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Hipster Homesteader

by Shannon Donnelly . photos by Naomi Johnson

Who knew homesteading could be so hip? Just take one look at Ashley English’s new books—or her 12-acre organic farm in Candler—and you’ll see immediately why women in their 20s and 30s have taken up old-fashioned activities like canning, knitting and raising chickens. First, there was the general shift in the marketplace toward homegrown and organic products. Then came the rise of the DIY project, particularly among the young and trendy, as seen in magazines like Make and ReadyMade. Then, along came some economic turmoil, and—voila!—women around the country seemed newly interested in retro skills and getting back to nostalgically simple ways of life. "It’s the zeitgeist right now," says English, who’s 33 and moved from Asheville to Candler three years ago. "But it’s not a trend. It’s a lifestyle change."

It’s certainly a lifestyle change for English, who moved to Washington, D.C., in the late ‘90s and intended to become a fashion designer. When she realized the fashion dream was fading, she moved back to Asheville, where she has plenty of ties. Her mother and grandmother live in Burnsville, and she went to UNCA for undergrad. To pay the bills, English, who has degrees in holistic nutrition and sociology, took several jobs in the food business and then became a medical assistant.

In 2008, she got lucky. Her friend Nicole McConville, an editor at Asheville’s Lark Books, had an idea for a book series called Homemade Living—how-to manuals on subjects like canning, home dairy and beekeeping. Would English be interested in writing them? At the time, English had no professional writing experience, but she had started blogging about life in the country with her husband Glenn, an art consultant.

Tackling the first book was a tall task, but the subject matter wasn’t completely foreign. She grew up digging potatoes in her grandparents’ garden, watching her grandmother make jelly on her blueberry farm in Virginia. "If it came out of the ground and you could eat it, I wanted everything to do with it," English says.

After a year and a half of being holed up on the farm with chickens and a computer, the first two books in the series—Keeping Chickens with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Care for a Happy, Healthy Flock and Canning & Preserving with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Make Jams, Jellies, Pickles, Chutneys & More—are scheduled to be published in early April. The pages include beautiful photographs of English’s friends and others showing readers how to build a simple nesting box, for example, or a mobile "chicken tractor."

Of course, in Asheville, English isn’t the only hipster homesteader. Classes on such skills abound at places like Earth Fare, Slow Food Asheville and the Organic Grower’s School.

And in the fall, it’s hard to find a group of Asheville women who aren’t headed to a pie-baking class or a canning party. (For her part, English hopes someone will eventually figure out how to update canning lids. "They’re so grannyish!" she exclaims.) In the meantime, she already has her next two books—about dairy products and beekeeping—under way, and she’s brainstorming a way to combine her love of fashion with her lifestyle on the farm. After the books, she wants to launch a line of sustainable, durable farm clothing.

Check out Ashley’s blog about life on her Candler farm at http://small-measure.blogspot.com.

 

Posted on Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 09:50PM by Registered CommenterVerve-acious | CommentsPost a Comment

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