Catie and Mark Raishart at their Foxglove Farm Homestead in Leicester, Vermont
Abigale and Michael would be the first to tell you that their successful city to country journey involved a lot of luck, but for this tenacious couple, their dedication and tireless work ethic created their opportunities, luck had very little to do with it. Abigale and Michael had both been working in the service industry in NYC for many years and had grown accustomed to that lifestyle. They loved their lives in the city, but all the while they felt like something was missing. All it took was one trip to Maine in the summer to get them planning their escape from NYC. They immediately emailed everyone they knew to see if anyone had any leads on places to find work. As soon as a prospective cooking school job opened up, the couple left their lives in the city and set off for the great unknown.
Their first few months in Belfast, they enthusiastically worked lots of odd jobs before landing at an established and respected catering company. Their ability to seamlessly manage enormous events, without showing any signs of stress or strain, instantly impressed the owner of the company. At the end of the season, the owner approached Abigale and Michael and asked if they would be interested in buying the business from her. Instead of shying away from the opportunity presented, they jumped in headfirst.
In just a few years, they have become one of the most in-demand and high-end catering companies in Maine. They cater events and weddings all over New England and are booked solid in the summer wedding season. They are insanely good at managing difficult variables, like hosting a giant wedding on a tiny island with no electricity or running water. Together, they are unstoppable, getting strength and inspiration from one another. Because their summers in Maine usually fly by in a flurry of events, they love the quiet downtime of the winter months. They especially love that their life they have created for themselves in the country allows for a month-long getaway in Mexico every February, to reset and prepare themselves for the upcoming event season.
A year ago, they bought a building in town, one block from their catering kitchen. Their urban-style loft would be completely unattainable in NYC but here they are able to live in a space that feels uniquely them. It isn’t a country farmhouse, like many others featured on Urban Exodus, but it proves that there are many different ways to live outside of the city. You don’t have to be out on farmland somewhere, you can live in-town and still be connected to the pulse of the small community you call home.
Q & A
You and your partner chose to commit to rural living and homesteading at a young age, what drove your decision to take this path?
Some of the values that we’ve shared from the beginning are personal growth and life-long learning. In our own ways, we have found endless opportunities to learn new skills, meet new people, and work towards mastering our interests. Living this life is always engaging and rewarding, and it has been such a positive experience to build upon our early foundations. Rural living wasn’t as much a conscious decision as it was a natural transition. The community connections that we had made through work and college created a positive support structure, and that community has continued to support us as our roots have grown here.
Did you look for a long time before finding this land? What made you decide on this particular community and location?
Mark purchased the property as a bachelor in 2004 with help from his family, but it wasn’t out of infatuation with the site or the location - it was more out of necessity. He had been living in an off-grid cabin in the middle of the woods (literally). That cabin was ½ mile from the nearest vehicle access and had no running water or electricity, and the lifestyle required a bit of work. With a dog and a need for a little bit of elbow room, he knew he wanted a place out of town that was affordable. He saw a listing for a 70-acre property with a log hunting cabin, and he decided to check it out. Still no running water or electricity, but at least he could drive to it. On top of that, it was within reach of Middlebury and Rutland and right around the corner from Lake Dunmore and the Green Mountain National Forest. It seemed like a good location, and the property was unique. Unfortunately, some problems arose with access rights to the property, and Mark put his permanent relocation plans on hold. At the same time, he transitioned out of his seasonal and migratory job as a beekeeper and moved to a job and housing at Smokey House Center in Danby, Vermont.
About 7 years later, Mark and I were ready to start a family and purchase a home, so we started looking around. Nearly all of the houses we liked were out of our price range, and those that we could afford all seemed to need a lot of work. We knew the property we owned was in a convenient location, so after a few lengthy conversations with a builder-friend and negotiations with the utility company, we decided in February 2011 to build. I was due to have our first child in October, so we had to move quickly. We settled on a nearby modular home company that specializes in energy-efficient homes and decided to do as much of the site work as possible on our own. The house came in mid-August (three days before Tropical Storm Irene), and we moved in late-September. Our baby came at the end of October with the dust still settling. We didn’t love the location at first, but it wasn’t our home...yet. But the work and love and time that we have spent on it since this journey began made it what it is today - the garden, the apple and Christmas trees, the sugarbush, and the trees that we planted for our children have made it ours. We dearly love Middlebury and Brandon as our nearest towns, and we realize how fortunate we are to have so many options for outdoor recreation nearby. We often wonder if it wasn't a coincidence that the street address is 777.
Do you have any advice for things to see/do/eat in the Middlebury area?
So much! Middlebury is a great blend of all the necessities plus a healthy dose of arts and culture. The town center has a wonderful mix of shops and restaurants, many featuring local products and producers. There’s a great little movie theater, Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op , Drop In Brewing, Otter Creek Brewing, Woodchuck Hard Cider, Lincoln Peak Vineyard, Stonecutter Spirits, American Flatbread, Fire and Ice Restaurant, Two Brothers Restaurant, Danforth Pewter, the UVM Morgan Horse Farm, the Trail Around Middlebury (TAM), and some excellent ice cream shops and little cafes. Middlebury College has art and music events throughout the year, and the summer Festival on the green offers great entertainment and a sense of community on summer evenings. The Green Mountain National Forest is right next door - all around us are great hiking trails, swimming holes, and paddling lakes. This is an easy place to stay busy.
Any advice for people thinking about moving to your area? Are there any things they should know about living here that they would likely only learn with time and experience?
Sometimes people are surprised by the physical isolation of a rural setting. Things are far apart here - everything is around 30 minutes away, and you just have to plan to travel for what you need. Living here requires flexibility. The weather, the bugs, the community can all provide challenges. Make plans, but don’t get grumpy if they change due to something outside of your control. Living rural offers solitude, freedom, and a sense of independence; but these values can mean different things to different people. Socioeconomic diversity exists here just as it does everywhere else, and that can lead to different lifestyle values within a neighborhood.
Did you go thru any particularly hard or dark times where you considered throwing in the towel? If yes, how did you navigate through them?
I can’t think of any times that were particularly harder than the rest. Life here is beautiful, but there are daily challenges and occasionally a hiccup gives us pause. Instead of struggling to put the chains on the tractor wouldn’t it be so much easier to live where the driveways were paved or where it didn’t snow? Or instead of waking up at 4am to hunt what if all our meat came from the grocery store (we do buy meat at the grocery store as well)? But this is our life, and if we let go of the challenges then we’d also let go of the beautiful moments; like the zinnias covered in dewy spider webs and the safety of being able to push our kids outside to play unattended. So yes, I’m human and every bee sting and hour spent cleaning the chicken coop of course gives me pause, but then I turn around and see the sap buckets or my children covered in mud and am revived.
Was there a turning point in your journey towards building a sustainable homestead that you were finally able to feel like things had settled into a rhythm? If yes, what do you think helped create that feeling of security?
In the first six years of our marriage, we tackled some major life changes and projects that stretched our energy pretty thin: we changed jobs, built our house, had three children, did a major timber harvest on the property by ourselves, and Mark went back to school for his teaching license and a Master’s degree. Starting the cabin rental was a big change as well, but it marked the beginning of a new rhythm for us, and many of our other projects came to a close around that same time. Since then, we’ve really focused on enhancing the homestead and increasing production of our other products, including maple syrup and flowers.
Do you have any advice for people homesteading and/or farming who would like to have children but are worried about being able to maintain financial stability for their growing family?
In our community, childcare is incredibly hard to find and also quite expensive. Financially for us, after doing the math it made sense to have one parent stay home. But it means that we had to find creative ways to earn an additional income; growing flowers and airbnb arose out of that realization. We also had to shift our priorities, but I think that generally happens when you make the decision to have children. We don’t eat out as often as we used to and we’d certainly like to do more traveling. We also try to trade with our friends as much as possible. In fact we had a friend take our pictures for this interview in exchange for a gallon of maple syrup!
What do you appreciate the most about the life you have built here?
For me it’s a few things. I really value a sense of community and belonging. I love being in town and having people at the post office or feed store know my son by name. I value being able to bring that same sense of belonging to our Airbnb. We have hosted people from over 17 different countries, many of whom didn’t speak any English; I love being able to find a human connection over some chicken eggs and a beautiful sunset. When I was a child, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said two things; an artist and a farmer. I appreciate that our life here has given me both. In particular, growing flowers to sell as arrangements is the perfect intersection of art and farming. For Mark, it’s his relationships with the physical space. He has put so much work into managing the forests, constructing the outbuildings, planting trees, and doing projects. All of these things have come together to give our space its spirit.
Do you have a place on your land where you find inspiration and recharge your batteries?
There are two places. Every day I take my goofy dog for a 3 mile walk on our dirt roads. The space gives me the quiet to either meditate or problem solve existing questions. And the exercise gives me the momentum to move forward in my day. The growth and pattern of the garden also inspires me. I am inspired by the blank slate of a garden of flowers and the problem solving of which flowers belong in an arrangement together. For Mark it’s in the woods. Signs of wildlife and changes of the season always give a renewed connection to the land and a reminder that the pace of life is always the same in the forest. For us together, it’s in the Adirondack chairs beneath the oak tree in the front yard. In the summer, we connect there daily to watch the afternoon sun and check in with one another.
How has your creativity and artistic ability helped build your homestead, raise your family, and run your businesses?
So much of creativity boils down to problem solving. Some days it looks like getting my earring wire to make the right shape, but it can also look like finding ways to keep the rabbits off my flower starts or convincing my kids that they’re eating ‘egg pie’ instead of quiche. My artistic ability has helped us to be able to earn additional income while having me stay home with the kids, homeschool and tend to the Airbnb. But on a more personal level it’s also given me a creative outlet when I feel like so much of me is divided among the family and our animals. It’s been therapeutic to have something of my own to quietly retreat to during moments of the day.
My philosophy on art specifically informs a lot what I do. I spend a lot of time thinking about its accessibility, who has it, with what means and for what end. I strive to keep my jewelry affordable so that folks can access it. But also practical so that it fits in the lives so many people actually lead. Jewelry for bookstores, bars and baking bread. Jewelry you can do chicken chores in. That's my life and it's what I try to honor.
How old are your children now? Are they committed to this way of life or do you sense a desire to experience life in a more populated area in the future?
Our children are 8, 7 and 5. In so much as an 8 year old is committed to anything; sugaring is a fan favorite but there’s always push back about chicken chores. They claim that when they grow up they want to live within minutes of our house, and I think that they do recognize how great it is for them to be able to play outside endlessly. Our parenting philosophy involves exposing them to as much as we can, and we value occasional city adventures; they’ve traveled to Cleveland, Montreal, and Boston among others. But in the end we’re always reminded what country mice we are and how good it feels to return home. Many adults we know in Vermont have left for a period of their life to explore and then feel an urge to return, which is certainly the path that I chose. We would support whatever our kids need in order to have a life that they find fulfilling.
Tell us about your homeschooling journey. Why did you decide to homeschool and what have been the best resources you have found to help you in the process?
Currently our oldest child is homeschooled. I made the decision to start homeschooling with her because I could see that the school environment was a stressful place for her. I wanted her to have an understanding from a young age that when something makes you miserable, you can’t give up but you can find a different approach. As she becomes an adult, I wouldn’t want her to think that she has to stick out a toxic job or unhealthy relationship, and I couldn’t force her to go to school all day when it was having a similar effect on her. That said, every personality is different, and I value our small school, so my other two children happily attend. When, if ever, perspectives change we’ll reassess. Probably related to the independent nature of Vermont, there is a strong homeschool community here. Just like farming, I’ve found the best resources to be actual people when I’m able to articulate ‘here’s something that I don’t know’, and find the person/resource best suited to helping me.
Do you have any advice for people who would like to build their own homestead but don’t know the first thing about growing food or raising animals?
Talk to people who do. So much of what Mark and I have learned we’ve learned by just starting with the premise that we don’t know something and we should find the person who does. There are great books and internet websites to use as resources too. The wonderful thing about talking to a person though is that that act of talking creates community. Also, want to work hard. Mother Nature doesn’t take a day off, and the work is unending. In all seasons there are different chores to tackle, and living on a homestead means having a relationship with your resources. It takes a lot of personal input to reap rewards from your land.
What are your favorite reference books, podcasts, websites, etc. that you go to for assistance, instruction and inspiration?
Ironically, because it has very little to do with rural living specifically, I find a lot of inspiration in the Podcast ‘How I Built This’. So often those stories have the theme of having a vision, then having a challenge and working through the challenge. We aren’t starting a billion dollar yogurt company, but it reminds me to keep working with our vision in mind.
How has building your Airbnb rental helped supplement your lives here? Have you had any bad experiences with vacation renting? What should people know before dipping their toes into setting up a short term rental?
Becoming hosts has been a major change for us. We were on the fence initially, but in late-summer of 2015 we needed some extra income and decided to give it a try. We almost immediately had weekends booked and had pretty positive experiences with our guests. We decided to to reinvest some of our income and make some improvements that would allow us to be open earlier and later throughout the year. An unexpected impact on our lives was the social element. Living in the woods in a rural area offers a great deal of solitude, and we were initially concerned about welcoming strangers into our space. What we didn’t realize was how rewarding it would be to share the magic of our home with visitors from all over the world. We’ve put a great deal of effort into making our space special, and it feels really great to see our guests’ reactions when they arrive. Hosting isn’t all cupcakes and hugs, though. We’re pretty glued to home, especially around the holidays. We need to plan well-ahead if we want to take a vacation. We sacrifice a bit of our privacy and have to be totally on top of keeping things clean and well-maintained. Once in a great while we have a guest who leaves things pretty dirty or produces an excessive amount of trash, and cleaning up takes a lot more work. We have found a niche with a unique offering in a great area, and we’ve put a lot of effort into making things special for our guests. We read positive and negative reviews of other rentals in our area and try to adjust our approach to avoid common mistakes. We prioritize investing into the cabin to keep it well-maintained and stylish. Finally, we try to moderate our expectations: we rely on the income to a certain degree, but we don’t get too depressed when there’s a slow month or an unexpected cancellation.
What are your big vision plans for the future? What are your goals for the upcoming year?
Every year I have similar goals, it would be great to take an extra hike or one more swim before summer ends. I’d love to have more steps on my pedometer because it means I got a few more quiet moments. In terms of our business, I’d love to find another venue to sell my earrings and Mark plans to expand our sugaring operation. We’d both love to build an additional cabin or suite to host more people. We’ll have to wait and see what magic 2020 holds.