Turning Jungle Into a Homestead


Our fenced in garden and milk cows in the pasture at SIFAT Internado where we presently live.

Before moving to South America over a year and a half ago, we spent time at ECHO in Florida for training and hands-on experience, preparing for life in this new country. One bit of counsel from several missionaries and development workers was to spend the first year doing mostly nothing but learning to know the people and their ways. It is tempting to start with big plans and ideas, trying to do something great right away, often ending in failure and poor relationships. We tried to follow this advice and spent the first year visiting many people and learning how they do things, from agriculture to cooking, from building houses to making a living, and many other things.

We hoped to buy property for our new homestead within several months of arriving, but God had different plans. Nothing worked out, no matter how hard we tried to find a place suitable and in our budget. We temporarily gave up and determined to focus our attention on people and helping to maintain and improve the grounds here at SIFAT’s boarding house where we are still living.

One day last year we had a local national family over for lunch, and out of the blue the father mentioned a property his friend was trying to sell. His friend needed money for a debt, so he was asking for the actual land value rather than an inflated price, as many were doing. The title was free and clear, an impossible hurdle with many properties.

When we looked at the property it felt like home, similar to when we bought our central Florida property several years ago. A few trusted friends scouted out with us the 24 hectares (60 acres) and found lots of useable lumber, and a few creeks and springs. It was mostly thick jungle backing up to a huge national reserve and mountain range, sloping gradually down to the road, and about 20 minutes from town by motorcycle. Near the front were a few acres already cleared with established pasture. The location seemed perfect, and soon the purchase was made and we owned land!

A sampling of some of the huge trees on our property. Notice Silver Oak standing in front of them.


This beautiful flower grows along the edge of the established pasture area.


This brilliantly colored toucan eyed us suspiciously one day as we entered the pasture.


This lovely creek meanders through the jungle about a third of the way back on our property.


Many beautiful palms fill our little piece of jungle. Many produce nutrient dense fruit or nuts.


One day we met this sloth near the front of our property.


These red and blue macaws sometimes like to come “sing” in a huge tree towering over us while we work.


We see mountains and beautiful scenery every time we drive to our property.

Looking back we are so glad we could not buy property right away because our perspective of where we wanted to live really changed within that first year. We would have made some big mistakes if we had jumped in and gotten started too soon.

Since the price of the land was about half of what we had budgeted, we used the remaining money to hire help in clearing the land. Someone introduced us to the Tabo family who was looking for work. Bartolome and Nancy have 10 grown children, mostly married with families. Their extended family lost everything in a fire resulting from a land war on the frontier over a year ago. They since moved to our town to start over again. Most of them are followers of Jesus like we are, and they are so grateful for any work we give them and have become good friends. About seven of the men came with machetes and by hand cleared all the underbrush on five hectares (12 acres) of thick jungle. That enabled us to go in and plan our new homestead.


The underbrushing was done by hand with machetes. Notice the difference between the dense uncleared part and the part that was just cleared. All that remained were trees over 3″ in diameter.

After underbrushing, there were many trees to cut down to clear sites for the house, barn, greenhouse, and most of all, our chaco. A chaco is a small field cleared to grow crops, usually by hand. Our first chaco is about one acre in size, with plans to expand it in future years. Since there are good lumber trees on our property we decided to use them as much as possible rather than buying lumber. Juan and Sandro are two men from the Tabo family who have hand cut most of our lumber by hand with chainsaws.


Some trees were cut because at 150-200′ tall they would threaten the safety of our future house.


Lots of trees had to be cut to make our chaco.


One felled tree being cut into lumber.


Each section of a lumber tree is split in half.


Then the section of log is methodically cut into useable lumber using only a chainsaw.


This is the same tree all cut into boards and stacked to dry under sheets of metal that will eventually be used for the roof of our barn.

We spent many hours working hard to clear land and stack cut lumber before the rainy season started in December. In November we started planting fruit trees and other food crops in earnest to take advantage of the wet months to get them off to a good start.


We stacked lumber…


…and more lumber.


Parts of our jungle were transformed into a lumber yard.


It all had to be stacked with space around each piece so it could dry correctly, then kept under metal roofing or a canopy like this one that we brought from the States in our container. In this picture you can also see the first metal trusses of our greenhouse when it was being built.

In August and September we kept our promise to go back to the States to visit family and friends that we had not seen for a year. It was encouraging to connect with everyone again, and to make a little money to defray travel expenses. Returning to our little town here, we felt like we had come home; a confirmation we are where God wants us right now.


Last August this area was cleared for our chaco.


After visiting the States and returning a few months later, the debris had dried and there was a beautiful blanket of dead leaves and organic matter covering the chaco soil.

On our return we entered a new phase of life here. Our first year was filled with every social event possible, even making some of our own so we could connect with people. We established good friendships and got a decent handle on how things work and how to communicate with those around us. Now we have less time and energy for social life, which has been an adjustment. We have two cows to milk every day and our focus is on developing our new property and some streams of income.

There are some activities that we have kept priority. One is the bi-monthly hymn sings we host at our house, and another is an outreach night at the town plaza twice each month, where we gather with other Believers to pray, pass out Scripture booklets, and sing or play hymns, then often share a Gospel message. Our Sunday trips out to the little country church are less frequent, partly because during rainy season the road is worse and harder to travel, and partly because some local Believers asked to start holding house fellowship meetings a few times each month in our home. We still rub shoulders with lots of people on a daily basis, but spending time away from home or our property has lessened.


A recent Sunday evening hymn sing in our living room.


Live instrumental music is rare, so folks love when our children play for hymn sings.


Gathering with friends from various denominations and cultures to sing hymns in the town plaza. Several people have decided to follow Jesus following our time of singing and sharing.

The past seven months have been full of hard work on our new homestead; building fence around the future pasture, digging swales and making our lane useable, and planting many fruit trees such as cacao (chocolate), citrus, papaya, mango, banana, plantain, starfruit, coffee, coconut, açaí, and other more exotic fruits. We set up the greenhouse that we shipped in our container, the same one we had on our Florida homestead. We stacked and covered lots of lumber that the men cut so it could dry properly, waiting for future construction. We made fodder beds and planted many of the same nutrient dense edible perennials we had in Florida, including chaya, moringa, katuk, mulberry, cranberry hibiscus, okra, and nacidero.

We want our new homestead to reflect the heart of God and His design, as a way to point others to Him and to honor Him as the Creator. Therefore we try to avoid destructive practices that destroy or tear down His creation, but as stewards we prefer methods that preserve and improve what He has entrusted to us. Contrary to popular practice, we have purposed to never use slash and burn methods to clear our chaco, or to till regularly or use chemicals unnecessarily.


Setting up fodder beds last December.


Those beds are now producing large amounts of chaya greens and other perennials.


We put up the same hoop building greenhouse that we had in FL.


The Lord protected our 20′ shipping container on the ocean, over steep mountain roads, and through delays in customs. There was almost no damage to its contents, which were basic essentials needed to set up a homestead, and of course, our pianos.


It became an instant secure and stormproof storage shed on our new property.

Numerous well-meaning friends have told us emphatically that we must burn our chaco before planting, or it will be full of weeds and bugs, and plant growth will be stunted. It is common belief that burning increases crop yields and is the only way to effectively clear the land. While burning does kill bugs and weeds and is a relatively easy way to clear land, it also interrupts healthy microbes and balances in the soil, and actually encourages many weed seeds to germinate. It destroys the natural decaying ground cover that regulates soil moisture, temperature, and erosion. Burning often yields a good crop the first year, then less and less over the next few years, forcing campesinos (small-scale farmers) to cut down more trees to clear more land about every three years for a new chaco so they can start over again.

Thankfully development workers around the world have demonstrated that there are better alternatives to slash and burn. So we are quietly growing our chaco “sin fuego,” without fire. It means doing more hard work up front, but adding green mulches will encourage an increase in productivity each year with a gradual decrease in maintenance. The cleared jungle debris and logs were placed in huge piles to burn a little at a time, or to make into future hugelkulture beds (garden beds built with rotting wood).

The lovely blanket of dried decaying jungle leaves and debris in our chaco smothers weeds and keeps the soil moist and cool in the baking hot sun. This decaying matter protects the soil from erosion in heavy downpours, and is slowly building the soil. We can’t imagine how bare, hot, and dry our chaco soil would be with that natural blanket burned off.


This is our new chaco soon after clearing the jungle last August. Notice the tall tree to the right.


The same tall tree is in the right corner of this photo, taken eight months later, after the land was given time to rest, and our newly planted trees had five months of growth. No burning was done, leaving a nice blanket of leaves and organic matter as a covering.


Again, see the same tree on a recent photo, eight months after planting our tiny young trees.

Thanks to teaching from ECHO and other permaculture proponents, we are inter-planting various green mulches and manures with our fruit trees, such as velvet beans, lab lab beans, cow peas, pigeon peas, jack beans, and perennial peanut. These are nitrogen fixing legumes that build the soil nutrients and deter weeds with their thick vines. They also provide food and fodder for our family and animals.

Interestingly enough, God has blessed our trees and perennial plants, which have grown very rapidly the past seven months. Although we spend time once a month or so pulling weeds that sneak up, weeds and bugs have not been a major problem yet. We recently visited a friend who cleared and planted a new chaco last year using the slash and burn method, about the same time we cleared and planted ours. We noticed his trees were smaller than ours, and his weeds much thicker and higher. Other burned chacos we have visited were chock full of weeds too. So far the only benefit we’ve seen to burning is the ease and speed of initial clearing of land. But in the long run, it doesn’t seem worth it.


Banana trees, pigeon peas, yard-long beans, cowpeas, papaya, sweet potato, and yucca (cassava) are visible in this February photo of our unburned chaco.

One crop we spent lots of time planting in the beginning is yucca, known in many countries as cassava. It is a starchy tuber used as a basic staple here, in addition to rice and plantains (large green or yellow bananas). We planted many rows of starts between our banana and other fruit trees back in November. Sure enough, soon there were rows of little green yucca shoots coming up all over our chaco. In our busyness we failed to notice that gradually the little shoots were disappearing, till suddenly we realized too late that something had gone very wrong. Asking several local campesinos for advice, we were told that they may have been eaten by leaf cutter ants, which is a big problem here. There was also evidence that small deer were rooting around and cleaned out some of it. Since we are not yet living on our property, it is difficult to determine the culprit.

Leaf cutter ants have attacked some of our citrus trees and taken a special liking to cranberry hibiscus, carrying off whole bushes full of leaves overnight. To deter them we learned from our Tabo friends to cut the tops and bottoms off two liter bottles and slip the center plastic part around the base of each small tree or bush, making it more difficult for the ants to reach the leaves. We are experimenting with other methods as well, but as long as we don’t live nearby it could be a losing battle.


Leaf cutter ants in action, carrying pieces of leaves back to their colony.


One of the many citrus trees we planted in our chaco, with a plastic bottle around the base to deter leaf cutters and other pests.

We are tired of traveling back and forth from town to our property and not being present to protect our chaco. In April we started seriously building our little guest house to live in temporarily while building our bigger house and the rest of the homestead. This little cabin is at the edge of the jungle, near our chaco and a quick walk from the greenhouse and our future house and barn. It is a simple 15’ x 20’ two-room cabin with a tiny bathroom and a front porch. Each room has a loft, useful for storage and additional sleeping quarters. It will be a challenging adventure for our family of eight to live in this tiny house for a time, but we look forward to progressing more quickly on the rest of the homestead as soon as we can make this move.


All lumber used, with the exception of the foundation posts and beams, were hand cut with a simple chainsaw from trees growing on our homestead.


The foundation posts are cuchi which is termite proof, lasting over 100 years in the ground.


Contrasting with lumber in the States, these 2x4s and 2x6s are cut to actual size.


This shows the unfinished porch and front of the house, while working on the siding. We’ve been blessed by several groups of friends from the States and locally helping out from time to time.


The back corner of the little house, with framing for the front porch just begun.

I do hope to be back sooner than last time to share progress with the construction of this little guest house and other homestead projects.

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Rose Petal

Note: My appreciation to Silver Oak for editing and critiquing this post.

Linked w/The Art of Homemaking, Homestead Blog Hop, Homemaking, Simple Homestead Blog Hop, and Simple Saturdays.

Why We Live Off Grid in a Tiny House, Pt II

Part of our summer homestead bounty: butternut squash and cucuzzi edible gourd

Early impressions shaping our worldview (see last post) opened the door for us to consider decisions affecting our lifestyle choices and dreams, leading us to eventually live off the grid. Here is one decision that did that.

Living Debt-free

One “radical” decision monumentally affecting our lives was not to live with debt. One Biblical perspective admonishes that debt is bondage God intended as a curse, not for His Beloved (Deut. 15:6; 28:12, 44; Prov. 22:7). Because credit and debt is the mainspring of our modern economy, Silver Oak’s uncle challenged that without a firm commitment (vow) to live only within the means God provides, we WILL eventually borrow. After weeks of prayer, we felt God’s confirmation to make that commitment, taking us on many sometimes scary but rewarding adventures! Our faith has greatly increased by repeatedly witnessing God’s provision for His leading, often at the last minute.

Three years ago, the 20 acres that became our homestead was the only available local property fitting our needs, desires, and dreams that our cash could buy. That made God’s leading clear. An option to borrow would probably have resulted in something less than God’s best.

We didn’t have the $15k needed to bring electric lines back to the home site, and an $8k simple solar power system made more long-term sense anyway. We had hoped to “some day” live independent of the grid, so with this little “push” the Lord helped it happen. The longer we live off the grid system, the more value we see in it.

Since it took nearly all available cash to purchase the property, none remained for a house…normally a bad idea, but the only option for realizing our dream. We scoured the internet for alternative housing ideas. Some made sense; others were quite costly. At that time Silver Oak’s cousin just “happened” to be selling his old Great Dane semi trailer converted first into an office, then into living quarters. He offered a very affordable price, but we still did not have enough. A tax refund came just in time to buy our tiny house, an old storage shed, and a few other things to set up our home. While waiting we lived for several weeks in my parents’ camper.

The home site as we prepared to move onto our property: the camper we lived in for six weeks, the big shed (now red) being towed in, and a pit (foreground) for our future tiny house (semi trailer)

A view on the other side of the camper, with the silver tool shed in place, fighting some palmettos to make way for the big (red) shed

It was a happy day when our tiny house was finally put into place so remodeling could begin to prepare it for a family of eight.

First, we had enough funds to buy two 6-volt deep-cycle batteries for lights and a few other basics. We soon added an 18cu ft energy star fridge purchased through Craigslist, and more batteries, gradually adding more until we had ten, and a 2 kw inverter.  Later the Lord graciously provided through a large adoption tax credit that enabled us to purchase solar panels and a new generator to replace our worn out one.

This fridge replaced our coolers and was later placed in our tiny house.

When we had only four batteries and a 750 watt inverter to run the fridge, lights and laptops

Over a year later we "graduated" to solar panels using 8-10 batteries to store power

As time went on, we added a large deck and roof, using many repurposed or free materials. We installed our windmill for pumping water from the well we dug, added rainwater storage tanks, lots of fences, fruit and olive trees, edible landscaping, and Buttercup, our Jersey cow. We purchased a window a/c unit and ceiling fans, and a greenhouse cover and a shade cloth for our large bio-shelter.

Our windmill that pumps water from the well to the tanks on our roof

The first year we rented a skid loader and root rake for two weekends to help clear our driveway winding back through the woods to our home site, and prepare a home site area and another place for a future cabin or small pasture. The following year as finances allowed we rented it again for a week to clear fencerows and enlarge pasture space. In between, we did lots of work by hand (and sweat), but it was satisfying.

Sweat and toil, now our quarter mile driveway back to the home site

Machinery gets it done quickly

Waiting for funds instead of instant gratification encourages gratefulness for each need met. It often saves money and energy in the end, allowing time to find better deals or solutions, or for God’s provision another way. It often eliminates or changes the need. With tight finances, we enjoy having no mortgage payment, and no risk of foreclosure in economic collapse or income loss. Free to serve the Lord whenever or wherever He calls, we are not slaves to a bank. We gladly give up “stuff” and conveniences for that. Jesus said, “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of things which he possesseth.” Luke 12:15b

Our kiddos wearing their Liberian outfits...two adopted from Kazakhstan, two from Liberia, and two biological

By NOT borrowing God provided for our four international adoptions. Adoption fees and expenses cost over three years of income for us, not including income and business losses being overseas many months. Funding came mostly from selling a small property that was worth little when we purchased it, but sold for much more a few years after rezoning battles and growth of the real estate bubble in 2005.

With an option to borrow, we would have purchased the adjoining property and house earlier, accepting debt “slavery” and probably unable to consider adoption for years. Alternatively, after rezoning made it buildable, we would have borrowed to build our dream home on that property. Instead, out of debt, but facing hopelessly large adoption costs, we put up a “For Sale” sign. Naïve, we were clueless that the property value had increased so drastically, until a realtor friend “happened” to see our sign. He got us a contract and large down payment just weeks before we needed to fly overseas for our first adoption. We would have missed that huge faith-builder with a loan.

Sometimes poor management or errors have forced a few months of credit card debt (card designated for online purchases only with cash to cover it immediately). Or we can’t pay immediately for services. Although not fun, we appreciate these reproofs and the built-in safeguards when carefully living within our means.

Living debt-free is not the only reason we homestead off the grid. I will share more soon!

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Why We Live Off Grid in a Tiny House, Part One

Note:  Credit must be given to Silver Oak for editing, critiquing, commenting on, and offering Scripture for what is written.  This is his vision (as well as mine), and he blesses me for taking time to write it down, freeing him to answer the many projects calling his name “out there.”

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Why We Live Off Grid in a Tiny House, Pt I

Our windmill and bamboo trellis overgrown with cucuzzi edible gourd

Our alternative lifestyle has intrigued many curious folks, encouraged and inspired some, and evoked remarks of disapproval from others. Some of you value the same things we do and tell us we are so privileged and blessed, sharing words of encouragement and visiting when possible. You express envy, hoping to one day do the same. You humble us and remind us of why we are doing what we are doing.

Others have said we are wasting our time, we’re crazy, or we’re trying to earn some sort of special favor with God. That causes us to step back and examine our motives and decisions to make sure we are truly staying on track with the vision and dream God has given us, making changes where needed.

Heading out to the egg-mobile at Full Circle Farm to gather eggs

Butterfly helps gather eggs

Recently we gave a presentation at Full Circle Farm about using windmills to pump water. Sunday morning we shared with their house fellowship our family story, including living debt-free, adoption, a more sustainable lifestyle, and a recent trip to South America. So we examined our journey again, and how and why God has brought us here. Here is the first of a six-part summary sharing numerous reasons for our choice of off-grid, tiny house living.

Early Impressions Shaping our World View

Both Silver Oak and I point to things that shaped our “off the grid” mentality long before we began living free of the electrical grid. Before marriage, my summer in Ecuador with a SWIM team (Summer Witness in Missions) highly influenced my life. It challenged me to follow Jesus’ example in giving my life as His witness. Would Jesus choose first class, or coach? A classy hotel, restaurant, or car, or one like the common people’s? Which “class” did He choose to best identify with the most people?

Washing cleaning rags with a little Quechua girl in the mountains of Ecuador in 1987 in her family’s outdoor sink

Later I went on a choral singing tour, arriving in Romania immediately following the fall of communism. We held a service and proclaimed, “Our God, He is Alive!” in a former city hall where no mention of God’s name had previously been allowed. Their hunger for Truth and Light was extremely moving. The persecuted church leaders fervently admonished us several times to be faithful to Jesus. They pointed out that persecution in Romania had made it very difficult to follow Christ, but in America it is very difficult to live whole-heartedly for Jesus because of materialism.

This was one of many groups of formerly persecuted Believers we sang to in post-communist Romania in 1990

Materialism! What? STUFF? An easy life filled with comforts, pleasures, and material possessions can make it as difficult to follow Jesus as persecution behind the Iron Curtain? Their statements were very thought provoking. If they are right, how do we “escape” the trap that befalls most Americans, rendering its Church lukewarm and ineffective?

As a youth, Silver Oak went on several mission trips to Haiti and other countries, which introduced him to the reality of life in other places. Visiting them affected him deeply. He was a Believer, but not totally dedicated to Jesus, so his heart did not change. However, the seeds were sown, and he really wanted something different. When he was 20 a crisis brought him to his knees, and he rededicated his life to the Lordship of Jesus, greatly changing the direction of his life. Soon after we were married, Silver Oak read a book by KP Yohannan called “The Road to Reality.” It challenged him to think in terms of eternity, rather than with a temporal focus. This also greatly influenced his life.

The “laundromat” in Haiti

When we married, we had a keen desire to be open-minded about the ways of Christ; not automatically accepting the “herd” mentality, the way it’s always been done, or traditions of men, but deliberately trying to see all decisions afresh in light of God’s Word and the leading of the Holy Spirit. First-generation Believers have really challenged us by their simple trust in God’s Word and just willingly following what it says without lots of preconceived religious ideas. Many man-made traditions are beneficial, but shouldn’t be the most controlling factor. Fellowship with other Believers is a priority, but we resist following the crowd over the leading of the Lord.

We have made many mistakes, and certainly don’t consider what we’re doing to be the “only way.” Our choices are often not mainstream.  Our passion has been to raise God-fearing children to pass on the faith and ways of God to future generations, hopefully more “radically” than we have. Many in our generation have washed out spiritually, or are wrapped up in the all-American dream. We believe this comfort-driven, pleasure seeking, materialistic lifestyle may be the idol worship of our day, or at best a “high place” of worship that can easily lead us or future generations astray.

Silver Oak and Evensong visited this country church on a recent trip to South America

Our values often put us “outside the box,” not connected to “the system.” It is an “off-the-grid” way of thinking, naturally setting us apart in this culture. The encouragement of like-minded Believers has been invaluable to us, as well as criticism of those who don’t see everything the same. We need both for accountability and for balance. Obviously not everyone sees things the way we do, and we respect that. Each is accountable to God for what we are given.

Can you guess which country this is in? See my answer below.

Since we live in America, but have not adopted the “All-American” way, our values and practices naturally tend to go against the flow. Our priorities and dreams are just different. This is portrayed in other reasons for our off-grid lifestyle, which I will share in upcoming posts.

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How Does Our Homestead Grow? Part II

Note:  Credit must be given to Silver Oak for editing, critiquing, commenting on, and offering Scripture for what is written. This is his vision (as well as mine), and he blesses me for taking time to write it down, freeing him to answer the many projects calling his name “out there.”

Photo:  Taken in FL, in front of our homestead.  Couldn’t resist this rather foreign-looking scene of Silver Oak and Farmer Boy taking Buttercup and her calf to graze at the neighbor’s.

Linked w/Natural Living Mama, Chicken Chick, Barn Hop, Growing Home, Backyard Farming Connection, Down Home Blog Hop, Frugally Sustainable, Homemaking, Wildcrafting Wednesday, HomeAcre Hop, Old Fashioned Friday, Little House in the Suburbs, From the Farm Blog Fest, Farmgirl Friday, and Heritage Homesteading.

Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part III

Farmer Boy and Little Bird play in their “house”…an edible gourd growing up our windmill. It has grown so rapidly it now reaches to the top of the 21′ tower and is providing us lots of delicious food.

This is the first time in central Florida I’ve experienced so much vibrant edible plant growth and color in my own yard in the intense heat of summer (and I’ve lived here 40 years…wow, that makes me feel kinda old!). I hope to share more soon about what we have done differently to make this possible, even before our greenhouse (shadehouse) is built. We moved here 20 months ago and the first year rarely saw butterflies or many songbirds. That has totally changed, and gradually our sugarsand scrubland is being transformed. We feel very blessed by the Lord and rejoice in His provision. I will soon share more about our summer gardening ventures.

I’ve enjoyed your feedback about growing various kinds of animal fodder and forage. While we are glad to share what we’ve learned and what is working so far, we greatly appreciate your input. Homegrown or local feed was historically the only option, but for us who grew up buying bagged feed from a store, it is a learning curve.

In Part One we discussed reasons for growing our own livestock feed and various fodder and forage possibilities. In Part Two I shared some fodder crops we’ve been blessed to start at little or no cost. Next we’ll explore alternatives to GMO alfalfa for dairy animals, commercial chicken feeds, and rabbit feed.

It’s been so much fun to watch the herb garden grow with its delicious tastes and fragrances. This swallowtail must agree.

Dairy animals: To replace alfalfa, tragically nearly completely contaminated with GMOs in this country, we want alternatives to support milk production in our dairy goats and Jersey cow. This may require an adjustment in thinking. With the modern emphasis on quantity, the nutritional quality of milk has greatly suffered. With our own dairy animals we avoid hormone-laden, pasturized and homogenized milk with all its health issues. But what about feeding them grain and milking frequently for high production? Until a few years ago I had no idea there were health issues for both grain-fed livestock and humans consuming milk or meat from grain-fed animals. Consider Jo Robinson’s thought-provoking article.

Our family has come to prefer high-fat (omega-3), nutrient-dense milk and healthy long-living livestock over high milk production using GMO feeds and unnatural grains. If that rules out alfalfa, soy, corn and other grains, we must find alternatives. It’s ok if our goats or cow don’t give the maximum amount of milk possible, especially if that means they will be healthier in the process. Now to figure out how to make that happen.

Take note that cows are grazers and goats are foragers. I won’t pretend to have this nearly all figured out, but in Part Two of this series I mentioned various grazing, forage and fodder options. What plants are specifically good for dairy producers? Black raspberry grows wild here and we’ve already started lemongrass and mulberry, all of which promote milk production. What about other milk-stimulating herbs like dill, fenugreek, nettle, marshmallow root, or blessed thistle? We’re still learning what grows easily here. Fias Co Farm has a great list of what may or may not be edible for goats.  Another list by Kathy Voth suggests edible weeds and plants for cows.

Our nubian milk doe Jody with her triplets last December

Our roosters fertilize the eggs and protect the flock.

Chickens: Next let’s consider our chickens’ egg production. Choosing a natural diet of bugs and forage may mean fewer eggs than a diet of laying mash or pellets, but we prefer the healthier option. Chickens have different digestive systems than cows and goats (ruminants) so grains are naturally a part of their diet. We feed ours oats to avoid GMOs, but need a sustainable option we can grow in our subtropical climate.

We have plenty of room for our chickens to roam, so we are increasing the size of our flock for more eggs, since it costs less to feed 30 without laying mash than 10 with. We still need to find an alternative grain that we can grow at home (any ideas?). We made a black soldier fly composter which produces great high-protein grubs for our chickens. As we perfect it I hope to share more.

 Most garden herbs and many weeds are nutrient-dense and excellent for chickens. We give them our fruit and veggie rinds instead of composting them, as well as scraps from a produce market. The chickens’ digestive systems quickly “compost” it and we simply add their aged nitrogen-rich droppings to the garden.

The black soldier fly composter we made

One super food for chickens (and humans) is pumpkins. Last fall after Thanksgiving we got leftover pumpkins and winter squash from a produce market in town, and broke them open as needed for the chickens. Talk about orange-yolked eggs tasting far superior to organic “free-range” eggs from the store! We raised a batch of meat chickens on those free pumpkins and a little soaked oats, avoiding store-bought chick start. They grew slower, but the end result was GMO-free healthy chicken in the freezer we feel great about. Now we have pumpkins growing at various places on our property. You can’t grow too many pumpkins! If you’re in the south try an heirloom variety called seminole pumpkins. They are prolific and pest resistant even in our hot summers and will keep up to a year in storage.

What are your thoughts on increasing egg production using feed grown at home?

At left you can see a few half-grown chickens feasting on pumpkins last fall.

Rabbits: I love the free nutrient-dense rabbit food Evensong raises for her rabbitry. She finds good rabbit weeds that thrive well in our climate with little effort, and grows them in pots and grow beds. These weeds include spanish needle, dollarweed, lambs quarters, redroot pigweed (amaranth), wood sorrel, clover, wild violets, false dandelion (Florida variety of dandelion), various grasses, young smilax, Florida betony, thistle, wild grape, and others we have yet to identify.

Well-fed rabbits generally won’t eat something harmful for them, so Evensong finds weeds that grow easily on our property and gives them a little to see if they like it. Her rabbits also like moringa, pigeon pea leaves, hibiscus leaves, mulberry leaves, mints, and many other herbs in the herb garden, as well as black sunflower seeds. She places her rabbits out in portable pet fences during the day to forage on grass in the yard. One day she hopes they will be completely free of purchased rabbit feeds. What “rabbit weeds” do you have in your area?

Evensong’s bunnies enjoy sprouted oats

One key to successfully providing home-grown alternatives for our livestock: variety is better. Many plants contain traces of toxins or have medicinal properties beneficial in small amounts, but harmful in excess. The 10% rule is good: no more than 10% daily of any kind of plant. Evensong gathers a variety for her rabbits every day, and we hope soon to have enough things growing to do the same for our goats and cow in addition to what grows in their paddocks.

I already mentioned one free source of food we utilize: thrown-out produce from a local produce market. Many times it is simply past its prime and not saleable for human consumption. Once or twice weekly Silver Oak brings home a large bin filled with pineapple and watermelon rinds, partially wilted lettuce, soft bananas, or other goodies the animals go crazy over. Even the dogs come begging for an over-ripe avocado or juicy grapes. When Silver Oak backs the pick-up to the gate the whole barnyard comes alive with anticipation for the upcoming feast.

The bountiful barnyard banquet!

Some day maybe we’ll have a precise formula for feeding our livestock sustainably, keeping them happy, healthy, productive, and parasite-free. More realistically, we will probably continue adapting to availability as seasons change and needs arise. We are still learning what works best in our climate for our particular animals’ needs. Again, I would love hearing your thoughts and ideas.


Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part I

Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part I

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Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part II

Ten pots of sugarcane we started with in December

In Part One of this series I reviewed reasons for growing our own fodder for our dairy goats, cow, horses, chickens and rabbits, and some beneficial plants for the job. Now I’ll share how we’ve started some of these crops quite inexpensively. Of course I must mention that I am not responsible for anything you feed your animals. Please verify that all feed or plants are safe for livestock consumption.

We have been very blessed to start several fodder crops with little or no expense. Last December at a Sugarcane Festival we asked a sugarcane grower lots of questions. This was the second time we had met him and his wife and inquired about the process. As we sampled syrup made from his cane, he appeared to enjoy explaining about planting, growing, and harvesting sugarcane. He was selling potted canes for planting but we weren’t ready for that project yet. The Lord must have known we needed a nudge because the kind grower told us at the end of the day he didn’t want the remaining potted plants and wondered if we could take them off his hands lest they go to waste. With an opportunity like that we decided it was time to start after all.

We took home ten potted sugarcane plants, divided them, and made cuttings as instructed. Using our composted soil we ended up with around 25 pots, each holding several canes. With sugarcane you simply cut the canes into two-foot sections, each with two “knuckles,” stick them in the ground, and each segment grows a new plant! They thrive in sandy soil, and the grassy stalks make excellent animal fodder. It is fast growing and once planted will come back every year with little care even if it freezes. Eventually we can learn to make our own cane syrup or raw sugar granules and molasses. How cool is that?

Cutting the canes to start more plants

We poked the cuttings into pots with soil

They stayed in these pots till two weeks ago

Farmer Boy watered the potted canes during the dry winter as they got established. We watched new green shoots poking out of the “knuckles,” but pretty much forgot about them in our busyness. Some froze and died off. Finally a few weeks ago we scheduled a big transplanting day to plant out or move blueberry bushes, a pomegranate tree, magnolia tree, hydrangea bush, chaya bush, acerola cherry tree, mulberry bush, moringa trees, bamboo, areca palms, a lemon tree, and a jasmine vine.

By late afternoon we were finally ready to tackle planting the sugarcane when it started raining. Knowing it was now or never, Silver Oak and I worked through the drizzle until around 7:30pm. The rain cooled us but made us a drenched and dirty sight to behold! Evensong appeared with the camera for a good laugh, saying we looked like field hands in a third world country. I put a plastic bag over my hat to keep rain off my glasses so I could see, adding to the comical look. We wore our rattiest clothing which went into the trash when we were done. It was quite a memory-maker, and our sugarcane patch is planted, complete with a trench between two long rows for irrigating. Now we are watching it grow!

Farmer Boy proudly hauls the new plants to the field

Next year we’ll hopefully add rows of new cuttings from this year’s plants. Notice the trailer behind the mower with the tank of water Silver Oak rigged up for irrigating.

What a sight we made in the rain!

Like my “rainhat?”

Farmer Boy waters the sugarcane with the irrigation rig

Chaya, or spinach tree

The other big crop we just landed on was chaya. At ECHO last month we purchased one small bush hoping to multiply it with cuttings when it matured. Last week Silver Oak did landscaping for a Puerto Rican family, and guess what was in their back yard? A huge chaya bush! They wanted it trimmed way back so he brought home lots of mature cuttings! Chaya also grows well in sandy soil and roots easily with a woody branch stuck in moist soil. We filled thirty big pots with composted soil and cuttings and are attempting to grow them.

Chaya, also known as spinach tree, is one of those true survival plants as it is extremely productive, drought resistant, fast growing, requires little care, and is highly nutritious. The leaves are more nutrient-dense than spinach, but they MUST be cooked or fried several minutes before consuming to remove toxins (cyanide). Some cook it 20 minutes, but those associated with ECHO say five minutes is sufficient. It is used as a cooked green, but NOT EATEN RAW. Livestock tolerates it raw if it is not more than 10% of total food intake.

Our new starts of chaya seem to be thriving

Another free crop was the many wild morning glory seedlings (weeds) we found growing all over our garden area, so we transplanted nearly 30 of them along the edge of the raised forage bed so they will reach through the fence and into the pasture for the goats to nibble on. They’re planted three feet from the fence so should be well established by the time they grow through the fence. It’s an experiment, so we’ll see what happens, but we expect the goats will not allow them to ever get very large, and it will comprise only a tiny part of their total diet. (Note: Some morning glory varieties reportedly have adverse effects on goats, especially pregnant ones, if eaten in too large a quantity. Check on the species before feeding.)

Wild morning glory vines grow on the side of the fodder bed next to the mulberry bush

In part three of this series I will present some alternatives to GMO alfalfa for dairy animals, as well as laying mash or pellets and chick start for egg layers and fryers. I will include some tips from Evensong’s rabbitry for raising rabbits naturally and sustainably as well. I greatly welcome your input for additional ideas or cautions regarding raising our own livestock feeds.


Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part I

Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part I

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Grow Your Own Animal Feed, Part I

The front and back of our deck is now screened…it makes a big improvement in the look of the front of our house, although the carpentry work is still not done…

Things have been moving right along here on the off-grid homestead. Between building and planting an herb garden, building raised garden rows for fall planting (we’re in Central FL), planting edible shrubs and trees, laying sod, building fence, installing gutter for rainwater collection, and the learning curve from doing many new things, I’ve been so swamped I can hardly think about blog posts.

In April we were diligently focusing on back paddock fencing when we started getting nasty bites from yellow flies on our deck (our main living area during the day). I react badly to yellow fly bites, and was miserably laid up with infected swollen feet and ankles. One day we killed 15 of the wretched blood-sucking creatures on our deck. The end framing and screening suddenly became priority and paddock fencing halted. Our deck is now screened and I’ve gotten no bites since! I feel at home again. Silver Oak did a wonderful job at something completely new. It’s beautiful!

Meanwhile, in our ever-present quest to become more sustainable and less dependent on store-bought goods, we have been working slowly toward growing our own animal feed. This is not only preparation for an interruption in animal feed availability, but will also eventually greatly lower our feed bill and give healthier alternatives to the genetically modified and chemically laden grains and undesirable fillers present in purchased feeds.

For several years we have not purchased GMO feeds for our livestock, but have found store-bought alternatives expensive or incomplete. For our goats, cow, horses, chickens, and rabbits we’ve used a combination of simple ingredients, including hay, alfalfa cubes and soaked or sprouted oats, but we really need something more sustainable long-term.

We are far from having a complete plan yet, but we’re taking steps. We hope to make our back eight acres into four separate paddocks for rotating the animals, keeping parasites at bay and allowing forage and pasture to grow. Currently our animals freely roam over this area, largely wooded or covered with palmettos. The center fence row is cleared, fence posts laid out, and birdseed purchased to broadcast in open areas for forage. That project was temporarily abandoned when the yellow flies struck.

Our first fledgling mulberry bush for future livestock fodder, started from a cutting from our former landlord’s tree

Meanwhile we’re planting perennials good for livestock forage. To save money we started small with seeds or single plants we can multiply with cuttings. Our property is almost pure sugar sand, so we’ve hauled in loads of decomposed wood chips from tree trimmers. By adding aged manure and old hay scooped from our barnyard and Evensong’s rabbitry we’ve been building lots of raised rows and beds on top of the sand. We are encountering earthworms in loamy soil where there was only sand less than a year ago. It can be done!

Some perennials we have started for fodder include sugarcane, moringa, chaya, mulberry, leucaena, pigeon pea, cassava, sweet potato vines, and morning glory. The leaves and stems make great fodder, especially if a variety is used. The tricky part is learning the level of protein and other nutrients in plants so the livestock’s needs are met.

We purchased this chaya bush, also known as spinach tree, on our recent trip to ECHO. It can be up to 10% of the total diet of livestock, and if cooked is a nutrient dense green for human consumption.

A moringa tree planted last fall (about 12-18 inches) flourishes in our front yard…now about five ft tall, and that is with heavy regular pruning or it would be much taller. Moringa is a green super food, extremely fast growing. We’ve started more from seeds for livestock fodder.

As I’ve previously mentioned, planting perennials rather than just seasonal crops greatly simplifies things. Perennials live longer than two years, and are usually easily reproduced with cuttings or by dividing rather than just seeds. They are often more nutritious, grow and reproduce many years, and take minimal care just as any landscaping shrub.

Many perennials for our animals can also be eaten by our family, raw in salads or as cooked greens. They can be incorporated into landscaping and most folks have no clue they are edible. Soon we hope to add perennial peanut, comfrey, serecea lespedeza (a legume that kills parasites), and other perennials for animal feed, as well as velvet bean and various grasses in the paddocks that will hopefully continue to grow and reproduce on their own once established.

The beginnings of a fodder bed with young mulberry, chaya, moringa trees, and morning glory vines, with room for starting more of the same as we can

Since we live in a subtropical climate we have more options for growing fodder year-round. But some of these plants can be grown in pots and brought indoors in colder climates, using a small sunroom or greenhouse, or by replanting every year as an annual from cuttings or divisions. Most of the plants we’re starting are fast growing.

Making silage to store fodder for nonproductive times is another option which may actually increase nutritional value with probiotics. On our recent trip to ECHO and learning about many DIY projects, we saw a small homemade silo made from galvanized flat iron sheets. There is much to learn about making silage. I would love to hear your imput about this, as well as any other ideas for sustainable feed for livestock.

The homemade silo at ECHO

Sprouted oats Evensong grows for her rabbits

In Evensong’s rabbitry she has learned to utilize many wild edibles growing on our property in addition to store-bought rabbit feed, black sunflower seeds, hay, and oat grass which she sprouts for them. She’s planted some of the rabbits’ favorite weeds near their hutches to make it easy to grab some every day. She considers this to be a very important part of their diet based on research she has done. Our chickens are free roaming on eight acres so they get lots of insects, grubs and vegetation. We also are raising black soldier fly larvae for them, but that is for another post.

In Part Two I will share how we have been able to start some of the fodder crops I mentioned very inexpensively.


DIY Technologies Using Local and Recycled Materials

DIY Technologies Using Local and Recycled Materials

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Our Windmill – A Sustainable Pump

Our new windmill sings in the breeze

We dug our well last year with the goal of using a windmill pump. Our idea of living sustainably means we aren’t dependent on the availability of fossil fuels or grid power to exist. Since installing solar panels, we normally run our generator only about 30 minutes daily to fill our water tanks. Our inexpensive electric jet pump takes too much “juice” to start with our simple power system. If we aren’t dependent on that pump, we’ll eliminate the need to use our generator.

Since water is the number one survival need, we’re prioritizing securing several good water sources. All other preparations will be pointless within three days with no access to water. So last year we used a tax refund to purchase an eight foot (2.4 meter) O’Brock windmill on a 21 foot (6.4 meter) tower. We just didn’t have the time to get it set up till recently.

Silver Oak got a call from Mr. O’Brock in OH several months ago wondering if he would be interested in putting up another windmill close to our house. Once we got ours installed, Silver Oak would be the “expert” in the area. That appealed to Silver Oak as he is always looking to realize our goal of working from home or very near home rather than commuting to town for landscaping. And this was a motivation to get our own windmill up quickly.

In February Silver Oak started assembling the tower of our windmill, and dug the four big holes by hand to place the legs into. Without the aid of heavy equipment we had to come up with different ideas than the instructions gave at times, so there was quite a bit of trial and error. The base of the tower was lowered by hand into the holes (with lots of grunts!).

We initially helped support the bottom of the tower while Silver Oak assembled it

The four-foot-deep holes were dug by hand

When the base was lowered into the holes the rest of the tower was assembled

The tower and platform are completed

Once the tower was completely constructed, leveled, and squared, the concrete was mixed and poured into the holes to tie it down. There are quite a few O’Brock windmills in central Florida and none were lost to the hurricanes several years ago. Their secret is a strong foundation.

16 bags of concrete were mixed and added to each hole

Next came the assembly of the windmill engine and tail. Silver Oak did this just before turning his attention to the windmill on the neighboring ranch in March.

Assembling the engine, tail, and vane

The ranch’s windmill was the same size as ours, but with a taller tower. The ranch had a back-hoe to dig the holes, hired a truck to bring the concrete, and rented a crane to set the windmill on the tower. That made it easy.

On the nearby ranch Silver Oak assembled the base of the tower, then put the mill together while waiting for the concrete truck to arrive

The next day the crane came to lift the mill up onto the completed 33' tower

With ease the crane swung it up and into place

Silver Oak had to be up there to guide it onto the mast pipe

But it wasn’t easy to set up everything on the top of that 33 foot (10 meter) tower! It was a fairly windy day and we naively had not thought about using a safety harness for such a job. Silver Oak was extremely careful about every move he made up there that day, and resolved to do the next job with the proper harness. I went at noon to take pictures and it made me so nervous to see him crawling around on that thing that I couldn’t leave till he was done. I stayed and prayed, and helped with what I could from the ground.

After the mill was bolted and oil poured into the engine housing, the cover was put in place...see why my heart was seizing up?

Farmer Boy went with me so he got in on the action. This windmill was installed to run an air compressor to aerate the ranch’s pond rather than pump water. It was situated next to a rustic cabin and when it was done it made a handsome sight.

The aerator pump was connected

Silver Oak and Farmer Boy pose proudly beneath Silver Oak's first completed windmill

The ranch's cabin with the windmill in the background...a handsome sight!

Once the neighboring ranch’s windmill was up Silver Oak was itching to finish ours. But we didn’t have the funds to rent a crane to lift the 300 lb (136 kg) mill up to the top of the tower. And you can’t just hang 300 lbs on your back and carry it up there! So Silver Oak had to do what all true homesteaders must learn to do…get creative!

He racked his brain and prayed for ideas, and looked at materials we have to work with. He ended up investing in a $40 chain hoist from Harbor Freight to lift the engine. But what was he going to hang it from, and how was he going to swing the engine around and set it in place once he got it up there? He came up with this:

The pieces used to assemble a lift support for the chain hoist

With the wood he built a little platform for the pole, with a hole to seat it into. Then he dropped the t-pole into the straight pole so the arm could reach out and hold the chain hoist, then swivel around to place the engine and tail right where he wanted it. The finished product is officially called a “gin pole.” It took a lot of tries and adjustments, and was slow going, but he finally got it lifted up and swung into place. That was grounds for lots of cheering!  It is so valuable to know how to do it without a crane!

Mounting the t-pole on top of the tower

The chain hoist is hung from the t-pole

The chain hoist lifts in 10 ft increments, so scaffolding and planks across tower trusses held the engine between increments. I kept the engine from beating against the tower. That was as high as I went!

Preparing to lift the engine the final segment of the journey to the top of the tower

Almost there!

At the top, Silver Oak swung the t-post around, and lowered the engine right onto the mast pipe! It was done!

When the engine was mounted he carried the wheel up in six different sections, installing one piece at a time. It made the job much more manageable. And, this tme, he used a safety harness.

Rather than purchase an expensive harness which he didn’t have time to wait for or money to buy, he studied others and made one himself. He combined webbing rated for a 5000 lb load, a chain, bolts, and heavy duty seatbelt type straps, all which he already had on hand. We all felt more at ease when he started using that. We’re thankful for God’s protection.

Silver Oak's safety harness

Testing it by hanging on the side of the deck

Completing the windmill felt like a major accomplishment, which it WAS! We dug a trench for plumbing from our shallow well in the front yard to the windmill near the back. We hope to some day dig another well closer to the windmill, but for now we’ll pump from the original well.

Our view of our handsome addition from the front yard

Unfortunately other priorities (like planting pasture seed and building my new herb garden) have crowded out finishing the plumbing from the windmill to our water tanks, but it’s a relief to know the big job is done and we have the components on hand to complete it.


Absolute Preparedness

Absolute Preparedness

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Sustainable Soap that Grows on Trees

Soapnuts or soapberries (credit:Wikipedia)

At first I thought it was a joke. But there really is a soap-growing tree! In fact, other plants also produce natural detergent, but today’s focus is on the soapberry or soapnut tree from India, which produces nuts (actually berries) that contain saponins to make soap.

A few years ago I researched these trees and their berries. The most popular way to use them is as laundry detergent, although they can be used for other cleaners as well. Imagine completely natural detergent that leaves no chemical residues in clothing. Whether or not we are obviously allergic to chemicals producing suds, fragrance or preservatives, our health is impacted by what we wear. Chemical residues enter our bloodstream through the skin. What we wear can literally become a part of us. 

For this reason and to save money, many have started formulating their own detergents. Many recipes are available online, but I am happy to say I don’t need to cook or mix up large batches of homemade detergents because I use these awesome little berries! Lehman’s sells small quantities of them, but I found Virgin Green Products has the best price, and they faithfully remove the seeds.

Here is how it works: you place five soapnuts into the provided little cotton bag with a drawstring, enough for five loads of laundry. Hot water releases the detergent, so most people simply throw the bag into the washer with the clothing until it’s finished. It does not need to be removed during the rinse cycle as it actually softens the clothing and eliminates the need for fabric softeners as well.

Pieces of soapberries (equivelant of five whole ones) are placed into the little cotton bag

Soapnuts work well with HE washers because they don’t produce a lot of suds. Of course the warranty may be voided if they’re not approved by the manufacturer, as it is with other homemade detergents. I’m happy to be free of that problem with my old top-loading washer bought through Craig’s List for $65. It beats doing laundry by hand like we did the first six months after moving here. 🙂

We're glad to NOT be doing laundry by hand anymore, but glad we have experience doing it so we are ready if the need arises.

For cold water wash use our method, as follows. We bring about a cup of water to a boil, remove from heat and place the little cotton bag of soapnuts into the hot water to steep for about eight minutes. While waiting we collect and sort laundry and fill the washer. We remove the bag from the hot water and place the soapnut “tea” into the washer. After washing and line-drying, our clothing is clean and soft, using no fabric softeners or harsh chemicals.

Our little soapnut "tea" pot

After five or six washes the soap nuts get really limp and should be removed from the little cloth bag and composted. Five fresh berries in the bag make you ready for five or six more washes. Store extra berries in an airtight container or bag so they won’t absorb moisture.

For two years soapnuts have been our laundry detergent and, yes, our clothes get clean. 🙂 As with any laundry detergent we use spot cleaners on soiled clothing before washing. For heavily soiled loads or those needing disinfecting we add natural whiteners, disinfectants, or deodorizers (peroxide, vinegar, peppermint essential oil, and/or baking soda). The biggest problem is the high level of iron in our water. A few drops of Shaklee Basic H helps “soften” and “wet” the water. I want to experiment with baking soda to see if it does the same. The mineralized water makes our whites murky, and I’m looking for a solution. When our rainwater collection system is completed we can use rainwater for whites.

Our line-dried clothes are not stiff...because of soapnuts

Of course I want a soapnut tree in my yard! Imagine picking soap off a tree and never buying cleaners or detergents again. Ha! Well, that poses a few challenges as it is a very tropical tree and takes five to ten years to produce berries. I have seeds and hope to plant some in an area protected from frost (our greenhouse?), but the long wait feels a bit discouraging. Meanwhile we purchased a huge box of soapberries to last many years before needing the tree. They have a long shelf life sealed in plastic.

The economical benefits are great as well. When we bought the large box of soapnuts from Virgin Green Products a few years ago we got 12 bags for much less per bag than buying a single bag. Today I was quoted $15.95/bag for 12 bags, rather than the normal $27.95 each, a 43% savings! Add $13-$30 for shipping, depending on where you live, and it’s up to $18/bag. One bag lasted us a year and a half which is about $12/year. Not bad. The description says a one kilo bag washes 330 loads, which is a low estimate in our experience. HE washers do even better. We have enough laundry detergent to last us 15 years as we’re only on our second bag! Maybe I’ll do a give-away to share my surplus. 🙂

If you must have lots of suds or fragrances (made by chemical additives) that modern detergents have, soapnuts are not for you. With soapnuts your clothes get clean and smell fresh, but you won’t see a lot of soapy suds and your clean clothes will not have a fragrance. But if you want to avoid unhealthy chemicals, save money, protect the environment, and live sustainably, you’ll want to give them a try!

A 2.2lb (1 Kilo) bag of soapnuts...also pictured is mineral salt deoderant that we use

Soapnuts can also be used for household cleaners and hand, hair or body washing. We successfully tried all those for six months. But hot weather turns it rancid after a week or two. Here in hot Florida that meant making new batches regulary. With a family of eight, refilling all soap and cleaning spray bottles every week felt big. In the fridge it keeps longer. But who wants cold soap or shampoo? For now we use it only for laundry, knowing there are other options if hard times come.

After writing this post I thought to myself that I should become an affiliate of Virgin Green Products, since I can honestly highly recommend their soapnuts and other green products. Sooooo, I applied just today (Wednesday the 20th) and I am now an official affiliate. Products purchased by going to their site through my links will earn me a commission! If you do so, I thank you in advance, and hope they do as well for you as they’ve done for me.


Bug out Bags

Bug out Bags

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DIY Slow Cooker With No Fuel or Sun

Dry beans make nutritious, economical meals and store easily for emergencies, but use lots of fuel, taking up to two or three hours to cook

We have learned a very simple idea that greatly reduces the energy (fuel) needed to cook. Stoves take lots of electricity, gas, or wood, depending on what kind you use. What if you could cut your fuel or electricity usage for cooking by 50-70% using items you already have on hand? An added bonus with this idea is you will never burn anything!

There are several names for this age-old method of conserving energy, including haybox, wonderbox, or heat-retention cooking. It is so simple and only takes a minute or two and a little planning ahead.

First bring the pot of food to a boil or to the temperature it needs to be until all of the contents are thoroughly heated, depending on the size and density of the food particles. Then remove the pot from the heat and place it into a well insulated container to keep the heat inside the pot. This utilizes heat already in the pot to finish cooking without continual energy usage. It may take up to twice as long to cook this way, but it cuts energy consumption way down.

You can purchase a Wonderbox or find a pattern to make one, but when you live in a small house like we do you don’t want extra things using precious space. For our method you need the following:

  1. Laundry basket
  2. Bath towel (optional)
  3. 3-4 blankets

Let’s use a pot of brown rice as an example. I place the pot of rice and water on the stove and add spices while bringing it to a boil. I allow it to boil two or three minutes while I assemble a basket “slow cooker,” placing a big blanket in the bottom and partly up the sides of a laundry basket.

I stir the rice, place the lid on, make sure it’s still boiling, then lower it into the basket. If the contents could seep out of the pot I use a bath towel around it to avoid washing blankets. I fit a medium sized blanket snuggly over the pot and tuck the corners inside the big blanket . Then I place one or two other blankets on top, since heat will most likely escape there if it can.

Then I set the basket aside out of traffic for about 1 ½ hrs. When we’re ready for dinner we pull it out and serve with whatever topping we prepared.

Line the basket with one large blanket and place the pot into it

Tuck another blanket or two snuggly around the sides and over the top

Finish with a good thick blanket on top

For our family we cook three or four cups of dry brown rice at a time (in a three or four quart pot). Normally it takes about 12 minutes to bring a big pot of brown rice to a boil and simmer for a few minutes, then 40 more minutes of simmering on the stove top. That is a total of around 52 minutes of stovetop cooking. Using the basket cooker method I cut stovetop cooking down by 77%, completely cutting out that 40 minutes of simmering.

It takes between one to two times longer cooking this way, which should be calculated in advance, but timing is not nearly as critical as when using the stove.

We are not big meat eaters, but I know others have cooked meat successfully (smaller pieces) if heated thoroughly before placing it in the basket cooker. Dry beans, stews, lentils, pasta and potatoes can be successfully cooked in this way. Boil bigger particles a bit longer before removing from the stove to make sure they are hot all the way through. More specific information can be found here.

Every Sunday our house church has a potluck, so our food must stay hot for several hours, waiting to be served after church. We used to keep it warm in an electric crockpot or on a warmer. Now we just pack it in our basket cooker, and it’s ready to serve hot at lunch time. It can finish cooking during the service, or we allow a completely cooked dish to cool to serving temperature and place it in the cooker just to keep it hot. If someone asks about bringing laundry to church, we smile and pull out the pot.  🙂

The best dry beans I’ve ever made were cooked using our basket cooker. I used to soak my pinto beans overnight, drain the water in the morning (to “de-gas” them), then add fresh water and cook them for 1 ½ to two hours before adding the final ingredients and simmering for another 20 minutes. I would let them set for at least eight hours for the flavors to mingle well before reheating and serving.

Recently I tried using the basket cooker with great results. I soaked the beans all day, drained them and added fresh water in the evening (along with garlic, olive oil and salt) and brought them to a boil for several minutes right before bedtime. I placed them in the basket overnight and when I got up in the morning they were absolutely perfect!! I added the final ingredients (vinegar, honey, cummin, and onions) and barely brought it to a boil before placing it back in the basket. It “simmered” in there all day, and that evening was ready to serve. It was so easy, and the beans were very tender and flavorful, with no mushiness. I was sorry I hadn’t tried it before.

Our homemade windshield shade cooker

It is wise to be familiar with this cooking method for emergency situations with limited fuel. It allows a little fuel go a long way, making it possible to store whole foods for a crisis which may need longer cooking times. Your back-up cooking plan may include a camp stove of some kind, a solar cooker, or an open fire. Either way, being able to use a “slow cooker” with no fuel will be helpful.

Many variations of this cooker can be made, so use your imagination and make use of what is readily available. Any tub, basket, crate, box or even a hole in the ground will do for a container, and the insulating material could be a sleeping bag, pillows, towels, jackets, hay or other materials that won’t melt or emit toxic fumes. Use common sense with flammable materials. The possibilities are endless, but the key is to make it thick enough with no way for the heat to escape. If you like to sew, here is a pattern for a Wonder Box.

Sometimes we practice the valuable skill of learning to cook over an open fire (I've still got lots to learn about it!)

How To Prepare A Family Emergency Food Storage Plan

If you find this idea helpful, you will find more ideas for preparing food to store and cook efficiently for your everyday use or emergency purposes in How to Prepare a Family Emergency Food Storage Plan: Giving the Frugal Family Confidence to Survive in the Face of a Crisis. Silver Oak and I wrote this eBook after years of practicing a rotating emergency food storage system for our family. Our budget has not allowed us to purchase expensive emergency foods, and we believe it’s healthier and more efficient for stored emergency food to consist mostly of what we normally eat. We live in hot, muggy, buggy Florida, and with our methods have rarely needed dessicants, Mylar, or other such supplies.

How to Prepare a Family Emergency Food Storage Plan spells out our entire plan with many alternatives to fit your family’s needs. The price is currently discounted by 33% for a limited time.

God bless you with wisdom to live prepared.

Growing Tropical Trees in a Not So Tropical Zone

Blessings,SLT Featured Post Badge

A Year of Work on the Homestead, Part Two

Blossom holds a kid born last winter

I was hoping to post this last week, but we rented a skid-steer loader and root rake over Thanksgiving weekend that kept us quite busy accomplishing our list of to-do’s before returning it.  Then we had an energy crisis when all our generators went “kaput” almost at once.  They weren’t made to be used as hard as they’ve been used this year.  So everything else is on hold as we work hard to get the rest of the solar panels up this weekend, and, finally, live mostly generator free!

Recently I posted Part One of an overview of our first year here on the off-grid homestead concerning our power system, drilling a well, laundry methods, and greenhouse.  Now I’ll focus on the living things on our little homestead.

Our three Nubian milk goats had kids early in the year, making it necessary to streamline the milking area and provide a secure pen for the kids and their mamas. With coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and other wildlife around we didn’t want to risk accidents. Our two dogs, Hershey and Laddie, are a great team in guarding our livestock at night. They are quick to notify us of anything unusual going on. But we would hate to invite trouble by not having proper accomodations.

Our oldest goat, Jody, had triplets

Kids enjoy kids!

One dream that came true this year was buying a milk cow! Buttercup is a gentle Jersey cow who supplied us with lots of milk for kefir, cheese, sour cream and butter for several months till we dried her up in anticipation of the calf she was to have in July. She was getting quite large and ready to “pop,” but the calf never came. The former owners thought there must have been a mistake and she was probably bred by the neighbor’s bull a few months later than they thought, making her due in December. Sigh. How discouraging to discover we dried her up several months early and missed out on all that milk! We had stored lots of extra yummy homemade butter in the freezer, but we’ve long since run out and have resorted back to buying less-than-superior store-bought butter again. Bummer!

December was almost here and Buttercup was looking rather lean, so a friend of ours who grew up on a dairy stopped by to check her. He discovered she is carrying no calf! Either she was never properly bred or she miscarried out in the woods somewhere and we never found out. This is a sore disappointment!! What do you do with a wonderful milk cow that is dry and there is no hope of getting more milk from her till she calves again at least nine months from now?!? Our next door neighbor has a bull that we put her in with to see what happens. But if you have any good advice, I’d love to hear it. Should we try selling her, hoping she is bred this time, so the next owners will fare better (who will want a cow that didn’t take last time?) and look for another milk cow, or should we just focus on other things this year and wait for her to calve again? Our goats will kid again soon so we will have their milk, but it is much harder to separate cream from goat milk.

Buttercup in her new milking stall, unfortunately not in use now that she is dry

Anyway, the little milking barn connected to the chicken coop that we moved out here last year needed upgrading for all the new activity. The goat milking parlor area was securely enclosed to double as a newborn pen, another goat milking stanchion was built, and a larger milking stall built for Buttercup. The barnyard area got a fence built around it with a runway to the back acres which will one day have several paddocks to rotate grazing areas.

The enclosed milking parlor area which doubles as a newborn pen

That leads to the fencing…for months it seemed we were constantly building fence, trying to stay ahead of the sneaky goats who managed to find the end of the newest fencing or some other way to get out. They were constantly trying to find some way to our living area to eat our juicy young trees and plants, and they succeeded a few times. As long as the fences were not secure we did not dare buy the fruit trees or anything else we hoped to plant.

Finally the back eight acres had fence all around them, and a new fence was built on the north side of our living area and in the front acres so most of our fence issues are solved. Occasionally the ornery goats still find their way around the field fence near the back of the property where there is still only barbed wire, but now they can’t get into the middle section where we live and are planting all sorts of things. We have a nice board fence in front of our house that completes the enclosure around our garden and orchard area. Ha! Let them try!

Part of the fence that encloses the barnyard area and runway to the back paddocks

Another fence that encloses our living, garden, and orchard area

Lots of field fence and barbed wire were put up through the palmettos

As for our other animals…two setting hens hatched a batch of chicks together this summer, and we recently bought some meat chicks which will be ready for butchering in later this month. From the batch of 12 keets (baby guinea fowl) we raised last spring only one bachelor is left. He makes his rounds socializing with our other animals and squawking at anything unusual. Maybe we’ll find him a wife that won’t get eaten by a fox, now that the fences are built. Evensong’s rabbitry has grown this year to include meat rabbits, fiber rabbits (angoras, etc), and pet breeds. Now she is adding guinea pigs to her collection. As long as there is a market and she can sell the offspring, it is a worthwhile venture.

Chicks with their mamas

The ten meat chicks with Mr. Guinea standing guard. He always sounds the alarm at anything unusual which is a great protection for our animals.

Both dogs and guineas have alerted us to dangers, including this eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which is rated by some as the most dangerous animal in North America.

Evensong has expanded her rabbitry

The babies are always so cute!

Riding on the back acres

As far as our orchard is concerned…we now have one! It’s small but we hope to make it bigger. In September we were finally able to purchase trees at a great end-of-summer special…six trees for $100! After months of clearing the graveyard and hauling in horse manure to build up our sandy soil, we were ready to plant! I’ll post more details about our orchard later, but the trees are thriving in their new homes. So far we have seven citrus trees of various kinds, some papaya, banana, fig, Florida peach, avocado, mango, coconut palm, pomegranate, mulberry, and moringa. We can’t wait to eat their fruit. More patience needed!

The fruit trees waiting to be planted

Planting the Florida peach

Farmer Boy waters his Myers lemon tree

We emptied many loads of manure

In addition to the orchard we have the beginnings of our edible and medicinal landscaping in the front and back of our tiny house. While we were still building the deck it was difficult to put anything in the ground, but now things are slowly taking shape. So far there are a few blueberry bushes, various medicinal and culinary herbs, around fifty pineapple plants, elderberry, aloe, hibiscus, and more. We’re trying to follow some good advice about planting trees first, then perennials, and then seasonal crops for the most long-term benefits. We also laid a pallet of sod to replace the hay-covered sand under our clothesline and part of the back yard. Grass may not be viewed as a luxury until you live without any for nearly a year. It’s lovely!

Spreading dried manure in the front yard to prepare for edible landscaping

Starlett “helps” with the landscaping

We planted over 50 pineapple plants from someone’s discarded tops

Grass under the clothesline!

Looking back over the year, we see things that didn’t get done that we hoped would, but the Lord has graciously provided for what we have and has helped us to do some things that weren’t part of the original plan. And we have been greatly enjoying our homestead. We have goals for completing several more projects before the end of 2012. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Gratefulness for our First Year on the Off Grid HomesteadBlessings,