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Winter-Weather Solar, Explained

Winter weather solar explained

Memories of cold, snowy winters past can be discouraging even for the hardiest homeowner. If you’re considering going solar, you might wonder whether solar panels can produce electricity in wintry conditions. After all, if you look at solar as an investment, then it should be able to generate returns throughout the year as other investments do. Luckily, plenty of people have both solar panels and snow, and some of the most popular regions in the U.S. for solar have snowy winters. Don’t let winter weather discourage you from going solar!

'Winter-Weather Solar' Isn’t an Oxymoron

You don’t have to live in Phoenix or Los Angeles to achieve strong solar panel performance. As you consider solar panels for your home, remember that even if you live in the northern parts of the U.S., the worst of winter only lasts three months, so your days of low sunlight and heavy snow are limited. And the further from the equator you are, the longer your days are when the summer comes around—so while you may generate slightly less power in the winter months, you can make up for it with more sunshine in the summer.

What Happens to My Solar Panel Performance in Snow?

Solar panel snow problems are usually minimal. However, there are a few things that you should know about the implications of winter weather as you consider installing a solar energy system on your home:

1. All solar panels are designed to bear a certain amount of weight – and snow will usually not be heavy enough to cause issues. All solar panels undergo pressure tests to assess durability and quality. Ratings vary by panel, with higher pressure ratings indicating that your panels are better at withstanding the weight of heavy snow.

2. If snow covers your panels, they can’t produce power – but it’s easy to clean them off. Solar panels need sunlight to produce power, so if your solar panels are covered in snow, they will not generate electricity. Most panels are tilted at an angle, so snow will slide off on its own accord, but that can take time. You can take control of the situation by getting a solar panel snow rake or similar tool made for solar panel snow removal that won’t damage the panels.

3. Cold, sunny weather is actually good for panels. Winter months are actually good for solar energy production, as long as your panels aren’t covered by snow. Like most electronics, solar panels function more efficiently in cold conditions than in hot. This means that your panels will produce more power for each precious hour of sunshine during the short days of winter.

Popularity of solar in cold climates proves winter-weather solar works

Sunny states (like California, Arizona and Florida) are not the only places where solar makes sense. In fact, the top 10 cities for solar in the U.S. aren’t the sunniest ones. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) ranks Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York in the top 10 for states with the highest amount of installed solar in 2014. This is largely due to the fact that electricity prices are one of the biggest drivers of solar savings ­– the higher your electricity rates, the more money you will save by going solar.

Need further proof? Consider Germany, whose sunshine levels are similar to Alaska’s. For over a decade, this northern European country has led the world in solar panel installations, and solar makes a significant contribution to their national energy mix. Although other countries, including the U.S. and China, are starting to catch up, Germany’s success is a shining example of how winter weather solar can work in countries across the globe.

Now that you know that your solar panels can produce electricity in the winter, consider this: winter is also the best time to shop for solar if you’re a homeowner looking for the best value possible. With the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, you can compare equipment options and financing products from multiple installers to find the right solar panel system for your needs. Get an instant estimate or register your property today to get started.

Vikram Aggarwal is the founder and chief executive of EnergySage, the online solar marketplace. EnergySage simplifies the process of researching and shopping for solar. By offering shoppers more choices and unprecedented levels of transparency, EnergySage allows consumers to select the option that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily. Read all of Vikram's posts here.

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.



A Guatemalan family receives a micro-financed solar system on their home.

On Capitol Hill, a heated debate is underway about renewing the solar incentive set to expire at the end of 2016. Mixed into the political muck, the importance of solar energy subsidies manages to become murky.

3,000 miles away in a small shack in the rural Guatemalan hills, solutions are simpler. Amid the myriad of midnight insect songs, a boy and his mother see how solar powered lights shine a positive glow on their future.

By using a solar energy, the family has more to eat. Since the arrival of their solar system micro-financed by the Integral Heart Foundation, the family saves $200 annually on candles. That's 1/5 of their annual income! The boy has a reliable light to do his homework by and for the first time in his life, thanks to the foundation, he has homework to do. This educational opportunity offers him opportunities to escape a vicious cycle of generational poverty.

Solar Empowerment and The Integral Heart Foundation

The Integral Heart Foundation combines education for the poor with environmentalism in a way that bypasses the problems facing our developed world.

As economists and environmentalists worry about when the poor become "unpoor" and consume at the rate of the rest of us, solar-powered lights flicker to life in houses and schools in Guatemala. A young orphaned girl is learning to cope with trauma through meditation. Critical thinking and Philosophy are taught to students who a few years ago had very little opportunity to access education.

Kids engaged in the Critical Thinking class provided by The Integral Heart Foundation.

But students of The Integral Heart are not just learning to be successful, they are being taught values to bypass the consumerism and consumption that fuels the fires of the developed world.

"What's the point of helping the poor become just as messed up  [expletive omitted] as us?" someone asked me once in a conversation on educational development for the poor. It's an important question that usually goes unanswered in the structuring of development programs. But it's one that's been thought through by The Integral Heart Foundation whose model is designed to teach their students and dependents to be "better" than us.

Even more crucial, their educational model is built to create a generation of teachers who can exponentially spread the lessons they've been entrusted with.

Mick Quinn, co-founder of the Integral Heart Foundation, was interviewed by his hometown paper and asked what his ultimate goal was with his foundation. "Simple really," he said, "That our current senior students become teachers of the teachers so that the critical thinking and other education programs can continue to evolve long after we are gone."

How to Do a Lot with Little

Here's what's most surprising about all this: The Integral Heart Foundation supports the lives and education of 60 children and teenagers and supports 45 families to reach 350 individuals annually.

In addition to supporting general education, they have five different learning programs: Critical-Thinking, English, Spanish, History and Psychology. These programs go on in 4 separate locations. Since its inception in 2010, their solar power program has illuminated 21 homes and 3 schools. All of this is being accomplished on a $100k annual budget —  than what most charity CEOs make.

For the first time ever, an electric light shines from solar power in a hillside home in rural Guatemala.

How Your Help Can Take the Integral Heart Foundation to the Next Level  

The Integral Heart Foundation has grown from humble roots and is ready to take their model and program to the next level.

For five years, they've used borrowed space across different locations. Now, they are working to raise $20k by January to open an education center in time for the start of classes. This center will also be the hub of their microfinance solar empowerment program.

In the larger scheme of things, $20,000 is a drop in the bucket. But for 60 kids in Guatemala, it will open the doors to a bright future few could have imagined.

This link will take you to the Integral Educational Center’s crowdfunding page. Please reach out and join this cause by helping us reach this goal and passing it along to others. From all the kids in the program, muchisimas gracias!

Photos courtesy The Integral Heart Foundation

Luke Maguire Armstrong has worked in development everywhere from Guatemal, to Kenya, Uganda, and the Bronx. He lectures on topics ranging from human trafficking, economics, philosophy, creative writing, and international affairs. He is the author of the intrepidly acclaimed travel anthology The Nomad’s NomadFollow him @LukeSpartacus and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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.


Most of us have noticed our utility bills increase considerably over the past decade and it’s not all attributable to greater electricity consumption (although that is also part of the problem). Homeowners are also paying more for each kWh they use. In fact, electricity rates have increased everywhere in the United States in the past decade, but the rates vary significantly from state to state. The rates also change from month to month, so we use a handy metric to compare rates across the U.S. in a consistent manner, the rolling 12-month average electricity rate.

As of August 2015, Washington has the lowest rate at 8.83 cents per kWh, whereas Hawaii has the highest at 32.55 cents per kWh. Within the contiguous U.S., Connecticut has the highest rate at 20.97 cents per kWh. The average rate across the U.S. for the same period was 12.61 cents per kWh. Find out how your state compares.  

If you happen to live in one of the states with higher than average electricity rates, you might be considering a switch to solar energy. In my post last month, I discussed how to determine if solar energy makes financial sense for you. This month, I will explain some of your options.

Status Quo

Many homeowners will put off the decision or opt to do nothing and stick with their utility. This might be the right decision in some states or for some particular cases, but for those of you who would do better by switching to solar, it’s important not to delay too much, as the federal solar investment tax credit (ITC) is set to expire at the end of 2016.

If you’re unsure about whether you should stick with your utility, maybe you want to consider by how much your electricity rate has increased over the past decade. We call this the escalation rate. The average year over year escalation rate across the U.S. from 2005 through 2014 was 2.9 percent.  If you want to compare that to the average year over year rate of inflation rate in the U.S. since 2005, it was about 1.9 percent. In many states, the escalation rate for electricity has exceeded the inflation rate over the past decade.

Kentucky may have among the lowest electricity rates in the country, with a rolling 12-month average rate of 10.02 cents per kWh, but the average year over year escalation rate since 2005, has been 4.5 percent. The states with the highest year over year escalation rate since 2005 are Hawaii at 6.7 percent and Michigan at 5.5 percent, and the states with the lowest are Louisiana with 0.7 percent and Texas with 0.9 percent.

If sticking with the status quo doesn’t appeal to you, let’s consider your solar options.

Solar Lease

A solar lease is not unlike a car lease, in that it comes with little or no down-payment, you make regular monthly payments, and you don't own the system. A solar lease can be very tempting if you live in a state with high electricity rates and/or a high escalation rate over the past decade, especially when there are a number of companies offering zero-down lease options and the peace of mind that comes from someone else taking on the responsibilities of maintenance for years to come.

In the case of a lease, you get to use all of the solar electricity you produce. Any excess can be returned to the grid for a credit and if you need extra, you purchase it from the utility at the normal retail electricity rate. However, as with any third-party ownership agreement, you will not be able to claim the federal investment tax credit (ITC) of 30% for solar installations.

With a solar lease, it is very important to look at the fine print and to consider your situation carefully. Are you planning on moving anytime soon? If so, ask about your options because a number of homeowners have run into difficulties when it was time to sell their home - not every prospective buyer is going to want to take over your solar lease.

Is there an option to own the panels at the end of the lease term? And what is the escalation rate - in other words, by how much will your monthly payments increase every year? With a solar lease, there is generally a fixed escalation rate for the term of the agreement, so the cost of your solar electricity will go up, but because the escalation rate is fixed, you know exactly by how much it will rise, unlike with retail electricity. For more on leases, check out Anatomy of a solar lease.

Power Purchase Agreement (PPA)

A PPA is another third-party ownership arrangement, where you do not own the panels (and cannot claim the ITC). It differs from a lease in that the electricity produced by the system is sold to you at a fixed per-kilowatt-hour rate that is typically less than the retail electricity rate from the utility. Moreover, the escalation rate for the solar electricity is fixed so you know by how much your rate will rise over the term of the agreement.

While this option may be very attractive because of the low or no upfront cost, and the fact that you are unlikely to be responsible for maintenance, it is not for everyone. Like a solar lease, it is very important to consider the fine print and your particular situation.

Solar Purchase/Solar Loan

A solar purchase generally offers you the best return on your investment (ROI) because as the system owner, you can take advantage of the generous ITC available at the federal level, in addition to any available state or municipal incentives. Moreover, your solar electricity is "free" for the lifetime of your panels (on average 25 years) with no risk of cost escalation. But it’s important to note that as the owner of the system, you will be responsible for any required maintenance, which is generally minimal most years, but will eventually include replacement of the inverter(s).

Most people, however, cannot afford an outright purchase, so another option is the solar loan, many of which come with a zero down-payment option. While you will have to pay interest on the loan, the interest rate is fixed for the duration of the loan and there is no escalation rate. Moreover, a solar loan can enable you to capture the ITC, while minimizing the initial investment required.

Again, it's still important to look at the fine-print; in particular, if there any dealer/loan fees that must be paid at the outset. Generally, the lower the interest rate, the higher the initial fees. For more on purchasing your solar panels, check out Buying solar panels for your home.


Electricity rates will surely rise in the coming years, but we don’t know by how much. We can only look at the past to get an idea of what might transpire. However, there are many things homeowners can do today to manage their electricity bills, starting with reducing electricity consumption, especially during peak periods, implementing home energy-efficiency measures, and switching to solar energy.

Fortunately, the cost of solar has decreased significantly, by about 50 percent in the last five years, so solar energy is becoming more and more affordable. Switching to solar energy doesn’t make financial sense for everyone just yet, but it does for those who live in states with high electricity rates and/or high escalation rates.

You can use Sunmetrix Discover to figure out if solar is right for you (just enter an address or zip code to get started!). But remember, if you live in a state where solar will save you money, or where it will very shortly, you don’t want to miss out on the solar Investment Tax Credit of 30 percent which is set to expire at the end of 2016.

Simone Garneau is the co-founder of Sunmetrix, an online consumer education and customer acquisition platform for residential solar energy. The goal of Sunmetrix is to help homeowners go solar. In addition to the 200+ articles about solar energy, Sunmetrix offers homeowners two main tools: Discover and GO. Read all of Simone's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging 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.


Environmental impact of solar energy

Solar energy is a win-win: in addition to its significant financial benefits, going solar is also great for the environment. When your solar panels generate electricity, they produce zero emissions, which means they don’t contribute to climate change or health issues like more traditional sources of energy. They also draw their energy from the sun, an abundant resource that will be available and accessible across the world for the foreseeable future. All that said, what you may not realize is that there is actually an environmental impact of solar energy too.

Solar panels produce zero emissions once installed on your roof, which means their environmental impact is negligible for most of their life. However, solar panels aren’t zero-emissions resources for their entire lifetime – as they have to be manufactured in a factory first, as well as recycled at the end of their useful life. These two processes are where solar actually has an environmental impact.

Many researchers frame the environmental impact of solar energy with the concept of energy payback time, or EPBT. The EPBT tells us how long it will take for solar panels to produce enough clean electricity to “pay back” the energy that was used to produce them. This calculation varies depending on a few different factors, including:

1. The productivity of your solar panels. If you live in an area that has lots of sunlight, and your solar panels are very efficient, then your system will generate more electricity and have a shorter EPBT.

2. How your solar panels are produced. Some solar panels require more energy to produce than others. For example, thin-film modules have a smaller footprint than silicon modules, because less energy is needed to manufacture them.

3. Where your solar panels are made. Solar panels have to be transported from where they were made to where they will be installed. If your solar panels were manufactured in Europe or Asia but installed in the U.S. then they had to be transported further, requiring more energy usage and thus increasing their EPBT. 

Environmental Impact of Solar Energy Is Net Positive

The good news is that, while the EPBT of a solar panel is dependent on many factors, the market is moving in the right direction. In 1970, the average energy payback time for solar panels was 40 years. By 2010, that number had dropped to just six months.

As the solar industry matures, manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to make solar panels more efficiently, which means that solar’s EPBT will continue to decrease. For example, in the past 10 years, there has been a 62 percent decrease in the amount of material used for silicon cells, thanks to increased efficiency and thinner designs. This decrease means that less energy is spent processing silicon during the manufacturing process. And as more solar panels are retired, recycling them will become more cost-effective and efficient too, further reducing their EPBT.

On top of that, it’s important to remember that solar panels can generate energy for 25 to 35 years. For the average homeowner, going solar is like eliminating the emissions created by a car that drives 18,000 miles per year – a tremendous environment benefit. So while the environmental impact of solar energy is greater than zero, its overall benefits far outweigh its costs.

In summary, the environmental impact of solar energy is minimal, but still something that should be considered when evaluating what country your panels were manufactured in, or what their efficiency rating is. By comparing options from multiple solar companies, you can find the best equipment package to minimize your environmental impact. Get an instant estimate or register your property to start your solar journey today.

Vikram Aggarwal is the founder and chief executive of EnergySage, the online solar marketplace. EnergySage simplifies the process of researching and shopping for solar. By offering shoppers more choices and unprecedented levels of transparency, EnergySage allows consumers to select the option that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily. Read all of Vikram's posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging 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.


Read Part 1, Resources, of this series here. Read Part 2, Electricity, here. Read Part 3, Water, here. Read Part 4, Food, here.

A happy home warms your heart and the sun warms your home, either way, heart or home, sometimes it can be too hot or too cold. In the Cascade Mountains, where I live, the outside temperature ranges from 100 degrees F in summer down to freezing in winter.

In any climate, the least expensive heat systems are the thermal features of the house itself designed to conserve heat and reduce fuel costs. My affordable small house has six inches of insulation in the walls (R19), ten inches in the ceiling (R30), all the pipes are insulated, the attic is ventilated, and the root cellar under the first floor is exposed to the earth. My shady front porch faces north and stays cool, while the attached greenhouse faces south and stays warm. There are operable vents on each wall of the two floors and a cook vent fan on the first floor and a ceiling fan in the second floor.

Heat energy is constantly flowing from hot to cold areas. Controlling heat flow by slowing it with insulation or increasing it with ventilation, collecting and releasing heat by storing solar energy, and/or burning fuels is how to manage heat for comfort.

Summer and Winter Modes

Renewable energy needs to be optimized for the season and often requires two sets of devices, for example, in summer I run a solar hot water collector and solar electric refrigerator; in winter I run a woodstove for space heat and hot water.

summer-winter modes

In order to see how my heat systems are working I use several thermometers: one placed on each floor, one on the porch, one in the greenhouse, one in the root cellar, two for the refrigerator/freezer, one on the woodstove, and one in the solar oven. Although I don’t need a thermometer to find out my pipes are frozen or that the hot water is cold, the temperature data helps me fine-tune my systems.

Wrestling with the Woodstove

Woodstoves do not have thermostats and do not put out heat unless constantly tended by hand. Pellet woodstoves have automatic hoppers, but purchasing bags of pellets is more expensive than my own silviculture harvest. Costs aside, keeping my woodstove stoked has led to choosing between losing sleep to keep it stoked every hour, or letting it go out overnight and waking up to a cold house and waiting until the woodstove has burned a few hours to bring the house up to a comfortable temperature.

Other issues with woodstoves: Starting the fire may cause smoke to back draft into the house. This is because the heat from the fire has to be great enough push cold air up the stove pipe before it will vent normally. I use a torch to start the fire — first directing the torch up the stove pipe for about 60 seconds, then ignite the wood and close the woodstove and its air inlet vent.

After five to ten minutes, the feeble flames generate lots of warm smoke and build up enough heat to travel up the stove pipe, and then I open the air inlet and add more wood.

If you are connected to city energy, or run a large electric generator and/or a large propane tank, you simply set the thermostat and then pay the cost of the fuel, which is much more expensive than renewable energy heat sources. My expenses are 10 times less compared to a typical utility bill in a nearby town. My annual fuel consumption: 15 gallons of propane (cooking), 20 gallons of gasoline (backup generator), and 2 cords of wood (space heat and hot water), supplemented with free solar energy for cooking, hot water, space heat, and electricity.

Solar Heating Options

There are two types of solar thermal heating for your home’s space heat or hot water:

1. Passive heating—has no moving components; heat is transferred by convection through a thermal mass and into the space or water to be heated.

2. Active heating—uses pumps or fans to transfer heated air or water past a solar collector and into a thermal mass.

There are two types of solar hot water collectors, each optimized for different climates:

1. Evacuated tube collector—are very efficient and most suited to cloudy climates. Evacuated tubes have a ‘heat pipe’ mounted inside which is connected to a manifold with additional tubes.

2. Flat plate collector—works well in sunny climates. Flat plate collectors are lengths of copper tubing connected to a manifold and mounted on the surface of a sheet metal plate, all painted black and enclosed in a flat box with glass to admit the sunlight.

Solar Cooking Options

Solar cooking is accomplished by using reflectors or lenses to concentrate the sunlight, thereby producing elevated temperatures where the food is placed for cooking. 300+ degrees F can be achieved in a box style solar cooker. One caution is that since the food must be loaded on the reflector side, eye protection must be worn.

You can re-purpose a conventional oven into a solar oven by cutting off the back top edge of the oven and adding a glass window and reflectors to admit sunlight into the oven. The food is loaded through the existing oven door, opposite the reflector side. You can make this as a built-in oven on the south wall of your home, so the oven door opens into the kitchen and the reflector and bulk of the oven is outside.

More detailed information on solar and fossil fuel heating and cooking methods are available in my book, Hut-Topia.

Christopher James Marshall is the author of the do-it-yourself small house book Hut-Topia and is a modern-day off-grid mountain man. After weathering recessions and lay-offs every decade since the 70s through the “Great Recession,” he became semi-retired by making plans to live sustainably and then built his 500-square-foot off-grid home. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging 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.


Sometimes that post-holidy meal nap just can't be helped. Too much food? Stress kept you up all night? Just don’t want to talk to your political nemesis cousin? But maybe it's something in the air.

What do climate science, building science, NASA, and recent university studies all have in common? Their research indicates that carbon dioxide (CO2) is not just a greenhouse gas to be managed, but elevated levels of it are detrimental to human health and cognition. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take that much of an increase in CO2 levels to feel the effects. If you’ve seen the movie Apollo 13, you know that scrubbing CO2 out of the air in a small, closed environment is mission critical if you want your astronauts to stay alive. So what does this have to do with you, your home, and the holidays?


Fresh Food is Good for You — So is Fresh Air!

When your guests arrive for the holidays, more people are sharing the same amount of air in the closed environment of your home. People inhale oxygen, and exhale CO2. The amount of CO2 in the air doesn’t need to increase by much for us to feel the effects.

Reducing the air leakage of your home is one of the best things you can do to improve its energy efficiency. If you’ve done any weatherization to your home, the air leakage rate is probably fairly low. But even in an old drafty farmhouse, the air leakage rate is likely to be minimal unless the wind is blowing.

CO2 meter

7 Ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality

When you light up the gas oven and all the range burners to cook your meal, remember that gas ovens are like people – they need oxygen to burn their fuel. And, like us, a large component of what an oven “exhales” is CO2. Suddenly, you’re sacked out on the couch and all you can do is watch the game on TV and doze off. Welcome to Apollo 13. You're oxygen starved! You need to get some fresh air to your brain soon! Improve your mental stamina this holiday season and breathe healthy!

1. Open at least two windows for cross-ventilation. If you open one window on a lower floor, and one upstairs, you’ll create a natural draft between the lower and upper windows, helping to promote effective air movement.

2. Turn on the exhaust fans. Pulling air out of the house will force fresh air in through the path of least resistance. This could be through an open window or through all the leaks in your home envelope like around windows, doors, the attic hatch, and recessed lights.

3. If you have a recirculating range hood fan (one that pulls air up from the range then filters it and exhausts it back into the kitchen), upgrade to a system that ducts the air to the outdoors.

4. If you have a gas oven, try to cook as much as you can before the guests arrive.

5. Upgrade your home with a heat-recovery ventilation system so that stale air is pulled out of the house at the same rate that fresh air is pulled in, and ducted to where its most needed.

6. Purchase a CO2 meter and keep track of your home’s indoor air quality.

7. Find some lithium hydroxide and duct tape, and cross your fingers (hey, it worked for the astronauts)

I wrote about this topic last year in more depth, so if you’d like additional information, you can read that post here. Science continues to build a strong case around air quality and human health on the planet, and in your home.

Paul Scheckel is an energy efficiency and renewable energy consultant and author of The Homeowner's Energy Handbook and The Home Energy Diet. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging 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.


Read Part 1, Resources, of this series here. Read Part 2, Electricity, here. Read Part 3, Water, here.

Food self-sufficiency is a core aspect of homesteading, producing your own food from crops and livestock and bartering excess for what you can’t produce. Before supermarkets nearly every home had crops and livestock and processed their own food and traded with the neighbors. Homegrown food is fresher and tastier than store-bought—enjoy!

Did you know that it takes about one ton of food per year to feed one person?

human food requirements

My Food Sources

The climate at my off grid mountain homestead necessitates a greenhouse in which to grow vegetables. My location, though, in the middle of the National Forest provides the opportunity for me to forage wild edibles, hunt, and fish.

Since this is my first year on my site and until I get more established, I don’t expect to be able to produce and forage all of my food requirements. So I came here prepared with six months of preserved food and keep that in my root cellar. I have crates of canned and dried foods in these groups: meats, vegetables, fruits, tomatoes/sauces, pasta/rice/oatmeal, coffee/powdered milk/potatoes flakes, beans, and soups. The key to making preserved food more edible is lots of spice and taking vitamins to replace the vitamins lost in the preserving processes. Still, I need to make the drive to the supermarket in the town (50 miles one way) about twice a month for fresh foods. That will change as I develop food sources from the greenhouse, wild game, foraging, and livestock.

In my greenhouse I will grow vegetables in containers. My plan for the first growing season includes: tomato, carrot, radish, onion, lettuce, spinach, dandelion, mint, and strawberry. There are five raised benches, each 2 feet by 5 feet, on which to place the containers. Since I had the soil analyzed, I know I can use it with minimal soil amendments, instead of buying soil. Cold nighttime temperature is the main reason I need a greenhouse, but during the day it can easily get too hot so I will use a vent fan with a thermostat. Water conservation is critical at my site, so I will use drip watering with timers synced to the plant cycles.

A hunting license in Oregon permits one deer per year, which is not much meat and I’m still waiting my turn for a deer tag in my area. I can collect antler and sell it, but haven’t found any yet. Wild hares have no limit and a well-located trap works. My fishing license permits five fish per day, which has added up to a decent supply, because the lakes near my homestead are stocked with trout and salmon making it ridiculously easy to catch the limit within an hour. All of these meats get preserved by smoking or freezing.

The wild edibles I’ve harvested include morel and king boulete mushrooms, onions, and strawberries. Other parts of the Cascade Mountains have many more types of mushrooms and berries. Mushrooms can be sold to buyers for $3 to $12 per pound and at the peak of the season that can add up to hundreds of dollars per day. I can also cut and sell firewood with a permit from the forest service—a lot more work than mushrooms. Another opportunity I’m exploring is propagating local alpine flora from seeds, a.k.a. ‘rock garden’ plants, to sell to collectors. Finally, within the city are homes with heritage fruit and nut trees; with permission, I harvest the fruits and nuts.

Next year I’ll begin raising chickens for eggs and domestic rabbits for meat. I’m also considering goats for milk and cheese. Once I get livestock I’ll also get a dog for protecting the livestock from predators. I think it would be fun to have a donkey too. Chickens and rabbits won’t break my budget for feed, but goats and a donkey would require planning for their needs above what they can forage from the forest grasses. Local ranchers successfully range their cattle, unattended, in the forest during the summer—unlike farm livestock that must be attended to every day. Note that the advantage of large families and/or farm hands is to permit people to get off the farm for a change of pace now and then.

Planning for Crops

First, find out how long your growing season is (number of day from frost-free to first-frost dates), what is your site’s “Plant Hardiness Zone” (average annual minimum temperature range), and “Plant Heat Zone” (average number of days above 86 degrees F). The frost free period and the heat zone will limit the varieties of annual vegetable crops; the hardiness zone and heat zone will limit the varieties of perennial berries, fruits, and nuts, and vegetables.

Second, look up plants in “Master Plant Charts” to match them with the climate on your site. It will also list plant yields so you can determine how much seed and growing space you’ll need to meet your food budget.

Third, have your soil tested to find out what amendments are needed, if any, to improve growth.

After you have the basic plan of crops you will plant, mark your calendar for these events/tasks: soil preparation, planting, sprouting, rotations, successions, and harvest activities.

Planning for Livestock

Learn which animals are practical for you and determine how much forage is available on your pasture. As in permaculture, a pasture can support more than one type of livestock simultaneously, for example cows can share the pasture with chickens.

Healthy pastures grasses are six inches high. Grasses will be shorter in a depleted, over-grazed pasture--if 60% of the grasses are removed all at once, by over-grazing, the effect will stop 50% of the remaining grasses from developing and weeds and other unwanted plants will take over. Hay grows and is harvested from a pasture and it’s called ‘feed’ when you provide it to an animal when forage is not available.

pasture forage and feed

In the final article of this series, I’ll go over how I applied old and new technologies for heat to make my off-grid homestead work. Many more details on off grid living are fully explained in my book, Hut-Topia.

Christopher James Marshall is the author of the do-it-yourself small house book Hut-Topia and is a modern-day off-grid mountain man. After weathering recessions and lay-offs every decade since the 70s through the “Great Recession,” he became semi-retired by making plans to live sustainably and then built his 500-square-foot off-grid home. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging 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.

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