Letter Re: Some Preparedness Lessons Learned


The need for usable skills in tough times, goes without need for embellishment. The grand question is: which skills are the most valuable? In any situation the basic needs are obvious – food, shelter, and clothing. Choosing what I would concentrate on learning, became predicated on what I could do, and what the community could provide in stressful times.

I moved some time ago from the gulf coast to Tennessee to retire and begin preparing for the coming events. I moved into a community which is pretty much self sufficient, mostly by religious choice. Livestock husbandry ranges from cattle (mostly for milk), goats to chickens, hogs and horses.

I began to raise goats several years ago, starting with Boer cross. After several discussions I have crossed them with a strain of milk goat to reduce the size (and therefore the quantity of meat to be preserved) and gain the benefit of milk products. I researched the process of cheese making and using products initially supplied from New England Cheese Makers, learned the processes. It was very interesting to discover that the rennin (for assisting in cheese making) actually comes from the stomach of ruminators, another by product of the goats.

Preserving meats became my next concern. When talking to many folks, they believe that they will just run out and kill fresh meat when needed. Not only will the game be decimated in no time, but without a method of preservation it is wasteful. Preferred methods around here are smoking, honey and salt boxes for curing and preserving. The use of honey as a preservative turns out to be one of the very best. Honey has a natural bacteria inhibitor, and curing smoked meats in honey just makes life better. This in turn has determined the need for bees – My neighbor already has a couple of hives which produces enough for now. The use of honey reduces the dependence on obtaining sources of salt. In addition they are many maple trees in the area which folks tap during the winter and early spring. Many families have ponds a raise fish, which are canned by cold packing or salting and drying.

Having fresh water is a paramount concern. Even with a spring the water quality can change with the amount of rain causing algae blooms. These can range for digestive distress to just foul taste. The stream water cannot be used without treatment, as we have otters, beavers, coyote, foxes, and a whole range of other critters, so amoeba type problems are probable. Boiling water is the surest, but is often not the most practical. Any numbers of excellent water filters are available, but the Big Berky is the most popular here. In any case the water has to be pre-filtered to remove organic matter. This can be done by straining through a clean cloth, then passing through/over a disinfecting agent such as a silver compound, or the addition of non-detergent bleach. The next best is a cistern collecting rain fall, but even this can have issues as it tends to clean smoke dust and pollen from the air on its way down.

As for the vegetable gardens the goats do help with the fertilizer which is composted and added to the garden. The area I live in is pretty much a “rock farm” so there is a constant need to remove the rocks from the garden areas and add in soil from the hills behind us. This soil is usually pretty acidic with all of the hardwood trees. Most folks use lime from the feed stores – haven’t found a good substitute yet.

Clothing is one of the details that I have struggled with. The ability to produce cloth is beyond most of us. Wool makes for great outer wear, but lousy underwear. Goat hair can be made into quite durable garments, somewhat at the expense of comfort. We have chose to use GI surplus wool socks, sweaters, BDUs (because they are very durable) and purchase and store long and regular underwear. We do have a real cobbler in the community that does make very nice shoes/boots, but I still have a back up pair. Many women here weave or quilt (using discarded clothing as well as new cloth). I do keep some “unisex” clothing on hand for whomever – mostly in the form of overalls. They are fairly cheap and commonly worn in the area, and during the cold weather are an additional layer. We have had most days at or below freezing and night down to zero. I have looked into tanning leather – it is a noxious process and can be done. I am choosing to have the hides tanned while I still can and store them against the future need as clothing.

Our cabin is solid cedar timbers, and smells great! The downside is that there is a constant need to stay on top of the chinking and calking, to reduce drafts – I’ve used 22 tubes already this winter. We thought that pellet stove would be a great idea – wrong. First it requires electricity. With the power out you have to fire up the generator which is noisy and uses expensive fuel. Second the stove can burn corn or compressed hardwood pellets. Corn is food or the animals and us, and tough enough to grow enough as is. Besides using the corn leaves the odor of burned popcorn as exhaust. Compressed wood pellets are used on an average of 80# per day at a cost of ~$9.00 / day. Pulling the stove this spring and going to a straight quality wood burning stove that can be used to cook on. To back up a wood burning stove an axe, buck saw, splitting wedges or a maul, and or chain saw are required based on how much free time you can devote to it. Setting aside wood requires a year round effort to keep from killing yourself. Although we have electricity I do have a pitcher pump ready to install in the event it is needed. And have simple kerosene lanterns for light. I prefer the straight wick models, as the mantels have become very had to come by recently.

Health concerns in rural living also means, that you have to have a working knowledge of first aid and basic medicine. The Red Cross has good courses on first aid and the older Boy Scout manuals give an acceptable knowledge as well. Around here there is a good deal of herbal medicine practiced. This is good for preventive and minor issues. I have chosen to invest in some older college texts on anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology, and a physician’s desk reference. These books help in diagnosing, but will be of minimal help if/when the main line drugs are not available. They are great for showing how to stitch and bandage wounds more severe than the first aid books cover. We keep a well stocked medicine chest with off the shelf medicines, and rotate them as needed. As we find local remedies that are effective, we also include them (i.e. willow bark tea as a substitute for aspirin).

I have learned rudimentary blacksmith skills, and collected some of the tools as well as books on the subject. I can fashion horseshoes, wheel rims, forge weld, make cut nails and a few other tasks as required. There are many better skilled in this community and it will be more time efficient to trade/buy their services.

I have a full time gunsmithing business which has been sorely needed in this area – seems like everyone has one that they need fixed. So much for a retirement business….

The acquisition of books, and how to reading material can spell the difference between existence and some degree of comfort. In addition it is my considered opinion the education of young people is severely unbalanced. The possession of text books, classics, and recreational reading allows one to educate children when contact is limited. The community has a long history of home schooling. These kids routinely pass the high school exit exams (same tests as the state requires for graduation) with higher scores, and at an earlier age. Most parents seek out folks whom are well versed to teach the children. Oh yea, one by product is that the kids are very respectful, and thoughtful.

In conclusion I thought that preparation for tougher times meant more beans, bullets, and bullion. As it turns out, the retraining of my mind and attitudes has presented the larger challenge. Understanding how you store food, is nearly as important as what you store. What you can make is as important as what you can do without (toilet paper?) Knowing that one person cannot do all that is required, only means that you learn the skills to assist your community which will supplement everyone’s survival/ quality of life. I thought that being retired would allow me to kick back and enjoy some good libations. It has turned out to be the greatest learning curve of my life – and I love it. Jim’s preparedness course is a great place to start. But the real preparedness is in the doing! – Dennis S.