Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Alternative Energy




I've been fascinated by alternative energy options for a long time. My favorite alt energy system is the biogas digester, because it uses a fuel that is waste for most people (and, yes, the biogas digester can be fueled with humanure).

What's fascinating to me is that one of the complaints about our feedlot system is that there is no safe way to dispose of the copious amounts of waste, and I often wonder why they aren't using that waste to power the local community ... but that's another post.

My ideal solution for powering my home would be a combination of solar and wind to charge a battery bank for our electricity and biogas for water heating and cooking.

Ideally, we'd modify our existing septic system to be a biogas digester, but I'm actually told that's not possible, because the septic system is designed so that there isn't a gas build-up, and gas build-up is exactly what one wants with the biogas digester.

I've seen several videos on YouTube for DIY biogas digesters. Most of them are clumsy and messy looking, but this one was actually neat and tidy. What was also compelling about this design and model was that:
1. a woman assembled it; and
2. the woman filled it wearing a white shirt.

I think I could actually build one of these on my own. The set-up is pretty simple, and we, definitely have the fuel.

We couldn't use a biogas digester here in Maine for most of the year. In order for the microbes to work at breaking down the fuel and turning it into gas, the temperature needs to be around 64°F (or >18°C). Basically, I wouldn't be able to use it right now, because it's too cold - but given that my goal would be to use the biogas for cooking, primarily, it would actually work out perfectly for us. During the winter, I cook on the woodstove. During the summer, I cook inside on our electric stove, and we notice a marked increase in our electric bill during the summer.

The point is that I need an alternative cooking fuel more during the summer than during the winter, anyway. It would be worth it to have the digester for the free cooking fuel, even if we could only use it from May to September.

How about you? Would you build a digester? If not, what's your preferred alt energy?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Good Supplies to Have ... Another List



I frequently link to the 100 Items to Disappear First list. In fact, this post is the sixth post with the link. I'm probably posting it once a year, at this point.

The list was written by a war survivor, and it is things that they found became scarce quickly when supply lines are severed. I've always kept that list in mind when considering what things I want to have in my house.

There was a time when I would get really stressed out about what I didn't have, about gaps in my storing of the things on the list, and when that started happening with too great a frequency, I started to look at the list differently. Instead of trying to ensure that I have all of the things - in quantity - that are on the list, I started to think about alternatives. Like can openers. I have a can opener, even though I don't buy much canned food from the grocery store anymore, but I also have this handy little tool called a P-38. It's on my keychain. It's a manual can opener.

Other things I've just decided that I don't need, anyway, and I've learned to live without them. Like paper towels. I, actually, stopped using paper towels back before it became the "green" thing to do, because I hated the waste and the expense. We use cloth napkins at the dinner table, and we use cloth washcloths and towels in the kitchen. I repurpose old towels for rags that are used for wiping up spills and other cleaning tasks.

I also learned to make cloth feminine hygiene products, and I actually use them (I know, TMI. Sorry about that). We haven't made the leap into cloth toilet wipes, yet, but in a worst case scenario, we have plenty of old, too-stained-or-ripped-for-Goodwill clothes that can (and will) be repurposed.

I repost the 100 Items list frequently, but I also enjoy looking at other lists. This one of 50 Items You Forgot to Buy is a good, concise list. I like the explanation of why the author feels that each item should be stored. There are some pretty practical suggestions, several of which I also recommend in my book. Like books, games and musical instruments.

We have 37 of the 50 recommended items, but some of the items I just won't ever have.

I don't have, nor do I recommend, instant coffee. The reason the author recommends instant coffee is the possibility that the coffee maker won't work, but my family doesn't use a coffee maker. We use a French Press, and so, as long as I have hot water, I have brewed coffee.

My bigger concern would be not having coffee at all, because, where I live, coffee is always, and will always be, an import. Coffee beans don't grow in my climate.

Remember, I mentioned that these lists prompted me to think of alternatives? There is an alternative to coffee - at least with regard to taste - and it is available to me ... and most people that I know. Roasted dandelion root does, really, taste like coffee - without the caffeine. Dandelion is incredibly healthful, too, and if one is already drinking decaf coffee, switching will lose one none of the flavor, but will gain one all of the health boost.

The one thing I do like about the lists is that it's not just about prepping. Some of the recommendations are just good things to have on hand anyway, because they're things we often use on a regular basis. Getting an extra at the grocery store doesn't cost a lot and doesn't take up a lot of space.

From a preparedness point of view, I didn't actually understand the umbrella, but I don't really think it's a bad thing to have. Not really. It's practical and can be useful, and really, it doesn't take up much space. So, why not?

Eventually, we'll run out of the consumables on the lists, but things like the musical instruments, which my family already plays, the board games and the books - we won't, ever, use those up, and even without TEOTWAWKI, having them does make our life nicer.

I should also add that sometimes the alternative is not to change the thing, but rather to change how we acquire it. Like, maybe, it's not something one has to buy, but something one can make ... like the checkers board pictured above. I made the board using an old piece of plywood and a sharpie marker. The pieces are painted lids. No one ever said that we had to spend money on all of our supplies. Creativity is definitely welcome ... and encouraged :).

Based on the 50 Items list, how prepared are you?


Saturday, October 18, 2014

How Not to Be Poor

I've said it a few times, I'm pretty sure - poverty is not a state-of-being, rather it is a state-of-mind. I don't know how many times in my life, I've heard people who lived during the Great Depression say "We were poor, but I didn't even realize it." As children growing up in the Depression, these people had a home to live in, plenty of food, and adequate clothing. More often, rather than lamenting all they didn't have, they praise the ingenuity and frugality of their parents - the mom who never wasted anything, even making clothes out of feed sacks and soup out of onion tops and potato peels, and the dad who was a mechanical genius and could make a simple machine out of old screws and bailing wire.

Poor people today aren't like that. Well, actually, that's kind of a generalization and an unfair one, at that, but having been a poor person in America, my personal experience was more in keeping with being poor like the families discussed in this article.

My mistake was not just that I wasn't living within my means, but that I was trying to live at the income level I hoped to achieve once I was graduated from college and working in a full-time, professional position. One can not live on a $42,000 annual salary when one is only earning $8500 a year.

Getting into debt, I was encouraged to believe, was part of the ideal. Any debt I incurred during my undergraduate days would be magically erased (or at least manageable and nothing to worry about ... ignore-the-man-behind-the-curtain) as soon as I graduated. There was never any discussion about the time lag between achieving that coveted degree and actually having a job ... or the fact that once I graduated, I'd need to move, and moving costs money.

Oh, yeah, that.

As a college student living below the poverty line, even with my supplemental student aid money, I did not have the savings to move. Frankly, I didn't have any savings. At all. Nothing. I was not living paycheck-to-paycheck, but rather, quite literally, borrowing against next semester to get through the current one.

I ended up in the same kind of situation that is described in the article. I wanted all of that new stuff, and I never thought much about the debt I was incurring by financing stupid things, like furniture. Even worse, I was paying two to three times what those things were worth, after I paid all of the interest due.

Yes, I was guilty of renting-to-own.

I won't make excuses for myself. I was young and, in spite of being a college student, not all that smart about money-related things. Because I was a student, I was never able to fully admit how poor I was, but when $10 lost in transit from my bank to my house is a devastating loss and really does mean that food will be scarce for the week (and this was back in the 1980s), one knows things are pretty tight. I wouldn't admit that I was poor back then, because I was still living the lie that being poor was a moral failing, and also, because I couldn't be poor. I was doing all of the right things, right? I was going to college and ... you know ... making myself better.

And so, I did as much as I could to avoid the appearance of being poor.

Fast forward many years, and my attitude has changed, a lot. Deus Ex Machina and I furnished our first apartment together with furniture that was either given to us or purchased second-hand. Even today, most of the furniture in our house is either second-hand or was given to us, including this gorgeous farm table. We've bought a few new bookshelves, most of our beds were bought new, we have a couple of new office chairs, and the two five drawer chests were purchased new from a local carpenter who hand built them for us. I joke that our interior design scheme is shabby-shabby.

The point is that it doesn't matter, and frankly, if I ever replace the couch that has been repaired once and cost me $400 for the whole set of three (couch, loveseat and chair) at a yard sale, I'll probably buy the new one from a second-hand shop or yard sale. These days, between the second-hand stores, yard sales (both virtual and brick-and-mortar), and free-on-the-side-of-the-road opportunities, there is simply no reason to go into debt for furniture.

It was probably true back then, too.

There has to be a shift in attitude, and we have to let our kids know that it's okay to wait for stuff. It's okay to do without for a little while. It's okay to sleep on a mattress on the floor in the home office while one takes time to complete the renovation using cash rather than credit - and doing things the right way the first time so that ten years down the road, they don't have to be done again.

I am inspired by Johnny Sanphillipo's story of building his mortgage-free tiny house in Hawaii. The house is 480 sq feet, but he lives alone. If he wanted to make it big enough for a small family, he could add a second story and end up with a 960 sq ft house. Still small by today's McMansion standards, but my family of five shares 1500 sq ft (well, right now it's more like 1200 sq ft, because we had to do some extensive repairs of the back room and it's currently gutted), and we have plenty of room.

Sanphillipo spent ten years building his house, and he had to do some wiggling around building codes and such to get the project done, but it's done ... and it's gorgeous ... and it's two blocks from the beach ... um, did I mention in Hawaii?

I love what he says in the video about how the average person will take out a 30 year mortgage, but that no one pays off a house in 30 years. What usually happens is that the house will end up refinanced, and then, after having lived in the house their whole adult lives, at retirement, most people find that they are still paying a mortgage.

The bottom line is that there really are very few people in the United States of America who are living in soul-crushing poverty. Most of us, even the poor college-student me, end up making ourselves poorer by the very unwise financial choices we make. Spending money on ridiculous wants, like a new sofa for the living room, is a good example of that kind of short-sighted and ill-fated decision that pushes one further and further down the ladder of wealth.

In the end, not having money to spend on luxuries, like furniture, isn't what makes us poor. It's the belief that, without that couch, something is missing from our lives. If we allow ourselves to fall into that debt trap, that's when we become poor - not because we don't have money, but because we believe that having money to buy more is what makes us worthwhile as humans.

I think we can have it all ... just not right now, but it's the right-now attitude that creates poverty and keeps people poor.

This past summer we broke the handle on our wagon. It's been rusting out for a while, and so it wasn't a big surprise when it happened, just an inconvenience. In days past, we would have run out and purchased a new one, because, of course, we need it. Having the wagon allows us to make the most efficient use of our time, which means we have a better chance of being successful at this suburban homesteading thing while simultaneously living our full-time modern lives.


Deus Ex Machina and I are getting much better about knowing when to spend money getting something new and when to make use of the wealth of resources we have available to us for free. Like the cedar fence given to us for the cost of hauling it away that has been repurposed into all sorts of amazing things here on our homestead, including a piece being fashioned into a new wagon handle.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The headline caught my eye, Bug In or Bug Out? Why Conventional Wisdom May Be Wrong? I wondered, what does conventional wisdom say.

After reading the article, I still didn't know (although my suspicion is that most preppers believe bugging out is the only answer). What I did get was a very cool list of questions to help assess my individual situation.

I've always planned to adapt in place - to bug-in, if you will. My whole lifestyle, for the past seven years, has been about changing my attitude and actions, and learning to live where I am with what I have. I'm working on leaving the modern mind-set of everything is disposable to one in which everything is precious and has a use ... or doesn't and I should give it to someone who can find a use for it. The Three R's have governed my life for a long time (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), and note that the first one is "reduce", i.e. live with less. We're getting better and better at this, every day.

I found the list of questions interesting, and so I thought I would share them. Whether you already have a bug-out plan or you haven't thought about it, yet, this list might help you to really assess your situation and figure out if you should stay or go.

  • Is my home easily defensible?
  • Do I have a safe room in my home or property?
  • Do I have a good mode of transportation if bugging out is necessary?
  • Do I have adequate supplies of fuel at my home to last at least a month?
  • Do I have an alternative source of electricity at my home?
  • Do I have enough food to provide each member of my family (or group) with 2,000 calories a day for at least a month?
  • Do I have adequate supplies of drinking water (at least one gallon per day) and cleaning water to last for at least a month, and the ability to purify new water?
  • Do I have weapons at home?
  • Do I live in a more rural setting, away from urbanized areas, but close enough to town?
  • Do I have strong support and good relations with the rest of my community?

According to the article, if you answer yes to most of them, you should stay. I answered yes to seven out of the ten.

Who's not surprised?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Morning of Pickling



This. Plus, seven pints of beets and one pint of carrots.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Neither Label nor Eat

As a follow-up to the labeling post the other day, this wonderful article by Dr. Joe Mercola came through email this morning. As my daughter pointed out to me, the companies that care about my health (or rather whose profits are more tied to ensuring that I'm getting food I feel I can trust) are already avoiding GMOs and/or labeling their products to reflect their stance on the subject.

As the Mercola article points out, Genetic engineering is complex and unpredictable, resulting in pieces of DNA interacting with each other in unexpected and potentially dangerous ways. Genetic engineering of food is too new. We simply do not know what it will do to our bodies, and frankly, I'm not okay with having my body and the bodies of my children and grandchildren serve as the proverbial guinea pig to find out what GMO foodstuff will do.

I'm not even okay with using guinea pigs, actually.

There is enough evidence to show that organic farming techniques of non-GMO foods can feed the world's current population.

But I would also like to point out that every famine in the 20th century, every incidence of food shortages and hunger in our modern world had nothing to do with not enough food to go around, but rather has been a political and/or economical issue.

The Irish potato famine that killed a million people in Ireland happened because there was a failure of the potato crop (a fungus that was probably imported from somewhere else - kind of like the tomato and potato blight that hit the northeast a few years ago). The tragedy is not that these people depended solely on the potato for their food, but that the other crops that were being grown - and there were many, many crops being grown - were being exported to England and other places. The Irish, literally, starved to death, not because they lost their potato crop, but because the food that was being grown where they lived was being sold to someone else. It was economics and politics - pure and simple.

The same thing has played out in other countries. The famines in Ethiopia and across the sub-Saharan Africa, were a result of war and political unrest with millions of people fleeing the fighting and ending up in refugee camps. Some weather anomalies played into the failure of local crops, but there was plenty of relief food sent to the region. Most of it sat rotting while the people starved. Political.

Millions of people go hungry every day, not because there's not enough food, because millions of pounds of food - even in the poorest countries in the world - get wasted. In India, an estimated 40% of the produce in the country (where 40% of the population is vegetarian) rots before it gets to the customers.

The companies that engineer these genetically modified foods will tell us that we can't feed the world's population, but that's simply not true. There is plenty of food. In fact, I find food every time I go for a walk.

It's not a shortage of food that is the problem. It's access to the food.

I'm not sure we need labeling of GMO ingredients. What we need is a concerted effort to stop the large-scale production of these products, because everything they're telling us is a lie. They don't know what the long-term consequences of using these products will be - on the humans who consume them or the environment where they are grown.

And they are definitely not necessary to feed the starving masses. In that case, what we need is a complete overhaul of the system that outlaws kitchen gardens in front yards or packs people into slums where nothing grows, including the people themselves.

When land and food and water become commodities, some people can afford to the buy them and some people can't. Manufacturing pretend food is not what will feed us. Decommoditizing food and land, and more equally distributing them is what will.

I'm no longer calling for labeling GMOs. Now, I want to see them outlawed.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Should We Label?

I think children are underrated - not that people don't appreciate the little bundles of joy, but that, as a society, we tend to discount the opinions, thoughts and feelings of young people as being immature.

As a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom for the past seventeen years, I've discovered that the notion that children can't have incredibly insightful and valid opinions about things is inaccurate. If we listen, they can tell us things that we hadn't thought of. Adults tend to form opinions quickly based on years of experience, but consider that, sometimes our experiences negatively color our notions about life, and children, who haven't been so jaded, might actually be able to provide some insight that we hadn't considered.

This morning my teen says, "We don't need GMO labeling." She is well aware that this is a hot-button issue for me, because I'm very much in favor of transparency. Integrity is incredibly important to me, and I hold, in highest esteem, those who are honest and open with me. The quickest way to lose my trust and friendship is to let me catch you in a lie or deceit. I'll never trust you again, and I'll never forget that you'd lied to or cheated me. It's definitely a deal breaker.

So, of course, when she made that comment, I was all ears. "Yes?"

"Well, the companies who care about GMO labeling are already doing it."

I thought about the bag of veggie chips that was sitting opened on our counter. I thought about the crackers we occasionally put in our pantry. I thought about the corn chips that we keep handy for chips and salsa days and the corn taco shells we purchase for taco nights.

All of them are labeled "No GMOs", because that's important to us as consumers.

And, she's right. The companies that care about not putting potentially hazardous ingredients in our food already label their products accordingly. The companies that don't ... don't care, and they will fight to the end to NOT label their products, because once they start labeling, they will lose customers, or they will have to admit, publicly, that they don't give a shit about the small percentage of us who won't eat GMOs. I guess they believe that we are happy to perpetuate the notion that ignorance is bliss or that we really believe, what we don't know won't hurt us.

I'll probably still fight for GMO labeling ... at least as far as continuing to spread awareness about GMOs, and the fact that we don't know enough about the long-term effects to consider them safe - but maybe I'll stop worrying about fighting the GMA and its members to put those warning labels on their foodstuff, because the fact is that I already don't buy it, and frankly, in many of those products, the potential for GMO ingredients is the least of our worries.

Big Little Sister blogs at Adventures of Lifetime. I'm blessed every day to witness her amazing spirit and incredibly thankful for her insight.