Start small and then decide.
If you want to convert to the homesteading lifestyle, you can start with one small project at a time to determine if the lifestyle is for you. If you dream of living off of your land with no outside job, you should know that this isn’t an unreachable goal.
Anna Hess and her husband Mark have been happily homesteading for years on their 58-acre property, where they enjoy both the labors and the fruits of having a self-sustaining farm.
If you’re interested in following in their paths, they’ve got advice for would-be homesteaders on how to get started—and succeed.
Hess’s early childhood was filled with amazing memories on her family’s farm, which prompted her want to return to that lifestyle. “I had dreamed of going back to the land ever since my own back-to-the-lander parents threw in the towel and dragged us into town when I was in third grade,” she says. “As soon as I got out of college, I started saving, studying and planning, eventually materializing a farm, which just about kicked my butt in the first year.”
Before long, she met Mark, whose combination of common sense and a strong back allowed her to more comfortably transition to homesteading.
Although Mark hadn’t shared the lifelong goal of becoming a homesteader, the couple helped each other prepare for the life on the farm. “It was tougher for him than for me since I’d been training myself to live frugally since high school, whereas Mark had been considering moving to Los Angeles or New York City,” she says. “In the end, though, Mark taught me as much about enjoying the process as I taught him about simple living, and we both learned to love partnering with the farm.”
Start several small projects
If you’re interested in the homesteading lifestyle, your best bet is to ensure that you don’t jump in with both feet too quickly, which is the biggest mistake that Hess sees new homesteaders make. “We all bite off more than we can chew in the beginning, and unfortunately that causes many homesteaders to burn out,” she says. “I grew up watching my parents struggle with a farm, one full-time job, and three kids, but I still tried to embark on projects beyond my energetic means during the first few years on the farm.
My husband has helped me realize that homesteading is all about the journey, and even if it takes a decade (or two, or three) to reach your goals, you’ve been successful as long as you keep making progress and enjoy every minute.” In her book, The Weekend Homesteader, Hess suggests easy and rewarding projects that new homesteaders can take on during the first year or more. “Your best bet is to get your feet wet in a lot of different areas, but to keep each endeavor small,” she says.
For instance, planting one fruit tree and a small vegetable garden will help you learn about your soil without sinking too much cash and heartache into the project, she suggests. “If you’re itching for animals, I recommend starting small there, too — compost worms are easy and chickens or honeybees are worth considering if you’re willing to make them your top priority for the year.”
In addition, Hess adds, learning to cook with in-season produce and pastured meat will help guide your plans for the future, as will learning basic methods of food preservation. “If you want to branch out beyond the basics (but still in the realm of simple projects), mushroom logs and rain barrels are also worth considering.”
A day in the life
Many people picture homesteading as a peaceful life of sitting on the porch and enjoying cool natural breezes, but keep in mind that the lifestyle also entails difficult—but rewarding—work.
For Anna Hess and her husband, that entails maintaining a careful timeline to ensure that everything gets done. “Our daily schedule is remarkably rigid for a homesteading family with no off-farm job, but we’ve found sticking to a schedule gets the work done while also giving us plenty of guilt-free time to relax,” she says. “I’m the morning person, so I start my chores at 8:30—feeding the chickens, checking on the chicks (in the spring), and then taking our dog on a training walk.”
By 9 a.m., Anna and her husband join forces for outdoor work, which ranges from planting vegetables to building pastures. They take an hour-long lunch break, then work on indoor chores from 1 to 4 in the afternoon.
“Next, we spend half an hour writing blog posts, Mark does the afternoon version of my morning chores, and we finish the day with a leisurely supper and evening,” Anna says.
After she cooks dinner, her husband does the dishes, and during the peak harvest season she follows that by preserving her home- grown fruits and vegetables.“In the winter, we flip-flop the morning and afternoon activities so we can enjoy the sun on our backs while we’re outdoors, and we occasionally break from the schedule if there’s an emergency that needs more attention,” Anna says. “But otherwise, we stick to the timeline, which has done more than anything to ensure marital bliss on the farm.”
Know what you’ll eat
When creating your homesteading plan, you might be overwhelmed at all of the gardening and livestock options that could keep your family nourished on your property. Knowing which to select will depend on your climate, Hess says, but she has found that the easiest vegetables to grow completely chemical-free are lettuce, Swiss chard, okra, summer squash and green beans, with mint and basil adding spice to the ultra-easy garden.
In addition, she adds, bramble fruits (blackberries and raspberries) are fast, prolific fruits, with strawberries a close runner-up in that department. “Among the animals,” she adds, “chickens are intuitive and entertaining, and also provide plenty of food.”
If, however, you’re seeking the most calories per square foot (and you’re willing to put in some effort to tend to your plants), root crops usually win, she says. “Although most people will tell you that white potatoes produce the most calories per square foot, in our own garden that accolade is usually awarded to sweet potatoes or carrots.”
If your land is hilly or otherwise problematic for row crops, ruminants (like cows or sheep) provide plenty of food in an area that would erode away if tilled, Hess says. “Similarly, you can often grow tree crops (nuts or fruits) in these rough areas.” “All of that said, if I were a backyard homesteader just getting started, I’d probably plant some leaf lettuce, zucchini, and ever-bearing red raspberries, then add a couple of chickens to provide protein in my diet,” she says. “It’s great to ensure success your first year on the farm by starting with the low-hanging fruit, and you can always expand later.”
Don’t be limited by space
If you’re thinking that your homesteading dreams are an impossibility because you only have an acre or two of land, think again.
You can definitely homestead in smaller spaces than Hess’s 58 acres, she says. “The vast majority of our farm is swamp and steep hillside, so we focus on two acres as our core homestead,” she says. “In fact, we easily grow all of the vegetables, herbs and strawberries for two people on about a quarter of an acre.
You can spice up your own culinary experience with a very small garden, especially if you focus on high-value crops like fresh herbs and homegrown tomatoes.” Animals take more space, she says, but you can raise honey-bees on a flat rooftop, and compost worms can live under your kitchen sink. “The trick is to focus on the foods you care about the most, and to fully utilize whatever growing area you’ve got.”
No 9 to 5 ? No problem
Making a living without leaving your property can be done, and Anna Hess and her husband Mark are proof of that. As homesteaders, the couple saw a need for watering products for chickens, ducks, turkeys and other birds in which the water would not get contaminated with the animals’ waste.
Mark came up with the idea and concept for their Avian Aqua Miser, which supplies clean water to their hens.
They now sell it through their website at www.avianaquamiser.com. As you move forward with your home-steading adventure, chances are that you’ll find simple ways to make income from your property as well, whether it involves selling eggs and honey that you’ve cultivated or by creating a much-needed product that solves problems.
- Self-sufficient living: re-using, repairing, and recycling items; homemade products.
- Food preservation including canning, drying, freezing and fermenting.
- Community food-sourcing such as foraging and trading.
- Resource reduction: using solar/alternative energy sources, harvesting rainwater, using graywater, using alternative transportation.
- Raising animals, including chickens, goats, rabbits, fish, worms, and/or bees.
- Growing fruit, vegetables, culinary and medicinal plants; converting lawns into gardens.
- Natural building.