Homesteads as Agricultural Zoos

Reader Contribution by Betty Taylor
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It’s 5 o’clock on Persimmon Ridge. Mel and I are sitting on the back porch with a glass of homemade mead, watching my little herd of Tennessee fainting goats browse on an overgrown pasture. Some of the does are pregnant, and I can’t wait to meet the kids! The small flock of free-range hens and their rooster along with the guinea hens are patrolling and scratching for bugs and tender greens. I have lost a hen in the past 2 days–probably to an owl or a coon. I love and don’t begrudge the owls, but am totally unforgiving of the coon that is also marauding my corn crop. But ahh, it’s the web of life. 

This little patch of ground is feeding me and my animals very well. I may be cash poor by most people’s standards, but I’m extremely rich by my own. I do wish people valued what those like me produce enough to pay a living wage for it. Not so much for me, I’m mostly “retired,” but for all the young people who can and would love to make a living producing good food for the rest of us. But the majority of Americans still don’t get it. They want cheap, government-subsidized, what-passes-for food.

This is primarily a honey farm and my bees are flying high right now. But I, like other beekeepers, am worried to death about them (see Heartbreaking Piece of Ground blog in the archives of Unlike my other livestock, the bees are not confined to my land. As they forage for nectar, they fall victim to the pesticides and herbicides that my neighbors spray on their fields and to the genetically modified corn pollen that they gather to feed to their larvae.

Sometimes I grow weary of explaining myself. Why am I doing everything the “hard” way? Why do I let my fence rows grow up (duh? I’m a beekeeper and bees like wildflowers, not to mention the other beneficial insects, the nesting birds and other wildlife) when Roundup would kill those weeds in nothing flat? Why do I let my pastures grow up so long before bush-hogging them? (Ditto–bees and wildlife.) Why don’t I thin out my woodlot? Why don’t I use Seven on my garden? Why don’t I feed chemicals and conventional food to myself, my bees, chickens and goats? It goes on and on. What I want to know is why do people move to the country from the suburbs and then try to make the country look like the suburbs?!

I know full well why I do things the hard way and the reason is sound. Those of us who homestead sustainably are serving an extremely valuable purpose: We are the “zoos” for a world of modern agricultural. We are agricultural preservation zones. We are keeping skills alive that are quickly disappearing.

Just as some animals can be preserved only in zoos instead of the wild, the same is true of heirloom vegetable seed, heritage breeds of livestock and sustainable methods of farming. They are becoming lost to us. Those of us who persist in doing things the “hard” way are serving as zoos that will preserve this way of life in the event agribusiness fails us. Many of us believe it already has and will continue to fail us.

We no longer know that we don’t need to buy big, expensive bags of goat chow and layer pellets for our livestock; sugar and high fructose corn syrup for our bees; bags of fertilizer, herbicide and pesticides for our gardens and crops; processed food for ourselves. Do we really imagine that our great-grandparents fed themselves and their homestead livestock this way? They would shake their heads at the waste and the stupidity. Not sustainable.

What passes for agriculture in this country is the production of ingredients for processed food and sweet sodas. GMO corn and soybean fields that require the demise of every other life form in their wake. But it’s cheap, and we get what we pay for. We import labor-intensive fruits and vegetables from parts of the globe where labor is still cheaper. Have you noticed that these foods are harder to find in your grocery store and not nearly as cheap as they used to be? Think transportation costs and the rising labor costs in these countries as they become more developed. One day we will NEED a more local food source. In that day, let’s just hope that there are enough of us who have persisted in doing things the “hard” way.

Betty is a sideline beekeeper and homesteader living in Middle Tennessee who promotes chemical-free and sustainable beekeeping. You can find her online at and on Facebook.

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