Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Add to My MSN


 What did you say??!!??

When you raise chickens for eggs and meat, someone always has to be the first to go. My views on this are as follows: “My birds have a really great life with sunshine, bugs, fresh water and room to run, flap, attempt to fly and roost … they just have one really bad day”. Not even an entire bad day, more like a bad three seconds.

So, how do you decide who goes? At Chimney Swift Farms we use the jerk method. Who is the biggest jerk in the flock? Are they big enough to process? If so, that’s how we choose.  It’s not a science but it works for us and it also helps to keep the flock happy, and protected.

I have literally spent my life saving animals; squirrels, birds, turtles, mice, if it had a pulse it was savable. It was incredibly hard to switch gears to processing animals for food and take a life, even a jerk. I am a meat eater and I feel that if I am going to eat it I should be willing to raise, nurture it and in the end process that animal as humanely as possible. I would rather have one of my birds that I know was treated with respect, kindness and a gentle hand than a 30-lb, 30-day-old roided out bird from a factory farm that has lived thru hell. My girls have a great life, humane death and good health in-between.

My first harvest was a rooster who was killing hens and making the flock very nervous and on edge, he passed the jerk test with flying colors. It was still so hard, it felt foreign taking a life, almost wrong. It was over quickly and without struggle or fear, on his part, and the processing went better than anticipated. I was proud of myself and grateful to him and hoped that his life was happy right up until the end.

We will be expanding the chicken yard this spring and will be adding a lot more birds and begin to process on a more regular basis. I am confidant and have the tools needed to make the right decisions for my flock and treat them with dignity, respect and give them humane ends. So at Chimney Swift Farms it’s safe to say, don’t be a jerk.

It’s time more people cared about where the meat on their tables came from and how it was treated from birth to death. With the amount of family farms in operation, you have so many other options than factory meats. Call your local farmer’s market and I am sure they can direct you to more healthy and humane options when it comes to purchasing meats. Supporting your local farmer can help us move away from factory farming and all the negative aspects associated with it. One person may be a small change, but it’s still a change.  Winter is a good time to gather information on all your local options for all varieties of foods and to join a CSA to become part of the movement! 

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.


When my husband and I deserted our cushy life and city jobs five years ago to stitch together a living on our dream homestead in the sticks, we didn’t know there was a term for such outrageous behavior. Ah, but, there is.

Coined in 1996 by fellow ship-jumper and author Michael Fogler, “un-jobbing” is exactly what we are doing here in the Ozarks. Like Fogler, we freed ourselves from a life of merely making a living. Instead of being rattled from sleep by a screaming alarm clock (a totally unnatural way to awaken) to trudge to a corporate establishment, we rise with the sun. No longer exhausted from grueling days consumed indoors, my husband can devote boundless energy to designing and building all we need here, especially his favorite – human-powered devices for the self-reliant.

And I can grow food, sew, draw, write, delight in nature and volunteer at the local food producers’ co-op. Although not impossible, it was less fun to do such things when depleted from work, worry and driving. As crazy as it sounds, I found I had more money by not working. Having a job means buying clothes, gas and food, among other nonsense, away from home. Incidentally, the higher one’s income, the more damage done to the environment.

In his gutsy, concise book (only 106 pages), Un-Jobbing: The Adult Liberation Handbook, Fogler explains how he pulled all the areas of his life into alignment with his personal values, living more simply and consciously. In a light-hearted style, he chronicles his journey in search of the ultimate fantasy job, a high-paying, full-time career “with benefits package and security.” Fogler’s frustrating pursuit led him in an entirely different direction – home, where his heart is, enjoying a non-job-dominated life.

Fogler and his wife left the work-a-day world as we did, a little at a time, until eventually becoming immersed in a fulfilling life without luxuries, but full of riches money cannot buy. Untangling from society’s expectations is not easy at first, as Fogler points out.

When I quit my final “guaranteed paycheck” in 2012, it felt unnatural as I had worked nearly seamlessly since the 1970s. I didn’t know what to call myself when meeting people. I wasn’t retired, laid off, unemployed or between jobs. I was simply no longer part of that accepted routine of what Fogler calls “the 9 to 5 to 65 merry-go-round.” In other words, most people in Western society accept and expect to work their lives away for an employer, and are bewildered when encountering those of us who choose not to. Even home-based entrepreneurs can fall into the trap of overwork, Fogler warns.

For years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I frequently woke in a panic at 3 a.m. dreaming that I had forgotten to turn in an extremely crucial writing assignment or to dress appropriately for an interview with the president. After only a few months of un-jobbing, however, those “pajamas in public” nightmares ended.

Perhaps because I am more aware of this lifestyle now, or maybe the Ozarks attracts us, I have met many others who piecemeal together incomes so they can live simply off the land. Many, like us, raise much of their own food, forsake frivolous amenities, barter with their neighbors and are mastering the art of repurposing. We live without air-conditioning, TV, cell phones and much of everything else modern society deems essential. But, as Fogler stresses, this is not a life of deprivation. Un-jobbing also does not include relying on government aid or charity. Instead, we focus on and build for ourselves what we truly want from life.

At a lavish wedding this summer, it made me smile to know I’d spent less than $4 on my glittery outfit at a non-profit thrift store. After the wedding, I donated the clothing back, where it will be sold again to support the local domestic violence shelter.

Ironically, a friend who still struggles with how to leave so-called job security passed the book to me on my way to the wedding. I read it on a Greyhound bus headed north. Before reaching Minnesota, I’d finished the book. Although I was already living the life Fogler described, the book affirmed my decision. I put down the book and gazed out the bus window at miles of commuters in stiff business suits, road construction workers hammering away at concrete and truckers entombed in their semis. Then there was the bus driver who never smiled once in 900 miles. I can’t say for certain, but I bet nearly all those folks preferred to be somewhere else, but do not know how to make the change.

Because this feeling is too good not to spread around, Fogler offers tools, ideas and suggestions on how and why to live such a life. MOTHER EARTH NEWS interviewed Fogler in April 2000 in How to Quit your Job, asking him what people should know about the process of extricating themselves from unfulfilling work.

“The biggest stumbling block is fear, no doubt about it,” Fogler said. “People are afraid, and while they might fully admit that they're not totally happy right now, the fear is that if they make a big change, it could be worse. And so they'd rather stick with what they know, even though it leaves a lot to be desired. They are afraid that accepting a different way of life will mean financial catastrophe.”

Fogler said there is no guarantee that quitting a job won’t mean financial ruin. In his experience, however, it doesn’t.

“I don't know if everything's going to be okay,” Fogler said he tells people in his career workshops. “But I know that if you don't make any moves, if you always do what you've always done, you will always get what you've always gotten."

Another great MOTHER EARTH NEWS article on the topic of living simply includes So You Want to Be a Farmer?

In March 2014, fellow MOTHER EARTH NEWS blogger Kyle Chandler-Isacksen explains in Six and a Half Money-Saving Tips how his family of four lives abundantly on about $6,500 per year on a half-acre in Reno, Nev., without electricity, a car or job.

“With this lifestyle comes time for hobbies and interests, time for being with our children and time with my wife, time for play and rest, great health and great food, time to do lots of service, and deeper connection to nature and to our friends and neighbors,” Chandler-Isacksen says. “It's been a great journey so far.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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.

Photos by Linda Holliday

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.


This is typically the time of the year I would be writing about Halloween, my favorite holiday, or putting together something crafty for autumn. I tried that route, but I’ve never been very good at anything other than writing from my heart.

And in my heart, I am feeling like this is an early Thanksgiving instead of Halloween. You see, for the last three and a half weeks, my life has been spinning on its axis. In late September, my mother had a health emergency, leaving my sister, father, and me at her bedside for weeks. Although I know, in my practical mind, that we lose loved ones in life, suddenly I was staring that reality in the face.

We spent days in the hospital room with her, listening to beeps and blips and watching doctors and nurses shuffle in and out. On the surface, I was in the room with the machines and IVs but, inside my head, it was a much different landscape.

I looked back over the years of her being the one to hold my hand through the tough times, through sickness, through children being born. Now we sat at her bedside, holding her hands and pleading with her to get better, not even sure she could hear us or recognize our voices. We brushed her hair and washed her face, as she had done for us for so many years. Doing these small things were some of the most difficult moments of my life.

Two weeks into our vigil, the stress of the situation finally took a physical toll on my dad, leaving him in a separate hospital with heart problems. When you’ve been married for 45 years, helplessly watching your wife is bound to break your heart. It was at this point that my sister and I split duties, one with Mom at her hospital and one with Dad at his. I couldn’t help but ponder how much I’d taken for granted in my life, including my parents, who had raised me to appreciate everything that makes me a Homegrown type of woman.

My dad taught me from a very young age to find solace in nature, to recognize the peace that it can bring. He grew gardens and took me for long walks in the state park at the end of the street. We trekked through corn fields to explore old abandoned barns and stopped to appreciate clouds and animals. I learned early on to appreciate and seek out the beauty that so many people are too busy to recognize. I have always been grateful for that.

Michelle's dad and son

I trailed behind my mother all of the time in my young years, watching her create a home; that's the two of us, many years ago, in the photo below. She made every meal, starting with my dad’s breakfast early in the dark hours of the morning and ending with a family meal together around the dinner table. She baked and she cleaned, doing far more than I ever recognized as a child. She was also very active in society and in helping dozens of young, scared, pregnant girls who had nowhere to go. In addition to giving us what we needed, she also found these girls homes and food and security.

Together, my parents delivered full dinners to families in need and provided holidays for people who otherwise had nothing. To me, this was a normal life. It was years, not until I had my own children, before I realized they worked hard to instill social responsibility in us. They felt that raising empathetic and giving kids was their greatest legacy.

So you see, everything I cherish and have in common with you Homegrown readers, I owed to these two people lying in hospital beds. They were no longer the immortal super humans I’d always thought they were. They were, quite suddenly, very human and very vulnerable. This was my chance to learn a lesson and perhaps to share it with each of you.

Today, as I sit writing this, my dad is with my mom at her rehab center while she relearns some life skills before coming home. They’re both on the road to recovery, now that doctors have found and treated my mom’s mystery illness­: a cyst in her brain, leaning on her pituitary gland. I, too, find myself relearning some life skills.

I’ve forgotten how much I love the simple, small things—you know, the “normal” things. I’ve realized that instead of my parents being normal, they’re actually blessings and not everyone’s normal: clearing the garden in fall with the kids, making way for new growth and new seasons, the routine of getting ready for school and going out into life. Preparing for family holidays then spending them together, decorating the Christmas tree or collecting Easter eggs. Picking up the phone to call my parents to talk about the fall colors, lucky they’re only 20 minutes from me.

I’ve realized these things are the glue that has held my family together tightly. It continues to hold our kids together with their cousins and their grandparents, as well. In the grand scheme of life, these are not simple or small things. They’re what life is all about.

Above all, it’s important to make these things passed down by our parents rituals rather than routines. Next time I put up food after the harvest, I’ll remember when my dad bought dozens and dozens of ears of corn to freeze. He shucked and stripped ear after ear, resulting in the year when we had corn every which way. Or the time my mom allowed me to express my own fashion sense and bought me a purple faux fur coat that I loved, only to be called Grimace for a solid year afterwards. She had tried to steer me away from the ill-fated choice, but in the end, she let me learn my own lesson.

I’m still learning my own lessons, often the hard way, but I’m exceedingly grateful to have my parents, my family, and my friends to learn from. Happy early Thanksgiving.

This post originally appeared on

Michelle Wire comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a Pennsylvania homestead where she works from home in between raising kids and chickens. 

Photos by Michelle Wire

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


I can hear it now: “What the devil? Angus? They are not milk cows!” Well, it all got started when the neighbor purchased four, what he was led to believe were, Black Angus calves from someone in a valley some distance from us. After he got them home and observing them over the next couple weeks, it became apparent that they were, in fact, a cross of some variety. In disgust, he offered them to us for what he paid for them: $20.00 apiece.

Anxious to get our “herd” started, being new to the country life, we bought two and some hay and put up a loafing shed. We suspected they were a dairy cross, so we named them Buttermilk and Brownie. As they grew, we handfed them to make handling easier as we had no squeeze chutes in which to confine them. Over the next 14 months they became big pets, begging for carrots or apples as we moved through the field changing irrigation pipes and pulling noxious weeds; and coming on a dead run if you were working in the garden where carrots or pea vines lived, or they’d be right beside us if we were headed toward the grain barrels.

The Milking Angus is BornBrownie The Milking Angus

At about 2 years of age, we had them bred to the neighbor’s Hereford bull. The pregnancies progressed without incident and soon they delivered two frisky little calves. But the udders on these two cows were huge! They clearly had more milk than the calves could handle. Once the calves devoured the colostrum (first milk), I decided to see if the cow named Brownie could be trained to allow milking. She was skittish at first but soon tolerated it without incident, especially when her stanchion was filled with molasses-flavored oats. Thus The Milking Angus was born. Her milk was so rich it formed about 6 inches of cream on the top of a gallon jug. Made us suspect Jersey in her blood lines.

Of course, after the neighbors knew what we were doing, they fell down in gales of riotous laughter. That is until they saw and tasted the milk. Then they became steady customers. Buttermilk had white on her underbelly so we were thinking Holstein with her. Her milk was larger in volume but contained less cream. An old-time rancher told us that he always left the calf with the cow until he wanted a milking, then separated them for 12 hrs and took his milking. It worked, too, though it did get a little noisy as the calves objected mightily.

‘Buttermilk’ Finds a New Home

We took to birthing the calves in the early fall, as we felt the savings on one winter’s hay was evident before they were butchered at two years of age. After a couple years, we decided we had too many mouths to feed on our small acreage, so we sold Buttermilk to some friends. We told them we didn’t have a loading chute so whoever picked up the calves would need a ramp to load her.

A couple cowboys arrived to pick up Buttermilk, only to find we had no chute and they had no ramp. They were going to leave and try to come back with another truck. Wait, we said, this can be done with a carrot. They, too, fell down in gales of laughter. I am not sure what was so funny, but they quit laughing as Buttermilk followed me and a bag of carrots up a hastily made ramp of two 2’ x 6’ boards with a few 2’x 4’ cross pieces nailed to keep her from slipping, into the back of their two ton 4’ high truck bed. She did love carrots, and the cowboys thought the local stockyard should know about us.

Amazing Cow Stories

Over time, Brownie became a neighborhood icon, folks watching as she approached calving or when she was in another field having a fit because a calf was being butchered. The man who did our field killing told us he had never seen a cow like her. She could see or hear his truck about 3/4th of a mile away, and she would meet him at the corner of our property that was ringed by the road, and run alongside the truck, bellowing at him constantly until he disappeared around the bend on the way to someone else’s place. We always removed her when we were butchering, but she would run right to the spot after the truck was gone and stamp on the ground and snort. It was almost enough to get you to quit eating meat.

One year, we were gone at calving time, and a neighbor on the way to work spotted the new calf. He returned home to grab some Bocee and a banding gun. After he had doctored and banded our little newborn boy, he trotted off to work. About 30 minutes later, another neighbor and his wife stopped by having noticed the newborn calf. A shot of Bocee was administered and when he turned the calf over to band it, he uttered, “well I’ll be, this puppy was born banded.” Actually, his language was a little more colorful than that but you get the idea.

One time, Brownie developed a deep split in her hoof and it badly needed trimming and someone skilled to look at it. I called a horse shoer who would have all the tools and some knowledge of this kind of injury. But when he learned we did not have a chute, he would have nothing to do with it.

We called a new young vet, asking him if he would at least examine her. He reluctantly agreed and after the exam agreed it needed trimming and cleaning. But without a chute he was not sure. Carrots, I said, this will work. Dubious, but willing to give it a go, he retrieved his equipment and I retrieved a bucket full of carrots and molasses flavored oats. Then I tied her to a fence post, and offered her the goodies while picking up her foot. He proceeded to trim, file, and clean up this nasty little hoof injury without so much as a twitch. He became the family vet and pretty enamored with Brownie, our Milking Angus.

Remembering a Remarkable Cow

A few years later I found her newly calved and down on the ground, awake but in deep shock and covered with frost. I grabbed some sleeping bags and covered her up while we put in an emergency call for the vet, assuming calcium or magnesium issues since she had just delivered. He arrived with the magic IV solution, but by the time he got there so had all the neighbors, so this crowd of onlookers were pretty concerned. She did not get up after the first bottle was administered, and it took a second. By now he had broken into a big-time sweat. After she got on her feet, we asked if he was ok. “Yes,” he said, “there was just a lot of pressure treating the neighborhood Milking Angus.”

In 17 years, Brownie produced 15 calves, and only one was lost due to severe birth defects. She was a sweet little mama, and never lost her pet-like qualities with us, or the kids and grandkids. In her 17th year, she broke an ankle, and was in a great deal of pain so it was clear the era of Brownie The Milking Angus was over. But pictures still grace our albums, including the pictures of her first calving. We were so excited, we sat on a nearby rock pile to record the event. In typical behavior, she was more interested in the possibility that we might have brought a carrot to the event.

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


Hi, my name is Alexander Goldberg. I am 15 years old and live with my mom, dad, and little brother on our farm in the mountains of central Virginia. My family raises food for our table. In addition to growing fruits and vegetables in our large garden and fruit orchard, over the years we’ve raised meat and layer chickens, pigs, lambs, ducks and guineas. I have my own flock of over 25 chickens, a motley assortment that I have gathered over the years, including Egyptian Fayumi, Silver Polish, Spangled Old English Game Bantams, Single-combed Nankins and of course my beloved Sumatras (blue, black and splash)! I am a member of the Livestock Conservancy (formerly the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) and a member of my local 4-H club. My special interests include rare and endangered breeds of poultry, especially the Sumatra chicken. I attend a couple of poultry shows every year and successfully participate in the senior showmanship class.

Promoting Heritage Breed PoultryAlexander Goldberg With Endangered Poultry

My first experience with Mother Earth News was in 2011. Brian Welch (editor for Mother Earth News) came to Charlottesville, Virginia, to speak at the Heritage Harvest Festival (a festival held at President Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, to which many people come and give lectures). While here, he was interviewed on television about his book, Beautiful and Abundant. The Livestock Conservancy emailed its members, looking for a small, friendly bird that Mr. Welch could hold during the interview. I volunteered my Old English Game Bantam hen, Comet (nicknamed Metta). I got to meet Mr. Welch right before the interview and I watched it from the sidelines. Metta behaved admirably with the exception of a tiny little accident on the table.

In this blog I hope to chronicle my trips to shows, experiences with the breeds I am raising, and other stories that come up. I will also share stories and information about rare and endangered (and possibly unheard of) breeds of poultry, interesting facts about them, and why efforts to protect these breeds are so important. The Livestock Conservancy is an organization that helps to find and preserve rare and endangered breeds of livestock and poultry. I first learned of the LC from my grandparents who have friends involved with the organization. They introduced our family to the LC and, when I started with 4-H, I also started reading the newsletters. Later, after I had become a member myself, Dr Martin, who is the Research and Technical Programs Director for the LC, came to visit our farm along with Dr Eric Hallman, the Executive Director, and asked me if I would be interested in blogging about my adventures and here I am today!

What Species is a ‘Giant Runt’?

At the end of each post I will have a question that I will answer in the next post, and this week’s question is: What species of animal is a Giant Runt? Have fun finding out! Feel free to share your answers in the comment section. See you next time!

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


Greenhouses can be interesting environments to grow in. This is because standard greenhouse materials like glass and plastic (“glazing”) are extremely good at letting in light and heat in, and extremely good at letting heat out. With so much glazed surface area, greenhouses usually overheat during the day if uncontrolled. And because glass and plastic provide no insulation, at night they lose all that heat, causing them to freeze. Take this October day in Boulder, Colorado for instance: An all-glass greenhouse fluctuated from a high of 110 F to a low of 30 F in one day. Plants, like people, do not like this.

The primary challenge with greenhouse growing is stabilizing these temperature swings. Conventionally, people do this by blasting energy via heating or cooling systems into the greenhouse. But the smarter, more sustainable way of creating a stable greenhouse environment is to harness the excess solar energy coming in during the day, store it and use it at night. Or, if working with an existing greenhouse, to add an efficient heater that uses cheap and renewable fuels. These strategies all take understanding and research, and have some upfront cost, but the pay-back in terms of added growing and long-term savings is well worth it.

Also, remember there’s no cheaper energy than the energy you don’t have to use, so if designing a new greenhouse, build it so that it does not require much heating and cooling in the first place. This means using building a air-tight, insulated structure, using proper roofing materials, and orienting the greenhouse with the glazing facing South — where all our light in the Northern hemisphere comes from. If growing in an existing greenhouse, you can insulate your greenhouse and weather-strip air leaks among other things. Reducing your energy requirements to a minimum is always the first step, then incorporate the strategies below.

1) Store solar energy in thermal mass

The easiest and most common way to even out the temperature of your greenhouse is utilize thermal mass, also called a heat sink.  Thermal mass is any material that stores thermal energy. Most materials do this to some extent, but some do it much better than others. Water for instance, holds about 2 times as much heat as concrete, and about 4 times as much as soil.

Incorporating mass does two things. First, it absorbs excess energy during the day, creating a cooling effect. When the temperature drops at night, it starts releasing that energy, thereby ‘heating’ the greenhouse. Note: though I say ‘cooling and heating’, the thermal mass is not actually providing the energy, it’s simply storing it and releasing it later, like a battery. The size of the battery (or how much energy you can store) depends on the heat capacity of the material and how much mass you have. Below is a table comparisons a few different sources of thermal mass and their heat capacities.

Thermal mass and heat capacities chart


The most common way to use thermal mass is water barrels, because it has such a high heat capacity. By stacking several 55 gallon drums of water in a greenhouse, the grower can incorporate a lot of thermal mass. Barrels should be stacked where they are in direct sunlight, often on a North wall. Since plants will be warmer around the water barrels, put more tender plants — like seeding trays or warm weather crops — on or near the barrels. Growing with an aquaponics system — growing fish and plants symbiotically — has the nice benefit of the fish tanks doubling as thermal mass. Other variations include building concrete or stone into the greenhouse — such as using a concrete North wall or flagstone floor. Even the soil in raised beds will add thermal mass.

While the easiest to install, thermal mass can be slow to react. It takes longer to disseminate the heat throughout the greenhouse, limiting its effectiveness. But, given the low upfront cost, adding thermal mass to a greenhouse is a popular method for extending the growing season. It may not get you year-round growth of all things, but it can certainly take your greenhouse to the next level.

2) Incorporate a heat exchanger

Pipes in an underground heat exchanger

To go one step beyond standard thermal mass, you can incorporate a heat exchanger to circulate air through the source of mass. This idea goes by many names. It’s often called a Climate Battery or a Subterranean Heating and Cooling System (SHCS) — a name popularized by John Cruickshank of Ceres Greenhouse Solutions, based in Boulder, CO, also has a variation of the system called a Ground to Air Heat Transfer (GAHT) System.

There are many configurations, but the mechanism of energy transfer and storage is always the same. When the greenhouse heats up during the day, a fan pumps warm humid air from the interior of the greenhouse through a network of pipes buried up to 4’ underground (most systems consist of a couple layers of tubes buried at 4’ and 2’ below the surface). The drop in temperature forces the water vapor to condense, and in that process (called a phase change) energy is released. That energy is stored in the soil, causing the soil to heat up. Thus, the process creates a large mass of warm soil underneath the greenhouse year-round. At night, when the greenhouse drops in temperature, the fan kicks on again and extracts that heat from the soil. It’s a relatively simple, time-tested system; ground to air heat exchangers have been used in homes for decades.

3D model of an underground heat exchanger

A ground to air heat exchanger works very well for two reasons: First, the amount of available mass (the size of the battery as we mentioned before) is huge. For example, there are 768 cubic feet of soil beneath a 12’ x 16’ greenhouse, assuming a 4’ depth. If you lined the whole North wall of the same greenhouse with two rows of 55 gallon water barrels (16 barrels) they would have a total of 118 cubic feet of mass. That means, using the volumetric heat capacities in the table above, the underground heat exchanger has about twice the capacity as the water barrels. Moreover, because a ground to air heat exchanger connects to the deep earth and thus theoretically has an infinite capacity. For a diagram to better understand this, see CERES Greenhouses picture here.

Secondly, because air is actively being pushed through the ‘battery’ it increases the rate of heat exchange. The hotter / cooler air is distributed around the greenhouse more evenly, preventing cold pockets. Additionally, using fans allows you to use the mass when you want: a thermostat kicks the fan on and off at certain set temperatures. I.e., the fan will start pumping warm air down into the soil when the greenhouse reaches a set temperature (say 80 F), and draw it back up when it has gone below 50 F. Thus, an underground heat exchanger gives you some control over thermal mass; it’s kind of like taking thermal mass and making it smarter.


The material of the battery can vary. Some people backfill the area underneath the greenhouse with gravel or stones instead of soil. If you already have a greenhouse, or can’t excavate on your site to do much ground work, you can create an alternative battery above ground. You can build an insulated mass of soil or other material, such as a box of river rocks in front of the greenhouse. The system works the same way, only the location of the thermal mass is different.

3) Use an efficient renewable-powered heater

The above systems show you how to harness the sun and store solar energy, which is a good first step to natural heating. If additional heating is needed, consider a highly efficient heating system that runs off of cheap and renewable fuel.

Rocket mass heater

One of the common systems used in greenhouses is the rocket mass heater, a super efficient variation of a wood stove. Instead of just exhausting hot air straight out of a chimney like a standard wood stove does, the rocket mass heater first circulates the hot air through a mass of cob, brick or stone before it’s exhausted out. The air warms the mass which holds the heat and slowly radiates it back into the greenhouse over a long period of time, even after the stove is done burning. The rocket mass heater also uses a double combustion chamber, making it much more efficient than a standard wood stove — a couple hours of a burn with a small amount of wood can heat a greenhouse overnight. Most rocket mass heaters are DIY systems; you will have to investigate and design a system that fits for your greenhouse using the plethora of plans and explanations online.

Compost pile under construction

Another common greenhouse system is the compost-pile heater, which relies on the magic of aerobic bacteria to break down organic material and give off waste heat. Like the underground heat-exchanger, a compost heater also relies on a heat exchanger: water is circulated through tubes running through a large compost pile. Because of the aerobic decomposition, a compost pile can maintain temperatures of 100-160 F. The heated water is then is circulated through the greenhouse where it dispenses heat. Of all the systems, this one probably takes the most tinkering to get right and keep going. You must first build your compost pile with the right material and consistency to get it to a high temperature, and keep adding to it or re-building the pile as it decomposes. However, a large, properly constructed pile (see picture below) can keep a 1,000-2,000 sq. ft. greenhouse heated for a winter. For these reasons, compost pile heaters are often best suited for larger greenhouses.

Completed compost pile


Which way to go? Several factors play in:

What are your goals (how much space are you trying to heat, and to what degree)? Each system has a different capacity for heating. How much control do you want to have? (Some systems are active and some are passive. (i.e., You can crank up a rocket mass heater but there’s not much you can do to change water barrels).

What constraints are you already working with? (i.e., difficult/rocky soils will rule out an underground heat-exchanger.) Think about how much floor space in the greenhouse you have for things like water barrels. And most importantly think about the time and labor involved in installing each system, as well as the on-going time/labor that it can take to run each system (i.e., an underground heat exchanger can be automated, whereas a rocket mass heater cannot be). Again, while you need to do some homework upfront, having a warm greenhouse churning out fresh food throughout the winter (and free!) is the best payoff you can get.

(Top) Photos courtesy Ceres Greenhouse Solutions: Pipes in an underground heat exchanger for a 12 x 20 greenhouse. 3D model of an underground heat exchanger below ground.

(Middle) Photo courtesy Verge Permaculture: Rocket mass heater in a greenhouse.

(Bottom) Photos courtesy Golden Hoof Farm: Compost pile in mid-construction with tubing for aeration. Completed compost pile.

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.


Deer Isle got walloped by an early and unexpected winter storm this past weekend. Snow heavy spruces snapped or got uprooted, tearing down power lines and telephone poles as they blocked roads and driveways. In our off-the-grid, solar-powered cabin we enjoyed lights and a movie on our laptop all through the storm and the next day we salvaged several great blown down logs from around the neighborhood. I mustn't have read the forecast very carefully, since our plans for this stormy day initially were to continue laying the pipes in our new grey water system and washing the windows in our house. Well, being a homesteader and living off the land often means being subjected to natural conditions beyond our control. Most of our work is closely connected to nature and we have to act and react accordingly to what's put in front of us – sometimes predictable changes of seasons and temperatures, other times curve balls such as unseen pest pressure, hard frosts in late May or heavy snow in early November. It's hard to plan projects that involve nature by looking at the calendar, rather, it requires observation, a keen mind and light feet that can quickly change direction when needed.

For each passing year as a homesteader I more and more came to appreciate the premises nature so often sets in our daily life. I'm working alongside a much greater force that I can either fight and make more work for myself, like by planting seedlings in a dry weather spell and having to water them or comply and have it work in my favor, by planting just before rain. We can also take advantage of these conditions by, for example, doing our laundry in the morning on a sunny day for maximum solar power gain and utilizing the afternoon breeze for the clothes to dry on the line. Season and weather will also aid in things like the most efficient processing and drying of both firewood and lumber.

A lifestyle where these natural circumstances is the main determining factor for what gets done when is getting increasingly rarer – humans have gained what some consider an advantage by manipulating the world into a state where we can remain unaffected from the forces of nature in many ways. We've developed vehicles that can traverse distances in almost any weather and indoor work areas where heating, cooling, light, air and humidity is totally independent of outside conditions. Fertilizers, greenhouses and infrastructure allow us to eat anything everywhere at all times and we're able to manufacture all the goods we want thanks to finite resources without considering the supply of local, natural material such as wood.

This manipulation has led to an illusion-like concept that we can sustain ourselves largely independent of nature. Hence, humans' actions in the natural world are also disconnected from it and too often carried out without consideration for what impact they may have or the long term sustainability. These actions lead to the depletion of resources, such as land, water and fossil fuel and when we do see the consequences of those actions, such as large scale crop failure, water shortage and devastated urban infrastructure in the wake of severe weather, the initial reaction is rarely one of reflection over the link between lifestyle choices and the outcome we now see. Rather, the more common reaction is one of surprise over water companies that can't provide usable water, outrage over air lines that can't keep on schedule and the government, unable to protect us from these forces. Since they have all been able to gain control over nature, they should, with this logic, also be able to keep that control. The next step in this line of reasoning is to push for even greater manipulation of the natural world in order to gain even greater independence, another loop in challenging spiral.

Here at the homestead, most days come as a reminder that we will gain the most by working with nature rather than attempting to stay in control over it. If the leeks need to be picked on a Sunday, I pick the leeks on a Sunday even if I'd planned on a day off. When I see the winter apples fall to the ground I put other projects on hold and secure the apple harvest, and when spruce logs seem to present themselves right in front of us, well, then we better get them. Some days it feels as if all I do is trying to catch up, other days the wind and the weather do the work for me, and do it even better still. One year the miserable cold June killed all of my tomato plants but next winter the miserable cold January killed most all of the squash bugs that would have eaten my pumpkins next summer. After a long stretch of sunny days there's usually a gray one coming, just as we needed some rest. I live in nature and with nature. Some days we get socked by unexpected weather and some days we can reap what the weather gave us. It's all a part of the same great picture.

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.

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.