The R.H. Factor: Radical Homemakers on Real Homesteads
Book Review: Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes
by Jeffery Goss of Springfield, MO
“The foot of the owner manureth the land.” That’s an old English saying, and it does not refer to the possibility that your boots may be less than clean. Instead, it means that active involvement makes the homestead more productive. A farm tended with careful management and diligent effort will tend to be more successful than one managed minimally or only “on paper.” It has been known for over a century that smaller farm operations tend to be more productive on an acre-by-acre basis than huge monocultures. There’s no substitute for “boots on the ground.” Modern trends have promoted the substitution of capital (money and materials) for labor, and even for management. The results have been more waste, more risk, and more dependency upon an increasingly globalized economy.
It is less often realized, though, that the same dynamic which has happened to farming has also happened to most other aspects of North American domestic life. In the post-industrial consumer culture, goods and services bought with money have replaced practical skills and natural resources. This results in a paralyzing dependence on cash, and in the desperate endeavor to rake in more money, the harried worker has less and less time for anything else, which in turn creates the need to buy more goods and services. It becomes a vicious circle, like a puppy endlessly chasing its tail.
Take, for example, retail pre-washed and pre-sliced vegetables, which are available in many supermarkets. When compared by unit price, such vegetables are about seven times more expensive than ordinary, whole vegetable sold in the same stores. Moreover, the nutritional research indicates that pre-sliced vegetables have about one sixth the vitamin content of their standard counterparts. So, in terms of real food value, it is 42 times more cost-effective to buy the whole fresh cabbage or carrot than to buy the same amount of pre-sliced, packaged cabbage or carrot. Why, then, do people continue to purchase the latter? Because it’s convenient.
Such observations can be made about virtually every domestic activity. In the 2010 book Radical Homemakers, author Shannon Hayes devotes several chapters to the “consumerization” of American life. While many books have been written about this subject, few go as deep as Hayes does, to question the assumptions that are often made about just what constitutes economic well-being. In short, she shows that “more” isn’t always “better,” and that sometimes what seems “cheap” is actually very expensive if it comes with costs to your time, energy, health, relationships, environment, or conscience.
In Hayes’ book, she tells how her investigation started: with a visit to New Hampshire to meet a woman who is pseudonymously referred to as “Susan Colter” (and whom I suspect is the same person as the “C.M.” of the book’s dedication). In their discussions about the tensions between career and domestic life, the author found the framework for a study. In the year that followed, she traveled throughout the U.S. to the homes and homesteads of individuals who she calls “radical homemakers;” who have “learned to live on less in order to take the time to nourish (their families) and the planet through home cooking, engaged citizenship, responsible consumption and creative living.”
Actually, homemaker probably isn’t even the best word to label the type of person being described. Some are women and some are men; some are married and some single. Many of them could be called homesteaders, Jacks-of-all-trades and Jills-of-all-skills who have found ways to meet their families’ needs without a wage-paying job. Twenty of them are profiled in the book, and no single occupational noun seems to be able to describe them. But the lack of such a term only underscores the point: that modern society has marginalized the domestic skills that were central to everyday life before being replaced by the consumer culture.
In the first half of Hayes’ book, she tells a summarized history of how Americans went “from self-reliance to commodification” in the aftermath of the industrial revolution. It was the industrial mentality which gave rise to the socalled doctrine of separate spheres, which is the idea – now ubiquitous among non-farmers – that “home” and “work” are separate places, indeed, separate worlds. It was then just a short step to the capitalist notion that only work done for monetary pay was important. The idea was central to the formation of the GDP formula, which is supposed to be a measure of national wealth. But as economist Woody Tasch points out, the GDP is merely a measure of how much money changes hands in a given time period, not a measure of personal or collective well-being. Says Tasch, “Economic output … contains an enormous amount of stuff which is not only not synonymous with our well-being but is actually based upon destructive activity.” He cites medical emergencies, fuel waste, and divorce costs as examples: things that cause money to move through the economy but can in no way be considered good.
Realizing this allows us to ask more profound questions than the superficial ones debated by political demagogues and pundits. If a candidate promises programs of “economic growth,” how do we even know it will be good? And how is “job creation” necessary when there is plenty of work waiting to be done? Why not start working to directly take care of what needs doing, instead of having to work for someone else in order to obtain money to hire someone else to take care of it?
The answer to why people get so dependent upon the Establishment’s money-based system is that they lack the domestic skills, natural resources, and community connections they would otherwise need. Yet re-establishing such skills, resources, and connections would be in many ways more practical, more satisfying, and for all parties involved more beneficial than merely trying to make more and more cash.
This realization is not lost on any of the “radical homemakers” surveyed by Shannon Hayes, and indeed it is one of their defining views. In her use of the term radical, she points to those who dare to break the mold and create their own economies, starting with their own household needs and then extending to join efforts with others in the community.
In the latter half of the book, the individuals she studied are profiled along with their stories. Some of them might be rather urban and of little direct relevance to the rural reader, but some of the stories are rural, for indeed it is among the farm community that such a life-style can most easily flourish. One might expect a lot of the homesteader stories to be so “hippie” that you can almost “smell the smoke,” but in fact most of them are not. A wide variety of backgrounds, age groups, geographical settings, and family sizes are profiled. My personal favorite is the case of a couple (referred to as “Michael and Sarah Mills” in the book) who met in a suburban high school, married after brief college education, and moved to a farm in the Catskill Mountains, where they have slowly built up a successful homestead while working in various other jobs over the past thirty years.
In short, the runaway consumer culture has been fueled by the loss of domestic skills of all kinds. The role of money has gone beyond being merely a convenient tool for exchange to become the be-all and end-all of many Americans’ lives, even those who are not particularly greedy. As such basic family needs as food production, household repairs, child care, and food preparation are outsourced to others, the need for cash increases. A radical homemaker, per Hayes, is someone who has begun to take these things back into his or her hands. They “use life skills and relationships as a replacement for gold, on the premise that he or she who doesn’t need the gold can change the rules.” In other words, they don’t have to wait for the corporate world or political systems to change conditions before their own lives can improve, or before they can help others. To not need money to do something is to have more power in deciding how and what gets done.
It was over 130 years ago that the U.S. Agriculture Commissioner, Jonathan Periam, published his book The Groundswell, in which he highlighted the important position of power that farmers have in society. Without the farmer, the producer, no one else has food or clothing; therefore the agricultural sector has a uniquely influential position in the economy. The diversified or general farmer is different from any other member of society in this regard: the lack of a need to buy everything. Now extend this same principle to other areas of life. The mechanic, the food-service company, and the hired bookkeeper are examples of those who may have economic control (at least partially) over others who need to use their services, but if the customer takes back the skill in question, there is no longer any need to waste money on the specialist.
Domestic skills, you see, include any skill that may be used to the direct benefit of a household. That includes knowing how to mend shoes, dehydrate fruit, square a corner, fix a pickup truck, tap maple syrup, keep financial records, wash laundry, insulate a house, bake bread, or use herbs for health and healing. These are the skills that have often been lost in the consumer culture, which came with the illusion of “saving time.” Still another contributing factor to the loss of domestic know-how, in spite of the 20th-century home economics and do-ityourself movements, has been the arbitrary gender-based division of skills taught at school.
As Shannon Hayes tells us, the solutions to many of today’s social and environmental problems begin at home. That means that more people need to rediscover those domestic skills and become, to use her word, homemakers. By homemakers she does not mean someone who merely stays home and lives off the income of a spouse who works for the Establishment. She instead refers to someone (or a couple or family collectively) who rejects the rat-race and the capitalist definition of “success” and instead focuses on directly productive activity.
Thus, for the person whose interest is more practical than academic, the second half of Radical Homemakers will probably be more intriguing than the first. In that section the author shares what she found about just how the individuals she studied were doing it. They try to master what skills they can, but since no single individual will have all of them, there is a need and an opportunity to work with others. Hayes sweeps nearly every corner of her subjects’ lives, from how they resolved marital conflicts to how they withstood illnesses.
Perhaps the most immediate lesson from the second half, though, is how easy it can be to meet everyday life needs in a non-consumerist fashion: by drawing on natural resources and family and community connections, rather than just reflexively reaching for the cash or the credit card. Do you need a mattress or a chair? Call the radio trading show in your area, and offer to trade that old filing cabinet you never use. Got a flat tire? Just maybe it matches a tire on one of the 34 vehicles behind your Aunt Karen’s barn. Need some fresh fruit? Great timing; the blackberries are ripe out in the thickets. Planning a date with your spouse? Don’t hire a babysitter; leave the children with a relative or friend of the family instead. Going to the auction in town? Bring the kids along; maybe they’ll actually learn something.
Not only does this save money, but it also reduces much of the environmental waste and degradation that consumerism and the mass-marketing economy tend to generate. Those who forgo the mass-market route and take control of their own economics are in a position to reduce and even undo the damages done to the natural world. They eat a healthier diet, since food prepared from whole ingredients is almost always better than pre-packaged foods laced with hard-to-pronounce ingredients. The ultimate Radical Homemakers, then, are also radical farmers, who have taken back control of both their food production and its preparation. They could be called Radical Homesteaders, perhaps.
Another subject touched on by Hayes, and covered more extensively by Joel Salatin and Sharon Astyk, is the effect of a homesteader/small farmer lifestyle on relationships and family. The husband and wife who work all day at separate establishments, for example, experience a stress to their marriage relationship. They live most of their lives in separate worlds, and often find it difficult to empathize with each other’s experiences and feelings. Even families in which one spouse stays home while the other works in town often have the same dynamic. The farmer and homesteader couples, as well as those who work together in other lines of employment, have the advantage of sharing most of their everyday experiences, but such a lifestyle sometimes has its own challenges for those not accustomed to it. Couples who intend to embark on such a lifestyle must be prepared to work out disagreements, and quite frankly, to deal with each other more.
Yes, there are a few things about Radical Homemakers that I would have done differently. For one, Shannon Hayes relied mostly upon email to obtain contacts for her study. This approach probably left out the best ones to study, since those who are truly independent of the consumer and corporate culture would generally not be computer users. Also, I was disturbed by her excessive reliance upon the work of economist David Korten (whose ideas could sometimes be called “New Age fringe”), and by her unquestioning references to the notorious Weston A. Price Foundation, which most nutritionists and doctors consider to be a bastion of misinformation (and, at times, outright quackery). And, I will give you a fair warning; the quoted material in the second half of Hayes’ book contains some mild profanity.
Nevertheless, I still think the book is worth reading. It goes beyond the tired old banter about capitalism versus socialism, and show that the answer is neither. Hayes shows how the people in her study are creating “life-serving economies,” and healing their families and communities. As radio talk show host Beth Ann Schoeneberg might say, they are “bringing America home.” In short, the general philosophy of the “radical homemakers” could be summarized in a popular Christian country song written by Waylon Holyfield, the lyrics of which are in part:
I’m gonna hold who needs holdin’,
Mend what needs mendin’,
Walk what needs walkin’ though it
Means an extra mile.
Pray what needs prayin’,
Say what needs sayin’,
‘Cause we’re only here for a little while.
Learn more about the book Radical Homemakers at author Shannon Hayes’ website: www.theRadicalHomemaker.net