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Life in the suburbs is what Hope Weakland knew growing up, as a newlywed and as a young mom. But as she and her husband began researching food and chemical reactions they observed in their kids, the next step became clear: it was time to take a step back from it all.
The couple left their Tampa home and moved to a few acres in Tennessee before finally coming to Milton five years ago. Now, to accommodate their family’s needs—including one daughter’s lactose intolerance—it’s not a question of what she does make by hand, but rather a question of what she doesn’t.
The family owns Faith Farms Miniature Goats (www.growingonfaithfarm.com), which provides goat milk for the family to drink and, if there’s enough left over, to make soft goat cheese. Some 40 chickens provide eggs daily, which she delivers to her customers. Weakland has homeschooled her three children, now 17, 15 and 12, since birth. She makes sourdough bread, deodorant, soap, homemade cleaners, dishwasher soap, and laundry detergent utilizing her goat milk as a fabric softener (just a little bit). That’s a recipe she’s been working on for years.
“There’s not much I don’t make after doing research on all the chemicals in things,” Weakland said. “I hated buying soap when I could just make it myself,” she added.
The family makes more than just cheese, too. They make yogurt, kefir, ginger beer, and keep a vegetable garden.
The Weaklands are a textbook example of homesteaders. Homesteading—a lifestyle of self-sufficiency—includes making things by hand instead of buying them at the store, making things to sell, preserving homemade foods, homeschooling children, selling homemade items, growing and raising food.
The term dates to the 1862 Homestead Act, which offered settlers ownership of land, or a homestead, at little or no cost, provided they lived and farmed the land.
A range of self-sufficient and crafty lifestyle choices can fall under the flexible homesteading moniker, from keeping backyard chickens and doing home canning, all the way to living completely independently. Even urban homesteading has gained popularity in the past generation.
The Weaklands don’t just make things for their own benefit. Hope sells goat’s milk soap, lotion, essential oil blends, laundry detergent and more at Manning’s Feed and Seed in Milton.
“We just decided we had to do everything ourselves if we were going to get it done the way we wanted it done,” she said. “We figured it out, we save about 30 percent. We can actually do it ourselves and get beyond organic. You wouldn’t be able to buy it, so it’s hard to put a price on it. We kind of get better than you can get at the store.”
An example of “beyond organic” is the peace of mind they get from knowing what their goats and chickens eat, as well as what practices they use in the garden. They give their goats and chickens only soy-free, GMO-free (genetically modified organism-free), whole grain feed, which is more easily digestible, meaning their animals get the same nutrition from about 20 percent less than additive-filled feed. That kind of knowledge of the entirety of their food chain is invaluable.
“The savings for that, you can’t even measure,” Weakland said.
At the beginning of their journey to a more self-sufficient lifestyle, Weakland visited farmers markets. But it wasn’t an affordable option for them, even though they put a high premium on eating all organic produce.
“It’s just ridiculous how much you pay for an organic pepper,” she said. Buying just one pepper plant, which can yield 15 to 20 peppers, ends up saving 90 percent over buying it all from others. Want your own goat? Check out the Weaklands listings of baby goats and products for sale on their website.
For Carolyn Mayer, the shift to greater self-sufficiency also started with her children. What she and her husband thought was just the terrible twos in one of their five children turned out to be gluten intolerance. The foods their daughter was eating—fresh, whole, good-for-you foods—were causing damage to her intestines and she wasn’t gaining weight.
While they’d always tried to eat healthfully, the problems their daughter faced pushed them to jump feet first into nutritional therapy; the Mayer family learned more about the gut-brain connection, and how to make food in more traditional ways, easier for the body to digest. That made a huge difference in their daughter’s behavior and weight gain.
“Her body didn’t have to pay attention to digesting her food, and could pay attention to healing her gut,” Mayer said. “It’s funny, because our kids can have raw butter, but if we use store-bought butter, our kids have an allergic reaction to it.”
Mayer makes a lot of probiotics from food, like kombucha and ginger ale. She makes butter, bread, bone broth, beef jerky, and soaks rice or beans overnight. Any nuts and seeds also get soaked and dehydrated, making them easier to digest. She homeschools their children, who range in age from seven months to seven years old, and teaches them handicrafts, basic sewing, and all about plants in addition to schooling basics.
She also uses cloth diapers. But Mayer doesn’t consider her family an extreme example of homesteading.
“We’re probably in the middle of the spectrum,” she explained. “We don’t have any chickens in the backyard, but we cook all our food traditionally, we try to source all our food locally, we have our business.”
That business is Fermented Harvest (http://fermentedharvest.com), homemade sauerkraut sold locally at stores like Pace Wellness Center on U.S. Hwy 90, Alternative Health Food Store in Milton, and Old Thyme Remedies in Pensacola. She makes two kinds: original and leafy green, and also sells just the sauerkraut brine liquid, which provides enzymes without all the fiber. The sauerkraut is made in ceramic pots without vinegar. It’s completely raw, and packed with enzymes and probiotics. When prepared traditionally, sauerkraut tastes salty, not vinegary. The high-vinegar, shelf-stable sauerkraut most people think of is a far cry from Mayer’s product.
“This is very different,” Mayer said. “My heart for the sauerkraut company wasn’t to make everyone in the world eat sauerkraut, but one of our purposes is to share our story.”
She wants to help people take the next step from eating whole foods into even more healthful decisions, a process that can be daunting or even frustrating.
“People are trying to put together their own puzzle, like, ‘I used to be able to put creamer in my coffee and now I can’t!’ It can all be pretty closely tied together when you look closely at how your gut is functioning.”
That means a return to more traditional preparations of food, like cooking from scratch, eating bitter and fermented foods for more probiotics, and soaking grains and beans.
“People just don’t really know how to do that anymore, and that’s been a huge journey for us,” Mayer said. “It doesn’t taste a lot different, it’s just so your body doesn’t have to work as hard to break it down.”
Mayer tries to incorporate something fermented into their diet every day, either by tossing some sauerkraut in a smoothie, using it in place of lemon juice in guacamole, or sprinkling it on caprese salad along with sweet basil and balsamic vinegar.
“The biggest thing is keeping it fun,” Mayer said. “We just tried to slowly replace one thing at a time. When we found out she couldn’t have gluten, ok, we can’t have pretzels as a snack, so let’s replace it with Ants on a Log.”
Part of the kids’ homeschooling encompasses meal planning, checking labels for GMOs, MSG and corn syrup—practical knowledge that will help them become self-sufficient when making their own healthy food choices. Mayer hopes fieldtrips, like a recent foray to a beekeeper to learn how local honey is bottled for sale, will give them a passion for learning more about the world around them.
“When they go to the market they can remember this is where honey comes from,” Mayer said.
Knowing where food comes from resonates with Christy Doll, who owns Shining Forth Farm and D’s Trees with her husband, Doug. They raise homegrown heritage chickens from day old chicks, butcher them themselves for meat and to make chicken broth—complete with simmering the chicken feet for gelatin.
“It’s important to know where your food comes from,” Doll explained. “We are disconnected in, honestly, what I would call the weirdest way. We think chicken poop is gross. ‘Gross’ is a chicken being raised its entire life and never having seen the light of day. That is gross.”
Doll and her husband, who have five children, grew up in neighborhoods and attended public school, a very different lifestyle than they now lead. The active duty military family has lived in the Milton area twice during her husband’s career. When he retires from the military in four years, they plan to keep farming and selling their products. Having multiple businesses going (the chickens, the trees, etc.) will help them stay self-sufficient. It also allows their children to be involved and learn about the process, all without going into debt with start-up costs.
The Doll family is also knowledgeable about herbs. About eight years ago, Doug began having pain in his side. Six months later, he was still suffering.
“We realized we were being lied to,” Christy explained. “Not a specific person or place, but in general. It is a lie that a doctor can cure your illnesses in a visit or two with a pill or procedure. We needed to learn more. Act more. Basically, just be responsible.”
They started nourishing their bodies with garlic tea made from garlic, lemon and cayenne, “Which, by the way, cures just about everything and has progressed into a diet and lifestyle,” Christy said.
The family sacrificed the convenience of drive-through windows. The trade off? They don’t have to visit the doctor’s office for prescriptions anymore either. That seems like a more than fair trade.
Many consider homeschooling to be an aspect of homesteading. Families across Santa Rosa and Escambia counties have met together once a week for the past six years as part of a homeschooling cooperative called “Explorers of Truth.”
Nearly 30 children from kindergarten to 10th grade meet in Joanne Megginson’s Cantonment home. Megginson draws up a curriculum that covers history, science (including experiments and dissections), writing, social studies, and Spanish. The group leaves math, English, spelling and vocabulary to parents to cover during the week. Next school year, the children will learn botany, including composting and gardening.
“I do like the idea of them knowing how to be self-sufficient if they need to be,” Megginson said.
The problem with the public schools her kids attended through second and fifth grades was that they weren’t learning anything; their teachers told Megginson her kids were spending all their time explaining things to the other kids. Megginson wanted her kids to have an opportunity to learn at their own pace, and she didn’t like that the curriculum didn’t finish the schoolbooks in the course of the year. Today, the group finishes their textbooks.
“It would be so much easier, at least for me, to send my kids to public school,” she said. “When you homeschool, the pressure is on you to do a good job, you can’t blame anybody else, and I take it very seriously. To me, it’s not a game. We are dealing with these children’s lives and their futures.”
Through Explorers of Truth, her kids learned from a former University of West Florida math professor, history teachers, and more. Meeting together one day a week gives the kids a chance to learn note taking, how to study and how to write research papers, preparing kids for college and life beyond. A major focus is looking for answers, researching, and learning to find the truth on their own.
“That is what I believe in: spiritually, educationally—they need to know the truth,” Megginson said. “I feel like the Lord has given me these children to raise up, and I am for them more than anyone else would be for them. I’m going to push them more than anyone else would push them.”
Another benefit is the flexibility.
“If you are self-sufficient and you farm and stuff, you can also do homeschooling at night,” she said. “And if you want to go on vacation, you can take your books and go. We’ve done school in the car before, when we had to go help someone. We want our kids to be flexible, too, because life does not always work out how you want.”
Explorers of Truth is mostly, but not exclusively, Christian, and the curriculum includes Bible classes and activities. They also learn cooking, sewing, small engines (like lawn mowers) and health.
“The Bible says iron sharpens iron, so that’s what we do. In love, of course.” Megginson said. “I love these children so much, and the parents are amazing. Without everyone working together, it wouldn’t be what it is today. It can’t be. And the kids are getting a great education, and making great memories. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Barbara Keith, a Milton homeowner for 14 years, has carved out a niche for herself with her sewing crafts, quilting and crocheting. At one time, Keith was part of a quilter’s guild and sold her crafts at shows and on Etsy. And while she still has the Etsy site, these days the products of her labors get snatched up by her large extended family before they can go on sale.
“What I don’t give them, they’ll come to my house and take.” she laughed.
Keith, who sews four days a week, makes pot holders, aprons, dish towels, and does monogramming. She quilts, monograms hanger covers or sheet sets and pillow cases, and children’s clothing. She crochets afghans, baby beanies, dishcloths and fashion scarves.
“If it’s got a pattern I can make it,” she said. “I’ve been sewing since I was nine years old, so let’s see, how many years is that? Fifty-two years, something like that. It is my personal passion, that’s what I love to do. To me it’s the personal pleasure of being able to make something completely unique that no one else in the entire world can replicate. And to the person who receives it, it’s something no one else will have.”
Even in her craft show days, though, her earnings never paid the bills. That’s because she’d take her profits and invest it back into her hobby.
“For me, it wasn’t so much about the income, because anything I made went back into sewing supplies,” Keith said. “It was mainly done because I enjoyed the craft side of it and sharing it with others, and them finding joy in what I make.”
And that’s what seems to tie together the vast spectrum of homesteaders: the simple joy and hearty satisfaction found in making something by hand, even—or especially—when it means taking the long route.