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Homestead Reflections March 2019 My Homestead Journey- part 1

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 March Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

On this sunny but bitterly cold February morning, I thought I’d write about my journey as a homesteader.  Since placing our NOFA classified ad seeking to transition the care of Wild Browse Farm to new stewards, I find myself thinking and talking a lot about our history because folks keep asking about how I came to be a homesteader here in Wendell.

I grew up on a small family farm in upstate NY and couldn’t wait to go to college and get away from the country.  After graduate school, my jobs in University Administration first took me to NYC and then Ann Arbor, MI.  Both destinations were a far cry from the long hours of weeding row-crops, mucking stalls, haying, carrying water, and other ‘’odious chores’’.

After 6 years of advanced study and 6 more years of professional work, I realized that something was lacking in my life.   Missing the joy of riding my horse, the taste of homegrown fruits & veggies, feeling the soil between my fingers & toes, listening to birdsong, and feeling the sunshine on my back (yes even while weeding) led me to re-evaluate my life choices.  Guess you can take the girl out of the country but not the country out of the woman!

wild browse farmThe late 1960’s and early 70’s were a time of national questioning and upheaval.  The anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements all impacted not only the country, but my personal life as well.  I’d become very active in protesting our government’s ill-conceived policies i.e. Viet Nam, segregation, voter rights, treatment of women, and other social justice issues.  I was involved in large protest marches, draft counseling, feminism, radical lesbianism, women’s consciousness-raising groups and working within the university system to change how minority students were treated.

At some point, the frustration of my taking on all these entrenched systems became overwhelming.  I began to realize that the only thing I could really change was me.  So, in 1976 I “dropped-out” of the proverbial “rat race” and began my search for a place and way to send down roots and put energy into changing “the system” from the ground up!  I thought by becoming self-sufficient  “living simply so others can simply live”, I would at least not be adding to the problem but become part of the solution.  This became my way of life long before I ever heard of the voluntary-simplicity movement. 

I realized that this goal was different from my parents’ and grandparents’ way of farming.  I gravitated to the Pioneer Valley and began working on building the skills I would need to live a simpler life.  I read copiously, talked with others, took workshops when available and worked on Valley farms.  Some of the major influences at the start of this journey:  Helen & Scott Nearing, French Intensive growing, Ruth Stout, Alan Chadwick, Organic Gardening magazine (back when it was great), Women in Agriculture, Permaculture, Findhorn, Sir Albert Howard, and eventually NOFA/Mass.  I availed myself of various training programs like Women in Construction where I was trained to be an electrician and was also exposed to other construction skills.

 I also worked at The New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) when it first obtained land in Belchertown.  Among other things, we built and operated a solar greenhouse and rescued an old orchard from poison ivy and sumac.

During this time I was also part of a land group.  We met for many months trying to figure out how we could live together in community in the country.  Too many differing, often clashing, ideas led to the disbanding of the group.  At this point one of the members bought 140 very wooded acres in Wendell, MA and offered me the opportunity to obtain some of this land.  This was a huge blessing.  My partner at the time, GK, and I had been about to buy a house and 1/2 acre in Hatfield, entailing a mortgage and unknown to me, exposure to huge amounts of agricultural toxins.

woods clearedSo, in 1980, the homestead dream-seed was planted on these wooded, hilly, rocky acres.  I walked through the land, sat on a huge rock and watched the site-plan for my homestead appear full-blown, in my mind’s eye.  It was several years before I actually lived here at Wild Browse Farm, but that spring, I started the hard work of site preparation.   What an exciting time!

Amazingly, in the fall of 1979, I had the good fortune to spend a week walking the new NESFI land with Permaculture co- founder Bill Mollison.  I was a sponge, absorbing his insights and views on “seeing” the land and its potential in a very non-traditional way.   At this same time I was avidly reading the organic “greats” mentioned above.

So, it was with permaculture eyes, an organic heart, a Nearing work ethic and a Findhorn spirit that I began planning and working with this land, to co-create Wild Browse Farm.  With my long-term thinking cap on, we began cutting trees to clear for the orchard and garden first, then planted 3 apple, 1 pear, 2 peach, 2 plum and 3 chestnut trees.  There really wasn’t any real soil to start with, so we used permaculture soil-building techniques.  After planning the location of the permanent beds, the first section of the garden was layered with wood chips and manure, right over the old hard and softwood stumps and a thin layer of forest duff and subsoil.  Unconventional as that was at the time, I now know the additional benefits we received from this practice. As the buried tree roots slowly decayed, they became organic matter, food for the soil microbes, as well as water and air pathways deep into the subsoil. The forest mycorrhizal fungi were already in place, waiting to assist in the soil building process. 

Well, that is Chapter One in my homestead journey.  Next month I’ll continue with more of this story. But right now, I need to finish this year’s garden planning, so that I can finally get my seed order into the mail.   Hope you’re getting as excited about the 2019 growing season as I am. 

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