HODGDON, Maine – When Heath and Erica Burkhart decided to sell their Outer Banks of North Carolina portable toilet business and head west along the Appalachians, they had no idea they’d be farming 1,009 miles away in Aroostook County.
“My husband is a dreamer,” Erica said. “To everything, there is a season, change, and dreams. And there’s a progression in building a dream, which often includes moving on to new dreams.”
And that’s just about how it has unfolded for this family of seven who initially moved from the rugged North Carolina coast in the heart of the pandemic to a farm rimmed by the Alton Bog on one side and the interstate on the other in Old Town.
They bought an old farm on 82 acres. The main farm house was in total disrepair, but a less than 700-square foot tiny house was better and that is where they decided to live. And in March 2020, the couple, along with their five children and great pyrenees Molla, moved into the tiny house.
There were no appliances and because of COVID-19 they couldn’t get anyone to hook up the gas, so they cooked on a griddle outside and the kids had one big room.
“We had three sets of bunks and life was fun,” she said.
The Burketts of Bulrush Farm, as they call themselves, were among the thousands of people from more heavily populated cities around the nation who made rural Maine their home during the pandemic. And while it took overcoming some challenging obstacles, they are determined to fulfill their dream of having a better quality of life through living off their land.
Although Erica admits she never thought she’d be farming, canning, and helping birth pigs, she is having fun so far. When it stops being fun, she may have to rethink the dream, but for now, it’s working.
Erica grew up on a tiny island on the Outer Banks, her dad was a fisherman. Heath is from Washington State and he grew up cow ranching with his grandmother. Only now does he wish he had paid more attention when he was a kid, Erica said. .
“I’ve always been an old soul. Growing up in high school I kept a garden baked bread and did all these things,” she said. “On my 30th birthday I got my first canner.”
When they sold their successful portable toilet business, the couple considered their options. But even if they paid off their home, they would both still have to leave to work every day to keep such a large family afloat.
“We asked if that was the way we wanted to live,” she said.
That first year in Old Town they planted a big garden and bought their first two pigs. But a chaotic tragedy made them realize they needed to find a new farm that was more conducive to planting and raising livestock.
At the Old Town location there were no tillable fields and they wanted to also grow the feed for their pigs, cows, cattle, ducks and chickens. And when five Highland cows, who escaped just after they had been delivered, eluded them for 19 sleepless nights and days, they were disheartened.
After trying to corral them along the highway after each middle of the night call, they eventually saved two.
Last spring the Burkharts found the perfect match at the old O’Donnell 75-acre farm in Hodgdon. And in the past several months things are blossoming.
Their oldest son, Waylon, 14, hatched duck eggs, 11-year-old Heidi has learned how to milk the cows and Erica, along with feeding farm animals and children, has been canning and baking and even learning how to test if her pig is pregnant. Not to mention she just purchased the well-established Serendipity Embroidery and fixed up a shop on Court Street in Houlton for the business.
Waylon welds and Heath just set-up his computerized numerical control (CNC) machine to make metal signs.
Two of their pigs are about to give birth any day. They got their state license to sell meat in the country store they will soon open at the farm to sell pork, beef and hamburger.
“I’ve got a list of people who are waiting for our cows to come back to market,” she said. “I am really hopeful. There was such expense and hoops to jump through to get licensed to retail meat.”
They had 13 cows but two just went to market. They have four dairy cows, three breed sows, two will have litters any day. There are nine other pigs, one they are keeping as a boar, two are sold on the hoof, and five will go to market for the country store.
The chickens are laying eggs and the kids are having a ball.
Erica said Heidi is her milk girl and they all take turns helping her. Waylon soaks grain and hauls buckets of water for the pigs and Jolene and the twin boys help with feeding and are always looking for a cat or duck to cuddle. .
Heidi said she loves their healthier way of living and even the five-year-old twins love life on the farm. And they don’t even have a TV.
“I feel like we eat a lot more healthy this way because there are not so many preservatives,” said Heidi.
Overall, Erica said it’s a better life for her family.
“Time is the only non-renewable resource. You can make more money, you can have more stuff, you can rebuild if you go bankrupt,” she said. “All this is so we can have time with our children.”