Farmer Groupies and Chicken Coddlers

The Foxfire books and the paradox of the modern DIY movement.

Making apple butter according to the Foxfire books

Recently, in an antique store in rural Virginia, I came across the Foxfire books, a high-school class project that turned into an epic publishing and oral history enterprise. Now celebrating its 45th anniversary, this series of back-to-the-land classics teaches everything from how to build a log cabin to the curative properties of dog saliva to the rudiments of hog slaughter. In Foxfire 3, I found a recipe for apple butter illustrated with photos of some of the Georgia Appalachians whose skills the Foxfire books recorded. A woman in curlers pours the contents of a battered tin pot into a jar. A hunched woman in a leisure suit and a gray pouf dumps five pounds of sugar into a vat boiling over an open flame. Nearby, an equally hunched man with roughened, wrinkled skin plays the banjo.

But where were the cute twentysomething women in aprons holding colorful Fiestaware bowls full of apples? Where was the luscious shot of apple butter spread across thick slices of home-baked bread and arranged on a vintage china plate?

Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, the aged keepers of the Foxfire apple butter recipe, were the faces of self-sufficiency as it was lived in the previous century. Today, among others, we have the Pioneer Woman, who blogs about her life on an Oklahoma ranch with professional-quality photos; Susan Orlean writing in The New Yorker about her chartreuse designer-built chicken coop; and Kate Payne of the aspirational DIY lifestyle blog Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking. All of them, in their photos at least, energetic, fulfilled, glowing with health and vitality. Not a hunched back or callused palm in sight.

Thus the paradox of the modern DIY movement. Farmers have gone from 20 percent to 2 percent of the American workforce since World War II, and 80 percent of Americans now live in cities. Modern Americans may yearn for simplicity and self-sufficiency, but they’re much less familiar with the gritty realities of rural life than even 45 years ago, when more city dwellers knew or were related to farmers. The result is that today’s back-to-the-landers, whether suburban chicken fanciers, serious urban foragers, or just obsessive locavores, have much farther to go before they can even get back to the land. Along the way, they’re learning lessons like: Test the soil for poisonous heavy metals before you farm for food in Detroit. Place your beehives far away from the maraschino cherry factory. And most of all, it seems: Make sure you’re ready before you slaughter your first rabbit.

In the Foxfire books, livestock animals are killed with little ceremony. Slaughtering a hog? Use “a sharp blow on the back of the head with a rock or axe head,” or just shoot it between the eyes. Then slice the jugular to bleed it out before it can be skinned and butchered. As one old-timer described it, “Stick’im right in th’goozle’ere.”

Compare that with an account of a first-time rabbit slaughter written recently on the online forum The author began by pinning the rabbit’s neck under the handle of a broom, trying to hold its body steady as it thrashed. Then she grabbed its hind legs and jerked upward to snap the vertebra and sever the carotid artery.

It didn’t work. “When I picked him back up he was breathing funny and obviously still alive,” she wrote. So she started bashing the rabbit in the back of the neck with a hammer. The rabbit clung to life. Finally the writer called her husband, who took up the hammer and killed the rabbit.

The experience left her deeply shaken. “For 2 months I have been very matter-of-fact about the idea of these rabbits being a food-source. I have even enjoyed the shocked looks on the faces of friends and family when I tell them I will be doing the slaughtering,” she wrote. “But the idea that he may have suffered by my naive, newbie hand … that makes me want to cry.”

The trauma of the first kill echoes around BackYardHerds and its sister site for chicken-keepers, Squeamish would-be chicken dispatchers suggest administering herbal muscle relaxants, bonking the chicken on the head with a board, gassing the chicken with CO2, covering its head with a sock to avoid eye contact, or hiring someone off Craigslist to kill it for you. Some of those who succeed are left sickened. “Going to go drink some wine until their eyes stop haunting me,” wrote one poster immediately after the slaughter.

These unsettled DIYers are operating in a particularly weird moral environment, caught between ideal and reality. On the one hand, there’s the locavore lust for authenticity that promises that slaughtering your own food will be an adventure in self-discovery. On the other hand, we have developed a complex ethical and emotional connection with animals that makes us really uncomfortable with their pain, even if we tell ourselves it’s less than if the animal had spent its life in a factory farm.

The popular depiction of chickens as egg-producing house pets doesn’t help matters. You could read about Susan Orlean’s or Martha Stewart’s brood for days and not have the first clue that sometimes chickens need to be killed for health reasons. (Foxfire: “Why, I’ve killed as high as five or six big pretty hens of Mommie’s that had taken the weak leg and they’d kill’em and tote’em off to keep it from spreading.”) Orlean takes her sick hens to the vet instead of culling them because “I couldn’t kill my own pet” and then cries when they die.

Of course, animal slaughter is only part of the neo-homesteading movement. The idealism of would-be chicken-keepers is matched among the legions of picklers, urban farmers, home-brewers, and people who bake with spelt, though the results tend to be less bloody. Foxfire 2 features an illustrated guide to making your own clothes, from raising and shearing sheep to weaving patterned cloth on a loom. One ancient weaver, Aunt Arie, is shown squinting at the sun, holding up a tattered but sturdy garment: “Octie Bates wove this slip,” she says. “Y’see how big it is. I wore it ever since it’s made—forty, sixty years ago.” Today’s version of self-sufficient clothes manufacture is play-acting in comparison: an educational film on “What I Learned the Year I Made My Own Linen Underwear,” say, or a sewing circle in which participants mended a pair of “severely busted-through dance pants,” among other projects.

There’s a similar cognitive dissonance in reading the Foxfire sections on canning and preserving (to dry apples: “Fill a ten gallon wooden tub with sliced apples; then put two tablespoons of sulfur in a saucer and strike a match and set th’ sulfur on fire”) or foraging for food (“We always used the sheep sorrel to make [mixed greens] sour like vinegar. Didn’t have much vinegar then, you know, so they used that.”). These practices have been adopted by the neo-homesteaders and DIY bloggers, illustrated with gorgeous photos and a feisty, earnest attitude. All of them are pleasurable games played by deracinated urbanites who desire some contact with authentic crafts and skills now nearly lost to time—not a way of life for hungry people who need the nourishment they find in sidewalk cracks to survive.

No one is hurt by urban foraging or jam-canning, of course, and the pursuit of deeper connection through house chores is admirable in its own easily-mocked way. (I myself derive great satisfaction from sewing on buttons, baking bread, and so forth. And I only wish I knew how to mend my busted-through dance pants.) But because it fosters false nostalgia for an imagined self-sufficient rural life, it may mask some of the real problems facing the dwindling number of people who actually live that life. Emily Cook, manager at Virginia’s Farm at Sunnyside, told me she was sick of “farmer groupies” who weren’t actually interested in the real problems farmers are facing. “The discussion needs to move beyond how great heirloom tomatoes are to how are we going to have farmers 20 years from now,” she said. “Our system really needs to change to make farming a viable career to people.”

I spoke with other farmers who echoed her sentiments. Although the modern-day back-to-the-land movement has brought important new interest and excitement into farming— not to mention an economic boost through farmer’s markets and CSAs—its portrait of rural life skips over some urgent issues for smallholder farmers, like the difficulty of saving up to buy land on a farmer’s salary and the feeling that U.S. farm policy is stacked toward larger, specialized conglomerates.

In Foxfire 4, old-time builder Charlie Ross Hartley brings up the economic difficulties of farming, how it’s not any more a feasible profession for someone starting out: “That’s why our young people are all leaving. Our family—the boys and all had to scatter out to get a job.” At least his children or grandchildren, with their city salaries, can someday pay for a class on keeping their own chickens—once they get far enough away to become nostalgic about what was left behind.