Meigs County couple, neighbors live 21st-century self-sufficient lifestyle
By Gary Brock
Debbie Bullington stood in the kitchen of her Meigs County farm home preparing a breakfast of French toast, sausage, honey and fresh fruit. Most of the ingredients came from her farm.
She talked while cooking, explaining her and her husband Phil’s agriculture lifestyle, but explaining their commitment to a self-sustaining farm isn’t always easy.
“We would like to see a whole lot more people doing what we do. It has not been easy, but we are doing pretty good right now. It is all about taking the first step,” she said.
The Bullingtons are among a growing number of rural Americans collectively known as “homesteaders.”
But neither she nor Phil like that word, or even agree that it accurately describes their way of living. That is because they have been living a self-sustaining, self-sufficient agriculture lifestyle for more than 30 years. They are not new to the “movement.”
“I hate to keep using the word ‘homesteading.’ We try really hard to produce as much of our own food as much as we can. We recycle. Ninety-eight percent of the things in our home have come from estate sales, dumpsters, things people gave away,” she said.
“When you say ‘homesteading,’ it brings up so many different possibilities depending on who you say it to. If I say ‘homesteading’ to you, a certain picture comes to mind. And I am not sure we fit into that,” Phil said.
They use electricity, they shop at the grocery when they have to, and use the Internet when they need to.
“What is very important to us is to leave as small an environmental footprint as possible. There hasn’t been a chemical put on this farm in 40 years,” said Debbie, a Meigs County Master Gardener.
The Bullingtons are not the only rural residents in Meigs County living this self-sustaining lifestyle. Within just a few miles of them are more than a dozen families with similar farming practices.
She said they all grow, raise and preserve as much of their own food as they can.
“We trade with each other our surpluses and are all “locavores” who support everyone at the Athens Farmers Market. We all belong to two natural food co-ops (one in Iowa and the other in Pennsylvania) that delivers to our door all the grocery items we can’t make or grow ourselves. If only we could grow coffee in Ohio,” she lamented as she poured cups of coffee during breakfast.
The way to her heart
Debbie, 59, and Phil, 66, have been married 34 years. They have three children, two of them born at home. Their daughter, Lark, lives with her family in Colorado; Adam, the oldest, lives in Racine, Ohio; Ian, the youngest, graduated from Ohio University and lives in Athens.
Phil bought the 29-acre, 165-year-old farmhouse in 1977 and moved into it in 1978.
“I moved here in 1982,” Debbie said. “I was living in Nelsonville at the time and met Phil at a party, and that was it. We have been together ever since.”
Phil said their move toward a self-sufficient lifestyle developed since he bought the property.
“I was an avid Mother Earth News reader,” Phil said.
He said Issue 3 of Mother Earth had Carolyn and Ed Robinson’s “’Have-More’ Plan,” and it “turned on a lightbulb.”
“This was the first ‘back-to-the-earth’ wave in the late ’70s. Up until the time I met Phil, I might have canned once in my life. I never raised a cow or chickens — nothing,” Debbie said. “When we got here, I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to grow our own food and raise animals and have our kids at home? So, I wasn’t looking for it, it just kind of found me. I really appreciate Phil for that.”
Phil said that after they met, he invited her to his farm for dinner.
“I had beefalo (five-eighth beef, three-eighth buffalo) then, and the first time I brought her here to the farm, I fed her a beef rib steak,” he said.
For the Greenville, Ohio, girl who had spent almost no time on a farm, the steak was the turning point.
Although she worked a few years at the Pomeroy Library, most of her time has been spent on the farm.
“I am a homebody. I enjoy it. We try to live within our means, and we don’t need all that extra income. I was fortunate to be home when raising our kids,” Debbie said.
“We have had so much fun in this house. Our society has become so transient. People don’t put down roots any more,” she said. “In our yard, we have trees and each one has an incredible story to tell. Our roots here are deep.”
“When we first moved here, we were sort of thought of as the ‘freaks’ for how we lived here. We were surrounded by people who did not care about the environment. But as years went by, all of those people have left, and they have been replaced by herbalists, tree huggers and midwives,” Debbie said.
She said most of the men are self-employed or work on their farms, and most of the women are the ones who have paying jobs.
“The people here think of me as sort of the matriarch because of my age and experience,” she said. “To me, it looks like a new ‘back-to-the-land’ rush, just like the one Phil went through before.”
She said only one of the families is totally off the grid, meaning no electricity or gas.
“They all practice self-sufficiency to their own degree,” she said.
At any given time, she said, someone will call and say they are out of something. If she has it, she will share.
“You never know when a barter happens. Phil traded a wood stove for a cement mixer recently,” Debbie said.
Trying ‘about everything’
When asked about modern homesteading, Debbie was quick to explain, “We are just ordinary folks trying to live as cheaply as we can for our Earth, our family and our friends. It is so simple, really. I love to sew. I try to make all of our Christmas gifts, starting that in August. We try to find things at auctions and repurpose them. We try to be self-sufficient as much as we can.”
Phil said, “On this little ‘farm,’ we do have livestock, we have a garden, but no grain crops. We muddle through it with varying degrees of success.”
“We tried free-range chickens for the first time this year. We have coyotes, but didn’t have much trouble with them,” she said.
Debbie said they don’t really think of themselves as homesteaders since they don’t live “off the grid” completely. They have electricity. But they have tossed away one electronic device most Americans might find hard to live without: the cell phone.
Trial and error
While finishing breakfast in the farm home kitchen, Debbie and Phil talked about their livestock and the future.
“This sausage is from our own pigs,” Debbie said.
“We have a boar, sow and four piglets; a Jersey heifer and baby; and we put 26 broilers in the freezer last weekend. The blueberries are from a neighbor, but the raspberries from the store. There are some things, no matter how hard you try, you can’t grow here. We are not a tropical climate,” she laughed.
She said they got their first cow for Y2K, 16 years ago, “so we would have a source of milk.”
“I’ve tried raising cattle two or three times and the problem here is fencing,” Phil said.
Debbie said the have tried “almost everything” and that their way of farming is an ongoing learning experience.
The food they eat
The Bullingtons say a lack of chemicals used on their farm also improves the flavor and taste of their chicken and pork.
“People don’t know what real food tastes like anymore. It is a shame. If people sat down and had a meal of non-toxic, well-prepared food, I think they would never go back. I would have a hard time going back,” Debbie said.
They cook differently today than they did in the past, and “we are not hurting for cookbooks,” she said, motioning toward a shelf full of them. She also has her own three-ring binder full of personal recipes.
“We have our favorites,” she said. “We will get the main idea for a dish and then just go our own way.” She showed her collection of recipes, saying, “I have a variety of recipes, and added all of my own ideas into it.”
“We use a lot more olive oil than we used to, as opposed to vegetable or corn oil,” Phil said.
She added this is also more economical for them to cook all their own food and buy in bulk.
“Back when we were first together, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together, so, it was really out of necessity that we learned to cook our own food because we couldn’t afford to buy it,” she said. “People shouldn’t have to put up with their food being loaded with additives and chemicals. Back in the 1950s, what did people call organic food? They called it food.”
Walking hand-in-hand around their farm on the unusually warm November day, the Bullingtons pointed out their “people power” plow, their pigs, chickens, dairy cow, the changes they have made to their property over the years, and the buildings they want to convert for more self-sustaining uses in the future. For them, farming is always evolving, and enjoying together the life they lead.