Vision -- Homemade Prosperity: How to Get Out of the Consumer Trap
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It should have been a high point in my life. I had just successfully defended my dissertation and had three potential job opportunities. But I found myself pacing around our cabin or walking the hills of my family’s farm, alternately weeping and hurling invectives into the country air. Bob and I were fighting with a force I’d never seen.
The simple fact was, I didn’t want the job I’d spent years working toward.
“I thought you wanted this! Why the hell did you just spend the last four years at Cornell? Why did we just go through with this? Why did you say that’s what you wanted?”
What could I tell him? Because I didn’t know any other way to stay close to my family’s land and make the kind of money I thought we needed? Because I didn’t believe there was a future in farming? Because the only way I thought I could manifest my talents was within an institution that would offer me a paycheck?
“What do you want?”
“To write and farm.”
“Then do it.”
“We need money. I don’t know how to do it.”
But I did know how. Since our arrival on these shores, every generation of my family has farmed. I was in the first generation that didn’t believe we could make a living doing it. Our neighbors lived, laughed, and loved on these rocky hillsides, and they did it with four-figure incomes. And yet, I’d come to believe that, on these same hills, we needed six. Somewhere along the line, I had stopped believing the evidence that was before me and started believing one of the central myths of modern American culture: that a family requires a pile of money just to survive in some sort of comfort and that “his and her” dual careers were an improvement over times past.
What had changed? Why did I believe we needed so much? It was a puzzle to me at the time. In retrospect I see that my generation grew up immersed in media that equated affluence with respect, happiness, and fulfillment. We heard a national dialogue that predicted the end of the family farm. Those messages shook our security in our lifestyle—we ended up questioning our own experience.
After all, I grew up working on my neighbor’s farm. We had fantastic midday feasts, the house was warm in the winter, and there was always a little spare cash on hand to donate when someone was in trouble. And plenty of pies got baked, gratis, to contribute to the local church bake sale and turkey supper. I was in my mid-20s before I discovered just how little money they lived on.
That was how many people lived as I was growing up in West Fulton, N.Y., where my family still farms. The steep hillsides and frosty valleys render most modern industrial farming technologies impractical in my community. Cash crops are few. To survive, my neighbors had to produce as many of the things they needed as possible and buy only the things they absolutely couldn’t make or grow at home. They grew and preserved food, sewed and mended clothes, and did their own repairs, improvements, and upkeep on the farm.
But most American lives reflect a transition that happened in households following the Industrial Revolution. Before then, the home was a center of production, not very different from the original households that first emerged in 13th-century Europe, as the feudal period was coming to an end. The family’s economic security was a result of the householders’ combined efforts to produce what they needed. They raised their food, cured their meats, made soap, wove fabric, and produced their own clothing.