Radical Simplicity in Suburbia: Keeping Up With the Joneses

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Simple living: Jerry, Michelle and their son, Oliver, proudly stand in front of their garden.

Jerry and Michelle Jones decided early in their lives to forego the traditional 8-to-5 job for a much simpler way of living. When their son Oliver was born, they wanted as much family time as possible. Inspired by the survivalist Possum Living lifestyle in which people learn to be self-sufficient and live off the land, the Jones’ radical simplicity allows them to do so.

Now, living in a suburban house in Kirksville, Mo. — a town of about 17,000 people — the Joneses run the Covert Cupboard Bakery, complete with a bike delivery service. They began selling homemade bread from the bakery through a donation system that makes the loaves affordable for everyone. And this year, the Joneses started the Kirksville Permaculture Education Center in their home — a model of permaculture that is also run off donations. It includes worm compost, rainwater barrels and a garden of vegetables and herbs, and it frequently welcomes visitors.

What prompted you to open a home-based bakery business?

Michelle: We wanted to have control over the amount of time we were working — our family is really important to us, so we wanted to be able to spend as much time with each other as we felt necessary. The majority of it had to do with not wanting someone else controlling our schedule and our lives. Having our own business so we could determine when and how much we work was really valuable to us.

Jerry: The semester after I graduated, I had an internship in elementary education, so I had the experience of being gone all day. It worked for that semester, but it wasn’t something I wanted to continue for 30 years. Because of that, we’ve had to give up a lot of things.

What have you had to sacrifice for simple living?

Jerry: Giving up health insurance has been the biggest thing. Our son Oliver goes through the state subsidized health insurance. For us, health insurance is eating organic, good, healthy food at every meal and taking care of our bodies. We also decided that since we are living with such a minimal amount of money, if something major were to happen, we wouldn’t have been able to pay for it anyway, even with health insurance. Also, we don’t like how health insurance is set up. We didn’t want to give half of our income to something that we don’t support.

We eat all organic food — most of it local, we live on very little money, we spend all day together — working together, raising our son together. We don’t have any reason to need more money because we have everything we want.

Michelle: It’s true that we’re living way below the poverty line, but we feel that we’re living in more abundance than we were before. It’s more of a perspective for us as far as what abundance is and what poverty is.

What steps did you take to transition to a more independent lifestyle?

Michelle: I quit working about a month and a half before Oliver was born, and Jerry quit his job when he was doing his student teaching. Jerry had scholarships, and we were fortunate that he had enough in scholarships that we got a small portion of money back. We were also fortunate enough to have support of family through Jerry’s schooling. There wasn’t much of a transition. We went from having almost no money when he was working his internship to having a little more money through our business.

How did you learn to make bread on your own?

Jerry:I bought a book called Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman. It has everything. I’ve looked at other bread books and this one is by far the best.

How do you obtain your ingredients?

Jerry: Our flour comes from Heartland Mill. It’s an organic mill that was the closest we could find. We called them and found out where their grain comes from, and Heartland was closest, from farm to mill to us. Ideally, we would be able to grow wheat here, but we’re so small scale right now that it wouldn’t be feasible.

As an eco-friendly business, how do you dispose of (or reuse) the bread you don’t sell?

Jerry: We are operating by a subscription basis, so we don’t produce much excess and have never had to throw out any bread. We can make breadcrumbs or croutons if necessary, but we’ve never even had to do that.

How does the donation system work?

Jerry: We just started that recently. We have only done it with a few people, but the test runs have done really well so far. Some people pay less, and some people pay more, and it just evens out. If we get less than we were hoping, it’s not that big of a deal. We might do a suggested donation, but we won’t turn away anyone for lack of money.

Are you worried that some individuals might take advantage of your generosity?

Jerry: If it’s a few people here and there, that’s fine. If someone is just getting it cheaper because they can get it cheaper, I would be a little annoyed, but I wouldn’t be terribly upset about it. I think we have to expect some of that. People who run a business by donation generally don’t get shorted or paid unfairly.

Michelle: Hopefully people will understand the reason we are doing it. If they start to take advantage of it, we might not be able to do it, which would be really unfortunate for those who can’t afford to pay as much.

Is it nerve-racking not to have a main source of income?

Jerry: In permaculture, you have several different systems to support you and you want to have backups to your backups. We don’t have a main source of income, but we have five smaller sources. So when one isn’t happening, another one generally is. We’ve been babysitting, and I’ve learned web design and photography. It’s been working out really well — we have enough savings that I’m never looking for a job.

Is it restricting to live on a small — and often fluctuating — income in order to enjoy a more open schedule?

Jerry: We have never felt anxiety over having enough money to do something or pay for something. We love how our lives are set up. It’s nice that we feel like we are thriving in an “alternative” lifestyle. But, Kirksville is so cheap that if it came down to it, I could get a part-time job for five or 10 hours a week and be fine. We would like to buy some land — 5 acres or so — and have a house, so if we had a mortgage to pay, maybe it would get more stressful, but we probably wouldn’t buy it unless we had a more steady income.

What advice do you have for people wanting to transition to a similar independent lifestyle?

Jerry: A key step to a lifestyle like ours is living in a place where you know you can get by if it doesn’t work out. For us, Kirksville was that because of the low cost of living. We originally wanted to move to Portland, Ore., but if we were to do that, the situation guaranteed that I would have to hold a full-time job. Now, we’re really happy with where we are. I haven’t had to fill out any applications or worry about finding and losing a job. Also, not having debt is one of the biggest steps to freedom because you don’t have to take a job if you don’t want it.

What is your vision for the Kirksville Permaculture Education Center project?

Jerry: We wanted it to be a place where people could come through and see little things they can easily incorporate into their own home or apartment. A lot of homesteads do a beautiful job of teaching sustainable living but aren’t realistic for people to use on a wide scale. If we can have an event to teach people to use red wigglers to compost and they can take some of the worms and a bucket with them, that’s really empowering. We introduce simple, easy projects that people have heard about but not fully researched themselves, and give them the tools and resources to do it. Then, people are more likely to take steps toward sustainability. We don’t expect people to do everything that we’re doing here.

Since we have so little money, we are doing most everything for free or very cheap. The garden, manure, mulch and all the cardboard we laid down was free. We did have the advantage of having free seeds because the local university’s community garden we helped get up and running got way more than they could use and wanted to give some to us in support of the permaculture center. But otherwise, the only cost for the entire garden was the $15 soil sample that we technically didn’t even have to do. For the bike wheel trellis in our backyard, we took apart wood pallet for free. The bike wheels were from behind the bike co-op — they were bent and unusable — and they are tied on by inner tube. It was all throwaway. Cost-wise, the total was around $10 for a box of screws.

This makes permaculture more feasible because our projects are so low-cost. We can’t afford anything more. That’s something we see in sustainability that disappoints us — things are so expensive. For example, we don’t want to have a car because we don’t use it around town. The only time we ever have to use it is when we visit family in Illinois. But it’s cheaper for us to keep the car than it is to ride the train. We can’t afford to ride the train. That’s a step toward sustainability that we would take, but we can’t afford it.

What projects are you working on?

Jerry: We want to host local farmers every weekend and let people meet them, and maybe sample some of their food or at least tell them why they’re doing what they’re doing. Our hope is that the farmers can have a platform to speak about and it will build a relationship more directly with the people and the farmer. This makes people more likely to buy. They’ll have more knowledge and more reason to buy local/organic and be healthier.

Why did you start the permaculture center in a suburban house rather than a rural setting?

Jerry: The permaculture center makes sustainability real and feasible. There are already a lot of rural resources in northeast Missouri — you can learn from Dancing Rabbit, Sandhill Farm, Red Earth Farm or the Possibility Alliance. We would go see the Possibility Alliance and be really inspired, come back home and find we couldn’t do everything we wanted to. We were living in an apartment, and we would need space to incorporate these great things. We didn’t have any yard and all of our windows faced north, but we did have a community garden plot, threw compost in the bushes, preserved fruit from abandoned fruit trees and reduced our energy usage.

What sustainability tips would you offer for suburban living?

Jerry: Growing your own food — even if it’s one tomato plant or a few herbs — makes you feel really good about making your own food.

Buy local and preserve it via fermentation. Stick it in the fridge, dehydrate it and put it in a root cellar or can it. Talk to your farmers to see if you can buy bulk produce. For cheap canning tomatoes, we buy the ones that the farmers can’t sell and pare off the bad spots.

It can be good for your body and mind for one day every few weeks or months to just turn off your computer and cell phone and not drive in a car — and take steps toward reducing oil dependence, whether it be buying in bulk, buying local, riding a bike, walking or buying things with less packaging.

You can easily collect rainwater for your plants. Even a big bucket out in the rain will fill up some. And if you don’t flush your toilet every time you pee, you save plenty of water.

Get involved with other people/groups that are trying to do the same kinds of things. The support, resources and friendships they can provide are invaluable. After all, sustainability is about a sustainable community, not a single building, homestead or person.

Do you plan to use the center to help develop community?

Jerry: Yes, definitely. We would love to have a stone-soup potluck where you just bring whatever ingredients you have. We would like to promote it as something to break down some of the social barriers and be more understanding and supportive of each other. People thrive when they’re united. Even being able to recognize someone and have that relationship with them is helpful for everyone.

Do you plan on using renewable energy?

We currently do not own our house. We rent it from a friend, so there are only so many things we can do. We can’t tear down any walls here. If we were to incorporate renewables, it would be some kind of DIY wind power, something that uses an alternator. Also, we probably wouldn’t use solar because of how intensive it is to produce a solar panel — and because they are so expensive. Human power is another source we would like to explore.

Find out more about the Covert Cupboard Bakery and the Kirksville Permaculture Education Center.

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