Week in the Life of D Acres
by Beth Weick of Dorchester, NH
“What is going on here?!”
This was a friend of ours, John, who repeatedly asked this question – not upon arrival, but after two days of volunteering his hands in construction & forestry work, his second visit in as many weeks. He was loaded with questions, but this simple one kept coming up.
Helpful as we like to be, we just laughed harder with each repetition. This is a question better answered with a lifetime than a few lines. Besides, John already had a better idea than most. Screwing in floorboards for a new pig shack, cooking community dinner, cross-cutting firewood in the snow, greasing our veggie-powered wood-chipper, running the chains while logging with the oxen…Actions are better informants than words, and perspicacity in one’s work makes for quick illumination.
Even so, D Acres of New Hampshire in Dorchester, a permaculture farm, sustainability center, and non-profit educational organization, is a bit of a challenge to describe. Hence the ensuing pages. Join us for this week-in-the-life tour, a little of everything that really did unfold in this manner. Extraordinary, perhaps, only in that these few November days were entirely ordinary.
In the Beginning…
The days always begin with animal chores. Two oxen, twenty-six pigs, twenty-three chickens, and eight ducks need tending morning, afternoon, and evening. Thus start our days. Waking up, adjusting ourselves to the cold or to the heat or to the weather, getting the tiredness out of our eyes and the grumpiness off our shoulders, we each head to our respective pastures and paddocks. We bring food, water, and freedom for the day; by nightfall we return again, proffering a closed door for each animal to sleep behind, more food, and clean water. Our animals are our power sources, our compost providers, our food, and our companions. We want to treat them right.
“We” being Josh, Regina, Dustin, and myself – Beth. Dustin is our winter intern, arriving in November and staying ‘til springtime. As part of our ongoing educational programming, we host apprentices and interns throughout the year. We provide learning opportunities and guidance in skills of sustainable living, as well as exposure to communal living arrangements and consensus organization. Work is dictated in part by the seasons, though students can choose their areas of interest within the available activities. Dustin, for example, is interested particularly in woodworking and forestry. A variety of other tasks, however, are certainly rounding out his farmstay experience.
The remaining triad comprises the D Acres Staff. Josh is one of D Acres organizational founders and has been with the farm since its inception in 1997. He wears many hats, literally and figuratively, all of which are most succinctly alluded to through his titles of Executive Director and Farm Manager. Regina and I each found our way, independently, to D Acres over the course of 2008. Regina is our Kitchen Manager & Fiber Artist. Let me assure you her work falls well beyond the range of those few words. I am referred to as Farm Staff, which quite simply reads more professionally than jack-of-many-trades.
We are united in our mission to improve the human relationship with the rural New England landscape through farm-based research, education, and demonstration of small-scale agriculture, sustainability skills, and collaborative community. The name “D ACRES” references the land’s previous owners Edith and Delbert Gray and our location in Dorchester, as well as being our guiding acronym: Development Aimed at Creating a Rural Ecological Society.
We don’t rush into much
Let us begin with Monday. This is certainly the easier day of the week. A day to complete house chores, tidy up odds & ends, make a run to town for restaurant scraps to feed our pigs, and have our planning meetings for the week. Which projects need to be completed, how we’re each spending our hours, who’s cooking dinner, who’s hosting a workshop, who’s cleaning the animal bedding, who’s sweeping the floor…we have a weekly agenda that ranges from 30-60 topics, and covers the gamut of day-to-day operations and longer-term endeavors.
On this particular Monday, an intern of three months – Dave – was departing for winter classes and spring employment elsewhere. He was a self- described plant guy, who could turn the simplest of inquiries into a lesson on plant nomenclature, habit, history, and development. We were amidst a staff meeting when he finished cleaning out his treehouse abode, packed up his truck, and came for a final round of hugs, well wishes, and thank yous.
The staff meeting, abounding with discussions of budgets and advertising, projects and planning, resumed as we listened to his truck struggle to pull out of the snow-covered parking lot. It is a curious thing, how those who call D Acres home persist steady and constant, while those who come to learn and experience pass through in brief whirlwinds of energy and interest. Regardless of who’s here to help, though, we need to know who’s coordinating the latest event, who’s designing the latest pamphlet, and who’s editing the grant proposals. So the meeting continues.
We organize ourselves through a process of consensus. This can present its challenges, yes. There are always varying levels of experience, knowledge, and age to balance, and personality strengths & weakness must be considered. While the “buck stops here” is applied to everyone, each individual is given the skills and the support to fulfill that responsibility. As opposed to a more hierarchical power structure, consensus cultivates teamwork, clear communication, cooperative processes, mutual respect, and diversity. It asks each participant to flourish while also strengthening the community.
Consensus is our premise; a “Wheel of Chaos” is spun to assign specific roles. Each meeting is run by a facilitator who moves through the agenda, keeps our discussion focused, and guides us to an agreeable outcome. A second person is the note-taker, maintaining our records of agenda items, discussion points, and the resulting plan. These notes are our means of maintaining accountability and continuity week to week, as well as the basis for the following week’s agenda.
In this manner we concluded our morning meeting after two hours of productive conversation. Shortly after midday we were pushing back our chairs and heading for the root cellar: lunchtime. There are leftovers stored in coolers – no need for a fridge in these temperatures – as well as fresh cabbage adorning one wall, and buckets of carrots and potatoes aligning the other. Grab a jar of dilly beans on the way back through the basement, and voila? – a feast is to be had.
I don’t dally over a hot meal, however, as I’m on duty to pick up pig food in town. Scraps and leftovers from restaurants, delis, pubs, cafes, the University dining hall, and the local grocery store are picked up three times a week from nearby Plymouth, NH. Our piglet population is growing, and what’s a better way to feed them than by redirecting the waste stream to their hungry snouts. They eat better than most people, and that’s not an exaggeration. So in and out of town I go, humming along in our vegetable-oil-powered Fuso truck. We paint the sides with slogans depending on our sentiment: currently we’re espousing ‘culture community’ and ‘brake inertia.’
Back from town and it’s all-hands-on-deck as the others come out to greet me, help unload the buckets and boxes, and sift all the packaging from the grocery produce. Just in time for our second meeting, the General Meeting. Dustin will join us for this one, and we’ll work out the nuts and bolts of each day’s activities for the week, plan for community events to be hosted over the weekend….you’ll see. Compared to this morning, the meeting is relatively quick. Which it has to be because now it’s Regina’s turn to head out the door. Serving on the Dorchester Historic District Commission, Regina has twice- monthly meetings beginning at 7pm. Business will last for two hours, at least: small-town politics don’t get a hard rap for nothing. The rest of us wish her well and go about our dinner with something akin to leisure. Josh’s parents have come over from up the road and prepared supper – a hot pasta primavera of sorts, herbed bread, and tonight a special treat: Fig Newtons! We don’t buy sugar, and only produce a small quantity of maple syrup on the farm, so sweet treats are a rarity for us. We certainly enjoy when it hits our tongues.
A group effort at dishes, some brief emails to send, odds & ends to note down for the coming day and it’s off to bed. While we cook, eat, heat, and arrange our indoor work on the main floor of our community building, we each have our private spaces to return to at the end of the day. Dustin heads to his quarters in the Red Barn, Josh & Regina to their back room off the original farmhouse, and myself to the top of the Silo. It’s cold outside, but not yet frigid, and staying warm seems easy compared to what it will be in a month. Some cushions, extra blankets, a good sleeping bag, and some youthful stubbornness do the trick. By choice, I have no heat in my round perch. Though our woods are full of trees, firewood is not limitless and comes at the price of many hours. In the sentiment of conservation, I prefer to do without when I can. Whether it’s thick blood or a thick skull, I sleep comfortably and deep. Tomorrow will be here oh so soon.
The day’s work begins in the living room of our community building. We hold our final Garden Meeting of 2010, transferring remaining notes on ordering treestock and seeds to our general meeting minutes. It is quick, and our minds are already looking ahead to negotiating the day’s endeavors.
Regina’s plan is set: she has a rack card to design for NH Rest Areas & Welcome Centers, a couple of different workshops on consensus organization, collaborative processes, and productive communication to arrange, and windows to wash indoors. For a break for fresh air, she’s got her eyes on removing unnecessary walls inside one of our piglet houses. Not to mention that all four pig homes need fresh bedding.
Josh, Dustin, and myself head outside, amending the plan as we do so. The night before we had arranged to work on logging and construction prep. We need to do a redux on our oxen shelter and build a new shack for our breeder pigs. The latter in particular required the felling of pole wood and skinning logs. Our forestry, however, is oxen-powered, and the conditions dawned less than hospitable. Cloudy skies the evening before gave way to temperatures warming to near 30° and a wintry mix while we slept, rendering snowy footing slick. We were to be working on a slope steep enough not to be overlooked, and the oxen’s safety was in question.
We began by walking around the project sites. The pig fence would need to be altered, and there was a dead tree in the ox pasture that should be removed for safety sake. Up the hill, we eyed the hemlock we wanted for the shack’s foundation, and the beech that would have to be pulled out alongside it. That would be used for firewood, while all the tops would be chipped for animal bedding. Before we could proceed, though, we would need to sand the area fairly heavily to maintain workable conditions. Ready, set, go.
By lunch, the hemlock was down and dragged alongside the work site, the remaining trees were dropped and cross-cut for firewood, the pig fence sufficient to keep the pigs from crossing the threshold too soon, and the bed of our Fuso truck overflowing with woodchips.
Grumbling stomachs and a damp chill encouraged us to break for the midday meal. Temperatures had remained in the high 20s, but gray skies and a persistent breeze did little to keep our sweat from chilling us. Regina had a delectable spread awaiting us inside; seconds and thirds are always a given. Like knights at a round table, we pulled up our chairs for the final meeting of the week. As our centerpiece was the Fedco Trees 2011 catalog. While downing mouthfuls of fried eggs, the last of our salad, potatoes, carrots, last week’s bean stew, sourdough bread, pickles, dilly beans, horseradish, and pickled garlic scapes, we noted down the locations into which we would expand our no-till forest garden come the spring.
The evolution of our farmstead landscape is best described in terms of our animals. The process of woods to garden is one that unfolds over a few years, sometimes more. We generally begin by logging an area with the oxen. The pigs are next employed as our garden-bed-preparers. Over a season or two they root out stumps and small undergrowth, turning the soil and fertilizing it as they go. The chickens, at times, are employed in the same manner, though often on a smaller scale. Only after these steps do we come in and begin to establish garden plots.
So this was the step we were mentally evaluating as we sat with thoughts of treestock on our minds. Around the upper field, the base of the current pig pasture, throughout the recently-dug ponds…we had plenty of space to work with, and thirteen years of practice to gauge our choices and their placement. With these things decided, we then officiously moved through the entire catalog choosing our investments with a surety and accuracy far outpacing Wall Street. Apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots, cherries, nannyberries, lingonberries, wild raisins, skirret, stone pine, ginger, gingko, and good King Henry completed the order.
We produce over five thousand pounds of fruits and vegetables each grow- ing season, and while annuals compose the majority of that number, the perennials are an equally important aspect of our gardening system. The goal is to produce an increasing quantity of calories from perennials, which require a decreasing quantity of manual labor as the system matures. This is gardening with multiple generations in mind. For example, while we harvested just one butternut and a few pounds of hazelnuts this year, the abundance of walnuts, pecans, filazels, chestnuts, butternuts, and hazelnuts that awaits us in one hundred years is a tantalizing dream. But this takes planning, and long-term vision. One meeting hardly seems like a sufficient price for such richness.
After lunch, we divide our efforts. I remain on the property, split and move indoors the firewood harvested during the morn. From then until dusk I have a drawknife in my hand, skinning the hemlock of its bark. Meanwhile, Josh and Dustin head to a neighbors horse farm to pick up a final trailer-load of manure before winter freezes it up for good. Once there, they have their own set of adventures. Stampeding horses, a jack-knifed vehicle, and failed brakes on an icy pitch were all addressed in the same unpredictable way that they occurred. Disaster never quite struck.
They return at dark, just as Josh takes off for Plymouth. As a skilled woodcrafter, he is a founding member of Artistic Roots, a local artists cooperative. This particular evening is the organization’s monthly meeting. Meanwhile, Dustin begins cooking dinner, while, with the precision of darkness, I fork the morning’s woodchips into storage under cover by the ox hovel. These woodchips will be bedding through the winter months, and contribute to rich compost for the gardening season to come.
That’s done, but the air temperature has risen above freezing. It’s at- tempting to rain, with a trailer of wet manure in the open. It’ll have to be shoveled out tomorrow if not tonight, and the prospect of letting it get heavier is less than appealing. Hungry and wet, shoveling blindly into the fog, I’m two-thirds through when I hear the dinner horn blown from the back porch. Time to put it to it. Dinner, still warm when I get inside, sure hits the spot.
Rain. Sometimes hard, sometimes gentle; wet regardless of the force behind it. It feels like autumn once again, not winter. The snow is disappearing, giving way to the gold and russet leaves beneath. In our community building, Regina heads up to the cold second floor and boxes of fabric scraps. She’s making curtains to hang strategically between rooms, holding in the heat where we want it, and cutting the draft that otherwise dominates. With needles not quite the right size and fabric scraps of illogical shapes, she is creating her own jigsaw puzzle, drawing functionality out of piles of upholstery, old blankets, and forgotten fashion statements.
Outside, Josh, Dustin, and myself begin behind the old farmhouse where there’s a maple being too bold about resting its branches on the roof. Josh deftly scrambles up and begins chainsawing away. In place of the oxen, Dustin and I haul branches to the brush pile and set limbs aside for firewood. From there, Josh replaces the roofing over the woodshed, while Dustin and I head across the street to finish stripping the hemlock. It’s stubborn, and slow to part with its outer layer. It’s lunchtime before we’ve skinned both lengths and have them set for the building-to-be’s foundation. Wet and cold, we all adjourn inside.
If anything the rain pounds harder as we try to transfer the heat of our food to the core of our bodies. The snow’s gone and the threat of ice has us preoccupied. Clouds are so low we can’t see the hill across the way. But laughter warms us like little else and plans for the afternoon take shape.
While Regina heads to our hoop house to harvest the remaining fresh kale before dedicating the afternoon to more administrative work, Josh and Dustin return to the construction site, finalizing the foundation and setting joists. I take out jars of dried tea herbs and begin weighing, milling, and blending the ingredients for our newly released Summer 2010: D Acres Organic Tea Blend. We’re selling it onsite, through Local Foods Plymouth (an online farmer’s market), and at a variety of area establishments. Our latest round of orders are due Thursday, tomorrow, and we’re out of finished product. Cottage industry is an important aspect of our farm operations. Not only are traditional arts, crafts, and skills an essential component of our areas distinctive culture, they are also the backbone for a viable regional economy. Local, small-scale production in response to community needs is elemental.
In these diverse projects we are each engaged for the hours of the after- noon. Come dark, though, it’s once again off to town. This time it’s Josh and I in tandem, heading to Plymouth while the rain continues to come down. I’m off to the University library at Plymouth State to research grantmakers through an online database. Josh, meanwhile, is heading to PBCam, a public broadcasting program that we’ve been utilizing for digital education. We video various tours and work efforts around the farm, then turn them into how-to style short films posted on our website and on YouTube. Just one more effort at ongoing SustainAbility education.
We work late, trying to make the most of the trip. Neither one of us wants to do this multiple days each week if it can be avoided. By 11pm we’ve reunited in the closet of the PBCam office, and set off for the farm. On the way, we swing by Bailey Hill for some late night reconnaissance. You’ll soon understand. This is the site of our Thursday work.
Neighbors of ours recently had a swath of woods clearcut along their roadway. Drainage had long been an impediment to road maintenance, and they were advised to get more sun on it in order to improve conditions. Which they did, and were now looking to us to help clear up the remains. There were copious piles of brush piled high, lining the dirt road. Mind you, this is atop Bailey Hill, an innocuous sounding name considering the sharp pitch of the final ascent.
We head over early, Josh, Dustin, and myself, with a vehicle a piece. Our Fuso truck pulling our veggie-powered wood chipper, our GMC truck pulling our trailer, and the Ford with extra tools and fuels.
It’s slow proceedings, but all vehicles make it to the top of the hill. We get out, assess the situation, and determine our roles. For the steepest section, it’s decided I’ll remain in the cab lest the Fuso begins to roll while limbs are heaved into the wood-chipper. For the remaining two-thirds, we’ll all work hauling brush to chip. As we finish each pile, I’ll drive, Dustin will turn the chipper on and off, and he and Josh will remove and replace the blocks holding both vehicles in place.
Here we go. There are more piles than I cared to count, short daylight, intermittent snow, and plenty of wind. We set to it, working quickly, straining against tree limbs iced in. We speak only as needed, direct and pointed. A short break for hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and homemade hummus supplied the calories to keep us going. We fill up the Fuso and the trailer with chips, for the neighbors and for us, respectively, the rest being sprayed back into the woods. The Ford, meanwhile, collects the firewood deemed salvageable. Later in the afternoon Dustin returns to the farm, and hands the truck off to Regina. She’s been on the computer, engaged in the variety of administrative work reserved for the winter season. With the Ford returned, she breaks to do “town run” – our piglets’ lust for leftovers is never satiated.
By dark, Josh and I have returned to the homestead. Turns out that Regina made muffins before heading in to Plymouth…we ravish half the platter before we can realize just how hungry we were. Still, the night is not over. Upon Regina’s return, she and Josh now head to Canaan. Both are members of the Cardigan Mountain Art Association, and this organization, too, has their monthly meeting scheduled this week. Dustin and I remain, unloading and sorting pig food. He’s off to bed, while I settle down in front of the office computer. I have a grant application due tomorrow, and am anxious to put the final touches on. My compatriots return well into the evening; within short order we’re all off to our own beds.
Now Thursday is the end of our scripted work days, but that hardly means the end to work. Regina’s baking sourdough bread in our wood-fired cob oven to last the week, I’m off to a local workshop on High Tunnel hoop house management, and Josh unloads the trailer worth of woodchips from our hilltop endeavors, before reconfiguring shelter space for our oxen and framing the pig-shack-to-be.
On top of these tasks, this particular Friday evening is our once a month Pizza & a Movie Night here at D Acres. This is one of four monthly community food events, “community” and “food” being the key words. Food is central to all that we do, and we strive to be continual examples of seasonal, farm-fresh possibilities. We choose not to sell produce at farmer’ markets as our permaculture style of cultivation leaves us unable to compete in uniformity and economics, not to mention that we don’t like sitting still. We prefer to cultivate a face-to-face encounter between eaters and their food, primarily via food events at the farm, such as Pizza Night. In exchange for donations, visitors can partake in our all-you-can-eat, local-as-it comes, oh-so-delectable meals. This gives us a significant opportunity to educate our visitors about eating with the seasons, sustainable food production, and no-till agriculture. And community, of course, is at the heart of this exchange. Collaborative, cohesive, supportive community is necessary for local food networks and regional economies to flourish. Building this over a hot meal with friends, well, it just feels right.
So while the bread has been rising, Regina has made multiple batches of her special pizza dough, cooked up sauce that has the whole house smelling rich and savory, grated local cheese (“purchased” from a local farm through the barter of greens), and chopped up kale, garlic, potatoes, and squash. The cob oven is hot, and pizzas start going in shortly after dark. By 6pm, a mix of regulars and newcomers begin to fill the kitchen. The pizza, naturally, is delicious and abundant. It is with satiated stomachs that we hang up a white sheet, roll out the projector, and show the evening’s film, The Price of Sugar.
It is a moving documentary about the practical enslavement of Haitian workers in the cane fields of the Dominican Republic, the work of a priest to gain them rights, and the discord and violence produced by the intersection of economics, racism, and human rights. The evening ends on a solemn note, the harsh reality from the screen juxtaposed with our own comfort and ease. What role do we each play in this international game, and what harm are we willing to have perpetrated in our names?
We’re hoping for a still day, but who’s heard of such a thing? December in the hills is breezy for sure. Having been awarded an NRCS grant for a 30’ x 72’ high tunnel house earlier in the year, the only remaining step was to put the plastic on our frame. The preceding day we’d made calls to our best of friends, asking them to lend a hand for the operation. When 8am had come and gone with no-one in sight, we conceded amongst ourselves that it was a bit windy. We’d merely tighten up some details and reserve the plastic project for the springtime.
Well, fashionably late, the posse arrived. Prudence, perhaps, was set aside in favor of expediency. The endwalls were readied, the plastic rolled out along the ridgepole, the sides let down…some gusts of wind made frightening sails of the material, but we all kept hold on our respective corners. Tighten- ing it was a challenge, but it had to be done – and so it was. The plastic was tacked into place, the sides tied down, and in less than five hours after we began we were eating leftover pizza. After food had restored our warmth, Josh returned to complete some finishing touches, while I loaded up for our weekly dump run and another round of pig food collection. Regina and Dustin remained inside, beginning preparations for the community breakfast scheduled for tomorrow. This meant chopping twenty pounds of potatoes, washing 15 dozen eggs, filling salt & pepper shakers, etc etc. This first-Sunday-of- every-month Farm Feast Breakfast is our most widely attended regular event. Breakfast, with the exception of the pancake ingredients, is from the farm and served 10am-1pm, followed by Josh’s comprehensive Farm Tour in the afternoon. By bedtime, we were ready for the morrow’s feast.
By 9am we were assembled in the kitchen, quite literally in our Sunday best. We had decided to make this a “dressed-up” Farm Feast, so we each searched out our rarely-donned dresses and suits, held our shoulders back, and hoped we could keep such finery clean for a few hours. Farm-fresh eggs, specialty pancakes, roasted potatoes, saute?ed greens, and sausage compose the all-you-should-eat menu. With help from a local neighbor and chef extraordinaire our team was five: Regina cooking eggs, Dustin on pancakes and po- tatoes, Ken on meat and greens, Josh on meet & greet, and myself on serving & bussing. The event didn’t break the record, but we had steady traffic, and didn’t mind the leftover sausage. Josh regained his farmer clothes just in time for the 1pm Tour, and headed outside with a cadre of eager visitors. Regina & I happily regained our natural movement in the usual work clothes before cleaning up the commercial kitchen and community dining space.
Participating in Josh’s tour was a group of six Plymouth State students who had come with a class project on communication styles in mind. Post- tour, they interviewed each of us, staying well past dark. They were curious about our consensus organization, our communal style of living and working, our means of planning, educating, and communicating. Whether it was their enthusiasm or procrastination we’re not sure – the first portion of the project was due at midnight that night.
We chatted a bit with some other friends who stayed around after the breakfast event, but all told it was a quiet evening. A little bit of guitar playing, some letters to be written, a chapter to read, and a pillow each to sink our heads into.
Monday: both the beginning and the end of a D Acres week. Like most Mondays, we were occupied finishing our house chores, completing the details that had thus far crept through the cracks of a very busy schedule. Climate change activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben had yet to be invited to the farm, Annual Report data had to be compiled, a stray irrigation tank needed to be moved under cover, on and on. I filtered some veggie oil for our vehicles, while the others swept and mopped, made phone calls, and checked emails. Lists were being wrapped up. At 10am, we had a meeting with a solar installation contractor out of Enfield. We’re looking to install additional PV panels and solar hot water arrays over the course of 2011, and are starting to collect bids and information in prepa- ration for the projects. Kim, energetic and informative, discussed our current energy set-up, our goals, and the possibilities in the farm property, then promised to send along quotes and assessments in short order. Josh and Regina finished the discussion with her as I headed to West Dorchester with my fellow members of the Dorchester Cemetery Commission.
A local resident was looking to donate acreage for a new town cemetery – we’re almost out of plots – and the three of us were anxious to walk the land before the snow left it a meaningless exercise. Miscommunication, however, left us walking the clearing without the land owner and an early return to the farm. Which, it so happens, was excellent timing. An NRCS official was just arriving to certify the completed greenhouse.
With that government business complete, Josh and I once again headed to town on a pig food run. Two made the tasks all the quicker, and we were back just in time for our 4pm Community Meeting. With only four of us living onsite for the winter, we combined the Staff & General Meetings. We slogged through 59 agenda items and came out the other side with another week lined up ready to go. Wait ‘til you hear about that one…
Josh’s parents had once again cooked dinner, their Monday night routine. Over vegetable stew, cheese, and foccacia bread, we sat quietly, one week already a blur in our memories, the next emerging with each moment. And so time passes on the farm, defined by a diversity of work and purposes. Full of color, yes, and never an empty moment.
D Acres Permaculture Farm & Sustainability Center is located in Dorchester, NH, a 501(c)3 non-profit focusing on education and community outreach. For the latest information on workshops and events, as well opportunities to stay at the farm hostel or work as an apprentice/intern, please visit our website at www.dacres.org. We can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 603-786-2366.