Caught in the consumer trap? Radical Homemaker Shannon Hayes discovered that producing what she needs at home lets her live on a fraction of what she thought she needed.
It should have been a high point in my life. I had just successfully defended my dissertation and had three potential job opportunities. But I found myself pacing around our cabin or walking the hills of my family’s farm, alternately weeping and hurling invectives into the country air. Bob and I were fighting with a force I’d never seen.
The simple fact was, I didn’t want the job I’d spent years working toward.
“I thought you wanted this! Why the hell did you just spend the last four years at Cornell? Why did we just go through with this? Why did you say that’s what you wanted?”
What could I tell him? Because I didn’t know any other way to stay close to my family’s land and make the kind of money I thought we needed? Because I didn’t believe there was a future in farming? Because the only way I thought I could manifest my talents was within an institution that would offer me a paycheck?
“What do you want?”
“To write and farm.”
“Then do it.”
“We need money. I don’t know how to do it.”
But I did know how. Since our arrival on these shores, every generation of my family has farmed. I was in the first generation that didn’t believe we could make a living doing it. Our neighbors lived, laughed, and loved on these rocky hillsides, and they did it with four-figure incomes. And yet, I’d come to believe that, on these same hills, we needed six. Somewhere along the line, I had stopped believing the evidence that was before me and started believing one of the central myths of modern American culture: that a family requires a pile of money just to survive in some sort of comfort and that “his and her” dual careers were an improvement over times past.
What had changed? Why did I believe we needed so much? It was a puzzle to me at the time. In retrospect I see that my generation grew up immersed in media that equated affluence with respect, happiness, and fulfillment. We heard a national dialogue that predicted the end of the family farm. Those messages shook our security in our lifestyle—we ended up questioning our own experience.
After all, I grew up working on my neighbor’s farm. We had fantastic midday feasts, the house was warm in the winter, and there was always a little spare cash on hand to donate when someone was in trouble. And plenty of pies got baked, gratis, to contribute to the local church bake sale and turkey supper. I was in my mid-20s before I discovered just how little money they lived on.
That was how many people lived as I was growing up in West Fulton, N.Y., where my family still farms. The steep hillsides and frosty valleys render most modern industrial farming technologies impractical in my community. Cash crops are few. To survive, my neighbors had to produce as many of the things they needed as possible and buy only the things they absolutely couldn’t make or grow at home. They grew and preserved food, sewed and mended clothes, and did their own repairs, improvements, and upkeep on the farm.
But most American lives reflect a transition that happened in households following the Industrial Revolution. Before then, the home was a center of production, not very different from the original households that first emerged in 13th-century Europe, as the feudal period was coming to an end. The family’s economic security was a result of the householders’ combined efforts to produce what they needed. They raised their food, cured their meats, made soap, wove fabric, and produced their own clothing.
Once the industrial revolution took hold, the household changed. Men were first to leave the home to work in factories, where they earned wages and used them to purchase the goods and services they were no longer home to produce. The more men worked outside the home, the more households had to buy in order to meet their needs.
For a time, women continued to produce from within the home, but factories eventually supplanted the housewives’ duties as well. As time wore on, domestic skills were no longer paramount for survival. Instead of cultivating skills to provide for our own needs, we pursued skills to produce for others’ needs in exchange for the money to buy what was once produced in the home. The household had changed from a center of production that supplied most of its own needs to a center of consumption that bought nearly everything it needed.
At first, there were some pretty great consumer items that, in all fairness, lightened a burdensome domestic labor load—automatic washing machines, for example. But the idea of buying labor-saving devices that can’t be made at home gradually turned into our modern consumer culture—where everything from bread to entertainment must be bought—and generated our national assumption that a middle-class family requires one or both spouses to make lots of money.
The families I grew up around were exceptions to the trend. The agricultural industrial revolution is a relatively newfangled phenomenon that really only took hold in the last 60 years. For a long time after most American households became centers of consumption, the family farm was still a center of production. The survival of the pre-industrialized farm was contingent partly on products grown for sale, but also on household production that reduced the need to buy things.
Ultimately, Bob and I joined my parents in the grassfed meat business, where we now work, like many others, to help build a local, sustainable food system that enables us to make an adequate living. Keeping the lessons of our neighbors in mind, we determined that the key to survival was producing as much as we could and buying only what we must. We raise and sell meat for our income, but we also render fat into soap, preserve the summer harvest for winter, and spend more time socializing with friends and neighbors at home for entertainment than we do going out and spending money on amusements. Even with two children, we live very well on a bit more than $40,000 per year, a far cry from the six-figure income that I once thought we needed.
Bob and I are fortunate in having access to my parents’ land and to the knowledge that they and other farmers in the area share with us. That has made our transition easier. But it doesn’t take a farm to begin the journey. Americans from different walks of life all around the country are taking steps in their own households, whether they are rural, urban, or suburban. Even without a land base, they are finding ways to turn their homes from units of consumption to units of production. They are walking and biking, rather than driving; cooking rather than going out for fast food; playing music and creating art rather than buying entertainment from mass media; preserving the harvest from local farms rather than buying packaged foods from an industrialized food system; brewing beer in the corner of their apartments; learning how to fix their own toilets and cars; repairing their clothing or finding ways to repurpose it; networking with neighbors to barter for goods and services that they cannot produce.
The upshot is a growing movement of Americans who are creating a new home economics where there is time for family members to enjoy each other, where the ecological footprint is greatly reduced, and where, instead of the family working to support the household, the household works to support the family. With this new home economy, relationships are deeper, children are more connected with the life systems that support them, and the family can make it through economic hard times with dignity and joy.
OK, not everyone is in a position to quit their job to spend more time at home. And not everyone wants to. That doesn’t mean that the household can’t shift toward increasing production and decreasing consumption. The transition can start with simple things, like hanging out the laundry or planting a garden. For those people who need or want to push further into the realm of living on a single income or less, here are a few secrets for survival we’ve learned on the family farm:
Get out of the cash economy
Sometimes a direct barter—“your bushel of potatoes for my ground beef”—works. But we don’t always have something the other party needs. At those times, gifting may be the best answer. Gifts are often returned along an unexpected path. Last summer I canned beets and green beans for my folks—of course, for no charge. In the process, I discovered that my solar hot water system wasn’t working. I called a neighbor and asked him to look at it. He fixed it, free. We have a facility that a butcher uses to process chickens for local farmers. On chicken processing days, Bob, Mom, and Dad help out, at no charge. At the end of the summer, the neighbor who fixed our hot water wanted to get his chickens processed. He got them done, no charge. Mom and Dad got a winter’s supply of veggies. Bob and I got a repaired hot water system. The butcher had a place to do his work, and the neighbor got his chickens processed.
It would be handy sometimes to have our own tractor and tiller. But it seems foolish for us to own that equipment when we can borrow from my parents. It’s cheaper to borrow and lend money, tools, time, and resources among family, friends, and neighbors and abandon the idea that it’s shameful to rely on each other, rather than a credit card, paycheck, or bank.
Invest in your home
One of the most solid investments Bob and I have discovered is spending to lower expenses. Examples are better windows, more insulation, solar hot water, photovoltaic panels, or even just a really big kettle for canning.
Tolerate imperfect relationships
Living on reduced incomes may require more family members living under one roof, husbands and wives spending more time together, or greater reliance on friends and neighbors who may stand in for family. The families depicted on television, in movies, and in advertisements show dysfunction as the norm—with an antidote of further fragmentation of the family and community. That gets expensive. While no one should tolerate an abusive relationship, learning to accept or navigate the quirks of family and friends will keep the home stable and facilitate the sharing of resources.