Before me is a shelf overflowing with books about sustainable, organic, contrary, back-to-the-earth, independent, hobby, traditional, and subsistence farming. Intermingled are also some more theoretical, philosophical, theological, and idealogical books about simplicity, detachment, technology, economics, and other facets of agrarian life. Having come to the brainchild of farming later in life, months after we had already left the city and moved onto a portion of my wife’s family century farm—with no active farmers within shouting distance—I had no option but to turn to books (this was years before the flood of on-line sustainable farming “experts”.)
Over these past twenty-five years of unsuccessfully studying to enter one of God’s most precious professions, or as the Angelic Doctor called it, the husbandman, I’ve come to consolidate these agrarian / farm / back-to-the-earth writers into five general categories:
- Purely theoretical or idealogical;
- Efforts to influence the entire US government and/or economic system;
- Efforts to establish rural agrarian communities;
- Advice on how to make enough profit from small farming to live like everyone else;
- Efforts to help homesteaders become self-sustainable—sometimes, with an emphasis on becoming profitable, but more often with only a practical emphasis on “living off the fat of the land,” as said by one of my favorite balladeers, David Mallett.
We moved to our rural acreage in the mid-1990s primarily to escape the growing craziness of the city with no thoughts about farming—heck, in my entire life up to that point, I’d never even owned a pair of bib-overalls! From childhood I had barely experienced a day without television, and never imagined getting my food from anywhere except from a grocery store or restaurant. From age 13, if I wasn’t going to some kind of school, I was leaving home to go to some kind of office. When I stayed home to work on the yard, it either had to clearly be my day off, or I felt I was playing hooky.
But then, at age 46, sitting on the porch of our newly constructed cottage-in-the-woods, looking across the valley to the barn that my wife’s grandfather and great-grandfather had constructed one hundred years before, from timber harvested from this land, the question arose as to what that barn was originally for? And why was this land once cleared by hand from wilderness nearly one hundred and sixty years ago?
It was then that I first began reading books of the first category: Why Farm? Why simplicity and detachment? Why back-to-the-land or “escape to the woods”? Why question our culture’s complete surrender to technology? Why consider becoming self-sustainable, even living off the grid? Why desire a return to a focus on God’s creation? I was permanently moved by the more theoretical books by Gene Logsdon (The Contrary Farmer and Living at Nature’s Pace), David Kline (Great Possessions), E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), St. Bonaventure (Journey of the Mind to God), Wendell Berry (The Unsettling of America), Neal Postman (Technopoly), the Twelve Southerners (I’ll Take My Stand), R.F. Nash (Wilderness and the American Mind), Chesterton and Belloc, and many others. I was greatly moved, but far from ready to farm.
I also read a few books from the second category aimed at changing our entire government and economic system, such as Who own’s America?, but I was never tempted to dip my toe into the murky, green slime of politics—frankly, I didn’t see that either party were united enough to make any satisfactory changes. They were both bastions of bellowing blowhards promising everyone a piece of the American Dream, as they understood it, which was always and only about materialistic prosperity.
I then read some books from the third category about the need for forming cooperative, unitive rural agrarian communities. This sounded appealing. One of my favorites, which actually spanned all five of my categories, was a classic from 1940, by two Catholic priests, Ligutti and Rawe, entitled Rural Roads to Security: America’s Third Struggle for Freedom. My knowledge of history, however, reminded me that, though this utopian ideal had been tried a bazillion times, it has rarely if ever worked, except in Catholic religious communities where everyone is under a strict mutually accepted hierarchical, authoritative structure. A “Benedictine community” with only the rules, without its underlying Catholic foundation and ecclesial, monastic, authoritative structure, is just another Christian sect that, as always happens, will eventually split into eternally splitting peas. (If you don’t believe me, just wait.) And besides, my family and I had sunk our toenails into this property, with no intention of moving away, and with no likeminded cottage farmers within screaming distance (except for Marilyn’s younger sister, Holly, who was running the family apple orchard), so the idea of forming a community was not a reachable goal. Heck, just getting one family to work together, let alone two or more, is close to a miracle.
Then came books from category four which were all about leaving the hell-hole rat-race of the cities, and embracing the rural life, with the promise that, if one does it correctly and diligently, step-by-step as they suggest, one can make just as much money on a small farm as one can from any boring city job! But, frankly, I’ve never been the least bit motivated by the profit margin, especially after my adult Christian conversion. Ever since, for forty-five plus years, after leaving engineering, I’ve been in leadership of some kind of non-profit Christian ministry, and I’ve never thought about doing anything specifically just to make money. So I found trying to view this land as primarily a scheme for making money unmotivating. I certainly don’t consider this wrong in itself. When we first moved out here to the woods, I wasn’t convinced that I would be able to continue supporting my family with the fledgling non-profit Coming home Network, so I explored whether I could develop this property into a working farm, collecting most of the necessary equipment, erecting all new perimeter fences, following Noah’s lead by introducing two of every species of farm animal, raising a few crops, but in the end I never saw a hint that I could ever bring in enough profit to support my family. But really, from the beginning, I always became quickly bored with these profit-focused farm “infomercials”.
But the books that most inspired me, that instilled a true conversion of heart, were the many books, old and new, in category five about sustainable cottage farming. These authors attempted to translate agrarian theology, philosophy, and ideology into active, practical, and doable strategies. I could mention many, but maybe my favorite was John Seymour’s classic The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live it. I might also mention a family favorite, Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living. (Another great book I’ve got to mention is The Independent Farmstead by our good friends, Shawn and Beth Dougherty. This very practical book spans categories one and five, and the only negative thing about the book is that it hadn’t been published yet when we first began thinking about farming!)
So, we caught the bug to at least try small scale farming, and my family jumped into it with all ten feet! Within in a year we were herding ten Suffolk ewes and their lambs; milking a Jersey cow named Kristina, with her calf, Ribeye; turning raw milk into butter and cheese; stealing eggs from our Rhode Island Red chickens; fattening a pig with leftover milk; precariously harvesting honey from a bee hive (I made my boys do this); and tending an 80×20 foot garden. Our largest crop, however, was always quarts upon quarts of wild black raspberries and blackberries.
That was twenty-five years ago. In the interim, Marilyn, our three sons, and I have experimented and dirtied our hands with nearly every aspect of cottage farming, all while I was trying to run a full-time apostolate, traveling every week to EWTN in Alabama, and often speaking somewhere on weekends. Now, however, our boys have followed God’s lead in their lives and moved on, and Marilyn and I, now empty nesters, are both eternally proud of all three.
But now I’ve been asked to look back and pass along some thoughts. Unfortunately, these may come across more as the rants of an old curmudgeon than as a cheerleader for cottage farming. There was a time when I was an outspoken cheerleader, parroting those who believed the only way to save America was to restore the network of small farms that once graced our land from sea to shining sea! But not so much now, and maybe that’s what I need to talk about.
As I reflect back, I need to admit that, of all the things I’ve learned in my nearly twenty-five years out here on this rural land, the most disturbing revelation is how blind I was to how lazy, complacent, and flaccid our technological world has made me—and dare I extrapolate this to “made us.” All the writers I’ve read warned of this—an ancient Greek philosopher even warned that the more we grow dependent upon the written word, the less we’ll be able to remember things. (I can’t seem to recall his name…)
It makes me tremble a bit just to think back upon all that we once did on this cottage farm: to raise and milk dairy cows, and then process the milk into cream, butter, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, farm cheese, etc.; to raise sheep, pigs, bees, beef cattle, goats, chickens, etc., and even a sway-backed old 4H horse named Skippy. When I was younger, I had three boys to order around, in other words, “Hey, boys, we’ve bought into this, we have the livestock, it’s good for us, so let’s do it”—but all along there was still that lamenting, taunting inner voice, “Think about how much easier it has been all your life, from the time you were born, to just jump in a car and go down to the market and buy fresh milk, butter, cheese, cottage cheese, honey, lamb, pork, beef, chicken, and eggs?” It’s not the argument, “think of what else you could be doing?”, because if I hadn’t been out doing farm chores, I’d likely not have been golfing or exercising or reading or doing woodwork or the myriad of other things I thought I’d rather be doing, when I was sweaty to the skin and slogging through knee-high mud. I’d most likely be sleeping in later, or spending more time at the office, even if I had nothing specific to do, or watching old episodes of Andy Griffith—all the things I’ve just naturally grown to do over my past seventy technologically lazy years. These are the things my mental muscles have grown accustomed to doing; these are the grooves that my self has grown accustomed to wallowing in. And now that I’ve got no one to order around, no one to do it for me, and because of my “rheumatism”, it’s just easier to drift back into the life-long normal wallowing mode.
I still believe the ideals — I still agree, not only with everything I read in those books, but with everything I had the audacity to write in a book of my own! But now the problem is getting off my hind-end and just doing anything.
In chapter nine of my book, entitled, tongue-in-cheek, Our Economic Future (and Limits Theory), I give seven alternate steps to escaping the chaos of our “modern, industrial, progressivist, politically unstable world”:
- Focus on the stable and established;
- Reduce the incessant voices;
- Reduce financial entanglements;
- Practice personal subsidiarity;
- Live more simply;
- Consider a more self-sufficient life on the land;
- Make more time for God.
I still believe in every one of these steps, but I’ve basically failed at all of them. Why? At least partially because of my addiction to technology. All my life, from the time my parents bought our first tv, from the time I switched on my first switch, my entire life has been a surrendering to the influence, convenience, simplicity, and speed of technology. And like any other addiction, it’s hard to break free, not just because we’ve become accustomed and dependent, but because in the process we’ve lost the ability to live without them, and our physical and mental muscles have atrophied. And to make matters worse, the communities we live in have become designed around and dependent upon all these technologies. We might try to break free for a time, we might even be successful for a while, but when things get rough, I gravitate back to what I’ve always found easier, quicker, and cheaper—and this is exactly what the oligarchs of digital technology are counting on.
The problem with trying to live a simpler, detached, and sustainable rural life based on technology, however, is that it ultimately is not sustainable at all, because we tie our horse to a wagon up front that we just can’t keep up with. To the extent—to the frightening extent—that we become dependent upon technology, we become enslaved to those who provide the power for this technology, and in this digital age, this enslavement also includes those who provide the platforms for us to continue using that digital technology. And right now we see this clearly as gas prices rise, equipment and supplies become scarce, product quality falls, and the internet has destroyed any possibility of the decentralization its cheerleaders once promised.
Ten years ago I spent thousands of dollars erecting several miles of new high tensile perimeter fence. But this fence requires electric, so for it to work, I’m at the mercy of the local power company. But I not only have to keep paying my electric bill, I have to constantly fight the growth of plants along the fence line. On top of that, I recently found nearly a dozen fence posts that had sheared off at the ground level. The manufacturer used inferior wood to produce these treated posts, which we bought from our local chain farm store—Who really knows where these posts were made and how, from a manufacturer whose primary goal was to make them cheaper with inferior materials, but yet sell them at near-regular prices just to make more profit? And now I have to figure out how to replace the dozen posts if I want to continue raising cattle. And since I have no one to help, I’ll have to either do it myself, at age 70 with two bad rotator cuffs, or pay someone to do it—but I’m not making any profit from my farm to cover or justify this. So I must have a continuous outside income, or continuously dip into savings, just to finance my technologically dependent cottage farm hobby. Or, I can just stay inside and catch up on old episodes of Maine Cabin Masters.
Even as I write this, I almost killed myself trying to swat a lousy fly high up on a wall with a magazine. Ouch! If it’s hard for me to swat a fly, how can I feel confident enough to commit myself any more to caring for livestock? It’s easier to get motivated if you have sons to tell “do it!”, or partners to assist you, or if the cultural situation becomes so bad that we feel compelled to do these things just to survive! But short of this, that old whisper just keeps on a’comin—“Why, when you can buy?”
I hate to admit this, but as long as there’s a tv in my home, hooked up and ready to watch with the push of a remote, I’ll eventually just gravitate to it, like a pig to a trough.
So, as I temporarily switch off the television, to look back over these past twenty-five years on this cottage farm, at all that we’ve tried and accomplished and experienced, and given all that I’ve read and discussed with other homesteaders, here’s a few things I now consider essential when considering shifting one’s life out of the city in an attempt to living more simply on a rural cottage sustainable farm:
1: First, maybe as a preliminary, I need to state clearly that, as negative as I may sound, I have no regrets from these past twenty-five years on this beautiful cottage farm, and look forward to as many more as the good Lord in His mercy might give my wife and me.
2: We must begin with a complete surrender to Jesus Christ. Certainly there are many successful cottage farmers who don’t start here, and may never get here, but whenever I read their accounts, or watch their YouTube instruction videos, I can’t help but sense that something is missing. I’ll not argue this here, but only say it has something to do with grace and humility.
3: We must accept as an underlying assumption that this world and everything in it was created by God. We owe everything to Him, and everything that He created is good. Without this underlying assumption, our well-meaning attempts to do something meaningful with this world can easily become sidetracked by sincere but false gospels.
4: We need to remember that God created Mankind as the pinnacle of Creation, in His image, which means we were created to imitate Him and to care for this world as He does—as He so loved! We have been given responsibility to care for this way-station between this life and our true citizenship in His Kingdom. This means that this Earth and all of its other inhabitants are not more important than or even equal to Mankind, but that we as God’s Stewards have been given responsibility to care for this earth and its creatures—to give it back to Him better than we found it.
5: We must remember that the Catechisms of the Church have always taught that we were created “to know, love, and serve God and to enjoy Him in this world and the next.” This was why He gave us this world and all the technologies that shape our lives—not for us to accumulate power, prestige, position, or possessions, but to help us grow in holiness and to live in love, if we use them responsibly and wisely. (Question: Has the increase and pervasive use of technology in our country, culture, and world over the past two hundred plus years made humanity more holy? More loving? More humble?)
6: We must begin by accepting that we are living now, at this time, in this world, in this culture, and in this particular place because this was God’s will for us—not 100 or 200 years ago, or 50 years in the future—but right now in 2022. We need to accept that this soup is the soup in which God has called us to swim. And regardless what our government or culture believes or mandates, this is the world in which we are to live out our faith. We must remember those first century Christians living out their faith in faithless Rome. Their primary goal was not to change Rome, but to not let Rome change them. This doesn’t mean we must surrender to unjust laws or not work to change them, but until then, we must live out our faith as if tonight we just might have to stand before Him and explain ourselves. We also need to be careful of being guilted into abandoning all technologies in order to return to a supposedly more pristine, simpler time! I can tell you, my boys and I tried cutting down a large walnut tree with a traditional two-man saw! It was fun and exhilarating, at first, but in the end, we were glad we could finish the cut with a chainsaw—and I’m guessing my wife’s great-grandfather and grandfather would have given anything to get their hands on a chainsaw when they cut down all the trees to build our old barn!
7: But given all that I have just said, we still need to listen to what our Lord taught in the Beatitudes as a Staircase of Conversion: about our need to detach ourselves from the things of this world, from sin, and from ourselves; to hunger and thirst for righteousness; to be as merciful to everyone in our lives as God has been to each of us; to seek purity of heart in everything we do; to be a peacemaker, and to accept whatever suffering might come whenever we try.
8: But everything I’ve said so far must be done with an attitude of gratitude. We must begin by being thankful for the blessings of this world in which God has called us to live.
9: We must be cautious of the whispers that try to encumber and motivate us through false guilt and fear. All of my life, from the crazy days of the Cold War through the end of the last Millennium, and now in the present crisis of this 21st century, I’ve lived under the constant bombardment of voices claiming we’re living “on the eve of destruction.” Many of these voices are what drive people to escape the city, to become “preppers”, living off the grid, and to become self-sustainable farmers, even though this may not be God’s plan for them at all. I have friends, for example, who once left their city jobs and sold everything to escape from the city, but after five years of failing at farming and losing everything, they ended up writing a book to add to my large collection, but this time about mishearing God through the din of false voices. We need to be cautious of the constant drone of apocalyptic voices on the internet. No matter how bad things might get, not everyone is called to farm!
10: We need to recognize that God did not leave us alone in this world to figure everything out on our lonesome, nor did he just leave us a Bible as some kind of self-guided handbook, or a myriad of self-help books or websites to chose from. Rather, He gave us a Church, with Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and, yes, with rules and regulations (fence lines), all gifts to us from God, not just because He loves us, but because of our sinfulness—especially to help us combat the slowly escalating addictive influence of technology.
11: But it’s also important to recognize that unfortunately over the centuries, many in the Church have unhesitatingly bought into and surrendered to the addiction to technology. Over the centuries, God has used reformer saints, and religious groups, and even non-Catholic Christian communities, like the Amish, to remind us of how radical the Gospel truly is. Jesus said, “Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). What does this mean?! What kind of sacrifice does this require of us? On our own, or under the pressure of our surrounding community, we can interpret this in many ways, or even convince ourselves to ignore this as something intended only for a few. This is why we are called, not to imitate someone just because he might be an ordained religious leader, but to imitate him to extent that he is obedient to the Church and in imitation of Christ. This is precisely what St. Paul said: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
12: Finally, if you can, do it. Jump into cottage farming with all ten feet, but not because you have to or because you ought to, but because you’ve been given by God this great privilege—this great gift—to do and experience something which millions of others wish they could. Whenever you walk out onto your land, follow St. Bonaventure’s advice and look for the vestiges of God in everything you see, with an underlying attitude of gratitude, always expressing a prayer of thanksgiving, and with your eyes and hands and heart, offering up a sacrifice of praise.