The Mother Earth News Forum, Fall 2005
In the Fall of 2005, Mother Earth News asked me to take part in a closed online forum on homesteading issues with fourteen other members of the “homesteading community,” broadly defined. We were posed thirteen questions about our homesteading choices and experiences. On this page, I list the questions and share with you my own responses, quoting some of the other forum members’ entries for clarity where necessary.
After the forum closed, the editors at Mother Earth put together an article based on our discussion, “Plan the Perfect Homestead”, published in the April/May 2006 issue. (The online forum was then opened to the public.)
- Choosing Land
- Area of the Country
- Garden and Orchard
- Food Storage
- Livestock and Poultry
- Home Building
- Heating with Wood
- Renewable Energy
- Making Ends Meet
- Successes and Failures
I’m Harvey Ussery. My wife Ellen and I moved to our present place 21 years ago—a 200 year old house on 2-½ acres of pretty good dirt within sight of the Blue Ridge to the west—with the goal of living a more self-sufficient life. During that time we’ve climbed some steep learning curves, but are now producing maybe 80% of our vegetable produce year-round, 60% of our fruit, 100% of our eggs and dressed poultry. Of the meats we buy in, almost all of it is purchased direct (much of it “on the hoof”) from the growers, people we know personally.
I retired (from the Postal Service) 6 years ago, intending to start a market garden and to sell dressed pastured poultry and eggs. Quickly concluded I was about to trade one rat-race for another, and directed my energies in other directions. Instead of producing for others, it has been my goal to inspire them to produce for themselves. We offer our place as a model (though a work in progress, to be sure!) of a small producing homestead, and frequently give “tours” to visitors. I do a lot of writing on homesteading topics, and am doing an increasing amount of public speaking. Three years ago I started offering my “Poultry 101” seminar for beginners at keeping the homestead flock. (This year I was gratified that several folks attended as well who were starting pastured poultry operations to serve a market.) Several times each season I offer hands-on workshops in poultry butchering. Next year I plan seminars on gardening, managing the homestead greenhouse, beneficial insects, possibly others (vermicomposting, shiitake mushrooms).
Early this year I put up a website www.themodernhomestead.us. It’s a “plain vanilla” site, basically a document server to share what I write. That too will always be a work in progress.
I’m 61, so am having to accept (gracefully, I hope!) the increasing limits on my energy and stamina. Fortunately, there is a synergy about the homesteading process that makes many of its tasks easier with the rolling of the seasons.
So many factors go into the decision where to locate, aside from desire to find “the perfect homestead.” And so much depends on what you want to do with your place. Just provide more for your own needs? Or produce for income?
When we were looking for our “home in the country,” we were not anticipating production for sale, so a large amount of land was not so important to us. We did want to have some close neighbors, rather than be isolated on our own. We settled on 2-½ acres—maybe three-quarters cleared, the rest in woods—in a rural cross-roads village. Now I wish we had a little more space. We have plenty of space for garden and orchard, but it would be great having more woodlot, especially if we have to rely more on wood heat in the future. And I really feel cramped for pasture space. We had space for 2-10 goats for ten years, it is true, but now, even “grazing” a large flock of mixed poultry, I often feel cramped for pasture. If I ever get back into ruminants (I dream of keeping a miniature milking cow and her calf on the place), it wouldn’t be easy, assuring there was enough grass.
In any case, our small place proves that you don’t have to have large acreage to homestead. We get closer to complete self-sufficiency for food each year, and the limiting factor is never space, but limitations of time and energy, organization and experience.
As for those aspiring to make a homestead on which they can produce for a living, but who simply can’t afford the high price of land, please consider this story I heard from Joel Salatin: A reporter traveled the back roads of several Southern states, keeping an eye out for farms that seemed to be falling into disrepair. Spotting one, he would stop and interview the residents. He heard the same heartbreaking stories over and over—about farms that formerly prospered in a local market, which could no longer survive competition from more distant agricultural regions; of people grown old and no longer able to do the work, whose children had gone off to city jobs and lifestyles rather than carry on the farming; etc. And then the reporter would ask, “If I wanted to rent this farm at a rate that would allow me to farm it profitably, would you be willing?” At 100 stops he made, he got 100 emphatic “yes” responses. In many cases, the residents said they would even allow farming the place rent free, just to see it worked again by someone who cared.
So even if you cannot afford to buy, it may be that you can find a place someone wants to see productive again, and is willing to make an agreement that will work for you. We have two young friends who for about a decade have worked 50 acres or so, in order to supply several market gardens and a large CSA. The last time we saw them, they reported the good news that the owner of the land had agreed to sign a forty-year lease with them! In forty years they will be ready to retire—from a farm they would never have been able to buy in this county.
3. Would you recommend the area of the country where you live for homesteading? If you had to do it again, would you choose another location?
I’m in northern Virginia, within sight of the Blue Ridge to the west. Nice country—rolling hills, lot of pasture land. Horses, beef cattle, some sheep—not much row-cropping here. Weather is not bad, rather hot in the summer, can be messy (as opposed to just cold) in the winter. Summer sometimes droughty, but we usually do okay with our garden and our pastured birds.
Yes, nice country. But the pressure of development is relentless. Our county government is doing its best to slow growth, has introduced stringent zoning to require 10 acres to put up a house, etc. Doesn’t matter—people with plenty to spend just buy 10 to 50 acres (and in this county, that requires major bucks) and put up the McMansions. I don’t mind new people coming in, but do resent the fact that they don’t move here for a country life. They come for the peaceful setting and expansive views, but bring their suburban mindset with them. Seems to me good usage would mean contracting with local farmers to run sheep on their land, or take hay off it—instead they turn it into 50-acre lawns! And sooner or later, they start complaining about the keeping of livestock, which clashes with their ideals of “country” living, and the established residents have to fight attempts to impose restrictive zoning laws.
Come the Big Crunch, most of those people are going to need a lot of hand-holding before they’ll even be able to grow a row of potatoes!
My notion of homesteading is not simply about standing tall on my own piece of dirt, but about community, about reaching out to others with similar values and goals for mutual support. That is why it’s disappointing there is so little interest locally in homesteading, even among those who grew up on farms around here—they are willing to trade away that birthright for the mess of pottage on offer in our culture: cheap and convenient foods, 360 degree entertainment, the disdain for physical effort as degrading. The local paper did a piece on us earlier this year. We were excited, saw the piece as a way of encouraging other county residents to try “modern homesteading.” We were disappointed that instead it was pretty much, “Check out these two old farts and their quaint way of life!” But we are reaching out to anyone with an aspiration to a more self-sufficient life, especially among younger people. We do all we can to inspire them, to help them climb the learning curves, offering our place as a model.
So sometimes I think we should have chosen a different area to homestead. We’ve toyed with the idea of making a move. But realistically, I think it’s probably too late. Too late because of our age—at early-60’s it seems like an enormous effort—and because the coming economic crunch is probably too close, and making a major transition when it hits could be a disaster.
4. What are the basic tools you need to get started? What did you think you needed that you have learned you can get by without?
I’m big on hand tools myself. I have used a Troy-bilt tiller in a one-acre garden I managed for a couple of years. More recently, I had a little Mantis that I used a good deal. I got more and more irritated with it, though—it was noisy, vibrating, and stinky. Anyone who recommends a power tiller as a “labor saver” has to take those stresses into account as well—any stress is “labor” for the body and nervous system, and thus adds to the work. (And don’t forget the additional time and aggravation involved in periodically clearing fouled tines.)
I discovered the broadfork after reading Eliot Coleman (The New Organic Grower). Using a broadfork increased my aversion to the Mantis, which sat in the shed unused more and more each season. Finally I gave it away, and haven’t done any power tilling in years. Of course, I don’t garden on a market scale. One of the market gardeners on the forum observed in an earlier post that, above a certain scale, a power tiller is pretty much a necessity. I will defer to her judgment on that—I haven’t tried the broadfork for tillage at a scale larger than the 5000 sq ft I now garden. (Coleman, an experienced market gardener himself, says: “I have used it outdoors on areas up to one acre without feeling too much strain.”)
When I think of essential tools, two head the list:
- Scythe (with additional blades, and accessories for whetting and peening—also let’s throw in a good hay rake). This is another tool that, like the broadfork, is a joy to use because it is so energy-efficient and makes marvelous all-round use of the body. I much prefer it to a power mower (which again is noisy, vibrating, and stinky).
- Both garden cart and wheelbarrow
- Spading fork
- Four-tine cultivator
- Manure fork
- Hay fork
- Spade, including a nursery spade
- Shovel and scoop
- Hoes—ordinary garden hoe, specialty weeding hoes, and heavier grading hoe
- Garden rake
- Many of those little hand weeders, planting trowels, etc. for the close-in work—you tend to keep accumulating those until you settle on your favorites.
[Quoting another participant] . . . I have hand tools. . .very good ones and well-maintained. And I have a full complement of power tools, also high quality and in good shape. I choose depending on how much time I have. Whenever possible, I’ll take the scenic route and enjoy the journey as well as the destination.
Good point. Most of us have the option of going either way. I would recommend cultivating more skill with the hand tools, both because of the basic joy of using a good hand tool, and because I think all of us should be schooling ourselves for radically changed times when access to a lot of power tools will not be as easy, affordable, or common.
I have two power mowers, and I still use both. More and more, though, I am developing my skill with the scythe, and prefer mowing with it in some situations and times of the season. In the spring, for example, I much prefer the scythe—the lush, fast-growing grass is so easy to cut then. And the long-stem grass that results is vastly superior as a mulch to the chopped-up clippings from a power mower. Later in the season, though, when the grass stems are tougher and more sparse (not as much yield for effort expended), I use a walk-behind mower with a 48″ deck to mow the pasture in order to prevent heavy weed set. Still, it’s good to know I could use the scythe then as well, if I had to. I use the big machine for convenience, but I’m sure I will never buy another one.
The smaller mower with bagger is really convenient for mowing fence lines for my electronets, an essential management tool with my large poultry flocks. Even this I could manage as I increase skill with the scythe, I am convinced, and here again, I doubt I’ll ever buy another.
[Quoting another participant] Why do most of the above writers prefer hand tools? Is it an aesthetic thing, do the modern attractions of efficiency and speed not count for much? Could you elaborate a bit?
Hmmm, not sure how you define “aesthetic” here. If I describe a power tool as “noisy, vibrating, and stinky,” that sounds as if I’m making an aesthetic judgment. But if I go on to argue that “noisy, vibrating, and stinky” add to the stress of using the machine, don’t we leave aesthetics behind and consider pure function? If I say I like using the scythe because “it makes good use of the body,” is that an aesthetic judgment, simply because the ballet-like grace inherent in its proper use “feels good”? And the fact that the power mower leaves me with a crick in my back, is that mere aesthetics (“feels bad”)?
I think by and large we Americans have been sold a bill of goods about the “efficiency and speed” of always relying on a powered alternative if there is one available. As said in an earlier response to a market gardener’s post, I defer to her judgment that—over a certain size, a large market garden, for example—a power tiller may be virtually a necessity. But I think the average homestead gardener has been convinced that a tiller is always more efficient and gets the job done faster. If we factor in maintenance and repair and unfouling the tines as we should (and usually don’t), then the machine seems much less efficient. Furthermore, the machine is most definitely not more efficient with reference to energy expended. A machine running on fossil fuel uses vastly more energy than human power applied to the same task. As those fuels become less abundant and more (prohibitively) expensive, machine “efficiency” will be seen in a new light, and use of well-designed human-power alternatives as less quixotic.
Our assumptions about machine efficiency often get in the way of creative alternative solutions. Take the breaking of new ground for garden, for example. If I take on that chore with a broadfork, it will bust my butt. Because I really don’t want to attack an established sod with hand tools, I might conclude that a power tiller is a better option. If the tiller is not in the equation, however, I might find some other lazy way out. I might notice that my flock of chickens spends all their time scratching. So I might “park” them on that plot of new ground for a few weeks, until they have “tilled in” the sod entirely, in the process “supercharging” the microbial life in the soil with their poops (a side benefit not provided by the machine). Because I confine my birds with electronet fencing anyway, I do not spend any additional time or effort setting up or caring for the flock to do this work. (Indeed, I spend less: I do not have to rotate them on pasture every week during the time they are tilling the new ground.) If I don’t have chickens, I might mulch the area heavily instead, and let the mulch do the work of killing the sod and starting to loosen the soil through the additional earthworm activity (another side benefit not contributed by the machine). Both these options, of course, take longer to achieve the desired result. Getting things done right now is of course a great thing. But relaxing into the flow of changes through the seasons is a great thing, too. It’s called patience, which someone said is a virtue, and most certainly is a virtue on a working homestead.
This is not by any means to say that I object to all applications of machine energy. I think a washing machine is a great improvement over pounding clothes on a rock. As already said, electronet fencing is fundamental to my poultry management, because it (unlike the tiller) truly does achieve my objectives in my situation better than other alternatives I’ve tried.
We have grown up in a culture that sees machine alternatives as unmitigated goods. We need to see the both/and quality of virtually every one of our mechanized conveniences. An electric well pump is a great thing—but I consume vastly more water using one than I would with a hand pump. A flush toilet is certainly convenient—out of sight, out of mind—but it makes it far too easy to forget the resulting pollution of streams and lakes by nitrogen and phosphorus. Electric lights are grand, but most of us chronically get too little sleep as a result. Mechanical refrigeration is unquestionably a boon, but is also a factor in the choice of convenience over quality and nutrition in our food. Let’s not even talk about television.
Tool use has always been an essential part of our history as a species. Our choice of tools has been far too uncritical in the modern era, with potentially enormous consequences as we approach the end of the Age of Petroleum.[Something else to expand on: The assumption that the machine does it better. Re soil care, for example, that is certainly not the case. Also food production/preparation: The farther from the human hand the prepreparation, the lower the quality/nutrition.]
5. How much space do you need? What are a few basic crops that are easy to get started?
As others have observed, so much of one’s approach to gardening depends on one’s goals and needs—from a modicum of the easier vegetables during the green season to food self-sufficiency, either just for your own needs or for those of your livestock as well. A lot depends on the time you can give to the garden, and the space. (You can do more with little space than with little time.)
Doubtless it’s good advice to start small and then expand, but there’s something to be said as well for just jumping in and planting the whole spectrum, at least where garden crops are concerned. (An orchard planting requires more exacting planning.) As long as you refuse to be discouraged by more numerous “crops” of failures with that approach, the garden will quickly teach you what crops are “easiest” for you.
We grow the whole gamut of vegetables here, plus strawberries, many varieties of bramble berries, blueberries, grapes, kaki persimmons, apples, pears, plums, cherries, paw paws, and shiitake mushrooms. Fruit production is of course limited to the green season, but we harvest vegetables year-round (Zone 6b). Having a greenhouse (ours is 20×48 ft) is a big boost to gardening in the chill, but cold frames can also be used, as many as you have time to manage. (As for space: It is possible to assemble them over your existing garden beds, and remove them in the spring.) And even without such additional protection, it is a surprise to most beginning gardeners just how cold-hardy some vegetable crops are—especially among the brassicas, cooking greens, and salads. Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest is indispensable for gardening in the face of winter, and more generally for establishing the dance through the seasons that makes possible harvesting fresh food twelve months of the year. (Eliot is in Zone 5, as I remember, so this scheme is not just for us Southerners.)
Whatever scale the beginning gardener is working at, I urge her to expand her idea of what “gardening” is. First and foremost: Make space for permanent plantings to support beneficial insects! If you plan to grow herbs and flowers, you’re already almost there—just be sure to make those plantings in and closely around the garden. The subject of matching plants, both annual and perennial, to your particular problem insects is vast, and will repay any amount of detailed research. Simply put, however, if you have a variety of plants in flower throughout the season, you will encourage beneficials. Make your garden beautiful and the good guys will come—it’s a win-win situation!
Don’t forget to grow plants for mulching and other non-culinary uses. I like taking grass off the pasture, especially in the spring when it is tall and lush and easy to cut with the scythe. Such grass mulch is vastly superior to grass that has been finely chopped by a power mower. On a smaller scale, you can devote beds in the garden to all-season cover crops that build soil even as you take cuttings throughout the season, using a hand sickle, to mulch the other beds. Comfrey and stinging nettle are great plants for accumulating minerals from the deeper soil levels and making them available to crops when used as mulch or liquid feeding “tea.” (Both are also excellent livestock feed.)
Probably no other practice is better for building soil than cover cropping. If space is limited, it may not be possible to dedicate entire beds to covers for the whole season. With planning and creativity, though, you can plant covers after harvesting in the fall, before you need to plant a warm-weather crop in the spring—or pop a quick-growing cover like buckwheat (thirty days from seed to flower!) in between crops in the middle of summer. Both Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower and Four Season Harvest will help put it all together. One of my favorite ways of growing more covers is undersown cover crops: Any bed growing larger, more widely spaced crops with a smaller “footprint” on the bed can be undersown with a low-growing cover. For example, when I plant pole beans or set out transplants for tomatoes (caged or trellised), and to a lesser extent broccolli and peppers, I sow the bed as well to Dutch white clover. The DWC makes a quick start and a tight cover, shading out almost all weed competition, conserving soil moisture in the bed, and fixing nitrogen in the soil. Always great to have a good partner!
Another trick with covers I just love: In any bed where I’m able to harvest by about the third week in September, I immediately sow a cover of oats and peas (“field pea” Pisum arvense, related to garden pea Pisum sativum). Both grow rapidly and make a lush cover up to 16 inches high, sailing through the early frosts. When the ground freezes, however, they reliably winter-kill—leaving the most beautiful mulch-in-place for the following spring!
It is good to expand our notion of what constitutes a “garden” or an “orchard,” as well as the sorts of plants we might plant in each one. My wife recently gave me a copy of Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Vision and Theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture (Vol 1 of a two-volume work—I’m waiting for my copy of Vol 2, which has just been released), by Jacke and Toensmeier. I am excited by the idea of expanding my planting of food crops of types and in places I never thought about before.
For example, there’s a bit of woods that backs up to my property. A major project this winter will be clearing maybe a 20-30 ft strip of woods edge of “weed” trees growing there. (Anybody else blessed with Ailanthus, aka Tree of Heaven and Heavenwood?) That will give me the space to plant a “forest garden” consisting of nut trees in the upper story, over currants and gooseberries (which can take some shade and still ripen fruit), over various herbaceous plants and ground covers. Maybe out a bit from but paralleling the edge, thus getting more sun, some trellised hardy kiwis and muscadine grapes.
But even absent such an ambitious project, I will be underplanting existing orchard trees with compatible plants that will benefit from the existing cover and will not compete too aggressively for resources. I have just completed planting a new bed under a large cherry with cranberries, lingonberries, and wintergreen. Even so simple a pairing as fruit trees underplanted with comfrey is a “mini” forest garden: The comfrey’s roots go deeper, so they tend not to compete seriously with the fruit trees. Comfrey “mines” the lower depths of minerals, making them available to the more shallow roots of the trees. The shade from the trees is actually an advantage—it helps tame the normal aggressiveness of the comfrey. Michael Phillips, author of The Apple Grower, has started growing comfrey under his apple trees, and much prefers it to other ground covers in the orchard.
Our preference is to eat fresh all four seasons of the year. So we grow a lot of foods that store naturally—root crops, cabbages, potatoes and sweet potatoes, onions and garlic and shallots, winter squash—and do little processing of foods for storage. The only canning we do is the occasional batch of preserves Ellen makes from a surplus of strawberries or plums. We dry tomatoes and spice peppers. We do have a freezer, and Ellen freezes surplus green beans, blueberries and bramble berries, puree of kaki persimmons, and shiitake mushrooms that have been sliced and cooked. I make batches of applesauce (our apples often have too much damage to be keepers, but make fabulous sauce) and tomato/pepper sauce to freeze.
All those we think of as luxuries, however. Our most important preservation vegetables are those that store well with no processing. Carrots I do not even dig, just leave them in the bed where they grew and cover with a loose organic mulch deep enough to keep the ground from freezing. When I need carrots, I just kick aside the mulch (and ice and snow) and dig. There is no better way to store carrots. (I’ve dug my last carrot as late as April 1, and found it even sweeter than the ones I dug in November.) For me (Zone 6b), the mulch needs to be 8-10 inches deep. Don’t know how deep you folks closer to the Arctic Circle would have to make yours, but if you can keep your ground from freezing, this will work for you.
Other root crops can be stored in the same way—I’ve kept rutabagas, turnips, beets, and daikon that way. All must be protected from actually freezing. (When they thaw, they turn to mush.) Parsnips and salsify can freeze in the ground without damage—but of course you can’t dig them out when the ground is frozen.
I do not have a proper root cellar. An alternative is what people used to call a “clamp.” Basically, that’s just a hole in the ground, with some protection from frost (I’ve used straw bales) and something to shed rain so your vegetables don’t end up in standing water. Such storage is better than a refrigerator, which is dehydrating. Inside the clamp, the temperature is cold, just above freezing, but the humidity is high. Root crops such as carrots, turnips, beets, daikon and other winter radishes, and rutabagas keep very well in a clamp—also cabbages and Chinese cabbages.
Another strategy for cabbages is to pull up by the roots, stack them in a mound with the roots up, and cover heavily enough with straw to prevent freezing.
We store potatoes and sweet potatoes in the basement. (Ellen wraps the better tubers of sweet potatoes in newspaper.) Conditions are not ideal there because of waste heat from the furnace, but they are good enough—the tubers keep until late winter.
7. How did you choose what type of livestock to raise? What suggestions do you have on the number of animals to start with, amount of land needed, and whether to market the products or use them at home?
Not sure there is any way to advise anyone about what animals are “right” for them. When it comes to a relationship as intimate as that between homesteader and animals in his/her care, so much depends on personal chemistry. Certainly, be open to a certain amount of serendipity in the choice. My daughter started our first flock of chickens, and I continued with them when she moved away. Now I’m known far and wide in this part of the state as “The Chicken Man of Hume.”
Early in our time here we were visiting friends who offered us two doe kids. We had no intention of raising goats, but we had a fenced area already on the place and an old pig-farrowing shed, so it was, “Well, why not?!” We raised, bred, and milked goats for ten years, a most rewarding experience.
If open to serendipity, though, it’s wise to watch out for “cute bunny syndrome”—the urge to take in an animal just because it’s so adorable. That urge is excusable in a child who wants that Easter chick because it’s fluffy and cute—but inexcusable in an adult who fails to realize what a profound responsibility we assume when we take on the well-being of a dependent animal in our care.
All of that said, I would advise starting small and expanding as you get experience. Also, some species are easier than others. If you are limited in the number of animals you can support, choose some that will help support you—that is, species who can help with some of the work of the homestead. Poultry are a good bet in all these ways. You can start quite a small flock and have plenty of eggs for the family, and then expand to produce all the dressed poultry you eat in a year. They are extremely easy to manage. Housing can be minimal—so long as it protects from predators at night and from rain and the harshest of weather, it will be adequate. Feeding them is not expensive, and there are many ways you can enhance their diet through management (ranging them on pasture) and reduce purchased inputs by producing some of their food yourself (fly maggots, earthworms).
As for putting the flock to work: The homesteader can use a flock of chickens for insect control in the orchard, for tilling in a cover crop or heavily weed-grown area, and breaking down coarse organic materials in lieu of building a compost heap. Guineas can be used to control squash bug in the winter squash plot.
I am currently using chickens to prepare new ground for garden beds next spring. About the first of August I “parked” the flock onto the existing grass sod where I want the new beds to be, fixing them in place with a net of electric fencing. After five or six weeks the sod had been scratched apart and tilled in. Moving the birds elsewhere, I sowed a mix of fast-growing cover crops appropriate to the season. About mid-October, I’ll put the birds back—this time they will turn in the cover much more quickly, maybe only a week. Then I’ll plant an overwinter cover of peas, and plant potatoes in that space next spring. (Potatoes are a good crop for new ground.)
As for amount of land needed for livestock, fortunately there are many options. Even those with quite small holdings should be able to keep rabbits, utility pigeons, or a small flock of chickens. Homesteaders can maximize available space by keeping in mind the concept of “stacking” of species. Say you have a pasture plot that is supporting a milking cow and her calf, but by any reasonable calculation cannot support any more grazing cows. You can still introduce a flock of chickens onto that ground, without exceeding its carrying capacity. They use different resources from the cows—insects and earthworms, some green forage, to be sure, though not enough to be a problem for the cows. Indeed, they contribute valuable services in exchange for the resources used: They will pick apart the cowpies, eating the fly maggots there—in the process reducing the ambient fly population, dispersing the fertility of the poops over a wider area, and exposing any pathogens present to the sanitizing effects of air and sunlight.
I have a friend who moved to a place in the country near here. She didn’t even know she had a spring until she started meeting some of the locals, who invariably said something like, “Oh, yeah—the old Mackenzie place. You know, that spring you got has never run dry.” There was a deep folk consciousness in the area: No matter how bad a drought gets, that’s one place you can always get a drink of water!
One of my great regrets is the lack of more water on our place. We do have a spring, but with the additional drinking straws in the water table as a result of local development, it’s down to a mere trickle. Still, I know it’s there, and will try to develop it if water resources become more critical.
We do have a good well, though. As another participant pointed out, it is possible to put a backup manual pump over an existing electric deep-well pump. I would strongly recommend that anyone dependent solely on a well install a manual backup.
We don’t have a manual on our main well, but I did install one on an old wellhead. So we have all the water we need in a power outage. The water is a bit rusty. I’m confident enough in its quality to use it for my livestock, but would filter it (we have a Berkey) for use in drinking and cooking.
I like automating the watering for several different flocks of poultry out on pasture—it saves so much time and effort, and can be pretty low-tech. What I use now are a couple of different designs of float-operated waterers (from little 18-inch trough waterers to a 50-gallon sheep waterer in which the waterfowl bathe) served by hoses (I buy food-grade hoses from an RV supply) that “Y” off the main supply wherever needed. At present, all waterers are served by household pressure from a stack hydrant. However, I am putting a new system in place that can be served either by household pressure, stepped down thru a reducing valve, or fed by gravity from a large central tank.
In the garden, I prefer hand watering with hoses and wand, and using mulches to reduce need to water. I don’t use drip irrigation anymore (with the levels of organic matter I now have in my soil, it retains moisture better than it used to), though occasionally use an oscillating sprinkler for kick-starting a larger area sowed to cover crop.
9. What are the advantages or disadvantages of building a new house vs. buying property with an existing house? What would you do differently if you had to do it all again? Are there green building options that you have tried or would recommend?
We moved into an existing farmhouse, the original part of which was about 200 years old. As I understand it, it was one of those houses built following the huge grant of land to Lord Fairfax here in Virginia, in order to encourage settling the area. Fairfax would grant you clear title to a plot of land (can’t recall the size) without payment, if within one year you: planted an orchard, and built a two-room dwelling of a specified minimum size. Our house was one of those “Fairfax Specials.” I’ve been in others in the area—they all look different on the outside, having followed different evolutionary paths, but have the same core: a two-room house (ours is about 16×16) made of hand-hewn local heart pine and chinking, one room over the other (to save on roofing costs). Those two rooms are now the living-room, and our bedroom overhead. The rest of the house consists of a number of add-ons. We made our own six years ago, an additional large room and bathroom on the second level.
I sometimes regret not having taken the opportunity to build a “greener” house myself—a dome, all-solar, you know the dream. But the stream of circumstance brought us to this place, and I don’t regret it. The fact that the original walls are 10 inches of solid wood and chinking, is actually pretty “green”—that’s a lot of insulating power. The living-room stays cool even on the hottest days. The first winter we were here we heated exclusively with wood. We have added other heat systems since then, but still use the woodstove, keep a large cache of firewood, and could rely solely on wood heat anytime we need to.
I came to love—in the most literal sense—this house in March of ’93. It was the 15th (yeah, the Ides of March!), when all expectation is that winter is thank-God over—just a bit more of “the nasties” and it will be glorious spring! And a raging winter storm blew in that could have been teleported from beyond the Arctic Circle: From one minute to the next, blizzard, howling wind, and temperature plunging into the sub-teens. The electric power went down immediately. When I ventured out for our dog’s final pee patrol, I realized with a jolt, You could die out here!
In the wee hours, with the metal roofing sounding like a drum roll and my nerves thoroughly rattled, I got up, stoked the woodstove, and used it to boil water for a cup of tea. I huddled by the stove in the dark, listening to the demonic shriek of the wind. And suddenly I had a palpable sense of presence. Not of ghosts, nothing spooky like that, but presence all the same of those who had preceded me in this house. I felt a sense of communion, of sharing their gratitude for this structure, as they too sheltered from killer storms.
That was the night this house became my home, and when I stepped fully into the history of this place. But it was also the night I lost the sense it is “my” home. I have inherited it from all those, unknown to me but whose presence I felt, who built and inhabited and changed this house over two centuries. And my present tenancy is temporary, a duty I have assumed, to care for it, to love it, and in due time and with good fortune, bequeath it to others to follow, equally unknown to me.
We no longer heat the house exclusively with wood, though we did the first winter we were here, and could do so again any time we have to. That first winter, we just accepted that the peripheral areas of the house were going to be cold, and concentrated most activities in the living-room and kitchen, which we could keep comfortable with the wood stove. When it got really cold, we hung blankets in a couple of doorways to keep the heat in the comfort zone. The only disadvantage I remember is that the coldest room in the house, the guest bedroom, would occasionally go below freezing, so we could not use it to store squashes and alliums as we do now. Our own bedroom was pretty chilly as well, but we don’t like sleeping in too warm a room anyway—with a “nest” created by a thick comforter and a mate to snuggle with, one can be a pretty happy mammal.
One great thing about this house is that all the plumbing is in the basement and interior walls, none in the crawl space or exterior walls. So however cold the peripheral areas, the pipes never freeze.
The stove we use is a Waterford. It’s pretty small, so it’s a pain to cut the firewood down to the size of its firebox. However, the metal is thick, and it is heavily lined with firebrick, so the thermal mass is considerable for its size, and it generates plenty of heat. It is designed with a baffle for more complete combustion of the volatile gases, without a catalytic converter. We occasionally cook soups and stews on it, so expect we could use it for all cooking in an emergency.
Since so many people choose not to heat with wood these days, it often happens that those who have to take a tree down or lose one in a storm are eager to have someone come and haul it away for firewood. I also cull the occasional tree here on our place, or cut up one that has gone down. Otherwise, I buy the occasional load from someone who is working to clear downed trees. At this point, our use of wood heat is not contributing to deforestation in the area.
I enjoy splitting firewood, at least when it’s straight grained and doesn’t require splitting wedges. (As I get older, though, I’m grateful to have a guy who works for me one day a week help with such heavier tasks.) I like using a heavy splitting maul with a steel handle—I’ve shattered too many wooden handles.
This whole issue is a huge conundrum for me. It seems clear that as we enter the era of declining oil and natural gas production, our use of energy will change enormously. For me personally, that means either putting in a system to replace the grid—or learning to live without. I’m not comfortable with either option. It is common to refer to photovoltaic and wind systems as “renewable,” even though both are dependent on large banks of lead-acid batteries. How “renewable” or sustainable is that? A fine solution at the level of the individual family, perhaps, but for the species as a whole, hardly an alternative.
Take freezing of food, for example. We currently use a freezer as a fundamental part of our food preservation program. But in the event of a collapse of the grid (not an unlikely event somewhere down the road, in my opinion), what makes more sense: an alternative way of generating electricity to keep my freezer going—or finding ways to eliminate the freezing of food at all? At the moment, I lean strongly toward the latter. To be sure, at present I am still relying on that supply of frozen lamb, kid, and poultry. But I try to find ways to reduce that dependency. More and more, I am slaughtering my birds throughout the season, as an ongoing culling operation, in lieu of raising large “batches” of meat birds for the freezer. I plan to start breeding rabbits, which can be “stacked” onto my existing poultry operation, partly because the rabbits yield a steady, ongoing “harvest” of meat that doesn’t have to be frozen in large batches. I grow vegetables that can be stored naturally, without further processing, and use a large greenhouse to grow fresh vegetables through the winter. And my wife and I are part of a broad effort to encourage purchases of food locally. We maintain a constantly-updated resource list for local consumers wanting to find and buy from small producers in our area. Ultimately, the “success” of our efforts would mean that people in our area would be able to get fresh food close by, on an ongoing basis, with much less dependence on either supermarkets, long-distance transport, or energy-intensive processing methods.
On the other hand, I have come to take for granted the Net as a medium for exchange of information and ideas. What happens to it if the grid collapses? Also, reverting to other means of saving and retrieving information seems incredibly clumsy, given my growing dependence on the computer.
So I’m sitting on the fence, trying to find ways to reduce my dependency on the grid, and having difficulty imagining life without abundant electricity.
My major interests in renewable energy at the moment are: solar-heated water, and generation of biogas (methane) for cooking. In a Virginia summer, I do not want to be cooking with a woodstove!
Rely on the resources available on your own place as much as possible.
Example: If you have a good spring on your place, consider making a springhouse and save the expense of a refrigerator. I lived a few years on a place that had a beautiful stone springhouse. The spring was right out back of the house—most convenient!—and was clear and very cold. The floor was concrete, with a poured-in race that directed the water flow from one side to the other several times, rather than a straight run out of the building. The stone building was dug partly into a bank, with access at ground level on one side, but earth bermed on the other. Depending on how chilled a given food needed to be, I could set it on shelves around the walls, on the concrete floor, in the race, or even directly into the spring casing itself, which would hold maybe four gallon jars. I’ve been thinking about that springhouse a lot—sure wish I had it here!
Example: Vermicomposting. Most people think of vermicomposting on a “worms eat my garbage” level. But it can be scaled up as far as you want to take it. I have recently completed a big re-do of my greenhouse, which features 40 feet of concrete block, 4-ft wide worm bins down the center of the greenhouse, increasing my capacity for vermicomposting enormously. I plan to “harvest” worms to feed my chickens, especially in the winter housing, and to make the worm castings the foundation of my fertility program in the garden. The worms will continue working and breeding right through the winter, protected by the greenhouse. It is possible, however, to scale vermicomposting way beyond what I’m doing here. I recently read a description on the Journey to Forever site of how a large, well-managed worm operation was used as the primary fertility generator for a farm of 160 acres. The farm flock got in on the feast as well.
Choose hand tools and techniques over powered options whenever possible. The differences both in initial equipment costs and upkeep are enormous. When you take into account the time spent to maintain and repair power equipment, it often is not even particularly “labor saving” in comparison to the less expensive manual alternatives.
Be open to solutions outside the mainstream.
Example: Do you really need a lawn? If not, you might be able to do without a lawnmower. That space might be better used as a wildflower meadow or herb gardens or cutting flower beds. Just this year we have re-defined our “lawns” as “close-in pastures,” and started rotating the geese and ducks in that space (through five different plots). Our “lawn,” formerly a profitless chore, is now being turned into many a winter dinner.
Example: Is a radically different approach to dealing with the poops a possibility at your place? Probably not, given the almost universal nature of regulations on the subject. However, if you can avoid the requirements to put in a septic system and a drainfield, you will save an enormous amount of money. You could even get lucky (assuming your local inspector has any discretion in applying typically draconian regulations) and have an inspector who responds to your arguments that a properly managed humanure composting system: Conserves enormous amounts of water; is more sanitary than a septic system; does not pollute groundwater and streams with nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, as does a septic system; and finally, reclaims a valuable source of fertility. The Humanure Handbook by J. C. Jenkins is a great place to start.
The typical advice given to beginning homesteaders is “Start small. Expand slowly as you gain experience.” That’s good advice, but it’s not likely to be heeded by gung-ho personalities whose inclination is to jump in and go full bore right from the start. How we approach the process of weaving a homestead has a lot to do with temperament, and I doubt any advice from me is going to change anyone’s basic inclinations.
So I don’t advise changing one’s basic tendencies. But I will throw in some cautions to look out for, given the approach you’re inclined to take. To those who are cautious, inclined to start small and manageable, and take a carefully planned and executed strategy, I would warn against the dangers of timidity. Be able to cut loose from what you’ve read and figured out. Be creative. Look for ways unanticipated results in one area can boost (or detract from) efforts in another. Sometimes the slow-and-careful approach is based on a fear of failure. Learn to be comfortable with failure.
Those who “want it all” right from the beginning have my understanding—and my sympathy!—because that is my tendency as well. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you are willing to see big rents in the pattern you’re weaving and not be defeated. Don’t be overwhelmed by being overwhelmed.
To both types (and of course those in all gradations in between) I would say: Be willing to fail. Accept failure as the teacher. But don’t quit! Let failure be one of your gurus, your guide to the future. It will teach you the relationships and patterns that work as it squashes those that don’t.
To quote one of my own gurus, Joel Salatin: “Success can be defined as getting back up, one time more than the number of times you fall down.”
[Quoting another participant] My greatest success has been letting go of the pre-conceived notions of who I am as a homesteader. I don’t have to do it all. It’s okay to pick the parts that fit and not do other things.
What she says is so true. I’ve had such a compulsion to “do it all.” Now I’m starting to relax with the notion that I am part of a community of effort. Sometimes it makes more sense to work on building community, strengthening interdependency, than “standing tall on my own piece of dirt,” striving for total self-sufficiency.
I held onto a bunch of bee hives and a honey extractor a friend gave me, saying to myself for 20 years, “Next year I’m going to start bees!” It felt good this spring when I finally accepted that this project is one I don’t have to do myself, and passed the equipment on to a young friend who wants to have bees.
We kept milking goats for ten years, and for ten years have not. I tend to sneak into a feeling of guilt when we buy our lambs and kid goats for the freezer from friends, rather than raising our own. But I’m getting comfortable with that decision as well, not to raise our own, and seeking out viable options among other homesteaders. A neighbor is starting with dairy goats, while I’m starting with rabbits. We anticipate exchanges of rabbit and help with the goats, for milk and kid meat.
My abject failure to control Colorado potato beetle led to one of my most significant successes. In the early years, potato beetle was one of my most intransigent “insect pests.” Rotenone, because it was “organically approved,” was my weapon of choice. I dusted several times a season, achieving a knock-back of the enemy’s population at least sufficient to bring in a crop. There was never a victory in this war, however, and each season the assault was relentless.
Increasingly, I was troubled by the reliance on rotenone. I came to realize it is “organically approved” because it won’t hurt me, but it is broad-spectrum in its effect, indiscriminately killing lady beetles, lacewings, mantises, honeybees. Didn’t somebody say those are the good guys? So one spring as I planted potatoes I took a Great Vow: I would not use rotenone the entire season, even if it meant losing the crop.
Amazingly, I found five potato beetles in my potato patch the entire season! Naturally, I thought at first that was just a quirk of the season, the luck of the draw. Until I bumped into my neighbor from across the road, her garden not seventy-five yards from mine. “My, my,” she wailed, “ain’t these potato bugs just awful! I dust, and I dust, and I dust—and I’m still out here every day, picking ’em off by hand!” Bing-bing-bing!—it was one of those moments of “enlightenment,” a moment in which I could see the complex, amazing, and beautiful web of life in and around and under my garden, in which warp balances weft in a way that is a kind of magic, and which mocks my absurd efforts to control it, to take part in a “war” against particular parts I’ve assumed are “the enemy.”
Doubtless there was an element of luck that first season—probably I’d been lazy about fighting the jungle around the edges of the garden, and there were plenty of flowering weeds about, sufficient to support a resurgence of beneficial insects that helped keep my potato beetle nemesis in check. Since that time, I’ve made a more systematic study of beneficials and how to encourage them. Each season I plant a greater volume and diversity of flowering plants of all sorts. To be sure, some insect competitors still come on pretty strong many seasons (squash bug, Mexican bean beetle, cabbage worm), but even they are at levels lower than they used to be, and we always grow more than we can eat. As for potato beetle, it is now one of the easiest of competitor insects to deal with. There are often seasons when I don’t see even one. Otherwise, a quick daily walk-through in the patch—something the good gardener should be doing anyway—and handpicking (Squish!) are sufficient to protect the plants and bring in the crop.
I think my biggest failure was that I didn’t plant nut trees early on. I planted the orchard trees the first fall, and have added a number more over the years. Researched nut trees a good deal, but never got around to making the leap. I think now I succumbed to what I warned about in another post: a fear of failure. A number of nuts seemed marginal for my area, and I think I just didn’t want to make the effort and wait all that time and then see the project fail. Now I’m eager to give a number of the nuts a try, and regret that I waited so long.
I have eight filberts (aka hazelnuts) potted up and ready to plant out, as soon as I decide the best place to put them. Either this fall or next spring at the latest, I will plant heartnut, northern pecan, black walnut, hickory, and some type of blight-resistant chestnut. The pecans and chestnuts are examples of nut trees I hesitated to plant earlier, afraid they would not do well here. Black walnut and hickory I have complete confidence in, since there are wild specimens already growing on my place. But I will be planting grafted cultivars selected for larger, easier-cracking nuts. Heartnut is in the walnut family. A native of Japan, but widely disseminated because, as someone described it, it is the “goat” of nut trees, not at all particular as to soil type or climate.
So I urge beginning homesteaders: The longer a planting (or other project) takes to come to fruition, the earlier you should get it going. And by all means: Plant trees! Years ago I fell in love with a big, mature Nyssa sylvatica on a meadow not far from here. A beautiful, noble tree, intense red color and berries good for wild birds in the fall, great “bee tree” in the spring. (Common names are black gum and tupelo. Yes, that’s right, as in Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.”) Now finally I have planted several Nyssa sylvatica this year. I will not live to see them become magnificent specimens like the one up on the meadow, but offer them as a gift to the future.