When we think of homesteading, many of us imagine buying a spread of land at the end of a long winding road far away from all civilization where we can farm in the nude if we want to and howl with the coyotes at night if we so please.
However the reality for most homesteaders is that they have neighbors, whether they are urban or rural.
Good land at a good price isn’t easy to find. When my boyfriend and I purchased our forty-eight acres to start our mini farm, the property came equipped with a beautiful limestone creek, lush forests, fields, storage, and two neighbors that sandwiched us on this country road ten miles out of town. The only three families living on the road, I’m sure, and within a stone’s throw of each other.
As we all know from movies like The Burbs and most likely our own life experience, neighbors can be a blessing and a curse. (I know I certainly had to dial down my peculiar farm dreams to keep from becoming the kind of neighbor you hear about on the news.) To make life a little easier on your neighbors and ultimately you, there are just a few simple guidelines to keep in mind when homesteading with neighbors.
1. Be Upfront
This is something I wish I would have done when I was shopping for property.
I haven’t had any troubles yet, my neighbors on both sides are about fifty years older than me and my partner and I think they find our antics amusing for the most part. Yet, I find that I am constantly worried about bothering them.
When searching for a property to start your farm or personal petting zoo consider how your neighbors will react to that change. Before you buy, walk over and meet the neighbors, tell them about your plans whether it be farming or about starting a wedding barn business. Take this an opportunity to get to know them and feel them out a little bit.
As great as a property may be, you aren’t going to be living your off the grid dream life if your neighbor is serious about the fact that he or she doesn’t want to hear clucking chickens, screaming children, or backfiring tractors. On the flip side of that if the land next to you is for sale make a point to be present when showings are going on. You don’t need to go out of your way to talk to prospective buyers, but try to be available if they want to introduce themselves to you.
This could literally save you a lifetime of trouble, or at the very least prevent you from having to pack up and start again.
2. Be Respectful
So once you’ve laid out your plans for the neighbors and they understand what to expect from you as a neighbor it is important to stick to it. They might know that you have plans to turn an acre of your land into a hog pen, however, they might not realize that this means building a barn for them.
No stress, this does not mean you’ve broken the neighbor code that you laid out. All you have to do is let them know. Walk over a few days before with some cookies and just do a simple, “Hey we’re starting on the barn this week. It’s going to be loud, we’ll try to stop working every day around seven.” Always try to warn about projects or events on your land that will be loud or effect their day to day in some way.
This simple act will mean more than you realize to a neighbor, especially if you are still building a relationship.
Another way to be respectful even after building a friendship is to always respect the property lines. This is something that may be easier for urban homesteaders but can get a little gray in rural settings. Just because your neighbor said you are welcome to hunt mushrooms in their woods does not mean you can set up a tree stand to hunt in the fall. Just because a neighbor let your kids sled on her hill last winter does not mean you don’t need to ask again.
Feeling too comfortable in these situations often comes across to the owner as taking advantage of their property, and even though they might not say anything resentment will build over time. This is especially important in terms of livestock. You might feel like your chickens are doing no harm by crossing into the neighbor’s backyard, if anything they are eating ticks and helping out. But the bottom line is that it is not your yard, and unless your neighbor has expressed clearly that they don’t mind the birds in their yard it is your responsibility to contain them.
The principle of keeping animals contained to the property was my first struggle when I became a homesteader.
I moved to the country with my cat who I was ready to make a country cat. However, in one of my first interactions with the neighbors I was informed that if the cat got outside, their dog (a beautiful beast of a boxer) would destroy him. They described it as an act of nature that no one could control.
This frustrated me immensely.
However, after several trial runs I realized that cat was just as big of a risk to them as Brat, the muscle machine, was to me. They raised chickens and if either animal crossed the property line they risked doing damage. So instead of picking a fight with my new neighbors about chaining up their dog I instead realized that I didn’t want to chain up my cat and we were both taking a risk.
This agitation came with another shortly after I moved in about guineas in my yard. Instead of considering myself fortunate for having a seasoned homesteader as one of my neighbors I felt like my toes were being stepped on. I did not want the guineas in my yard. They would mess up the garden, dig holes, and potentially get killed by the cat. (Not long after I learned what a baby he actually was, my not country kitty.)
When I tried to broach the topic with Cindy, the human embodiment of her pooch, she told me how she had been letting the birds graze free for twenty years ever since the man who lived in the house before me gave her permission. Feeling bad I let it go, and when May rolled around she brought over a spool of fencing to put around my garden without saying a word.
Of all of the things to keep in mind compromising is the most important for a successful relationship with neighbors whether they be homesteaders or regular folks. You might think your garden or fire pit needs to go in a certain spot, but consider what you may be shading or blowing smoke at. Be flexible.
As the foreign exchange student on my high school soccer team always said, “Communication is King.” This is especially important when homesteading with neighbors.
Make it a point to talk to your neighbors at least a few times a month.
For me, this is sometimes a challenge because the neighbors on the right side of my property are an older couple who do not share the interests of my partner and me. Still, I do my best to talk to them when I can, and always make it a point as I described earlier to warn about projects.
It sounds a bit threatening but it is sometimes important to explain yourself.
If you have to have the compost pile on the side of the garage that is nearest your neighbor, explain that to them. I am someone who sometimes worries that unexplained things can appear rude, so again just keep the dialogue open to make sure everyone is on the same page.
5. Be Generous
A great way to keep the communication flowing is to be generous. This certainly makes it easier for me to communicate with my non-homesteading neighbors.
Once a week over the summer I would show up with a basket of extra tomatoes or green beans and shoot the breeze. This simple act highlights all of the concepts we have touched on. It is considerate, shows a willingness to work as a team, and is a good platform to talk about any problems or upcoming situations.
So although it might seem counterproductive for us vendors to give away our products, remember that you are facilitating a community, (and yes it’s up to you because you are the one equipped with the knowledge of this article!) So if you have extra eggs, extra produce, maybe extra meat or foraged foods, even possibly some extra garden space, share it.
On top of sharing your extras share your hobbies and your ideas as well.
Get your neighbors on board with your dreams, even if that just means buying them a recycling bin. Include them on what you’re doing at your homestead so that they can share your excitement. This could mean seeing if they have any interest in sharing a skill at the farmer’s market such as sewing or birdhouse building, or it could mean telling them how good for the Earth your new rain barrel system is.
Include them as part of your team and share the success, even if that is just a few tomatoes every week. As usual, the key to a simple, happy life is sharing.
6. Be patient
Lastly, and most importantly, always keep in mind why a neighbor might want things to be or not be a certain way. Try to imagine why it is they are living in the same area as you. If you are way out in the countryside did they move there to enjoy their retirement in peace and quiet?
Are they fellow farmers or do they have a family that needs room to romp? Maybe they are BMX folks using their land to ride the trails, maybe they are writing the next bestselling novel. Hey, if you don’t want to guess you could even just ask them! But the point is to remember that they have a reason.
Try to keep in mind that most people don’t like conflict, and that they are just like you trying to build and live their dream. Just because theirs may look different than yours doesn’t mean that they can’t exist side by side.
Having neighbors can be stressful for homesteaders, but there is no reason that it can’t be fun, rewarding, or even life changing. Or at least neutral!