Unplugging to Reconnect, A Journey Toward Full-Time Homesteading: Location, Design, Infrastructure

Reader Contribution by John Atwell
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Looking at true needs and the costs that are associated with those needs, a would-be homesteader – if afforded the opportunity to exercise some measure of choice in where to launch their endeavor – can focus on site selection in such a way as to reduce long-term financial outputs. (Granted, some of us may inherit land or in some other fashion have our choice of property limited, if not dictated, to us.) As an example, living in Virginia, we spent a considerable sum on home cooling and heating costs during the temperature extremes of the year, even though we relied on many conservation measures and heavily depended on a wood stove. When we lived in the milder and less variable climes of Northern California, just some six years ago, our utility-related pecuniary output was very different. In fact, no one we knew had air conditioning expenses; they simply did not have air conditioning in their homes, even in the most affluent of neighborhoods. Why? The climate allowed residents to do away with this costly utility; it rarely reached temperatures worthy of such technical remediation.

This dynamic forced us to think about other areas of life in which people (ourselves included) were forced to depart with their hard-earned pay to remain comfortable and avoid inconvenience, to shut down garden production during certain seasons, and to expend extra effort and funds to protect livestock in winter…all simply due to locale. Beyond indoor climate control, water bills, clothing, irrigation needs, winter beehive die-offs and garden shutdown, and gasoline were some of the many areas that we began to focus on and that, among other considerations, eventually led us to settle on a property in an agricultural community in Hawaii. More specifically, our very mild climate here at our 1,000-foot elevation provides a 365-day growing season and allows folks to live comfortably without air conditioning or heat. Perched on the edge of a rain belt, a steady supply of precipitation and a solid water catchment industry has ended our need to pay a water bill or invest in costly irrigation systems. An abundance of sunshine is allowing us to build a residence with all the modern conveniences and completely powered by the sun…no more electricity bills! (For those thinking of workshops and the like, I’ll note here that a neighbor runs an entire auto maintenance shop, complete with lifts and compressors and all the works, entirely off of solar power.) Our clothing and dry cleaning costs have plummeted (t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops are the norm in all but the most formal of settings, when an Aloha shirt is called for) and the cost of our “daily commute” to keep the homestead running, once our dwelling is complete, will be no more than the physical energy required to transport ourselves on foot from the breakfast nook into the 10 acres surrounding our home.

Obviously, not everyone can pick up and move to Hawaii to scratch their agricultural itch, but when you look at climates from Montana to Louisiana, from Africa to Canada, there is a spectrum of homestead-friendly climates to choose from, each with its benefits (and drawbacks). Factoring into homestead site selection areas that will require less in terms of expenditures to live comfortably and produce food can make a significant financial difference, especially in the long run.

Infrastructure, Technique and Breed Selection

Much of what we learned at conferences, in various written products, permaculture courses, and visits to sustainable homesteads here in Hawaii dealt with paradigms of infrastructure, layout, and planting choices that break with long-standing conventional techniques in order to reduce costs and workload by shrinking one’s reliance on inputs and maintenance requirements. For example, a homesteader may wish to weigh the inflexibility and construction and maintenance cost of permanent fences against moveable, solar powered electric fences to control livestock movement and keep predators and pests away from flocks, hives, and plant nurseries. Some practitioners emphasize the ease and affordability of renting large equipment, such as bulldozers or tractors, when absolutely needed rather than deal with purchase or financing, insurance, annual maintenance, storage (and possible theft), and other issues of ownership of such gear.

When it comes to livestock, many disciples of these unconventional ways argue that hiring stud services or using artificial insemination as needed for propagation is, over the long haul, less work and costs and frees up time when compared to the alternative–feeding and caring for otherwise unproductive (and often more aggressive) male livestock year-round. Efficiencies are further boosted by the selection of breeds, particularly of the smaller variety (for ease of handling and smaller appetites), to minimize labor intensiveness (shedding hair sheep versus sheep that require shearing). In the same vein, the selection of technique and equipment can make a significant difference in labor and infrastructure output requirements, even if at the cost of some production, such as that seen in the honey production world when considering the management of a Langstroth hive versus a Top Bar Hive.

Similarly, a focus on perennial crops over more labor intensive annuals (again, an issue of breed selection) and building pasture for intensive management grazing instead of a heavy reliance on purchased feed and pasture-building inputs (technique choices) is one of those ways to approach the age-old “work smart, not just hard” paradigm. In orchards and around buildings, using ground covers that do not require any mowing, and other principles of permaculture design and practice, can help the homesteader reclaim many an hour and save a dime or two.

Raw Materials (Use What You Have)

Going hand-in-hand with this approach is a mindset focused on using what you have, whether it be natural resources or natural land contours, instead of looking outside your personal bastion for solutions and working against whatever nature and circumstances have handed you. In our own journey, when it came time to erect a small multi-use pen, we looked about and decided to tap the abundance of small flexible wild guava saplings that most people here consider a nuisance and a weed and that can be found on most corners of our property; the building materials were free and, in the process of collecting it, we cleared out areas needed for trails and planting of hardwoods and other food-producing trees.

When it came time to start planting, we looked around at the mounds and contours left behind by the D-9 bulldozer that cleared our parcel of its thick guava, bamboo, and shrub blanket, and we readily identified pockets, hills, and seams of soil that had been unintentionally piled into, essentially, raised beds of various and interesting depths and dimensions. Using what was presented to us rather than try to reshape the land into something else saved us countless hours of labor. Root crops are now maturing in the deeper beds while green leafy edible goodness is springing forth in many forms from shallower plots, which–day by day–are linked by trails that we maintain through chop-and-drop composting of aggressive pioneer species that spring up near and around them. Also, in need of some material to better demarcate these growing beds and limit the entry of ground-creeping pioneer species, we turned to the abundance of lava rock on our land as, again, free raw materials to form clear and solid boundaries.

(To be continued…)

Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4 of this series.

For a blow-by-blow account of our family’s ongoing transition from homestead voyeurs to full time homesteading, drop by our online journal.

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