Interview: Deborah Niemann
April 4th, 2012
Homegrown & Handmade
Deborah Niemann runs ‘Antiquity Oaks Farm’ with her family, in rural Illinois. She has just published her first book, “Homegrown and Handmade: A Practical Guide to More Self-Reliant Living”, (New Society Publishers, 2011).
Deborah and Lizzy
Deborah Niemann is a homesteader, writer, and self-sufficiency expert. In 2002, she relocated her family from the suburbs of Chicago to a 32 acre parcel on a creek “in the middle of nowhere”. Together, they built their own home and began growing the majority of their own food. Sheep, pigs, cattle, goats, chickens, and turkeys supply meat, eggs and dairy products, while an organic garden and orchard provides fruit and vegetables. A highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader, Deborah presents extensively on topics including soapmaking, breadbaking, cheesemaking, composting and homeschooling.
Deborah has graciously agreed to answer my questions, and share some insights about her experiences.
Chicago Farm & Table: You mention in your book that you transitioned from the Chicago suburbs to a rural setting in 2002. Many people these days dream of making that transition to a self sufficient farm lifestyle, and envy your courage. What motivated you, inspired you to make the transition?
Deborah Niemann: I actually started to change my lifestyle when I became pregnant with my first child in 1987. I was reading books about pregnancy and childbirth, and they all contained a chapter on nutrition. I started to wonder if maybe the reason I had been sick all the time as a child was because I didn’t have a very good diet. I ate a lot of processed foods! And I thought maybe my children would be healthier if we paid more attention to nutrition. So I started by reading labels and making a few things from scratch. A couple years later we became vegetarians when I learned about factory farmed meat, and each year we cleaned up our diet a little better. We started talking about moving to the country about nine years before we actually did it.
CF&T: Were you or your husband raised in a rural environment? What were some of the difficulties you experienced getting going?
DN: Both my husband and I grew up in small towns, so we had no practical experience in anything that we do now. Our parents had gardens, but we never helped out. I had this crazy idea that you just stick seeds in the ground and come back a few months later and harvest dinner. Obviously, we had a lot to learn! We probably made more mistakes than anyone should make because I expected it all to be really easy, and initially I didn’t do much research at all. People had been producing their own food for thousands of years. How hard could it be? Right?
CF&T: Did you have specific goals in mind in the beginning? How did your initial goals change over time?
DN: Initially we just wanted to grow our own food organically. I just thought about fruit trees, a garden, goats for milk, and chickens for eggs, but we have gone way farther than I ever expected to go. We make 100% of our own meat, eggs, dairy, and maple syrup, which I never expected. We were still vegetarians when we moved out here and had no plans to start eating meat, and I had no idea that you could make so many different cheeses from goat milk. And maple syrup was not even on my radar, but last year we bottled five gallons and went through almost all of it by the time sugaring season came around this year. We’re adding bees now, so we’re hoping to eliminate almost all of our sugar purchases. We’ve even started making our own wine. It has become a little addictive — the more we learn to do, the more we want to learn to do.
CF&T: You mention that your entire family participates in the activities of the farm. Can you talk about how this experience has impacted their lives, especially your children, and how it has played a role in the choices they make?
DN: I really think that they are far more responsible than most young adults. They understand that when you say you’re going to do something, you do it because people are counting on you. They also make healthier food choices because they know where food comes from. I’m pretty sure that my youngest would not be planning to go to medical school if she had not grown up out here. She got interested in doing necropsies (the veterinary version of an autopsy) on animals that died when she was only 14, and now she wants to become a pathologist or possibly a medical researcher.
CF&T: In retrospect, what have been some of the larger obstacles you’ve faced in your life as a farmer? Did you learn some lessons the hard way – through trial and error – and what has helped you face these challenges?
DN: We learned a lot of lessons the hard way! That’s why I write and speak about these topics. So much information has been lost in the last 50 years — information that would have been “common sense” to our ancestors. We had no tomatoes the first year and we had no idea why. We saw green tomatoes all summer, but never any red ones. The second year we realized the chickens were eating all of the tomatoes! So, although you can have free range chickens, you need a fence around your garden.
CF&T: What forms of support have you found to be most helpful? Has community support played a role?
DN: This is definitely not Grandma’s farm! Everyone around me is a conventional farmer, so they all think we’re weird. However, there is a wonderful online community of people across the U.S. and the world that is willing to help just like the good neighbors of olden times. My first few years out here, I belonged to an Internet group for everything — chickens, turkeys, goat, cows. In fact, I belonged to five online goat groups. And I can actually credit those people with saving the lives of more of my animals than any vet. Of course, not all advice is good advice, and not everyone is interested in doing things organically, so that’s a challenge, but I probably would have given up at some point if it were not for the online communities that have helped me.
CF&T: In your book, you talk about the number of skills that you’ve acquired: spinning and cheese making for example. You seem to have an enviable fearless attitude in regard to taking on new tasks and learning them from the ground up. Can you talk about what motivates or inspires you, and how you have learned to deal with frustration along the way?
DN: How appropriate that you mentioned two things that really did present me with challenges. I was having a terrible time learning to spin, and my daughter who was 10 at the time walked up and pretty much started spinning as if she’d been doing it her whole life. And I had a tough time with making hard cheeses like cheddar and parmesan, but my husband is really good at making them. Some people are just naturals for whatever reason. In the case of cheese, my husband is an engineer, and hard cheeses require very precise attention to temperature and time — if you want it to turn out like the cheese in the recipe rather than some unknown cheese that you can never duplicate. His attention to detail meant that he perfected hard cheeses long before I did, and I pretty much learned from him. I did perfect gjetost on my own because I had failed so miserably with the first batch, no one else had any interest in trying! After doing so many different things, the thought that is always in the back of my head is that we will figure out how to do whatever we want to do next. If we failed, we just need to read another book or find another mentor or try something different next time.
CF&T: In your book, you refer to the large amount of chemicals added to prepared foods, and the largely unknown long term effects of our exposure to those chemicals in our food chain. Can you talk about how that information has affected your lifestyle choices?
DN: I don’t eat at most national chains because I’ve read the ingredient lists on their websites, and I do try to stay away from them as much as possible. I have a pretty good knowledge of which ones are not as bad as others if I’m in a situation where I need to eat out, and of course, I prefer restaurants with real chefs who buy local ingredients, which is great fun when you’re traveling.
CF&T: You mention in your book that the main reason you wanted to grow your own food was because of safety, with nutrition as the next reason. Can you talk a little about that?
DN: I think our bodies can deal with poor nutrition — not enough nutrients — far better than it can deal with the barrage of chemicals that we are ingesting, inhaling, and absorbing daily in our modern world. People have been dealing with winter famine since the beginning of time, and our body actually can deal with that just fine. But in the last 50 years, we’ve started throwing thousands of chemicals at it that are poisons. A lot of them cause cancer and other diseases, but they’re still used. And the government has banned less than one percent, so if you’re buying commercial products, you are going to be getting those chemicals.
CF&T: Could you offer some advice to anyone who is just getting started in farm life, especially to those who have limited knowledge or skills to draw upon?
DN: Start slowly. Don’t try to do it all at once. And forgive yourself when you make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, but you learn from them and move on.
CF&T: Could you offer some suggestions to those who live in more congested urban environments and want to decrease their eco-footprint, and live more sustainably?
DN: Start with whatever you can do easily. It is easier to try new things when you’ve already seen success with other changes. Grow your own sprouts or herbs in your kitchen. Understand that the smallest changes can make a difference. If you grow a jar of sprouts every week, that’s 52 little plastic containers that will never have to be manufactured or trashed or recycled in a year — and you’ve just added a really nutritious food to your diet.
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