It was a cold and blustery March morning, and as I made fresh tire tracks through the light dusting of snow, I saw a mink dart across the driveway and under a rock along one of the three ponds at the Augusta Acres homestead in Welcome Lake, PA. It was too cold for the sap to be running yet, but the plastic tubes and hundreds of buckets lining the way to the house were ready for the sap to flow as soon as the temperature rose above freezing. In the distance, a small flock of ducks waddled along the bank of the frozen pond as if also wondering whether the ice would melt soon.
Today was the first day of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Maple Producers Association’s “Self-Guided Maple Tour,” and Todd and Sue Klikus, the operators of one of 10 local “sugar bushes”* participating in the event, were busy boiling away in the sap house when I arrived. [*Sugar bush: A wooded area where sugar maples predominate]
Producing maple syrup is the most recent of many projects on which the Klikus family has embarked since building their home in 1993 on the old 20-acre hunting and fish-rearing property once owned by Sue’s grandparents, John and Augusta Rickard. What began as an interest in horses, gardening and outdoor projects has today blossomed into a modern-day, diversified homestead that currently produces meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, honey, maple syrup, cut flowers and even some of its own energy.
Todd and Sue grew up in Pike and Wayne counties respectively and spent part of their childhoods working or playing around dairy farms. However, when choosing a career, neither decided that farming was in the cards. Todd became an electrician and now owns Tri-County Inspection Agency, while Sue served as an elementary school teacher in the Wayne Highlands School District for over 30 years. After her retirement, the couple’s latent interest in farming reemerged.
With the encouragement of their family and the help of friends made through a committed group of local farmers (the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Wayne County group), the couple and their son, Carson, began working to develop a sustainable, diversified homestead.
In recent years, “homesteading” has experienced a resurgence in popularity as more and more people seek to produce as much of their food and energy as possible. Thanks to many new technologies and the ability to learn and share knowledge and skills easily through online blogs and forums, modern homesteading has become an achievable, self-reinvented way of life for thousands of families all across the country.
Like Todd and Sue, many seek to reconnect with the land and simplify their lives. “It’s the only way you’ll absolutely know what’s in your food,” Sue said, “and the taste and quality is hands-down unparalleled. There’s something very satisfying about sitting down to a meal that consists entirely of products you grew yourself or raised on your land.”
After attending many farming and homesteading conferences, reading a variety of books and websites, and watching tons of YouTube videos, Todd began modifying the infrastructure at Augusta Acres. With the help of his Kubota tractor, he has plowed, tilled and planted gardens and pastures. He has built a wood-heated greenhouse; raised-bed gardens; an open-air abattoir; chicken, duck and turkey coops; hog shelters; top bar beehives; and, with the help of a friend, a sap house.
“I really don’t have a favorite thing to do around the homestead,” Tod said. “I like it all. When it’s maple time, I like to syrup. When it’s berry season, I like picking berries. Sometimes, I just like to go down and sit on a bucket and watch the bees. I like the variety that homesteading offers.”
When the first guests of the maple tour arrived, Sue left the sap house to take the couple on a short walk through the sugar bush, and Todd added more wood to the fire. The sap rolled to a boil and filled the air with a sweet maple smell.
“It’s not all fun,” he said. “I never look forward to butchering or processing the chickens, but it has to be done.”
According to Todd, Sue has come a long way since they first started processing their own meat chickens. “She’d just leave for the entire day or not set foot outside of the house.” That started to change after Sue helped plan an educational, backyard chicken processing workshop for the Transition Honesdale Skillshare Project. Now, she recognizes that their efforts to provide their poultry with an excellent, natural environment—healthy, non-GMO feed, plenty of pasture, everything a chicken could want—are part of a reciprocal relationship. “All in all,” she said, “they live great lives and only experience one bad day.”
Because they raise such healthy animals, Todd and Sue are sure that they are eating the most delicious and nutritious food possible. One of their primary focuses has been raising heritage breed poultry and livestock, whose genetic preservation is threatened. Together they have bred and raised Old Spot and Tamworth hogs and hatched out and tended to a variety of heritage chickens, including Buckeyes, Ameraucanas and Australorps. They raise and tend Bourbon Red turkeys and Muscovy ducks and allow a flock of Guinea hens free range over the property to control ticks.
It is important to note that homesteading is an endeavor that should not be taken lightly. “It’s a 24-hour, 365 day job,” says Todd. “Someone always has to be home to take care of the animals every night. We face so many predators that we can’t afford to leave their coops open throughout the night.”
Like any farm operation, the success or failure of the homestead depends on the dedication of the farmer to a lifestyle. The notion that a homestead is “just” a hobby farm or has less of an impact than scaled-up farms is misguided. It’s also potentially disastrous to animals on a homestead if the level of commitment involved is not appreciated.
Even as more people strive to develop self-reliance and a connection with their food source, Sue points out how essential it is to forge a community network to learn from, barter with and offer each other knowledge, feedback and experience. Thankfully, we live in an area rich with farming knowledge and with groups committed to creating a stronger, more prosperous community. As the “sustainable agriculture” movement grows throughout the Upper Delaware region, it is the Klikus’s hope that more families will be inspired to take more control over their homes and lives and to produce as much food as possible at home.
As I left the sap house, I took a slight detour through the sugar bush. The sun had just begun to break through the clouds and the snow was disappearing in patches throughout the woods. I peeked into one of the sap buckets and waited until a bead of liquid formed at the end of the tap. With a finger, I tasted the mildly sweet water and, in the distance, heard a rooster crow. This is the life.