Dear MOTHER: February/March 2011

Reader letters about excellent recipes, guns and emergency kits, green funerals, grass-fed beef, green tomatoes, renewable energy ROI, and more.
Letters from our readers
February/March 2011
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This lasagna is a delightful dish for a family dinner or fall potluck.
PHOTO: ROGER DOIRON
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Green Tomato Relish Recipe

How to make canned green tomato relish.

With every issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, our goal is to create a magazine loaded with useful projects, ideas and advice to help you live a more self-reliant, sustainable life. Your feedback, via letters and online comments, is invaluable. Concerns about food quality and safety seem to have increased over the past year or so, and you folks have offered compliments on recipes we’ve published in recent issues, especially those in Cozy and Comfy Fall Recipes. We’ve decided to expand our coverage with a new department, Real Food, which debuts in this issue. We invite you to submit your best recipes, cooking tips and regional and seasonal favorites for possible inclusion in future issues. And, if you haven’t already, sign up for our free, biweekly Food & Gardening e-newsletter.

Learning About Sustainability

I’m a single mother raising three kids. My amazing father paid off my 10 acres of land, which has put me in a great position to stay home with my kids while getting my farm off the ground. I love your articles and read each issue cover to cover when it arrives. I’m a city kid, so I’m learning from the ground up. At this point, I’m selling starter plants and veggies at local farmers markets. I’m hoping to put a commercial kitchen in and get my milking barn up to a grade-A dairy to sell fresh goat cheese. I’m trying to do all this without borrowing money, so it’s one step at a time — each step paying for the next. Your magazine has taught me so much. Thank you.

Sally Upton
Red Bluff, California


My Favorite Vegetable Dish

I want to comment on the Butternut Squash Lasagna Recipe (Cozy and Comfy Fall Recipes). What an amazing meal. The only things we did differently were adding a pinch of cardamom to the sauce and making our own pasta.

I’m not a vegetarian, and I never thought a vegetable dish could be satisfying and comforting. The recipe is now one of my favorites. I felt so happy eating it that it literally made me smile. I can’t wait for the next covered-dish event at church.

Crystal Morris
Brooksville, Florida


Even Healthier Carrot Muffins

I absolutely loved your recipe for the Carrot Apple Nut Muffins in the October/November 2010 issue. However, I was surprised to see you hadn’t gone a healthier route. By replacing the oil (3/4 cup) with the same amount of applesauce (maybe even homemade!) and substituting 1 cup of whole wheat flour for half the flour, you end up with yummy muffins packed with extra vitamins, fiber and flavor.

Cheryl Rorie
Healdsburg, California


No Green Tomato Wasted

Thank you so much for sharing the fabulous Green Tomato Relish Recipe! My 9-year-old son helped dice the tomatoes and my mom helped me learn how to can. It was great not to waste any of the tomatoes just because they weren’t ripening. We had a great day with our tomato project. The recipe turned out so tasty, and I love being able to share with my friends. The recipes in your magazine are easy to follow and delish!

Laura Wright
Bloomington, Illinois


Return on Renewable Energy Investment

Here’s one way to look at renewable energy versus conventional energy: You never have payback with conventional energy; the bill is like rent. At least with a renewable system, your upfront costs are eventually paid back, and after that, you don’t have to shell out that monthly expenditure.

Connie Kenny
Greenville, South Carolina


Solar Savings?

I love ideas such as solar hot water, but has anyone done the math on this? (See Go Solar! Get Free Hot Water From an Easy-to-Build System.) Depending on your savings, it would take anywhere from 13 to 38 years to get your money back on the system. Until they find a less expensive way to do this, it doesn’t really help the average person.

Tam Fair
Greeneville, Tennessee


Wood Mulch Boosts Garden Soil

I thoroughly enjoyed Use Wood Mulch to Build Great Garden Soil. One of the main ingredients I use to build my soil is wood shavings. Much of Newfoundland’s soil is glacial till. It contains a lot of clay and makes for packed soil. I’m fortunate that I can get aged wood shavings that provide soil drainage and help aerate the soil, making it much fluffier.

Jeff Harris
Newfoundland, Canada


Wood-Turners for Wood Mulch

This is concerning the article about using wood mulch for garden soil. I have been throwing huge garbage bags of wood shavings and dust from my wood-turning shop into the compost pile for about six months. Between the grass clippings and leftovers from our canning and freezing, the mulch pile is blackening up nicely. For anyone interested in trying this, look for a wood-turning club in your area, or for someone who turns wood. Most turners would probably be glad to get rid of some of their shavings, as they build up in a hurry.

Paul Long
Yellville, Arkansas


More Than Arm-Chair Gardening

When traveling in England, I took some of your magazines as gifts for gardeners. Here is one reply I received: “I am fascinated by MOTHER EARTH NEWS. What an amazing read. I am so impressed by the writing style, which is for people who really want to grow things and not just for ‘armchair gardeners.’”

Philip S. Getty
New Hope, Pennsylvania


The Burden of Retirement

Like many others, I grew up believing that folks who work hard all their lives deserve a retirement at some point. But I’ve come to think it’s also an example of species elitism. Almost all of us have seen footage on a nature show of a wildebeest being hunted by a lion. The lions single out either a very young or old wildebeest. The young wildebeest isn’t strong or experienced enough to escape. The old wildebeest knows the ropes, but has lost a step. In the natural world, death isn’t untimely or unfair; it’s just as important as living. And time plays an indispensable role in determining who or what is better suited to kill or be killed. Aging fosters balance — unless you’re human.

Survival of the fittest determines the limits of existence for every living organism except us, and it promotes organic symmetry — especially in terms of population and resources. Homo sapiens seem to no longer believe notions of balance, symmetry or fitness apply to us, and it’s our greatest flaw. We think it’s our lot in nature to have dominion over all other life-forms and nature itself.

There’s no easy way to put this, but in the increasingly complicated scheme of things, retirement is a calamitous human indulgence. Am I advocating genocidal “retirement” camps? Absolutely not. I have retired parents whom I love and cherish. But we may need to reconsider our sense of entitlement and its long-range consequences. One of every five mammalian species is currently on the verge of disappearing forever. They’re joined by one in eight birds, one in three amphibians and one in four fish species. We collectively exist like a supervirus that destroys everything in its path. We are not living, aging or dying gracefully. We’re a species run amok and our biological contemporaries can no longer retreat to their ponds, trees, shells or earthen dens to escape the effects of our presence. Can we figure it out before we’re retired?

E. R. Bills
Aledo, Texas


Trading T-Posts for Hedges

I was thrilled with Living Fences: How-To, Advantages and Tips! What a wonderful way to change our landscape. I’ve already procured four 5-gallon buckets full of hedge apples and dug a trench. I can hardly wait to remove my electric t-post fencing and set my horses loose behind a beautiful, natural fence! This just gives me one more reason to escape outdoors for time in the sun and dirt, pruning my new fencing. Same as always, you’ve shown us there is a better way.

Alicia Broz
Winfield, Missouri


Choosing From a Smorgasbord

Jan Dawson’s letter about how MOTHER has been with her through so many years and experiences struck a chord with me. I grouse about some of the articles that tell us catastrophic Earth changes are imminent, all precipitated by human activity. Bunk, I say. But the discussion is worth having.

The important thing for me is simply this: MOTHER has provided my family with hundreds of hours of entertainment and totally practical advice on paring down, saving money, and contributing to the health of family, community and planet.

So it’s the more practical articles I read, and let the rest alone. You provide a smorgasbord of ideas, both timely and timeless. I love the magazine. It has a place of honor in our home as a reference for life.

Kenneth Thruston
Osburn, Idaho


Flour From Jerusalem Artichokes

I was so excited to see Growing Jerusalem Artichokes. I am always looking for more information on these incredible roots. I have an urban homestead with one tiny corner of my yard dedicated to growing “sunchokes.” From that sunny spot I harvested 9 pounds.

I’ve recently started eating fewer carbs and avoiding gluten, and I found some info online about drying sunchokes and grinding them into flour. I set aside a couple pounds for cooking, but from the other 7 pounds of Jerusalem artichokes that I oven-dried, I rendered a whole quart of toasty flour. I plan to use a touch of this flour in savory baked goods like breads and pancakes, as well as in lentil burgers and other dishes.

Thanks for publishing your articles — I continue to learn what amazing bounty a small piece of land can provide.

Annie Wegner LeFort
Milwaukee, Wisconsin


Ripening Green Tomatoes

Regarding What to Do With Green Tomatoes: I pick them before frost, put them in a paper bag, close it up and check it every day — and they all ripen! It usually doesn’t take more than a month. We usually have at least one large grocery bag full and then I have a lot of red tomatoes to use. Love your magazine — as with everyone else, I usually read every word!

Betty Hart
New Sharon, Maine


Prepared and Protected

I don’t know whether it’s political correctness or just an indication of how wimpy our society has become, but something is always missing in these “survival kit” recommendations (Emergency Survival Kits). There are never any references to a means to defend yourself and your family against those who would rather take what you have than prepare for an emergency themselves.

Back in 2003 when hurricane Isabel tore up central Virginia, we were without power (other than our small generator) for almost two weeks. We had to run off people, many times at gunpoint, who were attempting to steal our food and our generator. One fellow killed one of our goats inside our barn. I held a handgun on him until the police arrived, one and a half hours later. Funny thing is, if he had asked, we would have gladly shared with him.

Kevin Newman
Richmond, Virginia


Final Paperwork

Regarding Honor a Green Life With a Green Funeral: If you decide you want to be buried in a nontraditional casket, without a vault, get a commitment in writing from a funeral director that he or she will honor your wishes for an eco-casket. A substantial amount of their income comes from casket price markups. Typically, they will agree to use an “alternative” unit, but there may be a “handling” charge of a few thousand dollars. Vaults are also required by law in some states. Do your homework and get written commitments.

James Wallace
Chicago, Illinois


Homes Must Breathe

This letter is in regard to Dan Chiras’ Save Loads of Energy With Caulking and Weatherstripping. I am a heating contractor in Pennsylvania. Unless you can see light between windows and doors, there might be a reason to tolerate cold drafts in your home.

Furnaces, gas water heaters, bathroom fans, kitchen fans and fireplaces push air out of the house, and people don’t know they must replace that air somehow. I had many people whose furnaces wouldn’t fire up after a power outage. The problem was that fireplaces being used for heat were pulling air from anywhere they could to feed the fires. The furnace wouldn’t fire, but the gas water heater still ran and the fireplace pulled the fumes from the water heater into the house. People need an energy audit done on their house before taking on anything like this.

Mike Ugen
Jeannette, Pennsylvania

What Mike says is absolutely true. Those interested in sealing up a home to save energy need to ensure replacement air in the home — that is, outdoor air to replace air that escapes through flue pipes, chimneys and vent fans. However, most homes are so leaky that it’s difficult to seal them tight enough to endanger replacement air. That said, it’s always a good idea to hire a professional to perform a home energy audit, during which he or she will measure air leakage and make recommendations for sealing leaks. Do an audit first, then get busy sealing up the leaks to save energy. — Dan Chiras  

I don’t normally find myself compelled to write letters to the magazines I read, but after reading John Gulland’s response to the question of whether to provide an outdoor air supply for a woodstove, I felt compelled. I don’t claim to be as knowledgeable as Mr. Gulland when it comes to the function or performance of a woodstove, but I believe he missed the boat on the basics of a healthy house.

The simple, unquestionable fact is this: For every cubic foot of air that leaves the house through the chimney, another cubic foot of air will enter the house to equalize the air pressure. The quantity of air being exhausted through the chimney is not the issue, and is no excuse for allowing indoor air to feed combustion; it’s the source of the makeup air that counts. If the woodstove is not provided with a dedicated source of air, then the air will be sucked into the living space from places that you can’t predict. If you’re lucky, it will be sucked under your front door or around your window sashes. If you’ve already followed the advice of the air-sealing article in the same issue, then your windows and doors will no longer be the path of least resistance for air. Now you will be sucking “fresh” air from your musty crawl space or basement, through the moldy walls, or under the backdoor to the garage where the car is parked.

I won’t go into detail on the second part of John’s response, where he posits that “There’s no free lunch. Outdoor air will have to be heated one way or another, either by the fire or [...] space heating system.” I encourage Mr. Gulland to do a Web search for information on Heat Recovery Ventilators (HRVs) that exhaust stale indoor air for fresh outdoor air while exchanging the heat to reduce your heating bill in the process. I’d be happy to elaborate on any of this if necessary. Thanks for your time.

Justin Fink
Senior Editor, Fine Homebuilding
The Taunton Press  

After reading the Woodstove Air Supply portion of the Ask Our Experts section, I have to strongly disagree with the author's recommendation not to use outside air with woodstoves. In the article, the author makes the assertion that even a newly built, 1,500-square-foot house has a minimum air exchange rate of 66 cfm. I believe this is inaccurate, because according to ASHRAE Standard 62-1989, a building should seek an air exchange between .35 and .50 per hour. In a 1,500-square-foot building, .35 works out to be roughly 66 cfm. Because I have been witness to blower door tests on several newly constructed buildings with air exchanges well below 66 cfm, I am asserting that the author has mistaken the recommend minimum air exchange rate for the actual air exchange rate in a building. Therefore, 10 to 25 cfm needed for a stove may not necessarily be available through the building envelope, especially if another appliance is running. A common bathroom fan runs anywhere between 60 and 100 cfm, which could potentially draw smoke into the house from a woodstove, not to mention cooking-range fans (up to 200 cfm) and gas-burning, power-vented appliances (up to 400 cfm). In my experience as a heating contractor, I have seen numerous instances where inadequately air-supplied furnaces and boilers have had issues with running properly.

All these factors alone make the case for direct-piping an air supply to your woodstove. However, there is also the humidity issue. The reason you have to put a pot of water on a stove in the winter is because the cold, dry air from outside comes in while the stove is firing through the walls and windows, becoming warmer and robbing humidity from the house air. Direct-piping fresh air to your stoves eliminates a majority of the humidity loss from burning wood, allowing for fewer dry throats and bloody noses.

Christopher Haley
Jay, New York

A response from John Gulland’s colleague, Don Fugler: 

Mr. Fink and Mr. Haley are both correct in that a woodstove with an outside air kit will use less indoor air, and that the induced infiltration caused by a woodstove (without an air intake) will have to come through the house envelope. However, Gulland’s point was that outdoor air supplies do not isolate your woodstove from house negative pressure, such as that caused by the running of a bathoom or kitchen fan. Even though an outdoor air supply appears to separate the stove and chimney from negative pressure, test results show that this is not true. Negative house pressures will still backdraft a stove (at low burn), even if it has an outdoor air supply. There is adequate evidence that these air supplies will act from time to time as exhausts, particularly under windy conditions. This means that they will have hot flue gases running through them. Currently, they are not designed or installed to tolerate high temperatures. They should be installed as little horizontal chimneys with proper clearances, unless they are dampered to prevent reverse flow.

Let’s turn to the issue of how much house air change rate is prompted by an EPA stove in operation. Typical chimney flow rates we have seen are in the range of 10 to 30 cfm. Furthermore, in most houses in winter, increasing the house exhaust flow through a chimney for instance, will usually only increase the house air change rate by about half that incremental exhaust flow. Surprising, but true. Check out The Point Five Rule. So, running a good woodstove through the winter at 10 to 30 cfm will only increase the house air change rate by 5 to 15 cfm in most houses. This is a small difference. Most houses need something in the order of 100 cfm for healthy air, and that 5 to 15 cfm contribution through woodstove usage is not excessive. There is always enough leakage in a house to allow the relatively easy entry of air to compensate low exhaust flows like this.

Finally, in answer to Justin Fink, if you have a moldy crawl space or basement, it could potentially cause health problems regardless of whether there is a woodstove in operation. Fix the crawl space, or isolate it with exhaust fans.

Don Fugler
Senior Researcher
Policy and Research
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation


Grass-Fed Will Gain Ground

Skeptics who ignore the benefits of grass-fed livestock production will change their tune when the price of petroleum-based fuels skyrockets over the next few years (Cows Eat Grass?!). Pasture-fed cattle require less fuel input to raise than crops, and they yield beef that’s healthier for us. The pastures mimic nature much more closely than single-species croplands, so pastures are ultimately better for the environment. Grass-fed cattle are not only leaner, but also have more carotene and a healthier fatty acid ratio.

Timothy Brandt
Palos Hills, Illinois


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