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Archive for the ‘HOMEGROWN Life Column’ Category

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: Why I Raise Cattle

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150As a farmer and a writer, I often use this column as a way to work out something I’ve got stuck in my craw.

Today that’s the burden of beef.

I recently listened to one of my favorite radio programs, Living on Earth. There was a segment where the host, Steve Kerwood, interviewed one of my favorite young writer/activists, Anna Lappé. Anna and Steve had a very interesting and informative conversation about the environmental impacts of a system that puts steak and burgers atop the American diet.

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Their discussion was a good one, and most HOMEGROWN readers could follow along closely. If you’re like me, you understand that we live in a world where resources are constrained. You’re deeply concerned about building ecologically resilient communities and about unequal access to clean water and decent places to live. You’re probably in favor of ethical, humane treatment of livestock and wildlife. You probably believe that giant industrial feedlots are disgusting and problematic on many levels.

I share these concerns and feel strongly about the need to transform the food system. I think Americans eat too much meat and that conventional beef production is a disaster.

But still, here on this farm, beef cattle is the main economic engine that keeps the farm up and running—well, that and my father’s good union job at a power plant. We raise cattle, and so do so many other farmers in our region, because cows are profitable most of the time, they’re relatively easy to keep, and there is an entire infrastructure that supports our production. We can find vets to help us when we encounter illness. We have markets for our calves. We can find hay (we grow our own but can locate more if necessary) and grain to supplement feeding, as needed. We can find people to come out and haul the cattle if we can’t do it ourselves.

Beef cows are born on mostly smallish farms. They spend half of their lives here. Yes, they end up in feedlots and in the messy industrial behemoth of the Western Plains. But they are born here, right across the fence from where I’m writing these words.

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These beef herds pay the mortgages for the farms all around me. They also share the land with us human animals, as well as with a variety of wildlife. Cattle production is compatible here with the many species I see every day: songbirds, hawks, herons, squirrels, rabbits, deer, woodchuck, mice, wild turkey, raccoons, snakes, coyotes, frogs, and countless varieties of insects. Cows do use resources, but they also leave plenty of room for the other creatures I like to see around the place. (I might be in the minority when I say this, but I’d also welcome bears, elk, wolves, mountain lions, and other species that were native before Europeans arrived in North America. Yes, even the predators.)

At the end of the day, when we consider biodiversity in a working landscape, we have to take into account the reality of economics. Cows pay the bills.

I’m not trying to shill for the beef industry. I don’t think raising cattle is the answer to most questions. I feel strongly that people should eat more veggies and less meat (and less sugar). I make no presumption that the current beef feedlot system is anything other than an enormous mess that taxes human health and the environment, especially when it comes to the problem of greenhouse gasses and a disrupted climate.

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But it seems to me that, strictly in terms of a sellable agricultural product, beef is one thing we can raise on a part-time, beginning-farmer basis that doesn’t rapidly and wildly damage the ecology. We already live in a region transformed by human impact. That’s the canvas we have to work with.

This is not so much an argument with Living on Earth or Anna Lappé. Anna might even agree with me that, done right, beef production can be part of a multifunctional landscape populated by diversified family farms. We just have a lot of work to do if we want beef production to improve and to minimize harm.

But if the decision is between corn and soybean monoculture or a herd of herbivores in the pasture just over the fence, I’ll take the beef cow any time. How about you?

Now let’s get to work on a system where those aren’t the only options.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

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