Danielle Segen (left) and her husband Thomas Segen perform folk songs at Fort Kent Public Library. The trained musicians live on a homestead in Van Buren. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

VAN BUREN, Maine — While researching where to start their dream of an off-grid homesteading lifestyle, Danielle and Thomas Segen discovered Aroostook County.

The trained singers from Washington state met while completing graduate studies at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Music. They had never been to northern Maine before making it their home.  

As Maine’s small communities battle dwindling populations, newcomers like the Segens help them thrive. Now in their second winter living on the Van Buren homestead, the couple doesn’t regret trading ocean breezes for snowstorms. They have embraced the Aroostook work ethic, even working the potato harvest, and found one of the best parts of The County is its people.

“It became clear very quickly that Aroostook County was a place of great opportunity, especially if your willingness to work hard to achieve your goal is your greatest resource,” Danielle Segen said.

While living in the suburbs of Los Angeles, the Segens turned their small backyard into a tiny urban homestead. As their garden grew, so did their desire to begin a proper homestead and practice real subsistence farming, Danielle Segen said.

Appreciative of the long history of agriculture in The County, they saw a listing for an old farmhouse overlooking the potato fields of Van Buren and knew right away it was what they were looking for, they said.

The couple bought the property sight unseen, with the closest thing to a property inspection being the owner apprising the Segens that the house’s foundation wasn’t much, but was holding up.

“There are so many things we like about living here but right up at the top of the list would have to be the people and the winter weather,” Danielle Segen said.

Neighbors immediately took to looking after the well-being of the new couple in town.

A man and his son-in-law stopped by the week of the Segens’ arrival to fell and cut up dead standing trees so they would have wood to use in their campstove, Danielle Segen said.

Others checked in after winter storms to make sure the two could get to town for supplies if needed.

“This is a sweet community,” Danielle Segen said. “The sense of everyone looking out for each other is really wonderful.”

The Segens enjoy giving back to the community, volunteering at the food pantry and sharing their musical talents with performances at the Fort Kent Public Library and even Christmas caroling. Thomas Segen plays the guitar.

“J.S. Bach is seen by many as a rather humorless, technical-minded composer but when you get into it, much of his writing is witty and even unabashedly silly,” Thomas Segen said.

Danielle Segen will soon be embarking on a musical tour of Armenia, her third since studying at UCLA School of Music. Thomas Segen will perform in an opera back in California, but both will return to the Van Buren farm.

Danielle has worked potato harvest and Thomas sells hand carved wooden utensils at local craft fairs to help support their lifestyle. Thomas also hunts small game, a skill he only acquired after moving to Maine.

Their cat loves it when Thomas brings home a hare, because it loves the organs, Danielle Segen said.  

“I’d never cleaned animals but I’m getting better at that aIl the time,” Thomas Segen said. “I want to learn how to use their pelts but that’s another whole process. The fur is so warm.”

What the couple doesn’t use goes into composting to be reused to feed the garden, he said.

Danielle Segen said the days are full and there is little time for boredom on the homestead. Just doing laundry or the dishes starts with clearing the well and pumping water by hand to bring inside.

They learned a lot from their first winter in the wilds of northern Maine, like to go out and make trails with the snowmobile after every big storm. They groom walking paths on snowshoes.

The couple also make music in the comfort of their rustic cabin. They have a small recording studio with a keyboard, microphones and a computer, and Thomas has been composing as well, she said.

Their goal is to be able to support their lifestyle fully through their music. They enjoy making music for all who want to listen, and want to restore the foundation and sills of their old farmhouse.

“[It] has a perfect floor plan for putting on intimate arts events and for putting up guests,” Danielle Segen said. “If we could do that, we would potentially be in a perfect position to make it a nexus for the art making we love.”