When my wife, Cara, and I moved to a small town in a new area in 2015 and wanted to start homesteading, we felt rather alone. Many people starting a homesteading journey have a network of nearby family or friends to rely on. What could we do?
We frequented the local farmers market to spend time with like-minded people. It was great to meet a wide variety of farmers who knew how to grow food in this area. We’d previously met a homesteading couple who sold food at the market, but because they were trying to sell their wares, it was a bit awkward to just hang out and chat.
While attending the local Earth Day Fair one year, we met an experienced homesteader, Jim, who was talking about root cellars and chickens. We kicked ourselves later for not getting his contact information. Then, I joined the local Master Gardeners club. Many of the members have a lot of experience growing food in our climate. They continue to be a wonderful resource.
Despite all these outlets, I still suspected there were dozens of homesteaders in our area to meet.
Many readers might now be wondering, “Why not use Facebook or Meetup? There are lots of regional groups for any possible thing you could be interested in.” Well, we’re not into Facebook. And we suspected that many of the people we wanted to meet were even less interested in online friendships than we were.
What I really wanted was a club for homesteaders, much like the local clubs for beekeepers, homebrewers, gardeners, and blacksmiths that dot the country. Only, this one would cover all the topics that would interest a homesteader.
So, after some planning and dreaming, I took the plunge.
At the 2017 Earth Day Fair, I reserved a booth. Luckily, the reservation was free because we weren’t selling anything. Cara and I made some cute posters to hang on the wall that said “Beekeeping,” “Maple Syrup,” “Chickens,” “Canning,” etc. We set out some show-and-tell items, such as canned jelly, bean seeds, and Mother Earth News magazines. We presumed that passersby would key in on a word or item that resonated, and then we’d have something to talk about. Lastly, we put out a sign-up list. Our primary goal was to determine whether there was enough interest to start a club. We expected 10 people to stop and chat.
It turned out to be one of the best days of my life. By the end of it, we were exhausted from talking to more than 50 people about what this club could be. Thirty-eight people (including Jim and his wife, Nancy) signed up to get more information once the club was formed, and several volunteered to help plan how the club would work.
In the weeks that followed, I found a free conference room we could reserve monthly. Our first meeting was in June 2017, and the topic was keeping chickens. Soon after, we did a coop tour of four homesteads in the area. My ulterior motive was to glean tips, since we were building a coop.
We have a sign-in list at each meeting; if a person is new, they provide their email address if they choose. Since that first booth at the fair, the club email list has grown to 149 people, with monthly meetings averaging a dozen attendees.
The wide variety of people who live in our little area is truly amazing. We have a grafting expert with 100-plus heirloom apple cultivars; fermenters; brewers; hydroponic enthusiasts; a buffalo breeder; metalworkers; mycologists; pig breeders; foragers; lumberjacks; and a guy with a tropical greenhouse. A network is developing that just keeps getting stronger as word spreads.
I was interviewed by a local radio station about the club for an interest piece. That interview resulted in about 10 new members. Otherwise, our club growth comes from word-of-mouth and having a booth each year at two fairs.
Should you start a homesteading club in your area? Absolutely! How hard is it? Not nearly as hard as you might think.
I personally like the approach of starting with a table or booth at an event that draws sustainability-oriented people together. If your area has a gathering for gardening, small animals, steam power, Earth Day, arts and crafts, or even the county fair, odds are a number of homesteaders will be in attendance.
You could also use an online network or Meetup to get things going. I posted our club events to a related Facebook group for a while, but despite there being several hundred people in that group, few joined us in real life.
Our club has no membership fees and is open to the public, and workshops are priced to break even. All club communications are by email, which works for most people in our group. I probably spend two hours a month organizing the activities and keeping up on emails. Who knew so many people would have chickens to give away?
We meet monthly at the same time and place. I arrange for a presenter about every other meeting. Presenters are usually either club members or from a local organization or business (Master Gardeners, butcher shops, nurseries, etc.). The remaining meetings are either a roundtable on a particular subject, or a panel made up of club members.
While the meetings are fun and keep us learning together, the homesteading workshops are even better. We do an annual apple grafting class, maple syrup cooking, foraging walks, homestead tours, potlucks, cider pressing, sourdough bread baking, and more.
Even today, Googling “homesteading club” returned a question posted to a forum; the radio interview with me; my own post on Permies; a Mother Earth News article on homesteading; and little else. Let’s change that. Start a homesteading club for your area today!
Mike Haasl lives in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where he grows food, makes maple syrup, raises chickens, and builds community while pursuing permaculture.