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.