Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Perfect, Good Enough Property

As I noted in a post almost a year ago (The Challenge Begins) finding your perfect property for a homestead can be difficult. Since that post, my Mom and I have seriously considered (up to making offers on a few) four or five properties, some with a house, some without. All of them presented some compromise with which we thought we could live. For many different reasons, none of them resulted in a final deal with us owning a new homestead property. Until now.

This past weekend we found a property that meets all our needs and is in our price range. We have negotiated a price with the seller and are under contract. We could be moved in by the end of the year. Looking back we are grateful that all of those other deals failed to materialize. We could have made a homestead work in each case, but some would have been more difficult than others, some required building a house on an empty property and some meet less of our criteria than others, leaving us more dependent on municipal services than we would have liked.

Water is always at the top of our list when we look at a prospective homestead and this one has it in spades. Not only are there two seasonal streams running through this property, it has two independent wells. Even though it has been more than six weeks since the summer monsoons have ended, there was water trickling out of seams in the rock feeding one stream and a wet, marshy area at the end of the other. The house is situated on a rocky outcrop between the two and out of the flood plain.

The house is a long ranch built on an east/west axis so it has a large southern exposure. In addition, the ground slopes down into one of the streams to the south creating a large southern exposure hillside which is already terraced with several gardens. The property is heavily wooded, especially along both stream beds, however, there is plenty of open, sunlit expanses along this southerly exposed hillside. This should be a good location for an orchard and gardens for sun and heat loving plants (like tomatoes and peppers).

Built on a rocky outcrop between two deep ravines, we were initially concerned that the soil around the house would not be adequate for our purposes. Our fears were unfounded after we realized that the surrounding trees have been dropping compost for years and the previous owners have amended the soil in the terraced gardens as needed. In addition, the swampy area at the end of one stream has more than enough black, organic soil to meet our needs as long as we are willing to haul it up the hill.

One of the things we love most about the property is that while it is only about a mile from a developed section of town (Wal-Mart and local grocery store among other conveniences) it feels isolated and out in the country when you are sitting on the patio surrounded by the many trees. In fact, it is not possible to see any of the neighboring houses except when you are entering or leaving the property via the driveway. In short, we have found our little piece of paradise.

The lesson learned is that although we got lucky not to have been stuck with one of those other properties, we should have been more patient, discounting each one because it required one or more compromise that we should not have been willing to make. We are very fortunate to have found a property that meets all our needs, but no matter what your needs or criteria are, the right property for you is out there if you are patient enough to wait for it to be revealed to you.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Earth does not belong to us...

... we belong to the Earth. Yeah, I know it's a bumper sticker slogan, but is there a better way to describe how our actions are connected to and affect all the other life on the planet? Or put another way, can one better describe how our survival is dependent upon the survival of all the other life with which we share this precious Earth? I believe the acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of all life on earth, especially how it affects human beings, is the most important factor in our long term survival. Are you not concerned about the survival of the human race in the future? How about your own survival or that of your children?

Think about it. Where did the food you ate for breakfast come from? What will happen to that food source if we continue to waste, degrade and plunder the natural environment in which it was harvested? What would happen if all (or even most) of the bees in the US disappeared next year? No bees, no fruit, vegetables, nuts or grains. Think this sounds like a sci-fi apocalyptic doomsday scenario? Since 2006 in the US, commercial honey bee operators started reporting the loss of 30-90% of their hives. The bees simply disappeared and did not return to the hives, leaving the queen to starve to death. If you think this only affects honey production, you are in for a surprise. According to the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA, "About one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination."

Now known as colony collapse disorder, to date there is no definitive explanation for this continued honey bee die off. Some leading contenders:
  • Overuse of new pesticides developed in the 1990's
  • Several invasive parasites introduced to the US in the 1990's
  • Higher virus and bacterial infection due to lowered bee immune systems (from unknown causes)
  • Lack of pollen diversity (large monoculture plantings)
  • Environmental stressors due to climate change, water pollution and habitat destruction
  • Some combination of all of the above
The alarming fact is that all of those causes are from human activity (either intentional or otherwise). This is simply one example of how we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction because we are not acknowledging our dependence and interconnectedness with all other life.

If we continue to consume, degrade and destroy the resources of the earth with such reckless abandon, we will be the ones to suffer. As a dear friend of mine likes to say, "Nature bats last." If there is a massive die off of humanity, the rest of life on the planet will recover, take over and eventually restore the wastelands we will leave behind. The only suffering will be our own, of our own making. Fortunately, we can make conscious changes now to avert the worst disasters. Unfortunately, it is too late to avert them all (like global climate change which is already occurring).

Beyond the apocalyptic, fear mongering message (which I dislike, but is sometimes necessary to raise awareness), I think the hopeful message is that the alternative is not painful. Yes, we have to change our attitudes and behaviors, but for what? How about a more beautiful world filled with more plants and animals and less concrete and asphalt? More responsible use of the earth's precious resources and less waste and garbage? More healthy living environments and less pollution? More healthy people and less famine? Living in harmony with each other and the environment instead of conquering, consuming and destroying it? That doesn't sound like a sacrifice, but a world in which we would all be more happy and content. How can we turn our backs on that future?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Change Someone's Life in a Profound Way

Most of us donate money, used clothing or other items to charities in order to help those in need. While I encourage this behavior, I have realized how putting in a little extra effort can sometimes make a much larger impact in the lives of those who need a helping hand.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chaperone a group of high school students on a trip to Costa Rica to build two homes for two needy families. The challenges were large, particularly since most of us had little or no building experience and we had two days to completely finish two houses. To put that in perspective, these houses were sixteen by twenty feet, contained two rooms and were wired for electricity but had no plumbing. Fortunately, the charity with whom we were working had an ambitious yet efficient plan to turn 30 construction newbies into two teams of hard working construction pros.

Beyond the challenges of language, living in a foreign country with different customs and morals and adjusting to different living standards (like open sewers in the streets) we had to contend with heat and humidity, the burning equatorial sun and a timeline that would make any project manager sweat. I was very proud of the work ethic of the whole team, especially the kids whom we shook out of bed each morning at 5am (these are teenagers, remember) and worked all day long in the hot Costa Rican sun.

Most importantly, and the reason all of us decided to give up our Spring Break for the opposite of a vacation was seeing the impact our efforts had on the families and the community. The first morning when we were faced with a pile of raw lumber and the empty slabs of concrete, we met each family who would receive the completed houses we set out to build. Both were young couples (18-19 years old) with young children (less than 2 years old). Both were currently living with a parent in houses we would barely deem big enough to store a lawn mower and our gardening tools. They spoke no English so our translator relayed to us their profound gratitude for our generosity in our money, time, effort and labor. We raised nearly $20,000 through fund raising activities to pay for the lumber and household furnishings. That's right, each fully furnished house cost $10,000.

It is hard to describe the emotions between our team members and these two families when we handed over the keys to their new homes. Homes that had doors that not only closed but could be locked, windows that had glass in them covered by curtains. A dining room with table and chairs set with dishes and tableware, glasses and serving dishes. A bedroom with bunk beds for their children and a queen sized bed for the parents all with pillows, sheets and comforters. And the house warming gifts we all brought with us: dish towels, clothes, jewelry and toys for the kids. All of these things we take for granted each day as we roam around our 2000+ square feet homes. Nothing compares to the experience of seeing the emotion on the faces of those families for whom these common items were like riches. That the 350 square foot homes we built were mansions by their standards. That having four solid walls and a roof that doesn't leak was a luxury in the community where we built them.

I'm not recommending that all of us have to travel to foreign countries to make a significant impact in someone's life. But it is both much more rewarding and much more helpful for the people you are helping when you put in that little extra effort, make that extra sacrifice, to change someone's life in a profound way.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Why Food Security Matters to You

I believe there are two aspects to food security, both of which should concern all of us. The first and probably less familiar aspect is that of security from contamination. Contamination can take many forms, from E. coli and other biological agents to pesticides to heavy metals to animal hormones to discarded pharmaceuticals. The reason I add this as a factor of food security is because contaminated food is as good as no food at all. The second aspect is simple access to fresh, healthy food. Some inner cities of our large metropolises like Chicago and Detroit contain food deserts where no grocery stores exist for many miles. The only options people in these areas have for sustenance are fast food restaurants and convenience stores that sell highly processed and packaged food products.

For those of use fortunate enough to not live in a food desert we also need to be concerned about the availability of healthy, fresh food. A quick look at how our food is produced and distributed will outline some areas for concern. In the US the average super market travel distance for fresh fruit and vegetables is between 1500 to 2500 miles. Think about this for a moment. That lettuce you are eating in your salad tonight probably traveled farther to get to your refrigerator than you did on your last vacation. So what does this have to do with food security? Since our food network is stretched so long and is so reliant on cheap fuel, the interstate highway system and an enormous fleet of trucks, it is susceptible to many kinds of disruptions.

This is most apparent during natural disasters such as hurricanes. Under normal circumstances the stock in most grocery stores becomes depleted in three days. This means three days without any truck deliveries and your local store has no more food for you to purchase. Fortunately, natural disasters are not normal circumstances. We have all seen footage of empty store shelves hours before a large hurricane is scheduled to make landfall in an area. Luckily, most truck service is restored only hours after a hurricane has passed and the stores can be restocked. Sometimes, however, that is not the case.

As most of us can remember, after hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans descended into anarchy and chaos within a few days without drinkable water, electricity or food supplies from the outside world. Shocked that a city in the US could fail so quickly (and appalled at the apparent lack of federal response), I drove from Chicago down to Baton Rouge, the largest nearby city where a relief effort was being staged, to help. Inside the gymnasium and sports arena at LSU the Red Cross (with no help from FEMA or any other federal agency) was staffing a small city of cots, medical services and a cafeteria to house and feed five to six thousand refugees from the flooded city 50 miles to the south. The biggest impression I took away from my experience is how fragile is our modern lifestyle.

So what does this have to do with food security? Unfortunately, hurricanes are not the only threats to our thin and delicate web of food production and distribution. Drought, spikes in fuel prices, labor disputes and strikes, failing infrastructure, economic panic (e.g. fall of 2008), resource shortages, terrorism and severe weather events can all disrupt our steady supply of fresh, healthy food. But even if none of these calamities occur, we still have to contend with the other aspect of food security, contamination.

I've been considering all of these issues for several years and the simple conclusion I can't escape is the best way to improve one's food security is to grow more of it yourself. And growing your own food has the added benefit of reducing green house gases due to current energy intensive, factory farming practices and long travel distance by truck. And can you get more fresh than eating something five minutes after it is picked from the ground?

Every home owner has some kind of yard with some amount of ornamental vegetation, depending in which area of the country you live. Most of us own a swath of grass, the stereotypical American lawn, upon which we spend an inordinate amount of our summer months to maintain. Wouldn't it be a better use of our time and resources if we replaced some of that grass to grow something we can actually eat? Now that's food for thought.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Get Closer to Your Food

No, I'm not suggesting that you snuggle up with some broccoli, a chicken breast or bag of flour. But how far did all of those items travel to your dinner table? How many gallons of diesel fuel were burned so you could eat your last meal? How much have all of us contributed to global climate change simply due to the travel cost of the food we eat? For those of us in the continental US, have you ever eaten an apple grown in New Zealand? Grapes from Chile? Strawberries from Mexico? All of these foods incur high fossil fuel emissions in order that we can eat fruit in the winter.

A common message to reduce this burden on our global climate is "eat local, eat seasonal". This is a great idea for several reasons. Not only does it reduce fossil fuel emissions but you get fresher and most of the time better tasting produce with higher vitamin content and nutritional value. But can you get more local than your backyard? Is it really possible to reduce your fossil fuel emission burden for the food you eat to nearly zero? Let's see what that might look like.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that our food is produced via biological systems. Plants do not grow in isolation. They are dependent upon a host of beneficial organisms and nutrients from nitrogen in the air to the bacteria that converts it into ammonia (nitrogen fixation) in symbiosis with some plant roots (primarily legumes), to the nitrifying soil bacteria which convert the ammonia into nitrates and nitrites which are absorbed by plants as natural fertilizer. The cycle continues as plants die and decay with the help of more kinds of bacteria and fungi which create more ammonia, nitrates and nitrites to start the cycle again. In addition, animals that eat and digest the plants (again with the help of beneficial bacteria in their digestive tract) produce more ammonia in their droppings (manure) which in turn adds to this never ending cycle.

The reason for the detailed lesson in the nitrogen cycle is to reinforce the notion that whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we and the food we eat are part of this cycle. In order for us to produce food in the most efficient manner (e.g. with the least amount of resources) we have to be both cognizant of this fact and take advantage of it to the fullest extent possible.

So what might this look like in a home garden? First, it means committing to a fully organic gardening philosophy. This is important for two reasons. First, because our goal is to reduce our reliance upon and consumption of fossil fuels. This is not possible if we buy and consume man-made fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, most of which are either direct petroleum products or require large amounts of energy (derived from some fossil fuel) for production and transportation. Secondly, if our goal is to produce healthy food, why would we contaminate it with chemicals which in the very least have unknown health effects and in the worst case are known carcinogens or toxins (for a scare, read the label of any pesticide in your garage or garden shed).

Keeping in mind all the parts of the nitrogen cycle and our commitment to fully organic practices, a small kitchen garden should have the following components:
  • Compost pile - made up of all vegetative matter collected on your property. Be wary of taking in compost or vegetative matter from other sources due to the possible contamination of persistent herbicides. Keep a small bucket under your sink and throw in all fruit and vegetable scrapes (no meat products) and add to the compost when full.
  • Cover crops - nitrogen fixing plants such as clovers or hairy vetch to suppress weeds, improve soil quality and used as in-place compost when it is tilled under before planting edible crops.
  • Rich soil - created by use of compost, cover crops and ample use of mulch to both hold in moisture and deter weed growth.
  • Chickens - OK, this is probably optional, but consider this. Four laying hens will produce about a dozen eggs a week. In addition, let them into your garden before planting and after harvesting to eat bugs, till the soil and add fresh manure. Taking care of four hens is no more work than a dog, and few of us hesitate bringing one of them into our lives.
  • Crop rotation - use a three session rotation, planting your veggies in a different bed to reduce disease and recurring pests. When selecting a crop to plant make sure it is from a different plant family than the previous crop in the same bed (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are all in the family Brassica and should not be rotated in the same bed as common pests and disease afflict them all).
  • Beneficial predators - encouraging or adding beneficial insects, spiders and other pest predators (e.g. birds and bats) is a low cost and low maintenance way to suppress pest species
  • Pollinators - encouraging pollinators (insects, birds and bats) by planting inviting flowering plants (which don't have to be edible and add color and beauty to the garden), creating nesting sites and planting shrubs and other perennials for shelter as well as another source of food.
  • Food storage - when a harvest is ready, you will probably have more to pick than you and your family can eat before the produce goes bad. Learn how to preserve fruits and veggies via canning, drying, or low energy cold storage such as a root cellar.
  • Mindfulness - walk your garden daily and simply observe. Is the soil too wet or dry in some areas? How do the leaves of the different plants look as they grow? Do you notice indications of any pests or disease? Are certain plants thriving or suffering? Research problems before they become to difficult to remedy.

Don't fall into the trap that unless you grow a big garden, you won't be doing enough to make any difference. Even if you live in an apartment or condo you can grow in a window box, on a patio or even a rooftop. Start small, a few tomato plants or a few red peppers. Follow all the techniques and increase your plot over several seasons. Let your garden grow with your experience and you will see it as a source of joy and relaxation, not one of toil and labor. Anything that you grow on your own, no matter how small, will bring you closer to your food. And that is good for all of us.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Land of Enchantment

I have recently relocated from the Chicago area to southwestern New Mexico, state slogan: "The Land of Enchantment". For those who have never been, perhaps this sounds like a conceited overstatement to compete with the likes of Illinois ("Land of Lincoln"), New Hampshire ("Live Free or Die") or New York ("The Empire State"). Or maybe simply self delusion considering the miles of desert and apparent wasteland. But arguably New Mexico is better off in this department than the states of Texas ("Everything is Bigger in Texas", inadequacy issues?), Washington ("Say WA!", really?) and West Virginia ("We Ain't All Cousins", 'nuf said).

Only being here a week, I have already come to experience first hand the accuracy of this claim. Never have I seen skies bluer, air that smells fresher, vistas more remarkable. Even the quality of the sunlight is richer, more enlivening, in a word, enchanting.

Beyond extolling the beauty of my new homeland, I thought I'd discuss what may seem an obvious part of the selection process for any homestead. Find a place you truly love. Homesteading is as difficult as it is rewarding. Make sure you select a location in an area where you will feel rewarded for all of your hard work. A place where you will enjoy sitting on your porch in the evening with your beverage of choice watching the sun set. An area that you will never tire of exploring. A location with friendly people of like minds who will welcome you into their community and be interested in sharing (and possibly helping you) in your adventure.

The challenge for most of us is that we can't simply up root ourselves and move to the most beautiful setting we desire. Usually our selection is based on a series of compromises; distance to friends, family or employment, property values or a spouse's contrasting desires. Balancing all of these are important and each of us has to decide for ourselves which take precedence over the others. But if for any reason you select a place that you don't truly love, you will eventually become disappointed and your chances of succeeding in your new venture will diminish with time. So find your land of enchantment, wherever that may be.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Private Land Ownership

If you think about if for a second, the concept of private land ownership is a strange one. Each of us is born into this world, one that has existed for billions of years before any of us show up on the scene, and at some point in our lives we draw an arbitrary boundary around an area on the landscape and say, "This is mine." I can't think of a better example of human conceit and self importance. Yet to consider all of the cruelties inflicted, rivers of blood spilled and whole societies destroyed throughout the ages over land disputes simply boggles the mind.

I understand that land ownership is all about control of what can be done on a particular parcel and who can do it. Usually it boils down to the use of resources contained within whatever arbitrary boundary seems relevant to the parties in control. All of our conventions of law and legal transfer of ownership are simply processes we have put in place to reduce the amount of conflict related to determining who gets to decide what happens within what arbitrary boundaries. But over most of human history, the deciding factor has been who has the most lethal weapons and the biggest army.

But the issue always comes back to the use (or in most cases misuse) of natural resources. Our society, and almost all societies in the world today, are based on the concept of land ownership, either private or public. Every square inch of the surface of the earth is owned by someone. Notable exceptions are Antarctica (the only landmass on Earth that has no native human populations and is protected by international treaty) and the world's oceans, twelve nautical miles beyond shore, although there are many international treaties, disagreements and exceptions even to this simple rule.

My main observation is that even within all the rules, regulations and practices imposed on a landowner by local, regional and even international laws, overuse and sometimes outright abuse of natural resources occur across the globe. The problem is that landowners no longer are the only ones to suffer from mismanagement of their land. Most environmental problems, such as deforestation, pollution and resource depletion have regional and sometimes global consequences.

So this post is more food for thought than a recommendation for specific action. How do we raise global awareness for the consequences of resource depletion? Or maybe more to the point, how do each of us become better stewards of the land that we do own? (I touched on this issue in a previous post). No matter if that is a condo in a densely populated urban area, a 1/4 acre in a suburban sub-division or a 50 acre homestead, I'm convinced all of us can do a better job as sustainable land owners.

As a soon-to-be steward of about 5 acres in rural New Mexico, here are a few questions I will be asking myself which I think we should all consider. How can I utilize native, less resource intensive (water, fertilizer, labor) plants? What can I do to encourage more native wildlife on my property? How can I accomplish the same benefit (enjoying a beautiful landscape) with less labor and resources? For example, gas powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers are not only noisy and polluting but very inefficient compared to gas powered cars. Reducing or eliminating their use is a huge step towards sustainability.

In order to accomplish meaningful change we need to throw out old assumptions. For example, why do we assume that every house in America should be landscaped with sod (even in desert regions like Las Vegas)? Break the mold, challenge convention and replace that ocean of bland grass with more interesting and native landscaping that requires less water and maintenance. What else can you do to become a better steward of the land you own?