Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Long before people had the ability to can or freeze their food, smoking was used to help preserve meat. It’s also used to give a wonderful smoky flavor to both meat and cheese. Although we preserve food by canning, freezing and storing it in our root cellar, a smokehouse allows us to flavor and preserve our food in a new way.

In this article, I will discuss how my husband built the smokehouse and firebox this year. This smokehouse will serve both as a cold smoker and as one that can cook food. Later in the winter, I will share our experiences with smoking our pork, poultry and cheddar cheese.

“Cold smoke” is an important concept because cooler temperatures give food time to dry out before heat seals in its moisture. Bacteria need a moist environment in which to multiply. The slow drying of food is therefore one method of preservation. The combination of salt and cool smoke prevents spoilage, repels insects and preserves meat.

I remember the description of Pa smoking meat in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, “Little House in the Big Woods.” He used a smoldering fire at the base of an upright, hollow tree in which the meat was hung high inside. Smokehouses weren’t much more sophisticated than this in established homesteads in the late 1800’s. Some state and metro parks have preserved these simple brick or wood smokehouses that were meant to have fires built inside them. These could cook and flavor foods, but because the fire was in the structure, it was difficult to keep the smoke cool.

Resources for building a smokehouse: As smokehouses are growing more popular today, people can buy commercially built ones or build simple ones consisting of a barrel connected to a firebox. My husband dedicated last winter to reading Adam Stanley’s and Robert Marianski’s, Meat Smoking and Smokehouse Design, as well as Frank G. Ashbrook’s Butchering, Processing and Preservation of Meat, before building the smokehouse that I describe in this article. Many other variations on this design are shown in these books.

Constructing the smokehouse: Our smokehouse was begun by digging a six by eight foot foundation for a cement footer. Three courses of block were laid on this footer. smokehouse (Large)Because elevating a smokehouse makes it easier to have the smoke enter through its floor, soil was then laid up to the top of this three-block level. The smokehouse project came after burying our nearby cistern so that the dirt would be readily available.

The 12 courses of block that are now seen above ground were laid on the buried, three layers of block. The metal roof was then built with a pitch that allows for adjustable vents at each gabled end. A long-stemmed, digital thermometer and hydrometer, read from the outside, go through the wall of the smokehouse to monitor the inside temperature and humidity. These are then modified by adjusting the vents.

Constructing the firebox: Although smaller, the firebox was still a challenge to build. It is built of fire box (Large)brick lined with firebrick on a concrete foundation. It measures 40 inches by 4 feet and has a removable concrete cover that will make it easier to build a fire within. Its door is made of steel with one edge bent forward to serve as a handle. In order to allow smoke to cool before entering the smokehouse, the distance from firebox to smokehouse is about five feet.

Connecting firebox to smokehouse: The smoke will travel through the si6-inch, clay sewer pipe that is laid underground with an upward pitch. This pipe curves to enter the smokehouse mid-point in its cement floor. As the smoke enters, it is drawn up and out by the vents near the roof. There is a removable wooden plug in the pipe where it enters the smokehouse floor. When storing food in the smokehouse, we’ll want to keep varmints out.

The next big step of actually using the smokehouse is still ahead of us. Although we have friends with distant memories of food being smoked, no one has been able to supply us with helpful “how-to’s.” Therefore, the books I mentioned remain open at our house as we prepare ourselves for this next adventure. Stay tuned!

Mary Lou Shaw and her husband, Tom, grow most of the food they eat on their 13 acre Ohio homestead. Mary Lou’s book, “Growing Local Food,” can be bought through Mother Earth News.

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You wouldn't feed your kids a steady diet of Captain Crunch, or even Wheaties, despite nutritional claims made by the manufacturers of those cereals.  We feel the same about dog kibble.  A cursory perusal of any bagged kibble's contents will show what vitamins and nutrients it contains, but a canine is a carnivore, and a fundamental definition of carnivore is "meat-eater."  Particularly when those dogs are Siberian huskies. 

We raised full-blooded gray wolves, under state license, for 18 years, and their diets demanded red, raw meat every day.  So when we acquired our first team of sled dogs, nearly 15 years ago, it was a natural conclusion that they, being more closely related to wolves than any other dog breed, should also benefit from a diet of meat. 

Today, several generations of dogs later, our animals health says that we were on the right track.  I hope that you'll enjoy the video.

Links to some of the books authored by Len McDougall (also look for his recently-released collaborative effort, titled The Ultimate Preppers' Handbook. 

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I love to research before I buy. I read the reviews on Amazon. I ask friends for their opinions. I taste the frozen yogurt before I commit. So, when I found out Idaho's capital city has a active beekeeping club that will mentor and even connect you to beekeepers who will let you "try before you buy," I was sold!

Bee Benefits

I had wanted bees for many years, for the pollination benefits, the raw honey and the wonderfulHoney Pot and Honey Bears wax. As a gardener, I knew about the Colony Collapse Disorder that is killing bees at an alarming rate. I figured the more people who can successfully keep bees, the better, for the sake of everyone’s environment. I also knew I needed to school myself before jumping in, feet first. I attended a bee keeping class offered by community education in Boise and I read everything I could find on raising bees.


During the class, the presenters mentioned how some members of the Treasure Valley Beekeepers Club had an abundant number of hives and some of them (on their own—and not affiliated with the club) had taken to renting out hives during the growing season. This sounded great! Like at the yogurt shop, I could try—before I buy! 

However, I wasn't certain bees were actually allowed in my neighborhood. So, I researched our restrictive covenants in our subdivision and perused the city code. Fortunately, there wasn't anything on the books standing in my way.

On the Treasure Valley Beekeepers Club website, there’s a map that pinpoints the various beekeepers who rent hives. I found the closest beekeeper and called. For $175 a season, I rented the woodenware (nuc and first box), a queen and 20,000 of her industrious friends. My bee mentor, Mike Morrison, brought the bees over very early one spring day. The bees are docile in the wee hours of the morning, so he was able to easily put them in the back of his hatchback-style car and drive them over to our yard.

Beehive Arrival and Placement

Beehive Placement in BackyardIt was early season and still a bit chilly in the mornings. So, we chose a sunny location for the hive that wouldn’t be disturbed by kids, dogs or sprinklers. Once the hive was level and the sun warmed it, the bees immediately went to work on pollinating the yard.

I should add this one caveat…our three teenagers, who still live at home, were NOT thrilled with having a hive in the backyard. Each kid has a varying degree of fear when it comes to bees. So, I had my work cut out for me. There were some discussions on bee behavior, flight pattern and general caution. As the weeks passed, the kids (and dogs) become more and more comfortable with the hive. Our son, Woody, would even sit near the hive and watch the bees bring in different colored pollen. He was fascinated.

Swarming Bees

We had one hiccup mid-summer. I walked out front to get the mail and could hear a loud buzzing. I looked over the fence and saw thousands of bees swarming outside the hive. I quickly called Mike. He told me to not take my eyes off them and to find out where they land. He said the queen would eventually get tired and light on something and the rest of the bees would do the same.

Sure enough, the queen got tired and landed in our neighbor’s backyard. Not wanting to give myself up (so far, none of my neighbors knew I placed a hive in our yard), I called her and told her not to freak out, but that a swarm of bees had just landed in her backyard. She freaked out.

I assured her they were the good bees and would not hurt anyone or anything and that I would call a friend who rescues swarms. Mike was there in a matter of minutes. He and I took a large cardboard box and a bed sheet to her backyard. Mike spread out the sheet near the bees – which Mike Morrison rescuing swarm editedwere all precariously hanging in a tree, on the end of a small branch. He placed the box, which had holes poked in it for ventilation, under the clump of bees and without hesitation, jerked the tree branch so the all the bees fell into the box. In an instant, he had the box shut and the sheet wrapped around it and tied. He smiled at my sweet neighbor and said, “I’ll be back for the bees this evening—until then, go about your business in your yard.”

We left her, mouth open, looking a bit dazed. Mike took me back to the house and we inspected my backyard hive. Much to my amazement, the bees were still there! The swarming bees didn’t belong to the rented hive. Mike explained that some queens, for various reasons, will leave their hive and look for another home. The swarm had likely smelled the honey and wax in our hive and was looking for a place to call home. Crisis averted—at least from our family’s standpoint. Later that evening, I received a text message from our neighbor. It read: “Mike just came for the box. He put the whole thing in his car—and he’s not even wearing a bee suit! CRAZY.”

The rest of the summer went off without a hitch. Our garden and yard did so well. My Saturn peach tree exploded with fruit! It’s been a busy season of freezing, canning and dehydrating. 

Raw Honey Extracting

Mike called just after Labor Day and suggested we extract the honey. What an experience. Three of us went to Mike’s place as he has a commercial extractor. My husband, our 14-year-old daughter Margaret and I uncapped the honeycomb and helped place the frames in the extractor. All told, we ended up with 2-gallons of dark brown honey. Margaret, Woody and I all have allergies. We’ve been told that just a teaspoon of honey a day will help ease allergy symptoms.

Now, I’m ready to be my own beekeeper. The bonus is that a lot of people, for whatever reason, are getting rid of their hives right now. Maybe they don’t want to over-winter their hives. Or, they don’t know how to treat their hive for mites or provide the supplemental nutrition they’ll need for the winter. All these things you learn when you rent a hive and have a beekeeping mentor. Keeping bees has become one more way we can be more sustainable in our own backyard. 

Is there a honey bee rental program in your community?

1. Do an online search for beekeeping clubs or call your local extension office and ask them for beekeeping information.

2. Research what is and isn’t allowed in your neighborhood, city or county.

3. Do your homework.

4. Don’t get freaked out if your bees swarm.

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 A common concern about bees and beekeeping is getting stung and allergic reactions. When I first started beekeeping I had what I considered to be “normal” reactions to bee stings. I have since developed a true honeybee venom allergy, but luckily, have been able to continue my work as a beekeeper.

 Reactions to bee stings can be divided into two categories – immunological response, and allergic response.   An immunological response can range from a normal, non-allergic reaction at the time of being stung, such as pain, burning, redness, itching, swelling, and tenderness at the sting site, to a large local reaction, including extreme swelling around the site, lasting up to a week. (NW Calderone, 98-99). While some of my reactions had been quite large (I was stung on my foot once, and could not wear anything but adjustable sandals for a week), none had spread beyond the area of the sting.

A few years after my husband and I started beekeeping, we were working on removing a colony of honeybees from the wall of an old shed. It was a long, hot process, and by the end, both the humans and the honeybees being moved were feeling pretty grouchy. While we were finishing up, I received three stings in a short period of time. In hindsight, I should have walked away and cleaned out the first sting right away. However, I was focused on getting the job done. I had also never had a problem with honeybee stings before, so I did not think too much of it.

On the way home, I noticed that my lips, tongue, and throat felt slightly swollen, but I was breathing fine. I debated going to the emergency room, but because my breathing was not affected, chose not too. It was pretty scary, but I chalked the reaction up to receiving multiple stings, and decided to just be more careful. A few days later we went back to collect any remaining bees. I was stung one more time, and had the same reaction as when I was stung three times.

I did some reading, and learned about the other type of honeybee venom reaction – allergic response. Allergic responses are characterized by symptoms away from the site of the actual sting. These can range from hives, rash, and swelling away from the site, to minor respiratory symptoms, abdominal cramps, gastro-intestinal upset, and weakness. In severe cases, life-threatening systemic allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) can occur. This includes shock, unconsciousness, respiratory distress, and laryngeal blockage. (NW Calderone, 99-100).

Visiting an Allergist

I was very concerned about these reactions, and decided to visit an allergist. The allergist said she sees many beekeepers about honey bee allergies every year, and scheduled me for allergy tests. The testing took about half a day, and consisted of skin tests of different types of stinging insect venom. Based on the testing, it turned out that I had developed an allergy to honeybee venom. Luckily, I had experienced a less severe reaction.

At this point I was prepared to hear that I would have to give up beekeeping. However, meeting with the allergist alleviated some of this worry. The bad news was that with every subsequent Jen Smoking Hivesting, there was a good chance that my reaction would worsen. The good news was that if I didn’t want to give up beekeeping, there were three things I could do to make it safer for me.

One was to use more protective gear to avoid stings. For me this meant using coverall pants as well as a jacket, and using gloves when in the past I had preferred to work with bare hands. I was also told that I should carry an Epi-pen with me in case of a more serious reaction. The third method of dealing with the allergy involved more of a time commitment. I started going to the allergist for venom shots to desensitize me to honeybee venom (known as immunotherapy). I began going in once a week for three shots of a very minute dose of honey bee venom. I was monitored in the office for 30 minutes after each shot for any adverse reaction. While this was a large time commitment, it gradually tapers off. I worked my way down to one shot a week, then every other week, then once every three weeks, and so on.

I eventually worked my way down to one shot every 6 weeks, and the treatment seemed to be working. I was stung a few times after starting the treatments, with no reaction at all. Great news! The treatment is not very painful – no worse than a bee sting! I always felt very safe as I was being monitored, and never had an adverse reaction to the shots. According to the literature I was given, the shots are 97% effective, and most people can discontinue the shots after 3-5 years. After a while, I had worked my way up to one shot every six weeks. I received a sting while moving a nuc from one yard to another, and had another allergic reaction. At that point my allergist dropped me back to one shot every four weeks. It also means that I will probably need to continue these shots as long as I continue to keep bees.

Again, this does involve a time commitment, but it is worth it to me to be able to continue beekeeping. The treatments may not be for everyone, but for me it means I can still keep bees. I also do not feel as anxious while I am in the bee yard, so it was well worth it! If you have had a bad experience with bee stings, I highly recommend seeing a doctor to find out what might work for you.

Calderone, NW. So, You want to be a Beekeeper. Ithaca: Cornell University. 2009

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Wax Disk

As the beekeeping season comes to a close and my hives need less of my time, I’m confronted with the jars and bags and racks and bowls of beeswax all over my house patiently awaiting my attention. There are a million methods for all things beekeeping out there but I’d like to share this very simple method of rendering beeswax that will take you from sticky mess to wonderfully fragrant disks of clean beeswax ready for your crafts and beauty products while costing very little of your time and precious energy. And best of all, there’s no waste and your bees will actually benefit from it!

You will need:

1. Some type of plastic or metal grate that will fit inside of an empty super. It should have spaces big enough for a bee to crawl through but not big enough for chunks of wax to fall through.
2. A cheap double boiler (I found two pots for $2.00 at the thrift store that worked perfectly)
3. A small plastic, metal or glass container (that you don’t need for anything else) to pour the melted wax into
4. A cheesecloth and rubber band

Note: All of this equipment should be things you don’t care about or use for anything else as beeswax is pretty much impossible to clean off. You’re going to want this equipment to be used exclusively for wax processing (hence the thrift store recommendation).

Part One:

1. Grab all of your wax capping and other still sticky wax, your grate and your empty super, take them outside to your beehive (I like to suit up for this) and remove the outer cover on your hive.

2. Make sure that your inner cover is the kind that has a hole in the top. Place empty super on top of inner cover and then place the grate on top of inner cover inside the empty super. Now spread your sticky wax out on top of the grate. Place your outer cover back on top to close up and if you have a bee escape hole in your inner cover it’s probably a good idea to plug it up with grass cork or something else to discourage robbers.

If you don’t have an inner cover with a hole in it, you can simply remove it as well and set the grate and super directly on top of the frames and then place your inner cover on top of the empty super followed by your outer cover.

Congratulations, you’re half way done. When you come back in a day or two, you will find that the bees have completely cleaned every scrap of honey off of the wax and left you with a beeswax sculpture that’s pretty amazing. The absolute best part though is that the bees have saved you a lot of time cleaning all of that honey and instead of it going down the drain, they get to add it back to their winter stores.

Part Two:

1. In a double boiler on low heat add first about an inch of water and then start adding your wax. As the wax melts down you will be able to add more. You might be able to get it all in there or you may have to do more than one batch. You don’t want it more than 3/4 full of hot wax. DO NOT WALK AWAY! Wax is extremely flammable and it also makes a very difficult mess to clean if it boils over. 

2. When the wax is completely melted you will see that there is still quite a bit of debris that you want to get rid of so just remove it from the heat and let it cool a bit but not to the point that it starts to solidify again.

3. Fold your cheesecloth a couple of times so that it's about 4 layers thick and place it over the top of whatever container you’re going to let the wax solidify in. You can even use one of those round, plastic yogurt containers. Secure the cheesecloth with a rubber band making sure it’s sagging just a bit in the middle.

 4. Pour your slightly cooled wax through the cheesecloth into the container, water and all and leave it until the wax is solid and cool.

5. Use a butter knife or something similar to get your wax disk or block out of its container leaving the water behind. When it’s completely dry, store in an airtight container or plastic bag.

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“Honey - lets retire and move to the mountains and live close to the land. Just a small cabin is all we will need for the two of us and you know how much we love the mountains."

I wonder how many times this has been said over the years. I know I said it many years ago and quite honestly neither of us have regretted a minute of following through on it. It is not for everyone, however. Having lived full time in the mountains at 9,780 feet elevation in a mostly remote area for 17 years, I will try to offer some insights for others' consideration before they make the jump into a rewarding but demanding lifestyle.

Rigors of Mountain Living

For example, if you are moving from a lower elevation to one on the side of a mountain you may want to consider that there is a condition known as altitude sickness. Moving around more deliberately and slowly is something that needs to be employed in the lower oxygen of high altitude. Living in that small cabin requires a lot of work that is not experienced in other environs. Mountains are made mostly out of rock and at least in our location they are always in the way and need to be moved. We heat with a wood stove so we need to have at least 9-11 cords of firewood on hand for our winters which are seven months long. We average 264 feet of snow each winter and that needs to be moved out of the way and is constantly being repositioned by the wind. These are only a few of the rigors of mountain living and require a high level of fitness. Also consider that as you grow older you lose muscle mass therefore making routine tasks harder to perform.

Weight Lifting

Beyond the obvious hardships of weather and endless work, living in the mountains like we do requires a high level of physical fitness. I started lifting weights when I was a child by using two milk jugs full of sand. If I wanted to add weight I added water. I was a skinny kid and like most children my parents told me if I got in a fight that I would get a fanny warming when I got home. Being skinny I was picked on and bullied, which is why I started weightlifting. My arms looked like toothpicks with a tiny knot in the middle. After coming home with torn clothing, black eyes and skinned up knees and elbows from being pushed down and bullied several days in a row my parents finally said I could fight back. I did and wasn’t bullied again. I guess today that would be frowned upon.

I never stopped lifting weights and have spent a lifetime keeping my muscles toned. There are two objectives in lifting weights: one is body sculpting, which requires less weight but more repetitions. The other is using more weight for strength conditioning. I chose the strength aspect and went from those early milk jugs to an Olympic weight set which I finally sold last year. I get enough exercise cutting and splitting firewood, shoveling the roughly 25 feet of snow we receive each winter and moving rocks around.

I would recommend lifting weights to keep muscles strong and supple. You will gain a little weight as muscle tissue weighs more but you will carry it better. If it were not for good muscle tone and keeping fit, living here for 17 years would not have been a possibility. We have seen many attempt our chosen form of life and fail because the demands are never ending, and to properly handle them you need to stay fit.

Before you embark on lifting weights, however, I would suggest some important cautions. First, make sure you have medical clearance to undertake this demanding exercise. Join a group that has been doing it for a while because they will have found the correct techniques so you lessen your chances of getting injured. They will also encourage you and be there to spot for you when you are balancing large weights over your head. If you can’t find a group then find an experienced trainer to train you. The cost is well worth it and with trainer experience you can sometimes join experienced groups which otherwise wouldn’t want to take time in training you.

Over the years I have met some really good people in gyms. I have worked out with professional football players who have access to the very best trainers and professional weightlifters who will not let you develop bad habits or hurt yourself. I have worked out in groups with people from all walks of life and I have rarely found people who are rude or nasty. Those types generally end up working out by themselves as they don’t fit into dedicated groups.

Mountain Living Dependent on Being Physically Fit

Living where and how we do would not even be possible if I had not spent a lifetime working out with weights and staying fit. For many years I also ran jogging tracks at the rate of about 15-18 miles a week. Between the running and weight lifting I am now able to cope with the rigorous tasks of mountain living. Over a lifetime of weight lifting and running I have had injuries along the way but—having been blessed with a very high pain threshold—I have been able to deal with them or work right through them. The worst was a blown knee that happened when my regular workout partner was unable to make it one time. A semi-pro football player encouraged me to adjust my stance doing squats and just that fast I blew a knee. Painful lesson learned and it reassured me that I needed to stick with proper techniques from people whom I trusted and not deviate from the right way to lift. Just moving your toes out an inch can cause major damage so it is real important you are taught the right way and stick with it and not experiment or be swayed into change by those you do not know.

It takes physical endurance and muscle power to live as we have chosen to live. Now in our 70s we are able to both live this lifestyle because of preparation and staying fit earlier in life. If you are coming from a desk job or semi-physical job to mountain living, it is my personal experience that you need to be physically fit before you make the plunge.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and mountain living go to:

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We're Fine, Thanks. My bees think I’m hilarious, I can almost hear them laughing. I am indecisive and I second guess myself at the hive, mostly aloud, a lot. The bees hear all my insecurities and at times, taunt me.

They especially love when I crack open a hive, getting them good and mad, only to discover I do not have all the tools I need. I will make several trips to and from the bee yard retrieving forgotten tools and without fail my smoker will go out every time. I have combined hives, separated them and combined them again. I tried to level an uneven hive only to have it fall right off the stand onto the ground. An hour and many stings later, the girls suggested that I leave the hive uneven to which I obliged. I overstay my welcome at the hive sometimes and do more harm than good.  I went into a couple of troubled hives twice a week for four weeks straight trying to fix issues when on my husband’s suggestion I left the girls alone for three weeks. Upon my next inspection, three weeks later, I discovered that the girls had remedied all issues and were quite happy.

I have learned that beekeeping is patience, anticipation and trial by fire…or stinger. You are going to make mistakes, you are going to kill bees, you are going to make your bees very angry at times. It’s okay. This is how you learn and get better. It’s the times that you do the right thing at the right time and get awesome outcomes that you can almost hear them chanting your name.

I second guess myself a lot; I have a tendency to force things to my will. The more I relent and surrender, the better they do. It can give you a complex at first, but go with it.

The bees are my guide, I am not theirs. Don’t control the hive, learn to read it and help when they throw you the signals. Trust your bees and stay prepared. Let your bees be bees and give them some room.

It gives the term bee-space a whole new meaning. 

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