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RIP Grizz. December 11, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were very sorry to get an e-mail from our friends Delilah and Chaz letting us know that their beloved Barred Rock hen, Grizz, died this morning. If you’ve never raised chickens, or you raise them, then butcher them every year or two, you won’t be following this. So let me fill in the gaps.

First off, Grizz was ten years old. (Chickens can live to be twelve, and, if you don’t kill them off, will keep on laying eggs the whole time.) She’d had a real luxury lifestyle compared to most chickens, including ours: Delilah vacuumed her coop and chicken yard daily. Grizz had a heated coop and heated water dish. Like our own flock, she was given an extraordinary array of nutritious kitchen scraps every day in addition to her conventional scratch grains and egglayer pellets. She was one spoiled chicken.

Chickens are flock animals, preferring the company of others, and sure enough, Grizz was never lonely. Whether she was palling around with other chickens or mothering a clutch of baby ducks, she had plenty of company. She had a great life.

Like Delilah, we consider our chickens partners for life. True, they supposedly lay fewer eggs as they get older, but we’ve never actually experienced this. After their first year, our chickens wise up and stop laying when the days grow short in the winter, conserving their strength to keep themselves warm, then starting up again when the days start lengthening in spring. (Chicken farmers get around this by heating and lighting their coops over the winter, but we’re happy to give our hens a well-deserved break.) Yes, we do have to break down and buy eggs (from a local farmer who free-ranges his flock) until our hens start laying again, but it’s a deal we’re happy to make to prolong their lives and keep them happy. They give us so much—incredibly rich, delicious, organic eggs, companionship (chickens are very personable and affectionate), and fantastic high-nitrogen fertilizer from their droppings, not to mention feathers for fly-tying and crafts—surely we can give them a winter vacation in return.

We love our chickens. They give us so much and ask so little in return. Twelve years of phenomenal eggs for every chick seems like a great return on investment to us! We try to keep six hens at a time, which provide all the eggs we can use and plenty to give to our friends. We’d like to see people raising chickens in every backyard.

But yes, they do, eventually, die. And after so many years, you do indeed feel like you’re losing a good friend. RIP Grizz. Your family and friends will miss you!

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Captain Kerosene. October 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here (again). Our local paper likes to feature a short column of themed statistics on Saturdays, and this week’s topic was obscure superheroes. One of the superheroes that made me and our friend Ben laugh was Captain Kerosene. Ha!!!

Of course, then I couldn’t get Captain Kerosene out of my mind, especially in light (pardon the pun) of our power outage that very morning. Thinking further about it, I realized that while Captain K. might not strike us as very heroic, most of the self-reliant folks I know would be happy to award a hero’s cape to Captain Propane.

Propane can be a lifesaver for folks trying to homestead off the grid. We ourselves depend on it for our beloved and ancient gas cookstove and the backup heater in our greenhouse. Pretty much everyone we know has propane-powered grills, and some have opted to forego conventional oil, natural gas, or electric heat in favor of propane to heat their houses and hot water and run their appliances. Two of our friends have wonderful propane “woodstoves” that provide them with that delightful winter fireplace feeling while heating the house. And of course some groups of local Amish and Mennonites are able to have non-wood cookstoves and even refrigerators thanks to propane.

So we say, hurrah for Captain Propane! And may Captain Solar and Captain Wind Power follow quickly in his wake.

          ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Lights out! October 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It was about 6:30 on Saturday morning, and still black as pitch, when the furnace cut off. The sudden quiet was enough even to rouse our friend Ben. “The power’s out!”

Well, yes, it certainly was. As I understand it, power outages in the city are damned inconvenient, especially if the weather’s extremely hot or cold and the a/c or heat shuts off. But you should try one here. We have a well and septic system here at Hawk’s Haven, which means that the second the power goes off, we’re confronting no light, no heat, no water—and that includes no running water—and no flushing toilet. No power to the greenhouse, no aeration or filtration for the fishtanks. Our parrot and parakeets freezing in their cages. And did I mention, NO BATHROOM?!!! Oh, okay. Just checking.

As you can imagine, this isn’t the first time this has happened since we’ve lived here. In fact, the first time was during an ice storm one February when a friend was staying over.* Until then, I thought we were in comparatively good shape. No, we didn’t have a generator. But we had a well, a gas stove, oil heat, and a septic system. None of these said “electricity” to me. Until the power failed and none of them worked. Water, heat, and the stove all switch on electronically. Oh, no.

To say the least, that first power outage was devastating. But it was also a wake-up call. By the time the power came back on, we had a plan to avoid feeling that helpless ever again. We installed a highly efficient woodstove in our living-room fireplace, and bought a heat-powered fan to blow even more of the woodstove heat into the room. Our living-room sofa is also a sofabed, so if worse comes to worst, we can pile on the blankets, crank up the woodstove, and stay there until further notice. And, oh yes—we make sure we always have a cord of dry, split wood on hand, just in case. It’s amazing how fast a woodstove can go through wood when you have it burning 24/7. We also now have a propane heater for the greenhouse, which would be fine without additional heat during the day (unless all the panels were covered with snow, which at least would be insulating), but on a winter night, temperatures can plummet fast.

Moving on to the water issue. We have some fairly elaborate water filters here, in case we ever have to drink creek water or roof runoff. But let’s hope that day never dawns. Meantime, we have spring water delivered every month, a practice I began way back when I lived in an apartment and our water source was contaminated. So we have backup, drinkable water in case the power fails, for ourselves and our animals. Our friend Ben pointed out that we could use it for brushing our teeth as well if we had to, and of course he’s right. And obviously, we can use it for cooking, too. I try to keep eight cases on hand at all times, which adds up to 48 gallons.

What about that toilet issue? Well, we keep recycled plastic juice and water bottles full of tapwater in the laundry room in case we need to pour them into the toilet to flush it. And okay, we also have two “alternative” toilets: An antique chamber pot I got at a flea market and a camper’s toilet we bought at Cabela’s, the huge sporting-goods store in nearby Hamburg, PA. (Cabela’s has a mail-order catalogue and many other stores around the country; check them out at www.cabelas.com.) I wish to God we had a composting toilet and an outhouse, as well, but you need a basement or second storey to install a non-electric composting toilet and we have neither, and of course outhouses are illegal. Damn.

Light? We have two battery-operated Coleman lanterns and a world of candles, including some that are very long-burning. We also splurged on reflective candleholders, with mirrors behind the candles, for the mantel to amplify light if needed. And one reason we bought this house to begin with was that it was designed to let in lots of light, from numerous windows and pass-throughs and the kitchen skylight and deck doors. OFB and I were able to read Saturday’s paper by the light streaming through the deck doors.

What about food? Fortunately, our ancient gas stove is prepared to come to our rescue here. We have two solar ovens in case of long-term emergency, but have never yet had to try one. (One of my goals is to learn how to cook with them before we absolutely have to depend on them.) Ditto for the propane grill our friends Chaz and Delilah reconditioned and gave us a few years ago (bless their hearts). It’s true that our stove is electronically started, but fortunately for us, in an emergency you can turn the gas on under a burner, light a match, hold it to the gas, and have a perfectly functional cooking surface. Whew! I was able to make coffee for OFB on Saturday morning, not in his decrepit but beloved coffeemaker, but by heating a teakettle of water on the stove, then pouring the hot water through a ceramic cup filter fitted out with a paper filter and coffee grounds into his coffee mug. He proclaimed it to be better than the coffee from his coffeemaker!

How else have we prepared for a power outage? We have insulated curtains on our windows, and use tacked-up bubblewrap to augment the curtains as needed. We have draft-stoppers at every door. We have wind-up clocks and watches. We try to keep plenty of food staples on hand to make sure we and our animals can survive if we can neither get out nor have power.  We have tons of warm coverings on hand to layer as needed (both blankets and clothing). We also try to have plenty of emergency supplies, be they medical or simple board games like chess or marble solitaire, so we won’t panic even if the outage continues for several days.

In this case, the weather had bounced back from unseasonably frigid to typical fall temps, so one concern was alleviated. My big concern was the bathroom, OFB’s was taking a shower before heading off for a meeting. Thank heavens, the power came on again at 9:30, so we weren’t in the dark all that long. But still… what if we had been? A power failure is always a good wake-up call. Are you prepared? Prepared to survive a day, 24 hours, a week in comparative comfort? If not, it’s not too late to look at your situation and think about what you could do to make it more power-outage-proof.

          ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

* And yes, this isn’t the 1800s, so you’d have thought any decent human being would have packed up his guest and taken him or her to a warm, cozy hotel with all the amenities if the power failed at home when it was way freezing outside. But the ice storm made it impossible to travel, so we were all stuck.

Cottage farming. May 3, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are big fans of Granny Miller, which is a blog (http://grannymillerblog.blogspot.com/, or click the link on our blogroll at right) rather than a person, though there is in fact a real and wonderful person writing the Granny Miller blog. Granny Miller documents sustainable living and shows you how to perform skills like canning, sheep raising, and even pillow-making with instructions, photos and videos that we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac can only wish we were capable of. There is a lot of commonsense politics, and commonsense in general, on Granny Miller’s blog, and that makes it anything but politically correct. As T.S. Eliot observed, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

But much as we love “Granny Miller” and her sister-in-spirit Jackie Clay (you can find her blog at www.backwoodshome.com or by clicking on the Backwoods Home link on our blogroll at right), we had never read “Granny’s” husband’s blog, The Midland Agrarian (http://www.midlandagrarian.blogspot.com/). We’re homesteaders, not “agrarians,” and after all, there are only so many hours in the day.

All that changed today, because “Granny Miller” featured one of her husband’s posts on her blog. It’s called “The Agrarian Rat Race” (mercifully, not about rats per se, but about how busy, exhausting, and hard farming is, even on a small scale). We were intrigued and wanted to read the full post, so we headed on over to The Midland Agrarian to check it out. We were so delighted with both the post and the blog that we’ve added it to our favorites sidebar so we can have instant access and see what The Midland Agrarian is saying on a daily basis.

But what we especially loved about this post (besides its strong common sense) and wanted to bring to everyone’s attention was TMA’s concept of “cottage farming.” We all know cottage gardening, where owners of small plots grow herbs, fruits, veggies and flowers in a happy, informal jumble, perhaps with a few backyard chickens (and definitely a very contented cat) thrown in for good measure. We assume that cottage farming also takes this patchwork quilt approach—a little of this, a little of that, all on a manageable, sustainable scale, for maximum growth (of the farmers) and satisfaction of same. The Midland Agrarian points out that cottage farming is not hobby farming, but instead is a serious effort to make a living from the land.

We commend the post and both Granny Miller and The Midland Agrarian to your attention. Folks who favor both Ron Paul and Alexander Hamilton, along with our Constitution and Founding Fathers, are A-okay with us!!! TMA, we’re just sorry it took us so long.

Rats, God, and Gaia February 10, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben asked me, Richard Saunders, of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, to check in today with some homespun wit and wisdom. Of course, I was happy to oblige. I’d like to talk about rats, since I think they offer a window into the mind of God. But in order to at least attempt to avoid offending readers with a horror of rats or an inflated sense of their own importance in the cosmic scheme of things, I will cast my reflections in the form of a fairy tale.

Once upon a time, in a country not far from here, there lived an inexperienced homesteader. This homesteader had a small property surrounded by farms, but he also had two very close neighbors, one on either side.

Each day, one of the highlights of the homesteader’s life was going out to visit his chickens, a small but colorful flock in a fenced enclosure. The homesteader had been very careful to use strong fencing and to fence over the top of the chicken yard to keep out hungry predators like hawks and raccoons. He had put a strip of wire fencing flat under the upright fencing so if digging predators came up to the fence line and tried to dig under it, they would hit the horizontal piece of fencing and be deterred. In short, he thought his little flock was snug and secure. But he had never thought about rats.

The neighboring farms all raised corn to feed their cattle, and after harvest, they stored the corn in large, open corn cribs. The corn attracted rats, which pospered and multiplied on the abundant food. One day, an adventurous rat made its way clear across the fields to the homesteader’s chicken yard. Undeterred by the fencing, it simply burrowed far enough underground to emerge inside the enclosure. Here it found food and water set out for the taking. Delighted, it began the long pilgrimage back across the fields to tell its friends.

Soon enough, the homesteader saw a rat in the chicken yard. This was quite a shock. But the rat was quiet and well-behaved. It didn’t bother the chickens, and in fact, was rather comical with its cute antics as it waddled around the yard. The homesteader, a peaceful soul, decided to live and let live. Now each day when he went out to visit the chickens, the rat would waddle up for his food right along with the rest, its black eyes bright with intelligence and appreciation.

Not long after this, the homesteader saw a second rat in the chicken yard. And soon thereafter he saw a third, and a fourth. All the rats were well-behaved. They didn’t bother the chickens, they enjoyed romping and playing, and they all ran out when the homesteader arrived with the morning rations. They’re doing no harm, the homesteader reasoned, and in their own way, they’re actually amusing and delightful. He didn’t go so far as to name the rats, but he could easily tell them apart.

Day followed day, and the well-fed rats became fruitful and multiplied. Soon, the chicken yard was alive with engaging little baby rats, which became adult rats, which produced more baby rats. The contented rat colony continued to eat side by side with the chickens, who ignored them, and to remain quiet and well-behaved. However, it was now impossible for even the well-meaning and pacific homesteader to believe that the situation could go on. Any day now, one or both of his neighbors might glance into his yard and see the swarm of rats overrunning the chicken yard. Or, even worse, the populous colony might decide to branch out into their yards. Clearly, something had to be done–and pronto, before irate neighbors called in the officials to shut down the little chicken operation for good.

With a heavy sigh, the homesteader headed for the Agway and purchased cakes of rat poison. He sent his five beloved chickens off for some R&R at a friend’s place, and went out to the chicken yard with the poison cakes. He broke them up and set them in the chicken yard. The rats, who trusted him completely, raced up joyfully as always to enjoy the new treat he’d brought them. For several days, the homesteader endured the soul-scarring ordeal of watching creatures who trusted him dying at his hands. Each day, he collected the dead in body bags and disposed of them. Finally, not a single rat was left in the chicken yard. The homesteader cleaned up all traces of poison, collected his chickens, and set a baited, chicken-proof box in a corner of the chicken yard in case any new rats decided to check out the situation. But rats are smart, and in the many years that followed, none ever returned. The homesteader and his chickens lived happily ever after.

But this is not the end of the story. The homesteader often thinks that one or two rats survived the purge and returned to their main colony back on the farm, carrying horrific tales of a dreadful plague and warning all rats to never, ever cross the field again. In fact, for the homesteader, the whole incident opened up a window into the mind of God. He could vividly imagine God looking down from time to time on the swarming, overpopulated mass of humanity and thinking, “You know, those humans are so intelligent and cute. I love their little games and antics. And it’s obvious that they love Me, too–they positively worship Me! But there are simply too many of them. It’s time to take corrective action before the situation gets completely out of hand and the beautiful world I created is overrun!” Then the homesteader could imagine God choosing a plague or other disaster and smiting his oblivious, trusting creation until the population was reduced to a more manageable level.

Well, that is the end of the story.  And what brought it to mind was a pair of books I’ve been reading, one on early America and one on John of Gaunt, arguably the last great feudal figure of mediaeval England. The one on early America–admittedly, one of my favorite topics for obvious reasons–discussed recent research that shows that, far from being a vast, uninhabited wilderness when the first Europeans arrived here, the North American continent was densely populated, with crowded cities and sophisticated civilizations. In fact, the first English arrivals in New England actually headed on down the coast, because there were so many Native American cities already crowding the coastline that the settlers decided to look for less inhabited areas.

Yet, just 25 years later, the Pilgrims found no cities and few people when they arrived. Why? Because the tuberculosis and smallpox brought over by those first European settlers had wiped out the original inhabitants. The Spaniards had decimated the great civilizations of the Aztecs and Maya, and later the Anasazi, in the same way. (Remember all that speculation about why the great Maya and Anasazi cities were simply abandoned, apparently without cause? Well, guess what–we were the cause.) The Native American population went from millions to a scattered remnant that was easy for the European Americans to overcome, even centuries later.

Okay, I thought, I can believe that. But then I wondered, if that were true, why didn’t European contact decimate the populations of Africa and Asia as well? Turns out, they decimated us. Shortly after reading about our wiping out the Native Americans, I was reading a history of John of Gaunt, which pointed out that smallpox was unknown in Europe until the fourteenth century, and ditto for the plague, aka the Black Death, which wiped out a third to a half of the population of Europe. I’d always thought of the Middle Ages as a time of privation, but apparently a combination of centuries of warm weather and lack of pandemic diseases had created abundant crops and a burgeoning population–far more people, in fact, than Europe could support.   

Well then, I thought, no wonder Europeans didn’t decimate the populations of Africa and Asia–they didn’t have these abominable diseases when they first made contact with those continents. But after reading a bit more about the plague, I see that it was the other way ’round: The Black Death came from Africa, through Asia, to Europe, leaving a decimated population in its wake. Then, once the exploding population had been reduced to manageable levels, it subsided. I tell you, it’s enough to make one believe in the Gaia Hypothesis–that the Earth is an intelligent superorganism that oversees its own welfare on a global scale, maintaining a balance between the populations of various organisms. Before we go the way of the dinosaurs, perhaps we should take heed…  

A leap of faith: signs of spring February 6, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading.
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Here in Pennsylvania, people tend to set great store by the pronouncements of celebrity groundhog (that’d be “grundsau” in Penna Dutch)  Punxsutawney Phil vis-a-vis winter’s continuing reign. But if you’re a gardener, or a transplanted Southerner like our friend Ben who’s terrified of driving through snow and ice, even after all these years, the lust for spring is very strong, especially after the weirdly warm winter we’ve been having. (Thank you, global warming?) It makes you ignore deadlines in order to fondle newly arrived seed packets, or devise wild schemes for planting out those gift baskets of narcissi and grape hyacinths that have been brightening the house in January, or, say, finally unplugging the Christmas tree on the deck out back and chopping it up for firewood. (Except for the latter, these are probably bad ideas.)

But yesterday, I finally had a sign of spring that I couldn’t ignore. No, it wasn’t the endless passage of snow geese and Canada geese over the backyard, their haunting cries louder than traffic; and no, it wasn’t the changing of the feeder bird guard, though the resident population has shifted a bit over the past week. It wasn’t the rushing sound of Hawk Run, the little creek behind my house, suddenly freed from its coat of ice, nor the mud sliding wetly under its thin crust of fallen leaves as I take the golden retriever out in the morning or go about my daily chores.

Instead, it was the call of the chickens. I have six hens, each of a different heritage breed,* and they endure the winter in comparative silence, eating their pellets and scratch grain and table scraps, and the day-old bread and lettuce I buy just for them; like me, waiting for spring. But yesterday, I heard for the first time since fall the loud, shrill, bragging call that unmistakably says “Look at me! I laid an egg! Isn’t that incredibly wonderful, an act without equal in the whole history of the world? I am the greatest chicken on Earth!!!” And sure enough, this morning there were seven–count them, seven–eggs. Mind you, plenty of people enjoy homegrown eggs all year, because they heat and light their henhouses to trick the chickens into believing in a perpetual spring. But in a real-world environment, after their first winter–when they don’t know any better–chickens realize as the days grow shorter (and colder) that they’d better put that egglaying energy into keeping themselves alive, and they stop laying until the days start lengthening again in spring. I keep my chickens ’til they die–they’ll continue laying eggs all their lives, and anyway, I’d hate to be slaughtered just because I’d retired–and I want them to be in vibrant good health, so I give them the winters off. They look fat and glossy all winter, and this winter has been special for them because they hate snow and there’s been damned little for a change. Which means that those first eggs are a real cause of excitement here at Hawk’s Haven, my one-acre Eden. It not only means the end of buying farmers’ market eggs (so what if they’re organic and free range, their yolks are still yellow, not huge, orange glaceed apricots like my hens’), it means that spring really is on the way. Hooray, hurrah!

Just for the record, I suppose I should say it early and often: Hens do NOT need roosters to produce eggs. They only need roosters to produce chicks. They’ll lay eggs all their lives with or without a rooster, but the eggs will be sterile unless fertilized by Mr. Chanticleer. Please don’t feel stupid if you didn’t already know this–it’s the question I’m most frequently asked about raising chickens. Apparently it’s only known to chicken enthusiasts. So now you can amaze all your friends!  

* For those who care: Buff Orpington (Stella), Spangled Sussex (Roxanne), Barred Rock (Lucretia), Partridge Rock  (Olivia), and two half-sisters, Imelda (Americana/Partridge Rock) and Griselda (Americana/Delaware). Names matter; everyone should have one! And don’t think for a minute that chickens don’t recognize theirs.

         

Welcome to Poor Richard’s Almanac! February 5, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Greetings to all who visit here! Like the original (and incomparable) Dr. Franklin, I hope to amuse and enlighten with messages from my cohorts, Silence Dogood, Richard Saunders (the original Poor Richard), and, of course, the occasional observation by myself, our friend Ben. I look forward to your comments as well, and warn you, you’re in for a wild topical ride, from chickens and homestead aspirations to Ron Paul and Hillary Clinton. It’s time to put the wit and wisdom back in everyday life!