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Homesteading and Livestock
Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Marketing Homestead Products: Should You Rent a Farmer's Market Stall?


Photo byAvel Chuklanov

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.

If you operate a small farm or homestead, chances are you've considered joining a farmer's market. These markets are steadily increasing in popularity, with 8,600 of them in the United States, and new ones are popping up all the time. 

While they can be incredibly lucrative, they require a regular time commitment and face-to-face engagement with your customers. When choosing which one you'd like to be a vendor at, make sure your business goals align with what the market can offer. 

To get started, you'll need to rent a stall or booth. The costs are often reasonable and vary based on the location. Some markets rent out stalls once per season and require full attendance with little flexibility. Others may be available for lease each week or month. Whatever the situation, research your local area to find out which opportunity is best for your situation. 

If you're interested in learning how to join a farmer's market, discover the numerous benefits of renting a stall. 

1. Customer Visibility

If you are a new or beginning farmer, markets can be a great way to meet new and potential customers. Depending on your business strategy, it can also be an excellent way to attract people who may not be close to your property. 

In many states, farmers must travel a significant distance to command decent prices. In these situations, markets can be an ideal way to meet those who may not be able to see your farm physically, but still want to support your business. 

2. Marketing Opportunities

Most farmer's markets come with some degree of free marketing. Your name will be on their website as a vendor, and pictures of your stand or booth may appear on their social media pages or newsletters. Your physical presence at a market is also a benefit if you have other streams of revenue that you want to advertise. 

For example, you may sell a limited selection of products at a farmer's market, but the majority of your income is from your CSA. While the farmer's market may bring in some revenue, it serves the dual purpose of also sharing your name and product with a world of potential customers.

3. Community Engagement

Farmer's markets are an incredible way to connect with other producers. For instance, if you decide to set up at one of the five biggest markets in Baton Rouge, you can meet people who sell fruits and vegetables, baked goods, dairy, seafood, spices and more. This variety of offerings can be beneficial if you specialize in one area but want to collaborate with others. 

For example, a food truck at the farmer's market may try your fresh produce, using your tomatoes on their burgers every Saturday. Not only do you gain a valuable connection and a weekly buyer, but you also increase your community engagement. 

4. Low Start-Up Costs

Selling at farmers' markets is relatively inexpensive. Depending on your location, you may be able to find a small, local space to try out before you feel comfortable joining a larger establishment. Because of the low cost of investment, markets can be a low-risk solution for homesteaders. 

The trickiest part about becoming a vendor in a decent farmer's market is not the cost, but the limited availability. Many highly competitive markets, such as urban areas like New York City and Washington, DC, are challenging to get into. Most vendors have been in place for decades. When they leave, there is often another farm, or multiple, on the waiting list to take their place. 

5. Competitive Prices

Most homesteaders can garner high prices at farmers' markets due to where these spaces are situated. In the United States, for example, society is becoming increasingly urban. Experts predict that by 2050, around 66% of the global population will live in cities, where the cost of living tends to be higher.

When farmers travel to large markets, they can sell their products at a higher price. Small and local markets also command higher prices than wholesale. People prefer to buy direct from the grower, rather than going to a grocery store where products get shipped in. The added transparency allows buyers a greater sense of awareness and responsibility when it comes to their food. 

6. Limited Liability

If you've considered opening an on-farm establishment but don't want to make the infrastructure commitment, farmer's markets can be a great place to start. With this option, you won't face any concerns over liability, because the market carries this responsibility. 

A market also comes with other added amenities, such as bathrooms and parking. When you set up your booth or stand, all you have to worry about is your products and the customers. 

Selling at a Farmer's Market

Now that you know how to sell at a farmer's market, it's time to decide which one is right for you. Markets vary in size, location and function. Some only take place during the summer months, while others are semi-permanent operations. Your local space may function as an attraction on weekends, emphasizing arts, entertainment and baked goods. You can also choose a more dutiful place, one open all week, and attempting to fill the need of a grocery store.

Regardless of these variations, a farmer's market can be an excellent way to attract customers, gain traction in your community and sell your product for a higher value. Renting a booth or stall is a necessary step in joining a market. Luckily, however, the process is easy and affordable.

Read the full Marketing Homestead Products series.

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, and 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.

Beating Boredom on the Homestead

multiple ways to beat boredome 

Multiple ways to combat boredom, from enjoying coffee and a book to painting, and even wildlife watching and baking.

Upon writing this article, our world is facing the COVID-19 virus that has so many people in quarantine, or their government has encouraged people to stay at home and children to no longer be in school. Because of this, people may find themselves looking for ways to stay entertained during this time of distancing and avoiding the crowd.

For the homesteader or self-sufficient individual, you may be saying- "I have enough things to do already!" in this time. Right now, Spring has arrived and crops are on the mind. But for yourself and others, I hope this will serve as a list of ideas for things you can do with your family and ways to keep your mind busy so that you can beat boredom in the future!

Pick up a book. Perhaps you have a few dusty books on the shelf that deserve a good read. Now is the time to pick one up, and find yourself a title that you'd like to read for the first time, or perhaps read once more. Brew yourself a cup of coffee, whether its the electric pot or a percolator on the wood stove, and sit down with a good book! 

Training pets/livestock. No matter the circumstances, animals still require our care and attention. But if you have down time, this is a great opportunity to work on training and teaching your animal friends some useful things. Give clicker training a try, and help an impatient dog learn to sit and wait for food. Exercise your horse that hasn't been ridden in awhile, and go back over basic ground work.

Try a new hobby. Now is the time to give a new hobby a shot. If you've been wanting to learn to play an instrument, finish a large puzzle, identify the constellations, or even pick up woodworking- this is your moment! Remember, we live in a time where internet capability allows us to order the necessary tools and items online, and even watch tutorials with video streaming if you have the ability to.

Work on crafts. If the kids are at home with you, this is a great opportunity to get together and work on some crafts! Make a birdhouse or feeder from material around the house, and teach them about the type of birds that visit and show them how hard our feathered friends work to build their own nest. Get a head start on some potential Christmas gifts, and spend some time in the workshop on these projects.

Prepare the garden. Spring is the time to organize your seeds and pick what you'd like to plant. The garden and fields need to be plowed, and it will soon be time to sow. If you do not currently have a garden, consider building yourself at least a raised bed/elevated box with some scrap wood laying around and learn about heirloom seeds. Get hands-on and tend to your seedlings until one day before you know it the harvest has come, and fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, or an ear of roasting corn is on the table!

Watch favorite movies. Whether you have a few old VHS tapes, a DVD collection, or a streaming service, consider watching a few movies! Re-watch a childhood favorite, or stream and rent a new release you wanted to see. Gather together and even watch old home movies that may include loved ones no longer with you, and reminisce on those moments.

Go for a nature walk. Enjoy some fresh air if you can by taking a walk outdoors. Scout for animal tracks and identify deer trails that may help you next hunting season, or keep an eye out around the poultry pens for potential predator tracks. If you've got a pond, take yourself a cane pole and go fishing. This is another great opportunity to teach your children about wildlife, and help them lean to identify different animals and how they live.

Make a checklist. What are some things that you would like to accomplish this week? Make yourself a checklist of those things, and find satisfaction in putting a check mark beside each thing you complete. This is a great way to organize your thoughts and necessary chores.

Spring cleaning. Spring brings to mind for some the action of cleaning up the home or the shop. Now is the time to set aside a few boxes to donate or have a Summer yard sale. De-cluttering the home has often been synced with de-cluttering of the mind, and some folks find peace in getting rid of things no longer needed or rearranging the furniture.

Try a new recipe. Check out the pantry and see what ingredients you have on hand, or flip through a recipe box handed down through the generations. Pick yourself a healthy meal or even a new dessert to try out. Even try a new spin on a favorite drink, and make something such as strawberry lemonade.

Call a friend/family member and catch up. Take a moment to call someone today and just catch up, check on them, and encourage them. If you have a friend needing a kind word, or a family member in another state you haven't seen in awhile, give them a ring and just say hello.

Keep your mind healthy and active by trying new things, or preparing for the Spring and Summer seasons, and enjoy each day! While these are just a few ideas to combat boredom, whether on the country homestead or a city apartment, I hope that they will serve as a foundation for other ideas and activities that will help you make the most of down time.

Photo by Fala Burnette, Wolf Branch Homestead

Fala Burnette is a homesteader with her husband at Wolf Branch Homestead in Alabama. They are currently building their own log cabin and milling their own lumber, along with raising heirloom crops in the Spring and tanning furs during the Winter. Read all of Fala'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.


Make an Emergency Plan Book for your Homestead

volcano evacuation plan 

Volcano evacuation plan.

You Know It and Live It! Farm Life is great, it is wonderful- but ask a dairy farmer when they last had a real vacation and they might look at you funny-“What is this word you say, ‘vay-cay-shun’?”

Did you ever hire a babysitter to look after a child and not give them detailed instructions?  Doubtful!  Prepping for a farm sitter is no different. Planning for a trip helps to ensure that everything goes smoothly, but it is The Unexpected that suddenly pulls you off property which might cause unforeseen issues.  Mandatory evacuation orders? Natural disaster? Family member far away needing care or assistance?  Does your partner need to be hospitalized for several days? What if it is you that needs to be in the hospital?  Who will manage the farm-property-livestock-pets in your absence? You might be lucky to find a farm sitter on short notice, but how will you give them all the information needed to cover the bases?

Compile a Farm Emergency Plan Book (a.k.a The Farm Sitter's Manual)

Write down a list of every bad thing you can imagine that might happen to you, your family, your farm, and your surroundings.  House fire, barn fire, wildfire, flood, tornado, lack of electricity, downed fencing, drought, medical emergencies for you and your family.  What other things might pull you away?  Parents?  Relatives?  Friends?  For the sake of argument, go ahead and add “planned time off.”

Now- how can you assist someone who will step into your muck boots? I would suggest making a binder with all the pertinent information needed to get the job done.  It should be as foolproof as you can make it.

Begin with your own name, farm’s physical/street address, phone number, email.  GPS coordinates might be helpful too.  The following lists are the bare bones for such a plan- make your notebook an extension of yourself.  Add to it often and update the information as phone numbers and contacts change; it cannot be overdone! I would even recommend to put each page in a plastic sleeve to make the pages “water resistant.”

Your farm sitter has a mighty big responsibility in your absence and your foresight and preparedness can make a huge difference between a so-so job and a great experience. You might even enjoy that vacation!

Emergency Contacts

  • List of Neighbors by name, phone number, email and physical address/directions.
  • Veterinarians: Names, contact numbers (it helps to already have a Doctor/Client relationship)
  • Utility Companies: phone number, website (is there a special number to call to report outage?)
  • Local Law Enforcement: emergent and non-emergent phone numbers.
  • Fire Department: emergent and non-emergent phone numbers.
  • Ambulance: emergent and non-emergent numbers.

List of Livestock/Pets

  • List of all livestock and where they are located/housed- a map of your property is handy for this.
  • Categorize each with a tab- write down specific information so if, for example, one of your twelve goats is ill, the person holding the notebook will know which one it is.
  • Add notes on herd behaviors; who is friendly, who is wary, who is too friendly…
  • Don’t forget barn cats.

Daily Routine

  • Begin in the morning and give an outline of what is done each day.
  • Be sure to include things that might be done once a week (like watering the garden).
  • Describe how you go about doing the tasks yourself- e.g., how do you call up the animals?
  • What is fed and how much do you feed? Where is the feed?  What measurements do you use?
  • Do grazing areas need to be changed? What is the rotation and how is this accomplished?

Where Things Are and How to Do Them

  • Keys to tractor? Keys to house? Keys to farm gate padlocks? Do you have a stock trailer? If evacuation is called for, can the farm sitter load and transport in your place?
  • Will your farm sitter be using the tractor and where is the fuel?
  • Does the mail need to be picked up and if so, where would you like it to be kept?
  • If the power goes off, do you have a generator? Is there a main safety throw switch so you can tie the generator into your farm circuit? How is the generator started? Does the power need to be on and if so, for how many hours a day?
  • Where are tools for simple fence repair? Wire? Temporary fencing? How do you typically fix your fencing?
  • Where do you keep your livestock equipment/medications/first aid? If you are really organized, you can even add directions and dosages for certain medications to be administered in your absence. A goat might come down with bottle jaw the day after you depart and a deworming would be in order if your farm sitter knew what to use and how much to give.
  • Oh no! An animal has died!  What do you do with the carcass?
  • Oh my! An animal has given birth! Make notes if you are expecting birthing to be going on and your typical procedures to handle this.

How You Can Be Contacted

  • This information should be kept in a clear plastic sleeve at the beginning of the book and updated each time you are leaving the farm. How can you be reached, where will you be and for how long.
  • Tell your neighbors that you have such a book and where it can be found. Inform them that you included their contact information in it. 
  • Don’t hide the binder, but make it easy to see- “The emergency plan is in the red binder beside the computer.”
  • Between your planned and scheduled trips, the binder will be ready in case of emergency.

 cow and calf

Your cow probably will not need assistance when calving, but leaving your farm sitter with an emergency plan book will give YOU peace of mind!

In a perfect world, time away from your farm will be planned well in advance and you can personally go over your notebook with your chosen farm sitter.  Ask them questions, have them ask questions- there are no silly/bad questions! Your own family members, if farm sitting for you, might not know what to do in certain situations. In the event you are pulled off your farm with little to no warning, you will rest easier knowing that you have left your farm in good hands.

Mary Jane Phifer is a heritage cattle farmer and owner of Steel Meadow Farm in Mansfield, Mo., where she and her husband raise Irish Dexter cattle and Spanish commercial goats on their farm. Read all of Mary Jane’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

Farming Smarter, Not Harder, Part 2: Herd Size and a Farm Business Plan

goats eating cedar 

You know you are short on forage when a cedar tree is a treat!

Last time, I wrote about the beginnings of our Missouri farm and our problems with grass. This installment will conclude with our continued struggles with numbers and how we finally (maybe) got smarter.

Keeping Track of Livestock Numbers

Numbers mean livestock head count as well as an annual business plan review. First: the census of animals on your farm. I cannot tell you how many posts I read in social media that are the direct result of problems from overstocking. (Caveat: I am also guilty of this.) Our cattle numbers have fluctuated between the five calves we started with up to about twenty-four when the “big drought” hit, then back down to about twelve or so. Our goat numbers went from the eleven we brought with us from Virginia to nearly sixty, then (again, after the drought) down to a handful.

As years went by after the Big Drought of 2012, the fields recovered and improved each year. Lower stocking rates in addition to Management Intensive Grazing (MIG)  and stockpiling forage has many benefits- the sod thickens, grass species improve and runoff all but ceases. Gradually our cattle and goat numbers increased in response to the surplus grazing. We would rotate grazing paddocks and move the cows and the goats here and there, but I was not really keeping track of the numbers/animal units we were attempting to carry.

We had friends contact us who owned livestock we had sold to them in the past, asking us to buy them back as they were cutting back on their own herd numbers. We had plenty of grazing and obviously we did not learn anything from 2012.

A breeding herd of a bull and a dozen cows would do fine on our farm. A herd of mixed goats of 50 or so would do fine on the farm. Both herds together however put stressors on the forage, in addition to the lack of rains after the haying, that I should have paid attention to. Livestock numbers had gradually increased, we cut hay again, had a drought, and now we are in a tight spot. Again. Would we ever learn?

Secondly, something that would have saved us some pocketbook-ache would have been yearly reassessment of our farm’s business plan which is more than just projected expenses and income.  We started with a plan but we did not reevaluate it. For a few years, we were certified by Animal Welfare Association, now A Greener World, which meant we had to update our business plan annually. Two years ago we decided we no longer wanted to participate in the certifications, and with that, our annual business plan evaluation stopped as well. Major mistake.

Had I been keeping a tighter check on our numbers, stocking rates, animal grazing units, I might have avoided the hay fiasco we now find ourselves in. Lesson point; make a plan and update it annually. “Farm blindness” happens to us all.

heifer trio

2020 Irish Dexter heifer calves ready to sell.

Smarter Thinking for Goatherds

As the fall months of 2019 progressed and the days shortened, we acknowledged our mistakes. Cutting hay was a big error, we should have left the forage in the field.  Allowing our stocking rates to exceed what the pastures would carry under stressed conditions was just as bad a judgement call, if not worse. We were putting out fires of our own making. It was time to get smarter. Also, we are aging. Even more outrageous, we want to do things off the farm, you know, things that start with a “t” like travel.

Since the MIG paddocks had been taken down for haying, we decided to redivide the 12-acre field into three permanent sections with 4-by-4 woven-wire fence. This would allow contained grazing for the livestock, including wee baby goats and calves, in the section we desired and the other two sections gated off for regrowth. The “east” field that once had been nine MIG sections was permanently fenced into two sections, following an old terrace etched across the field. We still use electric twine and a solar charger to subdivide, but one strand (not three) to keep the cows where we want. Goats can duck underneath, knowing goats will go where goats want to go, within the allowed woven wire section.

Will this be the best way to utilize our forage? Time will tell, but future haying is out of the question and we know for certain that stockpiling forage and MIG practices do pay off. These changes should help with our Grass Problem; but only in growing forage and grass. Next we needed to reduce the numbers of mouths eating the forage.

We advertised our cows, selling the youngest of our breeding females first followed by the middle-agers. Currently, we are back to where we started with a bull and four cows. The goats, bred for spring kidding, will be evaluated with pen and paper after the kids are on the ground and again at weaning. Kids and does will be weighed for productivity and rate of gain. Culling the bottom 25% annually is a surefire way to optimize your goat herd. We cannot afford to keep and feed the slackers but I do not want to cull goats too early as sometimes the best producers are the not the beauty queens. Reducing livestock as well as looking over our business plan in a regular fashion will address the Numbers Problem.

Smarter thinking also encompasses the garden, which can quickly turn a pleasurable thing into a dreaded chore. I love to can and learned we don’t have to grow tons of tomatoes, green beans, okra, cucumbers and such every year.  “Canning crops” are now on rotation, which also helps us with plant rotation. Compost from the goat barns,chicken coop and kitchen makes a fine soil amendment and by all means, put that pile near the garden!  Now that we are “gardening for two” our needs are smaller; reviewing the pantry stores and adjusting the varieties of vegetables we need. 2020 will be a green bean year and I found a variety of purple podded pole beans.  Purple pods should be easy to see- no more lost beans hiding in foliage.  Ditto for red okra. 

Yes, I would love our farm to make a profit every year by selling calves, goats, milk, soap and honey. How can we earn money while avoiding the unexpected expenses that are the result of our own farming ineptitude?  Farming smarter, that is how. Take a step back and look at your farm with the filter off- ask friends for their opinions, review that business plan and if you still do not have one, make one.  Do not get lulled into a false sense of security when you enjoy a few consecutive years of lovely, perfect weather.  Plan for the worst every year! You have read all the articles, posts, blogs and no doubt have come to the conclusion what works for one does not work for all; I am preaching to the choir. You can farm smarter and not harder if you remain flexible, set your goals, learn from mistakes and be fearless in making changes.

Mary Jane Phifer is a heritage cattle farmer and owner of Steel Meadow Farm in Mansfield, Mo., where she and her husband raise Irish Dexter cattle and Spanish commercial goats on their farm. Read all of Mary Jane’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.

Pet Peeves: Addressing Dog Abuse and Neglect with Education


My pet peeves may not be your pet peeves and some may clearly disagree or have their own opinions. Pet peeves can all be different but this blog is solely designed to initiate specific thinking into why some people are so ‘dogmatic’ in handling and treating their dogs in certain ways.

Riding In The Bed Of Pickup Trucks

Number one pet peeve is when I observe a dog/s riding in the bed of a pickup truck. Having been involved in animal rescue over the years, I have heard many justifications for why owners allow their dogs to ride in the bed of a pickup truck. I have also known of instances where the dog was thrown out of the back of the truck accidentally. In one case the driver went around a corner too fast and the dog fell out, fracturing its pelvis. In another instance the dog had its leash secured inside the bed and was half hung and dragged a distance.

Owners should really think about the safety of the animal and keep the dog inside the cab of the truck. The owner may be a good driver and normally exercise caution but what about the inadequate driver who is distracted or runs a traffic light or stop sign and hits the vehicle? The dog then becomes a projectile flying through the air. If you really love your dogs, keep them inside the vehicle where they will be more protected.

Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

Number two pet peeve is chaining dogs outside in the yard instead of having them in the house with the family. Domesticated dogs still exhibit pack tendencies and they still crave togetherness. While humans don’t look, smell, act or think like dogs, they do represent a pack in which the dog feels comfortable. Dogs look to us to provide them security, affection and protection in their environment. While some breeds may be more protective of their family/pack, they also expect us to provide them protection as well. 

When the pack is inside the house and a dog is chained or confined outside, they are effectively banished from the main pack. I have heard people say that their dog prefers the outdoors to being inside with the rest of the family. I don’t find that a totally acceptable excuse. There are any number of reasons the dog may “appear” to want to remain outside as opposed to inside with the pack/family. If a rescue, the prior owner may never have allowed it inside and that is the dogs limited experience. Perhaps the dog never received the socialization it needs to be an integral part of the family/pack.

Adopting a Senior Dog

Our senior dog Bozwell, who will be 13 years old in a few weeks, is an example of an outside dog. He was rescued from halfway across the country from a kill shelter after he had escaped from his chain link back yard by unlatching the gate. We were ultimately able to learn some of his history which revealed he was kept outside, “out of sight and out of mind”. He finally at nine months old took matters into his own paws and left where he was neglected. While seeking his freedom, he sustained injury to his paw and caught an intestinal  disease from contaminated water. His owners did not even initiate looking for him for six weeks and by then he was with us.

Pampered and Spoiled

We were waiting for him to be transported across country to adopt him. He is now inside with us and is very content and happy. At his senior age, he lounges around the house on one of the five dog beds or the sofa and sleeps a lot. Senior dogs especially deserve to be inside and tenderly cared for, pampered and spoiled in their declining years.

My third “pet” peeve is unlike the above two insomuch as they deal with owners not thinking about their conduct; or owner negligence. This peeve pertains to those who abuse or damage dogs. Theirs is intentional and I can’t find words to describe in decent terms their conduct. It is good that most states and the federal government now have animal cruelty laws to punish them.

Restoring an Abused Dog

Anyone who has adopted a previously abused or neglected dog knows that the animal sometimes has fear issues. That was the case with our adopted girl Sarah. She would run and hide behind furniture when visitors came. She was afraid of noises and only by never raising our voice or even scolding her when she did wrong, coupled with gentle handling, did we restore her self confidence. It took us years, not months, to see her restored to her normal loving confident self. Abuse in any form in my opinion is inexcusable and Sarah revealed she was seriously damaged by abuse.

It was a very slow process with small increments at a time to help Sarah recover her trust and confidence. Even when we took her to the veterinarian she would cry pitifully. Visits where they would make a fuss over her and not treat or minimally treat  her helped her immensely. At home, coaxing her out from hiding to meet new people who would make a fuss over her also helped. She would hug my leg but to help her we needed her to actually venture out to meet people. Various loud or unusual noises she never quite got over but eventually tolerated.

Different Forms of Abuse 

Our senior girl, Ruby, was apparently confined to a small room because she refuses to enter our pantry or bathroom (both small). At her senior age, we have decided we do not have to change that dislike of hers. Ruby has no other obvious signs of being abused. Animal abuse at any level is totally unacceptable in my opinion and separate from negligence or neglect. Those who abuse animals should be severely punished and made to understand any abuse is not allowed in society. It is my opinion that there should be a national registry for animal abusers much like exists for sex abusers.

Photo courtesy from Google Images and Bruce McElmurray

Bruce McElmurray homesteads at high elevation in the Southern Rockies with his wife, Carol. For more on their mountain lifestyle and their observances of animals coupled with their strange behavior, visit Bruce’s personal blog site at Bruce Carol Cabin. 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.

Preventative Chicken Health with Nutrition and Natural Living

white layer that is sick
"My hens have stopped laying all of a sudden." 

"I don't know why my chickens have started picking on each other; they've never done this before." 

"I've recently had a few eggs that were misshapen and one didn't even have a real shell... it was soft." 

I don't know how many times I've been told stories like this from people that raise chickens.  They want to know what's going on with their flocks.  Most of these people are just normal folks like me and you that are trying to raise healthy birds for eggs or meat.  But, all of them have a common problem: they aren't providing the proper preventative care to keep their flocks healthy.

You see, chickens are really good at hiding when something is wrong and they do this for a very good reason.  In the wild, chickens are prey animals.  If you've ever watched a show on National Geographic, you probably know that predators will watch their potential prey before striking.  Predators will single out the old, sick, injured or weak animals to attack.  Chickens have evolved to not show signs of weakness as a way to avoid being targeted by predators.  So, when a chicken is showing signs that it's hurt or sick, that means it's really hurt or sick. 

It's very easy to overlook a chicken that has a health issue. It's much easier for us to prevent illnesses and injuries than it is to try to treat them once they turn into a major problem. 

I've put together a chicken first aid kit checklist that will help you to prepare a chicken first aid kit for almost any chicken emergency. You can find it for free here.

One of the easiest ways that we can keep our chickens healthy is to ensure that they are living a more natural life and are provided the best nutrition possible.

A More Natural Life

Chickens are busy bodies.  They wake up before the sun and keep busy until dusk. Chickens that are allowed out during the day are often found scratching and pecking consistently throughout the day. They don't take a break and nap during the day. It's just not in their nature. When we keep chickens in a coop, we're robbing them of the ability to be active.

Chickens can become stir-crazy and bored if they are left to their own devices or are overcrowded in their coop. If you must keep your chickens cooped up, there are some things that you can do to help keep them busy and entertained during the day.

Toys can be an excellent stimulant for chickens. My two favorite boredom busters for chickens can be easily made at home with things that you probably have laying around the house. 

Take an old soda bottle and remove the sticker from it. Clean it out and poke holes all over it. Fill it with scratch grains and put the top on it. Your chickens will see the grains in it and start pecking at it.  When it rolls around, it will slowly let out seeds. This will provide hours of entertainment for your flock.

You can also meet their need to peck at things by hanging an ear of corn or a head of cabbage from the chicken coop. They will peck away at it. When they peck at it, it will move, making it a challenge for them to eat it. This is another toy that will provide hours of entertainment.

If possible, the best thing you can do for your flock is to allow them time out of the coop. Even an hour or two a day can have serious impacts for your flock's health. The most ideal situation would be to let them out daily to free-range, but it's often hard to do that with predators and flocks that live in suburban or urban areas. 

Feeding for Health

Many chicken illnesses can be linked to poor nutrition. Even the most well-meaning chicken owners can end up with chickens that suffer from nutritional illness from time to time.

If you keep your chickens cooped up, odds are that you purchase a pre-mixed commercial chicken feed. Pelleted feed is the most commonly fed chicken feed out there. These feeds are created to meet all of the nutritional needs of chickens and they usually do a decent job at it.

However, the nutrients found in chicken feed can break down over time.  It doesn't happen often, but when it does, your chickens can develop nutritional illnesses. Common signs of nutritional deficiencies are misshapen eggs, reduced laying or reduced growth rates and cannibalism. 

It's important to keep a close eye on your chickens if their diet consists of commercial feed. If you start to notice health problems or reduced production, consider either turning your chickens out for some forage time or adding supplements to their diet. 

An excellent supplement to add to chicken diets is the dried meal worm. They seem gross to us, but to chickens, they are the ultimate treat. They are packed with protein and nutrients that chickens crave.  Meal worms can be costly to buy, but they aren't when you consider how few it takes to give your chickens a protein boost. A small handful of meal worms is enough to satisfy a dozen chickens. 

Shelby DeVore is the founder of Farminence. She's an animal expert with more than 20 years of experience raising chickens for meat, eggs and show. She also taught high school agriculture and FFA. She taught many poultry science courses and coached numerous poultry judging teams. You can read all of Shelby’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.

3 Methods for Heating Greenhouses for Free

Greenhouses can be interesting environments to grow in. This is because standard greenhouse materials like glass and plastic (“glazing”) are extremely good at letting in light and heat in, and extremely good at letting heat out. With so much glazed surface area, greenhouses usually overheat during the day if uncontrolled. And because glass and plastic provide no insulation, at night they lose all that heat, causing them to freeze. Take this October day in Boulder, Colorado for instance: An all-glass greenhouse fluctuated from a high of 110 F to a low of 30 F in one day. Plants, like people, do not like this.

The primary challenge with greenhouse growing is stabilizing these temperature swings. Conventionally, people do this by blasting energy via heating or cooling systems into the greenhouse. But the smarter, more sustainable way of creating a stable greenhouse environment is to harness the excess solar energy coming in during the day, store it and use it at night. Or, if working with an existing greenhouse, to add an efficient heater that uses cheap and renewable fuels. These strategies all take understanding and research, and have some upfront cost, but the pay-back in terms of added growing and long-term savings is well worth it.

Also, remember there’s no cheaper energy than the energy you don’t have to use, so if designing a new greenhouse, build it so that it does not require much heating and cooling in the first place. This means using building a air-tight, insulated structure, using proper roofing materials, and orienting the greenhouse with the glazing facing South — where all our light in the Northern hemisphere comes from. If growing in an existing greenhouse, you can insulate your greenhouse and weather-strip air leaks among other things. Reducing your energy requirements to a minimum is always the first step, then incorporate the strategies below.

1) Store solar energy in thermal mass

The easiest and most common way to even out the temperature of your greenhouse is utilize thermal mass, also called a heat sink.  Thermal mass is any material that stores thermal energy. Most materials do this to some extent, but some do it much better than others. Water for instance, holds about 2 times as much heat as concrete, and about 4 times as much as soil.

Incorporating mass does two things. First, it absorbs excess energy during the day, creating a cooling effect. When the temperature drops at night, it starts releasing that energy, thereby ‘heating’ the greenhouse. Note: though I say ‘cooling and heating’, the thermal mass is not actually providing the energy, it’s simply storing it and releasing it later, like a battery. The size of the battery (or how much energy you can store) depends on the heat capacity of the material and how much mass you have. Below is a table comparisons a few different sources of thermal mass and their heat capacities.

Thermal mass and heat capacities chart


The most common way to use thermal mass is water barrels, because it has such a high heat capacity. By stacking several 55 gallon drums of water in a greenhouse, the grower can incorporate a lot of thermal mass. Barrels should be stacked where they are in direct sunlight, often on a North wall. Since plants will be warmer around the water barrels, put more tender plants — like seeding trays or warm weather crops — on or near the barrels. Growing with an aquaponics system — growing fish and plants symbiotically — has the nice benefit of the fish tanks doubling as thermal mass. Other variations include building concrete or stone into the greenhouse — such as using a concrete North wall or flagstone floor. Even the soil in raised beds will add thermal mass.

While the easiest to install, thermal mass can be slow to react. It takes longer to disseminate the heat throughout the greenhouse, limiting its effectiveness. But, given the low upfront cost, adding thermal mass to a greenhouse is a popular method for extending the growing season. It may not get you year-round growth of all things, but it can certainly take your greenhouse to the next level.

2) Incorporate a heat exchanger

Pipes in an underground heat exchanger

To go one step beyond standard thermal mass, you can incorporate a heat exchanger to circulate air through the source of mass. This idea goes by many names. It’s often called a Climate Battery or a Subterranean Heating and Cooling System (SHCS) — a name popularized by John Cruickshank of Ceres Greenhouse Solutions, based in Boulder, CO, also has a variation of the system called a Ground to Air Heat Transfer (GAHT) System.

There are many configurations, but the mechanism of energy transfer and storage is always the same. When the greenhouse heats up during the day, a fan pumps warm humid air from the interior of the greenhouse through a network of pipes buried up to 4’ underground (most systems consist of a couple layers of tubes buried at 4’ and 2’ below the surface). The drop in temperature forces the water vapor to condense, and in that process (called a phase change) energy is released. That energy is stored in the soil, causing the soil to heat up. Thus, the process creates a large mass of warm soil underneath the greenhouse year-round. At night, when the greenhouse drops in temperature, the fan kicks on again and extracts that heat from the soil. It’s a relatively simple, time-tested system; ground to air heat exchangers have been used in homes for decades.

3D model of an underground heat exchanger

A ground to air heat exchanger works very well for two reasons: First, the amount of available mass (the size of the battery as we mentioned before) is huge. For example, there are 768 cubic feet of soil beneath a 12’ x 16’ greenhouse, assuming a 4’ depth. If you lined the whole North wall of the same greenhouse with two rows of 55 gallon water barrels (16 barrels) they would have a total of 118 cubic feet of mass. That means, using the volumetric heat capacities in the table above, the underground heat exchanger has about twice the capacity as the water barrels. Moreover, because a ground to air heat exchanger connects to the deep earth and thus theoretically has an infinite capacity. For a diagram to better understand this, see CERES Greenhouses picture here.

Secondly, because air is actively being pushed through the ‘battery’ it increases the rate of heat exchange. The hotter / cooler air is distributed around the greenhouse more evenly, preventing cold pockets. Additionally, using fans allows you to use the mass when you want: a thermostat kicks the fan on and off at certain set temperatures. I.e., the fan will start pumping warm air down into the soil when the greenhouse reaches a set temperature (say 80 F), and draw it back up when it has gone below 50 F. Thus, an underground heat exchanger gives you some control over thermal mass; it’s kind of like taking thermal mass and making it smarter.


The material of the battery can vary. Some people backfill the area underneath the greenhouse with gravel or stones instead of soil. If you already have a greenhouse, or can’t excavate on your site to do much ground work, you can create an alternative battery above ground. You can build an insulated mass of soil or other material, such as a box of river rocks in front of the greenhouse. The system works the same way, only the location of the thermal mass is different.

3) Use an efficient renewable-powered heater

The above systems show you how to harness the sun and store solar energy, which is a good first step to natural heating. If additional heating is needed, consider a highly efficient heating system that runs off of cheap and renewable fuel.

Rocket mass heater

One of the common systems used in greenhouses is the rocket mass heater, a super efficient variation of a wood stove. Instead of just exhausting hot air straight out of a chimney like a standard wood stove does, the rocket mass heater first circulates the hot air through a mass of cob, brick or stone before it’s exhausted out. The air warms the mass which holds the heat and slowly radiates it back into the greenhouse over a long period of time, even after the stove is done burning. The rocket mass heater also uses a double combustion chamber, making it much more efficient than a standard wood stove — a couple hours of a burn with a small amount of wood can heat a greenhouse overnight. Most rocket mass heaters are DIY systems; you will have to investigate and design a system that fits for your greenhouse using the plethora of plans and explanations online.

Compost pile under construction

Another common greenhouse system is the compost-pile heater, which relies on the magic of aerobic bacteria to break down organic material and give off waste heat. Like the underground heat-exchanger, a compost heater also relies on a heat exchanger: water is circulated through tubes running through a large compost pile. Because of the aerobic decomposition, a compost pile can maintain temperatures of 100-160 F. The heated water is then is circulated through the greenhouse where it dispenses heat. Of all the systems, this one probably takes the most tinkering to get right and keep going. You must first build your compost pile with the right material and consistency to get it to a high temperature, and keep adding to it or re-building the pile as it decomposes. However, a large, properly constructed pile (see picture below) can keep a 1,000-2,000 sq. ft. greenhouse heated for a winter. For these reasons, compost pile heaters are often best suited for larger greenhouses.

Completed compost pile


Which way to go? Several factors play in:

What are your goals (how much space are you trying to heat, and to what degree)? Each system has a different capacity for heating. How much control do you want to have? (Some systems are active and some are passive. (i.e., You can crank up a rocket mass heater but there’s not much you can do to change water barrels).

What constraints are you already working with? (i.e., difficult/rocky soils will rule out an underground heat-exchanger.) Think about how much floor space in the greenhouse you have for things like water barrels. And most importantly think about the time and labor involved in installing each system, as well as the on-going time/labor that it can take to run each system (i.e., an underground heat exchanger can be automated, whereas a rocket mass heater cannot be). Again, while you need to do some homework upfront, having a warm greenhouse churning out fresh food throughout the winter (and free!) is the best payoff you can get.

(Top) Photos courtesy Ceres Greenhouse Solutions: Pipes in an underground heat exchanger for a 12 x 20 greenhouse. 3D model of an underground heat exchanger below ground.

(Middle) Photo courtesy Verge Permaculture: Rocket mass heater in a greenhouse.

(Bottom) Photos courtesy Golden Hoof Farm: Compost pile in mid-construction with tubing for aeration. Completed compost pile.

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

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