Notes from Windward: #60

Well, we made it 23 years without a serious fire.

The good news is that no one was injured, and nothing irreplaceable was lost, but fire has taken the kitchen. If you're familiar with trailer fires, you can appreciate that it didn't take very long to go.

The fire came about because of a string of cause and effect that just clicked into place like wheels on a cosmic slot machine.

The set up began with a county-wide power outage at 7 AM. As best we can figure out, someone started to cook their breakfast; when the range top didn't function, they may have left the burner on. Or, perhaps later on someone may have bumped one of the controls.

We're used to power outages, and the lunch crew just switched over to propane and when ahead. Afterwards, since there wasn't any hot water, the lunch dishes were just stacked and left for later. Some of them were stacked on the range, which given the limited amount of space in the kitchen, was a common practice.

It's good practice to shut down power to a working building when the power is out, so that the power doesn't come back on without anyone there to oversee. In retrospect, this seems like an especially good practice.

About 2 PM, the power came back on, and by 2:15, Heather saw smoke coming from the kitchen. She spread the alarm, and folks converged. Bob1 and I were up on the hill, burning brush ironically enough, when we heard the lunch bell ringing in crisis mode.

When I arrived, there was lots of smoke coming out of the kitchen, and some quick but futile efforts were made to stem the fire. One especially frustrating part was that the main fire extinguisher wasn't in it's customary place. There's a commercial fire extinguisher that's kept at the point of entry to the kitchen, but because of a small grease fire two weeks before, the kitchen crew had moved it inside and put it on the top of the oven, a location which now was on the opposite side of the fire from the door.

By the time Heather, Fern and Joyce got a hose hooked up (our fire gear was deployed where we were burning brush), I had already made the decision that the kitchen was lost, and had started on the process of backing up and looking at the bigger picture. The greatest threat at that point was posed by the propane tanks which suppled the kitchen. In short order, we chopped through the lines and rolled the tanks away, shut down the electrical service and started to police the surrounding area in order to minimize the chance of the fire spreading.

It was a calm day, and for the most part, the brands from the fire were falling nearby, so we were able to keep the fire from spreading to the other buildings. We did find a smoldering brand more than 150 away, but once it was evident that the fire would be contained, everyone started to calm down.

Now that the smoke's cleared, the primary effect is that we're going to have focus on getting the dining hall shelled in and functional before the winter rains come. For now, we're doing mostly outdoor style cooking and eating at the picnic table. Some of our friends have sent in some monetary support to help replace kitchen stuff, and the help is very appreciated.

I'm reminded of Darwin's comment that " It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change." I'm very proud of the way the our team jumped into action, shifted things around and kept going. Michele commented that she was impressed that even though the kitchen burned down, dinner went forward that evening as scheduled - we didn't even miss a meal.

Finishing the dining hall wasn't the focus that we had in mind for this year, but oh well :-) Looks like construction on the cabins is going to have to wait until next year. Not what we had planned, but as they say, life is what happens while you're making other plans :-)

These things never come at convenient times. We'd already embarked on a massive improvement project for the water system, so having to deal with the debris from the fire, and the need to get construction jump started on the dining hall, all got added to the plate when we were already quite busy.

In June, we installed 2,600' of new one inch water line running from the lower well up to the water tank, with side runs off to provide a permanent supply to the summer showers, as well as a new run to the main garden. The last two winters have seen minimal snowfall, and we're worried that we're seeing a fall off of production in our primary well at the same time that our on site population is growing and needing more water. When average amounts of snowfall return, the problem should go away, but that's not good enough.

A series of dry winters has triggered the decision that we need to be able to access the water in the lower well; it's 190' deep and taps a lower water strata than does our main well which is only some 85' deep. Given the high clay content of our soil, we can't dig water lines in the spring, but have to wait until the ground dries out enough so that the dug dirt will actually fall out of the backhoe bucket. It's comical to see the backhoe having to shake its boom in order to try and get the dirt to fall out of the bucket, but it's no way to dig a long ditch.

We also have to get the digging done before the ground dries out so much that the clay is too hard to dig. Fire or no fire, the digging had to go forward or we'd miss the window and have to delay that project until next year.

While we were at it, we also dug in a new 600 foot long 1 1/4" water line for the dining hall. The original routing of the water line was awkward, but the placing was dictated by our property line, since folks tend to get testy when you start ditching on their land.

Now that we have acquired another 150' of land to the north, a better, more effective route was possible. While it may not sound like a lot of difference, a 1 1/4" line will pass a lot more water than a 1", especially in a gravity-feed system. This will also give us water to the new upper garden.

Anyway, I'm pleased to report that the new lines are in and tested. Still, there's a lot of work yet to do as we make the connections, install the needed manifolds (so that we can switch water from area to area depending on the needs), and build the vaults needed to protect the manifolds from freezing. All in all, it's comforting to know that we can now bring the lower well on line in fairly short order.

Bringing the lower well on line is exciting for another reason in that it will finally take our water supply off-grid. It's long been a frustration for us to be primarily dependent on the power grid, but in these initial stages, there hasn't been a lot we could afford to do about it. Renewal energy is "free" in the operational sense, but it requires a lot of capital investment to set it up, and we've just had too many other projects that needed the money. For that matter, we still do, but bringing on the lower well is a case where the investment is warranted because solar is the best way to go on a purely economic basis.

We'll be installing a solar powered pumping system that will substantially boost our water supply during the sunny months. The beauty of this type of installation is that peak production matches peak demand.

Also, because the system is "direct drive", there's no need for energy storage since the energy is used as it's produced. Batteries and regulators are expensive and require a protective structure, regular maintenance, and add considerably to the overall cost of the system.

The system we'll be installing uses a charge controller to store up small amounts of energy that then pulse the pump. It's sort of the same way that the flash on a camera stores energy which is then released when you take a picture. When the sun is high and bright, the pump runs at full speed; when the sun is low on the horizon, or there's some cloud cover, the pump still lifts water, just not as much.

Another development is the new pole barn. Each year, we feed a lot of hay to our goats and sheep, and since we don't yet grow and process that forage, we're currently buying about 15 to 20 tons a year. In the hay business, you can pay top dollar for premium dairy hay, or you can pay considerably less for mixed hay, some of which is considerably "mixed."

Beyond the issue of cost, there's the matter of effective utilization. The critters tend to waste between 10% and 20% of their feed when you just open up a bale and feed them on the ground. To make matter worse, much of what's lost is the little leaves and tasty bits that are the most nutritious. There's also the matter that feeding "on the ground" exposes the animals to parasitical worms, something which lowers the effectiveness of the feed even further.

One answer is to run the hay through a feed mill first, and then feed the critters in above-ground feeders. This process pulverizes the stems thereby making them more palatable, it "averages" out the variation between one bale and the next, and it allows to adjust the protein content, add some minerals and a bit of molasses. The machine is sort of an eight-foot tall food processor :-)

We were able to track down a feed mill, but were confronted with the need for the mill to be enclosed. It doesn't take much rain for a piece of equipment like that to become hopelessly gummed up. Given the other things on our plate, we knew that we wouldn't have time to build anything to house the mill, so we contacted a local construction company that specializes in pole barns.

Wow! These guys were awesome. They came in and built a 20'x30' pole barn in less than 24 hours. They showed up around two in the afternoon, and worked until about seven that evening. They were back by seven the next morning and were putting the finishing touches on it by lunch time.

It was sort of like watching a tornado in reverse. One day there was nothing but a cleared area, and the next there was a building ready to use. All we would need to do is to attach the fence panels to the outside, and we'd be ready to start storing and processing hay.

Cindy has finally been able to move over to Finney trailer. There's still lots of work to do, but things have progressed to the point where Finney has power, water and sewer. Projects left to do include finishing the mud room/entrance, installing the propane lines, changing out the water heater from electric to propane, replacing some windows, building a deck/entrance on the front side, and so on. You can see why we've come to think of Finney trailer as the "never ending project."

The phone lines haven't made it yet, and when there's a teenager in the house, phone service is "an essential," but we're working on that too. Given the growing use of computers, faxes and such, running phone lines is more complicated than it used to be. At some point in the reasonably near future, we'll be installing our own computer network here at Windward, something which we'll need to facilitate folks who want to live here and telecommute, so we're installing everything we think we'll need the first time around.

We're having lots of fun with the garden this year. It's still mostly an experimental program, but it's fun to see some of the kinks working out. One of the key experiments we're working on is the utilization of domestic fowl for the control of insect damage on garden plants.

Our ducks love bugs of all sorts, but they also enjoy snacking on succulent plants such as cabbage and beets. We've solved that problem by making small mobile pens that we can use to keep the ducks out of the cabbage, while still giving them full access to things like onions and potatoes.

I'm pleased to relate that we have a large potato patch in full growth and bloom, without hardly any leaf damage at all. The birds are keeping the insects in check without the use of any insecticides.

We're finding that the India runner ducks are working out best because their web feet aren't suitable to scratching around, so they're not disturbing the roots of the plants in the way that the chickens tend to. Lost an entire patch of strawberries that way last year; chalk it up as part of the tuition charged for hands on learning.

For those unfamiliar with India runners, they're the ducks that Daffy Duck was modeled after. They're raised around the world as egg layers, producing more than 170 eggs per hen per year. India runner eggs are hard to distinguish from our chicken eggs, but part of that is because our chicken eggs are especially rich due to their free range diet. Between the Aracannas, the Rhode Island reds and the ducks, the egg rack in the fridge holds quite a colorful selection.

The original batch of ducks we purchased some six years ago were incubator chicks, and they didn't have much left in the way of maternal instincts. Of those original ducklings, only two were interested in setting a clutch of eggs. We've consistently saved the hen-chicks from those founding mothers, and by now we've pretty much restored the ability of our hens to set a nest and hatch a brood.

This year, we've had at least eight duck hens go the distance, producing more than fifty ducklings. Since half of those are boy ducks who'll be invited to dinner in the fall, the over all production in meat, eggs and feather down will form a notable contribution to our program, all in addition to the added productivity in the garden.

We even have two hens "ducking" it out for Mother-of-the-Year. After laying and hatching one brood of ducklings, both hopped back on the nest and turned out a second brood.

That's turned out to be a bit of a problem since both nests hatched out at the same time. Ducklings aren't too good at keeping straight which duck is _their_ momma duck, but they're really good at sticking with the other ducklings. The result is that one momma duck gets completely surrounded by more than twenty chicks, while the other stands there quacking her lonely heart out, doubtlessly feeling betrayed and abandoned.

Given the steady development of Gina's flock, it's looking like she's is going to be well started in the organic, fertile duck egg business by next season. There's a large Asian community here in the Pacific Northwest, and a steady market for ducks and duck eggs. Living off the beaten path requires that one be a little creative at finding a special niche. Ranching ducks may not be as glamorous as ranching cattle, but .....

Bob1 is up for the summer, and is really making a difference. In addition to working on his permanent area, the "depot", he's lending a hand to a range of projects that had needed doing, but hadn't worked their way up to the top of the priority list. Since we're in a continual growth phase, the primary task is to get new systems up and running, with the unintentional result that there's a lot of detail work that often tends to get left 'til later - usually, way later.

Back in the mid-80's, when we made the move up from southern Nevada, some of the core folk remained behind. Given the uncertainties inherent in such a move, it's was important that some of the team remained behind in order to keep their "day jobs." Our newsletter started out as a way to keep them up to date on what was happening on site.

With Bob1 working on his personal site, and the foundation going in for Danny's cabin, it's good to see the old-timers preparing to come home to stay. It's been a strange and bumpy journey, and the kitchen fire was a vivid reminder that there's danger even in a safe harbor, but still we have so much to be grateful for that it's hard to dwell on the trials of the journey past.

And so I'll close this latest update with best wishes from the folks at Windward. Thanks for your interest and support.


P.S. There's been a resolution of sorts of the problem caused by two nests hatching out at the same time. The chicks have formed one vast super-clutch, and the two hens have agreed to team up to watch over the combined herd of chicks. It's a non-traditional sort of arrangement for them, but if the chicks won't separate, what's a momma duck to do?