TSL Homestead and Air Conditioning

So here in Kansas the seasons can turn pretty rapidly. Last year we went from freezing cold straight into 90 plus degree days (we’re still Fahrenheit here in the U.S. in case you are keeping track) and it was a very strange gardening year. Really didn’t have much of a Spring at all and it showed. Tomatoes struggled, they are the Divas of the garden anyway, and everything else needed regular watering or it scorched. The Cucumber beetles and Squash Vine Borers ate everything else that wasn’t protected. Overall, not a year you look back fondly on if you’re a Mad Farmer.

This year it was cold, Winter had snow more like I remembered from my childhood, more years ago than I care to discuss, and Spring was definitely coming in like a lion. Lots and lots of storms, Tornadoes in Missouri and lots of wet and chill. For all the folks out there screaming “See!!!! Climate Stuff!!!!!” there is a scientific explanation for at least part of it. The Mad Farmer is not on the anti-climate change wagon, I’m sure that people have some impact on their environment, both good and bad. I’m also not a “climate denier” whatever that is. Climate is weather and environment – good or bad, it’s climate – I guess you can “deny” it if you want but I don’t think climate cares. Personally my feeling is, if we caused it, we can probably fix it but we better make dang sure what we are fixing or it could be worse.

Anyway, the science stuff that explains a bit of it is that according to what I’ve read* there is El Nino and La Nina, basically wind systems that pass over the Pacific Ocean. Depending on which way they go they have a different effect on climate. Every few years they switch as Primary and Secondary systems and whichever is the Primary system impacts where tornadoes and storms appear. When La Nina is strongest Tornado alley shifts South and East, causing more storms and tornadoes in places like Missouri and Louisiana, where there typically aren’t as many and reducing those types of events in the Northern parts of the U.S. where they tend to be more usual.

Anyway, this post is not a climate change discussion but the weather does have an impact here in Kansas. It had been cold and wet for most of late Winter and early Spring and there was very short period, maybe three days, where the temperatures got up into the 80’s. Your humble Mad Farmer really doesn’t mind those kind of temps for the most part, he was born on the first day of Summer, but Miss Mercy is a different story. The Mad Farmer is cold when the temperature is below 80 degrees Fahrenheit and Miss Mercy is hot when it’s over 80 degrees. We’ve had many a discussion about where we might be comfortable together but all we’ve determined so far is it probably won’t be California – all other options are still in negotiation, including Kansas.

So, to make a long story longer, which is the Farmer way, the furnace filter was changed and we tried to start the Air Conditioning to prevent the upstairs bedroom from being overly warm. We got a limited amount of cold air coming out of the registers, not enough to effectively cool anything. At this point I’m really wishing we lived in a WOFATI (check it out here https://permies.com/t/wofati ), but we don’t so I contacted my brother, Jack of All Trades, and asked him for the number of the HVAC Wizard. We had the HVAC Wizard repair the furnace at our previous homestead and, like all wizards, he is mysterious and his ways are not the ways of mortals but he is effective and reasonable is his pursuit of coin.

The Mad Farmer was hoping that the HVAC Wizard would be able to perform his magic before the Summer heat of Kansas began in earnest. Sadly, it was not to be. The HVAC Wizard was plying his trade magicking the Heating systems that are the “HV” portion of his trade. Eventually, after several weeks of chill temperatures and lots of rain, the weather in Kansas finally decided to give Spring a miss and go straight on into Summer. At that point it became more urgent to contact the HVAC Wizard so through the magic of “texting” the Mad Farmer was able to gain an audience with the Wizard. The Wizard was able to fit a visit to the Farmer homestead into his busy schedule and just like that, he appeared.

Just like Merlin, the HVAC Wizards coming and goings are mysterious. He reminds this farmer of the long ago Shaolin Monk, Kane, wandering the earth and fixing HVAC problems instead of fixing the problems of individual villagers. However, I digress. The Wizard appeared and within moments had diagnosed the issue, acquired replacement items from his traveling warehouse (sometimes referred to as “a truck”) and repaired the Air Conditioning system, accepted a reasonable amount of coin in exchange for his labors and was on his was his way.

The Mad Farmer learned three important lessons from this experience. First, there is a component on the homestead unit called the starter kit. This is an important component that allows your Air Conditioner to actually start, it is a good thing when this works correctly. The second thing learned is that you should always hose off the exterior AC unit to prevent build up of dirt and anything that might impede air flow. The more air that can get past the cooling “fins” on the unit to the interior cooling core the more efficient your unit will operate. The third thing I learned is that buying inexpensive filters and changing them more often will save more coin than buying more expensive filters and changing them less often.

The ultimate take away is that if you don’t have the skills to resolve an issue yourself, it’s good to know who to contact to and that you trust that person. The homestead could have contacted a more commercial wizard and probably had a fine resolution, but it is satisfying to do business with local contractors that you have built a relationship with over time. The other take away is that when Miss Mercy can sleep easily at night, the Homestead runs more smoothly. A Happy Spouse makes a Happy House.

*Disclaimer: The Mad Farmer is not a weather expert and does not play one on the interwebs.

Squirrel Warfare

So because Miss Mercy loves the Mad Farmer (I have it on good authority this is true) and because she has access to the local Master Gardener library she came home today with a present for me – she checked out a book called “Outwitting Squirrels” for me.

The full title is “Outwitting Squirrels: 101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed from Your Bird-feeder by Squirrels” by Bill Adler, Jr. The cover blurb reads as follows:

“Birdloving Americans face a common enemy: the squirrel. This fast, crafty, incredibly greedy creature casts our pleasures to the wind, brings his buddies to lunch, and pillages our birdfeeders before our very eyes.

Here, at last, is the answer. OUTWITTING SQUIRRELS is a defense manual for besieged feeders of birds. Spooker poles, Perrier bottles, baffled fishing line, Vaseline, water bombs, cayenne pepper, and Nixalite – author Bill Adler, Jr. has tried them all (well, nearly all). In addition he rates popular birdfeeders, discusses specialty seed, profiles the enemy, and regales the reader with squirrel adventures and mis-adventures, many of them his own”.

So from this we learn two things: One, Bill Adler, Jr. appears to be a man after my own heart, tilting at the squirrel windmill – hopefully with some success. Second, this book is about keeping squirrels away from your birdfeeders. I am hopeful that some of the techniques will be useful in keeping the little buggers away from my vegetables, but time will tell. I am sure that if you have the slightest interest in the subject at all that the ongoing fight between MadFarmer and cunning rodent will continue and at the very least provide some slight amusement dear reader.

Here is to hoping all your squirrel battles are resolved in your favor…

Squirrels

The Mad Farmer lives in the Midwest, Kansas specifically, and the current bane of my existence are the squirrels in our yard. Where we live we have red squirrels. Slightly Northeast of us there are grey squirrels, maybe they are nicer, I hope so. Sadly the red squirrels are not nice.

Last year we had even more squirrels in the yard but last fall we were able to remove a couple of nuisance trees from our front yard, a sweet gum and a pin oak. Sweet gum trees are are fast growing and horrible tree. The female trees shed seeds in the form of spiky balls of death that you don’t want to step on, are good for nothing I’m aware of and come out from underneath the mower at a high rate of speed and careen into innocent bystanders shins. Literally a tree no one misses. The pin oak had been struggling with some disease and had been sickly the entire time we have lived here. With those trees removed it really opened up the yard and allows a lot more light into the garden.

Why is the Mad Farmer droning on about trees? Who cares? What does this have to do with squirrels? Well, we had a lot more squirrels last year when we still had those trees and for the most part they left my garden alone. The occasional squirrel would dig up an area of the garden and bury a nut or seed but for the most part we lived in harmony. They would sit on the fence and tease my dog. My dog would pathetically attempt to chase them and fail miserably. For the most part it was live, and let live. But after the tree removal incident of 2018 the squirrels were angry. They appear to have resented the loss of habitat, or an escape route or whatever their reasons, they seem to be unhappy.

This year, they are really teasing the dog. They chatter at all hours. They chew limbs off our silver maple and attempt to drop them on my head. And they eat my vegetables! The last part is the really irritating part. I might be Mad but I’m not crazy and this year I started my tomato plants and cabbage and other plants early, under grow lights in our basement. Like you should if you want to start picking tomatoes in June in Kansas. Didn’t start them as early as I should have but did start them in March and had a reasonable crop of young plants ready for transplant after the frost danger had passed. We’ve had very wet and cold spring this year so it took a while before I was able to plant those starts.

Over the last two weeks we’ve had six inches of rain in five days. We’ve had a little bit of intermittent sun. Those plants were digging life. They were growing well. They were putting on height. Then the squirrels started eating everything. Last year, I had issues, squash bugs, heat stroke, sudden storms that flattened crops – lots of problems, but all natural. I hear what you’re saying “Squirrels are natural” – so is arsenic and the plague. But this year the squirrels are eating every single top off my new tomato plants. Eating the pepper plants I bought at the Master Gardener fundraising plant sale. Digging up and chewing my baby cabbage plants. Tearing up my garlic. At this point I am not loving squirrels.

I’m currently in negotiations with Miss Mercy about my squirrel control options. My preferred method of squirrel control she is not loving (it involves the possibility of “shooting your eye out”). I’m not a fan of chemical resolution methods. If anyone has any natural methods of repelling the small, fury, unwanted Uncles of the animal kingdom I’m open to suggestions. Looking forward to hearing options. Have a great day and may all your squirrels be someone else’s problem.

Friends

One of my oldest friends and his wife drove up from Texas to attend my daughters wedding. JB and I met in high school and have been fast friends ever since. I was best man at his wedding and he is the reason my mother to this day will not attend outdoor weddings (his was on the hottest day in May in Kansas – it might not have been a record but it certainly made an impression on my mother). He and his wife are coming up on their 36th Anniversary and are one of the strongest couples I know. They kindly made time today to drop by the Mad Farmer homestead on their way back to Texas via visiting relatives on the way.

JB and I are the kind of friends where you can start a conversation, take some time off and not see each other for a while and pick back up where we left off like no time had passed. I was startled to find out we hadn’t really talked in depth for a considerable amount of time, almost two years. In my mind it was always like we had just talked a few weeks ago. Two things came out of that realization – one, I’m blessed to have people like that in my life. People who aren’t always right in the middle of things but that you have a deep enough relationship that when important things come up, they are there for you, and you for them. The second thing that came out of that conversation was that I really need to do a better job of keeping up with people that are important to me. There are always things that get in the way, always things that distract but it is important to remember the people and relationships are important and should be nurtured.

I am very thankful for the people in my life that are truly friends. I have a lot of acquaintances but a relatively small circle of actual friends and that’s okay. Better to have one or two true friends than 100 that pay lip service to the concept but can’t be relied on. Make the most of your friendships, nurture them and be thankful for the true friends in your life

Family

Last night I was blessed to give away my eldest daughter at her wedding. I don’t mean in the sense that she was as item that I was able to take back to the return counter or a something that was won in raffle or silent auction. I mean that in a humble way I was allowed to walk my first born daughter down the aisle and shake the hand of the man she was to marry and be at peace with that.

I haven’t always made the best choices in my relationships in the past. Marrying Miss Mercy, my wife, is the best decision I ever made. Miss Mercy is my best friend every day. She supports my good choices and calls me on my poor choices. We have a great life – not always smooth, but always entertaining and every bad choice I made she tempers and improves.

The last few weeks have been a fantastic ride and a semi-validation of parenting. My daughter has made very mature decisions for her age. My daughter has a kind and caring heart. Her new husband is an excellent example of a person with a strong commitment towards public service. The semi-validation part is that my daughter is making good life choices, most awesomely in the choice of a husband. In a world where everyone seems willing to take anything and everything at face value, I am convinced that this young couple has the connection to make it through the early times and expand their love into the middle and mature years.

I am looking forward to the future because I am excited to see what comes from nurturing the past and present. In many ways this is the fruition of Permaculture,  the eventual payoff to a life time of planning and optimism. Bless their union and all of the people who read this.

A very proud Mad Farmer

The Garden Show

So it’s February 9th, the temperature outside in Kansas right now is 23 degrees with a windchill that makes it feel like it’s in single digits – and we’re about to go to the Spring Garden Show! It’s great to have something to look forward to in the dregs of winter. The Garden show is filled with like-minded folks who are looking forward to growing things. We’re looking forward to seeing what is there.

We’ll let you know when we get back!

Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving in America and I am thankful. I have a fantastic, patient and forgiving wife in Miss Mercy, who puts up with all the crazy ideas and experiments a Mad Farmer can come up with. I have two wonderful and loving daughters. I am very proud of both of them and thankful I don’t seem to have caused them any lasting harm in the way they were raised. They are both very capable, kind and caring young women and I love them immensely.

We will be spending this day with family and friends, plenty of food (as usual I am sure there will be way more than enough to go around). I’m sure there will be a few households that are struggling, there are people in California who have recently lost their homes to fire and are grateful to be alive. Some are mourning the loss of loved ones, but for the most part all across America this is a day of rest and thankfulness. I am humbled to live in a nation where even our poorest households would be considered well off by the most of the rest of the nations of the world.

America has it’s share of problems and struggles, but on this day, Thanksgiving day, let’s reflect on the common ground between our citizens instead of the differences and remember and celebrate the things that make America the greatest place to be.

Happy Thanksgiving to all,

The Mad Farmer

Rocket Mass Heaters and Ianto Evans

I just finished reading what is probably the original Rocket Mass Heater book, “Rocket Mass Heaters Third Edition” by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson.

In case you haven’t been a RMH geek for a long period of time you may not know that Ianto Evans is regarded as many as the “Father of Rocket Mass Heaters”, at least that is my understanding. Ianto has been working with fire, building stoves and working with associated natural building techniques like cob, for decades. The biggest current names in the RMH field, like Kirk “Donkey” Mobert, Ernie & Erica Wisner, Art Ludwig and Paul Wheaton have all collaberated with Ianto, taken classes from Ianto or used Ianto’s designs as the basis for advancements in the science (or perhaps art) of Rocket Mass Heaters.

Rocket Mass Heaters Third Edition is not a long book, it’s only about 120 pages but it is packed with information, pictures, drawings and case studies. The book goes into exactly what makes a Rocket Mass Heater tick, how to build one and what materials to use. Rocket Mass Heaters in a nutshell consist of several main parts: The Burn Tunnel, Heat Riser, Feed Tube and the Mass or Thermal Battery and the exhaust pipe or Chimney.

One note of caution that comes up again and again in the book and should be noted by anyone thinking about building a RMH is that these heaters  burn HOT. A typical wood stove will usually burn around 500 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, the relatively low temperature is what makes them so dangerous, they don’t burn hot enough to burn off all the creosote and gasses and the typical temperature exiting the chimney can be in excess of 300 to 400 degrees. In a Rocket Mass Heater the temperatures in the  burn tunnel can reach 1500 to 2000 degrees. That is hot enough to burn creosote, smoke and anything else that can cause a problem and the typical exit temperature at the chimney is around 150 to 180 degrees – much less likely to start a chimney fire. The high temperature burn is what make them so efficient but anytime you are working with fire pay attention!

The book starts out with a description of what a Rocket Mass Heater is, how it functions and outlines what they are and what they aren’t. It’s pointed out if you are looking for a “throw some wood in and leave for the day” fireplace then a RMH is probably not for you. The middle section of the book discusses in detail how to build a RMH, what kinds of materials you can build it with and the care and feeding after you have it built. The final section covers safety precautions, case studies of actual RMH builds and information on additional resources.

At $20.00 this book is a must have if you are interested in Rocket Mass Heaters or just want to read about cool things you can build that involve fire. I highly recommend it.

 

 

Food Safety Course

We started the K-State Extension class on Food Safety by going over the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety rules. Apparently the FSMA was passed and signed into law in 2015 and has a phased compliance period. There are some exemptions, for instance because I am not yet selling more than $25,000 annually in produce over the last three years I’m exempt.  I actually haven’t sold any produce yet, since my first growing season will be next spring but, as our lead instructor Cal pointed out, “If you haven’t been in business you don’t have any bad habits to un-learn”. Primarily the rule covers growers selling between $25,000 and $500,000 a year in produce (can’t wait to get to the upper end for TSL Urban Farm)!

The class is divided up into seven modules, the first being a broad overview of the six to come and the rest covering what produce is covered by the rule and what isn’t, health and hygiene, soil and soil amendments, agricultural water, wild and domesticated animals, growing, harvesting, processing and packing. The amount of information that came at us in an eight hour period really was like trying to drink from a fire hose. The good news is that you can access a lot of resources at the K-State Extension Food Safety website and the instructors are available via email and phone for follow-up questions and consultations if you have questions, which you will.

It turns out that just washing your hands properly and often when handling produce can reduce the possibility of contamination by up to 60%. We also learned that “you can’t sanitize something that isn’t clean”, seems obvious in hindsight but apparently it’s a common problem. Another thing that turns out not to be true is that putting sanitizer in wash water “washes” the  produce – what it actually prevents is cross-contamination from infected food, so you get three instances of listeria from a lot of produce instead of 300 or 30,000. I also found out that in Kansas the difference between sprouts and micro-greens are that sprouts have the roots attached and micro-greens don’t. If you are growing sprouts you need a license in Kansas, growing Micro-greens, you don’t.

The best part about the class is that the materials are well organized and presented and it’s K-State’s practice to try and have at least two instructors for each class, one with practical growing knowledge and one with a more academic, scientific focus. In our class we also had a guest graduate student working on his PhD teaching the water modules. We were told that the water section is the least liked of the materials but personally I found it fascinating. I learned a lot I didn’t know about how water is classified and how risks are increased or decreased by the type of water you are using, where you are using it and how you are using it. The worst part of the class is that the instructors are mandated to verbally read each PowerPoint slide, in case there are attendees who don’t read English or read it well. Death by Droning PowerPoint presentation is a personal pet peeve of mine but I can see why they have to follow that rule and the instructors made the best of it.

Overall it was probably the best $20 I have ever spent, at the very least it was the least expensive and most productive of my educational outlays. I’ve attended lots of free workshops and webinars over the years on all kinds of topics and I can say that personally I found this one of the most useful and informative classes I’ve ever attended. I would highly recommend taking it just for the education, even if you are not planning on growing anything other than your own little backyard garden.

On a side note, I’m now signed up to be an Amazon affiliate. What that means is if you click on one of the items I have links to on the right side of the screen you will be taken to Amazon with the TSL Urban Farm affiliate code. You don’t have to purchase the book or item, anything you put in your cart and purchase after clicking through will generate a small percentage of the purchase price that will go towards maintaining the tinysustainablelife.com site and also my TSLUrbanFarm.com site that is currently in the process of being built. It doesn’t cost you any extra to shop on Amazon that way and it will go towards site fees so please think about clicking through and helping the site out with the purchases that you were going to make anyway.

Have you taken a food safety course in your area? What other classes have you taken that you have found informative or useful? I’d be interested to find out what other folks are doing.

Food Safety and K-State University

Several weeks ago Miss Mercy forwarded a link to me about an upcoming Food Safety class being put on by the K-State Research and Extension department. Because I’m starting to get the infrastructure in place for TSL Urban Farms it sounded like a good opportunity to find out more about the laws regarding Food and Sale of Produce in the State of Kansas, so I paid my $20 and signed up.

For those of you who might be interested in history each state has a Land-grant university. The Morrill Act of 1862 allowed the States to sell off land and fund universities to perform agricultural and mechanical research. Kansas State University, or K-State as it’s commonly called, was the very first Land-Grant college and was established on February 16, 1863, and opened on September 2, 1863 (see Kansas does have some firsts that are worth noting)!

Anyway, K-State, through their Research and Extension office does outreach, education and training for the community and one of the things they do is put on classes for Food Safety. The location for the class I was attending was about an hour away from where we live and it started at 8 am so I got up, feed our ridiculous animals (two dogs, three cats and a hedgehog in case I haven’t mentioned them before) and as quietly as I could (it was Miss Mercy’s day off) left the house and headed towards the K-State Extension campus in Olathe, Ks. K-State’s main campus is in Manhattan, KS (also called the “Little Apple”) but like a lot of universities they have satellite campuses in several different cities.

The drive was uneventful, which is the way I like it, and when I got to the campus I was impressed with the Olathe campus. Very modern with lots of glass and open space and a pond/small lake with flowing rapids on the grounds. I went to a nice university but clearly there have been some updates to some facilities since I went to school. When I walked in I started to make my way up to the second floor. Perhaps because I was quite a bit older than the average student with a backpack and in the  school way early (or maybe because I was trying to walk up the stairs via a magnificent stairway that turned out to lead to the locked administrative offices) I got to have a brief discussion with the security guard. It turned out the instructors had changed the classroom location and he had not seen the memo so once we confirmed  everything was properly documented he pointed me in the right direction and I made it to the classroom.

When I got to the class it turned out to be a fairly small turn out. I’m told the typical class size is 20-30 people and for some reason we only had 7 people signed up for ours and two did not make it, so we had the best student / instructor ratio I have ever had in a formal class. Three instructors, one instructor auditing and five students. As you might expect the attendees were a diverse bunch as were the instructors. There was a gentleman in his 80’s who had started growing and selling produce in a Kansas City farmers market when he turned 70, a middle-aged lady who was the marketing and web person for the older farmer, an employee of a local orchard, a community garden organizer, and of course, your humble narrator and start-up Urban Farmer.

The lead instructor came from a generational farming background and the other two instructors were from the academic side of things, including one who had flown in from Texas and had to buy a winter coat at a local store because she had not expected Kansas to be cold. The auditing instructor happened to be Miss Mercy’s boss in from the Topeka K-State Extension office but because I was trying be low-key so I didn’t mention that initially to anyone.  When I’m in a class I’m there to learn and so it’s possible I have, on occasion, driven a few discussions towards things that might be more specific to my situation than generic or occasionally gotten into a “spirited” discussion about this or that. I was willing to let MMB (Miss Mercy’s Boss) disavow any knowledge or acquaintance with me but she was too nice to go that route  and at one point she did volunteer that my wife worked for her. I hope I didn’t embarrass her too much.

I didn’t really know what to expect from the class, I was figuring a few handouts and some lecturing – boy was I mistaken. At each desk location was a thick three-ring binder, a clipboard, notepad, highlighters, pens and handouts. Turns out we were about to take an actual, fire-hose of information, eight hour class..