Backbone Food Farm: Growing Kids, Food, and Skills

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The Dubanskys have one greenhouse and three hoophouses on their 106-acre market farm.
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Intern Dustin Atik helps the Dubansky family grow organic crops, including shiitake mushrooms.
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The entire Dubansky family helps out on the homestead.
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The Dubanskys' farm is located at the foot of Backbone Mountain in Oakland, Maryland.

Max and Katharine Dubansky, along with their children, Grace, 19; Leon, 17; Iris, 10; and Tessa, 6, live on a 106-acre organic food farm located at the foot of Backbone Mountain in Oakland, Maryland. The Dubanskys, one of three families designated as our 2016 Homesteaders of the Year, sell Backbone Food Farm’s products through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, as well as to local markets and restaurants. Now in its 17th season, the farm is well-established, and the whole family helps out on the homestead. Max, Katharine, and Grace work seasonally at the nearby cross-country ski center for fun and a little extra money. The Dubanskys grow shiitake mushrooms and various other types, and they raise pastured pigs and beef cattle. Their team of Percheron draft horses provides the farm with true horsepower. Backbone Food Farm’s CSA operation supplies 50 families with a significant portion of their fresh, seasonal food. In this interview, the Dubanskys discuss the pursuits of their family and farm.

What inspired you to seek this self-reliant path?

We wanted independence and had a need to be outside. Plus, we were interested in traditional methods and have had a lifelong enthusiasm for organic, homegrown food. We wanted to make a living while working together on the farm and spending time with our children. We also found it important to peacefully confront the consumerist culture of our society and find a livelihood that wouldn’t be detrimental to the environment.

Describe a day in the life at your homestead.

We have breakfast, and then folks do their respective chores, such as feeding the animals, milking, bringing in firewood, watering plants in the greenhouse, and moving manure. We home-school the kids, so they do their schoolwork throughout the day. The family and farm crew eat lunch together and then resume work. We take a late afternoon break, and then we work a bit more, do the animal chores again, and eat dinner together. Our days off are dictated by nature. In winter, we love cross-country skiing. Spring, summer, and fall bring hikes, visits to swimming holes, horseback riding, mushroom hunting, and food foraging.

What crops and livestock do you have?

We farm 50 acres, including 12 acres in vegetables, 100 blueberry bushes, and 1⁄2 acre of raspberries, currants, gooseberries, and rhubarb. We grow 3,000 logs of shiitake mushrooms and cultivate various mushrooms indoors. We’re growing 1 acre of dry beans this year for the first time.

We raise about 75 pastured pigs. We’ve butchered our own animals, cured and smoked bacon, rendered lard, and made our own sausage. Our oldest daughter bought herself a flock of five hair sheep with her graduation money, and we’re awaiting lambs for the first time. We also maintain a herd of beef cattle and have a hive of bees. Max has used our team of Percheron draft horses for many years in our produce operation — using horses on the farm is something we never want to give up.

Where did you pick up your homesteading and DIY skills?

Through a lot of trial and error, hanging out with old-timers, and talking to other families who have welcomed sustainability into their lives. We read many books and magazines, and attend sustainable farming conferences, which have been very valuable! Max also learned a lot about canning and food preservation from his mother.

Which food preservation methods do you use?

Our packing shed has large sinks and a big 10-burner Vulcan stove we got from a restaurant when it upgraded, so we’re able to put up a lot in a day. We make jams and jellies from our berries; freeze 25-plus quarts of blueberries each season; make currant and elderberry juice; and dry peaches, apples, tomatoes, and mushrooms. We also dry culinary herbs, and we make and freeze as much pesto as possible. We put up garlic, onions, winter squash, beets, and carrots in the basement, and we usually freeze 15 to 25 chickens and a side of beef per year. We always have pork in the freezer. One of our favorite projects is cranking out apple cider with neighbors. We supply ourselves with about 60 percent of our own food from our organic food farm. If only we could grow coffee and chocolate!

Formerly an editor for Mother Earth News, K.C. Compton is now living near Seattle, where she enjoys daily access to fresh seafood and abundant farmers markets.

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