MEIGS COUNTY — Debbie Bullington stood in the kitchen of her Meigs County farm home preparing a breakfast of French toast, sausage, honey and fresh fruit. Most of the ingredients came from her own farm.
She talked while cooking, explaining her and her husband Phil’s agriculture lifestyle. But explaining their commitment to a self-sustaining farm isn’t always easy.
“We would like to see a whole lot more people doing what we do. It has not been easy, but we are doing pretty good right now. It is all about taking the first step,” she said.
The Bullingtons are among a growing number of rural Americans collectively known as “Homesteaders.”
But neither she nor Phil like that word, or even agree that it accurately describes their way of living. That is because they have been living a self-sustaining, self-sufficient agriculture lifestyle for more than 30 years. They are not new to the “movement.”
“I hate to keep using the word ‘homesteading.’ We try really hard to produce as much of our own food as much as we can. We recycle. Ninety-eight percent of the things in our home have come from estate sales, dumpsters, things people gave away,” she said.
“When you say homesteading, it brings up so many different possibilities depending on who you say it to. If I say homesteading to you, a certain picture comes to mind. And I am not sure we fit into that,” Phil said.
The couple uses electricity; they shop at the grocery when they have to and use the Internet when they need to.
“What is very important to us is to leave as small an environmental footprint as possible. There hasn’t been a chemical put on this farm in 40 years,” Debbie said.
The Bullingtons are not the only rural residents in Meigs County living this self-sustaining lifestyle. Within just a few miles of them are more than a dozen families with similar farming practices.
“The ‘community’ (a three-mile radius from their home) where I live in Meigs County consists of 15 families and within this group there is one dairy farmer, one wool producer, three ‘professional’ Herbalists, at least 28 gardeners, three teachers, one social worker, one retired doctor, eight carpenters, three artists,(painting, stained glass and pottery), two caterers, one solar engineer, one sawyer (complete with sawmill), one retired airplane mechanic and 28 children ranging in age from infant to 18 years old,” Debbie, a Meigs County Master Gardener, told Rural Life Today.
She said they all grow, raise and preserve as much of their own food as they can. “We trade with each other our surpluses and are all “Locavores” who support everyone at the Athens Farmers Market. We all belong to two natural food co-ops (one in Iowa and the other in Pennsylvania) that delivers to our door all the grocery items we can’t make or grow ourselves. If only we could grow coffee in Ohio,” she lamented as she poured cups of coffee during breakfast.
The way to her heart
Debbie, 59, and Phil, 66, have been married 34 years. They have three children, two of them born at home. Their daughter Lark lives with her family in Colorado; Adam, the oldest, lives in Racin, Ohio; Ian, the youngest, graduated from Ohio University and lives in Athens.
Phil bought the 29-acre, 165-year-old farmhouse in 1977 and moved into it in 1978.
“I moved here in 1982,” Debbie said. “I was living in Nelsonville at the time and met Phil at a party, and that was it. We have been together ever since.”
How did their move toward a self-sufficient lifestyle develop? “For me, it is something I’ve had in my head since I bought this place. I was an avid Mother Earth News reader,” Phil said. He said Issue 3 of Mother Earth had Carolyn and Ed Robinson’s “Have-More Plan” and it, “Turned on a lightbulb.” (See accompanying article: What is the ‘Have-More Plan?’)
“When we first moved here, we were sort of thought of as the ‘freaks’ for how we lived here. We were surrounded by people who did not care about the environment. But as years went by, all of those people have left, and they have been replaced by herbalists, tree huggers and midwives,” Debbie said.
She said most of the men are self-employed or work on their farms, and most of the women are the ones who have paying jobs. “One is a school psychologist in Athens, one is a teacher at OU… most have someone working outside.
“There are many kids out here. Among three women I know, they have 13 kids. Most of these people are my kids’ age. The people here think of me as sort of the matriarch because of my age and experience. To me, it looks like a new ‘back to the land’ rush, just like the one Phil went through before.”
She said only one of the families is totally off the grid, meaning no electricity or gas. “They all practice self-sufficiency to their own degree,” she said. She said that at any given time someone will call and say they are out of something and if she has it she will share. “So they come and get it, and then I might need something. You never know when a barter happens. Phil traded a wood stove for a cement mixer recently.”
She said they will hold “random” pot lucks from time to time. “We get together, a handful of us, as often as we can. We do have Facebook, we have a Facebook page for us. Some of us use Facebook and some don’t, and some don’t use computers at all.”
Trying ‘about everything’
When asked about modern homesteading, Debbie was quick to explain, “We are just ordinary folks trying to live as cheaply as we can for our Earth, our family and our friends. It is so simple really. I love to sew. I try to make all of our Christmas gifts, starting that in August. We try to find things at auctions and re-purpose them. We try to be self-sufficient as much as we can.
“We’ve never really sat down and told anyone what we are doing. Sometimes we don’t have a clue what we are doing,” she laughed.
“Which is probably true for most people,” Phil added. “We are basically trying to provide for ourselves.”
He added, “On this little ‘farm’ we do have livestock, we have a garden, but no grain crops. We muddle through it with varying degrees of success. This year we put 30 pounds of broccoli in our freezer. The weather affects what we do greatly.”
“We love broccoli,” Debbie added. “We tried free-range chickens for the first time this year. We have coyotes, but didn’t have much trouble with them. We had no trouble when our dog was alive. A dog is good for keeping varmints away, and good for you, too.”
Debbie said they don’t really think of themselves as homesteaders since they don’t live “off the grid” completely. They have electricity. But they have tossed away one electronic device most Americans might find hard to live without — the cell phone.
“We gave up our cell phones a few years ago. We just have a landline now. Part of it is that we don’t get reception well here,” Phil said.
“Are we the only people who don’t have cell phones? But I hate them. People are glued to them, and that bugs me to death,” Debbie said.
She does their books longhand on a Wilson notebook. “I track expenses with this. I can do this without electricity.”
Looking to the future
The couple belongs to two national food co-ops, Frontier and Frankfort Farms. “It is all fair trade. We get all our bulk grains and cheese and other items from them. There are probably 10-12 families here that order with me. I am kinda the coordinator. The trucks pull up right to my back door. I then sort the orders out and call everyone and they pick it up.”
“I tell Phil all the time that the reason people in the cities go crazy is that it never gets dark, it never gets quiet, they never see the stars and they never get to touch grass. The human body is expecting to have 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark. It messes up the human body’s natural cycle.
“Our life is a slower pace. We are always busy, but we have time to go out back and see the meteor showers. There is much less stress,” she points out.
They also feel their lifestyle leaves them healthier.
“Neither of us can remember the last time we were sick. I do think it is because of how we live. I wonder if weaning ourselves off fast food has something to do with it,” Debbie said.
The food they eat
The Bullingtons say a lack of chemicals used on their farm also improves the flavor and taste of their chicken and pork. “People don’t know what real food tastes like any more. It is a shame. If people sat down and had a meal of non-toxic, well-prepared food I think they would never go back. I would have a hard time going back,” Debbie said.
“Back when we were first together we didn’t have two nickels to rub together. So it was really out of necessity that we learned to cook our own food because we couldn’t afford to buy it. People shouldn’t have to put up with their food being loaded with additives and chemicals. Back in the 1950s, what did people call organic food? They called it food. There was no differentiation between organic and non-organic. It was all … food.”
Debbie says they are big supporters of farmers everywhere, “Because without farmers, we all go hungry.”
She said their sustainable farm life philosophy is simple. “For me, it is all about doing many, many small things all the time.”
Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.