fence posts

After a wee bit of thought, we decided that “homesteading” is not the right term for what we plan to do. My family came from the Highlands to the Canadian maritimes over the course of three centuries; my husband’s family came out the mists of southeastern England at least a millenia ago, eventually settling in London. His parents emigrated in the nineteen fifties; his family name is rooted in Canterbury, and is the Anglo-Saxon name for the original church where the Cathedral now stands. (My family name has Norse roots.)

Homesteading evokes the American west, people racing to stake their land claim, in the hopes that with a few years’ hard work they would own it free and clear. Modern homesteading implies ownership of  land, even if it was purchased. We are not staking a claim on our wee farm; it is owned by another family and we rent it. The mutual goal is to restore the soil to fertility and produce crops and keep some animals, to raise the food we need and have some left to share and sell. While not strictly crofting – a unique landsharing arrangement in Scotland and the Islands – it is closer to that old Scottish concept than to American homesteading. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crofting).

There is an interesting crofting association in Scotland, organized to keep the tradition alive and to advocate with the government and landholders on behalf of the crofters. They define themselves: “Crofting is Scotland’s indigenous system of small-scale subsistence farming that has supported families in some of the remotest parts of the Highlands and Islands for centuries.” You can see more of their work and the issues they face at http://www.crofting.org.

The word “croft” is from the Old English word for an enclosed field, how the boundaries of crofts and smallholdings were determined. (See http://www.fife.50megs.com/crofts.htm for some good background material.)

Here in eastern Canada, there are farms left fallow, owned by people who live away. Either they inherited or bought land with the intention of working it and couldn’t make a living, or they didn’t care to stay in farming and found it easier to just pay the low taxes than to attempt to sell it. Sometimes parcels get rented, but once it has fallen fallow (uncultivated) for a few years, it isn’t desirable. Soon it is weedy, then covered with scrub and redbush. After a few short years, the alders and poplars take over. And in less than fifty years, it is forest again. Which is a good thing in itself, but humans can’t eat spruce and birch. Most of our food is imported either from western Canada or farther afield in the USA and Mexico. Our produce prices shot up to unaffordable this week. I bought locally produced and warehoused winter vegetables, as fresh imported tomatoes, lettuce, celery and fruit is way out of our price range.

What we don’t have in Canada that would make a crofting system more viable is commons. The crown land here is cut for timber, and not available for grazing; I don’t expect that we would be able to work out a share of the government owned tracts just to graze our sheep and cattle. We might have to take civil protest action and graze our animals on the unused railroad rights-of-way now abandoned, the tracks torn up to make recreational vehicle trails rarely used in a time of high cost gasoline.

Crofts, held longterm by small farmers such as ourselves, could make a difference in supplying local markets with lower cost food. I don’t mean the gourmet end of the market, either – but the working class who don’t own a plot of land or even a back garden in which to grow their own tomatoes and cucumbers.

In honour of our hardscrabble ancestors and those thorny hedgerows that divided the fields, we are naming our tiny bit of shared earth here on the St. John River “Blackthorn Croft.”

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