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HOMEGROWN Life: The Healing Power of Farming

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN LifeAnyone who digs in the dirt, mucks out stalls, or tends flocks or herds will tell you that, through the dirt and the grime, past the sweat and the toil, there is a healing power in farming as therapy.

Whether it’s hugging a sweet lamb with a soft coat, jogging alongside goat kids as they do double twists in the air, relishing the beauty of horses running free, tugging off boots almost stuck to the souls of your feet, or scrub-brushing fingernails that are never going to be white again, farming is about the stuff of life. It’s up close and personal. It’s not just walking on the ground but being grounded. It’s dirty and earthy and full of messy stuff.

HOMEGROWN-life-dyanAs emotional creatures, we humans can’t help but react to it. Even the hardest-hit soul, battered by life’s events or simply the trauma of daily living, would find it hard to resist.

Recently, I met a hard-hit soul. A sweet young woman, who had been on the cusp of a life with her soul mate. They had plans. They had dreams. They had hope. They were just beginning a future together. All that was lost in an unexpected and almost inexplicable accident. Now she’s left to sort out what’s next.

She came to my table at the Grange Hall flea market. I had taken my project from last winter to lay out on the table for people to see: a book—my story, about my journey into farming. After she read the opening page, she looked up at me from across the market table and asked me a question, one only someone who has suffered a loss such as hers dares to ask: “How long did it take you to feel like you could go on?”

She was referring to the loss of my son, which I address in the book. It’s the reason my farm is named Bittersweet. I told her it took a long time and was a day-to-day process. She then shared with me her own story and explained how it was all the harder because of the circumstances: There were no goodbyes. I understood. I moved around the table to take hold of her. I could recall how it felt when, no matter what words are spoken, it’s not enough. She stood there in my arms and started to sob. My heart remembered those early days.

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I told her our farmers market was the next day and invited her to come. She did. As she walked over to my table, my new lamb Ariel was grazing tiny white clover flowers at our feet. Ariel, a gift to Bittersweet, comes with me to market most weeks so as not to miss her bottle feedings. I bent down and picked up this four-week-old creature and laid her in the young woman’s arms. Ariel nuzzled under the woman’s chin and laid her head on the woman’s shoulder. The woman smiled and said, “This is the first time I’ve felt happy again.” Her mother, who was with her, nodded and smiled.

Farming is therapeutic. It brings a sense of being a part of something none of us understands or can explain—that feeling you get when you see the first seedlings pop their heads above the earth. When the smell of old lilacs wafts through the bedroom window on a late spring day. When a dam, after laboring through the wee morning hours, produces a perfect goat kid. When, 15 minutes later, that kid takes its first steps on brand new wobbly legs. When you’re sitting at the kitchen table, still sticky to the elbows from the brine, sipping a cup of tea and listening to the pop pop pop of lids on bread and butter pickles. (How many jars this year? I lost count.) When you hug a four-week-old lamb and realize for the first time since tragedy struck your life that your heart is still beating.

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We are strong, us humans. We dare to dream and hope, love and laugh, even in the face of things that seemingly would beat us to the ground. Farming has brought me a stronger sense of this. It seems—to me, anyway—that people who work the earth or rub shoulders with beasts have a clearer understanding of our resiliency. Farming isn’t just a living; it’s a way of life. And sometimes we get to share that way of life with those not as fortunate to be living it daily.

People’s lives change, sometimes in an instant. But out of those moments, I believe there are opportunities. My own opportunity came on a rainy August day five years ago, as I was headed out to look for sheep. I had bought this piece of property and decided to cover it in lambs. It was Open Farm Day in Maine, an annual event for the past 25 years.

I made a left turn down a long road and ended up walking into a goat barn. That turn and those few steps changed my life. I hope that, as a farmer, I can make some kind of small change in someone else’s life. I hope this young woman will hold onto the happiness she felt hugging a newborn lamb. I hope that, in time, she’ll start to rebuild her life. And I hope that life is filled with love and promise—maybe not in the way she had planned, but in a way that brings healing to her and to those around her. That’s something those of us who call ourselves farmers are privileged to experience every day: hope.

HOMEGROWN-Life-Dyan-profileDyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Her farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Bittersweet Heritage Farm is an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.

ALL PHOTOS: DYAN REDICK

HOMEGROWN Life: The Pros and Cons of Living in a Tiny House

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

 

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It was once thought that bigger was better. People were buying up these giant homes with at least 1,000 square feet per person. Since the housing bubble popped, the tables have turned. The tiny house has become the new McMansion. People are protesting the monstrosities of the 4,000 square foot home by living in 244 square foot apartments. The smaller the better. It’s all about living in a 78 square foot apartment: the size of a small closet in a McMansion.

We live in an almost tiny home—not as small as a closet but smaller than what most people live in and smaller than most two-bedroom, one-bath apartments. It was a conscious decision. When we started looking to buy a home, our specific requirements were “large property, small house.” That’s exactly what we got. At 750 square feet, it can be tight for two adults and a teenager. I get asked pretty regularly what it’s like to live in such a small home. Is it worth it? What would I change? So, here’s the lowdown on living in a small home.

TINY HOUSE PROS

  • Cleaning the entire place, top to bottom, only takes about an hour.
  • It limits the amount of junk you can accumulate. And keeps the chicken tchotchkes to a minimum. (Tom, I’m looking at you.)
  • It takes no time at all to heat up the house in winter. The wall heater is more than enough. A few fans can cool it down pretty quickly, too.
  • Which leads to less money spent on energy.
  • You know the kids can hear you when you call them.
  • Maintenance work and remodeling costs a lot less.

TINY HOUSE CONS

  • No storage space and no pantry. Well, our garage serves as our primary storage and as our pantry.
  • We had to get rid of a bunch of our furniture when we moved from our previous 970 square foot home. Amazingly, 220 square feet makes a huge difference when you’re living in relatively small homes.
  • Our garage is so small neither of our vehicles fits in it. Mine is too tall to get through the garage door (and it’s not a four-wheel drive), and Tom’s vehicle is too long. This did help with our decision to turn the garage into our pantry/laundry room/storage space.
  • No dining room = no entertaining in the winter.
  • The small kitchen makes it a challenge to process a lot of food at once, so we’ve now set up a spot outside to do some of our processing. It’s a good thing most of it occurs in the summer. Plus, not having a dishwasher due to a lack of space means a dish rack takes up a good chunk of our precious counter space.

My ultimate feeling about living in a small house? I’d like a little more room—not much, just a bit—if only for a slightly larger kitchen and an actual dining room. A pantry would be nice as well. Would I go smaller? I can unequivocally say no.

Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

HOMEGROWN Life: Our 1970s-Style Summer

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-MAGENTAThis summer has been one of revelations for me, which I attribute to several things: I’ve been working at a breakneck pace for my job and at home; this is the first year in many that I’m not going away for a summer vacation; and it’s also the first in many that I don’t have a garden.

Since we only moved in a couple of months ago, I didn’t have time to prep and plan a large garden like I’d wanted to do. I thought I’d be fine with that but, boy, was I wrong! My small garden and containers just aren’t bringing me the satisfaction I usually feel. More importantly, I was missing out on crucial mental health sessions. As most of you can surely attest to, a certain degree of restlessness takes hold when a gardener doesn’t get his or her hands in the dirt.

In addition to this, over the last few weeks I’ve been feeling the epidemic that affects many, if not all, working parents at some point of their lives: mommy guilt. I’ve gathered that no matter how committed I am to my simple lifestyle, at some point, societal expectations creep in. I’ve been anticipating it and should have known it would grip me during the one summer we’re homebound.

I know that, realistically, we’re not going away this summer because we bought a homestead. I know this makes perfect sense. But for some reason, it bothered me: not being able to take my kids somewhere great, not sending them to a fun camp, or buying a plethora of toys to keep them occupied. The odd part is, I’ve NEVER sent my children to camp and I’ve never believed in buying them things that feed into a materialistic mindset. Not only did my feelings baffle me, I realized I had lost some of my grounding and coping skills. Between moving and trying to successfully land and integrate into a new job and life, my true priorities got lost in the mix.

What to do? I got back to the dirt, and I made the time to do so, which may have been the biggest but most important challenge. I planted TEN fruit trees in my orchard. I took walks in our woods and harvested wineberries. I made sure I cooked a good meal, which conveys so much. I planned a few short staycations and started to focus on having what I refer to as a “1970s summer.” By that, I mean a summer resembling the ones I had growing up. Simple—or at least it was for us kids!

 

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I scheduled our first tent-camping trip in many years, complete with a trial run in the backyard. In the meantime, I instructed my son to hone his tent skills by building a fort indoors out of any sheets and cushions he could find. You’d think I had handed him the keys to the castle. I realized at that moment, in many ways, I had done exactly that. How many times are kids told no these days? Everything is seemingly off limits or too dirty or takes too long. So instead of saying no, I tried to say yes as much as possible, if it wasn’t life threatening.

I took the kids to nearby NYC, and we ate cheaply. (Restaurant.com allows you to buy gift certificates for a fraction of the value.) We walked in Central Park for free and we explored the American Museum of Natural History at a glacial speed. When the kids asked to see practically every exhibit, read a billion plaques, and discuss everything from gems to Easter Island, I said yes. We ate food from questionable hot dog carts and, in general, we took our time. It’s hard to remember when I had last taken the time to just exist.

 

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Back at home, after the kids spent the first hours of each day completing their chores, I allowed them to spend the second half doing whatever they wanted. They watched lots of TV (usually a no-go in our house) and eventually grew bored of it and opted for the outdoors (WIN!). I invested in a Slip ’N Slide, despite my fear of pointy rocks. The kids made an awful mess, only to clean it up afterwards without being told.

 

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My son asked to learn how to cook and has now taken over making omelets in the morning. He has also provided many hearty laughs, especially when he encountered the act of cracking a rotten egg. I let boredom take over, only to find that it led to imagination triumphing once and for all.

I realized that, after all was said and done, my kids were raised to make the right decisions. In turn, they remind me to do the same when I let life run away with my good sense. I firmly believe that’s what family really is. They helped me remember that sometimes it’s OK to get dirty and then clean it up rather than letting the thought of dirt hold us back.

Most importantly, I know I’ve done well with them, and my guilt is a waste of time. I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to achieve everything I put pressure on myself to accomplish right this very second. My kids reminded me that time is best spent hand in hand, strolling through life at a turtle’s pace.

HOMEGROWN-life-michelleAlthough she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.

PHOTOS: MICHELLE WIRE