Recovering Suburbanites

Reader Contribution by Carol Tornetta
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There are undoubtedly as many reasons for homesteading as there are homesteaders. We wanted to be more self-sufficient, eat cleaner, and raise grapes to ferment in our own winery. Since we moved onto the property in the autumn of 2014, we have completed only one annual cycle of planning, planting, harvesting, and preserving. We used the first fall to redecorate the farmhouse’s interior, upgrade exterior lighting, mend broken fences, and purchase some alpacas. During the ensuing winter, where we suffered through a record-setting snow season with wind chills so low schools were closed for lack of working buses, we were outside every single day, moving snow and hauling fresh, unfrozen water for the alpacas. It was challenging, physical work for a couple in their fifties who had spent the last two and a half decades hiding inside the house to avoid the elements. We became recovering suburbanites. Lesson learned.

May finally came, with a few deceptively warm days, and little remaining fear of frost. We built ten raised beds, filled them with a mixture of organic vegetable soil and composted alpaca poop, and in went the seeds: lettuce, peas, carrots, beets, cucumbers, squash, kohlrabi … We dashed to a local, family-owned nursery, and bought several varieties of tomatoes and strawberries. Into the ground they went. We hauled bucket after bucket of water up the hill. Seems the place was named “Hard Hill” for a reason.

And then we waited. And weeded, and watered. And watered. Successes sprouted, fruits began to set. Then, early one morning, we discovered disaster had struck overnight — some critter, or critters, had feasted overnight. All the lettuce, carrots, peas, and beets were mowed to short stems half-an-inch above ground level, and it seemed too late in the year to replant. We contented ourselves with enormous crops of cucumbers, pickles, butternut squash, and tomatoes, with a few green beans thrown in. It was a boring sort of diet, but we grew it ourselves. Lesson learned.

We also discovered an agricultural auction just a ten-minute drive from the house. Once June arrived, I went to that auction for eggs (until our hens began to lay), produce, and plants. While veteran shoppers lamented high prices, this recovering suburbanite was amazed by the low prices, and sometimes forgot I had bid x dollars per unit, and the lot contained twenty-five units. This particularly happened in the heat of July, when I settled my auction account and found myself loading forty quarts of ripe peaches into my truck. In the next three days, Colin and I baked peach breads and muffins, jarred peach salsa, peach jam, and peach barbecue sauces, and ate sliced peaches three meals a day. Lesson learned.

A great bonus to our new place was that the previous owner’s brother owned a goat farm on the next hilltop over. We introduced ourselves, learned a bit about dairy goats, and found that their small, family-operated dairy would provide us with a regular supply of extremely fresh goat milk, cheese, and yogurt, six days a week. The chevre was great with all those beets. Lesson learned.

In between the animals and the food and the explorations, I also built a small table, refinished and reupholstered kitchen stools, and sewed valances and table runners. We picked, jammed, and froze berries from the hill. I learned to spin yarn from roving, and started making holiday gifts. The work never stopped. Lesson learned.

This year’s annual cycle looks like it will be much the same as last. The shearer will be out soon to defleece the alpacas, new chicks are on order, the seeds have arrived, the berry canes are leafing out. Leaf lettuce and arugula, started in a hot box in March, are about a week from harvest. The first wine grapes have been ordered from a Finger Lakes vineyard. Recycled barrels are set up to collect water neat the vegetable beds, and a really big fence is going up around it all. The work never stops, but the goal has been achieved: we are reusing, improving our health, supporting local businesses. We are not hiding from the seasons in an air-conditioned sunroom. The work never ends. Maybe that is the lesson.

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