This was a rough year for us as far as homesteading due to the drought and prolonged heatwave in our neck of the woods, but we still managed to maintain in most areas and even slightly improve in others. Experience is such a great teacher and we definitely learned a couple of things this past year.
Expiration Dates They're not set in stone, but there is sometimes a trade-off. When we initially stocked up in December 2010, we were just guesstimating how much of any one item we would need for a year. We had a pretty good start on the food storage but our goal was to beef it up to the point we had at least a 12 month supply of everything. Well, we tended to over buy on a couple of things but so far it hasn't resulted in any waste. The best example this year was store-bought ketchup. I'm the only one that eats it, and I only eat it on certain things ...meat loaf and stuffed bell peppers are all I can think of right now. But Yeoldfurt knows I don't like to eat those things without it, so he set the goal high to ensure I would have it when I wanted it. Well, we apparently way overestimated because a year later, I have three bottles left that are a couple of months out of date. They still smell fine and taste fine but it's no longer that bright 'ketchup red' color ...it's more the color of bottled bbq sauce, kind of reddish brown. It won't go to waste as long as it seems edible, I don't really care what color it is. But I've also noticed the plastic squeeze bottle it is packaged in has started to degrade. It is apparently composed of two layers of plastic and they've sort of started to separate. When you squeeze it and then let go, the outer layer returns to it's originally intended shape but the inner layer is much slower to go back into shape. With three bottles still on the shelf and one in the fridge, I'm thinking I don't need to buy ketchup until possibly 2013!
Repurpose Value of Wood Ash I knew you could make lye from wood ash and I knew it generally wouldn't hurt vegetation so could be spread on a lawn or garden. But I had no idea it was actually very beneficial to compost pile. Apparently, high acidity can be a problem in composting, slowing the decomposition process. Wood ash helps to neutralize the acid, thereby facilitating faster decomposition. I dumped a bucketful on our compost pile a week ago and turned everything over with a pitch fork this evening ...I can already see an improvement and it's only been a few days.
Tweaking the Pantry Inventory List We still use the spreadsheet that Yeoldfurt put together, but added some intermediate steps that make it easier to maintain and (hopefully) more consistently accurate. I used to print it when I went shopping. But being several pages long, that was cumbersome and a waste of paper. Then I started just reviewing it before I went shopping and adding to the shopping list what items I thought we could afford to stock up on. I still do that but now I also keep a small notepad, a pencil, and a Sharpie marker on the shelf in the pantry. When I go down there to get one thing, I invariably come back with one or two other things ...spur of the moment. So now I list what items I'm taking on the notepad as I gather them together so I can take a complete list back to the house with me. Also, for each item I bring back, I do a quick count of how many are still remaining in storage, then write that number in parentheses next to the item on the list. That way when I give the list to Yeoldfurt to update the spreadsheet, he can spot check the 'amount on hand' to make sure it's still accurate. It's not a perfect system, but it's evolving into a pretty good one.
Making Pennies Squeal I've always been frugal and budget-minded but circumstances the past few years have made me even more so. If you asked me a year ago whether we were getting all the mileage we possibly could out of every dollar, I would have said yes with very little hesitation. But we've found a couple of new ways to significantly stretch those pennies recently that make me wonder if there aren't more ways we just haven't discovered yet. The biggest savings comes from Yeoldfurt and I being able to adjust our schedules so that we can carpool to our jobs 40 miles away. With each of us driving separate vehicles 80 miles/day five days/week to and from our jobs, our fuel bill was equal to our mortgage payment ...it was outrageous! But when the transmission went out in one of the vehicles, we adjusted our schedules for a week while the truck was in the shop and were able to get permission from both our bosses to keep our schedules that way. By doing so, we cut our monthly fuel cost in half. Over a year's time, we'll also save significantly on replacement tires and oil changes for the vehicle that sits in the driveway most days. Conservatively, I estimate of our savings the first year to be approximately $5000. We also started keeping a Walmart gift card with $100 balance on it and using that to buy gasoline. Walmart's price is always the same or lower than any other stations in our area ...sometimes a dime or more lower. By using the Walmart card to pay, we get an additional 10 cent per gallon discount. I paid $2.80/gallon for regular last Friday. I don't know about prices in your area, but around here, that's pretty darn good. Since we use about 1400 gallons per year just driving back and forth to work, 10 cents per gallon is significant. Of course, since we have three geriatric vehicles, all that money saved will probably go into mechanical repairs over the course of that same year ...but at least we'll have the money in savings to take care of those expenses when they come up.
I'm sure there were other little bits of knowledge accumulated this year, but these were the ones that stood out to me when I was contemplating writing this post. It seems to me that the intangible things we gain every year ...the knowledge, the skills, the little tricks that make every day tasks easier ...are the real bounty in homesteading.
I hope the coming year is better all the way around. I hope we have normal temperatures and rainfall so we can have a garden, fewer mechanical crises so we can get a break from diverting so much to vehicle repairs, and a decent man in the White House so we can as least slow the decimation of our economy, our country and our values ...maybe even begin to rebuild some of what the past four years has destroyed. I don't know what the future holds, but I never want to become so discouraged that I no longer believe a bright future is possible. So at the close of this year and hopefully the beginning of a better year, I leave you with this poem that says better than I can what I feel and hope for tomorrow.