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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011 03:56 am

Homegrown and Handmade

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“When I was pregnant with my first child, I really thought that a fast food cheeseburger and fries was a complete meal. After all, there was meat, dairy in the form of the cheese, bread in the form of a bun, the tomato and lettuce were vegetables, and so were the fries.”

Deborah Niemann-Boehle has come a long way since then. Since 2002, the writer and former college instructor and her family live on a 32-acre spread they’ve named Antiquity Oaks that’s “just off I-55 between Bloomington and Joliet.”

The family grows and raises almost all of their food, from vegetables and fruits to eggs, milk, cheese and other dairy products, and meat. They make their own soap and spin wool from their own sheep. They built their house with minimal outside help, and Niemann-Boehle homeschooled their children (now in college) for all but three years.

It didn’t happen overnight. The self-confessed city slickers’ transition to sustainable living began in 1987, when an expectant Niemann-Boehle began attending La Leche League meetings (LLL supports and promotes breastfeeding). “I didn’t even know there was a difference between whole wheat bread and white bread,” she says. LLL introduced Niemann-Boehle to nutrition and healthy eating, and she began baking bread from scratch.

Husband Mike was in the Navy, and the family moved frequently. Their first attempt at backyard gardening was in Florida. “It was terrible,” Niemann-Boehle says. “It was so hot, everything we planted burned. We only harvested a few green beans that were so stringy, they were inedible.” But they kept at it, making changes and learning through a succession of moves. Niemann-Boehle was amazed at how much could be grown in even a tiny garden. By 2002 Mike was also a college instructor, having retired from the Navy and the family “decided to start living the adventure that Henry David Thoreau wrote about in Walden.”

Still striving to make Antiquity Oaks ever more self-sustaining, Niemann-Boehle is also committed to sharing the knowledge and experience they’ve gained, through speeches and by writing, in both a blog and a newly published book, Homegrown and Handmade. It’s an indispensible how-to primer for anyone wanting to learn about sustainability and self-sufficiency. The book is divided into four parts: The Sustainable Garden, The Backyard Orchard, The Backyard Poultry Flock, and the Home Dairy. Each part is divided into chapters dealing with planning, growing, raising, managing, producing, and cooking and recipes. There are also chapters on planning, managing and producing from a Home Fiber Flock.

The information is basic, practical and comprehensive, geared for novices as well as folks with a bit of knowledge. The gardening section includes such things as seed saving, composting and extending tomato harvests. Various methods of preservation such as canning, drying and freezing are explored. The orchard section includes pruning, planting and mulching. The backyard poultry section offers advice on diverse topics from brooding, laying, and coop management to injury prevention and treatment; the home dairy section includes information on subjects ranging from bedding and breeding to milking by hand or machine and cheese-making. Scattered throughout the book are testimonials and tips from other folks who are attempting to live sustainably.

For many – probably even most – people, such a degree of sustainable self-sufficiency seems overwhelming. Not everyone has the ability or the interest to tackle such a lifestyle. Niemann-Boehle knows that. For her, it’s a labor of love, something she’s willingly chosen and that gives her great personal satisfaction and fulfillment:

“When I was telling a friend about how busy I had been lately, she asked ‘When do you do anything for yourself?’ I laughed and explained that everything I do is for me. We do not have to do any of the things…in this book. That means if I am doing it, I love doing it.... The first few times I sat down to a dinner table filled with food we had grown ourselves, I was smiling so widely that it hurt my cheeks.”

But Niemann-Boehle wants people to know that it doesn’t take a lot of land to grow a lot of their own food: “The vast majority of our 32 acres is pasture; a creek winds through it. Our main garden is just about 1/7 acre. That’s not any bigger – and probably smaller – than many suburban backyards. There are rooftop gardens and chicken coops in Chicago.”

Niemann-Boehle also says that she doesn’t think folks have to or should do everything themselves. She and her husband are planning for changes that will probably include some downscaling at Antiquity Oaks now that their children are in college.

“But everybody can do something,” she says. “After all, my first successful crop was a jar of alfalfa sprouts.”

Niemann-Boehle will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Illinois Stewardship Alliance’s Harvest Celebration on Sept. 18. Copies of Homegrown and Handmade will be available for sale.

There are more reasons to sign up for ISA’s annual event. Far from a dry lecture, it’s always a wonderful time, truly a celebration. There will be a silent auction. A bountiful spread of luscious local foods will be crafted by some of the area’s best chefs, including American Harvest’s Jordan Coffey, Maldaner’s’ Michael Higgins, 5 Flavors Catering’s Chip Kennedy, The Inn at 835’s Tim McNeese, Augie’s Front Burner’s August Mrozowski, and The Illinois Executive Mansion’s Greg Volle. Illinois wines will be on hand, as well as beers from Springfield’s very own new brewery, Rolling Meadows.

State Sen. Dave Koehler will also make some remarks. He was the lead co-sponsor of the recently passed Cottage Food Bill, which enables – and regulates – small, home-based food producers so that they can sell their wares at venues such as farmers markets. Sen. Koehler owns an artisanal bakery, The Peoria Bread Company.

Tickets for the ISA’s Harvest Celebration are $65 for ISA members (a table of ten for $650), and $75 for non-members (a table of ten for $750). They can be purchased online at the ISA website, www.ilstewards.org, or by mailing a check to: Illinois Stewardship Alliance, 401 W. Jackson Pkwy., Springfield, IL 62704.  

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com



RealCuisine Recipe
Creamy heirloom tomato soup

The recipes in Homegrown and Handmade are simple and basic, all the better to showcase Niemann-Boehle’s homegrown products. Her tomato soup recipe calls for frozen tomatoes, but presumably fresh would work, too. She doesn’t specify if the herbs used are fresh or dried; I would double the amount if using fresh. I’d also whisk the milk into the butter and flour paste (a.k.a roux) and bring it to a bare simmer before adding it to the tomatoes to eliminate the risk of curdling. 

  • 2 lbs. frozen orange or yellow tomatoes
  • 1 tsp. garlic salt
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne
  • 2 tsp. oregano
  • 1 tsp. basil
  • 1/4 c. butter
  • 1/4 c. flour
  • 1 1/4 c. whole milk

Cover the bottom of the pot with about half an inch of warm water and place it on medium heat. Tomatoes only need to be thawed enough to break into pieces. The thawing will finish over the heat. Once the tomatoes are thawed, add the spices (and herbs) and stir. Use an immersion blender (also known as a stick blender) to blend the tomatoes until smooth.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a separate saucepan. After it is melted, whisk in the flour until it is a smooth paste. Add milk to the pot with the tomatoes, and then whisk the paste into the blended tomatoes and milk. Mix well and continue to stir until the mixture boils. Turn off heat as soon as it boils. The total time from start to finish is only about 20 minutes, which is quicker than take-out. Serves 4.

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