It's a long way from a homestead cabin in the Alaskan wilderness to an organic farm in rural southwestern Wisconsin. But for Mark and Jen Shepard and their two "pumpkin-polishers", the distance isn't as great as it seems. After all, the same pioneering spirit lies at the heart of both endeavors.
Mark Shepard grew up in Massachusetts, the son of machinist/toolmaker whose true passion was gardening. At that time, growing food organically was practically a subversive act, Mark remembers. "My Dad was into organics back when you could practically get arrested as a socialist for such things. We used to go to various organic gardening meetings in church basements and different places but they were always careful to call the meetings something else on the signs."
Trained as a mechanical engineer, Mark first worked for the federal government designing body armor and helmets for the military before returning to college to study ecology. Meanwhile, Jen Shepard, a biochemist-now a certified massage therapist-raised in the suburbs of Boston, found herself increasingly disenchanted with her work at a food science laboratory where the use of chemicals and the development of GMOs were rapidly proliferating.
Determined to live independent lives in harmony with nature, Mark and Jen lit out for Alaska to stake out land of their own before the closing of the Homestead Act. For eight years, they lived in the mountainous wilderness with moose, caribou and bear-and few other people-as their neighbors. "It was a great opportunity to make a total break from societal culture and expectations, to be my own person," observes Jen.
After traveling to Wisconsin to attend a wedding, Mark and Jen became partners in a venture to buy farmland near rural Viola, Wisconsin and moved to the area in 1994. "We saw immediately that it offered us an opportunity to continue to live a self-reliant lifestyle," says Mark.