Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Man Milking A CowFor the past three years, we at MOTHER EARTH NEWS have collected nominations from our readers and fans to name a handful of self-sufficient superstars as our Homesteaders of the Year. We're back at it this year, seeking wiser-living families and individuals who deserve to be honored in our 2015 edition. (You can find past profiles by reading our collection of Star Modern Homesteaders.)

Do you know someone who has embraced the DIY lifestyle by raising nearly all of their own food, building their own home, installing renewable-energy systems, and otherwise blazing a path toward self-reliant living for others to follow? Perhaps you and your family fit this bill! 

Nominate those you know — or your own family — to be one of our 2015 Homesteaders of the Year. Submit at least 500 words explaining why your nominee deserves to win along with at least three photos to with the subject line "homesteader of the year." Entries are due by March 1, 2015.

Help us find folks out there inspiring others to do more with less — and love it!

Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect with Jennifer directly by leaving a comment below.


Man Gardening In Community GardenWe at MOTHER EARTH NEWS are proud to announce our fourth-annual Homesteaders of the Year contest. For the past three years, we have sorted through nominations of incredible modern homesteaders and selected those we felt were the most inspiring. In 2013, we looked at folks who teach others self-reliance skills, and in 2014 we focused on DIY builders. For the coming year, we’re going to try something a little different.

Because our article about an incredible homestead hamlet in Lincoln, Neb., struck a nerve with our readers, our 2015 contest will feature Homestead Hamlets of the Year. Instead of accepting individual nominations, we’d like to hear about communities who have set up shared homesteading spaces, including community gardens, small-scale livestock, education classes and workshops — any and all of these neighborhood endeavors are welcome. Sustainable living is a lot more fun and a whole lot more achievable when you go into it with friends and neighbors. We know there are many projects out there — urban, suburban and rural — that can serve as inspiration to others.

To make a nomination, please send 500 words explaining your homestead hamlet — or a homestead hamlet you know of in your area — along with photos to with the subject line “Homestead Hamlet Nomination.” You can mail letters and photos to Homestead Hamlet Nomination; MOTHER EARTH NEWS; 1503 SW 42nd St.; Topeka, KS 66609. The deadline for entry is February 15, 2015.

Photo of Tim Rinne of the the homestead hamlet in Lincoln, Neb., gardening with his neighbors; taken by Jeff Larsen.

Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect directly with Jennifer by leaving a comment below!


solar panels

In 2008, my husband and I made the decision to install solar panels whose production would roughly match our energy-use. Although our main aim was to make our homestead more sustainable, I believe investing in a solar system is also a wise economic decision.

The following article contains facts about our solar energy, which includes solar panels and a solar hot water heating system. I’ve included an online resource to show what financial incentives are available in your state. Whether you choose to invest in renewable energy for the health of your pocketbook or for the health of the planet, the following information may help you begin.

Why we decided to stay on the grid: Being “off the grid” has the great appeal of self-sufficiency, but we don’t have storage place for batteries and neither of us wanted to add non-biodegradable batteries to our homestead. Additionally, it just seemed simpler to stay on the grid in our semi-suburban area.

Affordable solar includes cutting energy consumption: Our goal of sustainability had already included reducing the amount of energy we used. We had re-insulated the walls of our small farm house, changed windows and re-insulated and ventilated the attic. Clothes are hung outside in the summer and on a rack by the woodstove in the winter. We heat and cook with wood and the windmill pumps water for the animals.

solar hot water heating system

Another big deduction from our electric bill came with installing a solar hot water heating system whose total cost was less than $900. This system includes two large panels which we installed on the house roof. Propylene glycol is heated in these panels and pumped to an exchanger in the basement where water absorbs the heat. An insulated tank stores this very-hot water which is then diluted to the hot water we use. All the energy this system requires is provided by a small solar panel.

A solar water heater system typically saves about 18 percent of a household’s energy bill and is independent of the grid. Solar hot water heating seems like a great place to start in reducing energy bills and making a meaningful, ecological statement.

After getting that far with reducing our energy consumption, we were ready to see if the sun could power our homestead.

Cost of solar: We bought our original 20 solar panels five years ago and an additional four, more-efficient panels, this past summer. Efficiency of solar panels is going up as prices are coming down, but the combined package was still around $30,000. That sounds like an impossible sum, but we actually had it mostly covered with the following help:

• One-third of our cost was paid by a state grant, available at that time.
• Another third was paid by federal tax incentives (see “incentives,” below).
• Five thousand dollars of the final third was covered by carbon credits. Although still available, these credits are no longer as generous for the “RPS” reason listed below.

Remember, too, that your most immediate reward (besides feeling good about helping the planet) is the money you save on your electric bill. It’s fun to get a bill of $16 if it used to be $160!

Ohio currently gives little support to renewable energy. I’ll explain state and federal incentives, but you can find what support your state offers by going to

Financial incentives in Ohio for solar and remaining on the grid: Ohio’s meager financial support for renewable energy is found in these three points:

1. There is a property tax exemption. The value of a home goes up when renewable energy is installed. In Ohio, this increase in value is totally exempt from additional property tax.
2. The solar equipment itself is 100 percent exempt from sales tax.
3. Net metering requires the utility not only monitor and report how much energy a solar system generates and how much energy is used, but requires they pay us for the difference.

Financial dis-incentives in Ohio for solar and remaining on the grid: The renewable energy laws in Ohio are weak, but in May of 2014, even the weak goals for the alternative energy standard were pushed back by two years. Here is the current situation:

1. The Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) in our state only requires that 12.5 percent of energy comes from clean, renewable energy by 2026, and only .5 percent need come from solar! Without having a strong RPS, energy companies won’t invest in renewable energy because, of course, they don’t want to cut into current profits.
2. This RPS is so weak that solar companies no longer pay customers for putting in solar.
3. Ohio gives NO solar power tax credits. At least the federal government still gives a 30 percent tax credit for installation, and this makes investing in solar especially wise if you receive a lump sum from inheritance or retirement.
4. A weak RPS also resulted in lower price for carbon credits.

Does it pay to go solar? It does for us. I personally need a way to tread softly on this beautiful planet, and not using energy from petroleum is allowing me to live more consistently with my values. Because of the financial help available, we also had most of our costs covered while we continue to save on our electric bills.

Mary Lou Shaw homesteads in Ohio. Her book, Growing Local Food, can be purchased through MOTHER EARTH NEWS' books.

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.


For anyone eating on a budget, or living in a food desert where it is difficult to get to the grocery store, protein and fresh vegetables become luxuries. Without protein and fresh vegetables human health is compromised. Access is particularly limited where fresh vegetables cannot be grown outdoors during the winter. Carbohydrates like beans, rice, potatoes and pastas come cheap in bulk and store easily but animal protein and vegetables are best eaten fresh. A greenhouse is an option for winter vegetables but any savings can be lost if you have to heat the greenhouse.

We are developing ways to address these issues by designing for a relatively inexpensive structure that can be attached to the south side of a building to produce protein and fresh vegetables year round. To avoid the expense of gas or electric heat we are enclosing enough thermal mass to absorb extra heat when the sun is shining and release it when the sun goes down. The formula from the passive-solar greenhouse literature is that we need between 2 and 5 gallons of water, or equivalent, (masonry gives you about ¼ of the heat storage as the same volume of water) for every square foot of glazing. It also turns out that the type of glazing is less important than how well we are able to seal the structure against air leaks. We also get credit if the wall to which we attach the structure is heated from the other side.

We are not purists so we do not mind adding “active” elements to the system and we like to have each element serve multiple purposes. We like to try things and see how they work. Also, this structure is a part of our wider explorations into how we can work with nature and use natural processes to reduce our work load.

Integrated Closed Loop Production Systems

Nature works in cycles that have no cost and produce no waste. That is what makes natural systems sustainable. To reduce our cost of inputs to zero we have to close the loops and produce all of our inputs as a part of the production cycle. To reduce our waste to zero we have to integrate the processes and find a use for all the byproducts of each process. Those parts of the cycle that cannot survive freezing can be enclosed in a shell designed to retain the sun's heat during the day and release it at night.

Our first prototype is attached to the south wall of an occupied residential dwelling. We used two layers of greenhouse film over 2-by-4 framing. The north wall of our structure is constantly 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and we have no heat loss in that direction. We built raised beds 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep in order to increase the ratio of thermal mass to air space. In the raised beds we installed a pipe attached to a fan that takes air from the top of the structure and blows it through the growing medium to actively transfer heat into and out of the growing medium. The growing medium is wood chips and horse manure like our outside gardens. The fan runs all winter long pumping heat into the bed when the sun is shining and pumping heat out of the bed at night. This heat storage system is called a climate battery and is based on designs developed at the Central Rocky Mountain Research Institute in Basalt, Colorado.

We next installed an aquaponics system built from three food grade 55 gallon drums. We built a tray lined with pond liner 3-feet-by-11-feet-by-1-foot (deep water culture). We cut one of the drums in half vertically and suspended the halves over the deep water culture. In those halves we installed a bell siphon so that the containers would flood and drain and then filled them with river rock (media beds). The rock hosts the bacteria that change the ammonia the fish produce into the nitrates that plants need. The two remaining barrels that hold the fish were plumbed to overflow into the media beds. We pump water from the deep water culture into the fish barrels. We plant directly into the river rock in the media bed and float insulation panels on the deep water culture to hold additional plants.

In the floor of the structure we set cinder blocks to support a walk way about 8” above the ground level. In the space under the walkway, we use worms to process chicken waste from our deep litter chicken operation. Nine weeks after adding chicken waste to the worm bed we can sift the worms out of the worm castings. We feed the worms to the fish and the chickens and we use the worm castings as a planting medium in our gardens.

A Food Cell: More Than a Greenhouse

In integrated closed loop production (ICLP) systems the primary design requirement is balance. We cannot produce more of any one thing than we can process all the products. Systems designed to produce a product for sale in the market are generally designed to produce as much of one thing as possible. That lowers costs through economies of scale but leaves an imbalance of by products that are not cycled in the design. ICLP can achieve economies of integration, meaning zero costs and zero waste, but there may never be enough of any one product to justify taking it to market. Instead, there is a constant production of a small amount of many products. That is perfect then for providing a varied diet of protein and fresh vegetables to the humans who are integrated into the system.

We have yet to reduce our input costs to zero. We still purchase chicken food and small amounts of fish food and some of our seeds. We are buying a small amount of electricity from the grid to run the water and air pumps and fan. We believe it is possible to close the loops but we have to integrate more processes. Still, in a structure 9-feet X 24-feet plus the space for our chickens, we can produce enough protein and fresh vegetables for maybe 8 families year round. That is not all the required calories, that is what you are missing if you are eating on a budget or live in a food desert.

Consider that taking care of chickens is easier than caring for a dog. Feeding the chicken waste to the worms is more pleasant than picking up after a dog. If you ever had a fish tank, this one even cleans itself. Growing plants in this structure is no more difficult than growing house plants. You will have to spend some time each evening picking a salad for dinner but you will spend much less time in the produce aisle at the grocery store.

Now think about dividing the necessary tasks among the members of eight families. How much of a time commitment are we really talking about? The more people involved the less any one person has to do. Everyone can still do all the other things they like to do and keep their jobs. That makes this structure much more than a greenhouse. We call it a food cell as it is a membrane with enclosed metabolic processes.

The Food Cell Challenge

We have spent maybe $2,500 on the entire system. We have done all the work with volunteer labor and we keep changing things as we experiment with different approaches. With the right design we could be talking about a reasonable investment spread over 8 families that results in essentially free food for the indefinite future. Any 8 families with jobs can certainly afford one. People in greater need may be able to apply for grants to build these systems.

What we have been able to accomplish to date is just the beginning. In a stand alone system we might want to add a supplemental heat source, such as a rocket mass heater, for those polar vortex days. We want to incorporate a sprouted barley feeding system for our chickens that will allow us to go 100 percent organic and GMO free. If I had sufficient time I would be looking to integrate raising insects as both animal and human food. We can do a better job of processing the byproducts from butchering the chickens and fish. We can work to incorporate more of the waste streams generated in our community such as the food scraps from a restaurant.

We are interested in sharing what we know with anyone willing to collaborate in the design, prototyping and testing process. If you would like to build one and share your results we are interested in working with you. You can start with information about a Basic Food Production System on our web site and we have a more advanced stand alone design we can share.

Combined with a neighborhood habitat improvement project using a deep mulch gardening system and incorporating seed saving and line breeding we begin to prepare for the potential of economic collapse and climate change while making important strides toward healing nature and ending poverty. This is how we will end hunger in the world.

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.


Members of the fledgling Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Cooperative in tiny Alton, Mo., (population 879) are preparing to celebrate with the community a substantial win – a national award package valued at more than $40,000 to refurbish a vacant building and create an edible courtyard.

Not only are co-op members asking for public input on how to demolish and salvage materials from the old tavern, they will share Nov. 20-22 what they have learned about forming a successful cooperative in a rural community. The 101-member co-op has come a long way since founder Rachel Luster first began turning into every driveway in the county with a “Farm Fresh Eggs” or “Hay for Sale” sign posted in the yard to recruit potential members.

Driving the rugged gravel roads in search of fresh produce, meat and eggs for her family, Luster envisioned uniting producers and artisans with consumers at a centrally located market. After overcoming numerous obstacles, her persistence paid off with the formation of the all-volunteer organization and store opening in March 2013.

Co-op members take turns running the store in a small rented building and stocking it with their homegrown and homemade wares – anything from goat milk lotion, treadle-sewn quilts, dried organic herbs, bedding plants and cedar trunks to homemade laundry soap. Members pay dues of $5 to $10 per month, in cash or exchange of products or labor. Members also set their own prices for their products, with 30 percent of sales going to the co-op for expenses.

Partnering with Alton Chamber of Commerce to apply, the co-op was awarded, just a year after opening its doors, a Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design grant to expand the organization’s community support. The co-op was one of only four organizations across the country to receive the award this year funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts and the USDA.

In October, two representatives of the New York City-based CIRD, Cynthia Nikitin, CIRD program director and senior vice president of Project for Public Spaces, and associate Willa Jones, met with Luster for the initial site visit. Both were impressed with the co-op’s mission to sustain Oregon County communities and economies through local trading and selling of homegrown and homemade products and knowledge. Their article, Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers, is posted on the CIRD site.

Since applying for the grant last April, the co-op was gifted the adjoining building by a co-op member. The co-op’s goal is to demolish the building, reusing many materials, and turn it into a multifunctional market and community center with a courtyard of fruits and vegetables available to residents.

With popular “pay-what-you-can” lunchtime meals, an already vibrant store and a community space for workshops and get-togethers, the co-op has grown steadily since its inception. The CIRD award, a total of $7,000 cash and access to free consultation (valued at $35,000), will help enlarge the co-op’s positive impact on the community.

“Over the past year, we have seen how our efforts with OCFPAC have empowered people and offered them a meaningful way to supplement their incomes and give back to the community they love, as well as serve as a bridge connecting residents of various ethnicities, interests and backgrounds,” Luster said.

Luster believes the co-op will also inspire others to form similar co-ops to invigorate their communities and provide a source for fresh, locally grown food and quality crafted items.

Meanwhile, the CIRD grant will be used, among other things, to present a community workshop, bringing together other local organizations, businesses and residents to collaborate on a design plan to benefit all. The rough plans include a kitchen area with enough room for 20 people to can produce at once and a courtyard with fruit trees and garden crops to help those who need it. Other ideas include environmental efficiency, such as recycling greywater to irrigate the gardens.

“I want this to be a game-changer for the community,” Luster told the CIRD representatives. “But people have to be able to relate to it or it’s going to be an alien spaceship in the middle of downtown.”

The public is invited to tour the building Nov. 20-22 and offer suggestions about its use and revitalization. All input is encouraged.

“We want this to not only be a building that can broaden the scale of our mission,” Luster said, “but also one that contributes to aiding other community organizations whose aims are to help people in need and strengthen the communities of Oregon County in any and every way possible.”

A series of presentations and engagement activities over the weekend includes designers, horticulturalists, market specialists, architects, cultural geographers and more. The resource team includes Richard Saxton and Kirsten Stoltz of the M12 Collective, Guy Ames of Ames Orchard and Nursery and ATTRA, Maria Sykes from Epicenter, and Ben Sandel of CDS Consulting Co-Op. Other presenters include Matthew Fluharty of Art of The Rural, Jesse Vogler, designer and cultural geographer, Mark Wise, an architect with KEMStudio, and Emily Vogler a landscape architect from Michael Van Valkengurgh Associates Inc.

“I feel very fortunate to have the collaboration of such a wonderful team of specialists and people!” Luster said. “I know that each member of the team places, foremost, the engagement of community in their process, and I really think, with our community and this team, we can make something really special happen on the square in Alton.”

Luster said the co-op’s mission basically comes down to cultivating and nurturing community life and an economy of neighborliness.

“Not to sound too precious,” Luster said, “but we do all depend on one another and this place to make it, why not work together to make it the best it can be and to serve as many of us as possible?”

Luster said those questions led to starting the co-op. Her philosophy in all of this remains that a vibrant and dynamic culture is both the flower and the seed of a well-tended community.

“The process is and has been allowed to be organic and has manifested itself in ways I could have never imagined,” she said. “Some were foreseen or predictable, but others have been pleasant surprises.”

While preparing for the Nov. 20-22 weekend, Luster said she looks forward to this next phase, one where the coo-op expands its mission locally and to seeing this model adapted and tried in different places to address the needs and resources of those sites and communities. Already two sister/spin off organizations have formed with interest mounting in other regions.

“I think this model has the ability to be locally adapted by a variety of communities and disciplines and be successful,” Luster said. “I look forward to seeing that happen!”

To learn more, visit the co-op at Oregon County Co-op's Facebook page or see this 2013 Mother Earth News blog – Food Co-op Promotes Bartering, Sustainability.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.

Photos by Linda Holliday and courtesy of Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op.

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.



I had huge plans for the garden this year. I want to show you photos of pristine raised garden beds with mulch in-between, keeping weeds at bay, exploding with awe inspiring vegetables and fruits, green, lush plants bursting with bounty that I would then can away for the winter months. What I can show you are photographs of green, lush weeds growing in-between and inside my raised garden beds covering the carcasses of what were my vegetables and fruits. I can also show you a quarter filled pantry that should have been busting from the seams.

This year, I sucked at gardening. I had zero discipline and farted around until what was a manageable garden became a Thunderdome of weeds. I got busy. I get distracted way too easily. I did not manage my time well. I did not prioritize and I just plain sucked. I am one of those individuals who, at times, make more work for themselves by cutting corners and lazing around without any clear direction. I am a garden loser…but…I am now equipped with the knowledge of what not to do and I am not doomed to fail next year. I have lit a fire under my moderately sized rear end to blow it up next year when I will show you a banging garden and a pantry full of it’s bounty.

Don’t get deterred if you fail, get harder on yourself. Take this fall and read up on what you want to grow, maybe condense what you want to grow and just grow the basics until you get a handle on things. I went all exotic with what I planted and needed to focus my attention on vegetables and fruits that my family eats on the regular and not what seems romantic or eclectic to grow.

I am already planning next year’s garden and while I am not looking forward to all the hard labor to come, it’s my penance for taking it so easy this year as well as a reminder that doing it right the first time saves time, energy and vegetables.

So, go easy on yourself for making a mistake but be harder on yourself to not repeat those mistakes. Making a mistake once is fine, everyone does it, it’s the remembering not to do it again that’s the hard part. Happy gardening!

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.


The beekeeping year starts now. Most budding beekeepers will begin thinking about this venture in the spring. That’s what I did. Everything awakening. Gardeners starting to plant early crops of peas and greens. Spring calves and lambs beginning to make their entrance. And beginners looking to start an apiary.

It was too late.

At least too late to start with package bees. I didn’t know about trying to find nucs (pronounced "nuke" and short for nucleus colony) for sale, so I just waited another year. Some established apiary will have nucs for sale in April or May. But even these sell out quickly. Perhaps you can capture a wild swarm although hiving wild swarms and having them stay in your location is difficult at best.

In my opinion the best way for a new beekeeper to get started is with a package of bees. Orders must happen between November and January for the following spring arrival. The earlier the better as packages tend to sell out quickly.

What Is a "Package" of Honeybees?

A package of honeybees is a ventilated box, filled with about 3 pounds or 10,000 bees. The box also holds a can of sugar solution to sustain the bees through their journey and a queen in a separate cage. Honeybees can travel this way for a week or so and are quite docile during their trip. They are not protecting brood or significant food supply. They hang together around the queen getting to know her. Essentially this is an artificial swarm created by a supplier and packaged for shipment.

In the pictures are two different containers used to ship honeybees. Although one is plastic and the other is a wood and screen material, both are about the same size. Ventilation is important, but also the size of the vents are small enough that bees will not escape. You may see a few bees clinging to the outside of the box. This is normal and does not mean that the cage has a hole. You just have some hitchhikers.

Plastic Bee Bus

Wood Bee Crate

Start Planning Now

Consider how many hives you would like to manage. You can start with one, but at least two is recommended. Two hives will help you compare the behavior of the colonies. You will have a backup if one fails. If one of the colonies is weak, you will have options to bolster numbers from the other or combine the hives so that not all is lost.

Next, find a reputable supplier. There are multiple beekeeping supply houses available on the internet that offer package bee sales. Some will sell a complete kit including the hive and bees. Others will sell only the bees and you purchase the hive separately. Ask the beekeepers in your area. Beekeepers are helpful folks ready to share their advice and information. They will know who sells bees and be able to give you advice about their experience with package bee suppliers.

Now what?

Order your bees.

Read and learn all you can about keeping honeybees. Join a beekeeping club. Watch our video  on Youtube about how to hive your new package of honeybees. Dream about the sweet delicious honey you will harvest next year.

Stop by the Five Feline Farm website for more about life on a hobby farm. Happy beekeeping.

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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