Book: Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture, by Sharron Hayes, Left to Write Press, Richmondville, NY, 2010.

By Rita Bober

In a recent Kalamazoo Gazette (Jan. 22) there was an article about Michelle Obama and how she was letting feminists down by focusing her role as First Lady to being “mom in chief” and that her daughters are “the center of my world.” What was the whole feminist movement all about anyway? – allowing women the freedom to choose whatever role they felt most important in their lives.

There are other women and men who are choosing a different lifestyle for themselves and their families. In the book, Radical Homemakers, Shannon Hayes describes families and individuals who are pursuing homemaking as a “vocation for saving family, community and the planet.” She also believes it is possible to be a feminist and still can tomatoes.

Living in the United States, it seems that having a two-income family is the only way to survive, especially for the middle class. But what has been the cost – a high divorce rate, increase in overwork, the reckless pursuit of affluence, a distancing of families as one moves “where the jobs are”, lack of time for our children, lack of time to pursue enjoyable interests, lack of time to be part of our community, depending on others to provide the services we need such as afterschool childcare, gardening and lawn care, caring for our elderly parents and so forth.

Hayes interviewed 20 families that chose alternative lifestyles where they grow their own food, live within their means, provide much of their own health care, and they rely on community, extended family, friends, and barter for meeting their remaining needs. They embodied a strong ecological ethic, held equal power in the household, and are living a full, creative, challenging and socially contributory life. Most did not have conventional jobs, many homeschooled their children, and they were great at nurturing relationships and working with family and community.

There are numerous resources outlining how to design an ecologically sustainable, self-sufficient, home-centered life: gardening, preserving food, raising animals, repairing equipment, managing money, etc. But it takes more than these skills to survive in an alternative lifestyle. What abilities are needed to support their sidestepping conventional employment and transforming their homes into units of production?

One of the most important skills to learn is the art of building and nurturing relationships. Interpersonal attributes help sustain our connections to community, extended family, neighbors, and our own immediate families. By giving compliments, helping with tasks, engaging in interesting conversations and expressing affection, playing together, and sharing, we can nurture our relationships.

Sharing isn’t about things so much as the sharing of who we are, our essence, and the intangibles in life. You give yourself by sharing meals, preparing food together, conversing, and working on chores/jobs. Neighbors can collaborate to plant and put up the harvest, co-own large machinery or tools, and they can borrow/trade with each other. In our current society, we are isolated, disconnected from those around us because most families need two incomes to survive. They have little time to give to others.

In building an alternative lifestyle, folks may practice thrift, frugality and debt avoidance. It’s hard to do this in a “money buys all” culture. Our current economic system revolves around money. Money is paid for every service: child care, health care, housecleaning, car repair, eating out, etc. This commoditization of social relationships leaves us with nothing to do together but to consume.

Critical thinking skills are most important – key questions to ask is why am I doing what I’m doing; who defines the parameters for success and happiness; who benefits from our daily labors away from home; and who ultimately suffers from a families lack of self-reliance? It’s true that many lower-income families are much better at living a simple and more self-reliant lifestyle. I remember growing up in a blue-collar family where the children in the family helped with chores, we entertained ourselves (no T.V. or video games), we had a garden and helped Mom can tomatoes, green beans, etc. When we gathered with extended family, we were entertained by family members playing instruments and singing together. I heard recently that a study of happiness showed that the level of happiness in the United States has not increased since the 1950’s. We are the richest country in the world, yet this increase in wealth has not brought us happiness. Why is that?

Hayes’ words exemplify my thoughts: “Whatever life path we choose, building an identity is important. Contributing to society in a meaningful way, challenging ourselves, and being true to our core are ideals present in all feminist theory.”

Let’s visit with two families in Southwest Michigan that share the Radical Homemaker lifestyle:

Dennis and Shawna Wilcox:

Dennis and Shawna with their son Taiyo (almost one) and two boys from Shawna’s previous marriage, Indio and Benjiro, ages 14 and 12 are owners of the off-the-grid Blue Dog Family Farm in Bangor. Certified organic, they operate a summer and winter CSA, sell at Kalamazoo Bank Street Farmers Market and maintain wholesale business accounts. The farm consists of 28 acres, about 7 of which are under cultivation. Dennis was born in Saginaw, MI and got interested in farming in college when he worked a big garden and realized he could do this for a living. He had several internships before buying the farm in Bangor in 2000. Shawna grew up on a dairy farm in Caledonia, MI. When milk prices bottomed in the late eighties, the farm was sold. Shawna attended college at Niagara University as well as Western Michigan University. Dennis and Shawna met initially at the farmers market in Kalamazoo before becoming a couple. Although their income is well below the average MI family of $48,000, they feel very rich and blessed by their lifestyle. They were able to borrow money from relatives and friends to finance the house and other farm endeavors thus avoiding traditional bank loans. They have a great network of friends and CSA families who are very supportive of the farm. They barter farm products, trade skills and rent the tractor they use for the farm from their neighbor. They both feel that “a life that is crafted from ourselves holds deeper meaning and connection and this meaning and connection fosters a sense of gratitude that permeates our everyday life.” They work together as a team for the greater good of the family and farm. There is a definite division of labor but “one has to support the other for the whole to co-exist. What good is it to work so hard to grow nutritious food but come in from the fields exhausted with no dinner prepared?”

Shawna feels lucky to have grown up in a farm community where “women were truly the base on which the whole family and farm thrived.” They also cultivate a sense of humor and laugh together often. “There is an almost irrepressible nature to children and farming that lends itself to many comical situations and so we actively try to cultivate a sense of playfulness to engage this energy and not take ourselves too seriously.” Shawna definitely sees herself as a feminist. She believes that feminism is “about having choices as a woman and having the ability to manifest her feminine self in a way that represents her deepest wild self, aside from patriarchal cultural values.” As any housewife can attest, there are many mundane jobs to be performed which our culture does not value, but as a couple, Dennis and Shawna recognize “how important these jobs are to a functioning and healthy family.” Another value they hold is that of being certified organic. They both feel deeply that they need “to farm in a way that leaves the land and soil productive and fruitful for generations to come and that the gift of fertile soil is a precious gift to give to the next generation.” Both are interested in food justice issues and offer a limited number of free CSA shares to low income single mothers. Through their apprenticeship program they will offer hands on experiences for young people seeking to live in close connection with the land and to pass on skills of self-reliance to those looking to learn these ways.

David Veale and Rachel Kopka:

David and Rachel with their son, Henry, age 8, live on their diversified, pasture based, low carbon farm in Three Rivers. Bluebird Farm is nearly 60 acres; about 25 of that is pasture/hay, 10 acres includes their home, garden, barnyard, orchard, etc., and the remainder is woods. David grew up mostly in western Washington State where his family kept a small vegetable garden, a berry patch and a few fruit trees. He got a BS in Forest Resource Management from the University of Washington and was employed in that field for a few years before going into the information technology field. Recently, he changed to an off-farm job in that field. Rachel grew up in Plainwell, MI where her parents gardened and had a small orchard. Both were teachers so the family had blocks of time in the summer where Rachel gained skills in roofing a house, installing flooring, doing basic carpentry, and other skills through family home improvement projects. The family also traveled across the United States and visited just about every state and National Park. Rachel graduated from the University of Michigan with a BS in Botany and moved to Washington State where she and David met through mutual friends. When one of their friends loaned David copies of Richard Heinberg’s books “The Party’s Over” and “Power Down;” these ideas and his lifetime passion for environmental concerns, started to change his view of the world. When David and Rachel moved to their farm, their goal was to live entirely from their farming operations. With last year’s drought, the dream of garnering a living from the farm receded back over the horizon. At this time, David sees “our farm’s value as an excellent educational experience . . . and as demonstrating the viability of farm production without the use of fossil fuels or chemical inputs.” He is convinced that “community is perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle to sustainability. Knowing your customers individually, you treat them differently than you might treat faceless customers a thousand miles distant. You treat your shared environment better as well.” Both David and Rachel thought they could both work full time and still manage the farm. They learned how impossible that was. Farm work consumes enormous amounts of time. “If you want to eat well without breaking the bank, you have to cook . . . and if you want good, responsibly grown ingredients in sufficient quantity to make it the majority of your diet, you’ll likely have to grow them.” The family currently produces about 2/3rds of their own food which includes growing, harvesting, processing, and cooking (which alone could easily employ a single person full time). Besides gardening, bee keeping, processing maple syrup, chickens/eggs, milking cows, foraging, canning and other food preservation, home brewing, the family also makes soap and candles from their animals’ fats (deer too). When their sheep are sheared, they send the wool to a mill to be washed and carded and Rachel knits quite a lot and also has a floor loom. They use animal power as much as possible with their team of Belgians horses who cut, rake and pick up hay, plow, disc and cultivate, haul firewood and the manure spreader. They heat and cook with wood from their own farm. David has taken a blacksmithing course at Tillers International and now has a forge. He also does his woodworking and repairs with non-electric hand tools. David also hunts and tans the deer hides to make leather. They even have a composting outhouse – although it is not their exclusive “facility.” David feels incredibly blessed that Rachel is able to take the time to handle all the home tasks, as well as furthering her knowledge and experience in such things as spinning, knitting, and weaving. Rachel realizes that staying home enables her to do a small part to keep more of their money in their own pockets and out of corporate coffers. “I’m feeding my family clean, (extremely) locally produced food. I’m maintaining my health by working outside, not working out at the gym, I’m happy with the variety of activities that make up a typical day here on the farm, and I’m constantly challenged with problems to solve and new skills to be mastered. In addition, I’m lucky that I have a spouse that sees value in having a pantry full of canned tomatoes, freezers full of home-raised meat &veggies, shelves stocked with mead & wine, and wool socks and sweaters to keep warm in winter. We both appreciate that security comes in many forms, not just money.” Rachel is grateful to the women who have gone before, who fought hard to gain equal rights for all women. She is “truly grateful to have the choice of staying home or having a career” (she previously had a job as a CAD drafter for a civil engineer). If the circumstances were different, she knows “David would gladly be the one to be on the farm full-time.”

Published in Michigan Land Trustees Newsletter, Spring, 2013.