A Homesteading Couple Revives a 200-Year-Old Maine Farm
Inspired by their flock of geese, two modern back-to-the-landers build their dream farm in Liberty.
If you are someone who owns geese, or someone who has made a pandemic-prompted midnight Google search about backyard farm animals, it is not improbable that you would have stumbled upon Kirsten Lie-Nielsen. Her Instagram account, @hostilevalleyliving, has over 34,000 followers, and she has published two books: The Modern Homesteader’s Guide to Keeping Geese and So You Want to Be a Modern Homesteader? It was Lie-Nielsen’s flock of geese, in fact, that prompted her and her husband, Patrick Tracy Jackson III, to move from their home in Woolwich, across the river from Bath, to a 200-year-old, 93-acre homestead in Liberty.
“The geese had such personalities and were a lot of fun, but they also had a habit of sitting in the middle of the road,” says Lie-Nielsen. “We always talked about getting a farm, going somewhere more rural, but the geese in the road was like, ‘Alright, maybe we should really do this.’”
In 2015 they found their spot: a nineteenth-century New England Cape that had been in the same family right up until Lie-Nielsen set eyes on it. “It’s known locally as the old Whitaker farm,” she explains. “The Whitakers were the descendants of a ship captain who came up here in the early 1800s.”
Lie-Nielsen’s Southdown Babydoll sheep. Maremma sheepdogs like Stanley are bred and trained to bond with the Nigerian dwarf goats that Kirsten Lie-Nielsen uses for milk and to help keep down the brush, poison ivy, and overgrowth on the farm’s stone walls.
While it’s unusual that a home would remain in the same bloodline for so long, the downside in this case was the family’s waning interest over the years: the active farm eventually slowed to a halt, and the farm-turned-summer place was abandoned sometime in the 1970s. When Lie-Nielsen and Jackson moved in, the fields were overgrown and completely unworkable. And, while the buildings were in decent shape structure-wise, Lie-Nielsen says the main house was like a time capsule to the 1800s. “There was no electricity—it had never been wired for electricity at all. No running water. There was a woodstove in the kitchen, and that was about it.”
The couple’s back-to-the-land leap was a bona fide one. They prioritized their animals and their goals for the farm, and for the first two years they “camped” in the house. “We had a bed, but our kitchen was in the barn because we got water over there first,” Lie-Nielsen says. They had a bucket for a composting toilet and an outdoor shower that they used even in the winter—that is, when the pipes weren’t frozen.
Solar panels were added to the home in fall 2020 as part of the couple’s journey to self-sufficiency. Goats were the first livestock after poultry to arrive on the farm, and the couple spent more time and effort preparing their living quarters than their own. Today the herd is 17 strong. These two kids, Janie (in Lie-Nielsen’s arms) and Layla, are about three months old. The old woodshed had no floors and a three-hole outhouse when the couple arrived; now it is the most modern corner of the home, with large picture windows for thriving houseplants. The farm was once home to a Prohibition-era cider mill, and the couple is steadily working to bring the orchards back on the property; while the commercial end product of their apples is still being determined, making cider will always be part of their family’s fall traditions.
In the summer of 2018, after two years of focusing on land management using their goats, sheep, and geese and planting a vibrant garden that could supply the couple with nearly all their food, they set up a large camping tent in the yard to sleep in and got to work on the main house. “The tent gave us a real sense of urgency because, as it started getting chillier, we were like, ‘We have to finish!’” Lie-Nielsen says with a laugh.
Jackson did all the design work, and with the help of a few hired neighbors the house was outfitted with all the modern amenities by the fall. “I have learned so many skills through this project,” says Lie-Nielsen. “Before it was, ‘Oh, you just turn the tap on, and that’s how you get water,’ but now I actually understand how things work.”
In the woodshed, an L-shaped outbuilding off the back of the house, the couple knocked down a wall, put in floors, and added large picture windows and a woodstove. The windows add a generous amount of sunlight, and the stove keeps the entire home warm all winter long. “Now I can have all the houseplants I want,” Lie-Nielsen says. The chicken coop, which they reshingled themselves last summer, has been turned into a gardening shed. Lie-Nielsen describes it as the kind of building most people would just tear down, but like everything on Hostile Valley Farm, Lie-Nielsen says, you just have to squint your eyes to see the potential: “How can we make the old new again instead of just giving up?”