On a cold February morning in 2017, a half dozen or so women and several men gathered in the yard of a suburban home outside of Athens, Georgia, to learn how to kill and butcher a hog. The mood was both anxious and somber. Eventually, they would have hams and bacon, ribs and chops. But for now, the 350-pound black-and-white-spotted sow was still rooting around out back.
The students stood under a tree in sweatshirts and jeans. The instructors wore long beards and leather aprons. Across the street sat rows of tract homes, another incursion into old farmland as the suburbs of Athens crept inexorably toward those of Atlanta. The instructors explained that one of them would shoot the sow in the head with a small-gauge shotgun. The shot meant instant death, and a second man would come swiftly behind to slit its throat. They warned about death throes. For many of the women, this was the first time they would see an animal die.
The women felt that witnessing this act would help them regain something that had been lost, a visceral connection to the food that sustains them and, more fundamentally, greater control over their family’s nourishment. Not so long ago, households throughout Georgia had killed hogs and put away pork chops. But now these women couldn’t find someone local to teach them how to slaughter a hog; the instructors had to be flown in from Ohio. And even they were largely self-taught, having pieced together their skills through a combination of, as they put it, “trial and error and terrible YouTube videos.”
When the instructors were done explaining how the hog would die, they passed out shots of whiskey. As a benediction, one of them read from Wendell Berry’s poem “For the Hog Killing”:
let this day begin again the change of hogs into people, not the
other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives’ wedding with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew the bond.
There was palpable relief once the sow was dispatched and hoisted for scalding. As the women milled about, some laughing and joking nervously, one looked on with a calm sense of satisfaction. Her name was Cyndi Ball. She was in her midfifties, with short gray hair and bright blue eyes. Cyndi had been working much of her life to be present for a moment like this, gathered with her community as a sow’s carcass that would nourish them all hung from a tree limb.
A member of Ball’s organization, the National Ladies Homestead Gathering (NLHG), had organized the training. For decades, she and the women who joined her that day had felt increasingly adrift in a society that had little interest in recognizing or supporting them outside the context of what brand of pork chop they might buy at the grocery store, or which politician they might support. In their lifetimes, women had broken free of the stereotypical homemaker role and become judges, senators, surgeons, professional athletes. They had witnessed a seemingly endless stream of new conveniences—affordable air travel and microwave ovens, cell phones and on-demand everything—each one celebrated as another glorious thread in the tapestry of eternal progress that had always defined the American Experiment.
Yet for many, all that progress had failed to deliver on its promise of a secure and meaningful life. On the contrary, each year brought new uncertainties, new fears—financial, cultural, environmental. Day-to-day life felt precarious, with ruin just one unlucky break away—a lost job, an illness, an accident. At the same time, the burden for everything, from saving for retirement to figuring out what news and information to trust, was falling increasingly on the individual, with little help from employers or the government. It was hard to escape the sense that, come what may, you were on your own.
For women, this psychic burden was particularly acute. Even as their roles in society expanded they remained undervalued and underestimated. They still handled most of the childcare and household chores, and were paid less than men for doing the same work. For all these reasons and plenty of others, the women of NLHG felt compelled to seize a measure of control. Piece by piece they set out to learn to perform some of the fundamental tasks that had been delegated to industry: butchering hogs, making soap and medicine, growing food.
For Cyndi and her community, this wasn’t a lifestyle. It was a lifeblood, a sustenance. The cycle of renewal in Berry’s poem had long ago been broken. So here they were, seeking a new provisioning, a new bond.
The notion of living self-sufficiently off the land has long been an American ideal, particularly in times of crisis. The historian Dona L. Brown says the common theme uniting every back-to-the-land movement is not a nostalgic retreat to a pastoral Eden, but the need for food and financial security in uncertain times. As the last century dawned, the depression brought on by the bank panic of 1893 had barely subsided when another panic hit in 1907. The run of economic instability forced urban factory workers and professionals alike to wonder what security they had gained by moving to the industrialized cities. Activist Bolton Hall urged city dwellers to seek the only “sure refuge” by abandoning the city for the farm.
Half a century later, a new back-to-the-land movement was as much about rebelling against the chaos of a tumultuous era as against the over-processed, chemically produced food believed to be poisoning the country.
And it’s no surprise that the turmoil of recent decades has spurred another such movement. The early 2000s presented America with even bigger, more complex, and scarier challenges—from 9/11 and the breakdown of the financial system to continuous war and the existential threat of climate change. The postindustrial economy has left once-thriving communities in ruins; inequality has risen to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, even as the social safety net has aggressively unraveled; America has become one of the fattest countries in the world; and the daily news features a litany of peril: foodborne illnesses, opioid addiction, homelessness, identity theft, droughts, wildfires, a global pandemic.
For some, then, the decision to become more self-reliant felt prudent rather than extreme. There are now dozens of homesteader groups on Facebook, some with more than 100,000 members—from doomsday preppers building bunkers against the impending crack-up to urban professionals posting home-canned beets on Pinterest boards. Mother Earth News, the bible of the seventies’ back-to-the-land movement, has seen a revival in popularity, and its website draws more than a million and a half visitors a month.
Cyndi founded the National Ladies Homestead Gathering in 2011 at her home in Georgia. The organization has since grown to thirty-four chapters in seventeen states located all across the country. The goal is someday to have a chapter within thirty minutes of every woman in America. NLHG stands out from many organizations in the modern homestead movement in several ways, and most of those points of distinction have roots in Cyndi’s life and philosophy.
While the new homestead movement attracts men as well as women, Cyndi says she chose to make NLHG a women’s organization to help women “fight their way” into the male-dominated world of agriculture. She was frequently the only female student when learning things like beekeeping or tending livestock. Even now, she says, a male speaker at an NLHG meeting will sometimes offer to “bring this down to your level.” Men in agriculture have always had places to congregate, even if it’s just a few stools in front of the feed store. Cyndi wanted a space where women could have a mutually supportive learning environment. “Creating our own space where we’re not foreigners is really important to infiltrating agriculture,” Cyndi says.
She doesn’t preach against GMOs or in favor of a retreat from cities. “Women have it in their heads that to be a homesteader they have to be this certain way,” she says. “I want to eradicate that mindset.”
She has a talent for uniting women who might not otherwise see eye to eye. She once received a panicked call from a chapter president about how to handle a member who had tried to take over a discussion about different diets, insisting that the GAPS diet—which forbids grains, sugars, starchy vegetables, and all processed foods—was the only right way to eat.
“I told her, look, a lot of times what happens is there has been a health issue in their family and this one way of eating cured that or helped it,” Cyndi says. “And of course they’re going to believe that that’s the cure for everything. And so you have to give that grace to them emotionally to say, ‘I understand that, but because it worked for you that way, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for this person.’ Because we need to allow women to discover these things for themselves.”
“I really try to keep a pulse on that stuff,” Cyndi continued, “so that a chapter doesn’t become this mini food cult.”
Cyndi’s frequent mantra is “own it,” meaning make decisions and accept the consequences. Buy processed food, but accept that you might be able to manage obesity better with different choices. “I did not vaccinate my kids,” she said. “But my kids never went to Sunday school, they were never put in the church nursery. They didn’t go to, you know, huge events with lots of just children. Those were the consequences of the choices that I made. People get all up in arms because they can’t put their kids in school because they didn’t vaccinate. Well, there’s a reason for that. Don’t ask the public school to change because of your belief.”
The women of NLHG are attorneys and nail stylists, city clerks and military veterans, college professors and Christian homeschoolers, climate-change activists and loading-dock workers. The organization faces some of the same barriers that other groups face in bringing racial diversity back to farming. Decades of racist policies have resulted in 95 percent of US farmers being white, which no doubt has a deterrent effect for racial minorities who might otherwise aspire to homesteading. But NLHG is diverse politically, economically, geographically, and religiously at a time when few other gathering places in American life can claim such a following.
And that diversity has proved useful. Cyndi has gardeners and quilters, but also a lawyer who helped her form a national nonprofit, a Coca-Cola marketing executive who helps her reach new communities, and administrators skilled at managing budgets and creating organizational structures.
Media representations of homesteaders tend to focus on people who want to turn their backs on modern society—religious extremists, radical militants, leftists seeking purity. The women of NLHG, in contrast, are working to incorporate homesteading into lives filled with utility bills, dental appointments, and kids’ karate lessons. In many ways, they lead conventional lives.
The one thing Cyndi does preach is “sustainability,” which she defines as “anything that makes you less dependent on the government or the big-box stores.” What this interpretation lacks in idealism, it makes up for in accessibility and broad appeal. One member might buy into it to fight global warming, another for notions of self-reliance. But each is a part of the same community, working toward the same goal. Cyndi has built something generalized enough to include many different women with many different motivations, yet personal enough to function as a way for these women to share knowledge, aid in each other’s struggles, and affect each other’s choices.
Food is the focus of their efforts to reclaim control, but what they’re really after is a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.
Cyndi grew up in suburban Connecticut, the oldest of three children and the only girl. Her mother came from a wealthy family of merchants and doctors. Her father grew up poor in Tennessee, became a Navy fighter pilot, and eventually went to work as a captain for American Airlines. He viewed his past as something he had escaped, and determined that his children’s lives would be full of the sorts of experiences he had missed out on. As a child, Cyndi was often outdoors—skiing, kayaking, or simply playing in the woods. The family attended a small Baptist church, and when her father would take the boys’ youth group kayaking, he’d take Cyndi too. She attended a private Christian high school, where her father coached the school’s stand-out boys’ soccer team. The school didn’t have a girls’ team: “I succumbed to the cheerleader role,” Cyndi says, “just so I could be out there with everybody.”
In high school, Cyndi spent two summers as a camp counselor. She recalls an obsession with reading settler fiction, particularly Laura Ingalls Wilder. She imagined the nobility of a life spent largely in nature, and appreciated how such a life was once central to the nation’s development.
Cyndi’s father emphasized education as the gateway to a career, stability, and one’s place in society. At his urging, Cyndi enrolled at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. Neither of them realized the extent to which the school was governed according to fundamentalist Christian doctrine. Cyndi decided to endure the “weird religious stuff” in order to earn a degree in education, but life at Bob Jones helped shape her skepticism of institutions and her aversion to being categorized—as a fundamentalist Christian or anything else.
Soon after graduating in 1984, Cyndi met Dave Ball, a Bob Jones student who was completing his master’s in piano performance. They were married the next fall, an event that set Cyndi’s life on a different course. She followed Dave to his hometown of Seattle, where Dave went into the ministry. Cyndi planned to find a career where she could “climb the corporate ladder.” But she abandoned this notion when they decided to start a family.
By the time their second child arrived, they were still getting Dave’s “startup church” off the ground. The family was living off of savings. Dave managed the finances and would tell Cyndi how much money she had to spend for the week’s groceries; often only around sixty dollars. “When we got married, Dave had more kitchen tools than I did, but I had more handyman tools than he did,” Cyndi says. “But I did take on the traditional wife’s role, so meals were my thing.”
Cyndi had complex feelings about that role. She took to motherhood, and was grateful to be able to focus on her children. But she was frustrated by her limited ability to improve her family’s financial situation. She seized on food as the one area she could control and began gardening on the family’s small suburban lot, teaching herself to can what she grew. She and Dave continued to have children, and the grocery budget was stretched ever thinner. Eventually, the church grew and finances stabilized, but, while Cyndi was pregnant with their fourth child, Dave moved on to his next venture—a recording studio in the family’s garage.
“It took us back to this spot where we had no money,” Cyndi said. The family was poor enough that she enrolled in WIC, the federal government’s food-aid program for mothers and young children. Cyndi’s father was concerned. He had put her on a trajectory for a successful career, and instead she was trying to support a growing family on the crops from her small plot of land. He felt that she should enter the workforce. But the less access Cyndi had to the stability of her parents’ upper-middle-class world, the more skeptical she became of the institutions that allowed that world to function. She didn’t want a public school to impose the state’s values on her children, and she didn’t want to feed them harmful processed food just so she’d have more time to work outside the home.
Cyndi was proud of her self-sufficiency when it came to feeding her family, even if she wasn’t certain where that path would lead. From education to health care to nutrition, she thought that the best decisions she could make were those that allowed her to maintain as much control as possible.
Dave frequently told Cyndi that she couldn’t “make this place into a farm.” She had filled every inch of their small lot with carrots, tomatoes, and string beans. She grew multigrafted trees with each branch bearing its own variety of apple. And her industriousness quickly extended beyond the garden. She started homeschooling her children soon after Washington State made it legal to do so. She studied herbal medicine when the family lacked health insurance. She learned to make her own soap when a commercial variety caused a rash for one of the children. She sewed matching dresses for her daughters because that was the fad and, like her father, she didn’t want her children to miss out.
Still, Cyndi felt a growing despair with her life in Seattle. It wasn’t from the family’s shaky finances, or her father’s judgment. She felt claustrophobic on that small suburban lot, with neighbors so near they could hear her talk to the kids when the windows were open. She wanted a bigger canvas for the many skills she had acquired, and a community of like-minded people to share it all with.
In 2002, Dave took a job with a Christian nonprofit outside of Atlanta. Georgia was the first place the Balls could afford to buy land. Cyndi cried when she saw it—nearly seven acres of gently sloping pasture, backed by woods, with a house big enough for their family of eight set in the center of it all. They moved in December and by January they already had their first sheep, which at first stood alone in the large pasture. They quickly acquired another. Cyndi wanted to learn how to spin wool. They soon built a hen house, kept cows for milk and meat, and began raising dairy goats.
In many ways, this was everything Cyndi had wanted. She had her land, her animals, and her children by her side. Dave had a long commute to his job near Atlanta, but the arrangement worked. Before long, though, isolation set in. She thought the move to the agricultural South would surround her with the close-knit community she’d hoped for, but instead she found herself stranded in an alien world. The women she met at the Baptist church the family joined weren’t interested in what Cyndi did. Here, farming was a male affair, and it typically occurred on an industrial scale, with practices that ran counter to Cyndi’s philosophy.
“When I bought hay, it was from men. If I bought a cow, it was from men,” she says. “I was definitely an anomaly, weird.”
Once, a man pulled up to deliver some hay, saw the menagerie of goats, cows, and sheep roaming Cyndi’s back pasture, and said, “You can’t run multiple species in a field!” By this point Cyndi had done her homework; she knew that her approach mimicked how animals graze in the wild, and increased biodiversity in her pasture. But it was another reminder that she had no one to share her ideas with.
Inevitably, the isolation led to mistakes. When she first got the land, fescue—a dependable, drought-tolerant grass—grew in the field waist high. She let her goats graze it, thinking it would renew itself. Instead the goats ate it down to nothing, and it never came back. She planted stone fruits thinking they would thrive in Georgia—there was a peach on the license plate, after all. It turns out stone fruits don’t do very well without pesticides, and she had resolved to avoid such methods. Even when she finally found a neighbor who knew how to kill a chicken, the woman didn’t know how to butcher it. Cyndi’s daughter plucked and gutted it with the relevant section of The Encyclopedia of Country Living open on the front porch.
When the Great Recession hit in 2008, Dave took a pay cut. He told Cyndi he could no longer subsidize her efforts on the homestead; she would have to start earning real income. By then, the skills Cyndi had acquired were becoming more broadly valued. Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma had come out in 2006, sparking a local-food movement that saw farmers’ markets and urban gardens sprout up across the country.
The winds were shifting in Georgia too. Women from around the area became more conscious of their diets, and they approached Cyndi about buying eggs or goat’s milk. Cyndi noticed a latent hunger in the women who visited her farm. They wanted more than just to buy what she was selling. They expressed their desire to adopt Cyndi’s way of life, and take an active role in raising the animals that would become food to sustain their families. She began teaching classes on keeping chickens and bees. She was glad for the money, but this wasn’t a community. After six years in Georgia, she still didn’t have a single friend she could lean on for knowledge or support if her animals got sick or she was having trouble with her crops.
In January 2011, Cyndi posted a message on Facebook inviting women interested in learning about homesteading to come to the farm. More than twenty showed up. They gathered in the upstairs bedroom of the farmhouse. Cyndi was amazed at the turnout; it was as if she held the key to something that had always been kept out of reach.
They started meeting once a month. Before long the number of attendees forced them out of her house and into a local community center. Cyndi started getting emails from women in distant towns asking, “Do you have anything like that where I live?” Then the emails started coming from different states.
“I never wanted to start a national organization,” she said. “But my heart couldn’t say no to these women.”
Control over their family’s diet was the gateway for most of the women who came to the meetings. Many had children with health or behavioral issues that they thought a homegrown diet might solve. Others were motivated by an unease at growing political tensions. Women would come to meetings and say, in so many words, “I don’t know what’s happening, but I want to know I can take care of my family.”
These were broadly held anxieties. The group transcended faith and politics. Cyndi compared it to how people came together in the prepper novel One Second After,in which an unnamed enemy destroys the US electric grid, resulting in widespread starvation and the breakdown of society. “At that point of critical survival, it didn’t matter what your beliefs were,” Cyndi said. “It didn’t matter where you stood politically. What mattered was, did you have enough food for the next meal?”
The thing Cyndi heard most frequently was, “I felt so weird until I found these women. I finally found my tribe.”
One of the women was Trina Reynolds. When she got married in 1988 her husband, Steve, drove a sports car and worked for AT&T in Atlanta. Trina, younger than Steve and fresh out of college, was an interior designer. They spent years as a childless couple, caught up in careers and friends and the church. In 1997, Steve decided to go to graduate school for a dual degree in International Management and Information Technology, and they moved to Denver. With Steve in school, Trina became the sole provider, working long hours for an interior-design firm. Five-foot-two and skinny, she took pride in her ability to hoist 9x12 wool rugs over her shoulder and haul them to her delivery van. She joked that her job was to spend other people’s money, and she was good at it. She sold $250,000 in decor a year, from which she earned commission.
After the attacks on 9/11, Trina’s business declined sharply. Steve still had years left in his program, and for the first time the couple felt precariously close to the financial struggles their parents had faced when they were young. That same year Trina had her first pregnancy, and her first of several miscarriages—losses she would later blame on the diet of processed food she ate as a child.
When Steve finished his graduate program and began working at a Christian-aid nonprofit, the couple felt it was God’s plan for them to adopt. They purchased a 3,000-square-foot home in the Denver suburbs, and welcomed Aaliyah, age four, and Eric, who was about to turn two. Just as the children arrived, though, Trina missed a sales quota and was fired from her part-time job as a closet organizer. No more spending other people’s money.
Within a year they adopted a third child, Austin, then two years old, with blond hair and a wide but fitful smile. When he first came home, he screamed for weeks, barely managing the occasional word. He eventually settled down, until he was four, when the family took a road trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. In the car, it was as if Austin reverted to that troubled two-year-old who was a stranger in their home. He screamed inconsolably through every mile. Trina suspected that the family’s interstate diet of Wendy’s and granola bars was to blame. Trina didn’t believe a primary-care doctor would listen to her concerns. When they returned home, she took Austin to see a kinesiologist she had been consulting about her own health. He said her son couldn’t tolerate any food preservatives or food coloring, effectively eliminating nearly every product Trina fed her children.
Trina received the news not as a setback, but rather with a renewed sense of direction. In so many ways, her life had not turned out quite how she had expected. She wasn’t able to have biological children. And she felt overwhelmed by the challenges of being an adoptive mother. But the kinesiologist had given her a clue: Food was the determining factor that could alter the course of her family’s life.
She made a list of everything store-bought the family used, from laundry detergent to ketchup. Next, she researched each item until she found a replacement, either something she could buy or make herself. As she searched online for recipes, she had her first encounters with the universe of information and theory about pesticides, GMOs, feedlots, and other “evils” of the modern food system. What she read gave an edge of anger and mistrust to her quest to change her family’s diet. Just what had she been feeding her children? And who had convinced her and everyone else that the typical American diet was a good idea? Trina herself had been fed a baby formula of Karo corn syrup and canned milk.
Trina also discovered the blogs of women who called themselves homesteaders. These women raised chickens, gardened, and proudly put motherhood, along with all the dirt and grit that comes with it, at the center of their lives. She began gardening, and wore out her first pair of gloves in the Denver soil.
Trina came to believe that her diet had robbed her of years of vitality, of the opportunity to birth children. She even felt it had deprived her of a sense of identity. Her parents came from agricultural backgrounds. But some notion of progress, which Trina now considers misguided, had pushed them to the city, and into an unhealthy lifestyle.
In 2011, Trina and Steve moved back to Georgia to be closer to her family. Soon after they arrived, she heard about Cyndi Ball.
At first, Trina would drive nearly two hours each way to attend Cyndi’s meetings. “It was like water to me, like water to a dry soul,” she says. “I wanted that for my family, for me, and this was the community, finally, that helped me start on that road.”
Trina and Steve rented a house and a bit of land northeast of Atlanta. Trina immersed herself in the NLHG life. She founded a local chapter. She got her chickens, and turned a dilapidated shed on the property into a functional coop. She started making everything she could from scratch. Even something as simple as no-bake cookies—a recipe meant to be whipped up in five minutes—took a day’s work. She made her own vanilla extract. She churned her own butter. The kids rolled the oats. “I’ve always thought that’s a picture of my life,” Trina said. “I’m going to take the simple thing and make it complicated. I’ll be convinced that it’s better and worth it, but everybody else doesn’t always agree with me.”
By 2014, Steve’s parents’ health had declined to a point where they needed constant care. Trina, Steve, and the kids loaded the chickens into dog crates and moved their homestead dream up the interstate to southwest Virginia.
Steve’s parents still lived in the Wytheville home where he had grown up. He and Trina bought a camper on Craigslist, parked it on his parents’ property, and all five of them began living in 250 square feet.
The camper had little insulation, and the winters were brutal. Temperatures dropped into the teens, freezing the water lines. Trina cheered the children, telling them they were battling the elements, just like the pioneers they read about in their books.
By June 2017, the homestead sat on a verdant hillside just a few miles from the junction of two major interstates, but the hum of traffic was faint enough to ignore. Trina was in her early fifties, with a farmer’s tan. Aaliyah was in ninth grade, and an aspiring musician. Eric, in seventh grade, was learning to forge iron. Trina already had a list of garden tools she wanted him to make out of found metal. Austin was in sixth grade, and learning to keep bees.
Steve and Trina hadn’t realized how much water damage the camper had when they bought it. The flooring and parts of the walls were stripped out. The larger of the two rooms doubled as the kitchen and living room. It also served as the classroom when they were not holding homeschool at the picnic table outside. Trina and Steve had the bedroom. The kids slept in a smaller, one-room camper near the shed where Trina stored the chicken feed and trays of seedlings bound for the garden.
Trina had helped start a Wytheville chapter of NLHG. At that month’s meeting, twelve women gathered in a machine shop run by the chapter president’s husband. Most were in their fifties or sixties, but a few were as young as twenty-five.
The lesson of the evening was on food preservation, taught by the president. She quickly turned from canning and pickling to the broader utility those skills might have in the “end times.” The apocalypse is something of an obsession for certain members of NLHG, and it can be hard to discern which mentions of it are made in earnest, and which are merely a metaphor for the need to prepare for some more immediate crisis.
Standing at the front of the room, the president demonstrated how to store rice in Mylar bags, adding oxygen absorbers and sealing the bags with a hair straightener. Trina chimed in that if you’re storing for the end times, you should portion the bags for a week at a time and put them all in a bucket with a lid so that mice don’t chew through the Mylar.
The president listed “eighteen foods that will outlast you.” Liquor was on the list, and she suggested that it might serve as a form of currency one day: “If you’re thinking about doomsday stuff, buy liquor. People won’t want your money or food for bartering. They’ll just want the booze.”
The women had varying levels of engagement with the prospect of the end of the world. Some viewed it as a real possibility, others as a more exciting way to think about the usefulness of the skills they were learning. Still others had a firm awareness that the bags of rice would be most handy in months when they couldn’t float the grocery bill.
The president relayed a cautionary tale about her husband building a root cellar on their property, lining it with cinderblock instead of earth. “Hot as fire in there,” she said. “We’re learning.”
After the meeting, Trina said she doesn’t think too much about “the prepper stuff.” First of all, she couldn’t afford all the gadgets and extra food. The prepper movement is often a consumerist solution to modern anxieties—guns, ammo, freeze-dried food—and thus counter to NLHG’s emphasis on sustainability. Ultimately, Trina felt it came down to whether or not you could put your faith in God. When she was living in Georgia, she had friends who spent thousands of dollars stocking up ahead of December 21, 2012, the day the Mayan calendar supposedly predicted the world would end. But the day came and went, and life went on.
Food serves a different purpose in the Reynolds household. When Austin asks Trina how many pickles he can have from a jar she canned the previous year, she’ll say, “Just a few,” and he’ll scoop out five or six. If she didn’t ration them, he’d eat the entire jar in one sitting. She also rationed the homemade ketchup and barbecue sauce that went with the roast pork she made in an Instant Pot. She rationed everything homemade, understanding that it wasn’t possible to buy an equivalent at the store.
The jars of homemade foods take on an almost magical quality. They were stacked in the cellar in alluring colors, honeydew-green pickles and deep-red ketchup, pale-yellow squash and sunny peach halves. The kids had absorbed the appeal of these items and craved them for more than taste. At lunch one day the boys made sure they each got an equal number of bay leaves, not because they wanted to eat them but because their mother rewarded them with a kiss on the cheek for each bay leaf they were lucky enough to find on their plates. They know their access to the jars is an expression of love.
As the winter of 2017 approached, Trina and Steve discussed strategies for how to earn enough cash to make it through a few more harsh months in the frigid camper. Trina wrote out strategies on a paper plate for different cash crops she possibly could grow. But Steve came in a few days later with an unfamiliar look on his face and told her that his sister had agreed to take over care of his mother and father; they were free to live anywhere they wanted. Ultimately, Steve found work producing compost for organic farms, which took him to the Middle East in 2019. He would be gone for months at a time, and Trina kept the kids close to the land and community they had come to know. They found a large brick house in a town not far from Wytheville. Trina gave up her chickens, but resolved to be an urban homesteader.
Aaliyah was nearing high-school graduation, and posting videos of her songs to YouTube. Eric had given up forging iron for tae kwon do lessons. I asked Austin if he was still beekeeping. “No,” he said, smiling mischievously. He was working at the bookstore across the street. Trina was fine with all of this. What she had always wanted most for her children was for them to be individuals. Their homesteading skills would always be there if they needed them.
Cyndi’s garden had shrunk bit by bit as her kids moved away. By 2019, they had all left. She didn’t have the labor to maintain the garden or the mouths to eat what she grew, but there were still animals to tend and a small plot of vegetables, out of habit more than necessity.
For years she had been developing systems that would allow her to maintain the property by herself, in anticipation of this time—storing feed in places that minimized walking, stashing a rake in every section so she never had to go looking for one. Then, soon after her youn-gest child left home to start her career, Dave announced that he was leaving too.
It was as if the instability Cyndi had spent a lifetime guarding against descended all at once. Even though Dave had never played much of a role in Cyndi’s homesteading dream, his leaving imperiled the dream. When he told her he wanted a divorce, Cyndi knew the farm was as good as lost. She didn’t have the money to refinance, and she didn’t have the credit or employment history to get a loan. For more than thirty years, Cyndi had been a wife, a mother raising children, a subsistence farmer. Now she was none of those things. “I don’t even know who I am,” she said. “If I didn’t have NLHG, I really don’t know where I would be.”
The pandemic hit Georgia just as Cyndi put the farm up for sale. She’d long been preparing for a disruption on the scale of COVID-19; it wasn’t a shock to her. Instead, the pandemic was the backdrop for a continuous stream of loss as she sold off her cows and goats, her bees and chickens, and said goodbye to her Great Pyrenees herd dog, which she sent to a new home. The pandemic caused a scramble for land much like previous crises in American history, and within forty-eight hours of putting the farm on the market, she had four offers. She sold to a young couple who shared a dream for the land. That they would continue what she started on the homestead—raising animals, tending the garden—was a source of solace.
The virus has tested the cohesiveness of the NLHG community. The national committee avoided the raging debates over masks and gatherings by declaring that all chapters should follow their state’s guidelines. Some groups have continued to meet in person, but attendance has dropped sharply nationwide. Even without the face-to-face meetings, relationships among members have held strong. Women from chapters throughout the country have leaned on their networks, bartering for necessities, swapping seeds and sourdough starter now that everyone else has horned in on the supply.
Even as she grappled with upheaval in her personal life, Cyndi fine-tuned NLHG’s response to the crisis. There was an irony to the fact that the news was full of stories of women (and men) across the country seeking just the kind of knowledge and community NLHG had been providing since its inception. But without in-person gatherings, the organization has no real infrastructure for reaching them.
Cyndi and the national board decided they needed a virtual platform. In January 2021, NLHG will roll out its virtual strategy. They’ll demonstrate butchering on YouTube (fearing that Facebook would censor the gory content), share recipes for herbal medicine, and host virtual gatherings that will be national rather than local in focus. Women throughout the country will be able to attend, whether or not they’re NLHG members. Cyndi’s hope is to reach as many women as possible during the pandemic, with an eye toward bringing them into the NLHG community as soon as it is safe to return to its normal format. The goal is still to have an NLHG chapter within thirty minutes of every woman in America, or one for each of America’s 3,007 counties, whichever comes first.