Christelle Munnelly and Jon McKee, Owners of Copper Tail Farm in Waldoboro, Maine
Christelle Munnelly & Jon Mckee’s journey to the country required a cross-country move with two dogs, two cats, eight goats and 28 chickens to a farm rental that they had only seen online. Beyond feeling alienated by the odd looks they received at rest stops when they would spend time walking and feeding their menagerie, they also felt the uncertainty and stress of a future unknown. Neither Christelle or Jon had any job prospects or friends or family in the area and they worried that they might be making a big mistake.
Before moving to the small community of Waldoboro, Maine, they lived in the bustling college town of Eugene, Oregon. Christelle taught 1st grade and Jon was working as a cook. After traveling to other countries and witnessing the peoples’ connectedness to the food they ate, they began researching the food system in the United States. Disheartened with what they learned, they came home committed to grow and raise their own food and become more self-reliant. The couple started learning to farm in Eugene, working full-time on a small farm outside the city, making goat-milk soap and becoming part of the farmers market circuit.
Wanting to plant roots on the East Coast, to be closer to Christelle’s family in New York, they began looking for rental properties in Maine that would allow farm animals. Christelle found a full-time teaching position at a high school and Jon balances his time between running their Copper Tail Farm and working another full-time off-farm job. Two years after relocating to Maine, Christelle and Jon were able to buy their first home; a bright historic farmhouse, a barn and 27-acres for their goats and chickens to roam.
In addition to teaching, Christelle makes goat milk cajeta and goat milk soap that they sell online and at farmers markets. Copper Tail Farm also sells free-range eggs and goat milk yogurt to their community. There is rarely a moment to rest for this hard working couple, as they continue to balance 4-5 jobs between the two of them. During an infrequent break, you can usually find Christelle and Jon atop the large boulder in their goat paddock, surrounded by their kids, with a hard cider in hand, looking out on the life and farm they are are building together. Although their days are long and there is no end to their running ‘to do’ list, still they marvel at what they have been able to accomplish in just two short years. (Click here to jump to their interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
I am a teacher, and after grad school I spent the summers traveling in South America and India. I spent a lot of time in rural communities, where I saw first hand how families were (with the help of friends, families, and neighbors) providing for themselves. Each family I met had numerous chickens, an animal they milked, and a garden. Those experiences opened my eyes as to how pathetic I was at truly taking care of myself. I had no clue where my food came from, and traveling abroad inspired me to change that about my life. I started researching the industrial food system in the U.S. Upon learning how horrific it is, I knew I had to make some lifestyle changes, and I started scheming about how I could set up my own farm.
What was the hardest part about making the move?
We had an exceptionally challenging move because we moved goats and chickens from Oregon to Maine. We had been farmhands for a stint in Oregon right before we left, and fell in love with goats. So for us, we had to find a place that would take 2 humans, 2 dogs, 2 cats, 8 goats, and 28 chickens. The hardest part, though, was making the decision to DO IT. It would have been way easier to stay where we were, keep our jobs, and buy food consciously from local farmers. But that’s not what we wanted, and we decided just to DO IT. We quit our jobs, and agreed to live in a rental across the country, sight unseen.
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
At first it was the fact that everyone already knew who we were, before we even met them. We’d go to the supermarket and hear, “Hey- it’s the goat farmers!” Then it was the fact that everyone knew our business without us telling them. I went to the post office and the clerk said, “So, uh, what’s going on with your fencing? Are you going to finish it soon?” But we loved the small community feel, and it would sometimes push us to finish a project just so we wouldn’t have to hear anyone asking when it’d be done! It really surpassed our expectations. Everyone was so friendly and willing to help us out.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss most about city life?
The bugs! They are relentless. The hardest thing, though, for me is not being able to get whatever I want whenever I want it (how spoiled do I sound!?) In Eugene, there was a store for any of my hobbies- multiple gardening stores, a chicken store, a beer brewing store that also had cheese making supplies, etc. Here, if I need anything, I need to either plan way in advance to have a store order it for me, or buy online. In the beginning of May, we had a few broody chickens. I went to the feed store to pick up some chicks to stick under them. The store didn’t have any on hand, so I had to order them. I kept dropping in to see if they had arrived, and the lady finally told me they wouldn’t be coming in until the end of June. They did, however, have 4 extra baby turkeys. So we said “screw it,” bought the turkeys, and stuck them under one of the chickens. It worked out fine and the chicken (Nimbus) was a great mom to the turkeys, but it’s a good example of how much longer it takes to get anything here. (By the way, the chicks finally arrived, and I no longer have any broody hens. I am therefore raising 12 chicks in the bathroom).
The thing I miss most about the city is the ability to buy what I need when I need it, and the FOOD. We have very limited restaurant options here. I’d love some good sushi and a good Mexican place close by.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
No! We love our country lifestyle. I would be depressed if I had to move back to a city.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of leaving the city?
Just do it! If it’s something you’ve been wanting to do, just go ahead and do it. It will change your life!
Know what your personality is like and what you will need. If you are social, set things in place to help keep you connected to friends and other people. Also, get a generator!
What do you appreciate most about life in the country?
I love the quiet and how much wildlife we have around us. I can go a whole day without seeing anyone besides Jon and the goats, and that’s nice sometimes.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
My inspiration comes from our goats (as weird as that might sound!) I have never loved an animal like I love my goats. They are social, mischievous, silly, and loveable. When I first realized I was going to have goats, I figured I would make and sell cheese. When I realized how many people sell cheese in my area, I decided to try to do something different. I had never made caramels before, but heard of people doing it so I decided to give it a whirl. Now that I have my basic flavors down, I look to the goats to help me come up with new ideas. We put a picture of one of our goats on all of our products, and we try to match the product/flavor to that goat’s personality. Our newest kid, Nova, is such a riot. She is always running, playing, and generally being crazy, and then she’ll pass out. I decided to make a Bourbon Whiskey cajeta for the product that has her picture on it, and it’s the perfect match!
Have you noticed a change in yourself or your work since leaving the city?
I’m way busier now than I was before, and I often feel like I don’t have enough time to get everything I want done. So sometimes I feel more stressed out now than before, which is the opposite than what many other people experience. I prefer this kind of stressed out than the city kind of stressed out, though. My city stress was from too much noise, too many cars, pollution, too many people. Now it’s not having enough time to make make caramels and soap, make cheese, garden, make dinner, clean the barn, play with the goats, etc. it’s all things I enjoy doing (minus cleaning the barn), so I just wish I had more hours in my day to do everything I want to do!
When you go back to visit the city, what are the top three things on your 'to do' list?
FOOOOOD...Thai, Japanese and Mexican.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before leaving the city?
I still heavily rely on Jon to help me with things I don’t feel comfortable doing myself, but there have been times when Jon hasn’t been home and I have had to push my comfort limits. Life on a farm means death on a farm, and Jon is the one who ends an animal’s life when it’s time, for whatever reason. One day Jon was gone hunting, and I found a chicken who was clearly suffering. I don’t know what happened to it, but it was dying. I usually would call Jon to have him come put the animal out of it’s misery, but I was alone and had to do it myself. I don’t think I would have been able to do that before moving out to the country and farming. When things go wrong, it can mean life or death for one of our animals, and you can’t just sit back and do nothing.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
I try to bring the goats on a walk to the back of our property. There’s a nice rock in the shade that I sit on while they browse. It’s one of the only times in the day I get to sit and think about things going on in my life. There, I think about what I can do to help my business grow.
Walk us through a typical day here at Copper Tail Farm?
I wake up at 5:08 and am milking by 5:30. I’m done by 6:30, and I filter/chill the milk, then go let the ducks/chickens/turkeys out. Some days I have Farmer’s Markets in the morning. If so, I finish loading my car and take off. I’m usually back by 1 or 2. I’ll start a batch of cajeta, then bring the goats on a walk to the back of our property. I’ll then make soap or caramels, label product for markets, gather eggs, and milk again at 5:30. I usually start dinner around 7, so I’ll have about 45 minutes to do random stuff in the house- clean, laundry, etc. After dinner, (or before, depending on when dinner is ready and how dark it is) we close up the goats, ducks and chickens (sounds easy, but sometimes the ducks want to sleep in the middle of the pond and we have to wrangle them in). We also have to separate the kids in the barn so they don’t nurse off their mamas so we can milk in the morning. We’re usually done with dinner/putting the animals to bed by 9:45, when we’ll plop down on the couch and fall asleep to something on Netflix. If I’m lucky, I get a shower in at some point during all of that as well.
My life in the city: wake up, walk dogs, have coffee, ride my bike somewhere, meet up with a friend, make soap (I’ve had a soap business for 5 years), walk dogs, have coffee, ride my bike somewhere, make dinner, meet up with a friend for a drink, go to bed. It doesn’t seem as fulfilling as my new country life!
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
I think living in the country has become really romanticized. Depending on your personality, it may not be a good fit. You are alone a lot - things can go wrong, and you have to deal with whatever it is. It’s not always sunny, and the bugs are a pain. People will know your business, and stop by whenever they want as it is the country way.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
I would like to build a creamery and start making cheese at some point. We would like for the business to grow enough so that Jon can stay at the farm more and not have to work off farm as much. Jon really wants to get into cattle, so he’d like to get a few cows by next year as well.