Dear MOTHER: April/May 2013

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Sometimes, it only takes an afternoon drive down a country lane to find the land of your dreams.
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The UC Santa Barbara sorghum press team with their human-powered press.
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Maple Ridge Wind Farm in New York.
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Whole grains, nuts and seeds add new flavors and nutrients to homemade breads.
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A masonry heater's high thermal mass provides a steady supply of heat.

Resolved to Find a Homestead

Thank you for everything you do to keep the spirit of self-sufficiency alive and thriving. I am an aspiring homesteader myself, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve referenced a MOTHER EARTH NEWS article while planning my own little paradise.

I feel so fortunate to have MOTHER EARTH NEWS to turn to when I’m feeling lost in a world that doesn’t always understand or accept my homesteading passion. Whether on your website’s home page or your Facebook page, the content you feature is either something I’m already interested in and want to learn more about, or it’s something you’ve managed to get me excited about (such as carving my own wooden spoons, a skill I’m now determined to master). Your articles inspire me to think beyond the limiting factors of now and dream of the fantastic to-be.

I recently found myself buried in the article Guide to Self-Sufficient Living: Advice From Nine Modern Homesteaders (February/March 2012) for more than an hour, trying to glean as much information as I could for my own journey. My husband and I are looking to buy a homestead of our own very soon, and I was feeling discouraged about the whole process. Thoughts of quitting had danced through my head, but as I read the story, I felt a new resolve forming.

Everyone says the road is hard, but they also say the prize is better than they ever imagined. I decided I can’t give up until I’ve had my own taste of the dream.

Dani Hurst Brown 
Excelsior Springs, Missouri  

Outwitting Wind

Thank you for making the terrific video to accompany the article Make Easy, Inexpensive Mini-Greenhouses With Low Tunnels (February/March 2013) that featured Editor-in-Chief Cheryl Long. It was a lot of fun to put a face with the name. 

When I first moved to the southern Oregon coast, I naively constructed little hoop houses out of PVC pipe, and the coastal winds destroyed them. Losing lettuce, chard, radishes and green onions to the ducks and the weather was so frustrating. Your video was clear and succinct, and it will solve all of my troubles with wind.

Cheri Ryan 
Reedsport, Oregon  

View the video at MOTHER EARTH NEWS Gardening Video: Season Extension.?—?MOTHER EARTH NEWS 

Sorghum Press Plans

As a follow-up to your sorghum article (February/March 2012): Readers can find info on a human-powered sorghum press from the University of California, Santa Barbara chapter of Engineers Without Borders, along with this technical manual,
Sorghum Press Assembly Manual.

Russell Bowker
Norfolk, Nebraska

Thank you, Russell! If anyone decides to produce and sell this or another sorghum press, do let us know. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS

Starting Locally

I jokingly tell people that one of the reasons I’m working toward self-reliance is that I’m waiting for the collapse of society. In my jest, however, there is a small element of truth. 

One part of homesteading and self-reliance that is important to me is the communal aspect. I believe meeting the need of feeding more than 7 billion people will start in our communities. Enough homesteaders selling their excess food or donating to food banks keeps things local, uses less transportation, and creates less pollution and less demand for genetically modified crops. One of my favorite authors is Milwaukee sustainable agriculture activist Will Allen. He is an outstanding example of producing things locally — and in the inner city, no less.

Smiley Stiles 
Fairton, New Jersey  

Observations on Wind Power vs. Fracking

I’m a New York state resident living in an area ringed by wind turbines. Many of us opposed the turbines, but the issue was never put to a public vote, so we are living with them. They are monstrosities looming over our hills, blinking at us all night with their red eyes, interrupting our formerly pristine views. 

But now they don’t look so bad, because we are being faced with a more hideous prospect: high-volume hydrofracking to produce oil and gas. Wind turbines seem benign by comparison. We are now fighting to hold back the poisoning of our water, land and air. If I could choose between the energy sources, I’d choose the turbines.

Adria Beach 
Wayland, New York  

Choose Turbine Sites Wisely

Lester R. Brown’s well-written article on renewable energy (Exciting News About Renewable Energy, October/November 2012) misses some downsides of wind energy, particularly those regarding the more populated, low-wind areas of the eastern United States. 

I live in northern New York, within a half-hour drive of more than 200 industrial 1.5- and 2-megawatt turbines. As a physicist, I have been studying their performance for five years. Their average capacity factor (efficiency) is slightly more than 20 percent.

Given the output and income of northern New York turbines, the current payback on investment is 30 to 35 years. In other words, they will be worn-out before they pay for themselves.

Industrial wind is certainly a valuable energy asset when produced in high-wind areas removed from existing residences. It must be balanced with more reliable sources, though, and we must realize wind can never produce more than a small fraction of our energy needs.

Jack Sullivan 
Malone, New York  

Corporate Crime Pays

Thank you for reporting on big business injustices in Teflon Dangers: Deadly to Chickens?—?And Us (December 2012/January 2013). The $16.5 million fine from the EPA for DuPont’s 20-year cover-up of pollution from the toxic chemical PFOA is an example of how crime pays. 

Given that “Teflon products made DuPont at least $100 million in profit annually”?—?or $2 billion at minimum for two decades?—?the fine represents less than 1 percent of those profits. Such miniscule punishments surely encourage corporate misbehavior.

Diane Schaefer 
Flint, Michigan  

Masonry Heater Perspective

I enjoyed John Gulland’s well-researched article When to Choose Wood Heat (February/March 2013) and agree wholeheartedly with his assessment of using wood for heat. I was disappointed, however, that Mr. Gulland didn’t mention masonry heaters in his discussion of the efficiency and emissions of woodstoves. Masonry heaters are safer and more efficient, and they produce fewer emissions than even the newest woodstoves. 

Masonry heaters are fantastic works of art that involve placing 6,000 to 12,000 pounds of brick or rock around a wood-burning firebox. Situated in the middle of a house like a woodstove (not as part of a wall like a traditional fireplace), masonry heaters radiate heat from a single fire for 12 to 24 hours. The heat produced by the fire travels through an intricate series of channels throughout the massive heater before exiting the house through the chimney. Nearly all the heat of the burned wood is absorbed by the thermal mass of the heater. This stored heat is then radiated into the house continuously, keeping it at a fairly constant temperature without the need to feed the fire every few hours.

An added bonus of masonry heaters is the extras that can be incorporated. Ours has a heated bench (a favorite spot for the cats) and a bake oven, which works much like a brick oven. Some people use their masonry heaters as their hot water energy source, shaving even more off of their energy bill.

Because of their weight, masonry heaters are difficult to add to existing houses. They are much better suited to new construction, where the appropriate concrete support and an open house plan can be more easily incorporated into the home design. Also, not just anyone can build a masonry heater, because the channels that direct the gasses are so complex.

Your best bet is to hire a mason who is a certified masonry heater builder. We were able to save some money by adding the outer layer of rock ourselves — using rocks from our creek?—?after the mason had built the basic heater.

For more information on masonry heaters and pictures of some beautiful models?—?no two are alike!?—?visit Masonry Heater Association of North America.

Annalisa Switzer 
Ashmore, Illinois  

Take Precaution With Pigs

In the article on hog husbandry (Raising Pigs for Pork, Plowing and More, December 2012/January 2013), you mentioned using blocking panels to protect yourself when working with pigs. I do not wish to horrify budding homesteaders, but I fear you did not make that point strongly enough.  

Pigs are smart. They can be trained to do many things, but they are still animals and can be unpredictable.

I grew up with hogs, and I was taught early on to never turn my back on a hog and to never let a hog get me down. Raise them, love them, care for them?—?but always be vigilant and never take pigs’ docile nature for granted.

Tom Crain 
Springfield, Missouri  

Outdoor Wood Furnaces

You’ve dedicated articles to outdoor wood furnaces before, so I understand why your Guide to Greener Heating (December 2012/January 2013) didn’t spend much time on them.  

I want to point out, however, that these furnaces can heat water for household use just like the heat pumps that were mentioned in the article. They can also be used for radiant floor heat. I have had an outdoor wood furnace for a little over a year now, and I love it.

Jeremy Hoffman
Damascus, Arkansas  

One Very Big Rain Gauge

We moved to Colorado from the U.K. in 2008 and were aghast to learn it wasn’t legal to collect rainwater in water butts, which we’d done for years. Someone thinks they “own” rainwater? Only in America.  

My husband quickly realized that we might circumvent the restrictions by making a water butt and calling it a “rain gauge,” which isn’t illegal at all.

Kathryn Jordan
Loveland, Colorado  

Wood Pellet Supply and Demand

I just read Pros and Cons of Wood Pellet Stoves (December 2012/January 2013). I work for an organization called Dogwood Alliancethat works to protect the forests of the southern United States. Though we are not worried that the wood pellet industry for home heating will drive forest destruction, the use of wood pellets for electricity certainly will, and unfortunately, developments in one sector tend to be used in the other.  

Right now, there is a massive push to increase wood pellet production from whole trees in the southern United States?—?mainly to feed the European market, where they are building more capacity to burn trees for electricity. That said, many of these pellet producers will also cash in on the home heating business in the United States. We also suspect that, eventually, U.S. utilities will start investing as well. I think this is something MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers would appreciate learning more about.

Scot Quaranda 
Asheville, North Carolina  

Killer Compost Rendering Our Land ‘Sterile’

For 14 years, I avoided bringing manure and compost into my garden because I was concerned about introducing anything undesirable, be it noxious weeds or pollutants.  

In fall 2011, I faced a desperate situation where my soils were down to powder. I did not have enough organic material to support the soil, so I gave in and brought in compost from one source and free manure from another.

By the end of July, I realized something was wrong. I figured it was something I had done, but just about the time I realized I was going to lose my tomatoes, potatoes and beans, my manure source contacted me to ask whether I was having any problems with my garden. Someone else who had used the same manure was also having troubles.

The symptoms my plants exhibited were commensurate with damage from aminopyralid or one of its cousins. I now have about 30 cubic yards of contaminated soil in piles on my property.

Dow AgroSciences and the Washington State Department of Agriculture tested the affected areas of my garden. Reports came back “none found.” The WSDA test showed some 2,4-D in my bean bed, but no aminopyralid or clopyralid, so I am unable to prove the contaminant that caused my crop failures.

Since then, I have started a goat herd to provide dairy products, meat and my own compost source. I have to bring in feed for the goats, and I’ve heard these herbicides can be present there, too. Now my concern is that the ability of my soil to grow food will be threatened in the long term because of the gradual inputs of herbicides. Over time, all of us who desire to grow our own food may find a substantial portion of arable land in this country “sterile,” for lack of a better word.

Chemical companies and the WSDA allowed and enabled the soil I have nurtured all this time to become contaminated. Worse, the threat of this form of contamination appears to still exist.

The use of these persistent herbicides?—?as good an idea as it may be in some circles?—?must stop. It’s becoming an ecological disaster countrywide, and it is an assault and insult to the way of life some of us want. I spent the rest of last summer contacting government offices that may be able to help me recover — as well as Dow — to no avail.

James Cowperthwaite 
Langley, Washington  

Rethinking How We Die

In response to Raymond Kurzweil and a Vision of Living Forever (October/November 2012): We have to start discussing the end of life openly. The majority of Medicare and Medicaid money goes to end-of-life care. Don’t we as seniors have the right to decline all of this and face death head-on? Our health care system seems obsessed with prolonging life to the extent that we are not allowed to die a normal death.  

We are perfectly capable of making this decision for ourselves if the health care system would allow an option that voids any malpractice threats for not making every possible effort to extend our suffering.

Why would we want to have our lives prolonged to the point that we end up spending months or years in assisted living? Why would we want to sentence our caregivers to give up their lives to care for us after our minds or bodies are unable to function? This isn’t rational. Death is a natural part of life.

Walt Lund 
Kalkaska, Michigan  

Whole-Wheat Bread: So Worth It!

We’ve been making bread for many years and have been searching for a moist and great whole-wheat recipe. I made the bread from the December 2012/January 2013 issue (Homemade Whole-Grain Bread: You Have to Try This Amazing Recipe). For the wet grains, I used quinoa and wheat berries, and it all took about three days from start to finish.  

It was so worth it! The rise was beautiful, and the loaf was moist and had fantastic flavor.

Susan Seibel 
Springvale, Maine  

Power From Water and Wind

I read the article Exciting News About Renewable Energy in the October/November 2012 issue and was disappointed to see no mention of hydropower. Hydropower has less variation than solar and wind, and plenty of dams could be generating power with no additional environmental impact, yet they aren’t because of red tape and overregulation.  

Also, a letter in the December 2012/January 2013 issue mentioned the movie Windfall as a reference for wind power issues. This movie is extremely one-sided and biased. I would suggest actually seeing wind turbines before making up your mind about them. I’ve seen about 200 turbines from eastern Pennsylvania to Iowa, and I’ve only encountered two that actually made noise.

Walter Johnson 
Rochelle Park, New Jersey  

As we reported in the article Big Hydropower Potential in Small Projects, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that upgrades to small hydropower plants on existing dams have the potential to produce as much power as 18 new nuclear reactors.?—?MOTHER EARTH NEWS   

A Second Generation Goes Back to the Land

My parents were “back to the landers” in the mid-’70s, and I was fortunate to grow up learning the ways of their 80 acres.  

In 1990, my parents sold the land and we moved to a nice suburban home on a postage stamp-sized lot. I never lost the knowledge I gained from the first 10 years of my life, though, and I always desired to move back to the country.

A year ago, my wife, daughter and I were able to move into an old farmhouse on 32 acres. We are raising chickens, growing a large garden, putting food by, keeping honeybees, maple sugaring, and attempting to give our daughter the knowledge and experiences I grew up with.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS has been a mainstay in my library for many years. I enjoy reading it cover to cover the day it comes, and I reference past issues many times for projects and ideas.

Matthew Arnold 
Westmoreland, New York  

The Distiller’s Bible

Great article on distilling in the February/March 2013 issue (Artisan Home Distilling). Under “Additional Resources,” however, you really should have mentioned the “bible” of distilling: The Practical Distiller by Samuel McHarry, first published in 1809. It’s available online and is a great resource.  

Jon Silvis 
Rocky River, Ohio