What is a true homesteader? Is it someone living off grid like they are from the 1800s or is it ok to incorporate modern technology such as solar and wind turbines? How should homesteading be defined? In this episode of The Dirt, Jaime goes over this controversial topic and shares her point of view.
Today I want to talk about something that has been pretty controversial with a lot of other channels and a lot of blogs, which is what is the definition of a true homesteader. Now I looked this us and it seems like the official definition can range anywhere a definition from the 1800s to one that incorporates modern technology. Ask any 20 people to define what a true homesteader, and you will get 20 different answers. So why all the controversy? Why is there this need to define this lifestyle and to categorize people? And who is right? Is it someone that’s living like a homesteader from the 1800s? Or is it ok to use modern technology? Some say it is ok to have some outside reliance and others say the only true homesteader is one who is completely self-reliant.
So let’s start with the hot topic which is off grid. To some, you can only be considered a true homesteader if you live off-grid. That anyone who relies on modern technology such as solar panels or battery reserves or wind turbines isn’t truly a homesteader. I find this a really interesting concept because kerosene lanterns were invented around the 1850’s and at that time, were considered modern technology and they were very quickly adopted by many homesteaders. And kerosene lanterns, that’s not something that can be produced on the homestead. So that relied on a constant supply of kerosene, that had to be purchased. Even when electricity was invented and electrical grids established sometime around the 1920’s, many homesteaders who could afford it did take advantage of it.
To others, you are only a true homesteader if you have say 12 chickens, 2 goats, 10 hair sheep, 5 pigs, breeding rabbits, and maybe a cow or two. Which the variety of animals serving different basic needs which defined how self-sufficient you were. But in looking back on our ancestors, most didn’t have that many animals, or at least that many variety of animals. Depending on what region they lived in, goats were unheard of, cows were only for wealthy homesteaders, in some areas only specialty farms carried any hair sheep or hair animals, and on some homesteads there were no animals at all. Some just hunted for meat and or traded for fiber.
To some, you can’t be a true homesteader unless you are generating all of your income from your homestead. This is one we hear a lot. Selling meat, eggs, vegetables, plants, crafts, fiber arts, or some spin-off of a skill. You aren’t considered a true homesteader unless you are working for yourself. But our ancestors didn’t. Sure some sold pigs to pay taxes or sold eggs to buy their kids shoes, but the majority of them took jobs on other farms. They didn’t trade for money they traded for produce or products that they would either keep themselves or trade for other items they needed. Others would work in town as seamstresses, or maids, or even work in stores or even others worked on the railroad to earn a few extra cents to pay for items that they needed.
What about machinery? Some say you aren’t a true homesteader if you own modern machinery. Tractors to plow the fields, saw mills to cut boards, front loaders to move dirt. Unless you are using a horse and hand tools, you aren’t considered a homesteader. But our ancestors sure took advantage of modern technology when it was invented. Hay balers and wheat threshers would travel from farm to farm and then homesteaders would rent the machine to shorten their workload by weeks.
Some say you aren’t a true homesteader unless you own your own land, and a lot of it. But a lot of our own ancestors didn’t own their own land. As a matter of fact, homesteaders who took advantage of the Homestead Act didn’t own their own land until 5 years of continuous residency was up. It wasn’t until those 5 years were up that they had the option of purchasing the land from the government. I’m not sure anybody would say they weren’t considered true homesteaders during those first 5 years.
What about homeschooling? Are considered homesteader if you aren’t homeschooling your kids? Well sure some of our ancestors were homeschooled, more of them hiked the proverbial 2-3 miles to a public one room schoolhouse, but most still didn’t go to school at all.
Then there are those that say you aren’t truly a homesteader unless you are producing all your own food. Our ancestors sure did produce quite a bit of their own food, but they didn’t produce all of it. They went to town to pay for things such as sugar, and salt, and flour, coffee, candy and sometimes leavening agents. On top of that, our ancestors had a much more limited diet than we do today. Some only survived on milk, bread, and meat and the handful of vegetables they could grow during the growing season.
Then there are those that define homesteading as being completely self-sufficient. You have to provide all of your own clothing, food, materials for shelter, and everything must be handcrafted with nothing purchased at a store. You rely on no one but yourself. Our ancestors were certainly self-reliant to the extent that they didn’t purchase many items from stores. But to say they were completely self-sufficient, absolutely isn’t true at all. Our ancestors were heavily reliant on their neighbors and family members, their community for their very survival. Communities would actually work together to harvest each other’s produce, they had corn shucking parties, they would get together in the fall to butcher each other’s animals in the fall. They took turns raising barns and houses. And here’s a big one you don’t see everyday, they took care of each other’s sick and injured. They would come from miles and miles around if somebody was ill and they would take care of that family just like they would take care of their own, their own farm. And they would spend days or weeks or whatever was necessary to bring in the harvest and to take care of the animals. I don’t know anybody that would do that today. Most families don’t even do that for each other today, let alone a neighbor from miles around.
On top of that the elderly were taken care of a lot differently. If somebody got old and wasn’t able to take care of animals and to cut firewood, neighbors would take care of each other. They would bring them food and they would cut their firewood for them. Today we put them in nursing homes.
In that world, there was another thing that was set up that was different than today which was the whole system of bartering and trade and that doesn’t exist today either. One family would own hair sheep and a loom for making cloth; another family would make wagon wheels, another would specialize in blacksmithing. They would then trade goods and services. No one family did everything themselves. It would be absolutely unreasonable to expect for any one person or one family to do everything themselves.
So why would anyone expect homesteaders to do that today?
The truth is that the homesteading lifestyle of the 1800s is long gone. It is a world that doesn’t exist anymore, and to some extent, it’s a good thing that it doesn’t. Too often we romanticize history. But real history has an ugly side that most of us wouldn’t want if someone handed it to us. A period of extreme poverty, famine, sickness that most of us can’t even comprehend. Hardships that ended lives early and caused extreme suffering. Very few, I think if any, of us would want our children to wake up at dawn and to work the fields until dusk with few clothes on their back and little food in their bellies to make a sustenance life and survive another year.
But ever since the 1970’s and the back to the land movement, there are individuals and families trying to revive homesteading. Why is this? Why would drive people to this lifestyle? For most, it is the idea of becoming more self-sufficient or self-reliant. For others it’s about escaping the rat race and living a simpler lifestyle. And for others still, it’s a last resort. People who can’t get jobs and who feel that the homesteading lifestyle is the only option that they have left for making a life for themselves. For surviving.
But to try and recreate an 1800’s lifestyle in today’s world, it just isn’t practical. The world has changed too much. Families no longer work on one giant homestead to all help bring in the year’s harvest. Instead, families are spread out across the country, all working as individual units. The standards for education have completely changed since the 1800’s. Most careers require a bachelors or master’s degree which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Livestock, which used to be allowed to roam free on acres and acres of land, now requiring expensive fencing and continued maintenance. Medicine is another one. Medicine is no longer limited to a bottle of tonic and a doctor who makes house calls on a horse and is paid in chickns, instead it’s now substituted with expensive or overinflated medicines, copays and insurance costs. The town and the local general store is no longer right over the hill, but now requires an automobile and gas, car maintenance just to get somewhere.
The world is not the same. So I don’t believe it is realistic to assume that someone can only be a true homesteader if they live the life of someone from the 1800s.
So what is a true homesteader today then?
Well, in my opinion, the one thing that is consistent throughout the centuries, throughout the changes in technology, throughout the changes in our social structure is that homesteaders are those who are seeking to have a better life for themselves through means they can control. Homesteading, to me, is about freedom. It’s about taking steps towards a self-reliant, self-sufficient lifestyle that is within your means. To some that may mean having 50 acres, chickens, sheep, goats, cows, and a year round greenhouse. To others it may mean raising their own herbs and salad in a flowerbox of a rental unit of a high rise. And to others it may mean canning produce from a local farm. To some it may mean having a thriving CSA business and to others it may mean a wife running a hobby farm while the husband works off-site to pay for the house and insurance and other needs. To some it may mean hunting for wild game and to others, it may be a permaculture vegan homestead.
All too often we try to box each other, or even ourselves in with terminology and a definition. And it’s not just with homesteading. This is our way of associating with another group of people. But there is a danger in that. When we start narrowing our definition, we start excluding people. We even start excluding ourselves. By specifically defining what a homesteader is, we are creating a set of goals or check-boxes that most people will never be able to meet.
For some, there is no possibility of having 50 acres and multiple livestock. Land is diminishing and the cost going up. The down payment for land like that is a pipe dream for most people. Not to mention the taxes and cost for running such an operation. For others, a disability may keep them from working with animals or for doing any kind of heavy lifting. Some may need to live near the city to remain close to family. Others may need to hold an outside job to keep medical bills at a minimum. Some live in an area where the farm market is saturated and the price for goods will never pay for expenses. A lot of these people may never even try to become self-sufficient or self-reliant, thinking they can’t meet what someone’s definition of a “true” homesteader is.
But the saddest by far are those who risk everything to fit that definition. They give up their jobs, sell their homes, purchase land and quickly realize they are in over their heads. Then for one reason or another, usually financial, they can’t make ends meet and they end up quitting, selling everything, moving back to town. Feeling like failures for doing so.
It’s these cases that, that truly break my heart. What if someone had told them that it was ok to take it slow? That skills take years to learn and they should start homesteading right where they are, whether that is in the city or in the suburbs? That they would need money no matter how self-sufficient they were and that it is ok if they have to hold an outside job? That homesteading today costs money. Money for fencing, garden supplies, outbuildings, feed and it’s ok if you don’t do it all that stuff your first year or ever. That it’s ok if they only ever “just get chickens” or if you have no livestock at all? That it’s better to start with a small garden than to jump to 50 acres and feel pressured to raise all your own food? That it’s ok if they don’t cook all your meals on a woodstove and wash their laundry in a bucket? If the definition weren’t so strict, whether self-imposed or not, would these people still be on the homesteading path?
To me a person becomes a homesteader when they make that mental shift from consumerist to producer and they start to take the first steps towards a self-reliant lifestyle. When they realize that they don’t have to rely on a grocery store or a Walmart or the government to survive.
Now I know that some, some people will say it isn’t fair to put someone like that, somebody who just started composting or somebody who has a pot of lettuce growing on their balcony in the same category as somebody who has been raising all their own food for the last 20 years. Some may even say it’s an insult to those who have “done their time”.
But I ask why? Why?
Everyone has to start somewhere. I doubt say Picasso would be offended with an art student calling himself a painter or Einstein being offended at a young star gazer calling who calls himself an astronomer. Just the same, I actually think they would be pretty proud that someone was carrying on the tradition and learning the trade, no matter how far they were able to take it.
The point is that the lifestyle is continuing. And I truly believe that we can learn, all of us, can learn from anybody at any level.
So if you are thinking of going down this path. Don’t worry about what you can’t do. Don’t worry about checking all the homesteading boxes of producing all your own food, all your own fodder, having dairy animals, having meat animals, fiber arts, homeschooling, scratch cooking, living off grid, making your own body products, making your own household products, learning to sew, permaculture, canning, composting, and so on and so forth. Start with one skill. Start with one item and take your time. Add on slowly. See how much you can handle and when you figure out one skill and you feel ready, then start another. Don’t feel pressured to take on too much at once. If something becomes too much, stop doing it. Take a step backwards. It’s okay. Just remember, this is your life. It’s no one else’s. You have no one to listen to or live up to but yourself. A definition shouldn’t define who you are and what path you should take.
So what are our goals? What path have we set for ourselves? Well 2 years ago, when we decided to go down this path, we set up a list of goals. One of those goals was to have off grid capability, another one was to utilize permaculture for food production, another one was to have self-proliferating livestock, we also wanted to manage our own healthcare through naturopathy, homeopathy and through potentially growing our own medicinal supplies, the possibility of having vehicles that can be self-maintained, and we wanted to have solar and water fed outbuildings, and we wanted to set up our own business. And then Jeremy added an extra one on where he wanted the ability to take a vacation. Our time frame for meeting these goals is a lifetime. We have no intention of going out and doing all these at once. As a matter of fact, we are intentionally working on them very, very slowly. So slowly that if something happens to either one of us or if at any time anything becomes overwhelming, we can get out of that situation very, very quickly and without a whole lot of loss.
Now if we don’t accomplish all these goals, if life happens and our plans change. That’s ok. I am pretty generic in my goals. I said off grid capability. I didn’t say that I was going to live with say tallow lamps and rag wicks. Now I want to learn how to do that. I think that’s totally cool and I definitely want to know that skill, but to say that that’s the only lifestyle that I’m going to live, that that’s my goal, it’s just unreasonable. I mean, I may be able to do that now at the age of 40, but when I’m 70 or 80 years old, I can’t see myself butchering a cow and melting down fat for tallow and making, making tallow lamps. I likewise can’t see myself at the age of 70 or 80 chopping wood. I would love to be able to, but I, I am counting on not being able to do that. So rather than just focusing my efforts on just having a wood stove, I’m focusing my efforts on creating something that’s going to work for me further down the line. So when I’m older as well.
So for example, I’m working on building systems that would allow me to have heat and light without the physical labor. That may mean getting a side job now so that I can buy some solar panels. That may mean setting up passive streams of income to pay for electricity when I’m older or to pay someone for propane. That may mean setting up social networks so that I can trade something I have for firewood delivery. I don’t have the answer to that. The point is that this is shaping as I go along. I am aware of my limitations that I could encounter further on down the line and I’m taking the steps to mitigate that. And it’s ok if that doesn’t fit somebody’s 1800’s definition of what a true homesteader is. It’s ok if I never get cows. It’s ok if goats don’t work out for us. The truth is that this is my life and this is the only one that I have and I need to make this work for me. So if that doesn’t fit someone’s definition of a true homesteader, I’m ok with that. Because ultimately, it’s me who has to reap what I sow.