Midwest Self-Reliance Expo Wrap-Up

This weekend was the Midwest Self-Reliance Expo at the Val Air Ballroom and I made it out every day.   Honestly, I feel a little a drained right now just because it was such a busy weekend.

I got off work at 6AM on Friday,  fell asleep at about 8AM and made it to the expo at noon right in time for the concealed carry permit class.   As a veteran, I can just submit my DD 214 in the state of Iowa to get it, but it’s good to know the laws so it was worth my time.  I took the class several years ago and let my license lapse because I never actually carried.   It was cool that they offered the class for free though.

I listened to Jackie Clay of Backwoods Home Magazine give a presentation about her background as well as a Q&A session.   Unfortunately Backwoods Home Magazine sold out of most of their books, because I was meaning to pick a few up.

I met Jack Spirko of the Survival Podcast on Friday and talked to him for a while.   I was surprised that he knew who I was after I introduced myself.   He’s a very approachable and personable guy.   I was talking with him about the Permaculture design course and said that I had difficulty explaining permaculture in a sentence or two when I tell people what I’m doing – this seemed to stump him.   The official definition of permaculture makes sense if you know what permaculture is about, but it’s very hard to explain to the average person with no background in these things.   Hopefully someone can come up with a good two sentence definition.

Spirko’s presentation on permaculture Saturday was very good and it seemed like he was effective on explaining what it is and what it can do to an audience that might not have known what it was.   If you listen to the show religiously, there wasn’t much new material but still a great speech.

I took a suturing class from Dr. Bones and Nurse Amy (both very cool and approachable people) on a pig’s hoof.   It was a little unnerving how human-like a pig’s hoof is when you’re up close.   I now feel confident that I can give stitches and staple up wounds.

I sat in on a beekeeping class, which was from the perspective of what bees do and what’s possible with them rather than a direct how-to.     I learned a few interesting things from this.    I missed classes on cheesemaking, soap making, water purification and herbal remedies.  A local rancher that I buy meat from also gave a presentation on nutrient-dense foods and I missed that unfortunately.

There were about 15-20 vendors.  I only picked up a couple of things, nothing too exciting.

I did meet some new people in the area and reconnect with some other like-minded folks, so that was pretty cool.  I hope it comes back around next year…

Backyard Beekeeping


So I’ve been a beekeeper for a couple of days now.   The picture above is of my hives the day before I picked up my nucs.     So far, so good.

I ordered nucs from a local guy who raises Russian bees this winter and due to some weather setbacks, they haven’t been ready until recently.   The guy lives about a mile away from me as the crow (or bee?) flies, but the drive home with thousands of pissed off stinging insects in the cab of my truck was a real white-knuckle experience.

Actually suiting up and transferring the frames from the nuc into the hives was another white-knuckle experience.   I’ll admit that I probably should have been a little more careful and calculated with the process, but I wanted to get it done as fast as possible.   You get a little nervous when a huge cloud of bees starts swarming around you.   Unfortunately some of the bees were killed by my clumsiness, but that does happen.   I should have taken the time to do a little more observing in the process.    At any rate, it looks like it was a success so far.

I got a little worried when a large portion of the bees from one nuc didn’t leave the box.   I got all the frames in with about half of the colony, but the other half stayed in the box for about 24 hours.   I think they were just trying to eat up all the honey on the sides of it.   I wondered if it was a swarm forming already or maybe the queen got knocked off the frame in the melee.    As of right now it looks like both hives are functioning as they should, but I’m not going to actually get into the hive for another week or so to confirm this.

I’m also surprised on how unobtrusive two beehives really are.   They take up enough space to fill a roughly 4×4 pallet, they don’t really make any noise and once you’re about 10 feet away you don’t really sense any presence of the bees.   Right now they’re kind of in a nice spot because if I look down from my deck, they’re right there and I can see them come and go and I think I’m at a point where I don’t really bother them while being able to see everything that goes on outside of the hive.     As the hives get stronger and the population grows, they might have a little more of a presence in my yard though.     I’ll probably post more about backyard beekeeping as I learn and experience more with it.

My Mini-Orchard and Backyard Fruit Production

The third time is a charm.    Two years ago I planted two mini-dwarf Jonagold apples in containers.   They looked great until one windy fall day a strong wind snapped them in two.    Last year I ordered several mini-dwarf trees and ended up killing them all due to the weather and a few really stupid mistakes (like forgetting to put drainage holes in the containers and then getting a torrential downpour, possibly over-fertilizing with rabbit manure, poor mulching and not having enough organic matter in the soil to allow oxygen to circulate).       So I’ve made some expensive mistakes, but I figure that if I don’t learn from then and try again it will be a complete waste…. This year is going to be different.

So far I’ve put in two mini-dwarf Jonagolds and an Enterprise.   I just picked up a two year old columnar apple from a garden center as well.   I’m planning on visiting that garden center again right before they close on the 4th of July to see if they have any more of these trees on sale.    I also put a Pix-Zee mini-dwarf tree into the ground in my front yard and right now it looks great.      I ordered three beach plums, which are kind of like a shrub.    Only one of them is growing, but that’s ok.   They were only a couple of dollars and if one takes, I’ll be happy.        My crabapple and stella cherry I put in the ground last year are growing, although they didn’t grow as much as I would’ve liked last year.

I have four or five large containers open that are suitable for mini-dwarf trees and I’ve been doing what I can to get the soil ready for trees.    I’ve been stirring up the dirt and trying to work more carbon material in.   I drilled a lot of holes into all of my containers so they should have good drainage and I’m hoping to get some good worm activity in each one, so they’re more like an extension of the earth rather than a large plastic bucket with a lot of dirt in it.      Hopefully I’ll be able to fill them this fall.

I planted three currants (two red, one black), three lignonberries and one gooseberry in containers.   I put one blueberry into the ground and that’s doing well.      My blackberry patch is three years old now and going apeshit.   I can’t remember if I started with two or three canes of two varieties and now there’s probably about a dozen including a few black raspberry canes that made it over from the guy next door.    I have three aronia bushes which are growing kind of slow due to limited solar exposure.   I tried to transplant them the other day to a sunnier area, but their roots were too deep so I gave up – I guess that’s a good sign.  Hopefully this year they bear fruit.    Last year was rough because it got warm quickly and then we had a late frost while everything was flowering.

Last year my kiwis didn’t do anything because of that cold snap.   All they did was stay alive, which I guess I should be thankful for.   I think they’re starting to grow this year and hopefully I get some kiwis out of them.      I put in two grapevines this year, one that I’m going to train to climb my deck and one that I want to train along a privacy fence.    Both are growing, so we’ll see what happens there.

Last year I didn’t get any strawberries, or at least not many.    I think this was in part due to the cold snap and a puppy that trampled them.   I think there was also a bit of confusion between me and the wife over who was going to water them and pick them that year too.     This year I have about twenty plants in whiskey barrels that are starting to put on baby strawberries.  They’ve also spread outside of the barrels into the ground around them.    I put in about fifteen plants, including a few everbearing varieties into a rockbed on the front of my house.    Hopefully they go nuts.   The nice thing about a sprawling plant like that is that they’ll go anywhere they can grow.   My front yard is shady so planting anything can be hit or miss – the strawberries themselves can determine the right spots to grow better than I can.       I don’t know if I’ll get much out of the new plants, but if so that should be a pretty good haul.

The funny thing about having all of this is that my average-sized yard really doesn’t seem all that busy.     Here in Zone 5, there’s all kinds of things that can grow here.    There’s all kinds of things that grow anywhere.   If people would open up to the idea of putting in plants that produce fruit over purely ornamental ones as well as the idea of eating a wider variety of fruits, we probably wouldn’t need to fly in as many strawberries from California or Mexico or apples from Chile.

Another cool thing about most of these plants is that once they’re established, they don’t take much work.     My blackberries, for instance, I took about five to ten minutes to prune back the canes this year.   I haven’t watered them at all (but then again, we’ve had a ton of rain).   I know where they’re going to grow every year and when.   That takes away a lot of the guess work/planning that comes with annual plants.

Right now I’m working on the soil in a few of the containers and hopefully I’ll fill them with some more mini-dwarf trees in the fall.    I’ve been stopping by a certain garden center to see if they have trees on sale – if there’s a good enough discount, I’ll clean them out of columnar apples.

I also planted about a dozen ground cherry plants around the yard, hoping that they end up taking off on their own next year.   They are a wild edible in this part of the world.

Here’s a few photos:


A line of mini-dwarf apple trees behind my raised beds.   The first one is a columnar something-or-other and then there’s the jonagolds and enterprise.   Further down the line are currants and gooseberries.




Pix-Zee mini-dwarf peach tree with some strawberries in the rock bed.

I’m Taking an Online Permaculture Design Course


I’ve been wanting to take one of the permaculture design courses for certification for a while, but it’s never worked out for my schedule.    Usually at best they take a week so in addition to the sizable fee, there’s travel and lodging costs if the classes aren’t being held in your immediate area.    I could see it reasonably hitting over $2000 plus a week of vacation time to do it.   Geoff Lawton, one of the premier dudes in that field, just announced an online certification class for a lot less than a traditional class plus no travel expenses.   The course is spread out over twelve weeks.

I didn’t plan on taking the course this year, but if the opportunity falls into my lap like this, I’m going to jump on it.   I can’t see the circumstances in my life making this more convenient sometime in the future than it is now.

What am I planning on doing with permaculture, should I pass the course?    I don’t know for sure.   I’ll use it on my own yard, that’s for sure.   I’m planning on moving to a few acres sometime in the next few years and I’ll use it once I get there.    Technically I could go into a permaculture business, which is something I would consider at a part-time level.   I’d be into giving workshops locally.    We’ll see.

The Gold Sovereign

Gold Sovereign

Gold Sovereign


When people start to look into precious metals, I understand how gold can feel kind of prohibitive with its high price (compared to silver) and the fact that sometimes it’s hard to get it in small increments.  If you don’t have much money to spare picking up a few silver rounds or some junk silver at the end of the month seems more reasonable than looking at gold.    Plus if you’re looking at hoarding precious metals for barter potential, silver seems to make more sense due to the difficulty of getting reasonable increments of gold.  The gold sovereign from Great Britain is a good option for buying a little bit of gold at a time, along with Swiss and French 20 Franc pieces.

The coin is .23 ounce (so just about a quarter of an ounce) of 22 karat gold.   Just like the French franc there’s a bit of copper in there to make it more durable for circulation.    The front has the Queen with something in Latin and the back has St. George slaying the dragon, which is pretty sweet.    St. George is the patron saint of England and according to legend while on a crusade he slayed this dragon that was terrorizing a town and the town converted to Christianity.    There’s all kinds of depictions of this legend in religious imagery, particularly in the east (St. George is also the patron saint of Greece and Georgia, as the name suggests).

The markups on these coins aren’t too bad.  I just bought some at about 4% over spot and just recently they jumped up to 7% as physical gold is in higher demand.     You definitely get a better deal when you buy an ounce or more, but it’s not bad, all things considered.     I think looking at these coins (as well as the Francs) are a good way to build up your gold position a little bit at a time if that works best for you.

Vegan Ham and Bean Soup and Other Mother Earth Products Soup Reviews

Recently I received a box of samples of various products from the new affiliate Mother Earth Products and over the past couple of weeks I’ve tried a couple of the different soups.

So I’m married to a vegan.  Sometimes we eat the same things, sometimes we don’t.   It works out pretty well and all things considered, she’s a decent cook and cooks with recognizable foods like beans, grains and vegetables (i.e. not all vegans live off tofu dogs and boca burgers).   One drawback to our different diets is that if I want to make something with meat in it, I had better really like it because I’ll be eating it for a long time.   This ends up discouraging me from making certain recipes that make more than a couple of meals sometimes.   I think one victim here is ham and bean soup.   It’s not one of my favorite foods, but it’s something I think about a few times a year and something that wouldn’t be too practical for me to make.   I think I’ve gotten my ham and bean soup fix over the past handful of years by just happening to have shown up at my parent’s house at the right time.

When I looked at the label and saw that MEP’s ham and bean soup (made with ham TVP) was vegan, I was pretty stoked to be able to have one of these classic cool weather comfort foods.     It definitely filled that void and I’m going to order some more.  The ham TVP does have a nice smoky flavor and I could see this soup really hitting the spot if I were out camping or something on a cold day.   I think this soup mix is probably the best and most efficient way I can think of to really replicate ham and bean soup for vegans.   Dedicated omnivores won’t be disappointed either.

I also tried the Greek lentil soup mix.   This one seemed similar to a soup I make all the time and smelled great while cooking.  This one has beef bouillon in it, so not vegan.   There was a good mix of spices and the addition of tomato to it was nice.   Unfortunately at the consistency I like it the soup was still a little salty.    They say 1-2 quarts and I went at about 1.25 quarts.   I might have just gotten one with more salt than the others, but I don’t know.    Honestly I don’t think I’m going to order more of this one because I already make something that’s very similar but I might try adding dehydrated tomatoes to the soup I make after trying this one.

The other one I had recently was chicken and vegetable soup, which really came in handy for me considering I just came down with a cold and really craved chicken soup.   I suppose you could keep a can of Chunky Soup around for those times when you want chicken soup but don’t feel like leaving the house, but this one tasted better and had a more agreeable list of ingredients.  The chicken TVP was very, uh, convincing too.    I did add a bit of oregano to the soup to spice it up a bit though.   It was nice to be able to throw this package into water, boil the water and then eat it half an hour later instead of making it myself (which is what I usually do).   I’ll probably pick up more of this.

The prices are actually pretty good and right now they’re doing 20% off if you use the code “spring”.   Theodore runs a pretty good Facebook page too with a lot of good articles daily, so like them if you’re into homesteading/survival/gardening/etc.

Now we’re not quite talking apples to apples here, but as far as long term food storage goes you can buy three pouches of soup mix that make 10 cups each for less than a can of a Mountain House entree with a little bit of change left over.

Click on this link to get to their page:

Mother Earth Products

Kicking Around The Idea of Podcasting

I’ve been reading up and thinking about adding a podcast to this blog.    I’m not very tech-savvy, but it looks pretty straight forward.     Hopefully I’ll have something up soon.

I think it’s a good idea because it gives me more options with this blog.   I don’t get a ton of traffic or anything here,  but as I’ve said before I do this because I really enjoy talking/writing about these kinds of things.   I like knowing that I have an outlet for some of the things that preoccupy me that I probably otherwise wouldn’t be able to let out in my day-to-day life.    I also think it will give me an opportunity to do interviews and talk with people who I think are doing interesting things and for some reason I think that podcasting will lead to a broader range of topics.    We’ll see.


Building A Chicken Coop

Purina Hen House and Hutch Design

I just broke ground on building this chicken coop.   So far I’ve picked up all of the plywood and made all the cuts.   Probably next week I’ll pick up the 2×4’s, cut them and begin the assembly.   Just getting started is usually the hard part for me on these kinds of things, so I’m glad I’m at least part way into it.

I have a book on chicken coop designs and there’s all kinds of plans out there on the internet.   I’ve gone through a lot of plans and decided on this one because it’s more or less the exact size that I want, looks simple enough to build and it’s very utilitarian while still looking decent enough.   The plans on the Purina website are a little vague, but I think I have it figured out and I’ll post about it step-by-step.

I’m kind of learning the power of Craigslist and just asking around on building materials with this.   Today I checked Craigslist to see if anyone had any of the things I’ll need for sale and found a guy that was selling 4×8 sheets of plywood for about 1/3 of what it would cost if I went to Menard’s to pick it up.    When the guy asked what I was building, I told him a chicken coop.   He just kind of chuckled and told me to go into his backyard.   He had about twenty chickens in his modest-sized backyard as well as a few dwarf fruit trees, berries and garden beds.  Pretty impressive “urban homestead”.   We ended up talking about those kinds of things for a little less than an hour.   I told him I was planning on putting siding on the coop and he will have a few extra sheets of siding laying around after a project so I’ll pick those up for a few bucks next week.   Score.    Another guy I work with his some of the corrugated roofing that I’ll need laying around as well as a few other things to round off the edges on this project.   I’m planning on checking Craiglist over the weekend to see if any 2×4’s or a skylight surface.

Two of my goals for the year on the 13 skills in 2013 project was to improve my carpentry/woodworking skills and to raise poultry.   This one starts to kill two birds with one stone.    I never was very handy, but over the past few years I’ve built a few things and have gotten a lot better.   Building raised garden beds a few years ago was a good project for a novice and then later that year I built a pergola, which was a little more difficult and actually turned out pretty good.   I didn’t do a very good job of staining it, but such is life.   I’m hoping my kiwis will cover it anyways.   I also took a woodworking class last year and built a bat house, a sweet cold frame and then a pair of Indian clubs on lathe.    I’m definitely a lot more comfortable with these kinds of things now.



I’ve Been Thinking About Cyber Warfare and Terrorism Lately…

As everyone knows, there was a bomb at the Boston Marathon last week that killed three people and wounded over a hundred.   The suspects turned out to be Chechens and when they grilled the surviving brother he said part of their  motivation was the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was surprised to find out they were from Chechnya.  I expected either a Middle Easterner or a homegrown lunatic.  After they caught the one guy, I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that American military action around the world was one of the primary drivers of this.

I’ll spare my personal opinions on whether or not having our military all over the world is a good idea, but I think when something like this happens we need to get past the “holy shit, this is America, things like that can’t happen here!” mentality because it can and has.    We need to accept our vulnerability and find ways to limit that and probably more importantly, decide as a society if what we’re doing is worth the “collateral damage” at home.   We’ve been at war for a little more than 10 years now and for the most part it’s been business as usual for the average American citizen.   We’ve forgotten that sometimes civilians pay the ultimate price in wars – and they certainly have in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and everywhere else we’ve been one way or another lately.

We’re not untouchable.   I think we’ve come to the conclusion that we are and that’s made us extremely disconnected from war.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say “we should go show China who’s boss” or “we should turn Iran into a glass parking lot” or something along those lines because to them it’s an abstract concept with no downside except maybe having a football game or Dancing With The Stars interrupted by a news update.    This kind of arrogant thinking leads to complacency and poor decision making.   A lot of that Red Dawn book that I wrote goes on this theme.

Anyways, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about one way we as American citizens really are vulnerable to the outside world:   Cyber warfare.   A handful of countries have the ability to really do a number on our infrastructure and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.     This is a subject I’d like to look deeper into, but I’ll share my thoughts:

–  Russia and China have well-developed (maybe even better than ours) cyber warfare capabilities.   North Korea and Iran have some pretty good capabilities too.   There’s a few other countries out there and even some non-state actors that could do something.

–  We have these other countries’ number too, but these countries are to varying degrees less dependent on technology than we are.    Especially North Korea.  You can unleash an all-out cyber attack on North Korea and it will pretty much be business as usual so they’re basically immune.

– I think cyber warfare allows states new levels of escalation during conflicts.   Actually deciding to fire a shot is a big deal and almost always a huge step.   Sending a virus into a defense network seems less risky.   In a way I guess that’s good because it gives slightly more humane options (shutting off power is better than bombing something) but in a way it isn’t because it allows the actors to go a little further without making the jump over the line into kinetic warfare.

–  Cyber warfare also gives states some room for “plausible deniability” .    If you launch a cruise missile at another country, you can’t very easily say it was kids playing around.  In cyber warfare, it can be disguised to be someone else fairly easily or you can say it was rogue “hackivists” within your country and don’t worry, we’ll get to the bottom of this.

–  With cyber warfare you can do things like shut down the power grid, take down networks, give confusing orders to military units, take down satellites, flood sites with traffic, engage in psychological warfare, blow up pipelines, derail trains, bring down airliners, bring down the financial system and throw a wrench into just about anything else that depends on the internet.    In one particularly scary scenario, some power generators can be overworked until they break and to replace parts and all of that takes months under the best case scenarios.

–  Some of our military hardware that we view as our ace in the hole is extremely vulnerable, such as fighter jets and cruise missiles.

–  We’re all vulnerable in the US.   We lived for about 40 years with Ivan in the USSR pointing nukes at us and then after the Soviet Union collapsed we were made aware of the threat of terrorism.   To be frank, most of America isn’t concerned with Al-Queda deciding to blow up a Wal-Mart in the suburbs and I think most people view that as something that could only happen in the larger cities and near real strategic targets.    Like the idea of total nuclear war during the Cold War, cyber warfare is something that really could reach out and touch all of us personally.

From time to time I think we need to be reminded that we don’t live in a bubble.   I’d rather that reminder come from frank discussion on the possibilities than an actual terrorist attack.




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