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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Back to the Land

Back to the Land

by Tim Miles of Mount Airy, NC

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” — Japanese farmer, writer, and proto-permaculturist Masanobu Fukuoka from his book “The One Straw Revolution”.

My photographs and essay entitled Back to the Land chronicle the triumphs and struggles of my oldest son Matt and his partner Tasha Greer as local farmers over the past three years. The narrative draws on the thoughts and experiences noted in their blog The Way Back (www.the-way-back.com).

Tired of living in a crowded urban environment with its deafening noise and bumper-to-bumper traffic and eager to escape what they saw as an economy bent on destroying the planet, Matt and Tasha left their home in the Washington, DC metropolitan area in March 2014.

In doing so, they became modern-day pioneers, part of a wave of Americans who have chosen to go back to the land over the past decade, seeking to reclaim and rebuild their lives and to forge a deeper connection to the earth, the animals that inhabit it, and to each other.

Back to the Land

Matt and Tasha moved to a 10-acre, mostly wooded property in Lowgap, where the Blue Ridge plateau dips down into the piedmont area of North Carolina. They named it the reLuxe Ranch in honor of the counter-culture lifestyle they were adopting.

Back to the Land

From the outset, they intended to engage in small-scale farming to provide for their own sustenance and some outside sales to try to earn extra income. They wanted to work with natural forces, using environmentally-friendly practices, to provide their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs. They aimed to minimize human inputs while maximizing use of waste products to improve the soil.

Back to the Land

Building infrastructure to support their homestead was one of their most important tasks. They installed a solar panel system to supplement their electricity. They also assembled a greenhouse for seed-starting and winter vegetable growing that would be used later as a brooder for poultry.

Back to the Land

Since the soil was severely eroded, they cover-cropped the exposed land that had topsoil and sheet mulched areas where nothing would grow with wood chips, manure, and straw. They also transplanted fruit plants brought from their yard in Maryland. Later, they purchased and planted other exotic edibles like jujube, hardy almond, and goji berries, and more.

Back to the Land

They started their vineyard with 50 wine-style vines cultivated for pest and mold resistance to minimize the need for pesticides and fungicides. In fall of the next year, they installed trellising and began wire training the 46 vines of 50 that had managed to survive intentional neglect and the local climate.

Back to the Land

In their first summer, Matt and Tasha found and foraged edible boletes and other mushrooms from around their property. They also began inoculating their own shiitake and other mushroom logs and created a mushroom grotto. Cultivated mushrooms became a significant and delicious part of their diet and, at $12 a pound, a saleable commodity at the local farmers’ markets.

They hoped to raise honey bees for pollination of their plantings and to harvest some honey. However, after several colonies were lost to a cold spring, low nectar flow, wax moth infestations, and Japanese wasp invasions, they decided to take a break from bee keeping until their edible landscape was more developed.

Back to the Land

Matt and Tasha knew livestock would play a key part in their soil fertility plan. Initially they bought 15 chicks and four ducklings as egg layers. They raised them in the house until they were mature enough to move the chickens to the existing chicken coop and the ducks to a small duck house.

Back to the Land

As ducks were a preferred meat source, better layers, and less harmful garden workers than chickens, more ducks were added bringing the population to 20 layers and two drakes. Fertile eggs were incubated and hatched on the farm to produce a small supply of Pekin ducks for meat production and sale at the farmers’ markets.

Back to the Land

Tasha and Matt tried raising turkeys as well, but their flock of ten was quickly reduced to three after many died in accidents or perished due to neighborhood dog attacks. Woodford, a Bourbon Red, and Ferdinand and Isabella, two Spanish Blacks, survived and became pets instead of table meat since they foraged well, ate a lot of pests, and entertained farm visitors.

Back to the Land

Goats were the first experiment in rearing non-poultry livestock. Matt and Tasha purchased two mature Nigerian dwarf does, named Phoebe and Fancy, as breeding stock for their personal dairy herd and underbrush clearers for land development.

Back to the Land

Several months later they brought in a new buckling to expand their herd. They named him Pythagoras because of the triangular shapes under his eyes and on his head and tail.

Pythagoras proved more effective than expected. Phoebe and Fancy gave birth to their first litters in March 2015 and again several months after that. In no time, the milking herd was up to six does. Extra bucklings were neutered and sold as pets. Pythagoras’ first born, Moose, was kept as a buck and companion for him and a later buckling named Patches, also got to stay on the ranch.

Back to the Land

Milking goats has been a daily chore that has given Matt and Tasha a regular supply of high-cream milk and great tasting cheeses.

Back to the Land

Matt and Tasha picked up four Yorkshire piglets in the spring of 2015. Their first round of pigs were easy to rear, but grew to unexpectedly large sizes. Since the couple knew nothing about raising pigs, the pigs were each 400 pounds at the time of slaughter rather than the target weight of 270 pounds.

Back to the Land

Their second round of pigs, acquired in June of 2016, proved to be impossible to keep in pasture without frequent feedings and fence checks. These pigs were about 300 pounds each and ate more than 1,000 pounds of feed plus pasture and garden scraps in their five months on the farm. The cost to buy and feed each pig was $300 and resulted in over 170 pounds of meat products per pig.

Back to the Land

Like many Americans, Matt and Tasha enjoyed eating meat as part of their diet. However, they objected to what they saw as cruel and inhumane practices in the global industrial food system. The prospect of slaughtering the animals they cared for was daunting initially, but participation in ethically and sustainably raised meat has become a critical part of the couple’s farming ethos.

Back to the Land

Killing twelve of their 15 ducks in October 2015 — their first attempt to raise meat for personal consumption — was logistically easy in that it involved holding and swiftly decapitating 10-pound ducks. Dispatching four grown pigs required a great deal of planning and coordination to bring together a community of friends, neighbors and family to carry out the slaughtering. Fortunately, many of these people had experience as hunters or grew up on farms and understood the importance of a swift and humane slaughter.

Back to the Land

It took the better part of two days to butcher the carcasses, cure hams and bacon, and package cuts for freezer storage. It took several more days of hard labor to turn whatever bits were left into sausage, lard, and pate. This first slaughter netted 780 pounds of pork products — much of which was shared with helpers as compensation for their efforts or cooked for the post hog killing celebration.

Back to the Land

An important element of homesteading is preparing and preserving food that is grown and raised. Matt and his brother Jason built this smokehouse which was used over the winter of 2015 to smoke the country hams, prosciutto, and certain varieties of sausages from the autumn pig slaughter.

Back to the Land

Farmers’ markets are one of the principal ways small farmers sell their goods. Buying locally-grown, healthy, farm-fresh produce has increased in popularity in recent years. This marketing channel allows farmers to share communal spaces to display their products and to forge a personal relationship with buyers and establish customer loyalty. Tasha has been selling what she harvests in her gardens at markets near where they live in Elkin and Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Back to the Land

As 2016 ended, Matt and Tasha had many reasons to celebrate. They had tripled the size of their vegetable garden and reaped bumper harvests of salad greens, sweet potatoes, squashes, tomatoes, watermelons, and many other vegetables. They had gained enough confidence and experience to raise and slaughter another round of pigs for their meat. They had started fodder projects to offset the costs of feeding their animals and hoped one day to earn some profits on their hard work. And, finally, they made plans to re-establish some new hives on their farm in 2017 so their gardens could benefit once again from the life-sustaining activities of bees.

More than anything, Matt and Tasha were grateful for the wealth of advice and help they had received from friends and neighbors who now formed a closeknit and mutually-supportive community that they have come to value greatly.

They had a home now where their hearts would always be.

Spotlight On: Book Reviews

How To Prune a Formal Hedge

How To Prune A Formal Hedge

This guide to hedge-trimming comes from The Pruning Answer Book by Lewis Hill and Penelope O’Sullivan. Q: What’s the correct way to shear a formal hedge? A: The amount of shearing depends upon the specific plant and whether the hedge is formal or informal. You’ll need to trim an informal hedge only once or twice a year, although more vigorous growers, such as privet and ninebark, may need additional clippings.

Storey's Guide to Keeping Honey Bees

Storey’s Guide To Keeping Honey Bees

It is well known that the value of pollination and its resultant seed set and fruit formation outweigh any provided by honey bee products like honey and beeswax.

Work Horse Handbook

Work Horse Handbook

Horses are honest creatures. And, what I mean by honest is that a horse is almost always true to his motivations, his needs, his perceptions: if he wants to eat, if he needs water, if he perceives danger. He is incapable of temporarily setting aside or subverting his motivations to get to some distant goal. This is often mistaken as evidence for a lack of intelligence, a conclusion which says more of human nature than equine smarts. What it means for the horse is that he is almost never lazy, sneaky or deceptive. It is simply not in his nature.

"Work Horse Handbook, 2nd Edition" by Lynn Miller

Draft Collars and How To Size Them

It is difficult to accurately measure a horse’s neck without fitting. In other words, there are so many variables involved in the shape and size of a horse’s neck that the only accurate and easy way to size the neck is to use several collars and put them on one at a time until fitting is found.

McCormick Deering/International No 7 vs no 9

McCormick Deering/International: No. 7 versus No. 9

McCormick Deering/International’s first enclosed gear model was the No. 7, an extremely successful and highly popular mower of excellent design.

An Introduction To Farm Woodlands

The farm woodland is that portion of the farm which either never was cleared for tillage or pasture, or was later given back to woods growth. Thus it occupies land that never was considered suitable, or later proved unsuitable, for farm enterprises.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 3

What goes with the sale? What does not? Do not assume the irrigation pipe and portable hen houses are selling. Find out if they go with the deal, and in writing.

Art of Working Horses Hunter Review

Art of Working Horses – A Review

by:
from issue:

Over 40 years Lynn Miller has written a whole library of valuable and indispensable books about the craft of working horses. He has helped beginners acquire the basics of harnessing and working around horses, and has led those further along to focus on the specific demands of plowing, mowing, haying and related subjects. But, in a fitting culmination, his latest book, The Art of Working Horses, raises its sights and openly ponders secrets at the heart of the work that may over time elevate it to an art.

Timing the Bounce

Timing the Bounce: Resilient Agriculture Meets Climate Change

by:
from issue:

In her new book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, Laura Lengnick assumes a dispassionate, businesslike tone and sets about exploring the farming strategies of twenty-seven award-winning farmers in six regions of the continental United States. Her approach gets well past denial and business-as-usual, to see what can be done, which strategies are being tried, and how well they are working.

Training Workhorses Training Teamsters Driving Junipers Training

Driving: Juniper’s Training

A final sneak peak at the Second Edition of Lynn R. Miller’s “Training Workhorses / Training Teamsters.” Today’s excerpt, “Driving: Juniper’s Training,” is from Chapter 11, “Starting and Training Older Horses.”

Barbed Wire History and Varieties

Book Excerpt: The invention of barb wire was the most important event in the solution of the fence problem. The question of providing fencing material had become serious, even in the timbered portions of the country, while the great prairie region was almost wholly without resource, save the slow and expensive process of hedging. At this juncture came barb wire, which was at once seen to make a cheap, effective, and durable fence, rapidly built and easily moved.

Horsedrawn Plows and Plowing

Setting Up A Walking Plow

Here is a peek into the pages of Horsedrawn Plows and Plowing, written by SFJ editor and publisher Lynn R. Miller.

Art of Working Horses

Lynn Miller’s New Book: Art of Working Horses

Art of Working Horses, by Lynn R. Miller, follows on the heels of his other eight Work Horse Library titles. This book tells the inside story of how people today find success working horses and mules in harness, whether it be on farm fields, in the woods, or on the road. Over 500 photos and illustrations accompany an anecdote-rich text which makes a case for the future of true horsepower.

McCormick-Deering No 7 Mower Manual in English & French

McCormick-Deering No. 7 Mower Manual in English & French

Instructions for Setting Up and Operating the McCORMICK-DEERING No. 7 VERTICAL LIFT TWO-HORSE MOWERS — Instructions pour le Montage et le Fonctionnement des FAUCHEUSES A DEUX CHEVAUX McCORMICK-DEERING No. 7 À RELEVAGE VERTICAL

Dont Eat the Seed Corn

Don’t Eat the Seed Corn: Strategies & Prospects for Human Survival

by:
from issue:

Gary Paul Nabhan’s book “WHERE OUR FOOD COMES FROM: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine” (Island Press, 2009) is a weighty tome, freighted with implications. But as befits its subject it is also portable and travels well, a deft exploration of two trips around the world, that of the author following in the footsteps of a long-gone mentor he never met, the Russian pioneer botanist and geneticist Nikolay Vavilov (1887-1943).

An Introduction To Grasslands Farming

From Dusty Shelves: A World War II era article on grassland farming.

Posts

Driving Fence Posts By Hand

Where the soil is soft, loose, and free from stone, posts may be driven more easily and firmly than if set in holes dug for the purpose.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT