Recently, more “homesteading bloggers” have been finding my blog. I am pretty sure it was the addition of “backyard chickens” to my entries. A few days ago I read an entry by a young Canadian blogger I really like at Twin Acres Homestead. She had a long entry on “Six Ways to Start Homesteading Today.” Her list surprised me, as well as her claim that you could be an owner or renter, live in the country or city, home or apartment, with or without land. It led me down an Internet rabbit hole into the question of what qualifies as modern homesteading. In a nutshell, a switch to practices that are more DIY and self-sustaining qualifies as living the “homesteading life.” That’s a pretty broad category. And it probably explains the list on Twin Acres Homestead’s blog. Here are her six ways:
- Plant a garden.
- Start composting.
- Bake your own bread.
- Make cheese.
- Forage for food.
- Make your own cleaning products.
I was surprised that making cheese was in the top six, but I see how making bread and cheese is easier for the urban set. As I tried to imagine this in a Chicago or New York apartment household I quickly envisioned the worm composter in the corner and the bottle gardens climbing up the windowsill.
Twin Acres Homestead also says that their own homesteading journey began when they brought home three ducklings. Much like my homesteading tags jumped higher when I brought home my five baby chicks. Nothing says homesteading like chickens in your basement!
Readers of my blog will know that I, a suburban/urban person all the rest of my life, came to embrace my current lifestyle on our 80 acres through Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And in that book, in addition to becoming convinced I could grow food on a large enough scale for us to eat year round, I also was introduced to cheesemaking.com and started making my own cheese. I have never graduated higher than yogurt, lactic cheese, ricotta, and mozzarella, but it is easy where I live to supplement with hard cheeses bought by local cheese makers.
My own lifestyle is also tied to my identity as a Benedictine Oblate. Of all the aspects of Benedictine spirituality, the one I was latest to embrace was “stability.” I even wrote an essay and gave a talk about stability in Scripture, where it is only found in the context of “good rule” (i.e., monarchical stability). It says nothing about staying in one place, and in fact from Abraham through the apostles, they were all nomads of one sort or another, never settling for long and even losing the Promised Land. They carried their stability with them. As a person who moved every two years, living in Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Joliet, Reno, and Long Beach, California, before coming to Minnesota in 2005, that definition worked for me! At the end of this summer, however, I will mark seven years on this farm and ten years in Central Minnesota. I’m looking much more traditionally “stable” these days.
The original meaning of homesteading was claiming land, either through squatting or getting a deed, and working it, making it your own. So if I were going to make my own definition, I’d skip all but the most determined and settled urbanites and start with land. Here are my four criteria:
1. Grow food, working toward 4-season gardening and/or a level of food independence. Kingsolver claims it takes 1/4 acre to grow most of the food for a family of four. I have considerably less cultivated, but all three families on the property get some produce, and thanks to home preserving, we now have food from the garden year round. What you can’t grow, try to buy locally. (I’m not at all a purist on this or any item. I will never give up lemons and avocados, or salmon and a lot of other things. I would like to grow enough food to sell that it would pay for my own eating-from-the-garden.)
2. Raise animals, at least a few chickens or bees. I will probably get to beekeeping in the not-too-distant future, but I’m starting with chickens. I love the idea of lambs, goats, or even a cow, but I don’t see that happening. I also don’t see myself skinning and gutting a deer anytime soon, but I’m working on renting a hunter and paying a processor to get large quantities of venison from our land. Until then, I do have this generous brother-in-law…
3. Achieve some level of energy independence. This is the get-off-the-grid part of the equation. We are lucky to have plenty of groundwater and so do not purchase water. We use propane to heat the house, which feels pretty off-the-grid until the tank is low and there’s news of a propane shortage (see coldest winter ever, 2014). We follow the solar market closely and would love to have solar panels, but right now they still feed into the grid and you buy the energy back. There is talk of wind power among the families on the farm, too.
4. Make some stuff from scratch. This is the “natural living” part of the equation. Most homesteaders are trying to get rid of some chemicals, preservatives, and other processed foods. My own wake-up moment came visiting a family who live in a house above an old quarry. They said they’d switched to natural cleaning products when they realized what they were pumping into the quarry pond where they swam. It made me think of my own septic and drinking water. (This is the first time I’ve ever thought of waste not going into pipes to some centralized processing plant.) Right now I make my own laundry detergent, cleansers, and deodorant. There are definitely some gaps, but I am amazed how well especially the cleanser works, and how good the essential oils make everything smell. (And how much we’re saving on laundry detergent!!) This also really shows how one thing leads to another in homesteading, as you bond with your property in a totally different way.
As far as making food from scratch, I have enjoyed fermenting and sprouting (though I must disclose that the kombucha gave me some kind of allergy to fermented drinks so I’m not doing that anymore!) Growing food leads to this step pretty naturally. I use white sugar in my jams and the sprouts have been going to the chickens now that there are greens for the humans to eat, but I do love the processes: the pickling, the canning, the jamming, the freezing. I’m not a bread baker (my pizza crust is coming along nicely) but my husband bakes bread all winter when he’s not doing outdoor work. I don’t envision grinding my own grain, but I love making pasta from scratch with our own eggs.
So that’s my homestead. As in all things, it’s important not to become militant or doctrinaire about it. My Benedictine monastery neighbors also model generosity and it’s important to me to retain that value in all I do. Self-sufficiency can easily become smug and tight (I see this on a continuum from survivalist cult to Monastic farm). Community is as much a value as stability, and fostering community means remaining engaged with those around you, not becoming isolated in your self-sufficient home. In this way the monastery has been a great example, and so is my local farming, growing community, who have shared so much wisdom with me. I think it’s something I’ve learned from living on a family compound and also in a small town– if you’re going to live with these people longer than two years, you need to develop some real virtues (patience and charity come in handy) and remain open to others. Cultivating the land and cultivating generosity alongside it are good places to start.