The Owner Built Home and Homestead Introduction: How To Homestead

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The concept can be regained only by allowing things to happen. In a very real sense the homestead that I intend to present is an ecological happening.

Ken Kern, author of The Owner-Built Home and The Owner-Built Homestead, is an amazing fellow and everyone interested in decentralist, back-to-the-land, rational living should know of his work. Back in 1948 he began collecting information on low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and techniques. He combed the world for ideas, tried them and started writing about his experiments. Eventually, Mildred Loomis started publishing Kern’s articles in The Interpreter, Way Out and Green Revolution. Ken has also issued a three year series of pieces (called Technic) on his own and a greenhouse-sun pit design of his has been featured in Organic Gardening.

This series of Ken Kern’s work is being taken both from The Owner-Built Home (already published) and The Owner-Built Homestead (to be published).


It has been ten years since I first started writing The Owner-Built Home. At the outset of writing this first book there was some suggestion to expand it to include home food production along with the central theme of home shelter production. At that time the “back to the land” sentiment was all but dead in this country. So I brushed off the suggestion, and awaited with others an economic depression to revive the attitude of economic self-reliance. Theoretically, when great numbers of people lose their jobs and have only breadlines and welfare handouts to look to for sustenance, they will then consider, perhaps, home food-production. So for all these years I’ve been waiting for the expected catastrophe: It would highlight a widespread social need and orient my research effort toward fulfilling this need.

The kind of economic depression we pictured never, as you know. came off. On the contrary, purchasing power and employment in this country reached an all time high. But something far more serious has occurred; the beginnings of a world revolution. The past ten years has witnessed a many-sided challenge to the whole military-financial-urban-real-estate complex. The student rebellion, the minority revolts, the breakdown of urban America, and the mounting concern for the environment have led to an increasing exodus to the country-side.

More and more, retired and semi-retired people are looking to the small acreage. They are literally driven there by urban sprawl, noise, smog, high taxes, and inflation. The chaotic political state of the world stimulates many people to search for a more meaningful and natural value system.

There is another and more significant group of fresh recruits for rural living: The countless college students who have become disillusioned with their professional college training, shocked by our murderous war machine and alerted to the money-grabbing, life-negative forces within the establishment. I speak of the intelligent and able drop-outs, the turned-on, do-your-own-thing generation. It is chiefly for this dynamic and thoughtful generation, as well as for the mere refugees from the city, that I write this book on productive homesteading; an integral arrangement of earth, plants, animals, buildings and utilities.

In basic terms, I’m setting out here to promote the post modern way of country living. It is a life of self-reliance and at least partial economic self-sufficiency, but in a social and ecological context. Naturally, I’m attempting to sell these ideas to any and all. But the prospective buyer must have minimal emotional and technical potential and be in good position to leave the city. He must be fairly intelligent and have strong motivation and drive as well as ability to do manual work.

These requirements–especially being up to manual work–are, of course, seldom met by current youth. Their reaction against intellectualism is strong enough; but they just lack the manual skill and discipline-training necessary to satisfy their most basic needs. It is really tragic to observe so many mentally qualified young couples failing in their attempts to live on the land. In starting out they have no concept of step one–actual work–much less the whole complex of plant-animal-soil relationships, plus production-storage-processing, which takes the most knowledgeable and experienced farmer. Their failure disillusions them with the homestead scene, and they may react this time against the materials and tools and skills associated with living on the land. Thus the escapist talk nowadays about segregated tribal communes, primitive living, etc. They hate the computerized urban existence, and can’t make it in the all-round homestead life; so the next step is to live isolated with fellow-failures.

This book, then, is an attempt to bridge the gap between primitive inability and a wholesome use of science, technique, and civilization. After answering the why and the where of homesteading, I intend to analyze into its components a balanced homestead environment–from human and animal shelter forms to crop production and utility functions.

I propose, next, a descriptive evaluation of sensible techniques and routines of productive homesteading.

The tragedy of the homestead movement is having enthusiastic but ill-prepared people attempt a life on the land. To start with, the land they choose may not be adapted to the type of gardening or animal production they have in mind: They may innocently choose wrong soil and fertilizer types, insufficient or inefficient irrigation systems, inappropriate shelter forms, wrong tools and equipment. Efficient home production requires a concise what-to-do and how-to-do-it program.

At least in one small way a homesteader competes with his commercial farm neighbor, and yet how can a homesteader-come-lately ever expect to be as knowledgeable and efficient in his production as a full-time life-long experienced farmer? It is possible. He may be even more effective and advanced. Through proper design and planning practices, and through work simplification, an inexperienced homesteader can become more efficient in living and livelihood than a commercial farmer.

For one thing, today’s ordinary farming practices are miserably inefficient and wasteful. The most famous study on this subject was made by Dr. Carter at the Vermont Experiment Station in 1943. For 4 months he studied the work practices of a 22-herd dairy farmer. Then with an investment of $50–which went mostly for a rearrangement of stables, tools and supplies–Carter reduced chore-time from 5 hours to 3 hours a day. Daily walking distance was reduced from 3 miles to 1 mile. In total, 760 man-hours and 730 miles of walking were saved in one year. This Vermont study should encourage the prospective homesteader with an awareness of how his own food production program can be arranged with minimal chore labor and maximal personal satisfaction.

Yet I would not wish to close this Introduction by giving the impression that one develops a homestead merely through knowledge and efficient effort. In reality, the design-development concept must be regained rather than acquired. A first lesson of Zen tells us more: The concept can be regained only by allowing things to happen. In a very real sense the homestead that I intend to present is an ecological happening. Your brainy body is only one little organism in the big natural and social world. It cannot command, but it can, indeed, promote harmonious and creative adjustment.