Friday, March 30, 2007

Pressing Matters

Well, the funky old/new cider press hit a few snags. Or rather, I hit a few snags. See those long, thin bolts on either side? Well, let's just say that cast iron can be surprisingly brittle. While removing it from its somewhat flimsy shipping box, I broke one of those bolts. Or perhaps it broke in transit, I'm not sure. It sheared off right where it screws into the top piece. I used my best powers of persuasion and limited handyman skills to try to extract the broken piece, then to drill it out. It wasn't working. In the process, I broke off the head of a little thumb screw too.

After a few phone calls, I tracked down a guy in the next town over who could help me out. A retired shop teacher, he had a whole arsenal of metalworking tools and equipment in his garage. A day later, and he'd cleaned out the remnants of the bolt and the thumb screw, re-threaded the holes, welded a new threaded end onto the old bolt, and even delivered the repaired pieces to my door. He complimented me on knowing when to stop trying and call somebody.

So the other night, with a non-broken press and a bag of Braeburn apples, e5 and I decided to give it a whirl. Or a crank.

We (er, I) cut four small apples into chunks and dropped them into the press. After some hard cranking and just a few drops of clear liquid (probably rinse water), we realized that we must be doing something wrong. A quick trip to Google told me that we needed to pulverize the apples a bit. A meat tenderizing mallet seemed fun, but it was a bit messy, so we got out the food processor and chopped up the chunks. Then back into the press.

Success! Amber liquid began flowing from the press. Turning the crank as far as I could and then waiting a couple minutes seemed to allow further pressing.

Ultimately, we got about a cup of cider from the four small apples.

We happened to have some store bought cider in the fridge, because it's one of the few fruit juices that I can drink in quantity without it bothering my stomach.

In a side-by-side comparison, the fresh stuff tasted very similar to the store bought. It was a little crisper, fresher, and a little more complex. Not surprising I guess.

What about all that leftover apple pomace?
I found some happy consumers out in the pasture.
(Oddly, the donkey had no interest.)

So if we ever buy too many apples, or if our apple trees ever give us a surplus, or if we ever have imperfect fruit that we don't know what to do with... well, now we know what we can do with it.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Saturn's hexagon

Best explanations yet for the strange, gigantic, permanent, rotating, hexagonal cloud formation at Saturn's north pole [more or less pilfered from various comments on slashdot]:

- The US Government's super-secret replacement facility for the Pentagon

- Giant Magrathean hex bolt that holds the planet together

- Spinning bucket of water experiment on a planetary scale

- After those incredible rings, God got lazy with polygon rendering for the rest of the planet

- Honeycomb built by giant Space Bees


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Friday, March 23, 2007

Is that really possible?

Saturday, March 24 is being promoted as "Shutdown Day."

The idea is to turn off your computer and go do something else. Can you live without your email, your blogs, your news feeds, your games, your Google searches... for 24 hours? In a row?

I'm willing to give it a shot. If anybody needs me, I'll be in that really big room with the gray ceiling and the dirty floor...


Wednesday, March 21, 2007


As promised, pictures of baby chicks!
The yellowish ones are Buckeyes,
and the blackish ones are Dominiques.

"Peep! Peep peep! Peep!"

"Yeah, so I'm a fluffy baby chick.
What of it??"

E5 wanted to kiss every single chick.
Twice. I hope he grows out of that.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Gee willikers

I thought I'd post a quick update on all the stuff that's been happening in our lives - but only those subjects that start with G. Because I'm feeling geeky.


We've finished the unpleasant task of disbudding all of our baby goats. This is an un-fun process that will keep them from growing horns. Unfortunately, the breeds we're dealing with get non-trivial horns, and we've already learned that our one fully horned goat is quite a nuisance, and verging on dangerous.

We also sold all three of our male goat babies. Well, there may be one or two more to come, but the three we have are all sold. The bottle baby has left us already, and he'll be joined by his brother and his half-brother as soon as they are weaned. The more sensitive readers out there will be happy to know that they won't be sold for meat. They'll be living out their days together on a brushy hillside with a running stream. No word on whether daisies grow there. But an animal-loving granddaughter and aspiring vet will take good care of them, I'm sure. And it won't be long now before we can stop buying milk at the grocery store again...


I've been asked by BlueGreenEarth (no relation) and The European Social Ecology Institute for permission to republish a couple of my posts here. I am honored. Not bad for somebody just a year and a half removed from a life in suburbia. And further vindication that I am not crazy. Or at least that I'm not the only one who's crazy.


Speaking of crazy, I bought one of these on eBay:
This scary-looking cast-iron contraption can press apples for cider, grapes for wine, sunflower seeds or shelled nuts for oil, meat for lard, and any number of other things. Should be fun.


Our baby chicks were scheduled to hatch yesterday. They should be arriving any time now. And since our pole barn isn't done, they'll be moving into the garage.

So if you're keeping score, so far we've had nesting mice, rats, mourning doves, goats, and now chickens in our garage. Our attached garage. Can't wait for that pole barn...


Lori spotted a flock of hooded merganser ducks in our pond. There were about 10 of them. I tried to take a photo, but they're a bit shy. I dug this up on the Ohio DNR web site:

What a handsome devil.

We've also seen a pair of whistling swans (the big white ones), and we get daily visits from a hungry great blue heron.


Seed starting resumed yesterday. Not exactly on schedule, but it'll do. Into the seed blocks went:
- Diamond eggplant
- Applegreen eggplant
- Cilantro
- Sweet basil
- Purple basil
- Flat-leaf parsley
- Oregano
- Catnip (to draw a beneficial predator or two to our rodent-laden fields)

As you can see, I was feeling rather herbal.

Some of my small (3/4-inch) seed blocks collapsed when I tried to work with them. I'll have to work on that soil block mix. Other than that one row, they seem to be working pretty well so far.

But I have a confession to make. I don't really like starting seeds indoors. I'd much prefer to plant the seeds once, outside, in the ground, and let them do their thing. Gardeners are supposed to relish the start of gardening season, inside, in tiny little plots of earth, or something like it. But as happy as I am for spring to be approaching, for some reason I don't get too excited about the indoor stuff. In a few months, I'll be glad I got it done though. [Mental note: Look into floating row covers.]


... and stay tuned for fluffy baby chick pics.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I'm so mature...

Listed on my local Freecycle group:

Offer: Table top foose ball table ... all men
intact. No balls

Isn't that a contradiction?


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Chestnuts of (permaculture) wisdom

Growing up in New England, Mark Shepard's influences included his father, who planted a wide variety of fruit trees and berry bushes in the back yard, and "some grouchy old guy" down the road - who turned out to be none other than Scott Nearing (The Good Life).

Now, after a lifetime of studying and growing plants, some permaculture training, authoring a book or two, helping to establish Midwest Permaculture, and living the life he believes in, some fortunate series of events led him to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference, which I attended last weekend. [I've written about my thoughts on the conference in general over here.]

Mark has probably told these stories and given these speeches hundreds of times before, but he brings so much energy and humor and brightness to the material that makes it downright infectious. He went through so many ideas that made me say, "wow," that I haven't come close to remembering everything, nor have I had time to look up the things I do remember so I can see how it all works. I hope I'm getting the details right, or at least close.

One of his main themes was what he calls the savanna model. The natural habitat in much of North America was once oak savanna - a mix of grassland and woodland. He said because the savanna takes advantage of three dimensions, vegetation high, low, and everywhere in between, you can get sixty vertical feet of photosynthesis, pull water and nutrients up from much deeper in the soil, and over time, build up some of the richest soil on earth. The savanna model can support more total biomass than almost any other system - seven times more biomass than a cornfield. In addition to large amounts of vegetation, African savannas can support very large fauna, just as the North American savanna used to. He quizzed us on what large animals used to roam these parts, and we all replied "bison." No, he said, bison were merely the medium to small fauna. The large fauna were things like the mastadons and woolly mammoths.

So that was the kind of potential for biomass this part of the country could support, if we adopted the savanna model. How? By using the concept of stacking to grow more plants and animals in less space, even while improving the ecosystem. The savanna model can be immitated in a highly productive way by growing more woody plants and trees that bear useful products, interspersed with grazing animals on pasture or more perennial food crops like asparagus. The beauty of this approach is that it reduces to almost zero the amount of tilling, seed starting, planting, and cultivating. And once established, labor decreases and output increases over time.

He discussed the fact that every civilization that took the majority of its carbohydrates, fats, and calories from annual crops eventually failed. Soil erosion, soil depletion, and energy costs for annual crops do not scale up well. At least not unless you have a cheap, abundant energy source, like fossil fuels, to prop the system up with.

At that point, he asked for a show of hands of how many people were familiar with the concept of Peak Oil. Even among that eco-savvy crowd, only handful out of several hundred raised their hands. He showed a couple graphs that would probably be familiar to anybody who has looked into Peak Oil, but didn't delve into it much further.

Turning back to the topic at hand, he said that the most useful Oak savanna crops fall into the following families:
  • Fagacae: Oaks, chestnuts, beeches
  • Malus: Apples
  • Prunus: Plums, cherries, peaches, apricots, and other stone fruits
  • Corylus: Hazelnuts
  • Vitis: Grapes
  • Rubus: Blackberries & raspberries
  • Ribes: Currants & gooseberries
All grow well together, so they can be planted in various combinations, as needed. For example, imagine a chestnut tree, with a grapevine climbing up it, flanked by an apple tree on one side and a peach tree on the other, with a bramble of blackberries and gooseberries underneath. This could be done on a suburban lot. It could even be surrouunded by daffodils to deter mice from chewing the bark, and to make it look pretty.

Now imagine the same arrangement, expanded into rows running north-south, with animals rotationally grazed on the pasture between the rows. (This kind of arrangement is sometimes called "alley cropping.") Think of the food potential and diversity for just a single acre!

The way he pays for these large plantings of trees is to buy twice or even three times as many trees as he needs at wholesale prices, and then he sells the extras at retail prices, which amounts to free trees for him.

He went into more detail on a couple of trees that caught my attention. The first was the chestnut tree. [Because of chestnut blight, only Chinese chestnuts can be grown in most of the U.S. at this time.] Chestnuts are nutritionally similar to corn, but take no plowing or chemicals or fertilizers or pesticides to produce. The crop almost literally falls from the sky, where it can be easily harvested for human consumption, or fed to livestock. And at the end of the chestnut tree's life, it provides straight-grained, rot-resistant lumber.

The second tree of interest was the hazelnut. Hazelnuts are nutritionally similar to soy, but with three times the oil content. Their hulls burn with the properties of anthricite coal. And every ten years, the trees can be coppiced - cut down to the ground and used for lumber - after which the stump resprouts to grow a whole new tree.

Even the lowly apple tree, he pointed out, could produce 25% more ethanol per acre than a cornfield, without nearly as much processing, or for that matter, farming. Another interesting comment he made was that if you mix hard cider and hazelnut oil, and wait a while, you get biodiesel. No fancy chemistry needed.

One of the core ideas of permaculture is that waste product from one system should ideally become the input of another system. Another key concept is to minimize work by keeping the things that need the most attention closest to the living space. He gave an elaborately detailed example from his morning routine.

He takes his kitchen scraps from the night before out toward his chicken coop. There, the meat scraps are separated from the vegetative material by a fully automated no-maintenance system - a system so advanced, it also deters mice, rats, foxes, coyotes, and racoons. The system consists of the family dogs and cats racing each other to the kitchen scrap pail, with first prize being the meat scraps. While the meat sorting system is functioning, he has time to use the facilities - a composting toilet, of course. Once the animal products have been removed from the kitchen scraps, they get dumped on the downhill slope behind the chicken coop. Off the back of the coop, above ground, is a bat box. The bats help minimize insect problems. Also on the back of the chicken coop, above ground, is a rabbit hutch, with an open mesh floor. The rabbit droppings fall onto the same slope as the table scraps. Rainwater collected from the roof of the coop is used to provide drinking water for both the rabbits and the chickens. After he feeds the chickens and lets them out of the coop, they dig through the table scraps for tasty morsels, and scratch the remaining scraps and the rabbit manure and any bat guano. Downhill from the chicken coop is a compost pit, dug into the ground. Chicken scratching plus gravity helps the scraps and manure gradually move downhill until they end up in the pit. The chickens will literally burrow through the compost looking for worms, while at the same time aerating the pile to keep the composting process moving along. After feeding the chickens and rabbits, and collecting eggs from the coop, he feeds his cattle and hogs, who have access to feed troughs attached to the coop. The animals funnel in from adjacent teardrop-shaped pastures. From there, he picks veggies from the garden, and mushrooms from a nearby shiataake-innoculated log. By the time he steps back in the house, he's fed his dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits, cattle, and hogs, he's harvested the garden, and he's got the makings of a nice breakfast omelette, as he says, "all because I had to poop."

The Circle of Life, it seems, is more of an elaborate, three-dimensional, interwoven tapestry - and a beautiful tapestry at that - even if it does involve a surprising diversity of poop.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

The OEFFA Conference

Last weekend, my family and I attended the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association's annual conference. Below is a report on our experiences.

Overall Impressions

OEFFA (pronounced oh-fah) has been putting on this conference for 28 years, and it shows. The organizers really have their act together: Creative childcare - free if you volunteer some of your time to help out; Member-provided local and organic meals - with fully compostable plates and utensils; A "Kids' Conference" for older kids - they built bird shelters and sold them to members to raise funds to pay for next year's kids' conference; Lunch tables organized by geography the first day (so you can find people near you), and organized by topic the second day (so you can find like-minded people); Audio recordings available for purchase of every single workshop, since there were generally nine different workshops at any given time, so you could never attend everything you might be interested in... I could go on, but in any case, my hat's off to the people who put the conference together.

Keynote Speaker #1: Sally Fallon

Sally Fallon is the author of Nourishing Traditions and the founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation. I will admit that I'm not a big Sally Fallon fan. She goes a bit far with her claims sometimes, and can come off more like an old-time snake oil salesman. My family drinks raw milk when we have it available, so I'm okay with the concept. But when you imply that raw milk makes kids smarter and better looking and more creative and more artistic, and that it cures asthma and cancer and autism and ... well, let's just say I have reasons to be skeptical. I also agree with her that modern nutrition science has a pretty mediocre success rate on telling us what's good for us and what's not, but again, I don't believe that following her advice will virtually eliminate the need for health care, as she implies. (And the anti-soy thing seems pretty far out there, but we'll just leave that aside for now.)

That said, she did have a lot of good ideas and messages. Her key point was that farms can be much more profitable by selling value-added products - i.e. yogurt instead of milk, apple cider instead of apples, prosciutto instead of ham, etc. The idea is that the increased value more than outweighs the work involved, and that high quality, local specialties can increase demand even further. This would help farmers a lot more than what she referred to as the "plantation model," where power and profit are centralized, and regulations begin to favor centralization, at the expense of individual farmers.

Keynote Speaker #2: Mark Shepard

Mark Shepard is a permaculture expert from Midwest Permaculture, whose 100-acre New Forest Farm embodies many permaculture principles. He gave two workshops as well as a keynote speech to close out the conference. I wish I'd been able to attend the first of his workshops, because the second one and the speech were both fantastic. He can rattle off so many ideas and concepts in such a short space of time, I was glad I went into it with some previous knowledge of permaculture.

[There was so much fascinating information, in fact, that I've decided to spin this section off into a separate article.]


Maximizing Pasture: Management Principles

This presentation was made by Extension educator Rory Lewandowski, with assistance from author Gene Logsdon (Contrary Farmer, All Flesh is Grass). Rory led the discussion, with lots of great advice on rotational grazing, and how to get the most out of your pasture. Gene chimed in from time to time, and true to his writing, he was occasionally contrary - but in a good-natured way, with some hint of mischeif in his eyes. The dynamic was that of a bright young talent being checked by decades of old-fashioned farm wisdom. We learned a lot from both of them, and we'll be making adjustments in our pastures accordingly.

Gene Logsdon was very approachable, and just as amiable and intelligent in person as he seems in his writing. I asked him if it felt good that the Extension services are now advocating the things he's been writing about for years, and he agreed that it was a good thing. Then again, he said he learns so much from experience every year even now, that he gets embarrased by some of his older writings. (I did lobby for him to republish, or revise his old "Small Scale Grain Raising" book. He said it had been discussed, but that his publisher figured that an audience of about 500 people probably wasn't enough to justify it...) Gene was surprised to learn that you could download "Small Scale Grain Raising" for free. "Hey, that's illegal, you know!" he said with a grin on his face. (Oops!) But after discussing it, and telling him where we got it ("Oh right, those guys"), he concluded that either his copyright had lapsed or he didn't have a royalty contract on it. He seemed a bit amused by the whole thing. He asked me some questions about our goats, asked me if we'd tasted the meat - not yet - to which he responded, "I haven't met anyone yet who has!"

Forage and Pasture Species and Their Use in Organic and Sustainable Farming

My wife attended this two-part workshop, put on by Earnest Weaver, a dairy and forage specialist. This workshop gave us even more ideas for improving our grazing areas. They covered the different feed properties of orchardgrass, fescues, ryegrasses, clovers, timothy, alfalfa, lespedeza... I'll spare you the details because you'd probably get bored, but for us, it was very valuable indeed.

Building a Solar Oven

Annie and Jay Warmke of Blue Rock Station Sustainable Living Center gave a presentation on making and using solar ovens. While Annie discussed her experiences cooking with various home-made ovens, Jay built one out of a Bud Light box, a pizza box, some duct tape, some aluminum foil, a clear sheet of plastic, some newspaper, and a coat hanger. They said that the cheap cardboard version works just as well as some of the commercial versions.

The advantages of solar cooking are that it doesn't use any fuel, and that it's nearly impossible to burn anything. You put the food in early in the day, and walk away. When you're ready for dinner, the food will be cooked. Annie told us that she's baked bread, cooked caseroles, cooked vegetables, canned tomatoes, and a wide range of other cuisines. She recommended against most meat cooking, other than small pieces, or in reheating.

Solar and Wind Electricity (Hands-On)

This workshop was put on by Tom Rapini and his son Ryan. They gave an overview of solar and wind power systems, with some examples of large and small systems, grid-tied and off-grid systems, solar water heating, AC vs. DC, rated power vs. peak power on appliances, the different types of sine wave inverters, and a variety of other related topics. They showed us how to create a simple circuit with a battery to light a lightbulb. Then replacing the battery with a solar cell. He explained the difference between parallel and serial connections (higher voltage vs. higher current). From there, we built a small solar battery charger to charge the batteries we'd used earlier in the workshop.

Designing Your "Nourishing Traditions" Farm

This actually had very little direct connection to the book "Nourishing Traditions" or author Sally Fallon. Mark Shepard was the presenter, and he certainly discussed the idea of value added products and producing on-farm income, but there were few if any tie-ins to the book. That wasn't a problem to me. This was an excellent workshop. The contents of it have been included in a separate post on Mark Shepard.

Organic Grain Production in Ohio: From Seed to Feed

John Easterly and Doug David of Gerber & Sons presented information on small-scale organic grain farming. Even small scale was way too large for us, but we still learned a bit about what's out there, who's doing it and how.


Of all the sessions we went to, there was only one dud, and I won't bother discussing it here. Both keynote speakers had some great ideas. The lunch arrangements were fantastic. The child care was a huge help, and even the vendors were pretty much all relevent and interesting. There were booksellers, a hatchery (with baby chicks and ducklings - a big hit with the kids), an organic feed vendor, an Organic Valley booth, vermiculture, permaculture, agroforestry, book signings by Sally Fallon and Gene Logsdon (we were unsuccessful in our attempt to pilfer the only copy of Gene's yet-to-be-released novel), walk-behind tractors and their myriad of implements... only one or two vendors seemed out of place, and maybe only in my eyes. The speakers were usually available for questions long after the workshops were done. And recordings of every session were available at the end of the conference, or can be ordered online.

All in all, I was incredibly impressed with just about every aspect of the conference.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Breaking news

For some fun baby goat news,
check out Lori's latest post.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Free to a good home - SEEDS!

I hate to see good seeds sit idle, but I have more than I can possibly use at this point. I'm not even sure how I ended up with some of these! If you have any use for any of the seeds listed below, contact me via email. (Check my profile if you don't have an address for me.)

There's an idea from permaculture that says to give away your surplus. These are surplus. I would happily swap with you if you feel guilty just taking them for free. Or better yet, offer up some freebies of your own on your blog... But honestly, if you want some, just take 'em.

These are all over the map. Some are heirloom, some are hybrid. Some are a bit old, some are fairly new. Some packages are opened, some are not. Some are great, some didn't do that well for us. A couple are seeds we collected last year. I keep unused seeds in the fridge, so they'll last longer, so the age on the older seeds may not be a big deal.

If you have any specific questions, I'll try to answer them. Without further ado, here's the list:

Crimson Sweet
Open pollinated
Weeks Seed Company, 2006
Unopened packet - 2g

Crimson Sweet Watermelon an All America Selection Winner in 1964. The 20-25 lb. fruits are oval to round. Rind is thick, tough, medium green with dark green stripes. Flesh is red & sweet, and has small seeds.

Crimson Sweet Watermelon is a standard variety and matures in 85 days.

Ornamental Grass
Northern Sea Oats
Johnny's Selected Seeds, 2003 (refrigerated since then)
Opened packet ~25 seeds

Clumping, deciduous grass with showy, golden flowers. Decorative arching stems have bamboo-like foliage. Hardiness zones: 5-9. Ht. 24-48".

Open pollinated
Saved 2006
As many as you want

Large annual sunflower with 7-12 foot stalks and flowers a foot across. Heavy seed production.

Cloud Nine
Hybrid (se)
Rhoads Farm Market & Garden Center
1/4 pound

8-1/2 inch white sweet corn.

Golden Bantam
Open pollinated, certified organic
Burpee, 2006
Unopened packet, 0.75 oz

Classic heirloom sweet corn, generally 5 feet tall, with 2 ears per stalk.

Beans (pole)
Kentucky Wonder
Open pollinated
Ferry-Morse (Walmart), 2006
Unopened packet, 84 g

Rust-resistant and very productive heirloom variety.

Bloomsdale Long Standing
Open pollinated
Saved 2006
As many as you want

These were saved from spinach we grew last year. I have no idea of the viability of these seeds, but we have a lot of them.

Ferry Morse, 2003
Opened packet

Purplish-red carrot high in lycopene. Carrots up to 9 inches. I didn't have much luck with these, but you might. Especially if you have non-clay soil.

Pepper (bell)
Green-to-Orange bell
F1 Hybrid
Johnny's Seeds, 2003
Opened packet

I couldn't get more than one or two peppers per plant in my climate. Feel free to give them a try.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

My Crazy writings

Currently appearing on Groovy Green, there is a (somewhat) shortened version of the giant, four part series I wrote here a few months back, lovingly referred to as "My Crazy Scheme." If you don't remember it, or if you're feeling nostalgic, here's the link.