A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Five Years Anniversary

     July is tough month to leave the homestead. In the past few weeks, both Mike and I have found ourselves called away for various periods of time (for work and family visits mostly), and though our home economic situation is starting to pan out as we had hoped it would, our homestead has suffered for our inattentions. When we finally returned a few days ago, we found that in our short absence, nature had filled the vacuum. The electric strand fence that we had proudly strung around our corn, confident that it would keep marauding raccoons at bay, had shorted out due to the growth of weeds underneath it and the corn had been ravaged, almost down to the last ear. Our tomatoes (my favorite vegetable to grow and generally my baby in the garden) were under attack from above by tomato horn worms and below from blight, reduced in places to skeleton vines. Noooo! An hour’s work culled the majority of dead leaves and produced several dozen fat green worms that Caris and I gleefully fed to the fish in the pond. Still, the tomatoes have clearly taken a hit and look much sadder for it. It is hard not to feel overwhelmed by all of the demands of the homestead at this time of year. It is the turning point where all of our spring gardening fantasies crash and burn as they confront the realities of pest pressure, weeds and neglect.

      Not everything has been a loss though, and fortunately, we were welcomed back to the greetings of many friends and neighbors at a community potluck where we swiftly had a week’s worth of meal invites, parties, game/social dates (for the adults), and play dates (for Caris) lined up. Many others in our community are feeling overwhelmed too, and we realized if we could team up and share in the work load, we would all be happier and more productive for it. So group canning sessions have commenced, and the hope, at least, of more work party rotations in weeks to come.

Sunday game day has become an institution

Corn cooked in the solar tube
     One of the big take aways for me from this experiment in homestead living is that living in close community is the way to go. I could reluctantly leave many other parts of the lifestyle—the animals, the garden, the orchard, house building and all of the many other physically demanding aspects of the lifestyle. But if Mike and I were alone endeavoring to do it all, we wouldn’t make it. Instead, we are regularly saved by the good company, help, and wisdom of friends living close by, sharing in our ups and downs. From several older and more experienced neighbors down the road, for example, I received the good advice to triple strand our electric wire around the corn patch and scalp the earth underneath it. We received a trunk load of free organic corn, excess to the farmer who grew it who was happy to see it go to a human mouth and not a raccoon. Another kind neighbor walked me out to her corn patch and picked out a half dozen ears for our supper when she heard our bad news. Instead of feeling devastated, now I feel buoyed to try again next year with my newfound advice and my belly full of delicious corn.

     This isn’t the first time we have felt overwhelmed with the demands of our life here. It has been a constant refrain since we began this project five years ago. Sometimes I only have eyes to see the half done projects and all that we don’t have time or energy to accomplish on our to-do list. I was taken aback by the praise of a neighboring homestead friend who pointed out how impressed she was with what we had built and created in our five years here. “Yes,” I countered, “but our gardens aren’t doing that well and we haven’t made headway with the last big pieces of house construction. We haven’t been able to even make a chicken coop!” (My dream of having chickens has been on hold for years!) She countered back with, “Your bean trellis looks amazing, and sweet potatoes vines are spilling everywhere, your garden looks great to me. And your house… you’ve done SO much.” It is the first time that I stopped to consider that she might be right—maybe I just don’t have eyes to see it. As I considered what we have accomplished, and what might be reasonable to encourage other to try and create from scratch, I decided to do a short survey of our five years of major projects and review what worked and didn’t, what we would do differently. I thought it might be useful information for anyone else who might be considering starting down the adventurous road of homesteading!

     Although the pond we had dug on our land our first season did not involve much time or sweat labor on our part (we hired an excavator to dig it in three days for around $3000 which we fundraised), it has turned out to be a great asset to our land and a great decision to make at the outset. Our pond helps us stay cool, attracts wildlife, is home to our growing fish nursery, and best of all, is a reliable, free source of water for irrigation downhill, which we use all the time. When we started thinking about the layout of our land, we hadn’t consulted an excavator specializing in ponds (there is some logic to their placement in terms of catchment area and damming possibilities), so I feel lucky that it worked on our land to have it uphill from our cultivated land. If I were doing this again, I would try to choose a piece of land that did have pond site possibilities uphill from where I wanted to move water to. We also lucked out with our Missouri clay-rich soil that holds water effortlessly. I know what the hassle and expense of installing a pond liner or attempting other methods of water retention in other soil types, so it is something to take into consideration. What would I do differently? I would have had a plan ahead of time for moving the mound of top soil that the excavator removed to the side for us to use later as it is a HUGE hassle to move it when we need some elsewhere.

     Our hugelculture swales are another big earthworks project we started in our first year, by hand digging trenches along contour of a hillside and slowly planting fruit trees into them. They were a big expenditure of time and energy to do by hand, even with the help of friends, so something I would DEFINITELY do differently is to rent a small backhoe to expedite the process. We could have done a month’s heavy work in a day for several hundred dollars more. I would have used that saved digging energy to plant cultivar fruit trees in our first year, instead of in our third. Another lesson learned is to fill a vacuum faster than nature can, so I would have quickly planted a ground covering on top of the swales instead of procrastinating and having many times the work weeding later. Still, the fruit trees we did plant in the swales are all doing well and putting on their first fruit this year!

     Clearly, our house is where we have spent the majority of our time, energy and money thus far. So I was surprised when I tallied the results of all of our construction expenses thus far and found that it came to a grand total of…. drum roll please… $22,500! (That doesn’t include our cistern and we are still building, so I think it would be safe to round up to 25K.) Where did we save the most money? On labor costs first and foremost—we have done most of the work ourselves, and only around $2,500 of that is for paid help during our fall crunch trying to get the roof on. But that saved money translated into four years of our lives working quite hard, which isn't for everyone... We also saved quite a bit scouting used windows and doors, second hand wood for interior framing, subfloor and the underside of our roof, and really cheap local lumber for everything else. Also, the bulk of our walls are strawbales, which cost $1,000 in total and plastered with clay and sand on the cheap. It took forever, but saved us quite a bit. The most expensive part of the house was the roof, costing us $7,000 total from rafters to metal and some labor costs. But no leaks yet!

     What would I have done differently? One thing I definitely consider is whether it was worth using timbers from our land for our timberframe. Visitors and tour groups always rave about the cool look of live-edge round logs, but in a sense, it cost us a year extra of work, rather than just ordering pre-milled square timbers from our local mill. If we had taken the short cut, we could have built our frame our first year instead of our second. And although I love our house with all of its character, and I don’t exactly regret the cool learning process of working with roundwood…. I just can’t say I would recommend it to anyone else. That was a tough year. It also occurred to Mike and I, as we are in the process of throwing up a simple stick frame garden shed, that if we were to build another cabin on our land, we would NOT make it strawbale. Working with straw bales (and plastering them) was another time-costly and frustrating process. We would build stud frame and infill with lightly clay-coated straw or recycled batting insulation which we would plaster on the inside and find used siding for the outside. We probably could have saved ourselves another year doing it that way. Still, the thermal properties of the straw bales have been amazing, and we went through not even two cords of wood to heat our home last year—not bad!


     Our water systems are one thing I feel glad we have tackled early and have good, redundant systems for. Our rainwater catchment cistern behind our house is one such system. It works well, almost too well, since our cistern is always full. The cistern so far doesn’t leak and last winter, our water supply line to the house did freeze but didn’t burst and we thawed it back out quickly with a heating coil we had pre-installed. So all in all, everything is working smoothly and cost us (including pump and plumbing and some labor costs) around $5,000. What would I do differently? One thing we didn’t consider when installing it all is the future of hot water in our house. We would love to try a solar hot water heater, but we would need a pressure tank that could always be kept full to resupply the hot water as it gets used. Currently with our beloved hand-pump, we can pressurize a water tank, but it slowly dissipates until empty and we pump it back up again. So we are trying to figure out other options, and it seems like the easiest is going to be some sort of manual system, at least for now.

Our dream garden shed is finally happening!

     We have slowly been expanding our gardens and trying different styles—raised beds on contour  in one area, flat beds in straight rows in another, etc. Lately I have been wishing that we had invested right away in getting a detailed soil analysis done and remineralizing and fertilizing the soil for a year before planting. Maybe even planting one year of a fertilizing cover crop. I know that soil fertility is something that takes time to slowly build up, and so maybe there is no short cut. But just getting things planted takes quite a bit of our energy, so fertility and compost making are almost always last on the list of what gets done. Still, we continue to eat out of our gardens and produce at least some extra to preserve for the winter. What we are learning is that yet another plus to living where we do is that there are lots of very cheap options for local, chemical free produce and grain (thanks to Amish farmers especially). We just bought a 5 gallon bucket of essentially organic tomatoes this morning from our neighbor for $4 to help off set our beleaguered tomato plant’s lower yields. I think that might buy one fancy heirloom tomato in the city. If it were on the small side…

     It has been a long road home and we are still going, but for now, I am celebrating the five years of hard and wonderful work that got us here. Writing this post has actually been a great reminder that we HAVE done a lot and I am not taking a a minute of it for granted! Maybe I will kick up my heels for the afternoon in our beautiful house and actually rest a little. Well, maybe....