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Today is October 4, 2022

Growing a better life

Starkville family’s hobby farm revives rural traditions

By Debbie Stringer

Growing a better life

Founders of the Mississippi Modern Homestead Center, the Buehlers teach raised bed construction as part of their Farmstay weekends, where families can try out hobby farming to see if it will fit into their own lifestyle.

    If her college friends knew what she was up to, Alison Buehler says they wouldn’t stop laughing.
    Hosting a workshop on home chicken processing is not what they would expect from this former special-education teacher.
    Yet Alison and her husband, Mike, a radiologist at a regional medical center in Starkville, have developed a deep respect for and interest in such old-time rural ways. Their own grandparents fed their families by producing their own vegetables, fruits, meats and eggs. If they needed something, they made it; if it broke, they fixed it.
    The Buehlers are reclaiming this sort of knowledge and making it a part of daily life. They grow organic vegetables and herbs, flowers, fruit trees and berry bushes. They keep laying hens and honeybees, raise pigs and make compost.
    They’ve built a henhouse, a greenhouse, deer fences, raised garden beds and berms. And they’ve learned how to cook and preserve the food they produce.
    In addition to developing a hobby farm from a small garden plot, they created an educational center to share information with like-minded people of all ages.
    The couple are part of a growing “modern homesteading” movement, which generally translates into the revival of traditional rural life skills to enrich modern living. “The things everybody used to know and now nobody knows,” as Alison put it.
    The Buehlers’ goal for themselves and their three children—ages 8, 7 and 4—is better health and a more meaningful lifestyle based on sustainability, frugality and creative solutions.
    “For me, it’s something that brings together a lot of different passions or ideas, things like fitness,” Mike said. “This is how I get my exercise, out here building fences and digging ditches. And of course the food we’re growing is healthy. And then trying to re-learn some of these traditions and crafts and passing them on to your kids is a good thing.”
    He is quick to say his family has no desire to return to the 1900s; they like air conditioning as much as anyone.
    “It’s just learning how to do things that make sense, that aren’t quite so wasteful,” he said.
    “I don’t belong to a gym anymore because I’m out in the garden, or chasing animals or children,” Alison said with a laugh.
    The Buehlers’ baby steps in homesteading started seven years ago when they bought a large home on an overgrown six-acre lot in Oktibbeha County.
    “When we were fixing this house up, we realized we didn’t know how to do just basic things, like fixing a toilet,” Alison said.
   Rather than hire the work done, the couple decided to become more self-sufficient by learning some fundamental skills.
    “We had an awakening: If we know this little, what are they going to know?” Alison said, nodding toward her 3-year-old daughter, Cecelia.
    Learning to grow food organically topped their list, but their first attempt was a disaster. Gardening without chemicals in bug- and weed-infested Mississippi is no easy task. Undeterred, they visited organic farms and gardens in other states, read books, attended conferences and experimented fearlessly with different methods.
    Early on they discovered raised garden beds are the way to go when dealing with heavy clay soil. “I tried to till for two or three years and the tines just turned into a huge block of clay,” Mike said.
    After experimenting with several kinds of retaining structures for the raised beds, he settled on untreated pine 2-by-8 (or 10) lumber. The untreated lumber will last several years as long as termites don’t find it, he said.
    The more the Buehlers learned, the more they wanted to know.
   “It was a slow realization but [it became] a real yearning for knowing how to take care of ourselves,” Alison said.
    Six years ago these 4-County Electric Power Association members had a 2400-watt solar energy system installed to provide a supplemental source of electricity.
    “This house uses far in excess of what this system produces, but it’s sort of a demonstration of something that can be done,” Mike said.
    “I think moving toward solar and alternative energy is an important thing for the country. You’re not going to replace coal or natural gas completely [as fuel sources for generating electricity] because you have to have always-on power. This is only going to be daytime, sunny-day power. It’s a complementary situation.”
    The Buehlers’ homesteading journey took an unexpected turn last year. After moving into another house nearby, they were considering the fate of the hobby farm they had nurtured through the years. Inspired by friends’ constant how-to questions about gardening and keeping livestock, the couple decided to transform the property into the Mississippi Modern Homestead Center. Its function is to provide a public forum for sharing homestead experiences, information and hands-on demonstrations.
    “We had the idea to make this a teaching model of what anybody can do on whatever scale they want to do it,” Mike said.
    The center opened in January to host beginner-level workshops in topics such as chicken and goat keeping, home cheese making, cooking, food preservation, first aid, sewing, vegetable fermentation, fishing and homemade natural cleaners.
    “This is cottage knowledge. People who have a knack for something come here and show somebody else how to do it,” Alison said.
    The center offers space for meetings, retreats, workshops and special events, plus overnight accommodations for up to 25.
    So far the center has hosted a women’s wellness retreat, a crafts festival, numerous workshops led by various instructors, as well as Farmstay events where families can try out hobby farming for a weekend.
    Events set for this summer include youth camps that emphasize learning and creativity.
    Judging from the center’s success in attracting people from Mississippi and several other states, it seems many crave basic knowledge in hobby farming and homesteading.
    “I think one of the reasons people are coming is they are curious about practical know-how that our generation has lost,” Alison said. “We’re recognizing that [these skills] are going to be gone if we don’t reclaim them.”
    The Buehlers also welcome requests for workshop topics. Alison has plans to cluster themed workshops to attract families who want to learn together.
    The Buehlers hope the center will help keep alive the rural traditions that sustained previous generations of Mississippians but have faded from modern life.
    “To me, this is a place to celebrate some of the best of Mississippi—food, practical know-how, people and rural living. It’s what Mississippians are good at,” Alison said.
    The Mississippi Modern Homestead Center is located at 402 Lake Valley Drive, just west of Starkville. For more information, call 662-694-0124 or go to www.msmodernhomestead.com.

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