Monday, August 17, 2009

Green Acres: Not the Place for Me

Sometimes I read about homesteaders and fantasize about getting some land, preferably a wooded lot, where we could build a straw bale home, oriented properly for passive solar heat, and chop fallen trees to burn in a woodstove for heat and cooking. We’d collect rainwater off a metal roof for storage in underground tanks to supply all our needs. We’d have room enough to plant fruit and nut trees and a huge sprawling vegetable garden where I wouldn’t have to squeeze a pumpkin or cantaloupe in here or there among other vegetation and train smaller cucurbits like cucumbers up a trellis. I could have as many chickens as I wanted, for eggs and meat, and enough turf to allow them to truly free range. We’d be snug and self-sufficient. Just me and him. Me and him.

Nearest neighbors, how many miles away?

A drive back into the city takes how long??

I usually snap out of it pretty quickly. If the fantasy lingers too long, I ponder awhile on the stories a professor friend of mine used to tell about 19th century Nebraska farm women losing their minds out there on the prairie alone with just their nuclear families and a howling wind to keep them company.

But the prospect of isolation isn’t the only thing keeping me from building a self-sufficient homestead – it’s the general lack of resources, both physical and financial. Last week on, a long-time homesteader named Todd wrote a main article entitled “A Realistic Plan and Time Line for Your Survival Homestead.” In year one of his 5-7 year “realistic” plan, he advises, among other things, buying and clearing land, establishing a power system, establishing domestic and agricultural water systems, establishing a septic/cesspool system/outhouse/composting toilet – and that’s less than half the list!

Even if we already knew how to do these things, without a lot of basic research, where would we get the money? That first-year list represents a tremendous capital investment that doesn’t include all the farm equipment, the building of a barn, chicken coop (we found out even a small one is not cheap to build), etc, on Todd’s 5-7 year plan.

The best response was from a poster named ThatsItImOut, who began by saying “If it took me as many years and as much money as Todd implies, I would be broke and dead anyway before I could even get underway.” He went on to suggest that Todd’s plan was “elitist” and described friends who got a homestead going for much less, using “simpler methods,” some similar to the Amish. (Indeed, there are successful examples of people doing just that, like
Larisa Walk and Bob Dahse.) This one of a few moments of sanity in that surreal thread earned this response from Todd: “Your post is off the wall and not worthy of a serious reply.”

But that’s Todd. If you’ve ever hung out at The Oil Drum, you know Todd bristles at even the slightest criticism. But ThatsItImOut is right – Todd’s plan is elitist. Even among the college educated professionals that make up much of the community that is The Oil Drum, such a capital investment would require sacrifice, and many of that elite group are or will be losing their jobs.

But let’s assume the capital investment is doable for some, albeit small, segment of the population. The skills necessary to set up and maintain such an operation are varied and require years of experience. Posters who wrote that it was better to buy land and pay professional farmers to farm it had better sense. It’s almost insulting to farmers, in my opinion, to imagine that anyone can just pick it up in a few years.

And that’s not counting all the other skills involved – such as siting and maintaining a solar array, preserving food, maintaining capital equipment such as tractors, animal husbandry, and the like. The poster who replied that he could only do it (homestead, that is) with family was right – it takes a community. Larisa Walk and Bob Dahse have the most impressive self-sufficient set-up I have read about, but they lived in a collective for years before setting up on their own. There, presumably, they had a social safety net and the time needed to learn the skills required to establish and run their own homestead.

For many reasons, then, the rural homestead (or doomstead, as some call it) is not for us. I like the city; I like having near neighbors (and am lucky to have some great ones). I first learned of the “peak oil” issue through the film
End of Surburbia, which I happened to rent and watch around the time we were looking to buy a house. That, and subsequent reading, motivated us to buy a home in a neighborhood near our jobs and other amenities. We’re also on a bus line, so shopping, work, movies – are all just a short bike ride, walk, or bus ride away. Our location is perfect for us in many ways, so our goal is to make the most we can of what we have.

Appropriate models will not be the simplified, sustainable homesteading of Walk and Dahse (however much I admire them), or the resource and labor intensive plan Todd advises. They are instead people like the
Dervaes family of Pasadena, or the Garden Girl Patti Moreno of New York. The Dervaes' claim to raise over 6,000 pounds of produce on their 1/5 acre urban homestead! They have some major advantages, however, such as four adults to maintain it (three of them decades younger than we are) and a longer growing season. Still, they are a terrific model for how to utilize every inch of a suburban lot – front and back yard. They pursue a sustainable lifestyle in other ways as well; for example, reducing their energy dependence by 2/3 using solar panels and cutting back on energy usage.

Garden Girl Patti Moreno also makes efficient use of urban space with raised beds, trellises, and other intensive gardening techniques. She’s even planted a mini orchard. She’ll show you how, too, with all kinds of videos on her website.

These are the kinds of efforts that are inspirational to me, and, I believe, more practical, accessible, and appealing to many people than rural doomsteading.

Edited on 8/20/09 to add: I received a thoughtful and generous email from Larisa Walk and Bob Dahse on my original Green Acres post (below) which included a correction. They say they already had homesteading skills when they moved to an intentional community, so my assumption about where they learned self-sufficiency skills was incorrect. Eventually, they decided to go back to homesteading on their own, and left that community.

A point I was trying to make is still relevant, however. They learned their skills somewhere; whether it was some combination of childhood training, reading, mentoring, (in addition, of course, to their own experiences and experimentation) I do not know. Nobody is born knowing, or just figures out on their own, how to be self-sufficient in food production and preservation, how to build and site a passive solar straw bale home, how to design and build a rainwater collection system, etc, etc. The skill set required for self-sufficient homesteading is extensive, daunting for many people, and more easily accomplished in a community.

After reading and thinking about Larisa and Bob’s email, I went back to Todd’s Oil Drum article and found some interesting replies by posters outside the U.S. A poster named Bloody Paradise wrote:

I think that what strikes me most about TODD's post, is his assumption that there is always virgin land to be developed . . . To us here in Europe, where each village has its limited forest-rights, established centuries ago, and it's pasturage-rights - the idea of wild-west homesteading is utterly bizarre. You can't just uproot trees and build a house where-ever you want. Those trees and that land already belong to a village, a commune, a group of people that need/have claim to the land . . . People need people. No-one contains enough skills to be self-sufficient.

Here I was thinking about how out-of-reach Todd’s plan was financially for many people; in more densely populated countries, it’s impossible!

Moreover, the model of the lone homesteader, the “rugged individualist,” if you will, is peculiarly American. It is built into the structure of land development in this country. Thomas Jefferson was critical of the European pattern of farming villages because he thought it encouraged too much crowding and interaction among households, which in turn would lead to vices. He believed that scattered farmers would be happier, more “virtuous” and more independent, and that this would be better for democracy.

His ideas were influential in shaping the 1785 Land Ordinance Act that established the town and range system of surveying land. Following its passage, land was surveyed into 6-square mile townships. Each of these were sub-divided into squares of 640 acres, which could be further subdivided for sale to speculators and settlers. Farmers and their families would be situated on these squares of individual private property, rather than in villages, with some lands in common, as in Europe.

The lone homestead has deep historical and institutional roots in the United States, and strikes a nostalgic chord in the American psyche. It is understandable that as unsustainable systems creak and groan, and give every sign that they are on the verge of collapse, the desire to escape to a rural survivalist haven is growing among many Americans. But we’ve lost a lot of the old skills and haven’t yet learned new ones. For many of us, our ability to leave our current homes and situations is limited by lack of resources, both physical and financial and by ties to supportive networks of family, friends, and neighbors. We may have to learn to “adapt in place.”

Driving back yesterday from taking my granddaughter home after an extended visit, I heard an old Eagles song on the radio. The one about Manifest Destiny that asks:

Who will provide the grand design,
What is yours and what is mine?
'Cause there is no more new frontier,
We have got to make it here.

Truer words.

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