Raising Chickens – Part 1

We Got Chickens!

Cat on box of chicks

Really? For me? Oh, you shouldn’t have!

The past several months have been a crazy whirlwind, but it’s been driving me nuts that I haven’t gotten this post written yet – This should have been up by the beginning of May! Oops.

We’ve been talking about getting chickens for a long time, but were never quite at the right place to do it. That is until this spring when we finally made the leap.

It was actually all very sudden and not at all the way that I would have normally gone about it. As a dyed-in-the-wool researcher and planner, I would have prepared a lot more – had a coop built, bought all the chicken paraphernalia, and read a few books and dozens of web sites before ever bringing a single chicken home. But sometimes Breanna pushes me over a ledge before I have finished all my calculations, which is probably a good thing (at least some of the time).

So we were talking about chickens this spring (again), but were feeling like it wasn’t the right time (again). I already had a long list of summer projects that needed to get done and Breanna was entering the final stretch of her grad school and was busier than ever. We eat quite a few eggs and are dedicated to getting the most healthy, humane eggs we can find, but that can prove tricky (and pricey). We knew that raising our own laying hens wouldn’t necessarily save us money, but it would ensure that we always knew exactly what was going into them and wouldn’t have to worry about misleading labels or questionable farm practices. The tipping point was when we realized that if we didn’t get chickens now, we would have to wait another full year. Neither of us was really willing to do that.

Racing Against the Clock

We picked up a copy of the “chicken bible” – Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, visited all of the local feed stores to pick out the breeds we wanted, and got a huge storage tote to fashion into a DIY chick brooder. I cut large holes in the tote that I covered with pieces of hardware cloth, filled it with bedding, and set up a waterer and feeder. I also ordered some nipple waterers that go onto empty soda bottles in order to train them to drink from nipples later on (more on that later).

We started out with a heat lamp, but felt very uncomfortable with the fire danger, especially with curious cats clambering on and around the chick brooder. We quickly returned the lamp and opted for the safer, more efficient, and more natural Brinsea EcoGlow 20. It was quite a bit more expensive than a heat lamp, but it was absolutely worth it for the peace of mind and ease of use.

Within a week of deciding to jump into chicken ownership, we had six new chicks as the new centerpiece to our living room. I knew from some online research that I managed to squeeze in that we probably had about three weeks tops before the chicks outgrew their brooder and would need to go into a coop outside – also, with nowhere but our living room to keep them, we wanted to get them out of the house before things got too crazy.

Here again, I would have researched all kinds of coop setups and probably put the best of all of them into a fully DIY chicken coop design of my own that perfectly suited our needs. Six cheeping voices told me that wasn’t really feasible though, so I went to my trusty source for most things Pacific Northwest homestead-y, Northwest Edible Life to see what they had done. That’s where I learned about the fancy and functional Garden Coop that seemed to include just about everything I was looking for in a chicken coop design.

In addition to the coop plans, I also went ahead and ordered the hardware kit. I fully embraced the idea that following existing plans and having a pre-picked box of hardware would save me a ton of time and frustration and would be worth the money.

Meet Some Cute Chicks

We decided to go with mellow breeds that were hybrid meat/layer birds. That way they would serve multiple functions pretty well as pets, egg producers, and eventually, dinner. We got two Ameraucanas (because Breanna really wanted green/blue eggs), two Black Australorps, and two Wyandottes – one silver-laced and one gold-laced.

We originally talked about not giving them names so that when we eventually harvested them it would hopefully be a little less personal. Of course within hours of getting them home, Breanna had given them each a name. So there went that idea. But I do have to say, our girls are REALLY damn cute.

Next up, I’ll talk about building the Garden Coop – a construction project that turned out to be a little more challenging than I had expected. Until then, say hello to Blueberry (named by our brother-in-law), Marjorie, Hilda, and Cleopatra.

Baby chickens

Lending Club Update

I’ve had my little Lending Club experiment running for about a year now, so I figure it’s high time to post an update on how things have gone and my “initial” impressions.

Lending Club - How It Works

I haven’t added any more funds since getting up to $500, but I’ve regularly reinvested the principal and interest payments that I’ve received. That actually brings me right to my major complaint about Lending Club – the investment process is a PROCESS.

The “notes” that you invest in have a window of time during which they can be funded. If they are not fully funded within that time frame, then they are cancelled. Most of the notes that I find to invest in usually have anywhere from 10-13 days left in their window, which means that once I “purchase” that note, my money sits idle for up to two weeks. During this time a note can also be cancelled if Lending Club’s review of the borrower does not meet their standards.

If the note gets cancelled for any reason, you have to start over. This has meant that on several occasions I’ve had money sitting idle for a month or longer that could have been invested.

Assuming everything goes well and the note is approved and fully funded, you then have just one month where all of your money is working for you. The payments of principal and interest made to your account go back into your general fund, which just sits there until you have enough to invest in another note. So your working money is continually eroded as each monthly payment is made, as opposed to something like a mutual fund where all your payments are immediately reinvested and put to work for you.

Granted, with a minimum note purchase of $25, having that small chunk of money sitting idle isn’t a huge deal, but it still rubs my investment sensibilities the wrong way.

Once you’ve accumulated at least $25 back in your general account balance, you then have to find a new note and go through the process over again. Now, there is a way around this part if you sign up to use Lending Club Prime, which will automatically reinvest your money for you, but you need a minimum balance of $2,500 to join (this is actually down significantly from when I first signed up for Lending Club). The downside of Prime is that you lose some of your ability to filter certain note characteristics, which I use to try to reduce my risk.

Overall, it’s a pretty mild complaint, but still one that has left me feeling a little ambivalent about Lending Club. It feels like a lot of micromanagement while still sitting on my hands and waiting. I don’t think I’ll pull out just yet, but I think I still prefer mutual funds. My biggest qualm is that unless you have a LOT of money in it, you are exposing yourself to a pretty huge diversification risk. Then if you do have a lot of money spread over a large number of notes you would have a rather nightmarish account (and tax) statement with all of those notes listed out.

But how has my investment actually done? Pretty decently. My experience with the borrowers has been all positive – I’ve never had a late payment or default. I have even had two notes get paid back in full early – though this isn’t necessarily a positive since you then miss out on any interest payments.

Like I said in my original post, I started out with some pretty low-yield notes (about 6%) while I was just testing the waters, but I started bumping that up a little bit later. Right now I usually aim for notes in the 9-12% range, which feels like my personal acceptable level of risk. My current Net Annualized Return is 8.7% and I’ve made about $30 in interest net of fees.

I think that Lending Club has been an interesting way to invest and make a little bit of money, but there may be safer and easier options out there that will still yield a similar return.

 

One Year of Solar Power

As usual, as soon as the sun comes out for the year, my internet life goes to hell. We’ve been having an amazingly warm and dry spring this year, which means that I’ve been outside working for 10-12 hours a day on weekends and until it’s too dark to see on most weeknights after work. After all that I rarely have energy for much else (though some Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream can help out there!). But all this sun is crying out for this post in particular because…

Our solar panels have been chugging along for exactly one year now!

Shaded Solar Panels

This just won’t do.

In the past year we have generated 2,541 kilowatt hours of electricity, which equates to $1,372 in incentive payments, plus about $240 in saved electricity (electricity is pretty cheap in Washington and we don’t really use much to begin with). The installed capacity of our panels is 2,880 watts, so that means that we achieved about 88% of the rated capacity over the course of the year – not bad considering all the tall Douglas-fir trees around the house!

For the first few months after getting our panels installed, we were constantly checking our meter and watching our monitoring software online. Every generated kilowatt was exciting, and we were especially thrilled to hit the first 1,000 kilowatt hour milestone. But after a while, solar power just became a daily fact of life and eventually was something that we hardly even noticed anymore, which is as it should be.

My Favorite Obsession

Snag Making

How to make your wife angry in 2 easy steps: 1) Don’t tell her you’re going to climb a tree. 2) Climb a tree

One thing that didn’t fade so quickly was my new obsession with shading. Every time I see a shadow cast on the solar panels, my gears start turning and plots start thickening. There’s a part of me that wants to do everything I can to squeeze every last bit of production (and money) out of those panels as possible.

In the first summer I scaled one tree in order to chop off its top and side branches (insert “Don’t Try This At Home” disclaimer), thereby eliminating shadows from the panels while leaving a wildlife snag. As a side note, just in the past week I’ve seen a pileated and a hairy woodpecker starting to investigate the snag.

This spring I cut down another tree in our driveway, and there’s at least one more out there with numbered days.

We bought our solar panels and microinverters made in Washington because we wanted to support local manufacturing jobs and because with them we get a $0.54 per kWh production incentive (versus $0.15 for panels and inverters made elsewhere, i.e. China). We get this incentive just for making renewable energy. Then we also get to use that power to offset our electricity bill (or bank it if we make more than we use). So our electric bill completely disappears from about May to October, making us even more money.

I Think We Can Do Better Than That!

In western Washington’s less than ideal climate, we can still expect solar panels to generate power at about their rated capacity (in a very sunny environment, panels might produce 200% of their rated capacity).

We have a number of tall Douglas-fir trees around our house that result in various amounts of shading in the morning and evening all year and even in the middle of the day during the winter when the sun is low. Because of this, our solar installer conservatively estimated that we might produce at 70%.

Our actual production rate at 88% of capacity is certainly a nice turn of events, but still leaves room for improvement. I have the feeling that taking out a couple of those trees really helped, even though I didn’t take down the worst offender until just this spring – so hopefully next year will be even better.

Overall we generated about 60% of the electricity we use in a year, which is pretty good, but still leaves some room to do more. Although it’s tempting to try to generate all of our own power, it gets fairly expensive and the ROI starts going down if you end up making more than you use.

So how can we improve? We do have the option to install more panels, but we probably won’t do that anytime too soon. Just like it’s easier to save money than to make more, it’s easier (and cheaper!) to increase efficiency than to make more power. In fact, solar experts recommend to always work on efficiency before thinking about installing solar panels. We already use almost 62% less electricity than the average U.S. household (~4,150 kWh vs. 10,837 kWh), but I’m always looking at how we could cut our resource usage even more.

We have very efficient appliances, including one of the biggest energy hogs in most households – the water heater. We have our electronics plugged into power strips that we switch off when not in use to eliminate phantom loads. Most of our lights are either LEDs or CFLs, though there are some pre-existing halogen fixtures, which are less than ideal, but not cost-effective to replace.

Solar Dryer

I think our biggest electricity user that we have some control over is the clothes dryer. We have a clothes line that we use regularly in the summer, but winter is more challenging. We sometimes hang up clothes inside, but with a couple good drying racks and the wood stove going I think we could do a lot better.

Then there’s always cutting down more trees……

Felling Trees

Make a Plan. Build a Kit

This is Part 2 in a series of posts on emergency/disaster preparedness that I decided to write in the wake of the Oso landslide. I have completed a wide range of emergency response training and certification including front- and backcountry emergency responder and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and have researched the topic of disaster preparedness extensively. I wanted to synthesize some of what I have learned over the years to help others gain a basic level of preparedness for the inevitable disaster that we hope will never come.

See Part 1 – Getting Ready for Disaster here

Making a plan (or several plans) should be one of your first priorities for disaster preparedness. Since disasters can strike at any time, you need to be prepared with a plan and supplies no matter where you are.

Bunker

Think about what you will do if you are:

  • At home
  • At work
  • Commuting
  • Visiting friends or family
  • Traveling out of town

Your fully stocked emergency kit at home and your carefully mapped evacuation routes from your neighborhood won’t do you any good if you’re stranded at work.

Three Levels of Emergency Planning

Disaster plans can be very simple or quite detailed. You can start out with just the basics and then add on as needed or desired over time. Here I’ll outline three levels of disaster planning with examples of some of the steps you could take. Each level builds on the previous ones and will increase your resilience in an emergency situation. Keep in mind that these are minimal suggestions for building up a bare bones level of planning and preparedness. You may want to add on to this depending on how thorough you want to be.

Basic Plan

These are things that you can do today to help keep you and your family safe.

  • Choose a safe meeting location outside of your home (and make sure everyone in your household knows about it)
  • Choose a safe meeting location outside of your neighborhood (in case it is inaccessible)
  • Designate an out of state contact person for everyone to check in with – in a disaster local phone lines may be down or tied up, but a call out of the area can get through. Text messages can also sometimes get through even when phone calls can’t.
  • Make an emergency contact card with phone numbers for family members and your out of state contact and keep it in your wallet

Intermediate Plan

Add these steps to get up to the suggested level of emergency preparedness.

  • Plan escape routes from the buildings where you spend the most time: home, office, school, place of worship, etc
  • Plan several evacuation routes from the areas you frequently go – pay attention to bridges, tunnels, overpasses, or other potential choke points
  • Establish a basic 72-hour kit (see below) for your home, office, and vehicle
  • Identify your local hazards

Advanced Plan

If you want to be really prepared, here’s what you can do short of building a bunker.

  • Build up a 1-2 week or longer supply of food and water
  • Talk to family and neighbors about emergency preparedness. Create a list of communal resources such as tools, provisions, or special skill sets
  • Acquire additional items for your disaster kit that would be useful in extended emergencies
  • Get emergency response training

For a more detailed step-by-step guide to emergency planning, see FEMA’s Basic Preparedness guide here (pdf).

Building a 72-Hour Disaster Kit

After a moderate-sized disaster, it can take emergency and relief services several days (though sometimes much longer) to get in and provide help, so you need to be prepared to fend for yourself for at least that long. A 72-hour kit will help you bridge the gap between when a disaster hits and relief becomes available. Your kit should be consolidated in one location and easy to transport in case you need to evacuate. You may want to use a backpack, 5-gallon bucket, or a plastic tote.

If getting all the pieces together seems overwhelming, just focus on the higher priority items and get one or two things at a time. You can keep adding to your kit slowly over time.

Here is what you will need:

  • Food that requires minimal or no preparation – examples include freeze-dried food or MREs. For convenience, we got some of these Mountain House 72-hour meal kits. They have a 10-year shelf life and they’re also great for camping. Also keep in mind that food already stored in your home can be used to get you through emergencies, though it may not be as transportable if you need to evacuate.
  • Camp Stove – oddly, this is something you don’t see on a disaster prep list, but personally I wouldn’t go without one. This MSR Pocket Rocket is tiny, lightweight, and runs on commonly available isobutane-propane canisters. You can use it to cook your food or boil and sterilize water. A camp stove saved our butts when we lost power for over a week a couple winters ago!
  • Water – minimum 1 gallon per person per day. Replace any water that you store yourself every 6 months; if you store bottled water, keep it sealed and follow the expiration date.
  • Water purification – filter, iodine tablets, or unscented bleach. My favorite is the MSR Miniworks ceramic filter for ease and no chemical taste.
  • LED headlamp with extra batteries – LEDs will give you bright light and long battery life while a headlamp will keep your hands free. I love my Tikka Plus 2 headlamp because it is bright, compact, lightweight and has a strobe feature for signaling and a red light for preserving night vision.
  • Lighter and/or weatherproof matches – I always like to have a few different methods for fire-starting available
  • Poncho or rain gear – a poncho can cover a backpack or other supplies you are carrying, but can also get in the way and make it hard to maneuver
  • Warm socks, hat, and gloves – without heat or shelter, exposure can set in easily
  • Basic first aid kit – you can buy a pre-made kit for convenience, but you can often put together a better kit for less money yourself.
  • Portable shelter such as a tarp or tube tent
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Extra prescription medication
  • Food and supplies for babies or pets
  • Blankets or a sleeping bag
  • Cash, including small bills and change
  • Copies of personal identification and important documents in a waterproof bag or container
  • Emergency contact numbers and a local street map
  • Extra eyeglasses or contacts and solution

There may be other items that you will need or want to include in your emergency kit, see this list for other ideas.

Once you have your main 72-hour kit put together for your home, consider building similar kits for your workplace and vehicle so you can be prepared wherever you are. You can also continue adding on to your kit to extend the length of time you can be self-sufficient. FEMA pushes the 3-day preparedness message because they know that people struggle with doing that much as it is; “off the record” though, they say that people should actually be preparing for something more like 3 weeks. So it’s hard to be over-prepared.

In any case, keeping even a basic emergency preparedness kit supplied and ready can make the difference between life and death or can turn a miserable situation into a livable one.

Getting Ready for Disaster

This is Part 1 in a series of posts on emergency/disaster preparedness that I decided to write in the wake of the Oso landslide. I have completed a wide range of emergency response training and certification including front- and backcountry emergency responder and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and have researched the topic of disaster preparedness extensively. I wanted to synthesize some of what I have learned over the years to help others gain a basic level of preparedness for the inevitable disaster that we hope will never come.

See Part 2 – Make a Plan. Build a Kit here

Emergency Preparedness ChecklistIt can be impossible to predict when or where a disaster will strike, but you can be pretty sure that wherever there are people, a disaster will eventually happen. Even when the warning signs are there, natural or man-made disasters can provide little immediate forewarning and if you aren’t ready, you will have a much harder time coping or surviving.

Why You Need to Prepare for Disaster

Most places have at least some risk of a major disaster – you don’t have to be a doomsday prepper, it’s just common sense to take precautions so that you can stay safe if the worst case scenario happens. For example, here in Washington we have a pretty good chance of getting hit by a moderate earthquake like the 2001 Nisqually quake that caused widespread damage around Puget Sound. Landslides and floods are very common during the rainy winters, taking out roads, bridges, and homes. Perhaps less likely, but still possible, are volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, attacks on large cities or military installations, and even a 9+ mega-quake (which we are “due” for any time).

No matter where you are, something bad could happen. Unfortunately, the initial cause of a disaster isn’t usually the biggest problem you will face. In a moderate to large scale disaster, emergency services can be quickly overwhelmed. Ever since the eye-opening devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the rather frightening message coming from FEMA officials and emergency coordinators has been “prepare as if help is not coming”.

What Happens in a Disaster

Damage caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and storms or man-made disasters like chemical spills or explosions can adversely affect critical infrastructure and services. Utilities, communications, transportation, and emergency response services can be disrupted or overwhelmed, leaving you (or whole areas) without outside support or basic necessities.

If roads and bridges are impassable, airports are damaged, and phone lines are down, rescue services will have no way to get to you or even know that you need help. If first responders are at home when a disaster strikes, you’d better believe that they will be busy helping their families and neighbors before anyone else. Even in the best case, it can take significant time to mobilize rescue teams after a major emergency. You need to have the skills and resources to hold out until rescuers can get to you or until you can get yourself to a safe place.

Experience has shown that in an emergency situation, you may need to rely on your own resources for a minimum of three to seven days. In major disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which displaced one million individuals, people can be without adequate food, water, shelter, or medical attention for weeks or even months.

The Three Types of Disaster

Disasters can come in three general types – natural disasters, technological disasters, and intentional disasters. Understand each kind and the risk factors where you live to be prepared to survive an emergency.

Natural Disasters

Natural disasters are events such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes or other major storms, tsunamis, or wildfires. They can be extremely localized or widespread; they may come with plenty of warning or strike suddenly. Natural disasters can easily cause a great deal of damage and overwhelm infrastructure or protective measures such as levees or seawalls.

Technological Disasters

Technological disasters are man-made in origin. They include events such as nuclear power plant accidents and hazardous materials spills or leaks. Technological disasters are typically confined to a single location, but can occasionally cause widespread effects. They can also result in long-term environmental or health problems such as contaminated groundwater, radioactive fallout, or increased cancer rates. Sometimes a natural disaster can cause a technological disaster like the Fukushima meltdown after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, or when flooding overwhelms municipal sewer systems and causes untreated sewage to be released into the environment.

Intentional Disasters

Intentional disasters are caused by acts of terrorism or war. They can include attacks using explosive, nuclear, biological, radiological (dirty bombs), or  chemical weapons. Intentional disasters are usually targeted at high-profile locations or people, community centers, important infrastructure, or other places likely to cause the most disruption or emotional distress. Examples include landmarks, commercial centers, sports arenas, government buildings, military installations, schools, places of worship, bridges, dams, electrical substations, or municipal water supplies. Intentional disasters may be impossible to predict, but they can sometimes be prevented by staying aware of your surroundings and reporting any suspicious activity.

Study your community, your home and office, the routes you commute, and any other place you spend time with a critical eye. Think about how each type of disaster might affect your community. Do you drive over any bridges – how would you get around them if they were impassable? Is the area where you work choked with traffic even on a good day – what would it look if there was widespread panic? Do you live near a hill – where would it go if it collapsed? Are you on city water – how would you get clean water if the water supplies became contaminated?

Survival is Optional

If you make it through the initial catastrophe, you may still have a big struggle ahead of you. Your personal preparedness, planning, knowledge, and skills can make all the difference in the survival and comfort of not only yourself, but also your family, neighbors, and community. At a minimum you should:

  • Learn about potential local hazards
  • Know your community’s emergency response plans and protocols
  • Plan and prepare with family, neighbors, and coworkers
  • Gather emergency supplies
  • Learn and practice first aid
  • Learn and practice basic urban and wilderness survival skills

A major part of emergency preparedness comes down to awareness and understanding your community’s local hazard vulnerability. Knowing this can help you plan your response, evacuation routes, and what to keep in your disaster preparedness kit. Assess your local hazards by:

  • Identifying the most common disasters that have historically occurred
  • Considering what impacts those disasters have had in the past
  • Thinking about possible hazards that would have the most severe impacts
  • Identifying susceptible locations, people, buildings, and infrastructure
  • Considering how services may be disrupted in an emergency and when they might be restored

Remember to run through this mental checklist whenever you travel to a new place and become familiar with your surroundings. Knowing the local hazards and resources could give you the edge you need to survive a disaster.

The steps you take now may determine how you fare when a disaster hits. Armed with some basic knowledge and preparations, you will be a valuable asset to those around you, getting yourself and your loved ones through the worst of it as safely as possible.

To recap, here are the key elements of emergency preparedness:

  • Skills to evaluate and respond effectively to emergency situations
  • A disaster plan that you practice regularly with drills
  • Supplies and emergency preparedness kits in multiple locations
  • Reducing the hazards under your control
  • Training in first aid, emergency response, and disaster preparedness

Resources to Get Started

Here are a few resources that can help you take the first steps to getting prepared. If you get started with these, you can pretty easily develop your emergency plan and supplies without getting overwhelmed. Later on, you may want to branch out to other, more in-depth resources depending on your needs.

Ready.gov – This site will walk you through learning about disaster preparedness, making a plan, and building an emergency kit.

Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT)- This is an excellent training program that will give you the basic skills and knowledge necessary to prepare for and respond to a wide variety of emergencies. Highly recommended.

Wilderness Medical Associates- You should take any first aid training if you don’t have it already. However, regular first aid classes are very focused on getting victims through the critical minutes before emergency responders arrive. In a disaster, it may be hours or days before help gets to you. In this respect, backcountry medicine is much more applicable because it teaches you what to do when help isn’t immediately available. There are a number of companies teaching wilderness first aid, but WMA is one that I have experience with. A Wilderness First Responder course will teach you how to deal with most major medical issues when you’re on your own.

 

Thoughts on Disaster Preparedness

The recent tragic and devastating landslide in Oso, here in Washington, has had me thinking about the importance of not only disaster preparedness, but also disaster awareness.

Most of us don’t like to think about worst case scenarios. We tend to believe that since nothing catastrophic has happened in recent memory or since nothing bad has ever happened to us, then nothing ever will. We go about our routines in our daily lives and assume that the comfortable humdrum status quo will just continue. Most people are woefully unaware of their surroundings and even more unaware of potential risks inherent in those surroundings. As Timothy Egan puts it, “It is human nature, if not the American way, to look potential disaster in the face and prefer to see a bright and shining lie.”

Oso Landslide

Oso Landslide
Photo Credit: Ted Warren, AP
See an interactive before and after aerial photo here.

The Oso neighborhood that was destroyed by the slide had narrowly escaped a similar fate just eight years ago in 2006 when the same hillside slid down and across the river right up to their doorsteps. Other catastrophic landslides had occurred in multiple locations in the same area and geologists had long warned that the area was unstable. Nevermind that the community was built in a floodplain and the likely channel migration zone of the meandering Stillaguamish River, the movement of which was continually undercutting the unstable slopes.

The county was irresponsible for ever allowing development in that area, but the residents were also irresponsible for either not learning or simply ignoring the hazards of the area. It should be obvious that living in a floodplain or below unstable slopes is a bad idea. Buying a home, likely the biggest investment/expense of most people’s lives, should entail a proportionate degree of due diligence. The environment probably should have sent up red flags for anyone looking to buy or build a home there, but often we’re blinded by majestic views and a belief that the government wouldn’t allow something if it wasn’t safe.

Many of the reactions that I’m seeing are condemning the county government for not warning residents of the danger or for not forcing them to leave. Americans tend to have divided and contradictory ideas about the role of government in our lives. We expect the government to protect us and yet we rankle at “nanny-state” regulations and cry bloody murder at any restrictions imposed on our property rights. From what I’ve gathered, the county did consider buying out property owners, but such moves are often decried as a government land grab and residents are often unwilling to move. The county is far from blameless in this, but people need to watch out for themselves as well. Even amid the devastation of the 2006 slide, more houses were being built in that neighborhood. Even with death on their doorstep, people didn’t want to believe they were in danger.

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m unsympathetic. The whole event is tragic, and even more so because it was preventable. I know there are people who have come to realize that they are in a dangerous place, but are now stuck because they can no longer sell their home and can’t afford to leave. But I would ask them how much their lives and safety are worth and whether they can really afford to stay.

In any case, the takeaway from this and many other recent disasters across the country and around the world is that we simply can’t rely on the government to protect us and we can’t rely on emergency services to save us. We need to take personal responsibility for our safety by becoming aware of the hazards around us, educating ourselves about how to prepare for and respond to disasters, and taking the necessary actions to keep ourselves and our families safe.

I realize that I may think about things a little differently than most people. When I was a kid and my family was going into town, I would fill my pockets with string, clips, a magnifying lens, and other rather silly “survival gear” so that I would be prepared if the worst came to pass while we were away from home. I would sit in the back seat, looking out the window and see explosions, earthquakes, fires, and floods and envision what I would do to escape, survive, and help keep my family safe. I have no idea how those thoughts got into my young mind (maybe watching too much MacGyver?), but I think they shaped how I think about things today.

As an adult I have sought out training and certification in topics such as emergency response, first aid, situational awareness, naturalist and survival skills, and self-sufficiency. I’ve learned a lot and in my upcoming posts I’d like to share some resources, skills, and practices that can help you stay safe when bad things happen.

See Part 1 – Getting Ready for Disaster

See Part 2 – Make a Plan. Build a Kit

Amazon FBA Experiment

You probably know that you can sell your things on Amazon. I’ve been doing it occasionally for years, usually selling the no-longer-wanted book or CD that still has enough value to make it worthwhile. It’s a nice way to pick up some extra cash, but it can be inconvenient when a sale comes through at an unexpected time and you have to scramble to get it shipped out the door on time. I was aware of FBA, or Fulfillment by Amazon, but had never seen a way for it to really make sense for me to use.

Fulfillment by Amazon is a service where you can ship your things to Amazon to sell for a reasonable fee. They store your items in their warehouse, do the packing and shipping when an order comes in, and handle any customer service issues that arise. Pretty handy if you have a large number or an ongoing source of items to sell.

FBA Box

About a month ago I listened to a podcast from Smart Passive Income about a couple who is making a full-time income by working part-time selling things on Amazon using FBA. While it is not quite as passive as I would ideally like, and doesn’t sound like something that I would really want to spend my life energy on, I was intrigued and motivated by its relative scalability and its tangibility. Here was something that I could potentially do on a small scale to make a little extra money or do on a larger scale and create a fairly significant income. It also struck me as more concrete than other things like niche sites, which seem a little more mystical and subject to the whims of the internet, since I had already seen success selling on Amazon.

My big “Ooh! Ooh!” moment was thinking that if I managed to create enough income with this as a side gig (which seems possible), I could either a) use the extra money to buy web sites that would generate more passive income streams, or b) quit my job and have more time to work on our property (my end goal for everything) and then slowly build or buy web sites that could eventually replace the FBA income. In either scenario, FBA would just be a bridge to doing the things that I’m actually more interested in.

Why wouldn’t I just do FBA and make that my new job? I feel pretty strongly about doing things that add real value to the world. This is part of why I have struggled with the idea and practice of creating niche sites – I put in a huge amount of time and effort to write things that are uniquely informative and genuinely helpful, whereas a lot of niche sites are practically gibberish and add no value to the internet. There’s an argument that the FBA practice talked about in this podcast provides value, but I find it a little iffy.

This method, called arbitrage, is just turning yourself into a middleman. Your only goal is to buy low and sell high. The argument for its value is that you are just providing products to customers that they might not otherwise have access to at a price they are already willing to pay. I half agree with that, as its basically how capitalism, or more specifically trade, works, but it also has a certain hollowness to it. Amazon can fulfill my orders, but they can’t fulfill my need for meaningful work. So I don’t think I could ever do this as my primary endeavor.

Still, it piqued my interest and I thought I’d give it a try. They made it sound so easy, like with just a little time in the evenings or weekends I could pull in an extra $500 a month. Who am I to turn down that opportunity? Being myself, I of course then started on a two-week research binge to learn as much as I could about the process from multiple sources before I got started.

Wait a Minute. . . I Hate Shopping!

If you’ve read more than a couple posts here, you may have gathered that I like being outside, close to nature, away from urban areas and the pressing crowds. Well, I pretty much hate going into any kind of store, and I especially hate going into big box stores. And here the people doing FBA are all talking about going to places like Target, Big Lots, Walgreens, Kmart, etc – all places that I usually do my best to avoid. I rationalized that this would be different because it’s like a treasure hunt, I had a specific mission with well-defined parameters.

Well, it didn’t quite pan out that way. I felt shady and self-conscious trolling up and down the aisles looking for promising clearance items, scanning things with my phone. My eyes burned from the glare of fluorescent lights reflecting off walls of cheap plastic neon crap that nobody has any business buying in the first place. My heart ached under the crush of the endless useless junk that fuels our mad consumerism. I tried not to pay attention to the Story of Stuff playing in the back of my head or the vision of Lester Brown shaking his head at me in disappointment and shame. Hey Josh, why don’t you tell us how you really feel?

The worst part was that in multiple trips to multiple stores, I didn’t find any items that could be resold at a profit on Amazon. I was pretty dispirited and felt like all the wind was gone from my sails. But I wasn’t quite ready to give up yet.

Gaining the Home Field Advantage

I’m fairly savvy on the internet and usually do the shopping that I can’t avoid there. I figured, why not use the skills that I’m good at rather than trying to bull my way through something that is completely soul-sucking for me. I could quickly find and compare deals online and shop only for products that I feel at least halfway decent about. Granted, this approach does erode the already somewhat specious argument for arbitrage creating value – if someone thought to shop where I was instead of on Amazon, then they would just save the money instead of me and Amazon pocketing the difference. Is it morally ambiguous to make money from people who don’t want to comparison shop? Maybe. Maybe not. Since I’m trying this out in the name of science, I decided not to let moral ambiguity stand in my way at this point. I’m going to follow this through and see what happens.

So I did find a handful of products that would be profitable to resell on Amazon. My projected return ranged from about 50-150%, though most of them were around 50-60%. Not quite as high as was recommended in the podcast, but still a much better return than I could get on any other investment. I ended up spending about $300 for this initial trial run. If everything sells at the prices currently listed on Amazon, I will make about $200 profit. Not too shabby really. The real questions are if and how quickly the products will sell – that’s kind of the scary part of this whole endeavor.

What’s Next?

I have to get everything packaged and labeled according to Amazon’s specifications before shipping it off to them. This is proving to be a rather daunting learning curve in itself since it’s not always clear what to do with specific items. Then again, it’s a much smaller learning process than something like creating successful niche sites.

Once I get my stuff shipped, it’s just a waiting game. Hopefully it sells pretty quickly. I may purchase some more products if I find more that look promising, like with the Lending Club experiment, I gave myself a $500 budget for this, so I’ve still got some room to play.

If you’re interested in trying this out yourself, I suggest listening to the podcast on Smart Passive Income linked above, but also do some more research too. There are a lot of people doing this successfully, but there are also a lot of little pitfalls that could lose you money if you start buying things without really knowing what makes a good candidate on Amazon. Definitely read all of the rules and requirements on Amazon’s FBA site before you get too far.

Fruit Tree Pruning – Lessons Learned the Hard Way

I’ll admit that I’m a total noob when it comes to dealing with fruit trees. Even though I’ve studied botany, maintained landscape trees and shrubs, and read multiple pruning guides, I still feel like fruit trees are some kind of mystical entities that defy my understanding. I don’t really get why it’s so hard, because it should be pretty simple, right? So when we bought our property with plums, apples, pears, and cherries, I was both excited and daunted.

Apple Sprouts

Well this is embarrassing

Last winter I did some pruning of our apple trees. I re-read a number of articles on pruning apple trees beforehand, just to make sure I didn’t screw things up too badly. I think I started out with the intention of just thinning out some of the branches, removing branches that were crossed, growing at awkward angles, or getting out of control.

This would probably have been okay in itself, but then I started getting a little carried away. Our apple trees are semi-dwarf varieties, but they were starting to get too tall to access conveniently, so I ended up just cutting back all of the branches that were too tall.

We had a bumper crop of apples in the first fall when we moved in, then I pruned. The following season (this past spring and summer) the trees shot dozens of sprouts straight up. I knew I had done something wrong, but I couldn’t really say what, so I didn’t do anything to the trees. I thought I had been careful to at least save what I deemed to be fruiting spurs according to the guide I was following. However, when fall came we got a total of three apples. It was totally devastating. Well, that might be a little overly dramatic, but it was really sad.

Just this week, Erica over at Northwest Edible Life wrote a great post about the difference between summer and winter fruit tree pruning. She always posts articles that are timely and hit the nail on the head, but unfortunately, this one came a year too late for me and the only head hitting was me slapping myself.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a more down to earth description of pruning, and it was immediately clear exactly what I had done wrong – I had ended up pruning for size in winter, a big no-no.

It sounds like now I’ll have my hands full for a while trying to get things back under control, but I still have to wait it out until summer before I can start going after some of these sprouts. I just wonder if we’ll actually be able to get any apples this year.

My First Gun

Wow. I am now a gun owner. It feels pretty surreal and a little bit funny.

I’ve been looking at hunting rifles for the last few months with a budget of about $600-800 and had pretty much decided on getting a Tikka T3 Lite Stainless. I figured that with our wet weather here, it would be best to get a rifle as weather-proof as possible with a composite stock and stainless steel barrel. Tikkas are made by Finnish rifle manufacturer Sako, makers of high-end precision rifles.

Tikka T3 Lite Stainless

Tikka T3 Lite Stainless

Tikka T3s have gotten a lot of rave reviews for being both light and accurate. They even come with a 1 MOA out of the box guarantee, meaning they should shoot 1″ groups at 100 yards. However, the consistent complaint that I saw about the Tikka T3 Lite was that the recoil is pretty intense since it is a very light rifle and has a relatively hard recoil pad. They aren’t the cheapest rifles around, but I’m a firm believer in “buy quality, buy once”, so I was willing to spend a little more for a rifle that would serve me well for many years.

I had been watching and waiting for sales because I wasn’t in a particular hurry – I’m probably not going to do much shooting in the middle of winter, but nothing was coming up on the stainless model.  While I was waiting, I started to flip-flop on the whole composite/stainless thing. I’m a bit old-fashioned, so I like the real wood and blued steel look of traditional rifles. I also talked to a local hunter who told me that as long as I kept my rifle clean and oiled, there was nothing to worry about with moisture and rust.

So last weekend when I was checking Cabela’s for sales again I saw that a Browning X-Bolt Hunter was on sale for $300 off the normal price, bringing it just within my budget and close to the price of the Tikka T3. Browning makes a good gun and the X-Bolt had some nice features that I liked and was a little bit higher-end than the Tikka, so it seemed like it could be a good buy. I decided that I was done waiting. I’d run out to Cabela’s, check out the X-Bolt to see if I liked it and if not, I would just get the Tikka.

It was probably a bad plan because Breanna and I were going to a Superbowl party (Yeah Hawks!) later on and I knew that I might end up in a time crunch. If I hadn’t already done a borderline obsessive amount of research ahead of time, it would certainly have been a lot worse.

I actually had no idea what to expect at Cabela’s. I had never talked to anyone at the gun counter there (it’s a bit intimidating) and I didn’t even know what the process of buying a gun entailed. I knew that there was a background check and I’ve heard about waiting periods when buying a gun, so I figured I would just go in there, make my decision, and get the process started. I didn’t think that it could take very long and I really didn’t believe that I would be walking out the door with a gun in my hands the same day.

The salesman was helpful; he asked what I was planning on hunting, where, and what my budget was. He started off showing me some of the rifles that were actually below my price range, ones that I had already eliminated during my previous research. I think his plan was to sell me up the line, but I just didn’t have time for that. In my head I was just like, ah dude, I’m on a tight schedule here. So I interrupted and told him that I was specifically interested in the X-Bolt. He kind of did a double take until I told him that I’d seen that it was on sale.

Picking up the X-Bolt I could tell pretty much right away that it was the gun for me. I had previously handled a Tikka and it was perfectly fine, but it just felt like an object in my hands, maybe even a little bit awkward. The X-Bolt just felt right. It seemed to fit my hands and my body really nicely; the weight and balance felt natural; it came up to my shoulder easily. So I said, yep, that’s it.

Browning X-Bolt Hunter

What I got – the Browning X-Bolt Hunter

The only caliber they had it in was .308, which was actually my original choice before I was convinced to flop over to .30-06, so that was fine with me. A .308 should be good for anything that I’m likely to hunt from deer to elk to bear.

After that it was a matter of going through all the “paperwork” (it’s actually on a computer). I filled out my personal info and answered questions about my past felony convictions (I don’t have any) and whether I had ever been institutionalized (not yet!). There was a bit of a hangup because my address listed with my driver’s license was off by one number, but I was able to call Breanna and have her go online to fix it (Cabela’s really needs to get wi-fi!)*. Then we waited a couple minutes and my background check came back. I’m not sure how it happens in under 2 minutes, but it’s a little unsettling. Apparently there’s also no waiting period for hunting rifles, at least bolt action ones.

It was pretty simple, but the whole purchase process took at least an hour, which I wasn’t really prepared for. But then I walked out with my new rifle and had just enough time to get to the game and watch the Seahawks totally crush the Broncos. Good times.

I still can’t believe it. I have a gun. Weird.

*I’m experimenting with the $10/month No Data plan with Republic Wireless to see how well I can survive without the internet when I’m away from wi-fi. In this case it was a close call.

Hijacked by Hunting?

Whoa! All my recent posts have been about hunting and nothing else, what gives? What else is going on?

Okay, I’m feeling a little bit guilty for the sudden string of hunting posts, especially knowing that hunting can be a rather divisive topic. I mentioned earlier that I wanted to create a new niche site over the winter while things on the property were a little more slow. I had recently signed up for the Path of the Hunter mentoring program and gone into full research mode to get over my total ignorance of hunting and guns and be better prepared for success in the program. Since I was taking in so much information anyway, I decided that I would synthesize everything I was learning and turn that into a niche site that I could potentially monetize with gear reviews, affiliate income, and third-party advertising.

Well, after a lot of waffling I decided that it was personal enough and related enough to what I’m doing here to just roll that all into this blog instead. That meant that I had a lot of pent up hunting content that needed to get out and not much exciting happening on the homestead as the rain goes on and on.

I do think the hunting backlog is winding down and I have been working on some other things – making some progress on a nature trail that will eventually circle our whole property, trying to plant a grove of paper birch trees in our hellaciously rocky soil,  and very, very slowly replacing the trashy plastic mesh fence around the flower garden with a wattle fence. Oh yes, woven sticks for the win! And maybe, just maybe, I’ll even get around to planting something in the greenhouse and garden this year. I do also want to still build a niche site or maybe even buy one, so something along those lines could still be in the mix.

So if you’ve been groaning about all the hunting stuff, just hang in there, a little more variety is coming back again soon!