I love words. I love our language. I especially love the word “sustainable.”
Environmentalists use the word often. Even Monsanto, their nemesis, uses the word to describe itself in National Public Television ads. Very funny.
How do you define it? Our Oxford American Dictionary is not that helpful: “Sustain: Support, bear the weight of for a long time; maintain … continuously.”
Sort of like a perpetual motion machine, which remains in the realm of the unattainable.
We at Long Meadow Farm are not sustainable. We just aspire to be.
We operate a truck and a car (four cylinders each) that require unsustainable fuels; we hire out haying and tilling from neighbors who operate equipment that requires unsustainable fuels.
We have electric ovens, lights and refrigeration that require participation in the Central Maine Power grid. But we don’t have a clothes dryer — everything from the washing machine hangs outside or inside until it’s dry.
We have three dishwashers: Michele, Anna and me.
We have our hot water on a timer (two hours in the morning) but virtually all our water comes from a drilled well.
We buy standard chicken feed for our 50 layers to provide the majority of their sustenance. The rest of their feed comes from them free-ranging their run and our back yard — plus the waste vegetables, stale bread and meat bits (chickens love them!) from the kitchen. Egg sales more than pay for feed.
On a more sustainable side, we build our soil with manure and mulch and see their effects annually. No chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
Our raised beds for all crops, including potatoes, helped us in times of overwhelming rain, such as we had this summer. We use only hand tools to not disturb beds beyond weeding and continue to build the health of the soil. We avoid compaction by not walking on the beds and they have no tractor wheel ruts.
Raised beds don’t help in drought — in fact, they can hurt — but clay soil is good in drought, so it all works out.
While we battle weeds in the garden, we encourage them in our rough pasture and hayfield — about 16 of our 28 acres. The sheep, goats and occasional beef animals are big on grass and that’s pretty much all we ever let them eat.
Getting hay is not what I would call sustainable, even though it is from our own fields. We hire it out to those who have the equipment — tractors, cutters, tedders and bailers, and buy it at prices that have ranged from $1 per bale eight years ago to $2 per bale this year.
We have toyed with the idea of cutting the hay ourselves with scythes and raking and forking it into hay cocks for our winter supply. Just like the old days.
Three years ago, when we had four apprentices for part of the summer, we decided to cut a three-acre section of our hayfield to see how long it would take.
Working in the cool of the morning from 6-8 a.m. it took us four weeks to do the job, or about 160 total hours. We didn’t even get to the raking and forking part. Power equipment could have done the whole job in 2-3 days, or about 20 working hours.
So, until the price of oil goes out of sight, or there are no farmers left with the proper equipment, we continue on our unsustainable way.
Then there is the poor cousin of pasture and hayland: the lawn. This country is home to 30 million acres of lawn, most of which is power-mowed and chemically fertilized, yet produces nothing of value to anyone. Talk about a great squander of land resources.
Ten years ago, Long Meadow Farm had about an acre of lawn surrounding the house, mowed by one of the highest pollution producers known to man (or woman): a gas-powered lawn mower. Now we have less than a quarter-acre, most of it between the driveway and the front door. It is mowed with a battery-operated gasless mower.
We have replaced the other three-quarters of an acre with a 50-by-50-foot garden; a 10-by-12-foot chicken coop with a 50-by-75-foot run, and we graze our 50 laying hens on what’s left of the grass between the house and the coop. They are surprisingly efficient at keeping grass short and even down to bare ground in the well-traveled areas. Plus they are fun to watch.
Then there is the question of staying warm in winter and cool in summer.
We don’t have air conditioning, but we did manage to do something better: We bought a small camp lot on Cold Stream within walking distance of the farm. So on really hot days, we have a quick lunch, get into our bathing suits and head for the stream for a swim or paddle. Problem solved!
In cold weather, our 30-year-old Vermont Castings wood stove keeps the downstairs warm, even if the upstairs can drop to the 40s or 50s in deep winter. The wood is cut, split and hauled from different parts of our land. Virtually sustainable, although points are lost because we make big use of our chainsaw, and 30-year-old woodstoves are not all that clean-burning. But we can make good use of the wood ash in the garden.
So we continue to search for our own version of a perpetual motion machine — something nature solved on its own a few billion years ago when life was invented.
Denis Thoet, with his partner Michele Roy, own and manage Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner, longmeadowfarm@roadrunner. com