Farming and radical homemaking are great lifestyle choices….If you can avoid these pitfalls.
It’s one o’clock in the morning. I’m walking through the kitchen, on my way to letting Nikki and Dusky out. After that, I need to draft the farm newsletter for the week. The moonlight streams in on the kitchen table, blanketed with the detritus of yesterday’s homeschool session. But it doesn’t stretch as far as the kitchen floor. There, it is completely dark. I could turn on the light, but it will stream upstairs and disturb everyone else’s sleep. I go forward in the dark. I congratulate myself as I navigate the obstacles that always seem to take up residence on my floor in September…baskets of tomatoes, a bag of dirty potatoes spilling over, an assortment of cooler bags used for transporting meat, the reusable grocery bags. Those would all be harmless enough if confronted with a bare foot. But where I step most cautiously is the point where I round the end of the counter, where the pressure canner sits. I reach out carefully with my toe until it touches the cool metal of the giant aluminum workhorse . I identify the exact spot on the first try. I know exactly how to move now to walk safely to the door. But I let my foot linger there.
The pressure canner has a seasonal appointment on our kitchen floor. It comes down in July, and stays in the kitchen, hopping on and off the stove until mid October. It is too heavy to store away between uses. It looks ugly there. It adds to the sense of clutter that overruns our kitchen this time of year. We live with it.
And as the nerves in my foot drink in the curves of that mammoth pot, I think about how it symbolizes this time of the year. We are all in the pressure canner. The harvest is coming in like crazy, and we are processing everything to keep up with it, to make sure the tomato sauce is put up, the green beens are canned, the beets are pickled. But that’s not all. Down at the farm there are lambs and pigs to cut up for market, the first beef of the season has come in, there is lard and tallow to render. But that’s not all. Homeschool has begun, taking up all our morning hours. But that’s not all. The apples will soon be ready for pressing, the honey will need to be harvested and jarred, the soap and candles made. In the next few weeks we need to bring in enough money to pay the school taxes, to pay our monthly expenses, to pay the property taxes in January, and to keep our bills up-to-date through the winter. We won’t see a day off until October 13th. Like I said, we’re all in the pressure canner.
And that’s okay. We’re used to it. We know where we’re going. We know this is normal. Rather than fretting over the stresses, I’ve noticed that our entire family allows ourselves to take pleasure in them. Sure, there’s an enormous kettle sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor amidst the late summer harvest. But it will be stowed away before November. Bob and I may not get more than a few minutes of conversation in passing, but on October 13th, we’re taking the kids on a road trip to Quebec City. There’ll be plenty of time to chat then. A full night’s sleep isn’t always in the cards, but we feel like we know where we are on the road map, so it’s easy to roll with the chaos.
But it’s not easy for everyone in our shoes. Predictably, every late summer, my inbox fills up with emails from other farmers and radical homemakers. That’s not the only place. I run into them at the farmers market. I get old fashioned letters in the mail. It’s the time of year when I receive the most cries for help. Folks want me to look at what they’re doing, help them understand where they’re going wrong. And I want to help. But I’m in my own pressure canner right now. However, over the years, as I’ve made time for different individuals, I’ve seen the same themes emerge repeatedly. So in an effort to release steam from my own pressure canner, I’m going to give a quick outline of the top five mistakes that I see small farmers and radical homemakers make. It may be too late to make changes for this year. But I’m hoping folks who are suffering through the pressure canner right now can print this off, tack it to the fridge, then sit down in January and identify where they went wrong, and figure out how to set things right again.
That’s right. For those of you who are suffering right now, I’m giving you a homework assignment. And I’m giving it to you now, because come January, this blog will be dormant and I’ll be out snow shoeing with Bob and the kids. The pressure canner will be gathering dust.
In truth, this should probably be a book, if I were to completely flesh out these ideas. But since I can barely find the time to finish my novel and fold the laundry and get to the farmers’ market, I’m giving them to you here in condensed form.
- Failure to set joint goals. In a domestic partnership, it’s not enough to just know that one of you wants to keep the kids out of daycare. You need to know what you’re both looking for out of life. Where do you see yourselves going? How do you want to be spending your days? Homeschooling? Writing? Painting? Shoveling shit? What do you want to be doing throughout the year? Do you want to be going to the office all year long, do you want to have time for extended vacations? How do you envision the space of your house being used? This is a big one. Because if you want your house to look like a furniture showroom, but you also want your kids to feel like they can freely paint, sew and cook; and you want to teach yourself to weave ;and he wants to host jam sessions, then you need to do some reconciling. How do you want your surrounding land to function? Neatly mowed with minimal care? Beautiful gardens that might get weedy? Beautiful flowers with no vegetables to deal with? Livestock? What about your extended family and community? Do you expect to be able to help elderly neighbors get to their doctors’ appointments? Do you want to help care for a relative who needs daily assistance? Get it down in writing. Make sure both of you know what matters to each other. Maybe you won’t agree on all parts. But if you both know what the other is about, it will spare a lot of fights…and it might even save on future divorce fees.
Time and time again, the first problem I see is that couples have not talked through these issues. They don’t have a shared vision of their future. If that groundwork isn’t in place, then they have a tendency to work against each other.
2. Failure to make a plan. For some of you, this might be a straight up business plan for your life, with charts, graphs, colored tabs and maybe even a comb binding with a clear cover protector. For others, it might be a few scribbled pages in a notebook. Either way, you need a plan. If you’ve got babes on your breast and you’re trying to stay home and not work, you’ll go crazy in a cloud of dirty cloth diapers if you don’t have a sense of where you’re going. One or both of you may not want to go to a 9-5 job. The plan helps you know what you’re going to do instead. It outlines potential income streams, sets timelines in place, and forces you to look at the viability of your endeavors. Notice the “S” on endeavors. You need more than one income stream. One friend recently estimated that the gainfully unemployed person needs at least seven income streams. That’s not a bad number to shoot for. Currently, in our house, we have nine. By this time next year, we hope to have eleven.
Some of the income streams might be lofty, and some of them might be down-and-dirty things you do to bring in the cash. It is true that one key to radical homemaking and farming is to increase self-reliance enough to reduce the need for income. But no matter how self-reliant you become, there’s still toilet paper and taxes to pay for. You can’t live without cash. When I finished my Ph.D. and Bob and I were starting on this path, I spent the first sunny weekend in September painting the pergola on a neighbor’s deck. Bob mowed the lawns. Then we weeded their gardens. There were days when I made $50 an hour doing agricultural consulting work, and there were days we made $10 an hour doing scut work for neighbors, and there were days we made $2 an hour working for ourselves. We had a rough plan of what we wanted and where we needed to go. We knew what we had to get to pay the taxes and buy the toilet paper, and we made it work.
If you have a plan for what you’re doing, when, why, and for how long, it makes any scut work – whether it js a 9-5 soul sucking job, or cleaning out your neighbor’s barn – bearable. These plans change over time. Interests rise and fall. Opportunities emerge and disappear. That’s just part of the game of being gainfully unemployed. If you have a plan and at least seven streams of income, you can shift, adjust, drop things and come up with something new pretty fast. I’ve seen folks Air B&B their spare rooms, do weekend home care for the elderly, use their cars for a taxi service, clean chimneys and repair lawn mowers while also homeschooling kids, growing market gardens, writing novels, recording CDs and making breathtaking works of art. The plan helps to patch it all together so that it makes sense.
3. Failure to ask for what you need. We’re building a new economy here; one that honors the needs and dignity of the environment and of all individuals. That means a fair wage. This is most relevant to folks who are growing or processing food or other goods as one of their income streams. If you don’t ask the public to pay you a fair wage, then you’re not sustainable. Worse, you lower expectations on what the fruits of your labor are worth. That, in turn, in puts all other producers in your industry in a tight spot. You’ll be putting other producers out of business with this dishonesty. But you’ll go first.
4. Failure to rebuild the new economy. When I researched radical homemakers, I discovered that the happiest among them moved back and forth through three different phases: renouncing, reclaiming and rebuilding. Renouncing was a phase when they turned their backs on the conventional extractive economic system. Reclaiming was when they learned the skills necessary to live outside the confines of that system. Rebuilding was the phase where they devoted themselves to creating a new, viable alternative to the existing structure. It was common for folks to move in and out of these phases as demands on their lives shifted and evolved. But the happy ones moved through all of them. The unhappy ones got stuck in one phase and stayed there. It is great to reclaim domestic skills to be able to stay home with our children. But once we’ve got the basic skills down, and/or once the nest is empty, there is room in our heads and strength in our arms to take on more – to start socially responsible businesses, to work to bring positive change for our communities, or to tackle national or global issues. The choice is yours. The pleasures of spinning wool and whittling beside the hearth are rich. But trust me. Depression will eventually set in if you don’t step outside yourself and find a way to make the world a better place. That doesn’t mean quitting spinning and whittling. It means thinking bigger. You might rebuild for a while, then retreat to the reclaiming phase. That happens. But remember: you have chosen this life to create a viable alternative for yourself and for future generations. It’s not enough if you just figure it out for yourself. For the sake of humanity, create something for those who follow you.
5. Failure to recognize the pressure canner for what it is: temporary stress for long term gain. When you walk this path, the seasons dictate your life. And when mother nature has a hand in the action, there are times when you don’t get a coffee break. But there are also times when you can hibernate. When stress is at its peak, remember: it’s temporary. Seasons change. There will be time to reflect and make adjustments. So instead of fighting the pressure canner, enjoy it. Watch all that is happening around you. It may be messy. But it’s also seriously beautiful and really delicious.