Homesteading

I think we’ve done a pretty good job of reorienting our lives over the last ten years or so.  We grow almost all of our food and by selling our surplus we’re able to pay our bills.  And we don’t have many bills to pay these days.  Cherie has done a great job of reducing our household expenses without diminishing our quality of life.  It’s fair to say, I think, that we’ve successfully transitioned to the homesteading lifestyle.

But I can only say that because over the years I’ve adjusted my expectations. Back when this lifestyle was just a dream I imagined plenty of things that have never come to pass.  I planned to produce our own electricity on farm.  I wanted to make our own biodiesel.  I planned to barter much more than we do.  I wanted a root cellar, a milk cow, a passive solar greenhouse and lots of other things that haven’t happened yet and maybe never will.  I planned to acquire many more skills than I’ve actually been able to master.  But after a frantic beginning, I learned to slow down.  I also learned that the reality of homesteading doesn’t necessarily match up with the dreams of it.

Recently a friend introduced me to a Facebook group called “Small Farm, Sustainability and Homestead Living.”  It now dominates my feed.

Some of the folks who post on there are hardcore homesteaders–the kind of people who don’t just kill coyotes on their farm, but tan the hides and eat the coyotes too.  I find myself pretty envious sometimes of their degree of self-reliance (although I hope I’m never hungry enough to eat a coyote).  I have friends like that here too–folks who built their homes with their own hands (using mostly materials they made themselves), who cook on wood stoves, who make their own clothes, etc.  I admire them but I know now that one can live more sustainably and become happily more self-reliant without having to seek to be completely self-sufficient (a virtual impossibility in any event).

There are also folks who post in the group who are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum.  They have near zero understanding of country living, gardening, animal husbandry, homesteading skills, etc.  I’ve seen many variations of “Hello everyone.  I want to live off-grid in the wilderness and grow my own food.  I have no land, no money and no skills.  What advice would you give me?”  A day or so ago someone posted something like, “I want to live somewhere where I can grow my own food and earn money by digging for gemstones and precious metals.  Where would you recommend?”

It’s easy to laugh at these people.  Certainly they are naive.  Most of those kinds of posts are more reasonable, but I know most of the people who wrote them are going to be disappointed. In those kinds of posts I can feel their desperation and I feel sorry for them.  They’re people who want to escape a life of work that seems pointless and unfulfilling.  They want to reconnect and live in harmony with the land and with the natural world. I know that feeling well. For most of them though, what they’re hoping for just can’t happen, at least not without many years of planning and saving.  And it’s hard to look that far into the future for relief when you’re so desperate for it now.  I know that feeling too.

I remember back when the internet was still in its childhood and I’d spend hours reading the posts on the homesteadingtoday.com message boards, wishing I had the courage to chuck it all, move out to the country and live off the land.  This Facebook group reminds me of those days and of that online community.  By the way, ninety percent of the posts aren’t like the extremes I described above.  They’re more like sharing thoughts and advice with your neighbors over a virtual fence.  I recommend it if that sounds appealing.

I know from experience the temptation to want to go “all in” immediately. But I also know from experience that one can have a satisfying homesteading lifestyle without having to tan hides or dig for gemstones.  As difficult as it can be, we usually have to be patient.

The truth is that we can all lighten our footprints on the earth and enjoy more a more sustainable lifestyle.  Like all journeys, it will begin with a single step, and those that follow it can be small.  Maybe it’s being diligent about recycling, or improving your diet, or reducing energy consumption.  Once a small thing is mastered and becomes routine then it’s easy to add another one. Then someday you can look back, compare your life to the one you once led, and realize that all those small steps led to some big changes.  That’s what happened with us.

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39 comments on “Homesteading

  1. ain"t for city gals says:

    We are almost there also….I think the main thing for us was deciding we have more than enough….and I am not just talking about money. My best advice to people would be to live debt free…that is true freedom. In looking back I realize I have been working toward this all my life…I want to live the next twenty years with peace and joy and wish the same for you. Love wins…..

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    • Bill says:

      Good for you! I remember a friend of mine saying, “I know it’s an unAmerican thing to say, but I think I have enough.” Our culture will constantly insist that we don’t have enough (and never will). I totally agree with your comment about debt. That is what traps so many people in unsatisfying lives. Staying or getting out of debt is essential.

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  2. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, transitioning from one life style to another has to be done is small stages with much planning to really be successful. Personally, I never wanted an off the grid country living lifestyle. I kind of like flush toilets and hot showers. Grisly Adams was my hero at one time but a life forever camping in the woods was just not for me. The homestead kind of life has a glamorous fascination to it but it’s a lot of work without many luxuries. I, too, have read books, magazines, and Internet stories about homestead living. Some of the things I was drawn to try but I never wanted to just disappear into the woods with a Rambo knife and live off the land. My thing was always about gardening and preserving the harvest not so much about animals and raising meat. So now in my aging years I have the best of both worlds. Homestead practices can be some what accomplished in the urban and inner city. I’m coming to learn that homestead living is more of a mindset than a location.

    My advice to those that have no money, no land, and no skills is to start with slowly acquiring each of those things. Start with a community garden spot and acquire the garden skills which can be perfected by talking with other folks in the garden. It’s the first step in building a network of people that can teach the skills needed. This is a life journey not a immediate switch from one lifestyle to the next. As you well know, Bill, transitioning from corporate cubical life to homestead life takes a few years to accomplish. It’s not something that happens over night.

    Have a great Virginia homestead day.

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    • Bill says:

      I think of those early Nebraska homesteaders who showed up in their wagons. If they wanted a house they had to build it themselves. If they wanted a well they had to dig it. If they wanted food they had to grow it or hunt it. Walmart was not an option.

      You’re right that a person can homestead anywhere. I recently read that there is a growing community practicing apartment homesteading for example. The idea that to adopt the lifestyle you have to become entirely self-sufficient isn’t true and it holds some people back from getting started.

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      • nebraskadave says:

        Yes, Nebraska pioneers were hardy people. Try building a house without trees. House built with sod were barely above dirt holes in the ground. Growing gardens back then was really tough. Try busting sod to plant a garden with heavy crudely made shovels. Every day was survival for those ancestors of mine. There was very little time to really enjoy life.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. valbjerke says:

    Excellent post 🙂
    The ‘reality’ of homesteading…… Simply put – it’s a lot of work. Each person ultimately had to decide on a realistic plan that works for them. We have hydro – we have kerosene lights – like most things homesteading, you have to be willing to compromise. Our well is at 400 feet – there’s no pumping water by hand, electricity does the job just fine. Should the power go out – we have a generator, but it’s only wired into the barn in case we’re running heat lamps. I milked goats for years and dealt with the milk and cheese with no running water in the house save the shower. Now I’m milking a cow – we put water to the kitchen this year.
    Homesteading burnout is a very real thing, the countryside is littered with abandoned dreams of ‘off the grid/self sufficiency’.
    I am constantly pumped for information on how to do this or that – I encourage people to be realistic about what they can do, and what they have time to do. If you’ve never grown a garden, there’s little point in tilling up your back yard and planting the entire thing. Start with a garden bed, grow something you eat often.
    Most importantly – don’t waste your time listening to all the ‘nay-sayers’ out there, try to surround yourself with like minded people.
    I had a woman last week refer to our place as ‘oh you guys and your silly little hobby farm!’ On the up side, I had a fellow come and ask me for information on canning tomatoes next year – he doesn’t have a garden, but he wants to start putting up some of his own food.
    Think big, but start small 🙂

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    • Bill says:

      You’re right of course about the burnout. I’ve seen it happen to people I know. In the cases I’ve seen it was either a result of unreasonable expectations (i.e. life in the country would be blissful and easy) or taking on too much too fast (and getting burned out on milking twice a day, making fires every day, etc.) I completely agree that starting slow and adding on is a good way to help avoid that.

      I strongly second your advice to surround yourself with people who “get it.” We started a group last year that meets monthly and has been a big help. It’s good to be reminded that we’re not crazy (or at least not alone).

      I really admire the way y’all live. You are an inspiration!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Joanna says:

    It seems kind of sad to be saying to the younger generation, you too can have this lifestyle but first you have to do work in the rough and ready corporate world to get there. I don’t think that is what is meant at all, it is just how it seems to operate sometimes. I know what you mean about transitioning, but that is perhaps for older people who are accustomed to their luxuries. To jack all that in and live simply can be a step too far. I do think that younger folks can jump in, they have the energy and stamina, but they might also need more support. I think if anything I would suggest they get alongside older folks who need the help. How many farmers are nearing retirement and want a way to pass on their skills to the next generation, maybe even their land to someone who they know is committed to it.

    Just in case anyone is thinking of jacking it all in and going to live in the countryside, this site often has openings for folks such as that http://thegreenhorns.wordpress.com/

    I wholeheartedly agree though, it is a trip worth taking. Much more satisfying to live simply than to be trapped in a job where you are simply living and not thriving

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    • Bill says:

      Good point about young people. They are usually in a position to do it, far more so than people who have already become trapped. I have a friend who started a business building fences right out of high school. He build his house with his own hands from lumber he milled and dried himself. He did 100% of the work as far as I know. He got the stones for his chimney from our farm. He and his family produce almost all of their own food, his little business is successful and I’d be surprised if he’s ever had any debt.

      The people who seem most desperate for change to me are those who have entered into the borrow and spend world, found it unsatisfying and now want to leave it. It’s hard enough to make ends meet doing this without mortgage payments, student loans and credit card bills. For people who have those, the transition will take time and diligent preparation.

      The young people who are taking up the lifestyle, deliberately choosing to reject the direction culture pushes us, are among those who give me so much hope for their generation.

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      • Joanna says:

        Me too! I love to hear stories of folks like that. It reminds me of another way in that I have read about over the years and that is one youngster who is employed by more than one farmer or crofter really as most of the examples were in Scotland. Farmers could not really afford to pay for one person to work with them all the time and so they shared. Sounds like a good plan to me.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. shoreacres says:

    Well, I’m living proof that you can toss it all and start over without any real plan — only a desire for something more satisfying. It’s true that, when I started over, I had enough money in savings to supplement my income until my business began turning a profit; it was about three years, before the business fully supported me, so the savings was important.

    But when I made the change, it was profound. I went from being salaried employee to bidding contractor. I taught myself a trade while I learned how to run a business. No one told me what to do, or when to do it, which sounds like heaven until you suddenly realize you’re completely and solely responsible for your success or failure.

    But it worked. Granted, homesteading is a different thing, and more complicated. On the other hand, I firmly believe that imagination, trust, and a willingness to work my butt off aided my success as much as a plan. It’s a good thing, since I had no plan.

    Of course, all my friends are retired at this point, and traveling the world, while I see no end to work. On the other hand, I do have the freedom of semi-retirement. I’m down to eight hour days, no work on weekends, and the occasional few days off — when I choose. I’m happy with that, and that’s what counts.

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    • Bill says:

      Your’s is another inspirational story Linda. I know how much courage it had to take to do something like that. There are lots of pressures out there (not just financial) working to keep us from taking risks like that and following our hearts.

      I’m conservative and risk-adverse by nature. Even after I’d made the decision to leave and start over (and without any plan for the future or real appreciation for what it would require) I soldiered on for years. Part of my reasoning was I had dependents and felt an obligation to them. Part was my conservatism. But mostly I think it was just fear.

      Luckily I eventually got over it. I’m sure there are plenty of people who die at their desks, having planned to make a change someday soon.

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      • shoreacres says:

        It just occurred to me: part of my secret was that, by the time I decided to make the jump, I was 44 years old, and had survived my own share of traumatic life events. I started life risk-averse, shy, and utterly unconvinced of my own abilities, but a little risk here and a little risk there, and pretty soon I was ready to say, “Oh, what the heck.” As one of my psychologist friends once said to me, “There are people who need therapy, and people who just need to live.” How’s that for contrarian wisdom?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Farmgirl says:

    My cousin called me out of the blue one day and with incredible excitement told me that she and her husband and three teenagers were going to leave it all and live off grid on her father-in-law’s land. She wanted to know how we did it without making any money. What? I reminded her we have an Apothecary. We work for ourselves but we work. She was going to build a house with scraps and they would garden and have cows. The elevation of said land was 9500 feet. How will you feed the cows? They graze all year and we will build greenhouse for our food. For free. I love my cousin but I was astounded at how little folks know when they are starting out and I am sure that plenty of people laughed at me and Doug too!

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    • Bill says:

      I’ve seen similar stories. I had some naive ideas myself, and I grew up here. There seem to be lots of people who think a person can live in the country without money (or with very little). As you know, some things about rural living are more expensive than city-dwelling (fuel and vehicle depreciation for example). And there are some costs that we can’t control–such as health insurance and property taxes. Those have been our biggest headaches.

      But behind every one of those unreasonable dreams is a yearning for a more authentic life.

      I think education is one of the most important things those of us in the sustainability movement can do. So blogs like yours are important public services. I think it’s important that we not discourage people, but that we not give them false expectations either.

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  7. To me, the message isn’t so much to live off the grid and be totally self-sufficient, as it is to live more simply. We don’t need all of the stuff— and it is needing all of the stuff, aided and abetted by massive advertising campaigns— that has led to the environmental degradation and unbalance we see today. –Curt

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  8. avwalters says:

    Though I’ve gardened for decades, I am now at the very beginning of a homesteading lifestyle. We are building the house–though we’re not harvesting the timber to do it (Instead, we’re gleaning through craigslist.) I, too, have visions of a passive solar greenhouse, a root cellar and maybe wind generated electricity. I’m not an advocate for an “off the grid” completely independent lifestyle because I think that those of us who choose to live lighter on the planet need to be examples to others that it can be done. We can leave the extremism to the cults and the doomsday folks. Whether you sell your excess produce, clear snow, write books, or make crafts, that becomes an interface with the conventional world–demonstrating that it can be done, that it’s full and rich and satisfying.

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    • Bill says:

      Very well said. I admire what y’all are doing. It’s much more than I would have been capable of.

      I’ve thought of writing books, but I doubt I’d be able to write anything anyone would want to read. 🙂 I have your books on my winter reading list, but haven’t gotten to them yet.

      Liked by 1 person

      • avwalters says:

        Often one needs the season to settle enough to enjoy the slower rhythms of winter. With the days shorter, I’ve recently resumed reading regularly in the evening. It makes winter a special time. As for writing, I think everyone has a story. Yours is compelling–“thriving attorney turns his back on conventional measures of success, explores his spiritual side and finds his roots in the land.” Maybe a memoir….

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Thanks for the links (can’t wait to have look: ) AND sage advise… [If you’re taking “one small step” at a time, it’s easier to watch where you’re walking; ]

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  10. DM says:

    great reality check! I just signed up for the Small Farm, Sustainability and Homestead Living on face book. 🙂 DM

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  11. Laura says:

    People are amazed when we tell them about growing our own food, and processing animals. I explain that it has been a slow process, one step at a time. We still have a long way to go, but I found it helps to not stress over the areas where others do a much better job. I’m envious that you’ve been able to quit your day jobs and live off the farm, but I know it took a great deal of sacrifice. Keep at it!

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    • Bill says:

      I’ve been working my way through a stack of old Mother Earth News magazines a friend gave us. I feel very inadequate when reading those. 🙂 I need to get better at not worrying about how my homesteading skills stack up against others. We’ve come a long ways and the vast majority of Americans today would consider our way of living extreme, even though we’re nowhere near as self-reliant as many homesteaders. As you say, one step at a time.

      We had to wean ourselves off off-farm income. I kept my job for 7 years after we made the move (enduring a crazy commute and no time for leisure at all). I finally quit 3 1/2 years ago. Cherie kept her part-time job until April of this year, so we’ve only been both full-time on the farm since then. There were plenty of times when I thought the day would never come.

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  12. EllaDee says:

    I love this post and the comments. It so easy to lose sight of what can be accomplished simply. I see a big difference in our household practices from a decage ago. A simplification and a direction towards what we’re aiming for. Not homesteading but a lighter footprint and greater self sufficiency at a level comfortable for us and our circumstances. I have likened the process to “moving mountains with a teaspoon”. Even once we get to the step off point, it will still be a careful process.

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    • Bill says:

      I think prudence and caution are good things. Despite doing something that would look wild and crazy to most people, we actually planned for it a long time.

      I totally agree with the notion that small things add up. I tell people to take a step or two and when it feels uncomfortable just stop and let yourself adjust to it. I don’t like feeling rushed into change. But it’s a personality thing. Some folks prefer that kind of excitement. They’re the ones who end up becoming entrepreneurs. 🙂

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  13. associatedluke says:

    My gma used to say, “There’s the person you think you are, the person others think you are and who you really are.” Same could be said for lifestyles and professions. I’m always floored when I hear what other people think I do all day. Some thing I work just on Sundays (I wish!). Some think I never stop working. And then there’s what I think I do. And then there’s what other clergy do. When I learn of the schedules and how different their congregations are… It’s amazing. We’re doing the same “job” but we’re not doing the same things.

    Your post poked my brain this morning. Thanks!

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    • Bill says:

      I’m smiling because it’s so true. There are people who seem to think my days are spent fishing and maybe going out a few minutes every day and gathering up some of the vegetables that grow like magic around here. There are others who seem to think that I’m sweating in the fields from dawn till dusk, surviving on a diet of lentils and carrot sticks. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  14. farmerkhaiti says:

    A beautiful reminder that we all start somewhere, to be patient and kind with others, in all regards. You have much wisdom to share!

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks Khaiti. I heard someone once say that is better to be kind than to be right. Of course it’s best to be both kind and right. 🙂

      On your blog you do a great job of conveying the joys and satisfaction of the lifestyle without sugarcoating it or glossing over the hard work involved. I think it’s important that people who are starting on the journey understand and appreciate both sides of the coin.

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  15. Seeking Joyful Simplicity says:

    Thanks for this conversation Bill. As we start our homesteading journey, we have a tentative plan. But I am trying to take things slow and remain flexible. It can be hard when we compare ourselves to what others are accomplishing, but I have to remind myself to find the right balance for us.

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    • Bill says:

      I wanted to rush in much faster and more radically than we did. My wife was more deliberate and reasonable. We’re in a much better place today because we went more slowly at first (thanks to her). What we did was still plenty radical, but for example I didn’t bring home a milk cow (as I had planned) and expect her to milk it twice a day while I was still commuting. I’ve seen people try to do too much too soon and end up burning out.

      I’ve been reading through a stack of old Mother Earth News magazines that a friend gave us recently and they tend to make me feel totally inadequate. I’m trying to be better at measuring homesteading success by how we feel about where we are and how it makes us feel, rather than by comparison to the hardcore homesteaders who are light years beyond us.

      When people ask my advice about it I tell them to proceed with small steps and slow down or stop when they start to feel uncomfortable. Once that discomfort passes, then take another step. Some people will end up tilling with draft horses and building their own solar panels. But most of us won’t. And I think that’s OK.

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  16. df says:

    Words of wisdom, Bill, so obviously hard earned too. I appreciate so much how open you are about your experience and how it matches up to original expectations. I think what you’ve achieved is really quite amazing, and the fact that it’s been grounded in reality is all the better. We’re still defining our goals and learning about what we can manage to advance on our land while we tend to the many other demands of life. I have no idea where we will be in a year, but I hope it’s a little further along the path and that we’ve enjoyed the way and learned something. I’ve had moments of wanting total transformation, and they are always the least satisfying moments unless they result in some achievable change.

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    • Bill says:

      We have to remind ourselves sometimes of why we’re doing this. When we start to feel stressed or unhappy, we try to remember that we’re doing this in part to avoid those things. When it stops being fun or fulfilling, then we need to reassess it. Some people may have the personalities for jumping in immediately with both feet. Others will have to go slower, as we did. It’s those who go too fast who are more likely to burn out or become disillusioned, it seems to me. No two paths will be exactly the same, but I would say as long as you’re enjoying yourself, moving forward and still learning, then you’re doing it right. 🙂

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