Strictly Old School

Albuquerque Old School homesteading classesStrictly Old School

If you’ve never canned produce, made your own buttermilk or soap, or gathered eggs from your backyard chickens, the Old School in Albuquerque is the place to learn how. The Old School offers classes in the kind of “frugal, traditional, and sustainable living skills” that our great-grandparents might have known but that we, in our reliance on the supermarket checkout, have lost.

“One day I was wishing I knew how to can and how to make bread out of sprouted grains,” says Maggie Shepard, the school’s co-founder. Shepard is a strong researcher—she worked at the Albuquerque Tribune and now teaches CNM’s journalism course—but even she couldn’t find the help she wanted.

“I’m a learner who needs hands-on. I can watch a YouTube video and read a book, but I like to learn in community with other people. I was at Costco and they were selling sprouted grain bread, and I thought if this kind of product has reached this level of consumerism, there must be other people interested in these skills.”

So in the Field of Dreams spirit of “build it and they will come,” she started her own school, finding instructors to pass on their wisdom by teaching subjects such as gardening, quilting, solar oven cooking, herbalism and, of course, canning and bread-making.

Her hunch proved correct. Since Old School opened in May 2011, the response has been phenomenal, and Shepard says she can barely keep up. “The demand is insane. People were seeking this knowledge; they’re super-hungry for it.” Some classes fill up in 24 hours, and it doesn’t hurt that their fees start in the $7 to $12 range, with low-cost childcare, too.

Shepard believes the school’s success is due to various factors, starting with the American do-it-yourself streak of independence. “People definitely have a drive to take care of themselves on their own, because they know that somewhere in their past their ancestors knew how to do that, and they feel a loss.”

Then there’s a pendulum swing away from our collective tendency to trust corporations to tell us honestly what’s good for us. “So who do we trust?” asks Shepard. “We trust ourselves, we want to know this stuff.”

As an example, she cites beekeeping, usually thought of as a project best left to experts.  “Now, as it’s become more widespread, people realize, ‘Oh wait, I can do this myself!’”

Classes that offer instruction in beekeeping and the tending of backyard chickens are held at instructors’ homes. Others are at the Albuquerque Mennonite Church, which isn’t formally affiliated with the school but is a perfect match in its frugal, self-sustainable philosophy. (And it’s well equipped with a good kitchen!)

“The cool thing about the Old School is that it’s not just come, get info, leave, and we’re done,” says Shepard. “Students make connections, keep in touch, and the tutors are passionate, saying, ‘Call me any time if you need help.’”

One of those instructors, Chuck Alex, holds the school’s gardening and composting classes at his Urban Store in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill, teaching people to grow their own food year-round. He reckons that even those living in apartments or with just a small yard can grow enough salad greens to feed a couple of people all year, using Urban Store’s three-foot-square raised-bed container gardens. For some of the urban dwellers rushing to pick up a trowel, gardening is a way to save money. For others, it strikes a deeper, more emotional note.

“Gardening is very spiritual: having your hands in the dirt, nurturing the plant and then eating it, incorporating that into your body,” says Alex. “Our society has in many ways lost touch with some of the hands-on, practical D.I.Y. techniques, and people are really enjoying getting back in touch with those things. The Old School offers so many classes, from sock darning to cheese making to beekeeping. Things we as a society used to do for ourselves, and we’ve gotten away from that.”

Take composting. Alex observes that people are increasingly aware that it’s not such a great idea to throw away their veggie peelings and food scraps, and then (ahem!) go to the store to buy compost. Compost bins and tumblers speed up the composting process and keep the compost contained, which is ideal if you live in an apartment with only a patio or balcony.

Alex has been gardening in New Mexico for 17 years, so he pretty much knows all the problems gardeners encounter in this challenging environment. “I’m a big believer in covering the garden year-round; that’s what I’ve had great success with.” In winter, a cover protects against the cold, and in warmer months it blocks the winds and keeps out bugs and birds. A breathable cover also prevents water evaporation.

Maggie Shepard is quick to note that although Old School was her idea, it’s a “community project” that thrives on the collaboration of tutors, especially her Old School partner and co-founder, Leila Salim. Salim walks her talk. She makes her own bread, yogurt and cheese, and she teaches classes on making hummus and pita. She studied architecture in college, with a focus on green building, and she also teaches a greywater recapturing class.

“I think there’s a revolution happening,” says Salim. “People are starting to find out how things are made, finding out where our food comes from, and they want to know what’s going into what they’re eating and to do things for themselves. You can save a lot of money, and your money can stay local a lot of times.” Although everyone is so busy today, she suggests that we can choose where we put our time and energy. Do we want to spend half an hour watching TV or use that time to make our own bread? “A lot of things don’t require a lot of prep time, but they require a lot of waiting.”

In her class, Salim shares ways to recycle greywater and reduce water consumption, focusing on the easiest method that gives the most bang for your buck. “It’s called ‘laundry to landscape.’ You set up your washing machine for the output to your garden.” She also teaches how to make your own laundry detergent (or, if you’re not that hard-core, she recommends the best store brands for greywater recycling purposes).

Salim points out that in Japan, people are conscious of reusing water four or five times before they send it on its final journey to the garden. “Here we use potable water for everything, including the garden, which is ridiculous! Grass doesn’t need fluoridated, chlorinated, super-clean water.”

Maggie Shepard acknowledges that many traditional skills the Old School revives were considered hard labor back in the day when people didn’t enjoy the tools we have at our disposal. “I’m not surprised they didn’t want to do it,” she says. “Making soap over a fire was quite a feat. I’ve learned that these skills are surprisingly easy with a little bit of practice and our current technology.” She’s happy to use an electric immersion blender to make soap, reducing what would be an hour or two of stirring to about thirty seconds.

As the Old School approaches its first anniversary, Shepard says that her biggest surprise is watching the school take on a life of its own. “It caught on fire and it’s still going strong. The eco movement is trendy. I avoid trends, but this is one I can support.”

story by Tania Casselle
photos by Gaelen Casey

For more information on The Old School visit their website at The Urban Store is located at 3209 Silver Avenue SE in Albuquerque. 505.508.2674. 

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