An introduction to homesteading

I am a huge fan of simple living and of the do-it-yourself ethic. It's no surprise then that I am fascinated by homesteading, the lifestyle of “agrarian self-sufficiency”. This article was written for Get Rich Slowly by Phelan, host of A Homesteading Neophyte, a blog about learning to homestead. Phelan is a regular commenter to this site.

Modern homesteading is a great way to save some of your hard-earned cash. That is if you are not afraid of a little hard work and waking before the rooster. The fast-paced convenient world of today can and will lead you down the path to debt. Four years ago I found myself in a terrible situation: How does one go about feeding a family of four on one hundred dollars for two weeks? Did we have enough money to buy gasoline just to get to work? It was scary not knowing where my family was going. Yet when I planted my first tomato, a thought sprouted in my mind.

My first homesteading goals were just to preserve my garden for the winter, insuring that there was always something to eat. But as my garden grew, so did my ideas.

There are initial costs when it comes to living a self-sufficient life. But all of the things that must be purchased will pay for themselves — the time that takes depends on how you manage them. We purchase our items slowly. Big items come with our tax returns, and only after any outstanding bills are paid. Smaller items are bought on an individual basis, depending what we can afford at the time, usually when we are out buying feed for our livestock. Because of the way we have built our homestead piece-by-piece, and the manner in which we have preserved our foodstuffs, we have money left unspent. Four years ago we would have never have believed this possible.

Homesteading isn't something that can be done only in rural areas; even urban dwellers can benefit from simple self-sufficient activities:

  • Buy food stuff in bulk or on sale and preserve them by canning, freezing or drying.
  • Purchase a layer (standard-size chicken or bantam) for eggs and/or meat. Many cities allow you to have a chicken or two.
  • Container garden and create a neighborhood co-op, bartering different vegetables with one another.

Some of our start-up costs have been purchasing chickens, seeds, canning jars and equipment. My hot water bath and pressure canner came from someone that was no longer using them. The best advice I can give when it comes to your planning stage, is to talk openly about what you are wanting to do. You might be surprised on what some people have stashed in their attic and are willing to give freely. Check freecycle, your local paper, rural estate sales, garage sales and even try placing an ad in a free, or cheaply-priced paper for your wants/needs.

Once your chickens and seeds are purchased, your only costs will be feed and water (if you are not on a well). Seed saving will insure your next year's garden. Allowing your hens to hatch eggs will replenish your stock. Be creative when it comes to reusing materials. We use our un-repairable refrigerator to store our feed, a broken fan stand for a sprinkler stand, and cracked hoses for deep soak waters. Save your glass jars to store dried goods in, and milk cartons to start seedlings. Just remember: it's not white trash, it's imaginative, frugal and eco-friendly.

My family might be an extreme when it comes to simple living. We are building a new home, a green shelter. Using only locally produced and recycled construction materials and building it ourselves will save us more than half the cost of paying someone else to build it. With a fire place, underground water cooling systems (air-conditioning) and going solar powered, our out of pocket expenses will drop dramatically.

Some other things to reduce expenses are:

  • Raiding a wood lot and building a wattle fence
  • Buy fruits and vegetables from a “U-Pick” farm
  • Making your own pasta, juices, vinegars, wine and dyes
  • Creating wooden toys
  • Make your own soap
  • Making your own yogurt and cheeses

These things do take time and dedication, but just the act of making your own dinners from scratch will save you money. Using flour, eggs, and water to manufacture your own noodles will cost you less than buying the same amount in the pre-made versions. This can be said about most things that you can create from scratch, the base components while at first seem more expensive, are cheaper when compared to their convenient counterparts.

While homesteading can seem daunting at times, it will save you money as well as bring your family closer together. At home, self induced family entertainment, is another benefit of living simply. It also comes with free educational experiences that are rarely taught in a public school system. Check in with your local extension office for free or inexpensive classes for you and your children. Take a drive in the country and look for hand made signs boasting of wares for sale, they can lead you to a wealth of knowledge and new friendships.

Modern homesteading is not for everyone. Yet taking a few of these suggestions and applying them to your own life will make a significant difference on the way you view the world, and the impact on your wallet.

You can read more about Phelan's adventures in homesteading at her blog, A Homesteading Neophyte. She has also written articles for other publications:

If you'd like to read more along the same lines, I also recommend Pocket Farm, a weblog from a couple looking to achieve Voluntary Simplicity on a farm in Maine. You might also like homestead.org or the forums at Homesteading Today.

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Matt
Matt
14 years ago

This article assumes your time is worth nothing and this article wants you to invest a _lot_ of time in these activities. I like the concept but for most people this is overkill. I like going to the grocery store and buying pasta and yogurt. It’s worth it to me the extra 50 cents to do so.

Phelan
Phelan
14 years ago

No, it does not assume your time is worth nothing. All my time is worth quite a bit. I don’t want you to invest a lot of time in these activities. I have a lot of spare time to do hobby type things. My husband works a full time job outside of the home and is never pushed for time/deadlines. If this is something someone wants to do, then they will find the time. Organization, and less “idol time” Most people will not homestead unless forced. The article even states that my family is a bit extreme when living a… Read more »

Tam
Tam
14 years ago

I could be wrong, but I really don’t see how canning can pay off for urban dwellers. Canned vegetables are extremely cheap – usually cheaper than fresh. Even if you buy corn when it’s super-cheap and can it, you’d barely (I think) get down to the cost of the cans already in the store, and it would take you a ton more work, take a lot more storage (to keep your jars until you eat them), plus you have to buy jars and all of that. I can sort of imagine canning your own spaghetti sauce, but you can also… Read more »

Liz
Liz
14 years ago

First, thanks for the mention. (and great site, by the way… lots of excellent info) The “not worth my time” issue is an interesting one…most people put the same value on the time they spend canning surplus vegetables as they would at their high-paying lawyer job. That’s just wrong. If you enjoy it, and it has a beneficial effect for your family (yes, canning may be a lot of work, but it’s rewarding in that you are doing something for yourself rather than relying on the grocery store to have canned tomatoes when you want them). Granted, the homesteading lifestyle… Read more »

Stephanie
Stephanie
14 years ago

We are also working toward this kind of living. Saving money is a big part of it, but the lifestyle is very important to us. A simple life, hard work and self reliance feel so good!

J D
J D
14 years ago

I’ll add my two cents on the “not worth my time” debate. While it’s true that the initial return on investment found in these sorts of activities may not be enough to appeal to many of us (especially us city-dwellers), I really think there’s more to it than that. The time spent actually DOING something like this is significantly more valuable than your time when spent watching TV, reading the net (even GRS!!). If you have to work 18 hours a day, that is one thing, but for those of us with 8-10 hour workdays, this sort of activity could… Read more »

Jordan
Jordan
14 years ago

Sorry, I was the “J D” above. I post on most other places as “J D” but I guess I should clarify here, don’t want anyone to mistake my comments for GRS’s JD.

Ro Abreu
Ro Abreu
14 years ago

My honest feeling is that while most people may start homesteading for reasons of frugality they will continue for reasons of quality, both of goods and personal growth produced. While there are many people on fixed income who can find cheap ways to eat and function, if you want to have decent, organic, high quality food you either have to have a lot of money or figure out a way to DIY. That may mean bartering for the things that you’re not good at or that are really too much trouble; but trading eggs for cheese, canned goods for odd… Read more »

Joe Murphy
Joe Murphy
14 years ago

Phelan, then don’t make it sound like homesteading is for everyone. Also, this essay does not explain to me why I would want to prefer homesteading to finding a better job, and by better I mean closer to my home, paying more, and more fulfilling. Trying to convince urbanites to keep chicken and keep tons of food in their cellars is a bit out of touch, bordering on arrogance – I myself enjoy living in a big city, it was my choice and I don’t try to emulate a farmer’s lifestyle here. When I’m older, have enough money in the… Read more »

Gregory Bloom
Gregory Bloom
14 years ago

I doubt an economic justification can be made for such frugality. Spending the same time at even a minimum-wage job will earn more in dollars and cents. What this lifestyle does pay, though, is coin of the spirit. And, ultimately, this is the only coin that matters. (After all, what is the point of having money? It is to be able to spend it to improve your life – to translate it into coin of the spirit.)

Chris Brainard
Chris Brainard
14 years ago

I have already looked into this is not as easy as it sounds. For example I thought why not make my own spaghetti sauce instead of pay $3.00+ a jar? I eat a lot of spaghetti and run through 3 jars a week. That ends up costing $9.00 just for sauce. First you need the supplies which are going to run you around $50. This is pretty much a one time fee as you can reuse the supplies. The big expense is the tomatoes. You need 23 pounds of tomatoes for a canner load of 7 quarts. 4 tomatoes on… Read more »

regeya
regeya
14 years ago

Chalking time spent doing this up under the ‘only if your time is worthless’ tag makes sense only if you see a certain level of self-reliance as worthless. What happens if some foreign power decided to carpet-bomb Southern California? Eh?

Phelan
Phelan
14 years ago

I will quote myself from the above article “Modern homesteading is not for everyone. Yet taking a few of these suggestions and applying them to your own life will make a significant difference on the way you view the world, and the impact on your wallet.” I have lived in the city, I grew up in the suburbs. And I am having a great day, thank you. I was asked to write about what I love to do, and in that spirit. And that’s what I did. I didn’t realize that it was my responsibility to debate myself and convince… Read more »

Joey
Joey
1 year ago
Reply to  Phelan

Pay no attention to the brainwashed mobs, your article is great. I grew up in the mountains of North Georgia and was taught most of these skills throughout my childhood and on into adulthood. I have even decided to start a blog about the skills I have acquired over my lifetime. Thank you for the great article.
Joe

Jenna fsr44
Jenna fsr44
14 years ago

Value is not only measured in dollars and cents. A can of green beans is cheap. And they taste it. A (fully reusable) Mason jar of green beans you canned tastes so much better that it’s hard to believe they’re the same vegetable. If you don’t enjoy gardening and you don’t enjoy cooking, then the taste difference is probably of negligible value to you. That’s cool. But if you enjoy the time spent growing and canning your own food, that time adds to the value. So rather than economic value, the worth of some of these practices is measured in… Read more »

Matt
Matt
14 years ago

Very cool! I want to try and do more of this. The savings would be great! Thanks!

Daniel
Daniel
14 years ago

I’ve been growing a couple varieties of tomatoes and some herbs for a few years now, and making my own sauce with them, I trade with my neighbors for things like fresh or canned fruit (most of the houses in the neighborhood were built pre-WWII, so many have a sort of victory garden still), and most of the jars come back to me when they’re done, so all I need to typically buy are lids. After my initial investment in jars, and the occassional “restocking” of them, at well under a dollar each typically, and a regular investment in lids… Read more »

JR
JR
14 years ago

Phelan,

It is a fine article. Some people cannot see past thier own ignorance (comparisons to Nazis? Please) to read you statement that this is not for everyone.

One thing I can guarantee you is that people like that will be the first to go when we have a “thinning of the herd” event.

Look only to Katrina to see how dependent “city” people have become on others. Sitting around and die waiting for someone else to do something. Not smart.

margeryk
margeryk
14 years ago

In reply to Joe Murphy, I would like to draw his attention to another form of homesteading that occured in the UK during 30s and early 40s: ‘Dig for Victory’.

http://www.homesweethomefront.co.uk/web_pages/hshf_dig_for_victory_pg.htm

No matter what the historical context, countries need agriculture. It was not fair to focus on the Third Reich.

Joe Murphy
Joe Murphy
14 years ago

Btw people, get a cookbook by Marcella Hazan, the Godess of italian cooking. There you will find that proper pasta sauce doesn’t have herbs in it. Just tomatoes, an onion, and butter. The tomatoes need to be really nice and ripe, so unless you live in a very sunny country, there’s no point in growing them yourself. The canned ones from Italy will always taste superior to some self-grown ones from Norway (get the point?). So, if you don’t even have a good taste in food, why do you play the “improved lifestyle value” card? You don’t know what you’re… Read more »

Jenna fsr44
Jenna fsr44
14 years ago

Joe, you make me laugh. First the Hitler thing. Then “You don’t know what you’re talking about” as the sum total of your argument (all the intellectual content of “I know you are but what am I?)” and now the two-fer of no herbs and no olive oil, allegedly on the authority of Marcella Hazan. The final ha ha is, of course, the concept that olive oil precludes the use of Parmesan cheese. Say what you want about my taste, but it so happens that I cook regularly from Marcella’s books. A quick flip through her “The Classic Italian Cookbook”… Read more »

Joe Murphy
Joe Murphy
14 years ago

Okay Jenna, you think you’re a tough nut to crack, eh? “A quick flip through her “The Classic Italian Cookbook” reveals “Five Tomato Sauces for Spaghetti and Other Pasta”: Tomato Sauce I contains olive oil, fresh (not canned) tomatoes, no herbs Tomato Sauce II contains olive oil, fresh tomatoes, no herbs Tomato Sauce III contains your one opportunity to use butter, still fresh tomatoes, no herbs Tomato Sauce IV contains fresh tomatoes AND olive oil AND marjoram (that would be an herb) AND parmesan cheese Tomato Sauce V contains fresh tomatoes AND olive oil AND rosemary (sounds like another herb).”… Read more »

dana
dana
14 years ago

i really don’t see what the big deal is. one can simply take from the suggestions made here as a starting point as it suits your life. it wasn’t so long ago that people were rushing out to buy breadmakers and pasta machines because it was the *hip* thing to do. it wasn’t called homesteading. there still a strong trend/movement of people who home brew beer. how’s that any different? reusing things creatively stretches out its purpose rather than immediately disposing it as waste (there’s more than enough of that going on). and many of phelan’s suggestions of making wine,… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
14 years ago

Homesteading and simple living are ideas espoused by people of varied political persuasions, from radical liberals to staunch conservatives. Living off the land cuts across party lines and religious affiliations. I have some conservative Christian cousins who do their best to live off the land, growing their own food and meat, making everything they can. I know progressive liberals who try something similar in the middle of the city. This is not a political issue, and to frame it as such does a disservice to the hard-working men and women who are trying to make this work. Nobody is trying… Read more »

Jenna fsr44
Jenna fsr44
14 years ago

JD, thank you for removing the personal attacks. Fortunately, I didn’t read it, but a friend who did let me know about the exceedingly creepy nature of the response. In an abundance of caution, I will not be responding further here. A discussion of homesteading is really not important enough for me to have someone tracking me all over the internet. Too bad an otherwise civil discussion was brought down by one disturbed poster.

peaseblossom
peaseblossom
14 years ago

I’m baffled at how the idea of learning how to grow/can/make your own food can be “try[ing] to live the lifestyle of a poor man” or, worse, “unamerican and plays to the leftofascist, latte-sipping agenda.” It implies that success (and being a ‘Real American’) = wastefulness and conspicuous consumption. Indeed, I recall seeing an awful lot of American flyers and posters from the WWII era encouraging people to grow and make their own stuff, (examples: one, two, and three). You want to continue to call it “unamerican”? Go right ahead; but I fail to see what leg you have to… Read more »

gizo
gizo
14 years ago

Wow. Good article Phelan, great comments everyone, well done.
You know, I reckon that if you went to Italy, you’d find that different regions would tell you that their recipes are the best ever.

Joe Murphy
Joe Murphy
14 years ago

Jenna, apologies if you feel stalked or whatever, I was just trying to be funny saying you’re marriage material (actually I live on another continent and have no plans to come to the US anytime soon). But when you say “A discussion of homesteading is really not important enough for me to have someone tracking me all over the internet.” – that made me laugh because if you would like to stay anonymous, the first basic rule is to NOT POST YOUR website’s URL in your nickname on some blog. And to the other guys who blame me for saying… Read more »

Daniel
Daniel
14 years ago

Since when does a red sauce automatically become Italian?

David B.
David B.
14 years ago

What a strange turn this discussion of homesteading has taken. Think of all the knowledge that was taken for granted by previous generations about plants, trees, the weather, cooking your own food that has been lost in the last 70 years. To me homesteading or taking some of the principles of homesteading is away to self reliance which to me equates to self fulfillment, regardless of monetary cost. Self reliance is above time or money in importace to me. The mention of Hitler and their philosophues, whether as comparison or not, is ridiculous and frankly automatically put Joe Murphy in… Read more »

Joe Murphy
Joe Murphy
14 years ago

In response to David: “What a strange turn this discussion of homesteading has taken. Think of all the knowledge that was taken for granted by previous generations about plants, trees, the weather, cooking your own food that has been lost in the last 70 years.” Has it really been lost? That is a statement easily made but actually it is as far from being true as they come. This knowledge is not lost. You will find thousands of books about homesteading “the old way”, there are courses at your local evening university, heck, even regular universities teach this. If you… Read more »

scott
scott
14 years ago

To Phelan, You are on the right track and keep living the quality life style, And as for Joe well you shouldnt focus so much on the sauce but the spice in life.

Teri Pittman
Teri Pittman
14 years ago

There is one other thing missing here. It involves memories. If I work for a living and I buy that can of corn, what memories do I have? Spending 8 hours at a desk? Standing in line at the grocery store? On the other hand, let’s say that I planted corn. And, when I harvest it, I can it. When I look at that can, I see the time I spent growing that corn. I think of being outside in the sun. I think of being in the house, cutting the corn from the cob and canning jar after jar.… Read more »

scott
scott
14 years ago

That is the spice in life, Im gald there are some people who still get it.

Karen
Karen
14 years ago

hmmm…time aside…let’s think about all of the outbreaks as of recent with crops grown commercially. That right there is enough to make me seriouslty think about growing my own crops…at least I know what is used on them. Thanks for the article !!

Talina
Talina
14 years ago

We are experimenting with canning and rain water harvesting here in our city residence. It works for us. We were initially interested in these topics because we wanted more say in how our foods were treated/ processed. We like the idea of self sufficiency and of controlling most of what we eat. This is not for everyone, but we like it. We enjoyed the information your blog had to offer!

Tom
Tom
13 years ago

Tam, I see that you’ve not read up on the dangers of GMO food, canned (as in ‘metal’) foods found in stores, and all the sprays and waxes (wonder why fruit and vegetables are so shiny on display?). Buying canned fruit and vegetables is a dangerous way of grocery shopping, if you ask me. What happens is bits of metal are consumed along with the food, which the body absorbs. There is a strong link between diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, and the metals found in cans. Also, fruits and vegetables found in grocery stores (unless you are… Read more »

nikita
nikita
13 years ago

This just shows you how many people are really living in the past, and I am not talking about the writer of this article. Homesteaders are not old fashioned or behind the times. This lifestyle is the future! And if you have ever lived through a period in your life with a emergency, that took all your money, and you could not get food, you’d know what I am talking about. If you are canning and storing food that you have grown or bought on sale, then you never have to worry about where the next meal is coming from.… Read more »

Parzifal Odinson
Parzifal Odinson
13 years ago

I myself am planning a home stead I nowwork in Toronto ,”blech” but have a chunk of rual nova scotia waiting for me..

Its really exciting ..I wish I was there now!

Your blog is a VERY huge aid to my sanity..I will be reading it alot now.

Blessings!!

Rob.

steve
steve
13 years ago

As a young boy growing up on a small farm, I milked cows fed livestock and tended our crops and garden. While my father worked outside the home I felt like an important part of the family by doing my part to produce our food. We canned our vegetables and stored potatoes in the basement, along with butchering a few hogs. Unnecessary? Maybe, but I continued this into my adult life and have raised my 5 children. From my meager beginnings we have accumilated quit a bit and with a lot of self satisfaction. Keep at it! Steve

Ripley
Ripley
13 years ago

Joe Smurphy,
There’s obviously a reason you’re on this blog. You’re the nazi here buddy. God bless you brother!!

DBabbit
DBabbit
13 years ago

FIRST – Since when is homesteading – which is really a return to farming – nazi-ism?? SECOND – When someone says they are “canning” their food, it means they’re using glass jars, not aluminum cans. I was one of 4, raised on a farm. We raised our own vegetables, our own livestock for meat, chickens for eggs. My mother did not work. We never lacked for anything and we lived in a beautiful 12 room brick home my father built with his own hands. We were not “poor.” We never went hungry, or without clothing. THIRD – and this is… Read more »

Mike
Mike
13 years ago

Yeah, and vegetarianism should be illegal because Hitler was one. Right? This country would benefit immensely from a similar program to Hitler’s “Luddite/agrarian back-to-the-land” philosophy. The majority of farmers in the USA are over the age of 55, and failing miserably in an industrialized food production model that keeps them miserably in debt trying to make a living from 10 sections of land, which is more than any man can manage properly. It’s unhealthy, unsustainable, and just plain produces inferior food. When the cities go down in flames, Joe Murphy will be one of the first to run for the… Read more »

Ginny
Ginny
13 years ago

First, I want to say what a great article this is. I applaud the author for homesteading. This is something that I am very interested in and am trying to start, bit by bit. I am planting a garden this year and will try canning as much as I can. I also would like to try dehydrating some of what I grow, especially herbs and strawberries. I would love to have a few chickens, but I’m pretty sure my HOA wouldn’t allow that, so it’ll have to wait until we can move out of town. A cow or two would… Read more »

Hank Venture
Hank Venture
13 years ago

I’m not sure I agree with the position that this is a money saver. Yes you aren’t spending money at the store to buy a can of corn or pasta sauce. But if you look at the amount of time and effort put into this I think you’ll see that it is in fact not saving you anything. You have to go out and prepare the land, plant the seeds, make sure its watered, weed it, make sure there aren’t any insects enjoying your hard work, harvesting it, preparing the sauce, and finally canning it. I think you’ll find that… Read more »

Tracy Richardson
Tracy Richardson
13 years ago

Many of us don’t stop to count the cost of eating cheap vegetables that are processed to the point of non-nutrition. Yes, the ones you buy frozen or in a can may be cheaper in the short run, but many people will possibly pay in the long run with poor health and higher medical bills. If you can’t afford the time now to grow your own, will you be able to afford the time to be sick later on?

Larisa Townsend
Larisa Townsend
13 years ago

I have greatly enjoyed this article. My husband and I are currently researching homesteading and the like. It has been on my heart to be more self sufficient ever since 9/11. I am not one that waits until something happens in order to be prepared. I have been through a major hurricane with no power, water, services for over a month. That in itself is reason enough for me to be prepared. Luckily, at the time we had lots of things frozen and we ate like kings b/c everyone was trying to get rid of their shrimp (which can be… Read more »

Jim D
Jim D
13 years ago

I spend 40 to 50 hours a week sitting in front of a PC earning a living. I would much rather spend 40 to 50 hours a week at home being self sufficient.

Mike T
Mike T
13 years ago

Hi, I’ve been interested in canning for a while now because I live in a country where the power isn’t dependable. We have the start of a small farm where we are raising some pigs. The problem is we may butcher a pig and have 80Kg of meat which needs to be frozen, big problem when we have a typhoon and the power is out for 3 days. Also when the veggies are harvested? I wondering has anyone canned an entire pig? How many jars do you pro canners keep in a pantry? I find this all very interesting. Thanks… Read more »

Phelan
Phelan
13 years ago

Mike, if you are looking for a way to keep pork without freezing, look into dry curing. Sorry to outlink JD. 😀
http://www.all-foods-natural.com/articles/feeling-a-little-hammy.html

I can’t really tell you how many cans I keep, we add more every year, depending on harvest.

It has been a year since I first wrote this. I have learned so many new things in that time.

Mike T
Mike T
13 years ago

Thanks I will. Also sorry to outlink JD. When I read about him spending so much time on the computer it made me think of my old life in the states where I worked for 70 to 80 hours a week at 2 jobs on the computer building robots. My caffeine intake was out of control, 6 cups of coffee and 1 gallon of Pepsi everyday. I got so burned out. I went on vacation to some property I have in the Philippines and just never went back. So I became so inspired when I read about JD working with… Read more »

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