A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Home economics

    For the last month we have been nestled back in our cozy straw bale home in Missouri, submerged back into the rhythms of our simple life here. Morning light streaks through our bedroom window and wakes us, (or rather, our daughter, who then wakes us by gleefully pouncing on us.) One of us will then reluctantly lumber downstairs to chop up kindling to start the fire in our stalwart engine, our Ashland cookstove. As the stove warms, so does our breakfast (and dish water, and lunch meal often too), and our day is underway. On these bleak winter days, amidst bleak and uncertain changes going on in our community and our nation, I focus on gratitude for small things: the bright red beacon of a cardinal sitting on the garden gate, the surprise visits of friends and neighbors, the way the sun lights some angle of our home, the joy of our daughter learning something new. These are small but buoying things to focus on instead of losing oneself in the undertow of uncertainties swirling around us.

     The rhythm of chores inherent to homesteading also helps us stay present and productive—we have to keep moving and doing, cooking and chopping, digging and tending—rather than stagnant worrying, and wondering about the future. This is something I love about homesteading, though I realize from the outside, it looks like a lot of thankless, hard labor. I suppose it is, but regardless, every morning I am excited to get up and going on the days projects, I suppose because they are ones we ourselves have dreamed up, or because each project has a gratifying completion—something we can see or hold in our hands at the end of the day or week as reward for our efforts.

     Every season or month has its projects and tasks, and it seems February—with spring around the corner—is the cozy month for dreaming and visioning for the year to come. Recently I’ve noticed everyone in the community swapping seed catalogues, gardening books, and brainstorming big projects for the year. At a potluck dinner a week ago, talk turned to gardening and everyone sheepishly disclosed their latest vegetable fantasies for the coming season: “flint corn”, “alpine strawberries”, “rutabegas”. Our own garden fantasies for the coming year include building a garden shed and expanding to our second garden area with storage crops like corn, dry beans, potatoes and squash. Another gardening goal is compost, lots of compost. These dreams have been fueled by two books published by Chelsea Green (anything by them is excellent): The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe and Will Bonsai's Guide to Gardening. Both of them are seasoned and opinionated old-timers who know their stuff. Not just know it, but who breed, grow, store and eat their own stuff year round. Suffice to say, we are inspired to great gardening ambitions. Surely, to end a fall garden season with stores of roots, beans, grains, bushels of fruit and nuts and cold hardy vegetables growing under row covers is a deeply satisfying vision hard-wired into our genes. At least, it feels like it. 

We have running water!
Bacon curing in the bathroom

     Besides getting swept away with garden fantasies, Mike and I are headed in new directions with our vocational energies this year. We are each embarking on different ventures that we hope will yield more financial stability for our family. The financial equation is something that almost every homesteader has to tinker with: rarely is it possible to make your living entirely off of the land. Even our Amish neighbors who are masterful at growing crops, raising animals and putting up prodigious amounts of food have side gigs like carpentry, milling, repairing small motors, making buggies and the like. Having a child has meant that Mike and I can no longer do renovation work during winters in the city, saving up for the year to come, so a shift of home economies is in order. The puzzle for us has been to figure out what work would be rewarding to us, what would allow us to still mostly homestead, and also be viable in a somewhat depressed NE Missouri economy.

     For Mike, the answer seems to be free-lance organic crop inspection, working for certification agencies. This kind of work would mean some travel for him now and again, while I keep the home fires burning. But perhaps not far—apparently there are around 480 organic farms in Missouri alone! Organic farming is one of the fastest growing sector of the agricultural world and certificates get reissued to farms yearly, meaning lots of work for inspectors. Meanwhile, Mike and our friend Cynthia continue to dabble in coopery (barrel making) when they get the chance to, and have dreams of ramping up production in the near future.

Ella making copies of a penguin lino print she created

     As for me, I am venturing into the art world: I am beginning to teach weekly art lessons out of our home for the community kids and, during baby nap times, making my own artwork for a show I will be in this coming summer. The show will feature not only my work, but my maternal grandparents, who were both prolific artists on top of doing many other things (including building their house and growing much of their food). I feel honored to get to show with them, and it definitely has me working overtime to meet my next artistic deadline.  So we will see! This year will be our litmus test for whether we can sustain ourselves financially on our Missouri homestead. Undoubtedly there will be other economic ventures in our future—perhaps more value-added goods from our homestead like honey, garlic, mushrooms, or organic meat or produce sold to our wonderful new local foods cafe, Take Root. But for now, we are underway.

Everett carving his hummingbird print block during art class

Regina trying out Mark and Alyson's water pump
     The other huge demand of the coming year seems to be community brainstorming and rebuilding after the departure of several families. Conversations are beginning, ideas are being thrown around, surveys of needs and dreams and possibilities are all underway. I am beginning to feel excited about the new direction we are taking, as well as a deeper sense of solidarity with  our remaining neighbors. Recently, we all went on a weekend retreat to an ecovillage nearby, Dancing Rabbit, where we have many friends and allies. The much larger community there (comprised of three adjoining communities—Dancing Rabbit, Red Earth CLT, and Sandhill Farms) is further down the road than we are in every sense, and we have the advantage of learning from their successes and failures. We learned our cistern building strategy from several folks there, and our Community Land Trust model comes from Red Earth Farms as well. We soaked in the inspiration and good company and returned re-energized for the work ahead.

Retreat at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, in their beautiful dance hall

Rocket mass heater at Red Earth Farms
Cool stair design at Dancing Rabbit

Dancing Rabbit ecovillage- a mix of communal and private natural buildings (white one is straw bale!)

The straw bale Milkweed Mercantile Inn and Cafe building at Dancing Rabbit

Mark and Alyson's straw bale building with recycled pallet wood roof trusses showing

     As you can tell, another year is slowly making its contours known to us. We have a lot that we are juggling and surely more to come, but for now we are able and ready for our busy 2017 homesteading season to begin!