Returning to the land is a desire that has coursed through the hearts of certain people as long as there have been cities to escape from. Whether families are bouncing on the backs of covered wagons heading west to the prairie, rushing into the woods during the Back-to-the-Land Movement, or fighting to stay connected to nature and reality in this current, technology-crazed world, homesteading has often been the antidote to the dulling anesthetic of modern life. But how do you get started becoming a homesteader?
Reinventing your life is no small endeavor, and figuring out where or how to start can be positively overwhelming. But as a somewhat new homesteader who has gotten through the transition from city to homestead, I’m here to tell you that you can do it! Though every homestead journey is unique, maybe this Beginner’s Guide to Becoming a Homesteader can help you along the adventure.
The First Endeavor of Becoming a Homesteader: Finding Your Land
I may ruffle the feathers of a few urban homesteaders with this first point, but I mean no harm. It is my personal belief, however, that homesteading is intrinsically tied with having some acreage to homestead on, and in many situations, the stifling human proximity and associated regulations of city and suburban life just don’t allow for the freedom and space required. All homesteaders desire some semblance of self-sufficiency, and a larger area of land is necessary for keeping healthy animals, growing enough vegetables, and simply being able to take a breath of air without the scent of exhaust.
Finding that land is no small feat, though it is an exhilarating hunt. For North American homesteaders, there’s still lots of wild land available to claim or reclaim in your quest for a new life. However, I would caution that if you have your heart set on only one specific location or setting, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. If you are willing to look at many options, however, you may just surprise yourself with what the “perfect” land ends up being. Besides, as you visit properties, you will start refining what is and is not a deal-breaker, and may end up finding your true diamond in the rough.
Knowing where you’re going to be is not only a physical confirmation that a new chapter is approaching, it’s also a psychological one. Particularly for folks leaving the city, knowing that there is land out there that is going to be yours to work is a huge motivation as you go through the monumental process of freeing yourself from city-dependency. Furthermore, knowing if you’re going to be in the mountains, in a secluded forest valley, or on a windswept plain will help you better think through the skills and tools that you might need for your new life.
If I could offer any one piece of advice, it would be to avoid getting into debt with your land purchase. Though this may not be possible with everyone’s personal situation, to be able to pay for your land in cash and have it be yours and yours alone is one of the greatest freedoms, and certainly one worth saving for. If it requires you to make drastic financial changes in the meantime—selling an extra car, canceling unnecessary subscriptions, and learning to live more frugally, then you’ll be developing your homesteader-mind anyway!
Dealing with Criticism when Becoming a Homesteader
Becoming a homesteader is a physical endeavor, obviously, but there is just as much—if not more—mental work involved as well. The decision to uproot from what is considered a “normal” life and strike out for the sticks requires dedication that can withstand the storms of confusion, criticism, doubt, or even outright disdain that will undoubtedly come your way.
Are you planning to go off-grid? Establish market gardens? Start an organic, grass-fed dairy? Live more historically in an effort to preserve the old ways before they disappear? Whatever the reason that you and your family decide to do this, there are two things that must be in place for success: agreement and shared vision among family members if at all possible (harder to do with older children, I understand), and a commitment to put real, viable action behind your plans (otherwise, it will always just be that “someday” dream).
You may find that you need to equip yourself with two sorts of answers when people come at you with the upraised eyebrow and question of, “So…what, exactly, are you doing?” I have found that the majority just want a quick, easy-to-understand answer. To those, it’s easy enough to say that you’re moving to the country for a better life, or maybe going into farming. Most folks seem to accept that with a shrug. That can’t affect you – worrying about what other non-homesteading people think about your homesteading will only trip you up.
But every once in a while, you’ll find someone who looks at you searchingly and asks you what you’re doing, but they’re not doing it to trap you. Maybe they really want to know about homesteading – maybe they feel the call to the country pressed on their heart as well. To these rare few, you may be able to share that full philosophy of self-sufficiency, independence, or organic practices that is truly spurring you on. Hold onto those gems of encouragement!
Practicing Your Homesteading Skills in the Meantime
Even if you haven’t found your land and have absolutely no idea where you’re going to end up, you can still start your homestead journey wherever you are. Though some homesteading skills may be site-specific, many of the basic abilities are universal. Learning some of the following is a fantastic—and much healthier—alternative to vegging out in front of a Netflix cue with cold takeout!
Heating Your Home with Wood Heat: If you have the option of installing a wood stove in your current house, it is a fantastic learning tool for homestead self-reliance. In addition to lessening your home’s heating bill, a wood stove can give you the opportunity to learn how to gather, split, and season your own firewood, manage a warming fire over the course of a cold winter, and even offer an off-grid cooking surface for some fabulously slow-cooked stews!
Cooking: If you don’t know how to cook, or if you have little confidence in your skills, it’s high time you learned! Taking control of the preparation of your own food need not be some chore, nor some insurmountable endeavor. It can be one of the most enjoyable and healthful choices you make on a daily basis. Don’t worry about becoming a Michelin-star chef overnight: just start with the basics. On the homestead, carry-out, pizza orders, and restaurants may often be too far away to depend on. But if you know how to make your own homemade breads, nourishing soups, flavorful pilafs, or spicy stir-fries, why would you want to order out anyway?
Food Preservation: In this era of February strawberries and supermarket tomatoes available year-round, preserving food for the winter may seem like an old-fashioned anachronism. But learning the skills of canning, drying, salting, smoking, fermenting, and freezing will give you an edge once you move to your land and start gardening. If you still live in the city, you can easily sign up for a CSA, go to farmer’s markets, or even go to a salvage grocery to find large amounts of fresh produce to put up for colder months. I recommend Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning by the Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante as a good resource.
Gardening: Let’s be honest: those supermarket tomatoes kind of taste like wet cardboard in contrast to a homegrown, vine-ripened one. Gardening can truly be a joy, and seeing beautiful, non-GMO, heirloom crops come into the kitchen to feed the family is a feeling I think every person should feel. Whether you merely have the sunny spot by the window or a big backyard, you should really start learning the year-round task of preparing the garden, managing food plants, and enriching the soil.
Wrapped up in gardening are other homestead tasks such as seed-saving, composting, and managing pests. Every experience and skill you add into your metaphorical toolkit will only serve to help you become more confident, knowledgeable, and self-sufficient.
Landscaping: When you come onto your homestead, you’ll doubtless have some land to manage. Some homestead sites only become affordable after being heavily logged by their previous owners, meaning you’ll have plenty of stumps, ruts, and messes to clean up. Rather than hiring out a service to manage your land, do the work yourself. Once you are able to apply your skills to your next property, it will also help you build up an intimate relationship with the land, plants, and lay of your acreage.
Making and/or Mending Clothes: Homestead life means hard work, and hard work means lots of holes in your clothing. Learning how to patch and mend clothing will not only gain you some thrifty points but will considerably lengthen the lifespan of otherwise totally-usable clothing. That skirt covered with work-earned patches may end up becoming one of your favorites in the end (and the chickens really don’t care how fashionable you are in the meantime)! And there is little warmer than a handmade hat lovingly knitted out of wool. Knitting, crocheting, and sewing aren’t just activities for old ladies with little else to do—they are wonderful and useful ways to wind down after a busy day, and much better for your eyes than staring at a screen in the dark.
Woodworking: There is a deep satisfaction that comes from working with your hands. Being able to use woodworking tools and to create the things you need is close to the DIY-heart of homesteading. Being able to visualize, plan, and then build the tool, cart, or structure that you need for your specific purposes is not only cost-effective but will often give you a far better result than flimsy, store-bought stuff.
And frankly, if you choose to use manual tools, they can make that work a quiet pleasure that can’t be found in the noise and vibration of modernity. That’s not just my inner Luddite speaking—you’ll find many craftsmen that still agree! If you live near Ohio, heading to Lehman’s Store in Kidron is worth the trip for both the access to a huge array of homesteading supplies for sale and traditional construction tools to learn from. Additionally, Eric Sloane’s Museum of Early American Tools is a beautifully illustrated book that also explores some of the wonderfully specialized tools that you may have never seen before.
Home Renovation: I guarantee that your house is going to need work when you move to the homestead, whether you’re fixing up an old place or starting from absolute scratch. Even if you are currently all thumbs when it comes to tools, you can and will learn if you take the time to practice. And you should. If you lack a real person to learn from, YouTube is absolutely rife with tutorials from laying tile to installing a rain catchment system. Though you should always use discernment when it comes to possibly dangerous installations like electricity, there’s no reason you can’t start learning how to do it yourself.
Establishing Gardens and Crops
I know I’ve already mentioned gardening, but once you get to the homestead, gardening can take on an entirely different dimension than it held when you were “practicing” in your suburban lot. It can become a way of life, and even a monetary asset to the homestead, if you decide to go for market gardening.
You may procure a garden plot when you come into your land, but many of us have to start from scratch. Much like the early homesteaders, planting their first crops of cowpeas and “sod corn,” it may be a bit of an uphill climb as you start to work rocky, clayey, or nutrient-depleted ground into a lush veggie patch. But take heart! Even if you’re a complete newbie, there are some good starter crops to get you rolling.
First, I recommend perennials. These long-life plants can offer you years of food after being given a single season of being established and are well worth your time. Here are some perennial plants to consider:
Jerusalem Artichokes/Sunchokes: Neither from Jerusalem, nor related to artichokes, what these native American sunflowers lack in appropriate terminology they more than make up for in being a reliable food source. Their nutty, sweet tubers are delicious raw and cooked, and they grow with very little input.
Rhubarb: Though this cool-weather plant may struggle in warm places like the Ozarks, homesteaders in more northern areas can reap the harvest of this tangy, sweet, nearly tropical-tasting rhubarb plant for decades.
Fruit Bushes and Vines: Elderberry, Blackberry, Raspberry, Gooseberries, Grapes, and Blueberries are delicious, nutritious, and absolutely delightful year-round if you preserve them. Find out what berries want to grow on your land and get them in the ground as soon as you can.
Herbs: The sooner you get long-lived herbs like thyme, sage, lavender, and mint in the ground, the sooner you can benefit from their culinary and medicinal uses. Most require just minimal pruning and mulching in order to thrive.
Second, I recommend planning an orchard and getting it in the ground as soon as you find a good northern slope to do it on. The old Chinese proverb rings true when it says that “the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago,” but it follows up with, “the second-best time is now.” Apple trees are probably the most useful trees to grow, as they provide fodder for animals with their pruning, fruit that stores well, cider, and vinegar. If you can find them, standard-sized trees are, in my opinion, best for the long-term. You may need a ladder, but their vitality and ability to live for centuries far outweighs the convenience of their short-lived dwarf counterparts.
Don’t look past native fruit trees either! Pawpaw, persimmon, nannyberry, Aronia, wild plum, wild peach, and a whole host of other native edibles may also give you a beautiful harvest. Your state’s department of conservation may have annual sales of native trees for less than a dollar a sapling—it’s well worth looking into.
When it comes to the annual garden, try to limit the number of varieties you plant in the first year—it can be so exciting to get seeds in the ground that some of us may go a little crazy. I contend that it is far better to start with the essentials for your family—the tomatoes, lettuce, beans, corn, or squash that you know you’ll eat—before you go for every exotic extra listed in the seed catalogs. If you choose to raise heirloom crops rather than hybrids, you’ll also have the ability to save seeds for the next year. Baker Creek Seeds and Annie’s Heirlooms are excellent sources for non-GMO, heirloom seeds.
As for staple grains, I haven’t enough experience yet with my own crops to truly offer any advice—we’re still getting that element of our homestead established. I would recommend, however, being open-minded to some non-traditional grains and seeds. If wheat struggles on your soil, for example, drought-tolerant, tough-as-nails millet may be the answer! Or, if your land is absolutely covered with oaks, you may be sitting on a food goldmine if you’re willing to learn how to process them—many native American tribes subsisted on acorns.
Starting with Livestock
Images of happy, healthy livestock, grazing in a sun-kissed field is the stuff of homesteader dreams. For those of us newly fled from the city, it can be tempting to start collecting animals to fulfill that dream before we really know what we’re doing. Though I know I just wrote a section about getting plants in the ground ASAP, I reverse that advice when it comes to animals. If you’ve never cared for farm animals before, take it slow. I’ve sadly heard many stories about folks biting off more than they can chew and becoming absolutely overwhelmed by the animals they weren’t ready for. Everyone suffers in the end.
Your first year as a new homesteader, I would recommend starting with 4-8 chickens. They are the ultimate gateway animal, as they give results quickly, are relatively hardy, and are, frankly, pretty low-maintenance. Though there are hundreds of breeds to peruse, some good standbys are Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, and Sussexes. These breeds are excellent dual-purpose birds, offering both meat and eggs in good amounts for a family, and are also good at foraging if you decide to free-range. As you raise your first birds, you will inevitably learn about deterring predators, flock management, housing, winter animal care, butchering, and even some basic veterinary skills. Building confidence with chickens will prepare you to handle the increased demands of other livestock. Other good “starter” animals are Muscovy ducks and Nigerian dwarf goats, though the goats will require much more infrastructure to be in place before you bring them home.
If you have the opportunity to visit more established homesteads, by all means do! Even if you don’t plan on following the same pattern as them, seeing structures in place, being able to ask any question, and hearing the experience-won wisdom of folks who have gone before you can be absolutely invaluable. For a personal example, being able to watch a friend butcher a chicken before we ever attempted it ourselves gave us the confidence and guidance to do it as humanely and neatly as possible when it was our birds’ turn.
Juliette de Bairacli-Levy’s Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable is an excellent resource for those looking to raise animals as naturally as possible.
Though this is my last point for this article, it is probably the most important. Homesteading really is like a crash-course in reality. It will test you in ways that urban and suburban living just can’t. If you’re used to garbage trucks hauling your trash, police cruisers investigating the creepy sound in the back yard, organic produce available after a 5-minute drive, and the only wildlife invading your world being a stray spider in the bathroom, you’ll have to give yourself time to adjust to the culture shock. When you homestead, you often don’t have city services, the answer to the creepy sound is to slap on your boots and grab a shotgun, the only way to get good, organic food is to grow it yourself, and there may be a full herd of deer on your back porch.
But going through the transformation into a homesteader is not a bad thing. It’s an opportunity to grow and really feel the extremes of living—experiencing both amazing joys and heartbreaking failures. Even if you are starting from scratch, you need to be prepared to face challenges without complaining or choosing the lazy route, because when you homestead, no one is going to do it for you. But having that inner resilience is exactly what you need to make it through every high and low. I believe that homesteading is not worth it if you aren’t willing to build up the mental fortitude to handle the raw, visceral life and death that will face you every day.
You are surrounded by living and dying in more ways than you may have ever thought possible. Fuzzy chicks emerge miraculously from carefully incubated eggs, glancing at you with vague, mica-chip eyes. Foxes steal those growing chicks from under your nose, leaving behind droppings riddled with feathers to add insult to injury. The garden explodes in produce, the richest-tasting and sweetest harvest you’ve ever had the pleasure to bring into the kitchen. Then squash bugs infest the patch, literally sucking the life out of any future dinner. You fell your own timber, mill your own boards, and build a chicken coop or your own home with more pride and workmanship than you’ve ever felt. A wicked summer storm sends a mature oak crashing through the northern wall. Can you handle the ups and downs of this sort of life? Will you throw in the towel when the raccoon wipes out your flock, or will you build a better chicken coop? Will you desperately call friends in the city and complain about how hard it is, or will you begin developing that quiet, inner toughness that characterized many of the unflappable homesteaders of the past?
Will it break your spirit, or make you stronger than you’ve ever been before?