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franklin county times

From Wisconsin to Spruce Pine: Living the farm life at SiSu Homestead

FRANKLIN LIVING MAY-JUNE 2024

One April afternoon, Melissa Zak reflected on the story of her family leaving Wisconsin in 2020 and moving to Alabama to begin a new life. Their Franklin farm is home to, among other animals, piglets and goslings as well as baby ducks and chicks. A turkey roams the back porch.

“We went on vacation to visit some friends in Montgomery in March 2020,” Zak explained. “The weather down here was very, very nice, and all the people were very friendly. We really enjoyed the landscape, and the cost of living was much less than it was in Wisconsin.” Zak said she and her husband Daniel, and their younger daughter Scarlet, 13, found all the things they were looking for in Alabama – “better weather, better cost of living and how pretty and peaceful it is.”

They landed in Franklin County after a search for available properties. “This was right before the big housing market boom,” Zak said. “It got to the point where we couldn’t get here fast enough to check out properties before they were selling, and so we just started making offers sight unseen, from photos off of Zillow.”

She said they were looking for a property with “some acreage that wasn’t too far from sort of city.” In addition to being in a new state, the move brought other changes for the family. They had lived in cities all their lives but were looking for a new way forward. “We’ve always had friends and family who lived more rurally,” she explained, “and my husband and I had a goal of living out in the country. I have an aunt and uncle who have a farm, and I spent a lot of time there, but this was very new for us.”

Zak said they like being more self-sufficient and knowing where their food is coming from, as well as being able to enjoy their animals, watching them thrive. “It’s a more peaceful lifestyle for us,” she added. “In most ways, it’s a much slower pace than busy city life. You’re not hearing traffic and other sounds, and it’s definitely much safer.”

In Wisconsin, Zak managed restaurants, and her husband owned a sporting goods store and website. “We still do our sporting goods website,” she said, “but we no longer have a physical storefront for it.”

She said she has moved “quite a few times” during her life, but she and her husband are both from the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area. They met when she was 17 and he was 21. This summer, they will have been married for 24 years. Their older daughter, Amanda Zak, still lives in Wisconsin.

House pets include dogs, cats, ferrets, a Russian tortoise and a bearded dragon. Farm animals include rabbits, pigs, turkeys, geese, ducks and chicken. Future plans include sheep, goats or both. They mostly grow vegetables and fruits, including blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, figs, tomatoes, peppers, squash and zucchini.

“We make tea with the elderberry flowers,” she explained, “and we make syrup and use dried elderberries. I sell cuttings and rooted plants for them as well. We sell eggs for eating and for hatching. Pretty much, we have a little bit of everything.” Plans for the future include making their garden bigger so they can grow more produce.

Among the animals, Zak said some of her favorites are the geese and the turkeys “because they have very unique personalities and they’re all very friendly.” Among their plants, she especially enjoys growing loofahs, which are often used for shower sponges. “They’re really fun to grow and process,” she noted.

Scarlet said while she likes “all of it” about living on a farm, she especially likes the birds, sometimes raising them in her room. “They’re so fun,” she added. “They’re really cute and pretty and interesting. I get to interact with them a lot, especially the turkeys – they will follow you around and cuddle you. Outside, the animals follow you around and want food.”

Melissa said they didn’t have “a ton of space” in Wisconsin, noting that’s a change she especially likes in Alabama.

Daniel said their Alabama lives are “a big contrast” to Wisconsi; going from living the city life to living on the outskirts, “off the beaten path,” provides them a lot more opportunities for self-sufficiency. He said the turkeys are his favorite of the animals. “They are beautiful and cool to see,” he explained, “but the Muskogees (ducks) have definitely grown on me. My wife brought them in. Each one has unique characteristics, and they have interesting habits.”

He said the family enjoys living in a community and in a way where they can learn from others and help spread knowledge. “We enjoy working together and living here,” he said. “We share the goals of caring for the animals, caring for ourselves and taking care of the land.” His favorites among the crops include zucchini and squash, which he said he loves with onions, caramelized in the skillet. He also enjoys “good beef and lots of other things.”

“I feel pretty confident about how things have gone so far,” he added. “There’s always something to do, and we’re always looking for ways to be more efficient and to expand, but I feel good about what we’re doing. It’s challenging, but that comes with the territory. Instead of being afraid of what we don’t know, we can sink our heads and hands into it and gain knowledge and go from there.”

Daniel said challenges include land management, planning expansion, food storage and proper care and safety of the animals. “We have that responsibility to ensure they get the best chance at life,” he said.

“It’s just beautiful here, and we love every day,” he added. “It’s peaceful, very relaxing – a refreshing change from the vehicle noise and pollution of cities.”

For more information about SiSu Homestead, located at 426 McNatt Road in Spruce Pine, visit their Facebook page, send a text to 920-342-3915 or email homesteadsisu@gmail.com. They hold monthly shop/swap/sell events, free to the public. Vendor fees may apply. The next event is scheduled for May 18 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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