5 Late Winter Homesteading Activities

You would think that things would slow down for us in the winter.  So far that has not been the case.  It may still be cold and white outside, but that does not mean there are a shortage of homesteading activities.  Here are five late winter activities we have been up to lately:

1) Incubating Chicks

As noted here, we just incubated our first batch of chicks.  So cute, but oh so stinky! Last weekend, we were able to get our brooder box in the barn prepared.  In the chicks went.  They are happy for the additional space and we are happy for the basement to return to its normal, un-stinky state.  I do kind of miss the chirping though.  Sometimes we think we hear a chirp from time to time, then quickly remember they are now in the barn.  We will start another run in the incubator in a couple of weeks, then more cuteness will commence.  These chicks should be laying by late summer.  The males will go to the freezer.

The chicks are not the only ones with more room to roam.  The chickens have been out and about the yard again, up to their old free-ranging antics.    They were terribly, err, chicken, and despised the snow covered ground.  Although we gave them the option to free-range all winter, then never took it, always staying inside the “safety” of barn.  Little to no evil snow in there!  Now that we have some clear spots in the yard after a few days of mild weather, they have been living it up.  Most of the lawn north of the barn is still covered in icy snow.  It is entertaining to watch the chickens tread carefully across the icy snow, trying hard not to fall as they leave the barn.  Once they clear the ice, they are off! Here is Mrs White, doing some early spring yard cleaning for us.

2) Maple Syrup

As you may know, we have been collecting maple syrup with this beautiful early spring-like weather.  Stephen helped me tap two more trees the other evening, just as it started snowing.  I even let him run the drill and mallet (what boy would turn down the chance at running a drill?).  Was fun to get out with him and spend some time in nature.   As it turns out, he has taken an interest in collecting sap, faithfully making his sap collection rounds every day (without being asked)!

There were many reasons we moved out of town; this was definitely one of them!

We started boiling down some of the sap into syrup on our temporary outdoor cinder block stove.  The stove is a work in progress (that was all of the blocks I could fit into my VW Jetta) but it is serving its purpose well.  With the latest cold spell, the sap has pretty much stopped flowing.  However, it looks like we may see highs above freezing this weekend which should help get it flowing again!

A quick tip here if you are boiling down sap yourself.  Use the buffet style steam pans (these are the ones we are using).  The more surface area, the better.  The stock pot pictured above was just put on the fire to thaw out the frozen sap.  Once thawed, we then transfer to the pans for evaporation.

3) Firewood Collection

Ah yes, firewood collection, one of the few upper body workouts I get (along with putting in fence posts and stacking bales :).  We spent a few hours outside over the weekend cutting firewood.  This is one of the best times of the year to cut.  Why?  No mosquitoes or ticks!!  The cooler weather also delays the inevitable sweating that seems to come hand in hand with a good wood cutting.  We have no shortage of dead or downed trees in our woods from several summer storms that came through over the last couple of years.

Self-sufficiency, energy independence, exercise, fresh air, and cleaning up the woods, cutting firewood covers a lot of ground and is a must for any homesteader in Minnesota.

Not to get too political, but to assure those who may see burning wood as harmful to the environment, I would like to state a few points. We practice responsible and sustainable forestry practices on our homestead.  We cut trees that are already down, damaged, or pose a potential hazard to life or property.  We return the ash to the woods.  We burn in a modern high-efficiency indoor stove.  Burning indoors allows the capture of more exhaust heat through the chimney that would otherwise be lost when burning in an outdoor boiler.  We plant more trees than we harvest.  We produce significantly less “pollution” than any DNR controlled or naturally occurring forest fire while at the same time reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.  Additionally, we are renovating our house in such a way that we will need to burn a minimal amount of wood to keep it warm.  This will also allow me to spend less time cutting and splitting wood every year. Win-win.

Wood is an amazingly and powerful renewable fuel, occurs naturally, and is easily manageable with minimal equipment expenses.

4) Continuing the House Remodel

When it is just too cold or too dark to want to work outside, there are always plenty of projects to tackle indoors.  We were able to get most of our dining room tin ceiling up this weekend!  Along with several other small projects, things are still moving along inside the house.

5) Preparing the Planters

Sunday night we managed to dig out and prepare our planters for seeds.  That pretty much involved grabbing the planters off a shelf in the garage and filling them with potting soil.  After buying 200 strawberry plants last year, we held onto the plant markers.  I printed out a bunch of labels and re-purposed those markers to match the plants we will be growing this year.  In addition to preparing the planters, we also installed two of our grow lights, with two more to go.  Our current plan is to plant some of the seed that requires a longer growing season this weekend.  The rest will go in the dirt mid-march.


Continue Reading

Maple syrup season has arrived!

I just looked at the forecast the other night and saw the predicted temperatures for the week (highs above freezing and lows below freezing).  It hit me suddenly and almost unexpectedly; it is time to tap our maple trees!   How did I almost miss that?  After getting our taps and jugs out of storage and cleaned up, grabbing a drill, seeking out a 5/16 drill bit, soft mallet, and a flash light, we were ready to go.

Although the days are getting longer, it still gets dark shortly after I get back from work.  Therefore, we have to tap in the dark, or else miss almost a solid week of perfect sap collecting weather while waiting for the weekend to come.  Tapping in the dark it is!  Shelly and I took to the woods after small group, tucking in the kiddos, and chores.  It was sort of an adventure.  Little Dasha (our kitten) followed us on our journey.

We drill a hole into the tree about 1-2 ft up from the ground on the south facing side.  The hole is drilled at an upward angle to allow the sap to flow down the tap with the assistance of gravity.  We use 1 gallon milk cartons we cleaned and saved specifically for syrup season.  The kids collect and empty the sap 2-3 times a day into a large pot.  Each tree generally produces 1/4-3 gallons of sap each day, depending on the tree and weather.

Once our pot is full, we then transfer the sap to evaporator trays that we place over a wood fire to boil the water out.  After boiling down and finishing out the process in the house, we are left with a delicious golden syrup.    It takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup.  Last year, our first go at collecting sap, we ended up with about 2 quarts of syrup.  This year we are hoping for a few more!

Last year we boiled the syrup over an open fire.  For efficiency and the ability to boil the sap down on windier spring days, I am planning on making an outdoor cinder block oven. I’ll post an update if I get a chance to put something together.

For some additional information about sap collection and processing, you may find this one-page PDF from the Minnesota DNR useful: http://files.dnr.state.mn.us/destinations/state_parks/maplesyrup_how.pdf

Additionally, Maplewood State Park located in Ottertail, MN (not far from our farm) has offered classes on syrup collection in the past.  If you are interested in such an event, you may want to reach out to them: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/maplewood/index.html

Continue Reading