NOFA NY is made up of a diverse group of members. Large numbers of certified organic farmers form the foundation and lend legitimacy to the organization's name. At the other end of the spectrum are urban consumers who care about what they eat, and where it comes from. There are gardeners wishing to escape the vicious cycle of Mirable-Oro and Hoe-in-a-bottle sold by the mainstream. And there is that peculiar group to which Laurie and I presume to belong, called homesteaders.
Homesteaders are not quite farmers (although some are), nor urban consumers (although radical homesteading enclaves sometimes invade the urban landscape and many homesteaders are urban escapees). We don't so much "garden" as we do "grow stuff." We're on big landholdings in the hills and small plots in suburbia and everywhere in between. Homesteads are frequently a cross between experimental research station and antique show, abounding in anach¬ronisms as well as futuristic contraptions never seen before. Our homestead is certainly all of these. To my mind, the typical homesteader is a combination of subsistence farmer, and inventor and junkman. I don't wish to attempt a definition of homesteader. It's a term both too elusive and too inclusive of a diversity of individuals for that. It is likely that homesteaders are a group so diverse as to defy representation. Nevertheless, what I hope to provide in this and subsequent columns is a highly seductive and personal account of homesteading life as we live it here, in the hope that it may entertain, inform and perhaps prove useful to others. If there is one niche space that homesteaders share in comnon it is likely a philosophical one; a belief in self-reliance coupled with an attitude that if it needs to be done, I can do it' and if I can't do it I can probably get along without it. This was a principle which I learned early in life (the "getting along without part, anyway). ,I grew up in the Appalachian hills of Northeast Pennsylvania where anthracite coal once lay so close to the surface of the earth in places you could pick it right off the ground. Running water was a luxury in our rural community. Of the twelve or so houses within a mile of my childhood home only two had indoor toilets (ours was not one of them). Our four acres sprouted in abundance and gardening and food preservation (as of fruit trees, as well as a parade of edible livestock) were an integral part of life. While as a child I didn’t like garden work, I grew up never questioning its importance.
When Laurie and I met, she was a student of mechanical engineering and I was working in residential construction, in the outer boroughs of New York City as far from nature, soil and country life as I could get. In retrospect it seems that we always wanted to live the life we are living' now, but in fact that's not the case. There was a long period of incubation between apartment life in Queens, New York and what I call this "return to our roots." The ideas which shape our daily lives today did not come all at once. When we first began looking for land for our homestead we had, at best, only the vaguest concept of what we wanted. Our principal source of inspiration then (and now) was Helen and Scott Nearing's book. Living the Good Life: How to live sanely and simply in a troubled world. In it, the Nearings described their own experiences with developing a homestead in Vermont in the 1930s and 40's. We embraced many of their ideas while remaining skeptical of others. For example, we too were sure that we wanted to build a house ourselves using locally available materials such as stone and timber harvested from the land. We were equally convinced that, unlike the Nearings, we would not spend anywhere near three years to build our house. I had worked for twenty years in residential construction and knew that houses are built faster than that! Humility is a difficult lesson, but, as we humbly face the fourth year of work on the foundation of our house (!), we are learning. Lest anyone think we are building some monstrous MacMansion, our future house will consist of (a modest, by contemporary standards) 1200 square feet of living space. In a future article I hope to address the pitfalls as well as the joys of the owner-built home. For now suffice it to say that starting with trees and stones for building material does not lend itself to the fast track method.
From our reading of the Nearings and other sources we had decided that we needed at least 20 acres of land (more, we thought, would be better) with enough trees of sufficient dimension to build a barn/workshop and a house. We hoped for a stream with which to do water power experiments and southern exposure for sun. We wanted to spend no more than $500 an acre. Aesthetically we were both attracted to land with "topographical interest" Wooded hills held a charm for us against which flat, open pasture couldn't compete: We soon found out that the real estate term "wooded acres" meant "the loggers just left." After three frustrating years of dogging the footsteps and muddied ruts of the loggers, we were despairing. It was a rainy day in spring and we decided to revisit a piece of land we had rejected the previous fall. It was too expensive. It was located in extreme western Fulton County on the banks of East Canada Creek, too far from where we wanted to be. The trees left after recent logging were too small, but it was still available after six months on the market. In the shadow of our frustration it was starting to look pretty good. We stopped at the real estate 0ffice which had listed the property thinking we would check for any other promising listings. There were several including one so recent it had not made it into the multi-listing book yet. It was also close by and so was the first we looked at. We looked at four or five other properties that day ending at the property on East Canada Creek. it was still raining and we were perhaps more discouraged than ever. We decided that on the way home we would take one more look at the first piece we had seen that day. We had not been unduly impressed with it, but it had received a better rating than the other prospects of the day.
I wish now that I could remember what exactly we saw on that second visit. Whatever it was, it was enough for us to call the next day and make an offer to buy it. The acquisition process was not an easy one. The asking price of $40,000 for 68 acres of wooded hillside with "room to roam" was much more than we could afford. We offered them $35,000. $l0,000 down and they would hold a mortgage for the remainder. They countered with $20,000 down and a $15,000 mortgage for 5 years. We accepted the terms wondering all the while where we would come up with all that money. First we looked for partners. That failing, we literally cashed in all our chips. Laurie had some retirement funds from her work as an engineer (By this time she was a graduate student in Biology and, except for a pauper's stipend for her teaching duties, she was without income). We dugout savings bonds and cleaned out savings accounts and I began working seven days a week taking all the side work I could get. We begged from our families and borrowed from our friends. We spent sleepless anxiety-ridden nights. In the end we took a cash advance on a credit card for the balance of the down payment and closing costs.
The day of the closing we left the lawyers and went directly to the land. We walked around looking at the raw material of our future homestead. We didn't know it then but we were looking at a treasure.
Next time I will talk about exploring, discovering and harvest¬ing the treasures of the homestead.
Jim Strickland and Laurie Freeman are honing their homesteading skills in Meco, 3 miles west of Gloversville, NY.