CHARLESTOWN — A 10-acre farm in Charlestown holds nearly everything the Bast family needs.
Gina Bast, who thinks of herself as more of a homesteader than a farmer, had always been into gardening, but when she and her husband, Brian, discovered that one of their twin sons, now 25, had allergies to corn, malt and much of what’s in processed foods, it set them on a path to live as completely off their land as possible.
Now, the family has more than 30 animals — they raise hogs and chickens for meat and eggs, and goats for milk and milk products. They have a large garden with onions, celery, tomatoes and other edible plants and vegetables. They get sap from the trees for syrup, and elderberries from the property for medicinal purposes.
For Gina, who works full time at running the farm and homeschooling the couple’s 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, being able to produce and give her family good food that came from their own land is important. It also affords them the ability to eat well and not spend a fortune at the grocery.
“It means that I can eat a lot better off a single family income than we ever could,” she said. “I could not afford to buy the food I grow.”
She said around 75 percent of what they consume comes from either their farm or through bartering with friends and family for things they don’t grow, like watermelon. They buy staples such as sugar, coffee and flour at the store.
But the transition didn’t happen overnight — they moved to the property almost 14 years ago from Sellersburg, where they had an acre that included a garden and a few chickens. Seven years ago, they added larger livestock. Gina said making the shift in their food consumption came in small ways and added up.
“I’ve always loved to cook, but it was a transition,” she said. “Like ‘let’s make boxed macaroni and cheese [but] with goat’s milk instead of Velveeta.’”
TAKING IT SLOW
In a previous life, when she was raising two young boys and didn’t have the farm, the family ate out a lot, often fast food.
“To have two kids and be on the run all the time, we probably went through the McDonald’s drive-through three times a week,” Gina said. “That dollar menu was fast and great, but then everybody felt bad afterwards.”
But if she eats fast food now — they get a pizza once in a while if they’re hungry and pressed for time — she feels the difference.
“I recognize it,” Gina said. “It’s brain fog — that’s the only way I can describe it.”
Today, there’s not food in her fridge that can be taken out and microwaved, no quick snacks. Everything in the kitchen is thought-out and purposeful.
“It has to go through a process to be prepared,” she said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, you have to plan ahead.”
A DAY AT THE FARM
A typical day for Gina and her daughter starts out at 6:30 or 7 a.m. The goats have to be milked twice a day — something that’s now second nature to Hannah. She’s been doing it since she was 7 and is thinking about being a veterinarian technician when she gets older. Already through the farm and her active life in 4-H, Hannah is learning the lay of the land, but the goats are extra special to her. Most of goats have been born at the Basts’ farm, where the family often helped with the birthing process.
“I enjoy the goats a lot because of all their different personalities,” she said. “I’ve noticed with the other animals, they’re not quite the same.”
Some of the goat milk is given to the animals that are being bottle-fed, like the 2-month-old calf Hannah is raising.
Mother and daughter also clean the barn, and give the animals water and hay. Then Gina might work on some food preparation.
Since they try to use as much as they can, Gina cans and freezes a lot of what’s harvested. This way, she can take out a can of soup base that came from things in her garden, add some frozen vegetables and they can have homemade soup in 15 minutes.
The family is really good at using what they have to get what they need. Brian builds the structures needed around the farm, such as buildings for the animals. He’s even erected a greenhouse that’s almost all repurposed windows and other found materials.
‘GET BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS’
Gina said that she loves being able to educate others on techniques and best practices when she can, learning from them, as well.
“I like to help people, paying it forward because people have helped us along the way,” she said.
Part of that, she said, is encouraging others to just try it, but reminding them to stay realistic.
“So many people think they want to start a garden and they’ll get somebody to come out, plow up this big area,” Gina said. “And they fail because they don’t know what they’re doing and they try to do too much at one time.
“So I’ve just tried to get people to plant a pot. Just put herbs in a pot and baby that pot of herbs and learn to use them when you cook — that will encourage you.”
The family doesn’t sell any of the goat milk or products, but they do work at times with outside buyers on the chickens and hogs. These sales enable the Basts to buy equipment that helps out with their own food consumption at home. The main purpose for the family is not to make a dollar — it’s to be self-sustaining, healthy and responsible consumers.
“My main interest is in providing food for my family and if I can sell some after that, fine,” she said.
Part of this comes from the family’s goal to raise healthy and happy animals. They have just the right amount for the space and needs they have.
“In order to produce enough to serve other people, it kind of dilutes what you’re doing,” Gina said. “We want to raise pigs and we want them to eat walnuts and we want them to eat grass and we want to give them excess from our garden.
“And that’s great if I’m raising, two, three or maybe even four pigs. But if I’m raising 10 pigs, they’re not getting as much good stuff.”
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
Another important change that comes from running the farm is less food waste. Gina is disheartened when she sees grocers throw out old lettuce that’s gone bad. In her garden, she can just go out and pick enough celery that she and her family need for that meal.
This is also a big issue for Hannah, who recently wrote a speech on the ills of food waste. If people realized how much water and energy was required to produce one tub of yogurt, for instance, they might think twice about casually overbuying or throwing it out.
MOTHER NATURE’S MERCY
Living off the land has its benefits, but it can also be subject to the whims of natural disasters. Several years ago, a hail storm in June flattened the whole garden, which was full of mature plants.
Another year, the house caught fire from a lightning strike and suffered major water damage. The insurance company wanted to put the family in a hotel, give them a small stipend to eat out. But Gina said she knew that wasn’t going to work.
“They wanted us to move out,” she said. “And my garden was in full swing, our food was in the garden. I was not willing to leave it.”
So they pushed to be able to get a 30-foot travel trailer in the driveway, where they lived for four months during that luckily mild summer.
They made a makeshift kitchen in a partially enclosed building near the garden, ran electric to it and had a skillet for cooking.
“[Hannah] and I sat over here and chopped our peppers and our onions, we had a stove,” the mother said. “That part was fun.”
At the end of the day, this life is kind of a dream come true, Gina said. They all work hard, but it’s worth it.
“We like to eat and I like to cook, so it’s a good marriage of things,” she said. “Our feed bill a month is more than our grocery bill.”
But everything on the farm has a purpose. Everything is functioning and contributing to the whole endeavor.
“If they’re not producing — like the dog — he’s protecting what produces,” she said.
And while she’s all for helping someone who wants advice on getting started, plucking chickens or bottle-feeding goats, Gina said she’s not one to try to tell anyone that her family’s lifestyle is the best or the only one out there.
“I’m a live-and-let-live kind of person,” she said. “Everybody’s got their reasons for doing things. I think everybody does what’s best for them; everybody has to make their own decisions.”