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The homesteading game: A lament

 A man in a shiny three piece suit and hat bottle feeding a calf through a farm fence
Justin Lander
Justin Lander
Justin feeding calves before leaving to perform a puppet show.

There are a lot of families in Vermont who homestead. They raise their own animals for milk and eggs and meat, and they put up enough food from the garden to get through the winter.

Justin Lander and his wife Rose Friedman have been farming in East Hardwick since 2009, and this spring, reporter Erica Heilman talked with Justin about the trials and tribulations of homesteading.

Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio, but have provided a transcript below.

Erica: There was a hard frost in late May this year that burned my blueberry bushes. And then, I thought it would be a really good idea to put in my tomatoes and peppers right before that heat wave in early June, and they still look terrible, and when I look at them I'm filled with a kind of impotent rage.

I don't have the skill or the patience for homesteading. But there are a lot of homesteaders around here who do manage to grow most all of their own food. And for years, I have felt inadequate in their midst for… my inadequacies. So I was very happy when Justin Lander offered up a kind of primal scream about the challenges and frustrations of homesteading in Vermont. Here's Justin.

Justin: Homesteading. OK, so we're not trying to sell anything. We're trying to do subsistence farming, We'll do trade and barter. And we're gonna raise all our own food. We're like, "OK, we got the cow and we got the garden going." And we were raising pigs and chickens and rabbits, we tried all manner of waterfowl, eggs, and just like, we're gonna raise all our own food. And so that means that every time you go to the co-op and buy the bag of lettuce, it's failure, it's defeat, it’s breaking the rules. I'm losing the game.

[Justin begins to play the upright bass…]

Justin: We're trying not to buy any food. But also, it's dinner…

We're down to almost nothing. And I'm like, "Oh, God, there's only, like, this many bags of frozen string beans…"

We have to be eating so many potatoes right now, or we're going to lose them, because it's getting warm in the root cellar. I've seen some sprouty eyes…

We have to really double our efforts at eating potatoes…

And those turnips that nobody wants to eat, that I keep growing, are starting to look really bad. And we have to eat them…

Once we stopped milking a cow, our dairy consumption went way down, simply because one of the chores was to consume the milk…

I have this this herd of cows and they're all female and I can't seem to get a male…

I want to get a bull over there but he's gonna breed everybody and then, like, we were going to slaughter one but now we can’t if they all get pregnant, and you know, I don't know what I'm doing at all…

Every year, I say, "This year I'm going to make the garden smaller." And every year it gets bigger.

[Justin stops playing the upright bass.]

                               A man holding a stick with lots of sausages hanging from it.
Justin Lander
Justin Lander
Justin Lander, a proud curer of meat

Justin: And then we had kids. I think Rose’s priorities changed pretty quickly. But I didn't know. And I mean, no kids really have a choice about the decisions their parents make, and particularly if parents make extreme choices. And often parents make those extreme choices because they think that they're making a better life for their kids.

Yeah, that was definitely part of our homesteading choices, like, "Our kids will be better. We'll have better kids." That's like the homesteading thing. You know, there's like the contest. I mean, it's way worse for parents, like, "We're gonna make all the right choices and our children are going to be better." Better than your kids, anyway.

Yeah, there's like the full-blown homesteading junkie, and you know, everybody around you is going to be affected by that, even if you get so much done. But everybody's going to be affected by that. And yeah, you definitely see that a lot with really high-functioning farms, like the ones where you just go like, "Oh my God, this is immaculate. There's no weeds in sight." But that person might not be very much fun to be around….

[Upright bass.]

Which is my worry. You know, "Your kids are going to be better off because you're around this garden!" But you might hate me. But maybe you'll be a good gardener anyway. And I won't know because you'll want to get as far away from me as possible. Like what's better? The kid who's a really good gardener, or a good relationship with your child?

 A man kneeling in his garden
Justin Lander
Justin Lander
Justin weeding the garden

[Upright bass ends.]

Justin: But in the future, it's going to start to work.

Erica: I mean, there will come a time when the pitchforks come out, and you'll be in good shape.

Justin: Well, I was in that mind space for a long time. Like, we're preparing because s—’s going down and we will be able to survive. This notion of like, "There's collapse! And there's no fuel anymore and it's marauding bands of outlaws pillaging and life becomes like nothing but fear and uncertainty."

Yeah, like we'll keep trying to be alive. But homesteading is not preparing for that. Homesteading is preparing for, like, going to live in the Shire and be a Hobbit. And if you get the point of the book, they're fine only because the Dark Lord doesn't know about them. Like, let's not prepare for that. Let's also enjoy life today and not spend all of life preparing for the most horrible possible outcome.

[Upright bass.]

                               Two men and a child cutting up cow meat in a kitchen
Justin Lander
The family cutting up a cow at the kitchen counter

Justin: Too much of the time homesteading feels like I'm just losing the game. And rarely do I experience the win or like even just scoring points. And that's all completely made up. Nobody's keeping score. There isn't, like, the Homestead Review Board that's going to publish my rating. So if it's an imaginary game, how come I can't just only be the winner, even if, even if I still eat at the diner?

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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