Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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When living off grid, a practical water system is incredibly important but the number of options out there can make it tricky to pick the right one for your situation. Since we moved to our off grid homestead, we have learned that there isn't only one right way to do things. Finding a water system that fits the specific needs of any property takes time, research and a careful evaluation of the needs of that property going forward.

Looking Into Wells: The Most Obvious Solution

Wells are a great option for many properties and one of the most-obvious routes to go when living off the grid. Once installed, they are almost maintenance-free and provide thousands of gallons of water. If you know your property is located on a low point on the water table, then it's probably pretty safe to dig one.

However, in other cases wells can be extremely expensive and striking water may not even be guaranteed. Our property is on a glacial outcropping that keeps the water table far below us. Wells are hit or miss around here. When we evaluated our homestead priorities we realized that we aren't willing to sink 10 to 30 grand in a system that might not work so even though this is the route we’re hoping to go in the future, it doesn't make the most financial sense for us right now.

Investigating Rainwater Harvesting

Next we considered harvesting rainwater as we have an abundance of free rain falling from the sky in our area. In theory, no water system can beat the price per gallon of a rain barrel collection system, making this route very appealing. We initially planned on installing an 8-barrel system for our home, but a few experiments proved to us that they would NOT be right for our property for two main reasons.

off grid water systems and rainwater harvesting

One, our property is windy. Right now we are living in a trailer (more on that here) and don't have much roof space for installing a water catchment system. Instead, we would need to use something such as tarps. Our property is too windy to make that effective which means we would need a more elaborate system, so this would automatically complicate our project making it time-consuming and potentially cost quite a bit of money (making free rainwater less appealing).

Second, we live in a cold climate. Freezing conditions can be expected anytime from October to May. Rain barrels systems aren’t really ideal for cold climates unless the system can be designed to be freeze-proof. In an off grid situation you may have to bury both the barrels and plumbing or build a some sort of cellar for them. Again, this would be time consuming and expensive, further discouraging us from relying on rain collection for our immediate water needs.

Don't let our negative experiences with rain barrel systems discourage you from trying them yourself. If you live in a warmer climate that gets rain year round, they can be a great option. Regardless what water system we choose to go with for our immediate needs, we do plan on developing a rainwater collection system in the future, even if it’s just for spring to fall use.

Our Best Interim Solution: Exploring Cisterns

Cisterns are another great water option in homesteading situations because they can provide months of water with one fill up. They can be filled with an outside delivery, rainwater, or well water that's pumped in. Cisterns can be a great system even when you eventually plan to install a well because once a well is established it can be used to fill the cistern for convenient water storage.

There are two main types of cisterns including above and below-ground.

Above-ground cisterns are usually small enough to be put on a pickup truck or trailer. They are  made of lighter materials than below-ground systems because they don't need to be buried, which usually means they are cheaper.

Below-ground cistern tanks have a large capacity and are sturdy enough to be buried. They work well in cold climates because they can be put below the frost line to prevent freezing, which is essential for grid homes without an alternative power source.

above ground water cistern

Choosing the Best Water System for Our Property

It's taken a lot of experimenting for us to come up with our short-term off grid water plan. All things considered, we plan to go with a below-ground cistern for now. We estimate that water can be delivered to this tank every three months or so. When we’re ready, we will try our luck at drilling a well which will then feed the cistern. We love the cistern idea because we feel that it can bridge the gap between a well and what we’re doing now, without breaking the bank or taking expensive risks.

Does this make us 100% self-sustainable? No, and we are okay with that. Our quest for a long-term water solution needs to be a balance of today's needs with tomorrow’s desires. Someday we want to be fully self sufficient, but we aren't there yet and in the meantime we still need water to drink. For us, a below-ground water tank seems to be the best solution.

When researching off grid water systems it is important to remember there is no one solution that will work for every property. Experiments and an openness to trying new techniques will eventually get you to the right solution for you.

Alyssa Craft moved to Idaho after purchasing 5 acres of land where she will build an off grid homestead from scratch. She is blogging about the journey from start to finish in hopes of inspiring others that wish to take a similar path. Follow her many DIY projects including building with reclaimed materials, building an off-grid hot tub, milling lumber with an Alaskan chainsaw mill and starting an organic garden. Keep up on the journey by following her blog Pure Living for Life, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube channel. View Alyssa’s other MOTHER EARTH NEWS articles here!

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.


What is a Soap Nut?

Technically a berry, soap nuts are considered to be an environmentally conscious alternative to chemical detergents and soaps. The berries come from a prolific tree that grows well in degraded environments where little else can grow. They are safe for allergies, free from any additives, and can be used to clean just about anything.


Sound unbelievable? I thought so, too. I was completely skeptical that a few pieces of shell could get anything clean, much less my stinky running clothes that hadn't been washed in weeks. But I'm willing to try just about anything that promises to be a green solution, so I took a risk and ran a few loads of laundry with them.

How did the nuts work for me? After washing the stinky shirts and line drying them for a few hours, all traces of dirt and sweat smell were completely gone. My clothes smelled so good I could hardly believe the nuts had no added fragrance. Everything came out as well as when I use commercial detergents, and the nuts could be reused for many more loads.

Am I jumping on the soap nut bandwagon? Absolutely. Finding an environmental friendly, sustainably sourced cleaning product that is as fun and easy to use is rare, and soap nuts fit the bill.

Facts about Soap Nuts

The mukorossi tree berry is the most common soap nut sold in America. A native to China, this species has been thriving in India and Nepal for thousands of years. Mukorossi trees can live for over a century and produce prolific harvests of soap berries for over 80 years.

The trees grow well in poor soils and steep slopes. Currently, the global demand for soap berries is nowhere near the plentiful supply and an estimated half of Mukorossi berries in Nepal are rotting off the tree.

Environmental Benefits of Soap Nuts

They thrive in regions with few other agricultural opportunities, and some species of soap nut tree flourish in poor soil and help prevent erosion on steep slopes.

They eliminate the packaging needed for plastic detergent bottles and are concentrated enough that a small box can replace the need for many bottles of commercial detergent. The nuts are also usually are shipped in biodegradable cardboard boxes, not plastic.

Because they are 100 percent biodegradable and don’t contain the toxic chemicals found in conventional cleaning products, soap nuts are a perfect option for gray-water systems. Because our Appalachian homestead runs only on rainwater, we need to be conscious of what enters our water system.

 drain pipe

How Do Soap Nuts Work?

Soap nuts contain a substance called saponin, which is a natural soap. When the berries are agitated in water they release this natural soap through surfactant, which is an agent that reduces the surface tension of a liquid. Both man made and natural detergents need a surfactant to break the surface tension of water so that it can permeate fabric. Surfactants and saponins work together by shaking loose dirt from clothing and then binding to the dirt particles until they can be washed away.

Uses for the Soap Nut

Soap nuts can be used for a variety of cleaning purposes.

nut bag

Laundry. Using soap nuts for laundry couldn't be easier. Just put 4 to 5 nuts in a cloth bag and toss them in your washing machine. Run the machine as usual and remove the nuts with the clothing at the end of the rinse cycle. You won't need to use fabric softener or to take the nuts out early. Hot water will release more saponin, but the nuts will work with any water temperature. Your nuts will last for up to ten loads. After that they will get limp, papery thin, and begin to disintegrate. At this point they can be composted and replaced with new nuts.

Dishwashing. When using a dishwasher, put 2 to 5 berries in the silverware rack, add a bit of white vinegar and run as usual. For hand washing, you can make a detergent by soaking one cup soap nuts with four cups water overnight and then liquefying the mixture in your blender. Alternatively, you can bring the nuts and water to a boil, turn off the heat and let them sit for an hour. Next strain the mixture with a fine cloth. This liquid detergent will work as well as any dish soap, just without the bubbles.

Shampoo and Body Wash. Make a detergent as specified above and mix one ounce detergent with 12 ounces water. Add any scent you wish, and wash your hair or body as you would with a commercial product. This basic formula can be tweaked in many ways and is limited only by your creativity./p>

Where to Buy Soap Nuts

Soap nuts can be bought at a variety of health food stores or ordered in bulk online. My personal supplier is Eco Nuts because their nuts are organic and the quality is consistent between batches.

eco nuts

Have fun with this environmentally beneficial cleaning solution! Doing laundry with a bag of sustainable sourced soap nuts will soon become a chore you enjoy, or at least make you feel that you are doing the right thing for the planet.

Lydia Noyes is serving as an Americorps volunteer with her husband in West Virginia at the Big Laurel Learning Center. There, they live with their ever expanding collection of animals and are caretakers of a historic Appalachian homestead that resides on a 500-acre land trust. They also help to run a mountain-ridge retreat and ecology center. You can find her at her personal blog and Instagram. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.


Eggs are a pretty incredible food, and one of the easiest to produce in your own backyard. All you need are a few hens and, with appropriate space and care, you’ll be collecting them in no time. Why are eggs such a great food? And what can you do with them when your hens are producing more than you can eat? Here are a few fun facts on eggs for poultry farmers everywhere.


Why are eggs different colors?

Eggs come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. There are a lot more options than the simple white or brown you see on grocery store shelves. Breeds like Marans lay dark chocolate-colored eggs, Ameraucanas lay blue eggs, Olive Eggers produce deep green ones, and there are any number of specklings and shadings within each color variety.

How do your hens do this? Egg shells are produced over a period of about 20 hours, and as they travel through your chicken’s oviduct certain pigments are released. For example, Ameraucana’s produce a pigment called oocyanin, while brown egg layers produce more protoporhyrin. There is no known reason why different breeds produce different pigments, but because this process takes place at the very end of egg production and only tints the outside of the shell, there is no taste difference between the different shades of eggs.

You can somewhat tell what color eggs a chicken will lay by the color of their earlobes. White earlobes indicate a white egg layer, while red lobed hens will lay brown, blue, green, or chocolate eggs. Chicken’s Easter bunny like laying abilities make them great starting animals for kids, who will love collecting rainbows from the nesting boxes.


Do you need a rooster?

The simple answer to the most common misconception about eggs is no. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs from your hens, who will lay happily with a flock of mixed sexes, all girls, or even if they are kept by themselves. The only reason you need a rooster is to get fertilized eggs from your hens, necessary if you want to hatch your own chicks. If you live in an urban area, you may find that local ordinances do not allow you to keep a rooster. Don’t worry, you can still get fresh eggs!

What’s the most unusual egg recipe?

There are plenty of wild and crazy egg dishes from around the world. It is a universal cuisine that has been enjoyed for centuries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Century egg is a Chinese delicacy that dates back over 500 years, while balut is a Filipino dish of duck eggs incubated to 17 days. You won’t be making those in your backyard, however.

Hard-boiled eggs can be pickled with different flavors and spices, and jars of pickled eggs used to be a common sight in bars as a snack food. Pickled eggs are a great way to use up a quantity of eggs, and make an easy treat to keep in your pantry. Eggs can also be baked in all manner of different dishes, and tea eggs are an Oriental dish similar to pickled eggs, with a spicy tea flavor.

What makes eggs so healthy?

Eggs are full of healthy nutrients and important proteins. While eggs are high in cholesterol - about 186 mg per egg - they contain HDL instead of LDL, which is considered the good kind of cholesterol. Eggs are also full of vitamin B2 and important minerals like zinc and iron. Thanks to their high vitamin content they are great for heart health and maintaining strong bones, among other benefits.

How are eggs used outside the kitchen?

Not only can egg shells be painted in beautiful and surprising ways for Easter, the yolks can be used to make traditional paints. Throughout history painters have mixed egg tempera paints, easy to mix and use on a variety of surfaces. Egg whites can be part of an at home hair conditioner, and the shells make great starting containers for seeds who will use them as fertilizer while they grow.


Can chickens eat eggs?

Absolutely! Egg shells offer your hens great nutritional benefits. A chicken has to use a lot of calcium to produce egg shells, and therefore egg laying hens need extra calcium in their diets. The easiest source for calcium is reused egg shells: simply crush them into small pieces so your chickens won’t start eating whole eggs from their nesting boxes. Because eggs are full of all those good proteins, they are also healthy for your chickens to eat in cooked or raw form, but again be careful about how you feed them so you don’t end up with hens eating your fresh eggs.

Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is rebuilding a 200 year old homestead in rural Maine, using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Find Kirsten online at Hostile Valley Living's site, Facebook page, and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.

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.


Lake slush

Good day to all! Picking up from where we left off in my post from last week, I was lamenting the fact that I had inadvertently flooded our bay with water when I bored a hole through the ice. I wanted to assess how thick the ice was and, as it turned out, we had 22 inches.

In this particular case, the water had come from the hole I drilled. But, in my experience, there is always some spot on a frozen lake where water has seeped through to the frozen lake surface. Generally, these spots occur in bays but that's not always true. So, when I'm out on the lake and either start walking or snowmobiling in an area showing signs of slush, I become concerned. Where's the hole? Where's the water coming from?

Dangers of a Slush-Covered Lake

Water seeping onto the lake surface mixes with the snow layer, forming slush. Slush is bad for a number of reasons. When snowmobiling, it's generally impossible to see slush until you get into it. The snow-covered surface of a lake all looks the same. The first clue that you're in trouble is when you notice the sled bogging down and then you realize — oops, you're mired in a soupy mess.

While a light, speedy sled, and a quick reaction to the throttle may allow you to accelerate out of the area, for us, our heavy work snowmobile precludes such a maneuver, so it's generally all over at that point. Our sled is dead in it's tracks. Not only is the sled stuck, but if I'm far from home, I have a long slog home to fetch equipment which will allow me to get unstuck.

Additionally, as soon as I hop off the sled, I'm standing in ice water which is now pouring into my boots. The situation is very dangerous at that point. Walking miles in water- logged boots with cold, numb feet is bad news. Although I've had to walk in slush with ice water sloshing around in my boots many times in the past 16 years, no situation was as serious as the above scenario when I did, in fact, become stuck miles from the house. Fortunately, I got home, warmed up and dealt with the stuck sled shortly thereafter.

'Spider Holes' on a Lake Surface

From the vantage point of a plane flying overhead, it is sometimes possible to ascertain where slush and water are lurking. The telltale sign will be a visible dark spot on the lake surface. These dark spots are called "spider holes". The following is an excerpt from my book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness:

From the air, "spider holes" are easily seen, usually in bays, but they can be found anywhere on the lake. Having a central hole with irregular fingers radiating outward, they look like a wet area surrounded by snow. The irregular fingers serve as drainage channels through which water on the surface drains back into the hole. Perhaps they are created when warmer lake water is pushed upward through a crack in the ice and floods the lake surface. The initial flaw in the ice could be a small crack, an animal access point likely used by an otter, or even trapped air bubbles that weaken the ice in that spot. Regardless of how they form, spider holes are dangerous and should be avoided.

While slush is bad for a snowmobile, it's equally dangerous for a plane on skis. Once a plane gets mired, it can be very difficult to extricate. If weather conditions are cold, the plane can freeze into the mess.

Our nightmare scenario is having a medical emergency which requires a plane to come in for an evacuation. Because of the slush in our bay, any rescue plane will likely need to park some distance from us. We can't count on the snowmobile to reach the plane since it may get stuck. Medical personnel will have a tough walk in and we'll have a tough walk out. If time is of the essence, you can easily see how the ice conditions could frustrate and delay help, making the event a life/death situation.

Frozen Lake Safety

Every time we venture onto the ice, we take a chance. Is there a spider hole or weak patch of ice we will encounter with the next step? One of the recurring themes I'll be talking about in many of my posts is safety. Obviously safety is paramount to everybody, but it takes on a special significance when it's just my wife and me and help is 100 miles distant.

To compound the situation, help won't be coming in the dark or in bad weather. Float planes around here follow visual flight rules meaning they need to be able to see where they're going. When they can't, we're truly on our own! We put the odds in our favor if the unthinkable happens and we drop through the ice into the frigid water below. I explain how with another book segment.

As a general rule, whenever I go on the ice, I wear my trusty orange survival suit and carry a set of ice picks. If I did drop through, the ice picks would give me a shot at clawing myself back onto the ice. Ice picks can be homemade or store-bought, but the concept is the same. They are hand-held objects with a sharp point that can dig in and give some purchase when jabbed on to the ice surface. Otherwise, the surface is too slick for my gloved or bare hands to have any chance of pulling myself out of the hole and back up and onto the ice.

If I was lucky enough to get out of the water, I would have limited time to build a fire or get help before hypothermia overtook me. My fingers would surely be numb and stiff, and it would be a difficult task to make a fire to warm up, assuming I even had access to dry matches. Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops to the point the body can’t function properly. If it drops far enough, it’s lights out.

Memo to self: don’t fall through the ice!

Survival suit and ice picks

Always Be Cautious

Living this remote is wonderful but it does force us to evaluate our actions knowing that we are ultimately responsible for our own safety. Taking the precautions outlined above is just one example of how we try to cover all the bases.

Many may be wondering why I am discussing ice and snow in my post since the majority of my readers are likely basking in the warmth. The reality is we are having an abnormally tough spring and the cold and snow continue to plague us.

As recently as April 14th, we had another 5 inches of snow. Lately, the weather has moderated and we hope the below zero temperatures are behind us for another year. The attached pictures were taken this morning (April 19th). The ice picks and survival suit are worn every time I/we venture on to the ice. The survival suit has also come in handy when I had to bail out into the lake to survive a forest fire, but that's a story for another time.

Transplanted seedlings

The snow pack is receding and we have about 12-16 inches left covering the garden. That will go fast. Johanna has transplanted the many small seedlings into individual pots and now all space available on the South facing windowsills are taken with plants. Thanks for reading and I'll be back again shortly.

Ron Melchiore and his wife, Johanna, currently live alone 100 miles in the wilderness of Northern Saskatchewan. Ron is the author of: Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness, published by Moon Willow Press and available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron can be contacted on his blog, Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.



My Grandmother’s saying, one she borrowed from Benjamin Franklin, “the only two things certain in life are death and taxes,” came to mind this week. Yes, it’s tax season.

In between birthing 2 more sets of twins (that makes 4 in all), I’m tending the flocks and herds, starting up the dairy, chasing lambs, and howling at the goat kid antics. I’m wondering if the day will ever come when I actually sleep 8 or even 6 hours in a row. It’s time I bravely face the pile of paperwork that’s been patiently waiting on my desk.

Even though I am a tiny micro blip on the farming radar screen, I still keep track of the reality of what it costs and how much can be made working at this thing we call farming. I am proud to say that Bittersweet has been a sustainable operation since its second year! No, it didn’t happen because I have some magic formula for the farm supporting itself. It happens out of the sheer terror that if that changes, I won’t be able to continue.

The realities farmers face each year are enormous. The biggest realities are always: how much each year will cost? Can I continue year after year without at least making it pay for itself? That’s the very least farmers expect, because if we can’t say that – if we aren’t at least growing or raising beasts or plants to feed ourselves to cut down on the grocery bill –it’s hard to continue justifying the effort. Most people will say, you’ll never get rich farming.

After sitting down with all my piles, sorting through the slips and bits of paper with numbers scratched on them, I add up the two columns. One is what it costs to open my barn door every day. The other shows how much wool and cheese and milk and jam and pickles and soaps and other things I’ve sold. Turns out, at the end of the day, every day, 365 days a year, I am earning 91 cents an hour. That’s my definition of sustainable. I am earning, not losing, 91 cents an hour.

Now you may say, “You’re kidding, right? 91 cents an hour? Who would work for 91 cents an hour?” As it turns out, there are a lot of folks who do, and they wouldn’t trade it for 9,100 cents an hour. I’ve met a lot of them and we all seem to have something in common. We love what we do.

Why Do We Do It?

There’s a certain pride and satisfaction in farming. Things almost never go according to plan. When you’re relying on Mother Nature in the form of living things, whether it’s beasts or plants, it’s all a crap shoot. I think it’s hard to explain why we do it to someone who thinks we’re all crazy for choosing the farming life style.

I’m frequently asked, “You can’t go anywhere, can you?” My reply is always, “I’ve been other places. I’m happy right where I am.”

I’m not a person who spent their life dreaming of having a farm. I did set out to get some sheep 20 years ago for a property I bought in Southern Pennsylvania. It was an old stone house Jacob Flohr built in 1855 and I/we were restoring it to its original state. I’ll never forget the day my husband came home and I was pitching the 1950’s oak flooring out the front door. There were wide pines boards underneath that needed to be revealed.

The house sat 10 miles south of Gettysburg and was on Lee’s retreat route. It had been a farm, and it was a hospital during the Civil War. All farms were. Every inch of space was utilized for tending to wounded soldiers. I found blood stains in the old crumbling plaster ceiling, blood that had dripped through the floor from above where probably more than one of them had lain, maybe dying.

The stone foundation for the old barn was still there. The original barn had burned down, maybe more than once. I found a gorgeous post and bean barn further up the road that would fit the foundation perfectly and the people who owned it just happened to want to take it down. The plan was to use it for sheep who would graze up above in the old apple orchards. But, the dream for sheep ended along with the marriage. We never got around to rebuilding the barn.


Twenty five years later, as I sit with my bits of paper, I gaze across the pasture watching my newborn lambs leap in spring’s cold morning air. The flock doesn’t have a post and bean barn with a stone foundation to lamb in, but they do have a view of Mosquito Harbor leading out to the Penobscot Bay. Some mornings, their fleeces are misty with the dew coming off the water and often they are treated to dried seaweed treats from Drift Inn Beach down the street. I think it’s a good trade off.

I think I’ll take a break from my paperwork for an hour or so today and invest my 91 cents or even $1.92, in snuggling lambs, sitting with a baby goat in my lap, or running the brush over the girls’ backs. I might even bake a custard on this cool spring day with eggs from the coop and milk the girls gave me this morning.

After all the other jobs I’ve had and all the paychecks I’ve gotten over the years, it’s today that I receive the largest paycheck I’ve ever had, plus 91 cents an hour. That’s the richness of farming.

Dyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Bittersweet Heritage Farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Her farm is also an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.

Photos by Dyan Redick

This post originally appeared on

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For most of us, homesteading means changing a landscape to fit our needs while appreciating the natural surroundings. Yet it’s easy to forget what came before, or to take the changes for granted, especially when they’re gradual.

Wouldn’t you like to see what your land looked like 25, 50, or 100 years ago? Are you even sure you know what it looked like five years ago? When we bought our land, we asked the previous owner if he had any photos from the past 30 years, but he didn’t (or didn’t want to share them). There’s an old homestead site in our woods, but we’ve never been able to discover much information about its history.

While the past may be out of reach, you can give yourself a future gift by starting to document your homestead in an organized manner. Starting ten years ago, my wife and I began establishing a series of “photo points” at which we took a set of photos in a 360-degree arc (each photo in a defined orientation), creating a reproducible, panoramic view of the landscape at that location.

Since then, we’ve tried to retake those photos every year, creating a long-term record of our landscape and the natural and human changes to it. We’ve added new ones over time, and now have 26 around our homestead, offering a fascinating window into the natural and human history of this location.

Here’s a brief look at some of the changes we’ve been able to document with this approach; a full consideration of imagery and analysis is far beyond the scope of a simple blog post. None of these show the full panorama of photos from a location, only selected paired photos.

Homestead Establishment

You know all the work you’ve done over the years, but does anyone else? And are you sure you remember what it looked like beforehand? The following paired photos show the development of our garden and orchard, from weedy or tree-choked lots to managed, productive landscapes.

Natural Changes to the Landscape

Natural areas on your homestead are always changing, too, but often in ways that are hard to detect or remember. Do you recall how big that tree was five years ago, or whether that rock or bar in your stream always looked that way?

We have photo points set up along several active areas of our stream, which have documented changes in bank erosion and stream pattern. In the case below, these images captured a dramatic change when a large and apparently stable boulder cracked and began to move downstream.

Landscape Improvement

We’ve put a lot of work into thinning overcrowded woods and rehabilitating brush-choked pastures, trying to develop a healthier ecosystem that supports biodiversity and our grazing animals. The photo pair below documents the removal of cedar thickets and the thinning of young trees, creating a more open landscape with many benefits to our homestead.

Annual Seasonal Variation

Every year’s weather is different: early or late springs, wet or dry summers, etc. A written record of nature observations such as bird arrivals or wildflower bloom dates can help to place a given year’s pattern in context, and photo points are another useful tool.

In the collection below, three of the four images were taken on the same day, and the last only a few days early, but look how far head spring 2012 is! That was the year we suffered an awful drought here in Missouri; the 2007 image (not shown) also documents early green-up, and again that was an especially hot, dry summer. This year, we’re again seeing an early spring. Will this summer follow the same pattern?

Setting up a Photo Point System

Here are some tips on setting up a useful photo point system, based on our experience:

1. Choose locations with a good view, unless you’re planning to document clearing work. 

2. Mark or record each point (map, GPS, landmark). It can be surprisingly hard to remember just where you stood last year.

3. Take photos in a consistent manner, using compass directions or clear landmarks to orient them. You want each photo to line up year after year for the best results.

4. Take photos the same time each year, as near to the same date as possible. We prefer early spring, when first green highlights features in the landscape but before leaf-on obscures things again.

5. Create and print a reference sheet for each photo point, using your first photo set. We lay out a grid of photos for each point, keeping them in a binder that we can carry around and refer to when we retake each location. This might include notes on its precise location.

6. Take photos on a cloudy day if you can; the light will be more even and result in better imagery.

Using Historic Imagery           

If you do have access to older imagery of your homestead (or any other location you find interesting), it can be really interesting to re-take those photos and compare the results. We first experienced this approach long ago in graduate school, when we were tangentially involved with the Vermont Landscape Change Program, a digital archive of historic and paired modern imagery used to study human and natural changes around the state.

Whether you have older images or start your photo points from scratch, the upfront investment in time will produce some really interesting results. Documenting your homestead’s growth produces a wonderful record for the future and helps illuminate natural and human effects on the landscape.

Eric Reuter and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem, at various times managing vegetable & grain crops, perennial fruits, dairy/meat goats, poultry, timber resources, and natural habitats. Read all of Eric's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.


Three Chickens Roosting In Coop 

You have discovered those fluffy little farm creatures that lay a delicious breakfast for you daily and provide hours of funny sounds and entertainment. Now what? They need a home, of course.

Building a chicken coop is a big deal. It is something that will remain on your property for years to come. It is the beginning of turning your yard into your own “starter homestead.” But wait — there are a few things you should take into consideration before you break ground on your new friends’ home.

Plan for the Flock You Hope for, Not the Flock You Have

I wish someone had written this article before I built my coop years ago. This is the biggest point to take in before breaking ground on your coop. When we first got chickens, we started out with four hens and a rooster. The next thing you know, my husband decided he wanted a variety of chickens in his flock. Then he wanted a variety of different-colored eggs.

I turned around twice, and we had gone from 5 chickens to 25 chickens. That is a big difference.

We built this monstrosity of a coop when we first got started. Everyone laughed at usWe were told we gave our chickens a mansion.

Thankfully, when my husband builds, he builds large even when neither one of us ever dreamed we would have ever had 25 chickens! We wanted to give our chickens lots of choices for nesting, so we were covered there.

One thing you need to let sink in now is that chickens are the gateway farm animal. So go ahead and build your feathered friends a home.  But be sure to plan for the inevitable sized flock that is bound to join them.

If you need some ideas, here are a collection of 34 DIY free chicken coop plans for any size.

The Bigger the Better

This point goes right along with the first one. When building a chicken coop, the bigger you build it, the better off you’re going to be. Each of your chickens will need at least 4 square feet. This doesn’t sound like much, but if you plan for the flock of the future, you’ll soon realize you need plenty of space.

If you are planning on keeping your chickens cooped at all times, they will need upwards of 10 square feet of coop space per chicken.

Space is one of the most important aspect to consider in raising chickens. Overcrowding can lead to illness and poor egg production. Neither of these things adds to a positive chicken keeping experience. It is practice to look at whatever coop you had originally thought of and double it.

When we were going to get our first chickens I couldn’t help but browse through Tractor Supply and look at their cute little coops that looked like this one. My husband told me that it wasn’t big enough, but I just couldn’t imagine it was not being.

When we first built our coop, I have to admit I wasn’t happy with how much space it took up in our backyard. I was disappointed that I didn’t have this cute little barn taking up less than half of the space of the one he’d built. I laugh about that now because our original five chickens would not have fit in the little barn coop I thought I wanted to begin with.

Location, Location, Location

Real estate matters — even to the birds. Well, not really. Your chickens would be happy in the prettiest of coops or a little shack, as long as it met their needs. The location of the coop does matter, though.

Chickens get really hot in the summer. Some breeds handle the heat better than others, but you will notice that they will constantly be on the lookout for shade during the summer months. This was something we actually had to ‘do over’ with our chicken coop. We put our coop in our backyard.

We put our coop in our backyard. You’d think that was okay but our poor chickens just about cooked their first summer. It was terrible.

You see all of these pictures on the internet of chickens laying out in the sun on the grass, and you think, “Chickens must like it.” They do. But what the pictures don’t show is that they were probably taken in early spring. When it comes to those blistery summer days, your chickens want shade!

My point here is that, if you have a place to put their coop where your chickens can have adequate shade, go for it. If not, be sure to give places of shade within the coop.

Our original coop was so well vented that it left very little space within the coop that the sun didn’t shine through. This is a good thing but was miserable for our chickens simultaneously. We went back and put a different type of roof on and opened spaces in different places that allowed our chickens some reprieve from the blistery southern summers we have.

Sleeping Quarters

Okay, so chickens don’t have bedrooms. They do have roosts, though. Each chicken will need 8 to 10 inches of roosting space.

There are multiple things to consider when preparing roost space. The first is to realize that your birds need this space in case they need to spread out for some reason.

Our chickens apply the pecking order with the roosts. The higher up the pecking order, the higher the roosts. On the top roost, you know who is in good with the rooster by how he arranges his favorite hens next to him.

The second thing to consider is that roosts don’t have to be fancy. They really are just flat pieces of wood that the chickens sit on to sleep. If you want to make it a little easier for your chickens to roost, try rounding the wood a little at the top, so it is more comfortable for them.

A 2-by-4 is big enough for them. It just needs to be where they can hunker down on it and cover their feet during cold winter months so they won’t develop frostbite.

The third point to consider, is yet again, don’t make my mistake. Prepare for your future flock. I know some of you are thinking, “I won’t get any more chickens.” And you might not. But I promise you, it is so much better to have extra space and not need it than (be like us) have to renovate a coop with all of those chickens living in it. It was entertaining for onlookers but far from fun for us.

Chickens Like a View

No, your chickens aren’t secretly hoping for an ocean view. They don’t even care about the windows. But their health depends on it. This was something I wasn’t aware of at the beginning of raising chickens.

We ventilated their coop thinking it had more to do with keeping odors down than anything. It does help, but the reason coops need proper ventilation is to give airflow so the chickens’ delicate respiratory systems won’t be negatively impacted.

A chicken has an extremely delicate respiratory system. When they develop a respiratory issue, it can literally kill them in a matter of days. Sometimes hours. So you want windows.

You can achieve proper ventilation in multiple ways. The first is by adding windows and then placing mesh wire over the holes for protection. The second way is by putting some holes in the roof. Be sure to position the holes in places that it won’t rain right on top of the chickens during inclement weather.

It is a personal preference in design. As long as around one fifth of your coop is vented then you should have happy chickens. Try not to go over one-fifth because too much of a draft can cause your chickens to develop frostbite during colder months.

If by some chance you get a little carried away with ventilation, you can always add plastic or even feed bags to cover some of the holes during winter.

This is only the beginning. There are still a few more things to think over when building your chickens the perfect home. Stick around for Part Two of things to consider when building your chicken coop.

Jennifer Poindexter and her husband raise most of their food and a variety of animals in the foothills of North Carolina, where they built a small homestead on very little money. She writes about all of her adventures at Morning Chores, where she shares the knowledge she has gained with others that might want to take the full plunge into homesteading.
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.

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