Self Sufficiency: Unpeeling the Myth, Embracing Homesteading

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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It’s always a treasure to hear from readers, including those with questions.  This week, I received an inquiry from an area student (I’ll refer to him as John), who is a sixth grader working on a research project.  My sister Kara was in 6th grade when we moved up full-time to revitalize the old homestead, and many of our initial projects were sparked by research endeavors.

John had an interesting question for me: 

“My ILP [independent learning project] is on homesteading. The question I am trying to answer is, ‘Can I become self sufficient on 1 and a half acres of land?’  Some of the things I have learned about is how to start homesteading.  I am looking to talk to someone and learn more about homesteading.”

I thought on this for a couple of days, realizing there were really two questions within the letter.  Assuming that John lives on 1.5 acres of land currently, here are some thoughtful considerations.  Maybe you have a little bit of acreage too and can pick up some tips.

The short answer to “Can I become self-sufficient on 1.5 acres of land?” would be no.  But let’s unpack that a bit.  Self-sufficiency is part of the pioneer legend, where you strike out and do it all for yourself.  It sounds so brave and adventuresome and very American.  But, alas, being fully self-sufficient (and its conceptual entanglement with the word sustainable) is a myth.  Here’s a few reasons why.

1. There would not be enough timber from 1.5 acres to keep your house warmed, at least not for many years, even if the acreage was fully wooded. So then you would have to start importing wood (or another heating fuel source) or…well, the alternative would be way too cold for this far north.

2. It would be difficult to produce all your own clothes from 1.5 acres of land. You could have a couple of sheep, but I don’t think you’d want to wear ONLY wool clothing (itchy underwear, ew).  It’s too far north for cotton and not enough space for flax, so that presents a self-sufficiency problem.

3. While it might be possible to produce your own electricity from renewable energy sources, you’d have to out-source that infrastructure. If you’re on the grid, then you’re relying on others.  And how about the internet?  I don’t think you’ll be making that modern societal necessity all on your own.

So really, the idea of being completely self-sufficient is not only unfeasible but it’s also not useful.  The truth is that we’re all in an interconnected web.  We need each other, socially, environmentally, economically, and structurally.  The true nature of sustainability is not exclusive of others like a lone island, its inclusive like a flourishing ecosystem. 

My family’s homestead is nearly 250 acres, and I’m far from being entirely self-sufficient—relying on grain growers in adjacent counties for my feed inputs, a hatchery in Beaver Dam for day-old meat chicken chicks, and garden seeds from Johnny’s in Maine.  It’s not a weakness or downfall to network with others to help your homesteading dreams find fruition.  It’s a necessity.

But the short answer to the second part of John’s inquiry, the part about homesteading, would be a resounding absolutely!  There are all sorts of ways you can integrate homesteading into a 1.5-acre piece of land, right here in the Northwoods.  Here are some great and friendly ways to get started.

Install a High Tunnel.  One of the trickiest parts about growing more of your own foods in the Northwoods is the extreme shortness of the growing season.  Adding even a modest hoop house (the plastic film type stretched over metal framing is the most economical) can make a huge difference.  In our original 12 x 24-foot high tunnel, I was already able to work the soil last week and put in our first spinach crop.  After it’s too hot for the spinach, I transplant sun-loving peppers and tomatoes, which I was able to continue harvesting crop from all the way into late October, even November some years.

Raise Chicken.  Chickens are fun and versatile on the homestead, and they don’t require a tremendous amount of space.  You can even transform an old shed into a coop, if you have one.  Chickens can turn bugs and grass and kitchen scraps (with free-choice grain available) into delicious eggs and meat.  Meat chickens can be raised up and processed in a summer, if you don’t have adequate winter housing for them yet.  There’s nothing quite as rewarding, though, as picking your own eggs in the morning and having them for breakfast! 

Raise Pigs.  The other great animal addition on small acreage is pigs.  When we started homesteading, we used feeder pigs to help us reclaim garden space from the omnipresent and noxious quack grass that happily choked out anything we wanted to grow.  We’d make a pen for the pigs in a desired garden space, let them root up everything and eat up all the quack rhizomes, then chisel plowed, disked, and tilled the soil up for garden space the next year.  Not only had the pigs removed the rhizomes, but their manure had helped to fertilize the soil.  In addition, we had delicious pork in the freezer for winter.

Start Fruit Crops Now.  There is a Chinese proverb:  “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.  The second best time to plant a tree is now.”  You’re still young enough to enjoy the fruits from northern-hearty dwarf apple trees planted this spring.  Find a good sunny spot, plant at least three or four (it’s nice to have one of them as a crab tree, for pollination help), and water them well that first year.  Also think about starting berry patches—strawberries, raspberries, even rhubarb, etc.  It may not have the instant gratification of the vegetable garden but having your own fruits on the homestead is a real plus.

Try Making Maple Syrup.  Are there mature maple trees on your acreage?  Do you know how to make maple syrup?  If it’s yes to the first and no to the second, find someone who already makes syrup who can help and teach you.  This is a crop you don’t even have to plant!  If you don’t have maple trees on your land, you still might want to shadow someone who makes syrup and learn this traditional homesteading skill.

Learn to Can Your Own Foods.  Freezing is great, so is dehydrating.  But there’s nothing quite like opening up that can of strawberry jam you made last summer from your own berries (or local berries while your plants are getting established).  Making jam is a friendly way to start out with home canning, and there’s lots of great resources to help you learn like the Blue Ball Books or your Grandma.

Remake Your Food Storage.  If there’s a real place for self-reliance on the homestead, it’s in food storage.  The average town has three days of food on hand at any given point in time.  If our shipping system ever hit a major glitch, starvation would be a real and terrible issue.  Most serious homesteaders, however, have months of food stocked up at any given time.  Invest in a chest freezer (you’ll need it when you butcher those two feeder pigs in the fall), a good pantry for storing your canned and dried goods, and a root cellar space in the basement for storing the potato, onion, garlic, winter squash, and cabbage crops.  I’m still eating potatoes we dug last fall from the garden, and they continue to be crisp and delicious.

Cook from Scratch.  When you start growing your own foods, what you bring into the kitchen are whole ingredients.  You might have a head of broccoli, two red onions, three carrots, a bok choy, and some chicken in the fridge left over from yesterday.  What can you make?  How about a stir fry!  But how do you do that when nothing is pre-packaged and ready to heat-and-eat?  Learning how to reclaim the kitchen and cook with whole, unprocessed ingredients is a great homesteading skill.  By starting with friendly, easily adjustable recipes, you’ll begin the process of learning how to utilize all the yummy things you’re growing.

All of these you can do on small acreage.  For starters, stay with smaller food animals (rabbits would be good too) instead of large ruminants (cows, etc.), which thrive best on larger acreage with rotational grazing.  Horses would be another species to avoid, since they require lots of space and produce no food crop outside of manure to help out your garden.  Experiment, stay diversified, and learn about what works best with your soils and the unique ecosystem on your land.  Learn to love vegetables too.

Best of luck with your project John, and we hope to see you down on the farm sometime.

Our homestead, wrapped in the throes of winter.  Photo by Kara Berlage

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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