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Anna’s Off-Grid Farm Experience

This summer, I had the amazing opportunity to live and work on a small off-grid farm in rural upstate New York.

I’ve always loved being in nature, and I’ve always been fascinated by the different relationships that we as humans have with nature, or what’s often called “natural resources”.

I’m still that nerdy kid who asks annoying questions like:

Where does food come from (before the grocery store)?

Where does water come from (before it comes out of the tap)?

Where does electricity come from (before it turns on the lights)?

photo by Peter Crosby

For most of my life, I’ve been privileged to not have to think about these things — to get to think about them, if I want to. But countless communities around the world do not have access to healthy food, clean water, or safe energy. Here, the more immediate questions are: how am I going to feed my family on a poverty wage? How am I going to bathe my kids when the pipes are contaminated with lead? How are we going to resist yet another industrial waste facility moving into our neighborhood and poisoning the air we breathe?

We know injustices like these continue to happen because our dominant economic system prioritizes short-term profits above everything else, even if it means exploiting the people and destroying the planet. But we have to remember: it doesn’t have to be this way. Another world is possible. I’ve always held that truth in my heart, and on the farm, I got a powerful glimpse of another possible world, where humans care for each other, and nature, as much as nature cares for us all.

(**Just to be clear, I am not saying everyone should “go back to the land” and give up all modern conveniences and just subsist. That’s unrealistic for many reasons, but more importantly, a successful back-to-the-land movement would mean almost nothing without a successful Land Back movement. As the land’s original stewards, Indigenous peoples hold the knowledge and life-ways that keep humanity in tune and in balance with the rest of nature. If we want a future that is sustainable and just, we need to listen to Indigenous leaders, activists, educators, farmers, etc., and give them the resources to do what they do best.**)

Living off-grid and working on a farm gave me such an intimate appreciation of how connected we all are to the land, even if most of us don’t see it every day. For the first time in my life, I was in close contact and direct relationship with where all my bare necessities come from. We got our food from the plants and the animals, which we all helped take care of. We got our water from the rain, by collecting it into the pond and into rain barrels we set up, and from the natural underground spring in the forest by the farm. We got electricity from solar panels on the roof of the farmhouse, and from solar-powered lanterns we’d leave outside to charge in the sun during the day, and use at night in our little cabins in the woods.

photo by Peter Crosby

For medicine, we mostly used plants and herbs; many of them grow wild around the farm. Before arriving, I had gotten a really bad sunburn, and on my first night there, when I mentioned it was itching and peeling, I was given a jar of oil that had been infused with St. John’s Wort flowers, which have strong anti-inflammatory properties. I put the oil on my burn a few times, and by the next day, I could already notice and feel how much my skin had started to heal. A few weeks later, we harvested St. John’s Wort flowers, along with calendula flowers and comfrey leaves, and infused them all in big mason jars of olive oil. About a month later, we carefully strained out the plant matter, combined it with melted raw beeswax, and made a heal-all salve!

The food we ate was according to the season, and it changed over the course of the summer. In June, we were eating huge salads of romaine, butter lettuce, Batavia, and purslane, and we scrubbed and roasted potatoes by the bucketloads to finish off the storage supply from last year’s harvest. In July, there were so many wild blueberries we could hardly pick them all, and we made blueberry coffee cakes, blueberry pies, blueberry scones, and more. In August, we were eating big stir-fries of zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, peas, and tomatoes, and starting to harvest the early apple varieties, which we made into applesauce, apple pies, and apple spice turnovers.

The farm also has about fifty chickens, all of the same breed, which are raised for their meat. At the start of summer, they were little baby chicks; a short two months later, they were almost full-grown and ready for slaughter. They’re fed organic grain, and are free to roam in a large outdoor coop where they also eat grass and insects. Needless to say, these birds live a really good, healthy life, especially compared to most commercial chicken operations.

One day, about a week before leaving the farm, it was time to slaughter and butcher a few of the chickens who had grown to be the biggest. Before going to their coop, I took some time to sit with the sheep. As soon as I went into the sheep pasture, two of the friendliest lambs came over to me and nuzzled up into my arms. Gazing into their sweet, innocent, chocolate-colored eyes, and stroking their soft faces, I realized: I could never kill a lamb… But I wasn’t sure I felt the same way about chickens. Why is that?

Maybe part of the answer is that I don’t eat lamb, and I do eat chicken. And, I’ve always felt that if you eat meat, you should be able to kill the animal(s) providing that meat. Chicken has been my main source of meat for my entire life, and I was ready to stop eating it if I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. I knew that taking an innocent animal’s life would be an extremely difficult thing for me to do, but I also knew how rare this opportunity is— to truly connect with where my food comes from. Very few people have that opportunity. So I did it. I was sobbing pretty much the whole time, but I did it.

First, we took them over to a secluded area by the edge of the forest, away from all the other animals, where we held a ceremony to give thanks for their lives. We made an offering of cedarwood, sage, and tobacco, breathing in the sacred interconnectedness: just as we nourished them, they would nourish us. Then, we were shown how to handle the bird, and how to swing the axe— in one swift action. One person held the bird down on the chopping block while the other quickly beheaded it.

We placed them in a large bucket to bleed out, and then dunked each of them in smaller buckets of boiling hot water, to help loosen their feathers. We plucked every last feather, and then placed the birds on a large table to learn how to carve them up for meat. Butchering came much more easily to me, and I never thought I would say this, but I actually really enjoyed it. Seeing and feeling the anatomy up close was so fascinating, and beautiful. I ended up butchering three whole chickens, and I would absolutely do it again.

A few hours later, I took the legs, thighs, breasts, and wings out of the ice chest and placed them on huge baking sheets; added olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh rosemary from the garden; and put them in the bake oven to roast for an hour. That night, we feasted on the freshest, most nutritious chicken I’ve ever had. It was so fresh it almost tasted gamey— it tasted like it had smelled while I was butchering, which was off-putting at first, but in the end, I felt really nourished by the protein and the micronutrients. I don’t think I’d ever felt so grateful for chicken as I did in that moment.

photo by Peter Crosby

I also got to appreciate, firsthand, how much labor and time goes into fiber arts. About thirty sheep live on the farm, and most of them are raised for their wool. They get sheared in the spring, so by the time I got there, the sheep were fluffy again, and we had tons of gorgeous wool to sort through, all different textures and shades of brown, gray, white, and black. Some of it was matted, or stained with feces or urine, but we were able to pick out the good stuff, and then we washed it in buckets of boiling hot water, careful to not stir it around too much so that it wouldn’t felt.

photo by Peter Crosby

Once the washed wool was dry, we used brushes called “carders”, which have little metal spikes, to get all the hairs in the same direction. Then, we used a drop spindle and a spinning wheel to spin the carded wool into yarn. For dye, we harvested goldenrod flowers, boiled them, added alum as mordant, put the yarn in, and it turned bright yellow! This fall, I’m going to use the yarns I made to knit my first-ever homemade beanie and keep my head warm during my first winter in the Northeast.

But off-grid farm life, at least in my experience, wasn’t just about making your own stuff and growing or raising your own food. It was also, and to a greater extent, about community. Every Friday night, we’d have music night. We’d gather around a blazing bonfire under the twinkling stars, with someone on the guitar and someone on the fiddle, while the rest of us laughed trying to remember the words to old folk songs, or making up our own verses as we went.

For some music nights, we’d have guests over and they’d bring their instruments or lead us in rounds. As we sang in rounds and the melodies and harmonies started to align, it felt like we were all one voice, one vibration, one being— pure magic. Friday nights were the best. To top it off, we’d have peppermint tea (brewed with leaves we harvested in the garden), a slice of pie right out of the bake oven, and the best night’s sleep after a long week of working on the farm. It was one of the most satisfying feelings ever.

photo by Peter Crosby

Being in community is also work. I came to the farm not knowing anyone there, and had to quickly adapt to living and working with totally new people, in a totally new environment, through a totally new lifestyle. It was a challenge, at times, to navigate the group dynamics, different communication styles, and the ever-shifting balance between self-care and collective care. I learned so much about myself and how important it is for me to be a part of a community that’s rooted in collaboration, support, accountability, learning, growth, and healing.

There was one day in particular that shifted my perspective a lot. We had just gotten back to the farm from the local K-12 school, where we were volunteering to teach the kids more about plants, soil, gardening, and naturalist observation. The sky had been tinted orange all morning, and it was only getting worse. In fact, it had started the evening before, when we noticed the sun was turning red as it was setting. I and two of the others in the farm crew are from California, so our minds immediately went to wildfires. But instead of listening to our intuition, we waved it off and reassured ourselves: “no way, we’re nowhere near anywhere that’s burning…”

The next day, after getting back from the school, I was starting to get a headache and sore throat, and we finally thought to check the AQI. It was 160— way higher than the average 10 or 20 you see in rural upstate New York; we should’ve been wearing N95’s, indoors and out. Then, it hit me: the rainstorms we’d been having were part of larger weather systems, that brought the smoke from the wildfires in the West over to us on the East Coast. Of course… The climate is global. The climate emergency is global. It’s happening everywhere; there’s no escape.

I knew this fact, mentally, but I didn’t feel the full weight of it, emotionally, until that day. I thought of the kids we’d just been with at the school. They have to grow up in a world that’s becoming increasingly unhealthy and unsafe. They have to grow up in an era that is literally “code red for humanity”. Overwhelmed with grief and despair and anguish, I let the tears flow, and the rest of the group witnessed me and held me. It opened up an important conversation: “How do we adapt?”; “How do we build resilient communities?”; “How do we support each other through this?”

One of the ways we as humans can do all of that is by coming together to demand better from our institutions and advocate for the brighter future we want to build. So, that’s what we did: the farm crew went to a climate action in Newburgh, NY, where a fracked gas power plant has proposed expansion, in violation of the state’s new climate law. We showed up with local residents and folks from all over the Northeast to protest fracking and pollution, and emphasize a just transition to 100% clean, renewable energy. Nearly a hundred people of all ages and backgrounds paddled out onto the Hudson River in canoes and kayaks, singing and chanting for climate justice.

Our rapidly changing climate impacts every aspect of life, every sector of the economy, and farming is no exception. Some weeks, we would go visit and work on another small family farm nearby, to get a sense of their operation and hear about how they’re dealing with the challenges they face, which include impacts from climate change, as well as debt, labor shortages, regulatory hurdles, and other difficulties. I also learned more about farmworkers’ rights and the campaigns & resources in that fight.

The field trips gave me a more holistic understanding of the realities of farming, in practice and in context. Being a farmer has become one of the lowest-paid vocations, especially if your farm is not industrial-scale. Despite that, all the farmers we met emphasized the importance of paying their workers a living wage or salary and providing good working conditions and culture. They also attested to the need, from a business perspective, to constantly adapt, get creative, play to their strengths, and find their niche. For some, that means going above & beyond to grow and market a popular food product, such as organic micro-greens; for others, it looks like hosting kids’ summer camps, or “farm stays” for city folks.

photo by Peter Crosby

Every farm is different and unique, both in terms of physical variables like soil type, water availability, microclimate, native species, etc., and in terms of what kind of work the farmer is willing and able to do, since some methods are more labor- or time-intensive than others. For example, “no-till” has become a popular way to protect and regenerate soil, and to sequester carbon, but it doesn’t necessarily work everywhere. When a farm’s soil is mostly clay, which gets water-saturated and compacted very easily, no-till might not be the most efficient or effective solution.

Before coming to the farm, I didn’t have many preconceived ideas about farming or off-grid living; my intention was to be open to whatever the experience had to teach me. I came without expectations, and I left with a heart full of gratitude, and a mind full of questions to ponder and ideas to share. It made me re-think what I truly need, and what brings my life meaning and joy.

photo by Peter Crosby

Overall, the experience was an affirmation of my values, beliefs, and hopes for humanity. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been enamored with the fact that everything in nature is (and must be) interconnected and interdependent, and I finally got to actually be a part of that on the farm— from the water cycle to the nutrient cycle to the carbon cycle, from soil health to plant health to animal health… and from all of that & more to my own well-being.

Like most people in this day and age, I’ve been socialized to be a consumer, often with little choice in the matter. But on the farm, I was a producer. My role in the “web of relations”, as many Indigenous cultures call it, was a caregiver. A steward. And that’s the way it should be. Everyone has the capacity to cultivate this mutually beneficial relationship with nature, because for the vast majority of human history, that’s how we’ve survived. That’s how we’ve adapted and evolved and thrived.

Of course, now we are at a crossroads. “Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment…” as Bucky Fuller put it. The revolutionary project of re-aligning humanity with the rest of nature, and with our best selves, can feel daunting, to say the least. We can empower each other by channeling anxiety into action, and by holding space for grief as we give each other reasons for hope.

Personally, I’m drawn to urban farming and food sovereignty within cities— it frustrates me to no end that healthy food access is often a privilege when it should be a right. I will probably end up living on an off-grid farm again someday, but for now, I’ve decided to move to Brooklyn, NY, and plan to volunteer at local community gardens as a way to get started. I’m so grateful for my experience on the farm that led me to embark on this new chapter of life.