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

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

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.

Despite the snags, you’ve accomplished much.

We’ve planted 100 fruit trees, including 18 banana cultivars, as well as spice trees and plants — nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla bean, and black pepper. We also have permaculture beds in which we use companion planting and other natural techniques. Through test plots, we’ve identified a range of hardy annual fruits and vegetables that aren’t attacked by local pests and can tolerate full sun and full rain, such as okra, roselle, and lima and yard-long beans. We have encouraged and made room for wild producers that were on our land already, such as thimbleberries, the medicinal plant mamaki, the highly useful and fruit-bearing tree of the wild guava, and bamboo. We’ve learned to butcher sheep, and we dehydrate, lacto-ferment, freeze, and pickle produce.

What are some ways you supplement your farm income?

John works a part-time job at the airport that’s finished each day by 10 a.m., which leaves plenty of time for the homestead and gives the family full benefits. Esther does translation work and is exploring consulting opportunities that leverage her past professional backgrounds. Esther also organizes our home-schooling efforts. John and the kids take on the agricultural production of the homestead. The kids are an integral part of our endeavor, and we employ a system that makes each of them a master of certain tasks. One is responsible for all yogurt and basic cheese production, one does all lacto-fermenting, one is the compost master, one makes the shampoo, and one is in charge of the medicinal herb garden. Plus, our children are all engaged in moneymaking efforts to fill out their savings accounts.

Which energy-efficiency features does your Hawaiian homestead employ?

We’re currently accepting bids for a photovoltaic system that will provide 100 percent of our electricity, and a solar water heater. The design of our future home (a dome-vented yurt and a cupola-topped hard structure) will rely on the “chimney effect,” in which hot air will rise and exit, drawing in cooler air from side windows to create airflow and regulate temperature. For backup, our plans include a flow-through, tankless, gas-driven hot water heater and a gas-powered generator (it sometimes rains here for weeks, which puts a damper on solar power).

Considering the challenges you’ve faced, are you still glad you chose to homestead?

We’re glad we made the difficult decision to break from a conventional, white-collar world. The benefits of self-reliant living and home-schooling our kids continue to pop up every day. We know with confidence that our food is free of toxic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, fungicides, hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs. We know that our animals are naturally and humanely raised because we raise them ourselves, or we purchase animal products from people who employ similar practices. We have more freedom and flexibility — we get to choose who to work for, what work we do, and when and how we work. We also have more family time, more community involvement, and deeper relationships with neighbors than we’ve ever experienced. Plus, we have a greater sense of responsible stewardship of the land.

K.C. Compton is a former MOTHER EARTH NEWS editor who now lives in Seattle, where she’s a freelance writer and editor.