Thursday, March 26, 2015

Easy Soil Sampler Tool for Compacted Soil

Earlier this spring, we decided we should get our dirt tested.  We carefully selected a lab and read through their sampling instructions.  The only problem was that, lacking an auger or corer tool, we would have had to use our trusty spade shovel.  Why is that a problem?  First, because we would be sampling from places around the yard, many of which we won't actually want to turn over.  Second, our soil is extremely compacted, and digging 20+ holes to a depth of 6-8" would require at least a couple hours of sweat and tears.  Instead, we put on our thinking caps and invented a device from the junk we had laying around.  We still spent a couple hours on the project, but only ~20 minutes were doing the sampling.  The other 80-100 were spent inventing and testing, which will save time in the long run.  (Especially for you, dear readers, because that work is now done!)  Plus, now we don't have (big) holes all over our yard.

The key component of our invention is a piece of old 3/4" pipe, such as this electrical conduit.  But it won't work very well directly as a pipe.  So we marked it at 8" from the end, and cut it as shown.  The closer to one side you can get it, the better, because it will have more rigidity and be less likely to twist when actually taking the samples.  Making a pointed end also helps with that.  Three other tools are needed for easy sampling: a hatchet (or hammer), a vice grips, and a screw driver.  Sample collection is then a three-step process.

Step 1: pound the pipe into the ground, up to the 8" mark. (Step 1a: chase the chickens away because they all think that humans working in dirt = treats.)

Step 2: Take the vice grips and rotate the pipe around to cut a core of soil.  Then pull the pipe back out of the ground, which is much easier with the vice grips still attached.

It should be full of dirt.  Like this!

Step 3: Use the screwdriver to scrape the dirt out of the pipe into a bucket. If there is still residue from the sawing operations, it might be good to take a few samples first in areas you don't care about, and discard them.  Step 4 is to repeat steps 1-3 at least 10 times around the sampling area, until enough dirt has been collected to meet the test lab's requirements.  For us, about 15 sampling points worked out to about two cups soil after drying.

When we first started this, we were afraid that the pounding and scraping would lead to increased metals from the pipe getting into the soil and messing up the test results.  But we took a chance, and the zinc levels (what we would expect to go up the most from using galvanized pipe) were right about at background levels for our area.  (All values in the table are in ppm--parts per million, or mg analyte/kg soil.)  On the other hand, our selenium levels are off the chart!  The level we got was still less than A&L Eastern Lab says is hazardous (that same table appearing in other publications, too, possibly originating from a Cornell report), but more than the level that raises a red flag for UMass, and way above background for our area.  Where could that come from (and what should we do about it?)  Don't touch that dial--we'll be back with more info in a few days.

How do you collect your soil samples?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Homestead Happiness, March Week 3

The weather was pretty nice this week--lots more signs of spring (including the calendar), and some progress on our goals for the year.  Yay!

The first spring flowers in the yard!  We saw some crocuses at the neighbors' last weekend, but these dandies are the first ones in our yard.  Can't wait for pancakes and steamed greens!

Last week we mentioned that we found a source of free straw to use for composting, mulching, chicken bedding, etc.  This week we also found a source of free horse manure (hidden under the straw in this picture), as much as we could ever want.  It's organic, mixed with shavings and hay, and comes (accidentally) pre-inoculated with fungal mycelium. Gorgeous!  And they're just giving it away!  Can you believe it?

When the chickens saw the pile, they were possessed by the spirits of entropy and turned it into this within a couple hours.  They're not too interested in the manure part yet, but they really like scratching through the straw.  Since one of our goals for the year is to cut down on chicken feed costs, we're trying to get a miniature version of this going, and it looks like the chooks will be amenable.  (The full version of the video linked above--at Geoff Lawton's website, e-mail subscription required for full access--explains more about the operation, including predator control.  Harvey Ussery also wrote about the concept here and here.)

We also finally got our garden plans in order--layout in the yard and most of the seeds bought.  (Kudos to Territorial Seed for beating the pants off all the other seed catalogs in terms of variety and information about the plants.)  Now we just need to find time to dig up the middle half! (Or not dig part of it, since we want to try the no-till method Anna described in The Weekend Homesteader with some of the beds.)

And last, but not least, the rhubarb is alive!

What made you happy on your homestead this week?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Colony Post-Mortem

We found out the other weekend that our bees didn't survive the last cold snap.  Actually, on opening up the hive, it looked like they had been gone for a while.  The bees we saw going in and out a couple weeks ago were probably robbers.  Not sure why a few dead bees kept showing up on the landing strip, though.  Anyway, we wanted to post an autopsy here since we like to think of this not so much as a dead-out, but as a learning experience!

Here's the story of this hive (most of this from memory, so some details may be lost in the rendering):

We got it in early May last year: a 3-lb package with a real cutie of a varroa-sensitive queen (aka VSH for varroa-sensitive hygiene).  The timing was unfortunately on the downhill side of the spring fruit tree blooms, and then we got a freeze a week later. So, we fed them 1:1 sugar syrup from the start, and they kept taking it, so we actually had the feeder on there for most of the summer and through the fall (switching to 2:1 sugar water in late August).  They eventually filled most of two 10-frame deep boxes with brood, pollen, and honey, with most of the honey in the top deep box and most of the brood and pollen in the bottom deep box. We had an entrance reducer on for the first couple weeks, then opened up the entire landing strip to allow for major summer traffic.

In late September, we noticed a few yellow jackets hanging out on the landing strip, but they weren't going inside the hive.  The next weekend, the yellow jackets were still there, so we put the entrance reducer back on, but didn't open up the hive, other than to replace the feeder.  In early October, we did an inspection on a warm day, only to find that most of the bottom box was empty, both of brood and honey.  The top box was still full of pollen and (mostly) honey.  This was the first inspection during which we didn't see any eggs (although we didn't check every frame), and the population seemed to be lower than expected (probably 6-7 frames-worth covered in bees).  It was also the first time we saw varroa mites on a few of the bees and on the removable debris board.  The bees didn't seem overly agitated, so we figured the queen must have been slowing down on her egg-laying for the fall and hanging out on frames we didn't pull.  The bees continued to take the syrup until late October, when the temperature was mostly under 50 °F.  At that point, we took off the feeder and added a moisture quilt.  Through mid December, there were bees near the top of the top box.  The cluster seemed small, but present.  In mid-January, we added a candy board, and there were still bees near the top middle of the top box (although the ones we could see may have been dead already at this point).  We didn't notice much activity through early March, other than a few dead bees showing up on the landing strip and a few bees going in and out.  Given how small the cluster looked in December, we were kind of surprised that they would have lasted this long.  Last weekend, after another cold snap, we figured we better decide whether there were live bees in there or not, and discovered that there were not.  Time for an autopsy:

Starting with the screened bottom board: lots of debris and a few hundred dead bees.  Some chewed comb, a couple mouse turds, a few rows of cappings from the honey.  Many half-bees, probably victims of the yellow jackets.

In the bottom box, the frames close to the middle looked like this: missing comb close to the entrance, and the comb near that edge filled with a hard substance--almost propolis-like, but lighter in color. 

Here's the whole frame.  Just a little bit of honey in the upper left.  Otherwise, completely empty.  Frames to the outside looked similarly empty, but without the missing/propolized comb part.

In the top box, the middle two frames had the most bees and the least honey.  The rest of the frames are still full; the top box weighs probably 60 pounds.

Zooming in on the bees that were left shows several of them head-down in the comb, which usually means starvation.  (However, there's honey, like, six inches away.)  The rest are just kind of frozen in place.

A few frames showed a trail of chewed comb like this, which from what we can tell, means mouse damage.  We don't think the mouse killed the bees or chased them away.  It probably just got into the hive because there weren't enough bees to keep it out, and left because there weren't enough bees to keep it warm.  Or maybe it ate too much honey and got a tooth ache.  Or maybe it wasn't a varroa-sensitive mouse.

So, what ultimately befell our poor hive?  We think we didn't do enough to protect it at the end of the summer, and the yellow jackets and robber bees cleaned out the bottom box, in the process killing the queen.  When we put the entrance reducer back in, the remaining bees were able to hold off the attackers for a few days, then it turned cold.  That put a stop to the attacking and robbing, but with no new bees forthcoming, the numbers would eventually dwindle to the point that they couldn't stay warm enough to move to new honey.  That's our hypothesis.  What are the other possibilities?  From reading a number of articles and blogs, there seem to be three candidates:

The hive absconded due to pressure from yellow jackets, robbers, or mice:  It would be hard to rule this one out conclusively, especially since we never found the queen.  But normally before a hive absconds, it cleans out all the honey and finishes raising the brood; we still had a ton of honey left.  Plus, there were enough bees left to form some semblance of a cluster through at least mid-December.  But other than those two things, this one fits, too.

Colony Collapse Disorder: It's hard to conclusively rule this out, too, since there was a box full of honey and very few bees to defend it for (apparently) most of the winter.  So by some accounts, it should have been robbed out if it hadn't failed from CCD.  But usually a CCD hive is left with a small number of bees, including the queen, and plenty of brood.  We only had one small section of one frame with brood (maybe a dozen cells), and no queen.

Varroa mites decreased numbers in the hive, which meant not enough bees to stay warm: We think this is unlikely since we collected a number of the dead bees off the bottom board and did an alcohol wash (รก la Randy Oliver), and got zero mites per hundred bees.  We also saw no deformed wing virus, which is transmitted by varroa, and goes hand-in-hand with the mites.  There were a few mites on the debris board, but following Anna's mite counting protocol, we ended up with ~145 total mites.  We scraped the debris board clean in late September, so those mites were collected over at least two months.  During that time, the colony's numbers were probably dropping, but since a typical lower limit for mite treatment is 50 mites per day, all of those mites could have collected in three days time and we would still be ok without treating.  We paid a little extra for the VSH, so looks like we didn't get swindled!

If there's a silver lining to this ordeal, it's that we found out we were what the French call 'sans bees' early enough to order another package for this year, and the incoming package will have plenty of honey for a good head start on their stores.  But it would be nice if we could take a hive through the winter at some point!  So, what can we do better next year?  Mainly play better defense, we think:
  1. Take better notes so that if we have to do an autopsy again, we'll have a more precise timeline!
  2. Trap yellow jacket queens when they first emerge in the spring so they don't put so much pressure on our bees in the fall. Although we have to admit, we're a little ambivalent about trying to decrease the population of an otherwise beneficial insect.
  3. Put the entrance reducer back in earlier.  Like early July, probably, as soon as the main nectar flow is over.
  4. If we notice robbing/yellow jacket activity even with the reduced entrance, put on a robber screen.
  5. If we discover the colony is queenless in September, but still has a lot of bees, order another mated queen asap and hope she can get 'em through the winter.
  6. Do the alcohol wash multiple times throughout the year to establish a baseline for the varroa count.  Then we can deal with it in the fall if necessary.

What do you think happened to our bees?  If you have another theory, let us know if the comments section below!  How did your bees do this winter?  Let us know that, too!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Homestead Happiness for March, Week 2

We skipped our HAP post last week because there wasn't too much to report on, other than the potato starch experiment.  We mostly did that, played in the snow, and tried to figure out why our bees died (more on that in a few days).  But there were a few snippets of progress this week.  Here's how we entertained ourselves:

We had collected our soil samples back in early February, when the ground was unfrozen and dry from a warm and sunny January.  But we finally got the dirt fully dry and broke up all the chunks.

That meant it was ready to bag it up and send to Massachusetts for nutrient and heavy metal testing!  Hopefully we only have to do the metal testing once, since it's expensive.

Saturday was Pi Day.  We're trying to cut down on our sugar consumption, but on a nerdy holiday that celebrates with dessert, we didn't stand a chance.  The recipe was essentially this.

Free composting/mulching materials.  Thanks, Craigslist!


Ok, the real St. Patrick's Day isn't until Tuesday, but Sunday was the start of Irish Food Week here at the Lab.  Plus, we couldn't wait until Tuesday to cook up our corned beast because we've got pesky obligations that last all day, e.g., off-homestead work.

What made you happy this week?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Homemade Potato Starch

There are lots of uses for starch around the homestead: thickening stew or pie filling, making gravy, making edible glue (Katie says, "well, if you're going to eat it anyway..."), making cosmetics, powdering wigs, and so on.  Clearly, we need a way to make some homemade starch.  The tricky part is, most commercial starch comes from tropical plants like arrowroot or cassava, or from hard-to-process grains like corn, wheat, or rice.  Except potato starch.  Potato starch is made from something we can grow and process without too much trouble.  Ready...go!

The first step is to figure out how much starch we can expect to get out of our taters, so we can calculate a yield later on.  Since starch is denser than the rest of the potato, a potato's density is generally proportional to the starch content.  Using the displacement method...

...we found that our potatoes are 13.3% starch, averaged over five potatoes.  Data for the graph on the left came from here.

The next step is to get that starch out of the potato cells.  The starch is trapped inside the cells like a medieval princess in a dragon's lair , waiting to be eaten by the dragon in the spring (if princesses looked like oblong globules piled inside a vaguely hexagonal prism).  And we get to be the knight in shining armor.  (Photo Credit: "Potato Starch" by Philippa Uwins (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons)

 Fortunately, we wield the mighty Sword of KitchenAid

A few minutes later, the dragon is nearly defeated.  Now we just need to rescue the starch princess.

We do that by flushing the potato pulp with water and using the ol' t-shirt filter and squeeze technique.

We mix the pulp with water and squeeze out the milky-colored liquid three or four times until the water looks fairly clear (it looks white at first because it's carrying the starch granules with it).  We can keep rinsing and squeezing beyond that if we want, but then we begin to wander into the Land of Diminishing Returns.

Now we're left with the potato pulp (left) and water/potato juice/starch (right).

Pouring the water into something with a higher aspect ratio will help in the next step when we decant the juice.  The white layer on the bottom is the starch princess, which settles out on standing for a few minutes.

While the starch is settling out, we take the potato pulp, mix it with a chopped onion, egg, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and rosemary...

...and fry up some potato pancakes! (Or dragon burgers, whichever you prefer.)  Dragons: thank you for meddling in the affairs of homesteaders, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup.

Once it looks like no more starch is settling out of the liquid, we carefully pour the liquid into a pitcher, leaving a solid layer of starch behind. (If you splash and swirl the liquid while pouring, some of the starch will come with.)

We scrape the starch out onto a dehydrator tray with a fruit leather insert. Now we just have to drive off most of the water.  We want to not go to very high temperatures in this step, since the starch will start to gel around 64 °C (147 °F).  So we'll stick to the food dehydrator, like Mrs. Volfie suggests

Holy non-Newtonian fluids, Batman! One cool thing about concentrated starch-water mixtures it that they're shear-thickening.  That is, apply a force to them, and they act like solids.  Let them sit there, and they act like liquids.  Kind of a pain when scraping the starch out of the jars, but if you spill any on the counter, just grab that drop with your fingers and pick it right up!  You can also watch the solid transform back into a liquid, which is kind of apparent in this picture.

If some of the juice comes with the starch, it will form dark-colored parts when it dries.  But it won't make much of a difference in the final product.

Once it's powdered up, it still looks pretty white, like starch is supposed to.  Our final yield was 131 g starch from 2272 g (5 lbs) of potatoes.  At 13.3% starch, that many potatoes should have given us 302 g starch, so we ended up with about 43% yield, based on the theoretical maximum.  Industrial processes give about 90% yield or more, so we're not quite there.  But industrial processes also don't give potato pancakes as a byproduct, so we've got that going for us.

If you search online for what to do with the juice, you'll find a plethora of sites with unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits of potato juice (although there may be some merit, if you dig deep enough).  They also usually recommend blending the potato juice with other components, such as lemon juice and honey, to mask the flavor.  It's not that bad, but we haven't found a reasonable combination of lemon juice, honey, and potato juice that render it satisfying.  It's better with more strongly-flavored ingredients, like chai tea concentrate and hard liquor.

How do you make starch on your homestead?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A One-Year Meal Plan (Or, What Should We Grow This Year?)

This time of year is prime time for garden planning around these parts.  As we were thinking about what we might want to grow this year, we came around to the question of, "Well, what did we eat last year?"  We have a partial record of what we made right here on the blog, so that was a good place to start.  From there, we just had to fill in the things we normally eat for breakfast, lunch, and supper that we don't blog about. There is always a lot of variability depending on what's available (or on sale), the time of the year, how much time we're at home, how much snacking on high-sugar dried fruits we do while waiting for the other to come home so we can explosively greet them when they walk in the door (like Hobbes greets Calvin), etc., but as a ballpark figure, could we make an estimate for food intake, assuming three servings per person per day?

The answer is yes!  And the estimate is fascinating. [...says Jake as Katie snores...]  If you've been following this blog for any amount of time, you probably know that a spreadsheet is about to appear.  And so we begin, with three sets of columns: one each for supper, breakfast, and lunch.

Into each set of columns, we enter recipes (copied and pasted from memory or the internet), specify the number of times per year we're going to prepare them, and make sure units and ingredient names are consistent (e.g., that we don't say tomato in one recipe and tomatoes in another).

Then we use a pivot table (one each for supper, breakfast, and lunch) to count everything up.  It's a bummer we don't know how to make a pivot table from more than one range at a time (there's probably a way), but that's ok.  The workaround isn't too hard. From each individual pivot table, we create a master pivot table.  From the master pivot table, we can estimate how much of everything we need to acquire during the course of the year.  For example, we learn that we need about 54 dozen eggs, 49 gallons of milk, and 110 loaves of bread (assuming 12 slices per loaf).  If you've been in our kitchen, you know that works out to a surprisingly accurate figure of roughly one dozen eggs, one gallon of milk, and two loaves of bread per week.  And also 23 pounds of mushrooms, which sounds delicious.  Model validated!

More importantly (and to the point), we can estimate how many pounds of vegetables we'll have to grow and how many pounds of meat we'll have to catch to be self-sufficient.

Clearly, if we want to keep taking carrots to work for lunch, we'll need to grow a ton. (Or, a one-fourteenth of a ton, rather).  Similarly, we can see that we ought to devote a lot of our remaining garden space to tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, and greens.  Of course, we're going to grow a larger variety of veggies than that, but the quantities we tend to eat (and would need to find storage space for) are instructive.  And honestly, we'll probably try to grow more winter squash, green beans, and peppers than the chart suggests.

On a similar note, if we want to keep on our current diet, we'll need to grow another batch of chickens and catch one large deer and a quarter of a pig. (Or raise one deer and catch a flock of wild chickens.  But we don't have space to raise both!)

All things considered, it's a pretty balanced diet, not too far from Harvard's Healthy Eating Plate.  We're a little heavier on the veggies, but hey!  Maybe we'll end up being a very localized blue zone.

It's important to keep in mind that these numbers are just guidelines; we're not locking ourselves into a whole year of rigidly following recipes.  We substitute veggies and meats in and out of a recipe like a Wall Street bankster swaps stocks (although we hope none of our meals would be considered subprime or toxic assets).  But it's nice to have a set of go-to dishes we can pick from and toss together from stuff in the fridge or pantry if we've already spent our creative energy for the day and still need to make supper.  Whatchagotamology at its finest!

We won't vouch for the user friendliness of the spreadsheet, but if you want to play around with it, you can download it here.  Suggestions welcome!

Do you make meal plans?  What's your planning strategy?  Let us know in the comments section below!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

February Linkage Love

It's that time again: time to pass some of our rabid electronic information consumption on to you (rabid referring to the consumption, not the information.) Hope it's contagious!

Here are our especially favorite links from the month of February:

Growing Shiitakes
Making Sure Your Shiitake Spawn is Good
Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation
Mini-Mushroom Logs
Broth Making
Good scything
Resolving what some see as cognitive dissonance in modern homesteading
Goat-sized butter churn

What were your favorites?

Monday, March 2, 2015

'Tis the Season for Corned Beast!

Just a friendly reminder to our readers--if you're going to corn some beast for St. Patty's Day, now's the time to get 'er started!

We're doing it a little differently this year than in the past.  In part, we don't have leftover whey from making cheese.  And in part, we read this article explaining how a dry rub can give better flavor penetration than a brine.  We generally followed the recipe given here, scaled to our 800 gram venison roast from his 2250 gram, and replacing the pink salt with additional regular salt and citric acid.  Of course, the meat released a bit of venison juice just on thawing, so it isn't a true dry rub, but it'll be a less watery brine than in years past.

We also put it in a bag this year, instead of a bowl. (Well ok, it's in a bowl, too, but the bowl is only secondary containment.)

Don't forget to get it started!  If you don't make corned beast for St. Patty's Day, a leprechaun will come and hide marshmallows all over your house.