Friday, December 30, 2016


A young man who grew up in our church (we've known him since he was seven years old) just proposed to his girlfriend. They've been dating five years.

She said yes.

What a lovely end to 2016.

Upcoming product review:
Treadle-powered wheat thresher

Some of you may remember our wheat-growing experiment from a few years ago.

North Idaho is wheat country. Take a short drive anywhere beyond our property, and you’ll see vast swathes of cultivated Palouse prairie. In late summer, massive million-dollar combines rumble across the fields, cutting wheat at a precise height, vacuuming up the grain heads, threshing it, and spitting out the clean wheat from one side and the chaff from the other. These machines are awesomely efficient. Whenever you buy flour at the store, or consume pastry or bread products, you can thank the thousands of hardworking farmers who grow wheat for our country.

But what about growing wheat on the individual level? That was what our wheat-growing experiment was all about. Was it do-able from the standpoint of a small homestead? How hard would it be?

We set out to learn.

The first time we grew wheat, we plowed the field once in the fall, then sowed hard red winter wheat. This wheat sprouts in autumn, goes dormant over the winter, and grows again in the spring, then is harvested in late summer. It worked great except for one thing: we couldn’t control the weeds, notably cheatgrass. It’s not like we could plow the weeds under while the wheat was growing. We ended up growing half wheat, half weeds. The experiment was a failure.

So how do commercial wheat growers control weeds? Partly weeds are controlled with sprays; and partly they’re controlled by continuous cultivation. We wouldn’t do the former and couldn’t do the latter (yet).

So we switched to hard red spring wheat which, as the name implies, is planted in the spring. We plowed the field three times before planting: once early in the spring, a second time to kill any weeds that returned, and a third time to kill any more stubborn weeds that returned yet again. This crop of wheat was much more successful. (We may try winter wheat again after several years of weed control through cultivation.)

With the exception of plowing the field, everything else was done by hand. We sowed. We scythed. We raked. We bundled.

And we threshed. Or at least, we tried.

While the whole wheat-growing venture was challenging but otherwise fine (and repeatable), it was the threshing that did us in. Threshing wheat by hand, using flails, is inefficient, wasteful, physically difficult, and wildly time-consuming. In this respect, the experiment was, once more, a failure. Grrr.

One of the ongoing things we’re trying to do on our homestead is to figure out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to self-sufficiency. Wheat is an integral part of most Americans’ diets, yet threshing stymied us. We needed to find out how to grow wheat with the less-sophisticated hand-powered methods suitable to a small homestead.

We spent a lot of time wondering what a small family farm could use in place of massive combines. After a fair bit of research, as well as some suggestions from blog readers, we came across a treadle-powered wheat thresher:

So, in an attempt to continue our research, we decided to purchase this thresher and conduct a product review regarding its efficiency. How well does it work? What are its drawbacks? How efficient is it? How difficult is it to use? Can it thresh enough wheat to feed a family from year to year?

These are some of the questions we hope to answer. Backwoods Home Magazine has already expressed an interest in an upcoming article on the subject, and I suspect a number of other magazines would be interested as well.

The thresher we purchased came from a place called Back to the Land Store in Tennessee (which closed its retail location shortly thereafter and has plans to open an online-only store). The gentleman I spoke to told me the machines are hand-made by an Amish family living nearby. He said it will thresh about 1.5 lbs. of wheat per minute (at top speed); and the drier the wheat, the better it threshes. The cost of the machine as well as shipping it to Idaho came to around $1200, so it was not a purchase to undertake lightly and it took us awhile to save up for it.

The thresher was shipped in mid-November and arrived without incident. Right now it is being stored in the barn until we have a chance to put it to use next August.

Come May, we’ll re-plow the same field we used before. We’ll repeat the triple-plowing to control weeds. We have seed wheat ready to plant. We have scythes ready to sharpen. Now we have a thresher ready to thresh.

Stand by for a product review!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Calf cage photos

Below are photos of the calf cage Don built last summer to bring newborn calves out of the pasture. These photos are to illustrate an article I wrote for Self-Reliance Magazine (a superb spinoff of Backwoods Home Magazine), and are posted so the editor can choose which ones she wants to use.

Editor: Photos 17 through 25 are low-resolution only. Everything else is high-resolution.

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3 -- Corners are screwed together

Photo 4 -- Calf cage, opened. The roof is hinged in the middle. Horse blanket on the floor.

Photo 5 -- Calf cage, opened.

Photo 6 -- Calf cage, opened part-way

Photo 7 -- Door folded back and resting in open position. Note corner bracket for strength, shelf bracket for strength.

Photo 8 -- Roof hinges.

Photo 9 -- Calf cage with door open

Photo 10 -- slatted sides, some of which came from the old bed frame

Photo 11 -- Hinge in roof

Photo 12 -- Hinged roof

Photo 13 -- Door in "down" position; note unmovable OSB base used to strengthen structure

Photo 14 -- Side made from bed frame

Photo 15 -- Calf cage

Photo 16 -- Calf cage

Photo 17 -- Newborn calf peeking through cage slats: "What's going on?"

Photo 18 -- View from the tractor, driving home with calf cage on the tines

Photo 19 -- View from the tractor, driving home with calf cage strapped to the tines

Photo 20 -- Don driving the tractor with the calf cage strapped to the bucket tines

Photo 21 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 22 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 23 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 24 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 25 -- Strapping the calf cage to the tractor tines

Photo 28 -- Curious cows (and one horse) following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 29 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 30 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 31 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 32 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 33 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 36 -- Transporting a newborn calf back from the pasture

Photo 37 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 38 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 39 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 40 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Photo 41 -- Curious cows following the tractor with a calf in the calf cage

Another voice, stilled...

Hard on the heels of Carrie Fisher's death, we learn her mother, Debbie Reynolds, has passed away.

Her performance in "Singing in the Rain" launched her to fame. This movie remains one of my all-time favorites.

I know it was not an unexpected thing to have this fine actress pass away, but it seems especially tragic coming one day after her daughter's death.

Sigh. Rest in peace, Debbie.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Snowed in

The day began at 5:15 a.m. when the phone rang.

After receiving so many annoying middle-of-the-night "technical support" calls, we're inclined to ignore a ringing phone before 6 a.m. But this time, sleepily, I heard a neighbor's voice record something downstairs on the answering machine.

I got up and dressed, and happen to notice, across the black expanse of snow in our front yard, unusual lit-up highlights. We don't have lights out here -- no street lamps or porch lights -- so I wondered where that light came from.

Downstairs, both girls were already up, having heard the content of the message on the answering machine. "Call S.," said Older Daughter. "D. is stuck in the snow halfway down the road." (D and S are our neighbors, and D drives a snowplow for the state. He was just finishing up a ten-hour graveyard shift when he got stuck coming home. Ironically, the law does not allow him to plow his own road, since it's a private road.)

I looked out the window, and sure enough D.'s pickup truck was stalled on the road a quarter-mile away. It was his headlights which accounted for the odd highlights on the otherwise dark front lawn.

The wind had whipped snow around all night and, as it turns out, had whipped not just the road shut, but our driveway as well.

I woke up Don, who stumbled out of bed and went outside in the cold and wind to plug in the engine block heater on the tractor. Then he called D. to invite him to come in for a hot drink until he could get the tractor started, but D. said he was fine in his truck.

However as daylight eased over the land, it swiftly became apparent no one was going anywhere. The road and everyone's lengthy driveways were drifted shut. We were all snowed in, all four sets of neighbors who live beyond where D. got stuck.

Here's D.'s truck in the bottom-middle distance.

Here's a zoom-in shot. (By this point D. had abandoned the vehicle and walked home. He needed sleep after ten straight middle-of-the-night hours plowing snow.)

When the wind whips up snow around here, it whips it fast and deep. Our driveway was completely closed in with two solid feet of snow, with some higher drifts over that.

I walked down the driveway...correction, I waded down the driveway, sinking up to my knees with every step.

Here's a better view of D.'s truck. The snow in the foreground is about three feet deep.

Don climbed aboard the tractor and started bucketing out the driveway. It took him three hours of solid work to get through 300 feet.

This is what the driveway looked like when he was done. Buckets aren't plows, so it was rough but passable.

But this is the sight that greeted him at the end of the driveway -- and D.'s truck was still a quarter-mile away.

Snowdrifts can be very artistic -- unless you need to drive through them, of course.

Here's the road looking right.

Here's the road looking left, with D.'s truck in the distance.

Here's a neighbor, also snowed in, who had walked over to see how badly the truck was stuck. The dog, a half-grown lab, was having the time of her life.

Yep, no one was going anywhere for awhile.

Soon we noticed yet another neighbor (with his 10-year-old daughter) who pulled behind D. on his little ATV with a plow attachment. He started to dig D. out ... and got stuck.

So they hiked to our house and warmed themselves up for a few minutes, then Don pulled together numerous shovels and they hiked back to free the ATV.

Then Don got back on the tractor and tackled the road. He spent several hours bucketing snow as best he could.

When he got most of the snow out of the way, he came back and fetched me to help tow D.'s truck out with the tractor.

Even with the combined efforts of the ATV plow and our tractor, D. was still well and truly stuck.

I climbed into the cab (D. had left the keys in the ignition) while Don attached a tow strap between the tractor and the truck.

It took several minutes of vigorous yanking before the truck broke free.

I parked the truck opposite our driveway (since beyond our driveway, the road was still drifted shut)...

...while Don continued bucketing out snow beyond where D. got stuck. Incidentally, the reason he put so much work into clearing the road is he had an obligation in a nearby town at 5 pm.

At long last, we heard a most welcome sound: the put-put-roar of a bulldozer operated by yet another neighbor, who had come to plow everyone out.

By the time this neighbor was finished, the sun was going down with a calm innocence that belied the hectic, frenzied work that went into fighting the wind-whipped snow the blessed day long.

I tried to get into the garden to take pictures, but sank up to my thighs again and again and gave up before even getting to the gate.

But at least things were calm and peaceful in our neck of prairie by sunset.

I took Lydia walking at dusk, and you'd never guess the road had been the site of an eight-hour battle.

Country living: sometimes difficult, never dull.

But you can see why it's important for neighbors to help each other out.