Notice to Vacate: We Really Are Going to be Farmers

With eyes still itching from the sobbing episode evoked by today’s delivery of a Notice to Vacate by mid-April, I’m ready to write about why this unjust event is a Very Good Thing. Dad always taught us to make lemonade with lemons, so here’s the recipe.

First, a note on being evicted. This is our second experience, and it felt just as violating, rug-ripped-out-from-undering, slap-in-the-face awful as the first time. With three children in the local school, in a small neighbourhood without much of a rental market from which to choose, and with rents rising astronomically, being kicked out of your lovely home is devastating to say the least. Last time we got lucky and slid into a lease our friends were vacating voluntarily as they had just bought a property a few suburbs further out. This time we’re even luckier, as we’ve been looking for a farm near Daylesford for the past two years.

Two years, you say? Well, in truth, we’ve had our eyes on Daylesford since 1995, when we first visited, and left a comment in the Convent Gallery’s guestbook that said something like, ‘Love love love it here! We’ll be back, next time to live!’ We’ve been back countless times for weekends, to feast, to wander the bookshops, to tour David Holmgren’s permaculture property, and for events like the one where Joel Salatin spoke at the Lakehouse and convinced us to be farmers, not just self-sufficient drop outs. But we still haven’t bought a farm.

So here’s the exciting bit. We have three months (we’ve asked for one extra from the landlord) to find the right farm and have our offer accepted. As we’d like to do Road Trip USA with the kids from late May until the start of September, there’s a bit of flexibility in the plan (we can put all our stuff in shipping containers and store them while we’re away). (If we time this right, by the way, we manage to travel in America rent AND mortgage free!)

As we would like to run free-range pigs (originally for personal consumption, and then scale up to small-scale commercial production if we’re good enough at it) as well as have a permaculture garden and be as self sufficient as we can, we reckon we need a minimum of 20 acres, at least half of which is paddock. More acreage would be very welcome. I need a view from my kitchen window (this isn’t really negotiable). And we’ll need to be close enough to town for the kids to get the school bus.

So if you’re in that region, or know someone who is, let us know if there are any good properties around for some keenly committed ethical food folk like us. Everyone else, your good vibes will be enough! It’s time the Jonai put some money where our mouths are and truly become farmers at last.

May we please have views like this?

How do you do it? On good cooking and finding time.

This is not a post to make others feel guilty about what you’re not doing, though it may have that unintended effect on some. I apologise in advance to any who take it that way. But while we have a quick look at the life of the Jonai, here’s a brief bit of background:

I was raised in a family with two working parents who outsourced most domestic labour, including quite a lot of what cooking was actually done (very little, in truth). Our ‘junk cupboard’ (full of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Chips Ahoy, Ruffles potato chips, etc) was precisely half the size of the ‘real food’ pantry, which was stocked with tins of vegies, soup and other highly refined items. There was minimal fresh produce in the house beyond bananas and apples. My mum hated to cook, but would occasionally produce a dinner of pork chops cooked to cardboard consistency (to ensure we didn’t get salmonella) and mashed potatoes (made from real potatoes). Many dinners were toast or a bowl of Cheerios we made ourselves, though we could sometimes convince Ma to make french toast, waffles or pancakes (from Krusteaz). She also made oatmeal to order as we all chilled out in front of the tv at night.

Stuart, on the other hand, was raised in a family where fresh food was paramount and readily available. Hardly any refined foods sullied their pantry, and his mother was a steady and plentiful cook of quality meat and three veg. Neither of our fathers cooked, though mine would man the barbecue at parties (Stuart’s still doesn’t like to do so) and mine also taught my mum to whip up a damn fine southern-style fried breakfast (he’s from Alabama).

The point is, I certainly wasn’t raised with any cooking skills, let alone positive food memories from childhood, except for the beautiful restaurants my folks would take us to during our regular travels. Our housekeeper did teach me a lifelong love of quesadillas, which I have passed on to my own children, though with many added vegies and my own refried beans.

So here we are, late thirtysomethings, both working full time, with three children. I work as well as doing my PhD, and this year my role as President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) sees me interstate on average one night a week. Yet this year is the year I am learning to make sourdough, it is a year we are slaughtering chooks and eating them, a year our garden has proven extremely bounteous (and we rent, by the way), and we manage to put a home cooked meal on the table nearly every night. How do we do that, we’re often asked?

I’ve written plenty on the importance of skills – competence is the friend of efficiency. The other thing I’ve written about is the pleasure of competence, and the need to take pleasure in the everyday, including ‘chores’ such as cooking, gardening and tending the chooks. Finally, I’ve also pointed to the benefits of teamwork and the further efficiency of a larger household to reduce waste, a point supported by last year’s report on household waste, which showed that smaller households waste more, though large share houses that are not families still tend to waste more as well. Just briefly then, here’s how we do it:

  1. We don’t do exhaustion. Our philosophy is that everything is achievable if it’s a priority, and cooking when you’re tired can actually be a way of relaxing if that’s how you see it. For Stuart, this extends to foraging on the way home, doing a bit of harvesting or staking tomato plants, etc, and for me it extends to finely chopping a number of ingredients for a quickly fried Thai basil, chili garlic fish instead of ordering takeaway. This is not to say we never get tired. We do, but perhaps we think of it differently to others, and reasonably expect ourselves to still cook a meal for the family, which may be something as simple as rice and avocado on a really lazy night. (NB We do order takeaway sometimes – perhaps once a month.)

  2. We share the shopping, and make do with what’s in the house when necessary. Stuart pops into the Vic Market once or twice a week on his lunch break to pick up mostly fruit or a bit of meat. I stop in at the butcher, Italian grocer, organic grocer or fruit shop in our local shopping street after dropping kids at school on a day when I work at home, or on the way home from working in the city. When we’re really low on fresh food and too busy to go get some, we raid our freezer, which is always full of stock, homemade pasties and sausage rolls, and frozen meat for ’emergencies’. Plus we keep a lot of beans, both dried and tinned, for quick and simple meals. Having chooks means we always have eggs on hand, and my breadmaking obsession keeps us in bread!

  3. Although I’m the primary and more passionate daily cook, we share the cooking as well. Like I said, if we’re very busy, sometimes the meals are incredibly simple: rice and avocado, pasta with a jar of passata from last summer’s harvest, lamb chops with roast potato and a simple salad, or Stuart’s stir fry, much beloved by the children. When there’s time to do something more, we do. I love nothing more than having time to get into the kitchen by 5pm so I can serve something delectable between 6:00 and 7pm. Sometimes I’m overly ambitious and dinner is late – in which case I let the children graze on nuts and fruit to tide them over.

  4. But you even make bread during the week? Yes, and I can do this because I believe in a lackadaisical approach that makes it possible. You can see my post on how I wander through the kitchen, giving a dough a quick knead here and there, before letting it rise overnight to pop into the oven when we get up. This takes me no more time than someone else might spend reading the paper or watching the news (in fact, much less). Much of my bread is fairly flat because I leave it to rise for too long – it’s still totally scrumptious! Stuart also regularly brews beer of an evening, and does so quickly and efficiently after more than a decade of practice.

  5. What about all the preserving? Harvesting and processing the masses of plums, tomatoes, pumpkins, olives, apricots, and more is one of the pleasures of our ‘down time’, though some of it can be rather tedious as well (ie pitting plums!). We do most of this on the weekends, though Stuart, who never rests, will often do some after work as I make dinner (does this cause some tension in the kitchen occasionally? Yes. ;-))

  6. How do you manage to have a social life, take children to lessons and sport, and do any exercise, etc? Okay, a confession: I’m a little allergic to exercise. When I commute to the city I try to ride my bike (8km), so I get exercise that way sometimes, but admittedly not enough. Stuart rides every day, rain or shine, so does about 20km a day. He also brings crazy amounts of stuff home on his bike, so perhaps he is a little superhuman and not everyone is inclined to do what he does. We socialise plenty, but often by having people over or going to their houses for dinner. Our kids are not heavily scheduled, though Antigone now does gymnastics (shared between 3 families, so only have to drive once/three weeks) and piano (the teacher comes to us). The boys aren’t keen to do lessons, and we don’t push. We’d rather have more homely time here, cooking, reading and playing, which we think will give them what we regard as more important life skills than many other things we could outsource, though we’re not knocking the value of those other things – they’re just not priorities for us.

So how can everyone ‘find time’ to cook more delicious and nutritious foods? First of all, through practice. The ability to use limited time well requires skills. Skills lead to competence, which is pleasurable. It feels great to know you’ve dashed in with a few ingredients and knocked up a lovely meal for the family, which leads to you wanting to do it again. Rushing in and throwing a frozen or takeaway dinner on the table doesn’t feel that great, but you’ll probably do it again if you don’t know how to cook something better, leading to a dreadful cycle of bad food and related guilt/bad feelings. It’s a no-win cycle, but skills are the way out.

An important part of this skill-building is reframing cooking and food shopping as ‘fun’ and ‘relaxing’, leading to ‘delicious’. It’s also great to spend time as a family doing the harvesting and cooking – we think it’s ‘good parenting’ to cook with your kids. 🙂 Ultimately, the creative process of imagining what’s in the garden/fridge/pantry and how you might transform it into a meal to nurture yourself and others is deeply and viscerally joyful, in my experience. ‘scuse me while I go knead the bread…

Check out other awesome food posts over at Food Renegade!

A Rant: Raising Chickens is Good (or, on the Stupidity of Industrial Agriculture)

I wrote this poem last year, but given my recent posts on why and how we raise and eat our chooks, as well as other sustainable homely practices, I thought I’d share it here. Warning – this is not intended to be scholarly – it’s an ’emoticons off’ rant.

A rant, or
F*&king stupid people f*&king up our world not an ounce of sense or personal responsibility wanting to own dogs & cats but not allow productive small animals like chickens stupid pointless people need to f*&k off now turning me into a bloody misanthrope when I really want to like people (that is not the poem).
16 July 2009

It started with 3 chickens
3 clucking
egg-laying
bug & weed-eating
fertilising chickens
in one suburban
backyard.

They cost her 7 dollars apiece
and gave her
2169 eggs
in their pleasant quarter-acre lives
worth a conservative 1100 dollars
leaving her 1079 dollars to spend
on organic fruit
she wasn’t already growing in her own
backyard.

The chickens
meant she needed no
pesticides
no herbicides
& needn’t pay for any
fertilisers for the food she was growing
in her own
backyard.

She called the chickens
John, Deere, and Tractor.

Over the fence lived
a couple with a dog
a bright green lawn
a 4 wheel drive
a sedan
roses and no food growing
in their
backyard.

The husband worked
for agri-business
who’d been stung
when their bagged spinach product
killed four
left 35 with
acute kidney failure
due to e coli contamination
in their Salinas Valley
industrial scale
vegetable fields.

So clutching his values
his greed and his fear
he sat in his boardroom
and agreed
that a scorched earth strategy
was the only way
to ensure that he
and all his successors
could live in good conscience
that they would never again
be held liable
for what was contracted
from once-living products
now wrapped in sterile plastic
in somebody’s
fridge.

And so
if a squirrel ran along the edge of a field
everything within 10 metres
had to be
razed
eliminated
scorched
including
the pest-deterring
coriander
planted by the organic grower
in the next
field.

And then he went home
and he heard a strange sound
not really unpleasant
but definitely
indubitably
belonging to
something un-hygienic
in somebody else’s
backyard.

He peered over the fence
and stared in shock/rage
at John, Deer and Tractor.
3 clucking chickens
alive, eating and shitting
in the neighbour’s
backyard.

It didn’t take long
to garner the cries
of the neighbourhood association
who contacted the council
who knocked on the door
of the woman with chickens
in her
backyard.

This will not do
they said
you must be rid of these animals
who have no place in the suburbs
if you want to have livestock
move to a
farm.

Your chickens
they said
are unsanitary
unnecessary
and a temptation to
the dogs
in others’
backyards.

And by the way
you must stop dumping your food waste
in that bin up the back
it attracts rats
and foxes and possums
in droves
and your grey water system
well it just won’t do
it contaminates all of those vegies
you grow
here in this outrageously
farm-like
backyard.

You must buy food that
we know is safe
you can get it at Coles
where it has been sprayed with
47 chemicals to ensure its
sterility
and bagged in clear plastic
so you can see it is safe
though you must wash it at home
just to be sure
it hasn’t been tainted somewhere
along the industrial line
by some unhygienic worker
who probably looks and acts
a lot like you and your
unsanitary
backyard.

Feminists Don’t Have to Eat Fast Food

Peggy Orenstein’s recent New York Times article ‘The Femivore’s Dilemma’ really struck a chord with feminists across the internets. In the last couple days I’ve seen the term ‘femivore’ (which Orenstein says is a combination of feminist and locavore) defined as everything from sapphic to misogynist cannibalism, and I’d have to agree that it’s an unfortunate coining etymologically speaking.

Orenstein’s concept of femivores arises from her friends who are raising their own chooks, and from Shannon Hayes’ book Radical Homemakers, that is, strong, intelligent women (and men, as it turns out) who are choosing to produce food in their own backyards as a way of nurturing themselves, their families and the planet. Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of negative responses to the idea that it is only women who are involved in the locavore movement, or indeed ‘downshifting’, ‘voluntary simplicity’, Slow Food or any other version of ‘slower’, less consumerist lifestyles.

It seems there are three primary threads then that require unravelling: gender, class, and sustainability. On gender, the most compelling argument for home food production and locavorism as intrinsically tied to feminist practice is that women are still by far the majority of the world’s domestic labour force. Before anyone starts yelling ‘my husband does most of the cooking’ (and to wit, my own partner is a regular and good cook, does most of our laundry, and is a passionate home gardener), I am not suggesting that men don’t do these things, but according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian women in fact still do two and a half times more food preparation and cleaning up than men,whether they work outside the home or not.

One of ecofeminism’s claims is essentially that the patriarchy got us into this unsustainable capitalist mess, and feminism might just be able to get us out of it. Julia Russell puts it quite plainly in ‘The Evolution of an Ecofeminist’: ‘I call it the politics of life-style and I think it is a distinctly feminine politics in that it is both inner and universal, personal and all-inclusive. It is based on the understanding that lasting societal transformation begins with and rests on transformations of the individual.’

Russell’s valorising of individual responsibility perhaps leads us to the heart of claims that there are insurmountable class issues with so-called ‘femivorism’. Admittedly, Orenstein’s ‘femivores’ appear to all be white middle-class women. But Lindsay Beyerstein’s vituperative response “’Femivores’? Spare me.” is disingenuous sour grapes to the extreme. Beyerstein’s argument is tired and reductive. While I don’t believe anyone is suggesting that backyard gardens are equivalent to running a commercial farm, they are apparently important enough as to be encouraged by governments in times of war to address food shortages. Gardening can indeed be as simple as a hobby, but it can also be a significant means of saving money, ensuring the quality and freshness of one’s food, and reduce one’s carbon footprint substantially, and it is certainly hard work sometimes, as well as deeply pleasurable.

Beyerstein even attempts to elide the importance of nourishing one’s children if you choose to have them, with her hyperbolic question: ‘How about figuring out how to share domestic labor more equitably so that SAHMs have more free time to spend as they see fit, even if their hobbies don’t fit the stereotype of maternal perfection?’ Sure, domestic labour should be shared more equally, that’s a given. And of course mothers should have time to themselves without the constant pressure of the Good Mother mythology. But frankly, one’s tennis lessons (mother’s or father’s) are not in fact more important than feeding one’s children. And feeding your children well is at the core of good parenting, not external to it. Taking kids to swimming, tennis, guitar and dance lessons every weekday does not automatically a good parent make. Feeding them healthy food every day so they grow up without chronic illness or obesity is one essential component of good parenting. There, I said it, and now I’ll wait for those who would shrug off this essential duty to our children to attack me for not being a good feminist, because apparently feminists eat fast food.

Is it only middle class stay-at-home mums who ‘have time’ to cultivate a garden and cook wholesome food? Obviously not – families of many classes and cultures engage in gardening and cooking. And in fact, it is often those with the most spare time with partners in the highest income brackets who are least likely to spend their time on food production. By contrast, there are 18 community gardens in Melbourne’s public housing estates, with over 650 individual plots tended by residents.

It is obviously not just white middle-class privilege to have a thriving home garden, it’s for anyone who cares about their own, their families’ (if they have one) and the planet’s well being. It is also not just drudgery, and a new way to chain women to the kitchen sink. Our culture’s sense of entitlement to a life of convenience and uber-consumerism is neither making us happy nor providing our children with a future. Anecdotally, we talk of the Greek and Italian migrants of the 50s and their backyards full of tomatoes and fruit trees, plus the annual sugo making led by somebody’s nonna. For many, these traditions are being lost, whilst for others they are just being discovered.

At a salami making day I attended last winter, a third generation northern Italian claimed that even the ‘Skippies’ are getting into ‘the old ways’ now, and someone else quipped, ‘people are calling them ‘foodies’, when all they are is wogs!‘ The excellent group blog Progressive Dinner Party is awash with women one might call ecofeminists (even if they don’t), and the stories you find there make it obvious how much pleasure is gained from growing, cooking and eating their own produce or that sourced from responsible producers. There is unquestionably satisfaction, pride and pleasure in being competent and/or skilled in the garden and/or kitchen.

In my research, I am finding that for those who have the requisite kitchen skills, consciously practising frugality (in terms of purchasing and re-use) is a powerful form of agency, and one that evident across class and culture. One of my interviewees, an Anglo Australian woman in her seventies, is frugal through both habit and necessity, and expresses a great deal of pride at being so. She says it is just ‘common sense’ not to waste or overspend. A Vietnamese-Australian couple who arrived as political refugees in the 70s echo her arguments for common sense, and further claim to feel ‘smart’ about their sustainable and homely practices. And their son, born in Australia, also insists that he feels quite proud about his more frugal habits, such as never wasting leftovers, and in fact ‘ashamed’ when he is wasteful, either in terms of unnecessary consumption or food waste. A key point is that none are expressing resentment at behaving sustainably, rather it gives them enormous satisfaction.

Ultimately, it is not only a feminist issue to engage in homely and sustainable food production, though feminists will have a particular interest in it. The need to provide education and opportunities to develop skills in gardening and cooking is evident in the plethora of issues facing us, from climate change to obesity, and from depression to loss of entire food cultures. And perhaps most importantly, there is an urgent need to understand and promote the intrinsic value and deep pleasures of quotidian ‘chores’ such as growing and chopping your own garlic.