King of the wild frontier

| 29 Feb 2016 | 11:45

Dirt: Did you imagine growing up to be Paul Bunyan as a kid?

Brett McLeod: Everyone always says, is any of this a surprise? And none of it is. It’s just sort of a continuation of everything. I insisted on living in a little log cabin behind my parents’ house when I was, I don’t know, eight. You can see I’ve got an axe throwing target over there; when I was a little kid I threw tomahawks. Everything’s sort of the same, just an adult version.

Did you build this house?

It was started when I bought it. I would say it was half built. So I finished it off, and I tried to use wood from the land and all that, but they had bought a lot of the materials, like the sheathing was all here. But the beams inside came off the property, and you’ll see that all the other structures on the property come from the woods.

Tell us about this land.

The property was an old Christmas tree farm, and before that it was a potato farm. It was the only flat land around here. The problem is, you buy an old Christmas tree farm, and you got all the trees in the world but no open space. So a lot of it is about creating open space for the animals and the gardens, but also at the same time thinking about: can we utilize the trees for building materials and other uses?

We come to a grove of evergreens in the middle of a pasture.

This is what I call the living barn. It’s intentionally left as a patch of trees. It was the densest patch. And then you see I’ve stacked the stumps and the brush to encourage the cattle to go in certain areas and not go in other areas.

You can see the [cattle] have their little alleyways that they walk. They’ve got the places they go to the bathroom and the places they sleep, and it’s all very segregated. That little corner is always where the mothers bring their calves. Every calf has been born there. Different moms all gravitate to the same spot.

This is their only form of shelter all winter long. It can be six to eight degrees warmer in the winter time and about 10 degrees cooler in the summer time. And as far as barns go, I don’t get taxed on it and it’s pretty low maintenance.

Do you do the slaughtering yourself?

I do the on-farm kill. I know that if I were an animal, I would want to be eating fresh pasture with my head down and just have it happen, as opposed to the stress of getting loaded into a cattle wagon and hauled off. Even just buying animals or selling live animals, or moving bulls around, it’s so stressful for them.

Are you planning on clearing more land?

Yeah, in time I can keep going with it. It’s also figuring out the ideal number of animals. I’m really more focused on the homesteading, as opposed to farming. It’s really for ourselves. I don’t have much interest in a commercial enterprise. It’s just my girlfriend and me, plus a pretty tight knit neighborhood here. We’ve got plenty of neighbors that pitch in and help, and take beef shares or lamb shares or garden shares.

So your girlfriend is into the lifestyle?

Yup. She does the beer brewing, the honey, makes a lot of hard cider, and does most of the garden work.

We hear you ride your horse 16 miles to Paul Smith’s College?

I do it a couple times a year. I usually do it with my students as part of a low-carbon week. They’re at a real advantage because they live on campus, so their carbon footprint is a lot less than anyone who’s traveling. If I’m going to compete with them, I have to find ways to have significant reductions in my carbon emissions.

That’s a really cute cabin.

Yeah I can’t do it alone, so this is where Connor lives. I call it my homesteader-in-residence program. He does chores in exchange for rent. All the wood that this [cottage] is built out of came from within a couple hundred feet.

[Homesteader in residence Connor Bishoff, 28, of Ballston Spa, NY, comes over with grain to try to entice the piglets to come out for a photo op. He’s a rising senior at St. Paul’s.]

What made you want to live here, Connor?

CB: There’s no better housing in the area, that’s for sure. It’s kind of getting to walk the talk, you know. You get to put everything that’s theoretical into practice. And you have the tools and the know-how.

Have you seen a resurgence of interest in the kind of stuff you’re teaching and doing?

BM: Absolutely. It’s going from being impossible to find anyone who wants to help and do the manual labor and the hard farming work, to lots of students looking for the opportunity.

How do you pick your homesteader in residence?

There’s so much romanticism tied up in all of this. Then there’s the reality of it, right? So I’m always trying to separate those two and get them to understand that it doesn’t happen on its own. On days like today when you’re out working, it’s wonderful. But for every day like this there’s 10 days where there’s snow up to your waist, a calf arrives when it’s zero degrees out, all the things that break, or the animals getting out, your crop freezing – and all of that’s part of it. So I would say probably half of the six or seven students that I’ve had really understand that and embrace it, and make the best of it. And Connor’s one of them.

But then there’s always a few that come in and the reality is too much for them. And they go, ‘Oh man, what did I get myself into? I like the idea of it, but I don’t like living it.’

How often do you buy food at the grocery store?

I hate going to the grocery store. The grocery store freaks me out. I can’t stand it. One, it’s too many choices, and two, it’s way too cheap. The fact that we spend in America about 10 to 12 percent of our income on food – it’s the lowest in the world, and it’s a little freaky to me because it says that we’ve subsidized this system so much, and we allocate so little of our energy to food. We’re able to do that because we don’t care how that food is made, or where it came from, or what the cost of producing it is.

I’d say we get about half our food from the supermarket. All the stuff that doesn’t make sense to produce yourself. Yeah you can make ketchup, but anyone that’s made ketchup only does it once. It’s sort of like a time-energy thing. But all our meat, most of our vegetables, come from here.

Can I see you throw the axe? [We walk over to the log target, McLeod takes aim, swings the axe over his head and hurls it.] Bullseye. How long did it take you to be able to do that?

I’ve been throwing axe about 20 years.

Do you ever do that in real life?

This is real life.

Cap: In the “living barn,” McLeod breaks branches off long so the cattle can use them as scratching posts. This method also means the tree is protected from the bark being rubbed off.

McLeod is the author of The Woodland Homestead: How to Make Your Land More Productive and Live More Self-sufficiently in the Woods (Storey Publishing, 2015).