A few weeks ago, when I posted about having a garden this year instead of a farm, the wonderful and sweet Tonya of Plain & Joyful Living said to me that she had just been telling her husband about my family, and wondering how we did it all. I replied that I’d been wondering the same thing about her, frankly! I’ve been wanting for some time now to try and gather together some of the fantastic women bloggers I know, to open up the frames a bit and get real – talk about what it’s really like, and how we really do things like make dinner, tend to our marriage, do housework . . . and also, what we don’t do! Today is the second edition of Get Real, and we’ll be posting each Tuesday for weeks to come. At the end, I’ve linked to all the other incredible women who are joining me, and if you’re inspired to do the same, please leave a link to your post in the comments, or just leave your thoughts to share with us all!
Gardening and homesteading are certainly near and dear to my heart, and also something that has changed in our life a lot over the past ten years, especially after our first child was born (six years ago this summer!). Growing up, we used to visit my father’s parents, who always kept an enormous vegetable garden. The food we ate there was fantastic, and even though I didn’t really connect the garden and the delicious food until I was much older, even as I child, I wanted a farm. My father dreamed of getting a small farm someday, and I did, too. When Ben and I were first together, I told him right away about my farming dreams. He didn’t discourage me, but he wasn’t very interested, either. Other family members thought I was cute or just plain nuts. (One said, “You’re telling me you want to be peasants?”) It didn’t hurt that we moved to the Pioneer Valley in western MA, which is a hotbed of organic agriculture and CSAs.
At our first home together, we dug up several garden beds i the front lawn and planted vegetables. Ben bought me The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, and that’s exactly how I used it – like a Bible. We dug deep, raised beds, and we started seeds that spring inside. Those first seedlings were the best magic I had ever seen, and I spent a lot of time just staring at their frail, hopeful green stems. I have a vivid memory of gently tying tomato vines to stakes with my father the morning after our wedding. The grass was wet, and I was leaving the next day for my honeymoon. I was nervous that the garden would die in the two weeks we were gone, but we came home to plants that were growing and growing.
Ben says it was the cucumber that convinced him. “I couldn’t believe how productive it was. We picked and picked, and the cucumbers just kept coming.” For myself, I was hooked by the tomatoes. Ben already loved fresh raw tomatoes, but I couldn’t bring myself to like them until that summer. We grew heirlooms, giant, pleated deep red tomatoes that in no way resembled the orange tennis balls sold in supermarkets. Holding a hefty, warm tomato in my hand that I had just picked, I knew it would be an insult to cook or alter it in any way. We sliced it, drizzled it with olive oil and salt, and Voila. It was delicious, nothing like any tomato I had ever tasted, even from the farmer’s market, and I knew there was no turning back. From now on, we had to grow our own. We were hooked, and we wanted more.
In the following years, we moved from rental houses to owning our own “fixer upper” house, on 4.5 acres. The land had once been a potato farm, but was now almost completely wooded. That first summer, we had a large catalpa tree in the front yard cut down, so that we would have enough sunlight there to grow a garden. One of our neighbors gave us quite a chastising, but we converted that whole part of the front yard into deep wide beds, planted raspberries, and grew a lot of vegetables. We set up a little stand at the road to share the bounty with our neighbors.
Each year we grew more and more, slowly taking down trees and cultivating the soil. We also brought in help. Some years we’ve had a WWOOFer (one year we even had two for a few months), and most years we’ve occasionally hired help for the day, or had staff from the bakery come to do occasional work on the farm, especially during the heavier times of planting and harvesting. One year, at our “biggest,” we grew a lot of vegetables here (about 1/4 acre under intense cultivation), and we also borrowed a neighbor’s field to grow an acre of dried beans for our CSA. One of our dear friends was a hired farm assistant that season, and he was tremendously helpful, especially with restoring and maintaining equipment (both horse-drawn and our old tractor). That summer was pretty nuts – we had to close the bakery for a few days in order to have our staff help plant the beans, and we had to hire a crew in the fall to help us harvest them. ( In the end, we didn’t make any money from growing them.) That was the year we put up our hoophouse, in order to grow salad greens throughout the year for our cafe.
I always wanted animals, too. The summer our daughter was two, we brought home a draft horse and two sheep (we brought the sheep from NY to MA in the back of a friend’s Subaru!). I always wanted sheep, and they truly are the prefect homestead animal, providing fleece, meat, and milk, for not too much hassle. Our ewes are East Friesians, a breed known for milk production, and we borrowed a neighbor’s ram that first year to breed them. We had three lambs that June, which was so magical for our whole family. They grew on their mother’s milk and hay, and the next winter, we had them slaughtered for meat and the sheepskins cured. The lamb was incredibly tender and delicious – not like any we had ever eat before. Since then, our neighbor sold her flock and we haven’t been able to find another ram close by to breed again, but each spring we shear them, and hope to breed them again soon – our freezer is almost empty of lamb! (Yes, I was worried that my daughter would be heartbroken to have our lambs become meat. But they were full-grown by then, and had started playfully head-butting her -to the ground – prompting her to say one day, “Send them to the slaughterhouse now!”) This year, we also raised four American Guinea Hogs for meat – you can read about our on-farm slaughter here.
Farming with children can be amazing, and it can be nearly impossible. My children do not wake up in the morning asking to go pull weeds. Sometimes they are really into it – the baby usually loves being outside, whatever the weather, and my daughter often gets really into hoeing/shoveling/playing in the soil. It was very hard for my husband – and me – to lose my time and energy in the garden after our daughter was born. That first summer, I was too exhausted to care, and the next year, I didn’t have a clue how to take a toddler into the garden and be able to actually do anything for more than thirty seconds. Little by little, we asked her to have patience in the garden. While we work, we expect her to play, or help. We have a sandbox outside, and child-size tools. Sometimes she spends ten minutes crying and whining. That’s ok, too – it’s part of learning how to be part of a family, how to work when work needs to be done. Truly, I think this is a blessing of having a farm, that unlike so many “modern” homes where there is less work to do, and not as much time-sensitive work, on a farm, there is work to be done right now, no ifs ands or buts. Our day starts with feeding the animals hay, no matter if it is pouring rain, snowing, if we are tired, sick, or grumpy, we go out, we feed the animals. And we do it again in the evening. I’m often grouchy about this chore – hay is heavy, and pricks bare arms and legs, but I have also been grateful so many times, to be “forced” to step outside into the day, and notice the sunrise, the falling snow, the deepening twilight.
We have had seasons where we grew the majority of our own vegetables, and hardly needed to visit the farmer’s market (or the grocery store – horrors). The year I was pregnant with my son, I was tremendously exhausted, and my husband wasn’t too excited to grow without me, so we hardly grew anything except salad greens and a billion tomatoes. These days, we’re looking for the balance – growing a good amount of what we eat, enjoying the deep pleasures of growing and connecting with our land and seasons, but not trying to do so much or be so “efficient” that we lose all the joy. We’re growing a large homestead garden this year, and adding ducks to the farm (we used to have chickens). And I’m excited. I could go on and on, but I have to stop somehere, lol. Feel free to ask questions, and don’t forget to check out these awesome posts: