The sun hangs low behind the trees, casting a viridescent glow through the southern Kentucky woods. The camper creeps up the rocky road—muddy from a recent storm—to Jesse and Hannah’s cabin. As we crest the hill, we’re enveloped in a fragrant smoke. Jesse looks up from the barbecue he’s tending and hollers down to greet us.
Hannah is sitting nearby on the front porch, rocking Further, their 8-month-old son. A rowdy gang of curious creatures emerges: chickens, cats, and a Great Pyrenees dog named Wendell welcome us. The garden is abuzz with insects.
The sun suddenly feels warmer and brighter. We’re here.
This is a particularly exciting visit. It’s our first time meeting Jesse and Hannah in person. We connected via Instagram and emailed extensively before our departure, which seems ironic considering that they live off-the-grid. Their kind and eager eyes instantly quell our butterflies.
After introductions and getting settled, Hannah motions inside the cabin, “Feel free to take a look around.”
The kitchen feels well-used and loved, multipurpose and utilitarian. Bare wood shelves line the sage-green walls, tidy and inviting. A cast-iron pan from breakfast sits atop the small, sturdy wood stove in the corner. Further’s baby jumper hangs in the center of the room from one of the heavy, exposed beams that run across the ceiling.
Since Further’s birth, the living room has become the bedroom. The loft upstairs serves as an office and artistic retreat. Books, artwork, and mementos decorate the walls. Flies hum around us, landing on our sweaty, glistening skin, yet the cabin evokes a winter coziness.
The next day, after a tour of the land, we’re excited to sit down and hear Jesse and Hannah’s stories. “Moving here is like casting a vote with our entire being,” Jesse professes during our interview. Though he and Hannah are both originally from Kentucky, the places they grew up are worlds away from the rural farm life they now lead.
After college, both fled their native suburbs to explore urban living. Jesse took his passion for food and cooking to New York City. Hannah moved to Chicago to delve into painting after studying art. While working as a wine monger, Jesse learned about organic and biodynamic winemaking practices. Getting to know the grape farmers piqued Jesse’s interest, inspiring him to go back to the agricultural roots of his career. Hannah became fascinated with urban beekeeping, prompting her to wonder more about where her food came from.
Their disenchantment with America’s modern food system led them back to farm in their home state. Jesse was working his second season at Bugtussle Farm when Hannah arrived “having never planted a seed before.” They discovered an immediate harmony. Six months later they were engaged, knowing that a farm of their own was in their future.
With a small budget and several failed prospects, the search for land was onerous. Finally at the end of 2012, the Smiths—their mentors from Bugtussle Farm—offered Jesse and Hannah a seven-and-a-half-acre parcel of their land. The Smiths agreed to give Jesse and Hannah three years to establish themselves before paying for the land. They also agreed to supplement Jesse and Hannah's CSA with vegetables in exchange for work.
Through crowdfunding Jesse and Hannah raised $8,000 to construct their cabin. Although there’s no electricity, it was built to accommodate solar in the future. The surrounding forest supplies fuel for cooking and heating.
For running water in the cabin, Jesse installed a hydraulic ram pump, which utilizes the energy of flowing creek water to pump and push a small amount of that water uphill to a storage tank. From there, it gravity feeds to the cabin.
For Jesse and Hannah, one of the trickiest parts of living off-grid is the lack of refrigeration, particularly during the summer months. Keeping vegetables fresh before farmers markets can be challenging. But they’ve adapted, often harvesting the day before or the morning of the markets. Occasionally, if necessary, they’ll buy ice and keep the produce in coolers or rely on neighbors for ice and refrigeration. Their garden bounty provides their family with fresh food throughout the growing season. What they can’t eat fresh gets canned or fermented to store for the winter.
“Farmstead” is an apt combination of farm + homestead. “Rough Draft” is an ode to the farm’s state of progress. Jesse and Hannah’s land, farming practices, and lifestyle are always evolving.
Eventually they might like to get on solar power and Jesse dreams of using draft horses instead of fossil-fuel-driven tractors. “We have to adapt our philosophies to the land, not the land to our philosophies,” Hannah acknowledges.
Jesse and Hannah recognize the complexities of “sustainability.” To them, it’s a balance of depletive and regenerative processes, never taking more than you’re giving back, whether it be finite resources or personal energy. Jesse and Hannah are passionate and highly motivated, so overworking comes easily. But they’re both cognizant of the importance of time off, making deliberate efforts to rest and engage in their artistic outlets.
Many of Jesse and Hannah’s immediate neighbors are also farmers, but most of them use conventional methods. Some have been on their land for decades, if not generations, whereas Jesse and Hannah are young newcomers. Despite the perceived differences, Jesse and Hannah understand how integral community is to sustainable farming. A community can pool its resources, time, and labor, making it more resilient when change or problems arise.
This has been a cardinal theme in Jesse and Hannah’s first years as farmers and stands out amidst a cyber-centric country. We humans are becoming increasingly connected to one another via technological advancements. On the other hand, there’s a palpable isolation taking place as we stare into our devices. Jesse and Hannah communicate and interact with their neighbors regularly, asking for help and lending a hand when it’s needed.
Despite the fullness of our time together, spending only 24 hours with Jesse, Hannah, Further, and their animal herd feels painfully short. We know we’ve only skimmed the surface of knowing each other. And yet, as we share parting embraces, it’s amazing to think that we met just yesterday.
“Let me run ahead and stack some rocks across the creek for you,” Jesse offers, to aid in our camper’s crossing.
As we make our way over the last of Jesse’s improvised bridges a white pickup truck comes to a stop at the junction ahead. The driver calls, “Need a hand?” He’s one of Jesse and Hannah’s neighbors that we’ve heard so much about. “I think we’ve got it from here. Thanks though!”
With a nod and a wave, he’s off. We follow soon behind, making our way back to paved roads and strangers without names.
* Check out Rough Draft Farmstead's website to read their blog and learn more about their day-to-day life.