For this edition of “Focus Friday” I interviewed a local friend, homesteader and fellow mama, Beth McMillian. Beth has a nearly two-year old daughter and is expecting her second later this year. We connected first at a local music class for the kiddies. I was really interested in finding out more about Beth’s background and what lead her to being such a knowledgeable gardener and homesteader. She owns a business called Homestead It where she teaches classes and does consulting on the topic.
Background: I started working in urban farming one bright March day after about 5 months of being unemployed. I had spent a few years wandering around different jobs; bank teller, managing a pet store, working at a coffee shop. I had a college degree and a 10 year career in Theatre production that had slowly fizzled out. I knew that none of these were careers for me; they were merely a way to pay the bills until I figured out what I wanted to do next. I was living across the street from a well-known urban farm and while I had no real experience, I had a lot of random skills that proved useful; I have a crazy serious work ethic, I don’t mind getting dirty, wet or sunburned and I know how make things out of other things. I was hired as a cashier and a waterer, I worked really hard and within 3 years I was running my own project for them in Camden. I ended up working in Camden for 3 years, through the farm at first and then through a community center, helping people learn about how to eat healthy on a budget and living more sustainably by trying their hands at growing some food.
What sparked your interest in homesteading: Partially necessity! As I said, I was unemployed and took an $8 an hour job as a cashier at an urban farm. I had to learn about the plants and local food I was selling and sustainability came along for the ride. Along with that, earning a small wage (but with regular raises and a CSA share!), I had to learn how to stretch my dollars. I was living in a row house at the time but also was spending time with my now husband at his house with a nice big yard. So, I started a garden as a way to save money on food and I’ve been doing it ever since. Everything else stemmed from there; I read a lot of books and websites about DIY things: preserving the harvest by canning and freezing, making soap, cleaning products, etc. It definitely helps that both my husband and I already enjoy experimenting with new things and like the process of making things into other things or reusing rather than just buying.
Where did you learn: Most of what I have learned, I have taught myself through research and experience. This is definitely the hard and long way to learn but, if going back to school is out of the question then being passionate definitely gets your brain focused on learning fast. I did attend classes at the Barnes Horticulture School which gave me a nice background in botany and the science of plants as well as other horticultural skills. I also grew up in a family that really pushed independence and trying new things, no matter if it was a little different. Along the way that I learned more if I made a mistake than if I did something perfectly. All of these things pushed me to keep learning and trying new things. I have had to tone down a bit and hone in on what passions I want to focus on professionally and which I save for hobbies. I have always felt that if I am going to spend the majority of my day doing something, then I better really like it. I have admiration for people who can do their job, be successful (whatever that may mean to them) , not be wholly consumed by passion for it but do it so they can spend their free time doing what they love. I admire them, but that just isn’t me.
Advice to others who want to get started: START SMALL!!! Don’t try to change everything at once, it’s impossible and you will get discouraged and overwhelmed. Maybe start growing a few things that you like to eat or plant a fruit tree. Or switch out a few cleaning items to more environmentally sound products. Even easier, volunteer for an organization you admire. They appreciate the help, you get to feel good about yourself and will probably learn something in the process.
How does yoga help you balance: I have been taking yoga classes for what seems like forever! I can always feel the difference after attending a class. I feel centered and calm and ready to tackle all of my various responsibilities: being a wife and mother, working on all my various hobbies, having a job and a life. We all have so much going on every minute that it feels really good to take 15 or so minutes a day and an hour a week to simply focus on simple movements; watching my hand stretch or feel a muscle loosen. I grew up with ADD (I don’t believe someone grows out of it!) and I wish I had done yoga when I was a kid, I really think it would have helped me so much back then. It may seem selfish with all that we have to do and accomplish to just exit the world for a little bit and focus on spreading your toes or working on your balance, but to me it is a necessity.
More about Beth: Beth McMillan loves the first sign of plants peeking out when spring comes around. Between April and November, you will most likely find her outside, rain or shine, playing with her daughter or doing something with soil and plants. She also teaches classes about sustainability, food gardening, preserving the harvest and other interesting topics. She is passionate about making connections with people who create a better world and wants everyone to have the same access to quality, healthy food. Her husband, Jimmy, is the co-owner of Philly Homebrew Outlet where you can learn how to brew up your own beer, wine, cheese, soap, yogurt, kombucha or whatever your little heart desires. He also likes to tinker around with computer things Beth doesn’t really understand but enjoys the benefit of. They share their homestead with a dog and cat and are expecting their second offspring in the fall. You can follow Beth on Facebook at Homestead It and can find more info about Philly Homebrew Outlet at http://phillyhomebrew.com