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Years ago, I was looking for some “definitive” information on how to grow potatoes. I consulted an old copy of Organic Gardening Magazine. In it, they had done a side by side comparison of a bunch of different potato growing techniques, including putting them in a bin and continually adding material as the potatoes grew. (You know the memes on this, where you open the bin at the end, and a gazillion potatoes fall out). Turned out, the highest yields came from simply planting the potatoes in the ground, so that’s what I’ve always done.

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Homesteaders often joke about chicken math. You get 3 chickens, and then one day you look up to realize you have 20, because you just couldn’t resist buying more. Not to mention chickens being the gateway to all things homesteading.

Parking sign, available from

But with bird flu, supply chain issues and inflation, more and more people are wanting to get chickens to offset their egg expense at the grocery store. Egg prices have more than tripled in some states in the last few months and it’s not uncommon to see eggs for $5/dozen. Compounding that, our overall egg consumption has gone up as a country in the last few years.

Egg prices at my local grocery store, Walla Walla WA, Jan 11, 2023.

But is it really possible to save money by having your own chickens?

Michael Kilpatrick of Growing Farmers and the Thriving Farmer podcast argues that raising birds for eggs AS A BUSINESS is very often a losing proposition, unless you have a whole heck of a lot of them. (Thriving Farmer is a farm business podcast that breaks down how to run a successful farm business while also enjoying a good life. Highly recommended!)

I made this chart for my own flock so that I’m not over feeding the birds.

But backyard chickens are not a business venture. Let’s break chicken math down to the three basic considerations; labor, overhead, and cost of goods sold.

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Squash harvest 2012

When I first started gardening here in SE Washington, I was super excited to grow all kinds of winter squash. We moved from 7,000 ft gardening in Colorado, where winter squash had been VERY hard to grow. I couldn’t wait to grow delicata and spaghetti squash and Cinderella pumpkins and butternut. That first year, my squash did pretty well. And I saw this insect on one of my pie pumpkins and didn’t think much of it. I’m a live and let live girl, and so if I don’t see obvious damage, I don’t tend to destroy all insects.

Squash Bug Nymph in my garden – 2012
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One of the crazy results of a 2 year lockdown from the pandemic plus raising inflation is a huge increase in new gardeners in the last 3 years. Many many people are digging up their lawns, filling raised beds or simply planting into bags of compost, all in an effort to increase food security for themselves and their families and lower their food bills.

The result is that seed companies have been overwhelmed with orders, selling out popular varieties quickly. They have coped in various ways. Earlier release of seed catalogues, specific dates for new ordering, increased prices, higher shipping costs, limiting the number of packets of one variety anyone can order…

I’ve felt for these companies, used to going along in a routine yearly cycle, and then suddenly having orders increase dramatically right at the time when Covid lockdowns limited numbers of employees in warehouses, number of people available to work and all kinds of increase costs.

But the even uglier side of all of this increased interest? Terrible quality control.

For the record, I’ve been starting seeds for 20 years and have sold plant starts for the last 10. I have very strong systems in place to keep track of what is planted where.

Here are my examples:

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When I first started to grow produce for sale and not just for my own use, one of the hardest parts was figuring out how to preserve what I had grown so that it would last not only through a Saturday farmers market, but maybe to the next Wednesday market as well. (Side note: it’s a myth that farmers get up and harvest hundreds of pounds of produce the morning of a farmers market – they don’t. It takes too long to process produce to do it the morning of, and then also pack it and get it to market. Most things are harvested the day before).

During my research on how to handle produce for optimum holding, I ran across a phrase that was new to me: Field Heat. Field heat is the temperature the produce is at when its picked and how active the plants metabolism is at the time of harvest. REMOVING the field heat as soon as possible after picking is critical for making produce last longer. Turns out, this is also true for your own garden vegetables.

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This spring, as many new gardeners started plants from seed for the first time, I’ve noticed a trend in terms of failures. Someone on a group will post asking if they should replant, as its been 3 weeks and their seeds haven’t emerged, or their plants have been in a pot for over a month and still basically look like they did when they were a few days old.

If this happens to you, here are the components you need to review. Moisture. Temperature. Light. Soil.

Have you heard of Samin Nosrat’s wildly popular cookbook Salt, Acid, Fat, Heat? Those four words are a great checklist if you cook a meal and it tastes not quite right. You ask yourself, is there enough salt? Does it need a squirt of citrus or vinegar? Maybe a pat of butter? How about a few chili flakes?

Your version of this for seed starting is: Moisture, Temperature, Light, Soil.

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Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay

When I was new to starting seeds, I ran across advice on the importance of sterilizing both your seed starting mix and the containers into which it went, in order to kill off any pathogens that might be in your mix. This, ostensibly, was to prevent the dreaded damping off. Damping off causes young seedling to rot right at the soil line. The plant simply falls over at the weak point in the stem and dies. Once the plant is infected, there is nothing you can do to save them.

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Finished mustard. Rustic and delicious.

I’m a fan of making your own mustard. It’s honestly one of the easiest condiments to make, it’s very safe, because mustard, on its own, is so naturally antimicrobial, and the variations are practically endless. I have more background on making your own mustard, along with a beer mustard recipe here.

I use Dijon mustard in various recipes that call for it, and as an emulsifier in salad dressings. Many years ago now, I went looking for a DIY Dijon mustard recipe. Traditional Dijon (named for its city of origin in France) is made with verjuice, the acidic juice from unripe grapes. (Verjuice has been on my list to make for a while now). This is NOT that recipe.

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Being involved in food system work, not to mention making toiletries and soaps for close to 20 years, I’ve been part in a lot of online forums and groups over the years, learning and also teaching as my own knowledge grew.

A LOT of people start to garden or make their own toiletry products because they don’t trust what is in the store. They don’t feel that what’s in the stores is “safe”. And once they grow their own carrot or make their own soap, they start looking around at other stuff in their life and ask, “How can I make THIS product myself too” or “What can I buy that’s safer than what I’m using now”.

This includes things like deodorant, shampoo, laundry soap, dish soap, toothpaste, hand soap and food of all kinds. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a “I’m looking for something with NO CHEMICALS” comment.

I think, based on years of seeing these posts, that what most people mean by “natural” is ingredients that are unaltered or minimally processed and could be found in nature in its existing form. Things like essential oils that are simply distilled by pressing or steam, or an egg from a chicken that was running around outside on grass.

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Image by Comfreak from Pixabay

If you were to draw a venn diagram of my interests and the more crunchy granola all natural crowd, there would be a lot of overlap. We both care deeply about taking care of our planet, each other, and ourselves, including what we put in and on our bodies. Targeted online advertising recognizes this, and shows me things that sometimes make my eyes roll. Because while all of the above is true, I’m also have a degree in biology and a deep belief in science and data.

So when I see claims like, “Beeswax candles clean the air,” well, it I get a little bit twitchy. Clean the air how? It makes it sound like the candle is somehow removing something found in the air, therefore leaving the air more pure.

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Jennifer Kleffner

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