Rethinking sustainability…leaving the farm

Early this year, I sold a small organic farm on the outskirts of our city, and moved back into the suburbs.

Our farmhouse in the morning. It was idyllic, beautiful…and not sustainable.

I didn’t really have a choice, to be honest. I was divorcing, and the place needed to be sold for financial reasons anyway.

But prior to that, being on the farm for nearly a decade had made me rethink what sustainability means, and how we can move forward in a world that seems intent on, well, not moving forward much at all.

Petrol…the fly in the ointment

We were extremely car-dependent at the farm. There was no public transport. The nearest supermarket, bank, school – all of it was a drive away. There were no buses or trains. This was a huge hurdle to sustainability.

I was routinely spending $100 a week on petrol, and my partner was spending the same. Getting around drained our energy, our time, and our finances.

It was lovely living on the farm and having heaps of space – and animals! – but there was a lot of work behind the scenes that I didn’t expect and that cost a lot as well.

Did I make a mistake moving to a farm? No. But I don’t think that type of lifestyle is the way forward for humanity, as a whole.

It’s appealing, and it stirs in us a vision of an idyllic past, but it’s not practical for a sustainable future.

The present…around the corner to everything

When my new partner and I bought a home this year for our four kids (two of his, two of mine), we bought a very, very walkable home.

Our new house and garden from the rear. It’s in a lovely sunny spot, central and walkable to everything.

The bank is a two minute walk around the corner. There’s a park just across the road. The supermarket is five minutes’ walk, with shops and cafes and restaurants in-between.

Our Walkscore at our new home is 74. That translates as “Very Walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.”

Our new home is very walkable, with a great “walkscore”. See https://www.walkscore.com/ to find your own walkscore!

By comparison, our Walkscore at the farm was 0. “Car-Dependent. Almost all errands require a car.”

The difference is striking. Our kids walk to school, unless the weather is bad. My partner can walk to work – and does. I can walk into the city, or a bus runs right past our door every few minutes.

Most days I don’t use the car much, if at all.

I’d been wondering how I’d possibly be able to stay at the farm should I ever stop driving. Living here, that’s never an issue, because I simply don’t need to be able to drive.

What does sustainable really mean?

There’s no point in running an organic farm if you’re using three tanks of petrol every week to get anywhere.

You’re trashing the planet, no matter how organic your veggies are!

By comparison, the suburbs can be more sustainable if you live with a large group of people together, share your energy costs, walk for a lot of your journeys, and the journeys you do need a car for are short.

Plus, from a purely financial point of view, I’m not spending massive amounts of money on petrol every month. I don’t particular want to make oil companies richer. Does anyone?

Of course there’s more to being sustainable than petrol and cars. Suburban chickens, worm farms, backyard fruit trees, and an unpackaged, locally-produced diet can all play a part.

home made chicken tractor

Suburban chickens can play a role in sustainability.

So can handing-down clothes, buying locally-manufactured clothing or secondhand, using a capsule wardrobe, and limiting imports.

A capsule wardrobe can be a part of modern sustainability.

Finally, reducing family size through access to contraception, ease of access to abortion, education, and solid welfare support all play a role, as can voting on environmental lines and social welfare concerns.

Moving forwards to a new sustainability

I’m not sure what genuine sustainability will look like in the future. But, looking back, I know what it isn’t.

I know we need to reduce car usage, and we need to make our cities more walkable, and lobby to make public transport better and easier to use.

Perhaps we need to open our minds to new ideas, and discard old dreams that don’t fit with a modern reality.

My farm was lovely, and it was organic but sustainable?

No. I can’t say that.

However, I hope our new home in the suburbs might be…one day.

That organic homestead dream…is it sustainable?

This is the second post in a series titled “100% sustainable – is it possible?”. I hope you enjoy my analysis of different lifestyles, their ecological impact, and the possibility of humanity achieving sustainability.

A lot of people interested in living simply have a dream of one day buying a small farm and living sustainably.

We were those people too, and six years ago, we bought a small farm on the outskirts of a small city in New Zealand.

Our farmhouse in the morning. It's idyllic, beautiful...and a lot of hard work. It's also not sustainable.

Our farmhouse in the morning. It’s idyllic, beautiful…and a lot of hard work. It’s also not sustainable.

If I was expecting our lifestyle to be more sustainable, I soon learned the opposite. You see, there were a lot of factors I just didn’t take into consideration regarding sustainability and small homesteading. Some of these included:

Petrol. Living further out really added to our transport costs. Where our farm is situated, we rely on cars for everything. The nearest bus is several kilometers away, and only runs twice a day. The nearest supermarket is six kms away (3 miles). The kids’ school is a ten kilometer round trip (four miles). Those distances might not sound like much, but petrol is about three times the price of what it costs in the US, so if you triple those distances you’ve got some idea of what we’re dealing with, day in day out.

No public transport. Related to this is the lack of public transport. Public transport is a real winner when it comes to sustainability, and private cars are a nightmare. When everything you do is reliant on the private car, you are NOT on a winner.

11-dec-11 044

Yes, we could use bikes for everything…except I have young kids, and my daughter is disabled. They’re simply not practical. And we live on a steep dirt road.

Country supermarkets are more expensive. We can shop at our local supermarket – but I save well over $50 a week by shopping in town. Shopping locally comes with a hefty price tag attached. So I shop in town, and have to add that commute to my petrol bill.

extrasheep

You can’t be self-reliant in this day and age. Well, you can, but it gets boring and is non-stop work. So in summer, for example, we often live day after day on our own summer produce (salad stuff), our own lamb, our own eggs. But unless you want the few things we produce for every meal it gets really boring really quickly. I’m surprised at how little we produce of our own, yet we produce more than any homesteader I know.

Homesteads use a LOT of chemicals. Or a LOT of muscle. We’re organic, and that means I spend days on end every year rooting up weeds to stop them spreading. It’s backbreaking work, and thankless, because I know I’ll be doing it all over again the following year. But most homesteads are not organic, and rely heavily on agricultural pesticides and herbicides.

The mortgage. Most small homesteads are up to their eyeballs in debt. We have a hefty mortgage too. The only reason we manage so well is because my ex husand earns a huge wage, and we were fortunate with the housing bubble in Australia when we sold our previous home. But to my mind, when I reconsider everything, there’s nothing sustainable about debt. If I was doing it all again, I’d never be at the mercy of the banks to this extent.

Our property...that's us, with the orange roof.

Our property…that’s us, with the orange roof.

Farmers markets and discount stores. There aren’t any, out where we live. Ironically, we used to go to the Farmer’s Market when we lived in town, and we’d buy all the lovely produce that people grow out here, on farms like ours. But out here we’d have to travel into town early on Saturday morning to take advantage of the market. It’s too far, and so we don’t have that benefit. Same with discount stores – there are none out here, except for one small “Warehouse” which charges more than the town version.

People underestimate how much can be grown on a city block. Also ironically, most of the food we produce, apart from the lamb, comes from our chickens and veggie plot. All of which are easily achievable on a city backyard. All a farm gives you is the option of large animals – sheep etc., and as I say above, those sheep cost a lot in added mortgage.

So what have I learned?

I think the homestead dream is better off as a dream, for most people. It is lovely living out here, but it’s very expensive and not at all sustainable.

Country properties use more energy, more petrol, more chemicals (usually), and are a lot more work. They’re also huge time sinks. They’re usually bigger and more expensive, and take more energy and effort, and cost more (debt). The return for all this is minimal.

Overall, I know a lot of people who are homesteading, and none of them are living sustainably. We certainly aren’t.

I think this was something I had to discover for myself. I’d had dreams of owning a farm all my life, and now I’ve done it. But I’ve also learned some hard lessons along the way – namely, that not all dreams live up to the reality.

Twin lambs! :)

We had twin lambs born on the weekend. I’m guessing only their mother can tell them apart 😉

Our twin lambs, Joshua and Chocolate.

Our twin lambs, Joshua and Chocolate.

My son named them – a girl and a boy – Chocolate and Joshua. The chocolate one is absolutely adorable, and both are feeding well.

The twins with their mum. That's Sonia the lamb in the background.

The twins with their mum. That’s Sonia the lamb in the background.

As usual, lambs come in a rush when they finally come! I think we’ll be expecting more very soon, then it’ll be all done, and then we sit and watch them double in size overnight.

Leaving paradise…

My ex husband and I are getting our farm ready for sale.

We’ve been here six years, and I feel sad to be leaving. When we bought the place, it was a dream come true to me. I’d always wanted land, and a farm, and a house almost exactly like this. It was what I wanted.

In the six years or so we’ve been here, we’ve turned our property from a toxic wasteland doused with chemicals by previous owners into an organic paradise. It’s beautiful here, and peaceful, and the place thrums with birdsong in summer and the buzz of bees and insect life.

I feel like I’ve done what I came here to do.

I'll miss my country home. But the time has come to move on...

I’ll miss my country home. But the time has come to move on…

But times change, and the fact of the matter is that when you divorce, everything gets split to ways, and I can’t afford to stay. In any case I’d have probably had to leave even if I could afford it, simply because I’ll soon be working full time, and I wouldn’t be able to manage the upkeep on the place.

Sometimes life changes, whether we want it to or not.

Sometimes life changes, whether we want it to or not.

It’s time to move on.

So we’re getting painting and decking done, and fixing everything that needs sorting for the sale. The place is actually in pretty good order, but there are some things holding us back, and they all take time. Then we hope to sell this summer, and we’ll split the proceeds, and go our own ways.

I'll be saying goodbye to my sheep. I'll miss the rural life. But life changes sometimes.

I’ll be saying goodbye to my sheep. I’ll miss the rural life. But life changes sometimes.

Moving into town

I’ll be moving into town, and my plans are to rent for a while until I find a place that suits me. I’ve already started to watch the market, and I’ll be looking for a place that is convenient to my son’s new High School (he’s starting High School this year, I can’t believe it!) and close to wherever I end up working.

Ideally I’d prefer not to need a car at all, but with young kids I’m guessing that’s just not possible right now. Maybe once they’ve left the nest…? 🙂

One thing that is daunting is clearing out the whole farm of everything that needs to go. Despite the fact I’ve been decluttering for a couple of years, there is still a lot of stuff that needs selling and dumping, and getting rid of it all takes time. I’m glad I’m not a clutterbug! But there will be a lot of farm tools that I won’t need in the city any more, and I’ll be selling a lot of them.

Being independent…

It’s also a bit scary to think of supporting myself for the first time in decades. I was with my husband for nearly twenty years, and suddenly being independent is a big change for me. I think I’ll cope just fine, but I’m sure there will be challenges.

I’m glad my ex-husband and I are on excellent terms. I wouldn’t have to do this all if we were fighting. But we’ve reached a very amicable separation, and our relationship has evolved into one of good friends. I hope we stay that way.

I don’t think anyone ever plans to divorce. But we were neither of us happy together, and when we decided to end things we immediately knew it was the right thing to do. I never saw myself as a divorcee, but I guess that’s what I am. As long as we both put our children first, though, everything will be all right.

It will be all right 🙂

Of snow, fat sheep, and lambs on the run…

It’s a snowy day outside.

The view from my bedroom...cold and white!

The view from my bedroom this morning…cold and white!

We’re still in the middle of winter, although lambs are starting to appear around the area. We’re waiting on ours still, and the sheep are wider than they are tall, which tells us that it won’t be too long!

The ram we had in was a blackface, and very handsome, so we’re hoping any lambs we get will also be lovely and black-faced (our sheep are bitzers), and that our stock will be improved by the new genetics coming in.

The ram we got in a few months back (named Ramone), and our flock of mixed breed sheep.

The ram we got in a few months back (named Ramone), and our little flock of mixed breed sheep.

I’m looking forward to the lambs coming. There’s nothing as much fun as seeing them jump around on the hillside, playing tag with each other and running around in little gangs. Here’s a great (short) BBC presentation about how lambs behave when they’re a few weeks old and get brave enough to leave their mothers. It’s right on the mark:

I’ll let you all know when our lambs arrive, and there will be lots of pics. In the meanwhile, stay warm, everyone here in frosty New Zealand!

From poisoned to permaculture: four years down

From poisoned soil to healthy food. Four years can make a lot of difference.

When we bought our farm four years ago, it included a conventionally managed hazelnut grove. Here’s a photo of how the grove looked then:

Four years ago our hazelnut grove was a poisonous, ecological wasteland.

Four years ago our hazelnut grove was a poisonous, ecological wasteland.

When we bought the farm the grove produced: hazelnuts. It consumed: time, oil (ride on mower), pesticides, fertilisers, and herbicides.

Now the grove produces: organic lamb, organic wool, organic hazelnuts, organic daffodils (to sell), organic apricots (we put some trees in that are doing well), organic eggs. It consumes: time to harvest the produce but no oil, herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers.

The huge swathes of bare ground beneath the trees in the photo above are typical of a conventionally managed nut plantation. Growers poison the ground beneath the trees so that machines can roll along and easily scoop the nuts up off the ground without grass getting in the way (you can see the bare earth of a conventional nut grove in a harvesting video here). The bare ground makes the whole process quick and easy.

Not so good for the earth or consumers though. Nut groves use a lot of poison.

Permaculture pathways

We decided on a different path for the property when we bought it, and began to manage it on permaculture principles, which are organic and are common-sense – letting the land develop ways to take care of itself with minimum intervention from humans, and eventually create guilds of plants and animals that rely on and support one another naturally.

Here’s a photo of how the same grove looks today, in early Spring:

An organic paradise. The same grove now harvests organic nuts, flowers, meat, eggs, and wool. We also have a family of wild ducks living here and native birds nesting in the trees :)

An organic paradise. The same grove now harvests organic nuts, flowers, meat, eggs, and wool. We also have a family of wild ducks living here and native birds nesting in the trees 🙂

Healthy soil, healthy trees, healthy animals.

How we turned a conventional hazelnut grove to permaculture and organic in just four years

Our property has been just four years organic.

We fenced the grove so that our sheep could graze. Before this, the grove was open to the house and ungraze-able. This immediately gave us more crops from the same land: organic meat and wool.

We then planted hundreds of bulbs to help break up the compacted earth and give us a secondary crop: flowers to sell.

Next I built a chicken tractor to move along beneath the rows of hazelnuts. This helps manure the hazelnuts (along with the manure from the sheep) so we don’t have to fertilize them. It also gives us a further crop from the same piece of land: eggs from the chickens. Not only do we get fertilizer and eggs from the chickens, but the chickens keep insect pests and weeds down.

Because we have sheep grazing in the grove we also don’t have to mow it. Before we came to the property the previous owners spent about an hour a week on their ride-on mower mowing the grove. We haven’t used the ride-on since we took possession of the farm 🙂

Permaculture makes so much sense. You just have to think, and plan, and use your brain. These are all things we humans are good at.

I think we’ve turned a place of ugliness into one of beauty and wellbeing.

What do you think?