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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

HOMEGROWN Life: My Goats Have Green Thumbs

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-LT-GREENBack before petrochemical fertilizer cocktails, farmers weren’t monocroppers. They ran a closed system, and part of that system included animals. The animals ate the crop waste and silage. They helped work the land. And their waste helped keep the soil healthy. As synthetic fertilizers became the norm, animals and crop diversity fell out of favor. Monocropping huge expanses of land was less work than having multiple crops and caring for animals.

Before we had animals in the garden, we couldn’t produce enough of our own compost to amend the soil. On top of that, because the pile was fairly small, it was nearly impossible to keep it hot enough. Instead, we relied on bringing in commercial compost. Unfortunately, with commercial compost, you don’t know what’s in it. Studies report that persistent herbicides are showing up in “organic” compost. On top of that, there’s no way of knowing what persistent pesticides and fertilizers are also in your commercial compost. Think of all the grass clippings that go into yard-waste bins. Now think about all the crap many homeowners put on that grass to make it green and weed-free. I wasn’t entirely sure that was something I wanted around my food.

Our animals, eating weed trimmings from next door that we know aren’t treated with anything

To be able to amend all of our soil with just compost, we had to bring in at least five full truckloads of compost every season. This wasted quite a bit of gas, time, and money. It wasn’t cost effective for us and it simply wasn’t sustainable.

When we got chickens, I wasn’t prepared for what they could do to my compost pile. Because their manure is hot, it literally made our compost hot. Steaming hot. But being busy, we found we weren’t able to turn the pile as often as we should. So we handed the job over to our chickens. They got all of our kitchen scraps and nontoxic yard waste. They ate what they wanted then turned and shredded everything else. They kept the compost aerated and added their manure to it. When we got the goats, they joined in the fun.

This black gold they gave us was beautiful and plentiful. We completely stopped bringing in compost. With the manure, we needed less material overall because it was more concentrated. This made it easier to spread, taking an afternoon rather than several weekends. It is the perfect balance, as we have all that we need and don’t have any extra. And we feed our animals organic feed, so we know what goes in and out of them.

After our final harvest each season, we spread the black gold over the bed to allow it to continue to compost down further before we planted the next crop. When we got the rabbits, they added a new dimension to our soil amending. Because rabbit manure is not hot, it can be added directly to the plants without being composted. This allowed us to amend the soil while the plants were actively growing. We don’t use it on root vegetables, of course, unless we amend very early, allowing at least 60 days before harvest. With heavy feeding crops, such as melons, squash, and corn, this homegrown compost was a godsend because it insured that we could continue to feed the plants throughout the growing season without worrying about burning them.

But it’s not just fertilizer that the animals provide. The chickens and turkeys, in particular, help with keeping weeds down and also with pest control. When the beds are dormant, the birds get to go out and dig around, eating mountains of cutworms, potato bugs, earwigs, and basically anything else that moves. When we start planting, we fence the birds off from the beds, but they still have access to the area on the north side, where our orchard is. We allow the weeds to grow there as a trap crop for insects, which the birds eat while they also keep the weeds from getting out of hand.

The animals around here definitely earn their keep and provide us with food, directly and indirectly. I can’t imagine doing it without them now.

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 arts and 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: A Word on Efficiency (and Productivity and Sustainability)

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

For those of you who might not know me personally, I should probably help set the table by telling you a little bit about myself. First off, I’m the butcher’s son of a butcher’s son. I live in one of those rural tribal places where I’m kin to many people throughout the area, my family having been in West Missouri now for going on seven generations.

But I’ve had a pretty different life than most of my friends, family, and neighbors out here on the Osage Plains. I’ve dabbled in poetry. I found a wife all the way over on Missouri’s East Coast (that’s St. Louis). I’ve eaten raw oysters right out of the Puget Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. Heck, once I even joined with several hundred people protesting on Karl Rove’s lawn on a sunny Sunday afternoon for blocking the DREAM Act that would have protected immigrant children from getting deported when they turn 18 years old.

For several years I worked as a community organizer, trying to help stop industrial livestock facilities from further encroaching in rural Missouri. (Note: Farm Aid was a key partner in helping to support this organizing effort by funding great organizations like the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.) It was challenging and fulfilling work that involved equal parts politicking, translation of confusing legalese into legislative language, and haranguing people to hold their public officials accountable. There were wins and losses in this struggle. And today, the battle for the future of agriculture rages on.

In reflecting on these experiences and my return to living and working on the family farm where I grew up, I am haunted by the concepts of efficiency, of productivity, of sustainability. Industrial agriculture would have you believe that “modern agriculture,” as they call it, is the only way to feed the world. In this circle, genetically modifying seeds, driving gigantic machines from satellite-positioning systems, and producing fossil-fuel-based chemicals are thought to be the most efficient practices. In this circle, housing livestock in giant indoor factories or crowded feedlots is the only way to be a productive member of the modern livestock-producing class. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard politicians parrot the line, “America’s farmers are the best and most efficient in the world,” in an attempt to claim their undying allegiance to those of us in the food-producing regions.

Left: Pastured cattle; photo by Supak. Right: Feedlot; photo by NDSU Ag Comm. Both photos courtesy of Creative Commons on Flickr.

But in this era of post-truth politics (coined by the great blogger David Roberts over at Grist), it’s easy to cherry pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire. If you don’t take into account local pollution and rural depopulation, perhaps industrial crop production has some merit. If you don’t have to see it or smell it or pray about it, perhaps industrial livestock production is “a reasonable response to increasing consumer demand for protein in the developing world.” If you don’t have concerns about the social costs of increased concentration of wealth and land resources, the trend toward smaller numbers of people managing more acres per farm probably seems trivial. If you’re a row crop farmer who inherits lots of land and equipment, it’s probably easy to assume that anyone can get a loan for their farming operation and that capital-intensive agriculture is the only way to go.

There are lots of us out here in farm country who are living a different narrative. We are re-creating productive soils with compost and organic soil amendments. We are using low-cost and high-labor practices to try and produce real food for people instead of feeding an industrial ingredient machine of fat and sugar and carbohydrates. We are many, although our voice within agriculture circles is minimal at times. We don’t have the money to be hiring lobbyists or propping up professionally staffed organizations (a la the Farm Bureau, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Corn Growers Association) that constantly promote our message. We define efficiency very differently, as a measure of maximizing production with whatever you have in a way that enhances the long-term productivity of the land.

Missouri produce; photo courtesy of Root Cellar Grocery

So enough with the chip-on-the-shoulder rant. Here’s the rub. Here’s the reason I even wanted to write down this rambling mess. I can’t truthfully give you the metrics of the tale I’m trying to tell. I’m a data-driven guy who can’t give you the numbers. The scientific consensus is still out. Is it really more efficient for me to shovel goat manure, let it age, plant some lettuce in it, and truck it to local consumers? Or is it more efficient for Missourians to keep buying lettuce from California that was picked by migrant workers in unsafe conditions who were likely paid poorly, and with said lettuce robbing the withering Colorado River of its flow? There are people who try to figure these things out, but a lot of it centers on the pivot of what one means by efficiency and productivity and measurement.

One thing I know for sure is that many in the local farm and food scene are working through the same issue. We are numbers people in search of numbers. We aren’t crazy unscientific loons like our industrial brothers and sisters think we are. We’re not trying to “take agriculture back to some romantic golden age.” Instead, we understand biology, biodiversity, and ecology. We are concerned about humans as a keystone species dependent upon a fragile food chain in a living world. We embrace technology. We live in the modern world. We take our periodic table of elements very seriously. And for these reasons, plus the grand questions about ethics and morality that are best discussed over campfires and beers, we look forward to expanding the conversation in the years and decades and centuries to come. Because there might be answers out there somewhere. And where there are answers, there are sure to be more question.

 

Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer and rural economic development entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese processing facility and a conservation-based land management company that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, Missouri, where the local food store operates a weekly produce subscription program, the Missouri Bounty Box. Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.