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Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

interview by Paul Hunter and Derek Phillips

Richard Douglas, long-time journal subscriber and self-sufficient New York farmer took a three thousand plus mile train trip to join us for this year’s auction in Oregon. While we had this remarkable young man available to us, Paul Hunter and Derek Phillips interviewed him to find out how and his family do what they do. What follows is the entire discussion along with Richard’s photos. -SFJ

Paul Hunter: Richard Douglass, your life is off the grid. This is the place we start and we’ll come back to. You are a model of how to work this out, without the car, without a lot of the ways that people do their lives. I mean, what got you down this road?

Douglass: I guess it started when I was in high school. I was always a little different; I had different interests than most other people did. When I graduated from high school my parents wanted me to go to college. I decided I didn’t really want to go to college. We always had a summer place up in Maine, a true camp, a camp that was on the side of the lake where there was no electricity. And we had a spring that you carried water from. That was one of our jobs, carrying the spring water. We started going there when I was like one year old. We had propane lights, and a propane refrigerator, and a propane stove that my mother cooked on. And we heated the place with a fireplace and a wood stove. So this is what we did. My parents, by the way, grew up in Maine and my mother wanted us to have that country exposure because we lived in the city,; where my father worked was in the city. Every summer we came up there and had this idyllic summer of carrying wood for the fireplace, and carrying water, and fishing off the dock, and playing in the woods, building tree forts. We had this kind of wild existence in a way and so I kind of grew up with that and so to me going to college, I couldn’t define it the way I do now because I don’t think I really understood, but I recognized that if I went to college and got a degree I would be forced to get a job working at a company, and I would have to play this game and I knew that I did not want to play the game. I can describe it better now but I had this instinctual understanding in my mind that if I went down that path it was somewhere that I didn’t want to go.

Hunter: No way to turn around and come back.

Douglass: I didn’t go. The funny thing was, my parents were born in the Depression and to them education equaled success. And my father got an education and was a very successful man, so for their children that’s what they wanted. But I said, “I want to go to Maine and live up there.” And so I did. And they said, “Well you can go up there.” And I stayed in the camp. And like I said it was just a camp. It was not like a second home, like people talk about now. It didn’t have any insulation, it just had studs. No electricity or anything. They said, “You can go up there, we’re not going to say you can’t use the camp, but if you go up there we aren’t going to help you at all.” And they contacted all of our relatives up there and told them “do not help him in any way shape or form.” And they expected I would find out that it’s a hard life and I’ll give up this crazy notion of not going to college. But the funny thing happened was I didn’t do that. I found out this wonderful life in the rural area. And because they chose not to help me, they helped me in the best possible way that they could. I learned to rely on myself and I learned how to be poor. Not that we were rich but we were comfortably well off and I didn’t know how to be poor because my parents had provided. And so being an outsider coming to this small community it was very difficult to find work. I was young, inexperienced, very low marketable skills. But through meeting local people I found out that a lot of people were poor. I could fit right in and be very happy doing that. And so that laid the groundwork and I actually lived in that community for about seven or eight years.

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

Hunter: How did you get into farming? How did you turn that corner?

Douglass: Well, I did a bit of farming up there; a lot of people did grow gardens. I learned in Maine to grow a garden, and did some hunting, but the main skills I learned were how to cut wood, heat with wood, live without electricity, a number of skills that I have today, that I still need today, got their start in that period of time.

Hunter: You live in the upper edge of New York State?

Douglass: I live in a town called Russell, New York, which is right outside of Canton, which is the county seat of St. Lawrence county which is one of the counties they call it the Northern Tier. It’s very close to Canada, just south of Ottawa, Ontario.

Hunter: And has that wonderful lake effect snow?

Douglass: Yes, we get about 100 inches of snow. It’s in the hardiness zone three which gets 30-40 below zero so it’s a very cold environment and very challenging as far as growing things.

Hunter: You’ve got 90-100 days of the year. So what do you grow?

Douglass: You can grow just about everything. We grow corn, wheat, oats, and the normal stuff too like potatoes and tomatoes, carrots.

Hunter: You’ve got to be careful about the species, the variety you plant.

Douglass: You have to make sure you choose the varieties with a very short season, made for a short, cold growing season environment. And there’s a lot of stuff out there. Basically, you have to look at things that will mature in less than 100 days. And the other thing is that we save a lot of our own seeds and the varieties tend to become more adapted to the environment they are grown in with each succeeding generation so that works in our favor too.

Hunter: But isn’t that some kind of law breaking now? Saving your seed?

Douglass: It could be but I don’t pay attention to those big companies.

Hunter: The silliness of it, I mean you hear about lawsuits being slapped on seed cleaners. This guy has a seed cleaning business in Illinois and Iowa who is just ruined by the big companies saying he’s stealing seed without paying for it. Anyways, so you don’t have a car?

Douglass: That’s correct, three years ago; well how it came about is I got into horses. I’ve used tractors somewhat in my farming but I kind of became disenchanted with them. I never really liked them that much to begin with the noise and the stinkiness of the exhaust and the fact they compact the soil, and they’re always breaking down. I never really liked them that much to begin with so five years ago, maybe it was six, I decided I wanted to get into horse farming and so I got my first team and I started working with them and sort of the next logical progression for me was since I’m doing horses I wanted to have a horse and buggy and start going around with that. And so I did. I got a horse and buggy which I only used occasionally because I had a car and a truck and my wife had a van. We had three sons so we were the typical family; we had the van for the family to get around in and the truck for my work, my carpentry work. And it kind of went along like that for awhile but when we moved to our new farm I had gotten a job and my truck had broken down and it was basically too much money to fix it so I said okay I have to get another used truck. I don’t want anything new anyway, don’t want to be in debt, borrowing money or anything and so I went and bought this truck. And I can’t even remember maybe it was $500 for the truck and it needed some work so I got one thing immediately and got that fixed. One thing led to another and I worked on this job, this carpentry job for eight weeks and all the money I earned on this job went to buying the truck, fixing everything that was wrong with it and paying the insurance and getting it on the road and I started thinking about it. I said to my wife, “you know, every penny I made on that job went to this truck, and if I didn’t have a truck I could have kept that money for myself.”

Hunter: You could have kept that money for all the other things. It’s very hard to not have any monetary needs. You’ve got to buy supplies; you’ve got to buy stuff.

Douglass: Sure, nobody can be completely self sufficient. But if you start examining and thinking very deeply about the things you do buy, what I found, at least in my life and I believe that it is true of anybody, that if you closely examine that you will find that the vast majority of your expenditures are not on things that you need. And not only that, but the things you spend your money on are not even things that bring you happiness. A lot of the times we just spend money. It’s sort of unconscious. You don’t really get anything out of it. So thinking about this truck and having a conversation with my wife I said, “If we didn’t have any vehicles I could save a lot of money and then I wouldn’t have to work as much.” This was my thought. This at is where the money went.

Hunter: But that’s a serious commitment to facing the realities that govern our lives.

Douglass: I knew that it cost us about $6,000 a year, it cost us $6,000 a year to keep two vehicles on the road, to buy the gas, and the insurance, and the maintenance and that sort of thing. We have never had a new car or even an expensive car at all; they’ve all been $500, $1,000, $1,500, that’s it. And I’ve done most of the work myself so it wasn’t really that much. So what we decided is that when the car or the truck broke we just wouldn’t replace them. We’d run them until some major expense came up and then that was it. That was our ultimatum, or deadline.

Hunter: You gave your machines an ultimatum.

Douglass: And interestingly enough within three months, both of them had died. One of them when I was on a job, sixty miles from home. It died as I was pulling into the job. I just left the car right there. I said, “You can have that truck, I don’t want it anymore”, and I took the bus home from the job. It was actually a pretty good feeling looking back on it.

Hunter: Has that worked out okay?

Douglass: Well, actually I was a bit nervous about it at first because you know being a carpenter and I have my family.

Hunter: All your tools!

Douglass: Well I have my horse and buggy. But what I was concerned about was not being able to make money. My car or my truck could go wher- ever I want with my tools and make a living. I have a family to support and like you were saying you do need money. You can’t get by in this world with- out money, at least at this time. I was kind of nervous about it but I could take my horse and buggy out and that will give me ten miles and I could always pay someone to bring my stuff out to a job and ride the bus. I had all these ideas in my head. I was going to recreate what I was doing at that point, but the funny thing was that never occurred to me at the time even though I did know I was going to save money, while I didn’t really have a job at that time it was early spring so I was just doing stuff around the farm like I normally do and the funny thing that happened after a few weeks, I realized that I didn’t really need money because I wasn’t spending money anymore and so I didn’t need to work anymore. I’m not saying never, but this whole anxiety about working was groundless because the reason I needed to work was to pay for the cars. Now that I didn’t have the cars anymore, I really didn’t need to work anymore.

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

Hunter: Would you say that your farming is entirely subsistence? Do you sell some of what you grow?

Douglass: We do sell some of what we grow. We sell $3,000 – $4,000 a year of products.

Hunter: How do you do that?

Douglass: Well, a variety of ways, mostly just to people we know. We may sell a part of Beef, or lambs, or extra sheep that we have. We sell people syrup. We sell pumpkins around Halloween, just kind of minor stuff like that.

Hunter: So you have a little diversity in your income stream? You don’t depend all on your lambs or all on your pumpkins?

Douglass: Right. And I work 8-10 weeks doing carpentry work when it is convenient for my schedule. If I have some farming and I’m putting up hay then I’m not going to be doing carpentry during that time. I only take jobs that are flexible or that I can do according to my schedule. I’m a farmer first and I’ll get to them when I have time and that’s worked out pretty well. And the thing is I don’t really need to work out too much because since we don’t have the car anymore. The products that we sell off the farm pretty well pay for the taxes, we have a wash there. So for the other things that the farm does not provide for us, I figure I need about $5,000 a year so I really only have to work a short period of time doing carpentry work to get that money which is pretty amazing in this day and age for a family of five to be living on that little amount of money.

Hunter: So most of that working off the farm is in the winter or before harvest time?

Douglass: Some of it is in the winter but it’s spread throughout the year. I pick my weeks when I have time to do it.

Hunter: So you’ve got sheep, and you’ve got horses and you grow everything you need to feed them?

Douglass: Well, we’ve got horses that we use for draft power. I’ve got two teams of Belgians that power all the things on the farm. I don’t have a tractor, I don’t have a truck or anything like that. Everything must be done by them. I have two buggy horses that I use for transportation. I have a one-seater buggy for when I’m going into work or into town by myself and then I have a two-seater one for when I’m with the kids, the suburban model of the buggy world, the wagon. Then we have the family cow and I usually have a replacement cow that I’m raising to sell or to keep. Then I raise some beef and I raise a few pigs and chickens both for eggs and for eating, and we also have the sheep. So getting back to your question, I grow all the hay that they require and I grow about half of the grain that we need and I’m working on expanding that.

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

Hunter: You have enough land to grow more grain?

Douglass: I do. I have 60 acres total. All together I have 160 acres; the balance is in pasture and wooded land, firewood and the sugar bush.

Hunter: The sugar bush. Up until last year I didn’t know what that meant, now I am down with that. So, sustainability, I mean here it is, you are testing it, seeing how that works, and you’ve got some cash things, what do you do about keeping needs if you don’t have electricity?

Douglass: Okay, I’ll get into that. You were saying at the top that we were off grid and that is not exactly true. We are off grid but actually our farm is ‘non-electric’. That is the term I like to use because when we talk about off grid it means you must have solar or wind generated electricity or something, but we live basically with no electricity at all. We actually live very similarly to the Amish in the way that we live although we are not affiliated with any church or anything, we just lead this lifestyle because we enjoy it and we chose it, not because it’s a part of a dogma of a church.

Hunter: Do you have, I mean I’ve stayed with an Amish family that had propane mantel lights throughout their house?

Douglass: Basically, I’ll just go through all of the systems we use. For water, I have a 1937 Aermotor water pumping windmill that I bought from a man who was actually using it for a lawn ornament. But I bought it and took the thing down and put it up at my farm and installed pipes and everything and what it does is it pumps water to two cement tanks, two 1,000 gallon cement tanks, that are buried in a hill slightly above the buildings and so it pumps the water to there and it’s like a mini reservoir and it gravity feeds to the barn, our house, we have two farm houses, Levi and Mary’s house, an Amish couple, a young family who live with us on the farm and it also goes to the spring house and from there we have a hose that you can bring into the greenhouse. So that’s basically our water system. It works fantastic. It’s very low tech like I said it’s a 1937 water pump windmill still pumping water in 2011. We oil it once a year and that’s all the maintenance it needs. To me that is sustainability. And so for lighting, we have different sources of light; we do have propane lamps, for the most part that’s what we use but we also have what I call fat lamps but they’re actually olive oil lamps, and we use lard from our pigs to power them. And they actually work really well, they don’t smoke and they don’t smell which people have asked me about. And we also use battery operated headlamps and flashlights for doing chores during the wintertime when days are short. And for refrigeration we actually have several different techniques for refrigeration. The first one we use is the root cellar and that works really well, it maintains the temperature at about 40-45 degrees for most of the year. In the summer it will get higher because the earth warms up. We use that for storing our root crops and our apples, squash and stuff of that nature.

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

Hunter: You just dig it in the hillside?

Douglass: Well it’s actually our basement, the basement is unheated. And the second thing we use is the spring house. The overflow from the two 1,000 gallon tanks comes into the spring house which is underground and flows into a cement trough, similar to a stock watering trough, and it has an outlet and the water flows through there and it is cool and you can put things in there immersed in the water and you can keep them cool. It is very handy for cooling milk after you milk the cow. And the third way is we cut ice from the pond in the winter time and stack them very tightly together in the ice house which is underground next to the spring house and we take out blocks of ice or pieces of ice and we bring it into the house and use it in the ice box inside and also if the water in the spring house is not cool enough we can put ice blocks in there and cool it down just like you put ice in a glass of water.

Hunter: And you get enough ice, you are able to harvest enough ice in the winter to last you through the year?

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

Douglass: Yes, that’s correct. If it’s packed away properly we have enough to last through the spring, fall and winter, you’ll have some left over. We put in about 18 tons. It’s 12 x 12 x 8 feet high and we fill it up.

Hunter: What do you use for insulation?

Douglass: Sawdust and also pack snow in between the blocks. The idea is to not have any air spaces in between the blocks.

Hunter: No circulation.

Douglass: Exactly, because once it starts it just gets more and more and it would be similar to a stream breaking down a dam.

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

Hunter: So you use the ice for your meats?

Douglass: The meats, we can a lot of our meat and I say this every year but I want to build a smoke house and it’s actually almost near the top of the list now. It’s getting smaller every year. But I want to build a smoke house. Then we could cure meat and then smoke it and store it like that because that is the traditional way to do it. My mother-in-law lives nearby and we do actually have a freezer that we keep over there and freeze some of our meat that way. But we can a lot of meat.

Hunter: You must have a pressure cooker?

Douglass: Yes, my wife cans a lot of food. She puts away 1,000 quarts of canned goods every year. And she makes her own spaghetti sauce, salsa, ketchup, bar-b-que sauce.

Hunter: So you grow a lot of tomatoes.

Douglass: Pickles, jams, jellies, she cans milk for when the cow is dry. She cans lard. She makes just about anything that can be canned. We actually have about eight pressure cookers. If you only have one you have to bring it up to temperature and then cool it down before you can get the next one in. She has numerous ones so she’s always packing some and has three cooking at once and then she’s got other ones cooling down so she can actually put up about 50 quarts a day. It’s amazing for one person.

Hunter: That is an enormous output. Well the pieces clearly have been thought out and are coming together. I was going to ask you about the future and your wish list but you already laid one of those things on us. Do you have other stuff on your wish list?

Douglass: Well one of the projects I’m working on this year is I want to, I’ve been putting up loose hay with my horses using a hay loader and a trolley system with a grapple hook into the barn. But what I want to move into is making hay stacks outside. I’ve located a buck rake; I’m going to be rebuilding it because I’m only getting the irons. So that’s going to be a project. I’d like to put up hay with the buck rake and pile it in stacks this year. Another project I’m going to be working on is a U-pick strawberry and raspberry section of our farm.

Hunter: So you’d put a sign out and have people come over to the farm?

Douglass: I’m preparing the ground this year and planting the plants this fall. And a third project I’m planning on doing this year is I’m very interested in Eliot Coleman’s Winter Gardening . He’s at the same latitude as us even though he’s on the coast so it’s a little bit warmer. But he has done some work in Vermont too with the same kind of system. I would like to try his approach to growing vegetables in the wintertime in unheated greenhouses. We have this North Country Grown Cooperative that was started by a group of farmers and we do sell things occasionally through that. They have a demand from the four universities or colleges in the immediate area that will buy vegetables and produce year round and also there’s some restaurants involved in that. So we have this market and I’m thinking if I can provide that there are people who would rather buy from me than SYSCO. So that is huge because the market is already there. I’m very thankful that there are people who are intelligent and have thought things through enough to realize that buying from SYSCO is maybe not the best thing to do if you can support local agriculture instead. So that’s another thing I’m thinking about doing this year. Did we talk about the maple syrup operation?

Hunter: No we haven’t. Do you have a hope to expand that or change it somehow?

Douglass: Well, no, we’ll just continue on what we are doing, I expanded it this year. It’s part of my ongoing management of our woods. Of course our wood lot provides us with heat, that’s our house’s heating. I don’t know exactly how many sugar maple trees I have, but I have about 1,200 taps so that’s a product of the farm. I’ve produced about 190 gallons of maple syrup this year.

Hunter: How much of that does your family use?

Douglass: Well at this time we use about 10 gallons but what I really want to do is convert some of the syrup into sugar. If anybody wants to know why a place in the woods is called a sugar bush and the place you make it a sugar house is that traditionally very little maple syrup was made. The principle reason for this whole operation was to make sugar not to make maple syrup. At the time, 150, 200 years ago, white sugar was only grown, and is still grown, in places like Cuba and it’s extremely expensive, only rich people ate white sugar, all the poor folks made their own. And so that’s what we would like to do is turn that syrup into sugar and replace that sugar that we are buying for baked goods that we make at the farm.

Hunter: Do you sell baked goods?

Douglass: We don’t and that’s getting back to the subsistence nature of our farm, our focus is not to push the farm to make as much money as possible. Our lifestyle and our philosophy of living is more to only take the things that we need, the necessities of life and we want to make room for some luxuries and treats and stuff like that but not to live a lifestyle that you just need money, money and more money no matter how much you have you always have to have more, because there are always more things that you want. Having a philosophy like that fits in more with our farm, with the subsistence farm. I only want to take what the farm can give no more, instead of looking at it as a cash cow to bring as much money out of it as we possibly can at the expense of the land, out of the richness and goodness of the land. I would rather try to improve it and make it better and not take as much. And because we like trying to limit what we need we don’t need to take that much and also I’ve found that the less you need the more rich your life is, the more you actually enjoy life. It’s like an inverse relationship. The more money you have the more you need and the less happiness, your quality of life goes down as your income goes up. As your income goes down your quality of life increases and the more value you get out of it. It seems kind of crazy but this is what we have found. Instead of being out working all the time trying to make money, I now have to work very little outside and I’m able to be with my family almost all the time, my quality of life is very high and I find my stress level is very low because I don’t really need to be anywhere. I’m not in a hurry. I’m not on a treadmill to nowhere.

Hunter: In the description of your life you have proved your parents wrong and yet had a huge cause to thank them.

Douglass: Yes, that’s very true.

Hunter: Do you think your kids are going to have that odd combination of feelings, that they need to both prove you wrong and they need to thank you? What will they prove you wrong about and what will they thank you for?

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

Douglass: I don’t know, I’m hoping that my children will realize that the way they were raised is a good way to live. I hope they don’t reach a period of time maybe when they are young adults that they think maybe this is a bad way or there’s something wrong with it. It’s possible that could happen but I think laying that foundation they’ll always have it no matter where they go.

Hunter: You feel like you’ve given them life skills that are going to be valued?

Douglass: Yes, and it’s something they will be able to fall back on no matter what situation they are in. And that includes even if they are not living on a farm and living a lifestyle similar to us. Someone doesn’t have to live on a farm to live a simple life, a high quality of life. It’s about not being caught up in the money economy, not being sucked in by consumerism, being satisfied with stuff that is really important. Yes, you need money to survive. I think that even pioneers had some money because there were certain things they couldn’t produce by themselves. There was always something they needed. But the key is to realize that there is very little that you really need and true happiness is found in very simple pleasures.

Hunter: What do you spend your free time on that you just love? And what do your kids spend their free time on that they love?

Douglass: Well the way you are saying that is like implying that you have when you’re not working and that’s kind of the way that mainstream society thinks. It’s very hard to deprogram ourselves from that way that society has programmed us to think. The only reason I’m making this point is that I find enjoyment in what most people would call work, working the horses, the boys helping me put hay in the barn, feeding the animals. To me that’s enjoyable, that’s fun. We do have times where we are not working, that we’re doing other things and that’s fun too but my whole life is fun. The boy’s whole life is fun. You can’t divide it into work and fun.

Hunter: Your son’s still agree with you on that point?

Douglass: They do, they are very young and I do not force them to work with me hour after hour. They come, they help for awhile and then they run off and do some other things. They come back later and help for awhile.

Hunter: You pay close attention to how that’s working for them.

Douglass: I want them to feel happy at work, not feel like it’s drudgery. I don’t know if I’m right on that but I think they are young they still have to be kids.

Hunter: Do you think your kids will go through what the Amish kids do, the rebellious, reach out and indulge in everything out there that modern culture has got?

Douglass: It’s possible. And in some ways I’m hoping that they can realize it and maybe that won’t happen, but I can totally understand that they would want to do it maybe. But at the same token, I hope that they get a chance like me, to compare. Because, unlike the Amish, I can do anything that I want. I could drive a car. I can have electricity. I can do whatever I want, its not constrained by dogma of the church. I’ve chosen it because I’ve weighed it. I have said “okay I’ve lived like this and I’ve lived like that”. I lived in Maine for a number of years and then I went back to a city for a number of years and now I’ve been in the place almost twenty years now but there was a time where I was back in the “mainstream” society. So I have weighed both and have been back and forth. I have made the choice based on what is better, what makes more sense. So I’m hoping my children will make that same choice.

Hunter: Did your parents get to see the long term effects of your choices? Do they get to see your farm, your place as it is now?

Douglass: Yes, both of them have and I think that they are happy for me in a way. They realize that I am happy. Although my mother keeps asking my wife, “You’re sure you don’t want electricity? He’s not just making you do this?” But they are happy because they know I’m happy. And they’ve learned to accept that success can be measured in other ways from what they thought was successful. In other words they have come to believe that in my own way I am successful and in maybe other ways they are a tad disappointed. For the most part I think they have accepted the fact that I am successful for me, in my way. But as far as a wholesale change in their thinking, it hasn’t come, but I’ll settle for that.

Hunter: Everybody gets to be in that spot with their parents and their children, if they have children, that you go, “Well, I can’t see everything but I might see a little further than my parents did.” The curious thing that someone said: The reason I see so little of the future is that I’m standing on the shoulders of midgets. A joke for the tape. You’ve done the numbers, you’ve done the calculations, that’s the bedrock of farmers for me. It’s the people who know their situation the best. Their not being whipped around by the winds of fate, they aren’t out chasing the fast buck. There is a fast buck in farming.

Douglass: Well, and what we are doing is sustainable too. It can be done generation after generation. And I truly believe that I could take, as the boys get older, we could take the production up on the farm and still maintain it at a sustainable level. It’s just at this time I’m not doing that. I don’t really care about that. We are fine where we are. Everybody’s happy.

Hunter: So the sugar in the sugar bush, you condense it?

Douglass: Basically you continue to boil it until all the water is gone and it granulates. It looks just like white sugar except that it’s brown. That’s basically it.

Hunter: I ran into a couple of things up there in Ramada, NH. My sweetie’s family are all old Vermont people. There’s a young couple that’s building a new house, building a zero energy house, it’s all passive solar. The guy has a solar shop in a little town and worked out the angles and it looks like a classic New England farm house yet it has straw bale walls and everything has worked out. To support the second story and the ceilings they’ve got old barn wood that they’ve dove tailed and tongue and grooved, post pinned together and it’s a great example for me that the future could be some amalgam of things that are very low tech and yet its going to have this incredibly high tech result. Probably on the coldest day of the year you could choose whether you want to have a little fire. It’s got that slab that’s insulated and all the details of the construction are so thought out. Do you have a craving about solar and that kind of high tech thing?

Douglass: Not really, actually what I’m really drawn to is low tech solutions and a lot of times it’s older stuff that has been cast off; kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But like you are saying there is a chance to marry some new technology with old ideas to make it better. Like my farm house for instance, it was built in 1830, a beautiful old farm house, but extremely energy inefficient. I mean it didn’t have any insulation at all in it. So when I bought the place, well it was a wreck anyways, we gutted it inside and out, and put R-30 insulation in the walls, put R-68 in the ceiling, all new low-e / argon windows in. And I talked to a guy that rented the house twenty years ago and he told me he burned fifty face cords a year in this house and he wasn’t warm, he was still cold. So after my renovations I burned nine face cords. So I’ve cut the consumption by 80% and I talked to my wife last night and she said it was 90 degrees in the house and she’d only had the fire on for a couple of hours and she couldn’t get it out fast enough. So we achieved with a little bit of modern stuff, new insulation, new windows, caulking we made this structure that’s 180 years old very energy efficient.

Derek Phillips: What would your advice be to all the kids out there chasing their dreams?

Douglass: Well my advice would be to dream as big a dream as you can. In other words, if you don’t dream big enough then you’ll never get there. If you set the bar too low, you can’t jump high. The second thing I want to say is get out of debt. Don’t even get in debt. Also, learn to live simply and try to consciously think about what are necessities? What are luxuries? Because until you get that all figured out you are just going to be a rube for the consumer economy and you’ll never find happiness or success.

Hunter: You know I see kids that say, “I just want to get out there and survive.” And that was your first step. That was the Richard in Maine at the camp. That’s where you started. But you didn’t stay there very long. You moved right along. Your thinking and your vision kept enlarging. It’s very nice.

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer


 

Following are photos for the article that had to be left out of the original printing due to space restraints. -SFJ

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

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Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes Part Two

These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.

Planting Calendar and Other Diagrams

From Dusty Shelves: A 1943 calendar for seeding your vegetable garden.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

Cane Grinding

Cane Grinding: An Age-Old Georgia Tradition

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Most sugar cane is processed in refineries to give us molasses, brown sugar, and various kinds of white sugar. However, some South Georgia farms that raise sugar cane still process it the old way to produce the special tasting sweetener for their own food. One such farm is the Rocking R Ranch in Kibbee, Georgia. It is owned by Charles and Patricia Roberts and their sons. The process they use has not changed in the past 100 years. This is how it is done.

Swallow

Rotation As A Means Of Blight Control

Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

Ginseng Culture

Ginseng Culture

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1184 Issued 1921, Revised 1941 — The evident preference of the Chinese for the wild root and the unsatisfactory state of the general market for cultivated ginseng have caused grave doubts as to the future prospects of the industry. These doubts will probably be realized unless growers should strive for quality of product and not for quantity of production, as has been the all too common practice in the past.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Low Tillage Radish Onions

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The radishes came up quick, filling the garden canopy completely that fall, and the following spring we found the plot was clean of weeds and rows of open holes were left where the radish roots had been growing. Well, we had a few extra onion plants that spring and decided to plant them in these holes, since we already had very clear lines laid out for us and a clean seedbed. What we got were the best looking onions that have ever come out of our gardens.

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

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If you were visiting Earth from some other planet and had to describe its inhabitants upon your return, you might say that the average person eats rice, and grows it as well, usually on a small scale. You’d be accurately describing the habits of over a quarter of the world’s population. Rice has a special story with an exciting chapter now unfolding in the northeast USA among a small but growing group of farmers and growers.

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

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After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem. We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated.

Beating the Beetles – War & Peace in a Houston Garden

Blooming that is, unless the cucumber beetles arrive first.
And arrive they have … “At first I thought they looked like big, yellow lady bugs.” Paul said, “Then I looked…

Soil, Vegetation, and Acidity

From Dusty Shelves: Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide teaches us about soil acidity.

Syrup From Oregons Big-Leaf Maple

Syrup From Oregon’s Big Leaf Maple

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There is a great potential in establishment of a seasonal “sugarbush” industry for small farmers of the northwestern states, particularly western Oregon and Washington. Five syrup producing species of maples are found mainly east of the Rocky Mountains. The Box Elder and the Big-leaf Maple are the only syrup producing maples of the Pacific Northwest. Properly made syrup from these two western maples is indistinguishable from the syrup of maples of the midwestern and northeastern states.

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.

Beautiful Grasses

What follow are a series of magnificent hundred-year old botanist’s watercolors depicting several useful grass varieties. Artworks such as this are found on the pages of Small Farmer’s Journal quite regularly and may be part of the reason that the small farm world considers this unusual magazine to be one of the world’s periodical gold standards.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Concerning the Bioextensive Market Garden

One of our goals when we first started farming here was to develop the farm as a self-contained nutrient system. Unlike the almost complete recycling of nutrients which can take place on a livestock operation, we are always amazed – even a little disturbed – to see how many tons of fertility and organic matter leave the market garden each year with so little returned to the good earth.

Marketable Cover Crops

Marketable Cover Crops

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Our cover crops have to provide the benefits of smothering weeds, improving soil structure, and replenishing organic matter. They also have to produce some income. For these purposes, we use turnips, mustard and lettuce within our plant successions. I broadcast these seeds thickly on areas where cover crops are necessary and let them do their work.

Lost Apples

Lost Apples

The mindboggling agricultural plant and animal diversity, at the beginning of the twentieth century, should have been a treasure trove which mankind worked tirelessy to maintain. Such has not been the case. Alas, much has been lost, perhaps forever. Here are images and information on a handful of apple varieties from a valuable hundred year old text in our library.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

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