March 31, 2015

Defining Sustainablilty

As a writer, one of the things I frequently ponder is the usage of words: what they mean, what people think they mean, and how they are used in any given context. It is particularly important to understand how a writer or speaker defines and uses them, because assumption leads to misunderstanding. I am one for giving folks the benefit of the doubt when they communicate, but that means understanding how they are defining their terms. Advertising and politics take advantage of our misunderstandings and assumptions. That is a problem, in my opinion, because I don't like being manipulated. I prefer to be treated like an intelligent adult.

Before we bought our homestead I did a lot of reading about the homesteading movement. I ran across terms I had not seen before, "homesteading" being one. In my back-to-the-land days we called it just that. We spoke of living off the land and becoming self-sufficient. We didn't have electricity, but hadn't heard the term "off grid". I had to learn the new terminology. One of the things I learned was that the term "self-sufficiency" was out, having fallen out of favor as it became increasingly associated with isolationism (or non-consumerism).

This points to something about words and terms - they evolve. Nor do they mean the same thing to all people. Take that word "homesteading". I've read blog posts, book introductions, and web pages attempting to define homesteading. Some I agree with, some I don't. Do I feel a need to correct anybody? No, because I don't believe all terms need to be strictly defined, nor do I believe folks should be criticized for using them differently than I do.

Definitions are not necessarily intuitive, although we often think they are - the word "sustainable", for example.

Sustain (from various sources)
  1. To keep from falling; to bear; to uphold; to support; as a foundation sustains a superstructure
  2. To maintain; to keep alive; to support; to subsist; to nourish
  3. To endure without failing or yielding
  1. Capable of being sustained or maintained
It is a very popular word these days. We hear it everywhere, so much so that I'd say it's a trendy word, wouldn't you? We hear of sustainable energy, sustainable agriculture, sustainable ecology, sustainable economics, sustainable development, sustainable design, etc., etc. I can't help but wonder if all of these are talking about the same thing, or if the word is simply tacked on because it is so popular. To understand how it is being used, I need to understand the thing which is being described as sustainable. 

Take energy, for example. The other term we hear in regards to energy is "renewable". It is easy to understand that some sources of energy, such as petroleum, are in finite supply. We cannot make more. Sun and wind, on the other hand, are not in danger of being exhausted anytime soon. Sustainable energy makes sense. 

How about sustainable economics? I had to think about that one. In a personal application, it would mean being able to support our needs and expenses from the homestead. It implies balance. Apparently business people do not think of it that way, rather, it seems to be the ability to sustain growth. Living as close to nature's cycles as I do, that doesn't make sense, because nothing in nature grows or enlarges infinitely. But that's not my point. My point is that I must be careful to understand how a speaker or writer is using the term so as to avoid misunderstanding them.

Is "self-sustaining" a good substitute for "self-sufficiency"? I say no. A system can be self-sustaining, such as energy production, but I can still be dependent as a consumer and confined to the dictates of those who control that system. In a personal application I can create and apply sustainable systems on the homestead, but be dependent in other areas. For example, I could create my own solar electricity, but still buy natural gas for my furnace, stove, and water heater. Another example, I might have a self-sustaining supply of garlic and tomatoes because I save bulbs and seed. But I might have to buy cabbage and Swiss chard seed because they've been harder to collect.

Why do I think it is important to define such things? For communications sake, surely. If I want to explain what we're doing and why, or if I want to encourage others, then we need a common framework of understanding. Unfortunately, when words evolve their meanings take on nuances or change completely. This can be either natural or deliberate. In fact, take the word "natural', for example. When I walk through a grocery store, pick up a product labeled natural, and then read the ingredients, too often I think ?????? Another sad victim is the term "green". Also the term "organic" (for which see The Midlife Farmwife's blog post, "Kissing Organic Certification Goodby".) The word "self-sufficiency" has come to mean a bad thing and I can't help but wonder about the word "sustainable" too. What will become of it?

My life is busy and full, and I honestly don't have time to follow the trends - words or otherwise. Social media is too fast paced for me. I signed up for a simpler, slower life, remember? So I'll just keep plugging away, using the words that seem best to me, defining them when I deem necessary. I'll continue to look at disagreements as opportunities to enlarge someone else's understanding as well as my own.

So, now that I got that off my chest, tell me what you think.

March 28, 2015

Around the Homestead

Well, while we're waiting on Daphne,

Day 146 and counting

let me give you an update on various things happening around the homestead. I showed you the garden and hedgerow last time, but also growing is

Winter Wheat

Looks great, doesn't it? Can you make out the
blossoms on my crab apple in the background?

Also around the homestead -

Volunteer rooster

Remember my volunteer day rooster from next door? Sadly he met his demise a couple weeks ago. I found him in the front pasture one morning with his head chewed off. Dan thinks it was probably a possum, although we caught nothing in the live animal trap. Now one of our hens has been trying her hand (or perhaps beak) at crowing. This is not uncommon in roosterless flocks.


Egg production has at last picked up. I think this was the first year we actually had a totally eggless period, so I'm glad I experimented with those various preservation techniques for my little eBook. Our youngest hens are going on three years old, the oldest hens, four. That means a natural decline in egg production, but I'm getting 6 to 11 eggs per day from those 15 older hens. Not bad, but also time to think about adding some new stock.

Chicken Composting

I added another compost bin to the chicken yard.

Theoretically I have one to add to (on the right), one working (left),
and the one in the middle should be finished, although it isn't quite. 

This time of year I have a lot of barn cleanings due to daily mucking out in anticipation of kidding. Having the chickens help make the compost has been a success. It still requires some turning, but not as much not letting them help. Any time Dan or I come to stir the piles or I bring out the compost bucket they come running.

Goat Herbs

Cut and drying on an old window screen.

Things are starting to grow so I'm starting to collect them for my homegrown vitamin and mineral mix for the goats. So far:
  • Chickweed - beta carotene, copper, phosphorous
  • Cleavers - vitamin C, calcium, copper, sodium
  • Dandelion - beta carotene, dandelion, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium

Last year I gathered and dried enough to fill a large trashcan full. This year I'm hoping to at least double that. I tell myself I ought to go out and pick a little every day, but then several days go by before I remember again. 

Kid Games

Helen's kids have progressed from playing 'King of the Hill' on their little block of wood to the big time stump!

Until Bunny comes along and spoils the fun.

Book 6 of The Little Series of Homestead How-Tos

How To Garden For Goats: 
gardening, foraging, small scale grain and hay, & more

Details here. :)

Honey bees

As in getting ready for!

Kit ready for assembly. Bees coming next month.

That will be another thing to check off our 2015 list of goals.

For all our recent pretty weather, the temperatures have taken another nose dive. I reckon winter isn't over yet.

March 25, 2015

Planting - Hedgerow and Garden

Lots of rain has meant little planting in the garden. But trees don't mind being planted in the rain. The trees went into my permaculture hedgerow.

Pear trees, mulberry tree, and Asian persimmon. All there
is to see are sticks in the ground and piles of mulch

Pear leafing out (and Waldo)

I started with the canopy layer this spring and will add other plants as I'm able. The trees were planted down the middle, shrubs, vines, and groundcover plants will be planted along the fences. That will hopefully benefit the animals in the pasture with a little foraging through the fence, plus allow me a path down the middle.

2 European Chestnuts, "Colossal", were planted in the other section.

2 newly planted chestnut saplings

I found an article, "Holistic Chestnut Orcharding" at the Appalachian Agroforestry website. After reading it, I will start to transplant some of my yarrow and comfrey plants here.

Transplanted yarrow

The blueberry bush in the middle is sporting little leaves and flowers.

I don't have much to show yet in the main garden, except my garlic is doing well

and my red raspberries are starting to leaf!

So far I've planted four beds:

Planted beds waiting to sprout.

Bed 1 - multiplier onions, Jericho lettuce, and Purple Plum radishes
Bed 2 - Detroit beets, Waltham broccoli, more multiplier onions
Bed 3 - Siberian Dwarf kale and antique marigolds
Bed 4 - multiplier onions and Nantes Carrots

This may sound terrible to you dedicated no-till folks, but I am so relieved to not be battling wire grass this spring in order to plant. Last fall we let the pigs into the garden to do the preliminary natural tilling, then Dan finished the job with his garden tiller. Wire grass is the biggest reason I didn't get much of a fall and winter garden in. Having to deal with this -

March 2011 photo of wire grass roots strangling a strawberry plant

It gets so dense that it becomes nearly impossible to plant anything and is a battle to remove manually. Consequently, I abandoned the permanent garden beds. We're very curious as to how the pig plowing will effect weed growth this summer. That will be the subject of future garden posts.

Speaking of strawberries -

Mine are starting to bloom!

How about you? Is the weather cooperating with your garden plans?

March 22, 2015

Goat Barn Preliminaries

The goat barn is going to be our building project this summer. Or perhaps I should say, starting on the goat barn is going to be our building project this summer. It will be the biggest thing we've undertaken so far. It will require a lot of time and money, so we'll just do like we always do and take it one step at a time.

Before we can actually get started, several things have needed to be done first. One has been a place to store hay. We used to store it in one of the two original outbuildings.

Photo from "Homestead Haying" (May 2013) before adding tarp walls.

It looked better in those days and has since been torn down to make way for the new barn. The new barn will have a hay loft. In the meantime, we decided to make a hoop house for temporary hay storage.

After we tore out the old front porch floor,
Dan used the boards to make a base.

6 ft by 12 ft is enough room for three round bales of hay

Covered with multiple layers of plastic and tarps it's not
very aesthetic, but it's functional (in more ways than one)

The other thing we need to do is to trim back this old oak tree.

Dan's truck is parked on the concrete slab which will
become my milking room and the center of the barn.
A sketch of our round barn plans can be found here.

Like it's sister tree, it is old and loses a lot of limbs. The last thing we need is for it to come down on the new barn some stormy night. Dan plans to cut back the branches enough so that won't happen. This will be some of next winter's firewood.

Even though there is no building activity yet, we think about this project constantly. Once Dan puts the finishing touches on the bay window, our attention will turn to the barn in all seriousness.

March 20, 2015

Built-In Playgroup

Several folks have commented on Helen's having quadruplets, because it seems an unusual number of kids for the single birth of a goat. When we think of goats kidding, we usually think of twins, singles, or triplets. For Kinders, however, quads are not all that unusual, occasionally even quints. This, plus the amount of milk, butterfat, and meat they can produce, make them the perfect homestead breed in my not so humble opinion!

The universal game!

With this many the concern is whether or not they're all getting enough to eat. I've been monitoring weight gain, also activity and contentment level. A kid getting enough to eat is happy, curious, and very active.

As they get bigger I'll especially have to make sure the little doeling gets her share. Bucklings tend to grow faster, plus they have that male chutzpah so that they often barge in and push everybody else out of the way. So far so good.

At 8 days old they're beginning to sample everything

Daphne watch continues.

I'm expecting at least triplets or one very large kid!

Kinder gestation averages 147 days; that day being March 29th. If there are less than three in there then they must be huge!

Only time will tell.

March 17, 2015

Finishing The Window Seat

When we first planned the seat for the bay window,

Bay window interior last month.

I envisioned adding just a seat and leaving the wall as is. The problem was that the tearing down and rebuilding of the front porch, plus adding the bay window, had caused other problems: The cement board wall under the window had cracked.

Our living room and dining room walls are cement board.

If it had been drywall it would have been easy to fix. Cement board was another matter. After discussing options, we decided to add a front to the window seat, like this -

We actually considered two options, either to stop at the top of the baseboard as pictured above, or tearing out and cutting the baseboard and taking the front all the way to the floor. That also would have involved re-doing the electrical socket. We had too many other irons in the fire, so we stayed with the simpler first option.

The problem was that it looked unfinished. I wanted it to look more like furniture, but how? Not too long ago we spent some time wandering around Lowes looking for ideas. In the table leg section we found this -

Bun replacement furniture foot 

We bought one plus a 2 x 4. With those, Dan did this -

A small decorative moulding finishes the seat edge and "bench" bottom.

He ripped the 2-by and the foot, and made pseudo legs.

I couldn't be happier. On our next indoor work day he'll finish the rest of the window trims, and that will take care of that.

Continued here.

March 15, 2015

Little Goats' First Outing

We had a streak of rainy days after Helen kidded, so it wasn't until yesterday that her kids finally got to go outdoors for the first time.

The gate is open!

Meeting Auntie Daphne for the first time

She looks like mom, but she isn't mom

Little Girl and Daphne

Little Boy #3

Snack attack!

Little Boys #2 & 1 with Helen

A chicken!

Little Boy #2

Little Boy #1

They mostly stayed under the overhang, where the ground is dry and protected from rain. I'm so thankful for it because it meant there wasn't a sea of mud outside the goat door.

Both Daphne and Bunny were pretty good with the little ones. Of course they saw Daphne's teats immediately (they're at eye level, after all) and couldn't understand why she said no. So far they seem to be getting enough to eat from Helen alone, although I'll continue to monitor weight gain to make sure that continues to remain the case. For now, every one is happy, hoppy, and doing well.