How Maine’s homesteaders were — and weren’t — prepared for the coronavirus
The changing world while COVID-19 sickens more people has left many Mainers at once panicked and adrift, shopping for shelf-stable foodstuffs and supplies. For Maine’s homesteaders, who have built their lifestyles around practicing self-sufficiency and living off the land, it seems they have been preparing for times like these for a while.
Daniel Bell, Jr., a homesteader based in Glenburn, referred to an axiom that he said is common amongst farmers, hunters and homesteaders: “We were built for this.”
“Not that we are preppers or hoarders, but we usually have full freezers of our own produced food or the wild game we hunt,” Bell said.
Now that the moment is actually here, though, Bell and other homesteaders around the state admit that, while they may be more prepared for social distancing, self-isolation and self-quarantine than the average Mainers, the past few weeks have presented some unexpected challenges.
Stockpiled supplies for self-sufficiency
When it comes to supplies like food, most homesteaders were generally well-prepared for social distancing.
“Although I did not see this coming, we do feel prepared, mostly because our normal way of living involves gardening and canning [and] eating game meat,” said Wendy Smith, a homesteader in Carmel.
Some homesteaders in Maine had already accumulated stockpiles based on the distance they live from stores and other amenities — the pandemic is just one of a number of unspecified emergencies their stockpiles were accumulated to address.
“Because our road is not passable in the winter, we stock up in the fall for extra pantry items and paper goods,” said Shea Blake, a homesteader in Rumford. “We have always tried to be prepared in case of any emergency, whether it be illness, unemployment or disaster. We have fallen back on our storage many times.”
What homesteaders weren’t prepared for
The timing of the pandemic threw some homesteaders off, though, and some were less stocked than usual. Smith said that, for the first time in a decade, she and her husband do not have goats or chickens because of a long-anticipated and long-planned trip to Alaska scheduled for August.
Samantha Burns, homesteader and owner of Runamuk Acres in New Portland, only had two rolls of toilet paper when stores started running out. Her sister gave her some, but she was prepared to make do without.
“Because I am Maine-born-and-stayed, I am not averse to cutting up an old flannel sheet to do the job,” Burns said.
In fact, the toilet paper shortage was of little concern to most homesteaders.
“Toilet paper was the least of my concerns,” said Piper Dean, homesteader in Walpole. “As a mother who has cloth diapered, I’m pretty [well-acquainted] with using cloth wipes and have also used cloth squares in place of toilet paper for myself.”
What did trouble homesteaders, though, was access to feed for livestock. A flock of sheep, for example, can go through several bales of hay in a week.
“My only concern is that we have to pick up hay two or three bales at a time for the sheep since we do not yet have a good storage place,” said JJ Starwalker, a homesteader based in East Corinth.
When supplies fail, though, Maine’s homesteaders have taken to a skill they are accustomed to: exchanging goods and services without money through bartering and trading.
“I make goat milk soap and since I do not have chickens right now, a friend in my town contacted me about trading,” Smith said. “The trade of soap for eggs was perfect because she left the eggs on my porch. No contact needed!”
Financing a homestead during a pandemic
Like with many people, homesteaders were faced with unexpected financial challenges in the wake of the coronavirus.
Farming homesteaders that make a living off of selling produce have had to explore other avenues for selling produce as restaurants close and consumers exhibit more anxiety towards shopping in person.
“Worries set in — will people be going to farmers markets?” said Sam Gerry, who operates Ramble On Farm with his partner, Jessica Sage. “They are [a] necessary commodity, so they won’t be forced to close, but will the consumer want to come out and shop? We decided that if circumstances continue, we’ll need to offer a door delivery for a boxed CSA share.”
Not all homesteaders live solely off the land. In fact, many homesteaders also have jobs for extra income. Likewise, farmers who take on seasonal winter jobs have seen some cut short by the pandemic. The loss of income across the board has been challenging.
“At first, it hit hard,” he said. “Then we realized how many other people are in [a] similar situation.”
Bob Herbert, a homesteader based in Norway, said that he and his wife have been lucky to keep their jobs at a bank call center and as a retirement companion for a man with Alzheimer’s disease.
“With the coronavirus and schools closing, the only effect it has had on us is we have had some more time as a family,” Herbert said. “We have not had much contact with other people for the safety of our children and the gentleman I provide care for. We are all going a little [stir] crazy, but making the most of it.”
Coping with the isolation
Many homesteaders have experienced little change to their daily routine in light of social distancing and self-isolation.
“I feel that we have the skills and knowledge necessary to feed ourselves, entertain ourselves and stay at home indefinitely, if necessary,” Smith said.
“I already spend most of my days at home on my farm working in solitude,” Burns added. “I don’t watch much TV, and I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook, so I’m not obsessing over the news, which allows me to remain calm and stay strong for the people around me.”
For other homesteaders, like has changed a little bit more as they have had to temporarily shutter their businesses. Robin Follette, homesteader in Talmadge, closed her bakery Tressa & Trudy Bakeshop.
“It’s harder on my mind than the checkbook,” Follette said. “I miss my customers. I’ll be doing a happy dance when this is over and I can fire up the oven again.”
Still, like other homesteaders, she sees social distancing as an opportunity to cross things off her to-do list while the world stands still.
“The cottage garden around the bakery has been designed,” Folette said. “Boxes of empty canning jars have been taken to the cellar. They probably would have stayed in the pantry if it hadn’t been for this down time at work.”
She’s even been able to focus on tasks related to her presently-shuttered bakery.
“Since the bakery is closed, I’ve been able to test recipes I’m creating,” Follette said. “Some days, they turn out well. Other days, the chickens are happy to take a loaf off my hands.”
Even though homesteaders are accustomed to living in relative isolation, some of them still struggle with the anxiety and social distancing of the times.
“It took me about a day to regroup,” Dean said. “Ever since I regrouped, I saw it as a time to focus inward on the things I could get done here at home while waiting it out. As a lifelong Mainer, waiting things out is something you just learn to endure — just like when we wait out a blizzard before we can move on with our lives, or waiting out winter before getting our hands back into the soil come spring.”