Yes, we are here!

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we have been educating folks about the benefits of self-reliance for 50 years. That includes researching and sourcing the best books and products to help individuals master the skills they need in times like these and beyond. Our online store is open and we are here to answer any questions you might have. Our customer service staff is available Monday through Friday from 8a.m.-5p.m. CDT. We can be reached at 1-800-234-3368 or by email. Stay safe!

Green Homes
Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.

Single Mom Begins Off-Grid Cabin Living with Hard Work and Joy

Blond Boy With Old Shed

The author’s son, Jordan, with their multi-purposed garden shed. Photo by Jo deVries

I can hardly believe that it’s been 25 years since I purchased 6 ½ acres of bush land with the idea of turning it into a home for myself and my three-year old son.

I was raised in a quiet part of the city of Ottawa, with a corn field at the end of our road. Development happened quickly; the corn field became a nursing home. I had friends that lived in the country and I knew that was the environment where I belonged. It took me a while to get there.

Adjusting to a New Reality in an Old Home

Pregnant and single at the age of 29, I decided that my first priority was to give my child a great quality of life. I wanted to help him discover the road less traveled; the road to personal sustainability and independence. But first, I had to know what that meant myself.

The majority of us are dependent on gasoline and electricity far too much — I wanted to escape that trap. I wanted to be able to not only survive, but enjoy life to its fullest, despite what might be happening in the world around me. I knew that the answers would be found in living a simple down-to-earth lifestyle, in escaping the things of man.

I was a struggling artist with big dreams and no savings. It was time to be practical. I decided to sell my Harley-Davidson for a down payment on a home.

I bought an unbelievably cheap old house, with the idea that I would fix it up and sell it for a healthy profit to fulfill my dream of purchasing acreage. I put my sweater-designing studio downstairs, leaving us with a large two-bedroom apartment upstairs.

During that time, I learned that owning a house that depends on oil and electricity requires a substantial cashflow to keep everything maintained and operating. My sweater-designing career hadn’t panned out the way I had planned, and it soon became clear that there might not be any profit to be made from my business or my house.

Despite these realities, life was good.  We were living on the corner of a small town with friendly people, a number of fellow artisans, and a big backyard with a swimming hole across the road. I had no money, but was armed with an impressive portfolio, a solid work ethic, and deep faith that I was not alone on my quest.

Mother And Son Vintage Photo

Jo and Jordan wearing Jo’s knitwear. Photo by Marlene Schaly

Finding the Perfect Property and Breaking Homestead Ground

Despite my financial situation, I searched for an inexpensive piece of property that had privacy, a natural freshwater source, and a seller that had a good sense of humour and was open to negotiation.

My search brought me to an affordable piece of bush land, only 15 minutes away. It was not the kind of property that the average person would want, but to me it was a diamond in the rough — exactly what I was looking for.

The property was half rock, one quarter recently cleared field, and one quarter dense woodland with a meandering creek at the back. I fell in love with the stone ridge face that stood 20-foot-high and ran 300 feet in length, down the center of the property. At the time of purchase, there wasn’t even a driveway in. The back part of the property was like a jungle, making it difficult to walk two paces without getting stuck in the brambles.

The deal was closed before I had even seen the creek. I put a down payment on my dream and bought some time to come up with the rest of the money.

While waiting for my house to sell and my career to take off, I would spend time at the property, planning and landscaping. I purchased a set of brush cutters and started clearing a way in, following the foot of the stone ridge to the back, just in case the low-lying field flooded in the spring (good thing too!). I wanted to build away from the road and the visibility of neighbours. The view from our windows would focus solely on nature. I had the trees that were in the way cut down for firewood and started making plans for a potential house site, a garden area and, most importantly, a temporary shelter.

I bartered some furniture to have a friend build a 9-foot-by-9 ½-foot garden shed that would house my tools and a hide-a-bed couch. Jordan was now four years old and was able to help with chores. His task was to pick up sticks for kindling. At one point, we spent seven months living in that tiny shed. It was the best time ever!

The Slow Pace of Building an Off-Grid Cabin

Progress was slow, but while others were planning their exciting, one-week camping trips, we were living it. Cooking over an open-fire amidst the occasional snowfall was challenging. But witnessing pileated woodpeckers and hawks flying overhead, listening to the calls of owls and wolves, catching glimpses of foxes, moose and deer, made it all worthwhile.

The journey has been rough at times, and there have been many distractions and obstacles to overcome, but that’s just part of life. Progress was much slower than I anticipated. Jordan was 10 years old when we finally moved into our 14-by-18-foot timber-framed cabin.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with plans, but I have learned to live in the moment and take solace from my peaceful surroundings. The many photos I have taken along the way are instrumental in helping me focus on the many things that have already been accomplished. They provide evidence of just how rich our lives have been, having taken that leap of faith.

Never give up on your dreams, especially if it concerns your quality of life. If your intentions are pure, you will be blessed.

I have now been living in my cozy cabin without electricity for 20 years. Last year, I purchased a small solar panel and a marine battery to enable me to finish my second book and continue writing on my laptop. On sunny days, I can write for hours. On cloudy days, there are countless other things that can be done. When I need wifi, I drive 15 minutes to town and work from my van.

Vintage Cabin Frame In Woods

Follow Jo’s story on MOTHER EARTH NEWS to watch her cabin build reveal.

Continued Gratitude for a Well Lived Life

At present, the sun has barely been out in two weeks and I’ve got a deadline. I am sitting in my van, typing, an extension-cord plugged in at my friend Joanne’s place. I am counting my blessings.

Challenges separate those who are serious about accomplishing their goals from those who are just talking about it. When the going gets tough, we need to focus on what we can do, not on what we can’t.

In a world of unrest and worry, I sleep well knowing that my heavenly Father is watching over me, and Mother Earth is providing the things that make life worth living. A walk down a country road, or sitting by an open body of water, always helps recharge my spirit.

I hope to continue to share my many experiences with those seeking a down-to-earth, simple existence. Everything is better if we have someone to share it with.

Jo deVries, or “Jo of the Woods”, designed and built her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type lifestyle without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares her know-how for candle making, masonry, and self-sufficient living. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Healthy Home Habits: Combating COVID-19 and Surviving Self-Isolation

healthy homes and COVID 19

If you are reading this, chances are you have a home – a place you live, maybe even with your family, roommate, significant other, or even your pet. And right about now, you may be spending a lot of time at home. So, given our current home-bound situation due to COVID-19, it is a vital time to learn how a healthy home can help fight the virus.

A healthy home is extremely important to physical health. With the current spread of COVID-19, clean home practices are vital to lessening germ spread. In addition, reducing allergy and asthma symptoms can be done by maintaining the cleanliness of your house. Clean homes also affect us mentally by reducing stress and fatigue. Less cluttered spaces help us stay organized and focused while being at home.

Sharing the same space as an infected individual can expose you to the Corona Virus. In addition, touching objects that may have become contaminated also leaves you susceptible to contracting the virus and becoming ill. For this reason, avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose while in public. Limiting outings to necessary trips only will also help to reduce the possibilities of catching the virus.

Now let’s look at the ways we can fight COVID-19:

Staying Safe and Healthy While at Home

 window viewing

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Healthy Practices for Time in Public

The germs you bring into your home are all picked up from outside sources, therefore keeping your home healthy begins outside.

  • Consolidate your necessary trips when planning your outings in order to limit germ contact.
  • Maintain social distance (recommended at least 6 feet) when in public.
  • Limit touching your personal belongings such as your phone, clothes, etc. while in public – this will help to reduce possible bacteria spread.
  • Make a face mask or use a scarf to protect yourself when in public spaces. This reduces exposure to and spread of the disease when around frequently tough objects and places, like the grocery store.
  • Lastly, avoid touching your face while in public, as this is the easiest way to prevent becoming sick.
Social Distancing Sidewalk Etiquette
  • Leave the sidewalk available for pedestrians only – do not use scooters or bikes on the sidewalks.
  • Stay on the right side and move out of the way for less agile people
  • Keep your kids and your leashed dogs close by.
  • I found this sidewalk etiquette from Treehugger useful.

Visit the CDC’s How to Protect Yourself webpage for more protection information.

Cleanliness when Arriving Home

Here is the next step in keeping your home clean ­– limit the bacteria you bring into your home.

  • When arriving home, be sure to disinfect any of your purchases before storing them. You also have the option to leave them outside for a day or two to reduce the virus still being active on the packages. .
  • After stowing your purchases, clean the surfaces that have become unsanitary during this process.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds.
  • You can also change and wash your clothes if you feel they have becomein contact with objects or others. .

Safeguarding Against the Coronavirus

  • Clean frequently touch surfaces, such as door handles, tables/countertops, light switches, phones/keyboards, and bathroom fixtures.
  • Continue to wash your hands often, especially after sneezing or coughing.
  • Designate a room for sick members – In the event that a member of your household gets sick, this limits possible COVID-19 spread within the home.
  • If you or a member of your household contract COVID-19, follow the CDC’s healthcare instructions to further decrease the spread of your illness.

How to Make Household Cleaner

Follow this homemade version below by Center for Disease Control (CDC):


Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

  • 1/3 cup (5 Tbsp.) bleach per
  • 1 gallon of water


  •  4 tsp. per 1 quart of water

For more household disinfectant solutions, take a look at the EPA’s list of “Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2. And take a look at the EPA’s list of Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2. The CDC has thorough home instructions, check them out here.

Prioritize Mental Health


Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

You’ll be well on your way to keeping your household clean and hopefully Corona Virus free by following the above procedures.. But, keeping your mind healthy is just as important as keeping your home healthy. The Coronoa Virus is causing a stressful situation for everyone, and self-isolating can be, well, isolating. Therefore, do not disregard your mental health during this pandemic.

Fuel your body. Nutritious food and ample amounts of water help your mind and body to function well. A consistent and adequate amount of sleep also helps to regulate mental and emotional health, says the CDC.

Get some exercise. Exercise is proven to improve your mood, as well as combat anxiety and depression according to the University of Michigan. Specifically, getting outside for daily exercise (while maintaining social distance) can make for a great change of scenery while self-isolating.

Connect with friends and family. As stated before, quarantine can be isolating, so try and stay in contact with family and friends during this time in order to stay mentally healthy. This will be especially important, according to the CDC, in the event that you become sick and need to contact others for assistance. Also consider using this extra time as an opportunity to reconnect with old friends or extended family.

Set achievable goals. Staying busy is a great way to keep your mind off the current COVID-19 situation while also marking things off your to-do list. But, if you are anything like me, it is easy to let time slip away without goals in place. So set small, achievable goals for your day. Goals may be exercising, picking up an old hobby, reading a book, or even finishing the Netflix series you’ve been binging. Goals will help to keep you engaged with your day. View more ideas to keep organized from the University of Michigan.

Create a tidy at-home work space. During this time of self-isolation, many professionals and students are working from home, but being away from a normal environment can be challenging. Psychological research shows that objects unrelated to your work can easily be distracting. If you are having trouble staying focused in your at-home environment, tidy your workspace to improve your focus, while also improving your mood.

Combat stress in the best way. Everyone processes change differently, so it’s important to find the stress management method that works best for you. For some people that is measured tension release and breathing exercises, and for others it is exercise, journaling, meditation, music, or anything that makes them feel relaxed and carefree. Don’t be afraid to experiment in order to find your perfect stress reliever.

Get help, if needed. If you or a loved one are having difficulty in managing your stress or worry related to the Corona Virus or the life changes it has caused, do not hesitate to seek the help you need. The CDC recommends contacting your healthcare provider if your stress inhibits your daily activities for several days in a row.

If you are struggling to cope with the effects of the COVID-19, check out these mental health resources.

A Green Home is a Healthy Home

green home

Photo by Huy Phan on Unsplash

In addition to Corona-Virus-specific precautions, there are plenty of ways that you can improve the overall health and safety of your home. Our homes are the setting of so many special memories and moments, and it is in our best interests to make them an inviting and clean place.

According to, a healthy home is one with good air quality. That means monitoring the air quality and using less toxic cleaning supplies.

Celebrate All Successes, Even The Small Ones

In conclusion, all the awesome benefits of keeping your home safe and germ-free are great motivations to maintain a healthy home. Any healthy habits, even small ones, can have a positive effect on fighting COVID-19. That being said, make realistic, achievable goals for improving your household health, and don’t forget to celebrate any and all success in establishing healthy home habits.

This blog post was written By Maggie Hartman, Sustainability Content Writer Intern,

Kari Klaus is the founder of, a data-driven real estate platform which overlays sustainability intelligence onto home listings.Take a look at healthy and eco-friendly homes on Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Build a Structurally Sound Cob Wall


Cob wall on stone foundation.

Building with cob is pretty straight forward. Anyone in the family can learn the basic techniques and with a bit of guidance, you can build structures together as a group. (Check out Cob-Building Basics.)

When building a cob wall, you are going to need a solid foundation stem wall, usually made using natural stone or cement. After this foundational stem wall is in place, you can start building right on top with your cob.

Prepare for Building a Cob Wall

But first, before sticking the cob on the foundation, you are going to need a bucket of clay slip. This is made with fine, filtered clay and water. When it is a nice pastey consistency, you can use it to paint on to the stone foundation. It doesn't have to be an exact consistency — just whatever feels nice to paint with and sticks to the wall well. The slip is used almost like a glue between the cob to the wall.

The ideal surface of the top of the foundation wall is jagged and rough so that the cob gets a really secure and strong key to lock in to. This will not only hold your cob wall to the foundations, but will also serve to really strengthen your top layer of rock. Do not build down over the side of the rock as this thin piece of cob will be very weak and will eventually break.

At the edges of your wall, make sure to keep an eye on your vertical and horizontal lines. Your horizontal line should be straight, and not necessarily following the lines of the stones as they may be more uneven. Your cob should protrude a little from the stone wall and then go straight up. The protrusion is to allow any rain running off the wall to drop in front of the house rather than running in to the foundation wall.

Constructing a Cob Wall


Mixing Cob In A Wheelbarrow

After you have covered the section you are working on with a 5- to 20-centimeter (2- to 8-inch) layer of cob, you can start building up. You can take massive handfuls of cob and spread them in to your wall — just really make sure you merge the layers in well. You can use a stick with a blunt end if you like, or use your fingers and thumbs. It is really important to integrate the layers. Otherwise, when the cob dries, it will start to seperate into the lumps you have made.

Keep going up. Pretty soon, you will need benches and scaffolding to keep going as you can really hurt your shoulders working too high up.

You can move your cob around in wheelbarrows and buckets, but a nice quick method is to make balls and throw them along a line, with the last person placing them on the wall.

After you have finished a raise — and I recommend that you not build up more than 60 centimeters (2 feet) in a day — you can cover your wall to protect it from the rain, or in some cases, stop water from evaporating too quickly and drying the wall. You want the top to remain soft when you start again the next day. If you miss a few days and the wall is dry when you come back, then just spray it with water and mash it up a bit with a stick to get a better connection.

Incorporating Wooden Beams, Window Frames, and Electric


Cob Wall With Wooden Posts

As you build up, you can add in logs with nails sticking out of the sides. Make sure the flat surface of the log is flush with the finished wall — maybe a sticking out a bit at this point to account for finish layers. These logs are called “dead men” and are really strong spaces to attach shelving, pictures, or door and window frames. It is worth planning out where these might go before you start building. (More on dead men in a future article.)

If you built your window frames in advance, you will also want to keep an eye on the height of your cob in order to set your windows in at the right time. Some people make simple wooden box frames to place whilst they build. The real window is installed at a later date.

If you plan to embedd your electric tubes in to the wall, then you also need to remember what height your plugs will be and remember to put the tubes in at around this height. Leave some conduit exposed.

Your walls will probably start to bulge at some point, so you can either bash them back into place, or cut them with a modified wood saw: Take an old wood saw and cut 1 centimeter (0.5 inch) teeth into it, then you can put the cob back on top of the wall after cutting it from the sides. Just make sure to cut when the wall is still a bit wet.

Finishing Touches

After building, whilst the cob is still wet, you can stab lots of holes in the sides of the walls with a 2.5-centimeter (1 inch) thick stick to make sure that the centre dries well.

When you get to roof height, I would recommend building slightly farther than you need. This will account for shrinkage of the wall during drying but it also allows you to chisel out the exact level you need rather than adding little bits of cob to get a bit higher. These little bits will be difficult to make strong, especially after the wall has dried.

The best thing to do is get out there and try it! The most important thing to remember to create a strong wall is to integrate the layers as you build and make sure you build up vertically where required.

Tom Keeling is based in Portugal and has traveled throughout Brazil and Eastern Europe learning about natural building and farming. He’s working on a two-story stone barn renovation using clay and wood, and including a shower and toilet block built using rammed earth and adobe bricks. Connect with Tom at Fazenda Tomati and on Facebook and Instagram. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

From Horse Barn to Wellness Center, Part 4: Sourcing Structural Lumber

Following the journey to remodel a horse barn into a commercial wellness center on a Midwestern property zoned for agriculture. This multi-part series recounts the considerations, pitfalls and ultimate successes of a green-building project with an ambitious scope to bring a defunct farm building new life as a natural health destination. 

The first page of a set of building plans normally is the site plan. There were several site plans for this project on file with the township already, so I decided to take the site plan that the Township Board had already seen and update it with the new information. I filled out the form that accompanied the site plan and tried to get a hold of the person at the township who was responsible for signing off on the updated site plan.

The person who was responsible for signing our conditions of approval list was a part-time subcontractor for the township who was also the Zoning Administrator for several other townships in the area. This meant that we had to place several phone calls until he answered and then he agreed to receive the paperwork by email. He reviewed the site plan and looked over the list of conditions to see if we had done everything. Knowing that a few of the items on the list were to be completed near the end of the project, he signed off and that got us one step closer to submitting the paperwork for the building permit. 

Sourcing ‘Select Structural’ Lumber

I called the structural engineer one more time to discuss a few specific areas of the project to make sure that I understood everything. One of the callouts that kept catching my eye was that every piece of lumber that I drew from the rafters to the floor joists was a grade of lumber called “select structural”. I had not heard of this grade of lumber before and the engineer explained that the lumber was stronger than conventional framing lumber. He said that we needed that grade of lumber to meet the floor and roof loads required by the commercial building code.

Because I was the builder on this project also, I asked him where he normally got this grade of lumber. “I don’t normally buy lumber, so I am not sure where,” the engineer told me. My immediate thought was that we had hit another snag in this process. I decided to send a message to our lumber representative to see if he knew where we could get this select structural lumber.

“I haven’t heard of that grade lumber in several years; it might be special order,” said our lumber representative. I wondered why the engineer would specify a grade lumber that wasn’t available. Before I gave up hope, I called another person that I knew in the lumber business and he was much more aware of this special grade lumber that we needed.

“Select structural lumber is the grade lumber the roof truss companies use when making roof trusses,” he said. “They normally stock all sorts of sizes and lengths.” I thanked him for the lead and called our lumber representative back up and asked him to check with his roof truss company. He called back with an excited tone in his voice to tell me that we could get whatever select structural lumber that we needed and it could be delivered within a few days. I told him that we did not start construction yet and that I would let him know when we were getting close to starting the project.

Preparing to Meet the Building Inspector

Like many builders, I am busy during the day building, and busy early mornings and late evenings working on drawings, paperwork, and bidding other jobs (all of that, of course, before and after family time). I spent all of my time outside of building working on the building plans for the wellness center so that I could get them finished and ready to submit with the building permit application.

Toward the end of the drawing process, a thought popped into my head about setting up a time with the building inspector and going over the building permit application and the building plans with him. Normally, builders are required to drop off the building permit application and building plans at the township office and then we have to wait for at least a week until we hear if we got the building permit or not. With every line that I darkened on the building plans, my excitement grew to get the building permit.

I left a message for the Building Inspector: “This is Adam, the builder working on the horse barn that will be turned into a Wellness Center. I would like to set up a time to meet in person so that we can go over the building permit application and building plans.” I provided the address and township also so that the building inspector knew who I was and what I was talking about.

Later that day, the building inspector called me back and we set up a time to meet the following Tuesday when he was at the township hall. Thankfully we were meeting outside of his normal hours, so that there were no distractions and he could focus on this one project. By setting the appointment with the building inspector, I was setting my expectations high that I could work full-time on a building project during the day and then go home to draw in the evenings. After many long nights, I finished the building plans and sent them to the printer to be printed.

This entire time throughout the drawing process and discussions with the building inspector and structural engineer, I updated the owners and let them know where we were in the process. I notified the owners that I was meeting with the building inspector on that upcoming Tuesday and I intended on leaving there with the building permit.

The dream of turning the horse barn into their Wellness Center was finally going to come true. I picked up the drawings from the printer and looked over the building permit application one more time to make sure that I had not overlooked anything.

Willing Ones and Naysayers

Tuesday arrived and I was motivated to get to the township hall and get the building permit. While I was driving to the township hall, I was thinking about every detail that I drew on the building plan. I felt very confident that there was nothing about the Wellness Center build that concerned me, except some of the subcontractors who would be working on the project. In the 17 years that I have owned my building business and worked on out of the box projects, I have learned that there are two kinds of people who come out to check out or work on our projects: the Willing Ones and the Naysayers.

The Willing Ones are always willing to work on projects that are out of the box, because they love a challenge and seem to like to work on projects that are unlike others. The Willing Ones are such a breath of fresh air to me and are people who will make me feel good for taking an out of the box project. I do my best when I am surrounded by positive people and the Willing Ones are always so positive.

The Willing Ones are not always my first choice to hire, though, because willingness doesn’t always mean that they have the skill set to do what I am asking them to do. Having people around me that always agree with me is not always good for the team — at least that is what I have discovered over the years.

The Naysayers can be a real drag on my excitement. The Naysayers will say things to try to derail the projects, things like, “You should have just tore this barn down” or, “Why would anyone want to turn an old stinky barn into a Wellness Center? If it were me, I would have stayed in town.”

The Naysayer, for whatever reason, will say something negative no matter how much excitement or passion I have in my voice. Although the Naysayer is a person who grinds my gears, I don’t always rule them out as a hire because the Naysayer may have worked on out-of-the-box projects before and has a skill set that is very useful. Having an antagonist like a Naysayer can sometimes coax out the best in me versus the warm and fuzzy feeling I get with the Willing Ones, because I feel challenged to investigate every possible solution and outcome.

I wasn’t sure who I would hire yet on the project but I was very sure that I had driven past the entrance to the township hall as my mind came back to reality. I turned around and headed back to the township hall.

“There sure are a lot of vehicles here for a Tuesday,” I thought as I found a place to park. I walked into the township hall and immediately saw several people sitting in the waiting area again. I walked up to the receptionist to see what was going on and she said that I could go right in, that the building inspector was waiting for me.

“Come in”, the building inspector said as I walk up to his door. I took a deep breath and went into his office.

Follow the full series as the saga of the horse barn to wellness center transformation unfolds.

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project Michigan. Adam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

When You Don’t Have Toilet Paper: Lessons from a TP-Free Household


As regular readers of this series know, most my life I've lived off the grid in some form or another. This lifestyle has taught me lots of quirky survival techniques and energy-saving skills.

For example, this morning I realize I never make a cup of tea. Rather, I always make a thermos of tea, and then I don't have to waste the heat or waste the teabag — you get three cups out of one teabag over the course of the day this way. My dad used to do that or he'd make a pot of coffee, put it in a thermos, and never have to worry about heating it up.

A Toilet Paper-Free Childhood

Frugality like this was more commonplace in the early part of the 20th Century, and extended to most rooms of the house, including the bathroom. I looked it up: For the most part, people in the U.S. actually didn't really begin using toilet paper until the 1930s after the Depression. It was available in the 1920s but didn't take off until a decade later.

Most of my youth, we used an outhouse (that way we didn't even waste our waste) and relied on pretty much anything you could possibly think of as toilet paper. I never thought I would write about this as it's kind of embarrassing for me, but due to our "shortage”, I thought it's time to talk about growing up using other options besides toilet paper. I never wanted to talk about this subject, because I thought my family imposed these rules because we were extremely poor, growing up in Tennessee in the poorest county in the state. But now, looking back I realize it was a conscious choice by my parents to figure out how to simplify and not rely on others as much as possible. We would only go to the store or town once a month.

Options for When You Don’t Have Toilet Paper

Newspaper is nice and soft, especially if you crumble it up. But don't use the slick ads, because it's got too waxy a surface on it and a doesn't absorb anything. The same thing applies to most modern catalogs; they now print them glossy so, as the saying goes, they don’t work like they used to.

Corn cobs. I have used the corncob method but we didn't have ready access to those. They can be surprisingly soft if all the kernels were properly removed.

Water body washing. In the summer, there were times that I went feral and just jumped in the creek afterwards to wash up. Or, if I wasn't near an outhouse when I was in the woods and really had to go, a small handful of dirt surprisingly did a good job. I’d then jump in the creek afterward and rinse. I tried to use leaves once or twice but beware of poison ivy — those are definitely leaves you want to stay away from

Cotton fabric scraps. We got given a whole bunch of old T-shirts and we ripped them up, used them and put them in a basket in the outhouse. Only use shirts or other linens that are 100 percent cotton so that they will fully decompose. The most sustainable and best method — familiar to anybody who uses cloth diapers — is to use strips of old T-shirt and after use, drop them into a bucket (with a lid) full of bleach water. When the bucket is full, run a load of laundry.

I look forward everyday to the interactions that I have on my Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page and hope you will join the discussion there. Stay energized.

Aur Beck has lived off-grid for over 35 years. He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

From Horse Barn to Wellness Center, Part 3: Seeking Fire Department Approval


Following the journey to remodel a horse barn into a commercial wellness center on a Midwestern property zoned for agriculture. This multi-part series recounts the considerations, pitfalls and ultimate successes of a green-building project with an ambitious scope to bring a defunct farm building new life as a natural health destination.

“I don’t want you to just draw a picture of my sketch, I want you to understand what you will be building and why,” the structural engineer said on the phone. He knew that I was going to be the leader of the team that was building and repurposing the barn. I decided that I could learn a lot about how and why a structural engineer thinks the way he does if I remained level-headed and did everything he said to do with the drawings.

Memories of college popped into my head during the design phase as the structural engineer marked up my drawings with red ink multiple times and sent them back to me. We went over each of the 26 details many times in order for me to get the drawings perfect and for me to understand each detail without a single doubt. The engineer would sign off on each detail only after he was confident that I had grasped the “what’s and why’s” of each. After any individual detail was signed off on as “OK” by the engineer, I would then add that approved detail to the finished set of building plans.

Adapting Design Sketches to Accommodate Building Additions

The original architect had drawn additions on the side and front of the existing barn, and the structural engineer now spent considerable time trying to create a way to make those possible to include in the remodel. For the addition on the side of the barn, we would have to remove a portion of the existing barn roof trusses so that the addition’s roof framing could tie into the upper barn roof. This would create a longer, shed-style roof coming off of the upper pitch of the existing barn roof.

The first sketch that the structural engineer emailed to me didn’t make much sense. The drawing was legible but removing the bottom of the existing barn trusses had me very concerned. We discussed how his sketched design would hold everything up.

The engineer asked me what process I would follow during working on that area of the barn. I told him that we would take everything in steps, one thing at a time, and work our way up to that roof so that we had a floor to work off of on the addition side of the existing barn. This meant that after the concrete slab was poured for the addition, we would build the main floor walls, then set the floor joists and subfloor.

We determined that we needed a detail for how the floor joists would be supported on the existing barn wall. We made sure to call out that the addition second floor had to be the same height as the existing barn second floor. I continued to explain how I wanted to build step-by-step and after we had the second floor walls up and sheathed, then we could safely work on removing the existing roof area piece by piece.

During the building process, this is exactly what we did and we safely achieved our objective, more on the building process later.

Moving from Structural Designs to Hand-Drawn Building Plans

As the engineer and I finished the details for meeting the commercial building code using the existing barn, we both felt very confident that the existing barn would be structurally sound after the additions were attached. The engineer told me that if I had any questions to let him know and he wished me good luck — it was time for me to start drawing the finished building plans.

Early on, I decided to hand draw the drawings, so that I could draw details that my CAD programs did not have. I also have discovered throughout the years, that I become very close with the drawings by hand drawing and being that close to the drawing allows me to see possible issues before we begin building the project. I draw the projects and lead the team on site, and that gives me multiple opportunities to find better ways to do things before we even start building anything.

At the beginning of the design process, I used CAD to conceptualize the owner’s ideas and mine in a medium that I could share by email. We took what the original architect had drawn and adjusted the drawings from there with his blessing. The drawings were really coming together! Soon they’d be done and I could submit for the building permit.

‘All Conditions Must be Met for Approval’

One early morning, as I was working on the final building plans for the Wellness Center, I got a thought in my head and it was about something that I saw on the township paperwork under the conditions section. I searched my email for the file that contained the township paperwork. I opened the file, and started to read the documents again. There was one line in that entire document that I was searching for because, for some reason, I could not get it off of my mind.

Then, I found it: Building permit may be issued only after satisfying all the conditions of approval, this form shall be signed upon completion.

I hadn’t paid as much attention to that line before while reading the township documents originally. I decided that I needed to review the list of conditions again and make sure that each line item was met before I finished the building plans so that I could immediately submit for the building permit.

I began to read the list of conditions of approval (each of which must be met):

  • The parking lot setback shall be no less than 150 feet from the west property line.
  • One parking space shall be accessible and barrier-free.
  • The walkway between the parking area and the facility shall be concrete and meet ADA (American with Disabilities Act of 1990) requirements.
  • Provide additional information on the site plan:
  • The gradient of the driveway serving the development.
  • Parking area drainage flow.
  • Location and design of on-site wells and on-site septic tank and tile field systems.
  • Provide landscaping buffer details on the site plan:
  • Trees shall be planted within six months of site plan approval.
  • Evergreens shall be installed at no less than 5 feet in height.
  • Species types shall be indicated on the site plan.
  • County Health Department approval for well and septic
  • County Drain Commission approval.
  • Fire Department approval. Driveways and drive aisles shall comply with Fire Department requirements for site access.

Seeking Fire Department Approval for a Commercial Remodel

After reviewing the document, I determined that the conditions listed at the top of the list were items that were either to be handled later in the process or for things that I needed to remember to add to the site plan before I sent it in for approval by the township. The bottom three items on the list were things that I felt needed to be addressed immediately. With a little effort, I was able to get the County drain commission approval and the permits for the well and the septic system from the County Health Department.

With both of the easier line items handled, I then tried to contact the local Fire Department. After a few phone calls, I found out that they were a volunteer fire department and the fire chief, whom I needed to sign off on the driveway design, was part-time and was hard to get a hold of. I started to call other fire departments in the area to try to track the Fire Chief down.

Finally, I got a good lead and was able to track down the Fire Chief. He was very helpful, and he told me exactly how the driveway was supposed to be built to meet the Fire Departments needs. I drew the plans for the driveway and emailed the plans to the Fire Chief. He signed the plans and emailed the plans back to me that day. We were getting closer to being able to get our building permit.

Follow the full series as the saga of the horse barn to wellness center transformation unfolds.

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project MichiganAdam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Marketing Homestead Products: Why You Need to Establish a Brand 101


Photo by Raw Pixel

The Marketing Homestead Products series offers market gardeners and homesteaders tailored advice for selling their goods. Consider the benefits and drawbacks of joining up with a CSA, renting a farmer’s market stall, and the various forms of advertising available to your farm-based business.

When it comes to operating a farm business, your ability to grow product is only half the responsibility. In order to become successful, you must also sell your product. Creating a brand for your farm is essential to your marketing success.

Farm branding is an essential piece of marketing homestead products. When you build a farm business, you are also building a brand. Your brand is how your customer views your business. It informs how you communicate with your customers and the values they associate with your products.

There are several considerations to keep in mind when establishing your farm brand. From your tone to your mission statement, you want your branding to be consistent and easily communicable. Let's examine how to build a brand for your farm or homestead products.

1. Personality

Your brand influences how consumers make purchasing decisions. Your brand should be exciting, engaging and empathetic. It should work for you, making it easy to market your product. The characteristics of your team should be apparent in your branding. For example, if you are light-hearted and funny, you want to share that in your branding.

2. Tone

Like personality, tone informs not only the message you are sharing but how you share it. You want your branding to be consistent and easily recognizable to your target audience.

Developing a consistent tone helps your customers remember your voice. Setting the right tone can also help you with internal operations by providing a set of guidelines to adhere to.

Especially when it comes to fresh produce brands, you want your tone to elicit an emotional response that reminds the buyer why they chose you. Is it because you are especially transparent about your growing practices? Is it because you offer entertaining tidbits of farm knowledge that they find amusing or useful?

3. Clarity

The last thing you want to do is confuse your customers. If your target audience is met with repeated confusion when purchasing your product, they will be less likely to invest in your business in the future. When you establish your brand, ask yourself how you can best communicate your story and values. The clarity of your brand is essential to improving transparency for your target audience.

Clarity goes beyond having a readable logo and a memorable farm name. For prime optimization, your branding should be evident in every corner of your marketing plan. Every environment, campaign and interaction with your customers should serve as an extension of your brand.

One of the best ways you can promote your brand is through investing in nameplates. Nameplates are a great way to improve brand consistency. For example, if you have an on-farm office next to your market stand, adding a customized nameplate to the building adds an extra degree of professionalism.

4. Relatability

People want to feel like they can relate to you.

With the boom of social media and consumers seeking authenticity in the brands they support, it is vital to communicate to your customers that you are a real person. For example, you may think that your best sales strategy is to post picture after picture of your available products. But this approach doesn't give your customers any information on who you are, why you sell this product or why you are passionate about what you do.

The way you communicate with your customers, whether via the written word or otherwise, has a direct impact on your perceived relatability. Small farms and homesteads can often seem more accessible to the public than multi-owner corporations. People want to know the story behind the person who picked their apples and harvested their pumpkins. They want to know they can trust the person who harvests their spinach and cucumbers.

5. Expectations

You want to communicate consistency in every interaction you have with your customers. Developing a brand for your farm business allows you to set goals for yourself and manage expectations for your customers. This can include anything from stellar customer service at your on-farm market to reliably fresh produce every time they buy from you.

You want your brand to serve as an extension of your mission statement. If you emphasize the importance of always going above and beyond for your customers, you are setting the expectation that this characteristic is a part of your farm's brand.

6. Credibility

Marketing is just as important as growing when it comes to running a successful farm business. It can be tempting to forget it and focus only on the ins and outs of running a farm. But at the end of the day, you have to have a market for your products to stay in business.

Branding your business increases the credibility of your farm. Selling a quality product or service is at the heart of any successful business. But unless you have effective branding, your consumers will be skeptical of whether they can trust you.

7. Mission

Establishing a brand allows you to formulate which attitudes and values you want customers to ascribe to your farm. From the homepage of your website to your product labels, you want your passion to shine through every element of your branding.

Your mission can be communicated as a tagline, a list of values or a short sentence. In the end, you want your mission statement to answer three questions for your target audience — what you do, how you do it and why.

8. Differentiation

An essential part of any business is establishing what it is that sets you apart from your competitors. Regardless of your product, you want customers to be able to differentiate between your product and someone else's.

Setting yourself apart from your competitors isn't always easy. You don't want to seem like you are forcing customers to believe you, or making promises you cannot keep.

The best way to differentiate your farm business is to proactively focus on sharing the best parts of your business. Instead of focusing on how you measure up to your competitors, turn your attention towards changes you can make to your brand to better communicate the value that you have to offer.

Farm Branding 101

When the core of your business takes place outside of an office, it can be tricky to figure out how to create a brand. After all, the majority of your time and energy is invested in quality products, which should easily sell themselves, right?

Establishing a brand is an integral part of any business, whether you work in agriculture or finance. Creating a farm brand can be an introspective process that allows you to evaluate what you most care about and how you want to communicate that with your customers.

Building a brand for your small farm or homestead will make it easier to work on your marketing plan in the future. Knowing who you are, what you have to offer and the environment you want to create for your consumers is essential to your success.

Kayla Matthews writes and blogs about healthy living, sustainable consumption, eco-friendly practices and green energy. In the past, her work has also been featured on Grit, Mother Earth Living, Blue And Green Tomorrow, Dwell and Houzz. To read more from Kayla, follow her productivity and lifestyle blog: Productivity Theory. You can read all of Kayla’s Mother Earth News posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

50 Years of Money-Saving Tips!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS for 50 years and counting, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters

click me