Cutting the trail up homesteading hill

Last month I was poking around online and a video popped up about a woman that was talking about how she quit homesteading after only a year. She was basically discussing how homesteading didn’t feel anything like she thought it would. You know, the whole living in a dark yurt with her three kids under five while there was a bear outside bit. She simply hadn’t known to expect the isolation or how the dark would feel all consuming. In the end, she went back to it after having taken a three month break. This dirty life simply got under her skin, so she returned homestead and dug back in.

Shortly after, I read this article at a moment that I simply just needed to hear it. About Grandma Gatewood, the first woman to walk the Appalachian Trail. The way she spoke about it was so intense and resonated so deeply for me. I could imagine exactly what it was like–walking up a trail that was so roughly cut and had turns that led to what felt like all the hardest ways to walk up it. My eyes got wet when she said, “I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn’t and I wouldn’t quit.”

There were moments in the beginning of our journey to cut our trail up homestead hill that I felt like both those women. The first years are so challenging and test you in a million ways, especially when you have never done anything like this before. The whole thing gnawed at me a bit for a couple weeks.

Then we received two separate letters from two customers who stayed here on immersion early last year. Now I meet a lot of folks with big homestead dreams – but those two female friends turned intended homestead roommates were likely the most determined to go homesteading ones I’d ever run across. They had hiked a 2,168.1 mile hill together some years before and were quite sure they were ready to walk up homestead hill with one half of the pair’s two year old. They drove across a couple handfuls of states to get here. They were also the first set of folks to ever show up that had a realty appointment to purchase land scheduled for the day after they left our farm on a mountain less than an hour from here. I knew these two were different right from the jump. Typical for us in February winter weather, our road was impassible. Not even blinking they threw suitcases and a two year old on their backs and damn near beat a huffing and puffing me up our insanely steep road to the tippy top of the mountain we homestead on.

Four days. That’s how long it took for them to realize they weren’t quite ready. It took only two hours with the two of them trying to work in the garden with a very excited over chickens two year old before I heard, “Wow, this is a lot harder to do than I thought it would be with her.”

They flew back out of this nest, and also pretty typical – we didn’t hear from them for a good while. Until an envelope showed up in our PO box last month–a check with a donation and a letter from one of them. The pair had left here, reevaluated and slowed down. Rented a place in a city only an hour from us and were putting pennies in a mason jar and continuing to seek out skills to tuck in their tool belts. Their homesteading dreams are still burning bright – but were lighting a slightly different trail to getting there. A trail that I’m sure will have less elevation gain than moving into a tent with a two year old in the Appalachians, perhaps before you are quite ready. A week or so later I got an email from the other half of the pair, just wanting to check in too and make sure we knew where they were at after a year after having been here. It was so incredible to hear from those two in particular–I’d had high hopes for them and that adorable little one that loved those chickens so. If anyone has the determination to crest homestead hill, they do. I simply cannot wait to visit their homestead one day. Here’s hoping we get invited!

It’s so incredibly important to me to share with folks what it felt like in the beginning–bushwhacking a trail up homesteading hill when we didn’t have any experience. Sure, we lost a ton of weight and that was great! But it was also incredibly difficult emotionally and spiritually to make mistakes and do everything the hardest possible way. Which we didn’t even realize we were doing until we were muck boot deep in it. It’s important to both of us to share how we walk up that trail now.

I love hiking around here, in the beautiful blue ridges that surround me. I love that you can often get glimpses of the great views that await you as you walk up a trail to reach a ridge line. Visiting other homesteads and seeing their set ups and having folks visit here feels like that for me–you can get these glimpses of their view and then you know better where to turn.

I’m so grateful we are that we are halfway through our fifth year and the trail is started to look more well worn and like an old friend instead of like a narrow path through a thicket of thorns.

They say thirty percent of folks quit the AT before they hit mile thirty. I know a lot of new homesteaders fold the first year. It truly doesn’t have to be that way–gaining just a little experience can go such a long way. So if you are feeling called to live this way, give it a trial run before you go all in. You could always just give a homestead you like the look of a holler, and see if you can come around for a visit sometime.

Here is their review of us from this time last year:

“We arrived at 8 Owls Farmstead on Saturday evening and discovered that our first homesteading challenge was carrying our luggage up the quarter mile long driveway to their house. Thankfully, Rain didn’t make us tough it alone and grabbed some bags! When we arrived at their house we were welcomed by a committee of friends and animals. We chatted for the next few hours about our ideas and goals and what brought us to the decision to start our homestead. They listened intently as we delved into our story. They talked about how they got started and were very open and honest about the challenges they incurred. We talked about what the next week would be like and what would be expected of us. Over the next few days we washed dishes, split wood, planted seeds, learned about the animals and got a small glimpse of what like would be like if we, too lived like this. Rain and Mika showed us all aspects of everything; from the, “what to do”‘s along with the, “what not to do”‘s. They would educate and work us and then give us much needed time to discuss how we felt with each other as we realized that our original plans needed some heavy modifications. They were patient and non-judgmental as we slowly began to realize that things would not be as easy as we had envisioned. They shared their knowledge, experiences and community with us – introducing us to their friends who also homestead so we could see that there was not just one “right” way to do it. They allowed us to ask seemingly endless questions, and answered them all as best as they could while explaining the why’s and why not’s, as well as provided us with countless resources. They really listened to all of our ideas and expectations and tailored our immersion in such a way that would benefit us the most. They wanted to help us achieve our dream the way WE envisioned it. We arrived at their homestead not knowing what to expect and we left with more than we could have ever imagined! We got back to New Hampshire with more realistic expectations on how to proceed. We felt slightly frustrated at the thought of slowing down, yet at the same time more confident that this dream is possible! We still have a long way to go, but we no longer feel like we have to do it alone. We truly feel like we have support and resources now to where we can refer when we need guidance. THANKS Rain & Mika! We couldn’t have dreamed of a better immersion!”

Five Stars *****

Sincerely,
M&M’s Happy Hippie Hiker Homestead (soon to be)

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Here is how you can both get some homestead work done at the same time – have a friend that can dance with your two year old while you dig 🙂 (The aforementioned ladies on a five day homesteading immersion in late February 2015)

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I’m accepting applications for a very limited number of 2-5 day immersions on the homestead this spring and we always take day volunteers–so if you want to try living this way on for size, give the owls a hoot and tell us why you want to visit! (We accept work and organic food trades for those low on cash) If you aren’t local to us, I know loads of homesteads that do this – so start poking around in your area and see who you can visit. Something as simple as a little experience might just make all the difference in the world.

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Here is me and the little cat – walking homestead hill our own selves in January of 2016 to get to work.

A space and a story: What we do at Eight Owls Farm

“So what exactly does your farm…. do? Do you sell vegetables or what?”

Man, has this question been tricky to answer from the very beginning. We had a loose business plan when we bought the farm. To grow vegetables + mushrooms, raise goats for meat and milk, and sell primitive arts and crafts. However, after being here for just one year–what we were actually doing was starting to feel quite different than what we had originally put down on paper.

Mostly because, we had no clue what was about to go down when we closed on our 9.87 acres in September of 2012. We didn’t know we would be a collective 225 pounds lighter just under two years after we closed than we were when we first rented a farm in fall of 2010.

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Jan 2011 on rental farm (left) Nov 2012 just after buying our land (right)

We certainly had no idea that so many people would want to drive here from all over creation just to land in this nest and talk about transitioning into homestead life. We didn’t know that those people would have such a intense reaction to this homestead and our story that was taking place on it. Not to mention, we were just starting to see just how much potential this scrubby, steep, scrappy little homestead had.

There was only one problem, when people started to arrive in droves in 2013 to take homesteading workshops from this art educator turned farmer–we weren’t quite ready for it to do so well. Having loads of folks come through our farm felt quite different than our plan to grow veggies and cuddle goats. Our infrastructure wasn’t in place, this vacation home foreclosure to farm remodel was a long way from complete, and we were very used to having a quiet and secluded sort of life. But, we met some truly amazing folks and we kept getting told how inspiring and important what we were doing was.

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My favorite picture from summer 2013 of our #1 future farmer and co-owner of Five Farms Camp, some folks that we have just loved hosting for the last three summers. It was also the first picture of me I had liked in a very long time and I was roughly halfway through losing the weight I lost. 

Since we do love to give back to folks in whatever ways we can–we made the decision to just keep going, but to go smaller while we were still deep in our “demo + trees” years. We reopened on a smaller scale in 2014 to what ended up being even bigger crowds.

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Mountain Sun Community School visit in Oct 2014 (top left) June 2014 goat workshop (top right) lamb to classroom visit jan 2015 (bottom)

By January 2015, we had learned a ton–about what we liked, didn’t like, what we felt good at and what we didn’t. This Farmer knew she wanted to move from teaching workshops to hosting them and become a student her own self. To share funny stories to make this life feel more approachable as well as share the mistakes we made in the beginning with other folks so that they won’t make them too. To be doing those things in much smaller and more spread out doses–so that we would have more time out here on our own. The Forager knew she didn’t want to ever get overrun with custom bow orders again, so she stopped taking orders for custom primitive art and just focused on making it. We both started to see that we did actually want to get back to that plan of providing vegetables to our community in some way one day. We gave the whole hosting thing a trial run by hosting the women’s month long building series in spring 2015 by Build Like a Bird. Sure, it took us a full half a year out here working on our own to process the experience and continue to refine how we will move forward–but we learned a TON. Not just about building, but about laying the next round of brickwork in our business, our farm, and our lives. It was an experience full of growing pains, but here’s hoping they end up being great ones…it certainly already feels like they were.

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Women’s basic carpentry workshop by Build Like a Bird, May 2015.

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It took three years and a lot of blood, sweat, and a ton of tears–but we feel like we finally have a solid foundation and know what we want this business to do and what we don’t. So here it is, an answer three years and five months in the making. Our journey thus far has led us to a more refined version of what we set out to do and we coupled it up next to what it actually snowballed into. Out tumbled a new business plan, dusted off and tightened up. So, here’s a snippet to finally answer that age old question of what we do at Eight Owls Farm.

The mission of Eight Owls Farmstead is to inspire and empower the community to get more connected to the natural world by providing organically and sustainably produced produce, food, and crafts as well as provide a space for hosting education and events about sustainable food growing systems and living in more purposeful and artful ways.

What we DO:
Art. We both make and sell various types of art – t-shirts, primitive arts and crafts, and supplies from the natural world for artists to craft with.

Produce. If we have extra produce in 2016, it will be available retail at Whistlestop Market in Cedar Mountain or by pick up from the farm.

Hosting. From March 1 to November 1 each year, we accept applications to host a limited number of small scale homesteading, art, and writing retreats, workshops and events from well seasoned instructors we know. We host homesteading immersions for beginners that want to try living this way on for size for 2-7 days. (Note, we will only accept a limited number of event applications and immersion folks a year–we live here too, so we are trying to find a better balance with keeping the home in homestead. Special preference is always given to women’s events and education.)

And that’s it. Because that is plenty. Less like a shotgun approach to a farm based business and more like the precision of my trusty .22.

I’m sure I will teach about homesteading again one day, when I have a lot more than five and a half years of experience under my belt. But for now, I’ll stick to teaching art classes… something I feel more confident about since I have 22 years of experience making it. That, and learning right alongside folks as passionate about this way of life as I am. My wife wants to stick to the heavy lifting, primitive art and wild plants. In the meantime, we are both fine with just sharing our space and our story of losing weight from living this way and eating organic.

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May 2015, when we finally got to learn what it was like to have a farm AND a truck. 

That’s all we’ve really got to share, a great space that was underestimated at what it could become and an even greater story of two ladies who tried even when they were told they wouldn’t be able to do it. Two ladies that are happy to share what has worked and aren’t ashamed to share what didn’t. Those things are starting to come together to paint a picture of Eight Owls Farmstead. And I sure do like what it looks like–just as much as I’m sure I’ll like that it is an ever growing and changing picture that only gets easier to see and more beautiful to me with each passing year. I just love that too.

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“Great works are preformed not by strength but by perseverance.” – Samuel Johnson

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“I thought If those men can do it, I can do it. I thought it would be a nice lark. It wasn’t…. This is no trail. This is a nightmare. For some fool reason they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find… Why, an Indian would die laughing his head off if he saw those trails. I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn’t and I wouldn’t quit.” –Emma Gatewood

Man this resonated for me, a quote by the first woman to ever walk the Appalachian Trail at 67 years old.

The Homestead Housewife

This is one I’ve been thinking about writing for awhile–because it is exactly what I am around here. And I didn’t always see the value in it until the last year…. but I sure do now.
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I’m the one that cooks. That cleans. That does the laundry and dishes. I’m the one that gets up twice a night to keep the wood stove in the house stacked up and I keep the cooking fires going. I keep the outdoor kitchen and areas around the house as tidy as they can be on a farm. I fill the water jugs and split/stack the firewood up inside the house. Spring to fall, I tend the kitchen gardens and do all our food preservation. These days in winter, I slowly work on chipping away at the decorating bits of this foreclosure to farm house remodel we live in. I’m awake and doing these these housewifey things before anyone else has even thought of stirring in the mornings. Consequently, I am also usually dosing off before anyone else in the evenings…. but it is rare that folks wake up around here to not find coffee, tea and breakfast ready to be stumbled to. And I just love that.

I also work a couple jobs off the farm… so the real question is–why didn’t I always see the value in my role here, even when I love it so? Why did I think I had to also learn to be a builder or a person that was into primitive living skills in order to truly fit in on this homestead? Why was I not finding value in filling bellies and mason jars? I have no idea.

Last week I was dealing with some things and had to step away from the homestead bit more than usual. I came home one day to find a very pale and even hungrier Forager. After a few probing questions it became clear that nothing besides coffee had been consumed in the time I was gone. I quickly cooked her a big ol’ breakfast in the middle of the afternoon. She laughed and said, “Jeez, what a mess I would be if you weren’t here! I’d just be laying in the road under a new terrace mumbling about having not drank any water for days…. and starving to death. Hmm, I just realized you keep the fire going inside too. Dang, I’d also freeze. I really need you here, you know.” Having been fed and watered at this point, she skipped back off to her terraces–looking a few shades closer to normal than she had when I arrived. I swanny, that woman’s work ethic sure is something else.

I sat down, hard, on the porch couch. Something that had been dawning on me for the better part of a year hit me with full force–the value in what I do here. The value in what all the homestead housewives I know do.

We are the ones that keep eighteen plates spinning on sticks on our homesteads. We’re feeding and care taking our families. We are raising amazing little humans…. or ridiculously adorable little dogs in sweaters. We’re making sure everyone has clean socks, puts warm clothes on, drinks enough water, takes their vitamins and eats their vegetables, and has a made-up bed to crawl in when the day is done. Most all the ones I know are also working jobs to buy those socks and vitamins our families need. We’re always learning, growing, getting more efficient at our housewife work and being as adaptable as we can be. That means now I know, if I have to go off again–I best leave pre-fab mason jar meals about that don’t require heating… in order to not return home to find a famished forager.

I can’t count how many visitors that have come through and asked, “So what do you do around here?” (They don’t have to ask the Forager, she’s usually standing out there swinging a sledgehammer, so her answer is obvious.) I always used to fumble over an answer and focus on the fact that I work jobs off the farm and she works here. I’d just leave the housewifey bits out and try to show them in action–by the quality of the cooking and coffee being ready when they awoke on the farm–and would hope they would notice what I do here. A few weeks back a friend that visited us turned to me while I was making dinner and said, “Man, you’re such a housewife!” It’s so true, so for the first time – I took it as a totally awesome compliment and just said, thanks – I really do love to cook.

It is a hard and very often thankless job that no one else wants to take on–and man, I see the value in it now, in such huge ways. I see my homestead housewife friends and how crucial they are to their homestead and family’s progress. I see it in myself. We are the lighters of the fires, fillers of the freezers, changers of the sheets, and doers of the farm laundry–what a bold and brave bunch we are. (Bold and brave might seem like strong language for a housewife… but if you had seen “farm laundry” before – you wouldn’t think so) So to my homestead housewife brethren, know this. There is so much value in what you do. And the only one that really needs to see that…. is you.

-the farmer

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There’s that coffee and breakfast bit I mentioned–it fuels this farmer, forager, and their friends quite nicely! (Well, except no more coffee for me – I finally got off it last fall and am safely a tea girl this days)

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Nothing says you love your people like a good chili, stew or soup that you tended all day!

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+ finally, my favorite new simple recipe from 2015 – butternut squash fries cooked in coconut oil. omg they are so dang good.