High on a wooded hill in Bucksport, Wheaton Mountain Farm has just begun to take shape. Established last year, the homestead now features a herd of dairy goats, a rabbitry, a few ducks and dozens of chickens that lay eggs of all different hues.
First-time homesteaders Mandy and Kevin Wheaton have jumped into their new lifestyle and business endeavor with both feet, and in the process they’ve displayed some true Yankee ingenuity.
“We got the metal roofing off the side of the road,” said Mandy Wheaton on a recent morning as she stood before her goat house, a milk pail in one hand. “And we’ve gotten wooden pallets from businesses all over Bangor.”
Since moving onto the property, the Wheatons have reclaimed overgrown fields, pieced together housing for all of their animals and transformed a shell of a house into a livable home — all on a tight budget. Much of the equipment and materials they’ve used has been free and secondhand. To find it, they’ve scoured local dumps and yard sales, traded with neighbors and looked for deals through online groups.
They’ve proven that one person’s discarded pool frame can be another’s chicken coop.
“I just tied some chicken wire to it, and it was ready in a day,” Mandy Wheaton said.
The Wheatons’ journey into homesteading has just begun, but they already have big dreams to expand and share their products and experiences with the community.
Discovering the ‘home’ in homestead
Mandy and Kevin Wheaton were married last spring while wearing Carhartt overalls in a small ceremony at the edge of a pond on their property. The wedding procession included the farm’s first set of baby goats. And they received a tractor as a wedding gift.
At the time, running a small farm was new to both of them, but Mandy Wheaton had toyed with the idea for several years and had already started a mini menagerie of chickens and rabbits.
“I don’t think I would have farmed if it weren’t for Mandy’s influence,” said Kevin Wheaton, a Presque Isle native who has built his career in the information technology sector.
Originally from Old Town, Mandy Wheaton can trace her interest in farming back to her childhood.
“I grew up watching my grandparents raise beef critters and [tend] a diverse garden for their own use, with any extra for our family to bring home whenever we visited,” she said.
She remembers tapping maple trees with her grandfather, and watching her grandmother sew quilts and make soap. These good memories planted a seed in her, though she didn’t know it at the time.
It wasn’t until college that Mandy Wheaton started to seriously think about producing her own food. While attending the University of Maine, she learned more about the global food system and its many pitfalls.
“People are starving, working to harvest food to have it shipped to Americans who throw out half the stuff on their plates,” Mandy Wheaton said. “[There are] wars over patented seeds, fields doused in petroleum-based chemicals, vast expanses of a single crop covering where once a bountiful variety of plants grew in balance. All of it made me sick.”
Establishing a homestead was a way to remove herself from that food system. In the process, she’s found that the lifestyle suits her, and the work is fulfilling.
“This just centers me,” she said. “This is home like I haven’t felt before.”
Ups and downs of farm life
Now that Wheaton Mountain Farm is up and running, the Wheatons are focused on raising and selling fancy chickens that lay green, blue, dark brown and speckled eggs. They also breed and sell Flemish giant and silver fox rabbits. And they plan to sell four of the six Nubian goat kids that were born on their farm earlier this spring, keeping two for their permanent herd.
“It’s amazing to see a kid being born and watch your wife help through the process,” Kevin Wheaton said. “I enjoy the goats, especially the kids, and fresh milk they give us.”
Though the Wheatons work together on big farm projects, such as construction, it’s Mandy Wheaton who’s in charge of the day-to-day operations, while Kevin Wheaton works full time as an information technology consultant. Their 14-year-old son, James, isn’t particularly keen on farming, but he helps take care of the baby animals.
So far, Mandy Wheaton has found that the job suits her. An animal lover who has bipolar disorder, she’s found farm work to be rewarding and sometimes, therapeutic.
“I have really high energy days [and] days when I’m just angry,” she said. “So I’ll go out and shovel poop like no tomorrow. I’ll do something that’s real hands on. And then other days, when I’m feeling kind of down, I’ll just go snuggle me a bunny or play with the goats.”
Overall, homesteading has been a good experience for the family, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. Just this spring, a fox killed all but one of their Polish hens, and a respiratory infection forced them to cull a number of other birds. Renters unexpectedly moved out of the Wheatons’ second house, setting them back financially. Then they were forced to change their farm’s original name, Hobbit Hill Homestead, when Middle-earth Enterprises threatened to sue them for trademark infringement because “hobbit” is a term coined by “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien, and the company owns exclusive rights to the term.
“I thought it was a joke and emailed them back, and no, they were serious,” Mandy Wheaton said.
So they changed their farm’s name and moved on. Despite the many setbacks, there was never a time when they considered throwing in the towel. Even when money is tight, they’ve managed to keep building.
Their goat pens feature fencing that they found at the junkyard. They store grain in army bins they found for $5 each at a yard sale. And at night, the chickens and rabbits are housed in retrofitted utility trailers that were being given away for free.
“It’s about reducing the cost but not at the expense of the animals’ health or well-being or comfort,” Mandy Wheaton said.
Expanding and sharing their homestead
Picking up skills and knowledge from library books, online tutorials and fellow homesteaders, the Wheatons have quickly developed the skills and knowledge they need to care for their animals. They’re eager to share what they’ve learned with others.
This spring, they began hosting open farm days each Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., during which the public is free to show up and enjoy free tours and workshops. In addition, the Wheatons plan to organize regular farm skill workshops, including a workshop on chicken butchering and processing. And this summer, they’re also opening a piece of their property to tenting and RVs through the online booking company Hipcamp.
“Most people that are booked with us are staying well over a week,” Mandy Wheaton said.
Meanwhile, they’ll continue to build up their small farm. This spring, they doubled the size of their vegetable garden. And in the future, they hope to build a small sawmill, a barn and a farm store.
“We’re carving out a homestead from scratch,” Mandy Wheaton said, “and we’re happy to have people come over and visit and learn about it.”
Watch: ‘This is home’: Retired forester lives off grid in log cabin his father built