Depletion and Abundance...

Plant a garden

Depletion and Abundance are just two sides of the same coin. We're no longer speaking of the future when we talk about climate change and peak oil. So now the project is to accept depletion, and still find a good and abundant way of life, not just for ourselves, but for those who will come after us. We can do this - it is one heck of a challenge, but we have to find a way, so we will. That's what this site is for - finding a way forward.

I am the author of three books. _Depletion and Abundance: Life On the New Home Front_ explores the path to finding a good life in spite of tough times. _A Nation of Farmers:Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil_ analyzes our current food situation and offers steps for creating meaningful food security. _Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation_ explores the connections between food storage, food preservation and our democratic heritage.

Fair Thee Well Come Summer

Sharon January 14th, 2010

It has been two weeks of agony.  Not for me, and not for Simon, who has a very mellow approach to this, but for Isaiah.  Isaiah is picking out his own chickens for the first time, and well, this is a difficult process for a six year old with a strong desire to do well.  The Murray McMurray catalog has been considered so many times it is now a tattered mass of paper.  After all, these chickens aren’t ordinary chickens – they are going to the fair.

Now most of you probably go to a fair somewhere or other once a year.  Most counties and regions have an agricultural fair or two, and lots of people take their kids to see the animals and go on the rides.  But going to the fair for an evening is rather different than taking your livestock to the fair – that’s a whole ‘nother thing.  And this year, we promised Isaiah and Simon that they could take their very own chickens.  Which means we have to order them early so they will be full grown by August, when we are off to the country fair for a week.

These chickens aren’t just about the fair, though the thought of a ribbon or two is heavy in my boys’ minds.  These will be their chickens, and the start of a small poultry business for Simon and Isaiah.  The two of them are entitled to all the profits of the eggs (although they have to track the feed and earn that too, although we’ll provide a modest subsidy), and can expand their flocks, or sell extra roosters to us for meat.  They will be in charge of records and tending the animals. 

But the very fact that we are making this partly about the fair is something of a big deal.  When you take your critters to the fair, you have to be at the fair several times a day to tend their needs, plus you also have to be there for judgings and such.  I expect that a week at the fair will be time consuming and expensive for us.  Thus far, we’ve never felt compelled to do it.

But there are a couple of compelling reasons to do it.  The first is that I’ve seen too many agricultural fairs dwindle into carnivals with a couple of animals and a few bits of handwork or jelly.  If people don’t participate in the fair, they become merely another carnival – and that’s not how they originated.  Instead, the fair was the one time each year when you exposed what you’ve been doing on your farm to others, exchanged ideas, and looked at your practices in clear comparison to your neighbors.  We’ve let so much of our agricultural knowledge and history disappear – participating in the fair is a way of holding on to something that matters.

The fair is where you look around you and discover things you never knew about.  Did you know that someone was raising mohair just a few miles away?  Had you met the other person with your breed of hens?  Wow, who knew that the world’s third rated sheepdog trainer is in your county?

The fair is also when you show accomplishments that otherwise exist only inside your home or barn.  At the fair you let other people taste your jam and show them the mittens you knit.  At the fair, the claims farmers make at the diner – that their hay is the best or their cows milk X lbs get tested, amid the general laughter when a culture of overstatement is occasionally exposed, or to general surprise when the woman who always says her hay is the worst wins the prize.

The fair draws on local knowledge for nostalgic purposes that may not be wholly nostalgic – at the fair, you realize just how many people still use draft animals, at least for showing, or know how to repair old steam equipment, blacksmith or make linen from flax. 

The fair is a heck of a lot of work.  I’m not wholly looking forward to it.  My boys are old enough to be gracious winners and losers, but just barely – if these chickens don’t perform well, I know that there will be private sobs and sorrows.  But I’m also planning one pair of knitted socks good enough to enter in, and some jams and jellies that I might enter.   Because being part of an agricultural tradition means an obligation to preserve it. 

So we’re on tenterhooks. Isaiah has until tomorrow to settle on his breed of chickens.  Simon looked through the catalog, stopped at the cochin bantams, picked his color and moved on.  Isaiah has been through Polish hens and Salmon Faverolles, Millefleurs and Red Laced Cornish.  We’ve weighed the merits in eggs and coloring, what judges might be looking for.  We’re definitely counting our chickens before they are even hatched.  But hey, it is the fair. 

Sharon

Reconsidering Cities

Sharon January 12th, 2010

I get a lot of emails from people who want to get out of the city.   Sometimes the reasons are really good ones – they don’t like cities or the ones they live in, but were drawn there by the promise of salaries and jobs, but now see other options opening up in rural areas or small towns.  Maybe they always dreamed of land and space to be self-sufficient, or maybe it was a new dream – but now they want to explore it.  Maybe they want lower cost of living and stronger community ties and think a rural small town is the way to get it.  Maybe they want cleaner air and more green spaces, or to go home to a place they loved.  Maybe they believed the idea that it was too hard to grow your own and make your own, but they’ve stopped believing this.  To which I say - great!

But not all the people I hear from have these reasons.  Sometimes people think they should get out of the city because they’ve been told they have to, or they’ve seen too many apocalyptic movies.  Sometimes people read about peak oil and climate change and their first reaction is “I’ve got to get out of the city” - but their family is there, and their home and their work.  Sometimes people really like cities, and don’t want to leave, but feel like they have to to be safe.  Sometimes what is burgeoning under the surface is a real fear of crime, and sometimes it is a nebulous fear of the alien and strange.  And sometimes there’s a racist and classist element to this – a fear of “them” who will “riot.”  Sometimes there are concerns that cities are unadaptable – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly.  Sometimes people just haven’t given much thought to what is possible in the city and they don’t realize that many of their dreams might be fulfillable in the city. 

We moved here to the country a few months before 9/11, and I can’t count the number of people who called up and said “you have the right idea, get out of the cities!”  In vain did we protest that we hadn’t left Lowell and Boston to escape terrorism, nameless violence and scary people but because we wanted to grow things and raise animals.    I don’t blame folks who instinctively reacted that way, but I do think that if we’re leaving the cities, we should go for the right reasons – because we love the country, not because we fear the city.  Moreover, I feel that many cities have a future – and a rich and complicated and probably quite wonderful (and difficult) ones.  Nor is it self-evident to me that the countryside will always be better off than the city.  So let’s talk about why people should revisit the idea of cities.

I think it is important also to distinguish between several kinds of cities. Just as I’ve written before that there are suburbs and suburbs, there are cities and cities.  There are cities I think have little or no future in the face of climate change and energy depletion, and ones I think have quite a bright future.  How do you know which kind of city yours is?  Well, there are a few questions to ask yourself:

1. Was this a major city before 1900?  This is an important question if you are interested in your city’s future.  As a general rule, the best way to evaluate a city’s long term future in the face of depletion and the ability to produce less carbon is to ask “Back when we used less energy, did people want to live here?  If so, why? If not, why not?”  If, for example, your city is a major port city, or connected by waterway to a major port city, your city probably has a future.  The age of water transport is hardly over – it is just beginning again, and ports will be needed.  If your city was a mill city with lots of hydropower – that’s another good sign.  Or a major rail hub – we know that rail is much more efficient than private cars.  On the other hand, if not very many people lived there until air conditioning or until we stole water from somewhere else, that might not be so good. 

2. What are the best projections for its future in climate change?  The exception to the rule that you should use the past to predict the future is climate change.  If your city is expected to be underwater and subject to increasingly violent storm surges, you might not want to stay – even if you imagine you won’t be alive for the worst consequences, you might consider asking yourself “When I’m 70, will I want to evacuate every hurricane season?”  Or if increasing heatwaves and drought are the projection, you should honestly ask whether you are prepared to deal with them.    Cities with no good reliable supply of water will probably do very badly indeed.

3. What kind of local food and energy infrastructure have you got?  Cities that didn’t develop hugely in the last decades that still have farmland around them will be at an advantage – not an insurmountable ones if they have natural transportation lines, but still, this is a powerful advantage.  Smaller cities of 1 million or less may do better than bigger ones – the biggest cities will probably have to get smaller, particularly if they are built up for many miles outside their limits, have a lot of high rises or other major disadvantages.  That said, even a big city that has to get smaller will have some particularly well developed people who do very well there

4. Finally, what’s the culture of your city/neighborhood within it?  Are you surrounded by immigrants who are growing gardens in every spare inch?  Awesome.  Are you surrounded by affluent neighbors who don’t like to see undies out on the line?  Not so great.  Is your city in decline with a high violent crime rate?  Not so good.  Does your city have an active and powerful community organizing presence that helps keep people safe?  Good.  Is your municipality actively preparing for the future?  Terrific.  Are they not helping but not hindering much?  Pretty good. 

Moreover, the country will have some disadvantages over cities in difficult times – this is almost certain to happen.  It is important to be prepared for those difficulties, and many city people aren’t – given that they will be facing challenges in either place, it may be better to face challenges that are more familiar, in a place where you have ties, than to try and face totally unfamiliar ones in a new place.

What are the disadvantages of the countryside?  Here are a few:

1. Fewer jobs, more poverty, at least at first.  While in the longer term, rural areas may do better, in early transitional periods, the odds are that they will do worse, because they have fewer jobs to begin with.  In an economic crisis, many people in rural areas become very poor and areas become severely depressed.  If you are thinking that we will have an instant apocalypse where everyone moves out to the countryside looking for food, you probably should give some thought to a slow grind, where there’s plenty of food but no money to buy it.

2. Shortages of goods and higher prices for things not made locally.  Many rural areas have few stores and are at thee nd of shipping lines.  If gas gets expensive or resources get constrained, outer perimeter stores will be serviced last, and at higher cost.   Few rural dwellers make everything they use or even grow all their own food – it may cost you a lot more to get things and you may be the first to see shortages.

3. Tight knit and conservative communities can be alienating to people who are different or simply outsiders.  While I know, for example, many gay and lesbian people living in rural areas, I know others who were driven out by small mindedness and hostility.  Plenty of people move out our way and complain that if you aren’t related to someone, there’s no social life, and it is hard to integrate.  The reality is you may be an outsider for a long time.

4. It can be far away from family and friends if they are tied to the city.  Life in the country also requires that you live differently – fewer formal activities for the kids, more just playing, maybe multiple sources of part time income instead of one steady job.

5. Lack of services – as economic consequences get greater, small towns with small tax bases either need to raise taxes (a tough sell) or they need to cut services.  When oil prices spiked in 2008 schools cut back to 4 days a week, got rid of staff, plowing was cut back, garbage collection abandoned and town courts closed.  The consequences are worse in the city when services do shut down because of population density, but cities are less likely to get hit as early.

Now I love the country, and I love my life, but it would be wrong to imply that everyone should live here.  In fact, everyone shouldn’t – first of all, there’s not enough land in the world for everyone to live at the population density that I do.  Some people have to – otherwise we wouldn’t have farms, but our present population means that some people also have to live in apartments and dense housing so that there’s farmland left.  Moreover, unlike some rural folk, I don’t dislike cities – I lived in them for much of my life, and I’m fond of them.  If I could bring my livestock back to the city, heck, I might consider it ;-) .

Plus, there are some real advantages to living sustainably in the city – some things are a lot easier.  These include transportation, getting to shopping, scavenging stuff, building diverse communities, meeting cultural needs for people who are different in some way or need to be close to religious or ethnic communities, more bodies to keep you warm, access to trade goods, educational opportunities and others.  Cities have existed for a very, very long time, and they aren’t going to  go away.  Trade has been happening for centuries, and climate change is not going to make Ottumwa, Iowa a center of international trade anytime soon. 

Moreover, some cities may thrive with the resumption of local manufacturing – when oil prices spiked in 2008, overwhelmingly the costs of globalization began to be realized.  When shipping costs rise, we will have incentive to bring manufacturing back in many areas.  For people who don’t want to be farmers, meeting new needs for efficient heating, garden tools, sturdy clothing, etc… will be important work.  Even Aaron Newton and I never did suggest that everyone was going to be a farmer ;-)

Sometimes people email me saying that they desperately need to get out of the city because they want to grow a garden, because they need to get their hands into dirt.  But this, I think, is the deepest misconception created by energy depletion and climate change – that there’s only dirt in the country, or that it only “counts” when there’s a lot of it.  But the reality, as I say as often as I can think of, is that there’s dirt under everyone’s feet.  It may be hard to find – sometimes you have to go look at community gardens or borrow a neighbor’s yard or do so guerilla gardening.  But we need people to grow food most of all where people live now. 

Because reducing energy and shipping costs is essential, we need gardeners in the city and small livestock in the city as much as we need farmers in the countryside.  In 1943, for example, the city of Baltimore had more than 14,000 community gardens, producing enough food to meet all the produce needs of the city.  In 1944, all the victory gardens in the US produced the same amount of produce as all the vegetable farms in the US put together.  In the 19th century, urban Paris was exporting food from 3600 acres of intensively farmed land that produce more vegetables than the city could consume.

Underestimating the power of urban agriculture is one of the deepest flaws in reasoning.  Most nations of the global south produce substantial portions of meat and vegetables within city limits – Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, both produce more than 20% of their meat and vegetables within the city limits.  In 2002 with more than 6 million people, Hong Kong was producing 33% of their produce, 14% of the pigs, 36% of the chickens and 20% of the farmed fish eaten in the city limits, much the animale being rased on 160,000 tons annually of food waste that was recycled into meat and eggs.  Will cities grow all their own food?  No, but they don’t necessarily have to.  A substantial portion can be enough, as long as they also build ties to surrounding rural areas.

What about people’s fears about crime and violence?  Are they misplaced?  No, they aren’t – they are very real.  But it is important to keep them in perspective – often we’re so terrified of crime that we give it a bigger place in our lives psychologically than it deserves.  There are some cities that have undergone major crises and become violent, unliveable places but most often because of war.  In many other places, the countryside has also experience violence – violence that was worse because of isolation from neighbors.

My bet is that if you could live in the worst neighborhood in your city right now then you would be ok.  Now many of us wouldn’t choose to do that – but we should remember that the crime we’re facing in the cities is probably on the same order of the crime and difficulty that we expect the poor to endure in our cities right now.  Right now there are people operating in your city without utilities – either squatters or people who have been shut off for non-payment.  Right now there are people who are facing high crime rates, who can’t get police protection or who have reasons to be afraid of the police.  Right now there are people who are facing rising infant mortality, lack of access to health care and good food. 

What’s likely to happen in the longer term is that many of us are likely to live in cities much as the poor live in them now.  But at the same time, the same strategies that have helped poor urban dwellers make a decent life for themselves are available to us – organize, organize, organize.  That is, when the neighborhood isn’t safe and the cops aren’t responsive, get together and talk to the police and the people who police the police.  Organize watches.  Get the dealers out.  Make spaces that are safe.  Enlist help from the community to clean things up and make things safer.  It isn’t a magic bullet, but it works.

When there’s no good local food infrastructure, people start it. When there’s no clinic, people agitate for one, or start one themselves.  The beauty of cities is the tremendous people power that cities have – the capacity to organize, resist and make safe.

There are things about large, dense cities that are potentially quite dangerous. The things that worry me most are fire infrastructure in the case of disasters, water contamination and disease outbreaks due to water contamination.  These are real issues.  Again, they can be handled by leaving and going someplace less populous – but you do only change one set of problems for another.  If your house catches fire while you are trying to keep warm in the city, you could burn down a whole neighborhood, so you need to handle heating safely and collectively.  If your house catches fire in the country, nobody else will burn – but no one may show up to put it out, either, if things get tough enough.   Managing human wastes in the city is challenging – but in the country you may run into people who are accustomed to just dumping as they like.

Generally speaking, cities require a high degree of cooperation – living successfully in close proximity to others requires that people be accomodating of others.  People who can’t do this or don’t want to may want their own space and land.  It can be frustrating, particularly when the regulations are inflexible and strictly enforced – getting that livestock into the city will take a lot of advocacy in some cases.  And yet, that cooperation is also a gift – it means that the infrastructure of management can be invoked and used in tough times.  Rural areas without close ties – and many of the traditional neighborly ties have been set aside as people replace cooperation with fossil fuels – may be tough to work together.

The people who should most seriously consider staying in the city are those with strong community and family ties there.  Difficult times may make it impossible to commute back and forth.  If you are a member of an ethnic, religious or minority community and that identity is important to you, you may find yourself painfully isolated somewhere away from them.  Much of our collective fears about the cities have to do with their diversity – I’m not at all claiming that everyone with worries about cities has a secret fear of non-white folk, but some of them quite explicitly do.  Often our fears about cities are fears about race, class and cultures that are alien to us.  That doesn’t mean that sometimes our fears aren’t legitimate – but we need to be very careful about identifying which ones are real and which ones aren’t.  Moreover, conversations about “them” forget that a lot of us are “thems” of various sorts – and have strong reasons to want to be near our communities.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to persuade anyone to go city or country mouse.  What concerns me is that people instinctively reject both choices for the wrong reasons. It may well be a good idea for you to leave the city – but maybe not too.  What it should be is a rational choice, not one based on an instinctive panic or a set of false assumptions.

If you are going to reconsider the question of the city, here are some books to get you started:

_Farm City:The Education of an Urban Farmer_ by Novella Carpenter.  I can’t say enough good things about this book!  Carpenter isn’t writing in some affluent neighborhood – she’s farming a slum in Oakland and doing a damned fine job of it.

_The Toolbox for Sustainable City Living_ Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew worked their ideas for reclaiming industrial spaces through permaculture out in Austin, but now they are doing them in Albany, to my delight!  This is a wonderful book of practical, low cost tools for real urbanites who want to have a future.

_The Integral Urban House_ by The Farallones Institute – this book is out of print, but still deeply valuable. Published in 1979 by a branch of the Sierra Club, it is _The Encyclopedia of Country Living_ for the urbanite, covering everything from insulation to greywater, mitigating soil contamination to managing wastes of all kinds. 

Sharon

Independence Days Update: Back In the Saddle Again

Sharon January 11th, 2010

It has been a while since I posted one of these – the frantic preparations for the workshop have been sucking up my time, as has the book, and I haven’t been doing much planting or preserving, although did do a little model-lactofermentation for my workshop, which we then forgot to taste.  Ah well, I’ll just have to eat kimchi and sauerkraut!

I’m about to enter the stage of book writing where I never look up from the computre, but I am allowing myself a 24 hour recovery period where I read a lot of seed catalogs and place a order for spices that I’ve been meaning to do for a month or two.  I’m also really, really looking forward to seed starting – it has now officially been winter long enough to make me crave dirt under my nails. 

There are important decisions to be made.  Will I grow cutting flowers to take to market this summer?  Which turnip is better?  How many cherry tomato varieties do six people really need, and how many will we actually be growing? (Note the distinction between these numbers).  What medicinal herbs will sell? 

I’ve also got to decide what bee start up I’m going to be working with – I’m exploring the merits of different approaches.  And then there’s the poultry order.  Isaiah and Simon are going to raise their own chickens for show and eggs for them to sell – they’ve picked Salmon Faverolles (Isaiah) and Birchen Cochin Bantams (Simon) and are already hatching (so to speak) small poultry empires in their heads.  Meanwhile we’re doing a homeschool project on how to keep records and calculate profits and expenses.

Two of my workshop attendees were rabbit experts, which was awesome, since I learned how to butcher them (hypothetically, we didn’t actually do any) and also a bit more about what to look for in rabbit stock.  We’ll be breeding the buns around the beginning of March – yay!  I’ve already made plans to donate some stock to a local urban community garden that is interested in adding rabbits for manure (and eventually encouraging interested participants to eat them).

It has been one heat cycle since Bast and Jesse were bred.  Bast went into false heat earlier this cycle, which might be a good sign (that she is knocked up) or might not.  Jesse’s not showing any signs (although she’s hard to detect.  The official verdict is…well, maybe.  I think Mina went into heat Wednesday, but I had no car and the boys were on their way to NY, so I’ll mark it down and hope for the next time.

We are starting to look for a buck – it is clear that with this many does, a buck is a needful thing, and we’ve got the space to house him.  So if anyone has a really good milking lines, Nigerian Dwarf buck to sell fairly in the greater Capital District or within a couple hours drive, drop me an email at [email protected]

We also now have ducks.  The ducks that magically appeared Christmas morning turn out to have been escapees from a ways up the creek.  The folks they escaped from didn’t have good housing for them and had assumed they were dead, and didn’t want them back.  So now our lone duck is joined by four more Pekins – I was planning on adding ducks to our snail patrol, and I’m feeling a little “ask and ye shall receive” about it ;-) .

The goats seem to be recovering from our attack of meningeal worm – Selene is still weak in the hind end, but she’s able to jump up on the stanchion consistently and is starting to push Maia (who was happy to take over as herd queen and was kind of a bitch about it ;-) ) away when food is on offer. 

All the animals agree with me that we should do more workshops, except Mina, who does not like strangers and thinks this is weird and that people should not be in our barn, except maybe me and Eric and only when we are feeding her.  Otherwise, the dog, the cats, the ducks the goats and other animals were thrilled by more people to love them, more scraps to eat and more attention. 

Most of all, though, it is time to write the book. I’m having a tough time with this one – my heart is in my farm plans and with my kids, not at the computer.  But there’s work to be done and I’m trying to get excited about writing a book that helps people find a way to live well with a lot less where they are and with what they have.  It does fill a need.  I do need to write it.

Ok, update:

Plant something: I stuck some garlic I found in pots, but otherwise, nada.

Harvest something: Eggs!  The chickens are starting to lay again – I got 3 one day, and have had an egg every day the last few.  Since we don’t light

Preserve something: Lactofermented kimchi and sauerkraut, canned some applesauce.

Waste not: Actually, I think I wasted extra.  In our cleanout of the house I found, ummm…a lot of scary things that simply had to be thrown away.  The usual composting and feeding of things to other things ensued, and I did manage to clean out some books and give them away.

Want Not: I can’t bring anything new in until everything goes into buckets like it is supposed to.  New resolution!  Oh, except my Penzeys order, which I haven’t placed yet, but which is forthcoming.  I’m out of chipotle powder, and that is not allowed to be.

Build community food systems – Does convincing 8 people that they want goats count?  I’m still doing a lot of radio, and will be doing some speaking in the upcoming months, but things have been busy. 

Eat the Food: Because I couldn’t get out shopping this week (car trouble) I had to pretty much feed everyone from my pantry, which worked out awesomely well (and my participants were incredibly kind and brought greens, cider, beer and baked goods to supplement - gotta love them!)  Singapore-style noodles with stir fried veggies were a hit, as was the chocolate banana bread pudding. 

How about you?

Sharon

Finding My Place: How We Got Here Part II

Sharon January 5th, 2010

In my previous post on this subject over at science blogs, I detailed how we decided to move and narrowed our range of possibilities down – and how it got narrowed down for us.  At the point I left off, we’ve more or less decided we prefer Washington County NY, so much so that we conceived Simon there ;-) .  Despite some significant objections to the region, we’ve decided to move there.  But the best laid plans of mice and farmgirls gang aft agley…

The Washington County option got pulled out from under our feet.  The small college that expressed an interest in Eric turned out not to be interested in Eric, and the college over the VT border that was hiring decided not to hire.  The commute to Albany would have been prohibitive, so that was that – we were committed to the greater Schoharie County.

In retrospect, I’m grateful. Yes, Washington County would have been closer to family and we liked the landscape more.  But I’ve come to love the landscape here, and the commuter, religious and other issues were probably insurmountable. If I had a major flaw in this it was that I was capable of convincing myself, against my instincts, that something would be ok.  In retrospect, I’m grateful I didn’t get the opportunity.

In March, we went back to Schoharie County.  Eric had the tentative promise of a job from two different places, both within reasonable distance, and we’d settled on the area.  We couldn’t afford much time off, and we were committed to moving that summer, so we needed to find a house.  This was to be our buying trip.  We contacted multiple realtors – our rural area had (and to an extent still has) a completely unconnected real estate system – while some realtors were on the web, others weren’t, and it was damned hard to find them all.  Most houses weren’t on the MLS and you had to find each place’s listings to know what was available.  We were coming to the area for four days, and I had a list of about 40 properties over a broad region that we wanted to consider, through five realtors.  I had them mail us the specs on each property, did a ton more research on the towns involved, and narrowed it down to 11 properties, which we would see over 3 days.  We made the appointments, packed the child and stopped by the side of the road for me to throw up regularly (I was now 6 weeks pregnant and throwing up 20 or so times a day), and planned to pick a house.  Our goal was to decide this weekend.

We saw all 11 properties.  They ranged from FARMS to farms to houses with acreage.  All met our basic parameters.  Acreage ran from 15 to 180.  Most were in our approximate price range.  Several were duplexes or already had a second house on it.  Most were eliminated immediately.

The first house was a dairy farm that literally had a rotting dead cow in the front yard.  The barn was great, the house was ugly, and we weren’t able to see the apartment below.  We passed.  The second one was a possibility - an elderly Polish farmer with 70 flat, beautiful acres and two huge barns.  The price was right, and it had a gorgeous apartment for Eric’s grandparents.  The problem was that the apartment above, where we would live was tiny, dark and cramped and it would have been difficult to add on.  One of the barns was crammed full of old equipment and the farmer announced that he planned to leave it for us to sort through, which seemed cool, but overwhelming.  He didn’t seem interested in negotiating on price.  We held it out as a possibility, but reluctantly.

The third house was a disaster – there was obvious roof and foundation damage, we said no way.  The fourth was an ugly new house on a steep hillside that we learned was being sold because of septic issues, and whose trees had just been logged, giving us a beautiful view of the billboard on the road below - we passed.  The fifth was newly under agreement, although beautiful, and on a fast moving main road.  We were getting depressed. 

On day two, we saw the first house we seriously considered. It was a beautiful 150 year old farmhouse, with multiple barns and miles of fencing.  The young couple of were running it were moving closer to his family.  It was a little isolated, even by our standards, but the neighbors seemed nice.  The real negative was that the owners had designed and built a huge freestall cow barn to go with it – and it was a total eyesore.  It was brand new, so taking it down seemed unfair, but we couldn’t imagine living with that big honking yellow horror in our front yard.  In retrospect, I think we could have dealt with it, and it might have been a good property for us, but every time we tried to love the place, we were confronted with that school-bus yellow monstrosity practically blocking out the house.  We also suspected Eric’s grandparents would never go for it.

The next house was a real possibility as well – a beautiful, huge old farmhouse with gorgeous barns.  It even had a tenant house in the yard. It was on the outer edge of our price range, but a good deal, with 80 acres, mostly level and beautiful, and with good timber.  The major disadvantage was that the son was considering buying out his Dad, and another son wanted to keep a legal right of way through the timber.  We could probably live with the right of way, although we worried about conflicts, but the son didn’t seem to be making up his mind soon, and nothing could be done until he decided.  Also, this house was fairly far from doctors and shopping – Eric’s grandmother was a bad driver who refused to give up her car, we didn’t want her travelling really long distances.  We left it open, but suspected it wouldn’t work out.  In retrospect, this is the house I wanted, though – and it would have been a good choice.

The next house was falling down, and we couldn’t even get to it through the unplowed snow on the seasonal road.  The one after that caused Eric and I our first real fight of the trip.  It was above the Mohawk river in an area populated by Amish folk, and was, in fact, an Amish house.  It was the least expensive house on our list – we might actually have been able to buy it outright with luck, at 20K. It was a five year old Amish house with three small bedrooms and a large public area.  It had a new pole barn, five fenced acres and five acres of woods.  It even had an existing, improved garden spot.  We both thought it was beautiful, and I fell deeply in love.  Eric refused, because it had no electricity or running water. I argued that there was time to add these things, that we could camp over the summer while adding them.  Eric countered with the fact that there was no freakin’ way his grandparents would consider living in a house without electricity and running water.  I argued that if they knew they would be there by the time they got there… Eric argued that he wouldn’t consider living in such a house, and that I’d get lonely without him.  He won. 

The last two houses were serious contenders.  The first was a horse farm with 30 rolling acres, beautiful streams and ponds, the most beautiful barn I’ve ever seen and if it weren’t for the house, I’d be living there now.  But despite the fact that the road was extremely rural, the house itself was bang up against it’s neighbor – you could see in the next-door windows.  I wasn’t moving to the country to live that close to anyone, but I really wanted the place – the house was nice, it needed work but had real potential.  The neighbors were absentee who rarely visited.  The barn..did I mention the barn.  The land was gorgeous.  It was cheap.  It went on the list, and I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t *that* close to the other house.  But it was.

This was the very last house we saw.  We had almost chosen not to see it, because it was one of the few that wasn’t a double or hadn’t been a two family before.  But the realtor convinced us it had everything else we wanted, an the large field was a seperate lot, so we’d have no trouble building a small house there if we wanted.  Our house is in between two steep hills, and as we came over the hill and saw the house through the trees, I remember saying to Eric that if this was it, it was beautiful.

And it was – it had everything we wanted.  125 years old, it had 27.9 acres, most of it wooded, but with 3 open acres around the house and a large 9 acre field. It had a newer stable built for the present owner’s horses, and a creek.  The living room addition had been built a 100 years before with the beams from an old Quaker barn, and those ancient beams held up the ceiling while an enormous stone fireplace divided the room from the dining room.  The public areas were large, the private ones small, which suited us fine.

It had no neighbors in view, but was closer to Eric’s probable job, and to synagogue and shopping than any of the other likely candidates.  The woman who owned it showed us around, and they had made useful improvements.  It needed some work – the upstairs bath was defunct, the roof would eventually need repairs, but they were willing to drop the price accordingly.  The owners were friendly with many neighbors and new a lot about the local food infrastructure and were in fact, moving only up the road to build their own place.  The neighbors we talked to were enthusiastic about the area.

We went back to the hotel and argued for a while.  I tried again at the Amish house, but it was doomed.  We considered several of the other farms, finally, on price grounds dropping it down to three – the house with the wonderful barn and neighbors right there, the yellow monstrosity barn and the white house between the hills.  Ultimately, I wish I could say that reason won out, but I think beauty did – the other two had some great flaw in their beauty.  This house was lovely from every angle. Beauty hadn’t been on our list, but it turned out to be enormously important – it was the one thing we couldn’t talk our way around.

What I didn’t know is that the soil in this place would suck.  The ground was frozen solid and there were three feet of snow on it, so I didn’t take soil samples. I asked about soil at each place, and the owners reassured us that this had been a working dairy farm for many years.  This is true – but we only later learned that it was a sod farm for the last 10 of those years – that is, what fertility and topsoil there was was stripped off to sell sod to people who wanted perfect lawns.  I also didn’t realize that the drainage would be bad.  I knew enough to ask, but they reassured me that everything drained into the creek.  I forgot to ask how long the water stopped before it got around to draining ;-) .

In retrospect, for the kind of farming I wanted to do, it would have been smarter to buy one of the other farms.  The farm with the uncertain son did eventually go on the market, and given what we spent to build the addition onto this place, it would have been in our price range.  If we hadn’t felt we had to buy that weekend, we might have made a better choice.  The small stable was rapidly outgrown, and my desire to do vegetable farming would have worked better on flatter land.  But given someone who had had all her gardens on postage stamp urban backyards and balconies, all this dirt was an embarrassment of riches. 

If we were doing this now, Eric would have lived with the Amish farm, or we would have explained the temperature issues to Eric’s grandparents.  If we were doing it now I’d have gotten soil tests and a bigger barn.  But then again, the reality is that you can only do things when you do them.  The house needed more work than we knew, but that probably would have been true of all the old houses.  In the end, I’m not sure things didn’t work out for the best.

There are things that I would change now, but there are also things we didn’t know to look for that we’ve come to love.  We knew the neighbors seemed like likeable folk, but we didn’t know how lucky we’d be, especially with George and Sandy, with whom we bartered and borrowed and shared everything from childcare to a car, and with Angel up the road who was always so helpful.  We didn’t realize what a vital and wonderful local food infrastructure we were entering into, or how much we’d value the privacy and quiet of our farm.  We also weren’t yet attached to a religious community, and our children were babies or in-utero, so we had no idea how much, when the years of Hebrew school and trying to figure out how to balance our religious culture and the rural one, how much every mile away from a Jewish community would matter – this was closer than most.

There are still things I don’t love about this house – I’m going to write a piece about the addition and improvements we’ve made on the house next week, but one of the things that bothers me most is that it is far too large for us.  We built the addition on for Eric’s grandparents, and while we knew that Cyril was fading, Eric’s grandmother was 12 years younger than he, and her own mother had lived into her 90s.  We’d hoped to be an extended family for 10 years or more.  Instead, they lived here less than 2 years, and we were left in one family with a house meant for two.  I dream of another family of friends or like-minded people to live with – that’s the only thing I can imagine moving me, if I can’t eventually find it here.  But we’re looking.

I can’t regret anything, though. Our story isn’t a story of finding the perfect place, but rather of making it as best we could, out of what we had.  And that’s enough – we’re happy and we love our home.  Every time I walk across my land, I am stunned that this place belongs to me – we are coming up on 9 years here, and for all its flaws and imperfections – and my flaws at seeing how to deal with them – it has become home.

Sharon

Finding Your Place/Making Your Place and Garden Design

Sharon January 3rd, 2010

A couple of admin notes.  First of all, in my previous post I realized that I called the new class both FYP and MYP, and I apologize.  Aaron and I had trouble picking a title, and my brain is a sieve.  Also, I said it started Thursday, and I was also wrong – it starts Tuesday, which would be the day after tomorrow.

The good news is that despite the fact that your blogiste is brain damaged about details, the class still has a couple of spaces, including one scholarship spot remaining for a low income participant.  So if you’d like to join us, please send me an email at [email protected].  We’ve got one scholarship spot and three regular spots left!

Also, Farm and Garden Design (starting mid-Feb) also has spaces available. If you reserved one already and haven’t gotten the registration material, its is because a. I’m a dingbat and b. there’s been an administrative problem with the discussion group.  I apologize and the class emails will be going out tomorrow morning.  We still have two scholarship spots there as well as half a dozen regular spots, so please let us know if you want them!

Cheers,

Sharon

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