Island couples turning to off-grid homestead living during pandemic

Two Island couples are turning to self-sustained, off-grid living as a result of the pandemic: one for the first time and one after a bit of a hiatus.

'We've always wanted to kind of look after ourselves and be self-sufficient'

Glenda and Alan Mulholland started their second homestead project this summer. They plan to build everything themselves, from the ground up. (Submitted by Glenda Mulholland)

Glenda and Alan Mulholland left their Ellerslie, P.E.I., homestead in 2016.

Now four years later, a series of events — global pandemic included — has brought them back to their roots.

"We've always wanted to kind of look after ourselves and be self-sufficient," said Glenda. "We don't like to waste anything. We like to manage our resources, and it just feels right to us to grow our own food and look after ourselves.

"Then something like COVID comes along and you have to kind of rethink that ... COVID just made people more aware of where things come from and that it can be possible to have shortages of things that you need."

A return to the homestead life

The couple first started their homestead in 2009 and built everything from the ground up. They were living quite happily for a number of years, until Glenda's mild asthma suddenly got worse.

She went for some tests and it was discovered that she was allergic to animal dander and hay —  bad news for a couple raising livestock on 10 hectares of land. 

Uninterested in a life on steroid inhalers, they made the choice to move to Summerside, and last year Alan took on a new adventure: sailing around the world on a 26-foot sailboat. 

The Mulhollands plan to sell their Summerside home in the spring and move to their new two-hectare homestead. They've started work on an outbuilding that will feature a small living space, but eventually intend to build a home. (Submitted by Glenda Mulholland)

But things didn't go as expected. He had to cut his sail short in January after a wave flipped his boat on to its side, damaging it and some essential equipment as well as leaving him with two cracked ribs.

From there, he considered giving it another try, but then COVID-19 hit and closed many of the ports. He arrived home in June and he and Glenda immediately began prepping their new homestead.

"It sort of just reinforces the fact that you do need to think about where your food comes from and if you can grow some of your own," she said. 

"I think a lot of people, when there were shortages of various things in the stores that kind of made people think about where their food and their other supplies come from and how easy it usually is to get everything you want."

The Mulhollands lived on their 10-hectare Ellerslie homestead from 2009 to 2016. (Submitted by Glenda Mulholland)

The Mulhollands new property is in Bayside on two hectares of land, which Glenda said is the perfect size for all their homesteading projects, which include gardens and raising animals that won't impact her health, like chickens, rabbits or pigs.

"If we're going to eventually slaughter them and eat them, then we feel like we owe them a really good life while they're with us," she said.

"Living closer to nature, closer to the land, there's a real sense of satisfaction in growing your own food, and building your own home and basically looking after yourself, providing for yourself.

"Not relying too much on the government or the grocery stores or whoever to look after you."

Alan and Glenda Mulholland had large livestock on their Ellerslie homestead. Due to Glenda's newly diagnosed allergies, they will be sticking to smaller animals this time around: chickens, rabbits and perhaps pigs. (Submitted by Glenda Mulholland)

First timers

For Sarah Bulman and Chadwick Dunsford, the call to alternative living during the pandemic was slightly different. Both are recent graduates who returned to P.E.I. at the onset of COVID.

"We ended up buying a kind of large piece of land outside of town where it was affordable, and we also ended up, by chance sort of, meeting someone that had a tiny house for sale," Dunsford said. 

"We kind of put the two together to avoid a mortgage and also a piece of property and a big project kind of outside of town."

Sarah Bulman and Chadwick Dunsford bought their tiny home and about seven hectares of land after the pandemic brought them home to P.E.I. (Submitted by Sarah Bulman)

The couple have been living off-grid in their tiny house on about seven hectares in Canavoy since July. Their setup includes solar panels and a composting toilet, but they don't have running water so they have to haul theirs in.

"Housing has changed due to the increase of risk surrounding job security and the pandemic," Bulman said. 

"We initially may have looked at houses and dabbled in the idea, then with a pandemic and sort of the uncertainty of the job market, this was a more affordable and kind of practical outcome of our search."

Although they missed this year's planting season, the two have still managed to pull together a garden and have spent the summer exploring their property, making teas out of wildflower, finding crab apple trees, harvesting blueberries and strawberries, and also taking steps to reforest the land. 

There's a lot of plants and animals that are there that are quite happy there, and we just want to let it fit in with them.— Chadwick Dunsford

"It's a large enough piece of land that I feel like we can make mistakes on it and we have room to play around and try out new things," Bulman said.

"Where we're located feels like a whole new world for us. Neither of us are from that area, so we have a lot of opportunity to learn about the history and meet new people and discover other people who are doing similar off-grid, homesteading activities like we are. 

"In a weird way, it kind of feels like we're travelling."

The two were staying in a converted shipping container in Portugal when the pandemic hit. They returned to Canada and self-isolated for four weeks: two in Toronto and two in P.E.I. Bulman jokes that buying the land may have been 'a bit of reaction.' (Submitted by Sarah Bulman)

Dunsford describes the couple as having a bit of a transient lifestyle, both having a love for travel, and said their new setup is low maintenance and allows them to be mobile.

"It doesn't have a basement that can flood ... just close the door and we could leave for a while or resell it or keep it on the property and have someone else live there," he said.

"We're trying to sort of coexist in that space, like we're just carving out what we need because there's a lot of plants and animals that are there that are quite happy there, and we just want to let it fit in with them."

Lifelong project

For both couples, the work is ongoing. 

Dunsford and Bulman are continuing to make their new home their own, while the Mulhollands hope to sell their house in Summerside next year and move on to their homestead.

"We've already got a couple loads of manure from a local farmer friend, so that'll help kick start the veggie garden. We've planted some fruit and nut trees and those are obviously going to take a while before they'll produce anything, but it's kind of like an investment in the future," Glenda said.

"We'll try and extend the growing season through the use of cold frames and we plan on building a little greenhouse."

Dunsford and Bulman moved on to their property in July. Despite missing the spring planting season, they managed to get a few raised beds in and planted a few trees and tomatoes. (Submitted by Sarah Bulman)

For Bulman and Dunsford, the experimenting continues.

"We've found a community out there, your neighbours are a little farther apart, but they are out there," Dunsford said.

Like the Mulhollands, the two are also open to the idea of raising livestock.

"We kind of play with the idea we don't quite have enough water yet," said Bulman.

"We're open to the idea of goat sitting, if anyone has one too many goats."

More from CBC P.E.I.


Nicola MacLeod is a reporter with CBC in P.E.I.


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