Living the Sustainable Life

Deborah Niemann

A number of years ago, Deborah Niemann was shocked to learn that a cheeseburger and fries wasn’t a healthy meal. Meat, dairy and vegetables, right? Talk about doing a 360…

In 2002, she and her husband moved their family of five to a 32-acre farm just outside Cornell, Illinois, to have better control of the food they ate. Having raised just two cats and a poodle prior to her move, Niemann’s journalistic instinct went into high gear as she began scouring the Internet for information about what types of goats would be best for her farm and reading up on how to can the tomatoes she began planting from seeds.

Niemann now educates others about how to live a sustainable life. She speaks regularly at events and conferences and recently released her book, Homegrown & Handmade: a practical guide to more self-reliant living, as a way to teach others about her experience.

“I made a lot of mistakes when I got started, and it seemed a waste for all my hard-earned knowledge to just stop with me,” Niemann says. “I’m happy to share everything I’ve learned, and a lot of this information is not in any other book. For example, lots of books tell you that you only need one rooster for every 10 or 20 hens, but no one tells you why you don’t want too many roosters. My book does!”

Niemann asserts the timing is right for a book like this. “When we started telling our friends we were going to move out to the country in 2002 to start growing our own food, they thought we had lost our minds,” she says. “I don’t think they expected us to stick it out. But today, people think we’re cool. Attitudes have changed tremendously in the past decade.”

Part of the reason for this trend is because both food security and food safety are at the forefront of our daily news. People are more concerned about their health, and many have realized that their diet is to blame for many of their health problems, according to Niemann. But she is quick to point out that you don’t need to move to the country to live a more sustainable lifestyle. While you may not be able to raise goats or chickens on most Chicagoland properties, there are plenty of other ways you can incorporate healthy living into your daily routine.

“Growing sprouts and herbs in your kitchen are two very simple things that anyone can do,” Niemann offers. “I still do those things, even though we have all this land to grow things. If I want basil in the middle of winter, I have to grow it in my kitchen, and fresh sprouts are just the most delicious! If you have a yard, you can grow a lot more in a small space than you might think.”

Her book is full of advice for novices and seasoned gardeners alike. As seed catalogs begin arriving this month, Niemann urges us to take a closer look at the catalogs and consider buying seeds there, rather than from the discount garden centers.

“Seeds from discount stores tend to have a very low germination rate,” she notes. “This is something that I read on the Yahoo groups from more experienced gardeners, but I had to learn on my own. The other thing is that although those seed packets look cheap, they often have very few seeds, especially when you’re talking about beans and corn.”

Niemann suggests outdoor gardening, even if you have a small space, as one of the easiest things to do. “Although gardening might sound like a time-consuming hobby, the average gardener spends about five hours a week in their garden, so that’s less than an hour a day, and most Americans could use more exercise.”

For those with a yard, she believes a fruit tree is among the best investments of both time and money. “For 20 dollars, you can plant a fruit tree, and in a few years, you’ll be getting fresh fruit,” she says. “Trees require very little attention after the first year. And even if you completely ignore them, they’ll produce every other year.”

Niemann stresses that it’s not as important what you do, as long as you begin doing something. Homegrown and Handmade is a guide—each chapter details what to consider, how much time and investment it will take and even provides, “I wish I had known,” callouts with advice culled from her experiences.

The book also includes more complicated instructions, like making your own soap or cheese, which some people may never want to do, says Niemann. “But I think it’s also good to know how those things are made, because even if you are not going to make them yourself, it makes you a smarter consumer. The more you know about the process, the more you appreciate organic food.”

Learn more directly from Deborah Niemann at 4:30 p.m., January 22, at Women and Children’s First Bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, 5233 N. Clark St., Chicago.

Megy Karydes often romanticizes about moving to the country and raising her own chickens. In the meantime, she happily grows more than half a dozen vegetables in her city garden and is excited that she planted her garlic bulbs on time this past fall. Connect with her at

Deborah Niemann Cookbook

You Can Win This Cookbook!

Win your own autographed copy of this month’s featured book, Homegrown and Handmade: a practical guide to more self-reliant living, by Deborah Niemann. It includes yummy recipes, gardening tips and ideas to live a more sustainable life–even in the city! To enter, visit:

Visit to find more of Deborah Niemann’s winter-warming soup recipes.


Creamy Heirloom Tomato Soup

Makes 4 servings.

2 lbs frozen orange or yellow tomatoes
1 tsp garlic salt
Creamy Heirloom Tomato Soup Recipe
1 tsp paprika
1/8 tsp cayenne
2 tsp oregano
1 tsp basil
¼ cup butter
¼ cup flour
1¼ cups whole milk

Cover the bottom of the pot with about half an inch of warm water and place it on medium heat. Tomatoes only need to be thawed enough to break into pieces. Once the tomatoes are thawed by the heat, add spices and stir. Use an immersion blender (also known as a stick blender) to blend the tomatoes until smooth. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a separate saucepan and whisk in the flour until it is a smooth paste. Add milk to the pot with the tomatoes, and then whisk the paste into the blended tomatoes and milk. Mix well and continue to stir until mixture boils. Turn off heat as soon as it boils. The total time from start to finish is about 20 minutes, which is quicker than takeout.

Creamy Southwest Corn Chowder

Makes 4 servings.

¼ pound butter (1 stick)
¼ cup of flour
1 quart goat milk (can substitute whole milk from store)
Creamy Southwest Corn Chowder Recipe
1 pound corn
2 cups shredded potatoes (fresh or frozen)

1 cup salsa
1 tsp garlic powder
1 t. onion powder
½ tsp salt

Melt butter in a saucepan and whisk in flour. Let bubble a minute or so while whisking and add milk. Continue stirring over medium heat. When it starts to thicken and bubble, add remaining ingredients, turn heat to low and let simmer 10 minutes. Serve with crushed tortilla chips on top as garnish, if desired.

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