Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Book Review: How to be a Perfect Farm Wife by Lorna Sixsmith


You have to look closely, but it's there. Wedged between my Italian dictionary (learning a foreign language at 56? What was I thinking?!?) and my Western Civilization Text, (snooze-time) sits one of the best books I've ever read. By "best" I mean most humorous, most helpful, most honest, most absolutely human.

Most of you already know this, but farming is hard. See my last post for my own personal whine on this topic. But the author of this book, "How to be a Perfect Farm Wife," is a woman who doesn't just introduce problems; she gifts her readers with real workable solutions and she does it without being afraid of getting her Wellies all mucked up.

The author, Lorna Sixsmith of Garrendenny Ireland, and I, have been blog buddies now for years. Sadly we have yet to meet in person. We tried this summer while I was studying at NUI Galway but schedules and finals would not co-operate, which was probably best because I know she was working like a fiend at that time to complete this second publication of hers. Recently released, its now available for purchase and so worth the minimal investment required.

This well organized book is part How-to-Manual, part Self-Help and part oh my God, did she really just say that? Her sense of humor is self deprecating in the most positive way and her realistic approach to a tough and busy life is loads of fun. In Part One for example she prepares us for the day when money earmarked for a special event gets spent instead on a manure spreader (been there, smelled that) and in Part Six  she tells us how to (allegedly) forge our partners signatures. Good advice all.

Although the text is the perfect smaller size (5" by 8") to carry in a purse, tool belt, or feed sack it still contains a huge amount of information in its 230 pages.  Granted there are fun times to be had in the reading; I personally never get tired of the "Irish Mammy" sections, but there is within these pages a wonderful history lesson as well.  The role of farming in Ireland in general, and the role of farm wives in particular, is presented in part via actual newspaper clippings for wives. Not for wives to read, I mean men looking for wives to marry based on...get this...the size of their acreage. Oh man, those ads boil my blood and make me giggle at the same time; they make fabulous social commentary of the times.  Farm partners have come a very long way over the decades, not just in Eire but here in the U.S. as well, and Lorna does an excellent job of spelling out the challenges of either sex who might be sheep deep in the profession.

Most appreciated was Lorna's ability to address both the seemingly silly, i.e. being wise enough NOT to ask your farm partner if your bum looks big in a particular outfit, and the crucially important advice such as how not to get a divorce. When your farmer hubby asks for a meal before you've finished the last farm task, she tactfully suggests you quietly had him the potato peeler. Doing it with a stabbing motion is entirely optional.

Filled with recommendations, anecdotes, recipes, historical content and useful hands on advice, "How to be a Perfect Farm Wife" by Lorna Sixsmith would be a great Christmas (or birthday or St. Patrick's Day or National Alien Abductions Day) gift to any farm wife, farm love, farm lover, farmer lover, farmer wife wannabee, etc..etc...It is so much more than a collection of interesting stories and useful advice; it is also testimony to those who make their living in agriculture, a skill millions of people rely on, yet few fully understand, let alone appreciate. Small family farms are disappearing every day, here, in Ireland, all over the world, but this hemorrhaging of talented individuals, the experts in land and animal management, the farmers, can be slowed, maybe even reversed with enough community support. Lorna understands all that and so will you after reading, "How to be a Perfect Farm Wife."

There ends my review, I hope you found it useful. Because I am the last in line of Lorna's Book Blog Tour I'd like to redirect you to her site so you can read other blogger reviews as well. Have fun!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Homesteading is Not for Weaklings, Woosies, Wankers or Wannabees

Since the grain bin house is now in it's final stages of completion: painting, light fixture hanging, floor trim, counter top building, etc...I will shift focus outside now and then, to the rest of our homesteading world.

Sadly though, it took a turn towards crap this past week; our bovine extraordinare, Polly, died.

The vets's term is "Hardware disease." The cause of death was organ failure due to ingestion of a foreign object; she ate metal. This has been a concern of ours since we bought this land two years ago and even more so, when we moved our livestock here in April. These 7 acres were filled with trash, much of it on the surface and large portions partially buried. It had been owned by a bank for a few years and prior to that owned by someone who cared not for the land. Polly was the last of our animals we brought to The Poor Farm from our old farm. For months we have been hunter-gatherers of century old bedsprings, barbwire rolls, tin cans, piles of glass, rusty fence posts, ad infinitum.  We have made significant progress but apparently it was too little, too late for Polly.

She went off feed first and her milk production decreased, and so with a 7 week old bull calf at her side; we decided to stop milking her to allow him to get enough of the nutrition he needed. From time to time we saw her eating some, drinking some, but on day three of this behavior, concerned about her dehydration status we called the vet. He confirmed our beliefs, gave her a bolus of fluids and antibiotics, something we only use when an animals life is at risk and hers definitely was.

She perked up, got up, but 12 hours later laid down and died.

Thus the crux of this post; homesteading is not for weaklings, woosies, wankers or wannabees. In the midst of the romantic overload of articles in popular magazines, newspapers and idealistic blogs with titles like, "Anyone can Farm " or "Make a Living on 1/2 an acre in 5 Easy Steps" and "You Too Can Get Rich Selling Arugula" its easy to assume that the perfect pastoral life is there for the taking. All one has to do is throw on some Land's End boots, a $90 Eddie Bauer flannel shirt and the country life will surround you with all her milk and honey goodness. But, honest homesteading is hard: physically, emotionally, monetarily and spiritually.

 It's not like we haven't lost animals before. Life does indeed involve death. But Polly was gentle and kind, a joy to milk. Cows like that are rare. Her loss hit us hard because we cannot easily replace her; she was not a pet, she was our sole source of milk. Soon we would also be using all that milk as our sole source of butter and cheese as well. There is no longer a large herd from which we can pick a sub. Small dairy farms in this area, where its likely we could obtain a healthy cow, are limited. In addition, a replacement cow can easily cost $1200 or more. If we buy a young heifer for less, it will take a year of more before she is bred, calves, and can produce milk.

Watching her calf grieve was tough as well. Animals may not feel loss as we do, but they definately suffer when one of them dies, as is clear in these photos of Polly's baby just after her demise.

The little guy stood by her a long time and then finally laid by her side as did our two guard dogs and several of our ducks! A wake of sorts that carried on even after her body was disposed of; her calf laying on the sight where she was last. He's doing well now but it was sad to watch.

So, the first time in  over 22 years, we are without our own milk cow and we face a multitude of problems to be solved. The most glaring one is where to get the raw milk we relay on for our health? We have a one week supply left from Polly and then we are dry as she.

We have become picky in our quinquagenarion years and want raw milk from a 100% grass fed dairy. To our knowledge there are not many of those in Illinois. On our old farm our customers often drove 100 miles for our raw milk. Now we're the ones in a bind. Yeah, the irony. We are considering replacing Polly with a goat but I've never been a fan of goat milk. It's just so...goaty. Decisions, decisions. Guess this wanker needs to get stop whining and find a solution.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rocket Mass Stove LIFT OFF!



Grandson Wesley helping out.
 We've been inside the grain bin house for almost a month and although we continue to whittle away at projects big and small (painting my office!) it feels like progress is slow. But, as of last week, we have non-electric, non-gas heat. The rocket mass stove had it's initial lift off last Sunday and we are still here to blog about it.

After planning our stove we realized we were a brick short. (Insert rude blog follower comment here)Finishing it involved creating a brick out of mortar in order to build the heat rising to the appropriate height. Below is a rare photo of me at work. In this process Keith and I quickly learned we have no talent for brick laying. Not an easy job. Dear Jay, you have all our respect.

We then covered the brick heat riser with Kaowool, an insulating material used by those in the refractory business. Dear Jay, you were right, it worked perfectly. To keep this material in place we wrapped it with hardware wire and pulled the ends together at the top. The goal is to keep the gasses flowing up and out of the heat riser keeping this path clear to avoid areas where ash can build up.

After putting the grandson to work with a wire brush on the steel barrel, we placed it over the heat riser. It is not exactly center as we needed to not cover the wood feed channel on the right but we did need to cover the entry to the floors stovepipe network under the concrete.

Once we had it where we thought gases would flow best, we attached the barrel to the floor with cement and let it dry. We sealed the top of the barrel with a fire resistant gasket glued in place with even more heat resistant silicone, and clamped the top in place. We let everything cure a couple days then with two of our boys close by (the fire department on speed dial on their phones) we lit her up.

As predicted by Ianto Evans the author of Rocket Mass Heaters, it took awhile for the new stove "to learn it's job." There was some smoke, ok massive amounts of small that sent our family screaming out the door, as we played with draft, opening and closing windows, blowing on the flame manually, blowing on the flame with an electric fan. Yes, a small amount of the plastic fan covering did melt. What's your point? It took much of the afternoon  but then after everyone else left, the rocket mass stove behaved itself.

The barrel does get very hot when the fire is burning and will boil water. After the fire is out the barrel stays warm for about 18 hours. Great for rising bread, warming buns, keeping foods hot while cooking on the main stove. Since then we have fired it up 4 times. As a rule it heats our small home in an hour bringing the room temp from 63 to 70. One day it brought the room up to 80! If we run it three hours, let the flame burn out, and its mild outside and not windy, it will keep the house warm for 48 hours. A couple of days ago we have 50 mph winds so we had to fire up the stove again after 36 hours. We are guessing in the real cold of this Midwest winter we'll need to run it at least 3 hours out of every 24.

We were thrilled to feel the concrete floor heat up, and stay warm after the fire went out. Even 36 hours after it has run the concrete is comfortable to walk on. No socks needed. We've also learned that round sticks are best. Flat pieces of wood don't burn with the same consistency, often too fast and they burn up the feed channel instead of across it and smoke. We start with small twigs, advance to pencil size sticks and then to larger 2-3 in. diameter pieces of old wood. All of it is already here on the property, tons of dead trees just waiting for us to "harvest" them, with clippers, not an ax. Easy work.

It continues to be a learning process but for the first time in our lives, we are now free of heat related gas bills. That bit of freedom will get us through any little glitch we may still discover with our new Rocket Mass Heater. Special thanks again to Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson for their great book. Be sure to check out their website Cob Cottage., and our friend Jay Molter of Molter Corporation for all the excellent building materials and how not-to-die-by-fire-advice.

Hot coals in bottom of feed chamber and flame burning to left
towards steel barrel, as it should.