Real Home Economics

Ages ago, I read the book Radical Homemakers, which discussed a subset of the population that was foregoing traditional jobs and choosing to live off the land and produce the things they consumed themselves. I was largely dissatisfied with this book, mainly because the author didn’t seem to have a good understanding of economics. She liked to call the economy the “extractive economy,” one that extracts your labor from you and doesn’t give you much back. She extoled the value of making the household a unit of production, instead of consumption. Except she never seemed to acknowledge that there are a lot of things it makes more sense to buy than produce yourself. And if you can get a job that pays more than turning your household into a unit of production (especially if you don’t enjoy all the work that comes with it), it makes more sense to have that job than to make everything yourself. However radical it may be.

Now I have finally found the book that discusses making it yourself vs buying it: Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. The author, Jennifer Reese, was laid off from her job in 2008 and decided to figure out which things actually were cheaper (or better quality) to make at home because it obviously isn’t everything.

And it’s hilarious. Then again, watching suburbanites turn from city-dwellers to wanna-be homesteaders is always funny–I should know. I am one.

Reading her book has made me crave goats again. I really do want a goat, but since my goat would probably be a milk goat and not a meat goat, I’m holding off. I know I don’t have the time to milk a goat or learn how to play midwife to one or breed it or deal with subsequent offspring or make cheese/butter/whatever from the milk.

So that needs to wait. However fun making my own Camembert or mozzarella might sound.

This book has, however, made me feel more determined to get pigs. My husband and I discussed getting them this past spring, but we were woefully behind on everything we wanted to do anyway and decided not to add any additional livestock. But now we’re a bit caught up. And I’m out of pork. And we have about 5.5 acres of wooded area I’d love to see opened up a bit more.

I’ve been reading up on raising pastured/forest pigs and decided we should get 3. I know one person who would be interested in buying one pig from me (dead, of course). One pig would be for us and the third we would have to find someone to buy. I found a blog from a pig farmer in Vermont who seems to know what he’s doing and he wrote (and updated) a post on finishing your own pigs and it was very informative. Basically, pig chow, no. Forest/pasture, yes. Maybe I can embarrass myself and ask around at local stores/supermarkets/bakeries and find out if I can get their waste foods (bread, fruit, dairy) to feed the pigs as well.

The farmer recommend dividing up the area you want your pigs in into 6 small areas and rotate them between them, spending a week at each one in order to make sure it’s been well torn apart. I know exactly the area in our woods I want them at, too. The area and hill behind the pond, where we had loggers remove our pine trees. They left a ton of fallen lumber and branches there, which have been rotting for about two years now. We’re thinking about putting swales in there, a permaculture thing suggested by some of our friends (who are very into permaculture) and then planting our orchard on top of that. But the area is now overgrown with various plants and small trees. Having pigs open that up for us would be awesome. Maybe they’ll help get rid of our blackberry plants, too. Who knows.

Other than that, Reese has informed me that amazon.com has the cheapest vanilla beans ever and I just ordered half a pound of them for $36. I was also planning on making strawberry jam from u-pick strawberries this summer (Alpha wanted to see how it’s made), but her book informed me that homemade strawberry jam tastes just like store-bought and is therefore, not worth it. So I’m now going to make Strawberry-Rhubarb jam with Rhubarb I got from a friend who doesn’t have (or want) anything to do with it.

And I’m going to make my own vanilla extract. This is exciting!

Some notable quotes from the book:

“If rather than a lush green garden, you want your outdoor space to resemble a Third World village, I suggest getting some chickens, who will methodically denude the landscape of every blade of grass, low-lying weed, and wildflower. And i you want to rid yourself of shrubbery and small trees as well, get a goats. Very soon you will have the adobe patio of your dreams.”

“Where is that sweet spot between buying and making? What does the market do cheaper and better? And where are we being deceived, our tastes and habits and standards corrupted?”

“Are you nuts? If so, make it! (re: Vermouth)

“Chickens squabble. Chickens have minds of their own, however small. Not so the ducks, who waddled in lockstep formation around the yard, wing to wing, all day, every day, muttering. They were like a Hare Krishnas, always chanting in a gang.”

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Ways to Cut Back

My sister wants to get solar panels. Her location is perfect for it—she has a nice long roof pointing south and lives in a region where they would generate a good amount of electricity all year round. You even get a nice tax credit from the federal government for buying solar panels and they pretty much always end up owing on their taxes. The rub in this plan is the fact you have to pay for the solar panels up front and get the tax credit later, when you file your taxes. Solar panels don’t come cheap and an array to cover her roof would probably cost about $20,000 to $30,000. Since no one is handing out home equity loans, that would mean saving the money. “You’d have to cut back on some things,” I advised.

“But that’s just the problem. There aren’t many places we could cut back, unless we cut out the kids’ music lessons and that sort of thing.”

Whenever I’m confronted by an immobile budget like this, I always think of Asians who manage to save 50% of their income. How the heck do they do it when we’re sitting here, needing every penny from our paycheck just to keep us afloat to our next one?

So I explained ‘austerity’ to my sister. Austerity, I said, is a bit like going on a diet to get to a certain goal weight. You cut out a lot of things you would normally spend money on in order to reach a goal. You can add them back in later but you cut them out for now.

If we were going to go on an austere budget in order to reach a saving goal, here are the things we would cut out:

1) Amazon Prime

2) Soda

3) Sweets

4) Driving to nearby cities more than once a week (we live in a rural area and it costs $5 in gas each time we drive to the nearest city)

5) Netflix

6) New clothes/shoes

7) Eating out

8) Alpha’s gymnastics

9) Doing new thing on the house (obviously)

10) Reduce/eliminate paper products usage

11) Stop buying kindle books

All of these things are things that bring us more enjoyment than the money would, so we do them, but for a temporary amount of time I could see us cutting them out in order to meet a goal of some sort. I could even reduce the amount of calories I eat since I need to lose weight, anyway, in order to cut our grocery bill. You know, if we really wanted to save some money but were short a few dollars to reach our goal.

Aside from those, there aren’t too many areas we could cut. We already have a garden. We could get rid of our chickens, which don’t save us any money at all. There’s no way you can raise chickens in your backyard that are cheaper than factory farm chicken/chicken eggs. It’s just not possible, especially if you’re raising your chickens humanely.

It’d probably be easier (and more enjoyable) to find ways to increase your income for that period of time and just save the money you earn than to cut all the fat out of your budget.