The October Thing #9 – Give Me the Simple Life – September 11, 2011

Give Me the Simple Life

Bright people often get the notion of “moving to the farm”, “leaving the rat race”, and living simply. In the 19th century, Hawthorne, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and other intellectuals formed “Brook Farm,” an idyllic commune. In spite of book royalties flowing into the farm, it failed. They found life on the farm dull and extremely hard work. This has happened to dozens and dozens of very high-minded utopic farms.

Occasionally, it works. Helen and Scott Nearing (Living the Good Life) made it work in Vermont and Maine in the earliest 20th century. But the Nearings weren’t just bright; they were very, very tough. Stephen Gaskin’s “The Farm,” near Summertown, TN, has been in business for over 30 years, fluctuating in population from 1200 to 175, its current population. These are the exceptions.

First, you have to have enough money to buy a farm. Then, you have to somehow earn enough money to keep it going, because you rarely produce enough cash-crop, handicrafts, etc. to keep it going. Currently popular (2009) is Sharon Astyk’s Depletion and Abundance. Sharon’s husband Erik is a professor at SUNY so there is income—and a long commute for Erik. Sharon and Erik together seem to have almost 20 years of higher education. Apparently, their parents and grandparents kicked in to buy the farm. They are an unusual couple with a powerful work ethic. Whether their farm will work remains to be seen.

For the vast majority, back-to-the-farm is simply not an option. The major exception  would be a retired couple who have plenty  of time to work on the garden and orchard, to can, jar, freeze, and cellar their crops—and have some pension checks coming in to keep them subsidized.

However, many of us have totally useless lawns, (the U.S.’s largest agricultural “product”) that can easily be turned into little gardens which can produce plenty of summer and winter (canned) vegetables. We would still get our wheat and soy (or cheese and meat) from large Mid-Western farms, but we could produce our vegetables from lawns and even roofs.

Another alternative may be an option as land values collapse—squatting. Some liberal states are taking a look-the-other-way view of squatters who produce food, as long as there is no objection from the owner and as long as the crop isn’t marijuana or poppies. Some owners encourage squatters who keep the drug-growers away. More and more land is being abandoned. Stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “The October Thing #9 – Give Me the Simple Life – September 11, 2011”

  1. On September 11, 2011 at 10:23 a.m. CDT Amanda Borden posted the following comment:

    This hits very close to home, as you can imagine. One point we will emphasize to the New College students who plan to visit us in October is that Lee and I had the advantage of having earned all our money (to buy the farm, outfit it, and NOT have to depend on its proceeds for our income) by working for 30 years at jobs we could only do while living in the city/suburbs. Young people who hope to start out farming right out of college–unless they have family money or inherit the family farm–will find it difficult if not impossible to support themselves by farming. The suburban garden option you mention is a good one. With intensive horticultural practices, one can squeeze an awful lot of veg production out of a relatively small piece of ground. Square-foot gardening, raised beds, growing in containers: these are all methods of optimizing the use of small plots of land. As long as you can provide healthy soil and have plenty of sunlight and water, the plants will grow. Just ask people in the UK; it’s rare to see a home that does NOT have some sort of garden, no matter how small. It just has to be a priority.

  2. On September 11, 2011 at 11:10 a.m. CDT Kyle Crider posted the following comment:

    OK, I’ll take my turn… part of my training is in Urban Planning (MPA degree emphasis + recent LEED AP ND [Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development]) but I am an avowed hater of cities. Since I’m being lazy this Sunday, I won’t post references, but feel free to ask for them. For the first time in history, there are more of us living in cities than not. Most studies show this to be a good thing, planet-wise, as there are now far too many of us to own 40 acres and a horse. Still, some life-cycle analyses show the typical urban dweller’s carbon footprint to not be much (if any) improvement over that of a rural dweller.

    And what about the suburbs–those post WW2 developments totally dependent upon cheap oil? Will they become the next ghost towns, as some predict post peak-oil?

    From environmental health to human health (physical and psychological), mass concentrations of people are taking their toll. Already, the loss of contact with nature (a la E.O. Wilson’s biophilia) is a leading contributor to a variety of physical and mental problems — our continuing thoughtless destruction of the planet being chief. And since humans now appropriate almost half of the net primary production of the planet for ourselves, how can we add another 3 billion folks without compounding the loss of vital ecosystems & services we already are witnessing? Will urban gardening, green roofs, and green walls be enough to feed mind, body, soul in tomorrow’s cities? (I must admit, I just re-watched “Soylent Green” again, so I’m feeling rather depressed about the future.)

    Ed’s post-peak population visions are inspiring; I just pray we don’t lose too much in the “big squeeze” between now and 2050. There are some glimmers of hope… despite government gridlock, we just certified our 10,000 LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building, thanks to the cooperation of private companies and nonprofits. And although real energy savings are only correlated the the top tier of LEED (Platinum certification), the European PassivHaus concept, Actitecture 2030, and net zero (or even net positive) emphasis is growing, and programs like LEED ND begin to look beyond the building itself.

    I’m currently working on a slide show/presentation reviving the old Spaceship Earth concept; I’m hoping that a re-framing of some of our political hot potatoes in terms of astronaut-responsibilities & spaceship-sharing might help bridge some of the issue polarization gaps. But I think the basic problem is, somehow, getting folks back into contact with “green” — maybe green roofs & modern victory gardens are the closest thing we can get to a modern back-to-nature movement… Thoughts? Options?

    With apologies to Monty Python: Help, help, I’m feelin’ depressed!

  3. I second what Amanda said. We have the luxury of being subsistence farmers, making no attempt to sell to demanding customers what we grow. This means that we can (a) grow what we like, with no need to convince anybody else that it’s wholesome or tasty, (b) focus on growing rather than on selling, and (c) be quite healthy (if not altogether satisfied) eating food that has a few spots or wormholes in it. We are able to do that because we had cash to buy our farm, cash to build the barn that is our home, cash to build the lodge where we hope to welcome visitors, and a small off-farm income (no commuting needed) for current expenses.

    We seem to have succeeded partially because I work hard and because Amanda works her ass off. We enjoy this life and are happy we chose this path, but there’s no way anyone could call it an “easy” life. We probably could expend less human energy and be fine, but part of what makes us joyful is giving food away, so we keep producing far more food than we need. And that takes work.

    One other thought in response to your point about time for canning, etc. So far we have been surprised at how little canning we have needed to do. We have about 30 quarts of stew in the freezer, stacked neatly to use as little space as possible. Yes, our freezer uses energy every day, but a full freezer is a relatively energy efficient way to store food, and we make it a priority to keep the freezer running even if our power fails. More importantly, however, here in the South, people are routinely surprised to see how easy it is to keep brassicas growing right through the coldest part of the winter without a greenhouse, high tunnel, or cold frame. Broccoli can take a light frost but will succumb to a heavy one. Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, and cabbage all are able to muscle through lows in the mid teens. If it gets colder than that, a light frost blanket will probably be all the protection they need.

    Nothing quite like fresh brussels sprouts in January!

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