Good morning, everyone! I started thinking this post would be just one post on some of different things and events in my life that led me to become a homesteader. But as that post got longer and longer, I realized that it would be best if I split it into a series of posts. There will be at least three posts in this series, perhaps more.
Jaime at Home
My path to homesteading and self-sufficiency started with, of all things, a cooking show, and a professional chef. I was living in Tucson, Arizona at the time, with my brother and father, and my brother and I were both going to school working on nursing prerequisite. My brother introduced me to the British chef Jaime Oliver, and in particular his show Jaime at Home. Alex and I share a lot of the same interests, which our father never did. Alex and I liked to experiment with cooking, while our father preferred bologna and hot dogs (eww). I had a modest garden back home in Indiana, and although Alex and I tried to start one in Tucson, my skills were not transferable to desert gardening. It was a different environment, and although I poured money (soil was expensive there!) straight into the sandy ground, I couldn’t get anything to grow. I gave up on having anything but a couple of pots of herbs in the house. Although I enjoyed gardening, I didn’t at that time think I’d end up attempting to become a farmer.
But Jaime at Home wasn’t just instructions for certain recipes. In a way, it was almost lifestyle porn. It’s filmed at his home in the country. When he starts an episode to cook a certain ingredient in various recipes, he goes to his garden to pick it first. And it’s a glorious, beautiful garden! It’s huge, because Jaime Oliver doesn’t just grow his own food, but all the food for his restaurants are grown on his property. Its a picturesque English property, with a stone wall surrounding it. He has chickens and rabbits, an outdoor pizza oven, wood stoves, multiple kitchens indoors and outdoors, and just beautiful, beautiful land. It was a peaceful oasis. It wasn’t long before Jaime at Home became a way to relax after school and more importantly, a sanctuary from an unfriendly world outside.
Tucson was not a pleasant place for me. While I enjoyed school, I was always living in dangerous areas. My family has always been low-income, and I’ve never been a stranger to “ghettos”. But this was the first time when I feared for my life or physical safety, often. All in time, in fact. I never got to live in Oro Valley or Marana or the “nice” parts of Tucson; in fact, a girl was raped at gunpoint in the bathroom of the Downtown Campus of my school at 4 pm. And I had a class there at 4:30. (I don’t believe the rapist was ever caught, but I haven’t checked back in a while). I thought I had an anxiety disorder before living in Tucson. Tucson didn’t help. My brother and I joke that we have Post-Tucson Stress Disorder.
But Tucson did teach me what I didn’t want. If I had never lived in Tucson, I probably would not have not the courage to commit to full-on rural living. I might have stayed in South Bend, thinking that the big city might be better, not sure what I wanted from life. The longer I was in Tucson, the more I read books and watched shows, particularly my inspiration in Jaime at Home, the more I started to think that was what I really wanted. I used to think I wanted to be close to lots of cultural things, like museums, art fairs, and other such things that only large cities can offer. But when I lived in the city, I never went to these things. I only did these special events when I had visited Tucson the year before (my brother had moved a few years before me). I realized I’d much rather live in the country, close to the land, and every once in the while make a special trip if there was something cool going on in a big city.
Wal-Mart: A Peek Behind the Curtain
After 2 years, I had had enough of Tucson. Alex and I pooled our resources and moved back to Indiana. It was the spring of 2013, and we both got jobs working at Wal-mart. This, too, was an unlikely step towards homesteading. I got a peek behind the curtain, I saw how our food system works. During this time, my eyes were opened not just to the wastefulness of our current food system, but also its fragility.
During one fall storm, we lost power for a few hours. The freezers we had were incredibly efficient, and they were still cold when the power came back on. But that didn’t matter. For liability reasons, Wal-Mart couldn’t sell any of the perishables. All the employees had to work to throw away all the perishables. These are employees who are paid dirt-poor wages, many of them on foodstamps, having to throw away perfectly good food. Some of them were hungry at that very moment, without the money to eat until payday, and they had to destroy food. Most of the meat was still completely frozen. Some of the guys made a game of throwing the eggs against the trash dumpsters as they were throwing them away. Keep in mind that these eggs were perfectly fine. As someone who has suffered food insecurity most of her life, I found the entire situation extremely offensive. It physically hurt me, in my body, to see so much food wasted. I understand why Wal-Mart couldn’t sell it, but didn’t understand why the workers couldn’t be allowed to take some of the food home. To just throw away hundreds of pounds of food! That was the lesson in our food system’s wastefulness.
Later that same year, in the winter, I learned about the dangerous fragility of our food system. It was during the Polar Vortex, when the temperatures and the snow were crazier than usual. The food trucks were delayed by snowstorms for only 12 hours. Not even a full day, just 12 hours. EVERYTHING WAS GONE. THERE WAS NO FOOD LEFT IN THE STORE. NONE. ZIP. ZERO. NADA. No produce. No milk. No meat. No bread. Most of the canned goods were also gone. My brother says he remembers seeing a man buy 2 entire grocery carts stuffed full of whole milk. And this was near the beginning of the bad weather, when it would surely mean that similar (or worse) storms would cause similar (or worse) delays. And in fact, it did. That was only the first of many such delays, and many food shortages and empty shelves for that whole winter that I worked there.
Add to this the fact that most people only have a few days worth of food in their home, and you begin to realize what a problem this can be. You can read any amount of books on the subject. But seeing the completely empty shelves, and knowing the trucks had only been delayed a few hours, is another thing entirely. It made me realize just how fragile how modern food system is.
With producers, packagers, shippers, stores and consumers so spread out, any little hiccup can be cause major problems. There is a saying that we only 9 meals from anarchy. Cut off the food supply for most people, for only 3 days, and people became desperate. Desperate enough to steal, to riot, to hurt other people. Needless to say, this was a pretty terrifying realization. That got me interested in prepping and food storage.
Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm
One of biggest homesteading heroes is certainly Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm in northern New York state. I only discovered her two years ago, and read all her books in a few short months. The first book I read by Ms Woginrich was One-Woman Farm, which I can best describe as half journal, half love letter to farming. This particular book is less a how-to, and more about what it feels like to be a farmer, especially for someone who had aspired to becoming one for a long time and had finally achieved it. She writes about farming with such love, such passion, that it approaches a kind of religious fervor. I could almost believe that she is Pagan, the way she writes about the cycles of the earth and sheep and her own patch of land. Her writing touched a piece of my soul, deep inside of me, that longed to return to similar life, but didn’t think that it would be possible.
After reading One-Woman Farm, I found out that first she had written Made from Scratch and Chick Days, and after that Barnheart and Cold Antler Farm. I immediately read all her books in chronological order, and it not only touched me, fascinated me, but gave me a lot of hope. I had read Hobby Farms, MotherEarth News and Grit magazines for years, but a part of me feared it was a vain hope. Many of the articles seemed to start with phrases like “When I was a child,” “My Grandmother used to”, “My Mother/Father taught me”, etc. etc. Many of the authors seemed to have grown up in the country, having always known this way of life. Even if they moved to the city for a few years as an adult, even decades, when they decided to move back they had this ancestral knowledge and childhood wisdom to draw on. It seemed to hard for an outsider to break into this way of life successfully.
But Jenna Woginrich wasn’t raised in the farm life. She went to design school, but fell in love with farming afterwards. Three times she moved across the country, raised in Pennsylvania, first to Tennessee, then Idaho, Vermont, and finally buying 6.5 acres just over the border in New York. Each time she moved with just a car, herself, and two huskies, but each time she added to her homesteading knowledge and experience. Reading her story, about her failures and successes was encouraging. She had no background and learned as she went. She’s single, doing this on her own, without a husband or boyfriend to do the “hard work”, the traditionally male labor. And seeing that she did it, that she could do it, made me feel that maybe I could, too. She describes Barnheart as:
“A sharp, targeted depression, a sudden overcast feeling that hits you while you’re at work or standing in the grocery-store checkout line. It’s a dreamer’s disease, a mix of hope, determination, and grit. It attacks those of us who wish to God we were outside with our flocks, feed bags, or harnesses instead of sitting in front of a computer screen. When a severe attack hits, it’s all you can do to sit still. The room gets smaller, your mind wanders, and you are overcome with the desire to be tagging cattle ears and feeding pigs. … This condition is roughly defined as the state of know unequivocally that you want to be a farmer but, due to personal circumstances, cannot be one just yet. … But do not not panic, my dear friends; there is a remedy! The condition must be fought with direct intentional actions that yield tangible, farm-related results. … Perhaps someday you’ll do this every day. For some, this is surely the only cure. I may be such a case1.”
Me, too, Jenna. Me too. I might write to her one day and let her know how much she has inspired me. I recently reread Barnheart and One-Woman Farm, and came away again with such wonder, and gratitude that I found this life, and to the people that led me to it, even if they have no idea how influential they were on me. For those interested in her work, she blogs at coldantlerfarm.blogspot. I can’t overstate how much I admire her.
1Woginrich, Jenna. Barnheart: the Incurable Longing for a Farm of One’s Own: a Memoir. Storey Publishing. North Adams, MA. 2011. pages 8-10