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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Keeping the Fire Burning :: A Glimpse Around our Wood Stove

If you have been following the news, you might have noticed the recent propane shortage. A number of our friends had recently had their LP tanks filled, followed by their wallets emptied.  One of my friends was sharing that the price jumped from $1.65 per gallon to $3.25.  Another friend shared that their monthly bill went from $500/ month to $900/ month at this increase, and the LP company warned that prices might be as high as $5 per gallon by the end of the month.  They have turned their heat down to 60 degrees.

As I sit in my 76 degree house, my heart goes out to the families that are being effected by this shortage, and I realize even more the blessings of wood heat.

For those of you who may be considering heating with wood or are fairly new to using one, I thought I would share a little bit about about what we have acquired around our stove that keeps our fire burning.

Although there is much work that Ethan does cutting our wood, bringing it to the house, and splitting it (which the kids and I enjoy helping with as able), there is some work indoors to keeping a wood stove going, which I usually take care of being the one home.  This work is well worth it though, considering the money we saved not putting in duct work, a furnace, or paying a monthly heating bill.

Plus, it is relaxing to watch and has wonderful heat to soak up - it is a great place to check the kids' school papers in front of or just pause in front of (with often very long pauses!).

I have to admit that getting accustomed to using our wood stove included a bit of a learning curve, but now that we are in our 6th winter burning wood, we have slowly acquired a number of helpful tools so that maintaining a good fire has become pretty common place and routine.

One of the first and most important things that I felt we needed after setting up our wood stove was a way to keep the kids from serious burns.  At the time, we had a 4 year old, just turned 3 year old, and a newborn who would eventually be crawling.  It was very important to me to have some sort of protection around the stove, not only for my little ones, but also for those visiting who might be unfamiliar with wood stoves.  After digging around on the internet a bit, reading reviews, and looking at pricing I found an attractive safety fence that I am still very happy with.

This fence comes in 5 sections, one of which has a gate with a very secure latching system.  There were also optional extension pieces of various sizes (of which we ordered one), that allow you to perfectly fit the gate to the area needed. These sections can be adjusted to any angle, which also allows for getting just the right fit around your stove or fireplace. This fence is also a nice weight and is very sturdy once set up. It came with wall attachments to further help with security, but since I fold it up at the end of each season, I opted not to use these.  Plus, I felt that it was sturdy enough as it was, and without the brackets I can also pull it out for easier cleaning.

You might have noticed from the top photo that we have a black stove board outside of the fence, on the right hand side of the stove.  Although not beautiful, this is in place to deflect heat away from a beautiful roll top desk that my dad, who has a custom woodworking business, built for me.  The stove board gets tossed up in the attic with the fire gate once we are done burning wood for the season.

Also, on the outside of our gate, we keep a crock that contains some valuable items when working with our stove.  This crock holds newspapers and matches for starting new fires (matches can also be kept inside the fence for extra safety with little ones), fire starting bricks for those late night returns when we want fire quickly, a small dustpan and broom for sweeping up pieces of wood, Creo-Shot sticks for cleaning out creosote during the small fires of spring and fall,  and most importantly, fire gloves to not only safeguard when adding and moving logs, but to also make working with hot fires and coals more manageable.

Speaking of hot fires, one of the hardest things when first working with a wood stove is figuring out how to get the right burn within your stove.  This is something that we fumbled with for awhile.  If your fire burns too cool, you will get a creosote build up in your stove pipe, which can in turn lead to a chimney fire that could cause considerable damage to a home.  If you burn your stove too hot, you would avoid the creosote build up but could cause considerable damage to your stove.  Along with that, not burning your wood at the proper temperature means that you don't get the best efficiency out of the wood you have worked so hard to acquire.

In order to help with keeping our burn at the proper temperature, we now have a wonderful little magnetic stove thermometer that sits on the hottest part of our stove. The coil on the underside of the thermometer controls the needle which tells us if the fire is burning at a temperature that produces creosote, is in the best zone, or is too hot. By a quick glance at this thermometer, we can either add wood or dampen the stove accordingly.  This thermometer even has a wire handle, allowing us to move it without getting burnt.

Another item that we have on the top of our stove is a steam pot.  Actually, we now have 2 as I asked for a second one for my birthday.  I keep these steam pots full at all times to keep our air moist (unless I am trying to dry laundry inside and want less humidity in the house). When the burn is kept in the best zone, these pots produce a consistent steam to rehumidify the house. A wood stove does dry out the air quite a bit, and adding humidity back to the air is very important for your skin, as well as your wooden furniture. (As a cautionary note, these pots will spew out boiling water all over if you get your stove too hot. Don't ask me how I know! Although the photo doesn't show it, I usually keep the lid swung open to keep an eye out for water starting to boil, as well as monitoring water level.)

Although not with our stove, this little thermometer/hygrometer that I have attached to our refrigerator on the other side of the room is a great tool to have too. Since I am most comfortable when the house is at 76-80 degrees - while I am also wearing a fleece vest of jacket - I often look at this to make sure that I'm not heating the rest of my family members out of the house.  I can also tell if I've neglected to fill my steam pots by a drop in humidity.

Sitting around the front base of our stove are a few tools that get used quite a bit and have earned their stay under or right next to the stove.  The little tin watering can was purchased for a couple dollars on a trip to IKEA with a dear friend of mine.  It is used to keep the steam pots filled. 

The tool somewhat parallel with the front of the stove, with a shepherd's hook like handle, came with our tool stand and is used for moving logs around within the stove.  The pointed tip is helpful for pushing logs, and the hook is helpful for grabbing at and pulling logs. 

Laying diagonally across that tool is what is called a blow poke.  At one end it has a mouthpiece that you blow into.  The air is focused through the tool and out an opening in the end.  This is a wonderful way to get focused air movement inside the stove to bring coals or weak fires to life, without creating a spray of ashes.  At the end of this tool is a claw, also helpful for moving logs around. 

Behind the stove, near the wall but close at hand, is a tool stand. This stand holds tools that aren't used every day, along with our wood bag - keeping it away from a stray spark or coal that might unknowingly exit the stove.  Since we need to carry our firewood down the hall and round the corner, I sewed this wood bag our first winter on the farm to keep the wood mess to a minimum.  It holds a stove's worth of wood, and about the only wood dirt that is spilled is in front of the stove - which promptly gets swept up and thrown into the stove with our little hand held broom/dust pan. (You can find my rough pattern for this wood bag here, or you can find similar ones for purchase.)

Also hanging on this tool stand is a broom (which came with the set and is mainly decoration) and two tools used for sorting hot coals and emptying ashes.

The scoop on the left with the holes is used to separate coals from ashes when a fire burns out.  Very rarely do I need to use a match to get a new fire going. Buried within the ashes of a burnt out fire are usually enough coals to get a new fire to flame.  All I need to do is push the ash to one side of the stove, work from front to back scooping up ash, shaking or tapping the coal scoop on the inside side of the stove to sort out the coals, and then dump the coals on the opposite side of the stove.  This provides a nice pile of hot coals which quickly starts up new fires, especially with the help of our blow poke.

While I have a nice pile of ash on the inside of the stove, I also take the opportunity to empty the ash. The long handled scoop on the tool stand allows me to collect all of the ash from inside the stove, which in turn is dumped into our ash bucket.  The ash bucket did come with a handy scoop for more carefully getting out ash from the front half of the stove, but when there is still a nice pile of hot coals within, the long handled scoop - and the fire gloves - are much appreciated!

Although not stored by our stove, I do want to mention one last tool that we use at least once a year.  A chimney cleaning kit is very important for the safety of your house and your family if you don't hire someone to clean your stove pipe.  The cleaning brush (sized to match your stovepipe) is attached to as many rods as needed to work down to the bottom of the stove pipe.  Cleaning out a chimney needs to be done at the start of every season, making sure that nothing has plugged the chimney (birds nests, leaves, whatever.)  It should also be used anytime you think you might be getting creosote build up in your stove pipe - especially if you have been burning a lot of cooler temperature fires.  This is a job I actually enjoy doing since I am the one that doesn't mind heights.  It gives me an excuse to crawl on top of our house and enjoy a view of our farm not many people get to see.
So there you have it - what it takes to keep the fire burning in our house. 

Apart from needing to keep the woodpile stocked, which Ethan really doesn't mind when he can find the time, the only time that I dislike having a wood stove is when we leave in the winter for a couple days and come home needing to put the kids to bed. Thankfully, our house is well insulated and has large windows facing the sun so it doesn't get too awfully cold. The few days being gone, however, are far outweighed by the savings we get of not having to pay a heating bill, by the cozy warm-you-to-the-bones heat emitted by a wood fire, and even by the family time we have together when we all go out to cut wood.

As many say, a wood stove warms you twice: Once when you cut the wood, and once when you burn it.

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Tools of My Trade
You can check out more details about some of the items above from the following Amazon affiliate links.  Many of these items can also be found at your local farm or hardware store.

Monday, January 20, 2014

New Babies and A Breath of Fresh Air

Last week we had much new life show itself on our farm.

Much anticipated 2014 baby pigs were born, pigs which will be raised by our 9 year old to hopefully show at fair for 4-H this summer.

A wobbly legged bull calf awaited our discovery while being licked clean by it's mom after just being delivered.

A set of twin lambs appeared in our bedded lean-to, just a day after Ethan and I literally spent hours trying to convince our herd of ewes that the lean to was a cozy place for them to stay for awhile.

In the early afternoon, when our youngest ones lay down for a nap and our older ones work on independent activities, I try to accomplish tasks that I am not able to do with lots of little ones running around.

Almost always during the growing season this time is spent in the garden, with livestock, or doing other farm work. On a rainy day I might be inside catching up on canning produce that has been waiting for my attention.

The winter months, however, look a little different.  Although the pressure gauge on the canner might still be wobbling, filling emptied produce jars with meats, broths, and seasoned dried beans, I do spend quite a bit of extra time inside.

Some of this time is used for checking, planning, and preparing school lessons.  Some of it is for taking care of construction projects that have been patiently waiting around the house (yes, after 5 years in our house there are still some projects that need to be finished) or even working on the fix-up projects that come from the general wear and tear of living in a house.  There are also those projects that have been put off and put off during the seasons where work outdoors was calling my name: paper work, filing, deep cleaning, reorganizing, purging . . .

While I do still join Ethan outside many mornings and evenings throughout the week to help when he needs a helping hand, and I still do go out on my own some afternoons to take care of projects that might need a bit extra attention, it is nowhere near like the summer . . . until weeks like last week come around - when the baby animals start appearing. 

Part of the reason that I go out is to check on all of the little ones to make sure they are doing well, or even to see if more little ones have joined them. 

Although that is just an excuse, I think one of the bigger reasons is to just be outside by myself again.

Don't get me wrong, I love being outside with my family.  I love working on the farm with my husband. I love having our 4 kids tag along beside me - learning, enjoying, and playing.

But I also love being outside on my own.  It's a time to step away from the pressures, lists, and worries that too often confine me.  A time to remember the truths and promises given to me through God's Word as I soak in the wonders of the work of our Creator, weather it be freshly falling flakes of snow swirling in the crisp air (or the power of a surprise blizzard!), the stillness of a resting garden echoing the hand fulls of seeds hidden by tender young hands - seeds that produced a bounty to nourish us through these cold months, or the new born farm babies who are discovering their legs as well as the world around them.

Yes, when new babies join the farm my days are added to, but what is added is increasing fullness. A fulness of time, but also a fulness of heart as I take in the beauty and wonder of our Maker.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

A 3 Day Old Calf and a Blizzard

Earlier this week we had beautiful weather.  It was the perfect time for new babies on the farm: a calf, pigs, and lambs - all born within about 24 hours of each other. 

Unfortunately, this was also a week when a 2nd virus came through our house.  The first one hit just as we got back from Christmas parties, knocking everyone down but myself and our almost 3 year old Jonathan (who might have had a touch of it since he slept talked an entire night when the others were sick). This new virus first got a hold of our 5 year old (who is now better), and then Ethan and our 9 year old went down with coughs and high fevers. 

Yesterday afternoon I went outside to check on the new baby animals. and all was well and the day was beautiful. I came inside and took a short breather at the computer, only to hear that a blizzard was coming.  And just like that the snow started falling and the wind started howling to white out conditions. 

While supper was warming, I headed outside to check on the animals.  Ethan wasn't home from the office yet, and I knew that he would not want to be fighting through the blizzard with his temperature. Although the cattle were caked with snow, they seemed fairly content at the hay bales or behind wind breaks, and everyone else was warm and dry.

I fed the kids their supper, cleaned up while they played some games in the living room, and waited for bed time when I could sneak back out to check on the animals again, especially the 3 day old calf. 

Blizzards like this are hard on animals, especially the young ones.  A warm day which produces wet, heavy snow coats their hair.  As the temperature drops and the wind picks up, the snow turns to ice on their bodies, significantly changing the insulating properties of their hair. Imagine the difference of wearing a dry fluffy down coat vs. a fluffy down coat that has first been dipped in water and then frozen before you put it on. I think you can get the picture.

Once supper was done and the kids were tucked in, I crawled into my coveralls and coat, grabbed the spot light, and went in search of the calf.  Sure enough, he was covered in bits of ice.  It wasn't the worse ice coating we have had on our animals, but it was enough to make me want to dry off this young one. 

Thankfully I had purchased Ethan a lariat for Christmas and this calf was close to the fence.  I prefer not to go chasing and grabbing new born calves away from momma cows with horns.  Especially when I am out by myself. As you can see, I need to work on my lassoing skills a little, but I did get the poor, icy fella. (You can really see the ice worked into his coat by enlarging the picture.)

Much to the momma cow's dismay, I carried the calf inside, placed him in our bath tub, and went to work on him with a hair dryer and an old towel. 

After awhile, and after some wide eyes of a little one wandering from bed to use the restroom, the calf was fluffed so dry you could see the brown in his undercoat. By this time, the temps had dropped away from the heavy, wet snow so I felt comfortable taking him out. As you will notice in the background, momma cow was quite anxious to get him back as well.

After a few more checks on other animals, I worked my way back inside, worked out of my farmer attire and back into my mommy attire, just in time to come to the aid of my under the weather boy in the house.

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Tools of My Trade

We spent 5 years without a lariat. After much chasing, cornering, tackling, etc, I decided it was time for Ethan to receive one for Christmas.  Although we definitely aren't cowboys yet, we have been able to get hold of many animals with much less effort this first month of owning one. This is one of those items that should have been a must when we started working with livestock!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Steps into Heirloom Seed Saving

As I mentioned in my post about Rolling over the New Year in Canning, there were so many things that I wanted to learn how to do as we started our farming journey, and there are still so many things that I would love to learn how to do - some for functionality and some just to keep an excitement within the mundane.

When I first was challenged to try out new skills, I tried to learn as many things as I could at once. This became a bit overwhelming to me, especially since we had young kids to take care of too. Somewhere along the line, however, the phrase "Jack of all trades and master of none" started echoing in my mind. It was then that I decided that maybe I needed to just pick one skill, learn it well, and not add anything new until I felt somewhat proficient at the one I was working on.  So this is what I now do or try to do most of the time. Along with this, as confidence is built in one skill, it starts to snowball building confidence as I try out another.

Now that we are starting our 6th year on the farm, I am at the point where I feel comfortable with where our garden is at and with my gardening skills.  It has been a long journey to get here with the challenges of breaking sod on poor soil and trying to produce food instead of weeds. Especially when you add in young kids, pregnancy, babies, and  . . . oh . . . that starting up a working farm and building a house on a bare piece of land thing too.

Not only was getting the garden established a major undertaking, but so was learning how to grow the variety of crops that I wanted to grow.  Apart from the couple of years where I experimented with plants while trying to establish a garden in town, I only had really had a little bit of gardening experience growing peas, beans, and tomatoes from planting in our forgotten garden during high school. (And I might have been more interested in getting a nice tan at that time than I was in really learning how to grow those vegetables well.)

So now that I have had my share of growing more weeds then veggies just after we broke the sod of the new garden, complete crop failures of new vegetables tried, and even farm animals mowing through the garden before our fencing was up, I now feel like I have reached the point of an established garden and have become a somewhat established gardener.

With that accomplishment has come my desire to take the next step in my gardening journey . . . Seed Saving and Heirloom Seeds.

Over the last few years of farming, we have kept back animals that thrive on our farm, and we have noticed that the animals that are born on our farm do better than those who aren't.

The same is said to be true of seeds.  Plants that resist disease and insects in a particular atmosphere (climate, soil quality, microbes present, etc.) will produce seeds for plants that do just as well in that same environment.  Seed saving gardeners have benefited greatly in their gardens through years of saving seeds from plants that thrive in their gardens, in addition to the benefits of not having to purchase seeds year after year.

Although there are many newer varieties of open pollinated seeds to choose from (seeds that will come back true to their parent plant, unlike genetically modified seeds or even hybrids that are cross pollinated), I have decided that I would like to try to grow heirloom seeds for my seed saving attempts.  Some of this is because it just fits with our farm as we raise heritage breed animals, and some of it is because I am appreciating the farming heritage of my grandparents and beyond more and more which leads to the appreciation of others who have persevered through years of farming.

Last year I started my heirloom seed saving endeavor by just learning about heirloom seeds - what heirloom even means and what some of those seeds are.  I requested a catalog from Seed Savers Exchange, an organization located in Decorah, Iowa - which is in my state and where I hope to visit soon!  I also scoured through various other seed catalogs, as well as through the internet, to come up with a rough list of heirloom seeds that I wanted to try in my garden. My list, shown in this post, has just has a fraction of the heirloom seeds available. It is almost mind boggling to even choose which ones to try! (You can click on my list to see it enlarged, but remember it is a first year thrown together list so you might want to double check things!)

Surprisingly, after I put together my list, I was able to find many of these varieties from the seed racks of various stores around me: Walmart, Fareway, Menards, and two nearby farm stores. Many of the seeds that I planted last year were heirloom varieties, and I was quite happy with how they grew and tasted.

Researching the varieties was about all that I could fit into my days so I didn't get around to saving any of my seeds last year.  I did, however, add the book Seed to Seed to my Christmas/birthday list at the end of the gardening season to help me learn the ins and outs of seed saving: avoiding cross pollination, properly saving and storing seeds, etc.  I was a bit disappointed I didn't receive it for Christmas, but my sweet husband ordered it for me for my birthday (last week) when he realized it was something I was really hoping to get.

As I begin to search for and order my heirloom seeds now, I will also be doing some reading so that in the future most of my gathering of seeds will be from my garden.

I would love to hear any thoughts or advice from those of you who have tried seed saving or who have favorite heirloom varieties. I am still a bit mind boggled with this new challenge, as I usually am when I step into a new area of learning, but I remind myself to take little steps, enjoy the journey, and as always - invest in the next generation by inviting them to come along beside me.

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Tools of My Trade
This book is a wonderful resource on companion planting in order to grow foods without the use of chemicals. It details good and bad companions, how various plants work together for increased flavor, productivity, and pest control.  It includes information not only for the vegetable garden, but also for companion planting with fruits, nut trees, ornamental plants, and much more. Copies of this book can be found used or you can purchase a new copy from the link provided.

This book is a wonderful resource on the technical aspects of seed saving.  It shares about the heritage and classifications of different garden seeds (heirlooms, hybrids, etc) and how the different types of seeds react to seed saving.  It shares about how to effectively maintain pure varieties of seeds with respect to how the plant pollinates and through different seed saving techniques.  Seed clean and storage techniques are also described.  A large portion of the book is given to explaining each type of vegetable family, the classifications of families to avoid cross pollination, and how each vegetable family responds to seed saving and storing.  If you are interested in saving and keeping your own pure strains of seeds, this is a must have book!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Rolling over the New Year in Canning

Just before Thanksgiving, I canned the last of my ripened frost tomatoes from my garden.  I still have a small box of tomatoes that are slowly changing to red, but they won't be enough to can.

After canning these tomatoes, it was time to give my canner a little break.  My extra time was spent decorating our house to celebrate Christmas, as well as doing some baking and candy making with the kids.
Our cookie baking project was quite rewarding for me this year as I watched our 9, 8, 5, and 2 year old mix up the cookies by themselves, a first for them. I was blessed to see the kids work together to read a recipe, gather and measure the ingredients, and figure out ways that all 4 of them could take part in the preparation of the cookies, all while enjoying each other.

Trust me, not all days and moments are played out this well, but I treasure the ones that are!

Our kids spent a whole afternoon mixing dough and stashing it away in the fridge to be pulled out over the next few days, ready to be baked into holiday cookies and decorated.  We then added the candies we had made, put our cookie plates together, and delivered these plates to our neighbors, accompanied by a handmade card from the kids and our contact information to be referred to if an emergency arises or a cup of sugar is needed.

Now that the Christmas season has given way to the New Year, it is time to start my canner back up.  This is the time of year that I can my broths, seasoned beans, and meats: shanks, hocks, and stew birds.  I will also sort through the produce in the storm shelter/cellar as I am able, dehydrating apples, canning apple sauce, and canning any squash or root vegetables that I feel the need to can.

With the New Year, I will also restart my canning count and look over my count from 2013. From the notes I made back at Thanksgiving, after I canned up my last frost tomatoes, I was at 522 quarts worth of canned, frozen, or dehydrated products this year - 445 of which were Crooked Gap Farm products, the other 77 of which were from local fruit trees, gardens, and fields.

This, by far, is the most I have ever canned.

In 2012, the combination of Ethan's achilles tendon tear and the record setting drought that stretched our finances and my sanity (trying to keep up with the chores on my own as well as the garden, house work, and care of our children) made me realize how important and valuable the preserved food I had on hand was.  Not only was it food that didn't have to be purchased from the store, but it was food that helped make a quick meal in a year where I referred to meals more as survival fuel than as a meal.

This kicked in gear an extra drive to put as much away as I could from our garden in 2013.  Last year was also the first year our garden was completely established since we first plowed it up, moved pigs through, and fenced the livestock out, which all contributed to preserving more than I ever have. 

The 2013 bounty from our farm now fills our pantry, cellar and overflowes into our hallway, where boxes and tubs of CGF produce await a new storage area to be constructed in our mud room.

This fall I was looking through my notebook of canning records, and I also came across an old post of what I had canned in 2007, while we were still in town. As I read this post, I kind of chuckled at myself and how proud I was of comparably few jars I canned that year. 

But then I stopped and reflected. 

I was proud.  And I had every right to be proud.

Really, those jars were a bigger accomplishment that year than the canning I did this year.  You see, for 3 years I had kept a pressure canner hidden away in my house, scared to death that I would blow the thing up, or even myself, if I tried to use it. 

But I wanted to learn, and so I gathered up some bravery, did quite a bit of research, and gave the thing a try. 

That's kind of how this whole homesteading/farming journey has been for me. Ethan and I have farmers in family tree and both visited family farms while growing up, but neither of us had much training in the arts and skills of farming and keeping a homestead.  Even before we felt called to farm, I remember how overwhelmed I was with all of the skills I wanted to learn and do, and I still am overwhelmed with what I would still like to accomplish.

With the recollection of my canning journey, I am reminded that some of the biggest accomplishments are those first steps, and although some of these first steps might come with some tumbles, they all are steps in the journey as I learn and grow.  One of the biggest dangers to not taking those first steps, or even the next steps ahead, is trading the readiness to learn and grow into the fear of failing.

So I want to encourage you.  Are there any skills you would like to learn? If you are like me, there are many!  Pick just one.  Do a little research, and take the next step.  Don't be afraid if it doesn't turn out like you had planned. Learn from your experience. Then try again.

And while you are at it, bring someone along with you on your journey.

A child, a friend, a neighbor.

Learn together. Share together. Enjoy together.

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Tools of My Trade

Much of what I preserve is pressure canned due to their low acidity in order to kill all bacteria that would cause dangerous foodborne illnesses. They can be safely canned by using the recommended times and pressures given for your altitude. I have a couple older Mirro pressure canners given to me that work wonderfully, and my mom has a newer one that she loves as well. If you do some asking around, you might find someone who has given up canning and has one available, or you can look for one like the one pictured below. It should hold around 9 pint jars or 7 quart jars.

This book is a wonderful book for beginning pressure canning.  It includes the science behind safe canning, tools needed for canning, the method of canning, and is filled with tons of recipes that will help you can anything from produce from your garden to meats and broths.  I still enjoy flipping through my book to find new recipes to try!
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