Our Solar-Powered Homestead

Over the past year we have been shown time and time again that nothing is certain and that change, oftentimes sudden, should be expected. Covid-19 turned the world upside down and one of the impacts here on the homestead was that I was furloughed back at the end of March. After the initial concern about potentially not having a job to return to wore off I got down to business on trying to find ways to reduce our expenses. Thankfully, we were able to make things work through my furlough period and I’ve now returned to work, but one lasting effect from this period is the solar panel array that we installed on our home!

The view of most of the panels from the yard. The system can’t be seen from the road.

After crunching the numbers, I identified that one of the most variable expenses that we have on the homestead every month was our electricity bill. Our home is heated by oil, but we have a full set of larger electrical appliances (refrigerators, ovens, stove, washing machine & dryer) as well as smaller appliances and air conditioners (in the summer) that contribute to our usage. We’ve replaced as much lighting as possible to LED and feel that we try to use as little electricity as we can, but from month to month we could see bill variability of upwards of $100.

If you consider all of the empty roof space that is available to install solar panels on even in just your neighborhood, you’ll quickly see how much solar power is still underutilized.

I had an understanding of the value of a solar power array from my experience with one for an off-grid trailer so I had a head start going into the search for a system that was large enough to power our home, but the company that we ultimately decided to work, Green Earth Energy, with did a good job of explaining all of the “how’s and why’s” such that the experience wasn’t necessary. In initial discussions, we shared our past electric bills and that usage was used to determine the size of solar power array would be needed to cover the entirety of our electric usage. Due to the roof space that we have available, we chose to build a system that would (theoretically) produce almost 120% of our average power use over the course of a year. The electrical supplier in our area, Eversource, allows for “net metering” which monitors the amount of electricity that you are using from their supply and also the amount that you are producing and sending out to the grid and calculates the total used or excess supplied. Ideally, the system will produce more that our usage and at the end of the year we will receive a payment from the electricity that we generated and sold to Eversource.

The two inverters that take the power generated by the panels and changes it to a useful voltage for home use.

Since the impetus of building this system was to create a more consistent set of recurring household expenses, we can’t overlook the environmental impacts of generating our own electricity from a clean and renewable source! If you consider all of the empty roof space that is available to install solar panels on even in just your neighborhood, you’ll quickly see how much solar power is still underutilized. Our oil-fired boiler provides our home with baseboard heat, but it is also the source for hot water. We are planning to purchase an electric hot water heater to allow us to only use the boiler for heating the house, essentially not using any oil for 6+ months of the year which saves the fossil fuel burning, but also lowers our oil bill!

As with most large-scale projects, timelines tend to stretch out and this process that we began in mid-April will finally be powered on today! Parts availability issues and having to count on multiple agencies for inspections during a pandemic didn’t help the cause, but we were patient as we know that this is a long-term investment. Unlike many predatory solar power leasing schemes that were common just a few year ago, we chose to purchase the system outright, so we own the equipment and all the electricity that it generates. Based on the calculations of system cost and expected future usage, we are looking to have the electrical bill savings pay for the system within 7 year and after that point it will be making us money!

One of the inverters showing the current power being generated as well as the system total generated. It was late on a cloudy day so the system was more or less idle.

We’ll be sure to update you as we begin to bring in solar power production and usage, but for now I’d like to wrap up by sharing that if you are interested in adding solar power to your own home there are huge amounts of information available online for you to look at. There are lots of companies that are locally based that would be happy to work with you so after you have familiarized yourself with the basics of a solar power system reach out and see what they can do to help you get started down the road to energy independence.

Thanks for taking the time to read about the happenings on our modern homestead! If you haven’t already done so, please “Like” us on Facebook and if you can, share what we are doing with your friends as there are lots of people just like us that are interested in living a more sustainable life in our modern world! We’ll see you soon!

Jonathan Sawn
Jonathan Sawn

If there is a way to automate, streamline, or perhaps even over-complicate a simple system, this is your guy! Jonathan is thrilled to share his first-hand experiences and knowledge from our homesteading experience.

Microgreens: Year-Round Local Produce

The arrival of Summer comes with a wealth of great things; warm weather, spending time with family and friends (2020 craziness excluded), and a whole host of locally grown produce to choose from! For those few months you can find local farmers tending to their crops and selling the freshest products that you can get without growing them yourself! Once those bright and sunny days start to fade into Fall and through Winter we are normally left with relying on buying produce from large grocery stores that source produce from across the country or across the world. Here at HHMH, we wanted to change the normal model of buying “fresh” produce when it is out of season so we embarked on a journey into growing microgreens right here on the homestead. Below I’ll give a brief explanation of what microgreens actually are, why we wanted to grow them, and how we think this can completely change the way that local produce is understood!

From a high level view, microgreens are basically the very beginning stage of life for an edible crop. Sometimes (not completely correctly) referred to as sprouts, these baby plants pack a huge amount of nutrition and flavor into a beautiful and delicate package. Popular microgreens include sunflower, pea, radish, and a variety of salad greens all with their own unique flavors and textures. The typical microgreen crop is grown under controlled conditions, often indoors, and will take 7 to 20 days to harvest from the time of planting. During this time there are many details that go into the care of a microgreens crop, but we’ll save that for another time!

A flat of basil right after germination.

One of the beauties of microgreens is that they work extremely well in controlled environments. What this means is that no matter what the temperature is outside, be it 105° or -10° the greens are protected from the elements that field crops have to endure. Our current grow space is humidity and temperature controlled and features advanced full-spectrum LED lighting to allow the crops to thrive once they are uncovered during germination. Owing to the fact that the crop is a small plant, microgreen grow spaces can be extremely space-efficient by using vertical space to produce significant yields from a tiny square footage! One 10″ x 20″ flat can produce close to a pound of greens in about a week!

Two of the racks in our grow space showing off a variety of different crops.

On the homestead we try to eat as locally as possible and organic produce is preferred, but the consistency of the produce during off-seasons and costs can get pretty high. It is our goal to produce as much of our greens and fresh produce as possible and microgreens are a key part in helping to make that happen. We love the texture and density of flavor that our microgreens provide us and adding them to salads, sandwiches, and other dishes lets us pack some additional nutrients into our normal meals.

As of today, we have a variety of different microgreens growing in the grow space including: sunflower, mild & spicy mix, kale, beets & chard, radish, and even nasturtium! Much like we do with our maple syrup, we are offering our products for sale to help us offset our costs and to allow us to grow into a larger operation that can support higher levels of locally grown organic produce production. If you are interested in trying our microgreens for yourself (and are in the northern CT area), send us a note and we’ll get in contact with you!

Our microgreens on display at a recent farmers market.

That pretty much covers our basic overview of microgreens and the reason why we decided to begin growing them on our homestead. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below or email us at contact@hartlandhollow.com. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook @hartlandhollowmodernhomestead and we look forward to you joining us for more adventures from our modern homestead!

Selling at Farmers Markets During a Pandemic: Our Experience

2020. What a strange time to be alive! Everyone knows the details by now (mainstream media continues to talk about all things Covid-19 24/7), but I wanted to share a quick bit about how we managed to move through our self-isolation and into a place where we were comfortable interacting with the general public while selling at local farmers markets.

Back in March life was still pretty normal and the main concern on the homestead was that maple syrup season was coming to an end! Little did we know what was ahead!

At the end of March we could see the writing on the wall; the virus was going to hit the US hard and we did our best to prepare. K already works from home so that helped, but I worked in a manufacturing plant with limited work-from-home infrastructure. I did what I could working from home, but after only a week of that I was furloughed with no definitive return date. After getting over the initial anxiety of potentially losing my job, I began to realize that this was a great opportunity to keep our family safe and isolate as much as possible in the heat of the virus!

From the end of March until the middle of June I had only been in 2 buildings that weren’t our own home.

We isolated with the best of them! From the end of March until the middle of June I had only been in 2 buildings that weren’t our own home. Staying free of the virus kept options open for child care if and when I returned to work so it was imperative to always be cautious which is where interacting with the public becomes quite tricky! You see, all of that maple syrup that we made this year normally is pretty easy to sell as we have lots of friends from up and down the east coast that love to support our project. All of the events that we could have seen everyone were cancelled and we weren’t going to them by choice anyway so we were sitting on about 20 gallons of syrup with no retail outlet. Cue the Enfield Regional Farmers Market.

We got lots of projects knocked off of the list during my furlough including building the ducks a brand new pond!

It was now mid-August; I had gotten the call that I was to return to work in the office. For better or worse, our isolation was over and we were exposed to more people everyday. As much as we weren’t happy about it, being back out in the world showed us that most people do respect “social distancing” and mask wearing so when we heard about the farmers market in Enfield moving from its traditional weekday schedule to being held on Sundays we decided to go check it out.

First thing we did was go to the market as customers. We wanted to see how the crowds were managed and if we felt comfortable in the scenario. The market is held on the town green so there was plenty of space and at no point were there crowds of people. That trip gave us the courage to sign up to be a vendor and we began a mad dash to get things ready in less than a week!

We’ve never sold at a farmers market before and we have a specific “aesthetic” that we like to maintain so purchasing signage and packaging would have been very expensive and the shipping would have been too slow so we wound up making our own chalkboard signs, designing and printing all of our labeling, and even came up with some new products to sell! It was a crazy week, but we managed to get everything finished and crossed our fingers that market day went well and we were still comfortable in the situation.

Our market booth on the first day that we were a vendor. Note that there is ample space between our booth and anyone to the sides of us.

Again, we were pleasantly surprised that everyone was super respectful of distancing and mask wearing which allowed us to enjoy the day interacting with all of the new customers that stopped by our booth! Sales were very promising and that trend has continued each week since! Interacting with customers is definitely more difficult since we have lost the visual cues that are covered by masks, but to me it feels like everyone that we’ve interacted with acknowledges that communication is more difficult now and takes a little bit more time before getting frustrated or annoyed.

Masks on and ready to “do battle”!

Keeping things clean has always been key in sales, but now that is even more important. Luckily, our products aren’t really things that need “inspecting” so there is limited touching from the public. Where we are most exposed is in the transfer of funds after a sale is made. Cash is super dirty and with more emphasis on viral and bacterial transfer on items lately we have made it a habit to use a quality hand sanitizer after we touch any money or customer’s credit cards. Once we get back home we can do a thorough hand washing, but at the market we feel that we are doing the best that we can and are comfortable with the risk.

Today was our fourth week at the market and it continues to be well-run and we are happy with the choice we made to utilize this market in particular as our sales avenue this year. We are developing more products and repeat customers so we are extremely hopeful that society can pull together and knock this virus out once and for all such that we can get back to doing more of the things that we have missed out on during this year!

One of the chalkboard signs that we made to share our specials and items of interest for the day!

I’m pretty sure this post was a bit rambling and lacked clear direction at times, but that just seems to be the way the world is right now so thank you for sticking with me through this! We feel like we are finally finding some sort of “groove” now so look forward to more posts and updates from the homestead!

If you are in the area, be sure to check out the Enfield Regional Farmers Market which takes place every Sunday from 10am to 1pm and runs through September 27!

Jonathan Sawn
Jonathan Sawn

If there is a way to automate, streamline, or perhaps even over-complicate a simple system, this is your guy! Jonathan is thrilled to share his first-hand experiences and knowledge from our homesteading experience.

So you think you want ducks…

It was about 5 years ago when I said to my husband, “I think I want ducks!” As we lived in a 2 bedroom condo at the time and only had experience raising the typical cat, dog and a rabbit, I think he thought I was nuts.  In hindsight, he was right! I had no idea that a few short years later we’d be raising a happy flock of ducks (and a goose) in our backyard!

Here are 5 things we’ve learned along the way…

Ducks love water and that means mud

You know the saying “like a duck to water”? It’s true! Ducks love water and that means lots of mud!  Ducks need water for a healthy life – for cleaning, for eating and for splashing, of course!  It sounds simple but providing fresh water year round in certain climates can be a challenge!

Our ducks just love splashing around in their pond!

Ducks have unique nutritional needs

Just like chickens have their own needs, waterfowl do as well.  One misconception is that ducks can simply eat what chickens eat.  This is simply not true.  Ducks, like other waterfowl, have unique needs such as higher levels of niacin (vitamin B3) to keep their legs strong and healthy. 

Ducks love company

Ducks are very social animals that thrive in the company of other ducks.  In the wild, ducks live as part of a flock and need friends to keep them company.  Ideally, you’d want to start with at least 5 ducks in your flock and be mindful of your duck to drake (male duck) ratio.  Over mating can be a real problem so an ideal ratio is 1 drake to 4-5 ducks.  Or you can skip the drakes altogether and just have a flock of females if you aren’t interested in breeding.

The flock out in the yard during an adventure.

Duck eggs are delicious

Hands down, duck eggs taste way better than chicken eggs!

Duck eggs have a rich and creamy taste unlike any chicken egg I’ve ever tasted.  Duck eggs are excellent for baking due to their higher fat content which makes cakes and other baked goods fluffier.  Due to their thicker shell, duck eggs store longer than chicken eggs.  But trust me, they won’t be around long enough to go bad!

Fresh eggs are one of life’s simple joys!

Ducks make for easy prey

If you aren’t careful ducks can become easy targets for predators.  Whether in a wooded or urban environment there is no shortage of animals that would love to eat your ducks – hawks, raccoons, fox, bobcats, neighborhood dogs, skunks, weasels, snakes… the list is long!  Providing a safe and secure day-time and night-time enclosure is a must!

A population of red-shouldered hawks live in our area and their screeches can send the ducks running back into the safety of their run.
Kerensa Sawn
Kerensa Sawn

Always the one to care for animals, Kerensa has been overjoyed to take on the challenge of learning about and raising our flock of ducks! Not afraid to get her hands dirty, it isn’t unusual to find her elbows deep in straw and mud to make sure that the ducks are taken care of.

2020 Maple Syrup Season: Pre-Season Summary

Good things come to those that scale up; isn’t that the saying?

The 2020 maple syrup season will be our third year of tapping our trees for their sweet sap and boiling it down to make pure maple syrup. The whole thing started off with simply tapping our trees and we were going to give the sap to our friend to boil, but as I’m sure you can tell, that isn’t the way that things happened!

The 2018 maple season started with us buying 3 metal buckets and taps to use, but quickly escalated into purchasing tubing and plastic taps which allowed us to have a total tap count for that season of 25. We built a DIY wood-fired evaporator, based loosely around the inspiration from Eric over at GardenFork, and made our first 3 gallons of syrup. Looking back on that first year it is clear that we had no idea what we were doing and how hooked we could get on the process!

Our trusty old file cabinet evaporator in action

Fast forward through 2019, where we added a complex tubing system and had a total of almost 100 taps, we come into this season where I feel we now actually know what we are doing (mostly) and the goal is to now not only make syrup for the fun of it, but also to sell some as a part of our homesteading journey. Much like any business, “you have to spend money to make money”, and this endeavor is no different! Major upgrades were needed to speed up the process and improve the quality of the product, the greatest of which was a new evaporator.

That little DIY evaporator that we build in 2018 out of a discarded file cabinet did its job much better than we could have expected, but we were only able to boil at an average of 3 gallons per hour and when you collect potentially over 250 gallons in a week the time needed to boil all the sap was not available. In future posts I’ll talk about the reverse osmosis system that we use to help reduce the sap volume, but even with that we needed a bigger evaporator that would help us to move up in the maple world! Luckily we have a few great local buy and sell Facebook groups and one day in October just happened to notice an evaporator for sale in the next town over. A few emails and a phone call later, we had the 2’x7′ evaporator that we will use for the foreseeable future!

In addition to the new evaporator, we’ve added a second vacuum pump and collection tank to service the rear of the property better than last year. This allowed us to split some very long tubing runs into shorter ones, but also spread a bit more so we are now running about 160 taps in total! The expansion requires more logistical equipment like pumps and hoses to move the sap around.

There is nearly a mile of 3/16″ tubing strung throughout our property transporting sap to the tanks.

After all of the changes that we have planned and implemented for this season, we are hopeful for good weather that allows the trees to produce sap for many weeks and that all of our gear works just as well as it should! We are quickly moving into the thick of maple syrup season so we hope that you’ll come along on this ride with us!

Jonathan Sawn
Jonathan Sawn

If there is a way to automate, streamline, or perhaps even over-complicate a simple system, this is your guy! Jonathan is thrilled to share his first-hand experiences and knowledge from our homesteading experience.