Five Acres and a Dream: An Eggstraordinary Story of Living off the Land!
By T. Myers
The Grange Halls that formed in the US were all about teaching the best ways to farm and educate farmers about the latest in agrarian technology. With a motto that expounded Leadership, Fellowship, Community and Grassroots action, the local Grange was the go to place for most small communities to socialize and celebrate being a community. Who hasn’t been to or seen a movie where there was a Saturday night dance at the grange? The entire family would come. There would be a great meal and the men would go out into the parking lot where they hid the bottles they brought. This Grange is over 100 years old and was the 939th grange to open in the USA!
By the mid-century, the granges were closing right and left, people had moved to the cities and we were a nation on the move- moving away from the land and forgetting the importance of our agrarian roots as we became consumers instead of producers! Those of us who were lucky enough to live in a smaller town saw Grange membership decline as farms combined, were sold off or taken back by the banks and even purchased by one of the big Agra-business concerns.
Back in the olden days of my life, I learned from age four to garden for the family. I was told about the importance of the wartime Victory Gardens and I lived in neighborhoods where people still grew their own produce in the summer time. Planting and watching the plants as they grew was an integral part of our young lives and a continuation of generations of family experiences. Plant a tree? For sure it was for fruit. Plant a bush? Most likely it would produce blueberries before the fall foliage added to the colors of the garden. And there were plenty of flowers, too. Beauty in growing everything was part of the American fabric. Our sense of independence- especially in the west was based on the fact that we could get most of what we needed from our local region and the Grange was responsible for that happening.
By the late 1960s and 1970s, society was in an upheaval. The Viet Nam War had led to protests and social injustice was the theme that ran through the lives of the young adults who were coming of age and ready to make a dent on what was fast becoming a changing world. Life was changing with every nightly news broadcast and it was never going to be the way it had been again!
I graduated High School in 1967 and boy howdy; I was not really ready for what was going to happen next! I was like every other young adult who was commencing from the old system and entering an undefined world.
Along with the advent of The Pill, we were also in the throes of a sexual revolution, a social revolution, the political revolution and more. So the life of our fathers and mothers was not going to be the life that most of American youth would accept as what they saw for themselves and the future. Mom, Apple Pie and the 4th of July was being replaced with love-ins, Tim O’Leary’s RX for an enlightened world and really way out music, bad attitudes, distrust of authority and colorful eclectic clothes!
Mother Earth News and lots of the conspiracy theorists were beginning to publish. Demonstrations against the government and the flag and the draft were in the news every day. Political, social, economic, educational and other points were being made. Religion entered the arena in order to stabilize the daily ups and downs that fractured our old ideas like mirrors being shattered and broken. Each time a new idea was revealed, there were more that went against the system and youth questioned the establishment like no other time.
Being the conservative that I was, I began to put together my own plan for survival of the times based on the things my father taught me about the wilderness and with what my grandmother taught me about the home until I thought I would be able to get along on my own, for a good long time by taking a piece of land, some seeds, basic knowledge of gardening, hand tools and the water and fertilizer I would need to plant and harvest a garden.
The first thing I did was put together a stash of food and provisions that would cover my existence until I had produce and food sources that I could count on. I amassed camping gear, camp stoves, saws, splitting mauls, and the ropes, fuels and other items for keeping a camp together for a long period of time.
I took a bit of time finding the right piece of land. For me, the piece of land that I found was almost ten acres. It had an old house and shed and it had plenty of flat land with water on the boundary of two sides. I rented a heavy duty roto-tiller and worked on a large garden to begin my plan. I fenced the garden. I took out library books on companion planting and amending the soil and how to build a fence around a garden in the wilderness.
I learned it would take about eight years before my ground was able to sustain the plantings I would need to support my existence. Amending the soil and building up the raised beds became my life’s work as I hauled different kinds of animal waste, composting materials and bags of peat moss and steer manure into my space. Each year I rotated the beds to keep a balance in the three nutrients the soil needed, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous:
I learned that in simple terms, nitrogen promotes plant growth. It is associated with leafy, vegetative growth. It is part of every protein in the plant, so it’s required for virtually every process, from growing new leaves to defending against pests. Nitrogen is part of the chlorophyll molecule, which gives plants their green color and is involved in creating food for the plant through photosynthesis. Lack of nitrogen shows up as general yellowing (chlorosis) of the plant. Because nitrogen can move around in the plant, older growth often yellows more than the new growth.
Phosphorus is involved in metabolic processes responsible for transferring energy from one point to another in the plant. It’s also critical in root development and flowering. Because phosphorus moves slowly through the soil, it’s important to work it into the soil, where it’s needed by the roots.
Potassium helps regulate plant metabolism and affects water pressure regulation inside and outside of plant cells. It is important for good rood development. For these reasons, potassium is critical to plant stress tolerance.
Then I became aware that because of where I was living, the conditions that I needed to meet were different than those in the Willamette valley. Oh My Goodness! I would have to re-plan my life as a gardener- again. What did I need to do if I went to raising container crops, or planted in the soil without the raised beds? And what about garden pests? Weeds and bugs and animals that live under the ground and eat the roots. Companion plants were next. Things that grow well together that handle the usual pests and supplement soil conditions for the real plants was exciting to learn about and a challenge!
Everywhere I turned, I was getting advice about raising animals, too. Rabbits? Chickens? Geese? Ducks? Turkeys? Pigs? All of them would become life-long pets- not meat, and eventually I tried everything but the pigs. And then I found out that there were predators in the forest and as hard as I tried to be sure that my animals were safe, they were being preyed upon until it was a full time job to protect them and if I had been a real farmer, it made little sense to keep them.
Next it was time to go greener! We added a windmill for a yard light and then we had what we called a low carbon footprint of having no garbage (I took out one can a year), some passive solar applications that would add to the woodstoves that we used for heating and cooking, cold frame gardening and the alternative energy exploration became a new focus until, by the end of the 70’s, I turned into a wood energy guru/expert that was involved at the international and national level and eventually I represented the USA, State of Oregon, Clackamas County and the City of Portland at a series of Alternative energy conferences in Europe and the US. By 1980, I was involved in the international movement for solid fuels and ethanol conversion.
It was definitely time for the birds. Chicken were the natural first choice. It was back to school time for me to learn the ins and outs of raising chickens in one of the rainiest places in Oregon- the foot of Mount Hood. Arcaunas, Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks were the best for the area. Cornish Crosses were the meat choice and I raised them by the dozens for the family and the freezer. We started with a chicken coop that was inside an existing shed. We added brood boxes and worked on being clean, neat, supplying heated water at 55 degrees and the correct supplemental foods from chicken scratch to oyster shell to regular feed for laying hens and produce scraps and five acres of free range for the hens to have as a playground. Mr. Rooster was a fighting cock who was a beautiful specimen and he loved the ladies so the eggs were fertile. (He also loved the other birds like crows and herons and anything that flew- but that is a story for another day) We learned to let one or two of the hens have a brood and we helped the babies in a heated chick area to get them raised up. It was not long before we knew that the chicken house as it was- was not good enough. We built a new one with higher fencing and a log cabin coop that would keep out the raccoons who were feasting on the smaller or more feeble chickens.
It was duck time, we made a large pond, lined it and filled it with water and put a few mallards and Muscovys in it. We added some Rouens and Peking white ducks and learned that they get lots of attention at night because they can be seen so easily. Geese came next. Talouse and white geese completed the circle. It was soon time to sell duck and chicken eggs and the garden scraps were added to the food chain. Ducks ate bugs and geese ate weeds and chickens ate everything. Someone gave us a couple of turkeys- first mistake was to take them without realizing that you cannot have turkeys with the other three or diseases happen. Even with a lot of ground, there is something that does not work with the four of them. Pet turkeys that weigh in at 45 pounds and like to ride in cars don’t work either, but these were the learning years. We would sleep on the shed roof and shoot the raccoons that were drowning the birds they wanted and then eat the one half of the breast meat before leaving for the day. The one turkey that became a yard guard got caught jumping into the State trooper’s open car door and wedged himself behind the wheel when the trooper was taking pictures of an illegal fisherman on the other side of the river. Getting Big Al from behind the wheel of a squad car was an experience that caused the trooper to lose his fisherman and hurt the turkey- who managed to peck a large hole in the arm of the policeman.
Big Al had to be driven into the vet and he caused an accident on the way there when people in the outside lane realized a turkey was sitting in the front seat and they drove off the road. All did not make it through the exam, and because he was medicated, he did not make it to the table either and 48 pounds of turkey meat had to be buried.
My pet goose, D B Gooser, hated my husband. He would charge him, grab his clothes and shake him until he was forced to the ground where he would beat his big wings over him to keep the dominant position. I came home from class one day and DB was laying on a picnic table being plucked of his feathers. What followed was selection of words that could only be called Foul Language and I was finally up to there with what my husband had done. That was the beginning of Bird Wars! That was the beginning of a series of acts that changed my mind about the person I had been working beside for all of the years we were married!
I had to make duck for dinner and my husband- who had suffered the vicious reaction to my loss of the goose, no longer wanted to kill the family meal birds and he would not kill the duck. Fred was the one I chose for the supper guest and as I laid him on the block, I remember his one beautiful eye looking up at his mother as I lowered the hatchet for the final chop. I got sick, called off dinner and wept for three days.
My acreage became a jungle. There were more birds, less harvesting and to get control, I got a German Shepard to help with the nightly round-up. He was fabulous. I would tell him to put the birds to bed and he would run around the entire property and escort the birds back into their coops, pens, and sheds every night. He and the English sheep dog slept inside, though and they would bark to get out at night when the raccoons showed up. We were stabilizing the numbers and egg sales were booming.
At the same time as our adventures in animal husbandry, we had gardened for eight years and our selection of herbs, fruits, vegetables, flowers and leaf crops were well established. We had put in grapes for eating and wine and they were producing well. The orchard of Stark dwarf and semi-dwarf trees were producing cherries, pears, apples, apricots, nectarines, and the blueberries, strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries and currents were fabulous. We never could get the rhubarb to grow- I had to move here to get that!
We used the manure for the garden after composting everything with garden scraps. The old chickens went to the poultry processer, the eggs went to customers and we planned how the poultry person could help us with the ducks and geese and the rest of the turkeys as it came time to do the deed. The herb business grew and soon we took everything but flour and milk from what we raised. We were truly independent and it only took nine years, thousands of dollars and all of our extra time to do it! YAY!
One morning, my shepard was chasing a predator from the property and was hit out on the highway. It broke my heart. It was how I decided to stop what I was doing and make some life changes. During the time we worked to become self-sufficient on our acreage, the marriage fell apart. I worked so hard I got sick. He worked so hard that he didn’t want anything to do with it- or me anymore.
It took a few months, but we started to downsize with the farm animals going to friends, neighbors and a local feed store. We kept the garden in tact until the last season when we decided to sell and move. Everything was ready for the anniversary of the first decade. We had a man come and fill in the pond and we replaced the outer fence line to keep out the stray fishermen. I repainted the inside of the house and we touched up the trim on the outside. I planted flowers around the yard in the different garden beds and put up the for sale sign.
The house went to the first man who came by to see it two days later. When we closed the sale, I took my big notebooks full of notes about how we built the gardens and the flower beds and the volume of information about the way to raise poultry. I left out the rabbit section and handed him a book about raising rabbits instead because by then I could not talk about the fact that the two rabbits, Bugs and Bunny, had died in a mysteriously strange and unorthodox way that could not be explained easily. Or ever!
I packed my belongings and moved out of my dream farm a month later. For me it was the long learning experience of a lifetime and after the dust settled on my new life, I took time to reflect on what I learned from the experience:
- Living off the land is not for dummies. I will say it one more time. Living off the land is not for dummies. It requires intelligent planning and follow-through. It requires patience.
- Making your property a productive self-sufficient acreage takes time, experimentation and lots of hard work. Time means years. You can speed things along with an investment in soil amendments and investments in creating safe and separate spaces. Money will make it faster and easier. But nothing will happen quickly. It will take time. You will still have to work at a regular job unless you have an independent income in order to make a go of being self-sufficient.
- If you have livestock, your responsibility is threefold. You can never forget your feeding, watering, safety enclosures for a single day because you are all they have- and if you do this they will be there for you when you need them. Forget vacations: the animals will not thrive and the garden plants will die. No one takes care of your children like you do.
- Make sure before you begin, that your house is habitable (Without a place to sleep and eat, you will not have the energy to do the other list of things that you need to do.) And if you are lucky enough to have out buildings, make them secure and put all of your pens and fencing in place. Repair, restore, renovate and prepare for the next steps.
- Do not add animals or livestock until you have been working in the garden for a while to see if things actually grow as planned. Your garden needs to feed humans and livestock –or else the expense of animal feed gets pricey. Supplementing feed with bits of pulled greens, tasty weeds and vegetable cuttings will add fresh vitamins and additional nutrients to the diet of your livestock.
- Make sure that you study the area for soil, weather and timing and find the seeds and plants that work in your climate. Study the soil. Get control of the garden before you venture into egg production and animal husbandry. In La Pine you will need to include cold frames, greenhouse space and composting areas that are not going to attract raccoons and other pests.
- Be careful about adding different livestock animals. You will have to house and protect each kind of creature and they require specific things to maintain their health and safety. In our area, you will have to provide totally covered and fenced chicken coops. (And why are there always two doors on a chicken coop? because if there are four doors on a chicken coop it is called a sedan.)Rabbits require shelter, air movement on hot days, no wind on cold days, plenty of clean water and a scraps bowl and a separate dry feed bowl. All Rabbit pellets need to be cleared away each week at a minimum. Same with penned goats or sheep. Be sure you are aware of the needs of your livestock. Have a regular Chicken Chat to check in with your flocks. Chickens will know who brings the feed and will tell you lots of things about what is happening if you pay attention.
- Know the psychology of behaviors in each type of animal you are raising. Know how farm animals and house pets will most likely react to the presence of the other. A sheep dog that sleeps with his flock will care for them like siblings. A housecat may take a liking to a small chick- as food sources.
- Establish a Veterinarian who will answer a phone call question and work with you on the health of all of your animals.
- Once you establish your garden productivity, don’t give eggsclusive attention to one part of your property over the other. And if you do raise chickens, take care of the mother cluckers so they replenish your laying stock. Livestock is not pet stock, so don’t let a soft heart make decisions that should be made with a clear business head.
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