By: Elisabeth McCachren
What started as a gift subscription to Mother Earth News, spawned a lifestyle of homesteading for Rebecca Tobiassen. Along with her husband, Ross, and their two small daughters, Rebecca has created a home and life rooted in self-sufficiency and health. Whether planting fruit trees, making soap, turning compost, or cooking on her wood stove, she is conscious, useful and kind with the land and mindful of it’s connection to both their health, and the health of the world. “I guess I’ve always thought of it as my way of changing the world”, says Rebecca about their organic homesteading life.
Rebecca’s homestead stands out to garden enthusiasts and aspiring farmers because nearly every bit of usable land is turned into garden or pasture. Her house itself even has a past life as a chicken coop, converted to a home in the sixties. Rebecca started out with a small garden plot outside the silo in 2006, and from there added on each year. The land has transformed from a wood lot and small yard into raised beds, a hoop house, a beginning orchard, and fields. “Anything that we would eat fresh, that’s what I try to grow”, says Rebecca. Sugar snaps, beans for fresh eating or drying, corn for hominy, and lots of watermelon make the top of the list. They also began an orchard, starting with apple trees three years ago and have added plums, cherries, and even a peach tree since.
Alongside vegetables Rebecca and her family raise livestock including a pig, Saanen goats, Muscovy ducks, and laying hens. “The main reason I got into pigs was for the lard. That’s the main oil I cook with. The goats are more for milk, cheese and yogurt.” Her consciousness spreads into the choice of animals to raise, mindful of the grain it takes to supplement livestock, how much meat their family actually needs to eat, and the inhumanities of large hatcheries. They have raised meat chickens in the past, but Rebecca says she doesn’t think they will again because of how the hatcheries breed and raise the birds. “I just don’t like buying them … the baby chicks come from the same place that every other big operation gets their chicks from.” They hatch eggs from their ducks and hens in order to keep new birds in the rotation. As for grain supplementation, she weighs the outputs and inputs. Goats need grain to produce milk, but their output of dairy is large. Pigs can eat scraps and even some cover crops from the winter garden. In summer, the animals all get plenty of browse.
She’s inspiringly innovative in her preservation methods. For example, she makes syrup from watermelon that is similar to sorghum molasses to store it for winter. This year she hopes to press her own sunflower oil from an oil press. Her husband made a root cellar a few years back and after fresh eating, the Summer harvest gets divided three ways: root cellar, canned, and frozen.
Rebecca mothers and homeschools her two daughters, and any mama knows how much attention small children require and take away from other tasks. Rebecca says she’s learned a lot of patience, from both parenting and farming, and especially doing the two together. She has learned to let some things go if they aren’t going to be perfect or taken care of, including letting go a desire to sell produce. “I guess that’s one of the reasons I started thinking of the farm as growing just for ourselves...I realized our lives were going to be a lot better if I wasn’t focused on selling,” she stated. Doing it for the sake of doing it preserves some of the innate joy in her daily chores. Relinquishing the pressure to sell and make a profit has removed a lot of potential challenges of farming with children, because if weeding does not happen, or something does not get picked or planted on time, it’s truly okay. Time management is tricky with young children. Rebecca laughed that she and her husband used to call themselves “twilight farmers” because the only time they could work in the garden or with the animals was before sunrise or after sunset.
She sees the joy in homesteading with small children, too. “I love it when we are all outside, and the girls are just hanging out eating sugar snaps … Addie gets into harvesting, she’s got her overalls on, she’s gotta dress the part, and that’s just the best when they do get into it,” Rebecca says. “But,” she adds laughing, “a lot of times they don’t ”. One of the greatest joys she mentions is feeling good about what they eat and the mindfulness of how it was raised. And simply the satisfaction of walking into the grocery store when they do need outside food, and zooming past the produce and meat departments.
Learning more about the plants and land each year, Rebecca has established some interesting methods of gardening. She saves seeds that have thrived well on their land, and consistently builds their soil health through cover crops, rotating plants, and compost. She starts seedlings in her cold frame, which allows her to get a head start with strong, healthy plants in the spring. Her tomatoes are grown in a hoop house, protecting them from the common blights of our area, and she practices companion planting in the raised beds and field. She also harvests a lot of wild plants from the land including nettles and bee balm.
Rebecca takes homesteading beyond food and into other daily needs. In cool months, she cooks their meals on a wood cookstove, and they heat their home with wood as well. She makes soap for washing bodies and laundry with deer fat and lye that she makes with the ashes from the wood stove. Their property has housed an organic composting operation for the last few years. They also use a composting toilet.
When asked what advice she would give someone that wants to begin homesteading Rebecca said simply, “Just do it. Just start it.” Then she laughed and added, “I’ve made so many mistakes! But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try again.” She shared how much is learned just from the trial and error of trying something you are interested in, and how every year things fall into place a bit more than before because of the things you learn from mistakes. Kind and open, Rebecca is easy to approach with questions about raising goats, vegetables or fruits to the aspiring homesteader. When listening to her speak about homesteading it is apparent that this is a lifelong journey of learning, as well as providing. When one starts to unravel the thread of growing food, they also unravel threads of big agriculture, health of people and of soil, and true sustainability.
At the end of their driveway, and right across from the Wren’s Nest, Rebecca does put out a small produce stand in the summertime, stocked with whatever is coming out of the garden - lettuce, beans, cucumbers, eggs, and greens. People stop by on their way home, and sometimes, the girls run down to talk with the customers. Rebecca told me of a time she walked up while her 6 year old, Addie, was instructing a woman at the produce stand in cooking spinach. “Take a little butter and melt it in the pan, then add a little garlic and make a BEAUTIFUL cream sauce”. “I don’t even make that!” Rebecca laughed, but to the onlooker it shows the excitement of good, real food that her children have internalized from their daily life of chores, harvesting, and dirt.
BRWIA PROFILE PROJECT
Each month we do our best to profile a Woman in Agriculture in our region. These women are diverse - they have come from a variety of backgrounds and include farmers, homesteaders, and activists. They exemplify the multitude of ways women are working to connect with and change our food system.
Female Farmer Profile Project
The BRWIA Profiles evolved out of the Female Farmer Profiles which can be found archived HERE.