words by: Shawn + Beth Dougherty
It’s the Friday before Easter, potato-planting day. The whole family is in the garden patch where we grow Pontiac, Kennebec, and Yukon Gold potatoes. Putting in the potatoes is a big job—we grow a lot, as much as two tons, because they are a really significant part of our diet.
The soil was tilled yesterday in furrows three feet apart, dark streaks showing where last year’s mulch has decayed. We haul buckets of cut potatoes to the garden and divide into teams: one person to drop a piece of potato (sprouts up)every twelve inches or so; the second person, with a hoe, to cover it with a few inches of soil.
We are often aware of how much farming has made us a family, a team, through our work together. Some folks go to Disney Land for a Together vacation; we stay home and work on a project. It’s easy to see how this has formed us over the years; the young people are good planners and problem solvers and know how to collaborate. Luke and Jess’s new deck includes nails put there by everyone in the family, down to their five-year-old son; the bricks in William and Ashley’s house were repointed by all the Dougherty women. The boys built us a barn in April of 2020, while most of America was trapped indoors by mandates. This isn’t just work for us; when we do it together, it’s fun.
So gardening is a family task. Beginning in January, when the first seed catalogs arrive, we make lists and charts of what to plant, where to plant it, and how much to grow. The children are as likely to take the lead as we are. They’ve known this routine all their lives; they have the experience and judgment, and they, too, will be eating the results.
Put in the ground on Good Friday, potatoes just seem to grow better. Planting times are one of the things our work is teaching us, one of the helps we are passing on to one another. Timing the potatoes right can mean the difference between great potatoes and an only so-so crop. By the end of the morning we have almost 2,000 planted, two-tenths of an acre. We head to the house for lunch; Beowulf, the farm dog, who has been bored by our steady work, races ahead, barking at sparrows to show that he’s on the job.
Growing the Community
Just up the road, neighbors and family have been planting potatoes as well. As much as the food, the sharing of knowledge and community are fruits of homesteading. New people move in, not knowing this place and its soil, its climate; folks just starting out in gardening or animal husbandry have questions, need assistance with difficulties. Neighbors can be there to help.
So, last spring our community took the initiative to meet this need and offer help on a larger scale. The Healing Land homestead group held a whole day of workshops, and over three hundred folks from five states attended. There were talks on homestead planning, dairy management, and sheep care; workshops on canning, butchering, grazing, fer-menting. It was wonderful how many people turned out to learn about growing their own food.
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Shawn and Beth Dougherty live in eastern Ohio, where their home farm is 17 acres designated by the state as ‘not suitable for agriculture’. Using grass as the primary source of energy, they raise dairy and beef cows, sheep, farm-fed hogs, and a variety of poultry, producing most of their food, and feed, on the farm. Concerned that farming is too often dependent upon multiple off-farm resources, from feed, fuel, and fertilizer to water and electricity, their ongoing project is to discover and test the time-honored means by which farming may be done with a minimum of off-farm inputs. Their research has led them to identify the daily conversion of grass into milk by dairy ruminants as a key to whole-farm sustainability. They are the authors of The Independent Farmstead, Chelsea Green Press 2016.