By David Tulis
Samantha Martin sits with several of her children at a sunlit kitchen table talking about her growing experiment in local economy — a mix of farming, homeschooling, bee raising and produce marketing.
Mrs. Martin is starting to make butter in her kitchen, obtaining its main ingredient from a Jersey cow in the paddock outside along a row of trees. The mother of seven has plenty of means for stirring up the best ingredients of the American experience as it reacts against the ills of mass economy, with its obese patrons, its plastic corporate franchises and its cheerful efficiencies.
Mrs. Martin is self-deprecating enough to dub her experiment with a silly name of “freak show” as a matter of habit, as if she were still fending off criticism from puffy aunts and inquiries from skeptics at church. Her hum of home-centered industry is hardly freakish, especially among Christian home educators and back-to-the-landers who enjoy books such as Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profits.
Children — a capital idea
Mrs. Martin and her husband, Devin, 39, have caught the local economy vision and try to live it out daily, even though Mr. Martin is regularly absent with a job at a hospital. The hobby farm just south of Ringgold, Ga., is run by family members while he keeps irregular hours as a physician’s assistant at either of two area hospitals.
The children of the Bryan College grad and his “recovering Mormon” wife bear wispy names that suggest their parents’ present-day orientation, a seeming pastlessness. The eldest is Journee, 16, who loves James Herriot books about animals (All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful) and has been active in Civil Air Patrol.
Just behind her is Quinn, 14, followed by Indiana, 12, and Willow, 10. The younger ranks are filled out by Rose, 6, Zeb, 3 and Fletcher, 20 months. Whether one is tending to animals, checking the garden, jumping on the trampoline, swimming in the pool with Dad, fishing in the creek or playing war in a tree castle, Barefoot Farm has no lack of things to occupy the child.
Journee has been active Civil Air Patrol, a military feeder organization, which seems to have lost its grip in the girl’s ambitions when she took part at a CAP encampment in 2010 at Fort Campbell, Ky. She went to the event realizing she was not going to be a military person.
“Probably my favorite thing about CAP would have been the leadership opportunity,” Journee says. “I wasn’t super into the aerospace or the emergency services part of it. I mainly, when I was more active — I am not as active now — when I was more active, I worked mainly with new cadets, teaching them about what I had already done, because most of them wanted to join the Air Force, so I would try to raise them to that point.”
She hopes to care for animals and perhaps be a veterinarian. She is fascinated by animal psychology, “especially dogs and horses.” Her horse, Jones, has been on the property for a month. She’s not sure what she’ll be doing 10 years from now, but animals will be part of her life, “perhaps training or teaching.”
Quinn, 14, “doesn’t actually do reading,” she laughs, but draws and paints, and is a helper with Lucy the Jersey cow. The next daughter, Indiana, 12, loves “light saber fighting” and helps her mom with the beehives. “I help my mom look for the eggs,” she says.
The school year is over, but the older girls will work on math over the summer and the younger ones on reading and writing.
Chickens in the paddock
Mrs. Martin’s family is in the Mormon church, which she quit in 1995 about a year after getting married. Most of her relations are in Arizona and Utah, though she mother lives in Sale Creek, Tenn. She doesn’t talk about religion with relatives because of conflict over doctrine. Her sister is married to a Mormon bishop. “The book of Mormon carries a whole lot more weight in that church than the Bible ever would *** and the Bible that you get is a Joseph Smith translation. It’s a King James Bible, but it’s got the Joseph Smith translation in it. So even that’s not what it really is.”
Mrs. Martin’s lifetime misadventure in the Church of Latter Day saints brought in her a strong distrust of religion in general. The Martins, like many other people who home educate, enjoy lives little mediated by institutions. They are looking for a “home church” and disinclined to public worship and what I would suggest is a faithful submission to church government. They handle questions of faith as part of home education. Abstaining from school, the Martin children are blithely ignorant of their grade level and even their grades. “We have this mandatory attendance of 180 days — and that’s fine,” Mrs. Martin says as we sit around the kitchen table. “We do it to be compliant. But sometimes it takes us only 100 days to finish a subject, and sometimes it takes 200 days. Our focus is: Get the work done.”
Running along a hedgerow is the chicken yard, where goats, the horse, the cow and other animals stand about. The cow is off on her own. Her sack bulges because the Martins have ceased milking her for a two-month period before she calves. “I would love to talk about what a beautiful girl Lucy is and how she follows us around like a sweet puppy dog,” Mrs. Martin writes on her blog. “She’s patient and gentle and gives us tons of sweet milk. Life is a rainbow and the sun always shines over here.”
The Martins have 40 chickens, not counting scores secreted away. The day after my visit scores of baby chicks being raised for meat were to emerge from their warmly lit cardboard box in the basement.
Her friends, like typical American consumers, are squeamish. They think if a grocery store sells meat, it is necessarily sanitary and safe. She assures them their bird will bear no feathers and will “be all processed and look just like a bird they bought from the grocery store.”
“We know our generation doesn’t buy whole chickens. We buy boneless chicken; that’s all we’ve ever bought,” Mrs. Martin declares. “So when you buy a whole chicken from a local farmer, you might not know what to do with it. So we are compiling a recipe book, with directions how to quarter it if you want to cut it and stick it on the grill and barbecue it, things like that, so that our chicken customers will have more of an idea of what to do with the whole chicken. It’s something our grandparents did all the time, but we’ve never done it.”
Here’s the farm wife’s pitch for her chicks: “Well, they’ll be raised primarily on pasture. Fresh pasture, fresh air, sunshine; they’re humanely raised. They’ll have no drugs so they won’t have arsenic or Prozac or growth hormones or any of that nasty stuff in them that’s in the grocery store.” She attributes her ideas to the books of Mr. Salatin, “the original lunatic farmer.”
“You read about all the junk FDA allows commercial producers to put into birds,” she crows. “You are really getting a higher quality product if you buy it locally.”
The farmer who helped her with Lucy is going to teach Mrs. Martin and her children the quaint art of draining and eviscerating the fowls at slaughter.
Beyond the garden, a dozen closely watched beehives are crowded with life. “The only time we’re not beekeeping is October when we close them up for the winter and then we don’t mess with them again until February.” She’ll break even on the hives. She bought equipment this year, and did a lot of hive splitting. The Martins are eager to share their knowledge about hives and honey. Five families spent a day recently at Barefoot Farm, learning about beekeeping.