Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category
An entry in The Household Economy
Last year, I started on the garden late. Aside from sneaking in a small potato patch in April, I didn’t really get going until late May and early June. I had some decent reasons—the terrible spring weather, the need to break new ground, having to clean years of junk out of the hoop house. (It’s terribly sad to see an abused and mistreated hoop house here on the Oregon coast. They’re so precious!) I waited on a friend’s tractor work. But really, I had some opportunities to get an earlier start and simply didn’t get myself in enough order to take advantage of them. I put it off.
This year, I aim to get an earlier start. Of course, the danger with such a notion is that March can be tricky. A few sunny days arrive, a rush of warm weather, the daffodils bloom out and suddenly you’re thinking that garden abundance is just around the corner. Unfortunately, what’s really around the corner is—more likely than not—a wet, cold, miserable, hail-filled April. To plant in optimism in March is a dangerous game indeed out here. Therefore, I’m attempting to temper my enthusiasm while also getting some good work done and a head start on the planting. I don’t want to fall into frustration, but I have no interest in not really getting going until late May again, either.
It is thus that I found myself in the hoop house on Monday, untying the old and dead tomato plants from their baling-twine trellises, ripping them from the ground and piling them outside. I cleared a multitude of weeds, clumps of grass, and plenty of other dead plants I never cleaned out from the previous season. Black, bare and woody eggplants and peppers and basil, all plucked from the soil and tossed on the pile, ready for composting. Old, brittle, but still-clinging cucumber vines excavated. The beds slowly reemerged as I worked, their outlines and contours ragged, piece meal, shrunk from last summer, the paths having slowly widened with each walk down the rows. They’ll need to be reworked, re-dug, amended before the new round of crops go in. After about four hours of work, I stood back and looked at the results of my work, of those exposed beds ready to be worked up and planted. Thick, green grass still ringed the inside edges of the hoop house, but not in the beds. I can get that out later.
It was a dusty job, the inside dry. Coming home from the job, it took me a while to get the dirt out of my nose, to dig out that blackness. I remembered it from the year before, whenever I would spend a time under the plastic, digging up a bed or weeding, tromping around and puffing the small dust clouds. I put on the sprinkler inside, just to get some extra moisture into the soil before I worked it up. Tomorrow I’ll dig in there more, fluffing and shaping the beds, adding in some amendments, and hopefully will have some beds seeded by the end of the day—salad mix, perhaps, spinach, mustards, maybe some head lettuce. Greens. My body has been craving greens of late. I always eat so heavy in the winter, meat and potatoes and squash, cheese and bread, dairy. I eat that always, granted, but more so in the winter.
— ∞ —
I’m excited for the garden, for another year of growing. Earlier today, I had a piece of toast with blackberry jam, canned last summer. A couple nights ago, polenta topped with a tomato sauce from last year’s garden, tucked away in the freezer. A few days ago, oatmeal for breakfast, with butter and milk, honey, and apple butter that I cooked and canned in October. And last Wednesday, I took a jar of salsa and pickles to share at the Grange potluck. The next day, mixed some salsa with mashed avocados and some minced onion and garlic. Instant guacamole.
Granted, these canned and frozen foods from last year aren’t the bulk of my diet, of my calories, but they’re quite nice to have on hand. At Christmas time, jars went out as gifts, too, and for some birthdays, as well. Still there are roasted tomatoes stuffed in the freezer, canned tomato sauce on the shelf. I almost never buy tomatoes from the store—it just seems an offense to me. The ones in the freezer keep me in sauce, in spaghetti and pizza, marinara for whatever.
I realized after working in the hoop house that I’m playing the long game. I’ve been doing it for years now, at least since 2009. I didn’t always recognize I was playing the long game, but that’s indeed what I’m doing. Each year, I build on my knowledge and skill, I better figure the next steps, I improve on the old and attempt the new. I expand the repertoire. Last year, I started the garden late. This year I’ll start it earlier, soon, get those first seeds in the ground in the next couple days. Greens in the hoop house and peas outside, covered up with a bit of torn row cover that Ginger is going to generously let me have. Just in case of hail, which is almost a certainty. With luck, I’ll have fresh greens and peas this year before I even had the garden started last year. And right now, too, last fall’s kale is coming back, fresh leaves emerging. That’s a remnant, a legacy from last year. The ground is already broken. Weedy and grassy, yes, but the beds are there, even if they’re vague. They’re ready to be worked, far more than they were last year. I just have to get the timing right, to get out there during a stretch of sun and dry, when the soil can be worked without clumping and hardening it. But it’s so much more ready than last year, and so am I.
It builds. Three years ago, I planted a ragged and broken garden, a small bit of nonsense that I did all wrong, discarding the knowledge I had for a misguided ideology and attempted shortcuts. Last year, I grew a real garden, late and also ragged and not as ambitious as I originally planned, sometimes a bit neglected, managed a bit haphazardly but still quite productive. I got veggies out of that. I got broccoli and kale and peas, potatoes and summer squash, winter squash and salad mix and peppers and eggplants, basil and parsley, romanesco and beans and mustard greens, head lettuce. Still out there is the legacy—the husks of winter-killed plants—various brassicas, amaranth from the salad mix that grew giant, dead and spindly bush bean skeletons—two rows of parsnips I have yet to eat, and carrots sweetened by the winter cold and putting out new growth, in need of harvesting before they become woody and bitter, their tops nibbled and chewed by rodents. And still I have potatoes in the ground! What am I doing? Got to get those out, set those aside for eating and use the ones already harvested and sprouting as this year’s seed. At least some of them—don’t need as much seed as I have sprouting potatoes. How nice, though, my own potato seed this year, not from a catalogue.
— ∞ —
These early spring days, warm and sunny, they just make me want to get in the dirt. They make me itchy. I want a couple days of good, hard, tiring work. I want to be dirty, sweaty, to smell of soil and plants, chlorophyll, and to have my fingers turn black with tomato tar—even though that’s still a ways off, the tomatoes. (Acyl sugars, for those who want to get more technical than “tomato tar,” is what turns your hands green when you handle tomato plants.) I want to get out the push-pull and the digging fork, to work the soil, mingle in my blood and sweat, get the heart rate up. I want that sense of life and importance. Of necessary work. I want to get back out that farmer within.
It’s nice, too. This year will be less overwhelming. That’s what I tell myself anyway—maybe I’m being too optimistic. But there’s not so much to do to get started. Don’t have to break the ground. Know somewhat what I’m doing, even if I plan to do some things different this year. I have a raft of mistakes made last year that I get to learn from this year, to try to correct. New mistakes will inevitably arise, but I won’t have to correct those until next year. This year, I just have to weather them. I can do that. I’m not so desperate that they’ll break me. That’s why it’s so good to make those mistakes now, to learn the lessons when there’s luxury, when there’s a cushion. I have flexibility. I have margins for errors.
This year, I’ll be more on the blackberries. Last year, I picked late, during the final and less abundant waves. Still made a lot of blackberry jam and a bit of syrup, but this year I’m going to be better on it. More jam, more syrup, but also soda. Lots of blackberry soda, absolutely. And maybe I’ll freeze fresh ones, have them for the winter. I don’t know if there’s room or not, but I bet I can find some. There are freezers around.
And the apples, too. This year I’ll be better on the apples. Maybe I’ll get to can pears—there are some pear trees where I moved to, and I bet a canning party might be in order later in the summer. Last year I wanted to buy tuna off the boat local out here and can it, but I never did that. This year I plan to. Buy off the boat, prep it and borrow a pressure canner, or maybe join in with Ginger when she’s doing her tuna.
It’s just a slow improvement coupled with the laying in of new habits and practices. It’s a layering, year over year. You do a little more, lay a bit more groundwork each new season, build up a bit more infrastructure, increase your knowledge and better your habits and make it routine, make it normal. It becomes easier. You know what to do. It’s just the long game, end of the day. I’m playing the long game. It started years ago, and it’ll be going years yet. So many yeas. Tomorrow the hoop house, working the beds, amending, seeding, and the peas planted outside, covered with row cloth. Years from now, who knows? Something more, no doubt—layered, heftier, built year by year, the culmination of much of a life.
— ∞ —
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.
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.
There’s a bacteria in soil that has been shown to make humans happy by triggering serotonin production in the brain.
But there must be more to it.
— ∞ —
The garden has made me happy. I’ve spent a good number of hours working out there, on the days I’m not working as a farm hand elsewhere. I don’t work fast in my garden, but the leisure of digging in the soil is invigorating. I string out a bed and start raking it, removing clumps of sod, shaking out the dirt and tossing them aside. Occasionally I wear gloves, but mostly I don’t. The soil is good against my skin, caking itself into my hands’ tiny crevices, bits of the earth settling into my Life Line. As my hands turn black, my spirit becomes light, bolstered by the cultivation of life, the nourishment of future food.
Most of the garden to date has come from friends. Tomato starts and a multitude of seed from Ginger—from the farm I worked on last year—and a mixed tray of starts from Linda, who introduced me to farming. Appropriately, I use a mix of techniques from both farms—the 3-tooth cultivator Ginger relied on so heavily and the digging fork so prized by Linda. The Hori-Hori Linda gave me as a going away present is indispensable and always on my hip, ready for so many tasks.
— ∞ —
I can’t deny this took me partly by surprise. I’ve interned at vegetable CSAs for the last three years, yet every summer eventually brought me to the question of if I really would want this as my life. I loved being outside, the changing seasons and rhythm of the work, the soil, the incredible communities built, the care and love so evident day in and day out. I disliked the stress, the pace that could become so insane, the constant financial pressure obvious even to me, who wasn’t paying the bills.
Did I really want that constant sense of being on the verge? Did I want the stress of just barely getting by, day after day? And the work itself, or at least the pace of the work: it didn’t fit me, or the way I experienced the world when allowed to do so at my own natural rate and rhythm. It too often didn’t make me happy when happiness was the point of farming.
But by the time the season ended and winter rolled around, I always found myself ready to farm again, looking forward to the next season. An odd cycle.
— ∞ —
I wondered, too, if I would even be a successful farmer. Could I actually grow these vegetables if I were left to my own devices? I was relatively good at following direction—at being given tasks to carry out and accomplishing them. But I so often set myself on autopilot and allowed the rote process of finishing a task to take precedence over understanding what was actually being accomplished by that task. Even after three seasons of farming, the idea of being in charge of an operation of my own and successfully producing large amounts of food struck me as daunting, almost impossible. I doubted I had a green thumb and didn’t even trust in my ability to fake it, even after many cumulative months of assisting with the work of others with unquestionable green thumbs.
— ∞ —
The “garden” I tried to grow in 2010 didn’t help. I put in too little effort, in a poor gardening plot, and allowed budding philosophical beliefs to cloud an important truth in growing vegetables: that most cultivated vegetables are not nearly so hardy as weeds, and thus need some pampering.
I didn’t pamper them. I damn near abused them. And, worse, I at least partly took this as a condemnation of my abilities, when in reality it was just a lesson that I needed to provide more attention to the work I was doing—that I needed to actually take the steps I had learned needed to be taken.
I didn’t obsess over this garden and its failures, but it’s sad specter at times haunted my already-established self doubts.
— ∞ —
Then came this year’s garden plot. The beautiful soil, dark and rich and deep. The promise it held and its small whispers of the future.
It helped to get a small break from vegetable farming. Transitioning into animals and facing my first summer in three years devoid of the promise of the stress of vegetable farming, and all the doubts and insecurities that stress could inspire, left me better able to focus on the intense joys of growing food. The potential fulfillment offered by that plot came with almost no strings attached. It would be for me, no others dependent on this bit of earth (aside from the innumerable critters living in it, of course.) I could do it right, or at least to the best of my ability. And even if it yielded far less than hoped for, I would let it be learned wisdom rather than condemnation.
This was mine; I could do it as I wanted, at the pace I wanted. I owned this.
— ∞ —
It’s amazing the difference ownership makes. Of course, I don’t actually own the land. But I own what’s going to happen in that plot for the foreseeable future. I own whatever successes come of it, whatever failures, whatever lessons learned and joys experienced. I own the surprises and revelations. And my involvement will be intimate and complete.
It’s incredible how often during my three seasons vegetable farming that I would walk by a bed and not know what was planted in it, often times even when it was already up. Now, I know. Everything went in by my hands. I own it. I planned it. I guided and built it, then handed it off to all the creatures and natural processes that will ultimately do the vast majority of work. But I’m the instigator, and thus I know what’s intended to happen.
I’ve already realized how big a piece this is. I always suspected, when I questioned whether I would really want to have my own farm, that actual ownership would change the equation. The early results suggest just that. Doing this on my own—it changes so much.
— ∞ —
But what am I actually talking about here? What have I done on my own? Much of what’s in the ground and growing are starts from two of the farms I interned for. I’ve direct seeded, as well, and some of that is coming up. Some of it remains to be seen.
Also, though, what I’ve done so far is so small, and the pace so slow and leisurely. How could I not be enjoying it? How could I not be invigorated by it? Sure, it’s easy to enjoy it at such a simple pace, when the pressures of feeding other people and making a living aren’t bearing down on me.
Yet, I can’t help but think my happiness is the most important point so far. I find this joyful. I find this invigorating. Digging in the soil has proved a renewal for me, a source of life. Despite three seasons of prior farming and plenty of happiness in it, I didn’t trust that gardening would make me as happy as it’s proving to make me. I didn’t trust that it was the love I hoped it was.
But it is. And that opens up the future.
— ∞ —
The question now is one of possibility. It’s one of pace and scale. It’s whether or not this love can be a bigger part of my life. It’s what it would take, what work would need to be done.
I’ve been scheming the last week. Thinking about possibilities and wondering what kind of situation I might be able to devise. Thinking of how I could make this more of my life, of who I am and what I do. How can I expand this joy without losing it?
I think small, intimate, reasonable—yet even those thoughts are big. What could I do with a small bit of earth, my hands, perhaps one other helper, a steady pace, and little cash? How could I make it a bigger part of my life yet but not depend on it? Not force it to make my entire living? Not morph it into the disquiet of stress and constant worry?
I don’t have the answers to these question, but I have the tentative thoughts of possibilities. Possibilities that may be gone by next week or next month, granted, but possibilities nonetheless. What’s truly amazing to me is that it seems possible at all. It never felt like something potentially imminent before, in the last three years. It always felt necessarily farther away. Yet now it does seem possible, perhaps in the near future, even with the realization that this potential future could disappear at any time.
There’s something shocking and heartening about that.
— ∞ —
The soil gives life and possibility. It invigorates. It’s magic, what it can do.
What it can inspire.
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.