Self-Reliant Living Is a Family Affair on This Hawaiian Homestead

The Atwell family is working together to build a Hawaiian homestead haven, complete with hardy crops and a solar-powered home.

  • The Atwells are currently working to complete their home, a solar-powered, yurt-centered complex.
    Photo by John Atwell
  • In seeking a homesteading life, the Atwell family has gained more time to spend together.
    Photo by John Atwell
  • Jordan runs the family's seed business by herself and handles most of the seedling/sapling sales from their nursery.
    Photo by John Atwell
  • Sophia and her siblings are an integral part of the family's homesteading endeavors.
    Photo by John Atwell
  • Nathaniel is on the cusp of launching a line of handcrafted culinary vinegar made from bananas.
    Photo by John Atwell

John and Esther Atwell — along with their children, Benya, 20; Jordan, 18; Nathaniel, 16; and Sophia, 12 — live on 10 acres in Kurtistown, Hawaii, growing fruit and spice trees, multiple permaculture beds, a taro patch, and an experimental garden bed on their Hawaiian homestead.

The Atwells, one of three families designated as our 2016 Homesteaders of the Year, perform an inspiring patchwork of jobs, including freelance writing and consulting; working early mornings at the airport; babysitting; mucking out horse stalls; landscaping; waiting tables; and selling homemade baked goods, heirloom seeds, saplings, and seedlings at a local market. John and Esther grow some of their own food, run a small nursery operation that focuses on tropical fruit trees, and are local distributors for heirloom and organic seeds. The family is working to secure funding to complete a solar-powered, yurt-centered house complex. In this interview, the Atwells describe their family’s efforts toward self-reliance.

What inspired you to homestead?

We became familiar with the Slow Food Movement in 2008 while holding down full-time government office jobs in the Bay Area, and began to practice homesteading skills in our suburban neighborhood. In 2011, we moved back to our home state of Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington D.C., where we purchased a 1⁄2-acre plot complete with mulberry and hickory nut trees; edible wild scallions, strawberries, and dandelions; and a house with a woodstove. Before long, we filled out the yard with an assortment of fruit trees, an all-natural container pond, a large garden and raised beds, beehives, a small flock of pastured Ameraucana chickens, grazed Havana meat rabbits, and a vermicomposting bin. In 2014, after we’d spent several years learning from those aspects of food production, we decided it was time to make the jump. Hawaii’s year-round growing conditions, frequent rains, and strong local expertise for off-grid living convinced us that Hawaii was where we wanted to be.

And you sailed off effortlessly into homesteading heaven?

We intended to pick up where we left off, but we faced delays as we dealt with crime and unfamiliar construction norms. We’re living in a rental while we wait for our home to be completed, and trying to tend to our animals and maintain a 10-acre plot of food-producing trees and plants is a tremendous challenge from offsite. Though we’re now on track for completing our house, the process has been an expensive setback. We should’ve built slowly and started in first gear, not fifth, so we wouldn’t have found ourselves hitting walls and having to downscale or scale up projects based on pressures that were outside our control.



Fall 2021!

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