Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Spring 05.jpg

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

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

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

Spring 09.jpg

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

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

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

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

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



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

The Dark Side of Soybean Production

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

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

Meal Worms

The Soy Alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mealworm Farming

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

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

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

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

Sorting Containers

Mealworms in Livestock Feed

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

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

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


Mealworms in Human Diets

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

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

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

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

The Future of Farming

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

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

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

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

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

Photos by Josie Moores

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


tapping maple trees

Finally, the weather has been just about right:  warm, sunny days without a wind that causes the snow to melt in rings around the base of the trees, followed by clear, frosty nights that harden the snow to a stiff crust.  The birds sing out robustly and there are new voices—the Phoebe calls from the crest of the barn roof, proclaiming his territory.  And there is the subtle drip-drip of melting snow off the edge of the shed roof.

The maple trees are thinking of spring as well.  All winter, they have hoarded their sugary reserves deep in their roots, waiting for the warming sun to awaken the buds at the furthest tips of their branches.  Gray and angular, they have waited this long winter, and now they are primed and ready.  Up goes the sap in the warm daytime, then back down again to the roots when the night’s frost is too strong.

The same solar stimulus that excited the maple trees also awakens those hearty northerners who bundle up to trudge through the remaining snow with a bucket full of taps, a sled full of pails, a hammer, a crowbar (for the ones you didn’t put in right on the first try), and a trusty drill.  It’s time for the “sugaring” season in the Northwoods—time to crawl out of our winter hovels and spend some time in the woods snitching a bit of that tasty sap on its way up…or on its way down.

But syruping is a finicky business.  Some days, the sap will flow enough to pull the buckets right off the taps.  Other days, conditions will be grand but the buckets lie empty.  Tap too soon and the holes can heal over before the trees really get going.  Tap too late and you miss the leading edge of the run, which makes the lightest syrup.  Have a bit of a wind or too much rain, and who knows what will happen.  If the temperatures don’t get warm enough in the day or stay too warm at night, there’s little hope for a good crop.  After a bad drought, it’s best not to tap at all.

Harvesting sap is a bit like asking the maple trees for a blood donation.  Folks who know what they’re doing have an inkling for how many taps a tree can sustain, without asking too much.  Hearty, spreading grandfather trees might reverently be called “Old Nine-Buckets,” while a new initiate will start with just one bucket.  Over the summer, the holes from the taps heal closed, with little more of a scar than a visit from a woodpecker.

Learning how to make maple syrup is one of those processes that is best begun as an apprentice.  Our training-in process was with Jim and Jerry, two northwoods characters who couldn’t help but get an itch when spring was on the way.  Our tools were primitive in the beginning—a hand-crank antique drill, repurposed cooking oil jugs, a couple ice-cream buckets full of plastic T’s and taps, and some clear hosing.  A home-made boiling pan run with propane sent billows of steam into the crisp air from its tarp-enclosed shelter near the edge of the woods.  We lugged buckets across the yard and into the back of our van.  Those five-gallon buckets looked much bigger then…but I was a bit smaller, as well.

While Jerry was a close neighbor, Jim lived down the road apiece, on a spot overlooking two lakes.  His yard was a majestic stand of sugar maples, and we would go and help Jim tap the trees while he followed along on his put-put lawn tractor with the little cart behind full of supplies.  Jim would lean on the steering wheal, chuckling, and offering advice.

“You gonna tap that oak tree too?” he teased.

“What?” I stood up, all set to start cranking the creaky drill with the half-worn wooden handle.  I take a moment to look at the tree closer.  “Oh…” and we both laugh.

“Seems like you were gonna tap that tree last year too!  Not sure you’d get much, though.”

Every day, Jim would take the little put-put around with the trailer behind and pick up the day’s sap.  We could see his little blue car curving up the slushy driveway and quickly throw on some boots to come out and meet him. 

“Well girls,” he’d say, that gypsy twinkle in his eyes. “Didn’t get much today, I think.”  Then he’d pop the latch to his trunk and there would be 10 buckets in there, full to the top.  We could hardly get them out! 

“Aw sure, Jim,” we’d tease right back.  And while Jim didn’t eat much syrup himself, he was always giving pints as gifts to nurses and neighbors and other folks who helped him out since his wife had passed.  You knew it was that time of year when the phone would ring and that Santa Claus voice on the other end would begin, “Well, girls…”

Jerry had his own particular ways of doing things, and they were very scientific too—about as scientific as watching the drip off a wooden spoon.  And not just any spoon would do, it had to be this special one, which had probably been in the maple syrup service since before my grandmother was born.

“Now, you see the curl on the end?” he’d insist, pointing at the spoon.

“On the end of what?”

“On the end of the drip — the drip that’s left hanging on the spoon.  It’s got to have that curl, or it isn’t ready yet.” 

I’d squint at it a bit while he gave the spoon a good stir in the fragrant, thick liquid. 

“No sense in wasting good jars on thin syrup.”

But syrup that is too thick won’t do you any service either—forget trying to match the consistency of the corn-based stuff in the store.  Too high a sugar content and it can’t stay in solution.  One batch of syrup we canned one spring years back made rock candy on the bottom of the jar.  Not that this was such a bad thing…except we couldn’t get the candy out without breaking the jars.

But there’s nothing quite like the smell of a boiling pan of clear sap, watching that curling steam weave its way out into the early spring air…or the taste of the year’s first syrup on a stack of multi-grain pancakes on a frosty morning.  While we haven’t made maple syrup on our farm in a few years (losing Jim to cancer rather took the wind out of the process), the early signs of spring bring back the fond memories of neighbors lending a hand in the sugaring process, the sound of the wind in the maple branches, and the taste of homemade maple syrup still hot from the vat.

Here’s a delicious way to enjoy maple syrup beyond pancakes and waffles.

Maple-Glazed Salmon


• 1 salmon fillet
• 1/4 cup Wisconsin maple syrup
• 1 tsp paprika
• 1 pinch cayenne, salt, and pepper


1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. 

2. Whisk together the glaze and brush over the fillet. 

3. Place on a greased pan skin-side down and bake for 10 minutes. 

4. Brush with more of the glaze and bake for a remaining 3 to 5 minutes or until done.  Serve on rice or couscous with fresh greens.  Enjoy!

As Jerry would say, “That will sweeten you up.”  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.  

Tapping trees in Jim's yard, hoping for a good flow of sap!  Photo by Charles (Grandpa) Steidinger

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Living off the electricity grid gives you a unique perspective on things. Energy. Independence. Luxuries. Miracles.

Even after 17 years of living this way I find I’m still amazed at the wonder of the everyday and mundane things that make our lives so easy. I never appreciated them in the city. They were just there. But once I was involved in their creation I got a unique perspective, kind of like when you were a kid and you learned some amazing new mind blowing snippet of knowledge.

Michelle and I have come to have an attitude of gratitude in our lives. I’ve talked about it in my books, but one of things most associated with ‘happiness’ in people is gratitude. I am grateful to have been born where, and when I was, and I’m grateful for the infinite wonders modern life provides. And I won’t even go to smart phones and the interweb. Nope. Because you are much less likely to enjoy such technology if you don’t first have a toilet the flushes.

So here, represented pictorially are some of the things that I marvel at daily. (Or if I were Oprah … or Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, I would sing them to the tune of “My Favorite Things.”)


Running water. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get water flowing out of a tap? You drill a well, put down a pump, it pushes the water up into a pressure tank, the water then flows through pipes throughout your house, and it comes out of that tap, under pressure, whenever you turn on the tap. The wonders never cease! I’m not just making this up, I marvel every time I turn that miraculous tap on. Wherever you live, every time you turn on a tap you should a say little thank you for the miracle that is running water. (Particularly if it is clean running water!)

light switch

Electricity. I produce all of my own electricity from the sun and wind. Seventeen years ago solar panels were very expensive and Michelle and I spent a lot of money to purchase the various components of the system that powers our home so very efficiently. And every day I walk out to the battery room and see the glowing lights and hear the hum of inverters and I am awe struck with the wonder of it all. Making electricity is hard. And it’s expensive. “Grid Dwellers” as we call them, really have no concept of what’s involved, so they spend a lot of their own energy complaining about their electricity bills. If you don’t like your bill, cut the cord and try generating the electricity yourself. You’ll quickly find yourself telling utility workers that you see on the street how grateful you are for this amazing service they provide. A light switch or electrical outlet with an appliance plugged is a truly miraculous thing.


Firewood. This piece of wood came from a tree that grew on our property. It used photosynthesis to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and released oxygen back and it sequestered that carbon in its woody mass. And when I burn this wood it releases only the carbon it absorbed, so it is carbon neutral. But best of all, it will fill our home with wonderful, convective, bone warming radiant joyful heat that makes our northern winters bearable. By March I’m getting tired of stoking our woodstove, but I never lose the wonder at this incredible way to heat our home that our species has been using since we starting walking on two feet.


Hot running water. No, it’s not the water one again, it’s hot water! Getting water out of a tap is hard enough, making it hot is ridiculously hard. Now if you have a natural gas pipe coming to your house it seems easy enough. But when you try and make it yourself, and you try and make it in an atmosphere-sparing carbon neutral way, it’s just a monumental challenge. Our solar domestic hot water heater is a thing of beauty and every time I wash my hands in hot water I am grateful to live in such a wondrous time.


Hash Brown Potatoes. These are potatoes that I grew, that I stored in our root cellar last fall, being cooked on a woodstove powered by wood I cut. They will give me the energy I need to cut more firewood for next winter. And they are insanely tasty. Seems pretty much like a cool closed loop to me.


Scrambled Eggs. These are that scrambled eggs produced by our happy chickens. We feed them and give them warm water and treats all winter and they convert grains to amazing animal protein that will also power me to take on the day. And the eggs taste awesome. And the manure and straw I clean out of their coop is just the perfect supplement for our sandy soils. Oh how I love my chickens. And yes, breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. (And no, they are not green eggs. I like to add some chopped spinach to my scrambled eggs.)


Oranges. And yes, we do have some luxuries in our life. I’m 55 and when I was a kid, getting a huge navel orange in my stocking at Christmas was a big deal, because we didn’t eat much fruit in the winter. Apparently there weren’t as many diesel trucks bringing this stuff to the north back then. So when I eat an orange I am in awe to live in a time when such unbelievable luxuries are available to us every day. I live like a king.

Life can be a very wondrous thing. I am truly grateful.

To read more about life at Sunfower Farm please visit Cam's blog.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


One Structure, Two Sustainable Functions

The basic design for a greenhouse / chicken coop uses a greenhouse on the South side, facing South to access light, and housing the chickens on the North side of the structure. The two environments can be separated by a screen or wall (more on that below), but the basic principle is to utilize natural Southern light for the greenhouse (following passive solar greenhouse design) and give the chickens a shadier spot on the North half of the structure. A chicken run can extend beyond the structure, wherever there is space.

Solar greenhouse and chicken coop

Ceres Greenhouse and Chicken Coop

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

In biology, a mutually beneficial relationship is one in which two organisms co-exist and provide a useful benefit for one another. This is apparent many places in the garden – a ladybug is consumes the pollen of flowers, and in return provides protection from predatory insects for the plant. But rarely do people apply this idea to structures or buildings. When combined, a chicken coop and a greenhouse can act in much the same way: two independent environments complementing each other to form a whole greater than the sum of it’s parts. Namely:

• The greenhouse offers protection from the elements for the chicken coop, giving a shady spot for the chickens during warm times and a more insulated coop in the winter.
• In return, chickens body heat can be a heating source for the greenhouse at the coldest times of the year, if the two structures are connected by a screen or un-insulated wall.
• Any waste products from your greenhouse can become feed for the chickens. Chicken manure, in turn, can be used as fertilizer for the greenhouse after it’s composted.
• If combined into a single airspace (separated by a screen), chickens will provide necessary CO2 for the plants, fueling photosynthesis. The plants in turn create oxygen for the chickens.
• The two structures are cheaper to build together, as they can share structural elements like a interior dividing wall.

Tips for Designing a Greenhouse & Chicken Coop

Chickens are not good greenhouse guests. Your lettuce starts or nutritious homegrown kale are delicious meals to a chicken, and they will eat, peck or scratch up planting areas. Thus, the coop should be separated from the greenhouse either by a wall or screen. Which to use is a matter of personal preference. A screen creates air exchange between the two environments, allowing air exchange and some of the benefits mentioned above. However, as most chicken owners will know, a coop can be a smelly and messy. This may not be the environment you want to spend time in, and a greenhouse should be a place you’d like to hang out.

Chicken coop and greenhouse

Furthermore, your plants and chickens have different needs in terms of light and temperature. Chickens can overheat more easily than many plants. If combining the structures into a single airspace, you need to be careful to not overheat the chicken coop during the day when the greenhouse warms up. Design sufficient automated ventilation systems and provide access to a sufficient outdoor run. Chickens can also be more cold-tolerant than a lot of plants, using their own body heat to sustain their environment even in freezing temperatures. For this reason, you may want to save money and leave the chicken coop un-insulated, while adding insulation to the greenhouse for year-round growing. Ceres Greenhouse Solutions solar greenhouse / chicken coop model uses this design, featuring an insulated solar greenhouse on the South side, and an un-insulated chicken coop on the North. Each environment is tailored for its occupants, while creating a more energy-efficient and cost-effective structure overall.

There are many possible variations and customizations for designing a year-round greenhouse and chicken coop. Your basic design will depend on how many chickens and growing space you need, and how energy-efficient you want your greenhouse and coop to be. The greenhouse above, for example, has added moveable shutters which close over the windows at night trapping in heat for more efficient year-round growing. They also serve as light reflectors during the day, and a popular hang-out spot for the chickens. For more pictures and ideas on solar greenhouses, raising chickens and growing year-round, check out Ceres blog here.

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.



February was a jam-packed month for us as our homestead expanded greatly. We acquired many animals, watched kids and kits be born and unfortunately, endured death of animals as well. It was filled with joy and sorrow.

In this video, I narrate about some of the highlights that we experienced along the way. I talk about our acquisition of livestock guardian dogs and how they are getting spun up on their duties here on the farm. I talk about our meat rabbit operation and how that is going as well as many other topics associated with our homestead.

We love homesteading for many reasons but it certainly gives us a sense of usefulness and we are connected to our food like only one who raises their own animals to include slaughter can understand. Enjoy our Month in the Life and subscribe to our youtube channel!


The Courageous Life Podcast.

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.


By now, can’t you just taste that first pancake breakfast? Before you sit down to those flapjacks, though, you have to get this sap made into syrup. This article will walk you through every step of boiling and bottling. It’s not complicated but it is time-consuming and requires your full attention during certain points. Please remember, you will be handling hot, boiling, sugary liquid – be careful as you handle it and protect your arms and legs from splatters.

Throughout this process, you’ll be relying on your thermometer to tell you when to move onto the next stage. If your readings are even a couple degrees off, you’ll make sugar instead of syrup! Make sure your thermometer is working perfectly by calibrating it before each day’s boil. You can find quick calibration instructions online.

How Sap Turns into Syrup

Pure maple syrup is made by evaporating the water from the sap and caramelizing the sugars through a long and steady boil. The goal of this entire cooking process is to heat the sap to 219 degrees Fahrenheit (or 7 degrees above water’s boiling point). It can take many hours to get to this point but be warned that the last few degrees go quickly and can mean the difference between syrup and candy! The process is broken down into three stages:

First Stage: The Beginning Boil

Once you have a good bed of coals ready with extra fuel nearby (or your cook stove ready to go), pour your filtered sap into the pan and start cooking. Keep back one cup of sap (more on using this later). Leave 3 inches to 6 inches of headspace in the pan as sap can often foam up and boil over. Cook over high heat until you get a gentle rolling boil and then reduce heat enough to keep this boil going.

If you were unable to fit all your sap into one pan, you’ll need to preheat the extra sap in smaller pans. As the sap in the largest pan reduces, continue adding your additional pre-warmed sap until all the sap is boiling in one big batch. Do not add cold sap to this evaporator pan as that will “kill” the boil. Make sure to leave headspace for boil-overs.

While your sap is boiling, make sure you have clean jars with lids and a workspace ready for bottling. You’ll also need to get your filters set up. For the next stage, you’ll be pouring the hot sap through the thinner filter preferably into the pot you’ll continue boiling it in. Many folks use a cone-shaped filter holder or clothespins and dowels to hold the filter. Just remember that this sap is going to be very hot so do not plan on holding the filter while you pour. Continue checking the sap’s temperature and when it starts to near 216 degrees, it’s time to move on to the next stage.

Second Stage: Filtering and Finish Boil

not maple sap dripping through filter

Once sap reaches this range, you will need to transfer it into a smaller finishing pot with a more controllable heat source such as a gas burner. First shovel away coals or turn off heat to slow the boil. Pour the sap through the thinner pre-filter. Leave a few inches of headspace in this pot, too, as it can once again foam up or boil over. Do not put your empty evaporator pan back on the fire as this will scorch the pan which is nearly impossible to clean. After all the sap is filtered, put your pots on the secondary cooker and continue cooking at a rolling boil. Place thermometer in the pot making sure it’s not touching the sides or bottom.

Important! Watch your temperature closely from here on! All you’re looking for is the magic number of 219 degrees. This is the temperature at which sap turns into syrup. Watch for a few clues that you’re nearing this goal: the sap gets thicker, the surface takes on an oily appearance, and the bubbles get smaller and closer together. Sometimes the surface will develop a foamy layer – just skim off and discard. While the first stage seemed to take forever, temperatures spike quickly here and if you go over the target, you’ll most likely end up with candy. Remember the cup of sap we saved? This can sometimes rescue the batch if the temperature gets too high. Just remove the pan from the heat and add the reserved unfinished sap to lower the temperature. Continue boiling the batch back up to 219 degrees.

boiling sap with thermometer 

At this point, too, syrup can quickly boil over so watch the level in the pot. If it starts to boil up, lower the heat. If this does not stop the boil-over, use an eye dropper to put one drop of flavorless vegetable oil in the pan which can break surface tension much like a defoaming agent. Once you reach 219 degrees, remove syrup from the heat and cover it to keep the heat in. Prior to bottling, professional sugar makers also use a tool called a hydrometer to measure the density of the syrup. This is not necessary at the hobbyist level and only needed to establish the grade if you’re selling your finished product.

Third Stage: Final Filter and Bottling

You’re almost done!  Now all you need to do is filter one last time and bottle it up. This time around you’ll use a two-step filter: the thinner filter suspended inside the thicker filter. Pre-moisten filters with hot water and then carefully pour your syrup through this two-stage filter into a large pot. One sugar maker I visited with hung her filters inside an electric coffeepot. This works great because it keeps the syrup hot (syrup should be at least 180 degrees to 185 degrees for bottling) and it has a spout for filling jars. As you filter, do not wring out or twist the filters as this can stretch the fibers and distort the shape.

To fill your jars or bottles, carefully pour or ladle your hot, filtered syrup into the jar all the way to the top. Be sure to wear a thick glove to hold the jar as you fill it. Wipe the rims with a clean cloth, tighten the lid, and tip upside down so the hot syrup floods the container neck. Place the bottles on their sides on a thick towel and let sit for 24 hours, turning once halfway through this time. Once cooled, set upright and label. You may notice that your once-full jars have a bit of headroom – this is normal as the syrup shrinks a bit as it cools.

filling maple syrup jar 

Clean Up

After each batch, rinse everything (including filters) with hot water but do not use dish soap or laundry detergent which can leave residue that negatively affects flavor. When you’re completely done for the season, make sure all your tools are dry and store them away until next year.

Storing Syrup

Properly bottled pure maple syrup will keep for up to one year if stored in a cool, dark spot. It can also be frozen but will not harden completely due to the high sugar content. Once opened, be sure to refrigerate your syrup and use within six months of opening. If you notice any mold or discoloration, discard the contents as it may not be safe to eat.

What’s Next?

I hope your very next job is making yourself a giant stack of pancakes! After that, we still need to remove our taps and clean up everything for next year. My next blog will show you how to remove and care for your equipment and offer up a few fun ideas for using all this yummy maple syrup. If you don’t have time to wait for my next blog, I’ve created this handy Quick Guide to Maple Tapping with everything you need to know to make maple syrup today.

For more information on sugar making, look for Julie's books: Guide to Maple Tapping and Kid’s Guide to Maple Tapping.

The information and instructions contained within this blog series were gleaned through the personal sugar-making 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

Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, Explaining Sap Flow, 2014

Michigan Maple Syrup Association, 2003, Facts and Figures

Nebraska Forest Service, Sugar Maple

Somerset County Maple Producers Association, New Options for the Maple Spout or Spile, 2012

Styles, Serena, Nutrition of Pure Maple Syrup vs Honey, 2014

United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, Maple Syrup Production, 2014

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. 

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