What a few months this has been! Sometime last year, before the leaves started falling and the frost arrived and the Polar Vortex descended, we began homestead hunting. I decided to start the search early, many months before our prospective move date, which revolved around what most things in my household do: a teen girl. We moved school districts almost two years ago, and I really didn’t want to move her again, let alone in her junior or senior year of high school. That seems like cruel and unusual punishment during some already punishing years.
My boyfriend and I sat down and wrote The List: what we want in a home and what we need. Here are the basics: three, or preferably four bedrooms; two bathrooms for sure (reference teen girl above); room for two large pit bull rescue pups (one half lab, the other half mastiff); parking for multiple pickup trucks; trailer parking; RV parking; a large kitchen in which to prepare homemade meals and teach classes; a yard with adequate space and sun for a three-season garden; and room for a goat shelter, a chicken coop, and, eventually, a horse paddock. For goodness sake, is this too much to ask?!
Maybe. But here are some tools to use and topics to consider when choosing a homestead:
I’ve used several websites to scout listings, mainly realtor.com
, because they allow me to filter properties by acreage and school district.
Great Schools allows you to see school districts’ ratings, test scores, and reviews.
You’ll want to look into the zoning and animal restrictions for a given area, as well, since that might rule some places out right away. For instance, I initially chose a nearby community, assuming they were animal friendly, but it turned out they heavily restrict animals on anything less than three acres. You can’t even have one chicken unless you have three acres. In fact, that town is suing a woman for keeping chickens! Needless to say, I crossed that community off the list. Your township building or city hall is an excellent first stop; they should keep a copy of the guidelines and ordinances on hand or on their websites.
When considering a property, carefully inspect the lay of the land. Several we’ve seen have been on sloping lots, which will wash my garden nutrients right down the hill unless I build leveling raised beds. A sloping lot will also make the animal shelters challenging to build. Consider whether that’s the sort of work you’ll want to tackle and, if so, if your timeline will let you get it done. Will you miss too many growing seasons and blow your budget?
I also use Google Earth’s tool for tracking sunlight at every time of the day, which is helpful if a home is surrounded by woods. Once you’ve downloaded Google Earth, you simply type in the address of the prospective property and use the slide tool to change the time of day. While the results aren’t always super conclusive, the tool gives you an idea of what to expect. If there are surrounding trees that wouldn’t be on my property and thus couldn’t be taken down to let sunlight in, I couldn’t grow a garden.
It doesn’t cover all of the country, but Redfin allows you to pull up all kinds of info on a home and also to see its property line. This is important especially with irregular lots and unusual layouts.
Begin to consider the logistics of your move: Will you hire a mover? How and when can you transplant your favorite plants? Is it time to plan a yard sale? Will you move your chicken coop and, if so, how? Shed movers are an excellent resource for this; Google “shed movers” and your area for local services. If you give them the dimensions of your coop and the mileage of the move, they should be able to give you an estimate. You can also find shed movers on Craigslist, but make sure to request references and ask whether they’re insured.
Make a plan for transporting your animals, including chickens. Read up on stress-reducing transportation tips, especially since changes of environment can result in changes of behavior and egg-laying patterns. Will you need to find them a temporary shelter while you rebuild a run?
You’ll also need to clean out and dispose of the bedding in your coop, and you’ll need to replace it quickly once the coop arrives at the next location. Order or purchase your bedding ahead of time, as well as materials to rebuild a run if needed, and have those ready to go ASAP at the new place.
Since the property we eventually land on will be our “forever” homestead (we hope!), I’m much more careful in choosing it than I have been with rentals and past moves. I know my pickiness baffles my friends and family—especially my unwillingness to decrease our acreage in order to be closer to everyone. (We’ll still be within an hour.) While I would love to stay right in my town, finding a large, affordable lot has been nearly impossible. I’ve had to open up my search radius and keep an open mind.
In my own search, I’ve found two things to be the most important. First, find a realtor who understands your lifestyle. Many people looking for a home ask for things like hardwood floors, stainless appliances, and a beautiful center-hall colonial for hosting dinner parties. That’s not us. We’re asking for chicken- and goat-friendly neighborhoods, a house with character, and adequate space to can preserves and make cheese and teach others to do so. Out of the ordinary, perhaps, but pivotally important to folks like us. We needed a realtor who understood that passion.
Second, try not to make the decision overly personal. It should remain business. Many months ago, we found the perfect homestead. It was close to everyone, had adequate acreage, lovely flat ground for gardens, and a beautiful farmhouse with possibilities. It also had a painfully awful seller. But as the negotiations dragged on, the deal deteriorated, and in the end, he demanded $20,000 more than we’d agreed upon. (The mortgage was contingent on him making some repairs.)
In the end, we walked away. We had been pushed past our budget and were no longer able to the trust the seller to do the right thing. While it was difficult to walk, it would have been more difficult to pay a mortgage that was outside of our parameters—and to use all of our savings to make that happen. Finding a balance has been challenging at moments, but I’ve decided that I will keep certain things personal (buying a house that’s our style, versus one that simply works) and other things purely business (like the budget).
Sit down and make a list of your deal breakers and makers and stick to it. That way, you never question your decision or get in over your head. If you’re buying with your other half, make sure your list is clear and approved by both of you. Hold one another to it firmly but kindly. It’s much easier to defuse a heated discussion when you have a written list to refer to as your original goals.
I do believe you’ll know your home when you find it. You’ll imagine yourself cooking at the stove or you’ll picture your kids doing chores in the lawn. It’s worth the struggle and the devotion to have a place you’re in love with, year after year. After all, there’s no place like home!
This post originally appeared on HOMEGROWN.org.
Although she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.
Over the weekend, unexpectedly, I took a ropes course. Not in the way you’re probably thinking; the “ropes course” consisted of me winning a war against a yucca leaf. A friend of mine who is a Girl Scout taught me how to make yucca ropes.
Making rope out of grass, bamboo or yucca is, as you can imagine, a much older and more environmentally friendly practice than making rope from synthetic materials, and the finished product is much more attractive. Nor is it any weaker than commercial rope: I once met a woman in Historical Jamestown who told me her husband had used grass rope to tow a car.
The friend who taught me to make yucca rope has a yucca plant in her yard, its pale green leaves spiking up into the air like swords. We needed to remove some of those leaves for use in our ropes. Unfortunately for us, yucca leaves, despite their many other virtues, are so rough they can give you splinters if you rub them the wrong way, and are hardly dented no matter how viciously you clamp down with pliers. Once we’d finally separated two leaves from the plant, we set them on a flat surface in the shade and started work.
I expected us to cut the leaves into strips, but it turns out you use the fibers inside of the leaf for yucca rope. We scratched the outsides of our leaves away with metal rulers. It was difficult work at first because of the crease of the leaf, but not too hard to get the hang of. As we worked, juice ran out of the leaves, letting off a powerfully green scent.
Since my friend had gotten a head start on the scraping and was better at it than I, she moved on to the next step of the process first. Her spear-sharp leaf had been replaced by a handful of off-white threads. She dipped them in a pitcher of water and held them under to the count of thirty, then attacked them with the ruler again. Wet, the fibers cooperated better, turning so white so fast they made their appearance before soaking look dark. The substance being scraped off now resembled basil pesto.
When she was satisfied with the whiteness of her fibers, we went inside, she to twist her fibers into rope, me to finish my leaf. While my friend worked on her rope, I got so frustrated with my leaf that she took pity on me and helped with the scraping for a while. At last my leaf came apart into a group of pale strands, rather like cooked spaghetti, except greener. I soaked and scraped them until they were white, and started braiding them into rope.
I had made a grass rope before and was no stranger to the technique, although I wasn’t astoundingly skilled. Mine ended up a bit uneven because I’d twisted the fibers rather loosely, but my friend’s had the smooth, almost acrylic look that I’d seen from other masters of the technique. In spite of my poorer execution, though, both ropes looked interesting.
We let our ropes dry, then began the next-to-last step: burning loose fibers off our ropes. I watched in fascination as my friend held her rope up to a lit candle and touched a loose end to the flame. A golden spark traveled along the thread until the rope extinguished it.
When we had both finished that step, we embarked on the last step of the procedure: coating the ropes with beeswax to prevent mold. This entailed dipping the end of an unlit candle in the flame of the lit candle and rubbing the wax onto the rope.
Once our ropes were finished, we made them into jewelry; she made an anklet, I a necklace.
Given the faint green that my rope had settled into, and the white seashell I had chosen to thread onto it, I felt rather like Ariel wearing it, but I didn’t mind. It was very satisfying to have finished it, and I was proud of what I had created. It still smelled sweet, that unique beeswax aroma. It was a bit scratchy, but I could ignore it, and it left no marks on my neck at the end of the day. The colors worked with just about everything. Best of all, it was completely natural, unless there was synthetic coloring in the beeswax.
You don’t need to be a Girl Scout to make yucca rope. It’s versatile, as are its cousins grass and bamboo rope, and can be used in anything from making jewelry to towing cars. It’s easy to make, taking no more than two or three hours, and won’t hurt the earth at all.
Cut a yucca leaf and remove its outer layer, soaking the fibers this process will produce as necessary. Separate your fibers into two parts. Twist the parts together at one end (not both). Form a loop with the twisted part. Twist the next centimeter or so down and cross them. Repeat as necessary until you have, basically, a rope braid. Working very carefully with a lit candle, burn off any loose ends your rope may have. (They’ll look like stray hairs.) Slightly melt some beeswax and rub the melted part on your rope until it is entirely coated. The result makes good jewelry.
Take a piece of grass 1-2 feet long. Cut it into very thin strips. Separate the strips into halves. Twist the parts together at one end (not both). Form a loop with the twisted part. Twist the next centimeter or so down and cross them. Repeat as necessary until you have, basically, a rope braid. Tie a knot at the end. Let dry. When made correctly and in large enough quantities, the result is often usable for rope ladders and in towing cars.
I have no experience with bamboo rope. Ask a Girl Scout.
Photos courtesy of Evie S.
Here are some of our more radical money saving, life changing, planet-improving tips. Not only do we save money but we also save resources and live lives that are more connected to nature and our community.
Live electricity-free. Not only do we have no electric bill but we also don't have all the gizmos that go along with electricity. No buying, replacing, or fixing of i-phones, laptops, appliances, flat screen TV's, cable, internet...Without electricity we have started playing instruments, play board games with our family, make, use, and sell beeswax candles, get lots of great sleep (especially in the winter), and get up with the sun. We also spend lots of time outdoors, whatever the season. Our kids spend lot of time creating games, building things, drawing, helping with chores, running around outside, and generally using their imaginations and bodies. Without a TV and computer in the house we also avoid the bombardment of ads telling us what to buy and what to crave.
Live car-free (and fossil-fuel free at home). Again, no bills for lots of things like insurance (yuk!), gas, repairs, payments, oil changes...We bike for most of our needs thus getting exercise and seeing our neighborhood and city more closely at a slower speed. This also causes us to slow down in general since we can't just zip around here and there burning gas buying stuff we don't need made in sweatshops in China.
Scavenge! We tap into the waste streams of society. We use recycled materials for a huge portion of our building projects. We glean from schools, farms and markets, and food pantries ("expired food") for animal feed. Clothing dishes, and the like are second hand or thrift. We also glean fruit for ourselves for cider, jams and preserves from city trees and nearby old orchards.
Unjob. We have given up careers and work piece-meal as we need money. This frees us up to garden, raise animals, get to know neighbors, bike for travel, play with friends, hike, make and share meals in our neighborhood community, do service. It also reduces our costs for job-related expenses like travel to and from work, work clothes, and beer at the end of the week so we can decompress. We also have less stress and are healthier. Unjobbing was essential to transforming our lives.
Create. We make a lot of what we need from natural materials - cob and earthen plasters for home improvements - and from what we harvest, grow, and collect. We buy no meat but raise rabbits and pigs. We create classes and workshops with great teachers for our community and ourselves furthering our growth as people and deepening community ties. We make low-tech (affordable and appropriate) systems for hot water, waste, heat (masonry heaters and solar wall heaters, for example), cooking (our stoven), growing through the winter with cold-frames and greenhouses, etc. We often build toys with our kids (they last wanted wooden battleships and crossbows!) and also make and sing music.
Share. We ask friends and neighbors to borrow tools, books, materials, cars or a pick-up truck when needed, to help with labor and so on. We also give what we have from seedlings to eggs to labor and expertise, to classes offered on the gift economy ... to keep the loop intact. (six and a half): Cultivate Satisfaction with Having Less Stuff: We have put a fair amount of time in for reflection on the meaning of life. On spiritual pursuits. On knowing ourselves and what truly makes us happy. With this knowledge has comes some wisdom and some strength to pursue a more authentic path.
Our family of four on a half-acre in Reno, NV, lives abundantly on about $6,500 a year. With this lifestyle comes time for hobbies and interests, time for being with our children and time with my wife, time for play and rest, great health and great food, time to do lots of service, and deeper connection to nature and to our friends and neighbors. It's been a great journey so far.
Long before I even thought about becoming a beekeeper, my mom taught me how to make beeswax candles. In fact, making beeswax candles is what first got me interested in keeping bees! Here is a brief overview of how I produce my own candles for use and sale.
If you are using wax from your own hives, or have purchased wax that has not been cleaned, you will need to clean it before beginning. I first give the wax a pre-cleaning. I put it in a large bucket, then add warm water and swish it around for a bit. The wax floats while honey residue sinks to the bottom. I skim off the wax, and set it on paper towels to dry. When the wax is mostly dry I am ready to clean and filter it. I was lucky enough to be given two large pots to use as a double boiler. I simply take the rinsed raw wax, and melt it down in the double boiler. Be sure to never leave melting wax unattended! If it spills on a hot surface, it can catch on fire. When it is completely melted I pour it through a strainer that has been lined with a paper towel to trap any of the remaining debris. I like to strain the wax into a cleaned cardboard-type milk or orange juice container. A benefit to the cardboard-type containers is that when the wax has cooled and hardened it is easy to peel away from the wax. You will be left with nice blocks of clean beeswax! If there was any honey left in the wax it will sink to the bottom of the container. I save this “cooked” honey to feed back to my bees.
Another method for cleaning is to place the beeswax into a pot of water and bring the water to a simmer so the beeswax melts. Then, allow it to cool. The beeswax will float and clump up on the top of the water, while the debris/honey separates and sinks. The beeswax can be lifted out of the water and the water can be thrown away.
Once you have clean beeswax you can get ready to make some candles! I melt my beeswax in a metal “pouring container” set inside another pot with some water in it to make a double boiler. Again, be sure to never leave melting wax unattended! I like to keep the water at a simmer so the wax melts, but does not overheat.
Preparing Candle Molds
While the wax is melting I get to work preparing the candle molds. There are many types of candle molds to choose from. There are tapers, pillars, and many shapes such as beehives and bears. Pictured here are polyurethane taper molds, metal taper molds, and polyurethane shaped molds. I prefer the polyurethane molds as they allow the finished candle to be removed more easily.
You will need to “wick” the candle molds before pouring the wax. Most taper candles and shaped candles use 2/10 wicking, while candles with a larger diameter such as pillar candles will need larger wicking to burn properly. When purchasing candles molds they usually come with instructions to tell you what size wicking to purchase. I also recommend purchasing a “wicking needle”. This is exactly what it sounds like - it looks like a very long, thick needle. The wick goes through the eye on one end and the pointed end can be pushed though the mold to pull the wick up through the middle of the mold. If using metal molds, you should also purchase candle mold sealer. This looks like play-dough, and can be pushed around the outside of the mold to prevent hot, liquid wax from leaking out.
To make it easier to remove the candles from the mold after they have hardened, I recommend “mold release”. This is a spray that you can use to lightly coat the inside of the mold. Finally, the wicking must be held tightly so it is straight up the center of the mold. I find the simplest way to do this is to secure it with a bobby pin across the top of the mold. Be sure to leave enough wicking hanging out of one end to be able to hang onto it to pull the finished candle out of the mold. Shown here are several types of candle molds, ready for the next step, pouring the wax.
Pouring the Wax
When the wax is completely melted, carefully pour the wax into the prepared molds. Be VERY careful with this step! The wax is hot, and can adhere to your skin if it is spilled on it. To prevent injury I recommend wearing shoes that cover your feet (no flip flops or sandals), and wearing an apron or other protective clothing in case the wax spills or splatters.
I fill the molds directly to the top, and then watch it for a few minutes. The wax tends to “sink” as it gets absorbed by the wicking. I usually need to top if off with a little more hot wax. Then, let it sit until the wax has completely cooled and hardened.
Removing and Finishing the Candle
After the wax has set, you can remove the candle from the mold. Remove the bobby pins and the mold seal if you used it. With the polyurethane molds I grasp the wicking, and gently pull/wiggle the candle until it pops out of the mold. With metal molds, I find that running the mold under hot water for a few minutes helps it to release more easily. Then, I trim any excess wax off of the bottom of the candle, and trim the wicking on each end. Another great thing about candle making is that if you make a mistake or do not like the look of the candle, you can just melt the candle and try again!
Enjoying your Candles!
Now you have a beautiful, beeswax candle! Beeswax candles burn cleanly, and do not give off a heavy, perfume aroma. They also make great, practical gifts. You may find that if you do not burn your candles right away, they develop a whitish film. This is called “bloom”, and is a natural occurrence caused by the oils in the beeswax settling on the surface of the candle. If you do not like the look of bloom, you can remove it by wiping the candle with a soft cloth, or running it under warm water.
For more details on making candles and purchasing supplies, I recommend checking out your local beekeeping supply company. Your local library is also a good place to find books on candle making. Have fun!
Jennifer Ford owns and operates Bees of the Woods Apiary with her husband Keith Freeman. You can visit them at www.BeesOfTheWoods.com.
Our family prides itself on being frugal. We buy whole portions of grass-fed and pastured meat every year from our local family farm here in Minnesota. We don’t just get the choice bits either, we get almost the entire animal. That includes bones, organs, heads, tails and feet. It also includes the fat; tallow from the beef and lard from the hogs. I use the lard in cooking, particularly for deep frying and pastries, and both the lard and the tallow are great for candles, balms and soap.
While making soap is not technically cooking, it was traditionally in the arsenal of old fashioned women’s home arts. Soap is a natural extension of preservation, making use of what you have to the fullest extent possible for use in the future. Making soap is also a sustainable endeavor, using a local product like animal fat instead of buying soap made with exotic oils shipped half way around the world. It takes fewer resources and you have the benefit of knowing exactly what’s in your soap product.
I had several pounds of beef and pork fat in my freezer, conveniently ground for me by my butcher. After rendering each fat, straining stray meat particles and then “washing” it in water to remove meaty flavors, the fat is ready to be turned into soap. This can be done well ahead of time, with the fat being stored in the freezer for further use.
Below is a guide to how to render fats and make handmade soap, in an easy to use, volume-based recipe. This is a beginner’s guide to soap making. As you become more advanced you will want to switch to a weight-based system so you can accurately scale and change your ingredients, using whatever oils you have on hand. Each fat type requires different amounts of water and lye, so please do not substitute! Pure lye can be purchased in small quantities at your local hardware store in the plumbing section. Weight-based calculators like this one from Bramble Berry are very easy to use. Or use a more advanced one like SoapCalc.
A note on lye: Lye (sodium hydroxide) is a dangerous, corrosive chemical that must be used with extreme caution. Traditional soap making uses washed hardwood ashes to produce lye (I have to try this some time). Modern soap making uses a refined version of lye. Either way, lye burns if it touches certain organic materials, water and some metals. If it touches your skin, it will burn you. If it hits your eyes, it will blind you. Take precautions! When making soap use long rubber gloves, safety glasses, a long sleeved shirt, heavy pants, closed toed shoes and an apron. Keep a spray bottle with vinegar near by in case any lye solution splashes on surfaces or on you. Vinegar will stop the reaction. Call 911 immediately if ingested.
Reality check! The level of danger lye poses the home soap maker is no different than that posed by a cook deep-frying with hot oil on the stovetop. Hot oil will burn you, can catch on fire or even explode. You know how to handle yourself in the kitchen. Just pay attention, keep distractions to a minimum and out of the way (like kids and pets) and be safe.
How to Make Handmade Soap
Ingredients for Rendering
1 pounds beef fat
1 1/2 pounds pork fat
In separate pots, slowly melt each fat on low heat. Try not to “fry” the fat at a high temp, as that will add meaty cooked odors to your soap. When melted, strain each liquid fat through a paper towel lined strainer to filter out any particles. (Called cracklings, these meaty bits are great in eggs). Add equal parts of warm tap water to the fat in each pot. Bring the water/oil combination to a boil, then simmer on low for 15 minutes. Pour in 1 quart of cold water, stir and refrigerate overnight. The next morning lift out the hardened fat and discard the water. Pat the excess water off the solid fat and store, well wrapped, in the fridge or freezer until ready to use for cooking or soap making.
Ingredients for Making Soap
1 1/3 cup melted tallow (9.6 oz)
2 2/3 cup melted lard (21.3 oz)
1 1/4 cup cold water (10.2 oz)
1/2 cup, plus 1.5 tsp lye (4.3 oz)
1 tbs essential oil (optional)
With your full lye-protection gear on, on a surface lined with paper, carefully measure the lye. Use non-aluminum, dry measuring cups and spoons. Measure the lye into a glass or plastic container. If any lye particles get out on the paper, wrap them up and dump straight into the garbage. If any get on the floor, brush them up with a hand broom. Do not use water to clean them up.
In a heavy, heat-proof glass container (like a large mason jar) measure out the cold water. Slowly add the pre-measured lye to the water. Never add the water to the lye as it may explode everywhere. Using a wooden spoon, gently stir the water/lye mixture. It will heat up considerably. I like to set this jar in the sink to cool so it is well out of the way, and if it spills, it just goes down the drain and you can wash it away quickly with cold water. Allow the water/lye mixture to come to room temperature. Check the temp by resting your gloved hand on the side of the jar. Do not stick your finger in the water! You may also use a glass thermometer, but I prefer to keep my lye contact to a minimum.
Prepare your soap mold container. I like to use plastic as glass often breaks or is incredibly difficult to un-mold. Do not use aluminum. Wood boxes are traditional. Line the mold with parchment paper so that the soap can be more easily lifted out. I find that plastic wrap is to weak and often tears.
When the water/lye mixture is almost to room temp, melt your fats separately over low heat. When melted, measure out the tallow and lard into a glass or stainless steel mixing bowl. You want the fats and the water/lye mixture to both be at room temperature. When they are both at room temp, slowly stir the water/lye mixture in to the fats until blended. Using an immersion blender, hand mixer or stand mixer, mix the fat/water/lye combo on low, being careful not to splash. The lye is still active! Continue emulsifying the mixture until is begins to take on the consistency of loose pudding. This is called “trace”, where you lift up a bit of the liquid soap and it leaves a trace as it trails back into the soap. Add the essential oil, if using, blend once more, then carefully pour the soap into the mold, smoothing out the top.
Set the soap aside in a clean, safe place until completely solid. For cleanly cut soaps, wait 24 hours then unfold the soap. Wearing gloves, slice the soap into bars. Place the soap in a container and store for at least 3 weeks until the process with the lye and oil is compete. It is not recommended that you use the soap before the 3 weeks are up.
Animal fat soaps are not particularly sudsy, but the cleaning and moisturizing is fantastic. Sudsing is not an actual factor in cleaning ability. This amount of soap will last my family about a year of showers and hand washing.
It’s cold here. Sub-zero cold. The sun just rose somewhere behind the curtain of snow, but there’s nothing piercing or warm about its rays. Our herd of Red Devons appears to float, orbiting a bale of last September’s grass. I stand, transfixed by the whiteness of it all, but a blast of wind hurries me along toward the warm farmhouse and a pile of scrambled eggs.
Deep winter is finally upon us here at The Farm School.
Outside, life has retreated deep within the soil to await the springtime thaw. Inside, we cozy up with tea and seed catalogs to dream big about the coming spring. But that idyllic scene is tempered by reality. We’ve spent hours pleading with our fussy wood-fired boiler, which seems to produce more smoke than heat. And recently, we’ve ended day after day with lukewarm showers, which in a 50-degree farmhouse makes the depth of winter feel rather inescapable.
Add to this my genius idea of hauling a welding machine across the shop by myself, in the process spraining my back and transforming myself into a 90-year-old man. Now I’m left without my most important tool — my body — and instead, I’m humbled every time I try to put on socks.
With my back in knots, I’m left to meekly place twigs one at a time on a slash pile and watch as my fellow apprentices reduce trees to cordwood. They’re good-natured enough and alternate between kindly offering to tie my shoes and calling me “Old Man Jacobs” (an image I did nothing to deflect by bringing my own rocking chair to crop planning class). But the truth is, I’m feeling every one of my 35 years, and my confidence is shaken.
Though what I’m doing is “real” farming, I’m also operating under a bit of a false reality. There are 15 of us. If I’m sidelined by an injury, the animals still get fed, wood still gets chopped, and fires don’t go out. In a year, however, my wife, Dina, and I hope to do this solo with no sick days, plus an infant to care for.
Maybe our kid won’t mind helping with chores one day. I know Dina is already looking forward to it. But we haven’t seen each other in two weeks and that future — of us, our farm, and a baby to boot — feels about as distant and theoretical as the green growth of spring.
But as bone-chilling and nerve-rending as this polar plunge can be, it’s critical to the growing season ahead, I’m learning. Each deep freeze knocks back pest populations over-wintering in the soil. The harsher the winter, the fewer Colorado potato beetles will be lurking in our hedgerows waiting for the earth to warm.
The shorter days and time inside have also forced a degree of introspection that won’t be possible once the exhaustion of planting season begins in March. In that time, we’ve been thinking a lot about the dollars and non-cents of farming, drafting a business plan, and visiting area farms to see how they stay afloat. And I think I’m finally ready to admit that there’s no way to spreadsheet our way around the financial struggle we will face as farmers.
But I’m also realizing that farming is about embracing a more holistic view of success than what the financial bottom line may show. It is easy to overlook the value in working land without despoiling it and transforming food into community. And for me, there is something meditative about this new life — the stillness of a snowstorm, the cadence of chopping wood, and the awesome mystery of seeds. It connects me to something deep, something that transcends economics.
Even with a body temporarily broken, unpromising numbers, and a blinding ocean of white, other things, I sense, are adding up just fine.
To view Erik’s and Dina's weekly photo updates from the farm, go to www.PloughAndStarsProject.com.
Photos by Erik Jacobs
I was lucky enough to attend the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) 25th Anniversary Conference in La Crosse, Wis., this past weekend (Feb. 27 to March 1, 2014). The conference began a quarter-century ago with just 90 attendees, compared with the more than 3,000 organic farmers and growers who attended this year’s event. As Faye Jones, the executive director of MOSES exclaimed several times over the weekend, “This is the largest organic farming conference in the known universe!”
That first year, the now infamous four-season gardener from Maine, Eliot Coleman, gave a presentation while dressed as the Lone Ranger (complete with the cowboy hat and face mask). The idea, Jones recalled, was that the Lone Ranger represented those farmers who believed in the “silver bullet” of chemical agriculture. Tonto, on the other hand, represented nature and farmers who wanted to learn from and mimic natural systems in their food production methods. True to its original beginnings, the MOSES conference has proved to be a space where organic farmers connect with and learn from other organic farmers, an invaluable experience for a field of work that usually involves many hours working solo, often in areas surrounded by farmers and farming practices that look down on the “new age” organic and sustainable methods.
While I learned many new skills at the workshops, from how to prevent scab in an organic apple orchard to what to look for when buying a used tractor to organic no-till farming strategies, I took away a few major points. I also sat down with Jones and asked her opinion of how her experience in the organic farming world makes her feel about the current state or organics and the future face of sustainable agriculture. Jones told me she never would have guessed that organic agriculture and food would take off with as much vigor and as much sustained growth as it did from the time of the first conference 25 years ago. Based on my conversation with Jones, exhibitors, presenters and numerous farmers, here’s what to look out for in the next 25 years of organic farming:
1. Young people are eager to enter organic farming, but they need access to land and resources. The crowd was an incredibly healthy mix of young, middle-aged, and older farmers, all with varying degrees of experience. Most young farmers who are just starting out need assistance, either with finding a place to farm or learning more about how to grow and market organic products. Similarly, older farmers are in need of a way to gracefully exit from farming, while keeping their land intact and in production. There is a large need to connect these two groups. A few groups addressing this include Renewing the Countryside (with their Farm Transitions program) and the Land Stewardship Project with their Farm Transitions Toolkit.
2. The organic market is hopeful for change, largely led by this new generation of farmers and by consumer demand. The more consumers learn about how industrial agriculture impacts the environment and the ingredients that are in the foods they purchase and eat, the greater the call for a change to more organic, sustainable practices that produce fruits and vegetables instead of commodity crops.
3. Organic farming is going to grow by tenfold in the next 25 years. Both Jones and keynote speaker and agricultural journalist Alan Guebert predict continued, incredible growth in the organic sector for the foreseeable future.
4. The Farm Bill has some good news for organic farmers. While not a total win for conservation by any means (in fact, conservation took a pretty big hit), Jones is quick to point out that the 2014 Farm Bill did take some positive steps for organic farmers. The biggest news is that the Organic Certification Cost Share Program has been reinstated, allowing producers to apply to cover some of the costs of their organic certification. Funding was increased for competitive organic research grants, organic data collection and reporting, the National Organic Program, and beginning and socially disadvantaged, small-scale producers. (For more information on the good and bad sides of the Farm Bill, read the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's Farm Bill reporting.)
5. Your voice needs to be heard in order to shape policy that affects organic agriculture and the overall state of farming in the United States. This call to action came from Jones directly, and is not limited to the Farm Bill. Several pieces of legislation and open comments periods that directly affect sustainable food production and the health of our environment are on the table this year. Jones says, “We have a responsibility to share what we know, to speak up and to be heard.”
6. On a more technical note, cover crops should be one of the most important crops you grow. Every presentation I attended made sure to address how vital it is to have flowering crops to attract pollinators and beneficial insects, provide ground cover for weed and erosion control, and enhance the nutrients in the soil. From orchards to small gardens to large, no-till grain crop farms, proper cover-crop management is an integral part of a sustainable, organic system. (Search "cover crops" in the Search bar at the top of this page for how to best use cover crops in your garden.)
Learn More and Get Involved!
You can find a wealth of valuable resources about organic farming at the MOSES website. Check out the Cornucopia Institute’s website for Action Alerts that affect organic and sustainable farmers and advocates. Sign up for our MOTHER EARTH NEWS newsletters to get up-to-date, biweekly information on self-reliant living, organic gardening and sustainable agriculture policy.
Photo captions, from top to bottom: The Podoll family, organic seed breeders of Prairie Road Organic Farm & Seed in South Dakota, were selected as this year's Farmers of the Year and gave several presentations about their operation throughout the conference. The exhibit hall was full of nonprofits, tool and seed companies, and more. Conference attendees networked throughout the weekend, sharing tips and reviewing the products in the exhibit hall together.
Photos by Jennifer Kongs