Year One at the New Retreat, by Mrs. R.L.B.

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Have you been thinking about leaving the crowded city and moving to a retreat? Perhaps you are weighing many factors, finances, age, leaving friends and family, and work.  But the most important factor you should weigh, is the answer to the question, “If the SHTF, can we survive here?”  If the answer is no, then take the leap and move!  We did! 

We sold our San Diego house and finally landed in Washington state, on the west side of the Cascades.  We aimed for the Redoubt, but due to work constraints we could not make that work for us.  So, last November, we closed escrow on our new 20 acre retreat in the country with rich soil, good rainfall, and a good well. It is in a farming community. 

After jumping in with both feet, I will tell you up front that if your plan is to escape to a retreat at the last minute, I strongly urge you to reconsider.  There is a big learning curve to retreat living, mistakes to make and plans to rethink.  If there is anything you take away from this article, I want it to be that message:  you need to get established first and practice your new skills. For example, this past first year I had to learn the growing season of the area, the problems with tomato blight, how to drive a tractor without killing myself, what works for purifying our water and more.  Because TEOTWAWKI has not happened yet, I have had time to sort out and buy seeds that will actually grow in my microclimate.  And when I drove my tractor under a big limb with the roll bar up, and the limb came crashing down on my neck, I was still able go to the doctor to make sure I didn’t crack my vertebrae.  Yes, I learn some things the hard way, and I am trying to learn what I can now before there is no medical care.  Mistakes made now are salvageable for the most part.  They are not so salvageable after TEOTWAWKI.  Move to your retreat soon if you decide this is for you.  Learn your sustainability skills and practice, practice, practice!

This first year, my life activities were dictated by the seasonal changes.  Almost everything I did depended on what season it was, planting, harvesting, canning, etc.  Even my indoor activities, sewing my quilts, organizing my pantry, etc, were driven by rainy days when I didn’t need to be outside.  Please keep in mind, I lived in a city all of my life.  And where I came from, it was, “Rain?  What’s that?”  I have never had to cut my own firewood, grow my own food sustainably, raise chickens or drive the aforementioned tractor ever before.  My association with seasons had to do with what kind of holiday decorations to put up. This is a big change for my husband and me.

November and December were very rainy months when we were moving in.  My husband travels quite a bit, so I spent several of those first days alone in the new house watching the rain outside and asking myself, “What have we done?”  It takes a sense of adventure and a lot of faith to take a leap like this, and you may ask yourself the same question, but take heart, it gets better.  I met one set of neighbors fairly quickly when they dropped by to say hi, and with their help I organized a housewarming for the other neighbors.  They also introduced me to a good Bible church nearby.  I got to know pretty quickly who were going to be the reliable friends, who was knowledgeable about growing a garden and canning and who knew the most about what was going on in our valley.  We also spent the winter learning what needed to be improved for our situation.  We lacked a wood burning stove, and once we installed it we learned how much firewood we used month to month in the cold months.  This first year we had to buy firewood.  The wood burning stove does a great job keeping the house warm and I think it is more comfortable than central heat.  I spent a lot of time unpacking and organizing these two months and finding out what needed to be replaced.  I had already created a modest stockpile of food, largely in part from the LDS Cannery in Reno when we were living there temporarily. (See my previous SurvivalBlog article: Visits to a LDS Cannery.)  I inventoried our supplies and went into town to stock up on many other items.  Some of those purchases included new cooking utensils, and cast iron items like a dutch oven and griddle that would fit on top of the wood burning stove.  I cooked on it a couple of times with the dutch oven just to know I could do it if needed. Referring to my own lists, I stocked up on OTC meds, toiletries, batteries, toilet paper, extra heirloom seeds and many other items. I also used this time to start buying canning jars and lids, including some of the reusable Tattler lids.  My philosophy in buying these so early was that I didn’t know when the supply line could end, and by harvest season I would still need them.  I bought more canning jars on sale later when canning season came around in July and August. Shopping was something I could do in the winter and it helped me learn my way around.

We also looked at our water situation. Our well produces drinkable water IF you close your eyes and imagine it isn’t really orange and turbid.  So we considered a plan to purify it and again after a couple of mistakes, we went with a peroxide treatment, coupled with water softening and reverse osmosis for drinking. We decided to store extra peroxide and salt for the future.  If we run out, the water is still safe to drink and can also be filtered with our Katadyn filter if it becomes too objectionable. I will discuss our well and electricity later in this article.

In January, I contacted a local nursery and had a long conversation with their expert on orchards.  I knew the bare root planting season was approaching.  Many nurseries place their orders for the next year’s trees around November so I wanted to find out what varieties they were going to carry and what was recommended.  I ordered 55 fruit trees of several varieties, paying particular attention to what trees best pollinate each other. I ordered semi-dwarfs in five varieties of apples, two varieties each of pear, Asian pear, cherries and plums. One other reason for ordering different varieties has to do with crop lost due to freeze.  If some trees bloom slightly later or earlier and a freeze hits, you may have some blossoms spared and still get fruit.  I neatly laid out the orchard to have roughly 15 feet between trees running southeast and southwest, with about 22 feet (hypotenuse) north and south.  One of my neighbors owned a tractor with a post hole digger and volunteered to start the tree holes for us.   Simultaneously, he dug post holes for the new fence. The nursery also had organic compost which they dumped into the back of my truck.  Twice I brought home a load of compost for planting and shoveled it out of the back of the truck into the orchard.  Because these weren’t muscles I was practiced in using, I developed a repetitive motion injury on one arm.  That was the last of my shovel use for a couple of months and was glad I had medical care still.  Come February and March, my husband planted the trees and we threw in a few extra varieties from the home improvement store.  The trees from the nursery did grow in very well!  Some of the trees actually produced this year to our surprise. But the home improvement store varieties had some mortality. If I was doing it again, I would buy only nursery trees. The nursery trees appeared to be older, sturdier and more suited to our area and were worth the few extra dollars.   We also took the opportunity to plant a few walnut trees strategically to lessen the view of the house when they grow up and to provide a good source of Omega 3. 

In March, we installed a six foot tall, 7-wire electric fence around the orchard.  We chose this fence configuration due to it’s success in controlling deer and elk in numerous studies.  We installed wood posts in the corners of the orchard, and between corner posts we used non conductive fence posts.  Of the seven electrified strands on the fence, five are 12.5 gauge high tensile wire, and two are white Gallagher Turbo Poly Wire strands.  The white Poly Wire placed higher on the fence improves fence visibility, which we hope will reduce the chance of an animal trying to run through it.  All strands are charged by a Parmak Magnum 12 solar fence energizer.  The battery keeps the fence charged day and night, even after weeks of clouds and rain. We were told by a local to mix molasses and peanut butter and put it on the fence to train the deer about the electricity.   Thus far, it has been 100 percent effective, and we have been able to keep out the two legged creatures as well, though I suspect in TEOTWAWKI this would not be much of a deterrent. 

April was the month for chickens, garden and a tractor.  Let’s start with the newly purchased tractor.  When it was delivered, we were taught how to operate it and I insisted on being the first to drive it!  With the instructor there, I took off with it around the yard with the brush hog going and had a little fun with it.  It was helpful to have him there to ask questions.  My husband got his turn and the rep left.  I pretty much took it as my job to use the tractor when something needed to be done as my husband isn’t always home.  For the most part, I did pretty well with it mowing around the house and in the orchard between the trees. Then there were two incidences that put a dent in my confidence.  The first incident was with the tree limb I already mentioned.  The latest incident involved me destroying the engine of the tractor.  I was removing fence posts with the bucket and mowing along side the road where the new electric fence is going for next years cattle.  I missed pulling one of the posts and not seeing it, I ran the tractor up on that post.  It went through the radiator and the oil filter.  Although I stopped the tractor after getting it off the fence post, the sudden loss of oil and coolant quickly overheated the engine and resulted in it needing a complete engine replacement.  I am lucky we bought tractor insurance, and TEOTWAWKI has not happened and I can recover from my mistake.  But I will say again, if you are planning to go to a retreat after SHTF, then you will not have the luxury of insurance or doctors being there for you while you learn from mistakes.  If you were already at your retreat, you could be learning these lessons now, not later.  My lessons learned about tractors:  (1) put the roll bar down to drive under trees, or cut the lower branches on trees, or do not mow under trees at all. (2) Back into tall weed areas with the brush hog, don’t drive over those tall weed areas engine first in case there’s something you can’t see (3) tractor tires have better traction going forward than backwards because of the [tread] design of the tires (4) wear a hard hat and hearing protection (5) don’t drive into a steep area sideways if you don’t want to roll your tractor (6) insurance can be a wonderful thing for your tractor! Yes, I will get on the tractor again, but with some added knowledge on tractor safety.  But, if you see me driving the tractor, you still might want to stand clear!

Late April, I also picked up my first chickens.  I had placed an order with a fellow who was a specialized breeder and was starting to think he wasn’t going to come through with the order.  So, I grabbed some different varieties at a co-op we had joined.  The co-ops here typically carry chicks until the end of April and I was afraid I would lose my opportunity to get chicks this year. Ok, you can laugh, I had the chicks inside in a box in a spare bedroom.  I didn’t have my coop set up yet and had to keep them warm, too.  The home improvement store sold me a shed which was constructed on our land, but I laid vinyl and my husband insulated it and finished it off inside.  He cut a small chicken sized door to the outside, where I had built the cage part of their coop with a screen door.  As my chickens got bigger, I was happy to get them out of the house.  I moved them into the coop and placed wood chips on the floor which I change out regularly.  Then I got a call from the breeder and now he had chickens for me.  It was too many chickens, but since I like to hold up my end of the bargain, I took them. Many of them were roosters, so I learned how to butcher a chicken as they got older.   If you are not too keen on butchering a lot of roosters, you may want to buy only the chickens you need from the co-op. Usually the co-op sells pullets (the females) but most likely you will get a rooster or two in the mix.  I will not go into methods of killing chickens, I’m still a little sensitive about that experience. But, for removing feathers without messing up the skin (after they are dead, of course), dunking them about four times in hot water at about 160 degrees F seemed to work best for me.  I butchered a total of eleven roosters and now have that skill in my repertoire.  What is left is what I consider a healthy number of chickens for my setup.  I have heard that you need about 4 square feet per chicken, which proved about right for me.  I do not free range my chickens because I want to protect them from predators and know where they are laying their eggs.  I’ve set aside extra food for them now that they are on a laying feed.  I have two roosters that get along well with each other in addition to my 13 hens.  One problem I nipped in the bud pretty quickly was some periodic aggression by both roosters towards me.  Each time, I grabbed the offending rooster and held him upside down by his legs for awhile to show him who’s boss.  Neither rooster attacks me anymore.

Let’s talk about the garden:  I count it a huge success to have just started a garden this year. Early April, I had started some seeds inside for transplanting into the garden.  Another neighbor came by with a tiller and cut an area 40 by 100 feet, where I had laid out tarps in advance to presumably kill the vegetation.  This was going to be the size of my garden.  We did a second tilling at the end of April. Early May, I started putting in my garden.  I planted a few rows a day and had most of the garden planted.

Then everything came to a screeching stop.

With all the recent talk about appendicitis on SurvivalBlog, my poor 56 year-old husband came down with it!  All the while, I kept thanking God for letting it happen when it wasn’t TEOTWAWKI and he wasn’t traveling. It was a very scary experience as his appendix had become gangrenous, and after surgery he was on IV antibiotics for several days.  I was terribly scared I would lose him. He is normally a very healthy, fit man.  He recovered more slowly than we anticipated, in part to his inability to sit still and rest. It was the first time I had faced the prospect of losing my husband and it still rattles me.  It also brought me to thinking about how absolutely difficult it would be to continue the work we were doing without him especially in TEOTWAWKI.

The days sitting in the hospital and then caring for him at home, the garden weeds got further ahead of me and some of my planted vegetables disappeared underneath them. The weeds looked just like the beets and spinach that was mixed in there. I didn’t fight the weeds too hard; victory was theirs.  But, I still decided to call my garden a success.  It was a big accomplishment to start a garden and have an area dug up for future gardens. I used heirloom seeds and was able to collect some seeds from the plants at the end of the season.  I did get food out of it, including green beans, cabbage, squash, corn and potatoes.  I had enough green beans for several canning sessions, and dug enough potatoes for my back to hurt.  The potatoes have gone into root storage as I have a chilly basement. I froze plenty of corn. It wasn’t the prettiest of gardens, but yes, I am calling it a success.

So in July, August and September, I did lots of canning.  Remember the big orchard we planted?  Well, we discovered we already had several mature fruit trees on the property! Surprise!  Apples, pears and plums came in and along with the garden vegetables, I was canning a lot.  I have a friend here who has canned for years, who was also gracious enough to give me lessons and recipes.  I found two canning books helpful, the Ball Blue Book of Preserving, and Canning for a New Generation. The latter has some wonderful recipes (spiced pears!) Yes, this is my first year canning, too. I made sauerkraut from my cabbage, adding caraway seed to it when I transferred it to canning jars.   Learning to can has probably been the most valuable part of the year for me.  Why?  Not only have I learned how to preserve my harvest for the winter months, but in practicing it I have learned what my husband and I actually like to eat and store more of the extra ingredients needed for those recipes.  For instance, the spiced pear recipe we like uses whole cloves and whole cinnamon sticks, so I have stored more of those.  If you are planning to can food in TEOTWAWKI, wouldn’t you like to know what really tastes good and works for you?  Some people have a very common genetic trait called “geographic tongue” that makes them extra sensitive to acidic foods like pickles canned in vinegar.  Is someone in your family sensitive to hot, spicy or acidic foods? Practicing your canning now will help you to sort out preferences and store the right ingredients.

In June, I purchased a Dakota Alert system that would monitor four areas and placed the monitors around the property at access points.  I know when someone is approaching the house, and sometimes know when the deer are going through an access point.  I do not get too concerned at every alert right now and familiarization with the alert may have desensitized me somewhat for when it goes off.  I know the time may come when I will need to seriously heed every alert I receive.

It’s now the first of November.  Hunting season is in swing in our locale and I am looking for that extra meat to put away.  As I am still learning the area and not up to speed on how to hunt this location, it is yet another thing I have to learn.  The deer that used to wander into our yard previously seem to know I am ready for them.  A successful hunt will mark the end of our self-reliance cycle for this year.  I was fortunate to have experience in hunting and butchering before the move.

So to continue about our water and power, this is not a complete project yet.  On a vacation to a jungle lodge a few years back, we noticed they ran their generator two hours a day to do their essential tasks.  Then the remainder of the time, the batteries supplied power to lights and a water pump.  We decided we would like to run a generator on one hour a day or less. During that time, we could run a washer, charge batteries and refill our home water tank.  We are on liquid propane for some appliances (stove top and oven, dryer), but a small electric current is needed as part of the operation as well.  So, we calculated the loads for our essential items, and bought a generator that will accommodate those loads while providing a charge to a battery bank.  Obviously, we think our water supply is the most critical.  We get our water from a well, which pumps it to a 300 gallon water storage tank in our basement.  From there it is pumped to our house fixtures by a 240 volt Gould pump.  Without AC power, we have no water.  We watched the National Geographic movie “Blackout” earlier this week, and it was ironic that we lost our power only minutes after the movie ended, but only for about an hour.  During that time, there was some remaining water pressure in the lines, but not enough to take a shower or flush a toilet.  So in addition to the generator, inverter and deep cycle batteries, we ordered an RV water pump (powered by a deep cycle battery) and are installing it in parallel with our main house water pump.  It is a fairly simple installation, but it required adding a one way valve on the output of the house water pump to prevent back flow.  This should give us water 24 hours a day. Based on a fuel flow chart for our generator, at roughly a gallon an hour for a full load, in 365 days we can go almost a year on our 364 gallon diesel tank, if it is full.  We try to run through the fuel to keep it fresh and keep some Pri-D in it to help preserve it. Once we have our set up complete, it will be tested with others in our group to see how this works and how we can trim back use of the generator.  If during that one hour a day, tasks are assigned to start the washer, cook a meal, take showers, operate a power tool, etc. then that’s not too bad.  Perhaps we can trim the electric chores to 45 minutes a day, or even 30 minutes a day with some good choreography.  I have timed the washer cycles and can wash a speed load in 28 minutes.  A wood drying rack in the same room as my wood stove does an excellent job of drying garments.  Who knows?  With some adjustments, and the addition of solar panels to help charge our inverter batteries, we may be able to go 2 or more days between operating the generator and stretch a tank of diesel for two years. Practice will tell us what works and what needs fixing. Once fuel runs out, we can still hand wash clothes, filter water, etc.  Some fuel will be retained for the tractor use and we are considering a second diesel tank. We will be working on a rainwater collection system later on and buying a hand pump for the well.

A note for the women:  I spent many years in a nontraditional job hearing how “a woman can’t do this”and “a woman can’t do that”.  If you hear it enough times it becomes easier to believe and as a result, we may not try to do certain tasks.  Yes, we may not be as strong as a man overall, but we know how to work smarter, not harder.  Think about this:  if your husband dies before or during TEOTWAWKI and it is up to you and only you, do you think it would have been beneficial to try some of those “man” things while he was still alive just to learn how to do it? I took this as my challenge this year to step up and try those things my husband would typically do.  I decided this year to use the chainsaws, use the log splitter, work with the tractor, run wire for the electric fence, and build the chicken cage and other things.  Trust me, I am married to a talented man who makes those chores look easy and he could do it all. But after his appendectomy, I kept thinking, ‘What if?”  I know I did the best I could this year and I challenge you to do the same especially if you have youngsters who depend on you should their Dad pass away.  In addition, this year I made a point of also practicing my shooting.  I focused more on my pistol, and practiced drawing, double taps and quick clip changes.  I had taken a few lessons from an NRA instructor the previous year but I was rusty. Gals, it is worth the money to pay for a good shooting instructor.  Some instructors will let you try their different guns out to for you to see what you like.  If you haven’t already, find that favorite gun you want to carry and get some lessons in using it. Go talk to the guys behind the gun counter and take some notes.  I went with a H&K .40 S&W, one of the more recent ones that had a grip that could be downsized for my hands, and a Black Hawk CQC holster made of carbon composite.  The holster doesn’t have the friction that a leather one does on draw, and this worked better for me.  Find a gun and holster that works for you, then practice.  Try a few “hips and head” shots while practicing, in case you encounter a target wearing a bulletproof vest.  While there are many good men out there who can protect a woman, they can’t always be there.  Take some of that responsibility on yourself.  A gun is a great equalizer!

You already know that it’s important to stay up on medical and dental care.   Get caught up on health issues before moving to a new retreat.  In some places it takes up to two months to get set up with new dentists and doctors, and if one doesn’t seem like a good fit, it takes more time to switch doctors.  I had to play catch up after I moved to get a delayed root canal done.  Right, no one wants to get one but it sure was a relief to have it out of the way.  I should have done it back in San Diego.  As just a side thought, if you still have your appendix and you are scheduled for another abdominal surgery, you might ask your doctor if they could go ahead and pull that appendix for you.  I was able to get my doctor to do this for me a few years back.  I think they wanted the practice for their residents and you might have a better chance getting this done at a training hospital!  Another decision I made a few years back was to have a cardiac ablation versus going on pills for an otherwise unmanageable arrhythmia.  What if I couldn’t get pills anymore?  Not fun, but glad I did it.  You have to decide for yourself.

Final advice:  If you have decided to move to a retreat, do it now.  It took a year of retreat living to get the seasonal flow of country life.  These are only the first lessons of self reliance.  My new neighbors have been a wonderful resource for me.  Should you find yourself equally blessed with good neighbors that are willing to teach you useful self reliance skills, open your ears and close your mouth. There is much to learn and practice, and you will be making edits along the way.  We are still editing and still have more to do.  Once TEOTWAWKI happens, there will be no “do over’s” in planning.

We took the leap and we like it!  We certainly pay less in taxes and in some states you can get a reduction in property taxes by operating your retreat as a farm.  Though our bodies hurt here and there, our hearts are happy in this beautiful valley.  Goodbye city life!  Green Acres we are there!

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