The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
March is a busy month for us. The sap is running, and the first batch of chicks arrives. But most significantly, it is my youngest daughter’s birthday month.
Ula turned eight this month, and she likes to make the most of her birthday. She usually starts outlining her plans at Christmas. She is particularly fond of surprise parties, and for the third year in a row, she requested one. This year, she changed the menu. Usually I prepare her favorite meal: A couple of grass-fed beef steaks from our farm, paired with homemade local and organic skillet potatoes, and maybe some kale from the farm down the road, marinated in sea salt, organic olive oil, and some garlic from our garden.
But Ula was turning eight. She wanted pizza. And she didn’t want me to make it. She wanted us to take her out for pizza.
The day before Ula’s birthday, my oldest daughter Saoirse baked her a cake. I secretly emailed our friends and asked them to come over and hide in the house while we took Ula out for pizza, and then we drove to town.
We went to a restaurant where our neighbor, Joe Mule, was making the pizza. His sauce is fantastic, and there’s love in every pizza he makes. (Joe was making the best pizza when I turned eight years old. I rode the school bus with his son when he turned eight years old.)
We had a great time, then we drove back up the mountain for Ula’s surprise party. And for the third year in a row, we managed to surprise her.
Now when you get a group of parents with school-aged children together at a birthday party, you inevitably start discussing the education system. So while kids ran wild around the house, we sat around the kitchen table with a couple bottles of wine and beer, and the cake (it’s a surprisingly good combination), and began to talk about school—about the new common core, educational standards, testing, college preparedness, career preparedness. Parent stuff. But as I listened, I recognized that the fundamental question being asked is the same question I always hear whenever America’s future generations are discussed: Are our children going to be able to compete in a global economy?
As the conversation became heated, I leaned back and observed. The birthday cake was still sitting in the middle of the table. Eight years ago, on that day, the table had been pushed aside, and right about where the birthday cake now sat, there was a birthing pool. It was there that I delivered Ula.
Sitting around that same place in my home now were four families, three of whom had roots in this community, who had been here roughly 30-40 years ago, celebrating our own generation’s eighth birthdays. Reminded of this, I began asking myself what kind of future I wished for my own children. And naturally, as a typical parent, I imagined a future defined by what my own hopes and ambitions for myself had been.
What had I wanted for myself as I was coming into my adulthood? I wanted this moment—to be celebrating my youngest daughter’s eighth birthday in the same place where we had celebrated my oldest daughter’s eighth birthday, which was the same place where I had celebrated my eighth birthday. I wanted to be with my family. I wanted to be a contributing member of the community I have known since childhood. I wanted to be a part of the hills and pastures that have defined my life since I was a baby: to drink from the streams, feast from the land, and be free to love and protect this place. I didn’t want to compete in a global economy. I wanted to learn how to thrive in my ecosystem.
I want the same for my children.
It seems reasonable, doesn’t it? The story I told of my daughter’s birthday is a simple story that many parents should be able to tell. But in order to bring you this story of my daughter’s eighth birthday, I had to defy impossible odds, I had to break the law twice, and I had to quite possibly deny my children something that has been considered a fundamental entitlement in this country.
Defying the Odds
I grew up in an agricultural community in the height of the farm crisis. Farm kids were being pushed off the land like weeds in the spray line of pesticides. We learned it in school, and we learned it at home: there is no money to be made farming.
But I wanted to do it. I went to college, and I went to graduate school. I was armed with the ability to leave, but I wanted to stay. Yet there were no jobs for me, and no jobs for my husband.
We recognized something, however. Learning from my Appalachian neighbors, who lived very well on farms that had been labeled by the state as “non-viable,” we discovered that there are two ways to survive on that land. One is by finding a way to turn sunshine and water into cash. The other is by having enough domestic skills to reduce the need for cash. If I was going to rejoin my family on the farm, the first thing my husband and I needed to do was reclaim those domestic skills and become good homemakers. If we knew how to keep our clothes in good repair, how to cook instead of eating out, how to preserve our food and make rather than buy the things we needed, we could survive until the day came when our farm would be more profitable. The trick was simple: produce more than we consumed. This is true home economics, the kind that secured our nation’s earliest cultural stability.
This was the kind of home economics that existed long before the discipline was renamed “consumer sciences,” when keeping a house devolved into knowing about vacuum cleaner models, coupons, and new cleaning products. If we joined the family farm, there wouldn’t be enough money to pay us a middle-American salary. But if we reclaimed these skills, we wouldn’t need it. That is how we beat the odds.
I eventually traveled around the country and interviewed other people who were making this discovery—on farms, in cities, in the suburbs—which led to a book. These folks were able to live happily and more sustainably, eat well, and have more time to enjoy family and community—all on on a fraction of the typical American income. Most of them were enjoying a high quality of life at 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Breaking the Law
Ula’s birthday party began, of course, with her birth, which took place at our home and in our kitchen. To many, this is a shocking choice for a mother to make. But to radical homemakers, who share a common attribute of carefully educating themselves about their healthcare choices, this is often the safer and more comfortable choice. This practice is only legal in very specific instances. My only homebirth option was an illegal one. And even if it were legal, our health insurance would not pay for it, nor will it pay for the less-invasive, less costly, or more holistic therapies that many radical homemakers feel are most conducive to healing. With the Affordable Care Act, many more of us have insurance, but most of us are still paying out-of-pocket for our healthcare.
Evidence of the second instance wherein I broke the law can be found in the frosting of Ula’s birthday cake. To protect my daughter’s innocence, I will confess it was I who went to the neighboring dairy farm to illegally buy the raw milk that we whipped with butter and sugar. I believe, from the research I have done, that raw milk is a safer, healthier product for my family. By law, however, without taking exorbitantly cost-prohibitive measures, my neighbor is not allowed to sell me the product his farm produces daily. By law, I would have to drive three hours to obtain this food for my family.
As radical homemakers, our attention is on the health and wellbeing of our families, our ecosystems, and our local economies. Thus, a critical issue for us is food sovereignty—our right to culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods.
We, those of us who grow the food and eat the food, should have the right to define our food and agriculture system—not the markets and corporations. We want to keep genetically modified organisms from our seed supply; we want produce and waterways free of pesticides and chemicals; we want to be free to make the healthiest choices for our children; we want the right to produce our own food if we so choose, no matter where we live; and we want entrepreneurial urban and rural farmers to have the right to produce that food for us.
Fundamental Entitlement I’ve Denied My Children
Last year, after I paid my family’s healthcare costs, our income for a family of four was $20,000. I really would like that number to be higher, and I am working to make that happen. But I can do a lot with $20,000. I can give my child a birthday party. I can pay the property and school taxes. I can put homegrown chicken on the table for Sunday dinner, and I can serve nourishing soups from the leftovers. I can teach my children, love them, show them how to be in business for themselves.
I cannot send them to college.
I am not the only one. Many, many parents could not afford to send their children to college, but wanted them to be able to compete in the global economy. So their children were encouraged to borrow money; or, in my neck of the woods, the family farm was mortgaged or sold.
The average college debt is currently somewhere in the high 20 thousands. I have met many people with debts double, triple, and quadruple that figure. Like me, they just want to be able to be home with their families. They want to celebrate their children’s eighth birthdays in a community where they will celebrate their grandchildren’s eighth birthdays.
If they were lucky enough to be able to complete college, it is true: they are equipped to compete in a global economy. With the debt they have incurred, they have no choice but to do so. They cannot stay home to care for their babies. They cannot dream of starting their own independent family business—whether it is a pizza parlor, a café, a farm, a craft business, a consignment shop, a brewpub, an independent medical practice or law practice. They are not free to create any of the things that make our most vibrant, economically and ecologically sustainable communities so memorable, because they are forced to compete in the global economy.
And because they are so commanded by the global economy, they are barred from the joy of taking care of their own children, or of participating in their local civic organizations—the volunteer ambulance, the fire department, the special interest groups that protect our resources, the church groups that help us to support each other. In short, they are not competing in the global economy. They are trapped by it.
* * *
These are the issues we radical homemakers face: the cost of education, expensive healthcare, and food sovereignty. But we keep going, and our numbers are steadily growing. We continue to make connections, find ways to help each other, and build community. We manage to teach our children how not to be competitive in the global economy, but instead how to thrive within our ecosystem, how to build a life that falls within the carrying capacity of our earth.
On the home page of my website, you will see a map of radical homemaking groups across the country. Each group is represented by a pin, and I get letters almost every week from new groups. The number of pins on the map is expanding. These are men and women who are reaching out to each other in their local communities. Like me, they want to feel connected.
And when it is time for their eight-year-old child’s birthday, they want to have multiple generations of family and friends come together to celebrate.
Dr. Shannon Hayes is a farmer in upstate New York and the author of several books, including Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.
 Shannon Hayes, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture (New York, Left to Write Press: 2010).