Life on the Mountain
The Mar Farm in Pelham grew from one family’s quest for clean eating and wellness.
by Jeana Durst, content director, JBMC Media
photos courtesy of Debbie Mar
There are turning points in life—times that grab us, shake us up, and deposit us on the other side, forever changed and ready for a new beginning. It’s just such a life event that was behind the creation of the Mar Farm, a sustainable hobby farm located on a treelined peak near Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham. In 2017, Debbie Mar had no idea that her journey overcoming health trials would lead to a business, though she had always dreamt of raising her family on a farm.
A mother of three, Director of Franchise Sales for Newk’s Corporate, Hoover City Schools Foundation board member, and competitive equestrian, Debbie is never one to walk away from a challenge. Recently, I had the chance to visit Mar Farm recently and experience life on the mountain firsthand. There I met Karen the Great Pyrenees, three other farm pups, an extended family of goats (including Carl who greeted me on the porch), and about 30 chickens of countless varieties.
The Seeds of Change
In the summer of 2017, life changed for the Mar family when Debbie was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. Normally an athletic person, Debbie had been struggling with joint pain at the time. “You never think you are going to go to the doctor one day and never be well again,” she says. Ankylosing spondylitis is an autoimmune disease that attacks your joints and fuses your spine. “I went through a year of trying medications and learning how much gut health relates to autoimmune issues—it has a lot to do with what you put into your body and the kind of lifestyle you lead,” Debbie says. By the fall of 2017, the family purchased the Mar Farm property, which turned out to open up a very important path.
Knowing that clean eating could greatly impact her health and quality of life, Debbie decided to act proactively. “The medicines do what they do, but I could control what I ate,” she says. The first thing she did was to eliminate cow-based foods and reduce processed foods. “I started thinking about our food, where it comes from, and what we put on our bodies,” she says. So they began raising their own chickens for fresh organic eggs. With adjustments, such as eliminating milk, sugar, and gluten, Debbie began to notice considerable improvements with her pain, and she lost weight that she had gained from being on steroid medications.
A Family Affair
Naturally, Debbie wanted her family to experience the benefits of this healthy lifestyle as well. But she had other reasons for starting the farm. “I grew up working on a horse farm, and I knew that I wanted to have my kids grow up with farm animals,” she says. “I wanted them to have the responsibility of having to take care of animals—to know what work does for you.”
The day I visited, her daughters, Pippa, 11, and Willow, 6, were feeding the chickens housed in a spacious shaded coupe in the front of the property. Her son Vance, 13, is responsible for re-bedding the quarters with straw and is cultivating a small farm of worms—a delicacy for these pampered chicks, who have time to free range during the day. By night, Karen the Pyrenees keeps a vigil, protecting her fluffy friends. (And, yes, her name is intentional.) “What can be funnier than saying, ‘You had one job, Karen?’” Debbie jokes. The first thing that strikes me is the variety of brilliantly patterned birds strutting about, including silkies and others with names like Squishy and Princess Fluffy Butt. As you can imagine, the diversity yields eggs of all shapes, sizes, and colors, including a pastel blue-green so lovely only nature could produce it. But they didn’t stop at chickens; seeking a healthier alternative to dairy, Debbie was determined to make her own goat milk and cheeses.
Enter Billie Jean, a Nigerian dwarf goat and a present from her husband Jody for their first Christmas at the farm. “When I first said I’m going to have goats and make goat cheese, Jody said, ‘really though’?” Debbie laughs. Fast forward to today: they have five goats, two bucks, and a host of mischievous kids, with plans underway for a goat barn behind the paddocks. “Nigerian dwarf goats are very good dairy producers that have a high fat content great for cheese and soaps,” Debbie explains. At Mar Farm, they make all their soaps by hand with only natural ingredients. Examples of goats’ milk soaps include “Nitty Gritty,” made with honey, gluten-free, oatmeal and cinnamon and “Mountain Sunset,” containing rosemary, orange, and lime. I appreciated the “Plain Jane,” made of only olive oil, coconut oil and goat’s milk, perfect for those with sensitive skin.
As we tour the property, the goat babies take the opportunity to say hello, and Oliver even uses the chance to climb onto my lap and nuzzle my hair. Adjacent to the station where Debbie milks her goats each morning after sunrise yoga, a large refrigerator houses rows of ice-cold goats’ milk in mason jars. “Once babies are born, you milk the goats as you ween the babies to ramp up the milk production,” Debbie explains.
As the days on the farm passed, her health got better, and Debbie came off all the harsh medication except for one. “I thought, people should learn about this, about how much better you can make yourself feel even if you don’t have an autoimmune issue,” she says. Soon the Mars began sharing eggs and soaps with friends and community members. Today Mar Farms distributes their handmade goat soaps locally and to several states. By the end of the year, they will sell their goat cheeses as well. Many of their customers are longtime fans of Mar Farms social media posts, in which goats frolic and Karen gets into mischief on a daily basis. “It keeps getting bigger by accident and taking a life of its own,” Debbie says.
But this story has one more twist. Farm life has been so good for Debbie’s health that she recently came out of retirement and decided to compete horses after a 10-year hiatus. This year she and her Irish chestnut mare Lara competed in rated divisions, and they have their sights set on jumper championships next year. “Nature and animals are my love language,” Debbie says with a smile.
To learn more about Mar Farm or purchase their soaps and other products, visit their website.