As a child in the Catskill Mountains, Jessica can call back memories of shoveling hay, playing in the hayloft and collecting eggs at a neighbors for fun. “I don’t remember feeling moved by the growing vegetables part early on, but the animal part - very early on I felt moved by that.” She described a time as a young adult taking a walk and stepping inside of a barn. As she pulled the barn doors shut, a distinct feeling of shutting many barn doors before flooded her consciousness. “It felt so deep and intrinsic”, she said. After that, where ever she and her husband lived they always sought a garden spot.
Jessica and her husband David Stetter put in their first garden 8 years ago using the square-foot gardening method. “Once we got started, we were just rolling”, she told me. By the fall of that year, they were breaking more ground. The next spring, they added on again. The Stetter family now homesteads in Triplett, NC, growing as many vegetables as they can produce on the previously raw land of their home, as well as raising animals year round for dairy and meat. “Our focus”, Jessica says, “is on how we can be as self-sustainable as possible … to set ourselves up so that we can feed ourselves, and one day plus”. It would be challenging to grow enough grain for a standard american, high carbohydrate diet, or even just for animal feed. Instead, Jessica feeds her family a high-protein, low-carb diet making it possible to produce the majority of her family’s food. Goats and poultry get pasture, while pigs get scrap produce and whey to supplement the necessary off-farm grain. In planning what crops or animals to raise, she asks herself “What do we need to eat for the year and how can we grow that? Can we get carbs from winter squash and potatoes, and then store enough for the year? Can we grow fruit?”. Last year, they added a greenhouse and have enjoyed a steady supply of fresh greens ever since. When we talked in late February, they were still eating on last year’s winter squash. Additions for this spring include planting dwarf fruit trees.
Jessica and her family work in small increments with steady patience. They understand the depth of time needed to transform rough land into a supportive homestead. In the fall, they moved fencing, turning goats onto new land. After housing turkeys for a time, the old goat pasture will become additional garden. They will watch what happens to the new goat paddock and then decide if they want to grow grass there for pasture or open up even more garden space, migrating the goats on again. As their family grows, and as they learn from experience, their systems of homesteading become more refined. Each year, things move with greater efficiency.
The Stetters harvest their own animals for meat aiming for a “mutually beneficial arrangement”. This means giving the animals the best lives possible, and in time, taking their lives with veneration and gratitude. Jessica tells her goats to “have a good day” each morning after feeding, and always thanks them for their milk. She describes parallels between death and birth, honoring the value of every living thing and the magical transition that brings us to and from the world. “When I witness a birth, it is profound every single time…. You go from something not being there to all of sudden there it is, and you watched it come out. There is a palpable energy that’s just tremendous and I feel the same energy when you take a life.” Jessica recounted a time when her grandmother asked her daughter, Montana, if it was hard to eat an animal they had raised and butchered themselves. Montana replied, “It’s like eating love-meat, Grandma”.
Jessica homeschools her two children. At ages 9 and 11, they are a part of providing their own food whether that means helping to pluck chickens, clean barns or deciding what their own goals for the homestead are. Daily chores happen first thing in the morning and again in the evening, but during the day they try to incorporate a job on the land into their homeschool experience. The Stetter kids have an extensive understanding of biology for their age, exploring muscles and organs of the body through their butchery. They also understand the ratio of effort exerted in exchange for physical returns. Jessica says she finds joy in the homesteading and home-school collaboration. They have a very real opportunity to experience the full circle of life. The whole family is engaged in reclaiming and passing down skills that, while not the modern norm, were once innate to humans.
Listening to her talk, one can’t help but get the feeling of spaciousness. Instead of running to and from town, she is fostering space in her mind as she connects and transforms the space of her home. There are challenges, too, as all parents and people trying to follow their heart know: the challenge of balancing the needs of each person in the family, and the juggle of one person working off farm and one person on the farm with kids. But overall, they have a beautiful set up. “I interface and live as much as I can in harmony with the natural world”, Jessica told me. And, by proxy or choice, her kids do, too.
When we talked about community, Jessica first recounted the supportive joy of living in a county with many others who are also striving to live in varying degrees of harmony with the land. “I feel very blessed to know that if we needed help, we live in a place where that (support) is important to a lot of people,” she said. Regarding their immediate location, their homestead neighbors other homesteads, and they are all able to feel camaraderie in living close to the land. “There are good people here”, she said. However, there are contradictions to the feelings of community when looking at the wider community: the county, state and even country we live in. We talked about the incongruity of living in a physically beautiful place where many people act with intention, while simultaneously living in a county that is okay with an uncovered asphalt plant within a few mile radius from multiple schools. “Not to get political,” she said, “But that’s also my community…. Parkway school is where my children would go to school if they were in school.” We talked about the dissonance in our culture between human beings and their natural, immediate surroundings. “If everyone was shining their light on their corner of the world, it would get it all covered”, she laughed, “So I really try to work on our corner, and I do think we are very lucky to have so many wonderful people around us.”
Some of the most valuable advice Jessica received in her homestead journey she now passes on: if you have the time, watch the land. “Be observant, be aware,” she says. “That’s how you see the things that are problems. That’s how you see the things that are good. That’s how you see the things that aren’t problems yet ,but probably will become problems.” Take a year to see what happens here and there on the land before willfully shaping it. She takes this farther to observing ergonomics throughout the daily chores on the farm, always seeking to move in a sustainable way for the body. This patient and spacious beginning has clearly permeated the way the Stetters continue to homestead.
To hear Jessica talk about it, homesteading does sound doable. She acts on the urgency to grow food, without a stressful rush. Deliberate actions are taken diligently with a spacious mindset for patience. She holds the grand vision, and roots it into the reality of hard work. We could all gain to learn from this wisdom.