Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Frozen valves are a major, major bummer in my world and on most (all?) homesteads. The winter of 2014-2015 was cold in New York. There are still patches of snow on the ground around here, but I feel confident about sharing my technique for preventing a really critical valve from freezing.

The Scene

I raised 21 pigs through the winter on an untypical ration of hay and whey from greek yogurt manufacturing. I gave them a few other minor things, but the two staples were fermented hay and yogurt. Yogurt whey is mostly water, but it has enough salts dissolved in it to prevent freezing right at 32 degrees. In my experience it begins to freeze in the low 20s and gets pretty solid when the temps drop into the teens. Both January and February days this year only occasionally climbed up into the teens, which meant I needed to keep the valves on my whey storage tanks from freezing. The site I picked to locate the pigs’ winter house and the whey storage worked well from a delivery standpoint, but there was no electric power within 3000 ft unless I was willing to install a meter and a drop for an outlet. So lots of whey sitting in a tank for up to 5 weeks at a time in the bitter cold… how to keep it flowing?

The Solution

Insulation and heat from mother earth. The tanks were set on a leveled and smoothed pad so the bottom was in direct contact with dirt. I didn’t haul in gravel or any sort of special base, but I did pick over the pad site fastidiously in search for rocks that could puncture the bottom. A few feet down the average temperature of my soil is about 48 degrees F. My hypothesis was that if I insulated the tanks out four or more feet latent heat in the ground would wick up to the fluid and hopefully over to the valve. I began by staging large round bales around the perimeter of the whey tank. The tanks are 9 feet tall though, so I then piled loose hay and wood shavings on top of the big bales in a slope up to the shoulder of the tanks. Loose hay settles a lot, so I refreshed the piled part twice as winter progressed, though by the time of these photos it had sagged again.

 I left the tops uninsulated. Around the valve I built a wooden box with a removable lid lined with blue foam. Either side of the box got a big bale and then a bridge of scrap wood between the bales. This "bridge" is still intact on the left-most tank in the above photo.

I could then carry the pile of insulation to the shoulder of the tank even directly above the valve. The cavity under the scrap wood bridge allowed me to pack more loose hay in ,which I could remove and return each time I needed to access the valve, a twice-a-day chore.


In January, after several very cold days and nights I arrived one morning to a mostly stuck valve. I could still open it just enough to let some whey flow, but it took a long time to fill the trough. After fretting for an hour or two about how to solve this issue I hit upon a solution. When the forecast called for night-time temperatures below 10 degrees F I would heat a small bucket of water and place it inside the box right next to the valve. I was probably a little conservative about how often I refreshed the bucket (every chore time for a few weeks in February when it was brutally cold), but considering how catastrophic it would be for my pig chores if I couldn’t get the whey to flow I thought the extra caution was warranted. I only used this bucket trick on the valve of the tank I had tapped for feeding. The other(s) just drifted in under the snow, and I never had a problem with the valves freezing so long as the tanks were full of whey when they sat for an extended period of time.

The lid on the box was critical for top performance. I forgot to put it back on a few times, and on those days the box was dramatically cooler by the next chore time. With a lid, residual heat could often be felt when I reached for the valve.

The whey never froze very deeply inside the tanks. For one thing it arrives at about 100 degrees and 6,000 gallons of liquid has a huge residual store of heat in it. Even with nights well below zero the whey took four or more days to fully cool. The ice on my streams only got about 4 inches thick, so even if the whey froze to that depth I was not worried about losing much of it to ice. The incoming fresh whey could then thaw any residual chunks.


I think the principles of thick insulation and passive ground source heat could be applied to other situations. I don’t know the size of the smallest tank this technique would work for. I suppose it would depend on how often the liquid was refreshed. Other tweaks that help - cutting into a bank, southern exposure, wind blocks. My valves are sited on the southeast side of my tanks because the prevailing wind on my farm comes from the northwest, especially the really cold Alberta Clippers we had the pleasure of experiencing so many times this winter.

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Well, we’ve finally put a cap on this maple tapping season! All-in-all, I’d say it was a success . . . we had some weird weather, though, in Minnesota and parts of the upper Midwest that really wreaked havoc with the sap flow. First it was below-freezing well into the normal tapping season and then about 10 days after we finally tapped trees, we had a full week of above 65 degrees F+ temperatures! This heat wave all but shut down the sap flow for that week, proving that we really do need that freeze/thaw cycle. The third week of March was more cooperative with normal temperatures and we were getting a lot of sap from each taphole BUT that previous warm weather caused the trees to bud out, ending the season for good.

Beyond the weather we can’t ever control, I did learn a few things from this season. I guess you can teach an old sugarmaker new tricks! I thought I’d share these with you in my blog so you can learn from my experience (and hopefully not make these same mistakes yourself).

Lesson No. 1: Mark your trees in the fall. I look out into the sugarbush and I think I’ll remember exactly where my favorite trees are but once those leaves fall off (and it’s freezing cold or windy), all the trees start to look the same. Last fall when each tree was in full leaf, we took a roll of marking ribbon and tied it around the trees we’d tap in the spring. This is especially helpful if you’re tapping on a new piece of property. You can find this inexpensive, brightly colored, and weather-resistant marking tape at just about any home center, hardware store, or online.

One caveat: This tape is also used by surveyors and each color represents something they’ve marked (for instance, blue indicates a water line). So, if you happen to be marking trees in areas under construction or about to be surveyed, your ribbons might confuse contractors working in that area.

Lesson No. 2. Buy a backup thermometer. It only took me three years to figure this one out! Maybe I’m the only fumble-fingers out there but I can count on dropping my thermometer into the pan at least once during the season. And, surprisingly those digital thermometers don’t work very well once they’re submerged in boiling sap. Last year, I was only about 6° away from my target when it happened so I had to stop my boil, drive to town, and pick up another thermometer. Well, fool me twice and I’ll finally get smart. This year I bought two thermometers and, guess what? I ended up needing it during our last boil!

Lesson No. 3: Bottle in small jars. Again, it only takes me a few years to get smart! Last year, I bottled in quart jars and it took my family ages to eat their way through each opened jar. I’ll also admit I get a little stingy with my syrup and I really did want to give away syrup to friends but just couldn’t part with an entire quart! So, over the summer I scouted rummage sales and thrift shops for little pint or half-pint jars (making sure the rims were pristine and not chipped). Now I have a stockpile of gift-sized jars that I’m be happy to share.

Lesson No. 4: A little sugar sand must fall in every life. As the water evaporates from your sap, minerals and nutrients are also concentrated down and appear as sediment in your syrup. This is called niter or sugar sand, and it's typically removed by filtering. Any leftover sugar sand will make your syrup cloudy and eventually settle to the bottom of your jars. While it’s absolutely okay to eat, it doesn’t look the greatest. And with my last batch of the season, sugar sand got the better of me!

I did a little research and found the answer to what I did wrong: once you’ve done the final two-stage filtering, syrup has to stay at 180°F or higher and go directly into bottles. Of course I was trying to multi-task (boil my sap and serve Easter Brunch!) so I had to let it sit after filtering and I reheated it later to bottle. When I reheated it, more niter formed but didn’t really show up until after it settled in the jars.

So What’s Next?

There’s really not much left to do in the sugarmaking world other than wait around for next year! This time of year, though, is a good time to restock your supplies and equipment. And summertime means yard sales and auctions – if you’re so inclined, these are fabulous places to find everything from jars to stainless steel pans. Write down a few notes, too, as to how your season went. These tidbits will be helpful next year.

I’ll sign off for this year but will keep in touch as the next season approaches. I’d also love to hear from you and see how your season went. You can email right here on this blog or contact me directly at this link. Thanks for sharing this fun hobby with me!

You can also read all of Julie’s blogs in this series hereFor more information on sugarmaking, her 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:

Blumenstock, Marvin (author); Hopkins, Kathy (editor); How to Tap Maple Trees and Make Maple Syrup, 2007

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

Heiligmann, Randall B., Ohio State School of Natural Resources, Hobby Maple Syrup Production

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.


I look at the calendar and it says spring, but outside my window at my Micro-Dairy the temperatures are creeping up above freezing and some of the snow refuses to melt. However, spring will arrive even if not quite on schedule, so I’m prepping for the inevitable. Here are a few more tips and steps that will become routine as you prepare your Micro-Dairy for spring.

Springtime Brings New Opportunities and New Challenges

Now that spring is on the doorstep I will begin to think about buying another mature cow or two. I am very fortunate that there are several high quality Jersey herds in this part of Vermont so I generally have several cows to choose from. However I have learned to never buy a cow until I have her milk tested for "staff " mastitis. I also have the cows tested for Leucosis (BLV) and Johnes. I think everyone should test their cows for those two diseases, especially if you are going to drink or sell their milk raw. They are both contagious and can be fatal for an infected cow. Plus there is growing concern that the milk that comes infected cows can also infect people. The screening tests can either be done with blood or milk and aren't expensive.

A Micro-Dairy’s List of Chores Can Be Simple

Once the temperature at night stays above freezing I will be able to set up my pasture water lines and put out the water tubs so the cows won't have to walk back to the barn to get a drink of water. Unfortunately every spring I usually find a few leaks in my water lines caused by water freezing that wouldn't drain out the line the previous fall. Those must be patched.  Because I run my black plastic water lines on top of the ground and never bury them it, they are easy to repair or move.

And of course I have fences to mend. Most of my pastures are wooded. Since I only use poly-wire and fiberglass posts for fencing, a falling branch or a running deer can raise havoc with my fences especially those that run around my more remote pastures.  But the fix is generally fairly easy. Poly-wire can be tied like string and, compared to wire, is relatively inexpensive.

High on my to-do list is clean out my run-in shed and prepare it for my cow to calve next month. I'll make sure to have a thick bed of pine shaving for her. I'd clean the shed now but it is just barely thawing. It has been an extremely cold winter but because I have a Micro-Dairy my spring to-do list is short and all fairly simple. If I have time I'll thin my wooded pastures for firewood before or just as the trees begin to leaf out. But that chore is a whole other story for another time.

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.


Pregnant sheep waiting for delivery timeSpringtime is all about timing. You know that maple syruping season is finished when the spring peepers start calling. You know that it’s time to trim the apple trees before the buds start bulging. And you know it’s time to deadhead the flower beds and lay new bark mulch at the Farmstead Creamery gardens when the bulbs just start popping up above the soil.

It’s also time to collect eggs for hatching when the nights are not so cold and the days are warm and sunny. Yesterday, we got the hen house all cleaned up, scrubbed the nesting box pans, and hauled in fresh bedding and straw—all in readiness for collecting, fresh, clean eggs for the two incubators in readiness at our house. The turners hum, tilting the eggs from side-to-side to mimic the movements of the mother hen.

The chicken girls are itching to get into their summer coops and move about the pasture, hunting for eggs and tasty grasses and clovers. But while they think that the spring temperatures are great, it needs to be a little warmer for collecting the eggs without cold-shocking the precious embryo inside, so they need to hang out in the winter coop just a little longer.

Timing is also crucial for the high tunnel at the north end of the garden. As soon as the sun warms the soil beneath the arched plastic cover enough to thaw it out, we’re in their ripping out the remains of last year’s tomato crop, hauling out the red plastic mulch, and taking down the baling twine trellises.

Raking the ground clean of dried leaf debris and pulling out any vagabond weeds, we watch the sun as it gains height and strength in the sky. If we’re on schedule with the project, and we don’t plunge back into too much of a deep freeze, there may be enough time to squeeze in a crop of spinach before next summer’s heat-loving crops have to move in.

These picky-euny tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants can’t even stand a touch of frost, which means they usually have to wait until late May or even sometimes June to come out to the garden. But why make the high tunnel (precious growing real estate) wait until then? We pull out the seeder, load it up with spinach, then spend weeks hauling water in cans (can’t set up the irrigation system yet because the pipes will freeze at night) to give it a jump start. Right now, the little spinachy faces have burst out of the ground and are working on their first true leaves! I can already taste the calzones to come…

But the biggest waiting game of the season on our farm surrounds lambing time. Last year, it all came in a quick 17 days, with ewes popping left and right in the midst of snowstorms in a winter that felt it would never let its grip go on springtime. When it was all said and done, 50 lambs were running about, and we were more than ready to get some decent sleep!

This year, with 42 ewes plump and grunting, there could be as many as 80 lambs to come. A few things buggered with the schedule this year, including a switch in butcher dates and lack of alternative housing, which left the third ram waiting 10 days later to be turned in with his group of ewes, as compared with the other two strapping lads. And typically, we’d be lambing right now, but Kara’s at a conference in River Falls working on her cheesemaker’s license, so the whole affair had to be pushed back to accommodate her absence.

This means that, likely starting later this week when Kara gets back, lambs could be happening any day. Mom and I stop over at the barn fairly often, checking in on the girls, who lumber up to the gate and look at us with forward-pointing ears like, “Oh boy, does this mean more food?”

We also have a way to watch the ewes from a variety of places on the farm via two barn cameras. The live stream feeds up to the internet, so we can view the happening on our computers, smart phones (if we actually had cell service on the farm) or tablets. You can watch it too by going to Berlage and checking out the happenings. If your timing is right, you might even get to see a real life lamb birth! Often, I’ll get to throw a note up on our farm’s Facebook page when Mom and Kara are hard at it in the barn, assisting a birth, so stay tuned from there to know when to log on and take a peek.

Otherwise, feeding time is always a buzz in the morning and evening, and even placid sheep chewing their cud are fun to watch—especially when they don’t know you’re looking. They mill about, scratch themselves on the gate, sit in the sunshine, and generally enjoy the day as ladies in waiting for their delivery.

Sheep births can be complicated, so it’s important for us to be there in case the mother needs assistance. There’s only one way a lamb can come out, and that is in a swan-dive position. With their long legs and frequency of twinning, it’s easy for a lamb to present with one leg back, or two legs forward but the neck back, or one front leg and one back leg, or a leg from each twin at the same time. It takes skill, small hands, and a keen understanding of what you’re doing to intercede in a malpresentation without hurting the ewe or damaging the lambs — and it often has to happen with little slippage for timing.

There’s a way of watching the laboring ewe to know if things are progressing smoothly, which expectations of the next stage occurring every half hour: burst the water bag, presentation of the first lamb, presentation of the second lamb, etc. And lambs are born with only a small amount of fat around their kidneys, which is just enough energy storage for learning how to nurse. But some lambs are born weak, and we have to make sure they get food down with a nipple or tube before that precious kidney fat is gone and they crash into hypothermia.

It’s all a very sensitive process, created as a byproduct of the domestication of the species. Wild sheep don’t get this type of obstetrical care from humans, but then wild sheep don’t waltz into a milking parlor so you can have sheep’s milk gelato all summer either! It’s a trade-off of services to each other in order that both species (the sheep and us) are benefited.

And so the waiting game means that here on the farm, we’re all on our toes waiting for the first lambs to be born, waiting to collect those clean chicken and duck eggs for incubating, and waiting for that first bite of spinach from the high tunnel. The changes of the season are exciting and bring new sorts of challenges from winter’s lull. We don’t expect to get much sleep for a while as the process gets rolling, but the work carries on. See you down on the farm sometime.

Photo by Kara Berlage: Sheepy mommas, “the ladies in waiting,” all shorn and waiting for lambing days to arrive as they loaf about in the barn.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. You can reach her by phone at 715-462-3453.

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.


White Rabbit 

Rabbits are a fabulously healthful, economical and ecologically sound source of meat, and they don’t have to be kept in hanging cages. I think every backyard homestead ought to have a few rabbits out back, and I’d like to share a method of rabbit production that goes beyond the hutch and gets bunnies back on the grass. Using the principles of intensive grazing, raising rabbits on pasture can create food for the family while also improving your land.

The traditional hutch or cage system of raising rabbits is a confinement operation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the hutch method has many benefits. You supply all the feed, controlling nutrition to produce a maximum of meat. You probably aren’t cleaning cages, as manure will drop to the ground below, and you have a source of wonderful organic material for the garden. Raising rabbits in cages is a simple and easy way to raise a meat animal.

However, I’ve found a pile of good reasons to keep rabbits on pasture and I’ll share them here, along with the methods that work for me.

The Basics of Raising Meat Rabbits on Pasture

During spring, summer, and fall at my place, the rabbits live in wire cages right on the ground. Bucks and does are housed individually, and growing bunnies live together. Every morning, each cage is moved one length down the yard to a new patch of grass. In the evening, the rabbits are offered hay, fresh vegetables as available and some pellets. This might sound familiar: The method just like maintaining a chicken tractor.

The bunnies eat the grass – six square feet a day per rabbit for me – to a close crop. As the cage makes its morning shift, the manure is spread, providing an instant organic fertilizer. The cages won’t be back on that spot for a few months, allowing the grass and other plants to recover.

When cold weather arrives (which is late in coastal North Carolina), I move the rabbit cages atop my raised beds and keep them there until spring, letting the manure drop into the garden – this keeps the bunnies off dormant pasture and saves a winter’s worth of valuable manure for next season’s crops!

So what are the benefits to raising rabbits this way? Wouldn’t it be easier to put them in hanging cages or hutches full-time?

Raising Rabbits on Pasture 

Benefits of Raising Meat Rabbits on Pasture

It might be easier to raise rabbits in cages, but not by much, and the benefits for my land and checkbook make it the choice for me. Here’s why:

• Moving cages, checking water bottles and providing food takes less than ten minutes daily.
• The cost of building pasture cages is equal to the cost of building hanging cages, but without the cost of infrastructure. You also don’t need carpentry skills or tools.
• The rabbits eat significantly less purchased food, preferring lush pasture. The adult rabbits only eat about half a cup of pellets a day while on pasture, and are sleek and muscular. I like this not just because I pay almost nothing for feed, but also because that bagged feed is produced elsewhere and trucked in. It’s good knowing that this meat was produced almost entirely off my own land.
• The areas on which the bunnies have been are lush and healthy compared to non-grazed areas. • They’re helping transform a demanding, high-maintenance lawn into a tiny, productive ecosystem – no synthetics, no mowing. You don’t need acres and a cow to use intensive grazing: a yard and some bunnies will do just fine!
• It allows me to rear bunnies that thrive on this lifestyle, from day one. Rabbits have a reputation for having delicate digestive systems; I have found that my bunnies, well-used to fresh plant matter, never suffer upsets from the generous amount of garden surplus I give them – not even the youngsters, who begin grazing as soon as they leave the nest box.

There are some special considerations when raising pastured bunnies, just as with any other type of livestock. I hope to address them in future posts and provide you with the information you need to raise rabbits on pasture!

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.


World-renowned outdoors author, and his wife, Cheanne, have been a sled dog rescue kennel for more than 20 years.  They raised full-blooded Gray Wolves, under license, for 18 of those years.  As befits people who've lived the lives that most outdoor experts can only claim, their mastery of wilderness skills encompasses a broad variety abilities that are becoming scarce in this world of tunnel-vision specialists.

The year-old pups in this video are their first litter of full-blooded Siberians to be born on the premises, and their lack of discipline denotes human parents who are perhaps a bit too doting.  As Len says, "I'd rather deal with a spoiled puppy than a spoiled kid."

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.


Hi everyone! With it being almost a third of the way through April, we in New Hampshire are finally expecting our first days in the 60-degree range. This is all very exciting, especially since we received about two inches of snow three days ago. Go figure.


Last we spoke, I had written about Overwintering Pigs in the Northeast. It’s been a few weeks since the pigs went to market. They were somewhat lighter than we had hoped, but it was a bitterly cold winter and I think more calories were spent keeping warm than they were building bacon. All in all, raising the winter pigs was a successful venture. They didn’t escape (yay), and we were able to stay on top of keeping the electric fence ahead of the snow and their water melted.

One thing that went very well was getting the pigs loaded in the trailer to go to the slaughterhouse. Pigs can be pretty vocal when they are displeased, and Dan and I really didn’t want to go through the experience of herding a bunch of hollering pigs into a trailer at 5am, which we all know would definitely endear us to our neighbors. We also wanted the pigs to have as low stress of an experience as time would allow. Our pigs paddock was about 50 yards from our driveway, so the plan was to set up an alley using electric fencing leading from their current living quarters to the trailer a few days prior to their being moved. Our hope was that they would eat and sleep in the trailer, thus making the trailer fun and not frightening. I understand that other farmers may need to use their trailers more than once a week and this type of adjustment period may not be an option, but it works well for us. After a few hours of sniffing around, the pigs took to the trailer, mostly because of the food that was sitting inside, and they spent the next few days doing exactly what we had hoped. Instead of a chaotic pig move, Dan simply went out very early the day of and quietly shut the trailer door on the ten sleeping pigs. When we left, we threw them some treats from the day old baked goods section of our local supermarket and we were all on our merry way. It was strange the next few days to not have the pigs around, but it was nice to have a little break. I’ve been trying to focus on finding some good breeders in our area to supply us with piglets until we are set up to farrow our own.

moving pigs 

Aside from the pigs, our next phase is prepping for the 550 chicks we are expecting the end of this month. Friends of mine in Virginia and Missouri already have started their birds, but the likelihood of lingering cold temperatures in New Hampshire lead us to hold off a bit on getting our babies. We have a brooder in our old barn with walls made from straw bales. This is the first time we’re using this type of construction for a brooder, so I’d like to have the birds in there for a bit before I start writing a how to… Writing about it now seems like writing a review of a restaurant you’ve never been to. Actually, as I write this post, Dan is working on the six mobile coops we will need for these birds. We have a commitment to provide 500 birds a month, plus a weekly farmer’s market so these coops will get a lot of use. My next post will explain how to build one of these coops along with some rough costs, but they’re not done yet, so I need to be patient.

As for other farm animals, besides the meat chickens and pigs, I also threw an order for ten Indian Runner ducklings (so cute) onto our chick order, which I’m so excited about. My excuse for getting them is that they are prolific egg layers, but I really just want some birds I can get attached to. We are also in the market for some guard geese for the chickens. While interning at Polyface Farm, I saw firsthand the effectiveness of a not-nice goose against all types of predation (Lets just say that to me, Owl City is not just the name of a band. Sometimes I feel like I live there.) and I know we will need geese here. It would be nice if the goose didn’t go after me, but dodging an angry bird in the name of the greater good is something I’m willing to do.

I hope you all are enjoying your early spring and I’m looking forward to updating you all further as the population grows here at Sugar River Farm!

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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