In Walden, Henry David Thoreau advocated what later came to be dismissively called subsistence farming. As far as I know, he never used that term. Instead, he wrote that experience had taught him “that if one would live simply and eat only the crop which he raised, and raise no more than he ate, and not exchange it for an insufficient quantity of more luxurious and expensive things, he would need to cultivate only a few rods of ground, and that it would be cheaper to spade up that than to use oxen to plough it, and to select a fresh spot from time to time than to manure the old, and he could do all his necessary farm work as it were with his left hand at odd hours in the summer; and thus he would not be tied to an ox, or horse, or cow, or pig, as at present.”
Thoreau continued, “I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the freer. Men and oxen exchange work; but if we consider necessary work only, the oxen will be seen to have greatly the advantage, their farm is so much the larger. Man does some of his part of the exchange in his six weeks of haying, and it is no boy’s play.” [Having earned a few dollars as boy helping local farmers with their haying, I can attest to Henry David’s characterization. —Author] “Certainly no nation that lived simply in all respects… would commit so great a blunder as to use the labor of animals.”
My first year’s experience at Belly Acre Farm showed that H.D. was probably right, but it also exposed some flaws in his assumptions, especially a century and a half later when we have pushed much farther than he ever imagined down the road he cautioned against.
First, I was raising food for an extended family, not just myself. It was quickly apparent that I needed to grow more than I could eat, and there would be none left to exchange for more expensive goods. It was just as quickly clear that no one who hoped to partake in my garden’s bounty was able or willing to exchange any work. So from the beginning, instead of seven people growing their own food on “a few rods of ground,” it would be one person growing for seven people.
I had no animals to help me, nor did I want any. But there were some days when spading the ground by hand (not to mention hoeing it, especially after the weed seeds exploded in the rainy spring) did not seem quite as free as Henry David said it was.
Late in the summer, my mother-in-law gave me the tiller she had bought in the late 1970s. It’s a good tiller, and my sister-in-law had used it extensively when she kept her deceased father’s garden going for a few years. But after they moved, it saw very limited action, and had sat unused for the last several years.
I spent several days’ worth of spading time working on the motor, trying to get it running. I had just enough success to keep me working at it, but not enough to make it actually usable. Finally, I took it to a local small engine mechanic, just months after Tecumseh (the maker of the engine) had gone belly up. It took the mechanic months to track down the necessary parts, and I just got the tiller back this week. It’s now ready for my spring season, which will begin as soon as the ground thaws enough to till.
I’m sure Thoreau would laugh at all this and say I would be better off with a few hand tools. He might have a point, in fact. Even though I got the tiller for nothing, I’ve already spent over $150 on getting it running, and of course I’ll have to put gas into it all summer, even if nothing else breaks. In essence, I’ve exchanged much of what I will grow for my new “animal.”
Even though I will be able to plant more of my little acre, I’m starting the season in the hole financially. Not to mention that if I do decide to manure the field, I’ll still have to seek out those animals he warned me to stay away from.