Author Archives: Travis

Missouri Ozarks: What’s Great & What’s Not

Missouri OzarksHomestead in the Holler is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

 

It has now been three years since we purchased our farm in the Missouri Ozarks. What a whirlwind of three years it has been!  We are very grateful to be here and are enjoying our new routine, but like anything, it isn’t perfection either.  When we were making our decision regarding moving to the area, we kept looking for someone writing about their experiences in the area.  There were several blogs and such, but very little information about how people really felt about the area after having spent some time here.

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Why Build With Straw Bales?

Homestead in the Holler is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

 

If you are a regular reader, you already know we are in the middle of building a straw bale insulated home.  I often meet people who assume I am therefore some sort of straw bale evangelist.  This always strikes me as odd because I can’t really understand why I would want to push my building choices on someone else.  As an adult, I feel perfectly able to consider the options and weigh which ones fit our desires and needs.  Therefore, I feel most adults are likewise capable of the same.

So, if you have to ask why you would build a straw bale home, please don’t build one!  If you think straw bale homes mean rodents, rotting straw, fire or other similar disasters, please insulate with something that you are comfortable with.  Rest assured that we don’t care and certainly won’t judge your choice harshly!  

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The House Design

house_drawing-1Homestead in the Holler is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
We have spent about 2 years on our farm now and have gotten to the point where we are ready to build a house.  It took about that long to get a feel for the best siting and to get various other prerequisite projects completed, such as a barn to store the straw bales.  This has given us some time to think about what we really want.  Here are some of the things we considered in our design:

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Farming: A Career Change

road1Homestead in the Holler is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
A conventional job is often described as comfortable, stable, or secure.  Whether or not that is actually accurate, it can certainly feel that way.  However, humans tend to be rather illogical about things and that perceived security may not be as secure as it feels.  Regardless, comfortable easily describes many jobs.  Routine and known things are somehow comfortable.  Branching out into the unknown can certainly be intimidating.  This is how I felt when I left the safe, familiar world of engineering and decided to buy a farm.  That coupled with my inexperience in the field of farming made it feel extra scary.  However, today I’m grateful that we pursued our dreams, even though we haven’t yet fully met all our goals.  
Here are some things to think about if you decide to consider a career change.  My experience is from engineering to farming/ranching/permaculture so that’s what I’ll share, but I suspect it could apply to more than just those specifics.  Keep in mind that I’m not giving advice, just sharing our experiences.  As my neighbor always says, free advice is worth just that anyway.  Most importantly, try to be honest with yourself throughout this decision making process or else this is a waste of time.  Be willing to consider downsides.  Don’t look at best-case income/etc unless you also consider worst case or more realistic outcomes.

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We’re still plugging away!

 

Homestead in the Holler is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

Busy, busy, busy!  Whew, it has been quite a summer so far.  Sorry for the lack of updates.  We have had our heads down working and writing after a long, hot day hasn’t been our priority, I’m afraid.  So, what have we been up to?  Hmm, let’s see…

  • Re-roofing: we finally decided to re-roof the very sad roof on the old farm house.  It was in really bad shape and was quite leaky.  We replaced the asphalt shingles with painted metal.  It turned out to be a fairly large job, due to the pitch (9/12) and the modifications we made.  We were aware of one rotted spot that we had to cut out, but then found another spot that really needed some help.  Turns out it was really the result of an old dormer that wasn’t really useful any more, so we removed it.  It was interesting to look at all the layers of shingles and then wood shakes under that.  I even found one wooden shake that still had the label on it.  In removing the dormer, we found a cool collection of old bottles, including one for “swamp water”.  We also found evidence, in the form of old plastic tubs placed around the attic, that the dormer had been leaking for years.  I guess that’s one way to “fix” the problem.
This shows the sorry state of the roof we started with. The dormer shown is the source of the leaks.

This shows the sorry state of the roof we started  with. The dormer shown is the source of the leaks.

This shows the house roof nearly completed. The dormer has been removed and the metal is on though not trimmed.

This shows the house roof nearly completed. The dormer has been removed and the metal is on though not trimmed.

  • Re-roofing, take 2: most of the buildings on our farm really could use some roofing work.  One building was in pretty good shape, but really needed some help for the leaky old tin, so we ripped into this next.  As the rafters were really bowed and in bad shape, we ended up replacing all the rafters with new 2×8 framing.  This really transformed the building into something useful.  We still need to re-side the building to make it really good, since it currently has many places you could throw a (bob) cat through!
This sorry building was likely a chicken house at some point in its life. It was in bad shape; the roof was terrible and walls had rotted away in places. It is amazing it was still standing

This sorry building was likely a chicken house at some point in its life. It was in bad shape; the roof was terrible and walls had rotted away in places. It is amazing it was still standing

This picture shows the new metal roof that was installed. We ended up completely rebuilding the roof with new rafters since the old ones were undersized and in bad shape.

This picture shows the new metal roof that was installed. We ended up completely rebuilding the roof with new rafters since the old ones were undersized and in bad shape.

  • Gardening: Janelle has been very busy trying to keep up with a large garden this summer, between taking care of kids.  We are still learning plenty about the new climate, but overall the garden has been a great success.  We’re told it has been a weird year with far above average rain, so I guess we still need to experience a “normal” summer.
  • Broiler Chickens: We butchered broiler chickens the end of August. It is always pleasant to be past that chore and have the freezer stocked for the winter.  The broilers were a success this year, but next year should be better now that we have some infrastructure in place.  We used Salatin-style pens again and that was good, but I believe next year we will go back to a day-range model as it seemed that the birds really needed more space.
  • Grazing: Grazing is keeping us quite busy, given the number of animal species to move.  We are now grazing beef cattle, meat goats, meat sheep, dairy goats, and pigs.  It seems there is always some animal that needs to be moved.  As we move toward winter, the goal is to consolidate as much as possible to cut down on daily labor.
  • Planning house: We have decided to start building our house this fall.  After much thought, we finally decided to go with strawbale construction, using post and beam framing and straw as insulation (infill, not load bearing).  We are planning large overhangs and porches to prevent water issues.  Additionally, the outside will be finished in lime, which will help to keep the walls dry since lime finishes tend to draw moisture out.  The inside walls will be finished with a combination of natural plaster and drywall on some interior (non-straw) walls.
  • Guest Cabin: The house planning eventually turned into guest cabin as well.  This gives us a good opportunity to get some experience building with straw on a small scale rather than starting with a large project first.  This will be a two room tiny structure with just a bed and a bathroom, similar to a hotel room.

 

This picture shows the thickened-edge slab foundation for the guest cabin. The "toe-ups" are partially installed. These 4x4's will be used to hold the straw bales up out of the danger of water damage from a pipe leak or similar.

This picture shows the thickened-edge slab foundation for the guest cabin. The “toe-ups” are partially installed. These 4×4’s will be used to hold the straw bales up out of the danger of water damage from a pipe leak or similar.

  • Water: One big challenge on this farm is having water available in all pastures.  We are blessed with numerous existing ponds and running water in some areas, but we prefer to keep the animals out of the streams and ponds and pipe it to them instead.  This is an ongoing project that is going to take several years to complete, but we have started running some pipe.  At some point, we will rent an excavator and start getting at least some of it in the ground.  Wherever possible, we will make use of solar to pump out of ponds and gravity to deliver the water.
  • Shop Building: Since moving here, we have constantly missed the outbuildings we had at our last house.  Working on vehicles and other equipment on gravel or in the grass is really not very pleasant.  We will be building a simple pole barn structure to remedy this problem.  However, it has proven more difficult than expected to actually get someone to sign up for the work.  Any changes beyond the bone stock models they typically build seemed to cause great consternation.  At this point, we finally have a builder (a neighbor, yippee!) and are eager to get started, especially so we have a place to stack straw bales while building our house!  The next challenge here will be leveling a building site to get started with.  The best site we found is going to need about 4′ of cut and fill, so some more tractor time is in our future!

 

Corn-free “Corn Bread”

Skillet Corn BreadHomestead in the Holler is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

 

 I made chili the other day and a couple hours before dinner, cornbread started to sound like a really good addition to the meal.  However, since we have a child with a serious corn sensitivity, corn is not a normal part of our diet.  Sometimes we make grain-free flax bread using almond flour, but our daughter is mildly sensitivity to almonds, so we have limited almond flour greatly.  Given these restrictions, I started searching for recipes.  It is quite possible that my google-fu was rusty and my impatience too great, but I quickly decided that what I was looking for wasn’t available.  So, on to plan B: do it yourself!

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Getting Propane

Sometimes things just don’t go quite as expected.  When we got to the point of needing propane, I started asking around for the best place to get propane.  Everyone suggested Cash Gas, so that was easy.  I gave them a call and left a message.  No call back.  I started calling every morning and never got an answer and never got a call back.  They had no address listed, so there was no way to just stop in and talk.

This led me to finally stop in at Titan Gas since they have a store front.  I had been warned by multiple people that you can’t count on them for refills, but I figured I had no choice.  They were quite friendly and scheduled tank delivery for about two weeks later.  On the day of the appointment, I stayed close at hand all day, ready to talk with them.  They still hadn’t shown by late afternoon, so I finally called and learned they wouldn’t be coming out.  It seems they were short handed and just couldn’t cover all their appointments.  Fair enough, but you’d think they would at least call.  Anyway, fast forward to Saturday morning.  I received a call early that morning from Titan Gas.  The manager said they don’t normally work Saturdays but were doing so to catch up.  Great!  The installer showed up about 30m later, with a propane tank on the back of his truck.  His first question was “is that a wood stove”?  I told him it was and he said he was very sorry but company policy was not to fill propane tanks in mobile homes with wood stoves.  Ai yi yi!  This was a development I hadn’t even considered.  Thankfully the installer was a very nice fellow and told me all about why and let me pick his brain on next steps.  To make a long story short, the reason was legal and had nothing to do with safety.

The installer’s suggestion was precisely what my backup plan was: use 100lb tanks that are refilled in town.  Easy enough.  Just a tank with POL connector and a twin stage regulator were needed.  I looked around and found that Lowe’s in Springfield had the tanks and regulator, so I purchased two tanks and a regulator.  This was connected to the mobile home and we were in business!  Prior to installation, I did a 24hr leakdown test and then tested each joint in the system after connecting a tank.  I purchased two tanks so that when we run out, it is quick and easy to switch tanks then refill the empty one.  With our low propane usage, a tank should last quite a while.  We shall see. 🙂

Since then, I have learned the secret to contacting Cash Gas.  One person told me to follow the truck around and talk to them when they make a delivery.  Another person told me that they can always be found at either McDonalds or Subway around 8AM.  Yet another person gave me the cell phone number to call someone directly.  All good to know as I’ll likely need that in the future.  Things work just a little differently here in the Ozarks from what I’m used to.  It is like a secret club.  Fun!  I’ve always wanted to be in a secret club!  Of course, getting in might be the hard part.  😉

EDIT 02/01/2015: There is a new small company in town called MS Propane. They actually have an office and are really quite nice. They look very promising… but we haven’t gotten our tank yet either. I’m convinced they will be great though.

Off the grid (part 1)

solar_part1We decided when we moved to our new farm that our house would be off-grid, meaning completely reliant on on-farm generated electricity.  We feel that this will force us to reduce our energy usage and ensure that we “walk the walk” not just “talk the talk”.  Batteries are definitely the weak link in off-grid systems, so they aren’t for everyone.  We may find that grid-tie works better in the future, but wanted to at least try off-grid.  We could immediately see that wind power would never have a chance of being adequate here much of the year, so we decided to start with straight solar.  Perhaps someday a trompe or steam-powered generator could assist in our power generation, but for now, PV solar will suffice.

I have mentioned before that we intend to build a new house soon, but wanted to have time to focus on getting the farm up and running first.  Thus, we moved a mobile home to the property and that is our current home.  Moving from a large home to a small mobile home is somewhat of a shocker, but that is another topic.  The mobile home was previously set up to be very reliant on electricity, so reducing usage was the the first step, as it always should be when designing an off-grid solar system.  By reducing electricity needs, we were able to choose a smaller system and thus a smaller battery bank.  The biggest consumers were an electric water heater, electric range, and electric dryer.  The obvious choices for the first two were propane.

This brings up a dirty little secret about off-grid living: propane.  Consuming propane really doesn’t seem all that “green” or sustainable.  However, we look at it as a stepping stone to something better.  Some cooking and water heating could be done with wood, but we are hopeful that biogas could be a possibility at some point.  It may not be practical, but an on-farm biogas digester would be excellent and we intend to research this further and do some small experiments.  For now, propane will cover our needs and we’ll do our best to use it sparingly.

We purchased a basic propane range and I extended propane lines to reach it.  Easy peasy.  Another option could be a an induction range or using an electric range but with automatic generator backup.  However, we both like cooking over a gas burner so propane was an easy choice.

The water heater took a little more thought.  We considered using a small standard water heater but finally decided that investing in an on-demand unit (Rinnai V65IP) seemed to make sense.  This choice fit with our desire to limit our propane use.  This again required adding some black pipe to bring gas to the unit and then a vent was added.  Nothing too major.  I would like to look into using the original electric water heater as a diversion load sometime in the future.  Any extra power beyond what is needed to run the home or charge batteries is diverted to this load.  In this case, it could be used to heat water.  The hot water outlet of the electric tank would be piped into the cold water input of the on-demand water heater.

The clothes dryer will be replaced with a clothes line.  On rainy days, indoor lines and racks will be used.  The extra humidity will be welcome in the winter when heating with wood.  In the summer, the outdoor line will be perfect.  Nothing like going from energy hog to zero energy usage!  We prefer line-dried clothes anyway, so it should be just fine.

The mobile home does have a propane furnace, but we intend to heat entirely with wood.  There was already a wood stove in place and we will use this.  Good fire wood is very available on our property and we should never need to cut a living tree for this purpose, unless we are thinning an area for some purpose.

Lighting is a smaller concern, but can chew through more than expected if standard incandescent bulbs are used.  Instead, all bulbs were replaced with LED bulbs.  Some were already replaced with CFL bulbs by the previous owner.  We will continue to use these but do not plan to add any ourselves.  We don’t like the idea of adding mercury to our environment.  Bulbs do get broken, so we’d just prefer not to contaminate our living quarters!

With all these changes in place, our analysis (you might use something like this) showed that around a 4KW system should be more than adequate.  The next few installments will document our system choices and how it all fits together.

 

 

 

Blackberries!

In mid-July, my son and I returned to Missouri to make further arrangements for our mobile home. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the wild blackberries were bearing.  We were even happier to see the abundance.  In total, we probably found 10+ acres of blackberries.  Some are very sweet and some are more sour.  I suppose much of that is a reflection of the soil in the specific area.  I think we’ll have to try fertilizing and mineralizing some to see what the result is.  Other areas are likely to become goat fodder. 🙂

 

I think my son and I must have each eaten in excess of a couple pounds of blackberries while we were there.  Yum!!  He was often suggesting “maybe we should take a break and eat some more blackberries.”

IMG_20140712_182020958_HDR IMG_20140712_185012659 IMG_20140712_185141078_HDR IMG_20140712_185258143_HDR

Penske Truck

We have ended up using Penske trucks for the bulk of our move.  For some reason, their prices are consistently far below U-Haul and Budget.  We have been very pleased with the trucks, but being the odd person I am, I also find them somewhat amusing.  There is something kind of pleasing about driving a large(ish) truck such as the 26′ straight trucks we have been using.  I enjoy how they carry the large theme throughout the truck – large steering wheel, large guages, and best of all, a freakishly large bright headlight indicator light.  This is the same indicator we have come to know and love, just blown up 2.5x.  I found every opportunity to use brights so I could be amused by this.  I was also amused by how the driver’s seat belt in some trucks can accommodate a driver about 6′ wide.  The seat belt socket is placed about halfway across the bench seat.  It made me think that the expected driver is very large and quite myopic.  I can almost visualize this huge guy with coke-bottle glasses lumbering to his truck, climbing the large steps and heaving himself onto the large seat under the large steering wheel.

The other thing I appreciated about some of these trucks was the constant shaking.  Of course, one expects these trucks to ride much rougher than a car, but it is amazing just how shaky some of them they are.  Things were always shaking off the seat, particularly at speeds under 50.  It is clearly much better when fully loaded, but still shaky enough to be exhausting.  I can certainly see why truck drivers have such fancy air ride seats in their cabs.  If only Penske would spring for these.  I suspect a large part of this problem is tires because some ride a bit better, but still plenty rough.

The noise level was also fairly notable.  It didn’t really dawn on me until I tried to listen to a book on CD and found that the radio couldn’t go loud enough to be heard above the din.  My son was rather dismayed to find that he couldn’t hear his DVD player, even with a blanket over his head.  Of course, the next truck was much better, so I guess it depends on the truck.  The older trucks actually seem to be quieter and more pleasant to drive.

Perhaps the most annoying thing of all is that the seat belts lock at around 45 mph in the newer trucks.  This is rather frustrating when mixed with the rough ride, because the seat belt slowly ratchets one into a locked position.  It is a good thing those gauges are in large print, because one certainly can’t lean forward while in motion!  And if one is so foolish as to unbuckle, well it is only just that they are not allowed to unbuckle until below 45 mph, of course!  It is certainly advisable not to drink too much, because a ratcheting seat belt is not a good combination with a full bladder!  Of course, given 17 hours to experiment, we did find that the seat belts could be outsmarted.  With some careful pushing and releasing, one could easily steal back 6″ and move enough to check if the freakishly large fuel gauge might be indicating a need for diesel.  Or to pick up the 6 things that shook off the seat onto the floor.

Speaking of fuel, I found the gauge most frustrating.  I think it is built specially to punish those who like to fill up only when very low.  The gauge moves very slowly between full and 1/2.  It moves slightly more quickly from 1/2 to 1/4.  It picks up the pace from 1/4 to 1/8.  Once you reach 1/8, it absolutely plummets!  I ended up at 1/4 about 20 miles from home, with a sleeping son.  I decided not to fill until the next station since he was asleep and I didn’t want to disturb him until the last minute.  Well, I neglected to remember that it was 2AM and many stations are closed.  So, when I reached the station 10 miles later, I found myself at 1/8 tank with a closed gas station and 10 more miles to go.  “Well, never mind, it is only 10 miles”, I told myself.  I quickly regretted that decision as I watched the gauge quickly dip down to E within a few miles.  At this point, there wasn’t much choice, so I very gingerly continued on home, coasting whenever possible.  I did make it, but topped off from a can before filling up.  I found that I must have had just a few ounces left by that point.  I’ll bet the truck was gloating — “yeah, that’ll learn him”!

If nothing else, the memories from the Penske trucks will be a good reminder of how painful moving can be!  However, sometimes it is just worth it!