Irondale: An Experiment In Post-Oil Survival
By Peter Goodchild
05 April, 2009
Around 1999 my wife and I decided we wanted to leave Toronto, Ontario, and move to the country. What we were looking for was a house in fair condition that could be used for year-round occupancy in accordance with the building code and other local laws, enough arable land for us to grow our own food, a year-round road, a well, and a septic system. Based on what we saw and what we could afford, the property would cost only a fraction of the price of a house in the city. In the autumn of the following year what we finally discovered, about 100 miles north of Toronto, was a nice mobile home set on a good basement, with four acres of land, mostly grassland rather than trees. The northern border was on County Road 503, the southern border was on the banks of the Irondale River, and the entire property was on the western edge of a village also called Irondale. In December of that year, our offer was accepted.
During the spring and summer of 2001 we went up there on as many weekends as possible. In April we dug up a small area so that we could plant potatoes, and we got some painting done inside the house. In May we roughly dug up much more land, hoping for a more substantial garden. We planted seeds everywhere, but the grass grew back completely within a few weeks and almost none of the vegetables survived. The terrible drought of that summer didn’t help, and we were unaware of the fact that the grass was couch grass, a perennial that puts down a 6-inch-thick layer of roots. We had already had a soil test done by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, and the report said the soil was very low in everything.
I spent three weeks at the farm in August of 2001 during a holiday from my teaching job, and my wife was also there for part of that time. By the end of the month, we had finally got a fair piece of land properly cleared of grass, 50' x 50', although by then it was too late to do any planting. We finished painting most of the inside of the house. Late in that winter, the school board closed down the location where I had been working. I could have looked for a job somewhere else in Toronto, but we decided that it was time to make the big leap. We put our city house up for sale.
As far as I could tell, the only way we’d be able to get a few vegetables out of the ground, some time between the spring and fall of 2002, was to follow the suggestions of the government report and buy some large quantities of fertilizer and limestone. We foolishly bought these, a few bags at a time, from a hardware store. By the end of that summer we’d spent nearly $1,000 on limestone and fertilizer, but we’d only put down about half of what we really needed. Much later we discovered that farm-supply stores and local contractors could sell us these materials at a fraction of the price we’d been paying at the hardware store. Oh, well, we were young and innocent — if perhaps more innocent than young. Afterwards, we not only started buying these materials more cheaply, but much later, in 2007, since prices were rising, we asked someone to deliver two tons of triple-19 fertilizer, a lifetime supply. Those who come after us, however, will have to find some other solution to growing crops on barren soil; when the oil is gone, there will be no machinery or motorized vehicles for the processing or long-distance transportation of huge quantities of fertilizer, “organic” or otherwise.
In early April of 2002, the ground suddenly thawed, so over the next three days I used a shovel and a heavy “Italian” hoe to dig up about 2,000 square feet of grassland. I might have done far more if I hadn’t run into some huge rocks, some of them four feet long, which I levered out of the ground with some huge iron bars. Still, I was getting about twice as much done every day as I had in the previous year, perhaps because the ground was now wet from rain and hence looser. By early May I finally had slightly more than a quarter of an acre in varying degrees of cultivation, with the emphasis on “varying.” Perhaps it was crazy to be digging up so much in the first summer of living there full-time, but I really wanted to see a good-sized, adequate garden, even just to find out how well it could be done, how feasible it was.
In late May I planted some unidentified multicolored corn I’d bought two years earlier. I made eight rows of 50' each, with about four kernels per foot. That was the biggest section of garden. It took only about half hour to do the planting, since the ground had already been cleared, although I raked up a few grass roots when I was covering the grain.
We were practicing “dry farming,” with widely spaced single rows and with wide spaces between the plants in each row. That was how it was done in the old days, before garden hoses and electric pumps or municipal water supplies. I didn’t intend to use any water other than whatever fell from the sky, since one day our 150'-deep submersible electric pump might not be running. I wanted to prove that crops could be grown on a “survivalist” or “self-sufficient” basis. Of course, I was cheating already by using hardware-store fertilizer and limestone for the first summer, but a real survivalist wouldn’t have been crazy enough to try growing anything on that kind of land in the first place — a mixture of sand, asphalt, broken bottles, and rusted bulldozer parts.
By June of 2002, the garden was quite a patchwork. Some things were coming out too thin, others too thick. Had birds eaten the seeds? Had cold weather killed off the seedlings? Why had some crops come out well, while other crops had not? I couldn’t see any pattern to it. Well, of course, the soil was poor, but there was also the time-and-energy factor: in most of the garden, I had only chopped down through a few inches of soil, once the couch grass had been removed. The underlying soil might have been just too hard for certain crops. We slowly discovered that the problems could also be ascribed to various culprits ranging from cutworms to wild geese.
In spite of the problems, by the beginning of July we had some decent crops coming along — in very small quantities, admittedly. Eventually the good crops were corn, peas, carrots, parsnips, beans, squash, potatoes, onions, cherry tomatoes, cayenne peppers, and various herbs. Kale, chard, turnips, and beets were generally a failure, even though they all did well in later years.
In the middle of July, a 25' x 50' patch of rye we’d planted the previous autumn was six or seven feet high, ready for harvesting. This was the biggest patch of rye we’d ever planted, so I wanted to do some proper experiments. I started using a scythe, but the grain tended to fall in a tangle. I switched to a sickle for a while, and it did a neat job but took a very long time and was hard on my back, with all the stooping. Based on that experience and on my previous reading, it seemed that one cannot get neat sheaves of grain with an ordinary scythe — it’s apparently necessary to use a grain cradle attached to the scythe. But still, the scythe alone was not so bad. After threshing the rye, we got about 15 quarts, about 1/3 of a bushel. That worked out to only 12 bushels per acre, according to my calculations, only a fraction of what the average modern farmer would get. Still, it was better than nothing. We used a hand mill to turn the rye into flour, and we made some nice bread.
We were aware of the fact that we would need an income of some sort. Before moving to Irondale we thought we’d have several possible sources of money, but all of these were a disappointment, so we then thought of expanding our garden to make a living from it. We suspected it would be a roadside-stand sort of thing, since that seemed to be the way to beat the financial bind that bothers so many farmers. We wanted to stay away from the giant corporations who sell the fertilizer, the pesticides, the seeds, the machinery, and who then buy the crop and process it, so that the farmer is little more than an employee on his own land. We met a family who had a business selling flowers about half mile east of us, and they said they had started their own business with only a couple of picnic tables as their equipment. It was their opinion that a vegetable stand would do very well in the area. They said there had actually been somebody next to them doing such a thing at one time, but that he had retired.
During the winter, the wood stove was the center of our existence. In late 2002 it was sometimes so cold in the house that I walked around gritting my teeth. It dawned on us that we needed to keep the damper all the way open, or at least halfway, since the unseasoned wood we were using wasn’t burning so well. If we managed to keep the fire going nonstop for days, we had no trouble at all getting it to burn new or wet wood. But getting that stove going again after it had been out for several hours could be murder. Often at the beginning of that winter, no matter how much newspaper, pine cones, and birch bark we added to encourage the fire, it was only a matter of minutes before it all fizzled out again.
On one particular morning, it felt as if we were on a one-way trip to the land of Hypothermia. I got so frustrated that I went and woke my wife and told her we had to do something serious right away. We gathered whatever energy we had left and put up curtain rods and curtains for the French windows in the kitchen, and for the new window we’d had installed in the living room. By the end of the day it seemed warmer at last. Snow was falling all day as we were working, and that snow seemed so peaceful in the evening as the temperature inside slowly increased.
I realized that modern houses are energy monsters. They’re much too big, for one thing, and they have far too many windows. Another problem is that the plumbing and heating systems are tied together in a manner that is both extravagant and dangerous. We were heating our entire basement simply to protect a few tiny water pipes. And closing off unnecessary rooms, as people used to do in the nineteenth century, now involves several risks: frozen drywall might start cracking, for example. In general, modern houses are too full of electrical wires, water pipes, fuel lines, and so on. All of this keeps the trades people in business, but it makes a house very vulnerable, and it does not allow one to make modifications easily along unconventional lines. For example, our oil-heating system had died on us fairly quickly, and I was still trying to work out the repercussions, even though I was basically glad it had happened.
Much of each winter was spent planning the garden for the following year. One day in that winter of 2002-2003 I spent several hours trying to figure out how much cow manure we would need for what was going to be an entire acre of garden. It finally looked as though we’d need about 50 tons of manure, which was about 100 cubic yards. A local farmer agreed to deliver that much for $675.
That spring we briefly switched to “intensive gardening,” in the hope of getting more vegetables from our land. But after a few days without rain, our “intensive” pea patch simply died, and other crops also suffered. By June of that year, after wading through a mountain of gardening books, I was beginning to suspect (as I had actually done long ago) that “intensive gardening” didn’t work, except perhaps in very small gardens such as those in a suburban backyard. One problem with intensive gardening was that there was no practical way to do weeding except by hard manual labor. The thickly planted rows of intensive gardening meant vegetables were hard to reach. With the opposite method, planting vegetables in rows a single plant wide, leaving plenty of bare ground between rows, it was possible to get a hoe to the weeds. The biggest problem with intensive gardening, however, was that it required more water — twice as many plants per unit of land requires nearly twice as much water per unit. By our own experiments over the years, we found that a great deal of gardening gospel was simply not true — and certainly not true for anyone trying to grow a garden larger than an average suburban backyard.
In that same year of 2003 we started growing crops to sell, not just to feed ourselves. We sold our vegetables at the farmers’ market in the nearby town of Kinmount as well as at our own roadside stand.
I think, however, that it’s easy to be unrealistic about any “localized economy,” and farmers’ markets are often not quite the epitome of country living as they might appear. Growing crops for money disrupts the basic sense of localized agriculture. Tourists and cottagers want salad ingredients: “high end” stuff, hard to grow, low on calories. For survival purposes, on the other hand, what one should be growing is root crops and starchy items: high in calories, easy to grow, easy to store for winter. Besides, a cottager who drives a 2-ton SUV to a farmers’ market to buy half a pound of lettuce isn’t doing anything “environmentally friendly.” Some of the people who shop at farmers’ markets are actually just doing it as a form of snobbery, so they can brag to their lakeside friends about the exclusivity of the salad ingredients they’re serving.
Growing food for sale, in any case, is economically self-defeating, whether it involves localized or non-localized sales. The world’s agriculture is still dominated by a small number of multinational companies, and by the giant farms that form the second tier of that feudal structure. One day “agri-business” will collapse, but that event may drag out for quite a few more years. For now, those big companies can undercut the prices of any small-scale farmer. The average shopper of today doesn’t know and doesn’t care how much hard labor goes into a handful of vegetables.
The vegetable garden was still feeding ourselves, of course, as well as other people, but meat was a different matter. Sometimes people would give us fish or venison, but we usually had to buy meat if we wanted any. In the spring of 2006, however, on my way to a meeting one evening, I saw a man standing in front of a service truck, smoking a cigarette and looking very nervous. I stopped and asked him if he was all right. He said that he was okay, but that the deer that had just collided with him had not been so lucky. The animal had run right in front of him and hit the truck and died. I asked if he wanted the deer, and he said no. So I put the dead deer in my car trunk. I barely made it to the meeting, and had to walk in slightly bloodstained and apologize for my tardiness. I came home later in the darkness with that poor dead animal. My wife and I started taking the guts out, and we saved the heart, liver, and kidneys. But it was raining, pouring down, so we moved into the greenhouse. We worked on the deer, butchering and skinning and so on, and we finished the whole thing, from head to toe, at 3:30 a.m. The next day I put about 10 pounds of meat to dry on a rack in the sun, and we put the rest in our chest freezer.
For a long time we’d thought we should start raising chickens and selling eggs, since there were no local sources of eggs except the supermarkets. The winter of 2005-2006 gave us the time to read a good deal on the subject and to start designing a coop that would suit our needs. In the spring I mixed the concrete for the floor, doing the entire job without machinery, starting early in the morning and not finishing until evening. I later put the plates (horizontal 2" x 4"s) along the four sides, and then the frames of the four walls.
Far too soon, we got a phone call from the farm-supply store that our 25 Rhode Island Red chicks had arrived, so we drove to Lindsay to get them. Since the coop wasn’t built completely yet, we put them in a big cardboard box with feed and water in the living room. Finally all the major work on the coop was finished, and we put primer on the walls, and a final coat of paint, and at last the chicks could move into their home.
Things ended rather abruptly. We decided that if our farming income didn’t improve by the summer of 2007 I’d start looking for a steadier income. That autumn I began looking for a job of any sort in the Irondale area, even the most menial of occupations, but I had no luck. I then went on the Internet to look for a teaching job. I looked for work anywhere in Haliburton County, in any part of Ontario, any part of Canada, any part of the world. The first bite was a teacher-training job at a college in the Sultanate of Oman, in the summer of 2008, and I signed the contract immediately.
Over the years, we had learned a great deal about agriculture, about raising poultry, about carpentry, and many other things, and that knowledge could be used again some other day, but our little farm in Irondale was not destined to last forever. What killed the Irondale experiment was too much work and not enough money. There never seemed to be a way to stretch a dollar far enough, no matter how hard we worked.
From a broader perspective, what went wrong was twofold. In the first place, we’d been planning to go “back to Nature” and therefore, conversely, to get away from civilization. But we weren’t doing that. We weren’t living in a log cabin in the mountains, we were living in a house with most of the modern conveniences. We were merely living in a less crowded stretch of civilization. That part of Ontario consisted of retirees, cottagers, welfare recipients, and a few trades people. Newcomers such as ourselves were probably looked upon by some of the locals as hopeless fools. Unemployment was very high, and our presence there was not making those figures look any better. The locals certainly didn’t think of themselves as being in the midst of Nature, while for the cottagers Nature was just a peek at the sunset as they sat in their glass-enclosed porches and went through a bottle of wine.
The second part of “what went wrong” was the switch from subsistence gardening to commercial agriculture. Although I’d calculated (and read) that by excluding the middleman it was possible to make a living at small-scale vegetable gardening, that didn’t seem to be true: every time we blinked, we seemed to be spending another thousand dollars. Yes, as the world’s oil runs out, transportation will become more expensive, globalization will therefore fail, and localized economies will win — but that might take another decade.
It was always a problem of what is called the “money economy.” (Any pre-industrial culture has an economy, perhaps quite an elaborate one, even if that culture does not use money. It is a mistake to assume that an economy must be one that is inherently based on money.) As long as we were trapped with car expenses, with property taxes, with hardware-store expenses, with electricity bills, there was always a corresponding need for at least an equivalent amount of money coming in. I dreamed of an apocalyptic world in which money would be meaningless, but the daily reality was the enslavement to that flow of dollars. As Marx points out in his rather clumsy fashion, the capitalist system is set up, through “free” enterprise, to ensure that the worker gets paid only enough to stay alive. The problem is not that the world is falling apart. The problem is that it is not falling apart fast enough.
Perhaps a twenty-year-old in perfect health, with good muscular strength and endurance, as well as a sense of determination, would be able to pick up a gun and an ax and head off into the mountains, but even that is uncertain. There are now strict laws about private and public land, about hunting and fishing, about house construction, and so on. All these laws require — in a mysterious and sinister fashion — an adherence to a way of life in which money comes in, and money goes out, while the person in the middle of that flow has little control over it.
When I follow the news of the world, I’m actually rather pleased at what I see as the increasing rate of systemic collapse everywhere. Even the confusion and ignorance that accompany that collapse are remarkable: people can’t even agree on whether the problems exist. If I mention the fact that there are 7 billion people, and that the number has tripled since the day I was born, I am likely to be told that there is no such thing as overpopulation. The same lack of consensus can be seen in any discussion of global resource-consumption: oil, water, metals, food, whatever. Politicians are just clowns, never telling the truth, destroying whatever virtues there may have been in what is now the utterly unworkable system called democracy. But they are simply making the problems worse. They are also making the end more certain.
As long as there is chaos, there is hope. When industrial society has collapsed, there will be a chance for something better. One day, for some people, the enigmatic quest for a return to Nature will be fulfilled.
Peter Goodchild is the author of “Survival Skills of the North American Indians.” His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.