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Hydroponics: A Step Away From Babylon

Lawnmower Bear shares the basics of hydroponics.

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Like many men and women of Beartaria, I took the stead pill early, while I was still living in Babylon. I was inspired to start building a homestead and growing my own food, but for the time being, I was stuck in a small apartment in the middle of the city. I was still determined to apply our community’s values and start growing my own food in my little homestead. There are many options available to apartment dwellers, such as container gardening, but the way I chose to start was growing salad greens in a hydroponic system.

Hydroponics is the method of growing plants in a container of water in a nutrient solution, instead of in the soil. The plant’s roots grow down into the water, and the plant grows upwards. 

The benefit of growing plants hydroponically is that food can be grown indoors efficiently, reliably, and quickly, in a controlled environment. You can start several kale plants from seed, germinate them, plant them in a nutrient solution under a grow light in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room, and start harvesting kale leaves within several weeks. The plants don’t need to compete for water or nutrients, so you can grow them very densely in a small space with low risk of disease or pests.

A basic hydroponic system consists of a container filled with a nutrient solution and a medium to hold the plant at the top of the container. It can be as simple as an old mason jar in a window with a drilled Solo cup holding a lettuce plant in the rim, or as complex as a series of plastic totes growing a variety of plants in net cups set into the totes’ lids, piped together with float valves to maintain a consistent water level, under timed grow lights, air pumps, fans, and humidifiers. Part of the fun is taking the basic building blocks and building the system that works for you.

A complex hydroponics system set up in an apartment closet

The simplest type of system to start with is a Kratky system, which does not need an air pump to oxygenate the water. You just fill up a bucket with water and nutrient solution, put a sprout in a cup in the lid, and watch it grow. The plant drinks the water down as it grows, and develops two sets of roots: long thick roots to drink water from the bottom of the container, and thin fuzzy roots near the top, to breathe the air at the top of the container.

A basic Kratky hydroponics system
A basic kratky hydroponics system

Hydroponics are ideal for nutritious leafy greens and lettuces. You can grow fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers hydroponically, but they require more specialized lighting, pH control, and nutrient combinations. The plants that I’ve reliably had the best luck with have been kale, swiss chard, arugula, lettuce, bok choy, and herbs.

So, what does a Beartarian trapped in an apartment in the city, need in order to get started?

Seeds

– A Container such as a 5-gallon bucket, 20-gallon tote, mason jar, or an old milk jug

Water (at a neutral pH)

Nutrients from either a liquid hydroponic solution from a garden store, or a dry mix of Masterblend Tomato, Calcium Nitrate, and Magnesium Sulfate/Epsom Salts (2 tsp of each for 5 gallons of water)

– A Cup in the container’s lid, such as a 2″ plastic net cup, or Solo cup, filled with a Grow Media like clay pebbles, rockwool, perlite, or soil cubes, to hold the plant in the cup as it grows

– A reliable Light Source, whether it’s a sunny window or an LED grow light

Once you build a simple 5-gallon bucket system and grow your first kale plant, you can build and experiment and invent whatever system works best for you. Hydroponics isn’t a perfect indoor gardening solution, and it is very limited compared to gardening in the living soil on your own land, but it offers a way for apartment-bound Beartarians to easily produce nutritious salad greens for their families, independently of Babylon.

By: Lawnmower Bear @lawnmowerbear on Instagram

Farming

The Subtle Power of Growing Food

In 2008 I purchased a property that looked like a park, had amazing soil, and a seemingly endless supply of water, with the intention to experiment on the potential to strengthen my overall health by growing a large portion of my own food.

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By Volgadeutsch Bear / Zachry Smith

This article was first printed in our very first issue of The Beartaria Times Magazine, Origins, A Revealing of Legends

I live in Evans, Colorado. It is a town with a population of around 25,000 people. It is a food desert. There are a smattering of excellent hole in the wall restaurants. There are a bunch of gas stations with crappy food. There are a couple of small Mexican grocery stores and that is it. Granted, Evans is a suburb of Greeley, which has all your normal food places and grocery stores and you can easily fulfill your needs by going to Greeley. Like most places in America, the people of Evans and Greeley are dependent upon an external system of supply chains for food. But I wonder; is it possible for the town of Evans to become food independent? What about Greeley and Evans, heck, I wonder if it is possible for all of Weld County to become food independent? What would happen if the people of these communities realized the vulnerability of the existing food system and decided to send significant resources and energy towards becoming food independent on a local level? Is it possible for any community, regardless of size, to make food independence a fundamental pillar of the communities existence?

In 2008 I purchased a property that looked like a park, had amazing soil, and a seemingly endless supply of water, with the intention to experiment on the potential to strengthen my overall health by growing a large portion of my own food. My property is basically divided into three sections. A one acre field with rich soil, the park section shaded with trees where my house sits, and another ¼ of an acre field with beautiful soil. A few of my neighbors and I joined forces and by the third year on the property we created ‘Empire Gardens’ and had an operation growing a little over an acre’s worth of vegetables and herbs. From July through October, Friday through Sunday we created a farmers market in the front yard. We did this for two years when unfortunately my neighbors inherited land in Tennessee and split. The energy explosion and the wisdom revealed in those two years was remarkable. We built real community connections as the farmers market became the place to be. Neighbors got to know each other. Powerful discussions about health, food supply chains, what is value, debt slavery and the trajectory of the education system are examples of the depth of topics discussed. People were learning about nutrition, saving seeds, and preserving food. Many people within the community suggested that I run for mayor. I would jokingly always ask, “is it possible to be mayor without running for mayor?”

My buddy Jayson is a seventh grade biology teacher at a middle school in Hastings, Nebraska. Like Evans, Hastings has a population of around 25,000 people. Jayson spent a few days at Empire Gardens one summer during the peak of its operation. That experience and our conversations planted a seed in his mind. He envisioned the power of growing food and providing the opportunity to do so for kids. He went back to Nebraska and spearheaded the creation of the largest school garden in the state of Nebraska. This is where it gets interesting. One year in the late winter I drove out to Hastings to tandem teach with Jayson for an entire week. We hijacked a week of school to work on one project with the kids.

We asked them; Is it possible for the town of Hastings to become food independent? The kids quickly came to realize that the majority of the food they consume does not come from the vicinity of Hastings even though Hastings is surrounded by farmland.

By the end of the week, kids were presenting solutions on how to create and make available more food on a local level. One kid began mapping underutilized open spaces where food could be grown. One kid searched properties for sale to build an interconnected network of food stores that could be conveniently accessed by foot from anywhere in town. Kids realized we need people who can do stuff. We need growers, processors, marketers, lawyers, leaders, programmers, communications, money and so on. The more we contemplated building food independence for Hastings the more gaps kids realized needed to be filled. That became the game, ‘Fill the Gap’, who is interested in filling the gap? What will it take to Fill the Gap?

Kids can be the catalyst to build more harmonious, cohesive and resilient communities through food independence. What if part of the curriculum of growing up was to be a part of building food independence? Imagine if a team of kids presented to a bunch of investors a plan to make the town of Evans food independent? What if a team of kids ran the math equation, found a few ranchers outside of town and developed a method to provide a quarter of a cow to everybody in town? What if a team of kids ran a media operation with the intent to show the current state of food independence within the town by describing what is currently being produced, what gaps exist, can those gaps be filled, what do people want to eat, what should people eat, we have this need/who wants to help? Empire Gardens is simply the process to create food independence on a local level. Food independence is fractal. It begins with the individual and has the power to radiate from family, to neighborhood , to town, to county, to state, to country, to the world. We all know high quality, nutritious and energetic food when we see it. We all know that that kind of food is a fundamental pillar to achieving our best selves. We all know that a direction through food is a way for harmony to restore. What if we as communities utilize the energy of generation next, the wisdom of elders, the infrastructure that already exists and the super lofty goal of food independence on a local level as a mechanism to create a new trajectory for the good, true and beautiful?

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Farming

The Butler Family

Our homesteading journey into self-sustainability has been so exciting! We won’t sugar coat it and say that it has been easy because that is not a word that we like to use. Farm life, homesteading, or whatever you choose to call it, is hard! If someone tells you otherwise, they are lying!

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This article was first printed in our very first issue of The Beartaria Times Magazine, Origins, A Revealing of Legends

Hi! We are the Butlers party of seven. Our family is nestled on 80 acres in the hills of West Virginia. Our homesteading journey began in 2014 when we decided that we would build our current 750 sq ft cabin and sell our 2,500+ sq ft farmhouse. My husband Bobby’s job as a coal miner was undependable and made things difficult.  It took us three years to finish but all the costs were out of pocket. Finally in 2017 it was complete and our farm house sold! We were mortgage free! The first night we stayed in the cabin was surreal! The thoughts of our five homeschooled children getting to make memories on the farm where Bobby grew up made all of the long, hard days of work well worth it! We would get to see our children not just live but thrive on the land.

Our first spring on the farm we purchased our flock of feathered friends. They were and still are a mixed breed of both brown and white egg laying hens with one handsome Red Leghorn Roo. We collect around a dozen eggs a day that go unwashed into egg cartons then into our refrigerator. Eggs contain a coating that is called bloom. The bloom keeps the pores on the eggs covered and reduces the risk of bacteria from entering the eggs. We don’t leave the eggs out on the counter since our eggs are fertilized. You can though! We’ve read that chickens are the gateway animal. That may have some truth behind it!

We had constantly talked of becoming more self-sufficient on the farm. We’ve always had a large garden and canned, but 2021 felt and ended up much different. We experienced some food shortages in our area but God always came through! We were never without! We knew we needed to make changes if we were serious about becoming more self-sufficient. Spring of 2021 we set our goal to jump full in! Meat, dairy, garden, all of it!

A reliable meat source for our family was important.  We are a hunting family, so every fall our shelves and freezer are usually full of venison. That only lasts our family a time and hunting season on deer isn’t year-round. We wanted a meat that would quickly add to our food storage, be timely to manage and wouldn’t take from our pasture. Meat rabbits were our focus. Good friends of ours had already started the rabbit journey and supplied us with three New Zealand doe’s from their farm. To complete our warren of rabbits we purchased a Lilac Silver Fox Buck and a Blue Silver fox doe. Silver Fox rabbits are a dual-purpose breed, raised for their meat and fur. Their fur coloring trait is found in no other breed and resembles the pelts of the silver fox from the Arctic. They are also a heritage breed. We have had three successful litters so far. One of the litters we have already butchered for the freezer and sent their furs to a friend to tan for us. Be on the lookout for some fun fur items to come!

The next add on to our farm that spring was Honey Bees. I mean why not? Who doesn’t love raw honey?! We purchased a package of Italian honey bees from a local bee shop. A package of honey bees includes about 3 pounds of bees and one queen bee. Three pounds of honey bees is estimated to be 10,000 bees. They toss those three pounds of bees into a mesh box and add a boxed queen bee. She has to be left in her separate protective box for several days after placing the bees into their new hive. This gives the colony time to accept her as their new queen. If she was released into the hive without their acceptance the colony would kill her. Honey Bees are so cool! If you ever get the chance to be present during a hive inspection, do it! Those little creatures are so neat to watch!

The first year of beekeeping, honey usually isn’t collected. The goal is to get the colony strong enough to survive the winter with enough honey to feed them during the months when they can’t forage. A month later, after getting our package of bees set up, a friend called about a swarm of bees that had landed in a peach tree of theirs.

We were excited! What an awesome opportunity! We jumped on the chance to catch the swarm and bring them to the farm as our second hive. We closed up both of those hives for the winter a few weeks ago. If everything goes as it should they will be ready to produce honey for us in the spring.

In between getting our farm ready for our rabbits and bees we expanded our garden. It is roughly a quarter of an acre and was jam packed this growing season! Gardening is such a forgiving sustainable option, in my opinion. We not only use ours to grow our fruits and vegetables for the season but we also have several herb beds that we use for medicinal purposes. We started some from seed and purchased some from local nurseries. A small list of some that we have are: Comfrey, Feverfew, Jerusalem Artichoke, Motherwort, Elecampane, Marshmallow, Anise, Hyssop, Arnica, Lovage, Pearly Everlasting, Bee Balm, Catnip, Sweet Annie, Wild Licorice, Goldenseal, Solomon Seal, Wild Ginger and several different mint varieties. We dried a lot of herbs this year for teas. They are such an easy way to boost your immune system or add as treatment to a condition. 

While we have plans of adding a few other creatures to our farm, we feel that our Jersey Cow, Momma, is the staple to our homesteading life. We did a lot of research and searching before finding her. We knew with the size of our pasture that we wanted a medium sized cow but also one that produced a lot of cream to increase the number of food products that we would be able to make from her milk. A Jersey was the perfect fit for our farm. 

In preparation for her arrival all of the old fencing that enclosed her pasture had to be torn out and replaced with new. The old fence was in rough shape and would not keep in a cow. Along with the fencing provisions we didn’t have a barn to milk in. The same friend that gave us a jump start on our rabbits came to help square up and set the posts for our milking barn. We are so grateful for that help! The milking barn is currently under roof and about fifty percent covered with rough cut. That wood was cut from downed trees from our farm on our saw mill.

Momma requires to be milked & fed  twice a day now that her calf, Guapo, is weaned. She is currently giving us about 2 gallons of milk a day. That adds up quickly! We spend lots of time in our kitchen! We make mozzarella cheese, butter, chocolate milk, ricotta, and yogurt several times a week. Just this month we made our first hard cheddar cheese! Hard cheeses have to age from three to twelve months unlike soft cheeses that can be eaten right away. There is something so special about the bond you form with your animals. We spend hours with Momma every day and she has made such great improvements since coming to us. She is expecting and it’s  due to calf this coming June 2022! 

Our homesteading journey into self-sustainability has been so exciting! We won’t sugar coat it and say that it has been easy because that is not a word that we like to use. Farm life, homesteading, or whatever you choose to call it, is hard! If someone tells you otherwise, they are lying! There are so many ups and downs but this way of life is so rewarding! We tell our kids that there is such satisfaction in a hard day’s work! To be able to sit back and look at your accomplishments, how far you’ve come and the amount of priceless knowledge that you gain cannot be matched!

If you would like to read these articles when they are first printed, you can purchase the magazine here: https://magazine.beartariatimes.com/

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Farming

From the Bookshelf of Mr. Permie Bear…

Each of these books has brought information of perspective that continues to bring us value on our farm and homestead.

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This is a sampling of what I consider some of the most valuable books on my shelf. Each of these books has brought information of perspective that continues to bring us value on our farm and homestead. The only order I have given them is to separate the more advanced books so that people just beginning their adventure don’t unknowingly spend much money on something they will have a hard time applying.

Basic List:

Title and AuthorWhy I like it
Gaia’s Garden by Toby HemenwayClassic, home-scale permaculture book. It helps give you a simplified guide to the permaculture design process and principles while giving you actionable steps. It has several reference tables for later when you are getting busy.
Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise RiotteA great all-around guide to companion planting to help you find plants that work well together and avoid ones that don’t. 
The Family Cow by Dirk van LoonMany consider this the definitive first book and resource on your journey to dairy cow bliss. It doesn’t cover every possible thing that can come up, but you will get your feet under you to have success with your cow. 
The River Cottage Curing & Smoking Handbook by Steven LambOk, I haven’t read this cover to cover yet, but we did refer to it when making prosciutto, and this book comes highly recommended by Brandon Sheard of Farmstead Meatsmith, and I trust his opinion. 
The Art of Natural Cheesemaking by David AsherOur favorite cheesemaking book because it focuses on what you can do with natural ingredients and processes that our ancestors would have had. I have yet to see a recipe needing the thermophilic culture. Instead, you will find your supplies to include things like kefir, whey, or lemon juice. 
Duck, Duck, Goose by Hank ShawI think most homesteads need ducks. But what do you do when you have too many males, and they go to freezer camp? This book came highly recommended to us when we decided we could take or leave duck meat. Friends don’t let friends eat mediocre duck recipes.
Polyface Designs by Joel Salatin and Chris Slattery I couldn’t decide whether this was advanced or not; after all, this isn’t a cheap book. After thinking about it, I think it belongs on the basic list to help you avoid some design errors when putting your infrastructure together. These are not the only designs that work; this is a solid place to start for all kinds of things. There’s always room to innovate, though, should you be so inclined.
Living with Pigs by Chuck WoosterDefinitely not the most in-depth book on pig keeping, and there are things I wish the author talked about that he did not, but we successfully raised pigs our first time after reading this book. It’s an enjoyable read, too, not a textbook.
You Can Farm by Joel SalatinWhether you intend to farm for profit or not, Joel lays out many principles that apply to running a good farm. If you ever plan to sell a product, I highly recommend this. If you don’t know, he is one of the most successful smallish farmers.
Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel SalatinThis book is specific to raising meat birds for sale and includes chickens. Pretty dang close to everything you need to know to be successful on just about any scale any of us are likely to do.
Salad Bar Beef by Joel SalatinThis is all about… you guessed it, running a 5-acre orchard! Just kidding. Obviously, about beef. He introduces you to the world of managed intensive grazing, low-input farming, and all kinds of good stuff.
No Risk Ranching by Greg JudyAnother great resource concerning rotational grazing and pasture management, Greg has quite the track record going from losing the family farm to owning many and leasing thousands of acres without owning the cows. He goes into detail on his business model. I have not done that part, but he has solid advice for pasture management. He also has fantastically hilarious and inspiring stories.
Come Back Farms by Greg JudyIn the follow-up to No Risk Ranching, Greg goes into more detail and tries to cover things he either didn’t know at the time or didn’t explain very well. Please don’t get this one without the first one; its value will be limited without foundation.
The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot ColemanMy favorite gardening author. This one focuses specifically on low-input techniques to maximize your growing season by harvesting all winter long. He is in Maine. If he can do it, it’s possible almost anywhere.
Four Season Harvest by Eliot ColemanGreat for the small farmer and home gardener alike. Eliot lays out the foundation for year-round growth. He’s all about low input and is one of the pioneers here in America when it comes to that. Did I mention he is my favorite garden author?
The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds by Robert Gough and Cheryl Moore-GoughA solid book on saving seeds. It includes all kinds of veggies, herbs, flowers, trees, etc. Not absolutely everything I want to know, but I am a data nerd, and this is a pretty solid resource all around.
The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey UsseryHarvey is a chicken legend. This book will give you everything you could hope for regarding chickens (primarily laying hens, but he does talk meat, too)—my favorite chicken book.
Grow Fruit by Alan BuckinghamI bought this at Lowe’s on a whim. Glad that I did! It gives you a solid foundation on every fruit you could imagine and includes pruning time and how-to, recommended varieties, and what can go wrong. 
Living with Sheep by Chuck WoosterChuck is at it again, this time with sheep. As with pigs, not an absolutely comprehensive guide that will tell you every possible thing you need to know, but you probably won’t kill your first sheep either (at least on accident, he does talk about butchering). It definitely gets you going in the right direction as a newbie. Couple this with Greg Judy’s info on multispecies grazing, and now you’ve got something!
The Resilient Farm and Homestead by Ben FalkBen is awesome. This book is another intro to permaculture-type book that takes you through the basic design process, but Ben has a really unique perspective on things that I appreciate. He might be wrong on the climate change thing, but his points as to what to do in general are spot on. The man grows his own rice in Vermont. How can you not want to read it?
Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture by Sepp HolzerClassic intro to permaculture book. Sepp practiced permaculture before he knew what it was and possibly before it had even been defined. He grows fruit at elevations they told him were impossible—an excellent read for any homesteader, especially those with steep land and challenging conditions.
The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live it by John SeymourThis was the first all-around homesteading book I got, and still my favorite. John covers just about every subject you can imagine, from growing vegetables to metalworking. Are you going to be proficient at everything he discusses by reading this? No. But you will have a basic knowledge that will help you get started and quickly learn more as you discover what you are interested in pursuing. He even gives ideas on how he would lay out an urban garden, a 1-acre, and a 5-acre homestead.

Advanced list:

Title and AuthorWhy I like it
Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual by Bill MollisonThis is the book. The most in-depth permaculture design book that I am aware of. This book is the foundation of nearly every course one could take to become a permaculture designer. This is a textbook that reads like one most of the time. The depth and breadth of information in this book about every aspect of human needs is staggering. 
The New Organic Grower by Eliot ColemanLook! He made the advanced list too! I almost put this on the basic list but decided on advanced because it is primarily geared toward those who want to grow vegetables as their source of income. However, so much of it is still applicable to home gardeners as well.
Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke with Eric ToensmeierSo you want a forest garden? Do you want a 2 volume set that will give you way more information than you could ever possibly remember? Are you a data nerd wanting to know what root pattern just about any tree has, its growth habit, and its attributes that may be of use? Then this book is for you! It goes over the design theory in volume 1. Volume 2 is the process and a terrific resource with tons and tons of charts. This would be my go-to resource if you wanted to design a really well-put-together forest garden or especially if you wanted/needed to design one professionally.
Regenerative Soil by Matt PowersThis book blows my soil nerd mind. Just about every nutrient cycle you can imagine is explained. About every physical, chemical, or biological soil attribute you could be curious about. After reading this book, you’d be well on your way to being an expert in soil. The best part is the nearly 100 pages of solutions. How to address all kinds of problems, make your own inoculants and fertilizers, and more. Matt Powers has a gift for assembling vast amounts of information and making it understandable and actionable. Highly recommend it if you want to take your soil to the next level.
The Forest Garden Greenhouse by Jerome OsentowskiJerome has a tropical greenhouse at 7800’ in the Rockies of Colorado and only has to heat it 18 days a year. What’s your excuse? Got some money and want to go greenhouse crazy? Incredible resource and very inspirational. So many possibilities. 
Restoration Agriculture by Mark ShepardThis is in the advanced list, not because it’s a difficult read or full of complex concepts, but because it is precisely for farm-scale permaculture with a heavy emphasis on tree crops like chestnuts. Great read. You know you want to find out what cat and robin pruning is, don’t you?
War and Peace by Leo TolstoyBecause I am going to read it one day and you probably should too, if not only to say that you did because you are a legend.

– Mr. Permie Bear

GratefulHarvestSeeds.com

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