Our neighbor spent the past few years living near Seattle, where sprawl has made it impossible to see where the city stops. He feels lucky to have moved next to us, because in his mind, our little place on an acre and a half is a farm, and that adds to the out-in-the-country atmosphere he was looking for.
Granted, our rural property near Olympia, 60 miles south of Seattle, is deer-fenced, though we did that to keep out wandering dogs (a frightened deer once leaped it with little effort). The fence surrounds one acre of grasses, scotch broom and other invasive weeds.
We have around 20 chickens that wander the fenced acre, and one rabbit that sits in an A-frame near a large vegetable garden. We sell eggs to pay for chicken feed and give the extra veggies to family and friends.
One side of our garage is piled high with odd bits of fencing material, scrap lumber and anything else we've collected that we think might come in handy, which gives at least that side of the building the appearance of a barn. We pride ourselves on being the Beverly Hillbillies of an otherwise orderly neighborhood, but we don't kid ourselves about being back-to-the-landers or even farmers. We have real full-time jobs in the city, and our farm is more properly an acre of scrub.
We used to farm. My husband grew up on a 400-acre dairy farm in the Netherlands, and soon after we married, we went to work as caretakers and farm workers on a 40,000-acre sheep station in the high country of the South Island of New Zealand.
Getting up before sunrise to run down steep slopes behind mobs of sheep headed for shearing was a part of our work, as was getting the milking done before school. Watching a jumble of weeds take over an acre of unused pasture doesn’t require the same effort or give the same satisfaction. Someday, we’d like to eliminate the weeds behind the fence and earn a little income off a fiber animal, an extended vegetable patch or more eggs from free-range hens. What we’ve found, though, is that support for local produce is undercut by consumers who choose organic or fair-trade products from anywhere but here.
Our county says it’s working to preserve farmland, but it hasn’t begun programs or given incentives to provide markets for locally produced goods. And farmland is so valuable as potential subdivisions that few can afford to buy a farm and keep it that way. So we have cluster developments, designed in part to help preserve farmland, which contain 20-to-40 tightly spaced houses overlooking empty fields. If there's a rundown barn tottering over a rise, the residents might feel they’re close to a farm.
But the only tractors they see are John Deere riding mowers that keep large swaths of lawn tidy. This is tame machinery compared to the 30-year-old Leyland tractor, a huge monster, that we fired up in New Zealand to move hay and bags of feed and wool.
Our neighbor says he feels freer out here in the country, but given our background, we feel cramped — sometimes even trapped. We don't allow our kids to bike on the street in front of the house because it serves as a final stretch for cars going to and from a development just a quarter-mile away. My daughter would give anything for a horse, but equestrians are at as much risk as pedestrians and cyclists on our shoulderless country roads. Then again, if we built a shed with one stall and brought in a horse, our property would look even more like the farm our neighbor likes to think it is.
Perceptions of what rural means and what farming is are changing fast, and as they change, ideas of what needs preserving will change. As we develop our way into the future, our once-urban neighbor may think of our property when he reads about the county's efforts to preserve agricultural lands. I think of the farms that stretched as far as the eye could see, the kind of farms that you don’t see now.
I wonder if our neighbor feels like a farmer when he goes out back to tend his lettuce on a four-by-eight foot lettuce patch in the corner of his lawn. Perhaps he sits down with a John Deere catalog when he’s finished weeding the rows.
Suzanne Malakoff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She lives near Olympia, Washington, and works as the administrative director of a regional environmental organization.