A place where one woman has gathered resources and information to help her family survive in an uncertain future; together with occasional personal musings.

Friday, March 11, 2011

State of the Homestead, 2011: Part 1


State of the Homestead, Part 1
"In the future, we will need to have new functioning systems to replace the old systems that will presumably not be available or not be affordable. I'll call these alternative utilities. We will need new knowledge and skills. We will need supplies, and we will need to have some provision for security. Lastly, we will need to provide for food security. It might go under "supplies" but because of the size and complexity of the issue, it gets it's own category."

The above is an excerpt from my other blog, "the worry book," way back in 2009. I was attempting to formulate a plan for creating a more or less independently functioning homestead on these, our then recently purchased five acres. My goal was - and is - to build a place (no other word I can think of is right ... Compound? too scary and militaristic. Commune? too open-ended, too public, too hippy-dippy) where my extended family and progeny can survive and thrive despite the upheavals of the near-to-medium-term future.

Long ago, I looked around me and decided that the future of America was going to be a pretty scary place. Without going into detail and without inviting debate, I can say that I expect that the America of my children and grandchildren will be a poorer place; that they will not be able to depend on services that my parent's generation took for granted. I hope that things will not be so drastic, but I have to prepare for a possible future in which my children and grandchildren may have to live without health care, without reliable utilities, without police protection, without the security of a well-stocked grocery store down the street, and without easy, cheap transportation. Not to mention access to higher education. Even basic public education is beginning to look like a thing of the past.

I assume that the very well off will still be able to purchase the above amenities for several generations into the future; but I do not have the ability to amass the kind of fortune that will place my descendants among their number. Although I have the very very good fortune of being born into a well-to-do family, I am well aware that by the time my children are raising their own families, my savings will look paltry. I cannot count on leaving my children enough cash to establish themselves among the new world elite. Even if I thought that would be a worthwhile endeavor, which I do not.

Instead, I started thinking about what kind of security I COULD offer my descendants. I said my family was well-to-do. My grandparents and great-grandparents made their money in real estate, and it was passed down to me in my mother's milk that land was the ONLY real form of wealth. "it's the only thing they aren't making any more of," my mother used to say. Now, it may seem that the recent housing crisis and real estate bubble gives the lie to that sentiment, but I beg to differ. It's true that urban housing has suffered a crushing decline in many areas, but that's not "real" real estate. "Real" real estate, my friends, is in potentially productive land.

Don't get me wrong, urban housing will come back... at least in strategic markets. I wouldn't count on Phoenix, Las Vegas, L.A., or the Southwest in general, where water will become a pressing issue within ten years. I wouldn't count on border states, which will be subject to serious issues surrounding immigration as climate refugeeism becomes more common. But northern areas with historically mild climates, good water supplies, and liberal (read generous) governmental traditions will be extremely desirable in the next twenty to forty years. If you have a house in a market like that, hang on to it.

But no typical urban property is really potentially productive. Forgive me, but the entire "urban homesteader" movement is unsustainable. It depends on cheap water and other utilities, on cheap police protection, and basically on the survival of the intact infrastructure of 20th century cities as they exist today. God willing, that infrastructure will survive another generation or two, but I'm not particularly hopeful.

Therefore, I decided to try and create a more independent lifestyle on a larger piece of property outside of any city limits. I looked for land that was within striking distance of a decent sized city (We decided on Bellingham or Olympia, and Bellingham won out), that had easy access to major highways, that had good soils and good sun exposure, and was within the catchment area for a good school system. We were extremely lucky to find such a property. We were slightly less lucky in that said property had a house on it - an old farmhouse - that was pretty much falling apart and would require major maintenance for many years into the future - but the advantages of the land were enough to outweigh the drawbacks of the residence.

All of this is backstory, and available to those who are interested in details by searching the sidebar. This post is meant to detail our progress so far, and what you need to know is that when we moved in, we had a falling apart, leaky house; five acres of beat-to-shit ex- dairy farm land; tons of concrete, rubble, and other debris plowed into the ground, and nothing else.

After putting many thousands of dollars into basic repairs on the house (new roof, plumbing fixes, updated wiring, rot repair, et cetera), we were able to start thinking about creating a real homestead. The categories above (Alternative Utilities, Knowledge and Skills, Supplies, Security, and Food Security) do not provide an adequate framework for writing a chronological narrative of how we proceeded, but they do provide a decent framework for outlining our progress so far. So, beginning with "alternative utilities," here we go:

The basic utilities, for an urban dweller, are those that s/he pays for every month: electricity; water, sewer and garbage; gas or propane or heating oil; telephone, and whatever I might be forgetting. When we moved here, we decided not to hook up a land line, since we both had cell phones. Water is unbelievably cheap- $20/month for un-metered usage. Garbage is cheap too- especially since we opted for once-every-other-week service. Electricity is the same as it was in the city - good old Puget Sound Energy. Heat is the main difference - back in Seattle I had a natural gas furnace which cost me virtually nothing, even though it was twenty-something years old. Where I set the thermostat just wasn't an issue, financially. Up here, we have a big fat 500 gallon propane tank out back and have to pay cash up front tom fill it. Minimum delivery is $150 gallons, which works out, most recently, to - oh hell can't access the calculator but a lot, even at an indoor temperature of 63 degrees. it's not that it's so awfully expensive, it's that you have to come up with $500 just to get a delivery.

Oh I've been writing for an hour and a half now and I haven't even even begun to outline our actual homestead. But it's getting late and I have to get supper on the table, so it will have to wait for tomorrow. Stay tuned!


State of the Homestead: Part 2
After my long, rambling, non-specific entry yesterday, I think I'll settle down to brass tacks and just quietly talk about our provisions for Alternative Utilities as plainly as I can.

Of all the areas I outlined (Alternative Utilities, Knowledge and Skills, Supplies, Security, and Food Security), this is the one on which we have made the least progress. We still depend on municipal, county, or private corporate services for basically all our utilities - the county comes and collects our garbage; we buy propane (and lease the tank) from a local company for heat; Puget Sound Energy supplies our electricity. We have a septic system which, although maintained by ourselves alone, is subject to yearly inspection by the county. Our water is supplied by a very local water association - about 150 homes are supplied by a few good, local wells, and the very nominal monthly fees pay for maintenance, meter reading, and water testing. Actually, the water association is a good example of the kind of small-scale, semi-public utilities I see being the wave of the future. More on that later.

Of course, we are still dependent on fuel from the fuel station down the road. Transportation is a "utility." There is no public transportation that comes within three miles of our house, which I find ridiculous since we are on a state highway midway between the freeway and the county's largest employer. But that's a rant for another day. So, if we break it down, here is the state of the homestead as regards:

Electricity: no progress. I spent many hours researching solar options and discovered, basically, that we can't afford a system that would be independent of the grid. And I don't care to spend a year's income installing a grid-tied system. Last year, a really cool opportunity came our way to lease space to a small independent company - owned by a family friend - who wanted to install a large windmill capable of powering some 40 or 50 homes on our windy ridge. We would get free electricity plus 5-10% of the profits reaped from selling excess capacity to the grid. We were sold, but then the county inexplicably imposed a moratorium on windmills. We were sad - not only would this offer us income and independence, but also a chance to be part of the solution, creating medium-scale renewable energy generation to replace dirty methods. Alas, it was not to be. Currently, we have no plans to get off the grid, or even to generate any of our own electricity here, but we will continue to look into possibilities. Our situation is so perfect vis-a-vis wind power that it would be a crying shame not to take advantage of it. This is Homero's bailiwick - he is excited by the idea of a biomass gasifier, whereby we could make electricity from our livestock's manure.

Heat: Tomorrow, I have an appointment with a local company to get an estimate for converting our open fireplace (which we do not use) into an efficient heat system by bricking it up, sheathing the chimney, and installing a free-standing woodstove with a cooktop. We will still keep the propane furnace, of course - but right now, we have no provisions for heat, hot water, or cooking if the power goes out. Last week, it went out for a day and half. We went and stayed at my sister's. What with all the wind here (see "electicity", above), we can count on losing power a few times a year. And looking into the future, I expect that restoring power will take longer and longer as utility budgets decline. I don't intend for us to use wood as a primary heat source, but it is important to me that we have options. Homero has ideas in this area too - last year he got a brand new, never installed oil-burning furnace off Craigslist for $200. He says it will be relatively simple to convert it run off of waste veggie oil. We'll see, but that would be totally cool! Because, Homero has done a great deal of work in the area of sourcing

Fuel: not just for transportation! Some three years ago, Homero built a biodiesel processor out of stuff he got for free off Craigslist (ladies, if you're single, seriously consider marrying a mechanic). He also built a really cool device we call an "oil-sucker" that is basically a 50 gallon drum fitted with tubes and valves that goes in the bed of a pickup. He can use the truck's engine to create a vacuum inside the drum, and then just stick the tube into a dumpster full of waste veggie oil, open the valve, and suck up enough fuel to drive about 1,500 miles. He has an arrangement with a couple of local restaurants and at any given time, we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 gallons of oil waiting to be turned into biodiesel. Biodiesel which can not only power our cars, but also our diesel generator (so I guess we DO have some electricity generating capacity) and our (so far theoretical) diesel furnace. On the list of equipment we want (more on that later) is a small diesel tractor. We could run that on homemade hi-test, too.

Water:I don't anticipate trouble with the water supply anytime soon, but nonetheless, I invested in 2,000 gallons worth of storage tanks. The idea is they will harvest rainwater and be used for non-potable uses like gardening, washing, flushing toilets, etc, and that we will continue to be able to source potable water. I'm sure that that will be true for my own lifetime. My kids may have to look into serious filtration and purification systems.

Waste Processing: We have not made any provisions for processing waste, by which I mean garbage as well as sewage. We would be in trouble if for some reason there was no longer septic tank pumping available. Our tanks were pumped last year, and should be good for at least another 4 years. Long term, I would like to install a composting toilet. If you haven't heard about these, they are pretty amazing! They can take the annual output of your average 5 person American family and turn it into an amount of dry, crumbly, odorless compost that would fit in a five gallon bucket. Not kidding. I've used them, I've stayed in houses where they were the only amenities, and I can attest that when well functioning, they don't smell at all. It's a little weird not to flush with water, but just imagine you're at the county fair using a magically non-disgusting port-o-potty. Cost about $2,000.

As for garbage, well, we could do an awful lot to cut down on the amount we produce. I have not yet taken the obviously necessary step of eliminating plastic from our lives. Or, to be more honest, of drastically reducing the amount of plastic coming into our house. Bellingham is looking into a plastic-bag ban - hope it passes! We already compost or feed to the animals all food waste. We recycle what is recyclable, although to be honest we are nowhere near as conscientious as we could be. My husband, in particular, has a lot to learn concerning what is and is not actually recyclable. This is an area where I am not at all happy with our efforts, yet where I have a hard time seeing myself taking on all the extra work that it would mean to - for example - haul glass jars to the co-op to buy in bulk. As a matter of fact, we are one of those households which is continually threatened with being overwhelmed and literally buried in trash. I don't know where it all comes from. It's a vexing mystery to me. I am always whining about how we need to go to the dump. In fact, just this week, I made a deal with my husband - anytime he makes a dump run, I make him chiles rellenos for dinner.

You can find my chiles rellenos recipe by searcing the sidebar for "Mexican Food." It's my grandmother-in-law's recipe. I highly recommend it.

Tomorrow: Knowledge and Skills!

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