Homesteading: Living off the Land

Homesteading is a wonderful word. Upon hearing it, all sorts of things come to mind: the old west, cattle drives, farming, gardens, answering to yourself and only yourself, an honest day’s work, a porch with a swing and a beautiful sunset unimpeded by sky scrapers. But is it really so beautiful a lifestyle? Homesteading has long been a dream of the author. To be completely self-sufficient, off the grid, and owing nothing to anybody is a life beyond heaven. To have neighbors who are no closer than two miles away would be even better. But what is it that the author dreams about? How would it be to never have a sick day? Here we will explore what homesteading actually entails and how homesteaders really feel about their job.

According to Wikipedia, “Broadly defined, homesteading is a lifestyle of simple, agrarian self-sufficiency.” The definition, at least, sounds very inviting. But when we get past the cover, we find that homesteading is many, many things. Simple is not one of those things.

Land: The first thing that one must do to to consider him or herself a rural homesteader is to own land (there is such a thing as an urban homesteader, and we’ll get to that in a minute). It really is up to the reader how much land would be totally necessary, and opinions from “experts” (those who are living the life) vary. Some say that one acre can almost totally sustain four people, and some say that it’s more logical to have 30 to 40 acres, using half of it as a wood-lot and using the rest of it for completely sustaining a family, including orchards, ponds, meat, milk, eggs, etcetera. So, we’ll go with a starting estimate of about 20 acres (that’s somewhere in between the two guesses and it’s about the middle range of property that a rural homesteader owns and operates) – which can get expensive, even considering that you do not particularly want a house already on the site.

That’s right, folks. Unless you are buying a ranch or homestead that is self-sustaining, a house already on site means that electricity, city water and sewer and everything else that city-folk depend on the government for are probably already run to your property, which is not the point of homesteading. Not to say that the point of homesteading is to miss out on anything – because it isn’t. The point is this: how can you be self-sustaining (e.g. – solar panels for electricity, a well for water, etc.) if you have to totally re-build a house to get there? It’s just easier to buy the property and build the house and the homestead yourself (with the help of a few experts, of course).

And where should this land be bought? Well, that’s up to the homesteader as well. Some families absolutely love the desert. These folks are in for a treat, because desert land is often exceptionally well priced and is usually full of like-minded people. Some people adore the forest. Those of us who do will pay quite a bit more for land, but the already-on-your-property wood-lot and god-takes-care-of-it-for-you irrigation schedule will help with the cost tremendously. As far as where, in the United States, this land ought to be depends solely on the homesteader as well. Research the laws (particularly the second amendment laws) and tax situations in the states that you think you may want to move to or stay in. This will help you make an informed decision as well as (in my experience) a quick one. All in all, the actual price ranges for land in the United States ranges from about sixty-five thousand to well into the millions for a 30 to 40 acre spread, depending on where you are willing to live. Be very wary of offers you may find on the Internet of getting land for free or close to free, though. The Homestead Act of the 1860’s does not apply anymore. In fact it ended more than thirty years ago. So no free land, anymore, and any company who swears that they can sell you land at two dollars an acre is either lying or trying to sell you land that cannot be used for anything. But don’t be frightened off by prices, because as was alluded to earlier, there is such a thing as an urban homesteader. It involves taking your city home and turning it into as self-sufficient and productive place as is humanly possible. Homesteaders all over the Internet stress that urban homesteading is possible, fairly easy, and extremely convenient to the family who cannot see themselves moving out to a 30 acre piece of property any time in the foreseeable future. Links to some of these types of organizations will be provided at the end of the article.

Building a Homesteader’s Home: The most popular new version of a homesteader’s home seems to be the Eco-friendly, totally self-reliant type. There are several options regarding how to get your home to be this type, including wind power (like the kind we westerners see in the palm springs area), solar power (which is becoming more and more popular as the price drops and the payback rises), water power (called hydro-power by the big companies who make and sell the products) and backup battery generators (read: those loud generators RV campers sometimes use). In the author’s opinion, having a mix of two, three, or all four of these types of renewable energy is the best bet for being sure that nothing will ever stop you from watching your favorite movies, taking a hot shower, or charging your mp3 player. Because goodness knows, without your music, movies and hygiene, what’s the point?

The cost for all of these types of power can really get up there if you’re going to do it all at once. If you mixed all four types and completely wired the house to be self-sufficient and then some, you’d be out probably ten thousand dollars; perhaps more. It just depends on the style of power supply you get, and the different types of backup power you get. Buying only one or two types of these power supplies will certainly drop that number to something more reasonable and thankfully, these things can be bought and introduced to your home just a little at a time (ie – 5 dollars here, 10 there, 100 there, etc). So being green isn’t quite so bad as you may have originally thought, eh?

And as far as how homesteaders feel about their completely self-reliant homes, try finding any one person or family who wishes they hadn’t gone green. Every single one that the author found was tickled pink to have done so and wishes they’d done it years ago. When the electric bill stops rolling in at your house, you’ll be a happy camper too.

But renewable energy isn’t the only thing that a homesteader needs to do to have a self-reliant home. For rural homesteaders there are septic tanks to dig and have built, wells to dig and have built, fences to buy and install (or have installed), coups to build, pens to build, barns to build, gardens to plant, ponds to build, seed and/or maintain, crops to plant and maintain, and woodlots to seed or maintain. Oh, and lets not forget that one needs roads and vehicles (the self-reliant ones are called horses, but every homesteader has a truck or two, of course), so those too have to be built or bought. But fret not. These things can be less expensive than you might think. Just take a drive through southern Utah, and you’ll see that most of the fences are made of branches from old trees and some wire (and trust me, it doesn’t look bad, despite how it may sound). Ask any self-reliant group of folks and you’ll hear that the penny saver (or the local classified ads) are a gold mine of inexpensive places and people selling coups, pens, and even cattle and horses. Take it from me, buying tack (equipment for your horses) can also be extremely inexpensive, and you can get the horses as well for prices that will make you want to take the family out to a nice restaurant after the purchase. Keep your eyes open for auctions. In Southern California, for example, there is a horse auction that consistently sells horses (young and trained alike) for less than $300 a head – and we aren’t talking about swaybacked, 19 year old brood mares. This same auction has a habit of selling tack for ridiculously low prices as well. While attending the auction a year or so ago, I saw western saddles going for $50, and “lots” of halters (as in, a lot of 20 halters) going for $10 – $15. I know. Why didn’t you know about this? Well you do now. The only thing you don’t want to scrimp on is your well and your septic tank. Doing that will make you wish you’d never been born. There is also your seeds and gardens and orchards to think about. You can always (ALWAYS) find sales on seeds from your local home building center, or local grocery store. And if you have the Internet, you’ll find a ton of “web-only” deals from your favorite home supply stores. This is best if you want to add some color to your yard (as in perennial flower gardens, etc.) or if you want to plant an orchard. Some of the best deals for orchard type trees are online. Just make sure that the trees you intend to buy will keep producing year after year. One of the biggest problems that homesteaders seem to have with their orchards (or their attempt to have them) is that there are a lot of fruit producing trees nowadays that have been altered genetically in some fashion so that they no longer produce fruit after one or two years. So be sure to talk to a nursery specialist before running out and buying a bunch of banana trees or peach trees, only to find out in two years that you got a raw deal on your entire orchard. Oh, and don’t forget your woodlots. If you have a 10 acre woodlot on your property, you’re nearly set for life as far as fencing, building and firewood goes. Just respect and maintain the wood already on your property and don’t underestimate the power of a good planting / watering session ever couple of months. If you treat your trees like you love them, they’ll provide you with everything you could possibly want in a tree for the rest of your life and well into your grand children’s.

Then there’s the water situation. You cannot drink unpotable water, no matter how much of a wicked SOB you might think you are. You need a water filtration system. Be sure, when you buy and have your well installed that there is a water filtration system both at the well and then be sure to purchase one for your faucets too. You don’t want nasty, smelly water to come from your shower nozzle. This has happened to the author before while camping, and believe me, you feel worse after your shower than you did before it. Water filtration is super, duper important. We wouldn’t want anybody getting sick because of something that could have been prevented.

What about the Internet? I know, I know, the Internet is something that most (if not all) of us cannot live without. It’s understandable and it’s reasonable to expect that if you’re going to make the leap and pay the price for all of this self-reliance, there better be something in it for you. Like getting to play games online for hours on end. 🙂 I get it. And you can have it. It’s called Satellite Internet, and though you should have absolutely no real need for it, it’s fairly inexpensive – and just think! You’ll be able to pay your Internet bill online, as well as any other miscellaneous bills you may still have like a mortgage, or your gas bill if you still have one – which brings us to our next topic. How do you plan to cook? Well, you can still tap into the city gas line if you’re intent on paying for something every month. Alternately, you can get an electric stove and use it with your solar slash wind power that you’ve got going on. And lastly (this is for the real cow boys and girls), you could get a wood burning stove which, in the winter, would double as a room/house heater (and in the summer could conceivably make the house a dry sauna). Wood stoves are not cheap and even the really great ones take some getting used to as far as cooking temperatures and times go. But for those of us who have used them, there really isn’t any going back. I swear bread tastes better out of a wood burning stove than it does out of an electric one. And good bread is a definite moral booster.

What else does a homesteader need?: Well, it is understandable that after you’ve seeded your gardens and set up a sprinkler system (yes that’s possible without city electricity. Remember your solar panels?) or an irrigation system, and you’ve planted your crops, and watered your orchards, and you have everything else a homesteader needs, you might think that it’s time to take a nap – and it probably will be. But once you get up from said nap, the work starts again. The world doesn’t stop turning just because you no longer need it. You’re going to get hungry sooner or later, and remember, animals have to be fed, eggs have to be gathered, gardens need pruning, everything needs to be watered, and things must be maintained. But hey, if you learn to can and preserve what your homestead produces, you won’t need to go to the grocery store anymore after the first year. And if you build a basement (I know, in some states this isn’t allowed because of earthquakes and such and in some places, if the basement isn’t done correctly, it will get flooded which sucks) then you’ll have a place to store all of your canned food. And if you plan correctly and completely, you can have a first aid center in your basement, a food center for your canned and preserved foods, an animal center for your kitties and puppies who may need stitches or extra food and treats (for those of you who don’t already cook your animals their own plate of food at dinner time), an “extra” center for any extra guests you may accumulate during or after a crisis, or just for the heck of it and a toiletry center for stuff you just can’t really make and preserve like toilet paper, pads of paper, paper towels, mason jars, feminine hygiene stuff, power cords and all the other stuff that there simply isn’t room to list here.

How on Earth does a homesteader make money?: It is obvious from the previous sentence that there are some things you simply need to depend on other people for – like toilet paper and feminine hygiene stuff. These things are items that you absolutely have to go out and purchase. But making the purchases in bulk and buying plenty of them will ensure that you don’t have to go to the store daily, weekly or even monthly. But the point is, a homesteader has to buy them, so how on Earth do they make the money to do so, if they’re busy homesteading? Well, there are plenty of jobs a homesteader can do that will give them an income of enough money to stay at home. Everybody has heard of stay-at-home jobs and Internet jobs that will keep you from having to make any commute other than a hallway one, and will not require you to change out of your pajamas. This job (writing for Associated Content) is one of the best. You write articles, you hawk them all over the Internet, you get paid. Pretty decent, if I do say so myself. Data entry is another good one if you can find a decent company to work for, and so is medical transcription (which you can go to school for online, if I’m not mistaken). The best option, for those who cannot write articles, and who refuse to sit in front of a computer all day and type in somebody else’s words (like transcription and data entry both require you to do) is going to be to sell your own wares. You can do this on a public auction site (there are plenty of those out there that are extremely popular as well as books on how to make money selling items on these auction sites), or you can do it with your own website and with items that you make yourself, or buy wholesale and sell retail. Internet stores are becoming more and more popular, and most manufacturers and retailers have one. You can make your own t-shirts, mugs, and other simple items, or you can go for the gold and sell home-made items like Paracord dog collars and leashes. There are an infinite amount of options with the Internet on your side. Then there are more traditional home vending type enterprises, like farmer’s markets and street fairs. These are popular in areas with a large farming community and a good jam, jelly, fruit, vegetables, eggs and jerky booth will keep your little homestead in the black for as long as you choose to run it. Don’t be afraid to be creative with your enterprise, but make sure it doesn’t break your back or hurt your homestead. The point here is to be a slave to nobody and to actually enjoy your existence.

Am I going to be totally alone in my Homesteading experience? Well you can be. But only if you choose to be. There are so many groups of homesteaders out there – both on the Internet and in person – that you can be a part of something much larger than yourself and all it takes is a simple search online to find hundreds of them all over the United States. Homesteaders are a friendly group and love newcomers. It isn’t a cliquey organization or a pay to play type of thing, either. Forums exist for people who have questions about homesteading, or the attempt to get into the lifestyle, and the folks who frequent those boards are more than able (as well as more than willing) to answer any further questions you may have about the lifestyle that so many people are interested in having.

Do homesteaders really love what they do? Yes. Yes. And yes. As was mentioned before, there isn’t a homesteader out there that the author has been able to find that wishes they’d never become a part of the community. Is it a dramatic lifestyle change? If what you’re doing now is the 6AM – 9PM lifestyle in the city, with noise and crime and neighbors and fighting constantly, then yes, it will be a change. You may need a pair of jeans and a t-shirt too (or a cotton sun dress for those of you who wear them). Being comfortable and truly full of joy rarely ever involves a suit or a tie.

There is so much information about homesteading, and there is so much interest in it (in these days of multi-million dollar homes and no backyard to speak of) that I encourage you to search out homesteading in any way you can and become part of the family. It’s work, yes, and there are no sick days when the harvest comes around, and it does involve hiring a good butcher (or becoming one – which most of us cannot or will not do) and you will have to learn a few things along the way, but life is learning and where would any sane person be without something to learn?

Sources:

Wikipedia Contributers, “Homesteading.” Wikipedia, URL: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homesteading)

JD Roth, “An Introduction to Homesteading.” Get Rich Slowly, URL: (http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2006/09/17/an-introduction-to-homesteading/)

Jason Strauss, “Welcome To Homesteading Resources.” Homesteading Resources, URL: (http://www.jasonunbound.com/project/index.html)

Sue Robishaw and Steve Shmeck, “ManyTracks Homesteading” ManyTracks Homesteading, URL: (http://www.manytracks.com/homestead.htm)

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