Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Vapour of Smoke

A few days before Christmas our farm experienced a catastrophic fire in the chicken coup. We knew nothing of the fire while in process. On leaving the farm the next morning for work, I drove around the curve in the road past the chicken coup, and a glance toward the coup registered a moment later-- there was no coup. By that time I was down the driveway a distance, and I slowed down straining to see the coup. But there was no coup on the far side of the grapes. No roof line proudly jutting over the arbors.

I walked back to the coup, stood dumbfounded. All that was left was some wire mesh and the foundation stones. The air was still. Everything was quiet. The only movement was a tiny vapor of smoke rising from the center of what had once been the coup.

It is hard to believe that an entire structure would just vanish overnight. Sadly, our feathered friends all perished. As far as I can guess this relates in some way to a heat light that was nailed to the coup inner wall.

Out of catastrophe, we seek to draw some meaning, What lesson can we learn? I am sure there are many things we should learn from this experience, and if we or someone is saved a greater catastrophe, then the loss is not entirely in vain. 

First, life is fragile. No one is invincible. The very structure that was for years their protection, on this night was their mortality. Accidents can happen in a split second, and in that moment, everything can change.

Second, if things might go wrong, then sooner or later they will-- especially with animals involved. The wiring to the coup was all standard wiring, and wire connections in standard electrical boxes. I don't see that being the issue. If the heat lamp somehow got dislodged off the wall, and somehow fall face down (it had an aluminum shroud), and somehow got hot enough to burn, but not hot enough to burst, and somehow caught the coup on fire.... In the absence of anything else that makes sense, I have to think all of these some how's where met. So the lesson in this point would be plan ahead for disaster, no matter how remote that disaster seems today. 

And third, I would suggest that we all take fire really seriously. If you heat with wood as we do, then you need to be really, really careful of what is around the fire box. Structure fires are hot and can (evidently) burn till there is nothing left.

We look forward to another day: "And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke." Acts 2:19.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Heat Yields Heat

It is a truth that fire wood heats you multiple times. It heats you up when you cut down the tree and shop up the wood. It heats you up when you move it around and stack it to dry. It heats you up when you bring it in to the furnace. And it heats you by the burning of the wood.

I am getting plenty of heating, this week. The Lord miraculously answered our prayer for firewood by providing an ample supply of logs close by. We likely have a seasons worth just from this week, which is a blessing because we have not done much prior. I sure had some sweat on my brow today!

Thinking of the title of my humble little blog: By the Sweat of My Brow, I realize what we wanted to communicate was that a life worth living is not an easy life, and life was really not meant to be easy. Leisure has gotten too many good marks, and hard work too many bad marks in our society. There is nothing wrong with working hard, and even seeing some drops of sweat fall from your face.

But I am constantly faced with the pull to take the easy path. There are only so many hours in a day, and no one has been handing out extra hours around my part of the country.

You can cut, move, stack, and dry your fire wood, or you could pay for electricity to do all that work for you.

You can buy a bag of flour, or you can work your tail off preparing the ground, planting wheat, protecting the crop, harvesting, threshing, storage, and grinding to get to the same point. It is simply astounding how much we take for granted in our western society lifestyle. The super market is so instant gratification. The old fashioned alternative takes a year of planning to get a crop.

You can work for an hour or two making 5 loaves of bread, or you can simply buy them for $2.39 each at the store.

I don't know a way to settle my tension. I enjoy gardening and living simply. I enjoy putting up food. I love the idea of self sufficiency. But it seems hard to try to do both lifestyles at the same time. This is not to discourage you, my one reader, because I do think there is value in not just giving into the downward flow of our "everything is disposable society."

When I think who is paying the true cost for my convenient grocery trips I think of the migrant worker making low wages, who definitely has sweat on his brow. And I think about the false economy of a petroleum based agriculture system, that really is borrowing from past reserves, with no intention of paying back that energy debt.

So in a philosophical turn, I have a suggestion for you: Live your life to make a difference in the life of someone else.

If you look over the frequency of my posts, you will have already seen a slowing pace. I think it is a normal life cycle for blogs. I started this blog with the intent to share knowledge, and not to just talk about us. We have used pseudonyms to emphasis this point. It is not about Sunshine and Harvest. It is about getting a connection to God, and becoming His child.

For each of us, life is a vapor. The older I get, the more I am willing to embrace my mortality. But to dust where we return does not have to be the end of the story. I pray that you will consider the Bible as perspective for the meaning of life. It points you to a loving God who wants to have you live with Him forever.

I hope something we have written on this blog has been a blessing to you. The next chance you get, embrace hard work, and get the joy of having sweat on your brow.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fire in the Bones

Can you imagine fire in your bones?

I mean searing, swelling, mottled fire. Let me tell you about it. Better sit down. Better yet, elevate your feet.

We captured a swarm of bees a month or so ago, and I had them in one deep and two supers, nestled among the peach trees in the orchard. They had swarmed to that tree, and I set the box right under it, and there it sat. Well, it came to look like these were busy bees.they were spilling out of the entrance, and bearding along the sides of the hive body. We decided it was time to give them some more room.

So early this morning before I had to go to work, I set out in my bee suit to move the hive and give them some more space by adding empty boxes. I figured the hive would be normally quiet, and peaceful to relocate. No bees were flying yet. I took off the two honey supers, and they were loaded to capacity. In fact, the bees seemed to be just boiling out of the hive. (They were cramped for space.) things went downhill quickly from this point. I had not lit a smoker, thinking this was a simple operation of moving the hive a few feet, and adding some empty boxes. I did not have my boots on, but rather my office shoes since I was headed there shortly. Outside of my consciousness this left a vulnerable 2 inch ring around my ankles with only one layer of light weight socks.

The morning is starting to warm up. A few bees, to a small cloud is now flying around. Several menacing stingers point in through the veil of my bee suit. No problem. I take my hive tool down to separate the deep from the base board, and the instant I lift up on the hive body fire rockets into my ankles from ALL sides. It was like flipping on a light switch, it was that instantaneous. The bees are not boiling out, now the erupt. Smelling the success of fresh stings, hundreds of bees coat my shoes, ankles and legs. I did what only I could. I ran / hobbled away as fast as I could. My socks were littered with pulsing stinger sacks, placed by the desperate kamikaze missions to protect the hive at all costs.

At once the fire was in my bones. It occupied all spare corners and central part of my brain. I was followed by hundreds if bees, and it found it a tricky proposition to get my shoe off and not get more stings. I put on my boots and secured the lower hem of the bee suit to the boots. Ahh, at least now I was fully protected.

As I calculated the number of total stings, I realized my situation was not as serious as it could have been. As I returned to the hive body I had the unusual experience walking into waves of flying and hyper buzzing bees. They were mad. I was coated again from head to toe, thick with bees. If we lived south, I might have nick named them "killer".

I got the hive moved and put back together, and added plenty of more space for them to grow into. I went to work, and over the course of the morning, my ankles started to swell. My shoes soon became tight and painful, pressing back against the swelling. By lunch, I was walking with a definite hobble. I soaked my feet in cold Epsom salt water, I elevated my legs. (I am not sure either treatment did anything of lasting value to the swelling but the cold water felt good.) Throbbing beat in my ankles with each heart best, and then there was a shooting pain forming a faster tempo than my heart.

I walk painfully this evening, but I know the drill. I have had bee stings this bad before. Sunshine feels sorry for me, but rightfully thinks I should have known better. Sadly, tomorrow will not be better. The next day may have some slight relief, and then next day after that I will walk fine again.

The guard bees are on high alert all day today. No one could approach anywhere on the entire garden plot of 3/4 of an acre. I drove in next to the chickens and the car had bee guards all over and flying around it. I did not realize the hive was this wild.

Tomorrow the bees will feel better, and they have a lot more space to grow into.

So, do you have fire in your bones? I surely do. Such a small insect, with such a determined perspective! It would be good if each of us were as busy as a bee. I do not blame them. They were doing their job, and doing it very well. Would that the guards around our families were as successful as the these guards that dealt with me this morning. Consider the guards to what we allow in our minds. The guards to what we allow in our homes, and the guards to protect and keep pure our young people. The more valuable, the more we will guard it. Let's be determined to guard what we really value.

Friday, June 13, 2014


Strawberries are on, and are they ever delicious! Strawberries are the first harvest crop for our small farm. I really like the idea of progressive or succession crops, so if you don't have strawberries, I encourage you to consider them. We planted two years ago, and spread wood chips all over the beds. This has been a blessing in that weed control has not been a big problem for us in the bed. The negative has been nitrogen in the soil. Even though the wood chips were not tilled in, we have areas of the bed where the berry plants are smaller, and the leaves are slightly yellow. Adding nitrogen to the bed seems to help green them up. Overall, I encourage wood chips for berry mulch.

We and some friends picked around 150 lbs in one day this week. Our bed area started as three distinct rows, but over the years it is one contiguous mass of berry plants. While we have no wasted space for rows, it would be easier to pick the center of the bed if there were paths.

As far as other crops: Our garlic is looking good but the scapes have not yet developed. The raspberries are in heavy bloom, so it will not be too long for these to be ready for harvest. Our three varieties of potatoes have beautiful leaves and tall stalks, and are just getting ready to flower. Some of the tomatoes are flowering, and a few of the peppers are flowering. The orca is growing, but slowly till it gets hotter.

Watermelon, cantaloupe and bean plants are still small, but they seem to be growing well to this point. We have a succession planting of corn to get in the ground, and a few more rows in the main garden to plant. It has rained every week or so, which has been nice, and mostly eliminated the need for irrigation so far this year.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Karen, the beautiful

I had just come into the house from the orchard, and Sunshine said as matter of factly as discussing the current weather, "I think we should learn the Karen language." This was completely out of the blue. And less than 12 hours later, I am writing this post while sitting in a Burmese convocation representing several eastern USA states. We drove this morning down to Indianapolis for this all day meeting.

Karen is a tonal language, one dialect of the country called Myanmar. This country was previously known as Burma. There are over 100 language groups in Myanmar. If you have ever studied about tonal languages, you will know that the same word completely changes it's meaning depending on very subtle tonal changes or inflections on the word. An example from today: "Duhblu" means "thank you", while "Duhblu" also means "your crazy!" Of course there must be a difference in how these identical works are said. Sunshine thinks a harder "u" at the end means "your crazy". Your mileage may vary.

This means that tonal languages are hard for westerners to learn. Since a year long stint of Espanol in college has left long lasting fruit of a handful of Spanish words, I would not say I am the most promising or proficient language student.

My first impression about Sunshine's language learning challenge was, wow, that will be hard! But it is not our abilities that matter, what matters is God's ability. I don't know if language learning is in our future, but what I do know if that the poor and displaced need our prayers and care.

A refugee arriving in the USA comes with very little. They may have no financial resources, and are expected to repay their travel expenses. They don't know the language or the culture. They have been torn from their farms and gardens. How can they find jobs, education and religious support? If you have followed our blog, you know refugee ministries has been a part of our thinking for some time. We are looking for what part we can play to help them. Here is an interesting thought from the pen of inspiration:
"Great benefits would come to the cause of God in the regions beyond, if faithful effort were put forth in behalf of the foreigners in the cities of our homeland. Among these men and women are some who, upon accepting the truth, could soon be fitted to labor for their own people in this country and in other countries. Many might return to the places from which they came, in the hope of winning their friends to the truth. They could search out their kinsfolk and neighbors, and communicate to them a knowledge of the third angel’s message."— ChS 200.4
The most effective outreach to these dear people would be to know their language, and help them with acclimatization: helping them find a job, and a church. I think it would be a real blessing to have land that they could cultivate and grow their own food.

Wikipedia states: "Aside from Burmese and its dialects, the hundred or so languages of Burma include Shan (Tai, spoken by 3.2 million), Karen languages (spoken by 2.6 million), Kachin (spoken by 900,000), various Chin languages (spoken by 780,000), and Mon (Mon–Khmer, spoken by 750,000)." (reference)

Why not dream with me? What if we had 100 or more acres of suitable land. And on this land, we made a beautiful pattern or collection of homesteads. Perhaps 2 acres each, where we build a very modest, one story home that could rest in the center of their gardens. No field would be very far from the home, and each family could have space of their own. A new refugee family is allowed 2 years rent free, The father could work 1/2 time at a cash job, and 1/2 time at his homestead garden. The mother would stay at home, 1/2 time educating her children, and 1/2 time working in their garden. After two years, they would pay rent, or work to establish a new homestead which would be permanently their own. Some cost for the land could be paid over ten years, and then the land is owned free and clear.

Community resources like a church / meeting house would be built, a school for ESL, parent tutoring so the mothers can teach their children, a commercial kitchen, so food could be prepared and sold, a pole barn with power tools that could be shared for a rental fee to the homesteaders, a market stand for selling produce to the public - farmers market style.

I don't need to create a commune, but rather this could be a supportive collection of independent homesteads. This idea would be so cool. I think it would be great to have one of these in each state. Any investors out there?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Winter Freeze Results

Well the results are conclusive: This past winter was so harsh that all of our peach blossom buds froze during a winter cold snap, and we had several this past winter. Not a one blossom this spring from the peaches. We have some temps as low as 20 below, which is very unusual for our area. I think a lot of the nation was affected by the cold winter. We will miss the peaches this year!

We are pleased with the strawberries. They are putting on a profusion of blooms, and the plants seem quite pleased with the warmer weather.

Our 10 day forecast shows no frosts (10 day low predicted at 44), so we may be past the spring frosts for this year. We set out pepper and tomato plants today (May 20).

Our raspberry patch is also a profusion of green. We mowed down every other row with the goal of rejuvenating the old canes and opening the patch up for better sunlight and access.

We planted 10 more grape plants, and have installed their trellis. These are the Jupiter variety, which we have enjoyed for fresh eating. They have a very unique taste. I am watching to keep up with bunch rot and apple scab this year with organic copper sulfate spray during hot, muggy and rainy times of the spring. Hopefully we will have a good grape harvest this year.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Bark Side Up

When putting on deck boards, check for the pattern of the rings of each board. To help prevent cuping of the boards, always put "bark side up".

Friday, April 25, 2014

Berry Planting

Today we planted some additional small berries. This area has been mulched with 6" of wood chips since last summer, and I planted the berries down in the soil, and then drew the wood chips back around the plants for a mulch.:

South Row: Saskatoon: Martin x4,
Middle Row: Saskatoon: Smoky x4, and Northline x4
North Row: Triple Crown Blackberry x4, Viking Aronia x4, and Goji Berry x1

Earlier we mowed to the ground every other row of our raspberries. They were growing into a solid mat, and the walkway was completely obscured. This will allow these rows to regenerate, and make a healthier early crop. (And it will be much easier to reach them!)

Spring is finally on its way. The trillium wildflowers opened today, and the tree buds are swelling. Glorious time.

Today was also our first microgreen sales day. We had two separate customers purchase some.

Last Sunday we planted 8 rows of Purple Majesty potatoes, 3 rows of Yukon Gold, and 1 row of Red potatoes. It will be fun to see these come up. The potatoes are planted down in the newest plot, so I hope they do as well as in the previous plot. We have some black plastic row cover that will help control weeds. I will wait to put that down till the potatoes are out of the ground, and we have the watering lines in.

How is your garden coming?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cleaning Beeswax


I have been wanting to clean bees wax, and have not been sure how to do it. I have melted down a pot several times, but have not really been able to strain the wax, and it just ends up making a waxy mess. We have saved decappings and extra beeswax from our hives for a while, I have been hoping for an easy way to clean wax, and I have found it. And I will now share it with you.

Sunshine found a video that showed a method of wax filtering using a solar oven, and based on that idea, we made a very simple screen for a filter. First, the solar video is on YouTube.

We decided to do the same for the filter without the solar oven. The decapping (dirty) wax was melted down in a pot with a double boiler while we created the frame for the filter. We selected a large glass casserole dish, and cut out the filter frame from plywood to fit it. We cut out the center of the plywood creating a perimeter frame to hold the wire mesh.

We had some scrap hardware cloth left over from our Fort Knox chicken coup. It was a strip around 6 inches wide and a few feet long. My first impression would have been to prefer a large contiguous mesh, but the strips actually worked out to our benefit, and I suggest cutting your mesh into strips. With the mesh in strips, we were able to make a depression in the shape of the screen, like a small bathtub, with worked really well for holding the wax as it was being filtered through a paper towel.

The video shows the mesh being window screen size, but I really liked the hardware cloth mesh. It gave perfect support, and there is less wires to get clogged with dripping wax. As you can see in the image above, we stapled the hardware cloth to the plywood frame, and by this time all of the pot of beeswax had melted in the double boiler.

We took the large glass casserole dish, and placed an inch or so of cool water into the dish. Next we placed the mesh frame over the dish with the depression down, and completely covered the mesh with one layer of paper towel. (Ours used two sheets of paper towel. We did not separate them, so it was one piece covering the entire frame.) Then we carefully poured the hot wax onto the paper towel. We filed the frame as much as it would hold and let the clean wax drip down through the mesh to the water. When the filter could hold more, we continued to add till all of our dirty and melted wax was in the filter. We just let it sit at room temperature, and it worked fine. The double boiler had the wax warm enough that it was able to stay liquid through the filtering process.

I did not get a picture of the filtering, and had crumpled up and thrown the paper towel away when I thought I should show you the gunk and bee parts left behind. So I pulled it out of the trash, and by then it had hardened. It did not make a good picture of what it was like, but with that disclaimer, here is the filter pic.

And what was left behind was a remarkably beautiful and clean slab of bees wax. It was too easy, and special thanks to LDS Prepper for that video mentioned above. I think our improvements take it the next step further, and it was incredibly simple to construct. I would not mind doing it with a solar cooker, but do not have one. I was pleased that the wax held enough heat to go through the paper towel. Other filtering media I had previously tried was too thick, and slowed the filter time too much and it clogged the filter, and just made a mess.

Here is a picture of the finished slab. Note after the filtering was complete, I put the casserole dish into the oven set at 170 for 30 mins, and the wax remelted into a smooth slab, as shown. This reproduced the solar cooker smooth slab effect. With the cold water in the casserole dish, the water and wax seemed mixed in layers. Melting the wax in the oven allowed it to reform and float on the water.

So simple, and I am so happy to have clean wax to use in our soaps and lotions. (We are getting ready to sell soaps and lotions out of natural organic materials... so stay tuned.)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Cold

Wind can press the cold deeper into your clothing, like relentless icy fingers seeking out the warmth within. Cold and heat are forces in a tug-of-war. We see it in the global weather: Polar vortex winds have created unusually cold weather patterns across the USA. We see the tug-of-war in our garage that we use as a cold cellar (since we have not built a proper root cellar) in the effort to keep that unheated space above the deep freeze temperatures outside. And for sure we see the tug-of-war in our hearts, between the icy cold of selfishness, and the warmth of graciousness, love and self-sacrifice.

So, what is a garden lover to do when conditions are cold and environmentally hostile in our part of the north? Since we have over 2 feet of snow on the level, there is no working with the soil. I am glad about the snow though, as it is a blanket against the very cold sub zero temps we have experienced. So, back to my question, what is a garden lover to do? If you can't fight it, embrace it!

We have enjoyed wilderness winter camping, with low temps of 9 F and wind chill of -10 F. At the time I wondered about our sanity in this endeavor. But after several weeks of preparation, we spent 3 days (two nights) out in the wilderness -winter camping.

We quickly decided we needed to improve on the items packed in for this weekend. The list congealed into three categories:

1) The things we brought that we were glad we had
2) The things we brought that we never used (ugg! for we had to pack them in and out)
3) The things we dearly wish we had brought

Surprisingly, I filled an entire page with items in these three categories. Here is a small sample of my lists:

1) The things we brought that we were glad we had:

2) The things we brought that we never used... Well this was a long list. We brought a lot of food, and a lot of clothes, most of both were never touched. We also brought some equipment that was not used, partly because we did not know the exact situation we would find ourselves in, and partly because we are new at winter camping.

3) The things we dearly wish we had brought:
  • more reliable fire starting tools (two items failed one after the other at the same meal)
  • headlamp (it is really hard to work at fixing a meal in the dark while one hand is occupied holding a flash light. And in the winter, it is dark a lot more than in summer.)
  • emergency whistle
  • snow shoes (I want to make some! I now have the appreciation that snow shoes are not optional for winter camping in 2-3 foot snow.)

The experience was a good one. We enjoyed the challenge, and had fun in the snow as well. The second night was not as windy, and we had 6" of new fluffy snow when we woke up. I am still in recovery mode from our 10 mile hike one of the days...Whew.

Hopefully the icy fingers of winter will soon start to loosen its death grip, and drip by drip the snow should start to melt. It will be a real joy to see the first crocus this spring.

Consider the tug-of-war in your heart, and share some warmth with others today.