Modern homesteader Ashley English goes back to basics on her family's mountain acreage.
Ready to cultivate your inner farm girl? Call on Ashley English. The North Carolina author, chicken mom, beekeeper, butter churner and baker wrote the book—make that the books—on the basics of modern-day homesteading.
“Homemade living means taking a hands-on approach to everyday activities, anything from animal husbandry to woodworking to soap-making,” says Ashley, from rural Candler, in explaining the deliberate shift from consuming to producing.
Ashley, husband Glenn and toddler Huxley Wild live a mile down a dirt road and 20 more from Asheville, the closest town, on 11 forested acres secluded in a mountainside cove. They “shop” from their backyard and the woods.
“We can pop into the yard for fresh eggs and vegetables, make cheese in the kitchen and forage for native plants and herbs that go into our home health, bath and body products,” she explains. “I’m amazed at how addictive self-sufficiency can be. You start out with a vegetable garden…next you want to make your own bread. It’s so empowering.”
Giving City Life the Boot
At age 20, Ashley was convinced greener pastures waited in the city. She moved to Washington, D.C., intending to become a fashion designer. But having spent many of her happiest childhood years in North Carolina, homesickness and the Blue Ridge Mountains brought her back to complete degrees in nutrition and sociology in Asheville. That’s when she met Glenn, who was already living on the property.
“I’d been dreaming about a country home with open spaces and lots of green, and there it was—along with a wonderful outdoorsman who loves cooking from scratch,” she says. “When he told me the land used to be an organic farm, I thought, we have to bring it back.” In no time, she’d traded her high heels for work boots.
Ashley barely had her first garden planted when a new opportunity surfaced. A book editor friend described an idea for a Homemade Living series—primers on homesteading skills. When asked if she’d like to write them, Ashley decided to trust her instincts and go for it. Ashley’s grandmother had introduced her to the subjects of her first two books, Keeping Chickens and Canning and Preserving. As a girl, Ashley had gathered eggs from her grandparents’ chickens, and watched closely as her grandmother packed tomatoes and green beans into jars.
Research for Keeping Bees, though, included two years of honeybee school and starting her own backyard hives. For Home Dairy, Ashley learned to stretch mozzarella curds, incubate yogurt and whip up butter.
At 36, Ashley now has years of hard-earned skills as a homesteader to pass along to her readers. “My books give information, encouragement and suggestions that come out of my personal experience,” she says. And some of that experience has been memorable, like the hot August day when she was working with the bees, and looked up to see why their German shepherd was barking.
“I saw her running toward me, followed by what I thought was a wild turkey,” she recalls. “It turned out to be a black bear smelling my honey!” Ashley, in full beekeeping gear, sprinted to safety—and installed electric fencing around the hives the next day.
Ashley’s healthy blend of pioneer spunk and cutting-edge savvy is common among today’s homesteaders. “We do many things by hand, the old way, but we depend on technology for connection,” she says. “I’ve made some good friends by sharing information and advice on the Internet.”
To help others cultivate their frontier spirit, Ashley teaches classes around her community on many back-to-basics topics. Free time with girlfriends may mean a canning party or something more adventurous. “Our ladies’ hunting club is working with a mentor to get us ready for deer season,” she says.
Simplicity and self-reliance are recurrent themes in her popular blog, “Small Measure” (smallmeasure.com). “The name reflects all the small, simple gestures anyone can do to benefit their family, their community and the planet,” she explains. “Maybe you can’t afford solar panels—but you can use cloth bags at the grocery store. And you don’t need acres of property to grow herbs or to take a walk outside without your smartphone. Whether you live in the country, the suburbs or the city, you can get started today.”
So what’s Ashley’s next project? “I’ve always wanted to learn the fiber arts—how to knit, crochet and quilt,” she muses. “Or maybe I’ll try raising a few pigs.” She’s even considered returning to her fashion designer dream, minus the big city. “I’d love to design a line of comfortable and sturdy farm clothes for women.”
Ashley’s tips on homesteading
- Find mentors. Seek out individuals in your area already doing what you’re interested in learning. They’ll likely be willing to share some of their wisdom with you.
- Take classes. There’s nothing like hands-on experience to make you comfortable with a skill you’re learning.
- Read books. There are a number of wonderful books currently available in every area of homesteading imaginable. Read as much as you can before you start.
- Seek out like-minded friends. A buddy interested in learning how to keep chickens or preserve food will be invaluable for sharing information and labor.
- Use existing materials. You probably already have many items on hand that can be given new life. (Ashley’s trademark glasses use a frame she inherited from her great-grandma Lena Mae.)
- Start slowly. Trying to take on an entire farm when all you’ve ever done before is grow a container of basil can overwhelm anyone. Start by tackling one or two skills at a time, and build up slowly.
- Write it down. A journal to chronicle mistakes and successes, plus a calendar to remind you when to plant peas or order firewood, will go far toward helping you reach your ultimate goals.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so don’t become discouraged if it takes a while to have the garden, orchard and animals of your dreams. Slow and steady really does win this race.
- Choose your battles. Focus on the skills you most want to learn. If you feel you should be making your own butter, but don’t really enjoy the process, don’t do it. If you don’t enjoy an activity, support local purveyors who do.
Story by Sharon Selz; photography by Jim Wieland; styling by Pam Stasney.