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Their piece of the sky: Family pursues agritourism dreams at Rusty Armadillo Farm

FRANKLIN LIVING—On 61 acres of rural beauty in Hodges, Tracy and Doug McCauley and their children enjoy the peace that comes from finding a place that truly feels like home. It’s a sense of tranquility they want to share with the world.

The McCauleys and their adult children, Erik Zorger, 33, and Ashley Todd, 34, hail from Ohio but lived for 12 years in the Florida Keys before making their way to Alabama. Doug first came across the Hodges farm for sale in 2005 – on eBay, of all places – and, with a shared interest in moving to Alabama, he and Tracy pursued buying the farm. Just a few weeks later after a visit to the area, they decided to take the plunge.

“We have been so thankful we made that decision every single day. It felt like home as soon as we got here,” said Tracy. She grew up on a farm, and Doug grew up in a small town, so they both missed the wide open spaces of a rural lifestyle. “We love the property, and we think it has so much potential.”

That pulsing potential has led the McCauleys to consider a number of endeavors since they moved to the farm as their full-time residence in late 2008/early 2009, after the first few years of treating their purchase as a vacation home. As the cost of living in the Keys grew, so too did their love for their Alabama property – so they soon quit the Florida life entirely and moved to Hodges. “Everything here was paid off, so that security was a huge draw,” Tracy said. “We loved the Keys, the time when we were there, but we felt like we had seen the best of it. Things had shifted. So this became our happy place. When we finally sold the house in Florida, it was a relief to finally be out from the stress” – and embrace their new stress-free life in north Alabama.

Their new property had, in some ways, little to recommend it when they first got started, but since then the McCauleys have built a barn complete with spacious deck for relaxing, and they have completed a sprout house that is targeted to be used for aquaponics in the future. They also enjoy plenty of animal life with goats, chickens and their three rescue pups, Gigi, Ladybug and Tiger Lily. A young crop of fruit trees and berry bushes is growing near the house, and trails Doug has cleared through the woods allow for many a hike or golf cart ride through nature, with views to awe and inspire. Altogether, the McCauleys call it Rusty Armadillo Farm, a name inspired by an old wind chime.

Doug and Tracy have spent the past few years getting established, during which time Erik and Ashley followed in their footsteps to north Alabama; Erik lived in Russellville for a while and moved back to the area after a stint in Ohio, and Ashley has recently moved up to live and help work the farm. Now the McCauleys are ready to share their Hodges home with others – and they have plenty of ideas for how to go about it.

“We want our place to become a destination,” Tracy said. “There are so many things we have to offer … We know some ideas will come to fruition and some won’t, but I love our plans. There’s just so much beauty that we want to share.”

A cornerstone ambition for the Hodges farm is to offer their wide open spaces as an agriculture-centered getaway. Plans include building a small number – perhaps half a dozen – of cabins or other lodging options like yurts or cob constructions throughout the property and invite visitors to come learn about aquaponics, organic farming, animals and other agricultural pursuits. A package might include a weekend stay with an evening of live music and cozy campfires, plus a country breakfast.

Art Barn Sundays are similarly designed to bring people to the farm for relaxation and recreation. The McCauleys plan to invite their artist friends to lead classes on creative endeavors, and visitors can enjoy the open air barn as an inspiring place to work on any number of artistic projects.

Agritourism at Rusty Armadillo Farm would run from October to May to avoid the muggiest, buggiest months of the year, wrapping up just as the cowcumber magnolia buds blossom.

The McCauleys are also deep into sprouts, with a goal of developing a “sprout route” to sell microgreens to local and regional restaurants. “I’ve seen it done, and I really think that what we have is so marketable,” Tracy said. A foundation in sprouts could lead to the growth and sale of other produce, from lettuce varieties to flowers. Rusty Armadillo Farm has recently been approved for a grant to construct a greenhouse, and although forward progress had to be put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, Tracy said they are ready to move forward as soon as life stabilizes.

Ten goats – a mix of Saanen, Pygmy and Nigerian dwarf breeds – call the farm home, along with four chickens. The McCauleys would eventually like to add rabbits and maybe a couple of cows or pigs to their farming family, along with maybe more exotic like alpacas, as they once raised ostriches in Ohio. “We’re getting there. We have lot of help and lots of ideas. Nothing happens in a day,” Doug said.

One fan of the farm is 6-year-old Zoe, Ashley’s daughter. “She loves it,” Ashley said. “It’s like she has her own petting zoo.” Zoe got to enjoy an extended visit to the farm this spring during the coronavirus, and she said her favorite part of farm life is helping with the chores, like feeding the goats and chickens. “I like to play with the baby goats and pretend I’m a goat,” Zoe said.

She’s not alone in her love for the farm, however. Each family has their own way of describing what the tranquil little corner of north Alabama means for them. “I enjoy the feeling that I get from the farm. It brings me peace,” Tracey said. “If i’m stressed, I go for a walk, and it’s therapeutic. It just makes me happy.” Therapeutic is the word Ashley uses, too. “This has always been my therapy,” she said. “I feel like I can breathe up here – not just physically but emotionally. This is where I feel most at home.”

For Erik, the idea is freedom. “There’s a freedom you get from being on the farm,” he said. “I like that I can walk back into the woods, lean against a tree somewhere and just clear my head and relax.”

Doug said he loves having his own “piece of the sky” and not being surrounded by close neighbors at every turn, as they did in Florida. “If you’re in town you can’t really see the sky, but out here you can come out and watch stars and the moon,” Doug said. “I enjoy my piece of the sky.”