Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Nectar of the Gods

We had the good fortune of trading some of our pork for beef that friends of ours, Linda and Rick, had recently purchased from an area organic farm. We offered to trade more pork for some of the apple cider they made, when they said there were plenty more apples to pick! So, with our three children, and a few friends of Linda we all went and picked more apples two Sunday's ago. I do not ever recall being able to pick apples this late in Indiana. The trees we picked from were dwarf apple trees that were easy to reach. Some of the trees were absolutely loaded with amazing fruit. The abundance and goodness was almost mind altering, as I ran from variety to variety tasting the fruit. In less than one hour our family alone had picked more than 200 pounds of apples. I felt like this was a little bit of Eden that I was experiencing.

We proceeded on to Rick and Linda's homeplace to process the apples into cider. Making cider was a first for Beth and me. The elegantly built and conceived cider press worked efficiently with only our muscle power...and it was easy to use....as long as I remembered to close off the netting in the bucket and switch out drain pans on time. With a tasting glass, we sampled the various mixes of apples being squeezed into what I like to call the Nectar of the Gods. There is nothing quite like the delectable taste of fresh apple cider. Some batches were very light colored and smooth, and other batches were dark and hearty. We seemed to acheive about 10-11 gallons of cider with one hundred pounds or so of apples. We kept back the rest to process and freeze for apple pies and apple sauce, and a few for just eating through the winter as long as they last...an apple a day does the body good.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Heating Our Home with Wood

This past summer we had our roof re-shingled due to the massive hail storm damage (see blog post from June). While the shingles were off and several plywood sections needed to be replaced, we had the contractors (my cousin's business Triple L contruction) insulate the attic. We brought the insulation level from R19 to over R40. This made a big difference in the energy needs of our house! It has felt cooler in the summer, and retains heat better thus far in the winter. Our windows are another story...single pane from 1969. Beautiful to look out of over the wooded landscape, but terrible in terms of energy efficiency.

In addition to the extra insulation, we also started to seriously consider using wood to help heat our home. Propane prices have increased greatly, along with all other fossil fuel prices. I don't think we'll ever see fossil fuel prices go back down. They are certain to increase greatly over time. The total price we pay now for LP each heating season has tripled in the 8 years we've been in the house! This, despite keeping nighttime temps quite low, and daytime temps low when we are not in the home during winter week days. We had installed a programmable thermostat which made things very convenient. However, we do live in a woods and do have some access to dead trees we could consider for heating our home.

Our ancient fireplace insert is quite small and not very efficient. It adds some ambiance and does help warm part of the living room area. After researching outdoor wood furnaces that can heat the home and the water we would use, we decided the $10,000 + investment was not the best choice at this time. We found an indoor wood burning furnace that will integrate with our current gas furnace for the best of all worlds. It is also EPA approved for efficiency (up 76%) and low emissions. We spent a lot of time working on the installation...and it still is not completely electrically installed. Beth has had visions of me as the father on The Christmas Story, going to the basement to kick, scream, and cuss out the furnace on a daily basis. The directions are very vague, and looks like we'll need to hire an expert to get it compeltely hooked up and running properly. It's really, really hard for me to admit defeat. But, I think we need to call in an expert before I get socked to death.
This has not deterred me from USING the wood furnace. Other than one day where the gas furnace malfunctioned and continously heated the house to about 85 degrees, we have not used any lp gas this season. The wood furnace does take more oversight, but I've been really impressed by how much heat and how long it will burn a load of wood.

The other aspect of this is that I need to get out there and cut, haul, and split wood a LOT more. this is a lot of time and muscle required, but also is good honest work (and might help keep me in shape). It feels good to know I can gather the necessary resource for heating our home locally. The trees are a renewable source of energy, as long as we harvest respectfully and utlize this sustainable source responsibly. On the economic side, I've estimated we'll save over $1,000 dollars a heating season (typically Nov - April) with the wood furnace. This is a big savings, and will basically pay for the indoor wood furnace in three years! Beyond three years, the savings will accrue.

I know not everyone can heat with wood, but it is an option that may end up being one of the better ways we can locally source our energy for heat. One of the best things we can do in current times is to re-forest the landscape. Trees do an incredible number of functions to made ecosystems healthier and more stable, and provide many useable products in the future. It used to be that a nation's wealth was accounted for based on the health and spread of its forests. With the vast increase in wood burning technology and efficiency, and if you have access to a wood lot, and research what you are doing, it can be economically and environmentally sound.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Our Pork Chops vs. Their Pork Chops Part II

So, What gives? How can Payless sell pork chops for half the price that it takes me to raise mine from scratch? It has a lot to do with the cheap food policy promoted by the federal government and agribusiness corporations, cheap but wildly potent fossil fuels, and the dietary choices we each make.

Industrial U.S. agriculture produces the pork chops you can purchase at most grocery stores such as Payless. And, it produces those pork chops on a wide scale based on intensive use of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuel, minerals, and metals coupled with huge government payment programs to industrial agriculture. $11.3 Billion for commodity subsidies in 2006 alone. (An agricultural commodity, such as pork, is usually a food product produced on a large market scale.) This figure does not include "disaster relief payments or conservation ag payments...both of which would be unnecessary in a sustainable food production system. Some estimates show that the average U.S. taxpayer pays out around $300 annually toward agricultural subsidies to Uncle Sam...which then is distributed to the agribusiness giants. This amounts to $600 for most families per year.

Humans have been practicing agriculture for at least 10,000 years, but it is only in the last 60 or so years that heavy industrialization has occurred. So much so, that farmers are extremely dependent on synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fossil-fuel powered machinery. As a result yields have greatly increased during this period of time, along with an increasing population of mouths to feed. Yet, the overall efficiency of production has sharply decreased when considering the amount of energy used in the industrial system. Scientists estimate that the industrial food producing system uses from 3 to 10 times as much energy as it produces. This means for every kilocalorie of food energy produced 3 to 10 kilocalories of energy were necessary to produce it and get it to the stores, where we drive to purchase it. (The ratio is much worse 35:1 for beef produced in feedlots compared with grains) How long can we keep this up?

What does this have to do with the price of pork chops in Payless? In order to keep the price of those pork chops low, in spite of the very unsustainable use of energy and non-renewable resources, our government pays out big bucks to keep this industrial system propped up and functioning. Who pays for it? You do. I do. We all do. And our children will pay dearly if we don't get it turned around soon. Although the pork chops at Payless were going for 97 cents a pound...you don't see the hidden costs behind those pork chops on the sticker price. If you account for all of the hidden costs they should cost us at least $6-8 a pound.

We very much need a level playing field when it comes to food production politics. If we had such an environment, I bet we would see a rapid move to sustainable food production. A system where we retain freedom of choice and quantity of foods we eat, but we pay the appropriate price for the food with the heretofore hidden costs included in the sticker price. My guess is that we would likely eat fewer pork chops and meat overall, but that when we do purchase foods they would be coming from local growers using sustainable practices. This would have the desired effect of creating more niches for local jobs, our dollars spent would circulate within the local economy strengthening our communities, providing healthier food and healthier people.

Somehow we the people must get our elected officials to support real change in food production policies. But, in the meantime, we can choose whenever possible to eat food produced locally...even though it means we pay out of pocket twice....once for the food and once for commodity subsidies of the food we are not eating. There should be no "cheap food policy" because there really is no free lunch.

Oh, "our" pork chops are pretty darn tasty! But I'm hoping to find a way to feed a pig or two more sustainably in the future such that the ratio of energy in to energy produced is even more favorable.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Our Pork Chops vs. Their Pork Chops Part I

Our two pigs remained in their woodland pigpen until I opened their gate last Monday evening. They both walked right out, up a small ramp and onto an open air trailer without so much as a nudge from me. However, in preparing for loading the pigs I had jumped across the fence into their pen to retrieve a feed pan. I simply ran and sailed right over the fence into the mud. I grabbed the feed pan and made the same leap back over the fence, but my boots were sucked back somewhat by the mud. Once airborn I noticed that the ground was much lower on the pigs' side of the fence. I realized that I was not going to clear the fence. As gravity pulled my 180 some pounds down my boots caught the fencef violently, my pant leg ripped open on the metal fence post, jabbing into my leg. I hit the muddy ground and many protruding tree roots with my ribs looking every bit like a world wrestling federation champ free-falling onto a hapless victim. Once I verifed that nothing was broken my only thought was "Dang! I sure am glad I'm hidden from view back here in the woods and no one saw me do that silly-assed dive over the fence." What I didn't know was that my dear wife was peering down at me from the screen room on our house at just that moment...apparently quite impressed with my pig loading skills. Later she said, "I had never seen anyone jump straight up in the air like that. I thought it must be some pig whispering leap to get them to go out the gate and onto the trailer."

All things considered, I was quite happy that the pigs were safely on the trailer. The day before we had just finished eating our first ever homemade donuts. If you've never tasted homemade donuts you are really missing out (picture below). I saved two glazed donuts and apple peelings to serve to the pigs as dessert after their final meal. Hams and Bacon had led quite good lives at our homestead, but I wanted to give them thanks for giving their lives so that we can eat this next year.

Tuesday morning Beth and I rose from bed extra early and drove the pigs to the local butcher in Lafayette. It was still dark out when they walked into the abbatoir and across the scales. One bystander's mouth dropped open when he saw how large the pigs were...he bet me that the one was a 300 pounder! The man weighing the pigs gave us the weigh slips. Hams weighed in at 275. Bacon weighed in at 245 (an average weight for a market pig is 230lbs...so the 275 pounder is a heavy weight). They had started out life on our homestead at a mere 25 lbs each (see picture above) The total amount of actual pork, minus all of the inedibles, was a grand total of 370.8 pounds! That, my friends, is a lot of pork. We brought home the fresh pork cuts today. The hams, bacon slices, and other cuts that will be cured will take another week.

Although we have not fixed pork chops yet, we will soon. First on the menu will be a stir fry using small bites of pork steak along with greens, onions, and cabbage from our CSA basket. However, it was time to calculate just how much our pork chops cost us in dollars and cents. Here is how it came out:

Pigs $40 each = $80
Straw = $7.50
Nipple waterer = $5.00
Feed (1,300lbs) = $234.67
gas/hauling = $20
Butcher/processing = $326.91

Our pork chops cost us $1.82 per pound.

I cannot yet vouch for any taste differences between our pork chops and those that you can get at the local supermarket, but we have a hunch that our pork chops will compare with the natural raised pork chops from the farmers market. So when we compare our cost of $1.82 a pound with the $4.75 per pound price at the farmer's market, we do pretty well. But, pork chops can be had in our town for less, I found out. Much less! Payless has a "loss leader" on pork chops this week selling at a mere 97 cents a pound. These were their "mixed" chops...of mediocre quality. I know because I've had them before. Their better chops are selling at $1.69 a pound. Still less than ours cost us to raise, despite the fact that we had to provide daily care for our pigs, haul feed and water for five months, pay the butcher, while taking ownership for growing our own food. Now, Marsh supermarket, just down the road from Payless, is selling their good quality pork chops for $3.99 a pound which makes me feel better. More than double ours. Which makes me scratch my head a bit, too.

What gives? how can Payless sell pork chops for half the price that it takes me to raise mine from scratch? And, how can the good folks at the farmer's market command more than four times the amount that Payless gets for theirs?

It has a lot to do with the cheap food policy promoted by the federal government and agribusiness corporations, cheap but wildly potent fossil fuels, and the dietary choices we each make. At this juncture, I'm going to taste our pork before extolling any further on these issues. Be back soon!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Pigs Escape! or How I got my Pig Mojo Back

This past spring we decided to add to our managerie of useful animals that help feed us by bringing home two piglets to our forest garden homestead. The idea was to raise our own pigs for pork. We would give them a good life in a modest pen in the forest, next to our chickens. They've been eating scraps from our table and excess garden produce, but mostly standard corn and soybean mixture feed. I happened to be home in the afternoon and not at the office when I received a call from our son, "hey, [the neighbor boy] just called me and said he got off the school bus and he was greeted at his house by pigs in his yard." I thought this must be some kind of joke, because I had checked on OUR pigs just two hours previously and they were lounging in their pen without a care in the world. This certainly had to be someone else's pigs. Yeah, right! No one in several miles of our house has a pig. Isn't it strange how our brains go into denial when faced with known, but terrible facts.

I tried to keep my cool as I walked (in a marathon walking sort of way) down the hill from our house to the pig pen. No pigs. I carefully inspected the pen, as if I really expected the pigs to simply sprout back up out of the ground and reappear. The fence in one corner was mangled badly with deep rooted out areas beneath it. It seemed such a small opening for such large animals to fit through. Unbelievable! How did this happen! I began to feel a slight panic feeling. A strange horror film flitted through my mind's eye. The frames of the film blurred by...our almost fully grown pigs running pel-mel, but unknowingly, toward brutal death trying to cross the highway in front of our subdivision to reach the corn field on the other side. The film slowed down and I see my pigs colliding with a BMW. I zoom in. I see the BMW is driven by a vegan suit and tie wearing CEO who's brother happens to be the chair of the local zoning board. The film's trailer ends with "Man jailed for pig neglect, disturbing the peace, and maintaining a common nuisance of the farmyard variety". The short film fades with an interview clip of our most skeptical neighbor..."the chickens we eventually tolerated, but this! they should throw away the keys." Now fully in panic mode, I phoned my wife pleading for assistance if she wouldn't mind closing her shop to come and herd pigs. What better way to spend the lovely afternoon.

Now sweating and in full panic mode, I ran down to the neighbor's house where sure enough our pigs were casually inspecting a whole new world known as the neighbor's front yard (see photo above taken by neighbor boy). One problem is that this yard was a quarter of a mile from our house. I ran back home, jumped in the truck, hooked up a small trailer I had just bargain purchased a few weeks before and headed back down the road. "How will I get these pigs back" was all I could wonder. Two neighbor boys were gracious enough to help me try to herd these porcine escapees into the trailer. No way were they going near the trailer. At this juncture, let's put this into context. We live in a subdivision. A unique, old, very forested subdivision, but still a subdivision none-the-less. I have neighbors who do not appreciate our chickens...and the clock was reading about 4pm...pretty soon people would be arriving back home from work. It was hard not to feel panic at the prospect of these dignified professionals arriving home at the site of pigs running amok in their neighborhood. I thought, "what in holy hell am I going to do?"

Then the neighbor boys, who were meanwhile pulling out their phone cameras and snapping shots to text and send to friends, family, and the police, started herding the pigs down the road back to our place. I stared with some astonishment, and little by little we got the two pigs in a narrow strip of land, heavy with briers and poison ivy, that lay between the creek and the road. We gently urged them on, me whistling and cooing as they curiously rooted and sampled every species of plant as they went. Then at the half-way point back down the road to our house I got my pig mojo back (side story: I raised various breeds of pigs on my parents small farm from age 11 through age 18, winning many awards, including best showman....which involves a very high level of professional knack with steering a pig exactly where you want it to go with the grace normally given to the dance floor - you might think wow, when would that skill ever come in handy, but...) Here I was herding two escaped nearly fully grown porcines down a subdivision road. Carefully navigating the flight distance between me and the two pigs, at an angle which would slowly move them in the right trajectory back toward their pen, we were only 30 feet from the gate. Elizabeth arrived in the Rav...deftly swinging the car at an angle to the road to block any hasty retreat of these swine...for a split second the Toyota Rav was a black suburban with tinted windows. My wife an FBI agent dressed undercover in black leather, sliding the vehicle 180 degrees blocking any escape. A sting operation, making sure these pigs would serve out their days where they belonged...in the pen! Meanwhile back at the ranch, the neighbor boy opened the gate, stepped aside, and sweet jesus both pigs languidly found their way back in to their lovely mud and straw covered pen.

They seemed relieved. I was overjoyed, but in shock. Pig mojo back. Ham and bacon preserved for future meals. Perhaps at least a couple neighbors none the aware. My wife said, "You are a pig whisperer," but wondered if the expense of the feed and the trouble to keep these pigs was worth it. I'll let you know in two weeks when we have pork chops covered with baked apples.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Harvest

As summer tilts toward autumn, our small gardens have done well, with little work on our part, providing us with respectable harvests of beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, peppers, squash, carrots, and several meals of sweet corn and broccoli. We will soon harvest potatoes from the "tator tires".

We have really enjoyed simply walking up to the garden and gathering what is there. I thank the soil, the rain, the sun that energizes it all. We put a fairly hasty (due to my looming surgery), but somewhat planned effort, into two small gardens this spring. One at the Purdue Village Gardens and the other at our home of one small raised bed, a small patch of experimental sweet corn, several tator tires and hills, and two summer squash plants.

The sweet corn was a trial and error plot at our home site. The plot only receives about 6 or so hours of sunlight a day. Not really enough to have healthy corn production. But, we did get a number of decent and delectable ears. Our garden at Purdue also grew sweet corn, slightly better than at our forest garden, but not much better. Corn needs a lot of nutrients to produce well. But the buttery, sugary taste of sweet corn is worth the wait and the effort. Fresh picked is the best there is!

After good soil and proper water amounts, the keys are plant spacing and mulching...with early weeding as needed. After the first several weeks of work, we've really not spent much time at all on maintenance. Most of it has been in harvesting, cooking, preserving, and enjoying! This photo shows my bias toward "natural gardening"...but I've actually gone to a more balanced approach with less chaotic wild growth of native plants and more space for sun and garden plants. Hey, it only took me 8 years to lighten up a bit.

Tomato-Cucumber Salad. Add dill, vinegar, salt. Simply Cooling and Tasty.

Canning beans and dilly beans! A taste of the summer will be hidden away for a winter's day.

Earthy Beets....and the pigs loved the tops...Brent did too. We pickled these.

And what to do with the squash after too many stir fry dishes and zucchini bread? Make squash brownies and cookies. Ok, they do taste like a "healthy" cookie. But, they were fun to try out. Actually, most all the cookies were consumed by our kids and me.

Brent sampling squash cookie.
Beth with grated summer squash for brownies.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Apocalyptic Hail

There are so many cool things we could be blogging about. To whit:

Our trip to French Lick wherein a bird flew in the room of our B&B
Installing a new Queen Bee in our hive
Getting two little pigs
Attending Brent's permaculture course at Purdue
Looking for dandelions to make wine but finding only a few...

But June 1st we were pummeled with hail like I have never seen before. It lasted at least 10 minutes, maybe 15. When it was over this was what the steps to our house looked like:

The upshot of it all is that our camper is totaled, our car was close to being totaled (and thank goodness we had full coverage on both!), and our roof is shot. We're in the process of negotiating with two different insurance companies for the home & the vehicles and it is taking all of our time. Maybe in the end we'll have a new roof but it hasn't been a lot of fun.

AND the carpet we chose to have installed before Brent's surgery is back ordered and they want to subsitute with something we haven't even seen yet. I guess anything would be better than "Essence of Dog Barf" that we have now...trust me, you don't WANT a picture of that.

So hopefully we'll pop back in after Brent's surgery when we have lots of time to tell you about our adventures.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Bees leave home

Back in mid-March we inspected our bees. We knew that one of our two hives we started last year did not make it through the winter. We believe it lacked the population of bees necessary to stay warm. The surviving hive, however, was teaming with bees. Our daughter Rhianna helped me find the queen....without her quick, sharp eyes, I never would have found the queen! Our dilemma was whether to split the hive and make two colonies, or to add hive space and attempt to grow the hive. We opted for growing the hive population in an attempt to get lots of honey this year....

However, the bees had other plans. They had been planning an exit for some time. They completely ignored the upper room addition I made for them in the form of a plush honey super. Yesterday they packed their bags and did something amazingly unique in the insect world...they swarmed. Swarming is where the queen ups and leaves her home with roughly half of the worker bees, who gorge themselves on honey first. They leave the other half of the colony to raise a new queen and carry on in the old home. You can see in the photo, that the swarm of probably 20,000 bees or more left the hive and ended up in a tree...unfortunately the branch was about 40 feet above us and out of reach. We feebly put out an empty hive with frames and wax, and dribbled honey around to try to coax them into one of our empty hive bodies...but alas they flew away. A cool thing was that the next day as I was finishing the raised bed in the previous post I heard a loud swarming sound about 100 feet away....it was our bees! I followed the swarm down the road. The sound was very loud and it was one of those ancient phenomena of nature that you don't witness very often. Despite my attempts to tell them to come back and reside in a nice cozy wooden hive, they sped on over the western ridge and toward the next wooded valley. Hope they make it and pollinate many a flower and tree.

Gardens Everywhere

We've been working on a variety of gardens and ideas for this year. We began by sprucing up the hillside area behind our home with wave petunia's to spread out and co-mingle with the native flowers and shade perennials we've planted the past few years.

A Village Garden

Based on previous years' experience, we just don't seem to get enough direct sunlight into our small quarter acre clearing in the creek valley below our home. Since we tend to travel through Pudue University area to and from work, we decided to rent a garden space at the Purdue Village. This is an incredibly awesome place, with probably 100 families from all over the world planting many varieties of plants using diverse techniques. We rented a 12 x 25 plot and went to work. We use a lot of peppers in our cooking, and knew we wanted to grow a lot of these for freezing for year round use. Peppers in the store are usually pricey. We also like fresh salsa and the grocery store price is usually salty. So, our village garden is being nicknamed, Salsa Garden, and we added plenty of tomato plants, onions, and even a small patch of sweet corn. We planted climbing beans to utilize the fence and vertical space. It was fun to plant, and we are excited about its potential.

Zero $ Raised Bed

Just because we are very stubborn people (at least I am when it comes to growing plants that want sunshine in an area with a dearth of sunlight), I wanted to try out several new ideas this year. I wanted to build a raised bed with very fertile ingredients on the most southern exposed spot to see what will happen. I started by removing topsoil from an 3 x 12 area where I had established native prairie perennials the previous 4 years. I then used a pitch fork to gently open up and aerate the subsoil. I then placed partially rotted sticks, then a layer of partially composted chicken manure from our hens, then a layer of partially composted wood chips from the electric company had dumped the year before, then a layer of nicely composted dead wood that had turned to soil from a large pile of dead branches and wood I piled next to the forest four years ago. I did another layer of each of these items, then Beth and I used some old shelving boards and some redwood 2x4 from a dismantled deck that were here when we moved in for the sides of the bed. We shoveled on the topsoil, an wow....our first ever raised bed. Now we need to plant it with a variety of garden veges and see what happens!

Container Gardens (almost zero $)

Something I had come across in a fun book titled the Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen is a functional porch garden idea known as a self-watering container. The concept is based on the commercially sold Earthbox...commonly sold for $40 or more each. It basically is made of an 18 gallon rubbermaid storage container (that we had on hand and were not using) and a few short sections of pvc pipe. The concept tries to mimic the topsoil, subsoil, and water table found in a natural garden, but contructed into a minaturized version for shallow rooted plants. The advantage over basic containers is that the water is wicked up by the plant roots whenever they need the water....and watering is done only infrequently, because the bottom reservoir is like 6-8 gallons of water. We decided to plant herbs in ours.

We came across something called TatorTires, where by cutting away the side walls of discarded tires you use them for containing potato plants...as potato plants grow upward, you need to pile on more soil, straw, etc. The tires are nice because you can utilize vertical space, contain the potato plants, and add old tires to the stack as they grow. The black rubber heats up and creates a warm zone for the plants to get a good start. At harvest time you simply start removing the tires one layer at a time to gather up the spuds! This idea could be used for a number of food plants.

Road Trip

We decided to take a day and drive to covered bridge country earlier this spring. Parke County has always been a favorite destination for us, and we wanted to seriously consider if this might be a place to call home sometime in the future. The picturesque countryside, rolling hills, timbered ravines, and many pastures and creeks seem like the perfect match for our tastes. We drove around and looked at several places for sale. However, the more we looked at what is in our price range, it seemed there were dilapidated buildings, and meth-lab looking neighbors, and/or rebel flag waving strongholds and the fundamentalist religious right. We read the local newspapers, and started to get the feeling that we just don't seem to fit in anywhere very well....not the redneck Indiana and not the intelligentsia city areas either. Yes, we are Hoosiers and can identify with most Hoosiers. We want a sense of community, yet community that both respects the land and values open inquiry, creativity, the arts, and a spritual connection to earth and each other. Is there such a place? We are beginning to think that we must cultivate these qualities in and around us where we are now....but we still look forward to visiting Parke County, and many other Hoosier places.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Frugal Food

It seems to be a sign of the times; everywhere you look someone has an idea for "frugal" this or "budget" that. I've always thought of myself as frugal; I'm wearing a watch I received as a school band award in high school, I have Birkenstocks older than my firstborn son and I just threw away a laundry basket that was my stepfather's before he married my mom sometime in the 1970's. (The cracks that had developed in it were finally pinching the fingers way too much.)

While I have been drawn to books on saving money, cutting costs, and living simply, I often find that there's just not so much I can learn. I can't cut out my Starbucks habit because I don't drink coffee. But I have been drawn to those kinds of books & websites because I have been in search of some magical way to attain nirvana - The Land. Mortgage-free lifestyle. Time.... the list goes on.

Just like everyone else we are starting to feel the pinch of this economy. Friends are losing jobs and we may not be far behind. As the reality of the situation that we are all in starts to be felt closer to home, I'm really glad that we have been working on ways of saving money every month. If our income remains the same, it will allow us to put a little money in the bank; if it goes down, well then maybe it will help us get by while keeping our house or at helping us avoid digging ourselves a very deep hole.

Over the last few months we have drastically changed our food buying habits. I thought we were frugal before; and sometimes we were. We ate good food, often seasonal food, and often from scratch. Except when we didn't. Like when we got home late and found it all too easy to call Papa John's. Or when it was easier to stop for Chinese carryout on the way home. Or when we looked in the cabinet and saw lots of good food but were too tired and hungry to figure out what to do with it.

In the course of my usual quest for money-saving, simple living resources I rediscovered the website whose name scares my children, the Hillbilly Housewife. I promise there's nothing shocking there even if the name is a little scary. The site has two meal plans for either a low cost week of meals or an extremely low cost week of meals. Being brave but only a little bit, we decided to try the $70 meal plan and see if we could learn anything about living a little lower on the hog.

I started by rediscovering Aldi, the no frills, bag your own groceries store that has the bad rap as being just for poor people. In spite of the fact that a lot more of us might BE poor people soon, I found that for basic ingredients, Aldi was full of many money saving items.

When I tried the $70 menu I also rediscovered another concept that I had gotten away from--sticking to the list! It was really hard that first time to walk by the chips, snacks, and packaged things like granola bars. My mind said, "But they're so inexpensive, I could just get a few anway." But I stuck to my guns & stuck to the list. My total was more like $80-something with the increased prices over the last year but all in all I thought it was pretty good. Our family had been spending close to $200/week on groceries and that's not even counting eating out. But could we really stick to it and do it?

What I discovered was that there is a LOT more food in that menu than we usually use. Since most of us are gone during the day I rarely cooked the lunches. Brent and I took leftovers to work with us and we ate well and heartily. I even discovered that the salmon patties were pretty tasty. For someone who doesn't like fish this was a revelation. About a week into this experiment my son said, "We've been eating some REALLY good food lately!" Yes, he really said that!

Since that first week on the $70 menu I have continued to make the Perfect Iced Tea every few days. I rarely bought soda before but I just don't buy it at all now. I didn't know I liked iced tea until I tried this. And I have made her Biscuits with amazing succes more than once! I have never ever been satisfied with any home made biscuits of my creation before; but these seem to work every time.

What I learned that week was that I already knew how to be a wise cook; but I had forgotten the art of menu planning and sticking to the list. Next time I'll share more about our specific "system" and how it's going for us. Also news about another money saving food find and how we are fitting it into the "system" and eating well while saving money!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Just Right

Brent's Sweater
Originally uploaded by RiverKnits
I feel a little like Goldilocks. You remember the story of the Three Bears?

First I knit Brent a sweater that was TOO SMALL. (It's on the wall at River Knits - it's is lovely in every way with the perfect color of colonial blue and oatmeal with detailed stranded colorwork - except that it doesn't fit my husband.)

Then I knit Brent a sweater that was TOO BIG. It has cables that cross and meander all over the seed stitch textured background. It took at least 3 years of my life. I am not sure what happened. The gauge was ok, but when I blocked the pieces and put it all together, you could've put two Brent's in that sweater. All I could do was fall to the floor and try to stop laughing.

Last year I combined forces with another knitter to make a sweater for charity. It turned out nicely and Brent said, "Could I have one like that?" He must be the eternal optimist. Or maybe he just picked the perfect sweater.

Finally, I have knit Brent a sweater that is JUST RIGHT.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Culinary Creativity in the New Year

Over the holidays we tried several new ways of creating new foods and herbal products. It all started with New Year's Eve, and champagne.

We each toasted, kissed, and drank a glass full of champagne while dancing in the New Year in our living room with an internet feed of Times Square...then Beth had an idea. She had always wanted to make vinegars for use on salads. Why not take the remaining champagne, add in frozen raspberries from this last summer's harvest basket that the Cooley Family Farm grew for us, plus herbs.

Beth decanting her Raspberry-Thyme Vinegar. recipe

It is good on salads, with a slightly sweet, mild taste. Add walnuts to the salad for a treat.

For more than a year now, we've co-owned two dairy cows at a local German Baptist farm. In return for paying for the upkeep and maintenance of the cows, we receive two gallons of organic raw milk each week. The cows have been giving approximately 4% butterfat...so there seems to be plenty of cream. Brent tried several, several times at making butter from this cream.

He finally was able to make a small amount, but decided the effort to make butter from the cream of 2 gallons of milk simply did not "churn out". The butter tasted a bit "barn-ey". We think the cream isn't heavy enough.

However, Brent redeemed himself by making an entire gallon of yogurt from the raw milk. It was really pretty easy. After bringing the milk to 190 F, allowing it to drop to 110 F. Then stirring in one cup of plain yogurt. Empty the yogurt spiked milk into clean jars and incubate around 90-100 F overnight (about 6-8 hours). The yogurt came out very well. I've been eating it with fruits and nuts for breakfast.

Our daughter, Colleen, decided on a unique science project for school. Having tasted chocolate cake made with beets (and liking it), she wondered how people would respond to an offer to taste beet chocolate cake A) if they didn't know it was made with beets, B) if they did know it was made with beets, and C) how many liked it after tasting it from each group. Her results show that fewer people wanted to taste it if they knew it was made from beets, however nearly 100% of taste testers said they liked it. What a culinary rebel she is!

We even decided to try our hand at making natural cosmetics and bath salts. We made astringents, creams, moisturizers, and aftershave. I don't think we've come close to a marketable product, but it was fun trying out our ideas. Here is a photo of us with our youngest daughter, who helped out in the production of the cosmetics.

So, we've set the stage for the New Year - rejoice and follow our inclinations to experience, try things out, pursue the things we cherish and love to do, and follow our hearts supporting each other along the journey.