August 21, 2019

My First Rice Harvest

I can't help but take a pause from my Solar Pantry Series for my very first rice harvest. I've never grown rice before so this small patch has been an experiment; an experiment on which I've pinned great hopes.

I planted two varieties of upland rice last May (blog post here). Upland rice is different from lowland or paddy rice because it doesn't have to be flooded. It can be grown without a rice paddy.

My bed of Cho Seun Zo Saeng, a short grain brown rice.

The Cho Seun variety is said to be ready to harvest somewhere around 125 days after transplanting or whenever the heads are golden brown.

Brown rice ready to harvest.

 I cut mine at day 123 with my hand sickle.

My hand sickle is a handy tool.

The patch was small so it didn't take long. It filled my wheelbarrow.

My first ever rice harvest!

My next step is to thresh it. This variety is supposed to be relatively easy to thresh because it is awnless. We'll see!

The second bed of rice, Loto, still has a lot of green seed heads.

My bed of Loto rice, a shorter variety.

So I'm still waiting on that one.

My seed packets contained 7 grams of rice seed each, so I'm curious about my yield. We'll try some of course, but I plan to save most of it as seed for next summer's crop. Hopefully, homegrown rice can become a regular part of our diet.

My First Rice Harvest © August 2019

August 17, 2019

Solar Pantry Part 2: Analysis

Now what? In "Solar Pantry Part 1" I shared my calculations and conclusions about the feasibility of putting the fridge and freezer in my pantry on a small dedicated solar energy system.

A photo from my archives! This one of my pantry was taken in 2010
soon after we bought the freezer. The refrigerator came with the house.

The conclusion was that such as system would cost considerably more than my available funds at this time. That was not only disappointing, it also left me with a big question mark regarding my goal of minimizing food loss in the event of a prolonged power outage. I had to ask myself, are there other alternatives? How did people in my part of the country keep food before electricity? (I've mused on that topic before - see "Food Storage in the South.")

Dan and I have taken small steps toward a simpler, less complicated lifestyle, but we are still products of the 20th century. That means our solutions to problems are usually based in modern methods and technologies, simply because that's what we know. It's taken some time, but we've gradually been learning how to think outside that box. We've moved along with some of the 21st century's technological advances, and rejected others because they require more time and resources to maintain than we are interested in giving. While solar energy does take time and resources to maintain, it does seem like the best option for my goal. Now I had to ask myself, if I can't afford the technology what else can I do? Is there another way? Is there anything I can change?

As I pondered that, I had to question how I use my freezer and two refrigerators. So much of what we humans do is by habit, and habits form routines. We become so accustomed to our routines that we rarely question them. In the light of my goal, now was the time to question them. Have my routines caused me to be too dependent on my freezer and extra fridge? Have I fallen into inefficient habits? Is there anything I can do to make food processing and storage more energy efficient?

My first step was to make a list of everything I keep in these appliances. Then I asked myself why and categorized my list. Some items are listed twice because they are in more than one category.

Refrigerators

To increase longevity:
  • dairy
    • milk (up to 10 half-gallon & quart jars)
    • butter (to keep it from melting)
    • cheese: fresh, brined, & stored in olive oil
    • kefir (1/2 gallon)
    • primost
    • whey (gallon+ for leavening, lacto-fermenting)
  • brine for cheesemaking (1/2 gallon)
  • eggs (6 dozen or more)
  • bread
  • some fresh fruit such as figs and berries for immediate use
  • vegetables: lettuce, greens, cut tomatoes
  • root veggies: potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic
  • condiments
    • ketchup
    • mayo
    • mustard
    • pickles
    • lacto-fermented: kimchi, sauerkraut, sauerruben
    • salsa
    • salad dressing
  • maple syrup
  • jams and jellies (opened jars)
  • peanut butter (natural, to prevent oil separation)
  • fresh meat
  • beverages except water
  • opened jars or cans of food
  • leftovers

To protect from insects:
  • pantry moths (always a problem):
    • flours
    • grains
    • bread
  • fruit flies (frequently a problem):
    • strawberries
    • blueberries
  • ants (occasionally a problem, items refrigerated as needed)

For long-term storage (such as a year's supply):
  • onions
  • garlic
  • eggs
  • rendered fat

To save until I get enough to process:
  • green beans

To stock up (because I found a deal I couldn't pass up):
  • case of organic coconut oil mayo (75¢ per pint jar!)

Livestock and garden supplies:
  • veterinary antibiotics & vaccines
  • essential oils
  • homemade insect spray
  • garden seeds
  • bulk seeds for pasture and hay

Freezer

Preservation (for hopefully a year's supply)
  • meat
  • cheese: grated mozzarella, paneer, halloumi
  • primost
  • powdered rennet
  • cream
  • goat colostrum
  • berries (for smoothies, pancakes, and oatmeal)
  • melon chunks (for smoothies)
  • pureed winter squash
  • okra
  • chopped peppers

To save until I get enough to process:
  • bones for bone broth
  • fat to be rendered
  • tomatoes
  • blueberries
  • strawberries
  • figs
  • fruit juices from small batches of fruit for mixed fruit jellies

Convenience foods
  • unbaked pies
  • breads, baked goods
  • jars of leftovers for winter soups

To protect from insect damage:
  • flours
  • breads and crackers
  • grains (up to 50 pounds or more of homegrown grain)
  • nuts (mostly in-shell pecans from our trees)
  • bulk seed: grain and pasture seed

It's the only way to keep:

The thing that stands out most to me is that many of these items don't actually need to be kept in the fridge or freezer. That's just been the way I've addressed my food storage challenges.

My primary challenge is our temperatures in summer, especially July and August. After we get a string of days in the mid-90s°F (35°C) outside, my kitchen and pantry temps gradually rise to about 85°F (27°C) during the day and drop to around 80°F (27°C) at night. When we get to about 100°F (38°C) in the shade outdoors, my pantry thermometer can reach 90°F (27°C). Not an ideal temp to store food.

This is why I refrigerate items that wouldn't otherwise need refrigeration. (You can find a list of these at the Farmer's Alamac website.) Unwashed eggs, for example, have their own protective coating called the bloom, which keeps them fresh without refrigeration. Even so, I know from experience that summer eggs I refrigerate immediately will keep all winter for me, whereas eggs left on my countertop in summertime will start to fail the float test before autumn arrives. That points to my temperature problem.

Until I started looking into shelf life, I didn't realize there is a formula to describe it! Called the Q10 temperature coefficient, it's defined as the measure of the rate of change in a biological or chemical system for every 10°C (18°F) change in temperature. Starting with a baseline of "room temperature" or 22°C (72°F):
  • For every 10°C (18°F) increase, shelf life is halved. 
  • For every 10°C (18°F) decrease, shelf life is doubled. 

You can see why storing even canned and dehydrated goods at cooler temperatures is important. And that makes me realize that I need to address more than just the fridge and freezer.

My other big problem is pantry moths. They infest not only grain products, but they also love dried fruit! I can't tell you how much food I had to throw away before I started dry-pack vacuum canning most of my dry goods. (How-to here). But that only covers quart and half-gallon amounts, and I also have moth problems with the bulk grains we grow and the farm seed we buy. Even the barn isn't safe from them, so bulk quantities end up in the freezer.

If you're still with me, you might have noticed was my "To save until I get enough to process" category. This is because my food production is small scale. I don't have a huge prepper's garden; in fact, I've downsized my garden quite a bit over the years to keep it one-person manageable. Besides, I don't have a crowd to feed, it's just Dan and me.

One example of this category is tomatoes. When I harvest tomatoes, I don't pick them by the bushel, I get a dozen or two at each picking. That isn't enough for a canner load of tomato sauce, so I toss my tomatoes into the freezer and then process and can later in the year. This routine works very well for me, even to the point of draining the water from my defrosted tomatoes and using it to can tastier dried beans. Plus I don't mind waiting until cooler weather to do some of my canning.

Some folks tell me I'm overly analytical, but identifying the factors involved and closely examining them is the only way I know to problem solve. In looking over my list, one thing that stands out to me is that of all the items listed under "refrigerator," all but the dairy category could be stored elsewhere. And actually, that could be too if we had the right resources. For now, I'm researching and collecting ideas. Some old, some new, but all with a view to develop a plan for better food storage. I'll share what I come up with soon.

August 13, 2019

Solar Pantry Part 1: Feasibility

One of our goals for 2019 is solar back-up for the refrigerator and freezer in my pantry. If we ever lost power for more than several days, I'd have to scramble to save what I could and lose the rest. In summer, a lengthy power outage would likely be due to hurricane damage or an intense lightning storm. In winter it would be from an ice storm. So far, we haven't lost power for long enough to worry about food stored in these appliances, but these scenarios are very real possibilities.

I got the idea for a solar pantry from a book I reviewed awhile back, Prepper's Total Grid Failure Handbook. (An excellent book; you can read my review here.) The authors bring solar energy down to a small-scale, realistic level for someone like me. My thinking has been that if I can at least have solar energy for my fridge and freezer, I won't have to worry about losing the food I have stored in them.

My first step was to measure how much electricity these appliances use. From that I would be able to calculate how many solar panels I'd need and how big to make my battery bank. To find that information I used a Kill-A-Watt meter.

Recording watts used by my 400-watt food dehydrator.
Obviously it's a good idea to check wattage for yourself

Recording kilowatt hours.

I measured each appliance separately and added them together. From that I learned:
  • Refrigerator uses 2.6 kilowatt hours per day 
  • Freezer uses 1.6 kWh / day
  • Total for both appliances is 4.2 kWh / day

Well, compared to my monthly electrical usage that didn't sound too bad. Then I started running the numbers.

We already have the solar panels. I found them on Craigslist about the time I reviewed Prepper's Total Grid Failure Handbook. They were leftover from a larger job, and we were able to get several new 345-watt Sunpower brand panels for $240 each. What I needed to know was how many panels I'd need and how to size a battery bank for several days of no sun. For that, I looked for an online calculator.

There are a number of online calculators for this, but I found that most of them are developed by businesses geared toward the brands and services they sell. They may give results as packages they offer, or want you to contact them to get the results. Wholesale Solar has one that I thought quite straightforward to use and gave me a ballpark estimate online. The most helpful step-by-step guide was at Preparedness Advice blog. I used both and my results from each were similar. However, what I discovered was quite dismaying.

Assuming I receive at least five hours of sunlight daily, here's what I'd need to make and store enough energy for three days of cloudy day use:
  • 1.32 kilowatt size system
  • 4, 345 watt solar panels
  • 11, 200 amp-hour 12-volt batteries
  • Or 8, 260 AH 12-volt batteries.

[NOTE: Batteries used for solar battery banks are deep cycle batteries, not cranking (starting) batteries. Deep cycle batteries are measured in amp hours (AH). This doesn't refer to actual time, because performance varies with conditions (such as temperature). Rather, AH is a way to compare the relative storage capacity of deep cycle batteries. The greater the amp hours, the longer they last before needing recharging.]

Back to my results. Discouraging because I would need more batteries than I assumed! Considering that 200 AH deep cycle batteries start at $350 for the cheaper ones (and 260 AH start at about $500), I have a budget problem. I only have $1500 for this project, and besides batteries I still need to get a charge controller and an inverter, plus all the miscellaneous items like racks, wiring, etc.

The pantry refrigerator, however, is an old one. Out of curiosity, I ran the numbers again with an Energy Star fridge. The following is based on the advertised energy rating and not my actual usage, which of course, could vary. I used an average estimate for low-end energy efficient refrigerators, and here's how the numbers changed:
  • Energy★ fridge 0.94 kWh / day (Quite a significant drop!)
  • Same freezer, 1.6 kWh / day
  • Total for both appliances is roughly 2.6 kWh / day
Total usage for both is the same as my current fridge uses in one day!

For three day's electricity storage with that fridge I'd need:
  • 0.8 kilowatt size system
  • 3, 345 watt solar panels
  • 7, 200 AH 12-volt batteries
  • Or 5, 260 AH 12-volt batteries. 

As you can see, energy efficient appliances make a big difference! The cost of such a low-end fridge is about the same as a 260 AH battery, so if I had a bigger budget I could buy a new fridge and still save over $1500 on the batteries. But the budget is what it is, so at this point, feasibility is near impossible. However, that doesn't mean that the mental wheels stop turning. More on that in part 2.

August 9, 2019

Cheesemaking: Halloumi

My daughter had the opportunity to visit Israel earlier this summer. When she got home she invited me over for an Israeli style lunch and to see her photographs. One of the items she served was a delicious sliced cheese. I asked what it was and learned it was halloumi. Because of my interest in Mediterranean cheeses, I wanted to give it a try. I didn't find it in my cheese books, so I turned to YouTube where I found several videos by traditional cheese makers, fortunately with English subtitles!

Halloumi is a traditional cottage industry cheese of Cyprus, made with a combination of goat and sheep milk. What I found especially unique is that it contains no starter culture. That intrigued me even more.

In looking for a recipe, I noted slight variations depending on the cheese maker. My first try was somewhat successful, except the cheese was a little stiff rather than pliable. The second time I modified the recipe a bit and paid close attention to the temperatures and times. That batch turned out much better! That's the recipe I'm recording here. Any amount of milk can be used; adjust the amount of rennet accordingly.

Halloumi

Ingredients:
  • milk (sheep or goat milk recommended but folks make it with cows milk too)
  • regular dose of rennet for the amount of milk used
  • NOTE: calcium chloride if using pasteurized cow milk

To Make:
  • Slowly heat milk to 90°F (32°C).


  • Add rennet and let set for 40 minutes.
  • Cut curd into half-inch cubes.

I read a suggestion to use a whisk instead of a knife to break up the curd.
Since I never get uniformly small pieces with a knife, the whisk was fine.

  • Let the curds rest about 5 minutes.
  • Slowly stir and heat to 104°F (40°C) over 40 minutes.

The consistency will look like scrambled eggs when properly cooked. 

  • Scoop out the curds, mold, and weight to press.
  • Meanwhile, use the whey to make ricotta (how-to here).

NOTES ON MOLDING & PRESSING: Halloumi makers vary in the ways they mold and press the curd. For my first batch I tried something similar to one of the videos. I pressed the curd out flat and weighted it with a cutting board and jug of vinegar. This makes it easy for the next step, cutting the curd into slabs.

1st try at halloumi

I wasn't entirely satisfied with this method, so the next time I used one of my round cheese molds. A rectangular mold could be used too.

2nd batch, which I sliced into round slabs & then halved the slices.

  • After pressing, cut into approximately 4x4x1-inch slabs.

My first flat halloumi curd. 

  • Remove the ricotta curds from the whey and strain.
  • Reheat the whey to 185°F (85°C).
  • Place the pieces of halloumi in the hot ricotta whey.


  • Cook at least 20 to 40 minutes

At some point the slabs will float. Continue cooking for the full time.

  • Cool cheeses in cold water after removing from the pot.
  • Rub them with a mixture of salt and dried peppermint.


  • Fold in half.

Ready for the brine solution.

  • Mix brine of 1 tbsp salt per cup of whey. Different halloumi makers recommend different brining times, anywhere from 3 to 40 days or until eaten. 
  • I brined mine for three days, then wrapped individually to store in the freezer. This was the right saltiness for us. 

My daughter said that in general foods tend to be saltier in Israel because of the climate. It's so hot they need to replace the salt they lose from sweating.

To Eat: I read halloumi is enjoyed fresh with watermelon in Cyprus. It doesn't melt, so it can be baked, grilled, boiled, grated, or as stuffing for another dish. Our first taste was hickory smoked on Dan's grill.

Grilled, smoked halloumi. A keeper!

We really like this cheese so I plan to make and freeze several batches. Because it has so many extra steps, it makes sense to make larger batches with larger quantities of milk. I plan to experiment with other herbs, even sesame seeds as I saw on another video.

Speaking of videos, here are some I watched:

This last one is more of a documentary, but it was still helpful. I was especially interested in how these traditional cheesemakers handled and worked with their milk and curds.

I'm delighted to find another cheese well-suited to the cheesemaking limitations of my own climate! My cheeses aren't typical to what's sold on the cheese aisle of the grocery store, but they are well adapted to where and how we live, and that's what's important.

August 5, 2019

August Project: Chicken Yard

We're still whittling away at our summer to-do list.  We've crossed a lot off that list, and it feels good to be productive and make progress. This month I'll be busy with picking and preserving, while Dan has set his sights on the poultry yard. The chickens have been confined there since last year when we started our pasture improvement project. Previously, our chickens free-ranged but because chickens are rough on seeds, mulch, and seedlings they need to stay off the pasture. It's a large yard, though, but as with all things it eventually needs care.

The chicken yard originally expanded to Dan's workshop (on the far
right).We moved the fence to add a lane and gate for the tractor.

Duck pool and grazing bed with compost bins in the background.
The water in the pool looks odd because Dan painted the bottom.

Composting with chickens has worked out really well. 

Another grazing bed. Dan laments the bare ground, but that's what
chickens do. They scratch and hunt for grubs and worms. They do 
like fresh greens, though, and the grazing beds meets that need.

Close-up of the plaque above the chicken door.

We have 6 hens, a rooster, and 2 Muscovy ducks. The
yard is large enough to give them plenty of room to roam.

The yard expands behind the chicken house. The t-posts mark
where the old chicken yard fence used to be, before we expanded it.

Dan's chicken yard project list looks like this:
  • move compost bins
  • make more grazing beds
  • build a duck house

Progress with more pictures soon!

August 1, 2019

Update On My Homemade Garden Bug Spray

I just had to show you this. Here's what happened to my collard plants in less than two weeks after applying my Homemade Garden Bug Spray.

New growth in the midst of the old cabbage moth eaten leaves.

Close-up of new collard growth.

A picture speaks louder than a thousand words!

The collards were fall planted and pretty much neglected once the weather turned warm. The bed is resting this summer, so all I did was add more leaf mulch after pulling the onions. I have barely watered it and just left the collards to die and decompose on their own. They were still hanging in there at the end of July and looking pretty bad due to cabbage moth larvae damage. When I made up a batch of the spray I dosed them good. I sprayed them well for two days and reapplied after it rained a few days later.

The plant in the photo has the most spectacular results, although the others are recovering as well. I rewarded them with a good watering!

In case you missed it, you can find the recipe for the spray here.