Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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hay loftHi everyone! I hope you all enjoyed your week and are enjoying reading about my exploits at Polyface Farm. This past week was pretty much devoted to hay. We have made so much hay, 1,300 bales on Monday alone and many more the rest of the week. I didn’t get a hard tally on the total number of bales, but I can assure you, it was a lot of hay.  I’m also not so tired anymore. Daniel said it would take a few weeks for our bodies to acclimate and he was right. (Daniel is always right.)

Monday, June 16th

Starting this week, we were assigned a certain chore for the entire week. I was assigned to work with the turkeys (currently the object of my affection) and the pullets at the feathernet. We move the turkey and the pullet nets every three days so the birds can all get fresh forage. Moving the feathernets is pretty straightforward. We set up a new net, open the old one, let the birds in and pull in their shelter with the tractor. The turkeys have a roosting/shade structure called the GobbledyGo and the pullets have a mobile coop. After moving the nets and getting everyone fed and situated, we headed to breakfast. I then spent the rest of the day helping Polyface’s garden manager work in the various hoop houses and garden beds. We weeded, weeded some more, and then weeded some more. I was happy to work in the garden for the day though. We always are eating vegetables from the garden at dinner, so I enjoyed tending to them. It was a big hay day for everyone else. A lot of the interns spent time either on the hay wagon with the baler or unloading the wagons and stacking the bales in the loft. I ended up joining those unloading bales around 3pm until chore time. For evening chores, I went with Greer, one of my roommates and the one who takes most of the photos I am in that I post here, to gather and wash eggs for our evening chore and then headed to dinner.

Tuesday, June 17th

Since we had moved the nets the day before, my morning chore was spent just feeding and checking on my turkey and pullet friends at their respective feathernets. The corral project was still ongoing, so after breakfast we built wooden gates needed to complete the project (using Polyface’s own sawmilled lumber), stacked more hay and I backed up the tractor for the first time with one of the apprentices. There was a film crew onsite while I was having my tractor lesson and I remember fervently hoping I wouldn’t crash the tractor into the barn or something catastrophic of that nature while they were filming me. Don’t worry, I didn’t. Feathernet

After lunch, I went with one of the contract farmers to help set up cross fences for some new herds of cattle he’s expecting the next week. I really enjoyed being able to tag along for this trip. It was good to be able to practice one on one Polyface’s method of setting up the wire fencing. Once I get better practiced in their method, I’ll take some photos and do a little how to here in the blog. This took a few hours and by the time I got back, everyone else was on hay, either loading or unloading, so I did the broiler and egg collecting chores while they wrapped up their hay duties. It’s nice to be part of a team; you always know someone is doing what needs to be done in some way or another.

Wednesday, June 18th

Wednesday is processing day for us here at Polyface. Last week, we processed birds on Tuesday, but that was a bit of a fluke. After feeding the turkeys and pullets (and myself), it was time to report to the processing shed and get to work. I was on the gutting station again this week and am pleased to say I had a much easier time of it than my first go a few weeks ago. We were able to process and package about 230 birds in a few hours, which seemed fast to me, but I’m assured we’ll be even faster in the next few weeks.

After lunch, we spent a few hours stacking the hay that was harvested on Tuesday The bales were light and there were a lot of us, so the time went by quickly. I also took a brief interlude mid-afternoon with Tim, one of the other interns, where we went and filled the water for the broilers. It was a hot day, so we need to make sure all the animals are cool and hydrated. Someone does this every day when the temperature gets up there. It’s not only the broilers – the pigs get in on the water fest too. I wish I could have gotten a picture of Daniel misting the pigs with the hose- they were so happy! We did wrap up stacking hay and evening chores a little bit early today, which was appreciated.

Thursday, June 19th

Collecting EggsThursday morning, we moved the turkeys and pullets to their new pastures. It took a little longer than I would have preferred because I kept tangling up the nets, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. The rest of my morning was spent at one of the properties Polyface manages. I went with one of the apprentices and we moved +/-430 turkey poults (So cute! They kind of look like tiny dinosaurs.) from their brooder onto pasture. Turkeys are delicate, so it takes longer to move them from their brooders than it would with broiler chicks. At first, they seemed a little confused about what to do in the grass, but they soon set up pecking at bugs and leaves. After lunch, I went for another round on the hay wagon with two other interns. This went much better than my stint the first week I was here. The bales were lighter than the ones prior, but I still can’t get them over my head. I stacked rows to about 5’6” high (I know that because that’s about how tall I am. I didn’t measure the height of the stack, don’t worry.) and then ended up climbing to the top of the wagon to arrange the bales that get tossed up high. We went for three wagons, finishing the pastures that had been mowed and avoiding the rain. After hay, I got a chance to ride along as one of the apprentices spread compost with the manure spreader over the fields and was trying not to laugh as Michael, Polyface’s livestock guardian dog, ran around rolling in the newly dispersed very fragrant compost piles. We wrapped up the day with broiler chores and washing eggs.

Friday, June 20th

Friday morning chores went pretty smoothly and had the added bonus of giving hay to the new calves Polyface is keeping. These guys will be added to the herd but could use a week or two of time to bulk up before being sent out. With the general populous  After breakfast, we went to one of the more remote pig pastures on the Polyface property and prepped the fences for the new pigs that will be heading out there soon. A fair amount of the fence posts had come loose, so we interns divided up into teams of two and set to digging new fence holes and replacing posts. The apprentice we were working with checked all the wires and tightened them where necessary. By the time we wrapped this project up, it was time for lunch.

After we ate, we went to one of the properties Polyface manages and chopped thistles. You may remember from last week’s entry that I love to chop thistles. Getting a big backswing (making sure you’re not going to maim those you’re working with, of course) and taking out a massive thistle in one fell swoop is surprisingly cathartic. This field was pretty big, so it took five interns a few hours to clear everything out. Our apprentice manager also ended up mowing one field that was choked with thistles while we handled the less densely populated sections. It was a nice way to end the week.

The Weekend

I won’t usually write about what I do on weekends since it’s generally not farm related, but I went this past Sunday to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s residence in Charlottesville, VA. Besides all the great artifacts, art, architecture and history, the gardens, orchards, plant nursery, and vineyards are really something to check out. It was affirming to learn that the author of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia, secretary of state, vice president and third president of the United States thought of himself as a farmer. I took a lot of photos of how he made his trellises and such so I can copy him when I get back to New Hampshire. I highly doubt my house will ever look like Monticello, which is fine because I’m sure it would take a lot to heat a place that big, but my gardens can look like theirs! Enjoy your week everybody!



Your honeybee queen is the most critical member of the colony. She is the egg layer, work director, and it is through her pheromones the colony knows they are a cohesive unit. Without her the hive dies. Periodically, it is good to have a queen sighting just to know she is alive and well. If you have trouble spotting the queen, you can always tell by larvae and eggs that she is present. But it is much more fun to spot her yourself.

Frame Holder

The queen honeybee is distinctly different from the other bees in the hive. She has a longer body that appears more narrow than other bees in the hive. Her wings look shorter because of her longer abdomen. Do not confuse the larger drone bees with the queen. They are shaped like the workers but larger. There will be several drones in the hive but only one queen.

When looking for the queen, remember you are looking for one bee to stand out among tens of thousands. Sounds impossible, right? Like a proverbial needle in a haystack. It is kind of like that but there are some clues to narrow down the search.

Check the Brood Boxes

Most of the time, the queen is on a frame in a brood box. Remember the brood box is exactly what it sounds like: where the colony is raising brood. To examine the frames, start on one side, pull out the first frame and inspect both sides closely. Handle frames gently and complete the inspection over the open box. If the queen does happen to be on this frame and drop off, she will fall back into the hive.

Do you see capped cells in an arch pattern? If so, your queen has been there. You may see open cells with a small "c" shape in the bottom. Congratulations. You have spotted an egg. You will also note developing larvae in uncapped cells. It is helpful during these thorough inspections to have a frame holder on the outside of the box. As you inspect the hive, place the first two frames on the holder after you ensure the queen is not on those frames. As you move through each frame after the first two, simply slide the next frames to the empty space. After inspection return the frames to the original positions.

Look for a Retinue

Another clue that the queen is in the vicinity is a "retinue". This is a small contingent of attendant bees who follow her in a semi-circle with a space between her and the rest of the colony. I find it easier to spot the queen directly than the retinue and notice the retinue after the fact. If you have the opportunity, snap a photo when you do spot the queen. Studying pictures helps you learn what to look for the next time.

Marked Queens

If you know you have a marked queen this will make finding her bit easier. A dot of paint is placed on the queen’s thorax. Once you find the dot of paint you are assured this is the queen. You will also know her age by the color of the paint. An international marking system specifies the color used to mark honeybee queens by the year of birth. Since queens are typically viable for only 2-3 years, five colors are used.

Year Ending in: Color

1 or 6: White
2 or 7: Yellow
3 or 8: Red
4 or 9: Green
5 or 0: Blue

The key to finding the queen is patience and careful examination. It also takes some practice. The first few times, I was able to spot eggs and larvae but no queen. Now a queen sighting is much more routine.

Check out these three pictures to see if you can find the queen.

Queen 1

Queen 2

Queen 3

Happy Hunting.

Don’t forget to stop by our website or Facebook page for more information about this Central Illinois hobby farm. There is always something new on the farm.


Back before petrochemical fertilizer cocktails, farmers weren't monocroppers. They ran a closed system, and part of that system included animals. The animals ate the crop waste and silage. They helped work the land. And their waste helped keep the soil healthy. As synthetic fertilizers became the norm, animals and crop diversity fell out of favor. Monocropping huge expanses of land was less work than having multiple crops and caring for animals.

Before we had animals in the garden, we couldn't produce enough of our own compost to amend the soil. On top of that, because the pile was fairly small, it was nearly impossible to keep it hot enough. Instead, we relied on bringing in commercial compost. Unfortunately, with commercial compost, you don't know what's in it. Studies report that persistent herbicides are showing up in "organic" compost. On top of that, there's no way of knowing what persistent pesticides and fertilizers are also in your commercial compost. Think of all the grass clippings that go into yard-waste bins. Now think about all the crap many homeowners put on that grass to make it green and weed-free. I wasn't entirely sure that was something I wanted around my food.

Rachel's goats and chickens in the garden

To be able to amend all of our soil with just compost, we had to bring in at least five full truckloads of compost every season. This wasted quite a bit of gas, time, and money. It wasn't cost effective for us and it simply wasn't sustainable.

When we got chickens, I wasn't prepared for what they could do to my compost pile. Because their manure is hot, it literally made our compost hot. Steaming hot. But being busy, we found we weren't able to turn the pile as often as we should. So we handed the job over to our chickens. They got all of our kitchen scraps and nontoxic yard waste. They ate what they wanted then turned and shredded everything else. They kept the compost aerated and added their manure to it. When we got the goats, they joined in the fun.

This black gold they gave us was beautiful and plentiful. We completely stopped bringing in compost. With the manure, we needed less material overall because it was more concentrated. This made it easier to spread, taking an afternoon rather than several weekends. It is the perfect balance, as we have all that we need and don't have any extra. And we feed our animals organic feed, so we know what goes in and out of them.

After our final harvest each season, we spread the black gold over the bed to allow it to continue to compost down further before we planted the next crop. When we got the rabbits, they added a new dimension to our soil amending. Because rabbit manure is not hot, it can be added directly to the plants without being composted. This allowed us to amend the soil while the plants were actively growing. We don't use it on root vegetables, of course, unless we amend very early, allowing at least 60 days before harvest. With heavy feeding crops, such as melons, squash, and corn, this homegrown compost was a godsend because it insured that we could continue to feed the plants throughout the growing season without worrying about burning them.

But it's not just fertilizer that the animals provide. The chickens and turkeys, in particular, help with keeping weeds down and also with pest control. When the beds are dormant, the birds get to go out and dig around, eating mountains of cutworms, potato bugs, earwigs, and basically anything else that moves. When we start planting, we fence the birds off from the beds, but they still have access to the area on the north side, where our orchard is. We allow the weeds to grow there as a trap crop for insects, which the birds eat while they also keep the weeds from getting out of hand.

The animals around here definitely earn their keep and provide us with food, directly and indirectly. I can't imagine doing it without them now.

This post originally appeared on, by Rachel of Dog Island Farm.

Photo by Rachel

Rachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of arts and crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

Photo by Rachel


compost pileSummer on Deer Isle, Maine, is an absolutely magical time with an incredible fireworks display of colors and flowers. One of many good things with summer here at our homestead is that our outdoor shower is warm enough to provide that quick shower we so often miss in the winter.

Solar Water Pump

Last year we installed an electric water pump that runs off our solar electricity. It's a supplement to our hand pump – our only source of water until then - and the main purpose was to be able to develop an alternative and sustainable water-heating system through a compost pile for our outdoor shower. A comfortable and convenient shower with warm, running water is highly sought by our Hostel guests and the pressurized water enabled us to set up a system that was all that, but still met our standards for low maintenance, sustainability and use of alternative technology. And our guests seem to love it – how many other inn's have photos taken of their shower?

Making Compost for Heating Water

shower hoses

We build the compost pile 6 feet at the base and 6 feet tall, using natural materials found right here: seaweed, grass cuttings and wood chips. We layer the materials flat like a stack of pancakes so it takes the shape of a cylinder. We use a 100 foot roll of 1/2 inch black water line and as we build the pile we lay one circle – about two and a half feet in diameter – of the pipe between every 6-8 inch layer of material. The pile quickly heats up to 140 to degrees 150 Fahrenheit and that thermophilic process is what will heat up the water in the pipe. The small pipe diameter allows the water to pick up the heat even more efficiently and it makes for a flexible line that is easy to work with.

Inside the shower we have two taps – one coming from the pile with steaming hot water and one coming directly from the well with cold water to temper the hot water down with. We use a 2 gallon watering can that we fill with water and a rope and pulley to hoist it up with. A cam cleat typically found in sail boats secures the rope and we simply tip the water can with our hand to create the shower. I find those 2 gallons to be enough for a good wash, including my hair. Surely one could fill the water can again and again, but this is an encouraged limitation and most of our hostel guests are surprised to find that one can is sufficient. The water can can be refilled just about every 10-15 min with hot water – perfect when we have a lot of guests here.

Our well is deep with plenty of water even in the dry season and a conventional shower system with the pressurized water going straight to the shower head would not be a matter of too much water being used, but could have a negative impact on the vegetation around the shower stall and make the ground muddy since the water drain right down on the ground.

Not taking the water tank and the installation of that in account, we spent about $25 on plumbing parts for the shower, including the pipe.

Ongoing Maintenance

outdoor showerIt takes two of us the better part of a day to gather materials and build the pile for the first time and last summer we found that within a month, the pile cooled off and needed to be rebuilt. We're still learning how to create a pile that burn slow for a long time – last year we had problems with the pile first being too dry and then too wet. One theory is that the rich seaweed acts as rocket fuel and burns very hot but for a limited time. An alteration of the proportions of seaweed to grass for example might be one way for a longer lasting heater.

Summer is to me the season of easy living. No wool socks to dry by the wood stove, no damp winter coats, mittens and hats to deal with after every work day, no trudging through knee deep snow to the wood shed. And no hour long project of heating water on the stove, thawing out the rubber tub and mopping up the mess on our kitchen floor afterward when all you want is just to get clean. Fill the water can, shower, done. A homesteader's life just got so much easier and a hostel guest's stay so much more memorable.


Midsummer is generally the time to start seeds for fall crops, depending on your region. Here in the Ozarks, sowing tiny seeds like turnips, rutabagas, onions, leeks and spinach directly in the garden can be difficult, especially in hot, dry weather.

Amaranth seeds

The seeds usually come out of the packet too quickly without enough space between the seeds. Also, heavy summer rains can wash the seeds into a pile before they have sprouted. And, tiny sprouts dry out quickly. Challenges are compounded in summer for starting lettuce, spinach and turnip seeds that need cooler temperatures to germinate.

Fortunately, there is a simple, quick technique to help your veggies sprout during the heat of summer.

Using Discarded Seed Trays

The next time you’re at a store that sells seedlings, ask if you can have a few of the empty plastic seedling trays. They are discarded by the millions each season. The trays with openings about 3 inches square (or round) work well for this project. Smaller openings don’t hold enough soil and larger openings use up a lot of potting mix.

To begin, cut or tear 1 inch strips of fabric long enough to reach the bottom of the tray opening, yet leaving about a 1 inch tab on each side (using the same principle as those plastic tabs for getting batteries out of clock radios easily). This fabric strip will be used to lift out the soil and seedlings in one block like a piece of cake, only better for you.

seed trays

Multi-Block Planting

Next, fill the compartment with moist potting soil. Root crops can be planted in the multi-block or cluster method, allowing more plants to be grown in a small space. The fruits will not get as large as if grown singly to maturity, but they can be enjoyed as babies or eaten gradually to thin them.

Planting in clusters works well with bulb, root and stem-type vegetables. Depending on the size of your tray compartments and the vegetable you’re planting, place about 3-5 seeds in each cell. Remember that beet, Swiss chard and New Zealand spinach seeds are already a cluster of seeds per pod. One or two seeds per cell are sufficient. Leafy crops can also be started in trays, but should be thinned when transplanted. Cover the seeds with soil as usual. Label your trays with good tape or sticks and permanent marker, not pencil. (Trust me. You won’t remember what you planted if you don’t label them immediately.)

Water lightly and place in a sunny area, indoors or out, depending on your climate. When the seedlings have one or two true leaves, and have been exposed to the outside environment for a few days, they’re ready to move to the garden. (If planting spinach, transplant it in the garden soon after sprouting. Spinach does not like to have its roots disturbed.)

Lifting Seedlings Gently

Test the condition of your soil by gently lifting the fabric tabs on one cell. The entire cube, or cylinder, should come out easily and retain all or most of the soil. If necessary, allow the soil to dry out a bit. Or, lightly water it. This step will depend on the potting mix you used.

soil cube

Ideally, you will want to transplant your seedlings in the evening with rain sprinkles in the forecast. Plant your crop one compartment at a time. Make a hole just large enough for the soil cube. The seedlings should be planted at the same depth they grew in the tray. Do not touch the plant stems, and do not plant them too deep, which can allow diseases to develop.

The fabric strip can be peeled off of the soil blocks and saved. Or, if they’re made of a natural material, simply compost the strips. It doesn’t hurt to just leave them attached to the soil cube, either.

To see more photos of the multi-block planting method, visit our blog. And here are some great Mother Earth News articles: Seed starting by Barbara Pleasant,  Start seeds indoors by Gail Damerow and Simple seed starting by Vicki Mattern.

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


I don’t exactly live in the city and my bees aren’t on a rooftop. I’m not that cool. I do have bees though and I also have neighbors on all sides. When I first got into beekeeping, I worried a lot about neighbors and how they might react. Also, being a beginner, I worried that the bees might give them a reason to get upset. So, in hopes of helping and encouraging apprehensive beekeepers that are just starting out, I would like to share some wisdom I gleaned along the way that proved to be really useful.

Set Your Hives Up Early

Backyard Top Bar Hive

One of the best tips I received while attending bee school was to set my hives up a month or two before I would install my bees. This allows an opportunity for nervous neighbors to voice their concerns while giving you the opportunity to start a conversation about bees and assure them there is absolutely no threat (there aren't even bees in those hives yet). You can even give them a look at a hive and explain how it works. After this, they probably won't even notice when the actual bees arrive.

Educate Your Neighbors About Bees if They Ask

I was pleasantly surprised to realize that most of my neighbors weren’t afraid of the bees as much as they were curious. At this point, most people have heard at least a little something about the plight of the bees and are interested in learning more. It’s a good idea to keep an extra veil and pair of gloves around if you can and invite curious neighbors to get a closer look.  

Ask for Cooperation

So many people are so used to spraying fertilizer, weed killer, pesticides, etc. that they don’t think or know about the harm it can do to people, animals and pollinators like bees. In fact, where I live, (much to my extreme frustration) some people seem to consider regularly dousing their grass in chemicals to be an essential quality if you’re to be considered a good neighbor. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to make the person next door stop using harmful chemicals but you can have a friendly conversation with them asking them to give you a 24 hour heads-up if they’re planning to spray something or get a regular visit from the exterminator (shudder). Chances are, if you ask kindly and explain that it will give you a chance to close your bees up for a day (which has to be done the night before) they’ll happily agree and it might even get them thinking about their lawn care practices without you having been confrontational, rude or preachy.

Give Neighbors Honey

Now this is a very important step in having bee-friendly neighbors! A free jar of honey every so often goes a long way in making your neighbors feel positive and possibly even somewhat invested in the health and success of your hives. Everybody loves honey and it’s the best way to thank a friendly neighbor for their help and cooperation. After all, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.


This is about a structure. A building, a frame, a plan, and much work. It’s about wood, and metal; hardware and screws. And, really, it’s about my Dad.

greenhouse frame

Ryan and I may have the plans and imaginings, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of building, our ideas sorely need the skills that my father can offer. So while we stumble through our conceptual understanding of how the greenhouse skeleton should be framed into a working structure, Bob pulls out the tape, grabs the pencil behind his ear, and jots a few notes. He sketches, mulls it over, looks through the odds and ends stored in his tiny workshop...and suddenly knows exactly how he’d like to do it. He confers with us, laying out his plan as if there’s much to debate and consider, and letting us make the decisions.  But we’re not nearly so confident with right angles and level planes as we are with carrying heavy objects, growing food, or cutting wood. So we enthusiastically say yes to each of his queries, and couldn’t be more relieved to give him a carte blanche go-ahead.

We buy the hardware, and I haul dimensional timber back to our homestead on my shoulders. Using two rock bars, Ryan and I move boulders beyond the footprint of the greenhouse, then pull the bramble roots that are already trying to grow their way back inside this freshest of clearings.

My parents (my mother is a self-described top-notch helper) also prepare for this greenhouse project like, well... just like well-practiced parents. They carry over buckets of extra tools and backpacks full of hardware, plus lunch. Ryan and I head out to our respective job sites, and Mom and Dad head in to their own work. We’re lucky to have their enthusiasm.

A look over our shoulders as we leave the property for the day includes a glimpse of the five metal ribs arcing above bare ground. Brambles, stump sprouts, and saplings frame the simple lines of the greenhouse-to-be. Upon returning home, though, it seems to nestle into the landscape a bit more comfortably. Its form and function is taking clearer shape.

There are now baseboards waiting to be back-filled with wheelbarrow loads of compost and manure.  We have shoulder purlins stabilizing the ribs and preparing for the plastic to come. And the rear wall is framed with a doorway and studs. Lumber for the front wall is stacked and ready on top of my father’s well-worn sawhorses. Once I’ve brought in as much organic matter as I can to build the beginnings of deep, rich beds, the final wall will go up. Then the plastic covering. And then, and then, and then, we’ll grow a bit more food, with a tad longer growing season. And there’s two remarkably generous hard-workers over our hill with whom we’ll share the bounty.

greenhouse next to cabin

Garden work is my specialty!  Weeding, planting, mulching and pruning services available, plus edible landscapes and garden designs.  Contact Beth via for your annual, perennial, herbal, or ornamental garden needs (see Business Directory listing under ‘Garden Design & Services’).

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