The Resilient Farm and Homestead
"Should I stay or should I go" is the refrain of a great song by my all-time favorite band, The Clash, and it’s a question we confront daily.
Friends who are staying on our farm this summer got fed up with debating that question all the time and solved it with their own decision wheel -- like a wheel of fortune, but more oracular. Currently staying on our farm, this couple has traveled between farms in South and North America as "WWOOFers" -- volunteers pursuing "worldwide opportunities on organic farms." Basically they stay on a farm for a little while, help out, and live and eat for free or cheap.
When on a farm they’re not sure of and faced with that "stay or go" question, they spin the decision wheel. In addition to answering that question, it has a few more suggestions up its sleeve, depending on where the needle lands: take 30 deep breaths; draw a picture with your wrong hand; do 10 jumping-jacks. Like any good oracle, it can call a spade a spade. My friend, asking it whether he should go get ice cream the other day, and not getting the answer he wanted, even after several spins, eventually hit the "bankrupt!" slot on the decision wheel.
If you’re looking to stay in one place for a long time and want that place to provide more of your food, fuel, and fun, I’d recommend picking up a copy of "The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach," written by Ben Falk (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013, $40 list price).
It’s a book that makes my mouth water. For one thing, it features beautiful color photos of food harvested from the author’s experimental homestead: luscious berries, plump radishes, fresh mushrooms, and happy ducks and sheep grazing on pasture.
More profoundly, it shows how appealing homestead living can be. The author has taken an unproductive hillside in the Mad River Valley in central Vermont and turned it into a farm brimming with rice paddies, shiitake mushrooms, vegetables galore, and, judging again from the photos, people having a great time while building skills in self-sufficiency.
The book is not an authoritative encyclopedia on homesteading or resilient living. Many topics deserve lengthier treatment, but Falk is wise to that and keeps the book moving. He describes the book as a preparedness manual, but one based just on his experience on his farm -- your mileage may vary. You’ll learn a couple approaches to how Falk makes and uses biochar -- an ancient soil-building ingredient similar to charcoal -- but not in great detail. How does he get hot coals out of his woodstove and outside safely and without smoking up his house? And is this really worth the trouble?
If you’re comfortable in a life where you buy most or all of your food and fuel, you might be asking that question a lot, in fact, if you were reading this book. But if owning or working on land -- even marginal land by agricultural standards -- where you can fashion your own abundance makes sense to you, you’ll find a lot of inspiration. Here are a few things you’ll read about.
-- How to make peace with putting a lot of effort in up-front -- maybe even with a lot of time spent hiring an excavator -- because once you establish ecological systems that work as a whole, your technological input and overall effort will go way down.
-- How to get multiple functions from one project: a duck fertilizes, eats insect pests, makes eggs and meat, and is really fun to watch.
-- How to contour your land to hold water. In our relatively wet climate, plants grow well on mounds, while swales contour the land to hold water and provide a more even supply through the dry periods.
-- How to grow paddy rice successfully in Vermont. It’s the only grain that people have managed to grow successfully in the same spot for centuries without destroying the land. A rice paddy is a "fertility trap," according to Falk.
The book also includes other great resources, including a questionnaire to assess your personal aptitude toward resilience, and a "homestead vulnerability checklist and strategy summary." I recommend it.
And by the way, if you ever tried to sing along with The Clash that song and wondered what the heck the backup chorus is singing between the "Should I stay or should I go now" lines -- it’s a Spanish translation of the same lyrics.
Yo! ¿Me frío o lo soplo? Another mystery solved -- thanks as always for reading and keep your questions and comments coming to Tristan@BuildingGreen.com.
Tristan Roberts is editorial director at BuildingGreen, Inc., in Brattleboro, Vt., which publishes information on green building solutions. You can learn more at www.BuildingGreen.com. You can reach Tristan at Tristan@BuildingGreen.com.