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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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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