Dear Mother: April/May 2007

Letters from our readers on food choices and consciousness, how consumers drive farming practices, seeking a scythe and cleaning your clothes.
Reader letters
April/May 2007
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Readers respond to “Why I Farm” (February/March 2007); one a vegan becoming a conscientious omnivore, the other an ex-stockfarmer who has become a conscientious vegetarian.

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Food: Choices and Consciousness

An Omnivore’s Evolution

Thanks to Bryan Welch (Why I Farm) for his moving story of farm life. I have been mostly vegan for nearly three years, primarily to eat lower on the food chain and avoid the synthetic chemicals, hormones and antibiotics found in most animal products. I also choose this lifestyle in consideration of animals’ lives, our planet’s well-being and conservation of resources.

Recently, however, I’ve begun to re-evaluate my choices for a truly sustainable, healthy and environmentally sound diet. I’m realizing that being vegan in Montana isn’t nearly as sustainable as eating meat raised in a place like Bryan’s farm. My endive and fig salad with orange-balsamic vinaigrette, nothing of which comes from anywhere near Montana, strains the environment more than meat and potatoes from right down the road.

Within the past year I’ve reintroduced the occasional meal of wild game, hunted by some friends on land within miles of my home. I’ve accepted this meat back in my diet because I know how and where the animal lived, what it ate and how it was killed.

My friends hunt with reverence and respect for the life of the animal and aim to be “one shot wonders.” They took me hunting this fall. We didn’t kill an animal that day, but I am still committed to pursuing this experience. Although I await it with a sort of existential sadness. I fantasize of someday having a modest, self-sustaining farm with a fabulous garden, a few chickens and maybe some sheep or goats for meat, milk and fiber. That would be the last step in my evolution as an omnivore. I deeply appreciate the humility and depth of connection Bryan has with his farm and animals. His respect and reverence for their lives, and his honesty about confronting the life-death transition, are inspirational and affirming. I wish all meat-eaters could face the experience of killing the animals that sustain them with as much grace as Bryan — the world would be better for it.

Rose Tocke
Helena, Montana

The Vegetarian Choice

I have the greatest respect for Mother Earth News and its publisher, Bryan Welch, but his essay seems overly defensive. I don’t consider him callous because he raises animals for food, but I do consider him narrow in that he sees only two options: raising meat or eating factory farmed meat. There is yet another option.

I’ve done everything Bryan Welch has done as a stockfarmer, and maybe more. I’ve helped goats and cows deliver breech kids and stuck calves.

I’ve raised baby chicks to eating size, watched them scratch and peck on their last morning, and after lunch chopped their heads off. I’ve fed weanling pigs, cute and cuddly as puppies, on Jersey milk until they were parted out as hundreds of pounds of sausage and roasts. I’ve separated ewes from their ram lambs, and watched while the man from the slaughterhouse shot the rams between the eyes. I’ve also sat right down in the spring-thawing barnyard, with chores gone begging, just to watch the chickens play tag and the baby goats run. I’ve inhaled my Jersey’s sweet breath as I pulled at her udder, taking what I needed and leaving the rest for her calf. I’ve seen the seasons come and go, marking them by the rain gauge, the snowpack, and the births and deaths of my animals.

All of this is to say — I believe I’ve passed the test. I’ve given my animals all they needed to live natural, dignified and comfortable, even pampered, lives. Until their lives were ended, usually at my behest and often by my hand.

But all that was before, and this is after. Seven years ago, my husband (a life-long hunter) and I became vegetarians. We are no longer part of a meat-centered culture. Our mealtimes blossom with delicious tastes and exotic spices of other cultures and worlds. We eat grandly and inexpensively.

We believe vegetarianism is a rational choice and, like so much else in our lives, a matter of ethics. Choosing not to eat factory farmed meat is a start, but to our way of thinking, going the final step is nirvana. We have never once regretted making this decision.

We’re not seeking perfection — we recognize conflicts and contradictions in our lives. And, we know that animals by the billions will be killed every day all over the planet for food, fur and sport. But not because of us. It’s a perfectly natural way to live, and we often wonder why it took us so long.

Susan Cockrell
Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Visit our Eating Wisely Web page to tell us about what you eat (and what you don’t eat), and why. — Mother 


Know What You Eat

My husband and I read Mother Earth News from cover to cover. Thank you so much for publishing Why Grow Your Own Food?. What Harvey Ussery says in his article is so true, and so sad at the same time. Since 2000, I have eaten 90 percent organic, and I grow my own vegetables in the summer and feel safe and energized by it. But everybody should be inspired by the article. Like Harvey, I want to know what I’m putting in my mouth. Don’t you?

This was one of the most informative stories in that issue. I wish you could publish it in regular newspapers and magazines so that people who are not so much interested in health or the environment could read it.

Hetty Tarbell
Naperville, Illinois

Our syndication service offers many of our articles free to newspapers across the country. Everyone can encourage their local papers to sign up. For information, visit the Ogden Publications syndication page. Mother 


Consumers Drive Farming Practices

I don’t agree with everything in Mother Earth News, but if we all thought the same it would be a pretty boring world. I think Why Grass Fed is Best contains a common misconception about farmers.

Regarding high-grain diets and feedlot confinement, it says, “… many beef producers have chosen to use this unnatural, inhumane practice ...” I have a problem with the word “chosen.” Profit margins on most farms are small; farmers have to farm in a way that makes money. I think consumers have to take part of the responsibility. For the last several generations, people have wanted cheap food. Economics of scale (i.e., feedlots) give them that. Look at what happened in the organic sector when farmers realized there was a market. More are changing their production practices all the time, as there is good money to be made in organic products. Notice who’s calling the shots: Consumers are driving demand, and farmers are responding.

I don’t disagree with the facts as you presented them. I just wish more people would realize what “cheap everything” is doing to the long-term viability of our living on Earth.

Ernie Peters
Hays, Alberta

We agree completely with you, Ernie. We should have said “many producers have chosen or feel forced to use …”Mother 


Wind Power: A Big Fan

I find your article on the wind farm debate a needed one (Whither Wind?). I don’t understand people who oppose wind farms as a source of power. I think they should be forced to move next to coal-fired power plants or to put up oil derricks in their back yards, just so they are reminded every day of what they support by their opposition to wind farms. The arguments against wind farms are feeble and unrealistic. I see wind farms as the only feasible large-scale environmentally sound source of power we have going at the moment. Everyone should be thankful for them!

Rose Bartiss
Vermontville, New York

For more about the potential of wind power, see News from Mother.Mother 


Whole Wheat and Nothing But

The December/January 2007 issue contained a bread recipe developed to include “as much whole wheat as possible” in the bread (Country Lore), but it called for more white flour than whole wheat. You can make excellent bread using just whole wheat. I’m always amazed that even cookbooks written with health in mind contain recipes for “whole-wheat” bread that include white flour.

I make soft, moist, delicious bread every week without commercial yeast. The only ingredients are whole-wheat flour, salt, starter and water. Any baker can make a starter from flour and water, and then keep it going. This is simple; even Joy of Cooking describes how to do it. Once you create your starter, you will never return to boring white bread or store-bought yeast.

Peter Du Brul
Browns Mills, New Jersey


Seeking a Scythe

I grew up in Slovenia on a small farm in the hills, where we grew everything like a medieval family. There were fruit and nut trees everywhere, and we mowed the orchards with scythes. Our cows often were housed inside. You cannot let the cows out to graze when it is too wet or too cold, or when the fruit on the trees is too tempting, or at certain times during their milking/calving cycles. We would scythe grass and bring it in for them, fresh in the evening, with enough leftovers for the morning.

For years, I’ve been looking for a good scythe. While reading Our 21st Century Homestead I noticed that Harvey Ussery’s scythe looks pretty good in the picture. Did he make it himself? I think that even my dad would approve of it, and he has high standards for a scythe! I have heard him say disparaging things about other people’s scythes: awkward, wrong angle, wrong height, handle too short or too long, too heavy, and let’s not talk about the blades! Of course, every scyther has to know how to sharpen the blade with a stone every once in a while.

Irena Swanson
Portland, Oregon

Yes, “American” style scythes, common in the past, were not suited to cutting grass. Harvey’s scythe isn’t homemade; he has bought scythes from both Lehman’s and Smith & Hawken.  Two more good sources for scythes and related items—including high-quality blades imported from Europe—are Scythe Supply and Scythe Connection. Mother 


Wants a Weedless Patio

While reading your article about making paths and patios from paving bricks, I cringed at the claim that they “require almost no maintenance” (“Picture-perfect Paths and Patios,” December/January 2007). We used to have just such a patio, professionally installed exactly as described in the article. What the article neglects to mention is that the tiny cracks between pavers are weed gardens requiring constant attention, from spring through fall, if you don’t want your patio to look like a patch of weeds with bricks in it. That means constantly weeding all those cracks by hand or using a propane weed burner as soon as weeds emerge. (That’s assuming Mother readers are not inclined to spray the whole patio with weed killer.) If we ever put in another patio, it’s going to be a nice solid concrete slab, stamped and dyed to look like paving bricks or stone.

Alex Stanley
Fairfield, Iowa


Mower Mixup

Thanks for the great article on walk-behind tractors (“Miracle Multitaskers,” December/January 2007). As the owner of Earth Tools, the BCS dealer mentioned in the article, I must point out a mixup between the features of two attachments we offer, the brush mower and the flail mower. The BCS brush mower is actually designed much like the DR brush mower, with a vertical-axis rotating blade. The big difference between them is that the BCS has “swing blades” (just like a full-sized tractor bush-hog). These fold back upon impact with rocks, stumps, etc., to protect the drivetrain.

However, the description of the BCS brush mower in the article — “many individual blades spinning vertically from a horizontal axis” — actually applies to our flail mower. This type of mower is incredibly durable, and it’s coveted by gardeners who want to grind up a cover crop for quick incorporation into the soil. Like a chipper/shredder on wheels, it can reduce a cover crop up to 6 feet tall to 2- to 3-inch pieces in a single pass. It leaves the cut material evenly distributed across its width, not windrowed to one side as a typical brush mower would. The flail mowers also accept four different blades designed for lawns, weeds/brush, wood and light scarification (for overseeding).

Thanks again for an informative article and for all the great work you do. As the occupant of an owner-built, earth-bermed, part-straw bale, part-cordwood, passive-solar-assist, wood-from-old-barns, off-the-grid home, I appreciate all of it.

Joel Dufour
Frankfort, Kentucky


Crow Whisperer

Thank you for the article on crows and ravens, which I read with great interest (“Brain Birds: Amazing Crows and Ravens,” December/January 2007). I am a mail carrier, and for years I have fed crows with the dog food I carry in my pocket.

Not only do they recognize me, they recognize whatever vehicle I drive, and they also expect my fellow carriers to feed them when they are in the area. I’ve had crows escort my vehicle by flying with me on my left front bumper, and one of my current “buddies” almost caused a five-car pileup when he momentarily landed on my head to get my attention. I have found them fascinating company!

Debra Smith
Parker, Colorado


Stream Water: Safe for Irrigation?

Why Grass Fed is Best made me wonder about irrigating a vegetable garden with water from a small stream. Local farmers spread cow manure on their fields, and it runs into ditches and then into the stream. Is there danger of E. coli?

Stephen Chernock
Saints-Anges du Beauce, Quebec

There’s a very small chance that the new strain of E. coli that has evolved in cattle fed unnatural grain diets could be present in your stream. If this were our garden, we would continue to irrigate from the stream and, as always, wash crops thoroughly before eating. Mother 


Some Things Do Get Better

About 10 years ago, I bought a Black & Decker electric mower. It was greatno gas, no oil, just plug it in and go. However, it had a few design flaws. Adjusting the mower height was awkward. The collection bag hung from a pole inserted into the deck of the mower, and after a while, the connection point enlarged from the pressure and torque, and the pole would fall out. Finally, the mower deck broke loose from the motor, which was still fine. I bought another B&D electric and discovered that the design flaws have been amended. The collection basket attaches to the rear, removable with one hand. And the height adjustment is the same, a one-hand squeeze. Yea! Still no need for gas or oil. The deck is now much sturdier, and I look forward to many pleasant years of mowing.

Dorothy Hull
Nipomo, California


Efficiency First & Foremost

Energy efficiency reducing the electrical load from your house is the most important aspect of energy management. We need to stop wasting energy. Some years ago I told my dad that if he changed all the lights in his house to compact fluorescent lights, the electric bill would more than offset the original purchase price. His power consumption dropped so much, Cornwall Electric changed the electric meter, thinking it must be broken.

Pierre Bourgon
Cornwall, Ontario

For more information about compact fluorescent bulbs and other kinds of Earth-friendlier lighting, see Bright Ideas for Home Lighting and Easy DIY Solar Lighting. —Mother 


Cabin Builder’s Delight

I love the articles like Build This Cozy Cabin. A few years ago, I bought some land near coastal Alaska and built a log cabin from scratch. It was the most memorable summer I’ve had. I spend summers there and will spend all of at least the next couple of years there (I wanted electricity for the winter first and finally have it). Articles such as this are always inspiring!

Rob Rurka
Seldovia, Alaska


It’s Important to be Green

I want Mother to know how much I appreciate the recent spate of “green” articles. The need to save this planet from human activity and find a balance with nature is increasing rapidly. I appreciate the articles and timely information on what an individual can do to help. The urgent need to address the growth of the population is seldom addressed adequately. Without that, all our efforts will be too little, too late, I fear. Thank you for your wonderful magazine!

June Calvin
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


Don’t Forget Your Elders

I love your magazine and have for years been a subscriber. Please address one part of your readership that has been overlooked: Seniors! Retirees! Limited income couples and singles! Some of us feel like we are getting left behind. I realize most of these articles are written by young people, and I so enjoy reading about you. Please let’s hear from some of the older people who are living the homestead, country life. You must have volumes of good information you can share with us.

Dollie B. White
King, North Carolina


A Welcome Discovery

I know a fellow who lives off the land. One day he threw me a 1986 issue of Mother Earth News and asked if I had ever read the magazine. I had never seen it, but I found myself glued to it. Since then I’ve read the most interesting, innovative how-to articles. I’m a mechanical and architectural drafting instructor, studying solar energy for class projects and for the construction of my new home. Mother has the latest and greatest, and I am so glad I found it.

Kelly Sabin
Farmington, Maine


Don’t Bother Me, I’m Reading My Mother

I have been an avid reader of your magazine for more than 15 years and love it. Some day soon I hope that you will have 12 issues per year rather than six, as each new issue is read over twice in less than three weeks after receiving it. I am left with too much time looking forward to the next issue. Anyway, I just wanted to send you a picture of my 2½-year-old daughter, who also loves your magazine. Although not quite yet reading, she loves the pictures and must have your magazine at this particular time.

Jeff Hartwig
Lee Center, New York

Jeff, you can subscribe to our free online newsletters. They're filled with tips on do-it-yourself projects, alternative energy, organic gardening and more, to keep you busy between issues.Mother 


More Ways to Clean Your Clothes

Literally Self-service Laundry

The ratings in the December/January 2007 issue (“Look into Energy-efficient Washers and Dryers”) neglected to mention the Staber washer, a top-loading horizontal axis model made by Staber Industries in Columbus, Ohio.

These extremely efficient (low water, low detergent) machines are made to be serviced by the consumer, with excellent tech support provided by the company. We have owned a Staber for five years. A problem caused by an electrical power surge was easy to troubleshoot with their knowledgeable staff, and parts arrived promptly. Prices are competitive with front-loading horizontal axis machines.

Peggy Fitz Gibbon
Westfield, New York


Get a Load of This

For a washer that really saves money and reduces environmental damage, I suggest an even greener choice, the hand-powered James Hand Washer (with attached wringer), made by S&H Metal Products in Topeka, Ind. Like the Energy Star machines, this washer is more expensive to purchase, but since you do the work it excels in energy efficiency: zero operating cost. If you use rainwater, that’s free too. The tub is rounded on the bottom and the agitator moves along under the water and clothes as you move the lever back and forth. About six minutes will do it. Rinse in a couple of wash tubs. It works about as well as a front-loading machine — easy on your clothes and gets them clean. You can do two or more loads in the same water. The James Washer provides excellent exercise for upper body strength. After about eight years, ours needed a new end plate. S&H Metal was helpful and pleasant to deal with, and we did the repair ourselves, inexpensively.

As for a dryer, I use a rope clothesline between two metal fence posts. The best part is taking your clean, sun-dried clothes down from the line. Sure, it takes more time, but slowing down this way is so good for you, and for the Earth.

Michele Marlowe
Leakey, Texas

Both Lehman’s Hardware and Real Goods carry the Staber and the James Hand Washer. — Mother 

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