"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Time/Money Conundrum (Hello Housewives!)

I wish I could find a certain essay I wrote several years ago. As part of my great unfinished memoir about my and Homero's quest to get married despite the best efforts of the U.S. government ("an epic story of love, separation, and reunion; spanning all of North America and the third part of a decade") I wrote a few pages about what happens to my husband when he crosses the Mexican border.

Succinctly put, the relative value and time and money suddenly switches places. In the states, for him as for most of us, time is worth more than money. I wrote the essay in the context of a long-ass roadtrip (from Vancouver B.C. to Oaxaca, Mexico, by way of Atlanta, GA and Tucson, AZ.). The example I gave - though there were many to choose from - was that whenever we needed food, Homero would never venture beyond the McDonald's on the off-ramp. For the same amount of money, if we had chosen to drive three miles into town and go to a grocery store, we could have bought five times the food; but no, that would be spending precious time. Better to spend twenty bucks to buy a single meal that only cost us ten minutes than to spend thirty minutes on a meal that cost five bucks. The rest of us can surely relate: if time were not worth more than money there would be no such thing as Merry Maids.

But once in Mexico, everything changed. Suddenly, my husband reverted to the value-scale of his childhood, wherein there was always an excess of time and/or manpower, but a critical shortage of money. Therefore, all of a sudden, it made sense to spend an hour and a half driving around and around some dusty one-horse Mexican town looking to save a few pesos on breakfast. Can you guess how crazy it made me, trying to adapt to these sudden switches? No, I'm afraid you can't.

I haven't read the latest book making the homesteading/DIY circuit "Bake the Bread, Buy the Butter," which attempts to quantify the time spent vs. money saved of dozens of different household tasks such as (duh) bread and butter making, making your own laundry soap, etc. However, I engage in such calculations every day, as, I'm sure, does just about every housewife in America. I find that my calculations have changed lately. In the "new economy" (read: depression) most of us find that sending out for pizza is a bigger deal than it used to be.

It used to seem that spending $40 or so on two large pizzas and a salad and a 2 liter of coke was a small price to pay for not having to cook dinner - for the sixth or seventh time that week. It just wasn't that big a deal: it didn't have moral connotations. These days I feel guilty if I send out for pizza - and not just (as I used to) for feeding my kids crap. Now I feel guilty for spending money when I could work for an hour and make a better meal at home. Does it matter that I'm tired? After all, that same $40 is a visit to the dentist for one of my kids (on the sliding scale, of course). Do I even have the right to spend a child's dentist visit on delivery pizza just because I'm tired? How fucking tired can I be? I don't have a goddamn job!

Well, that's what I've been raised to believe, anyway. In actual fact, I work some six to eight hours a day doing work that, if it were compensated at fair market value, would earn me some $134,000 a year ( Business of Life: The "Business" Value of What Housewives Do That We Take For Granted). That's according to U.S. government figures, and yes, it does seem inflated, even to me. I don't know if that's because I don't work as hard as the "average" housewife (likely) or if I've been so thoroughly brainwashed that I devalue my own labor even more than my husband does. I can say for certain that he doesn't think the work I do is worth $134,000 a year, considering that he puts in equal or longer hours doing much more technically skilled work (auto mechanics) and makes less than one third of that amount.

But all of that is "ordinary" mom-housewife work such as child care, bookkeeping, chaffuering, time management, cleaning, tutoring, and all that sort of thing. My personal calculations as the chatelaine of a functioning homestead have to include things like: what is the optimum number of chickens to keep to provide the greatest egg:feed ratio? How much time gardening does it make sense to spend? Given that gardening is a task that could easily expand to take up all my free time, and some of the products (i.e. raspberries) are ridiculously expensive whereas others (potatoes) are equally ridiculously cheap?

Is it worth it to raise a pig, or two pigs, or to breed pigs? Beyond the penny per pound price (Meat Math) how do you put a value on wading out through the knee-deep pig shit day after ever-loving day? For that matter, how do you put a specific value on avoiding partaking of meat produced in the hell of the factory farm system? What price conscience?

Should I buy new clothes for my kids? The calculations involved in this one seemingly simple question become overwhlming. New clothes that I can afford are manufactured by other children, in Guatemala or Palestine. Can I stand to dress my children in other children's sweat? My answer has so far been to buy secondhand, which involves a great deal of extra time spent sorting through enormous racks in warehouse sized secondhand stores. Time which could theoretically be spent in more productive ways...

As usual, I've started out with a theme and ended up with a buttload of questions to which I have no answers. My life seems to be made of questions. If anyone has any answers - or possible answers - or more questions ...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Productive Day (Redneck Coldframes and Unnatural Apples)

When I woke up this morning, something was different. I wasn't sure what it was, but there was a semi-painful stabbing sensation in my eyes and I had a hard time keeping them open. The light was as bright as an operating room, seemingly, and a cacophony of noise assaulted my ears. It was rather like waking up with an epic hangover, but without having gotten drunk the night before.

Gingerly pulling aside the curtains, I saw a wall of golden light. Ah yes! I remember! the SUN! And that jangling noise? Why it must be BIRDS! After taking a few minutes to shake off the feeling of being a Morlock emerging painfully into the world of light, and letting my dark-adapted pupils adjust, I felt a wave of energy and joy. Fairly leaping out of bed, I decided that today was the day I had been waiting for.

Yes. First gardening day of spring! A caveat: I did, in fact, already plant a tree this year - a pussy willow. So today wasn't in fact the absolutely first time this year I have done anything garden related. But it was a very productive day. I seriously made up for lost time. Here are some photos of my activities today, activities which I will surely feel in my lumbar region later on tonight.

In the greenhouse, which is still unsealed and therefore not really a whole lot warmer than the outside air, I mixed up my special potting mix of two parts local topsoil (obtained from the construction site where Homero built his shop), one part homegrown compost (read: mixed animal shit and kitchen garbage left to gently rot for a year or so), and one part store bought pearlite. This sounds like an easy thing to do, but it actually involves lots of back aching work with a short handled shovel. Then I filled up a few large pots with the mix and planted snow peas. I also repotted a rosemary plant which has been languishing in the greenhouse all winter in a pot much to small for it. I don't know if it will live or not, but I've given it a chance at least. By the way, if you are wondering how I plant in milk crates, see: The Tippler's Garden

Walking around taking notes, I saw that apparently the Rhubarb corm my sister gave me last year (Rhubarb Ho! (Thanks, Sis!)) has survived the winter. Never having grown rhubarb before, I don't know how it behaves in the wintertime. I thought mine had died, because it lost all it's leaves and looked very yellow and forlorn. The ground where I planted it it is quite saturated (I don't hardly have any ground that isn't) and I thought my poor plant had drowned. But today I saw that the lovely crimson corm is swelling and putting out a few small shoots, so it looks like all will be well. I don't know if it will put out enough shoots for a pie this spring, but I hope so. I adore rhubarb pie.
Here we have a shot of my ghetto coldframe garden (Eat your heart out, Idiot Gardener!) . Out in the wide open spaces between the trees in my orchard, I have located the largest containers in my container garden: a couple of old clawfoot bathtubs. I don't know about where you are, but around here, old clawfoots are highly valued and not usually obtainable for under $75 or $100 each, no mater how crappy the condition. Several years ago, I managed to score these beauties for $25 apiece. Craigslist, of course. One of them had had its hole welded shut so it could be used as an animal waterer: that is the one you see in the foreground full of rainwater. I occasionally add a few shovelfuls of animal crap and call it "compost tea." This tub, together with a gallon sized milk jug, functions all year long as my water supply to the second bathtub and to the orchard, since the hose doesn't reach that far.

The other bathtub had a functioning drain, and so I created a layered system of river rocks on the bottom, sand in the middle, and soil on top so that the tub would have decent drainage.

This second tub has become, through the magic of scavenging, a tiny greenhouse. Or what I'm calling a ghetto coldframe. Every homestead worth it's salt has, somewhere on the premises, a small stack of glass in the form of old windows or patio doors. Ours is stored under the RV. After I worked the soil in the bathtub and planted it with spicy mesclun mix, all I had to do was ask my husband to drag out a sheet of glass. I washed the glass with water from the rainwater tub to make it less opaque (it was covered with chicken crap. Apparently the chickens like to hang out under the RV) and hoisted it carefully onto the planted bathtub.

Theoretically, the early spring sun, weak as it is, will provide enough heat, trapped as it is beneath the glass sheet, to let the mesclun mix germinate and give us salad a good two weeks before salad would otherwise be available. If we were dying of scurvy, these two weeks would be essential. Since we aren't, they are only bragging rights.

I wasn't done yet: I also planted two apple trees. I've gone over to the dark side: I bought grafted three-variety apple trees from Costco. A couple of years ago I did the right thing and bought fancy heirloom apple trees from a small locally owned company called Trees of Antiquity (New To Farm Life: Expanding Orchard). They were extremely helpful, but four out of the six trees I ordered died due to goats, mowers, or unknown factors. I figured that more well-grown trees might stand a better chance.

My children are being problematical and demanding (darn grade-schoolers, always needing hep with their homework!) so details will have to wait, but suffice it to say I planted two fruit trees today as well as a bed of mesclun and some snow peas. I feel industrious.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Meat Math

Now that Keizer meats has called me with the hanging weight on our tiny, skinny, little pigs (109 lbs and 137 lbs, less than I expected) I can do the math to figure out how much our own pork is costing us and whether or not it is worth it to raise two pigs.

Since we are leaving for Mexico in six months and already have a freezer full of beef, we decided to keep the smaller pig and sell the larger one. The Costs to us of raising two pigs are as follows:

Piglets (2) $80 = $160
Feed (15) $12 = $180
Kill fee on our pig: $62
Cut and wrap on our pig : (109) $.60 = $65.40

Cost of both pigs to us: $467.40

I am not making any attempt to factor in labor because caring for two pigs is pretty much exactly the same as caring for one pig. Feed is necessarily something of an estimate, but I know we bought at least 12 bags of feed, because I counted that many empty bags, and I'm chucking in three more because it seems likely I'm missing a couple of empty bags. That wasn't all they ate, of course: they also ate all the household scraps and pretty much anything else I could scrounge up. But those things didn't cost us any outlay of cash, so they aren't counted. We didn't vaccinate or otherwise doctor the pigs, so no veterinary costs.

The fellow who is buying the larger pig will pay all of Keizer's fees, both cut and wrap and the kill fee. Then he pays me $2.5o a pound of hanging weight, which works out to $342.50

$467.40 - $342.50 = $124.90

Our 109 pounds of meat cost us $125, which is $1.15 per pound. Hanging weight, of course. We won't get back 109 pounds of wrapped meat, more like 75 or 80.

Wow. Assuming that this pork is as good as our previous pork (and why wouldn't it be?) then that is a hell of a deal. Let me do a quick google search on prices for pastured pork.....

The chart below is taken from Coulee View Family Farm in Wisconsin. Their prices are very much in line with the prices I saw on three other pages for pastured, naturally raised, but not organic pork. Looks like it probably is worth it to raise two pigs at a time.

Price Per PoundEstimated Weight
Smoked ProductsSmoked Bacon$5.501
Smoked Bacon - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.801
Smoked Boston Butt Bacon - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.951
Smoked Canadian Bacon$5.750.75
Smoked Boneless Chops$5.351
Smoked Ham$5.252 to 5
Smoked Ham - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.602 to 5
Smoked Hocks$3.301 to 3
Smoked Hocks - MSG & Nitrate Free$3.601 to 3
Sliced Honey Glazed Smoked Ham$5.251
Ground & More
Ground Pork$3.951
Seasoned Ground Pork$3.951
Roast BBQ Pork$5.751
Itallian Sausage$5.501.25
B-fast Saus. Links MSG & Nitrate Free$5.501.25
Andoulle Sausage$5.501.25
Bratwurst - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.801.25
Chorizo - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.801.25
Andoulle Sausage - MSG & Nitrate Free$5.801.25
CutsBoneless Pork Chops$5.001.5 to 3
Tenderloins$8.00,75 to 1.25
Fresh Hocks$2.252 to 3
Shoulder Steak$4.752 to 3
Shoulder Roast$4.752 to 4
Loin Roast$5.002 to 4
Side Pork$4.751
Baby Back Ribs$4.00
Spare Ribs$3.50
Rendered Lard$2.10
Pork Soup Bones$1.501

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Getting Off My Ass (Or Not)

Except for a freak snowstorm that dropped twenty-some inches of snow and brought sub-freezing temperatures in January, this has been a very mild winter. Lots of rain, but generally above average mercury. Since the snow melted three weeks ago, it's been quite warm, and the earliest signs of spring are at hand.

Ornamental fruit trees (like the one above, in Ferndale) are in bloom. Witch hazel is in bloom. Pussy willows are out, except in the very coldest and most exposed of locations. In fact, I bought a red-twig pussy willow from a nursery to plant this year. I've always wanted a pussy willow - it is, so far, the single exception to my "plant only edibles" rule. I'm dreadfully practical, you see. Back when I lived on a standard city lot in Seattle, it made sense to insist that every single thing I put in the ground serve the dual purposes of attractiveness and edibility, but out here, with five acres to work with, you think I might relax a little bit. No; not really. We do plant our live Christmas trees, but other than that, every single plant I plant must be edible or medicinal.

Well, willow is medicinal, I guess. For two years running, I've cut branches from my neighbors and tried to root them, but without success. They would flourish for a while, then die. I asked at the nursery, and found out that I was making the mistake of putting the branches in pure water before planting them. Don't do that - it encourages what the lady called water roots" which apparently don't translate to real roots in the soil later. They die off, and then the plant dies. Better to put the cut branch directly into a pot of moist soil. In any case, I bought a well-gorwn bush about ten feet high. I'd like to save a few years, this time.

The warm weather means it is time for several tasks which I thought I would not have to face for at least another few weeks. The young orchard needs pruning. Usually, I would have at least until the end of the first week in March, but the buds are beginning to swell. Probably I should be digging in the garden, or at the very least preparing the seed trays in the greenhouse. I did get seed catalogues in the mail last week, but it hadn't occurred to me to buy any seed yet.

This is an odd year - as we will be leaving for Mexico in September (The Big Reveal (What We Want)) there will be no late harvest. My entire garden will be planned for spring and early summer harvest - nothing that ripens later than summer squash. I could probably force tomatoes to harvestability in the greenhouse by the end of July. Green beans seem do-able. Last year was so slow and cold that none of the second harvest veggies matured before mid-September, and some not until the end of September.

Well, it's all academic because actually I haven't done a damn thing yet. I am sitting in here typing away on a lovely early spring afternoon when I ought to be shoveling compost and preparing the cold frames. Hmm. I wonder what I can find on YouTube?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Zion's Traditional Arts Project (Keeping the Flame Alive)

A friend of mine at my church, who I'll call J., has had a pet project for awhile now. One of many projects, actually - she is the kind of woman who, in addition to raising her children, running the family farm, and helping run the family business also volunteers for the PTA, and generally manages to be a pillar of her community. The kind of woman I admire but will never, ever be.

The project - this one-of-many projects - is a series of community classes to teach traditional arts to local children. J. has the idea that it would be a good thing to offer a series of ongoing saturday morning classes in the church basement to teach any local kids who are interested some basic life skills. For a very nominal fee (which is waived if it is a burden in any particular case) children can come and learn beginning skills in sewing, cooking, knitting or crocheting, canning and other methods of food preservation, et cetera.
This list is heavy on the feminine arts, I realize. It looks a little like an old fashioned home-ec class, though not as comprehensive. I would love to see the list of skills offered expanded to include things like basic first aid, basic gardening skills, how to change a tire and do an oil change on a car, familiarity with tools and basic home repair, etc. I may take the opportunity to talk with J. and ask her if any of the gentlemen of Zion have expressed an interest in offering a course.

J., like many women of her general type, is long on enthusiasm and short on time. She is a boundless fount of ideas, but sometimes realizes she may have bitten off a mite more than she can chew and has to ask for help. Last week, she was asking for people to help her teach a class or two this series. Well, I have fairly limited skills, but I am devoted to the idea of passing along what meagre skills I have to the next generation.

It is my firm belief that the children of today will have greater need of self-sufficiency than many of their parents did or do. I believe that many of the goods and services we take for granted may become very much more expensive in the coming decades, if they do not completely cease to exist. Running down to the corner store for a frozen pizza may become an unaffordable luxury. Ditto taking the car in for a quick oil change and check of the belts and hoses. Throwing away clothing because the hem is frayed or the buttons lost may become a completely ridiculous idea in the not-too-distant-future. It is my belief that the simple, homely skills of mending, fixing, patching, and preserving will become much more important, and soon.

Many venues have sprung up of late to teach some of the trendier skills (homebrewing, cheesemaking) to adults. This is all to the good. Hooray for non-traditional "universities" and learning co-operatives. I hope to participate in many such forums and wish them all the luck in the world. But what my friend J. is trying to do is something simpler, and more basic. She - and I - hope to in still in our local children something more important than any given skill. We want them to gain what I would call the habit of competence. I want my kids to believe that they can do a great number of various things, and what they can't do now, they can learn to do. I want them to not feel helpless.

For the class I am teaching, I decided on making vinegar cheese (the simplest kind of cheesemaking - it's done in an hour and is sort of like magic) and then using it to make quesadillas with homemade salsa. It's a meal that a six year old can safely make (using storebought cheese) and which is actually pretty healthy. I've seen that my own children get a sense of pride and accomplishment from making their own peanut butter sandwiches for their school lunches. How much more from learning how to sew a patch on their favorite jeans? Or knit themselves a scarf? Or plant a kitchen garden?

It has been my observation that, compared to some other cultures (ahem), many Americans have lost a great number of self sufficiency skills. Since I've moved out to the country, I have changed my opinion somewhat, but I am still fundamentally convinced that American kids are lacking in survival skills. We can't teach our children things we have never learned how to do ourselves, and our school system has long ago given up on teaching traditional arts. I think we had better get to work passing on the skills we have managed to preserve to to relearn.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Putting the Pork in my Pocket (Farm Finances)

The time finally came to call our local meat processors and schedule the pigs for execution. These two have been slow growers - probably due to the time of year more than anything else - and just as loud and obnoxious as every other pig we've ever owned, and we are heartily sick of them. Sometimes, pigs actually bowl me over when I head out to feed them. These two haven't actually knocked me down into the mud, but they do chase me, push me with their horrible snouts, and scream. I am not actively frightened of these pigs, but I can't say I enjoy their company either.

There were two reasons for getting two pigs this time around. The first was that pigs are very social, and a pig alone gets lonely - so I've been told - and we thought they would be happier if they had the company of their own kind. The other reason was to bring down the price of our own pork. As I think I have mentioned before (Big Pig, and Big Decision), raising your own pork isn't actually any cheaper than buying it at the store. In fact, it probably costs somewhat more. It's the vastly superior quality of homegrown pork that makes it worth it - plus, of course, the able-to-sleep-at-night factor of not participating in the evil, earth-destroying factory farming industry.

If we raised two pigs, the thought went, we could sell one and recoup some of the costs of feeding both of them, thereby rendering (haha) our own pork somewhat cheaper. I am not at all sure that actually works... that would require about fifteen minutes of math and I don't feel up to it at the moment. However, without doing more than fifteen seconds of math, I can guesstimate that one of the pigs will bring us about $350, which, when you discount the $80 he cost in the first place, is $270... which is probably somewhere close to as much money as we spent on feeding both pigs. So, very broadly speaking, I feel more or less somewhat confident that this scheme actually reduced the price of our own pork by something between five and fifty percent.

There is a totally unrelated reason to sell pork. Our land is classified by the tax man as farmland. We enjoy low property taxes (relatively speaking, of course), but in order to maintain that status we have to be able to show we are reaping actual financial gain from agricultural endeavors on this property, to the tune of $1,500 three years out of every five. So far, we have met that goal... by the skin of our teeth, and by doing some creative accounting as regards barter arrangements. But it is a constant struggle to make good, and $350 bucks or so from a pig goes a fair way towards meeting this year's goal.

I made another $65 today by selling a half a dozen young laying chickens. My chickens have been hiding their eggs quite craftily for the past few weeks and I am getting sick of feeding two dozen chickens and getting bupkes in the way of eggs. Yesterday I put up a Craigslist add offering my 6 month old layers at $10/apiece, with a five dollar discount given for every rooster taken as well. So today, a lady bought seven hens and one rooster: $65. That leaves me with about fifteen hens and three roosters, which seems about right.

Monday, February 6, 2012

What Do You Do With a Drunken Pony?

The last time the farrier came out, he was unable to trim Rosie's back hooves. Rosie, remember, is my rescue shetland, who has some sort of abuse in her background and is absolutely terrified of having her feet touched.

With much patience and gentleness, my wonderful farrier (Glenn Hallberg of Broken Bit Farms) was able to get to a point where he could trim Rosie's feet with a minimum of trauma. He patiently forbore being kicked in the shins and knocked down into the mud. The last several times, in fact, Rosie was acting almost normally, just needing to be cross-tied.

Then for some unknown reason she went bat-shit crazy. It might have been that she had had a touch of laminitis and her feet may have been a little bit sore. Then again, we had had to cancel a couple of appointments and were running about two weeks behind schedule, and her feet were quite long. Maybe that was it. Also, it being the dead of winter, Rosie just hasn't been handled a whole lot lately and she gets skittish when I don't groom her regularly.

Whatever the cause, Glenn and I tried for over an hour, but those back feet were not getting done. I eventually made Glenn stop for fear he might get injured. She's a small pony, but she can kick like a mule. We decided we would have to have the vet come sedate her.

Both ponies have been in high fettle lately - might be the turning weather, I don't know, but they have been kicking up their heels a lot lately. On the morning the vet came, it took her ten minutes just to get the shot into her, and it was purely a "grab-and-stab" intramuscular injection. No way to fiddle about with an IV.

After fifteen minutes of Rosie prancing about not noticeably affected by the drugs, with the whites of her eyes still showing all around, the vet said "looks like I'm going to have to bring out the big guns." Fifteen minutes after that, we had a pony who was stoned out of her gourd. She stood quietly with her head hanging down and a fine string of drool hanging from her lip. When Glenn lifted her back foot, she didn't seem to notice, but she did list dangerously to the left.

Except for having some trouble staying upright, Rosie offered no resistance at all, and the vet and I decided it might be a good time to make an examination of her teeth (need work ) and also to irrigate her tear ducts, because she has chronically goopy eyes and the vet says they are caused by blocked tear ducts. Did you know that a horses tear ducts open into her nostrils? If you look inside her nose, there is a small opening on the ventral surface of the nostril which is the terminus of the tear duct. The vet used a small syringe to shoot saline up through that duct until it squirted out of Rosie's eyes.

Rosie didn't give a crap.

The most difficult part of the whole event was trying to get Rosie to walk back into her corrall. Her front legs kept crossing and I was pretty sure she was going to go over like an overloaded ferry boat. But no: weebles wobble but they don't fall down. She made it back. The funniest part of the afternoon was watching Poppy check out her mom. She walked up and sniffed her, she whinnied, she nudged her with her nose. Then, a calculating look came into her eye, and she lowered her head and began to nurse.

"Poppy!" I yelled, and threw a clod of dirt at her. "Cut that out!" Poppy is almost three and hasn't nursed in a year. But obviously, she hasn't forgotten, and she must have realized her mama was in no shape to stop her.

Rosie is fine now - trimmed feet, de-gunked eyes, and up to date on vaccines and boosters. But this is not a sustainable solution. The vet's bill was $415. That's an entire year's worth of the farrier's bill. That's an entire year of hay, for all the animals. I can't afford to do that again. In fact, if my husband reads this post and finds out what it cost, I am going to be a load of trouble.

I did ask the vet if she could prescribe me something to put in Rosie's feed before the farrier shows up. "My sister's dog takes valium before he goes to the vet," I said, "And so do I before I go to the dentist. Don't they have valium for ponies?" She hesitated, and then said "there aren't any really good options."

Okay, but are there any options that are better than giving her up as a bad job and sending her to the dog-food auction???

Friday, February 3, 2012

Sharpie Desecration (Or; a Chance For You Non-Parents to Feel Smug and Superior)