Katherine & Chris
"If you told me years ago that I would be keeping chickens I wouldn't have believed you," Katherine says as she coaxes her hens from their yard to roost inside for the night. Not only does she have chickens, she also raises ducks and pigs, and tends to a large garden. Katherine lives in rural Pennsylvania, but grew up a city girl in Cleveland. "I would never leave this now though,” she beams.
Katherine is my mom’s sister, and they were kids in 1960s Cleveland. While their mom, my grandma, loves to garden she has always grown decorative plants, not edible plants. So growing up, food always came from the store, and all the veggies came in a can. The 50s and 60s were full of advertisements about how all the latest modern conveniences like canned and processed foods made cooking easier and faster, liberating women from the kitchen. My grandma had both her daughters by the age of 19, and worked outside of the house as a secretary. I can see how the promise of food fast would be very appealing, it was not always delicious however. Many of the veggies Katherine loves today she cringes at the memory of the canned versions from her childhood. Mushy canned spinach seems like a completely different substance than fresh spinach. And when food comes from cans and boxes it’s easy to have the illusion of being completely separate from nature. Like most of the industrial world, food production is far removed from the average person, often making it easy to give it no thought. That would eventually change for Katherine, as life took her in new directions.
In 1995, Katherine wanted more room for her family, and a bigger yard, and on a drive found she liked a small town about 2 hours from Cleveland. So she moved into a roughly 125 year old farmhouse with 15 acres of land in rural Pennsylvania. Her 4 children grew up there and she met her now-husband Chris in the area. Both the house and the community have truly become her home. She says there was definitely an adjustment period though, of getting used to having a significant drive to do just about anything, such as buying groceries. There was just no popping-to-the-store-for-a-gallon-of-milk. It’s a different mindset than living in the city, and so her relationship with food shifted a little.
Chris grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and his father kept a vegetable garden. It wasn’t something he gave much thought to as a kid, it’s just how things were. He only became interested in producing his own food when he began paying attention to processed foods as an adult. “Have you read the ingredients in things today?” Chris demands with raised eyebrows. Clearly he doesn’t trust all the additives and preservatives that can be found in packaged foods.
Chris convinced Katherine to start a vegetable garden in 2009. They both found that everything tasted better when it grown and eaten fresh right out of their backyard. Katherine just marvels at the flavor she gets. She laughs and tells the story of calling her mom after eating peas from her garden the first time and jokingly yelling at her “This is so much better than the stuff out of a can you used to give us!” Most of the produce really is more flavorful than what is often available in stores. That’s because most industrially produced agricultural crops are developed and grown for high yield, not flavor. When pushed to grow bigger and faster plants have less ability to develop flavor.
Once Katherine found out how great it was to have fresh veggies she was hooked. She has loved learning about everything that goes into her garden and the food that comes out of it. Now the garden has grown to a substantial source of their daily food. In 2017, when I followed her whole cycle, she grew tomatoes, wax peppers, jalapeños, red and white onions, cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, lima beans, peas, beets, green beans, asparagus, garlic, and blueberries.
After Katherine was on board with the garden, it didn’t take too much convincing five years later for Chris to add the chickens, ducks and pigs. Now they buy chicks every spring to add a generation to the flock, and keep them for several years until their egg production drops. With the size of their flock now they collect about 6-12 eggs every day. This is of course more than they can go through just the two of them and so they sell many of them in the community. Young pigs are bought every spring and raised until the fall. Once they reach about 275-300 pounds they’re slaughtered and sent out to be butchered. This year Katherine and Chris have two for themselves, and 5 others that have been requested for purchase by friends and neighbors.
Chris adds to their food by way of hunting. As a kid he went out with his dad and grandfather when they hunted, and he took a hunter safety class on a 3-day camp field trip in middle school. A curious mind, he’s always interested in learning new things. Recently he started archery hunting, and last fall he went bear hunting for the first time. He enjoys being off on his own, or out with just close friends, so sitting out in a field for hours waiting for game is a little slice of heaven for him. He has several tree stands on their property where he can hunt from. Recently he planted a row of trees along the edge of their land that will grow into good cover for the deer. This should hopefully encourage them to move through the area more and give Chris more opportunities to hunt them. He has motion sensor activated cameras set up in several locations so he knows what deer are in the area and can monitor their movement. Each kind of hunting has its own season and restrictions. Archery season for deer is at a different time that rifle season for deer, and animals like bears and turkeys have their own stipulated season. Each hunter also has a limit on the number of kills they can have during each season, sometimes based on male or female and sometimes based on size. These regulations try to keep populations sizes at healthy levels. Aside from larger game, Chris occasionally shoots squirrels to eat, and Katherine usually shoots the rabbits. While Chris and Katherine send their pigs out to be butchered, Chris does his own butchering for any deer he hunts.
All of Katherine’s hard work in the garden also requires a good deal of work in the kitchen to preserve the produce for use throughout the year. Updating the old house was the intention when she moved in, and Chris is finally making that a reality. The kitchen is now entirely new, built with all their specific needs in mind. Tons of counter space accommodates all of the food processing, plus organization space for all the jars, and lids for canning.. The island has an unattached woodblock top, giving enough space for deer butchering and allowing for easy for clean up. There’s an extra freezer right in the kitchen, and more in the basement.
When it comes to eating from the garden there are certain things they eat right away and nearly everything has a portion that is consumed straight from the garden. Asparagus is collected a few at a time as they reach their peak and a good portion of them don’t even make it into the house to be cooked before they’re munched up. Tomatoes often are eaten fresh, but the garden produces far more than anyone could eat right away. If things aren’t eaten fresh they are either canned, or frozen. Things such as lima beans and peas are shelled, blanched, dried off, vacuum sealed in portioned out packs and put in one of the several freezers. Katherine makes things like stewed tomatoes, cowboy candy (a sweet and spicy pickled pepper sauce), and pickled veggies that get perfectly seasoned and canned for later use.
Katherine and Chris shop regularly at the local Walmart to supplement what comes from their own backward. Before the Walmart moved to town there were 5 local grocery stores in their small town. Now only one remains, the biggest chain store, because Walmart out-competed everyone else. The community loves having their Walmart, it was so exciting when it opened that the town threw a parade. Their tap water isn’t fit to drink due to sulfur, so they buy gallons of water every week.