Dear MOTHER: October/November 2015

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Photo by Matt Kinsey
Matt Kinsey and his children did a great job following MOTHER’s DIY potting bench plans to construct a special, homemade Mother’s Day gift.

Potting Bench Success

I read MOTHER EARTH NEWS regularly, and the DIY project from the article DIY Potting Bench Plans in the April/May 2015 issue caught my attention. My wife, Tracy, is an avid gardener, but we didn’t have a place to store and organize our tools, pots, seeds and supplies. The bench seemed like a cool Mother’s Day gift idea and a creative way to engage our three kids in a hands-on project.

I spend a good portion of my days at the computer, but I’ve found that nothing feeds the soul like working with your hands! To build the bench, I worked one-on-one with each of my kids, teaching them a few woodworking basics — starting with rules for safety.

The project provided a few memorable days away from the iPads and TV screens that too often consume people in this day and age. Plus, Tracy absolutely loves the bench. For me, the best part is spotting all the minor imperfections from the kids’ work — the dents, scratches, split wood, and a bent nail or two. The imperfections likely aren’t noticeable to anyone besides me, but they’ll provide a lasting memory of those fun days we spent working together in the garage. Everyone who stops by our house comments on how awesome the bench is and they ask, “Was it a kit? If so, where can I get one?”

Matt Kinsey
Winchester, Massachusetts

This DIY potting bench was designed by master woodworker Spike Carlsen, author of The Backyard Homestead Book of Building Projects. Review his free potting-bench plans. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS

Ceramic Tile in Solar Ovens

In his article Everyday Solar Cooking (August/September 2015), Joel Dufour mentions putting a rock or brick into the solar oven for thermal mass. I use a ceramic tile in mine. It doesn’t take up much space, plus it absorbs heat quickly and distributes it evenly. You can buy a ceramic tile in any of the big-box stores for just a few dollars. They come in many sizes up to 24 inches square. The tile will be cheaper if it’s chipped or damaged.

I also use a ceramic tile in my kitchen oven to make it a “pizza oven” while baking pizza or breads. It’s much cheaper than those special pizza stones that are basically the same thing.

Joe Kaye
Phenix, Virginia

Harvesting the Commons for Chickens

Joel Salatin’s article Rotational Grazing for Pastured Livestock from your April/May 2015 issue got me thinking about how I could come as close as possible to this ideal in my tiny New York City yard with my flock of three hens.

During one of my son’s ball games, I became aware of the abundance of clover and dandelions surrounding me. I thought, if I can’t bring my chickens to the pasture, I can bring the pasture to my chickens. I brought some pickings home to my birds. The next week, I harvested more wild greens from the park. I plan to continue this weekly pattern, until I’m stopped and questioned or winter comes. I encourage my fellow city dwellers to take back their share of the commons as well.

David Galalis
Brooklyn, New York

If you see clover and dandelions in a lawn, that’s a good sign that herbicides aren’t being used. — MOTHER

Tips for Keeping Cool

In response to Natural Cooling Methods: How to Keep Cool Without Air Conditioning (August/September 2015), I put up corrugated cardboard in my hot windows to block the sun, and it does a great job of keeping the inside of my house cool. I also use the cardboard in winter to block out the cold. This technique works well for both seasons!

Eileen Atkinson
Clarkrange, Tennessee

Limitations of Lyme Disease

I’m glad you discussed Lyme disease in How to Get Rid of Ticks and Prevent Lyme Disease (August/September 2015). My 20-year-old daughter has battled Lyme for four years. You can’t carry out your goals of a self-reliant lifestyle if you have Lyme disease. I’m happy that you’re raising awareness about how to prevent this illness, especially because the majority of your readers spend so much time outside.

Brittney Williams
via Facebook

Homesteaders Must Start with Money, Right?

Our editors enjoyed hosting a conversation on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Facebook page about going off-grid without much money. Two of our 2015 Homesteaders of the Year responded with helpful feedback about how their families have achieved homesteading success with limited means. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS

Naysayer here, but how does the Trumpey family (featured in “The Many Paths to Self-Reliant Living: Homesteaders of the Year,” August/September 2015) manage to purchase 40 acres, build a 2,200-square-foot house with expensive glazing and a metal roof, obtain and take care of all the animals, plant and maintain a large garden, preserve foods, and slaughter animals for meat, all while working two full-time jobs?

Something isn’t right here. My initial guess is that they had plenty of money prior to doing any of this — enough money to hire help all along the way. This is not a lifestyle for the average Joe.

Marilyn Ellis
via Facebook

Joe Trumpey’s Response: We established our homestead with hard work, and we continue to work hard every day. We don’t have any trust funds or hired employees on our homestead. It’s just us and our love of the farm and home.

We always have more to do and it didn’t happen in a day. First, we saved for seven years, and now we have a mortgage. We started small, with just a couple of sheep and a handful of chickens, more than 25 years ago.

P.S. Good eye on the two most expensive parts of the house. The metal roof is from Menards. It cost slightly more than $100 per square, but it’s guaranteed for life, was easy to install, and was made in Indiana. The Jeld-Wen windows were important for the passive solar design.

Matthew Eby’s Response: I can’t speak for the others in the article, but for us, we started with almost nothing but a dream and the willingness to do whatever it took to turn that dream into a reality. This meant no vacations for more than five years, working 110 to 120 hours a week during the summers for a few years, and many other sacrifices.

Living this lifestyle means leveraging things that you have access to. It’s amazing what’s available if you start looking around. A lot of money doesn’t guarantee a successful homestead — much of the time, it just allows for more expensive mistakes!

Monsanto: You’re Under Citizen’s Arrest

Thank you for the article ‘Altered Genes, Twisted Truth’: Government Deception About Genetically Modified Organisms (Green Gazette, August/September 2015) that discussed Steven M. Druker’s book Altered Genes, Twisted Truth. Druker, a public interest attorney, argues that genetically engineered foods are being sold in violation of federal law, and he has challenged Monsanto to try to refute any facts from his books.

Druker’s challenge to Monsanto is posted on the Alliance for Bio-Integrity website at Bio Integrity. Please keep us posted about Monsanto’s response — it seems like more people need to know about this!

Sherri Neuroh
Nashville, Tennessee

How Can I Keep My Chickens Safe?

I’ve kept chickens all my life. When I was young, my father introduced me to a backyard flock of Mille Fleur bantams. I adored them as much as any other family pet. So it was no surprise when — after I purchased a small home on almost 2 acres — I quickly established my own flock.

My husband and I fixed up a storage shed on our property to use as a chicken coop, and we brought home a small flock of various breeds. I let the chickens out in the run during the day, and then I closed them up at dusk. Life was good. Everything came crashing down, however, when I went to close the coop one evening and found feathers all over the floor. All but four hens had been killed by a fox. Because we had laid concrete under the wire of the run, I couldn’t figure out how the fox had gotten in. We later realized he had dug under the henhouse.

As time went on, we lost two more hens. I began letting the last two hens out of their run during the day to free range. One day I didn’t let the girls out because I was going to run errands. Upon my return, my husband shared the grim news: The fox had nabbed the last chickens by squeezing through a space in the wire seemingly too small for a squirrel. Now, every time I look at the chicken run, I’m saddened. Sunflowers are rising from the stray seeds that didn’t get gobbled up; it’s sort of a memoriam. I’m not sure what to do next. I won’t purchase new hens until I know I have a safe enough place for them, but I thought I’d done that already. There isn’t power in the coop, so I can’t electrify the fence. I’d appreciate any information you or your readers could share. In fairness to the fox, he was here first.

Cindy Soulliere
Longmont, Colorado

Eventually, predators almost always become a challenge to flock owners. Your best option will be to build an extremely sturdy coop and run with absolutely no areas where predators can squeeze through or dig under. If it’s mouse-proof, it should be predator-proof, too. Heavy-duty wire is best — raccoons have been known to get through less expensive “chicken wire,” also known as “poultry netting.” You could also consider a solar-powered charger for electric fencing; we’ve had reports that this setup can even stop bears. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS

The Stink from CAFOs

An egg factory that will house up to 12 million laying hens is being built in our community. Right now, in its first seven buildings, this CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) already houses more than 2 million birds. This operation was built within 1-1⁄2 miles of an RV park and our downtown area, which features a natural hot spring, restaurant and hotel.

We were promised that we wouldn’t have to deal with a lot of odor or other problems. Well, they lied. Imagine several 550-foot-long houses that each have 20-foot-tall stacks of manure stored under cover in their back quarters. The fans blow through the chicken houses to cool and dry the manure, and, as a result, small particles, feathers and foul odors escape. It’s not a nice addition to our neighborhood, to say the least.

We need to get national coverage of these CAFOs to prevent other parts of our country from being abused by some people’s greed.

Lorna and Theron Proper
Arlington, Arizona

We agree, and we’re sorry you’re dealing with this issue. Read We Must Transform Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) into Smart Pasture Operations (SPOs) and Bird Flu Outbreak Sweeps Across Factory Farms for some national CAFO coverage. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS

Fun Times at the Albany FAIR

I just wanted to say how much my friend and I enjoyed the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Albany, Oregon! The workshops were varied, informative and fun. There were lots of vendors and displays to look at, and the fairground itself was laid out well and in a good location. We hope you will consider having the FAIR in Albany again. Thanks for a great weekend!

Julie Hawley
Albany, Oregon

Thanks for attending, Julie! There’s still one more MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR left this year: The Topeka, Kansas, Fair is scheduled for October 24 and 25. Next year, we’ll again have several Fairs, including a new one in Belton, Texas. If you’d like to attend a FAIR, you can find one near you at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR website. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS

Old House, New Life

We bought our house, which was built in 1833, and the surrounding 18 acres in the summer of 2012. The home was abandoned after 1980, and it never had indoor plumbing. When we bought the house, it didn’t have any windows, and the structure was in a precarious state because of a past fire.

We’ve been restoring the home and property with information we’ve learned from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, website and Fairs. We’ve chosen suitable goat breeds and have patronized good seed companies, plus we’ve ordered chickens and beekeeping equipment. At a 2013 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR, we bought solar panels to put on our barn, and we learned about an interesting foam-insulation provider that we later ordered from. We’re so thankful for MOTHER’s guidance throughout this big project!

John and Jeana O’Connor
Winchester, Virginia

Roundup-Ready Beef: Nearly Impossible to Avoid

My husband and I live in southern Utah. We own several horses and three cows. We wanted to find a less expensive way to feed our animals, so we found someone who said we could put our animals on their pasture to graze. We planted alfalfa and triticale in the pasture, but the weeds took over and it was a total flop.

A local hay grower suggested we buy Roundup-Ready alfalfa seed. This is genetically modified (GM) alfalfa that can tolerate being sprayed with Roundup herbicide. He told us that most hay growers in our area use it. We had no idea.

I learned from this experience that most folks don’t really know what’s in our beef. Is it Roundup-Ready beef? A lot of cows are allowed to graze in open fields. Before they’re butchered, they’re brought in to feedlots, where they’re fed hay cubes and GM corn, soy and grain. In most areas, cows’ feed must be supplemented with hay during winter. What kind of hay are they being fed? Is it Roundup-Ready alfalfa? We’ve found it’s almost impossible to find hay that isn’t sprayed with Roundup.

We’re still working on sourcing feed for our animals that hasn’t been contaminated with this toxic weedkiller.

Darlene Judd
Kanab, Utah

MOTHER’s Wish List

Visit our community Facebook pages. We’ve created Facebook pages for each of the 50 states and 10 Canadian provinces. Our goal is for those of you who use Facebook to “like” your state’s page in order to share local news and network with your neighbors. Check it out on Facebook.   

State Facebook page managers. We’re recruiting volunteers to help run our community Facebook pages. We’re looking for managers who are well-acquainted with how to use Facebook, and are tuned into their local gardening, homesteading or environmental scenes. If you would like to help, contact us via email with the subject line “Community Facebook Manager.”

Pastured meat testing. MOTHER EARTH NEWS is coordinating a project to test omega-3 fatty acid levels in pastured meat, eggs and dairy products. If you raise pastured animals, you can sign up for a 20 percent discount to have your products tested. Learn how to participate online.