Forty red hens supply our eastern Oklahoma homestead with all the eggs we need (and provide a welcome income from the sale of the surplus). Their male counterparts keep our freezer stocked.
PHOTO: NANCY STEPHAN
It's been over two years since my husband Karl and I traded the questionable pleasures of city life for 80 acres in this loveliest of all "poverty pockets" ... good old eastern Oklahoma.
We started out with very little income (and so many things to do that we didn't know what to tackle first), so we fully expected the first two years to be the hardest ... and we sure weren't disappointed! The workload is finally beginning to level off, however, and sometimes we even feel smug enough to pity our poor friends and relations still stuck with the traffic jams and pollution of city life.
So, if you've wanted to make your move to the country but feared you were either too old or too inexperienced (or both), I'd like to offer our story as evidence that it can be done ... and it's not even all that tough. In fact, your initial hardships (and the inevitable mistakes) will come to seem trivial when the first friendly neighbor says, "Just let me know anytime you need some help" and you realize that he or she means it!
That Special Spot
Karl and I were both well into middle age when we decided to make our big move, you see, and we had—between the two of us—exactly 18 months of farming experience (six of those were actually pretty questionable). Despite our "handicaps," though, we knew we had to find some place where people meant more than machines.
We were living in Tucson at the time and becoming increasingly dissatisfied with our area's urban sprawl (and alarmed at the nation's economic trends). Karl's job as an industrial engineer was getting pretty sour, especially with "big business" gnawing away at personal incentive. Finally, enough became enough when the noise from nearby street traffic and overhead jet planes actually got so bad that we had to raise our voices to converse in our own back yard.
Since we had come to love the desert, we began our search for rural property in Arizona and New Mexico, but found very little available land that would have been even remotely suitable for self-sufficient living. And after learning that a "perfect" 50-acre parcel in the mountains of New Mexico was priced at "only" $100,000, we decided we weren't so crazy about the desert after all.
More than a little discouraged, we began to look at other areas. With nothing to go on other than the fact that I had once driven through the eastern part of Oklahoma and thought the area beautiful, we grabbed our camper, induced one of our four children to keep us company, and set off to look for "Okie" land. In less than two weeks, we'd found just the right spot. It was reasonably priced and had abundant water, beautiful pines and hardwoods, limestone cliffs, and gentle hills ... and nobody's flight pattern passed overhead!
And what a sweet Shangri-La our new home has turned out to be! Soon spring will bring the pastures and trees to the light, delicious shade of green that's like no other color in the world. Soon, too, the blooms of dogwood and wild violets will cover the north slope of "our mountain," and the saplings of our new orchard will burst into flower.
Wet and Dry Springs
We grin and shake our heads when we remember that the same fruit trees had to be watered by a regular bucket brigade between the pond and the orchard during last summer's severe drought. (Children and buckets are very handy things to have around a farm.) Since then, however, we've laid some pipe from our "never dry" spring to the garden area. (The private water supply puts out about 3,000 gallons of cool, clear H 2O every day, is gravity-fed to the house and garden, and wasn't even listed on the property appraisal!)
Our financial "spring," by contrast, had gotten pretty low by the time we'd completed our move and bought the equipment necessary to begin farming. Since industrial engineers aren't exactly in great demand around here, while nurses are, I spent my first year of country life being the principal breadwinner, while Karl tried his hand at farming. That arrangement didn't work at all, however, so now we both have part-time jobs ... a system that balances the budget as well as both of our egos!
(Here's a tip, too, for those of you out there in MOTHER EARTH NEWSIand who may be Registered or Licensed Practical Nurses: If you live anywhere near a hospital—even a small one—country job opportunities will most likely be plentiful. Such establishments are often short of licensed personnel and will gladly let you work full time, part time ... or anytime! Rural nurses' salaries are usually less than those available in large urban complexes but are still quite adequate, and nursing is a quick and wonderful way to get to know the local people.)
I work two or three days a week at the hospital, which leaves me plenty of time to do my share of the chores around home, and even allows me opportunities just to sit and enjoy myself! Right now, for instance, instead of being bombarded with the traffic and jet noises of two years ago, I'm listening to one of our chickens telling me of her latest success in the egg-laying department.
We have 40 red hens that supply all our egg needs (and provide us with a welcome income from the sale of the surplus), while their male counterparts keep our freezer well stocked. Of course, we've saved some meat storage room for our second pig: The animal just went to the butcher, and we're hungrily waiting for it to come home in edible portions!
We also get about a gallon of milk a day from "Big Mama", while her heifer calf continues to take a share. Although our cow isn't a proper dairy breed (she's mostly Charolais), we still get more than enough milk for our family of six, and she cost us a lot less than we would have had to pay for a Jersey or a Holstein. (We'd like to breed Mama to Jersey stock, though, so a dairyman friend who is qualified to perform artificial insemination has agreed to help us out in exchange for some of my homemade whole wheat bread in weekly installments.)
Furthermore, even though I have some trouble thinking warm thoughts about the worm beds we invested in last summer, Karl points out that the wigglers are actually livestock, too. I suppose I should try to feel more friendly toward them, especially since we hope our "worm farm" will let both of us quit our outside jobs before very long.
In addition to our other undertakings, we're fattening a steer for beef, and have recently acquired a beautiful pair of Pilgrim geese with the hope of starting a flock. Our big duck plans sort of fizzled, though: The two Muscovies, which were such cute little pets when they were young, have become really ornery and will soon form the basis for a (delicious, no doubt) Sunday dinner. (The dogs, the cat, and the children are also thriving in the country, but we have no plans to eat any of them ... even though they, too, get a little ornery at times!)
Just as most of our animal adventures have been successful, so have our vegetable gardening efforts. In fact, we preserved enough produce last summer to cut our grocery bills in half. We should do even better this coming season, since the garden patch was worked up in the autumn and tons (well, it seemed like tons) of manure and compost were dug into it.
The fact is that everything we do around here seems a lot easier than the same chores did when we first came. I think our muscles and our minds have made the adjustment from city havoc to country harmony.
But before you assume that—now that we consider ourselves settled in—we're ready to rest, let me tell you that these old joints are just beginning to get limbered up for some real work: the construction of a new house to replace our present "shelter," which was built from a bit of scrap lumber and a lot of wishful thinking back in the 1930's. (There is one advantage, however, to living under a roof with absolutely no insulation. Ever since we spread black tar over the shingles in order to stop up all the leaks—didn't I tell you buckets can come in handy on a farm?—we have enjoyed instant solar heat on cold, sunny days.)
Best of all, despite the difficult work already done and the harder tasks ahead, there are moments when I look up from a job—perhaps covered with dirt, and sore to the bone—and feel so happy that I just want to shout out loud, "We're actually doing it ... and it feels so very good!"