If I Could Do It All Again: Lessons Learned Living Off the Land

From planning your home to laying out garden beds, a long-time homesteader offers 20 years of wisdom about living off the land.

| October/November 2009

Wise plans are the most important thing you’ll ever have on your homestead. That’s because wisdom creates the framework within which good things happen. More than 20 years ago, I cut through a tumbledown wire fence at the edge of an empty pasture, rolled up my sleeves, and began applying a big homestead vision to a quiet piece of farmland and forest I had recently purchased not far from the middle of nowhere (more specifically, 91 acres on Manitoulin Island in Ontario). My family and I have been blessed with plenty of success ever since, but looking back, I can also see how I could’ve done better at living off the land if only I’d had more wisdom. What you’re reading now is the article I wish I’d read in May 1986.

Start with a Four-Season Building

If your land has no buildings, then a tent might be your first homestead home. I lived under sometimes-leaky canvas for many months as I began developing my property, and this experience left me eager to get under a proper roof. Too eager. My enthusiasm prompted me to hastily build a 10-by-20-foot wood frame toolshed as my first home, and while it seemed like a luxury hotel at the time, I would have saved money and improved my effectiveness in the long run if I’d built a fully insulated, properly plumbed four-season cabin just a little bit larger and on a permanent foundation.

These days, my kids are talking about someday finding their own land and living their own homestead adventures. If I’m lucky enough to see that happen, one of the first things I’ll recommend is a design for a small, cozy and economical cabin — just the thing I’d put up today if I were starting all over. I’d use structural insulated panels (SIPs) for the walls and roof structure, all resting on concrete piers set below the frost line. (To learn more about SIPs, see Innovative Insulated Panels.) I’d insulate the floor with 2 inches of polystyrene foam with a second plywood subfloor on top, and put in hot and cold running water. If you’re not patient enough to build such a place while living in a tent, then consider a small, temporary house trailer. Any kind of structure that’s capable of keeping you warm, dry, and well-rested year-round is a big advantage.

Keep Your Agriculture Enthusiasm in Check

Many of us choose the country life because we love gardening and raising livestock. Trouble occurs, however, when you try to grow vegetables, raise rabbits, and get a couple of riding horses at the same time you’re making a driveway, building a house and sinking a well. I see now that I let my agricultural enthusiasm dilute my focus in the early years. Don’t underestimate the time, money, creativity, and energy it takes to build the infrastructure of a good homestead. Trying to do it all at the same time is too much.

Consider a Fabric Shelter

I’ve learned that covered storage space for equipment and building supplies is more important than I originally thought. But the good news for you is it’s now easier and cheaper than ever to create durable, well-lit and economical storage spaces, and today’s fabric-based shelters are the way to go. Even a large one goes up in just a couple of days, and the best designs come with a 25-year warranty. Equipment and building materials all do much better if kept out of sun, rain, and snow.

Buy a Used and Reliable Four-Wheel-Drive Pickup 

It’s easy to spend way too much money on a pickup truck, but it’s also possible to under-equip yourself. I struggled for years with a reliable but ancient 1968 heavy-duty, two-wheel-drive pickup truck. Ten years ago, I bought a 1990 four-wheel-drive half ton, and it’s been the ideal homestead workhorse ever since. Superior traction thanks to the four-wheel drive is the reason why. With regular maintenance, this vehicle has remained reliable enough to take on long road trips. It’s also old and banged-up enough that I don’t mind taking it on narrow bush roads for cutting firewood or gathering building stone.

Pat Tremain
4/7/2013 7:15:07 PM

Wonderful ! I only wish I were 30 years younger-this I would do ! You and your family are an inspiration, I'd love to see more articles about your farm ! Pat Hempel

Anna Mayer
1/18/2012 5:48:42 AM

Wonderful article! I'll be looking back at this once I finally find land & break ground. I linked back to this from my blog, - thanks for all the great tips!

Allen Frost
6/23/2010 9:28:23 AM

Thanks for a great article. I am where you where many years ago, having acquired land three years ago. I have the well dug (but no pump or electricity), trees and berry bushes planted and have a garden started. I have a small tool shed built and have as my next project a tractor and implement shed (locust poles cut and roofing bartered from a neighbor in exchange for driveway grading). I hope to have a house built by next year so I can move out there permanately. I currently make my living as a Rolfer ( and hope to supplement it with produce from the farmstead. Good luck at your homestead and hope to read more from you.

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