicate. 

Drink freely while sweating. Dan and I take water with us when we work outside, then drink a glass of switchel when we get back to the house.

The primary electrolytes lost in sweat are sodium and chloride. Others include potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Carbohydrates help the digestive system absorb sodium and chloride. That's one reason the sweetener helps, but it also increases palatability which encourages drinking more. This is important because when one is sweating a lot, it is imperative to replace the water lost through sweat. That means drinking more than the recommended 8 ounces 8 times a day. The test of good hydration is producing clear to pale yellow urine. Darker urine indicates progressive levels of dehydration.

Why is switchel better than commercial sports drinks? For me, the issues are the kinds of sweeteners they use (often high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose from bleached beet sugar. The problem there is that commercially grown beets are GMO). They also can contain brominated vegetable oil. Apparently, this acts as an emulsifier and keeps the citrus flavor from floating to the top of the drink. (However, it's banned in most countries except the U.S.)

So here's the list of my switchel ingredients and what the electrolytes they help replace. I also included the vitamins that help for energy.

Electrolyte replacement:
  • apple cider vinegar - potassium, magnesium
  • or lemon juice - potassium, magnesium, calcium, vitamin C
  • honey - calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, carbohydrates (for energy and to help assimilate sodium and chloride)  
  • or maple syrup - riboflavin, calcium, magnesium, carbohydrates
  • or coconut sugar - calcium, potassium, carbohydrates
  • ginger
    • fresh - B vitamins, magnesium, potassium
    • dried, ground - B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, calcium
  • Himalayan or Celtic salt - sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, calcium.

A lot of claims are made about the Himalayan and Celtic salts, but I found little actual research on them. I did find a study which indicates that Himalayan pink salt increases hydration as opposed to white sea salt (which increases dehydration). You can read that study here. One study does not a scientific fact make, but to me, it recommends it as a good choice for sodium and chloride replacement.

As far as summer being over, we still have a way to go. July and August are usually our hottest months, although September can be pretty toasty as well. We certainly could do with more rain. While we wait for fall, we'll take it slow and stick with our summer routine. It's not too bad now that we're used to it.

July 12, 2019

Tractor Wagon

We get a lot of use from our wheelbarrows and garden cart. But Dan wanted something that could carry larger, heavier loads than what we can manage with those, especially since most of this year's firewood is down the hill in the woods. We looked at both new and used pull carts for lawn tractors, but in the end, he decided to build a wagon from an old riding lawn mower.

Dan tore an old broken riding mower down to just the frame. 

The two by fours were scraps. Their function is to raise the bed
of the wagon above the back tires. The angle iron came from the 
crate our chipper was shipped in. Dan cut and welded it to fit.

The sides are pressure-treated decking boards.

Steering closeup. Dan had to do a bit of welding to get the steering stable.

Ditto with the tractor side.

Then a bit of paint,

and she was ready to go.

The only advantage a commercial cart has over Dan's is that they can dump their loads, while this one can't. But that's a small trade-off for making something mostly out of materials we already had. Dan bought only the decking boards, so the entire wagon cost under $20 to make.

The wagon holds 5 wheelbarrow loads of wood chips.

Being able to transport larger, heavier loads is the kind of useful convenience that enables us to work smarter not harder. We need to get the job done without wearing ourselves out! And that helps us keep things manageable as we get older.

Our workhorse wagon is champion at hauling firewood.

The right equipment is so important around a homestead, although I have to say it usually takes us awhile to figure it out. That probably sounds strange, but with a limited budget we often do things by hand because at the time there isn't another choice. As we analyze what we do and how we do it, we discuss options and look for sensible technology; usually the simpler the better. It takes some time to make decisions, but I think we've been able to make the best choices for us that way.

July 8, 2019

Digging Potatoes and Soil Discoveries

I dug our potatoes over the weekend. These are the grocery store potatoes I decided to try. Seed potatoes have gotten so expensive that I thought, what the heck. So I bought some organic russet potatoes and planted them in two of my hugelkultur swale beds along with cowpeas and my winter potted pansies. I was thrilled with what I discovered.

The first thing I noticed was the moisture in the soil. I haven't watered these beds much even though it's been hot and dry. I wouldn't have been surprised if the soil was bone dry when I dug but that wasn't the case. So that was like a pat on the back for my soil building efforts.

The second thing I noticed was the soil texture. Here's what my soil used to look like. (Ha! And still does in lots of places.)

Here's a chunk I turned up while hunting potatoes.

The combination of soil microorganisms, organic matter, roots, soil, and air all point to improved soil structure, which helps with moisture retention. I was so happy to see that.

My third happy discovery was the abundant mycorrhizal fungi.

Growing symbiotically with the potatoes,

and throughout the bed.

If you recall from my August 2018 blog post, Carbon: What I Didn't Know, mychrrhizae are fungi that form symbiotic relationships with plants. They receive liquid carbon from the plants and in return extend the plant's root system to network and harvest nutrients from other areas. They also produce glomalin, a sticky substance that glues together soil particles, minerals, organic matter, and nutrients to form soil aggregates. Aggregates reduce water and wind erosion, reduce compaction, increase nutrient cycling, and increase water filtration and moisture retention around plant roots. When I compare my soil then and now, that's what I'm seeing. That's why I'm excited.

I also found this.

I assume these are nitrogen fixing nodules from the cowpea plants in the bed. The cowpeas are legumes, and that's what legumes do, fix nitrogen in the soil.

These soil microorganisms are why we no longer till. They can tolerate minor soil disturbance, but extensive mechanical disturbance will disrupt and kill them. So I removed the potatoes with as little disturbance as possible, covered the bare soil with a layer of leaf mulch, and gave the bed a good watering.

And the potatoes?

Harvest and size were fair. Even though there was still moisture in the soil, I think the plants definitely would have benefited from more consistent watering. My last pot of potatoes did much better in terms of size, but I made sure to water it frequently. The old "inch per week" is still a good rule of thumb to go by.

My hugelkultur swale beds were made in April 2017 as an experiment in soil moisture retention (more on that here.) Two years later, I'm seeing wonderful soil improvement and that's exciting to me. This is exactly what I have been working toward and hoping for. I just had to share! 😂

July 4, 2019

A Birthday Lament for America

On this 243rd anniversary of the birth of the United States of America, I cannot help but reflect on the ideological divide that currently has this country in its death grip. While some would consider this progress and reason to celebrate, others lament this as a sad state of affairs. But like the frog who will instinctively jump out when thrown live into a pot of boiling water, we have been willing to sit in the cold frying pan while the heat is turned up so slowly that we've barely noticed what's happening.

In 1973, Eric Sloane published a book entitled The Spirits of '76. It was written in anticipation of then upcoming bicentennial of the United States. In this book he identifies and laments the loss of ten qualities that could be considered the foundational American mindset at the time of this nation's birth. Following are a series of quotes from The Spirits of '76. They seem appropriate to reflect on today.

The Spirit of Respect

"Respect for family, respect for the nation and the land, respect for the flag and the law, respect for mankind and respect for oneself ---these have been outstandingly wanting during the last few years. Within the family, within the nation, and to all other nations, the only hope for the survival of civilization is respect or love for one another. In the end, this is all that matters."

The Spirit of Hard Work

"Once upon a time in America, hard work was a part of life; it was one of the pleasures and satisfactions of living. Even as I write these words they have a ridiculous ring to my ear, so conditioned am I to the popular American creed of seeking the most pay for the least amount of work. Hard labor is considered either drudgery or punishment, or, at best, a necessary evil. . . Retirement from labor has become a national aim, and the physical and mental pleasure from hard work has become a vanished American spirit."

The Spirit of Frugality

"Throwing things away has become an American habit. It has been estimated that we waste more in one second than our gross national economy earning of two hundred years ago. There were no garbage dumps in those days because all leftovers were reused. . . The spirit of frugality began its decline slowly until the last few decades of acceleration, when we have overcome the fine art of saving and finally established a unique economy of waste."

The Spirit of Thankfulness

"Pioneer Americans were rich in the spirit of thankfulness. . . It was the proper way of life in those days to be grateful often and express it openly. . . The art of being thankful in America has not progressed in spite of two hundred years of all sorts of amazing things to be thankful for. The gifts of life are more and more taken for granted and the general belief is that we constantly deserve more than whatever we already have."

The Spirit of Pioneering

"Without adventure, civilization is automatically in the process of decay. . .It has always given me wonder why ninety percent of the people choose to live in ten percent of America's landscape, subjecting themselves to the insidious debasement of overcrowding. Out there between cities, in mountains and prairies, are still hundreds of thousands of empty acres of adventure and health and meaningful living, being ignored by both people and government."

The Spirit of Godliness

"A religious regard for nature and the spiritual is an indispensable element of greatness. As man develops and disturbs nature's relationship with the Creator, not only does the quality of the landscape become mediocre but the same loss of character seems to occur to the disturber himself. . . It is strange that in an age of scientific greatness, there should be an increasing mediocrity in mankind."

The Spirit of Agronomy

"Farming was the classical way of American life. . . Push-button machinery and synthetic manures have pushed agronomy so far from nature that the modern farmer is seldom more than a businessman in overalls or a rural manufacturer. . . Farming is geared only to big business and the spirit of agronomy is a vanished American trait."

The Spirit of Time

"We have become artists at the business of going fast. . . Although people used to have a righteous contempt for anything done in a rush, speed has become today's fullest measure of efficiency. Time-savers are an obsession, but the time saved is only squandered; it is like hoarding money in order to be extravagant."

The Spirit of Independence

"Everyone knows about 'the American Heritage' but, when asked, few can say what that heritage is. Boiled down to a sentence, what made us different. . . was independence and total respect for the individual. . .  Already mass produced machinery has created a mass-produced civilization in which the individual often has less importance than the machine. Individualism is in the twilight of its favor: mediocrity finds both safety and acceptance in standardization."

The Spirit of Awareness

"The most important difference between the early American and his modern counterpart, if boiled down to one word, was awareness. The early life was saturated with the essence of awareness that made living a vital experience. . . The extent of unawareness today would be unbelievable to the early American. All the necessities of life being made for you or done for you by someone unknown from somewhere unknown, produces a dehumanized existence in which the only part left for us to play is to pay out money in exchange."

These are the values I learned from my grandparents and read about in books by authors like Eric Sloane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Ralph Moody. Yet, I'd say most people today would view these ideals as antiquated or naive. Because they have all but vanished from modern thinking, I suspect that to many they make no sense, especially those who only know the rewritten version of American history.

But can you not imagine a nation (any nation) in which the individuals who lived there respected themselves and the rights, opinions, and property of others? Who respected the earth and the environment. Whose lifestyles created no waste. Who were willing to see hard work as creative and giving purpose. Who were grateful for what they had. This is the mindset we consider nostalgic and the lifestyle we consider backward. This is the spirit of America we have walked away from.

Most people would say we can't go back, and sadly, I have to agree with them. But if that's the case, exactly what are we heading toward? We are now a nation that makes demands with disrespect, tries to manipulate public opinion with political hysteria, and thinks it can force changes in behavior through restrictive laws. The problem is that these tactics do nothing to unite people in a common confidence of the proposed solution. They only deepen the divide. Is this really what we want?

What do you think?

July 1, 2019

Prepper's Cheesemaking

If you've read the comments to my "Chèvre" and "Cardoon for Vegetable Rennet" blog posts, then you know we've been discussing alternatives to buying rennet and cheese cultures. The following is a relevant excerpt from chapter 7 of my Prepper's Livestock Handbook. Chapter 7 contains off-grid ways to process, make, preserve, and store eggs, milk, butter, cheese, and meat. Cheese is the traditional way to preserve milk, so here are a number of alternative ideas for making and storing cheese.


Sustainable cultures. These can be substituted for commercial thermophilic and mesophilic starters. Commonly used are kefir, yogurt, whey, cultured buttermilk, and soured raw milk. In general, use 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup per gallon of milk. If your cheese is too bland for your taste, increase the amount of culture in your next batch. If your cheese tastes too sour, decrease it.

Natural rennets. Animal rennets are made from the stomach of a calf or kid, where enzymes curdle liquid milk into soft, digestible curds. See “How to Make Calf or Kid Rennet” under Resources for how to make your own. Plant rennets are made from plants that will curdle milk: thistle, cardoon, ground ivy, sheep sorrel, butterwort leaves, mallow, yarrow, teasel, knapweed, perennial ryegrass, narrowleaf plantain, henbit, shepherd’s purse, kudzu, globe artichoke, Jerusalem artichoke flowers, Irish moss, and safflower are examples. To make the rennet, gather and dehydrate any of the above. Make a strong tea by boiling a handful of the plant matter in 2 cups of water. Use 1⁄2 cup of tea per 1⁄2 gallon of milk. Results may vary!

Fig sap. The white latex-like sap from figs will also curdle milk. It only takes a few drops per quart of milk, and makes a soft, spreadable cheese.

Calcium chloride. This is often recommended when using pasteurized milk for making cheese. In raw milk the calcium is correctly balanced, so calcium chloride is not necessary.

Preserving cheese. If cheese is a way to preserve milk, then how do we preserve cheese? Cheeses that aren’t eaten fresh can be waxed, bandaged, or stored in oil or brine. The idea is to keep the cheese from becoming contaminated by airborne bacteria and fungi that might change your cheese in undesirable ways.

Waxing. The most common way to preserve cheese. Cheeses are coated with melted wax and then aged. Beeswax is an alternative to commercial cheese wax. If you find beeswax too brittle and prone to cracking, coconut oil or vegetable shortening can be added to melted beeswax to increase pliability:

  • 13.5 ounces melted beeswax 
  • 2.5 ounces oil or shortening 

Waxed cheeses are typically aged 60 days or longer at 50 to 60°F (10 to 15°C) and 75 to 95 percent humidity.

Bandaging. Another option for aging and storing cheese. Several layers of cotton cloth are cut in rounds for the top and bottom of the cheese wheel, and strips cut for the sides. The bandage is coated with butter or lard and then aged the same as waxed cheeses.

Oil submersion. Used for soft cheeses. The cheeses are submerged in extra-virgin olive oil and kept in a cool root cellar or refrigerator. Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, savory, oregano, peppercorns, and garlic may be added to the oil for flavoring. The herbed oil may later be used for salads and sauteing.

Cold storage. Cold storage, such as a root cellar or cheese cave, can be used to store cheese without refrigeration.

  • Cured, uncut cheeses can be stored until it’s time to consume them. 
  • Cut cheeses will keep longest if kept as cold as possible. Cut off mold as it develops and feed it to the pigs, chickens, or compost. The rest of the cheese is still good. 
  • Natural rinded cheeses will need to be examined periodically for growth of molds. 
  • Moldy spots can be scrubbed with vinegar and salt to remove the mold. 
  • Waxed cheeses need to be turned about once a week to keep the natural moisture within the cheese from settling on the bottom. 
  • Brine- or oil-kept cheeses must be checked periodically to make sure they remain submerged. 

Freezing. Generally not recommended for cheese, because freezing alters the texture and causes the cheese to be crumbly. It still has good flavor, however, and is acceptable for cooking. Some cheeses such as grated mozzarella and paneer, freeze very well.

Tate, Leigh, Prepper's Livestock Handbook, Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2018

The last section of the chapter, "Off-Grid Storage of Eggs, Milk, and Meat," discusses non-electric alternatives for refrigeration and freezing. For a prepper, these are the best ways to not lose what we've worked so hard to preserve and store. The appendix on Resources offers links to the tools mentioned in the chapter and further detail on various topics.

I think this is an important topic, because it greatly expands the prepper pantry with alternatives to canned and dehydrated protein foods. Especially since homemade is usually much cheaper than ready-made.

More information about Prepper's Livestock Handbook, including a list of chapters and charts, can be found here.

Prepper's Cheesemaking © July 2019 by