Challenging economic times call for ever more creative survival strategies. Food costs have exploded across the land, forcing families to squeeze every last penny from their rapidly devaluing dollars. Housing costs are another matter altogether and a home mortgage can be a terrible burden to bear. Just ask anyone who has lost their home through random hardship or the disappearing job. At times it seems a most unsolvable puzzle.
A man named MC (“Radiator Charlie”) Byles of West Virginia had a solution to these type of problems in the early 1940’s. In this case his answer was large and red and proud, and particularly delicious on a slab of steaming homemade bread with salt and mayonnaise.
A homespun gardener and inveterate tinkerer, he wanted to build a better, and bigger tomato. And build it he did. After several years of propagation his tomato plants could produce, mild, meaty, and delicious fruit of immense proportions. People flocked to his door for a look at a 3 pound tomato, and he was happy to accommodate them. Never one to miss an opportunity, he sold his seedling plants for $1 each and paid off his $6,000 home mortgage in a few short years. He named his new creation “the mortgage lifter”, and a backyard gardening legend was born.
That legend lives on today, and for good reason. Imagine paying off your property with the fruits of your backyard labor. Think about what life would be like without a house payment, or a weekly grocery bill large enough to choke a horse. It’s an inspiring and encouraging idea. It gives me hope. It can be done. Marshall Cletis Byles would tell you so, if he could.
I tip my gardening hat to him, and to the unbounded energies of his creativity. I’d say it’s time for many of us to take another look at his game changing idea. Perhaps it’s possible to follow his example and do our very best to lift the grinding weight of the mortgage from our backs. It may be an overly ambitious or unrealistic plan, but like him, I must try.
There are many ways to get there, and perhaps you have already begun or are well on your way. Our version of the “grocery lifter” comes in the form of rabbits and squab. Others beat back their bills with a small flock of geese, which possess the marvelous ability to efficiently convert grass to many pounds of tasty meat. The addition of a few pigs can provide miraculous results for your larder, particularly if you are a fan of pork and pig fat. Pigs, like tomatoes, have often been refered to as mortgage lifters. My neighbor has added a couple of steers to his small pasture and plans to keep one for the freezer and sell the other to cover his costs.
You may have an entirely different idea, but the intention is the same. I think it can be any animal or plant that works for you and fits your particular set of circumstances or comfort level.The important thing is that we all do a little to help ourselves and contribute to a more self-sufficient life. Every bit of food we can produce at home takes power form the corporate controlled food model. It gives us a reason to get up in the morning and keeps us grounded in the small satisfaction of a job well done.
So let’s hear it for the backyard gardener, the keeper of hens, the canner, and the prepper. Give thanks to the independent farmers and agricultural workers everywhere. Let’s revel in the joys of animal husbandry, fish farming, or beekeeping. Put a little bit of the farm and the old-fashioned barnyard back in your everyday life. You won’t regret it.
We can do it. We are doing it. Let’s decentralize, and unplug from the controlling grid. We must put our heads together, and our families and communities will follow. Let’s keep our friends close, and our enemies at bay. It’s the mortgage lifter revolution, because the very definition of mortgage is death and we must throw off the chains of that grim and unforgiving reaper of sorrows.
The spirit of MC Byles, like his seeds and giant heirloom tomatoes, live on. It can be seen in the successes of backyard entrepreneurs across the continents. Sometimes the path to independence and the bounty of a joyful life starts with a simple seed, planted in the welcoming and living earth of a backyard garden.
Long live the mortgage lifters and the backyard heroes, and the unlimited promise of a new day!
———-Do you have a backyard hero? Tell us your story…
“There’s nothin’ in the world that I like better than
Bacon, lettuce and home grown tomatoes Up in the morning and out in the garden Pick you a ripe one, don’t get a hard ‘un Plant ’em in the springtime eat ’em in the summer All winter without ’em’s a culinary bummer I forget all about the sweatin’ and the diggin’ Every time I go out and pick me a big’un
Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes What’d life be without home grown tomatoes There’s only two things that money can’t buy That’s true love and home grown tomatoes
You can go out and eat ’em, that’s for sure But there’s nothin’ a home grown tomato won’t cure You can put ’em in a salad, put ’em in a stew You can make your own, very own tomato juice You can eat ’em with eggs, you can eat ’em with gravy You can eat ’em with beans, pinto or navy Put em on the side, put em on the middle Home grown tomatoes on a hot cake griddle
If I could change this life I lead You could call me Johnny Tomato Seed I know what this country needs It’s home grown tomatoes in every yard you see When I die don’t bury me In a box in a cold dark cemetery Out in the garden would be much better Where I could be pushin’ up home grown tomatoes”
From “Home Grown Tomato”, By Guy Clark, Sugar Hill Records, 1997.
Robert Rodale was a pioneer in the fields of organic gardening and local food production, as well as a giant in the publishing world. His words often ring more true today than when he wrote them, which is a gift in itself. I have reproduced some excerpts here from a small volume in my collection, which hold even more power given the fact that they were written in 1981. It provides another insight into the current discussions of the merits of gold as an investment, compared with the ability of an individual or family to provide food for one’s survival in the face of bad times.
For many, those bad times have visited their neighborhoods already, so they definitely hit a little too close to home.
“…we are heading into a soil and food crunch. I am convinced that the days of surplus farm and food production are almost over. My guess is that you haven’t heard or read about that possibility anywhere yet, except right here in these pages. But it is bound to happen…”
“The disruption of normal social and economic activities caused by a worldwide food shortage would probably increase the attractiveness of both gold and soil as investments. But I feel that if you compare the relative merits of each, soil is clearly the winner. And because of the shortage of food that is likely to occur within this decade, soil will soon replace gold as the most talked about and symbolic thing of enduring value.
This is going to happen because people have always put a higher value on things that are rare. Gold has always been rare, and will remain so, even though more is being mined all the time. But soil has never before been at short supply on a worldwide basis. Erosion and encroachment of deserts have ruined the soil of large regions, and their have been famines caused by bad weather. But never have people had to contend with the thought that, on a global basis, there isn’t enough soil to go around. Within a few years that will change. Soil will, for the first time, become rare. And worldwide television and news reports quoting crop production statistics and high food prices will carry that news everywhere.
A new symbolism of soil will develop. Until now, soil has symbolized dirt in the minds of many, especially city people who have little or no feel for the tremendous productive capacity of good soil. I think we are going to see that attitude change rapidly. Access to good earth will become the greatest of all forms of protection against inflation and a much stronger security blanket than it is now…”
“When you spend gold, it is gone. Soil properly cared for, is permanent…”
“I want to make one final point. Suppose you do have a hoard of small gold coins at home, and a food shortage develops here in the U.S. Hopefully, the cause will not be war, and it may not even be an absence of food in central storehouses. The shortage could be caused by transportation breakdowns, most likely a lack of fuel to carry food from farms to processing plants to supermarkets.
Where would you take your gold coin to buy food? In postwar Italy, as in this country several decades ago, small diversified farms could be found near all towns and cities. There were even truck farms within the city limits of New York. All are gone now. Many americans would have to walk or ride their bicycles for hours to get to a farm, and then likely would find an agribusiness operation with bins of one or two commodities on hand. Spending your coin would present a real challenge.
So the best fall back possession is not gold, but a large garden and a pantry of home-produced food.”
From the introduction by Robert Rodale, in the book titled “Fresh Food, Dirt Cheap (All Year Long!) by The Editors of Gardening Magazine.
“I wish to have an intimate relationship with earthworms, and soil”. – Michael Patrick McCarty
Today I ate a homegrown cherry tomato, and I liked it. It was perfectly ripe, bursting with flavor, and it did not travel 1000 miles or more to get to my mouth. In fact, I picked it from my sun room, just a few steps from where I write this.
I ate it because it was good, and I could.
To eat it supports a system in which I believe, one that is right in so many ways. It is a local transaction, of that there is no doubt. More than that, it is a conscious and personal act. I tended and nurtured that small plant, and I studied it’s growing fruit with hope and anticipation.
To eat a tomato from the supermarket more than likely supports a system that I do not believe in. That tomato depends on chemicals, the corporate model, and long distance transport, steeped in diesel. It rarely tastes like a tomato either.
Thus, I so protest. I pop it into my mouth and I eat my cherry tomato which was just a second ago still attached to the vine. It is an inconsequential act, I suppose, but it still holds power. It makes me feel better. It may not change the world in any significant way this day, but it did change my world, and for the moment, that is enough.
The state of New Jersey was nicknamed the garden state in 1876, apparently because it was so obviously filled with so many good things to eat. Later, it became famous for it’s truck farms, which supplied a wide variety of agricultural and dairy products to the large appetites of New York City and Philadelphia. It was still pretty farmy and rural in 1958, when I came along. This was especially true of the southern part of the state, where I grew up.
We moved into a wonderful old house when I was about four years old, on what had once been a working dairy farm on the edge of the Wharton State Forest, and the soon to be protected Pine Barrens. The previous farmers had long since moved away, and the property was sadly neglected and over run with brush and debris. I don’t think my parents thought it was all so wonderful, considering the great work at hand needed to make a proper home for my bothers and sister and I. But it was more than wonderful to me, a young boy with adventure, and nature, close at hand, and just outside the big farmhouse windows.
It was a big, big world to explore, and our immediate acreage kept me occupied through the change of several seasons. After all, our towering and decaying dairy barn was full of pigeons and starlings and rats, and unknown animal moanings. Cottontail rabbits bolted from behind nearly every brush pile, and if I was lucky and quiet I could find a deer under our apples trees in the back lot, late in the evening. Every day held the promise of some new momentous discovery, and I was eager to escape the watchful eye of my mother each morning.
We built forts and played army, hide and seek, and tag, and other games. We fabricated crude animal traps and sat for hours in waiting. I don’t believe we ever caught anything. We hung upside down from trees, and dared our fates. We chased lightning bugs in the early summer evenings, and put them in jars, and watched them light up. We giggled and laughed for the fun of it. Sometimes, we just laid on our backs in the tall green grass and counted big puffy clouds. We did what all kids do when left to roam free, and the hours melted into time and childhood memory.
My mother let us have our heads, with some rules, of course. The big rule was that we were not to leave our property, or play by the roads. That worked just fine for many months, as I had no desire to leave her protective cover or test her motherly patience. That is, until the day I did.
Across the road stood an ominous tangle of tall, matted grass, impenetrable bramble, and forbidding brush that stretched to the forseeable horizon. It was dark and scary looking, and I had been warned many times not to go in there. Still, it beckoned and called, and I began to stare at it, and study. What was in there, I wondered? It begged to be investigated, and conquered.
I remember disappearing into there with another friend, one big, summer day. We steeled ourselves on the edge of the abyss, and dove in. We planned to stay together, for moral support, and of course immediately lost track of one another. I called a time or two with no result. My fear rose in my throat, and I wanted to spin around and jump back out. But my curiosity was stronger, and after some deep quick breaths I continued on, to face whatever lurked ahead.
Another step, and I was totally lost in a magical world of new life and unknown creatures. Any thought of time or past concerns receded into the hot and sticky air, and the sweat poured out of me and stung my eyes as I tried to take it all in. Insects buzzed in my ears. Small birds of all shapes and colors flitted all around me as I worked my way through the brush, and small things scurried in the leaves. Catbirds and mockingbirds called incessantly, pulling me on. A bobwhite quail flushed at my feet, disappearing through some unseen window into the open sky. There were so many birds it was impossible to see them all. Bluejays and meadowlarks called just ahead. Everywhere was birdsong and animal noises, so loud it was nearly deafening. I could not get enough. I had to hear and see it all. Nothing could stop me.
Still, fear was at the edge and began to pick at my adventure. Big black and yellow garden spiders hung in wide, embracing webs, and made me pause. Branches whipped my face and stung me silly. I tripped a few times and fell down. At times it was so thick I had to drop to my belly and slither like a snake. I hoped that I did not meet a real reptile, face to face, at least not then. Once, I became entangled in clawing vines so thick and sharp I began to panic and cry, as small spots of blood appeared on my skin. I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into, and if I would ever be able to get back home. I thought of my mother, and what she would do if she knew I was here. Where was she? What had I done? Why had I left my house?
I freed myself from the briars and made one last push forward. I saw a clearing just ahead, and my excitement and sense of adventure returned instantly. I was fearless. I was brave, and I had won. A few more steps and I was clear of it, as I knelt to brush spider webs from my hands and pull leaves and prickly stickers from my collar.
I rubbed the sweat from my nose, then stood, and looked ahead. I could not believe my eyes, and the breath left me all at once! I gasped like a goldfish plucked from his bowl for the first time, with no past experience to cushion the shock of it. I had been transported to some other special place, in fact some other planet in a galaxy far, far away. It was the beauty of it all that grabbed me. It reached in and shook me, all the way to my toes.
Chickens of all shapes, and colors of the rainbow scratched gloriously in the yellow glow of the late morning sun. An iridescent rooster strutted about his hens, head high, and watching. Some bright, white ducks waddled across the yard heading for who knows where. A big blue peacock unfolded his massive tail and danced, in front of a hutch filled with giant, splotchy rabbits. Sparrows chirped and hopped about, no doubt looking for waste grain in the dirt. I saw a small pony in a stall in the shade of a big maple tree.
My feet could not move, nor did they want to. I knew I had stumbled upon an undiscovered country of limitless bounty. I stared at the dilapidated, drafty barn and the irregular lines of an old ramshackle house. Strange smells hung in the breeze, and the pIace had a feel all of it’s own. It was all so new that I had nothing in my small experience to compare it to. My mind struggled as it downloaded massive amounts of new data, racing to correlate and associate each new piece of information.
The place had the look and feel of a broken down but comfortable pair of old work boots.The buildings and yard had no doubt been hacked from brush like I had just come from, and was now losing the unending battle and melding back into nature’s turmoil. Vines and small trees grew under and through old farm machinery and scrap. Farm sheds were starting to list and fall, with sagging doorways and slipped siding.
Still, every aspect of this eternal homestead bursted with sound and smell, and life. I was mesmerized. I wanted to know what was behind the next outbuilding, and explore every nook and cranny of that place. I wanted to become part of it, and maybe stay there forever. Or wrap it all up, with all it’s parts and pieces, and take it home. It was part of me, already.
Emboldened now, I took a step, and it all changed in a big hurry. Just one step, and the big rooster spied me and let out a warning cackle. He clucked to his hens as he gathered them up, and steered them towards their coop. A cow bellowed from the deep shadows of the barn, as a small herd of kittens stopped their shadow boxing with each other and turned my way. Morning doves stopped cooing from the tops of the huge oak trees above us. I heard a goose let loose, honking loudly from the back of the barn, followed by the strange and stuttering exclamations of some spotted guinea hens as they lept for the trees.
Everywhere I looked was some animal head peeking from in and around countless hiding spots. They had me dead to rights, as if some great spotlight caught me in midstride and lit me up for all the world to see.
I heard a small dog yap, and then a screen door slam, as I saw her. On the barn side of the house stood a large, plump women, with an ample bossum, held in threadbare cloths. She stared ahead from across the barnyard, framed by the vibrant green of tall cornstalks with yellow tassles. She was middle-aged or more, matronly, and perhaps a little near-sighted as she searched for the cause of the commotion in her barnyard. Something was amiss, and she would find out what it was.
She knew the sounds and tone of her world on a normal morning. It was etched within her consciousness, and any change was as obvious to her as a brass marching band in her living room. There was a disturbance in the field and fabric of their existence, and an intruder in their midst. They were tightly connected, one and all, communicating perfectly through various and mysterious means.
The little terrier growled and shook, as it glared at me from between the safety of her stout legs. She wrang her hands on a dish towel as she methodically assessed the situation. Still as a statue, I hung with one foot in the air and waited.
apparently, I was not too hard to find. No doubt she just looked where every other animal in the world was staring until she found me. I remember seeing her see me, as a bit of surprise, and annoyance appeared on her face. I have no way of knowing what she thought, but I am sure I was not what she expected to find.
My exhilaration and thrill of discovery had instantly vanished, and I remember feeling that I had somehow violated her space in a way most painful. I was a varmint, an uninvited party crasher, a barbarian at the gate. This was her kingdom, and I was far past the edge of my realm. At any rate, I had already exhausted my supply of courage. It was all too much for a young boy on his first expedition from home.
Before she could move or even say a word, I broke and took off like a cannon-shot into the world from which I came. I charged like the fox ahead of the hounds, and I scared the bejeebers out of a lot of birds and little creatures as I crashed headlong through the heavy understory. I don’t remember much about the journey, except that I completed the return trip a lot faster than the first one, and some skin was lost in the process. It took some band aids and a lot of hydrogen peroxide, together with some tender loving care from my mother, to make things right again.
I don’t think I ever told her about my true adventure or the woman in the barnyard. At the time it was far to big to capture and explain within the limited vocabulary of my youth. But, like all mothers, she already knew that I had been somewhere that I should not have been, yet had to be. It was a boy’s adventure, and mine to own, and hold. It is still there, when I need it.
I never did see the woman again. By the time I was old enough to freely wander the neighborhood, she was gone and her farm abandoned like so many across the south of Jersey. I never knew what became of her. I only knew that she was gone, and that somehow a way of life had vanished along with her.
I can still see her standing there in that place, with her animals all around. I wish I could talk to her and come to know a little of her life. I would like to know how long she had lived there, and if she had found herself alone as the homestead fell down around her. If I could, I would ask her if she had raised a family there, and where they had gone. I would ask her if she had raised a young boy or two of her own, and if they had brought her contentment then, and later, in her old age.
Most of all, I would apologize for my intrusion and hope it was not too much of a burden to bear. I would love to explain to her how she has stuck in my mind, and that I have not forgotten her.
Looking back, I wish things remained as simple and true as the bond between a mother hen and her chicks, or a mother and her boy. It would be grand if life was as safe and protective as an undisturbed barnyard, and as comforting as a farm at peace. I think I have hunted and searched for her barnyard ever since.
I will find it one day, somehow. I hope a small, wild child of a boy is just around the corner, and he will find it too.