How to do What You Can

I recently read a Twitter thread by Free Northerner that started in reply to this tweet: 

Here is the text of what Free Northerner wrote:

I looked into it. It is very hard to do, particularly financially, especially where it gets cold. It’s one thing when you’re handed a farm and taught traditional knowledge, another to start it up. Oddly, it takes a lot of money to do a homestead. The first major obstacle is buying land and a home (with electricity and heat) outright. Very expensive, and you can’t go into debt for it, because you’re not going to be able make that kind of monthly cash with a non-professional homestead. Then you need to be able to get food and other goods for at least a year or two, as without a base of traditional knowledge to fall back on, you’re realistically not going to be able sustain yourself on a homestead until you get a couple years practical knowledge. At this point, your only options to homestead are be independently wealthy or work while homesteading. To find an affordable land/house, I’d have to get a place at least a 1.5 hour drive from my work. So that’s 11 hours away from home, little time/energy left for homesteading. Then you need to budget homesteading necessities. Chickens cost (do you even know how to build a chicken coup?), cows cost (do you know how to raise a cow?), farm equipment costs (could you grow healthy tomatoes?), etc. Everything costs and you know nothing. And because you need to work and commute you don’t have the time to learn, build, and buy everything you need in a reasonable time frame, so a couple of years to get running turns to a half-decade or more, working a full-time job and a farm. Then if you want a social life outside of work and farming, you’ve just moved an 1+ hour from your friends and family. You have even less time. Not to mention the gas costs become insane. Then there’s the other things you might not even expect. What of winter? If you get snowed in on your homestead how do you get out? Can you repair your heater if it dies? There’s more money out for a snow tractor. Hope you don’t die. Then once you get your homestead running, you better still have a part-time job, nest-egg, or side hustle, because you still have to pay your spare parts, vet bills, property taxes, fuel, emergency funds, etc., and selling a few dozen extra eggs a day ain’t gonna cut it. As crazy as it sounds, homesteading is a very expensive, nigh unobtainable, luxury good for most people, unless you’re willing to move to the middle of nowhere in Northern Alberta, cut down a forest for free land, and live like a mountain man, (and hopefully not die). I seriously researched and thought about this for a year. If I were a much better man; I might have taken a huge mortgage, put in 40 hrs/wk at work, 40 at farm, and 15 driving, it would have been doable and I could maybe have been basically self-sufficient in a decade. But I wasn’t. It was more than I was willing to take on. It’s more than all but the most extreme would be able to take on. I still hope to get a nice little homestead at some point, perhaps at retirement, but doing it before would not be particularly feasible. It’s one thing to grow up working a farm, inheriting your father’s land, livestock, equipment, and practical knowledge. It’s entirely another to start from scratch with nothing.

Now, I don’t actually disagree with anything Free Northerner said. He raised some really good points. But I do want to point out another side of the coin. See, it’s not an all-or-nothing type of thing. So I will share what I have been doing, and how it fits with the facts Free Northerner pointed out, in an attempt to help you not give up in despair.

I live on a lot that is a little less than half an acre. I have a full time job. I am not in the boonies by any stretch–I can get to work in less than 10 minutes on my bicycle. I don’t own a real tractor (I do have a lawn tractor), a welder, or a snowblower. I shovel my way out, even when we get 18 inches or more overnight. But “partial homesteading” has improved my life in many ways, and over time I get closer and closer to having a full-blown homestead.

The first thing I did was add a garden. I choose to go with the Back to Eden method because 1) I don’t have a rototiller or a plow, or even anything that could pull a plow, 2) I didn’t want to be weeding the garden during the summer when I could be working on other projects, and 3) I’m cheap. Quoting from a post I did at the time, “My neighbor kindly loaned me his garden tractor (sadly, no front-end loader) and trailer, and I hauled 5 loads of decomposing wood chips from the local pile. As soon as I took a few shovelfuls from the outer layer of the pile, steam began to rise off of it, made even stronger by the rain. My shovel got a good workout, as did a manure fork that my neighbor loaned me as well. All of these wood chips were dumped on my garden.” Later in the post I estimated the cost of my fencing materials: “I purchased 3 50′ rolls of chicken wire, and 16 36” steel posts. That came to approximately $100. And since I don’t have a welder to make my own, I bought a post driver, which I used for the garden fence and the post that holds our house number. That was an additional $35.”

One good weekend of labor, and $135. That’s what I put into my 35’x35′ garden the first year. That summer we canned countless jars of pickles, and we were still eating winter squash well into January. Since then, I got two dump-truck loads of wood chips for free via ChipDrop. Naturally, these were dumped in the front yard, and the garden is in the back, so I had to move them to the garden site. Using a pitchfork (which I bought for around $20) and shovel (which I already had) I shoveled the chips into my two garbage cans, lifted them onto my wagon, and hauled them to the backyard with my lawn tractor. I then lifted the garbage cans off the wagon, dumped them where I wanted the chips, and went back for more. It took about 100 garbage cans full to add about 6″-8″ of thickness to the garden. I also bought 5′ high welded wire fencing and posts this year, which I haven’t put up yet, and that cost me just under $300. Still for roughly $450 dollars (spread out over a year) and maybe three good weekends of labor (by the time I get the fence up), I have a garden that I don’t have to do anything with for years. This garden gives me joy, saves me money, and gives me far superior food to the supermarket.

Last summer, after the garden was planted, I bought chickens. $36 got me 12 chicks, but due to a raccoon problem I ended up ordering a second 12 for a second $36. Today I have 11 chickens, some of which are the originals, and some of which came from the second 12. I built the coop myself out of some old closet doors and other scraps I had lying around. Between fencing, chick feeders, chick waterers, a full size feeder, a full size waterer, a heated base for their water for the winter (which turned out to be useless, as it didn’t keep the water from freezing when below 10 degrees), food, scratch, and mealworms, I spent approximately $460 on the chickens from the time they arrived until the time that we started getting good, regular production in December. Since then, we have always sold enough eggs to more than cover the cost of their food. So, for a few days of labor and under $550, I added a steady supply of high-quality fresh eggs to my micro-farm. When the chickens stop laying, I will slaughter them and put them in the freezer. In the meantime, they provide me with manure, which I compost with my grass clippings to make a high-quality fertilizer.

Last fall, I collected a couple trashcans full of black walnuts from my tree. I had to pick them up anyway, so as to not hit them with the lawnmower. After letting them sit and dry for several months, I flaked off all the dried hulls in two evenings. I cracked a few gallons of nuts with a hammer, and the wife and I picked out the flesh and roasted it–its delicious. I still have about 10 gallons worth of nuts to crack and roast, but I figure by the time I’m done I’ll have 6-7 pounds of roasted black walnuts for the cost of a few days’ labor.

This spring, I bought 7 fruit tree saplings at Tractor Supply for about $90 total. It took me one morning to plant them all by hand, and in a few years they should start bearing fruit.

Hopefully, this fall, I’ll have the money to purchase this beekeeping starter kit. Then in the spring, I will buy bees, and benefit from better pollination in the garden, as well as honey.

Next spring, I plan to plant some blueberry bushes and grapes in some flower gardens along the house that I hope to rehab this summer.

I can’t live off my little plot, but we do raise about 25% of the food we eat–a significant amount. I think that, with hunting on nearby public land and my planned improvements, we could realistically be providing over 50% of our own food in a few years.  Someday, I’d like to have some land, the space for dairy goats or even a cow, and a small tractor with a front-end loader. But I don’t have to wait until then to take steps towards the life I want to live. When I get some land, I’ll be better prepared thanks to learning things here. If I never get land, at least I can still give my children healthy, home-grown food and a little of the farm environment here in my backyard.

Free Northerner is right–starting a completely self-sustaining homestead from scratch would be prohibitively expensive for almost anyone. But you don’t have to start a completely self-sustaining homestead from scratch. Take some little steps. Do what you can. Even if you live in an apartment, you can grow a potted tomato or two indoors. If you have a house with a small yard, start a garden. When you’re comfortable with that, get 3-4 chickens. Plant an apple tree. Then if you ever are able to buy land, you wont be starting from scratch, and you’ll have gained valuable skills. And even if you never buy land, you’ll still live better, eat better, and be happier–I’d call that a win.

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