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Finding Abundance

Creating A Heating System For Our Offgrid House

Karrie SteelyOur off-grid house building is on schedule. The goal by the end of this year was to have the structure and outside completely finished, and we reached that this fall. We've also gotten the inside insulated using spray-on insulation, and the last step this year was to install hoses for in-floor radiant heat.

A lot of time has been spent thinking about how we're going to heat the house. We will be off-grid, but will have solar and propane and wood.

working on our house   thermometer

With the philosophy that too much is better than too little, we’ve gotten plenty of solar panels for our electricity needs. We built the house with the roof slanted rather than peaked so that they will be at a south-facing angle. There should be lots of power and then some as long as the sun shines. The excess power will be put to good use after the batteries have been fully charged. It will be diverted to heat salt water in a 2,000-gallon insulated milk tank (that we happened to have laying around the farm, a great way to repurpose!). This tank will be used as a heat exchanger, which will have pipes running through it, heating the water running through them. The electrical elements running from the solar panels will keep the water between 180 and 200 degrees. We'll also build a wood burning unit into the tank to heat the water if the sun doesn't shine for several days.

We did some experiments with salt water, and found that in addition to freezing at a much lower temperature, it retains heat better and longer than just plain water, and has a slightly higher boiling temperature. Because the tank will be completely enclosed and constantly heated, the convection motion of the water will keep it agitated so we're hoping the salt won't crystalize. We’re also going to need to buy a lot of salt to get it as saturated as possible.

 flooring and insulation

The main heat for the house will come from antifreeze running through the hose in the floor, which will coil through the heat exchanger. This radiant heat should keep the house toasty, but we also have a wood-burning cookstove for a backup. The house is 850 square feet, which isn't a huge amount of space to heat.

Installing Pex hose into the subfloor was a big project. The recommendation is to leave around 12 inches between each row of hose, but we put our hose rows 2 feet apart, hoping that it would do the job. We figured that if it didn't produce enough heat, we would add more hose between our existing rows. (Needless to say, my arms and legs got REALLY sore from drilling and shoving and pulling pipe through the floors, and I really didn’t want to have to install more.) My partner built a heat exchanger stove for his shop that burns used farm equipment oil. So we connected the hot water hose that was heating the shop to our new house to test our handiwork. The water was 140 to 160 F as it entered the house. It heated the house to over 90 degrees overnight when the outside temperatures were in the 20s. Granted, when we put the subfloor and flooring down, the heat isn’t going to be radiating so strongly, but it should produce a nice even heat with the flooring, and we don't need it to be 90 degrees in there anyway! In addition, the water coming in from the heat exchanger will be closer to 200 degrees. So it seems that the 2-foot spacing between the hose rows should work fine.

flooring and insulation   sweat equity

The hot water for the house will also be heated with the heat exchanger tank. A hot water heater with a regulator  will be used as a holding tank, we don’t want to run 200-degree household water. In addition, we will have a hot tub outside that will be filled and maybe circulated with water that runs through the heat exchanger as well.


It’s been pretty exciting to talk about ideas and create designs from scratch, and then move to the process of putting it together and making it happen. We are both creative, big outside-of-the-box thinkers and good at following through, so creating these plans from scratch and building them from the ground up together has been a great process for both of us. The house won't be finished until next fall. We’re taking a break this winter and heading south to spend the coldest months in the desert in Arizona.

Getting Creative With Venison

Karrie SteelyIf your family has deer meat in the freezer, you may be like me, working hard to get creative to make it tasty and tender. So many people in this region of Nebraska hunt deer to keep them out of the crops that we end up being given quite a bit of venison each season. Usually my partner runs all of the meat through a grinder and freezes it so he can make jerky or sausage, or we just cook it and add it to recipes that call for ground beef. This year I asked him to leave some larger cuts so I could experiment, because I haven't cooked much venison. The first dish I cooked was the back strap (the best cut from the animal, think tenderloin). I wrapped it in bacon and made a teriyaki-type glaze and slow roasted it in the oven, done on the outside and rare in the middle. It was delicious.


My next recipe was also a success. I decided that slow cooking would help to tenderize the meat. In addition, acidity and sweetness from apples and vinegar would mellow the gamey flavor. I came up with this recipe, which adds some extra fat to balance the lean and some wonderful, rich winter flavors. If you are looking for something delicious and rib-sticking for a cold winter night, try it out. I think it turned out beautifully. Let me know what you think if you try it!

finished stew 

Winter Venison and Apple Stew with Dumplings
(I don't usually measure exactly when I'm winging it. These amounts are approximate, so adjust according to your tastes.)

Shoulder cut of venison, about 2 pounds, cut into cubes
1 apple, diced
2 cups apple cider
1 onion, sliced or chopped
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon sage
2 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt or to taste
1 teaspoon black pepper or to taste
3 strips bacon
1 sweet potato (or regular potato)

Plan on slow cooking this dish for 6 to 8 hours.

Layer bacon, onions and apples in the bottom of the slow cooker. Turn it on high. If your meat is frozen, put the whole chunk in the pot and cut it up later as it thaws and cooks.

Add all ingredients except potatoes, then add water to the top of the slow cooker. Cook for 2 hours on high and then reduce to low and cook another 4 to 6 hours.

Add sliced or diced potatoes 1 to 2 hours before you are ready to eat. Turn heat back to high 30 minutes before end of cooking time. Wait 10 minutes, then add dumplings so that they will cook thoroughly.


3 tablespoon butter
2 cups flour (I milled the flour for this, so it was whole wheat)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk or water

Soften butter and mix all ingredients thoroughly. Drop by spoonfuls into the slow cooker, pushing dumplings down to make room for more dumplings. Cook for another 15 to 20 minutes. The dumpling batter will dissolve somewhat and thicken the stew.

Adjust flavors to your taste. The stew should have a slight apple cider vinegar flavor, but not be overwhelmed by it. Enjoy!

The Fallow Time: Giving Ourselves Permission to Go Within

Karrie SteelyMany of us who spend much of our time outside suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Being nature’s children, we function in its rhythms and fluctuations. When days become short and temperatures drop, so does motivation. There is a strong drive to eat and sleep, and we become less productive. It’s not uncommon to be reflective, pensive and lethargic. If you can relate with me on this, you’re not alone.

monument valley 

What’s going on inside of us is a reflection of what is going on outside. Where there was recently green and life all around, it is now gray, brown, decaying or frozen. Death is everywhere. Nothing is growing. Plants and bugs have died or gone into hibernation or stasis, and animals forage and hunt for whatever sustenance they might find. What is still alive is struggling to survive. The weak sun offers little warmth or consolation.

snow and Kate   snow on the pass

For me, my normally fertile, happy, verdant mind is sluggish and numb. If I can’t go outside, I don’t want to do anything. When I do go outside to get fresh air and exercise, I return feeling somehow empty and dissatisfied. There are some days that I have to force myself forward, going through the motions of life. On the worst days, being alive is painful. This isn’t necessarily something that I want people in my life to know about, so I tend to withdraw and isolate.

For years I felt certain that there was something wrong with me, and I put on a happy face around others and cried and slept when I was alone. It’s something that people just don’t understand if they haven’t been there themselves. The well-intentioned advice, “Just snap out of it” or “Why don’t you just find something to do?” isn’t helpful at all. It just makes me feel more broken somehow.

After spending most of my life agonizing through the winters, with age has come the realization that fighting or ignoring it just makes it worse. Our modern lives aren’t built around nature. Because of artificial lighting and electricity, the change of seasons has no effect on the expectations of productivity, efficiency and our daily lives. There’s an expectation to function at full throttle regardless of the time of year. But I’ve detached myself from the expectations of others. I sleep more but don’t beat myself up for being ‘lazy.’ I spend time staring out the window at the falling snow, listening to the wind howling. Just sitting.

I’ve come to a slow realization that fallow is not just about death. Fallow is a time of incubation and rejuvenation. It’s a time to go within, to be with oneself. I can’t expect to be 100-percent productive all of the time if I don’t take the time to recharge and incubate my creative energy. If I allow myself to function with nature rather that against it, I find balance in the ebb and flow. That means sitting with the death and the sadness, accepting it and meditating on what is going on outside, with the certainty that spring will eventually come again.

We are like seeds lying dormant in the frozen ground. We can’t bloom all year round, but we are full of potential.

snow bird   ice

Just being philosophical isn’t enough. We have all found ways to get through the winter. I use a full spectrum light for light therapy, and take extra vitamins, sam-e or tryptophan (chemicals that naturally occur in the body but seem to help to boost my well-being). I try to exercise and get out in the weak sun as much as I can manage. There have been a few times I’ve taken anti-depressants. There is no shame in that.

I also make a point of getting together with friends and family, even when I would rather be alone. Drinking warm beverages, playing board games, crafting and cooking together is good for the soul. I’ve given myself permission not to get caught up in others’ expectations around the holidays. I do what I am comfortable with, and refuse to allow myself to become overwhelmed.

So take heart, my fellow earth babies. What we experience each winter is normal. If we lived in a world that was more connected with the rhythms of nature, it would be easier to stay connected to our internal rhythms. Accept the emotions, reach out for help when you can, and allow yourself to acknowledge your deep connection to the natural world. It’s OK. The hibernation season is upon us. This winter, allow yourself to become fallow. I’d love to hear from you. Share the ways that you deal with the short days and long cold nights of the season.

riding in the snow 

Apple Ideas Galore

Karrie SteelySeveral weeks ago a good friend invited me to pick apples. She works for a large IT company, and when the buildings were landscaped someone had the clever foresight to incorporate dwarf and semi-dwarf apple trees. The campus is mostly empty because the majority of people work from home offices now, so every year most of the apples go untouched. I ended up with five grocery bags full. There were still gobs of them that ended up rotting on the ground. Even the birds couldn’t keep up!

It didn’t occur to me until I got home to think of what I would do with all of those apples. They were stored in the cool garage, but not cool enough to keep them through the winter. I had to get busy!

juicing apples

fresh apple cider 

Apple cider was my first project. I ran the apples through a vegetable juicer after cutting the seeds and bad bits out. I canned the first batch, but found that the wonderful, rich apple flavor disappeared after being boiled. So over the weeks I made a few small batches, and we enjoyed the seasonal flavor while it lasted. Freezing the cider doesn’t seem to compromise the fresh apple taste, so I froze a few gallon bags as well. The cider was wonderful warmed and with a shot of spiced rum, a dollop of whipped cream, and a dash of cardamom or cinnamon!

meats and apple 

herbs for sausage

I threw most of the apple pulp from the juicing process into the compost. I did save some, which was added to sausage. Making sausage is time consuming, but it isn’t difficult. I took a pound of ground venison, a pound of bacon ends and a few cups of the apple pulp as the base. Sausage needs fat, so I use a cut of pork with a lot of fat or bacon to add to venison since it is so lean. First, I sauteed a small diced onion and two cloves of garlic with a few strips of the fatty bacon. The rest of the bacon was run through the meat grinder (Kitchen Aid attachment on a Kitchen Aid mixer). For flavoring, I added a few tablespoons of fresh garden sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and a few dashes of powdered nutmeg, salt and pepper, and a tablespoon or so of maple syrup. Diced apple was added for texture. I mixed all of this together by hand in a bowl.

Before stuffing the casings, I always make a few patties from the mixture and cook them up to make sure I’m happy with the flavor and texture. After making any adjustments, it gets run through the sausage stuffer with the largest stuffing attachment (so the apples and onion pieces don’t get stuck). I bought hog intestine casings at a butcher, you can also find collagen casings. These came brined in salt so they had to be soaked and rinsed, and then water run through them.

The casings have to be pushed onto the attachment, then the machine helps to push the filling through into the casings. (It is a lot easier if you have two people helping with this process – one to feed the meat into the attachment and another to maneuver the sausage as it comes out.) Once out of the extruder, it can be twisted every 6 inches or so to make links. We ate some for dinner and I froze the rest. (You can experiment with all sorts of different ingredients and combinations for sausage. You don’t have to have a meat grinder or sausage stuffer if you buy the meat ground. You can just make patties. )

stuffing the stuff 

sausage links

My daughter and I spent a lovely afternoon at my friend’s house cooking and chatting while making the sausage. We had an amazing fall dinner: homemade apple venison sausage, red beets and sugar beets from the garden broiled with basalmic vinegar, sea salt and olive oil, and homemade spaetzel drizzled with butter.


But there were still apples left! I used them in a big batch of old-fashioned Apple Brown Betty, which I shared with friends. One night we had pork chops, sweet potatoes and apples with sautéed onions. They will also be used for apple pie and apple walnut stuffing for Thanksgiving. I diced and froze several bags. I’ve made enough of a variety of dishes that my family hasn’t gotten tired of apples yet, thank goodness. We’ll be eating them all winter!

Modern Victory Gardens and The Homesteading Movement

Karrie SteelySeventy years ago, the United States government rallied Americans to ‘do their part’ in the war efforts during WWII (as had been done during World War I as well). Propaganda posters were used to urge the public to plant victory gardens (among other things) because of food rationing. Patriotism and American pride became ever-present throughout the war to maintain civilian morale and support the military efforts. Posters that rallied Americans behind a common cause against a common enemy were hung in post offices, railroad stations, schools, restaurants and retail stores. People who weren’t fighting on the fronts or producing war materials wanted to be able to do their part, and Uncle Sam urged them to actively participate so that there was enough food and resources to help win the war. Everyday Americans could grow their own food, can and preserve, keep a backyard flock, and consume less in order to take part in the effort.

sow the seeds  dig chickens

plant today  Win the next war now canning

The growing grassroots movement of modern victory gardens harks back to that era. Increasing numbers of Americans are once again growing their own food, and therefore taking control of what their families eat. There may still be a connection between homegrown and homeland security, but times are very different, and so are the reasons that people are raising ‘victory gardens’, as well as becoming more self-sufficient in general. So why is this movement happening? Duty, patriotism and tradition are no longer the glue holding our society together. But there does seem to be a common need to become more independent.

Here are some reasons for taking back responsibility and control of our own food supply:

– Independence from corporate food systems (food security)

– Reducing reliance on fossil fuels

– Healthy and fulfilling lifestyle 

– Saving money as food costs rise

– Concerns  about the overall health of our food system and the food in it

– Connecting to where food comes from 

– Return to community-based living, and exchanging garden abundance with friends

– Safety, quality and availability of food

Uncle Sam the Pied Piper

Why do you grow your own food, or choose to live a self-sustainable lifestyle? I’d love it if you’d share your thoughts. Leave a comment here or join the "Homesteading" Facebook Room discussion. (I’ve set up a Facebook room to discuss ideas about modern homesteading. Download the Facebook rooms app on your phone if you haven’t already. Take a screen shot of this image. Open your app and push the “Use Invite” button in the lower right hand corner. Join in!)


Tying A Horse To A Lawn Chair And Other Not So Great Ideas

horse tied to lawn chair

Karrie SteelyLately there’s been a photograph circulating on the Internet that makes me cringe every time I see it. Having been a horsewoman most of my life, I can state that one of the cardinal rules is never tie a horse to something that could move. I guess people think it is kind of cute and funny that such a big, powerful animal is so dumb that it assumes it can’t move if it’s tied to a chair. Horses are trusting, gentle animals. They are often more than willing to oblige what is asked of them, until something triggers their flight instinct. A loud noise, sudden movement, even leaves blowing on a windy day might be enough. A horse is a prey animal. I don’t care how well trained it is. If something spooks it, it will pull back. If the object it’s tied to follows it, it will assume that it’s being chased.

I’ve heard about and witnessed injuries (physical and psychological) from many similar incidents. Just recently a friend told me that a boarder at his stable tied her horse to a trampoline. A trampoline? Really? The subsequent damage to the horse and the trampoline was blamed on the property owner for leaving a trampoline where someone might tie a horse to it. (Forehead slap.) I knew another woman who, when she bought her first horse, tied her to a swing set. Aside from severe lacerations, the mare was never able to stand tied again. She had an overwhelming fear of being tied that couldn’t be trained out of her.

horse loosely tied 

If a horse has been well trained, it will stop pulling back or will move forward, and then relax when it meets resistance. I won’t go into the details of how to train a horse to stand tied, but it's obviously important. In addition to standing tied, I trained my horses to ground tie (stand still and wait with the rope dropped to the ground or over its back) or to stand with a rope thrown over a post. I usually didn’t bother tying them unless they were wiggly or if we were somewhere that if they did pull back they could run away, such as a trailhead or an event.

Jamie standing quietly

I hope that if even one person takes this to heart, I can help prevent a train wreck. Please. Please, please, please don’t assume that an animal is so well trained that it would never pull back while attached to a piece of lawn furniture (or rear view mirror or bumper or fence rail or anything that can’t resist several hundreds of pounds of pressure). This goes for any livestock, large or small. They are powerful and don’t always play by our rules. A prey animal’s first instinct is to run if it feels threatened. Unless it’s been trained to stand tied, it is definitely going to feel threatened because it can’t escape if it feels the need to do so.

If you have stories or experiences on the subject, please share.

Vintage Mason Jar Find

jar and antique utensils

Karrie SteelyI get a little bit ridiculously excited about simple things. A little while ago I wrote a blog entry about how much I love glass jars. Not long afterward I hit the mother lode of glass jars. It was canning time, and poking around on the old farm for some mason jars seemed like a good idea. I just about fell over backward when I opened the side door of an old stock trailer and came upon a treasure trove of antique jars and lids mixed in with modern jars! The trailer had been loaded up years ago with the intention of hauling it to an auction, but for whatever reason it never left the farm. There were gobs of boxes of mason jars in there.

I found even more canning supplies in the old wash house. These things have been accumulating around here for more than a hundred years, during times that everybody canned their food and nothing was thrown away. My partner was raised by his grandmother, and he remembers her putting up a lot of food in those jars. The oldest ones came from the original homestead, a mile down the road.

stock trailer full o stuff

Fast forward and here I am, like a kid in a candy store, pulling out disintegrating boxes and gingerly exploring the contents. Some of the jars have bubbles and imperfections in the blue and clear glass from the early glass-making processes. Most of the jars are in pristine condition. There are also glass and zinc lids and old pressure cookers.

lids and rings

I’m going to make a special place in our new house to feature some of these cool old jars, and use the newer ones for canning. I found things like a washboard, a butter churn, vintage telephones from different eras, and lots of other stuff in the stock trailer and wash house. Considering how many neat old family heirlooms I’m finding all over the place, I think it’s fitting that the old wash house should become a mini-museum to keep all these things in. I’ve always loved going to old farm estate auctions and flea markets. There is so much stuff to go through here, I’ll probably never feel the need to go to another one again. 

Atlas jars

If you have a collection of old jars or have come across some of these treasures yourself, leave a comment! I'd love to hear about them.

old ball jars

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