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A New Crop of Homesteaders

Laura Fraser | Season 1 Episode 7

People | Heart to Table

Home gardeners use some social media savvy to share their simple farming lives

Jessica Sowards and her husband Jeremiah live on a seven-acre farm in Central Arkansas with six children, 22,000 square feet of garden and a wide variety of furry and feathered creatures. Nearly every day, Jess and Miah produce videos of their Roots and Refuge Farm and its bounty, offering other first-time farmers tours and tips for growing their own food.

When the couple moved to their home seven years ago, they’d had little experience farming. “We were pretty green,” says Jess, and she doesn’t mean green as in green thumb. Jess, who grew up in the suburbs doing little gardening, calls herself a “reformed lazy girl” who didn’t understand how much work went into home farming. But she’d always had an interest in gardening, and with some space—and some young children to feed—she got to work. “I wanted to feed my family real food,” she says. “I started to learn to cook, supporting local farmers, and it just morphed from there to where we are now.”

Since then, Jess and Miah have not only grown enough food on their farm to cover 80 percent of what their big family eats, they have turned their video blogs, Instagram account and farm merchandise into a cottage industry. Jess just published a book, First-time Gardener’s Guide to Growing Veggies (Cool Springs Press).

In the Hormel Foods podcast, “Heart to Table,” Jess talks with Laurie March about everything from the smell of tomato seedlings (Jess grows 45 heirloom varieties) to how to nurse a sick baby goat. Jess wrote her book, she said, to help other first-timers understand the attention, dedication—and pleasures—involved in growing your own food.

Modern Homesteading

Jess, who has a YouTube following of nearly a half-million subscribers, has tapped into a growing trend of family farming, or “homesteading,” as many call it. Homesteading conjures up Little House on the Prairie images of milling your own grains or spinning your own wool, but modern homesteaders are more likely to be people who just want to grow their own food, maybe pickle or can some of it, and rely less on grocery stores and industrial-scale food production.

“We are simply people taking control of our lives to live a more sustainable lifestyle,” the organization Homesteaders of America says, “growing gardens, raising farm animals, and becoming self-sufficient—in a backyard, on a rooftop, or on 100 acres.” Jess says a homesteader is “anybody who’s just trying to take responsibility for their food sourcing and simplify their life and go back to basics and find a more sustainable way of doing things.”

The pandemic has accelerated the homesteading trend. Many people who were sheltering at home not only began experimenting with baking sourdough bread but with growing zucchini and building backyard chicken coops. Early shortages at the grocery store made many people seek more security by growing their own food.

“People are realizing just how fragile our food system is,” Jess says. The pandemic has also fueled an exodus from big cities to the country, as people have moved in permanently to vacation homes or traded city apartments for a home with some land. With time and space, they’ve been experimenting with vegetable gardens, some graduating, as Jess and Miah have, to raising bees, quail, goats and pigs. Even people with little space are doing more container gardening on balconies, roofs and anywhere they can fit a few pots to grow basil and tomatoes.

A homesteader is “anybody who’s just trying to take responsibility for their food sourcing and simplify their life and go back to basics and find a more sustainable way of doing things.”

But many people in the United States, unlike those in some other cultures, have lost connection with their family farming past. “A lot of skills have been lost in our culture,” Jess says, adding that her generation of Millennials are often particularly out of touch with how their food is grown. “So when you had somebody like me who was 28 years old and deciding to move out to the country and grow her own food, I didn’t have a neighbor that I could go and pick their brain.”

That’s where social media comes in—and where modern homesteading differs from the pioneer mindset and ‘60s back-to-the-earth trends. Modern homesteaders like Jess and Miah are eager to use social media to share their experiences. Homesteaders and wannabes can find endless information about farming, recipe tips and support on a variety of platforms, including on Roots and Refuge Farm’s vlogs and Instagram accounts.

“With the internet and the ability to connect with people all over, you’re seeing a resurgence in organic growing and natural practices,” Jess says. She is frequently in contact with people from other countries, such as Italy and France, where traditions of small farms continue, and where people can identify and give advice on rare heirloom vegetables. “I’ll reach out to someone in France who can tell me what to do with an obscure beet or eggplant.”

Jess and Miah have produced some 800 YouTube videos on all aspects of farming, from buying and starting seeds to dealing with the death of an animal. Jess takes viewers on tours of their little farm, pointing out plant varieties with her tattoo-sleeved arm. She is cheerful, down-to-earth and full of practical advice about where and how to plant (the first advice is to know your planting zone so you know what crops will survive in your local climate; they’re in Zone 7B). Then she takes you into her kitchen to see what to do with all those vegetables.

“I just turn the camera on and create this feeling for my viewers that they are just a friend on a farm and they’re experiencing it with us,” she says. “If that lends them inspiration and hope and vision, that’s fantastic.”

Raising your kids on a farm does not magically make them not picky.

Jessica Sowards

At home, her children help with farm chores, and when they sit down to the dinner table, they can see most of what they eat from the kitchen window. “I don’t want to romanticize,” Jess says. “Raising your kids on a farm does not magically make them not picky.” While some of her children delight in eating fresh radishes pulled from the ground or okra from the vine, others still like pizza and carbohydrates in any form. Jess jokes that she’d plant a bread tree if she could.

“My kids can be picky, but it’s a different kind of picky,” she says. And it’s a different mindset from a kid who isn’t raised on a farm. “There are things my pickiest child doesn’t want to eat, but he still thinks they’re valuable.” Instead of saying something is “gross,” she encourages him to just say he doesn’t like it. “I’m not okay with calling food ‘gross’ or ‘bad’ when we’ve just worked the last four months to create it.”

Jess is happy that the Roots and Refuge Farm has sown its message wide, but she has even bigger plans. “My dream is of a cultural reformation when it comes to food, bringing health back and bringing families together.” Homesteading, she says, is also a way of bringing health back to a small plot of earth, nourishing the soil while we nourish ourselves.

“We only have one earth—taking care of it is so important.”

Explore Jessica’s Homesteading Adventure

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