From the Maine Woods

No big post this week, I’m in the Maine Woods without reliable internet or electricity.

The one economics angle to all this is that like many seemingly ancient Maine forests, the one I’m in used to be a farm. Notice the barbed wire running right through the middle of a huge old tree; the farm was abandoned so long ago that the tree had time to grow that big around it.

Why was the farm abandoned? Maine is cold and our soil is rocky, so agriculture tends to be unproductive relative to the Midwest. Many people left their farms in the late 1800s and early 1900s for new land in the West or, more commonly, manufacturing jobs in the cities. Maine used to be half farms, but now its land is 90% forest.

Economics of an Alabama Small Farm Homestead

When I took a trip to Alabama a couple of months ago, I visited a small farm about an hour’s drive south of Birmingham. The proprietor of Rora Valley Farms, Noah Sanders, makes a living for his family mainly by selling vegetables from a garden plot, plus raising chickens for selling eggs and meat. I was curious as to how he manages to do this, since the usual model of agriculture is to operate at large scale, with big machines efficiently  plowing and harvesting hundreds and thousands of acres.

I had read online about a low tech, compost-intensive method of farming developed in Zimbabwe called Foundations for Farming. This method  has proven extremely successful in southern Africa at mitigating food insecurity; I posted a longish description of it at   “Pfumvudza” Planting Technique Revolutionizes Crop Yields in Zimbabwe.   Noah is listed as the U.S. representative for Foundations for Farming, which led me to contact him.

The Modern Homesteading Movement

The most fundamental aspect of his operation is not the specific crops he grows. Rather, it is the overall vision than he and his wife have for their lives and their family. Trying to start up a small farm is not something folks do just for the money. There are much, much easier ways to make a buck.

The Sanders are part of a small but growing homesteading movement. It is hard to pin down precisely what that means these days, but in general it denotes a lifestyle aimed at self-sufficiency. Thus, homesteaders grow a large portion of the food they eat, and often install solar panels and rain catchment systems to reduce dependence on the electrical and water grids. Raising chickens for eggs and meat is common. All this can be done in a suburban or even an urban back yard; nearly anyone can put in a garden, and some cities allow a few egg-laying hens to be kept (but no roosters, because of the noise nuisance). More typically, homesteading is done in a rural setting, on maybe 3-10 acres. Most of that acreage would be pasture, to support some larger animals, such as goats, sheep, and pigs, all the way up to cows.

Besides producing more of what you consume, part of the homesteading ethos is to consume less. Instead of buying yet more made-in-China stuff and watching hours of contrived mass media and movies, homesteaders are found making cheese or canning vegetables, or maybe just sitting on the back porch watching the ever-entertaining chickens. To keep overall investment down, a homestead dwelling itself is typically no-frills. You are more likely to see pine boards than designer ceramic tile when you look down at a homestead kitchen floor. Hopefully all this producing more/consuming less allows the adults to spend less time working away from home, and more time with their families. Most homesteaders still need to drive off to work “in town” to make ends meet. Holding down an outside job plus running a farm operation plus doing home-schooling can lead to stress and burnout, even for a strong young couple. A homesteading ideal, therefore, is to be able to support oneself entirely from home-based activities.

A big driver for homesteading is to raise children in a situation where they can see their parents daily working productively, and where the children themselves make genuine contributions to the family’s welfare, rather than being merely consumers that cost the family time and money to entertain and occupy them.   This small-scale, subsistence-type agricultural activity runs contrary to the conventional wisdom that economic welfare consists of increasing specialization and then exchange of goods/services that are produced by efficient specialists.    

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