My first homesteading project was about the worst one I could have chosen.
I was a cage-stage permaculturist—“cage-stage” meaning I had learned enough about it that I could talk the talk a bit, but so enthusiastic that I should have been locked in a cage for a few years to prevent me from arguing with people until reality and balance sank in.
I selected as my first endeavor, not something simple, like a few potted herbs or even a couple backyard chickens. I decided I was going to build an aquaponics system.
Needless to say, things did not go great. I got it set up and we grew a few plants. But there were water leaks and dead goldfish and wilty lettuce. A knife slip during the build caused a trip to the emergency room and a few stitches in my leg. It didn’t help that pretty soon after I finished building the system, the Army deployed me to Afghanistan for four months.
How had we gotten to the point that I wanted to put a homemade system of fish-poo-laden pipes and tanks on the wood floor of the living room in the house we were renting? And how are we still homesteading enthusiasts after this initial experience?
Hiking the Preparedness Trail
Traced back to its approximate origin, my desire to homestead began about ten years ago, when I began taking long hikes through Shenandoah National Park. Every month or so I would explore a new trail. On a visit to the local REI one day I spotted a store information sign that listed ten pieces of kit every hiker should carry—a flashlight, first aid, a knife, etc. I was intrigued and began researching lists like this.
As the internet is wont to do, my searches began popping up sites that not only recommended what hikers should have, but what people preparing for emergencies should have: bug-out bags.
A bit of personal context is necessary for the next step in the process. For the last twelve of my twenty years in the Army I was a part of a small group of “nuclear counterproliferation” officers. I spent a lot of time at work thinking about doomsday-type scenarios, and I understand how a lot of nuclear (and chemical and biological) weapons systems work—both ours and our adversaries’. There are things that I’m a lot less concerned about than normal civilians because of what I know, and there are potential scenarios I’m more worried about than the populace at large. Suffice it to say that it was not unusual for people I worked with to be very concerned about preparedness.
So I became a prepper. I was not nearly as crazy as many within the movement. But I was much more into it than the average American.
Surviving Mormon Macaroni
Access to food is of course one of the primary concerns of preppers. I had a box of MREs, but I knew that wouldn’t be sufficient for a real emergency.
Thankfully, I had several LDS friends at work. From them I learned that the Mormon church has established survival food distribution centers in every state. Thus, I folded down the rear seats in the minivan and headed to our local LDS home storage center. I bought six months worth of dried beans, whole wheat, macaroni, sugar, and a host of other staples, all sealed in #10 cans and guaranteed to last 25 years.
Realizing we’d have to know how to cook this food if we ever needed to use it, we began trying it out. It was pretty disgusting. If not disgusting, bland and lacking nutrition. Yes, it would probably keep us alive. But not very well.
This was the moment when we realized we needed to learn how to grow our own food.
Not having the option at the time to start a garden in our rented backyard, we joined a CSA. We’ve been members of several CSAs over the years, and this first one was hands-down the best. The bags were fill-your-own, you could go to the farm and u-pick, and there were lots of types of veg to choose from. We were hooked on the idea of gardening.
Thus began our homesteading education.
At this stage it was only via books and observation at our CSA. Permaculture came onto our radar. I read Toby Hemenway and Joel Salatin and Eliot Coleman and dozens of other books before, during, and after my Afghanistan deployment.
During our next move we had a few weeks to spare, so we toured around Vermont and were smitten with the lovely gardens and idyllic pastures. I’ve never been to Vermont in the winter … but it was beautiful in August.
We settled into our new location, knowing we probably had three years there, and began our first homestead. We planted lasagna-bed gardens. We raised and butchered a few meat birds and kept a couple layers. We built a rabbit coop and butchered a few litters. We constructed a hoop house in our front yard that the city made us take down.
Books and YouTube were our invaluable partners. The other fortuitous finding during those years was Acres U.S.A. magazine. I ran across a copy at the local Tractor Supply and became a subscriber (and later an editor and author for them). That’s where I first read about J.M. Fortier and his use of a BCS two-wheel tractor. I looked up some podcasts with J.M. and quickly discovered Permaculture Voices and realized that there were lots of people who were doing the things I had become interested in.
One final element of our gradual development into homesteading was the evolution of our thinking about how food affected our health. As described above, our initial motivation for homesteading was purely for food security. I had made it through grad school eating pop tarts and drinking Coke for breakfast; the nutrient density of kale wasn’t really a concern. But the more we read about permaculture and gardening, the more we were exposed to other elements of the movement, including human health.
We started to read books by Dr. Nasha Winters, we listened to podcasts with Dr. Mercola, and we joined the Weston A. Price Foundation. To be honest, some of the things advocated by some of these groups are a bit much for us, and with human health the science just isn’t precise enough to be able to point to many steadfast “increased consumption of X definitively leads to Y” conclusions. But the general message—that healthy land produces healthy food produces healthy people—seems intuitively true.
We experienced plenty of ups and downs at that first homestead. Butchering didn’t always go quite right, veg languished from improper care, minor strife brewed up over how much we were capable of doing, especially considering my frequent trips for work, including several overseas. But much was learned, and when we moved again for another three-year stint, we were determined to continue homesteading.
At our second practice homestead we relearned some lessons and picked up a few new ones. We again had chickens and a garden and rabbits, but this time we raised a few pigs as well. There were plenty of failures—bees died, plants didn’t get watered, etc. But again we came out on top in terms of lessons learned. Most importantly, the experience was positive enough that we wanted to homestead more—at least, we wanted to devote ourselves more to doing homesteading right, which to us generally means spending enough time developing our systems that they become simple, reliable, and abundant.
In the end, homesteading remains appealing to us for several reasons:
As alluded to in my post on why I chose not to farm, we’ve realized over the years that we’re really permaculturists at heart. We love observing and creating systems that work together harmoniously and that produce more than the sum of the parts. Aquaponics is almost certainly not in our future, but we do plan to plant mixed-species orchards (food forests), recycle most of our “waste” through our animals or our compost, and raise animals in mixed herds.
We plan to get a milk cow next spring. I know this will be a ton of work, but I think it will be the pinnacle of such a system: an animal that consumes free sunshine (via grass), plus only a small amount of purchased feed, and in return gives us a substantial percentage of our diets, a calf every year that we can raise for meat or more milk, and enough whey and buttermilk leftover to fatten a pig or two—all while improving the pasture we rotate it on.
This—our initial motivation for preparedness—is still a significant factor for us. I don’t lose sleep over every potential disaster scenario, but I still tend to think that many of our modern food and financial systems are fairly fragile. Thus, I don’t want to rely on the grocery store for all of my food. I don’t want rely on the utility company for all of my power or heat or water. I don’t want to be overly exposed to the whims of the market—although I’m all for free markets. Of course we’ll rely on other people locally, and I’m not under the illusion that we can protect ourselves from everything. But homesteading should allow us to reduce our overall exposure to several external factors.
We also want to homestead to improve our health. We ate pretty healthy for a while during my last Army assignment, but during our year in Alabama we lapsed a bit. Here in Michigan we hope to produce nutrient-dense products that literally can’t be bought—raw, grassfed, A2A2 Jersey milk and cream and butter; non-GMO, home-smoked bacon; fresh figs and strawberries and apple varieties that aren’t sold in stores. Looking at what I just wrote, I realize that maybe my personal motivation isn’t health as much as taste! Thankfully, though, one usually leads to the other.
There’s certainly no end to the amount of work that could be done on a ten-acre homestead like ours. The nice thing is that such labor seems meaningful. It’s producing something physical that will sustain us and benefit us. And the effects of our work should yield benefits for years and even generations. Meaningful work is something that our children can learn to do and that we can enjoy together.
In all, we’re homesteaders because we’ve come to appreciate the values of an agrarian lifestyle. Wendell Berry sums this up nicely in his eleven values. While we have our issues with Berry when it comes to public policy, we strongly identify with the personal ethic of agrarianism he espouses.
Notice that one of the reasons we’re homesteading isn’t because I think it will help us save much money. Probably the opposite, although, as one of my favorite books says, “The family that owns a cow is never poor.” I’m keeping track of all the numbers, though, in the hopes of being able to put a figure on the financial costs and benefits of homesteading.
Finally, I wrote an earlier post about why I chose not to farm. This post is obviously a corollary to that one. Besides the desire to do meaningful work (which farming for profit undoubtedly allows), the reasons we’re enthusiastic about homesteading are generally things that would be more difficult to do if we were for-profit farmers. The best small-scale farms do incorporate some holistic systems, but on a much more limited basis than is possible when purely homesteading—almost no farm can profitably do veg, livestock, milk, energy, bees, etc. Farming certainly affords less freedom than homesteading—I don’t have to worry about tracking employee hours or not growing certain varieties because they don’t sell well at market, and I’m not dependent on government loans or USDA inspectors. And while farming is generally a healthy lifestyle, the required business focus does mean that farmers seldom produce as much of their own food as a homesteader.
This doesn’t mean that our homestead won’t ever evolve into some type of farmstead—i.e., that we might end up selling some of the excess we produce—particularly if the kids want to start some type of farm business venture someday.
Thinking back on our original aquaponics experiment, I’m a little amazed we’re still homesteading. We recovered nicely from that first unfortunate foray into wholistic systems and self-sufficiency. Lord willing, we’ll be managing those kinds of systems for the long haul.
Read more Homestead Blog posts by Paul Meyer.
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