Archive for the ‘Food’ Category
— ∞ —
And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.
God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” So God made a farmer.
“I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife’s done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon—and mean it.” So God made a farmer.
— ∞ —
In 1978, Paul Harvey delivered a speech at the Future Farmers of America Convention entitled, “So God Made a Farmer.” It’s a beautiful speech, filled with stirring imagery and capturing a romantic view of the hard working American farmer. Harvey delivers it impeccably, in his distinctive voice and often falling into a poetic torrent of description. I like the speech; even in its romanticization, it speaks to the agrarian I am at heart, and speaks to a number of truths about farmers of all stripes—not just in this country, but across the world.
Yet, Harvey gave that speech one year after Wendell Berry published The Unsettling of America, a collection of essays bemoaning the destruction of rural and farming communities throughout America. Already, the process of centralization, corporatization, destructive industrialism, and overproduction was ripping through America’s farmlands, picking off farms and farmers, literally killing many of those who worked the land. From 1940 to 1970, the farm population in America dropped from an estimated 30.8 million people to 9.7 million. At the same time, the general population of the country increased by 70 million. Farmers made up 18% of the working population in 1940. By 1970, that was down to 4.6%. Two years after Harvey’s speech, in 1980, there were just 3.7 million farmers, and they made up only 3.4% of the work force. The day Harvey gave his speech, most of the American farm community had already been destroyed.
In 2013, just this last Sunday, Chrysler unveiled a television advertisement featuring portions of Harvey’s speech. Chrysler overlaid his eloquent words with gorgeous portraits of farmers and ranchers. For two minutes during America’s annual celebration of consumption and vacuity—now one of its greatest cultural touchstones—Chrysler’s ad stirred the hearts and minds of a nation of people, seducing them with a romanticized picture of American farming and evoking this country’s rich agricultural heritage. At the end of those two minutes, no doubt, the vast majority of those who had felt so stirred by the words and images set forth before them went back to their Doritos and Pepsi, Budweiser and industrially-produced meat, their various repackagings of oil-soaked corn and soy, and they watched the next commercial pimping an unnecessary industrial product rooted in the destruction of the very same land that so many past Americans loved and worked. In other words, they went back to the sort of lives that have destroyed and debased American farmers—not to mention farmers across the world, creatures across the world, the very land and ecosystems that all of us here on Earth consider home.
— ∞ —
God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And who, planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain’n from ‘tractor back,’ put in another seventy-two hours.” So God made a farmer.
God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor’s place. So God made a farmer.
— ∞ —
Chrysler’s commercial—the first, last, and only purpose of which is to sell trucks and boost their brand, let’s keep in mind—doesn’t present an accurate view of the American food system. The current system is one rooted largely in industrial processes, massive corporate agriculture outfits, degradation of the land, overproduction, commoditization, exploitation of migrant laborers, and the enslavement of farmers via perpetual debt cycles. Farm workers in this country are not primarily white, as the commercial might lead you to believe. They’re primarily brown; a majority of agricultural workers in this country are Hispanic, most of them foreign-born. The majority of children raised on farms don’t “want to do what Dad does.” They leave the farm. They move to urban areas, get “good” jobs, join the industrial economy and never look back.
The hard truth is that most of this country has little interest in getting out there and putting their hands in the dirt and doing the hard work of growing and raising food. We think we’re beyond that. We think we’re too “advanced.” We think that’s something best left to less civilized people. Within the context of the myth of progress—one of the ruling ideas of our time—an agrarian society and economy is seen as less civilized and inherently worse than an industrial society and economy. It’s something best left for the less developed countries. First we stopped dirtying our hands with the growing of food, then we stopped dirtying our hands with the making of actual things, and now—surprise!—we have a dysfunctional economy that no longer even provides the opportunity to keep our hands clean in the magical “information economy” that was supposed to elevate us above all the messy, nasty physical realities of our past lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t have taken such a dim view of the dirt on our hands.
Chrysler and Harvey suggest to us that God makes farmers. I would submit that that’s the wrong message for our time. Harvey’s speech actually reveals the message we most need to hear: that work makes farmers.
— ∞ —
God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadow lark. It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church.
— ∞ —
The recurrent theme in Harvey’s speech is the hard work involved in farming. While Harvey’s math may occasionally be questionable (how does one complete a 40 hour work week in 36 hours, for instance?) the basic message is correct. Farming is hard work, and it involves quite a bit of busting of one’s own ass. Unfortunately, we live in a society that has so been cushioned by the ghost work force of fossil fuel slaves, that we’ve forgotten the hard work that’s necessary for living well in this world. It’s only been in the last few centuries, with the discovery of massive stores of fossil fuel energy, that we’ve been able to live the myth that we can survive without having to engage in hard, physical, yet rewarding labor, without having to know and intimately understand the land upon which we live, without having to have a distinct and instinctual understanding of our local ecosystems and what keeps them functioning. It’s only through the brute force of massive amounts of applied energy that we’ve been able to escape lives rooted in the earth and our fellow multitudes of creatures. And this has made us soft. The vast majority of us no longer understand the hard work that it normally takes to live in this world. We will know again, as we continue the long and ragged process of running out of fossil fuels over the next couple centuries, but for now we are a population divorced from the hard realities of surviving on this planet.
This is my frustration with Chrysler’s ad. It feeds American myths that died when everyone decided it was too much work to live the lives they exalt. It feeds our national complacence by telling us that this reality still exists—even when it largely doesn’t—and provides us a comfort that requires no work, requires no change in our lives, requires no alteration of our behaviors or decisions. By weaving these quiet and comforting tales, by obsessively romanticizing lives that most people no longer bother to live, it insulates us from the hard and necessary work of actually living those lives.
And so I argue instead that we be honest about the American food system and pay attention to the real message of Harvey’s speech. Don’t romanticize the American food system—change it by getting involved in it. Plant a garden, grow some herbs, ditch the pre-processed and pre-packaged crap and buy whole foods, learn to cook, get a CSA, go to the farmer’s market, barter with your neighbors, bake your own bread, make your own yogurt and butter, buy as much of your food as you can from local farmers who do things right. Build your own household economy and then build your local economy. Feed yourself, feed your family, feed your neighbors and help them feed you. Join your local grange. Teach your children what real food is and how to grow it. Learn to live small and within your means, with room to spare.
The food system we have now exists because of our decisions, because of the power we grant to corporations and individuals who have happily corrupted farming for their own gain, destroying farmers, rural communities, and rural economies in the process. Change your actions and decisions. Strip their power. Build a new food system. The government isn’t going to do it, the corporate agricultural outfits aren’t going to do it, even the farmers and farm workers aren’t going to do it if we don’t, through our actions, grant them the power and flexibility to change the way things are done.
It’s up to us, to each of us changing the ways we live. It ain’t gonna get done any other way.
— ∞ —
“Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life ‘doing what dad does.’” So God made a farmer.
— Paul Harvey, 1978
— ∞ —
We’re going to have to question honestly the lives we lead today, and answer honestly about the changes we need to make. A good many of us are going to have to decide to stay put, to not leave for the city, so to speak, to not dive into the temporary luxuries of an industrial economy divorced from good and honest work, to do what dad does, what mom does, what—mostly, today—the migrant workers do. We’re going to have to return to the land, to our connection with it, and to the hard and good work of living right upon it. The fossil fuel slaves and ghost acreage aren’t going to last forever. The longer we ignore that fact, the worse off we’ll all be.
You got a farmer in you, like the ad says? Honor it. Don’t buy a fucking truck—that doesn’t make you a farmer. Work the land. Grow food. Engage the household economy. Learn to live with less, build your community, turn you back on global and corporate systems that destroy the land, destroy local communities, and make us all dependent on a rickety system with an ever-approaching expiration date. Come home and begin the long and hard work of staying in place, of strengthening the land on which you live, rather than tearing it apart for temporary luxuries.
Work makes a farmer. Inspired by farmers? Well, then, get to work.
An entry in How To Be Poor
One of the primary troubles with living well in a time of peak oil and deindustrialization is the tendency in our society to think in reductionist patterns rather than within the context of whole systems. Reductionist patterns of thinking have often—though certainly not always—served well within the context of industrialization and, as such, they’ve become one of the more dominant tendencies of our time. When faced with problems or predicaments, we often devolve into arguing over the details in an attempt to build a perfect response to the problem at hand. Seeing a list of troubled variables, we focus on them one by one (or simply focus on one of them at the expense of all the others) and attempt to mold said variable more to our liking. But in doing this, we too often ignore the effects such moldings will have on the other variables affected within the system and it’s there that we run into trouble.
As a prime example, let’s consider the question of how to eat well in a world with diminishing energy and resources, fraught with economic contraction and ecological destruction. Some years ago, I took a college class in sustainability and, to this day, I remember particularly some of the discussion around what sort of diet we may be able to provide the population in a world seriously lacking in fossil fuels and more focused on sustainability. The problem was defined largely as thus: we will need to feed somewhere between seven and nine billion people without destroying the environment and with reduced energy availability, so how shall we do that? The solution, as it turns out, was a textbook response in reductionist thinking.
The solution proffered, in vague and general terms, was that the world’s population would have to shift to eating mostly a plant-based diet. Prime farmland would be used for growing staple grains for human consumption, rather than animal consumption, and the eating of animal protein would drop dramatically. It would not be eliminated, though. Certain range lands that would prove inadequate for growing staple crops or fresh vegetables—due to poor soil and a lack of water—could be used as grazing lands for cattle. That would be the main source of meat for the world’s hungry mouths, and it would come more in the form of ground beef than steaks, because the range lands wouldn’t provide for nice, juicy cuts. (Yes, I specifically remember that point being made, which even at the time seemed strange to me.)
You can clearly see the reductionist thinking behind this solution. It boils down to a few variables: the number of mouths to feed, the amount of land available for farming, and how we might maximize that land to provide a certain number of calories per mouth. That was the entirety of the approach to the question of how to feed the world. It took an entire planet, reduced the uncountable number of ecosystems down to one large number accounting for the world’s arable acreage, and started making calorie calculations of staple grains, perhaps of mixed-crop rotations. You can see this sort of reductionist pattern in other approaches to sustainability issues. There’s no shortage of people concerned about fossil fuel energy who will comment on the amount of solar energy that falls on this planet in any given day, the conversion efficiency of the latest solar panel technology, and from there whip up a quick calculation to note how many acres of the world’s land we simple need to cover in solar panels to start generating all our electrical needs from the sun. If you really want to get fancy, you can throw in climate variables, ideal sitings of the aforementioned solar panels, and so on.
This is reductionism run amok and it’s a particularly unhelpful way to grapple with our future. The simple reality is that being a reductionist in the deindustrializing future is not going to pay the same sorts of dividends as it has in the industrialized past. Going forward, we’re going to be losing our access to the sort of energy and resource reserves that have allowed us to consistently approach our problems with reductionist methods, and that reality is going to leave us more at the mercy of whole systems than we have been. Or, more specifically, we’ll continue to be at the mercy of whole systems, as we always have been, but our ability to create problems one variable at a time is going to go away.
That last sentence might be a bit obtuse, so let me better explain. In Wendell Berry’s fantastic essay, “Solving for Pattern,” [pdf] he notes that attempts to solve problems on a variable by variable basis tend to cause “a ramifying series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution—as, in agriculture, industrial solutions to the problem of production have invariably caused problems of maintenance, conservation, economics, community health, etc., etc.” (p. 135 in The Gift of Good Land.) For instance, in attempts to create better economies of scale for raising livestock, an industrial solution has been to take cattle off pasture and put them in feed lots. Setting aside the question of whether or not this was a “problem” that needed solving (that set aside answer, by the way, is “no”) this caused a number of new problems. Placed in a confined environment, fed a diet unnaturally heavy on grain, and left too often to mill about in massive amounts of their own manure, the cattle begin to experience poor health. With a reductionist focus on the problem of poor health, divorced from considerations of changing the root cause of it, the reductionist solution was to provide steady doses of antibiotics to the cattle. This creates a host of new problems—increased costs for the farmer, the eventual evolution of antibiotic-resistant microbes, and so on—which are then either ignored or dealt with in the same reductionist manner, which then creates still new problems. And, of course, that’s just one path of problems. There’s a number of other paths meandering off from the decision to confine cattle, from the problem of waste disposal, the need for imported feed, the heavy environmental costs of ignoring the land’s carrying capacity, the overproduction of meat, the declining health value of the resultant meat, the abuse of animals, the centralization of agricultural production, the resulting economic impacts, and yet more. It spirals out everywhere—confined animal feeding operations lead to industrial-scale slaughterhouses that horrifically abuse both animals and humans, an industrial form of grain production arises to feed the CAFOs, which abuses and degrades the land, which in turn abuses and degrades farmers, which in turn abuses and degrades rural communities and economies, which in turn abuses and degrades urban communities and economies. In our blind focus on variables, we tend to degrade and oftentimes destroy the entire system.
Yet, as Berry argues in his essay, there are more elegant ways of solving our problems, and those tend to be rooted in whole systems thinking. He notes that such solutions that take into account the health of a system, rather than focusing exclusively on independent variables, cause “a ramifying series of solutions—as when meat animals are fed on the farm where the feed is raised, and where the feed is raised to be fed to the animals that are on the farm” (p. 137.) In solving for pattern—engaging in whole systems thinking, in other words—one often can discover solutions that nestle within one another, increasing the strength of the entire system and restoring much of its health. If there is a problem of poor health with animals in a CAFO, then perhaps eliminating the CAFO and returning the animals to pasture is a holistic response to the problem rather than in attempting to control the illness without confronting the source of the illness. In returning the animals to pasture, we will necessarily have to reduce the number of animals to the point that the land’s carrying capacity is not exceeded. In scaling back the number of animals being raised for meat, we help to reduce the problem of over-consumption of meat and offer opportunities for more balanced ways of eating. In doing so, we are reducing the impact on the environment and the ecological destruction that so easily arises from CAFOs. Further, we decentralize our agricultural system, providing the opportunity for more people to make a living farming, which then provides for the reemergence of healthy rural economies and communities, which then benefits the health of urban economies and communities.
This is not the end of the story, though, and neither are those final few sentences a resolution to the issue of eating sustainably. Let’s go back to the reductionist solutions proffered to the question of how to feed the world’s population. It seems to make sense that if the world’s population subsisted on a diet lower on the food chain, then less energy will be required to feed the world. And indeed, you can consistently find arguments in support of vegetarianism as an appropriate response to ecological destruction and unsustainable ways of living. We are reminded again and again that eating animals is eating higher on the food chain and that, therefore, every calorie taken in is necessarily the result of a greater number of calories of energy expended than if we had taken in a calorie of plant food.
I obviously don’t dispute the simple fact that one calorie of animal protein is the result of multiple calories of plant protein. It follows that to eat the calorie of plant protein requires less calories taken out of the system as a whole. That’s logical enough, and just because it’s rooted in a certain reductionism doesn’t make it untrue. (Reductionism does have its uses, after all.) However, how one plant or one animal calorie gets to my mouth is dependent on a wide variety of variables, so each calorie is not made the same. The whole system of food arriving in my stomach contains a number of variables beyond simply what segment of the food chain it came from.
In this sense, the question of diet has to be considered in a whole systems context, rather than a reductionist context. I already argued this point to a degree in an earlier post in this series, There are No Vegetarians in a Famine, but if we’re going to grapple honestly with the question of what’s the most sustainable and coherent way to eat, it’s going to involve a lot of consideration of personal context, local landscape, and the local ecology. How does killing and eating a local wild animals compare to eating locally raised beef that lived on pasture? How do those options compare to beef from the industrial agriculture system? And how does all that compare to eating organic staple grains from a monoculture operation in California or Canada or the Midwest? What about conventional staple grains? Or how about an array of locally grown, organic vegetables? An intensive organic vegetable operation, a permaculture homestead, a mixed-crop and animal rotational system? The question of which of these foods or methods of production are most sustainable are rooted in locality and each individual person, as is the question of the health and satisfaction of a particular diet.
The trouble with using reductionist thinking to come up with a solution of staple grains and range land beef is that it presupposes a number of other variables that may or may not be viable in a deindustrializing future. The number of calories of energy it takes to produce a calorie of beef is usually calculated based on industrial agriculture rooted in the feed lot system. How does that compare to small, local farms utilizing a rotational grazing system and not feeding their cattle grain? The number of calories necessary to produce a calorie of soy or corn or oat or wheat is dependent on the way those plants were grown, what seed was used, what pesticides and fertilizers were or were not used, where it was grown, where it’s being consumed, and perhaps even on whether or not a person feels more satiated on an equivalent number of calories of grain versus meat or any other type of food (assuming the person in question has options, which is not an assumption that can be blithely made in a deindustrializing future.) Most of these examinations of the most sustainable ways to eat are rooted in assumptions of industrial agriculture, as well as in assumptions that we can just pick and choose our diet without concern for our local realities. All of those are also assumptions that cannot be blithely made in a deindustrializing future. We don’t know if the future will allow us centralized forms of agriculture that can create a somewhat consistent diet for the world at large. I would argue that it won’t. A sustainable diet in the future may boil down to what’s produced locally, and that will vary widely if local production is rooted in natural systems, on-site recycling of nutrients and no or little more energy than is provided by the sun that falls on the land. In such a system, you’re a lot more likely to find systems of food production that utilize a mix of locally-appropriate annual and perennial crops along with various types of livestock. That’s one of our better approximations of a natural ecosystem, and the natural ecosystem is the model that we’re going to have to use if excess energy becomes scarce.
This brings me to a question I’ve been considering of late, which is how I might eat locally and sustainably, with the least amount of money. It’s a question rooted in my attempts at voluntary poverty, my concern for the health of our world, and my desire for a graceful and sustainable future. The best solution I can come up with is not one that’s overly concerned about the food chain, but one that’s overly concerned with my particular context. It seems to me that the best way I could eat would be a diet that focused primarily on locally-grown, organic vegetables, berries and fruit, both from my own garden and from local, small-scale farms; pasture-raised meat from the two small farms I currently work as a farm hand for; my local source of raw milk, which I can also make butter, yogurt, and cheese from; chicken and duck eggs from local sources; some organic staple grains from the local grocery, including wheat from which I can bake my own bread; and some trade at the farmers market for other items, such as honey, fruit, cheese, and perhaps some baked goods. My diet already is partially made up of these particulars, but I have yet to embrace it completely.
The benefits of this diet are multiple. For starters, it’s enjoyable and healthy. It’s a diet I would and do take pleasure in. It strikes me as sustainable in the sense that it is focused mostly on food grown and raised within a radius of 15 miles of where I live, and it’s food raised well, food the production of which I know intimately. It’s whole food, and thus it eliminates much of the cost in energy, resources and money of processing, and greatly reduces packaging. It’s also resilient in that most of it is not as reliant on long supply chains as the food in the grocery store is (though there is still reliance—all the local farms I know of use at least some inputs, though nothing like what industrial agriculture uses.) It strengthens the community by supporting local farms and farmers and it even strengthens my own work, as two of those local farms employ me. Relatedly, I can reduce my need for cash by gaining a good amount of that food via work-trade or other forms of trade. Furthermore, this diet solidifies relationships, care, and good work. It is inherently of my context, completely unique to me. I think that’s important.
I’m not saying this is the perfect diet. And there may be a diet available to me that overall uses less energy and is a bit kinder to the environment, in certain ways. But this strikes me as a uniquely good diet for me, rooted in the consideration of the entire system in which I live and from which I gain my sustenance. Furthermore, this strikes me as a particularly resilient diet in the face of an uncertain future, and that’s of the utmost importance. Perhaps just as importantly, this is a diet that works with and largely accepts my local limitations, rather than resorting to the blunt attempts at control that so often underlie reductionist thinking.
In fact, the resilience of this diet, the idea of resiliency in general, the folly of strained attempts at control in a deindustrializing future, and the necessities for engagement with community are all important considerations of both reductionism and whole systems thinking—as well as voluntary poverty and any response to a post-peak oil world—and those are the topics about which I’ll be writing in the next entry in How To Be Poor.
I still have two parts of the Reintroduction to write, but I’ve been a bit busy of late to knock them out. I’m preparing for a road trip down to California. I’ll be driving the car of one of my roommates from this summer down to her in Culver City, hanging out for a few days, then taking the train back to Portland and the bus back out here to the coast. I leave Friday and will follow the coast down. Since I’m working most of the day tomorrow, I don’t expect to have another post written until next week some time, most likely. And that’s assuming I get a chance to write while in California.
Interestingly, the next post in the Reintroduction is going to be about the social aspects of my life—the loneliness that has arisen at times due to the path I’ve chosen as well as the opportunities to meet new and fantastic people. The two women I’ll be visiting in California—whom I lived with this summer—will be an element of that post. The woman I’m currently seeing in Portland—another small reason I have yet to get up a new post—will also be mentioned in brief. I suppose it’s appropriate that my post on social realities and loneliness has been delayed by the prioritizing of friends and social interaction.
Anyway, since no new written post is imminent, I thought I could at least provide you all a few pretty pictures. In keeping with the theme of the last post, here are a few shots of my efforts to keep the harvest.
Tomato jam, made primarily from cherry tomatoes, getting ready to be canned. This is a mix of sweet and spicy, though much heavier on the sweet than the spicy. I made two batches—the first was even sweeter than the second. I prefer the second. It’s pretty fantastic on a grilled cheese sandwich. The recipe came from Food In Jars.
I made two batches of salsa with the many tomatoes coming out of the hoop house. I used a variety of different tomatoes—all different colors—as well as many kinds of peppers: sweet reds, green and purple bells, jalapenos and other hot peppers. The result was an incredibly colorful and vibrant salsa—at least, until it cooked down. It tasted pretty damn good, too. (As with the tomato jam, the second batch came out better than the first. I omitted a can of tomato paste from the second batch, which had made the first batch just a touch too sweet.)
This isn’t actually keeping the harvest so much as just the harvest. Romanesco is a brassica that essentially is a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. The result is an incredible flower that grows in a fractal pattern. It’s also delicious when roasted, with a slightly sweet and nutty flavor. It just came on in my garden and this is a shot of the first head harvested and eaten.
The abundance of this year’s foray into water-bath canning. This is but a portion of what all I’ve canned, and there’s still more to be done. From left to right: blackberry jam, tomato jam, blackberry syrup, tomato puree, apple sauce, apple butter, salsa, pickled green beans.
The reintroduction continues. I’m catching readers up on my summer and current life in anticipation of resuming this blog, with some adjustments to the thrust of the content. In the first post, I talked weather. Now I want to talk about my garden and food preservation.
— ∞ —
Okay, I don’t actually have a pantry here. More like a cupboard, and counters, and a multitude of jars spread all over the place in various nooks and crannies. The contents of those jars vary: blackberry jam and syrup, pickle spears, bread and butter pickles, apple butter, apple sauce, tomato puree, whole tomatoes, tomato jam, pickled green beans, salsa. There are over 100 jars in all. It started in early September and has been going ever since, though now I’m starting to slow down. But I hope to make more salsa and apple sauce, pickled jalapenos and other pickled peppers, sauerkraut and perhaps some other ferments. I still have a couple cases of jars that I’d like to fill.
To be honest, I’m proud of all this. I’m excited, too. Before this year, my only foray into water bath canning was making some pickles last year and helping with pickled beans three years ago. I had experimented with fermenting various veggies, but I hadn’t yet fallen into the world of traditional canning. This year I was determined to tackle that project. I picked up a simple canning set and waited for the blackberries and tomatoes to ripen—my main goals. I wanted jam, syrup and tomato sauce above all else. If I managed some other projects, that would simply be icing on the cake.
I started late. I should have began with the blackberries three or four weeks before I did. However, the summer here—as mentioned in the previous post—has been warm and sunny and went late, with minimal clouds and almost no rain until the last few days. So the blackberries held well, molding a bit after a couple of misty days in the second half of September but bouncing back with new fruit. I was able to harvest out enough for multiple batches of jam and two small batches of syrup, which I wanted as a local replacement for maple syrup.
Granted, I’ll still enjoy myself a bit of maple syrup over the course of the year—there’s no real replacement for it—but one of the main goals with my canning is to attempt to replace at least some non-local sources of food with the most local of foods—those from my garden or otherwise off the land I live on. So, wild blackberries and tomatoes and apples from the farm’s two apple trees were high on the canning list. Admittedly, I have brought in some outside food. My mix of cucumber seeds turned out to largely be lemon cucumbers, which are perhaps the worst for pickling, and I had no hot pepper plants in the hoop house—just bell and sweet. So I picked up jalapenos, other hot peppers and pickling cucumbers from a couple local farms.
In terms of other goals, I wanted to extend and maximize my harvest from and use of the land I live on, to reduce the money I spend on buying canned goods, and to provide myself a stock of homemade goods for Christmas and birthday presents. I figured jam, syrup and tomato sauce were three good areas to target in that regard. Nice jam is expensive at the store (in terms of personal use) and a great gift when homemade. Also, I use a good amount of tomato sauce throughout the year. Meanwhile, there are a number of Himalayan blackberry thickets spread across the farm and I had a hoop house full of tomatoes, producing fruit far beyond what I could eat fresh. A perfect combination of factors.
If there’s one thing it seems we all should be in a world either lacking in abundant energy (eventually) or heading that way (now), it’s opportunistic of available resources. Himalayan blackberries are something of a pain and a nuisance, but they do produce copious amounts of sweet berries without any tending, and they’re well established around the farm and, well, pretty much everywhere out here. And the beauty of tomatoes is that if you can keep blight or mold from knocking them out and provide them a bit of pruning and tending, they’ll produce a ridiculous amount of fruit for you that just invites preservation and enjoyment throughout the cold and dark months of late fall, winter and spring when relatively little or nothing is growing out in the garden. So I began there, with the blackberries and then tomatoes. But then I moved into the copious and overwhelming number of green beans and then took on the desired projects of pickles and salsa, which partly required bringing in the aforementioned outside food. Finally, I began to harvest out some of the abundant apples on the farm’s two apple trees (it’s been a good fruit year) and made apple sauce and butter.
It’s been so good. First of all, I discovered in my work that canning really is quite easy. Most of my jars have sealed fine and, while it’s somewhat time-consuming, it’s really not a challenging task. There’s something very satisfying in it, in fact. Much as with building a wooden gate, there’s something incredibly fulfilling about a task that ends in a real, tangible product. Finishing up a bout of canning with a cache of cooling, canned goods on the counter provides a satisfaction unmatched by so many of the sort of ethereal tasks common in today’s supposed information economy. But also, watching the canned food pile up has been a good antidote to the other reality manifesting in the last few weeks: the dying of my garden.
It’s not yet all gone, and with luck the tomatoes will survive into November (though there are rumblings of an upcoming cold snap in the weather models, so I may not be that lucky.) However, a few weeks ago I started losing the outside crops one by one. A chilly night killed off the outside basil first of all. Then went the green beans a few nights later. The squash at that point was already looking a bit ragged but a yet cooler night perhaps a week later finished off the last remaining hardy plants. I went out one morning to see a stretch of perked up, but browned and blackened squash leaves whereas the day before they had still been a relatively healthy green. About that same time, the basil in the hoop house started to blacken a bit, though some of the plants remained strong. And the tomatoes and cucumbers are looking more ragged by the day, though they’re so far hanging on.
Some of the garden remains fine, such as the various brassicas, the lettuce and the root crops. The lettuce will go if we get a real cold night, but the more established brassicas and the root crops should be fine. They’ll provide me a bit of fall and winter eating, although my elaborate winter plans didn’t pan out to the degree that I had hoped. This was due to my own failure to follow through on those ambitious plans more than uncooperative weather or any other garden-specific variable. I simply lost some of my steam in the late summer and the fall starts that I did get in, I got in late. I have a number of very small plants that may not survive a good cold snap or that—even if they do survive—probably aren’t going to grow enough to give me any real harvest. Although, if I’m lucky, I may get some nice, early spring harvests from them if they survive the winter.
In some ways, the garden dying off is nice in that I no longer have to worry about maintaining it (not that I’ve been doing too good a job of that of late, anyway.) On the other hand, it’s another good lesson of just how tough a (partially) self-sustaining life is. I have the grocery stores for the winter, of course—which I’m going to need even with my multitude of canned goods. If I didn’t, I would be in a bit more dire of straights with the current garden (though I do have probably a couple hundred pounds of potatoes, mostly still in the ground.) I would have had to have been much more on top of things if the garden was going to be one of my main sources of food going forward.
Still, I realize that this all requires a long process of successive steps (and a number of setbacks, as well.) There’s a steep learning curve to this sort of life, particularly within the context of a culture that hardly values it. In the meantime, I can celebrate my many filled jars, my new found canning skills, my jump start on Christmas gifts, and I can dream of just how much farther along I might get next year. I plan to start my canning earlier in 2013, to expand my repertoire, and to make it more of a year round affair rather than just a flurry of activity in the late summer and early fall. I also hope to better plan my garden around canning, preservation, and winter crops next year. Not all of this will happen and what does happen may not go smoothly, but one of this summer’s many lessons is just how much you can accomplish even when all doesn’t go according to plan and even when you realize you don’t quite have the amount of personal motivation, spare time and energy throughout the summer as you might optimistically imagine during those first promising days of spring.
Looking at the picture posted above, though—a mere portion of what I’ve canned—I can’t help but feel a certain satisfaction, joy and pride at what I’ve accomplished. So here’s to a winter of good eating, and future winters of even better eating. And here’s to the slow emptying of the “pantry,” and the eventual replenishment of the same.
When I lived in Portland, I paid $10 for a gallon of milk.
This wasn’t store bought milk, of course, but raw milk. It came from a farm south of the city—a piece of land leased by two wonderful women, Karyn and Carissa, who kept a couple milking cows and a small flock of chickens. These two women deeply cared for their animals and treated them—as well as their customers—as part of their family. Initially, their milk came from a Jersey named Opal; later on, Kaycee, a Fleckvieh, joined the family. They both produced amazing milk, but I started with Opal and she always remained my favorite. Often I would find myself faced with a shelf full of half gallon Mason jars, each one labeled with a name—Opal or Kaycee—and the date of milking. Given the choice, I always snagged Opal jars. The richness of the milk was one of the reasons, as the milk’s fat content had been measured at close to six percent in one test. But affection played a role, too.
The first time I met Opal, I fell a bit in love. She was small—for a cow, anyway—and brown, had those long Jersey eyelashes, was calm and clean and on grass, looking the picture-perfect cow. I came near her and put my hand against her hide, spoke to her. Karyn and Carissa raved about how easy she was to milk, about her gentle demeanor. I could sense that gentle spirit when I met her and something about that moment—about putting my hand on her, seeing her eyes, knowing that this was the creature who provided me good food and nourishment—struck a deep chord.
Looking back, I think part of that was a small awakening of the agrarian in me. At that time, I had never farmed and had only started to learn more about food, to better understand what it could and could not be, to better understand the care that could be taken in growing and raising it or the destruction that could be wrought in the same process. It also was a moment of connection unfamiliar to me. Much of my life, I didn’t know where my food came from, though throughout much of my childhood we did have a large garden that I worked in. Still, I ate so much from the store and so much fast food and processed food. I grew up mostly in the suburbs and had never known farming, or ever been much interested in it. For a good portion of my life, food had been little more than a requirement and I had literally said numerous times that if I didn’t have to eat, I happily wouldn’t.
Now, I farm. I’ve worked on three vegetable farms and currently work for two farms that raise pastured animals for meat, one of which has a dairy component, as well. The presence of cows is routine for me these days. I’m much more familiar with the sight of them, their smell and feel, their sound and behavior. But I still love to see a Jersey and almost every time I do, I think of Opal and I think of her milk.
— ∞ —
As I already noted, Opal’s milk had a high fat content, at nearly twice the fat of whole milk bought at the store. Her milk was sometimes so rich and creamy and sweet from the good grass she ate, it felt and tasted almost like drinking ice cream. It may seem silly to wax poetic over milk—it’s just milk, after all, such a standard food. Except that’s the point. There was nothing standard about Opal’s milk in comparison to what you would buy at the store. The store milk couldn’t compare. It couldn’t begin to. The sweetness of Opal’s milk, the freshness, the lack of that subtle burnt flavor often imparted by pasteurization (which one generally needs to drink raw milk to begin to detect in pasteurized milk) the creaminess of it, the health and vitality—it was all there.
It had flavor, and that flavor changed over the course of the year. The changing grass—Opal’s fluctuating diet—effected the taste of the milk. It evolved, as well, as it sat in the fridge. Each day it grew a bit different in its taste as it would slowly work its way to the point of souring, which is a natural process in raw milk rather than the putrification that happens with pasteurized milk. Sour raw milk isn’t rotten; it’s changed. It’s going through the same sort of process that creates yogurt, though the result isn’t the same. But it still can be used once it sours and remains a healthy and living food.
As I became more familiar with raw milk, I began to understand how it offered a different experience than store bought milk. Raw milk was a real, non-standardized food that functioned within the same sort of systems and patterns that other living food does. It changed depending on its circumstances—the flavor and fat content altered by Opal’s diet and it’s taste and composition changing as the milk aged and the bacterial ecosystem within it grew and evolved (with that bacteria generally being of the beneficial kind, along the same lines as the critical microfauna found in the human digestive system.) Leave the milk alone for a few hours and the cream begins to rise to the top. Shake it and you’re back to having it dispersed within the milk.
This milk hadn’t been homogenized or standardized. It hadn’t had the flavor burnt out of it or its unique bacteria profile killed via pasteurization. It didn’t have an exact expiration date. In many ways, it didn’t have any expiration date, as its evolving stages lent itself to changing uses. It wasn’t a conglomeration of hundreds or thousands of different cows’ milk and it wasn’t untraceable or virtually untraceable by dint of it being the end result of a vast, complicated and confusing industrial dairy system. It was Opal’s milk. It came from a cow I had met and spoken to and touched, it had been milked by the hands of two women whom I knew and am friends with, it was the result of eaten grass from a pasture I had stood in. I knew exactly where it came from and how it had come to me.
— ∞ —
Getting Opal’s milk took a community. In fact, learning about Opal’s milk took a community.
I first learned of the availability of Opal’s milk via a homesteading group I participated in. Started by my friend Eric and his girlfriend, the group met once a month and covered a predetermined topic, taught by a few members from the group who already had knowledge of that activity or had been tasked with researching it and then presenting information to the group. I loved the group and learned quite a bit from it. As it happened, some of the members were interested in getting raw milk and Eric, via his work on an urban farm, had learned of Karyn and Carissa and the milk they had available.
Getting Opal’s milk was far different from going to the store. According to Oregon state law, you can only sell raw cow milk on the farm. There also is a restriction of only having two producing cows on the premises and advertising raw milk is illegal, so the only way for people to find out about it is via customer word of mouth. Due to these restrictions and because the farm was about a 35 mile drive from us, we needed to get together a group of people who could take turns driving to the farm each week to make the arrangement viable. We eventually cobbled together enough people so that, with each of us taking a turn, nobody would have to make the drive down to the farm more often than every eight or ten weeks.
All of this required communication and organization. We had an email list and a schedule worked out a couple months in advance. Everyone would sign up for a week and knew that on their day they would have to load up their car with coolers and ice packs, drive down to the farm, pick up the milk, bring it back, and store it in a central location in Portland where everyone would come to get their milk for the week. For the most part, everyone performed well. Every once in awhile some snafu would take place and there would be some frantic rearranging or a notice would go out that the milk was running late. In other words, our little community functioned as you would expect a community to function: mostly well, but with the occasional hiccup. Everyone took these hiccups in stride.
We had a shared goal, after all. In our small way, we were a community working for our own common good.
— ∞ —
Picking up the milk was not a chore. It was a visit and, in its own way, a small celebration.
On the appointed day, I would make the drive down to the farm and visit with Carissa. Sometimes I visited with Karyn, too, but she was often at her job as a dairy tester, so more often than not it was Carissa’s company I kept. The beautiful thing about Karyn and Carissa is that they seemed to love the visits and always treated them as one of the high points of their week. On arrival, I was almost always offered tea, with fresh raw cream of course available for it. It was not uncommon for there to be a snack, as well—cookies or brownies or something else delicious. Most important, though, was the conversation. I would arrive, come in, sit down and we would start to chat about the farm, the cows, whatever was happening in our lives. I spoke of my interest in farming, we talked about food issues, we sometimes talked a bit of politics or other news. We shared our observations on society. We chatted about gardening, about chickens, about the weather. The conversations were easy and a joy and they usually ended upon the realization that I had to get the coolers loaded up and the milk back before the official start of pickup time. They always seemed to end out of necessity rather than desire.
Sometimes we would go and visit the animals, saying a hello to Opal and Kaycee, walking in the pasture. I regularly saw the source of my food and always Opal looked happy and content, usually munching away on grass, often paired with Kaycee.
On one of my visits my friend Peter came along, as he was looking for a source of raw milk. He grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania and spoke with Carissa at great length and with much enthusiasm about dairy farming, chatting about different breeds and the differences between the larger farm he grew up on and the very small operation Karyn and Carissa ran. We went out and visited Opal and Kaycee and Jazmine, a young calf. Jazmine came up to Peter and he put out a few fingers for her to suck and attempt to nurse on. She bucked against him so hard that he soon found his hand bleeding. Yet, as far as I could tell, he loved every moment of it, his enthusiasm boundless, the visit bringing back a multitude of memories from his childhood.
— ∞ —
The land Karyn and Carissa farmed was not their own, instead being leased. As time went on, they became less certain about their ability to stay on the land long term. That led to a period of transition in which they started to look for good homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine. They didn’t take them to the auction or sell them off to a high bidder. They researched and looked around and put out the word, visited farms and farmers, and patiently looked for the perfect fit. Giving up these members of their families wasn’t going to be easy and they certainly weren’t going to make it worse by sending them to less-than-perfect new homes.
Throughout this process, all of us who were getting milk or had gotten milk in the past from this family were sent email updates and given all the latest news. We were told what was happening and why it was happening, and given a window into the process of finding new homes from the cows who had so steadfastly fed us over the months and years.
As Karyn and Carissa found new homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine, they told us where they would be going and gave us updates on the transition. The new owners sent out emails as well, offering updates and providing those of us who wanted to stay with the cows we knew the opportunity to sign up to buy their milk from them. I didn’t sign up—not, of course, because I didn’t still want Opal’s milk, but because I was moving to the Oregon coast to begin work on my third farm. And yet, despite the fact that I didn’t sign up to receive milk, I still receive the occasional email update about Opal. When Opal calved a year ago, I received an announcement and a picture of her beautiful daughter. It brightened my day.
— ∞ —
I’ve seen someone, a skeptic of raw milk, wonder why on earth someone would pay $10 for a gallon of milk. Well, all of the above memories exist because of $10 a gallon milk.
Every time I received Opal’s milk, I knew where it came from. I knew who it came from. I knew Opal lived a good life. I knew what I was paying for: care and affection, love, good work, good food, community, friendship, authenticity and an overriding ethic that touched everyone involved. I paid to know that the milk I drank was the healthiest and tastiest milk I would ever drink. I paid $10 a gallon to know that I was supporting a farm that made the world better, that I was supporting farmers who bettered their community, that I was supporting an entirely different model rooted in a love and respect that the industrial model of farming can’t even comprehend, much less engage. I paid $10 a gallon to live and eat well. I paid $10 a gallon for connection and for a weekly joy that arrived steadfast and unerringly. I have drunk store bought milk uncountable times in my life and never did I know the cow it came from, the people who produced it, or how it came to me. Correspondingly, I never felt a real joy drinking that milk. But almost every single time I drank some of Opal’s milk, I felt an honest-to-god joy, a satisfaction I cherished.
Of course I would pay $10 a gallon for that. It’s not even a question. And I’ve never made much money. But I always found the money to pay extra for milk that was worth it—for a community that was worth it.
I wrote in my post on making butter about patterns and systems and it’s those exact patterns and systems that have led me numerous times in my life to happily pay more for Opal’s milk, for milk that’s rooted in my local community and provided to me via love and affection and the sort of good work that’s become rare in our industrial economy. Of course that’s worth the money. If anything’s worth buying—if anything’s worth supporting—it’s that.
Now I have a source of raw milk that’s less expensive. I have over a gallon of milk in my refrigerator right this moment. And I have very limited income. But if someone were to walk up to me right now with a gallon of Opal’s milk, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay $10 for it. I wouldn’t hesitate to part with $10 for the chance to taste her milk again, to relive some of those memories she’s given to me, to remember the community that we all built around her milk and the amazing women who provided us with it.
If I can’t use what little money I have to help support and build these sorts of communities, what the hell good is it? This is why we’re here, folks. Someone asks why I would pay $10 for a gallon of milk? Community and affection is my answer. If we can’t be bothered to support those—even when it costs more, or it’s less convenient, a greater challenge—than we’re in dire straights, indeed. We have to think about and see the patterns. A gallon of milk is not a gallon of milk. A carrot is not a carrot. A human being is not a human being and a community not a community. They’re all dependent on context. They can be happy or miserable, healthy or diseased, abundant or denuded.
As Wendell Berry recently said, and E.M. Forster said before him, it all turns on affection. We can’t have a good world if we don’t love.
We can’t do this if we don’t care.
Opal’s baby girl, born about a year ago.
Other posts you may be interested in:
An entry in The Household Economy
I love butter. I grew up eating margarine, but those were dark days indeed and I try not to think about them now. Instead, I think about butter, and I eat it. I slather it on toast, on cornbread, on pancakes, on pretty much any sort of baked good. I love cooking eggs in it, sauteing onions with it, roasting potatoes in it. I love baking with it. It’s my main fat. Sure, I’ll use olive oil at times and occasionally something else but butter is my standby and I go through a decent amount of it. I hardly know what I’d do without butter.
This seems appropriate to me for a couple reasons. First of all, I feel right eating butter. Animal products as part of my diet just work for me. I feel better eating that way, more satisfied, more satiated, with greater energy. Something about the combination of my genetics, heritage, childhood diet, and so on comes together in that way. Second, I live in dairy country. I live right on the Tillamook county line in Oregon, home of Tillamook cheese and with a fine history of dairy farming stretching back many years. It’s a tradition that continues to this day and fits this land—and taking advantage of that local resource only makes sense.
In other words, my personal and local context fits butter. It doesn’t fit, say, olive oil. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a bottle of olive oil on my counter, but let’s just say the butter is in a more accessible location. It’s the old standby, after all.
I wrote about that context in my previous entry in The Household Economy. In that post, I used an overabundance of thought about butter to come to a philosophy of homesteading that hit on three main themes: context, education, and patterns. While other aspects will inform the homesteading adventures I’ll be writing about in this series—personal enjoyment and interest, for instance, is kind of a big one—those were the three tenets that I thought I would focus on in the hopes of making this series a bit more than just a number of how-to guides.
I already covered the relation of butter to the above tenets in the above-linked “Considering Butter,” but I’ll hit on the high points again. In terms of context—aside from the aforementioned relevancies of personal taste and local tradition—I receive a gallon of raw milk each week from a local dairy. The milk is delicious and healthy, the cows grass fed, and the milk’s fat content higher than whole milk from the store. Left alone for a couple days in my refrigerator, I can skim around a pint of cream off the top and use that as my base ingredient for making butter. I use an already-existing resource, bring a small bit of my living into my own household, and increase my personal resilience. It’s coherent.
In the sense of education, I noted that butter is a mix of butterfat, milk proteins and water and that it’s created by agitating cream so as to join together the molecules of butterfat by breaking down their surrounding membranes. That simple knowledge, combined with the knowledge that I can skim cream off the top of my own supply of raw and non-homogenized milk, allows me to see the context in which making my own butter makes quite a bit of sense for me. It’s basic knowledge, but even much of our most basic knowledge in regards to homesteading has been lost over the last couple centuries.
A steel pail full of fresh, raw milk, straight from grass fed cows. So delicious. I can’t tell you how happy this sight makes me, every time.
In terms of patterns, I noted the local abundance of quality dairy farming and the attendant access to raw milk and cream. If I want to live in a local context, then it only makes sense for me to gain access to locally-produced milk—either through money, barter, trade or gift—and then to use some of the cream from that milk to provide myself butter. It helps wean me from globalized supply chains and an industrial economy that I don’t believe is well-designed for the future and it increases my integration into the local community, as well. It works in patterns and systems, cycling in on itself and rippling its effects throughout my life. Something as small as butter can do so much.
This sense of pattern and reinforcement, in fact, is something I want to talk a bit more about. It exemplifies much of the ideal behind homesteading. Yes, there’s the intense satisfaction of making something with your own hands and providing for yourself, but it really goes beyond that. There’s little in going to the store and buying butter. Perhaps you’ll run into someone you know or make some small talk with the cashier. You’ll help to support a local business and likely will support some non-local businesses, as well. It’s not devoid of impact, but it doesn’t burrow you into your community in the way that making your own butter can.
In making highly efficient and focused, globalized supply chains, we’ve largely insulated the recipients of those supply chains from the ripple effects of their patronage. When I buy butter at the store, I often don’t know the dairies involved, the people who run them, the cows who are milked, what they eat, what the land looks like, how that butter was made, who made it, how they’re treated or where they live or if their work supports them well, and a thousand other bits of information that are intricately a piece of that one pound box of butter. But if I bring that into the household, I begin to better understand these ripple effects. For me, it’s particularly pronounced because I get the milk, and thus the cream, locally. I know the farmers who produce my cream, I know the cows whose bodies it comes from. I know what they eat. I’ve touched and talked to them. I’ve walked on the same land they walk on. I know whom I support and I much better understand the context and ramifications of my decision to drink milk and eat butter.
Skimming the cream off the top of the milk, which has been sitting undisturbed for a couple days.
My getting that milk integrates me more into my local community, building connections. My making butter thus does the same. However, beyond the local community and land, my making butter also informs my understanding of the natural patterns that butter has always been placed in under the best of circumstances. It helps root me in an entirely different way of thinking.
Buying butter at the store places me in the industrial economic context of making money at a job, spending that money at a store, and consuming what I spend. The connections are frayed and broken, or so spread through an intricate web of globalized commerce that I could never track down the ways in which they intersect, reflect and amplify each other. And that lack of knowledge, in my mind, is a huge piece of the broken world we live in now. We don’t understand our actions, we don’t understand the ramifications, and we find it increasingly hard to live our lives well when we don’t even know what our living does to the rest of the world. By bringing more and more of my economy into the household and rooting it in a local and personal context, I’m better able to gain a grasp on those ramifications, those intersections. I begin to understand how to better live my life. I begin to see the patterns.
The farmers raise the cows, who eat the grass in the pasture and the hay in the barn, who walk the fields much as the farmers do. I trade my own labor—or money from labor at another nearby farm—for the milk, which I take home in a steel pail. Already, by knowing well the place where my milk comes from and how I acquired it, I have a far more complete understanding of how I’m living my life. But it doesn’t stop there. I bring the milk home, skim the cream, and make the butter. Now I know the production of that butter and how it got to me. I also understand the process of making butter and begin to see why this was such an integral practice in times past, when cream was produced on the homestead and of course you would turn it into butter for other uses.
Furthermore, I know that after you make butter, you have the leftover buttermilk. Unlike with buying butter at the store, I get to keep that resource and, even better, I get to find out what happens with it. For me, what’s been happening with it is I’ve been using it in the baking of cornbread or the making of pancakes, and soon I’ll try baking some bread from it. The ripples from my butter continue to spread, informing my life and playing out in the days to come. The buttermilk goes into the cornbread, then the butter goes on the cornbread. These small patterns and systems emerge. One action leads to another, and before you know it you’re filling your life with good work and good food.
Suddenly, in this small ramekin of butter, I begin to find some semblance of being human. It sounds melodramatic, I know, and . . . well, it is. Yet, it also feels very true. Maybe I have too much of a sense of romanticism about the past, but the idea of having a small homestead and raising a cow, milking that cow, drinking that milk and turning it into other food such as cheese and yogurt and butter; using the byproducts of those activities to make still other kinds of food, some of which then recombine with the previous food; even taking the leftover milk from the cow and feeding it to other animals such as hogs or chickens, which then you eventually eat as well and turn into various other forms of food within the household; and all this providing you work that makes your living and provides your life meaning and satisfaction; that seems like a coherent human existence to me and one that provides ample opportunities to build and reinforce community, to live and work well, to understand and worship this world a bit more each day. The alternative industrial system that we’ve built and allowed to devour this older way of life doesn’t feel coherent to me at all. It feels empty and destructive, for the most part, and the pattern I most often see in it is degradation and alienation.
Maybe asking butter to build a community is asking a bit much. But the amazing thing is that it actually can help do that, even though it’s so small, this one dish of butter. One more reason I love it.
So let’s make some. Here are the steps.
Read the rest of this entry »
An entry in The Household Economy
A few months back, I read a Sharon Astyk post in which she wrote about a new cookbook of sorts, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese. In the book, Reese engages in a wide variety of food-centered homesteading activities, like making butter and baking bread, making her own prosciutto and camembert. As she tries these different tasks, she documents the process and makes recommendations for which to take the time to do yourself and which to go on purchasing from others, trying to figure out where one’s limited time is best invested.
I haven’t read the book but found the concept fascinating. About the same time I read about the book, I found myself thinking about this series of posts on homesteading, The Household Economy, and how exactly I wanted to approach the writing of it. While I’ve made clear that the intent of the series is to focus on the various ways in which I engage my own household economy in pursuit of my broader goals of voluntary poverty, self-reliance and a modest life built on minimal money and energy, I wondered in what exact way it made sense for me to write about these activities. A series of posts as little more than step-by-step guides didn’t seem logical to me, mainly for the reason that such guides already are abundant on the internet for most of the activities I’ll be engaging in. Indeed, many of my activities will be carried out with the help of online guides, as well as with certain books I own. Simply duplicating that information makes little sense.
These considerations at some point dovetailed with thoughts about Reese’s book and the idea of making the bread but simply buying the butter, assuming you didn’t have time to do both. Since I had surmised butter-making would be one of my regular homesteading activities this year, I wondered if the effort really made sense. The difference in taste between store bought butter and homemade butter did seem somewhat negligible and making butter—while not particularly hard—was a bit of a messy affair, and did require quite a bit of cream (at least to create the supply of butter I tend to use, with it standing in as my cooking fat most of the time.) Perhaps making my own butter didn’t make sense, after all.
Despite these uncertainties, I made my own butter anyway. I wanted to at least try it, if nothing else. The first time I made it was with cream bought at a co-op in Portland, from a small scale Oregon dairy. The process proved extremely simple, though I did make a mess of a number of dishes and it did require a bit more time than I expected. But despite the clean up, I wanted to make butter again.
Time passed before that happened, but I finally made a new batch of butter a few weeks ago. The cream for this butter came from my weekly supply of raw milk, skimmed off the top after sitting in the fridge for a few days. For some reason—perhaps due to some difference created during the pasteurization or perhaps because the skimmed cream was a lower fat content than the store bought cream—the process of making the butter took longer. However, since the agitation was done in a food processor, that proved to be the most minimal of inconveniences. It was more a curious occurrence than a problem.
The final product was quite tasty and I enjoyed eating the butter smeared on bread. I couldn’t say it was an order of magnitude better than store bought butter, though. Better, yes, but not to the same degree as, say, eating fresh baked bread right from the oven in comparison to bread from the store. Furthermore, for my gallon or so of raw milk, I skimmed off a little over a pint of cream and ended up with around a quarter pound of butter. The next week’s process proved more successful, with a better skimming of about a pint and a half and around six ounces of butter, but I still realized that it takes a lot of milk to produce a modest amount of butter.
I considered all these factors as I debated with myself as to whether or not to make butter regularly. The more I thought about it, the more variables I considered, until I finally managed to turn my consideration of butter into something of a philosophy of homesteading to be used for this series of posts. The philosophy is rooted in many of the same themes and considerations that have been and will continue permeating my How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty, as well as the thoughts and ideas behind this blog in general. As such, the major underlying tenets that I’ll be using for this series are that I’ll be taking into account my own personal context, I’ll be looking to educate and demystify with these posts, and I’ll be focusing on patterns and systems. All of those tenets need further explanation, so if you don’t mind, I’ll now break out the bold.
The matter of butter illuminates this tenet well. I’m already receiving a gallon of raw milk each week. Raw milk, for those who may not be familiar with it, is simply milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. My milk comes from a local farm, it has a fat content higher than whole milk in the store, and it’s delicious. It comes in a steel milk pail that I return each week and which has a wide mouth lid on it. That means that each week, I can bring home my milk and leave it alone for a few days in the fridge until a good amount of the cream rises to the top, then I can skim off that cream and use it to make butter.
Already receiving that milk is my context—with that context being that I already have available to me a weekly source of high quality, locally-produced cream and it even comes in a container that makes it easy for me to skim off and separate that cream. Since I have that source available to me, it makes sense that I make use of it to provide myself with butter. If I didn’t have this available to me, then making my own butter at home might involve simply going to the store and buying cream, bringing it home and then using that to make my own butter. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m not really creating the benefit of cutting out the middle man since I’m still buying the cream from the store, I’m probably not creating butter much different than what I could buy at the store, and I’m probably spending more money on it. What I’m doing instead, to a large degree, is simply introducing an extra step into my life for minimal benefit.
Now, that doesn’t mean it might not be a great step to introduce. If I simply really enjoy the process of making the butter, than that’s great. Homesteading is fun outside of moral, ethical or financial concerns, without question. But while that fun is going to be present in this series, I also am intent on rooting it in context, in what makes sense, in the sort of activities that my life already is arranged for. I want to take into account my context and work within that context, rather than creating habits without concern for the rest of my life.
In fact, this strikes me as the root of many of our problems in our society, and it contributes greatly to the unsustainability of our lives. I’ve written about this before and will write about it again, but it’s the fact that we don’t take into account our context and our personal situation when making so many of our decisions that brings us trouble. While personal debt, for instance, can arise out of situations out of our control, a good portion of it arises out of decisions made while ignoring our context, our personal reality. I know that has been the case for me before and there’s no question that our society and economy encourages this type of behavior. Our economy, in fact, is based on debt and expansion, regardless of the availability of resources for that expansion.
If we find ourselves with so much stuff that our living space is overflowing, we too often look for a bigger living space rather than getting rid of some of our stuff. We consistently, in this society and economy, default to bigger and more expensive, to growth and physical abundance, when we could just as easily default to smaller, more limited, constrained, and cheap (in the monetary sense, not the quality sense.) We’ve lost touch with thrift and have dismissed the idea of limits. When we have a problem, we as often as not look for solutions rooted in technology, energy and money rather than in solutions rooted in limitation and behavioral change. We look at the life we want and then do whatever we can to try to gain it, often to our detriment. We rarely look for the best life we are capable of having and then achieve it within the limits of our reality.
I don’t want to engage in every cool sounding homesteading activity just for the sake of doing it. I want it to arise naturally out of basic needs and my life’s circumstances. I want to make my butter not just because it’s fun—which, again, is a legitimate piece of this—but more importantly because it makes sense within the realities of my life. It flows from my circumstance and maximizes my resources. As such, it feeds my current goals rather than working against them. That’s important.
Education and Demystification
One of the critical goals that I think can be achieved through homesteading is the slow build of skills and knowledge used to make one’s own living. Every time we find ourselves purchasing something we need at the store, provided by someone whom we likely don’t know or care about and who doesn’t know or care about us, we make ourselves vulnerable. We reduce the sovereignty we have over ourselves and our livelihood, and we endanger our family and community. We put ourselves at the mercy of others—most often, at the mercy of massive and amoral corporations and too-often-corrupt bureaucracies. Meanwhile, these same corporations and bureaucracies are finding their supporting infrastructure weakened and at risk of collapse. The necessary resources for these massive entities are becoming more limited, more scarce, and in many cases are nearing full scale disappearance. Our state of dependence is an incredible danger, a huge vulnerability for most of us.
I’ve written plenty of times here on this blog about our need to reduce that state of dependence. Dramatically reducing the money, energy and resources we need is a big piece of limiting that dependence. Learning how to make, produce, or trade for many of our necessities is another huge piece and that’s the piece that I’ll be most focused on with this series. To successfully provide ourselves many of our own needs, though, we need a range of skills and education that many of us simply don’t have anymore. In just a few generations, we’ve lost a massive amount of knowledge and ability and now we need to relearn it as a culture as quickly as possible.
Assisting that need will be another tenet of this series. I want my posts not just to be how-to guides, but to attempt to break down the underlying ideas and theories that make these homesteading activities beneficial and even revolutionary. For instance, to understand why making butter makes sense for me, I need to know what butter is and where it comes from. Sure, I can decide that I want to make butter, look up a how-to guide on the internet, then go buy some cream and do the deed. But there’s still a dependency in that. If I instead have a more complete knowledge that tells me that butter is a mix of butterfat, milk proteins and water; that it’s created by agitating cream so as to join together the molecules of butterfat by breaking down their surrounding membranes; that the cream comes from milk; that cream will rise to the top of non-homogenized milk if left alone for a certain length of time; and that the cream can then be skimmed off the top of the milk with a ladle; well, if I know all these things and others, then I have the sort of knowledge that allows me to parse my own context and recognize that with my weekly supply of raw and non-homogenized milk, I also potentially have a weekly supply of cream, which I can then use to make butter.
Now, this may be known knowledge for a good number of people, but some out there don’t know it. But even if someone knows about butter, perhaps they don’t know anything about an enzyme cleaner, or why it is very effective at getting rid of certain stains and smells, or why it has many benefits over chemical cleaners, or how you make it at home, or the connection between why it gets rid of, say, the lingering smell of cat urine and why you can make it at home with some brown sugar and fruit trimmings. (Yes, I’ll be writing about this in a future post.) If you have all that knowledge, though, then you can begin to see and derive the sorts of patterns that effective homesteading make use of.
Patterns and Systems
Which brings me to the third tenet of these posts, which will be the exploration of patterns and systems. Let’s engage in one final consideration of my butter-making to better understand this.
If I want to reduce my energy consumption, save money, maximize my resources and better build my own self-sufficiency, I should absolutely make butter utilizing the gallon of milk I already get every week. The milk already exists. A good amount of cream already exists in that milk. I can bring the milk home, wait a couple days, skim the cream, and then make butter. In doing so, I’ve eliminated the need to buy at least some of my butter, if perhaps not all. That’s less butter that needs to be made by machines, brought to me by way of industrial farming. I’m eliminating one of my life’s inputs and I’m not creating a new one at all—I’m actually just more effectively utilizing another one. I’m reducing the fat content of my milk, granted, but I’m already operating at a calorie surplus. I can transfer that fat to the form of butter, cut out the imported butter, and not need extra calories to make that up. I’ve just saved money and energy by making my own butter from an already existing resource and reduced my consumption. In so doing, I’ve taken another step toward my goals of voluntary poverty, have created greater self-reliance, and am helping build a stronger community and local economy. That right there is the pattern of my behavior. But there’s a systemic piece to this, too, that I want to elaborate on.
If I’m anticipating a future in which large corporations and industrialism become less tenable and more expensive, and if I’m therefore looking to adjust my life so that it better fits into a local way of living—rooted in trade and barter, covenantal relationships and the sort of products and tools that can be made on a small scale, in a world of constrained energy and resources—well, then, my making butter fits that far better than my buying it. In such a world, there will almost certainly be a local dairy able to provide me a pail of raw milk each week. In such a world, there’s an excellent chance I could even barter or trade for that milk if I should need to, especially with the farming and ranching skills I’ve been developing. In such a world, I can just as easily skim the cream from my milk and I can even agitate it to make the butter without electricity if I should need to, transitioning from my food processor to a hand cranked mixer or just shaking the cream in a jar. Making butter at home currently uses some electricity, just by way of how I make it. But it doesn’t have to. There’s flexibility there and the adjustment could be made relatively easy if it needed to.
That sort of flexibility and resiliency doesn’t exist for the store bought butter. The butter in the store comes out of industrial systems, dependent on industrial-grade energy and resource feeds. They’re dependent on all the supporting infrastructure that comes with our industrial economy—all the infrastructure that would be very vulnerable in an energy- and resource-constrained world. That butter at the store is going to be much harder to barter or trade for, as well, if I should find myself short on money at some point. Nothing about that shelf of butter in the store makes much sense in a future beset by constraints on industrialism and it would be much harder to convert said shelf of butter to a low-energy way of life than it would be for me to switch from an electric food processor to a hand mixer or jar while making my butter. The systems I see us having to deal with in the future are going to be much different than the ones we deal with today. Making my butter at home fits that future system far, far better than buying my butter at the store.
Wendell Berry wrote an excellent essay some decades ago titled “Solving For Pattern” (PDF). In it, Berry writes, “A good solution acts within the larger pattern the way a healthy organ acts within the body.” Making my own butter seems like just such a good solution. It acts within the larger pattern, reducing my energy and resource usage while making use of already-existing resources and behavior, and further enhancing my life’s resiliency by increasing the flexibility with which I may react to the future. This small homesteading activity fits within the broader patterns—both existing and desired—of my life. It’s the exact sort of homesteading activity that I’ll be writing about in this series.
My hope is that by following the above principles, I’ll create a series that will prove a bit more holistic and informative than simply producing a number of how-to guides. While I still intend to include step-by-step instructions for these various homesteading activities, they’ll come after I provide the context of what I’m doing and how it fits into my goals. In this way, I hope this series will, more than anything, reinforce the idea of homesteading and a patterned approach to it that will prove beneficial in the sort of constrained future I think we face—or at least will prove beneficial for those looking to live their lives a bit more modestly, whether or not they think such modesty will turn into a necessity.
As should by now seem befitting, the first project I’ll be writing about is homemade raw butter. That will be the next post, arriving soon.
An entry in the How To Be Poor series
In my previous entry in the How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty, I argued that many people’s dietary choices reveal the sort of luxury we have available to us today in industrialized nations. By choosing what we eat from a wide variety of foods, without regard to the limitations and constraints inherent to our local landscape and personal circumstances, we often provide ourselves a diet possible only in an industrialized world swimming in cheap energy and resources. Our context is utterly unlike that of most all others throughout human history.
In making that argument, I suggested that how we eat may be as or more important than what we eat. It’s a mark of luxury that the specific foods we eat can be mulled and considered and decided upon, rather than being dictated to us by a strict set of circumstances. If, instead, those circumstances dictated our food, what we eat would not so much be the question and we might instead focus on how we eat, with that determination providing us the method of building meaning into our diets. Creating a set of moral and ethical codes around the how of eating rather than the what of eating makes more sense in a world facing serious energy and resource constraints.
Still, we don’t yet face that world, though it certainly seems in the process of asserting itself. For those of us attempting to eat well, we face instead the question of what to eat, which is an important question. I wrote in that last entry that “I’m not saying these questions are irrelevant or unimportant, but they are often borne of luxury.” I think that line could come across as flippant, disavowing the importance and implications of what we eat, and that’s not at all how I want to treat the subject. No, I think what we eat is very important. As a simple matter of very specific circumstances dating back millions of years, we find ourselves in a period of human history in which those of us living in industrialized nations can choose to eat almost anything we want, regardless of the time of year or where that food is capable of being grown, raised, processed or produced. That reality places a significant burden on us to attempt to eat well. Since we don’t find ourselves restricted by our local context, I believe we’re left with the responsibility to do our best to eat in a way that is nondestructive. We should eat foods that serve well our bodies, the land, animals, farmers, our environment, other humans and the soil. Our eating should not worsen the state of the world. Ideally, it should nourish it.
And yet, that’s not how we tend to eat. Most of us eat in ways that worsen the world; that exploit farmers and animals; that destroy land bases, soil and waterways; that are built upon suffering and cruelty; that impoverish other human beings; that degrade our bodies; and that serve to further sever our connection to the world around us. We often eat fast, dirty, and thoughtless. We fail in our moral responsibility—often we fail to engage that responsibility at all.
There’s nothing surprising about that. There was a very perceptive quote from Bruce Friedrich that I first read in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. In arguing for vegetarianism, Friedrich asks, “What does it say that the leaders of the ‘ethical meat’ charge, like my friends Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan and even the Niman Ranch farmers, regularly pull money out of their pockets and send it off to the factory farms? To me, it says that the ‘ethical carnivore’ is a failed idea; even the most prominent advocates don’t do it full-time. I have met countless people who were moved by Eric’s and Michael’s arguments, but none of them now eat exclusively Niman-type meat. They are either vegetarians or they continue to eat at least some factory-farmed animals.” While I’m not impressed by some of the things Friedrich says before that quote, I find this particular observation to be spot on. As I’ve noted, I started eating meat again after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma with the idea that I would eat good meat. While I follow through on that ideal a good percentage of the time, I still find myself getting the occasional hamburger at a bar that comes out of the Sysco supply chain or buying bacon from New Seasons—which is much better than Smithfield, but far from a small, local, humane ideal. The reason I fail at times is a combination of availability, convenience, and lack of will power. If I’m at a bar and I’m drinking, I’m hungry, and it’s on the menu, I’m going to order that hamburger, even if it’s not grass fed and from a local rancher. I fully understand the implications, but I give myself a pass and dig in. It’s an available moral failing and I take it.
Most people do much the same thing, either part of the time or all of the time. We don’t tend to eat with our brains but with our heart and stomach. We give in to desires—this is one of the reasons there’s a number of massive and profitable industries built around food and diet. Food is something we think about, obsess over, attach moral implications to, satisfy emotional urges with, and which provides us the very sustenance of our lives. It’s a relationship rooted in messiness and complication and the industrial world we’ve built around us has only served to complicate that already complex relationship by vastly opening the choices before us—and vastly increasing the moral implications of what we do decide to eat. The food we normally would eat has become far more corrupted via poor farming practices and the food we normally wouldn’t have available to us now is available and serves to tempt us in ways it never could before. These realities have imbued the question of what we eat with moral implications that it never had before, and as such has shifted our concerns more firmly toward the question of what rather than how.
This isn’t a good thing. While I love having the easy access to sugar and animal products, coffee, chocolate, fruits that would never grow here, ginger and coconut milk, and so many other foods that I wouldn’t eat if not for our industrialized world, I can’t endorse this availability. It’s distorted our ways of eating and skewed them toward destructive ends. It makes every meal fraught with moral and ethical considerations, often turning those meals into exhausting acts full of self-doubt and worry. Recent neurological research, as outlined in a New York Times article, suggests that as we make decisions, we deplete our will power. We become less able to make good decisions until we’ve restored that ability to our brain, which is tied to glucose levels. In other words, our decisions around food are particularly likely to be based in irrational thinking as we often crave sugar as a way to restore our decision-making abilities. But even aside from food, the need to make constant decisions saps our will power over time and degrades our ability to keep ourselves firmly within self-established limits.
In other words, deciding how to eat well is not a simple matter of rational thought, education, or strong morals. All of those things have their effect, but they’re part of a much more broad and complicated act of decision-making that is tied as well into brain chemistry, sugar levels, genetic predispositions and emotional signals. So while it’s important to acknowledge the moral importance of eating well in a world awash with bad food, expecting moral implications to lead to good eating amongst the world’s population is a fool’s game. There may be the rare person out there who is capable of eating at all times within a strict moral code, but the vast majority of us are not going to manage such an impressive feat. We’re going to make decisions that are not going to be good for the world—sometimes purposefully and sometimes not.
I recently read William Catton’s Overshoot and the final paragraph of chapter ten has been haunting me. Catton writes, “Using the ecological paradigm to think about human history, we can see instead that the end of exuberance was the summary result of all our separate and innocent decisions to have a baby, to trade a horse for a tractor, to avoid illness by getting vaccinated, to move from a farm to a city, to live in a heated home, to buy a family automobile and not depend on public transit, to specialize, exchange, and thereby prosper.” Our behavior, in other words, has been perfectly natural. If we see humans as simply another species on this planet, as I do, then we can see how we would make these poor decisions. We can understand why we would eat foods available to us even if those foods increased misery throughout the world. We can see how we would crank the heat even if we knew we could put on a sweater instead, and even if we knew that heat comes from fossil fuels that pollute the world and that are quickly being drawn down. We can recognize that we are animals, not perfect moral beings, and that we will as often as not choose the route of comfort and convenience and satisfaction, even when we intellectually understand the long-term downfalls of those choices.
So while, yes, I think we have a moral responsibility to eat well—much as I believe we have a moral responsibility to live and work well—I don’t think we can undertake such lives via morals alone. Our morality is only so strong and is only one piece of a tangled web of emotion and physicality, genetics and desire, social and cultural norms, and so many more variables. Attempting to engage all of those variables and always still make the right choice is an exercise doomed to failure, and one that will exhaust and break us in the process.
What we need instead is a life of limitation. We need less choices, fewer options, more constraints. A life lived more local and constricted by context would help to absolve us of many of the decisions and options that globalization and industrialism has foisted upon us. Such a life would necessarily be of a smaller scale, rooted in the local land and intimate knowledge, rather than resources that can come from anywhere in the world and through the debased, standardized knowledge of industrial systems. Such a life would limit our impact on the world not by forcing us to choose each time to limit our impact, but by limiting our ability to make such impacts.
This, again, gets at the absurdity of the challenge of voluntary poverty, as I wrote about in Our Distorted View. It shouldn’t be hard to live poor, but it is when you have money and so many options to live otherwise. If we’re constantly facing that temptation and constantly having to make the decision to live a modest life in the face of the ability to do otherwise, we’re quickly going to exhaust ourselves and make poor decisions. So to live a life of voluntary poverty, we need to build limitations and constraints into our lives.
Living here in an off-the-grid homestead has provided all kinds of lessons in that reality. We heat the buildings via wood stoves, which require more work than the simple flipping of a switch or turn of a dial. That leads to less heat, as the effort to produce that heat discourages unnecessary usage. Our hot water also comes from a wood stove, as well as solar hot water panels. That teaches us to pay attention to the weather and to limit our showers. There simply isn’t always hot water without some work, so none of us showers every day—which is unnecessary anyway. We have electricity via solar PV panels and a microhydro generator, but not an abundance of electricity. Generally we can run what we need to, but we’re not powering big screen TVs or using electric heaters or blow driers and we can’t run, say, the electric tea kettle and the hot plate at the same time. We further can only run devices that use small amounts of electricity (such as CFL bulbs) on a continual basis and run high-power devices in short burst. That’s fine—I quickly grew used to these limitations and they hardly impede my life. But it’s a different reality from being hooked up to the electric grid and having essentially unlimited power at your disposal.
These limitations are ingrained into life here and they quickly slip into the background, barely worth thinking about. As a part of life, they do an excellent job of limiting energy and resource usage while providing, at worst, a bit of inconvenience—and often not even that. I live a good life here, possibly better than I have anywhere else, and likely with less energy usage than I’ve used anywhere else.
That, to me, is the goal of voluntary poverty. Finding that way to live that uses less energy and resources while still providing a good life. It’s not the easiest goal in the world, but it certainly is a possibility. Yet, it has to involve the creation of limits and constraints—a context of living that naturally leads to a downsized life. As I prepare to move to a new situation, I’m going to find myself back on the grid, with more living space and constant hot water and changed circumstances that are likely to lead to me using more energy and resources. Leaving behind this off-the-grid homestead, I’m going to have to craft the context of my life to introduce some of the constraints that my current home featured by default. If I don’t do that, I’ll live larger than I want to live, too often making the easy decisions when they present themselves to me. I’ll be able to heat at the flick of a switch, to shower any time I want, to cook by turning a nob rather than stoking a wood stove. How will I deal with those conveniences? How will I stop myself from slipping too easily back into something more akin to a middle class American lifestyle?
These are some of the questions I’ll be writing about as this series continues. It will be a challenge, but I expect it to be a good one. I hope, as well, that my attempts to live in a home more closely approximating the standard American set up will help me to provide more useful information to my readers. Most of us don’t live on off-the-grid homesteads and so the constraints we need are ones we will have to put into place ourselves, as often as not. That creation of our context is going to be a main focus of this series. To lay the groundwork, I’ll be writing soon about the home I’m moving into and the decisions and tradeoffs that led me to this living situation. Those decisions were rooted in constraint, as well, and will help to illuminate some of the frames of mind we’re going to have to dispose of if we’re to live well in a poorer future.
An introduction to The Household Economy
As I write this, the smell of fresh, baking bread is wafting from the wood stove here in the farm’s main, communal house. The bread is one step in my attempt to come up with an easy and tasty recipe for sandwich bread. I’m doing this not because I can’t get good bread at the store—there are, as a matter of fact, multiple local bakeries that produce delicious sandwich bread, using good ingredients. No, I’m doing this because I want to take that small bit of dependence and bring it back into the home, to root that dependence not in a complicated and industrialized supply chain, but in my own work and care, my own flour-dusted hands.
Of course, looking at the title of this blog, that might not be a surprise. This originally started as a blog that would be focused primarily on farming and homesteading, and I imagined the possibility of perhaps teaching the occasional homesteading class out here on the Oregon coast, with this site functioning partly as a way for me to advertise such a business. As that idea faded into the background and my life took a different turn, the blog slowly morphed into what it is now: a cataloguing of my thoughts and experiences, certainly featuring farming and homesteading but also dealing quite a bit with peak oil and other energy issues. Yet, all of those subjects are interrelated and I likely wouldn’t be attempting to refine my own bread-making skills if I thought the store would be there forever and I could always afford the five or so bucks for a good loaf of bread. Why, after all, should I bother, given such considerations?
Well, there are many good reasons, including ones that hold up even while the stores remain open and five bucks always resides in my pocket. One is the satisfaction of creating my own living, even if it’s in a very small way. In a society that seems every year to tilt more toward the abstract, engaging in some good, old fashioned physical creation (not just the late night kind) is quite a satisfying experience. Much as in building a wooden gate, I find baking a loaf of bread, cooking up a pot of stew or making some ginger ale to be very elemental, and very good for the soul. There’s a real sense of pride and comfort in being able to make something for myself rather than buying it at the store. Furthermore, the more I create things, the less mystifying the process of creation becomes. As I build these skills, I feel more secure in my ability to figure out other necessary tasks and more willing to take on new projects. Before, when I was beholden to others for most all things rooted in the physical world, I found much of that world mystifying. I didn’t know how things work. Now I better understand.
There is, however, a bigger picture here. As is clear for anyone who’s spent time reading this blog, I think we’re all going to be poorer in the future due to energy and resource constraints, and I further think that beginning the process of preparing for that reality now makes far more sense than putting our heads in the sand and pretending that the powers that be or technology is going to pull our ass out of the fire at the last moment—especially since there’s no good or compelling reason to believe in that as a likely scenario.
One of the ways in which we’re most vulnerable to such a future is rooted in the reality that most of us in industrialized nations have outsourced a very significant percentage of our living. While human history has largely consisted of people making their own living via the combined labors and support of their community, we’ve come to mostly replace that community and its labors with various businesses, corporations, and other entities providing our needs via industrialized production methods. Since those methods are necessarily dependent upon fossil fuels—the exact fuel we already are running short of, and will run yet shorter of as time progresses—we find ourselves very vulnerable to a future of energy and resource shortage. If the grocery stores were to disappear tomorrow, a good number of us would be in serious trouble.
Luckily, the grocery stores don’t appear set to disappear tomorrow. However, anyone who thinks they and the industrial, globalized food system that backs them is fated to live forever is quite mistaken. That system is going to fail, and before it fails it’s going to provide us some serious dysfunction. Of course, it already is providing plenty of that. Look at rising food prices, huge food-borne illness outbreaks tied to industrial supply chains, the massive losses of arable land and topsoil across the world, depleted aquifers, poisoned water supplies, and a host of other destabilizing ills. This system is breaking apart before our very eyes, but many of us refuse to see it, or—upon seeing it—refuse to recognize the full breadth of its implications.
Seeing the precariousness of the industrial food system—and other industrial elements of the economy—with clear eyes would lead us to the conclusion that it’s in our best interest to minimize our dependence on it. This is where the household economy comes in. There are a few ways, working within the household, that we can lessen our dependence on the dominant, industrial economy. One of the main ways is by growing and raising as much of our own food as possible. This can be done via gardening, permaculture, planting fruit and nut trees, raising livestock, foraging for wild foods, hunting, and so on. All these activities begin the process of us making our own living and increase our resilience and self-sufficiency—the increasing of which will come to be quite the boon in an age of scarcity and contraction. Even if we aren’t able to or don’t produce any of our own food, though, we can still lower our dependence on the industrial economy by turning to local farmers and ranchers whenever possible and then utilizing another feature of the household economy: the in-house processing of our foods. The aforementioned bread-baking is one of these. Making jam is another, as is canning produce, lacto-fermenting veggies, making condiments, brewing our own beer and sodas, making kombucha and yogurt and cheese, sour cream and kefir and butter. There are all kinds of activities—many of them not that challenging, after a bit of experience—that we’ve unnecessarily outsourced to corporations.
That bread I mentioned earlier? Well, I’ve now eaten three slices of it, slathered with butter, and accompanying a lamb stew I also made. The stew used a package of lamb riblets from one of the farms I work for and was thus acquired in work-trade—and I helped raise the lamb. I slow cooked it for hours in our wood stove, making broth while simultaneously cooking the meat. To that, I added potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic for a simple and delicious stew. The veggies, aside from the potatoes, came from the farm I live on. (The potatoes would have, except we ran a bit short this winter.) So, all in all, I ate a meal tonight borne largely of the household economy, with minimal inputs from the industrial economy. It was delicious, and nourishing, and satisfying in both its preparation and eating, resilient in its minimal dependence on outside systems, and far more sustainable than a meal eaten at a restaurant would have been, or prepared out of a box, or bought from the store.
Which brings me to another benefit of the household economy. Aside from the unsustainable amount of energy and resources we use in industrialized nations, our outsourcing of our living to corporations gives them an incredible power over our lives, our culture, our society, our economy and our political system.
Let’s say, as a mental exercise, that you find yourself on the street, enjoying a lovely day, taking a walk around the neighborhood. A stranger comes up to you and begins to berate you, spewing profanity, agitated and angry. What would you do? I suspect most of us would take our leave of this person, or tell him to leave us alone—possibly in unfriendly terms—or in some other way extricate ourselves from the situation. Imagine, now, that it isn’t a stranger but your boss. At that point, it becomes quite a bit trickier, doesn’t it? Our boss holds a certain power over our lives, being able to interfere with our means of making a living. You may still tell your boss to knock it off or walk away, but by doing so you risk retribution, perhaps a firing. Even if that’s unfair—even if you could take your case to a court and win—you still face the potential of a disruption of your life. It’s a much more complicated situation.
By relying on corporations and other businesses to provide us our living, we make them our boss. We become beholden to and dependent upon them and that limits our ability to push back against them when they behave in an improper manner. There’s quite a lot of concern that corporations have gained too much power in recent times and use that power with impunity, polluting the earth, exploiting land, people, and communities, extracting wealth, corrupting our economic and political systems and running roughshod over much of the population. These are legitimate concerns, to say the least. But if we want to reign in these corporations and work to strip them of some of their power, we’re going to be seriously hampered in our ability to act if we’re also dependent upon those same corporations to provide us the means of our living.
There are reasons, for instance, that oil companies have vast political power. One of those reasons is that we need oil, desperately, to power the society we’ve become used to. If we didn’t need that oil to power our society—if we had the option to opt out of its use—than their power would be greatly reduced. If they had for sale a simple product rather than a necessity, their power wouldn’t be so great. We would have more ability to push back against them.
This is relevant on a somewhat more abstract level, as well. Right now, our lives are dependent on fossil fuels and all the destruction and inequity their use has come to entail. Most of us in industrialized nations would be at a complete loss without fossil fuels, our way of life pulled out from under us, extremely vulnerable and subject to significant impoverishment at best, death at worst. Due to that reality, we’re going to ultimately support the use of fossil fuels no matter what. We may talk a good game against them, agitating for change and reduced use, but our dependence on them necessitates that we continue to use them and to subject ourselves to the systems created around them. I do exactly that as I write this on a computer and ready the posting of it on the internet. Every time we make use of the industrial infrastructure, we support all it entails. If we don’t want to support that, we’re going to have to make much less use of that industrial infrastructure.
This is the crux of the argument for individual change, in my mind. We can’t get away from these systems at a societal level until we get away from them at an individual level. We can’t alter our economic and political systems until we alter the individual actions that support them. Yes, those individual actions are influenced by those systems, but it’s through individual change that we’re going to create any will to alter those systems. Without that element, we’ll be left dependent and beholden, with little to no power to change what we see wrong with those systems. And if we stay beholden to these systems, politicians will continue to support and uphold them, knowing that any imposition on those systems will be passed down to the public and that the public, whatever they might claim, will for the most part punish the politicians in turn.
There’s another, deeper layer to this argument, though, and that’s rooted in the predicament we face that I’ve written about before. If there was a broad, large scale system capable of supporting our current way of living in a sustainable manner, then it might make sense to attempt a switch over to that system rather than focusing on individual behavior. However, even if that could be done, we would need for a different system to be available to transition to without having to change individual action. We would need, in other words, the system that so many people in our society like to advocate: our current lives, largely unchanged but powered by renewable energy.
If this were possible, then it might make sense to advocate for it. It might not make sense, either, as it would not address the core issues of industrialism that lead to exploitation and destruction. It wouldn’t address resource issues or all the other natural cycles of renewal that we’re going to have to learn to live within, such as the renewal cycles for top soil and fresh water. It wouldn’t address ecosystem stability and biodiversity. But all those concerns aside, the problem here is that such a switch isn’t possible. There’s no way to power our way of life without fossil fuels. There’s no way to build the sort of centralized, industrialized renewable energy system that’s so often advocated without an industrial base powered by fossil fuels. The solar PV panels and wind turbines are made with fossil fuels, made from fossil fuels, and dependent on a vast industrial infrastructure powered by fossil fuels. We’re already facing the beginnings of constriction. We’re not going to be able to divert massive amounts of fossil fuels to these alternative uses, and even if we were able to do that on such a scale, it wouldn’t be supportable in the long term. Eventually, the fossil fuels run out and then so do the alternative energy technologies built on top of them.
Furthermore, even if such a system were possible, that still wouldn’t address the fact that we use our energy to power an industrial economy that is tearing apart the earth and its ecosystems. If we were to find some magic bullet solution to the energy problem, we would still be faced with the necessity of drastically scaling back our lives so as to avoid the sort of crash that always happens when a population overshoots its carrying capacity—or, more realistically, to limit the damage of that crash. We are already far past carrying capacity, even if we were magically able to switch over to an economy powered entirely by wind and solar tomorrow. We still would be consuming the earth and industrialized nations would still find their populations facing a necessary scaling back to a life more akin to non-industrialized nations.
Therefore, we find ourselves back to the necessity for individual change. Our scaling back begins in the household. It was not so long ago that a good deal of America’s economic activity happened in the household economy. To this day, many non-industrialized nations have thriving household and subsistence economies—it’s how they survive. Thus, it likely won’t be that long before we’re back to a similar reality. As we all become poorer, resources become tighter, and money becomes harder to come by (or less able to purchase goods and services) we’re going to find ourselves having to make use of our own labor and good work to keep up a decent standard of living whenever possible. Rather than spend five dollars on a nice loaf of bread, we’ll more likely bake it at home for a fraction of that cost. Rather than buy expensive organic jam, we’ll make it from the fruit or berries supplied by a nearby farmer, or picked out of our own back yard. Rather than purchase a variety of dairy-based products, we may just find a local source of fresh milk and make our own butter, yogurt, sour cream, and so on. Rather than eat out, we’ll make our own meals. Rather than buy a tiny, three dollar package of basil, we’ll snip it off our own basil plant.
We’ll recycle, and reuse, and wear things out. We’ll darn our socks and patch our clothes, mend our shoes, and learn the fine art of attrition as we simplify our lives, whether we want to or not. We’ll make blankets out of leftover scraps of cloth. We’ll cook our food in hayboxes or on rocket stoves. We’ll brew our own beer, make our own hard cider. And we’ll learn to rely on the other members of our community to help us make our living rather than on faceless, dominant corporations and on the continued functioning of assembly lines populated by robots.
This is the reality that I think will be asserting itself. It’s a reality, as well, that offers us the hope for a better future than the one we might otherwise have. If we begin to grow the household economy, we’ll begin to provide more of our own living, gain a greater control over our own lives, insulate ourselves against economic shocks, free ourselves from dependence on entities that would as soon harm us as help us, begin the process of building relationships, strengthen our community, and provide more space to work for a better society. It may not all turn out well—it probably won’t. But we’ll give ourselves a much better chance than if we just wait for someone else to fix our problems, then wonder what the hell we’re going to do when the industrial infrastructure that keeps us alive begins to crumble beneath us. We also will gain a satisfaction from our own labors, will likely find ourselves much healthier, and will refocus our attention from useless and unhealthy distraction toward good work done in support of ourselves, our family and friends, our community.
This series of posts, then, will focus mainly on my trials and tribulations with getting my own household economy going. It’s already up and running to a degree, but it could stand to be enlarged, to encompass more of my living. And it’s going to find some changes this year with my shifting circumstances. I’ll be writing, therefore, about my adventures in gardening, my various homesteading activities, possibly some building projects using reclaimed and recycled materials, and whatever other paths my particular household economy takes. This will be something of a companion to my How To Be Poor series of posts, in that it will focus more on the actual activities with which I reduce my costs of living and usage of energy and resources, while How To Be Poor focuses more on the theory and philosophy of voluntary poverty—though I reserve the right to occasionally veer into the theoretical, as I may very well do in the next entry.
Throughout most of history, we’ve made much of our living at home and in our community. Over the last few centuries, we’ve slowly outsourced that living. In the last few decades, we’ve mostly abandoned it to the province of corporations and governments. It’s time to bring back the household economy, both as a necessity and as a moral good. It’s time to reacquaint ourselves with our own living. It’s time to get off this misguided path and return to normal.
An entry in the How To Be Poor series
To better understand the distorted viewpoint of our culture that I wrote about in the last post, I want to talk about food and diet. As I tend to reference my own experiences in these posts, I want to write initially about my own changing diet over the years.
I have spent a good portion of my life attempting to eat in a moral and ethical manner. This has boiled down, as often as not, to a focus on eating certain foods and not eating yet other foods. For sixteen years of my life, this approach underpinned my vegetarianism. I ate dairy and eggs during that time, but didn’t eat meat of any kind. I came to that diet while living in Arizona as a teenager and it was greatly influenced by the New Age community I found myself interacting with there. I became vegetarian largely for moral reasons and partly for health reasons (ironically, considering how poorly I ate as a vegetarian.) I even believed at times that eating meat would lower my body’s vibration level. Looking back, I feel a bit ridiculous about that.
As parenthetically noted, I didn’t eat well during my vegetarian days. Having never learned to cook much and rarely having anyone to cook for me, my diet tended toward prepared, processed and packaged foods. Boxed pasta mixes and frozen pizzas were staples and spaghetti made with jarred sauce constituted my primary culinary adventures. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I would think a diet of processed foods was a more ethical and healthy way of eating simply because it didn’t involve meat. That seems the very definition of blind reductionism, but it was a blindness I suffered.
Upon reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I began to warm to the idea of resuming my meat eating ways, but with a focus on eating sustainable and well raised meat. I eventually made that change and, not long after, discovered Nourishing Traditions and the Weston A. Price school of dietary thought. I read Nina Planck’s Real Food. I found a source of raw milk and started consuming it with abandon. I experimented with fermenting veggies and soaking grains, though I never integrated those foods into my diet on a regular basis. Finally, a few years ago, I read The Vegetarian Myth and reached the peak of my infatuation with a diet focused on the eating of healthy animal fats and proteins. I found myself convinced by Lierre Keith’s book, which argued that the healthiest, most ethical and most sustainable dietary choice was eating a good amount of animal fat and protein from animals raised well, as well as a certain amount of fresh fruits and veggies and minimal grain.
In conjunction with my focus on well raised animal products, I also had started to farm. This lifestyle greatly improved my diet, significantly boosting my cooking skills and knowledge and providing me plenty of abundant, fresh vegetables with which to work. I became more familiar with making simple, sustaining meals—the sorts of meals I should have been eating during my vegetarian days. In tandem with the increased physical labor of farming, I felt healthier, dropped some unnecessary weight, and began to see the joys of a local and seasonal diet. Not that I ate such a diet exclusively, but I moved much closer. And that has continued up until this day. I probably ate better and more local and seasonal this last year than any other, with much help from the fantastic people I lived with and our communal meals.
With all these different changes in diet over the years, a common thread starting with my vegetarianism (and, really, before then—I remember calling McDonald’s as a child and asking them to stop using styrofoam for their packaging after watching a 20/20 report with my parents) was the idea that what I ate played a large role in my moral and ethical well being. I couldn’t help but feel that my diet was important—that I influenced the world, its health and happiness, through what I ate. Of course, that’s true. Our collective diet plays a massive role in how we live in this world. Yet, I couldn’t stop looking at this effect through the prism of what I ate rather than how I ate.
This perhaps shows itself most clearly through my vegetarianism. I boiled my moral decision down to meat and failed to look at any of the other implications of my diet. Later, when I became convinced by The Vegetarian Myth that eating animal protein and fruits and veggies was the way to go, I looked at it with something more of a holistic viewpoint—questioning what kind of an agriculture could truly be practiced sustainably and realizing the destructive aspects of monoculture grain production, even if done organically—but I still boiled it down to a set diet with rigid guidelines, creating an ideal and only then trying to figure out how I might meet that ideal locally.
Our society, furthermore, is filled with these ideals. There are thousands of books laying out rigid dietary guidelines that promise you the world: a healthy body, a better environment, long life, good sex, happiness, joy, moral satisfaction, so on and so forth. What these diets typically have in common is that they have all kinds of guidelines that they attempt to apply to everyone, with little to no regard for local circumstances, the climate you live in, your particular body, your childhood diet, your likes and dislikes, the kind of work you do, or what kind of agriculture exists locally. The assumption is that you can eat whatever you choose. And this is an assumption that can only exist in the context of massive luxury. It’s, in other words, one of the very distorted viewpoints of our society borne out of a globalized, industrial economy floating on the warm waters of cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy.
Most of human history has not seen such luxury and personal diets formed accordingly. Most people have been constricted by their local agriculture or local wild foods, with minimal or no trade providing non-local foods. Most people, furthermore, have been limited by their own means of acquisition. Plenty of people have been subsistence farmers, eating largely food they have produced themselves and whatever they can acquire in trade using that same self-grown food. Others have eaten on a strict budget, unable to purchase a wide variety of luxury foods even if those foods have been available. It’s a unique circumstance in the history of humanity that we find ourselves in today, in which a significant portion of the populations of industrialized nations have access to food from across the world, throughout the year, and have enough money to buy most any of that food and thus craft whatever particular diet they should want.
This is where we need to make a sharp distinction between necessity and luxury. Necessity is having something to eat—having enough to eat. Luxury is being able to eat whatever diet you decide you prefer, whether that be for matter of taste, health or ethical concern. In a world in which luxury is taken for granted, the morality of eating easily can be transformed from how you eat—by the care you take in eating the foods that are available to you—to what you eat, with little regard for your local circumstances. If you’re living by necessity and therefore feeding yourself within a very limited range of available foods, then moral concerns about your diet have to skew more toward the “how” side of things. What are the traditions of eating? How do you relate those traditions to your larger moral framework? How do you go about acquiring your food? How much do you eat? What kind of thanks do you give for it? What care do you take in the eating of it, the growing and raising of it if you have any control over that? If you’re living in luxury, then it’s much easier to skew your moral concerns toward the “what” side of things. Am I eating grass fed meat? Am I not eating meat? Am I eating grains that are destroying the prairies? Am I eating organic produce? Is my food locally produced? I’m not saying these questions are irrelevant or unimportant, but they are often borne of luxury.
If you find yourself in a famine, chances are you’re going to eat whatever food becomes available to you. If you’re starving, it’s unlikely that moral convictions about not eating meat are going to keep you from eating some goat meat stew if someone should offer it to you. Furthermore, if you’re someone who can’t seem to comprehend the idea of eating grains and vegetables as the core of your diet, then you better change your opinion real quick if you find yourself in the midst of a famine because you’re a lot more likely to get your hands on a meal in that dietary realm than you are a juicy hamburger. Do you think that grain production is inherently destructive of natural ecosystems and that a diet of grass fed meats, eggs from pastured poultry, raw dairy and a smattering of fruits and vegetables grown in rotation on farms incorporating animals is the most sustainable diet? Well, you might not find any such diet available to you a few decades from now, when constricted fossil fuel supplies and an overcrowded planet have greatly increased hunger rates and—in the rough and rocky crash following our current overshoot—grain staples are far easier to come by than pastured meat. The above diet may be one of the more sustainable ones available to human beings—and I don’t know if that’s true or not—but that’s going to support perhaps a tenth or less of our current population. If a few decades from now our governments and local economies are struggling to feed seven or eight billion people on a planet no longer sporting the sort of fossil fuel supply that can support such a population, you’re far more likely to gain access to a ration of grains or potatoes than a nice grass fed steak.
What this comes down to is the necessary imposition of limits and constraints. Much of the challenge facing us in terms of a transition to a more sustainable—and thus, much more poor—way of living is the fact that we have access to this luxury. It’s no surprise, then, that we take advantage of it. That’s pretty standard behavior for any species. If we can eat most anything we desire, it’s not a shock that we’ll eat foods that otherwise wouldn’t be available to us and it’s not a surprise that in determining the moral ideals of our diet, we’ll tend more toward what we eat than how we eat it. That’s the foreseeable outcome of having access to this level of luxury and functioning within the context of the distorted viewpoint that luxury affords us. We make our choices by working from the context of having everything available to us and then trying to come up with an unconstrained perfection. If we were working outside of this odd level of luxury, we would instead be looking at what our limited resources were and then trying to make the best of what was available to us.
We can’t live outsized, overabundant lives if we don’t have an abundance of wealth available to us. In the future, we’re unlikely to have the sort of abundance available that we do today. This, as I’ve said many times, is one very good reason to attempt to start living on less, so that we adjust to this way of life and figure out some of the better ways to do it—how to make the best of what’s available to us—before we find ourselves thrust into that poorer way of life. But if we’re going to figure that out, we’re going to have to change our context. We’re going to have to try to see more clearly, to remove some of the distortion, and to reintroduce limits and constraints into our lives. We’re going to have to craft a different context for ourselves—one rooted more in poverty than wealth, in constrained resources rather than abundance. This idea, of crafting a new context, is going to be at the root of several of the forthcoming posts in this series. I’ll write more about it in the next entry.