A growing number of us are shifting our focus homeward, making our homesteads the heart of our life’s work. A desire for job security, concern for the environment, demand for quality food, escalating food and gas prices, hands-on work, and cool things we can learn to do — many or all of these factors are driving the search for more sustainable, self-sufficient living.
For some, the quest for self-reliance begins simply: The search for a decent-tasting tomato leads you to a seed catalog, which opens the door to gardening, canning and composting. After a few years (or sometimes decades), this journey toward more sustainable living leads you to an abandoned farmstead — say, 3 acres with some overgrown fruit trees, a house and a barn that “needs work.” (No matter: It’s your homestead, and it’s your work.)
Others recall a pivotal moment. One day while sitting in a traffic jam, you realize you crave a different kind of life — one that’s closer to the natural world, less dependent on goods and services from corporations, and, ultimately, more rewarding.
According to a recent survey of MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers, more than four out of 10 of you now raise chickens. More than a third of you generate your own solar electricity or plan to within the next two years. And nearly all of you raise a healthy portion of your own food. We are part of a growing trend toward greater self-reliance: North Americans as a whole are choosing more self-sufficient lifestyles.
“In previous homesteading movements, people had to make it on their own,” says Harvey Ussery, author and longtime homesteader. “Today we choose to grow our own food because we prefer quality, and we recognize the tie between good food and good health. It’s hard to buy that kind of quality.”
Modern homesteading and homemaking are built upon many choices, not solely on managing money. There is no single right way to “make it,” say experienced homesteaders. Whether you live in a country farmhouse, suburban townhouse or center-city apartment, you can get closer to simpler, self-sufficient living. For insight and inspiration, we talked with nine homesteaders who’ve written books about their journeys back to the land. Find more information about these authors at the end of this article.
MOTHER: What motivated you to choose a self-sufficient, homesteading lifestyle? How did you get started?
Harvey Ussery: It was a natural progression. My grandparents had a small farm where I spent a lot of time as a kid. They raised livestock, grew and canned food, made soap — they practiced self-sufficiency out of necessity. Later, as an adult living in the city, I always had that yearning to get my hands in the dirt. When my wife, Ellen, and I were ready to buy a place, having space for a garden was a must.
Shannon Hayes: I had just completed my doctorate in sustainable agriculture but couldn’t fathom leaving our family farm in upstate New York, or the life I had there for the sake of a conventional career. After doing a cost-benefit analysis, my husband, Bob, and I chose to work full time on the farm. At the time, about 20 years ago, the choice had a lot of stigma surrounding it. But we were having so much fun, it helped us weather the travails.
Cam Mather: I was burnt out on suburban life and on earning my income on a computer. My wife, Michelle, and I put together a plan, paid off our debt and began looking for a place in the country. It took five years to find it, but we did. It was the start of a journey to more self-reliance, and I’ve learned that it just takes confidence to believe you can do it.
Erik Knutzen: What really got us started homesteading was our desperate search for a decent tomato. Kelly and I decided our best option was to try our hand at growing our own better tomatoes, even though we lived in an apartment with nothing more than a small porch to use as garden space at the time. After we discovered the pleasure of making things by hand and of living closer to the natural world — of simple living — there was no going back. We figured out that what we could grow or make was inevitably better and usually less expensive than what we could buy in a store.
MOTHER: What are the biggest misconceptions people have about homesteading and homemaking?
Mather: That homesteading can be tidy and that every homestead is picture-perfect. The truth is it’s a messy, exhausting way to live. There are always things to do, and you must learn to live with the feeling of not having accomplished all you wanted to on any given day.
Harriet Fasenfest: Many people think they can start homesteading as a hobby — that it will be easy to add this work to an already busy schedule. You need to have a realistic sense of where you want to take it. If you are willing to make some changes, work less outside of the home, be frugal, and re-evaluate your notion of leisure and entitlement, then go for it.
Deborah Niemann: It’s important to understand that it’s not an all-or-nothing deal. You don’t have to do everything to practice sustainable living. You can just have a garden and chickens, or whatever works for you. People also think it’s nearly impossible to homestead unless you grew up on a farm. When I tell them we moved to our homestead from the Chicago suburbs and our livestock experience consisted of two cats and a poodle, they seem so relieved to hear that they can learn how to be self-sufficient.
Knutzen: Many people confuse self-reliance with self-sufficiency. Especially in an urban area, such as ours, true self-sufficient living is impossible. We can’t grow all of our own grain or keep a cow. We can and should, however, build a community with like-minded people and continuously work toward self-reliance: the ability to make and do things. A self-reliant community builds resilience through networks of shared skills and goods with the goal of sustainable living.
MOTHER: What is the most valuable lesson or skill you’ve learned?
Hayes: To produce more than I consume. There are myriad ways to do this: play music rather than download it, knit rather than go to the movies, grow food rather than buy it from a grocery store, cook rather than eat out. When I spend my time producing for my well-being rather than paying for it with dollars, I have a lot more fun, life is more interesting, and I just don’t have time to waste money.
You are forever taking on new challenges and tackling more than what comes naturally. And just because something fails at the outset doesn’t mean you lack talent or ability. I used to beat myself up for my failures. Now I understand that failure is probably the most critical experience on the path toward mastery of a skill.
Niemann: Mistakes are inevitable. No matter how much reading you do, you learn that every garden is unique, every animal is an individual and you have to be flexible. You persist, try to figure out what went wrong and then try again.
Steve Solomon: There’s always next year. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you planned. Be patient; next year could be better.
Ussery: I operate on two foundations: First, imitate nature’s way of doing things, and, second, be willing to go wherever that takes you in terms of experimentation. If you do these things, you’ll be at the cutting edge, making up your own models — because those coming down to us from the conventional agricultural system often are outmoded and unsustainable. Maybe ‘progress’ means taking a giant step ‘backward.’
Dan Jason: Good farming is good observation above all else. Observe the changes in your garden daily and note the differences between varieties. Gain understanding by observing the interrelationships between plants, insects and weather.
Lloyd Kahn: You can learn a lot by looking around. See what others are growing or building in your area now, and also what worked in the past. A hundred years ago, people tended to build structures appropriate for their climate and latitude — not according to an abstract architectural concept. You can learn from noticing the designs that have survived.
MOTHER: What do you wish you’d known before you started?
Mather: Keep a ‘to-do’ notebook. I kept making one-page ‘to-do’ lists that I promptly discarded after checking off the items, but I needed to be able to read over and appreciate everything I had accomplished. There will always be more to do. It’s important to remember all you’ve completed.
Kahn: If you’re unsure of what to do or how to do it, just start — the momentum will carry you along. Pick up a shovel and start digging the foundation.
Niemann: I wish I could have all the knowledge that’s been lost in the past century. People were homesteading long before modern schools and books, and knowledge was handed down from one generation to the next. Then we, as a society, decided science had all of the answers. It turns out that a lot of that information is wrong. According to modern agricultural science, what we do on my family’s homestead shouldn’t work. Chickens, turkeys and pigs, for instance, supposedly can’t live together, yet on our farm they coexist. Dare to question conventional knowledge.
Ussery: The conventional wisdom is that using a power tiller is the best way to convert pasture to garden, but it isn’t. It’s chicken power, hands down. Now, we’ve learned to let our chickens do our tilling, turn under cover crops and add their own fertilizer. The world has become so enamored with technological solutions that many people don’t recognize the efficiency of natural ways. Far too much of our economy is devoted to using up natural resources and sending waste to landfills. We need to follow a more cyclical model: Things are produced, they die, and then they are recomposed through natural processes. In nature, there is no waste.
MOTHER: What has been the most painful or challenging part of learning how to be self-sufficient?
Ussery: There are consequences for making big changes without thinking them through carefully. Sometimes you can’t sustain them. When you are working with natural systems, you find that so many elements interrelate. If you jump in and do something too fast, you could end up doing far more work than necessary. I finally realized it would have been better to start with a master plan.
Niemann: Death is hard for people in modern society, and my family is no exception. If you have as many animals as we do — a flock of chickens, a flock of turkeys, 30 goats, 20 sheep and so on — you see death on a regular basis. At first, every death was devastating and I felt that I must have done something terribly wrong. But as time went on, I became more accepting. I’ve not become hardened to it, but I’ve begun to understand it more.
Knutzen: Coming to grips with the fundamental impermanence of life is the key to being part of Mother Nature. Letting go is a lifelong struggle and, of course, it’s also the great lesson we learn by gardening and working with animals.
Fasenfest: For me, the most difficult thing was not having full support from my partner, which is something that I absolutely have to say and that I want to tell folks. Not all couples will move in the same direction, but communication goes a long way. Talk about your goals and why they are important to you. With any luck, you will be able to create a win-win situation where everyone feels valued.
MOTHER: What has been the most rewarding part of self-sufficient living?
Niemann: That’s easy: birthing! I love being there when baby animals are born. Last winter, my husband and I were out in the barn at 2 a.m. with a goat giving birth and the temperature was hovering at about zero. I looked at him and said, ‘If you’ve got to have a job that requires you to be up at 2 a.m., isn’t it great that it’s something that puts a smile on your face?’
Mather: For me, it’s putting up solar panels or cutting firewood to heat my home, or growing my own food. There’s nothing like the feeling of self-reliance, of being in control of the things that others contract out to utilities or strangers. If I’m having a bad day, I just stand under the wind turbine I put up and say, ‘I did that!’
Ussery: We live in a technological age and have the notion that every problem has a technological solution. In the process, we’ve lost the experience of magic in our daily lives. Self-sufficient living allows us to experience magic daily, and it’s wonderful: the magic of germination, decomposition, the cycling year, the relationship between soil and plants, the diversity of birds and insects and how they do this great wheeling, complex dance. Natural processes transform in magical ways.
Fasenfest: I would not trade the beauty of homesteading for anything else out there. Waking up each morning and opening the back door to my garden — sometimes when the moon is still out and the colors of the garden are bathed in ethereal light — well, I can be completely undone.
I’m finally at a place where I feel I can teach others how to have a more self-sufficient life. They’re out there, all over. There is a great turning going on in this country, this world. People are hopeful, and being part of a hopeful movement truly is exhilarating.
Hayes: The people in my immediate group have been through hell the past two years with the death of friends and loved ones, unexpected illnesses and a traumatic hurricane that shredded our community. But while these things make us sad, we still get up with energy in the morning because we are living a life we love. We take knocks like everyone else, but the knocks could never shatter our core. There’s still lots of laughter, vivacity and interest in life. And when a lifestyle can bring you through the travails of hard times without losing the ability to laugh and love, you know you are on the right path.
Author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock
Home: Boxwood, near Hume, Va., about 3 acres
Years homesteading: nearly 28
Household size: two, my wife, Ellen, and me
Raising: a variety of organic vegetables, several different kinds of fruits, worms in my vermicomposting system (set up inside my hoop house), and my poultry flock of “rototillers” (consists of chickens, ducks and geese)
Former occupation: postal clerk
Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen
Authors of Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World
Home: Los Angeles, 4,500-square-foot lot
Years homesteading: 13
Household size: two
Raising: vegetables, chickens and bees
Energy sources: city utilities, some solar cooking
Former occupations: administrative director, Museum of Jurassic Technology (Kelly); researcher, Center for Land Use Interpretation (Erik)
Author of Little House Off the Grid: Our Family’s Journey to Self-Sufficiency
Home: Sunflower Farm, eastern Ontario, 150 acres
Years homesteading: 13
Household size: two (four before children left home)
Raising: vegetables, chickens
Energy sources: 85 percent solar, 7 percent wind, 5 percent propane, 3 percent gas for the generator in fall
Occupation: publisher, business now located on homestead
Author of Homegrown & Handmade: A Practical Guide to More Self-Reliant Living
Home: Antiquity Oaks, Cornell, Ill., 32 acres
Years homesteading: 10;
Household size: four
Raising: vegetables, fruits, dairy goats, sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens, turkeys
Energy sources: electricity, propane, woodstove, passive solar design and in-floor heating for future conversion to solar
Former occupation: newspaper reporter
Author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture
Homes: Sap Bush Hollow (Parents' farm), West Fulton, N.Y., 160 acres; Sapphire Ridge (personal homestead), West Fulton, N.Y., 15 acres
Years homesteading: 20 at Sap Bush Hollow, 12 at Sapphire Ridge
Household Size: six (on both farms)
Raising: lamb, beef, pork, poultry, fruit
Energy sources: solar and firewood
Former occupation: academic
Author of Saving Seeds as If Our Lives Depended On It
Home: Salt Spring Farm, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia
Years homesteading: about 40
Raising: vegetables, several varieties for saving seeds for our seed company
Occupation: owner of Salt Spring Seeds seed company
Author of Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter
Home: 1,500-square-foot, self-constructed home on a half-acre in Bolinas, Calif.
Years homesteading: 40
Household size: two
Raising: vegetables, fruits, chickens
Former occupation: worked as an insurance broker
Author of A Householder’s Guide to the Universe
Home: Portland, Ore., 50-by-100-foot lot
Years homesteading: 10
Household size: three
Raising: food, “one fat cat”
Energy sources: natural gas, planning for solar
Former occupation: longtime restaurateur
Author of Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times
Home: suburb of Launceston, Tasmania, two adjoining quarter-acre blocks
Years homesteading: about 40, including in the United States and Canada (four years at present location)
Household size: two
Raising: vegetables and fruits
Energy sources: “mains,” but household water supplied by roof runoff
Nominate Great Homesteaders
As part of International Homesteading Education Month, this September 2012, we're seeking applications for people to honor as Homesteaders of the Year. To nominate your family or someone you know, send a 500-word summary of the homestead's activities with at least three photos no later than Feb. 15, 2012.
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+.