Sunday, October 19, 2008

Heating season

The first hard frost arrived very late, October 18, and finally killed off our peppers, which had surprised us by surviving several light freezes. Now it's time, finally, to put the garden to bed.

Not before we strip the peppers and dry bean plants. We will need their heat later, when the snow is three feet deep and we worry it will never leave. When it's 15 below, and you just came in from shoveling snow, feeding critters, or trying to start the tractor for a little light snow removal (a little?), then any peppery food feels really good. I don't understand why traditional New England bean recipes, otherwise such warming and bio-regional fodder, generally do not include this other source of internal heat.

My guess is, they did, but the recipes were later cooled down to accommodate more mid-western tastes. My guess is, the real New Englanders of yesteryear knew the value of a little capiscum. They must have. All that foreign trade. Are you telling me old Israel Thorndike, founder of the Great Farm, never brought a little hot stuff back from his eastern voyages? If so, the man was less of a firebrand that has previously been reported.

I generally make tomato concoctions out of the peppers, frozen or canned enchilada sauce or salsa. They go further that way. My father-in-law's patent hot-pepper jelly is also a perennial favorite. A little of that goes a long way on a chip or on scrambled eggs. It especially goes a long way to clearing out your terminally swollen sinuses, which in our case, and like all college professors' nasal passages, somehow are required to survive an annual onslaught of exotic common cold and flu viruses brought just for us by our students as they collectively visit every state in the Union each Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break.

That Florida spring break thing should be baned for public health purposes. No just for infections of the respiratory tract, but of other bodily tracts too.

The students could assist us by reducing the efficacy of their microbiological collecting expeditions. If they'd only learn to wash their hands. (And stop screwing strangers.) But pepper is the antidote. (For one out of two ailment categories.) And the humble bean the best inert ingredient for the medicine.

Our other great climate-changing device and source of winter comfort is the woodstove. Ours is puttering contentedly in the kitchen with one pot of beans and another of oatmeal on the top. Woodstoves, actually, plural, if you count the industrial strength hot-air wood-burning device that sulks in the corner of my shop as such. It's actually more in the way of a blast furnace.

You can use it to bend iron, and I have.

Both of these devices survived their own onslaught this year, this one by the insurance company. Ours threatened to cut off our coverage unless we had both devices examined by a "licensed, insured, professional." All insurance companies, sensing loss due to increased use of wood stoves, are on a similar fire-safety campaign in Maine right now. Slight problem is, there is no such thing as a licensed wood stove contractor in the State o' Maine. The state does not issue licenses for wood stove or chimney contractors. And few contractors carry the kind of insurance that would actually give the insurance companies any liability help in the case of a real house fire. Presumably the companies would resort to suing individual tradesmen. The local firemen have stepped in and are doing the rounds making inspections in a fairly ad-hoc way, considering they aren't really trained to do so. This is public spirited of them, but will only will last as long as it takes for the first fire department to be sued by the first insurance company.

The upshot is, many low-income Mainers are forced to choose between cheaper heat, or expensive insurance, or no insurance at all.

One silver lining in this whole credit debacle is that insurance outfits are losing money too. That might force them to reduce their efforts in this regard. This would have the effect of causing more house fires, of course, but there these additional fires would all be in insured houses. And Mainers would be warmer if not safer.

There are always trade-offs. For the loss of some insurance company profit, for slightly riskier houses and some additional deaths and injuries at the margin, thousands more Mainers could afford to be warmer and better off financially this winter. I don't say it would be worth it. But I object forcefully to the profit-motivations of insurance companies in this crack-down.

We solved the problem in an unusual way, for us. We got help. And we spent money. We argued over what to do a little, but in the end Aimee did what she usually does with money matters, and left it up to me. I used home equity credit, of which we had accumulated a bit to spare, to do two expensive projects this summer. One was to pay for new, professionally installed, very high quality chimneys throughout the house. The other was to pay for the materials and the time of a good friend who helped me put in a new septic system. I then off-set the new chimney costs a little, about 40-50%, by making all my own firewood for the first time in years. I was able to do this because I had no summer work at college this year, or very little, and no really serious building projects at home.

(Just the porch rebuild, a whole septic, a replacement sill, and the completion of our foundation repair, that's all. Not too much.)

The upshot was, we have really safe woodstoves, much safer than before. A tiny roof leak that was annoying in wet weather, and that I had been unable to trace with repeated efforts, also got fixed. But when Aimee's little car failed inspection, and I had to think about how I might replace it, there was no money left to use. So in a way, we're less safe because we were forced to fix our chimneys before we naturally would have done so, and for more money, that in the end prevented us from replacing a car. The new car would have had front and side air-bags, better brakes and better steering. Luckily the old one passed on the second try, and gave us a year to plan how to get the Honda Fit of Aimee's dreams.

(I'd rather have an old diesel Land Rover, but I don't have a vote in this decision.)

There are always trade-offs. And I feel I'm in a better position to decide safety priorities in my own life and home than insurance companies are. I make us as safe as I possibly can, given that money is always tight. I take great pride in it. Frankly, we're more likely to die of a bug from one of our students than from a house fire, especially given my obsession with smoke alarms.

And I'm still mad about the way the insurance company treated us.

In particular, the way the regulation was enforced was shabby and two-faced, with the local broker advising us to do more or less a cover-up job of declaring we had removed the woodstoves, deceiving the head office about it, mostly just to keep our business. While the head office staff were rude and uncooperative and couldn't even properly explain their own policy.

And I will get even. We have a different company, the one that insures the Bale House. If it hadn't been for a recommendation from the lady at the credit union that gave us the mortgage, we might have stuck with this old firm, who have solved several difficult problems for us in the past, and done so inexpensively. We will switch in April, now that we aren't going to lose coverage and so remain eligible to do so. I'm not naive enough to presume that the new company will be any better than the old. But I do feel that the new broker is more intelligent, professional and honest, and will do better for us in the end as a result.

In the meantime, my woodstove makes me very happy, as it has always done. Here's a picture of it in the old installation, with the offending chimney, no removed. We are a little glad to get rid of all that masonry.

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Welcome to our Farm Blog.
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