(This post is shared at Real Food Freaks.)
Best as I can figure, my burning desire to grow food originated when I was about 8 years old and my parents tried to grow a vegetable garden in the sad sorry plot on the shady side of our house. They grew radishes, and perhaps some tomatoes. I don't remember much else. The soil was rocky and the Arizona sun unforgiving, and I don't think the experiment was repeated. But I have this very sharp, very clear memory of my stepmother, who grew up on a small farm in Oregon, saying that no carrot on Earth tasted as good as one right out of the ground, with the dirt still clinging to it. That was such an interesting concept to me. And from that point on I knew, without a doubt, that I would grow food.
But first I was gonna go to medical school.
(Made sense at the time.)
If I squint and cock my head a certain way I can see how this place that we call Broke Ass Farm actually could be a farm, someday. A small farm, of course. A micro-farm. Next year, maybe that vague CSA idea will come together for us. I would love to provide a basket of vegetables every week, along with eggs and a rabbit or a chicken for the meat-eaters, and a jar of honey at the end of the season, and maybe a bag of beans... oh, I want it so badly, and it has never been so close. For the first time, I can see the way.
But none of this would have come about -- perhaps it would never come about -- if we'd waited until we were landowners.
I receive emails almost every week from people who are obsessively focused on this dream. They feel trapped in an income that provides the necessities, just barely, but leaves nothing for an investment in land or tillers or lumber for a chicken coop or raised beds. "If I want more money I'll have to work more. Then I won't have time to do this anyway. I don't want to wait for retirement!"
If this sounds like you, I feel your pain. I have been looking for opportunities to grow things for over ten years, mostly without success. One year, my family rented a house in the winter from a landlady who promised that the huge backyard was absolutely, definitely available for gardening, oh please do! That was a big reason why we rented that house. Alas, when the snow melted, a month or two later, the back "yard" revealed itself to be almost entirely covered with concrete.
When I met Jeremy I knew that he wanted to be a teacher, and therefore we'd never have much money. Now that he works at an independent Waldorf school he actually makes less money than a conventional public school teacher. I have always worked in some capacity or another, but we've had young children so I haven't been able to make much money. Now our kids are in school and I'm working full-time, and we're finally above the poverty line, but we're never going to be well-off by any industrialized rubric. Certain periods of our life together have been characterized by grinding poverty, but I think we've always felt, on some level, wealthy, and in pure monetary terms we're doing better and better all the time.
But the hope of growing food, facilitated by land ownership, has always hung on our horizon like a mirage, never any closer no matter how long we've been running. After we settled in Northern California it became pretty clear, pretty fast, that this might never happen. Raw land is break-your-heart expensive here, and a complicated purchase since it lacks collateral. We prefer to save expendable income for our children's education and we might have healthcare soon, eating up another portion of our paychecks. Since we knew we wanted to stay here long-term, we decided to think outside the box, and fast.
Once we did such thinking and made our intentions known, the opportunities came at us hard and fast. Friends offered fallow gardens and raw acreage for our use, completely free or in exchange for homegrown goods or help with the water bill. We were offered caretaking positions and small houses and seeds and starts and greenhouse space and animals and scrap lumber and so much advice and support and love. From this experience I learned that there are several options for growing food if you can't buy land.
- If you can't rent a house that has acreage, borrow land from someone else. There might be someone right in your own neighborhood who has a great garden space but lacks the time or inclination to use it. If you're quiet and tidy and not wasteful, and share your bounty with the owner, you might have an ideal place to grow nearby.
- If you want to grow more food than a single garden will allow, let your friends and neighbors know that you are looking for acreage. Someone might offer it for free, or for a small fee, or barter, or work-trade.
- Community gardens are sprouting up all over. Start one if you don't have one nearby.
- Look for caretaking opportunities. Let people know that you are inexperienced but eager to learn. Advertise in the paper or online or in ag stores. Offer work in exchange for rent, if you are looking to keep your expenses low. Growers might be happy to give you a wedge of soil in exchange for farm labor. If you're willing to forgo gainful employment, check out the WWOOF program. Volunteer at local farms on the weekends. Attend gardening workshops and make connections with growers.
- If you see a bare lot in your community, figure out who owns it. If the owner has no other way to develop it, they might sell it or rent it very cheaply.
- I'm not going to recommend outright that you build a squat garden -- to me it seems like a lot of investment for something that might be torn down and fined at a moment's notice -- but it worked for Novella Carpenter.
This being said, sacrifices have to be made from one direction or another, no matter what you do. While considering the choices available to us, it became clear that we wouldn't be able to grow food, even if we had a free space to do it, as long as our living expenses stayed so high. We wouldn't be able to afford tools or soil amendments or even seeds while renting a regular house in town. We were hemorrhaging money into rent and utilities. More than half of our income went to these two things. Another big chunk went to food, and then there was a car payment. We don't use credit cards, luckily, but I have student loan debt. After these bills we had less than nothing left.
That's how we ended up living in this shack on land. We do this voluntarily and genuinely love living here, but it carries a price, and that price is right there in my tagline: "complicating the hell out of the simple life." This place is complicated. We're likely never going to have that gracious farmhouse with the wrap-around porch surrounded by acres of profitable crops, as pictured in Mother Earth News. We just can't have it all.
The blunt truth is that we've lowered our standard of living to improve our quality of life. We spend about $800 a month on rent and propane, which is less than half of what we paid in town. We don't have to pay for electricity, heat, water, trash, Internet, or phone service. We drive a super-efficient car and avoid driving on the weekends. We are producing more of our own food all the time, and making a profit on some of our goods, which means that our expenses are lowering as our income is rising.
You learn so many small but incredibly useful lessons when you do things this way. Here are just a few things I've learned recently.
- Rabbits are just about the most useful small-scale project imaginable, way better than chickens. I'm so glad Jeremy ignored my objections...! If you want to save money on gardening and raise your own meat in a small space, rabbits are the way to go. You can use their manure in the garden without having to compost it first. Rabbits are easier to dress than chickens, they don't make any noise, they don't take up much space, and they won't destroy your garden. Their feed is cheap, and they reproduce very fast, so you can make money on their meat without much investment.
- I thought we'd have to buy lumber and truck in compost for raised beds, because our soil is so compacted. When the money for that dried up, we were forced to skip the lumber, double-dig permanent beds, and mix rabbit droppings with native soil. I didn't know if this would work, but the alternative was not gardening at all. In the end this has saved us a ton of money, and our soil is beautiful. The trade-off is that work like this is back-breaking and incredibly inconvenient. That's how most of these things go, in the broke-ass life.
- With the start of the growing season I realized that I cannot raise my own seedlings. Our solar panel doesn't provide the electricity to run grow-lights for 14 hours a day. I want to grow enough tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant for serious food storage, so this was a major loss for me, and not just financially, because my varieties would be so limited. I had resigned myself to buying starts from the farmers market when I heard that our school would be hosting a plant sale. Families with greenhouses will be starting seeds to sell as a fundraising effort. Ding-ding-ding! Now I can give my seeds to these families and offer meat or eggs in trade.
- When we first started thinking about raising chickens, I became enamored by the adorable, brightly-painted homemade coop. I wanted one. I wanted to live in one myself, maybe. In my mind, the cute ironic coop and the delicious homegrown eggs became one and the same. But when we got our first chickens, the guy had been raising them the way he did back home in Brazil. His coop was hardly identifiable as such. It was basically a bunch of cardboard held together with twine and salvaged wire. But the chickens were healthy, happy, and dry. That was a big wake-up call for me. There's nothing wrong with a great-looking coop, but it's not essential. My chickens live under our back deck, because it was the cheapest place to put them. We didn't have to build anything -- we just had to wrap chicken wire around the deck struts and attach a door, which is a salvaged piece of wood with a hook & eye enclosure. Their coop cost us about $20. That's the broke-ass way, and it's the way things have always been done.
- Mass-produced food is so bad that people will accept the good stuff as payment for just about anything. Seriously. And once you make connections in the growing community, barter offers will come your way all the time. Just last week a guy offered a smoked boar ham in exchange for rabbit meat. Now that's a deal.
If you are broke-ass, as we are broke-ass, and you want to grow food, you will have to think outside the box. You might not own land. You might have to forgo Internet service. You will need to ask for help, and offer services to others. It will take much, much longer than you think, but going slowly and doing one thing at a time means that you will learn and love these skills very deeply.
Sacrifices are endemic. But it's worth it.
OMG A GIVEAWAY!
I have never done a giveaway. As I say in my FAQs, I consider them tacky and distracting. But I've been wanting to give back to my readers, and this seems like a sweet and simple way to do it. (Please note that I can only ship within the U.S.)
I would like to give away one copy of this book. It has been incredibly useful for me this year. This is the only gardening guide I've ever read that didn't confuse the hell out of me. If you think it might be helpful for you, leave a comment sharing one broke-ass way that you manage your garden or animals, whether it's salvage or sharing or bartering or trading or taking your time or cutting back or however you make it work. I'll use one of those random-number-generator doohickeys and announce the winner next week!
The giveaway is closed. Thanks for participating!