Protecting against fires has long been important to code officials, builders and homeowners alike. None of us want to see our homes go up in flames or experience the loss and grief associated with fire. Building codes exist to protect homeowners from fires, both minor and catastrophic. Even with those codes in place, we have seen that a well-built house can burn to the ground in a matter of minutes. To me, the reason for this is obvious. A conventional stick-framed home is nothing more than a series of chimneys behind a thin layer of fire protection. What many homeowners don’t know is that the majority of the fire protection required by code in a conventional home is in the form of drywall. That’s it! 1/2″ of gypsum board is all that is required to protect you from fire. Once that drywall barrier has been compromised, there is nothing to stop the fire from attacking the structural wood and/or steel framing in your home.
Straw bale homes are different. Straw bale houses are known for their fire resistance and have been independently tested showing that they resist fire by up to three times that of conventional homes. Three times the protection may be the difference between a total loss and a house that can be saved. In a straw bale house, the first line of defense is the application of 1 1/4" of plaster. The plaster provides far superior resistance to flame than most sidings.
The second, and often most surprising element of straw bales that increases the fire resistance is the bales themselves. When most people think about straw and how it performs in fire, they think about barn fires, spontaneous combustion, and other fire stories. The fact of the matter is that barn fires are caused by hay that was baled too early and thus has high levels of moisture still in the crop. The fires start when that moisture creates heat by decomposing the hay. The hay then flares from the heat of the decomposition process inside the bale.
Straw is baled when the crop is dead and dry, usually around 8% moisture content by volume, so no interior decomposition occurs. Moreover, the bales are so tight that there just isn't a lot of space for oxygen to easily move through. Fire cannot exist without oxygen, so once again the bales have created a form of protection against flame spread. Consider that a bale is like a phone book. If you rip out the pages one by one and light them on fire, they will burn: so will loose straw (although not very well, due to the high silica content). If you hold a lighter under the entire phone book, however, you will likely run out of fuel in the lighter before the book catches fire because there is no oxygen in between the pages to support the flame. The same is true for the baled straw.
Put the two systems together: thick plaster on both sides of the wall and dense, oxygen-deprived bales inside and you get a combination that makes for a very fire-resistant wall. Protecting your home from fire in other ways is still important. Be sure to clear brush from around your house, clean out your gutters and under your decks, and so on. There are several sites that offer guidance on how to protect yourself from wildfires, and I strongly recommend you visit them.
My wish is for people who live in fire-prone areas to start getting serious about protecting themselves from fire. Tens of thousands of homes and buildings have been destroyed in the last several years. Most of the people who lost their homes will rebuild. I[ah2] invite them to build with bales instead of building another conventional home. The benefits go beyond fire protection and reach into the world of green construction and healthy homes.
As an organic farmer at Camas Swale Farm, and as a Product Review Coordinator at the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), spring is a thrilling time of year for me. In the office we are flooded with applications from fertilizer, pest control and other agricultural input manufacturers who wish to have their product reviewed and verified to organic standards, in time for the growing season. On my farm we do our seeding, care for young chicks, and we are in awe and gratitude of the warm and dry season we had this year.
On our farm we tilled a month earlier than last year. This being done, we had energy left to cultivate a new area of the pasture to expand our crop rotation space. We disc a portion of pasture (formerly mowed by sheep) and apply rock dust to the soil to raise the pH. Then we sow a summer cover crop of buckwheat and oats.
Finding a rock dust that is compliant with organic standards can be difficult, because minor ingredients are not always listed on the product labels. Learning how to read between the lines of ingredient lists and nutrient claims, and learning which organic standards apply to input materials, can assist you in ensuring your garden or farm are truly organic. Knowing where to go to find brand name products that are compliant with organics can also be challenging. I appreciate working with OMRI and being a part of the solution as we help farmers answer these questions and find what they need quickly and efficiently.
So what is OMRI? OMRI was formed by organic certifiers back in 1997 to focus exclusively on the products and materials used by farmers. Certifiers look at farming practices and the whole production system during the certification process, while OMRI carefully analyzes input products used to produce food (including each ingredient and manufacturing process) to determine whether they meet the standards for organic use.
At the Mother Earth News Fair, I always enjoy speaking with fellow farmers and gardeners about inputs, organic standards and sound practices in the field. At the OMRI booth, we always provide free OMRI Products Lists of approved input materials, to help you find the right fertilizer or livestock feed additive and keep your farm or garden truly organic.
Please visit the FAIR website for more information about future FAIRS: September 20-22 in Seven Springs, Pa. and October 12-13 in Lawrence, Kan. Tickets on sale now.
You can also get FAIR updates on our Facebook and Twitter pages.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine comes to life in the recently released Wiser Living Video Series. Volume One of the Series features some of our most popular workshops from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS taught by members of the editorial team and expert community. Become more self-reliant in and around your home by tackling 19 projects ranging from keeping backyard chickens to making tinctures.
You’re invited into the kitchen to learn the basics of baking no-knead bread with Karen K. Will, editor of Heirloom Gardener magazine. If you have a cast-iron pot or Dutch oven, you can bake artisan-style bread at home, free of preservatives and additives. Once you’ve mastered no-knead bread, Karen will walk you through the steps to bake a light wheat sandwich bread — nutrient-packed, prepared without fuss and ready for the fillers of your choice.
How does a BLT sound? Forget overly fatty, antibiotic-laden store-bought bacon. MOTHER EARTH NEWS Senior Associate Editor Robin Mather will show you how easy it is to cure your own bacon at home. Working with a raw pork belly, Robin demonstrates slicing techniques, how to use curing salts and ways to incorporate the less-than-choice trimmings in soups and stews so that nothing goes to waste. Think you’re a bacon-making whiz? Try out Robin’s method for rendering lard. As a second helping, Robin will teach you to make homemade chicken stock from about six pounds of chicken parts and vegetables. Learn tricks to achieve the aromatic flavor and rich dark color you thought only professionals could master.
Step into the world of fermented foods with Managing Editor Jennifer Kongs. Food preservation is a breeze with Jennifer in the kitchen, and she’ll get you started by pickling beets and fermenting homemade sauerkraut — whether you have a traditional ceramic crock or prefer smaller batches in canning jars on your kitchen countertop.
Then, step out the kitchen door into the garden for a lesson from Editor-in-Chief Cheryl Long about how to use chickens in the garden. Chickens keep ticks and other pests at bay, add fertility to your garden and can even help you till garden beds. Cheryl’s Welsummers, Buff Orpingtons and Cochins produce eggs when they aren’t providing garden benefits. Viewing the hens in action is entertaining as well as instructive. Keep your garden going well into winter with Cheryl’s season-extension methods that utilize cold frames, hoop houses and cloches. You’ll be amazed by the number of cold-hardy crops growing in Cheryl’s November garden. (Sneak peak: View the “Season Extension” video here.)
The editors of Mother Earth Living have got you covered crafting the healing remedies and natural household cleaners that will keep your family safe and healthy. Editor-in-Chief Jessica Kellner is an expert in nontoxic homemade cleaning products. Common cleaners contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are linked to respiratory problems. Cut out VOCs and other dangerous chemicals by making your own all-purpose, glass cleaners and heavy-duty scrubbing cleaners using simple ingredients you may already have at home, such as vinegar, baking soda and essential oils.
Safe cleaners go a long way for ensuring personal health, but everyone’s immune system can benefit from a boost, and the Wiser Living Video Series will help you to keep your herbal apothecary well-stocked. Kellner offers her favorite herbal remedies for balancing hormones, promoting mental health, preventing memory loss associated with aging, and more. Her segment about herbs for general wellness offers sound, science-based advice that anyone can benefit from. Mother Earth Living Assistant Editor Gina DeBacker will teach you how to make medicinal salves and infused oils for cuts, scrapes, and other topical purposes, while Managing Editor Allison Martin’s step-by-step tutorial for making tinctures brings folk wisdom for treating ailments to the modern age. Your first aid kit will never be the same.
And there is so much more! Make your self-reliance and homestead dreams a reality with the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Wiser Living Video Series, Volume One. Don’t miss our sneak peek video, featuring how to apply season-extension techniques in your garden.
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance;
pray, love, remember. And there is
pansies, that’s for thoughts.”
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Everyone should have a rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis
) plant for culinary, medicinal and aromatherapeutic purposes. Native to the Mediterranean and cultivated worldwide, this shrubby evergreen, with pale-blue flowers, known as the “her
b of remembrance,” has a strong, sharp, camphorous, herbaceous aroma with a warming energy. Rosemary essential oil is distilled from the fresh flowering tops – I prefer the chemotype verbenon to camphor and cineol for its gentleness on the skin, more citrusy aroma and slightly relaxing effects. From the resinous leaves, I make an infused oil that I use in cooking and medicine-making.
This divine herb has a multitude of properties – it’s a potent skin-cell regenerative, mucolytic, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, cir
culatory stimulant, vulnerary, antioxidant, antifungal, analgesic and deodorizing agent. I use both the essential oil and the infused oil in formulas to relieve sinus and respiratory congestion, muscle tension and soreness, and headaches; to soften and fade scar tissue; to stimulate memory, creativity, confidence and mental energy; and to stimulate circulation to encourage hair growth.
Below is one of my favorite recipes using rosemary essential oil – I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
This formula is dedicated to a lovely friend of mine named Rain, who adores rosemary – just like I do! This refreshing, stimulating, uplifting, rejuvenating, resinous, clarifying herb is just the thing to awaken your brain and help you recall and retain what you seem to have forgotten! If you love rosemary, then you’ll appreciate this fragrant balm. Remembrance Balm
As a bonus, this balm aids in healing dry, cracked feet, hands, nails, shins, elbows and knees. I use it occasionally to condition the ends of my very dry, curly hair and as a blister balm when I’m hiking. It even helps heal oozing poison plant rashes and dermatitis. Good stuff!
7 tablespoons almond or organic soybean base oil
1 - 2 tablespoons beeswax (use the larger amount for a firmer balm)
60 drops rosemary (chemotype verbenon or non-chemotype specific) essential oil
Equipment Needed: Small saucepan or double boiler, stirring utensil, glass or plastic jar or tin
Prep Time: 20 minutes to make the balm, plus 30 minutes to thicken
Yield: Approximately ½ cup
Storage: Store at room temperature, away from heat and light; use within 1 year
Application: 2 or 3 times per day
Directions: Combine the base oil and beeswax in a small saucepan or double boiler, and warm over low heat until the beeswax is just melted. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes, stirring a few times. Add the rosemary essential oil and stir again to thoroughly blend. Slowly pour the liquid balm into a storage container. Cap, label and date. Set aside for 30 minutes to thicken.
Application Instructions: For memory enhancement, up to three times per day, apply a little dab of this balm to each temple, the nape of your neck, the base of your throat, and behind each ear. Breathe deeply.
“Portions of this article were excerpted from Hands-On Healing Remedies, (c2012), by Stephanie Tourles, Lic. Holistic Aesthetician & Herbalist. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.”
Biography: Stephanie Tourles is a licensed holistic aesthetician, certified aromatherapist, and gardener with training in Western and Ayurvedic herbalism. She is the author of eight books, including Hands-On Healing Remedies, Organic Body Care Recipes, Raw Energy, Naturally Healthy Skin, 365 Ways to Energize Mind, Body & Soul, and Natural Foot Care. She lives in Orland, Maine.
In 2003, my husband, Mike, and I gleefully ditched our house in North Portland, Ore., to pick up the reins of a 7-acre parcel in rural Washington. Outside of some home-improvement projects and garden beds, we didn’t know much about rural life. But, we thought—We’re young! We’re enthusiastic! We figured that would be enough.
It wasn’t. After six years of working hard to keep up and stay solvent, the recession finally killed us off. Beleaguered by unfinishable-by-us projects and no reasonable job prospects, we reluctantly sold our beloved farm in 2009 and retreated to the city, where I finished my book, Get Your Pitchfork On! This no-romance guide is intended to give its reader better odds at success than my husband and I had.
The book is divided into five sections:
- Buildings, Inside and Out
- Community, Family and Culture
Below are highlights from each—food for thought.
Selecting property is far more important than anything else. A house can be remodeled; livestock and crops can change; but, with a few exceptions, the land is the land. So choose wisely.
This means paying attention to the landscape—where will the sun rise and set in the summer? And in the winter? Test the soil quality if a garden or crop is in the works. If it’s hilly, are there microclimates that might drop a pocket of cold air right where the basil and tomatoes are going? How will gardens be irrigated?
Consider environmental hazards such as nearby orchards (which are sprayed and use propane heaters during a frost) and animal operations (which might be noisy and smelly). When we bought our land in the Columbia River Gorge, it did not occur to us to ask about military flyovers. We happened to live under a flight path from the air force base in Tacoma, Wash., to the dams on the Columbia. Every time they flew overhead—at ridiculously low elevations—they disturbed both us and our animals.
(Photo Caption: We were not expecting quite this much snow)
This may be the only familiar section to the average city-dweller. When looking for a country house, examine pretty much the same things as a city house:
- Is the roof in decent shape?
- Has anyone torn out a load-bearing wall?
- Is there evidence of rodents around the foundation?
A period farmhouse might look cute, but make sure its plumbing and electrical systems have been updated. Is it insulated? Outbuildings need the same thorough inspection. Look for “improvised” systems such as illegal greywater. Be very sure the septic system is in top condition!
(Photo Caption: “The Shack”: a half-converted old shop that had a water line going to it but no drainage)
Any proper farm has animals—livestock, pets and wild animals. With livestock, the most important thing to consider is looking beyond the romance of acquisition. Before bringing any animal home, line up a veterinarian and a butcher, and a plan for the harvest of the animal.
Transportation is a major issue. My baby chicks made it home from the feed store on the passenger seat of my car just fine in a paper to-go box, but a cow/calf pair or a bunch of goats is a different story.
(Photo Caption: Occasionally free-range chickens)
One of the most well-known stories from Get Your Pitchfork On! is my battle with gophers. It’s significant not only because it describes my attempt to balance being an organic grower and dealing with an invasive pest, but also my “education” as a country gardener and person. Death is rare in the city and extremely common—or, at least, visible—in the country; that’s just a fact. It was an adjustment.
Growing food is one of life’s greatest joys. It’s a lot of hard work, and tedious at times, but the rewards far outweigh the effort. I recommend learning every food-preservation technique out there!
(Photo Caption: Pie is a great way to use berries!)
Community, Family and Culture
The best thing about living in the country should be your neighbors. Ours were fun, smart, and generous with their knowledge, skills and tools. We will always be in debt to them for their help. Make friends with yours right away.
No one who writes a book about country living talks about what is generally known as “small-town politics,” because they still live in that community. It would not be to their advantage to have people mad at them. Living in the country was great in so many ways, and challenging in just a few. But those few things were extremely challenging.
I happen to be a fairly nonmainstream, outspoken person, and this was a liability in our rural community. It takes a long time for strangers to become trusted members of a community, and only trusted members of a community get hired for local jobs. So, I was in trouble.
My husband, Mike, and I are currently making plans for our next move out to the country, and we can’t wait to return! This time, we plan to be smarter about it.
Our Right and Responsibility to Choose Our Food
Farm-fresh, unpasteurized milk availability varies from state to state. Often the consumer must do your legwork to seek it out and make sure it's safe. For instance, in Oregon we only allow micro-dairies, typically milking 1-10 cows, and milk must be picked up on the farm.
The raw milk industry is unregulated in Oregon. Dairies are not inspected and there are no food safety requirements to sell raw milk. It becomes your duty to assure your supply of raw milk is safe. Find out the requirements of your state on http://www.realmilk.com/real-milk-finder/.
What Do I Look For?
If a farmer follows the proper procedures to produce safe, clean, nutritious raw milk, it is very easy to do so every time. Unfortunately, with the lack of training and education available to raw dairy farmers, the consumer is the one who has to do the check for proper procedures in many states.
In our culture we are used to government regulations telling us what to do – can we talk on our cell phones while driving? Or, should I wear my seat belt? Or has this food been properly processed? Raw milk is your chance to embrace your rights and freedoms and do your research and ask the hard questions – you have no one else to rely on to do this for you.
When looking for a farm to purchase raw milk from, I recommend the consumer take the following steps. None are cost-prohibitive and all are easily attainable by all raw milk producers, whether you have one cow, 50 or 500.
1. Only drink raw milk from farms that test their milk at least monthly and can show you results in the format of "Standard Plate Count" and "Coliform Count." If the farm doesn't or won't test for this, do not drink their milk. They have no idea what’s in there.
For a small monthly fee of $35, the farmer can conduct these tests. Testing tells them so much about their milk and keeps them on top of their game.
Acceptable test results are Standard Plate Count under 15,000 and coliform count of 25 or lower.
The farm should be able to provide the past 3 months lab test results and have the current month's lab results posted in the milk pickup area and on their website.
2. Request a tour. Do not buy milk from a farm until you tour the facility. This includes the milking parlor, pastures, barn for winter shelter, feed/water, and milk processing and storage area. When you meet the farmer they should be open to sharing their practices and answering all your questions. Do you trust this person, what they say and do? Ask for references that have been getting milk from the farmer and contact them.
3. Look at the cows out in the pasture/winter barn. Are the cows on tall (4"-8") green grass vs. mud? Or in wintertime are they in a covered shelter with deep, clean bedding underfoot with little visible manure around? Are the cows clean? Is the feeding area clean? Is the barn clean? How does the place smell?
4. What does the farmer feed the cows, in addition to pasture? The most nutritious and safest milk comes from grass-fed cows on tall, green pasture. These cows must be supplemented with some grass hay to balance their rumen. They usually will get some kind of grain equaling 1% of their bodyweight is ideal, perhaps rolled barley or oats. They need minerals daily properly balanced with their feed. In the winter months when grass is dormant, feed should include high-quality grass and perhaps alfalfa hay, a few pounds of some grain balanced with proper minerals.
5. Look at the milking area. Is it clean? A dirt floor in a barn can be a clean place to milk, look to see if it is free of manure and bedding. How is the milking equipment cleaned and sanitized? And how are the milk jars sanitized? Where is the milk handled and is that area clean? How is the milk chilled? (Jars immersed immediately in an ice bath are ideal. If the milk is just placed in a freezer or fridge, it cools down much slower … which means it will sour faster.)
Also, the barn and milking area should be free of other animals such as birds.
6. Ask if they use organic and/or sustainable farm practices. No hormones; occasional antibiotics only when necessary, 50% or more of the feed coming right off the farm. Regular vaccinations should be used following an organic dairy plan.
7. The farm should be a member of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. Membership for the Fund is $125 per year and the benefits far outweigh the cost. The farmer has free access to raw dairy consultant Tim Wightman who will help them balance nutritional demands of their herd. In addition he will assist with any questions they might have about raw milk production. Support your raw dairy producer in becoming a member. Set up a donation fund if they can't afford testing or FTCLDF membership. It is guaranteed they will quickly raise the $125 annual fee to join and additional funds for testing, or support them in increasing the cost of the milk to cover these two items.
Overall, be an informed consumer. Be confident in the choice to drink raw milk so you can educate your friends and family who will surely ask how you can be sure it’s safe. If you follow these procedures you will be assured the milk you bring home is safe to drink. Once you bring your milk home make sure it’s kept covered in its container and refrigerated to 37-40 degrees F.
Consumers of raw milk also have the responsibility to educate themselves on the high costs involved with producing food on a small scale. If raw milk dairies are following the proper procedures for feeding and handling the cows and the milk, they are lucky if they cover the costs of production. It is a very difficult lifestyle to own dairy cows on this small scale. If you plan on enjoying the remarkable taste and health benefits of raw milk, plan on paying what it’s worth.
So grab a glass of raw milk, packed full of nutrition and a much needed source of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, and support your local farmer!
On our cut-flower farm, fall is the season for new beginnings. After a long hot growing season, we are ready to move on to the promise of a spring full of beautiful flowers. Most people think of spring as the season of fresh starts and this is true for us also. But we have learned that, in order to have that wonderful spring surprise, we start the flowers in the fall, early winter and very early spring. These are the best times to plant a group of flowers known as hardy annuals so that they will be ready to burst into bloom at the first signs of spring, when night temperatures are still dipping low and the days have just begun to warm.
Sweet Peas, Bells of Ireland, Snapdragons, Sweet Williams, Bachelor Buttons, Larkspur, and so many other spring-blooming flowers are hardy annuals. They are so well known, so beloved, and yet so misunderstood. When planted after spring arrives, there is little time for them to get established before the pressure of producing blooms begins. Then as the season of spring rolls into summer, the heat starts and the plants suffer prematurely from puniness, disease and pests. Planting in the fall, winter, or very early spring gives hardy annuals ample time to become established. Because they survive cold temperatures, they have time to develop the strong root system they need to perform well into summer.
The spring bloomers that belong to this group are early magnets for pollinators and other beneficial insects. Having blooms in your garden as early as possible jump starts your garden on the way to establishing an army of warriors to work for you. The population of beneficial insects on our farm is crazy high because we use no chemicals and have permanent plantings for them to overwinter in.
While flowers in the garden furnish food and habitat for thousands of beneficial creatures, their ultimate end is hopefully in a vase with their toes in fresh clean water, making somebody happy. When I began growing cut flowers commercially in 1998, I was surprised at the way people responded to a beautiful bunch of cut flowers. But now, 15 years later, I know that’s what flowers do to people. Men and women, young and old--there isn't anyone immune to the delight of home-grown garden flowers.
What are the sweetest gifts of this hardy annual garden for those who plant and tend them? For me it is the anticipation: waiting, watching, and wondering — and, I confess, a bit of worrying — even after having planted like this for all these years. But then come the warm days of early spring; flower stalks filled with buds start reaching up from well-established plants. And then they bloom.
The sweetest of all is that you will have flowers to share. Cutting flowers from this garden once a week is essential to keeping the garden producing more fresh flowers. The abundant bounty provides a gift like no other. While picking up a bouquet at a store and giving it as a gift is thoughtful, how much more so is a bouquet that you grew and tended yourself.
The dreamiest part of cool season hardy annual gardening?
- You plant when little else is going on in the garden.
- Temperatures are cooler—nice for the gardener.
- Many of these plants prefer to have their seeds planted directly in the garden.
- Rain is normally abundant during planting times.
- Disease and pest pressures are minimal.
- Many come into bloom during the season flowers are most anticipated—spring.
And, oh yeah, this garden is practically maintenance free as it produces some of the most beautiful and most beloved flowers. After you have tried it, you will wonder, why didn't I start growing hardy annuals sooner? Don’t miss the opportunity to garden in the forgotten seasons.
Lisa Mason Ziegler is a commercial cut-flower farmer in Newport News, Virginia; she lectures and writes about organic and sustainable cut-flower gardening. You can email Lisa at email@example.com call her at 757-877-7159 or visit her website www.shoptgw.com.
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