Homesteading: The Big and Small of It!
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I have been studying food systems for a decade now as an academic and even longer as an eater and gardener. In my small urban backyard in Hamilton, almost every square foot was intensively planted. The first thing I did when I moved into my house one bright May was to rip out nearly all the grass and replace it with about 250 square feet of raised beds and planters. This provided hundreds of pounds of food for me and my family every year and I was able to tend it with basic garden tools and a push mower. I was able to live a kind of post-oil fantasy of farming by hand that is easy to fetishize as being more authentic and natural.
But I wasn’t ready to give up on the city just yet. I didn’t want to get trapped on the treadmill of debt and production that has forced farmers to get big or get out. This attitude has dominated agriculture in North America and much of the world for the last 100 years. It is a mantra spoken by policy makers, farmers, processors, and grocery stores. Driven by a Malthusian dread that our ability to breed will outpace our capacity to feed, the ideology of growth has profoundly shaped the rural landscape and consumer expectations about what a good meal ought to cost. For 100 years now, the tractor and other tools of industrial farming have slowly displaced human labour, and oil in its various forms has replaced the sun as a source of energy. As many have pointed out, we no longer eat sunshine, we eat oil!
This isn’t that story though. I’m not going to write about the good old days and lament about a more honest time when people laboured on the land and had a more authentic relationship to nature unmediated by technology. Not only is this a hopelessly naive and useless exercise of pastoral fantasy— it ignores a rich history of hard work, exploitation, and environmental degradation that goes untold when we project ourselves into this precarious retro-future that never was. No, I want to talk about how technology shapes expectations and transforms what is possible in both positive and negative ways. I want to talk about scale, and how we need to rethink what it means to farm in the North American context, where bigger is always better.
Farming in Southern Ontario is a tough prospect, and with land prices at all time highs, I wasn’t about to trap my family in a modern version of serfdom and become debt peons. I didn’t even want to farm full-time, which is good, since many farmers rely on off-farm income to support their career. As a writer, teacher, and researcher, I have a desire to share my knowledge with others. And as a university lecturer, most of my teaching occurs between September and April, leaving a perfect gap for the most seasonal of professions. The farm I wanted would give me just enough room to produce everything I could possibly consume, and then some. It would have space for animals and wild experiments in composting. There would be a place for me to build an off-the-grid, straw-bale writing shed/guesthouse. I could have chickens and rabbits, and build a clay oven big and hot enough to make a pizza in ninety seconds.
I wanted a place that was bigger than a city lot, but not so much more that its scale would seem alien. I wanted a place where someone with no farming background could come and see what was possible in their own backyard. It had to be close enough that I could bike into the city, and that people would be able to easily visit for farm tours, events, and workshops. And from this, Common Ground was born, a teaching farm for the city. Located within easy biking distance from Hamilton Ontario, we embrace small, appropriate, and innovative strategies for small-scale, sustainable agriculture and farm-to-table education.
The land we settled on was just under two acres, a perfect size for my ambition and comfort level with debt. But even though this is minuscule in comparison to the 728 acres that make up the average Canadian farm, it is big enough to make pure manual labour impossible, or at least, not particularly feasible. I didn’t really need a compact John Deer tractor, which could easily set me back 30+ thousand dollars by the time I add a mower, shovel, various plows, and any of the other implements I would need to maintain this corner of the Earth. I also wanted something that could be easily taken to someones yard in the city in order to set up a small backyard plot. But it had to be strong and sturdy enough to handle the heavy clay soil in my parts, and simple enough that a city bumpkin like myself could maintain it. Nor did I want a barn full of consumer grade and essentially unrepairable junk taking up space and taunting me with its unredeemable mediocrity. I would need, at the very least, a tiller or plow, a mower, and a snow thrower or blade for the winter. I also know, however, that this is a place that I want to build and expand upon. It is a place for my utopian flights of fancy to take root—a place where possibility is as important as what is already here. I need a tool that can keep up with my plans.
I had spent months researching it, trying to figure out exactly what I wanted and what I would need. But with a tractor you cannot think simply about the next year— this is a tool with a future. Tractors are miracle multitaskers. Thanks to the PTO, Power-Take-Off unit, they are able to use a single engine to power a wide variety of implements. I might only need those three implements this year, but who knows about next year or the year after that. If all goes well, then I cannot truly know what I will need. Too many things we buy are essentially disposable, designed to work just long enough that it seems worth the expenditure, or at the very least, justifies buying the new model when the old one looks tired and sad. I was sick and tired of this culture of disposability and its mountain of trash, and since I was looking to spend around 7000 dollars, I wanted something that would last for decades.
Enter the walking or two-wheel tractor, a marvelous tool that has virtually no presence in Canada, but which could experience a renaissance thanks to an explosion of interest in small-scale agriculture. These tractors, popular in Europe, South-East Asia, and Japan, are optimally suited for farms under 5 acres, or in areas that are very hilly or terraced. Like their big brothers, these are serious machines capable of multiplying one person’s labour in spectacular ways. Without this machine, I would never have accomplished what I have over the summer.
The tractor arrived in four pieces by freight, shipped from Italy via Kentucky and then across the border once again into Southern Ontario, into the heart of a country where the scale of agriculture doesn’t lend itself to a walking tractor. I’m not much of a grease monkey, being more inclined towards bikes and gadgets, but the anticipation I had for receiving this machine was immense. It was early May of a wet and cool spring and I was eager to destroy the grass that mocked me with its inedible ornament. I had ordered a few cubic yards of cow manure from the farm down the road and spread it out evenly on the approximately 1/4 acre that would be the main patch for the 100+ varieties of fruits and vegetables I had ordered from West Coast and William Dam Seeds. I was ready to launch the opening salvo of my war against the lawn, deploying big Berta, my shiny new Rotary Plow to chew up and turn under a thick layer of grass and sod into the heavy clay soil.
Unlike a tiller, the rotary plow is basically a giant corkscrew and is capable of digging down up to 12 inches in a single pass. Where a tiller tends to pulverize the soil as it repeatedly batters it under the hood, the rotary plow discharges the soil and throws it 24 inches to the side. This means that you can maintain much better soil structure and perform other tasks like hilling or trenching in order to promote drainage. It also allows for the rapid building of raised beds and is absolutely unbeatable for breaking new ground, since the vertical blade spins at 300 rpm and cuts roots and plant matter like a giant vitamix on steroids, allowing you to add an incredible amount of organic matter to the soil. It is also capable of turning in cover crops such as buckwheat that are up to 4 feet high, making it incredibly easy to improve the quality of soil without the addition of chemicals or expensive fertilizers. Since this was going to be a model organic farm and sustainability was the number one priority, Big Berta was going to be my new best friend.
But before I could do any of this, I had to overcome one major hurdle. This is a machine built for farmers, with poorly translated instructions (from Italian), that assume a kind of familiarity with farm equipment that I simply did not have. Being an urban gardener with rural aspirations, my knowledge gap was sufficiently big that I soon stared at the unboxed machine and wondered what I had gotten myself into. Was I hasty in declaring war on my lawn? We had just moved in and the grass was getting taller as I looked at this tractor that I wasn’t fully sure I had assembled properly. It was all levers and knobs, had multiple positions and implements, and one of the only clearly translated parts of the manual was the bolded and capitalized warnings about the dozens of ways I could void the warranty and dismember myself in the process. This was a far cry from my manual push mower and hoe that made short shrift of my urban plot.
I was way over my head and for a few days all I could do was read and re-read the manual, call Earth Tools and try and sound knowledgeable enough to not elicit chortles and laughter as they facepalmed and wondered what on earth I was doing with such a serious machine. My head was spinning— how could I hope to farm this land if I couldn’t even get my tractor started? My utopian dreams were exactly that, stuck in no-place, languishing in the muck as I wondered if I would ever get that new-tractor shine christened by the mud. I called friends that I hoped might be more mechanically literate and capable of filling in the gaps in the manual, but most of them were equally urban and hopelessly. One friend described my Grillo 107d as the lovechild of a Segway and Harley, a colourful description that captures the hybridity and alien appeal of the tractor. This was quickly becoming the perfect plot for a Country Music Television reality TV show! Next time on Farm Swap we take a wide-eyed professor and throw him to the hogs! Laugh as you watch him struggle with even the most basic tasks that any 10 year old farm kid could probably do with his eyes closed.
I called FarmStart, a lovely organization that helps new farmers with skills training and mentorship, but it was May and everybody was trying to get their own farms planted, so I would have to wait weeks for someone to give me some hands-on time with the tractor. If I wanted to get the grass mowed or the farm planted, I needed to act decisively.
In the end it was fear that prevented me from starting. Perhaps all these years of training in criticism were unsuited for the task at hand. I didn’t trust myself. I doubted every instruction and was sure that I would either break the tractor as I shifted into the wrong gear or failed to disengage the PTO at the right time, or even worse, lose a finger or foot to the spinning four-tined corkscrew that looked like it was right out of a PSA for war-amps. Don’t go near that, little Timmy, or you’ll loose an arm!
I did get help from a mechanic friend, but in the end it was mostly confidence that I was lacking. At a certain point the blank slate of grass was no longer a canvas awaiting my brush. It was a mocking void, a testament to my ignorance and hubris. Soon, fear was transformed into joy as the grass disappeared beneath the surface and black soil opened itself to my labour and vision. I was shifting gears, swapping implements, and even changing the oil and maintaining the tractor as if I had done it for years.
I wanted to share this story because I think a lot of people are stuck in the same way I was. They want to plant a garden, grow some herbs, and experience the simple pleasures of cooking a meal still warm from the sun and picked a few feet from the kitchen in which it is prepared. Common Ground was created for those people, to help provide an urban homesteading curriculum for city folk with rural dreams. This summer has been all about getting the farm started, and I will continue to share some of these stories throughout the winter now that I have some time. But next summer will be about teaching people how to plant in ways that heal and sustain the earth. The mantra may be get big or get out, but I think it is the small things that matter the most! Imagine if even half of the lawns in the city were replaced by beautiful gardens that provided fresh vegetables and greens for those living in proximity. Imagine if instead of wasting water and resources on lawns we rarely even use, we spent the same amount of time tending to lovely beds of arugula and kale, and harvested tomatoes that actually tasted like they should, of the sun and earth, and not like pink tennis balls. It’s time to think small and act big!
For those of you who live around Hamilton, exciting things will be happening here at Common Ground next year. We will be holding workshops on canning and preservation, ecological gardening, rainwater harvesting, composting, and much much more. I will even show up with Big Berta and be your farmer on call and help you become more self-sufficient in the city by setting up a whole backyard ecosystem that will allow you to produce amazing amounts of food with very little effort. Stay tuned for updates, prices, and services and feel free to contact me if you want some more information.
If you are interested in these kind of stories and understanding the role that transforming our food system into a more local one can play in the green economy, please consider buying my book. You can read an excerpt here.