Monday, January 25, 2010

The First Two Years of D Acres by Josh

When we arrived in the White Mountains to embark on the D Acres project, I was 26 years old. The idea was to start a market garden and develop a community supported agricultural model to fund a summer season farm. My level of experience was humble though our plans grandiose. My lack of experience included essential farming skills such as construction, gardening, management, animal husbandry and New England weather.

The crew that arrived in October 1997 was a motley mix of characters with diverse motivations and commitment. Brenna was a San Juan Isle gardener and homesteader looking to experience and design the initiation of a permaculture homestead. Charles was a chef and gardener who had taken the Permaculture design class at the Bullock brothers. Crazy Jimmy was an experienced home builder who had joined the team in the Virgin Islands where we had partnered for rock climbing expeditions and traveled together to Alaska. My sister Dara had basic gardening skills she had gleaned from backyard gardening in North Carolina and the time spent on farm on Orcas.

When we arrived that fall we envisioned transferring the lifestyle and socio-economy of the West coast back to the east. The progressive, affluent islands of Boulder, San Francisco, and Seattle had been fertile grounds for local food aficionados and upwardly mobile, recreationally focused youth. The weather of the west was mild, on Orcas the ground had not frozen for two winters and Boulder was renowned for 300 days of sunshine per year. The typical remaining forest in the Northwest is predominately rapidly growing softwoods that dwarf East Coast forests ravaged by two centuries of human occupation.

The shock of transplanting to the East was intense. We were aliens to the landscape and the society of Appalachia. The conservative culture rejected the threat of a potential commune and the assumption of a hippy lifestyle. We lacked the social support network of idealistic youth who were abundant collaborators in the West. There was intense skepticism of organic food production and potential clients in this rural location were slim. Even more problematic as a practical problem was the weather. Frost free growing is limited to ninety days and ground is frozen from November until April. The icy weather and cool reception were the first inklings of the many obstacles ahead.

Our initial effort was put into preparing soil to plant garlic. The soil was typical of the fertility abyss that exists between Maine and Vermont. We shoveled out the outbuildings that had collected the dust of twenty odd years of disuse. Even as Edith reminded us, we were cognizant of our lack of knowledge, and carefully shifted through the diverse array of broken parts, half finished projects and lawn art that had accumulated at the farm. We quickly learned that when we threw objects away we would likely need them the next day for an unanticipated project. Edith was supportive of family and our agricultural ambitions though our idealism clearly lacked experience. She was quick to offer advice when she felt necessary and the name of the farm resulted from an incident in which she had reprimanded Brenna who reacted by singing “D Acres is the place to be” to the tune of the theme song from television’s “Green Acres”. At least now we had a name.

We fiddled with the Farm-All tractor we had inherited and added a woodstove to the Red Barn. As winter set in, Brenna and Charles returned west and Jimmy headed to Philly for winter work. My sister and I began further renovations to the redbarn making improvements to the living area and the kitchen. As the season moved in with ferocity, Dara, Edith and I settled in for a winter that set the stage for the realities of personal conflict within a working community.
Winter in New Hampshire has never been considered easy. Two adult siblings freezing in a barn, without running water, with an elderly aunt, and isolated from peers is not everyone’s ideal. My sister and I had spent over a year traveling the continent together and Edith had some resentment towards Dara from some childhood slights. In February, tensions escalated and Dara chose to head west to intern at Jerome Ostenkowski’s Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute.
My own desire to be at D Acres drifted at this juncture. The many opportunities that were available had tremendous attraction. Travel was particularly appealing. I imagined offering service as roaming relief worker, doing stints in exotic locales helping people in desperate need. The difficulty of bridging cultures to live in seclusion with my 89 year old aunt was apparent. And I almost moved on from this project.
There were also rationale that led to staying at the farm. The familiar relations I enjoyed with Edith were a strong incentive to remain at D Acres. The history and sense of place encouraged me to invest further. The long term security and stability of the farm system attracted me. Ultimately many compelling reasons emerged to forge ahead at D Acres.
During that first winter was also the arrival of the many characters who would nurture the project for years to come. Louie and his dog Lucielle came from North Carolina where we had been childhood acquaintances. His gardening experiences with the Harrington’s had been similar to mine and his green thumb is strong. We began constructing a structure that was to be the first treehouse. Our intention was to build something off the ground to protect the foundation from ground moisture from rot. We felled some softwood and come alonged it alongside four trees on top of the snow and affixed it to the trees. Between these beams we built a platform and a house in which the roof was also attached to the trees. This design in conjunction with wind produced the effect that led to its name as the Creaker.
As Jimmy and Charles returned plans were implemented for the growing season. We constructed an additional two tree-platforms for tents and proceeded to turn ground for the initial forest garden planting. Our errors were historic. We built outdoors beams for structures using poplar which is particularly susceptible to short life from rot. We turned the soil with the tractor using the plow and then removed the rich sod layer to build swales. Our farmstand on rural rte 118 attracted approximately 5 customers every Saturday that summer if you counted the regulars. We acquired four old scraggly hens from the feed store in Plymouth though our ineptitude in the transfer had resulted in the fifth being freed to the streets of a college town.
We began to adapt to the growing realities of New England. Our perennial focus resorted to traditional crops such as blueberries and apples. To provide for season extension of annuals we began experimentation with hoop houses and cold frames. It was during this period when we made the acquaintance of a local logger named Jay Legg. Jay had moved to the region within the prior ten years and was still considered an outsider or “flatlander” to many locals. He was a wealth of information for our forestry, construction and gardening trials who had weathered the tribulations of being the newcomer in Dorchester.

Through observation we assessed the realities of the situation. Our land base was marginal soil, three times cut and run ragged by sheep in the 1800s. In addition, the damages issued by the last glacial period had left piles of conglomerate stones and sand though little organics and subsequent nutrients. Our clientele for farm products was limited. Frugal locals planted their own and the human scale permaculture to which we gravitated was not scaleable for restaurant and whole sale levels at this juncture. We felt the need to offer the land as a service to the community. There were few opportunities nationally for on site experimentation and education related to sustainable farming and lifestyle. We decided to make tangible plans and implement a service organization that would steward the land while provided service and education to the community.
The 26 hour per week work commitment for D Acres residency which became the standard requirement of residency actually began as 28 based on the Nearing model of 4 hours of bread labor for the community, 4 hours for personnel fulfillment and 4 hours of recreation, community or education per day. During one community meeting the point was argued by an intern that in fact they had been offered 26 hours as the arrangement, in the face of quibbling we adopted a 2 hour reduction as the standard. The commitment has not been set based upon any statistical analysis of human hours necessary for subsistence and extensive community service programs. Rather the number was set arbitrarily based on minimal farming or rural living experience. It is a standard we have accepted to introduce people as a minimal work requirement. Personallly I would consider that a subsistence living with a minimal fossil fuel footprint requires human energy of a minimum of 80 hours per week.
To support these operations I used funds that I had inherited from my grandparents. We also solicited Bill and Betty to help with the purchases that enabled the agricultural and community programs. In general we attempted to control costs with frugality and common sense though we often wasted money from inexperience. Our diet of imported fruit and soy products was expensive.
Our philosophy of food was initially a lacto-vegetarian diet. We chose, due to our limited gardens and food preservation abilities, to purchase canned salsa, tortilla shells, pasta, tofu and other processed foods. We purchased in bulk at the local natural food store. For the first couple years our food self sufficiency was probably about 10 percent of what was consumed.

Our quarters in the red barn felt inadequate to our future plans. The water was supplied by the roadside, mice-infested 12 foot dug well. The floors were uneven and difficult for elderly to access. The red barn would not suit our goals to be public accessible and sanitary, reflective of a positive and plausible alternative to conventional consumerism economics. We began formulating plans for a community building.
The community building planning began around the table amidst the apparent inadequacies of the 1830s barn around a round table. In the stalls of this barn we discussed an ideal building that would serve the onsite operations as well the community functions we hoped to create. The heart of the structure was to be the kitchen with an open concept to reveal and revel in the process of the culinary creations. The functionality of the building included such features as a 5 bay garage, woodshop, three bedrooms, an office and two bathrooms. Features included a root cellar and composting toilets. The energy for the heating system was designed so that a wood gasification boiler provides heat to a radiant and domestic heating system with a 1000 galloon heat exchange tank. There is a room designated for crafting projects such as sewing and painting. Also a bedroom would serve as a library for the books that were accumulating as we researched the various aspects of the project. Plans evolved to include a room eventually known as the yoga room, this space is a large carpeted room utilized for events including films, overnite visitors, reiki, and its namesake.

The Trought family had traditionally celebrated annually with a summer pig roast and 1998 was the first of such NH style events. Farm Day, as it has been known since, generally consists of tours, pig roasting and live music. In the early years it was more of a Trought family event though it has sifted definitively towards a general community celebration. The party was chaotic collection of friends old and new, men in dresses, bonfires and good music, an omen of summers to come.

A family friend, Shelley Pripstein, was invited to draw plans for the community building. We began the foundation under the supervision of Bob Guyotte, an experienced heavy equipment operator and concrete installer. Bob and his crew worked with Jimmy and I to install the septic and to pour concrete for the full basement and garage slab of the community building. Preparations were made, ordering lumber for the spring to begin wood framing. Conflict arose over the building. My sister is concerned with the huge investment of capital. Betty needed reassurance that the community building would be fire safe, insurable, sellable and livable to the standards of a conventional home owner. I was an novice, idealist, builder who did not truly even understand the actual size and scale of the structure that we were undertaking. My construction interest was geared towards earthen materials like adobe and strawbale not the conventional stick frame and drywall we were to undertake. The architect was in Pennsylvania and we had minimal comprehension of construction budgeting and contracting. A local relative, Paul, was recruited to help assuage the contruction woes.

The parameters of a realistic living wage began to be set in dollar amounts by our actual budgets. Our business operations began as an LLC devoted to construction of the community building. Throughout the community building construction we spent approximately $250,00 in materials and subcontractors fees for the construction of the community building. In addition we garnered fees from the Trought family for Dacres construction personnel time that was siphoned into our non profit educational enterprises. The reality of the Trought family generosity in particular Betty’s financial planning and wherewith all enabled the financial actualization of the D Acres operation.

As the summer ended it became clear that Charles would not be returning for the following season. His agricultural endeavors continue to flourish on Orcas Isle. He has served as the catalyst; providing nourishment as the creator of culinary delights, and implementing a design to grow from seed through harvesting the food to serve. As winter approached I found refugee in North Woodstock working part time as a ski instructor, with Kevin Wall who had joined the farming crew that fall.
Kevin and I had attended college briefly in North Carolina where we had partaken in a raucous fraternity society. He arrived as another refugee who would gather his wings, fly, and return to assist the D Acres organization throughout the years. On the day he moved onsite at the farm there was a flood of the stream on our west boundary that destroyed the crossing of Streeter Road and the above ground pool at the Mission house downstream. Our time spent on the slopes and sharing the space in North Woodstock provided variety to the winter blues.
During this period we began recruiting strangers, in earnest, to live and work at the farm. Our first advertisement in the WWOOF catalog is a prescription for disaster or enlightenment, perhaps a combination. The announcement offered idealists interested in peace, love and prosperity a welcome home in Dorchester. In addition to the unrealistic promotional materials, we were not selective in our application process. As icing on the cake, we had signed on an Israel man, as a paid agricultural exchange worker.
The organization with which Arnold from Israel was affiliated was designed as an exchange program for seasoned agricultural worker from “developing” countries to work in the United States. It was our hope that this worker would bring knowledge and work ethic as well as cultural exchange to the farm to serve as a resource and example for the US interns. Unfortunately Arnold did not meet our expectation as an able agriculturalist. His growing experience had been a limited role as an assistant in an obscure scientific experiment during which he recounted daily shifts at the pool. While Arnold failed to meet our presumptuous expectations, we were delighted to be joined by two engaged individuals from near and far, John and Micki. John had just graduated from UMass and was a timely addition to the meet the appetites wet by the legacy of Charles’s culinary creations. Micki came from the Washington state mainland up the Skajit River from the ferry to Orcas. She was twenty-two. Self motivated, she had tested out of high school and had worked in a plant nursery with Mexican immigrants for several years. She had traveled overseas to Europe as well as a stint in a Australia as a National Parks exchange worker. Her experience and connection to plants built upon the initiated garden design. She supplied raw energy and love for the plants and the land that was to be a driving force on the project for years to come.
As spring blossomed, in addition to the above mentioned, Jimmy and I were joined by Dara and her boyfriend Mike. Micah and Mia, friends from Colorado, migrated to the farm.along with Amy a childhood friend of Micah we knew from Orcas, and Matt, a yogi from Massachusetts. This principle cadre provided the crucible for the initial general meetings where recent acquaintances meet to decide the day to day activities of the farm. There were also random friends, short term work traders and unexpected visitors who appeared with increasing regularity as word got out about the farm. The meeting of this group was a productive though chaotic blending of characters that was to begin to occur at the farm annually for years to come.
So as snow melted we gathered to erect the community building only to discover we lacked the immediate housing necessary for our swelled ranks. To resolve the housing crunch and actualize annual vegetable planting April, May and June were devoted to construction of dwellings both human and animal. Chickens, goats and pigs arrived at the farm once again and their housing was the first priority. We sourced milled outs from a local sawmill and began construction of the shelters in the area behind the Red Barn known as the Lower Garden. After the animal structures we proceeded with a focus on personal dwellings, the Kuspa inspired Crow’s Nest, Dara and Mike’s Sanctu and the Skinny Shack were soon outfitted with minihouses on top of treehouse platforms.

As we constructed these personal domiciles and accepted the reality of this intense operation, the day to day conflict amongst people began to boil. Dara felt threatened physically by Jimmy’s personality in face to face meetings and he was forced to leave the property. As we began to move into the construction of the community building conflict arose with my relative Paul whom we had anticipated to be the general contractor of the community building. Paul was a seasoned builder with many projects constructed under his supervision. Despite this, the size and complexity of the project, the geographic distance from his home, and unorthodox ideals of the volunteer construction crew presented irreconcilable differences. Despite the loss of experience, Mike and I resolved to continue construction and framed the first and second floor with the nail gun and heavy lifting assistance of everyone willing and present onsite. At that point Mike and Dara were called unexpectedly though perhaps predictable to live their lives westward due to family circumstance. As this evolved Jay Legg was working with a crew in the woods to restore the erosion impact of the previous logging onsite while instructing the basics of chainsaw operation and earthwork to our impressionable woodsworkers.
As we began the crucial details of roof framing a neighbor named George helped us immensely with ideas and inspiration to proceed closing in the roof and the details of the interior. As the fall approached we had managed to enlist a metal roofing contractor whose bid we received handwritten on notebook paper after he had divulged he was flying permanently to Arizona that winter. Agriculturally we harvested pigs and vegetables with vigorous enthusiasm though productivity of amateurs.

As the windows and roofing were installed work began in earnest on the interior. Davy, whose father was a local home building contractor, joined our crew as we moved inside for the winter. Inside work was devoted to the details of plumbing, electrical, insulation, and heating, dust collection and the stereo system. I served primarily as a general contractor and Johnny on the spot to insure timely completion, control costs and assure the building quality. The heating system involves several elements that are experimental including the gypcrete subfloor that encapsulates the wirsbo tubing on the first floor as well as the wood gasification unit tied to the 1000 galloon heat exchange tank. Micki had migrated to Hawaii for the winter and while I received visitors from time to time it was a solitary existence during the short days with many nights spent working to the wee hours. At this point I repeatedly questioned the judgement of this large physical, mental and financial undertaking. The living conditions and workload was strenuous and the local folk we had hoped to serve did not understand the concept or accept what we had to offer. Luckily, I lacked a realistic assessment of the difficulties and rewards we were yet to encounter and we continued on. Winter recessed and we moved back into the excitement of the growing season.

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