Build Your Modern Homesteading Community

One farmer finds rebellion in building community aboveground and below.

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by Adobestock/Monkey Business
Community building is a key part of homesteading success.

Do you remember the moment you figured out that most things in the world are totally rigged? Made up? Kind of strange and potentially not worth your time?

I don’t. The world does a very good job of tricking you into thinking your hunch is a bad one, and so you spend a decent amount of time trying to prove to yourself that you really do want to follow the path most traveled in society. At some point, you trust yourself enough to realize that the fair share of society is a sham, and it’s time to start a homestead.

The Wisdom of Teenagers

If this doesn’t somewhat resemble a thought process you’ve had before, bear with me. I’m raising three teenagers at the moment, so the majority of my conversations focus on the existential necessity of middle school, high school, college, most vegetables, clothes that actually cover your skin … you get the drift. As a parent, I’ve abandoned the need to have an answer for all of these questions. Long ago, when my son asked me why he has to wear underwear and I couldn’t think of a reason, I stopped trying to pretend that there’s a reason for everything humans do.

As my kids are coming into the tricky territory of an integrated frontal lobe, however, I see them catching on. Things grown-ups do don’t make a lot of sense. Why do we go through these motions that don’t make us happy and serve systems that we don’t necessarily agree with? When it comes to this question – this broad, sweeping, debilitating question – they want me to have reasons.

Until now, I haven’t given them any, mostly because I didn’t get answers either. That’s probably why after I went to college (because I was supposed to), I promptly began leasing land and farming. I sold vegetables and meats directly to people who wanted something “better” than they could get at the standard food outlet. I began to participate in farming and homesteading circles, where the refrain is consistently about how to opt out, create a different paradigm, and provide for oneself. Now, I travel around the world, teaching people food and farming skills and consulting with businesses trying to challenge the status quo. What I see, after two years of the pandemic, in the midst of rising inflation, supply chain disturbances, climate change, and the persistent pressure of systemic inequity, is a growing background anxiety. More than ever before in my 20 years of seeking food freedom, there is a pervasive frustration, skepticism, and despair, leading to an even bigger and far-reaching urge to become self-reliant. In my kids, I see a desire to push against dependence, to establish self-sovereignty, and to opt out of the things that aren’t working.

Teacher and kids school learning ecology gardening

When I ask people why they want to learn butchery, farming, soil building, or fermentation, one of the most common answers is a desire to be more self-sufficient. They want to be less dependent on globalized food and resource systems and to understand the way things are done, in case doing it themselves is the only option they have. I see memes and online arguments daily that assert that Grandma survived the Great Depression because she grew her own food, or that the best assurance in an apocalypse is a small farm, a full larder, and an impressive array of skills (not to mention firearms).

The Historical Legacy of Homesteading

Homesteading, for lack of a better term, holds a lot of different meanings. The term originates from the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided economic incentives in the form of land ownership to established and potential citizens willing to move westward to expand America’s colonialist pursuits. The land that was made available to the settlers, however, was stolen from the Indigenous peoples who already lived there. The term has since morphed into a characterization of a lifestyle in the pursuit of self-sufficiency, be it full-time, part-time, with or without land, in the city, or in rural spaces. In this aspect, it can be useful, providing an umbrella term for many activities and beliefs.

In other ways, it can be a limiting term. Not only does its use gloss over the historical and modern injustices of land theft, but it also often ignores the topical issues of land justice and the privilege to be able to choose that lifestyle. Broadly speaking, homesteading also tends to be understood as an individualistic pursuit. The Homestead Act itself marks a tragic moment in history in which Indigenous common lands were stolen for private property. Even when modern examples acknowledge this shift as an outcome of colonialist thinking, they still manage to mostly describe the act of leaving, going off-grid, or checking out from both the limitations and the conveniences of modern society as an enviable and solitary endeavor.

I think it’s positive that my kids are beginning to see that there are things about the “school to college to hopefully well-paying job” pipeline that are questionable, just as I’m thrilled that an ever-growing portion of our population is seeing that the ways in which we meet our basic necessities are fraught and oppressive. But the argument I want to carefully make, both as a parent and as a card-carrying truth teller on the nonsense of society, is that the urge to opt out is not the answer. In fact, there really is no such thing.

In my own experience trying to relearn traditional or ancestral skills, own or lease land, beg or borrow resources, or make any kind of meaningful cultural pursuit, I’ve found that none of it happens without community, both human and more than human. And in times like these, when I encounter more and more people looking to hunker down, it feels important to note that without even trying, the homesteader naturally relies on the principles and actions of community dynamics every single day. The homesteader who recognizes and actively tries to build community is the truly successful example of a rebel. Grandma survived the Great Depression with her community, and you’ll have a better chance in the face of apocalypse if you’ve got allies all around you.

Modern homesteading, and probably modern parenting, suffers from its inability to admit that when a person resolutely opts out of one system, they enter into participation with another. We homesteaders, rogues, and truth-acknowledging parents would do better if we were more well-versed in articulating that interdependence is the lifeline of the rebel.

Interdependence in the Soil

Let’s start at ground level. Any pursuit to grow one’s own food is entirely dependent on the health and maintenance of soil. What participants in conventional society might call “dirt,” good homesteaders recognize as a teeming world of mind-bending diversity. The desire to grow life-giving food is to embark on a journey that will ultimately place the curious rogue farmer in service to a community of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, nematodes, microscopic arthropods, earthworms, and spiders. As they go through their life spans and produce their unimaginably tiny and fleeting biological signatures, this potent army of soil builders help collectively create humus. Humus – that deep, rich soil – in turn, provides all the resources to make a sweet, crunchy, and mineral-packed carrot that couldn’t have been produced without this community underfoot.

Of course, we’re going to eat this carrot. We’ll tell our social media followers how much better it is than the imported, organic grocery-store carrots and how much better it is for our children’s health and development. As we thumb out the caption on the phone’s tiny keyboard, the community of microbes in our digestive tract will go to work, extracting the most nutrients out of that special carrot.

What if there are too many carrots? The ideal scenario would be one in which our rogue farmer preserves them, making fermented carrot pickles that will keep indefinitely. In those fermented pickles, communities of microbes will begin to digest the sugars in the carrots and convert them into acids and alcohols. The stewardship of microbial communities doesn’t stop there. When those probiotic carrots are later enjoyed, their microbes will mingle with our rebel farmer’s gut microbes, and when the composting toilet is emptied, some of those microbes will return to the soil.

Where does all this knowledge that instructs this rogue farmer about how to steward these amazing communities come from? A community of neighbors, ancestors, culture tenders, and storytellers, both near and far, who can help with harvest, labor, and their celebration. A life spent more intentionally and outside of the status quo is realistically more of a symbiotic, communal pursuit. While homesteading might be branded as self-reliance, that conceptualization of it is really a holdover of the colonialist cultural training many homesteaders want to reject in the first place.

Finding Community in a Pandemic

When COVID-19 first hit and my business model of teaching butchery, meat curing, and fermentation in community was challenged by mandates to isolate, I began to put my classes online. While this met a growing demand from people around the world who had been asking for more accessibility, the thought that I would pivot toward an online school of my own making was a flawed one. The individualistic mentality is so pervasive that we often don’t notice it, but it can recreate the same untenable circumstances that we wanted to opt out of. As I began to learn about the average person’s online experience, particularly when it comes to education, and try to make my voice heard in the noisy world of the internet, I realized that an individualistic pursuit was utterly doomed. I joined with fellow educator Kirsten Shockey to create The Fermentation School, an online educational platform for food-system and fermentation education, where women work together to lift all of their voices.

While I’m giving and receiving to my global community of women educators at The Fermentation School, I’m back to educating and sharing in-person as well. What I ask my clients now is this: How does it feel? Where do you see the most radical community component at work in your system? I want to start there. Quite often, this can be a difficult conversation, because we will quickly discover that the radical community component is missing entirely. But just as often, we find that it is there, alive and well, just not named, acknowledged, and given credit for the incredible strengths it bestows.

This is the same message I want to give to my children. I’ll do everything I can to validate that angsty teen hunch that things aren’t what they seem to be. And while they figure out how to beat the game that is school, I get to have a bigger and more exciting conversation with them: what kind of community do they want to participate in, and what sort of dependency do they want to practice? If we can begin to speak this language of interdependency and retrain ourselves in the way we reveal the world to our kids, we’ll be re-culturing toward a better society, even when our hands aren’t in the soil.

Meredith Leigh has worked as a farmer, butcher, chef, teacher, nonprofit executive director, and writer, all in pursuit of a more sustainable food system.