Homesteading Tips From Our First Year in Northern Minnesota

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
After a year living in Northern Minnesota, the Cuddys have picked up a few homesteading tips for anyone thinking of doing the same.

Well, we’ve muddled through our first year in northern Minnesota. Mother Nature was good to us and gave us a mild
frost-free summer and a plentiful garden, but we still
have a lot to learn about the special problems of farming
and living where the winters get down to 50-below — and even
July may bring a light frost. If you’re still thinking
about making your great escape to the North, you may
appreciate a few homesteading tips that we’ve learned by doing.

Staying warm up here in the winter is hard enough. Don’t complicate it by purchasing a big old rambling
farmhouse. There aren’t many in this region for a good
reason: they’re harder’n the dickens to heat when the
wind is blowing 60 miles an hour straight down from the
arctic. Most of the homes in our area tend to be low, flat
boxes which are well-sheltered by windbreaks to the north
and west. Whatever you buy, check the building’s
insulation. It could mean the difference between spending
your winter chopping twice as much wood as you really need or sitting in a warm kitchen watching the snow pile
up outside.

Wet and unseasoned wood doesn’t burn well and the resins
from green, pitchy logs can even accumulate in the chimney
and catch fire, so if you’re going to heat with wood
plan on cutting the fuel at least six months before you
need it. You’ll find it even better if you can stay a full
year ahead on this detail. If you haven’t the time to
season your firewood the first year, cut dead wood for
immediate use. Figure on at least ten cords of oak,
tamarack pine, birch, or other hardwood, or fifteen
cords of softwood.

Your livestock must have snug winter quarters and any
solid, draft-free building should do the trick. As long as
the animals get plenty of food they’ll generate their own
heat. Goats, in particular, need large amounts of roughage
with which to maintain this winter body heat. I solve
the problem by cutting a tree every week during the winter.
We then tote a goodly pile of trimmings into the barn for
goat munchies and let the main part of the tree cure into
fuel for next year’s fires.

If you’re planning to build on your northern homestead,
give some thought to attaching the barn to the house
Scandinavian-style. The stock will benefit from the house
heat that seeps into their quarters and you won’t have to
walk so far to tend the animals on frigid winter mornings.

We’ve learned that water pipes here in northern Minnesota
will freeze unless buried at least three feet deep. Double
that if there’s any traffic over the line (traffic packs
the ground and allows the frost to penetrate deeper). If
you don’t care to dig six-foot-deep trenches for your
pipes, you can build a bridge of some kind (a bale of hay
or boards raised off the ground will do the job) over the
lines where traffic crosses.

Summers up here are short and therefore, most welcome.
Spring starts in April, but it may frost or snow after
the middle of May. June through the end of August is
usually frost-free and September brings frost and,
perhaps, light snow.

Cold weather crops like peas, cabbage, potatoes, broccoli,
lettuce, onions and turnips thrive and may be planted in
April before the last frost. Corn, tomatoes, and other
vegetables which need a longer growing season do well nine
years out of ten, but that one year may see a hard freeze
in June or August … and there go the more delicate
crops if they’re not protected. It pays to keep a large
supply of bushel baskets handy for covering plants. Cold
frames or even a small greenhouse would be a good
investment for anyone homesteading this far north.

Insect life practically explodes up here in the summer and
mosquitoes, deerflies, and no-see-ums can be a great
nuisance. Commercial repellents, while fairly effective,
taste and smell awful and last only a short time. No wonder
the old-time Indians and trappers used to coat themselves
with a thin layer of pitch in the spring and avoid water
until the pests disappeared in the fall. The pitch
formed a horn-like coating which the insects couldn’t
penetrate.

Mostly, my wife and I have just gotten used to the pests,
except in the evening when the mosquitoes are at their
worst Then we go to bed early, spend fifteen minutes
swatting the little devils that sneaked in under the
fiberglass netting with us, and enjoy the rest of the
night in peace and comfort.

The insects are offset by the stunning variety of wild
fruits and berries which abound here each year. In spring,
the countryside is washed in white and pink from the
chokeberry and wild plum blossoms. By late
summer the tree line, windbreaks, and woods are full
of these fruits, wild raspberries, blueberries, and rose
hips. Wild rice crowds the shallows of the lakes.
There’s so much volunteer fruit free for the picking in
fact, that planting your own is almost unnecessary.

We did put in a few apple trees, though, and from
talking to the local people learned that it’s best
not to give an orchard too much protection. An open
northern or western exposure is best for the trees as it
will cause them to bloom later. Orchards placed in a
southern or eastern exposure or otherwise given too much
protection will blossom too early and may easily be
wiped out by late frost. Always buy local nursery stock,
too: imported plants may not be strong enough to make it
through the winter.

The deer, ‘coon, fox, bears, wolves, occasional moose, and
other wildlife in this region are nice to watch in the
evening, but they consider everything from asparagus
to zucchini as fair game and can prove to be pesky garden
raiders. The only foolproof method of cutting your losses
to these critters, strange as it may seem, was taught to me
by a dog.

Dogs, you know, mark their territory by peeing around its
edges, as do many other animals. If you use the same
technique along the boundaries of your garden, deer and
most other warm-blooded creatures will heed the warning and
stay out.