Homesteading Advice: Fall Preserving Techniques, Pest Control and Deep Well Water

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Teach cats to catch mice in the barn.
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Learn fall preserving techiques for root vegetables.

The Ask MOTHER column provides answers to readers questions about modern homesteading. This issue answers questions about fall preserving techniques, pest control and deep well water.


We need to store approximately 600pounds of potatoes. What is the best wayto keep them?

Ed T.
Hamilton, IN

Potatoes are alive but dormant, awaiting spring to sprout and grow. Use fall preserving techniques to keep them thinking that they’re still buried in the soil and that it’s late fall, and they will last through winter and into spring — longer if you can maintain their temperature and humidity needs.

To do this, you must provide them absolute, pitch-black dark — a squeak of light makes them think spring has arrived and they’ll start pushing out buds. Also, they need to be stored at high (95%) humidity and at a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit to 40 degrees Fahrenheit if they are to be eaten soon. Reduce temperatures to 34 degrees Fahrenheit to 36 degrees Fahrenheit for long-term storage (but warm again before eating).

Pack loosely in open-slated crates with air passages over, under and around them to reduce the chance of rot. Discourage sprouting by leaving apples to spoil in the storage. The ethylene gas that apples emit encourages fruit to ripen, but potatoes to remain dormant.

Potato pits dug below frost level in the soil and lined with straw have been used to store potatoes for centuries. More elaborate root cellars — ranging from storage pits under a house floor to walk-in rooms dug into a hillside — were a feature of country life till the advent of electricity and refrigeration.

A deep, unheated cellar under a modern home can be adapted to maintain potato-storage conditions. You’ll need fans to circulate air, outside windows that can be opened and closed to maintain proper temperatures during winter, and electric coolers in summer. A dirt-floored cellar will maintain humidity naturally. In a concrete-floored cellar, humidity can be maintained by lining the floor with water-soaked burlap bags.

For more information on growing and storing potatoes, read roving editor John Vivian’s article “The Spud of Life: Growing Nature’s Most Perfect Food,” in MEN #172, March 1999.


Issue #48 addressed the long-term storageofeggs. There was an issue that did a follow-up to that article, but I can no longer, find it. Can you give me any update on this subject?

Charlene A.
Columbia City, IN

Before electric lines got to the farm, the spring deluge of eggs were stored in waterglass, a thin gel of sterilized water and powdered sodium silicate that combines to form an inert, fluid form of glass. Eggs were partitioned by age in a vat with boiled-wood-slat dividers or grid-bottomed boxes. They were used on a first-in, first-out basis and replaced with fresh eggs over the year as production slowed so none were more than a few months old.

You still can preserve eggs in waterglass, which seals them away from air, bugs and bacteria. If eggs are clean, the vat of waterglass sterile and everything kept cellar-cool, they will keep for six months or more. Older eggs will stiffen and develop an off-balance flavor (a little sulphur dioxideish), but they can still be used for baking.

Some books say not to wash waterglassed eggs so as to preserve the natural antibacterial coating on the shell. Though valid for refrigerated fresh eggs, this makes no sense in waterglass because the protective silica medium serves that function. Also, chicken droppings can remain on unwashed eggshells and could introduce bacteria into eggs within the silica bath.

You’ll want to keep the vat covered loosely to keep out dust and cellar creatures. Fishing the eggs out of the waterglass by hand is beyond icky, so you might want to invest in some long rubber gloves or tongs. You can get both, as well as the waterglass, from the homesteading catalogs (see “Sources” at the end of this article.)

On general hygiene principles, replace waterglass after a year. Air out and sun a wooden vat thoroughly, and scour plastic or metal vats before refilling.


As a longtime animal lover, I have always held to the firm belief in not killing or harming animals. However, our garage is overrun with mice, and while we have no problem with their choice of shelter, we do object to the little critters chewing on the wiring in our truck. Twice we have had to have the wiring replaced, and we have to get rid of the mice. We have two cats and two dogs, and we need a natural way to rid ourselves of this problem? Any ideas?


Put your cats to work to earn their keep. Teach them that the garage and the vehicles are part of their home turf, and are to be defended against vermin. To do this, shut them in the garage for the night with fresh water, an ample evening feeding (well-fed cats make the best mousers), comfy cat beds and a clean litter box. Leave the truck’s doors open; they might sleep on the seat or in the foot well or, if the weather is cold on the hood or on the still-warm engine. From these spots they’ll be sure to hear any mice gnawing on the wiring harness. Heap praise on them for any mouse cadavers they drop at your feet in the morning.

(For more tips on encouraging mousers, see “Large Pest Control” by John Vivian in this issue.)

Alternatively, as mice prefer the dark, leave a bright light on at night where the mice have been active. In addition, you can purchase a high-frequency, pest-deterring siren (pitched above human hearing range) available from most home and garden stores and catalogs. Get the most powerful one you can find and put it beside the lamp.

Mice will only reproduce at a higher rate if they have an abundant supply of food. If you are truly overrun with mice, find and eliminate their food source: sacks of grain or seeds, accumulated trash or garbage.

Next year, keep grass and weeds mowed in a 100 foot-wide band all around the house before the plants have a chance to go to seed and provide the little rodents’ primary winter food supply.

Lastly, you can build an owl’s nest — a giant birdhouse or small pet house — about 2 1/2 foot square with a peaked roof to shed rain and with a 6 inch-wide entrance. Fill it with loose wood shavings and fasten it high in a tree, with the front facing your driveway or garage. A family of barn owls will keep the mouse population in check.


We want to grind our own grain to make bread. Which do you consider the best method, for a grinder.. stone or steel? And do you have a recommendation for a home grinder?

Raleigh Hardin

Your timing is great. With the Y2K scare, home food-grinders were hard to get toward the end of 1999. Now, they are a glut on the market.

After more years of a self-sufficient country existence than we like to admit, there are a few chores that have proven to be so time-consuming for such a small return that we are glad to pass them off to machinery and tradespeople. One such chore is milling flour. (The miller was a popular tradesman in any pioneer or frontier town. He would grind a crop for a portion of the grain a farmer brought him so that no money exchanged hands until the miller sold his share.)

When grinding your own wheat for flour, you have to set the grinder’s burrs so close together that single-pass handgrinding is very strenuous and time-consuming. We restrict our milling to nuts, coarse whole-grain flours and corn by using steel burrs.

Fine-textured stone burrs are practically essential to grind fine-textured bread flours, but they have their drawbacks. Stone burrs of natural stone or man-made ceramic composites have grain channels cut into their faces like old-time, water-powered millstones. In these horizontal grinders, grains are picked up at the mouth of channels around the wheel’s rim as the wheel turns and are rolled down the ever-shallower channels toward the hub, where they’re ground down as they pass. But grain can jam in the channels and the burrs are fine-grained enough that meal can clog up the grit, so the burrs will slip and quit grinding if the grain is at all moist or oily. Stone-burred grinders are no good for nuts, coffee or peanuts (for peanut butter), and cleaning wears them down quickly. Replacement burrs are expensive and cost around $50 per set.

Steel burrs consist of opposing steel face-plates with curved, knife-edged ridges cast into them. Though a bit crude looking, they work well at producing relatively coarse grinds of any seed or grain and they can be cleaned off with a stiff brush. Steel burr replacements cost less than $10 a set.

The crudest and least expensive steel-burr grinders (in the $30 range) are the cast-iron models from Universal (now cast in China) and Corona, which are still cast and tin-plated in Colombia. We use a Corona mill because we’ve had one for over 30 years — from back when it was the only hand-powered grain mill we could get. By now it has become a member of the family. Thoroughly dry corn can be ground to a tortilla-fine cornflour meal in two quick trips through a Corona. A single slow-pass with burrs a little further apart turns out a coarse cornbread meal.

You can find a wide choice in hand and powered grain mills (and a great deal more) in the big $4.00 catalog from Lehmans (see “Sources” at the end of this article).


We just bought a 17-acre ranch. The well is a very deep — 330 feet. l am trying to get off the grid but have not found an alternative way of pumping water from that depth.

Lomeda, TX

You have quite a number of options, ranging from $50 to $5,000 in cost. If you live in a windy place, you can erect a full-size windmill and an in-well push-cylinder pump. Running on free wind power, these can draw water from a depth of 600 feet, but they are expensive to install and intimidating to maintain. The catalog is available from Kansas Wind Power (see “Sources” at the end of this article.).

A modern 60- to 400-watt wind generator or small solar array can charge a battery to power a DC push-pump down in the well and costs less than $500. The solar setups are available off the shelf from Real Goods and other alternative energy suppliers.

New to the market is a manual deep-well pump, exclusively from Internet emergency-goods supplier

Also new are small-capacity submersible diaphragm pumps powered by dedicated solar panels. They can pump a gallon and a half per minute from 350 feet using just under 200 watts of power. Available from Real Goods.

Finally, in a pinch, you can pull up your existing submersible jet pump, power line and delivery tubing to clear the 6 inch- or 8 inch-wide well casing, and lower a 5 inch-diameter, cylindrical, galvanized tin drilled-well bucket on a 400′ rope and pull it up hand over hand with a winch or on a hand-crank reel. It’s a lot of hauling, but the cost is less than $50. Plus, the old-time hand-stencilled tinware looks cool on the barn wall when not in use. Available, along with a full line of farm water-supply equipment, from the homesteaders catalogs (see “Sources” at the end of this article.).


Do you knowofany company making electrical garden tractors?

Coarsegold, CA

We don’t know of a commercially viable electric tractor being made by an established firm today. The cost of high-capacity motors and batteries is just too high to compete with gas engine-powered models. The obvious environmental advantages alone won’t convince enough buyers to pay ten times what a zippy little John Deere lawn or garden tractor costs.

General Electric made the ElecTrac lawn-tractor/riding-mower in the 1970s, but lost their shirts on every sale and discontinued the line years ago. You can find used ElecTracs for sale at well under $1,000. They were robustly made, and parts are still available. But they are slow and heavy, underpowered for attachments, too low-slung to use in the garden row, and lack the run time to mow a big lawn on a single charge.


Lehman’s Non-Electric Catalog
Kidron, OH

Kansas Wind Power
Holton, KS

Cumberland General Store
Crossville, TN

Real Goods Renewables
Ukiah CA

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