By Suzy Lowry Geno
You’ll be reading this article long past Christmas as bits of sunshine give you Spring Fever in the middle of February’s chilly days, but hopefully the story of my Christmas cards will show you just a little of how and why I’m tied to this land and the type of homesteading, or a simpler life, I hope to be featuring in this column every month.
Our Christmas card last year featured Harley—my very spoiled and very LARGE goat—mugging at the camera and wearing a Santa hat. The fall day when I shot about 30 photos of Harley posing and prancing found me laughing hysterically in the barnyard (and happy there were no neighbors nearby to question my sanity)!
But after Harley’s death this summer, I just had to break from the Christmas tradition of featuring one of my Old Field Farm’s critters.
So instead, we settled on a photo I’d taken during one of Central Alabama’s rare but beautiful snow falls showing the weathered little building that sits just outside our current pasture in the edge of the wood line; the small building my daddy always referred to as the "cotton pen."
Not much bigger than a child’s playhouse and at least 80 years old, it was where the cotton was stored out of the weather until the fluffy fiber could be loaded on a mule-drawn wagon and taken to the gin in Oneonta.
While this year’s card didn’t get last year’s reactions from folks who said Harley’s silly grin brightened that Holiday, two responses this past December truly warmed my heart.
My cousins, Jack and Shirley, live "just down the road." Both in their 80s now, Shirley opened the card and proclaimed the building must be one where I housed some of my animals. But Jack emphatically told her "No. I’ve played in there enough to know—that’s the cotton house!" he exclaimed.
A return card from another older cousin now living in Georgia evoked nearly the same response, thanking me for the special photo of the cotton house where she’d played under the shade trees while her parents and other family members worked in the scorching cotton field nearby.
It was a hard-scrabble life back then but each said it was "worth it."
By the time I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, the cotton field was abandoned, but folks around here almost all "made" a garden, even those living in town.
Life was simpler, even then. Life was centered around home, family, church and community. Most folks didn’t commute to jobs in other counties. They worked right at home or at least close enough to make sure chores were done on time each day.
I’ve been called a "throw back," a "back-to-the-lander" and even a "hippie" because from then until now, I’ve been concerned with the small family farms, a different kind of life, more "homesteading" than agri-business.
No, this kind of "homesteader" doesn’t get free land from the government after settling in for a required amount of time as homesteaders did in the 1800s. Instead it is a "state of mind" where families work to be as self-sufficient as they can on their own properties, trying to take care of their own families, many by growing their own vegetables and raising their own meat (or buying from local farmers and farmer’s markets). Most are generally as excited about well-stocked pantries filled with home-canned food as they are big bank accounts.
Many work at home-based businesses or have offices at home. If they do work "off the farm," the homestead is still what keeps them "grounded" in this hectic world.
There are many different labels for this lifestyle but the one I detest is "Hobby Farmer" — especially when I’m covered nearly from head to toe in mud and manure. My husband looked me over last week after a thanked-for heavy rain left the goat yard and chicken pastures slushy, and said I looked "like the goats pushed you down and then walked up and down your blue jean legs."
But, you know, I never rest better or FEEL better than after such a day’s hard work! Whether it’s boiling blackberries down for jelly to sell in my little farm store, stirring what sometimes seems like forever over a pot of lye, lard and goat milk waiting for that wonderful process when soap is formed, digging post holes, or carefully shearing one of my Angora rabbits, there’s a satisfaction in knowing I’m providing needed and necessary items through God’s Grace and my own two hands!
As I’ve covered Kids Day on the Farm events in recent years, I’ve been amazed at how little most youth know about where our food and fiber really comes from —- and most of today’s adults aren’t much better.
Last year one of the leaders said he was dismayed to learn not long before a teacher (from another county) told her class erroneously that "BEFORE we LEARNED to PRODUCE milk, it came from cows!"
Another lady also said she couldn’t buy free range eggs from chickens happily pecking across a rural yard, because "Eewwww, those eggs come out from UNDER a chicken."
Jack has told me about my great-grandmother spinning on her spinning wheel as he played on a quilt in front of the fireplace in their log cabin near here—just as I spin on my wheel now!
I didn’t know my grandmother on this side of the family either; she died when my daddy was just 16. But Jack has told me recently of how she loved her chickens —- and how she sold eggs just like I do!
I have a tattered copy of a magazine question-and-answer column from the early 1900s, when Grandmother wrote of how she loved riding her horse on the bluffs near what is now the community of Susan Moore and how she was "sweet 16 and never been kissed."
I have two photos of her: I look almost just like her in one of them.
When I am making soap, when I am writing words like these, when I am tending my garden or my herbs on these same fields she once walked and worked, I know she and my grandfather, and my other grandparents had something here on this land we can’t afford to lose.
And the continuing rising cost of fuel and the threat of food terrorism from abroad, emphasizes almost continually now just how important these simple and needful things can be.
The small farmer has been called the backbone of this nation. Even those who know only simple anatomy know the backbone is what gives anything its strength.
So whether you are developing a corn-fueled vehicle, supplementing your income with goat milk soap or handspun yarn, using solar energy to power your equipment, hosting farm tours, using mules instead of or in addition to your tractors, operating a ram-generator in a nearby stream to water your crops or animals during the drought, striving to grow your crops organically or doing or even thinking about doing any number of things like this to keep your small farm going, we want to hear from you!
Whether your farm is really just a garden in your backyard, or you have many acres, we can all learn from each other!
How do you integrate new technology into improving old skills? Or are the old ways what you prefer?
I think it’s time we asked ourselves, what type of "backbone" do WE have?
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County.