Last week I had the great good fortune to interview Andrea, who goes by GoatLady on Growstuff and blogs at The Manor of Mixed Blessings. Andrea lives on a small farm in the Virginia Piedmont with 50,000 honeybees, nine goats, five cats, four dogs, two rabbits, two turkeys, and a very understanding husband who does the heavy manual labor.
What do you grow at the Manor of Mixed Blessings?
Different things every year! As a little background, because of abuse by a previous owner (he sold the topsoil on the entire 2.5 acres) we have terrible soil. It’s heavy clay with no nitrogen content — as in, when we ran soil tests to see what amendments we might need, the nitrogen test registered nothing.
Because we’re committed to growing our vegetables without synthetic fertilizer or pesticides and trying to build soil simultaneously, every year is an experiment and every year we discover a new variety that does well for us. This year we saved seed from Cherokee Trail black beans and Seneca Red Stalker corn. We also managed a bumper crop of spaghetti squash, a lot of which went to the goats and chickens. It was our first time for a fantastic potato crop, and with the addition of a bee hive our strawberry crop exploded.
We would have had peas except rabbits got through the fence and selectively ate every. single. freakin. pea plant. And then they went for the sweet corn seedlings. And the lettuces.
I’ve just planted a fall crop of lettuces, about 8 different varieties, to see what thrives now that the rabbits are too big to get through the fence. And rabbit season opens in November.
What I’m looking for are the crops that thrive here with little to no intervention from us. Some people like a very high-involvement growing style, but for me personally I want things I can drop in the ground, water in, and then forget about until it’s time for me to eat them.
Ditto with our chickens. I’m less interested in having “purebred” chickens than I am in having a flock that reproduces itself naturally and thrives on free range, including being resistant to parasites and able to evade predators. I want chickens that can put meat and eggs on the table without constantly needing medical attention, and that means carefully selecting individual birds to stay in the flock.
I spend most of my time with the goats, because goats are incredibly charming and lovely to be around. Since my goats are well socialized to people they’re very personable, to the point of demanding hugs and cuddling. Even with them, though, I’m not really interested in maintaining purity of breed. Goats will be happier when they’re healthier, and artificially limiting the gene pool isn’t really conducive to breeding hardy, healthy goats. I keep dairy goats, and because they have shows for conformation like dogs do, you see animals who look pretty but have very poor parasite and disease resistance, and hooves that need constant attention. Meat goat producers have a much healthier attitude, since they want goats they don’t have to fool with. I made the decision this year to use a Baylis line Spanish buck, a meat breed strain that’s incredibly well-adapted to conditions here in the US southeast, because as I go forward with my herd what I want more than show-winning dairy looks are goats that are hardy, adaptable, and easy to care for.
You say you prefer the term “farmer” to “homesteader”. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I know “homesteader” is the trendy word for agrarian self-sufficiency these days, and it’s also apparent that here in the US the movement is so white it’s painful. Native American friends pointed out to me that “homesteader” means nothing good to them as it carries the weight of the US history of colonialism and genocide.
I also have problems with the way “homesteader” tries to make a very white, affluent, suburban movement out of the skills that poor rural people, including or maybe especially people of color, have been living for a long time now. We rural, working-class Southerners in the US have been derided for some of the very same practices that affluent suburban whites are now repackaging as “homesteading”. My grandfather got pulled out of school when he was seven and the Great Depression hit. He taught me what wild plants are edible, and I’ve added to what he taught me since by talking to older people and studying sources like the Foxfire books. And now that’s “wildcrafting” and the cool thing to do and it drives me up a wall that people are claiming to “rediscover” it as a “lost skill”. It was never lost, but calling it picking greens and learning it from a southern man with a second grade education just isn’t as cool as “rediscovering wildcrafting”. The very word makes me grind my teeth.
Plus the kind of small-plot agriculture that “urban homesteaders” tend to push for is this very specific, clean, pretty, romanticized thing. This is why backyard chicken ordinances often specifically ban slaughter — it’s dirty and messy and bloody and disturbs people’s sensibilities. “Urban homesteading” also ignores the fact that unless you’re being very, very careful and thoughtful, many of the practices will actually raise your carbon footprint rather than lowering it since you’re having to bring everything in.
I prefer “farmer” because it’s a more neutral word that is perfectly descriptive of what I do. I think people have this idea that a farm has to be tens of acres if not hundreds, specialized in one crop, and run like a business. Historically, though, that type of industrial monoculture ag is a recent, aberrant invention. A farm doesn’t have to be a business, and it definitely doesn’t have to be some huge thing specializing in one crop. And being a farmer for me acknowledges that a lot of what I do is dirty, messy, and even gross.
So between the implications the word “homesteader” holds for my Indian friends, who I cherish, and the personal irritation the movement causes me as a descendant of poor rural Southern folks, I want no part of the word.
What makes a “farmer” anyway? How much do you have to grow to cross over from “gardening” to “farming”?
Oh gosh, if we’re talking plant matter I probably don’t qualify! We do better every year on vegetables and fruits but we’re not where I want to be just yet.
We do however have the goats and chickens, so I produce our dairy and eggs and some of our meat here while my husband brings in cash money working outside the home. We let our hens hatch a clutch of eggs when they feel like it, and the extra roosters go into our freezer after they’ve gotten big enough to make the work of processing them worthwhile.
I think if you’re making a major contribution to your own diet, go on and call yourself a farmer. Even if your farm is a set of containers on your apartment’s patio. I’d really like US society to get away from this notion that farming is some mystical romantic thing that happens over there somewhere, because I think it contributes to problems with the food supply.
You often tweet about social justice and political issues. Do you think producing your own food is a political act?
It really, really is. Unless you’re fairly wealthy here in the US, you’re going to be buying produce from God knows where, grown under mysterious conditions, and tended by workers who are exploited and brutalized. If, that is, you can find and afford fresh produce at all. To take control of your own food production is a powerful act of rebellion for people who are relentlessly told that only organic heirloom produce is morally good but can’t afford to buy it. We could never afford to buy goat milk, cheese, or butter (seriously, the butter goes for around US$30/lb, about US$60/kg) at the store, let alone free-range heritage breed eggs and chicken (because they free-range I can’t swear the eggs & meat are organic because I have no idea what all the chickens are eating). Next year, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll have home-grown turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and heritage birds raised free range sell for upwards of $100 as a dressed carcass around here. Nor would we be able to afford to buy organically grown heirloom produce.
I also don’t sell much at all of what we produce, because for me it’s about disengaging from capitalism. I prefer to barter it for things we don’t grow or make. My neighbor on one side has a way better vegetable garden than we do, but no chickens or goats, so a lot of informal trade goes on there, and during the summer when the hens are in full swing I’ve been known to hand out eggs to anyone who expresses even a vague interest. At the height of summer the flock gives us nearly a dozen eggs a day, and there’s only so many quiches, custards, puddings, and fritattas a person can eat.
To take control of your own food to the extent you can is an act of taking back power. To then freely share your surplus is another radical act in a capitalist system. It’s also a profound act of caring for another person; sharing food is one of the oldest, most fundamental ways we have of sharing good will.
In short, I think the current capitalist industrial agriculture is taking us nowhere good. Not everyone has the opportunity to produce their own food, but when you can and do it can be an enormously political act of opting out of a broken system. It can be a powerful act of asserting that you and your community will not sit quietly and take whatever food the system allows you to buy.
What misconceptions do you think people have about producing their own food?
That it has to be this huge complicated commitment and a lot of work! You don’t have to go whole hog, and you don’t have to be an organic growing purist. I would encourage people to be thoughtful about the choices they make and try to understand all the ramifications, but if that means you end up using synthetic fertilizer or pesticides, or using a motorized tiller to break up your soil, I don’t think you deserve derision. A grower’s time and energy are a finite resource, and deserving of conservation if that’s what you need to do.
Growing your own food should be joyful. If all you ever want to do is grow some basil in a pot on the window sill, or a boxed mushroom kit in your closet, that’s ok. The important thing is that growing food shouldn’t make you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or inadequate. If it does, then let yourself back off, reassess, and find your joy.
The misconception that annoys me most personally is a by-product of the urban chicken movement. City people want some chicks to raise, and because sexing chicks is notoriously inaccurate, or because they decided to hatch eggs, they wind up with roosters that are often illegal for them to keep. Then they assume that a rural farmer would just love to give those extra roosters a loving pet home. We really wouldn’t. For assured fertility you need one rooster to ten hens. We do not want to buy your extra rooster and the odds of finding someone who will take a free rooster and not eat him are slim. I recommend that backyard chicken keepers who don’t want to eat their extra roosters themselves buy young hens rather than chicks, which is the only way to be assured you won’t end up with an unwanted rooster.
What’s your favourite weird thing to grow and eat?
Plenty of people think I’m weird for drinking goat milk, but I find that’s because they’ve only tasted pasteurized goat milk from a grocery store, which tastes like you’ve just licked a buck goat. Because I can guarantee my goats are healthy, we drink their milk raw. Without pasteurization to denature the various proteins and without having the cream extracted and added back in low amounts compared to what’s there naturally, it’s sweet and rich.
Day lily buds are another favorite of mine. They are such low effort plants, and give a very tasty return for no effort beyond planting the original roots. I try to leave about half the buds to flower and feed the pollinators, but it’s difficult!
(Read more about how to cook and eat day lily buds on Andrea’s blog.)
What’s your favourite gardening tool or resource?
My favorite tool is a good knife. It comes in handy for everything, from trimming trees branches back from the fence line to digging up taproots from invasive plants like pokeweed. A good pair of gloves is another must!
There are a lot of great knowledge resources out there. I’ve learned a lot from backyardchickens.com forums, fiascofarm.com for goat care (although I ultimately disagree with their position on herbal treatments), honeybeesuite.com for bees (of course) and the books Mini-Farming and The Thinking Beekeeper. Although I do feel honor-bound to warn people that Mini-Farming is really, really dry and somehow even manages to make compost sound boring, which is difficult.
My favorite material resource is poop! The goats, chickens, and Angora rabbits all contribute. I deep-bed the goat stall, so we end up cleaning it out only about three times a year. What we get is a couple hundred cubic feet of mixed goat poop, pine shavings, and straw. That goes into a big pile where it can get rained on and the trees can drop leaves on it, and the chickens start working it over. They’ll break up any big pieces, keep the straw from forming thatch, and contribute their own poop. Periodically we put it back in a big pile, turning it as we go. After 6-12 months, we have this incredible rich black dirt.
Rabbit poop, meanwhile, is one of the very few kinds you can just toss directly on the garden without composting it first. I dump the rabbit pans into a bucket and take it straight out to the vegetable beds. With our soil as nitrogen-deprived as it is, the rabbits are a huge help!
What advice would you give someone who wanted to get a few acres and farm like you do?
Know what you’re getting into! In some rural areas you can kiss cheap reliable internet and television service good bye, for instance. Ask yourself if you can really do without pizza delivery and other urban conveniences. Rural life is very differently paced from urban life, and there just isn’t the social expectation of privacy that city-dwellers have.
Really think through how much agriculture you want to get into. While plants won’t cramp your style, nor will chickens with a well-designed coop and an adequate supply of feed and water, once you add dairy animals to the mix getting more than a day trip vacation becomes an enormous hassle. Animals in milk have to be milked out on the schedule you’ve established for them or you start risking things like mastitis. If you find someone who will do the milking for a reasonable fee, treasure them like the jewel they are.
You will be out there twice a day to care for dairy animals, every single day, no matter what the weather. I’ve cared for goats in the tail end of a hurricane, in snow storms, on days of record heat and record cold. You pretty much have to have a religious calling to be happy doing dairy animals.
Also livestock is frequently gross. I’ve done fun things like cut a maggot out of a baby goat’s side (he recovered just fine and is now a treasured pet elsewhere), clean a wound on a chicken that exposed the back of her skull (she’s still with us), and perhaps most memorably I’ve been forearm deep in a goat to help reposition a kid while she was giving birth. And my glove split. Everyone survived the experience, happily, but it’s one I could have done without. I buy better gloves now.
Probably the best thing you can do is find someone relatively local who’s doing what you’re interested in and see if they’re willing to talk, or even let you come out for a look at how they do things and a chance to get hands-on experience. Just remember that it’s perfectly fine to make your own way. Take the techniques that are useful to you, that let you grow food joyfully, and let the rest go by the wayside.
Thank you, Andrea, for your time!
If you grow your own food, whether you think of yourself as a farmer or a gardener or anything else, why not join Growstuff to track what you’re growing, share seeds, and connect with other growers?