Monday, April 11, 2011

Farm chic

When I was a teenager, I read a line in a book I've never forgotten: Most Americans would starve standing next to a cow in a field of ripe wheat. The implication, of course, is people have become so helpless and ignorant, so disconnected from our food sources, that we are incapable of knowing how to recognize and harvest food even when we’re literally standing in the midst of it.

I’m sure this line had an unconscious influence on my interest in homesteading, because here I am decades later milking cows and growing wheat. If there was one thing I was determined to master during my adult years, it was how not to starve while standing amidst abundance. And no, this had nothing to do with “prepping” – that wasn’t even on my radar when I was a teenager. I just didn’t like the idea of being totally dependent on someone else to supply me with the basics of life. I didn’t like the idea of being so ignorant of those basics that I couldn’t recognize food when it was all around me.

We’ve all heard the statistics about how something like 70% of Americans used to live on farms. Now those numbers are so skewed in the other direction that it’s almost comical: something like 2.5% of Americans now live on farms. Wow. It’s not just the implications of how so few can feed so many; it’s also the implications of how millions of people would starve in a field of ripe wheat because they’ve never seen food in its elemental form.

I’ve even heard stories about how children literally think milk is manufactured in the back rooms of grocery stores and who have no idea where eggs come from. (One story I heard was how a 20-something young woman never knew eggs came from chicken butts, and was so horrified at this information she thereafter refused to eat eggs.)

It used to be that being a farmer was something – well, almost shameful. To come from a farm meant you were lowly, uneducated, dull, suitable only for manual labor and not much else. Remember the sneers and snide comments Laura Ingalls got from Nellie Olsen? Nellie was a town girl and therefore superior. Laura was a farm girl and therefore a rube.

While I won’t say the attitude has totally turned around today – lots of people still consider farms to be nothing more than yucky places full of manure, and farmers are just too stupid to know they’re working knee-deep in cow poop – there has unquestionably been a resurgence of interest in farming, homesteading, and otherwise connecting once again with one’s food sources. There seems to be a deep-seated desire for humans to touch dirt. I think this is a good thing.

In other words, homesteading is now chic. Trendy. Cutting edge.

Imagine that. Growing food – something our ancestors have done since the dawn of agriculture – is now a novelty. If I ever have the opportunity to mingle at a cocktail party in New York City and mention I live on a farm, what do you suppose the reaction would be? Perhaps a few lifted lips, but probably a lot more astonishment and disbelief. “Wow! Can you DO that? Do people actually still live on farms?”

In fact – true story – recently I was in conversation with a sophisticated group of people and someone asked, “Do you really live on a farm?” I replied “Yes, of course.” – and there was a chorus of “ooohs” and “aaaahs.” Another time – another true story – I was at a writer’s conference when I was introduced to an author I admire. As we shook hands, she commented on my firm grip (I tend to crush people unless I’m careful). A little embarrassed, I snatched my hand away and said, “I’m sorry, I milk cows.” The author’s eyes widened and she said, “You milk cows??” She couldn't believe it.

Needless to say, with the economy in a tailspin there has been a huge awakening of how vulnerable we are to interruptions of the supply chain. The Japanese people learned the hard way that when a natural disaster strikes, even those unaffected by the immediate tragedy can be impacted in a BIG way when societal infrastructure is interrupted. That’s a lesson all of us should take to heart.

This is why I’m so pleased with the urban homesteading movement. Not everyone can move to twenty acres in the country; so they do what they can, where they are. I love it!

It looks like “farm chic”is here to stay. For awhile at least. More power to it!


  1. Unfortunately, anything trendy (or a fad) has a tendency to go away as quickly as it erupts......I just hope there aren't any abandoned cows/chickens/goats when the "thrill of the fad is gone"......

    You have talked (on here) before about how unglamorous it is.....add to that the amount of lazy people there are, and the group who give up easily because things don't go as the dream lead them to believe.....if things don't fall apart completely, eventually there will be a mass exodus back to where they were before they tried homesteading......

    All that grim-ness aside, maybe the skills they learn, or the chance to get really dirty in the meantime, will help those people gain a perspective of hard work, dedication, and appreciation that have been lacking in the last few decades.....

  2. Someone I knew years ago had a nice oak floor that needed repair. The job needed one piece about a foot long. I said they could hire a carpenter, but that I could do it for them. (I'm a photographer) Where would I get the wood? Was it possible to buy one piece, they wondered?

    No, I was looking at more wood than we needed right then, and there I said. The little stack of wood next to their rarely used fire place.

    They were almost, but not quite horrified; kind of like the chicken-butt-phobic young woman you mentioned, Patrice.

    I picked up a nice, well dried piece of oak, bark and all, and said I could use that. The guy said he'd like to see THIS! So, we went to a friend's shop with this piece which had been nicely split pretty much into quarters. I snugged it onto the bench top with dogs, and, with my jointer plane, pretty quickly smoothed one surface of that piece of fire wood, and then did the same to square up the adjoining face.

    That was enough for him. He could see the beautiful figure of the grain in the wood, feel the silky smooth, flat surface, and the sharp, square corner between the adjoining faces, and was simply amazed. There was still bark on the round side.

    I ended up not doing the rest of that job, but I like the story, because the essential point was made. Any apprentice woodworker could have done the same. I like to think that they gained a little respect for people who work with their hands, the abundance of material around them, and were humbled a little bit at their own ignorance.

    Bill Smith

  3. People are always amazed that I live in the suburbs of a major city and have husband was at a gala the other night and mentioned his chickens and got several customers for "farm fresh" eggs...

  4. Phyllis (N/W Jersey)April 12, 2011 at 5:07 AM

    Good morning, Patrice! 'Ya know, I think from this post, there is a novel lurking inside you!!!
    Am I wrong? Nah, didn't think so.....

  5. I love it. It is so true. Speaking of food; here is a link to a story I thought you might like to see.

  6. Patrice, for me it was the book "My Side of the Mountain" in the 7th grade that really woke me up to the desire to be able to provide more than a bag of groceries from the local store! And yes, it is great that even those who live in town are growing gardens and learning to can the produce. The new "homestead living" is a good thing!!

  7. How is the wheat field? Last report included lots of mud.

    BTW, the osprey nest that was moved a couple of months ago has chicks. (The ospreys had built on a power pole. The power company installed a new pole next to it and moved the nest to the new pole. Pic at )


  8. This is one trend that I embrace whole-heartedly, too!

    Your quoted line reminds me of a TED talk I saw recently. A man decided to build a toaster from scratch, inspired by this line from one of the Hitchhiker's books:

    "Left to his own devices he couldn't build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it."

    So, Thomas Thwaites set out to make his own toaster, attempting to mine iron ore and everything. There's an article here:

    But watch the TED talk. It's funny, at least at first. The more you think about it, the more sobering it is.

  9. That is totally how I came to this road, too. Some people I know just cannot wrap their minds around why I would want to grow our own food when we could buy it at the store. I can't explain it, I just want to be able to do it myself! They are always suspecting me of being a radical anti-American revolutionary, which couldn't be further than the truth! I'm not trying to make them grow their own food, I just love learning how to not have to depend on someone else!

    Loved the post!

  10. My parents always had a large garden. I've always gardened (and now have chickens as well). But more important, both of my adult sons are into gardening. I'm thrilled.

  11. Here is a piece of humor.
    Check out the second picture in the article.


  12. Once, at my workplace, I was asked what I was going to do on my days off, I replied, "Shear my sheep."

    To which, one of my co-workers, in a bit of a snickering attitude, said, "Don't they have some mechanical way to do that by now?" All I could think of was that he was an idiot.

    ...and, once in a while when I'm over run with eggs, by husband will take the extras into work to give to his co workers. Most of them are delighted, but there is one guy who won't take them because his wife only wants eggs from the grocery store.

    I often wonder if people like that can even cook using a pot/pan and a stove (and I'm talking a regular gas or elec stove, not a woodstove), or if they only defrost frozen food in a microwave.

  13. We now live in a semi-rural area. When my family moved, it was a necessarily quick move, so we didn't realize that we moved into the only burrough in the area that does not allow chickens! (Horror!) I've found a number of folks at hubby's work that also want chickens, so am currently doing the research and write up to present to the burrough's board.

    But, what I love, is our school. The school is excellent but small - about 100 kids per grade. This week is "Spirit Week". Today is "Dress Like a Farmer Day". Most of the kids came dressed as themselves. :o) The only change my daughter made was to put her hair in Laura Ingalls braids. Dear son wore a pair of his daddy's suspenders for fun.

    Becky (not the troll) B. :o)

  14. I started reading The Home Craft Business; LOVE the way you talk! Deryk thinks I'm nuts wanting to grow the trees to build furniture; but really; we have silver poplars & they grow SO FAST! & Who hasn't seen twig furniture? Usually those are made of willow...but the trellises I've made of the silver poplar are over a decade old! we still want to get a larger place of our own, but we content ourselves for the time being growing our own veggies. In spite of the "Junuary" we had last year, some of the tomato plants produced ripe tomatoes right until frost! LOVE those Russian varieties!

  15. Feral humans. You knew it had to happen. :)