Learning to Live a Self-Sufficient Life

Even with advance preparation, the Schulz family found achieving their dream of a self-sufficient life was less about romantic vision and more about learning to live within daily reality.

| April/May 2010

Schulz homestead

Robert and Summer Schulz take their horse-drawn wagon out for a ride. They've built a self-sufficient life on a homestead in southeastern Wisconsin.


In June 2004, my wife, Summer, and I arrived at the 40 vacant acres of grass and woods we had just purchased, nestled in the hills of southwest Wisconsin. Summer was six months pregnant, and we had our work cut out for us to get a warm shelter built before the cold set in. We came with high hopes and a solid work ethic. We also brought with us feelings of freedom, concern from our families, and anxiety over what we were about to embark upon. Both of us had been preparing for this step into self-sufficient life since we were teenagers, saving money and learning old-fashioned skills, natural building techniques, and various arts and crafts (including blacksmithing and fiber arts). We worked on conventional and organic farms, learning to live simply within limited means. We also held several intern positions, participated in WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and spent enough time on other people’s land that we knew we wanted to have our own. As an artist, it had always been my dream to arrive on vacant land and gradually build up my homestead, a lifelong creation.

Our wish list for our dream property included privacy, a quiet road, 20 to 60 acres that were half tillable/half wooded, and, most importantly, a clean spring. Finding all these attributes was not easy, and we looked at more than 40 properties over five months. When we found a parcel that met most of our wishes, our only hesitation was that it was 30 miles from the main social center in the area. In exchange for being so far out, however, we landed amid a thriving Amish community. This was a major attraction for us because we knew people in the community would have rural living skills we could learn. We would also have a direct connection to their horse-drawn lifestyle, and the possibility of borrowing horses and equipment until we got a team of our own.

Making Plans

During the land search process, we started to design the home that we planned to build. It was a small, simple, straw bale structure that I thought I could put up in a couple of months. Well, more than five years later, we’re still putting the finishing touches on the house. One of the best bits of advice came from my older sister, who suggested I start by building the walk-out concrete foundation and putting on a temporary roof for the first winter. That gave us three solid walls, and I then framed the south-facing fourth wall, which is 80 percent windows. We could then start early the following spring and frame out the rest of the house without such pressure. This made it possible for us to get a dwelling built by October (our baby was born Oct. 6). Throughout that first winter, we had the time to design and build the home we wanted, using the materials we wanted, without having to rush or make compromises because of time constraints.

That winter, the plans for our house grew from 800 square feet to 1,380 square feet, as we realized that having personal spaces to focus on our individual passions would be critical for our overall happiness. Summer has her own room, and I have an office. These rooms are meant to be spaces that we can furnish, decorate, and use in ways that are right for us — self-expression within the family.

After more research and conversations with experienced natural builders in the area, we changed our plan from using straw bales for insulation to building our walls with a straw/clay infill packed into formwork. Why? First and foremost, we learned that mixing the clay slip into the straw before packing the walls assists in the deterrence of potential mold growth. The clay within will absorb any moisture from vapor penetration, and slowly release the moisture, keeping the straw from becoming compromised.

The straw/clay approach also makes it possible to use any wall thickness you desire. We decided to go with 12-inch walls because we wouldn’t have a huge house to keep warm and we didn’t want to lose too much interior space. The 12- inch thickness made it easy to frame, too. Another advantage of straw/clay fill is that it makes it easy to create a flush, “non-wonky-looking” wall, which is often tricky for first-time home builders when trying to stack straw bales. To top it off, the subsoil on our land is pure clay, so we had an unlimited source for not only the infill, but for the multiple coats of plaster we put on. Our base coats were a clay/sand/straw mixture, and for the finish coats we added lime to help with permeability (more lime = less permeable). Our finish coats, inside and out, are a lime-clay plaster, which offers a beautiful tannish, off-white color.

8/8/2013 1:31:48 PM

Do they have a blog? I'd love to read more about their life!

6/20/2013 10:44:14 AM

@Laura_43:  You may want to look into prepaid cell phone plans like Net10 that usually run about $50 a month.  Hughesnet is a relatively inexpensive satellite Internet provider that is popular in more rural areas without cable access.  That said, together these will run you more than $1,000.00 a year.  You'll have to ask yourself if this is worth the price, or if you could get by with occasional trips to the public library for your Internet fix.  Naturally, you'll want to take into account how far away the library is, because you may find it's actually less expensive and more convenient to pay for it once you've considered the cost of fuel and wear and tear on your vehicle.  If you're in fair physical condition and town is 10 miles or less away, a nice bicycle ride is great for the heart and soul!

6/19/2013 12:15:00 PM

if you have to ask what the point is , you will never understand it. Great Job Shultz,, maybe some day for me.. i would love to retire out of healthcare in a couple years and do at least half what yuou are doing. Great story Thanks

6/19/2013 11:17:32 AM

Well good for you folks.I must say if I was 20 years old again with the know-how on do to things,Also with the chance @ SOLAR POWER and living off the G-G-GRID (goverment crap) with wood cooking & heating I'd be laughing at the soceity

.At least these folks not welfare bums & scums.Keep up with good work of living life as it need be.For I know there also some Canadians that do live of the grid and now @ my age I'm still going to try my VERY BEST  to get off the grid with my 2 hands and no hand outs.LOVE THAT SOLAR POWER & WOOD HEAT.

joana carter
3/1/2013 11:11:55 AM

Hi. I am not trying to criticizing you, just a thought provoking question. Have you guys noticed that the world has evolved?? I mean what is the point of living a harder obsolete lifestyle? Thanks

sandy west_2
5/22/2010 8:34:15 AM

I love it that people are realizing their dreams and choosing this type of life style. I have concerns about how all the new rules and regulations being put into effect are going to stop this dream for most of us,the government is intruding so much in our lives it is down right scary,right down to growing food and having the government step in to dictate how it is grown especially if you choose to sell some of it like this couples garlic.

5/21/2010 10:51:43 AM

I am glad to see some people who aren't afraid to do some work! After reading an article last week on here about "'Possum Living", I was slightly disgusted that people think government should take care of them. I am glad to see people out there that can take care of themselves! And WANT to do hard work... Hard work keeps our bodies in shape and our minds sharp, keep up the great work! What a beautiful homestead! :)

4/30/2010 10:25:10 AM

What a great article and inspiring homestead! My husband and I will begin building our home on our 19 acres this summer, and we have one question we haven't seen discussed much: phones and internet! We'd love to stay off the grid - meaning no phone lines, but we'd still like some phone and internet access. We don't currently have cell phones, so we don't know about all the options. The idea of paying 100's of dollars a month for wifi and cell phones doesn't really jive with our goal of simplifying - yet we'd still like some access. It seems this technology can be of use to modern homesteaders. I'd love to know what this family does. Or see a whole article that discusses options.

3/31/2010 6:22:41 PM

I would love to know more about the straw bale and clay approach. I have always wanted to build with straw bale, but you seem to have discovered a method that utilizes the best of two methods of building. Can you explain it further? You cut your bales in half to get the 12-inch wall? Tilling land can be horrendous. Not that you shouldn't do it and create crops for your animals etc., but have you ever considered AquaPonics? Even though we are in the desert southwest, we will need to put our AquaPonics system in a greenhouse to be able to 'grow' fish and produce all year long. You mentioned a green house that you want to build...and you might consider a small AquaPonics system in it: fresh, mercury-free fish all year long, plus a multitude of produce all year long...growing at three to four times the rate of produce in a regular garden. Hope to hear of your further progress! If you ever get the time to explain the straw/clay process, I would appreciate it. Best! Page

jan steinman
3/31/2010 2:30:03 PM

For those of you who might be interested in doing such a thing in south west British Columbia, EcoReality Co-op is currently seeking member-investors to help us retire our debt on 43 beautiful acres with two houses on magical Salt Spring Island. For more info, go to: http://www.EcoReality.org/wiki/Land_purchase_fund_drive

3/27/2010 10:29:41 PM

Right on congratulations on all your acheivements! You really are an insperation. If you want or need help and want to teach in the proccess I will jump at the chance to learn. My girlfriend and myself have the same goals. We are starting small but always willing to learn from others successes and failings. Keep up the good fight the whole world needs more adventurous souls.

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