Sunday, August 19, 2018

August 2018: building my parents' house, no electricity, no drainage, no stove

Noah started a YouTube channel of his own...

My parent's house is built. This time around, the person managing the build was lovely, and we were able to implement all we learned from our last construction attempt (just you wait until we build a third house... no...wait...).

another red house!
As with all construction/renovation -- in our family at least-- things started to get really hard at one point around two months ago. We had no electricity, little water, no drainage (our greywater system was dug up to make way for my parents' house). We also had some unsettling break-ins, and our whole family got unusually sick. All the while Eug was taking a very active role building parts of the house, and I had to keep up with work and both of us still need to care for our kiddos (who, admittedly, have been playing a lot of minecraft).

Previously when I had heard about homesteader burnout, my response was a pretty smug, "you don't know how tough I am." I am sorry for that smugness. I think burnout is very normal because homesteading is often illogically difficult, and when you're in the thick of it you can't remember exactly why you're sitting cold, dark and sick in a modern city. Self-righteousness just feels stupid! At that point, we often end up at the McDonald's playground, though this time we didn't-- not because we're above it but just because somehow the brief satisfaction no longer feels worth it (if you want to get serious about being frugal, buy a nursery and track all non-essential spending to how much more you could pay your employees.. no wait, don't! Seriously, though, the nursery has changed my experience of money in a pretty visceral way.).

In these experiences, we are learning homesteading is less about self-sufficiency and more about learning about deep interconnectedness-- our dependence on the grid, on not having our stuff stolen, on the weather and our surrounding ecology/soil, on technology, on our fragile health. Even though we can sometimes produce some of our own food, we're inherently vulnerable, and understanding that vulnerability increases our empathy for those around us who are indeed cold, in the dark, and sick (and maybe even hungry) in our supposedly modern city. It's still possible to keep learning from our mistakes and to slowly work on resilience-- not to make ourselves invincible but to learn to be more peaceful, empathetic, and hopefully less exploitative.

Part of resilience seems to be making peace with hardship and imperfection, and being able to cope with our own smallness and lack of control and knowledge. For the first time, in the thick of it, we haven't just fantasized about moving somewhere where we imagine we wouldn't have problems: we're rooted here, at least for the next while. I am constantly learning new things I didn't know I didn't know. There's a spiritual dimension to this process, which for me takes the drudgery away and replaces it with a sense of wonder.

In hard times, there's anger and indignation and a sense of helplessness-- perhaps it is this age of Trump (though perhaps there is also the Eritrean-Ethiopian peace to look to in amazement and hope). I am not sure where it comes from or where it will go, but there is injustice and inconsistencies in our own lives that could take a lifetime to work out, so perhaps it is not right to direct anger towards an other (Here I don't mean to advocate apathy). Again, there is something to be said for empathy in absurd situations, for the bigness and goodness of God, and tapping into that rather than into the despair enacted around us.

Hana has been cutting her hair and, unrelatedly, bringing a lot of grass to Bubbles...

Minecraft and orange juice...
Potato planting. Our vegetable garden has been a bit of mess with grass taking over, but we've planted a lot of potatoes  and garlic because that was what I could wrap my head around, and with a few hours work I'm cautiously optimistic about the growing season ahead.

With building we haven't had time to think too much about farming -- either starting seeds or caring for fruit trees. Thankfully it is winter, so watering is taken care of by the rain. Perhaps because of the winter, we still had a fair amount to eat from the garden, and there's quite a bit of self-seeded vegetables emerging. I can see that a little bit of consistent work (primarily involving improving the soil) over several years is cumulative-- we may well get as much food this summer as last summer, despite my lack of attentiveness. Having kids is also helpful- I plant with them, with more attention to the process and less to whether we'll grow anything. I figure a pack of seeds is a pretty affordable homeschool lesson, right? And over time, we have a garden.

On optimism: I remember two early goals on my farm googledocs spreadsheet: to have around 20 granadilla vines throughout the farm, and to have around 10 tamarillo trees. I struggled to start tamarillos from seed, and granadillas kept being destroyed by ducks or weevils. At the time it seemed impossible and things kept failing. Two years later, this goal is no problem-- 16 granadilla vines are already well established and some more are newly planted on my parent's fence, with plenty (60 or so) ready to be sold or planted depending on space and irrigation. We were able to get just one tamarillo to a good size, and it fruited this past fall. I planted some tamarillo seeds from this one fruit haphazardly (aah, to have an abundance of seeds instead of the pitiful 10 included in those seed packs) and now I have maybe 100 tamarillo seedlings (though they still need to survive planting into the ground.) Anyway, gradual incremental learning and soil/infrastructure development is meaningful, and the historical view is always helpful when we're facing challenging times.

Also helpful: going to visit penguins at low tide, before any tourists arrive.

(running alongside, not towards-- we respect the penguins' space! )

While Eugene and I have generally been a little tired and worn out with the many demands of the last couple of months, we press on! I'm guessing that many more happy, exciting and hopeful updates on our farm will follow- and many more photos!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Our goose died

Our male goose passed away a few days ago. He's been ill for a long time, ever since he had a stroke in December. Our female goose keeps calling for him. There's something very poignant about the sadness of a goose losing it's mate. We'd been nursing the male goose for 6 months... Carrying him in and out of the kiddie pool, feeding him by hand at times. I feel sad because winter suddenly set in and I didn't think to bring the goose into our house until it was too late, and maybe he could have had longer.

Then I wonder how it happened that I am bringing a full grown goose into the house to lie down in front of the fire. Caring for this goose even after we knew that he and his mate would probably never give us eggs or meat-- it brought me back to the economics of farming. The economics of our farm often don't add up. As pressed for time as we are in this season of our lives, to spend time on a dying goose verges on absurdity. As you may guess if you've read a few posts, I go between painstakingly calculating our costs (time and money, time is money??) and outputs to convince you that farming is a great idea, and giving up on the economic value. (and of course, you might just say the geese have ended up as pets, which I suppose is also true) I focus on the frugality of farming because I don't think it is enough for people who love farming to farm... maybe it is, or maybe more people will grow to love farming as the world shifts and shifts again?

I grew up in evangelical settings where we had to not only be sure and right and have all the answers, but we also had to convince everyone else we had what they were missing. So bear with me when I do that, it's a habit that is hard to break. Part of our urban farming efforts began as entirely evangelical (YOU MUST ALL FARM) but farming has a way of messing with one's sense of certainty and control. There is a world of wonder and contradiction on our farm, where you don't get away from money (for example, our animal feed costs more than eggs would, though we can sometimes sell ducks or chicks, our financial benefits are very haphazard and fuzzy) and yet-- perhaps only if you have the financial margin to do so-- we do find ourselves emerging from that hard logic of economics. We edge away from supply and demand thinking, in the sense that money gradually gets less important. Of course, we've had to do a lot of work, and a lot of careful saving, in the context of a cutthroat capitalist economy to get where we are-- i.e. no mortgage and student loan debt etc. Habits are very hard to break. But I hope one day money will factor much less in my life than it does now, and there's some tentative evidence that this is possible-- not because we're so rich money doesn't matter, but because we're not measuring everything in those terms, or buying much from the monied economy. We're not going to live without money, and we're owners of stuff, but our relationship with money has shifted a lot already, and I think it'll shift a lot more.

As we produce more, money becomes a tool for fewer things, and we get more resourceful. But it's more than that; it is gradually less important to measure value in terms of money, or to measure at all. Even though I am stuck in my head so much, as part of working within a university structure, I am stuck in my head much less than I used to be, because there are so many chores to be done and little kids to be cared for. I like it. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

On working and owning land in urban South Africa

Now and then, we see the land invasion trucks, accompanied by police trucks, hurtling down the street to stop a shack from being built further into the wetlands. Occasionally, like this morning, we wake up in the morning and we hear a surge of hundreds of voices— sometimes singing, sometimes angry and shouting. Less frequently, thankfully, we hear the noise of rubber bullets and water cannons or smell the smoke of tires burning. It always feels very close. Our fence is just diamond mesh, after all— no electric current, no solid wall. Transparent. (admittedly with lots of baby spiky plants as a token of our security intentions)

Most of the time, our farm is peaceful and quiet. I watch the chickens scratching and try to resist the temptation to plant more seeds while I’m supposed to be writing or studying or reading a student's work. 

How do good intentions fit into this picture? Perhaps good intentions are not really the point. 

When people look at the map, or when friends visit from Masi, they sometimes say “hey! Eug and Jo have a farm and lots of land right next to a township where people are suffering and squashed together. There’s something wrong with this picture!” And they would be right. 

We might reply “we bought this land for a fair price, and we could have bought better land, in a more convenient and safe place, more cheaply. We are working for good things for this community and neighborhood.” That would be true, also. 

So the problem is less that we have land or a house (Many of you reading this blog have a much better standard of living than ours—and if you have access to Amazon and Ikea you almost certainly do), but that our neighbors have a standard of living that is unconscionable.  

From the limitations of this, my one perspective, I’m convinced that part of the solution to this, a seemingly impossible problem, is: We should actively seek out the lowest standard of living that our happiness allows for (and, to the extent of our influence, seek out policies that do the same). Wealth only increases happiness until our essentials are covered, right? Yet it feels never-ending. When taxes increase, or you face unemployment, you should still be able to pay fair wages to everyone who supplies you with goods or services (this follows up the entire chain, not just those directly employed by you: it includes the person in Malaysia who made your child’s hotwheel car… something that I haven’t quite figured out yet). We should aspire to lives that do not take (or even 'earn') more than our fair share, which is terribly difficult if you have access to so much stuff, but which can be a progressive, gradual set of choices.

We should strive to produce as much as we can, or at least understand the world from the perspective of the producer. Not the manager of the factory understanding the supply chain, but the person actually sowing a seed or sewing a garment. My perspective has changed so much with each dead animal or failed crop, and it is so painful when I hear a customer at our nursery complain about our price increase from R10 to R12 ($1) for a plant, knowing how difficult it was to grow it. 

Capital is concentrated in the top end of consumption chains, and when I see my peers I think part of this picture is that we’re so busy, and we’re literally the beneficiaries of capitalism— we have higher degrees and responsible jobs and are trying to cobble together enough childcare to raise our children well. We’re probably a bit stressed a lot of the time because we think perfection is somehow within our grasp (and if you are in the U.S. you may be stuck with a lot of debt). 

Our land is just starting to become productive after being vacant for over five years. The past few years we have been working harder than is sustainable, because I feel so much weight of responsibility to use our land wisely. Yet if you saw our land, you might (rightly) cast it as under-utilized. Give us some time. Utility should not be measured just by economic productivity or human density, it should be measured in terms of values, perhaps (in the case of land) in terms of the depth and strength of commitment to make a space ecologically productive over many years. 

I guess my point is that when it comes to land, farmers must have the margin to take the long view and set up farm systems carefully and wisely (not just in a day and a rototiller). Specifically, if financially we'd had to make the whole acre productive right away, we would have made choices-- rapid clearing that would likely have made the soil worse, paying people marginal salaries to help us. There is land all over South Africa that has the capacity to become sustainably productive, given the right resources and better economic policy, but it takes time (longer than a political term) and care and is often a thankless task, though you would be right to argue that parts of SA have a much better climate for some kinds of farming than Cape Town. 

Despite the challenges, when it comes to small farms, I am all in. For health, productivity, and sustainability in the context of climate change: small farms are vital, even within city limits and even in the context of densely populated settlements. For vegetable production in a city like Cape Town (with year-round growing): we should be growing our vegetables within city limits. 

For those who arrive from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town, trying to get enough money to educate their children and improve things for themselves: people who live in zinc shacks and do domestic work: where so often the employer sees themselves as magnanimous and the employee furtively thanks them for the hard manual labour they have received. In academic conversations, to talk about expanding options for farming in the Eastern Cape is seen as insulting (why would they want to farm? why should they not have access to the city!?) and shortsighted (people are coming, cities are the inevitable future) at best. 

Yet in saying that the options for farming should be expanded and supported I do not mean that anyone should be excluded from the city, or that cities should not grow in proportion to population growth. I mean that farms should be getting smaller and more people working smaller pieces of land, not larger, that food supply chains can and should be shorter, and that mechanization has harmed our food system in significant ways. Of course, mechanization has also benefited our food system: Threshing wheat or grinding corn are unromantic tasks that I am loath to take on. Yet the point where ecological forms of land management and continuous soil improvement become impossible, farming has become unsustainable— at that point farms have become too large. 

So, we should have pathways and tools to farm on large enough pieces of land for subsistence (I have read, and experienced, that 1 acre is a full time job for 1 person), and we should receive the extension services and support for this to be a viable, dignified option, so that farming is not something you run from the first opportunity you get. One should have the capacity to live a dignified (nourished) life on even marginal farm land, improving that land and making it more productive. 

For those of us who are not farming, there should be ways to live simply, to produce at least some of one’s food, and not outsource jobs that are too dirty and uncomfortable (unless they are outsourcing with a good, livable wage). We should not leverage our super-educated brains for maximum money, as others leverage their bodies to produce our food, build our houses, sew our clothes and care for our children. (I may not yet have the words or tone to express this idea as anything other than a tired, opinionated rewriting of Marxism. But I will get there one day!)  

The back to the land movement should not be just a super upper class thing (yet it should also not be a thing that we tell the poor to do). This is not River Cottage. As societies, we should prioritize understanding the basics of what it means to sustain ourselves: from what it takes to build a structure, to what it takes to grow our food. We are poorer for not knowing. I have heard activists in the city say proudly that they are not land owners… they are able to move freely and they are not taking land from anyone. Yet we all put their money in a bank somewhere (and that bank uses their money to buy shares in companies, which buy up land) we buy things, many of us travel, and we all eat, and in that way we are all using land somewhere. Owning land, and farming it, incurs responsibility and a depth of attachment (and moral ambiguity) that is altogether different from buying more responsibly at the farmer’s market. That is not to say one is only moral if one is farming/producing, but that our moral responsibilities are enacted in many different ways, even in a place like South Africa where access to land is deeply contested.  Perhaps part of imagining a different world is to realize that parts of our existence are in grey areas, our perspectives limited, and that we moving through the world imperfectly (whether farming or not).