Homesteader of the Month: Cathy

Our Homesteader of the Month is Cathy from Ervindale Farm! Cathy volunteers on the social media team here at HOM and contributes valuable and informative content to our website. We’re very happy to have here with us and share her story with you.

“Hi everyone! I’m Cathy Ervin, 31, married to my high-school sweetheart, Anthony, fur-momma to Axle Stanley (husky) and Duke Mapleton (chocolate lab). Soon-to-be momma to Baby Ervin No. 1!! My husband and I grew up in the tri-cities area, neither of us having any official ties to farming/homesteading even though we grew up in a predominant farming community. In the last few years we officially settled on the “west-side” of Kalamazoo on the outskirts of Bloomingdale (region 6A).

In 2012 I was 2 years into my PhD program at the University of Michigan, we had just moved into a cute little subdivision in the greater-Novi-area and we became the neighborhood hippies when we installed both a clothesline AND a front-yard garden (gasp!). Our first garden (4 boxes at 4×6 feet) was our gateway to healthy cooking & eating, locally sourcing our foods, learning about preservation, and general yearning for sustainability. Before that first garden I had no idea what swiss chard was and had no idea how back-breaking bush beans could be…

I eventually finished graduate school and got a job in Kalamazoo which allowed us to find our current home on 32 acres. 2017 brought a new 50 x 100 garden and 14 chickens. In 2019 we added nearly 50 fruit trees, an entire 50-foot row in our garden was dedicated to blueberries, and some hardy kiwi to our property.  We even raised our first batch of pasture-raised pork (six hogs total).

In 2020 we are now up to 50+ laying birds, 10 pigs and broiler chicks both to arrive within the month, and our garden has grown to nearly twice its original size now including veggies, fruits, and cut flowers. 2020 also officially brought our new homestead name: Ervindale Farm & Homestead and the happy news that we will be welcoming our first baby in August.

The primary goal for us is to know our food. Growing it all ourselves is the ultimate goal, but for now, we are focused on raising/growing/foraging what we can and being aware of where we source the rest. Key aspects that go into our decisions include locality, sustainability, and like-minded practices (beyond-organic and pasture-raised animal products). It has been a wonderful pleasure being able to supply friends, families, coworkers, and neighbors with produce, eggs, and pork (and soon chicken too!). We can’t wait to see what’s next for us!”

HOM: What are you looking forward to growing in the garden this year? 

CATHY: I feel like this question is a little bit of a trick. If I pick peppers, and the potatoes find out – I might have a mutiny…

Honestly, I’m excited about a lot of things for different reasons. I always love growing tomatoes because they, along with cucumbers for pickles, are the primary crop that I preserve. I love growing anything I can ferment, such as peppers for hot sauce, cabbage for sauerkraut or kimchi, string beans for dilly beans, etc… I am very excited about some of the potato, carrot, onion, and squash varieties we have this year, as it’s always an experiment to see just how long we can store goods for the next year.

An exciting first-time crop for us is okra – we tried some, fresh, at a roadside stand when we visited Georgia in December and it was quite tasty! We are also growing a dry corn, which is intended to be milled and used as corn meal.

Last year I had success “preserving” basil. Particularly, Thai basil. I have an amazing recipe for Pad Grapow Chicken (Thai Basil Chicken) that we both love. I pack the dish with Thai chilis and Thai basil and it creates this wonderful dish full of flavor that will make you sweat… but Thai basil is not always easy to procure during the winter months. Last year I tried a quick blanch followed by a “towel drying” to ring out excess water, then I sealed the basil in food-saver bags. The basil definitely gets darker due to being frozen, but the flavor was still there when I made this dish during the wintertime. Now, I have a goal to grow and preserve MUCH MORE basil.  

I am also adding several new flower varieties to my cut flower garden. Two, in particular, that I am excited about for their cross-functional benefits are calendula and chamomile.

 

HOM: What is a big goal you have for the farm? What’s your ultimate dream?

CATHY: I admit, Anthony is the dreamer in this relationship. He can see the end-product before it’s even fully conceptualized whereas I need more concrete help seeing where we are going and exactly how we will get there. I thought he was crazy when he wanted chickens. Then he wanted pigs. Then the garden wasn’t big enough. Then the coop was too heavy, and he needed to build another. And another. And another. Things (including the coop evolution) are always improving, and he is really amazing at re-purposing materials, but I fully admit that he sees the big picture much sooner than I can.

I cannot wait until our farm produces more meat products (adding chickens this year in addition to pork) but also until we have our own homegrown fruit. Last year we added nearly 50 new fruit trees including apples, pears, mulberries, plums, peaches, nectarines, and cherries. This investment should start being fruitful (hah!) in 3-5 years. Oh my goodness, and bees! I’d love to have bees on the property, even if we don’t take up beekeeping ourselves, if we could find someone who is local who wants to keep  some hives here, that would be amazing.

We also would like to improve our seed starting and season extension set up. This would require a greenhouse or high tunnel. And, a tractor would be very helpful – we have a big field in the back of our property that we let grow wild. The monarchs and wildlife love it, but ultimately, we’d love to graze animals back there. For now, it’s just overgrown and needs some TLC, and a brush-hog would be SUPER helpful.

We both would like to add at least one pond to our property as well. This would be beneficial in many ways – we could stock our own fish, have a swimming hole, better support waterfowl (Yay! More ducks!), could be used as a water source for the garden, and would likely help make some of our property more accessible by localizing where the spring melt/rain fall drains.

Ultimately, this long-winded answer is getting me to the ultimate dream of raising our family with an awareness of where our food comes from, what good food is, and how we can make this world just a little better. I love the mantra of supporting local farmers & businesses while we work to “save the bees, plant the trees, clean the seas”.  

 

HOM: Which chicken breed is your favorite and why?

CATHY: The kind that doesn’t jump the fence, doesn’t peck me in the legs, is highly productive, and well-behaved. Haha! Honestly, I love the variety of color that our Easter Eggers provide, but ISA Browns/Cinnamon queens are just so reliable and docile (and generally don’t care to try to escape the electric fencing). We don’t breed our own chicks (yet) so really a reliable layer is what we are looking for.

 

HOM: What is your advice for the novice homesteader?

CATHY: Never stop learning. Read (and watch!) as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to try new things. It’s very likely that if you plant things, SOMETHING will grow. And, honestly, it’s OK if you don’t want to, or if you can’t, “do it all”, particularly at first. You don’t have to jump in and instantly be making all your own homemade goodies, growing all your own veg and meats, foraging mushrooms and other wild edibles, and playing in the dirt all day long. I strongly suggest you try some things and find out what speaks to you – what makes your heart happy?? We love eating things we know we grew. We love cultivating the soil and finding worms and seeing the bees buzzing & eating around new blooms. I particularly love that we eat our own squash, carrots, and potatoes from the previous season into May of the next year. Some people focus on animals, some on flowers, some on baking – find what works for you! Another point I tell people is that there are several ways to grow successful gardens… What works for me may not work for someone else, and that is OK. Again, keep trying new things and find what works for you!

 

HOM: You have written some wonderful articles for the community such as Broccoli Sprouts: Why You Should Eat Them & How To Grow Them At Home. Did you learn about these topics on your own or do you have a formal education in science? 

CATHY: I’d say the answer is both. I have a PhD in Bioinorganic Chemistry from the University of Michigan and I work full time as an analytical chemist in Veterinary Medicine (R&D). I love what I do and am even more blessed to be able to garden, cook, and adventure through homesteading as a hobby… whereas it is Anthony’s primary occupation (although, his distribution of work will be greatly challenged when he adds “primary caregiver” to his list of roles in August).

As for the blogs (Broccoli sprouts & fermentation) these are side passions as well. I love the learn the science behind why we should (or shouldn’t) eat certain things. Early in my pregnancy I was told not to eat soft cheese. I, in no way, want to put our baby at risk, but my analytical brain wanted to know WHY I could no longer eat soft cheese. The doctor told me candidly that the issue was the unpasteurized milk used to make the cheese leads to an increased risk of listeria in the final cheese product. While not pregnant, people can usually fight of listeria with little concern, but to a fetus/developing baby, it can be more serious. My doctor told me that most people do not care to know why, so it’s easier to tell them “no soft cheese”; however, in my case, she told me that if I was willing to do a little more research (reading the label) I could have any cheese, with no concern, that was made from pasteurized milk. Therefore, the ONLY cheese I have avoided during this pregnancy is brie – I have had luck finding goat, feta, and other cheeses all made from pasteurized milk.

For broccoli sprouts, I learned about this while listening to a podcast by Dr. Rhonda Patrick. She is an amazing abundance of information with a really impressive social media presence. To be honest, she tends to go TOO MUCH into the science (even for me… !!) but, she knows her stuff! Fermentation is a big interest to me as well, although I’m not an expert by any means. I love to learn about why wine is alcoholic but kombucha is not, if they are both fermentation products? The biochemistry and mechanistic pathways behind how these super-foods are “made” and why they are so darn good for us is very interesting to me. Also, making a good batch of kombucha with a good flavor profile and the right amount of carbonation is a great challenge… I will admit I’ve cleaned much kombucha off my pantry walls/ceiling. (Warning: kiwi is NOT a polite opponent to the beginning home kombucha brewer!)

 

HOM: What are some benefits to homesteading in Michigan? What are things you like about it and what are some things you dislike?

CATHY: Both my husband and I are born & bred in Michigan. He left the state for undergrad and I lived in Scotland for a short while, but we are both happy to be settling down here. However, I think we are both very adaptable folks and, as long as we can bring our pups, we are both fairly confident we could learn to adapt if the necessity arose for us to move elsewhere.

We love Michigan, we love being near family, and we love being part of a community. One of the biggest factors for staying in Michigan is for family, but the homesteading opportunities are plentiful and a bonus too. There are tons of wild things I am continuing to learn about and how to identify, and we were lucky enough to find a lot of land (just under 32 acres) that fit our budget, our dream, and my acceptable commute-time to work. Also, we can grow so much here (from peaches to winter squash!). Of course, the colder winters mean some tender perennials won’t make it like they may in the lower regions, but we are learning every year.

I like to think of Michigan as a Goldilocks situation – we get some cold weather, but we also get some very hot days. We get rain, but it also dries out a bit in the summer. We don’t have the longest growing season, but we have more than 4 hours of daylight in the winter. We have some issues with flooding and summer storms are known to bring some hail & a few errant tornadoes, but our tornadoes have historically been minor compared to the plains, we (usually) don’t experience earthquakes, generally our droughts are very mild compared to other locations, and by the time we’re hit with residual hurricane weather, things just get a bit soggy.

Additionally, we have a decently long growing season. For us, we start our super early perennial flowers as early as Jan/Feb, most veg seeds by April, and are planting out by Memorial Day. Our harvest times can stretch into October and I often find I’m still processing things in November. This gives just a few “off” months where we’re planning & perusing seed catalogs for the next year. Our warm season also corresponds to enough time to raise pasture-raised pork (5-6 months) and a few batches of broiler chickens without overwintering – which is great for us.

I suppose the biggest downside that comes to mind right now is that we can still have some really cold weather in Michigan, even as late as May. It’s hard when you see so many wonderful gardens and plots being planted on social media in lower regions, and people showing their fresh tomatoes by mid-May; however, this year has served as a good example that patience is a virtue. We had frost as late as May 13th! While others were harvesting their first tomatoes, we were trying to keep our kale from freezing… A very good reminder that there is a reason we set a goal of planting around Memorial day, and anything that goes out sooner will need MUCH more attention & likely a parka… 

Thank you for sharing with us, Cathy! You can follow Cathy on Instagram at @ervindale.farm.

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