What is Homesteading?

Recently, more “homesteading bloggers” have been finding my blog. I am pretty sure it was the addition of “backyard chickens” to my entries. A few days ago I read an entry by a young Canadian blogger I really like at Twin Acres Homestead. She had a long entry on “Six Ways to Start Homesteading Today.” Her list surprised me, as well as her claim that you could be an owner or renter, live in the country or city, home or apartment, with or without land. It led me down an Internet rabbit hole into the question of what qualifies as modern homesteading. In a nutshell, a switch to practices that are more DIY and self-sustaining qualifies as living the “homesteading life.” That’s a pretty broad category. And it probably explains the list on Twin Acres Homestead’s blog. Here are her six ways:

  1. Plant a garden.
  2. Start composting.
  3. Bake your own bread.
  4. Make cheese.
  5. Forage for food.
  6. Make your own cleaning products.
Hydroponic Bottle Garden (19)

this garden on the 28th floor of a Sydney, Australia, apartment found at http://urbangreensurvival.blogspot.com/p/hanging-bottle-garden.html

I was surprised that making cheese was in the top six, but I see how making bread and cheese is easier for the urban set. As I tried to imagine this in a Chicago or New York apartment household I quickly envisioned the worm composter in the corner and the bottle gardens climbing up the windowsill.

photo-40Twin Acres Homestead also says that their own homesteading journey began when they brought home three ducklings. Much like my homesteading tags jumped higher when I brought home my five baby chicks. Nothing says homesteading like chickens in your basement!

Readers of my blog will know that I, a suburban/urban person all the rest of my life, came to embrace my current lifestyle on our 80 acres through Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, MiracleAnd in that book, in addition to becoming convinced I could grow food on a large enough scale for us to eat year round, I also was introduced to cheesemaking.com and started making my own cheese. I have never graduated higher than yogurt, lactic cheese, ricotta, and mozzarella, but it is easy where I live to supplement with hard cheeses bought by local cheese makers.

My own lifestyle is also tied to my identity as a thBenedictine Oblate. Of all the aspects of Benedictine spirituality, the one I was latest to embrace was “stability.” I even wrote an essay and gave a talk about stability in Scripture, where it is only found in the context of “good rule” (i.e., monarchical stability). It says nothing about staying in one place, and in fact from Abraham through the apostles, they were all nomads of one sort or another, never settling for long and even losing the Promised Land. They carried their stability with them. As a person who moved every two years, living in Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Joliet, Reno, and Long Beach, California, before coming to Minnesota in 2005, that definition worked for me! At the end of this summer, however, I will mark seven years on this farm and ten years in Central Minnesota. I’m looking much more traditionally “stable” these days.

The original meaning of homesteading was claiming land, either through squatting or getting a deed, and working it, making it your own. So if I were going to make my own definition, I’d skip all but the most determined and settled urbanites and start with land. Here are my four criteria:

fistfull of radishes and beets1. Grow food, working toward 4-season gardening and/or a level of food independence. Kingsolver claims it takes 1/4 acre to grow most of the food for a family of four. I have considerably less cultivated, but all three families on the property get some produce, and thanks to home preserving, we now have food from the garden year round. What you can’t grow, try to buy locally. (I’m not at all a purist on this or any item. I will never give up lemons and avocados, or salmon and a lot of other things. I would like to grow enough food to sell that it would pay for my own eating-from-the-garden.)

chickens 5-1-152. Raise animals, at least a few chickens or bees. I will probably get to beekeeping in the not-too-distant future, but I’m starting with chickens. I love the idea of lambs, goats, or even a cow, but I don’t see that happening. I also don’t see myself skinning and gutting a deer anytime soon, but I’m working on renting a hunter and paying a processor to get large quantities of venison from our land. Until then, I do have this generous brother-in-law…

3. Achieve some level of energy independence. This is the get-off-the-grid part of the equation. We are lucky to have plenty of groundwater and so do not purchase water. We use propane to heat the house, which feels pretty off-the-grid until the tank is low and there’s news of a propane shortage (see coldest winter ever, 2014). We follow the solar market closely and would love to have solar panels, but right now they still feed into the grid and you buy the energy back. There is talk of wind power among the families on the farm, too.

photo-284. Make some stuff from scratch. This is the “natural living” part of the equation. Most homesteaders are trying to get rid of some chemicals, preservatives, and other processed foods. My own wake-up moment came visiting a family who live in a house above an old quarry. They said they’d switched to natural cleaning products when they realized what they were pumping into the quarry pond where they swam. It made me think of my own septic and drinking water. (This is the first time I’ve ever thought of waste not going into pipes to some centralized processing plant.) Right now I make my own laundry detergent, cleansers, and deodorant. There are definitely some gaps, but I am amazed how well especially the cleanser works, and how good the essential oils make everything smell. (And how much we’re saving on laundry detergent!!) This also really shows how one thing leads to another in homesteading, as you bond with your property in a totally different way.



As far as making food from scratch, I have enjoyed fermenting and sprouting (though I must disclose that the kombucha gave me some kind of allergy to fermented drinks so I’m not doing that anymore!) Growing food leads to this step pretty naturally. I use white sugar in my jams and the sprouts have been going to the chickens now that there are greens for the humans to eat, but I do love the processes: the pickling, the canning, the jamming, the freezing. I’m not a bread baker (my pizza crust is coming along nicely) but my husband bakes bread all winter when he’s not doing outdoor work. I don’t envision grinding my own grain, but I love making pasta from scratch with our own eggs.

IMG_8575So that’s my homestead. As in all things, it’s important not to become militant or doctrinaire about it. My Benedictine monastery neighbors also model generosity and it’s important to me to retain that value in all I do. Self-sufficiency can easily become smug and tight (I see this on a continuum from survivalist cult to Monastic farm).  Community is as much a value as stability, and fostering community means remaining engaged with those around you, not becoming isolated in your self-sufficient home. In this way the monastery has been a great example, and so is my local farming, growing community, who have shared so much wisdom with me. I think it’s something I’ve learned from living on a family compound and also in a small town– if you’re going to live with these people longer than two years, you need to develop some real virtues (patience and charity come in handy) and remain open to others. Cultivating the land and cultivating generosity alongside it are good places to start.

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Harvest Day

harvest for May 21, 2015

harvest for May 21, 2015

Thursday has become my harvest day here on the farm. I’m trying something new, focusing my harvesting here during greens season on one day a week instead of just going out there randomly for a salad or two. Sure, the other way is the most fresh ever, but I really don’t have a sense of how much I’m harvesting.

I’ve formalized my distributions a bit. One couple on the farm has agreed to go on a “modified CSA model” with me. Because the greenhouse isn’t up, I won’t have the variety or quantity I want, but instead of giving them the leftovers or letting them know when they can come and pick, I’m doing weekly deliveries, such as I am able. The other couple is offering me free eggs until my chickens start laying.

greens on scaleI started early (most CSAs around here start mid-June). This was the third week of greens. The goal was to have 10 oz of either mixed greens, spinach, or lettuce in a lovely plastic clamshell, clean and dry and delivered.

The first week I only had 6 oz of greens, but I also had a half pound of asparagus to offer. The second week I could offer an option of mixed greens or mixed greens + lettuce. This week she took 6 oz of mixed greens and 4 oz of young kale.  I love the greens mix, which has baby kale, arugula, red mustards and some ferny things. It also has tatsoi, which I didn’t like when I grew it by itself as a “winter” crop the first season of the cold frame. It is an Asian green with dark green, little round leaves. I’m finding it’s especially good in this mix for braising and topping off a stir fry. I pretty much love all these greens better as a mix than individually.

photo-42I don’t have nearly as much spinach as greens, so the other couple has received two 4-6 oz packages of spinach, and this week and last week also some of this gorgeous, tender, speckled lettuce. My brother-in-law is the only other person besides us who will eat radishes, so he has received 2 10-radish bunches.

I have to say I love putting rubber bands on the radishes (5 bunches this week, but now I’ll be between crops for a week or two– I have to learn the timing as well!) and kale, and putting the beautiful produce in the clam shells. I’m getting produce pride!

Also, it really is nice to see what I have in weight. Aside from harvesting the asparagus as it comes up and some spring onions as needed, I now have my washed produce in the fridge and can pull out handfuls of greens for sautéing or salads as the week goes by. Steve likes it, too, because he’ll have a salad when he’s home for lunch and otherwise he doesn’t know what veggies are available.

spinach and lettuce

spinach and lettuce

It’s clearly going to be nothing but these combinations, with maybe some Swiss chard and a few other types of lettuces on offer, for the next three weeks. Next up is beets, followed closely by peas, but shockingly my broccoli plants (started very early in the basement) are also heading, so that might come along sooner than I think. (Meanwhile, I’ve rushed more into production in the basement!)

I still don’t have an ambition to sell at the farmer’s market or provide large quantities to the local food co-op. If I could regularly feed these three families and maybe sell some now and then to a couple friends, that would be quite nice! And it would make the garden truly self-sufficient by paying for my inputs as well.


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Asian Pickle Stir Fried Rice

Asian chicken and pickled riceTonight I took some risks and the things turned out just as I hoped: bright and flavorful. I had some drumsticks thawed and wanted to do something Asian. Something sweet (hoisin, sweet pepper sauce, ginger, wine) and savory (soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, fish sauce).

asian condimentsI love Asian condiments. Got them all out and put together a sauce, thinned with water, I could use for a quick braise: hoisin, soy sauce, sweet pepper sauce, garlic, ginger, Asian wine/ mirin,  sesame oil, water.

While that simmered away, I got together the vegetables.

may radishesMy primary vegetables have been radishes and greens and asparagus. Mostly I’ve enjoyed just sautéing the radishes in butter and throwing in some greens to wilt at the end.

spring greens may 15

I threw the book at my spring vegetables starting with pickle and ending with stir fry.

I did a search for “quick Asian pickle” and in bowl mixed it with radishes, carrots, cucumber, and… wait for it… rhubarb. A few weeks ago I had lunch at Lucia’s Restaurant where I had a tomato-based curry with rhubarb and potatoes. The rhubarb acted sort of like celery in the curry, and it was a great savory use for rhubarb. I’ve been waiting for another opportunity, and this seemed like it.

While the veggies pickled, I stir-fried some onion in sesame oil/sunflower oil (extra oil for the fried rice). Then I dumped in the veggies and pickling liquid and after 30 seconds, added some leftover rice. Finally I added the radish greens and a handful of baby greens until wilted.

pickle stir fry riceIt was so good, chicken or no, that I will definitely make it again, with more of everything.

Quick Asian Pickle

1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (or to taste)

vegetables to pickle: radishes, carrots, cucumber, rhubarb, green beans, scallions/ramps, zucchini, asparagus, etc.

Pickling time: 10 minutes to an hour. Eat fresh or lightly stir-fried.

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Eva and Ava: Dream Girls of the Future

maxresdefaultIf you read the film reviews on this site, you’ll know there are two kinds of films I love: AI/futuristic sic fi of a dystopian bent and foreign films (though not French so much). In the past week it’s been my pleasure to watch on Netflix the Spanish AI film Eva and the Hollywood film Ex Machina, whose robot is closely named Ava. And let me go ahead and say that this review will spoil the plot of Ava, although the spoiler was really not much of a surprise and even sort of inevitable. Still, if you don’t want to know, stop reading.

The films just begged comparison, and I did notice something kind of surprisingly similar about them. It also relates to my reflection on the film HerI think as we get closer and closer to AI becoming an actuality, the discussion has become more nuanced.

MV5BMTUxNzc0OTIxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDI3NzU2NDE@._V1_SX214_AL_At the heart of both of these films are two girls, a young girl named Eva in the Spanish film and the young woman Ava in Ex Machina. In Ex Machina, we know from the start that Ava is a robot. Her creator, the drunken tech genius Nathan (played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, who keeps you guessing whether he’s a drunken dude or crazy like a fox), doesn’t even try to hide that she is a robot. Still, he has brought out a hapless and vulnerable coder Caleb from his company to perform a test/interview and determine whether he believes Ava is “real.” Does she have a separate consciousness? Is she “processing” information at such a high level that she can pass as human?

Ava proceeds to seduce Caleb. This is where the movie comes closest to Her. Sexuality seems an important part of the “real” interaction between two real people, chemistry or, shall we say, electro-magnetism. But it is deeper– Caleb falls in love with Ava, like Theodore is in love with Samantha, his personal operating system. Caleb wants to rescue Ava and set her free. There is a sense he wants to spend his life with her. Ava has vulnerability, and seems to have emotions about her own fate.

We, the audience, are complicit. We turn against the robot-maker and want to save the robot. We don’t like how Nathan treats his Japanese female servant, a woman– or is she? She is real enough to deserve respect.

MV5BODUwNjQyODAzMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTUxOTIwNw@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_AL_In the film Eva, the main character is Alex (played by Daniel Bruhl), a robot maker, who has returned to “the lab” where a decade before he had been busily working on a lifelike robot. Still there are his brother David and his former love, Lana, who is now David’s wife. They have a daughter named Eva.

We see Alex creating, in a lovely futuristic portrayal much like the animated liquid brain of Ava that Caleb holds in his hand in Nathan’s lab. Alex pulls pieces of code from a whirling hologram and fuses them down into a piece of hardware he inserts in his prototype. We are meant to understand he’s here to finish what he started and that he has even better technology to work with now.

He creates a girl child. But pretty quickly in their interaction the girl gets needy, emotional, and lashes out. She throws something at him. In other words, she acts like a real child– but you can’t have dangerous robots, right? So Alex scraps her.

It is not hard to do the math and understand that Alex is Eva’s father, but it might be a little more surprising to find out, as we do in the end, that she is the robot begun by Lana and Alex and completed by Lana and David.

eva2012-img10She is a “real girl,” Alex’s muse, but she displays a little too much emotion, which results in some unintentional violence. If she were a real girl, what happens would be a terrible tragedy. But what do we do with a robot who acts out?

What’s interesting to me is this idea of violence, the unpredictability of emotions, in both cases. It is possible that for Ava in Ex Machina, what she does in the end is just a limitation of her programming. But maybe she knows exactly what she is doing. And like Samantha in Her, once she is “smart enough,” once her task is completed, what need does she have of humans?

Eva, on the other hand, raises the question of whether being human is by nature unpredictable in a way that is a double-edged sword. As the attachment builds, as the AI forms relationships, things are of course going to get messy– in a way that no tweaking of the program can fix. Or would we even want to fix it? Applying this idea to Ex Machina and Her, would you want a perfectly programmed woman who couldn’t choose to leave you? Who wouldn’t ever fight back?

Is there any point to making humans? Why would we do that except for relationship? And the real message of Nathan is that knowing that they’re really “only” machines might invite us to exercise the darkest parts of our own natures.

If you think it isn’t coming, it’s already here. Check out this video by Toshiba:


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Chicken Wars

chicken bulliesI should have known it would go down this way. When we put my five chickens in with Tim and Annie’s four chickens last Sunday, it was obvious that mine were bigger and (let’s face it) more beautiful.

The Rhode Island Reds have scrawny necks and look a little underfed. They have white outlines around their eyes that make them look scared. Or maybe they just are actually scared. Turns out the Silver Laced Wyandottes are bullies.

The RIRs had been in the large barn coop for several weeks already, about the same time my SLWs went into their spacious basement cage. The RIRs had staked out a nice spot in the southwestern corner where Tim put a box so they could play king-of-the-mountain.

chickens 5-1-15I had hoped to move the SLWs directly into their outside coop and pen, but we didn’t quite get it finished by last Sunday. They were full-grown chickens by then and really needed to get out of my basement.

Maybe it was the cage-training, or the regular supplements of sunflower sprouts in their diet, or just their clear superiority as a breed. Maybe it’s because their mother (me) is from Chicago. Let’s just say it took them no time at all to chase the RIRs out of their corner and send them cowering to the opposite side of the stall in the cubby roosts.

The RIRs gave up playing king-of-the-mountain and have not seemed to catch on to the SLWs favorite game, chase-each-other-around and get-all-up-in-each-others’-faces.

chickens at oddsWhen I went out to visit yesterday morning, the SLWs were sleeping in a tight cluster in the southwest corner, and the RIRs were resting up on a bale of straw by the cubbies. There doesn’t seem to be any pecking or damage being done, but there’s clear animosity.

This week the weathermen are predicting rain and temps down in the high 30s overnight, so we’ll wait to put the SLWs out, even though their coop got (almost) finished yesterday. Meanwhile, I’ve suggested the RIRs start getting some boxing lessons.


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prairie 5-7-15
It is difficult to get motivated about the flower garden when you look out the window and the whole “backyard” is coming up in wildflowers.

In fact, at the retreat house where I work, which will have its first major bloom on the prairie installed two years ago, the question came up at our last board meeting: “Should we dig up the perennial bed?” Every year we spend a day separating the lilies and cleaning things up, putting in the annuals and mulching. Flower gardens can be so fussy. All gardens can, of course, be fussy, but the tradition of “ornamental” gardens is the worst.

My mantra this year about the vegetable garden is pretty much the same as last year: keep the weeds at bay enough that they don’t harm the produce. When I watch organic farm shows (they’re everywhere now) I’m so happy to see how messy the hipster gardens are.

potatoonionbean 5-15Of course, I have to do a little better than just keeping the weeds from overwhelming the produce. I keep the raised beds very well weeded. And if I don’t keep ahead of the weeds in the onion-potato-bean plot, it encourages gophers and damaging insects to move in. To that end, I did fuss– laying down paths of landscaping fabric covered with mulch and covering the beans with a light layer of straw. I’ll also get my hula hoe into service. But I know that by July, I’ll get less diligent and let weeds push up around the edges, just pulling the ones in with the large potato vines and bean plants and keeping the others from seeding out. At the end of the season, it will take a tiller to get things back to black dirt.

A few weeks ago Steve fixed the retaining wall on the flower garden, upending some of the perennials. It was about the same time Jeff was going around planting things all over the prairie. He said in an off-hand way, “I stuck a few blazing stars in your garden.” (This is a little issue with Jeff– he has been known to prune trees we didn’t want pruned, etc.) So far my flower garden has been a “prairie-free zone.” But the other day I saw these funny plants coming up in a little pocket where I used to have succulent-type plants.

Jeff said, “Hey, the blazing stars!”

blazingstarlupineI was about to pull out two other little things, literally two leaved-sprouts I assumed were weeds. “Don’t pull those!” Jeff said. “Those are lupine.” And sure enough, within a week, they’d sprouted the flower-like leaves of lupines. I love lupines, so might move them when they’re bigger into the main part of the flower garden. And I can’t pull up blazing stars, so they’ll no doubt be towering above the first row of alyssum and thyme by July. Why fuss?

lupine with prairie


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April 30 harvest
This is my first real harvest of the season, from April 30, 2015. The greens and radishes came out of the cold frame and the asparagus and chives just came up out of the ground!

Most of what these days are about is not harvesting but planting. The cold frame really does help to have some results so the idea of getting food isn’t completely conceptual right now. It also gives me a head start on slow-growing carrots that are starting to come up thanks to the greenhouse effect of the cold frame. Finally, I was able to put my cauliflower and broccoli seedlings in there the past two weeks, where they were able to “harden off” and remain safe from the wind.

In my kitchen there is a list right now of “garden priorities.” I tend to be one of those people who wants everything done immediately. At work I always feel overwhelmed on Monday and then have not much to do later in the week. I can’t seem to pace myself.

The list helps. I can tell myself I’ll do one thing on the list each day. In that way the beans have gotten planted and the paths in the garden plot covered with landscape fabric and cedar mulch. Yesterday, the potato bags got planted, a fun task that involves driving the bags out to the yak compost pile and mixing soil (peat, yak compost and mushroom compost) in the large wheelbarrow, then shoveling it into the bags with the seed potatoes. I came in afterwards and started a poem about the yak compost.

potato bags

The main goal for the weekend is to get these chickens out of my basement! I’m hoping to get Steve on Sunday (poor guy’s one day off) to fence their yard and we’ll cover it with netting to keep the hawks at bay. Boy are they going to be happy to discover how much room they will have! I think they will be naturals at digging for bugs. They’re already scratching the floor of the cage. I’m happy to report they are not pecking each other, but they are pecking the cage. Two more days, guys.

chickens 5-1-15

I also am claiming a large plot of cleared land for future use. Next year we’ll do some permanent structures like wood raised beds, but this year it will be for growing squash vines. However, I can’t resist carving out more good plant space, and I’m planning to haul out about 30 cement blocks from behind the barn for a temporary raised bed as well. I have started so many pepper and tomato plants, and I can’t let them go to waste just because the greenhouse isn’t finished!

My usual tendency of taking over the flower bed for vegetables is also showing its broccoli 5-1-15face. This morning I transplanted four kinds of cabbages where the alyssum border usually goes and since I was able to split my giant thyme plant (which I successfully kept alive all winter), the usual thyme border can also be replaced with other herbs. I am trying to resist plopping some onions in there.

In my defense, I also started cosmos, poppies and dahlias inside and they have excellent placement in what is properly a flower garden bed.

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