Thoughts on homesteading: eating greens

I’ve known people who have taken pride in their dislike of vegetables and their unwillingness to eat them. I understand the dislike, but not the unwillingness, especially in the case of a parent; it’s bad enough to indulge such an immature attitude, but to pass it on to one’s kids with an impish smirk is criminal. I grew up not having to eat too many vegetables, and I hardly craved them when I first left home, but over the years I’ve learned to enjoy many of them and tolerate most of the rest. I allow myself one dislike, namely okra, but that is mostly for the sake of a family joke; if I were served okra at a friend’s house, I would eat it without complaining and without any unhappiness.

Part of the reason my vegetable universe has expanded over the years is that we were determined that our kids would not develop their own quirky food dislikes, and so fed them a broad range of vegetable dishes that we might not have been inclined to make just for ourselves. Occasionally I was surprised by how much I enjoyed one, but mostly I learned to appreciate them as good food—food that didn’t excite my palate, maybe, but good food nonetheless.

That twenty-year project was good preparation for life on the homestead, because the most wholesome, cheapest, and easiest to produce food is found in broad swaths of the vegetable spectrum that are seldom visited by urban dwellers who don’t keep a garden. Former rarities that are becoming a regular fixture on our menu include yellow squash, zucchini, cucumbers, greens (kale, mustard, collards), green beans, sweet potatoes, and winter squash. We used to eat tomatoes regularly, but now they are on the table every lunch and supper during the harvest. Likewise, salad is a frequent side and often the entire meal when the romaine and green leaf lettuce are producing.

Although vegetables figure prominently, the real shift has been from eating what we like to liking what we have to eat, or at the least being grateful for and appreciating what we have to eat. We’ve learned to take joy in fresh milk and the things we can make from it because we have a lot of it. Beef is more prominent (e.g. we load our grill with steaks every week or two) because we intend to slaughter a cow every year, putting around 500lbs of beef into our freezer. Chicken is somewhat less prominent (and boneless chicken breasts, once a fixture, are gone entirely) because we don’t care to raise and process more than fifty for the year’s eating; what chicken we eat is usually stewed or slow-roasted, partly for the sake of tenderness and partly for ease of preparation.

Ease of preparation is also a factor in our shifting diet. Debbie and Maggie already work very hard in the kitchen because so much of what we eat is made from scratch, so complicated dishes have gone off the menu and we’re always looking for further simplifications. The result is not bland or boring, quite the reverse; once the elegant overlaid flavors are removed, it becomes easier to appreciate the taste of the basic ingredients. Myself, I look forward to the prospect of a heaping helping of well-cooked kale flavored with a bit of pork or ham, or one more plate of sliced tomatoes, and I’m ecstatic about how bountiful this year’s potato patch is shaping up to be.

Meanwhile we continue to lose our taste for prepared and processed food. Not much of it shows up in the grocery cart, in large part because we balk at the idea of paying so much for so little, knowing that basic ingredients are so cheap. Hot dogs are a good example; we still buy them sometimes when they are on sale, mostly because I love them, but we can only stand to eat the high quality version (for us, Hebrew Nationals), and even at sale prices we can eat eight dollars worth of those at one sitting.

We are also increasingly aware that processed and prepared food is engineered with consumption in mind, i.e. it is designed to inflame your appetite without satisfying your hunger. We’re often surprised at how we won’t want an extra helping of even our favorite foods, because what we’ve already eaten is enough; on the other hand, the only thing that seems to keep us from eating yet more of fast-food pizza or burgers or french fries or ice cream is an aching belly.

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Thoughts on homesteading: economic potential in small-scale farming

My sense is that there is much too much happy, optimistic talk these days about the economic potential for small-scale farms. I agree that there are many forces at work right now that will push people towards simpler and more local eating, which will tend to benefit small-scale farmers. But many of the rosy scenarios being offered right now assume that people will continue to spend as freely and indulgently as they’ve done in the past few years, and will be willing and able to pay whatever it takes to provide the local farmer with a comfortably white-collar income.

I don’t think this is true. The prices charged at Whole Foods and by boutique growers at upscale farmers’ markets are beyond the reach of quite a few people already, and a worsening economy is sure to have more and more folks questioning whether it is truly prudent to spend $2 on a tomato or $3 on a head of garlic, no matter how wholesomely and lovingly grown. In fact, I expect at least some of them to realize that they can have even better tomatoes and garlic from their backyard for little more than the time and trouble it takes to grow them—and having time on one’s hands is likely to be increasingly widespread in the months and years to come.

This particular thought was not on my original list, but came this morning while I read Shannon Whitworth’s latest Grassfed Cooking newsletter. Shannon has written two excellent cookbooks devoted to the proper cooking of grass-fed meat, and at Sap Hollow Farm she and her family run exactly the sort of operation the small-scale farming cheerleaders would have you dreaming and drooling about. And it is a great operation. But it is also being stress-tested at the moment by the worsening economy, in ways the cheerleaders don’t discuss much, and as such is worth close study by those of us who are trying to work out an agrarian approach to raising food for sale.

Again, please read the newsletter article.

Thoughts on homesteading: staying at home

Three years ago I began a post with this anecdote:

When I met Joel Salatin in January, we spent some time talking about the books he had written and the books that he planned to write. He mentioned that he had been disappointed by the response to Family Friendly Farming, in which he lays out his vision of small-scale farms (and possibly other home-based businesses) as vehicles for a multi-generational family life, where a legacy is built, enjoyed by children and parents and grandparents, and passed on to succeeding generations. He had expected it to be embraced by homeschoolers in particular, who he thought were looking for just such a life. I told him that I could think of one very good reason why his message wasn’t catching on with them—he is very emphatic about the importance of staying home. He thought about it for a minute, and then said that it could be true, since none of the homeschoolers he knew seemed to be any better about staying home than the average family.

At that point we had spent many years simplifying our lives, and in principle we agreed with Salatin’s admonition. It was a principle we did our best to practice, but it hadn’t been put to the test for us. We mostly stayed home, but living in suburban Bristol we didn’t have to; the option of not staying home was always there. There was always take-out pizza or burgers or tacos to be had when the mood struck, even if it didn’t strike all that often. An evening could be filled by piling in the car and driving to the ice cream shop or bookstore. It was no trouble to run to the supermarket or the Wal-Mart to pick up something the moment we needed it.

Eight months later things were different. We moved from the Bristol area to rural Kentucky, two miles up a hollow the state highway, 25-30 minutes from each of four small towns that have a bit of shopping and fast food, 45 minutes or more from anything comparable to what we had available in Bristol.

We had done this to ourselves once before, in 1989, when we moved to a restored Victorian home in the hill country of Texas, 25 minutes from the closest small town and 50+ minutes from Austin. We ended up spending more time at home than before, when we had lived in places like Silicon Valley and suburban Boston and suburban Dallas, and we were greatly blessed by that. But that was only because it was now highly inconvenient to go to town, not that we were inclined to stay home. And much of the time we went ahead and endured the inconvenience. Several times a week as suppertime approached, we would decide that a trip to town for a restaurant meal and a bookstore visit was just the ticket for the rest of the evening. After five years we bowed to current realities and moved to suburban Austin, where our hearts had long been.

So we were concerned about how we would handle rural remoteness this time around. The good news is that we had changed enough that this time the inconvenience of going to town served to quickly put an end to what remained of our lazy go-to-town habits. Shopping in town became a weekly planned event, and our grocery bills dropped. The idea of all nine of us piling into the Suburban and driving 30 minutes to a miserable selection of eateries or 90 minutes to a good selection was unpleasant and outside our budget, so eating out became a thing of the past and homecooked meals a fixture. A 60-minute roundtrip to town for takeout was ridiculous, so homemeade pizza and burgers and tacos were added to the menu, and we were shocked at how much more satisfying and enjoyable they were.

As we got used to always being at home, we were able to make changes that required us to be at home. Most important was buying two milk cows. In general cows need to be milked morning and night, and so now our travels as a family are limited to twelve or so hours away. That isn’t strictly true, of course; for three months of the year the cows are dry and could be left for a few days, and in an emergency we could probably get a neighbor to come to milk, or take the cows to him for milking. But overall it was a change that required us to embrace being at home as a way of life.

It seems that for the most part we were close enough to being true homebodies that the shift was not traumatic. Rather than weighing on us, staying at home is something we have learned to appreciate. There’s much more time in the day, mostly because we no longer spend any of it getting ready and then traveling to and from some place that we probably didn’t need to be anyway. More money, as well, since we aren’t spending it in town to entertain ourselves. We enjoy our meals more, we eat them as a family, and we spend less on them. We see our neighbors during the day. We enjoy our surroundings. We think about what we might do over the coming weeks and months and years to make our lives fuller.

Although I’m already inclined to stay home, here’s a practical tip that has helped cut down my travel even further. For every place I regularly drive to, I have put a rough price tag on it based on the cost of gas. A trip to the post office is $2.50. To get to Jerome’s farm or the Mennonite stores or the Bread of Life cafe is $5.00. The weekly shopping trip to town costs $10. A trip to Lexington costs $25, to eastern Kentucky or southwestern Virginia about $50. Those dollar amounts are significant to us these days, and keeping them in mind has done much to cut down on frivolous travel.

Breaking radio silence

My apologies for announcing that I would start a series of posts, then disappearing from the weblog for two weeks. The reason is nothing dramatic, just that the list of things to do was suddenly filled with entries that all took priority over writing here. Life is still busy, but I do intend to write at least a few of those posts this week.

Most of the busyness has been connected with the garden and the animals, of course; the pace picked up once summer weather arrived, and continues to do so. Most of the rest involves music. We’ve played some Music of Coal dates in eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia, including a set at Seedtime on the Cumberland where we opened for Darrell Scott—always nice to play for folks who have paid to see you, and because of Scott the sound system was especially good. Those shows will continue off and on for the rest of the year.

We are also meeting more of the musicians in our area, and finding new places to play. Most of those are unpaid or nearly so, which means we have to think carefully each time if the benefits of playing outweigh the risk of becoming known as the guys to ask when you can’t afford to hire real musicians. Generally we limit such engagements by only taking them when friends are involved—a fundraiser for the Methodist church down the road, a Sunday night singing at another local church, the bean-and-ham supper at our neighbor’s lodge.

We now play often enough and have a large enough repertoire that we don’t need to prepare much if at all for such casual performances; the performances themselves serve as practice. The paying dates do require more preparation, but they are scheduled far enough ahead that we can prepare as time allows, e.g. we’ve found time in the past few weeks to work up a couple of new coal songs and some new gospel songs as well, even though we aren’t really on deadline for them.

Taking opportunities to play regularly is also starting to pay off in another way that is hard to quantify. When I was first starting to work on singing mountain style, I asked a number of good singers how to proceed, and the usual advice was to “sing a lot.” At the time it struck me as particularly unhelpful, but now that Chris and I have been performing for five years it turns out to be very good advice that just can’t be broken down and explained. For maybe two years now we haven’t really added fundamental skills (except for Chris working on his fiddling), but have just constantly used the ones we had under our belts at that point, always trying to do the best job possible. And for reasons I don’t fully understand, improvement continues to come. Maybe it’s increasing confidence, maybe it’s a newfound ability to set aside worries about technical execution and focus on communicating through a song. In any case, over the past few months we have noticed a significant change in the way folks respond when we play—it feels like we are real musicians, in a way we weren’t earlier on.

Volatile wisdom

A funny thought on wisdom from Bill Bonner, the editor of the Daily Reckoning email newsletter:

That is just one of the problems with growing older; you grow wiser…but wiser about things that no longer exist. When the car is slow to start, for example, we naturally think we need to clean the carburetor or check the points. Then we realize that there isn’t a carburetor and there aren’t any points.

Thoughts on homesteading: introduction

Greg Scott suggests that after three years at this project, it might be time for me to write down some reflections on the journey for the sake of those embarking on similar ones. I think he’s right; it only took a few minutes of jotting down lessons we’ve learned and conclusions we’ve reached to create an alarmingly long list of them, most of which I haven’t yet written much about and many of which merit full-length posts. So as time and inspiration permit in the days ahead I’ll be adding to this new series.

I dithered for awhile on what to call this series. “Lessons learned,” or even “lessons learned so far,” The primary lesson we’ve learned—or, maybe better, premonition we’ve had confirmed—is that given the scope of the three years is not a long time at all but a very short one, barely time enough to justify saying that we’re on our way down the path. So I’m only willing to call the topics in this series “thoughts,” no matter how lofty or settled or strongly held they may appear as I write about them. I don’t offer them as any sort of guidance, but only as anecdotes from our ongoing journey that we’ve found instructive; my hope is that some readers will find them helpful in stimulating their own thinking.

Whether these are actually thoughts on “homesteading” is something I will leave up to each reader to decide. I don’t know exactly what to call the kind of life we are pursuing here in Kentucky, and a true homesteader might reasonably object to my calling it that. But the other possible names—”agrarianism” in particular—carry even greater baggage with them. So I’ll use the word “homesteading” here to describe what we do, meaning an attempt to live a rural life in which most of our labor is devoted to meeting our needs directly.