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Since the 2008 financial crisis, sustainable living in the U.S. has seen steady growth, but for ages Alaska has been a magnet for people looking to live off the land. Paul and Jennifer Castellani moved to Alaska 20 years ago. They built a house near Anchor Point on land they bought in 1994 for $500 an acre. "We found the land in the newspaper under Remote Properties and hiked out here in the winter the first time," remembers Paul. It was old-growth forest. When they moved, he says, "we brought our stuff with a dog sleigh when the snowpack was still hard." They cut down small trees to make a platform so their tents wouldn't be on the ground when the snow started to melt. Now they grow organic food, home-school their children and have started a farmers' market in nearby Homer. Paul, 45, and Jennifer, 46, were high school sweethearts in St. Joseph, Mo. They went their separate ways, to different colleges, but never forgot each other. "My sister always told me that I was so crazy about Paul that I would follow him anywhere. I guess she was right," says Jennifer, laughing. Their sons — Leo, 14, and Theodore, 11 — were born in Alaska.
Over the first 10 months up north, following an instruction manual, the Castellanis built a 12-by-12-foot cabin. Today it constitutes the backside of their house, which they have expanded with a blue-painted two-floor wood building.
For 10 years, their home sat surrounded by dense forest. "In the winter we sledded things out and in the summer backpacked," says Jennifer. "If something was heavier than a bag of dog food, it was a pain to carry," she says, recalling their five-gallon propane cylinders. Then came the babies. In winter it was easier. For the first couple of years, they had eight huskies to do the pulling. In summer, getting groceries meant an eight-mile hike.
After college in Oregon, Jennifer studied acting and worked in a bakery. After Paul asked her to join him in Alaska, she remembers thinking she would never have to wear pantyhose again. She loves wearing oversized brace pants and working on the farm.
Jennifer took a fast liking to the do-it-yourself ethos prevalent in Alaska. "Why go to a liberal-arts college and learn about all these things when you could just do them?" she asks. One of the first things she and Paul did was log enough space for a garden. On half an acre, the Castellanis grow rhubarb, carrots and strawberries as well as dill, basil, rosemary, thyme and marjoram.
Paul is a quick-witted biology major who wears military green and knee-high rubber boots. When he moved to Alaska after college, it was to work as a tour guide in Denali National Park. "I was impressed with how self-sufficient people here were. You can do so much without having to go to the store," he says. Alaska, he explains, opened his eyes to other ways of living. "I had thought I had to go to school, school, school and then be a professional." Instead, he learned to be more creative and independent, how to be a fisherman, a logger, a farmer.
"Veggies have become expensive enough so you can get a fair price as a market gardener, at least here in Alaska. I'm happy," he says. He holds up a lush green cabbage, which sells for a dollar a pound, or about $5 a head.
Today the Castellanis earn two-thirds of their income from farming.
Lacking refrigeration has taught them to preserve food in other ways. "Some of the veggies we ferment into sauerkraut like this," says Jennifer, showing their colorful canned food, including salmon. The pantry is unpainted wood, like the rest of the house's interior, and the shelves are filled with healthy foods.
The Castellanis don't eat meat, and they hardly drink milk, which is difficult to store. They do eat cheese, though ("It sweats, but that's all right," says Jennifer), and they use lots of dried herbs.
On a sunny day, the Castellanis' solar panels can produce 80 watts and charge a four-pack of 12-volt batteries, which they use to heat the water in the house. They can convert the power to alternating current to run their electric appliances.
To supplement what they get from solar, Paul and Jennifer use a gasoline-powered generator for heavier tasks like running the washing machine or dryer. It costs roughly $2 to do a load of laundry.
The outhouse in fall is surrounded by spruce trees and a carpet of flora.
It took the Castellanis several years to build the road from the highway to their home. It is four miles long and takes 25 minutes to travel. Four-wheel drive is required.
To make their living in Alaska, the Castellanis have always had part-time jobs — in a health-food store, as kayak guides, doing chainsaw work. In addition to the farmers' market in Homer, they sell fresh produce and herbs to a few restaurants. They also dry herbs and mix them with sea salt to sell as salt blends. In the winter Jennifer works part time as a nurse's assistant, but farming takes more and more of their time. "It's the best job I ever had, being a farmer," she says.