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The Integrated Homestead:
Choosing Tools and Species

Table of Contents for “The Integrated Homestead”

Industrial Food AlternativeTools and SpeciesSoil FertilitySoil CareInsectsGreenhouseForest GardenLivestockFungiFood StoragePoultryConclusion

Choice of Tools

Homo sapiens is above all a tool using species. It is important to recognize, however, that we are shaped at least as much by our tools as we shape them. For example, the invention of the plow and the sickle accelerated production of grain crops tremendously—but also led to the development of cities, and to the ever-greater domination of political and economic life by urban culture.

It is good as we begin our food self-sufficiency project to reflect carefully on tool choice. There is far too great a tendency in our culture to assume that powered machines perform needed tasks faster, more efficiently, and better than human-powered tools. There is also a regrettable tendency to see the homestead as an analog in miniature of big industrial agriculture. Do we really need to mechanize at the homestead level? Are powered machine tools really more efficient? Are there simpler, cheaper, more natural solutions for growing our food?

As fossil energies become more scarce and more expensive, the purchase of a powered machine for every homestead task will be at the least a far more expensive proposition. It may be wise to explore low-tech, human-powered tools that require no fossil fuel to operate, and far less “embodied energy” in their production. From the standpoint of maintenance and storage, hand tools are superior choices. Finally, while it is said that powered machines make the job “easier,” it is well to remember that they are noisy, jarring, and stinky. These physical effects of machine use add stress to the work, meaning their use is “harder” than we assume. By contrast, well designed hand tools like the scythe or broadfork introduce a ballet-like grace to our tasks. Their graceful use makes good all-round use of the body, inviting us to relax into the rhythm of the work rather than tensing up as we “fight” a machine. As our skill increases, the body movement with the tool becomes a kind of rhythmic meditation.

It may be that a particular power tool does fit into your own homestead goals and needs. I simply urge that you not make the choice blindly, or with the assumption that the powered alternative is always superior.

Tiller

I have heard it argued that, above a certain size (as in the case of a large market garden), a power tiller is a virtual necessity. For most home gardeners, however, I think a power tiller is both unnecessary and unwise. I garden about 6000 square feet, and I gave away the only power tiller I ever owned years ago—and have never regretted doing so. (I’m sixty-five.) Power tillage is destructive of soil structure and disruptive of soil life. An excellent, enjoyable handtool alternative is the broadfork. Other alternatives to machine tillage—even for tough tasks such as tilling in an established grass sod over compacted soil, in preparation for conversion to new garden ground—include using chickens to do the tilling; or heavy mulches which smother an existing cover, and start the process of loosening and feeding the soil.

Mower

When we mow, we imitate the effects of grazing animals on a grassland. Grassland perennials such as grasses and legumes (like clovers and alfalfa) have evolved in accomodation with grazers—they actually benefit from being grazed. Annuals in the mix are largely prevented from setting seed, and the natural succession of the grassland—first to weedy annuals, then to forbs and shrubs, finally to forest—is prevented. At the same time, soil fertility is actually increased by grazing, and not only because of the manure the grazers drop on the sward: In response to loss of top mass through grazing, the plants shed large numbers of root hairs in order to re-establish balance. These shed root hairs contribute organic matter to the soil, resulting in humus accumulation through repeated cycles of grazing and new growth. From the standpoint of achieving these benefits of grazing—stopping succession to forest, and accumulation of humus—it does not matter whether we use a power mower or a scythe. However, the long-stem grasses we cut with the scythe are much more useful for making composts and mulches: The chopped-up clippings of a power mower mat down into a putrid, anaerobic mess that resists penetration by air and water, and encourage growth of pathogens rather than decomposers in a mulch or compost heap. Long-stem cut grasses, by contrast, stay loose and springy, permitting penetration by air and water, encouraging the activity of microbial decomposers and earthworms. Further, the elegant rhythm of the scythe is as close as we can get to “dance” on the homestead in the midst of something we define as “work.”

I still own and use a couple of power mowers. I prefer to use the scythe to cut the tall, lush pasture growth in spring, for extensive use in mulching. In the drier parts of summer, the yield of usable material is much smaller in proportion to effort expended. I use a large power mower in that part of the season in order to prevent aggressive production of seed by broad-leaved annuals (“weeds”). I also find use of a smaller mower with bagger useful for keeping electric net fence lines free of weed and grass growth. I am using the scythe more every year, however, and am confident that I could achieve all my mowing chores with it if I had to. I am sure I will never buy another power mower.

Shredder

Nature provides shredders of all our organic “refuse” in abundance (fungi, the microbial herd, chickens)—the only reason I can think to opt for a power shredder instead is that we’re in a big hurry. But didn’t someone say that patience is a virtue? It most certainly is so on a working homestead. And there is to my mind far more magic in watching the natural “shredding” processes that go on to return materials like crop plant residues, straw, leaves, etc. to earth—than in enduring the shrieking whine of a shredder while feeding those materials into its chattering maw.

Weed whacker

Borders and fence lines are challenging, no doubt about it. Anywhere we cannot easily mow, opportunists like honeysuckle and poison ivy are going to take off. I still own a power weeder, and occasionally use it on a long fence line I can’t clean with a mower. I use it less all the time, however, in preference for more natural alternatives. For example, I am making tight plantings of comfrey as a border along that fence line, in order to crowd out adventitious plants like honeysuckle. Heavy mulches at the base of nut trees I’ve planted there also limit the opportunities of weedy vines, while benefiting the young trees.

Sprayer

I keep a hand-pump backpack sprayer for the occasional spraying job. (A power sprayer I foolishly purchased got to be a maintenance pain.) Once one has made the decision never to spray toxic chemicals in the environment where he grows his food, the main use of a sprayer would be for foliar feeding of crop plants. Foliar feeding should largely be seen, however, as a nice little “bonus” we can offer our plants—the main thrust of our effort to “feed” them should be in the root zone.

Chain saw

I find the chain saw one machine tool that is difficult to replace. I do own a two-man crosscut saw of the type used for felling trees, but its use would require a like-minded partner. So far I haven’t found that partner when it was time to thin trees in the woodlot. So the crosscut saw hangs in the shop, awaiting the chance to make its contribution when the energy crisis deepens. In the meantime, I continue to use the chain saw for the infrequent felling work I have to do on my place. (For all the heavy pruning work I do in the orchard, I use a hand-held bow saw.)

Choice of Species

The homestead grower should generally stick with the older breeds and varieties of livestock and plants, choosing those bred for similar soil and climatic conditions to her own. The “heritage” breeds and “heirloom” fruits and vegetables were bred for flavor and keeping qualities, for production despite environmental challenges like drought, and for robust immune response for natural resistance to disease. Most heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, meaning we can save their seeds with the assurance that offspring will grow true to type. Specialized hybrids bred for mainline agriculture assume high purchased and management inputs to succeed. They are also bred with an eye toward harvesting convenience and uniform ripening—or for super-fast growth—rather than flavor. Offspring from hybrid breeds and varieties will not reproduce with the same characteristics as the parents. Many are one-size-fits-all Wunderkinds suited to industrial agriculture paradigms, not to the needs and regional conditions of the homesteader.

It is wiser to accept the nature of our own local ecology—and to forego fruits and other crops we would like to grow, if they do not thrive in our area without extensive spraying or other highly interventionist input. In my case that has meant ripping out the four peach trees I nurtured for years, getting perhaps a dozen ripe peaches for my pains; and planting instead kaki (Oriental) permimmons, jujubes, pears, and quince, all of which are largely disease and insect free in my conditions. At present I’m sticking with my three plums, whose fruit I often lose either to the late spring frosts typical of my area, or to brown rot. However, I have advised the plums that I am thinking of easier-care alternatives: medlars, loquat, mayhaw, and hardy kiwi.

Finally, we should manage the species we work with as they evolved to live and eat. Thus plants should be sited as much as possible in the soil type and level of sun exposure to which they are adapted. Poultry should be given as much range as is practicable—they did not evolve in confined conditions. Ruminants eat primarily grass and forbs—not corn and soy.