When we moved to Costa Rica in early 2009, the United States economy was in the throes of economic upheaval. The late 2008 stock market debacle and the subsequent bailouts were impacting on the middle class's investment portfolios and retirement security. The average person who put their trust in their corporate retirement plan and 401 K's were suddenly aware how vulnerable they were to the whims of the global economy.
My husband retired in 2008 at the age of 51, with 30 years of service to local government. His annuity was coming from a fairly stable source, since it was state government that was writing the checks, so we weren't too worried. Then while we were living on the farm in the mountains of Costa Rica, we started hearing about state and local governments going bankrupt. The security of our retirement check became less certain. We weren't at all prepared for the possibility of losing our retirement check. Fortunately, we have to this point in January 2011, not had any issue with NC State government sending us our check, but it did cause us to look seriously at our contingency plans.
I am not going to talk about our income contingency plans here, but the whole idea of economic uncertainty does bring to mind some things that I would like to talk about. Our life choices have always revolved around sustainability and self reliance. We chose to live as close to nature as we could, to grow our food and gain knowledge and experience in as many aspects of homesteading as we could on our little piece of land. We lived frugally on one income, drove older "beater" cars, and had the long term goal of being debt free. When we moved to Costa Rica we added to our experience tool set by learning from the Ticos, how they manage to live good full lives on very little income.
I was constantly amazed by "Ticonomics". Costa Rica has a large middle class, has an 85% literacy rate, and is one of the cleanest, "greenest" places I have had experience with. Of course, "middle class" and "literacy" are relative. A middle class Tico does not live like a middle class American, with two cars (or more), a house with a 30 year mortgage and disposable income to toss around on eating out and movies. Literacy doesn't mean you graduated high school, it means you can read, write and do functional math and have an 8th grade education. A middle class Tico has a small house of 600 to 1000 sq. ft. with no mortgage, no car for most families (in our area in the mountains anyway...), and has very little disposable income.
The thing that is so amazing is that Ticos know how to sway with the economic winds. If the US economy is bad and tourism is down, there are fewer jobs available. When this happens, Ticos switch from a paying job to odd jobs and working the land to grow their food. When income is limited they cut back on things, use less electricity, stop using their cell phones (there are no 2 yr. phone plans in CR. you pay as you go), eat more basic foods and everyone pitches in to bring in what is needed to pay the bills. One of our friends has a family of 5 at home with the possibility of 4 other family members having to move in during hard times. The man of the house is a strong, hard working foreman for a construction crew. When he has work, he puts away for the thinner times when there is no construction work. When the job is over, while he waits for the next project to come up, he raises chickens for meat and sells them to "Gringos" and to businesses in town. He raises an amazing amount of food in very little space, has a calf tethered in the yard to cut the grass and grow out for meat, and milks an American's dairy cows for some cash and milk to bring home to his family. Their monthly income is often less than $300, but they are happy, busy, fed and have time to spend with friends and family.
I think the secret is that they are content to live simply. Meals are very simple, consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables in abundance, rice and black beans. Their homes are scrupulously clean and simply furnished. They expand their living space by building a deep veranda (covered porch) on their house where they spend most of their time. They go to bed shortly after dark and get up with the rooster. They can live on practically nothing.
The Tico is able to build a house with cash for the most part since they are not extensive structures and they keep utilities to a minimum. Living in the tropics where there is no need for central heat and good insulation means that the Tico doesn't have to have the same kind of investment in their house construction materials. A small house with one bathroom, tiny bedrooms and a kitchen is sufficient. The veranda is the living area where family and friends gather to chat, eat, and catch the evening breeze.
The plaza is another extension of living space for social interaction. The plaza is the heart of the community, it is usually a soccer field that has benches and trees surrounding it. Everyone ends up there at one time or another, to talk about the day, catch up on news and let the kiddies run and play. There is always some kind of activity going on, an impromtu soccer match, teens walking in clusters laughing and whispering to each other, the elderly sit in their plastic chairs and watch the grandkids while parents have a few minutes of social time before bed. Life is lived as a village, not as isolated cells of immediate family as it is here in the States. Americans could benefit emotionally, financially and socially from adopting a few of the basic tenants of Tico life. If we were less isolated, spent more time doing things outside, and were happy with simple pleasures, there would be less need to spend money and time going out.
I really didn't mean to go on about Tico life, but I learned so much by having them as neighbors and friends, that it is hard not to wax philosophical about their way of life. What I really want to talk about is learning to sway, "Tico style", to the present economic winds. So in the next several blog posts I will be talking about what our family has learned about being economically flexible.
I am going to write one more establishing post to give some structure to my future posts, then I should be off and running. We spent 20 years working on our little spit of land, gardening organically, raising goats and chickens for milk, cheese, meat & eggs and building the garden's "bones". These "bones" included a fence around the perimeter of the vegetable garden made from espaliered fruit trees. Since we have very limited space, efficient use of growing space was important, so instead of having one or two large fruit trees, we have 10 laterally espaliered apple and pear trees that surround and shelter our French Intensive raised vegetable beds.
Espaliered Granny Smith Apple
Over the years we planted different soft fruits that would grow well in our soil as well as provide us with a succession of fresh fruit from late April through September. The last days of April brought us sweet juicy strawberries. We ate them fresh, made jam and froze them for use later, and when the strawberry production began to dwindle, it was about time for June blackberries as well as yellow and purple plums.
Blueberry Pie by the Fourth of July!
Then in July there were blueberries, red raspberries, and figs that would be available until mid August. Apples and pears would come a little later, but during the lull in our own fruit production, we would enjoy an abundance of fresh peaches that are grown in our area. We didn't plant our own peaches since they were available from local farmers and we just didn't have room for them in our garden. By the end of the season we have a larder loaded with jewel colored jars of preserves, jam and jellies and a freezer stocked with berries and peaches for smoothies during the off season.
The vegetable garden has grown in scale and purpose over the years. When we were young and full of a novice's enthusiasm we planted a little of everything. As time went by and we learned more about what grew well in our area and what things we actually made use of, we refined our planting choices. At one point we had a tiny green house/potting shed at the back of the garden where we started our cool weather seedlings. Since the potting shed wasn't heated we couldn't start warm weather crops in it, so we would start those under lights in the house. Later, we decided that the potting shed was sitting on prime real estate that could be used for more than starting seeds, so we just started all our seeds indoors under lights. We tore down the potting shed and used the space to extend the vegetable garden and to plant blueberries. Presently,
we have ten French Intensive raised beds three feet wide and twenty feet long. They are loamy and rich, and have very few perennial weeds.
Fresh produce from the garden
We grow a large portion of our fresh vegetable supply during the summer. We eat, can, freeze and dehydrate the produce and when autumn rolls around, we pull up the spent plants, compost and manure the beds that we clear and plant them with fall crops. Often we still have fairly nice tomatoes until the days start to get short in late September, and our peppers will produce bountifully until mid November when a killing frost will claim what peppers we didn't get off the plants in time. The rest of the beds will have lettuce, greens, cabbage, root crops like beets and carrots, set onions and garlic, fava beans and chinese vegetables. If we have a mild winter we will harvest letttuce, greens and chinese vegetables all winter, and have an very early spring harvest of beets, carrots, cabbage and fava beans. The onions and garlic will come in later. If we start seeds for cool crops indoors in December we can squeeze in another round of cool weather crops before it gets too warm. Years like this year we will only get in two seasons, since we have had very cold weather and snow and ice that put the fall plantings in temporary holding pattern until the weather is a little more hospitable. They will perk back up in February and finish off strong for a March harvest. We will still have time to plant some things before we need the space for warm weather crops, but there will only be one round of cabbage and root crops.
Much of our time this past summer was spent getting our gardens and trees back in shape after spending a year in Costa Rica. So this coming year will be a much better year in the garden. We tragically lost one of our mature standard plum trees while we were gone and I have to rip out my herb garden completely and start over since couching grass took it over in our absence. But for the most part we are back up to speed and ready to start the next cycle. I am looking forward to the coming year and all that will be going on in the gardens and around the homeplace. I also look forward to seeing you here and getting to know you. Leave me a comment or drop me an e-mail, I will be glad to make your acquaintance.
There is so much to tell about our life on this little homestead, to get us to where we are today. I have struggled with how to go about doing that. We have homesteaded here for more than twenty years, much has gone into the developement of this place and much has happened to change the dynamics of what we are doing now.
It is my desire to tell our story for several reasons, the one being that we carved out a functional homestead on an one acre of unyielding clay, how we did it might help someone else who dreams of a homestead. We have produced much of our food, kept livestock, homeschooled children, and developed an asthetically pleasing, healthy environment for our family and other living creatures to enjoy. Many of the stories I want to tell you are in the past. When we were developing our place, growing food and raising kids, there wasn't much time for writing. I was lucky to keep a garden journal...
Now things have become established, and the kids have grown up. We still garden and put up our food, I am diligent to keep our pantry stocked with goodness, so that whatever life throws at us, there will be something for us to eat. We still have one son living at home, and he works with us to keep things going, but the days of biology being conducted in the garden and projects with his education in mind are in the past. Now he is spending his daylight hours in an apprenticeship, learning a trade and preparing for his future. But what we did here worked. I believe that sharing what we did to create our "homestead", could be of use to those who have dreamed of doing the same but felt like it couldn't be done with whatever resources they have. I believe we also can share what we've done with those who are in the process of establishing their own homestead or who like us, have been doing this awhile. I would like to make some new friends among those intrepid souls that have shared the dream of sustainable living, in the hopes that I will continuing to grow, learn and experience. I want to talk about our homestead, past, present and future and I want to encourage and inspire others to try their hand at a "simpler" life.
Please drop in and make yourself at home...I love company!