The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Diary of a Land Healer: March/April April 15, 2018

Mid-March - Crocus in the Snow

Mid-March – Crocus in the Snow

The landscape waits, with bated breath, for the warmth to finally arrive. The last two months have been unseasonably cold, and the longer that time passes, more anticipation is present in the air. The plants and buds swell, but are unwilling to come out while the temperatures still go into the teens at night. At Imbolc, Punxsutawney Phil, our local divination oracle, predicted six weeks of winter, but in truth, winter has turned from 6 weeks more, to 12 weeks more, and now almost to 18. Just two days ago, the weather broke, and it seems that spring is finally in the air. Here at the homestead, we are all growing weary. Each morning, my cat Acorn runs to the door, ready to go outside and explore.  When I open the door for her, a breath of cold air hits her face and she recoils back into the warm house. She looks up at me with a look: “fix this, human.” I laugh and tell her that we are all waiting for the warmth come and to stay–the trees, the river, the cats, and certainly, the humans. The humans in the area are running out of wood and fuel, and this situation is certainly causing financial strain for many winter drags on. Even someone such as myself, who revels and glories in the winter and the snow, has a limit–and I think I passed it as we moved into April and the cold and snow showed no signs of breaking.  Itching to be in the garden and in my kayak, itching for the spring to finally arrive. Still, the dark and cold of late winter and early spring offers a number of healing lessons, which we’ll explore today.

 

This is my “diary of a land healer series”, where, once a month I write about and document the changes on the landscape here at my home as I collaborate with the land for healing and regeneration.  These are in-progress thoughts as the seasons go on. You can read the first two entries here: January and February.

 

The Lesson of “Should Be’s”

This unseasonably cold spring offers a number of powerful lessons. The first is in studying people’s reactions to the cold vs. the land’s reactions to the cold. Humans have grown to expect predictable certainty; the certainty of the seasons coming on a schedule that we could depend on, the certainty of USDA zones and last frost dates. But that’s not what this planet can offer us anymore. Predictable certainty says that by mid April, we “should be” firmly in the spring months. There “should be” buds and flowers. There “should be” warmth. But climate change prediction models say otherwise–the East Coast of the USA, where I live, is likely to see shorter springs and longer winters, particularly as the jet stream continues to shift. The truth is that spring will come, but it may take longer than any of us would like. Spring will come and frost will come, and summer and fall will also come–but no longer on predictable schedules. The daffodils understand this–they simply wait.  The animals and insects understand this–they wait. The flowers and seeds understand this–they, too, wait.

 

It seems that the bulk of nature here on this land has less of a problem waiting and adapting to the changing and unpredictable climate–but humans certainly do.  I have found that there are a few things we can do to acclimate.  First, I have found it helpful to stop thinking in terms of “should be’s” and start thinking in terms of resiliency. Resiliency is the capacity to endure, to adapt, and to be ready for anything. I’ve worked hard to this in this extended winter season to do so, knowing that each year will be less and less predictable than the last. From a gardening perspective, this means planning for these climate extremes. One of my favorite gardening books, Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener tackles this exact issue–she suggests we plant and plan gardens with the understanding that climate unpredictability and uncertainty will happen.  A resilent garden is not surprised when it takes till June to get warmth, or when it warms up in February–plans are in place for both situations. Also, using equipment to mitigate tempreature extremes can also help us be resilent gardeners, things like greenhouses, hoop houses. Planting polycultures of many species rather than monocultures of a single species, too, helps the ecosystem adapt and thrive and all of us become a bit more resilient.

 

In our broader culture, however, this same unpredictability and need for resiliency is unfortunately very present. I think that a lot of us are having a hard time with this extended winter season because of the state of the world and the political turmoil we face, particularly those of us living in the current political climate in the USA. We are so tired of the cold, and yet the cold keeps coming. We are so tired of all of the ridiculous drama, the media fiascos, the lack of integrity in leadership. There is not a single person I know that isn’t weary, and the dark in the cold winter months, especially as spring just doesn’t seem to come, are a reflection of what we experience culturally. But this same lesson that nature provides us concerning resiliency is also meaningful: learn to live with the unpredictability and find ways of adapting to that which we cannot control, just like the ecosystem does. I wrote about a few druid-influenced strategies to do this here.

 

April Snowfall

April Snowfall

And yet, the promise of spring is still in the air.  Despite the snowfall last week that blanketed the ground with eight inches and then melted by midday–adaptation and resiliency is the lesson here. The only constant is that change happens, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always change. Living here on this land teaches me that, despite the cold, spring will return again.

 

The Lesson of Carrying Capacity

During our extended winter season, I’ve also been taking a lot of time to reflect on the journey that brought me to this land, to be here and present. Late winter/early spring is a useful time for reflection. I begin my druid your journey 12 years ago on the spring equinox, and every year on the equinox, I take some time to reflect back on that journey by reading my old journals. What strikes me about the last year of this journey is that I finally faced a lot of my fears. I face the fear of being alone, and the fear of feeling I wasn’t good enough if I wasn’t doing it all. I faced the fact that just like the land, I have limits and they are important to recognize.

 

The land speaks to this lesson: this land here, and all land, and our entire planet, has a certain carrying capacity. This carrying capacity is what the land can support: how many humans, how many plants, how many trees, and so forth. There are limits to how much abundance it can produce, how many mouths it can feed, and so forth. The land here is a powerful lesson in this: my current land is at a severely diminished carrying capacity for several reasons: a large swath of lawn which produces no food or habitat (soon to be transformed into gardens), a damged forest due to sustainable logging (which I spoke about more in January’s post in this series). As I wrote about in this series in January, I can see this diminished carrying capacity in people who have been the victims of trauma and pain–we can no longer offer as much light to the world. Like the land here, we need time to heal and grow.

 

Humans in Westernized society don’t like the word “limit”; we see it as something  negative, something to overcome and break through. But that’s not the way nature works–we live on a finite planet with resources that are growing more scarce. Our land has her limits.  This land, here, also has her limits–five acres can only produce so much. But the more that we learn to work with her, rather than against her, the more that we can think about that carrying capacity as a good thing–and work to increase the damage that has been done to so much of our land. Here, in a few short years, through the collaboration of humans and nature to regenerate and heal this ecosystem, the land will become an abundant place with regenerated ecosystems and a much higher carrying capacity.  She will still have limits, although she will be used to her full capacity and bursting with life.

 

Of Daffodils and Dogsbane

Not yet - Daffodils in March

Not yet – Daffodils in March

We’ve been talking on this blog before about growing where you’re planted, and I really like that metaphor for this time of year becuase of the early spring flowers. While the temperatures remained cold, the daffodil buds swollen but closed, waiting to emerge. I kept visiting them, and they kept saying to me, “not yet.” As soon as the temperature hit 70 this past Friday, the daffodils knew the time had come and they all burst forth. As I walk among the blooming daffodils, they offer us a lesson of hope. On this land, the patches of daffodils are all through the forest floor in the woods, even along the floodplane and right next to the stream (which I wrote about in February’s entry). This afternoon, they are calling for almost 2″ of rain, and these big patches of blooming daffodils may end up underwater as the floods come again. Given the size of the patches of daffodios, I know that if the waters come up, these daffodils will endure–they will just go under until the waters receed again.  The daffodils are opportunists and offer lessons in adaptation.

 

Even the dead husks of the plants from the previous season, however, offer promise. Another exciting find on a recent walk was the dead stalks of dogbane, it is a kind of milkweed that is used for cordage and is well loved by bees and butterflies. I harvested a number of the dead stalks from last season, spreading the seeds all along the field. As I harvest the stalks, I spread the seeds encouraging this patch to grow even more abundant than it already has been. Finding the dogbane offers a wonderful reminder that nature keeps on giving, even when it appears like the land is barren. In fact, this time of year is a perfect time to harvest dogbane–a wonderful natural crafting material (I’ll share more about this in an upcoming post). What appeared to be a barren and snowy field has much to offer, for those with eyes to see.

 

And there they are!

And there they are!

Closing

I know that things will start to move quickly now that the warmth is coming back into the world. In the last few days, it feels like spring is finally in the air. The land will grow and heal, and each day new blessings await. I am thankful for the lessons of resiliency, carrying capacity, daffodils and dogbane, and am once again grateful to be in the light half of the year.

 

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Reskilling for Sustainable Living: Ways to Learn New Skills December 27, 2014

Everyone, to some extent, is a product of their culture. Our culture’s formal education system teaches a set of skills that are claimed to be beneficial and practical for functioning in present society. Certain sets of skills are privileged, and others are simply not taught, and in some cases, skill sets that are deemed no longer relevant are lost from the collective knowledge of many communities and families. Unfortunately, many of the skills of the past that are needed to help us transition to a lower-carbon and lower-fossil fuel society have been lost as newer generations weren’t interested in learning them or because these skills are no longer part of any community or family educational system.  This is where the concept of reskilling can come in.

 

What is reskilling?

“Reskilling” is one of the terms that often comes up in the sustainability and permaculture communities. The concept of reskilling is simple–those of us wanting to get ahead of the curve and transition to low-fossil fuel, sustainable living, need broad sets of skills that aren’t typically taught in our education system nor are typically part of growing up in our present culture. Reskilling is really about gaining the skills to provide for our basic needs for ourselves, our families and our communities–the movement is concerned with skills that help feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, provide daily functional items for ourselves from local materials, entertain ourselves, deal with our waste, keel ourselves healthy, and keep ourselves sheltered and warm.  So we can think about reskilling as the process of gaining a set of skills for basic human life in a non-industralized or lower-fossil fuel setting–a setting that future generations and many of us today are heading toward. Typical reskilling may include a lot of the concepts discussed in this blog-natural building, homesteading, gardening, fermentation, herbalism, animal husbandry, candle making, and much more.

Animal Husbandry as an important skill

Animal Husbandry is an important skill

Why Reskill?

I think there are a lot of reasons people start reskilling, and I’ll give you a few of mine. Reskilling has been a really empowering thing for me for a few reasons. First,I found that each time I learn a new skill–from how to properly start seeds or rotate crops to how to deal with an egg-bound chicken or make my own medicines–I was stepping further away from modern industrial and consumerist society. This meant less dependence and financial support for practices/companies/lifestyles that I spiritually disagreed with.  Second, being able to provide some of my own needs, like food or medicine, also made me feel like I was doing something to face the problem directly rather than lamenting over what wasn’t being done by government, etc. Third, reskilling, while hard work, is fun and exciting–and has created a really fulfilling life full of activities and new interests.   Finally, reskilling allows people like me, who were heavily trained in a specialty, to adopt a more generalist mentality, and there is great benefit in such an approach.

 

Since my spiritual path is rooted in the living earth, I see reskilling not only as a sustainable practice, but as a sacred spiritual practice–the earth is honored, I live more sustainably, my needs are taken care of, I learn more about the land, and I live much closer to her rhythms and seasons.  This is a big part of my druidry, my sacred action.

 

Ok.  I’m sold on reskilling. What should I learn first?

I have found that it is important to learn one thing comfortably at a time–when you start trying to do to much, you risk frustrating yourself.  Start slow, read, talk to people, and find out what you are inspired to try.  Also find out what you can learn about in your area–who is around and willing to teach. One of the things you want to think about is if you want to specialize in one kind of skill extensively or learn a bit of everything. A typical community 150 years ago had certain activities that everyone did (e.g. the home cottage industry such as growing and preserving food, brewing, making home cheeses, churning butter, raising some chickens, etc) but then there were those that specialized, such as a blacksmith, wood carver, or herbalist.  You want to think about your interests and see where they develop.

Basket weaving as a sustainable skill

Basket weaving as a sustainable skill

 

How does one reskill?

There are many, many options for reskilling.  I think you’d be surprised the places and things that have things to teach you. It really depends to a large extent on what is in your area, how many like-minded people you have, and how you best learn.  The rest of this post presents ways you can reskill through multiple angles: history, firsthand learning,

 

History

History in its various forms have so much to teach us in terms of reskilling, becuase many skills we are learning when reskilling are skills of our past.  Here are three different kinds of histories that I’ve found are helpful to reskill.

 

1) Living Historical Events/Festivals: The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and other forms of reenactment (civil war, colonial, etc) offer one way to learn traditional skills. Some friends invited to me to their reenactment camp a few years ago, and I was really excited to see how many skills the reenactors were preserving and excited to teach. From these sources, I learned about soapmaking, weaving, spinning, flint knapping, blacksmithing, leatherworking, and more.  While these provided me with “glimpses”; I was able to be inspired, gain some basic instruction, and connect with others preserving these various skills.

 

2) Historical Villages. You can find various kinds of historical villages peppered around the country, and like the “living histories” above, there  There is a wonderful village called Old Bedford Village in Bedford, PA, where all sorts of old traditions are preserved–they have a full fledged print shop, an apothecary, a candlemaker, various woodworkers, a blacksmith, a potter, a tinsmith, and more.  Its an inspirational place and while there is limited hands on, you can learn a lot just studying the old tools and ways of living.  Even seeing a typical house in the colonial era (like where the hearth was placed, the cooking instruments, etc) gives me lots of ideas for reskilling.

 

7) Historical Study: Learning about your town’s and family’s local history serves as another theme for reskilling. Read family historical documents and journals, studyold maps, study what your town or city used to look like also give some hints as to life in centuries past–and the skills that people had.  If you are *really* lucky someone is still around who knows a lot about your town or your family and how people lived.

 

8) Historical shows. If you don’t have any access to the above, the other thing you might check out are a series of “living history” shows produced by the BBC.  These are shows such as “Victorian Farm,” “Edwardian Farm,” “Tudor Monastery Farm.” What I like about these shows is where historians live a year on the farm and practice all sorts of interesting skills.

 

Herbalism as a traditional skill

Herbalism as a traditional skill

Firsthand learning from others.

There is little substitute for learning firsthand.  Here are a few ways that one can learn:

 

1) Classes: Classes are a great way to learn many skills, and one of my preferred methods of reskilling. Since I started reskilling six years ago, I have taken all sorts of classes–natural building (round pole framing, rocket stoves), compost water heaters, rocket stoves, organic farming, winter organic farming, herbalism (year long), foraging, candlemaking, fermentation, mushroom foraging, livestock, and so much more.  These classes were found by reaching out to friends, looking to see what others were doing, and also looking on Local Harvest for classes there.

 

2) Apprenticeships: If you find someone who knows how to do something you really want to learn, consider asking to be their apprentice.  While this might be an old idea, its a really good one. Learning under someone who has a skill allows you to have a mentor, to aid them in their work, and to learn firsthand.  I can’t stress this enough.  I was lucky enough to serve as an organic farmer’s apprentice for a season, and there was no substitute for learning under her.

 

3) Friends: Friends may know all sorts of interesting things.  I learned how to make soap from two friends, and now already I’ve taught soapmaking to other friends.  Friends can learn different skills and then swap skills.  Learning a new skill with a friend is a wonderful experience!

 

4) Community Organizations : I’m lucky that in my area, we have a fantastic amount of organizations and groups that you can learn new skills from in my area. Everything from the Mother Earth News Faire (offered in three locations each year) to a more local events like Ann Arbor Reskilling and our own Oakland County Permaculture Meetup allows people to come together and share skills.  I should also say that if a community organization or group doesn’t exist–consider starting one–that’s what a group of friends and I did with our permaculture meetup, and its going on three years now and I’ve learned so much from everyone.

 

5) Reskilling Festivals: Reskilling festivals are becoming another great way to learn how to do various activities.  Some areas may have local reskilling fairs (there is one that takes place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about an hour fro where I currently live, for example).  There are also national reskilling fairs, perhaps the most well known being the Mother Earth News Fair.  Keep an eye out–they may not call themselves “reskilling” fairs, but if you take a look at the program and see things on there you want to learn, go for it!

Fermentation is a great skill!

Fermentation is a great skill to learn on one’s own!

Learning On One’s Own

Sometimes its best to learn just by doing or trying things out on your own–especially if you want to learn something and can’t find any classes or anyone else doing anything.

 

1) Videos, Blogs, Websites and Forums: There is so much good knowledge to be found on the web–Youtube Videos, websites, forums and blogs. I am always amazed at the amount of knowledge freely available out there just to learn. One of my favorite forums to learn is the permies forum; I’ve learned a lot from reading and more when I ask questions.  How-to stuff on the web, I have found, is generally quite useful and often is vetted by people through comments and responses.

 

2) Books and Magazines: I have saved my favorite way of learning to reskill for last–books! I am especially drawn to books from the 1970’s, as they have a wealth of really good information, great graphics, humor, and wit. From building my own solar cooker to solar greenhouses to organic farming, there are wonderful books out there on literally any reskilling subject. I like to collect books during the year, and then in the dark winter months, hole up in my home near the fireplace with a few good books and get ideas for the coming season. I created a list of some of my favorite books for homesteading (there are so many more I have yet to list!)

 

Reskilling as a Way of Life

What began growing my own food and investigating sustainable practices, I had no idea where the journey would take me. I am so grateful for the people who I have had the pleasure of learning from, from the awesome books I’ve read, the people on the web who have shared their knowledge, and those who have inspired me. Reskilling has become a passion of mine and really, has changed the way I live and work and I am so glad to be on this path!

 

The Right to Farm and Farming Rights: Recent Deeply Concerning Developments in Michigan September 2, 2014

Friend's Local Farm in South East Michigan

Friend’s Local Farm in South East Michigan

When I moved to Michigan, one of the things that really excited me was the strong protections that small family farmers had, the emphasis on local food and local culture, and the support at all levels of government for these practices. Unfortunately, a whole series of recent events have shifted Michigan from one of the most progressive states in the nation concerning the right to farm to something…else, a state moving in a direction that is certainly not good for local foods or organic farms.

The trend that seems to be happening, at least in Michigan, is that as the local foods/local farms movement gains ground, as funds are diverted away from industrialized food and into farmer’s markets, and as people work to engage in more sustainable practices in their communities, backlash starts occurring.  Backlash may be locally motivated (e.g. irate neighbors); it frequently occurs in a legislative sense, where legislation aimed at protecting people and small businesses gets shifted or replaced with protecting large businesses/corporate interests.  I wanted to take some time today to discuss the recent occurrences with Michigan’s Right to Farm Act and respond to what has recently happened with this act.

I want to start with the name of the act–the “Right to Farm.”  The name of the act is fitting, and starts with the premise that  people should have the right to do things like grow their own food, slaughter their own animals, and generally be left to themselves (and one interpretation of the US constitution’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” suggests just that).  Our US constitution had no such “right to farm” because nearly everyone farmed, hunted, fished, gathered, and preserved their own food (again, I’ll refer to historical texts for this, like Jefferson’s wholehearted dedication to farming research, despite his continual failures).  Before the advent of the modern grocery store (a 1950’s invention) nearly everyone had a garden and grew at least some produce, many also kept livestock.

 

There is good reason to consider returning towards that model, especially in a destabilizing climate, an industrial agricultural system producing mostly toxic foods, and the uncertainty of dwindling oil resources.  By producing lots more of our own food and localizing our food systems, we will be more resilient and sustainable.  But we also empower ourselves to take care of ourselves, rather than trying to look to others, especially corporations, to care for us.   By growing our own food, we reconnect with the land, her seasons, and her cycles.

 

And there is good reason for doing so.  To give you a sense of the destabilizations in our food supply, we can look at the drought that is happening in California–it is already substantially affecting prices and the availability of many foods throughout the US (almonds, lettuce, citrus, and so on). Furthermore, industrial agriculture, which rose around the same time the modern grocery store was invited, is not working and has never really worked; the UN just released a report that provided evidence that industrialized agriculture cannot feed the world. It is also extremely harmful to our ecosystems.  And, as we have been learning the hard way with recall after recall, with stories of pink slime and salmonella, industrial agriculture does not produce food that is wholesome, ethical, or safe.  Monocropping requires pesticides that are linked to health deficiencies, pollinator die offs, and the destruction of our soil ecology. I could continue on here, but I think you get my meaning.

 

Dana and Linda at her farm!

Dana and Linda at her farm!

So now we turn to Michigan’s law, the Right to Farm act. Originally approved in 1981, for thirty three years, this law once protected small family farms and small homesteaders (like myself) from local legislation meant to shut down farming activities.  It said that farming was a right, and no one could take that right away.  This act, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the nation concerning farming (and often cited as a model policy for others to follow), helped us build a local food system by protecting farmers and their investments.  There were cases where backyard or urban homesteading was producing food and livelihood for farmers but neighbors were upset because it didn’t look like a typical lawn.  In another case, a subdivision went up around an older family farm and then the subdivision got feisty and wanted the farm torn down (Mother Earth News describes one such case).  This law, over a 30+ year period, helped create Michigan’s incredibly diverse local food scene; in South-East Michigan alone, we have literally hundreds of farmer’s markets, thousands of small startup food-related businesses, and a growing appreciation and commitment to local foods on the part of consumers (having lived in other states, I can tell you that nowhere I have lived prior to here had any emphasis on local food!)

 

And then, this year, the Michigan Department of Agriculture decided that these farming activities only applied to farms whose farming activities were more than 250′ away from a neighbor–in other words, rural farms. To put this in perspective–I live on three acres in an area that is on the border between suburbia and a rural setting (I would like to live further out, but that would require an even longer work commute). My land is deep, not wide. There is nowhere on my 3 acres where I could put farming activities that would be protected under Michigan’s new “Right to Farm” act.  The act has been re-interpreted now to only give protections to large-scale agriculture or agriculture that is very rural.  Gone are protections for any urban farms (like those springing up all over Detroit); gone are protections for small farms that were there long before the suburbs grew up around them. Gone are the protections for anyone who seeks to farm on a smaller piece of land because that’s all they can afford or that’s where they are currently living. Now that the protections have been removed, farmers, especially urban farmers, are being challenged. And yet, everything is moving in the other direction, especially the revitalization of the core of Detroit using urban farming. New developments since I posted this include the seizing by force of goats and chickens from an urban homesteader’s property and a couple being arrested for having chickens on their property. What is this insanity?

 

Now it could be that a reasonable local government would protect residents rights to farms (and we are seeing chicken ordinances, for example, enacted all over the country) but it also might be that a less reasonable local government would have poor laws that took rights away.  It also can be that a reasonable government quickly gives way to less reasonable government, especially if a few powerful citizens pull the right strings because they are irritated that a neighbor starts keeping goats. The state-wide protections on local farms, meant that you could count on the right to have your farm protected, regardless of  how large it was and regardless of what happened at a local level or with the neighbors. And, as my battles with the township over lawn ordinances have suggested, people get really wonky and weird about things that don’t look perfect, like wild and beautiful native plant front yards and the like.  People don’t like hearing the glorious sound of a rooster crowing up the sun or see hoop houses erected in their neighbor’s back yards (I happen to like both of these things!)

 

The problem with this new interpretation of the Right to Farm Act is that it assumes an industrialized food model: and that assumption is that only farmers far from the cities and suburbs should be growing any food, raising any livestock, or keeping bees.  Its concerning because not everyone can be full time farmers, living far away from the city….many have other careers that are worth doing, and can’t live so far out that they can own 40 acres to farm.  The other issue is that the further away your farm is from those who might be buying your products, the more fossil-fuel dependent these systems are.  And I’d like to see us develop systems that are much less dependent on fossil fuels–or fossil fuel free.  I’ve met multiple farmers attending farmer’s markets in the heart of Detroit’s Eastern Market who come to market with a cart pulled by a bicycle!  Now that’s a fossil-free way to move produce!

 

I should also mention that the loss of the Right to Farm hasn’t been the only pushback on the local food scene.  Two other incidents are worth mentioning. The first is High Hill Dairy’s experiences with their milkshare program. Michigan is what is called a “herdshare” state; it allows people to buy into a herd, essentially owning part of it, and the farmers who keep the herd then provide raw milk and other dairy products (butter, ice cream) to the herdshare holders.  Regardless of your stance on raw milk (I like getting it to make cheese), what happened was just wrong.  The Michigan Department of Agriculture forced High Hill Dairy to dump almost $5000 worth of goods…into dumpsters.  In a second example, a few years ago, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources claimed that many heritage breeds of pigs that farmers had crossbred (the kinds that can survive the cold Michigan winters) were invasive species, and ordered farmers to slaughter their herds.  The Bakers Green Acres farm and several other farms decided to fight back, and underwent a very long and difficult battle to keep their pigs.  Other farmers capitulated and literally had to shoot all of their livestock.

 

Chard and Greens Growing

Chard and Greens Growing

I really do believe that laws like the Right to Farm Act are critically important and necessary not only for protection for small family farms and homesteaders, but to create a more resilient, sustainable food system.  In other words, these laws benefit all of us, whether or not we choose to make a living at farming or choose to erect hoop houses in our backyards. Because we face increasingly challenging times, dwindling fossil fuel resources, I believe we need to put local agriculture back into our landscapes in every setting, not just the rural settings.  We might look to Cuba’s example, when Cuba faced their own oil crisis, and responded with brilliant Cuban gardens and a revitalization of their local agriculture for the sake of survival.  I’d like to see us continue to revitalize our local food systems now, before we face an oil crisis on the scale that Cuba experienced.

 

Growing one’s own food and protecting that right is woven into the history of this nation and it is our heritage.  This country was founded on the backs of farmers and small homesteads–and I believe those roots should be honored.   If long term sustainability is our goal, I believe we need to serious step back, recognize the challenges inherent in our lawns and landscapes, and allow our perceptions and actions to shift.  We need to fight to protect the integrity of laws like the Michigan Right to Farm act and support farmers, homsteaders, and urban farmers as they do the tireless work of producing better food and a more friendly food system for all of us.

 

So You Want to Start a Homestead? Resources and Insights to Get You Started August 20, 2014

I’ve had a few people in the last few months ask me about starting a homestead or a small organic farm. A “homestead” or, if you are in the UK “smallholding” refers to a personal or family plot of land where food is grown, animals are tended, and the household economy encouraged (e.g. home crafts and food preservation) with the goal of increased resiliency and self-sufficiency. I thought I’d take the time today to talk about the resources and considerations one needs to do so using permaculture design principles and what I’ve learned from the 5 year process of converting my 3 acre piece of land into a small homestead. I’m also going to talk through what I learned and some of the mistakes that I’ve made in the hopes you don’t have to make the same ones.

Working on the homestead!

Working on the homestead!

 

Your Motivation for Homesteading

I think its important to recognize your motivation for homesteading or farming, up front.  For me, I am deeply motivated to live a more sustainable life and be more self sufficient because of a few reasons: 1) it aligns with my spiritual practices and life philosophy; 2) I feel like I need to be doing “something” and am unhappy with the lack of attention that many in my country pay to matters of long-term sustainability; and 3) It enriches my life and makes me feel more complete.  If you are unsure if this is a way of life you are interested in undertaking, I would suggest spending some time at a friend’s homestead, maybe WOOFing for a while, and getting a sense of what this life is like and if you would be well suited for it.  It does require a ton of knowledge, patience, hard work (manual labor), and constant attention.  But to me, the rewards are well worth it.

 

Understanding the Work of the Homestead

Most of us weren’t raised on farms.  We don’t really know what a full day’s labor really feels like.  If you are starting your own homestead or small organic farm, I think its important to discuss the work involved upfront.  The larger your homestead is, the more work you will need to do (e.g. a 2000 square foot garden is substantially more work than a 500 square foot one).  The more pieces you want to add (livestock, orchards, food preservation, farmer’s market/sales, organic gardens, herbs, a bigger garden each year, and so on) the more work you will need to do.  Just like the druid’s wheel of the year, however, a lot of work is concentrated into certain times of the year–if you live in an area like I do (Zone 6, South East Michigan), the harvest season till late fall represents the hardest work you will do for the year, but you also have substantial amounts of work in the spring in planting out and when the harvest starts to roll in.  If you aren’t sure about the work, go volunteer for a day on a farm or a small homestead and get a sense of what the work might be like.

 

Homesteading and Partnerships/Significant Others/Families

Homesteading is not really just a “fun passtime” but rather is a way of life, a way of seeing and interacting with the world.  And this way of life can bring people together, or it can tear them apart. If you are blessed enough to have a partner/family/significant other who is also on board and wants to homestead, then let the fun begin!  If you have someone in your life who is not on board…..I would carefully talk to them about your plans and see if you can come up with a shared vision where both of you can end up finding what you need and what fulfills you.  Do this before diving in head first with your homesteading plans.  If you continue to be met with resistance, recognize that homesteading and other sustainable activity transforms you in positive and powerful ways…which might not sit well with your partner. If your partner isn’t along for the ride, you might find yourself isolated and with increasing tension between you about your homesteading activities.  Unfortunately, I speak from personal experience…my sustainable living activities led to my divorce almost two years ago, where we did not share a worldview, and where doing this work alone caused a lot of isolation and tension in both of our lives.  I don’t regret my choices and I’m living the life I want to live, but that life has come at a substantial cost….and I think its important to understand that this kind of thing can happen. I do think, with the right kind of couple or family, homesteading could be an incredible way of bringing people together–I’ve seen its magic at work in the lives of a few of my friends.

Can you homestead alone? Yes, but it is not easy, and I honestly think it takes the right kind of person to do so well–a person that is strong, independent, knowledgeable, and enjoys hard labor and has enough free time to make it work.  There are certain things that I, as a single homesteader who also works a full-time job, simply can’t do.  I have to hire a good deal of work out, especially jobs for which I have no skills (construction), ask friends to come and help (like fence building or chicken coop construction), or find WOOFers to help.  If you are considering going it alone, I would strongly recommend instead finding partners/friends/family to join in on the homesteading fun.  Not just for a season, but on a more permanent basis–people come and go, and they can be fickle. See if you can find someone to do a land share, consider starting a small intentional community, or talk to other single friends and see if any others are interested in doing such work.

 

Trellised plants

Trellised plants

Activities Surrounding Homesteading

As a homesteader, there are so many activities you can engage in. The most common ones are growing food, growing herbs (medicinal and culinary), animal husbandry, orcharding, brewing, fermentation, canning food, drying food, root cellaring, soapmaking, candlemaking, medicine making, handcrafts, spinning, weaving, beekeeping, cooking, woodworking, hunting/fishing, and natural building. A good resource to see the kinds of activities that surround homsteading (other than this blog, obviously) is Mother Earth News magazine.  This list is not complete, but it gives you a sense of some of what homesteaders might engage in–and I have a lot more resources listed at the end of this post.  You shouldn’t take on too much at once–start by getting a few things in place that are important to you and then add activities slowly as you are able.

 

How much land do I need?

I would respond with, how much land do you have?  Homesteading can be done in surprisingly small spaces.  The Dervaes family is producing up to 6000 lbs of produce a year on a 66 x 132 foot urban lot in California; other homesteaders have 100’s of acres on which they work.  About six months ago, the UN released a report suggesting that the only way we were going to feed the world is by using small, organic farms–and you can produce a LOT of food in a very small space. Homesteads vary in size, and the less people you have, the smaller you want your operation to be.  Even if I had access to 30 acres, I wouldn’t be able to increase the size of my homestead at all right now because I only have so much time to do it.  I will say, however, that where you choose to homestead is important–you can run into trouble with neighbors and local governments depending on your setup.

 

Using Permaculture Design for Your Homestead

So you’ve made the decision to homestead, you realize it is going to be a lot of work, you have a plot of land, and you’ve thought about its impact on your relationships. Now you want to dive in and build a garden and get some chickens and maybe buy a big farm and….WAIT! Not so fast! I would STRONGLY suggest that before you start a homestead, you spend some time carefully planning and designing–both for the short term but also for the long term.

Start by spending some time reading about permaculture design and using these principles to create your dream homestead. A well-designed homestead, using the existing energy flows and producing no waste, will be a delight to enjoy, while if you kind of hodge podge things together, you might end up causing yourself more stress or work.  The homestead is a whole system, not just a smaller series of parts.  Seeing the homestead as a whole system changes the way you design it, the way you interact, and gives you vision and clarity about the process (I wish I had done more visioning earlier in my process here at my site!)  You want to think about what your site’s strengths and how you can use them effectively–do you have a pond? A lot of woodlands? A slope? Big open fields? An old orchard?

My favorite resource for learning about permaculture design (especially for those who are new to it) is a book called Gaia’s Garden: A Home-Scale Guide to Permaculture (Toby Hemenway). Another book that is a bit more advanced but is also really good is David Holmgren’s Permaculture Design: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.  I’ll do another post sometime about how I used permauclture design in my homestead here–and you can find many, many examples online of how permaculture can be used to design an awesome homestead.

 

Making Jams

Making Jams

Organic Gardening/Farming

Permaculture design often uses perennials in the place of annuals to create food forests–but every permaculture designer I know also has a healthy sized vegetable garden.  And vegetable gardening is both an art and a science–I have found that I am always learning and growing each year as I work to grow as much of my own food as possible.   There are different approaches to soil preparation, crop rotation and planting, and such, so you want to read a few to get a good idea of what is out there. I’ve read 20+ books on vegetable gardening, and here are what I consider to be the staples that any new homesteader should read: 

  • How To Grow More Vegetables, 8th edition by John Jeavons.  This is an outstanding book and a wonderful introduction to “hardcore” vegetable gardening.  Jeavons provides excellent information on crop yields and how to calculate them, how to prep soil using double-dig approaches (I don’t use this method, but those who do swear by it), crop rotations, cover cropping, crop interplantings, and more.
  • The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener by Elliot Coleman. The soil is the most important part of your garden–with healthy soil, your plants do well, are resistant to pests, and are able to produce abundantly.  I think Coleman’s book is ideal because it spends a great deal of time talking about how to create healthy soil–and do so in an entirely sustainable method.  I learned more about soil preparation from this book–and a great deal of other wonderful things. Coleman is also a market gardener, so if you want to grow veggies to sell or start a CSA, that’s another thing this book is useful for.
  • The Winter Harvest Handbook by Elliot Coleman. If you are growing food in a cold climate, you want to buy this book and read it cover to cover.  I’ve adapted Coleman’s methods on a much smaller scale here using small movable hoop houses and have substantially extended my own harvest season.  This book teaches you how to use hoop houses and layers of protection, to grow the right varieties, to time your crops correctly, and much more.  Any serious homesteader needs to read this book!
  • The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times.  By Carol Deppe.  I really like this book, because my own experience has found that I can’t depend on the weather to be consistent anymore–Deppe takes a very humorous and insightful approach to planting crops to achieve “resiliency.”  Her discussion about Native American food growing techniques, short-season crops, and varieties is well worth reading.
  • Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.  Part of having a good garden is having good seed–planting heirloom seeds and saving seeds from season to season.  This book is a wonderful resource for saving seed and seed starting–I have found it invaluable in learning about how to make my garden more sustainable.

 

General Homesteading Books:

Books that help give you some insight into self reliant living and homesteading are quite abundant these days.  These are some of my favorites, books that give you a lot of good information and can be referred back to again and again.

  • The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour.  This book is considered the Bible of homesteading and for good reason–it covers anything and everything you need to know about self sufficiency from growing food to brewing to basket weaving.  One of the top books on my list!
  • The Backyard Homestead: Produce All the Food You Need On Just 1/4 Acre! For those of you who want to homestead but don’t have a lot of space, I’d again refer you back to Gaia’s Garden: A Homescale Guide to Permaculture, but I’d also refer you to this book–its a delightful read and teaches you how to pack a great deal of gardening into a little space (Vertical Gardening by Derek Fell is another good choice if you find yourself in this circumstance).
  • Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening and Other Hands-On Skills from the Appropriate Tech Toolkit by John Michael Greer.  JMG is one of my favorite authors for a number of reasons, and his Green Wizardry book is an outstanding introduction to many basic activities that  homestead could use such as solar greenhouses and gardening.
  • Mother Earth News magazine (as previously mentioned above). It is a wealth of inspiration on chickens, canning, vegetable varieties to grow, simple living, and more.  They also offer two Mother Earth News fairs!
  • One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming by Masanobu Fukouka .  Another classic text about farming and agriculture, this book is a fantastic read.

Food and Food Preservation:

If you are going to grow all of that food, preservation becomes a serious challenge! Here are some books to get you started in food preservation:

  • Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage for Fruits and Vegetables by Mike Bubel.  This book is an awesome introduction to the root cellar–it has plans, talks about what varieties are “keepers” (meaning they store well) and how to store all those lovely fruits and veggies from your homestead.
  • Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.  by Sandor Katz and Sally Fallon.  Fermentation is an art and one that a homesteader should know.  This book is the best fermentation book out there.
  • The Ball Complete Book of Home Preservation by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine.  This book teaches you how to can pretty much anything and the recipes are really good.  The one thing I will say though is that this book assumes normal pectin and normal sugar amounts (up to 50%) for fruits and fruit preserves.  I have found that another book (listed next) is better with a special pectin, so you can cut the sugar way down.
  • Preserving with Pomona’s Pectin: The Revolutionary Low-Sugar, High Flavor Method for Crafting and Canning Jams by Allison Carroll Duffy. For jams and jellies, use this book instead–your blood sugar will thank you
  • Nurturing Traditions by Sally Fallon.  This is a cookbook that fits very well with a homesteader’s life (especially one that includes animals).
  • Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger Connection by Jessica Prentice.  This is another cookbook, and one that helps you get in line with the seasonal cycles.  Highly recommended!
Use many resources already on the homestead!

Use many resources already on the homestead!

Miscellaneous

There are obviously a lot of other books that one can read regarding a homestead.  I’ll list a few of my favorites here–and I have a lot more that I could add to the list!

  • Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, 2nd edition by Ross Conard and Gary Paul Nabhan.  I’ve read about 10 beekeeping books, and this is the one I like the most because Conrad and Nabhan argue that we are in partnership with the bees and that the partnership requires us to treat them with respect.  It is full of a wealth of knowledge about how to start your hives and keep them going!
  • Build Your Own Earth Oven: A Low-Cost Wood-Fired Mud Oven, Simple Sourdough Bread, Perfect Loaves by Kiko Denzer, Hannah Field, and Alan Scott.  Because what homestead wouldn’t be complete without an outdoor kitchen and amazing earth oven?
  • The Soapmakers Companion: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes, Techniques, and Know-How by Susan Miller Cavitch.  Great if you want to learn how to make some of your own soaps!
  • Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Homemade Cheeses by Ricki Carroll.  The classic cheesemaking book!
  • The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips.  I don’t have extensive orchards here, but friends who do swear by this book.  If you are going an orcharding or berry bush route, you want to pick this up and give it a read!

Inspirational Reading:

My last list is more of inspirational reading, things to get you thinking and excited about living a more sustainable life through homesteading.  Some of these are very directly tied to homesteading, others give us philosophies and ways of interacting with nature.

  • Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology by John Michael Greer.  Another fantastic book by JMG, this one gives a set of seven laws that can help shift perspectives and live more attuned to the land.
  • Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry.  This book blew my mind…in fact, it is so amazing, that I am still reading it, two years later.  I read about a page at a time, wait a week, dwell on it, and keep reading.  Berry is brilliant, and anything you read by him will be worth your time. This book, written in the 1970’s, really shows what happened to agriculture and to all of America because of it, and provides some alternative perspectives.
  • Speaking of the 1970’s, go to old bookstores, and pick up anything you can find on sustainable living from the 1970’s – old Foxfire books, solar cookers/ovens, intentional communities, you name it, you will find it and be glad that you did.

I have a lot more I can suggest, but this list and these suggestions are certainly enough to get you started!  I hope this information is helpful to anyone who is looking to start their own homestead.  Readers, if there are books or resources that I missed that should be on here, please comment and I can add them to the list!

 

Climate Change and Growing Food: Creating Resilient Polyculture Crops for Spring Weather May 12, 2013

In Michigan, last spring (2012) was one of the warmest on record.  By early April, I had beautiful spinach and lettuce crops; the crops were bolting by mid-May.  The warm weather took its serious toll on our fruit crops—most berry bushes and fruit trees bloomed and then had their blooms killed by an early April hard frost; this meant that most of South East Michigan had very little fruit or limited berries last year. Maple sugar/syrup production also was at a standstill in 2012 because the sap didn’t run long—the trees budded out very quickly after the warm weather hit. Farmers, especially those in orcharding or syrup production, had an incredibly difficult year. Our local cider mills had to import nearly all of their apples (luckily, they could do so from the western side of the state, which didn’t get hit with frost as badly).

 

This year, 2013, was very much the opposite. The jet stream shift caused by the melting Arctic ice brought cold air to us for most of February, March, and April (and there are likely a host of factors causing this, but this seems to be one that most agree upon).  In fact, we had three snowstorms in April and several nights of 25 and below–and a hard frost in May (tonight, actually). We’ve had very severe winds (which ripped apart my hoop houses and dropped my greenhouse with seedlings inside!) In the 2nd week of may, we are only now beginning to see buds on our trees. This means we had a most excellent maple syrup harvest (which I’ve blogged about earlier this year) and we should have excellent fruit and berries.  But this also means that our greens are barely growing and many cold-weather crops that can be started in April aren’t yet larger than an inch or two out of the ground in mid-May.  Farmers in the area complain about how they are now 3 weeks or more behind where they need to be in their planting because the ground remained frozen for so long.

 

The national data supports my local observations – the following graphic is a description of March temperatures for 2012 vs. 2013 put out by Climate Central.

Extreme heat vs. extreme cold in March.

When I look at these last two years, I see quite a few lessons in terms of resiliency. Resiliency is a concept used within the permaculture and sustainability movements that describes one’s ability to endure. In the case of our spring weather, a diversity of crops, from greens to fruit to herbs and so on, is critical to provide a good harvest.  This year, I’ve been attempting to grow greens nearly in futility, starting things like lettuce and chard indoors rather than try to grow them outside. But more importantly, I’m staying away from monocropping and from depending too much upon any one crop, because that crop may or may not be here and doing well in the coming years. So rather than planting six cherry trees (or having a dozen different fruit trees) which are susceptible to frost and weather shifts, I’m planting hazelnuts, gooseberries, cranberries, blueberries, beach plums, and currants, all of which bud at slightly different times and which have different cold and drought tolerance.

 

Even within a single crop, I am also testing out the limits.  I did an experiment with some of my tomato seedlings to see which ones are more resilient to drought conditions (which we also experienced in the summer 2012).  I pulled a number of different tomatoes that I was planing this year — Yellow Pear, Black Krim, Amish Paste, Cherry Roma, and Green Zebra–and purposely didn’t water a set of seedlings very much at all, stimulating drought conditions.  And the results were quick and obvious–the Yellow pear tomatoes are by far the least drought tolerant, and the Black Krim and Amish paste are more so.   We’ll see how these tomatoes fare when I plant them in the garden next week!  This also supports Greer’s earlier argument that druids need to take up science, learn how to conduct science, and engage in citizen-research (more on this soon!)

 

So in this way, I’m seeking to build diversity within my own crops, which builds resilience.  I don’t think we can expect “normal” weather patterns from here on out–we have to deal with abnormal weather conditions, be it too much rain or too little, too much heat or too little, and find crops and plants that can function well under a variety of unknown and unforeseen conditions.