Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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1/30/2015

Thirty years or so ago, many young people came to Maine to live off the land, inspired by Scott and Helen Nearing and their book “The Good Life”. Some came to Deer Isle, and many of them still live here. Since then, they have raised vegetables, animals and kids and while many have gotten jobs and conventional housing, most have kept some homesteading practices, like having chickens, keeping bees and maintaining fruit trees. A new generation young adults are now moving to, or back to, Deer Isle. Among them we have many great friends doing fantastic things but we are nevertheless pretty lonely on the homesteading path.

new house 

When I first came to Maine in 2008 there was a number of young couples establishing homesteads around the mainland peninsula right next to Deer Isle. We had work parties every second Sunday, when on a rotating schedule the whole group gathered at someones place and dug holes for fence posts, stacked firewood, painted window trim or any number of things. The days ended with a potluck and social hour. This small group of peers held together on a high note for the first year and a half or so of my time here but eventually it fizzled out. Full-time jobs demanded engagement even on weekends or time off had to be devoted to family time. The work parties got harder to drum up enthusiasm for and as that faded and work away from home took over, the projects to center the gatherings around also quickly faded. When the homesteading spirit of this group dwindled, so did Dennis and mine appeal to drive the roughly 25 mile distance to these gatherings too.

I was once asked at one of my book talks to talk about our community and if there were others in our area doing what we do and what that community meant to us. I did a pretty bad job answering that question but later I realized that what this woman probably meant, but didn't quite say, was “what if I find land where I can homestead but it's at a location where no one does the same thing”. The attempts on Deer Isle today to live off the land are few and far apart and the strongest peer-support Dennis and I have comes from each other – that we are both committed to and strongly believe in homesteading as a long term life style.

The bits and pieces of common rural living practices do add up, but with a few exceptions most people probably would refer to these practices more as a hobby than a way to make a living. Three small goat farms produce dairy products, a number of people have gardens or green houses that to some extent produce a surplus for the winter, and more and more people raise their own pigs.

But the lack of full-fledged homesteaders doesn’t mean no one is here to cheer us on: in a highly diverse community with rich and poor, fishermen and self-employed jack-of-many-trades, academics, out-of-state retirees and artists we have as small business owners  and a young couple devoted to this place been received with an unwavering support. That we choose to live off-the-land, off-the-grid is probably considered by most people an addition to the broad diversity of residents here and an excellent source of information for their own backyard endeavors. I dare to say some even get inspired by what we do and that inspiration leads to more bits and pieces – that I've kept a few jars of saur kraut out for sale spurred at least a number of people to make their own, the garlic we sell often gets used as seed garlic and that we graft and propagate apple trees from around the island makes others consider what varieties they'd like to preserve for the future.

No group of peers doesn't mean no support. If I were to pick up and start over again I would let the right piece of land rather than the community weigh in higher on my decision of where to be, especially if I had one solid partner to settle with. Over time, is one is patient, it is very likely you'll find people that are drawn to the basic, sustaining, diverse and positive actions of homesteading.  


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1/29/2015

IMG_1855.JPG

If you've read my blog for very long, you know that I think keeping bees is a great idea. I think people should keep bees in the city, in the country, in the suburbs, on the rooftops, wherever they can fit a hive. In my blogs, I've extolled all the good reasons for keeping bees: helping the bees to survive when the rest of the world seems hellbent on poisoning and starving them, pollination for your garden, honey for your table.

Despite all these good reasons for keeping bees, some very good reasons exist for not keeping bees. I'll list a few.

1. You want a hobby that makes money. Bees are expensive! The woodenware to put them in, the protective clothing, the tools, the actual bees, the vehicle to carry the equipment around in, a honey house and equipment for harvesting the honey, not to mention continually replacing all of the aforementioned. I kept bees for 6 years before I ever made a penny in profit. Since then, it's been hit or miss, like any other kind of agriculture only without the subsidies!

2. You want a hobby that requires very little work. Keeping bees is hot, hard, heavy work, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line. Harvesting occurs on the hottest days of the year, when you will be sweating inside 2 sets of clothing to lift heavy honey-filled supers from hives of ill-tempered bees.

Beekeeping requires continual study and learning to stay ahead of whatever is trying to kill them: honey and larva predation, mites, fungus, bacterial and viral diseases, pesticides, to name a few. The many things you will have to learn will include bee and honey plant biology, crude carpentry, and your local weather and seasonal patterns.

3. You think you won't get stung. For some reason, a lot of people think that if they're nice to their bees and handle them just right, the bees will like them and not sting them. This is crazy-thinking! Bees are insects, a super organism. They are intent on their purposes, not yours. If it's a nice warm and sunny day when the world is in bloom, they will fly to and from the hive and probably totally ignore you. However, if you are tearing into their hive on day when they are all home with nothing much else to do, they are going to defend their stores and brood nest! That's why they have those little barbed stingers on their butts--to keep critters like you out of their business. You will get stung from time to time.

If you've read these reasons not to keep bees, and you're still thinking, "Yes, but..." get yourself some bees! I can't image not having hives of these wonderful creatures around my place. They are a source of continual learning, challenge, wonder, and sheer joy (when they aren't making me crazy). Keeping bees will teach you not just about bees, but about the plants they forage on and how bees and wild plants fit into the rest of the natural world. If you're lucky and take the time to be very observant, they will even teach you how you fit into that world! If everyone kept a box of bees, maybe we'd all become humble stewards who care for and try to fit into the world around us rather than arrogant masters who try to control and enslave the natural world and only end up poisoning it and us.


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.



1/28/2015

Another year has come to an end. The seed catalogs are rolling in, and as I sit here drooling over them, I keep coming across new, exciting vegetable varieties that I just have to try.

There's a part of my brain that's screaming at the rest of it: "Don't fix what isn't broken!" Year after year, I post about what I've learned, and one of the recurring themes is to stick with the things I know work for our area—not to risk losing productivity because I'm feeling adventurous. But really, what fun is that?

Tomatoes come in all shapes and sizes. Choose wisely!

There are some things I'm set on keeping the same. The Orangeglo watermelon and Bidwell Casaba have been very kind to me, unlike most other watermelon and melon varieties, so those are here to stay for the long haul. Catskill Brussels Sprouts will also probably stick around. There seem to be so few varieties of heirloom sprouts, and these do the best.

I always say not to mess around with our corn selection. We grow Bloody Butcher corn, which has served us well. It gets HUGE and gives us multiple relatively long ears on each stalk. The corn can be used fresh, or you can let it mature into a dent corn. After a failed attempt at saving seed from it and coming to the realization that we just don't have enough space to save corn seed and avoid inbreeding depression, I've decided to expand my corn-growing horizons to include a flour corn, a sweet corn, and a popcorn.

Unfortunately, there's no fast way to determine which varieties you should grow for all vegetables. Your best bet is to find varieties that were developed in areas that have a similar climate to where you live. For instance, Italian varieties will probably do best in coastal California, where we have the same basic climate. Russian varieties might serve you well if you live in colder areas. If you have a short season, choose varieties that mature quickly. This, of course, can take some research to figure out. For cool season crops, you'll want to make sure they have enough time to develop before warm weather hits. For warm season crops, you want to give them time before the frosts come. Seed packets and catalogs include a number, usually next to the name or after the description, denoting that variety's average number of days to maturity.

When it comes to latitude, rather than season length, onions are much more specific than most other vegetables about where they can grow. Varieties will either be long day, short day, or intermediate. If you live north of 35 degrees latitude (draw a line from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to approximate), you'll want to grow long-day onions. South of that, grow short-day onions. If you're just on either side of that latitude, you can grow intermediate onions. I've also had good luck with long-day onions here on the 35th parallel.

Besides climate, you'll also want to look at the size, yield, and disease resistance. If late blight is a problem in your area, choose vegetable varieties that have some resistance. If you have a small garden, choose compact or high-yielding varieties to make the most of your space.

Or you can do what I like to do and just pick a bunch of varieties to try and see which ones do best. Good luck!

More Homegrown Seed Assistance

• The Selecting Seeds 101 includes tips on seed catalogs, what to plant, seed testing and viability, and seed saving.
• Want to find out if your seeds are still viable? Check out this seed viability chart.
• Still not sure? Try a quick at-home germination test.
• Ready to get growing? Don't miss the Seed Starting 101 or Rachel's post on growing, curing, and storing onions.

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 first appeared on Homegrown.org.

By Rachel of Dog Island Farm/Homegrown.org.


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.



1/23/2015

Buyer Beware

When we were having the shell of our present home built the builder called us and said it was hard to work because of the cold weather. He told us he had an air tight wood stove he would install for a price so he could continue to work on the house. We agreed to the offer and later when we drove the three days to inspect the construction progress we found the wood stove in the photo. It was a home made plate steel stove and anything but air tight. We subsequently had a quality cast iron wood stove installed inside the house and put this stove into storage down under the house not knowing what else to do with the old wood stove. Several years later some friends came to hunt elk and visit us and saw the old wood stove sitting there under the house. They asked if they could borrow it to cook on in their camp while they were hunting. I was happy to loan it to them and even threw in a half of a cord of split firewood for them to use in the stove.

cowboy breakfast

Later when their hunting was over and they brought the old wood stove back they commented on how good it was for cooking. That got me to thinking and I set the stove up outdoors and leveled it up and have been using it for several years to cook breakfast on occasionally. It was re-purposed to have a far more functional use, especially since it leaked smoke so badly that it was not safe to use inside. I have cooked many delicious breakfasts for ourselves and our visitors and friends over the years. An old wood stove that had no other use but scrap iron because it was so leaky and didn’t put out heat like a cast iron stove does and it ended up being the best thing since sliced bread for us. Taking something of virtually no value and re-purposing it to something useful is rewarding.

The old wood stove gives me a chance to use lumber ends from projects also obtaining derivative value from them and not having to throw them away. I found a large flat rock and pulled, dragged and inched it over where I could place it in front of the stove to serve as a version of a hearth. The draft ability of the stove is so poor that most of the time I have the loading door partly open to keep the fire inside going strong and now the large rock keeps any sparks from landing on the ground. I made a spark arrester for the top of the chimney by using three layers of 1/8 inch hardware screen. The wind cap improves the draft of the stove slightly and makes it is safe to use outside with virtually no chance of emitting any dangerous sparks.

Our normal breakfast are eggs over easy and a slice of fried spam which is enhanced by additional seasoning and tastes delicious done this way. We also slice up potatoes and they are seasoned with some spicy seasoning we obtain from a BBQ place in Rochester, New York. We also like cream cheese grits and sometimes have biscuits and jam or fresh fruit that is in season. Coffee that has cooked for a while on the stove then tops off what we consider an excellent breakfast and all from an old wood stove that had no other useful or functional purpose. We use cast iron cook wear which coupled with cooking outside gives the breakfast a special taste and ambience. It seems that eating food cooked outside always seems to taste better than when cooked inside. The temperature of the stove is regulated by adding firewood or adjustment of the loading door of the stove which results in the slow even cooking of the food.

Before using an otherwise useless old wood stove for scrap metal or a planter it might be wise to consider using it (if properly designed) for an outdoor cook stove. Our particular stove has a much greater value as a cook stove than it ever had as something to keep us warm indoors. Over the years it has cooked some very delicious meals for us and our visitors and has been a perfect cook stove. Visitors look forward to having a meal slow cooked out on that old stove. Being able to re-purpose something that previously had little or no value is an excellent way to reuse old worthless equipment and the best part is that I didn’t have to make a single change to the stove except level it.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and mountain living go to:
www.brucecarolcabin.blogspot.com


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.



1/22/2015

firewood

A few weeks ago I was house sitting for some neighbors just up the road from us. It was a big house, with all the modern conveniences: kitchen appliances, running water, several bathrooms and oil furnace heating. These were also selling points when they asked if I could spend a week there – I could do my laundry, each room had a separate thermostat, they had wi-fi, TV and a freezer full of food I could eat.

And on a day to day level, it was easy living over there, in the sense that most of my needs were taken care of by merely pushing or turning a switch or tap. Unlike at home it was no going out to get water or wood and no wood stove to tend. I could shower in two minutes and pile up the dishes in the dishwasher; chores were carried out swiftly with the least physical resistance and with little need for any thoughts beyond the pushing or turning.

It was easy, but not simple since all of these so called conveniences depended entirely on sources I had no control over and the easy actions most always set off a chain effect: every time I turned the thermostat in that house, an easy way to stay warm set off a complex reaction far past my bedroom – through the lines and posts in power grid that needs regular maintenance, through the clearing in the woods where the lines to come in, to the dam or plant where the power is generated. The effects of my action also rippled through the oil furnace in the basement to the local delivery truck and its driver and on to the previous delivery truck and its share of increased traffic on our rural roads. On and on through landscapes and communities to an oil field or a tar sand location somewhere, touching on hundreds if not thousands of human lives who are in some ways affected by the oil infrastructure. Billowing over all this is the exhaust, not only from the furnace in this particular house, but from the trucks, the factories who built the furnace, the pipes, the plants, the heavy machinery involved in pumping or fracking the oil. And someone has to pay the bill, which will yet again set off a complex chain of actions – the house owner made its money somewhere, probably by providing a service or a product. That service or product, whatever it was, most likely set off another chain through materials, transport, buildings, fossil fuel, investments, tax money, corporations, interests, stocks. It did seem easy right there and then, didn't it, to turn the heat up just a little bit?

Here at the homestead we face the difference between easy and simple on an almost daily basis. So many times the lumberyard seems like such an easy option – we need a few boards to finish a project, rafters for a roof or a few studs just to fix something fast. If we would choose a narrow view and look only at what we want to accomplish today, with the least resistance, we would ignore the many processes the lumberyard would involve: clear cuts done with heavy machinery on land unknown to us; the transportation of the lumber onto the island and that we'd have to make the money somewhere, money that before it came to us was made somewhere, somehow, and before that, somewhere, somehow.

But when we look at the situation out of a desire to live in simplicity, our choice is to go to our own lot to find the trees we need and mill the lumber on our own mill. The ripples that this option set off into the mainstream economy and larger environment, from the small amount of gas and some wear on our machinery, are small compared to the alternatives. In this way, we can instead alter the effects of our actions to have a positive impact that we can stay in control over, like the enhancement of our woodlot when we carefully select which trees to fell, the mounds of brush we leave for critters to live in and the sawdust we get as a byproduct to use in our composting toilets and to pack our root crops in for the winter – positive effects we'd miss if we choose the seemingly quick fixes and easy options.

This difference in easy vs. simple is where some people get confused over how much work it is to provide for your own needs. At a first glance, cutting firewood or milling lumber might seem as a lot of work, but when adding up the accumulated input (all human labor, fossil fuel expended, negative environmental impact and the efforts needed to reverse that impact) that's needed for a furnace or commercial lumber production to function, simply turning the knob suddenly seems like a lot of work. For any given individual with the “right” profession and in the “right” socioeconomic context it could indeed, measured in time, be less work to for example make the money and buy the food as opposed to growing it on their own. But once again, with all the consequences and ripple effects considered, I dare to say that very few effortless ways of providing conventional food is actually easier than the simplistic home-based food production.

For the short week I lived in that house overlooking the ocean, I did all right in the ready-steady-go easiness of pushing and turning and I even spent an evening on the couch flipping between news channels and soap operas. Nevertheless, was I happy to go back to my own house, with the interior and furniture made from natural materials, the wood stove, tight quarters and garden view. And mostly, to the peace of mind being able to clearly see the simple effects of my simple actions.


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.



1/21/2015

The mountains are not just snowcapped, but are covered well down into the foothills. However, even here in the High Desert of Oregon we’ve had a few days in the low sixties and more are in the forecast for the next ten days. It’s given me a chance to take inventory of my hives without going deep into them. If there is no wind, this kind of weather allows you to have a quick peek inside without harming your bees and you should be trying to get an idea of each hives health when the weather allows.

For example, my biggest two hives and by that I mean these hives are full of bees, just as if it was midsummer, have stores but will likely run short. I have already taken one frame of honey from a deadout and placed it one of these hives. The hive had two frames of honey stores remaining, but they were to the outside of the box. I did not want to leave the hive open long enough to pull frames and rearrange them, so I simply slid a middle frame out and dropped in the new frame of honey. That way there will be food right in the middle of the cluster should we get a hard freeze again that prevents them from moving about.

beehives

A quick examination of all my hives was done by removing the lid and inner cover to gauge how many bees the hive had and what level of stores were present. We are approaching the time of year when bees are lost simply because they run out of food and starve. A responsible beekeeper should know the condition of his/her hives as soon as the weather allows. Remember, the bees that have made it this far are bees that have won the battle. They survived whatever mite load was in the hive and the diseases they bring, and they also survived our sub-zero temperatures. If your girls have enough feed or even if you need to feed them for a while, these bees are going to be what you enter the season with if they don’t starve before the first spring blooms arrive.

I began the winter with twelve hives on this side (east side) of the mountains. Those hives on the west side of the mountains will soon get their own inspection. Of the 12 on the east side I have lost only three and one of those was a nucleus I bought last spring that clearly came with a massive mite load. This only serves to reinforce my belief that you are your best source of bees. (We will discuss making splits and increase at another time.) Locally, one friend of mine lost all three of her hives this winter and another friend lost two of his three hives. So I feel pretty good about only losing three hives out of 12.

With only one exception, all the hives that remain have healthy numbers. The hive that does not was an experimental split I did late in the season. Two hives have huge numbers for this time of year. If you were to look at them you would think of summer time numbers. Both of these hives are Carniolan bees and they come from a split I made in mid-May. A split is your best natural mite control and these hives show it! As a result of the split, both of these hives have young queens and though my inspection did not take me deep into the hive I would not be surprised to find the first little bit of brood here.

We will discuss the benefit of making splits at a later date, but if you have not yet reached the point of making your own splits then this is the year to learn how to do it.

The next thing to be gained from making early inspections as soon as the weather allows is a chance to inspect and prepare equipment for the coming season. It can be hard to see your girls lifeless bodies, heads buried in the comb, all clustered up, but it’s going to happen and you just need to make the best of it. I have already taken my three deadouts back to the shed and gone through them. It’s a chance to scrape out propolis and otherwise clean them up. I also check the condition of the frames and remove old comb. The old dark brood comb should be removed after a few years. Each time a larva spins a cocoon it leaves another paper thin layer behind. This is what makes the comb dark. Even though the bees clean it out, this comb gets dirty after a while and it’s just plain healthier for the hive to remove it and allow the bees build new comb.

If you have wooden frames then this is easily done by popping out the old foundation and replacing it with new. If you use foundationless frames then all you have to do is cut away the old comb and you are set to go. I am in the process of getting rid of all my plastic frames as I rotate new frames and foundation into my hives. Sometimes the bees take right to plastic, other times they build on top of it. I’m moving more and more in the direction of foundationless frames as they allow the bees to build whatever kind of comb they like.

Another benefit of cycling out old foundation is that it often contains a little stored honey in the corners of each frame. I set this old foundation out in the beeyard for the bees to rob. It makes a great early season treat for them and none of the stored honey goes to waste.

One final note. If you are planning on buying bees this year and you have not yet ordered you had better do so soon. Many suppliers sell out and you may find it difficult to find bees if you don’t order early.

So in summary, get a look inside your hives as soon as the weather allows. It does not need to be a deep inspection, but just have a look inside the inner cover to gauge the health of your hive. You shouldn’t need to feed just yet, but it’s good to know if you will need to. If you do need to feed then feed a 1:1 mix of sugar to water and remember that once you start you can’t stop until your local nectar flow begins.

Use this time to bring in your deadouts for clean up and repair equipment. If you need additional equipment now is a good time to restock. The pussy willow is about to break bud and soon the season will be in full swing. If you have prepared your equipment early in the season you will be able to focus your attention on the care and management of your hives.


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.



1/20/2015

Over the last several decades, many sustainable farmers have experimented with including chickens, particularly, laying hens into their rotational grazing system. Joel Salatin pioneered these efforts with his small broiler "chicken tractor" and later his hen mobile. Many variations have been made on these over the years.

When we decided to produce eggs, we began to research how to create the most efficient chicken tractor we could. The main flaw we saw with existing designs is the labor required to collect eggs and clean the nesting boxes. We wanted to be able to produce as much as possible with only our labor. So, we looked at the best practices of large commercial producers and looked for ways to incorporate these practices into a small pasture operation.

skids

Adding commercial nesting boxes that would fit into a small building was the most time saving and affordable upgrade. We worked with SKA an Italian producer of center rolling communal nesting boxes (no USA producer would waste their time talking to us about such a small order) to fit their system to our building and use a hand-cranked wheel instead of a motor to run the collection belt. We also worked with Steel Masters engineers to design a skid that would be rigid enough to make their building portable.

chicken tractor

You can see more in our video at Building a Better Chicken Tractor.

chicken tractor

We are currently experimenting with raising all of our feed, including chickens and pigs, for on farm forage. See our Kickstarter video Forage Feed Project.

You can read more from us at Shaun's Farming Food Justice Blog or Heather's Homesteading Blog.


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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