Balancing frugality with efficiency

Farming can obviously be expensive, particularly start-up costs. Though our land was once farmed, most buildings and fences are gone, and we are mostly starting from scratch when it comes to buildings, fencing, equipment, and so on. One of the core issues we’ve faced is balancing frugality with efficiency; when is it worth spending more money to save time or effort?

For example, we made a conscious decision to buy some of our machinery newer, especially a tractor. I’d never owned a new vehicle of any sort prior to moving to Missouri, having gone through a whole line of used vehicles that cost constant headaches, time, and repair costs. I probably saved money on them overall, but I’m not sure what the headaches and time were really worth. Neither of us are skilled mechanics, and the prospects of being reliant on an older tractor that we couldn’t repair was not very pleasant. I’ve known too many people who lost a harvest or missed a planting window because something went wrong mechanically that they couldn’t fix in time. So we felt a newer tractor was a worthwhile investment, and found a small, simple model that would be easy to work on even for us.

On the other hand, we’re pretty hard-core about buying most non-mechanical items used. Almost all our clothes come from consignment shops, and we frequent garage sales, auctions, and especially Craiglist. The core philosophy here is to do without until we can find it used. This is a skill we learned while living in rural Virginia and refusing to go to Walmart. Everyone around us, even the liberal Walmart-haters, still went there because they felt they had no other choice. We simply amassed lists of what we needed and did without until the occasional trip to a larger city where we had better choices of where to shop. Ever since then, we’ve rarely found items that we just had to have without waiting for the right opportunity to come along. It helps to be good at planning and thinking ahead. I don’t see “doing without” as self-denial, I see it as a rational acceptance that the world doesn’t exist to serve us personally, and as a counterbalance to the prevailing instant-gratification culture in the modern world.

There are also environmental and ethical concerns to balance. On one hand, buying something new has to account for all the energy and materials used in its manufacture, whereas something used caused no new mining, logging, or exploitation. On the other hand, new items are frequently more energy-efficient or otherwise beneficial. My newer small truck has a much cleaner-running and efficient engine than a 20-year-old oil-burning rustbucket, and our new wood stove is fully EPA certified and burns much cleaner than the old one. On the other hand, my used clothes are just as serviceable as new ones, and caused no new demands for sweatshop labor, poorly-grown fiber, and long-distance shipping. Our used fencing and self-milled lumber fits into this category too (which raises the point that probably our single biggest new-consumption is hardware, which can be pretty hard to find used and often has a ticking clock on the project it’s needed for).

Fundamentally, the concept of sustainability to us isn’t so much a benchmark, but a thought process. Everyone has their own arbitrary standard that they stick to; we have friends north of us who are off the grid, cook on a wood stove year-round, and otherwise make our pretty green operation look consumptive as hell, whereas we’re a drop in the bucket compared to the sprawlvilles around Columbia. But I think sustainability really means thinking through your actions; actively evaluating how and why you make the economic decisions that you do, and having a decent justification for your decisions. We can’t all live the same, but we can all live smarter.

I feel that I could offer a reasonable justification of our purchases and lifestyle to just about anyone, and that our actions, ethics, and philosophy are all pretty internally consistent. That consistency is important to me; it drives me nuts to see market farmers advocating the benefits of healthy local foods with a big McDonalds bag sitting next to their stand. Then again, we take such things more seriously than most and I’m sure there’s folks out there who could rip us a good one (like the fellow on the Columbia Tribune’s food forum a few weeks ago who felt that I needed to bicycle my goods to market to earn his “green” respect). And I have a lot to learn about mechanical things so I can do a better job of sourcing those used. Sustainability is a journey, not a finish line.

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