The path to self-reliance can be just as rewarding as the ultimate goal. This is one of many lessons learned by our 2012 Homesteaders of the Year.
PHOTO: TIM CONLIN
We are now accepting nominations for our 2013 Homesteaders of the Year! Please send a 500-word description of a friend, family or neighbor you think deserves to be one of our honored homesteaders to Letters@MotherEarthNews.com with the subject line "Homesteaders of the Year." You can also send nominations by mail to Homesteaders of the Year; c/o MOTHER EARTH NEWS; 1503 SW 42nd St.; Topeka, KS 66609. Please include at least three photos showing the nominees and their homestead activities with your nomination.
The word “homesteading” may conjure images of families lined up in front of a sod house, a mule hitched to a plow working the fields in the background. Such pioneers truly labored for their livelihood, sweating to construct homes, produce food, haul water and raise animals. Modern homesteading doesn’t fit that description, but those who choose it have the same can-do attitude and have found new ways of living the good life.
Last fall, when MOTHER EARTH NEWS called for nominations for our 2012 Homesteaders of the Year contest, we never could’ve predicted the variety of do-it-yourselfers we’d hear about. From families on 100-plus acres in rural Canada to couples in tiny homes on one-third-acre plots in a bustling metropolis, all kinds of self-reliant folks from across North America were nominated.
The nominees have incredible green thumbs — growing large veggie gardens and tending orchards. For most, food preservation is a constant activity — freezing, dehydrating, canning and storing food in a root cellar. Many of these modern homesteaders supplement their gardens with local products and raise poultry and livestock for eggs, meat, dairy and manure.
A big part of self-reliance for many of the nominees involves energy efficiency. Remodels and upgrades to turn an old house into a more energy-efficient home were common, as were hand-built homes powered by renewable energy sources.
One of the most inspiring qualities of nearly all the nominees is their dedication to building more self-reliant communities. Many modern homesteaders share their passion with neighbors by teaching classes, volunteering, giving tours of their homes and gardens, or even just by living the good life their own way — setting an example for neighbors, friends and family.
Choosing only one Homesteader of the Year proved too daunting, so we chose three winners and four runners-up. Our overall favorites are showcased here, and you can find more modern homesteaders and their stories online in Star 2012 Modern Homesteaders.
Living the Good Life With a Hand-Built Home
Our first family hails from Meco, N.Y., and was nominated by Dan Gibson, chief coordinator of Our Energy Independence Community, an online hub for information on reducing energy use. Throughout several years traveling the Northeast in this position, Gibson has visited many off-grid homes. Of the winning family, Gibson wrote, “I know of only one family that has been living off the grid for more than a decade and built their home from timbers harvested, milled and joined on their property (by themselves).” Jim Strickland, a carpenter, and Laurie Freeman, a biology teacher at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, first met in 1982. Laurie recalls that in their first conversation, the two discussed alternative building — you could say it was the “foundation” of their relationship. Even before Jim and Laurie moved into their current off-grid home, they lived in a hand-built barn that was also unconnected to the grid. In April 2000, the couple paid their last utility bill.
Jim and Laurie hand-built their timber-frame straw bale home. The frame is set upon a one-of-a kind foundation built from stone found nearby. Gathering 126 friends and neighbors, the couple hosted an old-fashioned house-raising. In a notebook the couple kept as a remembrance of the day’s events, the first comment from a volunteer was, “Amazing! Everything fits!” It truly is amazing, considering the home was built primarily with hand tools, aided only by a chain saw and portable sawmill. The walls were built of straw bale and plaster, and a greenhouse atrium — along with all the windows and doors — were finished with recycled glass.
Jim and Laurie added solar panels to their homestead and use the sun’s energy for all of their electricity and hot water. They built their first solar hot water heater from scratch, and after a few “minor mishaps,” Jim and Laurie assembled their current system. The hot water panels were salvaged from a system dating to the ’70s, and the couple designed and built the remaining parts of the heater themselves. By using solar power, Gibson wrote, “They have many conveniences of the 21st century but still use less than one-tenth the electricity of the average connected home.”
Avid gardeners, Jim and Laurie are “beans-and-potatoes independent.” Despite both maintaining careers away from the homestead, they tend a large garden and store their excess harvests through the winter months in their large root cellar, which stays between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit for nine months of the year. The couple raises a variety of chickens and enjoys free-range eggs year-round, as well as honey from their beehives.
Perhaps most important, Jim and Laurie haven’t kept their skills to themselves. They’ve actively worked to improve their community by hosting their home for the past eight years in an annual green building and solar tour. They have also presented many self-sufficiency classes for the Northeast Organic Farmers Association. Jim has written several articles about modern homesteading, on topics ranging from building a home to living off the grid (read Jim’s articles online at Our Energy Independence Community).
As Gibson wrote in his nomination of the couple, “If I were heading West before oil made life so easy, I’d feel a whole lot better prepared knowing Jim and Laurie were in our group!”
Living the Good Life the Bite-Sized Way
On the opposite side of the United States, our second Homesteaders of the Year have turned one-tenth of an acre into a productive, energy-efficient homestead. The 21st Street Urban Homestead in Corvallis, Ore., hosts a community-based, self-sufficient lifestyle. Charlyn Ellis, a teacher, and Mark Boyd, a software engineer, both work away from home. They rely heavily on the harvests from their garden, which provides fresh eating from early April through November. By drying their harvests, growing good storage varieties of winter squash and potatoes (up to 100 pounds each year), and canning about 70 half pints of roasted tomatoes, the couple enjoys homegrown foods year-round.
Using an A-frame chicken tractor (based on an old plan from MOTHER EARTH NEWS), Charlyn and Mark move their flock of chickens from garden bed to garden bed, where the birds scratch and shred the layers of mulch, eat bugs, and fertilize the beds. Not surprisingly, the couple enjoys great-tasting eggs all year. In one corner of their lot, you’ll find a top-bar beehive full of bees, which provides the family with honey.
Charlyn and Mark supplement their homegrown produce by buying in bulk from local farmers. At the annual Corvallis Fill Your Pantry Market, they purchase locally grown wheat, oatmeal, dried beans, flaxseed, storage onions, carrots, beets and squash. Right before this event, which has been running for eight years, farms in the area send out a list of the items they have for sale so local residents can pre-order and later pick up their winter pantry staples. Charlyn volunteers once a week at Sunbow, an organic farm, and receives canning tomatoes and other produce to put up for winter in exchange for her labor.
The couple’s self-reliance extends from the garden into the kitchen. From fresh cheese to homemade yogurt made with local milk to grinding local flour for bread-baking, home cooking is integrated into their everyday activities. Eating seasonally and valuing the local foodscape brings about an appreciation noted by many nominees. For Charlyn, “It makes our food feel more special, knowing that each item has a season.”
Charlyn and Mark moved into their 625-square-foot house 14 years ago and have been working ever since to make it a more energy-efficient home. The abode now sports new insulation, storm windows, highly efficient appliances and an outdoor shower. For what energy is needed, the couple purchases “Blue Sky” power, an option from a local electric company that supports large- and small-scale wind and solar power installations.
Charlyn and Mark have definitely chosen to follow the Three Rs in proper order, emphasizing the need to Reduce before Reusing and Recycling. “Our trash only goes out twice a year, when we call it in,” Charlyn says. Living on an urban lot, the couple can rely on walking and biking for transportation and even hauling supplies — including their chicken feed — to further reduce their fossil fuel dependence.
The couple opens their tiny home to organized tours, including local tours of organic gardens and chicken coops, and bike tours of “eco-homes.” As Charlyn says, “It demonstrates that you do not have to live in the country to run a homestead. You can live a more sustainable, small-scale life right in town!” Read more about Charlyn and Mark in their blog at 21st Street Urban Homestead.
Living the Good Life the Intergenerational Way
Our third Homesteaders of the Year were nominated by Barbara Heller, who chose her husband, Alan Steinberg, and their daughter, Rebecca Heller-Steinberg. As Barbara wrote in the nomination, “When I was initially introduced to my husband, he was the most MOTHER EARTH NEWS-type guy I had ever met.” The first gift Alan used to woo his city wife toward a self-sufficient lifestyle was Helen and Scott Nearing’s classic homesteading book, Living the Good Life.
Alan and Barbara — both psychotherapists who manage private practices away from the homestead — currently live on 7 acres in Afton, N.Y., in a renovated house originally built in the 1850s. The home is heated with a wood-burning stove and uses a solar hot water system. “We put in two solar panels, and just two hours of sunlight heats the tank enough for our needs for the next 24 hours,” Alan says. The property now features multiple hand-built outbuildings and handmade furniture, including what the couple calls the “Irwin chair,” a tribute to a deceased friend made from the staves of his deteriorated, wood-heated hot tub.
Alan and Barbara have outfitted the property with several large gardens. Foods preserved from their harvests keep the family eating well throughout the year. Alan created an 8-foot deer fence to protect the family’s homegrown food supply and a mobile hoop house to extend their garden’s production into cooler months. “We won’t eat fresh tomatoes out of season — it’s just not fresh if it’s not out of the garden,” Barbara says. What the couple doesn’t grow is purchased from local farmers markets and a local food subscription service started by their daughter (keep reading).
In nominating Alan and Rebecca, Barbara was hesitant to mention her own contributions to the homestead, but it’s clear she plays an important role. She began growing herbs — and learning about their culinary and medicinal uses — with fervor. After starting an herb study group, Barbara began writing pamphlets and even a couple of books on the many uses of herbs.
Rebecca has taken the skills passed down by her father (and her humble mother, too) and applied them to her life in the nearby city of Binghamton. She is co-manager of the Binghamton Urban Farm, for which she plants, harvests and sells produce. Rebecca also runs a small business, Extended Harvest, which provides subscriptions for folks looking for regionally sourced foods in wintertime. Her customers can choose from a small or large subscription of frozen and fresh vegetables, and they can add on locally produced grains, meats and cheeses. “Extended Harvest fills the gap for distribution that is needed in most local food systems,” says Rebecca.
Rebecca and her boyfriend, Dan Livingston, tend backyard chickens as well as their yard’s edible landscaping. Despite being apartment renters, the couple installed rain barrels, low-flow shower heads and compost bins to lessen their environmental footprint. “We choose to consume less — we don’t really buy new stuff,” Rebecca says.
The importance of community is not lost on Rebecca either. Her mother wrote, “Last summer she was a supervisor for the Binghamton Urban Farm summer youth employment program.” Rebecca also coordinates events within the local food scene, such as a locavore potluck, and she teaches programs about agriculture through a local cooperative extension office.
This father-daughter duo puts their heads and hands together to collaborate on many self-sufficiency projects, from ordering garden seeds and boiling down maple sap to hunting deer and presenting workshops at the Binghamton Urban Farm. Barbara sums up their shared values like this: “Always live below your means and enjoy how you spend your days.”
Homesteading Education Month
MOTHER EARTH NEWS and Grit magazine have teamed up to declare September as International Homesteading Education Month. We encourage you to schedule an event to share your skills or projects with your neighbors. You can use our online calendar to find like-minded folks in your area who are hosting events. Find out how to participate at International Homesteading Education Month.
More Star Modern Homesteaders Living the Good Life
Alison Gannett and Jason Trimm own Holy Terror Farm, a 75-acre homestead built in 1889 near Paonia, Colo. Their hard work — with assistance from apprentices — provides chemical-free heirloom vegetables, fruits, honey, nuts, grains and beans as well as pastured cows, chickens and pigs. When Alison and Jason have more than they can eat fresh or preserve, they sell through a nonprofit online farmers market they founded in 2009, Local Farms First.
Holy Terror Farm integrates livestock and manual labor to produce all of its crops. The couple strives to produce everything the farm needs, from growing their animals’ hay to rendering fats for cooking. Grains are hand-harvested and ground before being baked in a solar oven or handmade, wood-fired masonry stove. Alison and Jason have even applied for a distillery permit with the goal of making their own fuel from rotting fruit and wood.
Hope Springs Eternal
The Moran family moved to Hopewell Farms in 2008 after deciding to abandon their suburban life. This family of five has created a productive biodynamic farm on their 70 acres in the foothills of New Hampshire. They live off the grid, employing a large spread of rooftop solar panels along with their own wind turbine.
Several heritage breeds of chickens, sheep, pigs and cattle call the fields of Hopewell Farms home. The farm was the first in the state to qualify as an Animal Welfare Approved operation. In addition to their animals, the Morans tend heirloom vegetables and fruits, which they sell through a community supported agriculture program. The family also restored and rebuilt a 150-year-old maple orchard and sugarhouse that they now use to produce and sell maple syrup. In February 2012, Hopewell Farms was named a New Hampshire Farm of Distinction.
Still Crazy After All These Years
Joseph Graham and Sheila Eskenazi were bitten by the homesteading bug two children, two grandchildren, many generations of poultry, four outbuildings and six hand-dug gardens ago. In 1978, after five months of work, the couple finished building a home they had been hoping to move into before winter set in. The joy wasn’t long-lived, however — the next morning, the waist-deep snow on their property north of Montreal left them without a working pump to get water to the new house.
After weathering this and other tribulations, Joseph and Sheila, now in their 60s, continue to live out their homesteading dream. They eat from their garden during summer, buy red meat “on the hoof” from neighbors, trade their chickens to trappers in exchange for wild meat (including beaver and moose), and raise trout and bees. After decades of maintaining their homestead alone, the couple has started bringing in volunteers (WWOOFers). Helpers from four continents have come to learn, teach and share — spreading the homestead’s community spirit around the world.
Canada’s Irish Hills
Tim and Rachel Conlin homestead on 300 acres in Ontario. The couple started by growing vegetables, making maple syrup and raising chickens, eventually adding in sheep, goats and cattle. The freezer at Irish Hills Farm is never empty, nor is the root cellar. The couple’s organic garden supplements the fishponds Tim built, and Rachel milks their goats and crafts homemade cheeses. All of their home’s heat is supplied by wood Tim cuts and splits.
Rachel has become an expert in spinning their sheep’s wool, and the endeavor is now a successful addition to their farmstand. The main reason the family keeps up this self-sufficient lifestyle? “There’s nothing more satisfying after an honest day’s work than sitting down to a home-cooked meal prepared with food from your land, a fire in the woodstove and hand-knit socks warming your toes — and knowing you did not have to depend on anyone else for these comforts,” Rachel says.
Congratulations to all of our 2012 Homesteaders of the Year! Each of these three self-reliant families will receive a selection of books from our friends at Storey Publishing, plus tickets to attend a MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR. Additionally, the winners and runners-up will each receive a lifetime subscription to MOTHER EARTH NEWS.
Find even more inspiring stories about other nominees in Star Modern Homesteaders.
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 or Google+.