Imagine a more satisfying way to live, with time to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. A quiet evening walk in the woods. Relaxed family meals of flavorful, homegrown food and with conversation, no TV in sight. Curling up with a good book in front of a crackling fire after a day of hard work in your garden ...
You can enjoy these rewards of simple living — the key is to recognize the full value of becoming a skilled, productive homemaker/homesteader. In today’s world, most of us pay other people to provide the things we need, which means we need a job or two outside the home to bring in cash. But if you learn how to be more self-sufficient, you’ll also learn how to save money, live on less income, and also enjoy greater personal freedom and satisfaction from your daily labor.
Centuries ago, homemaking and homesteading involved a great deal of hard physical labor. Today, we have machines and scientific knowledge that make most tasks much easier, faster and safer. Modern homesteading taps the best of contemporary technology to help us master traditional skills and become more self-sufficient and secure.
Expensive designer clothes, factory-made convenience foods, long commutes to work — these parts of consumer culture don’t have a place in the modern homesteader’s value system. Instead, homemakers take pride in producing an entire year’s supply of organically grown food, including cheese, meat, and perhaps even wine and beer. Some spin and weave their own clothing or make their family’s soap and personal care products. Homesteaders also limit fuel costs by spending more time at home and simply not driving as much, cutting firewood to heat their homes, and often installing renewable energy systems. Even building a log or straw bale home is not out of reach.
We talked with three families who have carefully weighed the pros and cons of what many consider the “American Dream” and have decided the numbers just didn’t add up. They explain how they’ve avoided “affluenza” by choosing to pursue a different bottom line, and how this has resulted in total household expenditures that are far less than the U.S. average (see the chart in Simple Living: How Much Do You Save?). Instead of measuring their wealth by job status and how much they own, these families have embraced simple living, healthful foods, strong relationships and, in turn, deep life satisfaction.
Simple Living: Growing Greener Pastures
Hannah and Eric Noel; Highgate, Vt.
Through patience, frugal living and family support, Hannah and Eric Noel have laid the groundwork for the dream homestead they hope to obtain in the coming year. For the past decade, the Noels have been leasing their farmland and house from Eric’s parents, who previously operated a traditional dairy farm on the property. The Noels decided to try tending the 300 acres differently, and began raising grass-fed beef and organic produce, which they sell through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program.
“We believe in eating fresh, wholesome, solar-based foods,” says Hannah, “so we decided to start farming that way and offer the same food to families in our community.” The couple uses “planned grazing,” a pasture-management system that allows their herd to graze on the most nutritious grass available and that simultaneously nurtures the soil.
The Noels have learned how to save money on groceries and also run a successful homestead business: Their 3-acre organic vegetable garden feeds their family of four, two to four farm apprentices, and 50 other families who purchase shares through their CSA program. The season begins in June with lettuces, arugula and radishes, and finishes in December with root crops, cabbage, kale and leeks. “Through our CSA program, I get to know the families, and I love that,” Hannah says. “It feels good to provide them with nutritious food.”
Eric supplements the family income with an on-farm auto repair shop. Formerly a race car mechanic, he’s now known locally as the “organic mechanic.” Hannah, a former school teacher, holds weekly interactive farm tours and workshops. Last spring, the family hosted a festival featuring speakers, demos, locally produced foods, and live music. The event attracted more than 350 attendees.
Renting half of an 1836 farmhouse from Eric’s parents has helped the couple keep housing costs manageable while saving to buy a homestead of their own. Wood heat, energy-efficient replacement windows and insulation have proved the best ways to save money while keeping warm during Vermont’s long, cold winters.
Now the Noels are preparing to apply the lessons they’ve learned homesteading throughout the past decade to a place of their own. “Wherever we land, whatever we do, what we’ve learned will help us,” Hannah says. Their homestead wish list: 30 to 100 partially wooded acres with good soil, running water and a site for a greenhouse — all in a rural location not too far from town and their extended family. The Noels plan to continue teaching others about organic foods and farming through workshops, classes and publications. The couple says this simple-living approach has required flexibility, patience and persistence.
Simple Living: Little Homestead in the Woods
Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton; Dungannon, Va.
Having lived on a farm with her family before moving to the city in third grade, Anna Hess had long dreamed of returning to her rural roots. As a young adult, she saved her money and, with the help of an interest-free loan from a friend, was able to buy 58 acres with a barn in southwestern Virginia in 2003. She paid $600 an acre.
“It was a piece of land nobody else wanted,” she says. “It’s mostly steep, wooded hillsides, and you have to walk a third of a mile over swampland to get to the house. But I don’t mind, as it gives me time to reflect and decompress.”
For the past eight years, Hess and her husband, Mark Hamilton, have carved a comfortable life as homemakers from about 1 acre at the center of those wooded hills. “Putting more love into a small area is better than spreading it thinly over a large area,” she says. Their quarter-acre organic garden produces nearly all of the vegetables the couple eats year-round, and their quarter-acre orchard is beginning to bear peaches, strawberries and other fruit. A small flock of free-range chickens provides fresh eggs, meat and compost.
The dollar cost of all of this bounty? Surprisingly low, to the tune of $6,000 less than the U.S. average (see the chart in Simple Living: How Much Do You Save?). The couple has discovered ways to save money and farm sustainably by using what’s already on hand. Their no-till garden beds and orchard stay fertile and weed-free thanks to organic mulch, compost and cover crops.
Hess has found that a mulch of corrugated cardboard covered with straw breaks down quickly and promotes beneficial soil fungi. She and Hamilton toss kitchen scraps, leaves and garden debris into the chicken coop, where the chickens mix it with manure and litter to make a top-quality, no-work compost. Worms housed in four outdoor bins turn a neighbor’s horse manure into rich, garden-ready fertilizer. Citrus and other potted plants grow in a medium Hess calls “stump dirt” — decomposing wood from the surrounding woodland — that she describes as similar to peat moss in its water-holding capacity.
A trained biologist, Hess started their orchard with rootstocks she purchased for just $1 each at a grafting workshop led by county extension specialists. “They show you how to graft fruit tree twigs, called ‘scionwood,’ and you come home with lots of inexpensive fruit trees of locally adapted varieties,” Hess says. “We started our grapes by taking hardwood cuttings from a friend’s orchard. If you know how to propagate plants and save seeds — and are patient — you can get the plant side of your farm going without much cash.”
The couple also pays virtually nothing for housing. Their mobile home was “free for the hauling,” obtained from a local trailer park eager to dispose of its oldest unit. “It cost $2,000 to move it, but now we live mortgage-free. It’s a great way to get started [homesteading] quickly if you don’t have startup capital,” Hess says. Hamilton made repairs and renovations, and other than the double-glazed windows, most of the materials were free, picked up curbside, or obtained from a giveaway held by a service organization that builds houses. Heating is inexpensive, too, thanks to a Jøtul stove, fueled with about 2 cords of wood per year.
Both Hess and Hamilton work full time on their homestead, so to pay for electricity and other basics, the couple operates a micro-business from home. The Avian Aqua Miser, a poop-free chicken waterer, is Hamilton’s ingenious twist on an industrial design (Avian Aqua Miser). The couple also recently finished a book, The Weekend Homesteader (see "Resources for Homemakers" at the end of this article). “It’s important to find a revenue stream you can operate from the farm,” says Hess. “Our business allows us to sell online to people with higher incomes so that we can make a living wage.”
Hess and Hamilton have also learned that living simply (and loving it!) is a mindset that can be cultivated. Spend time with others who share your beliefs, she says, and limit media consumption, especially TV. Most of all, “Be mindful of the things that bring you bliss and don’t cost money — the tree that bore its first fruit, having long dinners with your spouse, having a happy marriage. … You can’t pay for those things.”
Richer Living Off the Grid
Cam and Michelle Mather; Kingston, Ontario
For Cam Mather, the path to energy, food and financial independence began in his parents’ suburban backyard, where he planted his first vegetable garden at age 16. “It was the start of a journey to find meaning that you simply can’t find watching television,” he says. After a couple of road stops (first at a city apartment, then a home on a busy suburban street), Cam and his wife were able to buy their dream homestead: a simple house on 150 wooded acres in the wilds of eastern Ontario, beyond the power lines and much closer to nature. Although they’ve never earned more than the median Canadian income, the Mathers managed to buy their homestead outright with cash.
“We knew it would be harder to make a living out here, so we committed to be mortgage-free,” says Cam. “We lived frugally and paid off our mortgage so we could put everything from the sale toward the new place.”
Still, Cam says the learning curve has been steep. “Moving to an off-grid house with absolutely no clue about electricity was terrifying.” Fifteen years later, the Mathers rely almost entirely on renewable sources of energy. Homegrown wood fuels their energy-efficient Pacific Energy woodstove, while solar energy powers their water heater, appliances, electric bike and chain saw. “There’s never a shortage of firewood,” he says. “Even after 15 years, I absolutely love cutting wood. Why pay for a gym membership if you can work in harmony with nature instead?”
To reduce the use of their gas-powered backup generator to twice a year, Cam installed a wind turbine for about $10,000. “That seems like a big investment, but I consider other factors, such as the possibility that gas might not always be available,” he says. The Mathers estimate they’ve invested $40,000 to become energy-independent, but they say that with recent technological advances, someone could go off-grid for about half that cost today.
The couple grows nearly all of their own food in several organic gardens spread over an acre. Green manures (such as buckwheat), compost and rotted hay collected from neighbors have transformed the native sandy soil into a friable loam rich in organic matter and plant nutrients. The Mathers save money on groceries by supplementing their homegrown vegetables and berries with eggs from their small poultry flock, purchasing sale-priced bulk items (such as pasta and rice), and keeping their root cellar stocked with home-canned goods, potatoes, squash and carrots. “By moving your diet to be more plant-based you get more bang for your buck,” writes Cam in his book, Thriving During Challenging Times (see "Resources for Homemakers" at the end of this article).
Cam says the cost of simple living in the country can involve cobbling together an income from several sources while working as a homemaker. “You make a choice: Do you want to drive an hour each way to make a higher income, or find ways for both people to work from home?” The Mathers have chosen the latter, operating an electronic publishing business; offering on-site workshops that teach self-reliance; selling kindling; and, beginning in 2011, running a CSA program that supplies food for 12 families.
“Many people who choose this lifestyle want to make a living only from the food they produce, but the challenge is competing with the low prices of the industrial food system. You’d like to charge $7 per dozen for your free-range organic eggs, but you can’t. So you find other income sources,” Cam says. “When people take our workshops, they say, ‘Wow, this is so great to be able to live like this.’ We earn a fraction of what we made working in the city, but what we’re doing now is more in line with our beliefs.”
Read more: Break down these modern homesteading families' average annual expenditures compared with the average U.S. household's expenditures in Simple Living: How Much Do You Save?.
Resources for Homemakers
The Walden Effect
Homesteading in Canada
Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes
The Householder’s Guide to the Universe by Harriet Fasenfest
The Weekend Homesteader by Anna Hess
Thriving During Challenging Times by Cam Mather
Know an inspiring, modern homesteading family? Nominate them to be our 2013 Homesteaders of the Year! Send a 300-word description and several photos to Letters@MotherEarthNews.com, and learn more at International Homesteading Education Month.
Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.