In the beginning ...
In 2013 we were chosen as one of Mother Earth News’ Homesteads of the year. Our half-acre urban homestead and learning space along with our outward work fit that year’s theme of “Community & Self Reliance”. We were honored to be chosen but also very early into our project and the development of our site. With this article I want to share some of how we got started as well as how our homestead has blossomed and transformed in the five years since.
We found our run-down house with its bare, weedy, unloved land in a socio-economically diverse neighborhood in May of 2011. The price was right, there was room to garden and build, the neighborhood was funky enough to provide some creative freedom, and we were just two miles from the river, events, and culture of downtown Reno. Flat broke and full of dreams after two years of travel and learning, we fundraised for two months by sharing our vision of what the Be the Change Project would be: a hub for alternative living, climate & social justice work, and service which resonated with enough of our friends and family that we were able to buy the property outright. Since then, freed from a mortgage or rent, we’ve worked hard to pay their goodwill forward into the world.
The house was truly a disaster - significant water damage, sagging floors, septic tank issues, broken windows, even dead cats in the crawl space. Because of this our family lived in a backyard shed from August 1 to Halloween while fixing the house up room by room. As part of our vision we were committed to having an electricity, car, and fossil-fuel free homestead so almost all of the remodeling was done with “powerless” hand tools and a lot of materials collected by bike and trailer. It was an adventure my older (and maybe wiser) self would likely not undertake again!
Almost from day one Katy got to work planting and soil building. We knew that growing a lot of food would be challenging and slow-going; our high desert area averages just seven inches of rain a year and our frost-free growing season is a whopping four months. We bought what soil and compost we could afford and started making our own. On week two we welcomed chickens from a friend who was moving and rushed to get a coop built and a run fenced in. We built cold frames for growing fall greens, set up an outdoor kitchen with a mini rocket stove, bought a Sun Oven, and welcomed the support of many people. Whether they gave lumber and tools, leaves for compost, a woodstove, or even their time and sweat like our friend Tim who camped out in our front yard and worked hard for 6 weeks, we were so grateful for so much help in those first three months.
Since that first year we’ve continued to plant and build soil and installed drip irrigation in 2014, a true necessity for growing appreciable amounts of food in our high desert environment. We now have twenty 25’ annual beds in our backyard, five raised beds in the front, and an expanded greenhouse. Through trial and error (we killed lots of trees) and the wisdom of friends we’ve learned what grows well and what we do best with on our half-acre. We raise all of our potatoes, greens, onions, garlic, carrots, a lot of our fruit and eggs, and, through the years, much of our own meat. For five years we raised meat rabbits and have alternated years with pigs (fed with gleaned food from our urban realm), butchering eight so far. Each time we process pigs there are a half-dozen or so friends who want to participate in the three days of harvesting. It transforms an intense experience into a community-building and learning event. Currently we have a flock of 12 chickens and three dairy goats.
In 2012 we built a hybrid “stick” (2x4 and 2x6) and cob cabin insulated with cardboard in our backyard. We held two gifted natural building workshops to share the process and help with the construction. We have a cob oven, a cob “Stoven”, several earthbag landscape walls, and have “earthed out” our conventional home over the years with earthen plasters, clay paints, and Light Straw Clay infilled walls. In the backyard, our pigs and goats have enjoyed a small balecob hut that’s kept them cozy through the seasons.
In 2013 we dug out and built an earthbag and strawbale root cellar to store our harvest. It functions beautifully and allows us to preserve our foods into the early summer. The clay-rich soil we dug up for the cellar went to building a second cottage (this time a cordwood-cob cabin - see the One Day Cob House) down the block. If we know we’ll be doing some natural building we’ll usually hold a class to share the knowledge and get help with the projects. This fall, for example, we have five half-day classes set up at our site.
Permaculture is a big part of our work and gives us a powerful lens through which to see our land, gardens, and connection to the broader world. Its emphasis on observation, stacking functions, “planting the water first” as well as the mantra of Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share guide us wisely in our planning and implementation.
In 2015 we received a homesteading grant from the Permaculture Research Institute/USA to boost our efforts. With their support we planted dozens of trees, expanded and improved out irrigation, developed hugelkulture beds, installed a water harvesting system that diverts road runoff into mulch basins during rare, big rains, and purchased specialized gardening tools. We’ve continued to develop a food forest in one corner of our backyard that’s now thriving with a mix of food plants, nitrogen fixers, natives, insectory plants, and nutrient accumulators at several canopy levels. This includes apples, plums, cherries and peaches, hazelnut, autumn and russian olives, sea berry, goji, goose, service, and elderberries, comfrey, Siberian pea shrub, yarrow and so much more. The regular trimmings of biomass make great goat and chicken fodder as well as valuable compost additions. And speaking of compost, we always have several piles at work ready to amend our garden beds and boost soil around our perennials.
Living lightly on the planet is a big deal for us. We have stayed almost entirely electricity and fossil fuel-free on our site and continue to live in voluntary poverty. Our annual income has climbed from about $6,500 a year in 2011 to close to $12,000 this year. We choose to do this to reduce our consumption of new items and to encourage us to be more creative problem solvers with all we do from building and gardening to traveling and entertainment. The single biggest expense is our children - their sports, camps, and gear.
Living on little money makes turning urban “waste products” like urbanite (broken up concrete slabs), old fence boards, and plywood cutoffs into useful homesteading materials an enjoyable process that also serves to connect us with our place and neighbors. For example, our frontyard pond was built with a friend’s salvaged pond liner, locally scavenged urbanite hunks for walls, and a neighbor’s rocks he was looking to get rid of. And, we built it with a crew during a workbee with the local permaculture group.
Broader environmental and climate work has also remained a big part of our lives. In addition to our daily, simpler living, we started a food waste collection and composting business in 2015 (the Reno Rot Riders) which we developed and then sold, an associated worm farm (Wormtopia) this past year, created a climate working group with the city in 2015, and supported the Standing Rock water protectors through fundraising and a supply run to the camp in 2016. I am also doing a lot more natural building and teaching with House Alive as a regular means of earning our bread money and to share my great passion for building with earth.
During Nevada’s legislative session of 2017 (they’re only five months long every other year) we focused a lot of our time on organizing for 100% clean energy in Nevada (Powered by Sunshine). Our state is graced with abundant sunshine and geothermal activity which makes us uniquely positioned to lead the world in renewables if we choose to do so. Several positive bills passed and another is on the ballot this year to bring our state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio up to 50% by 2030.
Community Work & Outreach
Our community work has always started with our neighborhood. We worked with local artists and young people to transform three big, ugly, oft-grafittied walls along one road into murals. We held three free concerts in our neighborhood park in 2015 and created the Reno Garlic Fest to support local food and farmers (which is also held at our park) in 2017. It’s been a smashing success! We distribute seed packets every spring and shared 25 fruit tree guilds with neighbors through a Pollination Project grant in 2015. For six years we’ve had a blast doing Christmas caroling, too.
For three years I served on our local Neighborhood Advisory Board serving as a bridge between the community and the city which helped us connect with council members and learn how to better navigate the system to support our work. We’ve welcomed a couple thousand people - including lots of kids on field trips - to our site for informational tours, workshops, book groups, and work parties. We always try to blend education with a can-do attitude and a call to action.
In 2015 we were able, with loans from friends, to purchase an empty .40 acre lot two doors down. We’ve have been doing lots of composting there to improve the soils and this year have planted scores of perennials and twenty 20’ garden beds with annuals. In the next year we plan to build a small, efficient home there (to be rented out as an affordable rental) with ample solar power and a garage that will double as a studio space for community activities and events.
Wormtopia is a good example of how we’ve been able to work together with neighbors. After struggling for several months to find a place to plop the operation, I approached my neighbor who has a little extra space on his property. After describing what I wanted to do - set up a 40’ hoop house with two 30’ worm bins to transform local food waste into nourishing vermicompost - he immediately said yes. The hoop house serves as a growing space, too, with seedling starts and even as a chick nursery last spring. They grew fast and fat feasting on the worms!
Service continues to be a big thread in our lives. For three years we gave away about 15,000 of articles of Patagonia clothing to local shelters and organizations helping the needful. For nearly seven years we’ve volunteered weekly with a local food ministry that helps feed thousands each week and through which we are able to get the other food our family needs.
Local activism comes and goes as we feel called to participate. For instance, inspired by several Dreamers coming through Reno, we interviewed a dozen undocumented immigrants that resulted in a play called “Liberty’s Children: Voices of Immigrants in the Land of the Free” created by a friend which ran for three weeks in 2014. We followed each performance with a community discussion to create a space for sharing around this sensitive topic.
Sharing is a big part of what we do and how we thrive. For example, we share a freezer at our neighbor and friend Scott’s place which is essential for meat storage. In turn we help him with projects and share the bounty of our garden. We also watch TV (a big hit with the kids), usually major sporting events or just Warriors basketball, with our older neighbor Tom. “TV with Tom” is the sharing of entertainment resources but also so much more: it’s a great time for all of us as we share food and drink and fun stories of which Tom has a lifetime’s supply. He’s also great with our kids who get to have another elder in their lives and who offers them little jobs to do when he can use a bit of help. Other neighbors come by, too, so now an older man living alone has a bit of activity, laughter, the energy of kids, and a network to help him out when needed. A group of us even put new shingles on his house this spring.
We also make creative use of what we consider the urban commons. We use the library and cafe’s for internet access and often visit our nearby laundromat for big wash days. We glean apples from a neglected orchard on the edge of town, cherries from the courtyard of a weekly motel downtown, and assorted berries, herbs, and apricots from beloved neighbors. We return the love in turn be it by digging holes, giving out buckets of worm wine, or sharing what we grow in abundance like garlic and greens. Each of these money-free exchanges provides greater connection and trust which allows for even more community upliftment.
There are many contradictions with how we live but the overall vision has remained strong and steadfast - a commitment to simpler living for the benefit of people and planet and an attempt at greater connection with people, place, and purpose. We’ve expressed what we’re doing as an experiment and like all experiments we’ve failed as much as we have succeeded.
For example, while still having no electricity at our place we have been using more year-to-year in our lives. Biggest is that we bought a used EV Nissan Leaf in mid 2017. I’ve called cars “tanks in the war against the planet” and while I still largely agree with that statement we were challenged enough in our getting about that we took the plunge. Our main motivators were our boys doing more away from home, Katy’s troublesome knees, and our desire to get to nearby hiking much more often. Additionally, Reno’s public transportation is not the best. Overall, the car has been wonderful - it’s a pleasure to drive and as an EV is super low maintenance. We charge it at public charging stations in town while we do computer work, have meetings, or go for walks. After the rental home is built on the lot we’ll use the solar power there to power the car thus freeing it from the grid and fossil fuels.
I’ve also gotten power tools and I love them! A friend was working for a tool company and gave me my first cordless set - a driver, drill, and saw. They’ve made building and home repairs so much easier I feel they’ve been worth it. Ripping plywood with a hand saw got old real fast. They’ve also made carpentry more accessible to my kids who more readily use these tools than the Yankee screwdriver and brace & bit drill.
Like I mentioned earlier, we’ve killed lots of plants. In the beginning they died mainly because our soils we too poor and we didn’t have our water systems running smoothly. Our animals have nibbled several where our fencing was weak or our ignorance great (who knew how strong a pig could be!). We’ve improved our graywater plantings over many years of experimentation and now have nettle, milkweed (for monarchs), gooseberry and currant thriving around the mulch basin.
Composting, too, has been a steep learning curve. We’ve had some big, stinky batches over the years that even our neighbors have noticed.
It’s been an interesting ride as somewhat public figures, too. We’ve enjoyed invitations to speak at events, at the legislature, at businesses and so on because of the more radical stance we’ve taken on simpler living or climate action. We regularly receive kudos from folks (which feels nice) but we’ve also struggled with people projecting their needs or desires upon us and then feeling let down when we act differently than they hoped or expected. This has led to a few arguments and strained relationships over the years. It’s made us more aware of how we speak and share and what responsibility we take for our public actions while also becoming more comfortable with disagreement. The upshot is that we’re not perfect and anyone can do what we do.
Finally, raising our two boys in this environment has had its own challenges. They were 5 and 2 when we moved here and are now 12 and 9. Like all parents we worry if what we’re providing is best meeting their needs. We feel great about what they’re learning around the homestead and with our events and projects. They “get” climate change, why we live simply, and how engaging with our community pays dividends for all of us. They are being brought up with permaculture, natural building, and civic engagement as the normal background of their lives. And we’re grateful that grandma moved down the block and is a huge part of their lives. By not having electricity in our home we’ve avoided a lot of the “normal” American family debates around screen time, appropriate video content, bed times (they, too, go to bed and get up in rhythm with the sun and seasons). But as they’ve gotten older and their world has grown they’re naturally drawn to media, computers and cell phones and all the other gizmos and gadgets that are both blessings and curses in our culture. We’ve tried to make thoughtful compromises so they get healthy doses of our culture while staying rooted to place and purpose. This looks like occasional videos at grandma’s, TV time with our 81-year old neighbor Tom (where we watch sports with the kids - go Warriors! - and have dinner and a drink while hearing great stories from an elder), and doing whatever their friends are up to at their houses. It’s a balancing act that’s far from perfect but working right now. We hope that by developing their awareness for their local and global impact and role that they’ll be able to navigate both our little realm and the big, wide world as they grow into it. --
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