Nine years ago this summer we purchased a neglected pre-Civil War home sitting on twenty acres in the Shenandoah Valley. Before I’d even visited the property, I’d fallen in love with it. From online photos I could see it offered much of what I’d always wanted: land, privacy, room for gardens and animals, and plenty of space for kids to play and dream. It even had a long, tree-lined driveway.
So we left the hustle and bustle of the Northeast in search of a slower and simpler lifestyle in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was to be our last move and we started laying down new roots. Less than a year after we arrived in Virginia, my sister and her family moved here from Seattle. I had not lived near family since I left the Northwest the summer after high school. Suddenly, I had my sister and my children had cousins just a few miles away.
Meanwhile, Jeff and I worked tirelessly to shape our property into a place that would stay in the family for generations. We renovated the house, added sheds, finished the animal barn, and added a 5,000 square-foot post-and-beam “barn” style building that would become our school, as well as space for guests. But this kind of property is a lifetime commitment. We are constantly improving it.
For one thing, the property had been overtaken by brush. We began hand clearing, acre by acre. Jeff cut down the overgrowth with a chainsaw and we dragged the brush into piles, burning them one-by-one when they were dry, months later. We hired excavators to smooth out the hillsides, removing the old stumps and root systems of the cleared brush. Finally, we spread grass seed and straw and then prayed that heavy rains wouldn’t wash all the seed downhill before it had a chance to germinate. Each year we repeated this process as we cleared yet more of the overgrowth. Upon clearing one area, we discovered a spring. We created a pond, fed by the spring, and then installed a pump and ran underground piping up the hill from the pond to the gardens. Also utilizing the pond water, we installed an underground sprinkler system that keeps the grass green in the heat of summer.
Additionally, Jeff built stonewalls and I created flowerbeds, but I had no experience with clay soil. I planted a large flower bed (20’ x 4’) only to discover that I needed a pick-ax. The ground was like concrete! I dug up all the new plants and added horse manure, which Jeff brought me by the wheelbarrow load. I worked it into the clay with my shovel until the soil was rich and pliable. Then I replanted the entire bed.
And so the ongoing makeovers of Rockspring Farm continued. We learned as we went. Each spring I was anxious to get to work outdoors, planting raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and lots of vegetables. We even planted a dozen fruit trees. But there is hardly a level place on our property so raised beds insured that my vegetable gardens didn’t get washed downhill. We even converted some old foundations into raised beds.
Over the years we added animals, starting with cats and a dog. The chickens were initially a result of Tennyson’s interest in farm animals. I became a huge fan of guinea fowl after adding some to the farm as pest control—they’re great tick-eaters. However, foxes also love guineas. So each spring I have to incubate eggs, hatch out keets, and then spend the rest of spring, summer, and fall raising next year’s new crop of guinea hens.
Rockspring Farm has come to life—literally. Each set of animals played a role. Tennyson introduced rabbits as a meat source, but they’re also great recyclers; the weeds are fed to them. In return, I get manure for the compost pile. Our ducks now swim in our spring-fed pond and help keep algae under control. The goats kept steep rugged terrain mowed that otherwise couldn’t be mowed.
Still, each addition costs: fencing, cages, hutches, coops, feeders, and grain. Then there’s the labor. Local farmhand, Billy Campbell started working for me several years ago. Without his help, I couldn’t manage. Yet, the costs add up. In an effort to establish an income source that could support the farm, I began my ice cream business. (Selling eggs just wasn’t enough). In 2014, I started my mobile ice cream business; last summer I added a store.
But events this winter brought a painful reckoning: Southern Virginia University had become unhealthy for our family. (See Jeff’s blog Selling the Farm). I was not the only one who cried, but at the end of the day I knew it was time to leave.
While this wake-up call was not pleasant, it opened a door. For the first time in nearly a decade, I entertained ideas of leaving the farm. And with those thoughts came a new sensation—a feeling of lightness—that was almost tangible for me. I dared to think what life would be like without the never-ending job of maintaining gardens, fields, fences, and buildings. Would my back ever stand straight again after nine years of weeding? What would it feel like to answer my children’s request to play or read with them with something besides the adverb “later”? I would gain not weeks, but months without fruit trees to prune, vegetables to prune and stake, and bushels of produce to can, freeze, or jam. Imagining a different lifestyle made something clear: these changes are necessary.
I’m an addict: I love working outdoors, but I can’t stop. Moreover, I’ve been in denial; I thought I could do it all. I tell myself it will get easier if only I have one more pasture fenced, one more tutor to help me in school, one more piece of machinery. Yet, to gain more leisure time I need more resources. Chasing ease has been like trying to find the end of a rainbow—always elusive.
Of course, life’s not easy for anyone. And often our burdens are self-made. That’s certainly true for me. I chose to home school my children. I chose to grow, harvest, and can food, changing our eating lifestyle. And I chose to start my own business. But no matter how many hours I put in, it’s never enough. And that’s because each job is fulltime, and I’m just one woman. It’s simply too much. There. I’ve said it. I can’t do it all. I am not Wonder Woman.