Notes from Windward: #63

Pine Grove - our annual rite of spring

     There's an event which always marks the start of the spring season for us - the Pine Grove Auction. Pine Grove is a small agricultural community some six miles south of Hood River, Oregon, and the way they capitalize their volunteer fire department is by holding an annual auction where folks either put things up for auction, with the auctioneer's fee going to the fire department, or just donate things outright.

     The challenge of building a sustainable community is mammoth, and there's way more things worth doing than there's going to be time and money in any given year to actually do, so budgeting out our resources for the upcoming year is one of the winter tasks we tackle by throwing another log on the fire and pondering all the possibilities.

     Most of the options are pretty straight forward given where we happen to be on the development curve at any given point in time, but there's one "wild card" that always has a notable impact on our plans each year - Pine Grove. Since things routinely turn up there that aren't readily available to us any where else, we're hesitant to commit to spend any discretionary funds until after the first weekend of March.

     There's no telling what you're going to find for sale at Pine Grove, but over the years a remarkable portion of the things we rely on were acquired there. A key example would be the 1980 3/4 ton 4 wheel drive Chevy truck that does so much of the grunt work around here such as hauling home the 15 tons of hay we go through in a winter. While our roads are easily handled by two wheel vehicles some 50 weeks a year, on average there are those other two weeks when having a high clearance, heavy duty all weather rig sure does come in handy.

     The auction starts at nine in the morning, so you need to get there well before then in order to scout out the things you're interested in. Once the bidding starts, the area is so crowded that it's hard to even see what's being bid on, let alone check it out in detail.

     What makes it even more of a challenge is that they start off with two auction going simultaneously, and add a third auction around 11 AM, so it's a real challenge to keep track of three auctions at once. Consequently, we've learned to work the Pine Grove auction as a team; this year Gina "O," Joe and I arrived early, with Fern and Terri arriving before the third auction got underway. With Joe watching the household appliances, and Gina watching the agricultural gear, I don't think that anything we were interested in got away without our having a chance to bid on it.

     This year was, again, well worth the trip; here's a rundown on some of the treasures the Windward crew was able to acquire.

the new stove for the cabin
     Perhaps the most surprising acquisition was a stove and oven set for the new cabin. While it may not be obvious to the casual observer, there's considerable tension at the sale between us frugal ruralities looking for bargains, and those spendthrift yuppies with money to burn :-) Once they decide that something is just too cute to pass up, the bidding quickly rockets out of anything that we can compete with, and we just have to move on to the next item.

     For example, there were six used metal lawn chairs that would have been nice for the patio in front of our dining hall, and I left Joe with a bid ceiling of $25 for them. He reported back that two yuppies got into a bidding fight over them, and they'd wound up going for $25 each.

     Anyway, luck would have it that a brand new freestanding range and built-in oven set up had been stacked in the back behind a junky old freezer with an unfinished wood boat stacked on top of it.

     Evidently no one had gone to the trouble of investigating the back of the pile enough to realize what it was, with the surprising result that no one challenged my opening bid. I had been certain that some yuppies would snap it up, but evidently they were napping, and the rule in a fast paced auction is "if you snooze, you lose."

      Once the hammer falls, the deal is done.

     We were also able to pick up a used electric stove for Finney. We want to covert Finney over to propane when time and funds allow, but a good, used stove is good enough for now. We also picked up four sinks of various sorts, one of which was an old cast-iron corner sink that must weight at least a hundred pounds. Personally, I really enjoy incorporating the old, heavy gear into our projects.

     A chest freezer rounded out the appliances we picked up this year. It had some rust on the exterior, so the yuppies weren't interested and didn't challenge my two dollar opening bid. Even if it doesn't work, it's the perfect size for containing one of our L-16 battery sets. Lead acid batteries need to be isolated so that the battery fumes are vented to the outdoors, and one way to do that is to assemble the L-16 units inside a chest freezer that uses a tiny 12 volt fan to suck room air into the freezer and then out through a vent.

     We also did well in the area of construction supplies. Last fall, we built a greenhouse deck for Heather's trailer, and it's complete except for the door since the cost of the clear fiberglass panels tapped out the construction budget for that project. A new pre-hung entry door would run about a hundred bucks, so that had to wait until spring.

Heather's greenhouse deck
     Over the years I've come to adopt a personal philosophy that doors open and doors close, and that it's better to work with the doors that are open than to try and force the ones that are closed. Winter's a "hunker down" time when we stay close to the fire, recharge and await the return of "working weather," and one thing we don't do in winter is spend much money on construction materials until we see what shows up at Pine Grove.

     As it turned out, one auction lot consisted of four pre-hung doors that I was able to pick up for $12. They're currently squirreled away in one of our storage containers, and one of them is just the right size for installing as the outer door to Heather's greenhouse porch.

     Another construction acquisition involved two new 2'x4' fixed skylights complete with flashings. We were able to pick them up for about 20 cents on the dollar, so they're now tucked away in the storage container too. Other miscellaneous supplies we picked up were more ceiling vents and 8" round ducting.      In winter, the best bet is to use a ceiling fan to move the air around, but in summer all you need to do is open a ceiling vent and allow that hot air to escape upwards. Fans are good, and way better than a window air conditioner, but effective passive design is the heart and soul of sustainable living. And so, where possible we install roof vents to exhaust the hot summer air, and when fall comes, we insert a 2" thick Styrofoam plug to seal the vent for winter.

the vaulted ceiling in the kitchen
     The galvanized air duct will serve a similar function in the dining hall. There we have a fully insulated roof, a vaulted ceiling to gather the warm air in summer and a ceiling fan to distribute the warm air back down in winter. That would be good enough if we were dealing with an ordinary room, but given the heat generated by the range, oven and the skylights, we need one more thing to keep the kitchen cool in the summer.

     Later this year we'll be installing the stainless steel range hood over the commercial stove, and the bulk of the heat generated during the preparation of the noon meal will be exhausted by the hood's powerful exhaust fan.

     But even after the cooking's done, and the exhaust hood is shut down, there'll be residual heat from the stove combining with heat from the light coming in through the skylight and large south-facing windows to deal with, and even though the ceiling's insulated, there'll still be some heat making its way through on hot summer days. It's important to remember that insulation doesn't stop heat transfer, it just slows it down.

     The heat that accumulates in this way during the day will be handled by a grate installed at the peak of the ceiling on the east wall of the main kitchen area. When a thermostat located at the peak senses the accumulation of a layer of hot air near the ceiling, it will turn on a fan which will move that hot air through the ducting we picked up at Pine Grove this year, and then exhaust it out under the eaves at the east end of the dining hall using about one fiftieth the energy it takes to run the main exhaust hood.

our new high-tech low-flush toilet
note: it's shown laying on its size and the
water tank is upside down in this shot
     This summer's work on the dining hall will focus on the shower/toilet room. The construction of a bathroom is always technically demanding, and this one will be especially so since it's going to be handicap accessible. None of us need that today, but life is uncertain and it's always good to have something and not need it than vice versa.

     This year's Pine Grove haul netted us two key bathroom components: a high-tech low-flush toilet and a stainless steel medicine cabinet.

     For at least the past decade, municipalities have been "mining the waste" in order to keep up with growing demands on regional power generation, water supplies and waste management. Instead of spending public funds on building larger production and processing facilities, it was easier to tighten up technological standards in ways that made new and remodeled construction more efficient, steps which have resulted in the design and utilization of, for example, toilets that flush with about a gallon less water than toilets used ten years ago.

a stainless steel medicine cabinet
     I was amused to note that the large water holding tank is way larger than actually needed, and mostly contains a plastic thingy which reduces it's actual holding capacity substantially. My guess is that a tank that was actually sized to the application would have looked wrong to people used to a certain relationship between the size of the bowl and the tank.

     Whatever the reason, we'll just take that out and use the full volume per flush since we're using a septic system to process our waste instead of having it pumped for miles to some city sewage plant. While we are careful to not waste water either, moving waste down the line to the septic tank is one place where we figure that it's water well spent.

     When it's unclear just what all's included in a stack of boxes which look vaguely similar, the auctioneer often decides to "sell it all for one money" with the result that in order to get what you want you often wind up hauling home the rest of the stack as well. In order to get the pallet with the really nice stainless steel medicine cabinet, I wound up the winner bidder for a pallet of medical supplies such as latex gloves, stainless steel towel dispensers and one remarkable two-doored cabinet.

     It took a while, but we finally figured out what it was. When the nurse hands you a little cup and send you into the bathroom to produce a urine sample, once you've complied, you're supposed to put it in the cabinet for collection. The collection cabinet actually has two doors, and the sample is then removed from the other side.

the two door cabinet
     Now that we have one of these little marvels, we're having a good time thinking up some sort of credible way to use it. The best idea so far involves installing it in the south side of the dining hall wall so that folks in the kitchen can place glasses of cool beverages on out to folks sitting on the patio. That may not be all that handy, but it's the best idea we've come up with so far.

     Gina "O" has spent a good deal of time this winter sorting through our storage areas getting things into some semblance of order, and on numerous occasions she's shaken her head over the quite strange assortment of things to be found in the back recesses of our storage lockers. Now that she's been through her first Pine Grove, it's my turn to chuckle as she goes through the process of figuring out where to store stuff that we don't really have any foreseeable use for, but still looks like it's too good to throw away.

     Because Pine Grove is an agricultural community, there's always a chance to pick up bits and pieces of old farm equipment. These days, the small farms are just about gone, and with them the market for small farm equipment. Over the years we've been able to pick up things at Pine Grove which were pretty much unavailable elsewhere.

the "new" scrapper bucket attachment
     This year, there were four scraper buckets included in the agricultural gear. These are utensils which mount on the three point hitch located on the back of a tractor, and used to raise and lower attachments. This particular attachment functions as an overgrown shovel capable of scooping up a wheelbarrow load of dirt and muck at a time.

     Once the scoop is full, the 3-pt mechanism lifts the scoop mouth up just like you do if you were using a shovel to carry dirt. Once the tractor has transported the load to where you want it, you can either stop the tractor and dump the load in one spot, or you can dump it while your moving in order to spread out the load.

     There's no way around the fact that organic gardening involves moving large quantities of muck and mulch, and while it's good exercise that works up an honest sweat, there rapidly comes a point at which the amount of work involved limits one's enthusiasm noticeably.

     The attachment is also handy in other ways. For example, we need to move a substantial amount of gravel up to the water tank area to form the base for the underground tank that we'll be installing this summer. It's a 1,200 gallon tank, and it has to rest on a level and stable base or else the stress of uneven settling could rupture the tank. It's bad enough when an above ground tank ruptures, since you can see the problem whereas an underground rupture will leak slowly enough to leave you wondering where your water went.

     We'll still have to shovel the gravel into the scrapper bucket, just like we would if we were using a small utility trailer. The difference is that when we get up to the work site, the scrapper will hydraulically dump the gravel into the pit, which is much better than having to shovel it out of the utility trailer.

     I was so pleased with the price I was able to get the scrapper bucket for that I "splurged" and bought a round bale feeder. Instead of the traditional rectangular bales that you're probably used to seeing straw or hay come in, many farmers have been switching over to putting up hay in large round bales.

the heavy-duty round bale feeder
     Light oxidizes much of the food value in hay that's exposed to sunlight, and since round bales have a much lower ratio of surface area to overall weight, they're more efficient. You can even buy what are in effect overgrown trash bags to contain the bales insuring that they remain dry and fresh even when exposed to the weather.

     Since one round bale commonly contains as much hay as twenty standard bales, there's a substantial economic incentive to use a tractor to move one round bay instead of hired help to move twenty "little" ones. However, the different shape requires a different feeder set up, otherwise the cattle would walk all over the hay and waste most of it.

     Consequently, round bale feeders have been built sufficient to keep hungry, determined cattle weighing in at more than half a ton each at bay. My guess was that such a feeder could be counted on to constrain the enthusiasm of even our most aggressive ewes.

     Making the changeover from an bovine feeder to something that will work with ovines will require some modifications, but nothing we can't handle. And since it unbolts into three 120° sections, it's easily portable and will enable us to set up a serious feeder in various locations as we move the sheep around from season to season.

     Late in the afternoon, about seven hours into the auction, I made the last purchase of the day. It was one of those mixed emotion purchases since the last thing I wanted to do was to buy so much that I had to come back the next day to get the rest of the stuff. Pine Grove is over an hour each way from home, so it would have to be a real bargain to tempt me into making the extra trip.

the mini-cabover camper
     The item in question was an old cab-over camper. It wasn't much to look at, but it was sound and so I threw out an opening bid of $25. Well, everyone must have been as tired as I was, because no one was willing to challenge my bid, leaving me having to figure out how I was going to get all this stuff home in one run.

     Perhaps the reason no one challenged my bid was because this camper was built to fit a narrow bed pickup, not a full size one, and most folks out here drive trucks to work 'em, and don't have much interest in those little city-sized mini-trucks ;-)

     The size didn't really matter because we'll use it as an portable office anyway. Folks settling in at Windward need three things: a place to sleep, a place to do their work and a place to keep their stuff. This will help with the second part.

     A cab-over camper is a bit small as a place to sleep for more than a night or two, and I've become quite fond of the camper that I use when I'm working away from Windward, but even this modest cab-over will make a fine little office with plenty of room to set up a computer, install book shelves and get about the business of writing, drawing or some such craft which doesn't require the amount of room that one would need for more active crafts such as jewelry making or pottery.

     And so the saga of another year's Pine Grove auction comes to an end. Each year's event offers its share of surprises, and this year was better than most. And now that it's past, it truly feels like the new year is here and bursting at the seams.