Is setting up a family farm in the US possible today? According to Nancy Bevins aka motleymutton, living off the land has its challenges, but in the end her family found a balance in a hybrid lifestyle: selling handmade crafts online, along with selling farm products locally. Read on for her family farm story.
[on the left, the abandoned farmhouse on motleymutton‘s property; on the right, the new house they built from scratch.]
Driving through my husband’s hometown and surrounding areas in suburban and rural Ohio, I am floored by the view. Where I used to see acres of cornfields I now see gated communities and shopping centers. I grew up in Los Angeles County, so these sites are not unfamiliar to my eyes. There, before urban sprawl took over, family owned dairy farms were a bicycle trip away. And in nearby Garden Grove we were permitted to glean the local strawberry fields at the end of harvest.
The story is the same there as it is in many other place: the younger generations can’t make a living farming the property. The land is worth much more as houses and stores. I wonder if more people would stay on their ancestors land if they could generate a fair income.
We soon found out about the toil and hardships of owning a family farm. We bought property in West Virginia where my husband’s parents were originally from. We’d wanted to relocate to a rural area for years, and thought by reading a lot of books on farming, we could easily survive.
The first few years, we scraped by. I’d left a good paying job in California, and now I found myself waiting tables for about a third of my former pay. This took me away from my children, which is something I had wanted to avoid with our move. My husband did even worse, working at a donut shop for just above minimum wage. Simultaneously, we struggled to build our farm, but were left discouraged because we could not find an avenue to make a profit. Our land wasn’t vast enough for cattle, and without a tractor we had to buy hay. During this time we also became foster parents, so although that brought a small amount of money into the home, it was designated for the children we took in. We sold the cows, and through our kid’s 4H group, bought 6 mixed sheep.
The first year of raising the sheep cost more than our earnings. Wool was selling at the “wool pool” for a disgraceful price of 40 cents a pound! It would cost more in gas to drive to the collection site than I’d make selling it!
Our kids’ 4H leader invited me to the local Fiber Guild: a group of folks dedicated to working with fiber and passing along that knowledge. I was AMAZED at the equipment they had to share: looms, carders, spinning wheels, videos, books. Most were ladies who were thrilled to have younger people interested in their hobby. I also took a class in Needle Felting, but never pursued it because we were not yet efficiently shearing our sheep.
We began buying more sheep, and was blessed by another friend who sold me all her castoffs from their flock of mostly Purebreds. They were a motley, befuddled group of ewes, some with the personalities of matronly queens. I also picked up a couple of rams, both mutts. Our flock was growing.
At the same time I ran across the book, Introduction to Permaculture, which theorized that most successful farms in the world were small, diverse, and sold directly to local people. We began looking at ways to diversify. We changed our garden, planting on smaller patches (square foot gardening) and began feeding the soil a steady diet of organic matter. We made plans to sell at the local farmers market in a year or two. We bought chickens and goats. We contacted the local USDA conservation office and signed up for programs, which partially pay for farm improvements that are ecologically helpful to the land.
We began the backbreaking job of shearing our own sheep. We processed the wool ourselves, and for the first time I had a huge amount of it stockpiled. My wool wasn’t nice and probably couldn’t be spun easily so I thought again about felting. It was right before holiday time and we were in need of money, so I thought, I’ll just try making something and see if it sells. I was shocked when my first attempt netted me $172.00!
We also began selling lambs in the fall, which paid for all the yearly feed, breaking us even. We finally saw a profit when we counted the freezer full of meat we butchered, eliminating the need to buy meat for our large family. I looked at things from a different perspective. Whatever we DIDN’T have to buy, was INCOME. Eggs, milk, meat, veggies, fertilizer (manure), bug killer (chickens ate them). Even gas for the lawnmower was saved, as a rotation schedule for the animals grazing was implemented.
I had some family friends help me set up a website, Motleymutton.com. I had only been selling on eBay, when a good online friend told me about Etsy, so I branched out to having a store here, motleymutton.etsy.com. Many of my customers followed me, setting up buyer accounts. Special orders from the website added to the mix along with a specialized primitive group I joined. Last year we were able to participate in the local farmer’s market. What an awesome lesson for the kids to exchange their hard work for cash in hand! Through my website a local co-op discovered my stuff, and placed orders for necklaces. With some of the money I’ve earned, my sons are going to build a greenhouse.
Here in the United States, the Amish have had a few things right for a long time. Smaller farms, less expensive machinery, and the family working together. They take what they grow and turn it into a finished product. A tree becomes a piece of furniture, a simple wooden box, or a woodcarving. Through organizations like Etsy, personal websites, and co-ops, living in a small rural town will become a possibility for more and more people. And I believe as more folks discover venues like Etsy, those in rural places may finally be able to stay there.
Nancy Bevins, Buckhannon, West Virginia
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