Bonafide Farm

Waiting out the polar vortex

January 7th, 2014 § 0

Life in this already-small house has contracted to a few cozy square feet right in front of the wood stove as we wait for temperatures to warm. The gang’s all here, basking in the radiant glow of the beautiful Jotul.


I shut off my heat pump last night to keep the expensive emergency electric heat from engaging, so we’re running on all-wood stove heat here. Keeping the stove going between 400 and 500 degrees today, and closing off the office and living room, has kept the temperature inside, in the main living area, at 65, which is the temperature I usually set the electric heat to during the day. I got up twice last night to feed the stove, and though it had burned down to large embers when I finally got up for good this morning, the house temperature had dropped to only 59 degrees in the main area. Even having no heat at all upstairs, the temperature on that floor is down to only 61. All perfectly acceptable temperatures for burning just a few armfuls of wood during the polar vortex, when, at 3:30 early this morning it was 2 degrees on my thermometer outside the kitchen window. In all I am again so pleased with my Jotul—one of my favorite, most functional, things in the world.

In times like these I really appreciate the compact layout of my house, with kitchen, wood stove, and a bathroom all within a few feet of each other. Everything I need is right here. It’s very easy to shut the doors to the guest bedroom, office and living room to contain the heat right in this area and funnel a bit of it up the stairs to the second floor. It’s actually a super-efficient design that, although I didn’t plan it to be, functions just beautifully in extreme weather events and power outages.

The chickens were fine last night. Even with their heat bulb on their gallon waterer froze solid. Once I had that defrosted they had “tea” this morning—warm water—at least until it freezes again! I’m leaving their heat light on tonight but after that temperatures will rebound and it’s back to normal winter and an unheated coop.

First winter storm of the season

December 8th, 2013 § 3

It’s 2:00 p.m. and the precipitation is really starting to come down now, changing from sleet to snow to freezing rain and back again.


I just spent some time outside to check on the chickens and refill the bird feeders, which are the most popular spot in the neighborhood right now. The birds know to gorge themselves when bad weather is on its way.


I suspect that if this pace keeps up we’re going to have a real mess in Central Virginia tonight.┬áMost weather forecasters are calling for between a quarter and a half an inch of ice tonight, but some are predicting a severe ice storm with up to an inch of ice and several days without power. Bad news for the trees and power lines.



I just made a few more preparations for what is starting to seem like an inevitable power outage. I realized that if the power goes out in the night I would most likely damage myself trying to get on and off an icy porch in the pitch black with armfuls of firewood. So I brought enough wood for the evening and tomorrow morning onto the back porch and stacked it right by the door, along with kindling. Now if I have to get the wood stove started in the dark it’s less likely that I will break my neck in the process.


By the time I was done both the dog and I were covered with a nice coating of sleet.


Tucker was well on his way toward becoming a popsicle and seemed pretty ready to be let back in the warm house.


While I was out taking some photos the neighbor kid ran out to the road and gingerly stepped on it. Then he slid in his boots on the ice before turning around and running home. He seemed pretty ecstatic at the thought of what will most likely be a snow day tomorrow.


December 7th, 2013 § 2

Tonight we’re under the first winter storm warning of the season. A real mess of snow, sleet and freezing rain is predicted for tonight into Sunday evening. With the possibility of ice comes the probability of power outages, so I took some time today to prepare.

Power outages in the winter are actually better than outages in the summer. It’s much easier to heat a space than it is to cool it. I have a wood stove, which keeps my home as warm as I want it without any electricity, and I can cook on top of it. Additionally, I can light my gas stove with a match and easily boil water for tea, to heat up my food, or for washing up. The biggest challenge is actually obtaining water, as without power my well pump doesn’t work. So any time a storm is due I go into water collection mode, filling five gallon buckets and storing them in the garage to water the chickens. I fill my big brew kettle inside for my drinking and cooking water. I also fill a bath tub in order to have water for flushing toilets and bathing. All this would last me about a week, in winter, maybe more. Beyond this, if I ran through my cut wood and drawn water and the roads were blocked, I know that I can walk into my woods and cut and carry enough dead, downed wood to run the stove, and I can haul enough water from the creek to boil and drink.

I have a refrigerator and freezer full of food, and when that’s gone there are enough stapes—flour, yeast, canned beans, tinned fish, sugar, etc. in my pantry that I’d be fed for quite a while. A friend who was here for Thanksgiving took a look at all the packaged broth I had stored and joked that I was preparing for the apocolypse. Maybe. And outside in the winter garden are rows of frost-sweetened arugula, kale, mustard, chard and broccoli raab, all of which are happy to hibernate under snow, so I won’t want for fresh greens. And if push really came to shove, I’ve got ten fat chickens roosting in the coop, and the tools and knowledge and mental willingness to turn them into meat. I’d start with the roosters, then move on to the nonproductive hens, and so on.

Food storage during a power outage in winter isn’t usually a problem, as if it’s cold enough to make an ice storm it’s most likely cold enough to use the back porch as a refrigerator. So anything perishable gets moved from the fridge to the porch. And I’d eat my way through what’s left in the freezer as it defrosted.

So heat, water and food are taken care of. The car’s full of gas, for charging a cell phone that doesn’t get much of a signal here anyway. That leaves light, which some could argue is really a luxury and not a necessity. But light is easily accomplished with an arsenal of rechargeable lanterns, flashlights and carefully-contained candles. And even in the absence of light, remember I built this house from a hole in the ground on up, repositioning light switches as they were installed to most easily meet my grasp. Sometimes I feel like I wear this building like a second skin, and to navigate it in complete darkness is as intuitive as reaching out to touch my toes.

As I put the house in order tonight, thinking ahead in anticipation of potentially losing power and being house-bound by ice, I kept coming back to this idea of survival. Of course this concept is relative, and compared to many in the world even suffering through an extended power outage in my home would be their very definition of luxury. But I live here, not there, and this is the survival that is relevant to me. I am also a relatively young, single woman, making these winter preparations on my own instead of counting on a husband or boyfriend to take care of me, my animals, and my home. Other than a few bloggers, I don’t know any one else in this position.

Fortunately survival is really more a state of mind than a set of strapping male muscles. Thankfully I was raised by parents who between the two of them, had they been born 150 years earlier, no doubt would have been leading the Conestoga wagons across the frontier, such was their self-reliant determination, intelligence, and ability. I spent years during college and after camping across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and that helped hone my ability to stay warm, fed and hydrated in all sorts of backcountry situations. And finishing school was living in an off-the-grid, no road access log cabin in Alaska, where I learned how to run a wood stove and take an entire bath in a saucepan of melted snow.

All of these experiences culminate in nights like tonight, when I go to sleep knowing that no matter what the weather brings tomorrow, I will survive. I will be fine. I will be better than fine. As the ice sluices down, whether the power is on or not, my animals will be fed and watered, I’ll be curled by the wood stove with a hot mug of tea in my hands, and I will thrive. There is hardly anything I’ve done personally or professionally of which I am proud. But to be able to say that I have the knowledge, skills, and mindset to survive when the comforts of modern life disappear under a quarter inch coating of ice is the greatest accomplishment of my life.

The beams: Upcycled from obscurity

November 16th, 2009 § 0

When the old house came down, I asked my builders to salvage as much of the old lumber as possible. Among some of the material that wasn’t completely destroyed by termites (such as my main floor beam) were a few of the floor joists, shown below intersecting that decimated beam:IMG_2788Web

My idea was to reuse the joists as decorative beams in the vaulted kitchen space. I spent a rainy weekend outside, sick with a cold and soaked to my underwear, scrubbing 80 years of crawlspace dirt off of the joists. With the dirt removed, the wood revealed beautiful graining, cool knot holes, decorative (as opposed to destructive) insect damage, and beautiful radial patterns from the huge saw blade used to mill it.

Then with family assistance I temporarily hung the beams with clamps to determine their positioning and number. It was a complicated math problem, as each beam was a different length, courtesy of the inept framers who cut them out of the old house, and the length of the shortest beam determined how high up on the wall they all could hang. But all that fussing around was worth it. I have to say, I am thrilled with the result.


A lucky seven fit the space perfectly. And I like the idea of reusing some of the old house in the new home. And though you’ll never see this view once the upstairs drywall goes up, I just liked the way the beams looked from above in this shot that really shows the saw patterns and color variations in each piece of wood. I might oil them some day to make these details stand out even more.


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