Monday, December 29, 2014

Final days of 2014...

...and we are going out with a bang (literally)!

Jason is making a ruckus in the bathroom as demolition is officially underway.  There's no turning back now!  Alida is already complaining about how noisy daddy is being and wondered if he would finish the whole project today. Wishful thinking!  We'll try to keep the blog balanced with a variety of life's happenings over the next few months but likely the stages of this project will take somewhat of a front seat, as it will clearly be the major focal point of our time and attention.  I'm sure we'll all have our moments, but right now it's exciting to embark on something we have dreamed of doing for years now.  And it has been quite some time since we have done an inside construction project, so I think we are up for the challenge!  The original completion date was around Alida's birthday but with the delayed start, we are probably looking more at end of April or sometime in May (colliding unfortunately with spring planting and one of my two crazy months at work!).

It was nice to have a few days away, enjoying time with family at the Benner homestead before plowing ahead (it seemed that Grandma wasn't at all disappointed at being surrounded by grandchildren!).  Gratefully, we now have a week here at home together with a few fun social gatherings interspersed throughout the work days.  I imagine my most helpful contribution will be keeping the rest of us out of Jason's hair, keeping everyone fed and as happy as possible.  If I can also get my hands dirty here and there and make a tangible contribution to the remodel project that'll be a bonus!  I just took Jason a shot of wheat grass juice to give him a boost for the work ahead, noting how weird we are as we both slugged it down making horrible faces in the process.

While we work inside, there are exciting things happening outside too (in the composting chicken coop, that is).  It seems that all of a sudden we've got hens wanting to go broody left and right. It's not exactly the ideal time of year for this to happen but, as we often try to do, we are taking advantage of the opportunity to try something new and hopefully learn a lot in the process.  Right now there are two mama hens sitting on eggs and the first brood are set to hatch anytime now - we are calling them our "new year's chicks."  Jason has heard peeping but the mama is sitting tight so we haven't seen proof of fuzz balls yet.  There's another one or two hens contemplating broodiness so we may get a few more rounds started.  We are all pretty excited to see how raising chicks in the composting coop goes, and having them free range with their mama (who will hopefully be able to teach them the ropes of safe free ranging early on).  Stay tuned!

Time to head out in the mist to get some exercise and hopefully encourage an afternoon nap for Alida.  I've done more sitting around, eating and napping the last few days than I'm accustomed to so I'm eager for some movement.  In closing, here's Kali and Alida with their gingerbread house creations that they made while with the Benners:

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas and we are about to dive in!

It's Christmas morning: Alida is tearing around the house playing with a group of imaginary friends and trying to patiently wait for the rest of the family to be ready to finish opening stockings.  Kali and Jason are out moving the ducks and giving them a little Christmas morning treat of wheat grass.  I'm bustling around getting nutty sweet potato waffles and sauteed kale underway, getting a little laundry done, and packing for a holiday trip to the Benner homestead in PA!  It will be our last family trip for awhile so we are going to try to savor it!

Ready or not, the next thing on the major projects list is to remodel our bathroom!!  We've been moving things around, emptying out the bathroom and rearranging the one wall in the kitchen to prepare for the demolition phase, which will begin just as soon as we return from our trip.  We are getting used to our toilet being in the back kitchen and we have taken our last showers in our old bathroom - something I don't think any of us feel particularly sentimental about!  It's another one of many times in which we feel pleased about using a compost toilet - it would be much harder to move a water toilet into our back kitchen!

I've been very grateful for the additional storage afforded to us by the finished bed project!  Some bathroom supplies have already taken up temporary residence in the drawers of the bed.  It was lovely to see completion of a project we have dreamed about for a number of years now. As always, Jason has done a fabulous job of designing something that is beautiful, functional, comfortable and will last for a long, long time!  We hope to set it up for a queen mattress when we can swing that purchase, but for now (again, designed fancily to accommodate either) it is holding our old double box spring and mattress (making it just a little too high for Alida to climb into herself, but a lot of fun for her to try).

Lastly, it feels worth noting that for our Christmas Eve dinner last evening (at Kali's request) we had navajo fry bread tacos with fresh spinach and lettuce picked from our garden.  The fry bread was also made with fresh ground cornmeal and rye flour (remember, we are out of any wheat flour so I'm getting more and more creative by the day).   They were a hit!  But even more than the tacos, Alida enjoyed diving into her finished pink sauerkraut.  It tasted a whole lot like the batch made with green cabbage that she consistently said "yuck" to when we offered to serve her some.

We ended our evening snuggled up together watching a very sweet feel-good movie that we got for Kali for Christmas (Because of Winn-Dixie).  Now off to down a shot of wheat grass juice, finish Christmas brunch and then to get the car packed so we can head north!!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Backgammon and "local cookies"

Since we'll be together with some extended family soon, it seems worth offering some words of caution to anyone that might enjoy accepting an invitation to play a game with our littlest.  She likes to win.  A lot!  She doesn't like to lose. At all!  Depending on the time of day and her need for sleep, it can be a minor disturbance or the end of the world.  It works out well when she and Rover play together, as you can probably guess who wins.

Kali got this segment of a recent game recorded while they were spending several hours together Monday while Jason was busily getting the walnut for our bed oiled!  That leads me to another topic of much excitement - if we stay on schedule (a very modified schedule, since we were already about a month off schedule when he started on the bed), we will likely sleep on our new bed Saturday night!  New bed, old mattresses (for now anyway).  I'm taking some time off work around the holidays to boost our progress on both the bed and bathroom projects.  And so far we have been able to free Jason up to make good progress during the day and then enjoy family time and game playing in the evenings.  Last night while we played turkey feet, Jason and the girls plowed through 4 popcorn sampling rounds!  Tonight it's our newest culinary experiment: gingerbread rye cookies.
Ginger pre-harvest

Ginger post-harvest
I don't think I've ever made a batch of cookies where the bulk of the cookie was made with local ingredients.  For this family, that's pretty special.  It's 100% rye that we grew, eggs from our chickens, grated ginger uprooted today from the pot on our piano, and sorghum molasses from our neighbor next door.  There is nothing remotely local about the icing or sprinkles - but I was quite happy to use up 4 mini-containers of icing that have been in the freezer for months...

Well, our Turkey Feet rounds for tonight are over, so I just need to grind the wheat grass for our "shots" before bed.  Kali has even acquired a taste for it.  And we are all feeling pleasant after the game playing since Alida won the last round. I don't think anyone intentionally let her win, but it would be tempting when the last round falls after 9 p.m. because otherwise there are often some tears during the bedtime routine.  Last night they were calmed by telling a story - that of her Grandpa Myers and his days of not necessarily being the best sport (thanks Parcheesi Boy for the good diversion!)

In closing, here is this family getting silly this evening!  On a recent date night with Aunt Emily, the girls wrote with her a new version of a library book regarding underwear do's and don't's.  They did one about socks.  The girls had a lot of fun pretending to put their socks in the woodstove, in the silverware drawer, in the compost, on my ear, and on their elbows today.  Here we are all acting out "Do use a clean sock if you unexpectedly come across a banana you'd like to carry home!"

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Thanks to Alida's inspiration...

So a few weeks back, friends joined us for an overnight visit and we lumped together food contributions from both households for our Monday evening meal.  C had brought some fancy little raviolis that made quite the impression on our littlest (even today Alida mused, "I wonder how she made them."  She hasn't quite gotten the concept that you can buy pre-prepared meals).  The next day, if not within hours of eating them, she was wondering when we could have them again.  I try to live by the premise that if you can buy it in the store, you can surely make it, and hopefully an even tastier version!  I also like to follow up on menu requests made by our girls because they tend to eat really well when they have been part of deciding what to eat, and better yet if they help in the creation of the food itself.

I hadn't even tasted the treasured morsels, so was going only on the fact that they were spinach and cheese ravioli with a red sauce over top.  We make pasta often and have a ravioli attachment (used only once with moderate success) for our pasta maker.  So that hurdle was supposedly non-existent.  The greater hurdle, or so it seemed, was that I had completely run out of flour (wheat) a few days back and Jason and I had decided for a number of reasons (financial, practical, nutritional) that we were going to not replenish our supply but instead discipline ourselves to stay out of grocery stores and use the food we worked hard storing up from April through October (it is after all almost officially winter and this is the time to eat it)!

So as I often do, I used a few google searches to land a pasta recipe that was deemed a success with 100% buckwheat flour.  The recipe called for the soaking method, which neutralizes anti-nutrients in grain, so I mixed up the dough (2 c buckwheat flour, 1/2 c water and 1/2 T raw apple cider vinegar) last evening and let it set until Alida arose today from her afternoon nap.

It was nice to have a pasta maker to assure me we know how to make pasta, but there was no getting the buckwheat dough through it without turning it into little shards of pasta.  So on to the trusty rolling pins and wax paper method - decidedly harder on the wrists but with my little helpers we got the job done!  And the dough was very nice to work with and soon we were making our very own spinach and cheese raviolis!  I knew the buckwheat would have a stronger flavor than wheat so was uncertain what kind of reception they would have.  There are no leftovers!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tis the season...

The sun is streaming into our front picture windows so I've positioned my chair right in the path of the warm rays!  Jason and I were too eager to head out for a morning jog together (taking advantage of a "childless" morning), and didn't get around to starting a fire.  The sun will take over from here!

The girls are enjoying a sleepover with Aunt Emily and Uncle Jonas.  It was nice for Jason and I to have some concentrated time together again, as we were likely to go through complete withdraw after our luxurious Thanksgiving time away.  It was everything (and much more than) we could have hoped for.  We had planned to head to West Virginia on Wednesday but ended up going over Tuesday to beat the snow storm; an excellent decision!  We planned to spend the time with my parents but Mom had also reserved the family cabin down the road for Jason and I to slip away to as much as it made sense to do so and as much as the girls were comfortable with that plan.

Well, as it turns out, they were 100% comfortable with us being gone!  Kali was gracious and welcomed us back warmly each afternoon. Alida...not so much!  Anytime we would reappear, she would ask why we were there and made it quite clear that she liked it better with just Grandma, Grandpa and Kali.  It was nice to know she didn't "need" us, but I wouldn't have minded had she "wanted" us just a tad more!  In all honesty, though, it was a glorious feeling to know that we were having a wonderful time and so were the girls, and I think the grandparents enjoyed it too!  The snow added additional fun and beauty to our time in the mountains!
This was not staged - I actually picked these 7 letters during one of our many Upwords games!
Kali spent hours out in the snow and it seemed that Alida's favorite was sledding after dark!
On the last day I wondered out loud to Jason how long it would take for us to get tired of our WV schedule: wake up without an alarm, enjoy a hot drink and breakfast over a game of Upwords, do some yoga together or read out loud or to ourselves, beat Jason in another game of Upwords over lunch, hike back to Mom and Dad's together, spend the afternoon relaxing/playing games, eat supper with them and then do some more relaxing and games, and then head back to the cabin for the night.  Let's just put it this way - we weren't tired of it by Sunday when it was time to head back over the 4 mountains...

One of the surprising parts of our four full days there was that Alida nursed to sleep for her nap each afternoon. On the last day there, I had Jason come up and take some pictures once she had fallen asleep. Over the course of those days, I had the strong sense that we were coming to the end of an era.  Kali nursed until her 3rd birthday.  Alida is going on 3 3/4 years old and at our last family meeting noted that she might stop when she is 5.  I'm not sure the stars are going to align for that to be true.  In reality, she hardly ever asks to nurse anymore (she went about 4 days this week without even thinking about it until I mentioned it).  There isn't much there anymore to extract even if she was still good at it. And, on that last point, it seems that she is actually kind of losing the knowledge of how to nurse.  On one hand it is kind of humorous, on the other it's kind of uncomfortable.  At our family meeting, we talked about doing something special to mark the end of nursing, but she didn't seem very interested in that.  From what I can tell, it seems like it is just going to phase out peacefully without much attention given to the transition. Jason asked me the other day if I'm ready for the end.  I'm really not sure, but ready or not it seems to be fast approaching.

The girls helped Mom decorate for Christmas while we were there and so they were all practiced up for our return home!  Our first day back, Jason and the girls scouted out a tree on our property for our front room and we got our the Christmas tunes and danced and decorated!  While I find the lessening of daylight hours at this time of year difficult, I do enjoy the ritual of plugging in the Christmas lights, getting a fire going in the wood stove and playing Christmas music. We are also enjoying more games of Backgammon and Turkey Feet and have just started in on 2014 popcorn taste testing!  I also love the time of year where soup is about the right thing for every meal.  I'm thoroughly enjoying getting reacquainted with beans and squash and potatoes.

So, like every season of the year, there are things that I enjoy and look forward to and things that will make me welcome the next season when the time arrives.  For now, I'm about to get reacquainted with our kiddos, who are headed back our way...

Thursday, November 27, 2014

What we need is in the sky!

Janelle wanted me to generate a post about biochar; she liked the way I described it to a friend and thought my take on it might be helpful to a larger audience…does our blog readership constitute a larger audience?  Oh, well, it’s the largest we’ve got!

So what if I implied to you that the problem with the global climate change conversation is that we’re seeing atmospheric carbon as a troublesome burden, when really it’s a tremendously underutilized resource for solving the most pressing problems of agriculture?  Would that make you sit up and pay attention?  Agricultural activity over the past 10,000 years has acted to drive our precious soil carbon out of the soil and into the sky.  This has been a profound loss…we need to find ways to reverse this process and invite the carbon out of the atmosphere and back into our soils where it belongs; where it is so badly needed.

I’ll start my explanation with a few paragraphs (I’ll try to be succinct) about biochar facts and history.  Pyrolyzed (charred) wood has been used accidentally and/or purposefully for millennia by humans as a soil amendment and a fuel (as charcoal).  Char is created by partially burning wood…that is to say halting the combustion reaction before it turns the wood completely to ash.  Those little black chunks left over in your fire pit after a cookout…that’s char.  By manipulating the burn setting and process, a person can make it so that there is a whole lot of black stuff left over and comparatively little ash.  Traditionally this has been achieved by creating a smoldering fire with limited oxygen, and extinguishing the burn prematurely when the desired level of pyrolysis (charring) has occurred. 

Medical practitioners and others will be familiar with another property of char…it is great at grabbing many kinds of chemical substances and holding on to them.  Typically the more reactive the substance, the more char wants it, so reactive toxins like heavy metals can be cleared from the body by ingesting charcoal.  I believe this is the process known as chelation.  It should not be done willy-nilly--so don’t go swallowing chunks of char as a bonus detox—because when char finishes with grabbing the most reactive stuff, it moves right into the less reactive stuff and grabs that, too.  So it can deplete the body of valuable minerals and the like if overdone.

You would think, then, that char would make a terrible soil amendment, since it is so hungry for nutrients.  Indeed it must be used with caution.  If you mix it with your garden soil straight from the fire, the reports are that there is nothing more capable of starving your plants in a hurry.  However if before you add it to the soil you “charge” it (fully stock its storage capacity) with beneficial plant nutrients, it becomes a wonderful nutrient reservoir that plants and soil microbes can draw from and deposit into over the long term.  So charging it with nutrients is what makes “char” into “biochar.”  This nutrient-bank function is one of the same roles that clay serves in the soil, but char is better at it and has other benefits.  Read on.

There is nothing more important in soil health than organic matter (dead bits of plants and other life-sourced matter).  Organic matter makes the soil lighter and easier for roots to penetrate and colonize, it provides habitat for the huge diversity and number of organisms that make up a healthy soil, it promotes healthy aeration and stores soil water and nutrients.  There are myriad types and sources of organic matter, each with its own properties.  Some stays in the soil only a little while before it degrades (fueling a plant smorgasbord of nutrient exchanges) and returns to the air as carbon dioxide, some stays around for several years, some for hundreds of years.  Pyrolyzed organic matter (char bits) is the most permanent type, lasting in the soil not for hundreds of years but thousands!  For agricultural systems purposes, then, it can be thought of as a permanent form of organic matter.  For the nation that has squandered its topsoil at devastating rates over the last century and a half, this should be a pretty attention-getting little factoid!

At this point it is worth asking the question:  Where did the plants and trees we make biochar from get their carbon in the first place?  The answer may surprise some folks:  From the air.  Atmospheric carbon dioxide.  The very same supply of carbon dioxide that is pressure-cooking our planet.  So put it together with me here:
  • There used to be a lot of carbon in the soil, in the form of organic matter.  That was good!
  •  We plowed the soil, allowing the topsoil to erode and promoting decay/oxidation of that organic matter, driving it into the air (one third of CO2 overproduction has been from this source).  That was bad!
  • We learned how to burn high-carbon fossil fuels for extra energy, releasing even more carbon and letting us plow even more.  That was very bad!
  • Trees and plants use atmospheric CO2 to build their tissues, reducing atmospheric carbon.  Yay!
  • Charring this plant tissue immobilizes it and renders it a permanent soil asset, keeping it out of the atmosphere over the very long term.  So the more biochar we hungrily generate to feed our starving soils, the more we solve our climate problem.  Holy Cow!

And speaking of cows, using a combination of prescribed burns (grasses pyrolyze, too!) and skillful rotational grazing is perhaps the most powerful way of reducing atmospheric carbon while building agricultural soils for the long term.  In fact, grass fires are part of how I got interested in biochar.  I had read about archeological digs in which there were found pieces of char from cooking fires that had lasted for many thousands of years in the soil, virtually unchanged.  It got me thinking about whether this process could be used to sequester carbon, especially if half-burned grass bits could be the material in question, since grass regenerates so quickly after fires.  So I fired up ye olde search engine and, sure enough, there was this whole body of knowledge and inquiry around the topic.  It turns out that this was one of the major factors in building the fantastic topsoils of the American Midwest.  Prairie fires, intentional and accidental, have been a conditioning and capacity-building influence for as long as humans have lived there.

Perhaps the most stunning example of the soil-creating powers of char comes from the Terra Preta soils of the South American tropics.  I am unclear on whether these are known to have been intentionally created, but the story goes that when researchers looked into the back story of some fabulously productive, seemingly inexhaustible soils in the Amazon (I think), they found that the soils were built from leftover char from cooking fires accumulated to something like a twenty foot depth over the millennia in these locations, and that time had allowed full charging of the char.  The result was jaw-dropping, and I find the implications staggering.  Give me some of that!  Never was the Permaculture maxim of misallocated or excess resources equaling pollution so clearly demonstrated.  Carbon is a resource, folks.  And if there is one thing modern western culture is good at, it is exploiting resources.  There is even the possibility in my mind that if we got good at putting carbon to excellent use in our soils, we might even end up with a more productive planet than we’ve ever seen in the history of humanity.  Stick with me a minute:  Two-thirds of the CO2 resource has come from carbon that’s been out of commission since the dinosaurs.  If we can get a hold of that, too, and add it to carbon-poor soils around the globe, we might be sitting pretty, even with 7 billion of us and rising, albeit with a nod to the law of unintended consequences.

So how might we go about tapping into this resource?  On a large scale (municipal, industrial) it needs some kind of “through-process” system to be efficient, perhaps making use of agricultural and sylvicultural (tree-growing) wastes or by-products such as tree tops from sustainable wood products, orchard prunings, corn stalks, wheat straw and chaff, etc.  On a small decentralized scale, this is almost surely going to be done in batches (my first attempt is described in the last blog entry), with the exception of grassland management systems, which are more infinitely scalable.  Some of the most exciting developments I see are systems being built for home-scale use (many could be adapted for larger work) that are using the surplus heat from biochar kilns to provide domestic hot water, home heat, greenhouse heating, cooking heat, and the like.  There is potential for using the excess gases to run internal combustion engines, and one creative company has even managed to refine jet fuel and other hydrocarbons from them!  Of course, one worries about the consequences of Americans learning how to burn trees to make their SUVs run…

Much of my information about technical developments in biochar come from Wayne Teel, our local biochar tinkerer extraordinaire, and a JMU professor in sustainable agriculture specializing in agroforestry.  It can be done on almost any scale, and we need lots of common people playing with it to create a fertile environment for innovation and acceptance on a broad and/or large scale.  Before long the corporations may recognize what a valuable resource is in the air over our heads and all around us…then they’ll find a way to claim it for themselves and charge us for it!  Get it while you can!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Until December...

Dark is falling and so I expect Jason to reappear any moment.  He was out enjoying one last stint in the tree stand.  No luck harvesting a deer for our canning shelves and freezer but it seems he is hardly disappointed about the hours spent in the woods!  We didn't expect that he would have the luxury of taking some time there this evening as we are starting our travels almost a day early to beat the pending snow storm.  But it's been a relaxed day getting ready and so he is enjoying watching his chickens forage in the woods (without any deer for company).

We've had a few "firsts" in the last week or so that seem worth documenting here for the fun of looking back on it.

The first was that I'm now in the habit of making our sauerkraut and having some on hand.  Alida tasted it a long time ago and enjoyed it but she has more recently acquired a thing against sauerkraut made with green cabbage. That may be in part because we had some pink sauerkraut that her aunt had made and that has become the only kind she wishes to eat. She was asking, multiple times, for us to make the pink kind.  So we did!  Right now it looks very purple so we'll see what happens in the coming 4 weeks or so.  I'm grateful for my new (or better said repurposed) stomper that makes the job much easier.  I was amused by Alida's methods - not exactly the most efficient in getting the juices out of the cabbage but entertaining to watch:

The second new thing was we have our very first biochar pit.  We hope it is the first of many!  Jason had heard of the pit method of making biochar (pyrolyzed woody debris to be charged with nutrients before use as a soil amendment) and got the idea of using a biochar pit as the base for our next composting toilet dumping station.  That way the biochar would be there to soak up what leaches into the ground and would act as a filter, while charging the biochar at the same time.  Then a few years down the road when we use the compost, beneath it we will have an incredible soil amendment and in the process we'll have sequestered a little carbon - bonus!  It was a simple process, that Alida got really into helping with until she got a little scratch on her finger from the brush.  I imagine a future blog post from Jason is in order to get his reflections on his recent stints in the tree stand and the biochar adventure.

And, finally, I made pure 100% wheat grass juice today. Wowzers!  So we don't grow enough wheat to grind it into flour but we grow plenty to have a little wheat grass farm. We've grown it off and on for months and I've blended it with water, strained it and used in smoothies. However, upon more reading recently, it seems the best shot of nutrients is when you have 100% wheat grass juice immediately after extracting it.  Supposedly 1 oz of the stuff is equivalent to about 2 lb of veggies (I'm not vouching for this site, but if even 10% of these claims have any validity, it's pretty amazing stuff:

I used Jason's meat grinder and full colander of wheat grass gave me 3 one-ounce shots of pure wheat grass juice.  Yep, that's it!  I took one "shot" down to Jason who was dousing his biochar pit with water and we toasted our wheat grass juice and then partook of it (making a number of faces in the process).  It sure tastes like it would have some kind of impact! I'm not sure I have anything to compare it to.  The last ounce went into a yummy banana strawberry smoothie for the girls.

It's fun to feel space opening up in my days at home to experiment with more things like this.  Who knows what I'll be cooking up in the kitchen by the end of the winter!  It's also fun to have Alida and Kali both being highly interested in participating...  I'm looking forward to expanding my array of food options come December 1 when my current 60-day food experiment comes to an end.  In the meantime, I've been enjoying lots of amazing salads with lettuce from our garden, red cabbage from our neighbor next door, kale from our garden or next door, and a parsley pesto yogurt dressing with parsley from our friend's farm and lots of garlic from ours.

But now we must turn our attention to moving westward!  This has been a long anticipated trip - time to savor with family, time for Jason and I to spend together while the girls entertain and are entertained by grandparents, time away from our project list (one last hurrah before the bathroom remodel commences), and time in the mountains.  And it looks like we might get to enjoy some snow too!