A diagnosis of lymphoma shattered Jason Contreras’ world. He was only 30 years old and he was a marathon runner. Something had to change, clearly. Though it took a little time, Jason did a 180. He and his wife moved to North Carolina to start a homestead.
Today, Jason, the man behind the Sow the Land YouTube channel, tells his story, describing how receiving this diagnosis and leaving his office job has radically altered his life and health. He talks about all he learned along the way – from his biggest learning curve to the fact that labels aren’t everything to his daughter who now knows how to butcher chickens! He also explains why he is healthier today than ever.
Check out Jason’s YouTube channel: Sow the Land
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Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda
What if being on a farm, growing your own produce, and raising livestock are healthier than running marathons? This is episode 365 and our guest is Jason Contreras, a homesteader and the man behind the Sow the Land YouTube channel. He tells us his story of a cancer diagnosis when he was about 30 years old. It was the last thing he expected since he used to run marathons. He talks about the pivot he and his family made to turn around not only his health but his entire lifestyle. They had to do a 180.
He explains that they did not change a lot at first, but then they did decide to pick up and move to North Carolina. There were many twists and turns along the way that I will let Jason share himself, but some conversation highlights include his sharing the biggest learning curve they hit when they became homesteaders, why he started filming videos and blogs in the first place, and why Jason has no regrets about the switch he and his family made from regular life to homesteading.
Before we get into it, I want to invite you to our Wise Traditions Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, this October, the 21st through the 23rd of 2022. Join us to get clarity on how to nourish you and your family best. Explore solutions for health concerns and be inspired by speakers like Kelly Brogan and Tommy John, plus we will eat delicious Wise Tradition style food together, which is so nourishing and much more go to WiseTraditions.org to register. I have already done so and got my hotel book too. I would not want to miss this conference for anything. I hope to see you there.
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Welcome to the show, Jason.
Thanks for having me.
When you were about 30, you were diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. What was that moment like?
I had just turned 30. I had an enlarged lymph node on my neck and we were not sure what it was. You have to go into all the tests and everything and it ended up being Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was one of those things that were not on our radar. That did not come up. We did not think it was that. I thought I had a large lymph node for whatever reason. It changed our minds and that was the start of where we are at now.
From there, it snowballed. I went through six months of chemo and then slowly, we started to figure out, “What should we be doing health-wise? Do we need to be eating differently or cutting out things?” That started us on this journey of homesteading. “Maybe we should start growing our food,” and not coming from a background in that at all. I do not think I ever knew anybody who had a garden in their backyard. We realized that we are never going to know what is in our food unless we do it ourselves.
The thing is, a lot of people get diagnosed with cancer and they do not change their lifestyle at all. What was something that flipped that switch for you that you were like, “Something has got to change here?”
After I did six months of chemo, it was my last checkup where the doctor finally said, “You are in remission.” After going through the chemo treatments, there is a lot of emotional experience. It was a rollercoaster of ups and downs, and then we got that remission. I thought, “Is there anything we need to do here? What now? Do I need to eat healthier? Do I need to take vitamins or supplements?” We did not know.
When I asked the oncologist, she maybe never had been asked this before because she did not know what to say. I asked her, “What now? What do we do?” She said, “Go back living to your normal life.” It did not make sense to us. It was like, “How in the world can we go back to how we were living?” For a good year or two, we did.
How was that? How were you living?
We had the standard American diet. We did not have our daughter then. It was just my wife and me. We would go out on the weekend. We are living in the Los Angeles area, so we are leaving for the weekend. My wife had her career in the fashion industry and I had a good career as a computer drafter. We lived our life like a normal married couple.
You did go back to it and then what happened?
I almost live like it never happened. I did not want to talk about it. It seemed that way and no one would ever know that I had cancer, but then I felt like slowly, it was eating away at me. Every time we would go eat fast food or have a soda, I would think like, “Should I be eating this or drinking this? Should I be consuming this? Maybe I should be running or exercising more.” I kept on remembering what the oncologist said, “Go back and live your normal life.” I was like, “I do not think we could do that anymore.”
You could not slip back into it as if nothing had ever happened.
Slowly, we figured it out. It is almost like we are looking for permission to eat healthy. That is when we realized we do not need permission to do that. How come we can’t figure it out ourselves? That is when we started to slowly cut out things, like “Let’s stop eating fast food and drinking soda.” All these simple things that you could do and then finally it was like, “Let’s try to grow a garden. Let’s try tomato plant. Let’s see how that is,” because we have never been around it or anything like that.
Trying to cut out gluten, processed foods, and stuff like that was a slow process. It was not overnight, but the next thing you know, we were growing and raising garden beds, and that is what we fell in love with. We are like, “We are growing our own food.” It was not much. We were not growing 100% of our food or anything. We are trying to figure this stuff out, but seeing that process of growing a tomato plant or your first cucumber was such an amazing feeling. Seeing that seed grow to cook it, even if it was literally one tomato because that is all we could grow, we did it. It snowballed into, “Let’s try to find land somewhere.”
That is a big progression. Did your family think you had lost it or were they encouraged to see what you all were up to?
Our family has been very supportive and they were into it too. They were like, “You guys are starting the garden. That is cool.” When we were slowly realizing that we did not want to be where we were at and also at the same time, it woke us up to like, “What is making us happy?” Going through something like cancer almost felt like I had this second chance at life. I was not sure what that looked like and what I wanted to do with that, but what we were doing was not where we wanted it to be. For me, I was working in an office for seventeen years doing the same thing in front of a computer under artificial light sitting down all day and that was eating away at me.
After I had cancer, I was like, “I do not want to do that anymore. This is not making me happy,” and I felt like it was messing with my health also. With the combination of that and wanting to grow our own food is when we started to, “Maybe we should go find some land somewhere and figure that out because wouldn’t it be cool to raise chickens and grow our own meat, some pastured poultry and eggs, and grow more of our own food.” We love it so much.
Now, you are Sow the Land homestead. Some people still out there has no idea what a homestead is. Can you explain that to us a little bit? What is it?
Homestead is a place where you grow your own food. You do not have to have acres of land to have a homestead. We are on 1.5 acres now and we were homesteading in California. We hardly had anything. We had a little backyard, but we were still doing it in the city. I believe homesteading is more of a mindset, if anything, where it is growing your own food. If something is broken, you fix it. You are going back to the land and a more simple way of doing things. Maybe you are canning or freeze-drying more food, but you are starting to grow more of your own food, and that is important.
We’re never going to really know what’s in our food unless we do it ourselves.
It is how people used to live, right?
Yes. Every time I am in the garden, with the chickens, or something like that, I feel like it is very familiar, even though we are new at it. Maybe for years, we used to know how to do this, but now, as we are doing it, we are trying to relearn this whole process. It is something like I am very familiar with growing the tomato plant even though I have never done it. For some reason, I feel like I used to know this stuff. We might all used to have known these years ago, but now we are trying to relearn what we lost.
I feel like a lot of people now want to be more self-sufficient. They want to provide for their families and maybe even for their communities in new ways because of the health crisis that has been taking hold of our world.
I agree, especially what happened in the last few years. People are slowly waking up to like, “You can grow your own food. You can figure out what is healthy and you do not need permission from anybody to figure that out.”
How does it feel, Jason?
It feels free to grow your own food, work for yourself, and do things yourself. I do not necessarily need somebody else to show me how to do it. We are literally figuring this out as we go. We are not saying we know all the answers, but we are doing it. As we are doing it, we are learning things. It is all trial and error, but because of that, it is still freeing for us to do it.
Tell me about one of the things that you did learn by trying and even failing, but you guys were figuring it out.
One thing was the pastured poultry, like raising our own meat chickens. We had never done it before. We had taken a workshop in California and we are like, “This seems doable.” You do not need a bunch of acres to do it. When we first moved to North Carolina, we got some chickens and the chickens that we got were not meat chickens. There were more of a heritage breed. I guess they are dual-purpose, but they did not put on the regular meat chickens like a Cornish Cross.
When we raised them, we fed them all organic and raised them for eighteen weeks, which is way over the normal time. When we eventually processed them, we spent a lot of money and we did not get that much meat from them. That was the very first time and a learning thing for us that was like, “These are not the right chickens for us, but let’s try this other meat breed.” That is when we started doing any other meat breeds and we thought, “These are the way to go,” but if we did not have that experience firsthand, we would not have figured this out and it is okay.
Talk to us about the taste and the quality of the food that you grow or the livestock that you raised. What is that like compared to what you used to live on?
The food and meat that we grow are cleaner. It is one of those things that once you grow it, you can’t go back to eating regular chicken or cucumber at a grocery store or anything. It tastes fresher. For me, it is more flavorful. Not just the taste aspect of it, but knowing that I can look out my kitchen window and see where that chicken was raised. I could see where that garden was, where we picked those vegetables and now, we are eating at our dinner table with the family. That process is more worth it than anything.
Most of our readers live in cities or suburban areas, and they do not know quite that feeling of looking out the window and seeing where their chicken was raised. What do you think is a way to get closer to that experience?
Try to look for local farms and support local farmers in your area. Go to a farmer’s market and hang out there. That is one way how we started. When we moved out to North Carolina, we did not know anybody, what did people grow out here, and how the weather was, so we hung out at a farmers’ market.
We would get to know the local farmers, meet them, go over their farms, and see what they are doing. They are growing and selling meat and vegetables. If you are in a city, that is one way of doing it is trying to find the local people that are doing it and get to know them. That is probably the closest way you can do it without personally raising these things.
Sometimes, these farmer’s market stands will have signs that say, “Local,” but they do not have the right labels like organic or non-GMO. How do we know we are getting the real deal?
They have to be open for you to be visiting their farm. What is key is going to the farm. If they are the real deal, they won’t mind that you come and visit because some of the farmers that we have met are more than happy to give you a farm tour and show you around. If they are a legit farm, they are not afraid to show it. It won’t matter to them if you come and they would want you to come to visit their farm and show you around.
Part of what I have heard too from interviewing other farmers as they say, “The labels are sometimes overrated.” In other words, there is something that the government might slap on a product, but that does not even mean it is at the most clean or natural standard that we would like.
I think so too. That is why it is important to visit a farm. Know your local farmer and maybe even invite them to dinner or have a potluck at your place. That is how you get to know them even more. I agree, it is just a label. You still got to visit the farm and judge for yourself if that farm is where you want to order your food.
Jason describes his family’s life and what it looked like when they started over in North Carolina. Plus, he talks about improvements to his health since they started homesteading.
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You said you ended up with an acre and a half or so. Once you guys got the land, what did you all do next?
We are still in California, Los Angeles area. I had flown down by myself. My wife did not go with me to look for land. She trusted me enough to go and find it. We knew that this is the area that we wanted to be in because we felt this sense of community, even though we knew nobody here. Once I came by myself, I found the land and bought it. We waited about six months. We had sold our house and mostly everything. Me, my wife and our four-year-old moved.
When we got there, it was like, “What have we done moment?” Even though our family was supportive, they did not really understand why we wanted to move out here. We had no job either. We had nothing. We had good savings from the house that we sold and that is how we started. At first, I said, “We are not going to do that in the first year. We are going to see how the land and the weather are. I am going to try to find a job.”
When you get that first homestead and the land, you are excited and want to do something. We came here to grow food. We did not come here to sit around and wait a year. What we did was I rented a tiller and we started tilling up our garden spot. It was a small garden the first year, but it was our garden. That is where we started. We started with our garden and we bought six egg-laying chickens.
You also do not have to start from scratch because there are other homesteaders in this area, plus there are books and YouTube channels you can check out.
This was a few years ago. Honestly, we did not look at YouTube. It was only how-to videos-type stuff that I would look at. Mainly, we would look at blogs and that is how we figured things out, how to build a chicken tractor, and find the books that you could build chicken tractors. We are a big fan of Joel Salatin of Polyface. I had read his books. He was super helpful in raising our own meat chickens and also Primal Pastures out in California would guide and show us. I visited their farm before we left. It was not a total did not know anything. We did our research, but mainly it was blogs and websites that I would look up.
What do you think was the biggest learning curve for you and Lorraine?
It is moving on to a larger animal. The chickens are smaller and it is the gateway drug to this lifestyle. We had six egg layers and we would do 100 meat chickens a year and we had a garden. We did the same thing for three years. It grew from year 1 to year 3. We started with 30 meat chickens and it grew to over 100, but it was the same thing. It was like, “What is the next animal and what can we do on our 1.5 acres?” We probably can’t do a meat cow or a milk cow or something like that.
I knew pigs were the next step for us. Getting over that fear of large pigs because they are huge and could run us over. Those things were crossing my mind. After meeting friends here, helping them with their pigs, seeing how they are with their pigs, how they raise their pigs on their land, and hanging out with other people that are doing this, it gave us the confidence to, “Maybe we can figure this out and do this on our 1.5 acres and get at least two pigs.”
That is what we ended up doing in 2021 was raised two pigs for the first time. Believe me, we were super scared, but we did it. We got two pigs and we raised them for our freezer, and it was an amazing experience. We did it again in 2022 and that is what we are doing right now. Getting over that fear of the larger animal was huge for us.
When did you decide, “We want to document some of this to help other people get started as well?”
Starting YouTube was not on our radar when we first moved. As I said, we are hardly ever watched YouTube. I did not know it was a thing that you could vlog or document what you are doing on YouTube. When we first moved, some of our families did not understand why we were doing this. Grandma and mom would say, “What are you guys doing out there? What did you do?” We had a four-year-old at that time. We took their granddaughter away because our family lived in the same area. It was common for Grandma, mom, and dad to pop over on any given day.
I started sending little videos or clips with my iPhone to grandma and mom and like, “This is what we did.” That gets old after a while. You are sending a little video clip to everybody that you know through an email or text message or whatever. I thought, “How about I start a family YouTube channel? I could send people the link and they could watch it whenever.”
We started doing that about six months after we moved and then slowly after that, other people started to find this, which was totally unexpected because I thought it was grandma and mom watching. The first time that I knew that other people were watching, we are already doing it for about a year. I got an email from somebody, and this is the first time ever somebody emailed me. It was like, “I watched your YouTube channel. I know you guys are in the Ashville area just by watching your videos. Would you mind if me and my family, my little kids come in and you could show us your place and garden?”
I was like, “This is weird. I do not know these people and they are asking to come over. What do I say here?” She goes on and saying like, “My son was eating a pickle. Pickles have a little stem at the end, they come from cucumbers.” She was trying to explain to her son, “This is how they grow. They come from two cucumbers,” and they had never seen a cucumber grow. They did not know what that looked like. She was asking me if they could come so I could show them how things grow.
Sowing the land is making the land better than how we found it.
Here I was and we had been there for about a year. We are from LA. We are not from this area and they are asking us to show them this. We are like, “Okay. Come over. I will show you guys.” The whole family came over. It is a super nice family. It was a peak garden season. We had cucumbers growing. I show them, “This is where your pickle came from.” Everyone was so amazed. We had baby chickens and they were holding baby chickens for the first time. They had never seen this stuff.
This family lived in this area their whole life and it turns out they only lived five minutes from us. They are practically my neighbor and they found us through YouTube. We send them home with a bag full of groceries from our garden. They messaged me that night and said, “We had made a big salad from what you sent us. Thank you so much.” To witness that, their faces light up, eating a tomato from our garden, holding baby chickens, and eating a salad, I went to my wife and I was like, “We cannot stop doing this. We have to keep telling our story and sharing these things because other people are finding us and they are feeling inspired by it.”
How did you come up with the name Sow the Land?
In the beginning, before we moved, I knew that social media was going to be a way we could promote if we started selling things because I do some woodworking too. My wife has a background in the fashion industry and she did that in LA for a number of years before we moved in. She knows how to sew. At first, we are called Sew the Land. It was a play on words because we wanted to heal the land and then she sews, and that might be a thing that we do. We did not know what we were going to do when we moved. That is what our name was in the beginning.
After maybe about a few years, we started to get people asking us if we sell clothes and stuff because of our name. That was not going to happen. We then decided to switch it to Sow like how it probably should have been, Sow the land. I have always felt like we are sowing the land. We are making the land better than how we found it and that is what we are here for. It is to sow the land.
I want to go back to what we started with about your health, your family’s health, and wellbeing as well. Have you been reaping better health and what does that look like now?
Health-wise, we are better off than we were. Before we started, I worked in the office and so I would crave movement. I would sit down all day, so I would go home and go for a run every single day. I had run marathons before we moved in. When we moved here, slowly, I stopped running but in a good way. I feel healthier because I feel like I am moving my entire body and my brain because we are figuring all this stuff out as we go, like fixing stuff and building things on our homestead. We are feeding animals. I am moving chicken tractors. We are moving animals. We are doing all these things, even though I am not running a marathon, yet it is all the movement that I am doing.
I am not sitting down, besides when I edit. I am not sitting down ten hours a day in front of a computer. Between that and then the food that we grow, we have never been healthier. Also, we are being together as a family. That is important too. We run a business and sit down for a meal together. Our daughter is a big part of it too. She knows how to butcher a chicken now. She has been doing it since she was four. She is with us during workshops. She is teaching other people to do it. We are all working together and being happy and healthy is going hand-in-hand for us.
Do you ever wonder if the cancer is going to have a resurgence?
I do. When I came out and bought the property but we had not moved yet, I was having some issues at the same time with the possibility of cancer coming back, but I had already bought the property though. This was going to be our dream like, “We are going to go out to North Carolina.” There was this possibility that my cancer would come back, so we went through all the tests and stuff, and we said, “We are going to find a result of this test and my cancer might be back. If my cancer is back, we can’t go move to this property. This is not going to happen.”
We went to the doctors to find the result and it was not back. We said, “Let’s do this.” We kept on getting these green lights like, “Yes, go.” Someone was pushing us to go. That was the last green light we had. I needed to be free of cancer at this moment, and I was and so then we left. I always thought that that was huge for us to make this move because we had this support system in California. We have our family there. We were born and raised in the area and we have our friends there. They were huge support when I did have cancer, but this is our dream.
We could not sit back and wait for cancer to happen because what if it does not come back? What if the reason why we are out here was because of cancer? It was a reason because, without cancer, we would never know that this whole other life existed. We cannot be afraid of that. We have to continue to move forward and pray and hope that it does not come back because what if it does not.
You got your whole life ahead of you with this new dream and Sow the Land. I am so thankful for what you and Lorraine are doing. It is making a difference for a lot of folks. I want to close with a question I often pose at the end of the show. If the reader could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do, knowing that you are a homesteader, not a health professional necessarily?
Cook a homemade meal and eat it with your family. Whatever that looks like, I would try to find a homemade meal. Try to make it yourself, sit down, and eat it together with your family at the end of the day.
That does sound healing on a lot of levels. Thank you so much for this conversation, Jason.
Thank you for having me. I had fun.
My guest was Jason Contreras. Check out his YouTube channel, Sow the Land. You can find me on YouTube too. I have a channel called Holistic Hilda. For a letter to the editor from a Wise Traditions Journal, remember that you get these quarterly when you become a member for only $30 a year. I cannot get over that price. Use the code POD10 and become a member for $30 and you will support our work of research, education, and activism and get these journals as a bonus.
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About Jason Contreras