True North is:

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Michigan, United States

Monday, April 27, 2009


It was at the beginning of November 2008 when we decide to get serious about reducing our debt...and in order to do that, we had to get a hold on our monthly expenses. Our electric bill was at the top of the that's where we started. At this time though, I was still truck driving cross country, so what follows is really a testament to Melissa's and Gabrielle's willingness and determination to lower one of our most costly bills.
Our entire house runs on electric; heat, air, lights, well pump. We have two meters. One is the Main meter and the other is called the Dual Heat meter. Only our furnace runs on the Dual Heat meter, and everything else is on the Main. The good part about that is we get a slight discount on the Dual meter. Needless to say, our electric bills were quite high, especially in the winter and the hottest parts of summer when we ran our air conditioner.

One of the first things, and the most important, that Melissa decided to do was turn the thermostat down to 63 degrees, bundle up, and supplement the heat with our fireplace. Of course we had never seriously used the fireplace was more for decoration and mood, so there was not exactly a lot of wood laying around for her to burn. Luckily, I had a few days off and was able to cut up some wood before I hit the road again.
Yes it was cold. The fireplace did an ok job of warming the living room, but the rest of the house was quite chilly. Yet, my wife and daughter persevered; extra clothes, big comfy blankets...and very rapidly the electric bill began to plummet.

The second thing we discussed and put into action was our appliances and such. We of course switched all our light bulbs over to CFLs...and then we started doing some in depth research on other ways we could save when it came to our appliances. Most of them (fridge, oven, washer...etc) are older models and there was no way we could replace them with newer, more energy efficient ones, so we had to find a way to deal with what we had.
I looked into the water heater and learned that we only needed to have ours set at 120 degrees. The installer had ours at 130, and with a little turn of a dial I reduced the electric bill. Amazing. One article I read said you could save as much as 6-10% by reducing your temperature setting in this way.
Next was the washer. We always had it set on hot/cold cycle and again...with a flip of a switch...turned it to cold/cold, and set the wash cycle to the quickest setting. I can't be sure how much this has saved us, but using less hot water (hot water heater) and having the washer run for a shorter period has to be doing something. Amazingly, our clothes are just as clean as they where before the changes!
There wasn't too much we could do with the dryer. It was winter and we couldn't hang anything outside to dry even if we had something to hang them on. We did debate unhooking the dryer vent and letting the heat circulate inside the house (another article suggestion), but opted not to do that. However, we did set drying time to 20 minutes and would check the clothes to see if they were done, resetting the time if needed. We used to just put them in for an hour whether the needed that much time or not. Btw, I'm in the process of putting a clothes line up right now...the dryer will be semi-retired very soon.
The dishwasher was easy...we just decided to not use it anymore. There where some conflicting points of view as to whether or not hand washing dishes is more economical then using a dishwasher, but I have no doubts that with judicial use, hand washing is way cheaper than having that machine chugging away. Not to mention our dishes are cleaner now then they ever were before.
Electric can opener...Gone! Seriously, I swear I had more problems using it than the hand held one we use now. Maybe not a huge hit to our electric usage, but now it's not any hit at all.
Refrigerator was next. We had read that a fridge should be 36-40F, and the freezer should be 0-5F. If a fridge is set 10 degrees lower than needed (or freezers set 5 degrees lower than needed), it can increase energy use by as much as 20-25%. Since the fridge is the second largest user of electricity...right behind the air conditioner, we got on this one right away.
With the research we had also learned that having appliances, lamps, TVs, computers, etc...plugged into the wall...even when not on, still used electricity. someone had coined the phase as "Ghost Amps". Apparently, these devices, while plugged in, sit there sucking your hard earned money right from the wall. Solution...we unplug them now when not in use. Some of our stuff, like the entertainment center that has multiple devices in one area, all got plugged into a power strip. That way we can flip just one switch and they all get shut down.
Then there are the other things. We shut off lights when we leave a room, take quicker showers, use towels more than once, watch less TV, use candles, and probably a number of other things I can't think of, because now, in just a short period of time, using less electricity has become second nature to us.

Our electric bill used to run us anywhere between $275 and $350 per month depending on the season. Last year at this time we were using 130 Kwh per day. Almost immediately we saw a savings. The first month we had dropped our daily usage drastically and now we average 70 Kwh per day. For us it's a big difference...our eclectic has been cut in half! Since we wont be using the air conditioner this year we believe that we can get the electric bill down below $100 this summer. When winter comes we'll have a real wood furnace, so hopefully that savings will continue. All that savings and it doesn't really seem like we're doing that much different.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

It seems to me...from emails and comments I have received, that there is misinformation floating about. Apparently, there is confusion as to which one of our animals ate our three little chicks. Their untimely demise was bad enough, but to accuse the wrong animal of doing the awful deed is criminal.

The Good:
Maximus...aka The Baby Boy. This seemingly normal toy fox terrier is anything but that. He is a 'Good Boy", and we often shower him with that and other similar types of praise. If fact we strongly believe that Max wants to be a 'Real Boy', and as such would never harm defenseless chickens. In this photo it shows Max leaning in towards the chicks...not in an aggressive manner as those in the media might, Max only wanted to kiss them. Verdict: Innocent.

The Bad:
Pretty Kitty...the cat with an identity crisis. He eats dog food, fears the outdoors, acts creepy on most occasions (gaining the new name: Creepy kitty), and is a brutal mouse eliminator. In the winter months nary a mouse survives long. As the weather becomes cold, and the mice seek refuge in our house it is to their folly. Pretty Kitty will not suffer them to live long. So, BAD to mice...didn't give the chicks a second glance. Verdict: Innocent.

The Ugly:
Gypsy...the dog gone wild. Once she was a loving animal that desired staying close to us and enjoy the comforts of home. Now, she seeks to escape at any given chance and attempts to terrorize nature's wild life. It is a constant battle with this wayward dog to keep her out of trouble. Yet, her place with us is secure for we have had her for many years. Her ugly behavior, however, might lead to a fenced in pen and a permanent 'outside dog'. Verdict: Guilty.

All joking aside, Gypsy really is a concern for us. We love her very much, but she is having difficulty finding her place at True North. We've become more vigilant when it comes to her escapes, and we our investigating alternatives to the common chain. Hopefully, very soon, she wont be a worry for us, but a joy like she once was.

The Red Flannel

Back when we first started homesteading, we had so many ideas as stated before in previous posts and of course in the introduction. One of those were to buy only used items where we were able to. Of course clothing is super easy to buy second hand so we began frequenting resale shops often. On our visits to these shops I would try with little avail to get Pat to buy things I thought he might need; work pants, work boots, shirts and flannels. After much convincing, over many days and many stores, he picked a few things, one of which is his red flannel. He said "oh I really don't need it, but whatever it's only a couple bucks, I guess we'll get it". you can see in the photos on our blog, the red flannel has become a True North beacon! Pat has definitely taken to heart my re-use and re-wear polices. We love the red flannel!

Little Enlightenment's

We have found that every so often we learn a little something along our journey so we decided to do a regular post titled "Little Enlightenment's". Little Enlightenment's are what we refer to as small tid-bits of things we never knew before. Most are not of great importance but are none the less something we learned along the journey. Last weeks EL's were the following:

1) Sap is hard to get off of your hands! Note to self: put your gloves on before you pick up evergreen branches.

2)Pigs like evergreen branches. Who would have thought they would eat the branch and all!

3)Bird feeders get a hard clump of food in the bottom of the feeder, so clean it out! The seed doesn't fall very good if you don't. Then you can't watch the birds while you drink your coffee every

Thank You

I want to personally thank all of those who have recently visited and commented to our blog. Since the publishing of the article in USA Today, the response from friends around the world via comments and emails have been overwhelming and truly heartfelt. It means a lot to us that you have taken the time to read our stories and share yours as well. We plan to visit each and everyone of your blogs and try to respond to all that have taken the time to comment to us. Thanks to you all for your support of our little journey.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Unexpected Path In Our Journey

About two weeks ago I received an email from Judy Keen, a reporter from USA Today, requesting an interview. She said she had found our Blog while researching for an article she was planning on writing; an article that would, amongst other things, show how some people might be changing their lifestyles due to the economic situation in America. Although our decision to begin our self sufficient journey had less to do with America’s economic position and more to do with our personal choices on how we wanted to live as a family…it was a factor, no doubt.
Out of curiosity I ‘googled’ Judy Keen. At this point we weren’t even considering doing the interview, but we wanted to see who this reporter was. We didn’t have to look very deep. Nothing alarmed me though…she’s been in the business for some time, had some pics with past presidents, and, although naive on my part, it seemed she had a kind face. So, after a few cups of coffee, and some discussion, we decided I should give her a call and see what this was all about.

To make a long story short, we obviously agreed to do the interview, and let a photographer into our home. Why? Well, after long and lengthy conversations between me, Melissa, and Gabrielle…we came to a decision.
When we first started considering changing our lifestyle we did a lot of research on the internet…homesteading forums, Blogs, ebooks… and what we found was an entire network of people and families that were either doing what we wanted to do or were on the verge of making some serious changes in their lives. Their reasons for doing this were as varied as the people, but ultimately we discovered that we weren’t alone. We weren’t crazy. Other had come before us and succeeded. It gave us hope and inspiration, and still does! So, I guess we hoped that maybe we could give some of that back. I know it sounds cheesy and dramatic, but honestly it’s how we feel.

In the end, I think Judy Keen did a fine job with the article. The responses from it, and our Blog, have been great! People from all walks of life have been emailing us and leaving comments…

I had thought that maybe we could give others inspiration and hope, but as it turns out…it was all of you that gave it to us. Your kind words and insightful thoughts have been taken to heart. Thank you.

You can find the article here.

Ps. Thanks to the person that left the comment that this was 'The Wojtowicz's free family fun day'. Brought smiles to our faces.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gone But Not Forgotten

Unfortunately we had our first animal tragedy. Our 3 baby chicks are all gone. Gypsy our dog decided they were not a part of the pack, like we hoped she would think. Instead, instincts took over and she ate all 3. It was very sad for us all, but a learning experience none the less. We are still planning to get the 3 larger laying hens, but are undecided on whether to get babies again.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Build it and they will come.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, taking care of our pigs has been nothing compared to the preparation in getting our homestead ready for them. Fencing and housing were the big concerns...and our budget...under $100 for a large pen and their pig house.

The Plan: Our first chore was deciding where to put the pigs. Although at first this seemed like a relative easy decision to make, it turned out to be harder than it looked. We have quite a bit of property, but wanted to keep the pigs close, so as to be able to keep a close eye on them and make feeding and watering convenient...but how close? Having never raised any farm animals before we were concerned about smell; everyone told us how bad pigs stink. We also considered our view. From our deck we have a beautiful view. One of our favorite pastimes is to sit on our deck, with a cold brew after a hard days work, and watch the local wildlife. The last thing we wanted to do was spoil this view with a pig pen.
After much deliberation we decided on an area off to the North side of our house. There's a lot of briers and thorns in the area and I thought it would be nice if the pigs could rid us of the eye-sore. We would be able to see our pigs from the deck, but our view of the Landscape would not be obstructed.

Fence Materials: When we first started researching getting the pigs I wanted to be able to graze them as much as possible to cut down on purchased food for them. With this in mind we needed a large pen, but our budget had to be kept in mind, and fencing isn't cheap.
Most people, who had experience with pigs, were saying that we needed to have an electric fence. This made a lot of sense to me; better containment and move-ability if I chose to "fold" them into a different area. However, I decide against this because of the initial start up cost, and, more importantly, I didn't want one more thing running off the electric meter. Our goal here is self sufficiency...not dependency. I had to take stock of what supplies I had.
Awhile back a friend of mine was doing some yard cleaning and he had quite a bit of privacy fencing that was in pretty bad shape. I helped him take it down (what was still standing!) and brought it out here to our property. At the time I planned to use it for our paintball field but never got around to it. So, for the last few years, this fencing layed useless on the edge of our woods. That was all about to change.
The fence was mostly 6' tall and was in sections of 8' lenghts. I figured I could cut it down so it was just over 3' high and use it for the enclosure. I had just enough of good sections to fence in the side of the pen that would be most visible from our house. Since the fence came with wooden posts I wouldn't need to buy any.
Now, this fencing, which was surprisingly in better condition than I thought, was painted a ghastly orange on one side. Melissa, however, had the great idea of using the unpainted side, which was a fantastic grey-weathered look, as the side we could see. the result was us a really cool rustic style fence.
As for the rest of the pen, my parents, some years ago, had raised some cows for beef. They had mostly used electric fence, but in some areas had used wire fencing. There were quite a bit of metal posts scattered throughout the property (some in good condition, others not) , that after a day of collecting them we had just enough to cover the area we needed. The wire fencing was another matter altogether.
There was plenty of the metal fence, but time and weather had knocked most of it down, entangled it in weeds, and frankly left it in pretty poor condition. The good news was that it hadn't rusted! I wont bore you with the details, but after a lot of hard work, an out of control fire, and prying it up from frozen ground, we managed to get enough of it to finish the pig pen. The cost so far....calloused hands, a few cuts and bruises, and zero dollars. Perfect.

The Pig House: After looking at a few different designs online, I decided to make a simple 'A' frame style house. We still had quite a lot of the old privacy fence left, so I figured I could use that to cover the frame work. Throughout the years we've managed to collect a number of wood supplies, through various projects and salvage, that I had no trouble finding enough 2x4's. The decking I used for the floor of the house came from the bottom of an old water bed I had dismantled long ago. With the frame built, me and Melissa, cut the privacy fence to size, and assembled (the far bigger than expected) house. We were really happy with the outcome, but due to the gaps in the fence it wasn't water proof. We needed to due something about that as I wanted my pigs to have a nice dry home.
When the basement for our house was built (7 years ago) the construction guys had left 2 very large canvas bags, the kind they fill with bags of cement and use a fork lift to carry around. These two bags have laid around the property, covered in weeds for all that time, and amazingly were still in really good condition. We decided to use the canvas, once we had cut it into usable sections as our water-proofing. We didn't want it to go on the outside since we liked the gray wood look, so with a staple gun we attached it to the inside.
Lastly, we needed something to go on the top. As it happens, back when my great-grandparents farmed this land they had pigs, and deep in the woods, lost to the wilderness, were the remnants of some old wooden pig houses. The houses were in terrible shape, rotted and fallen, but one still had a metal top piece that although rusted, was intact and ready to be placed on our new pig house. It was nice to add a bit of the old farm (we figured the pig house were at least 50 years old) to the new homestead. I'm sure when my relatives built those pig houses they never dreamed that a part of them would be used to cover swine so many years later.

The Gate: Nothing fancy here, just an old gate my father had built during his cow raising days. I think he'd be happy to see it in use once again

Me and Melissa worked really hard on this project and it was all we had hoped it would be. Spending time together, accomplishing a task, being frugal...all ingredients for our homesteading recipe. By the cost of the pen and house: $0

Note: I still have enough of the privacy fence to use for a chicken coup. Thanks Hugh, the fence has been a great boon for us!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Chicken Little

Our babies have arrived! When first discussing on how many chickens to get we settled on 5 or 6 of them. When we realized they might lay eggs for up to 5 years, we decided (well me…lol) that we wanted to start with 3 babies and 3 grown hens for our eggs. We could get the best of both worlds by having hens that lay immediately and having the experience of raising them from babies. So I’m now a new mommy, and Gabrielle is a first time mommy! I have 3 babies that are named Hazel, Quinnie and Matilda. 2 of them are Isa Browns (known for being a great “layer”) and one is a Bluff (known as a good “starter“ chicken). We built a very inexpensive brooder, a temporary house used to raise the chicks till they are ready to go outside, out of the following materials; A clear plastic tote with lid (free). Pat cut the top out to leave space to put the wire mesh in it for airflow (mesh $6) and affixed it to the lid with duck tape. He tried using a staple gun but that didn’t work so well, so good ol’ duck tape to the rescue. We will use the excess mesh for our chicken coop. A old desk lamp with 75 watt bulb in it (free) to warm the chicks. A special watering device that uses mason jars (free), mother-in-law Sally had one of those from a while back and was happy to see it put to good use. A lid off a chocolate milk drink mix container for the feed “trough” (free) and a 3 pound bag of medicated feed $3. Once they are grown we can let them free range off the land and give them scraps form our garden which will cost us nothing. The chicks themselves were $1.99 each. So our total came to $15. They say hens will lay 1 egg every other day, so we hope to have a couple dozen eggs a week. For 3-5 years of laying by 6 hens, we stand to net a big savings! I estimate $600 - $700 or so worth of eggs in 5 years we will no longer be buying from the store. And not to mention we know exactly where they came from!