Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Sharing the workOn an overcast Saturday morning my family went to visit friends of ours on their lovely rural homestead near Guilford, N.Y. They had extended a very generous offer to allow our two families to share the cost, labor and eventual harvest of this years potato patch on their property. Those of you who have read my writing in the past know that my family maintains a thriving urban farm on 1/16th of an acre so we were thrilled to have such a wonderful opportunity come our way because space is always in high demand.

I am, of course, a bit biased, but I do believe we happen to live in one of the most beautiful areas of this great country. Working with my family and friends to prepare the patch this weekend only reinforced my opinion. Birds called from the naked woodland which is still stretching forth from winters slumber.

Our children, all six combined, laughed and hollered as they ran from the potato plot to the hog pen and everywhere else imaginable in between. I paused from shoveling manure to watch the guinea hens holler at a neighbor who patiently waited atop his rumbling tractor as he left his cornfields to go cut lumber. 

If you have planted potatoes in the past, you know how labor intensive they can be. I expected the worst but I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly time passes when among like minded people. We shared stories and laughter while taking turns working the rich dark soil. We talked of politics and farming, of family and of our winters adventures. We eventually broke bread and shared a delicious meal prepared by our host so that we were able to finish our work on a full stomach. 

Benefits of a Farming Lifestyle

Over the years there have been a number of positive aspects that have lured me into the gardening and farming lifestyle. I have always enjoyed the solitude. I love listening to the wind touch upon the tall grass and brittle leaves just long enough to elicit a response as it sails off into the distance. I find myself attempting to blend in with the wildlife that drift like shadows along the boundary of my property. The song of individual birds become familiar to me and I can smell rain in the air long before the clouds darken.

But I am not alone in this physical mediation that takes place when working in the soil. Anyone who is a steward of their land and loves the Earth below their feet as I do knows what I am talking about through their own private experience.

But, with that said, this weekend made me realize that there is so much more to homesteading than the individual pleasure associated with it. There is true joy and friendship in the shared labor of land.

More importantly, the example that I believe we set for our children that afternoon rejoicing in our work and in one another's company will produce a harvest as plentiful as any seed we may have set in soil on that cool April morning. 

As a fourth-generation micro-farmer, Tobias Whitaker had strong early influences in regards to responsibly working the land and taking pride in producing his own food. Tobias is currently working on an urban homesteading book and is also exploring ways to increase his yearly yield and lengthen his growing season. You can visit him on facebook at Seed To Harvest: Bossy Hen Homestead or online at Seed To Harvest. Read all of Tobias' 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.


Aristotle 2016 

Recently, I received a help  inquiry from a young woman in western Ireland. She had rescued a young, badly neglected Old Irish Goat 2-year-old buck from a place not able to care for him properly.  Although he is good natured, she plans on neutering him for family safety and also wishes to get him dehorned. This is not an easy proposition at that age.

I once had a doeling with significant scurs (partial horn regrowth) at 18 months old. I decided to try a surgical removal. Although the vet did a great job and she did recover, I swear that for at least two weeks I could see straight into the brain.

Substantial horns that have become an integral part of a mature skull are not candidates for either surgery or c-bands at the base. Therefore, size matters. As Gary Pfalzbot of the website GoatWorld comments on c-bands or elastrator banding:

“The first step using this method involves determining if your goats horns are long enough and large enough. Since every goat has a different growth rate, there is not really a young age which is best, but if you insist on knowing an age, let's say anywhere from three to four months old. The width of the horn at the base of the head is the most important factor. I generally follow my own rule of 'if the horn diameter at the head is at least the same diameter of a coin penny.' Likewise, if the horn diameter at the head is the width of a half dollar, you may not be able to easily slip the castration band all the way down to the base of the horn at the head.”

Furthermore, it may not stay there. Although I have not seen the horns on this particular buck, Old Irish Goats are known for their magnificent sweeping horns, so I am assuming that this boy is well on his way to not qualifying for banding.

Tipping the Horns

I advised this young person to get the tips removed only (about ¾ inch).  Although not the perfect solution, my experience with it has been satisfactory.  I have a Nubian boy who, at 2 years old, was great with people but a terrible bully with herd mates. We decided to castrate him for herd safety. We had tipped his horns about a year before for similar reasons.

We found that the horn tips stayed very nicely blunt going on 6 years now. As commercial sheep and goat breeders know, wethers gain more body weight but have a much slower rate of horn growth. The pictures here show Aristotle (as buck, 2009, below) and Aristotle 6 years later (as wether, above).

 Aristotle 2009

It can be seen from this current (2016) photo at the top of the page that the horns grew very little in 6 years. Castration and horn blunting have made a huge difference in herd safety.

The moral of this story for goat packers who have goats with horns that have become an issue around the home or farm is that, depending on age and sexual hormone levels, there may be options less dire than surgical complete dehorning or banding at the base of the horn, which compromises your pack goat’s defensive capability and confidence on the trail.

Certainly talk to at least two vets before committing to any plan of action regarding full removal of horns from goats over the age of 6 months old.

Lauren Hall Ruddell operates Planet Goat in the Utah high desert, one hour west of Salt Lake City. As the name of the operation suggests, goats are the consuming passion. Nubian dairy goats provide milk and adorable baby goats yearly, while the wethers occasionally, and vigorously, earn their keep in the back country. Find Lauren online at Planet Goat, and 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.


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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