What We’ve Done Right; What We’ve Done Wrong

As we start out learning to be subsistence farmers, we’re hungry to hear what others have done, the smart decisions they’ve made as well as the mistakes. So we want to do that for others. My hope is that this will become a semi-regular feature here on Longleaf Breeze.


As is true of everything else here, this will be intensely personal, even idiosyncratic. Forgive me, but I’m better at baring my soul than guessing what you care about and what you don’t. So I tell you everything, or at least everything Amanda says is okay, and then you decide what interests you and what doesn’t.

What We Know We’ve Done Right

Doing this. So far all the signs seem to validate the decision we made about two years ago to become farmers, and more recently, subsistence farmers. The decline of our oil-soaked food system seems to be accelerating, the price of oil seems ready to rebound dramatically, and everybody seems to realize the U.S. economy is bankrupt except those in power, and their retention of power depends on their remaining ignorant of the mess we’re in.

We thought this was the right thing to do when we started; now we’re more certain. Every indication is that our strategy of decreasing the financial value of goods and service we need to buy each year will make us more resilient, more secure, and ultimately position us for a happy life. Whether this is enlightened analysis and keen discernment or simply a real-life demonstration of cognitive dissonance at work is a question I choose to leave unanswered for now.

Not building a house at first. We certainly hope to build and live in something like a normal house one day, one that has a real kitchen and porches and, if we may be so bold, more than one bed. But the 600 square foot apartment in our pole barn is plenty of space for Amanda and me; as we are fond of telling ourselves and others, don’t forget that we have a nice big carport and an even bigger yard. And living on the property for a while before we design the house will give us a much better idea of what living space should be like in order for us to be truly comfortable. And let’s be honest: with the recent devastation of our investments, we would be in a financial tight had we forged ahead and taken on the cost of a house.

Designing for energy efficiency first, energy production second. One of the first questions people often ask about our plans for Longleaf Breeze is whether we’re going to deploy solar panels to generate electricity. The answer is no, at least not at first. Rather, our initial focus has been to design the barn (and later, of course, the house) to use as little energy as possible. We plan to be connected to the grid and to get our electricity from Central Alabama Electric Coop, but we hope we use it in teeny tiny quantities. So that means we use wood for heating, that we make sure all the air gaps are filled, that we shade ourselves from every hint of direct sun in the summer, and that we make the most of ventilation. Then later, if and when the time seems right, we may supplement our grid power with power we generate on site.

Getting a good sized tractor with a front-end loader. I’ve been meaning to devote a post to a short rhapsody on the virtues of a front-end loader, and I still plan to do that. For these purposes, let me simply say that my brother Dave Gray has given me many pieces of excellent advice about this adventure we are taking on, but the best advice yet, hands down, was to get a serious tractor with a nice, strong front-end loader. If we had broad, flat pasture land or 100 acre plus fields, we probably would have more use for some of the other implements that tractors use. But on our hilly, craggy slopes, there’s just nothing better. And we also were smart to go ahead and invest in the pallet fork attachment for the front-end loader. That’s key to our whole firewood strategy, because it allows us to move those loaded pallets around easily.

Moving close to family. One of the reasons I haven’t been posting as much as usual the last few days is that Amanda’s Mom had a heart attack this week. As we were hurriedly driving down from Birmingham Tuesday afternoon to be with her, Amanda mentioned to me that this was additional validation for her that we re doing the right thing. We are blessed that both of us enjoy our own and each other’s families, and our relationships with them are close, warm, and uncomplicated. It’s good to be close to family.

What We Think We’ve Done Wrong

Okay, enough of that self-congratulation stuff. Let’s talk about how we’ve already screwed up.

Tractor needs 4-wheel drive. Dave Gray’s friend Larry said from the beginning I needed a 4-wheel drive tractor because of the hills at Longleaf Breeze. But I let the man who sold Tractor to me talk me out of it. “The only time 4-wheel drive really makes a difference is when you’re backing up,” he said, and he was right. But there have been so many times already when I needed to back up uphill, and 4-wheel drive (I think) would have made a huge difference. Yes, I can drop the bucket and use it to push myself backward, and I have done that more often than I’m now ready to admit, but it sure would be nice to be able to just back up out of that tight spot. There’s no question that 4-wheel drive tractors are a maintenance headache; I get that. But with our hills, I think it would be worth it.

We tried to do too much ourselves. Dave Gray’s philosophy, which I share, is if you need to choose between paying someone else to do work for you and investing in the tools to do it yourself, invest in the tools, because when you’ve finished you’ll have the tools for the next job. The problem is that I didn’t have enough knowledge stored up between my ears about how to use those tools in a smart way. So I made a rookie mistake like ordering 24-foot I-beams to span the apartment when the gap they needed to span was actually about 24 feet 4 inches. Just ask Amanda; she’ll tell you all about it. Fortunately, I got my arse pulled out of the fire on that, because the I-beams were shipped with a few extra inches, so it looks as if they’re going to work.

We should have leveled the pole barn site better before we started work on it. We thought it was level enough, but it was nowhere near level when Bill Morgan came to sink the posts. So then I had to work around those posts to level up the site. It would have been so much easier if I had leveled it up before the posts were in place. And yes, in answer to the question you’re dying to ask, I did in fact ram one of those posts with Tractor’s bucket after it was already in place. I shall always remember that sinking feeling I felt when I realized what I had done. Fortunately, Bill was able to pull it back into line. And I’ll never tell you which post it was.

We picked the wrong site for the pole barn at first. If you come to Longleaf Breeze, you’ll see a nice flat pole-barn-shaped pad up the hill from the pole barn. Amanda and I had picked that place for the pole barn, and Dave Gray and I spent a good bit of time preparing that pad (and it really was flat, by the way). Only as we were finishing up did we begin pushing down trees for the road, and Dave Gray pointed out to me what a magnificent panoramic view it offered of the valley below. He motioned for me to join him on the pad and told me, “this is where you need to build your house.” He was right, so we had to scrounge around for another place to put the pole barn. That’s how we came to run out of time before we got it truly level.

Okay, I think I’ll stop there. Plenty of time later to tell you the other ways we have messed up.

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