Homesteading is the new ideal, the old becoming the new. But why did we ever depart? Why would we ever depart from a self-sustaining lifestyle? Modern industry has destroyed our planet, our ecosystems, our own bodies; but it has also brought forth some miraculous forms of technology. And so we can almost say that we departed from the homestead so that we could return with antibiotics, solar panels, electric vehicles, and WIFI. With the impending challenges of climate change, world hunger, the loss of bees and other essential species, GMOs and pesticides, and fake lab grown meat; it seems that its time to pack up our new renewable energy technologies and move on back to the farm, quickly.
The core question that remains is, “How?” How do we reconstruct this once self-sustaining existence? How do we shift industry in a positive direction? How do we depart from fossil fuels and individually packaged bite sized pieces of chocolate? In a world of depleted fossil fuels and mineral resources, a dwindling supply of fresh water, and a rapidly changing climate, we are forced to innovate and adapt to new resilient and sustainable systems. Through a departure from fossil fuel dependence, a transition to renewable energy resources, and the innovation of sustainable farming practices, we can cultivate an ecologically conscious society of food citizens and begin to reverse the harmful effects of our industrial practices on the earth.
We must begin a quick and swift departure from our dependence on fossil fuels. The strongest hesitancy in moving ones family off the grid and onto the homestead is fueled by the fear of loosing modern amenities. It is true that a society still dependent on fossil fuels and one hundred year old forms of energy technologies does not really provide the means to depart, at least affordably. But fear not, for the latest and greatest of renewable energy resources do provide a family with the means to drop off the grid and return to nature with all the wonderful amenities of modern life. Solar panels and wind turbines are now efficient enough to power your whole house, flat screen TVs and all. According to Eliot Coleman, one of the foremost experts in homesteading and organic gardening:”Everyone shares a kinship with the land. No matter where we are in time or distance, the desire for an ideal country spot is very real. Whether the image comes from books, childhood experiences, or the depths of our souls, it has an indelible quality. The dream farm has fields here, an orchard there, a brook, and large trees near the perfect house, with the barns and outbuildings set off just so. The dream is effortless” (Coleman, 7). It is our natural instinct, as animals of this earth, to have a relationship with the land, and a strong desire to return to our roots in the soil. The homestead is a part of our innate ability to survive on this earth, to grow our own food, and to live in harmony with the earth. Transitioning, as an individual or family unit, isn’t as difficult as it may sound. Some of the most useful and efficient ways to live comfortably on a homestead aren’t difficult at all—and so it is definitive that what we really lack is a proper education on the way of living that once was.
The most revolutionary ideas and practices in the world of do-it-yourself food and home-resource production aren’t new at all. They are really just old ways of living amended with the technologies of the future. For example, one of the latest mind blowing concepts is the four season growing season. And while it has always been known that many plant varieties, specifically those from the brassica family, love cold weather; our four-season harvest has been expanded beyond those cold loving plants thanks to the modern efficiency of renewable energy and efficient design construction. Our most efficient modern building materials allow us to construct high and low tunnels (otherwise known as green houses) that allow the interior temperature to remain in the 70s while the outside air is in the 20s—with no other energy input besides the sun. Eliot Coleman says: “Low-cost tunnel greenhouses work so well that if the public were more familiar with them, I think every gardening family would have one. They are a very flexible form of crop protection, since they can be erected quickly and covered or uncovered easily. They provide a protected environment that can appear almost at will—protection that did not exist yesterday but is in place today” (Coleman, 111). Even simpler is the use of cold frames, which are perfect for growing those hardy, chill-resisting, crops such as kale, mache, endive, and arugula. Eliot Coleman, who harvests his crops in the middle of the winter on the coast of Maine, says:”Gardeners should dedicate a monument to the cold frame. It is the simplest, most flexible, and most successful low-tech tool for modifying the garden climate… Since growing in cold frames is nothing new, it’s interesting to ponder, as we did so often on our trip to France, why the idea of the winter garden has never caught on in the U.S.” (Coleman, 80). Coleman’s book, Four Season Harvest, was published in 1999 and since then, the winter garden has majorly caught on in many places throughout the United States. I saw examples upon examples of highly successful winter gardening operations during my time in Vermont—tomatoes in October! I even encountered cold frame use at the Free Farm right on the edge of the Hampden neighborhood right here in Baltimore. It works, and it is not incredibly difficult to learn, nor maintain. After living on a highly functioning, certified organic homestead in Vermont for a month one summer, I can confidently state that it is not hard to transition to a sustainable, Earth friendly lifestyle—though it is a lot of hard work. So again, the question arises, “why would we even want to?”
The environmentalist is the cultivator of the ecological consciousness—the practitioner of resilience thinking. “A resilient organism is one that can adapt to change and can self organize” (Johnson, NOFA Spring 2012). The environmentalist asks, “How do we build sustainability into the gears of society, so that we can adapt to our ever changing world?” The global climate (politically, economically, socially, and environmentally) is not in a steady state and never has been. Fred Kirschenmann, author of Cultivating An Ecological Consciousness, tells us that everything goes through adaptive cycles, and that there are several phases to these cycles. First, we have a shock, or a disturbance in the system—followed by a period of innovation, and then the creation of a new system that is adapted to the new circumstances created by the disturbance (Kirschenmann, NOFA Spring 2012). One of our most recent shocks has been the depletion of our natural resources, specifically, concentrated energy resources—which is extraordinarily frightening because our whole food system is industrialized, immersed in petrol fuels. Industrial agriculture acts out of a single principle, maximum yield, or in other words—maximum financial profit (Ibid) This way of farming is no longer dependable and completely unfair; as it does not take in to consideration natural, human, or social capital. With oil at over $300 dollars a barrel, we can no longer rely on a food system that relies on fossil fuels. Food prices coincide exactly with our oil prices. Now we must ask, “How do we innovate and adapt to this must needed change?”
An agro-ecological food system focuses on food as part of a relationship—healthy food, healthy people, healthy farms, and a healthy planet. The goal is consistent, resilient production (Ibid). This production is not measured by yield in one year, but rather the increased yield over a decade (Ibid). It focuses on diversification, not specialization—and is resilient in the way that it absorbs shock (Kirschenmann, GMC). The agro-ecological food system is nature’s model. And for those of you who aren’t concerned with what they eat, drink, and breathe, or with nature in general; it should be known that 70% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product is the products of ecosystems of nature. A food system that protects the environment is a food system that protects our economy. The whole idea is food security, and a secure food system ensures a healthy financial and social future (Ibid). This is why we want to transition, this is why we must transition—it is now quite imperative that we begin to innovate and adapt.
We must reverse the damage that the industrial system has done upon our Earth. Most importantly, we must reverse the damage done upon our soil. In the past 50 years, we have lost half of our topsoil, that’s a quarter of the soil on our planet, a quarter of the soil we use to grow our food—and now we no longer have the capacity to produce (Ibid). All plants and animals have an intimate relationship with the soil, including human beings. We come from the soil, we are the soil, and we will all soon return to the soil. Yet, most people don’t know soil from dirt, nor care to know. According to Grace Gershuny and her Organic Gardener’s Guide To Improving Soil: “Most people have little idea what soil is—other than something they get on their shoes or under their fingernails when they garden. Even those who are aware that the soil nurtures plant life may think of it as more or less inert stuff, little more than a medium for nutrients and structural material to anchor roots. From this viewpoint, soil is something to manipulate by adding this or that chemical element to feed plants. But soil is alive. It’s an ecosystem of its own…” (Gershuny, 3). As the health of our soil has drastically suffered over the past 50 years, it’s no surprise that so too as our health—cancer grows rampant. It’s also no surprise that ecosystems and biospheres through the world are in absolute peril.
Soil health is fundamental to maintaining the health of our plants, of our food. The immune system of a plant is systemic with the health of the soil it’s growing in. Pests are indicators of poor soil health—poor soil health leads to inefficient protein synthesis uptake and renders nitrogen available for insects and other pests to consume; nitrogen that would otherwise be stored away and unavailable for consumption. Without proper soil health, we must rely on dangerous chemicals, or even more dangerous genetically modified organisms. Even more at risk than the food we eat is the welfare of our species and our relationship with this planet we live within: “…I submit that becoming lovers of the soil is absolutely fundamental to the work that all of us are doing. Soil is the connection to ourselves. From soil we come and from soul we return. If we are disconnected from it, we are aliens adrift in a synthetic environment. It is the soil that helps us to understand the limitations of life, its cycles of death rebirth, and the interdependence of all species. To be at home with the soil is truly the only way to be at home with ourselves and therefore the only way we can be at peace with the environment and all the species that are part of it. …There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to make our lives more pleasurable and convenient… How does this way of obtaining wormless apples and termite-free houses affect the rest of the Earth” (Kirschenmann, 286-287). It is a necessity that we begin to ask these ecological questions. Even more so, educate our children on ecology in general. How many young adults graduating from the top universities in the country know anything about how the world really works? How many of these young adults are educated beyond the biases of industrial complex—beyond the institutions that marginalize the welfare of people, the environment, and the other animals living among us? We have lost half of our breeds of animals and three quarters of our plant varieties (Kirschenmann, GMC). We need more biodiversity than we have ever before. Biodiversity builds resilience—loss of biodiversity equals a loss of bats and bees (Ibid). Who will pollinate our plants? Who will eat and manage our pests? We cannot continue to destroy or ecological systems, for we are completely reliant upon these ecological services.
Cultivating an ecological consciousness is cultivating an awareness of the value of natural and social capital. Food prices are directly dependent on oil prices. We have immersed petrol fuels into our food production systems to increase the efficiency of industrial food production. While the efficiency of our food systems has increased so too have the externality costs. Our huge industrial monocultures depend on a stable climate, which does not exist and never has. Our food system is completely insecure, and it’s a major weak point of our global infrastructure. If we want to transition our society to a self-sustaining system, we must begin with our food and energy systems—its time to go local, its time to begin embracing nature. Through resilience thinking, renewable energy innovation, agro-ecological farming practices, and a departure from our harmful fossil fuel dependence, we will begin to cultivate an awareness of the value of social and natural capital, and reverse the damage we have done to this planet.
By Austin Green
Coleman, Eliot. Four Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Home Garden All Year Long. [S.l.]: Chelsea Green, 1999. Print.
Coleman, Eliot. The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 1995. Print.
Gershuny, Grace. Start with the Soil: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Improving Soil for Higher Yields, More Beautiful Flowers, and a Healthy, Easy-care Garden. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 1993. Print.
Kirschenmann, Frederick. “Building Resilient And Sustainable Systems In A Changing Climate.” NOFA Conference: Spring 2012. University of Vermont, Burlington. Feb. 2012. Lecture.
Kirschenmann, Frederick. Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010. Print.
Kirschenmann, Frederick. “Cultivating An Ecological Consciousness.” Kristen Andrews: Fundamentals of Organic Agriculture. Green Mountain College, Poultney. Mar. 2012. Lecture.