The DIY Life: Learn the Ways to Self-Sufficient Living

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Photo courtesy Lisa Neff and Connie Wolgast
Norman the steer grazes along the edge of Homesteaders of the Year Kelly McCormick and Glenn Maresca’s pond. The Florida couple’s hand-built home overlooks the native duck haven and farm, which has become a home to unwanted rescue animals who are now useful, well-loved livestock.

Breaking away from the confines of a full-time office job in order to build a self-sufficient homestead is something many of us dream about — but actually diving in can be a daunting decision. This year’s Homesteaders of the Year share how they have applied thrifty-living sense and DIY skills to work more from home doing jobs they love — jobs that connect directly to their health, creativity and life satisfaction. As the charts included in this article show, all three families have embraced the DIY life and have saved big by constructing and renovating their homestead structures, often making use of salvaged wood and other repurposed materials. Two of the families even built their own homes.

If you, too, want to go “back to the land,” don’t be deterred by a lack of homesteading skills. At the outset, you may only have passion, determination, physical strength or an addiction to sun-ripened tomatoes. Whatever pulls you toward self-sufficient living will form the foundation upon which you can build a framework of practical skills to carry you forward. Each how-to book you pore over and each conversation you have with practiced DIYers will expand your expertise. And each time you master a new skill, complete a challenging project or sit down to a delicious, 100 percent homegrown meal, you’ll feel more confident that you made the right choice when you chose to become a modern homesteader. Eventually, like the do-it-yourself builders we feature here, you’ll be able to tackle big projects, maybe even taking on DIY building projects with repurposed materials. Who knows? You could even learn how to build a house for your family!

You can also learn and share new skills with your neighbors by participating in our third annual International Homesteading Education Month this September. Check out all the resources and event listings we’ve compiled at our International Homesteading Education Month page to join in.

Without further ado, we’re proud to introduce the following hands-on and how-to families as our 2014 Homesteaders of the Year who are truly living the DIY life. For even more stories of families practicing a DIY lifestyle, head to our Star Modern Homesteaders collection page.

The DIY Life on a Human-Powered Farm

Who: Kelly McCormick and Glenn Maresca, along with Kelly’s parents, John and Linda
Where: Duette, Fla., since 2007
What: 5-acre farm with a 60-by-30-foot garden, tropical fruit trees, poultry, cows, a potbellied pig, bees and dogs
Employment: Kelly: freelance Web and graphic designer; Glenn: homestead maintenance man, car repairman and on-site vet
Homestead Highlights: Committing almost entirely to human and animal power; saving seeds to create heat- and pest-tolerant crop varieties; producing 80 percent of their food; crossing South Asian game hens with Turken chickens to breed what they call “swampers”; adopting livestock from local animal organizations
Handy Work: Click to see the full list of their DIY Building Projects Made With Repurposed Materials, including the time and money spent on each project.

What does being a “modern homesteader” mean to you?
To us, it means being self-sustaining without fearing new technology — enhancing time-honored activities with new concepts and ways of thinking. For example, we hope to eventually use solar power for all of our electricity.

If you were starting over, what would you do differently? The same?
We would have started much younger. We wasted so much time trying to conform to social norms, when that time would have been better spent developing a sustainable life. We also would have gotten cows sooner. When we started, the thought of cows was daunting, mainly because of their size. We would never be without them now, though, because of the great manure and, after we breed Maybee, the fresh milk. We’d do everything else the same — even our failures have been fantastic learning opportunities.

What made you start down this road to self-reliance and homesteading?
Many realizations led to our desire to homestead. We didn’t even put a name on it; we just started to act on our beliefs. We no longer wanted to contribute to the exploitation of people, animals and the planet, and we started to recognize that the road humanity is on is no longer sustainable. Our retail food system is unreliable and unhealthy, so one of our first goals was to decrease our dependence on the grocery store. Food doesn’t have to be a commodity; it can be something you grow, and not something you buy. I remember reading an editorial in MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and the gist was that you don’t need to prepare for an end-of-the-world scenario, but what if everything you currently buy was 10 times more expensive? This really struck a chord and reinforced the need to have the ability to sustain myself, my family and our animals without outside help or interference. To quote a great man: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” (Gandhi).

What’s unique about your garden?
The Florida gardening season is short, because the hot summer weather carries in bugs and disease, followed by flooding and a few frosts in winter. We start our seedlings inside the house and on a covered porch to jump-start the growing season. By saving seed each year, we’ve developed lines of landrace crops that are becoming more heat- and pest-tolerant.

We have a full loop between our animals, the garden and us — we use our animals for free fertilizer and pest control. We call our cultivation style “no-pesticide, non-mechanized” gardening, because we dig, weed and water by hand and have never used any pesticides. Annually, we spend about $22 on the garden — just enough for some new seeds.

What thrifty-living tips do you have regarding homestead renewable energy?
Our renewable energy resource is, well, us! When we build a coop or a cattle shelter, instead of rolling out the extension cord for power tools, we build it with handsaws and hand drills. When the garden needs to be watered, instead of dragging hose around or installing water pipes, we carry buckets of water from our pond. When the garden needs to be tilled, we don’t use a gas-powered tiller or tractor; we dig it by hand. We are trying to leave the smallest possible imprint on our land.

We wash our clothes with an antique, hand-cranked laundry wringer with a double-tub bench. We have two rain barrels by the laundry area that we use for wash water. We then use the greywater from the laundry to irrigate plants.

Where did you learn your DIY skills?
MOTHER EARTH NEWS! Kelly first tried — and succeeded — at baking a loaf of bread from the recipe available online at Five Minutes a Day for Fresh-Baked Bread. Now we have an established sourdough starter and bake bread regularly. We also rely on the Internet. Even those who aren’t tech-savvy should embrace this vast resource, because it allows people from around the world to connect and discuss solutions to common challenges. We must mention our neighbors and family, too, as we have a community that’s been in this area for generations. Their advice has been invaluable.

Describe a general “day in the life” at your homestead:
We get up before the roosters crow. The day always dictates what you end up doing. But, the basic outline is this:

• Feed, water and check the general health of the animals, inspect coops, etc.
• Spend time with animals (my favorite part of the day)
• Tend to gardens and landscape
• Do whatever projects are important to get done. (Fencing, building, etc.)
• Hand wash laundry. Set it out to dry
• Cooking, food preservation and cleaning
• Spend more time with the animals
• Feed, check on, put up the animals

Do you raise meat animals, bees for honey, poultry for eggs or compost, or any other livestock?

• Approximately 30 chickens, which provide us with eggs, keep down the mosquitoes and other pests, and till the compost and gardens. They also produce our next generation of hens and the excess roosters are harvested for food
• Several geese, domestic and wild ducks, which maintain the pond and warn the other birds when predators are around
• 2 Midget White heritage turkeys (currently brooding); they are the newest addition to our homestead; their offspring will be sold and harvested for food
• One Jersey heifer and 2 steers; our heifer (named Maybee) is about 1.5 years old, at 2 years we will mate her and she will be our milk cow; the two steers (Moobee, 10 months old, and Norman, 1 month old) were calves from a neighbor who is a cattle rancher; both mothers of these steers passed away at birth and we raised and kept them; they produce manure for composting which has enhanced our garden tenfold; they are also wonderful landscapers; since we got the cattle we have not needed to mow the yard once.
• 1 potbellied pig named Willie (2 years old); he is also a rescue animal and is loved throughout the community; when people come to the farm, the first “person” they want to see is Willie.
• Bees: we just split our first hive; the bees have been a blessing for both honey and pollination of our crops; before we had bees we often had to hand-pollinate plants such as eggplant, but after getting bees our eggplant and other harvests doubled.
• Domestic pets: yes, the question is about livestock, but we want to take the time to hand out kudos to our three dogs, two of which are Curs (which were bred to be hunting dogs); we have trained the dogs to amend their natural hunting instinct and to turn it to herding and protection; they help us round up the fowl, locate the calf when it wanders too far, and keep predators away; they are the best non-lethal predator control we have found thus far; we also have cats for natural rodent control, without poisons or traps.

Do you preserve food? How much and which methods?
I’m not sure how much, but we rely heavily on preserved food between growing seasons.

• Drying: tomatoes, beans and herbs
• Water bath canning: fruits (jams and sugared), pickles, tomatoes
• Pressure canning: the most useful preservation tool I have is the pressure canner; since learning to use this our loss of food due to lack of preservation has dropped to nil; my top five pressure-canned items include chicken stock and soup, collard greens, green beans, potatoes (red and sweet), and corn
• Fermentation: wine, cheese and sauerkraut
• Freezing: some things just can’t be preserved well any other way; this includes peppers and eggplant

Do you craft any of your family’s body care products or household soaps, etc.?
We do not craft our own, however we have cut back on cost and chemical consumption by using a combination of baking soda and a few other items for the majority of our body and teeth care needs. For toothpaste we use baking soda, and we use baking soda as a shampoo and vinegar as a conditioning hair rinse. We’ve replaced store-bough deodorant with a mixture of corn starch, baking soda and rubbing alcohol.

Dreaming Big by Living Small and Using DIY Skills

Who: Sarah and Jeremiah Sailer, with their daughters Emma, Bella, Ruby and Gia
Where: Loveland, Colo., since 2002
What: 1,100-square-foot home on one-fifth of an acre, with a vegetable garden, greenhouse, backyard chickens, meat rabbits, whole-foods kitchen and home-school lessons
Employment: Sarah: on-site home-school teacher, garden- and kitchen-experimenter, and freelance blogger at thriftygoodlife; Jeremiah: self-employed contract carpenter
Homestead Highlights: Maintaining a garden twice the square footage of their house; producing about half of their food; home-schooling their daughters; heating primarily with wood; completing home renovations to accommodate their growing family; coordinating with Sarah’s cousin to teach impoverished mothers in Haiti about gardening and raising animals.
Handy Work: Click to Sailer-HOY-4, including the time and money spent on each project.

What made you start down the road to self-sufficient living?
Our family was dealing with health issues, and we decided to try treating them with natural and dietary measures. The combination of needing to change our diets and living on a tight budget created a perfect environment to learn resourcefulness. We realized we would need to start buying a lot more organic produce, and wondered how much we could grow ourselves. Shortly after, we found answers in The Self-Sufficient Gardener by John Seymour.

Why home schooling?
We decided to educate our four girls from home in large part to commit the time to our homestead that we would have otherwise spent driving the girls to and from school and extracurricular activities. Home schooling threw the doors wide open for all of us to begin self-education. We learn together about cooking, animals, farming and soil ecology, and we spend time with people who have specific skills, such as welding, painting, carpentry, horsemanship and pottery.

Where do you source your furniture/appliances? Have you made any/refurbished old ones/kept family heirlooms alive with tinkering and hands-on ingenuity?
Nearly all of our furniture is either from thrift stores, antique stores, family heirlooms or built by my husband. Our kitchen table is the old cellar door from our house which my husband repurposed into a table. The kitchen island was a $20 thrift-store find (a lovely old antique that had a funky tile top). I sanded the finish to create a rustic farmhouse look, and my husband cut a piece of butcher block to cover over the ugly tile top. We added some vintage glass knobs, and now it’s my favorite piece in the kitchen! I could probably tell a similar story about most of our furniture in the house.

How does living in the city affect your ability to homestead?
We don’t have access to pasture or open spaces, so we don’t have the option to raise large livestock. This doesn’t mean we can’t take significant steps toward self-sufficiency, though. For instance, Sarah makes our own deodorant using coconut oil, baking soda, arrowroot powder and essential oils. She also creates simple household cleaners from white vinegar, castile soap, baking soda and essential oils. We strive to find creative ways to meet our family’s food, energy and housing needs — such as adding a pantry and bridge in previously unused space over our stairwell (see photo in Slideshow). We share our progress with neighbors who then think, “If they can do all of this, we could try something, too!”

Do you raise meat animals, bees for honey, poultry for eggs or compost, or any other livestock?
We raise rabbits for meat, chickens for eggs (we harvest our hens after their egg laying slows way down — usually every 2 to 3 years) and both supply us with compost. Because the egg production varies between warm and cold months, we sometimes gather 12 eggs a day (just about enough for our needs) or up to 25 per day (in which case we sell the extras to the neighbors). Our ideal chicken flock is 25 for our sized yard/henhouse.

We currently have six breeding rabbits and hope to expand as our litters produce more does. We have only harvested about 12 rabbits so far in the past 2 years — yielding approximately 60 pounds of meat. We’ve been unsuccessful so far in breeding during winter time (which has hindered our chances of more meat). We hope to remedy this by moving the rabbits to a more enclosed area for the hutches. We’ve had foxes, raccoons and dogs try to get the rabbits (lost a few), and we think the stress during winter months with the predator risk may be why we’ve had less success.

Where do you get any food that you can’t produce?
We buy our staples from a local co-op, and we get honey and meat from nearby farms associated with the co-op. Our beef and raw milk come from a local dairy. Loveland has a discount grocery outlet and a small, organic market that we frequent.

If you were starting over, what would you do differently? What would you most definitely do the same?
We might have started by building a solarium attached to the house (we’re still designing ours in our heads), rather than depending on grow lights in the basement. We plan on building one in the next year or two. This will allow us to start our seeds without the extra electricity, as well as contribute to a warmer house in winter.

We also might have built a larger chicken house to accommodate our rabbit hutches — keeping them in a more enclosed environment to eliminate predator risk. Although these are examples of two practical changes we will be making in the future — we wouldn’t change the fact that we like to jump into projects with both feet. We do our research the best we know how, but then we go ahead and just try things. I am a firm believer in learning through trial and error.

What are your future goals?
We love our small community and old house, so we’ve resolved to begin farming the neighborhood. With our expansion into three neighbors’ yards this year, we have the potential to provide nearly all of our family’s fresh produce, as well as sell to others. We are actively looking for restaurants and small businesses that will allow us to pick up food waste to begin composting on a larger scale. We continue to find ways to incorporate repurposed materials into our building projects. Longer range, we’d like to have solar panels and a full greywater collection system, host community workshops to share thrifty-living tips and know-how, start selling bread baked in our new, handmade wood-fired bread oven — the list goes on!

In 5 years:
• Honey from our own hive (this may happen as soon as next year)
• A solarium attached to the south side of the house to sustain all of our seed starting without electricity
• Rain barrels for water collection
• An open wood-fired baking oven inside of our kitchen to rely less on gas and more on sustainable, available wood
• Bees and honey production
• A small SPIN farming operation providing local produce to a handful of friends, family and neighbors
• More connection to local downtown restaurants through compost pick-up, and possible supply of salad greens and herbs
• Bread business started
• Several family trips taken to Haiti to share knowledge and support my cousin’s efforts. Perhaps new trips as opportunities open up
• Community workshops, cooking classes and continued involvement with our neighbors

In 10 years:
• Solar panels paid for by the small business ventures started
• Perhaps a small tilapia pond and aquaponics experiment
• Renovate our old garage and add a small loft/living quarters to host people at the homestead. We might even build a tree house with room for two twin beds and offer our place as a mini-WWOOFing host farm!
• Greywater collection system in place along with a switch to homemade plant-based cleaners
• Our small home close to paid off, as we creatively live together in a small space, resisting the urge to add on and increase our mortgage payment
• My husband freed up to spend more time working on the farming/homesteading projects, and using his carpentry skills more selectively
• My daughters pursuing their passions as we learn together — and beginning to plan and save money for their own nest eggs

Tell us more about your connection to Haiti.
Sarah: I’m thrilled to have a connection to my cousin who is a nurse in Haiti. She and a friend started Second Mile Haiti, an organization which supports mothers of malnourished babies. Their entire aim is to keep the mothers and babies thriving together. They teach them basic health care, and job skills, empowering these mothers to keep their children healthy. When I began my blog — thriftygoodlife — I had no idea it would lead to this incredible opportunity to go to Haiti. My cousin read my blog and invited me to come and help them with their 3-acre garden last year. I travelled by myself in spring and helped with the garden, animal and composting projects. We are hoping to take another trip with the entire family this year — if funds permit. This has been a dream of ours for our daughters to grow up experiencing other cultures and to learn that the American way of life is not how most people in the world live. We also want our homestead to be a place where we can test out sustainable ideas (like the outdoor barrel oven) — and then replicate them in Haiti, or other places abroad. We are VERY inspired by Michael Reynold’s organization and how they are building small earthships in Haiti. I’m also in touch with a friend who creates large scale tilapia farms in Haiti, creating jobs and teaching new skills. Any and all of these ideas thrill us — and our hope is that we may continue to partner with my cousin Amy to help out.

Do-It-Yourself Builders Go From Cornfield to Natural Haven

Who: Leslie and Andrew Gibbons, who share their land with Leslie’s dad, Paul, and his wife, Yvonne
Where: Elkport, Iowa, since 1983
What: 100 acres of once-cornfield that is now native prairie and forest, to which the family has added several hand-built structures, a vegetable garden and apple trees
Employment: Leslie: makes and sells upcycled crafts; Andrew: do-it-yourself builder who maintains multiple part-time handyman jobs, including electrical, plumbing and small mechanical repair
Homestead Highlights: Living completely debt-free; heating solely with a woodstove fueled by wood cut from their property; hosting hunter friends in their hand-built, off-grid guest cabin in exchange for meat; producing about a quarter of their food from a 22-by-25-foot garden; bartering with the surrounding Amish community for goods they can’t produce
Handy Work: Click to see the full list of their DIY Building Projects Made With Repurposed Materials, including the time and money spent on each project.

What made you pursue a more self-reliant life?
As natives of Chicago, we got tired of city life. We both liked the country and wanted to raise our kids in a safer, less congested, more beautiful place. So, we got the Back to Basics and Foxfire books. We came out to look at some land — a cornfield — and decided to go for it.

What does being a “modern homesteader” mean to you?
People thought we were nuts when we became homesteaders, but now we’ve proved them wrong! Well, some still think we’re nuts. To us, it means freedom — freedom from debt, from the feeling that we have to work all the time to pay our bills, from having the expensive cars, from the consumer lifestyle.

How did you get native grasses and wildflowers back onto your property?
We have about 20 acres of tillable land, on which we’ve planted rye grass, red clover, Timothy grass and foxtail. We plowed, disked and seeded these acres when we first moved in. We have frost-seeded wildflowers and prairie grasses, too, including big bluestem. We pull the seeds off the grasses and spread them by hand. We sometimes dig up wildflowers, such as columbine, from nearby ditches and transplant them onto our property.

What energy-efficient features does your homestead have?
The guest cabin’s minimal electric lighting runs on a 12-volt battery, but our guests mostly use kerosene lamps and candles. We also have solar-powered lights along our wooden walkway. We designed our house to take advantage of maximum sunlight, and we heat with wood that comes from our own forests. We do not have — and do not desire to have — air conditioning.

Describe a general “day in the life” at your homestead.
It depends on the season. For example, in fall, we’re most often harvesting apples and making gallons of applesauce, hosting our turkey-hunting friends, cutting and stacking firewood, and readying the house and land for winter. Year-round, Leslie is in her art studio creating items for her shop, and we’re managing our firewood and doing maintenance on our structures.

Where do you source the food you don’t produce?
Our hunting friends supply us with meat in exchange for stays in our guest cabin, and we often share meals, home-baked goods and excess produce with our Amish neighbors. We also frequent the local Amish-run “bent and dent” store for other staple items.

How do you earn enough income to make ends meet?
Leslie has a background in architectural design, interior decorating, painting and sewing and is an avid dumpster diver. She puts these skills to use to earn income. She rents space in nearby Turkey River Mall, where she sells her upcycled crafts. She also does many commissioned jobs, such as painting sets for community theaters. Andrew is a true handyman, able to design, build and fix almost anything. He has two part-time jobs, but he also does a lot of side jobs, such as making furniture and renovating old buildings. We live very frugally — just above the poverty line — and we live within our means. We save money, and we don’t owe a penny to anyone!

If you were starting over, what would you do differently? What would you most definitely do the same?
We would build differently, with what we know now. For example, we would put different tiles round the house, thicker walls, and better drainage around the house for less flooding. We were happy with every single phase of our homesteading. The thing we would surely keep the same is where the house is situated. It’s the ideal location with a great view of the Volga River valley, the tree-line, and surrounding Amish farms. We put very few windows on the north side of the house. We can see the sunset each day. The house is right where we want it. We wouldn’t do anything else differently. We like everything. We like the wood-burning stove, cutting wood, and building rock walls with limestone from the Volga River. It really does take a long time to do the things we have chosen to do, but its fun doing it.

What are some of your favorite projects/accomplishments at your homestead?
The three seasons room, which is the latest thing we have built in the last 2 years. It’s kind of our pride and joy. We are also quite proud of the art studio (built in the 1990s, for Leslie to have a space in which to draw, paint and sew). We also enjoy our off-the-grid guest cabin, the rock wall and the rock steps behind our house, the trails we cut in the fields, maintaining the trails down to the Volga River, and planting/maintaining the trees. (Lately, you can barely see the house anymore because there are so many trees.)

What DIY skills, such as woodworking, have you applied to your homestead?
Our southern porch became an enclosed room a few years ago, we just added a wall, and kept the exterior wood up inside. The three season room was also an add-on (made almost entirely from rescued doors/windows/wood). We also built a wood storage bin under the house, a deck, and a wooden walkway. (Pretty much EVERYTHING on our homestead was made by us!) We ARE entirely DIY: woodworking, plumbing, electrical, staining, painting, drywalling, rock walls, railroad tie wall, interior decorating, etc.

Does anyone have special chores/projects/tasks that you’d like to explain?
Daily, we take out the compost bucket of kitchen scraps. We burn the trash (non-compostable, non-recycle-able, non-reusable stuff). We save the ashes from the wood stove to spread on our icy driveway in winter. We drill a lot of holes in objects for Leslie to make chandeliers out of (for example: her mom’s silver spoon collection). We cut our own hair. We have lots of bonfires. We do nightly sunset-watching and star-gazing (the Milky Way is SO white above our land!). We eat popcorn every night and bacon and eggs in bed every Saturday. We feed the birds. We also watch dozens of bald eagles eat the remains from the hunted deer carcasses, left over from when our hunter friends gut the deer.

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+.