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

I'm at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Fair!

My husband and I haven’t missed a single year of the Mother Earth News Fair since we first discovered the phenomenon four years ago. Our first M.E.N. fair experience was at its original venue, Seven Springs, PA, not far from Pittsburgh. Since then, we’ve been going to the much closer Asheville, NC, fair, but this year, we decided to return to the mother of them all. (The fair is currently held in six locations from Vermont to Texas to Oregon.)

waiting for the fair

Eager fair goers wait for the gates to open.

Why the Pennsylvania Fair?

First of all, it was here where we were first introduced to these extraordinary fairs that encourage a more sustainable lifestyle. Then there’s the beautiful drive that for us follows the Appalachian mountain chain through beautiful rolling hills and pastoral countryside. But the main reason we wanted to come back to Pennsylvania is because this version of the fair gives you an extra half day of workshops for the same low price as the two-day events elsewhere. Hard to resist.

My first day was a full one.

Our first stop at the fair was the Mother Earth News bookstore. It’s chock full of how-to and diy books on all sorts of topics: alternative energy, tiny houses, food preservation, animal husbandry, organic gardening—the list goes on. And a coupon for 25% off bookstore purchases comes with every ticket. The books go fast. We left with a big armful (as usual.)

Mother Earth News Fair bookstore

 Bookstore at the Mother Earth News Fair

Then it was on to the workshops. We usually split up so we get twice as much information. In the evenings, we share notes and debrief. My day’s workshops started with Herbal Salve-Making with Claire Orner. Claire was generous with her salve-making recipes. I left knowing how to make salves for arthritis, headaches, inflammation, memory, and more. I can’t wait to start making my own.

Then it was off to a workshop led by Victor Zaderej of Happy Leaf LED. Victor showed us a quick, easy, ad space-saving way to grow vegetables hydroponically indoors using mason jars, clay pellets, and water. The key to this quick results method is to use LED grow lights. Intriguing.

In just a few minutes Kirsten Shockey whipped up a pepper ferment all the while demonstrating a few hacks and extolling the many virtues of this ancient food preservation form. I thought I knew a fair amount about fermentation, but I didn’t know ferments don’t have to be salty. And I’d never thought about fermenting herbs (they keep their fresh flavor) or condiments. Kirsten made me want to rush home so I can try a mustard ferment.

I spent the day’s last workshop period learning about backyard foraging from Ellen Zachos. Did you know you can sauté early spring hosta shoots? Or make a spice from from sumac berries? Ellen’s show and tell covered twenty-five common plants that might be found in your front yard as well as in the wild. I love the idea of foraging. As Ellen pointed out, foraging gets you out in nature, gives you exercise, and provides you with free food. Besides, finding food you can’t buy for any amount of money is just a fun thing to do.

how to forage

Ellen's book on backyard foraging

Whew! That was a lot to pack into an afternoon I didn’t have much time to check out the two hundred plus vendors. But that’s what tomorrow’s for.

Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts by following this link. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.


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.

Safety For Lonely Homesteads

 

It isn’t a secret that living remotely exposes one to a certain risk; in fact, there are thieves and burglars specializing in remote homesteads and farms. However, in Israel it is more than this. Because of the regional conflicts and tensions in our country, if you live in a remote place and hear intruders in the middle of the night, you can never know whether they are after stealing sheep or murdering innocent people, so one has to practice double vigilance. 

A famous local case was that of Shai Dromi, a farmer from southern Israel who shot and killed an intruder in 2007. There was an uproar of left-wing activists who objected to shooting someone who “only” sneaked onto private land to steal some property. The problem is, when you spot an intruder, you can’t very well ask, “excuse me, are you a terrorist or only a thief? Because if it’s the first, I’ll have to shoot you, but if it’s the second I can afford to wait for the police.” It’s absurd and puts the life of innocents at risk. Dromi was eventually acquitted, and Jewish farmers and homesteaders finally got some much needed legal backup.

Nevertheless, living remotely can get scary without the proper precautions:

Fencing

A good solid fence (electric or not) can greatly increase one’s feeling of personal security, but fencing can be hard to do on rambling, uneven or very rocky terrain. If it isn’t practical to fence off the entire property, I would suggest erecting a fence at least around the house itself.

Guard Dogs

When we first moved into our old house – which was located on the fringes of a tiny settlement, with no neighbors in sight – I was a little apprehensive. I grew even more apprehensive when my husband announced that we will have to keep a dog for safety purposes. I’ve never had a dog; never felt comfortable around dogs, and never thought I’d find myself taking care of one. Still, I had to admit that my husband has a point, as nothing deters intruders so effectively as a large, alert and protective dog.

Our dog was a German Shepherd/Belgian Malinois cross and, while she was a wonderful and intelligent dog, ultimately she didn’t prove to be a wise choice for us. She was way too energetic for me to handle (especially close to the end of our residence in that place, when I was pregnant with my son), and she didn’t really get along with other livestock. OK, that is a euphemism: she tore some of my favorite chickens to shreds. I still shudder when I recall the trauma. We were looking for another home for her when we sadly and unexpectedly lost her to the bite of a venomous snake. It really was quite tragic and heartbreaking – she was a great dog, just not for us.

At our current home we have no real need of a guard dog, as we are surrounded by neighbors, but if we ever keep a dog again, it will probably be one of the Livestock Guardian breeds that do well around other livestock.

Security Cameras

A visible network of security cameras surrounding a house can be very off-putting and will hopefully make intruders chicken out. These can be interspersed with some hidden cameras, which can provide valuable records to present to the police in case the criminals neutralize those cameras they can see.

We are lucky enough to have some connections in security, and my husband was able to install our cameras himself. In general, there are many options, more or less affordable, to suit pretty much any budget.

Motion Detectors

For a brief period we had motion detectors at work around our house, but we soon had to disconnect them because any rambling wild boar or stray dog would send us into alarm mode. If you don’t normally have large animals prowling around your house, motion detectors can be a good choice.

Guns

Many of our neighbors keep guns for self-protection and even sleep next to their guns, especially during times like Sukkot (feast of the Tabernacles) when Orthodox Jews sleep in makeshift buildings outside the house. I realize that the issue of guns may be controversial, but guns carried by citizens have saved lives in the face of terrorist attacks. 

This was an excerpt from Your Own Hands: Self Reliant Projects for Independent Living

 Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna'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.

Tree Felling: Safety First

 

Safety reminders can come at unexpected times. We have lived in the mountains of S. Colorado full time in our small cabin for over twenty years. During that time I have cut many dead trees for firewood. The longer we do certain tasks the more familiar we become with the procedure and the more confident we become. Recently I went to cut a dead aspen tree that was about 40’ high, dead and straight and tall. This particular tree had a clear area to fall into except for a small 15’ pine tree in its falling path. A pine tree this size should easily push aside or break off; therefore I did not pay it that much attention. That turned out to be a serious mistake and my wrong assumption cost me dearly.

There are several ways to fell trees and the most common is cutting a notch on the side it is to fall and then cutting from the opposite side of the tree to the notch hinge. I usually reserve that technique for larger trees and on smaller trees like the aspen I cut on a downward angle and almost through the tree and then use wedges to force the tree to fall where I want it to. (not a recommended method). That is the technique I chose to use with this tree. (see photo)

Everything went as planned and the tree proceeded to fall right where designated. I had plenty of time to step back out of the way putting myself a safe distance from the base of the tree. Suddenly things went very wrong. The aspen tree fell with precision into the smaller pine tree and the pine bent over holding and supporting the middle of the aspen tree. The base of the aspen shot up about 15’ into the air and then the pine tree sprung back throwing the aspen like a spear back toward me but above me. The base of the aspen hit another rather larger pine behind me and then started to roll down the limbs of the large pine tree toward where I assumed I was safe. I reacted by ducking under the falling tree to the opposite side but I did not quite make the preventive move fully.

I ended up on the opposite side of the falling tree lying parallel to it and on the ground. I have a serious bruise on my hip to show for my wrong assumption. I had made a common mistake by wrongfully assuming that this aspen tree was large enough to strip branches from the small pine tree or break it off on its way down. That mistake came very close to being fatal and I’m more aware now of not making assumptions but instead apply more calculated evaluations. I’m thankful for being able to write this blog which I am hoping will benefit others from making a similar mistake.

Look First

On any homestead it is easy to fall into routines when in reality we should spend a few moments and look more carefully at the task at hand. While 99 trees would fall exactly where we would want them to fall that doesn’t mean that number 100 will do the same. I once cut a large aspen that was dead and appeared to be solid. I cut into the tree 2” and the tree started to fall. The entire inside was rotten and I cut the only part of the tree that was holding the 18”  diameter tree up. I was able to move out of the way in that case but the shock of a large tree uncontrollably  falling was a rude wake up call.

I am normally far more cautious plus I use safety measures to perform tasks with any risk of harm. On any questionable tree I use a rope or long steel cable and a hand winch to pull the tree over safely. I also use a hard hat and safety glasses that give me more protection from falling limbs. I did not do that in this instance and a falling limb knocked my ball cap off my head and it landed several feet away. The tree itself fell approximately 12’ behind the stump which is usually a very safe zone when falling trees. I usually carry a walkie talkie with me so I have communication with Carol at the house in case of any emergency situation. I did not do that this time and therefore had to limp back to where I parked the tractor in order to get home. In short one small miscalculation can easily compound matters drastically.

There is a moral to this story and it is this: On a homestead when something that carries risk seems routine do not assume it will turn out routine. Look at it as an individual challenge and if in doubt don’t assume but instead take precautions that will insure your safety. I share this embarrassing event to hopefully help others to think the matter through before engaging in a ‘routine’ task for your own safety. I believe I am a very careful person but in this case I made two mistakes. I went ill prepared and assumed the tree was like all the others and would fall easily. Instead it became a several hundred pound projectile that could have killed or seriously injured me.

We heat our cabin with a wood stove and because of our long and cold winters we burn about 9-12 cords of firewood each year. I have been cutting down standing dead and fallen trees for over twenty years to fill this firewood need. It only takes one miscalculation to end in injury or death and I am now far more aware not to take cutting down trees for granted.

Sometimes we men seem to take things for granted and assume when we should really be evaluating the situation more carefully. When dealing with dangerous tasks that can have very serious consequences we sometimes need to give more thought to it before we jump right in. If my experience and mistake helps someone else it will have been worth the effort to write this blog and I’m just glad to be here to write it.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their experiences and sometimes mis-adventures visit their blog site at:www.brucecarolcabin.blogspot.com


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Chickens on the Homestead: to Pasture or Free-range?

Chickens in front of Coop

Before we had a flock of laying hens, we envisioned free-ranging birds foraging about our property, snatching up insects and living the life of happy chickens. And for the first year, this was the life for our small flock of Chanteclers (10 hens plus a rooster).  

Two years ago, to prepare for the arrival of the Chanteclers, we re-furbished a pre-existing chicken coop by cutting out a chicken door and building a ramp into a 300 square foot run. A shingled roof covers the run and the 2by4 framed walls are wrapped with ½ inch hardware cloth. To guard the birds from digging predators, we also dug a trench and buried the hardware cloth a foot into the ground. When the birds arrived we let them get used to the coop and the run for several days before opening the door briefly in the evening and letting them wander about, but not get so far away that they couldn’t find their way back to the roost. A couple days of this and the birds quickly learned to come back to the coop to roost and spent their days freely foraging about the yard.

Fast-forward two years and we replaced our small Chantecler flock with a larger flock of Red Sex Links (30 hens plus a rooster). Perhaps it’s a combination of different character traits (the Red Sex Links have more spunk and curiosity than the skittish and timid Chanteclers) or simply due to a three-fold increase in the number of birds, but our new chickens soon took advantage of all the benefits free-ranging afforded them. They ranged far and wide and got into the vegetable and flower gardens. We responded by fencing the gardens… but we eventually ran out of fence. Then the rooster started to show aggression. We responded by setting up a pasture outside the run and letting them forage about within a confined space. The set-up worked for a few weeks.

But following a month of pasturing, we began to encounter some challenges that inspired us to find a compromise between pasture and free-range. First, we observed that some of the birds were making gargled clucks and the rooster had stopped crowing. On a hunch, we placed a dish of gravel in the run to provide them with a source of pebbles for their crops. In short order they were back to making typical chicken sounds.

Our next challenge was devising different configurations for the pasture to give the birds new forage while still permitting them access to the stationary coop - our options were quickly exhausted. To compensate for the meager offering of fresh forage we tossed in handfuls of weeds pulled from the gardens, lamb’s quarters plucked from a nearby field, and scraps from the kitchen.

The last challenge, and one that we couldn’t easily overcome on our own, was an increase in mosquitoes. Following a brief lag from the time we began pasturing the chickens, the number of the pesky insects soared. The only real solution was to allow the birds to wander freely again and to feast on the mosquitoes. This rise in mosquitoes, combined with a lack of fresh forage, an immobile coop, and the likelihood of spending more money on feed, necessitated finding a better situation for our flock.

Now, a day in the life of our flock starts with the door (automatically) opening into the run near dawn. Within the run the chickens can feed and drink as they need while they await our arrival. Part of my children’s morning routine involves opening the door of the run and letting the birds into the pasture. Later in the afternoon we let the birds out to free-range. With happy clucks the chickens sprint to the orchard and flower gardens we all keep an eye open for the rooster and are sure to give him a wide berth. At present, this combination of pasture and free-range is working for us and giving our flock a chance to be happy, free-ranging birds once again.


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.

Goats Or Cows?

 

This is a question many homesteaders seriously grapple with when they consider getting a dairy animal. Goats or cows? Cows or goats? There is no one clear-cut answer for all, but rather, many points to be considered while you make the decision about what kind of dairy animal is the right one for you.

How to Choose?

Size – goats are a lot smaller than cows, and less intimidating to be around and handle, especially if you have never milked before, or owned any livestock bigger than chickens. Naturally, goats will require less housing space, too, and can be easily transported in a back seat of a regular family car when hobbled.

Pasture – Cows are grazers; goats are browsers. Cows do best on wide grass meadows, while goats are particularly fit for rugged, rocky landscape, a variety of brush, grass and trees, and uneven terrain. This explains why people keep goats so much more often than cattle here in our hilly area, which has rather rough, sparse vegetation throughout most of the year.

Fencing – Despite being much larger animals, cows are considerably easier to keep fenced in than goats, and will stay inside a rather light fence they could probably trample down in a minute if they were so inclined. Goats, on the other hand, need veritable barricades to be kept in. They are clever, curious, mischievous, and extremely good at jumping and climbing.

Milk yield – One little Jersey cow will give you about as much milk as three or four Saanen goats. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the size of your family, how much milk you regularly consume, whether you want to try your hand at cheese making or sell some extra milk, etc. I personally am probably most comfortable, quantity of milk-wise, at the point of having two dairy goats.

Nutrition – While both cow milk and goat milk are delicious and nourishing when fresh and handled properly, cow’s milk will give you more cream; not because it’s fattier than goat milk, but because the cream separates more easily. On the other hand, goat milk can be more easily digestible and is often well-suited to people who have poor tolerance to cow’s milk. It is also slightly lower in lactose.

Price – A cow is a much larger initial investment than a couple of goats, and not anyone is up to that. I don’t know the prices in your area, but around here, the price of a cow is astronomic compared to goats; buying a cow is definitely a deep plunge.

Breeding – Packing your does off to a honeymoon with a buck is a lot easier than hauling your cows to visit a bull, or dealing with artificial insemination.

Maintenance – People don’t often talk about this, but for me it’s definitely a consideration. Goats are easier and pleasanter to muck out than cows, and their smell is less overpowering. Sweeping aside some goat pellets is way more manageable than squelching through cow patties. Just go into a goat barn and a cow barn and judge for yourself.

Either way, if I were ever to get a cow, I’d probably go for one of the smaller breeds, such as Dexters, Jerseys or Galloways.

Overall, as I have already said, I am inclined to think that goats are probably the easier and more obvious choice for small homesteaders who are just making their first tentative steps in dairy animal ownership, and are trying to ease their way into a milking routine without feeling overwhelmed. On the other hand, I do nourish a secret dream of a sweet little Jersey cow and lots of lovely cream. One thing is certain: having your own milk is great, and being the owner of dairy animals is an unforgettable adventure.

The post above was an excerpt from my new book, The Basic Guide to Backyard Livestock

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna'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 Nearly No-Landfill Waste System

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The guilt that comes with modern man’s daily garbage is equal to taking responsibility for a lifetime of natural disasters. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, each American is responsible for 4.4 pounds of solid waste per day. As you can imagine further computations about the impact of each person’s garbage multiplied by the number of individuals in the United States is enough to make any globally aware person cringe. While you cannot be completely free from the cycle of waste, after all we are human, you can greatly reduce your participation the landfill system.

Take a Break

When we moved out to our farm we made a break from as many amenities as we could manage. As we are not wealthy this was a challenge and continues to be. A certain amount of money will get you off the grid rapidly, the rest of us have to figure it out on our own. While we could not afford solar panels when we first started to move off grid, we could decide how to dispose of our garbage. For most trying to avert the commercial garbage system it is about cost; for us it was a matter of pride.

Of course the first step to a globally conscience method of waste disposal is refuse. If you are personally handling each piece of trash that needs disposed of it changes your perspective on the new “refusal” step in recycling. Even if you purchase most of your goods, there are vendors that will sell you their wares without packaging. For example we purchase our coffee beans from a local coffee shop and they accommodate my no waste needs by filling my mason jars with coffee rather than giving me paper bags. There are all sorts of ways you can get stores to work around your need for less waste; all you must to do is ask.

Recycling does not have to be an expensive venture. First find out if there is a recycling facility that you can take your recyclables to without being charged. We keep our metal and sell it to the scrap yard so we actually make some money recycling. There are always ways to get rid of your recyclables before you take them to the recycling facilities. Ask around your local schools if there are any garbage items that they use for craft projects such as plastic milk jugs, egg cartons, and plastic bags. You can use some of your cardboard for no till gardens. If you can squeeze a little more life out of your trash that is a beautiful thing. Ultimately we separate our recyclables into plastic tubs with lids making them much easier to haul to the recycling center. We take out the recyclables every few weeks when we are making a trip into town for other things so the fuel is not wasted.  

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Food items should never go in the trash. You can compost any food item that does not have sugar, meat or meat fat, and yeast in it. Composting can be as complicated or as simple as you want. For urban dwellers I would suggest a compost bucket because of the smell. If you live out of town, surface or pit composting is less cost and a more natural process involving lots of good bugs and worms. All of your meat and bread waste should be a fancy meal for the outdoor animals, wild and domestic alike. Just make sure you are dumping any food waste far from your house to avoid pest issues.

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And finally the trash that has no real place in the world but we cannot seem to get free from it yet; some plastics, sensitive paper documents, and styrofoam. This useless trash and biohazard waste are collected in a metal bucket so it can be washed out rather than using a garbage bag and adding to the waste. We then burn it in a metal burn barrel. Our burn barrel is drilled with holes for adding maximum oxygen to the fire so everything burns as efficiently as possible. The waste from this is the only waste from our whole farm that is taken to the landfill; there is some garbage that is simply too dangerous to keep in proximity to our crops and waterways. The volume is roughly 2 garbage bags per year for a family of five with occasional guests.  

Resources: www.infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/solid-waste/


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.

Avoiding Farm Failure

 

A few days ago, my husband started his car, preparing to drive out. Our front yard has full sun in the mornings, and the chickens often find a shady retreat under the car, but always scatter in panic at the first sound of the engine. This time, however, one of the chickens - whether suicidal or simply too zen to move - remained where she was. 

You can guess what happened. Eeeeek. 

My husband ran for the shovel, hoping to get the deed done before I notice anything, but alas, this was not to be. I poked my head out of the door to remind him of something before he goes.  

I felt really sorry for my poor neighbors, who only just moved in a week or so earlier. I'm sure they didn't expect to hear such a blood-curdling screech so early in the morning. I whipped up a cake and went for a nice neighborly visit later, and they were very friendly, but I could tell they looked at me weird.

Homestead living is full of casualties. Chickens die. Chicks don't make it out of the egg. A frost or a draught wipes out a vegetable garden. Unseasonable hail knocks down unripe fruit. The longer you are at this thing, the surer you can be that something won't go as planned. And the only way to gear up for it and last in the game is to plan for losses (practically, emotionally, financially), and decide you will stick to it. 

Some losses can be devastating, and really make you feel like it isn't even worth it to try again. We know people who have bought some very expensive purebred chickens for breeding stock, and have become extremely discouraged by a few unsuccessful turns of running the incubator. They are now planning to sell their stock, though when eggs don't hatch successfully there's often plenty of room for improvement (from using fresher eggs to monitoring temperature and humidity more closely). They are too stung by their experience to go on. 

Homestead burnout, homestead regret, farm failure... there are many names for this feeling, and a few simple strategies to cope with it:

1. Assess your methods. Is there something you could legitimately do to improve your experience? A reinforced coop against predators, a friendlier chicken breed for easier handling, crops more suited to your land?

2. Plan to fail. Hope to succeed, certainly, but leave yourself a margin of time and money to fall back on. Don't count on having a productive vegetable garden or a self-sustaining chicken flock within a year. Set aside a sum for casualties. Assume things will always cost more than they are supposed to. 

3. Be flexible. Some things that have worked for others won't work for you. Accept it and be ready to try something else. For example, if rearing a batch of incubator-raised chicks seems like an overwhelming commitment, try to let broody hens do some of the work for you. That's what I suggested to our acquaintance with the purebred chickens. 

I sometimes hear that I am way too pessimistic, often talking about ways to cope with loss and failure on the homestead. Well, the truth is, nobody needs advice on how to deal with a successful crop or a constant, plentiful supply of fresh eggs. But a lot of people can be encouraged by hearing that the perfect green thumb gardener they know has also experienced blight, and the people with the quaint little family dairy once had all their goats escape and trample their neighbors' flowers. 

Emergencies will happen, and the only way to combat them is by resilience and flexibility. Adopting some simple precautions can help as well. 

In other words, always look under your car before you back out of the driveway. 

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author PageConnect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blogRead all Anna'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.