Finally. Today is the first day in I can’t remember how long, I can actually sit and do absolutely nothing and not still be staring at a mile long list of things that still need to be done. I can hardly believe it – we are actually ready for winter – as in for the first time ever, I think, we’re not leaving projects undone for lack of time or a glut of sudden bad weather. Of course winter held off for a bit which helped, but it finally dumped snow the other day that looks as if it’s going to stay.
As far as food prep goes – I haven’t put my canners away yet, mind you, they kind of stay handy year round anyway. The steer is in the freezer and between it and the pork and the chickens and the vegetables, there’s not a square inch of space to be had. I’ve one stand up type freezer and one big chest freezer and they are crammed so full I can hardly tell what I’ve got. Now Bruce and I can’t possibly eat all that food – once I round up a decent size cooler, I’m shipping some beef and pork to my daughter, and she’s put dibs on the breast meat from the old layers when we have time to do them up. In the meantime, I’ve got an entire box of beef bones jammed in the freezer unit of my fridge – as soon as I’ve got time, they’re getting roasted and boiled and turned into beef stock which I will can up in jars. This weekend I’ll probably start curing a corned beef, and sometime in the next few weeks I’m going to take the pork liver and the beef liver and make pate’s.
I’ve always judged how well we’re doing on the self sufficiency food front, by how much we spend at the grocery store. This year we’ve managed to keep it at around two hundred bucks a month – and that includes soap and shampoo, laundry detergent, toilet paper, coffee, honey etc. Now I can make soap and laundry detergent, but I haven’t for a few years now – time to get back at it I think.
So my last ‘installment’ of my blog, finished off with the chicken fiasco – might as well carry on. Come that Spring, I found myself wandering about a nearly empty barn and decided that maybe the space could be put to better use – perhaps for the pigs. Hammy was flat out too large to be in the barn, but we had kept one of her girls (Charlotte) and she had since littered out, so we kept one of her girls as well -Cheyenne. Hammy’s next litter turned out to be a litter of four – a sure sign of her age and the fact that she was done with her litter producing years. As one of the four was a girl, we kept her as well. In the mean time, we’d received a call from a fellow who’d gotten our phone number from the notice board at the corner store – and wanted to know if we would take a sow off of his hands. Turned out, he had purchased this sow, pregnant, off of the same fellow we’d purchased Hammy from, and as he put it – ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time, but I am waaayyy over my head here’. Although the sow had littered out fine, he’d no idea they needed iron shots and nearly lost the entire litter to anemia. After a quick call to the previous owner, who’d come out and administered the shots, they recovered and were running amok in a large pen he’d built for them. They were not however, growing all that well. In his mind, the sow was eating all the food, thereby leaving the litter hungry. We agreed to go take a look at her.
It was immediately apparent, that the sow was not getting all the food – in fact, she was next to starving, likely a couple of hundred pounds underweight. He had not separated her and her litter at weaning, and the piglets, now four months old, were still trying to nurse. Having nothing for them, she would simply lay down on her udder and make it inaccessible – she spent enough of her day doing this, she wasn’t spending any of it eating. Now Bruce and I both – are incredibly soft hearted when it comes to animals. Any animals. We promptly offered to take her, and as soon as it could be arranged, he borrowed the neighbors trailer and went off to fetch her.
Truly, the only thing that has ever kept me from thinking bad thoughts about the man who was giving her up – was the fact that at least he recognized he was over his head and had to do something. Still, when she arrived she was battered and bruised – Bruce explained she didn’t want to load, the fellow lost his cool and in the ensuing mayhem she’d charged him, knocked him flat and ran right the hell over him – which in Bruce’s mind – was justice well served. We unloaded her into the back outside pen, it was pouring rain out, the pen was muddy – I figured she’d make for the warmth of the inside pen we’d filled with hay. Nope. She found a corner, lay down and shivered in the cold mud with no desire to get up again. This was not good. We pestered her to her feet and slowly but surely herded her into the inside pen. Once she spied the big pile of hay she promptly made for it and burrowed herself a nice spot to lay down in. Concerned about her shivering, we hung a heat lamp.
Now farming practicality and common sense dictates that you don’t keep an animal that’s not producing or because you feel for it. We aren’t very practical or blessed with an abundance of common sense it seems….we kept that sow for two years despite the fact that she was too old to re-breed, and did nothing but lollygag about digging trenches, sunbathing and eating. When we finally decided it was time to put her in the freezer, I was comfortable with it for the fact that the final part of her life was stress free and content.
The barn – I decided it would be nice to have the pregnant sows indoors during the winter – especially for having their litters. It meant we could stagger the breeding and not have to over winter growing litters – if we timed it right, by the time we weaned them off of mom, it would be warm enough outside to move either mom out, or the litter out, depending – and as soon as spring arrived, the majority of the litters were sold – some to 4H kids to raise up for the fall fair, but mostly to people wanting to raise their own pork for the freezer without having the expense and the work of owning a sow and a boar to do it.
So technically, we had swapped the meat bird work load, for pig work load – one would think we’d learn a little quicker than that. Still, we carried on – there was a lot of demand for weaner pigs in our area – and continued to try and divide our time between momma sows and momma goats as well as the layers and ‘some’ meat birds. I’m never sure if we were just getting better at being organized or we were too tired to notice we weren’t – but things ran fairly smoothly for awhile.
The biggest issue, as always, was the fact that we had to have our water delivered. Once you start raising four-leggeds, water consumption goes through the roof. Then there’s the ‘bedding’ for the animals – sawdust – which around here you have to buy at an exhorbitant price because where we live – we have pulp mills – the reason the city exists in the first place – at the confluence of two rivers, there’s no better place to set up a pulp mill or two. Which means, they need lots of sawdust, which means the rest of us have to pay dearly for the privilege of tossing some of the stuff on the floor of our barn. Over and above that, we were still dealing with the muck and the mire of the clay bed we lived on. I have lost count of the number of trucks that have been stuck in our yard, our field……or how many tow trucks we’ve had to call to pull them out. At one point we had to call a tow truck to get the sawdust delivery truck out, and then a second tow truck to get the first tow truck out. One would think that in the winter, with the temperatures we get, that the ground would freeze solid. Not so. In the end, you wind up with a very large ‘must fix’ list of things around the property, and then you spend a lot of time trying to figure on the least expensive, most practical – only going to do this once – way to fix the problem.
This particular summer, what with the zoo running fairly smoothly, we decided to start with our five acre field – mostly because a neighbor from way down the road had a big four wheel drive tractor and had just bought a brand spanking new four bottom plow he was dying to try out – and he offered to do it for free. Free? Once I was sure I’d heard him right, we tore out a section of fencing and waved him on through. In less than four hours we were looking at five acres of turned up dirt that hadn’t seen a plow in over twenty years. We had no clue what we were going to do with the field, but it sure seemed like progress. The second thing we did, had the same guy with the same tractor, attach a bucket and dig our driveway up – from the front of the property all the way past the barn, to a depth of three feet. We then had many many truck loads of river rock delivered and dumped into the trench and packed down. Finally! Something to walk on besides muck!
This was the year, I also got a little smarter – it occured to me one day, that maybe a couple of the young guys at work, might like to make some extra cash on the odd weekend – cleanup, hauling yet more found debris to the dump, move this to there and that to here….. I told them it was nothing but grunt work and the pay was lousy, but they were game anyway – they saved us days and days of effort and work – and being they didn’t farm every day of their lives, thought it all a big adventure.
Now the water issue – remained an issue, we couldn’t afford a well, we couldn’t afford a lagoon to pump sewer into – they both go hand in hand – so we continued to pump grey water from the shower into the bush, and dump the camping potti into the outhouse that once it had filled with water nearly as fast as it had been dug, had found a happy level about two feet down from the top and could accommodate the dumping of the potti. The house, if you are wondering, continued to be at a complete standstill. The north wall had thankfully decided to stay mostly put, and as we had discovered come that spring, there was no fixing it until we figured on how to get a foundation under it. Turns out there wasn’t one……I figured they ran out of money for the cement when it was poured all those years ago. This explained why the last six or so feet of floor towards the north side of the house, had a definite downward slope to it. The project was also complicated by the fact that our hydro mast is on that corner of the house as well, and the base of it was rotting as it hadn’t been flashed properly – which also meant that our breaker panel was hanging by a thread as the wood around it continued to decay.
In the end, what you learn to do…..is ignore those things you can do nothing about. For one, it’s pointless to spend what spare time you have, obsessing over things that can’t be fixed until some undetermined future date. For another, you’re too busy just trying to get things you can do – done. We continuted to improve the barn – trying to make it so come winter, there would be less hauling buckets of water through the blizzard like winds and blowing snow. Bruce actually ran water line and added a quick coupler so the water guy could just hook up at the driveway end of the barn and fill the cistern – assuming somebody was here to keep an eye on the level and holler when it was full. We bartered a pig for another jacketed wood heater and installed that in the barn as well, so the water wouldn’t freeze. When you consider that until this point we had been packing water by bucket for every animal on the property, this system seemed pretty delux. Flip a switch and a pump fills all the lines and by turning any of several ball valves he’d installed at each pen, voila! Everybody has water – well at least everybody in the barn had water. Still had to pack it to the goats, the geese, the dogs……and into the house for heating up to do dishes. Though we had hot water at the shower, we had installed one of those water saver heads – good for showering and not wasting water, not so good for filling a bucket with hot water for dishes, unless you had nothing better to do for a half hour.
I suppose I could look back and see what kind of a winter we had that year, but I’m thinking it was like any other winter here – cold. Windy. Lots and lots of snow. Short on daylight hours. Go to work in the dark, come home in the dark. Hope the plow had come by overnight so you could drive to work, find out in the morning, it hadn’t. White knuckle your way to the main highway and hope the plow had managed to clear some sort of patch wide enough to drive on – after all it was a main highway right? Apparently that’s not much of a consideration around here. I was so certain I would wind up off an embankment with the truck some days, that I took to packing a survival kit behind the seat. Sweatshirt, plaid, socks, water, lots of matches, lighter, food, space blanket, regular blanket, light sticks, the jack-all, a bundle of kindling, newspaper, a shovel, an axe, a knife……damned if I was going to go off the road and die because I was unprepared. It’s foolish really – there isn’t really a place I could run off the road where I couldn’t simply stumble back to the highway and wave down some help – but then I thought ‘well – what if I’m injured and can’t stumble back to the highway?’. I’m sure this all stems from an incident when as a child, my dad, my brother and I, found ourselves walking many many miles down a snow covered road in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere in temperatures that likely neared fifty below, because our truck broke down. I recall my dad simply pretending it was no big deal – likely to keep us kids from freaking out, I recall there was a full moon because we could see where we were going. My dad, having worked for the forestry for many years, was making for a camp of sorts where he knew there would be a few guys stationed – likely a radio, and therefore some help. I can picture the camp – and oddly, nothing else. It was only recently I mentioned the story to my mom – she recalled it immediately. The men at the camp were dead – they had died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty propane heating system. I figure that’s why to this day I have a thing about being prepared in the winter – and why to this day I’ve never been comfortable using anything that operates on propane.
Regardless, I don’t recall this particular winter being any more eventful than any other winter until around February. On our way to bed one night, we stopped to glance out the front window to appreciate the brightness of the full moon reflecting off of the snow – and wondered rather oddly, why the snow seemed to be tinted a strange color of red.
‘I think we have a chimney fire.’ I finally stated – baffled, as we were very strict about cleaning the old brick chimney out on the first weekend of every month.
Bruce bolted for the door and out into the backyard to look up at our chimney – sure enough it was flaming like a foundry furnace – not good at all. As he ran for the ladder and the chimney brush, I grabbed the fire extinguisher and kicked the metal hatch out of the bottom of the chimney and emptied the thing into the flames as Bruce, on the roof in a flash, knocked down all the burning creosote with the brush from the top side. Disaster averted, he took a quick look in the attic to make sure the chimney hadn’t cracked and let flame loose onto the tinder dry rafters – the bricks seemed fine, the attic was still intact.
Now because we heat with wood, cook with wood, and every building on the property is built out of wood, we own a lot of fire extinguishers. There is a twenty pound extinguisher bolted next to every entrance to every building, and extinguishers inside of every building. It’s not to save a building – it’s to save people and animals. The rule is – get yourself out, or let the animals out if you can safely do so, and let the buildings burn. You can replace a building.
So being prepared, meant the chimney fire wasn’t much of an alarm per se. What bothered us, was why it had caught fire in the first place, considering how often we cleaned it out, and the fact that we burn very dry wood. We kept a wary eye on it for the next few days, and sure enough – come the weekend, it caught again. This time, I heard the telltale sound of creosote crackling where the cookstove portion of the pipe entered the chimney. Bruce scrambled up onto the roof again, and I managed to avoid using the extinguisher. Those things make a nasty mess – it took days to wipe it off of every surface in the house, and I wasn’t much interested in starting over. In the end, it was clear that we needed a new chimney. We figured (and rightly it turned out) that the liner was so old, and had housed so many fires, it had cracked, creosote had over the years oozed into those cracks and regardless of how clean we kept it, it had reached the tipping point.
We made some phone calls – surely somebody out there could reline and repair a brick chimney. Turns out – brick chimneys are no longer allowed up here – or should I say – you can have one if you want, but nobody will sell you fire insurance with a brick chimney. Turns out you have to have a double walled, metal, xyz rated blah blah chimney. Nothing three thousand dollars wouldn’t fix right up. Sigh. Bruce decided to waylay the whole issue by literally burning the chimney out – in other words, let the thing burn out the creosote while you keep a careful eye on the conflagration and right about when you figure it’s as burnt out as you can get it without taking the house down with it, you kill the fire. Spring was around the corner, we had the outside cook stove to use – we put it on the ‘list’ of things that needed to be dealt with along with the other hundred things that needed to be dealt with.
Of course we’d hardly sorted that mess out (well, -ish) when we discovered the big twelve hundred gallon cistern in the barn had sprung a leak. Unbelievable. Now this cistern wasn’t new – we had bartered an old quonset style building that had been abandoned in our field to our neighbor to the North, for his used water cistern – they had gotten a well drilled the year before and no longer had use for it. They wanted the quonset so they didn’t have to clear snow off their vehicles in the winter, we wanted the cistern for the barn. Win win. Until the thing sprung a leak along one of the ‘structural’ crinkle seams. Drip. Drip. Drip. The barn floor being wood – well you get the picture. And of course, the leak was somewhere in the nether regions of the base of the thing – there was no getting at it, and as anybody knows, there is no fixing a crappy plastic crinkle seam in a cistern unless you can empty it, dry it out, find mystery leak and…..well I don’t know, melt it back together? Double sigh. The barn had in effect, almost been built around the cistern. Bruce had laid a double thickness of floor, reinforced the joists where it was going to sit, and we had enclosed it in a room so we could keep the cats out, the dust out…..
This – was almost the straw that broke the camels back. We felt defeated. There was no getting the fool cistern out of the barn unless we cut a large hole in the barn. In the end we pumped it dry, took the saws-all in and cut the damn thing into chunks I could haul out the door and toss into the truck for yet another trip to the dump. Neither of us was remotely interested in dismantling the barn to get it out in one piece, especially considering that even if we managed to locate the hairline crack, there were bound to be others up and coming because the thing was used. Homesteading lesson number eight hundred and twelve. When your neighbor has a used cistern for trade – tell him to keep it and haul it to the dump himself.
You would think I’d be used to this by now – ten steps forwards, fifteen backwards – well come to think of it, I guess I am. There we stood, months upon months of work work work to turn this place into something, and we were almost back at square one. No water system in the barn. A faulty chimney in a faulty house that was still falling down around us. Back to packing water by the bucket. Back to cooking outside. Still no garden. It is, actually possible, to get sick – to – DEATH of doing every, ever loving thing, the hard way.
Something, had to change…….
Installment 2 up next……Old Ignaus, Old Rainey and a raven pooping all over my couch.