Moderate ambitions

The dream: the roof is leaking on your temporary housing while you try to build a start on your new community dwellings. It has been raining for a week now and everyone is getting on each other’s nerves. The goats you bought came yesterday and are now huddled under a leaky tarp, nibbling on some old hay because the guy who said he’d deliver hay two days ago didn’t show up and you can’t find another farmer selling hay nearby.

The horses ran away from their temporary pasture this morning and you are freezing and soaking wet from chasing them down before an irate neighbor finds them. The check you expected from the sale of your former home didn’t come in the mail yesterday, and you’re wondering how you can make two more payments on your new place without it — besides paying for the building materials that are supposed to be delivered tomorrow.

The kids want to go shopping for new “toys” and are complaining about living way out in the sticks without cable … or even running water. You pull the pillow over your head and silently wish you could run away. Such scenarios are not uncommon when projects get underway. In fact, they are very common, and are the leading reason many who try fail and return to the city. It’s called stress, and in extreme cases it’s called burnout. Burnout doesn’t always happen right away, in fact, it’s more commonly seen after a few years of struggling onward and mounting disappointments.


It is frequently heard that the glowing dreams from folks who are on the brink of moving: “We’re going to build a cabin in the woods, home school our children, grow all our own food, cut our own wood to heat our cabin, have lots of animals (goats, chickens, cows, horses, dogs, and cats), make our own clothes, spin yarn, knit, weave, make soap, cheese, and sell crafts. We’re going to live off the land!”

We at IzReaL wholeheartedly applaud such dreams, for in these dreams is woven the lifeblood of communities, us included. While some communities do succeed in flying after this ambitious dream, far more flop, fail, and return to their old lives with their dreams crushed, feeling like a total failure. Why? There is no one reason. Like the threads of the dream, they are all intertwined. But there are some common causes and it’s a good thing for all — even would-be participants and “old-timers” — to think about and guard against.

Do what you like, but do you like what you’re doing?

This may seem like a stupid question, but think about it. Are you the kind of person who works at a job around home and then goes back in the evening or the next day to look with satisfaction and enjoyment at what you accomplished? Can you stick at a project until it is finished, despite glitches and holdups? Would you rather stay home and pull weeds in the garden than run to the mall shopping or go four-wheeling with the boys? Sounds like you? Great! But don’t try to do too much, all at once.

Do you depend on others to help you fulfill your goals and desires? Sure it’s wonderful to have a like-minded aid at your side building barns and goat fences, planting and harvesting a garden, tending sick animals and children, helping patch leaking roofs, doing chores when you’re sick with the flu, and complimenting you on your meals from home-raised foods.

Don’t think that when you move to a community your fellow members will suddenly blossom and become the perfect people just because you hope they will. Expect to spend vast amounts of time getting to know and understand each other. Learning about mutual and varying interests so work and chores can be distributed with regard to personal preference. As happily doing something you love alone, beats being frustrated, angry, and hurt because you expected help.

Either way do not be afraid to communicate expectations openly and clearly as this is the only true and tried method of sustainable community collaboration.

Don’t be a prick

Most of us move into a community lifestyle with some expectations of what it will be like. For instance, all of us have heard how wonderful country people are: helpful, kind, having “traditional” values, hard-working, peace-loving, etc. And we hope to enjoy friendship with our “neighbors” even though they might not live all that close.

But country folk are often people raised for generations in that area, and they are often very leery of “newcomers.”  There are a lot of reasons for this. New community members are often from the city. They’ve read a lot about organic gardening and animal raising and have formed opinions — strong ones, at that. Unfortunately, they often expound their theories to locals and seem to be “talking down” to “uneducated hicks.” The friendly locals quickly back away and keep a good distance from the new folks … and as they tell their friends and neighbors about the arrogant city people that moved in, isolation quickly forms.

You might have a vision of what your new rural lifestyle will be, but be gentle about what you say to your neighbors about it. Your ideas are probably pretty much “mainstream” ideas. If you plan on homeschooling, for instance, and are asked about why you are going to do this, simply say, “We have thought about it for a long time and just want to be involved with our children’s education.” Don’t go off on a tangent, no matter how strongly you feel about the subject, about “the dumbing down of children,” how bad public schools are today, etc. It may be true, but it may make you seem arrogant and “know-it-all” to your new neighbors.

Just like the delicate topics of politics and religion, it’s wise to carefully guard your talk around your new neighbors until you get to know them well. Instead, ask questions: Who has hay for sale in the neighborhood, where can you find manure, when do you plant your garden, what kind of squash grow well here, etc. All of these questions are of value and let the locals shine as they advise you. And it lets them know that you value their knowledge. Likewise, never talk about a neighbor or other person you have met or about how awful a place looks to one of your neighbors. It may be a relative or close friend of theirs.

It takes a while to become part of a new community. Don’t rush it and don’t expect it. Go slow and build good relationships as you go. In rural areas, you are judged first by how honest you are, and second by how hard a worker you are. If you are honest with your neighbors (pay when you say you will, help when you say you will, etc.) and they see you are working hard on your new place, you’ll slowly move up in their eyes.

Some things that irk locals are: letting your dogs run loose through the neighborhood (they are a nuisance and can kill neighbors’ small stock and poultry), having livestock that gets out frequently (poor facilities and fencing on your part make your livestock a nuisance to neighbors and can tear down their fences), having newcomers that continually ask for help or the loan of tools and equipment (it’s better to tough it out or offer to pay than have neighbors who feel used), or trespassing on neighbor’s land to hunt, fish, or hike.

Things you can do to speed up the process of getting “in” with the neighbors are joining a local social gathering, helping with volunteer projects in the area, joining a nearby garden club, volunteering at schools, or helping at the local food bank. You’d be amazed at how much fun you have getting to know the “locals.” Drop off some baked goods, ripe tomatoes, or jam with a neighbor who has done you a good turn. If a neighbor helps you out, even in a small way, be sure to thank them wholeheartedly. Soon you’ll feel less excluded and maybe you’ll find new friends who also are happy to trade work or goods with you so you can both accomplish more.

Keep iz real

Unfortunately, not many people who are wannabe community members actually know how much actual work it is. The dream takes work, and plenty of it. Sometimes it’s a huge shock to find this out. So don’t try to do too much at one time.

Establishing a sustainable community and getting it running smoothly takes time. It also requires money, material, and experience. The less money and time you have to put into your community, the slower the “building” phase of the experience will go. If you do have a nest egg of saved money, be very careful how you spend it, as it is all too soon gone.

Remember that it also takes plenty of experience to establish a community and get it running smoothly. In the “old days” people grew up learning skills nearly from birth. So when they went off on their own, they already could chop wood; drive a team; raise pigs; chickens; and cows; till the soil; harvest crops; sew clothes; bake bread; put up food; and much more … all with minimal tools and conveniences.

What would our grandmothers say if they looked in the gardening catalogs about all those fancy things you simply need to buy, in order to grow your own food? Their generation had a spade, maybe a potato fork, a hoe, and plenty of gumption. They didn’t have a turning plastic compost bin, no self-watering grow boxes, plastic raised beds, purple gardening gloves, or flowered boots. They had experience learned from their parents and grandparents instead.

Instead of buying 50 chicks to butcher in the fall, buy 10 and get experience in raising and butchering those. Then, if it goes well, get a few more the following year until you have found what works best for your group. Instead of buying a lot of animals and poultry, first build housing for them, taking your time to do it right. If you don’t get it done in a year, there’s always the next year. Instead of buying 10 goats to milk, buy one and get to know how to care for, milk, and handle that one.

Don’t rush out and buy a horse, or bring home four stray kittens, or get a dog for each of the kids, and then buy geese for the yard. Make sure you have facilities for the horse, have had some experience caring for and riding horses (or have a very willing relative or neighbor to help you learn), have facilities for cats … and the means to have them neutered or you’ll soon be overrun with “cute” kittens, and have a pen for the geese (they’ll poop on the porch and bite the mailman).

If you get too many animals too soon, there’ll come a day that the community is down with the flu epedemic and nobody wants to go feed, water, or milk. Or the bill at the feed store tops your grocery bill, and money’s suddenly tight. Suddenly, you are struck with how much of a responsibility you’ve taken on and how it’s strangling you. No longer is it fun to go feed the animals; you’re teetering on the brink of disaster.

Make some room

Likewise, moving onto a place with no buildings or a house in sad shape and in need of renovation is a chancy thing. Some folks thrive on it. Others are overwhelmed with the work and privation necessary before the good times roll. Living in a camping trailer, RV, yurt or tipi can get pretty tedious unless your group is totally committed to the new community-in-progress process. A whining member can further complicate emotions. In good weather, “camping out” is great. In icy cold rain, it’s not so fun.

A lot of new communities with no experience would not survive, physically or emotionally. Don’t put yourself into a situation that is beyond your capabilities.

Consider cashflow

When building a new community from scratch, keep in mind that everything takes at least twice as long to do and costs about four times as much. This is just the way it is. Try to be frugal about your building projects. We are constantly figuring ways to cut our building costs and yet have what we need.

For instance, much of theoriginal building material (windows, lumber, fencing) can come from recycling. We also only build what we can afford with the cash on hand. Debt causes stress and new communities have enough stress without the overwhelming burden of debt.

Manage your garden

The biggest problem with gardening is keeping the garden to a manageable size. Even with decades of growing experience. If all goes well during a growing season, you can usually manage to handle all that bounty that you were a bit unwise in planting. But if something turns out “not ideal” suddenly that huge garden seems like a rock around your neck in a sea of depression.

It’s always better to plant smaller, more manageable gardens, especially when you are newbie, than a huge one that ends up weed-choked and unproductive. Like everything around self sufficiency, the longer you are there, the better things will get. At first you might have tons of rocks and roots in the new garden, or perennial grasses, thistles, or other weeds to contend with. No matter how much you hoe and pull, you can’t seem to get ahead of them. But with good gardening, plenty of mulch, and green manure crops, slowly you’ll get control of your garden. Then, you can expand it a little at a time, until it is as large as you need.

Helpful tools to make it a little easier.

While you can back away from technology, rejecting all modern conveniences, some of them sure make stuff easier. If you want to move a pile of compost to the garden, dragging it on a sheet of plastic tarp is much easier on your back. And if you have a whole lot of compost, a wheelbarrow is much faster.

A good, chainsaw is a must . Used not only to cut firewood, clear land, and cut down trees, but also to help in building a house, barn, storage building; to cut fence posts and corner braces, and even to build furniture. Learn to use it safely, and a chainsaw will be your friend for life. Yes, they’re noisy and smelly, but you can do an incredible amount of work in short order with one.

A good rototiller is invaluable in larger gardens. While you can certainly spade a garden with a shovel or garden fork, as our grandmothers did, working up soil in anything but raised beds is so much easier and faster with a rototiller.

A rear-tine tiller not only works the soil much more thoroughly than a front-tine tiller, but it also leaves the soil fluffy and light … and your back feels much nicer. Those front-tine tillers are more demanding on the back.

Likewise, a small tractor is nearly a necessity on larger grounds. While you can buy a great mid-sized four-wheel-drive “hobby farm” tractor with a loader, such as a Kubota, brand new or lightly used, it’s probably out reach. It is suggested that a well-maintained old tractor with loader, is a much better buy.

Be prepared

One of the easiest ways to  avoid dissapointment is by staying prepared. Every community has an “oh no!” moment. That’s life. You go to start the chainsaw to cut firewood and it won’t start. But if you’ve got a shed nearly full of wood for winter and it’s only September, the “Oh my God!” moment won’t affect you as much as if it’s 10 p.m., a blizzard is blowing, and you must cut firewood tonight or freeze.

Make preparedness a way of life. It’s not just having a lot of food in the pantry or having a grab-and-git bag packed in the corner. It means continually thinking ahead, planning, and working to keep from being caught in a bad situation. Think, “What could happen if…,” and then act on it.

Yes, preparedness (not only for winter) does take planning and sometimes hard work. But when winter, drought, sickness, or whatever happens, you can tough it out and feel good about the work and planning you have done.

Preparedness is the absolute key to avoiding unnecessary stress situations. If you thoroughly prepare for every step of, from finding the property to building it up to be a productive and enjoyable community, you’ll avoid most of the pitfalls that cause this. After all, community living should be the most enjoyable experience of your entire life.

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