Dear Mother: April/May 2009

Letters from our readers about farm policy, gardening with biochar, NAIS and more.


Seeds swaps can be a fun — and free! — way to try new plant varieties, plus meet more of your neighbors.


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The Sweet Success of Swap Meets

I saw your information on your website about putting together a community seed swap! Great! I wanted to tell you about something I started in my community. Every May, around Mother’s Day, I sit at the top of my road. I set out tables and bring buckets of plants from my yard. My neighbors bring what they have, as do people who’ve read my flyers. It’s a great way to meet people, see old friends and make new ones. The best part? It’s all free! We trade whatever we have for whatever anyone else brings. It’s so much fun! Grow the plants and they will come. Much love to everyone — share and share and share!

Keoma McCaffrey
Laytonville, California

We are continuing our offer to help you organize swap meets in your communities. If you send us your announcement, we will relay it to other readers in your area. Visit our  Community Seed Swap

 page for details. — Mother

Food Policy Over Farm Policy

The Hidden Link Between Factory Farms and Human Illness is the most frightening article I’ve read in a while. Mother Earth News needs to send it to every congressman in Washington, D.C. I’ve already sent excerpts and a link to my delegation. Michael Pollan was correct in his editorial to President Obama in the New York Times : We don’t need a farm policy in the United States, we need a comprehensive food policy.

Rick Kennerly
Virginia Beach, Virginia

Speak Up About Proposed Animal ID Plans

Mother Earth News has been a steadfast supporter of small farmers and homesteaders. You have been particularly helpful by warning about the dangers of the U.S. government’s proposed National Animal Identification System (NAIS). (Read The Truth About the Animal ID Plan.) Unfortunately, the latest step toward a mandatory NAIS is a proposed rule that would mandate premises registration for federal animal-disease control programs. We need your help in opposing this rule.

NAIS calls for anyone who owns even one livestock or poultry animal — as a pet or for their own food — to register their property with the government, individually tag each animal (in most cases with microchips or radio frequency identification tags), and report a long list of “events” to privately run, for-profit databases.

This one-size-fits-all program will not prevent or treat any animal disease. It provides no food safety benefits because it ends at the slaughterhouse, while the vast majority of contamination leading to foodborne illnesses occurs at the slaughterhouse or in one of the processing facilities.

In addition, the program penalizes small farmers and ranchers by requiring individual tagging for each of their animals, while creating a flock or herd exemption for large operations. By creating these preferences for factory farms, NAIS discourages the very farmers who are raising animals in a safe and humane way.

As protests have mounted, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has claimed that “NAIS is voluntary.” But if the USDA adopts this new proposed rule, hundreds of thousands of people who own cattle, sheep, goats and pigs will be forced to register their property. Moreover, although this proposed rule does not mandate the use of NAIS tags, by requiring tags that bear the NAIS-compliant numbering system, it lays the groundwork for the next round of regulatory changes to take that step. 

It is clear that the USDA intends to forge ahead with NAIS, doing the bidding of factory farms and industrial agriculture. With a new administration taking charge of the USDA, it’s time for the thousands of people who care about local and sustainable food to speak up! The deadline for official comments is scheduled for March 16, but even after that, writing letters to President Obama and congresspeople can impact whether or not NAIS is implemented. Please go to for more information on how each person can help protect our farms and food against the threat of NAIS.

Jack Kittredge
Barre, Massachusetts

Judith McGeary
Austin, Texas

Cabbage Maggots, Foiled at Last!

At last, a way to foil those devilish cabbage maggots: compressing the soil around the roots. Thank you, Arthur Dear (Country Lore). This year I plan to try Mr. Dear’s technique to foil the cabbage maggot. And thanks, Mother, for providing me with a nontoxic way to garden.

Deborah Polzin
Windom, Minnesota

We Can Talk About This

Thank you for another great issue of Mother Earth News! After reading the many comments on News From Mother: Three Mountains We Must Climb regarding overpopulation, I came away with a slightly different outlook. I think it is wonderful that Mother Earth News is read and cherished by such a broad array of people. I find this comforting and enlightening. It had never dawned on me that the type of person who would become upset or defensive over the mention of overpopulation would be reading Mother Earth News to begin with.

I am glad that your magazine can provide information to such a diverse group and has helped to correct an apparently narrow view I have held regarding others. Before we all “take our balls and go home” via canceling subscriptions or attacking another’s point of view, can’t we discuss an issue on its merits?

Kristen Wheatley
Auburn, Maine

The Bread That Changed My Life

Love, love, love you. I’ve been making bread the hard way for years — now you’ve changed my life! I’ll have to find a new exercise for my shoulders because I’ve said goodbye to kneading! Perfect bread, indeed. (Read Five Minutes a Day for Fresh-baked Bread.)

Brenda Hellen
Belle Plaine, Minnesota

The Ultimate Resource

I keep the four or five most current issues of Mother Earth News on my kitchen table at all times. Their importance is shown by the dog-eared pages and ingredients found splattered on pages most often referred to. We haven’t built a woodstove or a new dining room table recently. But we have been baking the five-minutes-a-day bread constantly since the day the magazine arrived! Between the magazine and your free e-newsletters, every possible question is answered, or you refer to a site where it can be. I love the direction the magazine has been going over the past 10 years. Keep up the excellent work! I’m a 30-year subscriber.

Barbara Gillihan
Fredonia, Kentucky

Back-to-the-land, Nitty-gritty, Sweat and Tears

I really love Mother Earth News. I used to love Organic Gardening , but it seems to be mostly advertising for what the articles are promoting. Mother Earth News is up on promoting their advertisers, but seems more like Consumer Reports when it comes to giving readers information. Kind of like my favorite seed catalog, Fedco: “Buy this seed ’cause we sell it, and it’s pretty, but here’s the downside.”

Please keep covering all the how-to, back-to-the-land, bare-bones, nitty-gritty, blood, guts, sweat and tears.

Freda Weis
Elizabeth, Illinois

From Passive Consumer to Handyman

Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your magazine. I started reading about a year ago, and we now have 10 hens, a garden and bigger plans for next year. A year ago, I would not have given a second thought to going to a big-box store to get anything. The other day we needed a part for our washer, and thanks to your “shop local, fix it if you can, make it last” message, I found a local appliance parts dealer (an old guy with a shed out back) and got my part. When the guy makes your change out of his wallet, you know you are affecting the local economy and not putting money in some overpaid CEO’s pocket. Thank you, and keep up the good work.

Bob Snook
Falling Waters, West Virginia

True Costs of Cheap Food

For 30 years, we’ve been fat and happy, living off a diet of cheap food produced by distant, faceless corporations encouraged by large taxpayer subsidies to replace age-old wisdom with trendy technology, brutal efficiency, and, most importantly, an endless supply of cheap oil and corn. The system worked so well and drove food prices so low that most small-time growers and farmers figured out they could buy food cheaper than they could make it, thus destroying an otherwise healthy, sustainable and satisfying culture.

The system looked good from afar, but, as we eventually learned, it was far from good. The true cost of cheap food is now clear: an unhealthy, risky food system that is imploding our health care system and wasting vast quantities of oil, creating endless generic sprawl, jeopardizing rural economies, as well as polluting our environment. What is most disturbing is that our tax dollars are promoting this policy, so in essence we’re paying people to get unhealthy and then paying their health care bills . An alarming 80 percent of our total health care costs are consumed by one-fifth of the population.

Changing the way we eat will be as difficult as changing our agriculture and food policies, but there are signs of hope. President Barack Obama seems genuinely committed in both his politics and his own health habits to initiating a change in our food policies and taking on the giant agribusinesses that shape it. That and a strong grassroots commitment to local food could be the perfect ingredients in a recipe for change.

Jeff Woodburn
Dalton, New Hampshire

Biochar for Better Soil

Garden Goldmine at Campgrounds

Re: Make Biochar: This Ancient Technique Will Improve Your Soil: Great article! I had never realized the connection. We have an open-burning law in my city, so it’s kind of frowned upon to make fires in town. But the idea of checking campgrounds is great. There actually are a couple of state camping grounds within driving distance! Nice article, great information with a huge impact for us all!

Norm Nyburg
Akron, Ohio

Grilling for Biochar

For those who don’t have open ground where they can make biochar — and those who live where open burning is prohibited — what about something as simple as using a stand-alone barbecue grill, the kind intended for Sunday grilling that’s allowed everywhere? Branches and other scrounged wood/weeds, even a bag of coarse “pine chip” mulch from the garden center, etc., could be control-burned in the grill. Barbecue grills have built-in devices for controlling the amount of oxygen that can get to the fire. It certainly seems like a viable way to create modest amounts of biochar.

Jim Beacon
Tallahassee, Florida

Biochar, Now in Mesquite

Interesting article, but I live in the city and open burning is illegal. I’m thinking lump charcoal might be a good alternative. It’s generally charred hardwood (molding cutoffs and other hardwood scraps), unlike charcoal briquettes which can contain coal, petroleum byproducts and starches that act as binders. I’m involved with competition barbecue. The cooks who don’t use wood pellets use either lump charcoal or wood chunks, so you might look into cleaning up behind a competition near you.

Fred Baginski
Hammond, Indiana

A Better Burning Option

The charring methods described in the article are certainly not environmentally friendly, since smoke from charring contains methane, PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other nastiness. Use a retort kiln instead; they’re really simple. Other methods for burning the fumes during charring exist. See, for example, the Anila stove!

Folke Günther
Lund, Sweden

Biochar to Save the Planet

I thought Barbara Pleasant’s comments on biochar were almost perfect. I say “almost,” hoping there can be more next time on the climate benefits of biochar — a topic that’s driving many people to Mother Earth News. If we all (6.5 billion people) were to produce just a ton of biochar each year, we could offset our entire annual global-atmospheric input of fossil fuel-based carbon. Of course, most of us will have to rely on the local utility or biofuels suppliers to do much of that on our behalf. But as Barbara has demonstrated, we can have better gardens if we do more ourselves, as well.

In addition to the two very different charcoal production techniques offered by Barbara and the blacksmith, let me recommend closing down one’s woodburning stove each night, after letting the last load of wood ignite fully. I’m now getting about a pound or two of cold lump charcoal each morning.

Ronald Larson
Golden, Colorado

Worth the Wait Down Under

We have to wait a long time for Mother Earth News to arrive in Australia, but it’s worth the wait. The articles about renewable energy are always outstanding and are becoming ever more relevant. The photos in We See You are brilliant. I’ve enclosed my shot of a liverwort.

Helen Moss
Croydon, Victoria, Australia

True to our Roots

W.J. Graves complained in the December 2008/January 2009 Dear Mother that Mother Earth News is now “without real plans, real solutions, real self-sufficiency.” I guess plans for making a built-in bed, energy-efficient furnace solutions, and self-sufficient veggie gardening and chicken raising are not enough for him. I am happy to be returning to Mother after a 15-year break because the magazine seems more true to its roots than ever before.

Bridget Boyle
Corona, California

Got Any Extra Tools to Share?

As chairman of the Mobile Sister Cities Society, I have had much recent contact with officials and citizens of Haiti, Cuba, Mexico and areas of the U.S. Gulf Coast that suffered the most damage during the recent hurricanes of 2008.

These people have had great need for food and medical care, but another need has recently surfaced: tools of all kinds to undertake the massive reconstruction of homes and buildings. This includes hammers, nails, shovels, screws and screwdrivers, saws, wheelbarrows, and tape measures, i.e. any tool or supply necessary for rebuilding.

We’re organizing a shipload of tools to leave Gulfport, Miss., in April. Anyone interested in donating tools (or cash for us to purchase tools) can contact me at the number below.

Jay Higginbotham
Mobile, Alabama

GMO Crops Fall Short

Re: Engineering a False Hope. I am a humble farmer who is working with a family farm that’s three generations old. I can say without doubt that GMO soybeans fall short of their promises. In the last five years, we have planted heritage seed and the GMO Roundup-Ready beans. The Roundup Ready’s yields have consistently been lower on average than those from the heritage seeds (which we were told would not happen), and the use of Roundup has almost doubled the last couple of years. The weeds are resistant and now the herbicide isn’t even working. Genetic modification does not work, and has come close to driving family farms completely out of business. It is time to get rid of the GMOs.

Mary Miller
St. Charles, Missouri

Read  Genetically Engineered Food Crops Require More Herbicide  for more on GMO crops and increased herbicide requirements. — Mother

The Great Cigarette Debate

I have enjoyed your magazine for many years, but I will no longer be renewing because of the cigarette ads. How can a magazine that preaches natural, healthy, Earth-friendly lifestyles possibly condone cigarettes?

Susan Burdwett
Caney, Kansas

We don’t, Susan, and we hope you’ll stay with us despite your objections to the ad. We don’t think it’s our job to decide for readers which ads they may or may not see. We have always been a magazine about alternatives — both in ideas and products — and many of our advertisers sell products we would not endorse. Also, obviously, the subscription price would have to go up significantly if we rejected every ad we don’t endorse. Then fewer people would see Mother Earth News. We think the best approach is for Mother to provide a forum for advertisers to present products, even controversial ones. Here is our advertising policy as it appears in every issue: “Mother Earth News does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered by companies advertising in the magazine or website. Nor does Mother Earth News evaluate the advertisers’ claims in any way. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase.— Mother