by Alex Gillett
This is the first in a series of posts by Slow Food West Michigan Board Member Alex Gillett documenting her experience with creating a homestead from scratch. We hope you enjoy following her journey.
2016 — what a year. Most people are more than happy to leave it behind us, but 2016 was an especially exciting and happy year for me. My husband and I got married, bought a house, adopted 14 chickens and a “working” cat named Sprinkles, and —arguably most excitingly — we began laying the groundwork for a farm. For years, we have had the ambition to get some land and have a small farming business. We we are hesitant to call our land a “farm” quite yet because we are still pretty new to this. We do have some experience: my husband has worked on a friend’s farm, I’ve gardened some, and we had a very successful potted garden while living in a third floor Chicago apartment. Shockingly, despite all that prior knowledge, we have had a multitude of learning experiences this past year, and we’re looking forward to the upcoming season.
Last May, my husband and I bought a house on 22 acres just outside of Allegan, MI. We were eager to begin working our land, so we dived into homesteading to begin learning the ropes, embracing our inexperience. Before we finished unpacking and had any furniture to sit on, we had already scrambled together beds for our vegetable garden and also transformed a measly, run-down chicken coop into a chicken fortress for our incoming chicks. Later into the summer we discovered the trove of wild red and black raspberries along our driveway — and how to pick them without being completely destroyed by thorns. By the end of the season we learned what makes for terrible tomato supports, and that chickens love eating all of my pepper plants. All of them. We also learned that 11 of those 14 chicks were male, and what it’s like to send them on their “final vacation” into our freezer. We had a plethora of learning experiences last year. And even though things weren’t perfect — I’d consider our first season a total success.
It was quantitatively successful in that we had a consistent supply of fruit and vegetables throughout the season and we could share them with family and friends. More importantly, we found that, despite all our challenges, frustrations, and heated “discussions,” working on our property was inspiring and we still want to keep doing it. The work gave both my husband and I a respite from the stress of our day jobs. Throughout the summer, I would find myself wandering around our property simply to soak in the sounds and beauty of the land. By simply observing the busy nature around me — with birds chirping, wind blowing through trees, chickens following me around, and the sun moving across the sky — all my work and other life stresses would wash away (at least for a little while). Even when I didn’t have the time to slow down and enjoy my surroundings, I was refreshed to work in that setting. I was surprised to find I actually liked shoveling manure when I had a beautiful sunset as my backdrop and the flurry of birds preparing for night as my background music. We had plenty of challenging moments this past summer, but the benefits and privilege of living on and working our land made it worth it.
Now that our first season is over, we are beginning to look forward. We aren’t sure what this year will bring. We will expand our garden. We want to get more fruit trees. We want to continue experimenting with growing techniques and learn what works and what doesn’t. With the help of community organizations, we hope to open our property to refugees who want to grow their own vegetables. We might get a dog or two. Maybe all that will happen, or maybe not and maybe something completely unexpected will come our way. This is a slow journey for us as we learn about growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables, raising and caring for animals, and learning what role we want to take in the West Michigan food community. Over the next year I look forward to sharing our experiences with you.