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

How I Chose a Border Collie as a Working Dog Breed, Part 2: Lessons from a Stock Dog


Photo by Pixabay/JGaland

There is an excellent book written by Bruce Fogt entitled Lessons From a Stock Dog that is a must read for anyone looking to own a Border Collie. I borrowed the book from a friend, who had and uses Border Collies on her farm. There is a series of videos that go with the book and if you get both, it is an investment worth having.

The book alone is a great reference and lesson book. After reading it, I already knew I was way behind the curve, with Allie, but she was forgiving and she became my teacher. I just had to realize, she was trying to explain to me, how, she wanted me to command her.

She learned from me that I would not mistreat her, but would praise her greatly, when I learned something from her and that built trust between us. I was not disappointed in my decision to get her and she was totally amazing!

I was tasked with moving 900 steers through two pastures,which meant two gates in two miles with a dog and a horse. Allie took her position on the opposite side of the herd and moved back and forth between her side and half-way towards me, continually watching, me, the steers and where we were headed.

If I noticed a steer falling behind, I called Allie’s name and pointed, she would look and immediately run after the steer, circling and using her eyes, to move the animal back with the others. Inside, I was excited and thinking, “this is too easy!”

When we had the cattle, penned, I dismounted and petted Allie. That is when I noticed, she was smiling! Yes, Border Collies will smile, especially when they know they have done something good. Over the years, Allie has learned to smile on command and is a constant ham, when we have visitors.

The second week of work, Allie continued to prove herself. She and I gathered a sick steer from the pasture. As we neared a pond and the dam we needed to cross, to get to a gate, Allie takes off, running around the pond.

As I drove the steer across the pond, Allie had almost gotten to the dam. I yelled at her to get away, thinking she was going to turn the steer back on me. I waved my arm for her to move back, but she didn’t move away. She laid down, hiding herself in the grass.  As the steer reached the other end of the dam, he turned away from the gate, toward Allie. When she sat up and stared him down, the steer turned around and walked quietly through the gate.

Allie had taught me a command, and how to command her. I had raised my hand and dropped it, to tell her to get away, instead, she dropped down. That hand movement is now a common command for all my dogs. If they can’t hear me say the command, they can look at me and watch as I move my hand from above my head, down to my side. They will drop to the ground and wait for the next command.

Learning to listen to your dog is important. They cannot speak, but their actions can tell you much. Watch them; learn how they respond to you and what they want to learn from you.

Border Collies are amazing, with over 500 years of breeding behind them, can certainly teach you a lot. They are great teachers; you, the owner, must learn to listen to what they have to show you and figure out, how they want you to command them.

All working dogs, bred to herd or to protect livestock have pedigrees that were bred for specific work and reasons. Working dog owners must understand the reasoning behind the breeding, the reasons for the breeding and be able to recognize that natural ability or trait and then figure out how to maximize that ability with a simple command.

Breeding, practice, patience and a lot of trial and error is involved but once you get it figured out, there isn’t anything you and your dog can’t manage.

Mary Powell is a goat rental business owner and agricultural educator with more than 27 years’ experience working on ranches, farms and feedyards. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science from Kansas State University with an emphasis in Livestock Production Management. Follow Mary and her many misadventures with the goats on Facebook at Barnyard Weed Warriors and Ash Grove Goat Ranch or on her website.  If you have questions for her about her goats or Border Collies, email Mary at

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.

New Beginning from Failure: (Re-)Starting My Self-Sufficiency Journey


In 2015, I wanted to start and work on achieving our goal of becoming completely self-sufficient and to help others achieve the same goal by documenting and writing about our journey. I was out of town and relatively close to the MOTHER EARTH NEWS office, and so I told the editors my plans. I wrote my initial blog post, kept trying to live the lifestyle, kept writing, and the rest was supposed to be history — right?

The fact is, like many things, I did it all wrong! I did know quite a bit about gardening and had written several newsletters, but that was pretty much it. I didn't prepare well at all when it came to chickens, vermicomposting, and everything else I tried and it cost me, and not only in the checkbook. I was also working a full-time job and even though it was a very good job, I didn't want to be there. My family and I were renting but had hopes of moving in the near future, so I didn't want to invest a lot of time and money into a place that we did not own.

Seeming Failures Mount

So if you add up my homesteading failures, my job failures, and everything else that went wrong, things were really rough. My life, just like my garden, was being overtaken by weeds! I mentioned in the initial post that I was going to write about my success and my failures so everyone could learn what to do and what not to do, and I fully intended on doing so. The only problem with that was, the only thing I had to write about at the time was my failures, and I think people don't want to read about someone who was failing all of the time.

Over the last few years, things did not go all that much better — until recently. My attitude had been terrible, which has led to more of the same. The gardens each year would increasingly get more weed- and bug-infested, my composting worms dwindled down to nothing, I sold off all of the remaining chickens, and since I really didn't care about much and what I was putting into my body, I gained a lot of weight. I also got a new job that ended up not being what I thought it was going to be, and we thought we found a house that would actually be ours. The house deal went through a not-so-normal course and then on the day we were supposed to close, things went south and we backed out of the deal, which also caused a lot of stress and turmoil.

Faith in the Process, and in Yourself

I know this blog has been a downer at best, recounting all of the negative things that have happened, but I felt like I had to mention it in order for this story to unfold from here. The best news needs to make sense and sound that much better. You see, even though our time on this Earth is relatively short, God gives us several chances to make ourselves better no matter what the circumstances! Each morning it is up to us to make our days great by making better choices than what we did in the past, and not letting the bad choices get us down.

As you can tell, in the past I handled my bad situations terribly and let them get me down. Instead of learning from them, I whined about them. My jobs may not have been what I expected but I have learned a lot of useful knowledge, in which, some of it has already paid off, plus have made several good friends !and business contacts. I have been able to study more about gardening, writing, chickens, and vermicomposting, plus realizing that I would also like to do a vlog about some homesteading subjects that I never thought of before. We are still renting and I am just starting on working on my health, but I now have a much better attitude about it and know what to look for when thins affect me negatively.

Join Me on this New Beginning

In closing, I want to thank the readers and editors of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for joining me on this New Beginning!  I am looking forward to all of our victories of not only growing and raising vegetables and animals but also growing a business of helping people become more self-sufficient. Yes, I know that there will be failures along the way, but is it truly a failure if you learn from and correct it? I think not!

Jeremy Obermeyer owns and operates Obermeyer Heritage Farms with his family in Gypsum, Kansas. Obermeyer Heritage Farms is an all-natural farming and gardening operation using organic techniques to grow only heirloom vegetables and raise only heritage breeds of livestock. Connect with Jeremy on Facebook, and 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.

4 Steps to Making Your Backyard Chickens Happy During Winter

Chickens in Winter

We all know that keeping chickens during the winter can be difficult, particularly when the snow and frost comes!  So in this article I’m going to share with you 4 steps you can take to keep your chickens happier this winter.

Keeping the Coop Warm

Your hens will be spending a lot of time in the coop during the winter, so the first thing you need to do is make sure their coop is ready. You have three main things to do here:

1. Eliminate drafts

2. Insulate

3. Add heating (sometimes)

As far as eliminating drafts you want to make sure you have no gaps or holes in the coop. If you do they need sealing up, otherwise your chickens might get frostbite. Once you’ve eliminated any drafts you need to insulate the coop. You have a few options when it comes to insulation, but my favorite is to use Styrofoam boards. These boards can easily be cut to size and glued in place; just make sure to cover any Styrofoam with wood because your chickens may peck at the foam and it is toxic for them.

Finally if you live in cold areas (anywhere below freezing) then you may need to consider heating the coop.

Making the Run Safe

Once you’ve made the coop suitable you can turn your attention to the run. You have two main things to keep in mind here: security and comfort.

First let’s look at security. During the winter time predators will get very hungry and with this comes an increased desperation to hunt. This will make them even bolder when it comes to attacking your chicken coop and chickens. You should make sure the perimeter of the run is properly secured using hardware cloth. If you live in an area with predators known for digging (Coyotes or Foxes) then you need to also bury the hardware cloth horizontally to prevent them digging into the run.

Once you’ve made the run secure you need to keep it comfortable for your chickens. When it snows or freezes you need to cover the ground with leaves or straw, as chickens don’t like walking on snow.

Feed Them The Right Food

As your chickens will have stopped laying during this time, you can slightly reduce the protein in their feed, however this isn’t mandatory. Most people will continue to feed their chickens layers pellets during the winter.

You can however, add chicken scratch to their diet during the winter. I like to give it to them as a treat each evening just before they go into roost. Feeding them scratch will kick on their digestive system which will provide them with some warmth as they go to roost.

If it’s exceptionally cold you can also feed them warm porridge in the morning; mine love this! Be careful with adding syrup to it though; lots of sugar isn’t good for your chickens. You should just feed it to them plain or with the occasional piece of fruit added.

KeepThe Water From Freezing

Lots of people don’t think twice about water during the winter but this would be a mistake.

If you’re in an area where it doesn’t freeze you just need to keep to the usual routine. However if you live in an area prone to freeze you need to be very careful with their water. You can either use a heater waterer or you will need to visit the waterer several times a day and break the ice out and replace with fresh water.

I hope these four tips help make your chickens’ lives a little easier during the winter!

David Woods is a carpenter, outdoorsman, and author with more than 30 years of professional woodworking experience. He is the author of best-seller How to Build a Log Home and has educated more than half a million people on how to build a log cabins.

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.

Cracking the Chicken Code: How to Change Local Backyard Poultry Ordinances

Boy Collecting Backyard Chicken Eggs 

Are you like me and put the egg before the chicken? Were you ready to roll with your new flock of feathered friends only to realize there’s a law against it? You’re not alone — and you don’t have to take no for an answer.

I was shocked when I found out our city had a municipal ordinance that made it illegal to raise backyard hens. We’d moved less than 5 miles but had to give up our girls when we moved in.  So, in 2016 I worked with my city council to change our municipal ordinance. Beyond voting, I’d never been involved in anything governmental. If I can do this, anyone can do this!

Many cities are changing their chicken code, following the increase of homeowners who are interested in gaining more control over their own food sources. Whatever you reason for wanting to raise your own backyard hens, know that the work is more than repaid in delicious, nutritious eggs, from eating your kitchen scraps, creating amazing compost not to mention the entertainment and garden companionship a backyard flock provides. As one survey reports, most urban/suburban chicken keepers have been at this five years or less. Just another reason to stay tuned into your online news sources for up to date information.

Here are some easy steps to follow to help you change the Chicken Code in your neck of the woods!

What’s on the Books?

The first step is to find out your city’s current municipal ordinances for backyard chickens. You can start by searching your city’s website. It’s usually under municipal code (get ready to search for a bit) usually listed under ‘keeping of animals’. Here’s how our Keeping of Pigeons and Chicken Ordinance reads now.

Or if you don’t have the patience for that, and don’t mind the city knowing you’re questioning this, you can call the main admin number and ask them to direct you to the correct part of the code. Also, good to note when the current code was adopted.

Lay of the Land

I talked with neighbors and friends about how they felt about allowing our suburb to raise backyard chickens. The responses skewed from middle of the road, to positive, to absolutely outraged that there was a law stating we couldn’t keep chickens.

Find out the history regarding the current chicken laws from past and present city council members. Our city had seen a hot debate that vetoed legalizing backyard chickens a few years earlier, and this was still on the minds of some of the city council members when I began the process.

In light of the existing councilmembers, I chose to wait almost a year until some new city council members were elected. If we had brought it up to a council where the two main naysayers were still sitting, and it didn’t pass, it would have been many years until the council would have considered hearing the issue again. I chose to play it safe.

Gathering your Flock

Woman Holding Backyard Chicken

I quickly learned that lots of people are involved in making any municipal code change. My newly elected city council member, Bill Walsh, took the time to set up a meeting and hear me out. He had done his homework before our meeting and agreed the time was right. Soon we were working with our city staff; for us it was the Planning and Zoning Coordinator.

I gathered basic info on 12 of the surrounding city’s laws. All cities that allowed raising chickens required some form of a permit. Prices were all over the place from $30 for a two-year permit to $75 for an initial application and $50 annual fee to keep the hens licensed.

I also spoke with the surrounding city staff regarding any complaints. The only registered complaints were from neighbors who heard roosters crowing, and those had been easy, if not pleasant, to deal with.

No city that I know of allows for roosters: the crowing is LOUD and EARLY! If you really want a rooster, it’s time to move to that farm you’ve always wanted.

I was also still communicating with my pro-chicken people, keeping them up to date and asking for input along the way. This meant I had a core group of people dubbed the Coop Troop, who were ready to talk about the benefits of raising chickens when it came time for the City Council meeting.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS itself has drafted its own Statement on Chicken Ordinances which is a great way to get the ball rolling when sending emails to gather support! Another great place to gather supporters is you local Feed Mill or chicken hatchery; since they are the places that sell the chicks and feed, they are a natural hub for chicken lovers.

We did it Our Way

Most City ordinances around us license the hens, but we wanted to license the chicken coop. This allows for a one-time involvement from the city instead of annual paperwork. It also generates some decent income for the city. Having a building/zoning permit for the coop also relieved some of the previous fears that people were going to have dilapidated shacks for coops (read lowered home values).

We compared recommended coop sizes and run areas. We thought about the height of fencing for the run and the yard. We talked about making sure the hens were safe over the cold Minnesota winters, which brought up extension cords as a fire hazard (they were ultimately accepted, as requiring people to dig underground conduit was found excessive). But these were all realities that needed to be dealt with.

We also suggested an article with more facts about raising hens be included when anyone goes in to request the coop permit. Our city wanted to educate on the front end to hopefully avoid issues later on. The City staff had a Hens/Pigeons Agreement prepared in time for the council meeting.

Getting our Voices Heard

Backyard Chicken Coop In Snow

Once we felt we had gathered enough information, we got it on the City Council Meeting Agenda. This process was carried out by my city council member. Any citizen can bring up an issue, but there can be a fee involved; which is why I choose to work with my elected officials from the start.

We spread the word that the council would have an open forum for the issue at that meeting through some social media platforms, emails and word of mouth. (Looking back, I could have put up info at the feed mills too.) I gathered the “Coop Troop” to speak on the issue and for moral support, we were ready for the city council meeting.

Of the dozen or so people who spoke to the issue that night, only one was against it. He was however very angry and ended up having a definite impact.

Once they closed the public forum part of the meetings and started discussing the issue, the council members brought up more questions. One question asked was if we’d have the right to butcher our own birds. Luckily one council member mentioned that we let deer hunters butcher their meat, so we should let hen owners do the same.

The city also brought up composting of spent coop hay and chicken manure. Many of the people who spoke in favor of the ordinance talked about how great the spent hay and chicken poop is for their gardens- the city reminded us that no homeowner can compost animal waste on their property. I’m not going to say what I do, but boy I grow some amazing vegetables in my gardens.

The Final Ordinance

The info gathering and speaking in public was all worth it. We ended up with a unanimous vote to legalize backyard chicken keeping! But it was a compromise; we asked for six hens but were allowed four.

The city council increased the setback footage for the chicken coops from neighboring homes. They also updated language regarding carrier pigeons and added backyard Bee Hives to the list of acceptable animal husbandry in our suburb. Overall, a win-win-win for the homeowner, the chickens, and the environment.

Fresh Eggs Daily

Currently in our town of roughly 26,000 we have 14 chicken coop licenses issued in the last three years. One of the fears of the former city council was that if they allowed raising backyard chickens everyone was going to do it. But raising hens for eggs in a backyard takes work, and not everyone is ready for that commitment. For those of us that are ready to put all our eggs in one coop, it is worth every bucket of water and scoop of poop!

Child Hand Feeding Black Chicken

For more info on why I think it’s SO worth it to have your own backyard flock, read another blog post of mine, Chickens in the Hood  found on my Forks in the Dirt website.

Links for reference: From the City of White Bear Lake, MN OUR APPLICATION for a chicken coop license (including educational info), and our current Keeping of Pigeons and Chickens municipal ordinance.

Michelle Bruhn is a farmers market coordinator and local food advocate in Minnesota, where she Forks in the Dirt, a website that supports local farmers with interviews, social media, and other promotion. Connect with Michelle on Facebook and Instagram.

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.

Choosing a Breeding Gilt

Huge Hairy Pink Breeding Sow 

Choosing a breeding animal of any species can seem overwhelming if you don’t know what to look for.  Choosing a gilt that you intend to breed is no different. I’m here to guide you through the process of choosing a breeding gilt.

Body structure. The first thing that you’ll want to look for is structural correctness. You’ll look at the pig to make sure that she is built correctly and will be able to hold up for you for years to come.  She should have nice straight legs. When you view her from the side, her back should be level and her back legs shouldn’t be tucked under her.

Look at her from behind and watch her walk away. She shouldn’t have sway in her hips. If she does, that’s a poor indication that her back end isn’t built right. One of the most common issues pigs have is leg problems. Prevent that by choosing breeding gilts with correct legs.

Musculature. Next, you’ll want to look at her muscling, similar to how you would look at a pig that you would raise and take to market. She should have good muscle definition. You should see muscling in her hams, along her loins and in her shoulder. Remember, she will be passing some of these traits onto her offspring, which you’ll be raising as meat animals, so meat characteristics are important.

Reproductive traits. She should also have sound reproductive traits. You should look at the vulva and teats on gilts that you are considering to breed. Make sure that she has at least seven good teats on each side. Check for inverted or blind teats. Piglets will not be able to nurse from these, so you want to make sure she has enough good teats to nurse a large litter.

Also, look at her vulva. A pig’s vulva is shaped like an upside down teardrop. The point should aim down towards the ground. If it points up, this can get in the way of natural breeding. It can also indicate that she has some reproductive issues inside that you cannot see. It’s best to stay away from an upward tipped vulva.

Femininity. Lastly, she should look feminine and able to carry a litter of piglets. She should have decent length and body capacity. When you look at her head, she should have a feminine face. She shouldn’t look like a boar in the face. She should have a trim neck and head.

When you’re trying to pick out a gilt to use in a breeding program, it can be hard to choose the right one. I would put the most weight on structural correctness. If she can’t walk around comfortably now, she’s going to have major issue when she is carrying or nursing a litter of piglets.

I also like to put emphasis on muscle qualities. What good will she do you if she can’t have piglets that don’t have good muscling? Lastly, check her reproductive traits and make sure that you won’t run into problems there. If you get to the stage of making sure she looks feminine, that’s not quite as important. I’ve seen many top-producing sows that could have looked more feminine in the face.

Shelby DeVore is an Agriculture Educator in western Tennessee, where she works with education companies to create study materials for college students who are interested in taking the certification tests to become agriculture educators. She also works as an Agritourism Consultant to help farmers increase visitors and promote their commodities. Connect with Shelby at

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.

Clothes When You Are Living Off Grid


When you are Living Off Grid you don’t have tons of chances to get dressed up but rather need hardy clothes that last. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the one or two classy outfits for weddings, funerals, or going out, nor does it mean you can’t have style but since you will be, in general, not dressing to impress you are looking for clothes that will last the long haul.

As I was growing up we washed most of our clothes by hand really scrubbing them over rocks in a creek or over a wash board (yes they have a purpose besides mounting them on a wall or to be used to make music) which is very hard on clothes thus most of our clothes were of thicker cloth usually either cotton or for pants and long sleeves the canvas variety.

When we live off grid we need to produce our own energy for doing laundry to both run the washing machine and pump the water but also to heat the water thus we figure out that having fewer clothes and rewearing the clothes a few times/days means doing less laundry. Thus spending  thousands less money for our home energy system. How many times do you wear something before you wash it? I know our work and/or winter coats got washed only when being put away in storage. Yes they would get filthy looking but who are you washing them for if you care about appearances? So by having fewer clothes and not caring about appearances as much when you are working on your homestead you greatly reduce time and energy maintaining appearances.

Since I was the oldest I don’t remember many hand-me-downs, but I am sure my siblings would feel differently about getting to wear something an older sibling had worn, once they had out grown it. It seems to me that this didn’t happen too often as we tended to wear out clothes.

Of course when we go to the thrift store to buy, we buy what is available which is not always the highest quality but that is part of the treasure hunt of thrift storing. Never have the mentality that I should buy this just because it is cheap but rather think how often will I use it and how long will it last before it wears out. Last week, I got two really nice for going-out shirts; one was a silk shirt from the West Indies and the other was a linen shirt from Barbados. I paid $5 each for these high quality very nice shirts and I expect them, unless I gain a bunch of weight, to last me at least 5 years if not 10 years as I won’t be using them regularly. Thrift stores or second hand stores or consignment shops are great to visit when you are traveling as different areas tend to have different types of items in the stores. Once, in California, I came across a pair of Italian dress/dance shoes for $10 and they were having a half price “sale” for certain things. I didn’t find out about the sale until I was at the counter so that was a pleasant surprise. Those shoes were of such high quality that even though I wore them every weekend when I went out they lasted my more than 10 years when the soles started cracking and than I got them resoled for about $50 as they are so comfortable and nice looking. 

Living Off Grid means learning the necessary skill of sewing, although you can also find someone who is highly skilled in this art to barter, or work exchange with for the more detailed jobs. I learned to sew basic rips or when I popped a button (which is becoming more common as my clothes get older and I get fatter). I use dental floss to sew on buttons and sew the buttons on kind of loose so they don’t rip out and are easier to button. I know my mom did sew some low quality quilts by sewing a couple of blankets together and adding some fringe but I don’t remember us ever really making any clothes even when we got a treadle and later a regular sewing machine. Mostly we just sewed ripped clothes or patches over worn out knees and elbows. My dad had a pair of pants that had so many patches over the worn out parts that it looked like a work of multi colored patchwork art. The pants were very heavy and almost could stand up by themselves. By starting with a high quality pair of pants it made it worth while to continue to repair them. Eventually you have put so much time and energy into repairing them you can’t throw them away but have to continue repairing them as happened with dad’s Multi Colored dream pants. Do you throw clothes away once they get a little rip or lose a button?

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

Stay energized, aur

Aur Beck has lived completely 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

A Story of Two Stoves

Old and new stoves

Something about a wood stove crackling away on a cold day just seems fitting for a homestead. When we purchased our home, its antique cook stove was a selling feature for us. The old stove had a firebox, oven, water tank, and six “elements”. It boasted lots of character and produced a lot of heat. The stove was invaluable when the power was knocked out by an ice storm or high winds.

But all was not sunshine and roses with the old stove. It was impossible to close down the airflow to maintain a slow burn and the stove consumed several cords of wood during a single season. We didn’t risk baking anything in the oven, though we did use it occasionally for roasting vegetables and meat. If we stocked it fully before bed, it would burn through the wood within a couple hours. And with nothing but a grate as the floor for the firebox, the ashes and coals would fall through so that a new fire had to be started from scratch each morning. We used the stove to supply heat during the day but each night our propane-fueled furnace would start-up. We discovered later that the firebox was outfitted to burn coal.

The stove was also housed in a single-story addition to the original home and most of the heat it produced was trapped under an 11 ft ceiling so that the remainder of the house dropped steadily in temperature while the addition began to feel like a sauna. We tried to spread the heat throughout the house with ceiling fans and strategically placed floor fans. We went a step further and did some minor renovations; we enlarged a doorway and added a ventilation fan that took the heat trapped beneath the ceiling blew it into the second storey hallway. We had mediocre results. It was time to decide which was more important - an antique cook stove with lots of character or an efficient, modern wood burning stove? One thing we knew for sure, we did not want to depend on propane for our heat - but we needed to improve our current stove situation.

Chop Wood, Burn Calories

We knew we wanted to use wood to provide (most) of the heat in our home. For one, it enables us to buy our fuel locally and to support our neighbors. Within the last decade the Emerald Ash Borer had decimated the ash trees in Southern Ontario and the dead trees provide an excellent  source of quality firewood. Secondly, natural gas and propane have a much higher cost. They must be mined, processed, stored, and transported, and all by specially trained personnel, high-tech facilities, and specialized vehicles. The price varies based on forecasted supply and demand. Not so with firewood.

True, heating with wood does require more work. What, with the collecting, splitting and stacking of the firewood, and then hauling it inside and later cleaning out the ashes...only to do it all over again. But using wood to heat a home does connect a person to the earth in a way that flicking a furnace switch never can; it makes a person more aware of the effort and energy required to produce heat. And, at least for me, a realization of the stamina and fortitude of the early pioneers. And if calories matter, much more are expended dealing with all that firewood than fiddling with a thermostat.

In the end, we decided to sell our antique stove and replace it with a modern cook stove. Unlike the older stove, our new model is a gasification stove. The gases produced from burning the wood can be cycled back through the firebox and re-burnt. The result is little to no particulate pollution coming from the chimney and less creosote build-up. The new stove also uses a third of the wood because it is lined with firebrick and is relatively airtight. Following a day of burning, we find enough coals buried in the ashes to quickly ignite another fire.

When it’s time to clean out the stove, we sprinkle some of the cooled ashes onto the garden beds. Certain plants prefer the alkaline nature of wood ashes better than others so we distribute appropriately. For example, asparagus plants prefer alkaline soil, whereas blueberries prefer acidic, and do not appreciate a dose of wood ashes. We’ll also periodically dump the ashes into the chicken run where they are mixed into the bedding. We only do this after the ashes have sat outside for several days in a steel bucket and we are sure that there are no longer any live coals. The chicken run is our main compost bin and the chickens do a great job of turning it over for us. We have another spot where we put compostables and will sprinkle ashes onto this pile periodically. Another use for our leftover ashes is to spread them on our gravel driveway where they take the place of lime and decrease the vigor of weeds. During snowy or icy conditions, the ashes sprinkled along the driveway provide traction and, being a darker colour than the surrounding snow, melt the ice off quicker.

And no, an oil, propane or natural gas furnace can’t supply a person with the multi-use “bonus” that is wood ashes, nor with a chance to burn some extra calories. We’re happy we updated our stove… but I, for one, still miss the character of the old one.

Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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