Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Have you ever sat down and asked yourself “what’s my unfair advantage?”

If you haven’t, stop reading this and think about it. It is potentially life changing. Realizing what your unfair advantage is can set you on a course to success, but being blind to your advantage might leave you wrestling with unnecessary frustrations or struggles. The beauty of Unfair Advantages is that everyone has one. It might be hiding within your personal talents and gifts. Perhaps you are a salesman with the natural “gift of the gab”. Maybe your advantage has something to do with the land that you are homesteading/farming. Do you have especially fertile fields that will grow more grass (or a variety of grasses) than someone else? Are there creeks or maybe rivers that feed onto your land? Are you close in proximity to a population dense area that could potentially host a mass of customers? Maybe your advantage hides within a skill set that belongs to one of your employees, or one of your children, or one of your friends. Someone that you could recruit to help you out while YOU focus on your strengths. Now you enable them to hone their gifts and further your efforts along the way. That’s a win-win situation, my friend.

Working at Polyface has opened my eyes to the many Unfair Advantages that Polyface benefits from. Joel was quick to recognize the advantages that his farm possessed, and we should all take that same action and swiftness to strive and do the same. I mean really, once you have the know-how and understand the implications of a gravity fed system, harnessing that potential and having it work to your advantage is huge. Polyface has many ponds, all stair stepped up the mountain, which gives the water system on the farm 75PSI…exclusively from gravity. If Polyface was located somewhere that was flat as a pancake, than we start talking pumps and power drops and so on. Buuuuuut if it's flat we don’t need a lot of power or pressure to move water.

You see what I’m getting at? Its perspective and knowledge and how we apply each to our own lives.

One of Polyface advantages is the standing timber that grows on the farm. Through hard work and management, standing timber becomes rough cut lumber via the on farm sawmill. Talk about freedom! Not having to be leashed to Home Depot or Lowes or a local lumber yard. Need a 2x4? Use the tractor to grab a log off of the pile, pop it on the mill and ten minutes later you have your 2x4. Need to build a shop? A pole barn? A sugar shack for your winter maple sugar making? Spend a week cutting logs, transporting them to the mill, cutting them to the needed dimensions, and there ya go. It is lots of work, but I have seen Polyface save thousand upon thousands of dollars by milling lumber instead of purchasing it.


So do you have standing timber waiting to be milled, but don’t have a tractor? Maybe pay someone to come in, do some clearing, mill it up, and now you have lumber for potentially a fraction of the cost that you would have paid elsewhere. On top of that, you have also opened up additional pasture area or a spot for that pig pasture that you have been wanting. Or maybe build a guest cabin in that new clearing with your new lumber and charge people to come stay in it while they check out your farm. Sure there are lots of ins and outs to it that I’m not even hitting on, but are you getting it? Are you following what I’m saying? As my brother says, “you smelling what I’m stepping in?”


I ask you to do some self-searching. Figure out what you have, I don’t care if you are farming, mowing lawns, homesteading, canning, baking, or working aquaponics. You have an Unfair Advantage and I encourage you to take that and run with it.

You can do it. Life isn’t fair. We don’t all have the same thing. We don’t all have the speaking prowess of Joel Salatin or the gravity fed potential and standing timber of Polyface….but that’s the best part. You have something all your own. And that’s what makes life so interesting.

Cheers to Unfair Advantages.

Interested in seeing more of what Tim does? Follow along through the lens of his camera on Instagram, username MyPolyfacePerspective.

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Mother Ann Lee and eight of her followers established the Shaker Church in America in 1774. Over the years, more than thirty Shaker communities that focused on an agrarian and self-sufficient lifestyle were established in the United States. The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine, is the only active Shaker community that exists in the world today. It is a peaceful community which has lived in harmony with the land since it was founded in 1783.*

Situated on 1800 acres of land, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village remains a working farm. It is home to an apple orchard, tree farm, vegetable gardens, a commercial herb garden, hay fields, and pastures. Some of the traditional Shaker pastimes are still carried out at the Village, such as basket making, weaving, printing, and various handcrafts. At the present time, a flock of sheep, four Scottish Highland cattle, pigs, and several cats are being raised by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers.

Traditional Shaker Farming Practices Live On

Long ago the Shakers developed a reputation for their efficient and productive farming practices. They were founded as a peace-loving community based on common religious beliefs. Surprising to some is the fact that they were progressive in many ways with their assertion of the equality of the sexes, their communal lifestyle, their openness in welcoming those in need, and their embracing of inventions and technology.

The Sabbathday Lake Shakers cared for a dairy herd, sheep, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and draft horses when their thriving community was home to approximately two hundred individuals in the 1800’s. A gristmill, sawmill, several barns, spinhouse, herb house and a hothouse, where seedlings and flowers were raised, were all located on the property. Extensive gardens and an orchard abundant with a variety of apples graced the landscape. The Community was recognized for its knowledge of medicinal and culinary herbs and its collection of seeds. Plum, peach, and cherry trees were grown, as well as asparagus and strawberries.

Draft horses were utilized on the Shaker farm through the 1950’s. According to Leonard Brooks, the former Director of the Shaker Library, the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake are credited with advancing the efficiency of the horse-drawn Maine mower and also in improving the design of a heavy-duty collar for the draft horses.The Shakers that lived in the various rural communities in our country have always been innovative in regard to farm developments. They have been credited with improving the air-tight heating stove, spring clothes pins, an apple peeler, the butter churn, the flat broom, washing machine, circular saw blade, and metal-nibbed pens.

Keeping up with all the farm chores translated into busy days for the Shakers. The Brethren, the hired men, and the Shakers’ adopted boys worked in the fields and mills.Various crops such as potatoes, corn, grains, and squash were planted, weeded, and harvested. Apples, pears, grapes, and small fruits were grown. Wood needed to be harvested and milled. Farm tools and equipment required maintenance and the eighteen buildings needed upkeep. From the beginning of their history, men were hired to help with the logging and the sawmill and the field work.

The Sisters at Sabbathday Lake focused on spinning, weaving, cooking, cleaning, washing, canning, and baking. They helped with the apple production and harvested herbs. Some of the fancy goods that they made included poplarware boxes, oval sewing carriers, cloaks, dusters, and fans made from turkey feathers.

Food Production and Livestock on a Shaker Farm

When the village was heavily populated, a variety of farm animals provided food for various markets and for the Shaker Community. Tending to the livestock was time consuming. Cows needed to be milked twice a day. Eggs needed to be collected. The cattle, pigs, horses, turkeys, chickens, and sheep needed to be fed. A flock of sheep still can be viewed on the grounds of the Shaker Village in New Gloucester. Brother Arnold Hadd, one of the three remaining Shakers, explained that many of the sheep that they presently care for were dropped off at the farm over the years because the animals were in need of a home.

Back in the 1780‘s, sheep grazed in the same Shaker pastures that they do today in New Gloucester. Each spring, the sheep were sheared and their raw fleeces were brought to the Spin House where twigs and grass were removed from the wool in a process called “skirting.” The wool was then sorted according to its quality, length, or color, before it was washed.


Apples have always figured predominantly in the Shaker Community. Fresh apples were in demand for the market and the Shakers processed the apples to make and sell applesauce and cider. Apple bees were held in the evenings at which apples were cut and dried for winter storage. The apple orchard is still flourishing at Sabbathday Lake. An arrangement has been made with the Maine Apple Company to maintain the orchard. The Shakers still sell Cortland, Macintosh, and Honey Crisp apples during the fall. There is free cider pressing with a hand press. Visitors can bring their own apples to be pressed or they can buy Shaker apples at the Shaker Store.

While the Shakers used to harvest wood from the 1800-acre property, woodlot management is now in the hands of a forester. Growing herbs at Sabbathday Lake has long been a tradition and the Shakers have received national recognition for the herbs that they grow and the workshops that they conduct such as Herb Garden Design for the Everyday Cook; Shaker Verse and Pressed Botanical Design; Lavender in the Kitchen; and Heirloom Herbal Wreath and Ornaments. A Sabbathday Lake Herb Garden Internship program is available for those interested in learning more about herb gardening, herb lore, and creative herb uses.

Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village Tours and Products

Individuals interested in purchasing some of the Shakers’ herbal products should check out their extensive online catalog on their website. The Sabbathday Lake Shakers sell specialty spice mixes such as mulled cider mix, apple pie spice, and pumpkin pie spice. The Shakers also carry thirty-seven varieties of culinary herbs and herbal blends in addition to an assortment of seventeen simple herbal teas and herbal tea blends. Shaker Rose Water, Shaker Mint Water, and Shaker Peach Water are three of their unique herbal products that are often used in cooking as a vanilla substitute. Their Shaker herbal teas include a choice of catnip, chamomile, herbal blend, horehound, lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, mint blend, minty balm, rose hips, peppermint, and spearmint. They also offer an 1858 recipe of Eldress Hester Ann Adams' potpourri that can be used as a room or drawer freshener. Their balsam fir pillows have proven to be a popular item.

Nature hikes are offered on the Shaker grounds by trained naturalists. On these hikes, visitors can enjoy exploring the Shaker fields and forests. Some of the other special events offered at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village each year include the Maine Festival of American Music, Maine State Open Farm Day, the Maine Native American Summer Market and Demonstration; the Harvest Festival; and the Shaker Christmas Fair.

Besides being located in an idyllic setting, the farm that is operated by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers provides some very special aspects. For visitors who schedule a tour or attend one of the workshops there is a wealth of knowledge that can be acquired. Various exhibits provide interesting stories and photos. History buffs will relish in viewing various artifacts in the Shaker Museum and research opportunities afforded by the Shaker Library. Music lovers are treated to special classes and concerts. The gift shop abounds with a selection of unique and one-of-a-kind items.

For those interested in experiencing a view of the spiritual essence of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community, Sunday Meetings at 10 a.m. are open to the public and visitors are welcome to participate in song or testimony, however the Spirit moves them. According to Brother Arnold Hadd, "The Shakers’ founder Mother Ann said that 'A strange gift never came from God,' and visitors are urged to not feel strange or a stranger."


Become a Friend of the Shakers

The Friends of the Shakers, a membership-based support organization of more than 450 households nationwide, offers ongoing opportunities to become involved in helping out. Their efforts have aided in protecting the Shaker land from development. Members of their group help with historic renovations; raise funds for preservation and educational development; conduct work days in the spring and fall; and foster general interest in the Shakers and Shakerism.

Farm enthusiasts should be sure to include a visit to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village on their farm touring agenda. Farming is still alive and well at this last active Shaker Community. It is a place that is permeated by a sense of history and serenity. In a world often full of distractions and haste, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village offers some strikingly beautiful surroundings that invite visitors to slow down and enjoy a sense of quiet, reflection, and respect.

* A special thank you is extended to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village Museum Director, Michael Graham, for verifying all the information presented in this story.

Caption: Sister Frances Carr, one of the last remaining Shakers, is shown enjoying the slideshow that took place at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village at the recent Open Farm Day.

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As the beekeeping season comes to a close and my hives need less of my time, I’m confronted with the jars and bags and racks and bowls of beeswax all over my house patiently awaiting my attention. There are a million methods for all things beekeeping out there but I’d like to share this very simple method of rendering beeswax that will take you from sticky mess to wonderfully fragrant disks of clean beeswax ready for your crafts and beauty products while costing very little of your time and precious energy. And best of all, there’s no waste and your bees will actually benefit from it!

Equipment You Will Need

1. Some type of plastic or metal grate that will fit inside of an empty super. It should have spaces big enough for a bee to crawl through but not big enough for chunks of wax to fall through.

2. A cheap double boiler (I found two pots for $2.00 at the thrift store that worked perfectly)

3. A small plastic, metal or glass container (that you don’t need for anything else) to pour the melted wax into

4. A cheesecloth and rubber band

Note: All of this equipment should be things you don’t care about or use for anything else as beeswax is pretty much impossible to clean off. You’re going to want this equipment to be used exclusively for wax processing (hence the thrift store recommendation).


Part One

1. Grab all of your wax capping and other still sticky wax, your grate and your empty super, take them outside to your beehive (I like to suit up for this) and remove the outer cover on your hive.

2. Make sure that your inner cover is the kind that has a hole in the top. Place empty super on top of inner cover and then place the grate on top of inner cover inside the empty super. Now spread your sticky wax out on top of the grate. Place your outer cover back on top to close up and if you have a bee escape hole in your inner cover it’s probably a good idea to plug it up with grass cork or something else to discourage robbers.

If you don’t have an inner cover with a hole in it, you can simply remove it as well and set the grate and super directly on top of the frames and then place your inner cover on top of the empty super followed by your outer cover.

Congratulations, you’re half way done. When you come back in a day or two, you will find that the bees have completely cleaned every scrap of honey off of the wax and left you with a beeswax sculpture that’s pretty amazing. The absolute best part though is that the bees have saved you a lot of time cleaning all of that honey and instead of it going down the drain, they get to add it back to their winter stores.


Part Two

1. In a double boiler on low heat add first about an inch of water and then start adding your wax. As the wax melts down you will be able to add more. You might be able to get it all in there or you may have to do more than one batch. You don’t want it more than 3/4 full of hot wax. DO NOT WALK AWAY! Wax is extremely flammable and it also makes a very difficult mess to clean if it boils over.

2. When the wax is completely melted you will see that there is still quite a bit of debris that you want to get rid of so just remove it from the heat and let it cool a bit but not to the point that it starts to solidify again.

3. Fold your cheesecloth a couple of times so that it's about 4 layers thick and place it over the top of whatever container you’re going to let the wax solidify in. You can even use one of those round, plastic yogurt containers. Secure the cheesecloth with a rubber band making sure it’s sagging just a bit in the middle.

4. Pour your slightly cooled wax through the cheesecloth into the container, water and all and leave it until the wax is solid and cool.


5. Use a butter knife or something similar to get your wax disk or block out of its container leaving the water behind. When it’s completely dry, store in an airtight container or plastic bag.

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We knew the morning of April 12th that Kahlua was going to give us kids by the end of the day. Her ligaments were gone, her udder was filling and she was getting restless. She showed all the typical signs of imminent labor. We kept an eye on her throughout the morning while we did our usual spring chores - prepping and planting garden beds, harvesting artichokes, feeding animals.

By noon I decided to sit with her and soon noticed she had started having contractions. They weren't close together so I knew I had a little bit of time. I called my friend, Brande, who has been present for all of our kiddings (it's always great having another set of hands to help catch and clean kids), and Tom down to sit with me.

And then we waited. And waited some more. Her labor had stalled out. We were all getting restless. 8pm passed. 10pm passed. We were starting to get concerned. In the meantime I was texting goat breeder friends. Lynda at Foggy River Farm said that sometimes the stalled labor is due to a malpresented kid. Fantastic.

At 11pm Tom laid down on the ground to take a nap. Not 30 seconds after covering his eyes with his hat Kahlua siddled up to him, laid down and started pushing. Well if that's all we had to do we could have gotten this over a long time ago...

At first things seemed to be working until I saw a nose. Just a nose. Well that's a slight problem. Yep, Lynda called it. A normal presentation is a kid in the dive position. Both legs out front with the head following. There were no legs. Just a head and Kahlua was pushing as hard as she could.

Progress seemed to be going very slow and there was no room to get a hand in. The best thing I could do was get the kid's airway cleared so it could breathe in case the umbilical cord got pinched off and try to get that kid out carefully and quickly. I was finally able to get my hand in far enough to grab the kid and add some traction while Kahlua pushed. The next kid shot out with little problem. While being a pound larger the second kid was in the normal position and came out very easily.


Both kids are healthy and growing like weeds now. But that wasn't the end, unfortunately. Kahlua started to go off feed. We were able to get her to eat using Fortified B injections, which can act as an appetite stimulant but by Wednesday she was yawning a lot which can signal pain. She didn't have a fever yet so we held off on giving her antibiotics and just gave her some banamine. By Thursday, however, it was clear something was going on. She was grinding her teeth and now had a fever of 104.7 (normal is 102-103.5). A quick call to UC Davis and the vet was pretty sure we were dealing with metritis (uterine infection). The first antibiotic they recommended didn't seem to be knocking back the metritis like it should have so another call the UC Davis and they had us switch. 7 days of treatment and she was back to her normal self.

We had just over 3 weeks before we were to expect the next two does to kid. We were only hoping that they would go smoothly. Unfortunately we were very wrong.

Tuesday morning, May 5th, it was clear Maggie was going into labor. She was unusually loud and obnoxious so I put her in the kidding stall and called Brande. Her labor seemed to be progressing a lot faster than Kahlua's labor, but I noticed something concerning. Her discharge was an abnormal color - rusty brown and opaque. Not a good sign, but nothing I could do about it while waiting.

After just a few hours Maggie started pushing. The first kid came out quickly with little problem. The second kid shot out like a bullet in the dreaded breech-butt first position. This was exactly how Maggie was born. Made me glad she got her mom's wide rump and that the kids were pretty small. Unfortunately, my fears were realized when the back feet of a dead kid emerged. Fortunately it came out easily but being the only doeling in the bunch made it even worse.

Because she had two bucklings we decided to just leave them with her for the time being. We were going to get them used to the bottle for when we took Maggie to shows or had milk test. Unfortunately, we soon noticed that Maggie had a fishtail teat (looks like two teats fused together and has two working orifices), which is a disqualifying trait. I put her up for sale as a pet-only and within only a couple of hours she was reserved by the lady who bought her herdmate/paternal half sister, Trouble (now named Ranger).

Just one kidding left and they say that 90percent of all kiddings go perfectly fine. The odds were in our favor. Except when they aren't.

Friday, May 8th, Rainicorn went into labor. Like Kahlua's it seemed to take her sweet time. Not a particularly good sign but contractions were strong. When she finally laid down around 4pm to start pushing nothing seemed to be happening. The bubble showed up and ended up drenching me in birthing fluid but nothing was in it. There was a problem. Another problem. I gloved up, and lubed up and went in. There was the issue. 4 hooves and a head. There were two kids and they seemed pretty large, trying to come out at once. Fortunately there were three of us and we got to work. After a quick call to Sarah, at Castle Rock, we had Tom pick her back end up and pushed the rear legs of one of the kids back in as far as we could. After 20 min we realized we were going to have to take her to the vet. The one kid trying to come out correctly was too large.

The question was, which vet do we go to? UC Davis or Cotati Large Animal Hospital? We were half way between the two but being that it was Friday afternoon we decided to go to Cotati due to Highway 80 being gridlocked with everyone trying to get out of town.

An hour drive got us there to find 2 vets and 2 vet techs waiting for us. They also attempted to get the kids out vaginally but found it impossible so the only next option was an emergency C-section. Anesthesia is not without its risks in general, but that goes doubly so for goats. They aren't known for handling it very well. It was incredibly nerve-wracking watching the surgery and just hoping everything would turn out fine.


The doctor ended up pulling out a single, very large buckling. The breeder's worst nightmare is a first freshener with a single buckling. There weren't two kids like we had thought. He was simply trying to come out with all four feet and his head. Things weren't looking so great for him when he was laid down in the towel lined rubber bin. He wasn't breathing at all but the second vet worked and worked on him. She didn't give up and it's what saved him. By the time Rainicorn woke up he was trying to stand and had a very good suck reflex. I definitely attribute her smooth and speedy recovery on having him with her.

Our kidding season is finally over after getting progressively worse - I'm just happy everyone is fine.

Rachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

This post originally appeared on Homegrown.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Small hive beetles (Aethina tumida Murray) are small black beetles that seek out honey and beehives. Once inside a hive, they nestle in small cracks, edges and corners. You may see them scurry under frame spacer or where two boards join. Some beekeepers have noted something of a propolis cage to keep the beetles in one area.  A healthy colony will sequester a small population of beetles and keep them in check. They will often post guard bees near the beetle's hideout to keep them contained. However, if the population gets out of control, for example in a weak hive, the beetles can take over contributing to a die out of that colony.

When the small hive beetles gain strength, they will leave the crevices and move into the comb. The larvae will feed on honey and the honeybee pupa. A yeast that is carried by the small hive beetle will cause honey to ferment and create a slime in the honeycomb. This obviously ruins the honey. Therefore the beekeeper should be mindful of the small hive beetle population and take steps to reduce or eliminate beetles in the hives. 

Even though a strong colony will sequester the beetles, it is a good thing for the beekeeper to help the colony out whenever possible. Below are a few ways to help keep the small hive beetle in check.


Beetle Traps

There are several styles of traps, all of which use an odorless oil, like vegetable oil to drown the beetles. An attractant can also be added, e.g. cider vinegar to lure the beetles to the trap.

Disposable traps are small and sit between the frames.

Reusable traps are placed along the outside edge and when filled with beetles, taken out, dumped and refilled with oil. When removing these care must be taken to ensure that no oil is spilled in the hive and on the bees.

A trap is also available to use on the bottom board. A spacer is placed on the bottom board, then the tray that is filled with oil. The tray is topped with a screen that allows the beetles to fall through into the oil, but prevents the bees from getting into the oil. This trap will need to be checked and emptied every week or so until the infestation has diminished. This style of trap is also most effective in the late spring to fall when beetles are most active.

Control Varroa Mites

Our state bee inspector advised using Mite Away Quick strips for treating Varroa mites will help suppress the hive beetles as well. In an earlier post (Treating Varroa Mites) I suggested using powdered sugar as a treatment for Varroa mites. While this may be effective for mites, it will not have the same effect in diminishing the hive beetles. The active ingredient is formic acid. It is approved for use in organic hives and during the honey flow, although to smell it and read the warnings, you would not suspect it. This treatment feels right to me given the organic nature and the overall effectiveness.


Any time you are in the hive and see a beetle, be sure to smash it with your hive tool. It is a small effort but each time is one less beetle in the hive.

It is curious how small hive beetles can find a hive. There have not been honeybee hives on this property in at least 13 years, probably longer. We started with new equipment and package bees from a reputable supplier. Nevertheless, the small hive beetles have found us and now must be addressed. 

In addition to honeybees, Five Feline Farm is an ever expanding effort in hobby farming. Stop by our website and download your free copy of "Wisdom of the Bees". Also, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. For more MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts by Julia Miller, click here.

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Homestead Ducks

So, you get your college degree, or drop out — or some amalgamation of both/neither — then ask yourself, what the heck does a so-called “hippie” do now?

I completed three out of four years of peace building and writing degrees (basically a program of study as nebulously social science-y as I could find) and have had the tremendous good fortune to find myself now living with my best friends on two acres of land in quasi-rural Appalachia.

Our dream is to work our way to living entirely off-grid, and fill our bellies with permaculture- raised farm food. That’s the short version at least.

Every one of our quintet of weirdies holds a job (or jobs) in town, and three are still pursuing higher education.

The going is slow and steady. Money is a consistent struggle eased by innovation and hard-effing work. We’ve lived on “The Project,” as we affectionately nick-named our farmette, for close to three months now, and have ducks, a sizeable fall garden, and apple trees to boast of.

Many small, important, and relatively boring tinier accomplishments have filled the time as we acquaint ourselves with our new home.

Life is full of paradoxes in every stripe. None of us would be here without one another, and our level of comfortand familiarity sometimes borders on the absurd. Speaking as an introvert, relationships take work, too.

This week, we finally have all our autumn seeds (shout-out to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) in the dirt bed created entirely by hand. We’ve scavenged more fruit and veggies than we could keep from local dumpsters. All of our animals are happy and healthy, as far as I can tell.

Lessons Learned from Cooperative Living

We can’t do our thing without the care and work of every house member, and our sanity would be exponentially further jeopardized without the friends, travelers, parents and couch surfers that grace our homestead weekly.

If you wanna get fit, ride your roommate’s bike to work. Wanna get tan and strong? Dig a garden. Want to feel loved? Move in with a bunch of hippies. Want peace? Take a walk facing the mountains. Want courage? Play your handwritten song around a fire for a group. Want thrills? Brave raiding a well-lit dumpster.

We don’t ever have full wallets, haven’t figured out how to dismantle, or even live without the capitalist, oppressive, meta-mechanistic dominant culture, and sometimes spend more money on cigarettes than seedlings.

The trials and tribulations of our life at “The Project” quite frequently mirror those of any small group of young Americans finding their way in the world, however, for me, there are daily reminders of why I am sticking with these crazy idealists in Appalachia.

Reasons to Join a Cooperative Living Situation

On the farm, we share pretty much everything. Chores, groceries, bills, cars, clothes, ideas, art, and much more. Not only does this monumentally cut down on living costs, it also provides a net of safety, comfort, and creativity. I'm never worried about having any of my basic needs met. Individually, we spend very little on necessities, and when three people share the cost of gas for one car, mobility becomes a heckuva lot easier.

It goes without saying, living together reduces our ecological footprint: Carpooling, communal goods, composting, dumpster diving, and our enthusiasm for sustainability keep us moving towards simplification. Minus the composting, these habits can be adopted anywhere where a few good folks are willing.

Additionally, when one of us is down on our luck, funds, or chutzpah, it’s veritably understood that the group will pick up the slack. In order for our household to function, we have to take care of each other, and ourselves. If one member is suffering, it affects all of us and the reverse is true. Cooperative living is an exercise in responsibility, generosity, and trust, and is not limited to living on a homestead.

I could write about my passion for farming, permaculture, and back-to-the-land ideals. Beyond any of this, however, cooperative living provides hope, a sense of place, and a tribe. Sharing the tangible and intangible facets of life with a group of people united by common goals provides greater quality of life than I have found anywhere else.

We are not forced together by obligation or competition. We have chosen to live a life slightly outside of the mainstream because human connection, and connection to the land take priority over any of the alternatives we have yet experienced.

While renunciation of many of the practices and aspects of culture of mainstream society is certainly a large impetus for our particular living situation, I like to think that we are embodying an acquiescence rather than a rejection. I joined “The Project” because I wanted to say yes, every day, to my ideals and dreams of what I want my life to be.

And when life gets in the way, as it wont to do — of my visions of grandeur of radical social and environmental justice and change — I find strength in a house full of loving friends. Living with intention can be practiced anywhere at any time, and my own short experience has shown that cooperation seems to come a lot more easily than competition.

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Homestead dairy herds can encounter a wide variety of poisonous plants, but few have the potential to be as troublesome or frightening as white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima, formerly Eupatorium rugosum). This medium-sized perennial herb, which we first learned about in 2008, can be toxic not only to the livestock consuming it, but to humans consuming dairy products and meat from those livestock.

One of the first things you’ll tend to learn upon Googling this plant is that it killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother, along with many other settlers, during America’s westward expansion. Surprisingly, for such a concerning plant, it’s a relatively obscure member of the “watch out for this” club; many books we’ve read about small-herd livestock don’t even mention it.

In this post, we’ll discuss where to look for white snakeroot, how to identify it, the control methods we’ve attempted, and what recent research is available about its toxicity to goats, humans and other livestock.

How to Find and Identify White Snakeroot



White snakeroot can be found across the eastern half of North America. In our central Missouri landscape, snakeroot seems to like shady areas, especially near or under cedar trees, though it can also be found in hardwood forests. It doesn’t like full sun or too much competition from grass. It’s a perennial, growing from the same root stock year after year, and often grows in dense clusters where it’s almost the dominant plant by the time it flowers in late summer.

Early in the season (May, for us) it can be hard to notice — just a small, obscure herb poking up among plants. By midsummer in Missouri, its tall, tough stem supports opposite leaves with toothed edges; flowering begins in August and peaks in September.


Why is White Snakeroot a Threat?

White snakeroot contains a cocktail of toxic compounds that can poison goats and other livestock, causing neurological disorders commonly referred to as “trembles”, which can be fatal. This toxicity can be passed through the milk, causing similar problems in humans or nursing young. Unfortunately, the toxicity also seems to be sporadic and unpredictable, making management decisions and diagnosis challenging. During the 1800s, when it was common practice to graze livestock in forested or newly cleared areas, so-called “milk fever” was a common cause of death for European-American settlers, though the link to white snakeroot wasn’t proved until decades later.

Such poisoning seems to have subsided as newly cleared land stabilized into established open pasture, and livestock were increasingly kept out of woodlands. Thus snakeroot poisoning all but vanished as an issue for generations, and knowledge of its dangers diminished. Modern agricultural and botanical resources tend to assume that livestock don’t interact with woodlands anymore, considering snakeroot poisoning a quaint quirk of history.

However, with the recent resurgence in homestead farming and mixed land use, livestock such as goats once again have a higher chance of encountering white snakeroot with serious implications for the herd and its humans. We learned about snakeroot by accident, when Joanna connected a common plant in our landscape with a passage in the book Missouri Wildflowers, typical of the carefree treatment of historic (rather than modern) snakeroot toxicity:

“This plant is the cause of ‘milk-sickness’; it is poisonous to cattle and killed many early settlers who drank poisoned milk, including Abraham Lincoln’s mother.”

Learning More about White Snakeroot

Any online search will lead you to websites listing similar basic information about the plant, including the unfortunate Nancy Lincoln. However, we’ve been frustrated by a lack of specific information about just how toxic the plant is, what level of consumption should be a concern, and so on. It’s one thing to know a plant is theoretically toxic, it’s another to know whether you should panic about that one mouthful your goat just ate.

If you wish to dig deeper, searching the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service website produces many useful results. In addition, the ARS publishes online summaries of scientific research, in language accessible to laypeople. This is particularly useful for research published in scientific journals that are otherwise locked behind paywalls. To browse these summaries and other information, just enter “white snakeroot” or any other topic into the site’s search bar. Even a quick read through the results yields useful detail and context that many basic websites don’t convey. For example:

A 2010 study in the Journal of Food Chemistry concluded (in the ARS summary) that: "Different types of white snakeroot that have different chemical compounds may explain the sporadic and unpredictable toxicity of white snakeroot to livestock and humans.”

A 2015 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry states (in the ARS summary) that: "Although a toxic extract from the plant was shown to cause the disease in the late 1920s, it was also later demonstrated that the extract was a mixture of many different compounds. . . . Goats dosed with the white snakeroot plant material were poisoned demonstrating for the first time that white snakeroot is a potent myotoxin in goats. However goats dosed with the hexane extract did not poison suggesting that another compound besides tremetone may have a significant role in the toxicity of the plant”

There is much that modern science still doesn’t understand about the specific toxic threat to livestock and humans from this plant, but interested readers can learn a lot from perusing these summaries. We’re not qualified to issue specific conclusions about snakeroot, but have been concerned enough to undertake control measures in our grazing areas.

Controlling White Snakeroot

So now you’re worried, and wondering what to do. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution. Snakeroot is susceptible to herbicides, but this is an unacceptable option on our farm. In any case, we can’t envision a way to kill snakeroot without killing swaths of desirable plants around every little cluster of stems, and ruining the pasture for grazing. We’ve had some success with changing its habitat by opening up brushy areas to full sun, an on-going project anyway as we attempt to restore a more open savannah landscape on our overgrown farm. The best (if obnoxious) approach in our experience is to hand-weed our grazing areas.

Snakeroot has shallow roots (see photo 4), and under the right conditions it’s pretty easy to pull. Don’t just break off the stems, as it’s a perennial that will grow right back from the rootstock. Get a good grip at the base of the plant, and if the ground isn’t too dry, the whole cluster will pull right up like a charm. Early in the season, it’s harder to see and identify but a lot less bulky. By mid/late-summer, it’s easy to see as it begins to tower over other plants, and the white flowers begin to stand out. We work through a given area before the goats move onto it, using a consistent search pattern to cover the area.

One important warning: snakeroot is a prolific producer of seed, and once the seed starts forming on the plant, it will continue to do so and become viable even after the plant is pulled. Our harvested bundles of snakeroot are piled in areas we don’t intend to graze; often we’ll hot compost the bundles, though some sources suggest burning them. We’ve been doing this for many years, and had hoped to see a significant reduction in plant population by now. Yet the stuff keeps showing up again, which we attribute to a large latent seed bank built up in the soil over many years of non-management. Still, it’s the best approach we’ve tried, or seen suggested online.

How Worried Should You be about White Snakeroot?

We don’t know. To judge from the historical record, brush-fed goats and their owners should be dropping like flies throughout snakeroot’s range, but that doesn’t seem to be happening (or it’s going undiagnosed). Research has shown that snakeroot’s toxicity is unpredictable; is there something different between modern snakeroot and the 1800s plant?

We’ve kept dairy goats on a snakeroot-infested landscape since 2008, but have also put a lot of time into pre-weeding our grazing areas, as our goats live full-time on pasture from spring through fall. Our goats have eaten mouthfuls at times, from individual plants or clusters we missed, with no observable effects on their kids or ourselves, the primary consumers. One Texas-based researcher we contacted years ago told us that a goat needed to eat several pounds of snakeroot to be of concern, but we don’t have further proof of that claim.

Studies have clearly documented the potential toxicity in a lab setting, but not in the context of a modern homestead dairy herd. We hope this article raises awareness of the potential problem, so that individuals can make more educated decisions about landscape and dairy animal management.

All photos by Joanna Reuter

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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