Math professor Leo Lusk liked the idea of living in the country, but his wife, Julie, wanted no part of it when he first mentioned the idea and suggested it from time to time over the years. She’d grown up in urban Miami, and liked city life as an adult.
But several years ago, she came around to the idea and the couple started searching for an affordable place near enough to Panama City that Leo could commute to his job at Gulf Coast State College. Residents of Niceville at the time, they first looked toward Navarre but came up empty so they turned east and found their spot in Jackson County, settling down on Alliance Road seven years ago. They hoped to do some hydroponic gardening but couldn’t get a loan to start what they’d hoped would become a self-sustaining farm where they could eventually live off the land and eventually pass it along to someone else who could take over.
Leo was happy and a bit surprised that his wife had come around. But bigger surprises were in store as she became acclimated to life in the country. She started a garden, established a beehive, and the couple and their championship dogs would soon be joined on Alliance by a few more friends she brought to the mix.
Now they have a flock of chickens, a couple of peacocks, a turkey, and a herd of seven pet goats. Although their hydroponics plan didn’t work out, they are enjoying some of their goals of living off the land. They gather yolk-rich eggs provided by their chickens, and pass some of their extras along to Julie’s co-workers at Gulf Coast State College – she got a job there late last year and now commutes to the school with her husband.
The bees pollenate the small patches of sunflowers, berry bushes, pineapple plants, peppers, grapevines, herbs and vegetables that make up the small garden which grows in their back yard near their house. She harvests their wildflower honey and gives that away. She has a batch of herbs drying now. Oregano, thyme, lavender, rosemary and more are hanging upside-down in her kitchen and will eventually be taken down and placed in containers for use in cooking at home. The couple also has fig, apple, pecan, pear and persimmon trees to tend.
The goats, two pure-bred Nubians and the rest Nubian-Boer mixes, have a play yard featuring big tires ad a set of stairs. They also often climb a distance up an oak tree on the property to snack on its leaves. All but two of the born on the Lusk’s J&L Farm, they’re fed an indulgent diet. Julie had initially milked the goats and made cheese but that turned out to be too labor-intensive for the return. The goats are now strictly pets and the J&L operation has turned into a simple hobby farm.
The Lusks describe the goats as gentle animals and say most of them love to be hugged and petted. The couple has even considered having youngsters out for field trips in the future so they can meet the goats and other animals on their place, and see tall sunflowers growing along with asparagus, a variety of herbs and other eats, like Whippersnapper peas, okra, and more.
The two say they’re here for the long haul now, although they had briefly considered, to avoid a double-commute, a move to Panama City once Julie got her job at the college. They’d put up a “For Sale” sign on the property. She’d started that job Oct. 9, 2018. When they saw the devastation that occurred in Bay County and all along the coast when Hurricane Michael swept through the next day, they quickly removed that sign, abandoned that plan to move, and set about making repairs to their storm-hit farm.
All but one of their outbuildings, including their chicken coops and a sturdy feeding barn were either shattered or blown over in the hurricane. The only one left standing in place was the weakest of the structures, the shed that bears the name of their place.
Their operation continues to thrive and evolve. They keep things simple. If they try something that doesn’t work, they move on to something else as they continue along the path of creating a more sustainable but low key “live off the land” approach. “It’s been a kind of learning-by-the-seat-of-our-pants thing,” Julie said. “I knew nothing about goats when we started. We’ve failed a lot as we’ve experimented with growing things on the farm, but we’re learning and it evolves as we try various things. This is just fun at this point.”
Their lives are busy ones. More than two hours of each week day are spent in commuting to and from their jobs. A good bit of their weekend time is devoted to taking care of things they don’t have the hours to complete on weekdays.
Julie Lusk, for instance, spent most of a recent hot Saturday mowing, weeding and getting ready to re-fence a place where Hurricane Michael took down the barrier. She goes slowly on days like that, doing a little at a time, taking frequent water breaks, and getting back to the task for another short round of work.
From time to time, they check on “Stevie,” the goat that was born blind on the farm. A veterinarian in Chipley, better equipped to handle the animal’s special needs, adopted the animal. He wears a bell, he’s doing fine, and he’s never left the heart the woman who, a decade ago, wouldn’t have dreamed of living out in the country with bees, goats, chickens and a turkey as companions – she used to fear goats because their eyes seemed spooky. That didn’t last. Today, she finds adorable expression in their eyes. Today, she can’t image life without them.
And her husband watches with affection her transformation into a woman in love with life in the country.