Back to the Land

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By Michael Weishan | Photos by Kindra Clineff

I recently joined the board of the Historical Society in my small town outside Boston, and in that role, I’ve been rebuilding the society’s website. This has meant scanning hundreds of pictures from the archives, and I’ll admit to you that the process is making me really depressed. It’s not the repetitive nature of the work that’s causing the problem, it’s that most of what I’m looking has disappeared. You see, Southborough, where I live, was once the second most productive agricultural town in all of Massachusetts. Here’s a description from an 1870 guide: “Southborough contains about 9,024 acres. The soil is strong, deep, gravelly loam, and very productive. The sturdy yeomanry of the town…through the lapse of her past years, converted many of her once rugged hills and valleys into beautiful fields, orchards, and gardens, which bring forth abundant crops for man and beast…The superior grazing fields of Southborough afford a peculiarly rich and agreeable flavor to the milk and butter…The town now contains several superior farms, and there are 179 in all, from 10 to 200 acres.”

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Now, of course, it’s unrealistic to expect things to remain the same, but Southborough’s change has been extreme. With the coming of the railroads in the 1840s, and then especially in the 1930s, with the improvements to the road network, Southborough found itself within easy commuting distance from Boston. Suddenly the “highest and best use” of the land, as planners of the ’60s and ’70s were wont to say, was no longer considered to be farming, but housing. The inevitable result of this misguided thinking can be seen today: Where once just 40 years ago 60 percent of the acreage was still cultivated, in 2016, Southborough has not a single commercial farm. That’s not to say we’ve no open space, we do; hundreds of acres of former farmland have been preserved as conservation land, and several thousand more are protected reservoir areas. But the land no longer produces anything other than the odd bale of hay.

Gone are the orchards of apples, peaches, and pears, gone are the cows and the milk and the cream that made us famous, gone are the market gardens and the produce stands. Gone is any kind of productivity whatsoever. And that’s really harmful. It’s harmful because it removes from our children the knowledge of, and respect for, working the land, making it harder for them to understand that to survive as a species we must cooperate with nature, not try to control it. It’s harmful because it forces us to source our food from farther and farther away, increasing not only transport costs but also our carbon footprint in an era of climate change. And most of all, it’s harmful because we create vast swathes of land that do nothing but consume immense quantities of resources without yielding a single thing in return except a site for a house and a patch of lawn. To borrow from the Roman historian Tacitus, “We have created desolation, and called it suburbia.”

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So what can be done? Well, following the axiom that all politics is local, it’s time to think about the most local of all stages, your backyard. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of your spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on your landscape each year, your landscape gave something back to you? And it can, relatively easily. Here’s a grab-bag of ideas to make your land work for you again:

Keeping honey bees is a great gift to the environment.

Keeping honey bees is a great gift to the environment.

1. Take up bee-keeping
There is probably no greater gift you can give to the environment than supporting our threatened pollinators. I’ve kept bees for years, and can attest that it’s fun, absolutely fascinating both for adults and children, and has reasonably low start-up costs (especially if you find the equipment used.) Properly tended, each hive will produce 20 to 40 pounds of honey per year, which you can sell or give away to friends, not to mention providing the pollinators absolutely essential to our food chain.

2. Consider getting some hens
Most communities allow chickens even in fairly urban environments. Besides the obvious eggs, which are spectacular, by the way—whites you can whip by hand and yolks so golden they produce distinctly hued scrambled eggs —chickens are omnivores that eat almost all table scraps. Food waste will be entirely eliminated in your home, and once you taste your own eggs, you will never ever buy store-bought eggs again.

3. Plant a backyard orchard
Granted this is a long-term investment, but start now, right this minute, even if you only have space for a single tree. I planted my orchard of heirloom apples, peaches, and pears before the renovations to my house were even completed, and 23 years later I enjoy a rich bounty of fruit each season. In fact, so rich that I have taken up brewing my own artisanal hard cider, and if you ever want to feel really rewarded for your labors, try settling by the fire some snowy winter day with a frosted glass of sparkling hard cider and an engaging book. Depending on the size of tree you start with, most fruit trees begin bearing after two to three years, with yields growing exponentially after that.

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4. Make space for a cutting garden
If you have been to the florist lately, you know precisely how expensive cut flowers are. What you may not know is store-bought flowers are practically soaked with petroleum, as most specialty cut flowers these days are grown in distant foreign markets, flown to clearing houses in the Netherlands in specially designed 747 cargo planes, and then dispersed worldwide to your local florist. It’s entirely likely that the mixed bouquet of summer flowers sitting on the table has origins in at least a dozen different countries. If you grow your own, you can skip responsibility for their wasteful carbon footprint. I’m a particular fan of zinnias, French cosmos, sunflowers and oriental lilies, which I grow like vegetables in an out-of-the-way spot, but you can more or less grow anything that strikes your fancy, provided your climate is suitable.

5. Start a small vegetable garden
The trick to being successful here is to begin with a small plot, and grow only what you like to eat. This last sounds obvious, but countless times I have met folks who decided to grow this or that because they thought they should eat it, not because they liked eating it. Instead, leave the moralizing to Sunday school and concentrate on things that are easy to grow, that you want to eat, and that are expensive to buy. Raspberries are a prime example: they are essentially weeds, and will yield quarts and quarts of delectable fruit for the table if you (or your garden helpers) don’t eat them all first.

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6. Grow your own herbs
This last is a no-brainer, given the exorbitant cost of fresh herb packets these days. Most herbs can be grown in pots—and many actually prefer to be grown in pots, making this the ideal productive garden for even the smallest plot.