Welcome to Cranky Puppy Farm!

This blog belongs to two Gen X-er's smackdab in downtown Kansas City where we've been renovating and decorating two old Victorians built in the 1890's. Our life is filled with 3 demanding Pomeranians (1 of them cranky, of course), honking cars, noisy neighbors and the hustle and bustle of city life but we dream of the day when we can move to our 40-acre farm and hear nothing but the wind and the cows next door. Until then, we're chronicling our triumphs and mishaps here as we try to garden and preserve on 2 city lots, raise chickens, and learn all those things we should have learned from our grandparents. Welcome to our world - we hope you'll stay awhile!

Solar Permit Approved and Other News

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Our decision to retain a master electrician for our solar project has paid off, as he just waltzed into City Hall and successfully pulled our electrical permit for the solar array.  Had I done that myself, I would have had to submit the plan and then setup an appointment to go down and talk with them about the project.
The next step is to move the chicken coop out of the way, as it's sitting squarely where the array is going.  Once that's moved (if it EVER stops raining), we can get started with pouring the footings.  That is, when we find a local source for the Schedule 40 galvanized steel pipe that forms the frame to support the solar panels.  Our first source, which conveniently was just a couple of blocks away from us, petered out because they don't carry galvanized pipe. But we've got a lead on some other sources and the electrician may again help us out with a source and a discount.  Wouldn't that be great!?
In other news, I accepted the offer I received for that awesome new job and I started yesterday.  So far, it is turning out to be a good move - they seem to really value their employees.  Since they met their goals in 2013, the entire company is going on a trip to New Orleans this weekend.  They pay bonuses and raises twice per year.  Having worked for the State of Kansas for the past 9 years and without a raise for the past 5, I'd almost forgotten how greener the grass is in the private sector. Hallelujah! 
(Oh, and did I mention that the building is brand new and not full of mold like my old office?  We were all convinced that building was making us all sick.  I'm so glad to be out of that environment!)
I think that's all for updates.  It's raining AGAIN today after all those nasty storms went though here and it's cool at only 42 this morning.  I think it only made it to the upper 40's yesterday, which is really cool for late April.  I wonder if we're going to get a cool summer?  Wouldn't that be nice....

Making Cheese and Butter

Saturday, April 26, 2014

At last year's Mother Earth News fair, there was a demonstration on how to turn grocery store milk into cheese.  The tent where they were holding the demo was packed, so we could only get a seat in the very back and, while we could hear the explanation of what they were doing, we couldn't see a darn thing.  So, when I saw a local Communiversity class that was being offered on butter and cheese making, I jumped at the chance to get hands-on.

Turning Milk into Butter

The process for doing this is insanely easy.  We started with making butter, which is essentially just cream that's been beaten into submission. 

  1. Fill a mason jar with 2/3 cream and add the cap back on tightly.
  2. Shake, shake, and shake some more!  This will be a great 10 minute workout, trust me.
  3. Drain and rinse the butter.
  4. Season and serve!

At one point during the shaking, it will feel like everything is solid.  You'll have whipped cream at that point.  If you want to make whipped cream, add the sugar and vanilla before shaking. 

If you're making butter, keep shaking!  The solid feeling will go back to liquid eventually and that means you're almost done.  Keep shaking until the liquid slides easily down the inside of the mason jar.  If you want, you can open the lid and take a look at it.

Once the butter is ready, pour off the whey liquid. Then add water, shake a couple of times and pour off again. 

Keep in mind, this butter is not seasoned, so you'll probably want to add salt, garlic or any other seasonings that you want.

Turning Milk Into Cheese

Then we were on to the cheese making.  The cheese is commonly called "farmer cheese" and it's great as a spread on bread or crumbled on a salad or pasta.

There were 7 of us, so we needed to make a large amount of cheese.  A gallon and a pint of whole milk gave us about 32 oz of cheese.  If you're doing this at home, you might want to cut the amount down.  Using 1% or 2% milk works, but the amount of cheese will be less than if you use whole milk.  It's all about the milk fat!

Here are the super easy steps for doing this:

  1. Add milk to a medium or large saucepot.
  2. Heat to just boiling (bubbles around the edges), stirring constantly.  Do NOT let the milk scald or you will taste it in the cheese.
  3. Once it is just boiling, add your favorite acid:  2 Tbsp vinegar or lemon juice or lime juice.  We used vinegar, but I've read that you can use 1/2 cup buttermilk and it will give you really creamy cheese.
  4.  Turn off the heat and let the acid curdle the milk.  It will take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.  Stir it occasionally as it curdles and cools. 
  5. At the Fair, they used cheese cloth to strain the curds out of the liquid.  Our instructor for the class, however, said that it's hard to get all the curds out of the cloth.  She recommended using a common kitchen strainer instead.  It's easier to swirl the curds around in the strainer to make a ball, and it's easier to clean.  Just make sure you clean up immediately, as your dishwasher won't get the curds out!
  6. Keep swirling, and pressing to get all the liquid out.  Don't press the cheese through the strainer and lose all your hard work!

Still a bit wet...this was before I placed it in a paper towel to wick the moisture out of it.

The great thing about making your own cheese and butter is that you know exactly what the ingredients are.  Both the butter and cheese should be stored in the frig for up to a week, or you can freeze them for up to a year. 

Try it...this is super easy!

Dealing with Death On the Farm

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Now that I look at this picture, it almost looks like her neck is broken?
I always knew it was going to happen some day, even if I knew it wasn't going to be by my own hand.  But my gorgeous hens are only 3 years old, so I didn't expect it this soon.
When I went out to check on the chickens this morning, I noticed that only 3 of the Barred Rocks were out in the pen to greet me.  That's not something that would be alarming, as it's pretty common for one of them to be in the nesting box.
So I opened the door to grab the eggs and fill their feeder and that's when I saw her.  She was laying on the floor of the coop with her feet under her as if she had just laid down there to go to sleep.  Her eyes were closed and she looked so peaceful.  My initial reaction was that I needed to be quiet and not wake her, but I knew that wasn't the reality.  She was gone and it had happened sometime overnight.
There was no sign of trauma and she hadn't been acting ill.  In fact, she was fine yesterday.  But those of you who keep chickens know that they almost never show signs of being sick or having problems.  I know there are some people that do autopsies on their chickens to try to figure out what caused their death, but I've decided I'm not going to do that.  For one, I don't have the stomach for it.  And I'm not sure it would make a difference anyway.  Just in case, I checked over the rest of the flock to make sure they were OK and didn't find anything wrong.  I guess it was just her time?
Yes, she's just a chicken, but I raised her from a 3-day-old chick.  She's been a pet ever since and has provided us with delicious eggs, so she deserves a special burial.  She's now in her final resting spot next to our beloved dogs that have left us.

Our Solar Design is Approved!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I just got an email from KCPL that our solar array design was approved!  We submitted it on March 10th and then resubmit due to a misunderstanding on the form, so it took right at the 30 days that the utility promised.

Now the real fun starts.  We've got a chicken coop to move out of the way and 3 baby apple trees to relocate before we can start putting the support posts in place.  We have to have the system operational by June 30th, so we have plenty of time.
I'm so excited that we can finally move forward with this project!  If you want to start from the beginning and read more about our design, etc. just click here.

The Bees Are Here!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The past week and weekend has been a whirlwind for me - I got an unexpected job offer for an excellent opportunity that I'm really excited about and I must have been so excited that I ended up sick with a temp that went as high as 103.8 degrees.  If it had gone any higher, I told J. he was going to have to drive me to the hospital.  Luckily, it came down within 24 hours.  So forgive me for the long silence since my last post.

On Thursday, I got a call from Joli at Heartland Honey that the bees were in and could be picked up either Friday or Saturday.  Since I was on vacation Friday and all of next week, I decided to make the drive down to pick them up on Friday. They come in a little box with screen sides, and I was deathly afraid they would get out and come after me on the 30 minutes drive home.  We buzzed along all the way home...

The whole kit and kaboodle!

The bee hive that I won came in pieces and had to be put together, but it wasn't too hard and it came with everything I needed except for the wood glue.  Just wood glue and screws.  Then two coats of good exterior latex paint.  Bees like light colors, so I used our leftover house paint that's called "Plantation White".  Zippide doo dah, zippidee-ay!  My, oh my, what a wonderful day!  (If you don't get that Chevy Chase reference, click here!)

Gluein' and screwin'.  Oh, and some clampin' too....

Having read that early evening was the best time to install the bee package, I tried to stay in bed as long as I could.  My temp was down to 102.9 when I suited up to take the hive out and put them in.  Yep, I felt terrible, but I would have felt worse if I didn't get them in there and they started to die off.

J. carried everything out for me and helped find a spot in the corner of the yard where they won't be bothered.  The first thing you do is remove the inner three or four frames.  Then spray the bees with syrup water (ratio of 1 water:1 sugar).  This calms them and gives them something to eat as they lick each other clean.

The top of the package has a can in it that contains more sugar water.  When you remove that can, the bees can get out, but you need to remove it to get the queen out.  She's suspended in a cage so that the other bees can't sting her before they accept her.  (These are not HER bees yet...)

You suspend her in between two of the frames and then shake about half a cup of the bees on top of her. Then the rest get shaken into where the frames were that you removed.  Replace the frames gently, add the inner and outer cover and....voila!  You now have bees.

Not all the bees will come out of the package when you shake it and that's OK.  The rest of the bees in the box will eventually follow their fellow bees' pheromones out and into the hive.  When I checked on them today, everyone had made their way out.

In a couple of days, I'll have to go in and release the queen from her cage.   The bees are feeding her through the cage and they need to get to know her before accepting her as queen of the hive.  All in all, this has been a pretty cool experience so far.  We'll see if I say the same thing when I get walloped with a stinger.  Hopefully that never happens!

I'm sharing this with post with this week's Homestead Barn Hop and the Backyard Farming Connection. Go check 'em out!

Another Busy Weekend

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Our to-do list got a little shorter this weekend.    It started off with a trip to the metal recyclers on Saturday  morning to get rid of all the metal that we found while we were cleaning out the garage and basement.  

Then, after picking up 18 bags of mulch that were on sale from Home Depot,  J. and I headed back out to the farm to do some more work on the trees.  With a really good rain earlier in the week, there was no need to haul water out to them, but we did need to add some more dirt to where they'd settled into the holes, rake out the leftover dirt, and then add mulch to keep the water around the trees.  It's supposed to rain next week also and, if it keeps up the rain steadily like that, we won't have to go up there until mowing time.

Let's see...what else did we do?  Today we rented a tiller and got the garden bed ready to go.  Since we're planting in the nice dirt from our old raised garden beds, it really didn't need alot of tilling and we just went over it with a little Mantis.  Took about 20 minutes, I'd say. I was able to get those crazy potatoes in the ground finally.  The local birds were happy:  the chickens were busy doing additional tilling for me in the garden while the robins fought over the newly-unearthed worms and the sparrow family took a dust bath in the driveway.  It seems everyone was busy today.

I've had zero time to get any plants started, so we'll be planting from seed this year.  Or, in the case of the tomato plants, buying them.  Home Depot had Cherokee Purples and Early Girls for $2.00 a plant this weekend.  It's still a little cool (43 degrees tonight!) so I'll be hardening them off and then wait to put them in the ground maybe a week from now after it warms up a little bit more.

What were you up to this weekend?

Solar: Details of Our Plan

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Welcome to the 8th post in the series related to our solar energy project.
 Click here to start at the beginning!

As part of our application with the utility, we had to include a basic site drawing of where our panels will be located in relation to the house, and where the meter and shutoff switch will be located.  We talked about how important location is for solar arrays in an earlier post, but I thought it might be helpful if I shared this diagram so that it's easier for you to visualize our project.  Just click to biggify it so it's readable.
Click to biggify!
I spent quite a bit of time Googling and researching different solar panels before settling on the 3 things that I felt are really important (in order): 
  1. Cost
  2. Reliability\warranty
  3. Efficiency

Let's talk about efficiency first because my first instinct was to try to find the panels with the highest efficiency.  Most panels are around 13 to 15%, but there are higher panels out there.  In the lab, scientists have even developed panels that are 40% efficient!  The higher the efficiency, the higher the cost.  Just keep in mind that higher efficiency doesn't mean the panel is better - it just means that your array can be smaller because your panels are producing more power per square inch.  I quickly decided that I wanted panels in the 300-watt range so that my array could be as small as possible.  The highest panels on the market were 320-watt panels made by Kyocera with an efficiency rating of 16.10% but they were 1/3 more expensive than the 310-watt panels and that small increase in efficiency isn't enough to justify the greater cost, in my opinion.

It quickly became apparent that I needed a spreadsheet to store all my comparison data:

Click to biggify!
The panel that won my #1 spot is highlighted in red.  These Chinese-made 310-watt panels have high efficiency ratings, a 25-year warranty backed by 3rd party reinsurer Munich Re, and are cheap at just $0.84 per watt from WholesaleSolar.com.  When I went to get a quote, they told me the 310's were on serious backorder and that 305's were all that were available. They have the same efficiency rating and were available at $0.84 per watt also, and the small difference between 305 and 310 watts is almost negligible.

By the way...I normally like to buy American but this is one area where it's next to impossible.  Sharp has just announced that they are no longer going to be making panels in the U.S.  SolarWorld panels are American-made, but a little pricier and hard to get your hands on.  Be careful about the naming, because Canadian Solar panels are not actually made in Canada!

The next thing to consider is the inverter, or the device that converts the DC power generated by the panels to AC power that is used inside your house.  This is where I started to get really nervous about trying to piece everything together myself.  I knew that we wanted a grid-tied system, but I really wanted a turnkey system where I knew all the components worked with each other.  WholesaleSolar.com is a great resource for this:  you can choose from their grid-tied systems or off-grid systems at different sizes.  There are 3 types of inverters:  string inverters, Enphase (the most popular) or SolarEdge.  If you click on the "grid-tied system" link above, you can read about each one.

Again, the key is research, research, research and I was actually considering Enphase until I started reading real-life experiences like this discussion where a solar installer that installs both Enphase and SolarEdge systems had this to say about the reasons why he thinks the SolarEdge system is better:

  1. Better performance.  The popular Enphase M250 micro inverters are rated for 250 watts maximum.  So, while they can be used with the higher-watt panels (like the 305-watt panels we're installing), you're only going to get 250 watts (+ or - 5%).  With an average of twenty micro inverters in a typical system, that adds up to a tremendous loss of power over the life of your system. The SolarEdge power optimizers have a greater maximum output rating of 300 watts (+ or - 5%).  Granted, solar panels rarely put out 100% of their rated power, but I'd rather be sure that there no bottlenecks under ideal conditions.
  2. Better efficiency. The Enphase 250 is only rated for 96.5% maximum efficiency, whereas SolarEdge offers 98.3%. Over the life of the solar array, this difference in efficiency will add up to a considerable amount of power.
  3. Earlier power production.  The Enphase 215 requires that panels reached 22 volts before they begin producing power, whereas SolarEdge begin producing power with as little as 5 volts.  The Solar Edge solution provides power when the array is partially shaded and extends the power production window to earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon.
  4. Cost.  We paid $85 for each SolarEdge Optimizer but a comparable Enphase M250 costs almost twice as much at around $166 each.
  5. Better reliability?  There's alot of discussion about Enphase's use of electrolytic capacitors in their microinverters.  Apparently this is a problem in rooftop installations where high heat can cause the capacitors to fail.  We won't have that problem since we're mounting on the ground and will have plenty of airflow around the electronics; however, I'd rather not have to worry about it.   SolarEdge doesn't use electrolytics, which may be why they offer a 25-year warranty on their optimizers.  One note of caution here:  most, if not all, manufacturer warranties do NOT include the labor needed to replace failed components.  If you've got panels mounted on your roof, you'd have to pay someone to remove the panel, replace the failed component, and then remount the panel for anywhere from $300 to $500 (or do it yourself)
Having said that, Enphase is still a very popular, totally acceptable option.  In the end, you need to do the research and pick the manufacturer that fits your installation and that you feel comfortable with.  In our case, we were convinced that this SolarEdge grid-tied package was the right choice for us.

WholesaleSolar.com was awesome to work with as we went through the evaluation process and it was clear they knew what they were talking about.  They even assigned us a technician that was familiar with our utility rebates and requirements, which was really helpful.  He was kind enough to do a custom quote that allowed us to take advantage of a deal they had for cheaper prices for panels bought by the pallet.  (We only needed 32 panels, but we purchased 40 to get the better price - the others will be used on the farm or added to the array later in the future).  They spec'd out the inverters, wiring, rack mounting and everything we needed to complete the array.  We were even able to get 50% off the cost of the racking because of a promotion they were running.  In the end, this is what we ended up with:

That's delivered to our doorstep.  The only thing not included are (1) the conduit to bury the wire from the array to the house and (2) the pipe that will support the array.  Rather than pay shipping costs for that, it makes more sense to buy it locally.  Not including those costs, with the $2.00 rebate, we'll be getting back $19,520.  So that means we have $85.95 in unreimbursed costs (of which we can get 30% back as a federal tax credit!)

This is a really long post, so I'll close for now.  But I'm happy to answer any questions you might have...just leave me a comment below!

If you're interested in more on our solar project, please check the "Solar Project" section on the bar to the right.

I've shared this post with this week's Home Acre Hop.  Lots of interesting stuff going on over there, guys...

Winds of Change

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The last two days have been a whirlwind of hard work for us....literally!  We've been fighting upwards of 25 mile per hour gusts on both days, which I'm hoping are the winds that are finally bringing Spring to us on a permanent basis.  Albeit, about a month later than normal.

On Sunday, we planted the 6 large sugar maple trees that J. had bought at the auction a couple of weeks ago.  They've been sitting on our trailer since then and we really needed to get them out of the burlap and into the ground before they completely dried out.  Actually, it turned into a fun family outing, since J.'s mom, stepdad, brother and niece joined us as well.  We could not have done it without them, so this is a BIG public THANK YOU to all of them for all their help and hard work.

My new maple-lined driveway!
Along for the ride was the J.'s new brother, who he says is "furrier and cuter than my other brother".  Ah, brotherly love!  The comment might make more sense if I told you that the new addition is a cute-as-a-button Great Pyrenees puppy named Deuce Wellington.  He's only 9 weeks old and already knows how to shake hands.  Smart and cute! My phone battery was dead so I have no cuteness to show you.
We were tired puppies on Sunday!

These trees are somewhere around 12 to 15 feet tall (the one on the left is 1 of the 2 larger Green Mountain sugar maples and the other 4 are Fall Fiesta.)  There was no maneuvering these trees by hand, so we used the JD 5103's loader to get them off and take them to where we were planting them.  Then it took the 3 guys to maneuver them off and into the hole.   The Dingo and its posthole digger attachment made digging much easier.  J. said it was like "making meringue".  I guess...if you made meringue with large, heavy machinery.  LOL.  But 4 of us with shovels made short work of getting the holes dug once the ground was broken up.  The biggest holes had to be 4 feet wide by 33" deep and the smaller ones weren't much smaller.

Suffice it to say that we all collapsed in a heap once we made it home Sunday night.

Yesterday, we had the guys from Eli's Tree Service out to cut down the limbs on our neighbor's huge oak trees that are overhanging where our solar array is going.  Wouldn't want those falling on the solar panels! 

At one point, this guy was swinging around by his rope.  No way I'd get up there!

And we've got that big tree in the back that dropped a huge limb several months ago.  I'm pretty sure it's almost dead, so we're having them remove it for us.  They're also taking out 4 other smaller trees in the back of the property also.  Those are up in the power lines and leaning every which way, so I'd rather the professionals get them with the bucket truck.

Here it is all nicely packed onto their truck.  Overloaded on the truck, that is.  They actually broke one of their leaf springs because of the weight.

All of this was the first step in clearing space for the solar panels.  With the trees taken care of, now we have to move the chicken coop and transplant the 3 apple trees that we planted last year.

By the way, I think this puts our tree karma up by 5 points, since we took down 4 dead trees and 1 half-dead one, and planted 6 new ones.  And the mulch from our trees went across the street to Christine and Dave @ TheDeadlyNightshade so they can use it to line their garden paths.

What was everybody else up to this weekend?

I've shared this post with this week's Homestead Barn Hop. If you got here from there, welcome!  If you haven't been there, what are you waiting for?  Go check it out!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...