So, it has now been 8 months since my last post. Putting this in the forum of the internet contextualizes it in such a way that it seems an incredibly long time. But that is an artificial construct, and one much unlike the actual construct(ion)s of what I'm spending most of my time on. In this age of content-driven media and communication it seems to me that most of the emphasis is placed on quicker pacing, higher volume (of shorter length), and perpetual novelty. It's quite an interesting phenomenon to me, partly because engaging with it the little extant that I do, I tend to view it almost as if I was a cultural outsider. In my real-time, steady, deliberate, often hand-powered world of homesteading, 8 months is not very long at all. It's not very short either. Neither is it very medium-length. It's simply how much time it's taken me to do everything since I wrote the last flog (farm log) post. One ancient Chinese proverb says, "A man's house is done when he is dead." My understanding of that statement is growing in tandem with experience. (And that's not even considering the barn...)
If you look at the picture beginning this post, and scan your eyes from left to right, you will see, a large pile of 'slab' (waste) wood from milling, a large pile of sawdust, 100 or so logs remaining of the 250 we started with this year, and the house with it's freshly laid subroof, ready for slate. The blue sky in there was mostly pine tree canopy until last November. The foreground of the picture (mostly shadow), is now a new rye/ clover pasture. It's coming in very strong thanks to our plentiful June rains this year. This flat (for Vermont anyway) clearing is about one sixth of an acre as accurately as I can measure it. Since most of us don't really experience the world in acres, try to envision from the end zone to the 16 yard line, with the full width of the playing field. It's also enough forage for maybe a third of one cow. We'd prefer to have a whole cow, (for whole milk?), so we're either going to have to make sure she's long enough to have her head in another pasture, or we're going to clear many more sixths of an acre--maybe 30 or so. Eventually.
In the mean time, luckily, we are fortunate enough to have our neighbors, the Cochrans, offering us grazing on their 7 acre upper field (that's 42 sixths, for those of you following my math), through a short path in the woods. All of this land was part of the Lynde family dairy farm two generations ago. According to Ken Lynde, who grew up chasing cows through our property, they used to call this clearing the "Big Flat."
The less flat half of the Big Flat.
7 acres will support a couple of whole cows and calves. So were ready to jump in! As long as you don't consider the barn. (Coincidentally, the old dairy barn and farmhouse are still there on the road. The barn is now used as a two-car garage. This acreage will feed 0% of one domestic or foreign car.)
We're certainly learning a lot about how to build a farm from the ground up, and from the treetops down. Not the least of which is how often the 'success' of farming in a given time and place has everything to do with markets, and only somewhat to do with the farm-ibility of the land. Vermont was its most cleared in the nineteenth century, primarily for wool sheared from Merino sheep. Vermont wasn't any less suitable to sheep in the eighteenth century, or now for that matter. It was simply a side-effect of the tariffs placed on wool coming from Spain. In that particular context, it became profitable (enough) to raise sheep in Vermont. And when the tariff ended, so did the sheep farming. Today, there is a small, growing movement of localized agriculture, but make no mistake that many societal forces and norms are still chugging right along with habitual momentum not making it any easier. Cleared land costs three times as much as forested land around here, and most of the really fertile spots have the nicest old farmhouses. Therefore, they are the most likely to be second, third or fourth homes of people who live much of their lives somewhere else, and when for sale, are priced accordingly. Thus, young farmers (such as ourselves) often end up working what is called marginal land. (Not to be confused with margarine land, which is acreage grown for neon yellow goop.)
I'm optimistic about the potential for the contexts to change. Here in the northeast, where people used to grow the vast majority of the food they ate, food buying habits have swung to the complete other extreme. That means for each small local farm like ourselves, it would only take a small percentage of local people changing a small or moderate amount of where they purchased their food for our financial viability to be realized. How about some tariffs on veggies from California?
There have been so many predictions and declarations of the end of oil, or the end of cheap oil over the past fifty years. It's really not clear to me at this moment whether or not that particular energy context will change drastically during my lifetime. It seems that any change would probably be in the "closer is cheaper" direction. I like that. And even if oil stays relatively affordable, I still think it's possible that more people will at least come to realize how poor the quality and taste of so many distantly-sourced foods are, and how wonderful local food can be. And if we're going to have the number of people we currently do have here in New England eating more food grown locally, it will require much more cleared land, and much less forest. I just hope that this time, people realize the potential of holding that swinging motion in the center, allowing wild forest and domestic field to work side by side. In my experience, no area of human habitation can match it's balanced beauty. And that's not even considering the barns.
Recording moments from our journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. (All pre-2015 entries are Patrick's words on work and life at the homestead).