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

Self Sufficiency: Unpeeling the Myth, Embracing Homesteading

our homestead in winter

It’s always a treasure to hear from readers, including those with questions.  This week, I received an inquiry from an area student (I’ll refer to him as John), who is a sixth grader working on a research project.  My sister Kara was in 6th grade when we moved up full-time to revitalize the old homestead, and many of our initial projects were sparked by research endeavors.

John had an interesting question for me: 

“My ILP [independent learning project] is on homesteading. The question I am trying to answer is, ‘Can I become self sufficient on 1 and a half acres of land?’  Some of the things I have learned about is how to start homesteading.  I am looking to talk to someone and learn more about homesteading.”

I thought on this for a couple of days, realizing there were really two questions within the letter.  Assuming that John lives on 1.5 acres of land currently, here are some thoughtful considerations.  Maybe you have a little bit of acreage too and can pick up some tips.

The short answer to “Can I become self-sufficient on 1.5 acres of land?” would be no.  But let’s unpack that a bit.  Self-sufficiency is part of the pioneer legend, where you strike out and do it all for yourself.  It sounds so brave and adventuresome and very American.  But, alas, being fully self-sufficient (and its conceptual entanglement with the word sustainable) is a myth.  Here’s a few reasons why.

1. There would not be enough timber from 1.5 acres to keep your house warmed, at least not for many years, even if the acreage was fully wooded. So then you would have to start importing wood (or another heating fuel source) or…well, the alternative would be way too cold for this far north.

2. It would be difficult to produce all your own clothes from 1.5 acres of land. You could have a couple of sheep, but I don’t think you’d want to wear ONLY wool clothing (itchy underwear, ew).  It’s too far north for cotton and not enough space for flax, so that presents a self-sufficiency problem.

3. While it might be possible to produce your own electricity from renewable energy sources, you’d have to out-source that infrastructure. If you’re on the grid, then you’re relying on others.  And how about the internet?  I don’t think you’ll be making that modern societal necessity all on your own.

So really, the idea of being completely self-sufficient is not only unfeasible but it’s also not useful.  The truth is that we’re all in an interconnected web.  We need each other, socially, environmentally, economically, and structurally.  The true nature of sustainability is not exclusive of others like a lone island, its inclusive like a flourishing ecosystem. 

My family’s homestead is nearly 250 acres, and I’m far from being entirely self-sufficient—relying on grain growers in adjacent counties for my feed inputs, a hatchery in Beaver Dam for day-old meat chicken chicks, and garden seeds from Johnny’s in Maine.  It’s not a weakness or downfall to network with others to help your homesteading dreams find fruition.  It’s a necessity.

But the short answer to the second part of John’s inquiry, the part about homesteading, would be a resounding absolutely!  There are all sorts of ways you can integrate homesteading into a 1.5-acre piece of land, right here in the Northwoods.  Here are some great and friendly ways to get started.

Install a High Tunnel.  One of the trickiest parts about growing more of your own foods in the Northwoods is the extreme shortness of the growing season.  Adding even a modest hoop house (the plastic film type stretched over metal framing is the most economical) can make a huge difference.  In our original 12 x 24-foot high tunnel, I was already able to work the soil last week and put in our first spinach crop.  After it’s too hot for the spinach, I transplant sun-loving peppers and tomatoes, which I was able to continue harvesting crop from all the way into late October, even November some years.

Raise Chicken.  Chickens are fun and versatile on the homestead, and they don’t require a tremendous amount of space.  You can even transform an old shed into a coop, if you have one.  Chickens can turn bugs and grass and kitchen scraps (with free-choice grain available) into delicious eggs and meat.  Meat chickens can be raised up and processed in a summer, if you don’t have adequate winter housing for them yet.  There’s nothing quite as rewarding, though, as picking your own eggs in the morning and having them for breakfast! 

Raise Pigs.  The other great animal addition on small acreage is pigs.  When we started homesteading, we used feeder pigs to help us reclaim garden space from the omnipresent and noxious quack grass that happily choked out anything we wanted to grow.  We’d make a pen for the pigs in a desired garden space, let them root up everything and eat up all the quack rhizomes, then chisel plowed, disked, and tilled the soil up for garden space the next year.  Not only had the pigs removed the rhizomes, but their manure had helped to fertilize the soil.  In addition, we had delicious pork in the freezer for winter.

Start Fruit Crops Now.  There is a Chinese proverb:  “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.  The second best time to plant a tree is now.”  You’re still young enough to enjoy the fruits from northern-hearty dwarf apple trees planted this spring.  Find a good sunny spot, plant at least three or four (it’s nice to have one of them as a crab tree, for pollination help), and water them well that first year.  Also think about starting berry patches—strawberries, raspberries, even rhubarb, etc.  It may not have the instant gratification of the vegetable garden but having your own fruits on the homestead is a real plus.

Try Making Maple Syrup.  Are there mature maple trees on your acreage?  Do you know how to make maple syrup?  If it’s yes to the first and no to the second, find someone who already makes syrup who can help and teach you.  This is a crop you don’t even have to plant!  If you don’t have maple trees on your land, you still might want to shadow someone who makes syrup and learn this traditional homesteading skill.

Learn to Can Your Own Foods.  Freezing is great, so is dehydrating.  But there’s nothing quite like opening up that can of strawberry jam you made last summer from your own berries (or local berries while your plants are getting established).  Making jam is a friendly way to start out with home canning, and there’s lots of great resources to help you learn like the Blue Ball Books or your Grandma.

Remake Your Food Storage.  If there’s a real place for self-reliance on the homestead, it’s in food storage.  The average town has three days of food on hand at any given point in time.  If our shipping system ever hit a major glitch, starvation would be a real and terrible issue.  Most serious homesteaders, however, have months of food stocked up at any given time.  Invest in a chest freezer (you’ll need it when you butcher those two feeder pigs in the fall), a good pantry for storing your canned and dried goods, and a root cellar space in the basement for storing the potato, onion, garlic, winter squash, and cabbage crops.  I’m still eating potatoes we dug last fall from the garden, and they continue to be crisp and delicious.

Cook from Scratch.  When you start growing your own foods, what you bring into the kitchen are whole ingredients.  You might have a head of broccoli, two red onions, three carrots, a bok choy, and some chicken in the fridge left over from yesterday.  What can you make?  How about a stir fry!  But how do you do that when nothing is pre-packaged and ready to heat-and-eat?  Learning how to reclaim the kitchen and cook with whole, unprocessed ingredients is a great homesteading skill.  By starting with friendly, easily adjustable recipes, you’ll begin the process of learning how to utilize all the yummy things you’re growing.

All of these you can do on small acreage.  For starters, stay with smaller food animals (rabbits would be good too) instead of large ruminants (cows, etc.), which thrive best on larger acreage with rotational grazing.  Horses would be another species to avoid, since they require lots of space and produce no food crop outside of manure to help out your garden.  Experiment, stay diversified, and learn about what works best with your soils and the unique ecosystem on your land.  Learn to love vegetables too.

Best of luck with your project John, and we hope to see you down on the farm sometime.

Our homestead, wrapped in the throes of winter.  Photo by Kara Berlage

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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If Vegetables Were Sexy

baby bok choys

Come on baby bok choy, time to claim the stage!   

If vegetables were sexy, we’d find them everywhere.  On magazine covers while waiting in line at the checkout, on billboards along the highway, on TV commercials at primetime. There’d be fierce sports teams like “The Raging Rutabagas” or “Leek Lightnings” making news headlines.  You can imagine what the fans would wear on jerseys and heads while they chanted “Bring on the String-beans, bring on the String-beans!”

On the clinic waiting room TV, there’d be the elegant lady dangling her succulently orange and alluring carrots from her graceful fingers, taking a crunchy bite for emphasis.  “You thought it was about the little black dress?  Well, wait until you bring on the relish tray.  Nothing adds that subtle suggestion like the crispy dip-and-snap of that veggie platter you made, just in case…”

If vegetables were sexy, there’d be that buff guy, (shirtless?) pumping butternut squash as part of his body building routine.  “You thought your workout was complete with those irons?  You haven’t tried Veggie Power!  [add some robust, low music] Veggie Power is the only structured routine that will get you that manly look you’ve always wanted.  Call now to…”

Walking out of the grocery store with those nearly transparent plastic bags, bulging with cucumbers and eggplant would be like the new catwalk.  The jaunty attitude, the slight swing added to the bags with each step, begging, “See, look at me, I’m all in on this vegetable thing.  It goes so well with my new wardrobe.”

The new types of vegetables in the seed catalogue each spring would have their own Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Blogger pages.  People would be liking, commenting, or following with piqued interest.  “Oh, that new pink radish that came out for 2018, it’s just chasing out all the competition like they’re so yesterday.  Pink is the new black for radishes this year.  Don’t let your garden be left behind!”

Bestseller titles would go something like:  The Secret Life of My Garden, or Peppers of Paradise.  Instead of kicking tires, you’d find the fellows checking out their friend’s latest tomato trellis.  “Yeah man, that’s a winner.  Where’d you get it?  Can I make one in shop class?”

How about salad parlors?  We used to have ice cream parlors, so why not?  And smoothie shops alongside the favorite coffee haunts.  Nab a “green goddess bullet” on the way to work and waltz in with that “I’m ready for anything” smirk.   Everyone else in the office would be soooo jealous.

If vegetables were sexy, we’d give each other bouquets of fresh lettuce.  That way the gift would be pretty and edible too!  Or flowering kale, which would add whites and pinks as a creative and crunchy touch.  Instead of a plant food packet attached, it could be a pouch of balsamic dressing.  What a nice touch for your partner to think of that.

Instead of boasting about how big yesterday’s burger or steak was, you could show off that awesome grilled cauliflower or the veggie kabobs you made on the deck last Sunday.  Yeah, man, I mean, brag on about that sauce that’s the family secret.  Never get out the mushrooms unless you’ve got a good sauce ready.

If vegetables were sexy, then herbs would be the highlight point.  They’d have their own secret language of desire.  Rosemary for a first date, mint for a kiss.  A sprig of thyme could show enduring devotion, while basil begs to be the life of the party.  Pots of fresh herbs growing in the kitchen would show acumen for these subtle messages and taste for romance.

But the best part of all would have to be garlic.  No longer relegated to the “bad breath” department, garlic would be top of the charts for health effects, right next to kale and broccoli.  Well, that and blueberries, but we’re trying to talk about vegetables here.  Fruit is always trying to steal the limelight.

Now, imagine that this wasn’t just a chuckling make-believe moment.  Imagine if vegetables really were considered pretty sexy.  I mean, they’d be selling out left and right.  Folks would pride themselves as being “beet and tomatoes” kind of people, instead of always meat and potatoes.  Of course, it wouldn’t mean throwing out the meat, but our culture’s protein obsession would get a much-needed breather.

Getting hungry for some (sexy) veggies?  Here’s an easy dressing you can make in-house for starters to augment nearly any raw vegetable:

Balsamic Vinaigrette


3 tbs. balsamic vinegar
1 tbs. Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, minced
½ cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Mix well.  Keep in a container that can be shaken vigorously before serving.  You can also play with variations, including adding citrus or honey (or both).

So maybe next time when you’re trying to decide between the nachos and the kohlrabi for a crunchy snack, maybe (just maybe) that veggie will have a little different attitude behind it.  You know, a little smart and sassy kind of thing going.  And maybe (just maybe) things that are actually good for us will start to get trendy!  See you down on the farm sometime.

Photo by Laura Berlage

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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.

Pondering Over Adding Goats to Your Farm?

Fun with Goats  


Whether looking for a pet, companion animal, dairy producer, fiber provider, or even meat they are a fantastic livestock choice. They demonstrate a natural ability to calm our souls, nourish our bodies, and make us laugh like no other. Do you require a friend that will always be there and show excitement to see you? Want snuggles on demand? Goats may just be for you. Always found by your side to help with any projects, whether you need the help or not. Inquisitive by nature goats are always finding new adventure to be part of. They are highly intelligent, sweet natured, and easy to manage compared to other livestock species. Their gentle dispositions make them an ideal choice for 4-H kids.

Manger and Lucy

Goats have a short return on investment compared to other livestock. They are only pregnant for five months at a time. In most cases they will have multiples twins, triplets, and even quads are a normality amongst some breeds. Because of their feed choices consisting of mainly weeds a fancy pasture is unneeded. Other livestock find a goat’s choice of delicacies unfit for them, allowing certain species to overtake pastures. Goats make amazing pasture cleaners primarily munching upon poison ivy, wild roses, thorny black berry bushes, even thistles leaving the other choice grass to the horses and cows. Their split lips and small mouths allow them to eat the yummy leaves even from the thorniest of plants. Grasses and weeds should make up ninety to hundred percent of a goat’s diet, expensive grains are not needed. In the winter, they prefer a nice mix of alfalfa, timothy, and pasture mix hay.

There are endless ways to use goat products. Like cows’ goats come in meat breeds and dairy breeds. The Boar goat is the most popular among meat producers. Alpine, Lamancha, Saanen, and Oberhasli are just a few of the dairy breeds available. A few breeds like the Nubian are considered dual-purpose breeds. From simply drinking their sweet milk, to yogurt, ice-cream, butter, cheese, and even sour cream. Let’s not forget about all the other products you can make soap, lotion, salves, and even hair products. The meat is largely consumed by other countries, it is the most widely consumed red meat in the world. It has been slowly gaining popularity among consumers in the United States. Let’s not forget about the possibilities of Angora and Cashmere breeds. Their world-renowned for producing fine wool and mohair, commonly used in making some of the softest fabrics in the known.

Coco and Lucy Playing 

Trimming the Hooves 

Goat Needs

Goats require far less work than many other livestock species. They’re extremely easy to clean up after, they additionally demand less space than other livestock. Being a heard animal by nature, you sincerely can’t just have one. They will need to be vetted yearly, requiring CDT and BOSE vaccines. They require free choice mineral to help supplement any deficiencies and baking soda for them to lick on to control stomach acid, preventing bloat. Hooves require trimming at least four times a year, it’s a simple task. Being checked for worms on consistent bases is a requirement for goats.  I prefer to take samples to my Veterinarian a few times a year so not to over or under medicate them. Other owners choose to keep them on a steady stream of deworming products.

As long as there is a sturdy fence and plenty to eat they will happily stay in their designated area. Building fun items for them to climb and play on is an excellent choice. Don’t put the climbing toys to close to the fence or a loose goat may be in the future. They prefer most of their food be off the ground wall and stand-alone mangers are sure to delight them. Creating plenty of shade is essential in the summer. Mature trees, run in shelters, or shad structures work well. Plenty of cool water needs to readily accessible to prevent dehydration. Shaving them in the summer also aids them to stay cooler. Proper ventilation in the shelters is critical too much humidity will expediently increase the chance of pneumonia. Place a few scratching posts around too, they love them!

the three girls 

Playing in the snow 


Goats adore being right with you showing their best traits of affection and devotion. Want them to love you more? Spoil them with left-over produce from dinner or spare leafy greens left from your carrots and beats. If you’re looking for more of a pet than a producer, check out the tremendously adorable Pygmy breed. Be sure to purchase from CAE, Caprine Arthritic Encephalitis, free herd, this terrible disease causes an array of symptoms. It commonly affects the brain with inflammation but can also cause lameness, weakness, blindness, and/or paralysis. There is no cure or vaccine available at this time, the only way to know if their negative, is through a blood test. Are you still pondering over goats or have you made up your mind? 

Carrie Miller runs Miller Micro Farm in Ohio, where she spends a lot of her time preserving the bounties through canning and freezing. She loves to repurposing daily items around the farm in new and creative ways. She is a photographer and blogger for Community Chickens. Connect with Carrie on Facebook.

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.

Roosters and Neighbors


Once upon a time, the morning call of the rooster used to be an integral part of people’s routine. Sadly, many have grown so detached from nature, traditional farming and rural life that they regard the rooster’s crow as a “nuisance."

Let me just edge in a quick word and say how unfair I think this is. If you live in the suburbs or on the outskirts of a city, and are trying to set up a small urban homestead, any complaint from any negatively-minded neighbor can be a dream-killer. If they keep a dog that annoys you by barking all day, or if their noisy lawn mower drives you crazy, you can hardly do anything. But if your rooster crows morning and evening, your neighbors can file a complaint and make you get rid of it, because it’s considered “livestock”.

So how do you reduce this possible source of friction with your neighbors?

Some people choose not to keep a rooster at all, but only a few laying hens, and replace them as they age. It can be a sensible approach in some circumstances, unless your neighbors are so fussy that even the clucking of a laying hen gets on their nerves. But keeping a girl-only flock is a disappointment if you have been planning on breeding your chickens and rearing your own tiny balls of fluff every year.

Choose your breed carefully. Some breeds are distinctly noisier, more dominant and, for lack of a better expression, cockier than others. Brahmas, Cochins, Wyandottes, Plymouth Rock and Australorps are known for their docility, and the roosters are relatively quiet, family-friendly, and easy to handle.

Keep just one. Two roosters in one flock will try to out-crow and in general to compete with each other; one will call, the other will answer, and so it goes on. If you only have one rooster of a quiet breed, he’ll give a couple of calls a day to assert his dominance over the hens, and that’s it.

Rooster collars. If all else fails, check out the option of no-crow rooster collars. They are easy to put on and do the bird no harm, but muffle the crowing sound. We haven’t personally tried this, but friends of ours have had great success in using them.

My last suggestion is broader and less technical; try to cultivate a closer and friendlier relationship with your neighbors. Give them a few fresh eggs when you can, invite their children to feed your chickens or see baby chicks when you have them. Usually, after people have been your guests, tasted your home-grown omelet, and played with your cute fluffy newly-hatched chicks, they are unlikely to complain over something that isn’t absolutely disruptive. In fact, they might even want to get some chickens themselves!

 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 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.

The ABCs of Homesteading: O is for Organic and Beyond

This is the fourteenth post in the ABCs of Homesteading series. Click here to read the rest of the series.

Three Year Comparison 

I know I am going to disappoint some people with my next statement, but here goes: I am not an organic homesteader.

As far as I am concerned, “organic” is just a stepping-stone toward something that is actually sustainable. Sometimes, getting hung up on being organic is an impediment for real progress toward an even better goal like creating an ecologically-sound, fully-sustainable, closed-loop system.

Why Not Organic?

I don't have the room in this article to go into how little meaning that term “certified organic” has related to sustainability or human and planet welfare. But, I highly recommend that the next time you pick up organic produce from your chain grocery store, do a little research to find out about the company that grew it -- like how they enrich the soil, what they do improve the environment, do they pay their workers a living wage, etc.

Make sure to dig a little deeper than their home page and check secondary sources. If you can't find the information you need...well, by all means give them a call. Any farm worth the implied intent of that word “organic” should be willing to tell you about their practices and invite you to judge for yourself if their food is healthfully grown and good for the planet.

The Closed-Loop Alternative

So, if organic isn't good enough, what is?

In a word...Permaculture.

There are a ton of different ways to think about permaculture. For a short explanation, though, I am going to borrow Geoff Lawton's words. Permaculture is “[a] system of design that provides all of the needs for humanity in a way that benefits the environment.” Some people also use the mantra “Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share” to sum up permaculture.

Rather than a 9 page list of organic approved products and a hefty fee to be certified organic, permaculture has a short list of guidelines you can use to provide food and energy while creating vital, diverse ecosystems and improving the quality of life in for others in your area.

You can check out the full list of permaculture principles here.

Personally, I see permaculture as using what you've got, or can easily access locally, to make something much better and long-lasting. It's about one-time inputs to create perpetual, diversity-promoting, human and wildlife supporting ecosystems that will keep getting better with only minor occasional tweaks.

For example, we had a severe shortage of soil on our land when we bought it. Our property is heavily sloped. The two acres that are cleared were left unplanted for years and became severely eroded as a result. Our land was such a dust bowl that even broom straw wouldn't grow on it.

We started buying bags of organic compost, amending holes for planting, and trying to nurse things to grow. But after lots of failures, we realized we needed organic matter on a scale we simply couldn't afford at organic prices. We also hated bringing home all those one-time use plastic bags that we just kept sending to the landfill.

We did some research about local cow manure. We found a source that could deliver by the 20 yard truck loads. The cattle this manure came from were not living on a feedlot. They were living on good-sized pastures most of the year. In winter and early spring, they were herded into a feed lot twice a day for supplemental feeding and this resulted in accumulations of manure for that part of the year.

These cows did get some antibiotics when they needed them. But as they weren't living in close-confinement, they were not routinely dosed. Their supplemental feed contained GMOs and other toxic stuff. But a good part of their feed came from untreated grass in pasture and minimally (or not) sprayed, baled hay.

Was this manure perfectly organic? No. However, it was locally produced and the price was right. Also, if these cattle farmers don't find uses for all this excess manure by redirecting it to areas that will benefit from the application of this organic matter, then it will just become a pollution problem for all the people downstream from them.

After doing this research, buying organic compost at the price equivalent of $81 a cubic yard that was shipped in by truck from across the country, when we can buy the same volume of manure for $18 locally and be plastic bag free, just didn't make sense to us.

We had truck loads of manure, along with straw, and hard wood mulch delivered. Straw and wood mulch are also by-products of other industries in our area – namely grain farming and logging. We used these three items and lots of cardboard and paper that we rescued from being recycled using more energy intense methods (e.g. shipping it to China to have it turned into more packaging) to sheet mulch our growing areas. We also inoculated our sheet mulch with buckets of soil from our forests to encourage biological life in a hurry.

Here's how we did it: 

We started by soaking the ground, then applying a double layer of cardboard and paper.

We laid down about 4 inches of loose straw, topped that with two inches of manure and repeated that twice more. (When you put the manure on the straw, the straw flattens out to more like two inches. At the end we had about 12 inches of new organic matter piled over the cardboard.)

We scattered handfuls of native soil, dug up from under the trees in our wooded areas, on the top layer of manure.

We soaked all of that until it was wet all the way to the cardboard.

We topped that off with 4 inches of double-shred hardwood.

We soaked weekly if rain was insufficient to do the job.

We waited about three months and started planting in our sheet mulched areas by moving aside the hardwood mulch and digging holes in the mix below.

We've tried lots of formulas and variations of sheet mulching. This iteration has proved the most affordable and effective for us. In my experience, though, if you have air spaces in your sheet mulch layers, such as using straw or dried leaves, and top everything off with double-shred hardwood, it's hard to go wrong. Those air spaces and that insulative woody layer seems to bring on the biological and bacterial decomposers in a hurry.

Being practical and local instead of purely organic gave us the ability to go from this:

Before Permaculture 2014 

To this:

After Permaculture 2017 

Of course, we did other things like dig rain depressions and swales, build hugelkulturs, and make good use of pioneering plants that seemed to want to help us build soil (e.g. taprooted Curly Dock and Hairy Cat's Tongue). We chose appropriate plants for their locations and bombed our place with comfrey and cover crops to use as green manure. We also let ducks roam free to add constant fertility to our landscape. We used pigs, goats, and chickens strategically to work and fertilize our land. We added infrastructure that helped to stabilize our hillsides and create microclimates within our landscape. These things were all part of the permaculture design plan we created to help guide our work and actions and make good productive use of our resources.

This near total transformation of our land happened in under three years and would have been impossible if we'd tried to use strictly organic inputs rather than focus on using local inputs. Sourcing locally also helped us build relationships within our community that have led to access to more resources at lower costs and expedited our progress even more.

Now, our place is so far beyond organic, that the idea of wanting to be organic seems laughable. You don't need to buy some special brand of approved fertilizer that is developed in a factory and shipped around the world when you create a self-renewing, human-supporting ecosystem in your backyard. And honestly, buying products that are packaged in plastic and come by way of fossil fuel driven supply chains isn't my idea of organic at all! Using local materials, produced in transparent ways so I can see for myself how they are produced makes a whole lot more sense to me.

Supplemental Feed

Now, I know some people are still going to be stuck on the idea of organic animal feed. So, I want to address that question head on. Similar to all the arguments made above, I think buying industrial organic feed is more harmful overall than buying not-so-organic feed from your local grain mill.

If we had a local, organic feed mill, then I'd certainly try to support to the extent that my budget would allow. But as it stands now, I'd have to make a six hour trip to get organic feed that is not manufactured in international factories. Since I drive a Honda Fit and can't carry much feed at a time, I'd have to make that trip a lot. And quite frankly, I just can't routinely spend six hours in a car to go get animal feed.  That's just not sustainable for me!

Instead I spend all that time I save, on not making organic feed pilgrimages, growing food for my animals to help make deeper cuts into my dependence on supplemental feed. For example we use all those ideas I mentioned in F is for Fodder and E is for Edible Landscapes. We also free-range our animals in our woods and strategically throughout the areas we have planted. We feed our pigs eggs and chicken and duck parts. We feed our chickens pork scraps. We give our pigs and chickens leftover dairy products from our goats. We use the pigs, chickens, and ducks to clear and fertilize more areas of our property for growing high quality, year-round goat and other livestock forage. The more we plant, the more insects and volunteer plants show up on our landscape creating even more food sources for us and our animals.

Our way is not perfect, but each year we get closer to a closed-loop system and the point when supplemental feed won't even be necessary. And we get there faster by spending our time on the homestead and our money where it does the most long-term benefit for us and our community.

Warning on Non-Organic One-time Inputs

Now, not all local sources are equal. I heard a story about someone putting old hay on their edible landscape and having everything die from the herbicide in the hay. I can't say for sure, but my guess would be this either happened because the hay came from a new hay field that was heavily sprayed in preparation for planting or the hay field had been sprayed with Grazon.

Grazon is extremely good at eradicating weeds. But even all the non-organic farmers around here avoid it unless they are about to lose their hay fields to Buttercup infestations. They are also cautious about feeding their own animals Grazon sprayed hay. I only know this because I talk to the farmers who supply our not-quite organic products.

When you work with local suppliers, you can simply ask what chemicals were used and then decide whether those are OK for your one-time inputs or not.

Now that we've talked about going way beyond organic, if you go through the earlier posts in this blog series, I think you'll see that so much of what we have already covered have been rife with loop-closing connections. Even in my last post N is for Nutrition, I mentioned how I use ferments we make from products grown thanks to the manure and service of our animals to then keep our animals healthy.

There so many incredible, workable solutions coming from the permaculture community that you really should spend an immense amount of time checking it all out. But for me, the thing that really sets permaculture apart from other homesteading systems is its emphasis on slowing, spreading, and storing water in the landscape. So, if you want to start to super power your garden pest protection and improve your landscape's hydrological health, then stay tuned for our next installment The ABCS of Homesteading: P is for Ponds!

Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape at the reLuxe Ranch. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Tasha also is also a contributing author for The Grow Network. Find Tasha at The Way Back , reLuxe Renderings, 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

The ABCs of Homesteading: M is also for Mushrooms


This is the twelfth post in the ABCs of Homesteading series. Click here to read the rest of the series.

If you read my last post, The ABCs of Homesteading: M is for Meat, then you know I am not a vegetarian. However, I do care deeply about our environment and I know that meat is a luxury to be enjoyed in limited quantities. So, to supplement our diets, we also grow mushrooms – shiitake mushrooms in particular.

1. Growing your own shiitake at home is easy. Here's what you need to do.

2. Get hardwood tree limbs that are about 5-7 inches in radius and cut them into manageable lengths.

3. Drill holes in a diamond pattern about with each hole being about 6 inches apart.

4. Inject sawdust spawn into the holes or hammer dowel spawn into the holes.

5. Cover your spawn-filled holes with melted wax to make sure the logs don't dry out while your shiitake mycelium is colonizing your logs.

6. Stack your logs in dappled shade in a crib-fashion to allow good air circulation and easy watering.

7. Water like you would a garden until the logs begin to pin (e..g tiny mushroom heads start popping up in your logs).

8. When pinning starts, either soak your logs in a tub of water to cause a flush of fruiting. Or, for strains that don't like force-fruiting, keep them extra moist while the mushrooms do their thing.

Stand your ready-to-fruit logs up so you can get mushrooms on all sides and then watch and wait for mushrooms to explode. Some people will also take pinning logs indoors to make sure mushrooms don't get soaked in big rains or grow slow if the weather changes radically.

Harvest mushrooms while they are firm and still growing to make sure you don't have too much competition with other shiitake lovers like insects and animals.

Cook and enjoy!

It really is that easy. However, there are a couple other things you might want to know to make the process cost-effective and highly productive.

Sourcing your Limbs

In our part of North Carolina, trees are abundant. Since logging companies are generally not interested in the limbs of trees, there are secondary wood handlers who go into logged areas and convert the limbs to firewood or mulch. You can often make an arrangement with some of these limb processors to have them deliver whole limbs, roughly 5-9 inches in diameter to your homestead for a reasonable price. In our area, this is about $75 per load. One load is more than enough for our personal use and we convert any extra or damaged limbs to firewood.

Limbs should be fresh cut so that they have not already been colonized by other species of fungus. In summer, we only accept limbs from trees cut within the previous six weeks. In winter, there is less concern about fungus competition. So, we might take limbs that have been down as long as 10-12 weeks if they were cut while the trees were dormant.

Aging Fresh Cut Logs for Best Myceliation

If you happen to get same day service, then you will want to age your limbs about 4-6 weeks to allow some of the sap to dry. Living trees have natural resistance to being colonized by mycelium. By aging your logs before you inoculate them, you increase the odds of successful myceliation, e.g. the development of all those lovely little thread-like roots that draw nutrients from your log to make mushroom fruits.

Cutting Your Limbs to Size

When the limbs are delivered, you'll need to use a saw or chainsaw to cut them into more manageable lengths. The length of the log really depends on what you can lift and handle. We cut ours to 4-5 feet in length because this is what fits in our bathtub for soaking. This size also makes stacking and standing up easy. But, we've got good backs and can handle heavy loads. Often at Shiitake workshops, logs will be cut to 2-3 feet in length so that log keepers who are not in the habit of lifting 50 pound loads can still handle the logs. So, go with the limb length that is most comfortable for you.

You also want to use the tree types that work best for your selection of shiitake. In general, our favorite is red oak for most strains of shiitake. The bark tends to hold up longer which means the logs stay moist with less watering on our part, giving the mycelium a better start. However, you can also have good success with white oak, sugar maple, ironwood, alder, sweet gum, and American beech.i

Choose the Right Shiitake for your Conditions

Just like with vegetables in your garden, different strains of shiitake will do better in different climates. In our area, we have a lot of variation in our climate from year to year. We hedge our bets by growing cold, hot, and all-weather shiitake strains.

Good retailers will give you lots of detail on the best growing conditions and substrate (e.g. which kind of tree limbs) for each strain of shiitake. They will also explain any special procedures for inoculation and for care of for your logs to achieve the best results.

Choose the Right Tools for your Spawn Selection

You will want to use high quality drill bits for drilling your logs. Depending on whether you are using plug spawn or sawdust spawn, your drill bit size will vary. Good retailers will tell you the drill bit size and style that will work best for the spawn you choose.

Additionally, if you plan to inoculate logs annually as we do, consider investing in specialized tools that can literally cut your workload down to less than 1/10th of the time it would take to make do with lesser equipment. High-speed drills, specialized drill bits, and inoculation tables are one time purchases that can last a life-time with good care and make growing mushrooms on logs a pleasure rather than a pain.

Care for your Logs as you would a Vegetable Garden

The number one mistake new shiitake growers tend to make is to neglect their logs. Shiitake spawn is pretty resilient so even without care you might get some crop. However to get reliable shiitake production, you need to water your logs regularly, keep in dappled sunlight, watch for pinning and water or soak as needed, and then check your mushrooms regularly to harvest shiitakes at their peak.

In extreme dry conditions, you may need to cover your logs with plastic sheeting and keep moist or water more often. You can use a greenhouse in winter to expedite myceliation and force fruit during the shoulder seasons. However, in our experience, shiitake logs really love spending lots of time with other living trees in a forested area. Though we do use our greenhouse at times to ensure year-round production, we do most of our production outdoors in our wooded mushroom grotto.

Eat Shiitake Regularly for Good Health

Shiitake are a super food in my opinion. Not only do they taste amazing, but they are loaded with good nutrition. They are high in Pantothenic Acid, Vitamin B6, Niacin, Zinc, Copper, Manganese, Selenium, Riboflavin, and fiber.ii Why buy supplements when you can just grow and eat your own shiitake at home?

We'll talk a bit more about staying healthy on the homestead in the next installment of The ABCS of Homesteading: N is for Nutrition Management. But until then, enjoy your shiitake!

Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape at the reLuxe Ranch. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Tasha also is also a contributing author for The Grow Network. Find Tasha at The Way Back , reLuxe Renderings, 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

The ABCs of Homesteading: N is for Nutrition Management


This is the thirteenth post in the ABCs of Homesteading series. Click here to read the rest of the series.

Even before I started homesteading full-time, and raising and growing my own food at home, I lived on a diet of mainly local, farm fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, and other products. I almost never ate packaged foods and I exercised regularly. Yet I still wasn't healthy. In fact, I was sick all the time from asthma, allergies, stomach ailments, headaches, and back pain.

When we first moved to our homestead, it would take me whole day to dig a few holes to plant grapevines or to prepare one row of our garden. And I had to rest frequently to get it done. Now I can easily dig 10 deep holes, install a fence, and prepare several rows of our garden beds in half a day's work. Then I can milk goats, haul hundreds of pounds of water around our homestead, toss around 50 pound feed bags like a Scottish Highlander hurling trees, and more. My asthma symptoms are even infrequent now.

I have more energy, strength, and stamina as a homesteader at 42 years of age than I did as an athlete at 18. So what changed?

Part of the dramatic improvement in my performance is simply that I have become more skilled in the years since we moved here. I also get a whole lot more exercise throughout the day, as a homesteader, than I did working in an office so I am more physically fit. But there are also less obvious, but equally tangible reasons why my health is so improved. I attribute quite a bit of it to some basic dietary changes that have happened as a result of homesteading.

The big prevailing lesson I have learned is that there's a lot more to nutrition than just what you eat. Nutrition is about supplying your body what it needs to stay alive. If you didn't already have nutrition, you'd be dead. But that's not what most of us are aiming for when we talk about “good nutrition”.

We want freedom from illness and radiant good health. To get that, you have to think well beyond just checking a box and supplying your body with calories, minerals, and vitamins. You also need to think about using your nutrition to help your body's vital systems achieve their peak performance.

Nutrition Transmission Methods Matters – Getting Your Vitamin D

One of the first things I realized related to my nutrition, as a homesteader, was that transmission methods really make a difference. For example, our skin is actually designed make vitamin D through exposure to sunlight. Taking a vitamin D supplement technically gives your body that nutrition. However, it's a bit like putting your heart on a bypass machine. Your body is no longer doing the work for you and so your overall quality of health is not likely to be the same.

To get the maximum benefits from Vitamin D, I know I must get it directly from the sun, by way of my skin. And the amount of time I need to spend outside to do this varies from day to day. On cloudy days or in winter, I may need to spend the better part of the day outside to get a sufficient dose and I may have to take off my jacket and expose my arms despite the cold.

Getting enough vitamin D from the sun at all times of the year can be difficult depending on where you live. The link below has some really detailed information to help you calculate and plan for your sunshine needs.

Go for Good Gut Health – Eat Fermented Foods

Your colon is literally like an internal compost pile. In a perfect world, stuff gets processed and moved out of there within 36 hours. To break things down that quickly, it's got to function a bit like hot composting on steroids – meaning it requires the perfect environment and a huge amount of biological compost helpers. And so, a healthy colon must be full of all sorts of biological critters like bacteria that decompose everything you send through your digestive tract.

Like your compost pile though, if you don't create the right circumstances for good bacterial decomposition, you'll just get a stinking, nasty mess. Eating a lot of fiber certainly helps keep your colon clear. But, from experience, I know that nothing is more effective at creating optimal digestive health than eating fermented foods.

Now I am not a scientist, nutritionist, or medical expert of any sort. But, a few years ago one of my family members was given some antibiotics that ended up making her have a three month run in with diarrhea. It was so bad that her life was actually at risk from dehydration. Her doctor put her on every kind of pharmaceutical antidote available with no effect. Finally, he told her to quit everything he had previously prescribed and start eating probiotic yogurt three times a day. A few days later her problem was solved.

That experience stood out in my memory. And since then I have encountered a lot of people who were advised by their doctors to up their fermented food intake, particularly yogurt, while taking antibiotics.

With this mainstream medical experience in mind, as we started homesteading, we also began experimenting with making our own ferments. Sauerkraut came first, then kimchi, kombucha, yogurt, radishes, mustard, arugula, mints, cilantro, cucumbers, beets, mustard, lemons...

We literally started fermenting everything just to see how it would turn out. Some of it we use as condiments like fermented cilantro on tacos. Some we eat with eat as sides like kimchi or fermented green tomatoes. Others we snack on like fermented pickles, beets, or radishes. Homemade yogurt goes in our smoothies or is slathered with honey and served as dessert. A variety of homestead vinegars go in our salad dressing or are added to water to make refreshing beverages. And of course there is wine and cider for weekends (those count too, right?).

Since we started using ferments in our every day diet, our overall health has improved. When we do occasionally get worn down and end up sick, we up our intake of ferments and recover faster than others who caught the cold or flu at the same time. We also tend to be more energetic and able to get our necessary tasks done while being sick.

We even use fermented foods to improve the health of our animals. The benefits of probiotics are pretty well-documented among chicken and goat owners. And they can be expensive to buy for those of us living on impossibly small budgets. But now that we do so much fermenting at home, I can just share what we use with our animals and cut my animal care costs.

I could spend all day citing the scientific and anecdotal benefits of ferments. But, rather than bore you with facts and data that you can easily research on your own, why not just try it? Ferment something, eat it daily for a couple of weeks, and see how you feel. You can check out my fermented pickle recipe for starters.

Yes – you do need to eat these daily for lasting benefits. But ferments are delicious, so why wouldn't you want to?

Water, Water, Water!

As Sharon Porter and Marjory Wildcraft, over at The Grow Network, often tell me, “Water is a nutrient.” And it is the one nutrient that an extremely large proportion of the population are dangerously deficient in.

If you aren't drinking at least half your body weight in ounces of water each day, you are probably dehydrated. Dehydration is highly correlated with almost every terrible chronic disease you can think of. Every single time you feel thirsty, there is a really good chance you have increased your risk for heart disease.

I just spent 54 hours researching and co-authoring a project about chronic dehydration and good hydration practices. So, I can say based on reading countless scholarly studies, and on my own experience with dehydration, that just because we don't always feel thirsty doesn't mean we're well-hydrated. And since absolutely nothing is more critical to the functioning of your body than water – or our planet for that matter since life could not exist without it -- drinking lots and lots of it matters for good health.

Other beverages can hydrate, but nothing is more effective at hydrating for good health than clean water. You also need to balance your electrolytes for good absorption and usage rates. Sodium and potassium are both essential for optimal hydration. Most of us have excessive sodium in our diets. The antidote to sodium overload is to drink more water. Potassium, however, is in short supply in many of our diets (particularly in the US).

Personally, since we raise goats, their milk makes up a large part of my daily calories. A cup of goat milk has almost 500 mg of potassium per serving, or about 1/6th of your daily total requirement. Between my heavy consumption of milk, yogurt, cheese, and using whey in soups and eating large quantities of kale, spinach, mushrooms, beets, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, asparagus, and cabbage that are high in potassium too – I usually get more potassium than the recommended dose. Prior to homesteading though, I probably never even came close to meeting my daily needs for potassium though. And I always felt dehydrated no matter how much water I drank. Potassium intake makes a big difference in hydration health.

Drink sufficient water and balance your electrolytes – particularly sodium and potassium – for good homestead hydration.

Quality and Freshness of Your Food Sources

A final factor that has really made a big difference in my health is eating fresh harvested food of the best quality. Even when I shopped at farmer's markets before, I would often leave my fruits and vegetables in the fridge or on counter tops for days to weeks not realizing that these once fresh edibles began losing nutrients the moment they were harvested.

Now, because we grow our own food at home, we harvest most of our fruits and vegetables right before use. We do store some vegetables. Things like extra strawberries go straight to the freezer to preserve nutrients. Long-storing foods like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions are properly cured for nutrient preservation. We also grow year-round greens and ferment many of our vegetables while they are fresh to help preserve the vitamin and mineral content.

Freshness is not the only factor that contributes to the quality of our food. We grow in soils that have a regular supply of fresh compost. We use crop rotation and cover-cropping to ensure that the mineral content available to our food sources remains high. We amend with rock dust and wood ash to add trace minerals on a regular basis. Though no one has tested this theory in a lab, my body tells me that each bite of food eaten from our own homestead holds more nutritional value than most of what I can buy.

Now, there are a lot of really wonderful small farmers out there who grow vegetables for market using practices just like we do on our homestead. (I'm one of them!) Just make sure you ask about their soil, their use of compost, and other methods they use to ensure high vitamin and mineral content in fruits and vegetables.

There is obviously a lot more to good homestead nutrition than what I can cover in this blog post. So, I hope you will take these ideas as food for thought on your quest for maintaining radiant health on your own homestead.

Next up in ours series, let's talk about the “O” word. No...the other one. I mean Organic. Be on the look out for The ABCS of Homesteading: O is for Organic and Beyond!

Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape at the reLuxe Ranch. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Tasha also is also a contributing author for The Grow Network. Find Tasha at The Way Back , reLuxe Renderings, 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.