Around the Bend: Keeping it simple, the hard way

Seven years ago, my husband, Mark, and I impulsively bought an old farmhouse, with land and a couple of barns. We set out to fulfill our dream of “the simple life”: tending animals and growing our own food.
Yes, we are idiots.
We failed to consider a couple of sticking points; namely, our jobs and our total lack of experience with farming or raising livestock. I was raised on Cap’n Crunch, not granola. My prior exposure to farming was limited to watering my mother’s window boxes when I was little, a chore I did twice until a daddy longlegs crawled on me. After that, I felt compelled to play inside for the next several years.
Mark handles most of the animals, which leaves me theoretically in charge of the gardens (“theoretically” because most of the time I believe the gardens are actually in charge of me). I’m not the greatest gardener. Any success I have is due to sheer luck or to wisdom gained through repeated failures. Last year, for example, we harvested over 250 pounds of potatoes. The year before, the whole crop rotted in the ground. I just never know.
Still, I have learned a few things:
1.      Planting stuff is hard — literally, if your land is pure Addison County clay, like ours. We’ve managed to improve our soil to the point that we no longer need a pickaxe to plant seeds, but we still break down in giggles when we read planting instructions that tell you to “dig a furrow.” Ha, not without power equipment.
2.      Things die. I started off as an ignorant, lazy gardener and have improved to a semi-knowledgeable lazy gardener. Some things simply won’t grow if you don’t tend them carefully (which seems a bit unfair to those of us who prefer a hands-off, stay-in-the-house approach). Factor in diseases, insects, rodents, droughts, floods, frosts, wind, goats getting into the corn and eating every last ear (2011) or cows getting into the corn and eating every last ear (2012), and you learn to be grateful if your entire season’s harvest fills a grocery bag.
3.      Things grow. Sometimes, to your surprise, you will find yourself with 250 pounds of big, healthy potatoes that you then have to dig up, one by one, and haul out of the garden and into the basement, during which process you will discover just how many potatoes are in 250 pounds. (Hint: It’s a lot.)
4.      Gardening is hard work. This is an important point for people like me, who get fooled by magazines showing well-groomed, relaxed, smiling people with clean fingernails standing in front of gardens bursting with nature’s bounty. I don’t look that good even before I head out to the garden. Afterward, I look like a landslide survivor.
At certain times of year — now, for example — the work is endless. If you have a job, that means planting, watering, weeding and mulching before work as well as after, and spending every daylight hour on the weekends in the garden. Even then you will never be caught up, because your gardening time will always be hampered by the need to eat and sleep and the social pressure to attend certain events, such as your child’s wedding.
So what’s the payoff for a person like me, who still can’t touch a worm without screaming? Well, I guess I like the challenge. And the results. Together, Mark and I raise our own pork, beef, chicken and eggs; make our own hard cider; preserve whatever fruits and vegetables don’t fall victim to nature or wayward livestock; and even render our own lard, for Pete’s sake  — all while being employed. And at the end of the day, when we crawl exhausted into bed, we lie awake talking not about how we’d like to take a tropical vacation, but how we’d maybe like to get a milk cow someday.
Sure, 99 out of 100 people who read that will roll their eyes and make a mental note to avoid us at parties. But at least one reader will think, “A milk cow? Cool.”
If you count yourself in that 1 percent, I encourage you to go for it: Strengthen your connection to your food and the land by starting your own little homestead, however humble.
Just be prepared. I didn’t know it seven years ago, but it turns out there’s a big difference between a simple life and an easy life.

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