Hi! My name is Kelsey - I am a farmer, photographer, and educator. Sustainable living is my jam so today I want to share with you how my partner, Paul, and I got started with living la vida crunchy!
Living sustainably doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye. Getting to this point in our sustainable living journey took hours of reading and researching, months of trial and error, and years of grit and hard work. I want you to know three things:.
1. That our path hasn’t been perfect. We still throw plastic in our garbage can some days, and convenience still has its moments in my day to day routines.
2. That this process should be fun and not guilt-ridden. Feeling guilty is counterproductive to a sustainable life. If you are railing on yourself constantly for not getting it “right,” ask yourself how long can your willpower stand up to that negative self-talk? Carrying around “green guilt” is the opposite of sustainable.
3. You do not, and I repeat DO NOT, need acres of land, a farm, or a homestead to achieve a sustainable life. Although we have found our own slice of paradise on five acres, it doesn’t mean you can’t also work towards a sustainable life in a suburb or apartment building.
Are ready to learn how I got here? Let’s dive in!
As a child, I was always drawn towards the outdoors and nature. My mom and dad definitely lived in the “free-range” parenting camp. Our summers were spent up north where all we had was free time, a no-screens policy, and lots of woods to explore. My brother and I would honest to god get LOST in the forest. When I look back, I realize this time spent without structure led to a deep respect for the earth. Those beginnings also made the wilderness a place that always felt like home.
My two dearest childhood friends both had farms, one was a hobby farm, and the other was conventional. Every other day after school was spent running around on their acreage, saying hello to the cows or horses, and getting my hands dirty. Both of these girls were in 4-H, so even though I had no livestock to call my own, I desperately wanted to join the club. 4-H is a youth organization that instills a deep respect for animal husbandry, farming, and community building in towns across the US. From age 13 on, I would spend my summers at the county and state fair, eating cheese curds and competing in a range of categories. Ironically enough, this organization fostered my love of photography and theatre, both of which I went on to pursue in college.
I would be remiss not to add that my favorite books growing up were the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. My father read every single one to me, and I was fascinated with the pioneer life. I yearned to be able to work with my hands the way the characters in the books could. These people were solely responsible for their survival, from food to fabric, and the number of skills they possessed to make that possible was entrancing.
Documentary films are often the catalyst that result in people making massive shifts in their lives, for me that film was Forks Over Knives. The film covers the horrors of our meat industry as it stands now and touts a plant-based diet as the answer to ending animal suffering. While I know now that you don’t have to be vegan to live a zero-waste sustainable life, when I was 20 and fresh out on my own in big-city-Chicago I thought otherwise. Young impressionable Kelsey jumped head first into veganism for four terrible years.
2009, deep into the vegan diet, I was unable summit Pike's Peak (elevation: 14,259ft) due to extreme altitude sickness and exhaustion. In 2013, I was able to summit Mt. Whitney (elevation 14,505ft) and push through the altitude sickness while on the Paleo diet.
When I say terrible, I mean it. I lost my menstruation cycle, I had constant brain fog, and I was battling depression and anxiety. At the time I didn’t blame my diet, I just kept pushing a twenty-ton rock uphill by not providing my body what it needed to thrive all the while scrambling to find work as a professional actor and photographer.
Please know, that although veganism didn’t work for me, I’m not saying it also doesn’t work for everyone else. We are all on our own food journey, and it’s not my place to tell you whether you are right or wrong as you travel through yours.
My reasons for veganism shifted about two years in when I read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. The name Joel Salatin popped up on the page, and his style of farming sounded genuinely humane. No caged feeding operations, no damage to the environment, rather it helped the environment, and the meat was healthier for you too.
Graduated Magna Cum Laude Class from DePaul University in 2011 with a BFA in acting and a concentration in photography.
I took this new information and ran with it. Grass-fed, pasture-raised, and free-range entered my vocabulary with aplomb. Unfortunately, my heart sank when I did a Google search for local grass-fed options only to come up short and severely under budget. As a professional artist, you make very little money. I couldn’t even afford to put money into a retirement account, let alone spending $500+ on a quarter of grass-fed beef! Thus, my reasons for being vegan shifted dramatically. I couldn’t afford the better meat options; therefore, I chose not to eat it. My plant-based diet won out for another two miserable years.
To make ends meet, I worked at a gym behind the front desk as a customer service rep. We had so many different types of personal trainers coming and going, touting various diets and workout methods it would’ve made your head spin. Through all the noise, one diet started popping up more and more - Paleo. At first, I scoffed. I would literally have to cut out what makes up 60% of my diet - mainly bread, tofu, and rice. A no-grains way of eating would completely overhaul my food choices at the time! A dear friend jumped onto the bandwagon and reported good things. She then strategically left the book The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf at the front desk when I had a long shift ahead of me. This is where I like to say curiosity saved the Kelsey.
I picked up the book and started reading. Quickly I discovered this way of eating was right in line with the organic farming and animal welfare I read about with pasture-based farming. It asked that we eat in line with our biological needs, as well as the earth’s biological needs. It required that we know our farmers, that we choose meat that was raised in the way nature intended, and we get more deeply connected to how our ancestors lived and ate. I realized then the paleo movement wasn’t just a diet, it was a lifestyle.
Overnight I changed everything. I walked into Whole Foods after reading that book and bought myself a grass-fed steak and said - it’s time. At that moment, I realized I could cut back spending my money on unnecessary things like eating out or drinking and instead nourish my body and support the style of farming I believe in. That was the best steak I’ve ever had. Thus a new chapter in my life began.
My brain fog cleared, my menstruation cycle returned, my muscle mass skyrocketed, and my skin began to clear up. I got my hands on as much research as I could to understand more deeply why this way of eating and this lifestyle was better for me. More sunlight, more movement, more human connection, less screen time, less sugar, less yo-yo dieting. I stopped counting calories and started listening to my body. I stopped saying yes to everything and began setting better boundaries, so sleep became a priority. Then I got tested for Celiac’s, and my suspicions were confirmed, I was never meant to eat gluten and now I had solid proof to support my body in the right way.
Pastured free-range eggs are a major guidepost in the Paleo way of eating, and many figureheads in the movement had taken up raising their own chickens. My inner child started jumping up and down. In my head the perfect day consisted of waking up to gather eggs from my own backyard chickens, tending a gorgeous vegetable garden, and having my own piece of land to call home. At the time I was living in a two bedroom apartment in Chicago, traveling every week across the country to perform on stage, and in the in-between moments filming and directing my own web series. My life was literally the opposite of that. My heart knew it was time to make a major shift.
After this realization struck me, my partner, Paul, and I bounced around for three years before he found a job in southeastern Wisconsin. We went from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to Chicago to northern Wisconsin, and then we maintained a long distance relationship so I could finish up a major project back in Chicago. It was arduous, but it taught us how people truly make a place feel like home. We were home to each other, and that was all that mattered. Paul landing that full-time job was instrumental because, to afford a down payment on a home and secure a loan, one of us needed a solid 9 to 5. Our home search began.
We were able to take a few fun vacations - mostly outdoors of course!
The five-acres we now call Green Willow Homestead was a diamond in the rough. It came with everything we needed to get a farm started - outbuildings, a workshop, great spots for planting - but the house needed love. Paul and I are never ones to shy away from a project, so we made an offer the day it came on the market. Our offer was accepted, and I promptly started timelining when we could start raising chickens, get a garden in the ground, and open up a roadside farm stand. My stack of books on sustainable farming was sky-high, but I went through them like water. The whole farm-thing would take time, money, and hard work, but my heart was singing. That inner child was happier than she’d ever been.
As we moved into our home, I was reading Marie Kondo’s The Magic Art of Tidying Up and Bea Johnson’s The Zero-Waste Home. Both of these books stress the importance of letting go of unnecessary objects and consuming less to help the earth. It was minimalism meets eco-friendliness, and I loved it. There’s something about going through all your belongings for a big move that makes it the perfect time to pare down. My emotions were in the right place to be ruthless with our clothes, objects, furniture, and memory boxes. Aside from our big furniture items, we had only 10 medium sized boxes of stuff to keep with 10 medium-sized boxes of stuff going to Goodwill! I felt lighter. I felt freed. I felt ready for this next stage in my life. The minimalism bug had bitten me, and I was hooked.
The day we closed on our new home!
Now that we were closer to a metropolitan area, I had regular access to a cooperative food store where I could begin practicing low to no-waste grocery shopping. The bulk food section was so overwhelming to me at first! But I took a deep breath and went for it and have never looked back. Grocery shopping became a way for me to vote with my dollar every single week. It was empowering to feel like my money continually had a voice to reward the companies I knew that were doing better by the earth. As the political climate became more and more tumultuous and our representatives remained tone-deaf, this was a way for me to feel that I still had a voice that was being heard.
Paul and I then invested in a chest freezer so we could purchase grass-fed pasture-based meat in bulk. Although it felt expensive upfront, in the long run, it actually saved us $1/pound! It streamlined my grocery shopping too, and meal planning became a breeze. Lastly, buying meat in bulk cut down on the unnecessary packaging that meat has when purchased in a grocery store. We were able to request that our local butcher wrap everything in paper so we could compost or recycle it. Thinking back to that first moment hearing Joel Salatin’s name five years ago, this felt like such an amazing step in our sustainable living journey!
The first box of chicks came in 2015, the garden was up and running within that year, and the farm was starting to take shape.
The chickens really took to Paul...
I taught myself how to can and preserve food, make my own kombucha, and butcher my own chickens. Taking full responsibility for my food was invigorating. The first meal that we grew and raised ourselves entirely, crockpot chicken with Yukon gold potatoes, was a huge moment of success for me. We had reduced our carbon footprint exponentially, and I felt that through our sustainable lifestyle, we were doing our part to help the earth.
The farm officially opened in early 2018. We put together a cute little roadside farm stand for all our neighbors to come purchase organic produce and eggs on the honesty system. Since then, our chicken population has grown, and we can barely keep up with the demand for pastured eggs. Popcorn, potatoes, maple syrup, pumpkins, winter squash, homemade soap, and seeds are also available on a seasonal basis. Providing my community a place to purchase safe, wholesome, nutritious food brings me immense joy, and I look forward to the many years of farming ahead of me.
As you can see, my journey towards sustainable living has been eclectic. No, you don’t have to go Paleo. No, you don’t have to purchase five acres of land. No, you don’t have to grow all your own food. This story is just one of the many out there. Your story will be completely different, and that’s okay! All that matters is that we are working towards the same goal - to love and protect the earth so that generations to come have a healthy and vibrant place to call home.
I want to leave you with one final thought. This way of life is not a destination, it’s a constant journey of discovery and re-evaluation. There is no perfect sustainable zero-waste life to be lived, there is only the constant state of learning what is best for the earth and then making it happen. Here’s to working in tandem with nature’s gifts!
Thanks for stopping by Green Willow Homestead! From chicken rearing to composting, we've got our hands full and we love sharing what we've learned along the way. Follow along as we strive to live sustainably and turn these five acres from just property to a fully functioning small-scale homestead.
Grab the Ebook
1. Joe Salatin
2. Rachel Carson
3. Wendell Berry
4. Temple Grandin
5. Diana Rodgers
6. Bea Johnson
7. Allan Savory
Favorite Books of 2018
2. Bringing it to the Table
3. Holistic Management
4. The Small Scale Poultry Flock
5. Deep Work