A Very Small Farm

A Very Small Farm


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In the tradition of Thoreau’s Walden, William Paul Winchester offers a chronicle of everyday life on Southwind, his farm of twenty acres. As a subsistence farmer, he builds his own house and barn, puts in a garden and an orchard, acquires a milk cow, and takes up beekeeping. In these pages, we hear his thoughts on such subjects as the weather, seasonal changes, machinery repair, the flora and fauna of the region, and vegetarian cooking. His philosophy, like his lifestyle, is simple, yet profoundly wise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806137780
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/08/2006
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

William Paul Winchester graduated from the University of Tulsa with a degree in botany. His essays have appeared in Country Journal, Buying America Back, Oklahoma Today, and elsewhere. He continues to live on his small farm in Collinsville, Oklahoma. 

Read an Excerpt


There is an air of permanence and stability about Southwind Farm. The house and barn, of stucco with hip roofs, have a solid look about them, vaguely Cape Dutch, or maybe Provencial, now that the poplars have grown taller and I've painted the house and outbuildings terra-cotta with white trim and blue shutters.

To the right of the gravel drive winding up to my house is a stand of beehives, a small greenhouse (made from someone's discarded storm windows), root cellar, vineyard, and winter garden. To the left is my orchard (the tree nearest an Arkansas Black, its branches heavy with apples) and beyond that a quarter acre of garden. Behind the house is the poultry yard, a peach orchard, a small wood I've planted, and pasture for Sophia and her calf.

Already bred, will freshen this fall to become my milking cow, Sophia staying on for sentimental reasons. I've persuaded myself the manure she produces for the garden will earn her keep. Isabel's milk and the registered calf she bears each year will more than earn hers.

The brown eggs from my Buff Orpingtons are also much in demand, and the cost of a household flock is chicken feed. But what really makes it economical are those eggs for my table and the dozen hens I put up for winter meat, after they have enjoyed their perfect summer. The sound of their clucking under my window and the rooster crowing at daybreak I count as clear profit.

The produce from my garden is so abundant it's been five months since I was last at the grocery store, and then for so few items I can still list them from memory: tea, salt, vanilla, cocoa, yeast, spices, spaghetti, and olive oil ... my tastes inclining to the Mediterranean.

I could have got by with less. By the end of harvest my pantry is stocked for the winter with jars of canned asparagus, peas, carrots, zucchini, green beans, sweet corn, tomatoes, peaches, grapes, pears, plums, applesauce, cider ... with sacks and canisters of dried corn, grain amaranth, sesame seeds, peas, okra, beans (colorful as jewels), fruit leather, figs, peaches, and plums. In the freezer are mulberries and blackberries both gathered wild), green Peppers, cantaloupe, watermelon juice, eggs (first frozen in ice cube trays), hens, pecans, milk, and butter ... and in the refrigerator are beets, garlic, radishes, and Swiss cheeses in red wax. In the root cellar (some in trays of moist sand) are potatoes, onions, winter squash, turnips, apples, and pears. All this abundance produces a sense of infinite well-being, but none of it, except for a little from the sale of milk and eggs, is in the form of cash.

For that I look to my bees. Southwind Farm is an apiary, producing from fifty-odd hives something over a ton of honey and honeycomb. This I sell from my house. "Pure Wildflower Honey," the sign reads ... and well before the next season, "Honey Sold Out, More In July." If the immediate area would support more hives, or if I cared to truck my bees farther afield, I might have been entirely self-sufficient from my farming.

As it is I could manage, at least through hard times. Even if that is an illusion, it is not an abstract one; the bees have laid up ample stores for themselves, the pantry and cellar are filled, the winter wood is stacked, the hens laying, the cow fresh, and the fallow garden ready for spring planting. The basic economy of my peasant farm works so well I sometimes think of it as a little universe in which everything is fixed in orbit as if for an eternity.

Still, it is not a perfect economy, my farm. No economy ever is, and I have to make allowances. The Jersey cow, for example, is not as cost-effective as the fifty beehives, my chief source of farm income. But there are those Swiss cheeses to consider, and I do enjoy my cow. In this respect she is like my dog, Berenice, or the cats. And things will go wrong, as when a rainy spring reduces the nectar flow and there is less honey to sell. Even in a good year there is never enough cash income

To make up the difference I recently took on the job of doing all the brush mowing for a neighboring ranch, buying the tractor and implements with money I had earned as a substitute teacher and caretaker for a small church. It's closer to home than either of those jobs and — with the swooping barn swallows to keep me company through the afternoon — I enjoy mowing.

Any more than this seasonal work and I would cease to be a farmer, something I very much want to remain — a small farmer, with garden and orchard and vineyard and bees and poultry and cow, getting my living in the pleasantest way imaginable.

Even the supposed hardships — the work, the solitary life, the staying put, the doing for oneself, the frugal existence — are not as they appear.

The work of a small farm is not so much hard labor as it is a matter of keeping up with things. The okra that isn't picked today will be tough and stringy tomorrow, and the cow has to be milked every morning at seven and every afternoon at five.

For company I have friends and neighbors, my animals and the life of the field. Sometimes solitude is the best of company. Other times I have wished for a farm community, but not enough to have spent my life looking.

Travel I prefer to do in my own way, in the books of Conrad and H. M. Tomlinson and 'Shalimar.' The life at sea they describe is so familiar, so like my own that I sometimes think of Southwind Farm as a small ship outfitted and provisioned for a long voyage, which it is. Besides, I can't be away without feeling I've missed something at home.

As for doing for oneself — well, that's the whole point. On a small farm you expect to live by your wits, teaching yourself to do whatever has to be done. From every quarter we are insistently reminded how incapable we are, how ignorant and unskilled, a hundred professions shouldering us aside to do what we are perfectly able to do for ourselves, leaving us with a vague sense of inadequacy. It almost amounts to a conspiracy, this effort to deprive us of the pleasure in accomplishment.

As it is, I couldn't afford the services of that economy. And there isn't much it can do for me, life on a small farm having changed little. Frugal as the existence sometimes is, it is a marvelous economy. No other enterprise is, in a real and tangible way, as productive as a small farm. Some of that okra I'll have for dinner, sliced and rolled in cornmeal and fried in a hot skillet. The rest I'll dry in the sun for gumbo later this winter. And I've a customer stopping by for two gallons of that Jersey milk, the money going mostly for hay and feed, my profit coming in the form of cheeses.

The sparse economy of Southwind Farm is so inextricably linked with my reasons for being here in the first place that I can't decide which is means and which is ends. Am I sleeping on my screened-in porch in summer and reading before my hearth in winter out of necessity or preference? Doing without air conditioning and modern heating is a small price to pay for the companionship of a night-singing chuckwill's-widow and a wood fire.

Having given up nothing without getting more in return, I find that the frugality doesn't really matter. It was for the most self-indulgent reasons I came to the farm — to be happy. Everyone knows that happiness is largely a matter of being content. But content with what? The answer to that requires an act of will, which in my case took the shape of a small farm.

To live in the country in a house I built for myself, with meaningful work and a margin of leisure, free to create a little universe of my own making — this was my idea of happiness.

Even if something should come along to snatch the farm away, I would go on living as the experience has taught me — deliberately, taking things as they come, in control as much as possible of my own destiny, and farming as I could. In a pot, if it came to that, in a south window.

Excerpted from A Very Small Farm by William Paul Winchester. Copyright © 1996 by William Paul Winchester. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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