The same philosophy we use to care for our orchard also applies to the rest of our lives. I thought I would share some ways that we try to live sustainably.
Shelter: For those of you who have not come to visit us, we live in a house we built in 2005 that attaches to Steve's parents' house. While we have totally separate living spaces, we benefit from this co-housing arrangement by clustering our homes and woodworking shops on the 2-acre building lot. This leaves the remaining acreage free for gardens, orchards, animals, and woods. Our house (1800 s.f. addition) qualifies for Energy Star status, with its super-insulated shell (R-30 walls with a R-50 cap of cellulose in the attic), Energy star rated windows and doors, Energy Star appliances (including a front-loading washer, a dishwasher that uses about 4 gallons of water per load, and a simple top-freezer refrigerator, which is more efficient than other designs), and LED lights throughout. While we installed a high-efficiency propane boiler for heat and hot water, we rarely turn on the heat in the house, relying instead on the smallest direct-vent wood stove we could find. This small stove is in our living room, and easily heats the entire house with less than 1 cord of wood a year that we harvest from our property. After living in a 130-year old house that was drafty and expensive to heat despite constant energy upgrades, the energy investments we made in this house are worth every penny and hour spent installing them. Steve's woodshop has more conventional insulation and relies on propane for heat, but with very careful insulation installation and windows concentrated on the south side for passive solar heating, the woodshop is also very efficient to heat, using less than 300 gallons of propane a year. Of course we are always looking at ways to get away from what dependency we have on burning any fossil fuels. In 2012 we added a 5 kWh grid tied photovoltaic system that covers 100% of our home, orchard, and woodworking needs with power to spare.
Food: One of the reasons we wanted to move here was to grow more of our own food than we could manage on our previous, small lot. We now grow virtually all vegetables and fruit that we eat, canning, freezing, or storing what we need for the winter. We fill in some holes with produce we buy locally during the season. We grow some of the starches we need, such as potatoes, popcorn, and flint corn for cornmeal. We also make maple syrup, so we try to expand our use of that sweetener to cut down on cane sugar. We also grow Cranberry dry beans as one protein source, and we have slowly found local sources for dairy and meat, so that all of our milk, yogurt, meat, honey, and some cheese come from Ashfield or the surrounding area. And of course, we have chickens for eggs and the occasional poultry-based meal. We are very fortunate to live in an area where such products are readily available, if you can figure out where to look for them.
In terms of food that we do buy, we rely on whole products such as flour, oatmeal and nuts rather than prepared items such as bread, breakfast cereals, and crackers. A great deal less energy goes into rolling oats than making breakfast cereal - in fact, more energy goes into making, packaging, and transporting breakfast cereal than you get out of it in calories. We bake bread, along with pizza and other foods, with Steve’s parents in their outdoor wood-fired oven, and rely on that bread plus fruit and such for snacks. So as we have transitioned to eating more and more organic, local food, our grocery bills have actually gone down. Flour and oats are way cheaper than cereal and bread, and my kids have weathered the transition admirably.
All of this means, of course, that every meal has to be cooked from whole ingredients. A lot of processing occurs when we freeze or can food, so that plus the bread we bake is basically “fast food” in this house. We do buy pasta, which helps things along too. There is something incredibly satisfying about gathering up ingredients you have grown yourself whether from freezer and pantry or right from the garden, and making a meal with them. The result is delicious food that I feel good about my kids eating.
Efficiency/Sustainability: While our house is set up to run efficiently, usage patterns are equally important. We don't use an electric dryer, relying on a clothes line or wooden racks to dry clothes. We also chose to install overhead fans instead of air conditioning, and use cold water only for laundry. We used a “kill-a-watt” meter to investigate power usage throughout the house, so we could find out what work our electricity was doing. We ended up installing power strips where necessary to turn appliances off instead of leaving them in standby, and we discovered some items use an unexpectedly large amount of electricity, such as the all-in-one laser printer while on standby, and the air filter we run in the kids’ bedroom. Knowing exactly what is drawing power, and how much, allows us to make decisions about which appliances are worth running, and how much of the time we use them.
Steve’s a self employed woodworker, so we have a good amount of power use from his shop. We also installed a small cold-storage space in the barn for orchard season - this uses an air conditioner to refrigerate the space for about 5 kW/day for the 2 months we run it.
We also pay attention to waste production, buying as few items as possible with packaging, and recycling whatever we can. We use cloth napkins and cast off towels instead of paper towels, and used cloth diapers when our kids were babies. All organic wastes either go to the chickens, the dogs, or the compost. The sawdust from Steve's shop mixes with our livestocks’ manure to make high-quality compost, and he saves his cutoffs for kindling. We have a number of beautiful pieces of furniture that Steve built from wood salvaged from remodeling jobs. We find shopping of all kinds to be a dreaded chore, so we do not frequent second hand shops or garage sales (however noble that pursuit may be); we rely instead on buying quality items as infrequently as possible, and making whatever we can for ourselves. All of this means very few trips to the dump/transfer station, maybe 4-6 per year.
We have tried to switch to nontoxic, non-petroleum based cleaners. Baking soda features prominently in our cleaning lineup, along with Castile soap and vinegar. At one point, it seemed the worst chemicals we had in the house were in the shampoo Steve and I used - until we found a bar shampoo that works great (made by Just Soap, which is made and bought here in Ashfield). A vinegar rinse detangles and adds body to hair without chemicals. We also found that baking soda (dissolved in some water) works better than any commercial deodorant we have tried, with less packaging, no chemicals, and a tiny fraction of the cost.
What else? We have as small a car that will fit ourselves and our dog, and can deliver some hard cider. We recently replaced our 11 year old gas powered VW Jetta wagon (that got 30-32 mpg around here, up to 34 mpg on our long trips) with a new diesel powered VW Jetta Wagon. Once broken in, people we know with them around here get high 40s (to over 50 mpg on the highway), so it will be a nice mpg boost from our old car. We chose to go with a front wheel drive rather than AWD or 4WD car for the better fuel economy, and with studded snow tires we rarely have trouble getting places in the winter. We use the car largely for days when I need to travel to work, so I do errands around those trips. In the summer, the car rarely leaves Ashfield. We tend to buy a brand new vehicle, and then keep it a decade or more, understanding that up to 40% of a vehicle’s lifetime footprint comes from manufacturing and delivery. Doing it this way your cost of ownership can be even lower than buying multiple used vehicles over that same period, depending on what you are looking to get. Steve’s truck (13 years old) is used exclusively for work - both woodworking and farming require a big truck at times.