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


Join a Virtual Book Club for Homesteaders!

Homesteaders' Book Club

The journey toward self-sufficiency is loaded with opportunities for learning – whether you’re raising animals for the first time, figuring out how to grow all the vegetables you need for a year, or deciding whether to install solar panels. 

But self-sufficiency doesn’t have to mean going it alone.  Over the course of the last year, I have met and connected with thousands of other homesteaders, gardeners, and folks dedicated to sustainable living over social media.  This community tends to be incredibly supportive, which is refreshing when it comes to social media.  They also love learning from each other.

In that spirit, and in collaboration with some excellent partners, I am incredibly excited to invite you to join our Homesteaders’ Book Club!  This virtual book club is hosted through a Facebook Group and invites those who are interested in self-sufficiency – no matter where they are on the journey – to join in reading a related book during each season of the year.

Each season’s read is sponsored by a partnering publisher, some of whom I’ve met through my great relationship with Mother Earth News.  The summer 2018 book group was sponsored by Chelsea Green Publishing and we focused on frugal living.  We read The Art of Frugal Hedonism and book group members were immediately taken by the creative and alternative ideas contained within its pages.

There are so many great homesteading books out there – here’s your chance to read them along with others and discuss what you are learning in a supportive online environment!

Fall 2018 Homesteaders’ Book Club

This Fall, we’re focusing on our book group on the journey toward self-sufficiency – what is it like to become a homesteader and what are the different paths that people take?  In partnership with Storey Publishing, we’re choosing between three exciting books that are part memoir, part how-to:

Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich

One-Woman Farm: My Life Shared with Sheep, Pigs, Chickens, Goats, and a Fine Fiddle by Jenna Woginrich

The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living by Wendy Jehanara Tremayne

You can read quick summaries of these books on The Happy Hive’s Blog.  We invite book club members to vote on the book we’ll read together, and our publisher partner sends a free copy to one lucky book club member!  We start reading in October.

Come Learn with Us!

To join the Homesteaders’ Book Club, simply request membership in the Facebook Group.  From there, look for the pinned announcement to vote on our current book, and keep in touch to join future reading adventures!

Once we choose the book, you just need to get your hands on a copy (unless you’re our prize winner!) and start reading.  During the designated reading month, we’ll post regular discussion prompts so that you can engage with other interested readers and meet people from around the world who share similar interests.

Hope to see you soon, and best wishes on your journey to self-sufficiency!

Carrie Williams Howe is an educational leader by day and an aspiring homesteader by night and weekend.  Based in Vermont, she blogs about her family’s homesteading adventures at The Happy Hive.  Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest.


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Book Review: 'Start Your Farm' by Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk

 

When Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk set out to write a book about becoming a farmer, they didn’t want to write an instruction manual for growing vegetables or raising livestock (because plenty of great ones already exist).  They also didn’t want to write a book about starting or running a business (there’s already some great stuff in that category too).  They wanted to write, in their words “a hybrid of multiple seemingly diverse elements: agricultural insight, business acumen, and self-help wisdom.”

You might think that covering that many angles in a single book would be difficult, and it is, but Pritchard and Poishuk have pulled it off.  And they haven’t just done it by the skin of their teeth, they’ve done it with skill and depth that make this book a must have for anyone beginning or digging deeper into a farming career.

Start your Farm: The Authoritative Guide to Becoming a Sustainable 21st Century Farmer is just what the title says it is – an authoritative guide.  But “guide” seems like too light a word for the richness contained within the pages of this book.  It is a personal and deeply meaningful text written by two authors who are themselves farmers. They are also scholars of sustainability and agriculture, with complex academic and practical understanding of those concepts. 

Have you ever been to a seminar or a workshop with someone and thought to yourself, “wow, I need to absorb everything that this person is saying”?  I imagine that’s what an audience member might think listening to one of these authors speak.  This book is what that audience member is looking for – an open window into the wisdom, experience, and honesty that these two professionals and colleagues can offer.  It’s like they thought to themselves, “let me think of every single honest thing I would want to tell a new farmer and let’s lay it all out there.”

The text ranges from the practical to the philosophical and everywhere in between.  At times, it can feel overwhelming – like when discussing the commodity system or the difficulty of finding affordable farmland.  Pritchard and Polishuk don’t shy away from the tough topics or potential failures.  But that’s really the point of this book – they wouldn’t feel right keeping these things from you, as much as they want you to succeed.  And somehow, despite the heaviness that is present on the pages, they continually bring you back to on of their fundamental tenets: “always view problems through a lens of opportunity.”

In fact, it is the sections that balance challenge and opportunity that are the highlight of this book – the sections in which they lay out all of the difficulties you could run into but then, like a trusted mentor, convey their belief that you will overcome these difficulties even if you fail occasionally.  They then proceed to give you a bunch of ideas for how to succeed – ideas that took them years of experience and trial and error to learn. 

For example, their chapters on taking your product to market begin with an overview of the commodity system because, even if you aren’t actively a part of it, you should still know how it works because it can affect you in one way or another.  They then dive into an exploration of alternative markets, relating back to their belief in the value of small-scale agriculture – with some very practical suggestions.  But in the end, they remind you that what is right for one farmer might not be what is right for you, and invite you to reflect on what makes the most sense in your situation.  In one short section you get an economics lesson, some very practical marketing advice, and some encouragement to continue your own reflection on your journey. 

I couldn’t agree more with the description on the back of the book – “Making this dream a reality is not for the faint of heart…”.  This book is not for the faint of heart either, but if you are serious about becoming a farmer you deserve every resource possible to help you on that worthy journey.  The more honest and resourceful those resources are, the better.  Pritchard and Polishuk are behind you, they just want you to be prepared for the uphill battles, because the potential rewards (for you and for our society in general) are huge.

In short, I feel like the best response that any serious reader and farmer would have to this book is “thank you.”  Thank you to Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk for being willing to share almost everything you have learned and for laying it all out there with such depth, honesty, and trust.  It’s not often you feel like an author is serving the reader in such a convincing manner, but this book conveys just that – a sincere desire to be of service in a field that can be tough to survive. 

Carrie Williams Howe is a blogger aThe Happy Hive Homestead.  She is the Executive Director of an educational nonprofit by day, and parent and aspiring homesteader by night and on weekends. She lives in Williston,Vermont, with her husband, two young children, and a rambunctious border collie. Carrie has a PhD in educational leadership and is passionate about learning collaboratively. Connect with Carrie on The Happy Hive Facebook page. Read all of Carrie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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A Pioneer in Self-Reliant Living and Teaching: Prudence Boczarski

 

Recently, Prudence Boczarski was at the Highland Park farmers market showing school children how to raise worms in one’s backyard.  Boczarski and her co-worker were cutting strips of old newspaper and putting it into a large bucket with the worms.  “Worms love to devour the OLD newspaper,” said Boczarski with a  smile as all the children peered into the bucket.  “They turn all this into good soil,” she said.

Boczarski was representing her natural bakery business and the non-profit she’s represented for the past 40 years. The focus of the non-profit, WTI, is – among other things – to show city-dwellers how to live better with less, including using earthworms to help grow our food. 

At the farmers market booth, plants are sold that are propagated from parent plants growing at the non-profit’s nearby headquarters, all growing in recycled containers.  These plants include medicinal plants such as Aloe vera and Peruvian mint, foods such as nopales and nasturtium, and air-cleaners such as spider plant.

Boczarski has been active in self-reliance living and education even before this lifestyle gained its current popularity.

In the late 1970s, she was featured in the Pasadena Star News for her “roving sewer” business where she did low-cost sewing repairs door to door.  Her specialty was advising her clients on the appropriate fabrics for “survival clothing,” and avoiding fabrics that don’t “breathe” as much as possible.

In the mid-1980s, she was featured in the Los Angeles Weekly when she lived in a small shed in Los Angeles for six months without electricity, demonstrating the skills needed to live in the aftermath of an earthquake.  She used lanterns, cooked on an outdoor stove, and washed her clothes by hand.

Boczarski has organized or participated in hundreds of educational field trips, classes, and lectures to teach self-reliance. More recently, with her work with WTI, she has developed a lecture series – soon to be a book – outlining some of the basics of sound nutrition to help eliminate the clutter of confusion on this topic.

“You’d be surprised how much contradictory information is out there,” said Boczarski, “and people don’t seem to be getting any healthier.”  Her book is tentatively titled “17 Ways That Vastly Improve Daily Nutrition (and Physical-Mental Health),” and will include such things as good vs. bad sugars, the oils that sustain, animal vs. vegetable proteins, and much more. Besides working on this book, she gives lectures on the topic upon request.

“If you don’t maintain good health,” she explained, “you simply cannot do all those things that you want to, and need to, do every day.”

Retired from the L.A. Unified School District, Boczarski serves as President of the non-profit, organizing their various educational outreach efforts, and publishing. The organization goes back over 40 years, with a complex spectrum of ways that everyone can be a part of the solutions to our society’s diverse and most serious problems including pollution and over-population.

For more information, Boczarski can be reached at PruWeb@aol.com or check the website at www.WTINC.info.

Nyerges is an teacher of self-reliance skills, who has written many books on the subject. For further information, go to www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com


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You've Goat to be Kidding Me! Introducing Goats to Your Herd

Fletcher shows one of his Boer does at the Morrow County Fair.

Whew! The past month, I have been overwhelmed with back-to-school shopping, the Morrow County Fair, the first day of school, planning my 10-year-old’s birthday party, etc., that I haven’t been able to sit down and write a grocery list, let alone a blog post. Needless to say, I’ve missed it. And now that we’re back into the routine, and the kids are out of my hair for a few hours a day, I’m ready to get back to writing.

Speaking of kids (goat kids, that is), Fletcher did exceptionally well for his first year showing at the fair. He took his two Boer doelings, Mandy and Danae, and both placed in their BBR (bred, born, and raised in MoCo) classes, as well as weight classes. Fletcher even won rate-of-gain champion for Mandy and third in beginner showmanship, and is so proud of his banner, rosettes, and ribbons (Mom’s just a little proud, too!).

The plan was to keep the bigger doe, Mandy, to breed next year, and for Fletcher to sell Danae in a private sale once the fair was over (boy, does he want the money to buy a new Xbox One!). Well, after placing second in both her BBR and weight classes (beating a lot of wethers), a guy who knows a heck of a lot more about goats than we do, approached my husband, Matt, after the show and, let’s just say, “politely encouraged” us to keep both does to breed in 2019.

So, we loaded up the girls and brought them back to the barn. But wait, there’s more! My nephew headed off to college a few weeks ago and made a deal with Matt to keep and breed his two does while he is away. Matt picked them up Saturday. So, we went from the original plan to have just three goats to a herd of six in a week.

Introducing Goats

Introducing goats to an existing herd can be a challenge, but here are a few tips to help reduce the stress of moving new animals into the barn.

Clean out old bedding: This should be a no-brainer. Because many diseases are spread through infected manure, you should remove soiled straw and pressure wash walls and floors to reduce the likelihood of illness. You may want to dust with diatomaceous earth to combat external parasites, such as lice or mites. Wait until the pen is thoroughly dry before adding fresh straw or wood shavings.

Separate pens: Quarantining your new goats is a good idea to make sure there are no signs of illness until you introduce them to your herd. If you can, keep the new goats separated for a few days, or up to a month, as some online references suggest. You may want to deworm, too. Watch for signs of illness during the quarantine period, such as a temperature higher than 103 degrees, snotty nose, deep coughing, or panting/fast breathing. Contact your vet should you notice these signs.

Buy feed from the previous owner: This will help the transition to your preferred goat feed, as mixing the two feeds is beneficial to your new animals. Rather than a quick change of feed, mixing can reduce the chance for intestinal upset (diarrhea).

Sanitize buckets and feeders: Again, this is all part of infection control. Thoroughly wash your water buckets and feed pans before you put them in the cleaned pen. If you are moving goats locally, you may even want to fill a jug of water from the previous owner’s pump to mix with your water until the new goats are used to it. We did this for the week of the fair, filling cleaned milk jugs with our well water to mix with the fairground’s city water to help prevent diarrhea.

Understand temperament: Now, just because your goats are sweet and funny and fill-in-your-adjective, doesn’t mean that they won’t turn aggressive once you turn out new goats into the herd. There definitely is a social ranking among goats, and you’re likely to see it in full-force in the early days of introduction. This is true for our doe, Zilah, who can be very food aggressive. Let’s just say, she’s been known to knock heads around the feed pan. But after a few days, they should have settled down and accepted the new goats into the herd. You’ll know fairly quickly the self-imposed social hierarchy. Most of the time, goats are good-natured as long as they are healthy and have plenty of room in the pen and around the water buckets and feeders.

So, if you end up in a goat-acquiring situation, I hope these tips help you get through the introduction time. If you have additional advice, please leave a comment below so that we can all learn to be better herdsmen.

Corinne Gompf is a writer and hobby farmer in Morrow County, Ohio. She is a graduate from the University of Toledo, with a BA in English, creative writing concentration. Along with her husband, Matt, and two children, Fletcher and Emery, Corinne raises poultry, Boer goats, rabbits, and chemical-free produce. Connect with Corinne on her Heritage Harvest Farm Facebook page.


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First Step to Building a Working Farm: Choosing Good Farmland

Old Barn Farm Restoration Project 

The first step toward building a working farm: choosing the land. More than 20 years ago, my parents decided to turn their hobby into a small business. In an effort to grow the business, they made the decision to acquire land for growing small crops of helpful plants that may become future ingredients.

The idea for me now is to continue the foundation passed on by my mom before her death, a foundation of growing small crops without chemicals. Eventually, my own family and I decided to acquire a 2.5-acre foreclosed property with many features that likely deterred other buyers but made it the right fit for our purposes.

Assessing the Terrain of Farmland

First, the land is a long rectangle that is quite hilly with a shallow creek running across a portion of it. The land also is on the side of a larger hill. This means the soil is well drained, no matter how high or low it is.

Situated in Central Arkansas, it's also quite rocky. On the plus side, that means any digging uncovers rocks to use as garden borders. On the negative sides, digging any hole can become a labor-intensive task. While it may be hard to visualize, the hill sloping down toward the creek is ideal for building a small factory as it would be protected from high winds or harsh weather on three sides by the hilly nature of the area.

Reviving Gardens

Second, we learned that, more than a decade ago, the owners had lush beautiful gardens, the remnants of which were visible once pointed out. This was a foreclosure that sat vacant for at least a year and had become very overgrown. Hiding in the weeds were several paved walkways and paths that snake around, some leading to the house and some winding around what would have been a garden. There is even a large, round base that once held a large water fountain.

Fat leaves I came to know as irises spot the entire front portion of the property. Knowing that the gardens were once so beautiful as to leave an impact on the utility man whom we met later meant that this land is capable of growing new plant life, which was the motivating purpose behind choosing this particular land.

Replacing Decking On Farmhouse

Using Reclaimed Materials from the Old Farm

Third, there is building material available from projects that have fallen into disrepair. New gardens and other projects will require supplies for borders or benches or whatever happens to be needed. Those previous owners from so long ago had installed a brick walkway approximately 6  to 8 feet wide that once stretched the length of the house and wound around the side. The bricks can be dug up and used for garden borders or perhaps a small garden shed wall.

There was also a wide deck that wrapped around the entire house and included a wider portion at the end near the parking area. The deck wood is rather rotten, and many boards were broken. However, not all of the wood is rotten; the portions that are usable can sustain heavy weight loads, great for repurposing into other projects.

Fourth, one of the more recent owners tried to operate a small machine repair business in the nearly 500-square-foot shed behind the house. That meant that the electric lines were once well equipped in order to power necessary power tools.

The floor of the main portion of the shed can hold heavy weight — the 8-by-11 add-on needed some reinforcement. The roof leaked in a few places but were easily patched up (after all, it's a storage shed and not a place where people would live, so it didn't need to be perfect).

Assessing Water Infrastructure for a Farm

Fifth, and something that may seem rather silly, this property has a water well and two septic tanks. A year after moving in, I still don't know where the well water comes out, since the house is on county water, but the concept of using ground water for gardening is very appealing.

Also, I accidentally located a previous realtor for the property who told me that, in order to obtain a purchase loan, a previous owner installed a second septic tank to be certified without having the first tank removed. That first one can either be dug up and sold or somehow used for some other project.

Restoring Old Walkways Rural Property

Restoring Existing Farm Structures

Sixth, and lastly, this property has a structure (or house) already on it. While the purpose of the purchase was to grow future product ingredients, the longer term goals of building a small factory and house could be achieved more easily if I was no longer burdened with a monthly home rental payment. This house was a double-wide mobile home that was remodeled (according to the neighbors) and isn't readily recognizable by everyone as having been a trailer at any time.

However, the instant challenge was making it habitable when it had been sitting empty for at least a year but was in a state of disrepair long before that. It needed heavy painting, new floors in the bathrooms, and much disinfecting to even think about moving into this place.

After the factory and house are complete, this “project house” can be sold and moved away easier than a traditional house of equivalent disrepair upon purchasing.

After the purchase was made, the projects began! I have tried to document my adventures as I worked on the property, either to make it a better home, to grow a future ingredient, or to build something that would get my family closer to a more natural way of living. Join me as I learn what techniques work and maybe alter a few older techniques along the way.

Ann B. operates Poison Ivy Soap Company, the business founded 24 years ago by her parents as a hobby. The company focuses on creating holistic products to help ease life's discomforts. Ann is building an Arkansas homestead from the ground up. Follow the company on Facebook and Instagram, and follow Ann on Facebook.


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7 Expert Tips for Getting Started with Backyard Chickens

 

After raising chickens for over ten years, you pick up a trick or two along the way. In this article I want to share with you my top 7 beginner tips to raising backyard chickens.

7 Tips for Raising Chickens

My first tip is to make sure you understand what chicken math is. Anyone who has already raised chickens knows that they are incredibly addictive. For some reason each time spring comes around I find my flock expanding! Most beginners will start off with a flock size between 6-12. This will normally expand as you become ‘addicted’ to chickens; this is affectionately referred to as chicken math. For this reason, I would recommend that you start out with a coop twice as big as you think you will need. Chances are your flock will be expanding quicker, and sooner, than you think.

Tip number two: start with pullets instead of chicks. What are pullets I can hear you ask? Pullets, also known as point of lay, are chickens that are around 18 weeks old. They will either be just about to, or will have just started to lay eggs. Whilst the thought of getting chicks is very exciting there is a high chance they several of the chicks will die before they reach maturity; this chance increases a lot with beginners. Chicks require far more attention and effort to look after than pullets. Instead if you get pullets, they will be fairly hardy and much more self-sufficient. For more information on this read this guide to raising chickens.

Here is a tip I learnt the hard way, exercise caution when following coop manufacture’s advice on how many chickens you can put inside a coop; their recommendations tend to fall on the small side. If you cramp your chickens, either in the coop or when roaming, it can cause some serious behavioral problems. Some of the most common ones being bullying and anti-social behavior. If left untouched it can cause havoc to the flock. As a general rule each chicken should have 3 square foot of coop space and a minimum of 15 square foot of pen/roaming space. So if you have a flock of six hens, your coop would need to be around 18 square foot (remember my chicken math tip before though). And your pen/roaming area would need to be at least 90 square foot.

Make sure you choose the right breed. In general terms there are three main categories of chicken: egg laying, meat birds, dual purpose.

There wouldn’t be much sense in choosing to get a meat bird if you’re looking to get hens that can lay eggs and vice-versa. Not every hatchery will carry every breed of chicken but you should at least make sure the breed of chicken you’re getting falls into the correct broad category for you needs. If you’re wondering dual purpose hens are a combination of egg layers and meat birds; they normally lay 200-300 eggs each year and at the end of it can be used as a meat bird if needed.

Another top tip I would offer you is to understand your flocks’ normal behavior. You can do this by just spending time watching them as they go about their day. After a few weeks you will be able to understand what their typical behavior is, who the dominant members of the flock are, and how active they are. It’s important to know this because when their behavior abruptly changes it’s a good indication that something is wrong in the flock and you should start investigating.

Have you ever tried collecting eggs from chickens that free range and don’t use their nesting box? I have, it’s a nightmare and can take several hours! As soon as your hens start to lay you should train them to use the nesting box. Not only is it much more convenient for you, it’s also comfier for the chicken. You can use ceramic or plastic eggs and leave them in the nesting box to encourage your pullets to lay there.

My final tip is make sure to tame your hens. In my experience it’s much easier to tame them when they are younger. You can do this a few ways but my favorite is to use treats. Twice a day you can visit your hens and give them treats. You can start by just standing still and putting the treats on the ground near you and progress until they will eventually eat from your hand and let you pick them up. As soon as you get your chickens you should start this taming process. You should want to get them tamed because it will make things like picking them up and performing health checks so much easier.

Claire Woods is the editor at The Happy Chicken Coop and is a fourth-generation chicken keeper. She can be found at her blog The Happy Chicken Coop or on her author page at Amazon.


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Celebrating Five Years of Homesteading

 

In the beginning ...

In 2013 we were chosen as one of Mother Earth News’ Homesteads of the year.  Our half-acre urban homestead and learning space along with our outward work fit that year’s theme of “Community & Self Reliance”.  We were honored to be chosen but also very early into our project and the development of our site. With this article I want to share some of how we got started as well as how our homestead has blossomed and transformed in the five years since.

2011

We found our run-down house with its bare, weedy, unloved land in a socio-economically diverse neighborhood in May of 2011.  The price was right, there was room to garden and build, the neighborhood was funky enough to provide some creative freedom, and we were just two miles from the river, events, and culture of downtown Reno. Flat broke and full of dreams after two years of travel and learning, we fundraised for two months by sharing our vision of what the Be the Change Project would be: a hub for alternative living, climate & social justice work, and service which resonated with enough of our friends and family that we were able to buy the property outright.  Since then, freed from a mortgage or rent, we’ve worked hard to pay their goodwill forward into the world.

The house was truly a disaster - significant water damage, sagging floors, septic tank issues, broken windows, even dead cats in the crawl space.  Because of this our family lived in a backyard shed from August 1 to Halloween while fixing the house up room by room. As part of our vision we were committed to having an electricity, car, and fossil-fuel free homestead so almost all of the remodeling was done with “powerless” hand tools and a lot of materials collected by bike and trailer.  It was an adventure my older (and maybe wiser) self would likely not undertake again!

Almost from day one Katy got to work planting and soil building.  We knew that growing a lot of food would be challenging and slow-going; our high desert area averages just seven inches of rain a year and our frost-free growing season is a whopping four months.  We bought what soil and compost we could afford and started making our own. On week two we welcomed chickens from a friend who was moving and rushed to get a coop built and a run fenced in. We built cold frames for growing fall greens, set up an outdoor kitchen with a mini rocket stove, bought a Sun Oven, and welcomed the support of many people.  Whether they gave lumber and tools, leaves for compost, a woodstove, or even their time and sweat like our friend Tim who camped out in our front yard and worked hard for 6 weeks, we were so grateful for so much help in those first three months.

Food Production

Since that first year we’ve continued to plant and build soil and installed drip irrigation in 2014, a true necessity for growing appreciable amounts of food in our high desert environment.  We now have twenty 25’ annual beds in our backyard, five raised beds in the front, and an expanded greenhouse. Through trial and error (we killed lots of trees) and the wisdom of friends we’ve learned what grows well and what we do best with on our half-acre. We raise all of our potatoes, greens, onions, garlic, carrots, a lot of our fruit and eggs, and, through the years, much of our own meat.  For five years we raised meat rabbits and have alternated years with pigs (fed with gleaned food from our urban realm), butchering eight so far. Each time we process pigs there are a half-dozen or so friends who want to participate in the three days of harvesting. It transforms an intense experience into a community-building and learning event. Currently we have a flock of 12 chickens and three dairy goats.  

Natural Building

In 2012 we built a hybrid “stick” (2x4 and 2x6) and cob cabin insulated with cardboard in our backyard.  We held two gifted natural building workshops to share the process and help with the construction. We have a cob oven, a cob “Stoven”, several earthbag landscape walls, and have “earthed out” our conventional home over the years with earthen plasters, clay paints, and Light Straw Clay infilled walls.  In the backyard, our pigs and goats have enjoyed a small balecob hut that’s kept them cozy through the seasons.

In 2013 we dug out and built an earthbag and strawbale root cellar to store our harvest.  It functions beautifully and allows us to preserve our foods into the early summer. The clay-rich soil we dug up for the cellar went to building a second cottage (this time a cordwood-cob cabin - see the One Day Cob House) down the block.  If we know we’ll be doing some natural building we’ll usually hold a class to share the knowledge and get help with the projects.  This fall, for example, we have five half-day classes set up at our site.

Permaculture

Permaculture is a big part of our work and gives us a powerful lens through which to see our land, gardens, and connection to the broader world.  Its emphasis on observation, stacking functions, “planting the water first” as well as the mantra of Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share guide us wisely in our planning and implementation.  

In 2015 we received a homesteading grant from the Permaculture Research Institute/USA to boost our efforts.  With their support we planted dozens of trees, expanded and improved out irrigation, developed hugelkulture beds, installed a water harvesting system that diverts road runoff into mulch basins during rare, big rains, and purchased specialized gardening tools.  We’ve continued to develop a food forest in one corner of our backyard that’s now thriving with a mix of food plants, nitrogen fixers, natives, insectory plants, and nutrient accumulators at several canopy levels. This includes apples, plums, cherries and peaches, hazelnut, autumn and russian olives, sea berry, goji, goose, service, and elderberries, comfrey, Siberian pea shrub, yarrow and so much more.  The regular trimmings of biomass make great goat and chicken fodder as well as valuable compost additions. And speaking of compost, we always have several piles at work ready to amend our garden beds and boost soil around our perennials.

Sustainability

Living lightly on the planet is a big deal for us.  We have stayed almost entirely electricity and fossil fuel-free on our site and continue to live in voluntary poverty.  Our annual income has climbed from about $6,500 a year in 2011 to close to $12,000 this year. We choose to do this to reduce our consumption of new items and to encourage us to be more creative problem solvers with all we do from building and gardening to traveling and entertainment.  The single biggest expense is our children - their sports, camps, and gear.

Living on little money makes turning urban “waste products” like urbanite (broken up concrete slabs), old fence boards, and plywood cutoffs into useful homesteading materials an enjoyable process that also serves to connect us with our place and neighbors.  For example, our frontyard pond was built with a friend’s salvaged pond liner, locally scavenged urbanite hunks for walls, and a neighbor’s rocks he was looking to get rid of. And, we built it with a crew during a workbee with the local permaculture group.

Broader environmental and climate work has also remained a big part of our lives.  In addition to our daily, simpler living, we started a food waste collection and composting business in 2015 (the Reno Rot Riders) which we developed and then sold, an associated worm farm (Wormtopia) this past year, created a climate working group with the city in 2015, and supported the Standing Rock water protectors through fundraising and a supply run to the camp in 2016.  I am also doing a lot more natural building and teaching with House Alive as a regular means of earning our bread money and to share my great passion for building with earth.  

During Nevada’s legislative session of 2017 (they’re only five months long every other year) we focused a lot of our time on organizing for 100% clean energy in Nevada (Powered by Sunshine).  Our state is graced with abundant sunshine and geothermal activity which makes us uniquely positioned to lead the world in renewables if we choose to do so.  Several positive bills passed and another is on the ballot this year to bring our state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio up to 50% by 2030.

Community Work & Outreach

Our community work has always started with our neighborhood.  We worked with local artists and young people to transform three big, ugly, oft-grafittied walls along one road into murals.  We held three free concerts in our neighborhood park in 2015 and created the Reno Garlic Fest to support local food and farmers (which is also held at our park) in 2017.  It’s been a smashing success! We distribute seed packets every spring and shared 25 fruit tree guilds with neighbors through a Pollination Project grant in 2015.  For six years we’ve had a blast doing Christmas caroling, too.

For three years I served on our local Neighborhood Advisory Board serving as a bridge between the community and the city which helped us connect with council members and learn how to better navigate the system to support our work.  We’ve welcomed a couple thousand people - including lots of kids on field trips - to our site for informational tours, workshops, book groups, and work parties. We always try to blend education with a can-do attitude and a call to action.   

In 2015 we were able, with loans from friends, to purchase an empty .40 acre lot two doors down.  We’ve have been doing lots of composting there to improve the soils and this year have planted scores of perennials and twenty 20’ garden beds with annuals.  In the next year we plan to build a small, efficient home there (to be rented out as an affordable rental) with ample solar power and a garage that will double as a studio space for community activities and events.

Wormtopia is a good example of how we’ve been able to work together with neighbors. After struggling for several months to find a place to plop the operation, I approached my neighbor who has a little extra space on his property.  After describing what I wanted to do - set up a 40’ hoop house with two 30’ worm bins to transform local food waste into nourishing vermicompost - he immediately said yes. The hoop house serves as a growing space, too, with seedling starts and even as a chick nursery last spring.  They grew fast and fat feasting on the worms!

Service continues to be a big thread in our lives.  For three years we gave away about 15,000 of articles of Patagonia clothing to local shelters and organizations helping the needful.  For nearly seven years we’ve volunteered weekly with a local food ministry that helps feed thousands each week and through which we are able to get the other food our family needs.  

Local activism comes and goes as we feel called to participate.  For instance, inspired by several Dreamers coming through Reno, we interviewed a dozen undocumented immigrants that resulted in a play called “Liberty’s Children: Voices of Immigrants in the Land of the Free” created by a friend which ran for three weeks in 2014.  We followed each performance with a community discussion to create a space for sharing around this sensitive topic.

Sharing is a big part of what we do and how we thrive.  For example, we share a freezer at our neighbor and friend Scott’s place which is essential for meat storage.  In turn we help him with projects and share the bounty of our garden. We also watch TV (a big hit with the kids), usually major sporting events or just Warriors basketball, with our older neighbor Tom.  “TV with Tom” is the sharing of entertainment resources but also so much more: it’s a great time for all of us as we share food and drink and fun stories of which Tom has a lifetime’s supply. He’s also great with our kids who get to have another elder in their lives and who offers them little jobs to do when he can use a bit of help.  Other neighbors come by, too, so now an older man living alone has a bit of activity, laughter, the energy of kids, and a network to help him out when needed. A group of us even put new shingles on his house this spring.

We also make creative use of what we consider the urban commons.  We use the library and cafe’s for internet access and often visit our nearby laundromat for big wash days.  We glean apples from a neglected orchard on the edge of town, cherries from the courtyard of a weekly motel downtown, and assorted berries, herbs, and apricots from beloved neighbors.  We return the love in turn be it by digging holes, giving out buckets of worm wine, or sharing what we grow in abundance like garlic and greens. Each of these money-free exchanges provides greater connection and trust which allows for even more community upliftment.

Challenges

There are many contradictions with how we live but the overall vision has remained strong and steadfast - a commitment to simpler living for the benefit of people and planet and an attempt at greater connection with people, place, and purpose.  We’ve expressed what we’re doing as an experiment and like all experiments we’ve failed as much as we have succeeded.

For example, while still having no electricity at our place we have been using more year-to-year in our lives.  Biggest is that we bought a used EV Nissan Leaf in mid 2017. I’ve called cars “tanks in the war against the planet” and while I still largely agree with that statement we were challenged enough in our getting about that we took the plunge.  Our main motivators were our boys doing more away from home, Katy’s troublesome knees, and our desire to get to nearby hiking much more often. Additionally, Reno’s public transportation is not the best. Overall, the car has been wonderful - it’s a pleasure to drive and as an EV is super low maintenance.  We charge it at public charging stations in town while we do computer work, have meetings, or go for walks. After the rental home is built on the lot we’ll use the solar power there to power the car thus freeing it from the grid and fossil fuels.

I’ve also gotten power tools and I love them!  A friend was working for a tool company and gave me my first cordless set - a driver, drill, and saw.  They’ve made building and home repairs so much easier I feel they’ve been worth it. Ripping plywood with a hand saw got old real fast. They’ve also made carpentry more accessible to my kids who more readily use these tools than the Yankee screwdriver and brace & bit drill.

Like I mentioned earlier, we’ve killed lots of plants.  In the beginning they died mainly because our soils we too poor and we didn’t have our water systems running smoothly.  Our animals have nibbled several where our fencing was weak or our ignorance great (who knew how strong a pig could be!).  We’ve improved our graywater plantings over many years of experimentation and now have nettle, milkweed (for monarchs), gooseberry and currant thriving around the mulch basin.

Composting, too, has been a steep learning curve.  We’ve had some big, stinky batches over the years that even our neighbors have noticed.   

It’s been an interesting ride as somewhat public figures, too.  We’ve enjoyed invitations to speak at events, at the legislature, at businesses and so on because of the more radical stance we’ve taken on simpler living or climate action.  We regularly receive kudos from folks (which feels nice) but we’ve also struggled with people projecting their needs or desires upon us and then feeling let down when we act differently than they hoped or expected.  This has led to a few arguments and strained relationships over the years. It’s made us more aware of how we speak and share and what responsibility we take for our public actions while also becoming more comfortable with disagreement.  The upshot is that we’re not perfect and anyone can do what we do.

Finally, raising our two boys in this environment has had its own challenges.  They were 5 and 2 when we moved here and are now 12 and 9. Like all parents we worry if what we’re providing is best meeting their needs.  We feel great about what they’re learning around the homestead and with our events and projects. They “get” climate change, why we live simply, and how engaging with our community pays dividends for all of us. They are being brought up with permaculture, natural building, and civic engagement as the normal background of their lives.  And we’re grateful that grandma moved down the block and is a huge part of their lives. By not having electricity in our home we’ve avoided a lot of the “normal” American family debates around screen time, appropriate video content, bed times (they, too, go to bed and get up in rhythm with the sun and seasons). But as they’ve gotten older and their world has grown they’re naturally drawn to media, computers and cell phones and all the other gizmos and gadgets that are both blessings and curses in our culture.  We’ve tried to make thoughtful compromises so they get healthy doses of our culture while staying rooted to place and purpose. This looks like occasional videos at grandma’s, TV time with our 81-year old neighbor Tom (where we watch sports with the kids - go Warriors! - and have dinner and a drink while hearing great stories from an elder), and doing whatever their friends are up to at their houses. It’s a balancing act that’s far from perfect but working right now. We hope that by developing their awareness for their local and global impact and role that they’ll be able to navigate both our little realm and the big, wide world as they grow into it.   --

Kyle Chandler-Isacksen: Be the Change Project; Reno Rot Riders; Reno Garlic Fest; Wormtopia


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