Sunday, January 27, 2013

Forty Below

I can't remember the last time it was forty below here at our homestead, but that is what the thermometer is reading tonight. Br. Usually we see several weeks of twenty below and a handful of days at thirty below, unlike town and low lying properties which have several weeks of thirty below, and often a couple weeks of forty to fifty below zero. In the hill we are above the "ice fog" which blankets town heavily, reducing visibility and polluting the air. We usually have a significant temperature inversion, but then there are times like today, that we do not.

At forty below we do not leave the house unless there is some sort of emergency. Usually because if it is forty below here it is sixty below in town with zero visibility. Also, cars just don't run well - if you can get them started, they are sluggish and stiff, sometimes the tires freeze flat where they were resting on the ground and it takes a while for them to round out as you slowly drive down the driveway. Plastic breaks easily, trim, knobs, handles, sometimes doors don't open properly or unlock - so you just don't want to force anything when it is this cold.

 At forty below we keep the fires burning, we toss hay indoors for the goats, we reset their light timers to stay on during the day and later into the night, and we put down bedding and toss extra Alfalfa. Splitting wood at these temperatures is very satisfying as it splits so easy, however you've got to move fast to keep warm, and the hands and face get cold easily. This morning I was showing our house sitter the current chore routine, and talking and breathing in the cold air without covering my face was hurting/ chilling my chest  - that doesn't happen at twenty below. Nose hairs and eyelashes frost over with ice crystals, and if you head outside to do chores without your jacket and your warmest gloves, as did yesterday and today, you won't get more than a few steps before you come back in to search for them.

The house doesn't stay quite as warm as usual when it is this cold out. There are little drafts here and there, mostly near the french doors.When the front door get's opened long enough for someone to go out it, you can feel the cold draft thirty feet away. My hands get chilled easier when I'm cooking and washing dishes. When I'm done with kitchen chores I enjoy putting on my fingerless mittens and my silky cowl. I try and get the kids to wear there slippers, but they are still going bare foot. Not me.

So what do we do on a forty below weekend? Yesterday we had friends over for an afternoon play date/visit. After which we ate chicken and vegetables in gravy with biscuits. Last night Dustin took the kids downstairs so I could have some relaxing time in front of the fire with a good book. Then D, Noah and I played several games of pool together while Avery watched and cheered. D and I watched a movie last night. We started off today with pancakes. I spent the afternoon trying to get beyond my normal tidy/sweeping spree to some deep cleaning. We were supposed to have friends up for sushi night, but they cancelled, so we went ahead with sushi (which I've just finally learned how to make) then we had homemade vanilla pudding (which I know, does not go with sushi - but it's cheap when you have lots of milk and eggs on hand), and then we played Uno and bingo till story time.

The kids have been in a winter funk, and having play dates every few days is essential. Having D around this time of year is awesome as we are able to split the kids up and give them breaks from each other. We are counting down the days till we get a break from winter. We aren't thinking or talking of much else other than our upcoming escape to sun, sand and ocean. That being said, if I could get a little more peace to myself on these frosty, winter afternoons, I would be reveling in their still blue beauty as I dream about garden and livestock summer plans. I'm trying to enjoy this quiet time before life begins to pick up pace again. By the time we get back it will be late winter and the sun will be sparkling on snowbanks everywhere, and the sky will be the bright blue of March and September days.

If you are well prepared and have plenty of wood and water and a well stocked pantry, and you don't have to go anywhere or battle frozen cars and extension cords, forty below can be a special time to just hunker down and enjoy your home and family.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Longing for brighter days

I went to town today and it was sunny out, making this the second day the sun has shone on me this year. Our west facing top of the hill perch is still in complete shade and will remain so for a few more weeks. On sunny days I can see the sun across the valley hitting the south east facing hillside. Every year at this time we dream of living on a south facing hillside. When we do, I will sit in the south facing windows as much as possible during the daylight hours this time of year and just soak up the warmth through the glass panes. Dustin and Noah went to town a while back and the sun was shining. D asked N when the last time he'd seen the sun was and N sarcastically replied "Last year!", and he was right, it had been at least since last year.

My intention for this month was to be more social than usual, and as a result we've spent most the month taking turns with a couple nasty bugs. I think we are in the clear. I have gotten very little accomplished this month other than morning lessons and chores, tidying in circles and cooking and dishes. I've done a small amount of knitting and needle felting in the afternoons, working on making some fruits and vegetables. I've been getting into a daily yoga routine, the kids join in at the end for a few minutes. We've been doing wet on wet water color painting in the afternoons as we tell an ongoing vowel story. I've been enjoying the painting immensely. It soothes the soul.

I placed my Fedco Seed order. If we weren't leaving for a few weeks I'd go ahead and start a few slow growing herbs just because, alas I have to wait until the first of March before we'll be back and can get started, which I fear is going to be too late to get the onions, leeks and shallots going, but I'm going to try it anyway.

We are down to seven does in the doe barn, the lowest number we've had in a few years. Five of them are supposed to be bred and I'm thinking of breeding one more. I'm hoping to sell a few with their kids right after kidding. It would make more sense to sell them before they kid, and I might do that as well, but only if I get around to drawing blood and confirming their pregnancies.

My kids have had the winter blues lately. They are beginning to long for summer and reminisce about being outside when it is warm. Winters are long here. On January days I dream of a homestead with a creak running through it that is thawed year round. I take the kids on daily walks to watch the water flow, and yes there are days where our boots crunch through the snow, but only for a month or two and not half a year.

The sun is still low on the horizon. Daylight wakes us around nine a.m. and darkness takes over again by five thirty or so. Of course on this hill, the day light hours are not bright, but more of a dim gray even during the middle of the day. The first week in February the sun will hit the tree tops on our land, and by the second week I think the sun will shine into our windows. For me that is a big winter turning point and I begin to think spring. Normally I would be comforting myself with daily hot chocolate, pies and bread pudding, but with winter vacation just around the corner I'm more self conscious than ever of how many calories I'm consuming - not something I usually worry about.

I am going to try to embrace the stillness of this month. Doesn't it feel as though this month is set apart from the rest in it's silence and stillness. I think the trickle begins in February and by March it feels as though we are well underway on a moving river of chores and jobs and projects that must be done in their allotted time; spring cleaning, seed starting and farm plans are put into action, but for now, it is still to dark to notice the dust that will eventually be highlighted by the intensity of the spring Sun, and so I will continue to enjoy this slow time of year and the lack of urgency to do much. Wishing you all brighter days than mine. (written with sincerity).

Thursday, January 10, 2013

January planning

We have been enjoying a few weeks of mild weather here in the hills of Interior Alaska, by mild, I mean mostly above zero and below twenty degrees. The chickens and goats have enjoyed spending time outside. In general, the first couple weeks of January tend to be some of the coldest all winter. I recall many a forty below or colder New Years Eve. The fire work show has been cancelled on account of ice fog and poor visibility on at least one occasion. I tend to get sick with a cold just about every year right after Christmas. Unlike the past two years, at least I was better this year by New Year's Eve. In between being sick and resting myself, and caring for sick kids, we have been spending our well mornings doing home school lessons. We've been more social than usual, inviting friends over for afternoon visits (possibly why we've had a couple back to back colds). The kids have been getting outside more than usual, Noah to help with firewood or shoot his bow, Avery, to tag along for farm chores, visit the doelings and tag along after her big brother.

My brother came up and butchered a couple goats for me. He says I should be doing it by myself by now. I smile and send him off with more farm products than he can carry, eggs, jam, unmentionables...We butchered a yearling doe with issues and an eight month old wethered male. The female had weak pasterns and or some other sort of possible selenium deficiency or leg issue, so we couldn't breed her, nor could I find anyone to buy her. It is not easy to butcher goats and I don't make these decisions lightly. It wasn't easy. In fact it was pretty lame. Enough so to give me cause to eat less meat and raise less goats. Having said that, I do have a great sense of pride that we don't have to buy red meat, and that butchering a few goats a year and receiving some game from my brother accounts for ninety five percent of the red meat we eat. Thankfully, we now have enough goat meat in the freezer to get us to next fall.

My goat herd ambitions have changed drastically in the past year. We currently have two bucks, two milkers in milk, three dried off and bred does, and two doelings; making seven does. I would have less goats except I had previous commitments to provide our goat shareholders with milk through October, and so I had to keep my four milkers at the time. I have learned over the past five years of raising goats that selling goats and finding good homes for them is not as easy as I had initially thought it would be, and in fact it is quite challenging. I had intended to just breed a couple does this fall but have ended up breeding most of them once more, in hopes that I will be able to sell them in the spring when they are just freshened. I'm hoping to sell all the doelings as well, the boys we will plan to butcher in the fall when the temperatures are just right for hanging meat outside.

I have a local goat expert friend who has always said he hopes for single doe kiddings. And D and I use to think, why not hope for twin or triplet doelings. Well it took a while, but I am so there now, crossing my fingers for single births, which we rarely have. My goal is to have four does going into next winter, and no bucks, no wethers, no doelings. Our two bucks are not that great, so as of now I'm planning on getting rid of them this spring. I have been greedily eying their current large flat pen that has several years of layers of chicken and goat bedding with no weeds. My plan is to till it in the spring and plant something that can withstand the rich bedding, maybe Alfalfa? I was thinking of dividing the section up into grain plots and trying to grow some hull less oats, hull less barley, kamut or wheat and quinoa. I need to do some more research though. We have another empty pen as well with five years of goat bedding and tree stumps. I'm thinking of getting a couple pigs to till it for me this year and then planting something in it the following year. I need to do some fence research. My main question being will woven mesh fencing keep in pigs if I have a couple strands of electric on the inside, with the lower strand being between four and eight inches off the ground? I'm thinking that I might need to move the bottom stand lower so that it will shock their noses or foreheads when they go to dig under the fence. There can be no chance of them escaping, as a small section of fence is adjacent to the garden.

I have been pouring over the seed catalogs. What do you turn to first when you get your catalogs? Each year is different, several years ago I would have said tomatoes and peppers, but now I'm somewhat disillusioned with heat loving crops - well I say that but then I guess winter squash and pumpkins are also heat loving and that is what I turned to first. I am also excited to grow grain and dried beans even though D reminds me that they are things that are not expensive to buy. I have few enough animals that I can feed them ourselves - that is my ultimate goal. So experiments are necessary. Legumes are high in protein. I want to play around with Alfalfa, siberian pea shrub, drying peas and high protein grains as well the standard grains.

So every year we gardeners have our new ambitions whether it is new amendments, crop rotation, gadgets or probably new seed varieties we are trying out. Here's mine. I have always bought onion, leek and shallot sets instead of starting them from seed because I felt that I didn't have enough room to start them myself. Having more room this year, (marginally) I am shunning the outrageously expensive sets by the pound or bunches of starts along with the crazy high shipping prices which  make it just crazy impractical and growing my own! Other than this, I'll write another post on new seed varieties and medicinal herbs I'm planning on growing. I have a few new ideas of where I'm putting this or that, going to start growing tomatoes and cucumbers in our glass tree house (last year's apiary) again, which has been off limits and too challenging while the kids were littles.

I'm feeling extremely optimistic and happy for this dark time of year, and in case you are suspicious, I must confess; we are in preparation for twenty days in Kauai here soon. The last time we headed to Kauai in winter it hadn't occurred to me to diet or workout, being naturally fairly in shape with farm chores and being and active mom, and I didn't look horrible, but looking back at pictures I definitely looked like a pale tourist from Alaska who hadn't noticed the extra pudge under all the bulky winter layers. So, while I'll never look like a local Hawaiin, I am trying harder this year. I've been tanning and yoga-ing regularly and watching how many cookies and chocolates I eat each night :) So, not to rub it in, but if I sound too perky for writing from Fairbanks in January, guaranteed sun, heat and humidity on the horizon would be the reason. I would love to hear about your planning and dreaming for your garden or farm!