The other day, I received an email from a new blog reader- I’ll call her Ann- asking a very big question. A very big question that I couldn’t quiet find an answer for off the top of my head, one that I’ve spent hours thinking about for the last few day.
Her question was basically why? Why do we feel compelled to grow our own food? Why bother milking goats? Why all the sewing and knitting and baking from scratch when none of those things were necessary in our world. She understood the sheep, I think, because that was business, but she was having a hard time grasping the whole D.I.Y lifestyle that’s become recently so popular. Urban farming seems silly when there’s a market on every corner. Why sew clothes when there are clothes to be had for next to nothing? Just…why?
I want to say from the get-go that Ann’s email was completely respectful and deadly earnest. There wasn’t one iota of snark in her words. It was genuine curiosity that prompted her long and thoughtful email, which is probably why it completely flummoxed me. I started to dash off a top-of-my-head response full of wisdom, but then I realized I didn’t actually have a pat answer to a question that so fundamentally questioned the very purpose of my life.
Lucky for me, I had a lot of driving ahead of me. I needed to make a quick trip to Pennsylvania which gave me of uninterrupted thinking time.
The thing is, I could completely understand where Ann’s question was coming from. I grew up in the suburbs and owning a farm never even entered my mind for the first 30-odd years of my life. I had a successful career in New York City. I spent my weekend seeking out amazing restaurants and watching art film. I spent a fortune on the things women are suppose to crave- shoes, makeup and fancy sheets.
And it all left me feeling a little…hollow. I worked my rear end off at my job but I had nothing to show for it at the end of the day. I like to say that network news is like golf- nobody cares what you did yesterday. The accolades were amazing but they disappeared so very quickly. There was nothing to hold on to, nothing tangible that I could pick up and hold proudly over my head while proclaiming “I made this!”
For me, gardening and sewing and the like provide me with three thing: control, security and joy. Control, because I get to decide what goes into my food, which variety of tomato I grow, the way I want my clothes to fit, even what shape I want my pasta tonight. Being a shepherd has done nothing to lessen my Type A+ tendencies, but having more actual control has -weirdly- made me less controlling.
Security for me isn’t about preparing for the zombie apocalypse or hoarding food and guns for Doomsday. I’m far more concerned about the fact that our food supply has become incredibly centralized, dominated by a handful of mega-corporations who control production and distribution. Our regional food systems have been all but destroyed in our quest for cheaper, more efficient food.
To make matters worse, the current system is eliminating hundreds of varieties of vegetables and fruits in the name of efficiency.
Monocultures are never a good idea- remember the Great Potato Famine (or The Great Hunger as it is now known)? The blight that killed all the potatoes in Ireland because they were only growing one variety?
One more thing. A few years ago, I spoke at a conference hosted by Cornell University on Agriculture Economics. The economist who spoke before me said something I found absolutely jaw-dropping. Grocery stores in America have a three day supply of food on hand. In other words, if anything happened to the supply chain, it would take three days to clear the shelves of the enormous supermarkets. Three days. Produce would be gone within 24 hours.
Does all of this mean that I want to grow and raise everything my family and staff need to survive? Of course not! I find myself running to the market every other day, just like most of you. My grocery list probably looks a lot like yours, although we buy considerably less in the Summer when our kitchen garden is in full production. But I do like feeling that we are at least a little self reliant, that we aren’t completely at the mercy of the weather and the economy. In a recent New York Times article, Sabrina Tavernise referred to vegetable gardens as “patches of protection in uncertain times.” I think that sums it up perfectly.
I’ve saved the most important reason for last though- joy! Digging in the dirt and coaxing a salad from it feels amazing! Biting into a ripe tomato, still warm from the sun is an experience no one should miss.
I can bake bread that taste better than the bread I can buy and it’s almost free. The same is true for lots of other foods we eat- yogurt, ice cream, pasta, chicken stock. I could go one and on. Although we are still only novice cheese makers, our chèvre is creamy and delicious, and it has encouraged us to try all kinds of new cheeses. And did I mention that it’s almost free? I can make a pound of chèvre for pennies or pay $9 for 4 ounces at the market.
Making a piece of clothing that you can proudly wear out of the house made me feel like a million bucks. Your friends and coworkers with literally gasp when they find out you made your sweater. My friend Virginia taught me to make a simple skirt and I nearly burst with pride every time I wear it. As if that weren’t enough, clothes you make fit better and look better on you, because they are tailored to you. Where is the downside?
I hope I’ve answered your question, Ann, and that you have at least a bit more insight into what we do. And I will admit without hesitation that I still love shoes, makeup and fancy sheets. I still spend weekends seeking out amazing restaurants (although my standards for amazing have gone way up) and I still love going to the movies. I’m just the same, only happier, more self-confident and more secure.