September 19, 2019

Upland Rice Threshed and Rough Yield

A couple weeks ago I told you about harvesting my upland rice.

My first ever rice harvest!

After harvesting, there are three steps to processing rice: threshing, dehulling, and winnowing. Having hulls makes it a bit more complicated than processing wheat, but I plan to take it one step at a time. Threshing was my first step. My question was, how?

The first thing that came to mine was our yard-mulcher-turned-grain-thresher.

Our first little mulcher was inadequate for that task, so Dan turned it
 into a feed processor (how-to here). We also use it for threshing wheat.

Made from an old Yard Machine brand chipper/mulcher, we've been using it to thresh our wheat for several years. The rice harvest was small enough that a simpler method seemed more in order.

Threshing screen on top of the wheelbarrow. 

My threshing screen is a frame with quarter-inch hardware cloth stapled to the bottom. The grain heads are rubbed on the screen and fall through into the wheelbarrow. It's a slow method, but good for smaller harvests. This worked fairly well, and also taught me something about harvesting rice. Even though I cut it when the heads were golden brown, I should have let it dry out more before cutting it. I say this because the grains were stubborn to be loosened from the stalk. Proper ripeness is the fine point between green and shattering (which is when the seed falls on it's own to the ground). I had to figure this out for wheat, so I'm not surprised I'd have to learn for the rice too.

The result.

I planted a quarter of an ounce (7 gram seed packet) and yielded just under four pounds before dehulling and winnowing. Not as much as I had hoped, but considering how hot and dry our summer has been, I'm still pleased. I will definitely grow upland rice again next year.

The next step will be learning how to dehull it. (Another learning curve new adventure!)

September 15, 2019

Not Conducive For Fall Planting

This is the time of year I should be thinking about the fall garden, but it's been too hot and dry. So hot and dry that the lawn crunches when it's walked on. Our days have pretty much been like this...

Friday's rainfall turned out to be an eighth of an inch.

Rain has been scarce this month too, with our last halfway decent rainfall of 0.7" about a month ago. Even with watering, those upper 90s mean that the last of the summer garden has been in survival mode. These conditions are not conducive for either growing or fall planting.

What to do? If I wait until October to plant, I'll end up with an early spring garden instead of a fall harvest! I had to do something, so I got out my seed trays and planted some starts.

Seed trays planted.

The problem with planting in seed trays is that the soil dries out quickly in hot weather, especially when the humidity is down in the 30s%, like it has been. I can water them and an hour later the poor little things are bone dry. That's not conducive for growing! So I decided to experiment. I put the seed trays in large shallow plastic containers that Dan found in a dumpster years ago. If I fill them with shallow water, I thought, I can prevent the seedlings from drying out.

Seed trays in water tray.

But mosquitoes have been bad this year. If I fill the blue trays with water, isn't that an open invitation to mama mosquitoes looking for places to lay eggs? So I thought, what if I fill the gaps with wood chips?

The wood chips should deter the mosquitoes, help keep the water from evaporating so quickly, and hopefully keep the seed trays a little cooler.

Seed trays in water tray with wood chip mulch.

A couple of days later...

Chinese cabbages sprouting.

Hopefully the rest will be up soon!

Anyone else working on their fall garden?

September 11, 2019

Solar Pantry Part 4: The Plan

At last we've come up with a plan! But before I jump into that, I'd like to summarize this blog series so far (for those just tuning in):

Solar Pantry Part 1: Feasibility
  • In which I count the cost of putting my pantry fridge and freezer on their own solar power system,
  • and learn that it's beyond our budget at the present time.
Solar Pantry Part 2: Analysis 
  • In which I analyze how and why I use my fridges and freezer,
  • and learn that 
    • many of the items I store in these appliances don't actually need refrigeration or freezing.
    • my pantry is simply too warm in summer for good food storage conditions.
  • In which I explore off-grid methods of keeping food without a fridge or freezer,
  • and get a couple of good ideas suitable for us. 

What I realized from these exercises is that my original goal was too narrow. We need to address not just freezing and refrigeration, also we need to improve our food storage conditions in general. In the light of that, Dan and I have come up with a three-phase plan:

Phase 1
  1. Move the freezer from the pantry to our enclosed back porch.
  2. Put the freezer only on solar power.
  3. Replace the old pantry refrigerator with a small chest freezer converted to a refrigerator. It will go on the back porch too.
Phase 2
  1. Update the pantry to make it more energy efficient:
    • better insulation in walls
    • replace old windows with energy efficient ones
  2. Work on ideas to cool the room in summer. Moving the fridge and freezer will certainly help with that. Other ideas:
    • ventilation, cool cupboard?
    • shade the window that gets afternoon sun
    • ice block "air conditioner?" (Ideas at Off Grid World.)
Phase 3
  • Make a root cellar.

Cost analysis for Phase 1 - I couldn't put both my old energy-guzzling fridge plus freezer on solar, but can I manage the freezer only? Based on the readings from my Kill-A-Watt meter, the freezer uses 1600 watts per day. If I've done my calculations correctly, here's what I've come up with. Remember, I only have $1500 for this project, but already have the solar panels.

2, 345-watt solar panels
4, 250 AH 6-volt deep cycle batteries
150-volt, 60-amp MPPT charge controller   
300-watt pure sine wave inverter    

Admittedly, there are still a number of other things like panel racks, wiring, connectors, fuses, battery box, etc., but it looks like we have the funds for the major components. Following are a few notes related to the above.

Solar panels. 345 watts, 57 volts each x 2 panels = 690 total watts for the solar panel array.

Wiring. Fortunately, we only have about 25 feet between the panels and battery bank. That will save both in amount and size of wire needed.

Batteries. Why 6-volt? Why not 12-volt? For a couple of reasons. Firstly, because so far I haven't been able to source 12-volt deep cycle batteries locally, and shipping for batteries is very high. Marine and RV batteries sold around here are dual purpose, listing cranking amps and low amp-hours (usually 35 to 55). They aren't cheaper and I'd need more to get more amp-hours. Plus cranking batteries won't take as many recharges as true deep cycle batteries.

The second reason is because 6-volt batteries are more heavy-duty. 6 and 12's are about the same time size. Why aren't the 6-volt smaller? Because they use heavier plates, which means more discharge cycles.

So, wiring two 250 AH 6-volt batteries in series will double the voltage to 12. Wiring the two pairs in parallel will double the amp-hours to 500. That's not quite two day's worth of energy storage, but that's more than I've got on the grid! Plus those four batteries are within my budget, although I'm still trying to shop around.

So far the only place I've been able to find 6-volt lead acid batteries is at Batteries+Bulbs, and I'm having a hard time finding other sources. I miss the days of phone books, when all local options were listed topically in the yellow pages. Search engines favor SEO (search engine optimization), paid ads, and political favoritism, which doesn't help one wanting to explore all the options. [UPDATE: I also found them at Interstate Batteries for the same price. Batteries+ is closer, however, and offers a 10% discount for ordering online.]

Charge controller.
  690 watt solar panel array (57.3 volts)
÷ 12 volt battery bank
= 57.5 amp minimum charge controller (rounded up to 60)
I'm looking at the Outback FLEXmax 60.

Inverter. This converts the DC (direct current) electricity produced by the system for my AC (alternating current) appliances. Thanks to my Kill-A-Watt meter, I know that the freezer uses about 185 watts when it starts up, then quickly drops to 100 to 102 watts and gradually decreases to 87 watts. The freezer light uses 24 watts (so I'd better add an LED appliance bulb to my list). I'm looking at the Samlex Solar PST-300-12 Pure Sine Wave Inverter or the AIMS Power PWRI30012S Pure Sine Power Inverter.

Chest fridge. I first read about converting a chest freezer to a chest fridge in Prepper's Total Grid Failure Handbook. Several readers mentioned using them and how-tos can be found online. Two are at New Life on a Homestead and A Self-Sufficient Life. For now, the chest fridge would be plugged into the grid, until I get a better idea of exactly how much electricity it uses. As a freezer, the model I'm looking at is 5 cubic feet and has an energy rating of 219 kWh per year or roughly 0.6 per day. That translates to 600 watts per day, but surely as a fridge it should consume less(?). An experiment I plan to try is using it as an ice box. If I can freeze enough ice bottles in the freezer, it's possible that I can keep the chest fridge cold enough. We'll see.

5 cubic feet is not very big for a fridge. It will replace the fridge in the pantry, but I'll still have the fridge in the kitchen. I figure this situation will force me to change my habits and routine, plus implement more alternatives to refrigeration. The most perishable items I refrigerate are milk and meat. After that I would say leftovers and salad greens, but really, everything else could be stored elsewhere if I had cooler storage conditions. That's where a cooler pantry and root cellar will come in.

So that's the plan. The first order of business is to clear out the back porch and get ready to move the freezer. It's about due for a defrost anyway. After that we'll just take it one step at a time.

Solar Pantry Part 4: The Plan © September 2019

September 7, 2019

Chicken Yard Project: Grazing Beds

Last time I showed you our new compost bin, this time I'll show you the grazing beds. Grazing beds are an excellent way to provide fresh greens to confined chickens. These are simply frames covered with heavy-duty chicken wire. Seed is planted in the beds and after it grows the chickens eat the fresh greens through the wire. The wire prevents them from overgrazing the bed or scratching up the grass and killing it.

New grazing beds where the old compost bin used to be.

Dan made a couple of these previously, and found that the 2-foot by 8-foot size easiest to manage. We already had two, so he made four more.

He planted wheat and oat seed in the beds. Both grow quickly and the chickens love the grass. Lettuce or herbs can be planted in the beds too; anything chickens love to graze.

One week later.

When the grass wears out the frames are moved to a new planting spot and the chickens enjoy scratching up what's left. By rotating planting, we should be able to keep a steady supply of fresh grazing for them.

Ready to graze.

Some people keep the beds fenced until the grass grows about 4 to 6 inches above the wire and then let their chickens in. That's an extra step we haven't gotten around to.

The chickens get their fresh greens without leaving the yard.

Dan plans to build a few more from time to time. We'd like to see the entire chicken yard filled with these eventually. The idea will be to rotate planting to keep a fresh supply of grass at all times. The chickens are happier and Dan is too. He hates seeing the ground so bear in their yard. Maybe someday we can let them out to pasture again, but for now, this works very well.

The last subgoal on the chicken yard project list is a duck house. That's in the works now, although several other things have pushed their way to the top of the to-do list. I'll show you the duck house as soon as it's done. Next time, I'll share the plan we've come up with for my solar backup project for the fridge and freezer in my pantry.

September 4, 2019

Chicken Yard Project: New Compost Bins

The chicken yard was Dan's August project, but it was delayed because...

... we had car trouble. It clanked terribly every time we started it or turned it off, sounding like something was fixin' to fall off. After checking all the connecting rod bearings, Dan finally figured out that the bolts on the flywheel were loose. He tightened them up and the clanking stopped. (Whew.)

The chicken yard project list had three subgoals:
  • compost bins
  • grazing beds
  • a duck house
Materials is always a first step, and Dan wanted to use what we had available. That meant cutting his lumber from an old pine tree he cut down last spring.

Last spring's felled pine tree cut into 8-foot sections and ready to mill.

Those logs became 4x4s, 2x4s, and boards.

He treats lumber for projects like this with old motor oil. He saves it whenever he changes the oil in a vehicle. He thins it with a little gasoline and either soaks the ends of posts or paints boards with it. The gasoline evaporates and the soaked in oil preserves the wood.

Posts soaking in spent motor oil.

I missed getting photos of building the compost bin, because I was tied to a kitchen filled with pears, apples, figs, elderberries, cowpeas, tomatoes and milk for cheesemaking. But I can show you the results.

All home-milled lumber.

We've always had a three bin system, but never managed to use all three bins, so we opted to try two bins. The boards for the shorter front wall are removable, making it easy to get a wheelbarrow in there for dumping or filling.

The back of the compost bin.

We moved the location too. The new bin backs up to the tractor path between the chicken yard and the workshop. The poultry yard has both a front and back gate, so this is a more convenient.

What did the chickens think?

"No way we're going in there."

They weren't convinced, even after Dan moved the compost from the old bins to the new. When I brought them the canning scraps they recognized the compost bucket and came running. I made a great show of dumping it into the new bin, but when I stepped back they just stood there looking at me. Not one chicken ran to gobble down my offerings. Thinking I was standing too close, I moved away. But instead of jumping into the new bin, they ran to the old and started scratching around in it. They knew I'd brought goodies and ran to where the goodies were supposed to be! I had toss several handfuls of scratch into the new bins before they caught on.

"Oh yeah! Food!"

The second item on the project list was to make more grazing beds. I'll show you those next time.

September 1, 2019

Book Review

I have Fern at "Thoughts from Frank and Fern" to thank for her review of my Prepper's Livestock Handbook. Please go check it out by clicking here! And do take a little time to explore their blog while you're there. If you're interested in prepping, homesteading, amateur radio, or all three, you'll find a lot of interesting things to read. They very much hit the nail on the head.

Book Review © Sept. 2019 by Leigh

August 29, 2019

Photo Wrap-Up for August

A random collection of photos I took this month.

A picking of tomatoes.

Potted bee balm starting to bloom.

Pears and figs ready for the dehydrator.

Pears and figs with kefir ready for breakfast.

Canned pear sauce ready for the pantry.

Ozark Razorback cowpeas.

Marigolds with the peppers plants.

Volunteer cushaw

Fresh feta, sliced and ready to be brined.

Graceful rice heads ripening for harvest.

Garden spider at work.

Grazing beds for the chicken yard.

Ricotta gnocchi ready to be frozen.

Lone lemon. Last year I gave up on my Meyers lemon and
left it out all winter. It survived! And produced one lemon.

My first  at poutine! Thanks Rain, for the recipe !

Some of the girls grazing: River, Nova, Ellie, and Daisy.

My five bucklings wishing they were with the girls.
Three of them need new homes!

Colby and Mama Muscovy

Sam on Dan's new kitchen bench.

And that wraps up my August. How about you? Ready for September?

Photo Wrap-Up for August © August 2019

August 25, 2019

Solar Pantry Part 3: Alternatives

Continued from "Solar Pantry Part 2: Analysis."

Trying to solve my potential problem of losing refrigerated and frozen food during a prolonged power outage sent me scouring books and websites for affordable ideas. People preserved their food for millennia before they had electricity and refrigerators, but like other traditional knowledge and skills, the how-to has been forgotten, lost, or simply discarded in favor of high-tech alternatives. Unfortunately, not all of the technology we laud has been terribly smart: the processing and overuse of fossil fuels for example. The simpler the better, I say.

So while Dan and I are discussing options and forming a plan, I've been collecting ideas. This is what I've got so far, pretty much organized from lower tech to higher. Obviously, not all of them are feasable for everyone, because they depend on regional resources and conditions.

Spring house - If one is lucky enough to have a wellspring on their property, this would be an excellent option. A spring house is a small structure built over the spring to take advantage of its cold water. The water flows through shallow troughs into which food containers (usually milk cans) are placed.

Graphic from Barns, Sheds and Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted.
Water enters under the window and drains at the ends of the troughs.

I had friends who used an old chest freezer in a similar way. Spring water flowed through it via inlet and outlet pipes. The chilly spring water kept their milk quite cool.

Ice house - For those living with long hard freezes, this is an idea. Ice is harvested in large blocks from solidly frozen lakes.

Photo: Library of Congress (
There's an interesting ice harvesting photo story at A Continuous Lean.

Then it's packed in saw dust or straw in an ice house.

Indiana ice house. Photo from Library of Congress

Drawing of an ice house interior. Graphic from 
Barns, Sheds and Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted.

The saw dust or straw acts as insulation and slows melting. Some farmers made their own forms to make their own ice blocks.

Cool chamber - A variation of the simple ice house.

Graphic from Barns, Sheds and Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted.

The ice house is built into a hillside with a room underneath for storing milk, fruits, and vegetables.

Drips through pipe in ceiling and drains through pipe in floor.
From Barns, Sheds and Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted.

Chamber Refrigerator - Similar to the cool chamber.

Graphic from Barns, Sheds and Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted.

The chamber is built so that top, back, and both sides are surrounded by ice. The space under the ice is for ventilation.

Ice Box - No electricity required for those with a source for ice!

Israeli, I believe. Attribution: יעקב [CC BY-SA 4.0

The top compartment holds a large block of ice which cools the contents in the compartment below. Note the drip pan to catch melting water underneath. Ice tongs hang on the side.

Well shaft - For those who have an old-fashioned well!


A food box or bucket is lowered and tied off just above water level, where the contents stay cool.

Silos (trenches) - These aren't the grain silos we're familiar with. The French term means "underground excavation used to preserve foods."

Illustration from Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning
by The Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante

This example measures 16" x 32" and is 20" deep. A lining of brick keeps rodents out. Vegetables are packed in layers of dried leaves. The wood cover is heavy and air tight. A well-drained location is important.

Root cellar - A more familiar form of food storage. It is basically a handmade cave built into a hillside or of mounded earth. In modern lingo we could call it geothermal cooling.

Root cellar in Itasca County, Minnesota. Photo: LOC

Root cellars tend to get damp and musty, however, so good ventilation is very important.

Windcatcher - This isn't for food storage, but rather a middle eastern house cooling system.that seems to lend itself to food preservation, providing one has wind and a qanat (underground water transportation channel). The basement would the perfect place for a root cellar.

Click to enlarge. Attribution: Wind-Tower-and-Qanat-Cooling-1.jpg:
Williamborgderivative work: Monsih [Public domain]

It's an example of evaporative cooling. The principle is that water absorbs heat in order to evaporate, cooling dry air significantly and with much less energy than refrigeration. It's best suited to dry climates, because it apparently gets very musty in humid climates, where it's earned the name "swamp cooler" because of the odor it produces.

Zeer Pot - Another ancient middle eastern technology that takes advantage of evaporative cooling. Also known as a pot-in-pot "refrigerator." A small clay pot is placed into a larger clay pot and the space between is filled with sand. The sand is kept damp and evaporation keeps the contents of the smaller pot cooler than the ambient temperature.

My experimental zeer pot.

I tried this method when I was researching off-grid eggs, cheese, and meat storage for Prepper's Livestock Handbook. Unfortunately, my experiment was a fail because of our humidity. The higher the humidity the slower the evaporation. There's a techy explanation of all that over at the Rebuilding Civilization blog. If you have a dry climate this won't actually refrigerate, but it will act as a cooler to increase longevity of some foods.

Cold shaft (a.k.a. cool cupboard or California cupboard). Heat rises and this is what the cool cupboard takes advantage of. The shaft is open at top and bottom to allow a cooling air flow. Wire shelves inside the shaft hold food items.

Illustration from How To Live Without
Electricity and Like It
by Anita Evangelista

Screens at top and bottom keep rodents out. These work best if they are built on interior rather than exterior walls. You can see a modern one in use at the Lewisham House and Farm blog.

DC (Direct Current) Refrigerators and Freezers

SunDanzer fridge or freezer.

These 12- or 24-volt appliances can be powered by solar, wind, fuel cells (hydrogen), or batteries; sources that deliver DC (direct current) electricity, as opposed to the alternating current (AC) we receive from the grid. They're pricey, however, ranging from $700 for a dorm-size 1.8-cubic-foot fridge or freezer, to $1600 for a 13-cubic-foot freezer or a 15-cubic-foot fridge. Solar panels or wind turbine and batteries not included.

Thermal mass refrigerator - From Earthship Volume 3 by Michael Reynolds.

Attribution: KVDP [CC BY-SA 4.0

It's designed around a DC refrigerator (above) run on solar panels. For the diagram key see the summary at Wikimedia Commons.

Solar ice maker - About ten years ago four engineering students at San Jose State University made a solar ice maker for about $100.

Solar ice maker. Photo © San Jose State University

It was an example of absorption chilling, not a new technology, but their project seemed to create a renewed interest in the process. Absorptive chillers use heat (like the sun) instead of a compressor. A refrigerant (like ammonia) is heated, cooled, and circulated to produce temperatures cold enough to make ice. Combine a solar ice maker with an ice box, and that would be a wonderful non-electric way to have refrigeration. I'm still looking for DIY plans. [UPDATE: How-to at Knowledgeable Ideas, although it's too big for an ordinary small family.]

The absorption refrigeration cycle was discovered in the mid-1800s by Ferdinand Carre. He invented and marketed the IcyBall around 1858 as a cooling device in homes.

IcaBall refrigerator. Graphic from the Crosley IcyBall Manual.

The device was sold during the 1920s and 30s, but apparently was discontinued when a number of them exploded. I suspect this was because it required the owner apply heat to activate it. Getting distracted for even a few moments could chance disaster! There's an interesting webpage on it's history here.

Solar Refrigerator - Was invented in the mid-1930s by Otto H. Mohr. It also uses absorption cooling technology, and was said to only need two hours of sunlight per day.

Source: Modern Mechanix Aug. 1935 issue. Click to enlarge.

Mr. Mohr received a patent for his design in 1940, but it doesn't seem to have ever made it into production.

Wood burning refrigerator -  Another example of absorption chilling.

Click to enlarge. Image from Mother
Earth News. Click here for full article.

Developed by Dale Degler (in the 1970s I think), he calls it an intermittent absorption refrigerator. It only needs a 20-minute fire every 24 hours! I'm not sure he ever actually made one, however.

There are other ideas out there, like propane and LP refrigerators and freezers, but I stuck with ideas that use renewable energy sources. I don't mind buying the materials to make and set up the system, but the idea is to not rely on buying the energy or fuel to run them.

Obviously not all of these ideas are applicable to Dan and me, but they do show how it's possible to preserve food without electricity. And they have kept me from being too discouraged after my solar pantry feasibility study.

Next → Solar Pantry Part 4: The Plan