“What I feel was once such a natural way to live for generations of people (close to the land, raising animals, aligning oneself with the shift in seasons) is now such a novel idea.”
Axe & Root Homestead is a six-or-so-acre farm in New Jersey, home to Dozer and Finnegan (two majestic, working Clydesdales) a pair of sassy geese, a flock of ducks, a few thousand bees, and of course, Angela and her family.
Through sharing her homesteading journey, Angela has been shaping relationships and opening a window to the farming life at a time when people are less familiar with where food comes from. “I don’t homestead and raise my children this way because it’s trendy or interesting to others. It’s a lifestyle that stems from my values and I hope that it equips my children with skills that many no longer have; growing and harvesting, animal husbandry, how to use tools and how to perform general home repairs. How to keep a beehive, how to make your own natural bath products, and how to ask for help from those with more knowledge than us when we need to.”
The farm business “revolves more around the home and striving to be as self-sufficient as possible, as opposed to a commercial farm or a CSA share provider…The intention is to live with more reliance on ourselves, to live in alignment with nature and the seasons and to teach our children these values.” This approach focuses more on homesteading as a lifestyle, rather than a business model. Angela says, “I wanted to live a life that was more real, more in alignment with my core values and that would allow me time with my child.”
Before growing into the current Axe and Root Homestead, preparations took place in the form of enthusiastic backyard gardening. “I had always had an interest in gardening—mainly ornamentals. I did keep a small vegetable garden for years but it only consisted of a few tomato plants, some lettuce and herbs. When we bought our first home as a family in New Jersey in 2012 it just felt very natural to me to have a larger family garden in order to provide the freshest and most naturally grown food possible. I started reading books on growing food organically, companion planting and living self sufficiently, mainly in an urban setting.”
Once the seed for a homesteading lifestyle had been planted, there was no going back. She describes when “the idea seemed like an idyllic lifestyle that I could hopefully one day attain…somehow I fell in love with the idea of a more country, bucolic setting for our growing family. I remember a neighbor walked by our garden and commented on the quantity of food I was growing. I replied that my goal was to eat as much of our food as we could from our own yard. Her reply was, ‘You’re going to need a much bigger garden than that.’ Then it clicked. I’d always wanted horses as a child—I could have my own. I could have an even larger garden space. I could keep multiple beehives.”
“I am a restless person by nature and love the versatility this work offers me. By the time my attention is starting to wander from a task, the next season is upon us and it’s time to start working on something different.”
Eventually, the drive for self-reliance and continuous expansion necessitated a move to accommodate this completely new lifestyle. “When looking to buy a farm we had a list of requirements. It had to have enough land for horses and space for a stable. We needed garden areas. My husband wanted a site for a future vineyard. We already had ducks so a waterway was ideal. I wanted something old and we came upon our future farm; a 6-or-so acre plot with a farmhouse and barn from 1775…Large enough for our needs but no so large that we couldn’t easily manage it while raising our children. It was in incredible condition and the house itself offered the square footage we needed. The farm offered everything we were looking for with room for us to grow our family and our homesteading operation.”
Building for the Future
Making the move to a full time homesteading operation meant making major lifestyle adjustments, both unfamiliar and exciting. “My husband nor I come from a farming family. I see the difference in our lifestyle choices daily when I explain how my day was or the latest news from the farm and my friends’ faces are amused, intrigued or questioning. People are curious about what we do and how we go about our daily lives.”
“Friends, family and acquaintances were intrigued by what we were accomplishing and wanted to learn more or help too. Even now, years into this lifestyle of ours, I’m still being asked to educate and share our journey with others because there is so much curiosity resulting from the disconnect between people and living self-sufficiently. What is really cool is seeing my children share their knowledge of the farm and our lifestyle with their peers. They’re becoming ambassadors as well.”
On taking leave from the city, Angela explains, “where the challenge lies for me is balancing a social life with homesteading. My lifestyle now isn’t really what it used to be—dinners out with friends constantly, weekend getaways and lots of vacations. Instead, I now need to be present for any fence that suddenly breaks, any animal that out of nowhere becomes ill or any flash flood that requires I move my farm stand uphill and away from our riverbanks… It takes me weeks and weeks to sow our crops by hand; a vacation during this time could mean the difference between growing corn one year and not. We try to invite friends and family out to the farm regularly for dinner and to socialize which makes things easier on us. But, sadly, I feel I’ve become the unreliable friend who cancels lunch plans at the last minute because my duck needs to go to the vet (it’s happened).”
“Homesteading and living by the seasons not only alters my larger project focus for the farm but requires I cater my daily chore routine to fit the time of year as well. For example, the horses still need to be cared for, fed and watered. But the ways in which I care for them become a bit more complex with the colder months. We shoe them differently than we would in hot and dry weather, they need a water heater in their outdoor stock tank, and I also add liquid to their grain as a preventative measure to ensure their digestive tract continues to flow in an effort to reduce equine colic.”
Homesteading as a movement has been growing and Angela suggests this may be a reaction to the current condition. “Why are we so concerned with saving time? So we can watch more TV? Spend more time working? I’d much rather cook a wholesome meal for my family with nutritious and natural ingredients that I grew—resulting in a little time left over after dinner than to rush through a drive-through meal so I can get to my couch quicker to binge watch Netflix. It just doesn’t make sense to me…I think it’s up to people like myself who are passionate about creating a better tomorrow for our children to re-implement simple homesteading practices into our daily lives. And perhaps—hopefully—the momentum will increase from there.”
“I think right now the homesteading and small scale farming trend is stemming from a slow awakening and a need for change. Folks are beginning to tire of returning their food to grocery stores or trashing it because of E. coli or Salmonella recalls and warnings. Millennials like myself are watching our elders and even our parents suffer from increases in cancer, diabetes and food allergies to name a few. And we’re beginning to wonder if maybe it’s our broken food system that has something to do with it.”
“While I certainly encourage my children to pursue their passions and interests, I also want them to be self-sufficient and to not rely on one sole food system as their source of nutrition… having the knowledge to grow food, tap a tree for syrup and tend a beehive is just as important and necessary as teaching how to change a flat tire, how to ride a bike and how to read.”
In the end, making these big changes was worth the challenge. She says, “when I started working the homestead full time is when I realized how important it was for my son to learn where his food came from. I’ll never forget the first egg we found in our duck coop and how he beamed with pride when he got to pick it up and be the first one to hold it. We’d waited months for that first egg! But as I slowly began to add more and more opportunities for self-sufficiency like with the tree tapping or the beehives, I saw that my family was not just supportive–they were interested and wanted to participate! The food was fresh, it tasted better and it was more nutritious.”
Today, “we have two Clydesdale horses that we keep for leisure riding but also that I train for plowing and tiling our land. A flock of roughly twenty ducks provide us with our fresh eggs each day and we currently keep two geese as their guardians. In addition to growing our own food and raising animals, we tap our own maple trees for syrup, have a small fruit orchard, work two hives for honey, make our own soap and kombucha and even brew our own beer and wine. Just this month we are in the process of installing a very small 50-vine vineyard of Pinot Noir wine grapes.”
Patience is a Virtue
One of the most beautiful relationships that Angela has shared with the world is her journey with her two Clydesdale horses. “Horses are intelligent animals with a very strong flight or fight response (most often flight). They operate on a hierarchical scale where they respect authority and their place within their herd…They believe their life depends on the safety and direction of a confident leader. All of these things need to be understood and breathed into every single interaction with a horse with the goal in mind of earning their trust, then respect and affection.”
Building trust with animals allows us to cultivate mutually beneficial relationships that translate into our human interactions. She explains, “Horse ownership has opened an entirely new world for me of respect and communication between human and animal. I used to have rosy images of running off on a trail with a horse of my own but the truth is, there is so much more that comes before reaching that point. Throughout my short time in horse ownership I’ve quickly learned that developing a line of communication and connection with the horse is the most important thing you can do when your daily life revolves around horses. And these are characteristics that I try to implement when working with any of my animals be it horse, duck, goose, etc.”
“They are constantly teaching me to be more open, receptive, patient and empathetic.”
Animals on the farm offer a partnership opportunity, communicating across language barriers and life experience. “I want my horses to WANT to work with me because we are partners. Using positive reinforcement methods, and exercises that encourage engagement and thinking on the part of the horse, I have found my horses are more likely to respond with the desired behavior…After having owned horses, I’ve found an approach that works best for us. I don’t treat them as employees but as partners. I don’t think they are machines that should start, stop, go right or left at my every demand because I’m their owner.”
Day by Day
After experiencing first hand the importance of being in touch with the food system and the climate of modern farming, Angela is hopeful for the future. “Maybe someday we can start educating our youth with after school programs and clubs. Or modify the curriculum to include animal husbandry and food science alongside math and social studies. Hopefully one day these skills and subjects can be offered in a more public setting.”
Angela can also attest to the powerful impact that working the land and regaining control over lifestyle choices can have on a person’s well being. “I had my first child in 2012. About a year after I started suffering heavily from postpartum depression. I had started my own graphic and website design business in 2005 and, though thriving, it was keeping me away from my son, stuck behind a computer screen and I felt miserable trying to balance work and my home. I longed to be outdoors and had always had a passion for edible gardening. It was when I began to toy with suicidal thoughts that I decided I needed a big change. I wanted to live a life that was more real, more in alignment with my core values and that would allow me time with my child. My husband was supportive and we decided to become a one income family.”
On the farm, projects are always in the works, and every day presents something new and interesting. “Homesteading and small scale farming certainly revolves around the seasons. As the time of year shifts, my day to day routine fluctuates in some ways and stays consistent in others. The chores I do around the farm still require attention no matter the time of year, but my main focus of production such as the crops, orchard, beehives or maple trees will each be given their own moment in the spotlight based on the month and season. Spring brings soil tending and crop seed sowing in the garden and bee population build up in the apiary. In summer I focus on growing our crops and harvesting produce, harvesting honey before fall and working the horses regularly. In early fall we beginning harvesting our apples and in late autumn I begin to close the garden for winter while the beehives are winterized. The horses are still worked but less often as the weather brings more rain in our region. And finally, in winter, I continue to build our garden beds with composted manure. I tap trees for syrup and monitor the hives for activity during hibernation. This is also the season for home and outbuilding repairs, heavily restocking our homemade soap supply and researching any new projects or skills we’d like to implement later on.”
As far as advice for those who are also looking into homesteading or changing their lifestyle, “we bought a farm with enough land for more produce, Clydesdales, a vineyard, an apiary, privacy and more…Currently we raise as much of our own produce as we can and preserve the harvest with dehydrating, freezing and canning methods for the colder months…My advice for farm shoppers would simply be to have a specific idea of what you’d like your current and future farm portfolio to include. And to have patience.”
A big Thank You to Angela for sharing her story and her photos for this piece!
Hometown: I grew up in several different areas across the Midwest but my immediate family currently resides in Minnesota. It’s a gorgeous state but far too cold for my liking and we desired being closer to one our favorite places; New York City.
Favorite book or book character right now: Two of my favorite books of all time are Gone With the Wind and Crime and Punishment. Picking a favorite book is so hard though; I love mysteries, classics and Russian Literature.
Tool you cannot live without: My Muck Boots. I wear them all day, pretty much every day. They go in the coop, in the stream to chase the ducks home, in the muddy pastures, with me to muck out the horse stalls and I’ve even worn them on horseback while riding. I can’t imaging the shape my feet would be in if I didn’t have them.