Wrapping Up the Money Question (for now…)

I was at an inspiring Introduction to Permaculture workshop in February, hosted by the Cowichan Green Community. A man a little older than me put up his hand to ask a question. “Is there a point at which this all starts to pay off?” he asked. “I mean, I recognize that everything I’m doing in my backyard is worthwhile, and that I’m teaching my kids valuable life lessons and all. But we don’t have endless resources, and I feel like I’m just outlaying money all the time for supplies. Is there a point at which that stops and I start to make money or even break even? How do you (the panel) pay your bills?”

The panelists spoke in response, mostly about the intangibles, all the worthy reasons to think about growing your own food, etc that aren’t about money. One of the permaculture instructors, who had 5 acres that he had transformed, said, “I still teach and speak for money, and I sell salad greens, and….” In other words, lots of jobs required to pay the mortgage. Another responder did say what we all wanted to hear, “Yes, don’t worry. Once the infrastructure is set up, the rewards will come back to you.”

I was struck at the time by how common this question really is during this time of social transition. So many of us are compelled to change our lives, to get out of the cycles that perpetuate environmental damage, to find more meaning in our time alive. But we often come back to the same question: how do we pay the bills at the end of the day?

I think I may have stumbled onto some of the answers in my previous posts without really realizing it. A long conversation with my wise friend at Turnstone Bodytalk helped too. These are still unrefined, but here are some recent revelations.

I talked yesterday about money having a certain magic about it. It sounds a little flaky, but many respected financial advisors, like Suze Orman, have said similar things: money is a reflection of yourself.  If your life is not honest, your financial picture won’t be healthy. I now think it’s not a choice of “Your Money or Your Life,” the reality is that Your Money IS Your Life. I mentioned that I believe money is life energy. I’ve always read that as money is what we trade our energy for. I’m now suggesting that money doesn’t really exist, it’s just a reflection of (and only one of many other reflections of) our lives. Bear with me.

We all know that money is an ephemeral thing, especially today when I hardly ever use cash. It just all feels like numbers somewhere. And the credit crash made obvious how true this is. Nobody’s actually trading cash back and forth; companies become able to move debts “off their balance sheets”.  They just make it disappear. I owe so much on my mortgage because society has decided that this is the value of the property.  Why is this 1/2 acre worth ten times what it would be in Nova Scotia?  Every country in the world owes everyone else so much money and we’re all so interdependent that the debts will never be extracted. (I should read Margaret Atwood’s book Payback.)

We think to ourselves that we need money to meet our needs. And we do, sort of. The bank will kick me out of my house if I don’t pay the mortgage. But our needs are not fixed. Needs flow and change. If I don’t have a need, or if I can meet a need directly (like growing food or foraging), I don’t need that money either. One day I probably won’t have a need for this particular house and its mortgage.

So the point is this: figure out the life energy and don’t fixate on the money.

If my life feels good and right for me–deeply and honestly–my needs suddenly simplify a great deal. I need friends and relationships. I need simple, healthy food–and more often these days, less of it than I think. I need shelter, but even that is done without regularly by humans all over the world.

Each of these needs can be complicated, but right now–and fortunately for me, all of my life–they are being met. I have not reduced my needs to match my reduced income; we didn’t deliberately go on a budget and then resent the deprivation. I am blissfully happy, in part due to the circumstances which have reduced my income. My happiness has meant my needs are fewer too.  The bank balance hasn’t really changed.

And because I am living joyfully and my needs are reduced, my life in fact IS sustainable. At least in this moment. I’m sure in due course, this will change, too.

I have pondered many times the question, what is sustainability?  Many of us, I know, feel that the economy as it is currently structured is not sustainable. And we sense, therefore, that it is foolish to structure our lives according to the economy. And we try and figure out another way to structure our lives, and we worry about how we will pay the bills. In other words, we can’t quite let go of how we will fit into the economy.

I have realized that the answer–for me at this moment, anyway–is to follow where life energy pulls me (I’m going to anyway, I might as well not fight it! 🙂 ). As my wise friend said, our minds can’t imagine what doesn’t yet exist. And the new way to live, differently than the economic and ecological system we have, isn’t quite visible yet to most of us. But that’s because we’re not living it yet.

So let’s live it first, and let our needs be met in new ways that we can’t even imagine.

The Cost of Living

After working through some of the issues that confront us when we consider living in a different way, the elephant in the room is the actual cost of living.  It’s not an easy thing to calculate, and to be honest, I’ve given up trying.  There are so many variables, so many unpredictables, and then my experiences that show clearly that when I’m living the right life for me, things seem somehow just to work out.  Perhaps because money is really life energy itself, it has a fluidity that contracts and expands as necessary?  I don’t know.  But there does seem to be some magic about it sometimes.

That said, I got curious.  I’m not teaching at the moment, and my income is down about half.  I had hoped, back in February/March, that the garden would save us some money.  While I’m off, I’m not commuting, so that must be saving us gas money.  We have no heating costs during this part of the summer.  You get the idea.

Your Money or Your Life gets you to calculate your “real” hourly wage by factoring in all those work-related costs that would disappear if you weren’t working: gas, commuting time, clothes, the right car, socializing with peers, golf club membership, whatever.  Thankfully our jobs don’t require a lot of these!  But still.  This is often where new parents realize that one parent’s income is going straight to childcare, and that it makes more sense to do the childcare themselves!

We are living pretty simply these days.  We had talked when we knew our income was going to drop about putting ourselves on a strict budget to get by.  It never happened.  We put off some big expenditures that weren’t essential, the Skipper started using the more fuel-efficient car that I was using before, we’ve been eating out of the garden.  I keep an eye on the bank balance, and we seem to be breaking about even, which, I have to say, amazes me.

Yesterday I got curious about what had happened to some of our monthly costs, whether they really had gone down as much as our bank balance would suggest.  I was, as the English say, gobsmacked by the results.

I used to keep pretty close track of our spending, so I have a rough idea of some of our baseline costs.  I know, for instance, that we used to have a hard time keeping our food expenses (groceries and meals out) under $1000/month.  For two people I found that pretty embarassing!  And we cook from scratch everyday!

Now I was just ball-parking from our bank statements, so these are very rough numbers, but in comparing a few months over the past year, there’s a definite trend.  November groceries came to around $685, meals out $350, total: $1035.

In June, our groceries were definitely decreasing at $550, and perhaps more importantly, we were eating out significantly less: $170.  Total: $720.  I still worked for much of June.

I know July’s not quite over yet, and I’m factoring in the $10-15 I’ll spend on bread today.  But the numbers are still pretty shocking!  Groceries: $288! Meals out: $144.  Total: $432! And the tomatoes aren’t even ripe yet :).

Now, truth be told, there are still a ton of variables here.  Salmon is at the peak of it’s season right now, and it’s currently on sale for around $4/ lb.  We’ve realized that we’re not going to get any fishing in this summer, and even if we do, we won’t be catching Sockeye!  So we’ve spent about $200 filling the freezer with enough to get us through the rest of the year.  We bought a vacuum sealer last summer when we were fishing, and we’ve been beyond happy with the results.  We still have a few portions left from last summer, and they still taste like they were caught yesterday.  And we could easily spend more than $200 on gas and food to catch enough fish to get us through another year.  So that’s money well spent as far as we’re concerned, but it’s not included as July groceries.

I also haven’t factored in the expenses of the garden, of course.  I know what I spent on seeds, and I’m not telling! 🙂  And we’ve brought in soil, set up irrigation, bought ingredients for organic fertilizer, etc etc.  So I’ll do another ball park at the end of the year to see if we broke even.  And next year we’ve got big plans for an overhaul of the veggie beds that will definitely require some investment.  But I still think the results suggest that once the infrastructure is in place, the veggies keep coming in.  And we’ll have many jars of tomatoes on the shelf for the year!

So does the simple life and a big garden cost less?  Gas has gone from $400-500/month to $155.  I wear old clothes and no one sees me.  I cook and clean and compost.  We need to find a few hours in the week to bake bread and make soap, both of which we used to do regularly.  We plan to make more beer and perhaps wine.  We desperately want to put in a woodstove to eliminate our heating costs, but there’s an up front cost.  Then there’s the kitchen reno!  So the jury’s still out.  But it’s looking better and better!


On Self-Sufficiency 3: Income (Part 2)

Henri Andersen is tall and soft-spoken, with a snow white ponytail pulled back under his Lee Valley sun-hat.  I asked him whether the Valhalla herb farm was a hobby-farm or a full-time business?  “It’s supplemental,” he said.  “We’ve been doing this 19 years.  But you can’t make a living farming.”

My heart sinks every time I hear this, and I hear it often from long-time farmers.  Could it really be true?  Why?  Is there not another way?  If you can’t make a living farming, what does the future of our food production and security look like?  Does it depend on what “making a living” means?  What does it mean?

From my perspective, very much on the outside, conventional farming looks like a futile, doomed endeavour.  Huge tracts of land require large mortgages and massively expensive mechanized equipment.  Farmers who bought into the Monsanto promise buy large quantities of seed, pesticide and herbicide, produce crops that sell for low prices, the soil is depleted, and one bout of bad weather and you’re back in the hole.  Raising livestock often means selling the meat for less than the cost of raising and processing the animals.  Some estimates I’ve read put the average farming profit at around $15,000 a year.

These are the farmers that are not surviving without large amounts of government help.  The cycle is unsustainable on every level.  But is there another way?

Shifting to organic, diversified farming makes more ecological sense.  But that’s not necessarily easier or more economically viable.  First, to become certified organic is a serious undertaking, and it can take years to do, especially if you are on land that has been farmed conventionally before.  The regulations that we as consumers are so concerned about can be an obstacle for farmers looking to transition.  Then there’s the problem of scale.  Organic farming is more labour intensive and so usually makes sense on a much smaller scale than conventional farming.  The land itself can be more productive, and the diversified crops can be more economically reliable during unpredictable weather and economic cycles, but your total production numbers may be significantly lower.  I can see why this is much easier to start from scratch than to transition to from a large monocrop farm.  There are some really interesting models around as farmers try to innovate, though—those that want to practice no-till farming, or even permaculture-influenced farming are coming up with some very promising techniques.

Certified organic, however, doesn’t always means sustainable.  It means no pesticides or herbicides, no antibiotics or hormones.  It does provide some humane regulations for livestock.  Most organic farmers rotate crops, companion plant, use mechanical pest barriers, etc.  But many also till, monocrop large sections, and use immigrant and other low-wage labour under questionable working conditions.  They also may use organic substitutes for chemical fertilizers and pest control that most of us wouldn’t use in our home gardens.  Many organic farms operating on a large scale are still big, conventional businesses that are not really sustainable.  Are they making a living?  I don’t know.  It’s not the life I’m looking for.  It is where most of our supermarket organic produce comes from: year-round availability, uniform quality, easily shipped and packaged varieties, and enough volume to supply large chains and populations.  The demand from supermarket chains for organic produce that meets supermarket system requirements is apparently gaping, but the two systems (organic and supermarket) don’t easily fit together.

Market Gardening gets us out of both supermarket and scale issues.  The SPIN folks—whom many farmers criticize for marketing, packaging, and selling common sense techniques to naïve new dreamers—offer useful concrete data on making a living from your land on a small scale.  The Small Plot Intensive farming method is this:  grow what sells at the farmer’s market for good prices (gourmet salad greens, for instance); use long narrow mono-crop rows and dripline irrigation.  If you’ve got an acre, you can do some crop rotation, but if you’re smaller, they suggest you don’t grow high-demand crops like brassicas and potatoes that really need rotating.  Stick to salad greens, etc.  They don’t sugar-coat the farming life—long hours 7 days a week in all weather—but they do give some profit estimates.  They suggest that 1000 square feet of growing area could net around $3000 over a season.

This is where things get complicated for me.  In our half-acre, we have just under 1000 sq ft of food growing area—not including fruit production (apples, raspberries, currants, other berries, grapes, kiwis, rhubarb.  We do pretty well!).  If this year’s experience is anything to go by, that’s plenty to work with to feed ourselves much of the year.  But to replace even one of our incomes in a minimal way, we’d have to boost that area by at least 10 times.  That means 1/4 acre of pure growing land (ie—flat, no house, etc).  It would be a full-time job for one of us, and would need the help of others during peak work.  It’s also not full-time year-round, so that’s good, but it means a 7-day a week commitment for the season.  It’s not out of the question.

The SPIN techniques, though, are still a classic example of altering the land for production in a major way.  To be profitable and low-labour means super-efficiency, which means straight, tilled, weeded rows of similar crops for easy management.  SPIN itself says that it’s borrowing from workflow approaches perfected by organizations like McDonald’s.  And this may well be what’s necessary to make a living from the land.

My preferred approach to meeting our food needs from the land, though, would be using permaculture techniques.  Permaculture is an approach to food (and other product) production that tries to imitate what nature does as much as possible.  This means no tilling, polyculture planting (interplanting many crops all mixed together in the same bed), mulching, and careful water management.  Permaculture tries to use as few external inputs as possible, which reduces cost and keeps the whole system more sustainable.

I love this idea, and I will be trying some polyculture beds next season.  But my experience so far is that very few people are using permaculture for their income crops.  The very practical issues of efficiency and labour that SPIN addresses are stumbling blocks for many with better intentions.

I wish I had some conclusions to offer from all of these thoughts, but we haven’t really come to any comfortable ones yet.  It may be possible to do permaculture home gardening to meet the family’s food needs and then have a low-impact cash crop like honey, fruit, hops, or nuts to meet some income needs.  Would that replace one full-time income?  Amanda?  Livestock a la Joel Salatin is clearly a possibility, though it’s not for me.

I’m also still struggling with what to me is a conflict of interests that I’ve shared before and I’m sure will come up again.  The SPIN system is unabashedly trying to make its farmers money.  This is good!  But it does so by pricing its goods according to what the market will bear.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with selling gourmet produce to the wealthy, nor is it wrong to do what most of us less-than-wealthy are doing: spending more of our income on good quality food, which is what Europeans do.  But this is also where organic food gets the reputation for being elitist and is a barrier for many.

The conflict comes for me because I’m now growing this same food for what feels like next to nothing.  But I guess this is just how business works: find a crop that doesn’t cost much to produce and sell it for as much as you can; take advantage of the work that others don’t want to or have time to do.  It still feels like inequity to me.

Thoughts?  Anyone got a system that’s working for them?

Tour of Farms 2010

The Southern Vancouver Island Direct Farm Marketing Association organized what I believe was the first annual (?) Tour of Farms on Sunday.  Farms across the Saanich Penninsula, the Cowichan Valley, and Parksville opened their properties for folks interested in following the self-guided tour and finding out more about where their food comes from.

We visited 3 farms: Code’s Corner Farm, S.O.L Farm, and Valhalla Farm Herbs ‘n’ Things.  These were the 3 that are doing mixed vegetables and some livestock, the small, organic mixed model that I’m most interested in, as opposed to the cidery, the lavender farm, etc.

Valhalla I had heard about before; turns out they have been around almost 20 years!  They have had a supplementary herb business while commuting to Victoria for their off-farm jobs.  This is their first year doing veggies for even themselves!  They had a lovely spot where they had put in some lasagne garden beds that were thriving.  In a great model, they had also made some bed space available to some friends and neighbours.  Such an interesting twist on the community garden or even the CSA–your own bed, rather than just coming to pick up some food.

Code’s Corner Farm and S.O.L (Small, Organic, and Local) Farm had some interesting parallels.  They are both new farms–established within the last 3-6 years.  All of the owners are also new to farming, and they are not spring chickens!  These were men and women who had developed professional careers, and are now farming as a major life change.  The owners of SOL had been organic home gardeners for many years, but had no other farming background.  Dr. Code’s life changed dramatically when he was diagnosed with MS, and that journey has led him to organic farming as a new career.

I was amazed at the changes in direction that life had taken for both these families.  It was a great reminder that life is not about making firm decisions that set your path for years to come, but instead about following your heart wherever it leads and being open and flexible.

I was also struck, though, once again, by how many brand new farmers we have on the island, folks who are learning from the ground up.  And because they want to farm in organic and unconventional ways, they are not always looking to their community elders for guidance.  I wonder about that relationship between old and new.  Is there a gap?  Conflict?  Or are all farmers constantly learning and looking for ways to do things better?

The other glaring observation?  My fellow tour-goers.  The tours were busy.  And there were seniors–perhaps past farmers, perhaps just passionate gardeners–asking questions and looking curiously around them, but mostly it was young couples with long hair and and pale skin looking intently at the raised beds and heritage livestock and buying up the produce for sale.  Two very distinct groups.  Interesting to see them coming together at this time, in these places.

Our photos didn’t turn out that well on this very bright, sunny day, but I’ll leave you with one adorable wee turkelet…

Housekeeping

I’m back!  The reveal:  I spent the week in Vancouver on a Food and Travel Writing course with the illustrious Don Genova.  Over the last number of months, I’ve been contemplating adding some freelance writing to my teaching gig, and I’m pleased to say that the course gave me a lot of concrete information and some practice.  Yesterday, I responded to the call from Alternatives Journal for articles on “The People’s Food Revolution”.  Lots to talk about there!  So I’ll be trying to get into a writing rhythm through the rest of the summer, and hopefully begin publishing in the print world on the topics that excite me.

Don also gave me some helpful tips for the blog, so you may notice some tweaks over the next while.  Among other minor changes, I will be aiming for slightly shorter posts :).  It will be a challenge, but I’ll do my best!

A Quick Link

Still away, but thought I’d post this link to a fascinating entry and discussion over at Fast Grow the Weeds.  Michigan has just passed a cottage industry bill, and so blogger and readers are discussing the other side of the income from the land dilemma: legality and taxes.  Lots that’s relevant to the whole income question here, and I’ll be doing some research to find out more about BC’s laws and conventions…