Dear MOTHER: Breaking Ground

Letters from our readers about dreams of homesteading, looking back on fond times, and learning more about solar-powered housing.

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by Gretchen Whittman
Gretchen has made the most of her property by keeping bees and chickens, and chopping wood.

Homestead Hopes

For years, I’ve read and admired the folks who’ve appeared in MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Grit, and Backwoods HomeMagazine. I’ve longed to live on a farm and be self-sufficient. I’ve dreamed of having the freedom to rise with the sun and go to bed when it sets. In the late 1970s, my boyfriend and I bought a 700-square-foot cabin that sat on 7 acres. The property had a small spring-fed pond with a cistern. We both worked for the Navy back then, so we’d commute the 50-plus miles to work. Life was good, and, eventually, I got to stay home with our children and work around the property. We grew our own food, raised chickens and goats, and even had a horse. But times changed, and so did we. By 2005, I was a single parent renting houses from other people, but my dream of a life on the farm never left me. I longed for self-sufficiency once again.

In 2015, I bought a single-family home on 2 acres of mountain land overgrown with trees and rocks. Since I was still about 60 miles from Washington, D.C., land was at a premium, so I couldn’t afford more land for a true farm. The land did have a year-round stream that fed into a small pond.

The first year on the property, I built raised beds with cinder blocks the previous owner had left behind. Trying to grow anything was frustrating! Lettuce and potatoes did well, but tomatoes were leggy, and melons were out of the question. Since I was still working a full-time job, it was difficult to get projects done around the house. One day, I knocked out a wall in my basement to make a separate bedroom for one of my daughters, and I found a chimney flue. To take advantage of this discovery, I purchased a monstrous woodstove from a neighbor that reduced my gas bill tremendously. MOTHER EARTH NEWS and Grit still had a place on my nightstand, and reading them helped keep my farm dream alive.

By the second year, I’d had several trees taken down to give me a few more hours of daylight to work around the property. I planted several fruit trees, some roses, flowers, and berries. I bought a chicken coop half-price from the local Tractor Supply store and stocked it full of chickens. My son planted ginseng on the mountainside, started mushrooms on logs, and planted sunchokes with my roses. I still kept up with MOTHER and would envy people who had an actual farm. I could only dream of getting up at the crack of dawn to milk goats, make bread, can, and manage other tasks of self-sufficiency.

When the third year came around, I quit wishing and realized I’d obtained a lot of what I’d been striving for. I’d already made jam from berries on the property, I’d eaten meals from my garden, and I’d installed a rainwater-harvesting system to water the garden and animals. My fruit trees were still growing, and my chickens were laying eggs. My neighbor introduced me to bees, so I dove in and hoped for some honey. I began freezing and drying squash, kale, and herbs for use later on in the year. When it was hot, I took my kayak and headed for the pond.

green bee box sitting on a wooden pallet on grass

I’ve just retired from my job, so now I can rise with the sun — or whenever I want! I may not have the farm I’ve dreamed of, but I’m more self-sufficient than I was when I first moved onto the property. I still read all the good homesteading magazines and dream of a farm with livestock, but for now, I’m making the most of my land and abilities. Thank you, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, for all the great advice and inspiration.

Gretchen Whittman
Front Royal, Virginia


Breaking Ground

Our family of five — which consists of my husband and me and our three daughters — was itching to live somewhere with more room to roam and space to breathe. Last September, all the details aligned perfectly, and we purchased a picturesque stone house on 8.6 acres of ideal homesteading land, situated directly beside the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

We have many future plans for our space, but our first priority was to break ground for a large garden. Our neighbors helped till the land, and my husband installed a fence. Inspired, we sowed seeds, planted seedlings, and prayed they’d grow. My girls helped with every step of the gardening process as best they could. We’re finally tasting the fruits of our labor and couldn’t be happier. We’re learning to compost as an ongoing science project, so we can enrich and nourish the soil. Our girls were also great helpers when we planted six blueberry bushes, four apple trees, and two peach trees. We can’t wait to eat this delicious fruit in a few years. It’s very important that our home-schooled daughters grow up knowing where food comes from and how much work goes into producing a harvest.

Julie Swinger
Stoystown, Pennsylvania


A Self-Taught Striver

a child weeding a garden in a white shirt and blue shorts

I was a single mother renting a small farmstead with no experience gardening or raising animals. While I didn’t have experience, I did have a desire to feed myself and my two sons. With MOTHER EARTH NEWS and a Ball canning book, I learned how to be self-sufficient. Through trial and error, I learned how to garden and raise chickens, pigs, and bees. I learned how to bake bread and then sell it at the farmers market, along with jelly from wild plums I’d foraged. The boys learned a lot growing up this way, and they really appreciate all the canned goods. A little hard work produces an abundance of food.

a child playing with piglets sitting on dirt
two children with blond hair rolling a pumpkin on grass

Susan C. McDermott
Waterloo, Wisconsin


Change in Perspective

Readers, we received a number of responses to Editorial Director Hank Will’s “Finding a Fresh Perspective” editorial (October/November 2019). Here are our favorite letters from you.–MOTHER

Patient Persuasion

I enjoyed Hank’s editorial on discovering a different perspective. Five years ago, I bought some land, and someone bought the land beside me soon after. We started working it the same summer.

He wanted to reduce the weeds to make a hunting area for quail and deer, while I wanted to use my land for general wildlife habitat and firewood production. The weeds were head-high and thick on both pastures. After talking to a forester, my neighbor started using Roundup to remove the unwanted weeds from his side. (Luckily, I’m upstream from his land.) The forester wanted me to kill everything with Roundup and start over. I chose to mow it instead.

The only weeds I have now are some hemlock and pokeberry growing where I can’t maneuver the brush hog. The rest is all grass so thick it’ll bog down the mower if it starts to get ahead of me. My neighbor still has head-high weeds with dead spots where he sprayed. Both our properties were identical when we started. I’ve noticed he’s starting to do some more mowing on his side. Another benefit is that the deer are staying on his side to graze instead of venturing over to my orchard.

Rob Beiber
Bentonville, Arkansas


The Problem Is the Solution

One of my memorable “positive change in perspective” moments concerns a wonderful apricot tree that maddeningly sent up suckers all over my yard. For years, I hacked them down, only to find that each one I removed caused several more to sprout with even greater vigor. After years of this, I became interested in fruit tree grafting, and sometime after that, the light went on. These suckers were perfect rootstocks for new apricots, plums, pluots, apriums, and almonds, so why not make use of them instead of fighting them? After experimenting for several years, I found my change in perspective had worked out extraordinarily well, and I now have 15 new types of fruit trees on first-rate rootstock, free of charge.

Richard Schmidt
San Luis Obispo, California


Useful Hints

I want to thank you so much for printing useful hints from your readers. Last month, here in fire-prone California, our power was turned off many times on red flag days. The solar lights I received as a gift earlier in the year were so useful. I followed the advice of one of your readers to use them as backup lights for such a situation. I now use them off and on to save on electricity.

Kathy Pace
Fillmore, California


Zero-Energy Retreat Response

I read Eric Thomas’ “Zero-Energy Retreat Home” article (June/July 2019) and would like to know if the house is truly 100 percent supported by solar energy. I think the only way this is possible is if the house is tied to an electrical grid that’s also supported by solar power. Otherwise, that electric stove wouldn’t work with what’s on the roof of the house, or if it did work, it’d work poorly. In addition, the article doesn’t include the R-values of the structural insulated panels (SIPs), or information on the specific make of the foam. I’m hoping Eric can respond with the R-values of the floor, walls, and ceiling. What was the total cost of building the house?

For some background, my wife and I live in an off-grid house I built myself out of SIP panel walls rated at R-40, a foundation insulated at R-20, and a truss-built roof with blown insulation with a R-60 rating. The building configuration is that of a two-car garage with a 530-square-foot apartment on the side. The total footprint is 36 by 60 feet. The benefit of building with SIP panels is reduced construction time. The total time of wall construction was 32 hours over four days and 3.5 hours for installing the roof trusses. The off-grid power is solar and is acquired from twenty 235-watt solar panels, twelve 225-ampere-hour batteries, a 10,000-watt 48-volt DC inverter, and a backup 12,000-watt generator. The house is supplied by propane, which is used for the radiant floor heating system, the stove, the propane-heated dryer, and for running the backup generator. The total cost of putting up the building, finishing the building off, and installing the solar with a backup generator was approximately $225,000. This cost doesn’t include the price of the land. This is our second full year in the house, and so far it’s been going well. We live in an area of Idaho that gets power outages, and we’re spared this trouble with our off-grid setup.

David Nicholas
Naples, Idaho

David, that sounds like an impressive off-grid house. Kudos to you and your wife for building such an energy-efficient and cost-effective dwelling. I definitely share your enthusiasm for SIP panel construction. In answer to your technical questions, the SIP panels we used are made with graphite polystyrene, which offers 20 percent higher insulation values than standard expanded polystyrene (EPS). Our roof is R-55, and our walls are R-35. Under the slab, we used 3 feet of Type IX EPS, since it has the necessary higher compressive strength, and an overall R-12.6. We did most of the final air sealing ourselves, and our blower door test confirmed just .50 air changes per hour (ACH) at 50 Pascals, which is better even than the extremely rigorous Passive House standard of .60 ACH. (In nontechnical terms, the home is unbelievably airtight!)

As I mentioned in my article, this is a net-zero-energy house and is tied to the grid. Unlike most off-grid houses, no propane, wood, gas, or other fuels are burned to cook or heat the home and domestic hot water. It’s 100 percent electric. When we’re producing more solar energy than the home is using, which is most of the time during the day, the excess gets used by our neighbors on the grid. At night, or on very cloudy days, we pull electricity from the grid, but the net effect is that our solar panels produce more clean, renewable energy than the home uses over the course of a year. This is the most efficient way to offset the greatest amount of dirty grid energy because it eliminates the need for expensive battery systems and the power losses associated with storing electricity. It’s all a matter of preferences and goals. It sounds like you made a great choice to design a solar-propane off-grid system for your home because of the frequent power outages in your part of Idaho.

The total cost of construction for our 1,815-square-foot home, not including the land, was about $300,000, of which about $26,000 went into the solar panel system, extra insulation, and other upgrades to reach the zero-energy goal. (For a more detailed discussion of our building costs, visit https://ZeroEnergyProject.org and search for “Vacation Rental.”) We’re extremely happy we made that extra investment, not only because the immediate savings on our utility bills more than offset the costs of borrowing that money to upgrade, but also because we’re able to generate more renewable energy than our home utilizes.– Eric Thomas


A Steady Subscriber

I’ve been a steady subscriber throughout the 50-year history of the magazine. I now live on a 10-acre homestead in East Texas, and look forward to the arrival of each issue. I also save many of the past issues. Thanks for such a great resource. My wife and I also enjoy attending the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS. We drove to Topeka two years in a row, and really appreciate having one much closer to us in Belton.

Mike Hancock
Goodrich, Texas


19 in 1969

I was 19 in 1969. By the early 1970s, I was buying MOTHER EARTH NEWS from the newsstand, and in 1976, when I started my first business, I was buying it regularly. Prior to that, my Dad read Organic Farming and Gardening, and I heard people talk about compost around the age of 10. Because of that exposure, MOTHER EARTH NEWS was a perfect fit for me. Like Editorial Director Hank Will wrote in his “50 Years and Counting” editorial (December 2019/January 2020), there’ve been a lot of hiccups along the way. This “old-timer” is still trying, despite all the stumbles over the years. I’m still working outside, doing what I can, and I plan on continuing to do so until I can’t.

John R. Golding
Via email


Pollinators Update

Thank you for publishing my letter about aerial pesticides killing my bees (“The Plight of Pollinators,” December 2019 / January 2020). I can’t tell you how good it made me feel to see it in print. I also appreciated how honest “The State of Bees in the United States” (December 2019/January 2020) was about the effect industrial agricultural practices have on bees. It’s refreshing to see a cold hard look at the shortcomings of standard practices when it’s more commonplace to brush things like that under the table.

We had three more aerial sprays since I last wrote you. Each time, I secured the bees and kept them locked up till an hour after the spray. I still lost bees, but nothing like the pictures I sent you this summer. I shouted into the wind about it for a while, but it’s difficult to change some things.

Fortunately, other things are easier to change, and I’m happy to report that my husband and I purchased 10 acres near Lake Okeechobee. There’s a rustic barn, septic tank, and a well, but no structure or electricity. We’re currently looking for a small travel trailer to live in while we clear the property and build our house. I’m particularly excited about the number of bees I’ve observed near the pond. I’ve built a set of top bar swarm boxes to hang in the spring. I’m pleased with how they turned out, and I’m hoping for a 50 percent success rate. I’m looking forward to planting a grove of fruit trees and lining the sides with a top bar apiary.  I’m glad I tried both styles of beekeeping, but I like the horizontal hive much better.

Anyway, I appreciate what you’ve done for me and bees. Many blessings.

Jessica Stone
Tavernier, Florida


Living MOTHER

We live on 1/2 acre of land in a small Colorado town. We garden, keep bees and chickens, and heat our house with wood. I’ve been reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS since the early 1980s, and I love it. Thanks for all the information over the years.

Tobi Sparks
Beulah, Colorado