What would it be like to ditch city life and live off the land? One former urbanite is giving it a go on 2 acres in southern Maine.
THOUGH SHARON KITCHENS SPENT some of her childhood in rural Arkansas and near farms in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, homesteading was never part of her grand plan. “I had a romantic vision of country life, very Charlotte’s Web, but I didn’t imagine myself doing it,” she says. Nevertheless, these days one finds her pulling carrots out of the ground, tending beehives, and toting chickens around the yard. “My friends laugh at the sight of me with a hen tucked under each arm,” she says. “But it feels so natural. It’s like they’re . . . my children!”
Before opting for a quieter existence in Maine, Kitchens, now 40, worked in the film industry in New York and Los Angeles. In 2008, she moved to a funky factory-turned-loft in Somerville’s Davis Square, where she joined a community-supported agriculture farm-share and a local fish-share and grew vegetables with neighbors on the roof. Finding herself drawn more and more to the idea of sustainable living, Kitchens decided it was time to commit. In 2011, she purchased an 1830s farmhouse with an attached barn and chicken coop on about 2 acres of land in Raymond, Maine, some 20 miles northwest of Portland.
That first spring, Kitchens — who writes two blogs, The Root for the Portland Press Herald, as well as her own, called Delicious Musings — planted two dwarf apple trees and two blueberry and two red raspberry bushes and built two raised beds for growing heirloom vegetables. She started with the basics — lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, carrots, beets — and, “for the fun of it,” green Hubbard squash and New England Pie pumpkins. Success came quickly with a 15-pound squash, more lettuce than she could want, and an overabundance of pumpkins. Luckily, pumpkins keep for a few months. “Holiday gifting involved a lot of baking,” she says.
The second year brought a third raised bed and more produce, including kale, cucumbers, peas, beans, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, corn, and watermelon. Her pride and joy that season, though, were the sunflowers. “There is something incredibly romantic to me about these beautiful, strong flowers hovering over the gardens.”
In January, equipped with her favorite seed catalogs and the journal in which she tracks her yield and lists ingredients in her favorite recipes, Kitchens decided what to grow in the spring. Mostly it’s a repeat of 2012, plus more varieties of herbs, some flowers to attract local pollinators, and sweet ground cherries, which she fell for on a recent visit to Shelburne Farms in Vermont. Her approach is simple. “I grow what I like to eat, share it with friends, and give the excess to the chickens.” (The chickens’ favorite, incidentally, is dinosaur kale. “They never get tired of it! That and blueberries.”)
The homestead’s 11 chickens have been with her since April 2012, arriving as chicks from an Iowa hatchery. (A 12th didn’t survive the trip.) She hired a handyman to enhance the existing chicken coop with a run to safeguard them from predators, and she built the nesting boxes herself. Now a year old, the chickens — named after Kitchens’s favorite female authors — have been laying eggs like mad. Kitchens has sold eggs to friends. “I love when friends send me photos of their egg sandwiches,” she says.
Six of the birds are Buff Orpingtons and five are black Australorps, both breeds chosen for their calm and friendly temperaments. “Once you talk to people who keep small backyard flocks like myself, you realize they can be beautiful,” Kitchens says of the birds. “Just look at illustrated guides to poultry breeds; they’re as gorgeous as peacocks.” The “gals,” as she calls them, have distinct personalities, too, providing lively fodder for blogging.
A graduate of bee school, Kitchens started two hives of Carniolan bees last year. She expected to harvest her first honey in summer 2013, but in February confirmed that one colony had been wiped out by an infestation of varroa mites. “We went into winter with 100 pounds of honey [in that hive], and then to have that happen, it was hard,” she says. Having decided to wait another year to harvest any honey, she’s ordered Russian hybrid honeybees for a replacement hive and plans to install a third come summer.
In 2013, Kitchens also expects to complete the course work for the master gardener program at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and to begin the volunteer requirement. She wants to “pay it forward” by helping immigrants at the Center for African Heritage with a community garden in Falmouth. As for what’s next on the homestead, “I think just to enjoy other people’s cows, goats, and pigs,” she says. “Yeah, this is it.”