Photography by Jerry Siegel
Growing up poor in Marion, Alabama, Chip Spencer dreamt of someday leaving the home where his parents argued whenever they were in the house together. He dreamt of moving to an island, somewhere he could live like Tarzan or the Swiss Family Robinson. Instead, at barely 19, Spencer got a loan from Marion Bank and Trust, bought a dump truck, and escaped into the modern world to make a living with the only skill he possessed: truck driving. If this were a movie from the 1930s, we’d see pages flipping on a wall calendar as the years passed.
Spencer met and courted Laura. They married. They had a daughter named Veigh Kaye, after Chip’s grandfather, Mister V.K. Spencer, who passed away six months before she was born. Sixteen months later, their son, Mac, arrived. Laura worked as an elementary school teacher and did the bulk of the childrearing. Chip grew his earthmoving business, adding equipment and employees. He had escaped the suffering and poverty of his childhood and provided a safe and comfortable life for his family. He was also either working or thinking about work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. But his harsh past still haunted him and he was fearful of the future. Caught up in this existence, he could not see any other way to live. Chip Spencer was ready for a lesson about life.
“I remember well the day I learned it. It was 2001. I was 37, with a young wife, two toddling children, and an earthmoving business that demanded more of my time than I had time to give,” he says. “The business, a vehicle meant to escape my childhood of poverty, was doing well enough to allow Laura and me to purchase some land outside town on which we built a dream house, far grander than anything we’d ever imagined. But the land, the house, and the business all came with long-term mortgages, and I was hell-bent on paying them. We were living the American Dream, and we were absolutely miserable, but we kept on going. The months turned into years, and I told myself I would sacrifice my happiness for the kids’ sake. This was for them. Our kids, the kids I never had time to play with, the kids who were being raised by the television and the ladies at the daycare, because Laura and I were always at work.
“One Saturday, both my regular driver and relief driver couldn’t come in,” Spencer continues. “I had a truck with a load that had to get to Mississippi, and then the truck needed its normal maintenance before Monday morning. So, I got up at 3 a.m. and drove that load west so I could be back by noon to oversee the weekend’s equipment repairs. I was close, too, when I pulled up to a red light in Marion, adjacent to the old courthouse, with its huge pecan trees and shady little lawn. Sitting on that wall were three old gentlemen, dressed in worn, mismatched clothes, talking and telling stories. I remember envying their apparent lack of anything pressing to do. I was in a hurry. They were not. I had a shop with half a dozen pieces of equipment to get ready for Monday. And here these fellows sat, simply passing enjoyable time together. Come on stop light—let’s go.
“Then it happened, the moment that changed my life. As I watched, one of those old men said something, then reached over and slapped the leg of the gent beside him, and all three burst into simultaneous laughter. Big laughter; not-a-care-in-the-world laughter. That’s when it hit me: ‘My God, they are happy and I am not. They are poor, but content. I own more than I ever thought I would, but am miserable every waking moment. Money does not equal happiness. What the hell have I been thinking all these years? Something has to change, but what?’
“That evening Laura and I sat down after supper and talked, about our lives, our goals,” Spencer says. “[We asked ourselves] ‘What do we really want out of life?’ We agreed it had nothing to do with money or the things it can buy. We were at a
crossroads in life, needing to make a change, but unsure which direction to turn.”
The Spencers decided to liquidate the earthmoving business. Seven years later, it is gone, without laying off a single employee. During those years, they tried to figure out what they were going to do next. Spencer’s happiest memories of his childhood were of spending hours with his beloved grandfather Mister V.K., an avid gardener. “He’d work in the garden every day, and in the late afternoon, when he was done, he’d fix himself a toddy, sit in his garden chair beneath the shade of an oak, and whistle while he admired the fruits of his labor,” Spencer recalls. “I wanted to be just like him when I grew up.” So he and Laura started with a garden. “Our initial small garden quickly became a large one. It was fun, with Laura and me and our two little helpers by our sides, learning as we worked,” he says. “We grew vegetables first, then herbs. Then [came] chickens, goats, pigs, cows, and sheep. It took years, but without planning it, our family gradually built a sustainable farm. We made a game of looking at our shopping list and seeing what things were on it that we could possibly provide for ourselves. We didn’t have much cash on hand, but I knew how to fix things, and Laura knew how to preserve fruits and vegetables. We heated our house with a wood stove, so our kids learned how to cut and split firewood early. By necessity, we became innovative at reusing, adapting, and making do, which led to that being a desired, enjoyable, and contented way to live. Next to marrying Laura, I had never been so sure that I was doing exactly what I was meant to do.”
Laura agrees that their decision just felt right. “I had a master’s degree in elementary education and 17 years of teaching experience when I decided to quit teaching and become a homemaker,” she says. “V. K. was starting the third grade and Mac the first. Once I got them fed, dressed, and off to school, I’d handle as many of the farm chores as I could, things like mowing and cutting weeds—anything that was physically possible for me. My teaching check was never big, but I had to make up for the loss of it. I remember initially thinking, ‘I used to be a teacher, a professional. Now I’m a weed whacker.’ Later, that changed to, ‘I’ve never worked so hard in my life, and I’ve never been happier.’
“We’d expanded the garden to grow as much of our own organic produce as possible,” she continues. “We’d added livestock. Eventually we thought, ‘Why are we raising cattle, selling them at the stockyard, then using our check to buy hamburger at the store?’ So we decreased our herd size, changed our practices, and kept only enough cows for our family needs. We did the same with pigs. Keeping things small, we got to know our animals, feed them a healthy diet, and give them room to graze and live. We decided to forego maximizing production. We did things that were right for our land and our animals, whether it was easy or not. The more we learned, the more we realized we really wanted to teach aspiring farmers to live this way, too.”
Watching Laura on a typical day now, which can include teaching interns about garden management, tending her goats and chickens, crafting her Simply Making It line of goat’s milk soap and skin care products, homeschooling Mac, and preparing supper for the entire Spencer Farm family, her description of herself as homemaker is clearly inadequate. Artisan homesteader is a better fit.
They didn’t realize it, but the Spencers were on a path that would lead them from sustainable farming for their family of four to creating a teaching farm of adequate size to provide interns with practical experience in sustainable, organic agriculture. “Our first student came to us unexpectedly,” says Laura. “He was the son of a former teaching colleague of mine who’d lost his dad as a young child. His mother asked if he could work on our farm the summer before starting college. It went so well that we were still talking about it at the family Christmas gathering. The next summer, our nephew came here on a similar plan. He was from out of town, so we renovated our small former office building into a bunk house.”
Their nephew had such a good experience that he joined an online community called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Founded by a London secretary in 1971, initially as a weekend program, it was a means for city dwellers to spend time in the country and support organic farming practices. The nephew encouraged the Spencers to become a WWOOF host farm. In early spring of 2013, they were contacted by their first “WWOOFer,” a young French Canadian. They’ve since hosted dozens of motivated young people from many of the states and Puerto Rico, as well as countries such as Canada, Scotland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia. Some of the interns are from WWOOF, and some are not. The interns learn through supervised, hands-on experience, beginning their first day on the farm. As they develop competence and confidence, they are able to help teach new interns. “Hosting interns is great for our kids and us,” says Laura. “We get to know and learn from a variety of intelligent, hard-working young adults from many cultures. We feel such affection for our interns that they’ve become part of our family, too.
“In the evenings we all eat supper together, and share our struggles, triumphs, and funny moments of the day,” she says. “After the dishes are cleaned up, we often move to the living room for more stories or music. If it’s a weekend, V.K.’s home from her studies at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and joins in on her fiddle or the guitar.”
“What it comes down to is this: Laura and I want our children and our interns to learn things now that we didn’t know and appreciate until we reached our 40s,” Spencer explains. “In this modern age, we know it is still possible to live a purposeful, contented, sustainably productive life on a small farm. That got us thinking about our neighbors right here in Alabama’s Black Belt. The name came from early 19th century white settlers who were impressed by the rich, dark topsoil they found when they cleared and tilled this land. Now it’s been recognized for generations as one of the poorest regions in the United States.
“It’s taken us a long time and a lot of work, but we’re living a satisfying life that we freely chose,” he continues. “It’s based upon respect. Respect for this land and the gifts it bears us; for our animals, who give us meat and milk and eggs; and for our family of fellow travelers on this journey who get up every morning and move thoughtfully through the day, striving to be efficient, innovative, and frugal. Discarding is the exception. Repairing, restoring, repurposing, and maintaining are the rules. The work is hard and the days are long, but there’s always a sense of appreciation for the simple pleasures of stillness, togetherness, contentment, and the passage of time. Which brings us to this question: How can we teach other like-minded people in the Black Belt to do what we have done and create small, sustainable farms of their own? That’s what we dream of working on next.”