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I’ve been making yogurt and cheese regularly in recent weeks, thinking a lot as I work about local economies and self-reliance. Our two milk cows, having weaned their calves recently, are giving five-plus gallons of milk a day. My cheese pot is six gallons. Our seven does (goats in milk) will be weaning their kids within a month, and we’ll start having goat milk to use as well. It is a lot to work with. What a bounty to share! Distributed production seems like the hallmark of a self-reliant society, whether we’re talking about local dairy or producing our own solar and wind power. In these days of supply chain problems all over the world, and steady inflation, keeping real sources of important resources close to hand is not just good insurance, it makes good financial sense too. Ted here to bring you this week’s news from Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage and a bit from the world beyond.
I’ve looked into what it takes to become a certified dairy again recently, and I have to say, I’m disappointed in what the modern world requires by way of certification of such ventures. I’m all for rigorous sanitation, and goodness knows our dairy co-op is self-interested in producing a safe product for our own consumption, but the hurdles are unnecessarily steep. I’ve been making raw milk cheese and other dairy products from our animals’ milk steadily for something like eight years now, and despite some inevitable off batches over the years, to my knowledge none of us who’ve eaten from our bounty have ever had any ill effects, while in that time we’ve eaten luxuriously the fruits of our labors and those of our animal friends.
For much of human history, subsistence was what agriculture was about. Surplus accumulations could easily be wiped out by a subsequent bad year. Or two or three in a row. I’ve been reading this past winter about the Little Ice Age, a cooling period that lasted from the 15th century through about 1850 CE in North America and Europe (weather data and other scientific records like tree ring data are insufficient in other parts of the world to accurately establish historical weather records for all of this period, so it is unclear how global this was). The very limited ability to move bulky, perishable goods over land before the modern era meant that if you had a bad harvest, it was highly likely that everyone else in your area did too, and you could not easily import a solution. Intermittent hunger and even famine were typical human experiences.
One reason I love making cheese is that it’s a valuable means of food preservation. For centuries, millennia even, people have fermented dairy into all kinds of staple foods to store against just such unknowns. That surplus of milk we can’t go through fresh in spring sure is nice to have later in the year as cheese, when the fresh milk tapers off or stops all together. If we can supply friends and neighbors as well, so much the better. Local production means less transportation, lower carbon cost and environmental impact, and greater resilience if, for example, human or natural disasters lead to poor harvests and rising fuel costs.
Which brings me to the brutal, unprovoked war of aggression going on in Ukraine, which I’ve been extremely preoccupied with these past couple of months. I studied Russian and Chinese as a youth. I traveled in both places and was excited to do so at a time when both were seemingly joining a bright, less authoritarian future of global goodwill, harmony, and cooperation. My father traveled to Russia and Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic and Slovakia) for scientific conferences in the ‘70s and brought back posters from the height of Communist propaganda that I put up on my walls as curious representations of antiquated ideas. The Cold War was thawing. I was celebrating the fading of the odd, dark past and studying toward the future. How remote that seems now, as division and often violence seems to proliferate in so many parts of the world, and the news brings fresh horrors every day.
Ukraine and Russia happen to be some of the major exporters of grain in the world. But it is hard to plant your crop under a hail of mortar fire amidst a field of landmines. Literally. Or to export anything when your leader’s madness leads the world to close its doors to your products. So the number of countries experiencing chronic hunger is already rising as a result of this conflict, and projected to keep rising steadily.
Globalization was supposed to help with all this, but it clearly has some vulnerabilities. Standards of food production meant to regulate things on the industrial, global scale mean that local, small producers cannot easily sell their lovingly-produced surplus because those regulations entail scale and expense that are out of reach to the small producer. I believe people should be able to feed each other directly, without that barrage of bureaucracy and complication. Food safety does not require that I truck my produce somewhere else to be processed and trucked somewhere else to be sold by people I don’t know to people I’ll never meet. Divorcing people from local economies makes it very hard for them to accurately value food, power, and other essentials. We waste food and other things when we don’t really know what goes into producing them in the first place. The waste takes all kinds of tolls on the planet. And on my heart.
Ok, down off my soap box. I just wish the world were not so complicated, and that peace and cooperation would prevail in a more persistent way.
Back here in Northeast Missouri, the world is greening up finally. After some flirtations with early warmth, we’ve been through a surprisingly cool stretch here lately, and the trees are taking their time leafing out. But the warmth is surely coming. Daffodils are in bloom. Baby goats are bleating their adorable hearts out, and we’re having dairy co-op meetings in the barn so we can each hold one while we talk (socialization makes them easier to manage as they mature) and figure out how to make good use of all this milk. Outdoor events are growing more common by the week, egg production is up, mushrooms are sprouting on logs, the taps have all been pulled from the maple trees, and there are garden seedlings sprouting all over the village under care of eager growers. I’m a little behind, between lingering winter projects, taxes (why are they due this time of year?!), and income work, but with a little help from my friends, we’ve managed to get berry canes trimmed and we’ll start getting some plants in the ground here soon. The need for fires for heating and cooking recedes by the day. One of these days we might even manage to get a game of ultimate going, when a dry field and enough players manage to coalesce.
Dancing Rabbit is gearing up to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a reunion this May, so there is an increasing volume of planning and organization going on. We’re reaching out to everyone we can find that has ever lived here to let them know the plans and hope they’ll come and share it with us. Cooks are planning their meals to feed a crowd, tent platforms are being repaired, and we’re working on supplying power to our town center where many of the festivities will take place. Our first visitor session is coming up quite soon as well, and those who’ve been elsewhere during the colder months have returned. We’ve had two interns, one new and one returning, and others will be arriving soon. There is a spring clean scheduled tomorrow. It is a quiet hive of activity around here.
A few villagers have also departed for a bit, too, though Javi, Christina, Emma, Max, and Prairie all left last week for a couple months to Javi’s native Spain and environs. A few others will join them for parts of the journey. I’m lucky to be one of them, heading out later this month for two weeks of walking on the Camino, one of several pilgrimage trails that criss-cross Galicia and end up in Santiago. I wish I could stay longer, but the garden will not plant itself. I’m excited to experience at least a taste of the experience walking these ancient paths alongside a native, taking a step away from home and the familiar for a minute before plunging into the rigors of the rest of the year back at home.
We’re still populating our visitor sessions for the year, so we hope you’ll get in touch if you’ve ever wanted to experience a taste of ecovillage life! You might even find yourself deciding to make our home your home in the end. We’re also looking for a few folks interested in work exchange with the dairy co-op. If you’re interested in learning the basics of dairy management and making cheese and other products alongside yours truly and other co-opers, we’d love to hear from you! You might just find yourself inclined to take a little more self-reliance home with you, to beef up your own local economy.
Here’s to a bright spring for all of us, and a swift march toward peace in the world that defies all expectations!
Ted Sterling is a longtime member of our village and for years has modeled self-sufficiency and resiliency in off-grid solar and wind production for his home and sources of milk for his cheese within a five-minute walk. The neighbors and friends that he shares his cheese with are mostly within a five-minute walk as well.