The following was originally published in 2004 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Amherst Bulletin and Green Living magazine.
By NICK GRABBE
On a sunny spring weekend, you can find me splitting and stacking the wood that will keep my family warm next winter.
Or I might be loading the compost I made a year ago into a wheelbarrow and spreading it into the garden beds before the vegetables go in.
After pruning my two apple trees in March, I’ll be spraying them in April and May, trying to outwit the insects and prevent disease.
None of these tasks is necessary to my family’s survival. If I bothered to count up the money I save and compared it to the hours I toil, it wouldn’t seem “worth it” financially. But over the years this lifestyle of urban homesteading and what we call radical frugality have become like a hobby for me and my wife, Betsy Krogh. It’s worth it because we enjoy it.
For me, it all began 30 years ago, when I read a book called “Living the Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing. They spent decades in Vermont and Maine, building their own houses and growing their own food, before attracting widespread attention in the late 1960s. I wrote a story about Scott Nearing when he came to Amherst to speak in 1976.
Like many young adults of that era, I thought I wanted to “go back to the land” like the Nearings, but there were several problems. I am not handy, and couldn’t build a shed, much less construct a house or tinker with a tractor. Betsy and I have two children who have needed attention and community – and money– for the past 20 years. And I have no desire to retreat from society; I like being involved in my town and cherish the friendships I have developed.
So we’ve come to a compromise that suits us well. We live in a farmhouse-style home on a half-acre lot a mile from downtown Amherst. I work four days a week and enjoy writing the newspaper articles that provide us with a modest income and health insurance. Betsy has not worked for pay but has supervised the lives of our two children and had time to contribute her talents to our home economy and the local community.
It isn’t exactly living off the land, but it’s a balanced life. Our beliefs are interwoven with our tasks, and as we go about our household chores, we have that good feeling you get when work and play become one.
Every April, I make a large compost pile and marvel at the magic I’m able to conjure up.
On Sundays throughout the year, I pick up peelings and spoiled fruits and vegetables at Not Bread Alone, the free-meal program at First Congregational Church. I layer them with ground-up leaves and our own kitchen scraps in a 4-foot-square enclosure made of cement blocks. Then in April, I relayer them with grass clippings or manure, plus dirt, lime and water. This concoction heats up, sometimes registering 160 degrees on my trusty compost thermometer, killing weed seeds and disease pathogens and producing a sweet-smelling natural fertilizer.
I spread it on the 11 raised beds in our backyard garden, providing all the fertilizer we need, and in April and May the seeds go in. We grow lettuce, beans, squash, peppers, tomatoes, raspberries, peas, kale, chard and rhubarb. We can the surplus of tomatoes, apples (made into sauce) and raspberries (made into jam) for winter use. We freeze beans and peppers. The kale usually lasts until January under a hoop greenhouse.
We do not use chemicals to deter pests, but do employ a variety of techniques, including hand-picking, wood ashes and compact discs hung from strings. We even use beer, with attracts slugs that enjoy it so much they drown in it. Once, when I went to a package story to buy a single bottle of cheap beer, I told the clerk sheepishly, “It’s not for me, it’s for my slugs!” I think I saw him raise his eyebrows.
Not all our efforts to go organic have been successful. Apples are the most difficult crop to grow organically. Several years ago, I stopped using chemicals on the trees and got fewer apples.
Some aspects of our urban homesteading life are much easier because of our in-town location.
Living near town, schools and work, we usually own only one car. We use bicycles, the bus, carpooling and walking for much of our transportation with hardly any inconvenience. And living in a college town, we anticipate the annual late-May departure of the students, not only for the quiet it brings but because they leave behind all sorts of furniture, clothing and household goods that we are delighted to harvest from the roadsides. We also love finding books and other useful items at the “take-it-or-leave-it” exchange at the town’s recycling center.
Other household practices are designed to save energy or avoid spending money. We hang our laundry on a clothesline outside to dry in the wind and sun, a practice that’s actually restricted in some parts of Amherst. Last year, we invested in a solar hot-water system that adds a new dimension to taking a shower.
We belong to a natural-food-buying club in our neighborhood, and I regularly bake bread and cookies and make soup from scratch. In the summer, Betsy often cooks rice in our solar oven. We get books from the Jones Library and share newspapers with nearby family members. We even pick up bottles and cans on the street; our redemption income is about $50 a year.
At our little urban homestead, my family and I enjoy a high level of domestic security. We produce some of our food and energy and avail ourselves of what is freely given by nature or cast off by other people in our land of plenty. We relish the challenge of creative solutions to overcoming life’s obstacles and acquiring life’s necessities. We incorporation frugal and earth-friendly practices into our everyday routines. We seek satisfaction in relationships, work and the non-material delights of expanding our minds and spirits.
In spring, as in the other seasons, we aim to enjoy it all.
[2014 update: There have been some changes in the 10 years since I wrote this. I no longer collect the kitchen waste at a free-meal site, but rely on our own scraps for our compost. We chopped down our two apple trees because they were too hard to manage organically, and now have three pear trees. We don’t collect many bottles and cans or items left behind by departing students.]