A Jackie Clay-Atkinson Homesteading Seminar, Summer 2014

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Earlier this year, I had decided to give my wife for her birthday, the gift of attending a Jackie Clay-Atkinson seminar.  For those of you who might not know of Jackie, I submit the following from the Backwoods Home Magazine entry on Wikipedia, “Jackie Clay-Atkinson, an independent off-grid homesteader in northern Minnesota, writes articles on all aspects of self-sufficient living, from growing herbs to butchering elk. In addition, her “Ask Jackie” column answers questions from readers on many topics, with emphasis on home skills like safely preserving foods. She brings similar topics to her Backwoods Home blog.”  To find a list of Jackie’s articles at Backwoods Home Magazine, click on this link.  At first I had not planned to attend the 3-day seminar, but as time passed, and the date approached, I finally decided to see if there was room left in the seminar for me.  Fortunately there was, and in a effort to make it more than a purely educational endeavor, I decided to rent an RV and make a vacation of it.  Geri loved the idea of the RV, and on Thursday the 5th of June we headed for the far north of Minnesota, and the homestead of Jackie and her husband Will, just 90 miles from the Canadian border.

The trip was 12 hours more or less, with occasional stops for rest and to refuel.  On the drive, we listened to the audio-book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, by Michael Pollan. Audio-books, and podcasts, are both good ways of putting your daily commute, or a long drive, to productive or entertaining use; this book by Pollan was both entertaining and educational.  Pollan has written several other books, the most well know of which might be, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals; you can check out Michael’s author’s page on Amazon at this link.  If you are in need of a laugh, listen to A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson, though you will be laughing so hard you may not want to be operating heavy equipment at the time!

Geri had researched nearby campgrounds (“nearby” is a relative term in the expanse that is northern Minnesota), and we decided to stay the nights in McCarthy Beach State Park.  We arrived in the area Thursday night, and set up camp, which did not require a whole lot more that parking the RV and plugging it in, and that was about all we were up for after the long drive.  The mosquito population was impressive to say the least, both at the park and on Jackie and Will’s homestead, the worst they had seen in years.  We regularly slathered on Deep Woods Off, and did not have too much trouble.

On arrival at the homestead Friday morning, we were greeted warmly by Jackie, and were made to feel like long lost friends.  Aside from Geri and me, there were only five other seminar participants, Troy, Margie, Jessi, and Richard and Patty, which made for a great learning environment, and fostered friendships we hope to enjoy for years to come.  Included in the seminar agenda were:

  • Using carpentry tools and  chainsaws safely
  • Basic homestead building skills
  • Slip-form concrete work
  • Growing more challenging garden vegetables; getting more out of your garden
  • Veterinary care for homestead animals and poultry
  • Raising baby animals and poultry
  • Grafting fruit trees and fruit tree varieties for your orchard, and
  • Self-reliant living on a shoestring
Jackie showing us one of her Victoria rhubarb plants.  In the background on the left is the structure of one of their hoop houses.  The green cone shapes in the left of the frame are “Walls-O-Water” around tomato plants, these allow planting up to six weeks earlier than otherwise.

The first day included a guided tour of the homestead by Will and Jackie.  This was of course more than just a tour, as we students were also asking questions throughout, and listening intently to the answers.  I took copious notes.

I definitely learned new things, and things I already knew were reinforced, chief among them that I can succumb to making things a lot more involved than they need to be.  Sometimes it is more productive to just “go,” be done with the planning, “just do it,” and learn by the doing.  For example, I was struck by how close Jackie and Will were to satisfying all of their electric power needs with only a small (400W as I recall) wind generator, and an even smaller (about 200W if memory serves) photovoltaic array.  This system was a prime example of “self-reliant living on a shoestring.”  Is the system perfect?  No, and as has often been said, “perfect is the enemy of good enough.”  Jackie and Will are learning by experimenting, while most others are still thinking about it.  They were running a generator for a couple of hours a day, though with a little more “green” energy generation and storage, they will leave behind the need for regular use of the gasoline-powered generator.

Left: Will describing the design and build of the hoop houses; dimensional treated lumber, “1 in. S40 Rigid PVC Conduit Max 90 deg C Sunlight Resistant,” and greenhouse plastic, are its primary constituents.  Just at Will’s right shoulder, in the background, is one of their Boer/Nubian-cross goats for milk production.  Right:  Will demonstrates the use of a Oscar 121 wood mill, as Troy looks on.  The base for the mill makes use of a re-purposed mobile home base-frame.

The orchard was another opportunity to ask myself the question, “what on earth am I waiting for?”  No doubt we have all experienced it; we are stopped by fear of the unknown, or fear of failure, when having finally made the move, if ever, we find that it was not close to as bad as we thought it might be.  In the orchard I am specifically referring to the process of grafting.  First of all, it had never occurred to me to graft onto the 20 or 25 crab apple trees that are already established and thriving on our homestead.  Maybe I should take another step back; at first I did not know that grafting was required!

One of the trees in the orchard.  See the trunk protector.  What appears to be hay around the base of the tree is in fact hay mixed with manure.  The orchard is protected from deer by 2 in. by 4 in. mesh, 6 ft high fencing, on 8 ft. posts that were placed 15 ft. apart.

Most apples that you buy at the store, I dare say all, will not grow “true” from seed.  That is to say, if you save the seeds from a Pink Lady apple, one of my favorites, and plant it, it will not grow to produce Pink Lady fruit.  The way to grow Pink Lady apples, is to get scion from a tree that is yielding Pink Lady apples, and graft that into the stock of another tree, which has been selected for its hardy root stock.  According to Merriam-Webster, a scion is “a detached living portion of a plant (as a bud or shoot) joined to a stock in grafting.”  Grafting is “the technique most commonly used in asexual propagation of commercially grown plants for the horticultural and agricultural trades.”  Grafting onto our crab apple trees is high on my list for the spring of 2015.

The group asked many questions during the tour, and we had a lot of conversation about many of the productive plants growing on the homestead, including asparagus, onions, cherries, tomatoes, apples, and so on.  Invariably the following phrase was heard when on the subject of creating fertile soil, “mo’ pooh pooh.”  We heard this so often that I believe it can be said to have become the class motto!

On Saturday we learned about canning, cheese-making, dehydrating, seed saving, and chicken-keeping, among other things.  At the end of the day, I wrote the following in my notebook:
“Day 2 take-aways

Jackie in the canning process, Patty in the background.  Note the All American 921 on the front left burner.

– canning is not rocket science, go do it
– canning meat is no big deal
– dehydration, no problem…”

Does that sound familiar?  Of course it is a big deal, to the uninitiated, as was the grafting we had learned about on Friday.   It became much less intimidating after working with Jackie in the kitchen.  I was especially interested in the process of canning meats, like chicken for example.  You can read all about canning in Jackie’s books on the subject, which you can find on my references page; look under the “Gardening / Food Preservation / Cooking” heading.  And, this is also the day that Jackie bailed me out, because one of other gifts I had given Geri on her birthday was an All American 921 21-1/2-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner.  When I gave her the canner, Gina and Peter agreed that the only thing less appropriate that I could possibly have given would have been the proverbial vacuum cleaner!  From my point of view, as an engineer, this piece of equipment is a masterpiece of engineering, a simple yet elegant solution, beautiful to look upon, and functional, not to mention bulletproof; it will literally last a lifetime, and more.  Seeing Jackie in action with her own 921 was thankfully enough to redeem Geri’s respect for my gift-giving abilities.

Jackie adding milk to the pot in the making of lemon cheese.  She’s working on a propane-fired range, check out the old wood burning stove to the left of the frame.
Jackie separating the whey from the lemon cheese curds using the old t-shirt.

We also learned about cheese-making, in perhaps one of its simplest incarnations, so-called lemon cheese.  This cheese takes no more than a large pot, a spoon, a thermometer, milk (in this case raw milk provided by Troy), lemon juice, and a cheese cloth, or, when living on a shoe string, an old t-shirt.  The result is a ricotta-like cheese of very mild flavor.  There are also all sorts of uses for the whey, so that by-product of the process can be saved.

Throughout the weekend, our food needs were well met by two of Jackie’s close friends, Jeri, not to be confused with my Geri, and Linda.  As Jackie had assured me in an email leading up to the workshop, “We provide a huge country-style meal around noon each day…nobody ever leaves the table hungry!!”  Jeri and Linda delivered on that promise.  These two were just a hoot, and being homesteaders themselves, brought a lot to the seminar aside from the delicious meals.  We were all impressed when Linda pulled out her homemade electric spinning wheel and began to spin wool yarn from washed fleece.  It is truly humbling to see how things were done by so many just a few short decades ago, and are still being done by a few today.  I think we all had fun watching, and listening to Linda describe the process.

Linda spinning wool and teaching, while Geri listens and learns.

On Sunday we got some training in administering meds to animals or humans by injection, and to suturing.  Jackie has years of experience in caring for animals, and it was great be able to pick up even a little of what she has learned.

We split up later on Sunday, I and a few others went with Will to learn about slip form concrete work.  Will is building a barn, and is including a concrete and stone knee-wall on the perimeter.  One or more slip-forms is built, and then used as a form into which the concrete is poured.  When a section has been poured and set, the form is then removed and re-positioned to create the next section of the wall.  It is customary to coat the form with some sort of releasing agent, such as used motor oil, to make it easier to remove the form from the wall after it has set.  Several of us worked with Will to pour two sections of the wall.  Will had already poured the footing and put the slip forms in place, so we selected stones and positioned them in the form, and then mixed and poured the concrete.

Looking down into a slip form, the footing is visible; reinforcing bar (re-bar) strengthens the structure.  Also, note the twisted wire, which prevents the sides of the form from bowing out when the form is filled with concrete.


Stones positioned in the form

Will showed us how to mix the concrete, using cement, sand and gravel from their property, and water.  The mixer was powered by a portable generator.  This was our last “class” of the weekend, and gave us a chance to get our hands dirty and actually help, if only a little.

During the seminar I had collected the email addresses of the participants, and promised to share those after we returned home.  It is hard to describe how good we felt then, so I will simply quote from my email to Jackie and Will, and our fellow seminar-goers:  “There were some wet eyes as we departed Jackie and Will’s homestead.  We learned so much, and it was so comfortable to be among kindred spirits.  We felt like we were leaving old friends.  I have not even begun to review and take action on all the notes I made during the seminar.  So, to Jackie and Will, our heartfelt thanks, for both a great education, and a great time, on your homestead.  I miss the conversations the most.  And please extend our thanks to Jeri and Linda; the food was simply amazing, and they also introduced us to a number of other skills.”

Will and Troy preparing the concrete

Perhaps we will have a chance to repeat the experience in the future, or maybe even to host our own seminar.  It would be almost impossible to match either the homesteading experiences, or the hospitality, that we enjoyed at the hands of our hosts, Jackie and Will.

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.

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— John, 11 August 2014

Jackie Clay-Atkinson and Will Atkinson’s Homesteading Class of June 2014
L-R: Jessi, John, Geri, Jackie, Troy, Will, Margie
Not Pictured: Richard, Patty