We have not posted anything in a long, long time. We are still alive, though! 2017 was an eye-opening year. The reason we never did any blogging after last March – and we deleted our Facebook page later in the year – was simply life didn’t let us maintain an online presence beyond Instagram.
To those starry-eyed dreamers that want to create the perfect life on a homestead know it is hard. Such an obvious thing should hardly need stating, right? We started this effort knowing it would be hard. And our first year (a partial one, the latter half of 2016) was hard, indeed. But it was far harder than we expected. So we entered 2017 expecting it to be hard like 2016. But again it was far, far, harder than we expected. Now we enter 2018 expecting it to be hard like 2017. I can only hope for our sanity that it is not. But we’re still here and we intend to keep going. If it ends up being harder than 2017, well we’ll just have to take it day by day. 2017 nearly did me in! But I survived. Yet merely “surviving” is a far cry from the rich, full life I had dreamed of cultivating…
To those starry-eyed dreamers know it is harder – far harder – than you can imagine. I think most people with our backgrounds would not be able to succeed in setting up a homestead. I can only say if you think you want to take the challenge, do it when you’re 20! Don’t wait until your 40 to start.
I won’t bother to list all the big challenges of 2017, there’s no point in dwelling on that. But among them was the failure of our best investment. That investment all but guaranteed a living income while we labored to get the homestead off the ground. Yet it failed. Establishing a homestead is a 24/7 job. If you have to pause that work to earn dollars, each hour spent earning wages is an hour lost developing your home. And only by building that home can you alleviate the need for dollars. It’s a vicious circle. We called it the “five year plan” while we assumed had income coming in automatically. That is no longer the case. Will we be able to do it in five years? Will we even make it five years? I don’t know. But we’ll try.
As we start our second full season we now have to move the homestead forward (with all the work that entails) as well as solve the riddle of how to pay the bills. But financing the needed “capital” expenses? I haven’t the foggiest…
Our yields from our first full season of growing last year were not very good at all; and a lot of what we did harvest we failed to preserve. As disheartening as that was, those failures were huge learning experiences and we’re very optimistic about the 2018 growing season. We have a tremendous amount of research to do before the season gets underway. But, unlike last year, we feel we’re on top of it. The reading piles are huge but they are being chipped away at a good rate. In less than three weeks I’ve finished three books and am halfway done with two more. I still have yet another six to go but April isn’t upon us yet. Additionally last season’s horticultural “failures” are making a lot of sense given what we’re learning. We won’t repeat mistakes. I’m sure we’ll make a passel of new ones, but I think we’re on the cusp of actually being gardeners!
And inspiration has hit in a new way; a big way. The work of one man, regarded as an eccentric by some, an out-of-touch dreamer by others, strikes me as nothing less than insight into the true essence of agriculture. Masanobu Fukuoka is not exactly a household name, and that’s unfortunate. His “Natural Farming” or “Do-Nothing” farming penetrates to the heart of nature itself. He was a commercially successful farmer who never plowed, tilled, nor cultivated. He never used fertilizers or even prepared compost! He never used herbicides, insecticides, nor fungicides either. Yet his yields were at least as good as any producer in Japan and his soil improved every year. The only inputs were seed, a little poultry manure, and hand labor. He managed 1.25 acres of grain fields (a normal amount for a family production farm) and 12.5 acres of citrus orchard (a large amount for a family production farm). He did this for decades.
The publishing of the English language version of The One Straw Revolution in 1978 would change his life and the world. While global agribusiness (largely driven by North American agricultural models) has written off his work as overly-idealistic, impractical to implement on large scale, etc., Mr. Fukuoka’s work has shed great light on possible means of reversing desertification and implementing reforestation.
You may not be able to implement true natural farming on a commercial farm of one hundred acres or larger. But it certainly can be implemented on a farm of just several acres. Given the simplicity and elegance of it, to say nothing of eliminating the need for all those unnecessary inputs and unnecessary labor, to say nothing of the unnecessary fossil fuels and money that must back large-scale operations… perhaps this all means that giant farms are not, in fact, the most efficient way to feed the people!
Just maybe a new generation of farmers can take up small plots of land, use very simple tools, use minimal inputs, and work – but not work too hard! – to produce the most nutritious food ever dreamed of for local consumption. There’s no way large-scale operations can produce the quality of food these operations create, and certainly not anywhere near as efficiently as the small operations can. Large-scale distribution networks are therefore not necessary. Nor the carbon footprint that goes along with them. Nor the chemical industries that keep them running…
The small-scale natural farmer can market directly to local customers and do so at a margin far higher than even the typical organic market gardener who makes use of fertilizers, sprays, two-wheeled tractors, and cultivation equipment. This isn’t just theory, these small scales farmers are out there doing exactly that right now. And making a living wage without killing themselves. The best thing of all?
They want others to do what they do. They want to help others succeed. I have talked with several of them all across the country and I’m constantly shocked at the attention they give and the lengths they go to help beginners. Even though I’m just a homesteader, not a commercial producer, they still just want to help! It’s a pretty humbling experience when someone who studied under Mr. Fukuoka for years, and has been farming that way since before I was born, is not only willing to converse with me, but happy to do so on a first name basis.
I think our scrubby patch of field – about two acres of hard-packed loam, depleted of most of its organic matter, and inhabited mostly by tenacious, low-growing weeds – can be transformed. Perhaps into something magical. It could take years. Even decades. But it doesn’t have to languish in it’s current form.
The garden is built! We don’t have to build that again. And we will work it intensively this season; hopefully with decent success (and then our problem can shift to preserving the food). But we can start working the rest of the land, too. Who knows what it could be?
We may not know what the path forward looks like. But we’re not sunk yet and nature is the actual professional farmer. We just have to help make it whole again. Maybe in doing so we can solve more of the riddle of paying the bills. But putting food on the table is a miracle in and of itself.
Good luck to all of us this year!