Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Add to My MSN



When we first started our homesteading journey, I was constantly amazed by some of the things people said. Not just from those who don't understand self-sufficiency, but also from those who are just like us. We are in competition with no one. We love this lifestyle, because it suits us. And we never want to be judgmental to those who don't enjoy the same lifestyle that we do. If you truly knew me personally, then you would see the beautiful array of colors and religions and lifestyles of friends that I have, and I love them all the same!

It's always a good thing to taste your words before spitting them out. And other times, it's nice to put yourself in someone else's shoes before thinking their life is a walk in the park. The moral of the story? Think before you speak, and show more grace than necessary...because ultimately, none of us "have it all together."

Here are 10 Things You Should Never Say to a Homesteader...If You're a Non-Homesteader

1. "You mean, you eat that?"

Yes, because I've seen where that chicken from the grocery store that is sitting on your plate comes from, and I would rather lick my backyard than eat what you're eating. Oh, and my kid helps me process my food, too!

The sad reality is that if you truly knew where your food came from, what was inside of it, and how it was processed, you probably wouldn't eat it either. Fermenting, curing, and butchering your own food is a lost art -- we simply want to revive it and teach others just how simple and rewarding it is. And in the long run, it's much healthier for you.

2. "Don't you think you have enough animals?"

No. Enough said. Don't you think you have a boring life without farm animals?

3. "You don't own a farm, you just have a bunch of backyard animals."

Well, that depends on who you're talking to. But no one who owns farm animals "just" has a bunch of farm animals in their backyard. Believe it or not, we do have to take care of them properly...whether we live on a 1/4 acre or 100 acres.

4. "I don't understand why you can't just be normal."

Yes, I've actually had this said to me, multiple times, when it comes to homesteading. Tell me, where on earth is the definition of "normal"? Who got to define what "normal" was? Because if you put 10 people in a room and ask them what a "normal" person is, you'd probably get 10 different answers. Let's stop being so judgmental, please. Because my "normal" is living off the land just like my "normal" ancestors did. If anything, the modern world is completely abnormal.

5. "Don't you need a rooster for your chickens to lay eggs?"

*face palm*

If You're a Fellow Homesteader

1. "I don't get to stay home during the day and homestead. I have to work a real job too, so it's harder for me."

No, it's not harder for you. It's the same exact thing that we are doing but on a different time schedule. The reality is that we're all in this together, and if we're simply going to pick and choose who has the "harder" job, then we're completely missing the whole reason as to why we do what we do.

With that said, I completely understand. If I were just homesteading with a few animals and had a full time job, I wouldn't think much of it. But we homestead, homeschool, and I work from home during the week. There are not enough hours in the day to do everything that I want to do. However, I make it work. Why? Because I love this lifestyle, whether it's at 9 a.m. or 11 p.m.

2. "Will you take $20 for this $100 animal?"

When I first started my photography business, I literally gave my talent away. And I enjoyed it, but it wasn't realistic. So I learned early on in our homestead adventure that I just couldn't give things away (with some exceptions), and I needed to put a quality price on my time and our animals. Otherwise, I'd "give" myself right out of's not something we would be able to support with just giving things away. However, we do give many things away when we feel led to.

It is insulting when someone offers less than 75% of what you're asking. If I were to say "make me an offer, any offer will do", then certainly. But if I'm saying "let's see what we can work out"...absolutely not. I work just as hard as you do -- would you take that from someone else? I doubt it. Wheel and deal by all means (and barter, even!), but try your hardest not to make an offer that is a complete waste of my time and effort.

3. "Why doesn't your husband just do that?"

This is woman specific, because I hear it ALL of the time.

My answer? Because I have a husband who was caring enough to tell me a long time ago to learn how to do things on my own in case something ever happened to him and I had to take care of our family all by myself. Yes, he helps. But the uprising of women farmers is inspiring, and rightfully so. The average age of the Virginian farmer is 60 years old, who is going to take his or her place when they are gone? We (women) care about farming, homesteading, raising healthy families and our food system just as much as, if not more than, most men. I take joy in taking care of, breeding, and processing our animals. And he takes joy in the building of hutches, garden beds, and other handyman things that need done. And yes, he does sneak some cuddles in with the ducks every now and then....don't let his burly manhood fool you!4.

4. "Why don't you make EVERYTHING from scratch?"

Because there is not enough time in the day to make everything from scratch...let's be honest here. And whether you realize it or not, you don't make everything from scratch either. I do not have enough time during the week to make soap, laundry detergent, dish liquid, homemade meals from scratch every single day (bfast, lunch and dinner), my own clothing, blah blah blah. However, I try my hardest to do what I can in the time frame that I have. And the stuff that doesn't get done....I absolutely love supporting my fellow homestead friends and crunchy momma's who do these things!! We're all on this journey together, and that means we get to support each others businesses and talents as well!

5. "I don't know how you do it all."

I don't. I don't do it all. I have days when I fail, big time. I have days when I just want to give up. I have days when I realize I've bitten off more than I can chew. I have days when I feel alone in this journey and like I'm the only one who cares (and then my husband goes out and buys organic ketchup and I remember he is just as committed as I am). I have days when I compare myself to other moms or homesteaders. I have days when I sit on real estate websites and day dream of what we "could" have, but then I realize I am so blessed to have what we DO have. I'm just like everyone else, I just package it differently.....

Amy Fewell is a work-at-home mom, homesteader, blogger and writer. Her and her family live on a mini-homestead in Virginia where they raise Icelandic Chickens, standard Rex rabbits, ducks, and more!  For more information about their homestead, visit them online at The Fewell Homestead.

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.


Like all good things, the maple tapping season must come to an end. Those few weeks sure went by fast! Just a few quick chores left and then you can get to enjoying your sweet bounty. Before you can call it done, you’ll need to remove the taps, clean everything up, and store it away until next year. So how do you know when the season is over?

Three Ways to Tell the Season is Over

Look for these simple signs that the tapping season is done for the year (we hope it’s the first one!):

Sign #1 You’ve made all the syrup you want! Unless you know another sugarmaker who wants your sap, you can remove the taps whenever you’ve reached your goal.

Sign #2 The sap flow slows down dramatically – this usually happens because the freeze/thaw temperature cycle has passed. You’ll still get a little sap each day but this change usually leads to the next sign:

Sign #3 The tree buds out. This is the final straw for your sugarmaking! Once those buds appear, the sap develops an off or “buddy” flavor and it will not make good tasting syrup.

buds on maple tree 

How to Remove Taps and Take Care of Trees

With a claw hammer, gently pry the spile from the tree. With a little pressure, it will pop right out. Avoid digging into the bark with your hammer or applying too much pressure on the spile. Once the spiles are out, you don’t need to do anything to the tree. It will heal naturally over the summer. Next year when you tap, be sure to locate your new taphole at least 12" above or below and 6" sideways from this mark.

removing spile from maple tree 

Clean Up

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, dish soap or detergent is the enemy of good tasting syrup. Even a tiny leftover trace can ruin a batch’s flavor! All equipment can be sufficiently cleaned with hot water but if you must use a cleaner, opt for a mild bleach solution (one part unscented, regular household bleach (not commercial strength) combined with 20 parts hot water). Swirl your spiles, buckets, lids, and cooking equipment in this solution. Bags or sacks should not be cleaned with bleach. For tubing, force the bleach solution through the entire tube while plugging one end. Be sure the tubing is filled and let the bleach solution sit in the tube for a day or two. After cleaning, thoroughly rinse all equipment so no traces of bleach remain and allow to air dry completely before storing away. Next season before tapping, rinse everything again with fresh hot water. When using tubing, some producers also allow the first day’s sap to run onto the ground just to ensure the bleach is removed.

rinsing spile at season's end 

That’s it for cleanup! As you put away your gear, inspect everything for wear and tear and replace anything that’s showing rust, cracks, or tears. This is also a good time of year to make a few notes about the season: which trees produced the best; how the cooking process went; when the season started and ended; how much sap you collected and how much syrup you made; and anything else that could make next year go smoother.

Now to the Good Part: Enjoying Your Maple Syrup!

After you’ve had your fill of flapjacks – and still have a pantry full of pure maple syrup – you’ll want to venture past the breakfast table. Maple syrup is delicious in everything from cocktails to side dishes to entrees to desserts and you can find hundreds of recipes on most online recipe sites. Don’t be afraid to experiment and add a drizzle to veggies or mix in a couple tablespoons with your homemade granola. Maple syrup is also a great replacement for white sugar but obviously it will impart a maple flavor to your dish. Generally, one cup of pure maple syrup equals one cup of sugar and can be swapped out in most recipes. For cookies and cakes that also use liquid ingredients, just reduce the liquids by three tablespoons for each cup of maple syrup used.

Candy, cream, and maple sugar are all created by boiling the pure maple syrup to different temperatures. Here are a couple favorites to try this weekend:

Jack Wax or Maple-on-Snow

A classic maple syrup candy and a huge kid favorite is the taffy-like candy called “Jack Wax”. This is made when hot syrup is poured over snow and hardens into sweet candy ribbons. To make your own, start out by filling a pan with clean snow or shaved ice and keep frozen. Syrup needs to be boiled to a higher temperature – you can use pre-bottled and reheated syrup or just continue to the desired temperature with your initial boil. For taffy consistency, boil syrup to 230°F and for more brittle, glass-like candy, boil to 252 degrees Fahrenheit. Consistency changes within this temperature range. Once your syrup has reached your preferred temperature, immediately pour it in ribbons on the snow or ice. It will instantly harden and should be eaten right away.

jack wax on snow 

Maple Butter or Maple Cream

Another versatile and favorite maple syrup creation is Maple Cream and it’s delicious as a spread for bagels, smothered on sweet potatoes, or as a dip for fruit slices. To make Maple Cream, add ¼ teaspoon of butter or cream to approximately 2 cups of pure maple syrup and boil to 236 degrees. While it’s boiling, fill a large bowl with ice and water. When the batch reaches the proper temperature, set the entire pot in the ice bath – do not stir or let water lap over edge. When it’s cooled to room temperature, remove from the ice bath and stir slowly with a wooden spoon until it turns opaque and becomes the consistency of peanut butter. Store in the refrigerator. Only light colored syrups will work for making maple cream.

What’s Next?

By now you can officially call yourself a sugarmaker. And I’ll guess it was much easier than you thought it would be! After you’ve been through this first season, you’ve probably learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work. In my next blog, I’ll share some of those lessons and offer up tips for making next year even more productive.

You can also read all of Julie’s blogs in this series hereFor more information on sugarmaking, Julie's books, Guide to Maple Tapping and Kid’s Guide to Maple Tapping, are available on Amazon in both ebook and printed versions.

The information and instructions contained within this blog series were gleaned through the personal sugarmaking experience of the author, through interviews and case studies with professional sugarmakers, and through these resources:

1. Blumenstock, Marvin (author); Hopkins, Kathy (editor); How to Tap Maple Trees and Make Maple Syrup, 2007,
2. Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program, Frequently Asked Questions for the Maple Producer, Forest Owner, and Consumer, authored by Peter J. Smallidge, Marianne E. Krasny, Lewis J. Staats, Steve Childs, and Mike Farrell, 2013,
3. Heiligmann, Randall B., Ohio State School of Natural Resources, Hobby Maple Syrup Production,
4. Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, Explaining Sap Flow, 2014,
5. Michigan Maple Syrup Association, 2003, Facts and Figures,
6. Nebraska Forest Service, Sugar Maple,
7. Somerset County Maple Producers Association, New Options for the Maple Spout or Spile, 2012,
8. Styles, Serena, Nutrition of Pure Maple Syrup vs Honey, 2014,
9. United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, Maple Syrup Production, 2014,
10. Vogt, Carl, University of Minnesota Extension, Minnesota maple series: Identifying maples trees for syrup production, 2013,

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.


Backyard Maple Tapping

Backyard Scramblin’

I’ve always had a craving for sweet foods, especially as a kid. I also liked to climb trees; still do. I remember when the two cravings came together one day in my backyard near New Paltz, N.Y. My brother and I were climbing a tree. We didn’t know what type of tree it was, but it was high enough with branches that served as good scaffolding to shimmy around in. I remember noticing an oozing, clear substance trickling down the bark of the trunk and limbs. “Hey, let’s taste it,” I thought. So I did, and it was sweet. Soon the tree found both my brother and I scurrying for sap like two squirrels raiding a bird feeder. I was happy as a tree sloth: I had something sweet to eat, while some branches to climb, too.

The substance was maple sap. I confirmed the tree species a few years ago when I revisited my old backyard. My family moved away to nearby Gardiner, but I never forgot those trees. I asked the landowner living there for permission to walk about. Sure enough, there were two large sugar maples where I had climbed almost twenty-five years ago! I saw its lower branch reach out into the yard – like it did then – instigating me to let go and revisit a slice of childhood. I thought better; it wasn’t my place any more.

Backyard Trees for Sap

Sugar maple is not the only tree that produces abundant sap in late winter and early spring. Sycamore; black walnut; paper, black, and yellow birch trees; and all maples trees can be tapped for their sap.

However, some are sweeter than others. For instance, birch trees seem to produce more sap than any other tree. They’ll fill up a 5-gallon bucket in one day. However, it’s about 99 percent water, or 1 percent sugar. That means it’ll take about 85 gallons of birch sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup. After burning a lot of firewood, it boils down to a molasses flavor that some enjoy, and others not so much. Alaska produces the most birch syrup, but maple is not on their forest dessert menu.

I tasted black walnut recently at the New York Maple Conference – and it’s good. However, its syrup contains a lot of pectin and is difficult to filter. In addition, the Catskills and mid-Hudson Valley are not as abundant in black walnut as they are in maple. What about sycamore? There aren’t many of them, and they are mostly found growing in floodplains near streams and rivers.

Comparing Sugar Maple and Red Maple for Sap Production

Maple is abundant – relatively speaking – and gives ample sap and sugar content. You can tap any of them; even Norway maple (Acer platanoides), according Steve Childs from Cornell Maple Research Program and Extension. Commercial producers typically tap sugar (Acer saccharum) and red maple (Acer rubrum). Quality syrup can be made by either of the two. It was thought that red maple had lower sugar contents, made darker syrup, and had a “buddier” sap because its buds break dormancy earlier than sugar maples.

However, I am hearing from Steve Childs and others that there is no substantial evidence of this. I believe them, since I once tapped a red, and its sugar was adequate and sap plentiful. Sugar maples have lighter gray bark and brown buds, while reds have shaggier bark (except when they’re young and growing fast) and large red buds. Sugar maple is pickier about where it likes to grow. It prefers well-drained soils, while red maple can tolerate both poorly drained soil and dry ridgetops.

Consider Backyard Sugarin’ for Homemade Syrup

Homemade Maple Syrup 

The more sunlight your trees received last summer, the healthier and sweeter their sap will be. Normally, this type of discussion would naturally flow into a step-by-step process on backyard sugaring. But, to be honest, it’s really too late to begin sugaring. Maple sugaring is governed by three things: Last year’s sunlight, this year’s temperature, and your motivation. Sap flow cannot occur without freezing nights and warm days. The end of the 10-day forecast in our area has lows that are creeping up above freezing spelling the end of the sweet season, and the beginning of the growing season. The last criterion begins now – your motivation. Let’s talk about that.

You’ll need between 1/2 cord to 1 cord of wood to make five gallons of maple syrup. You could scramble and get things together and make something good, but maple sugaring demands patience and planning ahead. First, find some trees. If you don’t have sugar or red maple nearby, you’re out of luck. Second, get some sapwood a year ahead. Cut it, split it, and cover only the top so the ends can dry. You can either buy firewood ahead of time or cut it yourself. The problem with buying firewood for sapwood is you no longer have control over species. The best woods for boiling sap are least preferred for firewood. A fire that burns hot, fast, and leaves few coals is preferred for boiling sap. Good tree species include white pine, aspen, red maple, white ash, hemlock, and sassafras. The wood will burn even hotter if it’s split smaller too.

Pile of Stacked Wood 

Any tree species that are competing for sunlight with your potential sugarmakers are candidates for sapwood. If you have some sugar or red maple trees nearby to tap, you can “kill two birds with one stone.” In this way, you can feed the boiler while letting in more sunlight to grow higher sugar contents come spring. Like most crops, more sunlight is better. The trees I tap are open grown. Typically maple trees are about 2 percent sugar content (42 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup). The trees I tap receive plenty of sunlight and are often 2.5 percent (33 gallons of sap to 1 gallon of syrup). This year, they were a whopping 3 percent (27.6 to 1); though that’s unusual.

Lastly, you’ll need an evaporator – a pan used to evaporate away the water from the sap – and something to gather the sap in: buckets or tubing. Stainless steel is the way to go for an evaporator. Bake pans are readily accessible for backyard use, while gallon plastic water jugs for hanging “buckets” are an inexpensive option. Taps or spiles used to make the tap-hole can be purchased from any maple supplier. You can make your own from staghorn sumac if you’re super motivated as well.

Home Sugar Making Station 

Lessons for Backyard Maple Tapping

As the date approaches, more details on the process will follow. However, as things warm up, start planning for next spring. Get your wood in order. On a backyard scale, it’s not worth burning any other fuel. Propane is too expensive; you might as well buy the stuff. Choose your trees. The bigger their crown (or foliage) is, the better. Lastly, think about what and where you’ll boil this stuff. Don’t do it inside!

Remember, there’s going to be about forty gallons or so of water evaporating away. If you must tap this year, Catskill Forest Association has a small booklet that describes backyard sugaring step-by-step. Hey, you can always just tap one tree and use its sap for tea, coffee, or a slightly sweet and tasty beverage. On a good day, one gushing tap can produce over two gallons of sap.

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.


Oh, Romeo, Romeo.

Is there anything more endearing than a newborn lamb?

Meet my Romeo!

Romeo, a sweetheart

I made the decision last fall not to breed the ewes and to take a year off from lambing. Last winter was tough. We had a lot of snow and it was frigid for weeks on end, sort of like this winter. But when January came rolling around, even with blizzard after blizzard threatening, I started missing lambs.

I called Brian, my farming mentor and friend. I told him my plight. He just laughed. As one animal nut to another, he understood. So, I put in my order for a ram lamb. I even told him if he had one that needed bottle raising, I’d take it. Two days before Valentine’s, I got the call. His ewe Marianne had twins but no milk. I drove over to take a look. Romeo came home with me two days later.


It happened to be Valentine’s Day — thus the name. So, Romeo has joined the Bittersweet flock.

I’ve raised lambs on bottles, but only ones who just couldn’t get the knack of nursing. I bottle fed them, but they lived with their moms out on pasture and in the sheep barn. Raising a lamb inside, sharing your home with and being the one on whom a lamb relies for everything, is a different kind of commitment and a 24-hour-a-day job.

It took just 24 hours for Romeo to steal my heart. I love that he follows me around the house, his tiny hooves clipping along behind me. Lambs grow very quickly, so even though he’s small enough now to sit in my lap and nap or enjoy his bottle, I know that, in a few short weeks, he’ll be (almost) too big to do that.

Sleepy Romeo 

I also already know I’ll miss it. So, when he calls from his playpen, simply because he wants to come sit with me, I’m happy to oblige. It seems a small thing to ask. After all, it wasn’t his choice to have a strange human be a substitute for his real mom. For now, I’ll let the dust bunnies have their way with the corners. The laundry can be done another day. I have a baby lamb to cuddle.

Looking outside my window, with snow swirling around and the day coming to an end, my world is blessed with a lamb sitting on my lap as I type these words. I can feel his tiny heart beating and hear his baby breath flowing in and out of his newborn chest. Let the snow fly, let banks of white stuff pile up outside my door. Thanks, winter. It’s time for lambs.

Dyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose."  Bittersweet Heritage Farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Her farm is also an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.

Photos by Dyan Redick

This post originally appeared on

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.


If anyone from Texas ever tells you that something went “haywire” it usually means that a mechanical or electrical device has stopped working properly, or altogether. Broken machinery now leaving you a lot less comfortable than you were just a minute ago when it was only making a "funny noise." Once in awhile haywire also refers to a troubled, “misunderstood” neighbor having a really bad day, but we try not to rehash the “Padgett Prom Princess Pummels Presbyterians” headlines from a couple years ago. Automobiles, household appliances, children’s toys... they all go haywire at some point, which means you either get a new one, get the old one fixed, fix it yourself, or do without. We do a lot of “fix it yourself” around my off-grid house in the country. Sounds noble, I know, but really it’s because I’m a cheapskate. Money is meant to be used for purchasing only things you enjoy, such as more chickens, more fertile chicken eggs, a new incubator, more housing for chickens, and a few more pullets should do it. I couldn’t fix the incubator. Cheap crap.


Oddly enough, “haywire” likewise refers to a universal replacement part you’ll need to fix the confounded machine hellbent on making your life suck. To fix the busted machinery, gather up some duct tape, a screw gun and a handful of metal roofing screws, and plenty of haywire (hay baling wire). These three items will mend just about anything you can manage to break or let wear out if your Mechanical Creativity Quotient (MCQ) is up to snuff. The McGyver character MCQ was genius level. (Play along, please, it’s a thing I’m trying to start.) Hay bailing wire, made from a metal alloy and extruded into lengths of hundreds of feet, is wrapped and tied tightly around large bales of hay in many shapes and sizes. A bale can hold together for years. Baling wire can also be used to temporarily piece broken machinery parts back together in almost every application, especially situations where you’re stranded 65 miles from town, or your means of cooling off the house in the middle of a scorching Texas summer grinds to a loud, screeching halt. If Necessity is the Mother of Invention, hay baling wire is her apron strings, tied tightly to all things in need of fixin’.

baling wire

Here’s a recent example of how my philosophy of “fix it yourself” kept me out of hot water, at least temporarily.

"The swamp cooler went haywire last night so I had to fix it in the dark. Better give it a look-see before we take off," I remembered as Joe Don and I were headed for town early one Monday morning.

I hate it when that happens,” quipped my running buddy Joe Don, a man of few words but my longtime friend nonetheless.

“The bottom pan finally rusted out and that bracket holding the pulley broke loose.”

“Did it wake y’all up?”

“I’ll say. Man, it sound like a alley cat three-way at first, making a high-pitched, squealingest racket you ever heard. Couple minutes later the belt jumped off and shut her down.”

“Hot last night.”

“Hotter’n two rats humping in a wool sock. Weren’t no two ways about it, I had to get up and fix the darn thing.”

“That new girlfriend of yours looking at you funny?”

“Didn’t take long, did it? I found one of those tin foil turkey roasting pans leftover from the chili cook-off in the kitchen, kinda flattened it out and covered up the rusted out part on the bottom of the cooler. Sealed her up with some duct tape, silicone, and a few screws, then I tied the bracket and pulley back in place with that haywire there, put the belt back on and voila, cool breezes.”

“Reckon she’ll hold up?”

“Don’t see why not. If it was gonna give up the ghost for good, you’d think it would’a happened in the first 100 years.”

“Don’t make ‘em like they use to.”

“Good thing we’re still making hay.”

“Otherwise wouldn’t be no haywire.”

“And I’d be hot as a road lizard.”

“And looking for a new girlfriend.”

Fix it yourself. A good policy to keep if you’re living on the farm, off-grid, way out in the country, or downtown New York City for that matter.

Everything goes haywire at some point.

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.

Spring 05.jpg

I’m not sure what this topic has to do with homesteading but it does have to do with our life in the mountains and the first day of spring. We don’t need a calendar or meteorologist to tell us when spring starts at our location. We have our own indicators that are also very accurate. We have a little thing-a-ma-bob that we bought at a craft fair many years ago that does a remarkable job of predicting spring time. It is a small cut glass triangle soldered together with a prism hanging in the middle. It accurately tells us exactly when spring arrives each year. Even though we still have two feet of snow on the ground outside the little prism doesn’t lie about the beginning of spring regardless of the snow.

We purchased this cut glass do-hickey probably 25+ years ago at one of the premium craft fairs in Tallahassee, Florida. We have always enjoyed craft fairs because of the hand made and unique items that are available. I believe it was at that particular fair that we also purchased four rum balls from two nice ladies from Georgia who were selling them for .50 cents each. They were the best rum balls I have ever tasted and they sold out quickly as others found them tasty as well. After walking around looking at the various items and munching our rum balls we noticed we were getting a little buzz from the rum balls. Neither of us are drinkers so we noticed the potency of those rum balls quickly. Did I mention how craft fairs have unique and different items for sale?

We came to a booth where the vendor had made several cut and beveled glass items with prisms hanging inside. We purchased one and have displayed it or hung it in a window ever since. Therefore when we moved here 18 years ago the triangular window in our living room seemed to be the perfect place to locate the cut glass trinket. We noticed one year that on the first day of spring it commenced to emit rainbows. As the seasons went by we found that our house was perfectly situated so that on the first day of spring each year rainbows would suddenly be all over the ceiling. It clearly has something to do with the precise positioning of our house and the rotation of the earth but we have watched for several years now and on the first day of spring the rainbows magically appear.

Spring 09.jpg

Of course there are other signs of spring we observe as well that we have become attuned to here in the mountains. None quite as reliable as that little triangular cut glass/prism hanging in the window though. During the winter we may see a single grosbeak at the bird feeder but when spring starts they seem to flock together with 20 or more in each flock. The start of spring is usually when we see our first chipmunk also. With the ground still covered in snow this year on the first day of spring there was a brave little chipmunk sitting on the front steps basking in the sun light. That was also the first time we observed a robin hopping down the driveway.

When I looked up the term equinox I found that it happens two times a year when the daylight and darkness are about equal with each other (Wikipedia). Our prism and cut glass thing-a-ma-jig and its rainbows coincide precisely with that spring equinox so we have our own tool to tell us when the first day of spring happens. When we had our house built we didn’t plan to have it positioned this way but it just turned out that way. I’m glad we discovered that the position of our house, the spring equinox, along with our prism all come together to tell us exactly when spring starts. It is usually spot on in accuracy but can be a day early or late depending on cloud cover which blocks the sun. That doesn’t change the first day of spring it just hides it from us to be discovered later. The further into spring we get the more the rainbows appear each morning. Some days we will have dozens of rainbows floating around the front of the house and it is mesmerizing to witness this beautiful spectacle each morning.

Again I don’t have a clue how this relates to homesteading but if you attend a craft fair and spot one of these trinkets I would recommend purchasing one and doing a little experimentation with the windows of your domicile. It just may be that a window will be found that will predict the first day of spring like ours does. We came upon our revelation accidentally but the floating rainbows produced each year are so beautiful that they compel a person to stop for a moment just to admire them. Even though we may have been a little tipsy when we came across this trinket initially we have not regretted for a moment making the purchase. The beauty it has provided us over the years simply can’t be measured in dollars.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their lifestyle go to Bruce and Carol's 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.



Quality protein is essential to the healthy growth of any omnivore or carnivore, whether it be pig, poultry, fish, reptile, canine, or human. Soy fills this need, but it has an increasingly large environmental footprint and its mass-scale production is anything but sustainable. Finding a cheap and easy alternative to this greedy crop has become imperative, and that’s where mealworms come in.

The Dark Side of Soybean Production

The majority of soy produced worldwide is used as a protein supplement for animals, while a lesser proportion is grown for human consumption and for biofuel. Between the three markets, a huge demand for soybeans has developed, and it is causing a massive problem.

To produce one pound of soy, it requires over 240 gallons of water (Save Our Water), 17 square feet of land (USDA projects record crop production), and it releases 0.86 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere (Tofu Carbon Footprint). It also is important to note that about 90 percent of soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified and needs a large amount of herbicides, mostly fossil fuel based. Because of this drain on precious natural resources, soy production has become a leading cause of deforestation in places like Brazil (Wikipedia: Deforestation in Brazil).

Meal Worms

The Soy Alternative

Soy protein is often hailed as a "green" replacement for meat. However, it is the use of soy within the meat industry that is largely responsible for the emissions and carbon footprint of livestock production.  If animals didn’t consume so much soy, they would be considerably less harmful to the environment.

So what’s the alternative? At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much of a choice available for efficient protein production, and soy is currently the cheapest on the market.  But for the small-scale producer, there is a little known option that can be produced at a fraction of the cost and environmental impact of soybeans.

Enter the mighty mealworm.  As far as insects go, mealworms don’t look that impressive.  They are about 1-1/2 inches long, a tannish yellow color, and spend most of their time under the surface of their substrate (they don't like light).  The adult form is called a darkling beetle, a primary decomposer within forest ecosystems. They only live a few months, but they breed prolifically. They are typically considered a pest in granaries and cereal stores, because they thrive on "meals" made from grains and grain byproducts.

Under this unassuming exterior lies a powerful tool for farmers and consumers alike to produce cheap protein in a small space.  Mealworms are extremely efficient at converting food into bodyweight.  It takes about 2 pounds of food to produce a pound of mealworms.  Compare that with a cow, which has a ratio of 8:1. Mealworms have another advantage: they are consumed whole, compared with larger livestock, whereby 50 percent of the bodyweight is composed of bones, offal, and other inedible portions.

Mealworms thrive in cramped conditions and are at least 17 times more productive per unit of space than soy. They require less than 1/2 gallon of water per pound of mealworms produced, making them 500 times more efficient than soy in terms of water use. They also eat a wide variety of waste streams, including grain by-products, dried weeds, and even manures from other animals. You'd be hard pressed to match this level of resource efficiency with any common livestock or crop grown today.

Aside from the protein production, mealworms also produce another valuable resource: frass. Mealworm frass is a dry, odorless waste product.  It is easy to handle and store, and doesn't have the same drawbacks as other animal manures. It retails for $15/pound or more online. Frass has N/P/K values of 3.66 percent, 1.40 percent, 1.62 percent, respectively, and a Carbon/Nitrogen ratio of 9.86, making it a quality fertilizer and great addition to composts or topsoil.

Mealworm Farming

The most common food for mealworms is wheat bran, a byproduct of wheat.  But, as mentioned earlier, mealworms can eat a wide range of other things too, including oats, dried grasses, straw, grain/feed dust, agriculture waste, and herbivore manures. Many of these potential mealworm meals are considered waste streams, which means that they are usually in plentiful supply, and are often free or very cheap.

Furthermore, when waste products are thrown away, they often become problematic. For example, animal manures can pollute water supplies and contribute to climate change through methane production. Similarly, lawn clippings clog landfills and municipal waste management systems. Using mealworms to process these wastes can not only provide us with an alternative to soy, they can also greatly reduce the bulk of organic pollution in our waste stream.

Mixing herbivore manure with a carbohydrate source, like bran or grass, we can provide a balanced diet for mealworms. We mix the manure and carbon at a 1:1 ratio, and with mealworms' FCR of 2:1, that means for every pound of manure we feed them, we get a pound of mealworms out.

Seeing as mealworms do not like the light, we designed our Mealworm Farm (Instructables: Mealworm Farm) as a tower with closely spaced shelves. Not only does this make their habitat a little darker, but it is also extremely space efficient. It takes 1-1/2 square feet of space to produce 1-1/2 pounds of mealworms a week. Furthermore, we made each tray different, according to the different stages of the insect’s life cycle. The trays with growing worms all contain screened bottoms, allowing the frass to filter down and be easy to collect, ready for use on our garden.

Sorting Containers

Mealworms in Livestock Feed

So, how do mealworms work in livestock feed? The answer is that mealworms are a high quality protein source, and can replace the use of soy in any omnivore’s diet. Poultry relish the mealworms, and the wiggly treats are a great way to tame any bird.  Gecko and lizard owners know the power of mealworms, as they are the default live food for many of those animals. Dogs, cats, pigs, and fish all enjoy mealworms raw, and will quickly ignore their commercial ration in favor of the tasty larva.

Mealworms have 48 percent protein by weight (Feedipedia: Mealworms), which is similar to soy’s 50 percent protein (Feedipedia: Soybean meal). Mealworms contain more total energy per pound, however, and have lower ash and crude fiber content.

Just like soy, they need to be mixed with other feed sources, as a pure protein diet is not healthy or balanced. Mealworms can be dried for grinding and added to commercial rations using existing infrastructure, and require less processing than soy. Combined with their lower resource consumption and cost, mealworms offer a real option as a protein source for animals.


Mealworms in Human Diets

Humans can also eat mealworms, and the growing entomophagy communities in western countries recommend mealworms as the perfect starter insect.  They can be fried, toasted, sautéed, powdered, and even made into ToFu! They are very tasty and their appearance is simple, not a lot of legs and antennae to scare dinner guests.

An average adult requires some 400 grams (.88 pounds) of protein per week. An optimized mealworm production system (How To: Mealworm Farm) can produce this in less than 2 square feet of space. This is smaller than most refrigerators. Imagine a protein supply in a spare closet or room, producing protein and garden fertilizer on a regular basis. This is only possible with efficient insects, like mealworms.

FAO has been promoting insects as viable protein sources for humans (Insects for Food and Feed) as a way to reduce the environmental impact of meat. And using insects as a meat supply marks a significant reduction in that impact, mainly because of their efficiency. But these studies go only so far, as they assume feeding insects grains and soy, so they are basically replacing a cow with a mealworm. While this does reduce the overall footprint, there still remains a significant impact associated with this practice.

We can do much better than this. It seems illogical to use valuable land to grow grains for insects; they have not been bred for decades to eat grain-based diets, so why use such a resource intensive feed source? Keep the grains for the humans and use other feedstock, preferably ones that are considered waste or by-products, for the insects. That way, we can start the relatively new practice of farming insects on a much more efficient, sustainable foundation than some of our older agricultural methods.

The Future of Farming

Integrating our meat and livestock production with waste streams makes both common and financial sense. Waste streams are abundant and often free. We already have most of the infrastructure in place to handle these resources, so it's a matter of rerouting them through the appropriate areas. While insects are the logical first step, they are by no means the only option. Rabbits, chickens, pigs, and many other livestock can be easily integrated with the enormous organic waste streams that humans produce.

We've developed a framework for designing integrated farming systems called Food Web (Food Web: Raising Food the Right Way). Food Web enables the small-scale producer to design entire "webs" around local resources, like waste streams. By selecting appropriate animals and connections, we can produce significantly more food without additional feed inputs.

Food Web makes use of insects, like mealworms, to convert manures and waste products from one animal node to provide feed to another. The perfect example of this is seen in the use of rabbit manure to produce mealworms for your chicken flock. The more rabbits you have, the more chickens you can feed with mealworms.

Replacing soy in both livestock and human diets will become a necessity as resources continue to dwindle. For the small-scale farmer, this means exploring all options from a DIY perspective. Mealworms appear to be a great option for this niche, and although many people may object to a mealworm burger in the foreseeable future, feeding your chickens and pigs with mealworms is not only doable, it's easy, cheap, and environmentally sensible.

Fore more information on DIY integrated homesteading, visit Vela Creations.

Photos by Josie Moores

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.

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.