February 3, 2009

21st Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

I've been making butter and cheddar cheese since Guys' heifer freshened. Cheese making is a new experience for me. It's not as much work as I had anticipated and the results have been excellent. Was planning on aging the first cheese for sixty days before sampling but had to try some a few days early...

I've also been experimenting with dehydrating fruit. Apples turned out very well. This summer I plan to dry raspberries but I will run the dehydrator with solar and wind power so no energy cost will be involved. Dehydrating is not as messy as canning and makes great snack food.

Current Rant:

The Obama administration seems to be having trouble drafting a bill that congress can agree will effectively stimulate their economy. The proposal currently before congress advocates, among other things, bailing out the lending institutions with another infusion of several hundred more billions of dollars. This in spite of the fact that the money previously handed out to the banking institutions by the Bush administration seems to have disappeared with no apparent relief to the ailing economy. Doing the same thing over and over with expectations of different results is a classic definition of insanity.

It seems to me that, rather than handing out money to the institutions that were responsible for the current financial mess in the first place, it would make more sense to stimulate the economy by giving the money directly to the consumers. There are approximately 75 million families in the United States. If 750 billion dollars was divided evenly amongst these families, each family/household would receive 10 thousand dollars. The Bush tax refund of 2008 amounted to 300 dollars per family…a relatively insignificant amount…which many families put away as savings or paid on debts, resulting in no stimulus to the economy. Ten thousand dollars is a very significant amount of money in most households. In fact, I suspect that many families have never seen a check that large in their lives.

Of those families which are currently in debt, some would undoubtedly use part, or maybe all, of their 10 thousand dollars to pay down their debts. That money would be good for the economy because it would ultimately end up in the hands of the lending institutions. Families without current debts would have the option of spending their 10 thousand or depositing it in savings. Either option would be good for the economy…the banks would have the use of the money in the savings accounts and the manufacturing and service sectors would benefit by the increased demand for products and services.

At first thought it may seem foolish to give equally to both rich and poor households…another 10 thousand dollars would not mean much to the Bill Gates household, for example… but, on the other hand, it would seem equally foolish to reward the families that got themselves by mismanaging their income. In any event, whether rich or poor, every household would have the option of using their money in the way they deemed best and ultimately a good deal of it will find its way back to the government coffers via taxation of various kinds.

One of the main priorities of the President Obamas’ economic stimulus package is quick positive results. I suspect that positive results would be apparent within a very few days of the mailing of checks to Americas’ households. But I also suspect that an administration that is having trouble selecting a cabinet of people who know how to do their own income tax returns may also have trouble convincing them that the average citizen should have the opportunity to decide how to best spend their own tax dollars.

Oh, by the way Prime Minister Harper, this scheme would work the same in Canada.

(Of course I realize that this will never happen...I just like being on record when the "experts" ideas fail.)

21st Exerpt from “Farmageddon”
(My latest unfinished book)

A House

When thinking in terms of survival, I expect most farmers would tend to think first of their families and secondarily of their farms---and rightly so. Obviously a farm is just a piece of abandoned real estate without people to run it. But just as obvious is the fact that people will not survive long without the food, clothing and shelter which farms provide. In keeping with that thought I will first tackle the problems of a sustainable home and then go on to the problems of a sustainable farm.

When one thinks of a home they generally think in terms of a house. Our present house, like most, was designed and constructed without regard to it's dependency upon cheap and plentiful petroleum products. Although it is well insulated and reasonably economical to heat, under current conditions, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to adequately heat it in the absence of oil.

Equally as perplexing is the fact that without electricity the water system would not function nor would the lighting system and the toilets would only flush once. Without propane and electricity the furnace and the kitchen range would be useless. The freezers would thaw, the clocks would stop and the microwave would quit blinking. Worst of all, we would not be able to use our computers, watch television or DVD's and I would have to learn to use a manual can opener when the Little Woman is away.

As mentioned earlier, the first question we considered was whether it would be best to try to upgrade our present house or to start all over. All things considered, it seems most practical to build a different house designed for temporary emergency use or longer term BS use. Our present house is too big. There are only two of us and we seldom have overnight guests so we don't really have much need for a guest room. Without electricity the bathroom, the computer rooms and the TV rooms will be pretty useless for their present functions and a single bedroom with a double bed would be adequate for two reasonably compatible people. Windows are good for letting light in and for looking out of but they are not absolutely necessary when you come right down to it. One door for egress and exit should also be sufficient.

Considering all these things, plus all the time and labour that would be involved in converting our present house to function efficiently without petroleum and electricity, it appears that the most practical option, in light of the lead time involved, is to start building a new dwelling but continue to live in our current one until the replacement one is finished and/or we are forced to move, whichever comes first.

That decision having been made, the next step is to design the most practical living quarters for an oil-less existence. It doesn’t need to be nearly as large as the present one. It will be unnecessary to plumb it for water or wire it for electricity. It will be heated by a wood burning stove of some sort. So it seems that all that is really necessary is a multi-purpose kitchen room and a single purpose bedroom---two rooms for two people.

Underground houses in an oil-less economy make a lot of sense. They are naturally insulated by the earth...making them economical to heat in cold weather and naturally cool in hot weather. The natural insulation of the earth can be enhances with additional insulation. Theoretically they could be insulated to the point that very little supplemental heat would be required to make them comfortably warm on even the coldest days.

I realize that most people, especially our women folk, would not opt for an underground dwelling under ordinary circumstances, and this has not been an “easy sell” in our case. But the circumstances we anticipate, and are preparing for, are far from ordinary. Since we can only guess at how bad things might become, it seems prudent to plan for the worst likely conditions. Esthetics don't seem nearly so important when one is focusing on survival.

I don't really like the term "survival", although it may turn out to be appropriate. A preferable word is "pioneering" for two reasons. First, we will be taking the lead in a new way of life. Second, it appeals to my sense of adventure. That may sound silly but, if you think about it a moment, one’s attitude will likely be a key factor for succeeding in a survival situation. Things will be tough enough even with a positive attitude. A negative attitude may make survival impossible or even undesirable. So, I will use the terms survival and pioneering more or less interchangeably.

Even if petroleum is cheap and plentiful an underground house has always made sense to me, although it’s a hard-sell to most people. We are so accustomed to to big beautiful spacious well lighted houses surrounded by huge expanses of manicured lawns landscaped with trees and shrubbery and trellises and bird baths and fish ponds and pink flamingos and on and on and on, that we can’t even imagine living in anything less. Our homes are our pride and joy. We think of them as an investment. In some ways our homes become our identity, in the same way that our occupations or professions identify us. We want the biggest and showiest home that we can afford…or, as often as not, cannot afford. Huge kitchens, huge living rooms, huge bathrooms, huge bedrooms…everything must be huge. Multiple bathrooms, multiple bedrooms…as many multiples as possible. Upstairs bathrooms, downstairs bathrooms, basement bathrooms…can’t have too many bathrooms. Then we fill our huge houses with appliances, knickknacks, gadgets, toys, collectibles, etc. until there is barely room to live in. I’ve even been in a home where the living room had so many dolls piled on the furniture that there was no room to sit down. As a consequence of this mania for the big and beautiful and clutter, most North Americans spend most of their productive lives paying off home mortgages.

Regardless of whether or not that lifestyle ever made any sense, the only thing that made it possible was cheap and abundant petroleum. Indications are that those times will soon be gone forever and huge numbers of those large beautiful houses will be abandoned…left as moldering monuments to our wanton wasteful stupidity. We may not all choose to go underground but those who survive to see the post-oil era will at least be forced to downsize their present living quarters considerably.

Getting back to our plans for an underground house... It seems to me that a nearly perfect “starter kit” would be one or two of those ubiquitous ocean-going shipping containers. They are strongly constructed and of adequate width and height. They come in a variety of lengths. They are relatively cheap and readily available. They are ready-made...no assembly required. They can be hauled right to the site and placed directly into an excavation. Being rectangular they are easy to insulate. They have a large double steel door at one end. All things considered, it seems that they are a ready-made solution to the underground housing problem.

Our underground house will be constructed of two of those containers that we see piled all over north America. The reason they are piled all over North America is because north America is importing far more things in shipping containers that we are exporting in shipping containers and it is deemed to be more economical to build new containers overseas, with cheap oriental labour, that it is to ship the empty containers back. But, one persons liability is another persons asset, or in this case…one persons shipping container is another persons home.

So this is what we plan to do. We will buy two forty foot shipping containers and bury them side by side in a hole dug into a side hill. (Thirty foot containers would be adequate but they don’t make them.) One will be used as living quarters and the other will be used for storage. The living quarters will be heated, the storage room will not. The living quarters will have two rooms, a kitchen/living room and a bedroom. The storage container will a single long room.

Shipping containers have double steel doors in one end as their only opening. The door is the full height and width of the end of the container…eight feet wide by eight and a half feet high. They also have hardwood floors throughout. By building on a hillside, the door-end of the containers can be fully exposed while the rest of the containers is completely buried.

Prior to covering over the containers with earth, their entire exteriors, with the exception of the doors, will be coated with a waterproofing tar product. Then they will be insulated with two inches of Styrofoam and wrapped with a plastic vapor barrier. To protect the insulation from being damaged by the backfill dirt, as well as reinforce the walls a bit, a layer of ¾ inch pressure treated plywood will be placed next to the insulation and vapor barrier. The plywood will then be given a good coat of waterproofing tar. To facilitate drainage, a foot or so of rocks will be placed at the base of the plywood along the back end and both sides. Finally, the previously excavated earth will be used to backfill the walls around the entire structure.

Once the walls are backfilled, a six-inch slab of reinforced concrete will be poured over the entire structure. Prior to pouring the concrete several holes will be cut through the top of the containers. These will be ports for ventilation, a chimney and a toilet vent. Each hole will have a vertical section of steel or concrete pipe, eight inches inside diameter by three to four feet long placed over it When the concrete roof slab is poured these pipes with be held solidly in place with their top ends protruding above ground level. Steel rain caps will be placed on top of each pipe to keep rain and foreign objects from falling in.

When the slab is well cured, the entire structure will be covered with earth to a depth of two to three feet, making sure that it is well crowned for good drainage. When the soil has settled it will be seeded to lawn grass to control erosion.

Although it sounds like a bomb shelter, that’s not it’s intended purpose. It is to be our home…for who knows how long. The only exposed part of the steel containers will be the entrance end. The building will not only be easy to heat in the winter but it will be cool in the summer. It will be dry and weatherproof and, for all practical purposes, fireproof.

“It will also be dark and stuffy”, one might say. Well, we’ve actually thought about that and here’s what we plan to do about it.

Ventilation will be taken care of by the roof vents through the pipe holes in the ceiling. Insects will be kept out of the vents with screen and air flow through the vents will be regulated by adjustable draft controls. The toilet (more about that later) will be in the storage room and will have it’s own vent. The living quarters will be heated by a wood range which will have a combustion air vent from the firebox to outside the building.

Four feet inside the steel entrance doors of each container there will be a partition. The partition in the living quarters will be an eight by eight foot thermal glass window with a thermal glass door in it. The partition in the storage shed will be an insulated framed wall with a door. The door will have a small thermal glass window. The partitions in both cases will serve as draft barriers when the outer doors are opened in bad weather and as a source of daylight in nice weather.

The space between the outer doors and the partitions will serve as “mud rooms” for dirty boots and handy storage for garden tools, snow shovels and the like. The space will also serve as an “air lock” insulator between the living space and outdoors.

At this point I should point out that although a considerable investment will have been made in the underground structure we feel that it will not have been a total waste even if the anticipated economic collapse does not occur. In that event we will continue living in our present houses until it becomes necessary to move out. Meanwhile the underground dwelling stands ready for use if needed in an emergency...i.e.: someone's house burns down or someone's wife boots them out. It’s just a form of insurance, not much different than investing in fire fighting equipment that hopefully will never be used.

After insulating the inside of the front door the new home should be very comfortable to live in under just about any climatic conditions.

The storage room should not require any heat or insulation to remain above freezing year around. A cool dry storage room can be used for anything from a root cellar to a woodshed. An interior port between the living quarters and the storage room would be handy, especially in cold weather when going outside would let cold air inside.

There will be a partition about four feet back from the inside of the steel entrance door of the living quarters. This would serve as a mud room for boots etc. and also as a barrier to cold air when the exterior door was opened. If the partition were made largely of thermal glass it would admit daylight to the living quarters when the weather was nice enough to leave the exterior doors open.

The only other partition in the living quarters will be to divide the living area from the bedroom. This partition will be made of steel storage racks which are accessible from both sides. They will serve both as bookcases, from the bedroom side, and supply storage from the kitchen side. The same kind of storage racks will be used in the store room. The so called steel "Gorilla Racks" that will support heavy loads on adjustable shelves offer both versatility and strength.

Heating of the living quarters will be provided by a wood burning kitchen range. The range will not only supply the central heating for the living quarters but it will also do the cooking, baking and water heating. Both the living quarters and storage room will be ventilated via "roof chimneys". The stove chimney will be topped with a rain cap. The vent chimneys will not only be rain capped but they will be equipped with adjustable dampers to control the flow of air. The vents will also be screened to keep insects out. The stove will be provided with a combustible air vent tube from outside.

Due to limited space, the other amenities and creature comforts will be minimal. In the living quarter, in addition to the stove, there will be a small sink with a slop pail waste disposal system; a small multi-purpose table; three or four nested chairs; a rocking chair; a small cabinet with counter top and drawers and storage shelves for supplies and cooking utensils.

Laundry facilities will consist of a galvanized metal tub with scrub board and wringer washer attachments. The laundry tub will also serve as a bathtub. The toilet will be a compost type located in the storage room. It will be vented through the roof.

Composting toilets are also important items on our list of things to buy. One might ask why that is important when outdoor privies served the needs of real pioneers. I would answer that we intend to make our pioneering lives as comfortable and pleasant as possible under the circumstances. Being unforgettably familiar with the pleasantries of dressing up to go outside in twenty below weather and then partially disrobing in a frost-lined drafty stinking environment and placing your butt on a frozen seat to do your business is to be avoided if at all possible. I much prefer the idea of the relative comfort of an indoor facility even though the initial cost may seem ridiculous and there is a certain amount of ongoing maintenance involved. Case closed!

To be continued next time…

21st Excerpt from “Defying the Odds”

(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)

In Quest of a Farm…

On February 15th, 1962, we pulled in to uncle Bills driveway in Edmonton, Alberta. I had previously written to him of our plans. Both he and aunt Georgina were very supportive and had already done some preliminary investigation prior to our arrival. In fact , they had sent me farm sale ads from the Edmonton Journal and I had already responded to a couple of them.
One ad looked particularly promising—a half section farm about fifty miles west of Edmonton near the village of Wildwood. We phoned ahead and made an appointment to look at the farm on the following Saturday. Meanwhile we looked around the Edmonton area but found the prices were too high.

Saturday morning, the four of us set out for Wildwood. We found the farm located about a mile south of the main highway at the very end of a narrow gravel road. Beyond the end of the road was a huge muskeg swamp. To the left, a long driveway led to a farmhouse obscured by Poplar trees and brush. Not knowing the condition of the little used driveway, we left the car at the road and walked in through ankle deep snow.

Aside from the generally desolate appearance of the place, one very noticeable thing was the large number of wild rabbits. They were everywhere. As we rounded a little turn in the driveway , two small stacks of hay came into view. Surrounding the stacks were dozens of the little varmints They had eaten all around the base of the stacks, making them look like huge mushrooms. Dad commented that, with all those rabbits, we at least shouldn't starve to death.

There were two main buildings on the farm; a house and a small barn with a tumbled down corral next to it. The house was a small square box-like structure with badly weathered unpainted board siding. The barn looked much like the house except the siding boards were vertical. The ground was covered with snow so it was difficult to tell much about the small yard. About half way between the house and barn there was a covered well with a rope and pulley for drawing water, and, of course, there was the omnipresent two-holer. A row of power poles along the driveway indicated that electricity was installed…which was a big plus.

After looking around the yard awhile, we took a walk out to the fields. There appeared to be about a hundred and sixty acres under cultivation on the two quarters, but with all the snow it was difficult to determine much about the soil. A few rock piles around the edges suggested that there were probably more in the fields. At the far side of the main field, where the muskeg swamp began, there was a good sized grove of Swamp Spruce and Tamarack trees. Someone commented that this was good because we would be able to cut our own fence posts.

To be truthful, it was actually difficult to find many positive things about the farm other than the price. The owner was only asking six thousand three hundred dollars for the three hundred and twenty acre farm, which sounded like a steal to me.

A day or two later, dad and I met the owner at his lawyer's office, to discuss a deal. Right from the start warning flags went up. The owner wanted extra money for the hay stacks and mentioned that there were some things in the house that didn't go with the deal. Anyway, before leaving the office, I deposited some money with the lawyer, to secure the deal, and informed them that, since we planned to go back to Washington right away, they should contact my uncle if any further discussion was required. We left for Washington the next morning, hoping for the best.

As soon as I got home we started preparing to move to Canada. We only had about four thousand dollars in cash. This would have to cover all the costs of moving and all of our living expenses until the farm started bringing in some income.

We had packed many boxes and made other preparations for moving, when a phone call came from Uncle Bill. He said that the lawyer had called him about some complications that would have to be solved. He suggested that I return to Canada right away if I was still interested in the farm.

It was a bad situation. We had no income and each day that went by used up more money. Another trip to Canada would not only cost money, it would cost us time and time was running out. If a crop was not seeded on time, there would be no income from the farm that year. All things considered, there was really nothing we could do but go back to Edmonton…eleven hundred long time-consuming costly miles…and try to straighten out the problems.

Four days later, we again met at the lawyer's office in Edmonton. Another fellow and his wife were also there with the property owner, who I'll call Sweet Old Bob…or SOB for short. It soon became apparent that this other fellow had made a better offer on the farm and it was obvious that we were expected to bid against each other to establish the selling price. I lost control of my temper. I told them that I had no intention of playing games with SOB and warned the other buyer to be vary careful because he was dealing with a liar. Apparently the lawyer was afraid things might get out of hand because he escorted me out of his office. Needless to say, I was very angry, even though my deposit was returned.

By this time we were pretty well committed to buying a farm somewhere. Too much time and money had already been invested to back out now, so we started looking again. A few days of checking around the Edmonton vicinity convinced us that we would have to go elsewhere if we were to find affordable land.

To be continued next time…

21st Excerpt from “But…What About Tomorrow?
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)


North America's first European settlers took custody of some of the most fertile grassland soils in the world. Our husbandry of the land since then has not been good. From the devastation of the "dirty thirties", the overuse of summer-fallow and monocropping to modern day pollution problems with fertilizers and pesticides, we seem intent on abusing one of our most valuable natural resources.

None of my generation is likely to forget the disastrous events of the dirty thirties when farms literally blew away and the livelihood of thousands of people was ruined. Historically, soil erosion has been the single most destructive natural phenomenon in the world. Whole civilizations have been washed away with their soils.

Throughout the world, an average of more than eight tons of topsoil per acre are lost every year. A loss of from two to five tons per acre is considered to be the erosion limit for long term sustainability. Almost all countries in the world exceed this value. On the southern prairies of Canada, erosion rates as high as fifty tons/ac per year are not uncommon in some areas.

The single most important factor effecting water erosion is plant cover. Recently broken land, where trees and plants are scraped off the surface, is a prime candidate for erosion, as are clear cut forests and summer fallowed fields. Heavy rainfalls, as well as spring run-off, make water erosion a chronic problem in some areas. Steeply sloped land, long slopes and intermittent water courses across fields are the main potential sites for water erosion.

In flatter areas, especially along rivers, sheet erosion is common. During spring runoff, water may cover large areas of relatively flat land. Material from the upper soil layers is dissolved in the water and carried away when the land finally drains.

Unfortunately the removal of topsoil is only part of the story. Small soil particles find their way into streams, rivers and lakes. Sunlight is absorbed by these particles which raises the water temperature, often changing an entire ecosystem. Pesticide pollutants and excess nutrients are also carried along with the particles, contaminating every part of our environment. The true cost of erosion due to deforestation, intensive cultivation and unsustainable farming practices may not be known until it is too late to do anything about it.

There are a number of things that can be done to control water erosion but one of the most effective is to increase the organic matter content of the soil to improve its structure and its water holding capacity. A grass or legume cover crop with strong root masses resists erosion very effectively.

The more organic material present in the soil, the greater the resistance of the soil to breaking into particles small enough to be carried away by wind or water and the more moisture the soil will hold.

Most of the soils of Canada were developed during the ten thousand years since the last glaciers retreated, but it is only in the last hundred years or so that these soils have been cultivated by man. Farming systems that cause rates of soil loss that are greater than that of formation, are obviously not sustainable.

The condition of the topsoil affects not only productivity, but also its stability and resistance to erosion. In nature, the soil surface is protected by vegetation and plant debris, which is continually being incorporated into the soil by worms and other soil fauna. Rain percolates gently through this layer to the soil beneath. Due to its high organic content the surface soil acts like a sponge, retaining part of the moisture and allowing the surplus to filter slowly into the subsoil and then into streams, rivers and eventually, the sea.

Traditional farming practices of the past helped to maintain the organic surface layer. Crop stubble left after the grain harvest protected the ground from the force of winter rains. Organic matter was maintained by regular applications of farmyard manure, plowing in green-manure crops and short-term grass rotations and by grazing livestock.

The addition of farmyard manure and green-manure crops to soil organic matter is almost a thing of the past now. Artificial fertilizers and slurry from livestock feedlots and liquid manure tanks, which contain very little fiber, are the now the main nutritive supplements for the soil.

The lower layers of soil, the subsoil below the plow-depth, are also suffering from these changes in farming practices. Healthy soil contains numerous worms, insects, spiders and other organisms. These creatures, notably the worms, play an important part in maintaining the health of the soil by maintaining an open texture; incorporating surface litter to make it available for plant growth; and by bringing up plant nutrients from the subsoil.

In general, levels of soil organic matter have fallen to very low levels through intensive farming practices, particularly on those farms that use of heavy dressings of chemicals and pesticides. Since the 1950's, the annual use of fertilizers and pesticides has increased tenfold to the present level of over two million tons.

During this period, average yields have increased greatly. However, some soils require ever increasing amounts of chemicals to maintain these increased yields, because of the deterioration in the condition of the soil. Weed infestations frequently proliferate under these conditions as well. If a farmer decides to convert such soils back to an organic system, the full restoration process can take twenty years or more. The complete rehabilitation of badly eroded soil takes far longer and in severe cases is impossible.

In temperate zones the processes of oxidation of organic matter and soil erosion are slower than in the tropics, where temperatures are higher and rainfall is more intense. However, in temperate zones, the rate of soil formation is also lower. In both temperate and tropical zones, the first symptom of soil degradation is reduced of levels of organic matter in the soil.

To be continued next time…

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