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Renee-Lucie BenoitI was going to write about how to make a tortilla press this week. I had been hankering for homemade tortillas for a while. Unfortunately, I am abysmal at making handmade tortillas thin and round, especially round. So I prevailed upon my Jack of All Trades and Master of Same to make me one. (If you're wondering that's my wonderful husband.) With me assisting, of course, camera and whatever skill I can muster we designed and built a tortilla press this past week. I am sad to report that it needs to go back to the drawing board. I'm sure we can solve the design issues this week and I'll tell you all about it in my next blog.

Anyway, that's the plan.

So instead of showing you how to make a homemade tortilla press using free materials around the farm I am going to share with you an unusual salad that is right in season and absolutely delicious. You might think it sounds weird but, trust me, even though it's one of those combinations that doesn't jump right out at you as being a good one. It is.

Fresh Peach and Roasted Bell Pepper Salad 

I got this recipe from a friend years ago and at the time I pretty much memorized it. It's a good thing, too. I have never been able to find the recipe anywhere since. Maybe I haven't looked hard enough.

Greek Fresh Peach and Roasted Bell Pepper Salad

Green bell pepper (bell pepper and peaches should be about equal in volume; half peaches, half peppers)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Cumin seed
Cayenne pepper
Fresh peaches in season (Freestone are easier to work with but you can use Cling as well. You can also use Nectarines.)
Lemon juice

Cut bell peppers in half and get rid of the seeds. Slice them in thin strips.

fresh peppers 

Put them in a bowl and sprinkle a bit of olive oil on them along with a little bit of sugar and salt and pepper. Mix with your hands to coat the strips. Preheat the oven to about 375 F. Put the bell pepper strips in to roast for about a half hour. After about 15 minutes, check them and turn them. You're looking for them to get brown around the edges.

browned peppers 

When they're browned take them from the oven and place them in a bowl. Now take about 1 teaspoon cumin seed and in a hot dry iron pan roast them until they turn a little brown. Be careful not to burn the seeds. If they start smoking, they've burned so you have to start over. Shake the pan as they brown. That will help them not to burn and for you to keep an eye on them.

When they're browned, immediately add them to the peppers. Add cayenne pepper to taste.

Peel and slice your peaches. Put them in with the bell pepper when the peppers are cooled. Give the whole she-bang a good squirt of lemon juice. The juice of one lemon should do it. Sprinkle with a little salt and serve. This is good as a side dish, or if it's a hot day, have a big glass of iced tea or chilled wine (or retsina or ouzo, whatever is your "pizen!") and just this salad for a light supper.


Renee-Lucie BenoitSorry about the bad pun, but honestly sometimes it seems mint comes to save the day. Right now we have a well-established bed of it in our garden, and I can find so many uses for it.

It's been terribly hot and dry so I've been picking it and drying it for tea. This mint is good now, but it will be especially good this winter. I've also been making small bundles and putting it in ice water for a little flavored water treat. If you like Mojitos like I do, the fresh mint just makes them special. If only I could be sitting in a bar in Cuba by the ocean instead of here. Oh, well, another lifetime.

Iced Mint Water or Tea

Pick mint in the morning when the oils are strongest. Rinse your mint clean then make a little bundle by wrapping a rubber band around the stems. Add the little bundle to ice water. Let steep for a few minutes and enjoy.

Mint Tisane

Pick a nice big bundle of mint.


As in the preceding recipe pick your mint in the morning when the oils are strongest. Rinse your sprigs clean and dry them gently. I take the leavings and sprinkle them around in my veggie garden as a natural pest deterrent. To dry them either hang the bundle in a hot dry room or porch out of the sunlight.


Then I just lay out the sprigs in one layer. I used my fig drying rack lined with a thin layer of cheesecloth.

mint as it's drying 

My fig drying rack is made out of some old hardware cloth that was leftover from some other project. It's perfect for getting the air circulating all around, which is what you want. If you prefer you can move to the Stoney Creek Valley where I live. The relative humidity is only about 20 percent. Everything dries out really fast!

I think they were dry the next day but I was busy so they went three days. On the third day, I rubbed the leaves off the stems and re-homed the one little spider that had decided to take up residence.

dried mint

Then I made some delicious tisane, which is what a non-caffeinated hot herbal beverage is called. I put some of our ranch honey in it.

tisane with honey


Renee-Lucie BenoitSummer is the time of travel for most people who have the leisure time or means. When I was young, we didn't travel muchm but when we did it was always a road trip. We all piled in the old Ford and as we got a block away my mom always forgot something and we'd go back. No kidding! This didn't make my dad happy but back we must go and then we were finally off. We were usually headed for my gramma's in Illinois or my other gramma's in Ohio. One special time we drove all the way to Los Angeles to visit my aunt and uncle. We used old route 66. It was just a highway then and there wasn't anything special about it.

We loved going on road trips. I still do to this day. In Illinois we would head over to our cousin's farm where we got to mess around in the yard and play under the gigantic elm trees doing whatever a child could dream up. We'd hop on the pony and ride pell mell through the corn fields. At night we'd have a big dinner under the shady trees and out would come all the amazing dishes that Illinois farmers can make. Twice cooked chicken, potato salad, baked beans, jello salad, coleslaw and miles of homemade pies. All washed down with homemade lemonade. All American and the best there is.

In Ohio there was boating on Mosquito Lake or roaming the deep dark creek bottom in the woods behind my aunt and uncle's house. There was also the huge barn to explore on Gramma's farm and the pond where frogs and crawdaddies lived submerged in the pond weeds. We youngsters could spend hours in the row boat waiting for a frog or crawdaddy to pop up its head. They always escaped but that didn't stop us from trying to catch them. There were also the land crab houses in the ditches by the roads. Little mud pillars. We didn't have a clue what was making them. We thought it all utterly fascinating.

One of the things we loved most about the drive was the excitement of coming upon the string of Burma Shave signs that eventually would appear.


Sign courtesy

Burma-Shave was introduced in 1925 by a company owned by Clinton Odell. The company's original product was a liniment made of ingredients described as having come "from the Malay Peninsula and Burma." Since this product didn't take off the company sought to expand sales by introducing a product with wider appeal.

Burma-Shave was a brand of brushless shaving cream. At its peak, Burma-Shave was the second-highest-selling shaving cream in the United States. Sales declined in the 1950s, and in 1963 the company was sold to Philip Morris. Some of the signs were removed but not all and that's how we came to know about Burma Shave.

In case you're out and about and nearby, examples of Burma-Shave signs are in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and on part of the original Route 66 between Ash Fork, Arizona, and Kingman, Arizona, and on Old U.S. Highway 30 near Ogden, Iowa, which is west of Boone. The old Lincoln Highway, Highway 30, runs right smack dab through the middle of my old home town of Marshalltown.

Here are some Burma Shave jingles that I particularly like:

Every shaver / Now can snore / Six more minutes / Than before / Burma-Shave

Your shaving brush / Has had its day / So why not / Shave the modern way / Burma-Shave

Cheer up face / The war is past / The "H" is out / Of shave / At last / Burma-Shave

Shaving brushes / You'll soon see 'em / On the shelf / In some / Museum / Burma-Shave

Does your husband / Misbehave / Grunt and grumble / Rant and rave / Shoot the brute some / Burma-Shave

Train approaching / Whistle squealing / Stop / Avoid that run-down feeling / Burma-Shave

Keep well / To the right / Of the oncoming car / Get your close shaves / From the half pound jar / Burma-Shave

Hardly a driver / Is now alive / Who passed / On hills / At 75 / Burma-Shave

Past / Schoolhouses / Take it slow / Let the little / Shavers grow / Burma-Shave

If you dislike / Big traffic fines / Slow down / Till you / Can read these signs / Burma-Shave

Don't take / a curve / at 60 per. / We hate to lose / a customer / Burma-Shave

If you / Don't know / Whose signs / These are / You can't have / Driven very far


Renee-Lucie BenoitHere's a great recipe for hot summer nights. It's frozen. What could be better? Plan ahead because you have to freeze it each time you add a layer. For example, it might be best to start in the morning if you want to eat it at night.

This frozen treat has its own page in Wikipedia, that online encyclopedia. I suppose every famous cookie has its own, but I think it's kind of funny. I grew up in the days when every child worth her salt had her own Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book in the family library. I can't imagine cookies being in an encyclopedia but maybe they were. I was too busy studying the natives of New Guinea with the amazing bones in their noses! Cannibals! Now that's a worthy subject. We didn't have any of those in Iowa and I hope we don't have any now.


My version is vegan and gluten free.

So it amused me to see that the humble Nanaimo cookie bar has its own Wikipedia page. I first tasted Nanaimo Bars when we were in my dad's home province of Quebec, Canada. Dad grew up in Quebec on the Ottawa River right across from Ontario. The bars were super scrumptious if you like the combination of almonds, coconut and chocolate. Now that I think of it they are the same flavor as Mounds bars. So there ya go. If you like Mounds bars you'll like Nanaimo bars. Wikipedia says they are "Canada's Favorite Confection." They get their name from the little town of Nanaimo in British Columbia where someone won a prize for making them. The city makes their claim to fame by posting the recipe on their website.

In 1954, the recipe "Mabel's Squares" was published in "The Country Woman's Favorite" by the Upper Gloucester Women's Institute in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia. The recipe was submitted by Mrs. Harold Payne, the daughter of Mabel Knowles Scott (1883-1957). The ingredients list, quantities and method closely match the recipe found on the City of Nanaimo website.

My recipe is the vegan, gluten free and low carbohydrate version.

Nanaimo Bars

1  1/2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
1  1/2 cups skinless almond flour (I used skinless almonds and ground them to a fine powder in the food processor.
1/2 cup coconut oil, softened
1/4 cup cocoa powder
10 pitted dates chopped into little pieces
A few pinches of salt

2 cups cashews (soak them in water for 2 hours or more)
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup coconut oil, softened
1/4 teaspoon salt

Chocolate topping:
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
A pinch of salt

For the crust: Add everything to your food processor and process with the knife blade for a few seconds to blend. It should stick together slightly. Add a little water if you need to or a couple more dates. Press into a 9-inch-square pan. Put the crust in the freezer.

Filling: Add cashews, water, maple syrup, vanilla, coconut oil and salt to food processor fitted with knife blade. You can use a blender if you don't have one. Blend until smooth and creamy. Pour over crust and smooth. Freeze for 2 hours.

Chocolate topping: Put maple syrup, coconut oil, cocoa powder, vanilla and salt in blender or food processor fitted with the knife blade. Blend until creamy. Spread over filling and freeze for 4 hours.

Cut and serve. Serves 9 to 18 depending on how big you make the bars.


Renee-Lucie BenoitI'm not from the South, but one thing I've heard that they make a lot down there is cornbread. You know I was "born in the corn" (Iowa) so that's right up my alley. However, I have a somewhat different way of making cornbread. It's not for all you people out there who just want to mix up the batter and stick 'er in the oven. That's great! I have an old-fashioned way that is supposed to make the corn more digestible and to give up more of its nutrients. Give it a try. It's almost like spoonbread. I love cornbread that's very moist. This is it. I hope you enjoy it. Oh, and by the way if you have collard greens or kale growing in your garden right now, this cornbread is really wonderful with greens. I'll include my Brown Butter Greens recipe, too. It's easy as pie. I can make a meal of these two items all by themselves.

Chile Cheese Cornbread


1  1/2 cups lime water (see below)
2 cups freshly ground cornmeal or packaged cornmeal
1/2 cup freshly ground spelt, whole wheat flour or packaged white unbleached flour
1/2 cup unbleached white flour (if all you have is white flour then it will be a total of 1 cup)
1 cup buttermilk or yogurt
3 eggs lightly beaten
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 cup melted butter
1 cup grated mexican style cheese
1 small diced green chile (I use jalapeno)

(Lime water: Place 1 inch pickling lime in a 2-quart jar. Fill jar with filtered water and shake well. Cover tightly and let stand overnight. The powder will settle and the resultant liquid will be your lime water. It's not necessary to refrigerate. Just set it in a cool place. To use, just pour out the clear part carefully.

pickling lime

Soaking cornmeal is said to improve the amino acid quality and also makes certain B vitamins more available.)

lime soak

Soak cornmeal in lime water for about 7 hours.

Stir in flours and buttermilk and let stand in a warm place for 12 to 24 hours. It will rise better if you do this.


Blend in remaining ingredients.


Pour into a buttered and floured 9-by-13-inch Pyrex baking pan. Bake at 325 F for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Greens in Brown Butter With Pepper Flakes

Pick a bunch of greens, rinse and cut out the tough spines.


Tear or cut into large pieces.


In the meantime, put a big pot of water with a handful of salt on to boil. When the water is boiling, dump your greens into the pot and let them boil for a scant minute or two. We're not trying to cook them. We're just parboiling them to soften them a bit. (By the way, use your cooled cooking water for soup or any other thing you can think of. Maybe just drink it!)


On the side, take your iron skillet and put a 1/4 cup butter in it. Melt the butter and let it brown. Don't let it burn.


Drain your greens and immediately put them into the hot pan. It will spatter. Stir the greens around to coat with butter. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper and red pepper flakes to your liking.


Serve with Chile Cheese Cornbread.



Renee-Lucie BenoitYou could say it's in my blood. Or not. It depends on what side of the family you're viewing me from. If you look from the French side of my family you would say, well, if you're from the Alsace-Lorraine area of France I might give you that. If you look at me from the German side you'd say slam dunk! I don't have a clue where my French relations got on the boat for their sail across the pond. The closest I can get is Canada so today we're going to look at me from my German side of the family.

Back to my original statement: It's in my blood. That is to say, sauerkraut is in my blood. Well, not strictly speaking. That would be pretty weird even though I can be quite sharp but only now and then, please, like when I whack my thumb with a hammer. Otherwise, I'm like strudel. No, really I am. Trust me. Oh, well ....

Today I made sauerkraut. Actually, today I finished my sauerkraut and put it in a dispenser for when I make the greatly anticipated meal of bratwurst and new potatoes. Sauerkraut doesn't have to be in your blood but it helps. Sauerkraut is really easy to make and good for you. My grandmother Frieda claimed she never got sick a day in her life because she always ate sauerkraut. This is pushing it a bit but I'm 100-percent positive it helped her stay healthy.

This is because the fermentation process that transforms salt and cabbage into sauerkraut increases the vitamins, particularly C and B vitamins, and food enzymes. Also, homemade sauerkraut is very rich in beneficial bacteria that help make our immune systems stronger and create essential vitamins in our digestive tracts. At any time of year, but especially winter when fresh food can be hard to come by, homemade fermented foods are really good to eat.

The key to making sauerkraut successfully is to have a crock or container that can be virtually closed off to the air. I have a large stoneware crock that has a pretty darn tight fitting plate to cover the fermenting kraut. I put a big bag of water on top of it so the kraut is completely submerged under its juices. Bacteria in the air, which can cause spoiling, cannot penetrate much so whatever does penetrate – because we're not talking hazmat suits in a clean room laboratory – is neutralized by the salt.


Crunchy yummy cabbage kraut. Not the insipid mushy canned kind. Which is good, too! But this is much better!


1 head organically grown cabbage about 3 to 5 pounds
1 tablespoon pickling or unrefined sea salt (read labels! You'd be surprised what they put in sea salt these days!)
1 teaspoon caraway seed (optional)

Core and shred your cabbage. I used a Cuisinart with the shredding blade. (I would have used my great-grandfather's kraut cutter but I loaned it to my Aunt J and she has it still!) Wash your hands thoroughly. Toss cabbage, salt and caraway seed – if you're using it – together in a large mixing bowl and begin to squeeze it all together with your hands, kneading it thoroughly.

When the cabbage starts to release juice, transfer it to your crock. Some people feel better investing in a fermenter. It's up to you. One thing I keep doing during the process is wash my hands. If I go off and do something, when I come back I wash my hands. We're just taking precautions not to get naughty inappropriate bacteria in with the kraut. Pack the salted cabbage into the crock or fermenter as tightly as you can, eliminating air bubbles. I use a clean wooden mallet or pestle and mash, mash, mash until the juices come up enough to cover the kraut. Don't worry about mashing it to a pulp. Cabbage has some pretty strong fiber in it.

Sometimes my cabbage doesn't produce a lot of liquid. It just has to cover the shredded cabbage so don't be concerned. If you don't get enough liquid to cover, mash more. You might have to mash for quite a few minutes. I'd also say make sure that your cabbage has been shredded pretty fine. It doesn't have to be shredded into a pulp but it has to be cut up quite small or thinly. Otherwise just mash and mash some more. If there are larger chunks it's OK. Just as long as most of it is fine, it will work.

Then I have a plate that fits into the crock so I almost can't get it out. But I can. I take a new zip lock bag, fill it with water and put it on top of the plate to hold the plate down. Juices will leak over the edge but that's OK. The bag will seal it off from the air. Cover the whole she-bang with cheese cloth or a light cloth, secure it and allow it to sit at room temperature, undisturbed, for at least 1 week. You can try some after a few days until it is done to your liking. If it's too salty you can rinse it in cold filtered water. Then eat it or put it in the fridge or other cold storage. It should keep for at least 6 months and up to 1 year, but it won't because you'll have eaten it all way before that.

If scum appears floating in the brine of your homemade sauerkraut, just spoon it off. You won't be able to remove it all, but spoon off what you can and don't worry about it. The real key to preparing homemade sauerkraut, and any fermented food, is that the liquid covers the cabbage.

Gesunder appetit!

bratwurst and sauerkraut | Fotolia/Brent Hofacker

Photo: Fotolia/Brent Hofacker


Renee-Lucie BenoitOne of my fondest childhood memories is playing in a gigantic white barn on my grandmother's farm in Ohio. It was like exploring the ruins of a Mayan temple. The huge main floor seemed like a dusty cathedral. The understory where many cows had lived was dark and mysterious. The pigeons flapping away in the rafters thrilled me. My grandmother's barn is long gone, but that experience has always stayed with me, which makes the story I am about to tell you all that much more special to me.

An amazing old post-and-beam timber-frame barn is on the outskirts of the little town of Chester, California. As you drive out Highway 32 on the east side of town, you'll turn your gaze south toward Lake Almanor and there, in a large meadow, is an imposing structure way back off the highway. You can tell it's a huge barn because it looks huge even at that distance. It's like some farm country Taj Mahal. The setting helps. It's smack dab in the middle of a wide open field. The field is flat as a pancake.


This timber frame barn, nearly 150 years old, is a celebration of wood on a massive scale.


The steep pitch of the roof enables snow to slide off easily. (Photo by Jan Davies)

I talked with Marilyn Quadrio, co-director of the Chester-Lake Almanor Museum and a local historian. Vanessa Vasquez of the Feather River Land Trust drove over from Quincy to give us a tour. It turns out the FRLT is making a campaign to buy and preserve the land and the barn so it was good timing.

Marilyn, who is a wonderful storyteller, told us the fascinating history of the early settlers. One of them was Melissa Bailey Olsen. Melissa was the matriarch of the family and a founder of Chester. Her husband, Peter Olsen, was a Norwegian immigrant who made his way to Plumas County via Pennsylvania. He was a master barn builder.

Have you ever thought about what goes into making a barn of this size? As I stood in the center of the barn gazing up into the rafters I was struck by the size and sheer volume of material needed to build it. Except for using the steam-powered saw mill, everything was constructed through manual labor. Even at the height of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, mass-produced materials had not reached the farm. The farmer found happiness through making things we get from catalogs today. Real joy came from designing and doing.

It almost goes without saying that the effort to raise this barn was enormous. The trees were felled by hand (they did not have chainsaws in 1870). The beams were hewn out of a single tree trunk with broad axes and adzes. The broad axe was used for chopping or notching and hewing square timbers. The adze was used for smoothing the timbers. Drills, chisels and mallets were used to form the mortises and tenon joinery. Very few nails were ever used. A maul, which is a heavy wooden mallet with iron reinforcing, was used to pound beams into place.

With pike poles and ropes, a team of laborers lifted the enormous bents. Bents are handmade prefabricated framed units of the barn that form the bays. The Olsen barn is a "basilican" plan. This plan was devised for barns when the span was too great for the rafters to take the load of the roof and too wide for a single horizontal beam. They used what are called "purlins." A purlin is a longitudinal member that supports the rafters in between the plates and the ridge. Posts and braces supported the purlin. Because of the size of the barn, purlins were used in the Olsen barn. The result is a central space called a "nave" – like in a church – and the galleries at the sides form the aisles – also like in a church. Depending on the purpose of the barn, the central area might be a threshing floor or, in the case of the Olsen barn, hay was stored there. The dairy cows were milked and fed in the aisles.


A cathedral of wood. (Photo by Jan Davies)


The mark of the adze. (Photo by Jan Davies)


A great horned owl says, "Thank you for my barn." (Photo by Jan Davies)

I made up my mind to calculate a rough estimate for how much material might go into a barn of this size. We didn't take our tape measure to the barn so we made an educated guess as to its size. We decided to estimate that the barn is 50 feet tall, 80 feet long and 50 feet wide. We estimated that the sides of the barn were 15 feet high and the roof is 80 feet long and 45 feet tall.

This reads like a book from the Bible. The book Numbers comes to mind. There would have been about 3,600 shake shingles that needed to be shaved. They would have needed about 376 boards for siding, and 82 individual lodge pole pines trees dressed out for the rafters. For the main beams, 40 trees would have had to be felled and made square. The trees would have been Douglas fir, red cedar or yellow pine. For the posts, they would have needed 54 more trees. Each post would have also been carved out of a single tree. Then they would have needed 54 braces, but they would not have to be from a single tree as they were smaller. Finally each beam and post would need to be carved to fit the mortise and tenon joints. In addition to all this, dowels were hand carved to fit the joints.


The mortise and tenon joints are invisible, but you can see the anchoring dowels.

Marilyn said, "The siding came from a 10- to 29-mile radius. There was plentiful timber everywhere, and sawmills processed the wood. The original roof was covered with handmade shake shingles. During the 19th century and even the early 20th, there were shake makers traveling up into the forests and shaving shakes all summer, but Peter made his own. The latches and gate hardware used on the barn were hand forged by local blacksmiths."

Here are some photographs of the Olsen family. Unfortunately there are no surviving photographs of the barn builder himself.

four Olsens 

George Olsen, second from left, with milk pails, Maude Gay, Ed Olsen's baby Freda, wife Carrie and son Bill.


Back row: George Olsen, Melissa's niece Blanche Stuckey, granddaughter Edith Martin, son Frank Bailey, niece Maude Gay, son Ed Olsen. Front row: Melissa Bailey Olsen, grandnephew Randall Gay, sister Elizabeth Stuckey.

Marilyn said, "The people living on the slopes of Mt. Lassen were isolated so they had to be self-reliant, and also reliant upon their neighbors. All this knowledge does not have to be lost. All we have to do is take an interest and it can be preserved."

My Barn

by Dean Hughes

Look there!
It stands today
As strong as six-score memoried years ago;
A big barn built to last the long rows of sleek cows,
In the stables underneath,
The long dark winter through.

                Examine, if you will,
These giant plates and beams,
These stalwart loins and limbs and thighs.
Each one was once upon a splendid time
A giant pine
Singing a hundred feet towards the skies,
Then topped to sixty feet of needed length,
Hewed from the round to fourteen inches square.

                See there!
The marks of the hewing axe and adze,
Swung straight and true.

                Read there the tale
Of toil and sweat and a fine pride
In shaping these great timbers.

                Stand with me
A wondrous moment.

                In that crafted tree
Is history enough of old great-grandsire times
A century ago and more.

                Those sheathing boards,
Those tenons, mortices and dowels,
Those thews and sinews,
Those mitres beveled true,
Fitted in tight embrace to fight the winds
And the strong side-thrust of the sheaves and hay.

                There stands my barn!

                                Monument to the past!
                                                Feast for the present!
                                                                Song for the future!

From the "The Barn: A Vanishing Landmark in North America" by Eric Arthur and Dudley Witney. Published by Galahad Books in 1972.

If you feel inspired to help save the Olsen barn, please contact Feather River Land Trust via the website, by phone at 530-283-5758, or via email.

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