Rural Living, Specialty/Niche June 01, 2021
Portrait of a Modern Homesteader
Living a long-held dream and scratching a living from the land.
Kids, chickens, milk cows, bottle calves, turkeys, horses and a comical collection of canines make for a constant hum of activity on an otherwise desolate hunk of Wyoming prairie.
This menagerie all stemmed from follow-through on a long-held dream of once city kids Jill and Christian Winger. The sort of dream that makes buying a farmstead where a horse had taken up residence in the house and the nearest grocery store was a 40-minute drive away a bang up idea. Thankfully, the livestock mostly keeps to the barn these days — with the exception of calving season, then a bovine or two can still, on occasion, be found on the porch.
When the Wingers bought the property in 2008, they were kid-free, motivated and ecstatic about their purchase. “We hauled away half a dozen industrial roll offs of trash. It certainly wasn’t the showpiece property of the neighborhood, but there were 67 acres and it was what we could afford. We finally had land!” Jill recalls.
A hunk of the world to call their own. A desire and dream also held by those who homesteaded the same harsh prairie landscape between Chugwater and Cheyenne, Wyoming, several short generations ago.
Maybe it was the self-sufficient spirits of settlers long gone that guided the Wingers far beyond the horse property they thought they were developing to the full-blown homestead life they now lead with their children, Mesa (10), Bridger (8) and Sage (4).
“It was amazing how quickly what was just a horse property could turn into something productive. Maybe not a profitable ranch, but a place where we could produce our own food and create a lifestyle,” Jill says.
Composting was the project that piqued a back-to-the-basics curiosity and desire in Jill. Little did she know it would lead to her becoming a modern homesteading guru with blogs, podcasts, web sites, books and speaking engagements as a homesteading mentor through her business, The Prairie Homestead.
Compost conduit. With no tractor on hand in those first years, the Wingers decided to manage their accumulating horse manure with composting. The books Jill read researching the topic also mentioned raising chickens and dairy goats. She didn’t skip those chapters.
“It got me thinking, what if we could grow our own food here,” Jill says. Within a year they had chickens and acquired two pregnant dairy goats. Jill had her oldest child, Mesa, and the goats kidded 4 days later.
“My parents came to help and spent more time in the barn than with the baby,” she laughs.
She had been working as a vet tech, but it didn’t make sense to drive 40 miles one way and pay for daycare. So she stayed home while Christian continued working as an electrician. With time on her hands, she ventured further into feeding their growing family with their little farm.
“I was so excited about the chickens,” she says. “Outrageously, weirdly excited about chickens and compost.” Nobody around her cared. Backyard chickens and canning hadn’t caught on as a popular pastime yet, and her city friends just didn’t get it.
“I’d be like, ‘I’m going to try and make yogurt!’ and they’d say, ‘Gross,’” she recalls.
Jill needed an outlet. So she started a blog.
“I needed a place to blab about what got me excited,” she says. As a first-time mom home alone on the prairie, she needed comradery. “It was just a rambling journal, then I started connecting with others. I thought, this could be a thing. I could help others do the things that excite me.”
Soon she was paying attention to what other people were looking for and curating content.
“In the process I discovered I’m wired for business and love entrepreneurship,” Jill says.
Soon, she wrote an eBook. The tribe she built downloaded a couple thousand copies. Since then she has done video courses, seminars, cookbooks, canning guides, podcasts, a homesteading-themed planner and more.
Her business, along with a small cow herd, now fully supports her family, allowing Christian to dedicate all his time to the farm. Thanks to the growing homestead movement, there are plenty of people looking to live like the Wingers.
Quarantine brought even more interest. Traffic to Jill’s blog tripled. “I had a bread making video go viral. It was fascinating to watch the skills I’d taught for 10 years suddenly be in demand. It underscored to me the value in the skills and mindset we live every day,” she says.
Being basic. Driving most of Jill’s kitchen and homestead adventures is the desire to break down the family’s food to its base elements.
“I didn’t used to like to cook. Now I get enjoyment out of seeing how far I can take each recipe down to its basic ingredients,” she says. “Can I grow the milk? Can I make the cheese?”
Soft cheese? Absolutely. Hard cheese? Not so much — yet.
Hard cheese required too much milk and too much time and fussing. “I told her it would be when she asked me to turn a dorm fridge into a cheese cave,” Christian laughs.
“A lot of the things I try are arts. Making cheese, gardening, canning. They’re skills people spend all their free time on. I have to make it fit in. I won’t take on a new skill if it uses up all my energy,” she says.
Animals, canning and making food from scratch, though, comes naturally.
Living free. Though children weren’t in the picture when Christian and Jill started their adventure, they knew they’d build a family soon. It was a driving force pushing them to get out of town.
“One of the most rewarding parts of this lifestyle is seeing them run free, learn about responsibility and how things work. It’s been pretty awesome having them along for the ride,” Christian says.
Mesa, Bridger and Sage are homeschooled. Though the line can get pretty blurry between farm work and lessons.
The kids start their day with chores. Bridger takes care of the chickens (both in the coop and pasture chickens) and feeds the dogs, while Mesa feeds the bottle calves and gives the pigs scraps, among other things. The whole family gathers in the barn to help milk their four brown Swiss/Guernsey dairy cows.
They observe and help with tasks such as filling the grain troughs, hooking up the machines and cleaning parts. As Christian works, he asks Bridger a few questions, such as how many cups are in the half-gallon jars he’s filling with milk. And how many cups total in the 6 jars.
“When we get into science and experiment lessons, we don’t really need to do them,” Jill says. They don’t need to plant a seed on a paper towel, they’ve been out in the garden since before they could walk. “They understand where food comes from and there are so many learning opportunities every day.”
They don’t shy away from tough tasks, such as processing meat chickens, either.
“We talk a lot about if we’re going to eat meat, someone has to kill the chicken. If we do it, we know the chicken had a good life and is harvested humanely,” Jill says. And there’s more science. They take the time to show the kids the parts and understand all the functions of the various organs.
Loss is a regular part of life. Gardens get hailed out, animals get sick, stuff happens, Jill says.
“When you’re putting yourself out there, there’s more opportunity for failure or mistakes. It’s devastating to lose an animal or put a bunch of work in on a garden just to have it destroyed in an afternoon, but it teaches the kids resilience, problem solving and how to deal with loss,” Jill says.
There’s plenty of downtime on the farm. But those moments can be the most productive for education.
“I’m a big believer in the magic of boredom,” Jill says. The kids are often given whole afternoons during which they have to entertain themselves. “They ride bikes, splash in puddles, play with the animals, build things, and expand their minds.” It’s good for them. And it’s good for adults, too.
“Something magical happens when you play in the dirt, create something or work with your hands,” Jill says. It’s magic the Winters foster in their children and share with the world.
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