Nina Mullins is a wedding photographer turned homesteader, with a love for travel, animals and mountains. She spends most of her days milking cows, snuggling piglets, spending time with her husband and 12-year-old twins, and dreaming about her next adventure. She loves Jesus and people.
I have loved animals ever since I was a little girl.
Most of my dreams were comprised of visiting places that had some kind of animal experience.
When my husband, Wes, and I got married (19 years ago!) most of our vacations, and many of our outings, involved some kind of animal encounter. We went whale watching in Hawaii, spent time with wolves in snowy Canada, watched moose walk by our campsite in Wyoming, saw camels roaming in Ethiopia, observed ibex climbing arid mountain scapes in Israel, and visited many farms around the world. We followed sheep in the mountains of Norway, fed chipmunks in the forests of Colorado, and we sat in wonder across the creek from a family of gorillas in Uganda, as they played, slept, groomed one another, and disciplined their children.
Nature has always been nourishment to my soul. It has been the way God has spoken to my heart in times of weariness, when I felt forgotten and alone. It has been healing.
When we closed our photography business in 2018 (if you’re wondering how we’ve visited so many places and had so many adventures, it’s mostly due to all the places our business took us), our travel adventures came to somewhat of a standstill.
And then the infamous year of 2020 arrived. As the world closed down, my spirits remained high. At the time, I never imagined what would actually happen, and how long we would have to walk through it all. And in July of 2020 there was a stirring in my heart. What if we started a farm?
Over the 12 years we worked as wedding photographers, I never considered starting a farm. Even thought we lived on about 30 acres of the most beautiful Kentucky countryside, I didn’t think it was possible or practical given our crazy schedules that took us all over the world. But four months into a global crisis, my high spirits began to wane, and I wondered if I would be able to travel again. I was grieved by just the thought. Travel and the experiences I had with animals and people were my fuel. I needed to shift my thinking.
So in the Fall of 2020, two mini donkeys joined our family of four humans, one old dog and 4 cats. I don’t know what I was thinking by starting with donkeys. Did they even have a purpose? But they were so cute, and so sweet. And it’s not like I was going to raise animals for eating. No, I could never do that. I was just going to have animals that I could love and snuggle. Oh how naive I was!
We built a fence on about one acre of our land, put the donkeys in a run-in shelter inside that fence, and boom, our little farm was started! At first it was just a bunch of donkey snuggles. They didn’t seem to have much purpose other than filling our affection tanks. After a short while we noticed that coyotes were no longer wandering across our land. Okay, maybe these guys served a small purpose.
In February of 2021, 17 chicks arrived at our post office from McMurray Hatchery (best hatchery out there!). Okay, these guys would give us eggs, but we would definitely not be harvesting any of our own chickens. No way. How could I kill something that I had loved and adored? But also, we had no idea what we were doing. Pasty butt? What’s that? How does this heat lamp work? Are we getting in over our heads? Eh, I guess we’ll figure it out. And our kids have a new chore…collecting eggs, and closing up the chickens at night.
In April, two beautiful jersey cows joined the crew. Okay, now we were in deep. One jersey was pregnant and was due in about 2 months. How does one milk a cow? Oh my gosh, my grass is full of onion grass everywhere! What if her milk tastes like onions? Maybe I’ll hate raw milk, and then what do we do? What if the calf gets stuck during birth? Eh, I guess we’ll figure it out.
Summer arrives and I think, “What if we could have our own honey?” Yeah…you guessed it…we got bees. Did I know ANYthing about bees? Nope. How in the world do I keep bees alive? How do I know if they are thriving or dying? Eh, I guess we’ll figure it out.
Hmmmm…I guess we should grow a garden. What if the world shuts down again, and there is no more food at the supermarket? Okay, let’s plant a garden and grow our own food. We knew SO little about gardening. So my friend RuthAnn (you know her as @ruthannzimm on instagram!) answered lots of questions as I tended this garden. It was hard work. What if nothing grew? What if it got overwhelmed by weeds? Eh, I guess we’ll figure it out.
Shoot, Autumn is coming! What else can we do to prepare? Wes says he wants chickens for the dinner table. But wait…I said I would never end the life of my own animals. But also, why am I eating chicken from the grocery store when I have no idea if they had a good life or were treated well? Okay, yes. These animals need to serve a purpose, just as we serve a purpose to them. But how does one butcher a chicken? What equipment do we need? How long will it take. Eh, I guess we’ll figure it out.
2022 came and we had chicken we had butchered in our freezer. We had some of the SALTIEST pickles you’ve ever tasted in our pantry. I don’t even like pickles. Even less when they taste like they’ve been cooking in the Dead Sea for ten years. Two jars of tomato sauce resided there too, after epically failing at canning that first season. We got more laying hens because the hawks had a field day with our first batch. But we still had eggs coming, so that was a win. Oh, did I mention that we ended up with a puppy when we visited RuthAnn in Iowa? Yeah, that wasn’t in the plans either. But here we are, with a big black goldendoodle that chews up our books and sleeps in our bed, and we absolutely love and adore him.
And after much debate, we decide we needed to try and combat the hawk problem with some livestock guardian dogs. In March we end up with two Great Pyrenees puppies. They basically cause us anxiety every day because they love to wander on tiny country roads just asking to be hit by a car. They also love eating our chickens. Yeah…true story. Apparently it takes some time to train these gentle giants (who can be quite fierce when they go into protection mode). Oh, and did I mention that they are also escape artists? Yup. Don’t know how we are going to get use out of these two sweet girls. Eh, I guess we’ll figure it out.
We have enough animals in less than two years right? We don’t need anymore, right? Wrong. At the end of June, we bring home a herd of KuneKune pigs. Why not? We are already overloaded by animals at this point. What’s a few more? And then on July 31st, one of our sows gives birth to a litter of 5 of the cutest little piglets I’ve ever seen. And that’s it. I’m smitten. I am now a pig person. I want pigs forever. If all the animals have to leave but one, we keep the pigs!
In August we brought a mini bull home to be our herd sire (fingers crossed that this little guy can get the job done!). And in the beginning of September, we got three babydoll sheep. We are officially drowning in animals.
In less than two years we went from a beautiful view of Kentucky countryside with one dog and four cats, to a fenced in pasture, and a rotational grazing system, with about 45 animals.
Do I recommend everyone grow their homestead at this speed? Definitely not. But if you knew me personally, you’d know this is how I tick, whether it’s wise or not. I become an unstoppable force when I get an idea in my head.
Right now, we are still in the, “Can we make this all work?” stage of the game. We have had many failures and losses, but also many sweet victories. This has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, not necessarily because caring for a tiny farm is difficult (it has its difficulties, though!), but because we are in a season of life where we are getting up early to do all the morning farm chores. Then we take kids to their homeschool co-op and various activist afterwords, all while trying to work our jobs in between it all to put food on the table. We started all this craziness in our 40’s! And our poor kids…they were living the easy life of school, play and sleep. Then their parents decide to start a farm, and all of a sudden they are helping feed chickens, they’re milking cows and mucking stalls. Needless to say, one of our kids (we have 12-year-old twins) loves the farm life, and one probably wishes they belonged to a different family where he/she (don’t want to give away which one is which) could just watch movies and play basketball.
But I know in my heart of hearts that this life is something special. I believe that our kids are being given a gift that most of their friends will never receive. They are learning the importance of caring for God’s creation, not just through books, but through the daily interactions with the farm. They are learning about hard work, and where their food comes from. They are learning how important it is for us to work together as a unit when there are emergencies, like when the cows breach the electric fence and head toward the large creek at night. They may moan and complain sometimes, and sometimes I feel guilty that they do more manual labor than most adults do. But I know this lifestyle is rich in love and experiences, and they will be better human beings for it. And they are also learning to do the hard things even when it’s scary and everything is unknown.
We are figuring it out daily. We ask a lot of questions and learn from anyone who is willing to share their wisdom with us. We make mistakes, and sometimes we cry about it, and then we get up and keep moving forward.
We were all created for so much more than we often give ourselves credit for. The unknown scares most of us, and we often don’t take a big leap unless we are certain we will have some place to land. But sometimes faith (actually almost always) means taking a leap when we can’t see the outcome. It sometimes means risking everything to gain everything. And yes, sometimes we will take a leap, and it will seem like a big mistake. But don’t take for granted everything you will learn as you fall. There is treasure in the painful and messy. There is growth in loss. And oh how sweet the victories are when we reached for them even when we didn’t know if we would succeed in accomplishing them. And if you want my unsolicited advice, I say, dive in. Take the leap. Risk it all. Take a chance. Don’t spend your life wondering what could have been if you had only bought that piece of land, or taken that trip across the world, or registered for the course, or started that business. Do the thing. Do it scared. And keep your heart and eyes open for everything you will learn as you do.
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