Rural, Urban and Suburban Homesteading

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For over 35 years, Mother Earth News has been teaching
readers the basics of homesteading and how to be self-reliant.
Whether you dream of creating an urban or suburban homestead, or a
rural farmstead, these practical skills, tools and home business
ideas will help you move ‘forward to the land.’

Americans are the epitome of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.
From the country’s beginning in the 1600s, American settlers,
pioneers, homesteaders, back-to-the-landers and farmers have relied
on their ingenuity and creativity to live well on less, engaging
their rural communities in the process.

Homesteading may be an old-fashioned word, but the concepts of
self-sufficient living; building a home (not just a house); and
developing a home business are as appealing today as they were in
the Homesteading days of the late 1800s. We, as a people, have
always been inspired by the Laura Ingalls Wilder family, Daniel
Boone, Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Smith, Helen and Scott Nearing,
Carla Emery and Eliot Coleman. Through their writings on
self-sufficiency and how to do things yourself, they have inspired
thousands of people to give the notion of homesteading, rural
living or farm life a try. They have shared with us their successes
and failures and the joys and sorrows of the adventure. Their
reports on building barns and outbuildings, tool usage and starting
a home business are the modern homesteading Bibles. We admire and
envy their ability to be self-sufficient.


Excerpted from Mother Made Me Do It by Jim Schley,
Mother Earth News October/November 2003

In the late 1960s and early 70s, countless Americans in search
of a hands-on, homemade life headed off the beaten track to find
land of their own. In some areas these back-to-the-landers
attempted to resuscitate rural communities and local economies with
new approaches to agriculture and the revival of artisan crafts and
old-time skills.

In 1975, Jim Schley moved from Wisconsin to rural New England to
attend college. In the long Connecticut River Valley that forms the
border between New Hampshire and Vermont, he found a place to sink
his own roots: a gorgeous, water-lush land of conifer forests,
dramatically distinct seasons, and strong traditions of subsistence
farming and logging.

During this time, Jim met scores of people who had built their own
houses and who grew most of their own food. Some had dowsed and
then dug their own wells. Many had milled lumber for their homes
from trees that were hauled out of the forests by horses. And some
produced their household electricity with small hydro-turbines,
wind spinners or solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. Even though many
of these folks were former suburbanites, their energetic creativity
meshed well with the longtime regional traditions of homesteading:
seasonal cycles of work; hunting and foraging; cutting wood in the
winter; sugaring in the spring; and growing and preserving fruit
and vegetables.


Excerpted from The New Pioneers by David Gumpert,
Mother Earth News September/October 1971

When Sue and Eliot Coleman sit down to eat in their tiny
one-room house, they use tree stumps instead of chairs. When they
need drinking water, Sue walks a quarter of a mile through the
woods to a freshwater brook and hauls back two big containers
hanging from a yoke over her shoulders. And when the Colemans want
to read at night, they light kerosene lanterns.

The young couple — Sue is 26, Eliot 31— aren’t the forgotten
victims of rural poverty or some natural disaster. They live as
they do out of choice. They have deliberately given up such
luxuries as indoor plumbing, store-bought furniture and everything
that electricity makes possible. They have no telephone, no
automatic mixer, no TV set.

With their two-year-old daughter, Melissa, Sue and Eliot are
trying to escape America’s consumer economy and live in the
wilderness much as the country’s pioneers did. They grow about 80%
of their own food and spend only about $2,000 a year on things they
can’t make themselves.

The Colemans have been living this way two and a half years and
they’re proud of their accomplishment. ‘If you listen to Madison
Avenue, we don’t exist,’ says Eliot. ‘They say it’s impossible to
live on $2,000.’

The Colemans are among a tiny but apparently growing number of
young couples, often from middle-class families, who are taking up
the pioneering life, or ‘homesteading’ as it’s often called —
though today’s pioneers usually can’t get free land from the
government as early homesteaders did. Favorite homesteading areas
are New England, the Pacific Northwest, the Ozarks and Canada. Sue
and Eliot have 40 acres of thick forest 30 miles south of a small
town near the central Maine coast.

The Colemans say they personally know about a dozen couples who
are taking up homesteading. A neighbor of the Colemans, Helen
Nearing, 67, who with her husband, Scott, now 87, retreated to a
homestead in Vermont in the early 1930s and later moved to Maine,
says ‘a lot of people, more than 100, are getting land and living
off of it.’


Homesteading and
Self-reliance: Planning Your Homestead

The following are ‘reports from the field’ on
planning for homesteading and self-sufficiency, written by men and
women who dreamed of being self-sufficient and living in harmony
with the natural world. These folks emulated the self-reliant
pioneering spirit of our ancestors who homesteaded on the plains of
Kansas, at the foothills of the Rockies and in the California
mining camps. Whether you want to homestead on rural, urban or
suburban land, or just want to become more self-reliant in your
current home, the examples of self-sufficiency and homesteading
efforts in the following stories will inspire you to begin planning

Adapted from Finding Your Place by the Mother Earth
Editors, December/January 2003

Finding the right place to homestead, farm or develop a
self-sustaining life usually begins with finding the right
property; only you know what is the best place for your family.
Whether it’s an acreage hidden in the hills or a townhouse in the
middle of a bustling city center, most of us are searching for a
special place we can call home.

The following advice is based on 24
house-buying and property-purchasing escapades.

We devote immeasurable hours imagining what we want, but may not
know exactly how to find it and buy it. When a perfect Craftsman
bungalow or spring-fed five acres finally does appear, we need all
the advice we can get about how to make the wisest possible
purchase. After all, buying a house or land is certainly one of the
biggest single expenditures most of us will ever make. And once
you’ve bought it, there are no refunds or exchanges. It only makes
sense to be cautious and know as much as possible before you

First, forget the Joneses and hone in on what you want — and
what you can afford. Be realistic and you won’t be disappointed.
Examine your budget and figure out exactly how much money you can
comfortably invest. Most people borrow money to buy a house, and
most loan agencies will require you to pay at least 5 percent down
in cash. They usually will loan you an amount that results in
monthly payments between 27 percent and 33 percent of your net
income, depending on your debt-to-income ratio, which they will
help you determine. If you expect to apply for a loan, now is the
time to amend a poor credit rating or establish your credit
history. These factors determine how much interest you’ll pay and
what kind of down payment the bank will require. And don’t forget
to consider closing costs, inspections and miscellaneous expenses,
which usually add at least a couple thousand dollars payable at

If you’re planning to buy undeveloped land, you should expect to
pay at least 20 percent to 50 percent down in cash. Interest rates
for a loan on the remaining 50 percent to 80 percent probably will
be higher than for home loans.

When you’re ready to buy, shop around to get the best bank loan
terms you can. Credit unions may offer competitive rates and
usually are easy to join. Mortgage companies have become
aggressive, creative marketers for loans.

Check with your lending agency about obtaining pre-approval for
a mortgage loan, so you’re confident of what you can afford.


A lot of people fantasize about paying cash for a home. True,
you can’t beat the security of knowing that you own your place,
free and clear. However, keep in mind that the interest you pay on
your home is fully tax-deductible. You may be better off,
financially, investing your bankroll and mortgaging the house.

Most of us buy as much house as we can afford. For that reason,
we often end up with a 30-year mortgage on 95 percent of the home’s
value. But an unexpected change in your ability to make loan
payments could put you in dire straits if you’ve borrowed as much
as you can afford. Even in active markets, homes may take months —
or even years — to sell. When you can’t make the mortgage payment,
those months move agonizingly slow.

You may want to choose a less expensive home, and put down a
higher percentage of the home’s value up front. This lets you avoid
mortgage insurance, a big hidden expense that is often required on
mortgages above a certain percentage of the home’s value. And it
offers no benefits to the buyer — it only protects the bank! If
your credit is good, your banker may be willing to supplement your
mortgage with a home-equity loan (essentially a second mortgage),
thereby avoiding the cost of mortgage insurance.


Deed: A written instrument by which title to land is
conveyed. If there is a mortgage on the house, the mortgage company
holds the deed until the final payment. Then the owner receives the

Earnest money: A deposit made by the buyer as evidence of
good faith when offering to purchase real estate. Earnest money is
typically held in an escrow account during the period between
acceptance of the contract and the closing of the sale, at which
time it is credited to the buyer.

Easement: A right to use another person’s real estate for
a specific purpose. The most common type of easement is the right
to travel over another person’s land, known as a right-of-way. In
addition, property owners commonly grant easements for the
placement of utility poles, utility trenches, water lines or sewer

Land contract: A contract where the buyer makes payments
directly to the seller, who is still financially responsible for
the property. Beware: If the seller defaults on his mortgage, you
could lose your property.

Title insurance: Protection for lenders or homeowners,
provided by a title company, against financial loss resulting from
legal defects in the title, which is a history of the ownership of
the property.

An added benefit to home-equity loans: If you’re buying
an expensive home worth more than, say, $300,000, you may be stuck
paying higher ‘jumbo’ interest rates. A home-equity loan could
bring your mortgage balance below the limit, and secure a cheaper
rate. And the interest you pay on home-equity loans is generally
tax-deductible — just like your mortgage.

If you expect your income to drop within the next 15 years, you
might prefer a higher monthly payment now and a paid-off home in 15
years. If you think you will retire in that period, your income may
decrease to a level where the mortgage-tax deduction isn’t that
beneficial. Many banks offer 15-year mortgages at rates preferable
to those on 30-year mortgages.

Remember, though, if you are going to have debt of any kind —
car loans, revolving credit, whatever — you probably want to secure
it with your home. You’ll generally pay less interest, and the
interest will be deductible.

Or if you decide not to be tied to a loan, read Rob Roy’s book,
Mortgage Free, which offers sound steps to financial
freedom. To order, see MOTHER’S


A lot of us idealize the ‘handshake deal’ between two trusting,
like-minded individuals. Nothing can spoil that vision quicker than
a property-boundary dispute or toxic runoff from the neighbor’s
manure containment. Many real estate deals self-destruct before the
papers are signed, just because communication breaks down during

If you’re a seller, you may want to hire a lawyer and put
together your own transaction with a buyer. It can be a lot

But if you’re a buyer, there’s not much logic in avoiding the
real estate specialists. In fact, with the way the business works
these days, you should probably start your search for a home with a
trusted ‘buyer’s representative’ who is a licensed real estate
agent. Their fee will likely come from the commission paid by the

Here’s what an agent can do for you:

Access the multiple-listing service in your area to give you the
widest possible choice of properties. Share expertise regarding
valuations and locations, schools, amenities and other important
information. Share experience of other deals, and help you make the
right moves in negotiations. Negotiate directly with other real
estate agents, who probably have a lot more experience than you

One important no-no: If you find a house and don’t already have
an agent, do not let the seller’s agent select a buyer’s
representative for you. Interview some real estate agents and
choose your own, based on your personal rapport.


  1. Know your budget and stick to it. Even if you’ve
    pre-qualified for a certain amount, you don’t have to shop for a
    house or property that meets the loan’s maximum. It’s better to be
  2. List your ‘needs and wants,’ such as square-footage
    requirements, lot size and proximity to work. Your budget largely
    will determine your choices; prioritize your list and be prepared
    to make some concessions.

  3. Check weekly for new listings. Most real estate firms
    have Web sites and are multi-listed, enabling you to search all
    available home and land listings in a particular area. Read the
    local newspaper for new listings and open houses. The more you
    study the market, the better idea you’ll have about what’s a ‘fair
    price.’ Don’t depend solely on your agent.

  4. Get the listing sheets for any houses you are interested
    in, and check each listing against your ‘needs and wants’ list.
    Besides giving you the property’s pertinent information, such as
    lot dimensions, room sizes and the age of the house, the listing
    sheet also may tell you how long the property has been on the
    market, which may give you some bargaining leverage.

  5. Get the seller’s disclosure sheet for each property you
    visit. In many localities, a seller must fill out a multi-paged
    disclosure sheet, assessing the house from foundation to roof. If a
    disclosure sheet is not required by law, ask the sellers to
    complete one anyway. Although not as reliable as an independent
    inspection, seller’s disclosure sheets are very useful tools for
    determining any current deficiencies known to the owners. If you
    purchase the house and then discover a defect that the seller
    should have acknowledged on the disclosure sheet, have your real
    estate agent address the issue.

  6. Make an appointment to view the property. Take a friend
    along to help you make an objective examination and spot any
    existing or potential problems.

  7. Take notes. Viewing prospective properties is both
    energizing and exhausting. You may think you’ll remember every
    unique feature of each property, but after viewing even a few, most
    people can’t keep track of all the pros and cons unless they take
    notes. Take the listing sheet and disclosure form with you to each
    property and jot down your observations directly on the listing

  8. Make sure to view the properties during the day, when you
    can thoroughly inspect property boundaries, the house exterior,
    etc. When you’re perusing a property, also request that the owner
    not be present. It’s much easier to poke in closets and cupboards
    and ask questions of the real estate agent without the home owner
    on site. A house may look great with fresh paint and new carpet,
    but any potential long-term problems will be hard to detect. Check
    out closets and cupboards, under the sink, behind the furnace, in
    crawl spaces and attics. Flush the toilets and run the faucets.
    Open the windows. Look for leaks and cracks.

  9. Most importantly, ask lots of questions. You need to
    learn as much as you can before you make an offer. For major
    concerns, get the answers in writing. If it’s a property on
    which you want to make an offer, don’t hesitate to visit it several
    times. Besides inspecting and reinspecting the property, spend some
    time walking and driving around the neighborhood and
    chatting with neighbors. Visit at various hours of the day and
    during different days of the week. Investigate the zoning around
    the property, especially if it sits near undeveloped land. That
    sweet wildflower meadow that lies behind your dream house may be
    slated to house an industrial hog farm.


Buying a house involves more than just offering a certain price
and having it accepted. Only part of the offer is about the price.
The rest of it relates to inspections, repairs, and what is or is
not included with the purchase of the house. When you’re ready to
make an offer, you should have a real estate agent representing
only your interests (a ‘buyer’s representative’). If you’re
negotiating a private transaction, consider retaining an attorney.
Remember: Buying a house is the largest single investment most of
us ever make. Better safe than sorry.

If you find what you think is your perfect property, beware of
becoming too enamored with it. Be ready to walk away from a deal
that doesn’t meet your needs. Remember that you’re in control: Set
the terms the way you want them.

Before your agent writes up your offer (your realtor will
provide the appropriate paperwork), ask for copies of any prior
house-inspection reports that were done. If none have been done, we
strongly recommend that you make your offer contingent on a
whole-house inspection: At $150 to $500, it is well worth the
investment. An independent contractor will inspect the house and
provide you with a written, detailed report on the house’s
structure, roof, wiring, plumbing, foundation and windows. Consider
including a clause in your offer stipulating that the seller must
pay for any necessary repairs exceeding a certain amount. Even if
no major problems are discovered, you’ll learn a great deal about
the home when you review the report with the inspector.

Not everything is covered in most ‘whole-house’ inspections.
Other specific inspections, such as termite, chimney, well or
septic, should be negotiated with the seller, and should be
stipulated in your offer to purchase.


If you’ve decided that you want to plant your roots in a rural
area, you’ll need to consider these additional issues.

Water. How is the property supplied with water? If
there’s a well, make your offer contingent on inspections to
confirm the well is in good condition. You may want to specify that
the well provide a certain number of gallons per minute. Have the
water tested for nitrates, bacteria and any other possible
contaminants that may endanger your health. (Ask the health
department what problems may be present in the local water

If there is not a water source on the property, be sure to take
that into account when you decide how much you’re willing to offer.
If you plan to drill a well, realize there is always a chance the
driller will not be able to locate water on the property. You may
be able to get some idea in advance of the odds you’ll find good
water by checking with hydrologists at the agency that regulates
water use in your state.

Sewage. Most country properties use a septic system to
process graywater and sewage from sinks, showers and toilets. The
homeowner’s disclosure may indicate the septic system has worked
well in the past, but you should still request an inspection as
part of the purchase offer agreement. If you’re buying land, the
seller should have conducted a preliminary ‘perc’ test to determine
if the soil and site are suitable for a conventional septic system.
Check local rules; be sure you know what will be required before
you make a purchase offer.

Electricity. Today, the utility grid supplies most rural
homes with power. If there’s currently no electric service to the
property and you want to tap into grid power, you’ll need the
electric company to give you a bid on bringing in lines. If a pole
is already on the property, only a line has to be dropped to the
buildings and a meter installed, a relatively inexpensive
procedure. If there’s no pole adjacent to the property, the cost
easily may run into thousands of dollars, depending on how far the
line must be run from the nearest pole. Investigate installing
underground lines, which may be more attractive and dependable —
and sometimes not much more costly.

Producing your own energy using solar or wind generation may be
your best bet, but be sure to research any zoning regulations that
might limit their use. (Putting in a photovoltaic system usually is
not limited by zoning rules, but putting up a 100-foot wind tower
may be.)

Water and mineral rights. It’s not uncommon for a
property to have mineral or water rights attached to the deed. The
title should list these rights, and you should have the title
company or your attorney explain the ramifications and limitations
these rights can impose on the property — before you make an

Zoning. Zoning ordinances and building permits vary from
state to state, county to county and even between municipalities.
If you have a certain project in mind for your property, check with
the local building inspector to see if it can be permitted. Zoning
ordinances designate land for certain functions, such as farming,
industry or housing, and can limit how your land can be used. Local
building codes govern how you can build. Some locales may permit
unique projects under an ‘experimental’ clause, but this can be
costly, especially if an engineer is required to review your plans.
If you intend to use green building techniques or want to have a
Dr. Doolittle farm with lots of animals, investigate potential
zoning or building permit limitations.

Rights-of-way. Roads, power lines and gas lines
frequently cross parcels of land and may interfere with your plans
for the property. If a neighboring property has no road frontage,
it may have a permanent, deeded easement through the property you
are considering. Or if you have to drive on a private road to reach
the property you are considering, make sure that you retain this
permanent easement on the title. If there is a road on the property
that you can’t account for and no mention of an easement on the
deed or title, ask the current owner if an easement agreement
exists with any neighbors.

Survey. In most cases you should know the exact
boundaries of the lot or acreage you are considering. If survey
markers are not in place, request a survey be done.

Excerpted from Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott
Nearing, Mother Earth News March/April 1977

There’s an old Spanish proverb which holds that, ‘The best revenge
is to live well.’ And if that’s true, then Helen and Scott Nearing,
(without ever having been vengeful at all) have had — and still
have — the very best revenge of all.

Because the Nearings have lived quite well indeed in all the
ways that really matter. And they have done it entirely on their
own terms and at their own pace. And they have done it far longer
(Helen is 74 and Scott is 93) than most of their detractors ever
have or ever will.

Helen and Scott Nearing have been living today’s counterculture
for better than a generation. Almost four decades ago (in 1932),
the couple ‘dropped out’ to a rock-scrabble mountain farm in
Vermont’s Green Mountains where they spent the next 20 years
rebuilding the soil, constructing solid homestead buildings from
native stone, growing their own food, heating with wood they cut by
hand, and co-authoring numerous books and magazine articles. Tick
off any of the present’s most ‘in’ passions — women’s lib, equal
rights, organic gardening, vegetarianism, radicalism, homesteading,
subsistence farming, ecology — and you’ll find that the Nearings
have been doing instead of talking for 40 years.

In 1952, when ‘developers’ began despoiling the slopes around
them for a ski resort, the Nearings sold their Vermont farm, moved
to a remote Maine cape and began all over again … clearing brush,
building honest stone structures, planting vigorous gardens, and —
in general — making their place in the world on a soul-satisfying,
sweat-of-the-brow basis.

Excerpted from Back to the Land in Louisiana by Robin
Wright, Mother Earth News April/May 2004

For years I had talked with my parents and my sister about all
of us buying land in the country, building houses, growing gardens,
hunting and fishing, and being able to help each other. Now, as I
stood watching my father drive away, bloody bird in hand, I
realized I was living my dream — the good, the bad and the

I’ll never forget the day my dad and brother-in-law walked into
my office with serious faces, closed the door as if there was a
problem to discuss and sat down in the chairs opposite my desk. We
all worked together in a building-supply business in Baton Rouge,

‘Put up or shut up,’ they said. And, as both men grinned at me,
it began to sink in that this was good news.’We’ve found the
perfect piece of property, only 30 minutes from the office,’ they
told me. ‘Fifty acres of fenced pastures stocked ponds, a nice
house, two barns and two beautiful homesites.’

It was an easy decision. The property was so perfect that we
could hardly wait to move. Within a matter of days the purchase
agreements were signed, and moving plans began to take shape. My
parents would move into the existing house, and my sister and I
would each build a new house on the property.

My husband, Ricky, and I sold our house quickly and bought a
trailer to live in while building our new home. After settling into
the trailer, we began buying old building materials with the goal
of building a new house that truly looked old.

It took us two years to finally move into our new home, which is
about 2,800 square feet in size and constructed of many recycled
materials. We used antique pine and cypress lumber, oak flooring,
antique light fixtures and claw-foot tubs — anything we could get
our hands on from old buildings that had been torn down. We love
being able to reuse things instead of throwing them away, but we
also just love old houses. The wood in our house isn’t flimsy or
full of formaldehyde; we wanted those big, thick pieces.


Excerpted from Choosing a Great Life by Sara Beth
Cavanah, Mother Earth News October/November 2002

The hardest part is knowing what you want. Once you know what
you want, everything else falls into place.

Alice Dobbs and David Schafer lived in Denver. It was pretty
much your standard-issue 1970s American life. They were both
working for Trans Globe Tours, a natural choice considering their
backgrounds. Alice had spent most of her childhood in South
America. David had attended high school in the Philippines and
Puerto Rico.

It was a good life.

Then a charter company based in Chicago bought Trans Globe
Tours. Alice and David knew they didn’t want to move to Chicago.
But what did they want? They had a good life, but was there a great
life waiting for them somewhere?

‘Well, you know you can always manage Grandma and Grandpa’s
farm,’ David’s father offered over the phone one day. ‘Oh right!’
David responded. ‘Us, farmers.’

But the idea didn’t fade away. Alice and David found themselves
caught between conflicting viewpoints. In one corner was the belief
that farming is hard, physical and repetitive with little reward or
gratitude from the larger society that feeds off the farmers’ work.
But another perspective kept insisting its questions be answered:
If it was so awful, why did farming call to them? Alice and David
knew they tended to romanticize farm life. But what could be better
for two independent, nature-loving people than answering to no one
but themselves and working outdoors with animals? How important is
money compared to freedom from the burdens of its pursuit?

The battle lines were drawn. City friends pushed for
romanticism. Country friends politely told them they were
idealistic fools. Ultimately, romanticism won.


Adapted from Small Pleasures Bring Big Joy by Grace
Brockway, Mother Earth News April/May 2002

The first time I found an egg in the henhouse, I almost crowed.
You’d think I had laid that first egg myself. I just never realized
how much pleasure one could get from something as simple as raising
chickens. I guess people could say, ‘Simple joys for simple minds.’
But people say a lot of things. In my homesteading adventure I’ve
learned simplicity is the seed of joy, and finding your own
lifestyle is the root of peace. .

My husband and I have been homesteading for about 10 years in
various locations. We seem to be compelled by circumstances to move
every two years or so. This has given me ample opportunity to
perfect my carpentry skills: Just as I finish building rabbit
hutches, chicken coops and woodsheds, I have to start again at a
new location. I’ve also established my share of vegetable and
perennial flower gardens. At times, I feel like the Johnny
Appleseed of echinacea. Because of my parents’ health, Bill and I
recently sold our homestead and are starting afresh near them in
the very northernmost of northern New York. I don’t worry, though.
We have establishing a homestead down pat.

That’s not to say that homesteading is easy, but things worth
doing rarely are. The work can indeed be never-ending, but so can
‘modern’ work. I spent years caught in the monotony of office work
and am certain I prefer the repetition of homestead chores to the
drudgery I experienced ‘at work.’ There, I brought home a paycheck.
Here, the rewards are so much greater: feeling a wonderful sense of
accomplishment, bringing my own food to my own table, being my own
boss and setting my own priorities and work schedule.

Homesteading and
Self-reliance: Essential Skills

There are dozens of homesteading skills and
crafts that will allow you to be more self-reliant, such as making
your own clothes, shoes and candles, knitting, weaving and tanning.
For these articles and many more, read our Featured Article, ‘Do It
Yourself,’ at www.motherearth????.

To learn homesteading skills such as wood splitting, tractor
driving, installing a fence or running a chain saw talk with your
local County Extension agent, go to farm fairs and festivals or
hire yourself out for a few weeks on a working farm. Also try
volunteering as an apprentice on a farm through organizations like
Willing Workers on Organic Farms (

Excerpted from The Science of Wood Stacking by Ceylon
Monroe, Mother Earth News October/November 1994

From Shaker rounds to ricks, how to stack
fuelwood for maximum seasoning.

In my part of upper New England, winters are long and cold;
security is a big stack of well-seasoned firewood. The urge to ‘get
the wood in’ runs deep. It’s an itch that kicks up when the leaves
begin turning in mid-August and that won’t stay scratched until the
snow season’s fuel supply is split, stacked, and ready to hand.

There is an art and a science to building a woodpile. Some say
there’s a spiritual side to it as well, but I can’t help you much
with that. You’d have to come to meeting already knowing that
there’s something more to a tree than wood, bark and leaves as the
Indians and the old-time French-Canadian axemen did, and the way a
few modern woodsmen and women still do.

Firewood just dumped in a heap won’t dry and it won’t burn well.
Rain will run down and soak into cut ends while ground moisture
will migrate up and soak into spongy inner bark. But even the
toughest ash and beech fire logs will start quickly and burn
efficiently (with little creosote-making smoke) if seasoned in the
woods for 6 months to a year, sectioned to stove length, the big
logs half-split, and all of it piled in the woodshed or barn for
some months more. The hardwood should be quartered; the pine should
be split to kindling and piled again to surface-dry in a warm
cellar for a few weeks or months and finally brought upstairs to
heat and dry crisp for a day or two near the stove. Henry Thoreau
neglected the work of piling and repiling when he wrote, ‘Wood
warms you twice … once when you cut it and again when you burn
it.’ By my count it warms you six or seven times — most of that in
building and tearing down woodpiles.


Adapted from Woodstove Buyer’s Guide by John Gulland,
Mother Earth News December/January 2002

The golden glow and cozy warmth of a wood fire have drawn family
and friends to the hearth. A woodstove truly does help transform a
house into a home. But here in the super-high-tech 21st century,
does a return to our heritage heating fuel make sense for your


  1. It’s a renewable energy resource.

    Wood is energy from the sun, stored by the tree as it grows.
    When you burn wood you are releasing this stored energy. In the
    dark of winter, it’s like having a bit of summer sun on your

  2. It’s an Earth-friendly choice.

    When fuels burn they release carbon dioxide, one of the
    greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Trees absorb
    carbon dioxide as they grow, so when you heat with wood, the carbon
    dioxide is released, then absorbed again by young trees. Because
    trees recycle carbon dioxide, wood burning just warms you, not the

  3. You’re in charge.

    Stop writing checks every month to the energy utilities. Do you
    really want to leave something as important as staying warm in the
    hands of a faceless corporation?

  4. No more freezing in the dark.

    When a storm interrupts the electrical supply, all the
    conventional heating systems are useless, but the woodstove keeps
    you warm and cozy and safe. Now a power failure isn’t so much of a
    drag: You get to use the candles.

  5. Wood warms you like no other.

    The radiant heat from a stove or fireplace is like the rays of
    the sun. It warms you through and through.

  6. The romance of the flame.

    The soft glow of firelight is the favorite setting for an
    intimate conversation. It’s the place where friends and family
    gather to talk and laugh in comfort.

  7. Raise your energy I.Q.

    Each log you place on the fire is a visual reminder of the
    environmental impact of keeping your family warm. It’s the wood
    heat way of knowing

  8. Heat a space, save some energy.

    That stove or fireplace in the living room keeps you warm and
    cozy in the place you spend your time. The basement and bedrooms
    stay cool. Regardless of what you pay for energy, space heating
    with wood clips 25 percent right off the top.

  9. Invest in your community.

    Spend a buck on oil, natural gas or electricity and you feed a
    corporate giant. Spend a buck on firewood and you feed a

  10. It’s cheaper!

    Wood is the cheapest heating fuel you can use if you don’t live
    in a large city. Some people actually think the only reason we heat
    with wood is to save money. Poor souls, they miss so much of what
    is good in life.

Whether you decide to make wood your primary heating fuel or
just want to spend winter evenings around a warm, flickering fire,
you’ll need to choose from a bewildering array of options: elegant
enameled woodstoves, high-efficiency fireplaces, furnaces or even
cookstoves. Here’s what you need to help you make the right choice,
including a comprehensive list of stove models, sizes, prices and
other details.

The benefits of home heating with wood are numerous: comfort,
beauty, independence, security and environmental responsibility.
Surely the most discussed advantage is the promise of cost savings
compared with the mainstream alternatives. Although there are many
variables involved, you can almost certainly save money by heating
with wood if there are forests in your region and you don’t live in
a city. If the recent volatility of oil, gas and electricity prices
provides a hint of the future, the savings could increase in the
years ahead. As long as you enjoy managing the firewood supply and
the fire, you will be a successful full-time wood burner.

Visit John Gulland’s woodheat Web site:

Adapted from Tasty Tips for Cooking on your Woodburning
by Fred and Helen Brassel, Mother Earth News
December/January 1992

Most people only consider their woodstove useful
for heating a room. And when we purchased our Woodstocker to cut
oil costs, we never gave a thought to using it as a cooking

But one day, bolstered by the surprising amount of heat
dispensed by our stove, we tentatively approached it with tea
kettle in hand. Once we were successful (with a little patience),
we quickly graduated to soups and stews. Though ours doesn’t have
the versatility of a wood cookstove designed for kitchen duty, it
does have some workable similarities.

The surface of our woodstove isn’t usually hot enough for frying
foods but it is perfect for simmering and slow cooking. We’ve even
managed to use our ‘oven’ (firebox) in much the same way as we use
our charcoal grill in the summertime.


The hot coals will cook foil-wrapped vegetables or individual
packets of meat. For baked potatoes, wrap them in heavy duty foil
and place in the hot ashes of the fire. These will take from 45
minutes to one hour to cook.

Corn can be cooked in foil, too. Strip husks down to the end of
the ear but don’t tear off. Remove silk, butter generously, and
bring husks up around corn, making sure all the kernels are
covered. Wrap in double thickness of heavy-duty foil, twist ends,
and nestle in hot ashes.

Sliced zucchini can be seasoned with oregano and mixed with
chopped tomato and butter. Double wrap and cook in ashes. Small
beets can be cooked directly on the hot coals: Just sprinkle them
with water, dot with chunks of butter, and double wrap in
heavy-duty foil.

For grilled chicken, marinate 2-inch pieces of chicken breast in
soy sauce, some powdered ginger, a little sugar and garlic powder
to taste for two hours. Place a few pieces and some marinade in a
double wrapping of heavy-duty foil. Repeat until all the chicken is
wrapped tightly, then place the packets on the coals until


Individual meals, such as the Hobo Dinner, can be cooked in
pound-size coffee cans nestled in hot coals. Shape one-half pound
of ground beef into a large patty the size of the bottom of the
coffee can. Top with sliced onions, a sliced potato, and one-half
ear of corn; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover can tightly with
double-wrapped aluminum foil. Nestle can among hot coals, but do
not set directly on top of them. This will take at least an hour to

There is no way to gauge the heat of the fire, so you cannot
time the cooking process. Use a two-pronged fork to check the
tenderness of the vegetables (we like ours with just a little
crunch left).


There are various woodstove baking ovens on the market for
cooking small baked goods, but an inverted cast iron pot has worked
well for us. I place the cover of the pot upside down on the stove,
put a bread pan or small muffin pan on top of that, and then top
the cover and pan with inverted cooking pot.

Granted, this is a crude contraption and it does seem to take
forever sometimes for the baked goods to be done, but it works — it
just takes longer than a conventional oven.


Traditional cast-iron cookware is by far the most effective
utensil for woodstove use. Cast iron provides even heat and needs
little care. Each piece should be treated to stave off rust and to
prevent foods from sticking. To accomplish this, coat the pan with
vegetable oil and heat for two hours in a 300-degree oven. Check
periodically to see if the oil has been absorbed and add more if
necessary. Let cool and wipe off any excess. After you’ve finished
cooking, clean the pot with paper towels and scour stubborn spots
with salt (avoid cleaning with soap or detergents).

Cooking techniques vary little whether the fuel is wood or coal:
The difference is in the higher intensity of heat from the burning
of coal. With either fuel, the heat is often not evenly distributed
on the stove’s surface.

The real trick is to move the pots around, depending upon your
needs. If a pot is bubbling too hard, either move it to a cooler
area on the woodstove or set it on a metal trivet. If more heat is
required, set the pan directly over the area where the coals are
burning hottest, which is usually in the center of the

As confidence in your ability to cook on a woodstove grows, so
will your assurance that almost anything can be cooked on a
woodstove. Your imagination is your greatest tool, and your cooking
methods are uniquely your own.

Excerpted from The Many Methods of Mowing
by Jeff Cox, Mother Earth News February/March 2002

The beauty of a lawn or meadow, as well as the
benefit of usable outdoor space, makes mowing worth the work. As
with any chore, however, the right tool makes the job go easier.
Let’s look at the tools available and consider their merits,
starting with the nonpolluting, human-powered options.

Reel Mowers: $100 to $225

Hand-pushed reel mowers offer multiple advantages over
gas-powered mowers: no noise, no noxious air pollution, no danger
of flying rocks, low maintenance and no worries about getting them
started. Plus you get a great aerobic workout every time you use
them, burning about 300 calories an hour.

The secret to easy cutting with these mowers is frequent mowing.
If you let the grass get too long, the reel mower blades will tend
to bind up or take an inordinate amount of pushing to get the mower
through long grass. Cut when the grass is no more than an inch
longer than you want it. A quarter acre (100 feet by 160 feet) of
lawn can be cut in about an hour with a reel mower. For areas
larger than that, you may want to go to a walk-behind, gas-powered
cutter, either push or self-propelled.

Reel Mower Sources:

Lehman’s Hardware

Sunlawn Imports

American Lawn Mower Co.

Electric Mowers: $400 to $670

You can buy corded electric mowers that run directly off of your
home’s electricity, but keeping the cord out of the way as you mow
is a challenge on all but the smallest lawns. On the other hand,
cordless electric mowers offer the same advantages of reel mowers:
less noise, pollution and maintenance than gas-powered machines,
easy starting, plus a good workout. They are an especially green
choice if you live where electricity comes from hydroelectric dams
— rather than coal or nuclear power plants — or if you enjoy free
electricity from your own home solar-electric system or wind

Cordless electric mowers include batteries that have to be
plugged into an outlet after each use to recharge. They generally
are not self-propelled and tend to be heavy because of their
batteries. If a small person will be using the mower, test drive it
at the dealers.

Even greener than a cordless electric mower is the new
Sunwhisper solar-charged
mower. The Sunwhisper features two Siemens photovoltaic (PV) solar
panels that charge a Black & Decker 24-volt, CMMI000 cordless
electric mower. You can either mount the PV panels on your garage
or shed roof, or mount them right on the handles of the mower. As
long as the panels are facing south in full sun, they will keep the
mower’s battery charged for about two hours of mowing per week. If
you need an overnight or cloudy-day charge, you still have the
option to recharge by plugging into a home outlet.

Push-Type, Gas-Powered Lawn Mowers: $150 to $350

You might ask why you’d want an engine-powered mower you have to
push rather than one that’s self-propelled. There are three
reasons. First, the push mowers cost less. Second, while
self-propelled mowers are fine on large lawns without many
obstacles, the mower you push can be more easily guided through
tight spaces, around trees and shrubs, and around island beds. Plus
its forward or backward speed is your walking speed. Third, all but
the most serious full-time homesteaders will benefit from a weekly
aerobic workout behind a push mower.

Most mowers of this type have four- to six-horsepower engines.
Avoid any that are underpowered, as they can stall in high grass
and won’t make as clean a swath. Look for engines with
clean-burning, overhead valves, rather than side-valve engines.
Make sure the mowing platform can be adjusted up to 4 inches off
the ground. Weeds are suppressed and lawns are healthier when the
grass is longer. Short-cropped grass exposes roots, and low mowers
can hit rocks or scalp the soil over rough spots.

Self-Propelled, Gas-Powered Lawn Mowers: $200 to $800

Self-propelled, gas-engine mowers reduce some of the physical
work of mowing but cost somewhat more than push versions. If you
decide to buy a self-propelled model, be aware of several factors
that can affect their performance.

First, if you are planning to leave your clippings on the lawn,
look for a mulching deck. This is simply a series of baffles and
blades fixed to the underside of the housing that covers the
rotating blade. When grass is cut, the baffles recirculate the
grass clippings until they are reduced to fine mulch, which
disappears quickly.

Many self-propelled mowers have safety features, such as a
blade-brake-clutch. For the blade to operate, you have to hold a
lever down as part of the handle. When you pause the unit or
release the clutch lever, the blade stops automatically.

Some mowers offer a drive system that adjusts to your walking

Riding Mowers: $800 to $3,200

Big lawns require significant mowing time. Riding mowers have
the great advantage of giving you a place to sit down while you
spend that time. They are lighter and smaller than heavy-duty lawn
and garden tractors, without the latter’s features, such as power
take-offs for snowblowing and tillage, and blades for grading. In
effect, they are lawn mowers with seats.

The White LT1650 is Consumer Reports’ Best Buy riding mower.

Features to look for include a short turning radius, which can
run from zero up to 26 inches. A turning radius is measured by
steering the mower into the tightest circle it can make. The radius
of that circle is the turning radius. A zero turning radius means
you can stop the mower, turn the wheels and zip off in any new
direction you choose. A short turning radius is handy for lawns
with lots of obstacles, trees and flowerbeds.

Many riding mowers come with mulching decks, a good idea if you
want to recycle your clippings back onto the lawn. The mulching
deck will chop the clippings finely, so they disappear into the
lawn. Make sure the riding mower has a powerful engine of at least
eight horsepower, so it can lug you around the yard as well as cut
the grass.

Brush Cutters: $750 to $1,600

For rough work — such as giving a meadow, orchard or wet spot a
once-a-year mowing — there are plenty of brawny-bladed trimmers,
high wheel mowers and brush cutters on the market.

Bladed trimmers are handhelds similar to string trimmers, but
are sturdier. They usually have two handlebars, gas rn with one or
two horsepower and metal blades that hack through brushy stems.

High wheel mowers and brush cutters come with plastic string or
blades. String trimmers work well on light, juicy weeds and grass,
but for getting through small shrubs and saplings, you’ll probably
want a bladed mower.

One Motor, Many Options: Starting from $1,100 to $1,600

Many homesteads need more power equipment than just a mower.
Rather than buy a mower, tiller and snowblower, all with their own
motors, gears and wheels, you might want to consider a machine that
can run several attachments from the same engine. For example, the
Italian BCS tiller is a quality machine offered by mail from
Valley Farm Supply
(888) 784-1722. You can remove the tiller
and attach a mower, brush cutter or snowblower to this machine. The
DR Field and Brush Mower offers similar flexibility and efficiency.
You can buy the brush mower, then add a lawn mower or snow thrower.
The BCS tillers start at $1,100 and the DR starts at $1,600. If you
have a need for multiple power equipment functions, why not talk to
some of your neighbors and see if you can form a co-op to purchase
and share this kind of machinery?

Excerpted from The Scythe by Elliot Fishbein, Mother
Earth News
February/March 2002

The scythe is simply the most efficient and graceful tool for
mowing. It cuts heavy weeds and tall grass with ease, and with
practice can be precise enough to cut and trim your lawn. It will
silently outcut your string trimmer and venture where a push or gas
lawn mower becomes useless. The scythe does all this with little
physical effort, noise or pollution.

There are two styles of scythes, the European and the American.
The European scythe blade is made light, thin and strong
without excess material.Its strength comes from the curves and
tension of the skinlike structure. This design has been refined
through the centuries to be efficient and minimal. The blade is
fitted to a lightweight wooden handle called a snath. The grips are
comfortably positioned, permitting an upright, stress-free stance,
and the blade is adjusted to skim parallel to the ground. For
maximum performance and enjoyment the snath should be customized to
fit the user’s body proportions.

To mow, the blade is drawn from right to left in an arc. Only
the leading third of the blade enters the uncut grass. This
shearing action slices the grass like scissors. Falling grass
caught by the blade and snath is deposited in a tidy pile at the
end of each stroke. A stroke takes about as much effort as paddling
a canoe.The mower can set a pace that is sustainable. The European
blade has a curved back that allows it to ride in close contact
with the ground.

The blade remains in contact with the ground during both the
cutting and return stroke: There is no reason to lift it.

The stroke does not require great physical strength and does not
rely on blade speed. It is not necessary to quickly rip the scythe
through the grass. The stroke is deliberate and accurate. The
shifting of your weight from side to side and the twisting of your
torso power the blade. Occasionally you must stop to hone the blade
and look behind to admire the precision of the windrow that’s
formed. In a good stand of grass even a child can cut a 7-foot-wide
swath with each stroke. For full details on how to use and maintain
a scythe, see the workshop pages of

Sharpening a European scythe is a combination of hammering
(called peening) and honing with a whetstone. The cutting edge is
occasionally drawn out thin by using a hammer and a small anvil. In
the field the blade is frequently and quickly honed with a
water-soaked stone to maintain the sharp edge.

The American scythe is the type commonly found in tool
sheds, antique shops and, unfortunately, in hardware stores. This
scythe is harder to use and less efficient than the European style.
This American pattern is mostly responsible for the scythe’s
reputation as a backbreaking, difficult tool.

The European scythe is an elegant combination of simplicity and
competence. The rewards of using the tool are worth the effort in

Sources for European Scythes:

Scythe Supply

Johnny’s Selected Seed Catalog

Lehman’s Hardware and Appliances, Inc.

Peaceful Valley Farm Supply


Adapted from The Forge: Elementary Metalworking by John
Vivian, Mother Earth New February/March 2000

Alas both the village smithy and the spreading chestnut tree are
gone, done in by what passed for progress in its day but sounds
depressingly familiar in this one. Industrial mechanization
replaced a thousand smithies’ ‘large and sinewy hands’ with a
single water-powered trip hammer, while a blight, unwittingly
imported with expanded global trade, decimated the proud chestnut
to a few stump sprouts. Along with these disappeared the tinsmiths,
whitesmiths, cutlers, coopers and a dozen more metal trades of our
handcrafted, preindustrial past. And, in this writer’s view, along
with the handworking trades went much of the attitude of sturdy,
independent self-reliance that made America great.

Two hundred years ago, nearly everything was handcrafted,
custom-made, made-from-scratch — by tradesmen or by the farmer and
his wife. When junior was old enough to make a first proud step
toward manhood by donning long pants, mother hand-stitched the
britches from homespun cloth and father made the belt from harness
leather and hammered out a belt buckle on the small forge, an art
that was a feature of every farm. Not many of us will be making an
iron belt buckle for our sons these days. For one thing, the other
students would laugh him out of school as decidedly uncool. And, in
this age of mass production, we could do better by selling the
buckle as a handcrafted, neoantique rarity at the Craft Shoppe in
town and buying the kid a whole new wardrobe with the proceeds.

But a working knowledge of the metal crafts has a too-often
neglected place on the self-reliant family farmsteads of folks like
you and me. Among our sacrifices, we’ve accepted responsibility for
maintaining our own house and outbuildings, farm and garden
equipment, autos and trucks, plumbing and wiring. All of these
depend on arcane metal parts that when they fail, cause the typical
in-town householder to call in a hideously expensive plumber, auto
tech or electrician to perform repairs for them. (Or else, they
rush out to buy an all-new appliance, part or gadget that is likely
even shoddier — with more plastic than steel or brass — than the
decades-old original that just broke.)

Easier, cheaper, quicker and vastly rewarding is to repair or
replace the metal part yourself.

Yet, the very idea of working metal leaves most of us as cold as
the steel itself. Few of us are brought up anymore realizing that
we have the aptitude to form metal; metal has become the exclusive
medium of the mass manufacturer. Odd, this, since any country
person who maintains a house and barn learns basic woodworking.
Granted, warm once-living wood is intuitively more inviting than
cold, unyielding metal. But the fact is you work metal the same as
you work wood, only metals are harder. The processes of measuring,
cutting, fitting, fastening and finishing are essentially the same,
whether you’re building a wooden potato-storage crate or a
sheet-metal maple-sap evaporating tray. You need different tools
and techniques is all.

It’s a major step in genuine country self-sufficiency to become
as much of a metalsmith as time, talent, cash and inclination

Homesteading and
Self-reliance: Essential Tools

To be self-reliant requires having the right
tools to accomplish the hundreds of necessary homesteading

Hand tools, such as shovels, rakes, hoes, clippers, axes, mauls,
wheelbarrows, garden carts, scythes, hammers, saws, pliers,
wrenches and screw drivers can be purchased new or found at garage
sales, flea markets and auctions. You may want to rely on larger
tools, such as chainsaws, tillers and mowers, and spending the
money for a new tool that meets your needs and is in good working
order will make homesteading tasks easier to accomplish.

Large, motorized ‘tools’ — All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), tractors
and riding mowers are wonderful additions to farms and homesteads.
The up-front cost may be sizable, but the time and energy saved by
using these motorized tools can be used on tasks that need a
gentler touch.

Adapted from In Search of the Perfect Skillet by Anne
Vassal, Mother Earth News August/September 2003

It would be nice if I could share with you the wondrous aspects
of my long-time favorite skillet, but until recently I didn’t have
one. Over the years, not a single one ever stole my heart. Having a
quality, 12-inch skillet ought to be a necessity of life, though,
along with shoes, cell phones and brie (OK, maybe not brie), so
finally, I set out to find my ‘one and only.’

As it turned out, I found several skillets that tickled my
fancy: Calphalon’s Commercial and Kitchen Essentials lines,
All-Clad Metalcrafter’s own brand (my favorite!) and Emerilware,
developed by All-Clad with celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. Here are
the most important points to consider when you’re searching for a
skillet that will steal your heart.


Most all-purpose skillets have either flared or straight sides.
Those with flared sides are called fry or omelet pans, and usually
come without lids; food just slides right out of these pans and
onto a plate. Those with straight sides are called saute pans, and
they come with lids.

I decided to limit my spending to less than $150, although it’s
possible to buy skillets that cost twice that price. I tested
numerous skillets for ‘release-ability’ (whether the food stuck to
the pan), heat distribution and cooking time. I cooked a variety of
foods, including eggs, pancakes, eggplant, plantains, tofu and

Appearance, durability, feel and whether the skillet was oven-
or broiler-safe also were evaluated.

Appearance. This may seem frivolous, but a cookware’s
design is what initially will attract your attention. Imagine how
the pan will look in your kitchen, on your stove. Evaluate its
scratch-resistance. The best skillets I tested were heavy-gauge
metal pans with stainless steel exteriors; they resisted scratches
and dents better than either black enamel or anodized aluminum

Durability runs a close second to appearance. All the
skillets I liked were listed as dishwasher-safe, but company
representatives all recommended hand-washing. Although better
cookware will come with a lifetime warranty, be sure to read the
fine print before you buy.

Feel is an important consideration, too. With the
exception of cast iron pans, you shouldn’t have to pump iron to fry
an egg. A skillet should be a comfortable weight, but keep in mind
that quality skillets are heavier than bargain-basement pans. But
don’t confuse ‘heavy weight’ with ‘heavy gauge.’ ‘Gauge’ is a
measurement of the thickness of the metal used in the cookware’s
construction, not its weight.

Skillet handles will vary in feel, too, so test them out to find
which suits you best. Metal handles probably won’t feel quite as
nice as wooden ones, but they will last forever. For safety’s sake,
handles should have a ‘stay cool’ quality and be riveted through
the pan rather than screwed in place.

Options such as oven-safe or broiler-safe may be
important to you, too. The skillets listed here are oven-safe up to
a certain temperature, but all are not broiler-safe. If you love to
brown your culinary creations under the broiler, you’ll want a
broiler-safe skillet.

If you have an electric range, especially a smooth top, you’ll
need a skillet that is ruler-flat on the bottom to ensure uniform
cooking. And, if you’re buying an omelet or fry pan, you also may
want to find out whether a lid can be purchased separately, even
though most of the time you won’t need it.

Cast Iron

It’s no wonder some folks swear by their trusty cast iron
skillets. Virtually indestructible, they cook fast once they’re
heated and handle the highest temperatures with ease. They’re great
for Cajun-style blackening; we use my grandma’s to blacken fish on
the grill, and to make corn bread in the oven. Iron skillets
improve with age and can last several lifetimes.

Secondhand 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillets can be better than
new ones. They’re inexpensive, too, at $15 to $20 in flea markets
or antique shops, although the collectible Wagner or Griswold
brands usually will cost more.

The downside is these skillets are heavy, the handles get hot
and the food can stick if the cast iron isn’t properly seasoned or
cleaned. There also can be problems with uneven heating, and the
reactive metal does absorb and release food odors.

But on a Wisconsin winter’s morning, I just love my
brother-in-law’s fried potatoes, cooked in his favorite 16-inch
iron skillet, on his wood-burning stove.

Adapted from Top 20 Homesteading Tools by John Vivian,
Mother Earth News April/May 2001

If you’re serious about swapping the urban rat race for a life of
frugal, back-to-the-land self-sufficiency, the right equipment will
make the difference between paradise and peril. The following list
outlines some of the essential homesteading tools.

Basic Hauling


You’ll need a properly sized, wheeled, perhaps engine-powered
machine to do the heavy hauling. The capacity you’ll need and the
amount you’ll pay will be determined by the size and topography of
your place, the nature of the work you intend to carry out, your
financial resources, maintenance skills, and available storage
facilities. Ideal, albeit impractical for most of us, would be a
team of horses, mules or oxen along with a hay wagon for field
work, a buckboard for trips to town, and a barn and paddock. If you
obtain beasts of burden, you’ll also need pasture, hay and grain to
sustain them.

Commercial-grade Compact Diesel Tractors

The most universally capable modern homesteading machine we know
of is a commercial-grade compact diesel tractor. We like
tractors, John
20- to 48hp 2000 class and New Holland’s Boomer line.
Even the smallest models — which look like sturdily built lawn
tractor mowers — are equipped with powerful diesel engines and
industrial-quality transmissions and running gear. They also sport
a three-point rear hitch that will mount commercial farm land
plows, harrows and rakes and provide attachment points for a hay or
field corn cutter bar or silage chopper, a sprayer or buzz saw.
These tractors include a hydraulic system that will power remote
motors on the chopper’s flails, the sprayer’s pump or the saw’s
blade. A modern, small diesel tractor is a major investment for a
ranch or truck-farming operation — but one that will expand your
homesteading capabilities beyond muscle-power, and will pay off
every day for a lifetime or two of strenuous use.

Antique Tractors

An alternative to a new and relatively expensive tractor is a
well-running antique tractor. They’re
not quite as capable or dependable as a contemporary tractor, but
they’re considerably less expensive. A small, still-running,
antique tractor such as a late 1940s or 50s Farmall Cub or a
low-riding, auto-style Ford 9N currently sell for a fraction of the
price of a new one, a little more if they’re outfitted with new
rear tires or hydraulics. If at all possible, buy one with a newly
rebuilt engine, an onboard hydraulic system, a rear-mount
three-point hitch and one or two mechanical power takeoffs (PTOs)
rather than a drawbar.

Tractor Attachments

Invest in a modern under-frame (Woods), rotary brush hog or field
mower and other post-1950s attachments. Look carefully, because
museum-quality antique tractors from the 1930s and earlier often
lack hydraulics and PTOs. (Polk’s, the Antique Tractor Magazine,
published by Dennis Polk Equipment of New Paris Indiana and
from the folks at Odgen Publications in Topeka, KS
are two great sources of info on older models better suited for
displaying on the front yard than grinding in the cornrows).

Full-size Industrial Tractors

If you intend to do any really heavy work such as logging,
trenching for soil-drainage pipes, digging in a septic tank or
cutting a logging road through heavy woods, consider a full-size
industrial tractor
with a log grapple or excavating bucket on
the front and a backhoe on the stem. New, they cost five or six
figures. Good used ones cost about $15,000.

Deere Gator: For moderately heavy hauling chores that do
not demand a bulldozer or a two-ton hydraulically equipped tractor,
use your local Yellow Pages to find a franchised John Deere
servicing dealer for a two- or four-wheel drive Gator. Sized like a
cut-down jeep and powered and equipped for homestead-scale chores,
it seats the driver and one or two passengers comfortably up front,
but rides on farm tractor-style, forged-steel driveline components.
It is lightweight enough to navigate marshes or hilly wooded tracks
that could bog down a heavy tractor or four-wheel drive truck. It
will pull a water trailer and, in its rear box, will carry several
hay bales to livestock in a distant, dry pasture.

DR Powerwagon: Next size down in size and capacity are
the DR
, a unique line of powered garden carts made by
Country Home
. All sizes are tank-tough and capable of hauling 800
pounds of bricks, firewood, garden compost or rocks. They are
maneuvered by hand with stout handles and castoring wheels at the
back, thus avoiding the steering mechanism that would boost their

Garden Way Carts

And finally, if a powered hauler is more than you can justify, get
yourself a shiny, metal frame and brown stained, plywood box-bodied
Garden Way-style garden cart like you see in many rural and
suburban gardens. These carts were designed by Garden Way founders
Eddie Robinson and Lyman Wood back in the 1940s; they took their
inspiration from the amazingly well-balanced, high-wheeled railway
station baggage carts of the day. You may remember
carts from the magazine ads that compared their
lightweight, easy-dumping gardening convenience with a tippy,
back-straining wheelbarrow. Perfectly balanced on easy-turning,
rustproof, chrome-plated spoked wheels, a box cart will let you
haul bulky or heavy loads of all kinds over an acre or so of
flatland. A word of caution: Don’t overload them.


A Heavy-duty Gardening Fork

Until you have been on your place long enough to improve the
garden soil with rich, crumbly compost and loose, friable sand,
your best investment in a hand tool is a heavy, British-made,
three- or four-tined garden fork or landscaper’s fork. It should
have a stout, 40- to 44- inch ash or hickory handle shaft, a
split-shaft wooden ‘D’ grip and a green, flat-tined business
hand-forged from a single blank of carbon-manganese steel. Don’t
confuse this with the long-handled pitchfork designed for
slip-pitching hay or straw. Granted, the garden fork is a bit of an
investment, but it’s well worth it — no other tool can do so much.
The garden fork will dig through anything short of granite ledge;
quarry well-striated, soft sandstone or limestone; lever up and
remove field stones; turn and aerate wet compost and grub out the
most stubborn tree roots. The multiple tines can penetrate soil
that would repel any full-bladed tool, from the toughest sod or
packed clay soil to (moistened) Southwestern hardpan, a good garden
fork will break it loose with a stern tug on the handle.

A Heavy-duty Gardening Spade

A companion to the fork is the spade. This thick, flat,
rectangular-blade shovel was used in northern Europe to cut pears
for fuel, and was later adopted by American frontiersmen for
cutting prairie sods to build walls for homes and farm buildings. A
sturdy spade will chop up the sod or clay dislodged by the fork.
Together, spade and fork can be alternated to pry large rocks out
of the soil and lever them up on a stoneboat or into loops of
logging chain to be skidded out by a tractor or team. Get a spade
with the top edge of one or both sides of the blade bent back at
90° or fitted with a welded-on inch-wide strip of steel. This will
support your boot when you step (or stomp) the blade into stubborn

These traditional British gardener’s tools may appear crude
compared with their more polished, mass-produced counterparts, but
they are beautiful in a rugged, utilitarian way. With respect and
dutiful maintenance, they’ll last a lifetime and be passed on to a
grateful gardening son or daughter. The first of several lines to
be promoted in North America were Bulldog brand hand tools,
developed 200 years ago by Cistercian monks and imported a
generation ago by the West Coast gardener’s supply mail-order
catalog, Smith and Hawken. Smith and
Hawken’s now has its own brand name on imported tools but the
Bulldog brand is still available from the heirloom seed company,
Seeds of

A Garden Rake

Forget about the plastic or metal spring-tined leaf broom used
for removing nature’s autumnal debris; you’ll need a wide,
forged-steel, rigid-tined garden rake as described in
Non-Electric Catalog.

This garden rake is heavy-headed and well-balanced, ensuring
that you needn’t strain the small of your back or wrench the
muscles in your arms and wrists bearing down on the handle to break
clods and rake rocks out of newly tilled garden soil to make a
smooth and level planting bed.

A Rear-tined Rotary Tiller

Garden Way’s big, red Troy-Bilt Horse tiller was the first big
seller; indeed Garden Way Manufacturing popularized the home garden
rear-tined tiller back in the 1960s and 70s. Though the old Horse
has been retired out to pasture, shaft-and-gear tillers are still
available in a whole stableful of equine-named models and power
ranges. Country Home Products markets a similar design, while BCS
America sells a commercial-grade tiller built in Italy for local
small-plot farmers and vintners. BCS walking tractors and
tillers are equipped with commercial grade, American-built gas
engines, so most common problems are readily fixed by any local
small-engine mechanic.

No other machine is as useful as a cast-iron, steel and bronze,
rear-tined tiller when it comes to breaking up garden-size plots of
meadow or backyard lawn sod. A good tiller will almost effortlessly
accomplish spring and fall soil preparation, and is essential for
the organic gardener who wants to incorporate sand, manure,
compost, leaves and other natural soil enhancers into the


A Cordless Drill Driver

Once limited to six or seven-and-a-half volts, these cordless
screwdrivers now come in 22 volts or higher, relative to size and
weight. We still relegate heavy rotary-tool jobs to power drills,
but get as big and heavy a cordless drill as you can afford and
physically manage. You’ll also want several Phillips-head or
square-head drive bits and a variety of stainless and blue-steel,
self-tapping deck screws. These deck screws, incidentally, are
replacing nails in all phases of wood construction — they go in
straight, fast and effortlessly and hold forever, but are easy to
extract if necessary.

A Circular Utility Saw

Get a conventional, 112-volt circular saw with a seven-inch or
larger blade for zipping through framing lumber. Skilsaw is the
brand name for this tool that is second only to a framing hammer in
tools most often used by house carpenters. Saws from any familiar
tool manufacturer, however, will cut just as well and for just as
long. For rough carpentry and demolition, get a supply of stamped
blue-steel, non-resharpenable blades that will work for a long
time, then go to the recycling dump. These blades are cheap and
won’t bankrupt you if they hit a nail. For precision cutting,
invest in expensive, resharpenable carbide-tipped blades — and look
for nails before you cut. For heavier jobs, you may want to invest
in a ball bearing-equipped, worm-drive circular saw. This piece of
equipment is heavy and awkward, and managing it requires both
hands. It’s also rather slow, but with the proper blade and
lubricant, this saw will cut through anything, including concrete
and bar steel. Expect to pay in excess of $125.

A Circular Detail Saw

A lightweight, high-speed, cordless circular saw, such as
sausage-shaped, three-inch blade model, is well-suited to a wide
variety of household cutting jobs and is the power cutting tool you
will use most often. It’s perfect for cutting through thin plywood,
finish trim and soft metal or plastic sheeting. The circular detail
saw comes in a carrying case with a battery or two and plug-in
charger that can draw energy from your house current or truck’s
battery. Get extra batteries if you plan to work for more than an
hour at a time. Once your house is framed and roofed, you can
finish, wire and plumb most of it using this little dandy and a
flat-jawed vise on a sawhorse to hold the work. If you’re going to
be working with long boards, plumbing pipe or lengths of electrical
conduit, fit a second sawhorse with a vise to hold the materials in


A Simple Volt/Am Meter

This handheld meter features several ranges to measure the
strength (voltage) and current flow (amperage) of high and low
power, AC and DC electricity. It also displays the resistance to
current flow (in ohms) of various electronic parts and materials.
You can choose from two styles: a cheaper model with analog needle
and dial, or a digital model. The analog model is easier to
understand for those who are not products of the high-tech, digital
era. Either way, this gizmo can literally be a lifesaver by telling
you how much current is on plus a great deal more. If you are new
to do-it-yourself electrical work, make sure your volt/am meter
comes with an instruction book. You can find this item at any Radio

Fasteners and Wire

If your home is a substantial distance from the nearest hardware
store, you can easily lose the meat of a workday driving to town to
purchase the little piece of wire or fastener necessary for a safe,
secure connection. Stock up on a collection of wire and fasteners
any way you see fit — We like Harbor Freight and other
discount tool catalogs. You’ll want to store an assortment of
twist-on electrical fasteners and reels, and spools or boxed coils
of wire from fine generator wrap up to three-conductor, insulated
10-gauge household wiring. You’ll find that you’ll use it all in
time — most popular sizes first. Just remember, if you lack the
correct size, use the next-larger size for safety’s sake.

Good Pliers

Remember those rickety metal pliers that rattled loose on a bolt
head? Scrap ’em. Get yourself two pairs of electrician’s pliers
with wire-stripper notches and plastic grip coverings. Made from
unplated, machine-tooled steel, these quality pliers have concealed
hinges, and grasp with precision. Be sure to look out for the
underside of your middle finger; it can get badly squashed between
the handles.


Air Compressor

A gasoline- or current-powered air compressor and a kit of the
most commonly needed air tools (socket wrench, rotary impact
wrench, screwdriver, die tool, spray gun, tire inflator, blower and
others) will keep you going strong. An air compressor will power
air tools and spray painting guns, and it’s indispensable on those
snowy mornings when you find a flat truck tire. As with any tool,
get the most capable compressor you can afford. Look through the
tool catalogs and check the operating pressure and airflow
requirements of the tools you think you’ll need. A compressor that
can deliver seven cubic feet of air at 90 pounds per square inch
will operate nearly any tool. It will even power up an air-hungry
impact wrench to deliver more than 1,300 pounds of pressure to
remove rusted-on lugnuts from an old tractor (be sure to use
special black steel, impact sockets and plenty of penetrating oil
on rusted parts).

Mechanic’s Hand Tools

However long it takes to acquire them, you should treat yourself
to complete sets of top-quality pliers and screwdrivers, open and
box wrenches, and ratchet handles and extensions (plus both
standard and deep sockets) in SAE and metric sizes. You’ll want a
range from 1/64′ to at least 1 1/2′. Get extras of the
most-frequently used — thus, most frequently lost — socket sizes
(1/4′, 3/8′, 1/2′, and 5/8′ and their metric equivalents). Buy a
good rolling steel tool chest to hold them and the other tools you
will accumulate over time. Good tools (like Sears Craftsman or the
Snap-On truck
tools sold in any auto-parts store) are expensive, but it is false
economy to waste money on cheap tools. Their soft, imprecise
working surfaces will bruise corners of nuts, strip threads and get
your knuckles skinned. You can save some money by purchasing your
tools in sets and by holding out for special offers; check the back
of Sears’ sales flyers.


The Merck Veterinary Manual

This 2,305-page directory of symptoms, causes and treatments for
all diseases of domestic livestock is a real bargain. Also, get the
Farm and Ranch Supplies Catalog from NASCO. This free catalog contains
antibiotics, worming medication, syringes, bolus (huge pill)
shooters, calf-pullers, simple surgical instruments, sutures,
needles and any other veterinary devices the homesteader should try
before calling a professional. Be sure to stock up on tins of Bag
Balm medicated petroleum ointment and dauber-topped jugs of gentian
violet antifungal wound dressing.


Clamshell Post-hole Digger

If you plan on sinking fence posts, you’ll want one of these.
Resembling a set of giant pliers, the clamshell post-hole digger is
essential for sinking wooden fence posts deep enough to stay.
Posthole diggers have four- or five-foot-long handles of wood or
plastic and jaws shaped like opposing spoons. To dig a post-hole,
you close the handles and use them to sink the closed jaws into the
ground. Then, open the handles out wide to make the jaws take a
bite of sod, soil or stone. Pick up the loaded tool (handles held
wide open so jaws remain closed — an awkward stance) and close the
handles. This will open the jaws to dump the bite of spoil into
your garden cart.

Come-along and Wire Fence Mandrel

The come-along is a hand-operated fence stretcher with a
ratchet/winch. The winch reels up a steel cable to pull on the
mandrel. (The mandrel fits over the loose end of a length of wire
fence already attached to a well-set corner or line post.) You can
buy a wire fence mandrel or make your own to match the spacing of
your fence wires by setting bolts through a length of steel or hard

A three- to five-ton come-along will also winch your truck out
of the mud, hoist a steer for skinning, or persuade a felled tree
to land correctly.

Fencing Pliers

This may be the most vicious-looking tool in existence: a set of
long-handled pliers with a pickax on the working end and a
sharp-grooved hammer face for banging big fence staples into wooden
posts. There is also a pointed pick opposite the hammer end for
removing the aforementioned staples.

In addition, there are several holes, clamps and crimpers to
cut, bend, splice and swage fence wire ranging from single-strand
aluminum electric fence to 10-gauge, spring-crimped Cyclone bull
fence. If you find this tool lacking, there is also a long-handled
version available. You can acquire fencing pliers from the farm
supply and homesteaders catalogs or from your local farmers’


Excerpted from A Perfect Homestead Tractor by George
DeVault, Mother Earth News April/May 2002

Inexpensive and reliable, these sturdy old gray tractors can
still get the job done.

What kind of guarantee comes with this?’ I asked, suspiciously
eyeing the few drops of oil on the pavement under the rear axle of
an old gray Ford tractor.

‘Well, none, actually,’ replied the man who had it sitting out
by the road with a for-sale sign. ‘What you see is what you get, as

The tractor in question was a 1946 Ford x 2N. The four-cylinder
engine had been overhauled a few years earlier, he said. Then an
old Pennsylvania-Dutchman, who probably bought it new when Truman
was president, traded it in on a new Kubota.

The old gray tractors — the result of a partnership that later
dissolved into the separate Ford and Ferguson tractor lines —
revolutionized postwar farming. These classics have held up to
time, held onto collectors’ hearts and held their value ever

Excerpted from The Case for Solar-powered Electric
by Stephen Heckeroth, Mother Earth News
April/May 2002

The world is clearly running out of oil and gas, yet most people
ignore the coming crisis. Food production and distribution in the
industrialized world have become so dependent on petroleum use,
it’s hard to imagine how agriculture will function without this

The most promising option is solar-powered electric tractors,
which offer several advantages over gas diesel-powered tractors.
Electric motors can operate at more than 90 percent efficiency,
while combustion engines are less than 15 percent efficient.
Electric propulsion is ideally suited to high torque, slow-speed
agricultural operations. Electric motors have only one moving part
and require little maintenance. Internal combustion engines, on the
other hand, have hundreds of moving parts and require a lot of

Electric motors don’t idle, which saves energy. Plus, while the
vehicle is going downhill or braking, an electric motor can become
a generator and return energy to the battery. This process, called
regenerative braking, further increases the efficiency of electric
propulsion and cannot be duplicated using other technologies.
Electric-wheel motors eliminate the need for an internal combustion
engine, transmission and differential, allowing new options in the
design of tractors. Mounting an electric motor in the hub creates a
self-propelled wheel that can provide new levels of versatility and

Excerpted from All-Terrain Utility Vehicles by Les Oke,
Mother Earth News April/May 2003

These multipurpose four-wheelers can take you and your tools where
your pickup can’t.

More energy-efficient than a truck and fun to drive, all-terrain
utility vehicles (ATVs) are perfect machines for farm, garden and
small-scale forestry work.

Just ask Lyle Hagerman, a dairy farmer and market gardener in
Picton, Ontario. ‘It’s maneuverable, compact and powerful. The
ATV’s fat tires allow it to be driven over most terrain. We use
ours to round up cattle, harvest vegetables and seed pastures. The
new ones handle as well as a car, making them suited to anyone
regardless of physical abilities.’

The ATV was orginally designed for transportation, and was first
introduced in the early 1960s. Models had only three wheels, were
unstable on rough terrain and not suited to heavy work. But in
1984, when the first four- and six-wheelers hit the ground, it was
obvious that the heavy work of farming, gardening and forestry
could be made a lot easier. Most of the new machines have engine
displacements of 250 to 700 cubic centimeters (cc), can pull a load
of up to half a ton and reach speeds of up to 50 mph. In addition,
the many attachments that can be added to the front and back of an
ATV allow it to be a multiuse utility vehicle. Prices range from
$2,700 to $10,000, depending on engine size, number of wheels,
four-wheel-drive capability and accessories.

The most valuable labor-saving ATV activity is hauling. Several
new models, notably the John Deere Gator and Kawasaki’s Mule have dump boxes
located behind the driver’s seat. They are both well suited to the
homestead, built for work and should last a long time.

For ATVs without dump beds, trailers can be pulled behind the
machine. Simply attach a trailer ball to the ATV’s back hitch and
your powerful machine becomes a hauling wonder. Bulky items
including lumber, compost, straw or soil can be carried with ease.
It won’t be long before your overworked wheelbarrow will be
gathering rust. The popular lawn trailer and garden-sized trailers
work well for backyard garden jobs, but a full-size ATV trailer
allows you to handle bigger projects.

‘Special trailers are designed for ATVs that are similar in
width to the ATV, making it easy to drive through tight places,’
says Honda dealer Jeff Van der Veer of Napanee, Ontario. ‘You can
put the ATV on the trailer and tow it behind a truck to a rough or
roadless work site, then attach the trailer to the ATV.’

Collecting firewood is a whole lot easier with an ATV and
trailer. You can pile your chainsaw, gas and tools in the trailer
and drive right to the dead wood that needs cutting. You can cut
and split the wood on-site, load the trailer and then head to the
woodshed. Since ATVs are fun to drive, recruiting a teenager to
help with woodcutting isn’t difficult either. (As fun as they are
to drive, ATVs are not toys. For safe operation, manufacturers
recommend an operator be at least 16 years old.)

The other firewood option is to haul the logs to the woodshed
and cut and split there. Several companies manufacture ATV
attachments to aid in moving logs safely and with minimal
environmental damage. The Novajack Company makes a hauling harness
called a logging arch that lifts up the front end of the log so you
can pull it behind the ATV. They also make logging trailers that
can haul loads. A slightly different logging arch, manufactured by
, is a cross between the arch and a trailer. Its design
allows more of the log to be lifted off the ground, reducing drag
and embedded dirt on the logs to a minimum.

ATVs make towing a wood splitter to the pile of logs you skidded
up to the woodshed easy. Logs that will be sawn into lumber can he
set aside. Later, you can use your ATV to tow a portable sawmill to
the pile. When sawn, the lumber can be loaded onto the trailer and
hauled anywhere you like.

To make wood-chip mulch, tow a chipper to the brush pile you
left in the woods and blow the chips right into the trailer. We use
a few boards standing upright in the back of the trailer for the
chips to hit as they come out of the machine. They fall right into
the trailer. It’s a simple matter to tow the load of mulch to the

While we’re still on the subject of firewood and logging, there
is another attachment that comes in very handy from time to time: a
power winch. Smaller than the 5- to 10-ton capacity of track
winches, most ATV winches are rated between 1,500 to 2,000 pounds
and can be mounted on the front or rear of the machine.

A downed tree, off the trail and inaccessible to the ATV, can he
winched, pulled to the trail and then hooked up to be towed.
Inevitably the hardworking ATV will get stuck in the mud, and the
winch can be used to pull it out. Simply attach the winch cable to
the base of a tree, turn on the winch and out you’ll come. The
winch also can be used to pull cars stuck in the snow or

ATV Sources:

Arctic Cat



Gorilla Vehicles


John Deere


MAX All-Terrain Vehicles




Excerpted from Choosing the Right Sawmill by Brook
Elliot, Mother Earth News December/January 2003 and Profit
with Portable Sawmills by ???, Mother Earth News December/January

Are you dreaming of a new home or barn you can’t quite afford. If
you cut your own lumber using a portable sawmill, you could save
enough to bring the project within reach. And you can use the mill
to develop a business custom-cutting lumber or producing other wood
products. Even if you don’t have your own forest, you can salvage
storm-damaged trees or harvest trees being removed for construction
or farming.

Portable sawmills fall into three general categories: chainsaw
mills, circular sawmills and band sawmills. They are available in a
diversity of styles and operating systems, and are priced to fit
any budget. ‘Which to pick,’ says Will Johnson, president of
a portable sawmill manufacturing company, ‘depends on what you are
going to do with it.’

The variables, he says, are how much lumber you plan to saw and
how quickly you need to cut it. A third variable is how finely
finished you need the boards to he. Here are the pros and cons of
each type of mill:

Chainsaw Mills

From a cost standpoint, chainsaw mills are inexpensive, and are
thus appealing for homestead and farm use. Prices start under $100.
But these mills are relatively slow, which means you can use them
for major projects only if you have lots of time. Even with the
special chains used for lumbering, they still make rough cuts;
further milling is required for finished surfaces.

And they waste a lot of wood. ‘Generally,’ says Erin Domagalski
of Hud-Son Forest
, ‘a chainsaw mill has 20 percent more kerf (width of
the blade cut) than a band sawmill.’

Most chainsaw mills require heavy-duty power heads. Your current
chainsaw may not he powerful enough to run it, and a new chainsaw —
which can double the cost — may be needed. Special-purpose chains
and bars are required as well.

Most chainsaw mills are used with a framework you construct
around the log you are cutting, which can he a slow, awkward
process. Lining up the first cut is particularly important with
these mills, because that surface acts as a guide for the rest of
your cuts. The Alaskan Mark III from Granberg International is a good
example of this type of chainsaw mill. Exceptions, such as the
Total J100 (available through Tilton Equipment Co.), consist of a
rail-and-stand system in which the log is held by base stands and
the saw rides upside down on the rails.

Circular Sawmills

At one time, all sawmills used circular blades. Most larger
commercial operations still do. Their primary benefit is speed.
Circular saws cut much faster than band saw’s, but the downsides
are that they are expensive and they usually have a larger kerf, so
they waste more wood. The quality of the cut tends to be on the
rough side.

Circular sawmills tend to be transportable, but not portable.
They can take as much as a full day to erect once moved to the work
site. And most times a crew of three to five people is needed to
operate one efficiently and safely.

Older circular sawmills work with a vertical blade mounted in
the bottom of the bed, similar to a workshop table saw. Modern ones
position the blade overhead, with safety guards, like a radial arm
saw. A good representative is the Mighty Mite ‘D’ series sawmills,
which are priced starting at $29,500.

A novel approach is the Lucas Mill, an Australian design
imported by Bailey’s, which uses a special five-tooth, thin kerf
blade mounted horizontally to cut logs that sit on the ground
instead of laying on a bed.

Band Sawmills

Today’s portable sawmill industry is dominated by bandmills.
Technology has made them available in such an array of
configurations and operating systems that they’ve almost displaced
circular sawmills.

Although slower than circular sawmills, bandmills are truly
portable either with an integral trailer system, or inside a pickup
truck. They are simple and safe to operate; produce less waste
because of a smaller kerf; create smoother surfaces, requiring less
milling; and are flexible enough to cut specialty lumber, such as
shakes, shingles and clapboards. And they are much more affordable,
starting around $3,500.

Depending on your needs, they come configured as small, manually
operated mills; as mid-sized units with power heads and basic
hydraulics; and as industrial strength mills, with power heads,
built-in debarkers, hydraulic log-handling systems and computerized

When choosing a bandmill, the one thing you don’t have to worry
about is its cutting quality. Virtually all modern bandmills
produce the same high-quality surfaces, requiring little final
finish work. Configuration and cutting speed are the two important
variables within each class.

However, don’t pay much attention to manufacturers’ claimed
production speeds, says TimberKing’s Will Johnson. ‘Productivity
numbers are almost meaningless,’ he says. ‘There are just too many
variables—including log size, lumber thickness and how fast the
operator can work—to provide realistic production figures.’

Decide whether or not you really need the particular bells and
whistles on any given model. While full hydraulics are helpful, for
instance, they can push the price up to $30,000 very quickly.

Manual bandmills come with either ground-level or elevated beds.
Ground-level beds usually are found on mills that are transported
by truck. Log handling is a lot easier with them, but there may be
more operator fatigue from constant bending. Elevated-bed mills
usually are transported by trailer, and are easier to operate. But
log handling is more of a bother, requiring ramps, lifts or
additional equipment.

Manual bandmills can be used for commercial cutting, but are
considered best for personal use on farms and small acreage’s.

A step up from manual mills are those with automatic
carriage-feed systems and, in some cases, automatic setworks. Most
do not include log-handling hydraulics. These mills are a lot less
labor intensive, and are good for custom sawing. They also are a
good option for those with physical limitations, or for jobs
requiring a lot of cutting in a short time period.

Bandmills in the middle price range include hydraulic log
loading, turning, clamping, and, in some cases, hydraulic toe
boards. They are considered ideal for custom-cutting and

At the top of the line are the high production bandmills. These
come with complete hydraulic and electronic operations for greater
production, custom sawing and commercial lumber manufacturing.

When you’re considering purchasing a sawmill, part of your
decision should include what necessary accessories, such as
log-handling equipment, you might need. If you can do the job with
cant hoops and peavey poles, then a manual mill might meet all your
requirements. But if you want to cut bigger logs that require a
separate log lifter, then a hydraulic mill might make better

Bandmill Sources:

Baker Products

Cook’s Sawmill Manufacturing

Dave’s Welding (Timber Grizz)

Hud-Son Forest Equipment

Linn Lumber Mills


Mighty Mite

Norwood Ind. (LumberMate)

Quality Manufacturing

Select Sawmill

Thomas Bandsaw Mills



Wood Wizard

Points to Ponder

Sawmill marketing data and catalogs seem so filled with
hyperbole and lack of objective comparisons that it can be
difficult to know what to consider when buying a mill. We asked
Brian Grodner, co-owner of The Sawmill Exchange, the
largest broker of used sawmills in the country, for his thoughts.
Grodner has no dog in this fight, so his comments are worth
listening to. Among the things he says to consider:

  • Ask the owners! Never buy a portable sawmill without first
    conferring with sawmill owners. They are your absolute best source
    for factual, honest information on how you can expect a brand and
    model to perform.
  • Consider income. Will you use the mill full time or part time?
    Will the mill provide all or part of your income?

Hybrid Sawmills

Not every portable sawmill readily fits into one category or
another. Hybrid sawmills combine parts and functions of several
categories. There are two of particular note:

Logosol’s M7 Swedish Mill: the chainmill that thinks it’s
a bandmill. At first glance, the Swedish Mill looks like a
bandmill. It uses an adjustable log bed, power-head rail, logdogs
(clamps that hold the logs in place) and an overhead support arm,
like all bandmills. But the power head is a chainsaw.

Not any chainsaw will work with it, however. Logosol recommends
the Husqvarna 395XP, which generates 7.1 horsepower. Along with the
heavy-duty power head, a special bar and low-profile chain produce
a 1/4-inch kerf, about the same as a band saw. The final finish is
said to be equal to a band blade as well. Bars are available in 16-
,20- and 25-inch cutting lengths.

Better-Built’s Ripsaw: the bandmill that thinks it’s a
chainmill. Imagine lifting the entire power head and blade support
off a bandmill, then building a cutting guide around a log (as you
would with a chainmill), and hand-feeding the band saw into the
log. In a nutshell, that’s the RipSaw.

The Ripsaw comes in two versions. One has its engine. The other
is a conversion kit that lets you turn your chainsaw into a
bandmill in about 10 minutes. According to the manufacturer, you
can use the chainsaw to fell trees, then install the conversion kit
and turn those trees into finished lumber.

Excerpted from Electric Fencing by George Devault,
Mother Earth News August/September 2003

The easy way to keep your livestock in and
predators out.

In recent years, electric fencing innovations have
revolutionized some forms of livestock grazing and protection, and
garden crop protection, too.

Now, effective and relatively inexpensive temporary electric
fencing is available to protect everything from small animals such
as chickens in the barnyard or pasture to larger animals such as
riding horses out for weekend trail rides or involved in strip

Although some electric fences are considered permanent, much
like a traditionally built fence, other styles are intended for
semi-permanent or temporary applications, giving users more
flexibility and economy in meeting such fencing needs than they’ve
ever had in the past. Modern temporary styles of electric fencing
include the familiar rope line fence, some tape fence styles and
various sizes of mesh netting; all can be set up or taken down in a
matter of minutes.

Pennsylvania farmer Brian Moyer pastures 1,400 broilers
annually, using 42-inch-high electric netting with 31/2-inch-square
openings and plastic posts. Moyer says he especially likes the
heavy-plastic, step-in posts, which he just pushes into the ground
with his foot (or in dry times, hammers in with a rubber

The portability of temporary electric fencing means it can be
moved about according to pre-planned grazing patterns. The practice
allows more intensive use of pasturelands than is possible with
permanent fencing of larger areas. Aaron Silverman raises about
15,000 broilers a year in a small valley in Oregon. ‘Our fields are
bordered by riparian zones — a river or a creek where there are
nesting marsh hawks and red-tailed hawks, bobcat runs and coyote

‘When we started with traditional pastured poultry zones, we
confined the birds to the portable enclosures at all times and
moved the enclosures once, maybe twice a day. We noticed that
whenever we were close to a riparian zone, we would lose birds to
raccoons, ‘possums and skunks, which were able to sneak under the

To establish secure outdoor pens for the birds, Silverman tested
electric sheep netting, with mesh small enough to stop coyotes, but
not weasels, ‘so we were still losing birds.’ Next, he tried
electric poultry netting with 2-by-3-inch openings and thin,
rigid-plastic verticals that keep the fence upright without corner
tension braces.

‘That pretty much took care of it,’ he says. The netted fence
keeps out predators as small as rats — as long as it’s moved
regularly. When left in place for several weeks, such as around a
greenhouse-turned-brooder house, rats eventually tunnel underneath
to get at the chickens. ‘In the field,’ he says, ‘where we are
moving the fence on a continual basis, they (the rats) respect

Permanent and semi-permanent electric fencing are most effective
in applications involving large livestock. Temporary electric
fencing and netting work well for smaller animals, or very
short-term applications for large livestock.


Electric Fencing Folks:

Gallagher Power Fence


Premier Fence


Ferris Fencing (Canada)

Homesteading and
Self-reliance: Home Businesses

To be self-reliant on your urban homestead or small farm requires a
way to make enough money to augment what you cannot grow or raise
yourself. Finding your own home-business niche can make the
prospect of homesteading more attractive and realistic.

Adapted from Grow Trees for Pleasure and Profit, by Hans
Morsbach, Mother Earth News October/November 2004

In 1972, I knew nothing about farming; I was just a small
businessman from Chicago with no spare time. But, I ended up buying
a farm in Richland County, Wis., from a friend, and tried raising
cattle on the land, then bees. But these didn’t suit me. So, when
the county forester proposed that I start a tree farm, I was
ecstatic. Over the next 20 years, I learned by experience the joys
— and work — of creating a forest. My ideas of forest management
are based on using it as a long-term investment strategy and a way
to have fun.

To reduce forest stewardship to its barest essentials, all you
need is a piece of land. Let’s say you have a half-acre of land in
a part of the country where trees grow. In a matter of a few
decades, the land will revert to forest if you leave it alone. But
if you have an acre of land, or more, you can speed the forestation
process along. And, not much is required: Gather seeds, disturb the
earth — dig it, rototill it, plow it — and sow away. You needn’t
feel you don’t have the time, the money or the know-how to create a
woodland for your own enjoyment. It’s an avocation that suits any
schedule, fortune or inclination.

Before you start, think about these ’10 Commandments,’ things
I’ve learned that have made owning a woodland a rewarding


Your woodland should be a source of pleasure and joy. Sounds,
animal activity and interesting vegetation are everywhere. Let
nothing interfere with the enjoyment of your forest.


One key to enjoying your woodland is buying land that is quick
and easy to get to. Buying land nearer to ‘civilization’ also makes
good investment sense, because it is more likely to appreciate in
value than land located far away from populated areas.

On the other hand, if you live in a sprawling metropolitan area
or a part of the country where the landscape is boring, you may
decide a longer drive is worth it. Regardless of location, real
estate should appreciate roughly on par with alternative


At least not in the short term. It is unlikely that you’ll see
much profit from cultivating trees for hardwood veneers. Sure, a
timber sale from sought-after trees, such as walnuts, can bring a
windfall, but hardwood trees take about a century to reach
maturity. Considered over the long run, your rate of return is much
less than you would get from buying a certificate of deposit and
there won’t be any regular cash flow. There may be money in
practicing short-rotation forestry, such as growing pines for pulp,
but this sort of tree farming is not friendly to nature, not nice
to look at and not any fun.

If return on your investment is what you’re after, place your
hopes in appreciating land values rather then profitable timber


Your pleasure is more likely to come from observing and working
your forest than from its size.


Small-scale forestry is a poor business, but personally very
enriching. Only do it to the extent that it gives you pleasure
while you work the land and walk among your trees.


Doing nothing is one way to be kind to your small woodland. This
means do not clear-cut, do not use chemicals and minimize the use
of your lawn mower. (You will soon observe that in the country, a
tract of land in its natural state is much more interesting and a
lot less work than a manicured lawn.) If you want to actively
benefit the environment, eliminate nonnative species, encourage
trees that provide food and shelter for wildlife, and allow old
trees to recycle themselves. (See ‘The Life in Dead Trees,’
Mother Earth News August/September 2004.)


No matter the size of your land, you can improve it with
forestry. As a starting point, I suggest you contact a forester
through your state’s Department of Natural Resources. Such a
professional can provide useful literature, possibly prepare a
management plan for your woodland and suggest certain management
practices. He or she also can let you know whether your state has
any programs benefiting small woodland owners. If you participate
in any government subsidies or other programs, you are bound to
honor your commitments. Follow foresters’ advice, except when it
conflicts with what you want to do, and follow your own


You may not get rich growing trees for market, but you should
still favor trees that are most likely to have timber value in the
future. You may either plant tree seeds directly in the soil, or
plant seedlings and follow accepted forestry practices to make them
marketable. Follow the German Dauerwald philosophy that calls for
growing timber in mixed forests of native species, unevenly aged,
in a biodiverse environment with abundant wildlife.


Often, woodland owners apply their city values to their woodland
dealings. They think they have to mow, grind trimmed branches into
tiny wood chips and eliminate natural ground vegetation. Remember
that nature recycles more efficiently than you do and that the
‘waste’ created by natural vegetation is essential to environmental

Another compulsion is to grow trees like row crops. Try to avoid
this; trees grow well in a natural environment together with all
kinds of other vegetation. A plantation is boring, more work for
you and more prone to infestation and disease. If you do plant
seedlings, mix the species up as much as you can. They will grow
better, foster more wildlife and be more enjoyable.


Attend conferences of woodland owners’ associations, which many
states host (visit
They offer useful lectures and opportunities for vendors to sell
their wares. You will learn a great deal, and you will enjoy
meeting others who share your interests. Contact the U.S. Forest
Service and your local Extension Service for information about
small-woodland forestry. Make your land available as a
demonstration site to help educate other, less-experienced woodland

Become politically active. Encourage government to recognize the
importance of private woodland owners in preserving our natural
environment. Woodland owners play an important role in preserving
pure water, preventing floods and maintaining the equilibrium of
our climate. The benefits woodland owners get in return —
gratification and a wooded haven — can last for

(not yet available)

Excerpted from Extra Stalls, Extra Cash by Deanna Mather
Larson, Mother Earth News April/May 2002

A little surplus space in your barn can give you some extra cash
each month with this bootstrap or home business.

As with empty stalls in many barns, ours were filled with junk.
With a bit of work and a small cash investment, my husband and I
turned these unoccupied spaces into a home business. After a few
improvements, we advertised ‘Horse Boarding.’ Two months later both
stalls were rented and we had an extra $400 each month. You can do
it, too. Here’s how.

Excerpted from Profit with Portable Sawmills by Brook
Elliot, Mother Earth News December/January 2002

Dreaming of a new home or barn you can’t quite afford? If you
cut your own lumber using a portable sawmill, you could save enough
to bring the project within reach. And you can use the mill to
develop a home business custom-cutting lumber or producing other
wood products. (Or, after you’ve cut all the lumber you need, you
could sell the mill.)

This special section outlines how to choose and use a portable
mill to create value-added lumber and other products for your home
business. Even if you don’t have your own forest, you can salvage
storm-damaged trees or harvest trees being removed when land is
cleared for construction or farming When it comes to making money
from lumber, it’s all about value added,’ says Michael Best. ‘The
further you take wood from a tree to a finished product, the more
valuable it is.’

Best is the executive director of the nonprofit Sustainable
Mountain Agricultural Center near Berea, Kentucky. SMAC’s mission
is to demonstrate that sustainable agriculture is possible on small
farms. ‘Farmers can make enough profit from a sawmill home business
to avoid working outside the farm if they utilize the whole farm,
including woodlots.’

Initially, SMAC used its manually operated Wood-Mizer LT40
portable sawmill for on-farm use, cutting trees for tomato stakes,
barn hoards and racks.

In conjunction with the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural
Development Center and funded through the U.S. Department of
Agriculture’s Sustainable Research and Education Program, SMAC
recently conducted a survey to determine woodworkers’ preferences
and buying habits. Anyone contemplating making money with portable
sawmills should read the study. Copies are available from the
Sustainable Mountain Agricultural Center; 1033 Pilot Knob Cemetery
Road: Berea, KY 40403; (859) 985-8648;

Sawmill Sources:


Baker Products

Better Built Corp.

Cook’s Sawmill Manufacturing

Dave’s Welding & Fabrication

Granberg International

Hud-Son Forest Equipment

Linn Lumber Mills

Logosol Inc.


Meadows Mills

Mighty Mite

Mobile Manufacturing Co.

Norwood Industries

Quality Manufacturing Co.

Select Sawmill Co.

TA. Schmid Co.

Thomas Bandsaw Mills

Tilton Equipment Co.


Turner Band Sawmills

Wood-Mizer Products

Adapted from Growing Greenbacks: How to Start a Backyard
by Michael J. McGroarty, Mother Earth News
October/November 2000

Growing plants for retail or wholesale is an interesting and fun
way to earn money involving the whole family. You don’t need much
land (our backyard nursery is only 1/20 of an acre), you can grow
thousands of plants at a time, and you earn several thousand
dollars a year … working right at home.

Starting a nursery in your back yard is probably easier than you
think. When most people think of a plant nursery,they visualize
huge greenhouses, tractors and other expensive equipment. The fact
is, as a backyard grower you don’t need any of those things to get
started. All you need is a small area to start growing some plants
and a little bit of information on landscape plant propagation.
Thankfully, there are many simple and easy propagation techniques
that are easy to learn and work really well.


Here in the far northeastern corner of Ohio we have more than
100 nurseries, ranging in size from our 1/20 of an acre to much
larger ones measuring 600 acres. Many of these nurseries were
called ‘lunchbox’ nurseries, a term that dates from the early 1900s
when employees of one large wholesale nursery would smuggle
cuttings home in their lunch boxes to start their own backyard
nurseries. Many of these startups grew into very productive and
profitable enterprises.

When you’re ready to sell the plants you grow, there are many
different ways to go about it. We grow most of our plants in small
containers and sell them for $4 each. It costs us about 23 cents to
produce one of these little plants, and most of that cost is the
plastic container — the cost of the plant is next to nothing. We
spend $10 on sand, $20 on rooting compound, and can do 7,000
cuttings or more with these materials, which brings the cost per
cutting to less than a penny. As close as I can figure, our cost
for the potting soil is about 5 cents for a two-quart container.
The cost of the plastic container is around 16 cents. A small ad in
the local paper brings in customers like crazy and, because we’re
lucky enough to live in a community that allows us to sell directly
from our home, we sell both wholesale and retail from our backyard

If you can’t do retail sales from home, you should still be able
to establish a wholesale business. Large nurseries spend thousands
of dollars each year buying plants they need. Some of them buy
rooted cuttings while others buy landscape-size plants. Whatever
the case, they will buy from you if you offer good-quality plants
at fair prices.

You could even have a backyard nursery specializing only in
rooted cuttings. A four-inch cutting with roots has value on the
market, and there are wholesale buyers who purchase thousands of
them at a time. Rooted cuttings sell for as little as 35 cents or
as much as $1.25, depending on the variety. If you grow the plants
for one year after they are rooted you can sell them wholesale as
one-year transplants, which increases the price to $1.50 or more.
There is a market for just about any size plant you choose to grow
— and the market is larger than you could ever imagine.

I have a friend who roots and sells grapevines as one- and
two-year-old plants. At his 100-acre nursery they make over 500,000
grapevine cuttings each winter, as well as tens of thousands of
flowering shrub cuttings every summer. He grows about 100,000
burning bush plants each year and sells them bare root, which is
much easier and less expensive than wrapping up a root ball in
burlap. After digging the plants up, they shake all the soil from
the roots, tie them in bundles of ten, and stack them in an
insulated barn until it’s time to load them on their customer’s
truck. The nursery’s annual sales exceed 2 million dollars!

That said, the backyard nursery business is not a get-rich-quick
business by any means. It takes many years to establish a large
nursery. On the other hand, it’s a project that you can start with
very little money and expand into a thriving home business. In
fact, getting started is as easy as deciding what types of plants
you would like to grow and acquiring a few that you can use as
stock plants to get cuttings from. You’ll also need a nursery stock
producer and/or vendor license from your state department of
agriculture. There is a small fee for the license, but you should
contact your county department of commerce for local regulations
and information.

Also, you need to know that some plants are patented or are sold
under names that are registered trademarks. You cannot grow these
plants without entering into an agreement with the person or
company that holds the right to them. Don’t bother growing these
plants; there are plenty of others that you can grow without the
hassles. When you go to buy them, just look for a patent number, or
‘patent pending’ on the label or keep an eye out for the trademark
symbol ®. Lastly, make sure you know both the correct common name
and botanical name of the plants you intend to grow. You must have
them properly labeled in order to sell them. Good luck and have

Excerpted from A Minimum Investment, Maximum Profit Home
by Larry William Koontz, Mother Earth News
July/August 1982

With vacationing pet owners searching for home-style animal
care, it’s a good time to start your total-care dog and cat

A few years back I suddenly found myself without a job. However,
what could have been a disastrous — or, at the very least,
unpleasant — situation actually turned out to be a blessing in
disguise. You see, once we were faced with the prospect of not
having a regular source of income, my wife and I were forced to
look into the possibility of starting a home business. And, after
some thought, we settled on a highly profitable enterprise that I
believe almost anyone could begin in his or her home — either on a
full-time basis or for only a few hours a week — with a minimal
cash investment. Just what was this gold mine we discovered? A
total-care dog and cat business!

Believe it or not, our operation is as easy and enjoyable to run
as it likely sounds to the animal lovers among you. The services we
offer include bathing, dipping, trimming nails, grooming, boarding,
walking, training, housebreaking, selling collars and leashes, and
maintaining breed/stud files. And all these duties can be performed
by any enterprising individual … at a surprisingly high

Excerpted from 10 Surefire Home Businesses for
the New Decade
by Paul and Sarah Edwards, Mother Earth
December/January 2000

How can I free myself from the 9-to-5 rat race and start a home
business? How can I be my own employer and not spend a fortune
doing it? Here’s what you need to know — and invest — to start a
new life.

We wanted to be able to answer these questions with confidence,
so we set out to identify what we consider to be the best
home-based businesses, given the realities of the new decade.
Before we introduce you to the businesses, a little introduction to
our picking and choosing techniques is in order.

First, we drew on our own experience. We have been working from
home ourselves since 1974, and ever since we began writing our book
Working from Home in 1980, we have been tracking which businesses
people have been running successfully from home.

Once we identified home businesses that seemed to have a good
future, we had to address the issue of what qualifies a business as
the best. Income potential was certainly one criterion. We also
considered other factors like lifestyle considerations, since today
people want more than money from their work.


  • Bed and Breakfast Inn
  • Computer Consultant
  • Desktop Publishing
  • Microfarming
  • Photography
  • Remodeling Contractor
  • Tax Preparation Service
  • Web Site Designer/Webmaster
  • Alternative Energy Installer
  • Home Health Care

Homesteading and
Self-reliance: Building Projects

Every farm, homestead and even backyard garden plot could use a
barn, tool shed, wood shed or animal shelter. Small barns and out
buildings can be beautiful, elegant structures or simple,
functional ones. They can house firewood, garden and yard tools,
small animals, animal feed and other farm supplies. No matter what
your specific needs are, your homestead will benefit from having
these useful structures.

Excerpted from Beautiful Barns by Lynn Byczynski,
Mother Earth News October/November 2004

Building a classic, functional barn can be
easier and more affordable than you think.

Barns have long been a cherished part of the American landscape
as symbols of our agricultural heritage. Barns of the past spoke
volumes about the farmers who built them: what types of crops and
animals they raised, which foreign land they once called home, and
how successful and prosperous they had been. But somewhere in the
past half-century, the art of the barn was lost. Instead of
building barns that reflected regional and occupational
differences, many rural residents across America started erecting
one-story, steel-clad buildings to house animals, crops, machinery,
tools and vehicles. The era of beautiful barns seemed to have come
to an end.

Today, though, there are signs of a barn-building renaissance.
Several architects, designers and builders are selling plans and
kits for traditional barns, and the Internet has made them widely
available. Proper use of scale, proportion and simple details can
mimic the grace of old barns and make new barns more appealing. If
a new barn is in your future, don’t be afraid to expect more than
just storage space. Building a barn that also looks great takes
effort, but the results will add to the value of your property and
be attractive, too.

The best news is that many of these traditional-looking barns
are designed to be no more expensive, perhaps even less so, than
metal buildings. ‘A well-designed barn, using wood siding, can be
surprisingly affordable. The price can be in the same range as an
ugly metal box if the owners are willing to get involved, even if
it only is to manage the building project, saving the cost of a
contractor,’ says Craig Wallin, author of Small Barn Plans for

A few simple tricks can give new barns that classic feel.
Z-braced barn doors and traditional window trim are the kinds of
features that don’t cost a lot but that can make a world of
difference in the aesthetics of the building. Roofs are also
important. ‘Traditional barns were usually two or more floors, or
at least a floor and a loft,’ says small-barn designer Donald Berg,
Rockville Centre, N.Y. ‘It’s the loft and the big roof that give a
barn its character. Modern pole barns have shallow-truss roofs and
no lofts. That gives them a flat, uninteresting look.’

Wallin agrees the roof makes the barn: ‘Features that make a
barn attractive and traditional are a steeper pitched roof — at
least an 8:12 pitch (the roof inclines 8 inches for every 12 inches
of length), with generous overhangs.’

Cupolas big enough to ventilate the barn are also classic barn
features. Farmers used to take pride in designing cupolas that
reflected their own individual style.

Here are some suggestions for building a barn that is
traditional in style and economical in price:

Size and Design

  • Your first task is to decide how much square footage you really
    need. Don’t assume that bigger is better; small and efficient is
    more economical to build, maintain and, possibly, heat. Also, a
    smaller barn might not interrupt a view and, if it is in scale with
    the rest of your buildings, it probably will contribute to a more
    pleasing overall property design than a bigger
  • Measure everything you plan to keep in your new barn. If you’re
    designing a workshop, for example, figure out how much space you
    need for your tools and an efficient work space for yourself. If
    your barn will house livestock, figure in adequate space for the
    animals, too. A great advantage of building your own barn is that
    you can tailor it to fit your needs.
  • Next, start looking at barn designs. Your best resource is the
    Internet, where you will find many sites with plans or kits for
    small barns. Several books are also available with barn plans and
  • The type of construction you choose will depend on the barn’s
    • The least expensive is the pole barn, now known as
      post-frame construction. Post-frame involves sinking posts
      into the ground, then connecting them horizontally with lumber. The
      poles serve as foundation, bracing and framework, and no excavation
      is required other than digging holes for the poles. This is the
      type of construction used for most metal buildings today. But it
      doesn’t have to be limited to shallow-pitched roofs and single
      stories; two stories are possible, too.
    • Another type of construction is called light-frame. It
      is is used in most residential construction. Frames of ‘two-by’
      lumber (2-by-4, 2-by-6) are built and attached to a foundation.
      This type of construction costs more than post-frame because it
      requires more lumber and a concrete foundation. Light-frame barns
      can be any size.
    • A third type of construction often used for barns is
      post-and-beam, also known as timber frame and
      requiring long, strong timbers. Vertical posts and horizontal tie
      beams are assembled into sections called bents, then raised and
      attached to a sill beam on a stone foundation. This is the source
      of the phrase ‘barn raising.’ Timber-frame barns are the most
      expensive type of construction because the timbers are hard to come
      by, but several companies make kits you can assemble and raise
      yourself, with the help of many friends or a crane. Timber-frame
      barns can be small or large.


Choose your building materials with an eye towards aesthetics.
Siding is the most obvious feature of the barn, and you can choose
from wooden lap, wooden board and batten, composites such as T-111
(a brand of plywood siding), fiber-cement lap or panels, steel
panels, or vinyl. ‘I’ve used T-111, HardiPlank (a brand of
fiber-cement siding), rough sawn boards and even metal siding,’
Berg says. ‘Any and all can look good if they’re on a
well-proportioned barn.’ The idea is to mimic the grace and style
of a classic barn as much as possible, without sacrificing

Roofing materials need careful consideration, too. Metal roofs
are common, but you also can use composite shingles to match your
house or wood shingles to mimic historic barn roofs.

Doors and windows also will have significant impact on the
character of your barn. If you really want to stick with tradition,
you can build your own barn doors, such as Z-braced Dutch doors or
sliding doors, or you can purchase them from a horse-barn specialty
manufacturer. Specialized doors are more expensive than
manufactured residential doors, though, so if you need to keep an
eye on costs, stick with a door that’s readily available.

Historic barns usually have fixed or awning windows that either
don’t open or that are hinged on the top or bottom and open only
slightly. If you want to be able to open your new barn’s windows
and keep the barn free of wasps, birds and other critters, you are
probably better off purchasing double-hung house windows with


One of the most fetching features of an old barn is the cupola,
often topped with a weather vane. Some companies that make metal
barns put small ornamental cupolas on the roofs, but a real cupola
functions as a ventilator, drawing warm air upward and releasing it

Functioning cupolas on historic barns were big because they had
to draw off the heat and moisture from a number of large animals
and hay. To keep that authentic look, be sure to get your cupola’s
proportions correct. Berg, who has studied the proportions of old
barns throughout the country, says a functioning cupola should be
built to a ratio of 1 1/4-to-1 1/2 inches for each foot of roof
line; for example, a 24-foot barn needs a 36-inch-square


Site your barn carefully. A hallmark of many American farms is
that outbuildings are all placed exactly on the square, with walls
at right angles or parallel to each other, Berg says. That neatness
and symmetry is naturally appealing to the eye. If you want to vary
from this, try not to put your barn too far away from your house or
it won’t be convenient, but don’t upstage your house with the barn,
either. Also, be sure to place your barn in convenient conjunction
with drives, walkways and other outbuildings, and keep nature in
mind by allowing for the growth of trees and the direction of water
runoff on your property. Last but not least, don’t forget to
evaluate what you’re doing to your view.

Build your Own

Experts say that you can save half the cost of a pole barn by
doing the work yourself. If you have some building skills, you’ll
find a pole barn is a good place to hone them because you don’t
need every detail cosmetically perfect.

Wallin says that, unless you have experience in construction,
you will probably appreciate the help of a professional to build
the foundation and shell of the barn, both of which are fairly
major undertakings. Kits are available from several companies; you
can build one yourself or hire a local builder.

Another option is to hire a builder who specializes in timber
framing and who will be able to get trees milled locally into
lumber for the project. That was the approach taken by Mark Cain of
Huntsville, Ark., who needed a barn for his flower and blueberry
farm. He hired a local timber framer and a neighbor with a sawmill,
and they found enough big trees on his land to mill into the huge
timbers for the barn’s frame, plus boards for the board-and-batten
siding. Then, Mark staged an old-fashioned barn raising with 30
people present to raise the first-floor timbers on his
24-by-48-foot, two-story barn.

Wind vents on the roof of this 1833 corn barn, built near
Bernardston, Mass., were to prevent the roof from blowing off; the
plan originated in England, where America’s high winds were widely

Hiring a Builder

If you decide to use a builder, choose carefully. Get
recommendations from other people who have hired barn builders, and
then contact two or three, and ask them to bid on your project.
Builders who specialize in truss-roof metal buildings are certainly
capable of building a custom barn. You may be surprised at the wide
range of styles and custom design services available from national
barn companies that are best known for their metal pole barns.

When you ask for bids on your building, be specific about
materials and request that all siding, roofing, windows and doors
be described. If possible, go to the building-supply yard yourself
to approve the materials the builder has quoted. Be sure the
builder specifies how long it will take to build your barn,
including a reasonable completion date. Be as specific as you can
when going out to bid; you don’t want to discover a
miscommunication when the building is halfway built — that leads to
cost overruns and bad feelings.


That brings us to the question that is probably foremost in your
mind: How much will a new barn cost?

That’s a hard one to answer, because so many variables, from
location to materials, affect construction costs. If you want to
build a barn at your rocky mountainside retreat in Colorado, you
could easily spend as much for site preparation as someone else
spends on an entire barn built on a rolling Iowa meadow. Still,
most people find ballpark figures more helpful than no-park
figures, so consider these barn-building examples:

  • Wallin says one of his 1,872 square-foot barn designs was built
    in 2003 for a materials cost of $18,000, or about $10 per square
    foot, which is a typical cost for other barns he’s built. Double
    that if you hire a builder.

  • Berg says his barns cost on average $25 per square foot of
    ground-floor space (not including the loft) if built by a

  • The barn we built last year cost $19,500 for a 768-square-foot
    footprint, or about $25 per square foot. Add in the storage space
    in the loft, and the cost drops to about $16 per square foot.

  • Cain figures his barn, which is almost 2,300 square feet
    (including the second floor), cost about $20,000, or less than $9
    per square foot. He cut costs by using his own trees for timbers
    and siding; allowing timber framers to use his barn as a
    demonstration project, which reduced his labor costs; and having
    friends over for the barn raising.

Building a barn on your property doesn’t have to be expensive or
difficult. And when you think of the benefits — beauty, increased
property value, functional work space and recreating a piece of
American history — planning your barn can be a great investment
along with just plain fun.

Excerpted from Keep Backyard Chickens With
Class in MOTHER’S Mini-coop
by Steve Maxwell, Mother Earth
February/March 2003

There are so many good reasons to keep chickens that even city
folks really should have a few birds. But too many backyard chicken
operations look like something plucked out of a John Steinbeck
novel, and that’s a stumbling block for many. While the
chicken-shack lifestyle is fine for some folks, the cause of
sustainable, small-scale food production will never make serious
headway unless it is presented with a touch of class and style.
That’s the goal of MOTHER’S mini-coop, which makes it easy to keep
a few hens even in the fanciest neighborhood or smallest back

Our design team sought the advice of several poultry experts in
our quest to come up with a coop design that keeps the birds safe
and productive, makes daily care as easy as possible, and looks
good enough to park on a front lawn in town. The mini-coop keeps
the birds safely fenced in, but can be easily moved around the yard
and garden by just one person, so the birds can feed on fresh grass
and bugs as much of the year as possible. The sheltered coop area
is about 4×4-feet a perfect bedroom for three or four hens. The
attached chicken yard is 4×5-feet, or you could make it longer if
you want to.

MOTHER’s mini-coop is a great project for kids. It’s easy for
children to help build the unit, then take complete responsibility
for overseeing the egg production, giving them valuable, hands-on
experience. You can even slip the coop into the back of a pickup
truck — chickens and all — and take it to schools for
demonstrations. We predict your local schools will be glad to host
this egg-mobile.


Excerpted from Backyard Shed by John
Vivian, Mother Earth News August/September 1993
Here’s an easy-to-follow set of shed
directions that anyone can use.

Summer’s getting long in the tooth; rain is scarce and leaves
are beginning to show color. The family vacation is over—if not
paid for—the garden is tending itself, the fish have quit biting,
and pro football hasn’t yet kicked off. Weekends drag … it’s time
to find something to get you out of the house. What better project
than building a shed to store your gear?

In just such circumstances some years back, I responded to a
magazine ad for a plan set that promised a pretty shed ‘anyone
could build.’ But the plan proved to be nothing but a single sheet
of paper with a crude drawing, a materials list written in
shorthand, and instructions that began ‘Anchor sole plate …’
What’s a sole plate? Don’t ask me — the plan didn’t say.

As luck would have it, our little country town took up recycling
that year and I got to carry boards for a carpenter as he built us
an open-fronted recycling shed. I still have a mind’s-eye picture
of him with his deliberate but steady pace, measuring twice,
cutting once, and then setting nails with a whack. Thus instructed,
I built a scaled-down version of the recycling shed, closed in the
front, and made a woodplank door and sliding window. You can use
this shed to store garden tools or wood, to garage your lawn
tractor and attachments, to house a few goats, sheep, or chickens,
or for a combination of uses. (Just be sure to put a dust-proof
partition between the laying hens and your work or storage

The shed is a few inches short of 16′ long, 8′ high and deep.
It’s designed for mistake-proof construction, using economical,
standard-size materials. But it is made to last, with ground-facing
floor beams of pressure-treated lumber to resist decay and insect
damage, and a frame more closely spaced than you’ll find in many
new homes. The siding is T-1-11 plywood, which is weather-proofed
and grooved on one side to simulate barn boards.

Excerpted from A Timber-Frame Woodshed from Vermont High
by John Vivian, Mother Earth News
August/September 1995

Build a woodshed that will last 200

The woodsheds that help make the evenings glow and crackle must
be filled by local woodsmen as fast as they are emptied by
vacationers, and they are marvelously designed for the use. The
best have full-open fronts for easy access, no floors to trip over
or low roofs to bump a head on. They are not so deep that either
loader or unloader has to step in more than one pace. Roofs are
steep enough in back to shed the heaviest snowfall and have a front
overhang that is so sharply-pitched it will never collect snow to
avalanche off and dump down the back of a wood gatherer’s neck …
and that juts out just far enough to keep rain or snow off the

Here is how to build your own Vermont-ski-country woodshed.
Dimensions and materials are given for 1 1/2-, 2-, 3-, and 4-cord
capacities. When empty in the summer, any size can serve to store
the garden tools or mower. Add a folding shelf in back and use it
as a potting shed. Or, add a floor, frame and close in the front,
cut door and window openings and you have a garden house, work shed
or playhouse for the kids.

Excerpted from Mother’s Bioshelter Greenhouse by the Mother
Earth News Editors, Mother Earth News July/August 1986

This quality greenhouse uses both solar and
compost heat. It even houses chickens and rabbits!

Our new greenhouse does so many different things that it’s been
difficult to figure out what to call it. Naming it by its separate
functions could lead to a conglomeration such as this:
compost-heat- and active-solar-heat-augmented, photovoltaic,
earth-bermed, plant propagation and production rabbit hutch/chicken
coop/terraced growing bed/runway greenhouse system. See what we
mean? Let’s compromise and use a term coined by the New Alchemy
Institute — bioshelter.

The design of the structure was conceived in an attempt to get
as many quality uses as possible out of one building by integrating
it with its living occupants wherever possible. The goal, however,
isn’t so much to see how many interactions of plant, animal, and
building we can create as it is to develop the most effective ones.
For example, in the back of the bioshelter is a small room where
chickens and rabbits can come in out of the weather. The solar
input helps keep the critters warm, while the animals themselves
add their body heat to the building. More important, the structure
of their home adds to the overall mass of the greenhouse. The fully
bermed masonry walls help to stabilize interior temperature. All
these factors (and more) work together to create a beneficial
thermal environment.

Despite the attention paid to creature comfort, the bioshelter
is still primarily intended for plant production. And the key to
getting the most from the greenhouse beds is to keep soil
temperature up — preferably in the 80°F range. (Up to a point,
plants double their growth rate for each 10°F rise in soil
temperature.) Air temperature is less important as long as it’s
high enough to prevent leaves from freezing. Consequently, our
growing beds are heavily insulated on the sides, and the 10′ of
medium in each rests on a layer of rock through which warm air can
be circulated. The areas under the beds are sealed but are
accessible through hatches that allow us to experiment with several
different supplemental heating methods, and we’ve borrowed ideas
from a few other research organizations to pump warmth from these
chambers into the soil.

First, we’ve taken a lesson from Rodale Press’s Residential
Passive Solar Greenhouse
and are picking up hot air from the
ceiling and distributing it below the beds. A squirrel-cage blower
powered by a Solarex photovoltaic panel hooked to a battery moves
the air around. The fan takes orders from a blower control
thermostat that switches it on when the temperature at the peak
reaches 85° F and from a heating thermostat that turns it back off
when the temperature drops to 75° F. There’s also a manual override
switch we use to force air into the compost piles when necessary
for maintaining decomposition.

Rodale’s greenhouse has rock under the beds to offer mass for
heat storage; a system that seems to work quite well. However,
we’ve followed the lead of the Biothermal Energy Center (P.O. Box
3112, Portland, ME 04101) and the New Alchemy Institute and are
composting various mixtures of organic matter in the bins beneath
our beds. Though this technique is still in the experimental stage,
it does have a number of both already-demonstrated and still
theoretical benefits. The most obvious plus is that decomposing
organic matter produces a great deal of heat: Our compost piles
have reached 180° F and have maintained 160° F for more than a week
at a time. Furthermore, the same material also yields moisture,
carbon dioxide, and nutrients, which rise through the rocks and
into the growing medium. These benefits are at least as effective
as the heat input in increasing plant growth rate, but further
experimentation is needed to determine the optimum mix of organic
matter in the compost piles themselves.

Homesteading and
Self-reliance: Food Production & Preservation

Producing Your Own Food

One of the most essential steps in learning to rely on oneself is
learning how to produce and preserve your own food. Traditional
homestead food production methods include organic gardening;
raising free-range, grass-fed animals for meat, dairy and eggs;
using your dairy products to make cheese, butter, cream and ice
cream; and maintaining stocks of fish in ponds.

  • For extensive information about producing your own food,
    including articles about vegetable, herb and fruit gardens;
    year-round gardening; raising livestock for beef, pork, poultry and
    goat meat; maintaining fishponds; starting and saving seeds and
    other aspects of producing and growing food, see MOTHER’s Feature
    Article, ‘Organic Gardening,’ or search MOTHER’s Archive at

Preserving Your Food

There are as many ways to preserve your food as there are to
produce it. Canning, pickling, freezing, drying and root cellaring
are the most popular methods of ensuring a year-round food supply.
And saving your garden seeds is the best way to become truly food

  • For further information on these and other food preservation
    topics, as well as how and when to harvest your food and how best
    to prepare your food (including recipes and nutrition info), see
    MOTHER’s Feature Article, ‘Whole Foods and Cooking,’ or search
    MOTHER’s Archive at

Finding Local Real Food

Even some of the most serious homesteaders are unable to produce
all the food they will ever need. The following resources will help
you locate farm-fresh food in your area:

Local Harvest

Eat Wild

USDA list of national Farmer’s Markets

USDA list of national Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs)

Seed Savers Exchange

Homesteading and
Self-reliance: Urban and Suburban Homesteaders

Adapted from Happiness is a Suburban Homestead by
Kimberly Reynolds, Mother Earth News June/July 2002

I don’t live on a farm or a remote mountainside — nowhere near
the ‘boonies,’ as my mother calls the countryside. I am just
another suburbanite with a half-acre plot and a brick ranch house
in the middle of it. Our yard is modest, but we’ve found even on
this small amount of land, a family can go a long way toward

Adapted from Urban Homesteading in Florida by Jeanne
Malmgren Cameron, Mother Earth News March/April 1985

In the spring of 1982, I left the staff of Mother Earth
s to move to … no, not a wilderness home on the outskirts
of civilization, but (gasp) The City! I suspect that at the time
some of my colleagues thought I’d fall prey to the same old
nine-to-five routine that I’d been encouraging Mother Earth
readers to leave — but happily, that hasn’t proved to be
the case. Today, my husband, Jim, and I are living the kind of
simple life that I had time only to write and dream about as a
Mother Earth News editor. And we’re doing it in the
unlikely setting of a city of 250,000 people on Florida’s densely
populated Gulf Coast.

When I first arrived in the land of opulent condos and
mushrooming mobile home parks, I was pretty wet behind the ears and
loaded with the usual misconceptions about this much-maligned
state. Jim, patient fellow that he is, took me under his spousal
wing and immediately began my education in urban homesteading,
Florida-style. He had moved into his modest urban bungalow eight
years earlier and had single-handedly turned the rather plain
little spread into a veritable oasis. The backyard, once a sandy,
sun-scorched parking area (complete with broken concrete chips and
layers of coquina shells), had been transformed into two large
organic gardens partially shaded by citrus trees. Jim had replaced
the crabgrass ‘lawn’ with heat-resistant St. Augustine turf and
softened the stark outlines of the house by planting a colorful
landscape of native tropicals.

Inside the bungalow, he had laid new kitchen linoleum …
installed ceiling fans … sanded and polished the once-covered
wooden floors … repaired or replaced aging windows, screens,
ceilings, and doors … and even put on a new roof — all of which,
I like to think, kept him busy until I came along!

Nowadays, here on our tiny urban homestead only a block from
Tampa Bay, we come just about as close to self-reliance as is
possible in a city. The two original gardens have been joined by an
herb plot, grapevines, two wildly productive fig trees, and three
varieties of Florida apple trees (which are actually imports from
Israel). We have a small banana grove in the side yard . . . and
maverick papayas pop up from time to time all over the

Homesteading and
Self-reliance: Helpful Resources

Helpful Publications:

Mother Earth News

Back Home

Backwoods Home


Small Farmer’s Journal

Rural Heritage

Harrowsmith Country Life

Helpful Organizations:

ALBC American Livestock Breeds Conservancy

Intentional Communities