Fifth Place Writing – Features

Greta Weber

Fifth Place
University of Missouri
$1,000 Scholarship


From Oregon to Missouri, the Page family continues to live a sustainable life

By Greta Weber

Homestead in the heartland

Tucked away in a northern Missouri prairie lies a plot of land with an expansive view of a maple and black walnut forest. Two years ago, this land was raw, untouched. Today, Ella, a 7-year-old girl in a button-up lavender dress, wears a metal bowl as a hat while she picks kale and scavenges for carrots in the garden beds. Her 4-year-old brother, Everett, trots barefoot around the slightly off-kilter chicken coop as his curled ponytail bounces behind him. This 10-acre landscape, Acorn Hill Homestead, is their backyard.

Since the summer of 2013, Teri, 40, Brian, 47, Ella and Everett Page have been living without running water or an electricity bill as they cultivate the foundation of a self-sufficient lifestyle. After homesteading for nearly 14 years in the valleys of Cottage Grove, Oregon, the Pages never imagined themselves 1,923 miles away in rural Missouri. But the heartland beckoned.

As the family enters its busiest season, spring, fresh vegetable plants emerge from their two gardens. Black walnut sap flows as Teri sows spring seeds and prunes young fruit trees. Days lengthen, and sun lingers ­— a time for growth.

Homesteading vision

The term “homesteading” can be traced back to the Homestead Act of 1862, a law Abraham Lincoln enacted to encourage Western expansion. Now, it has evolved into an alternative lifestyle of growing organic food, raising animals and making things by hand. It’s a sort of rebirth of the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s when hippies flocked to rural communes to escape mainstream society.

The Pages aren’t hippies, though. They aren’t doomsday preppers or tree-hugging martyrs, either. Brian realized he wanted to build a house on a piece of land in his early 20s. He thinks his homesteading vision has been brewing since his childhood in Phoenix. His father turned a suburban backyard into a secret haven to raise chickens, grow food and compost waste in a steaming, odorous pile. “We would have to give our neighbors eggs so they wouldn’t call the city on us,” he says.

But instead of starting his own homestead at the time, Brian traveled around the world working as an organic farm trader on small-scale family farms in exchange for room and board. That’s when he saw homesteads firsthand and started filing away ideas for his own someday.

Teri, then 22, left her Boston roots and met a well-traveled Brian, then 27, at an outdoor education center on an island off Southern California during the summer of 1997. There, they taught marine science together and led courses in snorkeling, kayaking and tidepooling. Teri saw Brian as an adventurous vagabond, but he says those days were already behind him. “I got that traveling out of my system, so now I wanted to settle down on some land,” he says.

Following their Southern California teaching stint, Brian got an internship at a sustainable living research organization in Oregon in 1999. Teri joined him and worked as an organic garden work trader, despite never having sown a seed in her life. “That’s where the path to being a homesteader really started,” she says. After learning how to grow her own food, she was hooked.

Now, on their Missouri land several miles outside of Kirksville, Teri is the grower, and Brian is the builder. Everything on the land ­­­— their 350-square-foot home, two organic gardens, outdoor kitchen, chicken coop, cow barn, and storage and blacksmith shed — they made by hand. Brian is a self-taught carpenter and blacksmith, and Teri is now a seasoned gardener, but they’ve had to learn a lot along the way. “We’ve made mistakes,” Teri says. “I’ve redone things a billion times, but that’s how we’ve learned.” In Oregon, they accidentally fed toxic plants to two young milk goats, which later died. She considers the poisoning one of their most devastating missteps.

Without running water, the Pages have to collect and filter rainwater. In November 2013, they buried three 50-gallon water barrels underground and connected them to an antique-style pump. Teri says the setup reminded her of Little House on the Prairie. However, in January 2014, the bitter cold froze the under-insulated downspouts and prevented water flow. “As we build systems for our homestead, we go through a process of research, plan, execute, and wait and see what happens,” Teri writes on her blog called Homestead Honey, which chronicles their daily life and gives homesteading tips.

During winter months, they rely on filtered snow melt for drinking and haul buckets of water up from a 1-acre pond for bathing, washing dishes, watering plants and feeding animals. They walk about 300 feet to the pond and often have to break 2 or 3 inches of ice to get to the water.

An aboveground rainwater catchment system sustains them for nine to 10 months out of the year. They bought the 50-gallon catchment barrels for $10 apiece and attached them to the sides of their house, storage shed and chicken coop. The barrels can collect 500 gallons of rainwater or snowmelt, which they purify through a water filter. Teri considers the filter the most important piece of equipment for their lifestyle.

When it comes to providing other homesteading basics, the Pages consult books, websites, friends and mentors before diving into a new project. After checking out Photovoltaic for Dummies from the library, subscribing to Home Power magazine and doing research online, Teri and Brian chose a $5,000 solar panel system to meet their minimal electric needs. Brian propped up three panels on four wooden pillars outside the front porch. They sit a few feet above the cyan-blue metal roof.

Until the solar panels were hooked up in December, they relied on a Honda generator for charging the iPhone 6 that they share and a few power tools. Before they had solar electricity, Teri loved using candlesticks, which created a beautiful nighttime ambience. Now, they use the 900-watt solar system for lights, charging their phone and powering their chest freezer. Teri hopes to set up her sewing machine or plug in a small radio. “I love music; I sing all the time,” she says.

The Pages store pork, vegetables and fruit in the newly powered freezer and seal some of their garden vegetable surplus in Mason jars that make a colorful array of deep reds and indigo blues on the indoor shelving unit. Storage crops such as beets, potatoes and squash, cartons of eggs and an occasional box of red wine are tucked away in a crawl space in the mudroom, which fills up as they prepare for winter frosts. “I feel like a squirrel,” Teri says.

When they moved to Missouri in October 2012, Teri and Brian wanted to transition from Alpine dairy goats to a family milk cow. In December, they bought a Jersey heifer named Crème Brûlée for $1,800. Ella carries buckets of water to her on a homemade yoke, which she wrapped in green felt to soften the weight. Once Crème Brûlée births her first calf in early summer, she will start providing milk. Teri estimates they will save at least $1,000 a year once they can make their own dairy products.

Although they do grow most of their own food, the Pages still need to buy groceries and local meat. They drive to the grocery store once a week to purchase yogurt, cheese, some cleaning supplies or chips for homemade salsa. As they wait for Crème Brûlée’s milk, they buy raw milk from a local farmer and a half or whole pig from a friend. “I try to buy from people as much as possible,” Teri says. To cook food, they use a wood stove, a propane camping stove or a sun oven, which is a foil-lined box that gathers heat from the sun.

Teri and Brian Page spent 14 years living in Cottage Grove, Oregon, before they moved to Missouri in 2012. With minimum bills, the Pages live off the land and have created a self-sufficient lifestyle. Shelby Baseler/Missourian Shelby Baseler

Teri’s central motivation for homesteading stems from her desire to grow food, which she considers an environmental, political and social issue. She does not want to ingest pesticides and herbicides or contaminate the water supply with agricultural run-off. Her mindset boils down to this: “I want to control the food that I eat, and that’s going to make me healthier,” she says. The same applies for her children.

During a sunny day in the fall, the family harvests garden vegetables and makes a meal of corn on the cob, tomato basil salad, fresh melons and green beans. Ella and Everett each have their own garden plot where they choose which plants to sow. Ella’s plot, which she likes to sing to, has lettuce, mesclun, radish, purslane and a few kale transplants. For her seventh birthday, Ella wanted to make a scavenger hunt. The prize? Seeds. “They are so connected to their food source,” Teri says. “To me, that’s one of the most important things.”

One thing Teri says non-homesteaders always want to know how and where they poop. The answer lies in a small outhouse with a DIY composting toilet —­ a five-gallon turquoise bucket that collects waste as it mixes with odor-controlling sawdust or peat moss. After a few days, Brian transfers the bucket’s contents into an enclosed compost pile, which becomes “humanure” they can use for orchards or shrubs. Not only does the toilet save water by eliminating wasteful flushing, but it also prevents the possibility of human waste creeping into the water supply. The only downside is the seat gets a bit cold in the winter.

Inside their home, a space no larger than a two-car garage, Ella and Everett float wooden ships along frayed pieces of blue and purple fabric on the floor as Ella’s friend Etta watches on from the red suede sofa. They just finished watching “bird TV,” a perch outside the window where dark-eyed juncos, blue jays and northern cardinals flock. Nigel, one of their 19 chickens, isn’t supposed to use it, but he jumps up anyway.

“Mama, Ev stole Farmboy!” Ella complains, as she starts lightly hitting her brother.

“Why don’t you guys go play outside?” Teri says.

“Can we play rabbits in the garden?” Ella says. She, Etta and Everett scurry outside.

When they return, they take off their boots and hand-knit hats in a tiled mudroom near the front door. The solar panel system sits in the center of the wall and displays the amount of voltage they are using up at any moment. Brian flicks the lights on and off to show how much power they are using from the generator. The mudroom leads into a small storage area where a tall pantry shelf stocked with canned fruits and vegetables serves as a dividing wall. The kitchen area, which includes a round table and L-shaped counter space with a ceramic sink that drains into a plastic bucket, is slightly raised from the rest of the wood floor.

Two bookshelves divide the living room and bedroom. A cast-iron wood stove that heats the house sits on the far wall. Ella, Everett, Teri and Brian all share a king-sized, slightly lofted bed. Even in Oregon, where they had the space to have more than one bed, they chose to share. “It’s sweet and endearing,” Brian says. “But when Ella starts getting older, she might want her own bed.” From their bedroom window, they can see the outdoor kitchen, lower garden and Crème Brûlée’s barn in the distance.

What they can’t fit in their tiny house sits in stacked boxes in the shed ­— 14 years of belongings they brought along from Oregon.

From Oregon to Missouri

In December 1999, Teri and Brian moved onto a 35-acre rental property in Cottage Grove, Oregon, and stayed for nearly 14 years. When Teri talks about the homestead’s creek-side cabin, luscious greenhouse and brick bread-making oven, it’s clear that she misses it.

Teri used to go to yoga and modern dance classes, see independent films and eat authentic ethnic food in Eugene, the third largest city in the state and 25-minute drive from their Oregon home. Brian misses the mountains but says he could stay on their land and never leave. “I don’t have to go out and experience things culturally, but Teri wants more of that,” Brian says. Teri has found some outlets in Kirksville where she’s been in several community theater productions. In fall 2013, she played Sister Mary Leo in Nunsense, a comedic musical featuring five singing nuns.

Brian and Teri didn’t want to leave their Cottage Grove property, but the land in Missouri was cheap. In some parts of Oregon, land can be as much as $10,000 per acre; in northern Missouri, it’s closer to $1,700. The affordable land, temperate climate and lax rural building codes make Missouri an ideal state for homesteading.

After their first Missouri visit in October 2010, Brian sketched out house designs in the Amtrak sleeper car as they went back to Oregon. They fantasized about buying a piece of Midwestern land. Teri was on board for the move, but it was Brian who fueled the final decision. “That push to really have our own land was my push,” Brian says.

On October 18, 2012, they packed everything they could cram into their Honda CRV and small turquoise trailer, leaving the rest for a moving truck. As they made one last walk through their house, Teri and Brian and their landlord sobbed as they said their final goodbyes. It was an excruciating experience leaving behind the memories made with a tight-knit group of friends in Oregon. But they would develop a new community of homesteaders in Missouri.

A sense of interdependence

A four-minute walk from Acorn Hill down a gradual slope lies another clearing: The Giving Tree Homestead. Mike Patterson and Julia Jack-Scott camp on the land during the spring and summer months as they build a timber-frame and straw bale home from scratch. In November, they went back to Philadelphia to replenish their savings so they can continue to work full-time on finishing their Missouri house. By the summer, they hope to permanently move into the 1,000-square-foot home, which their neighbors jokingly refer to as “the mansion.”

The afternoon sun gleams over The Giving Tree Homestead as Mike cuts fresh mushrooms in the outdoor kitchen. Their cat, Mr. Bates, weaves in between his worn work boots and grass-stained Carhartt overalls. Mr. Bates nestles in Mike’s lap while he sits on a ’70s-green chair and waits for the mushrooms to sauté.

Mike is soft-spoken. He exudes a calm patience as he describes the long process of harvesting wood from the nearby forest to make his house’s round-pole timber frame. He doesn’t have much building experience, but Julia uses techniques she learned at a natural building and design school on the East Coast. Even with Julia’s knowledge, however, they have to rely on their neighbors, a group of about 20 homesteaders near Kirksville, to make building progress. The group organizes rotating work parties to help one another with building or gardening projects.

The Pages lend their truck, generator, chainsaw and trailer, and borrow occasional tools like candle-making equipment. Teri leads a homeschooling cooperative in singing and movement while Julia teaches two classes on natural dyeing and knitting. The give-and-take resembles a gift economy, where money doesn’t exist, and that’s exactly how they want it. “I want to have a life where I have a really low need for money,” Julia says.

On July 4, 2012, two months after Mike and Julia started building, they celebrated their first “interdependence day,” an annual celebration of the group’s interconnection with each other and the land. “A big group pond swim was featured in this celebration (as with every other one) as we have been enduring 100°F plus days without air conditioning,” Julia writes on her blog, The Giving Tree Homestead.

Julia says Teri and Brian’s homesteading expertise has been an asset to the community. “They really know what it takes,” Julia says. “They’re cohesive. They have their stuff together.” The feeling is mutual. On the one-year anniversary of her moving into their Missouri home, Teri wrote a blog post about her appreciation of her neighbors. “Last week we helped raise Mike and Julia’s round pole timber frame home,” she writes. “This week they are helping us. John grows my pork and beef. I help educate his children. When someone needs help, we give, and when we need help, we receive.”

Homestead living 101

Diversified homestead income

Phone service, minimal groceries, Internet and gas are the Pages’ only monthly bills, but finances are still one of the major stresses of homesteading. From building materials and solar panels to farm animals and fruit trees, developing land requires a lot of substantial expenditures. To sustain themselves, Teri and Brian are developing what they call a “diversified homestead income.”

One of their steadiest income creators is Teri’s blog, which receives about 20,000 to 40,000 unique monthly visitors and generates anywhere between $75 and $700 a month from advertising by small online businesses. “I like writing, I like sharing what we’re doing, and I’ve always been a teacher,” Teri says. Teri gets dozens of responses from an online community of fellow homesteading bloggers who share ideas and encourage one another in the comments sections.

The most popular Homestead Honey blog post is titled “How Much Does it Cost to Build a Tiny House?” Teri breaks down exactly what they spent on materials and labor: a total of $8,270. They used locally milled wood for the frame, reclaimed barn wood for the siding and bought windows and doors from Habitat for Humanity’s home improvement center. Although they hired neighbors for a total of $470, they saved thousands of dollars on labor by relying on the community work parties and completing most of the building themselves. Teri compares their costs to a neighbor’s tiny house, which was $21,200.

Along with explaining off-grid living and offering recipes and crafting ideas on the blog, Teri provides an intimate lens into homeschooling Ella and Everett. She uses a version of the Waldorf method, which utilizes a curriculum created for three childhood development phases. Two or three times a week, Teri teaches them a formal lesson in the morning based in creative play, crafts, singing and gardening blended with traditional subjects such as science, math and French.

Teri used to participate in a community homeschooling cooperative of about 12 children from 3 to 6 years old. But since some of the families in the community homeschool for religious reasons, Teri and Brian found it difficult to relate. Now, Teri and her neighbor share the responsibility of teaching both of their first-grade daughters. Ella learns things such as folk tales, French numbers and the recorder alongside Etta, her best friend.

Even when Ella and Everett aren’t engaged in formal lessons, Teri says they are constantly learning through their environment. During a morning walk through the garden one summer, Everett said, “Look, Mama, a native bee on the cucumber flower!” Ella hand-pollinated squash as she meandered through the garden beds. Teri calls Ella strong and spirited and refers to Everett as a lone wolf. “It’s amazing how creative they can be with nothing,” Brian says proudly.

When she isn’t updating her blog, teaching two small children or developing the homestead, Teri works five hours a week as a virtual administrator for a woman who writes homeschooling curriculum. She edits the website, helps with social media and formats content.

Teri and Brian also have an Etsy shop, Acorn Hill Handcrafts, where they sell Brian’s hand-forged decorative hanging rods, black walnut cutting boards and votive candle holders. The rods and cutting boards range from $18 to $68, while a votive candle holder costs $80. “We need time to make our Etsy shop into a robust money-maker,” Teri says. “The stuff is beautiful, and I know we could do it, but we just need time.”

Brian’s blacksmithing shed is a small lean-to tucked in a clearing near the driveway. On the side, a half-circle emblem of an anvil reads “Blacksmith” in white bubble letters. After blowing air into a metal drum through a long tube, he lifts a red-hot string of molten metal out of a steaming batch of coal and places it on the 200-pound anvil. Ping, ping, ping. The hammer clangs and reverberates sharply. He uses tongs to shape the metal into curve-like designs and lets it cool. He’s never burned himself in the 30-plus years of self-taught blacksmithing, but it’s always something he thinks about.

A home with a view

On a crisp fall day in October 2010, Teri was 8 months pregnant with Everett and tired from a long train ride from Oregon. They walked up a steep gravel road and looked toward a cleared pasture dotted with maple and black walnut trees. He noticed the expansive view, something they didn’t have in the valleys of Cottage Grove.

Now that he and his family have that view, hardly a day goes by that Brian isn’t in awe of the land. Brian usually rises with the sun, while Teri and the kids hold on to their morning slumbers. He starts a breakfast of eggs or French toast as the chickens cries remind them it’s time to wake up. Once she births her first calf, Crème Brûlée will have to be milked before the day begins.

Teri and Brian feel at peace with their Missouri homestead for now, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be here forever. “It was a hard decision to leave Oregon,” Brian says. “In my mind I wouldn’t be able to live it down if I didn’t try, and this was just a perfect opportunity. But since coming here, I’ve been spiritually released about it.”

For now, however, they continue to give themselves to the Missouri homesteading process. “I feel like when I’m working out here, that’s when I meditate — that’s the kind of feeling I get,” Brian says. “I can take in the sounds, breathe and just enjoy it.”