When COVID-19 upended our world in March, many of us found ourselves contemplating a new way of life, whether we wanted to or not. We had to ask ourselves: Do I really need to eat out at restaurants? Go to a concert or a movie? Travel abroad? Shop for new clothes just because? At a time when simply going to the grocery store was fraught with potential danger, the pandemic introduced us all to new ways of thinking. Many of us found ourselves considering a simpler life, one in which we could find contentment in staying at home, cooking a nice dinner and playing a board game with members of our own household. Baking bread became the activity du jour. Planting and tending a vegetable garden seemed like a dandy way to entertain ourselves while giving us a little bit of independence from the food supply chain that had suddenly revealed itself to be dangerously rickety.
While many of us were doing these mental gymnastics as we tried to wrap our heads around the new normal, some people were already way ahead of us. They’d already planted their gardens, so to speak, and were living a simpler, back-to-the-earth life. Here, we introduce you to three pioneers who have figured out the surest route to happiness doesn’t lie in a new car or a trip to Europe.
From Weeds and Dirt to an Urban Farm
Kyle Hagerty is the very essence of the modern homesteader. He grows his own food and has a hefty social media presence, with a YouTube channel (@urbanfarmstead) and accounts on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok. Young, photogenic and media savvy, he has been featured in Sunset Magazine and Better Homes and Gardens, extolling the joys of the urban farm created six years ago in the backyard of his East Sacramento home.
As a child growing up in Monterey, Hagerty loved working in the garden with his mom. After high school, he got a state parks job and taught kids how to grow tomatoes from seed. He later took some of those seeds home and planted them. That’s when, he says, the fire for growing things was lit. When he moved to Sacramento, he bought a house with a completely empty backyard, “nothing but sunshine and weeds,” he recalls. Hagerty built seven raised beds and started planting.
Around the time he harvested the first tomato, the city passed an urban farming ordinance allowing residents to sell homegrown produce from their property. So he built a little wooden farm stand and put it out on their driveway. Operating under the name East Sac Farms, he gave away whatever produce he didn’t eat. He plowed any donations received right back into the farm. Eventually, he had the biggest little farm in town, growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans, squash, tomatillos, corn, artichokes and tons of herbs. Not to mention berries: blackberries, raspberries, thornless boysenberries and unique varieties like golden berries and wonder berries—“things you can’t even find at the farmers market,” says Hagerty. And fruit trees, too: cherry, kiwi, peach, nectarine, fig, pineapple and guava. Hagerty constructed trellises for butternut squash and roof-gutter planters for microgreens. All this on a regulation-size (read: not very large) East Sac lot.
Because he didn’t want the yard to look like a farm, Hagerty also built an outdoor kitchen, seating area and patio. Through Instagram, he connected with other food-centric folks and held pop-up dinners in the backyard, featuring his own produce and locally sourced meats, wine and beer.
He recently moved to a new house in East Sac, with a larger lot and room to grow. Like the first home, it had a blank-slate backyard, and Hagerty started a YouTube channel to share the process of creating his new urban farmstead. Every week, he releases instructional videos with titles like “How to Propagate Fig Trees” and “How to Build a Fence Panel Trellis.” Viewers write in with gardening questions. “I seldom tell people that I don’t know something,” he says. “Instead, I tell them I’ll find out the answer.”
Hagerty, who works as a Sacramento firefighter, hopes to someday grow 80 percent of the food he eats. Why does he live this way? “That’s a good and big question,” he says thoughtfully. “It’s a lifestyle that I’ve slowly transitioned into. It brings me so much joy. It’s hard to put into words what it is about living this way and growing so much of our own food. It’s a lot of work and takes a tremendous amount of our time. I could easily go to the farmers market and buy whatever organic produce I want.
“But there’s something to be said about putting a seed into the ground and watching it grow. There’s magic to that. The joy of pulling the carrot out of the soil or the tomato off the vine—there’s nothing to compare it to. And when you bite into it, it has so much more flavor. It makes all the sweat and the dirt and the blisters worth it.”
Annie Oakley in an Apron
Carolyn Kumpe jokes that when the zombie apocalypse comes, she’ll do just fine.
A longtime chef and caterer, Kumpe lives in rural El Dorado with her husband, Ken, a firefighter with the U.S. fire service. With Ken often away on duty in far-away places for weeks at a time, Kumpe fends for herself for long stretches. That means firing up the generator when the power goes out. Hooking up a garden hose to bring water from a neighbor’s house when the well pump breaks down. Sleeping on the couch, jumping up at the slightest noise, grabbing her rifle and running out to the deck to protect her herd of goats from marauding mountain lions and coyotes.
In short, she’s Annie Oakley in an apron.
Last summer really put her MacGyver skills to the test. When PG&E turned off the power to her rural community to limit the risk of wildfire, Kumpe—who was catering a high-end wedding for a New York actress—found herself cooking over a wood fire in the dark with a headlamp and boiling vats of water to wash dishes. “It was bonkers, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she recalls, adding proudly, “But the food was fabulous.”
After growing up in upstate New York and the Midwest, Kumpe (now 60) moved to San Francisco to go to culinary school. She ended up skipping school and going straight to work in restaurants—the legendary school of hard knocks. Restaurant kitchens were brutal places for a woman in those days. “Back then, women chefs went through hell,” she notes. “You learned to have a backbone, that’s for sure.”
She cooked at several celebrated restaurants—Zuni Café, Bizou and Eddie Jacks, to name a few—and opened Tisane, the city’s first “salon du thé,” before moving to the Sacramento region to start a bakery. A divorce forced her to sell the business and take a series of jobs as a cooking instructor and caterer.
In 2009, she took the proceeds from the sale of the bakery and bought land in El Dorado. “It was literally a 5-acre junkyard,” she says. By then, she was married to Ken. (“I catered my own wedding and made my own wedding cake,” she says.) During the two years it took them to clear the land and build a house, they lived in a trailer parked on the property. Luckily, they’re both handy—“to live in the country, you have to be,” Kumpe says.
To keep the weeds down, they got a few goats. Friends gave them more, and now they have 15. “I call this the old goats’ home,” she jokes. To protect her herd from what she calls “the bloody coyotes,” she tried blasting music by the Bee Gees, Nirvana and Tool—“They don’t like loud noises,” she explains. When that failed, she picked up a Winchester rifle to scare them off.
Last year’s PG&E power outages convinced Kumpe that she needed to find an easier way to make a living than catering. So she started Logtown Social Club, a membership-based dining club that gave her a steadier income and a home base for putting on private events and cooking classes. The club had started to find its footing when COVID-19 forced it to shut down. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Kumpe, who laid off her staff, applied for a small business loan and went back to catering and private cheffing. “I decided I’m not going to freak out,” she says.
No matter what’s going on in the world, cooking makes her happy. She doesn’t need fancy ingredients—she can forage for miner’s lettuce or make a tincture from California poppies—an herbal remedy for stress, anxiety and insomnia. Under the adage “waste not, want not,” she recently turned a kitchen mistake—caramel corn that didn’t set up—into a delicious batch of caramel corn ice cream. She even barters her services for wine from local winemakers. “Wine is my therapist now,” she jokes.
These days, she says, she’s like a surfer riding the waves. “I decided to sit back and let the world happen for once.”
The City Girl Who Became a Country Girl
There are two Niesha Fritzes. One dresses in conservative business attire and works as a legislative staffer at the state Capitol. The other kicks it in cowboy boots, drives an ATV around her Wilton farm with a couple of dogs in her lap and midwives goats in the middle of the night.
In 2013, the first Niesha Fritz could only dream of the second Niesha Fritz. At that time, she was recently divorced and living with her two young children—Lex, then 7, and Ellie, 5—in Land Park. But she’d begun to tire of city life and fantasized about having a farm of her own.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Fritz had worked as a child actor, appearing in commercials and made-for-TV movies. It was a far cry from country life. Later, she attended college at Chico State, then ended up in the state capital, working as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee. With Placer County as her beat, she met a lot of farmers and ranchers. That’s when, she says, “my head was turned by agriculture. I wondered if I could do it.”
So she found a ramshackle farmhouse for rent on Craigslist and moved to Wilton with her kids. She got some goats, then a donkey to protect the goats. Life wasn’t particularly easy. “I was insane doing it all by myself,” she recalls.
In 2016, Fritz was at the local Ace Hardware store when she met the man who would become her second husband. A partner in a geotechnical engineering firm, Ken Fritz had grown up raising cattle and was a whiz at building and fixing things. It was a match made in farm heaven. The pair fell in love, married and, in 2018, bought a 5-acre farm in Wilton. They named it the Rocking K-N Ranch.
The farm needed a lot of work, and they did it all themselves: painting the outside of the house, clearing the land, building a perimeter fence and multiple pastures for livestock. They now have two steer, four chickens, nine pigs and 14 goats. (The chickens provide eggs; the steer and pigs will end up as food for the family. The goats, says Fritz, are “glorified pets.”) Watching YouTube videos, Fritz taught herself how to build a chicken coop and castrate and disbud a goat.
A typical day for Fritz starts at 5:30 a.m. She exercises, chugs a cup of coffee and heads outside to feed the pigs and water the steer. Then she drives into town for work and is back in her car eight-plus hours later, fighting traffic both ways. At home, she has several hours of night chores: Water the garden. Feed the goats. Feed the chickens. Check on the cows in the pasture. Feed the pigs. Feed the dogs (three of them). “Most nights, we don’t eat dinner until 8,” she says. “It’s a late night, but I love it.”
During kidding season, Fritz remains on high alert in case a goat runs into trouble giving birth. She purchased an old Coast Guard jumpsuit at an Army Navy surplus store for $25—“the best dang thing for helping sick animals,” she says. “I suit up and run out there with my goat-birthing kit,” a Tupperware tub filled with clean towels, scissors, puppy pads, molasses (energy for the mama goat) and chains in case a kid is breech. “I had to use that a couple of times, once in the pouring rain,” Fritz recalls.
She has flourished on the farm, and so have Lex and Ellie, who spend half their time in the city with their dad, the other half in Wilton with their mom. They are true farm kids. They raise goats for 4H. They grow vegetables. They know how to sew; Lex recently shortened his own shirt sleeves. Both kids helped build a shade structure for the goats. “It was a multi-weekend family affair,” says Fritz. Last year, Lex’s 4H goat died suddenly just before the county fair, a crushing blow. Scrambling to show an unfamiliar animal, he ended up winning several ribbons, including one for outstanding showmanship.
Fritz believes that the dual urban-country lifestyle will turn her kids into “interesting people.” “They know how to do a lot of things they otherwise wouldn’t,” she explains. “We’ve had crazy successes, like Lex winning the showmanship award, and had to say goodbye to animals we absolutely adore. There’s love and there’s loss. It’s made them richer little people.”
Niesha Fritz writes eloquently about her life on Facebook. Here’s a post from earlier this year:
When we bought this house in late fall two years ago, there wasn’t a fence on it. That meant when we moved—which had to happen more quickly than we originally anticipated—our five cows and handful of goats needed a temporary place to call home while we built fence. A dear friend came to the rescue and we spent weeks shuttling back and forth between her place and ours, while sinking posts and pulling wire after work at night and every waking moment of the weekend to get a goat pasture built for my dairy goats. Bringing the goats home felt like victory. But it was met in hand with the realization that we just couldn’t get the perimeter fence and other pastures built quick enough to bring home our three cows and two calves. It was pouring rain the day we hauled them to the cattle auction, and I held back tears as they mooed from holding pens when we drove away. “We’ll get cows again someday honey,” Ken said. We worked week after week, month after month on fence along with other projects over the course of the past year and a half. Slowly but steadily, our lines went up, posts were sunk in concrete, wire was pulled, barbed wire was strung. We’ve worked through heat and exhaustion; tied wire in the howling wind and cold that nipped at any exposed skin peeking from behind layers of clothing. Now, it finally feels like it’s all come together. We’ve added some goats, sold some goats, lost a beloved one to illness. In the midst of the pandemic and as meat suppliers began shuttering plants due to COVID-19, we started raising pigs for our family and a handful of others. We brought home two cattle dog puppies to work our livestock. And yesterday, two Red Angus steers came home to the Rocking K-N Ranch. This morning, a moo carried over the warbling of the birds. A morning nearly two years in the making—and a wonderful one at that.