Short Update on the Homestead Doings

July 23rd, 2014

Part 4

New driveway turn-around

Well, the site for the kids’ new home finally did get cleared and leveled, the foundation trench got dug – by hand, a considerable task – and landscaping fabric laid in to line it in preparation for the gravel that needs to fill it before the first two courses of bags can be laid. The fabric will serve to keep the trench from collapsing in rain, which is a good thing considering the issues we’re having on the project to get a whole lot of fist-sized granite up there to cover the driveway and turn-around. As he was leaving, our dear neighbor with the track hoe went ahead and dug out our main driveway turnaround and added the clay to the downhill side to extend it so we can not only turn around easier, but also park a couple of excess vehicles there for company. There’s always company in the summer…

Unfortunately, just as all that was finished, monsoon season hit us hard. An “Arctic Express” front has stalled right over southern Appalachia, bringing our daytime temperatures into the 60s and dumping inches upon inches of steady rain day and night. Doing anything with bare red clay in those conditions is more than foolish – one could easily end up sunk to one’s waist. This weather pattern is scheduled to continue for another solid week, losing us a total of 12 days of project time. Ah, well. Stuff happens. Which is why when you live this kind of lifestyle, it’s best not to make any hard and fast schedules for any project that might be undertaken in any season of the year. It’s always going to go long for one reason or another, might as well build that in to the game plan. Which is why after 22 years, my philosophy has boiled down to…

Homesteading: It’s Always a Work In Progress.

…and that of course extends generationally. Meanwhile, if it ever does stop raining it is clear that We The Grandparents are going to have to buy a dump truck load of gravel ourselves for the widened turnaround, as the downside extension (which needs to be seeded asap to keep it from going the rest of the way down the mountain) is progressively sagging. Don’t know how much we’ll end up losing to the deluge, we’re hoping it stops its down-slope migration before it gets to the disc golf goal (2nd and 8th holes of the Up-Course). Daughter and her hub are now recognizing they can’t use their Jeep to haul even 1/3 of a ton of gravel to the homesite, as that will definitely blow their engine after just a few loads. So far they’ve had to replace the starter, now working on the fuel lines/filters to keep it running. Granddaughter started school this week 40 miles away, and their little gadabout died in its parking place up at high field some time ago. It’s always something.

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Site Progress on the Expansion

July 6th, 2014

Part 3

Last installment had us “nearly done” with site preparation for the earthhbag camp/home. This one finds us with a leveled homesite, but with a bit more ‘earth-sheltering’ than originally planned. Now, in laying the foundations, we must also plan for that per the French drain system and windows/future doorways. S’okay to do that kind of compromising now than later, when un-doing what’s been done is harder than leaving it be.

The grandkids, doing some measurements…

Right now the conversation is about whether or not the heavily earth-bermed level should be basement, where we incorporate primary level beams (for floor joisting) and go up 8 or 9 feet for starting the roof. With its beams for joisting the loft space. Which we can arch-dormer for skylights without too much trouble. The main entrance would be on an elevated deck (have to have stairs), but they’d have the ‘plus’ of a basement level, for den or family room and the wood stove. Our cabin has a half basement where the wood stove is located, and that wood stove’s exhaust pipe straight up through the main floor and loft (with floor grates and ‘fencing’ against kids. Most of our heat comes from the pipe, which runs up through the center of the house. The biggest plus of having the wood stove in the basement is that it dehumidifies the wettest place in the house. And heat rises.

Right now the schedule is to road pack the driveway/ridge road, get the rock, sand, lime and gravel delivered, and rent the Ditch Witch to dig electric line and foundation trench plus French Drain. Need to get those nifty bio-net things we can drape over the earth-wall so it will grow some wheat grass and be restrained from moving on in until the walls come up. The water, we’ve discovered, isn’t a problem. Son-in-Law put the 55 gallon barrels in tandem below the tarp drain over their sleeping tent. Filled them both in 4 hours during a ‘normal’ summer rainstorm the other day. Did I say this was a temperate rain forest?…

View from stage right, uphill.

Have to say at this point that the site strikes me a little sad for the sheer wealth of growth that is no longer there. But then I put it into context – it’s less than a quarter acre, a very lovely high spot on the property, and we’ve certainly no dearth of trees. Young, old, and even older. On a side note to that, I was told by neighbor when I mentioned how noticeable this year’s growth on the big trees is, that if you’re looking for a spring, look for the biggest tree in the area. That’s what our spring is – it comes out of a dug-out space beneath the roots of a giant poplar tree, and it’s been dependable for 22 years.

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The Expansion Gets Going

June 27th, 2014

Part 2

Dear neighbor’s nifty track hoe on-site.

The big doings on our homestead expansion project [see the last installment] moved into overdrive over the past few days when our most helpful neighbor brought his John Deere track hoe in to do the heavy (but fun, for him) lifting on clearing a place to build. This involves getting all the trees down and into those piles discussed in the last installment. Some of which were just too darned big to take down ahead of time via the chain saws, so he just knocked ‘em over (roots and all) so we could then go at ‘em. Below is a great pic of my son-in-law separating a root ball from a push-over tree so that root ball could be tossed on over to that designated pile, where we’ll let them rot in their own time over time and “become one with” the mountainside.

Son-in-Law doing manly lumberjack stuff.

I must say that these trees are incredibly impressive for their logs alone, which I can easily imagine being turned into Lincoln Logs for a structure, with beautiful straight trunks of more than 70 feet to work with before even getting to branches to lap. If only they weren’t so darned big that using them in such a way would be nigh on to impossible. Ah, well, they’ll make fine firewood once they’re dried and split, and it’s not like we’ve any shortage of trees in this lovely ‘old growth’ section of southern Appalachia.

We are all quite surprised by how quickly that big machine is able to do what needs doing, though I guess we shouldn’t be. This neighbor turned some acreage he has on the other side of the hollow into a log home gated community for rich retirees some years ago using this machine, cutting roads and clearing sites, hauling the logs down to his sawmill and turning them into those Lincoln Logs, then hauling them back and building those very nice homes all within a few months’ time. He can swing those logs around with great precision to stack wherever he likes, and we’ll have good firewood for years down the road!

Homesite clearing progress.

After only two days’ work with the track hoe – at a cost to us only for fuel – you can see that things are very nearly ready. Next step is to level the ground for the actual structure, which we’ll be marking out with some precision tonight. The structure going in now, which is phase 1 of what will no doubt be a multi-year add-on project, is a 30-foot diameter circle. Which will give once the foundation and courses are laid, a circular bear-proof space as large as what we have on the ground floor of our old chestnut cabin proper (but the cabin is of course square). We’re planning a loft for sleeping, so that will add some square footage and privacy as well.

Earthbag structures are domed in dry regions, but because this is basically a temperate rain forest we’ll go ahead and build a regular pole roof to a central pillar, cover with chipboard and tar paper with green Ondura on top. The sheer logistics of earthbag dome are beyond us at this point, and would probably never be sufficiently stable due to all the rain we get (i.e., it would never dry). At any rate, neighbor says it won’t take more than another day to flatten out that foundational site, and then we can go from there on our own.
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Expanding the Homestead

June 23rd, 2014

Adding to the compound…

Example of earthbag building.

Big doings at the ‘stead this summer. Daughter, son-in-law and their two children moved in at the first of May and are building an earthbag home on a nice high spot. It’s a heck of a project I’m not at all convinced will be anywhere close to done by Halloween, which is generally the point when there are more freezing nights than warm days per the ability to engage in big projects. But if it doesn’t get done this year, there’s always next year, and occasional above-freezing spells when more work can be done.

The chosen homesite before much work was done.

First thing we did was clear trees, down dead and assorted growth along the entire top of Skypup Ridge, the north-south ridge extending from Heartbreak Ridge (south slope of Mount Mitchell) to bisect our property. This is now a new driveway to the family’s summer campsight. Which, along with a wide enough area to turn the Jeep around in, took quite a bit more clearing than just the drive itself did. Established a nice rock firepit and living area and pitched two family-sized tents – one for sleeping, and one just for clothes and ‘stuff’. No cooking facilities or food storage, as these would draw bears from the crowded National Forest bear sanctuary next door. The kids and grands are so far happy to use the facilities here in the main cabin and avoid those bears!

Next we planned the stages of prepping the new homesite. Used the DR brush mower to take out and mulch the thick stands of mountain laurel. Then cut the larger rhododendrons back with chainsaws, and piled them just below the trail from the ridge/campsite where the stumps will go when the machinery comes in to flatten and prep. We must be careful to keep the laurel and rhododendrons separate from various other piles of stuff, because they are heaths that cannot be safely burned or shredded as duck bedding (poisonous).

Also picked out the rest of our various ‘piles’, the places where various prep material will be concentrated until we get around to actually dealing with it permanently. One for laps – that’s the top leafy branches of downed trees, which are scheduled to be mulched with a rented chipper-shredder at some point and brought down for duck bedding and garden mulch. This pile is closest to the disc golf goal at the very top of the north end of the property, which will one day become the ‘rest’ of the ‘circle’ access drive to come back down to the main driveway. Next to that pile of leafy branches is the pole stack – the trunks of the smaller trees (~10 inches or less diameter), cut into ~16 foot lengths for use in various homestead projects once the bark comes off.
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USDA Sued Over Salmonella

May 29th, 2014

The US Department of Agriculture [USDA] is being sued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest [CSPI] in an attempt to force the agricultural watchdogs to treat antibiotic resistant strains of salmonella bacteria as adulterants that would prevent the sale of tainted meat to the public. The complaint is specific to four strains of salmonella – Heidelberg, Newport, Hadar and Typhimurium – that have been identified in dozens of outbreaks of salmonella poisoning via ground meat and other products, but more resistant strains are showing up almost weekly.

CSPI petitioned the USDA three years ago to address the growing problem, but the department never got around to a response. Antibiotic resistance is an inevitable result of the overuse of important antibiotic drugs solely for the purpose of making livestock grow fatter and faster, as well as to sustain what is in truth an unsustainable production model that has food animals being raised in grotesquely overcrowded and unhealthy conditions.

This past Tuesday (May 27th), the Center for Disease Control [CDC] reported 50 more illnesses in an ongoing “outbreak” of seven strains of drug-resistant salmonella tied to Foster Farms chicken parts. That brings the total of reported cases to 574 since March of 2013. 40% of those people required hospitalization. The company involved, Foster Farms, has refused to issue a recall on the tainted meat, and USDA does not have the power to force a recall.

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Bayer & Monsanto Killing Bees

May 23rd, 2014

The numbers are in, and they add up to devastating.

Bee Informed Partnership this month released its preliminary report on honey bee colony losses in the US for 2013-2014. The partnership, along with the Apiary Inspectors of America [AIA] and the USDA have been surveying beekeepers for 8 years in an attempt to get a handle on how many of the nation’s bee colonies are succumbing to what has been a mysterious mass die-off called “Colony Collapse Disorder” [CCD]. Last winter 23.2% of managed honey bee colonies died. That’s lower than the previous year’s estimate of 30.5%, but it does confirm that harm is still being done to these important pollinators. Loss estimate for the 12-month period between April 1, 2012 and March 30, 2013 was 45.2%. The bees are still dying, and now we know why.

Dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies have been published over the past decade linking CCD to pesticide use, and honey bees aren’t the only victims. More specifically, the culprit is a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids. Rather than being sprayed just on the surface of plants, neonics are absorbed and spread through the entire plant, including pollen and nectar. They persist in the environment and can accumulate quickly. This has led to contamination of surface water, groundwater and soil, endangering species inhabiting those ecosystems.

Neonic pesticides are manufactured and marketed primarily by Bayer Crop Science and Monsanto. The Natural Resources Defense Council [NRDC] sued the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] after it failed to release Bayer’s underlying studies on the safety of its neonicotinoids. EPA approval for neonics hinged on the claim that amounts in pollen and nectar were non-lethal to bees, but studies have shown that even at low doses the pesticides have effects that impair bees’ learning and memory. The EU has banned neonics, but EPA is not considering doing so in the US. 30-50% losses annually is unsustainable, and about a quarter of the food Americans eat relies on bee pollination.

In March of 2012 the Canter for Food Safety [CFS] joined with 25 prominent beekeepers to file an Emergency Petition to the EPA asking for suspension on the use of certain neonicotinoids. When that brought no action, CFS and a coalition of 4 beekeepers and 5 environmental and consumer groups filed a formal lawsuit against EPA for failure to protect pollinators as well as seeking suspension.

Check out the Sierra Club’s Pollinator Protection Campaign to see how you can help convince Congress and the administration that bees are more valuable than Bayer’s or Monsanto’s profit margins.

A Trade Deal That Can Make You Sick

May 20th, 2014

It’s a midterm election year, so of course the media is chock full of both campaign advertisements and political shenanigans always portrayed with the slant that reporters and/or publications bring to the table per political affiliations. In the midst of all this, there is a trade deal being negotiated in secret by the current administration that contains some highly questionable provisions that all American small farmers, organic producers and Green-living homesteaders should be acutely aware of. Because they can – and will, if imposed – greatly affect our health, the health of our families and the thrust of our efforts to create alternative and sustainable ways of life in the modern world.

Many of us have been watching developments in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP], which has been garnering headlines and rancorous debate for several years now. Point of contention is the undoing of environmental protections (and labor laws) in the signatory nations, as the provisions of the agreements supersede national, state and local laws. In short, these pacts are designed to nullify national sovereignty for the participants. This problem has put the TPP on ‘hold’ as Congress has threatened not to renew “fast track” authority.

Now there is a new pact being negotiated between the US and the European Union, entitled the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership [TTIP]. Again it is being negotiated in secrecy by the administration and corporate lobbyists, excluding congress and the public who will be affected. If the TTIP is passed, the food we eat may literally make us sick, or even kill us.

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Yet Another Pet Food Recall

May 16th, 2014

First, the bad news:
Bravo! Dog and Cat Food Recall

The makers of Bravo! brand pet foods has issued a recall of select lots because they have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and those with weakened immune systems.

Of course, most people don’t eat dog and cat food as part of their regular diet, though my son much preferred Purina or Meow Mix cat food (dry) to anything I ever cooked up for him to eat growing up. We never figured out why, exactly, but I did notice that he separated the flavors in the Meow Mix like some people separate out the green or red M&Ms when munching a bunch. I think he like the cheese flavor best, so saved them for last.

Apparently, the potential harm to pets features the same profile as for people, in that very young or very old pets and those with weak immune systems are most likely to suffer harm from the contaminated food. The specific products being recalled are:
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Ginseng: New Research & Income Opportunity

April 24th, 2014

Researcher Sang-Moo Kang at Georgia State University’s new Institute for Biomedical Sciences reports that ginseng can be used to treat flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). I have touted in this blog the scientifically demonstrated benefits of elderberry preparations as effective anti-virals and immune system stimulants, so am now happy to add ginseng for something more [scientifically] significant than just general tonic, energy-booster and libido stimulant, the traditional uses of ginseng.

Kang joined university and research institute partners in South Korea for a collaborative effort to document the health benefits of ginseng. Which is also purported to have anticancer, anti-inflammatory and immune modifying properties.

We all know the health and economic ravages of seasonal influenza, which kills 250,000 to 500,000 people world wide every year. Some of us actually remember stories from our parents and grandparents about the horrific toll of the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed 50 to 100 million people. That was 3-5% of humanity, which makes it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Given the viral propensity to mutate until it can best an average immune system, such not-quite critters present a constant hazard for life on planet earth.

Modern medicine, interestingly enough, does not have any kind of pharmaceutical toolkit of defenses against or treatments for viral infections. There’s oseltamivr phosphate [TamiFlu], and that’s about it. It’s not that effective at prevention or treatment, and side-by-side clinical trials during the swine flu epidemic a few years ago had elderberry tincture ahead on both preventing infection and shortening time/lessening severity of infection. The use of plant-based alkaloids and other compounds to promote health and heal illnesses is as ancient as humanity. Modern pharmaceuticals, however, are based on the chemistry of those alkaloids and compounds exclusively, ignoring any and all other compounds found in the plant sources that may aid the efficacy in select applications. Don’t let them fool you – there’s nothing ‘primitive’ or ‘unscientific’ about the knowledge of plant-based pharmacopeias. Just because our ancestors learned by observation and experiment instead of molecular manipulation it doesn’t mean what they learned is any less respectable.

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Proposed FDA Rule Angers Brewers and Farmers

April 22nd, 2014

American Craft Beer Week – May 12-18, 2014

Ah, good ol’ beer. There’s the cheap, light, basically glorified carbonated water with a slight kick, there’s the more expensive big name imports, and increasingly, there’s small to mid-sized ‘Craft Brewers’ who produce seasonal beers and everything from amber light to deep chocolate brown brews. Lots of people enjoy a good beer. The closest city to my homestead – Asheville, North Carolina – has gained quite a reputation as Beer City USA, with some serious competition in places like Portland, Oregon and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Many other cities are boasting successful microbreweries as well. Microbrews have become so popular, in fact, that many of the Big Beer brewers are buying in and happily marketing the stuff, or brewing big batches of seasonal beers under their own brand names.

Humans have been enjoying beer for just about as long as civilization has existed. More than 6,000 years ago brewers in Mesopotamia and Egypt were recording recipes for beer. Pharos were entombed with yeast and barley so they could enjoy their favorite brews in the afterlife! By the second millennium b.c.e. the Babylonians boasted 20 different types of beer. The Romans were fonder of wine, but beer was still brewed in Britain, Eastern Europe and Germany. By the Middle Ages home brews were a staple of the family diet, as beer was safer to drink than plain water. Plagues and famines in Europe left the task of making beer, mead and wine fell to monks. Who built fine breweries to provide pilgrims with food, drink and shelter.


There are a couple of bulky by-products of the beer brewing process – spent grain (sprouted and dried to produce “malted” mash), and with the introduction of hopped beers from Holland in the 1500s, used hops. Since these by-products are organic, the practice of recycling the waste products came naturally. The spent grain mash is used as a sweet feed treat for cows, sheep, lamas, horses, chickens and other livestock, while used hops are composted and/or used as mulch. Some microbreweries offer their spent grain back to the farmers who help supply the grain, or sell it cheap. The grain is usually still damp from the brewing process, so it goes quickly to the animals. Who appear to love it.

According to the website Craft Beer, the cycling of grain from farmers to brewers and from brewers back to farmers is the “farm-to-foam, foam-to-farm” cycle. At the Piney River Brewing Company’s 80-acre farm in the Ozarks, the cows eagerly abandon their pasture when they smell sweet mash on brewing day, get as close to the brewhouse as they can, and moo loudly for their bucket of spent grain. A couple of Colorado brewers donate spent grain to a local dog biscuit bakery, and the dogs apparently love it too. The Brooklyn Brew Shop’s Spent Grain Chef offers recipes for such delicacies as spent grain grapefruit bars, spent grain corn dogs, spent grain mini carrot cupcakes and more. The Alaska Brewing Company uses their spent grain in a biomass steam boiler to generate steam used in the brewing process. Brewers usually give the spent grain away to farmers if they’ll come get it, or sell it quite cheaply. Widmer, a larger brewery, sells theirs for $30 a ton. One dairy farmer near Portland, Oregon says “It’s a premium product. I pay virtually nothing. But it’s like putting honey on your cereal. It makes the cows want to eat more and we notice it in their [milk] production. That farmer goes through 20 tons of spent grain a week for his 300 cows. That’s feed he would otherwise have to purchase, adding to the cost of the milk his cows produce.

With all this sound cycling and recycling between the food supply and the beer supply, the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] just had to weigh in. Whether on behalf of the Biggest of the Big Boyz in grain agriculture (Cargill, ADM, etc.) or just because government regulators figure they have to think up some regulations nobody’s thought of before, they came up with a new rule on animal feed that would bring the spent grain from beer brewing under its regulation and possibly raise the price of beer generally.

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