It’s possible to have a successful homestead business or patchwork of rural jobs far from the daily grind of urban and suburban offices. Backwoods breadwinners can make a living working for a niche rural business, or by starting a community-supported agriculture program or cottage food enterprise from home.
The readers of MOTHER’s pages are drawn to simpler, hands-on lives that reimagine the 9-to-5, cubicle-enclosed lifestyle. They choose instead to find fulfilling work by repairing a trusty piece of equipment, clearing a garden of weeds, or creating a functional table from scrap wood. Care to join them? You may desire to live in the country on some acreage or in a small, quiet town. We hear from many of you, however, that making the switch to living out your rural homesteading dreams is a challenge. Often, the biggest obstacle is a lack of dollars and sense — you need money and inventiveness to support a homestead.
This feature is dedicated to exploring the diverse methods of making ends meet — whether you’re way out in the sticks or settled in a rural community. We’ve compiled the research and experience of several successful modern homesteaders who have made it work, each by following a unique path.
Beginning with jobs in small towns and rural areas, Ann Larkin Hansen provides an overview of full- and part-time positions, along with seasonal employment opportunities that rural residents can patch together to make a comfortable living. From elder care to grain mill operation, there’s something for everyone.
Next, author and DIY expert Steve Maxwell explains how digital-savvy readers can make a living from their laptops. He calls these homesteading technophiles “digital peasants” because of their ability to couple old-time skills with modern technology.
Cam Mather, another longtime MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor, details how he and his wife make ends meet by running a 50-member community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Finally, we round out the article with advice from the exemplary entrepreneurial couple John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist. Co-authors of nearly a dozen books and innkeepers at Inn Serendipity, this team tackles how to make a living from your kitchen with a cottage food enterprise. We hope these stories and practical pieces of advice will inspire ideas for how you, too, can earn income creatively and independently.
You’ve got to have some cash.
No matter how self-sufficient, homesteaders still need money for property taxes and services or goods that are difficult to scavenge, grow or make — such as canning lids, new chains for the chainsaw, dental work and coffee (necessary for me, at any rate). Selling the excess goods that your homestead produces, such as free-range eggs, vegetables, meat or body care products is one option. But if you aren’t ready to do that or don’t plan to run a full-time farm, you’ll need some other income sources. A part-time, seasonal or even full-time job off the homestead can provide greater financial flexibility for you and greater economic stability for your small community. Fortunately, more earning opportunities exist in rural areas than you might imagine. If you explore your options, you’ll likely find several ways to bring home what comedian W.C. Fields called the “elusive spondulix.” Here are some big-picture statistics on where to find rural jobs, and a chart listing some of the employment and entrepreneurial possibilities available below.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service’s (ERS) 2014 edition of Rural America at a Glance states that although rural and urban unemployment rates are pretty much the same, the types of jobs available in rural areas are different. Rural areas have fewer professional and managerial jobs but have more jobs that require manual labor and technical training. Although these jobs are lower paid, they offer more part-time, seasonal and self-employment opportunities that may fit better with a homesteader’s schedule. Many country dwellers live on a patchwork of part-time and seasonal rural jobs, such as planting trees in spring; welding in summer; and trapping, plowing snow, and running the road grader in winter.
The available jobs in any specific rural area vary widely according to population density, the natural resource base, and the dominant types of agriculture. The sparsely populated Great Plains offer fewer opportunities, while the more populated regions east of the Mississippi River support service jobs, such as house painting and elder care. Wooded regions have jobs in logging and wood processing, while scenic, tourist-driven areas have opportunities in property management and at resorts, marinas and restaurants. Fruit and vegetable farms hire seasonal labor for planting and harvesting. Dairy farms employ year-round farmhands, milk truck drivers and workers at processing plants.
Tom Hertz, an economist with the ERS, notes that although manufacturing jobs, once the backbone of rural areas, continue to decline (down by 15 percent since 2003), self-employment is the fastest-growing sector of the economy in both metro and nonmetro areas. In 2013, 23 percent of all rural jobs were non-farm self-employment. Agricultural workers with technical skills — including veterinary technicians, animal nutritionists, soil scientists and farm managers — are in short supply, he says. A recent USDA report noted that only 35,000 students graduate with agriculture-related degrees each year, but nearly 60,000 jobs are available.
In many small towns across the country, the gold-standard jobs — full-time, with benefits — are concentrated in schools, hospitals, clinics and government agencies. Schools not only need teachers; they also require cooks, custodians, music and art aides, bus drivers, secretaries, and library staff. If a hospital or medical clinic is located in town, it needs receptionists, cleaning staff, lab technicians and nursing assistants. Retirement homes hire cooks, aides and activity directors. County-level government agencies employ secretaries and custodians, and counties and municipalities hire for road maintenance and repair, waste disposal and recycling, and sewage treatment. Local postal service jobs are also available.
Banks, gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and retailers along main streets and highway interchanges need help, as do less-visible enterprises scattered along the outskirts and back roads, such as grain elevators, feed mills, excavators, body shops, welding services, hairdressers and butchers.
If you possess or can acquire skills and training that are in demand in your area, you’ll find opportunities for regular employment or self-employment at a higher pay scale. Technical and community colleges offer training in all sorts of highly employable skills: small-engine repair, truck driving, electric power line maintenance and repair, and more. Local agricultural extension offices may offer short courses or know of apprenticeships for nearby farm jobs that require specific training. Sheepshearing, hoof trimming and tractor-safety education are a handful of options.
In small towns, the right training will open many doors to self-employment and small business opportunities, such as real estate, insurance, accounting and tax services. The predicted demise of small, local printing and newspaper companies has not occurred, and such places still offer dependable rural jobs. Your success will depend on having enough of a population to support the particular enterprise you choose, and also on your skills. Word travels fast in small towns, so if you’re reliable, responsive and efficient, you’ll have customers.
Some jobs, such as data entry and call-center positions, require no experience, while others, such as medical transcription and media management, depend upon more advanced training or skills. A friend of mine, who has made a career of home remodeling and roofing, just started a well-paying job as an online insurance-claims reconciler. Because of broadband Internet, that family is moving closer to its dream of living full time in a cabin 40 miles from the nearest town.
Before pursuing any self-employment venture, make sure you’re knowledgeable about licensing and certification requirements, state and federal tax laws, and funding opportunities. Don’t forget that you’ll be responsible for your own health insurance. Your local community college or extension service may offer business classes. Check out the U.S. Small Business Administration, the USDA Rural Business Development Grants, and the Internal Revenue Service’s page for small businesses and the self-employed.
Let this list get your brain churning about the jobs in your community that you could cobble together to make ends meet. For job seekers with little hands-on experience or start-up capital, the left-hand column, under “Rural Jobs,” provides a list of entry-level careers that are sorted by specialty (and may require a small amount of training): construction and repair; agriculture and livestock; and other miscellaneous jobs, including elder care, retail, and digital telecommuting positions. The right-hand column, under “Business Opportunities,” is a comprehensive list of rural employment prospects that may require a shop and inventory, more extensive training or experience, and often a license or permit.
Part time to full time
Asphalt paving; concrete work; excavating/bulldozing; interior painting; well drilling and repair; fence installation and repair; irrigation system installation, service and repair; masonry; sawmill work; electrician; auto mechanic; farm equipment mechanic; power line work; machinist; plumbing; welding.
Exterior painting; road grading/snow plowing; roofing.
Part time to full time
Hoof trimming; auction service; artificial insemination of livestock; veterinary technician service.
Planting and harvesting crops; logging; nursery and greenhouse labor; sale of farm products.
Part time to full time
In-home care/elder care; emergency medical technician; hospice service; grocery store/retail service; fuel oil and liquefied petroleum gas delivery; truck driving; property management; catering; barber/hairdresser; butcher; data entry; product testing; survey taking; claims adjustment; editing/writing; medical transcription; website design.
Appliance repair; arboriculture; baking; bookkeeping/accounting; building inspection; cabinetmaking; carpet cleaning; computer software/hardware repair; custom farm work (tillage, haymaking); driving service; electrical installation and repair; fiber processing; firewood processing; grain milling; gunsmithing and firearm repair; handyman; horseshoeing; house cleaning; hunting/camping/fishing outfitter or guide; HVAC service; insurance sales; landscaping; land surveying; lawn care; livestock hauling; locksmithing; meat processing; mini-storage; nursery/greenhouse service; plumbing installation and repair; portable sawmill operation; poultry processing; property appraisal; redecorating; remodeling; scrap metal salvage; septic installation and service; sheepshearing; shoe repair; sign-making; skid loader service; small engine repair; tailoring/alterations; taxidermy; trailer sales and service; trapping; water and fire damage restoration; window washing.
Ann Larkin Hansen has been raising livestock and growing vegetables on her Wisconsin homestead for more than 20 years. Along the way, she spent six years as a staff writer for a farm newspaper and has been a freelance writer all the while. Her book The Organic Farming Manual is available on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store.
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