The windowless utility room of Stephen DeGoosh and Brooke Isham's home boasts shelves packed with hundreds of jars of preserved foods. Credit: Micky Bedell | BDN

When the pandemic arrived in Maine earlier this year, many people were caught off-guard, learning as they went about how to stock up and prepare for the state’s stay at home order. But one group of Mainers was particularly prepared for the scenario: so-called “preppers,” who make a practice of being prepared with food supplies, gear and more in case of emergency.

The term “prepper” comes with some stigma, often associated with extreme survivalists or doomsday fatalists. But in reality, preppers in Maine represent a range of intensities and a common mindset. Prepping in Maine — at least, for preppers who are willing to speak out — is not as extreme as the stereotype might suggest.

Mike Enos said that he was inspired to begin stockpiling for emergencies several years ago, when he heard radio advertisements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Ready Campaign, which focused on being prepared for disasters, on his daily drives between Portland and Auburn.

“I would hear FEMA saying people should have three to six months of stuff on hand,” Enos, who has properties in Auburn and Porter, said.

Enos works in finance. At that time, he was also noticing a trend in the wealthy not only buying storable materials and bunkers, but also farmland to grow food if the economy failed.

“I learned a lot from large fund managers and watching wealthy people in America who were worried about the economy,” Enos said.

Now, prepping is just a part of Enos’s daily life. He has two properties, one in Auburn and one in Porter, that he is able to farm on, with some animals and a large store of food. Enos recognizes, though, that his chosen lifestyle comes with some sacrifice.

“I work in finance. I could go be sitting on a boat right now,” Enos laughed. “[Instead], I’m hauling a trailer right now and getting ready to get 5,000 pounds of hay.”

For Enos and other preppers, though, it’s worth it, especially when something like COVID-19 comes around. When he and his wife learned about the coronavirus in early January this year, they made sure they had the daily essentials they needed for several months before the virus found its way to the United States — and Maine

“It paid off,” he said. “We didn’t have to go to the store for a month or two. We had everything we needed.”

What it means to be a prepper

Brooke Isham pours drinks in the kitchen of her home. Forty years ago, a retired Air Force captain and his family built the bunker-like home on a stake of land in rural Sangerville and prepared for the worst. Now DeGoosh and Isham are staying true to the original plans of the home — a large garden, a greenhouse — but with transition and food sovereignty in mind instead of survivalism. Credit: Micky Bedell | BDN

Janice Jewett from Ashland said that when COVID-19 brought Maine into lockdown, her family had about six months of food and supplies at her home in Ashland.

“When the pandemic hit, it didn’t affect us at all,” Jewett said. “When you live simple in an old camp, you can build a little nest egg.”

However, despite her stores of supplies and the fact that she is part of a Facebook group called “Maine preppers / homesteaders,” Jewett said she struggles to call herself a prepper.

“I’m not sure why I don’t think I’m a prepper, maybe prepper just sounds extreme to me, and to me, it’s just a way of life,” she said

Enos thinks that much of this stigma comes from popular culture portrayals of preppers, like on the reality television show “Doomsday Preppers,” as well as the extremist views represented on online prepping forums.

“Prepper boards — those things are so misleading,” Enos said.

In reality, more people embody the spirit of prepping than it may seem at first glance. Hunting a deer and freezing dozens of pounds of meat, for example, falls well within what Enos considers to be a prepper mentality.

“I think a lot more Mainers fall into the category than they think,” he said. “It goes back to that stigma.”

The definition of “prepper” depends on who you ask. Enos divides the community into two main groups: doomsday preppers, which he said are “not realistic,” and “real preppers,” which can vary on a spectrum from those who are “heavy into it” and “more homesteader types.”

“[When] I think of preppers in Maine, a lot of them are like homesteaders,” Enos said. “They can a lot. They’re more on that side of the land.”

However, Enos said there are differences between prepping and homesteading, though the two groups overlap.

“Homesteading, you have to learn skills; prepping you don’t need skills,” Enos said. “If you’re a prepper, you can literally go to the store and just buy extra stuff so you can have your essentials for four or six months.”

Enos used the example of millionaire preppers building bunkers and stockpiling food.

“Wealthy people don’t have the time or any of those skill sets,” Enos said. “When you hear about these bunkers, it’s a person with $100 million who wants to walk in and be done. That’s not realistic for anyone else.”

Ultimately, it comes down to a mindset of wanting to be able to sustain yourself even if our daily systems and social structure fail.

“It’s clearly a mentality,” Enos said. “I don’t think people understand how fragile our system is. You can be a prepper and there’s no difference between you and your neighbor who isn’t. You’re just a regular person.”

Why people become preppers

In Maine and beyond, people adopt a prepper mentality or lifestyle for a wide variety of reasons. For some, it is religion that motivates them; Mormons even have prepping built into their faith.

For some, though, it’s simpler than that. Jewett said that she adopted such a mentality from her grandparents who raised her.

“It’s just my lifestyle,” Jewett said. “I was raised by my grandparents the old fashioned way. I believe in having a year’s supply of food. I always have stocked toilet paper, shampoos and toothpaste, [and I] also have supplies on hand for making soaps and lotions.”

Enos agreed that this generational influence can be powerful.

“[Our grandparents] would have had six months’ food on hand, no problem,” he said. “Our mentality today is, ‘I can just go to the store to buy it.’ We don’t really appreciate how long it takes to grow an animal or grow food.”

Others are compelled by a life-changing event. Think: global pandemic.

Enos said that the trendiness of prepping is to be expected given the current moment — and, besides that, is nothing new.

“You do have ebbs and flows, and it happens all the time,” he said. “People really want to do prepping right now because of coronavirus but if it were to go away people would be like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ When the next thing comes, they’ll get back into it.”

Enos thinks that a lot of this fluctuating interest, though, is due to a lack of understanding about what it means to be a prepper. Many Mainers already practice tenets of prepping without even knowing it.

“You can prep in downtown Portland and you can have extra food on-hand [and] that would make 100 percent logical sense,” Enos said. “I think a lot more Mainers fall into the category than they think.”