Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Anti-Retail Therapy

Some days are just so ... you know .... 

That's why shopping is such a draw.  It takes one's mind off whatever is making one crazy, and it also gives us this new, shiny thing. 

The problem is that buying stuff when the dollars are limited can cause more stress than was originally present.

But even more, the feelings of euphoria we get from acquiring new stuff are fleeting.  It can be a lot of fun buying new stuff, and maybe, for a little bit after we get that new thing, there is a bit of an endorphin rush, but then, we find ourselves back in that same dump.

Or worse, we feel awful, because we've spent money we didn't have to spend.  Those guilt feelings of poor spending choices are combined with whatever it was that made us feel like we needed a new thing in the first place, and ... well, you see the spiral.

The other day I was having one of those moments.  Retail therapy would have been pretty cool, but I don't have money to waste on stuff I don't need.  While I have a very small, incidental income (since April 2016 when I dissolved my home-based office service so that I could concentrate more fully on our homestead and my girls' homeschooling), for the most part, we are a single-income family. 

Add to it that we ended up accruing a bit of debt a few years ago when we had to do some major home repairs (our roof had to be fixed), which we are still paying off. 

One income + working on paying down debt = the need to be more frugal than ever.

My daughter was looking for some fabric for another project, and she asked if she could use some of this jersey floral print we had.  I don't even remember where I got it, but I'm pretty sure it's been laying around for a really long time waiting to be made into something. 

I said, of course.  She could use whatever she needed. 

Then, I thought, I could make a skirt for myself out of that. 

And why not?  I had everything I needed: a nice fabric; a skirt pattern that I absolutely love; a sewing machine; and all of the thread and other bobbles I could possibly want. 

Two hours later, I had a new skirt. 

Being creative is an incredible stress reliever, and in the end, I got a new skirt without spending a penny, and all that whatever it was that was bugging me ...?  Gone in the calming whirr of the sewing machine. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Planning for a Future in Place

I'm not getting younger. 

I know right?  I was surprised, too! 

If the average lifespan of an American woman is 77, I'm well beyond middle-aged, and pushing hard against retirement.  I'm still "young", relatively, but this years birthday is a milestone one.  I've been around for a while, and I still have some time to go, but ... I'm not getting any younger.

I actually love that there's a real job called Certified Aging in Place Specialist.  Specifically, the job of a CAPS is to assist older people with remodeling their homes to accommodate their changing needs - like making the space wheelchair/walker-friendly and making bathrooms more easily accessible to people with limited mobility. 

A few years ago, a friend of mine was remodeling her kitchen.  Like me, she's already planned that her home is where she will live until she dies.  She's cautioned her children that putting her in an Assisted Living Facility should be done so at their peril.  She's told them that the child who takes care of her in her twilight years will be the ONE who reaps the benefits of her estate.

I've told my children something similar. 

This friend designed her new kitchen keeping in mind the possibility that she may be in a wheelchair later in life.  I thought her plan was a stroke of genius.

And as often happens to me, in one of those serendipitous moments, I recently read an article regarding staying put rather than purchasing a new home.  This article was geared toward people much younger than I am and was from the standpoint of pointing out the cost savings of staying in one's home rather than purchasing something new. 

Different audience - same message ... ish ... that I've been preaching with my bug-out in place mantra. 

I completely agree with the advice to stay where one is, especially for financial reasons.  Moving is expensive, always.  With the exception of people who are moving long distances for whatever reason, the only time one financially benefits from selling one's house and buying another is if one is in a too big, too expensive house, and one does some serious downsizing.  Unless one's circumstances make it impossible to stay, staying put is always a better idea.  Moving because one is tired of one's old house is just silly and frivolous ... and seriously, are there really people who do that? 

Over the years, Deus Ex Machina and I have looked at a lot of houses with the goal of moving.  Our reasons to move have included: the desire to be closer to those places we spent most of our time to cut back on driving (I hate driving); the wish for more land so that we could be more self-sufficient; the need to have a house with an apartment addition and more land so that we could have a place for our older children. 

Always, after a frenzied search for this better place, we realized that what we have is just exactly what we need, and while those other things would be nice, we find more and more that our current home is where we should be.  Like, if we had moved closer to those activities our daughters were doing back in those days to cut back on how much I was driving, we would be further away from some of the activities/opportunities they are enjoying today - including further away from Deus Ex Machina's job.   

More land is more work.  It would have been nice to have had five or more acres when my children were younger and to have raised all of our own meat and vegetables, but as they've gotten older and moved out, I'm realizing that the smaller space will be perfect for me and Deus Ex Machina in those years when our daughters are off on their adventures and it's just the two of us. 

One 4'x4' garden bed can feed an adult two vegetables per day through the entire growing season.  We have lots of 4'x4' garden beds.  Six chickens is more than enough to give the two of us all of the eggs we'll need.  One whole meat chicken will feed just the two of us for a week.  We have plenty of land for just the two of us to raise all of our own vegetables for the spring, summer and fall (with some extra for storage), and to get an adequate supply of protein.

If we'd had been able to find the more perfect house ten years ago, when our children were young, then it might have been a good move.  But now ... it just wouldn't make a lot of sense.

Both articles made me start thinking about some of the things that I would change about my current house to make it more future-friendly - both in terms of my aging body, but also, in making it more eco-friendly in a world that will more likely than not be experiencing resource depletion.  Those articles also reminded me that, perhaps subconsciously, Deus Ex Machina and I have been making some pretty wise upgrades to our home. 

My remodeling plans are not, necessarily, just for me, though.  My goal is actually to build a legacy for my children (or the child who takes me up on my offer of caring for me in exchange for this house) to inherit when I pass - a place they can live that is low-energy and comfortable.

In the second article, one of the reasons cited that people will move is for a "newer, shinier home."  I love new and shiny.  Getting something new actually does make me feel a little happy, at least while that new thing is still new.  But as the article points out (and as most of us already know, intuitively), those feelings of euphoria are very short-lived, and it doesn't make a lot of sense to spend thousands of dollars moving to a new place when there are some quick and easy fixes that will give one that happy-boost, while at the same time begin the process of transitioning one's home to accommodate an elderly resident.

One of the expenses listed in the second article for making a home more old-folk friendly is door handles.  The estimated expense for a new door handle is around $60.  From my experience, that's pretty accurate, but WOW!  what a difference it can make!  Plus, there are lots and lots of options for creating a super-special and unique look.  Twist handles are tough to use for someone who has achy hands ... or hands full of groceries.  When Deus Ex Machina and I changed our front door handles, we bought the lever ones, rather than the twisty ones.  I love the new handles.  They change the whole look of our door.  Seriously.  It's pretty incredible what a difference that one, little thing can make.

Another issue inside the house has to do with doors.  Regular doors that swing into a room can be tough for someone in a wheelchair, which makes the fact that the current barn-style sliding door fad all the more interesting ... and wonderful for those who are looking to adapt their home to make it more age-friendly.  A sliding door takes up a lot less space than a door that must swing open.  Plus, a sliding door is a fun place for chalkboards or hanging that collection of signed posters from all of the plays we've been in/to.

I'm a little in love with this sliding shutter window-dressing.  In addition to the cool aesthetic, it's also pretty brilliant for adding insulative properties AND privacy.  So, as a quick aside, sliding shutters inside a room (as in the picture) provides an extra surface hanging pictures, looks really cool, and would help insulate older windows, which means saving money on the cost of heating/cooling AND there would be no need to replace those old windows!  Cost savings is a huge concern for seniors on a fixed income.  This design would be a perfect solution for the window on the north-facing side of my house. 

Of course, as the linked article points out, many of these modifications are also beneficial to other people.  When I'm taking the laundry outside to hang on the line, and I'm holding a basket of clothes, opening the door to get out is awkward and cumbersome.  Plus, it allows my dogs to sneak outside, which can turn into a wild chase around the neighborhood if our big male chow is feeling particularly feisty.  A sliding door is a little easier to open and close when I have full hands. 

We've also looked into changing our refrigerator from the standard upright with doors to a drawer model, which would be more easily accessible for someone in a wheelchair, but is also more eco-friendly than a standard refrigerator. 

There's another bonus to using an under-the-counter refrigerator - for us.  It would allow us to expand our counter space, because the refrigerator would be under a counter, instead of this free-standing hulk.  We have an upright freezer already, and so we don't need both a refrigerator/freezer AND our upright freezer.  A smaller refrigerator unit under a counter would work so much better in our tiny, galley-style kitchen, and it would give us some much needed added work space. 

Even better, for us, would be a cold closet (which uses no electricity). 

In addition to those concerns above, there are other design choices that have been made in our modern housing that make those homes less friendly for our aging populations.  Wall-to-wall carpeting, which was all the rage following World War II and is still the most popular flooring choice (probably because of the cost involved - carpet is so much cheaper than the longer-lasting, more eco-friendly, and healthier wood and tile options), is difficult for people who shuffle with a walker or cane, or need to move a wheeled vehicle. 

Deus Ex Machina and I have been in our house for two decades.  Most carpeting has a fifteen year lifespan.  So, as you can imagine, we've had to replace the flooring in a few rooms.  We have always chosen wood or tile for the new floors.  Both options have a much longer lifespan than carpeting AND are easier for those with limited mobility.

An estimated 80% of older people own their own homes.  The statistic is much smaller for young people, who are more likely to be renters.  Traditionally, our elderly lived with younger people, usually relatives, and mostly, it was a mutually beneficial relationship. 

As we get deeper into resource depletion, it will start to make more sense for young people to live with their older relatives for so many reasons, the least of which being that we won't be able to afford to not share - for environmental and economic reasons. 

It makes sense to start designing newer homes to be more old-age friendly, and for those of us in older homes from which we aren't likely to move, to transition those homes so that everyone can live more comfortably.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Raising Meat Birds

It's that time of year again - chicken season.

Every year for almost a decade, now, here at Chez Brown we have raised meat chickens.  Our breed of choice is Cornish cross, because they grow quickly and provide a lot of meat.  From brooder to butcher takes eight to twelve weeks.  Ten weeks is the optimum for getting a tender bird at a good weight so that hiring someone else to butcher them for us makes good financial sense.

Marjorie Wildcraft has made a movie on raising chickens.  I linked there to the trailer.  Marjorie has a lot more land than I have, and the way she and her group raised the chickens is more in keeping with the way most people do it - sort of as a meat share.  That is, they order a large number of chicks (and note that they are also raising the Cornish cross breed) as a group.   One person with a lot of land does the daily work of keeping the chicks alive until they're ready to harvest, and then, the entire group pitches in on the designated day to send the grown chickens to freezer camp.  The group will, then, split up the harvested birds.

Here at Chez Brown, we have always raised our birds exclusively for our personal consumption.  We also don't raise a huge flock all at one time.  While everything else is probably the same as what Marjorie does, we do things on a much smaller scale.

The Brooder

Back in 2007, my daughters and I stopped by the feed store for some rabbit feed.  They had baby chicks.  My young daughters were completely smitten.  Having more money than sense, and having discussed it with Deus Ex Machina on several occasions (with no decision made whether we would or wouldn't), I decided to take the plunge and buy three chicks, one for each of my daughters. 

The young man at the store helped me get outfitted.  He suggested a standard small animal cage with a wire bottom and a pull out tray.  Then, he added a heat lamp, a feeder, a waterer, and some chick starter feed.  For less than $100, we were set-up.

When we decided to start raising meat chickens, we used the same set-up.  It comfortably fits twelve chicks until they feather out enough to go outside. 

The Tractor

Once the chicks have feathered out, we move them outside into a tractor.  They live in the tractor for a couple of weeks until they get big enough that a hawk can't carry them off, and then, we just put them in the tractor at night to protect them from nocturnal predators.  During the day, they have free-run of our backyard, where they enjoy eating bugs, nibbling grass, and sleeping among the raspberry brambles. 

There are a lot of ways to make a chicken tractor.  Ours is made from PVC pipe that we wrapped in 1/2" gauge hardwire cloth - the sides and top.  The bottom is open to the ground.  It's 25 square feet inside the tractor, which is plenty of room for the smaller chickens and enough room for the big ones when they're sleeping. 

The only issue we've had is that with a wire top, we need to cover the tractor with a tarp when it rains, which can get cumbersome.  So our plan is to use the same clear plastic corrugated roofing material we used on the hen coops and woodshed to cover the tractor.  We'll be making that adjustment this year.

The Flock

We raise Cornish cross chickens.  They are the same hybrid (not "genetically modified") used by the meat industry.  The key difference is quantity of birds and how they are raised.  In the meat industry, they pack thousands of birds into a marginallypoorly ventilated building where the birds have no access to grass or sunlight. 

We raise our birds in tiny flocks of not more than a dozen at a time, and they spend their entire lives (after they're out of the brooder) outside, in the sunshine, being chickens - eating grass and bugs, chasing humans who have food, and pecking the nose of our massive chow-chow. 

Over the course of the summer, we will raise a years' worth of chicken (a total of 48 birds which allows us to eat just under one whole chicken per week for the entire year).  Each chicken gives us about three meals and allows Deus Ex Machina to take home-raised, home-cooked chicken to lunch a couple of times a week.  We can also get a few quarts of broth with the left over bones and parts we don't eat.  The broth from our home-raised chickens is rich and hearty - not the insipid watery stuff one buys from the grocery store.

The thing is that anyone who has a little land could raise a few birds.  They are often for sale at a minimum of six at Tractor Supply or other suburban feed stores.  Six meat birds, for someone just starting out, would be plenty. 

I guess the point is that it doesn't take any particular skill or knowledge to raise one's own meat.  It really only takes the willingness to step outside of one's comfort zone. 

It's also not expensive, and for the most part, we all know that DIY is much cheaper than having someone do it for us.

A baby chick costs $2.50 (six of them would be $18).  A 50 lb bag of feed is $12.  Our butcher charges $4.50 per bird to process.  We calculated it, once.  It costs us $1.89 per pound to raise our own meat birds.  Sure, you can get chicken for less than that at the grocery store, but you can not get free-range, organically raised chicken for $1.89/lb. 

In the end the best reward is realizing that one can.

And each one of those small steps we take toward realizing that we can is one step closer to self-sufficiency.  That's not a bad thing.

Friday, May 12, 2017

When the Prepper Meets the Greenie

I was looking for some information on my blog, and I was referred to this list of non-traditional prepping items. 

In that blog post, I discuss the items suggested on the list (to which I linked in my post).  The one item that I found very clever and potentially useful was sandbags, which the author used for building. 

I'd never considered sandbags a building material, but when I read this list, that light went off.  Of course!  Duh!

I never did find a source for sandbags, but as I was reading that post recently, I realized that I, actually, have something better ... and free (ish)!  And it turned into one of those moments when I realized that the universe was looking out for us.

I purchase all of my feed from a local feed store.  We've been patronizing these folks for decades.  They used to just a few miles from my house, but moved to a different town.  When we started raising rabbits, we bought our feed from them, and when we decided to get into suburban chickens, we went there. 

They stock feed from a Vermont company.  It's good feed, at least we seem to have healthy animals (not true of some of our friends who were feeding their livestock a different brand, and switched at our recommendation), and at first, it came in paper bags, which was cool, because we used the bags as weed block in the garden.

Then, they switched to using a plastic bag.  At first I was incredibly annoyed, because the paper bags were useful, and the plastic bags were just waste.  But then, one time, it rained on the feed bag, and I was happy that the feed was protected.

Of course, the plastic bags were still waste, and we ended up with a bunch of them just lying around the yard.  Which is when Deus Ex Machina came up with the first way to reuse them:  sliced in half, long-ways, we stapled to them to the top of our wood pile to keep most of the rain and snow off the wood. 

My original plan for this year was to grow potatoes in strawbales, but strawbales cost money we don't have to spend right now.  What I do have, however, are lots of feed bags ... and compost!  So, that's what I'm using.  Et voila! Potato planters.


But the final epiphany came to me when I was rereading that post about sandbags.  If I can use those bags as potato planters, I could also use them as sand bags. 

Guess I'll be storing up those feed bags instead of tossing them.  Maybe I'll end up with a feed-bag root cellar afterall. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


I've written some about our crazy lifestyle.  The unfortunate fact of my life is that we tend to eat very late, because of our various activities. It would be really easy to rely on fast food, which is cheap and easy, but because I'm me, nothing is ever that simple.  Desiring to consume GMO-free foods that are mostly locally sourced means that fast food is, kind of, not a possibility. 

Add to that, the fact that here at Chez Brown, we no longer eat wheat.  Corn remains a big part of our diet, but other grains are limited.  In the beginning, we made the transition without visiting the gluten-free aisle (that is, we didn't substitute gluten-free bread for regular bread, but just cut out bread altogether) and were flour-free for a long time, too, before re-adding Buckwheat (gluten-free and Maine grown).   We also stayed away from most grains for those first few months, but we've added rice and mixed grain pastas back into our diet as an occasional supplement.

As such most quick and easy meal options aren't an option for us.  Sometimes, on very busy, stressful and energy-zapping days, adhering to our rather rigid dietary choices can be tough. 

The other day I was reading some information about "poor people's diets", and I realized that we, sort of, eat that way - out of necessity.

I don't mean the Spam-on-white-bread kind of meal, because ... well, ewww!  But also because neither Spam nor most white bread is locally sourced. 

What I mean is that a basic meal for us is some meat, some vegetable, and then an assortment of pickled foods.    For dessert, we might have what we call "Half Cake" (which is really a Chocolate Delirium Torte - and it sounds like a decadent dessert, but because we have our own eggs, it's incredibly cheap to make.  It's really rich, and so one only needs a tiny slice to satisfy). 

Or just fruit.

Or we might share a bar of fair-trade, GMO-free dark chocolate.

The point is that having a busy life doesn't mean that one has to sacrifice one's budget and health to the convenience of fast food.  Frying up a hamburger patty seasoned with garlic, onion, salt, pepper, and cumin (from locally sourced beef) and then serving it on a bed of fresh greens and accompanying it with cheese slices, pickled-vegetables, boiled eggs, and olives is just incredibly delicious and super fast.  In fact, it takes longer to drive to the fast food place and pick up a burger and some fries than it does to form the hamburger patties and fry them.  Plus, while the hamburgers are cooking, one can do other things around the house, like put away all of that laundry :). 

I'm a decent enough cook, and I can make some fancy stuff ... but my best work in the kitchen is making the simple things taste better, and that doesn't require a lot of money - but rather just a bit of imagination and the willingness to pair spices. 

For those who are looking at stocking up for hard times, my best advice is to not store up 5 gallon buckets of wheat berries, but rather to stock up on spices (or better, yet, grow them), because with the right spice, even roadkill can taste good.

And if times get truly tough, roadkill might be what's for dinner.