By Ginna Parsons
STARKVILLE – Sometimes, all it takes is a little push to get you where you’re supposed to be in your life.
In the case of Alison and Mike Buehler, that push was a 5,000-square-foot mess of a house in Starkville.
Alison, a special education major with a doctorate in educational administration, and Mike were living in Knoxville, Tenn., where he was doing his residency in radiology.
They knew as soon as Mike got ready to practice on his own, they would need to get close to family so they’d have help raising their young children.
They chose Starkville because Mike’s parents live here and it is a university town.
“We moved here in 2006 and I thought, ‘I’ll go be a professor and he’ll be a doctor and the grandparents will take care of our children,’” Alison said.
They bought a big house with a view of a pretty lake and Mike joined a private practice.
“But soon, he was the only one in the practice and he was working 365 days a year, and I knew I could never do what I wanted to do,” she said. “I got pushed into full-time motherhood pretty quickly.”
And that wasn’t the half of it.
The big house in the woods they bought had been abandoned for three years and it was a mess when they moved in.
“That was our awakening,” Alison said. “We couldn’t fix a toilet. The house was totally inefficient and everything needed repairs. Between the two of us, we had all this education and we couldn’t even fix a toilet. We were totally dependent on others to fix everything.”
Food was another sore spot. In Knoxville, they were accustomed to huge farmers’ markets with abundant fresh, organic produce.
“When we moved here, there was no farmers’ market,” she said. “There was no organic food at the grocery store at that time. We wanted to do right by our kids and figured if we wanted healthy food, we were going to have to grow it ourselves.”
The couple went to their county extension office, but were told they couldn’t grow food naturally because there were too many pests in Mississippi.
“I knew our grandparents had done it without harmful sprays and things,” she said. “So we read a lot of books, went to conferences. If we saw a garden on the side of the road, we’d stop and talk to the people. We got on the Internet.”
They planted an organic garden their very first year in Starkville and they harvested exactly 47 zucchini and two tomatoes.
“It was not a very encouraging experiment,” Alison said. “But we had a neighbor from Germany and she knew a lot of stuff. She taught us how to amend the soil and build raised beds.”
The next summer, the couple had an abundance of tomatoes, beans and squash.
“Food is basic,” Alison said. “Where does it come from? How is it grown? Where does shelter come from? Basic needs became intriguing to us. We didn’t know the answers to any of these things before we started this.”
The couple thought there had to be others interested in these things as well, so they started a nonprofit called Gaining Ground, which teaches Mississippians about sustainable living.
“We’d have friends over on the weekends to eat and they’d say, ‘I can’t believe these tomatoes. How do you grow these?’ We had chickens in the yard – it wasn’t in vogue then – and they kept saying, ‘You need to teach this.’ Or people would call and say, ‘Can I come talk to you about growing food naturally?’ or ‘I understand you use solar panels. Can I come see your set-up?’ It went from a hobby to a way of life.”
Mike, who now practices part time, and Alison quickly realized that a 5,000-square-foot house for five people wasn’t very sustainable.
“It was just too big for us,” she said. “But I could justify it if a lot of people were using it. So we paid it off and moved across the lake to a more reasonable house. I said I wanted to keep the big house if we could use it as a school.”
And so the Mississippi Modern Homestead Center was born in January 2013. Located on five acres, it includes chickens, pigs, orchards, vegetable gardens, nature trails, a greenhouse, solar panels and a gray water and cistern system.
The Homestead has three areas of focus:
• Food systems: growing, preserving and preparing food; animal husbandry
• Health and wellness: preventative health, such as diet and exercise; medicinal herbs; natural health and beauty products; natural cleansers
• Family fun: camps for kids; storytelling; line dancing; playing outside without electronic distractions
The Homestead offers weekend workshops for families, retreats for women and after-school programs for kids. Yearly membership dues are $25 for an individual or $50 for a family. Membership includes four free events every year and a discount on every workshop.
“People like it out here,” Alison said. “I think we have a craving for back to basics with a modern twist. I mean, I’m not going to sit out here without air-conditioning in July. But it’s exciting to see people meet some of their basic needs.”
She said the majority of their members are couples with young kids and retirees.
“The people in their 40s and 50s are still working,” she said, “and the college kids don’t care yet. It’s not in their world to make a home or a lifestyle. This is our family’s journey – to produce more, use less and find health and happiness naturally.”