Friday, October 26, 2012

Lessons Learned -- Wheelbarrows

Wheelbarrows may be awesome labor-saving devices if you have hard, smooth paths; but we've found that they pretty much suck for muddy, bumpy, rooty, stumpy ground. Especially if it has one of those wheelguard/tip-assist bars at the front like this one:

That little metal bar gets jammed or hung up on everything when you're pushing the wheelbarrow at any angle that allows the back supports to clear any obstacles; and the single wheel in the front makes for a very unstable load on uneven ground... either pushing or pulling. We end up using more energy struggling to maneuver over/around small obstacles while keeping the whole thing upright, and usually tipping over and dumping the load anyway, than we would just hauling stuff around in buckets or dragging it on a sled, tarp or board.

If your landscape isn't a nice stable, flat, relatively hard-packed surface we recommend that you ditch the wheelbarrow and go with a wheeled cart with wide knobbly tires. Two-wheel tilt or 4-wheel wagon styles ultimately work MUCH better than a wheelbarrow... maybe a 3-wheel tricycle-wheelbarrow hybrid would work.

Be careful with the tire size! A large skinny tire like those below will probably roll/climb over a obstacle ok, but will dig furrows into snow, mud and mulch... and then you'll be stuck fighting with it again.

So, it looks like we'll be repurposing our two wheelbarrows into vegetable planters in the spring, like these from The Micro Gardener!

Note: I'm not knocking the wheelbarrow and skinny-tired cart, they are perfectly appropriate for barn, lawn & garden chores on smooth, stable surfaces... they just aren't appropriate for more rugged backwoods chores on unstable surfaces.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Early Winter Pics

First "sticking" snow - Mid October 2012

Still sunny enough to cause some daytime melt on the south side.

But still cold enough that the snow hangs in the spruce.

One of many woodpiles waiting to be split.

Evidence of little critters nesting in our toasty brush piles...

Weasel tracks, we're not sure if it's a Least Weasel or an Ermine.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Winter Has Arrived

It's been frosting at night since Labor Day, been below freezing most days since the beginning of the month, and we got snow that stuck last weekend... and last night we got our first below-zero.

Time to drop the linen and stop the grinnin', cuz Winter is here!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

How big is an acre -- really.

I'm sure there are lots of people who think, or once thought (like I did), that an acre was a huge area of land. Sure, 43,560 square feet, or 4,840 square yards certainly sounds huge... but that "square" in there is a bit misleading. See, an acre is a measure of area, not length, and I see many garden and mini-farm plans claiming you can be "food self-sufficient" on 1/4 or 1 or 2 acres WITH a house... but if you look really carefully, the dimensions on the plans don't add up.

So what is an acre, and what does it look like?

Well, conventionally, an acre is one furlong by one chain -- 660 feet by 66 feet -- but it can really be any shape and dimension that contains an area of 43,560 sq ft.

The easiest comparable "acre" for most in the US to picture is a football field WITHOUT the end zones. The playing field in American Football is 100 yards x 50 yards, or 5,000 sq yd, which is roughly 1.03 acres. Adding in both 10 yard end zones makes it 6,000 sq yd, nearly 1.24 acres.

Can you imagine building a cabin, growing all your produce, raising all your animals and their food on a football field? Can you imagine it if you also had to produce your own CLEAN water supply, sanitation & waste processing, and heating fuel? Can you imagine it if you couldn't rely on municipal grid power or outside inputs (like building materials, animal feed or fertilizer)?

Let's put into perspective with dimensions that are a little easier to wrap a brain around. An acre that's square would be roughly 208.7 feet on each side, about 2/3 of an average city block, 5-1/2 school buses, or 3-1/2 semi-trucks. Starting to sound a lot smaller?

Here's a sample scale layout for a 1-acre S-S farm, 210' x 210'... assuming a 3-season growing period and mild winter (only 3 cords of wood per winter) and minimal outbuildings:

We kept our cabin's footprint pretty small at 16' x 24', the porches add 6' to either side, so 28' x 24'. BUT for fire safety, pest resistance, and ease of access we also need 5 feet of "barren" path around the perimeter... so that's 38' x 34', 1292 sq ft you're not growing anything -- nearly 3% of your acre.

A private road or driveway averages 12 feet wide, ATV paths average 8 feet and foot paths average 4 feet. You have to be able to get yourself, materials, equipment and animals around your homestead, so a significant portion of that acre is going to be dedicated to non-growing transportation areas. We'll be generous and assume that your homestead will be laid out to maximize transportation with minimal roads and paths, let's say 10%. That's a little over 4356 sq ft you won't be growing or raising anything on.

So, you've essentially eliminated 5648 sq feet, or 13%, of your acre just on the cabin and access. In the remaining 38k sq ft, you put in gardens & fields avg 4,000 sq ft per person (about 1/5 acre for a couple) for all the vegetables and grains for humans and their livestock; a dozen laying hens with a 60 sq ft coop & 200 sq ft yard with broilers in mobile "tractors" on pasture until slaughtered (requires "pasture" to put them on!); a dozen breeding rabbits with a 40 sq ft hutch with fryers in a community pen until slaughtered; 3 sheep with a 240 sq ft shed and....

...oops, you just blew your acre with the sheep because they require 1/4 acre of "pasture" for fresh graze, 750 lbs of hay, and 100 lbs of supplemental feed each per year... and you have to have at least 2 or they get lonely (3 if you want to breed). OK - you can go with 3 goats and 2 feeder hogs rotation-pastured in your woodlots, they don't need grass like sheep do, but add 100 sq ft of garden space per hog for feed -- they literally, eat like pigs LOL. You definitely ain't carrying a cow, not even a small one, stocking rates for cow-calf pair on good pasture year-round is 1:acre.

And you'll need to grow their bedding/litter as well... if you use straw you need to grow grains, if you want woodchips you need some sort of woodlot. Don't forget about feeding your household pets! If Fido and Fluffy eat solely off the homestead, you'll need more chickens & rabbits... or throw in some ducks and geese (you need the pond anyway).

You might be able to shave off some of the personal food space by eliminating/reducing grains, but we're including small livestock feed, minimal irrigation and no commercial fertilizers, so the more common "1k sq ft per person" won't necessarily apply. You'll need more space for green manures (cover crops grown just to replenish the soil) and crop rotations. The livestock will also provide brown manure for your garden, but you don't have a factory-farm's worth of these critters and supply isn't unlimited.

You might also be able to shave off some of the personal food space if you live somewhere with an extended growing season where you can eat a succession of fresh produce for 8-10 months in smaller area and not need to grow everything you need for the whole year all at once and preserve it for the remaining 6-8 months (like we do).

So you're down to about 1/2 acre now, and you still have to consider heating fuel (wood lot for firewood)... some of the personal food yardage may be usuable here if you live somewhere where fruit trees grow well and you have a decent-sized orchard that you coppice for firewood. And you have to keep all the poo-related areas (including fertilized garden) and toxin-related areas (driveways, garden, garage, workshop, etc) at least 100 feet and downhill from your well (which totals 1/4 acre with limited use).  And your privy also needs 100 foot perimeter for hygiene and sanitation (another 1/4 acre). Plus, you still have the footprints of all the other homestead structures to consider... garage/workshop/toolshed, garden shed, woodshed, wellhouse, abbatoir/larder, privy, rainwater cistern, pond, solar & wind array... they all add up.

So, in a perfect temperate climate with mild winters and really awesome soil, you might be able to be self-sufficient on 1 acre if you don't eat a lot of grain (of ANY kind) or potatoes, or want to make your own fuels (woodgas, biogas, biodiesel or ethanol), or want dairy or red meat or fish or bacon. But for the rest of acre would be seriously pushing our luck with absolutely no room for expansion if necessary. No margin for error or mishap, and I seriously doubt it would be sustainable (notably, the woodlot and soil fertility).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Temps... food for thought

We are often asked (um, challenged, at times) to compare our climate to other cold places in the Lower 48... places like Montana, Wyoming, Missouri, the Dakotas and northern New England. Well, it's kind hard to say... but here are a few things to consider based on Fairbanks weather data (we tend to be a few degrees colder down here):
  • November to March the average high remains below freezing and our average low remains below 0F/-16C
  • January is the coldest month, average high is 1F/-17C and average low is -17F/-27C, only 2.5 hours of visible daylight; record low of -66F/-54C, record high of 52F/11C
  • October & April we bounce between just-above freezing and just-above 0F/-16C (sometimes daily, sometimes hourly)
  • July is the warmest month, average high is 73F/23C and average low is 52F/11C, 24 hours of visible daylight; record high of 99F/37C, record low of 30F/-1C
  • Annual (across the entire year) average high is 38F/3C and average low is 17F/-8
  • Average snowfall is 65"/165cm over 61 days, and average rainfall 10.8"/275mm over 109 days; the remaining 195 days it is too cold for precipitation
  • Maximum average frost-free days are 102, between mid-June and early-September
  • Heating Degree Days approximately 14,000
  • All of Interior Alaska (including Fairbanks) contain discontinous permafrost, i.e. soil remains below freezing for two or more consecutive years. Only high altitude mountain ranges (particularly the Rockies) contain isolated pockets of permafrost in the Lower 48.
  • Our location is classified USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 1b/2a, no state in the Continental US falls below 3a (although microclimates that fit the criteria may exist).
So, make of that what you will... I'm going to go stack more firewood :D