Why office jobs are better than homesteading

Interesting story behind this post – I saw a link to it on my dashboard and thought “Hey, that sounds like a great article – I’ll go read that” only to discover it was the “Drafts” section of my dashboard. I wrote this two and a half years ago, and every word of it still rings true to me. So here it is!



I’d like to poke a stick at a rather sacred (grass-fed, heirloom breed) cow for a minute: the assumption that anyone who’s interested in growing food, living a low-energy lifestyle, and/or being a “citizen” rather than a “consumer” also secretly wants to escape the misery of their office job that sap their creativity, kills their souls, and pays a pittance when you take into account all the work clothes, makeup, lunches out, and commuting fees. We start to consider our profession our primary identity, and come home from the job each day brain-dead, unable or unwilling to interact with our families, and we turn on the TV for escape. and we never know when our job might simply evaporate. But what we all really want, the myth goes, is to be our own bosses, to raise all our own food, and thus to be “free.”

Honestly, that myth is -shall we say – material for my compost pile.

I’ve worked for others, and I’ve worked for myself. I went back to work for others because when my husband went to grad school, we needed a more reliable source of income. And I’ve stayed working for others* for a number of very good reasons.

  1. Job security. Sure, my day job might be terminated with little notice – but honestly, I am pretty sure I’ll get paid for the rest of this fiscal year, at least. When I worked for myself, I had a mix of project work and retainer work. A couple of my long-term clients paid me a discounted hourly rate for a set number of hours a month – usually about 5 – and those contracts were generally good for 6 months or a year. Projects usually lasted 2-6 weeks and paid 1/3 up front, 1/3 halfway through, and 1/3 upon completion. Then they were gone, and I had to find other work. Let me tell you – a year of job security looks really damn good compared to two weeks.
  2. Pay for 40 hours a week, no matter what. I confess, I am occasionally bored in my office job. Usually happens when I’m waiting for someone to get back to me so I can do the next step of whatever it is I’m doing. But you know what? I’m paid for those hours that I spend waiting – I just find something else to do, even if it’s reading trade journals or experimenting with a new technology. When you work for yourself, you get paid for exactly the hours you work. If you’re bored, you’re also incredibly stressed, because it means you might not be able to pay our own salary this month. And I’m not likely to lose a year’s income to a late frost, a freak hailstorm, or a plague of locusts.
  3. I get paid well. Working for myself, I charged $60-75/hr. Project work often amounted to much more than that – one project effectively paid $385/hr, because they paid a lump sum and I was able to finish the work quickly and well. Working for others, I am paid about a third of my old hourly rate…but I take home a whole lot more money in a year because I get paid 40 hours every week. Plus health insurance and retirement benefits. I have lived on as little as $12/hr, and I can do it. Not a lot of fun money to throw around, but certainly livable. But making more is definitely nicer. “Money can’t buy happiness,” but it sure can buy comfort, and relief from the stress of “how am I going to pay the bills this month?” or “what if I get sick and have to pay for a doctor?”
  4. I get to leave it at the office. I was actually pretty good about not letting my self-employment take over every waking moment, and I’m very good about working hard during my 40 hours so I only have to work 40 hours a week. And, since I get to leave the office and come home to a different environment and different set of activities, it’s easy to have multiple facets to my identity. I’m an instructional designer, yes, but I’m also a gardener, teacher, spouse, friend, and homebody. I don’t know that I’d like having my day job and my avocation overlap entirely – because then what would I do in my “off” time? More of the same thing I do at work?
  5. I’m doing work I like. I really like my field, and I really like the work tasks I do day-to-day. Working for myself, project work was the fun work – that’s where I got to be creative, do problem-solving, and make shiny new toys for appreciative people. But it was highly irregular. My dependable income – retainer work – was godawful dull.
  6. Collegiality. It’s hard to express how much I appreciate having colleagues to bounce ideas off of, or to share a project with. My colleagues are experts, and when we each work on the part of a project that suits our expertise, the end product is much better than anything I could do on my own.
  7. There’s always a new project. When I finish a project, all I have to do is say to my boss, “I’m done – what’s next?” and before long, there’s a new project to work on. Sometimes the projects are not super-interesting to me, but most of the time they are. Boredom is miserable for me. If I don’t have useful work to do, I start creating useless problems to solve.
  8. This is my craft. Each new project spurs me to be creative and to create solutions that are elegant, useful, practical, and sustainable. I take as much pride in my work as any farmer, woodworker, potter, or other artisan.

These are the reasons I keep working my job. Yes, I need to keep a good-paying job to pay my mortgage – but if you know me, you know that my home is the center of my life and the basis of my health, sanity, and joy. A wonderful home is worth a lot of money to me – and not because it “looks good to the Joneses.” Yes, I identify with my career. What’s so bad about that? It doesn’t hamper my ability to have relationships with people outside of work. I don’t feel like I’m being taken advantage of in terms of salary or what’s asked of me at work. And to be frank: I enjoy the money. I like being able to afford this house. I like having a grocery budget of $350/mo instead of $100/mo. I like being able to say, “Hey, we really need a good heavy-duty mat inside the front door” and just buying it instead of having to save up for two or three months (during which time the floors are getting damaged and dirt is being tracked all over the house).

I know not everybody has this kind of relationship with their work. I know some people do hate their day job and resent that they have to kowtow to an awful boss for just enough money to scrape by. But I’m tired of this presumed divide between “fat cats,” “wage slaves,” and “independent homesteaders” with no room for people who work, like it, and haven’t “sold out.” That message – that of course you want to be your own boss and grow all your own food – is about as useful as the ones that say I have to be 22, blonde, and 38-22-34 to be happy.

So for the record: my day job and my big garden, root cellar, and garden work together quite nicely. And should a time come when they don’t, I’ll change something. But in the meantime, quit trying to tell me that I’m deluded because I think I like my job.

* I have a master’s degree in education and I work for a university helping implement curriculum changes and educational technologies


New Directions at Preserving Traditions

After three years and something over 50 workshops, I am stepping down from heading Preserving Traditions. The last two last workshops currently planned are July 23 (Intro to pickling) and  Aug 27 (Intro to Canning), both at the Chelsea Library from 7-8pm.

What’s next for PT? I’m glad you asked, because the answer is largely up to you! The Pittsfield Grange is very interested in seeing Preserving Traditions continue, and has expressed strong support for the project. But what form should it take? Should PT retain its focus on food, or expand to other traditions, such as handicrafts like spinning, weaving, sewing, carving, soapmaking, etc.? How should PT relate to groups such as the Grange’s Junior Makers program (where kids learn basics of woodworking, electronics, and carpentry) and the ReSkilling Festival (which teaches all sorts of “people-powered” crafts from canning to beekeeping to permaculture)? How often should events be held? Should we do more demos, or more work days? What kinds of online resources would be helpful?

And perhaps most importantly – who will keep the group going? I tended to take a “do all the organizing and most of the teaching” approach, but it need not continue on that way.  There will probably be room for a number of volunteers and time commitments ranging from a few hours on one day to jobs spread out over seasons.

If you would like to be part of the discussion, please contact Joan Hellmann c/o the Pittsfield Grange Facebook page, or via e-mail (preservetrad@gmail.com). There will be a one-time strategy and planning meeting to brainstorm ideas for moving forward. Coming to the meeting doesn’t commit you to any further participation, though of course we’d love to have people volunteer to teach, organize, or otherwise support Preserving Traditions with time.

In the tradition of good food and good friends,


Maple Syrup Tasting!

Really fun Preserving Traditions event yesterday – maple syrup tasting! See all the details at the PT blog: http://preservingtraditions.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/maple-syrup-tasting-notes/

Software for facilitating sharing?

Ok – tapping the VURD*. What are your favorite resources that facilitate sharing, swapping, bartering, etc.? My homemade noodles for your homemade socks; my oil for your grain; I’ll grow the tomatoes and you can them…that sort of thing.


(*”Vast Unpaid Research Department”)

Grain and root CSA

Hi folks – Wanted southern Michigan folks to know that there’s a new root and grain CSA starting up: Stone Soup CSA. The food will be grown organically by a cooperative of Amish farmers near Homer (Shettlers, who sell at the A2 farmers market are one of the families).

The CSA will include:

  • wheat berries – 60 pounds
  • oat groats – 24 pounds
  • rye berries – 24 pounds
  • corn (dried) – 12 pounds
  • onions – 30 pounds
  • potatoes – 30 pounds
  • carrots – 30 pounds
  • popcorn – 12 pounds

I don’t know the specific varieties, but all will be “good keepers.”

My spin on this: I would like to organize the use of grain mills for members. I have two mills, and am hoping others would be willing to bring theirs, to a central location (probably the Pittsfield Grange) on pick-up days to mill grains into flour. So don’t let your lack of a grain mill impede keep you from getting in on this winter staple CSA! If there is interest, I might also pick up an oat roller (to turn groats into oatmeal).

Please let me know in thecomments if you are interested, if you can bring a grain mill or roller/flaker, and what you’re interested in milling.

I imagine on pick-up day, we could also arrange swaps of popcorn for wheat, onions for corn, etc.

Please note: I AM NOT ORGANIZING THE CSA. I’m just organizing grinding for members. Contact Shana at http://www.localharvest.org/stone-stoup-grains-and-roots-csa-M49390 for information and sign-up.

Review: Electric Canner

Electric cannerWow. I think I’m turning into a gear hog. *chagrin* I keep buying things that are not, strictly speaking, necessary for home food preservation – but which I hope will help scale up home food processing to something above “one woman and a kettle” but not quite “$10,000 of commercial equipment on a small assembly line.”

I buy it and review it so you don’t have to. How’s that for a justification? 🙂

So! The electric canner.  It’s essentially a giant 8 gallon stainless steel pot with an electrical element in the base, a rack, and – key point – a thermostat.  Because it turns out what this baby does best is not canning, but pasteurizing just below boiling.  You can get them with or without a spigot; I’ve found the spigot to be very helpful.

How it works

Just fill it with water, turn the thermostat to the desired temp, and wait. I filled it deep enough to can quart jars and I think it took 45 minutes to boil – comparable to an electric stovetop.  Do be sure to turn the dial all the way as far as it will go – don’t stop at “simmer.” It also appears that wrapping it in a towel to contain the heat doesn’t work so well – though I might try that again once I’ve got it boiling.

What it does pretty well

  • Canning.  Since all you need to can is a deep pot of boiling water, it would be hard to screw this up.  And it does a fine job. It holds 14 pints or 11 quarts at a time, and probably a couple dozen half-pints, if you stack jars.  Keeps the kitchen cooler than doing canning stovetop, too, especially if you have a gas stove. (I bet gas boils faster, though.)
  • Extending your available “stove” space. What convinced me to buy this was not home use, but use at the Grange, where we are very limited by having only 2 stoves to use on canning days.  This puppy allows us to run three canners at a time instead of two – a big time savings, especially for tomatoes, which boil for 45 minutes.
  • Cooking stuff.  Take out the rack, and you can use this to stew four or five chickens at a time.  We used it to cook down the salsa at our salsafest, and it was ok, but not great.  Burned a little bit of the salsa on the bottom of the pot, and since we were doing so much at once, it took forever to cook down – but I think that’s just physics.

What it does really well

Having a thermostat is da bomb for anything that needs to be kept below a boil for a long period of time.  This thing was made for pasteurization. For example:

  • Home brewing. Pasteurize your cider before pitching yeast.  Keep your wort warm.  Halt secondary fermentation by pasteurizing your bottles after capping.  This thing is brilliant – just set the dial, wait for the light to go out (indicating it’s up to temp, and yes, we checked the accuracy with a thermometer), and start the timer.
  • Low-temp pasteurizing of pickles. If you think boiling your pickles for storage makes them too mushy, try low-temp pasteurization: ~170 for 30 minutes (see the Joy of Pickling for details). Again – it’s so nice not to have to watch the stove and thermometer!
  • Demos. I could do a canning demo or workshop anywhere with a counter and an outlet with this – no lugging propane tanks, cast-iron burners, and finding a place to work outdoors.
  • Cheesemaking. You can actually buy these (sans spigot) from Cheesemaking.com – does a great job keeping large batches of milk at temp for as long as you like.

The verdict

I don’t think I’d buy one of these just to put up a few dozen jars of tomatoes – it’s just too expensive and not enough of an improvement over a kettle on the stove to warrant it.  However, if you need portable canning, extra canning space, or to hold liquids at a set temp for long periods of time (hot cider for 100?), it might be worth it.  This would be a great community resource, available to loan out when needed.  (If you’re local and need one, e-mail me and we’ll talk.)

Betty Springfield: Thank her for your canning classes

Betty and Tom SpringfieldMy grandmother, Betty Springfield, didn’t teach me how to can (my mom did). And I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that when I was a kid, I preferred Vlassic pickles to her home-canned ones. (What can I say? Six-year olds think whatever they are familiar with is the One Right Way for things to taste.)

What Grandma did teach me, though, was that food mattered, and that growing your own food was a form of security and self-sufficiency.  Grandma grew up poor.  Dirt poor, you might say, on a hardscrabble farm in the hills of Tennessee.  I saw a picture once of a building I thought was maybe a corn crib – a small log cabin, essentially, smaller than my living room.  That was the house she’d spent the first eight or ten years of her life in, with her mother and two siblings.  Father, too, until he up and left one morning and never came back.  Her mother was often confined to bed, so Grandma started raising her younger siblings when she was about eight.  Eventually, they moved in with their grandparents, which was better – but still very tough.  Cash was always tight – but they always ate.  Cornmeal and sorghum – processed when the traveling mills came to down – and garden vegetables.  Hamburgers. (“Only my grandparents would let me eat a hamburger like a sandwich.  My mother made us use a knife and fork.”)  And, memorably, raw potatoes – snuck from the bin in the barn for a mid-afternoon snack when a growing girl, tired from schoolwork and farm chores, needed a bite of something – anything – to tide her over to dinner.

Fast forward forty years or so, to me sitting at Grandma’s big kitchen table, eating a carrot, while Grandma cooked dinner.  Grandpa always grew a huge garden, and Grandma put up all that produce.  I think she froze more than she canned, but grow-your-own was standard.  And I always got the first carrot of the year out of the garden, to eat with the greens still attached, like Bugs Bunny.  (At this late date, I realize I had no idea when carrots were in season, and no way of knowing how long the carrot row had been before I got my “first” carrot of the year!)  I’d eat my carrot, and watch grandma peel the vegetables into a container destined for “the mulch pile,” which Grandpa would turn and eventually spread on the garden to help it grow. No chemicals in this garden, thank you very much!

As Grandpa’s knees got worse, the garden shrank.  Grandma started buying produce at the grocery store, complaining bitterly that zucchini cost $X and came wrapped in plastic, two to a Styrofoam tray.  In her later years, she rejoiced that their food stamps were redeemable at the farmer’s market, and she could now get produce that was back up to her standards. Oh, and about those food stamps – did I mention that Grandpa started a very profitable business (look for a Delfield fridge next time you’re in a commercial kitchen or salad bar) and sold it for a very tidy sum before retiring, but due to health care and inflation, they absolutely required those food stamps for the last decade or two of their lives? So from poverty to prosperity and back, in one lifetime.  But they always lived like kings, in my eyes – Grandma’s long-practiced skills in the kitchen meant they ate well no matter what.

So this is a long way of saying, an intimate knowledge of food provenance and cooking was my “normal” growing up.  I read Laura Ingalls, and I looked at my grandma, and the only difference I saw was that Grandma could drive a car.  As I got older and understood more about Grandma’s difficult life, I realized that food was her security net: as long as there was a nutritious meal on the table, you could get through anything.

It’s that desire to keep people  fed that led to me founding Preserving Traditions in 2008.  I want to see Grandma’s level of food skills – preservation, cooking, and even production – to become normal again.  I want people to understand the fragility of our current food distribution system, and to have solid skills to fall back on should that become necessary.  And I think it will be necessary, very soon – if only because any of us could lose our jobs at any time, and gas prices could jump enough to double the price of many foodstuffs, and suddenly you realize your cheap, processed dinner is unaffordable, at best, and perhaps even entirely unavailable.

I also want people to see that though that kind of self-reliance may be scary, and is definitely a lot of work, it’s also entirely achievable and incredibly satisfying.  When you first prepare a meal that you thought “only a trained chef could cook” or to create a jam or pickle or cheese that you thought “is so complicated, it’s only reasonable to buy from a professional” – well, your heart swells with pride, and you start to realize, “I’m not helpless.  This is no longer a mystery.”  And I see that as Grandma’s greatest legacy: the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, some part of your fate is in your own hands – and the food on your table is a tangible, vital, wonderful place to start.

Grandma died Sunday, October 9th.  I was able to get to Boston and hold her hand before she died, but because of the stroke, I’m not sure she knew I was there.  In previous years, I’d tried to explain to her how she inspired me to step up my own food skills, and to teach others, but I’m not sure she understood, even then.  You see, Grandma always thought she’d been a nobody – just a poor girl from the hills, not one of the “important” people, like a doctor or lawyer.  She thought she was a doormat, never really understanding that she inspired me (and many others) as a paragon of self-sufficiency, of doing the best you could with what you had.  And her best was very, very good.

Thank you, Grandma, for everything.  You meant more to me – and to hundreds of other people – than you ever realized.

Neighborhood Can-A-Thon

Cooks in the kitchen - 7How many cans can local canners can? Let’s find out Saturday, August 27th during the Neighborhood Can-A-Thon! In 2010, 12 canners at the Grange canned 79 pints of salsa…this year, let’s blow that record out of the water bath!

Sign up solo or with a team and bust out your ruffled apron or your battered Birks. You’ll work in one team member’s kitchen to can a bunch of tomatoes, salsa, pickles, or whatever else you like. Then join the rest of the canners (and any family or friends you care to bring) at the Pittsfield Grange for a local dinner that you don’t have to cook! We’ll enjoy a stress-free meal, share stories, swap samples, and mark up the Grand Can Tally Board to see just how many jars we will pack into our pantries this year.

Full details are at http://preservingtraditions.org/canathon/


Letter to Rep. Mark Ouiment re: HB 4214

Dear Rep. Ouimet,

I am appalled by the content of HB 4214, which allows the governor to dismiss the elected officials of a “municipal government” if that government is deemed to be in financial distress. As your constituent, I trust you will make strenuous efforts to prevent this bill from being passed.  I am aware the bill has been passed in some form by both the House and Senate, but you can still act as the two versions of the bill are being reconciled.

Areas of concern with this bill:

  1. It allows a small group of people – or even individuals or corporations –  to dismiss the rightfully-elected government of a municipality or school board and disincorporate municipalities.  This is against the very principles of democracy.
  2. It allows the state to arbitrarily negate contracts.  How can businesses have any confidence in the fidelity of their contracts with municipalities in this situation?
  3. It states that the financial emergency will be considered “over” only when the emergency manager says it’s over.  There are essentially no checks or balances against the power of this unelected official.

I am especially concerned by the way the bill repeatedly reserves powers to individuals to make decisions at their “sole discretion”, for example, Sec 12(1)r, which allows the state treasurer to singlehandedly decide a municipal government is in financial stress, and begin the review process.  If there is no way to stop this bill completely – and let me be clear, that is the ONLY democratic outcome – then please, at least make sure these instances of “catch-all” powers are taken away from individuals.  Statements such as Sec19(1)ee stating that the appointed emergency manager may “Take any other action or exercise any power or authority of any officer, employee, department, board, commission, or other similar entity of the local government, whether elected or appointed, relating to the operation of the local government” are FAR too sweeping.  I refuse to give over powers like these to one person, appointed by the governor, who is directly responsible to no voter.

The Tenth Amendment of Constitution of  the United States rightly enumerates certain powers, and leaves all others not named to the states or the people.  Our State should follow that admirable example and write its own laws to enumerate when it may act, and clearly define when that action shall end.  It should NOT be writing legislation that includes lines to the effect of “the state, or an individual, or a corporation shall have power in these specific circumstances…or whenever we so please, for as long as we see fit” especially when those powers are so drastic.

Please don’t let this HB 4214 become law.


Emily Springfield

HB4214: Whereby the governor of Michigan can dismiss your locally-elected officials

Ok, folks, I don’t usually get directly into politics, but this is really serious.

I also don’t have it all figured out yet, and I’m not sure what to do about it, but we sure need to do something. The deal is, HB4214 has passed (in slightly different versions) both the Michigan House and the Michigan Senate. It will likely be reconciled today and get signed into law very soon – this week or next.

The upshot is that the governor will be allowed to:

  1. declare a town or school district to be in a “financial emergency”
  2. unilaterally replace all elected town/school officials with someone he appoints
  3. this appointee (who could be a corporation, not a person) could dissolve any contract the town has entered into, including all contracts arrived at by collective bargaining

So, basically, if the governor decides your community is in (or headed for) a financial emergency, he can replace your entire elected local government with one of his choosing, that is responsible only to him – not to you.

This sounds completely unconstitutional to me.  How could anyone have voted for this? And it’s so clearly NOT about money; the current budget crises were caused in large part by all the recent tax cuts.  I would much rather pay my old tax rate than lose my right to elect – and keep – my local government.

And more importantly, what do we do now? Writing my senator is almost pointless, as she voted against the bill and has been speaking out against it.  My state rep will get an earful, for sure – but the bill is, for all intents and purposes, passed.  I can’t believe something this major didn’t hit my radar until now.  But I refuse to just let this slide.  How can we be voting in more unchecked government control just when the rest of the world is shaking theirs off?

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