Lessons from the Ecovillage

Guest blogger Jami Gaither reports on her recent stay at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, located in Rutledge, MO.

Guest post by Jami Gaither

I expected my three-week Visitor Session at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage to expose me to natural building, cisterns and alternative power. What I didn’t expect were the surprises I encountered.

Photo by Jami Gaither

Photo by Jami Gaither

The first surprise was the amazingly good vegan/vegetarian food. Who knew it could be so tasty, filling and energizing? We had meat for only three meals in three weeks. While I rarely eat fish, at my first dinner back in “concrete world” I ordered Mahi Mahi. This was the most attractive item on the menu and a healthy alternative to my usual chicken or pork. My time at Dancing Rabbit influenced how I see and consume food.

The limited and well-planned use of vehicles was another revelation. Each week, residents review the needed vehicle plans. Seventy people manage to share four vehicles: a Jetta, a Passat, a Leaf, and a large work truck with optional trailer. They do this by planning trips and combining them when possible. The cost for each trip is paid by the member taking it. The $0.65/mile covers the cost of the car, gas, insurance, and maintenance.

For example, a 125-mile round-trip from Dancing Rabbit to the Possibility Alliance, an educational homestead in La Plata, MO, cost me just over $20 ($81.25 divided by 4 riders). This initially seemed pricey to me. But I realized that minimizing the need for travel and sharing rides makes the cost of having a vehicle very reasonable.

The full schedules of members was a third recognition. “Rabbits,” as residents are known, are busy building homes (largely by hand) while raising food (via small-scale organic gardening) and children (some are home-schooled). They do all this in keeping with a commitment to the Dancing Rabbit mission:

To create a society, the size of a small town or village, made up of individuals and communities of various sizes and social structures, which allows and encourages its members to live sustainably. To encourage this sustainable society to grow to have the size and recognition necessary to have an influence on the global community by example, education, and research.

Members and residents spend a few to several hours per week on tasks that keep the community and co-ops functioning. Tasks range from clearing paths and dumping humey (humanure) buckets to cooking a meal for a food co-op. Many also pledge hours to committee work. Since discussions are consensus-based with open/clear/respectful communication by all, this important work can be some of the hardest to do.

Photo by Jami Gaither

Photo by Jami Gaither

This brings me to the biggest surprise of all: the commitment to interact using non-violent communication (NVC) and mediation. My NVC training was eye-opening; it takes much energy, commitment, honesty, and trust.

Some say that living in an intentional community is the most expensive, longest lasting personal development program you’ll ever experience. The community becomes a house of mirrors. Even in my short visit, I learned how my perspective and experience govern my words and deeds. Several interactions indicated I’d hit a nerve or spoken callously…unaware or inconsiderate of the perspective of the other. Working on self-improvement can be a long process.

Some argue that we do not have environmental problems, only communication problems that prevent us from using resources wisely and for the greatest good of the whole. The more we communicate, the closer we feel to others. That sense of connectedness encourages us to take care of others and be less self-focused.

Photo by Jami Gaither

Photo by Jami Gaither

I believe that with some effort, we can each make strides to be more self-aware and considerate. In time, we can interact more effectively and humanely with our fellow beings on Mother Earth.

Ohio native Jami Gaither is a recently retired metallurgical engineer now pursuing a lifestyle based on sustainability, simplicity and fun. While not yet certain of her life path to come, the process of exploring is keeping her enthralled. She lives in Minnesota with her husband Danny.

A Rural Rebirth, One Ag Business at a Time

Earlier this summer I visited Becca Selkirk at her Wayne County, IN farm, Unique 2 Eat, where she raises quail, chickens, and rabbits. She sells the eggs from her quail and chickens, along with rabbit meat. And she has two goats just for fun.

I was researching a story for Farm Indiana, having met her through Carthage Mill. (You might remember founder Anna Welch’s powerful guest post, “The Face of Resilience,” from a few months back.)

The mill is a sustainable agriculture business incubator, and its existence allowed Becca to expand into animal feed.

Becca Selkirk with a handful of her locally grown and milled feed.

Becca Selkirk with a handful of her locally grown and milled feed.

Using all organic and local ingredients, such as Fields of Agape‘s black bean halves and flax seeds, she’s developed a high-quality chicken feed. At 19 percent protein, her layer feed out-competes the industry standard. It’s all ground right onsite.

She markets her products at the mill and through Hoosier Harvest Market, the online marketplace that delivers small farmers’ and producers’ wares to several drop points.

I interviewed one Carthage resident who made the switch for his chickens and was thrilled with the result. “The quality of it’s great,” Devon Hamilton told me. “And my birds look healthier.” He says the price point is only slightly higher than what he was buying. And it’s worth it to him to know the ingredients were locally and sustainably raised.

Next on Becca's list is a formula for quail feed.

Next on Becca’s list is a formula for quail feed.

Plus, he wants to support the new venture. “I was there one day when Becca was mixing (the feed),” he says, “and she was working very hard. It’s very labor-intensive.” He feels that Becca has priced her feed appropriately, given everything that goes into it.

Becca is also one of the principals of local fertilizer maker Sterling Formulations, another company leasing space at Carthage Mill. And I just found out that she’s been able to expand into another new line. She’s cooking up ready-to-eat soups and developing a gluten-free pizza crust for “take-and-bake.”

She’s only been able to do this because of Carthage Mill: It has a commercial kitchen that’s certified for use in organic food production.

This is rural revitalization, one small ag business at a time.

Check out the full Farm Indiana story on Unique 2 Eat Farm. (Warning: adorable fuzzy animal photos involved—Josh Marshall‘s photography is terrific as always.) For more on Carthage Mill, see “Cooperative Offers Rural Rebirth,” my Acres USA story.


Like to Eat? Thank a Bee.

Kate Franzman, beekeeper and urban farmer

Kate Franzman, beekeeper and urban farmer

Kate Franzman is one of many fabulous people who keep the “indie” in Indianapolis. Concerned about the die-off of honeybees, she started Bee Public with a goal of increasing the number of honeybees in our city. The organization has placed hives at several urban farms, including one right in my neighborhood.

She’s a writer too, and her first-person story is featured in the current issue of Indianapolis Monthly. I generally don’t shrink from bees myself, but her description of capturing a swarm as a novice beekeeper is truly impressive.

Swarm on a fence post in summer 2013. Kate scooped them by (gloved) hand into a box before transporting them to their new home at South Circle Farm.

Swarm on a fence post in summer 2013. Kate scooped them by (gloved) hand into a box before transporting them to their new home at South Circle Farm.

Her passion for these pollinators leads her to give talks and workshops emphasizing their importance. “Since 2006, we’ve lost more than one-third of our honeybee colonies nationwide, due in major part to Colony Collapse Disorder, an alarming phenomenon that occurs when the bees mysteriously desert their hive and die,” she writes.

“One out of every three bites of food we eat was made possible by a bee. So no bees, no food.”

Kate and a few of the creatures on whom our lives depend

Kate and a few of the creatures on whom our lives depend

The unusually harsh winter killed all the bees in Bee Public’s hives, so Kate initiated a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to replace the honeybees. The response has been one of “unprecedented generosity,” prompting her to pledge to purchase replacement bees for other urban farmers and expand the network of hives.

On May 10 at Pogue’s Run Grocer, Kate will present Bees 101, an overview of how to create a bee-friendly backyard. And if you want to take it further, Bee Public offers consulting and hive setup for local restaurants, community gardens, and urban farms. There’s even a sponsorship option for people not in a position to have a hive. Check out Bee Public’s site and Facebook page!

All photos courtesy of Bee Public.

The Face of Resilience

Guest post by Anna Welch

Anna Welch is a farmer in Rush County, Indiana. With her husband and business partner, she owns Fields of Agape, growing organic grain, beans, and seed. Now she’s working to establish a cooperative mill in Carthage that would allow many more organic and transitional farmers to bring their products to niche markets. After we had a conversation about some of the barriers she’s faced, she sent me this reflection.

I think of the many times I wanted to quit, that it felt impossible to go forward with the limited resources and lack of support around me. I’ve been through periods of deep depression, anger, hopelessness, and resentment. I’ve been humbled many times over since committing my life to stewardship of the land and its fruit.

Anna Welch with friends at the entrance of the Carthage Mill. The historic Tweedy Lumber Mill is now the site of a sustainable ag business incubator.

Anna Welch with friends at the entrance of the Carthage Mill. The historic Tweedy Lumber Mill is now the site of a sustainable ag business incubator.

I had two choices: quit and return to the workforce, or retreat to a place of rest, and pray, reflect, journal, and wait to see who or what changed around me. Someone spoke words of encouragement, or a visitor stopped by the Carthage Mill and said how this place is necessary and will come to pass.

One of my greatest encouragers here at Carthage was my friend Allen, who came daily with his dog Rusty. The first day he stopped by, I was cleaning golden flax seed. He heard the machine and the gate was open, so he stopped. I’m so glad he did.

Allen had Lou Gehrig’s disease, but every day he drove his wheelchair on a route around Carthage, observing bean and corn fields, enjoying wildlife, and stopping by the mill, his favorite place. He worked the Alaskan pipeline in his younger years and lived in a teepee in Montana. He loved the mill, and he encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing.

I realized that if Allen could be in the state he was in and encourage me, then I needed to think outside of myself and look at what I could do to make a difference. Allen died this past October, and I officially formed The Carthage Mill, LLC with help from Hoosier Organic Marketing Education. I know he is pleased.

Regardless of the negative circumstances that we may be facing, there is always hope, always a divine purpose awaiting each of us—if we can turn our focus away from self and focus on those around us, on what needs exist, then determine what gifts and resources we have to overcome the challenge, or to serve someone. Nothing can stop us from fulfilling our purpose if we are on the right path.

Equipment used to plant Fields of Agape grain and beans.

Equipment used to plant Fields of Agape grain and beans.

I have found that the success in life is how we learn to handle adversity and challenges. If we can grasp how to press on through adversity with humility and unconditional love for others (regardless of how they treat us), we will find our way.

When we find like-minded people whose passion is a good fit with our own, whose hearts are for others, then within that group each person can reach their potential quicker.

Encouragement, sharing of resources, being driven by the passion to serve rather than by personal gain—all of this brings about magnificent changes in communities large and small.

I’m never going to stop believing that it can happen.

Relocalizing the Food System

I love writing stories about food and farming. The people I meet are so passionate about their work. Almost everyone I interview is invested in reforming the broken food system. Bonus: They give me tasty things to eat.

Here’s a rundown of the treats I’ve sampled just in the past few weeks.

  • Cissy, a woman who’s long been the vanguard of Indiana’s organic movement, gave me some intensely flavorful pickles she made from cucumbers raised in her kitchen garden. I washed it down a glass of homemade kombucha that couldn’t be beat.
  • Jim, a farmer in Owen County, sent me home with a bunch of carrots he pulled from the wet earth like a late winter miracle.
  • Anna, a farmer in Rush County, gave me a huge jar of rolled wheat that her cooperative had grown and milled. (I used some in banana bread I baked for my weekly writing date—my writer buddies pronounced it wonderful.)
Checking out a display of LocalFolks Foods at Moore Corner Store while on assignment

Checking out a display of LocalFolks Foods at Moore Corner Store while on assignment

And a couple weeks ago, at Moore Corner Store, proprietor Jasen Moore offered me a taste of ketchup made by Indiana’s own LocalFolks Foods.

I’m no ketchup connoisseur, and in fact we never purchase it. But if I were a fan of this most American of condiments, I would never buy a national brand again. LocalFolks’ is sweetened with sugar, not the genetically modified scariness that comprises high-fructose corn syrup.

I happened to be in the natural food store when Hoosier Microgreens’ Alex Sulanke came along to introduce his product. So I got to munch uber-fresh sprouts of radish, cabbage, kale, arugula, and mustard from “the smallest farm in Indiana” (120 square feet).

Moore Corner Store is in the business of connecting small farmers and food entrepreneurs to the consumer. Though its hours are limited at present, this shop and others like it fill a critical role in relocalizing our food system.

For Jasen and his wife Sara, Moore Corner Store is more than just a business. It’s a mission. Jasen told me the enterprise arose out of concern for the state of our economy. Big box stores have fragmented communities and hurt the little guy.

Moore2“But a store like this…supports the local economy, minimizes carbon footprint, puts actual nutritious food on your plate, and it’s close to home.” The Moores live just up the street from the shop, though both must spend time elsewhere to make ends meet.

I just saw a documentary called Down to Earth in which the iconoclastic farmer Joel Salatin (made famous in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma) made an important point: Your purchase of a farmer’s product might be the thing that keeps that farm afloat another week.

Is it worth changing our habits to spend a little more of our money at a farmers’ market or a shop like the Moores’? I would say yes. What about you? Have you connected with a small farmer, producer, or locally owned shop lately?

Check out my piece on Moore Corner Store here.

My Day at School

Yesterday I drove down to Bloomington to spend part of the day with my homeschooling coop friends. These two families use homesteading activities as the basis for their children’s learning, along with traditional math workbooks, writing assignments and the like.

The task of the morning was to prepare cedar limbs to build a spit for cookpots over a campfire. The previous week, the kids had cut branches off the cedar tree, with a goal of being able to climb it. They’d christened it Fort Cicada.

Climbing ropes and nubs of branches make it easier to scale Fort Cicada.

Climbing ropes and nubs of branches make it easier to scale Fort Cicada.

The brushy limbs now needed to be trimmed and the bark removed with a draw knife. The kids coached me on sawing. I can’t remember the last time I sawed something. It’s satisfying to cut right through a branch and have it fall.

Prepping the cedar limbs for use as fence posts and building material

Prepping the cedar limbs for use as fence posts and building material

The draw knife was a revelation. I have never experienced the pleasure of skinning a tree branch with a sharp instrument. I wasn’t sure I was qualified for the work, but the kids taught me well.

Using the draw knife

Using the draw knife

They assured me that they would use a regular knife to shave around the knots where the draw knife caught. Here’s the youngest, working with her knife.

Knife skills

Knife skills

I love how fearless these kids are. I find that my own hands are better suited to a keyboard than a hand tool. Yet, I pulled off a passable job on bark-peeling task.

Proud of my handiwork

Not bad for a beginner

After a while it was time for lunch (fresh-baked bread!) and conversation. I asked the four kids what life would be like if they went to a school where they sat at desks all day. They agreed that they wouldn’t have nearly as much fun and flexibility in their lives, and probably not be as fit. Nor would they spend as much time with their families. On the flip side, they have to schedule activities to connect with larger groups, whereas students in school interact with lots of different kids daily.

Asked how their education is preparing them for adulthood, they pointed to skills like gardening, cooking, and researching solutions to problems.

After lunch, it was time to split maple logs and stack wood for the winter’s fuel. This was more fun than I expected. I consider myself something of a pipsqueak—but seeing the kids demonstrate, I thought, why not try?

Demonstrating wood splitting

Demonstrating wood splitting

After numerous tries and tons of pointers from the peanut gallery, I managed to stick the splitting maul in the top of the log. I whapped at it with a mallet till the firewood split with a satisfying crack.

Alas, no one captured the moment on film, but I have the sore muscles to prove it.

All in all it was a great time with lovely people, and felt wonderful to be outside doing real work on a pristine fall day.

Sharing Summer’s Abundance and Summer’s Work

You never know what might result from posting a request on Facebook. The other day I asked our neighborhood Facebook gardeners’ group if anyone would take my zucchini in exchange for peppers. Because really, how many zukes does one household need? This led to the idea of a veggie swap ‘n share. So I invited any interested gardeners to bring their surplus over yesterday for some trading.

Only a couple folks showed up, but it was just right, and no doubt more will come in the future.

Summer's abundance shared at the veggie swap.

Summer’s abundance shared at the veggie swap. (The eggs are a side deal.)

Julie brought heirloom tomatoes, the only thing she grows. I was thrilled to take some off her hands, since mine are ripening ever so slowly after initially falling prey to blossom end rot. Her cherry tomato variety is called Doctor and rivals my beloved Sungold for sweetness.

As the most ambitious gardener among us, Laura brought a slightly squirrel-chewed pumpkin that needed to be harvested because of an issue with the vine. She had also just picked yellow squash, collards, basil, and more lovely heirloom tomatoes, including a variety called Principe Borghese, reputed to be great for drying. (I’m happy to say these are in my dehydrator as we speak.)

Collards and basil straight from the garden.

Collards and basil straight from the garden.

I offered the aforementioned Zucchini Explosion, specifically a variety called Cordello, as well as some jalapenos and various herbs. Laura went home with catnip for her kitties (sorry Kitley and Maggie!), sage, and rosemary.

Funny how these things all work out and people go away happy to try something new. I think swapping could be habit-forming.

Clowning with Cabbage

Clowning with cabbage at last year’s kraut party

On a related note, last summer our kitchen was home base for group preserving efforts, loosely connected to our community garden. With polka music on Pandora, we shredded up several heads of cabbage and packed them in crocks at the Kraut Party.

Kraut Party Action

Kraut Party Action

Later in the season we switched the sound track to the Three Tenors and Andrea Bocelli at the Pesto Party.

And a couple of us got together to make a gazillion varieties of salsa as well, to share with the community at a Salsa Party.

When you try to cook and preserve seasonal produce, summer can be a crazy time, especially if some of the produce comes from your own garden. Most of us don’t live in the kind of multigenerational households that were the rule back in the day. So we don’t have the built-in helpers that our foremothers did. It can get lonesome, toiling away in your kitchen on your own.

So it’s been great fun to turn some of that work into social events.

There’s talk of another Pesto Party, and maybe even a group effort to “put up sweet corn,” as my people say. We can get a boatload of sweet corn from one of our many local growers and just go to town.

Hm. What musical genre would work for a Corn Party?

Learning to Learn

Third in a series on education
Recently I spent a day with a Bloomington, IN homeschooling cooperative. Two families work together on homesteading projects on each others’ land. This allows their four children, ages 8 to 12, to learn by doing—while increasing their confidence and skills.

Projects range from seed saving to bike maintenance to creation of a family almanac. They’ve gone mushroom hunting, practiced knot skills, and (on rainy days) learned knitting and mending. They’re working on a fire pit and hoping to build a treehouse.

Reading and quizzing each other from a book called Moving Heavy Things

Reading and quizzing each other from a book called Moving Heavy Things

The day I was there, the students were studying how to move a heavy sandstone block down a sloping driveway from the front yard to the back. They were to place it into a rectangular hole in the dirt, forming part of an herb garden’s perimeter. The emphasis was on problem solving, collaborative effort, and applying their study of friction and levers.

Sawing PVC pipe to roll the plywood with the block on top (note that is just a practice stone, not the super-heavy one they were charged with moving)

Sawing PVC pipe to roll the plywood with the block on top (note that is just a practice stone, not the super-heavy one they were charged with moving)

This was no small task and involved an array of tools, including something I’d never heard of called a cant hook. The mom/teachers, Stacey and Dani, encouraged them to try out every idea and see what worked best. The kids worked by experimentation, reasoning, puzzling, trying, and talking—displaying remarkable tenacity through the whole process.

Using a cant hook to move the sandstone block

Using a cant hook to move the sandstone block

There was not one temper tantrum. I could see that the communication skills these kids develop through group projects will go a long way toward smoothing their way in the world—while also contributing to the healing of that same world.

Stacey says she’s motivated by a belief that children can be the instigators of deep change. “I try to not spend a lot of time in a fear/worry place (even though it is hard sometimes), and in doing this mentor joy, hope, the power we have, and that change is possible.  When children/adults have trust in themselves, self-empowerment and understanding of the world, beautiful things happen!”

“I think they are continually seeing how they make a difference and create change.”

Picking violets for our lunch salad

Picking violets for our lunch salad

By the end of my visit, the children had moved one monstrously heavy block into place in the back yard, where it will begin the delineation of an herb spiral. There was great cheering when the block was finally nestled into place.

As results-oriented as we are these days, this may not seem like much for several hours’ work. But in the process, they learned to learn, to cooperate, and to not fear failure.

Watching them, I wondered how my life would be different if I had had these sorts of experiences in my own childhood. I might consider myself in a different light now. I might be handy, of all things. At the very least I would be braver, less fearful of being wrong.

This concludes the education series, at least for now. (I could share much more about both the KI school and these homeschoolers, but that’s where the book comes in.)