Tim and Sarah Southwell are the owners of ABC Acres, an 80-acre farm based on the principles of permaculture, nestled between the majestic Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains in the heart of Montana. Tim shared their story of transitioning from successful white-collar workers in corporate America to farmers inspired by nature, permaculture design principles, and a desire to share their holistic and intentional lifestyle with others.
Tim grew up a typical suburban boy in Texas, more interested in sports than nature. His focus after graduating college was no different from many young adults: finding a job, barbecues on the weekends, Houston Astros when he could fit it in, and dating his wife-to-be, Sarah. Tim and Sarah chased employment opportunities to San Francisco and enjoyed profitable white-collar careers and the dynamic lifestyle that is the dream of many people in their 20’s. “In all honesty though,” admitted Tim, “two or three years into our marriage and it was close to crumbling. We were working long hours and we were at each other’s throats.” They took a vacation to Montana where they connected as a couple and simultaneously fell in love with the open spaces and a different pace of life. Just a few months after returning home, in a solid financial position from their years of success in San Francisco, they said goodbye to corporate America and moved to Montana. They bought a cabin in a tiny town (population 140) and spent time together riding bikes, hiking, doing yoga, and becoming truly connected with the outdoors for the first time.
Sarah pursued a Masters in photography, taking them back to California for a period, but returned to Montana where she opened her gallery. As she expanded her photo exhibits to various locales, Tim, who was interested in strength training, built an exercise facility. It was during this period as entrepreneurs with the natural beauty of Montana out their back door that they began asking themselves: what’s the point of running 30 minutes on the treadmill or lifting heavy weights if you’re not breathing clean air, drinking clean water, eating clean foods, reducing stress? They began opening their minds to a holistic approach to health and wellness and what a good life really means. Without really knowing what he was doing and confessing he had “no green thumbs” at the time, Tim started planting trees on their little property and grew a garden. The seed of a holistic connection with nature had been planted.
Tim and Sarah had three children and began to experience the challenges and stress of being a young family. They moved back to Kansas City for a few years to be near their extended family and take part in the village approach to raising a family. Being fortunate to live in an affluent area with manicured landscaping, their neighbors were shocked when Tim turned the front yard into an organic garden and started growing tomatoes and pumpkins instead of azaleas. When he added an orchard to his property, his neighbors started wondering out loud when the city was going to send him a letter to make him stop. But Tim said, “I had moms and dads stopping their cars so their three-year olds could get out and they would knock on the door and ask, ‘Can my child walk through your pumpkin patch?’ There was this disconnect within the urban core of where our food comes from. And that was just a light bulb moment, when I realized, there’s something right about this.”
Tim was using traditional methods with his gardening, and he was approached by a lawn care professional who asked if he had ever heard of permaculture. “He goes, ‘I know you’re doing organic gardening, which is great, but your tomatoes are all in a row. Your potatoes are all in a row. The same crops are all together and you’re fighting tomato worms. You’re fighting potato beetles. You know, permaculture can show you a different approach to design following Mother Nature, through more efficient water systems, through beneficial plantings, through fertilization techniques.’” So Tim took a Permaculture Design Certification course in 2011. “My mind was honestly blown wide open to a new way of agricultural production, through a design process more in line with nature,” he said.
After a few years, Tim and Sarah were more proficient in parenting and were realizing that their ideals were very different from their family’s and that they really missed Montana. Around the same time, their oldest son was diagnosed under the autism spectrum. “We believe that there are ways that we can be proactive to heal ourselves before we reach for the meds, so we dove hook, line, and sinker into autism, and how we can look at nutrition and acupuncture and sleep therapies and all this kind of stuff. We started watching all the documentaries and were convinced that we needed to change our lifestyle,” Tim explained. In 2012 they moved back to Montana with the idea of raising their kids on a farm in an open area and bought 80 acres where they set about homesteading. ABC Acres was born.
From the very beginning they made a commitment to an organic, gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO food pursuit. “My wife was tireless in looking at alternative therapies for autism,” said Tim. In addition to lifestyle changes, they worked with a professional who had translated the Western medicine approach to treating autism to a Chinese herbal acupuncture approach, all of which resulted in dramatic improvements for their son. This experience convinced the Southwell’s more than ever that you can take ownership of your own health and wellness through modalities like healthy food consumption, clean water, clean air, healthy lifestyle, being active, acupuncture, Rolfing, aromatherapy, and yoga.
Their property had previously been used for horses and growing hay, and they spent the first eight years putting in over 15,000 trees, shrubs, and plants, and over 200 bird boxes. “Nature was all around us, but it had been turned into a barren wasteland of pasture. As soon as we put in all these plantings, nature exploded on this property,” said Tim. He dove into permaculture headfirst, attending national conferences in San Diego and learning from YouTube and greats like Jeff Lawton and Joel Salatin. “It was a life changing time for me,” he said.
After a couple of years of developing their homestead and raising chickens, hogs, goats, and cattle, people began approaching the Southwells to see if they would be interested in selling pork. This began the long and arduous process of obtaining government permits and certifications, but within two years they were an active farming enterprise and were selling meat, eggs, and homemade preserves. They had evolved from a homestead to a farmstead.
Around the same time, they dove into agritourism. Diversifying the earning portfolio is critical for a small farm to be profitable, and Tim said that opening their property as a farm stay was a game changer. It started when the US military did paratrooper training in the nearby mountains. Tim and Sarah had an extra house on the farm, which they rented to the military families. “Their smiles were ear to ear because they’re holding baby goats and they’re just really connecting with the farm,” said Tim. “We now have 4 rental homes on the property and agritourism is the revenue driver for this farm.”
ABC Acres is constantly growing and evolving. When the pandemic hit, sales and farm stay bookings were at an all-time high for 18 months. They built up a cattle herd, had eight hogs, fifty chickens, and were marketing and transporting products across the county, along with raising three active teenage sons and running their farm stays. Tim explained, “I think I fit into that mold coming from Texas that when you do something, you’ve got to do it big. When you’re getting into something and doing a lot of things, it’s all fantastic until you’re a few years in, the dust settles, and you’ve got a lot going on and a lot of energy demand and not enough hands, and that can be problematic. It’s not always the financial burden at the onset but the time and energy, because that has real value and I think sometimes people underestimate the value of that. You’re in your dream, you’re in your passion, and next thing you’re drowning.”
With agritourism supporting their farm, Tim and Sarah decided to sell their cattle and hogs and focus on the wildlife and natural setting they had helped flourish with their use of permaculture design. Their farmstead has now evolved into a permaculture preserve: a respite for nature and mankind alike to come into union and enjoy life. They maintain the farmstead aspect by keeping honeybees, quail, and partnering with a farmer who operates the goat portion of their farm to produce her milk and cheeses in exchange for a revenue split.
The next phase for ABC Acres is to become increasingly community-driven and foster more opportunities to help new farmers get started. These partnerships will keep the land healthy, using the permaculture concept of a symbiotic relationship between animals and the land, and maintain a working farm on the property for those who come to enjoy the farm stays, while allowing the Tim and Sarah more freedom to support their son’s activities.
What is Tim’s advice for aspiring farmers or urbanites looking for more nature in their lives? He says it is important to think about where you are going to be 12 months from now, “but we can’t let that stop us from possibly just diving into it. Sometimes we get analysis paralysis. I would encourage anyone to start, whatever that means to them. When I was in Kansas City before buying the Montana property I volunteered at two different farms, and I did a lot of weeding,” he laughed. “But for those in the urban corridor this helps network and get an idea of what is working for different people.” Getting a windowsill planter, putting a planter box in your front yard, or volunteering at a garden are all great ways to start learning and connecting with nature.
From white-collar achievers to permaculture enthusiasts, the Southwells have consistently paid attention to what works for them and aligns with their values. As they look to the future, their vision is expanding to nurture a new generation of farmers, preserving the land’s vitality while supporting their family’s wellness and growth. ABC Acres stands as a testament to the transformative power of nature and the balance we can find when nature and humanity coexist in harmony.