Saturday, October 7, 2017

How we Take our Family on Vacation for Free...and It's Not a Pyramid Scheme!

I know what you're thinking. Either we're selling something through direct sales (pyramid scheme), or we vacation at those resorts where you listen to an hour long talk about timeshares in exchange for a free stay. Nope and nope.  Okay, technically we don't vacation for free we do still have to pay, but we have found a way to make some extra money that pays for our two travel trailers, and gives us a little extra to take our family on vacation. So, in a very real sense we do vacation for free. Not only that, but it isn't overly stressful, and it doesn't take tons and tons of time. What is it that we do?

We rent our campers.

When we tell people we rent our campers they are usually kind of shocked, probably because they haven't really thought of someone doing such a thing. Others give a look of "Are you crazy?" Yeah, I probably am crazy - but not because we rent our campers. So, let me tell you our journey of camper renting up to this point.

It began as a simple question of, "how can we make our travel trailer pay for itself?" Here we had this huge hunk of aluminum, fiberglass, and furniture sitting in the yard and we hardly ever used it. Yet, we were paying a bank a hefty monthly premium for the privilege of having a huge piece of yard art. Something had to change.

Fortuitously, we live about 45 minutes from the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Someone, I don't remember who, said "Hey I bet you could rent that sucker for race week and pay for your entire year's worth of payments." That did seem to provide a solution, so I looked into it. What I found was a series of websites that allow you to list and rent your RV for a percentage of the rental price - BINGO!

We began by using RVShare exclusively. It is a simple to use platform and they have insurance that covers the rental period so you don't have to worry about paying out of pocket if someone wrecks, or otherwise destroys, your camper. Later we started using Outdoorsy as well to hopefully boost our rentals. So far, we have covered all the payments, insurance, and maintenance for both campers for 2017. That includes, two sets of new tires, and a new AC upper unit on the KZ among other incidental maintenance items.

Q: Have people taken care of the campers?

A: Yes. For the most part people have taken very good care of the campers. Thus far, we have only had one problem that required us to adjust someone's damage deposit. For whatever reason the renter bent three out of four stabilizer jacks on the Salem. This really wasn't a big deal. I worked with the renter and RVShare and was able to put the jacks on myself in less than an hour. The biggest problem is people who don't follow the instructions about the toilet. This may be TMI but some people insist on using fluffy, cushy, two-ply tissue and it clogs the toilet and sewer tank. This has led to some real adventures on my part in trying to get it cleaned up but its all in a day's work as a camper-preneur.

Q: Do you have to deliver the camper, or do people pick it up?

A: Both. About half of the people will pick up the camper and drop it back off. I do offer to deliver it and set it up within 50 miles of our house for an additional fee, and alot of people have taken advantage of that. I deliver to the speedway area several times a year.  

Q: How much do you make on a rental?

A: The good news is, how much you make is pretty much up to you. You set the price for your rental. Now, both Outdoorsy and RVShare take a cut off the top as a commission for using their service. RVShare's percentage is graduated depending on how many RVs you list. The maximum that they take is 25% of each rental. However, if you list two RVs it drops to 20%, and three or more and it is only 15%. Outdoorsy take a flat 20%. So let's run some realistic numbers. One of our campers lists for $100/ night during the "high season." Remember, we are totally in control of the prices. John and Jane want to rent our camper for 3 nights. That is $300 for the three nights, less the fee percentage (for us that is 20% on both sites). 

$100 x 3 = $300 - $60 (20%) = $240 that we take home.    

Not bad for a little time spent cleaning and maintaining our camper. We do have "low season" and "high season" prices, and race week prices. We also offer discounts for extended rentals over a week. We DO NOT allow people to rent long-term, and believe you me - we've had people ask. There is also a fee if we are asked to deliver, setup, and retrieve the campers but that mainly just covers gas to an from the point of delivery.

One thing to consider when setting a price for your RV rental is that there is a trade-off. You are welcome to charge $175/night and have a laundry list of additional fees (I've seen people charge renters to use their hitch) and rent your unit once every couple of months. Alternatively, you can choose the route we've gone and keep the price reasonable and rent on a regular basis. As it stands now, we have taken in a little over $3,000 in six months of rentals. Most of that is from ONE camper.  

Q: How much time does this require?

As far as getting the campers ready for rentals it doesn't take much time at all. Probably the most time consuming thing is washing the sheets and towels. It usually takes less than an hour to clean the campers, since most people have taken fairly good care of them. We do wash the outside regularly which can be done while someone is cleaning the inside. Obviously, maintenance issues vary in the time they require. Typically, the most time consuming thing is delivering the camper if the renter requests it. 


I"m sure more questions will come up, and please make use of the comment section and I will do my best to answer them and keep this post updated as time goes on.   

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Raised Bed Garden Overview

One of the best parts about Spring is planning and planting a garden. Home gardens can be all shapes and sizes from something that requires a small tractor to manage to a few containers interspersed around the yard. In that we live in a house that isn't ours on land we don't own I opted for a couple of raised beds in the side yard. One is 5'x10' and the other is a 5'x5' square and they are both 6" deep. I filled these with a really rich mixture of chicken manure and dirt from Andrea's folks' farm. It is about 50% dirt 30% chicken manure and 20% chicken bones.

The Beds

There are a few advantages to the raised bed setup. First, you don't have to worry about tilling the bed. Since you don't really ever step in it and pack it down the soil remains fairly loose and easy to work. Since the beds are contained it also prohibits a significant amount of weed and grass intrusion, not completely mind you, but much. I'm not one who makes a big deal about raised beds versus a traditional in-ground garden. If we lived on our own land I'd probably have some of both so I'm not going to make an issue out of it.

One fascinating method that I have modified to my own usage is the "Square Foot Garden" which was pioneered by Mel Bartholomew. I've read both the first edition of the book and the updated version and they are both fantastic. Bartholomew has done his homework and put together a great resource for the home gardener. You can find out more about SFG here. Below you'll see a picture of how I have most of my beds divided up according to the SFG plan.


If you're at all familiar with SFG you'll look at that and think it's all wrong. What I've done is divide a 3'x5' section of raised bed into fifteen 1 square foot sections using some wire (I tried string and it broke down and came apart). Each square foot will have a prescribed number of plants in it according to what the book recommends. For instance, the three middle sections each have 1 broccoli plant in them and the four corners have/will have 1 cabbage plant in them.

One neat distinctive of Bartholomew's method is the emphasis on vertical gardening when possible. Obviously we are used to going vertical with things like beans and cucumbers but he even grows squash and melons vertically. Now, there is a particular way the book recommends creating your vertical growing trellises but because we like to be frugal and make due with what we can salvage I, once again, modified the plan.



As you  can see from my "tomato net" I used some old T posts that were lying around on the farm. The two vertical pieces are simply driven into the soil of the raised bed and the horizontal bar is lashed on with some wire. It is kind of difficult to see in the top picture but I then wove wire together to create a net that the tomato plants can climb.

Here you can see the three sections with "catwalks" between them and the second bed in the background.
The Plan

This year I have spent more time planning so that - hopefully - it will be easier to plant successive crops in the same spaces. Again, this is a recommendation from Bartholomew. Right now, for instance, I have all of my cool weather, early Spring plants in the ground. These include:

- Broccoli
- Kale
- Cabbage
- Spinach
- Carrots
- Lettuce (in the salad table)

I originally planted some collards but the seeds were three years old and none of them came up so we may wait until fall for the collard crop.

There will almost certainly be some overlap in the garden as a whole (not individual squares) but in a few weeks, after the danger of frost has passed, I'll get these in there as well:

- Tomatoes
- Bell peppers
- Cayenne peppers
- Ancho peppers
- Okra
- Cucumbers
- Squash
- Pole beans
- Pintos (late summer)
- Various flowers
- Various herbs
- Zucchini
- Swiss chard

I'll keep you posted on how things shape up throughout the growing season. Right now the broccoli and cabbage are looking good so I'd like to think that the lessons I've learned over the past two years will make for a superior harvest this year.

Daddy's garden helper

Friday, March 18, 2016

Bananas for Solar Oven Banana-Nut Bread

There is something extraordinarily satisfying about building something out of scraps that are laying around the garage and then cooking something tasty in it. That is exactly what I've done and it has been a long, drawn out process but finally it paid off.

I don't really remember when I started my solar oven (see "long"..."drawn out" above) but it has been close to a year if not more. It all began with a cardboard box solar over which was...unsatisfactory. Now, that is not to say that your carboard box solar over is unsat. I'm only speaking for mine. Deciding that something more was required I set about creating one using an old piece of glass from a screen door as my starting point. A year, several newspapers, some tin foil and a can of spray paint later - we have an oven.

Enough about the oven. Let's talk food. We had some overripe bananas in the kitchen so I figured I'd go with an easy banana-nut bread recipe. That way if it went south, which it very well could have, I wouldn't have wasted much time, effort or ingredients. The recipe I used was from sunoven.com and you can find it here.

http://sunoven.com/sun-cooking-usa/how-to-use/recipes/


I don't know if this had any significant effect on the results but I used a muffin pan instead of a regular loaf pan (some knucklehead used it on the grill and messed it up). What I do know is that these muffins were really good and they were baked using the power of the sun! I mean how cool is that?
Ready to bake! This was the second batch. Hence the empty spot.
The recommendation in the recipe is for 1 hour and 15 minutes. I kind of forgot about them and let them go for closer to an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes. However,  the finished product was truly delicious. My oven operates at about 250 degrees this time of year (mid-March). Someday I might add some more reflectors and stuff but today is not that day. Anyhow, the muffins came out nice and hot with steam pouring out of them when I broken the first one open.


If you've never tried a solar oven or are skeptical about whether or not they work, let this be your proof. I had my doubts but God's giant heating element in the sky came through and not a single mW was used to cook these muffins. If you haven't tried cooking with the sun give it a shot. It's fun and the results are tasty!

God bless,

Christian

Friday, March 11, 2016

Homemade Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut - just the mention of it will make children quiver in fear, at least that's what my sister and I did when it started stinking up the house when Mamaw and Susan put on a big pot of it. I mean we would run to my room, only because it was bigger and probably cooler (just sayin'), and stuff towels and dirty clothes under the door to seal off the room. My how times have changed.

Turns out sauerkraut is packed full of, not just tangy goodness, but also tons of helpful probiotics. Now I've enjoyed kraut on reuben sandwiches for years but you can put Thousand Island dressing on old sneakers and I'll wolf them down so that isn't giving kraut a fair shake. However, once I heard about the aforementioned host of probiotics I thought I'd give the old sour cabbage another shot - a shot on a brat - a shot all by itself.

Here's the great thing about homemade sauerkraut - it is SUPER simple! I can't think of many other things that have fewer ingredients than traditional sauerkraut. "How many?" you say. I'm glad you asked. Two. That's right, two ingredients. Cabbage and salt. That's really it. Now, you can add any number of other things to your kraut but the bare minimum is salt and cabbage. So let me put this recipe in a mathematical equation...

Shredded cabbage + a little bit of salt + time = delicious, tangy, crispy, healthy sauerkraut.

When I first embarked on the journey of homebrewed (remember it's fermented)  sauerkraut I was letting it do it's thing in an old salsa jar. You may laugh but that actually produced some really good kraut and it's not a huge batch. Honestly, half of a small head of cabbage could be packed into a quart sized salsa jar. It required brutalizing the cabbage after letting it sit for about 30 minutes with the salt and squeezing all the juice out but it fit. In fact, here is a link to the original source of my kraut adventures.

The salsa jar worked for a time but come Christmas of 2015 something far better was under the tree with my name on it - my very own stone crock. Now, I was ready to make some real sauerkraut. So here's my tried and true method.

Ingredients

- 1 to 1.5 heads of cabbage
- 3 TBL of salt (I prefer kosher or sea salt)

Step 1: Shred cabbage
We are blessed to have a shredding attachment for our stand mixer that makes this easy and fast. You do it however works the best just shred the bugger.

Step 2: Fill crock
I like to add about 1/3 of the cabbage followed by 1 TBL of salt and repeat 2 times.

Step 3: Press cabbage
I'm not sure if this is strictly necessary but I do it. When the cabbage is all in the crock I press it down with my fist so that the juices begin to seep out. I like a shallow layer of juice already on top when I go to step 4.

Step 4: Cap it off and cover it
For my purposes I use a small plate from our cupboard that fits perfectly inside the crock. So I place that right side up on the cabbage and put a quart jar full of water on top of it to hold it down. Then I lay a clean dish towel over everything.

Step 5: Wait
Here you have the hardest part of making homemade kraut. I set mine in the basement and let it make itself wonderful for at least 10 days. To me that is just about the absolute minimum time to let nature take it's course with the kraut. Evidently there is some science about this that I don't fully understand and I have left kraut for 4 weeks when I was using the salsa jar method. It was good too.

Step 6: Enjoy
After the prescribed time I take the crock, empty the contents into quart jars and place them in the fridge. Of course you'll want to sample some before it all gets put away. Once in the fridge the fermentation process will cease.

Warnings!
1. You will never want that nasty store bought kraut again. It just isn't the same and should have an entirely different name.
2. I cannot recommend freezing sauerkraut. I tried this with one batch and it just wasn't good when thawed. It was watery and just...just not good chow.
3. You may experience some fuzzy growth on your kraut during the fermentation process, this is not abnormal but go ahead and skim it off.

That's really about it. Whether you think you like sauerkraut or not you should give this a try. It is easy, cheap, healthy and downright delicious. It is also a valuable skill and another way to preserve an abundant harvest. So, I hope you'll give it a shot. Let me know what you think.

Christian

Monday, February 24, 2014

Simple DIY Rain Barrel

With Spring approaching rapidly...I hope, we have begun making preparations for our raised bed garden plots (more on those in a future post). Part of any garden in all but the most saturated climates is irrigation. While there are a variety of irrigation methods I decided I would like to have a barrel to catch rain run-off from the roof. Unless we have a very dry growing season I expect that our needs for the garden will be fairly limited so I opted for a cheap 32 gallon trashcan as the rain barrel. I think the cost for the barrel was about $10 and there are all kinds of other options from free to forty or fifty dollars.

The next requirement for the barrel was that I be able to connect a hose directly to it. This meant fashioning a spigot and raising the barrel so there would be some pressure at the garden. Below you will see the parts I used for installing the spigot and, again, the cost was around $10 for all of it.


The parts list is:

1- spigot
1- sheet of gasket rubber
2- washers
2- flat bolts
1- roll of teflon tape
1- flexible downspout coupler

Process

The first thing I did was construct the stand for the barrel. I used some scrap 4x4s, 2x4s and plywood. As you will see in the upcoming pictures I think I overbuilt the stand but when the barrel is full it will weigh around 250 lbs so my idea is that stronger is better. 

The next step was to install the spigot in the barrel. Ideally, you'd want a hole saw that was the right size but I didn't have such a piece of equipment so I used my rotory tool to rout out the hole. Next I traced out the size of the washer on the gasket rubber. I could easily have gotten many more gaskets from the one sheet and it cut very well with a pair of kitchen sheers.


Once the gaskets were cut I placed a washer followed by one gasket on the spigot and installed it in the hole in the trashcan. There was not enough clearance to put both the gasket and washer on the inside so I just used the washer and silicone. I tightened it up as much as possible and the next day the silicone had dried and created a good seal around the spigot. Now for the installation outside the house.

This is where it got kind of tricky. Our garage is separate from the house and has two downspouts on the back. My plan was to simply unhook one of the downspouts and run it into the barrel via a flexible coupling. This would save the downspout so that it could just be replaced when we move. Needless to say, that didn't pan out in Peoria. The stand and barrel were not tall enough to allow me to unhook the downspout and simply connect on to it. Thus, I went to cutting with the hack saw. 

After measuring how much downspout I actually needed to meet up with the barrel I cut off the access and continued with the original plan. This worked well  and I was able to rout another hole in the trashcan lid that would accept the flexible coupling. Now, the barrel is set to receive runoff from the roof.

The final step was to make an allowance for overflow. To accommodate this I bought one of the fittings that you use to connect a downspout to the gutter. Again, I routed out a suitable hole near the top of the trashcan and bolted the fitting on with a liberal amount of silicone. Finally, I put the remainder of the original downspout and one of the elbows on to the fitting so when water reaches the top it will simply spill out as usual. Below you will see the finished product.

Finished product ready to harvest rain. The rope around the barrel was to keep it from blowing away until it fills us.

To be sure, there are prettier rain barrels in the world but this one met several personal requirement, not least of which was budget friendly. I tried to make as much use of existing material as possible and it did not require drilling into the downspout and installing a device that harvests some of the rain. Additionally, when it comes time to move all I have to do is replace one section of downspout and you'll never know it was even there. They are calling for rain later this week so I will update you on how it works!

Christian

UPDATE: After two years the rain barrel is still performing flawlessly. I did end up adding a short piece of rubber hose to the spigot so I can fill up my watering can on the ground instead of having to hold it will it fills. I do empty the barrel before winter and leave the spigot open for the duration of the winter. When the danger of freezing temperatures passes I take it down, hose it out and put it back. Like I said, two years and no problems. 



Thursday, January 30, 2014

Journey Towards Keeping Bees

Over the past few weeks I (Christian) have become intrigued with the idea of beekeeping. I think what got me started on this new kick was an article in the "Mother Earth News Guide to Self-Reliance and Country Skill" about an alternative to the popular Langstroth method of beekeeping (the big white boxes you see all the time). Don't get me wrong, the Lang hives are wonderful things and especially if you plan on commercializing your honey operation, but they can also be expensive and require more specialized tools. For my purposes it was certainly the cost that kept me away from the traditional hive structure. Enter the "Top bar hive" that I read about in the aforementioned article.

From what I have read and heard the top bar hive method really grew out of a need for a low cost, easy to build and maintain hive in the east African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. In fact, you may find top bar hives referred to as "Kenyan Top Bar Hive" (KTBH) or "Tanzanian Top Bar Hive" (TTBH). For probably thousands of years the people there have been keeping bees and collecting honey from log hives which only yield about 1/3 the amount of honey as a top bar hive. Therefore, by using easily attainable materials a beekeeper can effectively triple their production. I was watching a lecture on top bar hives by McCartney Taylor and he said that the average income from honey in Tanzania (I think) was about $200 per year using a log hive. That means that when a beekeeper switches to the top bar hive they are now bringing in $600 per year which significantly increases their ability to provide for needs of their family!

For me the motivation for wanting to keep bees has less to do with profit and more to do with the enjoyments of it and the notion that I might be able to harvest my own honey and wax, and have the added benefit of the bees for pollination of the garden. I mean really, how cool would it be to pull out a jar of honey that was created in your own backyard? Thus I have set out on a mission to learn as much as I can about top bar beekeeping and have even constructed a hive.

There are loads of resources on the internet for this subject and plenty of plans for the actual construction of the hive. There are even a few companies that sell complete hives and/or plans if you want to build your own. Again, part of the appeal to me was the idea that you could make your hive out of materials you salvage or purchase at a home improvement store. So, last week I began my search for suitable materials at the in-law's farm. Thankfully, in the old barn I struck solid, beehive building gold and was able to find all that I needed to build my hive.

The Build

There are plenty of variations on the top bar hive but for mine I chose to make it 36" long and about 15" wide at the top. The basic idea is to have two 12"x1" boards fastened to flat end pieces at about a 120 degree angle creating a "V" shaped trough with an opening at the bottom and an open top that is covered by the top bars. Some designs use a closed bottom but I opted for an open bottom covered with a screen to allow hive debris to fall out while keeping predators and pests out.

Once the side panels were in place I added four legs made out of 2x4s, drilled three entry holes in the side, and fashioned the follower board. This design element seems to be another optional piece. Its role is to constrict the size of the hive when the bees first begin to construct comb. The reason I decided to make one was because I wanted to have a place to put a feeder inside the body of the hive. The follower is simply a piece of plywood that is cut to fit inside the trough that can be moved to increase or decrease the available space inside the actual hive.

Here you can see some of the top bars removed and the entrance holes in the side. The gap at the far end is where the follower board is and the feeder location.


Next it was time to build the top bars. This is the one place where dimensions seem to be really critical. Apparently bees construct comb at a specific width and you want to make sure your bars are close to that width so that the comb doesn't end up spanning several bars. From what I read 1 3/8" was about ideal for top bars so I took some  1" thick boards and ripped them down to 1 3/8" wide strips. I ended up with enough top bars to cover the entire top of the hive except the last few inches where the feeder will sit. This means that I can fill the feeder without disturbing the hive.

The final part of the build was the roof. Again, this is an optional design element and climate and aesthetics will be the determining factors on whether or not a roof is desired. Living in the southeast we do receive considerable rain throughout the year and I thought it would be nice to keep as much rain as possible out of the hive. Alternatively, you can just place a piece of plywood, tin or plastic over the top to keep water out.

Here is the finished product with the roof in place. It simply lifts off.

The Plan

Now that I have a hive the next obvious question is, "Where are you going to get bees?" There are several option here; 1) purchase bees, 2) capture a swarm from another beekeeper, 3) capture a feral swarm, 4) lure in a feral swarm. When I found out that option #4 was possible that was what put me over the top on deciding to keep bees. What I learned was that during the spring and summer when colonies are expanding and "swarming" they send out scouts to find a new home for part of the colony. During this time of year it is possible to lure a wild swarm to your beehive. There are some products on the market that include the pheromones that act as the "come hither" scent put off from bees. You can buy these and "bait" your hive in the hopes of attracting a swarm. You can also use lemongrass oil which is a similar scent along with some beeswax or old comb. My plan is to try to lure a swarm into the hive and have free bees! I really don't know if it will work or what my chances of success truly are but I want to start there. If it doesn't work I can always search for a swarm or purchase some bees from a local beekeeper, but if I am successful I will have free bees and a free hive and that would be wonderful!

As the spring and summer approach I will keep you updated on how the luring is going and hopefully have plenty of material for more posts on beekeeping.

Christian  

Monday, January 13, 2014

DIY Men's Pomade

One of my favorite movies has to be "O Brother Where Art Thou?" starring George Clooney as Everett McGill, the fast talking con-man who constantly worries about the state of his coif. Nevermind that the barn is on fire and the posse is after you, "My hair!" is his primary concern. For Everett no ordinary hair jelly will suffice. He doesn't want Fop, he wants Dapper Dan because he's a Dapper Dan man because it not only keeps his coif in order but it also has a pleasing aroma...which is half the point. In this matter I find myself strangely empathetic towards Everett's quandary of finding the perfect hair product. I have used, for many years, gels and have even explored the more traditional options of pomade and waxes. Gels work just fine but they also cost an arm and a leg unless you want to subject those around you to a snowy shower of dried gel flakes as the day wears on. Shedding gel after the lunch hour is not something that his would-be gentleman wants to do. Some of the newer pomades offer wonderful styling properties early on but seem to just disappear throughout the day. Waxes offer unparalleled hold but also take drain cleaner to get out of the hair. What is a man to do?

That was my question and thus I set out on a journey to find a suitable, homemade pomade (you like that rhyme don't you...homemade pomade). What I instantly discovered on my journey was that pomade is easy to make and uses the same base ingredients as a salve I have been making. The recipe that I landed on and ended up modifying can be found here:

The Hippy Homemaker

Briefly, it is simply equal parts beeswax, coconut oil and some kind of carrier oil. For my pomade I used vegetable glycerin as the carrier oil and added a few drops of Bay Rum essential oil. After melting everything together in the double boiler I added the Bay Rum and then poured it into a small glass bowl. At this point I whipped the concoction into submission with a whisk as it cooled. This introduced some air into the pomade making it a little bit more "fluffy" than a salve. Then I simply poured it into a 4 oz. metal tin and allowed it to finish cooling.

The results:

After my shower and shave I was eager to try out the new hair treatment so I applied a small amount to my fingers and massaged it for a few moments. Then I just ran my fingers through my hair just as I would with gel. The coverage for such a small amount was wonderful and it styled just like a commercial pomade, perhaps even a little better. The added blessing that comes with this pomade is the wonderful scent. I told my friend Scott that it smelled like I was a walking tropical, adult beverage. The beeswax and coconut oil make a delightful aroma all on their own but the addition of the Bay Rum oil puts it over the top. Thus far I am at hour #4 and it is still holding just like the moment I applied it. The second test will be to see how difficult it is to get out of my hair. I suspect, due to the lightness of the product, that it will come out rather easily with just shampoo (no need for drain cleaner). I haven't figured up how much the 4 oz. tin cost my but I'm sure it will be pennies compared to commercial hair products. So, gents (or ladies), if you're in the market for a good, easy pomade for your coif...make your own!

God bless,
Christian

UPDATE: After the first day of using the DIY pomade I'm very satisfied. It lasted all day long and when I took my shower this morning it came right out with regular shampoo.