No Bother At All

May 21, 2013 § 10 Comments


I was thinking the other day – always dangerous, as Penny is ever-keen to remind me – about how most folks probably come to this site because they’ve read one of my two food-related books. And how it might be sorta confusing that, once here, what they find is primarily anti-establishment ranting about parenting and education (as if the two should rightly be separated) and money and not really all that much about food or food systems or any of that jazz. Which is not to say these things aren’t all connected on some level or another, because of course they are. They very much are.

Still and all and because I’m working on a section in the new book that’s about our place, and because when I’m out and about people often ask me to describe our homestead-farm-smallholding-whatchamacallit, I’m going to do what I often do in this space, which is use it as a ceiling upon which to hurl the imperfect pasta of my thoughts and see what sticks. Wow… how’s that for an extended metaphor?

As I’ve mentioned, we bought this place as 40-acres of bare land in ’97. The first farm-related endeavor was the planting of 100 bare root blueberry plants. This was before we even had a roof up, and I thought it was pretty much insane to be planting blueberries before we even had a dry, warm place to lay our heads, but as usual, Penny was wiser than me and the berries got planted and ever since about, oh, 2001, we’ve gone hardly more than a day or two without eating blueberries either fresh or frozen. As an added bonus, the plants have paid for themselves many, many times over with what we’ve sold as pick-your-own.

We also got laying hens right around this time, as well as a couple of piglets. We had Melvin till up a couple of nice-sized gardens. Not too terrible much later, we got the cows. More pigs. Another garden. And so on.

Our primary intent for our place is not so much for it to serve as a means of income – we do realize a few thousand dollars in farm-related income each year – but as a cornerstone in our personal economy. And by “economy,” I do not mean the portion of our life that relates to money, but a more holistic sense of the word (the origins of which have nothing to do with money, by the way) that relates to how we manage our lives. Of course, money is a part of this, and given that we raise the majority of our food on this land, and given that if we weren’t doing so, we’d be spending a whole heck of a lot more on groceries, there’s no question that our food-related endeavors impact our financial bottom line.

But the truth is, that’s not really a motivating factor. Primarily, we’re motivated by the fact that both Penny and I enjoy the process, as much as the outcome. In other words, we like the work. This morning, I was up and out by 5:20 or so, preparing a fresh paddock for the ever-hungry cows, when a thunderstorm came in fast and the sky got lit by a flash of lightning of a color I’d never before witnessed. It was pink, or nearly so, and for a moment, the whole place – even the cows, waiting impatiently by the single strand of poly wire separating them from their breakfast – was awash in that strange light for a half-second and it was… hell, it was amazing. I love these little moments; they happen at least once or twice a day, and almost always in the context of some farm-related task or another.

I am glad that we do not have to farm for our primary income, although there are times when I can imagine it, or at least some form of it. But because we do not live under the onus of meeting profit expectations, we are able to run our place exactly as we wish, with all the absurd diversity that gives us so much pleasure. Right now, we have 7 cows, 9 sheep, 15 or so laying hens, 2 pigs, and of course the boys have their goats. We have the 100 blueberry bushes, 3 extremely large and productive gardens, and 3 unheated hoop houses (1 for tomatoes, 1 for melons, and 1 for winter greens). We tap about 70 sugar maples. Every summer, we raise 100 meat birds on pasture, although given the grain those little buggers go through, we’re probably going to cut back. We prefer to consume meat that eats grass, or in the case of our pigs, primarily waste milk. Which of course is mostly grass, having been produced by ruminant animals. We have been planting large quantities of fruit and nut trees. We do quite a bit of foraging: mushrooms, nettles, fiddleheads, and so on. We make kimchi, sausage (fresh and dry-cured), bacon, and gobs of butter. Penny make a nice soft cheese and though every year we promise ourselves that we’ll figure out how to make a decent cheddar, it never seems to happen. Our guiding nutritional philosophy is that high quality saturated fats and fermented foods are crucial to good health and that pretty much anything that comes in a box or can is best avoided.

Reading over this list, I’m struck by how it might seem as if all this is a whole heck of a lot of work. Inconvenient. And I can see how, from a certain perspective, this is true. But it has been our blessing to have arranged our lives in a way that does not make any of this seem like work, or like an inconvenience. There are trade-offs, of course. There always are. But in a strange way, even those are a reminder of how much we value this life. Because if we weren’t willing to give up anything for it, how much, really, could that be?


§ 10 Responses to No Bother At All

  • Ali says:

    It’s lovely, this ‘non-working’ life. Yesterday after hours of fencing in a new garden plot–moving rock, tilling, digging, planting–a storm rolled in and we quickly put up all our newly introduced farm animals and sat on the back porch to storm watch. And then the clouds rolled away and the gardens were bathed in the most beautiful twilight, colors that only nature can provide. And I was so grateful that I was there…that I could be there. That being said, I also live in an area that views our ‘choice’ to live this way (limited-single income) as irresponsible and not work at all. And it doesn’t feel like work (except when a kid can’t wrap his head around a new learning concept). Despite the sweat, the blood, and the tears, it encompasses all the joy I have ever longed for…maybe I should wait to see what this summer brings before I wax poetic.

  • Vonnie says:

    Amen, Ben…still trying to get our slice over here, but for all the same reasons. ~Vonnie

  • Sharon says:

    Yes, some of us come to your site after reading your books but stay because we get the golden opportunity to continue to read what you write after the book(s) is finished.

  • Fairygram says:

    Sorry, never heard of you or your books until I happened across a blog that totally captured my interest and my heart. Why? Because 75 or more years ago my roots were in family farming and you capture things I thought I had forgotten. Thank you for the writings I search out daily. BTW I will find your books and other publications in the future!

  • Dawn says:

    Although I have read your books, I found your blog first by way of another blogger who had mentioned your books (can’t remember who, though.) Your words make me think that, of course, food is related to all the other topics you have been discussing of late. It is central to who we are as living creatures. It’s just we humans who have been able to separate ourselves so much from the production and procurement of our food to the point that many people don’t know anything but how to buy it at the grocery store. No other animal functions this way – they live and die having spent most of their time trying to get something to eat. As much as I hope more people could live as you and many of your readers do, I am aware that some people need to have their time freed up for things like, I don’t know, curing cancer and the like. So, I guess I shouldn’t hope literally everyone would go out and live a subsistence lifestyle but I do wish more people saw it as a viable option.

  • Ed Bruske says:

    I can’t remember which came first–the books, or our acquaintance with Jenna Woginrich. My wife and I recently moved from the District of Columbia to a 30-acre property outside Cambridge, NY, where we are in the process of building a small, integrated pasture farm. We have drawn on both you and Jenna for inspiration. Thanks.

  • Chris says:

    I read the town that food saved. I don’t remember it being addressed explicity – what you’re trying to do with your place or what you thought about ‘economics’, but all that shined through. Pollan can write a book about food systems. Kingsolver can write about eating her own turkeys. But I think you bring it to a sweet spot. Not that those others aren’t real and positive, but for example it was Salatin’s dad who came onto the land and started painting in trees and struggling. I could hear some of that struggle coming out when you talked about things and parts like the mobile butcher shop in the book. The values, beauty and goodness of whatever lifestyle this is, this Jeffersonian ideal, is impliclty understood by a lot of people. The hope is that inspiration (whoever provides it) breeds action and struggle and learning and a clear path for others, maybe those that don’t have off farm income, etc.
    We’ve come to this life. And we’re coming to this life. But it is a struggle. We’re choosing to cut an umbillical cord in many respects. Choosing not to believe lock stock and barrel. We’re choosing the breast. And for us, the possiblity of life with out the breast is real and imaginable. But it is a struggle to get there. There are many people who don’t know an apple grows on a tree. It is something at a grocery store. There are people who have never planted a tree. There are people who can’t name one variety of apple. There are people who don’t know what kind of soil they’ve got – never dug down. There are people who don’t know what kind of root stock is resistant to fire blight and does pretty good in a thick clay. There are people who can’t bench graft a Gold Rush on an Antanovka. That’s a tangent.
    There’s not a lot of support out there for this stuff. You can’t buy a cream separator at Walmart.
    Your a bridgebuilder, Ben. I think what you’re doing is good and it’ll help.

  • I think your writing and thought process is clear and deep and thought provoking and your growing body of work adds to a hugely important social movement in our time. Your “Town That Food Saved” was among the first of the books my family read, and those writings led us back to the farm after a generation away. (We count ourselves lucky that we still had a few acres of open land here in suburban Mass., about 90 acres.) You, Berry, Salatin, McKibben, and Kingsolver and many other writers put the idea of local food into the public consciousness. You are the outliers who put words to what a lot of (not so articulate) people are feeling. This larger body of work opens us up to the possibility that we can reject the status quo, reject the corporate model, and try to create an alternative, viable lifestyle as farmers and stewards of the land. It is all part of (I hope) a social shift towards a simpler, saner, more sustainable way of life for more people on this planet. We can’t go back. We can only go forward, but if we can dream it, we can make it happen. Keep up the good work Ben! We are in this together.

  • vpfarming says:

    Can’t remember where I found your writing for the first time (Taproot maybe?), but sure glad I did. I can’t tell you how many times in just the past 3-4 months I’ve read your posts here to my wife. You always seem to be saying the exact same things we are thinking – and in a much more fluid way.

    We are trying to pull off the near impossible – moving from the corporate/suburban model to something more sustainable and fulfilling. All while raising 8 little hell-raisers.

    Please keep up the good work and expect to see some additional books sold to readers in Munith, MI.

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