Thursday, May 1, 2014

Q&A with Cris Cantin, Homesteader of the Year

Back in March, we dedicated a Grow Your Homestead giveaway to the creative, DIY spirit of homesteaders everywhere. When it came time to pick a winning essay from all the fabulous entries, one in particular caught the attention of our judges. 

Cris Cantin of Wisconsin had plans not just for her own plot of land (affectionately called “the Farmlette”) but for the community she nurtures there, from the regional seed library she stewards to the Little Free Library of homesteading books she created for curious visitors, to the hands-on experiences she provides neighborhood kids who want to know about tending chickens or working in the garden. Read Cris’s winning words, and find out more about life on the Farmlette in our Q&A! You can also keep up with Cris’s homestead adventures on her blog, Chicken Lady’s Great Adventures.

Cris Cantin, with sunflowers on the Farmlette. Photo © Gretchen Metzler

How long have you lived on the Farmlette?
I’ve lived here for nine years, but really created the Farmlette about seven years ago. It took me a couple of years to decide what kind of “homestead” I wanted to grow. I’d never had a whole yard to play with before I bought my little house.

How did you get started down the homesteading path? Who were your greatest teachers?
I started young! When I was seven, I started attending meetings of the local 4-H Club in my hometown, eventually becoming a full-fledged member when I was ten. My 4-H leader, Mrs. Omand, was determined that all of us kids would do things in the community. Cleaning ditches, singing to the nursing home residents, volunteering at the county fair — you name it, we did it. My love of community service continued into college, and then after graduation, when I moved on to live in various big cities. I think Nana O would be proud! I’ve found homesteading inspiration in lots of books. The one that really pushed me into rethinking how I lived in my yard was The Backyard Homestead.

What do your neighbors think of the Farmlette?
When I first started raising chickens, I threw a neighborhood block party. My neighbors thought I was nuts! But they sure did like the barbeque chicken wings I served up, and they were excited when the first eggs were dropped off on their doorstep. People used to ask me why on earth I’d want to put so much work into gardening and raising small livestock. Now, they ask me detailed questions about how I do what I do, so that they can go home and recreate part of the Farmlette in their yard. Apparently, I’m a trendsetter!

It hasn’t always been rosy — there’s always that one neighbor who doesn’t like anything “different” — but for the most part, my neighbors accept my backyard homesteading with a sense of humor (and they still love getting those free eggs and the occasional roaster bird for the freezer).

What’s your favorite part about life on your homestead?
My favorite part of living here on the Farmlette is living with the seasons. We can get so disconnected from the natural world, but when you keep a homestead (even a micro-sized one), you have to go outside every day, no matter what the weather is. And every day, you find something new: a new blossom, a chicken who has laid her first egg, the first snow of winter, the last frost of spring. It’s not always easy, but the rewards that come from a handmade life are truly priceless. There is nothing quite like sitting down to a meal with friends and family, knowing that every bit of it came from just a few feet outside your door. From the roast chicken to the vegetables to the corn ground into the cornbread, it all happened right here — and now I get to share it. That is the best feeling of all.

What’s happening on the Farmlette this spring?
This spring, the first ever born-and-bred-on-the-Farmlette chicks have arrived, along with a new litter of fuzzy white rabbit kits. Lots of seeds have been started under lights, in the hopes that it will finally stop snowing and the garden can be planted before summer’s over. There’s always a plan a-foot to revamp a garden or two, and maybe squeeze in another apple tree somewhere. And I think I’m going to take the plunge and get a dairy goat (or two).

When I’m not working here on the home front, there’s the annual plant swap to organize, as well as mapping out community garden plot assignments. Plus, I’ve got a bunch of young gardeners who are keen to get out and dig in the dirt. There’s always an adventure happening here.

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