A 2.28-kw solar photovoltaic system powers the author’s rental cabin, generating a surplus that's sold back to the utility. A solar thermal system heats water.
Photo By John D. Ivanko
When you grow your own food, generate your own energy, and work from a home office or farm for your livelihood, the so-called “costs of living” largely disappear. You become untethered to the work-earn-spend consumer economy and thrive, instead, in a more locally centered, self-sufficient economy in which monetary income is less essential for a rich life. Making this self-sufficiency dream a reality has been our goal since my wife, Lisa Kivirist, and I moved to our 5 1⁄2-acre farmstead in southwestern Wisconsin in 1996.
Self-reliant living can take many forms. You can provide your own food and energy and be your own barber, repair person, home-school teacher, house cleaner, painter, and child care provider. By running a home-based business, you can generate the money needed to obtain essential products or services you’re unable to produce for yourself.
Transitioning to self-sufficient living requires research and planning. But have no fear: You can get started today, wherever you live and with whatever resources and skills you already have.
The Journey to Self-Reliance Begins
Today, our one-third-acre garden meets about 70 percent of our food needs. A wind turbine and a photovoltaic system generate a surplus of electricity annually. Our home-based enterprises include running a bed-and-breakfast named Inn Serendipity, consulting for various nonprofit organizations, and writing books about sustainable living. A modest farmhouse houses both our family and our businesses. But it didn’t start out this way.
We moved to our farm from Chicago, newly married and eager to begin our quest to reclaim the skills and services that we had been buying from others for so long. We wanted to break free from our fossil fuel addiction and sequester more carbon dioxide than we emit each year. We knew these goals would take years to achieve. Here are the strategies we have followed to make our vision a reality.
1. Be Frugal
Practice financial discipline by making a commitment to frugality. Forgoing luxuries, such as satellite TV and smartphone service, allows us to live below our means. We’ve never owned a new car or carried a balance on our credit card.
Why rent a movie when you can get it free from the library? “Shop” at clothing swaps, where you drop off the clothes your children have outgrown while picking up something new for yourself. We chop cords of firewood with neighbors and enjoy cooking with our Sun Oven solar cooker. The combined savings from these creative ways to share and use free resources, along with our food and energy production, allowed us to pay off our mortgage.
With our mortgage retired, we can live on about $10,000 a year. When we do purchase items, they’re high-quality and durable — many with warranties for a decade or more — and are bought from cooperatives when possible. As for retirement, why would we want to stop what we love doing?
2. Think Long-Term and Stay Put
Commit to a permanent location and develop a long-term vision. You will want to have a practical plan that you can achieve over a time period appropriate to your current stage of life. Taking on a project in your 50s that would require years to see through is not the same as doing so in your 20s. Be reasonable and honest with yourself regarding your abilities and project time frames.
We plotted our journey to self-reliance by the decade, leaving ample time to figure out projects big and small, from how to plant potatoes to how to take advantage of renewable energy incentives that made our home energy systems possible. We also factored in time to persevere when setbacks occurred — which they did, such as when a severe windstorm damaged all three blades on our wind turbine. We typically only take on one or two major self-sufficiency projects a year.
3. Get Back to Basics
Deciding where to start your journey can feel overwhelming. If you’re like we were — strung out on lattes, hunkered down in cubicles at stressful big-city jobs, living off biweekly paychecks — simply finding the time to think through the how, where and when is challenging. Raising kids and paying a mortgage or student loans can add to the stress.
Start by focusing on survival and sustenance. Six main spheres guide our approach to self-sufficient living: water, shelter, food, energy (including transportation), finances and community (including entertainment). The spheres you decide to work on first will be based on your situation, passions, unique skills and finances. We all have limitations to achieving total self-reliance — but after you know your limits, you can strive to transform them into possibilities. (See “How We Meet Our Six Basic Needs,” later in this article.)
We chose to immediately adopt what came easiest, such as line-drying our laundry, or what offered the fastest payback, such as switching to more efficient appliances. Our back-to-basics start set the stage for taking more challenging steps later on that involved larger investments of both time and money. Assess what you already have that could serve your goals. For example, we knew our south-facing rooftop was well-suited for a solar thermal system, so we factored this asset into our plan to heat our domestic water.
4. Cultivate Your Relationship
For those embarking on their journey with a partner, not to be overlooked is the commitment you make with one another to find a shared vision. While Lisa and I have different approaches and skills, we support and encourage each other and evaluate our decisions along the way with a good dose of humor. There were no simple answers to the many difficult choices we faced. But splitting wood together, for example, allowed for plenty of time to strategize (and served as great marital therapy, too).
Improving our bodies’ health was also a priority. When we dropped watching TV, we became more physically active and had more time to devote to the projects ahead of us. Working on our farm became our best exercise plan. In the off-season, we view our gym membership as our preventive health care investment.
5. Change With the Seasons
We let seasonality dictate our diet — we gorge on strawberries in June and savor butternut squash soup in January. The seasons also guide the diversity of projects that make up our livelihood. Through the warm growing season, we dwell outside in the gardens and focus on generating income through our bed-and-breakfast and cabin-rental enterprises. During winter months, writing, photography, speaking and consulting generate most of our revenue.
6. Create a Homestead
While not essential, owning some land can become the foundation on which you cultivate self-sufficiency. We quit our jobs and moved from Chicago to our small rural property, committed to being wise stewards of the land — improving the soil organically, planting trees for windbreaks and wildlife, and using what the land offered us, such as plentiful wind and sun.
More is not necessarily better when it comes to owning land responsibly. Create a land-management plan that is both realistic and financially feasible. Your land should be an asset that creates cash flow and appreciates in value over time as a result of activities you undertake. Renting farmland is an option as long as the lease agreement allows for the projects necessary to accomplish your goals.
Our mentors and fellow homesteaders who live down the road, Phil and Judy Welty, built a log home in 1974 with funds from their prosperous maple syrup operation on the same site.
“The only thing we didn’t do ourselves was the foundation,” Phil says. With the help of his two young sons and his wife, he constructed their 1,400-square-foot home in one year, later adding a solar thermal system and a half-kilowatt wind turbine to meet their energy needs. About 90 percent of their food was raised on-site, including chickens for eggs, a couple of steers and a hog.
Heidi Hankley lives on a 7-acre homestead in the northern part of our county with her husband, Chip, and their two children. “After living in the city of Madison, we wanted our kids to grow up in the country,” she says. The straw-and-cob home they built includes a masonry stove and a solar thermal system, surrounded by a prairie and a kitchen garden. “We wanted to build a healthy house to raise and home-school our two kids in, and to make sure it provided plenty of creative space.”
7. Eliminate Debt
When your backyard serves as a farmers market, your kitchen as a restaurant, and your cellar as your supermarket, you essentially eliminate food costs. Producing most of our food allowed us to pay down our mortgage faster — plus, the quality of our food improved.
Translated from its French origin, mortgage means “death contract.” A mortgage (including interest charges associated with the borrowed principal) often works against folks striving to become more self-sufficient because of the demands placed upon the borrower. The same is true if you purchase a vehicle with a loan or credit cards. Get rid of these debts to reclaim your financial freedom.
We recommend that you strive to never buy anything that you can’t pay for in cash. When you do have cash saved from your various enterprises, invest in real assets, such as renewable energy systems that power your homestead or a fuel-efficient vehicle that reliably gets you around when needed. If you own a hybrid or diesel car, every mile you drive for tax-deductible business purposes can net you more than what it costs to operate the vehicle — another reason to become your own boss.
8. Start a Home Business
Self-employment requires a do-it-yourself mentality applied to personal finance. Explore ways you might turn part of your home into an office or craft a business based on value-added products you can grow or make yourself. (Get dozens of ideas in Home-Based Business Opportunities)
We use about a quarter of our home’s square footage for business purposes — two bed-and-breakfast guest rooms in the house, plus a home office. We sign a “triple net lease” on our bed-and-breakfast, with Lisa and me as the property owners. With a triple net lease, our business pays us rental income — which accounts for the bulk of the income we earn every year — plus three additional items: the business’ share of the property taxes (about 24 percent), insurance and upkeep costs.
The revenues a business generates are reduced by expenses. Instead of pure profit maximization, we leverage our business to meet our self-sufficiency goals by reinvesting most of our profits to make our business more sustainable, such as by completing environmentally friendly renovations to our bed-and-breakfast and cabin. (These topics are explored in our book ECOpreneuring.)
You don’t necessarily have to stay put on your homestead year-round. A wonderfully enriching aspect of our livelihood includes speaking at such events as the Mother Earth News Fairs, writing articles about amazing homesteaders and farmstead chefs across the country, and taking photographs. Technology and the Internet collapse the distance between our editors, our clients and us.
9. Build a Community
Creating community has been the way of homesteaders for centuries — self-reliance is not about going at it alone. We were drawn to Green County, Wis., because we wanted to share a ZIP code with others who appreciate the rolling green hills, award-winning cheese factories and Monroe’s Downtown Historic Courthouse Square. Our neighbors have been instrumental in our transition by helping us renovate Inn Serendipity, guiding us on the finer points of weed identification and weasels in the henhouse, and heading off costly mistakes with kindly shared wisdom (for which no money was exchanged).
A segment of our community formed Transition Green County, a group that imagines how to move our community toward becoming free of fossil fuels and food shipped in from far away.
We’ve found that not every person will applaud or even support the path you’ve chosen, including your immediate family. That’s where your community-building skills come in. But if you pull it off, you’re less likely to struggle with mortgage payments, survive on food grown far from home, or do a job you hate for a paycheck. The richness of our life is apparent in the beauty of our farmstead, the health of our bodies and spirits, and the joy we find when our home-schooled son learns something new.
You can live the self-sufficient dream, wherever you call home. In the simplest terms, it’s a matter of living off what nature provides in ways that connect you to the land and your neighbors.
How We Meet Our Six Basic Needs
My wife and I set out to achieve a more mindful, self-reliant way of life guided by the following six spheres that ensure all of our basic needs are met. Here’s how we address each sphere.
Water. A 500-gallon water tank directs water from gutters on our straw-bale greenhouse to a rain barrel and a pond to be used for personal showers and garden irrigation.
Shelter. We renovated our farmhouse using natural building materials and recycled products, such as tiles made from windshields. Our metal roofs will last many decades, and we’ve purchased energy-efficient appliances. Floors were made from sustainably harvested wood.
Food. Our one-third-acre garden meets 70 percent of our food needs, and we freeze and can food for winter use.
Energy. We added a solar thermal system in 1997, a woodstove used for heating and cooking in 1999, a 10-kw wind turbine in 2003, and a 0.7-kw photovoltaic system in 2006. For transportation, our 2000 Volkswagen Jetta TDI gets 42 miles per gallon and we use an electric 1974 CitiCar to drive to our local bank.
Finances. We receive more than 1,000 paychecks a year, from $2 for garlic to $2,000 for a keynote presentation. Our diversified enterprises include our bed-and-breakfast, a rental cabin, writing, photography, speaking, and consulting for organizations, such as the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Community. Neighbors provided assistance and lessons throughout our journey. In 2010, we helped launch a forward-thinking community group, Transition Green County, with friends and neighbors.
John D. Ivanko co-authored the award-winning book ECOpreneuring with his wife, Lisa Kivirist — from which many aspects of this article were drawn. Their other books are Rural Renaissance and Farmstead Chef.