Owner Built Homes and Homesteads: Development Goals

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Knowing the purpose and proper use of your tools is vital for homesteaders.
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Ken Kern used the topography map he sketched in the top half of this image to help him plan the design of his homestead, pictured in the bottom half.

How can it be agreed that food, clothing and shelter
shall be produced en masse, by machinery, and simply as
objects of merchandise, things produced solely for the
profit of investors of capital, and yet that, fed on
machine-made food, dressed in machine-made clothes, housed
in machine-made buildings, we shall be able in our leisure
hours-the hours when we are not working in the
factories–to produce and enjoy the products of human

What an environment!

And environment is important, because it is as
necessary as the thing environed.

You cannot have responsible human beings in their
leisure time, if they are not responsible in their working

For working is the means to living, and it is life for
which we have responsibility.

You cannot have responsibility for your work unless you
have control over it.

You cannot have control over it unless individually or
collectively you own it.

We have destroyed the ownership and control, and
therefore the responsibility of the workers, and placed
these things in the hands of those who, by the nature of
the case, neither have, nor can have, any interest in the
matter other than a financial one.

And the evil recoils on them also.

For what can be bought with the precious dividends but
the inhuman and degraded products of sub-human and degraded
workers and of a sub-human and inhuman method of

The subject of this and the following chapter deals with
setting up homestead development goals and implementing
these goals through developmental means. This twin
thought-and-work concern comprises the essential backbone
of the homestead process. It surely has more to do with a
homesteader’s success or failure than any other single
factor. And it answers the probing questions: What to do?
And how to do it? That is, what type of homestead
program–in terms of crops, livestock, foods,
etc.–is to be set up; and what practices and
operations–in terms of time, energy and
labor–is to be adopted to achieve these goals. It is
hoped that these final two chapters provide the degree of
insight required for the culmination of a totally
satisfying, successful homesteading experience.

Observation becomes the starting point for any
systematic analysis of homestead goals: SURVEY BEFORE PLAN
BEFORE CONSTRUCTION. A thorough site observation is needed
before one can complete the form, “To Program Your
Homestead Development”, found at the end of this book.
Before any amount of planning can take place one needs to
know exactly with what he has to work. Existing climatic,
soil, topography, and vegetation resources are as important
bits of information to the homestead-designer as are the
homesteader’s personal needs, likes, and dislikes.

M.G. Kains, author of many fine books on homesteading, has
this to say about the translation of observation into terms
of understanding, decision, and action:

One of the most profitable habits yon can form is
systematically, every day, to go over at least part of your
premises in a leisurely, scrutinizingly thoughtful way, and
the whole of it at least once each week throughout the year
to reap the harvest of a quiet eye and fill the granary of
your mind with knowledge of the habits of helpful and
harmful animals, birds and insects; to observe and
understand the characteristics of plant growth from the
sprouting of the seed through all the stages of stem, leaf,
flower, fruit and seed development; to note and interpret
the behavior of plants, poultry and animals under varying
conditions of heat and cold, sunshine and shade, drought
and wetness, fair weather and foul, rich and poor

One most important part of the survey process is
classification of homestead land capability. As used here
“capability” relates to best usages and limitations in
handling the land and not to mere productive capacity. In
most regions of the U.S. the Soil Conservation Service will
prepare anyone a land classification map, free of charge.
But an essential part of discovering a proper solution for
land use lies in the assemblage of facts for the
preparation of the map itself . . . each homesteader should
therefore be directly involved in preparing his own
inventory map.

The map is prepared by first walking over the land and
carefully examining all the significant variations in land
features. The soil variations can be simply determined by
using a soil auger. One brief sample of earth will indicate
topsoil depth, texture, permeability, available moisture
capacity, inherent fertility, organic matter content and
other characteristics that affect the use, management and
treatment of the land. Simple visual observation will
indicate slope of land, degree of erosion, wetness and
drainage. All of this information should be recorded on an
aerial map (oftentimes available from the Soil Conservation
Service) or on a U.S. Geological Survey map.

The Soil Conservation Service has categorized eight
land-capability classes, according to those properties that
determine the ability of the land to produce on a virtually
permanent basis. Classes range from the best and most
easily farmed land (Class I), to land which has no value
for cultivation, grazing or forestry but which may be
suitable for wildlife, recreation or watershed protection
(Class VIII).

Following the survey, the planning process involves
matching personal need to existing resources. It is here
that first failures occur: Too often limited resources are
utilized to satisfy unrealistic needs. Or the balance and
rhythm of slow growth is superseded by a more impatient
tour de force. Remember, it takes time to organize
and operate a homestead. At any given moment a homesteader
may still be far from an optimum level of management, or
from the ultimate goals for which he is striving. Even
goals themselves change over a homesteader’s life cycle. A
dynamic approach is therefore required.

One of my favorite, long-term but still incompleted
projects is the formulation of a self-test for potential
homesteaders, to determine homestead abilities, probable success, and failure. The test is self-scoring and should
go far in at least determining probable dropouts before
their own tragic discovery of ineptitude. This
self-appraisal is divided into three categories: an
evaluation of a homesteader’s character . . . his
interest and attachment and patience to deal with plants
and animals; his physique . . . stamina to handle
the extra work, and his motivation . . .
willingness to give up time on a regular basis for
chores and homestead maintenance.

The fact that homesteading is a family affair somewhat
complicates the formation of a self-test of this nature . .
. the lack or presence of some essential attribute in a
homesteader’s background may be compensated for by
characteristics found in his wife (or husband), or in the

Homestead vocational guidance programs are more easily
organized and deal primarily in three areas: tests for
proficiency, evaluation of personal characteristics, and
some indication of past experience and performance in
homestead activities.

Agribusiness economists have been studying the attributes
and characteristics of “good” and “poor” farmers since 1929
when the first questionnaire by the Bureau of Agricultural
Economics was published. It is interesting to compare the
10 most significant factors in determining financial
success, established by this early study, with those
attributes found to be important in a study made 23 years

 1929 Questionnaire              1952 Questionnaire

 1. Farm experience              1. Takes pride in farm work
 2. Wife's cooperation           2. Ambitious
 3. Ambition to succeed          3. A good manager
 4. Liking for farm work         4. Plans his work
 5. Getting work done on time    5. On time with his work
 6. Hard work                    6. Financially successful
 7. County Agent help            7. Builds up soil
 8. Production management        8. Progressive
 9. Farm papers                  9. Good business judgment
10. Father having been a        10. Enjoys working with livestock
     good farmer.

The purpose of studying good and bad farmer attributes, by
the various college departments of agricultural economics,
was done primarily to benefit landlords and their farm
managers . . . as an aid to seek the best farm tenants.
Bankers and other creditors are also aided by these
questionnaires in the help received for evaluating the
personal characteristics of prospective borrowers.
Subsistence-level landholders can effect little assistance
from such “public” institutions. In only a small way do
these studies relate to the self-actuating,
owner-builder-homesteader. In one study (University of
Illinois, 1949) 360 questionnaires were filled out by
farmers describing the attributes they felt constituted a
poor farmer. Some of the attributes associated
with poor farming practices seem to qualify that farmer for
homesteading, like the comment made by one farmer
describing attributes of his poor farmer neighbor: “Neither
whiskers, nor weeds, nor uncastrated pigs annoy him.”

Actually, there has been only one period in American
history when a public agency was established specifically
to aid the poor farmer, subsistence-homesteader class. This
was during the Great Depression when President Roosevelt
started the Farm Security Administration. Quite early in
its operation the FSA challenged the cheap labor
“plantation” system in the South, and threatened
established “farm” and landlord interests in its effort to
deal comprehensively with rural poverty. Destitute farmers
were taught cooperative marketing techniques and self-help
farmstead enterprises. Even cooperative farmstead
communities were established (a total of 13 throughout the
U.S.) which further threatened our free-enterprise
private-land-ownership way of life.

The demise of the FSA was wrought by our conglomerate
agricultural administration . . . from the Secretary of
Agriculture to the County Agent. I say “conglomerate”
because a little study of the U.S. farm structure will show
its interrelatedness. The powerful American Farm Bureau
Federation, for instance, is a direct outgrowth of the
County Agent system. The Extension Service is but one
segment of this public bureaucracy which actually serves as
a bureaucracy of a private organization . . . the Farm
Bureau. These forceful bureaucracies, along with their
counterpart, the land-grant agricultural colleges, were all
originally promoted by the omniscient U.S. Department of
Agriculture . . . and the whole kit and caboodle is
financed by the taxpayer and controlled by agribusiness.

Agribusiness, usually in the form of a
corporate-conglomerate-absentee-landlord, uses the
tax-funded agricultural research of Federal and State
agencies and hides behind tax laws originally set up to
benefit the poor farmer . . . only to further drive him out
of business. In 1950 there were 5 1/2 million farms in the
U.S., with an average size of 215 acres. In 1970 there were
3 million farms, with an average size of 380 acres. The
farm situation here in California is probably the worst in
the nation. A big company like Tenneco exacts a
81.5-million-a-year subsidy for not growing crops! Such
multi-thousand-acre companies use federally subsidized
irrigation water in direct violation of the 1902
Reclamation Act . . . which limits use of such water to
farms no larger than 160 acres so as to prevent monopoly
land ownership!

So the small landholder can expect little assistance from
the County Agent or the land-grant college . . . they are
fully immersed in
crop-picking machinery research for agribusiness. The
American Farm Bureau Federation people are in state and
federal capitols lobbying against some
destitute-migrant-minimum-wage-right-to-strike Chicano for
the benefit of some absentee fat cat. And bureaucratic
Department of Agriculture administrators disperse monies
and direct the policies for an ever more powerful
agribusiness. Given a choice, the Department of Agriculture
favors bigness: power reserves from the federally
subsidized TVA, for example, can produce either nitrate or
phosphate fertilizers. Nitrates are traditionally the poor
farmers’ fertilizers, but prosperous farmers benefit more
from phosphates. You guessed it, phosphates are produced by
the TVA.

As I perceive it, grass-roots leadership in the productive
homestead movement can take direction from either or both
of two possible routes . . . if, indeed, homesteading is
ever to be thought of as a significant, viable, alternative
lifestyle for more people than those of the counterculture.
First, the cooperative homestead concept fostered by the
Farm Security Administration must be modernized,
reevaluated, and reconstituted. The physical, social, and
economic ramifications of the homestead community will be
the subject of my following book, THE OWNER-BUILT

Secondly, regional learning centers–homestead
schools, if you will–need to be established
immediately. I envision five such centers throughout the
U.S., and at this writing the first such center seems close
to realization here in California. Recruiting the necessary
expertise to operate such a plant has already begun here.
Many things might happen at a homestead school besides the
obvious learning of essential skills. The center can become
a regional information clearinghouse; a land location
service can be maintained for prospective homesteaders;
certain experimental methods and processes associated with
living on the land can be demonstrated or even initiated.
Besides being an experimental learning center, an
individualized consultation service could be made available
from the center’s team of experienced instructors . . .
experts in everything from building, gardening, animal care,
and land development to home food processing and craft

My Homestead Planning Program offered at the end of this
book is one other important adjunct to our proposed
learning center. It is designed to operate as a mail-order
service, “on location” at our future school or in direct
relation with the homestead site.

One of my earliest homestead experiences clearly
demonstrated the value and need of instruction in basic
skills. In the 1950’s I happened to be visiting the School
of Living center in Ohio. John Loomis was putting up hay
and I had occasion to assist him in this seemingly routine
chore. John was one who felt that “one good head is better
than a hundred strong hands”, and he proceeded to instruct
me in the fine art of loading the ubiquitous hay fork.
Really now! A special technique for picking the hay up on
the fork? John showed me how the prongs are first woven in
and out of the first layer of hay so that a matted
foundation is formed for the remainder of the hay to rest
upon. And when hay is pitched onto the wagon, large “wads”
must first be filled along both sides, to hold the central
portion in place. At the end of that first day of haymaking
I came away fully convinced that any prospective
homesteader not instructed in the art of pitching, loading
and unloading hay into the barn loft would be sure to fail
in his attempt to live off the land . . . the sheer work
would be sufficient to figuratively–if not
literally–break his back!

A hay fork can well become the symbolic weapon of the green
revolution. As such it must be used properly, as John
Loomis instructed. And make certain that you do not
mistakenly pitch hay with a grass or manure fork.

At this stage, however, even such common errors as improper
use and choice of tools cannot substantially impede the
green revolution. For actually, the revolution has come and
gone, and as Ken Kesey puts it . . . “We Won!” An unknown
poet says it this way:

Don’t look for its soldiers in the city. Most of the
real ones are long since gone to their domes and gardens,
with goats and chickens the
day was won. You now
see only plastic imitations who will starve yelling “What’s
it all mean?” not knowing that the revolution has come and
gone and was won in a patch of beans.