a good home

Now and then you get a good reason to reflect on your choices, the big ones. This week, I’ve had the opportunity to think about all the reasons we’ve had for moving back to this beautiful piece of the country. There are many.good flowerMy parents, in their fresh, idealistic twenties, bought a piece of land in an adjacent county when they were pregnant with me. They wanted to live simply, in a small rural community, surrounded by the natural world and good people. If that sounds familiar, then you’re not alone.

Their dreams didn’t proceed according to plan exactly, but one part that seems to have worked out is that I came up into the love of this place, and a general appreciation for small towns and countryside. Of course, I also wanted out of here when I was a teenager. I wanted to explore, and I did. But it didn’t take much exploration to realize how good we have it here. I hiked miles and miles to see gorgeous vistas, and I’d seen just as nice from home. I bathed in clear pools in exotic places, that reminded me of the clear pools of home. We don’t have big mountains, or beach front worth mentioning, but other than that, the land is beautiful, rainfall regular enough, the air is nice, and the cost of living reasonable.

This is a place where I knew I could make it.monarch 2

And of course, then there’s the fact that my folks and friends are here.

Everyone wants a good place to raise their children, right? Safe enough, clean enough. But many many people all over the world raise their children in un-safe and un-clean environments because they have community. By ‘community’, let’s suppose I mean extended, strong-knit groups of family and friends that support one another as needed in their daily lives. This used to be completely normal. It is the foundation of civilization. But now, with the greater mobility of humanity, things have changed, sort of.

In the old days, community was tied to the land, and to whatever works that hands and bodies could do to keep everyone afloat. And the folks in the community could decide what to do in and with the land and the water around them, how to use their resources to support themselves. Since it is very important to have clean water to drink and healthy food to eat, no one would engage in an industry that would infringe on those basic factors, because it wouldn’t be good for the community at large, and the community at large was just as key to one’s quality of life as the water, air and soil.

So, ideally (and I know I am functioning on the realm of ideals here), a great many people on this earth used to live with the support of their family and friends in small communities with clean water, good food, and a fair amount of access to the great outdoors (seeing as that’s where clean water and good food come from).

I count myself extremely fortunate to be able to live here and raise my family. Many people are not in the position to make that leap for reasons cultural, physical, or economic. We are engaged in that sort of whole-community that I’m describing, as much as any modern Western family could hope. The busy-ness of our life includes our extended family on a day-to-day basis.  We grow most of our own food and have friends who help provide what we can’t grow. We have training lines of work that allow us to make enough income inside and outside of the farm. And we love it here. We love the beauty of this land and the slower pace and spatial freedom of rural life.monarch 3

That’s the beautiful part. That’s the love. This said, I’m disappointed in our larger community right now. A few years ago, a commercial chicken hatchery moved into our county. It set up shop in the industrial zone of our county seat. This is not a chicken house, exactly, since they don’t grow the broilers (the birds that are for sale in the meat section of the average grocery store), but they are a piece of the industrial chicken industry (you can learn about them, and even download their mobile app, here). It didn’t take long for another chicken factory to open up on a farm right next door to our friend and neighbor Jeff Poppen (a piece of Jeff’s story can be found here). Those houses, again, not broiler houses, but just a step removed, are just several hundred feet from what was Jeff’s back door. Their scale is staggering, and Jeff fought through the difficult situation as far as he could. In the end, he didn’t feel good about litigation because it wouldn’t come down on the corporation itself, but on his neighbor who had signed the contract with the corporation.

Now, a couple years down the road, more chicken houses are in the works in the neighborhood, just a couple miles north of our place as the crow flies.

A small community in the next county over has several chicken farms established, and it isn’t a pleasant place to drive through with the car windows down. I guess the smell wasn’t too bad at first, but it has grown over the years.  I can’t say much about other effects that the industry has had on the neighborhood because I don’t have much reason to go there.

In my opinion, a rotten stink of over-crowded poultry in the air is a pretty big detriment to quality of life. Right now, when I walk outside, I can take a deep breath and the air is good. Sometimes, it’s sweet. As I walk around the farm and woods throughout the seasons, I get all kinds of different smells. Falling leaves have a scent of their own. Winter has a clean and cold smell. And in the growing season there are wild roses and honeysuckle, and so many blooms to mingle in my senses. I don’t live here just because the air smells nice, but it is an integral part of the sensation of HOME for me.honeybee3

People say all kinds of things to help justify the stink. “Smells like money”, is one I keep hearing. But what is that money for if the land of your farm is polluted for generations to come, the well is contaminated, and you and your neighbor’s property values plummet? In my opinion, this movement toward industrial factory agriculture indicates a profound lack of creativity. There are a great many ways to make money, to feed people, and to steward a farm.

Here in our home, we have several small businesses. None of them on their own are enough to support us, but altogether, they make enough. It’s not hard to grow food here. Sure, there’s rocks and clay, but seeds sprout readily and the rain falls, and we have enough. We grow most of our own, and though it takes time and is some hard work, we sure don’t need a gym membership to keep ourselves fit. We’re not even close to wealthy, but we don’t take hand-outs, we have plenty of food, and our landscape is clean and beautiful. That means more to us than the promise of a big paycheck.

Farming is not generally profitable in our modern economy. Strange thing, really, since the only true profit happens in nature – have a bred cow and soon you will have two head of cattle – plant a singular tomato seed and before long you will have LOTS of tomatoes – no one else offers dividends like nature. With a little creativity, a little imagination, farms can stay beautiful and keep a family alive, too. My fellow farmwives and many of our other friends, are living examples of this reality. I doubt any of their neighbors have ever been bothered by unpleasant odors or a damaged vista from their livelihood.

I’m saddened that this small, beautiful, rural community has lost touch with the intrinsic value of clean air and water, and the blessing of decent land to work. I’m saddened that a farmer, land owner, and neighbor can, with the assistance of the corporate agriculture industry, make decisions that will degrade the land they steward, and their neighborhood, for years to come. I’m wondering where we took a wrong turn and ended up here, in this time, with these poor choices being played out. There is no singular answer to that line of wondering. I am sad, and I do my wondering, because I love it here. I don’t want to turn tail and flee. I don’t want to see bad feelings created between neighbors. We all want the same things. We want to be happy; we want a good home.monarch 1

There’s no doubt I’ll be mulling over issues of this nature for awhile. If you have any stories about rural communities dealing with the in-flux of industrial agriculture in creative and inspiring ways, I would love to hear them.

right now :: chicken guardians

There has been a fox on a mission in the neighborhood as of late. Several neighbors who keep chickens have been suffering losses on a grand scale. While I do understand that all creatures must eat in the overall scheme of things, it’s hard to bear witness to folks losing their precious birds. I understand that feeling of desperation when part of your sustenance and livelihood seems like it is being sucked down the drain. There have been years when we have suffered major losses, too, but this year we feel like we have finally, finally, provided enough protective measures to keep our chickens free from predation. So far (and I dearly hope I’m not jinxing anything here!), the villain at large has left our birds alone…IMG_7634 IMG_7636First of all, we use an electrified net fence (from Premier) around our chickens as our first line of defense. The fence allows us the flexibility to continually move the birds through the pasture, following our ruminant livestock and acting as pasture sanitizers. The continuous movement of the chickens also serves to thwart the predators as they can never get fully accustomed to the poultry always being in the same place.

As you all have seen from many of my posts over the past few months, we also introduced four Brown African goslings into the chicken scene this year. Well, they seem like they are mostly grown now and their alarm-honks are verging on obnoxious. They run through the paddock with wings outstretched… a very intimidating sight to see. Their purpose is mostly to ward of daytime predation from hawks, as a fox could certainly pick off a goose to feed her pups (and sly foxes are also known to lurk about in the middle of the day). But their noise (oh, the noise, noise, noise, NOISE.. as the Grinch would say) helps call in the dog if she is off sleeping in the shade. IMG_7656 IMG_7660Our dog, Oksi, has been on the scene for several years now and she is awesome. Once guardian dogs grow out of their mischievous puppy stage, they are well worth the time spent training. I don’t really think we even realize just how valuable she actually is. And she is so tolerant and passive that she actually allows the geese to preen her! What a hoot that is to see!!IMG_7663 IMG_7669 IMG_7670And finally, the most important factor in keeping the chickens safe is a caring and devoted farmer-guardian who has the wits to outsmart even the slyest of foxes!

making it work

It’s like this. No matter how many internships you do, farm blogs you follow, groups you read, or books you study, when you hit the ground with a project on your own farm or homestead, you have to make it your own. Other systems may inform and help you, but it has been our experience that almost everything has to be adapted in some way.opening flower

I believe that this quality of adaptation is part of life – in general. It’s certainly true to my experience in yoga practice. The form is there, old and solid, but to reach the function that underlies it, I may have to adapt the form of my own body, my practice. Finding the right adaptations makes our practices, our lives, more sustainable, resilient, and enduring. It is an on-going process. I don’t think it ever ends. Hopefully, it just gets smoother as time goes on. This is the story of one of our homestead adaptations that recently took a nice turn.

Following Rudolf Steiner’s ideal of the farm organism, we try to build as much of our own soil fertility as possible on our own land. Ideally, this is where farm animals enter into the picture. Once upon a time, we had a milk cow, but we didn’t really have room for her and the situation wasn’t sustainable. We’ve been keeping small poultry for ten years now, and it has taken some time to find a system for catching their fertility that works for our land. We’re down to a family-sized flock of about a dozen birds, and we may finally be getting there.scything oats

The beautiful examples set by our friends on their, much larger, homesteads doesn’t plug into our place so well. The land available for gardens here is small. There’s not much space for large rotations. We tried putting chickens into little portable coops and rotating them around in the garden space. They did a great job of fertilizing and scratching up the strip of garden we moved them over, but we were still feeling the need to haul in big loads of manure from neighbors so we could build a nice compost pile, and we didn’t really like having the chickens so “cooped up”. Also, poultry manure is particularly ‘hot’ stuff – due to the ammonia content – and our rotations were a little too tight to feel comfortable with that. You might have noticed that my fellow farmwives often run other animals, ruminants, along with chickens, in rapid succession, across the field. The mixed function of claw and hoof, the mixed combination of chicken and ruminant manure, makes for a cleaner, more balanced fertility, and good use of the forage.

As our market gardening efforts increased, we needed our whole garden, all the time. So the chickens had to rotate elsewhere, and there isn’t much elsewhere to go. A few years ago, we finally started pulling together our own system. Not perfect, but moving in a good direction.

We put up a rough square of chicken wire – about 20 feet on each side. There’s a door that swings open on one corner, and fastens with a string on a nail. In the pen, the chickens have a combined nest box and feed/watering station, and a small portable coop where they spend the night locked up. For most of the day, they peck at the good selection of grass clippings, hay, and vegetable scraps that we throw in for them. In the evening, they come out and roam the field, hillside, and woods for a couple hours before bedtime. The pen is kept far enough away from the gardens that they don’t make it down that far before bedtime.

After a full growing season or more of throwing in loads of hay and all the other organic matter we can gather, we move the net, and the birds, over. We pile up the nice load of pooped-on organic matter and in another year, we have a beautiful compost pile, made right here.compost pile

The weakest point of this system was the hay. If you have spent any time at all with chickens then you know exactly how fast they can work up a piece of ground. Those birds are like Mother Earth’s back-scratchers, and they need new stuff to pick through ALL the time. One year, we dumped an entire round bale smack in the middle of the pen. That was great. The next year, we didn’t buy any round bales, the hay was not stored in a location convenient to the chicken pen, and so throwing more hay in didn’t always run as high as it should have on the priority list. The compost suffered, and the birds weren’t as happy.crowing

This year, a few circumstances collided to make amends to our previous failings.

First, the oats didn’t die. We sowed most of our lower garden in a thick planting of cover crop. We left out the vetch because we were tired of tangling with it in the Spring, and my Fellow Man told the kids and I to just throw on that bag of oats with the crimson clover. The oats were supposed to die over the winter (I’m wondering where that information came from now), and leave a nice thick stand of crimson clover. Both oats and clover came up thick, and the oats didn’t look too good, but they stood all through that wretched cold winter. The clover bloomed beautifully, then faded, and the oats grew taller and set seed. We were unprepared for that success!crimson clover and oats

IF we had our threshing/hulling game together, we probably would have harvested them for our own groat supply. BUT, we don’t, and the thought of harvesting and storing another round of grain for some unknown quantity of time was not attractive.

So, we put the new scythe to use.scything oats 2

When the lawnmower started making funny noises, we bit the bullet and bought the scythe. It’s a beautiful thing, from the Marugg Company, right here in Tennessee. It doesn’t stink and make horrible noises, like the weed-eater, mower, and tractor. It also doesn’t burn fossil fuels and make one’s hands and shoulders vibrate in an unnatural way. It’s skill and muscle-building to use, and my Fellow Man cleared the 50×150 foot swath of oats with it in less than an hour. With the help of the children, we hauled it up to the chickens and threw it in heaping mounds around their pen. scything oats 3They were ecstatic. They will pick the groats (lowering their food bill), scratch the hay for hours on end, and when the whole thing settles, we will have another beautiful pile of compost. The imported resources were nothing more than the scythe and the oat seed, and the pile we make will feed a good deal of our gardens.oats piled high

This doesn’t mean we won’t haul some horse manure from the neighbors place. We like them, they do a good job with their horses and their manure makes nice compost piles. We will also buy hay from other neighbors who do such a good job cutting and storing it for folks like us. There’s no telling how the cover crops will be next winter, and what the next adaptation will hold for us. But it sure felt good to have seen that process through, to find a sustainable adaptation for our place.

If we can inspire you about the possibilities of this simpler, but still oh-so-beautifully-complex lifestyle, it makes us happy. If you want more details about exactly how our chicken pile-up system works, I’ll be glad to tell you more. But I also encourage you to gather all this information and inspiration and go make it work your own way.

And enjoy the ride.enjoy the ride

Happy Independence Day Everybody!