Living Off the Land

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Bobwhite quail are fun to hunt, and mighty tasty on the dinner table.
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Picking wild blackberries can be very rewarding.
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Mushrooms are abundant in the wild; just make sure you know which ones are safe to eat.
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Fishing provides more than food when you’re on the water.
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There's nothing quite like picking a fresh apple and biting into it right off the tree.
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A young buck casts a skeptical eye.
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Harvesting a largemouth bass on a spinner bait.

In 1949, my husband, Carl, and I decided to move to Arkansas, take life easy, and “live off the land.” We had been operating a flying service in Marysville, Kansas, since the end of the war, and before that Carl had flown B-24s and B-29s for the Air Corps. I was a photographer.

About as close as either of us had come to farming was Carl weeding his dad’s annual spring garden when he was a boy. He figured, however, that anyone intelligent enough to fly bombers and operate airports surely had enough sense to learn how to farm.

We ordered a United Farm Agency catalog, contacted an agent in Hardy, Arkansas, made an appointment to look at some property, and headed south.

Why did we choose this area? Because of the abundance of wild game; Carl loved to hunt and fish.

At the agent’s office, we looked at brochures and discussed available properties. We chose one that, according to Carl, sounded exactly like what we were looking for, then we headed for the country – or, to be more exact, the hills.

Home sweet home

After driving several miles over a rough gravel road, we turned onto a narrow rocky lane. After “hitting bottom” a few times, we rounded a curve and pulled up in front of a small white house sitting on the crest of a hill.

Even in winter, the view was spectacular. Like a painting, the lane continued its winding course down the hill and disappeared into the forest. Beyond, ridge upon ridge of tree-covered mountains blended into the azure-blue sky.

The house, divided equally into four square rooms, was a definite “fixer-upper.” There was no electricity and no well. Outside the back door was a cistern, a work shed with stairs leading to a cellar, and an outhouse – all in need of repair.

A large garden plot, a small chicken house, and a large red barn with a fenced-in corral sat to the west
of the house. The lane to the east led past a small orchard and on to the “bottomland” divided by a clear-water creek.

Though the setting was nice, I thought the place was a little too run-down and remote. After looking everything over, however, Carl said, “It’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the selling point was the abundance of fish in Spring River, just down the hill, and the hundreds of acres of forest, rife with game.

Back in town, we completed the paperwork, then headed back to Marysville, where we traded the car for a Chevy pickup and began to pack. A month later we moved into our new home.

Making the most of the land

Once settled in, we visited the county extension office. The county agent gave us a stack of pamphlets and assured us that living off the land was indeed possible. (Doing so while taking life easy, we learned, was another matter.)

A farmer could produce all the food necessary for a family of four for a total expenditure of only $20 per month, the agent said. This would go for flour, sugar, coffee and salt. (The cost would be less if the farmer grew his own grain and ground it into flour, kept bees for honey, and substituted herbal teas for coffee.)

Carl signed up for weekly classes on livestock care, crop cultivation, gardening and more, conducted by the extension service, and we returned home to spend the next two days studying the pamphlets.

Our initial livestock purchase was a starter herd of Hereford cattle, a Duroc brood sow, and a dozen Leghorn hens and a rooster. We also bought three horses – a work team and a riding horse we named Trigger. However, Carl wound up riding one of the workhorses most of the time because he could never catch Trigger when he needed a horse to ride.

With spring just around the corner, we tackled the garden, which was overgrown with weeds. A neighbor kindly contributed a load of chicken manure to fertilize the soil, and after the garden had been plowed, fertilized, disked, harrowed and rid of rocks that surfaced during the process, we drove stakes into the ground and strung cord from one end of the garden plot to the other to make nice straight rows.

According to our neighbor, the “natives” always planted English peas on February 8. While we were at it, we also planted radishes, onions and lettuce. The weather was warm for February and, to our delight, in less than a week, tiny seedlings emerged from the ground. In the weeks that followed, we also planted tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans and corn.

Carl built an irrigation system to pump water from Spring River, and our garden thrived.

Until he had time to build a filter and clean out the cistern, we carried water to the house from a spring that also provided an abundance of delicious watercress for the table.

Producing our own food

Next we purchased 100 baby chicks to raise for fryers, and a Guernsey cow named Elsie.

Observing local custom, we planted vegetables again in July, and yet again in September.

We also planted raspberry vines, strawberries and rhubarb. The orchard provided all the apples we could eat, and from the wild we gathered blackberries, mushrooms, watercress, black walnuts, persimmons and a delicious, nutritious green called poke sallet.

Our flock of hens supplied more eggs than we could eat, and Elsie provided us with milk, cream, cottage cheese, yogurt and cheese. I learned to make butter by shaking sour cream in a half-gallon jar until it separated into butter and buttermilk.

Butchering the animals was our most daunting task, but we somehow managed to accomplish it, and we learned to follow instructions accurately to cure hams and bacon.

Though I approached the canning process skeptically, it wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected. Before summer was over, the cellar was stocked with pint and quart jars of vegetables and fruits, as well as jams, jellies and preserves.

Before frost, we stored winter radishes, turnips, beets and carrots between layers of hay in an underground pit, and we pulled the tomato vines, laden with green tomatoes, and stored them in the cellar. (Our Christmas dinner included sliced tomatoes, ripened on the vine.)

Although chores were demanding, we found time to hunt and fish, supplementing the beef, pork and chicken we raised with quail, rabbit, squirrel, deer, trout and bass.

Not long before moving to Arkansas, we’d purchased a new electric range, refrigerator, freezer and washer. However, with no electricity, my beautiful appliances stood idle in a bedroom corner for more than a year while I washed clothes on a scrub board, preserved our food in an antiquated icebox, and prepared our meals on a wood-burning range.

One thing I never learned to do was build a proper fire. Carl often came into the house at noon to find no meal on the table, and me, frustrated and in tears, struggling to get a fire going.

The day The North Arkansas Electric Cooperative crews came through, clearing trees to install poles and string wire, was a memorable occasion. Within weeks we had electricity, and life became easier and much less complicated.

I had never doubted Carl’s ability to master the art of farming, but, as I told a friend, “If I can do it, anyone can!”

We learned a lot that first year. The county agent had been right. It was possible not only to live off the land, but to live well. We learned we were more resourceful than we’d ever dreamed and, though not easy, with a little ingenuity and a lot of hard work, life could be very rewarding.  

But what about today?

“It’ll probably cost more than $20 a month for incidentals,” says Joe Moore, Sharp County, Arkansas, extension agent, in a recent telephone conversation, “but, yes, it is possible for a family to live off the land. The cost will depend on how willing they are to work.”

“Has interest in living off the land increased since the economic slowdown?” I ask.

“Definitely,” Moore says. “People feel the need to become more self-sufficient. We are also receiving more inquiries about organic farming and heirloom-type plants, as well as canning and preserving foods.”

In answer to my question as to how much land is needed for such a venture, Moore says, “That will vary according to the condition of the soil. A lot of the land in Sharp County is rough and rocky, so, depending on the location, it will take up to 10 acres to grow enough food and keep enough livestock to sustain a family of four. Another thing a person must consider when embarking on such a venture is that the price of land, as well as everything else, has gone up in the past few years.

“Living off the land is hard work, but if a man really wants to, he can make a good life for himself and his family,” he says. “We’re always here to help.” 

Edna Bell-Pearson, author of Fragile Hopes, Transient Dreams, a Kansas Sesquicentennial book choice, lives and writes in Shawnee, Kansas.