Sunday, June 13, 2010

Are bees dangerous?

Pardon the tacky attire, but it was 95 degrees in the shade and I was weeding in full sun. Right next to three bee hives... in shorts and a tank top... with roughly 120,000 flying stinging insects about 18 inches from me (we assume about 40k bees per strong hive).

No, bees are really not dangerous, this has been a wonderful thing to learn since we started keeping bees. Bees have moods, and sometimes you don't wanna mess with them, but 99% of the time, they are so peaceful and quite happy to just go about their business.

I would not recommend just walking up to any old hive without gear, but I've learned that our three are very docile. I did not intentionally start weeding practially nekked next to these gals, I was just working my way along the flowerbeds and realized I was in the bee yard.

No, I did not get stung, although, I got bumped a few times when I accidentally threw a dirt clod and smacked a hive. Bees 'bump' by flying into your body, kind of like a tiny airplane accident at chest level, it is their way of politely saying "what the heck are you doing you big dumb human?"

Fresh Fruit + 1 day = Fruit Flies...

With 35 pounds of peaches in the kitchen, we ended up with a cloud of fruit flies that would erupt from the sink every time we walked by. Yuck.

Here is my Aggie-solution-- a recycled fruit fly trap!

I cut the top off of a water bottle and inverted it into the body of the bottle. I put some compost (strawberry caps) at the bottom of the bottle as bait. The trap works like any fish or lobster type trap. The fruit flies can easily go into the opening of the bottle, but are confused when they fly up the sides and cannot get out.

Between this and extreme cleaning for a few days, the fruit fly problem is done. Phew.

One neat item of note is that we have moved so far away from pre-packaged commerical products that it was actually difficult for me to find an empty plastic bottle. I ended up scouting one from the trash-heap that is the back seat of hubby commuter car. The last time I bought a case of water was well over 6 months ago.

Just Peachy

A friend of mine from work lamented to me that his peach tree was doing too well this year... too well? As in he had TOO MANY peaches? How can that even be possible? I guess if you live alone and don't typically eat a lot of peaches, a tree full of peaches could be a problem. I bummed an invitation to his house (June 3rd) to 'help' with his 'problem' and over the span of 45 minutes we were able to pick two five gallon buckets full of peaches. Hooray for free food! Hooray for free food that is helping someone else with their 'problem' (ei-yi-yi). The crazy part was that after picking all we could (we only brought two buckets) you could barely tell we had even visited the tree. Perhaps it is possible to have too many peaches? Nah...

Two five gallon buckets = 10 gallons of peaches = about 35 pounds of peaches

After two nights of after 10 pm canning and jam making, those 35 pounds turned into 7 quarts of sliced canned peaches, 8 jelly jars of jam, 2 half pints of jam, 3 quarts of peach juice (jam that I was too lazy to measure and cook to set), 1 peach pie, 5 mornings of peach oatmeal, 1 peach crisp, lots of fresh peach snacks. My whole family was starting to turn orange with a slight fuzz erupting from our skin.

Guess how many pictures I took of peach picking... none (I brought the camera, but chickened out about asking my coworker if I could take pictures).

Guess how many pictures I took of the buckets full of peaches.... none.

Guess how many pictures I took of the sticky night of jam making... none.

Guess how many pictures I have of the final product... one, fuzzy one that seems to have focused in on the knife block instead of the peaches.

--under ripe is better for canned peach halves
-- We happened to get nearly the perfect number of chilling hours this winter, the bugs were lessened by the late freeze, my friend used miracle grow fertilizer stakes (I did not ask how many), he covered half the tree with a bird net... all of this lead to an amazing peach crop!
--the peaches were small, about golf ball to softball sized. I later read that if he had knocked off half of the blooms the tree would have produced bigger peaches. Even if they were small, they were delicious.
--A five gallon bucket will fit in my fridge!
--fruit flies LOVE peaches... and now my kitchen is invaded with clouds of nasty buggy-ness.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The plan...

We are working hard at trying to identify what our next step in life is. To this point, it has been so clear when we are on the right track: God puts things in place that I could have never imagined—specifically the way we were able to pay off all of our debts and our house so quickly. Now that that is done, we kind of feel like we are floundering along and not making any progress on anything. We’ve wanted to buy some land in the country and have that as an investment and a weekend place, but it is starting to become clear that it is probably not a good next step. Someday… just not now (and logically it makes sense).

Boy starts real school in 2 years and we are slowly seeing that our current school district (Dallas) probably can’t support the kind of future we want for our kids. Private school is always an option, but I think I want them to attend public schools. So we are now talking about moving into a better district and getting a larger home. The current community we are in is also lacking for suitable local friends for our kids. We’ve met some wonderful people (and our new best friend family) through our church, but it would be great if there were families in the neighborhood—walking distance-- that we could trust our kids to play with. So many choices!

Up until this point in our lives, the path has been fairly clear for us: college, jobs, marriage, house, kids… but what is next? I know that we could carry on with our current setup and have a good life, but we both feel that God has something else in store for us—we just don’t know what… and it is forcing us to work on our worst skill… patience.

As a part of our Sunday school class last year, we read a book called the “Red Sea Rules” about dealing with adversity in your life and trusting to Gods plan. There were something like 10 rules, but one that really stuck out to me was “trust God, but take the next logical step”. Hubby and I both feel very strongly about wanting to live in the country, and I really feel that doing so is part of Gods plan for us, but I don’t think it is part of his plan for us right now. Yes, we could take out a loan tomorrow and buy 40 acres and then what? We both still work full time, our kids will start school in 2 years, we are active in our local church and don’t want to leave… While it is possible to buy land now, it would be very difficult and it seems clear that the time is just not right. I definitely don’t have a peace about making a big step like that right now.

So I’m going to trust that owning land in the countryside is part of Gods plan for us, and I’m going to start taking logical steps to help us get there the right way. Logical steps… hmm, sounds a lot like hubby’s favorite thing… setting goals. So we’ll call buying land our long term (10-15 year) goal. Ideally, we’d be able to buy the land for cash, not be dependent on our in-town jobs to support us, and the kids would be at an age that such a move would make sense for their educational advancement. To be financially prepared to make a big purchase like that (300-500k) we need to start building the base now. One side plan of ours has been to own a few rental properties as a means of investing and generating a side stream of income (5-8 year goal). We are also quickly outgrowing our little house in town, and with boy starting school in 2 years, a better school district would be great. So our short term goal (2 years) would be to buy an upgrade house in a good school district with more room for us to grow our life and hobbies. Rather than simply selling our house and trading up, we hope to keep our current house as a rental property and take out another mortgage to buy our next house. (yes, gasp, debt… I thought we were done with that! I’m still struggling with this item). In the near term (now-2 years) we need to save up about 50k as a big down payment on the next house.

Considering we were able to pay off 72k in 13 months… 50k in two years should be easy… right? Not really. For some reason, money has been tight for us since January, even without a mortgage. Perhaps we are both recovering from such a lean last 2 years and spending more than usual, perhaps we are off of Gods plan and things are naturally bumpier when we are off target. Whatever the reason money-- which we assumed would be easy-- has not been. We’ve had to hit our emergency fund and are slowly rebuilding it, hubby’s overtime has nearly dried up (this was a huge factor in what we were able to do last year), we’re starting a new business and paying cash for everything associated with it. In other words, even without a mortgage payment, we are basically the same way we did before, but with very little savings happening (perhaps I was naieve to expect to be able to put the full mortgage payment toward savings each month). We are still saving, just not on the grand scale I envisioned.

I also think a big factor is that we are lacking a shared plan of attack. Our debt was a beast that hubby and I slayed together, every thought, every spare dollar went into killing it and we were working hard as a team. Now that it is dead, we have gotten lazy about things. Hopefully our new shared near term goal will get us moving again in the right direction.

So here is the plan:

1) save 50k downpayment (June 2012)
2) buy a 150-200k upgrade house in a good school district (August 2012)
3) use rental income from house #1 and job income to pay off new home mortgage (lets say 2015)
4) save up 50k
5) buy a rental property (rental house #2) use rental income 1 plus rental income 2 plus job income to pay for rental property #2. (2018)
6) Save up 50k
7) …

After 10-15 years, or whenever God says so, we will sell the whole assembly (ideally 3-4 properties) and pay cash for a place out in the country. Oh, somewhere in here too are a few side businesses in bees and software or consulting that will help us to quickly build up the 50k needed to make our downpayments and lessen our dependence on our in-town jobs.

So God, is this a better plan? Are we back on the right track? I sure hope so, but if not, we’ll review again. Amen.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Land for Sale

This weekend, for the first time, we went with a realtor to look at a piece of property. We've dabbled online lots, comparing prices and seeing what was out there. In general, our search has been for just land, no house but this property came up in our search and it included a house and a ton of acreage.

A short bio from the relator's website "Price Reduced! The last of the old home places! 188.66 acre farm with early 20th century 5 bdrm, 2 bath, 3111 sq. ft. home; 110 acres is cropland, the balance of the acreage is treed with a small creek running thru the property. Two old barns, small pecan orchard, excellent soils, seclusion. Home has new metal roof but does need some work and updating. 100% mineral rights. Sellers will consider any reasonable offer."

It hits all of the high notes of what we wanted, land, water, barns, trees, good soil, seclusion.

There was a ton of things that we loved about this place...

Talk about curb appeal! The house was set back about 100 yards from a very small all weather gravel road (nearest pavement was less than 0.5 mile away). There were giant old trees shading the home and lovely lush lawn surrounding it.

The house screamed old farm house charm. It has a green metal roof, white wood siding, deep porches on the south and west sides with very neat detailing throughout. The porch curves in a semicircle around the front of the house and the roof line matches. The dormers in the second story had curved wood edges. The house was started in 1911 and finished in 1914. The land has been in one family since 1860 and only came on the market when the owners passed away and none of the 4 heirs were interested in living in it.

We stepped inside the house and found that it was about 10 degrees cooler than the 90 degree heat outside, but no AC... the power had been shut off for years. It was simply the design of the house that allowed it to maintain a lower temperature. The home had very high ceilings (allowing hot air to rise) and every room had multiple doors to allow air to circulate. The second story was much warmer, but still not as hot as outside. Above the second story was an attic that reached between 8-10 feet high at the peaks, again allowing the hot air to rise away from the living areas.

The design of the deep porch was also perfect to battle Texas heat. The porch was about 12 feet deep on the south and west sides of the home, shading the house from the worst of the hot Texas sun. To the north a thick tree row would act as a wind break from the north winds in winter. These are all logical details that are simply not considered in today's home design and placement.

Just behind the house are two very old barns. So old that they are probably not totally functional or safe, but did not seem as ready to fall down as most 100 year old things.

Here is item #1 that scared us... a gas pump in the back yard, about 20 yards from the back door. Below the gas pump is a buried gas tank. Since this is a working farm, and located probably 10+ miles from the nearest gas station, this makes sense that they'd have access to their own fuel. 50 years later, it is still 10 miles from the nearest gas station, but it really worries me what condition the buried tank is in and what the old fuel in it may have done to the soil and groundwater.

More love for this place. The home was surrounded by huge old trees: pecan, bois'd arc, oaks. Beautiful high shade and picturesque.

Secret little outbuildings, half hidden in the woods. To me, this is a plus (not so much on yet another gas tank...). I love the idea that a family has lived on this land for 100+ years. I get all excited just imagining what sorts of old treasures we might find inside these buildings.

This is a shot of the hay loft of one of the barns.

We found this tally on the wall... perhaps they stored 365 hay bales in the barn, or perhaps they were counting days of a year, I won't list here what hubby joked they were counting... (really, is that ALL you think about?)

Outside the circle of perfectly mowed St. Augustine lawn area, the home was surrounded by thick woods and lots of poison ivy. The view from almost every window was trees. Ahhh, lovely.

Then, on the other side of the tree row, to the west... fields


and more fields.

The land itself is bisected by a creek and bits of farm land were carved into every flat portion of the property possible--a total of about 100 acres of farmland. To the west were about 10 acres of soybeans and far back to the north and west of the property (past the creek) were about 70 acres of corn.

The realtor explained to us that neighboring farmers had been farming the land on a contract with the heirs. The heirs put up 1/3 of the cost of planting, and then receive 1/3 of the profit. Pretty neat deal, and exciting that even while vacant, the land is generating income.

This leads me to our deal breaker on the property... walking through, something just seemed wrong... I've gardened my whole life and weeds are a constant battle, but look at this

perfect, not a weed, not a blade of grass out of place

Just baby soybeans popping up in tidy rows. How? Why does my garden not look like this? Easy... RoundUP and other herbicides are used to clear the land of everything prior to planting so as not to foul up the combine harvesters with weeds. My research after the fact was terrifying to me: for every $100 dollars spent on planting a crop $50-70 of it is spent on chemicals (herbicides or fertilizers). Soybeans are bred with RoundUP resistant genetics so that they can be sprayed directly with roundup and not be affected. YIKES, yikes yikes. And no thank you. 100 acres of chemicals surrounded by thousands upon thousands of acres of the very same thing. Where do all those chemicals go?

Yep, right into the watersheds and the three creeks that crossed the property. This was our deal breaker, a single item to take down the whole place. We spend so much time and effort on our tiny home gardens to keep them organic, hubby hunts and slaughters our own meat to keep it as clean as possible, we've even moved away from many of the commerical products due to questionable chemical content, yet we fell in love with a property that had gallons of chemicals sprayed on it each year so it was able to produce. I don't mean this as an attack on industrial farming (or perhaps I do!), I understand that herbicides and fertilizers are necessary to provide the quantity and price of food that our country demands... but I don't' want to live in the middle of it and I definitely don't want to raise my kids there.

I am really torn, because I loved this place so much. Nearly every detail was almost spot on for what we want in a property (assuming a creek could be dammed up to make a pond). But the chemicals are not worth negotiating over, even if we stopped farming the immediate land, the surrounding farms would still be farmed in the same manner.

The staying power of this homestead is proven, people have lived here successfully for over 100 years. The land, water and soil is clearly able to provide what is needed in this remote location. too bad it is all potentially steeped in decades worth of farming chemicals.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What do we want?


So that was our answer until about 6 months ago. Now we are starting to drill down to what that means. First and foremost... the #1 (and 2 and 3) most important item regarding real estate: location, location, location. We used to talk about moving up to SW Missouri, hubbys extended family has lived there for decades and my sister lives somewhat nearby as well. The land is beautiful, we like the area, family is nearby, but... the tech industry is basically non-existent in SW Missouri and both hubby and I are in very technical fields (he's electrical and I'm mechanical engineers). We also learned this year that we really don't like winter. Just a span of 4 sub-freezing days here in Texas and one nasty wintry drive back from Missouri convinced us that we are really not cut out for the cold (yes, we are big sissy's being scared by a mere 17 degree day and 8 inches of wintery precip). It has slowly been revealed to us that we like Texas. North East Texas to be exact.

So location... I'm bounding this up by saying east of 75, north of I20 and within the bounds of the great state of Texas. Still a huge area, yes, but we like to keep our options open. We love the land there, close family is nearby, and we have both lived our lives here in Texas and really like it. It also keeps our options a bit more open for a gradual transition (as in start with a weekend place)

How much? (see how clever that is? it means two things: how much land and how much money, sort of different, but totally the same question--yikes, I kill myself sometimes with the cleverness.) Living on a plot of land that is 75x125 feet, even an acre seems like a huge span, but I know we'll need more. Hubby put his bound on it by saying a minimum of 20 acres (now when I go back through emails, he has also said a minimum of 100 acres, 40 acres, 80 acres...) so perhaps we have not defined this so well yet. The upper bounds are limited only by finances--the second meaning of 'how much'. We are currently debt free, but to save up cash for the 200-300k we'll need to buy what we want will take years, and we are impatient. If we are able to sell our current house, we'll be a good part of the way there, but to do that something would need to change on our job front. Not likely.

Now the fun and beautiful details:

Pond or live water stream
Old homestead
Good soil for planting
Lack of chemicals in surrounding land
Good schools
Not on a major road
All-weather road leading to property
Surrounding land not going to be developed

Refreshing a dream

As much as I love my gardens and my yard in our current house, Hubby and I want to get out of the city. It has been a shared dream of ours to own a big chunk of land in the middle of nowhere. The details around it have changed and been revised over the years, but the general premise is still the same: land, in the middle of nowhere.

Right now, the dream is just that, a dream. With our current job situation, there is not really any way for us to live anywhere but where we do now, in the middle of the 9th biggest city in the US (based on 2007 census data). Further complicating things is the fact that hubby and I both love our jobs so neither one of us is quite ready to make a change on that front... yet.

So what do two space loving, gardening, bee-keeping, chicken-raising, do-ers do when stuck in the city? Well, we practice--small scale. Most of what this Horton Living blog has been is a record of our practice and skill building for 'someday' when we can escape the city and get some land to play on.

The biggest thing we did to move toward our dream was to get out of debt and pay off our mortgage. During our payoff, we learned to live cheaply and now we are doubly rewarded in that we have our former mortgage payment that is now being saved for our near future and we also learned to live on a lot less.

Granted, we are not there yet, but we have crested the hill and finally our 'snowball' is rolling in the right direction and growing for us.

This weekend, we had the opportunity to review and revise our dream a bit. For the first time, we went with a realtor to look at a piece of land... in the country... in the middle of nowhere! Woo Hoo!

The long long story short, we both loved the property and land, but were scared off for reasons that I plan to put into detail. The single best outcome of this weekend was that it has reminded and refreshed both hubby and I regarding our shared dream. We want land. Wishing and dreaming is all well and good, but there is a lot that we need to put into practice NOW to be ready for when we can make this dream come true. It also opened our eyes to the fact that there are two questions that need to be answered: What do we want, and how do we get there?

(picture me yelling this like some deranged cheerleader)

What do we want? LAND!

How do we get there? WITH A PLAN!

Go team Horton!!

Chicken Jinxed, part II

The same day I posted about being chicken jinxed, I went back to the coop gather eggs. I reached in and the black hen pecked me hard enough that she drew blood!

I think I fixed her though, I dumped her out of the nest box and took it away for a few days. I had to collect eggs off of the ground, but oh well it seems to have confused her enough to not be so broody anymore. I hope...