A Family Farm: A Full Nest Beats an Empty One

At this stage of my life I never dreamed I'd be living on a commune. Well, not really a commune, more of a family compound—like the Kennedys in Hyannis Port, but without the money.

My wife and I discovered in recent years that that "empty nest" thing is not all it's cracked up to be when your children are in three different states. We now find ourselves involved in noisy family dinners with a kitchen full of cooks and sitting down to dinner, instead of eating a bowl of cereal and going to bed.

It started when my middle son transferred from the University of Missouri to the University of Tennessee. He remodeled the basement into an apartment and he and his wife are living there until they finish school, then plan to build a house on the farm.

My oldest son and his fiancé had been living in Portland, Ore., whose motto is "Where young people go to retire." He asked me if they could come back and take over the farm. Since I'm down to one horse and have been growing weeds and blackberry briars in recent years, it didn't take me long to say yes.

When they arrived last month I was all set to help them get into sustainable farming. I'm all about free-range vegetables (sic) and not using commercial fertilizers and such. I grew up eating organic vegetables and grass-fed beef. Back then we just called it "food." I set aside a patch for a garden, still time for tomatoes and corn and stuff, so we can hit the farmer's markets and rake in the cash.

No, turns out they aren't gardeners. They are dirt farmers—literally. It's called permaculture. They have spent recent weeks working like dogs to dig trenches and fill them with rotting wood, brush trimmings, and horse manure. I happen to have an ample supply of all these ingredients. They are making raised beds and then they will plant things. The compost will provide the fertilizer for years to come and the plants will be perennials. There's an herb bed. There will be berry bushes in addition to our fruit trees.

It's long-term stuff, extremely ambitious, and I'm slowly being educated.

Right now they are living in a two-room tent in the back pasture. But it's not so bad if you can walk over to the house and take a shower or raid the refrigerator. They plan to cut a stand of mature pines on the bluff, make tons of mulch to use and sell, then use the logs to build a cabin.

Ah, the energy of youth.

Both my sons are great cooks, so we eat well—though for now what we eat is coming from Food City.

(I've been arguing that if we eventually want to be self-sustaining here, somebody is going to have to learn to make wine, corn liquor, or at least apple cider.)

One of the joys of having all these people here is that we now have six dogs. Only two of them try and kill each other on sight. My Airedale now sleeps outside the tent instead of by my bed. He is allegedly guarding the coop full of pullets and chicks. He doesn't drool as much looking at the chickens as he did at first. We'll see how effective he is when a raccoon or coyote decides to come in some night and grab a snack. Though we won't know if Scout is protecting the kids' flock or whether he is protecting his potential dinner, the results will be the same.

Given the current economic climate I suspect there are a lot of two- and three-generational living arrangements these days. I recommend it. Every day reminds me of the days when my parents joined their brothers and sisters and their kids over at Mama Cagle's every Sunday after church for a big dinner and an afternoon of croquet or volleyball or a trip down to the swimming hole.

Now all I have to do is work on my daughter and her husband up there in Brooklyn.