Friday, May 30, 2014

Kombucha - fermented tea is not for me!

Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage, its literally made using sweetened tea and a starter culture (called a SCOBY – Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast). Its a bit like kefir, except it forms a larger squishy solid mass that floats on top of the tea. And also like kefir, the origins and exact composition of kombucha are shrouded in mystery (more info here).

My herbal tea collection because I forgot to take a photo  of the kombucha

As kombucha is made from tea and as I don’t tolerate caffeine (it makes me shaky and keeps me awake, even one cup of tea has this effect, that’s why I only drink herbal tisanes), I haven’t been too interested in trying to make it, but I keep hearing about it and I was curious about the taste and I wasn’t sure if it would contain caffeine or not. I bought a commercial kombucha drink from my local vegan store so I could try it out. I would recommend that you do this, just to make sure you like it, before you go to the trouble of trying to source the starter SCOBY, either buy a commercial drink or find someone who makes kombucha and try their version. It tasted quite nice, just a little sweet, a little sour and a little bubbly, nothing too strong. I just tried a plain kombucha, but you can also add flavours after it has fermented.

The caffeine question was answered later that night as I lay awake around midnight contemplating the darkness. Yep, definitely a bit of caffeine remains! Apparently it is around 30% of the original caffeine content. If you don’t tolerate caffeine, then you can make your own kombucha with decaffeinated tea, or you can use a herbal tisane or roibus for most of your batches and do the occasional batch with black tea (apparently the SCOBY needs black tea occasionally, but I’m not clear why exactly). It just seems wrong and unnatural to use a decaffeinated tea, so I would rather go without and enjoy other fermented drinks instead.

Personally, I found it interesting to taste kombucha and do some research, but I think I have enough starters to look after at the moment (the kefir and Herman the cake starter), and I make non-caffeinated fermented drinks using whey, so I’m not going to launch into kombucha at the moment. Seeing as I did some reading, I thought I’d share it with you though, and if you are ok with caffeine and want to add some probiotics to your daily diet, maybe you could try kombucha. Just like other fermented foods (like yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut for example) kombucha is said to balance the microbes in the gut and assist the immune system with fighting disease. As Pheonixhelix says “These living foods change from batch to batch, and since they can’t be patented or highly controlled, there’s no real incentive for the science community to spend resources in research”. That’s the problem for all fermented foods and the reason why the argument “there’s no proof that its good for you” really isn’t fair, the proof is all the people who use kombucha (and other fermented foods) daily and see either improved health or at least no adverse effects.

And here's my kefir (and some pickles)
It is at least quite a simple process of brewing tea, adding sugar, allowing it to cool and then adding the SCOBY, which is quicker than my fermented drinks, so that would be an advantage. If you want to try making it yourself, you will need to get a SCOBY, as the SCOBY grows with each ferment, people who make kombucha will have excess kombucha, so you just need to ask around and find someone, or try searching google (you will find that people sell all sorts of starters, commercially and privately, including kefir and kombucha).

What do you think? Have you tried kombucha? Do you make it? Would you like to? I would love to know if anyone has tried brewing kombucha with anything other than black tea.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

How to rebatch a soap disaster

I had made three batches of soap already, so feeling like a seasoned professional, I went ahead with another batch, even though my digital scales needed a new battery and I couldn't find my good thermometer.  I figured that I was so good at soap making now that I could be able to use my spare analogue scales and my cheese-making thermometer, even though the scale on both is pretty dodgy and the scales don't seem to zero properly.  Yes, the scene is set for a soap making disaster.  Unlike cooking, in which the amounts don't have to be completely accurate, soap making is really a chemical reaction in which you do need to measure out very accurately or it won't work.  I knew something was wrong when the soap took a very long time to reach trace.  The suspicion was confirmed when the soap did not set hard after several weeks in the mould.  Luckily all is not lost, it is possible to rebatch soap disasters, it just takes a slightly different method and some patience.
the unset disaster soap scooped out of the moulds
To rebatch soap successfully, it does help to know where you went wrong.  I know I used too much fat, but if I knew exactly how much extra fat it would be much easier to fix, as I could calculated how much more caustic to use to complete the reaction.  Unfortunately, my only option was to make another batch of soap with no superfat (exactly the right amount of caustic, or maybe a slight bit extra), process it using a hot process method (where you cook the soap in a pot until its completely reacted, with the failed soap batch added to the pot, and hope that the extra fat in the failed batch was enough to superfat the new batch and   balance everything out again.

This post is about how to fix a soap batch with too much fat.  If you have used too much caustic you can just melt the soap and add the amount of fat you need to fix it, but if its way too much caustic you might be better to use it for laundry soap.

This is the first time I've tried a hot process method and it was interesting to see how it worked.

First I made a batch of soap using the cold process method (and with 2% extra caustic).  I started it in a big pot so that I could fit all of the ruined soap in as well, and set up the pot in a double-boiler (my biggest cheese making pot, this is one way to get your cheese pots REALLY clean!).

Then Pete helped by stirring the ruined soap batches into the new batch while heating it over the double boiler.  When it was all combined we put the lid on and left it for 45 minutes.

The texture and colour changed as the soap cooked.  It was thick but fluffy and a little transparent. 

I tested the soap by taking some out of the pot and rolling it into balls, when it formed stable balls it was ready to pour into the moulds.

We poured it into the moulds and smoothed it out.  After 12 hours it was nearly hard.  

After a couple of days we cut the soap.  It wasn't as hard as a normal batch, but a huge improvement on the disaster batch.  I don't know if its soft because its still got too much fat, or if its was cooked too long (this can make it crumbly).

I tested the pH of the rebatched soap (top) and another soap from a previous batch (bottom) and I think the rebatch soap had a slightly higher pH, although its pretty hard to tell from that photo, the top pH strip is closer to 10, whereas the bottom one was definitely 9.  Its not a very precise system!  The other test that is recommended is to wash your hands with the soap and see if they rinse clean, or stay slippery.  I tested the soap and it felt normal, so I think its going to be ok.  Note that you can test the hot processed soap immediately because it has fully reacted, there shouldn't be any caustic left (unless you have got your ratios wrong!), you need to wait several weeks to do this test on cold processed soap.

Have you rebatched a soap disaster?  I am going to follow instructions more carefully from now on!

My other soap posts:

Natural soap using beef tallow

Monday, May 26, 2014

How to give an injection to livestock

Vets are expensive, particularly for large animals that require house calls, such as cows, so the more you can learn to do yourself, the better. One of the easier tasks that you can learn is giving an injection. If you follow Pat Coleby’s methods, you will find that she recommends injections of vitamin C and B12 for just about everything. You may also need to inject antibiotics in life-threatening situations or to give vaccines.

Ruby looking cute and not needing any injections...
There are two types of injections that you may need to give, either intramuscular (in the muscle) or subcutaneous (under the skin). Drugs and vitamins are generally given as intramuscular injections, while vaccines are generally subcutaneous, but you must check for each injection before you start.

The best location for the injection depends on the animal. For animals that you are planning to eat (or to sell for eating), its best not to use their rump, as this may damage the meat, and an injection site on the neck is favoured. For other animals (pets), we find the rump is often easier. Our house cow Bella reacted very badly when a vet tried to give her an injection in the neck (even though I explained that we wouldn’t be eating her!), but we had more success when the vet moved the needle to Bella’s rump.

The basic procedure is to attach the needle to the syringe and pull the plunger to the mL position for the amount you need to inject. The size of needle you need will depend on the liquid, thicker liquids need larger needles. Stab the top of the bottle of drug (or vitamin or vaccine) and push the air into the bottle, tip the bottle up so that the tip of the needle is always submerged in the liquid and then slowly draw the plunger back. The air that you injected into the bottle will push the plunger to around the right position.

When you have the right amount of liquid in the syringe, remove the needle from the syringe and push out all the air (you may have to wait for all the air bubble to settle to the top). Now you stab the animal in the desired location with the needle, then attach the syringe and slowly push the liquid into the needle. You should only give 10mL in one place, and then move the needle to a different position by pulling it out a little (but not quite out of the skin) and changing the angle. It helps to flick the animal’s skin with your finger a few times before you stab them, so they don’t get such a shock from the sharp needle.

For a subcutaneous injection you need to lift up a "tent" of skin and make sure you inject under the skin and not into the muscle.

There's a good fact sheet with photos here. When we have injections to do, I am usually too preoccupied to take photos!

Did I miss anything?  What other simple vet procedures can you learn to (safely) save call-out fees?

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Knitting - how to handle a hank of yarn

Since I started knitting a couple of years ago, mostly using wool from the cheap haberdashery stall at the Nanango markets, I’ve gradually been tackling more difficult projects and gaining confidence in my knitting abilities. This year at the Nanango Show I decided to treat myself to some lovely smooth alpaca wool. It came in a hank, which is basically a long loop lifted straight off the spinning wheel and twisted into a pretzel. The lady at the stall (who had spun the wool from her own alpaca fleece, wow!) told me that I would have to wind it into balls.
Here's the finished balls
This is the first time I had thought about the forms of wool, here is a great post that explains the names of all the different “wool bundles”.

And here is some instructions for transforming an unruly hank into tame balls of wool.

Here's the neatly wound hank pretzel
I don’t have a spare patient person to hold the hank, but I had no trouble draping it over a chair, which I placed in front of where I was sitting and proceeded to wind the hank into balls. I took the advice in that post and tried to wind slowly and carefully, even so, I did have a few tangles to deal with. I can see why you can’t knit straight from the hank. As I wound the wool, I was able to handle it and see a few minor imperfections, its a good way to get to know to texture and weight of the wool and understand what you could make with it.

The hank unwound.... getting nervous...
I really want to make a soft shawl on big needles with a lacy stitch. I don’t exactly have a pattern, but I have a wonderful book of knitting stiches (50c from the op shop!), so I chose a lacy stitch and practiced the stitch using cheap wool until I was happy with it. Then I practiced using the alpaca wool. Then I cast on lots of stiches, with the intention of making a long wide rectangle shaped shawl.

The hank slung over the back of a chair
I influence of different yarns, needles and stiches on the final fabric is still a bit of a mystery to me, and that makes it difficult to visualise and plan for more complicated projects. The more I knit, the more I learn though.

Are you knitting this winter? Any tips for handling hanks and balls and bundles or wool?

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Healing herbal salve

I have been using a beeswax salve that I bought at a market years ago and finally I can see the bottom of the jar, so I thought I’d better figure out how to make some more. I use the salve mostly as lip balm, but its also good for any other dry skin, so I use a little bit nearly every day, even so, it seems to have lasted forever. Unfortunately as the label on the jar is now so worn it is unreadable, I don’t know exactly what the original ingredients were. I bought it from a honey stall, so I know it contained beeswax, and possibly honey, and it smells like lavender... there are plenty of recipes on the internet though.

My healing herbal salve
I have also been reading about herbs and using infused oils, so I decided to combine an infused oil with beeswax and essential oils to make myself a new salve. There are lots of beneficial herbs that can be infused in oil, but I didn’t have a huge amount to choose from in my own garden due to the ongoing drought at the time. In some ways that is a good thing, because I could never have decided which to use!

Here's my old salve, not much left...
From my garden I picked some comfrey leaf, borage leaf, yarrow leaf, and I used some calendula petals that I had dried earlier in the year. I was very surprised by the lack of chickweed in my garden, usually there is some growing, but I could only find a few plants to use (after the rain it is growing everywhere again). I would have loved to use plantain and chamomile, but I don’t have them growing (yet!). I picked the herbs, rinsed them and then let them wilt overnight before I put them in a jar and poured in enough olive oil to cover the herbs. If you don’t have beneficial herbs growing, you can buy dried herbs (in Australia try All Rare Herbs) and you should look at planting a few of them as well for future use.

The wilted herbs in the olive oil on day 1
After four weeks of infusing, I strained the herbs out of the oil and measured out how much oil I had made, so that I could work out how much beeswax to use following the ratio that Tanya suggested on her blog – 1g beeswax for every 10 mL of oil.

The herbs and oil after 6 weeks, nice and murky huh
I usually buy chunks of beeswax whenever I see it at markets, as its so useful. I also bought a beeswax and lavender leather polish from the same stall that the salve came from, and I use that on my leather boots. Its good for furniture polish too, but we don’t really have any nice furniture to polish :)

I had made about 100 mL of infused oil, so I added a little over 10 g of grated beeswax (I wanted to make sure it was solid). By the way, beeswax is not exactly easy to grate or to clean off the grater! I grated some extra while I was there, so I won’t have to do it again for a while. I heated the oil and beeswax in a small pot in a double-boiler. It took a several minutes of stirring for the beeswax to dissolve, and then suddenly the mixture was very runny, I thought it would never set. I took it off the heat to cool before I added a few of drops of lavender essential oil and a couple of vitamin E capsules for preservative (an antioxidant for the oil rather than an antimicrobial more here). As it cooled, it thickened very quickly and I had to put the pot back in the hot water to stir in the extra ingredients and pour the mixture into two little jars.

The strained infused olive oil and some lavender essential oil
Plenty of grated beeswax
melting the beeswax in the oil over a double boiler
Compared to my original salve, this one is very green (so the infusion must have worked) and has a different smell, I’m not sure which herb has contributed, but it is rather pungent! I was surprised by how easy it was to make quite a large amount, I expect these two jars of salve to last for ages. Actually that’s a little disappointing because I’d like to make more!

What do you think?  Have you made salve?  Do you want to?  Its easy!

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Monday, May 19, 2014

A garden book and a cook book that I think you'll enjoy too

When you start thinking about how to live sustainability and self-sufficiently, you realise that it changes everything.  Instead of just buying things, I think about whether we really need the item, whether we could use something else, or make something, and then if we do NEED it, can we get it second-hand or locally made?  Instead of thinking of what I want to eat for dinner and going shopping for the ingredients, I now look in the garden, the freezer and the pantry and decide (usually in consultation with Pete) what to cook over the next few days.  This means that I don't tend to use cook books.  I also find many vegetable gardening books just don't quite get into the detail I need about how much to plant and how to use the produce.  Here are two books that I have enjoyed recently, that I think you will like too, both of them are about how to eat sustainably, whether you grow your own or buy from farmers.

(Both books were supplied to me as ebooks to review through Netgalley, if you are a blogger who likes to read and review books, you should check it out)

Grow a Sustainable Diet: Planning and Growing to Feed Ourselves and the Earth
By Cindy Connor of Home Place Earth blog

Cindy covers so many important topics in this book, starting with what we eat (this may have to change if you want to grow everything you eat!), how to decide what to plant and how much you will need and when it will be ready to harvest, how to improve the soil using cover crops and compost, companion planting, seed saving, storing and preserving food, and even thinking about how to grow enough to feed animals too.  This book is the culmination of years of gardening and teaching a sustainable gardening course, as well as writing her blog.  I really enjoyed reading Cindy's thoughts and her approach.  Not everything is directly useful to me, as she lives in a different climate, but the philosophy certainly applies.  If you are interested in growing enough to feed your family, this book will get you started thinking in the right direction.

The Nourished Kitchen: Farm-to-Table Recipes for the Traditional Foods Lifestyle Featuring Bone Broths, Fermented Vegetables, Grass-Fed Meats, Wholesome Fats, Raw Dairy, and Kombuchas
By Jennifer McGruther of Nourished Kitchen blog

Even though I don't usually refer to cook books, I enjoyed this one.  The recipes feature real foods, like grass fed meat, free-range eggs, raw and fermented dairy, fermented vegetables, stocks made from real bones, lots of vegetables and everything made from scratch from fresh or preserved ingredients.  Each chapter has a lengthy introduction explaining the foods in the chapter.  Jennifer explains more than just how to cook, she goes into great detail about her philosophy for sourcing locally grown ethical food, even explaining how vealer calves are an integral part of a small dairy business.  I was really impressed.  As we grow so much of our own food and know farmers to buy the rest from, I don't need this information myself, but its exactly what I would like all my city friends to know about sourcing their food.  Like the first book, even though Jennifer lives in a rather unique location (a small mountain town), her approach to making food decisions is widely applicable.  The funny thing is that I didn't see many recipes that I want to use exactly as written, because I have access to different foods and wouldn't use the same combinations, but I do want to try her mayonnaise recipe next time I have excess eggs, maybe I will finally get it to work!  And I got plenty of other ideas to try with different ingredients.

Have you read any good books lately?  What's your biggest challenge to eating sustainable food? (Ours is feeding the chickens from our property, I have lots of ideas, but not time to implement them!)

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Friday, May 16, 2014

How to sprout - Fenugreek

Last week I wrote about sprouting chickpeas (garbanzo beans) and other beans for added protein. My other favourite sprouts are fenugreek and alfalfa, which I use to add green veges to meals if the garden isn’t producing enough.

the sprouts ready to eat
The green sprouts take longer than the beans because you need to wait for the green leaves to appear, but the process is the same. Although you don’t have to soak the smaller seeds for as long, it doesn’t matter if you do (I find 12 hours is a pretty convenient time period between other things that I’m doing, like working or sleeping).

I only put a few tablespoons in the jar and watched as the tails (roots) appear, followed by the leaves, until they are about 3-4cm long sprouts. I am always amazed by the increase in size, it seems like every time I remove some sprouts from the jar to eat them, the jar is full again by the next day! It takes several days of regular sprout eating to empty the jar. This is a good thing if you have many sprout eaters to feed, but I can get really getting sick of it (and sneaking them onto Pete’s plate too, he is very tolerant of my weird food ways now). So let this be a warning to you, don’t put too many seeds in the jar!

see how they filled the jar!!
The other lesson I’ve learnt about sprouting is that you may just get a bad batch of old seeds that will not sprout. My first attempt at fenugreek did not sprout and I didn’t know what was wrong until a friend gave me some of her seeds and they sprouted perfectly. It turned out not to be anything I was doing wrong. Just something to keep in mind if your sprouts aren’t sprouting.

I have also tried sprouting mung beans for green sprouts, but I find that they don’t ALL sprout (or from the 5kg bag I have, that is the case), so you end up with unsprouted hard beans in your sprouts and if you don’t pick them out very carefully, it can be rather unpleasant to bite down on a hard mung bean in your salad!  Possibly this isn't a problem with all mung beans, but right now I'm not sure what to do with the rest of the 5kg....

What do you sprout?  Any tips?

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Renovation update - our new/old Queenslander

Over Easter we spent some more time working on our new/old house. If you haven’t been following this story, here’s a recap.

In December 2012, Pete was messing around on a real estate website and found a removal house for $10,000. First we joked about how it must be really awful inside, but then we looked at the photos and it really wasn’t that bad, so we asked for an inspection, and then we made an offer, and we nearly missed out because so many other people wanted the house too, but it all worked out in the end. Then began six months of organising with the council and the house removal people to get the house moved 14 km from its current position to our property at Cheslyn Rise. We also had to clear a pad for the house, including cutting down some massive trees and getting their stumps dug out. Finally the house arrived in July 2013, in two pieces, over two nights, and the removalist worked for several weeks to put it back together and put the roof back on.  Here's my post about the costs of moving the house, and here's the post about the house actually on the move.

removing the largest stump
Moving house
half of the house arrives
When the removalist was finished, we had a plumber come and set up our rainwater tanks, new septic system and re-do all the old plumbing. Then we helped our electrician friend remove all the old wiring and switches and install new electrical work all through the house (including my lovely fans).  All the while we were also working on the three sets of stairs around the house.  Then I gave you a tour inside the house to see the good, the bad and the ugly features that we had to work with.

The house when the removalist was finished
rainwater tanks arrive (we have no town water up here!)
Some of the old electrical wiring
Lovely new fans
New stairs
We had the building inspector come out recently and give us his opinion on what else needed to be done before he was happy with it (and then he sent us a letter to say we have to finish it by July 2014 or else more fees, and we have paid enough fees, so that was some motivation to get it done). In Australia, the building inspector is mainly concerned with whether the house will fall down and whether it will burn down. He needed us to complete cyclone strapping (essentially this is just adding straps, bolts or brackets to attach the walls to the roof and the floor to ensure that the house can’t blow over, even though the house had stood for 100 years in its previous location without blowing away, this is just the modern standard, you don't want to get me started on this topic, but we have been lucky that the building inspector has been very reasonable about some of the difficulties of bringing an old house to modern standards) and to finish off any exposed timber.

In terms of the house burning down, he was worried about the location of smoke alarms, and our woodstove, as we couldn’t prove how it was installed. We tried to get the manual from the manufacturers, but I have to admit I didn’t try really hard because I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to keep that woodstove. You know I love to cook on my woodstove and that one was not a cooker, so in the end we invited our neighbours to help dismantle it and gave it to them because they needed a woodstove and hadn’t really charged us enough for the electrical work. Pete found the bits of wood that had been cut out of the ceiling for the flue and replaced them, so now there is no woodstove until building approval is completed, and then we will decide which woodstove cooker we want to install instead.

The woodstove (and that awful RED carpet)
We also needed to complete all the environmental requirements, which included insulation and fans. We were still debating whether to get the roof replaced and do the insulation then or install it first, but as we couldn’t get any roofers to return our calls, we started working on the insulation (we chose fibreglass, see my post about insulation here, it wasn't too hard to install, but we did wear paper overalls, dust masks and safety glasses, lucky we were able to wait for a cool day to work up there).

Plugging up the holes in the wall with dowel, this is where a switch used to be
Insulation in the ceiling cavity, tick!
Everyone keeps asking if we’ve moved in yet, or when we are moving in. No, we are still living at Eight Acres at least until the building approval is complete, and then we would really like to get at least some of the inside painted and fixed up before we fill the house with furniture! It all depends how soon we are ready to put Eight Acres on the market and how long it takes to sell, I certainly wouldn’t turn down a good offer just because the house isn’t ready, but at the same time we are not in a mad rush either. Maybe 6-12 months, maybe longer if something unexpected happens.  We really need to put up a shed for all Pete's tools, last time we moved it took two shipping containers, and one was filled with shed stuff, the other with house stuff!

Over Easter my parents come to stay and helped us with the house. Dad and Pete finished most of the strapping, and mum helped to scrape, sand, putty and paint the holes in the weather boards where things had been removed. Dad also very patiently used dowel to fill all the holes in the wall left by the old electrical wiring.  I just followed Pete around and fetched tools and held ladders and offered my wifely opinion on how things should be done (not always well received). We removed the woodstove and started the insulation and did various tidying up jobs. We also pulled up the corner of that awful red carpet in the lounge and found some more carpet (which explains why its so plush) and then some rather nice floor boards underneath it all. The floor will be the last stage after we have painted the ceiling and the walls, so that is something to look forward to!

Pete and dad replacing weather boards after strapping

Pete putting insulation under the veranda roof
(required by the environmental approval, also the fan, on a veranda that gets a constant breeze,
but I'm sick of arguing with bureaucrats so we just did as we were told)

Mum painting
the floor boards under the woodstove - something to look forward to
If you are interested in renovation of Queenslanders, here are a few good blogs that go into far more detail than I do:

Fun and VJs (especially this post with even more reno blogs)
The Old Post Office - Edwina and Dan got started on their Queenslanders just before we bought our little house and I actually showed their blog to Pete as an example of a house that was in worse starting condition than what we were considering buying (although they did get some lovely pressed-metal ceilings and I know its going to look lovely when they're finished, I just dread all that work)
No Small Dreams - the build is finished, but there are still lots of great links and information on this site

Overall, we are trying to establish a low energy house using recycled and secondhand materials where possible, and ethical choices for the rest.  So far it has worked out pretty cheap compared to a new house and allowed us to spend more on things that we want, like good quality fans and insulation.  We have some big jobs ahead, including deciding what to do about the asbestos in the bathroom and the layout of the kitchen.  Its a fun project and we are lucky to be able to do a little bit at a time, but I think we will both be very happy when we finally get to move in.

What do you think?  Have you renovated?  a Queensland?  or even just maintained one?  (they are hard work, we know that!)  Any tips for owner-builders?

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