Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Thoughts on sustainability

One of our goals and objectives is the pursuit of sustainability. What does this mean, though? Is it possible? The term sustainable is frequently used in reference to our personal agricultural and homesteading practices. It's something I've been thinking about and which I think ought to be considered.

What does it mean for our practices to be sustainable? Webster's defines it as “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” For us, that means replacing the minerals and nutrients taken from the soil in growing food and forage. Additionally, to truly be sustainable, external resources would not be brought in to supplement or augment growing and harvesting our food, hay, and firewood.

Do we do this? No. We use machinery which requires fuel derived from petroleum. We cut and haul in firewood from other farms. We have had manure brought in from outside our farm. I've also taken several tons of hay off of the fields without putting amendments back on the fields as sustainability would require (this is an area to be addressed).

Do I want to be sustainable? Yes and no. I want to work toward being more sustainable than conventional agricultural practices and to have the ability and capacity to be completely sustainable at some point (if required). As long as I use machinery that is powered by internal combustion engines, I'm not practicing sustainability (unless, maybe, I can set up a wood gasification system on my tractor). I am not ready to do without these things though. The amount of physical labor required to grub hoe my garden instead of disk or till it and the labor required to scythe hay and haul it to the barn in loose form is mind-boggling (especially without the help of some sort of draft animal, be it horse or ox).

One of the problems with complete sustainability is that it is unrealistic, just like the term self-sufficient. We are created to need a community, the support of a structure larger than ourselves. I believe this is natural, normal, and necessary. We are social creatures and can accomplish so much more in conjunction with other individuals than we can alone.

What does this mean for homesteaders? It means we need each other. Homesteading is bigger than we are. My farm cannot be completely sustainable without a great amount of work. Using resources that come from outside our gates makes the work we have to do more doable. We also have resources that can be shared with others in order to make their work more doable. If we view sustainability from a personal, farm-specific perspective, we will find that it is an elusive, if not impossible, goal to attain. But, if we view it in terms of community, it is more realistic.

It's difficult for individuals who wish to homestead to capitalize on the notion of community with like-minded families. We seem to live so far apart mostly. Intentional communities that have been attempted have their own sets of problems. It's not easy. There used to be more community when people were mutually engaged in the process of growing their own food and helping one another with the work at hand. Mechanization and industrialization killed much of that as the rogue American independence triumphed over the strength and richness of real community.

I like to read about how things were done a hundred or more years ago in rural America. There were multiple diverse farms with people working to supply their own needs and for their neighbors' needs. Villages and towns were supported by a belt of these farms that grew (or could grow) most if not all of their food needs. In return, the people in the villages/towns provided for needs on the farms that otherwise would have been difficult to produce on site, from shoes to salt to farm equipment. There is a richness in such a situation and a sustainability that we can only dream of today.

Our current agricultural system involves the consumption of great amounts of petroleum. Even industrial organic agriculture consumes great quantities of petroleum, nearly as much as conventional, just not in the form of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Industrial organics has adopted the conventional model merely with substitutions for the synthetic additives. Is the industrial organic model more sustainable? Although it has certain elements that make it 'better' than conventional, it is hardly more sustainable in the form it has taken.

True sustainability involves a retrogression to some age-old, pre-mechanized, pre-industrial practices, including the development of community inter-dependence. Without that, our efforts at sustainability involve a movement in the direction of more ecological responsibility, better stewardship of the land God has blessed us with, and the adoption of the philosophical and moral principles of the original organic agricultural movement (not its current iteration in the form of industrial agriculture).

Will this happen? Not without great disruption to the current order, I'm afraid. Do I want that? No, because it would bring great suffering. We live in an age that is based upon unsustainable practices such as a debt-based economy and petroleum-based agriculture and lifestyle. At some point, the resources we're exploiting will run out and the debt will have to be paid. Both of these outcomes will be difficult and painful because by-and-large, we are unprepared for it.

So, I come back to where I started. What does it mean to practice sustainability? For me it means working toward and reaching a point at which I can provide for my family and others in need without depleting the resources available to me and without being dependent upon external resources. It means working with and for those that live with and around me in order to help one another. It's less of a realistic goal to be achieved than a direction around which we seek to organize our life. It's a moral choice that reveals itself in what we do as a form of stewardship of the land and responsibility to ourselves and to others.


small farm girl

I've asked myself this question many times, and I agree with you. I don't think things will ever go back to sustainablity unless something major would happen to the whole economy. I dont want it to,like you, because of the suffering, but it sure would be nice to live in communities like that again. Hey if you start one now a days, you are considered a cult.


Agreed, we truly can't be 100% sustainable,without a total flip back to before the industrial era and that would indeed cause GREAT hardships, even for those of us prepared better than the average person.

Our goal is to use what we produce on the farm to the fullest( circle of life), leaving the smallest impact on the land, for future generations.

Sadly society has become so distanced from neighborly relations that it is hard to develope and instill the idea of supporting local economy first. When we first moved here, our neighbors basement flooded in a flash flood rainstorm, the power was out so we grabbed buckets, scoop shovels, anything to help move the water from their home to the yard. after an hour or so a few more neighbors came to help, then we were making progress! When all was said and done, the neighbors( an elderly couple) who's home flooded were in tears of disbelief, that we actually cared enough to help them. Now what a sad, sad statement.

We are working in our community to build this support system, it isn't easy and many think we are nuts but finally, this last year we've gotten people to begin looking to support local community first. We also have introduced the concept of a "Barter" system. Let's say you don't have enough composted manure for your hay fields but plenty of extra eggs and produce( once gardening gets established) so you strike a barter that all parties are happy with. Don't forget time and labor is a good barter tool too, we got our 1 ton flatbed truck this way.

Thank you for making us think about own own sustainable practices.


I like your thought Darryl, and thanks allowing us to join in.

I like the idea that we should give back to the field in reply to its offering us food and material.

I would also suggest that the land can offer a harvest and still grow in nutrient and organic matter quality. Crop rotation, nitrogen crops tilled in and soil rest periods will build better soil, and still allow a harvest from it. (Not having to bring outside materials to amend the soil.) I don't have personal experience, but I have been led to believe this is possible.

I do not think man power is enough to do the tasks of a self sustaining farm, but at the same time I know petroleum dependence is not sustainable. So what is the solution? 100 years ago it was horse or ox as you mention... but using animals seems like a lost art.

I can cut more wood in a day with a chain saw that it would take weeks to do with hand tools. Perhaps I need to just slow down enough that this time investment is acceptable.

I do want to thank and encourage all who are posting their experiences online as a guide to those of us to are following you. In a way those of you who are now in the "trenches" are shedding light to those of us who are just starting to yearn for a sustainable lifestyle... back to our roots in the land, and an appreciation of land husbandry (I like that term, as it makes me think of being a husband to the land: guarding, protecting, nourishing, fathering...)

Thank you Kellie for your focus on community, and I think that this is by far a missing element in our society. I ask, how can a society become de-socialized? It has happened, and the larger the city, the more true it seems to be the case.

Back to the original topic of sustainability: by asking the question you remain humble and teachable. Self sustaining is not being in isolation. It is not using more than your share in your community. A loose connection of farms who aid each other may be beneficial. Men of 100+ years ago would join together for a barn raising, labor intensive harvests, and in times of need. The homesteaders of today are likely as independent as of years prior, but we can still have community and a capacity to help others.

Keep up the good work!


I like all your comments. Thanks! There are many things to think about and consider. So many questions to ask. There have been several things I've read recently which have motivated me to find ways to enrich this land more. I will bring in outside resources as I'm able, resources that would otherwise go to waste, I'm afraid. Besides, this land was farmed in tobacco for years, so there's a lot of fertility that was taken off the land I'd like to see returned. A while back I posted about 'Mountains of Compost.' I really want to make some small hills of compost if not mountains. I'm trying to figure out how to do that, besides from the cows' bedding this winter (and that stuff is getting deep -- nice!).

I hope that the things that I do and post about are a blessing to someone somewhere. That's why I'm doing it. I know I learn a lot from others' experiences which they share.

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