In 2003, my husband, Mike, and I gleefully ditched our house in North Portland, Ore., to pick up the reins of a 7-acre parcel in rural Washington. Outside of some home-improvement projects and garden beds, we didn’t know much about rural life. But, we thought—We’re young! We’re enthusiastic! We figured that would be enough.
It wasn’t. After six years of working hard to keep up and stay solvent, the recession finally killed us off. Beleaguered by unfinishable-by-us projects and no reasonable job prospects, we reluctantly sold our beloved farm in 2009 and retreated to the city, where I finished my book, Get Your Pitchfork On! This no-romance guide is intended to give its reader better odds at success than my husband and I had.
The book is divided into five sections:
Below are highlights from each—food for thought.
Selecting property is far more important than anything else. A house can be remodeled; livestock and crops can change; but, with a few exceptions, the land is the land. So choose wisely.
This means paying attention to the landscape—where will the sun rise and set in the summer? And in the winter? Test the soil quality if a garden or crop is in the works. If it’s hilly, are there microclimates that might drop a pocket of cold air right where the basil and tomatoes are going? How will gardens be irrigated?
Consider environmental hazards such as nearby orchards (which are sprayed and use propane heaters during a frost) and animal operations (which might be noisy and smelly). When we bought our land in the Columbia River Gorge, it did not occur to us to ask about military flyovers. We happened to live under a flight path from the air force base in Tacoma, Wash., to the dams on the Columbia. Every time they flew overhead—at ridiculously low elevations—they disturbed both us and our animals.
(Photo Caption: We were not expecting quite this much snow)
This may be the only familiar section to the average city-dweller. When looking for a country house, examine pretty much the same things as a city house:
A period farmhouse might look cute, but make sure its plumbing and electrical systems have been updated. Is it insulated? Outbuildings need the same thorough inspection. Look for “improvised” systems such as illegal greywater. Be very sure the septic system is in top condition!
(Photo Caption: “The Shack”: a half-converted old shop that had a water line going to it but no drainage)
Any proper farm has animals—livestock, pets and wild animals. With livestock, the most important thing to consider is looking beyond the romance of acquisition. Before bringing any animal home, line up a veterinarian and a butcher, and a plan for the harvest of the animal.
Transportation is a major issue. My baby chicks made it home from the feed store on the passenger seat of my car just fine in a paper to-go box, but a cow/calf pair or a bunch of goats is a different story.(Photo Caption: Occasionally free-range chickens)
One of the most well-known stories from Get Your Pitchfork On! is my battle with gophers. It’s significant not only because it describes my attempt to balance being an organic grower and dealing with an invasive pest, but also my “education” as a country gardener and person. Death is rare in the city and extremely common—or, at least, visible—in the country; that’s just a fact. It was an adjustment.
Growing food is one of life’s greatest joys. It’s a lot of hard work, and tedious at times, but the rewards far outweigh the effort. I recommend learning every food-preservation technique out there!
(Photo Caption: Pie is a great way to use berries!)
Community, Family and Culture
The best thing about living in the country should be your neighbors. Ours were fun, smart, and generous with their knowledge, skills and tools. We will always be in debt to them for their help. Make friends with yours right away.
No one who writes a book about country living talks about what is generally known as “small-town politics,” because they still live in that community. It would not be to their advantage to have people mad at them. Living in the country was great in so many ways, and challenging in just a few. But those few things were extremely challenging.
I happen to be a fairly nonmainstream, outspoken person, and this was a liability in our rural community. It takes a long time for strangers to become trusted members of a community, and only trusted members of a community get hired for local jobs. So, I was in trouble.
My husband, Mike, and I are currently making plans for our next move out to the country, and we can’t wait to return! This time, we plan to be smarter about it.