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Embracing the simple life on a Thorndike farm

Posted Dec. 29, 2016, at 12:41 p.m.

THORNDIKE, Maine — For years, John Palumbo and Nyla Bravesnow roamed around Maine, trying to find just the right place to set down their roots.

A decade ago, after many false starts and dashed hopes from southern Maine to the Down East coast, the couple, by then toting an infant son, finally found it: 8 acres of sloping, rocky former pasture land and a small stand of ash trees they have turned into Many Hands Farm. It was a relief, Bravesnow said.

“This was my 39th move,” she said from inside her home on a bright and sunny December day. “It just felt so good to be here.”

In the years since, the family and the farm have blossomed, though not entirely in the traditional ways people usually mark success.

Bravesnow and Palumbo have three mischievous, home-schooled sons — Jonah, 9, Ara, 4, and Kai, 2 — but they do not own a car, truck or tractor. In fact, they have lived without owning a vehicle for six years, which wasn’t so hard in Portland, with its public transportation system, but has posed more of a challenge in rural Waldo County. At one point, Palumbo rode his bicycle nearly 20 miles to get to work at a downtown Belfast restaurant, even in the winter.

Now Bravesnow and Palumbo stay closer to home and said that while life at Many Hands Farm is busy and rewarding, those rewards usually are not the financial kind.

“We’ve been living on between $10,000 and $15,000 for 11 or 12 years,” Palumbo said.

That small sum, which is largely generated by taking in Airbnb guests and selling vegetables, goats, flowers and the herbal remedies and other products sold on the family’s Etsy store, is well below the federal poverty level. Yet they wouldn’t change their lives, which they believe are rich in other ways than money.

“We really like to share,” Bravesnow said. “We give food. We give time to other people. I believe in passing it on, and that is how we live. I think there’s something about that that creates abundance.”

Searching for their own ‘good life’

On the farm, they have built several structures, including the cozy, 432-square-foot house where the five of them live. Entering their home felt a little like walking into a fairy tale or maybe a treehouse. It was full of a cacophony of good smells, including the homemade herbal tea Palumbo was brewing and the lard from the hog they slaughtered the day before that was gently rendering on their small, green woodstove.

As Palumbo, 39, worked in the small kitchen making apple and cheddar fritters, he was helped by Ara, who proudly grated fistfuls of cheese. Bravesnow, 42, cuddled Kai, as she and her husband talked about their long journey to find home.

Bravesnow grew up north of Caribou and Palumbo came from Long Island, New York. They met 18 years ago at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York. After living in California, they slowly made their way back to the East Coast and then Maine, because they wanted to farm. But there were detours on their way to becoming farmers. They settled for a while in Portland, where Palumbo was a substance abuse counselor at a methadone clinic and Bravesnow worked as a nanny.

At that time, they had a combined income of $55,000 per year but were so busy working they “never saw each other,” Bravesnow said. They went out to eat a lot because they didn’t have time to cook. And when they started looking at houses to buy, the market was so pricey they envisioned a future where they were stuck on the 9-to-5 treadmill forever.

It wasn’t for them. So they jumped off and made a few changes. He became a kindergarten teaching assistant, and she quit her full-time job, too. In a flash, their combined income plummeted from $55,000 to $10,000, yet they felt richer. They had more time, for one thing, and they practiced carefully tracking their spending, so they knew where each dollar went. After that, the couple embarked more ambitiously on figuring out where to farm in Maine.

“We were trying to find a community — to go in and buy land together so we can avoid going into debt,” she said. “And living creatively to make ends meet.”

At one point, they were part of a group that was going to buy a parcel of land they loved in Penobscot. When they were stymied by a right-of-way issue, the group fell apart. Then, the couple applied to be stewards of the Good Life Center in Harborside but found themselves the runners-up after a rigorous application process. It was disappointing, but they kept on with their search.

“We used Maine FarmLink [through the Maine Farmland Trust]. We used Uncle Henry’s. We tried everything,” Bravesnow said.

Jonah was born when they were living in a 120-square-foot shed in Unity, which they found after answering an ad in the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association newspaper that offered a creative land-sharing situation. Bravesnow was ready to build her nest, she said, and longed to expand the garden space at the property and build a larger home, but the landowner wasn’t ready for those changes.

“That’s when I got pretty depressed,” she said. “And then we found this place.”

‘We started growing everything’

The land in Thorndike would not have been good for conventional farmers — it was too hilly — but for two people interested in permaculture farming, it had a lot of potential. Permaculture has been described as a way of working with nature rather than against it, and some of its tenets include mimicking natural processes and patterns and repairing soil without the use of chemical fertilizers. Bravesnow and Palumbo had a farming mentor, who came with a shovel and dug up a patch of soil on the property. It was full of earthworms, Bravesnow recalled — a sight that made her glad.

“It was very good soil,” she said. “We started growing everything. All the vegetables and a lot of the fruits.”

They added animals, including a flock of heritage chickens, Welsh Harlequin ducks, American Buff geese, Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats, American guinea hogs and rabbits, as well as medicinal herbs and many flowers. In the summer, Bravesnow’s garden is bright with the edible flowers she sells at the Unity Food Hub and to Trillium Caterers of Belfast.

And they began meeting their neighbors, including organic and conventional farmers, newcomers, old-time Mainers and the Amish community. In fact, many locals have confused Bravesnow and Palumbo for members of the Amish community because they, too, eschew automobiles. At times when Bravesnow and Palumbo needed help, they have received it, both from their community and from state and federal assistance programs. They built their house with the help of friends and neighbors and receive fuel assistance that helps provide their firewood and SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Their property features several small, handmade wooden structures, the largest of which they live in. Other buildings host the Airbnb guests who have come to stay with them in the summer for the last three years or so. That is how they have made the bulk of their income, they said.

“We’ve met so many people that way,” Bravesnow said. “We have a rich community that’s connected all over the world.”

One rustic but charming cabin, where Airbnb guests sleep during the summer, is the location of their winter farm dinners. The dinners will feature vegetarian dishes, using produce mostly grown locally, in exchange for a suggested donation of $20 to $30 per person.

Sample menus include handmade basil-flecked egg noodles in a lemon butter melange, roasted shallots on winter greens, watermelon radish crudite and apple cobbler.

“John and I love food,” Bravesnow said. “On food, I won’t compromise. That’s my health insurance.”

They love to prepare and share good food with others and also like the idea of a new income stream for the farm.

“This time of year gets very lean for us,” Bravesnow said. “We think of creative ways to have more income.”

Although there are challenges to living the way they do, they are grateful for the life they have.

“I love all of it,” Bravesnow said. “It’s what I played when I was 4 [years old]. I played homestead. I loved ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ I wanted to have a purposeful life. I wanted to help people, and we do.”

Palumbo, who in the course of a normal day might wear the hats of a woodworker, a farmer, a homeschool teacher, a chef and a butcher, said he enjoys the variety and the cohesiveness of his life.

“I love all the parts of it,” he said. “I love the spiritual connection of it and how it all goes together.”

Bravesnow said that in many ways the couple has applied permaculture principles to their lives and their finances as well as their farm.

“It works really well,” she said. “We just go with the flow. There’s not a lot of extra, but there keeps being enough.”

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