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Homesteading on the Cheap, Part 1: Finding Land

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.

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.

Thomas Jefferson's Favorite Crop is Back in American Soil

Editor’s Note: One of the favorite events among attendees to the 2014 Puyallup MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR was investigative author Doug Fine’s Hemp Bound talk. Here are his thoughts on why hemp matters so much, a belief he translates into a passionate and funny workshop for Fair audiences. 

In the three weeks before I discussed hemp at the Puyallup MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR  in 2014, four more states legalized hemp cultivation. And not just those you might call the usual suspect states: We’re talkin’ Nebraska, Indiana, South Carolina and Tennessee. This on top of federal authorization of hemp research in this year’s Farm Bill. Heck, the DEA just turned over 286 pounds of hemp seed to Kentucky farmers. When did all this good governing start happening?

My key bullet point at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR was that two years of worldwide field research convinced me, a seasoned investigative author, these developments are important for humanity. As a father who’d like to bequeath a livable climate, I’m optimistic about our climate change mitigation prospects for the first time in a long time. 

At every one of the dozen talks I’ve given since writing a book about hemp, some entrepreneurs, farmers or processors have approached me about bringing the tri-cropping ideas expressed in Hemp Bound into the real world economy. (Tri-cropping, as described in the book, is utilizing one hemp harvest for three applications: seed oil, fiber and energy.)

One of these events (complete with slide show, a 1735 hemp-bound book an audience member brought, and my tales of taking a hemp-powered limo ride) was taped by C-Span. (It’s available online at C-SPAN.)

Even I can’t believe this is all happening. Not to this extent. Not this fast. How did it go from the dream of my college roommate with the lava lamp to federal policy? I’m just grateful. So are American farmers. One hemp pioneer I followed in the book, Ryan Loflin, is clear about what hemp’s return means.

“It takes half the water that wheat does,” the 41-year-old Coloradan told me, scooping up a handful of drought-scarred soil so parched and sandy it evoked the Sahara. “And provides four times the income. Hemp is going to revive farming families in the climate change era.”

Also excited are my own Funky Butte Ranch goats, as you can see in the photo below: They’ll be getting homegrown hemp seed feed very soon, as will I.

- Doug Fine, Funky Butte Ranch, N.M.

P.S. I don’t even know what to say about this one except thanks to the one and only Willie Nelson, one of my principal role models. He just tweeted: Best book o’the year! Launch #HempBound 2 #Top10 on @amazonbooks w/1day push 2day &revive #America thru laughter

Photo, above:Taylor Swift, the Funky Butte Ranch nanny goat, attempts to take a bite out of an advance copy of Hemp Bound, April 2014

Non-Toxic Herbal Insect Repellent Spray

Summer greetings everyone! It’s that time of year when the flying, buzzing, blood-sucking insects are at their peak annoyance, and, if you want to comfortably enjoy the great outdoors, you’ll need to apply some sort of bug repellent to your body.

Most insect repellents on the market today are chock-full of chemicals and replete with unpleasant, toxic aromas that are often masked by irritating synthetic fragrances. Why would you want to repeatedly spray your body with unhealthful products in order to enjoy the outdoors? Many people, myself included, are highly sensitive or even allergic to the chemicals in these commercial products, especially the pesticide DEET, a chemical the U.S. Army patented in 1946, and which is so poisonous that even the Environmental Protection Agency says you should wash off your skin when you return indoors, avoid breathing it in, and not spray directly on your face! Really now … if it’s that toxic, then how are you supposed to actually use it? No thanks!

If you’re into all things scary, instead of reading a Stephen King novel, why not just read some of the precautionary statements (in tiny print) on the labels of some of the popular, commercially available, chemical-based mosquito repellent sprays. The information is downright frightening! Perhaps you’ll think twice before using these types of products on your skin and instead seek out natural, non-toxic alternatives.

Thank goodness there are now a handful of truly non-toxic insect repellents available commercially from health food, home goods, and hardware stores or online … just in case you don’t want to make your own formula at home. But, if you do want to craft your own antibug material, the following easy-to-create, wonderfully aromatic recipe, “Fend Off” Herbal Oil Insect Repellent, offers a natural alternative to chemical-based sprays. When applied to your skin, it will help form an insect-repelling barrier around your body, minimizing the chances that mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies, gnats, no-see-ums and their ilk will land on your skin and inflict their misery.

This formula tends to work best on days when the local biting and stinging nasties are only slightly to moderately hungry. If they’re voracious, additional protection such as a net hat, net body suit, or just a high-collared shirt and lightweight pants can come in handy. Wearing a baseball cap or gardening hat, sprayed with this formula, works super to keep bugs from flying into your eyes, nose and neck area.

NOTE:  Before venturing outdoors, remember to avoid wearing any type of fragrance (aside from your natural insect repellent product), including cologne, aftershave and scented deodorant. These seem to attract pests, as do the scent of  shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, bath oil, soap, hair gel and even breath mints,  laundry detergent and linen sprays.  Biting insects seem to love the same odors that we do!

The base oil recommended for this recipe is organic soybean oil, which has natural bug-repellent properties and a light-to-medium texture. It easily penetrates the skin and leaves it soft and silky. Make sure you purchase organic soybean oil as nearly all soybean oil on the market is derived from genetically-modified soybeans … and you definitely don’t want that on your skin! Jojoba oil can be substituted, if you don’t want to use soybean oil. Jojoba oil is a medium-textured, golden-colored oil (technically a liquid wax ester) derived from pressed plant seeds or beans and it is chemically similar to your own moisturizing sebum. Jojoba penetrates well, leaving no oily residue and can be used by almost everyone, including those with very sensitive and oily skin. It’s one of my favorite base oils for making essential oil perfumes, facial elixirs, and bath and massage oil blends because it does not turn rancid and requires no refrigeration. It’s also an excellent conditioner for hair, scalp, skin and nails, and is an all-purpose skin lubricant.

All ingredients for this recipe can be found at better health food stores and/or online from Mountain Rose Herbs or Jean’s Greens. My favorite organic jojoba oil can be purchased from The Jojoba Company (located here in Maine). Essential oil companies that I recommend are Simplers Botanicals, Oshadhi and Aromatherapeutix.

If you are looking for an effective, pleasantly aromatic, non-toxic insect repellent, then you’ll love this recipe. Please give it a try. A bottle of this oil also makes a fabulous gift for your outdoorsy friends!

“Fend Off” Herbal Oil Insect Repellent

I use this oil every day when bugs are at their worst …  and sometimes twice per day to saturate  my pores with its bug repellent properties. As a bonus, my skin is soft and conditioned. Occasionally I even get a compliment on my unusual fresh “perfume.”  If they only knew!

½ cup soybean base oil (Note: This oil has natural bug-repellent properties.)

15 drops each of the following essential oils: lemongrass, geranium, catnip

10 drops basil or eucalyptus radiata essential oil

Add all ingredients directly to a storage container. Shake the mixture vigorously to blend. Allow the oil to synergize, for 1 hour.

No refrigeration is required, but for maximum bug-repelling freshness and potency, please use within 6 to 12 months.

Application tips: I like to apply this formula onto my palms first, then massage the oil into areas that need bug protection. During the height of bug season, when the little biters are on their worst behavior, I actually use this pleasantly fragranced, oil-based repellent as an after-shower massage oil, bath oil, hair conditioner, scalp massage oil, and all-purpose body moisturizing oil.

Recommended for: all skin types except very oily

Use: as needed

Prep time: approximately 10 minutes, plus 1 hour to synergize

Blending tools: shake container before each use

Store in: plastic or glass spritzer, pump or squeeze bottle

Yield: approximately ½ cup or 4 ounces

Excerpted from Organic Body Care Recipes © Stephanie Tourles. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

You can learn how to make other natural skin and body care products by reading my best-selling book, Organic Body Care Recipes (Storey Publishing, 2007). 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 Publishing, 2012), and my very popular title, Raw Energy: 124 Raw Food Recipes for Energy Bars, Smoothies, and Other Snacks to Supercharge Your Body (Storey Publishing, 2009).

Stephanie-Tourles gif

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.

Stephanie Tourles is a licensed holistic esthetician, 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.

Making Loose-Leaf Tea Easy

It’s fair to say that I’m a bit of a tea snob. I will only drink high quality herbal teas, and I tend to avoid most tea bags. This is the curse of my career. I grow herbs, teach about them and make medicines with them. This makes me acutely aware of the quality of tea when I go to enjoy some myself.

The Importance of Loose-Leaf Tea

Tea bags seem like such a necessary convenience until you begin to understand that the quality is almost always greatly compromised. To fit into that tiny tea bag, the herb must be finely shredded or powdered. The longer an herb sits after it has been shredded, the more oxygenation occurs and the less benefit and taste actually remains when you finally decide to drink it.

Loose leaf tea tends to give you a better shot at herbs that have not been crushed or broken too much. When leaves and flowers are not hidden in a tea bag, you can easily see the color and condition of your herbs. There is no hiding.

Loose Leaf Tea Intimidation

So many people are intimidated by loose tea. They wonder how much should I use? Our new customers often ask if we sell a tea ball with our tea. We don’t, and I have a good reason why.

I don’t like tea balls. A good cup of herbal tea should use 2-3 teaspoons of herb. Have you ever noticed how little you can stuff into one of those things? To make a good tasting and highly effective tea you need your herbs to be “free range." That’s right, they need to have the ability to wander around in your tea without a cage. Only then can the water pull everything out of the herb. If your leaves are squished together, unable to move, well ... we know how bad that is for our eggs, why would it be any better for our tea?

So why not just use a strainer that sits on top of the tea? Again, the tea isn't freely roaming through your mug. You’re just not going to get your best cup that way.

Tea Hack

For me, nothing beats a simple mason jar for making loose leaf tea. I throw in 3-4 tablespoons of tea for a quart jar, cover it with hot water and add a lid. This tea can sit for 10-20 minutes, or overnight. When I’m ready to drink, I simply pour into a cup through any number of strainers or sieves in my kitchen arsenal. No need for fancy gadgets, just simplicity at its finest.

This only works for leaves, flowers and fruits. That type of tea is made as an infusion. An infusion is the typical method of tea making: Add hot water and soak. If you have found a tea that includes bark, roots or nuts, you won’t be able to use the mason jar. This type of plant material requires a decoction, which is made by placing the herb in a saucepan, adding water and simmering for 20 minutes. The fancy equipment list still doesn’t apply. Instead of a mason jar you use a saucepan. After that first step, you still pour into your cup through the strainer of your choice.

If you have gone to the trouble of sourcing your tea from a high quality producer, keep in mind that you can usually use your “tea leaves” for at least two batches of tea before you compost them.

In this year of true winter in most parts of our country, what could be better than a good cup of tea? I’m just off to enjoy one myself. What are you drinking?

How to Find Your Own Clay and Make Your First Sustainable Pottery Project

To build with love is the way the craftsman … does just enough, not more and not less. - Harry Remde offers creative community handcrafts by traditional artisans supporting agrarians in a sustainable village context. These functional farmstead, quality handcrafts include woodworking, pottery, blacksmithing, textile crafts and more. We are joining MOTHER EARTH NEWS at their FAIR in Puyallup, Wash., May 31 to June 1, 2014, at booth 810. You will be able to see sustainable pottery made at our booth demo and FAIR workshop.

Why Do Pottery? 

People around the world have used sustainable pottery for thousands of years to store and serve food, hold water, boil tea, preserve documents (in the case of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls) and for many other purposes. Cups, bowls, pots, vases, plates, saucers, butter dishes, even a “pot-within-a-pot” used for refrigeration in parts of Africa, are all traditional pottery products. This wide, purposeful use of pottery supported the local agrarian community, which is what Cottage Crafted heartily encourages.

One specific use for pottery is fermentation crockery. Handmade pottery crocks are perfect for making sauerkraut or kimchi. Fermentation is not only a great way to keep your harvest, it also exponentially increases its nutritional value.

The skills learned in making pottery are invaluable, as well. Learning about the different types of clay (and which to use), using glazes, hand-building, wheel-throwing, “firing” (baking) clay … all these are rare and valuable skills.

Find Your Own Clay

Potters have been digging and processing their own clay for millennia. It has only been since the Industrial Revolution that clay started being sold by suppliers on the market. Before that time, potters situated themselves near a good source of clay and always passed the trade down from generation to generation. In many places, such as China, Korea and Great Britain, whole families of potters would build small towns near a clay source and the local economy centered on pottery making.

Clay is a smooth soft rock made up of mineral particles as fine as dust. Clay particles are all that remain of rocks such as feldspar after these have weathered and decomposed. Most clay remains at the site where it formed, making a clay deposit. In its undeveloped state, it is one of the few natural resources that has no perceptible value of its own yet can be transformed into some of the most valued works of art.

Many potters caution that it isn’t worth the time and effort to dig your own native clay, while others strongly urge those who are able to take advantage of this abundant resource to do so. Potters can gain a great deal of practical experience and broaden their knowledge by going out and digging their own clay (and feel the fulfillment of actually making a pot from the ground up).

Here at our shop many people ask if we use clay from the Brazos River, which borders our farm. We have been unable to do so because of a major lime contamination. A good part of this is due to the high limestone cliffs just above the river. Every time it rains more limestone washes down the banks, contaminating the absorbent clay. James Chappell, author of The Potter’s Complete Book of Clay and Glazes, writes, “While the presence of alkalies can be tolerated, the presence of lime cannot; when such clay is fired, lime turns into calcium oxide, which will absorb water, expand inside the pot, and cause it to crack, flake or chip.”

There are two basic types of clay: earthenware and stoneware. Earthenware can only be fired up to the temperature range between 1700 degrees and 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, it is not waterproof and the finished product can chip or scratch easily. Stoneware is much less common than earthenware, yet it is highly sought after for its durability and lasting strength. This type of clay can be fired up to 2400 degrees to become vitreous (meaning “like a rock”), making it water-proof even when left unglazed (thus the name, stoneware).

Some miles from the future extension of the Ploughshare school is a large deposit of kaolin clay in Helmer, Idaho. The mineral kaolin is an extremely refractory clay with a melting point at 3200 degrees. It cannot be used alone as a clay body due to its highly nonplastic texture. Because of this it must be combined with other clays to increase its plasticity and lower its maturing temperature. However, this clay is very durable and has a low rate of shrinkage, making it one of the most sought-after ingredients for making pottery in the United States. We have yet to work with it ourselves but we are looking forward to possibly using this native clay source (with which we could supply the needs of our school and craft shop).

Now that we have the foundation of pottery (the clay), we’ll put it into use. The simplest method of making pottery is hand-building: You form the pottery entirely in your hands, instead of on the wheel.

Making a Pinch Pot

A pinch pot can be as simple as a little bowl to put knickknacks in, or it can be as elaborate as a teapot with a footed sugar and creamer set. Another great thing about pinch pots is that you don’t need any specialized equipment. You can do all of this right on your kitchen table! 

Start by making a small ball of clay. The smoother and rounder you get it to begin with, the better the finished product is going to look. Once your ball is ready, poke your thumb straight down into the middle of it, and then pinch the clay between your thumb and fingers.

Squeeze with the full length of your fingers, not just with your fingertips. Pinch and turn. Continue turning and pinching until you go all the way around. Multiple small pinches will yield better results than just a few forceful ones.

The lip of your bowl may be a little rough at this point. You can use your fingers and thumb to smooth and even it out. Now, begin to work any lumps out of walls of your bowl. Smooth them out with your thumb. It is not necessary to use any water during the making of your pot, unless the clay begins to crack. If this happens, use only a dab of water to help you smooth them out. Too much water will cause your pot to begin to dissolve and you will end up with a mess instead of a pot! just a few large, forceful ones. Keep the pot cupped in your hand as you work with it. Work your way around until the walls of your bowl are evenly thinned out. 

Once you are satisfied with how your pot looks, set it down on the table and gently tap it. Using your finger or thumb on the inside, smooth and press the base down. This will create a flat base for your pot. You can also, at this point, turn it over and smooth out any remaining cracks or crevices on the outside.

That's basically it for a pinch pot. You can start with small pinch pots and work your way up as you become more comfortable with making them. Eventually, you can make things such as tall vases, salt and pepper shakers, or sets of matching bowls or mugs.

If you don't have access to a kiln and you would like to do this at home, you can use the mud in your backyard or buy self-drying clay at a craft store and finish it out yourself at home. You wouldn't be able to use these pieces for food, but you can paint them with acrylic paints and then use them for knickknack dishes. This would be great practice, but eventually, if you’re going to get serious about pottery, you will want to invest in a small kiln.

Making a Wheel-Thrown Pot

Once you have mastered hand-building and gotten a “feel” for the clay, you can move on to wheel-throwing, or using the potter’s wheel. The basic (oversimplified) method is to “throw” (smack) the clay onto the middle of the wheel, start the wheel spinning, finish centering it with your hands, push your thumbs in the middle of the clay to make a hole, shape it into a cylinder, and keep shaping it from there into a pot, bowl, cup or plate … anything that can be made of clay. This, however, is a complicated process, so there is no substitute for learning from a teacher in order to create a quality handcraft. Jenni Fritzlan, a full-time potter who also teaches pottery year-round for the Ploughshare Institute in Texas, will give a wheel-throwing demonstration as part of an onstage presentation on the making and use of fermentation crockery at the Puyallup MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR.

Come by our booth to see a live demonstration on the potter's wheel by Fritzlan. She and her team’s quality handcrafted pottery is offered online at

Cottage Crafted also helped supply the $7,500 Mother Earth News Homesteader Sweepstakes, featuring a Cottage Crafted Homesteader Set: a mesquite box, a gift basket set (including a bread basket, bread cloth, hardwood cutting board, wood spatula, and wood butter knife), and a video beekeeping course. Be sure to enter here:

We can also be reached through these at:

Cottage Crafted


Aromatherapeutic Cold and Flu Relief

You know when a dreaded cold is coming on: Your throat and voice feel a bit scratchy, your nose begins to run, your eyes resemble those of a frog, your energy dips, you get the chills, and, in general, you feel like a blob. Compound these symptoms with muscle aches, joint stiffness, occasional nausea and fever, and you’ve got the flu. According to my wise grandmother, influenza used to be called “bone fever” because you ache right down to your marrow and it hurts for someone just to touch you.

When you want relief from your misery, instead of reaching for some chemical-filled pill or ill-tasting syrupy medicine that will just leave your brain feeling clogged, why not add the following remedy to your arsenal of natural cold and flu therapies? With its analgesic, antibacterial, antiviral and respiratory-soothing properties, it’s guaranteed to help ease symptoms and bring comfort so you feel better soon. Combine this treatment with more-than-ample bed rest, hot organic chicken or vegetable-onion-garlic soup, and lots of herb tea, and you’ve got the recipe for healing!

Surround Me in Comfort: Warming Bath Oil

Feeling all stuffed up? Got the chills, aches, pains and general misery of a cold or flu? Then a detoxifying sweat session with this bath oil is just the thing you need to ease your symptoms, open your sinuses, warm your core and relax your entire body so that you can sleep soundly and get the healing rest you so desperately need. Ginger, thyme, lavender, palmarosa and pine essential oils deliver antiseptic and antiviral properties, stimulate sluggish circulation, induce perspiration, relieve muscle tension and aching joints, and even relieve headaches due to congestion.

Note: Do not partake of this heating therapy if you are running a fever, sweating, or are extremely weak and debilitated, as it will exacerbate your symptoms.

20 drops ginger essential oil

15 drops palmarosa essential oil

15 drops thyme (chemotype linalool) essential oil

15 drops Scotch pine essential oil

10 drops lavender essential oil

1 cup jojoba base oil

Equipment: Dropper, dark glass bottle with dropper top or screw cap

Prep time: 15 minutes, plus 24 hours to synergize

Yield: Approximately 1 cup

Storage: Store at room temperature, away from heat and light; use within 2 years

Application: 1 or 2 times per day

Add the ginger, palmarosa, thyme, Scotch pine, and lavender essential oils drop by drop directly into a storage bottle. Add the jojoba base oil. Cap the bottle and shake vigorously for 2 minutes.

Label the bottle and place in a dark location that’s between 60° and 80°F for 24 hours so that the oils can synergize.

Application Instructions:

This healing, detoxification process can be performed in the morning, if you are staying home for the day, and also at night before retiring. Turn up the heat or stoke the woodstove and make a mug of fresh ginger, cinnamon spice, or decaf chai tea, or just plain hot water with lemon juice. Run a hot bath, with the door closed. When the tub is nearly full, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of bath oil under running water and swish to blend. Ease into the soothing bath and lie back for about 20 minutes while you sip your tea. Sweating helps release toxins from your pores. Following your soak, gently pat yourself dry. Put on pajamas and socks, and climb under the covers. Do this once or twice daily for a few days, until you are well.

You can learn how to make more topically-applied herbal remedies by reading Tourles’ latest book, Hands-On Healing Remedies: 150 Recipes for Herbal Balms, Salves, Oils, Liniments & Other Topical Therapies (Storey Publishing, 2012). 

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 Organic Body Care Recipes; Raw Energy: 124 Raw Food Recipes for Energy Bars, Smoothie, and Other Snacks to Supercharge Your Body; Naturally Healthy Skin; 365 Ways to Energize Mind, Body & Soul; and Natural Foot Care. She lives in Orland, Maine.

Visit Tourles’ website,, her blog and Facebook page to find out more about her, and stay tuned for her 2014 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR speaking schedule.

Healing the Earth

The self-reliance tsunami arguably spawned by MOTHER EARTH NEWS in the early 1970s is a revolution for “integrity living.” That’s a powerful phrase, but I think it captures the essence of our movement.

I think most of us who attend MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS and read the full Ogden Publications curriculum have a deep-seated belief that most of modern America is living a lie. Hence the notion of “integrity living.” For example, it’s simply untrue that industrial farming, monocropping and petroleum-based fertilizers can actually sustain our civilization. We simply don’t believe genetically modified corn and soybeans are the difference between abundance and scarcity.

Healing The Earth

In our gardens and diversified, decentralized, compost-driven farms, we know how abundant the Earth wants to be if we respectfully massage nature’s templates. We don’t have to swagger into nature like a bunch of conquistadors to get the Earth to produce. Actually, abundance is nature's default position when we touch our ecological umbilical with awe and reverence.

Big industrial agribusiness would have us think that their Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) ensure life — that to deprive our planet of CAFOs would mean starvation for millions. But those of us who count ourselves among the MOTHER EARTH NEWS family know that pastured livestock — animals that move freely and eat perennials — actually produce more per acre than the animals on grain-chemical-pharmaceutical-petroleum-confinement factory farms.

Indeed, our movement is like the little boy in the fable who cried: “The emperor has no clothes!” We believe compost makes the richest soil, the most nutrient-dense vegetables and the most regenerative production. We dare to question the notion that life is fundamentally mechanical and that safety requires sterility. We know that most bacteria are good, and that bad ones that proliferate into pathogenicity only do so when our management is wrong.

We don’t believe Wall Street is more important than healthy earthworms. We don’t believe that petroleum is more important than clean water. We don’t believe knowing about the dysfunction du jour of the Kardashians is more important than what will become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone at dinner time. We certainly don’t believe the answers to our societal maladies emanate from Washington. No, we think our civilization is only as healthy as our soil, our economy is only as healthy as our personal finances, and our health care begins in our own kitchens and gardens.

To believe otherwise is to drink the Kool-Aid of a cult that promotes disempowerment, and corporate and governmental dependency. If wellness comes from drugs rather than our gardens, we’ll spend quite a bit more on drugs. If our homesteads heal us emotionally, physically and spiritually, what need have we of so much health care in the first place? If our mission is sacred enough and noble enough to consume our life focus, when do we become depressed about our physical appearance enough to demand corrective surgery? We glow naturally when we’re consumed with redemption and nurturing.

Everything else is chasing a lie. I know that may sound strong, but I think days like those we’re currently living in demand clarity. It’s not good enough simply to slow down. If you’re going the wrong way, slowing down won’t get you to your destination. You have to turn around and go the other way. Our community of rebels, of humble truth seekers, wants to turn our culture around. We don’t despise our country. We don’t desire failure. We desire light, a beacon to show the world that our wealth need not show the way to more rapid destruction, but can be leveraged to heal more acres, more backyards, more communities faster than any civilization on the right path has ever done it. That’s our goal, our truth.

Now let’s keep going if we’re going, and let’s start if we’re not going yet. We are the truth antidote for our society. Let’s show it in our gardens, our compost piles, our vermicomposting bins and our domestic larders. That’s not hoarding: It’s ultimate freedom, liberty. Here’s the truth: Security does not come from outside. It comes from inside. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at this year’s FAIRS. Until then, keep reading and keep doing. Our homesteads pulse with the heartbeat of truth. Here’s to a great 2014.

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