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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.