Laura grew up on a farm in Cullman County where her father raised bulls as a hobby. An avid horsewoman and barrel racer, she came to Marion to attend Judson College and met Chip, who had lived much of his boyhood on his grandfather’s small commercial farm. After they married, while Laura taught school and Chip continued farm-related work, they bought 160 acres. As a team, they worked on the property on weekends.
Laura and Chip generated their farm from scratch as they built the road and barn, dug the well and the seven-acre lake, constructed housing for the cows, Tamworth hogs, chickens, and goats, and meticulously engineered their energy-efficient home. Creating a strong emotional attachment to their farm, this couple’s intense labor also steered them toward the lifestyle they now maintain. As a result of their unequivocal love for the land and a desire for a healthy, active, outdoor life for their children, the Spencers are devoted to developing ways to be as self-sufficient as possible with a focus on environmentally sound practices.
The farm nurtures the sources for most of the Spencer family’s food and energy. Beef, pork, chicken, and fish comprise their meat menu. The orchard, garden, and pecan grove provide fruit and vegetables. The goats and chickens complete the dairy aspect with milk, eggs, and Laura’s array of homemade cheese — ricotta, feta, mozzarella.
From the energy standpoint, Chip explained that they have not run their heat pump in the last four or five years. “We heat almost entirely with wood from the property.” Taking advantage of the abundance of storm-damaged trees, the Spencers have never had to cut down a tree for firewood.
Chip thrives on solving the farm’s energy producing and energy saving issues. Laura describes him as a “mad scientist” when it comes to handling those problems. Chip devised the house’s air conditioning system, which includes misting the house with collected rain water. His system ultimately allows a mere seven degree temperature increase in the house from the previous night’s low temperature outside.
Chip built the solar hot water heater, which saves a dollar a day in electricity, for less than $100. His heater heats the water to a higher temperature than the electric hot water heater. Always eager for a challenge and never knowing what new problems or issues might arise tomorrow, Chip’s next planned project is to devise a way for the farm to generate its own power by using a micro–hydro electric generator on the lake overflow.
Four years ago, Laura traded her seventeen-year teaching career for a more active daily role in the burgeoning life of the farm. Handy with the farm equipment and actively engaged in all the chores, Laura also created a line of all natural products she labeled “Simply Making It.” Her handcrafted articles include soap, lip balm, lotion, shampoo, sugar scrub, body butter, and beeswax candles.
Practical minded and fearless in approaching new tasks, Laura firmly believes that it is okay to take up a new venture in self-sufficiency without knowing everything about it from the very beginning. She recommends getting started and working your way through the project without making the undertaking complicated.* With sincere respect for the farm animals and other creatures, Laura noted, “The bees know a whole lot more about what they’re supposed to do than I do.” Pointing out the animals’ ability to teach humans, she added, “You watch and learn from them.”
A variety of chickens live on the Spencer farm. Laura sells the eggs to home cooks as well as Southern chef and Marion homeowner Scott Peacock. However, profit is not her goal. Hoping to earn enough with her sales to pay for the specially mixed, no-chemical animal feed, she explained, “We don’t want to just produce and sell. We do these things for us. We would much rather teach you to produce your own.”
With boundless enthusiasm, Chip and Laura share their farm life as well as their special knowledge and natural gifts.
Farm visitors learn about honey extraction, participate in soapmaking, and meet the pair of Canadian geese whose eggs were rescued from an abandoned nest. In recent weeks, wild turkey eggs, whose nest was accidentally destroyed by a farming neighbor, have been hatching in a hand-me-down incubator on their porch.
In addition to teaching at Camp McDowell, Chip and Laura participate in area festivals, such as the Folk Life Festival in Livingston. At this event, they shared cheese making tips and demonstrated how several hens and a “Chicken Tractor,” a small portable pen, easily provide fresh eggs for daily enjoyment. Centered on the activities at their farm, this couple’s consistent teaching goal is to provide their students and other interested persons with enough knowledge to begin taking simple steps toward a self-sufficient way of life.
Chip explained how his lifelong passion for folk music helped light the fire for their interest in homesteading. He plays the fiddle for the Grasshopper Stringband of Alabama, which performs on weekends at festivals where artisans sell their cheese, soap, and other homemade products. As these artisans became their friends, they passed along their knowledge and skills to the Spencers. Chip stated, “The more we learned, the more we were interested in it.” So the ball started slowly rolling with beekeeping and Chip added, “We got bitten and we are now absolutely obsessed. We can’t wait until tomorrow to do something else!”
Life on the farm is never too busy for the Spencers to take time out for several family hobbies, particularly their music. Laura plays the piano while Chip and the children continue the Spencer family tradition with folk music. Veigh Kaye has been playing the fiddle since she was four. Mac performs on the bass and sings, while their dad, who plays a variety of string instruments, accompanies them on the guitar. Laura proudly described the children’s performance at a school talent show and Chip commented, “The old time music is one piece of the entire lifestyle pie.”
The Spencer family relishes and graciously shares the lifestyle that blossomed from their farming endeavors. In his relaxed, thoughtful way of speaking, Chip sums up his family’s experience, “Right now, our quality of life is off the charts.”
The Spencers’ list
for little changes that make big differences
1. Grow a few organic vegetables. As you work to avoid consuming herbicides and pesticides, plant several tomato plants and pepper plants in pots on your deck or patio.
2. Plant shade trees to trap some of our excessive carbon emissions and reduce energy consumption. Give the air conditioner a little help by planting the trees to shade the south and west sides of the house.
3. Replace the “energy hog” clothes dryer with a clothesline. Use a basic clothesline kit or employ the internet to discover creative ways to build a clothesline while adding a conversation piece to your backyard.
4. Buy local honey. Its beneficial qualities offer a healthy alternative to refined white sugar.
5. Read the labels on the food you purchase. Talk to the farmer you buy from and find out what, if anything, has been sprayed to prevent weeds and pests. Buy eggs from a local farmer with free range or organically fed hens. Ask your butcher about the source of the meat in the grocery store. Use the internet to find a producer whose products are hormone and antibiotic free.
6. Make all natural cleaning products in your kitchen. Laundry powder: In a large bowl mix 1 cup Borax, 1 cup washing soda, and 1 bar finely grated laundry soap, such as Fels-Naptha soap. Use 2 tablespoons for each laundry load. Dishwasher detergent: Mix 1 cup Borax and 1 cup washing soda. Use 2 Tablespoons for each dishwasher load.
7. Cook outdoors in the summer. You do not need fancy equipment. A charcoal grill and a fish cooker will work.
8. Try something new and step out of your comfort zone. Make bread or pizza dough from scratch or use your surplus vegetables in homemade soup and freeze it to enjoy in cool weather. Tint the windows of your home with heat reflective film to conserve energy.
Note to readers: This column will appear in the July edition of Black Belt Living magazine. For additional information about the magazine, refer to www.blackbeltlivingmag.com.