Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Farm Folks

I'VE written quite a few words about how I came to the Little Farm. Now I want to tell you how everybody else got here.

It's not uncommon for art school dropouts in their mid-twenties to ask themselves what they're doing with their lives. Maya had two advantages when faced with this question: an inheritance, and a creative mind with a strong practical streak. "I always thought I'd like to live in the country someday, maybe when I retired," she says, "but then I said to myself, 'It's going to be a lot easier when you're young and have the physical ability to make it work.'" So she purchased 40 acres in northern California, intending to homestead and farm it as sustainably as possible. Armed with resourcefulness, a can-do attitude, and a very limited amount of farming experience, she arrived three years ago with her cat and her boyfriend, ready to make a go of it. The land had a potable spring, a couple of old buildings -- a large shed, a small shed, and something that might charitably be described as a "tiny house" (or, alternatively, as a "hovel")... and not much else.

The boyfriend part of the plan didn't work out so well; he bailed after only a few months. Determined not to give up on her dream, Maya hunkered down and spent the winter on the Little Farm with only her cat for company. She used a straw/clay mixture and raw sheep's wool to insulate the drafty walls of her tiny house. She parked her truck at the bottom of the long uphill driveway so it wouldn't get stuck in the snow, and snowshoed all her supplies in. She cut all her own firewood with an axe and a hand saw, and hauled all her own water from the spring. "There were many times I questioned my own sanity," Maya says of that winter, shaking her head. But she outlasted it, and the ordeal made her stronger and more self-reliant.

By spring, word had got around to the locals that the crazy homesteader girl was single. Maya began to get inquiries: Have you met Ray? Ray was the region's most eligible bachelor, a tall, sandy-haired divorcée who had the respect of all who knew him. Maya invited him out to see the Little Farm, and he fell for both the lushly forested 40 acres and their bright-eyed, charismatic owner. The attraction was mutual, and before long, she invited him out to stay for good.

Ray's background in construction and rural life meant that he had a lot of suggestions about how life on the Little Farm could be easier and more comfortable. After doing everything by hand for so many months, Maya was ready to hear them: "All I did was cut wood and haul water, and I thought, 'Hey, I want to be doing other things with my time.'" She still has her standards, but, as she puts it, "Ray has done a good job of tempering my idealism."

Two years later, it's obvious the partnership is working out well for them. They both enjoy hard work, and by this time have a lot to show for all they've done. Piping carries water to the central buildings. The tiny house has been re-sided and is plumbed with solar-heated running water. The large shed has been transformed into an airy outdoor kitchen with an antique but fully functional wood stove. Other buildings have sprung up: a spring house to keep bears out of the water source, a concrete cellar for keeping food cool, an earth-insulated pig shelter, a yurt with a rocket mass heater, a solar food dehydrator. The Little Farm is still a rustic homestead, but it's getting more comfortable all the time. Rumor has it the folks in the town have begun to refer to them as the "jet-set Amish."

The most immediately appealing aspect of their lifestyle just might be the food. Maya is a gifted cook and an enthusiastic proponent of healthy eating a la the Weston Price Foundation, which emphasizes cultured and fermented foods, pasture-fed meat, and raw dairy. It seems to be working out pretty well for them. Ray, lean and sinewy, is in the best health of his life; only the lines on his face betray him as past his 30s. Maya is tanned and muscular, with shoulders that remind me of the way I once heard some tall ship sailors describe a woman they fancied: "That girl looks like she could haul some line!" Meals are heavy on the cream, butter, and tallow, and yet visitors have accused Maya of "running a weight-loss camp"; most people who stay a while lose a few pounds. (Those of you who know me well will be relieved to hear I haven't.)

Beau is one of those. He visited a year and a half ago with his girlfriend, Ray's younger sister. She didn't care for farm life, but Beau did; he came back the following summer to stay and work for room, board, and a bit of pay, as part of what Ray refers to as "our nepotism program." In the process he lost several inches off his waistline and gained a bit of muscle and a bit of farming and construction experience. This summer he's back, and his forearms are rock-hard from milking the cow.

The Little Farm's economic model is still evolving. It's tough to make money off of good quality food; Americans aren't used to paying much for what they eat, and thanks to big agriculture lobbies, FDA inspection standards are effectively designed to run small farms out of business. A recent off-the-record cow share effort turned out to be more trouble than it was worth; a few neighbors still get milk, but there are plenty of mouths at the farm eager to devour as much as Mama Cow can produce. There are other ways to turn a profit, though. Maya is an idea-generating machine, Ray has an impressive array of construction skills, and both are in the enviable position of being able to work out the profit problem without the urgency of debt. Few new small farms have such an advantage.


  1. Wow! What a great story!
    I'm so glad you got to rub shoulders with such amazing people.

    By the way, I'm really struggling with posting a comment. I'm wondering if anyone else is having trouble. I'll try just using "Anonymous" and sign my posts.

  2. From pigs and sheep I came and among them I have been very comfortable. My mom still tells the story of me chasing the baby pigs at my grandmother's farm everyday for two weeks. Then as they were saying their goodbyes, my cousin and I had vanished. They found us chasing the pigs one last time. My immediate family found themselves driving away in a station wagon with one swine stench boy. Yours. Hillbilly Mike