Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Having and maintaining a garden at high elevation can be exasperating and very much a challenge. Our growing season is short and the best way to have a decent harvest is to start the seeds inside. In the 18 years we have lived at this higher elevation we have tried various methods of growing a garden and it has been 18 continuous years of trial and error. Mostly error but strides forward have been a slow progression for us by learning from our numerous errors. For example we have started seeds inside so that when the snow finally melts away and the ground thaws they can be transplanted outdoors in our entirely enclosed garden boxes. Those garden boxes are fully enclosed in ½” hardware screen to keep the rodents out and then they are also covered with a 50-percent sun screen to protect tender plants from the intense sunlight at this elevation (9,750 feet). In one garden box I plant spinach seeds in late fall and when the soil thaws out in the spring they will sprout and provide us a two week head start on our leaf vegetables. As I sit here and write that particular box is currently under 5 feet of snow so it will be a while this year before they begin to sprout.

Enclosing the garden boxes with hardware cloth on all six sides became necessary to keep rodents out of the interior area. We have voles, moles, mice, rabbits, ground squirrels and chipmunks - all of which have an uncanny ability to find their way into gardening containers at just the right time to consume our harvest. The boxes allow sunlight and rain to enter in order to nourish the plants but now keep rodents out. Once the plants are established we sometimes take the 50-percent sun screen off the hinged top portion to allow for more direct sunlight. Our optimum growing season is usually 60 days leaving the rest of the gardening season with cool nights and short days slowing growth. The garden boxes are varying heights and sizes to accommodate both small and large plants. Insects are not much of a problem at this altitude so by growing in a fully enclosed container the only real hazard is when we have an occasional hail storm. Hail has ruined vegetables a few times over the years which always presents the question as to whether risk a hail storm and remove the 50% sun screen or not. The sun screen protects against hail but limits the growth of the plants in our short growing season by limiting the sunlight.

A few times during the last 18 years we have had very mild winters and I was able to get plants safely transplanted into the garden boxes around the first week of April. Those are cherished years as it gives us a longer growing season which is very unusual for us. Up until two weeks ago I wrongly assumed that this was appearing to be one of those extended growing seasons and I could have a great harvest. The garden boxes were clearly visible from the snow which had been very moderate to date. I made the terrible mistake of thinking it would only be 4-6 weeks until I could start to work in the garden outside. I got my seed starter boxes out and filled them with sprouting soil and planted the seeds inside. As can be seen in the photo they are doing well and could be planted outside in the next few weeks. I seriously miscalculated because when I made this decision we were having days in the 50s but in the past two weeks we have had snow almost each day for a total accumulation during that period of 90 inches and very cold temperatures.

Fortunately I can save the seedlings this year by planting them in earth boxes and keeping them in the basement with a grow light. It is going to take several weeks for our current snow to melt away and hence planting the seedlings outside is no longer possible. Proper timing when attempting a garden at high elevation is always iffy at best but to make a serious mistake like this year can sometimes mean starting totally over again. Fortunately I did not plant more seeds than my earth boxes can accommodate. Even our earth boxes needed modification due to our rodents to keep vegetables out of their reach. Even though we keep the boxes on our deck which is elevated 10’ from the ground the ground squirrels climb onto the deck to get at them. To solve that problem I drilled holes in the edge of the earth boxes and fashioned wire loops over the boxes and covered the boxes in netting. Thus far that has worked.

We have tried solar boxes to start plants outside early but when left closed during the day they become too hot for tender seedlings and when we would prop them open in the daytime the ground squirrels and chipmunks, looking for food after coming out of hibernation, would devastate them before they got a good start. Prior to declaring full out war against rodents and just before digging a moat or laying a mine field around our garden I arrived at the idea of enclosed garden boxes which seems to have resolved the problem for now. I am glad that I chose to build the garden boxes strong because on one occasion we observed a bear standing on one box. The bear could not figure out how the hinged top lifted up so instead stood on the box which held up nicely. Swinging the lid up while you are standing on it is next to impossible which stymied the bear completely and it finally just gave up and left.

Having and maintaining a garden at high elevation is possible if you are persistent and adaptable. With a short growing season, rodents, harsh weather and the intense sun during the summer makes it necessary to sometimes grow a garden outside the more conventional method. Through trial and error we have found a way to grow and harvest vegetables but we still have to be flexible for changes like this year being fooled by mother nature and the influx of snow. For us it just boils down to old Irish stubbornness and persistence.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their high altitude living go to:

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That dreaded event in a beekeeper's world when an entire colony of bees dies in the hive.

It was a very sad day in mid-December when we found one of the colonies had died out. Every few weeks through winter, a warm enough day (50º) rolls around and there is an opportunity to check the hives. Typically we add candy boards during these checks as a supplemental food supply. Two of the three colonies were thriving but the third contained only dead bees. A sad day indeed.

After taking a moment to apologize to the queen, feel sorry for ourselves and the bees, I decided to learn from this unfortunate experience.


What happened?

It seems this is a winter malady. It can be related to the cold weather or evidence that the colony was weak. The best way to find out is to take the entire hive somewhere that you can do a thorough post mortem examination. Here are some things to look for:

Varroa mites or Tracheal mites

Look for bees with deformed wings. A "k" shaped wing deformity may indicate tracheal mites. Pick through the layers of debris on the bottom board and watch for signs of Varroa mites.

Hive beetles and wax moths

Hive beetles are small black hard shelled beetles that take up residence in the crevices of the hive. Cottony oval shaped cocoons or oval shaped depressions on frames is a sign of wax moths. An abundance of either is evidence of a weak colony. Strong colonies of honeybees are very hygienic and will keep these pests in control.


As you examine the frames, note the position of the dead bees. Are they head first in cells? Is the cluster mainly located a frame or so away from a supply of honey? Both of these conditions indicate starvation. If it becomes too cold for the bees to reach their food supply or they did not have adequate stores to get through winter, they will starve. 

Other Causes

There are other potential causes for a dead out such as a weak queen, foulbrood or even a rodent infestation. Observe your dead colony for indicators of these conditions.

Now what?

After you have identified a potential cause for the loss of the colony, there is hope to save the rest of your apiary. If you have found an unacceptable mite load, plan for a spring treatment of the other colonies. Starvation can be counter-acted with supplemental feedings or leaving more honey stores in the fall. Small hive beetle traps are effective at reducing that population. The condition you find will steer you to the correct solution. As a precaution, particularly if you discover foulbrood, burn the dead bees and any equipment that can not be adequately cleaned.

I will not let a dead-out deter me from keeping honeybees. I will learn from this experience and strive to be a better beekeeper.

Julia Miller is the co-owner of Five Feline Farm, a hobby farm in Central Illinois where honeybees, gardening and of course cats reign supreme. Check out the farm website and while you're there, get a free ebook!

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.


One of the greatest boons with our homesteading lifestyle is how closely related it is to physical and mental/spiritual health. The fundamentals for how we pursue our days – outdoor work, homegrown, organic food and a relatively stress free environment – are important components for a healthy life. But there are other aspects too for why I as a homesteader see a much greater chance for enhanced and sustained well-being than in the conventional western lifestyle. To go “back to basics” usually refers to a move towards down scaling, simplicity and a more conscientious life style often lived closer to nature. For me, back to basics can be taken even further: to move towards some of the basic, life sustaining elements that we as humans have evolved for, something that I believe is the most fundamental aspect for health and inner balance.


To follow my food from seed to plant and back to soil brings me closer to nature and to some basic elements for our existence.

Throughout the entire existence of humans, our brains have developed for a certain range of input, environments and nourishment and our anatomy has evolved parallel with that. Some aspects of this are more obvious, like that we're built for physical activity, but I believe these evolutionary traits go deeper and are more subconscious and intangible than we're able to fully grasp. It's easy for me to imagine that inner city environments with their sights, sounds and artificial materials, screens on devices or blaring loud speakers add stress to our systems, simply because we have not evolved for that kind of input. Balance, and good health, is found when our brains on the most fundamental level understand the surroundings and our place and function in that: when our lungs understand what we breath – clean oxygen and not pollution, when our cells go about their task without confusion from foreign substances or toxins and our organs can do what they are “taught” to do without external stress from for example increased cholesterol or heavy doses of sugar.

The last century has drastically and rapidly altered many of the contexts we've evolved for, and one of the more concrete examples of how our modern western lifestyle has diminished our well being is the introduction of heavily processed food. Refined wheat, sugar and corn, growth hormones and antibiotics, artificial substances and GMO's are some examples that now have been scientifically proven to have a severe negative impact on people's physical health. The most common line of reasoning is that we have evolved to eat and digest certain types of food and the rapid and recent change in our diet now leads to overweight and diseases such as diabetes, gluten intolerance and other allergies, all being symptoms of unbalance.

As a social and cultural creature I believe our brains have a great elasticity, and in a society with an exponential rate of change, we've gotten used to adapting new circumstances, technology and even realities, such when we move to a new town or country or change our job.

Even though a conventional western life style in the 21st Century often is far away from the genetically recognizable context we've evolved for it, becomes a state of a “new normal” that we can get used to on the surface, but on a deeper, intuitive level, as biological creatures, we might not be as easily adaptable. As we keep progressing further away from the basics, we will see more and more health related consequences of a mental unbalance.  

Factors such as exposure to unnatural substances, artificial food and materials certainly have a huge impact on our well-being and hence on our balance but just as many things have changed rapidly on a psychological level and the link between physical illness and spiritual stress related to the many non-biological circumstances we now face starts to be obvious. Fewer people than ever have a daily and direct connection to nature even though our belonging to the natural world is deeply inscribed through millennia of evolution. Not only do fewer people than ever live in rural areas, but fewer than ever also rely on nature for their sustenance: food is bought in the store, houses come from factories and oil furnaces and air-conditioning controls the climate. We are here and nature is there. To not only understand the indisputable role nature plays for our sustenance but also to acknowledge, and deeply feel, our connection to nature is to me the most important factor for “back to basic” and in extension, for our well-being.


As a homesteader I've found that much of my every day life brings me close to the physical and spiritual factors for well-being. My days follow the rhythm of the sun and my year follows the rhythm of the season. I'm outside every day, no matter the weather and in non-sterile living conditions, my body is used to handling bacterias, microorganism and fungi, all being ever present in a natural environment. My life lends itself towards physical activity and eating our own food means eating wholesome, organic and nutrient dense.  

But even more so, I've also found that many aspects of a homesteader's life lies close to basic spiritual elements for human existence. Not only do I eat healthy, but to follow the basic means for life, my food, from seed to plant to fruit and through composting, and to see it transformed back to soil aligns my life on this planet with all life and the dial for my inner balance comes to an equilibrium. To live in this direct relation to nature opens my eyes for the interconnectedness of nature: that the source of my food is also the source of food for other life – wildlife such as voles and deer but also fungi, bacteria and microorganisms – and that my source of heat, a tree in the woods, can be someone’s home and that all this can be both our source of recreation and a way to make a living. This basic concept – the dependence on nature for our sustenance – has been a consistent factor throughout human evolution and is therefore a concept that my mind can understand and recognize on a deep level.

This interconnectedness to basic natural elements can't be achieved if not physically present in the elements for it and for many people in our part of the world this has changed drastically, lately due to globalization and digitizing. The general rule of thumb for a direct, physical contact with one's mean of living and for one's social communication through face to face conversations have largely been replaced by a complex, world wide chain of distributions, trade, transactions and online social networks and forums. Internet has incredible potential for instant and global exchange and it provides an unprecedented opportunity to connect with like-minded and achieve not only a sense of belonging but also rapid social change. But I can't help to wonder though, how this substantial change in interactions impacts us as human beings when we no longer have to be physically connected to how are needs are met and when we rely largely on fast-paced, abbreviated communication with people we might never have met in real life.

My own observations of what happens when there's a demand for immediate responses to online communication, when we're assumed to be constantly reachable and when we communicate simultaneously with several different individuals through several different platforms is the same as with other previously non-existent phenomena: it becomes a “new normal” which we as culturally adaptable creatures to some degree can handle, but that on a spiritual and evolutionary level leads to high stress and imbalance. While I too tap into these ways of communicating and staying connected to friends, news and information, I largely remain in this physically present and tangible reality that I feel is mentally easier for me to relate to and therefore more nourishing.  


In times past, I too have lived the same conventional lifestyle as so many do today, in an inner city area with an indoor, computer based office job with very vague results on how I spent the majority of my waking time. Back then, this was for me a state of normal and I gave little or no thought to alternative ways of going about life. But, it was also a state of inner instability, high stress and a general feeling of being out of touch – I didn't see the outcome of my efforts as work, I had very limited time to pursue personal interests and felt confined by the artificial grid made up by my apartment, the commuter train and my office.

Had I kept at it, one can only guess the outcome – perhaps I would have come to rely on the fairly generous paycheck and accepted this as normal, but probably been ground down by the almost impossible feat to ever biologically adapt to such a reality. Maybe something in me already back then called out loud enough that I couldn't ignore it – that “back to basic” could be a forward movement towards balance, health and well-being. As a homesteader, I have found purpose and meaning and by being in touch with my context, I am better capable of creating long lasting soundness for me and all that's around me.

Photos by Anneli, Colleen Delaney and Dennis Carter.

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. 


Large Sow with Piglets 

What could be more fun and exciting then seeing a group of pasture-raised piglets run through the warm, green grass of summer? Not much in my opinion! But does the thought of cold weather care make you want to cringe? Actually the care of pastured pigs in winter doesn’t have to be that hard and shouldn’t make you reconsider your choices. We are most familiar with the ‘Idaho’ pastured pigs and ‘Kunekune’ pigs, but a lot of what we will discuss will apply to other breeds of pasture pigs as well.

A-Frame Housing

Winter Pig Shelter

Probably the most important aspect for pigs wintering outside is that they have adequate shelter and protection from the weather and cold. We build A-frame houses made with two sheets of plywood on the sides and a triangle piece for the back. We use these same shelters in the summer months and with no floors the pigs are able to stay cool on the dry ground. In the colder months we fill the shelters full of straw or hay bedding to keep them warm. Five or six of our fully grown Idaho pasture pigs fit comfortably in the A-frame shelters and they stay very warm and toasty. Many mornings, they will get up when I come to feed them and steam will billow out along with them.

Many people think pigs won’t eat hay, but that is exactly what our pigs eat all winter. We feed a combination of alfalfa, clover, and grass hay. We put a big round bale or square bale into each pen and it gives them feed and entertainment for many weeks (and then we replace it with another one). Remember: Most pastured pigs like to graze and having the ability to do that all winter will keep them more content and happy. If you aren’t able to put in big bales, don’t worry— they will be happy with a couple leafs of hay each day from a small bale. This will still give them the ability to “graze” and give them the added feed they require. We do feed a commercial pig feed also to supplement the minerals that our ground is deficient in as well as provide the extra protein they require during the cold months.

Providing Water for Pigs During Winter

For most people the “scary” aspect of winter care is watering their pigs. How do they get water? Are they getting enough? How will they survive? These are all questions I hear on a regular basis. If you have electricity and can have heated dishes hooked up, then it isn’t a concern. But most of us do not have electricity to any or all of our pastures. We solved this problem by buying a rubber feed dish for each pen (we like the rubber feed dishes made for horses). Each day, I simply put water into each pen using these dishes. I have learned to take them out when they are done or they play with them and it is like a treasure hunt the next day to find it again! Pigs are also able to eat snow like many wild animals can and are able to get added hydration that way.

Warmth, Open Space and Adequate Water

The most important things to remember are:

• Pig shelters needs to be dry and warm, allowing pigs to get out of the wind and weather and stay cozy.
• Good roughage for pigs to eat throughout the day is preferred to ensure they get the adequate protein and minerals they need.
• Ensuring water is available during winter will keep pigs hydrated each day and will allow their digestive systems to function properly during dry winters.

Wintering pigs outside is both fun and rewarding, if you plan accordingly.  Enjoy the season and if you remember the important needs of your pasture pigs, they will too!



Author Len McDougall, and his wife, Cheanne, snowshoed 1.5 miles on Whitefish Point, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, February 28.  Eighteen feet of snow has fallen so far this winter, and Len actually snowshoed this trail just before Christmas, although you'd never know that anyone had passed through. 

This is the first day after a seven-week below-zero (Fahrenheit) cold spell.

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Preparing For Spring 

Here in the Northeast, we are still buried under several feet of snow, with temperatures below freezing every day. Since we can’t go into the beehives, this is a great time of year to stay indoors and do some planning for spring in the beeyard. For everyone, it is a good idea to take stock of where you are in your beekeeping, and where you want to be in the coming year. Setting goals for the coming year is the first step in being prepared for the upcoming beekeeping season.

One of our top priorities is making sure we have enough hives to produce plenty of honey and beeswax for the coming season. If you are planning on purchasing nucleus hives or packages, this should be done ASAP. With beekeeping becoming more and more popular, supply companies and even local beekeepers often sell out early. In our apiary, we tend to replace any hives we lose over the winter by doing splits from our stronger hives, and adding a purchased queen. We do periodic checks in the beeyard throughout the winter to make sure we will have enough hives to make these “splits” in the spring.

It is also important to make sure you have enough hive equipment for the upcoming year. We usually do an inventory to make sure we have enough hive stands, bottom boards, hive bodies, supers, inner covers, outer covers, frames, and feeders. It is important to make sure you always have enough extra components on hand for one full hive. It is frustrating to come across an easy swarm or need to divide a hive, and not have enough equipment. Once you have purchased the equipment, you can spend some time assembling parts, painting hive components, and assembling frames, so you can hit the ground running in the spring.

It is also a good idea to check and see if you will need any other beekeeping equipment for the upcoming year. Last year my husband and I purchased new bee jackets after repairing ours multiple times with duct tape! Hive tools can get lost, so make sure you can still find yours. We also keep several extra entrance reducers on hand in case of robbing. Is your smoker all cleaned out? Do you have plenty of fuel for the upcoming season? What about a lighter or matches? Now is the time to gather your beekeeping equipment and check to see that it is working order!

This is also a good time to come up with a plan for record keeping. Record keeping is really important – especially as the size of your apiary grows. If you have tried different methods in the past, is there one that has worked well for you? If so, you may want to stick with that. If not, it might be a good idea to try a new method. I will have more on this in an upcoming blog, but what works best for me is a three ring binder with a tab for each hive. Each tab is numbered, corresponding to a marked hive in the beeyard.

If you are looking at trying something new in beekeeping this year, make sure you have that equipment ordered! For example, producing comb honey, queen rearing, and harvesting pollen all require specific equipment. Do some reading on the subject, then order the equipment you will need!

Besides the equipment for the actual beekeeping, are there any other supplies you will need for bee – related activities such as candle making, making creamed honey, mead making, etc? Again, this is a good time to take stock of what you might want to try, and what equipment or supplies you will need to make it happen. 

Whatever your goals are in beekeeping, by taking some time to do some planning now, you will have a much smoother start to the beekeeping season. Stay warm and think spring!

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. 


Baby Chicken 

It’s almost that time of year again: when crocuses begin to nudge through the frozen ground, and birds begin their annual migrations northward. Can chicks be far behind?

Certain as spring follows winter, your local feed-n-seed store will soon offer baby chickens for sale: stock tanks softened with sawdust, warmed by heat lamps, and populated with downy fluffballs on legs, otherwise known as spring chicks. But for first-timers (or even for experienced chicken enthusiasts), selecting, purchasing, and preparing for your flock can seem like a daunting task. After thirty years of raising chickens, here’s my personal guide to ensure your new flock remains safely tucked beneath your wing.

The Brooder

Preparation comes first, and that means having a clean, secure place for your chicks well before you purchase (or hatch) them, commonly known as a ‘brooder.’ Now, it’s your job to think like a mother hen. Will the chicks be warm enough (a steady 95-98 degrees)? Will they be secure from predators (this means rodents, as well as the family cat or dog)? Do they have a steady supply of fresh water, abundant food, and clean bedding?

Brooders can be as simple as a large cardboard box with a heat lamp, or four half-sheets of plywood screwed together with a large hover. But unless these important details are settled in advance, things can quickly go awry.

Chicken Brooder 


When a chick hatches from the egg, it remains nourished and hydrated for a day or two, but quickly needs additional sustenance. As soon as you get your chicks home, dip their beaks into the water source to ensure they get an immediate drink. This gets them hydrated, as well as familiarizes them with the location of their water. Newborn chicks are both hungry and curious, so be sure to already have their feed (preferably a 21 percent starter mash) available in a small, shallow pan or trough. If possible, avoid purchasing a starter formula with antibiotic; it’s not necessary if you practice a routine of cleanliness, and I’ve never used them in 30 years.

Finally, keep feed constantly available for the first two weeks, reducing to twice-per day feedings thereafter. Also, introduce a fine granite grit (available in a separate pan, or sprinkled over their food) on day three to help aid digestion.


At roughly one month of age, your young birds will be feathered out, much larger, and eager to venture outdoors. Now, cleanliness and security are even more important… notice a theme here? Whether you’re raising chickens in your backyard, on a homestead, or farming miles away from your nearest neighbor, one thing remains a steady constant: everything likes to eat chicken. From raccoons and hawks to neighbors’ dogs, be sure to have a secure place for your chickens, especially from dusk till dawn.

Chicken Opener

There’s an old saying out here in the country: “Chicken wire keeps chickens in, not predators out.” Despite its name, it’s far better to use rabbit wire to fence your coop, a heavier, more reliably predator-resistant material. Commonly sold at hardware stores, I recommend purchasing a galvanized variety, and taking the additional step of burying the first 3 inches beneath the ground. This discourages predators from trying to dig beneath the fence (and they will!).

Additionally, be sure to frequently remove all the bedding from inside your coop, at least once per month. Throughout the course of the week, add a few handfuls of pine shavings (my preferred floor material), and thoroughly aerate it with a common garden claw or heavy duty rake. This will reduce buildups of pathogens, ammonia, and keep your hen’s feet much cleaner. It’s also great exercise for the farmer! By the way, old bedding makes superior compost, so keep a compost bin handy near your coop to reduce chores.

Build Experience

Start small, and start slowly. Like all living creatures, chickens enjoy company (I’d suggest always raising at least three or four together, never just one). But that doesn’t mean you need to have a flock of fifty to have a wonderful experience. You should, however, be prepared for some hard work, many mistakes, and yes, even the loss of a few hens. This is how we gain experience, and become better flock managers in the future.

Chicken In Grass 

Have Fun

It seems silly to remind ourselves of this, but with all this hard work, take my word— it becomes easy to lose sight of why we started our flock to begin with! Spend time with your flock each day, enjoying their antics and their funny ways of communicating. Take a moment to appreciate those amazing eggs at breakfast time and the incredible compost that’s fertilizing your flowerbeds and garden. 

More than anything, enjoy the simple grace of their presence and the shared connection to their fascinating world. At the end of the day, I’ve always found this is the greatest reward of all.

Forrest Pritchard is a sustainable agriculture advocate and author of the book Gaining Ground: A Story Of Local Food, Farmers' Markets, and Saving The Family Farm. Gaining Ground was named a Top Read by The Washington Post and NPR and is available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store. Forrest's new book, The Farmer In Your Kitchen, debuts September 2015.

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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