Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Picking Tobacco

More than any thing else that happened to me in South Georgia as a child, my experiences picking tobacco makes me feel that no matter how citified I become, at heart I’ll always be a country boy. It is one of those bittersweet memories of childhood. At the time I hated it. It was hot and dirty work. But looking back, I see the work did build character (just like the adults always said it would).

Children living in the country always look forward to a special event; going to town. Going to town meant shopping, and eating out, and seeing sights. It was like a mini-vacation. One morning as we were hopping in the car for a trip to town, a neighbor’s farm truck rolled into the yard. In the back sat a number of people. I immediately had a bad feeling about the situation, and before I knew it, I was roped into picking tobacco. Yes, we were paid. By my youthful standards I was getting rich, but was it worth it? I wasn’t sure.

The tobacco plants were taller than me. I was intimidated. You harvest tobacco leaves by grasping the four or five lowest, most mature, leaves and ripping them down off the stalk. The plant stays intact and the upper leaves continue to mature for another one or two harvests later in the summer. You stuff the handful of harvested leaves under your arm and continue to the next, until you have a large bundle balanced on your hip. This bundle eventually is deposited onto a slow, tractor-drawn cart nearby and then you continue on your row. And so on, and so on, and so on. And then after that, so on again.

My brother and I were not very accomplished, and were soon outdistanced by all the other pickers, some of which were girls younger than us, but raised working the fields.

An interesting fact about the tobacco plant is that tar exudes from the leaves in tiny deposits. After working a bit, your hands, your arm holding the load of leaves, and that entire side of you body becomes brown and caked with tar. In the morning, the dew on the leaves is steeped with the tar and will make your eyes sting if it gets in them.

Eventually, the leaves make their way to the dryers, large trailers, in which the leaves hang and cure in dry blowing air.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Gene Logsdon

I came across an interesting book in the library recently, Homesteading: How to Find New Independence on the Land. It’s a great book. Written in 1973, it offers the advice of Gene Logsdon on how to homestead successfully. More specifically, he details his general experiences with vegetables, fruit, grains, livestock, locating property and other homestead specific issues. And while yes, the book is over 30 years old, what exactly about growing beans has changed since then? Not a whole lot, I think. I found the book full of common sense, that while dated is, common, or should be. It was pleasant to read about a someone raised to farming from a child, especially when today, many people are so far removed from their food.

Here are some other links to his writing.

The Unofficial, Totally Unauthorized, but Very Enthusiastic GENE LOGSDON FAN CLUB HOME PAGE!
Gene Logsdon’s Blog
Another blog by Gene
Article entitled National Organic Standards: Kiss of Death? article in The New Farm Classic.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Heirloom Seed

When I first started this entry it turned into a diatribe on agribusiness, and I soon realized that topic really needs its own blog. Here instead I just wanted to extol the virtues of heirloom seed.

I’ve been reading up again on heirloom seeds; plants that breed true to parentage. These seeds are open-pollinated, which means that unlike hybridized seed (cross pollinated for certain traits that breed true only for the first generation), heirloom fruit produces seed that can be saved and used the next growing season with perhaps even better success. I can grow vegetables from seed passed down generation to generation from strains grown 50, 100, 150 or more years in the past. I often find varieties brought over from other countries.

Have you ever bought roses at the florist that look stunning, but have no aroma? Like many plant strains, roses have been hybridized for years to achieve specific qualities; certain colors, fuller flowers, straighter stems. This allows the grower to bring to market a rose perfect in appearance. The price paid for that perfection is a flower with no smell. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. Vegetable seed we buy is often produced by the same companies that create seed for large scale farmers, which means hybridized for the grower, not the public. Vegetables are developed with the traits that take them successfully to market: uniform size, thick walls to resist crushing and bruising, etc. You get a pretty product, but what about taste? I mean, we’re supposed to eat it, not put it in a vase and water it.

We the public encourage this, by demanding (through our purchase power) 58 different brands of cereal and only three bland varieties of tomatoes: red cherry, red hot house, and roma. Heirloom seeds have a number of attractive qualities besides being able to save seeds. These “forgotten” varieties offer a large variety of flavors, shapes, colors, growing temperaments, disease resistance and hardiness.

Here are a couple of websites specializing in heirloom seeds:

Victory Seed Company
Heirloom Seeds
Tomato Bob’s Heirloom Tomatoes

Seed Savers Exchange

Friday, September 21, 2007

Non-tropical Low Pressure System (93L)

Earlier this week, non-tropical low pressure system (93L), slopped over Florida. On Monday it reminded me of the 2004 hurricane season. 93L might have been a non-topical low pressure storm, but it brought rain, and then more rain, and then after that a bit of rain.

Back when we lived in Georgia, storm systems would set in and rain for 3 days, but it was sprinkling, light rain. When it rains in Florida, it REALLY rains; the kind of downfall where you can't see to drive. (For you tourists, the secret it to watch the white line near your bumper to keep from wandering out of your lane and use your peripheral vision to watch for those faint red brake lights in the grey up front. Peripheral vision sees the faint lights better than line of sight.)

When you build here, you have to account for sideways rain. Rain doesn't just fall down, it often goes sideways. And it's also a common occurrence to have heavy rain and sunshine at the same time. Now, isn't that just wrong? Cool....but wrong.

The photo above is of the drainage pond in our backyard and my neighbor's fenced-in farm, taken this morning. Interconnected ditches wind their way behind all of the neighborhood houses and through one or two other drainage ponds before flowing into the pond behind my house. Usually, my pond is dry; today it holds about three feet of water. It’s designed to overflow out the backside, through ditches in the woods into ditches through other neighborhoods until eventually emptying into canals that route the water to waterways. The ditches are as important here as the road system. City employees inspect them periodically to make sure they stay clear and workable. Houses are then built on a foundation raised up a foot or so; just enough to stay above any water. The land is so flat that the water drains off into canals before it gets in your house. In 2004, my house was almost completely encircled by flood waters.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Tank Raised Tilapia

I don’t know why more farmers and homesteaders don’t raise fish in tanks for consumption. From my na├»ve, don’t own land yet, never farmed point of view, it seems quite logical for a number of reasons:
  • Almost everyone loves fish prepared in one way or another: fried, baked, scampi, broiled, stewed.
  • Fish is a healthy and lowfat source of protein.
  • Tilapia are more economical and easier to raise than other fish types.
  • Raising fish in an above ground tank under an overhang eliminates water contamination from rain and groundwater.
  • Tilapia is particularly well suited for raising in a tank.

Once ensconced onto ONE ACRE FARM, I fully intend to try my hand at raising fish in an above ground tank made of timbers and a liner or, even better, out of concrete. I’ve seen above ground cisterns made waterproof with a waterproof plaster coating. A squat cistern is just another fish tank.

In addition to shading the tank to reduce sun and rainfall, I think I’ll also try a biofilter. Here in Florida, water and bog bog plants grow wild in the ditches. The ditches are full of them. By biofilter, I mean an assortment of mineral layers that provide for the growth of beneficial bacterial and water plants that use and transform fish waste. For instance, with the fish tank, I can make or buy a large tub; layer it with sand, volcanic stone, charcoal, etc; and then in a top layer of sand, plant water plants. Water pulled through this medium should be cleaner. The pump will cycle the water and oxygenate it for the fish. I can also pump the water through a bit of black pipe exposed to our hot sun to warm the tank. Tilapia are tropical fish and like warmer water. Like the beneficial bacterial, the plants also will a bsorb nitrogen from the fish waste. I haven't thought through the feed issue. I'd rather find something self sustaining and organic if possible. Perhaps vermiculture.

The end goal for me is about having a very healthy, controlled source of fish for consumption. And although I could snag one here and there for supper as they're gaining weight, I imagine, like with poultry, it might be best to raise them to weight and then harvest them all at one go; clean and fillet them all in one day and freeze.

Here are some interesting websites on the topic:

Sunday, September 9, 2007


I once saw a Far Side cartoon in which the geeky looking scientist stands before a chalkboard filled with complicated scribbling and equations culminating, at the bottom, with an equal sign and a dollar sign. The punch line of the cartoon is that after years of research Gary the scientist finally proves conclusively that time equals money. (grin) Gary Larson is a trip.

Anyone who has ever gardened knows this to be true. When you admire those picture perfect gardens in the glossy magazines, know that they are the product of one of two things; time or money. (and sometimes both…) You can either spend 60 hours a week pulling weeds, creating paths, watering, fertilizing, propagating and planting seedlings, waiting for them to grow, or else you can spend 60K and hire professional gardeners and buy the largest full grown plants you can find.

I don’t have 60K.

So when I saw these fantastic large terracotta planters and bowls in a local nursery for the low, low price of $200 – $300 a pop, I reigned in my lust and started thinking how to make something similar myself. And the short answer is I still don’t. But…my Internet research did lead me to hypertufa. Google hypertufa and you’ll find a boatload of recipes for creating this strong, yet light weight concrete mixture, which can be carved while still uncured.

A common recipe might be:

2 parts Portland cement
3 parts sifted peat
3 parts perlite

By tinkering with the ingredients and their ratios, you can produce different types of material. The more peat, the more porous and lightweight the product will be. Perlite can create an old, stony looking material. Vermiculite looks smoother. Adding sand increases weight and strength. But no matter which recipe you use, if you unmold your creation after it sets but before it cures (maybe 4 to 8 hours), you can then carve it. With a wire brush, a drill and an old saw you can shape your form.

Here is an early bowl I created. I piled the hypertufa over a plastic bowl covered with a plastic grocery bag. I also made my brother a flat bonsai container, my dad a planter and my mother-in-law a square cover to hide the water pipes in front of her house. The homemade wooden forms I made allowed me to create much more professional looking pieces, and the forms were reusable. I look forward to using hypertufa to make a number of concrete items for ONE ACRE FARM.

You might also want to check out Walter Jeffries’ concrete work at Sugar Mountain Farm or the interesting article on ferro cement at John's Ottermoon.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Driving and Dreaming

This past Labor Day, I visited my brother's family at their house in a small rural Georgia town. We had a great time. Nancy and I loved the drive out through the Georgia countryside. We’ve come to enjoy and appreciate Florida in the past years, but the land here is very flat. I first drove into Florida about 17 years ago, down I-95. Of course, one tree lined Interstate looks like another. So, I wasn’t prepared when we broke out of the trees and drove onto the 3.2 mile long Buckman Bridge that passes over the Saint Johns River in south Jacksonville. It was spectacular. I remember my eyes actually feeling a little funny because they weren’t used to looking that far in the distance. How odd. The Florida coast is especially beautiful, and I love the coastal marshes and rivers. But let’s admit it, the rest of the state could benefit from some hills.

That’s why the trip up to Georgia was so pleasant, with that State’s rolling green fields, bright red clay soil, dark pine forest and picturesque homesteads. You never knew what vista would surprise you around the next bend in the road. (The picture above was not one from there, but it looks a lot like it...)

Of course, this started many conversations in the car about homesteading. We began wondering if a move up to Georgia might be in our future once we sell the house. We’re not restricted to living in Florida. We did rule out an extreme move to somewhere like remote Montana, but we do have other options available, and they all have their pro’s and con’s. We’re already settled in Florida. It has a year round growing season. Georgia, on the other hand is more hilly and green in my opinion. Florida goes tired and dull real quick in the year. Or maybe it just seems that way because fall never arrives; summer just goes on and on and on. Yeah, we get tomatoes in December, but then again the bugs never freeze. See? Pros and cons.

I guess in the long run, it doesn’t really make that much difference. I think we could be happy no matter where we land, so long as our family is safe and intact, and I get some chickens and square foot gardens.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hog Butchering Day

My country experiences mainly come from living in South Georgia when I was in the school grades, 5th through 9th. Just like Corn Shucking Day, we’d gather once a year for butchering hogs. Mr. Bruce, our close family friend and farmer, often gave us a pig from his farm each year. On a cool day, we’d all gather at the home of his father-in-law, Mr. Grooms, the neatest old man you’d ever want to meet. (He wore coveralls, and black suit jacket and a fedora to church.) Mr. Groom’s house was an old farmstead and had the setup needed for butchering hogs.

Three or four pigs waited in the trailer. Mr. Bruce would lean in carefully and tap one in the middle of the forehead with a 22 rifle. I don’t remember the other pigs even noticing. The stunned pig was pulled from the trailer and quickly hoisted under a beam. Funny, that out of the six adults present, Mrs. Grooms, who had to be in her late 70’s or early 80’s was always chosen to wield the knife. Her hand, steady from a lifetime of butchering, made the cut to bleed the animal.

The next task especially showed how appropriate the old homestead was for butchering. Under a nearby shed, Mr. Grooms had a large steel basin mounted on top of a low brick fire chamber. I don’t remember the exact dimensions, but it was large enough that I could have taken a bath in it. The wood fire below heated the basin’s water, and the carcass dipped in that hot water was much easier to scrub clean and butcher. Long tables set up outside served as butcher blocks.

I was too young to help much. Back then, no one trusted me around sharp objects, so I mainly watched and played with the other kids. Maybe I ran some gopher errands.

As the carcass divided into the various cuts of meat, any trimmings or cuts not intended for regular consumption got tossed in the sausage pile. Mrs. Grooms had a metal meat grinder that clamped on the edge of the kitchen table, and after those meat pieces were well ground, the moms would mix in sausage spices by hand and test fry small pieces. Once they hit the spice combination and amount they liked, the sausage was sent through the grinder again and extruded into casings. But with hungry children pacing just outside the kitchen doors like a pack of wild animals, some always got mysteriously diverted into the fry pan and into waiting biscuits for everyone to enjoy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Blackberry Picking

Growing up in South Georgia as a child, we often enjoyed blackberry pies in the summer. It usually began with us begging Mom to cook one for dessert. If she had the inclination and an extra pie shell in the freezer, we’d get the green light.

When picking blackberries in the wild, it’s important to have the right tools.
  • An empty milk jug with the spout cut out.
  • A long stick or pole.

I bet milk jugs were originally designed to hold blackberries. Some plastics developer back in the 50’s was probably using a prototype container to pick blackberries one summer and had an epiphany, “I bet this thing would be great for holding milk!” They’re lightweight, deep, waterproof, large enough for a good haul of blackberries, and have a convenient handle for carrying. All you have to do is cut out the spout with a razor to make an opening big enough for a handful of berries.

We also each carried a tall stick or pole for testing the brambles for snakes. The best berries grow lower in the bush, but you never stick in your hand until you poke in the stick a time or two. We were often reminded that rattlesnakes hung out in blackberry brambles. As I child, I accepted the weird notion that rattlesnakes would eat blackberries. I just couldn’t see it in my mind’s eye. It never occurred to me that rattlesnakes eat the rodents and birds that eat the blackberries.

We usually walked the sandy back roads until we found a good patch of blackberry brambles (or stickers as we called them) in the ditch or beside a field. It was a foregone conclusion that you would get scratched, and like the monkey with the coconut, I often found myself grasping a load of ripe berries and no way to extricate my hand from the thicket.

If the crop was good, it was one for the milk jug, one for the mouth. And in the end, we ambled home loaded with berries and with purple lips. Mom took possession of the crop and our work was done. Nothing left but to wait for dinner. I’ve added a recipe below similar to what Mom used. If you get the chance, give it a try.

So let’s recap: Exploring the countryside, fresh blackberries eaten right off the bramble, homemade blackberry pie for dessert. This is what you call a win/win/win situation. You can’t beat it with a stick.

Blackberry Pie Recipe

4 cups blackberries
1 to 2 cups sugar (depending how sweet the berries are)
2 Tbs flour
Dash salt
2 or 3 Tbs butter
Thawed pie shell

Wash the berries well and drain. They sometimes have ants or little mites on them. (We’d blow them off when eating them in the field.)

Mix the berries, sugar, flour and salt together, and mound into the uncooked pie shell. It will be heaping. Dot the top with butter and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until the berries cook down and the pie shell is done - 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Odd Crop

I don’t have land yet for fruit trees, a parcel of field corn, and my square foot gardens, but I did manage to plant this odd crop. It’s a bit wormy, and I’m pretty sure it’s moldy inside.

The post hole that Sam hid in.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Homestead Livestock

Farmers like to talk about their animals. I’ve seen whole forums dedicated to discussing the different livestock; poultry, bovine, swine, and other more exotic types. When we find our ONE ACRE FARM, we’re going to be severely limited by space (and probably zoning) on the types of animals we can raise. I’m hoping for chickens and geese. Here’s my reasoning:

Chickens – They are easy and cheap to purchase from a hatchery like McMurry. 10 female chicks costs less than $25, and the trusty US Post Office delivers them. 10 chickens should produce at least 1/2 dozen eggs a day for about 2 to 3 years. I don’t think it's feasible to keep a rooster, because although it would both protect the hens and service them to create new chicks, it also makes a lot of noise. And one acre isn’t large enough to shield the neighbors from unwanted noise. Also too many chickens on a plot of land will scratch it to mud in short order. If I put half of the acre to pasture and fruit crops, 10 chickens can free range and hopefully not cause too much damage.

Also for a short-term project, I might also order 25 for meat. Chickens take some time to reach egg laying maturity, but for meat purposes, they reach the proper weight in just a couple of months.

Geese – They eat grass. Some varieties are less noisy. And I just want one. They’re good watchdogs and can be raised for meat as well. Mother EarthNews has an interesting article on geese.

Guinea fowl – I’d really like a couple of these. I understand they’re excellent bug catchers, even in around edible garden plants. (Chickens and geese will both eat the garden produce and plants.) However, Guinea fowl are known for their very loud calls, something I’m sure the neighbors will not appreciate.

Goats – Nancy wanted goats. But I’ve read that solitary animals get destructive for lack of company. We could raise them for slaughter, but I'm not sure I can serve that much goat meat to family and friends. Nancy thought they would make cute pets, and they would,but with limited browsing range, that's a boatload of feed every day for years. I think having a daily supply of fresh goat's milk is their best argument. How cool would it be to experiement with cheese making, not to mention a supply of butter, yogurt and icecream? But neither Nancy nor I are ready for the investment of time required to milk them at least once a day, no breaks, no vacations. Hmmm. We changed our mind.

Cows – Too much animal, not enough room.

Turkeys – I’ve heard they can be mean. And beside we’ll already have chickens.

Pigs – Now this is a possibility. As with chickens, pigs are often raised to slaughter weight. This can be done in a summer. I’ve read that allowing it some free range and giving it plenty of carbon (hay) in its diet greatly reduces odors. We’ll see. I’d have to find a place that would butcher it, a task I could do myself, but there are issues with weather temperature, firearms (if we end up within city limits), how visible we are to neighbors, cool storage, etc. Walter at Sugar Mountain Farm has a wealth of knowledge and a great perspective on raising pigs.

Rabbits – Many homesteaders use rabbits as a meat source, but they all seem to keep the animals in cages. I want any animal I keep to have as good a life as possible. Chickens should lead chickeny lives with lot of scratching space, greenery and bugs. The same goes for pigs, cows and geese; each should have space to forage and do what comes natural to them. So…no rabbits.

Fish – One of the healthiest forms of animal protein. I got all excited about fishing locally here in Florida until I read warnings limiting the amount of freshwater fish you can eat because of contaminates in the water. That astounded me. Then I researched aquaculture and I think it can be tailored to small farm or even to an individual household use. In many parts of the world, it seems that fish is the first and often only source of protein people seek out. It can often be caught, free fro the taking. The farmers let nature grow their livestock for them. But in a more controlled environment, it is still economical in terms of space, feed and time. You need a large tank of water, a source of fish fingerlings, a method of filtering waste, and a source of feed. It’s just a large scale aquarium. (And when I say a large tank, I’m referring to 1000 gallons or more.) James Rakocy wrote an interesting technical article on tank aquaculture of Tilapia, and small scale aquaculture is even promoted in urban settings.

Ducks – I seriously considered ducks for a while, and may come back around to them again. From what I’ve read, they can be a good an egg layer as some chickens and are excellent meat birds to boot. But I’ve also heard they can be messy and I’d want to provide them with a small pond; something I’m not sure I can buy or build.

Bees – Yes, there is the honey, but I’m more interested in keeping a small hive for pollination. The goal of a farm is to produce food, and the better pollination, the better the crop. Zoning laws determine how far away hives must be kept from other residences, but I think it’s closer than you might imagine. Think of it as a larger, more complicated version of an ant farm that produces honey and pollinators. Honey bees are not pests like yellow jackets; they just want to get about their business of seeking nectar. Michael Bush has a great website on apiculture.

So, keeping the above in mind, I’m thinking my ONE ACRE FARM will include approximately:
  • 10 chickens for eggs
  • Occasionally 25 additional chickens for meat
  • Tank grown tilapia
  • A bee hive
  • 1 goose
  • Perhaps an occasional pig

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Does Homestead = Packrat?

In making the house ready for sale (and our eventual move), we continue to work at improving and cleaning it. Our immediate goal is to get the house organized and clean and keep it so for prospective buyers. The counters and dressers are completely clear, the closets clean and organized, shelves neat and tidy.

I have thrown or given away scads of materials we don’t need: decade’s old training manuals, clothes that no longer fit, VHS movies we’ll never watch again. We’re not packrats, but stuff accumulates over time. I wonder if homesteaders are packrats as a general rule. Truly, how easy is it for you throw out bits of this and that?
  • Maybe that slightly rusty bolt will save me a trip to the hardware store one day.
  • Maybe I’ll fit into that shirt when I drop 20 pounds.
  • Maybe I’ll remember to give that book to my brother when I see him next year.

There are a lot of maybe’s associated with the packrat mentality. Bits of wood, old screws, leftover string, unused paint. I must admit, though, when the conjunction of need and availability collide, and you actually KNOW where the item is when you need it, it can be very satisfying. More than saving money and time; there’s rightness to that type of recycling. Yes, I think the world is a better place because that old rubber washer destined for the land fill instead fixed Sam’s bike perfectly.

That’s why it’s particularly hard to get rid of the things now. I know those cinderblocks and plywood and paint would come in very handy once we reach ONE ACRE FARM. But, no pain, no gain. We’re not on a farm yet, so out they go.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Homesteading Wojo

Do you remember Det. Stan 'Wojo' Wojciehowicz on Barney Miller that mid-70's detective sitcom on TV? Wojo was always driving Captain Barney Miller crazy because he would never tell the story from the beginning; he always forgot something or told it in little pieces as it occurred to him. Barney would ask if everything went OK while he was out of the office, and Wojo would say, "Yeah, there's hardly any more smoke."
"What smoke? Was there a fire?" Barney would ask and then the story would painfully develop.
"Well, it wasn't my fault the monkey got loose."
"What monkey?!"
"You know, the one the circus mimes brought in."
"What circus!!"
And so it would go, bit by bit.

I live a series of Wojo moments. For instance, I'll firmly assure Nancy I haven't seen a rental movie, and as the film unfolds, I'll say, "I think I remember this scene. Oh yeah, that character seems familiar..." Nancy hates it when I do that.

Today I tried to fix the jeep. It's been overheating recently, and yesterday I discovered a hole in the top heater hose. I remembered it happening before; the thermostat gets stuck, the engine overheats and a hose pops with the pressure. So I buy a new thermostat. No problem, two bolts worth of work and $15 for a new thermostat, seal and heater hose.

Then, as the parts counter tells me they don't have the heater hose, I vaguely remember last time also having to buy a length of generic hose and bending it to fit. Later, as I tried to coax off the broken hose, I remember (immediately after doing it once again) breaking the heater assembly. Another trip to the parts store.

All this culminates in finally realizing I can’t get to the bottom bolt that reveals the thermostat and remembering that last time I made it to this exact same point before giving up and taking the jeep to the mechanics.

If I wasn’t so much of a Wojo, I’d have remembered all this $47 dollars and 3 hours ago.

Reading homesteading websites and blogs, I find that as a group, homesteaders are an industrial, capable and frugal group of people. This means you fix your own vehicle/tractor/generator/washing machine/well pump/ nuclear reactor whenever you can. My online search for instructions didn’t work; I think I’m going to get a Chilton book and figure out how to loosen the serpentine belt to get to that bolt.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Corn Shucking Day

We had Corn Shucking Day most every year when I lived in the South as a child. A wonderful family friend who farmed crops and hogs would drive his pickup into the field and my Dad and older brother would help fill the big truck's bed with a hill of corn. When they dumped it into the middle of the farm yard under the shade trees, it seemed like a mountain to a little kid like me.

Everyone helped; some shucked, some silked, and the moms cut the sweet, white kernals off the cob into large enamaled dishpans. Then they would scrape the knife's edge down the cob to get out all the sweet corn milk and bits of endosperm that was the cream in the creamed corn. It seemed like tubs of of the stuff, which they blanched on the gas range and then spooned into one quart freezer bags. I helped with that, too, twisting each bag and tying it off twice against leaks. The warm bags were laid row upon row in the big freezer chest among similar bags of butterbeans and fieldpeas.

It was a lot of effort, mainly on the grownup's part, but come December when Mom pulled a package out of the deep freezer and cooked it down with pat or two of butter and salt and pepper, it was just fantastic. It made store bought cream corn taste like melted plastic. Pair up that sweet creamy corn with crunchy fried pork chops and buttery field peas, and there was no such thing as leftovers. Getting hungry?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

One step up - Two steps back

Even though the house is being sold "as is," we're continuing to try to improve it for salability. So instead of putting in new gardens, I’m actually taking them out. Seven or eight years ago, I came across Mel Bartholomew’s square-foot-garden and put one in. Here is last year’s:

In the garden:

  • Cucumber and tomatoes on the trellis.
  • Cayenne peppers to the left.
  • A marigold peeping from behind the peppers.
  • Oregano outside the square on the far left.
  • There are a few radishes in there, too.
  • I used pine straw because at the time I couldn't find any other type of mulch.

I think Mel did an excellent job in repackaging a concept that’s been around awhile. He made it easy for the common gardener to grasp the concept, implement a single garden square and experience success, and expand as time, money and effort allowed. Still, at its core it’s really just intensive planting, which a lot of gardening models emulate. I bought three or four of Mel's books and gave them away to friends and family.

This past spring, I put in a second 4x4 square, and then allowed them both to go to pot because I was out of town and not available to upkeep them. Neither Nancy nor Sam is much into weeding. The vegetables have gone to seed, grassy weeds have moved in, and the few tenacious okra plants still point huge pods up in the air.

I’m going to raze the whole thing to the ground, toss the lumber, and lay sod. It’s only 32 square feet. That way, the yard looks smooth and uniform and prospective buyers can dream of their own gardens.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The History of the PLAN (a.k.a. How to Get from Here to There.)


Our original dream had seven exciting parts:

  1. Sell the house quickly.
  2. Quit my job or work part time.
  3. Buy ten inexpensive acres with open pasture, a small wood and fish pond in the nearby country, 15 minutes outside of town.
  4. Build a new energy efficient block house on site or renovate existing structure.
  5. Play in the garden with all my free time.
  6. Buy a barnyard of animals.
  7. Become trim and fit with all the fun physical farm work.

We're still on step 1. OK, my early plans were a bit unrealistic. I see that now, but some of the elements are still in the mix.

How to Get from Here to There

"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." I think the most frustrating part of dreaming is that we often want the big dreams to happen quickly. It's easy to take refuge in a dream, it's harder to put in the work and time and patience to make it happen. But we're still committed to making the change. Here's why:

First, I'm tired of working in corporate business. Work invariably involves being out of town; clients want you to work where they are, not the other way around. I began to think about taking a local job, which would pay substantially less, perhaps as little as half or even a third. But that's not practical with our current debts and bills.

Our house is a good house. We like it a lot, but it has a very small yard, with very close neighbors. And although there's a great park at the end of the street, I'd be brain dead to let my 9 year old play down there unsupervised in this day and age. So no land, suburban house, no privacy, no elbow room, and a lot of house and other debt requiring me to work abroad; the house needs to go.

Once we made that decision, the dream flood gates opened, and Mr. Research hit the Internet. I quickly came across the word “homesteading” online and followed every Google link I could find. This was for me. This rang true in the compost of my soul. I saw an immediate way to blend in my green inclinations. Homesteaders welcome alternative energy and off the grid living with open arms. I could envision it:

  • Rambling over my 10 acres of wooded hills, a large pond, and grassy meadows.
  • Energy efficient block house with a deck on the roof.
  • Solar panels would flood the house with electricity.
  • Water would pour off the roof into underground cisterns.
  • Healthy fruit and vegetables for the picking.
  • Goats for milk and cheese, chickens for farm fresh eggs, geese to keep down the yard weeds, a guinea fowl or two to keep the garden clean, cats to keep out the mice, dogs to keep out everything else, a pig or calf for fattening.
  • Sam could play in safety to his heart's desire.
The homestead dream lasted a number of months, even with most homestead sites plainly stating how much work was involved. I then finally took a closer look at what was reasonable, even possible:

When the house sells, we’ll have funds for one choice: either a down payment for a new homestead (YEAH!!!!) or payoff for essentially all of our debts (…crickets chirping…) I knew the answer all along deep down inside; we are, after all, ultimately pursuing a more practical, down to earth lifestyle. Going back into heavy debt hardly seems practical. Then, other uncomfortable realities became apparent:

  • Could we even find suitable property close to where we wanted to live, and if so, could we afford it? Looking online and driving around the places we wanted to live gave a bleak answer, probably not.
  • Are we willing to move to where land is that we could afford? Again, probably not. We still want some of the benefits related to living near the city; availability to current friends, restaurants, theaters, and other interests. I want a decent Internet connection; she wants to ramble in the shops with her friends sometimes.
I began to realize that we are not true homestead material. Is that shameful? I kind of always looked down on cityslickers, thinking inside that I was a heartier breed. But it seems then, no solitary, country farm for us. No broad acres, wandering pastures or rambling woods. So what are we? I was forced to take a closer look at what we wanted from life and what we were willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

This called for another Internet search:

Off-the-GridSustainable living separate from utilities, especially electricity.

I like this concept, but we certainly don’t have the resources for the initial outlay of materials on an entire home system. However I could start small and build slowly, perhaps beginning with solar heated water or a solar system for part of our electricity needs. Living in the southeast, this is especially attractive during hurricane season.

Self-sufficiencyLiving close to the land, with an emphasis on frugality, recycling, and self sustainability.

Some of these sites got a little weird, although I agree with the premise. I’m not into dumpster diving or eating out of reused pie plate tins. However, I think frugality is sorely missing in America, the land of plenty, and we should make better do with what we have rather than filling up Sam Walton’s pockets.

Organic FarmingGovernment regulated farming geared towards producing produce that meet strict guidelines of production.

I think the idea of food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizer and gene tampering should appeal to anyone conscious enough to breathe. Our society's dependence on chemicals is a Pandora’s box. I fully expect that one day we'll find that many of our current illnesses are linked to chemicals in our food, water and air. In organic gardening, though, you must be certified. Even small farms have to comply with strict guidelines to be labeled “organic.” Plus I don’t think I want to put in the money or time needed to farm full time, and frankly although organic produce sells at a premium, I don’t know that our local farmer’s market or restaurants could support it.

Customer Supported Agriculture (CSA)Providing periodic produce and animal products for local residential and commercial customers who pre-pay for the service.

I'm still thinking half-seriously about a CSA. It might be an attainable goal, one that could start small and grow. Similar to Organic Farming, I could benefit from the concept of clean and healthy, locally grown produce, but not have to deal with government restrictions. Unlike catering to restaurants, since no single crop is promised, if one performs poorly, another can substitute its place. Also, the members share the risk by paying in advance, allowing the farmer to start up with a minimum of personal cash outlay. I may yet try this on a small scale.

HobbyFarmingOwning a small “working” farm, but supporting it with a sideline or fulltime occupation.

I’m a chagrined to say I think hobby farming probably best defines our goals. Many homesteaders keep pantries stocked with two years of provisions, grind their own flour, and make their own clothes. We’re not willing to commit that amount of time and change from our current lifestyle. But we do want to live as close to it as we can, where we can. I would like to:

  • Grow our own vegetables as close to organic as possible.
  • Raise fish for eating in a protected pool.
  • Raise hens for egg and meat production.
  • Grow a large assortment of fruits and nuts.
  • Possibly raise a pig for butchering.
  • Incorporate energy and water saving devices as possible.
  • Raise small crops for home and animal consumption.
  • Can and dehydrate our produce.
  • Raise bees.
  • Possibly sell extra produce and honey at at a roadside stand or a small CSA.

I think we can do this on a much smaller scale like an acre. This fits in much better with our finances and also what’s available within a reasonable drive of the city. But, the house hasn't sold yet. It’s been on the market since late June, and we're hopeful. Some repairs are needed and we’ve priced it accordingly. Selling it will get us out from under an exorbitant house payment and help payoff numerous other debts that drain our finances. Until that happens, everything is on hold. Even then we may be looking at a year or two of apartment dwelling to raise the necessary down payment.

Sometimes it seems like the dream gets further and further away. That's when I go surfing homestead sites and blogs.

Friday, July 20, 2007

You can't take the country out of the city boy. - From There to Here

I've been around a while. Longer than some, not as long as others. I love dirt, and land and nature. I love planting and gardening. Maybe more the dreaming of it than the doing as my wife observes sometimes, but love nonetheless. That's my shtick, well at least one of them. I wonder what makes a person excited by the thought of planting a fruit tree or mulching a perky block of lettuce? It seems to me that everyone would love to talk about it and spend their free time commuting to work dreaming about making raised garden beds. But I have found they don't. Perhaps I’m a bit weird - the odd one.

I admit I'm green, or least a pale chartreuse color. I feel guilty if I don't recycle. I want solar electricity running my computer, my lights and even my air conditioner. And yes, I love air conditioning, so I guess I'm not militant green. I've replaced my regular burning lights with low watt energy saving bulbs. We keep the doors closed and windows shaded to reduce cool air loss. I do these things because it seems right, prudent and wise to do so. Not because I believe I owe Mother Earth. I don't believe in Mother Earth. I believe in God, and I don't think He likes us trashing the place.

So, how did I get to the mostly green, homestead loving, plant planting, semi-farmer that I am? Well, here's the story.

I'm originally from outside of Atlanta. We lived in a subdivision. (For those of you who have never lived in Atlanta, there is no letter "t" in that name. It's pronounced A-lan-a.) Our house backed up to a nice wood, and I have vague memories of leafy walks on winding red clay paths through large trees. At age six, we moved to pretty deep South Georgia. It was hot, sunny and a lot of fun. Our old wooden house held off the ground by brick pilings to keep cool, sported two wrap around porches and a tin roof. You've never slept a snugger sleep until you drift off beneath four inches of quilts and comforters to the wonderful roar of a winter rain on a tin roof! We had a grassy meadow for a back yard, a tire swing hanging from a pecan tree limb, an old wooden barn and an unused smoke house. A neighbor in the church planted us a nice garden of field peas on the other side of the barn, and Mom would send us out with instructions not to come back in until we had picked a bucket of peas. It was a small, bucket, but we whined anyway.

We lived there for about two years in the mid 1970's, and then moved outside of Washington DC. Our house sat squeezed up next to other houses in a subdivision with long skinny lots. It was very suburbia, but again, our lot backed up to a nice stream, and behind it, woods again. We played and skinny dipped and caught crayfish in that stream. I shudder now to think how clean it was. If you were careful of the hoodlum motorcycle teens that occasionally terrorized the walking trails, there was fun hiking to do in those woods. And against our parent's instructions, we discovered that the trail leading out the other side of the wood spilled out into the back lot of a convenience store, which sold candy, of course.

Then again in two years, we moved back to the deep south Georgia. A different house in a different part of the state, and there we stayed for the next five years. I didn't know it then, but those were some of the best years of my life. Yes, with three fuzzy broadcast television stations, we were sometimes bored out of our young minds, but if boredom isn't the mother of necessity, it's got to be an aunt or maybe a kissing cousin. Older now, we ranged far and wide through the woods. We hiked wherever our interest took us. I helped my older brother hunt and skin squirrels. We fished and swam in the field pond in the woods behind our house. We built a fort, climbed trees, and dug up raw peanuts and ate them right in the field. In the summer, it was worth the heat and stickers to gather pounds of blackberries. There were some alarming moments, like when my city cousin kept walking unknowingly past a rattlesnake with 16 rattles (That’s a monster big snake for those of you who haven’t seen one.) Then another time a fat and mean water moccasin crossed our yard during supper time. It took some time getting used sleeping with the whippoorwill calling so loud it seemed they were perched right outside the window screen at night. Still, it was a wonderful time. I think that's where the country got into me, one of two experiences that make me want to leave suburbia and return to a more basic life. I can truly say I'm country, too. There were many good (and painful memories) there, like working in the fields, picking tobacco, corn shucking, hog butchering, and blackberry picking. Sometimes, there was a lot of work, but I never ate better than I did those years.

Eventually we ended up back in the big city where I found a job that helped put me through college and cement my love of plants and nature; working in a large retail nursery. (And I do mean large.) This was not a mom and pop store. It had a huge retail shade house with whole parking lots filled with container and burlap wrapped plants, all in neat rows. An even larger warehouse full of wholesale houseplants resided down the hill, and a large landscape wholesale group did business in the back. In the retail section aloan, we ran six cash register lanes in the spring, with waiting lines. Why was this good? I was exposed to a mammoth amount of plant materials: trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, vegetables, ornamentals, vines, houseplants, fruits, succulents, grasses, epiphytes, water plants, and more. It was there I was certified as a nurseryman. In many ways, it was the best job I ever had.

But, now here I am back in Suburbia. I have a fantastic wife, Nancy and a great son, Sam, both of them very imaginative and a party to be around. But after ten years of sitting behind a computer writing training materials for corporate America, I'm older, balder, fatter, in debt, and addicted to a high paying job. I'm ready for change. When I look back, the most fulfilling parts of my life was running around those country woods and later, helping customers with a plant in my hand. Think about it. Training documents in large corporations are ephemeral, here today, maybe used - maybe not, quickly outdated and soon forgotten. Better to plant a living thing that can be nurtured up to provide beauty or privacy or protection or sustenance for years or even decades to come. Now, that’s cool. I have a closet full of the former, printed out and organized in binders, and even I don't look at them anymore (although they do make excellent tinder.) When I look back, I don't want to say; Boy, did I create some great training material. I'd rather say I made a great home for my family and friends, we ate a lot of healthy meals made from food grown on our own land, and we learned a lot about doing for ourselves and others while taking care of what we've been given. But how do I get from here to there? Now, that's a good question.

We need a PLAN.

Welcome - The Story

My wife and I made the decision to move out of the suburbs and seek a more down to earth lifestyle. The Search for ONE ACRE FARM is the story of that journey to change, leaving suburbia and finding a new place to live and farm and get closer to basic living.

I'm starting this blog before we have even begun. We have no new home; we haven't even sold the suburb house yet. Being a researching fool, as I dream about the lifestyle I'd like to have one day, I ferret out good books and magazines and websites and blogs of others who have done something similar to what I hope to do. (The next best thing to living your own dream is sharing in someone else's, and sometimes even better, because you vicariously enjoy the rewards with none of the painful labor.) Perhaps this blog will do the same for you.

Right now, I'm still dreaming and planning. Putting the house on the market was a big first step, but I hope in the months, or year, or years to come to have found a new home with enough land in which we can invest our time and labor and dreams. And as I go along, I'll try to chronicle as much of our experiences as possible.

Welcome along on the ride.