Category Archives: homestead

A Different Path

Spirit of Life, Saratoga

Almost 4 years ago we moved from one coast to the other and our lives changed in a lot of ways. One was a huge cut to our overall income. This put us on a different path, and I honestly feel like we are much better for it.

It is easy from time to time to get off the path. Sometimes less important things or people creep in and cause a lot of distraction and I forget the end goals.

Recently I joined a discussion group on Voluntary Simplicity organized by Jillian. She wrote a great post about it which I strongly suggest you read if this sort of thing strikes your fancy. I had to miss the first two meetings but I have done all of the readings and really like the course so far.

Week Three’s topic was work. Just in our small group I realized that I am in a minority (I think) when it comes to how I view satisfying work. To me work is very physical. If I’m not manipulating things it doesn’t seem very gratifying.

Most of my “work” now belongs to the things I do at home. It isn’t necessarily the most fun, and I’m certainly not getting evaluated on it or anything, but it’s important and I take pride in it.

I enjoy baking bread and making our Christmas gifts and sewing Halloween costumes. In a minute I’ll start working on chicken pot pie for dinner, but I already made the crust this morning with Jack. There will be something more special about dinner, because I made it myself. I put time and energy and thought into it, and to me that’s valuable work.

In the course of the discussion I mentioned skillful work and that I think it’s important for everyone to have some form of skill. You should have something you are good at that you could use to help you trade for some other good or service, if necessary.

Oddly, when I brought this up a woman in the group said, “Whoa this is sounding a little bit Tea Partyish if you ask me.” Whoa. Ok, I know not everyone has the same perspective as me, but when I think Voluntary Simplicity I think of living with minimal inputs, closer to nature, low tech.

People seem to forget that our “modern” way of life has been very brief when you look at the history of humans over time. It is amazing and interesting to be alive during this area, but there’s no way to sustain it for the long haul.

I want to put forth the energy and the time to learn skills that should not have been forgotten in the first place. I don’t choose to learn chicken butchery because I think it’ll be as fun as a walk in the woods. I do it because it empowers me and it adds to my own ability to sustain myself and my family.

Voluntary Simplicity, to me, is living with technology and modern life in a way that is fulfilling, not all encompassing. To be thankful and grateful for all that the modern world can do for us but to still be able to put up your own food, whether you choose to or not.

I’m not sure exactly how that has anything to do with people who can’t understand why we need taxes for roads and fire departments, but I guess everyone is allowed to have their own opinions. 🙂

(The course is through Northwest Earth Institute if you want to check it out.)

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Facing Reality

Dream farm drawn during a workshop exercise at the NOFA NY conference.

I’ve found that along my path to someday be a true homesteader/farmer it has really helped to learn from people who are currently doing what I plan to do eventually.

It’s one thing to get a book on how to do something, and it’s another to learn it from someone, even if learning that skill makes you realize how much you don’t want to continue doing something.

For instance, I’m used to the idea of year-round farming through my work with KFF. Michael has given many talks on winter growing and I’m used to our farmer’s market which operates all year. Because of this I just assumed I would take the same path.

All it took was 30 minutes of cleaning the dirty roots of scallions in a very cold washing shed one Friday to realize I should reconsider. As my hands were wet, and bright red from the cold, all I could think was that I really wanted to cry….a lot. I was in pain and uncomfortable and really hoped that every bunch would sell at market the next day to make it worth it.

I can’t say I will never grow anything in the cold season, but I certainly have a different perspective on it now.

A similar thing happened while reading The Dirty Life by Kristen Kimball. She talks a lot about their dairy cow and the daily chores that go along with having a dairy cow. Being honest with myself I realize that’s not something I want to deal with.

Part of me wishes that none of this were the case. It makes me feel foolish and weak, but there are certain aspects of who I am that I fear will never change, at least not easily. Waking at 5a.m. to milk a cow in the dark and freezing cold of winter sounds like something I would easily get immensely frustrated with. I’m glad I can acknowledge that part of me.

At the NOFA NY conference I was in a workshop and at one point we broke into small groups and had to draw our dream farm. There were no parameters. You weren’t supposed to think in a logical sense, you were supposed to go with what you would want if there were no limitations.

So I put aside any thoughts regarding “what we could afford” or “where the land might be” and just went with my ideal situation. In the end half the land was going to be for pastured animals, mostly pigs. The other half would be filled with vegetables, flowers, our home, a barn, a commercial kitchen, orchard, bees, and more. The property would be flanked by water and have a forest in the back where I could cultivate mushrooms.

As we went around and discussed our farms it occurred to me that what I really want is like a homestead on crack. I want enough land and the means to fully sustain our family, with enough room for a small CSA operation, value-added products, and enough pork for charcuterie.

This was a very important exercise in “truthiness” (thank you Stephen Colbert!) as well. It showed me that I don’t necessarily want to supply 100s of CSA shares, I’d rather put the time and energy into Chris’ meat business with some other products on the side.

Obviously things do change and flux over time, and I know in reality the property we may get might not have water on either side, or a forest, and we may never be able to afford a commercial kitchen, but it’s nice to have a vision to work toward and a way to keep my wandering mind in check.

These are the kinds of things I’d really rather come to terms with now than to end up with a bunch of sheep I don’t know how to care for just because they are cute and I can make yarn from their fleece. Believe me, mistakes will be made, but I’m just hoping that being honest with myself will prevent additional ones.

And Here We Go Again….

The couch next to me filled with all the necessary garden planning items.

Looks like I’m about a week ahead in terms of garden planning this year. Here is the post where I talked about my garden plan for 2011. Going to the NOFA-NY Winter Conference (here’s a recent post on that) invigorated me in terms of wanting to grow things.

Tonight I sat down with some paper, a pencil, my leftover seeds, and a few catalogs. First I wrote out what I already have, and then I went through to pick out what I might want this year.

I tried to be very realistic when choosing certain things. Last year’s garden wasn’t nearly as well thought out, and I ended up wasting tons of produce. It was really pathetic.

I foolishly grew too many tomatoes and I don’t really know why I grew Romas because I always get so many from work, it’s just crazy. I also ended up growing a type of of cherry tomato called a sungold. I got the starts from work and I’m pretty sure I grew 5 plants which produced like crazy. This year I’m going to grow one plant of yellow pear cherry tomatoes and be content.

Last year's leftovers.

I’ll be growing lots of greens. Most of them were purchased for our cold frame garden that didn’t end up happening this year, so instead I’m going to plant them right out in the garden. I will have one section for lettuce successions and another for cut-and-come-again plants like kale and chard.

I think I’ll throw in a few more broccoli varieties, and make sure to not let the transplants get too leggy this year. I also need to be better about removing the outer stems to promote better growth this time around.

Our cool pea trellis that Chris built last year is going to work hard this year. I plan to put peas on the front again but this year I’m going to plant two varieties of pole beans on the back.

It also looks as if I’ll be tearing up the other part of my front yard for herbs. There’s simply no way they will all fit in with the vegetables. Plus I feel like herbs are something I need easy access too, so a nice, narrow plot should suffice.

A few herb varieties are perennials so I may try to figure out a way to plant them somewhere separate like in my backyard. If I do this I’m going to have to put up a low fence around them otherwise my crazy dogs will trample them.

I’ve done a rough mock up of the garden but one of these days I’m going to go out and remeasure it so I can pin down the final version. I plan to compare the space needed for each vegetable with the actual space so I’m not caught off guard at the end of spring. I also don’t want to accidentally start too many seedlings.

I’ll keep updating things as the season progresses too. What are you planning to grow?

The Juggler

It’s very fitting that one of the projects I’m working on right now is a home organization binder. I sort of already have one, but I’m aiming to make one that I will really use and will make me feel like less of a…juggler.

I say “one of the projects” because I’m currently working on many different things. I’m on the tail end of food preservation (tonight I made canned apple pie filling), I’m ramping back up my knitting and crocheting, I need to practice treadling on my spinning wheel, I’m making a cool recipe binder, regular cooking/cleaning, work, teaching, making Halloween costumes, planning travel and a birthday party, and on and on.

Oddly enough, I’m not feeling frantic. I feel similar to the squirrels that run along my fence, trying to store away enough extra food for winter. They are all over the place right now and always look very busy. I’m sure at night when they are done for the day, they wish they had Netflix and the internet. Or maybe that’s just my go-to activity for when my brain feels like mush and I can’t possibly concentrate on any projects.

It dawned on me today that in two months there could be snow on the ground. When there is, I’m going to make mulled cider with a splash of bourbon and curl up on my couch with some wool and less things to juggle.

The End of Season Scramble

A friend sent me this on Facebook. Hilarious.

It’s Labor Day weekend and I’m spending it laboring. I’ve been canning tomatoes like a crazy person and I still have to put up my tiny sungolds.

I’ve canned whole Romas, made spicy tomato jam, and some ketchup. There are still more pink ones on the vines out in the garden, so I know I’m not even close to being done.

There’s a shift in the air though. Days are getting shorter, corn is slowly starting to be razed on some fields, and in the mornings there’s a coolness to the air.

This is it…the homestretch. The last scramble to get everything put by before cold creeps in and kills everything. So many projects to complete. Everything is a race against the snow now.

Over the next 2 months we will be putting in a raised bed garden for garlic, building a coldframe and planting greens in it, and possibly installing insulation in the basement.

This week I’m putting the finishing touches on the cardigan I’ve been knitting. I can’t wait to slip it on as soon as the weather gets cool enough. I need to start planning Halloween costumes, and even plan out Christmas gifts that will be made.

There are certain aspects of the summer that I’ll miss, but Fall is my absolute favorite. I’m going to welcome it gladly, and fully prepared.

For the Love of Bees

Image Source

When my mom got remarried my stepdad used to tell us how he had kept bees and I honestly thought he was crazy. He talked about how he’d been stung a few times and how the bees would just walk around on him. Crazy, right?! I had no idea why anyone would want to do that.

Like most people, I used to be pretty cautious of bees. I can’t say I was ever scared (spiders are a whole other story though) but I didn’t like them anywhere near me if I could help it.

That changed last year when I went raspberry picking. The bees were all over those bushes but I was determined to pick several quarts of berries so I just stuck with it. I had to gently reach in around them and let them keep working. Being that close to them for such an extended period of time made me realize they don’t want to sting, they just want to do the job they were born to do.

When I’m in my garden I see the big fat bumble bees floating from flower to flower. Everything in my garden is pretty close together so as I’ve been harvesting they often end up pretty close to my face. I always try to excuse myself and work around them. I say silent “thank yous” in my mind to them.

I just found out that a farmer friend of mine is going to let me keep bees on his land in the spring. I’m elated. I need to do a lot of research and prep in these next few months but I can’t wait until next year when I’ll have my own honey.

Wow, my own honey! It seems insane to even type that. I absolutely can’t wait to bottle it next year.

Humanity…we have a problem.

Recently I’ve been mulling something over.

I am incredibly lucky to have this amazing network of women in my life who love to cook, bake, and preserve and who are great at it.

I have a local community of talented and passionate farmers who provide me with things that people pay twice as much for at Whole Foods. Plus I get the benefit of their friendship and even their knowledge for when we get the chance to have a farm of our own.

I have a great local library packed with books on beekeeping and cheese making. There are NOFA conferences and food swaps and classes. Not to mention almost anything I could imagine to want to learn is just a Google search away.

But what eats at me, when I’m at a super fun cheese making party stirring a pot of curds, or trying to figure out how to make hamburger buns, is that my great grandmother would laugh at me if she were still alive.

She used to wake up each morning bright and early to bake bread fresh for the day. Every Christmas she’d knit slippers for my brother and I. She taught my mom a lot about cooking and baking, and my mom still makes her lemon meringue pie that’s so good it’ll make you want to cry.

When I talk to my grandpa, who used to have a farm of his own, about the raw milk we get he says, “Oh that stuff your mom buys at the store just tastes like water, it’s awful.” His son (my stepdad) used to have to milk all their cows before school, even with 5 feet of snow on the ground.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that people are learning about raw milk, organic gardening, canning and everything else. I think it’s fantastic. But I’m taken aback when I hear stories like Chris’ coworker asking him if you have to do something special to an egg before you can crack it and eat it. He honestly had no idea you could use it right from the chicken.

Or the patrons at the market who seriously don’t understand why we don’t carry items like lemons or avocados. I’m honestly just baffled when it happens, and sadly it happens more than you’d expect.

If we can lose all of this basic knowledge in 3 or 4 generations I sure hope it doesn’t take longer than that for us to get it back. There’s just too much riding on it.