To a generation who grew up on Lassie, Little House on the Prairie and Green Acres, living a rural lifestyle is about fairy tales and fantasy. Almost all of us are several generations from any of our relations being farmers. Most folks are used to (and happy to continue) going to work, getting a paycheck, and filling grocery carts at the store—modern versions of Hunters/Gatherers. Pies in fact, ARE easy because they come in a tin foil plate with a snap on plastic lid.
Back up a few decades and a lot of the Back-to-the-Landers were Flower Children—those granola munchin’ hippies who sang songs about Mother Earth, smelled of patchouli and hugged trees.
Hop forward just a bit from there to the “new” Green Revolution that changed the face of Mother Earth News from being a laid back go with the flow publication exalting the virtues of making something out of literally nothing to a slick shiny volume that mirrors its new clientele and where every recipe for Being Green starts with “Take $5,000…”
And then there’s now.
People are going to the grocery store with what used to comfortably feed their families and coming home with… snacks.
People are reading and learning things about how their meat (also known as “live animals”) are treated and processed (also known as “killed, gutted, hacked apart, and packaged”), things that are even more disturbing than thinking about the huge brown eyes your hamburger used to have. Things like antibiotic-resistant bacteria clinging to the surface of what will shortly be nestled between the potatoes and veggies even after it’s been doused liberally with chemicals. Things like the herbicides used on the genetically engineered pasture being able to withstand the acids inside a bovine stomach (or several) and being both poo-ed out and used as (killer) compost or sticking to the ribs (and other tasty parts) of the food animal and causing spontaneous abortion. But only in cows…so far as they’ve been able to prove. Of course I’m sure it’s perfectly safe for human consumption, Monsanto told us so.
And speaking of genetically modified…
…Try not to think about the produce aisle. Suffice it to say it’s getting to the point where tossing your child a bag of Funions is less toxic and more nutritious than a GMO, bug-sprayed, shiny waxed apple from the produce aisle of the Wal-Mart. Remember how shiny and pretty the apple in Snow White was? How did that work out for her?
So, people who have never had the slightest desire to go “back to the land” are suddenly very very interested in becoming more self-sufficient to avoid things like bankruptcy, malnutrition and death.
What to do when there’s no background of interest in gardening or livestock or “Being Green”? Our years of schooling have taught us one thing.
Always raise your hand and ask permission to go to the bathroom.
No, wait. That’s not it. I guess school taught us TWO things…
When in doubt, read a book about it.
Read the directions! It’s Easy! It’s Fun! Follow the steps and reap your harvest.
Except it’s not that simple.
Oh, there’s no lack of books on the subject(s). There are shelves and shelves of ‘em at the Barnes & Noble and cyber-pages of ‘em on Amazon all promising happiness, success and bountiful harvests.
Unfortunately, most of them won’t work in your situation.
Don’t give me that paranoid sideways look, I’m not singling you out—they won’t work in my situation either.
Anyone who says they’ve written the ONLY book you’ll ever need on gardening and/or livestock is lying.
The problem is that plants and animals are not mechanical things, they’re living things. They all have different needs and requirements for health, happiness, and future tastiness.
There’s no such thing as generic “grow anywhere” chickens, goats, pigs or cows—some do better in hot climates and some are cold hardy. Boer goats (as a fer instance) do outstandingly well with little or no oversight in deserts that would dehydrate a cockroach, but the same goats keel over dead of intestinal worm infestation here in the Pineywoods of East Texas unless you worm ‘em every few WEEKS.
There are chickens for laying eggs and some for frying up, some who are terrible mothers that lay eggs and walk away without a backward glance and some that will bloody the hand of anyone who comes near her pre-babies.
There are meat goats and dairy goats, beef cattle and dairy cattle, lean pigs and fat pigs.
Even the plant world is daunting. Ever see the different varieties of tomato seeds Burpee’s sells? 143. That’s one seed company out of hundreds. And every single variety has certain conditions under which it will flourish, and those that will kill it so quick it’ll take your breath away.
So you need to know your personal climate—that big space outside your house that isn’t controlled by the thermostat. The world is a very big place with things like huge oceans and two polar caps and that equator-thing running around it like a gigantic elastic steamy belt and that makes for more than one climate to deal with. Just in the U.S. there are TEN different growing zones.
By now you can see the limitations of a large amount of the books out there. I love books. Books are good. Being careful to purchase books that are written for your particular climate will give you permanent resources that ARE invaluable…
…As long as the authors really know what they’re doing.
Which brings us to the question of authority. And it’s an excellent question because there are many authorities out there, just ask ‘em.
You’d like to think that for the most part there are fact-checkers and editors looking over the words that get printed, bound and sold in bookstores. Even if the editors are farmers who travel from their tater patch to their office every day (but probably not) their experiences STILL won’t mirror those of the other nine climate zones in the U.S. If you can find books that have been written for your particular zone and that encompass your particular interests, snap them up and keep them close for future reference. The printed word is permanent; it’s not like it can be spewed out there willy-nilly and then disappear into some alternate universe…
…Like on the Internet.
Online forums and websites and blogs abound to help newcomers become old hands at the various tasks involved in livestock and plant care.
The only problem (and it’s a doozy) is that there’s really no way of knowing if the person counseling you is knowledgeable and experienced, or full of compost.
Even IF said person (if that is, in fact, their real name) lives near you (if that is, in fact, their real location), it’s really difficult to tell if they know what they’re talking about, or if they’ve just been doing the same thing you have—wandering the ‘net and gathering links—only they’ve got a more authoritative timbre to their typing and a really earthy avatar and web-name.
So if you ask a question like, “What kind of chickens should I get?” you’ll get a gabazillion different answers–all of which may be true…for that person, in that place.
Honestly, the best way to ensure success of your budding farming endeavor is to ask real people in your real neighborhood (of course, you must finish this particular article first).
Some of the web forums are regional and some worldwide, but chances are there’s someone from your neck of the woods online. Look at this like cyber-dating except the stakes are higher—soul mates are swell, but learning to feed your family is invaluable. Test the waters. If you’re getting along online, arrange a meeting in a public neutral place—anything from the farmers’ market to Starbucks will work.
I’m here to tell you it’s a crapshoot. On one forum I’m on I’ve met 100% true blue people who are exactly as advertised, but on another there have been some…disappointments.
I love meeting new people, seeing how others run their farms both in my area and far away in different climates. I can honestly say our circle of “people we could call to bail us out” has expanded enormously since we’ve made it a point to get to know our online friends in person.
And they’re without exception absolutely To-Die-For cooks and bakers.
If you live far away from your online friends, you’ll have to take your search to the streets, err….fields.
I know you’re thinking, “Well, that’s easy for YOU to say, but I don’t know any farmers locally. What am I supposed to do? Drive around till I see a vegetable garden, stop and knock on their door and ask, ‘How did you do that?’ ” That’s actually a viable option and has worked well for me more than once.
If you’re not quite as…gregarious as I am, I suggest you call your local Ag extension. It’s in the phone book under “U.S. Department of Agriculture”.
Your extension agent will be happy to assist you with everything from soil analysis, to pamphlets on which veggies grow in your area, to how to irrigate your garden no matter its size, to hooking you up with a 4-H’er to buy livestock from.
Another option is garden clubs; people tend to think of garden clubs as All Roses/No Rutabagas, but most gardeners have an interest in all things with roots, not just the floweredy ones. The Chamber of Commerce in your town (or nearest town) will most likely have information for the garden clubs and a calendar of events for them–things like annual plant and seed sales are common garden club fundraisers and a great way to meet the members.
If you frequent the farmers’ market, ask the sellers about the different varieties they’re peddling. Then be sure to ask them if they were grown “around here”. Most of the time there are rules about “locally grown” but sometimes things slide in when locally grown isn’t quite ready or past its prime.
All the above may score you what you really need: a mentor.
Someone you know face to face, someone you can dig in the dirt with, pluck chickens with, milk goats with. Someone to learn from who knows what works and what doesn’t in the microcosm that is your patch of the planet.
Learning from someone who knows what they are doing in your very own climate is doubly important when dealing with animate objects. Plants and animals are living things that require (not only desire) respect and knowledgeable care or they grow sickly and die.
When “shopping your mentor”, really look at their place. Even if it’s not fancy and new, is the garden plot producing, the livestock healthy, the fences secure? If any part of their farm equation strikes you as a bit “off” or “alarmingly weird”, ASK THEM about it. Sometimes there are good reasons for things being as they are, and sometimes the truth is…they don’t know much more than you do no matter how expensive all their stuff is or how fancy their website, videos and books are.
If it’s obvious that for whatever reason, the connection is just not going to work (again, think first- date test) thank them sincerely and beat feet outta there.
Finally, it’s not imperative, but it sure makes for a more satisfying time if you and your mentor(s) can be friends of sorts. Shared beliefs and goals make for a more willing teacher and a more attentive student.
And here’s the best part.
The best part is that once you know someone and work with them, you’ve formed, if not a full-blown BFF bond, at least the inklings of a community. And that, my friend, will be the most valuable asset to have of all if the going continues to be rough—mightier than a flock of all-purpose chickens, more powerful than ten years worth of hermetically sealed seeds will be the banding together of people for mutual benefit of all. Community.
Shop Local. Eat Local. Learn Local.