Monthly Archives: March 2012

Agricultural Projects

Perennial area in our model homestead garden

Gardening and farming are an important part of sustainable living.  When we farm and garden with traditional methods there is always more to learn that will help us raise food and care for our livestock and land more effectively. Therefore, we have a number of agricultural projects in progress right now, including:

  • Soil Amendments — We keep an eye open for soil amendments that work well and that are either inexpensive to purchase or something you can make, yourself. Ideally, we prefer soil amendments that you can produce on the farm.  Two soil amendments we’re currently testing are Biochar and Sea-Agra-90. Biochar is made from charcoal, and you can make it on the homestead. Charcoal is able to absorb nutrients, and the idea behind Biochar is that it will absorb nutrients and release them slowly over time, so it may be useful if you have poor or sandy soils. Sea-Agra-90 is a mined sea salt that contains many trace minerals and is reported to boost yields.  Some people might object to putting salt on their soil, but thus far, we’ve seen no reports of problems due to salinity, and the salt is not used in large quantities. We’re conducting a multiple-year test with these two soil amendments to determine their effects on the yields and health of various crops.
  • Low Gluten Wheat and Barley — Many modern wheats have been optimized for high yield and high gluten content. It seems that more and more people are experiencing health problems related to those high gluten wheats, so we’re conducting field trials of about twenty varieties of low gluten wheat and barley, some of which are rare and ancient varieties. Our purpose for this research is to identify varieties that will grow well here and that work well for making bread and other baked goods. We describe this project in more detail in A Wheat Trial of Ancient and Heirloom Wheat Varieties.
  • Hydrology Research — Dr. Yelderman, a geology professor at Baylor University and his students are working with us with this project. On our 500 acre farm, we have several wells for irrigation and domestic use. We’ve begun using a number of methods to improve our pastures and increase water infiltration into the soils. Our goal is to bring our farm to a higher level of productivity and document the effect that our land management practices are having on our water table, our wells and our ability to grow grasses and other vegetation as feed for our animals.
  • Micro-climate and Diversity — If you’re going to garden organically, it’s important to have diversity, both in regard to plants and in regard to beneficial bugs and other animals.  Frogs, lizards and bluebirds help control garden pests. Ladybugs and lacewings are very effective against aphids.  To attract the beneficial animals, you have to provide an environment that the beneficial animals want to live in — an environment in which they can flourish. That entails having plenty of ground cover and a diversity of plants, among other things. Micro-climate goes hand-in-hand with diversity and is also very important.  You can’t control the weather and the general climate for your area, but with things like windbreaks and mulch, you can make a difference in the “micro” climate of your garden, reducing wind speed so that plants don’t undergo as much stress and keeping soil cool and moist while improving water infiltration. In our model homestead, we’re planting a living windbreak composed of grapevines and fruit trees and considering putting in a small pond and taking other steps to attract more beneficial creatures.

If you’re interested in learning more about any of these projects, please let us know.

Recently Completed Weaving Workshop with Joanne Hall


Joanne Hall

Joanne Hall

Recently, Joanne Hall, nationally known weaver and USA distributor of Glimakra counterbalance/countermarche looms, gave a 5-day workshop for advanced weavers at our Fiber Crafts shop.  Several years ago, we were able to purchase a 63” wide Swedish countermarche/counterbalance drawloom with a  Myrahead  attachment for damask weaves. Our sturdy draw loom of golden Swedish pine  has given us a deep appreciation for its simplicity of design and function. For nearly 500 years, counterbalance looms have been in continuous use for cottage industries, production weaving and weaving sustainable goods. In addition to our jack looms, we have begun purchasing several countermarche/counterbalance looms for our classes so that our students can experience weaving on them.

The workshop was held by invitation, and our instructors, apprentices and several advanced students attended, 13 in all.  Joanne shared her extensive knowledge of warping and weaving on the counterbalance and countermarche style loom.

Prior to the workshop, she helped us choose 8 different weaves, which we pre-warped on the looms for the following projects:

  • Havdrall table-topper — a 2 block weave that looks similar to overshot
  • Fingertip towel in Crackle — traditionally used for linens, draperies and upholstery
  • M’s and O’s — a four shaft pattern also known as “poor man’s damask”
  • Swedish Lace bread cloth — a similar weave to huck lace
  • Monk’s Belt runner — useful for decorative borders
  • Rep weave table runner — traditionally used for rugs and thicker fabrics
  • Smalandsvav runner — Picking up the pattern threads with half heddle sticks, we were able to create drawloom style patterns on a counterbalance loom.

We appreciate Joanne giving this workshop, and we learned a lot from her during these 5 days.  Below are a few photos from the workshop. Click any photo to see a larger view. If you want more information on any of the above weaves, please leave us a comment.

Hand-Tool Woodworking

Frank StrazzaThis article is an excerpt from an interview with Frank Strazza, featured in the January 2012 issue of our SustainLife Quarterly Journal. Frank is an award-winning craftsman who teaches woodworking classes and seminars and develops woodworking curriculum at The Ploughshare.

Ploughshare: Can you elaborate on why you have more of a hand tool focus?

Frank Strazza: Working with hand tools really does slow down the process to where you can understand how the tools work and how the joints work. It gives you greater sensitivity to your work because when you’re working with a machine, a lot of times you’re disconnected from your work. You’ve got on all the safety equipment—ear protection, eye protection, dust protection—which tends to disconnect you from what you’re doing. You don’t experience it the same way as you can with hand tools.

When I’m working with a hand tool, there’s a whole different feeling. When I teach woodworking, I try to get students to listen to the sound of the plane when it’s going through the wood. They learn to feel how much or how little pressure to apply. They have to look, and see, “Oh, the shaving’s thicker on this side, and it’s not as thick on this side.” They have to feel the blade protruding. “Is it coming out more on this side?” So they’re using their senses. They’re smelling the wood; they’re experiencing it. You get to experience the work in a totally different way, a way that you don’t with power tools.

And what’s interesting is, a lot of times, people have a misconception about hand tools: that it’s a slow, archaic way of doing things. It’s not that hand tools didn’t work, but they just didn’t keep pace with the industrialization of society. So hand tools slowly fell by the wayside, and power tools took their place. And also, what a lot of woodworkers do is set up a mini-factory in their garage. But I find that many students say, “This is what I want to do. Hand tools are just so much more enjoyable”. You can do that in a small space, and it’s safe. You can still get cut with a hand tool, but it’s going to be far less severe than if you were to get cut with a machine.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a workbench class, and one of my students was hand planing the top of his workbench. Just imagine, this is a hard maple top, and it’s 31 inches wide and seven feet long, and he’s been planing it for quite some time. Someone walks in and says to him, “Well, what is that? That probably takes at least twice as long to do it by hand doesn’t it?” And I kind of just laughed inside because he’s missing the whole concept here. There are some things that the best way to them is by hand. All woodworking can be done totally by hand. Only part of it even can be done with a machine. If your aim is to mass produce something, it may be worth it to set up a machine that can efficiently mass produce it, but the finest pieces of furniture that were ever built during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were done entirely by hand.

I don’t mind using power tools for rough stock removal, but hand skills are necessary to do the finer joints and the finer details, such as the hand planing of the top. The truth of it is, there really would’ve been no mechanized way to flatten that workbench top without a huge industrial machine that very few shops could even have.  It would have to be something big enough to run the top through, in order to get it perfectly flat. But a hand plane will do it; it’ll get the top perfectly flat.

For more information, see our list of woodworking classes. To preview or subscribe to our journal, visit: SustainLife Quarterly Journal.

Essential Beekeeping Tools

Cap, veil, suit and gloves

Cap, veil, suit and gloves

If you are looking to get started with beekeeping and do not yet have equipment, here are the tools you’ll need:

  • Hive Tool — This is a small, steel pry-bar. Because bees are always producing wax and always waxing the inside of their hive, the parts of the hive get stuck together by the wax.  In the winter, I’ve had Langstroth hives waxed together so well that you could pick up the hive by the lid, and the entire hive would come up in one piece, and these hives weren’t light. The hive tool is what you use to pry the parts of the hive apart so that you can work on and inspect the hive.
  • Smoker — The smoker is a metal cannister you can fill with wood chips, grass and leaves then ignite. It makes smoke in a controlled way.  Whenever bees sense that something is coming to their hive (such as a bear or a beekeeper), they react by putting out an alarm pheromone–a scent that tells all the bees: “Danger is present.”  The smoke masks, or covers up, this alarm pheromone. When getting ready to look inside a hive,  I always use  a smoker, even at times when you could get by without it, because it keeps the bees calm, and that makes it safer–both for them and you.
  • Cap and Veil — The veil protects you from getting stung on the face and neck.  Some beekeepers go without any protective gear, but it’s safer to wear it. In my classes, I always ask students to please wear a veil.
  • Suit — The suit is not essential. I don’t wear one, but many beginning beekeepers will feel more comfortable around their bees if they do.  It’s basically a set of coveralls with a zipper front. Just be aware that it’s not foolproof–you can occasionally get stung, even with a suit, veil and gloves on.
  • Gloves — Beekeeper’s gloves are usually made of leather and cloth. They protect your hands and extend up to the forearm so that if you’re wearing long sleeves, which I recommend, they’ll cover the end of your sleeve well, so that bees don’t crawl in.
  • Bee Brush — When inspecting the combs or harvesting the honey, you can use this brush to gently brush the bees off the comb.

In terms of cost, most of these tools are fairly inexpensive. Smokers will run about $30-40, a veil and cap together are about $22, gloves are around $15 and a bee brush is under $5.  After you’ve gotten a hive, which you can purchase or build yourself, the bees are the biggest expense. A 3 pound package of bees, which is a good size to start with, runs about $110-130. Altogether, you should be able to start your first hive for under $400.

You can click any photo in the gallery below to see a larger view.

Learn More about Beekeeping

To learn more, see our online beekeeping videos or see our classes on beekeeping and other agricultural skills.