Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reconstruction, Days 1-2.75

We hired a contractor to muscle the work Byron and I couldn’t handle ourselves, and I think it’s going to be worth every penny. On Day 1, they shored up the house by making temporary walls in the hall, the parlor, and in the bedroom above the parlor. I’m not sure how they managed to haul these huge 6x6 timbers in and out of the house:

When the shoring walls were up, they took out the termite-eaten beam. I had visions of them using a reciprocating saw to slice it into nice chunks, but I think all that was necessary was a pair of work boots and a good bit of stomping. I’m still flabbergasted that THIS was holding up our house…or not:

On Day 2, the new beam was installed and we all breathed a sigh of relief. They also installed a new header to support the second floor joists, and lapped new studs with those that had become termite grub. The beams and headers are of pressure treated lumber, which should deter any new pests…though we plan on spraying for termites every year. We dislike pesticides and will research using something that won’t harm the environment, but unfortunately, termite control is a necessary evil when you own an older home.

Nope, the door isn’t what’s level; the new header under it is!

Now we’re in the midst of Day 3. So far they’ve installed new, pressure treated 2x10 joists in the parlor 12” on center, replaced part of a beam under a non-load bearing wall (I think that was just to make me happy), and installed a couple supporting joists in the hall.

We also have a new drain pipe sans nail holes!

And here is a peak of the new girder under the stairs:

Tomorrow they'll be replacing both the front and back doors as we wait for three new upstairs windows to arrive. Byron and I once installed a door ourselves and that will be the first and last time I ever help do that! The roofer is coming the second week in August, and then the rest is pretty much up to us.

The Great Chicken Slaughter

A couple weeks ago I ended up on the phone with Jeff Adams of Walnut Hill Farm, a local farmer who produces food just how God intended: grass-fed, hormone-free, and happy. I had been searching the area for a source for pastured poultry, which was relatively easy to come by where we used to live. We’d gotten into the habit of buying a whole [dead] chicken from a local farm every week and crock potting it every Thursday. A four pound bird was enough for about two and a half meals for our family…sometimes three.

When we moved, I realized how spoiled I’d become when my searches for pastured poultry at farmers markets left me and my crock pot empty-handed. So I started making phone calls, and Jeff told me he sells chickens for a couple months out of the year. After I expressed interest in ordering a couple, and knowing that raising our own meat birds is something we want to do sooner rather than later, our conversation took a little turn:

Me: (stuttering a bit) Do…do you mind if people watch you process the chickens? I mean, can we come watch?

Jeff: (probably expecting a different answer) Well, no…no. I don’t let people watch me process the birds. But you can come help!

Me: (flabbergasted and excited) Really??!! We’d love to! When do you start?

A couple weeks later, Byron and the kids and I pulled up to Jeff’s farm. We were banking on the kids entertaining themselves, which they did for the most part. I had to call for Akea – who at the moment is obsessed with Charlotte’s Web – to stop letting herself into the pig pen a couple times, but other than that the kids played while we, um, killed.

Jeff was very gracious in explaining and demonstrating the whole process to us before we began. He has a wonderful stainless steel set-up, but explained to us that there is less expensive equipment available for people like us who will be a bit smaller scale. And certainly, we’re not exactly ready to feed the entire neighborhood. Basically, he has cones that the chickens go into head-first so they can easily be slaughtered and bled, a temperature-controlled tank to loosen the feathers, and a cylindrical de-featherer. After that they go onto the eviscerating table (yup, that’s where you take the insides out), and finally, the chill tank.

We had to actually catch chickens and put them in a cage, and Byron ended up with a pretty decent scratch on his hand. Not surprising that he volunteered to help Jeff slaughter the chickens as soon as we had lugged the birds back to trailer bed that housed the equipment.

Now, I’d been planning on participating in every aspect of the process, but the closest I got to slaughtering a chicken was watching and then slowly making my way toward the eviscerating table. For whatever reason, I couldn't bring myself to do the deed. So after watching Jeff eviscerate a couple birds, I gave it a shot. Jeff, who’s been doing this for a long time, quizzed me on the identity of some of the innards and cleaned out two birds for every one of mine. But I think I got a little faster as the morning wore on.

And wear on it did, though we kept very busy. I was hungry, and the sun was slowly baking us all, so I’m not sure if it was the environment or the eviscerating that brought on a slight wave of nausea. I had fleeting thoughts of becoming a vegetarian again. Chickens are far from humans in intelligence and complexity, but they were living things a few short moments before they reached my knife…something I was acutely aware of the entire morning. The whole process isn’t mechanical enough yet for me to push these thoughts away, nor am I sure it should ever get to that point. I would imagine that getting used to slaughter – even if it is just a chicken – is somewhat unhealthy for the soul.

Comic relief came in the form of a "phantom squawk." Let's just say that some of the lungs of the dead chickens still had air in them, so as I went about my business eviscerating, sometimes the air was filled with an unexpected, low "squaaaaaaawwwwk" that was at the same time creepy and humorous.

Jeff gave us a chicken for our help and we bought another from him. We ate one the next day, and I had some difficulty stomaching it, though it was delicious. I suppose I’m a tenderfoot who’s never been this close to her food before, but I’m glad for the experience. And eating the leftovers wasn’t quite as emotional.
To boot, Jeff gave us a tour and some good advice that has us re-thinking some of our plans. While we were used to having frozen, pastured chicken available to us from a local farm 365 days a year, we may not have that luxury anymore unless we raise a lot of birds and freeze them (a deep freezer is on our purchase list as soon as our other house sells...did I mention we have two mortgages at the moment?). As a society, we're used to getting whatever food we want whenever we want it; the idea of eating seasonally is very much a thing of the past. But it's not something that's necessarily bad, especially if we want to be more self-sufficient. So what if we eat chicken in the summers and beef and venison during the colder months? It might give us something more to look forward to as the seasons change.
Jeff also reminded us that monocultures are bad. Basically, that means that we need to have more than just chickens in our livestock menagerie. We mentioned wanting to get a milk cow, and he quickly told us that cows are herd animals and that we'd be better off getting more than one. From the research we've done (he loaded us down with books and magazines) cows can get depressed if they're left alone, which can lead to behavioral issues. So we've been tossing around the idea of getting two cows or even a couple goats. And Byron, who thus far has been opposed to getting a horse, is actually thinking that a work horse may be an option. Too bad I sold my saddle a couple years ago to buy my grain mill!
Jeff invited us back to help out again, which we hope to do in a couple weeks. Right now the contractors are at our house and Byron has to insulate the crawlspace and install plywood over the new joists in our parlor. In the meantime, we have a lot to chew on as we digest everything we learned from our day spent processing chickens.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Byron Caught You a Delicious Bass

I recently got in trouble for one of my posts. No, I don't have the food police knocking on my door...yet. However, I did mistake a small bass for a BIG BASS. Apparently, the bass pictured in my Charlie Kwon Do post does not qualify as a BIG BASS. It didn't even give anyone bass thumb (don't ask). So here, courtesy of my father-in-law, is the photo Byron sent to him via his cell phone of Charlie holding the BIG BASS. Apologies for the quality:

And yes, I think I'm done with Napoleon Dynamite references for the moment.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

When Love came to town

She looks like a cross between a nun and a college girl. Only a good, strong wind will knock her down. And so far, she's kept the birds away. Say hello to Love, the newest member of our family.

When Byron observed the birds flocking to our tiny garden the other day, and I discovered the gnawed tomato branches, Love came to town. She was dressed in two circa-1975 pillow cases (one cut up for sashes and a head scarf and the other for a skirt), a man's shirt, and a pillowcase stuffed with straw for a head. An old-fashioned girl in her own way, she sports a hoop skirt (inverted tomato cage staked to the ground) and has a spine of cedar (from a tree that didn't make it through last winter). Her pear-branch arms stretch wide for a pose reminiscent of the opening moments of The Sound of Music. And much like the Maria of said musical, she's always smiling and kids love her...hence her name, courtesy of my daughter, Akea. Here she is, in all her scarecrow glory:

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Welcome to Our Parlor, Part II

Water, water, everywhere. I'm so happy it's finally raining today, though I have nightmarish visions of the water seeping into the foundation of our gutterless house and spreading into the dirt of the crawlspace. I'm not sure if there were ever gutters on the home, but the lack thereof and other areas where moisture has been allowed to penetrate have created a breeding ground for the termites who have happily chowed down on beams, joists, and studs. And apparently, these little devils can make quick work of a home. We hired the architect I used to work for, who is much like a building doctor or surgeon, as well as a great designer, to help me troubleshoot some of the problems. I had my guesses as to where some of the water was coming from, but he helped verify my guesses and pinpoint some others.

We first noticed that the moisture was concentrated around the foundation of the hearth in the crawlspace of the parlor. The dirt was damper there than anywhere else in the room, which suggests that the chimney could be a possible leaking point. Though we weren't able to determine this to be the definite source of the problem, I've also heard from other sources that loose flashing (that's the metal stuff that forms a water-shedding joint between the brick of the chimney and the roof...see photo below) can cause water to leak down the chimney shaft. Masonry (brick, concrete block, etc.), for all its strength, is a porous material. Lesson learned here is to get your roof replaced and re-flashed before it's too late. This stuff doesn't last forever, folks.

Apparently, gutters cover a multitude of sins. It may be romantic to watch the rain drip from your roof onto the ground, but there's nothing romantic about the water pooling near your foundation and seeping through the walls to rot the wood structure. Though the crawlspace in general is moist from water not being allowed to shed away from the house, the real issue is at the back patio. Though I'm sure that the patio sloped away from the house when it was built, settlement has let water pool against it and has rotted the band board (a 2x that the joists are nailed into), and we just had to order a new patio door. Since the band board isn't structural, it won't be replaced, though we will have to keep an eye on it. And when we replace the roof and get gutters on the house (which we will do after the structure is stabilized), we'll see if the water continues to pool against the house. If this is the case, the patio and the concrete slab it's built on will have to be demolished. We would then rebuild it several inches lower and over a material that would let water drain back into the ground. Here's the profile of the patio (check out the moss):

And while gutters cover a multitude of sins, j-channel does not. J-channel is that plastic stuff you see around exterior doors, that form the joint between the door jamb and the siding. On the farmhouse, it'd also been used in the valley (low spot) behind the chimney, as you can see in the photo of the chimney above. This joint is another disaster waiting to happen, as this area should be flashed with metal in order to allow water to shed instead of penetrate. J-channel was also used as a joint between the pretty but problematic brick foundation wall and vinyl siding (it's the thin white stuff in the patio photo above). This detail should also be flashed, which would make it not as attractive, but for now we're going to caulk along that joint every year. Byron likes caulk, so that will be a fun new ritual for him.

Finally, I believe water is seeping behind the roof of the front porch. As you can see in the photo below, the windows are sitting directly on the roof, which allows for zero flashing to be installed at that joint. You can caulk there, sure, but caulk is only a temporary solution and needs to be maintained, which has not happened. Water appears on the porch floor below and in the crawl space by the front door. This seems to be the only place it could be coming from, so we're going to raised the sills of the three second-story windows about 8" so that are beneath them can be flashed properly. And of course, gutters will help here, too.

Yup, we have our work cut out for us, but I'm happy we've been able to pinpoint where the problem areas are so this doesn't happen again. After all, we're planning on being here at Green Acres a long, long time.

13 Tomato Plants and Random Tomato Facts

Our garden is microscopic this year, since we weren’t able to live at Green Acres full-time until the end of June. In May we planted a variety of tomatoes, knowing that this fruit would fare well in the presence of critters while we were absent. And since we love pasta, it will be well worth the time and effort to plant them so we can enjoy them, canned, throughout the winter.

The varieties we planted were Brandywine, Pink Cherry, Beefmaster, Rutgers, and Tomato Berry, which is supposed to be an early producer but thus far is on par with most of the other plants. Since we were uncertain as to where we would be living for the early months of 2010, we bought plants that had been started and did not start any from seed. All of them seem to be relatively happy, except for the Beefmaster, a hybrid (i.e., engineered) variety. In the photo, the Beef Master is that scrawny thing in between the Brandywine on the right and the Rutgers on the left. It has made me question the value of planting hybrid versus heirloom varieties of any plant.
The heirloom Brandywine took off almost immediately and began producing flowers right away. Some of these flowers I plucked off the plant when it was very young so it would be able to concentrate on growing strong vines before it began worrying about producing fruit. The other varieties caught up quickly, except for the Beefmaster. Tomatoes with the name “beef” anything are supposed to produce lots of big, red fruits that are the delight of summertime. I either bought runts, or these are slow and can’t compete with the heirlooms. A couple days ago I amended the soil with composted manure. We’ll see if that gives them a little jump start.

Another beef I have with the hybrid variety is that you cannot save the seeds to start seedlings the next spring, whereas with heirloom varieties, you can. My six-year-old nephew, who knows more about gardening than I do, said it rather succinctly: “Hybrid seeds are a money-making scheme for The Man.” I love that kid. Supposedly, hybrids are more disease resistant and prettier, but thus far, I’ve had problems with leaf wilt in both heirloom and hybrid varieties. Another factor to consider when choosing a tomato variety is whether they are determinate or indeterminate. Indeterminate varieties, such as the Brandywine, produce more sporadically, making it difficult to collect a large bunch of tomatoes when you are ready to can them.

A mistake I made a couple years ago was planting tomatoes in the same spot I had the previous year. This is a gardening no-no, even if you amend the soil with compost, which you need to do every year since any plant robs the soil of nutrients. One thing I have done correctly over the years, however, is planting marigolds with my tomato plants. This is called companion planting, and the combination of the two roots systems emits something that helps keep pests away. Because of this, I don't have many problems with bugs destroying my tomato plants.

I know this post comes a little late since most people have already planted gardens. However, if you'd like to add marigolds or other companion plants (such as basil), it's not too late; just be sure to water them every day until they're established.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sustainable Living: the long-awaited post on why I got so excited to score free pallets for a new compost bin

It's true. I hit about four big box stores before I finally found what I was looking for: free wooden pallets. I scored six of them, almost perfect for a two-section compost bin, so we can have one "active" section where we throw all our scraps, and one section that's "cooking" all those scraps and other things into the black gold the garden loves. And for all that, I was very excited yesterday.

The reason for my seemingly silly elation is because during this transition time of moving from one house to another and dealing with the structural problems we've discovered in our "new" house, we haven't had our compost bin and weren't able to plant much of a garden (we have 13 tomato plants, pumpkin seedlings, and a handful of herbs this year). For most of our almost ten years of marriage, we've had a garden, recycled, and have composted. For the past couple years, I've been making my own yogurt and milling my own flour for baking. This stems from both a desire and necessity to save money and more importantly, a belief that we have a responsibility to care for the earth God created. But about a year ago, we wanted to take it a step further.

The opportunity to buy Green Acres came to us rather serendipitously. Although we were planning on turning our postage-stamp downtown yard into an urban garden, complete with a movable chicken coop, we really desired a bit of acreage so we could produce more of our own food and depend even less on the industrial food system that's depleted the health and wealth of America over the past several decades. In April of 2009, Byron happened to run into the owner of Green Acres (no, he wasn't aware of our little nickname for his place), and he expressed a possible interest in selling at some point. So we went home expecting a call from him like a week later.

The call didn't come for months and months. In the meantime, we gave up that hope and were content to stay in our little downtown home. We planted, composted, and spent a very busy two weeks making maple syrup from the maple tree in our front yard (it looked like a cyborg tree with the milk jugs attached to it and elicited many curious stares from neighbors and passers-by alike). We lived in a beautiful area and were blessed with a nice house and proximity to local foods and farms. And I believe that due to our insistence on eating minimally processed food, we rarely shadowed the door of the doctor's office.

And suddenly, in April of this year, we were sitting in a lawyer's office, signing lots of papers so we could move onto 5.5 acres of land, live in the house Byron's great-grandparents built, and move back to the community we'd left three years prior. We've reconnected with old friends and locals who can remember throwing hay into the loft of our barn with Byron's great-granddaddy. In a big way, it was like coming home.

Despite our discovery of termite damage and the temporary lack of floors in two of our downstairs rooms, and despite waiting for a closing date on the house we're selling, God is good and we have many grand plans for living sustainably. The other day I drew up plans for a portable chicken coop. We have 13 tomato plants, which is better than zero. We have a barn that can someday house a milk cow. I have my grain mill and plan on researching growing my own wheat. Byron is the proud caretaker of a Ford 8N tractor. We want to plant berries and fruit trees this fall; though that will be an initial investment, the last time I checked, a bag of apples was $4-$5. And I scored free pallets at a big box store. I knew those places were good for something.

This really is a brief overview of why we do what we do, and I plan on posting more on gardening, milling grains, and eventually owning chickens and a cow. Though our beginnings are humble, our hope is to inspire people to take steps - big or small - in living more sustainably.