Friday, January 16, 2009

Self Sufficient

It's been an experiment. Like a chemistry class project in which there is the supposition, testing, variables and constants, every year is a refinement of self sufficiency. When one thing would fail, another approach was tested. I can trace the origins of the experiment to stories my step dad told of living in Northern Minnesota. He would describe bear proof pigpens and take us to the old homestead every summer. I'd marvel at abandoned farmsteads slowly sinking into the earth, some with household goods left behind as if the tenants left in a hurry.

The first experiment was a 20 acre farm rented from an old German truck farmer. I raised 5 pigs, hundreds of rabbits and chickens, Muscovy ducks and planted a 60X40 garden. The ducks flew away and the rabbits, well, they kept multiplying until I had to move them into a converted chicken co-op. The end of
phase one came when a young couple living on a neighboring farm, also owned by the same gruff and irascible truck farmer, told me they were frequently ill. I knew their well was located down slope from the barn and told them to send a water sample to the state. The report came back: Don't even bathe in the water. Good old Erv yelled and ranted, raised our rent from $70 a month to $90 and told me there was nothing wrong with the water. To reinforce his point he installed an old tin can next to the pump, frequently sampling the tainted water. We decided to move. That's when I decided to become a vegetarian.

Moving involved butchering all our stock on weekends when I wasn't commuting to the city and an inner-city teaching position. After four weekends of slaughter, I vowed I'd never do that again. The
coup de grace came on the day we moved. A trailer carrying a freezer full of frozen chickens and rabbits, five pounds of roofing nails, my one year-old daughter's toys and other paraphernalia came loose on the highway, veered into the oncoming lane and was struck by a Greyhound bus. I'll never forget the sight of the bus driver trying to avoid the trailer and swerving toward a caravan of friends behind me carrying the rest of our household. The lesson here is never trust an old farmer who says, "Safety chains, nah you don't need safety chains. This one here is enough."

A seven month respite in the deepest and darkest part of the inner city-sirens, traffic and noise- made me yearn for the country. The next logical step in my bent thinking was to move everything I owned to 120 acres in the southwestern part of the state. There, with two brothers, I farmed 33 acres and
erected a temporary shelter on top of a hill under a shag bark hickory tree. The deer ate the soybeans to the ground. The hay crop molded because it was put up too wet. One brother insisted we plant 187 tomatoes plants. There were six people living in an odd assortment of dwellings- a camper at the top of the road, a small converted space in the pole barn and my wife, daughter and I in a tent. We couldn't eat all the tomatoes produced that year. By March my wife and I were ready to strangle each other.

We moved back to the city and lived with the in-laws. By August I was going crazy living with the Lieutenant Colonel and his wife. A small loan from my mother for a down payment on a three bedroom home not quite into the northern suburbs saved my ass. The house was originally built in 1913 on lots that were 30 feet wide. The saving grace was 75 feet of lawn between the house and garage. I
roto-tilled the lawn and put in a garden. I'd regale the neighbors with fifteen varieties of tomatoes. I experimented with broadcasting spinach seed versus planting it in a grid pattern. I had a wood pile. Blanche, the next door neighbor was furious from the smell when I brought truckloads of pig manure from the stockyards in the Menominee Valley. I was elected the unofficial mayor of our block. Young couples like us lived up and down both sides of the street. We had block parties and a telephone network to thwart vandals who came to cause trouble in the woods and railroad tracks behind the house. I lasted a few more years at this location because I had the land in the southwestern part of the state as a campground during the summer. The best laid plans... go astray. Divorce, crazy girlfriends, remarriage, a psycho new wife, 12 years as a peddler downtown, another rubber band flight to the Southwest and here I am.

Trying to imitate the Amish, I revel in self sufficiency. The first year the 60X40 foot garden plan becomes cumbersome and crowded. I discover an asparagus plot the previous owners planted and expand the garden. Then I plant separate plots in a field my son and I spend days with a brush hog clearing. Clear cutting seven foot tall weeds, stacking discarded pine logs, removing a rock pile and filling in an old house foundation were a few of our tasks. Each plot is at least ten feet wide. Because of natural impediments, the length of each plot varies from 60 feet at the shortest, to 80 plus feet. Each is separated by a grassy strip the same width as the garden plot. Two 30X40 plots closest to the highway become our squash gardens. If you add in the herb gardens and the previous asparagus garden, there were 21 gardens in all. Most days I'd spend 10 hours outside working. In the best years we harvest 500 pounds of potatoes and 300 pounds of onions. We have two freezers and enough wood to last two years. In my religious zeal for having my hands in mother earth, I never once questioned that two people cannot eat 28
varieties of lettuce and greens. Folks that came down our road to our cottage art industry left with plastic bags full of produce. Experiments with local farmers markets were erratic and took too much preparation. Giving away vegetables became a mantra.

Enter floods, cross pollination of our squash which led to frightening mutants of huge
squashkins, insect wars, an old rotted silver maple which fell not once, but twice in the same gardens, crushing a majority of the cabbage and corn family while attracting the "rats with antlers" as my dentist calls the white tail deer. Raccoon wars, ground hogs, rabbits, field mice feasting on my labors were constant. Six foot bull snakes couldn't keep the rodent population in check. My theory of planting more than we need to take in account insect and animals had a serious flaw. I didn't want to share my organically grown produce with varmints.

This fall I add seven truck loads of composted horse manure to the gardens. Two gardens are sown to grass reducing the number of full size gardens to 8. Ten thousand square feet becomes a manageable 5,800 sq. ft. Left over organic composted poultry manure is spread on a few remaining gardens. I mulch,
roto-till and dream of " A Good Year". A new neighbors promises unlimited amounts of manure from his dairy farm. I buy chickens, a goose, a turkey and organic eggs from the Amish. I discover a logger who sells cull logs of black locust. Four years of compost, sand and careful soil prep has given me some of the best natural loamy soil I've ever seen. I put my seed order in before Christmas.

For weeks and weeks it snows every other day. There's a four foot snow cover protecting the earth from sub zero temperatures. Then, it turns even colder. Temperatures of -26 one day becomes -32 the next.
At 7:30 am the power goes out. My imitation of the Amish isn't quite accurate. There's no water because the well is powered by an electric pump. The wood stove in the basement has 2 electric blower motors . The telephone is dead. The propane furnace blowers run on electricity. The propane water heater has an electronic ignition. I unplug the computer out of fear of damage from a power surge when the power resumes. The pipes in the upstairs bathroom freeze up when the slow trickle trick we learned from old timers dries up. We have a cell phone and a battery operated clock. All the rest that doesn't involve electricity is reading and sleeping. I walk around the house in a daze. I thought we were skilled at being self sufficient.

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