Many people think of life on a farm as simpler, while others proclaim the modern conveniences of a city to make life simpler. What is your definition of simplicity and where do you find it?
I often refer to the way we live as the 'complicated simple country life.' In many ways, being out in the country is simpler because a lot of the annoying little everyday city things aren't here: traffic is basically non-existent, and wherever you go there's always plenty of parking. For me, driving ten times as far on an empty road through beautiful scenery is a much simpler way to live than catching 28 red lights in 4 miles (yes, I counted once).
But some things out here are ridiculously complicated. Take mail delivery, which I always took for granted. Our farm is so remote that the U.S. Postal Service won't deliver mail to us. They do provide us with a free box at the tiny post office 10 miles away, but you can only access the boxes when the post office is open (7am to 4pm weekdays, 10am to noon Saturday, closed noon to 1pm for lunch). The outgoing mail goes out once a day, in the morning with the person who delivers that day's mail. So if you want something to go out the same day, you won't be able to pick up that day's mail at the same time. Oh, and of course overnight delivery doesn't actually mean overnight for us.
On the other hand, I can't remember more than two or three times over the past 9 years that I've had to wait in line—if you can call the one person ahead of you a line. And if I know I'm going to be going through town when the post office is closed, I just call the owner of the general/feed/only store in town and he'll walk next door and get our mail. We usually only pick up the mail once a week, but I can call the postmistress anytime and ask if a package or envelope we're expecting has arrived.
As for my definition of simplicity, it would be celebrating all the wonderful little things about being here, like the hundreds of dragonflies that flit around the farmyard every afternoon in late summer, or counting two dozen bats swooping overhead at dusk. Being 'stuck' behind an Amish buggy on the highway. Snuggling a little lamb. The first strawberries of the season. Digging up potatoes. Cooling off in the 100-gallon stock tank 'pool' on a sweltering summer day. Cotton sheets billowing on the laundry line. Looking forward to a 'fast farm food' dinner at the end of a long day of homegrown steaks tossed on the grill, a freshly picked salad from the garden, and a homemade crusty baguette from the freezer. Sleeping in because it's raining. Warming up by the wood stove. Dogs playing in the snow. Watching a baby chick peck its way out of an egg. How genuinely friendly and kind people around here are.
What would your advice be to someone who dreams of their own little piece of land or a few animals and a garden?
When I read this question to Joe, his immediate response was, "Tell them to have plenty of money because everything will cost more than you think!" By far the most difficult thing about living where we do is trying to earn a living. I don't know any farmers who don't also rely on some sort of off farm income to help pay the bills. I moved to this area because land prices were lower than most, but if I were going to relocate to another farm, I would choose a place that was closer to a progressive urban area with a market for top quality foods. And while that is definitely good advice (never move to the country without a huge pile of cash and/or some sort of guaranteed income) I think that the most important thing you can do toward achieving your dream—no matter what it is—is in some way, to start today. Tear up a corner of your lawn and plant a vegetable garden, visit the livestock building at a county fair and ask the 4-H kids showing their sheep and steers what the hardest part about raising animals is, go test drive a used pickup truck.
I also think it's important not to let your enthusiasm carry you away so far that you become totally overwhelmed and/or frustrated, which is easy to do. If you're new to vegetable gardening, starting with a small plot with just a few tomato, basil, and pepper plants is a lot better than planting a quarter acre and losing everything to weeds and insects because you don't have the time to properly tend it.
Be realistic about your abilities and experience, too. I remember reading something when I first moved out here about how it costs the same to keep a high-dollar, registered sheep from champion bloodlines as an inexpensive, mixed-breed one. That may be true, but if you've never raised livestock before, it's probably a better idea to start out with animals that aren't worth a small fortune. That way your mistakes won't be nearly as costly—because no matter how hard you try and how much you care about your animals, things will go wrong and some of them will die, that's part of the process and the experience.
At the same time, don't wait until you know absolutely everything there is to know before jumping into your dream, because that day will never come. I've been living on a farm for over 14 years, and yet nearly every day I'm still faced with something new.
If you're planning to relocate and buy land in the country, do as much research as you can about the area and spend some time there, preferably at different times of the year. Ask people what they don't like about living there. It can be much more helpful to learn that for three months out of the year the mosquitoes will eat you alive , or that the summers are too short and cool to grow tomatoes and peppers, than that the autumn foliage is lovely.
Clearly the move from the big city to the wide open spaces has worked for you; what is it about the farming life that makes it worth doing for you? What have been the biggest adjustments?
Life on the farm can be hard (and exhausting!), but the sense of accomplishment—whether it's after a morning spent cutting firewood, an afternoon working in the garden, or three hot and sweaty days putting up 800 bales of hay—is really fulfilling. Another thing I love is that no two days are ever the same.
Things often go wrong, and there are plenty of times when I wonder what the heck I'm doing out here, especially when something horrible happens, like finding one of your best sheep killed by coyotes (and then having a dozen more killed over the next several months). But no matter where you are and what you do, there's always going to be bad stuff that comes with the good. And out here, the good stuff is really, really wonderful. Most of time I'm just grateful to live in this amazing place.
As for adjustments, I miss the ocean! One of the biggest adjustments for me, coming to southern Missouri from the San Francisco Bay Area, has been the weather. I love having four seasons (fall is beautiful here), and don't mind the snow and ice storms in winter, but I'm not a warm weather person at all, so our hot and humid summers are really tough on me.
The general lack of ingredients and year round local produce was difficult, especially at first. And being so far from town took some adjusting (though I love the solitude of living several miles from anyone). I used to live down the street from a big supermarket and two miles from Trader Joe's and Costco; now it's a 40 mile drive for fresh parsley if there isn't any in the greenhouse. And there's no calling out for Chinese or pizza delivery.
Many adjustments were surprising but welcome: realizing I could go to town in ratty old work clothes and nobody would care, often being the only person in a store, strangers always striking up friendly conversations with you, people in oncoming cars waving to you on the highway, the decidedly slower pace of life in general.
To me you seem like a progressive pioneer; do you think so too? In what way?
I loved reading your 'What is a Progressive Pioneer?' page, and I do think I am one. The things you bring up, like that 'sometimes the most progressive ideas are the oldest and simplest' are so true, and that's how we live on the farm. We don't turn our backs on technology (electricity is an important part of our lives!), but we do focus on working with nature instead of against it. It's so much easier and less stressful for everyone—and often for the planet.
For instance, rather than forcing the sheep to conform to our ideas of when and how they should do things, we observe the natural rhythm of their schedule and learn how they think. If you decide they have to be rounded up and tucked in at a specific time every night, half the time you'll spend 20 maddening and fruitless minutes chasing them around the field. And yet if you just wait another 20 minutes, they'll put themselves up.
Sometimes I think I've become lazier over the years, but what's really happening is that I'm simply fighting nature less. Two years ago I planted a few rows of kale seeds in one of my 4'x8' raised organic garden beds. This year there are big beautiful kale plants growing in that bed and the 4-foot wide walkways surrounding it. Instead of tearing out the mess of 'weeds' to make the garden look tidy, I've been feeding nutritious, free kale to my chickens (and us) for the past six months.
The last two times we've had hens hatch out chicks, I decided not to buy the special chick starter everybody uses, and simply fed them the real food we feed all of our grown hens instead: whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits, bits of raw meat and cheese, forgotten leftover homemade pizza from the freezer, the organic kelp and mineral mix we give all the animals. And you know what? Those have been the healthiest chicks we've ever raised.
What is one fabulous, life-changing, Farmgirl Fare recipe you'd love to share with us?
That's easy—my Farmhouse White Sandwich Bread recipe. Baking your own bread is such a gratifying thing to do, and this basic recipe is perfect for beginners. Once you master it, you can start adding in whatever you like: a few cups of whole wheat flour, some wheat or oat bran, a cup of old-fashioned oats, a little honey. I've heard from so many people who baked their first loaves of bread using this recipe, and now Farmhouse White is a staple in their homes. I love that!
If you're still a little frightened by yeast, try my Beyond Easy Beer Bread. Year in and year out, this is the most popular recipe on Farmgirl Fare—five ingredients and five minutes of work reward you with a warm, crusty loaf in under an hour.
Susan, thanks so much for sharing a little glimpse into your lovely country life. It certainly rekindled my dream of getting a few acres out in the country!