Country Living Series

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

I hate "technical support"

A few weeks ago, our phone rang in the middle of the night.

We don't have an extension upstairs in our bedroom, so I gradually came awake to hear the shrill sound at the last ring before the answering machine picked up.

"Was that the phone?" I mumbled sleepily to Don.

He agreed it was, and we both lay there awake but not quite coherent. I'm sure you're aware of the heart-clutching fear that accompanies a middle-of-the-night phone call. We have family scattered across three states. Was someone sick or hurt?

Finally Don got up and went downstairs to check the caller's phone number (there was no message on the answering machine). It was an unknown jumble of numbers, so he came back upstairs to bed.

Two hours later, the phone rang again. This jerked us both awake, and this time I went downstairs. Same jumbled phone number.

In the morning, Don back-tracked the phone number and determined it originated from Scotland. Since we have no friends or family in Scotland, we determined it was simply a wrong number.

Well, having gotten our number, the middle-of-the-night calls continued. The next night we were woken up three times. Every night we had at least two and sometimes three calls. It got to the point where we started unplugging our phone at night -- which isn't a good idea since, of course, we have we have family scattered across three states and want people to be able to reach us if something is wrong.

After about a week of this, I was up early one morning (as I usually am) and had already plugged the phone back in -- when it rang, around 4:30 a.m.

By this point I was totally ticked off and ready to do battle.

"Hello," said a man with a very thick Indian accent. "This is Martin with technical support..." The sounds of a massive call center could be heard in the background.

"Where are you calling from?" I snapped. (My grammar isn't the best at 4:30 a.m.)

"This is Martin," he reiterated, confused by my question. "M-A-R-T-I-N. Martin."

Like I needed to be told how to spell "Martin." "Where are you calling from?" I asked again. I repeated my question twice more while he assured me he was Martin from technical support. Finally he gave what sounded like a street name.

"Look," I said, "You are calling Idaho, United States, and it is the middle of the night. Stop calling us! Take us off your calling list!"

"Oh, I'm so sorry, dear," said Martin. Thereafter he kept calling me "Dear," having undoubtedly been told by his supervisors this was an acceptable term to call a middle-aged female customer who was a complete and utter stranger. "Shall I call back at a better time, dear?"

"No! Stop calling us! Take us off your calling list!"

"I can call back again, dear..."

"NO! Stop calling us! Take us off your calling list!" -- and I hung up.

Well, that seemed to work for a few quiet weeks ... until last night.

Once again at 2:30 a.m. the phone rang. We ignored it. It rang again at 3:45 a.m. Again we ignored it. But because it always takes me awhile to fall back asleep after waking up, I subsequently overslept.

This morning I saw the number wasn't from Scotland this time, but instead was a standard ten-digit number with area code 634 -- which, if preliminary research is correct, is "unassigned" in North America.

We get plenty of "technical support" calls during the day, but I don't know how to stop a foreign "technical support" company from calling us in the middle of the night. So for now, the phone calls continue.

Meanwhile, if you're a family member who needs to reach us in the middle of the night, leave a message on the answering machine, because we'll hear it and will call back immediately.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Sunday, October 23, 2016

When the devil went down to Georgia

Here's my WND column for this weekend, entitled "When the devil went down to Georgia: An Allegorical Tale."

It's very different than anything I've ever written, and as the comments demonstrate, not everyone liked it. Oh well.

Wow, a product that WORKS!!

One of the eternal questions we constantly bandy about is the question of water for our homestead.

Our well is 610 feet deep with a static level of about 450 feet. Our well pump is electric. If we lose power, we lose water. Since we live on the prairie, surface water is nonexistent.

For years, we've investigated affordable options for homestead water without much success. Solar and wind options far exceed our budget. (A few years ago we were quoted about $18,000 for a windmill of sufficient height, size, and strength to power our well -- and I don't doubt the accuracy of that quote.)

Several years ago we purchased a 1500-gallon above-ground water tank, but thus far have not installed it. One of our winter projects is to built a heavily-insulated "cool room" in the barn and install the tank hooked up to filtered roof runoff. This would provide abundant water for household use.

But what about livestock? What about the garden? Well, we may have found the answer.

We had our pond installed immediately adjacent to the garden on purpose. Its location is convenient not just to plants, but to the livestock as well. However the question of getting water out of the pond and into a stock tank (for the livestock) or to the vegetables remained to be seen.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. We had a trench dug for a project (a neighbor with a backhoe kindly did the job).

Then came days and days and days of rain -- the kind of heavy relentless downpour that leaves little checkdams of pine needles from the rivulets of water cascading down the road.

Unsurprisingly, the trench filled with water, which refused to drain out of our hard clay soil. We were tasked with removing water from a trench 30 feet long, one foot wide, and 18 inches deep.

Ah, but Don had a new secret weapon: a bilge pump.

A bilge pump, as you doubtless know, is designed to remove yucky water from the bottom-most levels of ships. It's designed to handle all kinds of junk: sediment, contaminants, etc. A few months ago Don realized a bilge pump would probably work to draw water out of the pond for whatever purpose (garden, livestock) we needed.

But we never had the opportunity to test it -- until yesterday, when he used the bilge pump to pump out the trench.

This particular model of bilge pump was astoundingly inexpensive -- $28.50. But how well did it work? And how hard was it to use?

First, Don screwed the pump to a small platform, then he got PVC connectors to attach to the inflow and outflow valves of the pump.

He dropped the pipe into the trench, and started pumping.

It -- worked -- beautifully. Astoundingly well. Fast, efficient, and easy. With every downward push of the lever, it shot out about a quart of water.

About halfway done:

Between us, it took us about 20 minutes to pump the trench almost completely empty.

The information on this Chinese-made product promised:

Well, they were right. I have seldom seen a product work so well. It more than exceeded our expectations.

The only "difficulty" was having the pump on the ground, since we had to kneel on the platform to operate it. We'll also have to be careful about leaving the pump outdoors since we're not sure how well the rubber gasket will handle extremes of temperature.

We're going to test the pump next spring and see how it works pumping water out of the pond, through a used pressure tank we salvaged, and into the garden's drip irrigation system. To do this, Don will build a platform and install the pump at waist level, and add an additional length to the handle for greater leverage. The pump's specifications indicate this shouldn't be a problem:

One of the reasons we're so delighted by this pump is because it's manual. In most of our prepping endeavors, we are trying to make sure everything stays low-tech and hand-operated (and, if possible, inexpensive).

Slowly, little by little, we're solving our water issues in affordable ways. This bilge pump is a valuable piece of the puzzle.

UPDATE: Here's the product on Amazon. It received seriously mixed reviews. All I can say is, our experience so far has been very very positive.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Processing tomatoes

Rather to our surprise, we've been having something of an Indian summer around here. If it's not raining -- and it's been raining a lot -- it's been fairly nice. Therefore the garden has managed to cling on longer than expected.

Last week, after several days of unremitting rain (note the full wheelbarrow below), we had a frost expected.

We had a light frost in mid-September that juuuuust passed us by but nailed the gardens of neighbors less than a mile away, so we've been taking our chances and letting the tomatoes continue to ripen. This time, however, I knew we wouldn't escape the frigid temps. Time to harvest tomatoes.

When harvesting tomatoes just before a killing frost, you don't just pick the ripe ones; you pick everything, and worry about ripening later.

We naïvely started with a single bucket.

Well that didn't last. Numerous buckets and tubs and wheelbarrows later, we finally had every tomato stripped. We also pulled the cayenne peppers and red bell peppers.

Sure enough, the next morning the tomatoes were dead; but the harvest was safe in the house.

After several days of tripping over all this bounty, I knew it was time to process the tomatoes before they went bad. So I set up my faithful Victorio food strainer and got to work.

Well, the more I cranked, the more the tomatoes seemed to multiply every time I blinked. I cranked and cranked and cranked and cranked and CRANKED and cranked. I cut and trimmed and sliced and cranked some more.

The two large bowls I optimistically hoped would hold all the purée quickly overflowed, so I scrubbed out a 4-gallon bucket and used that instead.

By the time I'd cranked my way through all the ripe tomatoes -- well after dark -- the bucket was nearly full. Honestly, what did I ever do without this Victorio strainer? It's worth its weight in gold.

Then it was time to bag everything up and freeze the purée.

Then I scrubbed, and I mean scrubbed, our beloved but scarred and stained kitchen table, to get all the goop off.

After all this industry, I had lots of tomatoes left over. Some are still underripe, some are juuust barely starting to flush red, and some are green and hard.

Don found a large shallow box, so we dumped most of the tomatoes into it...

...and scattered some bananas among them. Bananas release ethylene, a natural ripening agent. In the closed environment of the box, the tomatoes will ripen slowly over the next few weeks (we'll have to periodically plunk out the ripest ones as we go).

A layer of newspapers, and the rest of the tomatoes went onto a second layer with more bananas. By the way, not every green tomato will necessarily ripen; my understanding is a tomato has to have even the tiniest bit of color or it will just stay green. But we dumped everything into the box because, well, what the heck. We had room.

Then we closed up the box.

This box has such excellent proportions that we'll probably hang onto it for future tomato harvests.

Eventually I'll cook the purée down and turn it into sauce, but it's too early for two reasons: One, as the green tomatoes ripen, I'll be adding to the purée inventory in the freezer; and two, we're still not using the cookstove 24/7 for heat (maybe about 16/7), and since the purée will take several days to cook down into sauce, I'll wait until we have the stove going constantly and take advantage of the heat.

Glad that chore is done!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

SurvivalBlog needs help

SurvivalBlog, one of the highest-read and most useful prepping websites on the internet, needs our help. It seems they've been slapped with a defamation lawsuit:

From the website:
The upcoming legal defense will probably cost thousands of dollars in attorney fees. I would appreciate the prayers of SurvivalBlog readers that justice will prevail. If any readers would like to contribute to our legal defense, then please send a check to:

James Wesley, Rawles
P.O. Box 303
Moyie Springs, Idaho 83845

Alternatively, PayPal donations can be sent to: (Yes, it is indeed a “.to” domain, not a “.com” address.) My pledge to you is that if [the] lawsuit is withdrawn or if it is dismissed by the courts before I incur legal expenses, then I will return any donations over $20. Many thanks for your prayers!
For years, this website has faithfully helped millions of people gain knowledge. Now it's our turn to give back. Please, if you can see your way to sending in a small donation, I'm sure it would be deeply appreciated.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A year's worth of garlic

In August, I harvested the garlic.

Last year I had the durndest time harvesting the garlic. This is because I made the mistake of mulching the bed with old hay ... and the hay grew. Additionally I was fighting a particularly pernicious grass which reproduces vegetatively through long roots.

Unless I can dig out those roots, the grass simply grows back. Breaking the roots into bits just increases the number of rootstocks that can regrow (kind of like that scene from the old movie "Fantasia" with the sorcerer's apprentice where the chopped up broomsticks reform into new broomsticks). It's nasty stuff.

So last year it took me three days to harvest the garlic in this fairly small bed. Most of the time was spent tracing out and removing the roots of those grasses.

So this year I was very very careful to keep the weeds out of the garlic, pulling them as they grew and tracing out grass roots as I found them.

So by the time harvest came, it was simple as pie to dig it all up. Took me only about an hour.

What a contrast to last year. I still had a few weeds...

...but I pulled those (roots and all) as I dug the garlic, so they wouldn't regrow and plague me next year.

The garlic quickly overflowed the bushel basket I was using... I stopped and trimmed the stems from the bulbs, then continued digging more garlic.

An hour later, all done.

The garlic filled the basket about two-thirds full.

After letting the garlic dry for a few days, I sat down in the barn and prepared to trim it. Some people prefer to hang their garlic whole, but since we don't have a root cellar or basement, I've found it's best to preserve the garlic by canning it. Trimming and peeling is the first step.

I grow a German porcelain-neck garlic. Rather than those annoying cloves that get smaller and smaller toward the center, this kind of garlic has large (and sometimes huge) cloves around a central stiff (or "porcelain") stem. It's got a nice bite to it, just as garlic should.

Here's some of the larger cloves next to eggs, for purposes of comparison.

This kind of garlic is fairly easy to peel. It's a pleasant task to sit in the barn for an hour or so at a time and peel garlic. It took me a few days to work through the whole shebang.

Occasionally the chickens would wander over and kind of hang around, keeping me company.

I pulled aside a fair bit of nice cloves...

...then counted out how many I needed, and kept them for re-planting the bed.

Here's all the debris from peeling.

The end result, peeled and ready to wash.

Total weight: 12 pounds.

Then came the laborious task of washing (and sometimes scrubbing) each clove to get the surface and ingrained dirt off. This is really really boring. I did it in stages to make it more tolerable, but it's still boring. If anyone has a better idea for how to wash garlic, I'm all ears.

After this, it was time to can the garlic. I chopped it up in batches.

The garlic shouldn't be cooked, but only parboiled. To do this, I boiled a large pot of water, then turned off the heat and dumped in the chopped garlic for about ten minutes.

While it heated, I got my jars ready. Since garlic is low-acid, of course it needs to be pressure-canned.

I drained the garlic, making sure to save the cook water.

Filling jars with chopped parboiled garlic.

Topping off with cook water.

Wiping the rims, which also lets me check for nicks.

Scalding the Tattler lids.

Then I pulled out my pressure canner. It's the first time I'd used it since I had the gauge checked last February.

Jars in the canner, two layers.

Up to pressure, adjusted for elevation. I kept it here for 25 minutes (pints).

I just love the sight of a finished canning project.

All this chopped canned garlic should be plenty to last us for a year. But if we wanted to look forward to more garlic next summer, I had to get what I'd held back for planting into the ground.

So in late September, I made sure the garlic boat was free of weeds...

...then laid out the cloves to space them evenly.

I had a couple of garlic plants sprouting from some cloves that got left behind when I harvested.

Once the cloves are spaced out, it takes no time at all to plant them. I had some cloves left over, which I gave to a neighbor who was interested in cultivating more garlic.

Then I gave the bed a nice layer of pine needle mulch.

That does it for garlic for the year. Except for (hopefully) some light weeding next summer, I shouldn't have to do much until it's time to harvest again.