Summer Survival Council: Building and Handling Community
This week, we take a look at community. For some of our panelists, it means farmers markets and group projects. For others, it leads to lawsuits and elections.
There’s a lot of talk in prepping and homesteading circles about “community,” but what does that mean? In our penultimate edition of the Summer Survival Council, we asked our panel about how they handle community, both good and bad. Community is a nice-sounding word, but the realities can be messy.
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Many of us take advantage of farmers markets for networking, but some, like our friend Hamilton, have poor experiences there. Nicole Sauce has built a powerful community in Tennessee, and she shares how she did it. And some of us, like Travis Corcoran, have more than their share of neighbor trouble. This week, Travis regales us with two tales of troublesome neighbors, including his infamous barn story, which has led to multiple lawsuits and potentially the start of a political career.
Patrick is an American teacher from a city who now lives in a rural area of western Uruguay in South America. With wife/sociologist Ashley, he started Rizoma Field School in 2017 to promote and study resilient, sustainable practices and livelihoods. He is particularly interested in agroecology, disaster preparedness, and informal community building (aka being a good friend and neighbor). You can follow him on Twitter @RizomaAt.
I think that engaging with and developing community is one of those complicated things that is also simpler than it seems. To get to the point as quickly as possible, I would say the best way to do this is: Show up. Go to events, classes, workshops, join clubs, civics organizations, and accept invitations. Show up to whatever and you will learn of many goings on and opportunities in your area.
Supporting local businesses to the extent possible is also important, but not just buying things from them—learn their names, tell them what you're doing with the things you're buying from them. You might never end up being friends or inviting each other over for dinner (though you might!) but these weak ties end up being a lot more important than you realize—by the way, this is a whole strain of network sociology if you're interested in reading up on it. It has been my experience that it is much more difficult to make friends as a grown-up, but if you have children, nieces or nephews, etc., you end up meeting a lot of parents, and then you just become friends with them. Let your kids do the work for you! They're better at it anyway.
My preference for formal political engagement is to stick to the municipal/county/special district level since in my experience the effort required to make an impact at the higher levels is not worth what you gain/lose. But you'd be surprised how impactful your presence at public meetings or hearings can be on a local level, and you might be even more surprised to learn that you can win election to certain positions without a ton of effort. Not super powerful positions, but also not irrelevant either.
Roxanne is a homesteading, homeschooling mother of five and the author of Holistic Homesteading: A Guide to a Sustainable and Regenerative Lifestyle. She has been growing food and raising animals for more than 12 years and consults on the topics of permaculture, regenerative homesteading, and holistic nutrition.
Joining our local farmers market has been an excellent way to meet and interact with people in the community. This also makes it very easy to support our local economy, it’s very convenient to get some shopping (or trading) in while working at the market.
We also make sure that if there is a local event: a barbecue dinner to raise money for the fire station, the grape festival, a concert in the park, etc., we do our best to attend.
We are friendly with our neighbors and make sure to smile and wave. My husband has helped them with projects and we usually do some kind of baked goods around the holidays, and bring a meal if someone had a baby, is sick, or has lost a loved one.
Voting and staying engaged in local politics is also very important. It’s funny because so much energy/attention is given to national politics, but local politics play a large role in our lives. The strikingly different experiences people had during the last couple of years have highlighted that.
Joseph — Homestead Padre
Joseph has been homesteading for over a decade and specializes in small-space homesteading and intensive gardening systems. He is married with three children, one grown, and is co-owner of The Smith Homestead with his wife Melody. He also owns a cottage food bakery out of his home, servicing his local community with homemade and artesian breads.
For us, community begins at the farmers market.
We have been there for a couple of years now and are expanding to new markets this year. The amount of connections made and bartering done has greatly employed our circle of community members. And beyond just having our own circle I have seen many connections made just through observing others’ interactions.
The result has been a strengthening of our local economy through more and more small business owners being hired and being purchased from. True economic resilience begins at the local level.
Seeing families that I've become close with grow to levels they never foresaw has been rewarding to me and my family.
When the community becomes stronger the members of the community become stronger with it.
Hamilton is a tradesman, father of three, and homesteader in the Missouri Ozarks. With over a decade of vegetable-gardening experience, he recently expanded to a broad-acre farm operation with animals including chickens, geese, and pigs. Follow on Twitter @Watchman_motto.
How do I engage with the community?
Short answer — I don't.
But I've been growing a community (if you want to call it that) of like-minded men within a close distance. So, there's a dairy man, and a pig man, and a family that makes honey, and the guy with all the trailers and trucks and tractors.
However, I'm an introvert, an asshole, or both.
My wife has tried to get us involved in the local events. (As wives often do).
We did the town Christmas tree lighting.
It was awful.
We registered to be vendors at the farmers market.
It was equally bad.
We went to a July 4th event at the park.
Lots of weird, dysgenic hillbillies milling around.
I'm not sure if my inability to interact with the general public is because the state of Man is so degraded, because the conversation is so low, or it's because I'm a misanthrope.
It's probably all three.
I've said before that it's important to be a good neighbor. I still believe that is true. And in a 1-to-1 interaction, I can be a friendly, helpful, small-talky kinda guy.
It all comes down to what you mean by “community.”
I have my friends/community, and they are useful, productive, and industrious. That is why they are my friends. That is the basis for our friendship.
Unlike many “men” who are oversocialized and require “buddies” to “hang out,” I only need one or two good friends.
Community is, in my case, the accumulated set of useful men and their families with whom we trade, work, and exchange knowledge.
I'm not sure that is a textbook definition of community. It's probably more of a “network.”
But it works.
Is there anywhere that still has a community in 2022?
If anything, it's moved online.
Then, it's also not really a community if what we mean by that word is ‘the group of people who live and work near you plus their social interactions.’
Maybe one day we will have IRL communities again. It would require people to depend on their neighbors more. It might also ONLY exist if the economy was almost entirely local. Then you would know everyone in your town and what they do, and who makes what. And you would be forced into interacting with them.
Then, maybe (big maybe) I'll go back to the Christmas tree lighting.
Nicole Sauce of LivingFreeinTennessee.com has run a homestead for a decade and a half, roasts great coffee at HollerRoast.com, and runs workshops on self-reliance and homesteading (SelfRelianceFestival.com). Her book Cook With What You Have helps folks learn to do just that, and she coaches people through development of a step-wise plan for building an independent, stable lifestyle including income generation, choosing the city or the country, preparedness, and lifestyle balance.
Early on in my homesteading journey, I realized my property grows hot peppers and poultry well. Cattle, greens, and brassicas struggle here. Moreover, installing fencing in this rugged and steep terrain or expanding garden space is a big challenge. But the brutal Tennessee, south-blazing sun grows the heck out of some peppers. Other hot-loving plants like sweet potatoes also thrive here.
Editor’s note: Yes, sweet potatoes grow amazingly well in Tennessee and produce a lot of calories. Plus, you can eat the greens!
My friend a few miles away is deep in a hollow with mostly north-facing slopes. She loses peppers to late frost. She bemoans the ten-degree temperature difference between her place and mine each early spring. She grows grass for grazing when it is dry here. Her green beans this year are loving the weather. Her peppers? Sad peppers.
Because we know one another, I can trade my peppers and poultry for her green beans and cattle. The arrangement has worked for over a decade. Together we are much less reliant on commercial inputs. Community is the most important piece of being self-reliant, independent, and self-sufficient. Sound like an oxymoron? Maybe. But what does life look like in absolute isolation? Lonely, primitive, and difficult.
To build community, it is important to redefine “like-minded’ to mean shared priorities, not shared politics. It is important to invest time getting to know one another in person. It is important to be purposeful about keeping relationships going through the occasional check-in, through hosting gatherings, through doing new projects together, and by spreading the story of your community. Relationships are an investment and well worth the price it costs to have people you can trust around you.
Most important to developing a productive community is to set a culture of “doing” versus taking. Many times people ask me how I have built such a strong network of doers and the answer is both simple AND it takes work: We organized around doing things in person. We invested our time and money to work on projects. We developed a culture where people who are unwilling to participate in the “doing” part of our gatherings and would rather complain… choose to move on.
How did we do this? By getting together at least quarterly in person and organizing our gatherings around a project. By assisting people in a bad place to help them be a positive influence in the network, or move on. By actually caring about one another.
It may sound overly simple or overly emotions-based, but the Living Free in Tennessee network has in the last year:
Installed watering systems and solar arrays for folks
Raised thousands of dollars in aid for people in need
Personally delivered water, food, and shelter to tornado victims
Traded with one another so that our small business starters get a leg up.
Additionally, the LFTN network took a gimmer of an idea, The Self Reliance Festival in Camden, Tennessee, and built it from a small gathering to a 500+ person self-reliance jam session with great speakers like Jack Spirko, Bear Independant, and Joel Ryals — running side by side with members who know how to do things like wool spinning, blacksmithing, welding, and brewing. (The next one is October 1-2.)
We did it by investing time, developing trust, and working hard together. You can too.
Travis J I Corcoran
Travis J I Corcoran is a software engineer and an author. He lives on a 56-acre farm in New Hampshire with his wife, dogs, livestock, and a variety of lathes and milling machines. He raises and butchers his own pigs, sheep, and poultry, and grows a variety of fruits and vegetables in his gardens, orchards, and vineyards. His two-volume homesteading magnum opus is available on Amazon: Escape the City Volume 1 and Escape the City Volume 2. …as are his two award-winning science fiction novels: The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation.
I showed up at my farm almost 10 years ago with a desire to get along well with all of my neighbors.
Part of this was just treading lightly. We made a point of NOT being those people who show up in town and immediately want to start changing things (I've seen a few of these people, and nothing is more cringe than one person speaking up at a town meeting about how we need a noise law because some locals like to shoot guns on their land and “that's not how we did it back in Vermont.” (You could feel the temperature in the room drop by about 15 degrees.)
Another aspect of treading lightly was NOT going after people who were walking or snowmobiling across our back forty acres without permission. We'd be in our rights to put up “posted” signs, telling people not to trespass… but that's a bad look for someone who's new to town.
…but we also tried to fit in. When we had surplus chicken eggs, we'd give them to people on the street. When I made conversation with a young guy working at the gas station, he learned where we lived, and he asked if he could hunt turkey here, I said “yes.”
But despite working to get in, it only takes one person to pick a fight, and we've had a few awkward or downright bad situations.
The first, which is just humorous, is that my first spring on the farm, I was walking the old New England stone walls that bound the property, staying five or ten feet inside my land, and when I got to a far corner, an angry voice shouted at me from behind some trees on an adjacent lot
“You'd BETTER not be on my land!”
I responded calmly, “I'm on my own land.”
The challenge came back “No, that's XYZ's land.”
I responded again, “I bought this land off of him four months ago.”
There was a pause in the conversation… and then I noticed that I was standing below a tree stand… a tree stand on my own property. I had a mischievous thought. “Hey, is this your tree stand?”
The response that came back from beyond the trees was equal parts bullying, outrage… and a bit defensive. “That tree stand has been there for years.”
I let the silence draw out for a moment, then called out “Well… have a nice day.” and continued my walk.
(I never followed up about the tree stand. It wasn't causing me any problems. I just found it hilarious that a guy who — apparently — routinely trespasses on my land was wildly upset that someone MIGHT be walking near his property!)
The punchline to this story came two years later. There was a knock on the door and a woman said, “Our cow is in your pasture and my husband was mortified so he can't say anything so he sent me.”
I didn't quite understand this story, but it turned out that she was a neighbor, abutting on one side or another, I wasn't quite sure, and her cow had gotten out of its inadequate fencing and wandered onto my land. She and her husband had chased it through the forest, but the cow preferred the freedom of the open road over their paddock, and wouldn't turn back. Eventually, the woodland trails on my back forty forest led to one of my fenced pastures… so they opened the gate, let the cow walk in, and then shut and chained the gate after it.
They spent an hour or two trying to convince the cow to head home, but the cow was having none of it, so they asked if they could leave the cow overnight, and they'd return with a trailer in the morning. I gave my blessing… and then one thing led to another, and pretty soon the cow was still living on my pasture a week later. This didn't upset me in the concrete, but in the abstract, pasture is a valuable commodity, and all the grass the cow was eating was grass that my sheep wouldn't get to munch on, so I finally pressed the issue. The neighbors hadn’t left their name or number, so I worked w animal control, who knew who the cow belonged to, to apply a bit of polite pressure in the form of “Today would actually be better than tomorrow, please.”
They eventually got the cow out… and a week later it was back. And, again, it lingered for days and days with no new action, eating my grass. Another bit of polite pressure solved the problem.
…and then the punch line hit. The woman had said that her husband was too mortified to talk to me …and that's when I realized that this guy, the one who was yelling because I MIGHT be near his land …had thought absolutely nothing of pasturing his cow on my land for two weeks, free of charge, and didn't even send over a six-pack afterward in embarrassed thanks.
The whole story is mostly silly, and I like it just because it speaks of the absurd and small-scale hypocrisy of human nature.
The second conflict-with-a-neighbor story is a whole ‘nother level.
For the first four or so years on the farm, I got along stunningly well with one neighbor. I’d give him eggs, or some bacon when I was processing pigs, and he helped me out with a flat tractor tire, and some other stuff. When I was putting up a rock wall along the property line, he offered to jump in and fund half the survey, so that he'd have a survey of his own western boundary.
…and then he put stakes in the ground, showing the future location of a new building. …a 26' foot fall, 4,800 square foot industrial building…illegally located in both the front AND the side setbacks, and situated in such a way that it was going to drastically change the drainage, and flood and wash out my dirt driveway.
I went over to talk to him, and he turned his back on me and walked away. I sent him a few emails suggesting that I bring over a six pack and we sit down and figure this out, and maybe talk to town officials together. He ignored all of them. I offered to pay for logging, so that he could slide the building over 20 feet to the other side of his driveway, which would be legal and which wouldn't wash out my driveway. He refused.
...and that's led into a four-year conflict involving a lawsuit (I won), a door-to-door petition (I knocked on 300 doors and had a 90% signature rate, which I count as winning), an election to retroactively change the zoning law (I won), a series of FOIA requests that revealed an extensive Good Old Boy network all cooperating to break the law, secret meetings, secret emails falsely marked as “NEED TO KNOW” and “ATTORNEY CLIENT PRIVILEDGE” [ sic ]. We're in the middle of two more lawsuits, and the cabal of criminals is running scared.
Editor’s note: I first introduced myself to Travis by DMing him to warn him how deeply rooted these Good Old Boy networks can be. I’m impressed by his absurd levels of fortitude.
I wish that this neighbor had just followed the law, rather than calling in favors and trying to screw me, but the story makes a good point about “community.” It's good to fit in… but if you roll over too easily when people try to screw you, you're not fitting in, you're being a mark and a victim. Community is good, but there's more to it than just going along to get along. My fight against corruption in the town has led to widespread name recognition, and eventually to the state Republican party drafting me to run for state representative (which I'm doing now).
Smile, make friends… but when you need to stand your ground, stand your ground.
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