The Many Paths to Self-Reliant Living: 2015 Homesteaders of the Year

Living off the grid, raising animals and growing their own food are some of the many ways our 2015 Homesteaders of the Year have achieved more self-reliant living. These standout modern homesteaders have found ways to save money — and have fun doing it!

Trumpey Homestead

The Trumpey family hand-built their off-grid, 2,200-square-foot straw bale home near Grass Lake, Mich. Here, they strike a pose with their heritage-breed Standard Bronze turkeys.

Photo by Oliver Uberti

Content Tools

We are thrilled to feature four inspiring families as our 2015 Homesteaders of the Year. Their homesteads range from 2-1/2 to 120 acres, but each family has adapted its activities to match its resources. Through self-reliant living — combining off-homestead jobs with homestead-based businesses, producing off-grid power, raising and growing food, and finding ways to save money — these families have achieved happiness and security on small budgets. Following are interviews and snapshots of each family. You’ll find longer interviews and more photos, plus stories from other star modern homesteaders, by reading Star Modern Homesteaders.

Self-Reliant Living: Heritage Homestead

Who: Joe and Shelly Trumpey, with daughters Autumn
and Evelyn.
Near Grass Lake, Mich., since 2009.
Sandy Acres Farm is 40-plus acres stocked with heritage-breed livestock. The Trumpeys live off the grid in their hand-built straw bale home, and they produce at least half of their own food by gardening, canning, freezing, and raising animals for meat and eggs.
Homestead-based income:
The family sells wool, meat and eggs on-farm and to family and friends.
Off-homestead employment: Joe is an associate professor at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design and the School of Natural Resources, and Shelly is a third-grade teacher.
Find them online at Sandy Acres Farm.

You have a lot of heritage animals — tell us about your livestock.
We raise a flock of about 50 Jacob sheep, and we shear the sheep ourselves and butcher a dozen or so each year. Our Highland cattle herd includes a bull, plus three cows and their calves. We have one bull butchered every 18 months, and we eat about a quarter-beef each year.

We have about 25 laying hens of various breeds, of which Welsummers and Wyandottes are our favorites. We raise about 40 roosters to butcher each year, as well as a small number of Royal Palm and Standard Bronze turkeys and a few ducks. We keep Mulefoot hogs, a dozen or so American Chinchilla rabbits, and two beehives that provide about 3 gallons of honey annually.

Our cattle, pigs and some of the lambs are butchered locally. Joe does the rest of the butchering on-farm. We produce 100 percent of the meat and eggs we consume, and we sell or trade all excess animal products with friends and family. We feel great about our animals’ quality of life and consider our production of ethically grown, pastured meats one of our greatest successes.

What do you do with all that wool? Do you all own a complete rainbow set of sweater vests?
We all spin, and Shelly uses the yarn to knit sweaters, scarves, hats, socks and mittens for the family. She also sews and stuffs wool quilts, pillows and comforters. We also sell roving.

Describe your system for living off the grid.
We have a 4-kilowatt (kw) tracking array, and 15 SunPower solar panels mounted 25 feet high on a dual-axis tracker. The power is stored in 60 golf cart batteries. A custom-built, 8-kw inverter runs our high-voltage system. We have a small 2-1/2-kw gas generator that charges our batteries during stretches without sun. The inverter, panels, tracker and batteries cost about $34,000.

We harvest wood from our property to heat the house and water. Our Froling wood gasification boiler provides hot water for our domestic use and radiant floor heat. We also cook and heat with a Heartland woodburning cookstove during winter. A solar thermal panel heats our water in summer. We haven’t burned a drop of fossil fuel to heat the house or water in three years.

We “culturally adapt” to our available power: Just as we eat seasonally, we also use power seasonally. We monitor our energy use every day, and we know we can run out just as we can run out of milk or potatoes.

Your straw bale home is impressive. How did you build it?
We spent about seven years researching and planning. After we purchased our 40 acres, we passed three years exploring the property. We began by erecting a 30-by-60-foot pole barn to house equipment and straw while building our home. When we were about to start construction, wood from our county was put under quarantine because of the emerald ash borer, so we were able to salvage free logs for our house. We purchased a Norwood mill, and Joe milled lumber over the course of a year. Then, we worked every single day on actually building the house — after school, on weekends — for two years. We reached moments of exhaustion and frustration, but they were worth it.

A few highlights: We gleaned stone from our pastures to construct a stem wall to protect the straw from snow and rain. We installed 4,000 feet of radiant floor tubing in the floors, compressed 800 straw bales to form our walls, and mixed and spread about 80 tons of adobe plaster.

The house is 2,200 square feet, and the workshop, animal room and guest room add another 900 square feet. In the end, we completed all the work, including the solar system, for about $75 per square foot. We financed the home, land and solar system through a local farm credit union.

Do you preserve food? How much and which methods?
Shelly is a fantastic canner! She especially loves pickles — she pickles every possible kind of vegetable that can be grown in Michigan. The pressure canner and water bath canner are running almost every day during summer and fall. Tomatoes, carrots, jams, jellies, apple sauce, pizza sauce, hot sauce, plain tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, many kinds of salsas, ketchups, chutneys, corn, beans, sauerkraut, mincemeat, pie fillings, soups, baked beans, broths, stew, and more get jarred. Berries, peas, peppers, cubes of scrambled eggs and herbs all get frozen. Jars of rendered leaf lard and belly lard go into the freezer. Onions, potatoes, winter squash, carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips and garlic go into the root cellar. The cellar also has a rainwater cistern that pumps up into the house kitchen and the summer kitchen sinks via pitcher pumps. Shelly keeps a garden journal each year that tracks the varieties we’ve planted, dates, locations, harvests and canning records and recipes she liked.  She packs beautiful salads for school lunches for the family – and they always include at least four different kinds of pickles.

You live a good distance from everything. Do you have ways of lessening your use of fossil fuels for transportation?
We intentionally live in a different county from our places of work because of land prices and, primarily, because of regional building inspectors. Joe met with the building inspector prior to the purchase of our 40 acres to be sure the straw bale home plans would be approved (plans which would not be approved in the neighboring counties). We have driven a Toyota Prius since the first year they came out. Joe chooses to not purchase a parking pass at the University of Michigan, where he works, and takes the bus to campus almost every day.

Now that you’ve come so far and have been homesteading for a total of 22 years, can you remember what made you interested in taking on this type of lifestyle to begin with?
Neither of us grew up on a farm – but we knew we had it in us. Joe’s early experience as a Boy Scout cemented his interest in the environment and conservation. He especially enjoyed wilderness survival camp, and he worked at a vet hospital for years while planning to go to vet school, and he has always loved building things. Shelly grew up wanting all the dogs in the world and loved all kinds of animals. Her grandmother taught her to sew and was always making things around the house. Both of us would say that Laura Ingles Wilder’s writing had an effect on our lives. We met studying abroad in Scotland as undergraduates, where we became enamored with the black-faced sheep and Highland cattle and started to dream about farming together. After we were married in 1988, we quickly began accumulating animals. In 1992 we started a farm in Willow Springs, North Carolina. We began on just 3 acres, with a box of chicks, four rabbits and three Jacob sheep. We researched and debated long and hard over which kind of sheep we should breed. A visit to the amazing parade of breeds at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival made it clear that Jacobs were for us.

The farm moved with us to Tecumseh, Michigan, in 1994, when Joe was hired as an Art and Design Professor at the University of Michigan. We had 10 acres to grow the flock and expand the garden. Angora goats, fainting goats, Highland Cattle and a guard llama joined the growing Jacob flock.

Independence from the grid, minimizing fossil fuel, and rejecting industrial meat all became serious goals. We decided to build a home of natural materials that was efficient and settled into a piece of land in a way that we wanted. Eventually, we decided that straw bale was a good choice and toured homes in Arizona and Colorado. Joe devoured all publications on straw building techniques and drew up the plans. We spent a few years strategizing about where the new farmstead should be located and eventually settled on the rural community of Grass Lake, Michigan, and immediately clicked with the building inspector – which was critical for the plans. We set a goal of growing half of our own food; to date, we have gone almost 20 years without purchasing meat or eggs.

What does being a “modern homesteader” mean to you?
We each have a different take on this. For Joe, it is really about proof of concept – how low energy, natural building materials can be used in an efficient and beautiful way to create a home that supports your life. How managing your energy use and production can be fossil-fuel minimized and still allow one to lead a “normal” life. Thinking about how ecological systems operate with solar power and how to use the sun for heat, food and electricity. It is about piloting a creative transition into a lower energy society.

For Shelly, it is mostly about the garden: The pleasures of planning; her joy in making those seed orders; starting the seeds and preparing the beds; hours spent weeding, nurturing, watching. She is more personal about the farm – not very interested in the tours or the technology – but rather, the food and feeding the family. She also identifies as a shepherdess – watching and enjoying spring lambs is a favorite time. She is ready to share the pleasures of food and fiber with her students and the community – ready to emphasize that anyone can move toward sustainability if they just commit and try.

For our daughters, they have grown to take pride in what they have helped build. They enjoy showing off their rooms and sharing the farm with their friends. Both are more into sports and reading than the animal care, but they are excellent helpers and share the load without much complaint. They are attuned to energy use and know when there is and isn’t surplus power. They certainly notice when friends leave lights on!

We all have gotten used to the standard comments that come with every house tour we give. “Wow, we were expecting a mud hut, not a beautiful home,” and, “We know where to go when the zombies come.” We are not “doomsteaders,” we are not “preppers.”  We are farmers. We are builders. We are about efficiency and against fossil -fuel use, but it is not the “more with less” approach. It is about “less with less,” and being happy with that.  The style and scale of the farmstead is intentionally within U.S. cultural norms – but different. We know that relationships take time and effort. We prioritize the relationships with our family, our food and animals, our land, water, and energy.

Where do you see yourselves a year from now? 5 years? 10 years?
A year from now, we hope to be learning the rhythm of the new hoop house, milling timbers for a new barn and have its foundation work underway, and have our farm website in order.

In five years, we will be settling into farm life as empty nesters (our girls will be in college), settled into good routine of using livestock barn and winter feed lots ,perhaps adding a few more solar panels or windmill and an electric car, and have a book published on the house / project / farm (working title is A Family-Built Home). We are also hoping to add grains into the garden, mushrooms into our food production, beer into our fermentation projects, and pheasants and Icelandic or Shetland sheep into our livestock numbers. We’d love to set up a rainwater catchment off the barn and hook it up to a drip-irrigation system for the garden and hoop house. 

In  10 years, we will have added dairy animal(s) to the herd; started making cheese, yogurt and butter; started smoking our own ham, bacon, lunch meats (which means the smoker and a proper abattoir will be built); become good bread-bakers; trained a pair of working oxen and added a mule or fjord horse; gotten control of invasive weed species.

Through it all, we will be demonstrating that this lifestyle is possible, and that regular people can make it happen. 

Self-Reliant Living: The Bees’ Knees

Who: Robert and Jaime Cool, with daughter Norah.
Edgemont, N.C., since 2006.
Bee Kind Family Farm is a 2-1/2-acre off-grid homestead in the Pisgah National Forest that specializes in producing honey and related products. The family raises 70 percent of its food.
Homestead-based income:
Via local farmstands, the Cools sell honey, hives, produce, shiitake mushrooms, eggs, chickens, soap and candles. These sales accounted for nearly $9,000 last year. Jaime also sells homemade soaps and candles online.
Off-homestead employment: Robb works full time as an inn’s maintenance tech.

Find them online at Bee Kind Family Farm.

Describe a general day in the life at your homestead.
Our lifestyle makes us constantly aware of the weather. Different seasons require different chores, but no matter the season, most everything we do revolves around the weather. We’re surrounded by 192,000 acres of forest; it’s a haven for our honey bees, but we’re quite isolated and must look out for ourselves.

During winter, we get up by 6 a.m., start a fire, feed and water the chickens, and haul more wood into the house. Robb goes to work, and Jaime drives Norah to school and then spends the day baking, handling household chores, cooking on the wood cookstove and sewing. In the evenings, Robb builds hives, puts together bee frames and takes inventory of bee equipment. In early spring, Jaime starts seeds, readies garden beds for planting and transplants seedlings. By late spring, she’s busy weeding, harvesting, bottling and labeling honey, handling online sales, making soap — the list goes on! Robb makes hives to sell and is in the bee yard every spare moment inspecting hives and rearing queens. He begins pulling honey in early summer. Fall is bustling, too, with Jaime canning garden bounty and planting late-season crops. Robb regularly hauls and splits wood. We burn about 11 cords in winter. It’s a busy, yet rewarding, life.

Busy, indeed! You mentioned sewing; do you sew clothing?
For 15 years, Jaime had an online business called Backporch Boutique, where she sold handmade hemp and organic cotton clothing. She still sews for our family. The majority of our clothing comes from Goodwill. We’re serious secondhand shoppers.

Can you describe your off-grid setup?
We’ve been living off the grid for two years with a system we installed ourselves. We have nine 240-watt solar panels, a 2,500-watt inverter, a charge controller and 12 deep-cycle batteries. We heat our home entirely with wood, and in winter we also cook on, bake in and heat water with our wood cookstove. We pay $40 each year for a permit to harvest dead trees from the Pisgah National Forest, which allows us an unlimited supply. Through the summer months, we use a homemade solar hot water collector and a fantastic outdoor solar shower. We’re free of power, water, heat, sewer, garbage, cable and cellphone bills.

Where did you learn your homesteading/DIY skills?
We learned from life experience, reading books and the searching on the Internet. I really encourage anyone who wants to learn a new homesteading skill to hit the library! The Internet is such a wonderful tool, too. We’ve learned a lot by watching YouTube videos.

So, Cool family, how does your garden grow?
Our garden space is split up into four gardens (they just keep growing… wink). I take care of about 1,800 to 2,000 square feet of garden space. We also have 60 shiitake mushroom logs, several blueberry bushes, strawberries and raspberries, and we recently planted five apple trees and two peach trees.

Our total harvest, including produce, honey, shiitakes, eggs, chickens, berries and fruit is probably close to 4,000 pounds or more.

Do you preserve food? How much and which methods?
We can most all of our food. We don’t have much freezer space; because we are off the power grid, we just have a small Energy Star refrigerator freezer. Jaime usually cans around 400 to 500 jars of food a year. We put up everything from beans, tomatoes, chicken stock, pickles, salsa, peaches, applesauce and jam, to shiitake mushrooms, juice, and more.  Plus, we dig and store about 100 pounds of potatoes, 60 pounds sweet potatoes and some winter squash.

We also freeze chickens that we raise and process, and make chicken sausage as well. We make mead (honey wine) from our honey every year, mixing in some berries to change up the flavor. We also homebrew beer every chance we get.

Does anyone have special chores/projects/tasks that you’d like to explain?
Our seven-year-old daughter Norah has her own garden, beehive and shiitake mushroom log. She also claimed one of the chicken tractors with our Polish chicken as her own. Norah inspects the hives with Robb and gets the honey from her hive to sell at the farmers market.  She is splitting her hive this year, so she will now be the proud owner of two beehives.

What does being a “modern homesteader” mean to you?
To us, being a modern homesteader means cutting out the middle man. They are those who take the necessary steps to provide for themselves. Whether it be growing a garden and having livestock for food, providing your own utilities, or making your own repairs — to us, it’s about surviving and supplying what you need without outside resources. 

Self-Reliant Living: Clean Living

Who: Matt and Jennifer Eby, with children Kathryn, Lauren and Henry.
Cassopolis, Mich., since 2011.
Eby Farms covers 36 acres and is home to sheep, chickens and cattle, all of which provide products the family consumes and sells.
Homestead-based income:
Through farmers markets, craft shows, and on-farm and online transactions, the family sells homemade soap and body care products, and meat and eggs from their animals, all of which adds up to approximately 70 percent of the family’s yearly income.
Off-homestead employment:
Matt works a part-time construction job that provides 30 percent of the household income.

Find them online at Eby Farms LLC.

What are your favorite parts of your homestead?
Our biggest project was the 14-month remodel of our 900-square-foot house to make it more energy-efficient. We bought the property from Jennifer’s parents, and it needed a lot of updating. Matt also constructed a chicken plucker and a scalder from a scavenged tub — the scalder is heated with a wood boiler (see bottom photo, above). All in all, we spent about $850, whereas buying equivalent scalding and plucking equipment new would have cost about $6,000. We’re proud of our diesel-converted minivan, too. Matt and a friend transferred the diesel engine and manual transmission from our VW Jetta into our minivan so we now average about 37 mpg — nearly twice the van’s prior gas mileage! Matt spent two weeks and only $700 on additional parts for the conversion.

A couple of favorite smaller projects: We installed a heat exchanger on our woodstove to preheat water before it heads to the hot water heater, and Matt built an energy-free waterer for our cattle that makes use of a tube that runs below the frost line to keep water from freezing.

Detail how you raise and sell your livestock.
We keep a small cow-calf herd of Highland cattle and raise Jersey steers — which we buy when they’re a couple of days old — for meat. Our herd runs about 15- to 25-head depending on the time of year. We put three-quarters beef in our freezer for our own consumption annually. A couple of sheep “mow” our lawn each year, and we butcher one each fall.

We have about 175 to 250 laying hens for eggs to eat and to sell. We raise three batches of about 500 pastured broilers and several turkeys each year — most to sell, but some for our freezer.

Currently, we’re able to market our products under a federal custom exemption for small farms that permits “freezer meat” sales. This exemption allows us to butcher our own chickens and have our cows butchered locally, and to then sell the meat on-farm as long as the customers pre-order a live animal.

You have quite a lineup of luscious soaps, lotions and more. Which of those products do you sell?
We handcraft cold-process soap bars that contain only essential oils for scent; body butter, which works like lotion; and lip butter made from oils and local beeswax. We also make laundry powder and liquid laundry soap for sensitive skin (that costs only about 5 cents per load), and we mix up a dry shampoo with ingredients from the pantry plus bentonite clay.

We started selling soap when the friends and family we’d shared bars with asked where to buy more. The soap we sell is made with the same recipe and high-quality ingredients we use at home.

Where did you learn how to farm and homestead?
Matt spent a lot of time on relatives’ farms and he went with his dad to jobs as a kid. He started working construction with his dad when he was 13. By the time he was 18, he did a frame-off restoration of an antique pickup. He's also done a lot of work on his own, stretching his skill set with some reading, but mostly learning as he goes. His “jobs” now include auto mechanic (he has rebuilt multiple transmissions, completed a vehicle engine/transmission swap, and does 99 percent of the maintenance on our vehicles), inventor/builder (he developed our cow waterer and our chicken plucker and scalder), and much more.

Jennifer grew up doing a little bit of canning, a very little bit, for salsa and jam. She had to learn canning by reading and experimenting, although she has gotten some really good tips from friends as well. Jennifer’s mom taught her to sew when she was younger, and her dad loved to cook. She’s always loved animals, small and large. She rode horses when she was younger, but didn't have much cow experience. One skill set builds the next skill set: You can't build a house with knowing how to swing a hammer or read a tape. The more you know, the more you are able to learn.


Do you preserve food? How much and which methods?
We do preserve food for our family — that's how we eat in the winter! We typically put away 2 bushels of our own potatoes, 40 quarts of pressure-cooked and frozen green beans, and 2 to 5 bushels of tomatoes (that we process into sauce, ketchup and juice). We freeze spaghetti squash and green peppers, and put about a 1/2-bushel of onions into the refrigerator to keep for the winter. We pick concord grapes from a local vineyard and process our own juice with a steamer. We buy fruit “seconds” from local farms and freeze 30 pounds of blueberries, can and freeze about 2 to 3 bushels of peaches, and freeze and jam 3 to 4 flats of strawberries. We bought 17 bushels of apple seconds last year and used 12 for having our own cider pressed, which yielded about 50 gallons, and used 5 bushels to make applesauce, which we canned without adding sugar.


Does anyone have special chores/projects/tasks that you'd like to explain?
The kids are with us all the time when we are outside. Kathryn's job is to gather eggs! We want our kids to learn the responsibility of taking care of the farm from us by spending time with us as we care for the farm. They take part in gardening and stacking firewood, and they help us while we bale hay and pick grapes.

What made you start down this road to self-reliance and homesteading?
Matt has always wanted to be a farmer and homesteader. Jennifer knew this when we got married, but had no idea what that really meant. She thought “hobby farming” with a few animals and a bigger garden sounded like fun. She grew up in the Chicago suburbs, but her dad always had rabbits, and at one point her family had two goats, some chickens and a few turkeys on their 3 acres (back in the ’80s). Reliving her childhood sounded like an adventure.

We started with raising our own laying hens — after all, we were paying a pretty penny at the grocery store for “free-range” eggs, and our own would be better! That was the start of it, and we loved it. Soon after, we bought a day-old bull calf from a local dairy. We bottle-fed Meatloaf and put him out to pasture. After buying locally raised broilers for a few years, we decided we could do that for ourselves as well. One thing led to the next, and now here we are!


Where do you see yourselves a year from now? 5 years? 10 years?
A year seems like such a short amount of time at this point in life. We have a running list of goals for each year that we re-do at the start of each new year. That really helps us keep perspective and set priorities for what needs to be done, and it gives us a chance to look back and see what we've accomplished. Within a year, we want to have our own milk cow, build the farm shop, do some renovations to the chicken-processing shed, expand the garden, and more. In 5 years, we would like to have an addition on the house that incorporates a mudroom, wood cookstove, a solarium on the south side for passive heat, and a soap-making kitchen. We want to have the farm paid for and to be able to support Matt as a full-time farmer. In 10 years, maybe we’ll add some things like growing and distilling our own essential oils, building ponds, and growing the farm business so there is room for our kids to have careers here. 

Self-Reliant Living: A Lovely, Debt-Free Ranch

Who: Tom and Ilene Preble.
Peyton, Colo., since 1997.
What: Long View Ranch includes a hand-built, earth-bermed, mortgage-free home and outbuildings on 120 acres with chickens, gardens and pastures, all at 7,000 feet above sea level.
Homestead-based income:
The Prebles sell eggs to friends, but instead of making much income, they embrace a simpler lifestyle — including forgoing TV and a landline phone, and limiting energy use to 200 kilowatt-hours per month on average — that allows them to live on less than $20,000 annually.
Off-homestead employment:
Tom and Ilene are both retired, but receive a pension from Tom’s previous career as a senior field engineer.

How long have you been homesteading?
We’ve been homesteading for 27 years. We’ve lived in our self-built, 1,800-square-foot berm home for 18 years. Before that, we lived and saved in a 14-by-70-foot single-wide trailer for nine years. The trailer was on 5 acres, so we gardened and practiced the MOTHER EARTH NEWS lifestyle even then. For example, Ilene made “window quilts” to save energy in winter, and Tom safely installed a woodstove in the trailer.

What does being a modern homesteader mean to you?
It’s a way of life. Being self-reliant and thrifty. Cultivating an independent, non-groupthink mindset and thinking way outside the box. Learning to slow down and appreciate what you’ve accomplished. For us, it’s also enjoying a good cup of tea together on the deck of our ranch home, listening to the birds sing and the hens cackle on a Wednesday morning — and giving a high-five about our weekday freedom. Celebrating being snug and warm while nestled into the earth, heating only with wood, even when a blizzard rages outside. Being on the same page as one another.

Modern homesteaders reach out with their quiet, enduring examples. They take their positive outlooks and self esteem into the world, and they support others with their actions and attitudes.

When you do have to leave your dreamy homestead, what methods of transportation do you use?

For getting around the ranch to fix fencing and complete other chores, we have a solar-powered golf cart. We bought a used electric golf cart from Masek with six 6-volt batteries. Tom modified two Harbor Freight solar kits to charge the batteries. The whole setup cost about $1,000. For most of the year, we run errands in our 2011 electric Nissan Leaf, which we bought used. When we drive to a nearby city, we charge the car at high-speed charging stations. At home, we charge the Leaf on a 240-volt welder outlet.

How do you save energy?
Our passive solar, earth-sheltered house is super-insulated, and we heat with less than a cord of wood a year. It has no north windows; you can walk onto the roof from the north. Our appliances are EnergyStar, and we’ve switched to spiral and LED lighting, blanketed our water heater, put up insulated window shades, and installed a root cellar in the garage.

In our house, we “run the system.” On winter days, the low sun floods our home with free light and heat. We drop our insulated blinds at sundown to retain that solar gain. In summer, we open up the windows at night, and we close them upon arising to keep our home comfortable throughout even the hottest stretches.

Describe any building projects.
We built our home and eight outbuildings, including barns, chicken coops and a writing studio. Tom worked every day for two years building the house right after he retired. Ilene kept the home fires burning and home-schooled our children. Building our house cost about $50,000 total. After we moved into our home, we built the barns and studio. We had more time, so we were able to gather inexpensive used and odd materials for our building projects. The studio cost about $5,000 to build, and the barns ran $1 to $1.50 per square foot because Tom built with used metal sheeting, discounted trusses and scrounged lumber. Tom also planted two pine trees a hammock’s-width apart many years ago. Now we share the big net hammock on summer evenings.

What are some of your favorite projects/accomplishments at your homestead?
We celebrate Ilene’s gardens.  We have a child’s picture from a storybook taped up in our kitchen of “Garden Friends.”  The friends are a “lowly worm” and a “busy ladybug.”  Guess which garden friend each of us is?  She directs the gardens and Tom does the heavy work of tilling, wheel-barrowing aged chicken poop, building boxes and welding hail tables. 

This is a good division of labor and we work well together and without too much hollering.  Needless to say, the home, barns and trees always make us smile when we come driving over the last hill to home.  Ilene will say, “Now look at that place there!  I could live there!  That place looks like a homestead.”  Trees really make a place, but most important are people.

How much garden space do you maintain?
I’d say we garden 50 by 100 feet in total.  We have garden beds wherever they make sense, so in sunny and wind-protected locations where the mulch will stay put.  We have no fruit trees at this time, but with retirement and more free time, they and pit greenhouses are planned for.

Do you raise meat animals, bees for honey, poultry for eggs or compost, or any other livestock?
We lease pastures in the summer to Todd, our cow man.  He grazes 12 to 16 head.  We have a good mix of gramma and bluestem, which are both high-protein grasses.  Todd is pleased with his cattle’s weight gain. I allow no overgrazing. We don’t have bees yet, but we plan to have them, and we also plan to put fish in our rain catchments.  We keep 35 hens for eggs and gather one to two dozen per day in spring and summer. Our chicken compost is separated by age and really helps the garden leap out of the ground.

Do you preserve food? How much and which methods?
We have canned, but not lately.  We preserve food by root cellaring in our earth-bermed, two-car garage and blanching and freezing green beans, broccoli and cauliflower.  We eat summer squash all season and root cellar the winter squash.

Share Inspiring Stories!

If you know someone who would make a great 2016 Homesteader of the Year, send 500 words and a few photos to us via email. Our winners will be featured in the magazine, and each will receive a collection of books from Storey Publishing, tickets to a MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR, a lifetime subscription to the magazine, and more!

Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter.