Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

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. is a live, ever-changing subscription website. To gain access to all the content on this site, subscribe for just $5 per month. If you are not completely satisfied, cancel at any time. Here at your own convenience you can access past articles from Small Farmer's Journal's first forty years and all of the brand new content of new issues. You will also find posts of complete equipment manuals, a wide assortment of valuable ads, a vibrant events calendar, and up to the minute small farm news bulletins. The site features weather forecasts for your own area, moon phase calendaring for farm decisions, recipes, and loads of miscellaneous information.

Spotlight On: Livestock

Finnsheep Sheep for all Economic Seasons

Finnsheep: Sheep for all Economic Seasons

from issue:

Another consideration for the Trimburs was health and ease of care. Heidi says, “Finnsheep, as a breed, won this one without contest! They are smaller, super-friendly, have no horns to worry about and no tails to dock. They are hardy, thrive on good nutrition and grow a gorgeous fleece. I love to walk out in the pastures with them. They all come running over to say hello and some of our rams love to jump on our golf cart and “go for a ride” – it is hilarious!

Livestock Guardians

Introducing Your Guard Dog To New Livestock And Other Dogs

When you introduce new animals to an established herd or flock, you should observe your dog’s reactions and behavior for a few days. Since he will be curious anyway, it is a good idea to introduce him to the new animals while he is leashed or to place the new animals in a nearby area.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

A Gathering of Comtois in France

from issue:

I was soon planning for a stop in the town of Pontelier, the main hub in one corner of the country I had never been to and was bent on exploring: the Franche-Compte. As luck would have it, this region has its very own breed of draft horse, the Comtois. It was to an “exhibition” of this horse that I was heading, although thanks to my lousy French, I was not sure exactly what kind of “exhibition” I was heading to.

On The Anatomy of Thrift Fat & Slat

On the Anatomy of Thrift Part 3: Fat & Salt

On the Anatomy of Thrift is an instructional series Farmrun created with Farmstead Meatsmith. Their principal intention is instruction in the matters of traditional pork processing. In a broader and more honest context, OAT is a deeply philosophical manifesto on the subject of eating animals. Fat & Salt is the third and final video in the series. It is the conceptual conclusion to the illustrated, narrated story that weaves throughout the entire series, and deals instructionally in the matters of preserving pork.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses.

The Milk and Human Kindness Part 1

The Milk and Human Kindness

from issue:

I know what it’s like to be trying to find one’s way learning skills without a much needed teacher or experienced advisor. I made a lot of cheese for the pigs and chickens in the beginning and shed many a tear. I want you to know that the skills you will need are within your reach, and that I will spell it all out for you as best I can. I hope it’s the next best thing to welcoming you personally at my kitchen door and actually getting to work together.

Cattle Handling Part 2 Use Good Cow Sense When Handling Cattle

Cattle Handling Part 2: Use Good Cow Sense When Handling Cattle

from issue:

Cattle are very intelligent, and are just as “trainable” as horses. Like horses, they “reason” differently than humans. Understanding the way cattle think and why they react to you the way they do can enable you handle them in ways that will help rather than hinder your purposes. If you can “think like a cow” you can more readily predict what cattle will do in various situations and be able to handle them with fewer problems.

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.

New York Horsefarmer Ed Button and his Belgians

New York Horsefarmer: Ed Button and his Belgians

In New York State one does not explore the world of draft horses long before the name of Ed Button is invariably and most respectfully mentioned. Ed’s name can be heard in the conversations of nearly everyone concerned with heavy horses from the most experienced teamsters to the most novice horse hobbyists. His career with Belgians includes a vast catalog of activities: showing, pulling, training, farming, breeding, and driving, which Ed says, “I’ve been doing since I was old enough to hold the lines.”

Black Pigs and Speckled Beans

Black Pigs & Speckled Beans

from issue:

As country pigs go the Large Blacks are superb. They are true grazing pigs, thriving on grass and respectful of fences. Protected from sunburn by their dark skin and hair they are tolerant of heat and cold and do well even in rugged conditions. Having retained valuable instincts, the sows are naturally careful, dedicated, and able mothers. The boars I’ve seen are friendly and docile.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

In the practice of Zen sitting meditation, a special emphasis is placed on maintaining a relaxed but upright sitting posture, in which the vertical and horizontal axis of the body meet at a center point. Finding this core of gravity within can restore a sense of well-being and ease to the practitioner. This balanced seat of ease is not all that different from the state of relaxed concentration we need to achieve to effectively ride or drive horses.

Work Horse Handbook

The Work Horse Handbook

The decision to depend on horses or mules in harness for farm work, logging, or highway work is an important one and should not be taken lightly. Aside from romantic notions of involvement in a picturesque scene, most of the considerations are serious.

Feeding Elk Winter Work for the Belgians

Feeding Elk: Winter Work for the Belgians

from issue:

Doug Strike of rural Sublette County is spending his second winter feeding wild elk in nearby Bondurant, Wyoming. Strike is supplementing his logging income as well as helping his team of Belgian draft horses to keep in shape for the coming season. From May to the end of November he uses his horses to skid logs out of the mountains of western Wyoming. I found the use of Doug’s beautiful Belgian team an exciting example of appropriate technology.

Hay Making with a Single Horse Part 3

from issue:

In parallel with making hay on the ground, nearly every year I have also made some hay on tripods. The attraction of this method is that it only needs one day of good weather to dry the grass sufficiently before it is put on the tripods, and then the hay takes very little harm no matter what the weather, usually coming out green, dry and smelling of hay two weeks later when it can be baled or stacked.

Ask A Teamster Driving

Ask A Teamster: Driving

I have been questioned (even criticized) about my slow, gentle, repetitious approach “taking too much time” and all the little steps being unnecessary when one can simply “hitch ‘em tied back to a well-broke horse they can’t drag around, and just let ‘em figure it out on their own.” I try to give horses the same consideration I would like if someone was teaching me how to do something new and strange.

Walsh No Buckle Harness

from issue:

When first you become familiar with North American working harness you might come to the erroneous conclusion that, except for minor style variations, all harnesses are much the same. While quality and material issues are accounting for substantive differences in the modern harness, there were also interesting and important variations back in the early twentieth century which many of us today either have forgotten or never knew about. Perhaps the most significant example is the Walsh No Buckle Harness.

Cheval de Merens Revisited

Cheval de Merens Revisited

from issue:

In the Fall ’97 issue of SFJ you printed an article on the Cheval de Merens, the all black horse of the French Pyrenees. I was immediately obsessed by their beautiful stature, a very strong draft-type-looking horse with powerful legs and long flowing manes and tails. The article sent me running for maps to locate France and the Ariege Valley, the central location for the Merens. After making contact with the writer of the article and being told of the major Merens horse show in August, plane reservations were made.

The Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge

from issue:

In the morning we awoke to a three quarters of a mile long swath of old growth mixed conifer and aspen trees, uprooted and strewn everywhere we looked. We hadn’t moved here to become loggers, but it looked like God had other plans! We had chosen to become caretakers of this beautiful place because of the peace and quiet, the clean air, the myriad of birds and wildlife! Thus, we were presented with a challenge: how to clean up this blowdown in a clean, sustainable way.

Journal Guide