2014 Homesteaders of the Year

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Fence and red house on a homestead.
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Lou and Nell Fletcher enjoying their garden.
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Taking care of the animals at Heritage Meadows Farm.
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The homestead of Jennifer Ulman and family.
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Jennifer Ulman and family in the garden.
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The homestead of Jasen and Lindsey Brown.
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A modern day homestead.

This year we received a mountain of nominations for the 2014 GRIT and CAPPER’S Homesteaders of the Year recognition. Sorting, mulling, discussing and narrowing them was torture of the best kind. In the end, we selected three winners and two runners-up who embody, to us, the real spirit of a gritty homesteading tradition. Here we offer you a glimpse into the lives of our five Homesteaders of the Year.

Lou & Nell Fletcher (Winners)

City/State: Sedalia, Colorado

How many acres do you have? 240 acres

Ages: Ages 82 and 81

Additional info: Married 61 years with 3 children, 12 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren.

Quote: “We began working toward self-sufficiency on our honeymoon, coming home with two bushels each of peaches and tomatoes. We stopped at my mother’s, asking for her canning equipment, which she no longer used, and, at Lou’s home ranch — then deserted — canned everything on a two-burner kerosene stove. We were still in college.”

How long have you been homesteading? Since 1953.

How would you define homesteading? We define homesteading as trying to live as close to the basics as possible (raising and putting up our own food, heating with wood when possible, trying to use natural products, hanging clothes out, etc.) In other words, trying to turn the clock back as far as you can in as many ways as you can.

How much of your own food to you produce? We grow 100% of our own beef and eggs, and about 95% of our own vegetables.

Where did you learn your homesteading skills?Were you raised in this lifestyle, or self-taught? A little bit of both. Our folks grew vegetable gardens, my mother preserved fruits and vegetables. Lou was raised on a ranch, I was a big city girl. We both have B.S. degrees in agriculture.

What are you most proud of about your homestead? Our vegetable garden and our log home, which we designed and, for the most part, built ourselves — pay as you go with no mortgage.

Do you have any advice for others? Our advice for others would be to do what you can with what you have and enjoy what you are doing. Total self-sufficiency isn’t really necessary to be a successful homesteader.

Amy McKamey and Family of Heritage Meadows Farm (winners)

City/State: Clayton, Indiana

How many acres do you have? 23 acres with more to come

Quote: “Farming is a lot of hard work, but if you truly enjoy what you do, it doesn’t seem like work at all. And at the end of the day, when you can sit down to a meal that was all produced on your own farm and by your own hands, it is all worth it. Our goal is to become fully self-sustainable, off the grid, and also have a profitable farm business.”

How would you define homesteading? To me, homesteading is living and working on your own property to provide for your family.

Where did you learn your homesteading skills? Were you raised in this lifestyle, or self-taught? I learned a lot of what I know when I was growing up. I grew up on a small farm and was a 10-year 4-H member. So a lot of it has come back to me. However, there are many things that we have also taught ourselves. My husband is totally self-taught, growing up in the city.

What current projects are you working on? We are raising rare heritage Large Black hogs and rare Ancona ducks. We raise chickens on pasture, selling the eggs and meat. We hope to get NPIP (National Poultry Improvement Plan) certified soon to ship in the near future. We work with Anatolian Shepherds as livestock guardians and hope to sell puppies in the future. We have a small CSA garden. We are working on fencing small paddocks to do multi-species rotational grazing, and we are building shelters in each paddock made from recycled pallets. We make all of our own breads, laundry soap and dog food, and we dry our own herbs, among other things. We also make and sell jam. We have no trash, as we recycle and compost everything. And we’re working toward building our own home, an Earthship, which is a story in itself.

What are you most proud of on your homestead? I am extremely proud of how hard our family works together to get things accomplished. We’ve had a few animal accidents, and we have amazed ourselves when it comes to the animals we have been able to save. I think our livestock is our favorite part of the farm. We each have our favorites, though.

What do you love most about the homesteading life? I can honestly say I love it all. I am living a dream. It is hard work, but the rewards are never ending, and I simply can’t choose just one thing to love the most. There is nothing that makes me happier than being outside working in the dirt or with our animals. We truly love every single aspect of it.

Other comments: I encourage everyone to try to be more self-sufficient. There are so many things you can do. You don’t have to do everything, but even growing a small garden can be so rewarding. Having the whole family work together is key. This lifestyle is difficult to go it alone.

Jennifer Ulman & Family (winners)

How many acres do you have? 38 acres

City/State: Darien, Illinois

Quote: “We love showing people that nature is not some far away vague thing, but ready to be discovered and enjoyed everywhere. One of the two homeschooling groups we host is about less traditional academics. We teach kids outdoor skills such as campfire building and cooking. We are able to provide a place where the kids can just experience the outdoors and explore. We also teach others how to make butter, yogurt, cheese, bread, wine, beer, hot water bath and pressure canning, how to grind their own sausage, and how to make jams and jellies.”

In your own words, how would you define homesteading? Getting back to doing more for myself, knowing where my food comes from, and good stewardship of the land and animals in my care.

How long have you been homesteading? At our current location, about six years. Before that we lived in a small apartment, but still did what we could.

What current projects are you working on? Growing a food garden for canning and processing, raising chickens for meat and eggs, harvesting wild fruits for jams, keeping honeybees, making small batches of artisan cheeses, wines, meads and beers.

What do you love most about the homesteading life? The satisfaction of knowing I am responsible for the outcome of my projects.

What foods do you grow the most of? Our current garden has 52 tomato plants, sweet and hot peppers, red and yellow onions, beans, pumpkins, blue potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbages, cauliflower, broccolini, chard, lettuces, cucumbers, ground cherries, popcorn, carrots, garlic and various herbs.

How much of your own food do you produce? About 45 percent, which we either grow here ourselves or harvest from our animals. 

Where did you learn your homesteading skills? Were you raised in this lifestyle, or self-taught? I was raised on our family farm, but most of my skills are self-taught.

What are your favorite things to cook, and why? Pizza. I know that seems strange, but I’ve never found a restaurant that can beat homemade crust with homemade sauce from my tomatoes, topped with freshly made mozzarella. I also love to roast whole chickens that we raise; they taste wonderful.

What are you most proud of about your homestead? We’ve been able to teach a lot of our friends how to bring a little homestead life to their suburban homes. We have taught classes on bread and cheese making. Each spring I start hundreds of veggies for friends and family, and then help them succeed in their gardens over the summer. We are able to grow enough that we can give some away and still eat green beans from our garden all winter until the next first harvest in early summer.

Do you have any advice or comments for others? You don’t have to have a lot of land to live a homestead lifestyle. You don’t have to have a goat or cow to make cheese, just buy milk from the grocery store and go for it. Don’t have enough room for a huge garden? Most veggies will be happy in large pots. I lived in an apartment for several years and still made bread and cheese and had fresh tomatoes and peppers from my porch. Just jump in and try it!

Jasen & Lindsey Brown (runners-up)

City/State: Franklin, Pennsylvania

Ages: 28 and 38

Additional info: 12 acres and 3 children

Quote: “Our children help with everything they can, and they really enjoy the responsibilities of their own chores. They all got new shovels, brooms and pitch forks for Christmas in 2013!”

In your own words, how would you define homesteading? For us, its being as self-sufficient as you can be with a family of five and living on such a small income, with the type of employment we have chosen. We enjoy providing for ourselves with hard work and family teamwork. We enjoy all the time that goes into our property to ensure its upkeep, our family’s closeness and a great way of life.

How long have you been homesteading for? Three years.

What current projects are you working on? We are currently working on making some bigger garden plots, putting new roofs on our barns and buildings, and developing a small herd of Lowline Angus, Dexter crosses.

What do you love most about the homesteading life? The satisfaction of watching what we do grow into something new and bigger, and having a quiet life and being self-sufficient.

Where did you learn your homesteading skills? Were you raised in this lifestyle, or self-taught? Jasen has learned a lot from his dad, and also from talking to other homesteaders and farmers and from his own research. We learn a lot from trial and error. The kids and I learn everything from my husband!

What are your favorite things to cook, and why? My husband does the cooking. He enjoys cooking everything. Flavor is the most important thing for him. His favorite is making ribs on the smoker.

What are you most proud of about your homestead? The fact that we have a piece of land that was part of a farm and that it’s more than 100 years old. Our neighbor grew up on this farm and worked on it his whole life until retirement. Now he gets to watch it continue to be used instead of sitting useless. We are also proud to pass these skills on to our kids.

Marshall & Sandra Davenport (runners-up)

Nearly 30 years ago, my husband, Marshall, and I started a small farm with a range of animals and a big garden on just under four acres. Neighbors at the time refused to call us a working farm — to them, we were a hobby farm. It certainly didn’t feel like a hobby when you had to get up every morning to do chores and do them again at night with no time for a vacation. Anyone who has done this will agree on the time consumption it takes from your daily life. It began to weigh on my husband as he had a day job, too, and the doctor suggested he give up the farm.

Here we are 30 years down the road, and we begin again, even though we have been developing the gardens over the years. This time we have faced new challenges. We have goats for milk and meat, chickens for meat and eggs, turkeys for meat, a very large vegetable garden for our own use as well as to sell produce, and a flower garden with herbs. We make our own laundry soap, cheese, breads, hand soap, jams and jellies, and we grind our own flour and do anything else we can think of to help us stay away from the grocery store. We freeze, can or dehydrate as much as we possibly can. Our grocery shopping has been cut by at least 75 percent.

As an example of how much better homegrown food tastes, we made bacon and egg sandwiches from our own eggs, and my husband thought I put herbs into it. Turns out the hens had been feeding in the herb garden so their eggs tasted that way.

Additional components

Food is not the only way to homestead. As a way to minimize our water usage, we purchased an old wringer washing machine. Conventional washers take two cycles of water to do one load of clothes, as well as the laundry soap and fabric softener. With a wringer washer, we use only one cycle of water and soap for washing, and one cycle of water and softener for rinsing. And we use a clothesline instead of the dryer. Twenty-six acres of woodlot affords us the ability to cut our firewood for free. We use only those that are diseased, blown down in the wind, or need to be separated for better growth quality. Balsam fir Christmas trees are grown on the property, and tipping as well for wreaths is an extra income for the household. We compost with grass, hay, straw, animal manure, food scraps, garden cuttings, paper and cardboard, and we use the compost on our gardens. We have also experimented with “lasagna” gardening, in which we create layers of cardboard and compost. We found that, the next year, the garden was very rich and deep to plant in.

Homesteading has been revived everywhere. Most of us can remember when our grandparents did it for themselves, and we are ready to repeat that lifestyle to some degree. As some would say, “get back to our roots.” Homesteading does not have to be 100 acres, but simply what you can do with what you have.

Future Nominations

If you or someone you know deserves recognition as our 2015 Homesteaders of the Year, email Editor-in-Chief Hank Will at hwill@grit.com with a nomination and photos if possible.

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