D Acres is located in Dorchester, New Hampshire (population approximately 350) where there are no stoplights or convenience stores and many roads are not paved. Dorchester is a bedroom community -- the town residents generally either work in the woods or commute up to four hours to work at jobs elsewhere. Except for the food that people grow for themselves or gather in the woods, access to necessities requires a car.
Rural life in New England has its challenges. The soil is poor, the winter is long and the rural economy has been in decline since the 19th century. Much of the land in Central New England was cleared for grazing of sheep and subsistence farming by white settlers starting in the 1700's. Much of this land was abandoned, however, following the collapse of the market for wool at the end of the Civil War. Since then, the prime pasture and cropland in the region has been converted to suburban subdivisions, trailer parks, and strip malls with the remainder reclaimed by the northern forest. Large tracts of land in the township of Dorchester are managed for mechanized logging with quality timber shipped overseas as markets dictate. Timber values fluctuate based on unsteady international markets, adding to the uncertainties of the local job market. Wal-Mart is the second largest employer in the nearby university town, but no one seems to be working full time with benefits. The few local farmers who remain struggle to do so as global competition and industrial agriculture keep down food prices.
The customs of town meetings, socializing on the commons and networks of rural cooperation are fading into history as well. The rural landscape with its promise of a sustainable way of living and traditions of self-sufficiency and mutual aid is in jeopardy unless we pursue novel methods of diversifying the rural, farm-based economy and redeveloping cooperation on a local level.
All of this provides a wonderfully challenging opportunity for an innovative agricultural and community project. D Acres of New Hampshire is a non-profit organic farm and educational homestead with the mission of functioning as an educational center and working farm where we research, apply, and teach skills for sustainable living and small-scale organic farming. Our mission is to work cooperatively with the larger community to foster sustainable community renewal. The farm functions as a community and educational center as well as a producer of agricultural products. Instead of embracing the common farm strategy of seeking work off-site to supplement an inadequate farm income, we are pursuing creative ways to stimulate on-farm economics. Much of our non-farming time is thus spent pursuing cottage craft work, making functional and beautiful objects from on-site renewable resources and recycled materials. In addition, we are always developing new ways to connect with other farmers and our neighbors.
We strive to model a diversified, small-scale, sustainable New England farm. The vision of D Acres is to provide stewardship for the rural landscape while also serving the needs of the community. The economic and social possibilities of the farm as a center for healthy food, face-to-face communication, education, goods, and services are limited only by our imaginations.
The survival of the rural landscape of New England, the development of a more sustainable way of living based on traditional homesteading practices, extended in novel and creative ways, and the growth and flourishing of community, ecological and social, are the overriding goals of D Acres of New Hampshire. This project was started over twenty years ago and continues to evolve and progress, as a model, we hope, for a truly viable alternative way of living with the land.
"D ACRES" stands for Development Aimed at Creating Rural Ecological Society. It also pays homage to our founders EDith and Delbert Gray, and our location in Dorchester. The farm is managed as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, run by the staff and residents, and overseen by a Board of Directors. The organization's budget is submitted annually to the Board for approval. The Trought Family owns the property and structures. Day-to-day operations are organized by the staff and residents using a consensus model of decision-making at our weekly meetings. There staff members as well as a fluctuating number of participants living on site throughout the year. All of those involved have devoted many hours of labor to D Acres with the conviction that it is a project well worth our efforts.
Our idealistic vision is to live sustainably in a cooperatively run homestead by combining the best of traditional methods with current appropriate technologies. We wish to provide a simple yet comfortable standard of living for our residents while encouraging others to adopt our methods. This involves a great deal of conservation, adaptation, and creative reuse of materials in order to function within the limits of our resource base, reduce our fossil fuel consumption, and lessen our overall impact on the land. In addition, we employ consensus models of decision making in the belief that the cooperative pursuit of our ideals is just as important as those ideals themselves.
D Acres incorporates elements of the theory and practice from many outside sources. On the traditional end of the spectrum, the Shakers of this region provide us with an example of a communal way of life that focused on the production of traditional crafts. More contemporary community-based organizations such as The Farm and Earthhaven have provided us with guidance and inspiration through their efforts at cooperative rural development. Resident participation in projects located on islands in the Caribbean and the San Juans has provided hands-on experience in self-sufficient living and community collaboration. Design ideas gleaned from the permaculture movement have helped us plan the physical layout of the farm. Our farming system incorporates ideas from various approaches to organic gardening including edible landscaping, French intensive, biodynamic and lasagna gardening systems. Generally, our approach involves researching a variety of alternatives until suitable practices can be identified and then applied to each situation.
Throughout the year responsibilities and work schedules are divided at the weekly community meetings. We share many responsibilities and all of us to participate in a variety of activities including forestry, gardening, administration, animal husbandry, food preparation and preservation, alternative construction projects, woodworking, and educational programs. All residents are party to the communal contract and follow the procedures spelled out in the Organizational Manual. These documents, which are revised on an annual basis record the consensus of current participants about what works best for us and D Acres. We all recognize the responsibilities that go along with living and working together as equals. We cook and clean together, feed and look after the animals every day and coordinate our daily lives with one another. At the same time we encourage independence and individual initiative. These two sides of life at D Acres -- communal and individual -- are complementary since by taking care of the necessities as a group we free up ample time for individuals to follow their own unique pursuits. In addition, the daily and seasonal work around the farm is varied enough to allow us all to develop our own unique niches. The Projects and Goals document revised by the group every year is our master list of short, medium and long term commitments. It is an evolving record of years of collective efforts to push this project forward and realize our goals of land stewardship and sustainable living. It is also action oriented -- outlining our projects for the current year and connecting them with the long term outlook.
The center of life on the farm is the Community Building, which houses the kitchen, dining room, office, woodshop, craft room, guest rooms, library, root cellar and more. It was constructed over the course of several years and serves as the central hub of the D Acres project. The kitchen and dining room are at the heart of the community space -- we meet here daily to prepare and share food, to coordinate our daily activities and to socialize. Upstairs are the craft and yoga rooms, the well-stocked library and guest rooms. We have solar hot water panels on the roof supplemented by a wood-fired boiler in the basement which we use to run the radiant floor heating upstairs as well as to heat domestic water. The basement itself is multifunctional -- used for wood storage, seed starting, screen printing. It is also home to our pantry for canned goods and a walk-in root cellar which is our only refrigerator for the colder half of the year. The community building is a multi-purpose space used daily by residents and visitors alike.
Most of the 180 acres managed by D Acres is forest land. In addition to its role in providing clean air and water, the forest is a wonderful place to explore as well as a valuable resource. We maintain a trail system for year-round recreational activities such as hiking, biking, skiing and snowshoeing. To meet our needs for forest products we engage in sustainable logging practices. Felled timber is hauled out of the woods by the oxen, then cut and graded for furniture, lumber, or firewood. Smaller branches are chipped for mulch and the wood chips are used in the gardens for weed suppression and soil building, in animal bedding and as part of our composting system. We produce value-added goods from the wood we harvest in the wood shop of the community building, including wooden spoons, bowls, chopsticks, and birch bark picture frames. These activities help generate income to support our operations, and serve as practical experience for interns and apprentices who learn by doing skills ranging from felling trees and chopping firewood to wood carving and finishing.
Although the land is primarily forested and the season for growing food crops is short, the extensive gardens at D Acres supply nourishment, medicine, and resources for craft products throughout the year. The no-till gardens consist of a series of mulched beds, shaped in accordance with the terrain and connected by a system of paths. In keeping with the principles of edible forest gardening, trees and shrubs are been planted throughout the gardens. We pay attention to the spatial organization of the gardens and plant a diversity of compatible species alongside of each other, methods which are often overlooked in conventional row cropping approaches. We use trellises to grow vertically and to provide shade, windbreaks, and evaporation control where needed. We are constantly supplementing the existing soil by adding organic material in the form of compost and by encouraging the growth of dynamic accumulators like dandelion, comfrey, ella campane and mullein. These plants have deep taproots which bring nutrients to the surface and make them available for other plants. To extend the short growing season we use cold-frames and greenhouses. And we are saving more seed every year as we try to close the loop by generating more inputs from the farm itself.
Our overall gardening strategy consists of planting annual crops for present use while developing slower maturing perennial gardens which will increase their food production over time. For example, we have invested in the future by planting fruit and nut trees that will not produce their maximum yields for many years. Mushrooms and herbaceous edibles are also planted with an eye to their long term contribution to the edible landscape. Our intention is to build a garden system that perpetuates itself instead of an annual system that requires massive inputs of energy every year.
The gardens serve many roles at D Acres. Their beauty attracts artists, photographers and admirers who visit and support the farm through purchases or donations. They provide food for residents, local markets and guests. Herbs from the gardens are used both fresh and dried for cooking and for tea. We also grow non-edible flowers to use in floral arrangements in the community building for special occasions. We often divide our perennials as nursery stock to be sold or planted in other garden spaces.
The residents of D Acres live in a way that is integrated with the landscape. We dwell in treehouses, old barn buildings and the 1830's era homestead at the center of the farm. In the summer some interns camp out on the edge of the forest. Our accommodations are modest, some are unheated. We prefer to live simply, both because we are trying to create an alternative to the energy and materials intensive lifestyle of the industrial world, and because living on the landscape helps connect us to the land we depend on. "Commuting" every day from a treehouse in the woods provides a perfect opportunity to notice what's blooming, buzzing, sprouting, or otherwise doing its natural thing. Rebuilding our relationship with nature is more important to us than the excess comforts and conveniences most people take for granted.
The animals at D Acres are an integral part of the landscape and farming system. The pigs plow newly cleared areas with their noses in preparation for planting. They also recycle "waste" food from restaurants and supermarkets in town, converting scraps into soil fertility and occasional meat for residents and visitors. The oxen are used to haul logs out of the woods and their manure, mixed with the wood chips and hay of their bedding, provides an abundant source of rich compost for the gardens. The chickens provide eggs, peck at bugs in their yards, provide much needed phosphorous in their manure and eat enormous amounts of weeds pulled from garden beds. Over the years a variety of other animals have been raised oat D Acres depending in interest from current residents, including sheep, goats, and bees.
Since an ecologically sustainable life has to be a life that uses less energy, we have implemented and continue to experiment with many ways to lower our energy consumption and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. We drive little, combine trips, live in small dwellings, minimize power consumption, generate our own power, heat water with the sun or with wood, cook with wood as much as possible, and rely on creative solutions to the problem of meeting our needs instead of conventional energy-intensive solutions. During the summer, for example, the outdoor shower uses solar hot water heated with two solar hot water heaters made from old refrigerators, water tanks and glass doors. The fridges are painted black inside, the water heaters are installed and the openings are covered with old glass doors. After some creative plumbing, the whole unit is positioned facing the sun and in a few hours there is plenty of hot water for a shower, heated entirely without the use of fossil fuels. In addition, we have a wood-fired cob oven where we do much of our baking year round. The recently constructed combination outdoor kitchen/greenhouse is outfitted with countertops, a dishwashing sink, solar hot water and three wood cook stoves. It gets three seasons of use as we attempt to reduce our use of propane and keep the heat out of the house (in the summer at least!). We use a combination solar/wood-fired dehydrator for dehydrating herbs, fruits and vegetables.
As another example of our approach to energy use and conservation, we are currently planning construction of a small structure that will serve as a combination sauna (for humans) and dehydrator (for plants). It will be constructed using cob and cordwood and will integrate solar and wood heating systems. This will greatly enhance our food preservation capacity while contributing to life on the farm. We currently preserve much of the food we enjoy during the winter months in the form of canned goods stored in the pantry, and crops stored in the root cellar. Finally, in one of our many attempts to reduce our waste stream and make use of the natural systems around us, we utilize composting toilets and outhouses to deal with our own waste. We collect the wood chips and composted human waste from them and store them in a compost pile for several years the raw materials are broken down sufficiently to be applied to ornamental plants and pasture.
The farm offers lodging, accommodations, and seasonal camping to guests who come for a relaxing and educational escape from the city. Visitors get to see for themselves how our farming system works and learn about the cooperative nature of the enterprise. In exchange, they trade money that was garnered at a much higher hourly rate than is possible in the rural economy, and so help to redistribute money from urban centers to the rural hinterlands.
The commercial kitchen in the community building operates to feed staff, hostel guests, and workshop participants. It also makes possible our regular food events -- Farm Feast Breakfasts, Pizza Nights, Potlucks as well as other regularly held community events. These well-attended events provide an opportunity for neighbors to meet and socialize while enjoying delicious, seasonal, local foods. At our community events, people meet face-to-face with neighbors they would only otherwise recognize by the type of car they pass on the road. We enjoy providing a place where local people can get together and share their needs and their talents, their interests and their skills. Building community and helping to rebuild the local economy on a more solid footing are part of our mission. Our many dedicated and generous supporters attest to the success of this venture.
Our residential learning programs help us to fulfill our educational mission while supplying some income and much-needed labor power to support our work at the farm. The internship and apprenticeship programs allow motivated individuals to learn more about the project than is possible in a short tour or workshop visit. Interns and apprentices learn by doing -- in an intensive six-week minimum stay they function as part of the crew running the farm, tending the gardens, and animals, contributing to a cooperative and ecologically oriented way of living. The modest fees help offset the food and administrative costs of hosting participants in the program.
Workshops and other farm events are additional means to involve the wider community in learning about sustainable alternatives. The farm doubles as a classroom in which students of all ages can get hands-on experience, developing their practical skills while learning the principles involved. The workshops are deliberately kept inexpensive, and we offer substantial discounts to locals and members of D Acres.
Educational opportunities at D Acres also include tours and volunteer opportunities for individuals and organized groups. Tours are scheduled for the general public after every Farm Feast Breakfast and by prior arrangement for a variety of groups such as garden clubs, camps and schools. Organizations for at-risk youth are invited to participate in meaningful outdoor work. Although the participation of organized school or youth groups requires significant planning and staff involvement, we charge minimal fees to make our opportunities available to all. Of course, willing and eager participants enhance the experience for all.
Our educational programs are primarily hands-on programs. The goal of these programs is to foster the development of practical skills that can be in turn be passed on to others. As an example of this, a few summers ago, we focused our summer building workshop activities on the construction of a combination animal dwelling and greenhouse. The "G-animal" as it is now called was an immense undertaking for both the D Acres residents, as well as the workshop participants, and it had fantastic results. The building now houses vegetable beds which are productive over an extended season, as well as a few dozen chickens and several pigs, while also providing a working public demonstration of the possibilities of adobe, cob, and cordwood masonry construction.
The seasons orient our activities and determine the overall character of the place. The spring and summer are focused on gardening, and we spend much of our time outdoors planting, tending to and harvesting fruits and vegetables. Our numbers grow in the summer and the longer days leave plenty of time for enjoyable outdoor activities. Fall and winter are a time of slowing down and turning inward -- after the harvest is in and the gardens put rest for the season we retreat indoors to catch up on our craft work, reading, writing and planning for coming year. Throughout the year our diets are in tune with what is going on in the gardens. In spring and early summer we start eating fresh veggies from the garden and this continues throughout the growing and harvest seasons. Since the growing season is short, we rely on canning, freezing, root cellaring, fermentation and dehydration as methods for preserving the harvest and making it available throughout the long winter months. We do eat a lot of potatoes, sauerkaut and winter squash in January, but creative cookery and the fact that the food comes from right here makes eating seasonally far better than eating food from another part of the world.
Since we live quite differently here than in the "mainstream" of American society, it can be a challenge for new participants to negotiate the transition from life "out there" in mainstream consumer society, to life on farm moving towards ecological sustainability. Our interns and apprentices have varying levels of experience in sustainable agriculture, community living and alternative social systems. Everyone also arrives with their own preconceived notions of the way in which places like D Acres should function. Some are not familiar with the seasonal variation in work, both the work in which we are engaged and its pace. Others expect the farm to be completely self-sufficient in food production and energy generation. So we emphasize to new people what we have learned by long experience, that planning and implementing a sustainable system takes a lifetime. We are constantly experimenting and inventing things from the ground up. Each year we build on what we have done in the past, yet many of our projects will take decades to come to fruition. This challenges the common expectation of instant gratification fostered by consumer society but it also provides a unique opportunity to be involved with the building of an alternative.
To deal with potential misunderstandings and to encourage realistic expectations, we try to be as clear as possible about how the farm operates. We strongly encourage potential participants to read documents such as our Organizational Manual and Projects & Goals to get a sense of how life is structured here and what longer-term projects we are involved with. We put a great deal of emphasis on dialogue as a means of navigating difficulties and as a vehicle for personal and community growth. Regular group meetings and one-on-one personnel meetings encourage participants to voice their feelings and enable staff to respond to the concerns of all. In addition, as shorter-term participants transition into longer-term residents with greater commitment to the project, more opportunities arise to participate in decision making. We strive to minimize hierarchy in our operations, we actively foster individual responsibility and accountability while building trust and strengthening community ties.
D Acres of New Hampshire is a not-for-profit Permaculture Farm and Educational Homestead located in Dorchester, NH. Read about our mission, our weekly meals, camping and lodging, and events and workshops.