Community-Building and Self-Reliance: Our 2013 Homesteaders of the Year

The 2013 MOTHER EARTH NEWS Homesteaders of the Year believe in learning by doing, and open their homes and farms to teach modern homesteading skills and promote community-building.
By Jennifer Kongs
August/September 2013
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This off-grid timber frame house overlooks the garden at Deer Isle Hostel, an environmentally conscious hostel located on Deer Isle, Maine.
Photo By Anneli Carter-Sundqvist
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The MOTHER EARTH NEWS 2013 Homesteaders of the Year embody the learning-by-doing ethos by providing opportunities for others to adopt new self-reliance skills through hands-on experience. These six homesteading families are dedicated to community-building — they open their doors to share the fruits of their labors and the knowledge needed to complete those labors. Through workshares in community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and on-farm workshops, these families inspire their neighbors by giving them an example of modern homesteading in action.

Our second annual call for nominations of modern homesteaders was met with a response nearly double the number from last year (Our 2012 Homesteaders of the Year: Living the Good Life Through Modern Homesteading, August/September 2012). To select our finalists, we eagerly paged through stories of plowing with draft animals, photos of solar panels soaking up rays, and lists of traits that make each nominee special. (Read more amazing nominations at Star Modern Homesteaders.) Now, we proudly present the stories of our 2013 winners!

International Homesteading Education Month

To encourage hands-on learning and skill-sharing, MOTHER EARTH NEWS and Grit magazines are again coordinating International Homesteading Education Month this September. Our goal is to foster “Neighbors helping neighbors — building more self-reliant communities.” Sign up as an event host or as a speaker, and peruse our event listing to find out the happenings in your area.

Hostel With a Positive Impact

Traveling is typically a big drain on environmental resources. But on Deer Isle, Maine, Anneli Carter-Sundqvist and Dennis Carter operate a homestead hostel that doesn’t just have a low environmental impact, but strives to have a positive impact on the property and the hostel’s guests.

Anneli and Dennis have chosen to minimize their outside spending in order to cut back the cash income they require. The couple supplements the income from the hostel by selling surplus homegrown garlic and shiitake mushrooms. They live on the homestead year-round and open Deer Isle Hostel to guests during summer. Anneli estimates that about 300 people stayed at the hostel last season.

Deer Isle Hostel practices a high level of self-sufficiency. Anneli and Dennis rely on a small-scale solar-electric system, which keeps them off-grid, to power a few devices and to charge guests’ cell phones. The couple grows food and preserves it without using a refrigerator or freezer, relying on cold frames, a root cellar, home canning and fermentation. They keep chickens, raise and butcher pigs, and trade for goat cheese. (Follow their adventures in Anneli’s blog posts on our website.)

Anneli and Dennis raise the vast majority of the food they eat and serve in the hostel’s daily communal meal. “The guests come to the garden and help me harvest what we cook together for dinner,” Anneli says. Guests can choose between dorm rooms shared with others, private rooms or a secluded hut for two.

Anneli and Dennis share equipment and labor with neighbors, and they offer workshops during the tourist season. This year, the couple will add lectures and forums to the lineup. “It doesn’t make any sense to have a closed-off, isolated homestead,” Anneli says. “The greatest joy is the fact that we can share it.”

Evolving Through Generations

Amy Saunders comes from a long line of homesteaders that reaches back to great-great-great-relatives who farmed and raised dairy cows on the hills of Nebraska. Her husband, Dan, worked with a Kansas rancher raising beef cattle for 15 years. The couple applied that history and those experiences, and mixed in their own philosophy, to establish a grass-fed dairy and meat CSA program just outside of Lawrence, Kan.

Amy’s Meats at the Homestead started as a Downtown Lawrence Farmers Market vendor, selling naturally raised, grass-fed meat. Fast-forward 10 years to today: Amy, Dan and their three children now run a workshare-required CSA program that includes dairy and homegrown vegetables. “We ask our CSA members to volunteer 10 hours throughout the year,” Amy says. “It’s not about the extra work, but about getting people connected, bringing their kids, and re-establishing the traditional ways of passing down stories, intergenerational knowledge and the importance of family.”

Their homestead includes a bermed greenhouse heated with a woodstove, a milking barn made from repurposed materials, and several chicken coops also constructed with salvaged pieces.

Traditional crafts and skills are an integral part of the Saunders homestead — nothing is wasted and craftsmanship is revered. The family grows broomcorn they use to craft brooms and wreaths, tans animal hides, and often cooks meals on their hand-built rocket stove. The Saunders emphasize learning by doing via hosting farm tours and workshops. Their calendar is packed with events ranging from homestead camps for kids to farm-to-fork dinners. Erecting a cordwood home and adding solar panels are on the docket.

“The best part? Knowing that my kids understand life and death,” Dan says. “They understand and experience the full cycle that homesteading is.”

Hand-Built CSA Program

Seventeen years ago, Phil Freedman set about building his house by hand in the woods near Frederick, Md., during the evenings and weekends while still working his day job as a computer programmer. The original 800-square-foot home has since expanded to include enough space for his wife, Ilene, and two sons. The 25-acre property is now House in the Woods Farm, and includes a 3-acre organic vegetable farm with a barn, shed and 30-by-100-foot hoop house.

Ilene and Phil’s passion for sustainable, local food led them to start a small vegetable CSA program in 1999. The program currently provides food for about 60 families, and the Freedmans also sell produce wholesale to their local natural food co-op, the Common Market.

Egg-laying hens, Dexter beef cattle, honeybees and Alpine dairy goats — which keep the family in homemade chèvre — roam the farm. During the busy summer months, the animals are joined by volunteers who labor in exchange for their CSA-program share, as well as by several interns from the University of Maryland. “We grow to eat, and to teach our children, our customers and our community where their food comes from,” Ilene says.

The Freedman family passes on the skills they’ve honed by hosting canning days and other workshops, as well as Farmhand Days, when people come together to complete a large farm task, such as digging potatoes. As an additional community-building endeavor, the Common Market collects donations to purchase two CSA shares from the farm, which the Freedmans match with surplus produce, to give to a local food bank.

A self-dubbed “functional crafter,” Ilene knits, sews and dabbles in a litany of other DIY projects. What she doesn’t make, she barters for locally. The Freedmans have several projects on the horizon, including installing solar panels. (Keep up with their progress through Ilene’s blog posts on our website.) Ilene says, “It gives me satisfaction to know where everything comes from and that we made it all happen.”

Teaching Radical Simplicity

When you think of Reno, Nev., you likely think of bright lights and gambling — but you’ll also find within the city’s limits the fossil-fuel- and electricity-free Be the Change homestead run by Kyle and Katy Chandler-Isacksen. The couple spent several years teaching and exploring communities across the country — learning permaculture methods during a stint at the River School Farm in Reno and natural-building techniques at House Alive! in Oregon. Later inspired by the low-impact lifestyle coupled with the community education they experienced at the Possibility Alliance in Missouri, Kyle and Katy returned to Reno to grow an urban version all their own.

The couple was able to raise enough cash through personal donations and a crowdsource-funding website to buy their house and half-acre property. The house needed a lot of work — as in, dead critters in the crawl space and water damage in the walls — but they fixed it up and in November 2011 moved in. (Learn what Kyle and Katy have accomplished with the support they received at their original fundraising site.)

In their two years on the property, Kyle, Katy and their two sons have established a greywater system, permaculture garden, $30 greenhouse built with reclaimed materials, and a solar dehydrator. The family completed most building projects by holding free workshops, which taught the laborers the techniques in exchange for their time. The Chandler-Isacksens cook in a cob “stoven,” use a clay pot “refrigerator,” bicycle for transportation and pass evenings by candlelight. The family produces much of their own food, gleans from neglected fruit trees and redirects food waste from grocery stores — all of which they share with others.

Kyle and Katy gather middle schoolers from a nearby public Montessori school each week to teach the students about self-reliant living. In true pay-it-forward fashion, these same middle schoolers host tours for grade school classes. If you stop by Be the Change, you’ll be welcomed — and you may not be the only one looking around. “Between field trips, tours, workshops and people just showing up with friends, about 500 people a year come through and get exposed to what we’ve started here,” Kyle says. (If you can’t make it to Reno, check out Kyle’s blog posts online.) “We are anticipating and will greatly welcome more people coming to do this with us,” Kyle says. “We don’t want to be independent; we want to be interdependent.”

A Storied Storefront

The first organic dairy in Maine was certified in 1994 under the name of Nezinscot Farm, owned and operated by Gloria and Gregg Varney. Located outside of Turner, Maine, the 120-head dairy currently produces enough milk not only for the seven-person family and their on-site cheese production, but also to wholesale to Organic Valley dairy cooperative.

Gloria and Gregg purchased the dairy from Gregg’s parents, then switched the farm to all-organic practices. The couple didn’t stop with dairy cows — oh, no! Several other animals keep the homestead humming with activity, including dairy goats, sheep, pigs and rabbits. The farm includes a 2-acre vegetable garden, large orchard and several hives of honeybees, too.

Gloria studied community health and nutrition, but after working away from the farm, she decided she could have a stronger impact by inviting people to her home. Thus, the Varneys’ store, cafe and bakery were born. “The idea is for people to experience health when they come to the farm. They get to see the farm and how the food is raised,” Gloria says.

The family (along with two part-time employees) runs the store and cafe year-round. The cafe offers healthy meals made from scratch and almost entirely from ingredients grown and raised on the property. The store sells value-added goods as well as fresh produce, cheeses, charcuterie, and various types of fiber pieces, including socks and sweaters. 

A refurbished post-and-beam barn acts as a classroom where workshop attendees can learn a range of skills, from cheesemaking to fiber crafting. Classes are held twice a month, along with a pizza-making festivity and open music jam held every other Saturday. You’ll find Gloria in the back, teaching a group of willing learners how to knit to the beat.

Looking to the future, Gregg is developing a grain mill to create locally produced, organic animal feed, and Gloria is working on bee-protection and anti-GMO legislation. This year, Nezinscot Farm will begin hosting a farmers market and community garden. Gloria says, “Being in a town that had 25 small farms and now only has three, it’s important to open our doors to let others in.”

Healthful Herbal Homestead

In 2002, Dawn and Carson Combs moved to 3.5 lawn-covered acres outside of Columbus, Ohio, to start a homestead. Dawn’s father was waiting outside with a tiller as his daughter and son-in-law signed the final papers on the house. “We put in our gardens before we moved anything in,” Dawn recollects.

Nine years of ripping, shredding, digging and building later, Mockingbird Meadows is now a United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary, complete with a pond, three barns, multiple gardens and a greenhouse. Dawn and Carson now have two children, Aidan and Jacy, who participate in all of the farm’s activities. A handful of dairy animals and poultry roam amidst buzzing bees on the closed-loop farm.

Drawing on her degree in botany and an apprenticeship with renowned herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, Dawn has combined the farm’s sustainable beekeeping practice with herbal medicine, crafting herb-infused honeys and honey spreads for both culinary and medicinal uses. “We want to teach people that being self-sufficient or living on a homestead includes having the remedies for health,” Dawn says. She started a medicinal CSA program in 2010, making monthly deliveries of herbs, herbal honeys, an educational newsletter and recipes. The Combs are also starting a co-op to help other small beekeepers get up and running, or to make the switch from conventional to sustainable practices with less financial risk.

The Combs open their homestead a couple of days each week for farm dinners and workshops on sustainable beekeeping, herbal medicine and food preparation. Dawn also regularly gives presentations to herb and beekeeping groups. “We reach about 400 people a year at the farm,” Dawn estimates. “Through teaching and off-farm engagements, we easily connect with 400 more.”

Dawn and Carson say their biggest challenge is striking a balance between working on the homestead and making time to enjoy the space they’ve created. With two books in the works, an up-and-coming honey label and a burgeoning beekeeping co-op, this is a challenge they’ll continue to face. But, Dawn says, “It’s important to sit and enjoy the roses instead of just picking them.”


Our Homesteaders of the Year in the Spotlight

Learn more about our featured modern homesteaders and the role they play in their community from the local voices and media of those very same communities:

"A Taste of Homesteading at a Maine Hostel" from The Boston Globe

"Amy's Meats a Model of Sustainability" from Lawrence Journal-World

"Magazine Names Turner's Nezinscot Farm 'Homesteader of the Year'" from Bangor Daily News

"Local Farm Advocates the Healing Properties of Herbs" from This Week News

"Maine Getaway: A Simpler Way of Life on Deer Isle" from Gardenista


Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or .


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