Going Back to the Land: An Interview with the Stewards of the Shii Koeii Community Farm
I spent a summer bathing in cloudy creek water, battling pugnacious roosters with self-defense techniques meant for dark city streets, and making goat cheese pretty much directly from the udders of two stubborn mama goats. When it was over, I realized that it’s not farm life that sounds crazy—it’s the city.
A week after coming home to Brooklyn from a tiny southern Colorado farm (where the amount of rainfall can practically be measured in buckets, and the weather forecast for tomorrow can determine how much juice you’ve got left in your wall sockets to watch that next episode of Lost tonight), I found myself in a cab speeding up FDR Drive, gazing at the sunset reflected from a million glass-fronted skyscrapers and wondering what brilliant set designer had created this sci-fi skyline. After getting used to seeing the sky fade to black behind mountains, it was surreal to watch the sky go from blue to orange, never really fading at all.
The culture shock I felt coming back to a “normal” of Starbucks on every other corner, ubiquitous flushing toilets, and everybody wearing shoes all the time made me wonder what it really takes to live differently—not as an intrepid summer tourist, but for real. Sure, the crazy goat farmer is an easy joke, but with each recent event proving more and more emphatically that even our Toms-wearing, thermos-toting, small-batch-chocolate-eating lifestyles are unsustainable, the joke gets less funny and setting up shop on a distant hillside sounds increasingly more practical.
I emailed with Mark Schneider and Val Phillips, resident stewards of Shii Koeii, the farm I got to help tend for a few weeks this summer, and asked them how the sausage gets made and about living sustainably. Take notes now for when the Internet collapses.
Let’s start at the beginning. What is Shii Koeii?
Mark Schneider: “Shii Koeii” means “the people’s water” in Jicarilla Apache, the people that have lived in this valley for a long time. Shii Koeii is the actual name for the river that goes through the land here (Europeans called it the Huerfano river). We began living as stewards on this land in the spring of 2008. We formed Shii Koeii Community Farm with several other people, though Val and I are the current full-time resident stewards.
Fundamentally, Shii Koeii Community Farm is about relationship. Relationship to each other, to the land, to all of the creatures that live here, with the weather, the stars and the spirits. We need to create a relationship with this place. Long-term, for the future generations that live here. They need to have a relationship to this place. This is where their language, culture and spirituality will come from.
What does it cost to run Shii Koeii? What does that budget support?
MS: Including income and donations, our annual budget is around $20,000. For this year, we hosted more than 30 interns to learn relationship, community and sustainable skills. We provide vegetables, eggs, raw goat cheese, raw honey, and homemade natural beauty products to our local community via local farmers markets we helped start. We provide 75 percent of our own food for all stewards, interns and guests. We host a young girls’ youth group to learn sustainable skills. We provide free non-profit training in grass roots organizing and fundraising. [Half an] acre of land is cultivated with vegetables and orchards. Our three goats (Maple, Willow, Redwing) are wild pastured and milked twice a day to produce raw milk, yogurt and cheese for the community. About 30 chickens are wild pastured and provide daily fresh eggs. Four top-bar honey bee hives provide raw honey to the community. We wild gather fruits and nuts (piñons). We maintain the buildings of the community, all built with straw bales and earth plaster.
Our education program is the biggest expense, followed by maintenance and building expenses, food, the gardens, husbandry, transportation, and resident steward benefits.
What were your starting costs?
MS: Start up costs include purchasing the land [and] building the structures (85 percent materials, 15 percent labor). All of the buildings at Shii Koeii, including the main house, barns, shed, outdoor kitchen, and all of the plumbing and electrical, including the off-grid energy system, have been less than $100,000. The land cost just under $70,000, for 75 acres.
Val Phillips: We are extraordinarily privileged in that when our community began we had sufficient savings to purchase the necessary equipment to set up an off-grid electrical system, fueled by solar and wind power, which we have in abundance in the Huerfano Valley. I mention this with some hesitation as an aspect for sustainable living for two reasons: Being able to live like this requires money/privilege, which means it’s not an option available to most people in this country (or on the planet). To be truly sustainable, our options must not be limited to a particular class. [And] long-term, even wind and solar are not truly sustainable. It takes an inordinate amount of embodied energy to create solar panels and wind towers, not to mention the considerable toxicity of batteries. Ultimately, each facet of such a system will have to be replaced, which will require still more energy infusion.
What have been unexpected expenses since then?
MS: Lots of small things. The biggest, however, was in building the house. A friend of ours who builds straw bale houses in a county without building codes made us believe it would cost maybe half less than it ultimately did. For instance, because of codes we were required to do things like put in a thousand extra special screws on the roof; each screw cost $1. Each year we’ve been able to reduce our budget for ordinary expenses by 10 to 20 percent.
What are your goals for expansion? What will it take to achieve them?
MS: When we started out, we had a five-year time plan. We thought we’d build most of it in the first two years. We’ve achieved nearly all of it now in our fifth year. We’d like to have a cellar or above-ground earth cool to store vegetables, jars and cheese. We’d like to offer a radical artists’ retreat space in the cold months. A permanent outdoor shower would be helpful. If more resident stewards joined the community, we could add onto the main house, though adding a simple 300 square foot addition would cost at least $25,000.
The cellar we could build for less than a $1,000, but we need the time to do it. The outdoor shower we could do for less than $200, again with a bit of time. The artist retreat space, unless we could get a variance, could cost several thousands of dollars to get it up to code.
Fundamentally, what is necessary to do any of these projects and other dreams is having more long-term interns or resident stewards who could share the responsibilities and management of the community.
Your income has increased over the last year, with additional products (Goat cheese! Honey!) and new markets—I got to see some of the growth this summer, which was really exciting. Where does that money go?
MS: Our budget last year was almost $25,000, and the farm income was just under $4,000; donations made up the rest. Our budget this year is closer to $20,000, and our farm income will be closer to $12,000.
VP: Last year we had to fundraise the remainder of our budget, but the reality is, we didn’t even come close to doing so. We made up the difference from what was left of our savings, which is now nearly depleted. As with starting any business, it takes time to become self-sufficient. This year, as you saw, we are doing much better in terms of farm income, but we will still need to raise $8,000.
MS: One of our goals is to become as cash self-sufficient as possible, though not at the cost of our education programs. If we were strictly a business and profit-oriented, we’d grow only certain crops that would cater to wealthy people and we’d do very little education. We sell our produce at affordable rates, we accept food stamps, we take our time and train young people on living sustainably. Our mainstream culture doesn’t value time like it should or used to. For instance, in July we harvested chokecherries and made syrup for the community. It’s much cheaper to get a cash job and buy fake maple syrup than to hand pick chokecherries, cook them, and jar them. Simple good things take time, and that should be valued.
How did you guys make the decision to live the way you do? It’s clearly a challenging lifestyle, so it must have taken a great deal of conviction.
MS: When I was a teenager, I read about Mohandas Gandhi’s ashram in India. It was a place he lived among others simply, but also a base of social and political organizing for the larger culture. I knew then I wanted to be a part of such an endeavor. It took me nearly 20 years to realize the commitment I needed to make to be a part of such an intention. I’ve lived in urban intentional communities but often dreamed of living in a rural community.
In 2004, Val and I decided to quit our nonprofit jobs in the city and take steps to find Shii Koeii. We had become disillusioned with how people we knew in the city simply move away to another city or were unable to create intimate mutual relationships and community with each other. We wanted to either join or help create a community to heal the relationship with the natural world and each other. We’ve taken some risks. Not all of them have worked out. What we hold onto is faith. Faith in the natural world to heal, and, faith that other people will feel like-minded and either join us or start their own similar projects.
Most people want the “freedom” to move around, travel, and not be rooted in a place. The irony is this “freedom” is all within the confines of what capitalism allows and imposes on you. Living in a distinct place, building an intimate relationship with that place is fundamental to our freedom from domination and control. Most people don’t realize this. So, psychologically it makes it hard for people to even consider joining Shii Koeii—we are a foreign, almost exotic, experience for many people. When actually most of the “third world” lives like us, rooted in land where all of their culture comes from.
What successes have you had in the last 4 years of operation that have made you look around and acknowledge that you’re successfully living an alternative lifestyle?
MS: Most of our food comes from the land. You are what you eat. We’ve built shelter for us and the community’s animals and gardens made from mostly local ingredients. We’ve hosted hundreds of interns and visitors to share and learn. Each year we lower our cash needs, becoming less dependent upon capitalism and the state. Fundamentally, we’ve begun building a relationship with this place—Shii Koeii. This land is not a commodity and we are not commodities. We plan to stay and join this place.
VP: We are truly blessed in that the community’s home—which was built by more than 300 people’s hands, hearts, love, sweat and tears—is intentionally designed to make use of the ecosystem in which we live, the organic materials at hand, and an aware relationship to the sun and seasons for our heating and cooling. In the summer, as you noticed, with no air conditioners or fans, the passive solar design of the house and the straw bale insulation renders the house 10-20 degrees cooler than the hot weather outside. The house stays a very livable temperature even on the hottest days. Similarly, in the winter, the house never goes below 55 degrees, and usually stays a very comfortable 70 degrees, without any energy being required. The sun heats up the adobe floor, and this in turn radiates heat throughout the house all night as the earth cools down. Only after two or three days straight of clouds (something that is very rare in this bioregion) do we need to supplement with a bit of wood fire. And that is only to be “comfortable.” Survival is never at stake.
Can you talk about your plans to set up a nonprofit? Why is this important to you?
MS: We want the land [to be] owned by a nonprofit collective and not ever be privately sold. Long term…we want people to have a relationship to this place that goes beyond a piece of government paper. The nation-state and the idea of property, historically speaking, has been a brief affair. Land is not a commodity. Land is a right, and people have a natural right to live mutually with that land. That is what we strive for.
Technically, we’re not certified organic; we are all natural, with no chemicals or artificial fertilizers. We want people to build a relationship with us and not trust the government’s label.
I have heard you guys mention living in solidarity with the poor as an intentional goal. Where did this goal come from, and how is it implemented?
MS: For several years, I volunteered and lived at the Denver Catholic Worker house of hospitality. We lived a life of service to “homeless” people, which is a misnomer—most people just lack community and family. Living in solidarity with the oppressed, living sustainably from the land, sharing spirituality, living simply and being politically active for social change. These are the values that influenced me.
In this individualized culture, we are trained to only think of yourself, to get rich and build your ego. This all comes at the expense of others. We stand with those oppressed to reclaim what they deserve. Look around the world at oppressed people, and you discover what they want is to be able to live on their land and not be invaded, manipulated or controlled. We try to live as simply as possible, importing as little as possible into the community, to not amass cash savings, to live in precarity.
Plus, life is easier when you try to be simple. For instance, middle class people with all their stresses and worries about hoarding for retirement, their fixation on amassing capital and then how best to spend it on expensive gadgets. We have none of that. While we do worry about when we’re older and how we’ll make a living, we have faith in relationships for that, not capitalism.
How has engaging with a mostly bartered labor force of interns fit into your vision for Shii Koeii?
Mark: Each year, we’ve hosted 25 to 30 young folks to intern at Shii Koeii and learn about sustainable living and living in community. These folks have been fundamental to our survival and thriving and so we are very thankful. Part of our vision is to be a model for others to learn from and get inspired from. While we do appreciate the labor of the interns, we mainly appreciate their company, their time with us. Many times in our world, it’s easy to feel let down by people. Corporations often let people down, and there are human faces of those corporations that let us down. When we host interns at Shii Koeii, we’re constantly reminded of the goodness of people. That is healing.
Val: The people who come to share our lives for a month or for a year are members of our community. Every single person who contributes something to the community remains a part of the land and the house, the crops we grow, the goats we raise. They are all still here. You always will be.
But secondly, while we profoundly appreciate the labor interns give, it is a primary goal of our internship program that interns take away from the experience a vital education, not merely in farming, but in communal and simple living. It has been our experience, based on exit interviews, that this is generally the case. A few interns this season even commented that being Shii Koeii felt like “a university because I’m learning so much.” We want people who come here to receive more than they give.
The small rural farm life can seem isolating to a city gal (I certainly thought it was), but I noticed this summer that you are extremely involved with the local community—far more than I am in Brooklyn. Can you talk about your relationship to your town? How is it different from when you lived in Denver?
MS: Because we live in a county of 6000 people, and among a village of 300 people, we have the ability to relate to people on a much more human level that is not transitory or disposable. We’ve helped start two small farmers markets to help build a local economy, not just a cash one, but for barter and trade and gifting. We’ve hosted a youth group to come out and learn about gardening, natural building and their relationship with the natural world. We hope to plant seeds in the youth that may bear fruit one day. Shell Oil Company is beginning to drill for oil and natural gas in our valley, and it’s very alarming. We’re trying to find ways to build relationships with others in our county, to not just stop the drilling but to help create an alternative economy where vulnerable people are not susceptible to predatory invaders who can splash a bit of cash around for a short time while deeply wounding the ecosystem. Because of the scale of the population, we can have more of an effect on county social and political issues than we ever could in a big city like Denver, where we used to live.
How has your off-the-grid life influenced your view of what is necessary?
VP: If one chooses to live simply, and especially if one has the wealth of a savings with which to begin such an enterprise, one can have a very good, healthy, happy life as a micro-farmer/home-steader—especially if one rejects the rugged individualist, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps American mythology that argues (wrongly) that we can somehow survive independent of relationships to others, ever–and lives in egalitarian community.
MS: Many people have gone on a trip somewhere —summer camp, a long backpacking trip, etc.—and realized how little they’ve needed to not just survive but to have a joyful life. We consider ourselves wealthy in many ways—we live on land, we eat food from the land, we drink clean water, we breathe clean air, we live along a river, wild animals live freely among us. The longer we’re living on the land, the more it’s hard for us to understand all that Stuff people consume in mainstream society. Are these things addictions to cope with what they’ve lost or don’t have? The most valuable thing in life is relationship. Capitalism has attempted to commodify and make relationships and peoples disposable. People and places are not consumable experiences. Each are complex beings that deserve mutual respect, caring and trust.
[Interview edited for length and clarity.]
Olga Kreimer is a writer and tutor currently living in Brooklyn. This summer, she successfully fought a rooster using only her words!