WHEN THE SUN rose, a young Ruthie Pepler and her grandmother were already out of bed. On those weekends in Somerset County, a part of rural New Jersey, now several decades in the past, Ruthie says they always followed the same routine: First, they’d spend the morning hours picking strawberries. Then, on the way home, they’d stop by to see a friend of her grandmother’s, who would sell them a pint of heavy cream. On another part of the homestead, there were tall stalks of asparagus, and Ruthie remembers marveling at the fact that they could just walk along the rows and cut the tops without bending down. Once home, they’d make a pot of oatmeal with the cream, and her grandmother would press a pat of butter in the middle, and they’d eat the whole thing with brown sugar and strawberries.
It’s a fond memory, one that Ruthie describes in vivid detail over the phone from the farm she now operates with her husband and daughter, Dogwood Hills Guest Farm, in Harriet. It’s also a memory that doesn’t seem far from how they live their life on the farm today. Even though their work on the farm keeps them plenty busy—asked what she and her daughter Grace had been up to that morning, Ruthie rattles off a three-minute list of activities, ranging from milking the cows to growing new fodder to feed the animals—they don’t try to do everything. Much in the same way as it’d been in Somerset County, there are other people in the community whom they rely on: There’s the older woman up the road who specializes in mending, for instance. Another, not too far up the road, has mastered the art of canning. Still another is an avid quilter.
For most of us, under normal circumstances, this might sound like a different world—or at least several worlds removed from our daily life of at-home delivery and easy convenience. Under our present circumstances, however, in a time of isolation and empty grocery shelves, those sorts of tried-and-true homesteading activities—bread-making, container gardens and the like—have returned to favor.
But while there’s some utility for these activities, Ruthie says the reason for adopting these homestead activities is not, strictly soaking, DIY, or “Do It Yourself.” Rather, as she learned from her grandmother, it’s about doing what you can for your community, and the importance of sharing what you had with your neighbors. Although such phrasing which doesn’t lend itself to acronyms (DWYCFYC, etc.), those lessons are so very important—arguably now more than ever.
For a primer on the most fundamental homestead basics—soda bread, container gardens and more—we asked Ruthie to share a few tips.
“LET’S START WITH the smell of bread baking in the kitchen,” Ruthie says. “I think that, in and of itself, is probably enough. It brings people together. Whether it’s husband and wife or roommates or parents and kids, you sit there, and you make a meal together. I mean, Grace and I cook together all the time. She’s doing one thing; I’m doing the other. We’re sitting there chatting and talking. And there’s that contact we’re so far away from right now. You have to put your cellphone down when you’re kneading out bread and you’re slicing onions and you’re making gravy, and you know, you have to take a step away. It’s the tactile, it’s the communication that’s happening.
Bread-making is not something you do when you come home from work at 5:30 p.m. There are ways that you can get around it, but you’re talking about a rising process. It takes a little bit more time. But it’s something you can definitely do on the weekend if you’re home. When you’re doing Sunday dinner, you start your bread first, then you do your meal prep, so that your bread is rising and doing all its things that it needs to do. So, why? You can make fresh bread each day, no preservatives. You’re controlling what’s in it.”
IRISH SODA BREAD (FROM BOB’S RED MILL)
4 cups Gluten Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour 3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes and chilled
2 cups buttermilk, cold
2 1⁄2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Set a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 400 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, add the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk to combine. Add the cubed butter to the flour mixture, and use a pastry cutter or a fork to work the butter until it becomes the size of small peas. Add the buttermilk and egg to a small mixing bowl, and whisk to combine. Then pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture, and use a spatula to work the dough until it starts to come together.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Form the dough into a 7-inch round, and place in a cast-iron skillet. Using a sharp knife, score a cross from end to end into the center of the loaf that’s 1 inch deep. Place the skillet into the oven, and bake the bread for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the loaf has browned, is dry to the touch and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
Remove from the oven, and place on a baking rack. Brush the loaf with melted butter if desired.
Want to rise to the occasion? Try this UAEX guide to getting a rise out of sourdough: uaex.edu/counties/miller/news/fcs/grains-breads/sourdough-starting-place-for-more.aspx
“WHY? BECAUSE CROPS are seasonal,” Ruthie says. “We’re spoiled. Now you have people who are growing [produce] in greenhouses here in Arkansas— and that’s great. That has extended our season. But even eggs are seasonal. During the winter, when the days are short, the chickens stop laying eggs naturally unless you put a light in the henhouse. They need like 12 to 14 hours of daylight to start producing eggs. We’re so used to just having what we want when we want it, but there’s reasons that those things are available. There’s a reason they’re in season when they are.
“If we start thinking to eat seasonally, it’s also a step away from that instant gratification. In New Jersey, strawberry season is in June. Here, it’s earlier in May. The strawberries are coming on, you know, but you want to think, OK, how many strawberries do I need to provide for my family? Say I want to make strawberry sauce and frozen strawberries and strawberry jam to last my family of four through the year. What do I need to put up if I want to have, say, a jar of jam a week? What does my family use? Do I want a low-sugar option? Do I just want to make a strawberry sauce that we can put on ice cream? Or do I want to make jam that does have quite a bit of sugar in it? There are all these things to consider. What’s my focus? What do I want to do with it?”
1 pint strawberries, washed and cored
1⁄4 cup sugar
Place the strawberries in a saucepan, and add the sugar. Cook on low for 20 minutes. Remove the whole strawberries, and taste the sauce for sweetness. Reduce the sauce on low heat until it drips slowly (you can check this by dipping the back of a spoon into the sauce). Remove from the heat, and add the cooked strawberries back in.
Can you? Sure you can! Try this UAEX primer for preserving your preserves: uaex.edu/life-skills-wellness/food-safety/preservation/fruit-jellies.aspx
“I THINK IT’S really good to know how to do stuff,” Ruthie says. “I mean, that’s the knowledge of how things work, how they come together—to have an understanding that I could do this for myself if I needed to. I think that we’re a full generation away from knowing how to farm and how to be self-sufficient. I think we need to get back to that. I think that, you know, without totally sounding like a prepper, I think we need to know how to be prepared. I mean, we’ve seen in a really short time how quickly things were not on the grocery shelf.
“It took me a second to realize that I didn’t have to worry about that. Like, OK, maybe in three weeks, we’ve got to go to the grocery store. Grace and I ventured out to check through the grocery store, and we decided nobody was wearing masks, so we weren’t going back for a while. When you’re prepared, you don’t panic.”
1 gallon whole milk, plus 1 quart
1⁄4 cup white vinegar, plus 2-3 tablespoons
Add 1 gallon of milk to a large pot, and heat uncovered on medium heat until the milk reaches 185 degrees. Remove from heat, and use a slotted spoon to gently agitate the milk, moving it back and forth, as you slowly add the white vinegar. Continue stirring as curds form, until they are small and no longer clumping. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. Using the slotted spoon, place the curds in a cheese cloth, and allow them to drain (be sure not to squeeze them).
Once you’ve removed all the curds, add 1 quart of milk and again bring to 185 degrees. Repeat the process above
with the mixture, using 2-3 tablespoons white vinegar. (Note: The mixture—aka whey— will be more opaque and yellow, and it won’t yield quite as many curds.) Any leftover whey is high in protein and is a great substitute for water if you’re making bread.
“WE HAVE A saying here: Nothing goes to waste on the farm,” Ruthie says. “There’s very little. We can put our garbage out every couple of weeks, and maybe we have a few bags. Nothing wet goes in the garbage. It all goes out to the compost. Now, we have the ability to do that. You know, we also feed any meat scraps or anything like that to the dogs.
“I could rip holes in the knees of my jeans and just toss out the jeans, [but] they’re my work jeans. Why not just stick a patch on them? You know, we buy so much stuff that’s so disposable. If we spend just a little bit more and buy a better quality and mend it, that’s worth doing. [When] you spend a little more on something, you make an investment in your clothing or your products. You would repair a lawnmower. You wouldn’t just chuck it out, you know. But we think of so many things that weren’t disposable 50 years ago. My goodness, they would never think of throwing it out. They’d’ve used it a hundred times over before they did.”
“If you’re going to put a patch on, you can use an iron-on patch. Simple,” Ruthie says. “Bring your seams as close together as possible. Trim the loose fibers that are hanging— the long strings—because you want your seam to be clean before you mend it. You can do a patch on the outside if you don’t care, or you can do it on the inside, and pull those seams as close together as you can, and iron it on from the inside. The other key thing: You need to use the same type of fabric for your patch as what you’re fixing, (if you’re fixing something that’s cotton, you don’t want to use polyester, or vice versa, because if you throw it in the dryer, it shrinks differently). That’s a good way to start.”
Want to get your mending fix? The internet abounds with how-to sewing videos—however, for a homegrown tutorial, try this 12-minute lesson on Sashiko mending from Bentonville’s Hillfolk: instagram.com/p/CAfQdtsAq7R
“SOMETHING SUPER EASY to start with is that salad bowl,” Ruthie says. “You can keep seeding and growing lettuces, especially if you’re doing them in the home on a window sill, because they don’t like to get that hot summer heat. They stay much nicer if you’re growing them in the house. A baker’s rack is a great thing to stick in front of your window with your different plants on it. They also have clip daylight bulbs. Maybe a cherry tomato plant, those little lunch- box peppers, because they don’t get real big, and you just snap off what you need.
“I think growing your own in that container garden is like the lack of waste. Everything gets used. You
use what you’re going to use for that meal, then you’re ready to go again. I think there’s a satisfaction to tending to something, watching it grow, just enjoying eating something you’re growing yourself. I think even in an apartment, that can be really helpful.”
“When you’re planting a small container, you’ve got to think about the size of your produce, so I’ve got cherry tomatoes and lunchbox peppers,” Ruthie says. “Even if you’ve got an apartment with a sunny window, find a long, narrow window box, and you can put basil, maybe a little oregano, in one. If you’ve got a baker’s rack, you can put a ton of stuff on that. You could go tomorrow to the nursery if you’re going to start. With seeds, you need to start them earlier. You want to start seeds so that they’re coming up when the sunlight is actually long enough in the day. But you can also use full-spectrum grow lights, so you could easily clip one of those to a baker’s rack. So, really, you could grow year-round.”
Can’t contain your excitement? Try this UAEX primer for seeding your container garden: uaex.edu/counties/white/news/horticulture/container-gardening.aspx
HOMESTEADING STRETCH GOAL
“READ A BOOK first. [My husband], Thomas, told me, do whatever you want. Make sure you research it first. I came home with stacks of books from the library.This is before we had the internet. I looked at all different kinds of chickens—what I wanted them to do, what I liked about them, how appropriate they were for my area. Find out what kind of chickens you want, whether your zoning will allow them. I think almost the entire state of Arkansas zoning allows for up to six hens. I think a couple of cities don’t, but I think if you’re in the suburbs, you can (Editor’s note: Most cities have ordinances specifically dealing with backyard fowl. Be sure to check with your city before moving forward on any projects.) Harrison started allowing chickens maybe eight years ago. You could have six chickens. No roosters, though, because you don’t need a rooster to make eggs.
“Chickens are easy. When I talk to people about homesteading, I’m like, You start with the chickens. They’re like, Should I get a cow? I’m like, No. Start small. And the other thing is, you add one thing at a time. For first-year gardening, you don’t plant like two rows of tomatoes. You know what I’m saying? Look at a square-foot garden, you know? Try and see what you want to grow, and see what grows really well. What do you have a green thumb for? Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”