Sunday, January 29, 2012
Making it series: Learning to live without
Piper Lane and Paul Davis had to remake their rural-based life when the deflated construction market took away their livelihood.
Photos by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times
Winston Palmer, 10, pets a hen he wryly named Steve, one of five the family is raising for eggs. "He loves the chickens," his mother says. "Most kids have little attention spans for gardening, but he's the one who cooks with me in the kitchen. He knows what tastes good with more rosemary."
Paul Davis uses a pitchfork to turn one of his compost piles in the family garden. He recycles expired food from a nearby grocery, using it to feed the chickens and his compost pile. The family hopes to raise rabbits and plant a cash crop of garlic.
Piper Lane cans berries and grows as many vegetables and herbs as she can. An active participant in Occupy Roanoke, she and her partner, Paul Davis, reach out to other people in need - including an 88-year-old Roanoke minister who may be evicted from his home because of some loans his late wife took out.
Paul Davis walks in a chicken coop at his home on rented land in New Castle, Virginia. The family uses various means to get by in a tough economy, including growing their own herbs and vegetables, keeping chicken for eggs, and bartering goods for their artwork and services.
Piper Lane knits a scarf she's bartering in exchange for accounting services. She and six Occupy Roanoke friends are starting a worker-owned cleaning service cooperative that will target office buildings and rental properties.
Piper Lane, Paul Davis and Lane's son Winston Palmer (left to right) gather near the garden area of their home in New Castle. The family is rich in experience - working together to garden and getting odd jobs and renovation work when they can - but cash poor. "It's pretty shattering to be providing for yourself for so many years and then all of a sudden not be able to do that," Lane said. But in some ways, she adds, "Struggling has actually been a blessing. You learn to live without things you didn't need in the first place."
- See more stories and videos of area savers who are bravely fording uncertain economic waters.
- What have you and your family done to cope with the prolonged economic slump that has left more than 25 million people either unemployed or underemployed?
- Email your stories and strategies to families reporter Beth Macy at email@example.com
NEW CASTLE — They are modern-day traders: knitting for tax preparation, yoga classes for massage, a digital camera for a truckload of horse manure.
Piper Lane and Paul Davis are making it in America — but barely, like so many other self-employed folks who have been hammered by the recession.
Before the housing market plummeted in 2007, Davis, 47, had a humming plastering business with 14 employees. His Davis Plastering built the walls for about half the homes in Ashley Plantation, a Botetourt County subdivision, he said.
Now it's just him and a buddy doing smaller remodeling jobs or fixing water damage. Some weeks he has no work at all.
The couple picks and chooses from the bills they owe, resulting in an end to satellite television, credit problems and Davis' decimated retirement account. Out of necessity, they've forged creative new lines of work, with Davis adding interior painting to his services — often hiring his partner, Lane, 40, to paint over his plaster repairs.
They own the trailer they live in but rent the lot where it sits, surrounded by a cornfield and other mobile homes. They're making the most of their single acre with an expanding organic garden, compost heaps, blackberry bushes and a chicken coop — and plenty of roaming space for their beagle mutts, Nay-Nay and Shaggy.
"Struggling has actually been a blessing," Lane said. "You learn to live without things you didn't need in the first place."
Davis collects outdated produce from a nearby grocery to fuel his compost, and built a greenhouse and rabbit hutch out of lumber he recycled from construction site leftovers. An earthworm garden is planned for beneath the hutch.
"The rabbits will eat the compost, then the worms turn their waste into better soil for the gardens. We can also sell the worms and the rabbits, and there's two more sources of income right there," he said.
In their quest to live off the economic grid, away from the whims of an unstable economy, they plan to grow 1,500 to 2,000 heads of garlic for a cash crop and sell greenhouse plants at area farmers markets.
Active members of Occupy Roanoke, they're becoming politically active, too.
"Looking back, I think people in housing knew the collapse was coming," said Davis. "But people like me, I just enjoyed working and coming home. I thought the politicians would pay attention for me."
Lane was the chief baker for the Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op but went on unpaid medical leave for a short time, she said, making her ineligible for unemployment benefits. She's cobbled together part-time work and regularly trades her artwork, knitting and yoga teaching for other services, she said.
"I'm one of those people who fell through the cracks," she said. "It's pretty shattering to be providing for yourself for so many years and then all of a sudden not be able to do that."
Besides bartering as much as she can via Facebook and Craigslist, Lane cleans a large church in Salem weekly with her daughter, Sierra Rock, a Roanoke College junior.
Rock also has multiple jobs that include a work-study position in the college library, baby-sitting and helping coach the Craig County High School girls basketball team.
Her mom's lifestyle motivates her to get a good education "so I won't have to try so hard to get by like they have to," she said.
But Rock worries about the $50,000 she'll owe in student-loan debt by graduation.
Lane and six Occupy buddies are starting a cleaning service cooperative called Co-op Cleaners.
"The cleaning business got bad when the housing market dropped, and people started doing it themselves," Lane said.
Using a consensus decision-making process, the group — which includes a librarian, a retiree looking for part-time work, two college students and one recent graduate — voted to target office buildings and rental management companies as clients.
"I'm interested in this because it's low overhead and it can be financed in such a way that we're not selling our soul to Wells Fargo," said Brandon Bushnell, 22, a co-op organizer and technical college librarian.
Bushnell said he admires the couple's entrepreneurial spirit, calling them "a fantastic version of the American ideal. They have fallen into a bad situation like so many others, but they haven't taken it complacently, standing in unemployment lines and getting food stamps and waiting passively for something to happen."
When Davis isn't working or gardening, for instance, he's often helping others — including 88-year-old Thomas Pleasant, featured in a recent newspaper article. Pleasant was shocked to learn that he owed more on his house than its assessed value, due to an equity line his second wife had taken out before her death in 2008.
Davis responded by offering gratis repair work and food prepared by Lane. Retired Roanoke historian John Kern helped, too, lining up legal services.
("He's probably going to have to walk away from the house; it's really sad," Kern said recently. "They bundled these loans up together, which was part of the cause of the financial crisis, and you can't sort it out.")
Danielle Murray’s blog
- So many readers asked our first “Making It” subject Danielle Murray for housekeeping tips in the wake of our Jan. 8 story that the 24-year-old homemaker extraordinaire started her own blog.
- It’s at whyyesiuseclothdiapers.blogspot.com and on it she breaks down exactly how she manages to feed her family of three on $150 a month. She also shares recipes, menus and tips on everything from repurposing leftovers to making homemade diaper wipes.
"Why would anyone lend him more than the house is worth?" Davis asked, adding that Pleasant's situation is the embodiment of everything Occupy is fighting against. "That's why we're in this mess to begin with."
Almost every time he does volunteer work, Davis said he gets a lead for a paid job.
"You don't go help someone because you want to get something out of it, but for some reason I'm starting to learn: The more I do, the more I get," he said.
* * *
Occupations: Lane is a self-employed house cleaner and house painter and barters paintings and yoga classes for services. Davis is a plastering subcontractor, gardener and recycler extraordinaire.
Children: Their home is a blended family of five children, with three living in their Craig County home.
On cobbling together part-time work: The best advertising is word of mouth but they also use Facebook to barter among friends and friends of friends.
On building business references: “People have trust issues, but once they get hold of you and realize you’re trustworthy, they don’t let you go,” Davis said. On a recent job for a new client in Hunting Hills, the plasterers had to enter through a window rather than the front door — “they were afraid we’d steal from them.”
On bartering: Lane trades paintings for visits to her Ayurvedic doctor, and Davis traded a load of horse manure he got free from an area stable for a digital camera via Craigslist. “When the credit card companies call about late payments, I ask if they’ll barter, but for some reason they won’t,” Lane deadpanned.
For information on Occupy Roanoke’s new cooperative cleaning service: email Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org.