Dear MOTHER: June/July 2015

Reader letters about grass-fed vs. factory-farmed meat, going solar, underground root cellars, urban homesteading, finding recycled goods, learning how to cook, banishing tomato blight, food-frugal tips, and more.

Grazing Animals

The presence of grazing animals, such as these cattle in Blanco County, Texas, is required to keep pastures and prairies healthy.

Photo by Laurence Parent

Content Tools

Ruminating on Low-Cost Meat

I couldn’t agree more with Richard Manning’s points in The Many Benefits of Grass-Fed Meat in the April/May 2015 issue.

Most of the meat in U.S. supermarkets is raised in feedlots. This is in contrast to how we picture cattle happily grazing on lush, green pastures. The reality is cows crowded into filthy lots, eating some ungodly mixture that contains primarily corn, with numerous additives and antibiotics. The beef industry has worked hard to convince us that meat from corn-fed cattle is better.

Where did this idea come from? I read that the advent of synthetic fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals about 50 years ago led to an overproduction of corn. A sensible response to such surplus would’ve been a shift to growing a crop that was needed on the market, but the industry instead decided to find some other market for the overabundance of corn. Then, some folks had a bright idea: If we feed cattle corn instead of grass, we can fatten them for slaughter in nine months instead of two years. This put more money in many people’s pockets.

But we forgot that cows are ruminants and need to chew their cud to maintain their health. So what if we mess up the animals’ digestion? They only need to survive less than a year. So what if they’re not in perfect health? We can give them medicines and tons of antibiotics to keep them alive for the short time before they go to slaughter. Then we’ll sell meat from sick cows in the supermarket with a USDA stamp of approval.

A few years ago, an Escherichia coli (E. coli ) bacterial contamination made many people sick, and some even died. In the ’70s, I worked in medical research with E. coli — a mostly benign bacteria that, if accidentally ingested, might give you a bellyache but would not kill you. The emergence of the very virulent, deadly E. coli strain is the result of the feedlot diet changing the pH in the cow’s rumen.

The public demands cheap food, and cheap it is — provided we count only the money spent at the supermarket. If we calculated the real costs of cheap meat — such as the destruction of our environment and the exorbitant health costs — it would prove to be quite expensive.

I understand humans are omnivores who eat meat and kill animals for food. But we don’t have to torture them while they’re alive. If I treated my dog the way cattle are treated in feedlots, I would be charged with animal cruelty. Maybe we should think twice before we buy those cheap steaks on sale. For several years now, I’ve purchased only grass-fed meat, and I’ve sourced it from local farms that I can visit and inspect to see how the animals are treated.

Dana Fast
Lake Clear, New York


Solar at Last

I want to thank MOTHER EARTH NEWS and EnergySage for all the help making my solar energy dream become a reality. I’ve been thinking about solar power for my home for about 40 years. The economics have been improving, but I wasn’t sure just how financially feasible it would be until I came across the write-up about EnergySage in the February/March 2015 issue (Green Gazette, Compare Solar Prices on EnergySage).

The article inspired me to go online to the EnergySage website and enter all of my information. The process EnergySage has set up is wonderful — and, wow, was I surprised by what I learned! I got three great quotes from highly reputable companies, and then EnergySage’s help explaining the ins and outs of the different equipment gave me the final push. I’ve since signed a contract with one of the companies, and they will install my system next month. I’m so excited, and, again, I can’t thank EnergySage enough for the assistance and expertise.

Tim Cherry
Nacogdoches, Texas


Bury Your Treasure

I built my root cellar from a never-used concrete septic tank following the plans in your April/May 2014 issue (Root Cellar Plans). The construction was much simpler than it would’ve been had I made the root cellar from cinder blocks or concrete poured in place, and this storage space has performed even better than I had expected.

My brother and I are attempting to produce all of our own food for 2015, and we would’ve already failed if we didn’t have this dark, moist, cool place to keep vegetables in peak condition.

Garth Brown
West Winfield, New York

Garth and his brother, Edmund, are documenting their quest to eat only homegrown, hunted or foraged food for a year. Read their updates on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog. — MOTHER


Big Cities, Same Goals

I grew up in a small town in Ohio’s farm country, but I’ve lived my adult life in either urban or suburban settings. Like many, I have respect for those courageous enough to go “back to the land” and chuck all the cares of modern life. However, I’ve also developed a healthy respect for urban and suburban culture, comfort and convenience.

In reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I find many ideas that apply just as well to wiser living in urban and suburban settings as they do to rural. There are urban homesteaders — people who raise chickens and other livestock in the city, who strive to get off the grid, and who are insisting that urban infrastructure reflect the ideals perpetuated by MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Still, I would like to see even more editorial content for and about people who can’t — or don’t want to — escape the city or the burbs, but who want to recycle, live organically, plant gardens in vacant lots, and get some of their electricity from renewable sources. I want to read about people who grow their plants in window boxes or on narrow strips of ground, who collect their grass clippings for mulch (there’s plenty of grass!), and more.

Cleveland, near where I live, was hit hard by the financial crisis, and led the United States in foreclosed and demolished properties. Now, it’s leading the way with a land bank, environmental supervision, wetlands reclamation, roof gardens, solar farms, wind turbine development, and one of the finest systems of urban green space in the country.

Thomas Ford
University Heights, Ohio


Recycle It — Then Re-Buy It!

In the February/March 2015 issue, you printed a wonderful article titled Is Recycling Worth It? I read every word of it, and I even clapped at the end. Then I got to wondering about products that are made from all of those things we toss into our recycling bins. In other words, what becomes of our recycled materials after they leave recycling centers?

Most of us know that some wonderful paper products get made from recycled paper, such as toilet paper, napkins and paper towels. Purchasing these options could save hundreds of hardwood trees in our forests. But what about what happens to all the other products we recycle?

As consumers, we need to know what to look for. If we all committed to buying items made from recycled materials, think of the potential impact. My hope is that someone who knows a great deal about these kinds of products will write that article. I, for one, would read every word, and I’d then look for those products in stores.

Ruth Peeples
Pleasant Hill, Tennessee

Ruth, you may want to check out the website Good Guide, where you can search thousands of products and filter by “recycled” and other variables. Good Guide also offers a smartphone app that lets you scan a product’s bar code to get information on its health, environmental and social impacts. — MOTHER


Be Mindful of Grain Mites

The tip from reader John M. Williams of Aurora, Wis., about starting seeds where he broods his chicks is a great idea (Country Lore, February/March 2015). Beware, though: I had virtually the same setup last spring, and disaster struck.

Please advise your readers never to store their chicks’ starter grain indoors. I suddenly noticed that my hundreds of seedlings were failing and I didn’t know why. They had been so vigorous just three days earlier. Upon closer inspection, I thought to myself, “Wow, this room sure got dusty. Wait — is that dust ... moving ?” Well, after much research, I found out that I had grain mites. They eat anything organic, and a whole colony of them had arrived in the bag of starter grain. The population exploded in less than a week, and I had to toss the grain as well as the seedlings. 

I also had to “bug bomb” my house to finally get rid of them — they’re so small that they just kept surviving in any crevice. I’m not joking when I say they were up to my ceiling.

Anne Babb
Beaufort, Missouri


Serving Up Cooking Skills

I’d like to respond to the recent reader letter titled “A Hunger for Home Ec” from Sally Smith (Dear MOTHER, February/March 2015). The Food Backpacks 4 Kids program in the Key Peninsula area of Washington state has a slow cooker initiative in place in which families who ask will receive a brand new slow cooker, a child-friendly recipe book of healthful recipes, and bulk food items, such as beans, rice and even oatmeal.

Families qualify through the local school district’s free and reduced lunch program, and, since we started the initiative in summer 2014, we’ve given away between 50 and 75 slow cookers.

We’ve taught some families how to make their own chicken stock, and we’re working with many local families to teach them how to grow their own food and live more sustainably. Viva la slow cooker, indeed!

Diba Wickline
Gig Harbor, Washington

Learn more about Food Backpacks 4 Kids at the Peninsula Community Foundation Website. They’re really cooking! — MOTHER


Learning How to Cook

I want to support what reader Sally Smith stated in her letter in the February/March 2015 issue (Dear MOTHER), in which she advocated for educating young people about basic cooking skills so they have an alternative to purchasing processed foods.

I can attest that the younger generations will cook at home (and even from scratch), regardless of time and effort, so long as they know how. I’ve been doing just that since I graduated from college, when I pledged to eat more locally and seasonally.

For those who don’t have the skills or knowledge and aren’t sure where to look for it, I highly recommend reading Kathleen Flinn’s book The Kitchen Counter Cooking School.

Sarah Owens
Hood River, Oregon


Pesticide Info: Demand It

I’ve become increasingly concerned about possible pesticide contamination of seeds and plants I’ve purchased. Do I need to be worried about unknowingly planting such contaminated items in organic soil? Can I take the supplier’s word for it if they say they don’t use persistent, systemic pesticides?

After reading your articles about neonicotinoid pesticides, I contacted some of the nurseries I frequently order from. The most striking thing about these conversations was that the plant specialists at the various companies seemed surprised to hear the question. One person said that no one had ever asked him that before; another reported that their horticulturist didn’t know whether neonicotinoids were used.

Systemic pesticides will likely continue to be applied, at least in the near future, but perhaps one way for gardeners to facilitate change is to keep on asking these questions.

Josephine D’Alessandro
Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania

We agree, Josephine. The more people who ask, the more pressure companies will face to forgo systemic pesticides. And if a salesperson doesn’t know the answer, ask to have the manager notified that you will no longer buy the business’s products if they can’t tell you what is in or on them. — MOTHER


I’m Lovin’ That Oven!

Thank you to fellow reader Pat Hill for her letter and photo of the all-in-one outdoor cooking unit she built (Dear MOTHER, April/May 2015). My dream has been to build this oven for our family.

A few days before the April/May issue arrived, I’d begun searching through past issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for your article about constructing the oven, but I hadn’t found it yet. Then I opened the new issue, and there it was! What are the chances of that?

Amy Strazza
Waco, Texas


Solar Power’s Carbon Footprint

In response to Cost of Renewable Energy Now Competitive with Cost of Fossil Fuels (Green Gazette, April/May 2015): What is the actual carbon footprint and the actual rate of return on a solar power system? Take into consideration the mining of materials, chemicals used, energy needed for manufacturing, installation and waste, energy produced over the panel’s actual lifetime, and maintenance and repair costs.

I love the idea of solar, but my personal experience and my admittedly crude and unresolved calculations leave me doubting. Is there a definitive, unbiased study out there?

Tim Coleman
Flatgap, Kentucky

Good question, Tim. A recent article in National Geographic outlined the progress that’s being made to answer this complex question. Of course, we also should have been asking these same questions about the sustainability of our fossil fuel system a long time ago. — MOTHER


Beat Tomato Blight

I read through my February/March 2015 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS with great interest, particularly the article ID and Prevent 6 Common Tomato Diseases. I have a recipe to prevent early blight that I got from an old farmer in North Clarendon, Vt., and it has been working well for me for years.

Before transplanting, mix:

• 3 cups compost
• 1/2 cup powdered, nonfat milk
• 1/2 cup Epsom salts
• 1 tbsp baking soda

Sprinkle a handful of the mixture into each tomato’s planting hole. Then, after planting, sprinkle a little more powered milk on top of the soil around the plant, repeating once a month throughout the growing season. This will also help prevent late blight and certain other tomato diseases.

Steve Pratt
North Bennington, Vermont

Using large amounts of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) can be helpful or harmful, depending on your soil’s mineral levels and pH. It’s a good idea to have your soil tested before applying any soluble minerals (such as Epsom salts) in your garden. — MOTHER


More Food-Frugal Tips

We just read the article Put Extra Food Scraps to Good Use in Your Kitchen in the April/May 2015 edition, and we have some ideas of our own to share.

Salad into stir-fry into soup. Our fresh summer veggies go first into a salad. Leftover salad becomes a stir-fry at the next meal. Any leftover stir-fry goes into the freezer for winter soups. To make soup from a stir-fry, simply add water and heat. Guaranteed deliciousness.

Parsley, preserved.

Pesto packs. We make extra pesto when the basil in our garden is at its peak. For a simple pesto, we put a couple of fresh garlic cloves in the blender with a small handful of raw sunflower seeds and a big handful of washed basil. Then we add just enough water or olive oil to blend everything into a juicy paste. We pour this paste into disc shapes on waxed paper on a tray. The tray goes into the freezer, and after the discs are frozen, we put them into a plastic bag for use all winter. We like to sprinkle fresh Parmesan cheese on top of the discs just before heating and adding to pasta, or melt the discs into winter soups and stews.

Susan and Bill English-Alkire
Wooster, Ohio


A Realtor’s Worth

The article 65 Tips to Save Money for Self-Reliant Living (February/March 2014) mentions that a way to cut costs when shopping for land is to avoid the real estate agent’s fee. A good real estate agent, however, can provide knowledge on planning and zoning, and, of course, on the value of property. An agent’s input on a transaction often saves the buyer thousands of dollars. Open-space knowledge, financing options and seller negotiations are just a few of the many details an agent can address in a land purchase.

Dick Loomis
Putnam, Connecticut


A Beacon of Sustainability

I just read your December 2014/January 2015 article How Tyson Foods Kills Small Rural Towns, along with Joel Salatin’s column about “new-fashioned farms” (The Pitchfork Pulpit). Outstanding work! Your publication has always been a beacon to those seeking sustainability and independence from our society’s destructive norm. 

While we access your magazine at public libraries, we intend to give subscriptions as gifts to family and friends. Thank you for the sanity you offer.

Jeff Marlow
via Facebook


Feedback from a Fan

I was introduced to MOTHER EARTH NEWS when I was working as a national park ranger in Death Valley National Park way back in 1977. Your February/March 2015 issue had many articles that an old environmentalist like me could relate to, such as the Green Gazette pieces on food waste, solutions to our water crisis, dropping costs of solar panels, and autism’s link to pesticides, as well as your in-depth articles on community-scale renewable energy (Community Energy: Power from the People) and recycling (Is Recycling Worth It?).

That’s what I enjoy about your magazine — your love and concern for our environment and the diversity of articles you print. Keep up the good work!

Richard Thorum
Midvale, Utah


MOTHER’s Wish List

Food preservation bloggers. If you’ve become skilled in a realm of home food preservation — canning, freezing, drying, fermenting, brewing, curing, smoking, root cellaring or cheesemaking — we invite you to join the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Blog Squad to contribute to a special project that’s in the works on our website. Send us an email with the subject line “Food preservation blogger” to learn more about this opportunity.

Seed-starting options. What’s worked best for you? We’d love to see photos or plans of your home seed-starting setup. Get in touch with us via email.