What is Sustainable Living?1
In January of this year I wrote Our Story and mentioned that I would eventually share with you why we believe a micro-farm provides health (sustainability) not only for our family but also for the community. Since that time, I’ve used the term sustainable living several times. Now that the main growing season is over and my focus is turning to more of the non-gardening aspects of the farm, this seems like a good time to share those thoughts with you.
If you do a quick Google search for sustainable living you’ll find many different definitions. All of them have shades of the same concepts. I believe that these definition variations exist not because the what and how of sustainable living is so different from group to group but because the why is different. The Arcadia Farms definition of sustainable living (coming in the next paragraph) contains the same concepts as many other definitions but reflects our values and reasons for choosing this style of life.
Sustainable living is a system of living that maintains its own viability by seeking to optimize the use of naturally and locally available resources, often including reuse. Said more simply, it’s a lifestyle that can go on unhindered (or at least only slightly inconvenienced) in the face of shortages or stoppages of modern resources we’ve come to rely on such as electricity, gasoline and Wal-Mart. This type of sustainable living means that families become producers of more of the things they use rather than consumers only. It also contains a component of environmental stewardship since many of the resources needed to make the system effectively work come from nature. A healthy environment provides for both usable and ongoing resources.
Our micro-farm exists to provide an avenue for our family to develop a lifestyle of sustainable living, as well as to share information about and products of that lifestyle with our community. After some research, thought and experience, we’ve come to believe that our (and other) micro-farm(s) can contribute to both family and community health. This is an important but detailed topic. For those of you who are inclined to look at the length of this post and skip it all together, I thought I’d first provide a summary of the main points.
Sustainable living is a system of living that maintains its own viability by seeking to optimize the use of naturally and locally available resources, often including reuse. It’s a lifestyle where families become producers rather than consumers only and that can go on unhindered without unnatural and non-local resources. Sustainable living requires stewardship of natural resources and habitats. Developing a sustainable lifestyle takes time and practice; those who aspire to it should not feel condemned for not being farther along than they are.
The outcome of sustainable living is health – both for families and communities. Family health is realized in three areas: Physical, financial and mental. Sustainable living is natural and includes naturally grown/raised food which is free of chemicals that studies show have bad long-term effects on human health. It also involves a degree of exercise which benefits physical health. Sustainable living improves family financial health by saving money on everyday items that are produced at home or locally rather than from a chain store that receives goods from all over the world. And sustainable living improves family mental health by providing peace of mind that you have the skills and resources to provide for your family even in the event of a crisis such as a natural disaster or the loss of a job.
Sustainable living also contributes to community health and does so in four areas: Physical, economic, environmental and social health. The physical health of a sustainable community is the cumulative health of its families. Sustainable communities will also be more focused on addressing the non-food factors which contribute to public health. Sustainable living impacts economic health by keeping money local and creating local jobs. Also, families who have saved money by living sustainably are able to invest more into the community through their spending and their charity. By focusing on repairing and maintaining things like soil health, plant diversity and animal habitats which have been harmed by chemicals and conventional farming methods, sustainable living practices can also have a positive impact on the health of a community’s environment. Community members who don’t feel they can contribute to this health by being producers can still have an impact by joining local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. As the Illinois Farm Direct Project states, “CSAs provide more than just food, they offer ways for eaters to become involved in the ecological and human community that supports the farm.”
You can call us all kinds of names. Micro-farm. Market Garden. Sub-urban Farm. Urban Homestead. (That’s right, we keep the name-calling clean around these parts!) Whatever label you use, a family who becomes a producer rather than a consumer only can reap physical, financial and mental health benefits.
Physical Health. When it comes to physical family health, the first thing I think of is food. (Not that I don’t think of food first in many situations… moving on…) The trend in micro-farming is that many homesteaders use natural and/or organic methods to grow vegetables and raise animals. Why? Because many are becoming aware of and alarmed by the effects of chemicals in the food we eat. According to a report published by Rodale this past summer, “there has been mounting evidence relating exposure to pesticides to some cancers, particularly a common form of childhood leukemia, obesity, type 2 diabetes, infertility, miscarriages, and other health issues. For these reasons and others, the President’s Cancer Panel released a report urging Americans to eat organic food, among other strategies, to reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals.” This same article also shares that “Harvard researchers [recently] published a first-of-its-kind study, which found that everyday pesticide exposure coming mainly from the diet significantly increases a child’s risk of ADHD. Federal investigators are also looking into exposure to the common weed killer atrazine. Researchers have found that birth defects are highest among offspring conceived during the summer months, when more atrazine runs off into the drinking-water supply.”
There are many chemicals in our food (additives, preservatives, artificial dyes, pesticides, herbicides, etc.). When one of the ingredients you’re consuming has 10 syllables and you don’t know how to pronounce it, shouldn’t that give you pause? Our government has deemed some chemicals “acceptable” or “not harmful in certain amounts” despite the fact that in some cases studies say that there are long-term health effects. One example is artificial food coloring, which is required to have a warning label in the UK because of its damaging impact on health, especially in children. Click here for more info. The level of chemical consumption we experience today is relatively new in the span of human history, brought on by the advent of big agribusiness and convenience/highly-processed food. Think of all the “new” diseases, syndromes and health issues our society has developed during the last generation. Study or otherwise, it seems to me like we could make a connection.
These chemical concerns are some of the reasons why Arcadia Farms grows pesticide-free vegetables. Perhaps you won’t see an immediate change in health from eating natural food. (Due to a food dye allergy in our family, we DO see an immediate, beneficial change!) But the long-term impact can be life changing.
In addition to avoiding chemicals through natural growing methods, growing your own fruits and veggies means you’re likely to eat more of them in your diet. Why? Because you can grow the things you like and have an abundance of them. Also, there’s something magical about ‘shopping’ for dinner in your back yard that makes you want to cook from the garden. Have your kids help, even in some small way, and they’ll be that much more enthusiastic about veggies at the table. (According to Local Harvest, kids tend to favor eating food they feel a sense of ownership toward.) You’ll also find that homegrown food has a much better flavor than most things (even organic things) you buy at a grocery store.
And last but not least, you’ll get some exercise. Now don’t let this frighten you – there are ways to make a home garden very maintenance free. And because of intensive planting methods like square foot gardening, you don’t need a super-sized garden to have a super harvest. Nonetheless, you will still need to plant, transplant, water and harvest occasionally. This can amount to a pleasant walk that draws you outside for a few minutes to harvest some lettuce for this evening’s salad, or it can evolve into a sunny afternoon spent working in the garden. It all depends on the size and design of your garden. Either way, you’re going to get some manner of exercise and connection with the outdoors. (Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in attending a class to learn how to create and maintain a garden that’s just right for your family!)
Financial Health. Sustainable living also results in financial health. As in, spending less and saving more money. The following list includes only a few examples of ways that sustainable living can save you money. While they may seem small, they add up quickly! And there are SO many ways to save money by making products at home that I haven’t even begun to list them all.
- You can buy a packet of 300 (Michigan-grown) carrot seeds for $1.75. If only half of those seeds actually grow, it will cost you just over $0.01 (plus water and some love) to grow each carrot. To buy the same number of organic (pesticide free) carrots (150) from the grocery store today would cost you $0.08 each. We eat a bag of carrots every two weeks. Over the course of a year, that means we’ll save $36.4 on carrots plus receive the health and taste benefits of homegrown food. If you learn to save seeds, think of how much you’ll save next year?
- In this blog post, I shared how we now pay $2.30 for a loaf of natural bread, rather than the nearly $5 we were paying at the grocery store. For us, that’s a savings of $140.40 per year on bread.
- For only having three family members, we seem to do an awful lot of laundry around here! I do at least 365 loads a year. We’ve used All Free & Clear for ages and it costs me $45.63 for the year. But if I make my own laundry soap at home, the annual cost is $8.16, saving me $37.48 for the year.
In just these three areas our family can save $214.28 annually. What if we could do this with 30 other things (10 times as many things) and could save $2,142.80 for the year? (And think of the gas you’d save by not having to drive to the grocery store every week!) Can you think of anything your family could do with an extra $2,000?
The more you learn to make these things with resources you grew or found yourself, the more sustainable your life becomes. If you know how to make soap from lye (and how to make lye!) what do you care if every store in the county stops selling soap?
With an emphasis on natural and local, there will be some cases where those who want to live sustainably will focus on specialization. For example, I’ll never have a cow or goats as long as I live in the suburbs. But I can by my milk from a local farmer. The local part is important, because in order to meet our definition of sustainable, the system has to be able to continue even without semi-trucks to bring milk from 1,000 miles away to a store that needs electricity to keep it fresh so that I can get into my fuel-dependant car to go pick it up.
Even if you don’t have the space or time to grow your own food, you can still save money too by buying from a local farmer. Organic food costs 10-40% more than the alternative because of the extra work it requires. But since we cut out the middleman, Arcadia Farms can give you a whole season of natural veggies for as much as $300 less per year than organic food you’d buy at the store. For more details click here.
Mental Health. Besides saving money, producing your own stuff also brings some peace of mind. (For a way to even greater peace, click here.) What if you had a raised bed of 150 carrots, bread-making supplies for a year and 365+ loads of laundry detergent stored away? Maybe you also have other vegetables, food, and personal hygiene items on hand, and you know exactly what is in them. Now if something catastrophic happens – a major snow storm with extended power outages, a hurricane/major tornado, a layoff, a death, a crash in the already fragile economy, etc., knowing how you’ll provide these things for your family over the next year is one less thing for you to worry about. (And if the rest of your life is setup sustainably you’ll still be able to cook, bathe and wash with them!) There is satisfaction in providing well for your family, not to mention the satisfaction that comes from doing something new and making it work.
While individual families can benefit from sustainable living, communities can also reap similar rewards.
Physical Health. The community health that comes from sustainable living is simply the cumulative effect of family health. When many or all of the families in a community live sustainably, the community is physically healthier, which at least in theory contributes to decreased health issues and costs. There are many factors in addition to food that contribute to health, including the environment which we’ll discuss shortly. When an entire community is focused on sustainable living, some of these environmental health factors can also be addressed.
Economic Health. Families who save money by living sustainably have more money to spend and invest in the local economy. Remember that part of our definition of sustainable living involves natural and local resources. But did you know that more than 70% of US-grown veggies are grown outside of Michigan? (According to the USDA’s Vegetables 2010 Summary, the top five states for growth of fresh market vegetables [CA, FL, AZ, GA, NY] produced a combined 70.3% of the vegetables grown in the US.) But when you join our CSA program or buy from other local suppliers, your dollars stay right here in Kalamazoo County, boosting the local economy and creating local jobs.
Environmental Health. Remember how I mentioned that sustainable living involves a component of environmental stewardship? This is very important. Pesticide-free growing is made possible by many factors, but the biggest factor is the health of the soil. In short, if a plant is able to get the nutrients it needs from the soil around it, the plant will be healthier, enabling it to fight disease, survive pests and produce healthy, tasty food.
Sadly, our conventional model of farming that includes planting the same crop over and over and over again in one place has depleted many soils of nutrients. (Plants “eat” certain nutrients and will eat them all up if continually planted in the same place.) Hence the need for chemical fertilizers – the nutrients are missing due to our farming practices, but instead of changing our practices, we’ve dumped chemicals on the ground to “replace” them. So much for manmade “improvements.”
Plants that don’t get the nutrients they need are more susceptible to disease and pests. Hence the need for chemical herbicides and pesticides. (Plus, if you plant the same crop in the same place every year, the bugs don’t have to guess where lunch is going to be!) This model of farming is dependent on chemicals – so much so that some of the foods we eat have been genetically modified so that the chemicals are in the plant.
Rather than depend on man-made chemicals, sustainable practices focus on techniques that will first renew and then maintain the health of the soil. Renewing the health of the soil sets off a chain reaction that improves plants, animal habitats and many other things that benefit humans. Not surprisingly, this can be done naturally – the way it was done for all of human history up to this new era of big agribusiness we find ourselves in today. These sustainable methods speak to more than just avoiding chemicals but also address things like how (if) we till, what we plant, where we plant it, etc.
As I learn more about natural methods for maintaining healthy soil, plants and animals, I’m discovering something beautiful. When allowed to work as designed, God’s creation contains just the right mix of symbiotic relationships between earth, plant, animal and Man to maintain all involved. While I’m not necessarily endorsing everything said in this video, watching Back to Eden is a good place to begin understanding why stewardship of nature is an important part of sustainable living.
But wait, there’s more! Sustainable living involves optimizing the use of resources, and that often means reusing or recycling. This is a small example, but right now I buy my yogurt at the store. I eat LOTS of Chobani! I could recycle the containers after the yogurt is gone, but instead I clean them, keep them, drill holes in the bottom, and use them for sowing seedlings in my greenhouse. Learning to reuse or choosing to recycle means less trash in our communities.
Social Health. Lastly, I believe sustainable living provides social health. The money saved and products produced from a sustainable lifestyle provide opportunities to be charitable toward those who are in need. Compassion is a powerful tool for improving communities, but compassion without action is ineffective. What kind of impact would it have on our society if entire neighborhoods were living sustainably and shared their health with neighboring communities?
In a more specific example, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs like ours impact social health by creating a community of members and farmers who share rewards and risks of sustainable farming. The Illinois Farm Direct Project says it well: “CSAs provide more than just food, they offer ways for eaters to become involved in the ecological and human community that supports the farm.”
Chaos and Comfort
At various times throughout this article I’ve mentioned being prepared for the possibility of shortages or stoppages of modern resources like electricity, fuel and commercially packaged food. I’ve already mentioned several situations in which these shortages/stoppages could take place and I’m sure you can imagine even more. Sometimes it’s easy to put off the idea of living in a way that can maintain its own viability through optimizing natural and local resources because these kinds of worst-case scenarios are uncommon and the need for sustainable living seems minimal.
With that in mind, I want to point out that the health of sustainable living is still valuable whether we find ourselves living in unexpected chaos or modern comfort. Wouldn’t you like to be physically healthier and save money regardless of whether or not the lights are on? Wouldn’t you like your community to be physically, economically, environmentally and socially healthier whether Wal-Mart’s doors are open or not? The beauty of sustainable living is that we can (responsibly) enjoy the comforts of modern resources without worry for what we’ll do if or when they’re gone. Living sustainably does not mean utterly forsaking modern resources, but it does mean that we have a plan for living well should we need to live without them.
It Takes Time
Developing a sustainable lifestyle takes time and practice. I still buy most of my groceries at Meijer. I’m using commercial laundry soap right now because I’m out of homemade. I still drink coffee from Biggby, wear clothes I didn’t make and eat tropical fruits I could never have in a local-only world. But as I talk to other farmers who are farther along on this road than me, they all tell a story of one-step-at-a-time. Interestingly, many of them say things like “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just dove in head first and figured it out as I went!” They now have working farms that provide for their families and/or customers and bring them a few steps closer to sustainable living.
And I’ve also taken note that all of them make comments to me about what they’ve just learned or what they’re going to try next. For our grandparents and great grandparents, a lot of these homemaking or homesteading practices were practically second nature. For our generation, learning to live sustainably is a journey of relearning things that are no longer common knowledge or have been nearly forgotten. Give yourself much grace. Make room for failure (so long as you learn from it) and for goodness sake get back up when you fall down! You’re not going to get everything right the first time. That’s not failure, that’s learning.
I’m still learning and I will be for a long time. It will take time for our family to transition our daily purchases and activities to sustainable ones. But that’s ok: Slow progress is progress nonetheless. We’re doing this because a simpler, more sustainable life contains peace and health that we want for our family. Fortunately for me, learning to live sustainably is my job now. It’s my privilege and pleasure to share what I learn on my own journey with those of you whose occupations lead you to other jobs that make the world go round. I’ll let you borrow my mistakes and research so you don’t have to do them yourself. Stick with me, and we can figure this out together.