I’ve had a few people in the last few months ask me about starting a homestead or a small organic farm. A “homestead” or, if you are in the UK “smallholding” refers to a personal or family plot of land where food is grown, animals are tended, and the household economy encouraged (e.g. home crafts and food preservation) with the goal of increased resiliency and self-sufficiency. I thought I’d take the time today to talk about the resources and considerations one needs to do so using permaculture design principles and what I’ve learned from the 5-year process of converting my 3-acre piece of land into a small homestead. I’m also going to talk through what I learned and some of the mistakes that I’ve made in the hopes you don’t have to make the same ones.
Your Motivation for Homesteading
I think it’s important to recognize your motivation for homesteading or farming, upfront. For me, I am deeply motivated to live a more sustainable life and be more self-sufficient because of a few reasons: 1) it aligns with my spiritual practices and life philosophy; 2) I feel like I need to be doing “something” and am unhappy with the lack of attention that many in my country pay to matters of long-term sustainability, and 3) It enriches my life and makes me feel more complete. If you are unsure if this is a way of life you are interested in undertaking, I would suggest spending some time at a friend’s homestead, maybe WOOFing for a while, and getting a sense of what this life is like and if you would be well suited for it. It does require a ton of knowledge, patience, hard work (manual labor), and constant attention. But to me, the rewards are well worth it.
Understanding the Work of the Homestead
Most of us weren’t raised on farms. We don’t really know what a full day’s labor really feels like. If you are starting your own homestead or small organic farm, I think its important to discuss the work involved upfront. The larger your homestead is, the more work you will need to do (e.g. a 2000 square foot garden is substantially more work than a 500 square foot one). The more pieces you want to add (livestock, orchards, food preservation, farmer’s market/sales, organic gardens, herbs, a bigger garden each year, and so on) the more work you will need to do. Just like the druid’s wheel of the year, however, a lot of work is concentrated into certain times of the year–if you live in an area like I do (Zone 6, South East Michigan), the harvest season till late fall represents the hardest work you will do for the year, but you also have substantial amounts of work in the spring in planting out and when the harvest starts to roll in. If you aren’t sure about the work, go volunteer for a day on a farm or a small homestead and get a sense of what the work might be like.
Homesteading and Partnerships/Significant Others/Families
Homesteading is not really just a “fun passtime” but rather is a way of life, a way of seeing and interacting with the world. And this way of life can bring people together, or it can tear them apart. If you are blessed enough to have a partner/family/significant other who is also on board and wants to homestead, then let the fun begin! If you have someone in your life who is not on board…..I would carefully talk to them about your plans and see if you can come up with a shared vision where both of you can end up finding what you need and what fulfills you. Do this before diving in headfirst with your homesteading plans. If you continue to be met with resistance, recognize that homesteading and other sustainable activity transforms you in positive and powerful ways…which might not sit well with your partner. If your partner isn’t along for the ride, you might find yourself isolated and with increasing tension between you about your homesteading activities. Unfortunately, I speak from personal experience…my sustainable living activities led to my divorce almost two years ago, where we did not share a worldview and were doing this work alone caused a lot of isolation and tension in both of our lives. I don’t regret my choices and I’m living the life I want to live, but that life has come at a substantial cost….and I think it’s important to understand that this kind of thing can happen. I do think, with the right kind of couple or family, homesteading could be an incredible way of bringing people together–I’ve seen its magic at work in the lives of a few of my friends.
Can you homestead alone? Yes, but it is not easy, and I honestly think it takes the right kind of person to do so well–a person that is strong, independent, knowledgeable, and enjoys hard labor, and has enough free time to make it work. There are certain things that I, as a single homesteader who also works a full-time job, simply can’t do. I have to hire a good deal of work out, especially jobs for which I have no skills (construction), ask friends to come and help (like fence building or chicken coop construction), or find WOOFers to help. If you are considering going it alone, I would strongly recommend instead finding partners/friends/family to join in on the homesteading fun. Not just for a season, but on a more permanent basis–people come and go, and they can be fickle. See if you can find someone to do a land share, consider starting a small intentional community, or talk to other single friends and see if any others are interested in doing such work.
Activities Surrounding Homesteading
As a homesteader, there are so many activities you can engage in. The most common ones are growing food, growing herbs (medicinal and culinary), animal husbandry, orcharding, brewing, fermentation, canning food, drying food, root cellaring, soapmaking, candlemaking, medicine making, handcrafts, spinning, weaving, beekeeping, cooking, woodworking, hunting/fishing, and natural building. A good resource to see the kinds of activities that surround homsteading (other than this blog, obviously) is Mother Earth News magazine. This list is not complete, but it gives you a sense of some of what homesteaders might engage in–and I have a lot more resources listed at the end of this post. You shouldn’t take on too much at once–start by getting a few things in place that are important to you and then add activities slowly as you are able.
How much land do I need?
I would respond with, how much land do you have? Homesteading can be done in surprisingly small spaces. The Dervaes family is producing up to 6000 lbs of produce a year on a 66 x 132-foot urban lot in California; other homesteaders have hundreds of acres on which they work. About six months ago, the UN released a report suggesting that the only way we were going to feed the world is by using small, organic farms–and you can produce a LOT of food in a very small space. Homesteads vary in size, and the less people you have, the smaller you want your operation to be. Even if I had access to 30 acres, I wouldn’t be able to increase the size of my homestead at all right now because I only have so much time to do it. I will say, however, that where you choose to homestead is important–you can run into trouble with neighbors and local governments depending on your setup.
Using Permaculture Design for Your Homestead
So you’ve made the decision to homestead, you realize it is going to be a lot of work, you have a plot of land, and you’ve thought about its impact on your relationships. Now you want to dive in and build a garden and get some chickens and maybe buy a big farm and….WAIT! Not so fast! I would STRONGLY suggest that before you start a homestead, you spend some time carefully planning and designing–both for the short term but also for the long term.
Start by spending some time reading about permaculture design and using these principles to create your dream homestead. A well-designed homestead, using the existing energy flows and producing no waste, will be a delight to enjoy, while if you kind of hodge podge things together, you might end up causing yourself more stress or work. The homestead is a whole system, not just a smaller series of parts. Seeing the homestead as a whole system changes the way you design it, the way you interact and gives you vision and clarity about the process (I wish I had done more visioning earlier in my process here at my site!) You want to think about what your site’s strengths and how you can use them effectively–do you have a pond? A lot of woodlands? A slope? Big open fields? An old orchard?
My favorite resource for learning about permaculture design (especially for those who are new to it) is a book called Gaia’s Garden: A Home-Scale Guide to Permaculture (Toby Hemenway). Another book that is a bit more advanced but is also really good is David Holmgren’s Permaculture Design: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. I’ll do another post sometime about how I used permauclture design in my homestead here–and you can find many, many examples online of how permaculture can be used to design an awesome homestead.
Permaculture design often uses perennials in the place of annuals to create food forests–but every permaculture designer I know also has a healthy-sized vegetable garden. And vegetable gardening is both an art and a science–I have found that I am always learning and growing each year as I work to grow as much of my own food as possible. There are different approaches to soil preparation, crop rotation and planting, and such, so you want to read a few to get a good idea of what is out there. I’ve read 20+ books on vegetable gardening, and here are what I consider to be the staples that any new homesteader should read:
- How To Grow More Vegetables, 8th edition by John Jeavons. This is an outstanding book and a wonderful introduction to “hardcore” vegetable gardening. Jeavons provides excellent information on crop yields and how to calculate them, how to prep soil using double-dig approaches (I don’t use this method, but those who do swear by it), crop rotations, cover cropping, crop interplantings, and more.
- The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener by Elliot Coleman. The soil is the most important part of your garden–with healthy soil, your plants do well, are resistant to pests, and are able to produce abundantly. I think Coleman’s book is ideal because it spends a great deal of time talking about how to create healthy soil–and do so in an entirely sustainable method. I learned more about soil preparation from this book–and a great deal of other wonderful things. Coleman is also a market gardener, so if you want to grow veggies to sell or start a CSA, that’s another thing this book is useful for.
- The Winter Harvest Handbook by Elliot Coleman. If you are growing food in a cold climate, you want to buy this book and read it cover to cover. I’ve adapted Coleman’s methods on a much smaller scale here using small movable hoop houses and have substantially extended my own harvest season. This book teaches you how to use hoop houses and layers of protection, to grow the right varieties, to time your crops correctly, and much more. Any serious homesteader needs to read this book!
- The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. By Carol Deppe. I really like this book, because my own experience has found that I can’t depend on the weather to be consistent anymore–Deppe takes a very humorous and insightful approach to plant crops to achieve “resiliency.” Her discussion about Native American food growing techniques, short-season crops, and varieties is well worth reading.
- Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. Part of having a good garden is having good seeds–planting heirloom seeds and saving seeds from season to season. This book is a wonderful resource for saving seed and seed starting–I have found it invaluable in learning about how to make my garden more sustainable.
General Homesteading Books:
Books that help give you some insight into self-reliant living and homesteading are quite abundant these days. These are some of my favorites, books that give you a lot of good information and can be referred back to again and again.
- The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour. This book is considered the Bible of homesteading and for good reason–it covers anything and everything you need to know about self-sufficiency from growing food to brewing to basket weaving. One of the top books on my list!
- The Backyard Homestead: Produce All the Food You Need On Just 1/4 Acre! For those of you who want to homestead but don’t have a lot of space, I’d again refer you back to Gaia’s Garden: A Homescale Guide to Permaculture, but I’d also refer you to this book–its a delightful read and teaches you how to pack a great deal of gardening into a little space (Vertical Gardening by Derek Fell is another good choice if you find yourself in this circumstance).
- Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening and Other Hands-On Skills from the Appropriate Tech Toolkit by John Michael Greer. JMG is one of my favorite authors for a number of reasons, and his Green Wizardry book is an outstanding introduction to many basic activities that homesteads could use such as solar greenhouses and gardening.
- Mother Earth News magazine (as previously mentioned above). It is a wealth of inspiration on chickens, canning, vegetable varieties to grow, simple living, and more. They also offer two Mother Earth News fairs!
- One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming by Masanobu Fukouka. Another classic text about farming and agriculture, this book is a fantastic read.
Food and Food Preservation:
If you are going to grow all of that food, preservation becomes a serious challenge! Here are some books to get you started in food preservation:
- Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage for Fruits and Vegetables by Mike Bubel. This book is an awesome introduction to the root cellar–it has plans, talks about what varieties are “keepers” (meaning they store well) and how to store all those lovely fruits and veggies from your homestead.
- Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods. by Sandor Katz and Sally Fallon. Fermentation is an art and one that a homesteader should know. This book is the best fermentation book out there.
- The Ball Complete Book of Home Preservation by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine. This book teaches you how to can pretty much anything and the recipes are really good. The one thing I will say though is that this book assumes normal pectin and normal sugar amounts (up to 50%) for fruits and fruit preserves. I have found that another book (listed next) is better with special pectin, so you can cut the sugar way down.
- Preserving with Pomona’s Pectin: The Revolutionary Low-Sugar, High Flavor Method for Crafting and Canning Jams by Allison Carroll Duffy. For jams and jellies, use this book instead–your blood sugar will thank you
- Nurturing Traditions by Sally Fallon. This is a cookbook that fits very well with a homesteader’s life (especially one that includes animals).
- Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger Connection by Jessica Prentice. This is another cookbook and one that helps you get in line with the seasonal cycles. Highly recommended!
There are obviously a lot of other books that one can read regarding a homestead. I’ll list a few of my favorites here–and I have a lot more that I could add to the list!
- Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, 2nd edition by Ross Conard and Gary Paul Nabhan. I’ve read about 10 beekeeping books, and this is the one I like the most because Conrad and Nabhan argue that we are in partnership with the bees and that the partnership requires us to treat them with respect. It is full of a wealth of knowledge about how to start your hives and keep them going!
- Build Your Own Earth Oven: A Low-Cost Wood-Fired Mud Oven, Simple Sourdough Bread, Perfect Loaves by Kiko Denzer, Hannah Field, and Alan Scott. Because what homestead wouldn’t be complete without an outdoor kitchen and amazing earth oven?
- The Soapmakers Companion: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes, Techniques, and Know-How by Susan Miller Cavitch. Great if you want to learn how to make some of your own soaps!
- Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Homemade Cheeses by Ricki Carroll. The classic cheesemaking book!
- The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips. I don’t have extensive orchards here, but friends who do swear by this book. If you are going an orcharding or berry bush route, you want to pick this up and give it a read!
My last list is more of inspirational reading, things to get you thinking and excited about living a more sustainable life through homesteading. Some of these are very directly tied to homesteading, others give us philosophies and ways of interacting with nature.
- Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology by John Michael Greer. Another fantastic book by JMG, this one gives a set of seven laws that can help shift perspectives and live more attuned to the land.
- Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry. This book blew my mind…in fact, it is so amazing, that I am still reading it, two years later. I read about a page at a time, wait a week, dwell on it, and keep reading. Berry is brilliant, and anything you read by him will be worth your time. This book, written in the 1970’s, really shows what happened to agriculture and to all of America because of it, and provides some alternative perspectives.
- Speaking of the 1970’s, go to old bookstores, and pick up anything you can find on sustainable living from the 1970’s – old Foxfire books, solar cookers/ovens, intentional communities, you name it, you will find it and be glad that you did.
I have a lot more I can suggest, but this list and these suggestions are certainly enough to get you started! I hope this information is helpful to anyone who is looking to start their own homestead. Readers, if there are books or resources that I missed that should be on here, please comment and I can add them to the list!