Episode 127 | Starting a Farm When You Didn’t Grow Up on One | Jess Sowards of Roots and Refuge Farm

Many people think that beginning a farm or homestead requires you to have previous farming experience, but this isn’t necessarily true.  Even if you have never set foot on a farm yourself, it is possible to begin living the homesteading lifestyle.  In this episode, Jess shares how her lifelong dream of owning a farm became a reality, one step at a time.  We also delve into the topic of making money on a homestead.  Whether you have a goal of replacing your full-time income or of simply allowing your homestead to pay for itself, Jess has some really interesting entrepreneurial ideas!

In this episode, we cover:

  • Starting to live a homesteading lifestyle even without acreage
  • Nurturing a healthy food culture in your home
  • The connection between food and homesteading
  • Exciting upcoming developments for Roots & Refuge Farm
  • How a homestead can pay for itself

About Jess

Jess Sowards is a homesteader and gardener who shares her journey through social media. She and her husband, Jeremiah, are raising their six children on a small hobby farm. They share their lives on their YouTube channel, Roots and Refuge Farm. She offers the insights they have gathered along the way in her books, The First-time Gardener: Growing Vegetables (March 2021) and The First-Time Homesteader (September 2022). Jess is passionate about gardening, growing food, and equipping others to do the same.

Resources Mentioned

Making Money on a Homestead | How a Hobby Farm Can Help Pay for Itself

Connect

Jess Sowards of Roots and Refuge Farm | Website | YouTube | Instagram | Facebook

Lisa Bass of Farmhouse on Boone | Blog | YouTube | Instagram | TikTok | Facebook | Pinterest

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Transcript

Lisa Bass Welcome back to the Simple Farmhouse Life podcast. Today, I’m bringing on Jessica from Roots and Refuge Farm. Now you might already follow along with her over on YouTube. She is sharing homestead information, gardening. She shares so many great vlogs that will really inspire you. She does garden tours and seed starting and so many tips for the upcoming season. She and her family just purchased a new farm about seven or eight months ago, and they’re building it just from the ground floor, from scratch. So we’re going to chat about that. We’re also going to talk about having a farm even when you didn’t grow up with those kind of skills or if you didn’t grow up on a farm at all, what that is like, what the transition is like into learning new things. We also talk about the economical side of it. So how can you have a homestead with all of the feed costs and the infrastructure and it not cost you anything? How can you make the things on the farm pay for that? She has some really great tips on that. I am so excited to dive in and share this conversation with you. A big thank you to today’s episode sponsor Toups and Co organic skincare. More on them a little bit later. 

Lisa Bass Well, thanks for joining us. I am really looking forward to talking to you. I love watching your YouTube channel and following along with you there. I’ve came across so many of your videos over the years, so they’ve been very helpful. I was looking through some of your most popular content because I thought, maybe you know, that’s something you would specialize in, and we could chat about that a little bit too. But I know that you guys moved about a year ago. 

Jess Sowards Yeah, last August. So about seven months now. 

Lisa Bass Okay. Yeah. From a smaller homestead to acreage. And at the moment, you are making that into your dream farm from my understanding. 

Jess Sowards Yes. That is what we’re currently doing. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, that’s a whole adventure to follow along with. So tell us a little bit about your farm and what’s currently going on there. 

Jess Sowards Well, like you said, we relocated. We moved from four acres in central Arkansas to 27 acres in the midlands of South Carolina. So it’s a pretty big move. 

Lisa Bass Oh. I didn’t realize you moved so far. 

Jess Sowards Yeah, about a 700 mile move to a very similar growing season. The climates are very like each other in this area of South Carolina to where I was in Arkansas. But right now, we’ve spent the last eight months or so taking this raw land to being a working farm, and it looks like a farm now. It feels like a farm. We definitely have a lot going on. And it’s been a lot of work, but right now we’re really kind of breaking into a really rewarding season where we’re starting to grow food again and have dairy cows and just bringing a lot of food in. That was a weird season going from growing most of our food to being in a place where we didn’t have anything coming in from our yard. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, you didn’t have anything set up to actually do that. Yeah, there’s always going to be that adjustment period. I guess lucky for you, it was at the end of the summer, so maybe you were able to still do a lot of gardening on your previous property? 

Lisa Bass Yeah, we did. We planted everything. We kind of left right at the height of the season. So we ate fresh out of the garden last year, but obviously I didn’t preserve anything because it would have just been another thing to move across the country. So I missed out on like kind of the second half of the season, but I did get some of it. This is the longest I’ve gone without a garden in my adult life, so I’m ready to get back into it for sure. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, yeah, it’s that time of year again. So for the focus of this podcast, I was thinking about talking about growing up or not growing up on a farm, but then wanting to make a transition toward that because I think a lot of people think that you have to have some background and experience, or at least they might not completely think that, but in their head, they definitely have some beliefs about that that make it hard for them to pursue something that they think, “I’m not qualified to do this.” So did you always want to be a homesteader? Or how did that desire progress? 

Jess Sowards Yes, I would say I didn’t have the language “homesteader,” but when I was really young—I grew up in the city, in the suburbs, I should say, in town—and I had not had a lot of access to farm life as we now know it. But I did like, take horseback riding lessons and I did have a little bit of exposure. I had an uncle that like raised chickens and had a pig. You know, they did a pig a year and all of that, and I was enamored by that. I loved animals. I loved reading books. Like some of my earliest memories were books about cows and farm cats, and that was my fascination from literally as early as I can remember it. So any time we got an opportunity to, you know, take some carrots up and feed the cows next door and do different things like that, that’s what I loved to do. I didn’t actually start with that until I was an adult, and it’s very daunting and overwhelming to want to do farm life when you’ve had no exposure to it. Because I mean, it’s as bewildering as space travel. You’re like, “What in the world? How do you do that?” It feels impossible. And so I would say that desire in something that just built up over literal decades has been a huge driving force in me figuring this out because I just wanted it for so long. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, whenever you want something, you can definitely find the information and figure out how to get there. But as far as actually getting there— so for however many years, you lived on four acres and made that into the homestead that basically you built your entire YouTube channel, your homesteading niche on, and then having the goal of going to 27 or, you know, to go to more acreage— that’s I think the part that people find really daunting. Is how do I start whenever I don’t have property?So you were on your four acre plot for 10 or close to 10 years. 

Jess Sowards Eight. Yeah, we were there for eight. 

Lisa Bass Eight. Okay, yeah. Did it seem very out of reach that you would ever move from it? Was that always the goal? 

Jess Sowards Well, you kind of have to go back a little further. So we lived in in the suburbs and we were in ministry and you know, my husband was outside of the home. I stayed at home with our kids and I did photography as my side business and I desperately wanted a farm. I wanted to grow food. I loved shopping at the farmers market. I wanted to grow. I kind of did some gardening efforts. I wasn’t super successful in the early days in that. And we had no money. And so buying even a four acre property felt completely impossible. It felt impossible to get started in my backyard, and I had this ideal image of this little small farm and a big garden and a chicken coop and all this stuff. And because I knew that wouldn’t fit in my suburban backyard, for a long time I didn’t do anything. And that made me more hopeless and made me feel more helpless. And really, there was a point that I kind of realized I have to do what I can where I am. And the thing that became the gateway for me into food sustainability was picking wild blackberries. I had a friend who her father-in-law had 40 acres. He was my pastor growing up and he said, “Sure, you can come pick blackberries on my 40.”

Lisa Bass Yeah, he probably didn’t even want them. 

Jess Sowards Yeah, no, they were just weeds. And so we would go out and pick gallons and gallons and gallons of these wild blackberries. You know, be completely scraped up and sunburned. And I felt this freedom of food sustainability for the first time ever. And that was where I kind of came up with this idea, like, we have to turn our waiting room into a classroom and just learn everything we can where we are. So when we got our four acre farm, it was overwhelming. But I knew how to apply things. I knew kind of the next step. I’d learned to can, I’d learned to eat seasonally. And so for me, I just view it as graduating into the next classroom. And this 27 acre farm, again, I mean, it’s a big deal to lay out a whole farm. And there are moments where this feels very daunting, but it’s just that next level in education. You know, kindergarten doesn’t look like your junior year of college. Those are different levels, and you don’t go from one to the other. There’s a process that gets you there, and that’s kind of how it feels to me. Going from one stage to the next. You’re just leveling up in your education and what you’re learning, but you’re always still learning. 

Lisa Bass Yeah. And for anybody who hasn’t tried all of this, it is daunting for a 27 acre farm. Because we only live on seven acres, and we in no way have it tamed at all. There’s so much to do. 

Jess Sowards And if you did get it tamed and then you didn’t continue to tame it and work it, three years from now, it would be wild again. 

Lisa Bass Yep, it just wants to take back over. What we’re living on is seven acres that used to be a farm, but has been completely neglected for at least 50 years. So whenever you look at our property line, the next place over on both sides— perfect. Ours is just weeds and honeysuckle and every tree. You know, it’s just very, very neglected. And so to reclaim that, it’s going to take us plenty of time. So we don’t even need to be thinking about anything further at this point. So was your husband always on board with this? Did he have the same vision? 

Jess Sowards So we joke that when Jeremiah and I met—I call him Miah or Sweet Miah, but Jeremiah—when we met that I wanted a farm and he wanted to marry me, so it was kind of the same thing. Like that was our joke. Because when we first started dating, I had this dream. I mean, I’d had it forever. I wanted a farm. I wanted to raise my kids in the country. I wanted to grow my own food. I wanted to garden and raise animals and make things from scratch, and I was so passionate about it. And he actually grew up in the country and helped his mom with a garden and they raised meat chickens. It wasn’t necessarily a way of life for them; it was just something that they did occasionally, if that makes sense. And I think there’s different approaches. And he hated it. He was like, “I never want to do that again. That was miserable.” But then we started dating and he was like, “Well, you know, I’d be willing.” And the first four years of our marriage, we were living in town and working and going to school and not doing anything like that. I’m picking wild blackberries and shopping at the farmers market. But when we found our property, I think he agreed to it thinking he was just going to give me what I wanted and give me the space to do what I was going to do.

Lisa Bass Right. Not necessarily seeing himself as a big role in it. 

Jess Sowards Right. And he definitely— he’s the carpenter. He builds things. And he was willing, in the early days, to give me what I wanted. But along the way, he kind of got pulled into it and found his own passions in it and found his own places to do different things. Like he handles a lot of the big animals and the husbandry and the building. Whereas I’m primarily the gardener and we just have our roles in what we’re doing. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, he’s eased into it. He’s found what he enjoys doing as his part of it.

Jess Sowards Yeah, we went this morning—I’ve got a garden manicure, got dirt caked in my nails—we went and helped some friends of ours put their garden in this morning. Just put a couple raised beds together, and they asked him, they said, “Jeremiah, are you happy to have your hands in the soil?” And he said, “No.” He said, “I’m okay watching somebody else get their hands in the soil,” and they said, “Well, do you love this?” And he goes, “No,” he said, “I don’t love growing things,” he said, “I love eating the things Jessica grows, and I’m happy to help her.” But that’s not his role, really. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, my husband’s the exact same way. It was something that I’ve always been really drawn to. I actually did grow up on a farm, but a different kind of farm than the homesteaders today that you have the dairy cow and the garden. I grew up on an elk farm, which is really weird. 

Jess Sowards Oh, wow. 

Lisa Bass Yeah. So we had 40 acres fenced in with elk, and we also— my grandpa had cattle and it was all attached, so my dad’s— the place was attached with my grandpa’s. So I grew up with it all, but not a dairy cow or a garden, that kind of thing. And then he grew up in town, so he didn’t have any background in it at all. But as—like you said—the years have progressed, he’s found himself doing more and more things, and he actually finds that he enjoys it once he starts learning more about it. He’s been our our milker lately. So ever since I had the baby, he’s been milking the cow. Something he never thought he’d do. 

Jess Sowards Miah has been primarily the milker lately. I was dealing with some health issues over the winter, and he kind of took over that, and it’s weird. I’d never thought that that would be the thing he’d be doing, but I know he is. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, same same. I didn’t think it either. Whenever I had the baby, I don’t really know what I was thinking because, you know, obviously while I was pregnant, I knew that we have a dairy cow. But I didn’t know how long we would do all that. But yeah, he’s still primarily doing that. I think as soon as it gets warm consistently, I’ll be having the baby on my back and we’ll do it together. A little faster that way. 

Jess Sowards Yeah, for sure. 

Lisa Bass So did you learn any skills in your childhood that would have led you to a lot of the things that you’re doing now? Or was it mostly just starting to explore when you guys first got married? 

Jess Sowards I’ve actually thought a lot about this because I’m like, “What did I carry over?” My mother was and is a very passionate gardener. Now she’s not a food grower. Well, she grows a lot more food now than she did when I was younger. She mostly did ornamental and landscaping, but loved to grow things. I joke that my mom is a seed swiper. Like she cannot walk past a dead flower head without swiping the seeds. Like, in public, doesn’t matter, other people’s gardens. I mean, she’s going to save seeds. So I definitely was exposed to that a lot. I don’t know that I had a lot of hands-on learning, but it was very normal to me. And the other thing I really picked up as a child and a young person— I had a lot of health issues when I was a kid, and one of the big kind of cultures in my family was that food matters. What you eat matters. And eating healthy food leads to your body being healthy. So in the 80s when I was a child, and the early 90s, you know, all of my peers, they drank soda a lot. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, we had no connection. 

Jess Sowards Yeah, that was not allowed in my house because I was sick. And so we had really discovered what the connection is there. And that, I think, has really carried over more than anything else. Even had I learned skills, just learning to be aware of what you’re eating and how it affects your health and your wellbeing overall is probably the biggest lesson I carried over. Now actual hands-on skills— I learned to cook from scratch from cookbooks as an adult. I learned all of this stuff—canning, preserving, growing—from books and YouTube and blogs. I was really diving into homesteading when blogs were kind of like at their peak of popularity. Kind of before video and podcasts took off. And I was obsessed. I wanted to learn everything that I possibly could. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, I’d say that’s how I grew up as well. I wouldn’t say that we really had a lot of knowledge on the connection between food and health, mostly because I didn’t have really any issues that would make her explore that. But she was also the type of mom that did— you know, whenever my dad brought home an elk from an elk hunting trip, she cooked it. It wasn’t foreign to make things from scratch. And so, yeah, I think even if you didn’t expressly learn exactly like— she didn’t say, “This is how we do this.” You grew up around it, and then whenever it came time, I think you have the confidence to try things. 

Jess Sowards Yes. I think it establishes a culture, and that’s something that we talk about a lot in our home— is wanting to establish healthy cultures. Like I want the culture of my home to be that food heals us, that it’s fuel, that we can enjoy it, but we should be mindful of it, and not be a slave to it. And that’s really how I was raised. And were my parents being super intentional? I don’t really know. I think that they both were raised with pretty healthy food culture, and that was just a really normal part of our home. And so learning skills is actually, I feel like, a lot easier than developing cultures in your life. And so once you have like a healthy relationship with food and you view it properly, then learning to grow it and learning to cook it, it’s kind of natural. But it’s really hard to pursue that knowledge when you don’t have a healthy relationship and a really well-rounded food culture in your house. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Are there anything like you can think of specifically that you notice that people do that would maybe foster like an unhealthy relationship toward that? 

Jess Sowards Yeah. So we have a couple of rules in our house that we want to do differently. Like, for instance, I’m okay if my kids don’t like something. Like if I cook something and they’re like, “Ew, I really don’t like that.” Like, I’m never going to sit there and say, “You have to eat all of this.” Now, you can’t go eat junk instead. You know, like, I’m not going to give you food made from scratch and vegetables we grew and ferments and all this stuff, and then have my kids turn their nose up at that and then go eat something processed like a Hot Pocket. You know, like, I’m not going to allow that. But I can say, “Okay,” we always say, “Well, will you please give it a try? And if you don’t like it, we’ll discuss that.” You know, and the thing is a lot of times, because there’s no fear in punishment on not liking something or not wanting to finish something, they’re willing to give it a healthy try because they’re not being forced into it. So that’s something for us. Like, there are things I don’t like, and I’m an adult, and I’m not going to eat them if I don’t like them. So I’m not going to force my kids to eat something they don’t like. The other thing is like really just listening to your cues in your body. Like eat when you’re hungry and don’t eat when you’re not hungry, and that’s okay. It’s so funny now to see intermittent fasting and all of these different things being discussed. Like, I was never a breakfast eater when I was a kid. I just did not feel hungry. And I would go to school and be forced to eat breakfast when I didn’t want to, and I would get sick. And now people are like, “Don’t eat until 10 o’clock.” And I’m like, “I wish somebody would have said I was okay when I was a child.” And so for me, it’s really listening to your cues. Learning to enjoy food, but not need it for comfort. That’s something that’s really important because ultimately, I think that with our food system, it’s so broken. And we have to think like right now, how much processed sugars and fats— obviously healthy fats are really good, but we are given the option of a lot of hydrogenated oils and very unhealthy fats, often coupled with those very high levels of processed sugars— well biologically, we are driven as humans, as animals to store up fats and sugars. I mean, that’s what we run on. And so our bodies say, “Oh, give me more of that.” Well, when we are being exposed to incredibly unhealthy amounts of processed sugars and unhealthy fats, and we are biologically driven to just eat more and more and more and more and more, it is so important that we learn to listen to our cues and our body, and eat when we’re hungry, and not eat when we’re not hungry, and try new things, and not connect punishment and fear to food. Because I see so many adults who have very unhealthy relationships with food, and then they deal with health issues, they deal with weight issues. And I mean, we are so not 100% perfect in this, but I am really recognizing in myself and asking myself, “What’s driving me to want to eat this thing?” Because I’m a sugar— like, I’m a sweet tooth. I have to like, get a completely off sugar occasionally just to know that I can. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, that’s helpful though, because I think that that culture, like you said, is so much more important than even just specifics on how to do something. 

Jess Sowards For sure. 

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Lisa Bass So what were some of the first things that you learned back whenever you just started with— maybe when you got married, you started out on your own? What did that timeline look like? 

Jess Sowards It started in the kitchen for me. I had my son, Asher. Jackson was first. I was really young, and then I had Asher. I was 21, so I had two little babies. And Asher had a lot of food allergies. And I’d always had this dream of a farm, but it was more the lifestyle I dreamed of and romanticized— like the slow, unplugged living. But it became about the food when Asher was born and he had allergies. And so I started reading labels for the first time ever. And I had to cut all dairy out of my diet, which is very, very difficult to do. But I was nursing him and in order to do that, I could not do dairy. He was very allergic. And I started to be like, “Wow, dairy is in spaghetti sauce. Dairy is in—” like all these things I just had not even considered had dairy byproducts. And I was dumbfounded, because prior to that—for me—cooking was opening cans and boxes and putting it all together. And so I began to really realize, “Wow, all these foods in the middle of the grocery store, all these processed foods, they’ve got tons of ingredients in them, and a lot of things, I don’t even know what these are.” So that’s when I started kind of shopping the real food thing and really getting away from processed food. And then it became, “Well, where’s this coming from?” It was almost an awakening. And I started shopping at farmers markets and falling in love with just real food. And so obviously the next progression was learning to grow the stuff. But in the meantime, I learned to cook from scratch. I learned to use cast iron. I learned to can because I was able to get big boxes of stuff from people— friends who had pear trees and the blackberries and stuff like that. So then it was it was learning to process all of this. And I sort of segued from the kitchen into the garden rather than the other way around. 

Lisa Bass Okay, yeah. You know, I actually did the exact same thing. I first started becoming really interested whenever my daughter was born, just because I had this child to care for that I wanted to obviously give the best to. And learning how to cook from scratch, reading labels—like you said. And then it led to the garden, mostly because sourcing becomes an issue year-round. So what are some of your plans? Like your big plans just for the year ahead. And what have you accomplished so far? For those of you who haven’t followed along with your journey on YouTube, I know they can obviously go over, subscribe, and follow along with the rest of the year. But what what have you done so far and what’s the plan for coming up? 

Jess Sowards Oh man. So I joke that I have no shortage of ideas. It’s time that I have a shortage of. 

Lisa Bass Oh yeah. 

Jess Sowards I’m an idea factory. So we moved here in the end of July and into August. We got here at the end of July, but we didn’t have any place to stay yet. Our house wasn’t ready to move into. So we actually went up and stayed with our friends in North Carolina, and we weren’t actually here until August. But we brought pigs. We brought some of our goats. We brought some chickens and ducks and turkeys and our alpacas, but they’re just really lawn ornaments. But we brought some animals and obviously no gardens, nothing. We had to get utilities on the property. We had to do fencing. Everything was pretty much from scratch. And since we got here, we have built a barn. We have now—I can’t believe I’m saying this—we have five cows, cattle. We have two dairy cows— jerseys. We have a year-old heifer that was from one of the jerseys. And then we have two little heifers that are eight weeks old. One is a bottle baby orphan that I got to graft on to one of my cows. And then the other one was born to one of my cows. So, yeah, we go no cattle to five in the last several months.

Lisa Bass You fenced in everything already, too?

Jess Sowards Most of it is fenced. Yeah, that was one of the first things. Last summer before I actually came with the animals, my husband spent a good deal of the summer out here with our oldest son and his brother, who moved here at the same time as us. And he did lots of fencing, tearing stuff down, clearing stuff out, and getting ready to move the animals here. Right now, the thing that we’re currently just in the throes of and the guys are out there working on right now, is finishing up our greenhouse. We built a greenhouse out of reclaimed windows, and it’s so beautiful. And they’re finishing that. That should be functional by the end of this week. And we’re putting up two high tunnels and we are working on lots of garden spaces. So that’s really going to be the main focus right now— is getting the gardens in. Probably for the next several months, that’s what we’re going to be doing— is planting trees, planting perennials, berry bushes. And then also getting our annual gardens in. And we’ve been working on doing a lot of compost. That’s been our big focus because we’re growing in so much more space here that building healthy soil with what we have is really important. We can’t just buy it and bring it in because it just wouldn’t be economical. 

Lisa Bass Yeah. How much are you gardening? How much space? 

Jess Sowards Oh gosh, it’s about two acres. 

Lisa Bass Wow. Okay. 

Jess Sowards Yeah, so it’s a pretty big space. I thought it was less than that. I thought, “I think it’s an acre.” And then I actually Google Earth and mapped it out. And it is. It’s about two acres. And that is including the two high tunnels. So all together, what is that? Like 80,000 square feet? Now of course, that’s including all the walkways and the drives and all that stuff. It’s not actually planted that much, but it’s a big space. 

Lisa Bass Wow. So you guys built a barn, fencing, and all of that in like seven months. 

Jess Sowards Yes. Yeah, it’s been a lot. It has been absolutely a lot. And then also like learning to milk cows and like, get into that flow. That’s a lot of work. I mean, just processing milk every day— when you add up the amount of time you do with that. Like right now, we’re getting seven gallons of milk a day. 

Lisa Bass Yeah. So are you making lots of cheese or what are you doing with a lot of that? 

Jess Sowards Yes, I’ve been doing a lot of cheese. Making yogurt. Of course, we have pigs that we’re growing out. And so a lot of the milk, we just bring it in and then separate, and we keep the cream and then the skim goes to the pigs to fatten them up. Because I mean, obviously that’s still using your resources to grow food. And then so we make butter and ice cream, and I’ve done cream cheese, sour cream. We’ve gone through a lot of products learning how to make all those. 

Lisa Bass Yeah. But like you said, just processing the milk is a huge job. 

Jess Sowards It’s a lot of time.

Lisa Bass We don’t get near that. We actually still have our calf on, even though she’s eight months old. And so we get about a gallon and a half a day, which is still a lot of milk for for us. But yeah, I’m not really doing a lot of that processing at this point.

Jess Sowards If we just had a gallon and a half a day, I would not be doing nearly as much processing. We could drink— I mean, we would drink a pretty significant amount of that with all the kids that we have. 

Lisa Bass Remind me how many kids you have? And they’re all a little bit older, right? 

Jess Sowards We have we have six. We’re blended. And so our oldest is my stepdaughter, and she lives in Vegas with her mom and stepdad. She’s with us on summer and holidays. And then the five boys live here, and they are— yeah, so we— a lot of milk. They’re 16, 14, 10, 8, and 7. And they’re so hungry. Boys— they are very hungry. 

Lisa Bass See, I have five boys, but they’re 9 down to 4 months, so I’m not really there yet. 

Jess Sowards Yeah, you will be.

Lisa Bass Yeah, we’ll need another dairy cow when that comes around. 

Jess Sowards Right. 

Lisa Bass So with your garden space, with gardening two acres, almost—I know that that’s a lot of walkways and things, too—are you going to be doing any CSAs? Or is that just you preserving and growing for your family? 

Jess Sowards So I understand that my situation is unusual, but I always tell people like, “I make my money from my garden on YouTube videos.”

Lisa Bass Oh I completely understand. Yeah. 

Jess Sowards And so right now, we have three employees that work here at our house. We have some other endeavors that we’re currently working on launching that are not, like officially announced. I can kind of like go around them a bit, but I’ll give all of the details in coming months. But we’re actually going to be opening a brick and mortar store, it looks like next year. And we’ve already nailed a lot of stuff down. And so one of our employees is going to be transitioning to that, but two will continue to work here after we get past the building stage. And right now, our main goal is just provide the food for our family. And then we also just give stuff to neighbors, to the people who work here. I kind of view it as we have this small community and these people are people who work on what we’re doing. And so I like for them to be able to benefit from it first. Eventually, I think once this is all established, it’s going to be way more food than we can all eat together. And hopefully at that point, we’ll have some sort of presence in town where maybe we can have a little market stand or something like that. 

Lisa Bass Oh, how cool is that? So yeah, for people who live— sorry, remind me where you live again? 

Jess Sowards Right outside Columbia, South Carolina. 

Lisa Bass So if you live in that area, be on the lookout someday. 

Jess Sowards It’s going to be very exciting. 

Lisa Bass But yeah, I totally understand what you’re saying. I get a lot of people on my channel who ask me, “How do you cook like that all the time?” And I’m like, “You have to remember that cooking like this is my job. So showing you all of this—” like, I’ve always loved to cook from scratch. So, I mean, it is something I’m doing. But coming up with new ideas and recipes— this is what I do for a living. So, you know, for somebody who thinks, “Oh my gosh, two acres.” But like you said, you do have people helping you with it. And it is your job to show your homestead. 

Jess Sowards Right. And that’s kind of what I explain to people. Like I’ve been calling it the garden belt because we’re essentially planting this long strip—and it accounts for about two acres—that wraps around our 1000-foot long driveway and it goes all the way down the side, and we’re planting about 80 feet wide all the way around. And it’s going to be really neat, but I tell people this isn’t necessarily the most economical way to plant a garden. It might not be the most feasible if you’re trying to make it efficient or whatever. But I want to show raised beds and in-ground and high tunnels and all the different kinds of doing things. I want to be able to point to it and say, “And this is what this looks like, and this is how this works.”. 

Lisa Bass Exactly. Yeah. 

Jess Sowards So I’m like, “Don’t model after me unless you’re trying to build a big YouTube channel, in which case, I think this works.” But it is hard whenever people are like, “Well, I don’t really relate to this,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I know, we probably have different goals, but here’s how you can grow a tomato.” I can teach you that. 

Lisa Bass Right, you want to show all of the— that’s like on my channel, I show this bread recipe and this— and people are like, “Well, which one do you make daily?” You know, obviously, like, I’m showing you every option possible, right? And they sometimes forget that there’s not just a camera crew following me around to get this content out there. You know, I’m thinking through, “What can I present that people need to maybe learn and apply which parts of it work for them?” 

Jess Sowards It’s beautiful. I feel so thankful to get to do it. I mean, what a dream life, you know? I mean, I dreamed of this literally my entire childhood, and now I get to live my dream life on steroids. You know, just this incredible thing. I was talking to my friend this morning about how I used to save my birthday money, you know, to spend $50 or $100 and buy seeds. And now every time I go to my post office box, there’s more seeds there. It’s just— I’m overwhelmed, even. Now the problem is, how do I deal with the abundance? But to me, it’s just an opportunity to bless other people. And when people are like, “Oh no, let me pay you. Here’s $3 for these eggs.” I’m like, “Really, I already got paid for these eggs because I showed collecting them.” And so you just enjoy them. I don’t need the $3, you know? It’s fine.

Lisa Bass Yeah, I totally know what you’re saying. I feel the same way. We give milk to a couple of families because even a gallon and a half— like, we average probably like three quarters of a gallon a day is probably what we actually consume. So then we have milk where people are like, “Can I pay you?” I’m like, just like you said, I’m like, “Oh, no, don’t worry.”

Jess Sowards Yeah, just take it. And it’s nice. It multiplies.

Lisa Bass Yeah, it makes sense in our situation. So yeah, I completely understand. So what are your plans for the years ahead? You’ve kind of talked out like what you’re doing this year. What can people expect to see on your farms in years from now? Or do you think that far ahead? 

Jess Sowards Oh, I definitely do. I’m like one of those people that just lives with a ten year vision. So we actually have like this really big dream, and we’ve had it for years, and now it feels very feasible. But we’ve had it since it was an impossible dream. And but our longer term plan—and I say my five year plan. I don’t know exactly how long it’ll take because I just don’t know. I’ve never done this before. But I’d like to get 100 acres—not here where I live, but you know, nearby—and that I would like to build a learning center, essentially a regenerative farm where people can come and do internships, or they can come and do classes on Thursday night. Or they can come and just tour and buy groceries and eat in a restaurant and just have a place that is a hub of sorts for learning to grow food, for building community, or just a resource to buy locally sourced food here for the area. That has been my dream for years now, before I even had a YouTube channel. That was really like my big long term dream. Of course, at the time I was like, “Man, that’s going to cost a lot of money and take a lot that I don’t have and knowledge I don’t have.” But now, I mean, it’s like, “Okay, I could see that being possible.” It’s not possible right now, but I can see that we’re on the trajectory towards that being a possibility. So that’s like down the line, and that’s something we dream about. Our more immediate plans is we want to start a brick and mortar mercantile where we can kind of use it as a precursor to that, like an early place to do classes and have supplies and be a meeting place of sorts where we can do events and meet with people. I love coffee. I’m passionate about coffee and also supporting ethically grown coffee and not taking advantage of people who are vulnerable in places that they’re often taken advantage of in farming. So I really would love to roast coffee. That’s something that’s kind of on the list and create like a coffee house and a place of community in conjunction with that mercantile. So that’s kind of like a more immediate plan and something we’re going to work to. And I see that as being like the forerunner to that big place that we want down the road. Now we have to build our farm first because this is— like we said, this is our job. And so that has been our most urgent focus— is working on this farm and getting all of our infrastructure in place and getting where we can grow our family’s food and have content and teach people how to do that. So right now, I feel like we have this big dream and we’re sort of working backwards from it to get to it. So that’s why— people are like, “Man, you’ve gotten a lot done.” But we really are wanting to get all of this done really fast so we can get on to the things that we’re really excited about. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, yeah. I completely understand. A lot of that stuff— if you were to do it completely yourself, for a lot of families, that amount of work to set up a 35 or whatever—I forget what you said—around 40 acre farm. 

Jess Sowards Twenty-seven. 

Lisa Bass Twenty-seven, that’s right. 

Jess Sowards Twenty-seven acres here, yeah. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, would take just years years to accomplish. But yeah, like you said, working towards a bigger goal and plus taking your viewers along with it is— I can see the trajectory that you’re talking about. So one of the most popular posts on your YouTube channel is making money on a homestead. And the reason I’m bringing this up is I think sometimes people are wondering, you know, like you said, you’re getting paid to show gathering the eggs. Is there an economical side to starting a lot of this, a lot of the infrastructure, if you’re not planning on sharing it on YouTube or a blog? How would you approach that? What are some of the suggestions you would have on that? 

Jess Sowards Yeah. So I actually love talking about this because when we started with our dream of homesteading, we were incredibly broke. And we found a foreclosure. We’ve gotten just out of debt almost entirely as far as like not having expensive payments and all of that. We had a little bit that had remained; we weren’t all the way out of debt. But we had cut down our need of income very largely. And for me, when we first got started, it was, “I can do anything as long as I can make it pay for itself.” So I could have dairy animals. But I wanted to make sure, like my goats, that I bred them well enough that I could sell the kids for enough, that I could offset the feed costs for the year for the does so I could have milk. If, like, for instance, I wanted to have chicks, I wanted to have chickens, and I would go on to hatcheries at like the end of the season whenever they were clearing out the chicks and they were like a dollar each. And so we would get a lot of them and then we would raise them and then sell them as started pullets. For people who want to get chickens right at the point of lay, they don’t want to deal with chicks. And so we did stuff like that. Okay, well, if I can get enough to sell this part, I can make enough profit to cover the part that I want to keep. And that’s kind of what that video—that very popular video I have on YouTube—is about. Like, how do you do the hustle? How can you think: what can I do to make this pay for itself? As far as making a small farm profitable—outside of obviously intellectual content and teaching and stuff like that—I’ve never gotten into like the marketing side of things. I did the farmers market for a little while, but never enough for it to be like a full time job. It was just on the scale of making it pay for itself. But for a lot of people, I think that that’s enough. That if you have another job that you’re doing to pay the insurance and the bills and the mortgage, that you can do the homesteading thing and just be resourceful enough to make it pay for itself. So it’s not a bill. So your feed bill isn’t coming out of your family budget, it’s coming out of the account that all of the farm income goes into and covers itself. 

Lisa Bass Yeah, I like some of your ideas, too, because they’re not— I think the first thing people think is, you know, lay eggs and sell them. Milk out the milk and sell the milk. But you’re thinking more along the lines of like, how do we breed these goats to actually make the kids pay for the feed? And how do we raise up the pullets so that people will buy them for $17 a pop vs.— you know, because I think those are some of the creative ideas that people need to be able to cover— because a lot of this homesteading stuff— like we’re talking about infrastructure and feed, it can be expensive. And so making it pay for itself is something that people need to know before they even consider starting it. 

Jess Sowards Well, I think a lot of people quit because they hop in and they don’t know how much it’s going to cost. They don’t know that these things are going to add up. And that just feed bills can get really crazy. And a lot of people think, “I’m going to grow my own food so I don’t have to go to the grocery store.” And then they spend more at the feed store than they ever spent at the grocery store. One of the things that video that I touched on that I think is a really great example of like being resourceful— if you get laying hens and you sell their eggs, let’s say you have a really good market and you can sell those eggs for $5 a dozen, which is, you know, that’s a pretty good market. Some people will scoff at that. Some, you know, depends on where you live. 

Lisa Bass I wouldn’t. Being a farmer, I would not. 

Jess Sowards Yeah. So say you sell them for $5 a dozen. Awesome. You’ve got, you know, let’s say you have 25 chickens, so you’re getting a couple dozen a day, you’re getting $10 a day, then you’re getting $70 a week in egg costs. But you have a family, you want to eat some of the eggs, and then you think about the feed and you’re like, “Okay, if I sell eggs, I can pay for my chicken’s feed and essentially I can eat the eggs I’m going to eat for free.” Okay. But what if you had chickens that laid really colorful eggs, like that had blue and green and dark brown shells? Well, you could go a specialty market then, and you might even be able to sell those for $6 or $7 a dozen. But if you had the ability to hatch those eggs, you could sell chicks that lay colorful eggs to other homesteaders, people who want to have chickens in their backyard. And then people are willing to pay maybe $4 or $5 a chick if you have like the really good dark colors. Or at least a $2 a chick. So then that 12 dozen eggs just turned into $24 if you’re selling them for $2 each. And then, well, what if you really work on those lines and you get those eggs like you see on Instagram that are like deep olive or deep chocolate? Well, then you can sell those hatching eggs with those deep, deep colors. I mean, I’ve paid $100 a dozen for hatching eggs for those really awesome colors. 

Lisa Bass I’ve paid quite a bit, too. Yeah, I have to admit, last year I paid a lot. People are like, “Where’d you get those colors?” I’m like, “Oh, you got to pay for it.” 

Jess Sowards Yeah, I know. And they are expensive. But you can do that. You can build a brand. And so you just went from— now you’ve got to put more investment in time. You’ve got to buy some really good eggs, you’ve got to work on it. But on one hand, you’re like, “I’ll sell some extra eggs and cover feed costs.” And then on the other hand, you put a little more in the front end. Well, now your dozen eggs is worth $100, and that’s a massive difference. And so that’s the difference between making your farm pay for itself and building a business with your farm— is what’s the investment? What are you going to do to learn the market? What are you going to do to get something that people want and create that? And whether that’s a YouTube channel or egg lines or breeding lines in your goats, or you’re going to build a really great brand at the farmer’s market and be the person who has the best carrot cake that everybody’s got to go try. You know, if you’re going to make a business, it’s going to take building a business, and that’s the same with your farm. And I’m very much an entrepreneur. So for me, that’s always possible. Like anything you do, you can think, “How do I become the best at this?”

Lisa Bass Yep. How do I make— set it apart to where I’m not just doing like the first thing that comes to mind, but I’m actually strategically thinking a little bit deeper about this. Yeah, I love those ideas. We will definitely leave in the show notes that video so people can check it out. Also, just follow along with Jess and her family as they continue to build out this farm from scratch. I think it’s very inspiring. I’ve been loving following along with that since you announced your purchase last summer. So exciting to see what you guys are doing with it. I see that you have a big vision for it. So, the bigger, the better to follow along with for us. 

Jess Sowards Yes. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Lisa Bass Yeah, thank you so much for joining me. 

Lisa Bass All right. Well, thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Simple Farmhouse Life podcast. I just wanted to talk to Jess forever. She has such a huge vision. Just even entrepreneurial things would be fun to talk to her about forever. My favorite part of having this podcast is getting to sit for 45 minutes and talk to people that I wouldn’t otherwise get to know very well. And now I’m all in. Now I need to see everything she does all summer, what their family accomplishes over the next several years. I encourage you to do the same. Head over to YouTube and give Roots and Refuge Farm a subscription, a subscribe, a follow, and go and see what all they have to offer. And what you can learn from her is going to be amazing this summer with gardening. I know I’m excited to follow along. Also, make sure to head over to ToupsandCo.com. Use the code FARMHOUSE to get 10% off your order of organic skincare. They also have makeup, which I’m really excited to try. I’ve been loving all of their skincare products to keep my skin moisturized and clean. Their charcoal bar has been amazing to rid my skin of all of the makeup and debris throughout the day. Deeply moisturize it with that seabuckthorn oil. I have been loving it, so make sure to go check them out using the code FARMHOUSE at ToupsandCo.com. As always, thank you so much for listening, and I will see you in the next episode of the Simple Farmhouse Life podcast. 

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