The only journeys worth taking in life are those that test us to the very core.- Justin Somper
I was asked to define homesteading on a podcast recently. I said what I always say: it’s the ability to provide for as many of your basic needs as possible from the base of your home/farm. The thing about it is that homesteading is more of a journey than a fixed state, at least in the modern, western world. I like to tell people that homesteading used to just be called living. There was a time that it was normal to have diversified small holdings, raise food and barter with neighbors. But now it requires a reassessment of our relationship with our cultural paradigms, a partial uncoupling from the mainstream.
Let’s dive into this idea of homesteading and come up with a more accurate picture.
What homesteading isn’t:
It isn’t a life of isolation. Not wanting to be dependent on the international food chain is wise and it’s a worthy goal. Knowing how to make what you need is wonderful and living consistent with your ethics is authentic and noble but none of that means you don’t need people. Community is more than a convenience, it is, with few exceptions, critical. Obviously, equipment breaks, people get hurt, stuff is heavy and there are a million physical reasons to exist as part of a tribe but the biggest reason to actively cultivate and participate in a community is mental. There are no cartoon bluebirds to land on your shoulder and whistle away your blues out here. When stuff goes horribly wrong, when it goes spectacularly well and when the doldrums set in, at some point even the most introverted need community.
Homesteading isn’t something you just do some weekend and check off your list. This is day-in, day-out and all night. Someone suggested we could always sell our farm as a turn-key homestead and I cracked up thinking about the size of the to-do list, the things we haven’t done yet and the things that need to be improved. We don’t even have solar, yet. There are always projects and maintenance. There are always things that need tending. I have daily lists, sure, but I also have weekly, monthly, yearly, 5-year and G-d-knows-when lists.
Homesteading isn’t a hipster trend. My husband and I were talking to a young professional, answering his food questions, when he surmised aloud that we, “are, like, hipsters.” First, we are too old for skinny jeans, second, no. Learning to knit is something one can do ironically, I guess, but not this. I explained to the urban gent that we were quite sincere in our lifestyle choice. One is either dabbling or committed to things. Moving your family to a farm and trying to grow food ethically and have the skills to take care of yourself and your tribe requires commitment on every level. My friends from college observe, and it’s not always a compliment, that when I get into something, I buy in completely. It’s true and it is required if you are going to try and live, even partially, off the land and your own labor.
This life doesn’t look the same for everyone. As I mentioned earlier, we don’t have solar and we still shop at a grocer for a lot of our food. One homestead may have an abattoir and a smokehouse and another may focus on hydroponic produce. Some use conventional power, some are off the grid entirely and others use a mix of the two. One uses a tractor, another uses horses and yet another uses neither. One family homeschools, another wouldn’t dream of it. Some don’t have an off farm income, others can’t even conceptualize that.
What homesteading is:
It’s a highly personalized existence, far more so than the commercial consumption driven mainstream culture here in the US. See above.
It’s hard work. I see all those attractive articles and blogs about doing things the “Easy Way!” and I read some of them, too. There are, sometimes, easier ways of doing things than how you are doing them and working smarter not harder is really, really important when you decide to reclaim the fundamentals of life, BUT, there is no easy way to homestead. Unless you are really, really wealthy and I submit that maybe paying other people to do everything isn’t really homesteading.
Homesteading is bitterly disappointing and incredibly satisfying. Yep, all of it. This life means being in touch with the where and how of the most fundamental parts of human existence and that is a mixed bag. Most people don’t ever think about what dies for them to eat. An omnivorous homesteader is at the least aware of the life they take and many are personally killing the animals they eat. It’s gritty, it’s painful, it’s connected and it’s very, very real. And most things on the farm are that way. There are successes and losses, wins and hard lessons. Have you ever spent a month building something to have it destroyed by a storm before it’s finished? Have you lost sleep over sick animals or realised that you inadvertently killed the insects protecting your crops? That is all part of it. It means understanding what stewardship is and suffering personally if you fail. It means joy over success in a way no televised sport could ever provide.
It takes you to your boundaries and then shows you not to live there. Even with so bloody much to do all the time, homesteading constantly yanks us back to the reality that we need rest. It means building margin into your time and budget because there are surprises and there always will be. You can learn to accommodate them or you can burn out.
It means being innovative more than old fashioned. I cringe when people advocate a return to all things “old fashioned” (and if you use the phrase “old timey” you are dead to me. I can’t stand that phrase. Moving on.) The age of an idea has nothing to do with the quality of said idea. Nothing. All ideas, great and terrible, were once new and will become old. There are some great ideas in antiquity and there are some great ideas today. Even the Amish, around whom I grew up, innovate. When you need to solve something, the right answer could be something tried and tested or it could be something you invent on the spot. That ability to look for what works best needs to be without prejudice to time. Keep in mind that history is long. Everytime you look back for ideas and methods, which I advocate, be aware that you are only looking back to a certain time and you are probably idealising that time over the times before it. When you do find great ideas from the past, be glad the person who came up with them wasn’t hung up on looking backward and decided to come up with something better. Keep in mind, no one knows your homestead like you do. You are the engineer here.
Do’s and Don’ts
Do as much homework as you can before you take each step but keep taking steps.
Don’t get livestock without learning everything you possibly can about them. Their lives are in your hands.
Do find your tribe and network like crazy.
Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Experiment on a small scale when possible.
Do plan, map, make lists and keep a journal. These tools are your friends.
Don’t expect perfection.
Do understand your role as a steward of resources.
Don’t give up easily. There will be setbacks and tough times.
Do know that you will have strengths and weaknesses because you are a human being.
Don’t try to do everything at once.
Do learn about permaculture and IPM principles.
Do let people help you.
Do take days off.
Do take care of your body. You only get one and they all wear out.
Do ask questions. (Constantly, if the people around you can handle it.)
There is so much more we could discuss here. What is the best advice you have for new homesteaders?
Happy eating, Katy