Mother Earth News Fair

Our FAIRS bring living wisely to life with hands-on workshops in organic gardening, country skills, renewable energy and more.

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Ever thought about designing and building a space for your worker-owned business, intentional community, local co-op market, or any other cooperative organization?

Curious about the intersection between green and natural building, between DIY and professionalism, or between commercial and residential construction and design?

When heirloom seed business Southern Exposure Seed Exchange decided they couldn't wait any longer for a seed office, there was an opportunity for in house worker owners to make this happen. With essentially no experience, a design team of highly idealistic building novices formed with the challenge of designing the most efficient, functional, sustainable, and beautiful building, for both small commercial and residential functions.

To give a little taste of what we learned during the building process, here are some metrics that we adapted and expanded upon to help us make decisions:


Embodied energy




Energy efficiency


Accessibility for diverse populations


Ease of Construction

Skill level required


Up front

Over time

These metrics can apply to any building and homesteading projects you embark on, but I must forewarn you: They might lead you to quandaries, such as whether or not super-insulated and sealed buildings are worth the upfront material investment or the equipment typically associated with it (which use energy ongoing), or whether an earthen floor or straw bales are appropriate for high-traffic spaces. Or whether these natural building materials work well for commercial applications or for applications where inhabitants of the space are already stretched thin and have a high turnover rate.

If you want to learn more about what systems, materials, and designs we came up with for the Seed Office project, how it’s working out for us thus far, and the lessons we learned along the way, come to my presentation, “Green and Natural Building: A DIY Case Study” at the Albany, Ore., MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR on Saturday, June 6, 2015.

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.


Ford Test Drive Booth 

One of the first things I do at any MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR is locate the Ford test drive booth and decide which green vehicle I’m going to take out for a spin.

It didn’t take me long to find the Ford display at the 2015 Asheville, N.C., FAIR, where Ford Motor Co. was a title sponsor. Ford’s electric-blue tent drew many visitors with the promise of a chance at winning prizes, including a vehicle of their choice. But, to my way of thinking, the opportunity to test-drive a Ford hybrid car was prize enough.

Among the Ford vehicles available for test-drives at Asheville were the C-MAX hybrid, the Fusion hybrid, and the Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid. I chose the plug-in hybrid and sank into the driver’s seat while Tiffany, the Ford representative, settled in on the passenger’s side. We rolled out of a side gate on the fairgrounds and began a quiet tour of the Asheville terrain as Tiffany pointed out the Ford plug-in hybrid’s features. Each time I braked, the Energi’s dashboard display screen showed the value of the car’s regenerative braking, as the lithium-ion battery pack captured and stored kinetic energy to boost the overall gas mileage.

According to Tiffany, Asheville FAIR visitors understand that gas prices are going to go up again, and they want to be prepared for that eventuality. The energy savings represented by the Ford hybrid cars at the FAIR attracted many people. Tiffany also encountered some owners of non-Ford hybrids who, she said, sought vehicles with better battery reliability and a higher comfort level.

In an exceptionally flat landscape such as Tiffany's native Arizona, or in my native Kansas, hybrids can get great mileage. Tiffany described a friend living in Arizona who averages more than 560 miles per tank with his Ford hybrid.

As we drove back onto the fairgrounds at the end of our Ford test-drive, I sensed that Tiffany was a bit distracted. We said our goodbyes and, before we parted, Tiffany pulled out her phone to glance at the clock. She exclaimed, “Oh good, just in time to see a chicken get processed!” and rushed off to join hundreds of fairgoers watch Joel Salatin and David Schafer’s live poultry demonstration on the main stage.

Such is a MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR: the juxtaposition of a Ford hybrid’s comfort and homesteading’s gritty reality. Both are practical and informative experiences that we’re happy to bring to fairgoers.

Please visit the FAIR website for more information about future FAIRs: June 6-7 in Albany, Ore.; Aug. 8-9 in West Bend, Wis.; Sept. 18-20 in Seven Springs, Pa.; and Oct. 24-25 in Topeka, Kan. Tickets are on sale now.

You can also get FAIR updates on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Rebecca Martin is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, where her beats include DIY and Green Transportation. She's an avid cyclist and has never met a vegetable she didn't like.


While Ford staffers busily gave test drives nearby, an eager crowd gathered under the Renewable Energy tent at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR last Sept. 13 to learn about the latest electric vehicle (EV) technology. For nearly an hour, Stephanie Janczak of Ford Motor Company answered audience questions on the workshop’s broad topic: “Everything You Want to Know About Hybrid and Electric Vehicles.” The large crowd at Seven Springs, Pa., eagerly tapped into Janczak’s extensive knowledge — she is Ford’s Manager of Global EVSE Technology and Deployment for Sustainability and Vehicle Environmental Matters.

Many audience members already owned electric vehicles and wanted to know more about recent technological advancements. Among the questions Janczak answered were the following:

  • Is the auto industry developing any electric utility vehicles? Janczak says the industry as a whole is working on hybrid pickup trucks and SUVs, and that engineers are trying to balance the cost of utility vehicles with their usability.
  • What are the latest improvements to EV drivetrains and motors? Improvements are always being made by the industry, Janczak reports, with the goal being to make EVs more efficient. EV batteries, in particular, are the focus of much attention because batteries need to be smaller, more energy-dense and lower in cost.
  • How can an EV driver prolong battery life? Exposure to extreme heat and cold will stress an EV battery. Janczak says plugging in your vehicle will help mitigate the effects of extreme temperatures. Also, she recommends the My Ford Mobile app to help lengthen the life of your car’s battery by learning better EV driving habits. Ford also is working on battery reuse — an old battery that no longer effectively powers an EV may still be used as a home energy resource.
  • Does solar charging of batteries show promise? Solar is a great renewable energy source that the auto industry is exploring. (MOTHER EARTH NEWS Publisher Bryan Welch drives an electric car powered by photovoltaic panels.) Ford currently is involved in a demo project to cover the roof of its C-MAX with solar cells; the problem, Janczak says, is overcoming cloudy days. Ford has also been partnering with Georgia Tech on ways of concentrating the sun’s rays to effectively power EVs. Ford and DTE Energy recently announced that they’ll be working together to build Michigan’s largest solar array carport, providing 30 charging stations for plug-in electric vehicles at Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn.

Ford Community Green Grant ProgramFollowing the question-and-answer session, Janczak presented a $2,000 check to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture as part of Ford’s Community Green Grant program (pictured at right).

Seven Springs FAIR visitors could test-drive any or all of three electric technologies offered by Ford through its Power of Choice initiative. Ford currently has five EVs on the market, including the C-MAX Energi, the Fusion Energi, and the Fusion Hybrid. Ford Motor Company was a title sponsor of the 2014 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Seven Springs.

Please visit the FAIR website for more information about future FAIRs, including Oct. 25-26, 2014, in Topeka, Kan. Tickets are on sale now.

You can also get FAIR updates on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Rebecca Martin is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, where her beats include DIY and Green Transportation. She's an avid cyclist and has never met a vegetable she didn't like. You can find her on Google+.


Mother Earth News Fair
1. Plan on attending for more than one day. There is simply too much to see and learn about. If you only go for one day, you’ll always be wondering about what you might have missed.

2. Read the program. Each morning, take the fair program out and circle the workshops that you are interested in attending. Also, check out the map to find out where those workshops will be located. Good preparation can increase your chances of getting a seat.

3. Bring a water bottle. You’ll be thirsty and although there are boxes to place garbage that can be recycled, be proactive (and environmentally savvy) by bringing your own water bottle that you can refill.

4. Bring a tote bag or backpack. If you have your own bag, you don’t need to take one from each vendor.

5. Bring money. It will only be the very strongest who won’t come home with soaps, fermented foods, and wooden spoons. You certainly don’t have to spend money but this is one place where your money is well spent.

6. The FAIR will be indoors as well as outdoors, bring sunglasses. If you burn, also consider a hat and some sunscreen.

7. Wear comfortable shoes. I wore a fit bit on Saturday and logged over 14K steps (a very good day is when I hit 10K) wear good sturdy shoes with socks, your feet will thank you at the end of the day.

8. Ask questions. You’ll get answers about everything, but you won’t if you don’t ask, so go ahead, people want to tell you about what they have.

9. Give things a try. Go ahead and try the brown soap in the rest rooms, the whiskey hickory syrup, the fermented food. Here is your chance to try things out and discover new products, take advantage of it.

10. Pace yourself. It’s going to be a long weekend, pace yourself to make sure you get to see it all. There’s nothing wrong with sitting down for a break to have some food or a cup of coffee, it will all still be there after you’ve gotten a break.

11. If you buy something big like a broom or shovel, ask the vendor to hold it for you until you are ready to leave. No need to carry anything bulky or awkward, vendors will be glad to set aside your purchase.

12. Say “hi” to the person next to you. This is your tribe, everyone belongs.

13. Take photos. Do you want to look something up before you buy it? Take a photo so you’ll remember the details. Also take plenty of photos to share with your friends when you get home, they’ll want to know what all the fuss was about.

14. Consider staying in the hotel associated with the FAIR. Sure it might be more expensive than the one located 20 minutes away, but sometimes, convenience can be priceless.

15. Consider packing a bottle of wine to enjoy in the hotel at night. 'Nuff said about that one.

16. Breathe. There’s something about being around like-minded people that makes you feel like you’re at home. Relax, you’ve got a few days here where others won’t think you’re strange for composting with worms.

Get the details about all of our upcoming MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS and make a plan to attend one next year!


We had a great time seeing the beautiful heritage livestock breeds that came to our MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS. From gentle llamas and stubborn pack goats to regal roosters and braying mules, we've had the chance to see (and pet, and play with) them all. With help from our friends at The Livestock Conservancy, we've combined some of our favorite pictures and video clips of heritage livestock breeds in this video slideshow.

 We'd like to give a special thanks to Jeannette Beranger from The Livestock Conservancy for her help compiling many of these photos.


Summer greetings, everyone! The heat is definitely on, and after a long afternoon spent mowing the lawn and weeding the garden, I'm ready for something cool and refreshing to drink. Because I'm quite health-conscious, soda and sugary drinks just don't strike my fancy. So, what does this gal reach for instead? My favorite cold watermelon drink, which I whip up in my blender in less than 2 minutes. It's lip-smacking good, gorgeously pink, super nutritious and amazingly filling (even though it's extremely low in calories).

Watermelon is a thirst-quenching fruit loaded with natural sugars, carotenoids such as lycopene and beta carotene, and potassium. If you happen to retain water, watermelon should be your go-to fruit, as it has natural diuretic properties that dramatically reduce that waterlogged feeling. Wonderful for those of you with high blood pressure, too, due to the high potassium content. The recipe below is easy to make. All you need is an average kitchen blender. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Watermelon Cooler Recipe (aka Virgin Pink Mojito)

Watermelon Cooler (aka Virgin Pink Mojito)Watermelon juice, naturally high in pick-me-up sugars, is the perfect choice to refresh, refuel and rehydrate following a hard, sweaty workout or an afternoon spent mowing the lawn. This sensational, celebration-in-pink juice blend is also an excellent beverage to serve for alcohol-free summer entertaining. Sweet-tart and cooling to the palate, it looks especially enticing served in prechilled fancy glassware garnished with sprigs of fresh mint. For a festive option, add party appeal with colorful straws and tiny decorative umbrellas. Here's to summer!

4 cups cold, seedless watermelon, roughly cut into 1-inch chunks
Juice of 1 medium lime (about ¼ cup)
1 tablespoon raw honey or agave nectar
5-10 fresh mint leaves
2 mint sprigs for garnish (optional)

1. Place the watermelon, lime juice, honey, and the 5-10 mint leaves in a blender. Liquefy until smooth and the mint leaves appear as tiny specks, about 30 seconds.
2. Pour into two beautiful glasses with or without crushed ice. Garnish glasses with fresh mint sprigs, if desired.

Yield: 2 generous servings
A good source of: potassium, vitamin C, beta carotene and the cancer-fighting carotenoid lycopene.

Excerpted from Raw Energy © Stephanie L. Tourles. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

You can learn how to make more fabulously nutritious and delicious raw food recipes by reading my best-selling book, Raw Energy: 124 Raw Food Recipes for Energy Bars, Smoothies, and Other Snacks to Supercharge Your Body (Storey Publishing, 2009). I've also written many other "healthy living" books, including my most recent, Hands-On Healing Remedies: 150 Recipes for Herbal Balms, Salves, Oils, Liniments & Other Topical Therapies (Storey, 2012), and my popular title Organic Body Care Recipes (Storey, 2007).

Please visit my website, (plus see my blog and Facebook page, which you can access through my website by clicking on the appropriate icon in the upper right hand corner) to find out more about me and stay tuned for my 2014 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR speaking schedule.

Please visit the FAIR website for more information about future FAIRS: September 12-14 in Seven Springs, Pa. and October 25-26 in Topeka, Kan. Tickets on sale now.

You can also get FAIR updates on our Facebook and Twitter pages.


Whether our desire to raise our own food stems from a growing concern about food additives, a passion for social justice, an aspiration to promote the humane treatment of animals, or a yearning to protest the way commercial foods are grown and processed, the obstacles we face are daunting. The intricacies of organic gardening and animal husbandry are a mystery to the beginner, and the learning curve for the truly determined dairyman or woman is steep. A primary difficulty lies in finding suitable land for the little farm of our dreams; and the price of such land when we find it is often considerable. So are the costs of outbuildings, fencing and watering systems, animals, feeds, fuel and fertilizers. Any one of these issues might be enough to discourage the would-be homesteader. There is hope, however; these obstacles may not be as great as they appear. At the Sow’s Ear, nearly 30 years of home food production have seen us go from growing some tomatoes in the backyard garden to overseeing a large, four-season organic garden, pastured poultry, a small intensively grazed Jersey herd for meat and dairy, home butchering, food preservation and cheesemaking. Those years have altered our opinion of what is actually necessary to begin a small, sustainable organic farmstead. It is our goal to dispel some common myths.

We’ll begin with finding suitable land. What constitutes “suitable” land for a small farmstead depends, of course, on what you plan to do with it. You may envision a permaculture paradise, a battalion of chicken tractors or a herd of miniature Jerseys. The difficulty is in finding any land at all that promises hope to your projected endeavor, and once you find it, in finding a piece that is for sale. Good farm land is accessible, cleared of rocks and superfluous trees, and with soil that is deep and fertile … and is precious, mostly held by people who, far from wanting to part with it, are holding on like grim death and looking to buy more. Rich, fertile farm land with a modest house, fences, outbuildings and stock water systems are occasionally to be found on the market, but the vast majority of these have price tags that would make Bill Gates stop and think, let alone us plain farmer types. Determined though we were to exchange our city rental home for a place in the country, after five years looking for just such an acreage we were still in the city, with a couple dozen tomato plants in the backyard but no nearer to our little farmstead.

Year six found us desperate to get out of town. When 17 acres of clayey, rocky trees-up-the-side-of-a-hill and a derelict house for just 11,000 dollars came to our attention, although it looked nothing like the farm of our dreams, we took a deep breath and jumped. Despite the extremely rough appearance of the house, inspection showed that it was essentially sound. The land was labeled “not suitable for agriculture” on state plat maps, and it wasn’t; at least, not the kind of mechanized agriculture the state recognizes. There wasn’t a flat spot on the place, the topsoil was thin to nonexistent, and most of the land was approaching the vertical. But 17 years later, our little piece of hillside is the heart of a small farm where we raise most of our own food and most of what our animals eat, without expensive equipment, outbuildings or inputs of feed, fuel or fertilizer. This land, which seemed to have no potential as a homestead, is bursting with life and fertility, producing enormous amounts of nutrition and hosting tremendous genetic diversity.

As homestead hunters, our first mistake had been overlooking the great potential in almost any piece of land. We were searching for fertility as though it were a mineral deposit, like gold or oil, something that either was there or was not, failing to recognize that fertility, in land, is a condition, something that can be changed with time and effort. Our steep, rocky acres were sour, infertile and completely unsuitable for mechanized agriculture, yes, but it was perfectly possible for determined people with hand tools, a chainsaw and a garden fork to clear the underbrush, let in some sunlight, and start adding organic matter to the soil. We did this, and 17 years later our garden soil is rich, light and full of worms, enabling us to raise virtually all our vegetables (we confess to a taste for avocadoes and oranges, which we cannot grow in eastern Ohio) for 10 people, year-round.  Our home pasture consisted of 5 acres of steep hillside that had been logged, compacted and then stripped of topsoil, but after only three years of intensive rotational grazing, it allowed us to graze two lactating Jerseys for nine months of the year with a minimum of grain and no additional hay. Today the forage in this pasture is a dense turf of mixed legumes and bunch grasses, deep-rooted to hold moisture in even prolonged dry periods; and this change was effected not with expensive permanent fencing, elaborate watering systems, commercial pasture grass seed mixes or fancy outbuildings, but with grazing animals, portable electric fence reels, captured water, low-pressure water valves and a simple shed. Obviously this land “not suitable for agriculture” was entirely suitable for growing a family’s food.

We venture to surmise that in most rural areas there are similar pockets of land, places that for a variety of reasons do not recommend themselves for methods of commercial farming or as conventional home sites with level yards and direct road access. For these reasons such sites may have low, even remarkably low, cash value; but in the hands of a creative person pursuing home food production, such a site has potential to become a flourishing smallholding, perhaps even more potential than would a flat, cleared parcel. One hidden advantage of such a place is the presence in it of a variety of microclimates, each susceptible to a different sort of culture. Wooded acres may contain nut or fruit trees, and lumber for building or firewood. South-facing slopes favor the gardener, while north-facing slopes, where fruit trees blossom later in the year, may be preferable for a small orchard (as the location discourages premature fruit set). A broad creek bottom in an east-west valley can mean fertile, well-watered soil with a long sun exposure, while marshy areas provide cover for wild birds that eat garden pests; and against a rocky outcropping, late vegetables may be buffered from frost damage by solar energy stored in the stones. What may look to the average buyer like a useless piece of land can be wealth to the small-scale food grower. 

There are certain qualities that are necessary to any farm place. Water, that without which there is no life, is a must, but water does not have to mean a generous well with water enough for domestic and farm use, or access to city water. Does the piece of land you are interested in have a stream or pond? Look at it, smell it: It may be of adequate quality for watering stock or gardens. Ask a neighbor about it: Where does it come from, does it flow all year, is the water clean? Your local Soil and Water Conservation office may have a circular to help you identify native animals and plants in your waterway that can indicate the purity of its source. (Caddis flies, for example, those little spidery insects that live in tubular houses of cemented sand and gravel, indicate a clean waterway.) If you are in any doubt, get it tested, by all means, especially if the area in which you are searching has a known source of contamination, such as a mine, dump or processing plant. The value of free captured water for your farm will quickly repay the expense of having it tested.

On the Sow’s Ear, our animals drink water captured from two slow but reliable springs and three barn roofs, and our gardens receive unlimited water from two small creeks diverted through plain garden hose. Seeps (that is, slow, surface springs) and small springs may be improved at low cost; many require only a pick and shovel for digging a trench below the frost line, some inexpensive perforated pipe or “tile,” and a ton or two of gravel. Simple diagrams for spring improvement are available from most extension offices or the local Soil and Water Conservation District. These offices even have personnel who will visit your land and advise you about ways to improve or conserve your natural water sources. Your tax dollars are already paying for this service, and here’s your chance to use it; in our experience, these people are knowledgeable and helpful. Make a careful examination, however, of any government incentive programs designed to help you offset the cost of expensive improvements; the small print for these grants may commit you to restrictions on the further use of your land. Once you are enrolled in a subsidy program you may fall under state or federal jurisdiction for wetlands, for example, and lose the right to make your own decisions about draining a swampy bit of ground (in government parlance, “wetlands”), or improving a section of creek as a water crossing (“damaging riparian waterways”).

Improving springs is one way to use naturally present sources for watering stock; small creeks can provide another. Graveled creek crossings, if access is limited, can provide reliable water for livestock. A creek that passes through a culvert offers a sterling opportunity for low-cost, simple technology water capture. A bucket or tub plumbed at the upper rim with a hose fitting may be placed under the flow from a culvert, and water diverted through a simple garden hose to any point lower than the tub itself. Such simple means can provide fresh, constantly running water to stock tanks or gardens, or even made to fill a small pond. We are doing all three.

Everyone knows about rain barrels, but for the really determined home food producer the 55-gallon barrels that are usually employed simply don’t hold enough water. Even a modest rainfall on a small roof will fill such a barrel in no time, after which the overflow is lost. And during a dry spell of any duration, one of these small barrels is less than adequate to water the livestock or keep a medium-to-large garden from drying out. Why not buy several 300-gallon water hogs (otherwise known as “intermediate bulk containers” or IBCs) instead? Plumbed together at the spigot with PVC pipe, these can be made to fill simultaneously from a roof downspout or French drain outlet, providing hundreds of gallons of water for garden or stock. Our four-tank array stores adequate water for eight cows for 10 days, even in the hottest summer weather, and a single tank at the side of the barn allows us two weeks to water seedlings daily while they are small and need special care.

Watering systems for livestock are usually designed around pressurized water; that is, water (whether from a well or a city water system) that is delivered under high pressure like the water in your pipes at home. Pressurized water must be buried below the frost line of your area so that the pipes do not freeze and crack in the winter. Such systems are beautifully convenient but expensive and labor-intensive to install. The home food producer who practices intensive rotational grazing needs to be able to water his stock anywhere he has grass, and this may be easily and inexpensively accomplished with half-barrels, garden hose and captured water, which is free and nearly always delivered at low pressure. We are fortunate that the livestock industry has developed several excellent low-pressure valves for just such water sources: Hudson valves and jobe floats are inexpensive water flow regulators for the small-scale grazier. Plumbed to the inside of a small tank or half-barrel, they can be hooked up to a regular garden hose gravity-fed from a rain barrel or spring tank, and the array moved daily along with the animals by a single person of average strength.

Pasture is necessary, of course, if your home food production is to include ruminants, unless you are able and willing to provide your animals with ample barn space and pre-harvested grass (hay) and grain. In some ways, the non-pasture method makes for lighter chores, but the expense of feed will considerably offset, if not outweigh, any savings in meat or dairy products. And other complications (vet bills, for example, because barn-kept animals are more prone to disease, foot rot, vitamin deficiencies and other health problems) will also diminish the overall convenience. Pastured animals, on the other hand, get the food most natural to them, and rotationally grazed animals get the best of the best. For most of us, the word “pasture” evokes images of something flat, grassy and fenced; for the more experienced, it may also imply a good turf of legumes and mixed grasses. But pasture land can be expensive or even out of reach, forcing us to think creatively about what is necessary to a pasture. Soil of at least some description is a must; plants, as well; but it is permissible that the green meadow of our dreams may, like the fertility mentioned earlier, be present only in potential; it need not already exist. In fact, if it is only a potential when you purchase the land, chances are you are going to pay a lot less for it. A purchase of 4 acres of scrubby undergrowth and raspberry cane will generally cost much less than an equal area of clover and timothy. But a couple of years of judicial rotational grazing ( perhaps with goats in the beginning, graduating to cows after a year or two, with some imported hay initially to supplement the forage and add organic matter to the soil) can transform a sour, rocky vacant lot into a green pasture of great biodiversity, healthy in itself and able to give health to the ruminants that graze on it. When you think “pasture,” don’t think square, fenced, flat or green; look instead for the pasture-in-potential that may hide under an unpromising-looking but low-priced acreage.

If the piece of land you are considering has tight fences, that’s great; but if it hasn’t, you may assume that means you have to spend thousands of dollars on high-tensile, vinyl, woven-wire or board fences. Before you invest your time, labor and capital, consider this question: How much of the land needs to be fenced, and what sort of animals, and how many, are to be confined? On level land a single animal may be tethered, as we did with our first brush-clearing wether goat, Souflaki. Later our goat herd included several Saanen and Nubian does, also tethered. One day our lead doe, Ginger, tripped in a steep place and couldn’t get back on her feet. Gravity pulled her further and further down the hill until her collar was tight and her breathing compromised. Fortunately, our farm is small and we spend most of our time outdoors, so her predicament was discovered before it was too late. After that, we knew we needed to come up with some kind of fence for our little dairy flock. Nevertheless, the year or two we tethered the goats allowed us to use them to clear the land while we learned to care for them and began to learn dairying. It also gave us the opportunity to discover by experience where our fences, when we got them, would do the most good … all before we had to dig up the money for good, tight fences. 

Perimeter fences are good security, but lack of a tight perimeter does not necessarily mean you can’t begin grazing cattle. Management intensive rotational grazing is the ideal way to improve your pastures, or what will one day be your pastures, and this can be begun with one or two young dairy steers and some portable electric fencing. A few hundred dollars will buy ample polywire, a pair of reels, two or three dozen step-in posts and a two-joule charger, all that is necessary to begin repairing your turf and filling your freezers with delicious, naturally marbled, almost-free Jersey beef. Baby Jersey bulls are among the least prized of farm stock, often to be had free or for a few dollars at a commercial dairy or auction barn. These babies are frequently delicate, suffering from the endemic germs of a large confinement operation, but with care they can be raised to a butchering weight of four or five hundred pounds in eighteen months on grass alone, saving the first ten weeks or so when they will require milk or milk replacer. Their carcasses are smaller than those of beef breeds, but for the person seeking food independence this may be an advantage, because it makes home butchering and food preservation easier. Our Jersey steers are generally docile animals, especially when young, and two reels of wire allow us to leap-frog them from paddock to paddock without ever turning them loose. Naturally, care and discretion must be used when pasturing animals in proximity to a road or a neighbor’s garden, because the farmer will be liable for any damage they cause if they go wandering.

Intensive grazing generally means portable electrical fencing, which means a fence charger and a source of power, but you don’t necessarily have to spend the thousands of dollars it takes to have electricity run out to the pasture. The food producer who intends to practice managed intensive rotational grazing may charge his fences with small solar electric cells or dry cell batteries charged with house current. These sources have the additional advantage that they can be moved to different areas of the farm as needed. We may dream of a tight, six-strand, high-tensile electric perimeter fence from which our portable fences may be powered, but if the cost of installing permanent fence is beyond our reach, we can begin small with solar or battery-charged fences. If in a few years we can afford the improvement, the experience we will have acquired will help us know what configuration of fence and gates will be most convenient for our uses.

Then there are outbuildings. The classic red barn is a charming structure, but most animals can make do with something much simpler for shelter. Unfortunately, most how-to books emphasize the ideal, not the adequate. They abound in blueprints for $2,000 chicken palaces, air-conditioned horse hotels, and dairy barns with self-cleaning gutters. For the adventurer with a dream of food independence who doesn’t happen to have a small fortune, these books can be discouraging; but although cement floors, circulating fans, and hot and cold water systems are great conveniences, they are principally for the convenience of the farmer, not the animals, and if convenience is really our goal, the greatest convenience will probably be to scotch the farm and buy our food at Walmart. For those of us who want to win nourishment by the labor of our hands, however, a little inconvenience in our early years of farming is a small price to pay for finding ourselves food independent.

In most climates, ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) have little or no need for expensive housing. Some kind of shelter in extreme heat or cold may be all that is necessary, shelter being as simple as a grove of trees or a three-sided run-in shed that backs to the prevailing wind. Sheds can be made of recycled or salvaged materials, and if in a dry location may have dirt floors. If outbuildings serve multiple uses, all the better. Our first barn was a 10-by-14 pole shed sided with old roofing tin. One end was enclosed, and the floor paved with old brick, to provide the chickens with predator-proof night housing; the other side was open and served as a run-in shelter for the goats and a guard pony. As our livestock increased we built a second barn, again of salvaged materials. This rough structure, squeezed against the side of the hill, has three pens in the lower level for feeder pigs, lambing sheep, and gardening tools; the upper barn is used for hay storage, with four box stalls on one side for housing young bucket calves. Initial investment is small, the simple construction methods mean that the work can be done by beginners with little experience, and combined use saves money and space.Although the red barn and board fence farm of our dreams may be beyond our financial reach, we don’t need red barns and board fences to get started on our dreams of food independence.

A growing conviction that the present food-production systems upon which we are dependent are compromising our health and the health of our nation’s soil, is inclining more and more people to consider what we can do individually to improve our nutritional sources and contribute to the re-greening of our land. Many of us, in addition, are seeking to discover a lifestyle in which not all of our needs are provided through the medium of monetary exchange. We have an innate desire to work with our hands and with nature to provide at least some of our necessaries, to improve the piece of the earth on which we live, to enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of well-tended gardens and healthy livestock. In the initial effort to make a change of lifestyle, don’t let misconceptions about what is necessary to a family-size farmstead discourage you in the search for that small rural acreage, reasonably priced, where you can begin to realize your dreams. 

In our next post, we’ll take a look at how to Foil the Feed Bill.

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