Simplicity by Choice

Off-Grid Living & Self-Reliance

Homestead Projects November 2, 2014

Filed under: family,homesteading,simplicity — ourprairiehome @ 7:35 am
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Some of what I am about to write may seem a bit opposite of what I have written previously, but actually isn’t.  Our homestead goals haven’t changed.  The primary focus of our goals has been to become as self-reliant as possible.  To live a simple life that is as uncluttered by worldly demands as possible.  In doing so, we have found that our family bond has been strengthened. More importantly, our faith in the Lord has grown as well.

Recently, we have been taking stock of where we are at in reaching our goals.  It has been a very enlightening time for us.  One issue that came up is that of being able to hunt during turkey and deer seasons.  We also have considered raising our own meat.  In raising our own meat, we would grass-feed the animals only.  We would raise the animals from spring through autumn, then have them butchered before winter sets in.  This would save the costs of feed during the winter season when grazing is not available.  Some of the livestock we have considered are a lamb, dairy/meat goats, chickens, turkeys, and possibly a pig.  This will all take a bit of time to put together since we need to update the fencing and animal enclosures.  The main idea is that we would not over-winter the animals.  Any that we purchase in early spring would be butchered before winter sets in.

With that goal in mind, we have to consider buying a chest freezer.  There is no way I can home can and store that amount of meat in our pantry.  We simply do not have the space for it.  Also, there are meats that are not good for home canning.  One example is pork.  If we were to butcher a pig, the pork chops, bacon, and ham roasts would need to be frozen.  Yes, some people have home canned pork, but there are cuts of meat that cannot be home canned.  Two examples are the ham roasts and pork chops.  With the rising cost of meat, raising our own seems to be the way to go.  Having the amount of land that we do, there is no reason why we can’t raise our own meat.

The question has been how to do this.  Having a small solar power system, there is no way that we can use an electric freezer.  Propane freezers are costly and difficult to find in our area.  So, we are making an alteration to our homestead.  In the coming months, we are building a shed that will be approximately 12’x12′ in size.  The shed will be insulated and have a small propane heater for winter months.  The shed will also have electricity from a power company.  We are going to have a utility pole set up with a meter and an outdoor circuit box placed on the land between our house and the dirt road.  The shed will be built near that pole so that we can have the electricity run from the pole to the shed.  We will be using the shed as a multi-purpose building.  It will contain a chest freezer, washer, dryer, and a home office area.  Having the laundry in that room will make life much easier on me.  I have found that having an autistic son makes doing laundry by hand just too time consuming.  I need to be able to focus on homeschooling and home therapy activities.  We have been using a laundromat for the laundry lately and will have to through the winter when it is far to cold outdoors to hang the laundry out on the line.  There is no place to hang up the clothes in the house, so the laundromat is the only option.  We currently average spending about $80 per month at the laundromat.  Buying secondhand machines and doing the laundry at home will cost far less than that.  This shed will be a great asset to the homestead.

For the house, we still plan to add a wind turbine and more solar panels to provide for the household energy needs.  We have been 6 years now without being on the power grid.  In that time, we have learned much.  We have found ways to work around the lack of electrical conveniences.  In having a shed on grid, we are not taking a step backward in our goals, but a leap forward.

Last night, another goal was met.  We installed a new woodstove in our home to provide heat.  Last year, we used a propane heater and it was not efficient at all.  In fact, we used about $48 per week  in propane just for the heater alone.  That was $192 per month in propane for heat!  Way too much!  Then, in the middle of winter, the cost shot up from $1.99 per pound of LP to a cost of $5.00 per pound.  It seemed that there was a bit of a shortage due to farmers using propane heaters to save crops stored in silos.  With that shortage came the higher heating costs.  The stove we purchased puts out a lot of radiant heat and needs no blower to circulate it.  This is a very welcome addition to our homestead.  We have plenty of trees that need to be thinned from our woods and are already seasoned.  We have already started to buy some firewood, but are also harvesting some of our own.

Another outdoor building we are designing is a shed a bit smaller than the multi-purpose shed mentioned above.  The one will be insulated and have a propane heater as well.  The purpose for this particular shed is to be a shower house.  It will contain everything that a typical bathroom has.  Easiest to think of it as a detached bathroom.  It will be located near the house.  We will still have the bathroom in the house, but this will be another option for us to use.  Just as with the multi-purpose shed, this one will be within the fenced area of the yard.  We will be able to use that bathroom whenever we are outdoors working or the kids are playing.  The detached bathroom will also come in really handy when we go about remodeling the bathroom in the house.

We are really excited about the changes we are making.  The focus is still on simplicity and self-reliance, but with small alterations in how we go about that.  As we begin making the changes, I will try to post pictures.  We will be doing as much of the work ourselves as possible.  Living as rural as we do, that is always an option that we have.  We can do much of the work ourselves and only have professionals come in to advise or to do the final details, such as hooking up the electrical wiring to the circuit box.  Between my husband and I, we have experience in doing most of the other work involved.

Saturday, we started the process of downing an old tree that was not thriving.  The tree also happens to be in the path of where the electric line will have to be run from the utility pole at the road and where the new pole on our property will be placed.  Just stepping on one of the branches that was large enough to hold my husband’s weight, caused the dead branch to snap and break off. Our daughter loved to climb that tree but it was no longer safe.  The wood of that tree, though freshly cut, is already dry enough to be used in the woodstove.  We have three more trees in the north side of the house that also will be cut down over the coming months.

The cutting down of these trees will solve a few problems, such as risks of branches breaking in ice storms due to the branches being weak from insect damage.  It will also clear that entire yard so that we can plant new trees and a butterfly garden.  This is the first portion of the property that a person sees when they drive up our driveway and we want it to be pretty.

Last project we will be beginning once the weather has remained cold enough for snakes to be underground is to completely clear the garden area.  It was unused this past summer and needs much work to prepare for spring.  One goal that I have is to buy cinder blocks to frame some raised beds.  Over the winter, I can put the blocks in place and start filling them about halfway with soil and mulch.  In early spring, the boxes can have more soil mix added to finish filling the beds.  Garlic, onions, and other root crops can be planted in them right away as soon as the ground is thawed.  By Easter, the green beans, sugar peas, and leafy greens can be planted as well.  This will give the garden a great head start.  About Thanksgiving, I will be buying a couple of sweet potatoes to use for growing slips.  These will also be planted in a raised bed if I have one put together for them.  I will write how to grow slips for the garden when we start ours.

It is a lot that we have going on over the next few months.  I feel so grateful to have my husband home every night and on weekends.  When he was on the truck and gone for up to 7 weeks at a time, it was hard to get the homestead in the position we wanted it to be going.  I simply couldn’t do the work on my own when I have two young children and no extra hands to help.  Now that he is home so much, Joe is able to help get a lot of the harder work dealt with and we are making faster progress as we go along.


Wood Stove Canning February 12, 2013

Today, I tried something new that I have avoided. I canned spaghetti sauce and peach jam on the wood stove. I don’t know why I avoided it as long as I have. I used the waterbath method since the sauce didn’t contain large chucks of veggies or meat. It is a basic sauce and I add the veggies & meat when I set it to simmer during meal preparation.

It was so easy to process the sauce. No different than canning on the modern stove. The only true difference is keeping the fire in the firebox hot enough to keep the kettle of water boiling.

I used a large stockpot that was deep enough for processing pint jars. That is the size jar that I use most often, so getting out the large canner made no sense. I placed a small round rack in the bottom of the stockpot to prevent the jars from resting on the bottom of the pot. The stockpot held 7 jars, which is similar to the large waterbath canner.

I set the filled jars into the canner and covered them with water so that the water level was about 2 inches above the jar tops. I used the stockpot lid throughout the processing to help keep the water boiling consistently. I allowed the water to boil for the recommended amount of time in my canning book. When they were done, I lifted the jars from the water to place onto a folded towel. As I lifted them out, I heard that wonderful noise that all home canners listen for – the popping of each jar’s lids as they sealed.

I tried a new idea as I did my canning. I had a large, tall jar of peach jam that was less than half full. It was becoming difficult for our young daughter to remove some jam out when making herself a sandwich. I took out a couple of 1/2 pint size canning jars and filled them with the jam. I had a small amount left over that was placed into another small jar for our daughter to use.

I placed these into the canner along with the 5 pints of spaghetti sauce. The jam sealed wonderfully. If this little experiment works, then I will have yet another way to break down large bulk size containers of food that I buy on sale. In retrospect, that size jar of jam that I had bought would easily have spoiled by the time it would have been used up had I not broke the amount down into smaller jars. We simply don’t go through jam that quickly. This jar was an exception as it was a new flavor for the kids.

If the jam turns out well, then I am going to start watching for the good sales on large containers of jam. It is far cheaper to buy it than to buy the fruit and make your own. I watch closely the ingredients and stay away from high fructose corn syrups and other questionable ingredients. To be able to save extra money this way will sure help the family grocery budget.


Wood Stove Cooking January 9, 2013

It has been quite some time since I have written about cooking on a wood stove. I wanted to share a few ideas that I have used to make the process easier.
This picture is one of the wood stove that I cook on. It also provides heat for our kitchen. The stove was made by Atlanta Stoves Works. I love it! The oven is very small, but functional. I went to the Dollar Tree store and bought small baking pans & cookie sheets that are better sized for the oven. The large baking sheets popular for modern ovens do not fit.

The first thing that I do prior to using the wood stove each season is to blacken it. Blackening a stove means that you are polishing it with a black polish designed for cast iron stoves. This polishing process will continue throughout the year, whenever the stove is in need of it. I currently use a liquid polish, but am preparing to order a tin of polish that is about the same consistency as a tin of shoe polish. A cast iron stove needs a good polishing to prevent rust. Periodically, I will notice that an area is becoming dull. This is not only due to spills, but simply the friction of the cookware rubbing against the stove. Whenever the stove is cool enough, a quick wipe with the polish on a scrap of an old cotton t-shirt rag is enough to freshen the stove.

When cooking on the stove, it is important to remember that choices in firewood will determine the amount of heat your stove puts out. Soft woods, such as pine, are fast burning and while they do put out heat, the heat is not sustained as long as a harder wood. A favorite local wood in our area is pecan. It burns very hot and lasts much longer than pine. I try to stay away from soft wood unless I have nothing else on hand. Usually, I will mix it with the hard wood to stretch out my hard wood supply if need be.

Unlike cooking on a modern stove, a wood stove requires much more tending. If you are simmering a pot of soup or stew, you need to maintain the fire. There is a constant fluctuation of heat taking place. I have a set of cast iron trivets of various heights. These are my temperature controls. If I have added more firewood and the stew is at risk of scorching, I put it on a trivet and move it to a slightly cooler part of the stove. You will find that every wood stove has a “hot spot” where foods cook quickest and are at higher risk of burning or scorching. This takes a short time to figure out. To learn your stove’s hot spots, set 6 recycled tin cans across your stove. Fill each about 3/4 full of water. I placed the tins in 2 rows of 3 with one row towards the back and the second towards the front of the stove. I placed one set over the firebox, another set in the stove’s center, and the last set on the far side away from the firebox. I got a hot fire going and watched to see which tin of water boiled first, then second and last. This was all I needed to know on that topic. I learned that my stove is hottest directly over the firebox towards the back. The coolest spot was the front portion of the side opposite of the firebox. This let me know where I could simmer all day without worry of scorching.

In lighting the stove, I learned a trick years ago. Pack a cotton ball with petroleum jelly. I place it onto a piece of bark from the wood pile or the chopping area. The cotton ball lights very easily and will burn for several minutes. It gives me plenty of time to add kindling to get the fire going well before adding the larger pieces of split firewood. A jar of these will last quite a while and do not dry out or lose their effectiveness. Near the wood stove, I would suggest keeping 4 items: the tin of blackening polish with a piece of cloth, a tin or jar of the prepared cotton balls, a box of matches, and a jar of aloe gel. The aloe is there simply in case of a burn. In my case, it is guaranteed that I will receive at 2-3 burns at least just from forgetting to use a pot holder then I grab the handle of a kettle or the cast iron skillet.

In cooking on a wood stove, I have learned that using lids can really help to speed up the process. This is especially true when you are making breakfast first thing in the morning. Our stove usually is cold in the morning, so I use a lid on the kettle so that the contents will heat up faster.

Baking in the wood stove’s oven was my latest challenge. The rack in the oven was not adjustable. I removed it as it was not the right height for my bread pans. I had an extra jar rack from an old water bath canner, which I turned upside down and placed into the oven. This fits very well and is the right height for my bread. To use the oven, I keep an oven thermometer in the oven so that I can gauge the temperature easier. Unlike using a modern oven, I don’t worry about the temperature being exact, but to stay within a 25* range above and below the desired temperature. When I baked bread in the oven, it took longer, but came out very nice. The oven temperature was maintained at about 300-325*F instead of the 350*F the recipe calls for. Even with the temperature causing a longer baking time, the bread was very good.

Wood stove baking is a high maintenance task when compared to modern ovens. Throughout the process, I had to be sure to remove a small shovel of coals from the firebox to place on top of the oven box. To do this, I lifted the burner plates above the oven and scattered the coals evenly on top before replacing the burner plates. This helped to heat the oven more evenly. Otherwise the heat would only have come from the left side of the oven where the firebox is located. After the first 10 minutes of baking, I turned the bread pan around 180* so that the side of the pan that had been closest to the firebox was now farthest away. I did this rotation every 10 minutes. As soon as I saw the top of the bread beginning to brown, I covered it with foil to prevent it from becoming too dark. I also found that it worked best to place the bread pan closer to the side of the oven that was farthest away from the firebox. This was in great part due to my burning hard wood only. The harder wood allowed me to use the coals more efficiently on top of the oven as they did not burn away as quickly as soft wood.

Overall, I love cooking on the wood stove. I enjoy it far more than using a modern stove. I often can cook faster on the wood stove than the gas stove. Especially once the stove has been lit for a while. I cook mainly with cast iron. The only exception being my stock pots. Along with the trivets I mentioned above, the cast iron makes cooking easier. The pans retain heat much longer. As a matter of fact, I always end up using a trivet even when frying pancakes or other foods due to how hot the cast iron becomes.

If you are handy with a needle and thread, a very simple tool to keep on hand are handle covers. Get yourself a couple of square pot holders from the dollar store. Fold each in half and whipstitch along one short edge and the long edge. Leave one short end open so that the cover will over the handle of your pans & skillets. Having some of these will save your fingers from being burned.

I hope that this gives you some ideas on wood stove cooking. There are always so many questions that I am asked that I never know if I have answered them all. Feel free to ask if you have any that were not answered here. Just keep in mind that as you had to practice and learn to use a modern stove, a wood stove is no different. It just takes a little time and experience to learn your stove. Each one has it’s own “personality” of sorts. The hot spots on one may vary from another stove of the same model. Once you start using a wood stove, it won’t take long to become comfortable with it.