We, Bridget Croke and Emily McMains, came to Seven Springs Farm in early April to learn more about sustainable agriculture firsthand. We both hope that this experience will inform our future careers in agricultural policy and urban issues. Seven Springs Farm is an organic farm in Floyd County, VA that makes fresh produce available to the public through community supported agriculture. In the community supported agriculture (or CSA) model, consumers buy a share of the farm’s total harvest at the beginning of the season. They then receive a certain amount of fresh vegetables each week for as long as the season lasts. CSA farming allows the grower to distribute the risks and benefits of farming equally between the farmer and the consumer. Seven Springs has been doing CSA since 1991 and is also a distributor of organic pesticides and soil amendments.
We came to Seven Springs for a six-month apprenticeship, hoping to learn about organic farming techniques. What we didn’t realize was that we would be learning more than just a trade, we’d be learning a lifestyle. On our first day at the farm, we were confronted with solar powered campers, a rainwater-fed sink in an outdoor kitchen, and an outhouse. We realized that we were going to have to make some changes in the way that we lived. A large part of our early learning experience at the farm consisted mainly of figuring out how to live comfortably within the facilities available to us. This presented a happy challenge. We embarked on a quest to see just how sustainable and self-sufficient we could be.
Our project focused on finding ways to live, and live well, within the limits of our resources. We concerned ourselves mainly with the most basic resource of all—food. The need for food is universal and food is at the center of many other social issues. We are programmed to believe that we need to buy basic items such as yogurt, bread, fruits and vegetables in the store. We are disempowered, believing that we have no basic production skills. The only way we can survive is through entities such as General Mills and Kraft bringing us sustenance. This, of course, is false. Brought up with these beliefs, most of us have never taken the opportunity to experience the ease with which one can produce basic and nutritious food items. Almost anything that can be found in a grocery store can be made efficiently and effectively at home.
Throughout our time here at Seven Springs Farm, we have been fortunate enough to gain first hand experience in a number of homesteading skills, many of which were completely new to us. In environmental matters, our culture is governed by a certain mindset that is composed partly of inertia, partly of ignorance, and partly of a feeling of powerlessness. It has become very difficult to discern cause and effect in today’s global economy. The environment has become a separate entity, an elderly grandmother whom you love and vaguely appreciate, but who annoys you with her constant nagging about things you feel you have no power to change. The largely capitalist global financial system of today is not set up in a way to give people control over their own resources. Shoes are shipped from China. Fruit is brought in from Chile and Argentina. Cars come from Japan and Germany. And Westerners can get almost any item they could possibly desire, at any time of the day, during any season of the year. It is no surprise that we often forget that our resources are limited and often times nonrenewable.
Marketing convinces us that we need to buy things that our grandmothers used to make themselves or do without. It is extremely difficult for the average person to take control over their resources. Homesteading is a newly reclaimed art that has existed since the beginning of civilization. When thinking about homesteading in the United States, most people would think of early European settlers. However, people in this country today use homesteading as a tool to escape the corporate system and empower themselves with choices of how to live their lives. Many people create homesteads in which they build their own homes, construct their own water and sewage system, power their land completely independent of the grid and grow, preserve and cook their own food. We baked bread for everybody living on the farm. Though we endured a handful of failures, such as fallen bread and brick-heavy loaves, we finally settled on a tasty loaf of bread. We also experimented with a few recipes of yogurt, finding delicious success and substantial monetary savings. Farmer Ron educated us in the fine art of winemaking, using what ever was available to us, from blueberries to blackberries to the not so sweet elderberry. We canned tomatoes and peach preserves, an important skill for anyone living through a winter. We realized the importance of paying attention to detail there, lest we encounter a nasty case of botulism. We have also dried vegetables, herbs and flowers, along with freezing and root-cellaring produce. We built a simple shelter, giving us knowledge of very basic carpentry skills.
While a complete homesteading lifestyle is not for everyone, these skills give us more ways to take our choices out of corporate hands. We all have the ability to grow a garden. Even in the city, community gardens and porch top gardens exist for our use. We can save money by buying basic ingredients to make our own bread, yogurt, cheese and even beer and wine. We can freeze, dry and can fruits and vegetables so that we have food into the cold winter months. These are just a few ways we can truly move towards living within the earth’s means.
We have become well aware of our resources, as we have been off the grid while living here. With our rainwater catchment system, we have as much water as our large milking trough will hold. We must be sure to conserve enough to get us to the next big rain. But while rain is the source of our water, we also rely heavily on sunshine to power our solar charger, which brings us light and pumps water through our sink. The sun is also key in our sanitary habits, as we shower using a solar shower bag. This is a black bag that we fill with water and place in the sun for a few hours to heat up, giving us toasty, warm showers. No longer can we turn on the light switch or sink faucet without paying attention to why we are able to have such luxuries.
While a large part of our experimentation with sustainable off the grid living and homesteading was self-taught, we were fortunate to have enjoyed many off and on farm educational field trips. Ron Juftes, one of the owners of Seven Springs, took us to several different farms in the area. He also brought us on a number of on farm “walk and talks” where we learned to identify many native wildflowers and medicinal plants. We visited an old time Appalachian dairy in Floyd County, which we were later able to compare to a New Zealand model rotational grazing dairy and cheese-making facility in Galax, Va. We toured a naturally raised beef, poultry, and swine farm five miles away as well as a small-scale cut flower operation. At the winery we visited, we saw firsthand how farming can be a constant territorial battle between deer and humankind. Not all of these farms were organic. They ran the gamut, and we found it very useful to see all of the different strategies in use for food production.
In mid-July we attended the Second Annual West Virginia Sustainable Fair in Buckhannon, WV. We experienced everything from a federal grant-writing workshop to a presentation on solar electricity, from a class on how to process different herbs to a soap-making lesson. It was very educational to interact with all of the fair participants, to see that there are people everywhere trying to figure out how to live responsibly and sustainably and that there is so much that we can teach each other.
Since we were so fortunate to learn from all of the vast knowledge in this area, we felt a responsibility to pass this knowledge and resources on to future apprentices. Therefore, we created a journal, which is to remain in the apprentice quarters. This journal is filled with ways to make this lifestyle easier, things we learned along the way, contacts in the area, fieldtrips and projects we found useful and other information that might come in handy to those who will be in our place in years to come. We placed this information in a binder with space for people to add their input in the future.
The Cabell-Brand Foundation has helped us to build an apprenticeship program here at Seven Springs Farm that enables apprentices to gain homesteading skills that can be used at the farm and in the future.