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Archive for the ‘Homesteading’ Category

HOMEGROWN Life: How to Be Neighborly

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-MAGENTAWith the busy lives so many of us live, small things inevitably get lost along the way. But what if some of those things turned out to be much more important than we had assumed? What if we thought we could go without them but later realized doing so left something lacking in our lives?

With so many competing priorities, things like taking the time out to be neighborly can slip away. For many of us who don’t live on a cul-de-sac or in an established neighborhood, it’s easy to go about life without much thought to the bodies inhabiting the house next door. Too often we know them only by the car they back out of the driveway or what time they leave the house in the morning.

My nagging lack of interaction with my neighbors has always bothered me—being neighborly runs in my family—but I simply didn’t know how to bridge the gap. I had already been living in my current home for a year, and they hadn’t come over. I hadn’t crossed property lines to meet them, either. Now we were in awkward territory. Awesome.

HOMEGROWN-zucchini

Then something happened: Our know-how suddenly became the bridge. Last summer, when our chickens where really producing, I walked door to door and handed out eggs. When I had extra veggies, I stopped around and passed them out, along with zucchini bread and homemade tomato sauce. People driving by stopped and asked about keeping chickens, and even some people who came by to pick up some Craigslist items asked for input on growing their own food.

Over this rough winter, neighbors poured into our driveway, asking my guy about generators and how to safely run them. He plowed elderly neighbors’ driveways for free. In my great-grandmom’s book, she wrote about loading up the wagon and the horses with food and delivering it to neighbors who were miles and miles away. Sometimes she was gone all day, handing out food they really didn’t have to spare. Surely I can walk across the street and share the extra I’m lucky enough to have. I firmly decided to follow her example, set 100 years ago. Some good things never go out of style.

HOMEGROWN-eggs

Doing these small things made me feel so good that I decided to look at how I could expand on being neighborly while still incorporating the skills I employ on the homestead. We routinely donated to the local homeless and women’s center and knew they had a program that helped homeless families move into their own apartments and educated them in budgeting, shopping, and other life skills. Unfortunately, many of the families are on such tight budgets that buying fresh produce, let alone organic, is simply impossible.

I don’t have cash to give, and frankly I’d rather give my time and teach a life lesson, so I volunteered to teach these families how to container garden on their back porches or balconies. It’s still in the developmental stages, but I’ve started to put the word out to garden centers, asking for seeds and leftover containers, as well as anything else they’d like to donate. It’s not always easy to ask for donations, but I’ve found that I’m passionate enough about this to ask, regardless of my awkwardness!

None of these efforts I’ve listed are huge in the scheme of things. We haven’t performed life-saving surgery or saved people from a burning building. Truth be told, the desire to expand our neighborliness grew out of a little selfishness. We did it because it made us feel good to help other people and form a bond. It made me happy to hear someone’s back story while delivering eggs to them.

But somewhere along the way, it shifted into something bigger for us, and while it may not be life saving, it is soul saving. The small things I felt I was missing have been restored with every wave and smile from someone I’ve met. A sense of pride takes over when I teach someone to make cheese and she holds it up with a huge smile on her face, like she has won an award. And perhaps she has won a small empowerment and a feather in her cap. Me? I’ve won something more valuable than any award. I’ve won a participating role in humanity.

RELATED:

HOMEGROWN-life-michelleAlthough she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.

PHOTOS: (KIDS WITH ZUCCHINI) TORY; (KIDS WITH EGGS) MELISSA SCHAEFER

HOMEGROWN Life: Building a Cheap Greenhouse

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-LT-GREENI can’t believe I haven’t written about our greenhouse. We’ve been using it for at least a year and a half now, and I’ve been oddly silent about it. I guess it’s probably because it’s not 100 percent complete. We have one small area that still needs a permanent covering, the windows need new glazing, and it is in desperate need of new paint. But it’s still functional and gets a lot of use. And it only cost us about $300.

greenhouse1

That might sound like a lot of money until you consider that this greenhouse is 8 by 12 feet and uses glass glazing. Buying a glass greenhouse that size will generally run you around $5,000.

Why a glass greenhouse? Why not just make a hoop house to save money? Hoop houses are great, don’t get me wrong, but they just don’t stand the test of time. While they are cheaper to make upfront, there are some concerns you have to take into consideration. The material usually used for hoop houses is plastic sheeting, which doesn’t last more than a few years, even if it is UV-resistant greenhouse plastic film. I’d prefer not to have to add more plastic to the landfill or spend the money replacing it. Also, you have to give special consideration to the hoop structure. PVC pipe will degrade the plastic through chemical reaction faster than it normally would degrade (and most isn’t UV resistant), so you either have to wrap the pipe or use another material, like galvanized pipe, which increases the cost. Plus, we have a very windy site for most of the year, and plastic sheeting just wouldn’t hold up.

Polycarbonate greenhouses also degrade from UV but last substantially longer than poly film. Polycarbonate is a plastic, and even though it may hold up for 10 to 20 years when properly treated with UV stabilizers, it will discolor and become more opaque after time. It also becomes brittle. Double-walled polycarbonate adds the benefit of being more insulating than both glass and film. It can be quite pricey, though. Not as expensive as buying glass specifically for a greenhouse, but if you can do glass, which is superior to both film and polycarbonate, for less than either, why wouldn’t you?

windows

It’s all about the windows. It is amazing how many people are trying to offload free windows. Craigslist is where we scored the majority of ours. We also scored a free door, which was half-window, from my best friend, who had just bought a house and wanted to replace her front door. We stockpiled old windows until we had what we felt was enough to begin building. Before starting, we laid out the panes on the ground so we could get the right configuration to fit the walls of the greenhouse. Do this carefully. We had a few casualties but fortunately had enough windows to make up the difference. We also made sure that we had some windows with frames so we could open them as needed when it got hot in the summer.

leveling

Next, we had to figure out where to site the greenhouse. We had a space on the north edge of our property that wasn’t shaded, and it wouldn’t shade out anything. We made the long 12-foot wall south facing to maximize sun exposure. We also decided that, since the north wall is facing a fence, we could just use plywood for it. We framed up the structure with new lumber, which is where a good portion of the money we spent went. The most costly part of this job, however, was the roofing material. We used some of the extra pavers we had on hand to level the structure, since our ground slopes. It was also imperative that we add extra bracing, as the weight of the windows can be quite substantial.

windows going in

The biggest score from our window search were these two 6-foot-long windows that someone had purchased and never bothered using. They easily spanned the whole lower half of our south-facing wall. It was a tight fit, but we got them in. From our next-door neighbor, we also got narrower windows that flank the door (seen in the first photo).

Greenhouse

Once we got most of the windows in on the south-facing wall, we started framing the door and getting the roof joists up. Sexy, ain’t it? We decided to do a simple sloped roof rather than a gable so that the south side would get even more sun exposure, especially in the winter, when the sun angle is lower and when we need the greenhouse the most. One note: A door that comes with a jamb will make framing much easier.

greenhouse2

Once the door was in, we were able to finish up adding windows and roofing. For that, we used clear corrugated plastic sheeting. It’s not a particularly pretty greenhouse and it does need a coat of paint, but it’s definitely functional.

greenhouse

Of course, you also have to think about the interior. Where are you going to put plants? And what about the floor? We scored some pea gravel off of Freecycle, enough to put down a nice 3-inch layer. We put down weed cloth first, though, so we won’t be fighting the never-ending onslaught of bindweed and Bermuda grass inside. Tom build a fantastic 8-foot-long potting bench out of scrap wood, and we bought some heavy duty utility baker’s racks for the plants. We’ll probably switch the locations of these, putting the potting bench on the east-facing wall and the racks on the south-facing wall, so we can add another rack. We’re also using an old compost bin (our chickens do all of our composting now) as soil storage.

Have you built your own cheap greenhouse out of scavenged materials? Do you have photos or tips to share? Post them below!

Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of arts and crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

ALL PHOTOS: RACHEL

HOMEGROWN Life: County Fair Season Is Here

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150If you are a born and bred keeper of livestock, there are certain rights of passage that our agricultural system expects you to participate in. One of these is the annual cycle of county-based livestock breeding competitions we’ve come to celebrate in the form of county fairs.

For those not in the know, agriculturally driven counties have a strong tradition of holding summer convenings, where farmers get together in common spaces to compare their outputs, eat some fried junk food, and yuk it up in overalls and cowboy hats. (My people tend toward overalls, which we pronounce “over-hauls.”) The county fair is a celebrated institution. It’s an outgrowth of the kind of mindset that’s driven to grow more food, raise “better” breeding stock, use science and the understanding of genetics to learn from one another, and show off what we do on our individual farms.

HOMEGROWN-life-county-fair-season

Knowing our history is key to understanding how things work in the modern world. One-hundred-plus years ago, the country life movement helped inject professionalization, scientific inquiry, and educated competition into our agricultural system. The county fair is part of that great legacy as are the county-based, university-educated professionals who would live and work throughout the rural population, helping train a new generation of farmers. County-extension programs, as well as 4H, FFA, and other groups represent this history today.

My two boys, and my nieces and nephews, take part in our local 4H scene. As a family, we have a longstanding history of participating in and supporting the Bates County Fair, in Bates County, Missouri. It really is a sight to behold. Dozens and dozens of local youth work with their families to produce projects and livestock that demonstrate our agricultural capacity. There are contests for vegetable production, hog production, beef production, quilting, woodworking, jam making, photography, and even singing/performance art to wow the parents and grandparents.

The whole system is a beautiful conglomeration of hard work and community-minded spirit. It’s got some publicly financed support (that’s the university-driven outreach and extension system), but the primary driver is farmers and rural businesses working hard to create an event that serves and promotes youth entrepreneurship. Parents, grandparents, and small business owners have a stake in supporting the next generation of farmers.

This year my boys will be showing off their farming chops by participating in the goat- and swine-production contests. They’ll also be raising potatoes and tomatoes and peppers. And taking some photos, too.

Do we expect to win? No. Winning generally means spending thousands of dollars on breeding stock and high-powered feeds. We are in it for the experience rather than the competition side of the equation. I’m just glad they want to participate in the continuing agricultural legacy of the county fair system.

Plus, they have chores to accomplish every day. My boys are athletic and academic in nature. I was the same way. As farmers, we have to find ways to entice our young people to round out their education with daily activities that demonstrate a different way of living. Do your geometry. Work on your soccer footwork. But also feed your pig and make sure it has clean water.

It’s not the only way to live in the modern world. But it can connect you to a very basic human need to feed ourselves and our community with food. There’s a lot to be said about the mess of agriculture and its discontents related to fossil-fuel dependency and resource consumption. But there’s also a lot to say about a kid forming a bond with a growing goat or a gilt (a female but not-yet-mothering pig). It’s a real-life connection with a growing and breathing creature that depends on us for its sustenance.

I don’t particularly care whether my kids end up winning the county fair or not. Mostly, I care that my kids understand the annual cycle of living and dying and utilizing our resources responsibly. I care that they make a connection with the living creatures around us. I care that they care about the animals and plants here on the tallgrass prairies and the bottomland hardwoods that surround us.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.