The following are questions readers submitted to Helen and Scott Nearing in their regular column on homesteading.
Q: We've been country-living for the past six years in arid New Mexico and have learned a lot about surviving on the bare minimum. Now, we're ready to move to a beautiful old Indiana homestead, but we're troubled since the farm's soil appears worn out (and most likely has been treated with nitrates and pesticides). We have fantasies of performing soil restoration with green manure and organic matter. Will it be possible for us to get a chemical-free crop within a couple of years? (There's enough cleared land for us to grow our own hay and grain for animals, to plant a produce field for our consumption and the sale of vegetables, and possibly even to put in a cornfield for making alcohol fuel!)
A: Our first farm, in Vermont, was completely depleted and leached out when we bought it. The soil wouldn't even grow good radishes. We brought the earth back to fine tilth by putting in cover crops (rye, buckwheat, clover) and turning them under, by adding compost, and by cultivating repeatedly. We were able to harvest fine peas, beans, carrots, lettuce, etc. within two years.
Now we're tackling some heavy clay soil in a new garden in back of our latest stone house. Using the above techniques, we hope to again have a productive plot within two years.
Q: You said you use French-intensive gardening in "certain sections" of your vegetable patch. Can you tell me why you use the method in some plots and don't in others?
Also, since you are vegetarians and raise no livestock, do you grow soybeans for protein? I'd like to know, too, how many acres you've found it necessary to plant for food self-sufficiency.
A: We find it convenient to make long conventional rows for corn, beans, peas, broccoli, cucumbers, cauliflower, and squash. Our smaller crops—such as carrots, onions, radishes; lettuce, beets, etc.—are grown in raised beds, three feet across and of varying lengths.
We've not been able to bring soybeans to full ripeness in our climate, since they need a longer growing season. However, we buy them dry and do get some of our protein from the legumes.
Our garden has—for the last 25 years—been 100' X 100' (roughly a quarter acre). It produces sufficient vegetables to supply most of the food required by five or six people. We're now starting out on a new, 50' X 50' garden. And we believe that, using intensively planted raised beds, we'll be able to grow enough food for two or three people on this small plot.
Q: I've found that being a male has certain advantages when it comes to living the good life. I'm quite capable, for example, of hauling and cutting wood for my yearly needs, plus performing many other homestead chores that require "male muscle." All of the local women are very dependent on their masculine counterparts for such things. My question is: What would you do if Scott were unable to cut firewood and so forth? I realize I've no real information that leads me to assume that he does do this chore, but most of the women I know would—in such a situation—have to purchase wood or go back to relying on oil, gas, or electric heat.
A: Scott does saw, chop, and split all the wood burned in our kitchen and living room stoves. He also keeps the woodboxes full (and makes most fires). What do I think a lone woman would do if such an essential service were not tended to by someone else? Why, she'd do it herself, of course. And it would be a big job ... but it would be one that could (and would have to) be done.
Homestead living for a single person, whether man or woman, is a 24-hour occupation and should not be undertaken lightly. Several single people we know are attempting to clear their own land, build their own houses, and make their own gardens. Frankly, we think it's too much for one person (male or female) to take on alone.
Q: Could you give me a good source from which I could purchase pure Vermont maple syrup?
A: Since we left Vermont 27 years ago (where we hung over 4,000 buckets and made over 1,000 gallons of maple syrup during our last "sappin' " spring), we've had to buy the sweet liquid, as there's not a single maple tree on our wind-swept Maine coast. In our day syrup was sold at a little over $3.00 a gallon. Now that we have to buy it, though, the price is between $14 and $20 a gallon.
We have found Richard Garrett (Wellington, Maine) to be a good source for the real thing. His syrup is homemade, over wood fires on his own place, and he can send you either the finest Fancy quality, or Number One, or the blackstrap Number Two, which runs late in the season.
Q: You folks are a great inspiration to me, but I have a question that I can't find the answer to in your publications.
How would you buy acreage in today's market without going into debt? Land here in Oregon is increasing in price faster than the inflation rate, and—if it just stayed even—inflation would still make it seem all but impossible to save enough money to pay cash for a piece of property. What advice do you have for young people, without substantial assets, who want to "live the good life?"
A: Your question is a real stumper. We're lucky enough to have been born in a previous generation ... when we had little cash, but when the dollar was worth 100¢, instead of the 10¢, 9¢, or 8¢ dollar which now passes for money. We admit it's difficult for young people to gather the funds to pay today's outrageously high real estate prices ... or even to find a suitable location that isn't already occupied by "summer folk."
Try to locate other like-minded people, who have a little money ahead, and who will go into the enterprise with you. Don't go deep into debt for land. Drive up old dirt roads and find abandoned farmland. Look for acreage selling for back taxes.
You also might take on farm jobs and learn what you can before buying and settling down. In the meantime, hunt about and inquire as to what's on the market in the area you've chosen. When you find the place, you can hasten the possibility of self-sufficient living with economy and good management.
We encountered plenty of difficulties in the 1930's. You will find others, not necessarily similar, in the 1980's. We wish you good luck, patience, and perseverance in your search for the good life.