Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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When I was in my 20s, I thought Teflon was the coolest thing. You could fry an egg on a Teflon pan and it was like it wasn't even touching the surface. It was SCIENCE!

Then someone told me I was supposed to throw out a Teflon pan when it got scratched or else terrible things would happen to me. With the way I cook, all my pans had scratches. This was an impossible quest — and limp-wristed cooking with a little nylon spatula is about as appealing to me as watching Univision cover the Guatemalan amateur curling championships. I also discovered that aluminum was linked to Alzheimer's, so even if the Teflon didn't kill me, I figured the aluminum beneath it was bad for some... reason... I... can't... remember.

With a heavy heart, I ditched my Teflon and got some good stainless pans. They scorched food at first, but I got pretty good at pre-oiling the pan and being careful to watch the heat.

Then at some point 10-15 years ago, a friend re-introduced me to cast iron cookware. I say "re-introduced" because when I was a kid we had a couple of my great-grandmother's (I believe) old cast iron pans that ended up relegated to the carport, rusting away. My mom had never learned how to cook on them or care for them. They were heavy and all the food stuck to them, so they got kicked out of the kitchen. Sadly, they were long-gone by the time I learned from my friend how to really use cast iron.

The key to being happy with cast iron is keeping it well-seasoned. Seasoning is a process of heat-bonding oil into the pan so it maintains a glossy black surface. The pans I use now are so slick they're almost Teflon-esque — however, unlike Teflon, they're not going to off-gas toxic fumes if they go over 500 degrees or give me horrible diseases if they get scratched. I can even use my favorite steel spatula without worrying that I'll scratch anything.

Plus, unlike Teflon pans, cast iron pans will often last for generations. Most of my pans were purchased from antique stores and have the unmistakable glint of vintage American craftsmanship from the mirror-smooth cooking surface to the well-crafted handles. There's something wonderful about using a tool that's stood the test of time and still works wonderfully.

Beyond their durability and lack of potentially toxic ingredients, cast iron pans also add some iron to your diet every time you cook. Hard to beat that. Cast iron holds heat, too, meaning that I can heat a pan up, cook a meal, then bring it to the table on the pan and it will stay warm for some time.

Unlike more finicky cookware, cast iron also works great for camping and off-grid uses. I've cooked with them over my rocket stoves, over open fires and even over a slick Silverfire TLUD stove. I picked up last year in case of hurricanes or a grid-down catastrophe that takes out the electrical grid.

I would say the reason most folks fail at first is their lack of familiarity with maintaining cast iron. It first requires a good seasoning. Here's my video on seasoning cast iron the SIMPLE way.

Once you season, you just need to make sure you don't strip the seasoning off with harsh detergents or excessive scrubbing. Note: some modern manufacturers, such as Lodge, don't polish their pans to the high level you'll find on older pans, so you'll often have more trouble keeping food from sticking until they break in. You can even sand them down if you like, then season them. After seasoning and years of use, even my newer Lodge cast iron frying pan is so slick now that I can fry eggs and have them almost float over the surface like they did on my old evil Teflon death pans. That said, if you start with a well-treated antique pan, you'll have that level of cooking nirvana almost instantly. I simply wipe out my pans after cooking and hang them back up and they stay seasoned indefinitely.

Though I make soup and stock in stainless steel pots, I use cast iron for all of my frying and some of our baking. A homemade pizza is marvelous on cast iron—and bacon and eggs work like a charm on a well-seasoned pan. Bonus: cast iron pans make a great close-range weapon. Once you make the switch to cast iron, you won't go back. Like common sense, sound money and a low obesity rate, some things never should have gone out of style.

David Goodman (AKA David The Good) is a garden writer and author of Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting and Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening as well as three other books. Sign up for David's Survival Gardening Newsletter at The Survival Gardener for a free copy of his Top Ten Survival Crops comic book. Read all of David's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging 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.



Here we go. It’s that time of year where we approach the brink of craziness.

Thanksgiving is upon us, but Christmas has encroached the mall, while the inner consumer within us all is assaulted by the marketing ploys or the big box (and small box) stores as we are almost forced to move past the Thanksgiving holiday before it has even begun. It’s almost a formality holiday now. Just something that must be celebrated before we move along to “The Big One” (aka Christmas).

It’s pretty sad, don’cha think? I do. How a holiday that was begun with such profound roots by some very thankful (and rightly so) people, has been moved to where we find it now. I mean really, how many Thanksgiving dinners have been rescheduled or missed completely in the last few years with the implementation of the “Thanksgiving Day Door Busters”. And what’s extra sad is that we have brought it on ourselves. The big guys give us what we want. They aren’t bad people, they are just trying to get our money and we want to trade it for the things that are important to us (an excellent argument for why we should be demanding better food — because if we ask, then we can get it).


But, let’s say that you are one of those few, proud, resolute and brave souls that are either too mired in tradition or too incapacitated by tryptophan to stumble out the door and wait in line somewhere. If you are one of these individuals (bless your heart), maybe, once the turkey is gone and the pies are broken out of the oven, you will take a moment to go around the table and give everyone a chance to announce loudly and proudly something that they are thankful for. It’s a great tradition/pastime and it often brings to mind the things that we might take as everyday and commonplace. Things that maybe we take for granted and shouldn’t.

This is great. We are making progress. I have had my little rant about commercialism running rampant and how we need to think about what’s really important. Awesome. If I stopped here, I would feel like every other individual who’s putting thoughts out there for people to ponder and criticize this time of year.

But maybe there’s more. I have found myself thinking about what I should be thankful for. I mean really thankful for. Aside from the obvious things (faith in my God, Family and friends that love me, etc.…), what’s the flip side?

First, let’s consider this interesting thought: more often than not, we have to really TRY to be thankful. Have you thought about that before? It is not a second nature type of thing, something that’s always the natural reaction. For me, it often takes a conscious effort to really be thankful for something.

Realizing this begs the question, “What should I be thankful for that I’m normally not?”

Working as a farmer, starting a business, and carrying on relationships with friends and family have all brought struggles. But that’s good. Something I should be thankful for. Here are a few things I have decided to be thankful for this year…

I’m thankful for failures. I know. I said it. Failure. There…I said it again. I hate failing. I live my life trying not to. I think we all feel pretty similarly on the topic and we have all heard the story of Edison and the light bulb and how many times he failed before he got it right. Good for him. But really, the times where I have failed often stick out much better in my mind compared to the times that I have really succeeded.

As I worked for a year and a half at Polyface Farm in Virginia, I was learning constantly. For a while, I was in charge of all of the pigs that we were raising on the main farm. There were hundreds of pigs that I raised and that made it successfully to the processor.

Now, rest assured, I learned while I was taking care of them, but let me tell you that it was the mistakes and failures that I made during the time that I was taking care of them that taught me the most. If one animal would get sick, and I felt like the cause was something that I could have prevented, it was a lesson that was burned into my mind. Next time I wouldn’t make that same mistake.

Be thankful for failures. If a raccoon gets into your chicken house, you are going to be sure to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Those 12 birds that died are going to open your eyes and you will make sure that the rest that you raise won’t come to the same fate. Don’t be crushed and decide that raising birds isn’t for you. You can do it. Just learn from the mistake. Be thankful for it.

I’m thankful for tough times. Sometimes things happen that are just out of our control. The storm knocks the corn down. The cows get into the garden (or goats! Even worse…). You get a bad batch of laying pullets from the hatchery and fifty percent of them die due to no fault of yours, which sets you back on your egg production come spring. Your water lines freeze and break which results with you going out to fill the animal’s water twice a day, and dude…it’s really cold out there.

Things happen. It’s tough. But keep moving. You can do it. It’s not the “Mountain Top” moments that define us, but rather the trail that you had to follow in order to attain the summit. Yes, it might sound like a fortune cookie — but it’s true.

I’m thankful for mentors.

Find yourself a good mentor, but remember that you can learn just as much from a bad mentor. I think it’s easy to forget the effect that the leaders in our lives have on us. I’m not just talking about parental figures or your favorite boss, and how cool they are. Nope. I’m talking about the long term effects that your time following a mentor brings. I personally can say with great confidence that in some ways I learned more for the worst boss I ever had than I did from the best. I was able to see it in the moment which made things a little easier, but it still was a tough time. He was my mentor, and the more time I spent with him the more I learned about how to manage people and how to value an individual. I learned these things by noticing the lack of them, rather than seeing them implemented in a healthy way.

I’m thankful for the poor leadership that I have worked under as much as I am for the good. If it wasn’t for the bad, I wouldn’t be able to see the good as clearly.

Time for self-searching.

While I was at Polyface Farm, there was a day that was cold enough to bust the waterlines that we had laid out. The following week, it would thaw during the day and freeze at night. This resulted in the misting water landing on trees and bushes where it formed icicles that clung to everything, and it was one of the prettiest things that I have ever seen. After I looked past the fact that I had to fix a pipe (a pretty easy task), I understood the result of the busted pipe was more than worth the trouble it caused. 

There. I have said my bit. These are some of the things I’m grateful for this year. In fact, these things are close to the top. But what’s at the top of your list? I would encourage you to really dig for the things that maybe are blessings in disguise.

Maybe your first instinct is to think that they are not worthy of thankfulness. Maybe you are right. But maybe you are wrong — think about it.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I’m thankful that you read this to the end.

Now about that turkey…

Interested in seeing more of what Tim does? Follow along through the lens of his camera on Instagram, username MyPolyfacePerspective. Read all of Tim's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging 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.


Have you ever gone out to work in your garden and found your prized produce plagued by bites too large to be from any insect? Do you have so many holes in your yard you could use it as a golf course? Have innumerable little burrowing animals chiseled away at the trees in your orchard? If any of these questions hit a little too close to home, then you might have a problem with vertebrate burrowing animals. These pests can leave dirt mounds and holes in your yard and wreak havoc on vegetation.  Their destructive habits can leave you wondering how to get rid of moles or squirrels or gophers—and how to keep these animals out of your garden. But before you start blasting holes in your yard, Caddyshack-style, make sure you know what kind of critter you’re dealing with.

Vole Identification

Voles Alaska 

Voles Final 

Often mistaken for mice, voles are small rodents with smaller ears and shorter tails than their doppelgangers. They have dark brown fur and can grow to 7 inches long. The three distinct species of vole are the prairie vole, the meadow vole and the pine vole. Each lives in the range that you would expect:  Prairie vole habitats cover the Great Plains; meadow voles range in most eastern states and the Midwest; and pine voles live primarily in the forests of western states.

Damage from prairie and meadow voles is very similar — both leave “runways” that look like little trenches throughout an open area. The burrowing animals usually cover these runways with loose vegetation, such as mulch, grass clippings or leaves, and at the end of the runways they build burrow holes where they breed and nest. All species have a propensity for gnawing at the roots and bases of fruit trees. This “girdling” effect is very pronounced, as they chew away at the darker outer bark to reveal the lighter, more tender bark underneath. “Stalky” and low-fruiting garden plants, such as cauliflower, artichokes and Brussels sprouts, as well as root vegetables, such as beets and carrots, are especially at risk for vole damage.

Pocket Gopher Identification

Gophers Map 

Pocket gophers live in nearly every state west of the Mississippi River and resemble a cross between a rat and a mole. Their fur color can range from light brown to nearly black, and they sport short tails and large, wide front feet for digging tunnels and dirt mounds. The pocket gopher gets its name from the large cheek pouches it keeps tucked behind its sharp, chisel-like front teeth. These front teeth always protrude from its mouth and grow quickly, so the gopher needs constantly chew to keep its teeth at a manageable size. This habit makes pocket gophers one of the most frustrating burrowing animals to deal with. Not only do they eat and damage the roots of various crops and plants, but also they can easily chew through irrigation lines and power cables. Most of the time a gopher will eat vegetation it comes across while digging, and occasionally it will venture out of its mound to snag something to eat— but by no more than a body’s length.

Other than damage to vegetation and utility lines, the most visible signs of gophers are the distinct dirt mounds they make. These crescent-shaped mounds are often mistaken for molehills, but these dirt mounds have a unique shape. Gopher mounds are shaped like a “C,” with a plug of soil in the center that acts as a door for gophers, whereas molehills are a solid cone of earth with no distinct shape or plug. Gophers also tend to stay deep enough underground that they make no raised tunnels as moles do. 

Ground Squirrel Identification

Ground Squirrels Alaska 

Groundsquirrel Map 

The term “ground squirrel” refers to no specific animal; it is an umbrella term for many different kinds of rodents, including chipmunks and marmots. The three most common in the United States are the eastern chipmunk, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel and Franklin’s ground squirrel. Ground squirrels live in nearly every region in the United States and can grow up to 14 inches long, depending on the species. Smaller varieties resemble common tree squirrels but have shorter tails, smaller ears and distinct coloration, again depending on species. The eastern chipmunk sports two “racing stripes” along its back, while the thirteen-lined ground squirrel has many thin stripes separated by rows of small spots. Franklin’s ground squirrel has no distinct markings but has a solid-color fur that can range from brown to silver.

Ground squirrels cause damage in many ways. While they tend to forage for food aboveground, they dig numerous burrows to use as shelter between meals. Ground squirrels feed on grasses, grains, and newly-sprouted plants and produce, and they also have been known to dig up freshly planted seeds and bulbs, and to gnaw on sprinkler heads, irrigation lines and garden hoses. On rare occasions, ground squirrels also have been carriers of bubonic plague. While there are, on average, only seven cases of bubonic plague per year, you should still take precautions when handling these animals. Also note that in some states, Franklin’s ground squirrel has protected status, so check with your local wildlife bureau.

Groundhog Identification

Woodchuck Map 

Also known as a woodchuck or whistle pig, a groundhog is a large variety of ground squirrel of the marmot genus. Physically, groundhogs range in coloration, from brownish-gray to black and have stout, stocky bodies that can grow to be more than 16 inches long, and weigh as much as ten pounds. Groundhogs mainly range in the portion of the United States east of the Missouri River but also live in the eastern regions of the “tornado alley” states, such as Kansas and Oklahoma. They prefer open rangeland in which they build their system burrows but can also be found in wooded or “shrubby” landscapes. These burrow systems can have anywhere from two to three openings, each 10 to 12 inches in diameter, with the main entrance marked by a dirt mound. Secondary entrances are hard to locate, as they usually have no dirt mounds.

These secondary entrances can be a safety hazard to both humans and large animals because they’re usually hidden to protect the burrow from predators. In addition to the physical damage that comes from these burrowing animals, groundhogs can be the culprits behind destruction to vegetation and utility lines. They feed on alfalfa, clover and other grasses but also eat soybeans, peas, carrot tops and Fabaceae. They primarily feed in the evening and early morning and will not usually venture out of their burrows more than 50 feet. Groundhogs can be very active during the day and can often be seen dozing on fence posts or low tree branches.

Mole Identification

Moles Final

Moles often get a bad rap as yard and garden pests, but they can actually be very beneficial to an ecosystem at large. The tunnels and dirt mounds that these critters create can be an eyesore, but they also help aerate the soil and provide channels for excess water. Moles’ droppings keep things fertile. Moles reside in nearly every region in the United States except the Southwest. They aren’t rodents but are a type of burrowing mammal known as a talpid. All breeds of mole are similar in appearance—they have velvety fur, large front paws for digging, and no noticeable eyes or ears. Depending on the species, moles can grow up to 8 inches long.

Damage from pocket gophers is often blamed on moles and vice versa, but their burrowing and feeding habits are very different. Whereas gopher tunnels aren’t visible aboveground, moles leave behind raised tunnels between hills. These are the moles’ feeding tunnels, where they hunt for insects and worms that live in the ground. These tunnels are made on an as-needed basis while the moles hunt and can be easily tamped down with a foot or shovel. Moles  do very little damage to vegetation and produce, but they have the potential to push newly planted seedlings out of the soil, so farmers and gardeners still have reason to learn how to get rid of moles naturally. As insectivores, moles don’t eat plants; they often will go around or tunnel under obstructions, such as roots and utility lines, as their teeth aren’t adapted for gnawing like rodents’ teeth are.

How to Get Rid of Burrowing Animals

Although people use chemical solutions to get rid of burrowing animals, many gardeners and home owners have learned how to get rid of moles and other animals naturally. With a little planning and attention, methods of natural mole control—such as habitat modification and barriers—can effectively keep animals out of your garden and keep their mounds of dirt and holes out of your yard.

Habitat modification:

Make sure your space is clear of food sources and ground cover, such as leaves and grass clippings, to greatly reduce the likelihood of a vole infestation. Cover the base of young trees and plants with a partially buried plastic or wire collar to protect them from girdling animals.


Trapping is another effective method of controlling burrowing animals. You can trap voles with simple mousetraps positioned in their runs near the burrows, whereas you’ll need larger, specialized traps to effectively capture gophers, ground squirrels and moles.


To keep burrowing animals out of your garden, construct an L-shaped barrier of 1/4-inch hardware cloth around the area you want to keep pest-free. To do this, bend a few inches of hardware cloth at a 90 degree angle, and then bury it below ground. Make sure you have enough cloth aboveground to protect your garden (specific dimensions for hardware cloth barriers are listed below).  This barrier should be built 2 feet from any plant beds to protect developing roots from damage. You can also use hardware cloth to completely line the bottom of raised garden beds to keep the animals out of your garden.

 Underground Diagram
Diagram courtesy the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

How to get Rid of Voles:

When dealing with voles, bury your hardware cloth 6 to 10 inches below the ground with a raised section of at least 12 inches. The foot of your “L” should be 1 to 2 inches.

How to get Rid of Pocket Gophers:

To keep gophers out of your garden beds, bury your hardware cloth at least 2 feet deep, with 6 inches of cloth forming the foot of the “L.” Ensure that at least 12 inches of cloth remain aboveground to prevent surface assaults.

How to get Rid of Ground Squirrels:

For ground squirrels, bury your hardware cloth 6 inches below ground, with 1 to 2 inches of cloth forming the foot of the “L.” Make sure the cloth extends 18 inches aboveground.

How to get Rid of Groundhogs:

Bury your hardware cloth at least 12 inches below ground, with 2 extra inches forming the foot of your “L.” There also should be 3 feet of fencing aboveground.

How to get Rid of Moles:

Bury your hardware cloth 2 feet below ground, with 6 inches of bent cloth forming your “L” foot. There also should be 6 inches of cloth sticking up aboveground to deter moles from entering the exclusion area.


While many chemical deterrents for dealing with critter invasions are on the market, waste from domestic animals can work just as well. Plug holes with waste from cats, dogs and even ferrets to dissuade burrowing animals from surfacing.

Commercial and homemade castor-oil-based repellents have been shown to be somewhat effective for natural mole control. To make a homemade castor oil repellant, combine 1/2 cup of castor oil with 1/2 cup of dishwashing liquid. Mix 2 to 3 tablespoons of this concentrate in a gallon of warm water, and spray the concoction around areas you want to protect from moles.

You can also consider a number of electric deterrents that use ultrasonic sound or vibrations to scare pests off your property, but their effectiveness is debatable.


There’s always the option to let nature take its course when it comes to burrowing animals. Predators, population fluctuations, and migration due to unfavorable habitat conditions can all be helpful in the fight against pests. However, this ultimate natural method can be inefficient and time-consuming and can end up costing you more damage in the meantime.


Sometimes a good dog or cat can help solve your pest problem, or, if you’re a good enough shot, you can get rid of pests with a firearm.

This piece on how to identify and get rid of burrowing animals was adapted from:

University of California Pest Notes Publication 7439 – Voles (Meadow Mice)

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources – Controlling Vole Damage

Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities – Controlling Voles

University of California Pest Notes Publication 7433 – Pocket Gophers

Utah State University Cooperative Extension – Wildlife Damage Management Series: Pocket Gophers

Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension – Controlling Pocket Gophers

Colorado State University – Natural Resources Series: Managing Pocket Gophers

University of Illinois Extension – Living With Wildlife in Illinois: Ground Squirrel

Perdue – Wildlife Conflicts Information Website: Ground Squirrels

University of California Pest Notes Publication 7438 – Ground Squirrel

Perdue – Wildlife Conflicts Information Website: Moles

University of California Pest Notes Publication 74115 – Moles

Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife – Living With Wildlife: Moles

Mother Earth News – How Do I Stop Moles from Damaging My Garden

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources – Woodchucks

Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs – Preventing Damage by Woodchucks

Missouri Department of Conservation – Woodchuck (Groundhog)

University of Missouri Extension – Managing Woodchuck problems in Missouri

International Union for Conservation of Nature RED list



We have homesteaded for 18 years, and perhaps if this lifestyle is something you also long for, maybe our experience will help you decide if it is right for you or not. We live semi-remotely in the mountains at 9,870 feet elevation. In the past, I have written blog posts about various aspects of homesteading in a semi-remote location, but this post is more geared to the macro aspect of this type of lifestyle, illustrating  some of the otherwise unforeseen drawbacks.

Most homesteaders like to write about the positive aspect of homesteading and there clearly are an abundance of positive aspects in living like we do. In fact, there are too many positive aspects to cover in a single blog post.

Mountain Homesteading

To start with, it is important to know exactly how we live. We have a small cabin, which is slightly over 850 square feet of living space, and our home is situated in a heavily wooded part of the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Southern Colorado. Our winters are long and often harsh with over 250 inches of annual snowfall. We heat our cabin with a wood stove and with the lengthy winters, we burn about 9 to 11 cords of firewood per winter.

One drawback is that it is unwise for both of us to be gone at the same time during the winter. When the fire in the wood stove goes out the temperature starts to drop inside the house even though our home is very well insulated and gets full sun during the day. If we both were delayed in town, such as during a long wait for a doctor/dentist visit or if the road was closed due to an accident and the fire in the stove went out, the lowered temperature inside the house could present a problem.

Therefore, one of us goes shopping and the other one stays home to keep the wood stove burning. Because our home is on the east side of the mountain, it also tends to get dark earlier because the sun sets on the other side of the mountain. Of course, when the sun sets on the opposite side of the mountain, our temperatures fall rapidly.

Proper Wood Stove Size

Initially we were sold a wood stove that would burn longer, which allowed us more time to make all the stops needed in our nearby town, which is a one-hour drive one way. The problem was it would not reach its optimum burn temperature, and hence the chimney cap would creosote and soot up. Because we have an ‘A Frame’ home, climbing up that steep roof to clear the chimney in the winter with the snow and wind was dangerous.

We finally replaced the stove with one better suited to our living space, and we no longer have the chimney problem but we do have to keep the stove going to maintain heat inside the house more frequently. Hence, since the stove must be fed at regular intervals, one of us usually has to remain home to keep it going. Wood stoves are not like more conventional heating devices where a thermostat is simply adjusted. It takes a few hours to get the heat back up to a comfortable level. This time of year, we can’t go to a sit down restaurant or schedule doctors appointments together because the two-hour (round trip) drive plus stops can take too long. If this is important to you, then maybe you would want to consider a different source of heat.

The other situation that can keep one of us home is when a wildfire alert has been issued. Because our community only has one road in and one road out, there is the possibility if we are both out at same time that we could get cut off from our home by a wildfire. In those situations, one of us will stay at home so our canine family members will be safe with someone to evacuate them. I would not recommend homesteading in a community that only has one escape route.  

Other Drawbacks

There are other drawbacks as well but mostly all occur during the winter. The wind is frequent in the mountains during the winter and trips to town require caution. Our dirt roads are maintained by the community where we live, but when we have fresh snow and wind, we often can’t get out to the paved road that takes us into town because our mountain roads can drift in quickly, prohibiting safe travel.

Therefore, we have to carefully plan our trips even with four-wheel-drive vehicles. Our roads can drift in while we are gone, so it is just better to have one person stay home. Getting out to go to town can be a problem but so can getting home when snow is drifting. As the winter wears on, cabin fever can also be a residual problem from too much staying at home.

Being Self-Reliant

Homesteading in a semi-remote location can present its own unique set of challenges. If something breaks, getting repairs can be prolonged and difficult, so we often need to "make do" ourselves, especially during winter. Local repairmen are aware of the above hazards and don’t want to put themselves at risk, either. Even though our roads are maintained, when heavy snow or drifting occurs it can be days until roads can be properly cleared for safe use, because they often drift in as fast as they are plowed. Factor in coming down steep mountain snow-packed dirt roads during the winter, and it can be exciting to say the least.

Also, dirt roads have a tendency to become very muddy in the spring season and can inhibit travel, especially when there is frozen ground under that mud. It then becomes extremely hazardous especially when going down the mountain. If considering semi-remote living, it is best to weigh all the factors, because this lifestyle can have inconveniences, dangers and plus it encompasses a lot of very hard work and self reliance. The positive aspects clearly outweigh the negative aspects, but success is more assured it both aspects are considered beforehand.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and semi-remote living go to to their website, McElmurray's Mountain Retreat. You can read all of Bruce's MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging 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.



Baking in an earth oven is a wonderful culinary experience. Also called cob, an Old English term for lump, earth ovens are built with layers of clay, straw and mud that dry into a smooth brick-like substance. This style of architecture has been used throughout the world, from the adobe homes of the American southwest to 500 year old cob homes in Devon, England. When properly cared for and kept out of bad weather, cob structures retain heat very well and can last for centuries. Unlike the convection oven in your kitchen that simply heats the air around your food, cob ovens use three forms of heat transfer: radiant heat from the walls, conduction heat from the floor, and hot air convected throughout the oven space. This creates a blisteringly hot steam that caramelizes the sugars on the outside of the loaf and forms a thick, chewy crust. After cooking your bread in a cob oven, the results from your kitchen oven will seem bland and dry.

Building Your Oven

There are numerous resources about how to cheaply construct a cob oven, often using predominately local supplies. When my husband and I moved onto our historic Appalachian homestead, we were very happy to discover that the previous inhabitants had built a gorgeous earth oven just off from the kitchen. These original builders relied on the book Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field. This fabulous resource will answer every question you have from sourcing materials to deciding on a size, as well as give you a rich back history of this ancient cooking method. A Mother Earth News resource from Kiko Denzer is also available here here.

Using Your Oven

Whether you build your own oven or inherit it like we did, cob ovens are dead easy to use with some prior planning. Give yourself two to five hours for the entire process, depending on how much food you want to make and the required oven temperature. Begin the baking process by following the steps below.

First, soak the oven baking door in a bucket of water. A good soak for a couple hours ensures total saturation and will prevent it from catching fire. The water will also produce steam for the baking process to keep your bread moist.


Build a fire in the oven using small, dry pieces of wood. Kindling-like pieces are best because they have a lot of surface area. The goal is to burn small loads of wood fast and hot. Feel free to use scrap lumber, but make sure that it hasn't been treated with toxic chemicals you wouldn't want in your food. Plan on burning several loads of wood to get the oven to the desired baking temperature. 

Learn to estimate the oven temperature by touching the outside. It should be hot but not unbearable for a few seconds of contact. One to three hours is typically long enough for the oven to fully heat up. When the black soot on the outside begins to burn off the oven has exceeded 600 deg F, which is typically hot enough for one bread bake. Hotter ovens will cook better pizzas, so let the oven go for another hour or so for exceptionally delicious crusts.

Pull out the remains of the fire with a metal ash shovel. Be careful to get the edges of the oven. The interior temperature will be too hot for your hands to handle for long, so wear gloves! When the embers are gone, remove the ashes with a brush and clean the floor space to prepare it for food. 


Next, “soak” your oven with heat. Immediately after firing, the oven floor will be at different temperatures which could cause uneven baking. Too even out the temperature close the oven opening with a metal cookie sheet or something similar and let the oven set for 15 to 30 minutes, though the time isn't too important. Don't use the baking door for this step.

Now, get a feel for the interior temperature. If you can hold your hand inside for eight seconds, it's ready for bread. If it's too hot for that you can cook a pizza or wait for the oven to lose some heat.

Load your loaves into the oven with a peel (a thin bladed paddle) or a narrow wooden board. Use cornmeal on the peel to help the bread slip off easily. It will go directly on the floor of the oven. Immediately block the oven opening with the baking door to trap in steam.


While baking, check your bread every few minutes to ensure it doesn't burn. Your method and baking time will change depending on how hot you have the oven- bread can be cooked “fast and hot” or “slow and cool”. Earth oven prowess comes from practice and intuition, so keep trying different things until you get a feel for it!

When the crust of your bread is brown and textured, pull it out of the oven with the peel. The oven will retain heat for several hours so you can plan out your baking to maximize heat by cooking multiple dishes over several hours, starting with pizza, then bread, followed by a casserole and finally cookies or brownies. 


Tasting homemade bread or pizzas straight from a cob oven is a supremely satisfying experience. Put some time and effort in crafting an oven and perfecting your baking technique and you will be enjoying fresh baked bread from your backyard for years to come.

Lydia Noyes is serving as an Americorps volunteer with her husband in West Virginia at the Big Laurel Learning Center. There, they live with two nuns and help to run a sustainable homestead mountain ridge retreat and ecology center that resides on a 500-acre land trust. You can follow her homesteading adventures on her personal blog Living Echo Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here. 

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging 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.


Around this time of year, many of us find some of our spring chicks are starting to crow. Chickens hatch out 50-percent male and 50-percent female, so if you hatched your own chicks or ordered straight run, chances are good you have some roosters in the flock.

Old English Game bantam rooster

At first it is tempting to keep your roosters. Young roosters that have been brought up together usually do not start fighting right away, nor are their amateur attempts at crowing too loud or annoying. But come spring, the scene on the farm will often change.

Most farmers recommend 6-8 hens per rooster. This ratio is flexible depending on your rooster's libido and size. Why do you need to worry about too many roosters? The first answer is fighting in the flock. A rooster's mission in life is to protect and procreate, and they will see any other males as a threat to their ability to continue their bloodline. Roosters will fight each other to the death if necessary, and they will sacrifice themselves fighting off potential threats to their hens.

You may think that roosters only crow to greet the morning, but that is false. Roosters crow sun up to sun down, and if one guy is calling the rest are certain to answer. For this reason, many towns and cities specifically outlaw roosters on the homestead.

Too few hens to roosters also brings up the problem of over-mating. Roosters are not sympathetic to their ladies and will continue to attempt to mate even after they have scratched up a long-suffering hen's back. Even with only one rooster, if he doesn't have enough hens to spread his affections to, he may cause damage to his harem.

Cochin rooster

It is not impossible to keep multiple roosters. With enough space and hens, two or three roosters can be very happy. Many farmers who keep multiple roosters have them in completely separate flocks, with their own runs and shelters. This is ideal if you are planning to breed your chickens, keeping each breed separate to ensure a purebred result. If you free range your chickens, they will establish their own territories and be able to escape a bullying rooster more easily.

If you've got a flock of roosters and not enough ladies, you will have to consider saying goodbye to a few of the boys. Often you can find a suitable home for a wayward rooster by posting them on CraigsList or local poultry forums. Neighboring farmers may be willing to take one in, and there is always the stew pot option.

Keeping your rooster to hen ratio in balance will help to ensure that your flock is happy and harmonious, and avoids unnecessary drama on the farm.

Kirsten Lie-Nielsen farms about 2 acres of a suburban homestead using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Recently she has begun work restoring an old farm in hopes of farming full time in the future. Find her online at Days Ferry Organics Blog.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging 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.


Honey Jars 

At some point in your beekeeping career, you may find yourself in the position of having more honey than you can possibly use or give to friends, but not enough to begin selling at a weekly farmers market.  There are many ways to sell your extra honey, beeswax candles, or other products of the hive that do not require you to commit to a weekly schedule.

Fairs and Festivals

In a previous blog, I discussed selling products at a fair or festival in detail. The nice thing about this is that you get to decide how many fairs you want to attend.  You could do just one festival a year or do several, depending on how much surplus honey you have.  One word of caution – if you attend a festival one year, but cannot make it the next year, you may find yourself replaced by another honey vendor. So, if you find festival you really like attending, it is a good idea to try to participate in that event every year.

Local Stores

Local stores, especially those interested in carrying locally produced products, may be interested in carrying your products.  It is a good idea to set up a meeting ahead of time with the owner or manager to discuss the possibility of them carrying your products.  Be sure to bring a price list, and remember, they may be looking for wholesale prices.  Bringing samples of your products is also a good idea.  If larger stores need to carry more product than you can provide, try smaller or seasonal stores.  We do not produce enough honey for our local supermarkets, but we found a small local store that is open from May to November.  It works out perfectly for us!

Roadside Stands

You could also consider creating a roadside stand.  The stand itself could be as simple or elaborate as you like.  Many stands utilize the honor system of payment.  Whether you feel comfortable doing this will depend on the area you live in, how well you know your neighbors, and if your house is close enough to the road to keep an eye on the stand. You could also operate a stand that is only open during certain times of the year, or certain hours.

Selling from your Home

A more secure alternative to the roadside stand is to sell directly from your home.  Before we began beekeeping we bought honey from a beekeeper who did this. When they were home and available, they would put out a “Honey for Sale” sign in front of the driveway.  They had set up shelves in the front porch/entryway to the house that displayed all of the items for sale.  You could then pick out what you wanted, and pay them directly. 

Selling at Work

If your employer is agreeable, selling your products at work is very simple!  Just before the holidays, we hang up flyers in all of the breakrooms, advertising our products.  We have many people purchase items as gifts for the holidays, and for themselves.  Many of these coworkers have then gone on to become regular customers. Again, be sure that it is OK with your employer!

Word of Mouth

Once you have been selling honey for a while, many of your customers may come to you by word of mouth.  One way to help this along is to have business cards, brochures, or flyers that advertise your product and have your contact information printed up.  Whenever someone purchases your honey, give them a few of these handouts to pass along to friends and neighbors.  Also, bring a few of these when you are out at social gatherings.  It is amazing – as soon as we mention that we are beekeepers, people ask us if they can purchase honey from us, and how to contact us.  The product really sells itself.


Another way to sell your honey is online.  These days it is fairly easy to set up a website or Facebook page advertising your products.  You may get customers from a larger geographic area using this method, so be prepared to ship products.

There are many ways to sell your surplus honey or other products of the hive. The trick is to give it some thought, and try out the ones that you think will work for you.

Happy Beekeeping!

Jennifer Ford owns and operates Bees of the Woods Apiary with her husband Keith Freeman. You can visit them at Bees of the Woods

Photo credit: Keith Freeman

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging 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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