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Sustainable Living Enthusiasts Descend on Ohio’s Amish Country Amid ‘Homesteading Tsunami’

WALNUT CREEK, Ohio—Amid the rolling green hills of eastern Ohio, Amish and Mennonite farms dot the landscape along roads traveled by horse-drawn buggies and automobiles. Here, self-sufficient living is a way of life. This is a reason why the Food Independence Summit has already become one of the country’s largest sustainable living events where experts provide insight and hands-on demonstrations about organic farming and food preservation.

Last week, around 4,000 homesteading enthusiasts from all experience levels flocked to the summit in its second year. The intent is to encourage and provide the tools and information to take steps toward discovering the freedom that comes with homegrown and local food, co-founder Marcus Wengerd told The Epoch Times.

Partly because of supply-chain disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic and also due to inflation and uncertainty about the condition of produce and meat found in grocery stores, homegrown food is making a major resurgence.

A growing number of Americans are finding that gardening brings peace of mind and healthy food into their homes.

Epoch Times Photo
Marcus Wengerd, owner of Berlin Seeds and co-founder of the Food Independence Summit, addresses an audience on the event’s first day. (Courtesy of Everitt Townsend)

Joel Salatin, who is the owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on organic farming, calls what is happening a “homesteading tsunami.”

“There’s been a real disconnect between the younger generation and where their food comes from,” Salatin said. “There is a self-reliant persona in rural regions that don’t exist in urban regions where there is unrest and violence.

“People have an intuition that there is more opportunity in the country than in the city to be self-sufficient,” he added. “The problem is we are now several generations removed from commonly knowing how to gut a chicken, tap a maple tree, and plant tomatoes. When you make a change from your routine in life, you need support, and that is why events like these are important.”

Berlin Seeds and Superb Sealing Solutions, companies that are located in the region, host the Food Independence Summit.

Berlin Seeds provides seeds to 30,000 Amish and English families nationwide. Superb makes high-tech parts for the auto industry.

When there was a shortage of canning lids during the COVID-19 pandemic, a few local companies approached owner John Miller about manufacturing the lids at his facility in Sugarcreek. The community is widely known as an Amish Country tourist mecca, but Holmes County and neighboring Tuscarawas County are also teeming with entrepreneurs focused on sustainable living products and services.

Superb sold 100 million lids last year, and one day, Miller was driving to dinner with the company’s business unit manager, Dave Greer. They passed a golf course where there was a micro camping festival.

Epoch Times Photo
Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms, holds a chicken butchering class at the Food Independence Summit. (Courtesy of Everitt Townsend)

“We thought about having a canning festival,” Miller said before talking to Wengerd, who owns Berlin Seeds. “He said, ‘John, you’re thinking too small. We need to have a summit where we bring together people who grow their own food and show them how to do it—all the way from seed and soil to preservation.

Wengerd owns the campground and RV park where they hosted the event.

“We had all the resources we needed, and we put together the first summit in 2022 in six weeks,” Miller explained. “We sought as many experts and influencers in sustainable living as we could find, and now we have plans to keep growing every year.”

Homegrown food is one of the keys to healthier communities, Wengerd said.

“The summit focuses on seed to spoon,” he added. “Seed is the currency of our planet. If we don’t have seed, then we go hungry. And if we don’t properly preserve what we harvest, that food will go to waste.”

This year’s event featured four tents of exhibitors and experts who offered instruction on everything from beekeeping and making cheese, candles, and brooms; to canning, fermenting, meat processing, and chicken butchering; among other skills and tasks.

A common recommendation from experts at the summit was to start small.

Epoch Times Photo
Joel Salatin, founder of Polyface Farm and an organic farming expert, takes a break from his presentations at the Food Independence Summit. (Courtesy of Emma Low/Food Independence Summit)

“Start with a garden, start with plants; they can’t run away,” Salatin said with a laugh. “Some people get too enthusiastic and get a Scottish Highlander cow they saw somewhere and a half-hour after bringing her home, she escapes and there are state police looking all over for her.”

“Read books, watch videos, attend events, and find mentors,” Salatin added. “Build relationships with people who know how to build things, grow things, and fix things—people who you can learn from. That is the best 401k you can have.”

Justin Rhodes is the founder and owner of Abundance Plus, which teaches people how to transition to homesteading.

Rhodes presented a session called “If I can homestead, you can, too.” He recalled when he and his wife, Rebekah, brought home four chickens and put them in a vacant horse stall a few decades ago. Within the first month, he said, two literally “flew the coop” and disappeared. Years later, they have a 140-acre farm in North Carolina that includes meat and dairy cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and other livestock.

“Homesteading has grown after COVID. But even before, more people started to realize it was important to know where their food came from—they wanted to be connected to their food,” Rhodes said.

There was a time when many Americans lived on farms, and if you didn’t grow it, you didn’t eat it,” he added. “My dad was born in 1933. It was easier to be a salesman and go to the grocery store than farm. They didn’t realize that the grocery store didn’t have the same freshness as the farm, and as the years have passed, the food quality has become worse with pesticides, chemicals, and GMOs.”

Unlike many of the experts who have spent most of their lives farming, Rhodes was a novice less than two decades ago.

Growing your own food helps you gain control of your health and nutrition, and take control of your own food supply.

“Some people hear the word homesteading and think it is living off-grid. Most of my audience works 9 to 5, and then works an hour a day and a half day on the weekend in Earth’s gym,” he said. “All you have to have is the desire. I had to learn everything. If I can do it before YouTube videos, social media, and events like these, you can do it with everything that is available.”

David Stelzer is the founder and CEO of Azure Farm and Azure Standard, a leading producer and nationwide distributor of natural, organic, and non-GMO food.

“After World War II, there was a huge move to cities from farms. As the years passed, small and mid-sized farms became less frequent, replaced by a smaller number of large farms,” he said.

“When there was an economic downturn in 2008, we saw a resurgence of people getting property on the edge of town or out in the country so they could plant a garden and grow their own food. Now, more people are seeing the importance of becoming more self-sufficient,” Stelzer added. “We have seen our customer base have a huge exodus to the country. Many people are rethinking their lifestyle, and coming together with an event where you can learn from people who know the skills is valuable.”

Epoch Times Photo
Melissa Renee (left), founder of Handwritten Hills homestead in southwest Ohio, visits with Sarah Thrush, an international canning and food preservation social media influencer, at the Food Independence Summit. (Jeff Louderback/The Epoch Times)

Sarah Thrush, founder of PeeliesNPetals, is a social media influencer with more than a million followers who turn to her for canning and food preservation expertise. She is a mother and wife from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who learned canning from her grandmothers and mother.

In the midst of the pandemic, she told a friend that she had apples that she needed to can. The friend suggested she make a video of the process, Thrush obliged, the video gained widespread viewership, and her new passion was born.

“The world turned in 2020. More people started baking bread and growing tomatoes. We saw a new generation of people see they don’t know how to do things for themselves. They had always relied on others for food,” Thrush said. “People started asking, ‘What happens when infrastructure crumbles? How will I take care of my family?”

“Social media has built micro-communities,” she added. “I have grown a community of people interested in some of the life skills that they can apply to their situation. Before, you could only get that from generational learning.”

Melissa Renee moved to southwest Ohio from Mississippi five years ago to seek care for a medically complex child. She relocated from suburban Cincinnati earlier this year and bought a two-acre homestead located next to Amish farmers.

“My Amish neighbors got a bulk order from Berlin Seeds and brought over a brochure,” she said about how she learned about the Food Independence Summit. “I had been laughing and joking with them that, as a new homesteader, I had no idea what I was doing with adding a dairy cow and trying to figure out how to add chickens to go along with a garden.

“Being at an event like this is not only helpful because of what we learn from the experts, but it also encouraging to be around other homesteaders,” she added.

Melissa Renee named her homestead Handwritten Hills. She documents her experience on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites. Five generations of her family have farmed, and she learned self-sustainable living skills as a child, but the transition to homesteading as an adult is an adjustment that she hopes others can learn from.

“You can homestead where you are. You don’t need to have a lot of land,” she said. “I grow my seeds in my laundry room because it’s the best place to grow seeds in a house that has taken a lot more renovation work than expected.”

The Food Independence Summit will be an annual tradition for Melissa Renee and her children, she said.

“I was meant to be where I am, surrounded by Amish farmers and supported by people who are rooting for me and helping me as I learn through trial and error,” she added. “You grow by learning from mistakes, and when you develop relationships with people who know what they are doing and have a genuine interest to help, you go to where they are.”

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