Urban Homesteaders

For these St. Louis homesteaders, getting their hands dirty not only a way of lifeit’s a labor of love.

 

Just a few years ago, St. Louisans interested in growing and preserving their own food had to do some legwork to find like-minded souls. But as the urban homestead movement has gained traction, conversations about seeds, canning, yeast cultures and chicken poop have moved in from the fringes. These five STL homesteaders all started out small, gradually adding layers to the hobby that initially launched them into the sustainable lifestyle. Homebrewing leads to tending an orchard; gardening leads to pickling; chickens lead to bees. Like many who embrace sustainable lifestyles, these local men and women have discovered that their desire to nurture living things is universal—and it’s a love worth getting a little dirt under your fingernails for.

 

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The Bee Charmer

Miranda Duschack, 32

FAMILY HISTORY PLAYED a big role in Miranda Duschack’s decision to go into beekeeping in 2006. Both her parents were hobbyists‰ÛÓshe remembers watching her dad charm bees when she was a child‰ÛÓ and her great-grandfather kept bees, too.

Her passion for the process is immediately evident‰ÛÓespecially when she tells you she chooses not to wear gloves while harvesting, for fear of losing the tactile interaction that makes this charmer love her bees so much. “I try to manipulate them as much as possible without gloves,” she says, for example, patting their backs and touching their antennae. “It’s incredibly soothing just to watch them.”

When the Wisconsin native moved to St. Louis in 2010, she became the beekeeper at New Roots Urban Farm, which helped recruit her to the region. She works for a university by day, but dreams about the side business she and her partner will soon be starting on a five-plot property they recently purchased in South City. They’ll have floral crops, vegetables and, of course, bees.

“Bees are like us; they love pretty flowers and honey. But you don’t control them,” she cautions. “You just produce an environment they like and that’s healthy for them.” This means providing an open flight path to and from a location where they can be hidden and unmolested. Nearby flowers and flowering trees are ideal, and it’s a good idea to provide a birdbath or chicken waterer scented with essential oils like lemongrass.

Done right, a healthy hive will have a population of 60,000 bees at the height of summer. The sheer number creates a challenge because bee colonies grow exponentially. “If they’re healthy, they divide. In nature, half to two-thirds of the bees fly away,” Duschack explains. Thus, the biggest challenge of all is avoiding swarming. Not only would a swarm situation cost money (you paid for those bees, after all), but it would also likely freak out the neighbors. Dividing the hive is the best way to prevent the swarm effect.

Harvest is a fun but time-consuming process, even with modern amenities like Duschack’s four-frame motorized extractor. It also requires a very clean, insect-proof location, because the bees aren’t into sharing their honey with people. Duschack is philosophical about it. “We’re basically stealing,” she explains. “I feel incredibly grateful, and I’m conscientious about leaving some for the bees.” Giving honey away is a joy for Duschack, but of course eating it is even more enjoyable. Her top cooking tip: “Honey is great drizzled liberally over a chicken that you then roast,” she says.

Duschack’s tips for starting your own hive.

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The Cannery

The Sadicario Family

FOR THE PAST THREE and a half years, Margaret Sadicario’s family has adopted an agrarian lifestyle that’s similar, in many ways, to the ecologically minded farmers she met while doing international human rights work in southern Mexico. Her drive to mirror their care for nature was matched by her husband, Dan, an environmentalist and filmmaker.

Together, they created a mini-farm in their Kirkwood yard, complete with garden beds, fruit trees, edible landscaping and a chicken coop large enough to hold quite a flock. Sadicario’s family raises chickens for both eggs and meat (though she admits butchering birds in a suburban neighborhood is challenging). This spring, she became a beekeeper.

Sadicario’s growing season never really ends. Even over the winter, she uses cold frames for lettuce and calls having a greenhouse “a game-changer.” Spring planting means sowing seeds from companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds; summer is time for preserving tomatoes by roasting and freezing. She finds it “exciting to grow 10 varieties of everything” on the family’s small plot ( just a tenth of an acre)‰ÛÓand despite the many plants yielding a bountiful harvest, her family pretty much eats all the produce as it comes in. In particular, her kids devour sugar snap peas and watermelon, and they love to harvest the potatoes.

Most urban homesteaders share their passion with a circle of like-minded friends, but thanks to her husband’s filmmaking background, Sadicario reaches a wider audience with film projects like “Ask Before You Eat,” a series of short documentaries produced by Slow Food St. Louis. The Sadicarios’ company, Gus and Wes Productions, has also made productions for conservation organizations like Magnificent Missouri and Audubon Missouri. Their upcoming project features more farmers.

“Being out in nature is so good for your health,” says Sadicario, a stay-at-home mom, when explaining part of the appeal of a homesteading lifestyle. She’s also conscious of the benefits of using fewer resources to feed her family. “Raising chickens allows me to have a smaller ecological footprint,” she says. But she admits that sometimes it can be a bit surreal combining the busy life of a mother and filmmaker with her ag alter-ego. “I feel like I’m wearing high heels in a chicken coop,” she jokes. But it’s not a complaint. “You have to have a willingness to get dirty.”

Sadicario shares some pointers on keeping your own backyard chickens.

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The Brew House

Tim and Cassandra Hage, 28 &30

ONCE UPON A TIME, Cassie Hage was a vegan and Tim Hage was a meat-eating homebrewer who was not into gardening. The secret to their happily-ever-after tale of backyard agricultural bliss? “We compromised on a lot of things,” Cassie says with a laugh. She gradually came back to meat and has even negotiated adding a rabbit hutch and chicken coop so the pair can raise and butcher their own animals. He broadened his alcohol horizons to include fruit ciders and mead‰ÛÓand eventually redesigned the backyard to incorporate berries, fruit trees, beehives and vegetables.

Their starting point was a mutual love of being active outside. When they moved into their South City house three years ago, they started dabbling by adding dwarf peach and cherry trees. The idea of growing produce that could go into beer and honey wine appealed to Tim, who was brewing with his older brothers even before he hit drinking age. His ambitious winter roster of beers included a Belgian tripel and double, dry-hopped ESB and a doppelbock. The latter, he says, “Is the only lager I’ve ever done, and it’s actually one of the best beers I’ve ever done.”

He uses original malts because he likes their stronger flavor and character, and he brews in 10-gallon batches (most homebrewers do five gallons at a time). His already strong sense of adventure was piqued by the bounty of last year’s harvest (including 11 gallons of honey and 250 pounds of sweet white peaches). The results: 10 gallons of peach mead, plus pear cider, pear honey wine, sour cherry wine and more.

Meanwhile, Cassie, whose days are filled with thoughts of sustainability and environmentalism as director of St. Louis Earth Day, got her vegetable garden: 300 square feet of tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, cabbage, kale, chard, turnips, mustard greens, beans and more. “Over the years, Cassie has developed a good succession plan from spring to November,” says Tim, referring to the system of sowing, harvesting and replacing a series of plants throughout a single growing season. Her go-to methods for preserving are freezing and dehydrating, but for years she’s been practicing canning, using old cookbooks for the recipes and websites for modern instructions. “This is the first year we’ve nailed it,” she says. Her favorites: pickled green beans, “just scrumptious” peppers and jellies that make a delicious glaze on meats. His favorite: sauerkraut.

When asked what’s next on their agenda, it’s Tim‰ÛÓthe former non-gardener who earns a living as a financial analyst‰ÛÓwho chimes in: “We’re going to build a very small pergola and grow arctic kiwi, the closest fruit to grapes, for wine production.”

The Hages share step-by-step instructions for growing sprouts right in your kitchen.

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The Chicken Tenders

The Sadicario Family

FOR THE PAST THREE and a half years, Margaret Sadicario’s family has adopted an agrarian lifestyle that’s similar, in many ways, to the ecologically minded farmers she met while doing international human rights work in southern Mexico. Her drive to mirror their care for nature was matched by her husband, Dan, an environmentalist and filmmaker.

Together, they created a mini-farm in their Kirkwood yard, complete with garden beds, fruit trees, edible landscaping and a chicken coop large enough to hold quite a flock. Sadicario’s family raises chickens for both eggs and meat (though she admits butchering birds in a suburban neighborhood is challenging). This spring, she became a beekeeper.

Sadicario’s growing season never really ends. Even over the winter, she uses cold frames for lettuce and calls having a greenhouse “a game-changer.” Spring planting means sowing seeds from companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds; summer is time for preserving tomatoes by roasting and freezing. She finds it “exciting to grow 10 varieties of everything” on the family’s small plot ( just a tenth of an acre)‰ÛÓand despite the many plants yielding a bountiful harvest, her family pretty much eats all the produce as it comes in. In particular, her kids devour sugar snap peas and watermelon, and they love to harvest the potatoes.

Most urban homesteaders share their passion with a circle of like-minded friends, but thanks to her husband’s filmmaking background, Sadicario reaches a wider audience with film projects like “Ask Before You Eat,” a series of short documentaries produced by Slow Food St. Louis. The Sadicarios’ company, Gus and Wes Productions, has also made productions for conservation organizations like Magnificent Missouri and Audubon Missouri. Their upcoming project features more farmers.

“Being out in nature is so good for your health,” says Sadicario, a stay-at-home mom, when explaining part of the appeal of a homesteading lifestyle. She’s also conscious of the benefits of using fewer resources to feed her family. “Raising chickens allows me to have a smaller ecological footprint,” she says. But she admits that sometimes it can be a bit surreal combining the busy life of a mother and filmmaker with her ag alter-ego. “I feel like I’m wearing high heels in a chicken coop,” she jokes. But it’s not a complaint. “You have to have a willingness to get dirty.”

Sadicario shares some pointers on keeping your own backyard chickens.

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The Purist

Angie Meara, 42

ANGIE MEARA’S LIFE is a balance between minimizing her family’s impact on the environment and maximizing their nourishment on all levels. It’s a philosophy that carries over to everything, from school to toothpaste to food to skincare

The do-it-yourself ethic started in childhood, though Meara didn’t fully embrace it until she was pregnant with her oldest child, Olive, now age 6. She became disenchanted with conventional prenatal and birth practices, and as she immersed herself in the home birthing community, she and her husband, Sean, realized that “bringing responsibility back into our home resonated with us.” Over time‰ÛÓand a second child, 3-year-old Van‰ÛÓMeara discovered unlimited ways she could reduce her family’s intake of processed foods and their exposure to chemicals in everyday products. One of her favorite methods is fermentation, which is why she jokes, “I’m constantly making something on the stove!” Often, that something is kombucha, a fermented sweetened tea that Meara hopes one day to translate into a business. She also ferments using a specially designed Pickl-it jar to create an anaerobic environment for kefir, sauerkraut, carrots, grains and more. “It has completely changed my culturing,” Meara says.

Her family avoids refined sugars and food dyes and uses essential oils and natural ingredients instead for personal care products like toothpaste and hair detangler. She makes laundry soap, shampoo and even deodorant. “I can whip it up with a spoon and a bowl in the kitchen,” she says nonchalantly. There are some drawbacks to avoiding the corner store. For example, Meara says, “It does kind of suck when you’re running low on something and you don’t see a window of time opening up.” That’s where trading comes in: “I just traded vanilla extract for goat milk bar soap.”

Meara’s advice for beginners is to start small, especially if a bump in the road is what motivated a reevaluation of your lifestyle. The empowerment of success will fuel other changes. She knows this first hand, from a perplexing and stubborn skin rash that went away after she focused on a detoxifying lifestyle and diet. The full-time mom does occasionally give herself a break, letting the fermenting beverages go dormant and putting the sourdough bread starter in the fridge. But never permanently‰ÛÓshe’s too committed to the lifestyle to complain about the extra work. “I might have to go through a few more steps,” she says, “but that’s okay.”

Meara teaches us how to brew homemade kombucha.

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Photo credit: Carmen Troesser

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