In the face of all our serious local and global environmental challenges, many people are getting interested in homesteading as a way to build their personal resilience and reduce their ecological impact.
This can seem daunting because there is so much to learn, but getting started is actually shockingly easy.
First, grow something.
Really! Anything! A little raised bed in a corner of the yard, a potted tomato on the balcony, or even just a bit of mint or basil on a sunny windowsill. Grow whatever you like to eat best, wherever you can squeeze it in. The truth is that even when pioneers lived a hardscrabble existence in sod houses, they bought their salt and calico at the local general store. Since no household can meet all its own needs, any household that meets any of its own needs is a homestead.
Make use of the space you have
This is a great comfort if you rent instead of owning your home, as I did for years. Once I built raised beds in the front yard of a very temporary living situation in Palmer, Alaska. I filled the boxes with free manure from the local reindeer farm, which turned out to be so oversupplied with nitrogen that my nasturtiums grew to the size of lily pads and sent their vines out into the street. The carrots failed because of the nutrient imbalance, but the mustard greens were spectacular.
Later I tented a neglected part of our North Carolina rental’s shady backyard with painter’s plastic, and then planted it with greens. The PVC hoops collapsed under heavy snow and ice, but I shoveled it off and put the tent back up, and the arugula underneath was fine. I learned that a medium-sized tent is the worst of both worlds; unlike a high tunnel it’s not easy to move around inside, and unlike a low tunnel it’s not easy to get the cover off to weed and harvest. In spite of the drawbacks, I cut bowl after bowl of fresh salad all winter long.
Now I use row cover instead of painter’s plastic, and it works pretty well. This year we had good success with our fall garden; we’re still eating fresh arugula at the end of February! We manage our garden’s fertility entirely locally and entirely for free, utilizing a technique called sheet mulch and adding nutrients found in household wastes.
The most important component of the homestead is the experience you gain by trying things out and making mistakes. The true homestead is in the courage to plant something or build something, and the gumption to stick with it even when the results aren’t what you expected. Since you can take that with you wherever you go, there’s no reason not to start right now wherever you happen to be, just by growing a little something.
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Second, make, fix or build something.
I’ve always been into making things, but for a long time I wasn’t much good at it. I made my own shoes as a child. They were terrible. I sewed my own clothes as a teenager. They didn’t fit. Then I started learning how to build furniture and small buildings. I was somewhat better at that.
Get familiar with your structures
Just after my second child was born we bought 17 acres with overgrown fields, towering shagbark hickories and seven rundown buildings, none of which were really worth repairing. My husband and I designed a little earth-sheltered light straw clay house, which we finished building when my youngest kid was two and a half. We’ve taken down four structures by hand, using some of the salvaged materials for our house and other projects. We did most of the work ourselves, which means some of it isn’t perfect. In places the lime plaster is too thin, and my daughter has dented it with her hard little head. But all the light switches work, and the little wood cook stove keeps us warm and fed all winter.
Learn by doing
By building for ourselves we saved a lot of money, got more or less exactly what we wanted in a house, and also got much better at communicating with each other and solving problems together. Not everyone can or should build a house, but most people can learn to fix a leaky faucet, paint a wall or knock together a chicken shed. Even knitting a hat builds a sense of satisfaction that just can’t be gotten from purely consumptive hobbies like watching TV.
Everything you can make for yourself reduces your impact on the planet and simultaneously serves as a sort of insurance, a hedge against anxiety in uncertain times. No matter what happens, at least you know how to use a wrench, a hammer or a crochet needle. Like gardening experience, these skills go with you even if you have to leave your creations behind.
Third, share what you do.
Some homesteaders are privileged to have many acres of woods and fields, like we do (although it feels more like a curse when it’s a hundred degrees and time to mow). However, I also know a family with a whole herd of goats and geese on only 1.5 acres. I know several suburbanites with gardens and hens squeezed between the shed and the kids’ swing set. I know single moms making elderberry syrup, and retirees planting blueberry bushes. I even know a family whose tiny downtown lot boasts container vegetables and ten hives of bees.
The joy of community
Some of us are homeschool families while some are public school. Some are city water folks and others have compost toilets. Some are all-organic gardeners while some are hydroponic. Some raise homegrown meat and others are vegetarian. What we have in common is that we all value learning together, and gradually doing more for ourselves over time.
Even though we have different restrictions and requirements, we all share information, celebrate each others’ successes and commiserate when things go wrong. In a world of questionable internet advice it’s invaluable to have a real live person with whom you can hash out your difficulties. Even the most experienced homesteader needs a friend or mentor who can come over, take a look at the situation and maybe even point to the problem.
Sharing the surplus
When there is too much, as there so often is on a homestead, we share our products as well. I’ve had bad luck getting my goat herd going. Happily, I have a goat friend who produced more milk than she needed this year, and she has given me gallons and gallons. My new set of hens have just started laying more eggs than we can eat, so I’m giving eggs by the dozen to my bee friends. Last year their hives made extra honey, and they gave some to us. I’ve given away bales of basil, bags of tomatoes and one really spectacular sack of dill seed heads.
This isn’t really barter. Sometimes I get nothing in return for what I give, and sometimes I receive far more than I gave. In that case I might grumble to my husband that so-and-so is potlatching us again, but I’ll do it while gratefully changing my dinner plans to accommodate unexpected zucchini or cantaloupe. Our trades and gifts never really even out, which is okay because the point is the sheer joy of building reciprocal relationships. Humans are deeply wired to love the feeling of giving away our extra, and getting someone else’s extra in return.
We also trade work, tools and time together. I’ve been wanting a solar dehydrator for years, but I just couldn’t get up the steam to build one until I learned that two other homesteading/homeschooling families were also interested. Some homesteading friends of ours helped us build our house, and now we’re helping them prepare for a new baby. When my chickens failed to set last year, a friend with an incubator raised a clutch of my eggs for me. The feed store will never text you late night pics of your own chicks hatching, but a homesteading friend definitely will.
A strong support system
This may be the best thing about homesteading: the community that can grow up when people with passion and drive get together to pool their ideas, ask questions and try things out for themselves. It’s a bulwark against the rising tide of loneliness that might otherwise swallow our lives.
So if you’re interested in homesteading, just grow a little something, build a little something, reach out to a neighbor or friend who might be interested, and you’ll be on your way to a more resilient, more sustainable life. It won’t always be entirely successful and it may never look Instagram-worthy, but the satisfactions are well worth the time and effort.
Thank you for taking the time to read our article on steps to homesteading . We'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section below. Read more of Kara Stiff's articles on her website, Low-Carbon Life.
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- 3 Easy Steps to Start Homesteading from an Experienced Grower - March 1, 2020