Tom Nocera describes his family's experience moving from Tampa Bay area back to the land to the South Carolina countryside.
Quite often during that time we found ourselves leafing through back issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS (we'd bought as many as we could afford as part of our early homesteading research effort) . . . and one of our big breaks turned up late one July night, in the form of a P & S notice from our own little patch of South Carolina.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/BRIAN NOLAN
Susanne and I made our move from the megalopolis of the once-unpolluted, uncongested Tampa Bay area in Florida . . . and — after searching as far as Costa Rica for a suitable homestead location — bought a place in the country three or so miles from a little town in western South Carolina. It's a simple, friendly spot, the home of a small liberal arts college and perhaps two or three hundred families.
It was a lucky accident that brought us to this area and to just the place we were searching for. In fact, had the old VW not suffered a serious oil leak on a farm-hunting trek into the Blue Ridge Mountain country, we'd probably still be on the road looking. The car did break down, though . . . and while it was being repaired, we scanned the listings of a United Farm Agency catalog (think of it as a tool) and found that S.C. land prices were about one-tenth the going rates in the resort-developed sections of North Carolina. I called the nearest agent and described — as precisely as we could imagine it — the piece of property we were looking for . . . especially how large a country homestead we wanted, what we intended to do with the land, and what we could afford to pay. My contact said he knew of a couple of tracts that were for sale and would be worth our time to see.
That afternoon, with a new $60.00 oil cooler gasket in the VW, we drove to the small town where the agent did business. Still later that same afternoon, we wrote out another check as "earnest money" . . . for our guide had taken us from the real estate office down several miles of quiet backroads to our ideal new-old homestead. It was the first of the two neglected small farms we were shown, and even better than we'd imagined. Veni, vidi, compri.
Naturally, it wasn't all that simple. In fact—although we wrote that check on June 30 — it was mid-November before we took possession and January was almost gone before we moved in. Some of the delay came of having to arrange financing from out of state . . . but we finally did get our loan, through the local Production Credit Association and Federal Land Bank. (These institutions — which are now owned by their borrowers — were originally created by the Federal government as answers to the special financial needs of the farmer, and work together as part of a cooperative Farm Credit System. Short and intermediate-term loans for farm and rural home necessities are available through the local branches of PCA, and longterm loans and mortgages through the Federal Land Banks. — MOTHER.)
Another holdup was due to a boundary question (two of our property lines happen to be creeks, and one had never been accurately measured). We had to call in a surveyor (and agree to split the cost of his service with the seller) before we could be sure that we had a deal.
Then a final problem came up at the last minute, when the previous owner wanted to sell us her kitchen appliances and oil heater separately . . . and tried to give us two dogs as part of the deal. We were learning firsthand that the purchase of country property has ins and outs all its own. (A book on that same subject was one of our numerous investments, and has paid for itself many times over. Nevertheless, we're still looking for a freezer and we have a very affectionate, lazy dog to trade!)
The months between our first sight of the homestead and the actual move were jammed full of new experiences, meetings with new friends, and lots of hard-to-the-threshold-of-pain work. Quite often during that time we found ourselves leafing through back issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS (we'd bought as many as we could afford as part of our early homesteading research effort) . . . and one of our big breaks turned up late one July night, in the form of a P & S notice from our own little patch of South Carolina. The offer just suited us: A couple was wanted to help out on a large farm, in return for the free use of 10 acres and a nearly new 3-bedroom mobile home.
Even though the issue was almost a year old by the time we read it, we had an airmail letter on its way next morning to tell the advertisers — Lynn and Joe — about our situation . . . on the thin chance that maybe, just maybe, the deal was for some reason still open. Back came a quick reply: The offer stood, since Lynn was expecting a baby that winter and Joe was having to work as an industrial sales engineer every day from 8 to 5 to make ends meet on their 400-acre homestead.
Two weeks later we rolled off in a rented moving van stuffed to the padded roof with Florida duplex apartment furniture, many boxes of research materials and books we couldn't part with, my grandfather's legacy of his own homesteading tools (and some that had been his father's), three tranquilized city cats, and the VW somehow sandwiched in almost sideways. We weren't sure South Carolina was ready for us, but after 11 draining hours of trucking the busy Interstates — plus that last hour of "country roads takin' us home to the land where we belong" — well, we were ready. (Thanks to John Denver for the borrowed line.)
Early that evening we met Lynn and Joe (who seemed like long-lost friends). Eating a "welcome back to the land" dinner from their organic garden, drinking my first of many glasses of milk fresh from their cow . . . it was almost too perfect, but that's the way things happen sometimes.
Later that same evening, another couple who were friends of Lynn and Joe's — knowing we'd be tired and yet would have to do some unpacking before we could sleep that night — dropped by to meet us and help us get our van unloaded. Other folks came calling later in the week to fill us in on town and college happenings and job possibilities . . . and to fill the refrigerator with fresh produce from their gardens. Wow! Why hadn't we made our move earlier?
Our work-for-rent arrangement meant long Saturdays spent with Joe and Lynn absorbing lessons from their five years of homesteading experience. While Susanne helped with the kitchen or garden work, I was learning to build a stall, repair a clogged water pump, mend a fence so the cows wouldn't get loose again in the middle of the night, milk "the Milkshake", drive the John Deere, or jockey the old war-surplus jeep down to the bottoms to gather firewood. I even got a few riding lessons, with saddle sores at no extra charge. Without that experience it would have been hard — if not impossible — for us to be as far along as we are today.
During the fall I signed up with all the local schools — high, middle, and even elementary — as a substitute teacher. Although I have very few college credits in education, the principals gave me a chance, and before long I had a call to teach almost every morning. At first I tried to copy every teacher I'd ever liked in school . . . but soon realized my folly and started to be myself. I spent time in class discussing current events and experiences of my own with the students, and gave a few down-to-earth lectures on subjects that interest me: solar energy, population-related problems, and places I've visited.
I found my job as a professional substitute very satisfying, though not as financially rewarding as I'd have liked. Still, the money I made was enough for our new lifestyle and the flexible hours gave me time to work on the homestead. Believe me, it needed work . . . and still does, and — with any luck at all — always will.
Over the past year we've done little to our home other than make it warm and functional. Instead, we've put our limited capital into our land. The place has worked out well . . . thanks partly, I think, to the basic HAVE-MORE Plan we saw way back in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 2, and partly to the hours we've spent from the very start in planning what we wanted on our farm. We've drawn up long lists of everything from apples to zinnias, and it's paid off.
For example? Well, high on my list of desirables were grapes, and today we have a half-acre vineyard with 35 young but growing vines of 15 domestic and hybrid European varieties. We both wanted lots of fresh fruit and nuts . . . and we have the beginnings of an apple orchard and several each of all the fruit and nut trees we could think of, hand-planted last fall before we even moved in.
More examples: Susanne pushed for a large garden, I was eager to keep, bees, and both wishes have come true in the form of seven hives and an acre of organically grown vegetables. (Only one colony is mine. The rest are boarded here in return for beekeeping lessons, lots of honey, and a working partnership with a local beekeeper . . . who also happens to be a college professor with a Ph.D. in botany, a teacher of ecology, and a new friend.)
One further "must" was to strive toward self-sufficiency in energy . . . and although our solar water heater isn't as sophisticated as some I've seen, its output will scald any unwary bather who uses the outdoor shower after 10: 00 a.m.
In a sense, I suppose we've done about 95% of the work ourselves (and though we've had the benefit of many fortunate happenings, maybe we helped make our own luck to some extent). Just the same, our thanks go to some special people . . . first, to Lois and Walter — our neighbors up the road — who went back to the land à la HAVE-MORE after World War II and have given us more assistance and sound advice than anyone would believe: use of the tractor, lessons in gardening with Dan the plowhorse, lots of food from last year's garden, and an oil heater that warmed the cold winter nights.
We'd also like to thank Lynn and Joe for everything they taught us, and for the use of the mobile home . . . and Dr. Ross Clark for help with the bees (and for identifying the sassafras trees in winter, when this ex-Boy Scout didn't have the leaves to help him). We're grateful, too, to Gary — our Associate County Agent — for literature, advice, and encouragement, and to Bill at the Federal Land Bank for his expert assistance in securing our homestead. Then we mustn't forget our parents, who insist that we're crazy to be wasting our educations by living so deep in the country . . . but still seem to come up for long visits. Oh, yes, and Bink, who gave us 10,000 earthworms and turned us on to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. And especially MOTHER herself, because without the old gal it just wouldn't have happened.
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