Back to the Land Without Health Care

On Tuesday, Olga interviewed Mark Schneider and Val Phillips, resident stewards of Shii Koeii community farm, and a reader asked them about how they manage to live without health care, and what their plans for retirement are. I didn’t want their responses buried in the comments section, so I’m posting it here.

Mark: We joke that our health insurance is kale, but truly that’s not far off. For emergency care, we are covered, for now, with state indigent care — it’s not great, but if we broke our leg, we’re not going to break the bank. Beyond living healthy lives of exercise, physical work and nutritious and delicious food we also have friends who are naturopaths who are willing to treat us at deep discounts or trade and barter. In the five years I’ve been here I’ve never been physically sick. I’ve been fatigued and worn down, but then I’ll get more rest and eat lots of vegetables! When I lived in the city I could count on getting sick at least once a year and had respiratory problems because of the smog (and I walked and bicycled everywhere).

The above is a mechanical response. Another perspective is to look at the vast majority of the world’s population and see that they don’t have access to western health care. Western health care is predicated on a classist privileged ideology. Like the rest of capitalism, how do you feel with your health care privilege that does come at the expense of others? And we all know health insurance companies, lawyers and doctors exploit all of us to earn scandalous profits. Beyond dollars, the drugging of our population as health care is but a precarious bandaid on a deeper problem.

So we choose to be in solidarity with the oppressed (your questioner called ‘destitute’). We choose not to exploit others for profit.

I don’t plan on retiring like people have been colonized to believe in. I refuse to work a soul-less job most of my life for primarily rich white men and then ‘retire’ with all of the assorted drugs and addictions of our culture. If I get sick or disabled later in life I put my faith in our relations here to take care of me. That’s the least we should be doing for our elders.

Val: This is a very thoughtful question, and one we get asked a lot.

Because we primarily eat what we produce on the farm, we have considerably more fresh organic vegetables in our diet than most Americans. On the rare occasion I visit a doctor I’m always asked if I eat at least 5 servings of vegetables a day. In the winter I do, but in the warm season my answer is “more like 11.”

We do a lot of very physical labor, far more than most people, every day in the warm season. As a result, even though I am overweight (because I LOVE food) and in my mid-40s, my numbers for everything heart-related are astoundingly good. Mark works harder than I do, and Mark’s numbers are better. Mark is genetically and temperamentally prone to high blood pressure, and while that was a problem when we lived and worked in the city, it’s simply not a problem for him living and working on the land.

We get a lot of sunshine and fresh air, we aren’t exposed to toxic chemicals, cell tower radio waves, and the near-constant electrical bombardment of most cities and suburbs. So you see, in a very real way, our lifeway is our health insurance.

When we need health care, we turn primarily to traditional and simple recipes: if we’re exhausted, stressed out, anxious, cranky or depressed, we’ve finally figured out that the best medicine is rest. Balance. R & R. We can’t always manage this, but we’re getting better at it. As for colds, flus, etc., this may be hard to believe but we simply don’t get them. We’re not exposed to many germs because we live in a large county of 6000 people, and we have extremely strong immune systems because of our lifeway. We know something of herbs and homeopathic remedies and use them. We are blessed with good friends who are naturopathic doctors who offer advice and support.

We are also blessed to live in a country and a county which still provides at least some options for the poor. We are not entirely independent of government aid. We are both eligible for our state’s indigent health care program, and participate primarily to protect us in the event of a catastrophic illness or accident. Our county provides free gynecological exams and mammograms annually for women.

In the case of our having a community member who is disabled or has chronic health conditions, most likely we would have to earn or raise enough cash to provide that person with health insurance, or else find doctors and pharmacists willing to barter.

With regard to aging, retirement, and the possibility of our own illness or desire not to do this work anymore, first note that most farmers—healthy ones anyway—continue farming well into their 80s, again, because it’s a healthy lifestyle. Also, hunting, fishing, gardening, spending time in nature, and mentoring young people are the kinds of activities retirees look forward to, so one might say that, in a way, we’re already retired (though the 14 hour days of summer would suggest otherwise ;-).

But the primary answer to your question really lies in community. We didn’t set out to do this alone. We set out to create an intentional community, and are still working to grow that community. We had the brief privilege of sufficient capital to buy the land but we did nothing to earn that and so we don’t feel it belonged to us. We consider property theft (in this hemisphere specifically the theft of Native nations’ lands), we don’t believe in private land ownership and we believe everyone has a right to a home. This land and lifeways was meant to be shared, to provide a home and livelihood for others in addition to us. We believe that younger people will be drawn to this lifeway—many such as Olga already have been, at least in the short-term–and will choose to live here longterm in community with us. Really, it’s a good deal for young people if you think about it—the land and infrastructure are paid for, and the work and resources are all shared. This was always meant to be a multi-generational project, something which survives us. What we build is literally meant for future generations to enjoy.

Precarity is real, whether you live on the land or in the city, whether you farm or work for Bear Stearns or teach in a public school. It’s the price we pay for being alive. But we don’t want precarity. We want to control everything from the temperature of the air around us to when we finally show signs of aging. This is living at war with reality, and it isn’t sustainable. The capitalist system, including health insurance, social security, and retirement are all extremely precarious, yet advertise themselves as almost invincible bulwarks against precarity. After the economic fall of 2008, when many people lost their retirement savings and/or their homes, and the increasingly skittish nature of numerous markets one would think people would stop putting such faith in this system. I think they continue to do so because they don’t think they have any other options. We exist to say otherwise.

From our perspective, it’s really just a matter of where you place your faith, and which sort of precarity you choose: the precarity of real relationships and life lived in balance with the natural world, or the precarity of a dependence on banks, a government which prioritizes war over people, and anonymous corporations which neither know nor care about you. Our life on the land is not perfect nor without its compromises, but each day we find new ways to choose the former.


27 Comments / Post A Comment

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

I agree wholeheartedly with most of what they say above but come on now,

“Like the rest of capitalism, how do you feel with your health care privilege that does come at the expense of others? And we all know health insurance companies, lawyers and doctors exploit all of us to earn scandalous profits. Beyond dollars, the drugging of our population as health care is but a precarious bandaid on a deeper problem.”

I mean, I feel pretty okay about it because I’m alive instead of dead from cancer, yo. Do I think we need equitable access to better healthcare for every single person on the globe? Emphatically yes. But on the other hand, just saying “eat your veg and find a naturopath or else you’re a capitalist pig” isn’t really a solution.

questingbeast (#2,409)

@BillfoldMonkey Also, ‘Western health care is predicated on a classist privileged ideology’? I presume by ‘Western’ they mean ‘American’, since to Americans all other ‘Western’ healthcare is ‘socialist’.

EM (#1,012)

@BillfoldMonkey Yeah, as a Canadian I found that a little hard to relate to. Still, I wonder if a commitment to social change would mean trying to change the system and improve health care access for everyone, rather than opting out. I’m sure “the oppressed” would be really stoked to have access to comprehensive health care. Although obviously two people can’t do everything, and they’re focused on community and farming.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@BillfoldMonkey There is also a great deal of “I’ve, fortunately, always been healthy” privilege in this too. Healthy people and thin people have in common that they often prescribe to others based on their own luck without acknowledging that there is luck involved.

Also lolololol “I don’t plan on retiring like people have been colonized to believe in.”

@aetataureate Agreed. I read the first paragraph then it sounded like “blah blah anarchist propaganda blah”. I come from a long line of farmers, and kale and naturopathy is fine, but ideology will not help you when you inevitably have a farm accident.

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

@KathleenD@twitter Ugh seriously, talk to me about how health care oppresses you when you stick your hand in a combine, god forbid.

Stina (#686)

@BillfoldMonkey Plus while there are plenty of people/organizations in health care that are out for profit above all, there are also plenty of kickass people on the front lines of trying to get care for all. I just did a project where I met a bunch of medical providers that work or volunteer at community access clinics and without fail I would take a bullet for any of them. They seriously awed me.

ECW (#2,765)

I love this blog as a whole, but I really don’t se the relationship of these people to financial planning. There are people who are forced to me a member of the rural poor, and could use financial planning or lifestyle maintenance advice, but these people don’t seem to have any to offer. Their financial “plan” seems to be actively not financially planning and relying on governmental infrastructures and the financial planning abilities of others. I am not trying to bash their lifestyle, but I really don’t get why it is on this blog, other than to indulge the urban obsession with the “privilege” of being a member of essentially, the rural poor.

ThatJenn (#916)

@Emily Chambers I do think that the points about finding ways to live without health care – and whether this is a financially viable lifestyle choice based on the health care impacts – are relevant to this blog.

Mike Dang (#2)

@Emily Chambers When we first started this blog, our goal was to not become just another financial planning site—there are tons and tons of those that already exist. Financial planning is a small part of what we talk about. On our about page, we mention that we’re interested in people’s lives and the role money plays in it. Everyone lives different lives, and our aim is not to convince people that there is one right way to live (save for emergencies/save for retirement/buy a house/retire at 65—which is just one typical path people choose to take). I wouldn’t choose to live the life that Mark and Val are choosing to live, but there are lots of people who are—Olga, who interviewed them, chose to work on their farm during the summer, and was interested in how they lived and supported themselves.

A few years ago, I talked to a video game designer/programmer in his thirties named Jason Rohrer, who has had profiles written about him in magazines like Wired, and I discovered that he was supporting his wife and children on less than $15,000 a year by living very simply (Rohrer said he could earn a lot more if he wanted, but wanted to figure out a way to spend less time working for money and more time living life). They all seemed quite happy! This was their path, and I admired them for finding something that worked for them (even if, again, I wouldn’t choose to live on so little because I’m more typical when it comes to saving, and I like my life in New York).

tl;dr — We’re happy to show how varied people’s lives are, even if we don’t choose to live the same way that they do.

ECW (#2,765)

@Mike Dang Not tl;dr at all! Thanks for responding!

EM (#1,012)

I feel like this is a false dichotomy: “it’s really just a matter of where you place your faith, and which sort of precarity you choose: the precarity of real relationships and life lived in balance with the natural world, or the precarity of a dependence on banks, a government which prioritizes war over people, and anonymous corporations which neither know nor care about you.”

If your farm is on American soil, it’s all part of one system; that’s your government. Presumably you put your money somewhere. If you register as a non-profit then you are in a way placing your faith in the government that regulates those institutions. I don’t think anyone blindly “puts their faith” in a big institution, but I think most of us can recognize that those forces are at play whether we choose to live in a farm or in a city, and we should exercise our democratic power if we feel that that is unjust.

darklingplain (#938)

I think it’s incredibly shortsighted to put your faith in your lifestyle to stay healthy. Humans lived for millenia eating lots of vegetables and spending lots of time outside doing physical work, and they still got sick and died for lack of adequate healthcare.

What if, God forbid, one of you gets cancer? Living your ~natural life doesn’t actually guarantee you won’t, and next thing you know, one of you will be slapped with a bill for $67,000 like we saw earlier on the Billfold.

dragontoaster (#2,495)

@darklingplain I agree so whole heartedly! Smug vegetable eating and hard work is a healthy lifestyle, but modern medicine is the reason people live much longer today than they did 100, 500 or 1,000 years ago.

sintaxis (#2,363)

@darklingplain Well, not just catastrophes, but what about women’s health? I know they mentioned gyno exams and mammograms provided for by the county, but what are they doing wrt birth control? I mean, you can’t control that with faith in eating your veggies.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@sintaxis There are natural ways to prevent pregnancy that can work. NFP/charting works for a lot of people, so long as you have a calendar and the ability to abstain or use condoms for a week.

sintaxis (#2,363)

@josefinastrummer Well, that’s true. But it is risky. Plus, where are they getting these condoms? I dunno, to me it just seems that there is a great risk for women to go without health care than for men to go without health care, if they are having sex with one another.

Renleigh (#2,110)

@darklingplain Your point about cancer is exactly what I thought of when reading this. Cell phone towers don’t cause cancer, so you’re not better off because of that, and naturopathy and homeopathy aren’t science. I’m all for living with the land and building communities, but does doing that have to mean rejecting science? Because science and medicine aren’t just for capitalist pigs.

Mae (#1,769)

I’m kind of taken aback by the smugness of their answers and their implication that if you just live the right way (i.e., like them) you won’t get sick. Health insurance is so bourgeois, you guys!

Also, as someone who has worked in senior care/housing field, assuming that you’ll just depend on your community when you get old and infirm is pretty shortsighted.

lemons! (#384)

I read the first article about this couple with interest and was surprised there was so little commentary. I’m also surprised there are so many negative comments on this follow up article. I feel like they have so many things right (including grateful acknowledgement of their luck/privilege) and what they are missing is clear government socialized healthcare. Most people have no plan for inevitable old and infirm part of life. My parents are depending on me. I’m depending on my planning with my partner but who knows if that’ll work out. Regarding retirement – I’m 35 and have been working in a corporate setting for 10+ years. I clearly remember the downright despair some of my older coworkers close to retirement felt when the stock market bubble went in the tank. The same despair was witnessed when my ageist industry elbowed them out for cheaper less-experienced younger people who have their own fights to face. A 401k is not a guarantee of a pleasant retirement, it’s an investment with risks. This couple is making an investments with risks too and enjoying life as well. I’m envious! I don’t have that kinda scratch to start an off-the-grid farm, YET. I guess what I’m saying is, let me know if you want to start a natural farming community off-the-grid. I have some skills.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@Dont Move to Finland I agree that a 401K is an investment with risks,not a guarantee! So many forget this.
I also agree that people are being unnecessarily harsh here, I guess because it’s different. These two didn’t say that everyone has to be like them, just that this is how they are doing it. Just like the interview with the construction worker, I think it scares the hell out of some Billfolders when someone proves they can survive outside of social norms.
Western medicine is great for the people who want to use it. But there’s a whole big world out there living without western medicine and a lot of them are still doing okay as well!

darklingplain (#938)

@josefinastrummer People without health insurance do scare me! Because they haven’t proven that they can survive outside of social norms, they’ve just proven that they’ve done so up to now. It’s not like they know they won’t get sick in the future; people don’t need medical treatment until suddenly they do. I’ve heard and read enough stories about people going into massive medical debt, or suffering serious complications because they didn’t seek medical attention quickly enough, that I know how quickly people shift from the “doing just fine without insurance group” to the “my life is completely fucked now” group.

lemons! (#384)

@darklingplain Agreed our medical system is deeply flawed. The people in this article do have some insurance. The title is a bit misleading as they have catastrophic state coverage. The problem is, someone can stay within social norms and still have their life “completely fucked now”. Our government and certainly our private insurance provided safety nets have gaping holes. That’s not to say we should give up or refuse insurance by any means, but MAN do I want the U.S. to have socialized medicine. I want farmer/educators and balloon artists to have medical coverage. I want to live in a world where if your house in on fire, or your body gets cancer you can get help because that’s what my tax money is for.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@josefinastrummer U srs? I don’t doubt for a second that I could “survive” or “do okay” outside of social norms. But no, I don’t want to go back in time to when I found a lump in my breast and opt out of my insurance. That sure does scare me.

Mae (#1,769)

@josefinastrummer Except they didn’t just present their lifestyle – they couched it in moral terms and basically implied that most everyone else is a soulless, capitalist exploiter.

I don’t object to the idea that it’s possible to live outside social norms, and that such a lifestyle might be a good choice for those who want it. I also agree with a lot of the criticisms they have about capitalism and American culture. But I do have a problem with the idea that opting out of mainstream culture is a moral obligation, or that, say, choosing not to have health insurance makes you morally superior to other people.

EM (#1,012)

@Dont Move to Finland @josefinastrummer Yeah I think “comprehensive socialized health care for all” is a better move. Western medicine has given us many great things: immunizations, antibiotics, safer childbirth, reliable contraception. People who do without all those things tend to die of terrible, preventative ailments.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@Michelle Do you know where the United States is on the list of maternal mortality rates in the world? Safer childbirth indeed!

Finland, I’m with you. We need socialized medicine. Too many people are suffering without it.
Also, again, everyone thinks that if you have insurance, your life will be saved. Do you know that insurance doesn’t cover everything? And that a lot of people who have insurance are still going bankrupt due to medical issues? This article says 78% had insurance! That’s scary.

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