Two years ago, we moved into our new home: a renovated early-19th-century house on nine acres in Leverett, which we’ve named Old Field Farm. This event marked a new level in our ability to live according to our values around community and sustainability.
We bought the property with friends who share those values, beginning with living cooperatively in energy-efficient homes, growing much of our own food, and meeting most of the rest of our needs through barter and supporting local farms and craftspeople. Last fall, another family bought the house across the road and joined our adventure. We now have a little community of nine, ranging in age from 1 to 70, working the land, raising animals, reaping the harvest and caring for our small piece of the earth.
Community and sustainability don’t begin or end at the property line. Both are complex ideas whose meanings are widely debated; moreover, they are intertwined. Our approach to sustainability requires community, and community can only thrive in a sustainable environment. We know we’re not “there” yet, but we see a path toward it.
Sustainability begins with the land, water and air that keeps us all alive. It requires that we maintain or improve the fertility of the soil, enhance the health of the ecosystems we share with other species and act with a consciousness of our connectedness to others around us — people and animals, plants and microbes. Our farm plan includes a wild area set aside for local birds, native pollinators and other species. Sustainability means no waste: living systems have inputs and outputs that cycle materials; nothing is discarded. For example, our goats and chickens produce food (milk and eggs) but also help prepare and fertilize the soil for our gardens. The gardens provide food, and the unused portions of the plants are composted for eventual replenishment of soil nutrients. We reuse, recycle and buy used whenever possible.
The relationship between community and sustainability is especially apparent in the interconnections that we are developing, first among ourselves (three generations sharing the farm work and its bounty), then outward to neighboring farms, farms in our larger region, and to local and regional businesses. Barter and sharing labor are an integral part of our philosophy: we share, lend and trade with several nearby farms for farm inputs, tools and equipment, and we participate in Valley Time Trade (a local labor/barter system). We grow most of our own vegetables and have planted fruit trees and berry bushes for future use, but we also buy some bulk purchases of vegetables (onions, potatoes, carrots) for winter storage and all our meat from local farms. Our land provides feed hay for the goats, and we also sell some of it to other farms, while buying mulch hay from neighbors rather than use the higher-quality feed hay for mulch.
Energy use is, of course, a key element of any definition of sustainability, and we have taken several steps toward energy efficiency and use of renewable sources. Our house, built around 1810, is now super-insulated and can be heated almost entirely with wood, supplemented with an air-source heat pump and occasional use of a high-efficiency propane boiler. Both units of our duplex have solar hot water, and one unit has a leased solar electric system. We are still dependent on gasoline for cars and farm equipment; in the long run, we know, no system that relies on fossil fuels can be called sustainable. That challenge remains before us, and we hope to meet it.
We’ve understood from the beginning that sustainability and community operate on many levels. We work toward providing as much of our inputs (e.g., seed, fertilizer, water, animals) and using as much as our outputs (e.g., food, animal feed, compost) as we can, but we will always depend on local sources for other goods and services, and on regional sources for yet other items that we can’t get nearby. And as long as we use fuel, machinery, tools, etc., we will engage with the national and global economy to meet some of those needs. As much as we can, we are working toward acquiring skills — as are others in the wider community — to make some of these things less essential.
Two years into this venture, we have a lot to learn and a lot more to do. The Valley is one of the best places we can think of to take this on. We are blessed with many like-minded neighbors, a diverse array of farms, networks of farmers and gardeners eager to share information and suggestions, and the support of communities throughout the area that allows experiments like ours to thrive.
True sustainability must happen on a global level. National and international policies are needed to ensure the continued viability of human life on this planet. This is a process that will take generations to achieve. By working together with each other on our farm, and with our friends and neighbors nearby, we hope to contribute to a way of thinking and acting that will help carry us all through to a better future.
Rebecca Reid is a mother, grandmother, farmer and retired photographer.
Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and a former Hitchcock Center board member.
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