This is the twentieth in our series “Connecting With Local Food.”
Forty Years of Homesteading
By Bill Seekins
In 1973 I bought forty acres of steep, forested land at the end of a dead end road on the Nash Ranch. It was five miles from the paved road and was totally off-grid. My nearest neighbor was over two miles away. There was a one-room summer cabin with a propane cook stove and a fireplace made out of an oil drum. The cabin was right beside a seasonal stream in a steep canyon and it didn’t get any sun in the winter. I had kerosene lamps and candles for light. I installed a hand pump on the kitchen sink for water.
I moved in during the very wet winter of 1973-74 and I had no firewood, but I did have a bow saw. It snowed the first night I spent in the cabin. The road was washed out a quarter of a mile from my cabin and it took two weeks of shoveling to fill the gulley, which was some thirty feet long and six feet deep. I had a 1962 VW bug and a 1931 Ford Model A coupe which I had converted into a pick-up truck. I couldn’t afford a new battery for the Model A, so I had to start it with the hand crank.
I had moved from San Diego where I had been a grad student at San Diego State. After I got my undergraduate degree in geology from Occidental College I went to L.A. Trade-Tech and got my aircraft mechanics licenses. I had been working summers in Alaska as a helicopter mechanic to pay my way through grad school and I continued to work summers there for the next five years.
I put mud tires on my VW bug so I could drive in and out in the winter. It was almost as good as 4-wheel drive and a lot cheaper. One of my neighbors also had a VW bug and we would help each other with maintenance problems. After a string of engine problems we got to where we could pull a VW engine in ten minutes. We joked about trying out for the Olympics in the VW engine pull event.
My neighbor’s VW bug had a canvas covered sunroof, which no longer kept out the rain. A new sunroof cost $175, which was out of the question. I had a very dead VW bug with a hard top so we decided to cut off the top and pop rivet it to his car. We fashioned a wooden mallet out of a piece of firewood and used a hatchet as a chisel. It worked pretty well. He ended up with a two-tone car because the new roof was green and his car was blue. But it didn’t leak.
In 1975 I bought a worn out Case backhoe and rebuilt the engine. I cleared half an acre on a south-facing slope for a garden and had the timber milled into lumber with a portable saw mill. I cut five terraces on the hill that were wide enough for a tractor and put up a deer fence. There is plenty of sun in the summer, but the lower terraces don’t get winter sun. I built a switchback wheelbarrow trail to a sunnier site above the terraces and put in a dozen apple and pear trees as well as a winter garden.
Invading redwood roots are a real problem. Later on, I bought an older Massey-Ferguson 135 farm tractor and installed a ripper bar. Every spring I rip the garden terraces and remove the accumulated redwood roots. The roots collect on the ripper teeth and are easily removed. It’s a lazy man’s way of double digging. Then I rototill in compost.
There are a few advantages to growing food in a redwood forest. The codling moths haven’t found my apple trees yet. There is very little bird damage because many birds are used to grassy areas. The gophers haven’t found me yet either.
In the late 1800s the old time homesteaders often planted apple orchards. Dried apples were one of the few cash crops that could profitably be hauled out of the Valley in a horse drawn wagon. The old timers planted early, middle, and late season apples so they could keep their wood-fired apple dryers going for a long time.
Remnants of these old orchards still exist and they attract bears to the area in summer and fall. The bears have recently developed a fondness for wine grapes as well. My neighbors and I often stop to check out piles of bear scat in the road. We can tell what they have been eating, how big they are, and roughly how long ago they came by. I can often tell if they are male or female and which direction they were headed. It’s a common topic of conversation in the neighborhood during bear time.
One night some 30 years ago I woke up to a loud commotion in the chicken yard. I grabbed my rifle and a rather weak flashlight and went out to investigate. I ended up following a large, 300-plus pound bear walking down the driveway. The bear, some 50 feet away, stopped and looked over its shoulder at me. This caused me to re-evaluate the situation. The flashlight was dim and I was barefoot and in my underwear. I turned the light and the gun toward the hill, and fired a round, just to make some noise. When I turned the light back the bear was gone. It didn’t come back.
I stopped working summers in Alaska in 1980. My partner at that time and I had a toddler and another one on the way. I decided to work in Anderson Valley; I couldn’t be gone for three or four months. I had tried working the backhoe for hire putting in septic tanks and developing springs, but I ended up spending as much time working on the tractor as I did digging. I finally ended up working as a mechanic for Navarro Vineyards. I retired almost thirty years later.
We home schooled two of our three kids and we decided to plant a small crop of wheat for a home schooling lesson. I planted a plot around ten by forty feet. After it headed up and was mature enough I cut it with a scythe and tied it in bundles to dry. On threshing day we invited the neighbor kids over. We placed the bundles on a piece of plywood that was covered with a bed sheet, and the kids beat the bundles with a four-foot length of plastic pipe. We dumped the wheat and chaff in my newly acquired hand crank seed cleaner. Large wheat grains came out one chute, small wheat grains came out another, and pure rye grass seed (a garden weed) came out a third. I was impressed.
Since we didn’t have a phone, we decided to teach the kids to drive the car in case there was an emergency. At first they would sit in my lap and learn how to steer around the potholes. When they got steering down I taught them how to work the pedals. My oldest daughter was nine when she first drove with me sitting in the passenger seat.
The kids and dogs would often go on walks in the woods. The kids would snack on edible greens and especially on wild berries. There were thimbleberries, strawberries, black raspberries, huckleberries, and blackberries near the house. The kids knew what animals made the tracks and they knew a lot about gardening. There is an old saying that you can take a country kid to the city and in a few years he knows everything a city kid knows. If you take a city kid to the country he never knows everything a country kid knows.
A big event for my kids was the first day of cherry picking at the Butler’s u-pick cherry orchard. In the spring we would watch for the hand-lettered sign announcing the opening date on the Butler’s road off Highway 253. The day before opening day we would load the picking cans and buckets into the car and pack a lunch. It was like Christmas for the kids. We got up at first light, ate a quick breakfast, and headed out. By the time we got to Butler’s road there was a line of cars heading up the hill. We weighed our empty buckets and headed out into the orchard. The kids would fan out, sampling different trees. There was a party atmosphere. We always ran in to old friends. At mid-afternoon, we would weigh our full buckets and pay our bill. It’s a good thing they didn’t weigh the kids. The next day was canning day.
I tried to be as self-sufficient as possible and avoid unnecessary trips to town. I kept a few parts’ cars around and I had an assortment of hardware. Once, when my well pump self destructed, I took a yard-sale pump and the engine off a burned out generator and connected them together with an old VW fan belt. I didn’t have to make one trip to the hardware store and that rig pumped our water for years.
In 1987 we decided to build a new house up on the south-facing slope in the “sun belt”. One corner of my property has a knoll that is relatively gently sloping. We were careful to avoid building on our best garden land. The house is passive solar with a greenhouse on the south-facing side. We buried a two-foot diameter steel culvert, forty feet long under the house. The culvert functions an “air conditioner”. On hot afternoons we turn on a fan, which blows cool air through the culvert and into the house. We heat our hot water with solar in the summer and with a heat exchanger in the wood stove in the winter. The house is solar electric and we pump our water with solar panels too. Since our well water has too much calcium for a hot water system we collect rainwater in a 3,000-gallon tank beside the house and solar pump it to holding tanks on a pad above the house. We get 500 gallons for every inch of rain. When you run water in the sink the cold is from the well and the hot is from the rain.
Finally after seventeen years we got a telephone. It was a radio phone that connected us to a phone line four and a half miles away. We also got “dial up” on the internet. I have never owned a television set and the kids weren’t interested in getting one. They had a cabinet full of card and board games and we had a bushel-sized apple box we took to the library every two weeks. Our main entertainment was playing folk and bluegrass music with friends or having potluck dinners.
We put up a deer fence around the house and garden and planted fruit trees. I installed an electric fence wire on the fence to keep the bears out. We no longer had to hang the trashcan from a pulley on a high tree limb. I cut three terraces in the knoll garden with the backhoe and I hope to cut three more this summer. I didn’t appreciate the benefit of having good frost drainage in a winter garden until this winter. Our garden did well, surviving the cold snap and being frost free most of the winter. This is one of the few advantages of owning steep land. When we water with drip irrigation we do it at night with timers to keep the calcium in our well water from plugging up the emitters. Drip tubing gets hot in the sun and the heat causes the calcium to come out of solution.
We have 450 garlic plants in the lower garden that are about a foot tall. For years, I have been planting the best garlic cloves from the previous season. I plan to plant potatoes in an eight-foot by seventy-foot terrace in the lower garden too. I harvested over 300 pounds of potatoes last year. We plan to plant carrots and parsnips in another terrace. I usually plant a seventy foot row of dry beans and I put up a portable electric fence to keep the turkeys out. I believe we will have enough water, thanks to the late season rains and the creek bottom aquifer. Also, the garlic and potatoes will be harvested by mid-summer while there is still enough water.
We will plant sun loving plants in the upper knoll garden, such as tomatoes, squash, and melons. I’m not convinced that the well at the upper house got much recharge this winter so we will cut back on planting this spring. I didn’t plant wheat and canola this winter because of the drought. Let’s hope for more rain.