Living like it's the 1800's in a modern world, seems like a contradiction doesn't it, but even if you do have electricity and running water, there are some valuable tips to be learned that can help you save money now and, if you do decide to go off-grid, help you make the transition.
My guest today is Jackie Marie Beyer. She and her husband Mike have been homesteading together in Northwest Montana for over 25 years, having spent 6 years without electricity or running water. Living without power can be quite challenging on many fronts and today Jackie shares with us many tips and tricks that they used to make it work for them. From cooking on a wood stove to wise water usage. They started with raw land and have slowly developed it and now have a gardens, fruit trees, and a well.
Listen in below to the full podcast, Episode #221 Living Like it's the 1800's – Wood Stove Cooking & Frugal Living Tips of the Pioneering Today Podcast, where we don’t just inspire you, but give you the clear steps to create the homegrown garden, pantry, kitchen and life you want for your family and homestead.
How to Manage Without Power
Melissa: Knowing that you lived 6 years without electricity or running water, I'm curious about how you managed to live without electricity, how you heated your home and your tips for cooking on a woodstove.
Jackie: We had a generator as well as two solar panels. Biggest tip is to use stuff that is made for boats hooked up to the solar panels.
- Alpenglow boat lights
- CD Player & Tape Deck
- Rechargeable solar lanterns are another great option (Melissa here, we've had these for years and they work great camping or in longer power outages)
I cooked almost everything we eat on the wood stove, although we also used a propane stove on occasion.
One thing I tell people is that if I could do it all over again, I would make sure there was water on our property. When we were without running water, we had to haul water which included all of our drinking water, dishwater, shower water… We went to the laundromat, although people can do laundry with ringer washers. The big secret though is to have drains. Even though I had to haul water into the kitchen sink to do dishes, the drain was hooked up and drained out to where we now have our septic system. The bathroom had a drain.
However, we have an outhouse. We still use the outhouse. My Mom thinks I'm crazy but I love my outhouse. Even on the coldest mornings, it's the first chance to go outside and look at the stars. It just works for me. I'm not the biggest fan of going to visit other people's outhouses. My step kids hated it, back when we didn't have any running water. They were teenagers and it was tough but I feel like the payoffs were worth it.
We would, and still do, boil water before we do the dishes. We did one big batch of dishes a day. There's no wasting of water. Our first well that we put in was only 19 feet deep so it was a shallow well. Even after we put that in the deeper well which is 560 feet deep (we thought it would only be 270 feet) we had the hole in the ground for two years before we could finally pay it off to the tune of $20,000 and pay the $2,500 to hook up the pump. The house is still hooked up to the shallow well. The deep well waters what I call the mini farm. With being hooked up the the shallow well, which doesn't have a lot of water, we still use some of the old systems such as boiling water and mixing it with cool
to wash the dishes. We'll continue to do this until we can afford to have the deep well connected to the house.
Food Storage and Cooking
So while the first thing I would tell someone who is looking into making a similar move is to make sure the property has water on it with a way to get that water, such as a water spigot, the next would be that I wouldn't live without a propane fridge. The first year we lived out of coolers and that was just too much for me. So we've always had a propane fridge and stove since.
We have a fire in our wood stove almost year round with the exception of middle of July to middle of August. I can cook a lot on that wood stove.
Melissa: I'm excited that you're bringing that up. I do some cooking on the wood stove but ours is not a wood cookstove with the oven and all that, rather it's primary purpose is for heating. However, it does have a flat top so I do use cast iron frying pans or a Dutch oven for soups and stews on it. When we have extended power outages I'll use it to heat food that's already cooked. But I don't really bake on it. Do you have any suggestions to actually bake bread on a flat top wood stove?
Jackie: I do. Baking bread is a little harder because it's more sensitive but I do make a mean pumpkin pie or cookies. The tip is to build an oven on top. We'll take an old enamel pan that we usually use for water and flip it upside down and then use a trivet (see the link in Resources for an example of this). We have varying heights for the trivets. By doing so you're making a makeshift oven on top of the wood stove. The type of wood you get is also factor:
- Larch – Will build a really hot fire.
- Lodgepole Pine – will get really hot really quickly and then cool off.
- Fir – Will last a really long time.
We always try to have a lot of different woods to help regulate the stove, depending on what you're cooking.
M: I love that tip. Controlling the airflow also will increase heat or damp it down.
J: Definitely. A giant roaster will work too. I've used that before when making cookies: put the trivet down , and then put the cookies or pies on it and then put the lid on. It's a good way to for baking potatoes too. I cooked a Turkey dinner on there for Thanksgiving. It's convenient because we already have a fire going for heat why not use it for cooking? And keep a pot of water to have a hot water on the stove in the morning to wash hands.
M: Those have been some excellent tips and I can't wait to try it. Now, when you're elevating the things up from the bottom, is that to lower the temperature so as to now scorch or burn something?
J: Exactly. That's why it's good to have different levels. It's kind of like a convection oven where it's getting the heat all around the entire pan. You don't want anything so snug that air can't get around. You want two inches around each side so that the air can circulate.
M: I've seen where you can purchase online a metal box that you can attach to a chimney and bake in there. It's seems really cool because when we lose power here, which is often, I think that might come in handy. Up until recently when we lost power we didn't have running water. We always had an emergency water supply but no running water but we could only store so much. And with being one of the last to be restored because we're so rural it could be up to one to two weeks before power is back on. That emergency water supply can be depleted very quickly. So we recently bought a generator to run the water pump. It doesn't run the hot water tank but that's not a big deal. Having that running water is a game changer.
J: I can totally relate on so many levels. Like I said, we waited two years with the hole in the ground just to get the deep well hooked up. Even still, it's not hooked to the house but at least there's a spigot right outside the house and in the summertime we can hook them together with hoses and water from the new well can be in the house. When we have a ton of pressure like that I can run my washing machine. Right now I can't run my washing machine because we can only hook up to the old well because the weather doesn't allow us to have the hoses out without them freezing. So now I'm back to the laundromat.
I'm very thankful to be here though. My husband build our house. He cut the trees down, milled the wood (or had it milled) and build the house slowly as we could so it's been a gradual journey.
M: When you first moved there 25 years ago, was that when you got married?
J: My husband bought the property from his dad in 1992. We married in 1993 and we've been here ever since. We've just slowly added on over the years. Running water in 2000. It's funny because we went from not having running water to having it nor power to having computer, cell phones and a satellite dish. It all came in within a 12 month period.
M: So it was pretty much raw land then when he first got there. So you have developed it.
J: In the pictures you can see where he cut down the forest and leveled it, turning it into a super productive garden. I call it the mini-farm. Right now he struggles to grow enough food for us but eventually we'd like to be market farmers or maybe seed farmers or have animals, grow enough chicken food for our chickens. Or Mike (Jackie's husband) would like to grow wheat for our own bread. Every year it seems like we get closer but yet it's still seems overwhelming.
M: I think with us homesteaders we have so many dreams and goals because we're not just gardeners or self-sufficient like living without power or running water. Or figuring out way to cook on your wood stove without relying on an electric or propane stove, or learning how to grow as much as possible to sustain your needs such as making your own soaps and salves. We have so many facets to this lifestyle and so many things that we want to do because we want to do it all. We're go getters, big dreamers. It is easy to feel overwhelmed sometimes. But if you look back, like with your story, to see how far you've come from when you started.
J: I look back at lists, I'm a big journaler and I look back and remember that it felt like we've never be able to have something like that deep well and now we've had it for so long that it just seems natural. Before we got the shallow well, we were hauling five gallon buckets of water and had to constantly search out sources to obtain that water. So you're really thrifty with it.
For example, when watering the garden, we were only watering the plants that we were trying to grow, not anywhere else. So that cut back on weeds tremendously. We also started with small beds to grow in. I think they were four by eight. Now that he has the sprinkler for the mini farm there's more available water which means more weeds. The best way that we've found to keep weeds out is to stay on top of pulling them and mulching.
M: That is so true. I love how you've looked back at things that were an inconvenience but realize that there was a good part to it. I like to use soaker hoses now instead of that sprinkler because it direct spots the water so we get fewer weeds. So you started out with a couple of garden beds but have increased the amount of food your growing, right?
J: Yeah, I think the first year Mike planted the mini farm, which would have been around 2014 or 2015, he grew four times as much food as we had ever grown in the first 20 years. And then the next year it was 10 times that. It's been exponential ever since.
I'm a teacher by trade and would have to stay near my job and come home on the weekends. I stayed in an apartment where I the cutest little herb garden and arugula in a little bed that Mike made for me out of a piece of gutter. That arugula gave me so much flavor on sandwiches and that little bit of fresh green in the middle of winter in the middle of Montana where it's very expensive to get fresh produce…I just loved that.
M: It is amazing the flavor difference of homegrown. I think more people would eat vegetables if they had the homegrown variety.
What do you feel are your best tips that you got that really helped you go from where you were to where you are now?
J: The number one thing is definitely healthy soil. Preparing your soil. Anna Hess has a good book out that talks about her favorite cover crops to grow. And then there's chop and drop, cutting back flowers just when they're pretty and blooming. I'd just repeat this mantra, “I'm feeding the soil, I'm feeding the soil, I'm feeding the soil.” So just start with your soil. You're going to get the most nutrient dense vegetables from healthy soil.
Go with native plants, things that grow really well in your climate. Find those varieties that work really well. Mike got some corn seeds that originated in Russia from Rocky Mountain See Alliance. He's seed saved those corn seeds so now we have seeds that are more acclimated to our climate and now has more success with those seeds. So finding local seeds is another key.
Another tip is regarding time. I think a lot of people think all the work is in the beginning of the season, in the spring but to me the toughest part is getting through August when all your weeds are coming up and all your harvest is coming on and your tired and hot.
There was summer where I had to stand there and water for 90 minutes because we have such a small amount of water. The hose would do a circle that was three feet round and I would have to move it every six minutes. We've learned that watering makes a big difference. Like with our orchard…I think it would produce way more. We struggle with the water piece to keep the fruit trees watered in our dry Montana climate. Despite that, I wish we had put the fruit trees in sooner.
M: Do you get a lot of snowfall and then dry in the summer months or are you dry and cold all year?
J: It depends on the year. It's definitely a drier climate. And definitely cold. We can get really hard freezes in the winter. And snow, just last year we got the first snows the beginning of March…and it was a ton of snow. It was the craziest year ever. I think as our climates are changing and doing different things to adjust to those new climates is a big part of the challenge. Things that worked for Mike 20 years ago when we were first starting out don't always work today because of the weather.
One thing that surprised me, and you talk a lot about this in your shows, is collecting data. I went back through garden journals that we've been keeping for all our years. They're not the most detailed but I have all the first planting dates and was surprised that out of 20 years, he usually starts April 7th and April 14th. Our seasons so short that we have to get everything in as soon as possible. Then it all comes in at the same time. At the same time, if you don't get something in early enough, such as sunflowers, they may grow and flower but not necessarily go to seed.
M: It's great that you have that data that you've recorded. It's so important to do that because you can look at the internet or different resources that tell you general information for your location but there's nothing like having your own data for your exact microclimate in your exact zone on your own property. It's interesting that it's been fairly consistent year after year, within that week period. But that's good because now you know when to have everything ready and plan your schedule around those dates to get your crops in on time.
J: It's true. I have a friend who lives eight miles north of me that lives in town, she's three weeks ahead of us on the growing season. And people 15 miles south of us are three weeks on the other side of the growing season.
M: I have a friend in Idaho who gardens as well. I've told her when we're getting bombarded with snow and in a day or two it's going to hit you. And it usually does. If you go 30 miles down, about have an hour away from us down the mountain their fruit trees bloom at least three weeks before ours. That lets me know when we should expect ours to start blooming so if there was something I didn't get done, like pruning, I know I have to get on it before they flower.
Those were some awesome tips. Is there anything else that you've learned that would like to share?
J: Put in perennials that come back year after year. Start with herbs. They're good for bringing in beneficial insects and good for bees are are easy. You can put them in the ground and they'll keep coming back for years.
I work during the summer so I'm gone at least eight hours a day with an hour commute each way. With running errands I'm lucky if I feel like I have energy to make dinner so I try to find things that are simple and to be realistic about how much time something will take. I would say that one big tip is to control myself and don't go crazy. I have an addiction to buying seeds, even if I buy them online I'm still in the grocery store buying more, asking Mike if we can plant something. He's not afraid to tell me no, I can't plant them because they need three months to grow and it's the middle of July. He often tells me next year.
Growing what you really want to eat is important. I always have tons of stuff that I'm not as big a fan of that then wish I had more of what I do want. One thing I'm really glad about is at the end of the year making note of what I want more of and what I want to to try the next year.
M: It's also good to note that your tastes change over time. I love beets and I have to keep increasing the amount of beets because I eat way more than I used to.
Jackie Marie Beyer and her husband Mike have been homesteading together in Northwest Montana for over 25 years, having spent 6 years without electricity or running water. Their goal is to grow as much of their own organic produce as they can and someday possibly become market farmers, but in the meantime, Jackie launched the Organic Gardener Podcast five years ago where she has been interviewing backyard gardeners, market farmers and nutrition & sustainable agriculture experts from around the world learning the best techniques to grow the most nutritious food in the easiest manner!