Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Time to light up the stove

Fall has officially arrived here on the homestead. We have fired up the wood stove.

Woodstoves have been a part of my life since I was a baby. I love the heat they give and I love cooking on them. In 1983, we had a huge windstorm in Seattle, on Thanksgiving day. Power went out over much of the city, and thousands of turkeys spoiled half-way through cooking. We invited everyone we knew to our house. We were newly married and had only an old two-burner Monarch "trash burner" woodstove, but we were able to feed 28 people in noisy, crowded comfort. Thanksgiving dinner was chili and sourdough pancakes by oil lamp light.

Our wood cookstove provides heat, hot water and cooking for the family pretty much from the onset of the rainy season till that point in spring when it doesn't seem worth the effort to keep it lit. It's a huge thing, we got used for about half the original price. We keep it fed from the woodlot that occupies the West and North edges of the property. Well, about half-fed. The 5 acres of woods produces about 1/2 the wood we need. The rest has to be purchased. I cut the standing deadwood, then the kids and I buck it to length and split it. This year we're stacking it in the new greenhouse, and it seems to be doing a great job of keeping the wood dry and accessible.

A woodstove is great for cooking on. The large, flat top is perfect for cooking things like eggs and pancakes. Cooking bacon, sausage, and anything else that generates grease without a pan, however, is a Very Bad Idea. The temperature of the stovetop varies with the distance from the firebox. So rather than changing the heat by changing the fire, you cook by moving the pot to a different part of the stove.

The oven is another matter. It can't be moved, and the smoke bypass, which forces the smoke around the oven, is not amenable to fine control. Instead, you have to keep an eye on the oven temperature and adjust the draft or the fire to to compensate for any variation. It's not as hard as it sounds, since most foods don't care about the difference between 325 and 375 degrees. For those that do, I would honestly just use the summer (electric) stove. Our oven is oversized, can hold two turkeys or two hams and easily reaches 400 degrees.

The "warming shelf" is nearly useless. It's too narrow to hold a pot or pan, and too hot to keep food except maybe salt on. I keep the kindling there. It doesn't wind upon the floor and says nice and dry. The hot water reservoir on the side is at once convenient and inconvenient. It's nice to have "instant hot water" available all the time. The downside is that it has to have water in it all the time (or else the steel warps) . The only outlet is at the bottom of the stove, really out of the way. I've been looking for a small hand pump to mount in the cover, but they all seem to have plastic parts. Given the hot environment, that might be a bad idea.

Managing a wood stove takes some getting used to if you've not done it before. Fortunately this one is airtight so I don't have to get up and feed it at 3 am like previous stoves we've had. Instead, I load it up before going to bed, and close the drafts. In the morning there's a bed of coals. I just open the drafts and drop in some wood. The fire lights itself. This is a good time to get back into bed, especially when the weather's cold. 15-20 minutes later, it's putting out enough heat to boil a kettle and maybe make some oatmeal or eggs.

It's way too easy to let the fire die in the mid-afternoon. You're warm, the house is warm, you're thinking about other things. It's difficult with wood cookstoves generally and this stove in particular to get a fire going. The smoke path is long and complex and until the chimney is warm (and providing a draft) there's very little air movement in the firebox. It's best to load it and damp it down just like at night. That way you have the firebox loaded up for making dinner besides.

Woodstove time means fall. The canning is done, the wood cutting is done, it's time to settle in to a warm, comfortable winter.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


We lost the goat yesterday. We still have her two doe kids. It's one of the hardest things about farming, to lose a good animal. Heidi was about 4 years old. We got her from an animal rescue organization. She was rescued from a farm where a feral dog pack had gotten into the barn and killed almost all the other goats. So far as anyone could tell, she had never been outside of a barn before. She adapted readily to us and our three dogs, and loved having a shed where she could go in and out as she pleased. She loved green grass, and the children's presents of dandelions and blackberry leaves.

She kidded about 3 weeks ago, giving us two perfect doe kids, one on the small side and one quite large. She was an excellent mother, keeping her kids well-fed and scrupulously clean. We think she may have retained a small piece of placenta. She didn't show any signs of sickness until she started having diarrhea about a week ago. We thought she might be getting too much green grass or too much grain. We cut back her supplements and gave her more dry hay. She took a remarkable down turn on Sunday, and started showing signs of fever and infection. We called all the local vets first thing Monday, and no-one in the area could see her until late in the afternoon. The vet diagnosed coccidiosis and gave her a penicillin injection. We brought her home, and she was dead within the hour. Susan and I disagree about what killed her. She thinks it was an allergic reaction to the antibiotic that the vet gave her. I think is was the infection.

One of the hard parts is all the second-guessing that you go through. What if we had done something differently? Should we have medicated her, not knowing what the infection was? Should we have called the vet Friday? You don't usually spend $50 on an office visit just because a goat has diarrhea. Diarrhea in grazing animals is common and often just a sign of overly rich feed. Should we have called the vet on the weekend, and spent $250-$300 that we didn't have on a vet call? I don't have any answers to the questions. I don't know for certain any of that would have saved her.

Now we're down one goat, we don't have her milk, we have two bummer kids to raise. My daughter won't be able to show her at the county fair this year. I spent $40 today on kid milk replacer and sufanilamide (to stop the infection that she almost certainly passed to the kids). We'll have to buy goat milk from the local goat dairy another year, at $6 per gallon (Susan is allergic to cow's milk), and cows milk from the store for the rest of us.

On the plus side, we have two beautiful doe kids. We might be able to breed the larger one this winter. In two years we'll have two milking goats and 2 or 3 kids, and perhaps a yearling or two to sell. That's not too bad for a $100 investment.

You just have to make the best decisions you can with the information you have. Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong, and sometimes you just can't tell.