Grit Blogs >

Folly Mountain Girl

A Hard Way to Go

Rima AustinOver the weekend I met some people living off-grid in much the same way I am. They came from Massachusetts to relocate in the foothills of Tennessee. Like me they were looking for a simpler life and to cut costs and ties with the rat race. This was a husband and wife with three young children living in a camper that had been given to them. As I was talking to the wife, I got the sense that, at times, it was more than she could bear.

She told me how they had both come from difficult divorces that left both their credit scores in shambles, but they knew they wanted to get out of the north, to a place where living restrictions were minimal. They found a company online that was selling land for a small down payment and low monthly payments with no credit check. They jumped on it. The land they purchased was un-cleared forest land. They arrived with their children, a vehicle and a U-Haul.

The first few weeks were spent in a tent and as they walked around on all the land surrounding them they came across a fifth wheel that had been abandoned. She told me it had no floor and was basically gutted and in very bad shape. They called the company they bought the land from and asked what they planned to do with the trailer, and the company said that if they could move it they could have it. They managed to get it to their property and instantly went to work making it livable. 

As she was telling me this, I thought to myself how that was exactly what our kind of people do. We are foragers, dumpster divers, but above all, incredibly creative. We would have to be to be able to turn someone else’s garbage into something we can use in order to advance our way of living. I saw the frustration in her expression while she was telling me this though. It wasn’t the proud look I have when telling someone about a good find, it was almost like she thought they were alone in this and that thought was making her sad.

After she finished the story about the trailer I praised her, and it was an honest praise, because really I wish I had gotten that lucky, and I told her so. She smiled. I then told her how I live, although I must admit, sometimes I am lazy and use the accommodations of my family, and I told her this as well. Sometimes it is just easier for me and I chalk that up to being lazy. After the trailer conversation she seemed to become more at ease and she began asking me about how I do things such as take baths or showers. I told her that I have a solar shower that works perfectly, but I choose to take showers at a family member’s home because it is just easier. I said I need to get back to doing it the way I intended when I first started this journey.

Sometimes, when we are on our own living off the grid, it seems like we are the only ones doing it and it becomes lonely. It reminds me of the old Looney Tunes cartoon where there was an old house in the middle of nowhere, and the film begins to show progress growing up around the house such as interstates and cars coming and going, and yet the house remains, old and still. I am that house.

When I got home, I dusted off my solar shower, gathered up all my toiletries and created a temporary shower station. I plan on building a more permanent one when I have time, most likely this weekend. I also plan on going back to being completely off grid and doing things at my house the way it should be done, without the luxuries of other people’s accommodations.

I was becoming lazy, complacent. When one is by themselves it is easy to do. After meeting my friend it helped light that fire again. I was reminded that I was not the only one who chooses to live this way. That’s just it too, it is not that I am forced to do this, it is a choice. So if you are reading this and you sometimes feel that you are alone in your quest, we may never meet but please know, there are more of us out here than you know. You are not alone. Keep living the dream.

An outdoor shower at the beach. | iStockphoto/KonArt

Rima's shower probably doesn't look like this one, but she undoubtedly has another spectacular view. Photo: iStock/KonArt

Rosemary is a New Venture

Rima AustinOne of the benefits of having a new farm is all the possibilities it contains. I am not using all my acres currently; they are being used by a local cattle merchant to grow hay on. He does not pay us to grow his hay, we trade with him; he keeps the weeds out and in turn he is allowed to keep the hay. Things are destined to change however after a text I received from my sister the other night.

She sent me an attachment about a local rosemary farm that had unfortunately been forced to close because of the harsh winter, and asked what I thought about maybe trying our hand at growing the plant. I told her that we definitely have the room to grow it but before we commit maybe we should try a small patch of it to see how it goes. We both agreed so now we are on the road to growing a crop that neither of us knows anything about but that is what I love the most about farming.

Quarter acre plot

This is the area where we will first test our relationship with rosemary.

I decided the first thing to do is research what kind of monetary value is in being a rosemary farmer, and there are really a lot of uses for the plant that I did not know existed such as hair products, bowel problems, cooking spice, skin problems, the list goes on. Just knowing what it is used for does not a money crop make though. There is a lot more preparation that has to go into growing crops for money.

Money has never been one of my strong points; I have always taken the old hippie approach to money management, which does not help when one is trying to start any kind of business. This kind of money management mentality will have to change. Now I have to do a cost-benefit analysis, find suppliers, find buyers, etc. This can get very overwhelming. Not to mention, when the new venture involves growing a crop, other actions must be taken such as having the soil tested. I mean, do we even have the right soil to grow the plant that we need?

rosemary | courtesy Mountain Valley Growers, www.mountainvalleygrowers.com

Photo: courtesy Mountain Valley Growers

After taking all this into consideration I was asking myself, "Is this worth it, Rima? Is it worth using any extra money that you have and incorporating it into a business that can be wiped out with one bad season?" Well, I have not done all the things I have done and seen the things that I have seen in life by not taking risks, I’m going for it.

So what now? What are my first steps? Even though I had the soil tested in my field when I moved onto the property I will have this done again in order to get the right pH balance. I will use the quarter-acre plot and plant an initial crop to try my hand at growing it and learning what will make it happy. This will be what happens the first year and if everything goes right during the first year we will expand out the next year.

Soil testing | courtesy Zaara Construction & Consultancy, www.zcncbd.com

Photo: courtesy Zaara Construction and Consultancy

Once again I am stepping into unknown territory, first the garden, then the chickens and now a crop. The unknown is scary and exciting at the same time and I wouldn’t trade any of this. I expect there to be plenty of failures but when a plan finally comes together and something successful emerges as a result that is the ticket to my happiness. I don’t know anything about rosemary but like everything else I’m jumping in with both feet. I’ll keep you posted.

Growing Organic USDA and the Labeling Dispute

Rima AustinI have recently become involved in local “politics,” for lack of a better term. Our small town of about 5,100 residents, Sparta, Tennessee, has its own farmers’ market. While local farmers have been selling their produce in town for a while, it has only been recently that we have acquired a pavilion in which all the growers can come under one roof to sell. Some residents have formed a group called “Discover Sparta” that focuses on making our town a better place to live and bring in more tourism. One of the things on the agenda is the upgrade and promotion of our farmers’ market.

Sparta Downtown

This is downtown Sparta; courtesy Sparta.com 

No organic sealIt has only been within the last two years, since living on my small farm, that I have been exposed to the culture of the market. I knew when I started growing produce that I would be raising it organically. I made an effort to buy my seeds from a reputable seed company and I kill pests the old Irish way, with my hands. When I took my produce to the market I wanted to be able to proudly say that my produce is organic, and naturally so, after all the work I put into it. You can understand then why I was a little bit heartbroken when, during a “Discover Sparta” meeting, it was mentioned that in order to make our market more legitimate we would no longer be able to label our produce organic without first being certified through the USDA.

Seal courtesy USDA Agriculture Marketing Service

My friend Margaret, who made the suggestion, was doing so with the best intentions, and I am on board with whatever we have to do to help our market expand so I did not dispute it. However, I did want to find out what it would take for me, and others who were interested as well, to be able to fly an “organic” sign at our booth. My suspicions that others were interested in more organic products being sold at the market were only confirmed when Margaret created a survey asking residents what they would like to see more of at the market.

She created the survey herself and through social media we were able to expose it to a sizable audience. The response was very pleasing. Of the 81 percent who said they would definitely shop at the market, some of them said they would only do so if they could find organically grown food. This answer was one of the top topics at the next meeting concerning the farmers’ market, and the subject came up that we would not be able to sell products at the market labeled “organic” without following strict USDA guidelines. So, like I mentioned in the beginning, I was on a quest to figure out what those were for small farmers and do whatever it takes for us to be able to do it.

my market table

I decided to call the USDA directly and got a very pleasant woman on the phone who was very eager to answer my questions. I explained to her who I was and that I was interested in labeling my products as organic at our local market, and I would like to start the process of doing whatever it took for me to be able to do that. She then went to a web page on the USDA site and asked me how much money I thought I make at the market each year. I told her that last year I probably made a few hundred dollars. She then said there is nothing more that I need to do because one of the guidelines state that if a farmer makes less than $5,000 in gross sales per year they are labeled as exempt from having to be certified and we can label our goods however we wished to label them.

Sparta Farmers' Market

She went on to say that we could not use the term “certified” organic, only using the term “organic” was acceptable. She also mentioned that even though we were exempt we still had to keep records of all transactions for the last three years. I did not understand why since nobody would be coming around checking them if we didn’t have to register with any entity but I didn’t argue because basically, that is good business practice anyway and I was ready to start making my signs.

So this year I will have my “organic” signs all ready to go and I will tell my fellow small farmers that they, too, are welcomed to join in on the organic labeling party. I do foresee some issues with this internally, such as how to self govern vendors who say they are organic and really are not, but I am willing to cross that bridge when we get there. Like everything else on this journey I am on, it’s a learning process.

That's a Lot of Chicken Scratch

Rima AustinI listen to talk radio on the way to and from work, and lately there has been a lot of time given to the water crisis in California. I understand all too well what it means to have a shortage on water, but I have never been in a situation where there was a threat that I would wake up one day and have no water at all and the thought of it scares me.

California drought

Courtesy: The Center for Investigative Reporting

I have mentioned water before but it seems like water issues are something I have to address on a weekly basis, if not a day-to-day basis. I remember the days when I could go to the tap and turn it on and not think anything about standing there for two or three minutes with the water running waiting for it to get hot. I think a majority of people do not give water a second thought, and why would we? In the region I live in especially, water is not an issue. We have a long rainy season and being so far above sea level, and in a mountainous region, flooding is not a major issue either. A lot of readers may ask, “Why do I need to worry about this?”

Heather on Calf Killer

My daughter Heather enjoying Tennessee waters.

The answer is you don’t … yet. But why wait until there is a code red? If anything, a family could cut down on their water consumption anywhere they live, whether it is on a farm or in a high rise downtown in a city. Think of the money that could be saved just by collecting water in water jugs and operating solely out of those for everything other than baths or showers. You’re probably thinking that the money you save wouldn’t be worth the massive sacrifice, but even if you saved $30 a month, that’s a lot of chicken scratch! So, I took the liberty of making a list of things that a conscientious water conserver could frivolously spend:

  1. 150 pounds of chicken scratch – The local co-op in my hometown sells 50 pound bags of chicken scratch for around $9 a bag. Of course if you would rather buy organic scratch the cost would most likely be a little higher but still, that’s a lot of chicken scratch! This also goes for feed for other farm animals too; it seems there is always a need for feed.

  2. Feed for chickens

    Close up of chicken scratch. Courtesy: The Backyard Chicken Site

    Farm fuel

  3. Extra tank of gas – Depending on what you drive I don’t know if you could get a whole tank but you should get pretty close. This also falls under the heading of gas for the mower, the tiller, the tractor, etc. This is approximately 12 gallons of gas (in the southeast) and that would be an extra 144 gallons of gas per year. Buy a holding tank and save it and you have your own gas station in your backyard.

  4. Courtesy: Petroleum Services

  5. Groceries – Most of us shop at the farmers’ market because that’s how we roll, but there are certain things we cannot get from there or choose to buy at a grocery store such as sugar, flour, cornmeal, etc. The extra money could be used to stock up on non-perishable items to keep in storage. If stored correctly all the items I mentioned above, and many more, can be kept for months, maybe even years.

  6. Subway/Train passes – I couldn’t ask my friends in the city to cut back on water without giving them an incentive as well. In Chicago, for instance, a one-week subway pass if $28. This allows the purchaser to ride anywhere the trains go and the buses as well. In a year’s time, this is 12 weeks of passes that you otherwise would not have had.

  7. Bo catching the train

    Chicago ticket prices, courtesy of my daughter Bo and her partner Alex Joss who live in Chicago

  8. Land taxes (and magazines) – Thirty dollars a month does not seem like much, especially when you think that is only $360 per year, but in the end saving it for land tax pays off as well. Like everything else, taxes are different for each region so I can only use us as an example. Our land tax for the farm is $800 per year, if I took my new $360 and applied it to this that would only leave me with $440 difference. Instead of putting back $67 a month I would only have to save $37 per month, and the $15.38 a week I was having to put back is now only $8.46; this means I now have $6.92 extra a week I can do whatever I want with. I guess I can finally afford that magazine subscription I have always wanted. You get three guesses which one I get and the first two don’t count.

  9. Grit mag

    Courtesy: Ken Jennings

Hybrid Heirlooms and GMO

Rima AustinLast week some friends and I were having a conversation about seeds, food and GMOs. We were discussing how Europe has begun to crack down on genetically modified plants and how the United States was a little bit behind the times when it comes to GMO foods and labeling. One of my friends mentioned that it was useless to even worry about any of it because all foods were genetically modified. I told him that I disagreed with that. There are heirloom seeds that are not genetically modified.

For one split second, however, I second guessed myself. What if he is right? I knew right then I had to find out the answer, but when I started checking into it there was so much information to sift through and most of it was written in scientific terms. I realized that if I was confused about the data and what was what then there had to be other people who were just as confused. There were two things that I had to do: 1. Decide why I wanted to know the difference in the three major kinds of seeds, and 2. Break the legalese down into simplified terms, not because I or my fellow growers are dumb but because I have always been a believer that plain talk is easily understood.

I found there are three types of seeds available to every day growers: heirloom, hybrid and GMO seeds. Any organic grower or homesteader today would be four score against GM (genetically modified) seeds, as am I, but what I found was that a lot of the food that has been genetically modified is used for other purposes other than human consumption, but I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the two easy ones first.

Heirloom seeds: These are exactly as the name implies. An heirloom is anything passed down from generation to generation, and these seeds have been done the same way. Most heirloom seeds have been open pollinated, meaning that they were pollinated by bees or the wind and not by any human interference. As a personal preference this is the type of seed that I like to stick with. These seeds can be collected every year and planted again the next season, unlike hybrid seeds.

Bean seed poles 

These poles mark where I have heirloom bean seed planted.

Cherry treeHybrid seeds: This is when two different plants within the same family are cross-pollinated to produce an offspring that has the best traits from both “parents.” A lot of people tend to confuse hybrid with genetically modified, this is not correct. People have been creating hybrid plants for many years. In fact, on our family farm there used to be a cherry tree that my grandparents had that was grafted with a plum tree. It gave the most beautiful, red cherries but, if a seed from one of those cherries had been planted, there was no guarantee that another cherry tree would grow. This is the same way hybrid seeds work, you can still plant them and something will grow but it is a crap shoot as to what comes out of the ground. 

Above: The only photograph I have of the old cherry tree, on the left.


Hybrid seeds explained. Courtesy Non Hybrid Seeds

Finally … GMOs: Genetically modified organisms or GM (genetically modified) seeds. Sometimes I think the information on GMOs has been deliberately skewed so as to keep people from knowing how many pies the genetic engineers actually have their fingers in. In order to keep my head from spinning, I asked myself, “Why do I even need to worry about GMOs?” No. 1 answer, I don’t want to eat anything that I can’t pronounce. There are a lot of unhealthy things I have to put up with that are out of my control such as breathing bad air, but what I eat is within my control. Because labeling is not a pressing issue in the United States, it is difficult to know whether seeds purchased in department stores, or young plants for that matter, have been genetically modified. So rather than spend most of my time trying to find out if something has been altered I look for products that guarantee they have not been altered. 

GMO seeds 

In the end, I can now tell my friend that no, not all foods are genetically modified. He can still feed his children good healthy food without fearing that their offspring will grow a third eye. My advice to him would be to shop local from farmers you trust. Most farmers' markets have vendors who advertise if their produce is GMO free and/or grown organically. Granted, prices are higher at these markets but aren’t your children worth it?

References:

It's MomSense, Take the GMO quiz: how much do you know?

Bonnie Plants, Hybrid vs. GMO vs. Heirloom

GMO Inside, Debunking GMO Myths: Feeding the World

Terrior Seeds, What Are Heirloom Seeds?

Natural Society, 8 Proofs We Don't Need GMOs to Feed the World

GMO-Free Europe, GMO cultivation bans in Europe

Non Hybrid Sees, Discover the Big Difference Among Hybrid and Non Hybrid Vegetable Seeds

Just Keeping Them Alive

Rima AustinA few of my closest friends know that for my birthday my oldest daughter, Heather, bought me two baby chicks to start my chicken family. I was ecstatic and fell in love with those two little baby chicks. The first day they would barely show their faces, but by the second day they were walking around and pecking and making those cute little chick noises. Within days they had grown by leaps and bounds. One beautiful sunny day I decided that some sunshine would do them some good.

First baby chicks

What the first baby chicks looked like. (Credit: Taylor-Made Homestead)

I had a portable pen that was covered with chicken wire. On one end of it there was a chicken wire door that could be latched. The door itself was pretty small so I thought that they would not be able to fly out of it and would be content pecking around in the dirt and getting some sunshine. I knew I needed to stay outside with them so I made the decision to mow the yard while the chickens pecked and the dogs ran around and played.

Everything was fine for about the first 15 minutes, the dogs were busy chasing each other and every pet was where they were supposed to be. Then, faster than you can say chicken and dumplings, all hell broke loose. I came around the house on the mower, and I saw my sweet dog Molly staring at me from inside the portable coop. It took a minute for my brain to register what I was looking at and that it was a full-scale red alert.

Molly wants chickens

Molly wanting in to "see" the chickens.

I jumped off the mower and ran over to the destruction zone. I flipped the portable pen over and Molly shot out like a rocket. There were my two precious baby chicks gasping for their last breath. I was distraught. I had a meltdown and started screaming at the dog. Heather came down with her husband when they heard me screaming. The initial conversation went like this:

Heather: “What’s wrong?!”

Me, pointing at the dog that is now hunkering down in the field 50 yards away: “I am trying to KILL that dog but she won’t come to me!”

Heather, saving the day as always when it comes to animal emergencies, took the baby chicks and buried them, and took Molly to keep her safe until I calmed down. The next 48 hours were pretty dim. I blamed myself for not protecting them and tried not to imagine the stress and fear they were going through in their last moments. As always on a farm, however, the show must go on. The following weekend I bought four new chicks. This time I bought pullets so the wait for eggs would not be as long.

Fattie Hattie

Pastel egger chicks

A close up of one of the Buff Orpington pullets and an example of what my "pastel eggers" look like. (Credit: Pinterest/Hobby Farm)

Now, I have four pullets, two hens, a rooster, and, as of this writing, two new, 1-week-old “pastel eggers” that I acquired two days ago to replace the birthday present I lost so tragically. It is funny to think that only one year ago, I knew absolutely nothing about chickens and what it takes to raise them. In just the few weeks that I have had chickens I have already acquired a short list of what it takes to at least keep a chicken alive:

How to Keep a Chicken Alive:

  1. Baby chicks three weeks and younger must be kept warm at all times, and away from dogs.

  2. Grown chickens need to be locked up at night to be protected from predators, and dogs,

  3. Pullets should be separated from the older chickens until they are the same size so as not to be attacked by the adult chickens…and dogs.

So there is my very short list about keeping chickens alive that I have acquired so far. I am sure as time goes on the list will get longer. Notice how the title of the list is called, “How to Keep Chickens Alive” instead of “How to Raise Chickens?” One day I will be among the ranks of the people who have the authority to write about raising chickens. Right now I am totally in love with my chickens and enjoying every minute of making their lives wonderful.

Free range chicks

Buff chicks close up

The new Buff Orpington pullets.

And I Woke Up Here

Rima AustinI get a lot of questions from people wanting to know why I live the way I do, or how could I live the way that I do, and furthermore, why would I want to live the way that I do? I decided to share it with everyone so here is the “nutshell” version.

After graduating from Tennessee Technological University, I went on to pursue the brass ring. I volunteered at the local PBS television station until I was hired on as the membership coordinator. I was still thinking that journalism, no matter the medium, was where I wanted to go. However, my life was stressful and I was not content. It wasn’t until the summer of 2013 that my life changed dramatically. A friend of mine, Jason Mackrill, seeing how stressed I was all the time, suggested that I leave it all behind and hit the road. By this time my children were grown and happy in their own lives, and I really had nothing to hold me back, so I sold everything I owned, and my friend and I left town in a full-size 1987 GMC van and went on what I now call the “Hippie Trip.”

Traveling gypsy

Lunch

For three months, we crisscrossed the West and camped everywhere we went. We meditated on cliffs looking over the Rockies in Colorado; we bathed in icy cold mountain streams in Montana; we sat in the drum circles formed by the wonderful free spirits at Rainbow Gatherings. Our meals were food we received at food banks throughout the West and cooked on a gas stove and our coffee made in a French press. When our cash ran low, we did what almost every other wayward traveler did making their way from east to west, we “flew a sign.” With nothing more than just a suggestion about giving, written on a piece of cardboard, I stood on corners from Casper, Wyoming, to Helena, Montana, and then back again. It was a wonderful experience.

Church on back road in New Mexico

Moab, Utah

During our travels, we ran into so many wonderful people who have almost nothing to give, but if you needed it, they would, without question, give someone half of it. The beautiful people, whom for whatever reason had no home, would lean on each other in times of need and when times were good come to celebrate it with each other laughing around campfires. I never pried into anyone’s life asking about why they were there, only listened if they wanted to tell their story.

Eventually, toward the end of the summer, we had to start making our way back. As we traveled back to East and got into Oklahoma and further, I noticed that the sentiment toward the homeless was not as receptive as it was in the western states. We were looked at with disdain and told to get a job, and by the time we got into Tennessee, we rolled into town on fumes.

Rainbow gathering Montana

Rainbow gathering sleeping hippie

I was not worried because I knew we always had a home to come back to, unlike a lot of the friends we had made while on the road. After returning to Tennessee, I ventured to some of the food banks and saw how incredibly lacking they were compared to the ones, say, in Montana or Colorado. I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to not only improve the food systems in Tennessee but expand beyond that. I want to teach the people within my area of Tennessee, whose resources are severely limited, how they can live sustainably on what little they have already located in their backyards.

The van and tent

Jason and the pre-homestead

Ever since returning from my trip, I have restructured my entire life. I now live on a 5-acre plot of farm that has been in my family for generations. I have a two-room cabin that I intentionally built with no electricity and no running water. I use a propane heater to stay warm, use solar lights to read by, and gather my water in jugs. I have five raised beds in a fenced-in garden and a dilapidated barn that I plan to someday renovate into a shelter for livestock.

My life is beautiful and more importantly, stress free. My dream is to have a completely sustainable farm and to eventually convince my hometown to invest in sustainable communities. I have never before, whether in my personal life or my professional life, been as focused and passionate about something. Starting out small is my plan and then I’ll go wherever the ride takes me.