Taking “Home Made” to New Levels

I realize that I can take home-cooking to extremes.

French Toast Breakfast
My home-made/grown bread, eggs, and honey went into this.

This morning, I made French toast for breakfast. For most people, that’s not a big deal — French toast is easy enough to make. But I realized that my French toast went beyond what most people would consider a home-cooked meal for a few reasons:

  • I baked the bread.
  • The eggs came from my chickens.
  • The honey I put on top came from my bees.

The only thing related to my plate that I didn’t make or grow was the cooking spray I used in the pan and the fresh strawberries. In two months, the strawberries will come from my garden.

While anyone with an oven (or bread machine) and a tiny bit of skill (or ability to follow directions for a bread mix) can make their own bread — and I highly recommend it! — I agree that raising chickens or keeping bees is not for the average person. So no, I’m not trying to tell you to follow my lead here. I’m just pointing out that it’s possible to have better control over what you eat.

And the results can be delicious.

About the Wind Machines

An important part of crop protection.

The economy of this area of Washington State is based primarily on tree fruit production: apples, cherries, pears, and apricots. Indeed, Columbia River Valley around Wenatchee is one of the biggest apple producing regions in the world.

Fruit trees bloom in the spring, are pollinated by migratory bees, and form fruit. Throughout the summer, the fruit develops and grows. Months later, when the fruit ripens, it’s picked, sent to processing plants, and either shipped out immediately, as in the case of cherries, or stored for later shipment, as in the case of apples.

The timing of all this is determined by the weather and can fluctuate by several weeks every year. The trees get a cue from temperature to start budding and once the buds are formed, there isn’t much that can stop the seasonal progression.

Except frost.

Frost can kill flowers and developing fruit. A bad enough deep freeze over the winter months can even kill trees.

And that’s where frost protection comes in. Growers are deeply concerned about frost destroying a crop so they take steps to protect the crop from frost. In this area, they rely on wind machines to circulate the air in parts of an orchard prone to pockets of cold air.

This video shows wind machines in action at a pear orchard in Cashmere, which is near here. It looks to me as if the trees are in bloom. Unfortunately, the sound is turned off so you can’t get the full effect.

Wind machines look like large, two-bladed fans on a tall pole. Usually powered by propane, they’re often thermostatically controlled — in other words, they are set to turn on in the spring when the temperature drops down to a certain point. The blades spin like any other fan and the fan head rotates, sending wind 360° around the machine’s base.

The idea, of course, is that the cold air has settled down into pockets and that warmer air can be found around it and above it. By circulating the air, the warm air is brought around the trees and frost is prevented.

In California, they use helicopters to protect the almond crop from frost. (As a matter of fact, as I type this my helicopter is in California for a frost contract for the third year in a row.) The principle is the same, but the orchards tend to be much larger and I can only assume that it isn’t financially feasible to install and run wind machines in that area. (Hard to believe it’s cheaper to use helicopters, though.)

This year, some unseasonably warm weather has triggered a very early bloom. My clients tell me that their cherry crop is running 2 to 3 weeks early. Right now, cherries are in various stages of bloom throughout the area; apricots are pretty much done with their bloom. (Apples and pears will come next.) And since winter has not let go of its tenuous grip on us, the temperature has been dropping down into the low to mid 30s each night this week.

Well, not at night. It actually starts getting cold around 4 or 5 AM, as you can see in this weather graph:

Weather Graph
The National Weather Service weather graph page for this area shows the forecasted highs and lows over time.

The result: the wind machines kick on automatically when it starts getting cold: around 4 or 5 AM.

Want to hear what a wind machine sounds like close up? This video has full sound as a field man starts and runs up a wind machine. He’s wearing ear protection for a reason. Stick with it to see the spinning head on top.

Wind machines are not quiet. In fact, from a distance, they sound exactly like helicopters. And as they spin, they sound like moving helicopters — so much so that when I first heard them in action back in Quincy in 2009 or 2010, I thought they were helicopters and actually got up to see what was going on. I suspect that to someone on the ground, they sound exactly like a helicopter drying cherries would sound.

Although there aren’t any orchards on my end of the road, my property does look out at quite a few orchards, some of which have wind machines. There are at least 5 within a mile of me — I can see 4 of them from my side deck. I can also see others much farther out into the distance. And when the close ones are running, I know it. It’s not loud enough to wake me up in my snugly insulated home, but it sure did wake me up when I was living in my thin-walled RV outside. And it’s definitely not something you can pretend you don’t hear.

Fortunately, wind machines are a seasonal nuisance — much like other orchards noises: sprayers, tractors, helicopters, and pickers. Although frost season runs through May in this area, the machines only kick on during cold weather. Looking at the forecast, I can expect to hear them tomorrow morning and probably Wednesday morning, but not likely on Monday or Tuesday morning.

Weather ForecastNWS Wenatchee forecast for this week.

In the meantime, I’ve already gotten the heads up from my California client who might need me down there on Monday. After all, they don’t have wind machines.

For a helicopter pilot working in this area, wind machines are one of the obstacles that can be a hazard when drying cherries. They tower higher than the trees and their blades can be “parked” at any angle or direction. Although some growers will try to use wind machines to dry trees while waiting for pilots, my contract states I won’t fly in an orchard with wind machines spinning so they’re usually turned off when I arrive — or right afterwards. But if the blades aren’t parked, they can move. And one pilot I know learned the hard way about what happens when a helicopter’s main rotor blade hits a wind machine. (He’s okay; the helicopter is not.)

To sum up, wind machines are an important crop protection device that can be a bit of a nuisance with predawn operation in the spring. But I don’t mind listening to them. Like so many orchard owners in the area, my livelihood depends on a healthy cherry crop. If that means tolerating some noise 10-20 mornings out of the year, so be it.

My Barn Cats

Low maintenance rodent control.

Rodents are a fact of life in rural areas. They were in the garage — and sometimes in the house! — when I lived in Arizona. They were in my hangar there, got into my RVs, and made nests in my cars and motorcycles. Here in Washington, they’ve gotten into my RV and Jeep. I’ve never seen evidence of them in my shed or big garage, but they must be there. After all, rodents are a fact of life.

When I say rodents, I’m mostly talking about mice. Sometimes they’re adorable little mice the size of my thumb. I’d catch them live and release them far away. Until I started catching multiple mice each day. The novelty wore off and I resorted to traditional snap traps. Can’t use poison because I can’t worry about Penny eating it or poisoned mice. And the sticky traps are downright cruel.

Image of a vole from Wikipedia by user Soebe.

Here in Malaga, we also have voles. They dig up the ground and, if they get into your garden, can kill your plants from the roots. That’s one of the reasons my planters have chicken wire bottoms — to keep the damn things from getting in from below. Penny successfully caught and killed one last year and I suspect she’ll do it again this year.

While I normally wouldn’t mind rodents outdoors — after all, they are part of the ecosystem — they tend to attract snakes. And while I don’t mind non-venomous snakes like bull snakes, I do mind rattlesnakes. I killed three of them in my immediate yard last year. It’s unfortunate, because I really don’t like to kill anything, but I don’t want to worry about Penny or my chickens — or me, for that matter — getting bit.

That’s where the idea of “barn cats” comes in. The Wenatchee Valley Humane Society (WVHS) has what it calls a Barn Buddy Program. They capture feral cats, find homes for them, spay or neuter the cats, and hand them over to their new owners. The cats are strictly outdoor cats and owners are not expected to do much more than give them safe shelter and a steady supply of food and water.

The way I saw it, if I had cats to reduce the rodent population I might be able to reduce the number of snakes that come around in the summer months.

And it was a nice way to help out some cats that would likely be euthanized if not taken. Indeed, the WVHS does not go through the expense of neutering a cat unless an owner is already lined up for it. The reason: they only keep these cats, which are otherwise unadoptable, for about a week. Once a home is lined up for a cat, the WVHS sends it off to be neutered prior to handing it over to its new owner. It’s important to note that in the wild, if not neutered and given a safe home, these cats are only expected to live a few years.

I got my cats around Christmas time. Note that I said cats — plural. The WVHS prefers that you take at least two because they are more likely to stick around if they have company. The cats I got were a 1-1/2 year old black cat I named Black Bart and a 6 month old tabby I creatively named Kitty. I picked them up from the vet in large plastic kennels, set them up in my shed with a heater, food, water, and litter box (as instructed) and let them roam free inside for the required 3 week acclimation period.

My shed is small — just 6 x 8 feet. It’s full of garden and beekeeping equipment. There are shelves on one wall. There’s a hollow overhang over the door. The cats quickly learned to climb up onto the shelves or overhang when they heard me coming. Not only was it safer for them (in their minds) but it was also warmer since heat rises.

Kitty on a Shelf
Here’s Kitty, up on the top shelf in my shed.

After three weeks — and a few weeks before I went away for a vacation in Arizona — I installed a cat door on the shed. This would give them the ability to go in and out at will. When I knew they were using the door — cat paw prints in fresh snow was a dead giveaway — I removed their kennels and returned them to the WVHS for someone else to use. I also bought a feeder that would hold 10 pounds of dry food and a water dispenser that would hold a gallon of water.

It wasn’t long before I realized that they were spending a lot of time under the shed. Penny is actually the one who discovered this. I heard her barking from inside the shed and opened the door to let her out — but she wasn’t in there. It took a moment to realize that she wasn’t in the shed but under it, likely barking at one or both cats. I got her to come out and I think she hurt herself doing it because she was sore for a few days afterward. Since then, she often goes to the cat’s entrance to their undershed domain but doesn’t try to go in.

I’d occasionally see Kitty inside the shed, up on a shelf — especially when I still had the heater in there. But I didn’t see Black Bart at all and I worried a bit about him.

Understand that these are still completely feral cats. If they see me, they run away. They don’t know their names and, even if they did, they definitely wouldn’t come if I called. Although I suppose I could make some effort to tame them, I prefer not to. There are many predators in this area — coyotes, eagles, owls — and although they have the shed for safe shelter, I don’t expect them to live very long. For that reason, I’d prefer not to get attached to them.

Still, the water was drunk and the food was eaten so I knew they were around somewhere. While I was in Arizona, the litter box got quite disgusting, but I think that was actually a good thing. When I returned, dumped it, and refilled it, I soon realized that they were hardly using it at all. When the weather gets a little better, I’ll take it outside and eventually do away with it. They did their business outdoors before they were captured, they can do it outdoors again when the litter box is gone.

Based on Penny’s behavior, I knew at least one of them was living mostly under the shed. I assumed they came out to hunt at night.

Lately, however, I’ve been spending a lot more time up in my living space over the garage as I finish up construction. I often take a break in a chair by the window and look out over my property and the Wenatchee Valley beyond. Over the past two days, I’ve caught sight of both cats wandering around near the shed. On Friday, Kitty explored the inside of the cabinet installers’ cargo trailer. On Saturday afternoon, Black Bart sat sphinx-like on the concrete “porch” of the shed while Kitty wandered around the weeds nearby.

My Barn Cats
I shot this photo of my two barn cats out in my garden from my living room window only a few hours after writing this blog post.

It was rather comforting to see my barn cats out and about on a nice day — especially since they’d obviously become a pair and were roaming, at least part time, together. It was a sort of reminder of the success of the program. I admit that I’m tempted to get another two cats and set them up in my garage, but I’d rather wait until I’ve moved my furniture and boxes into my new home upstairs. Then I’ll give it some thought. (I don’t want people to think I’ve become a cat lady.)

As for rodent control, it’s too early to see what kind of difference they’re making. It’s still winter here and the temperatures have been getting down into the low 30s and high 20s lately. The ground is hard and the voles aren’t coming up to the surface. Or maybe they have been — just long enough to make a tasty snack for a barn cat?

Washington Healthplanfinder FAIL

When automatic payments go seriously wrong.

I usually get email while traveling and generally keep up with anything important. Although I wasn’t surprised to get an email from Washington Healthplanfinder, my health insurance agent here in Washington State, to say that my monthly payment had been automatically withdrawn from my account, I was surprised at the amount:

Withdrawal Confirmation

Note the amount: $1,116.15. My monthly premium is $375.14.

I immediately called Washington Healthcarefinder. After pressing numbers to navigate through four different menus — just to ask a billing question — and waiting five minutes on hold, a typical script-reading customer service representative answered. I told her about the problem. After asking for various information to assure I was who I said I was, she read a script that told me that emails had gone out in error. She asked if my bank had processed the withdrawal.

I admitted I hadn’t checked, and whipped out my iPad to check with my bank’s app while she was still on the phone. The transaction had not been processed.

She read another script that assured me that it wouldn’t be processed. That it was just the email that was an error. I suggested that if this was a widespread problem that an email should go out to notify subscribers of the error. She didn’t have a script for that so she didn’t have anything to say. I hung up.

Two days later, on Wednesday, I got an email from my bank confirming a withdrawal from Washington Healthcare Finder:

Withdrawal Confirmation

Note the amount: $1,116.15.

I just about went ballistic. I called the bank to have the charge reversed and was told that I’d have to fill out a series of forms to get the process started.

Washington Healthcare Finder’s offices were still closed that early, but later in the day, I managed to get yet another idiotic, script-reading customer service representative on the phone. I was not kind, especially when her script informed me that the process could take several days while their accounting department researched the problem. There was lots of time wasted on hold, which further pissed me off. When she got back on the phone, I told her that their error had cost me more than an hour of my time with two calls to them and one to my bank. I asked if I would be getting compensated for my time. She said they wouldn’t compensate me for my time, but they’d “compensate me for the overcharge.”

“That’s not compensation,” I roared over the phone. “That’s a refund for your freaking error!”

Because she obviously didn’t understand the difference, she had nothing to say. I hung up.

But not before I demanded that she turn off automatic payments for my account.

Later yesterday morning — yes, two days after the initial email about the incorrect amount went out, I got this:

Notice of Error

Is there any way they could have screwed this up more?

I’m fortunate in that I had enough money in my account to cover this unexpected withdrawal. Other people who routinely carry smaller checking account balances would likely bounce checks to other payees, setting up a nighmarish experience of explaining the problem for every bounced check and getting overdraft fees reversed. Hours of a person’s time could be wasted on this.

I recently set up automatic withdrawals for a number of organizations I do business with. It should make it easy to pay on time without any additional effort. But I’m going to re-think that strategy and make my payments through my bank’s billpay feature. This puts absolute control in my hands and would certainly prevent something like this from happening again.

Hiking with the Dogs

As strange as this may seem, I have more stamina than two young golden retrievers.

I’m dog sitting for some friends in Arizona. In my charge are two golden retrievers: 1-1/2 year old Birdie and 6 month old Don Don. Of course, Penny the Tiny Dog, my 6-1/2 pound chihuahua terrier mix, is also with me.

I’m a huge believer in off-leash walking. Why would anyone put their animal on a leash if it can safely run free without bothering others or endangering local wildlife? In the Arizona desert, that means choosing a path on just about any back country trail or dry wash. Since the house I’m staying at is on a huge dry wash and Don Don is next to impossible to get into the car, it made sense to simply walk from the back yard out into the desert and down the wash.

Desert Wash
Although it’s not the most scenic place for a hike, a “wash” — or flash flood runoff channel — is a fine place to let dogs run off-leash and do some fast-paced hiking.

Trip ComputerI’d done the walk last week when my friend Janet was in town with her dog. We’d walked about three miles — almost all the way into town and back. Today, I did almost the same walk alone with the dogs. Total trip was 2.58 miles in under an hour. My Gaia GPS trip computer shows the details. You can see the steady but gentle downhill walk and the climb back. Elevation change was only 74 feet — no big deal. You can also see where I rested along the way back.

I had three goals:

  • Get some exercise. I’ve been slacking off this week, not doing nearly as much walking as I should. I kept up a quick pace, aiming for 3.5 miles per hour moving average. (I achieved 3.2.)
  • Get some color back into my skin. For the first time since 2012, my skin has returned to the sickly white color it had when I spend most of my time indoors, often in a cavelike Phoenix condo. Fortunately, it was sunny — for the eighth consecutive day in a row — and in the 70s. I put on a tank top and shorts for maximum exposure and put my hair up in a high pony tail to prevent it from shading the back of my neck.
  • Get the retrievers tired. These dogs have a lot of energy to burn off. Getting them worn out would be a great way to ensure a peaceful afternoon.

The dogs were a funny group. Birdie pretty much stayed near me for most of the walk. Don Don wanted to explore, but because he’s still a puppy, he’s afraid to go out on his own. Penny is fearless and loves to explore, especially if there’s birds or rabbits to smell or chase. So Penny took the lead and Don Don sort of blundered after her. Once in a while, Birdie would explore with them — especially when she saw Don Don getting good sniff of something on the ground.

I kept walking as fast as I could on the sand. And it was sand — sometimes deep sand. Fortunately, the rain that fell here the week before last was sufficient enough to form a sort of crust on much of the wash surface. It was broken only by a week’s worth of 4WD traffic and the footprints of others. In addition to the tracks Janet and I had made with the dogs the previous week, I saw tracks from horses, deer, and dogs or coyotes. I kept to the hard, crusty sand as much as possible. It was easier to walk on and I was able to keep up that good pace I wanted.

As I walked, the dogs would disappear from view. Every once in a while, I’d call out, “Penny, Don Don, Birdie, Penny, let’s go.” One by one they’d come back into view — usually Birdie, then Don Don, and usually Penny. Penny was always last. She had far more important things to do than come when I called her to make an appearance. But she always came so I didn’t bother putting her on the leash I’d brought along in case I had to tie them up.

Penny did a lot of running under the low bushes and trees that grew in and along the wash. Don Don often tried to follow her but was simply too big.

It was warm with a nice breeze on the walk out. The sun was ahead of me, to my right. The temperature was perfect for my tank top. And although the sun felt strong, I didn’t feel as if I was getting burned. (And indeed, I did not get burned. My skin seems to remember the sun very well.)

We walked as far as a set of power lines strung across the wash. I turned around and started back, consulting the trip computer to see how far we’d gone: 1.25 miles. Perfect.

It was warmer on the way back. I was now walking with that gentle breeze, so I didn’t feel it. The sun was at my back left side. As I walked, I began working up a light sweat.

Penny the Tiny Desert Dog
Penny kept motoring along.

The dogs, in the meantime, were definitely tiring out. Well, the big dogs were, anyway — Penny kept her fast pace, never stopping once. The retrievers now stuck together. They’d walk a bit ahead of me, then drop down to the ground in the shade and look up at me as I passed as if asking me to take a break with them. I kept walking and they’d eventually get up, catch up, and repeat the same process. Birdie was panting hard and it was easy to see why — she has a very heavy coat of fur.

Tired Dogs
These were some seriously tired dogs after less than a mile and a half of walking.

I stopped twice along the way for a total of less than 6 minutes non-moving time. The second time was in the scant shade of a large mesquite tree. The two big dogs rested, panting hard, while Penny explored the underbrush. Then we were off again, more than halfway home.

We didn’t pass a soul, either in a vehicle or on foot, in either direction. The only other animals I saw were quail and rabbits, including a rather large jackrabbit.

Our Track
Here’s our track, presented by Gaia GPS on a hybrid topo/satellite map.

I admit I was glad when I found the spot we’d entered the wash 50 minutes before. I was hot and tired and a little worried about the two big dogs.

When we got inside, they went right to their water dishes. I had to coax them out of the nice cool house and into the backyard. Then I got them over to a hose, turned it on, and hosed them off a little. Birdie seemed to like not only getting hosed down but drinking out of the hose. Don Don wasn’t as enthusiastic but did let me get him a little wet. And Penny, of course, wanted nothing to do with it.

Back down at the guest house, I filled a big water dish for them and set it down outside my door. Birdie and Don Don stretched out in the shade while Penny and I went inside. Penny drank and finished her breakfast. I had some lunch.

Within an hour, all four of us were dozing.