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.

Saying NO to fast fashion with a capsule wardrobe

I’ve been doing The Project 333 for nearly four years now.

The Project 333 is a Capsule Wardrobe system. It asks us to dress with 33 items, or fewer. The rules are fairly simple:

  • 33 items or fewer in your wardrobe. This includes jewelry, shoes, outerwear and other accessories. Vision glasses, wedding rings and religious items are exempt.
  • Sleepwear, workout wear, underwear, in-home only wear is not included. In my case, I’ve created a “10 items or fewer” Workout Wardrobe, that I use for workouts only. I also have items like nighties, ugg boots and a robe that I only wear at home (of course!).
  • You can box up seasonal wear to keep safe for the next year. This doesn’t count in your 33 items. For me, as it’s winter in New Zealand at the moment, I’ve boxed up my light denim jacket and a couple of dresses, which I won’t wear until summer again.

Stepping off the fast fashion train with a capsule wardrobe

Having a capsule wardrobe enables me to step away from the crazy, unsustainable world of fast fashion.

For a long time I’d had issues with the way fashion was going. Clothing was becoming poorer and poorer quality, while the stories of child labour and sweatshops were hard to ignore. I’m not a full-blown activist, but I wanted what I wore to reflect who I am. And who I am is NOT someone who supports cruelty and abuse.

Fast fashion is designed for profit, not for those who wear it or those who make it. It is cheap to buy, per item, but expensive in the long term. It is not designed to last or look good. Much like a drug hit, it give a quick “buzz” then the thrill is gone, forcing the user to move on to the next hit, then the next.

My capsule wardrobe from a few years ago. Some items have changed, but I still dress with less.

What I wear, what I buy…

These days, about half of my wardrobe is made locally. I buy locally made merino tops that I layer, and I stick closely with a color code of blue and black, with some brights in accessories for interest.

I’m also a fan of secondhand, recycled jewelry. I often pop down to the local Hospice shop, where I pick up cheap jewelry for a couple of dollars apiece. I wear it, then when I’m bored of it I donate it back and buy a replacement from the Hospice shop again. In this way, I’m sharing what I have, and I have an endless supply of great, recycled jewelry I don’t have to store or maintain! It’s a winning strategy!

Inside my drawer. A color code of blue, green and black helps me keep organised.

How a Capsule Wardrobe will change your life

Take a step away from fast fashion. Fast fashion is trashing our planet and hurting people and economies. Taking a step away from the madness is a positive move for everyone.

Buy fewer clothes. Less money wasted, less time spent shopping. More cash left for the things that really count.

A co-ordinated, planned wardrobe. Fewer items are easier to co-ordinate. I also have a color code – blue and black form the basis of everything I wear, with pops of warm colors in accessories (yellow, coral, red).

More money for better quality clothes. Having fewer items means I now have the budget for better items. I can buy three t-shirts at $80 each in merino, instead of 10 t-shirts at $20 each, and I know my better quality items will fit better, look better, feel better and last longer than the cheap ones ever could.

A home to take with you when you leave home!

This is the fourth 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.

Houses cost a lot of money. These days, more and more people are still mortgaged when they reach retirement age. Meanwhile, young people struggle to find affordable housing to give them a start in life.

I’ve been researching Tiny Houses, and one form of tiny house – the shipping container – might hold solutions to both problems.

Where I live (in southern New Zealand), you can buy an unfitted out shipping container for about $5000. By comparison, the average house price in our town is about $260,000.

So – what if, instead of buying the huge house and extra bedrooms for your older children, you buy a shipping container, slap it in your driveway, fit it out with all the modern conveniences, and use it as extra housing for your kids.

In other words, why not do the small home plus shipping container option instead of the huge family home option?

It’s not as grim as it sounds. I know I know, you’re hearing “shipping container” and imaging “third world slum”.

But check out these pics (from the excellent website Living Big In A Tiny House), showing just how cosy a shipping container can be when fitted out well:

container-house-montage

Here’s the video:

Better yet, your teenage child can take their home with them when they leave home, setting them up with a home and saving you from having to sell up because your home is now too big!

I think the time has come to rethink sustainable living, and consider alternatives to standard family living. Containers – and tiny houses – can have their own plumbing, electricity supply, and heating and cooling. They are safe and secure, and are even more earthquake-resistant that most traditional housing.

I think choosing a tiny home for our kids to take with them is a generous thing to do. It’s also responsible.

What do you think?

10 tips for suburban sustainability

This is the third 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.

We’re selling our farm, and moving into the suburbs of a small town to live.

I’ve already talked about how small homesteads aren’t necessarily sustainable, especially when you factor transport into the equation. The next question is, can suburbs be sustainable?

I think they can, but it depends on a lot of factors. So here are 10 tips for suburban sustainability.

1. Localize, localize, localize. Even in a city, you can localize. Find hobbies and social groups that are close by. Use the local shops where you can, and local businesses. Share tools and household implements and knowledge with your neighbours – and get to know your neighbours!

Every suburb or area has its own unique “vibe” and identity. Become a part of yours, and become known as a local member of the community. Make sure your kids are known too. You won’t regret it.

2. Transport. Transport is the big one. No lifestyle is sustainable if you need a car to get you everywhere. Choosing a home that is close to where you need to be on a regular basis (work, schools, hobbies) is a huge factor.

3. The size of the home. Big homes use more energy in just about every respect. Consider lighting, for example: my home (the farm) has 33 ceiling lights. My friend’s small bungalow in town has just seven. My farm was built in the 1980s; his bungalow was built in the 1930s.

Houses may be built more efficiently now, but as time has gone on they have got bigger, and added more “features”. Extra rooms, bathrooms, porches and windows all use lots of energy.

In short, if you want to know if a house will send you broke before you buy it, count the ceiling lights and windows.

4. Choose the smallest home that will fit your needs. You’ll be happier, wealthier, and have more free time because you won’t be spending so much time cleaning and maintaining a huge home!

5. Search for the sun. When you’re house-hunting, take a compass with you. Find north. If you live in a cold climate, the more low north-facing sky you can see (in the southern hemisphere) or low south-facing sky you can see (in the northern hemisphere), the warmer the house will be in winter.

Sunshine will make a massive difference to your heating bills.

6. Thick curtains, rugs and insulation. Make sure your home, wherever it is, is well-insulated. It’ll pay for itself very quickly. Likewise, thick floor-to-ceiling curtains will keep the warmth in in winter and keep the house cool in summer. Floor rugs are also great for warmth, and can be cleaned and replaced easier (and more cheaply) than wall-to-wall carpet.

7. Use your greenspace. I’m continually surprised at the fact that, on our farm, most of our home-produced food comes from the small amount of greenspace just outside our front door. Plus our chickens, which turn food scraps into eggs.

Don’t think for a moment that you need a farm to be sustainable. And don’t underestimate the amount of food that can be grown even in pots, on a balcony.

Just in pots we grow: cherry tomatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, raspberries, lettuce and a variety of herbs. They provide summer salads and desserts in very small space. It’s easy to do.

Strawberry plants - plus a few flowers - on our kitchen windowsill. My kids are watching them eagerly!

Strawberry plants – plus a few flowers – on our kitchen windowsill. My kids are watching them eagerly!

8. How much is that doggie in the window? How much does your pet really eat? I’m not saying don’t have a pet, but do the maths before you take on a pet. And if you do choose to have a pet, go to the SPCA if you can, and give a lost pet a new home.

9. The Farmer’s Market. Check to see if there’s a local Farmer’s Market, and use it. you’ll save money and shop more efficiently. Locally grown produce is almost always better, and usually cheaper as well as more sustainable.

10. Get to know your local secondhand stores. Buying secondhand is much more sustainable than buying new. And don’t be afraid to pass on old, outgrown items instead of binning them.

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.

100% sustainable – is it possible?

This is the first 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.

Germany is well on its way to achieving 100% renewable energy. It plans to be 100% renewable by 2050.

Several cities in Australia and New Zealand plan to follow suit, indicating we may not be far behind.

But – and this is a HUGE “but” – achieving 100% renewable energy doesn’t mean the same thing as 100% sustainable. A country can achieve 100% renewable energy and:

– still have huge numbers of gas-guzzling cars on the streets

– still have huge waste management problems

– still have an unsustainable food supply chain

– still be earning income from unsuatainable, earth-damaging industries.

Achieving 100% renewable energy is one thing. Solving the problems associated with oil are is another...

Achieving 100% renewable energy is one thing. Solving the problems associated with oil are is another…

Simple living so others may simply live

The answers aren’t easy. But if we’re serious about solving the problems of climate change and environmental damage – if we’re serious about leaving an inhabitable earth behind for generations to come – we need to find solutions to these, and other, problems.

We need to learn to live simply so others may simply live.

Where to begin

When I first bought my farm, I thought that leaving the city behind and starting a new life was the sustainable option.

I was wrong.

Over the course of the next few posts, I want to talk about the city versus country decision and all that goes with it, as well as decisions regarding where to live that generally affect sustainability as well as family budget.

I’ll also be talking about how, in light of the last few years of experience, I believe that small cities – NOT “megacities” are the way of the future, and discussing how and why we can move to this option. I’ll also talk about “relocalizing” your own economy if you live in a big city and don’t want to move, or can’t move.

And I’ll be talking about how the decisions we make every day can impact how sustainable we are, and how by changing small decisions we can have a huge impact on both our budgets and on the wellbeing of the planet.

I’m an optimist. I always have been. I believe we – humanity – can find a path forward through our problems. But we need to change, and we need to change fast.

I want to talk about how to do that, and how to create better, happier lives for ourselves on a healthy world that has enough for everyone.

My chicken tractor: food freedom with chickens

I’m a big fan of chicken tractors.

Gabby the sheep getting in the way of a clear photograph!

Gabby the sheep getting in the way of a clear photograph!

What is a chicken tractor? It’s a lightweight, moveable chicken coop that is suitable for anywhere from a large farm to a small rental backyard.

If you have room for a vegetable plot, you can have chickens in a tractor.

Mine is a pretty big tractor, because I’m on a farm and have plenty of space, but you can make a tractor from something as small as an old rabbit hutch. One friend of mine built a tractor for two chickens from an old guinea pig hutch, and the chooks were perfectly happy and laid well for him. He had his tractor on his suburban plot.

Portable chickens!

Because chicken tractors are portable, and move about where and when you need them, they never need cleaning out or get stinky. The only part you ever need to clean is the nesting box (mine has one nesting box). That’s just a quick and easy matter of replacing the straw every few days.

One end of this design opens up so I can access the water bowl. I just throw food in the top. The chickens live mainly on food waste from our kitchen, and rarely need bought food.

One end of this design opens up so I can access the water bowl. I just throw food in the top. The chickens live mainly on food waste from our kitchen, and rarely need bought food.

If you’re tractoring chickens on vegetable plots, divide your vegetable plot into six to eight sections the same size as the tractor. Then move the tractor from section to section every two weeks.

Two weeks give the chooks enough time to fertilize the plot they’re in, dig it over, eat the worms, and the grass as well if any. They’ll leave the soil in better condition, and all dug over ready for planting.

You can see the egg hatch in this photo. The shelter end of the tractor is made from recycled swimming pool cover. The tractor has no mesh on the bottom so the chooks can graze freely.

You can see the egg hatch in this photo. The shelter end of the tractor is made from recycled swimming pool cover. The tractor has no mesh on the bottom so the chooks can graze freely.

In my case, I’m using a tractor on a farm in a hazelnut plantation to build up fertility for the nut trees. I move the tractor once a week and the chickens keep the grass down while adding manure which the trees love. Plus, I get healthy hens and yummy eggs!

My tractor is 1.5 metres wide by 3 metres long and 1 metre high. I designed and built it three years ago. The frame is treated pine, and the mesh is plastic garden mesh simply stapled on. One end opens completely on a hinge, and there’s a small hatchway at the shelter end (the shelter is recycled swimming pool cover!) for me to collect the eggs.

One of our new young lambies, just weeks old, checks out what I'm up to!

One of our new young lambies, just weeks old, checks out what I’m up to!

My farm is run on permaculture principles, and we also graze sheep in the hazelnut orchard as well as grow a few daffodils. Everything is organic and very healthy.

The sheep - and lambs - in the hazelnut orchard. We have about 75 trees, all organic, and the farm is run on permaculture principles.

The sheep – and lambs – in the hazelnut orchard. We have about 75 trees, all organic, and the farm is run on permaculture principles.

You can make a chicken tractor easily on a weekend, and don’t need any carpentry skills to do so – I’m no expert, but my tractor has held together just fine for three years now!

I think the way of the old, permanent chicken coop is passe, and chicken tractors are the way of the future. If you decide to build one and get chickens in, and want to ask any questions, please comment and I’ll do my best to help!

Chicken tractors are cheaper to build than conventional coops, suitable for renters, and you can take them with you if you move house!

Chicken tractors are cheaper to build than conventional coops, suitable for renters, and you can take them with you if you move house!