It has been an eventful week around Carrowmore Farm.  We put away our second batch of homemade maple syrup and welcomed the arrival of our heritage breed chicks.  The weekend chores, evaporating sap and clearing pasture space for our new residents, provided plenty of free capacity for my mind to ramble.  My pondering mostly revolved around how much hobby farming has changed in the last two generations. 

My grandparents would not have considered themselves hobby farmers, but by my modern standards they were much more “farmer” than me.  Times have always been hard in rural Appalachia and the Great Depression was the great re-enforcer of a hard living.  My grandfather earned the best living available in his circumstances, in the coal mines deep underneath the mountains. He didn’t talk about mining often but would share a recurring memory of his first few years loading pony carts of coal, getting paid by the cart, and being deducted for any “rock” (which seemed to have been a subjective term applied randomly by the boss.)  In my youth I was more interested in hearing about the ponies that lived most of their lives underground, but the story has stuck with me through my years.  As fortunate as he considered himself to have a “good job” my grandparents kept a dairy cow, a steer, a couple of hogs, honeybees, laying hens, and a garden larger than a couple of suburban lots.  They didn’t do it because it was fun.  They did it for survival.  They couldn’t afford not to be “hobby farmers.”

Welcome to the 21st century.  Like my grandfather, I consider myself fortunate to have a “good job.”  In fact, I have a career successful enough that I can choose to raise my family on a hobby farm.  I hobby farm because I CAN afford it, not because I can’t afford not.  I look at that striking piece of architecture that doubles as the chicken house and realize that our hens would have to lay golden eggs for that enterprise to breakeven in the next decade.  I wouldn’t want to calculate the cost of hay we’ve pumped into those equine compost machines in the barnyard.  The maple syrup we canned on Saturday, the price per ounce likely rivals that of some lesser precious metals.

I’m not lamenting the cost and effort associated with the lifestyle I can afford to lead.  I feel privileged to have the freedom to choose it.  I can also understand why my personal approach to sustainability is out of reach to some and less than attractive to others.  There have been many innovations and economic successes over the past 60 years that have provided us with a more prosperous life than our grandparents.  As I sunlight (isn’t that the opposite of moonlight?) as a business leader of innovation, I’m heartened by the innovations and economic drivers that created that prosperity.  I am also pained by the challenges it has created.  I think an answer lies somewhere in an approach similar to the one that created that dilemma.  To address those challenges we must look toward innovation and economic success, but innovation around a different problem definition and within a different context.  With innovation breakthrough often comes through reframing the problem.

Perhaps I’ll boil some more sap, clear some more brush and ponder some more this weekend.

-Gary

 
 
Twelve years ago while living in the eco-overachieving city of Davis, California, one of my friends shared that she was getting worms and setting up a vermicompost bin.  I must admit that at the time I thought she may have just gone a bit weird.  Twelve years, forty acres, and a lot of personal eco-maturity later I’m proud to say that I’ve also gone a bit weird.  After an obsessive amount of internet research, we began our vermicomposting in June 2011, with the purchase of one thousand red wigglers from http://www.unclejimswormfarm.com.  We reused some retired storage bins that had outlived their useful life as, well, storage bins, shred up a two month supply of recycled pizza boxes for bedding, and set ourselves up as worm wranglers. 

Over the summer, fall and most of winter we religiously added our fruit and vegetable scraps along with a disturbing volume of coffee grounds.  Miraculously, our bin (barely) survived my rookie mistakes including 1) getting too wet, 2) overfeeding and 3) not harvesting soon enough.  After several partial restarts and the addition of a second bin, this week marked the first harvest of our homemade “black gold.” 

The harvest turned out to be too exciting for the two young human critters to avoid.  My job was to handle and separate the compost while they transferred worms by the fistful to their freshly made bed.  For the three year old this was accompanied by squeals of delight as the farm’s subsoil superheroes crawled, wriggled and jumped up her arms.  Then my second grader said “Dad, I don’t think anyone else in my class is playing with worms today.”  I answered that she was probably right and asked her if she thought they ever play with worms.  “I don’t think so, at least not many.  Most of them think that worms are ewwy.  But worms are cool.  Without worms the dirt would probably be bad.  If the dirt was bad we probably wouldn’t have much food.  And if we didn’t have much food then we would probably die.  So, worms help to keep people from dying.”  …Well, yeah, I guess they sort of do.  My second grader had just made an insight that it took her dad twelve years to reach.

I’m eagerly awaiting the spring when I can get that black gold out in the raised beds.  In the meantime, I still have a lot of learning to do in my remaining days around the sun.  With my family, the critters and the land to help, there may be hope for me yet.