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The Accidental Homesteader

When I bought my “farm” in Moncure, N.C., in 1990, I did it simply to live in the woods. I would like to say I was deliberate. And intentional. But “clueless” is probably a better word. I should have suspected something when I bought the land and they threw the house in for free.

Lyle Estill accidental homesteaderAt the time Chatham County was beginning to think about public waste disposal. Up until then the common practice was to dump household garbage on the property lines.

Which meant I had an abundance of waste to wade through. As an avid recycler I sorted a lot of it out. Green glass and clear glass were piled up separately from heart medicine bottles and worn out shoes. I sold many tons of scrap metal for about a penny a pound.

My rhythm was simple. I would haul five hundred pounds of scrap metal to the other side of the county, collect my five dollars, stop by the stockyard with my empty truck, pay five dollars for a scoop of manure, and head for home.

It was through garbage that I developed an intimacy with the land. To this day, when I am walking in the woods, I can often feel that the ground beneath me is not “right.” And when I stop to explore I frequently uncover a tin can, or a bedspring packed in clay, or a whitewall tire that is waiting to be unearthed and taken to our recycling center.

Decades ago it seemed like a daunting task. But now the place has begun to heal. Chestnut trees drop fruit in an orchard that was once motor oil and car parts. There is a fig tree which dominates what was once an appliance pile. Asparagus now grows in the field that was once populated by plastic tampon applicators.

I would say my gardening efforts are best characterized by failure, neglect, and surprise. I have uncovered bushels of peppers that I forgot about—emerging from beneath the weeds—because I stopped mowing when I smelled peppers.

Lyle Estill persimmonsWe are still learning how to eat armfuls of persimmons, and learning how to enjoy pears. I don’t really even like pears, but in the absence of chemicals they do really well in the Piedmont of North Carolina.

We’ve been editing this place for over twenty years, and we have an unruly blend of successes and failures. Some of our flowers give us marvelous shows. Others succumb to weed, or drought, or rabbit, or deer pressure.

And while we would best be described as failed homesteaders, we have managed to launch a couple of sustainable farming enterprises that are envious in their output. Between Piedmont Biofarm and Edible Earthscapes we have helped put about six acres of sustainable agriculture into production, which means that literally tons of food ship into the world every week, year round.

These two farms are so productive that we are awash with food. They sell at farmers markets and to fancy restaurants, and they run CSAs and sell to our local co-op grocery store, Chatham Marketplace.

In some ways our own food cultivation efforts seem unimportant since we are dwarfed by two successful farm enterprises that we helped enable. We have had to learn how to eat out of wax covered boxes of produce, but that has been a small learning curve.

One of the fascinating aspects of our endeavor is how completely different it is from so many of our compatriots in the sustainability movement. Many of our friends, members, and colleagues have an abiding belief in societal collapse. For many it is not a question of “if,” but merely a question of “when.”

And while many of them are stockpiling beans and rice and arming themselves against the impending marauding hordes, we are simply experimenting with banana trees and delighting ourselves with tropical fruit.

One of the things we have accidentally learned is that if you haul away enough garbage, and replace it with enough organic matter, you will create fecundity, and food will happen in abundance.

We are accidental homesteaders. We figured out how to power our previously abandoned house, we figured out how to get water flowing, and we figured out how to feed ourselves on food that comes from within a ten mile radius.

That was never our intent. I just wanted to live in the woods. Everything else was accidental…

Lyle Estill will present workshops at the Washington, Pennsylvania and Kansas MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs. 

Please visit the FAIR website for more information about future FAIRs: June 1-2 in Puyallup, Wash., Sept. 20-22 in Seven Springs, Pa., and Oct. 12-13 in Lawrence, Kan. Tickets are on sale now. 

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