Are you already familiar with the concept of homesteading but want to know more? Or are you just starting to consider a life on the farm? Whether you already own a wheelbarrow, or you’re just starting to daydream about a chicken coop, read on!
What Is Homesteading, Exactly?
What does the word “homesteading” mean to you? Are there barns involved? Or acres of corn waving in the wind? Sure, those aspects can be part of homesteading, but the concept spans a wide variety of properties and activities.
According to dictionary.com, homesteading is “any dwelling with land and buildings where a family makes its home.” That may have been the original definition, but nowadays, it mostly refers to self-sufficiency.
The original purpose of a homestead was to build a place where a family could live, grow food, and prosper. That doesn’t mean that you need to own acreage or have half a dozen children. Single people can be homesteaders, as can apartment dwellers.
Although there are some core aspects, homesteading won’t look the same for everyone. Some people want to be totally off-grid and utterly self-sufficient. In contrast, others just want to grow a garden and preserve some of their own food.
Ultimately, if you have a dream of being more self-sufficient, you’re already on your way to being a homesteader.
How did Homesteading Come About?
In the early 1600s, hundreds of colonists crossed the ocean to settle in the “new world.” These folks arrived with just a few tools, seeds, and the drive to carve out a new life. Many died in the attempt, but many others survived and thrived.
Fast forward to 1862, when the amended Homestead Act was put into place by Abraham Lincoln. The act allowed US citizens (or future citizens) to have up to 160 acres of public land. They just had to pay a small registration fee. Then they needed to build a home, live on the land, and farm it.
As long as you were an adult over 21, and you had never taken up arms against the federal government, you could apply for this land. Unmarried women were allowed to apply, as were immigrants waiting for citizenship approval. Congress amended the act in 1866 to include black Americans, though these applicants faced atrocious discrimination and barriers.
So many people applied for land under these acts that they were officially ended in 1976.
Why Homestead Today? Why is this Even a Thing?
Human beings have always had a complicated relationship with the land. We depend on good soil, water, and sunshine for growing food. That said, many of our ancestors worked themselves half to death on their land, trying to stay alive. As cities developed and expanded, many chose to abandon farm life for a more comfortable urban existence instead.
After all, it was a lot easier to go buy supplies than do back-breaking labor in the fields for the same items.
Many people have become disillusioned with aspects of modern life. Sure, there are a lot of conveniences, but there are many negative sides to each of them.
For example, buying pre-made food at the store is convenient. But many of those foods are packed with preservatives, sugar, and “fillers.” There’s also the ethical aspect. Industrial farming is devastating to both animals and the environment. Cheap labor and indentured servitude (slavery) are common in developing countries, where much of our food is grown.
Additionally, many people are accustomed to cheap, disposable items instead of well-made pieces that last a lifetime. Hand-carved wooden spoons are more expensive and require more care than plastic ones. And why waste time making something themselves when they can buy it?
Embracing a More Sustainable, Holistic Lifestyle
As you’ve unlikely noticed, countless people are turning away from all of that. They’re declining the instant, mass-produced, throwaway practices embraced by the post-war generation. Instead, they’re revisiting the back-to-the-land movement popular in the 1970s. In fact, many are also embracing practices and techniques that were prevalent from the iron age through to the Industrial Revolution.
Furthermore, many who embrace homesteading feel like they don’t “fit in” with the standard crowd. Maybe they have different religious beliefs or alternative family structures. Or their personal values are in opposition to those around them. As a result, they find immense freedom and peace in a natural setting, embracing self-sufficiency and harmony with nature.
Spinning wheels are now popular among people of all ages. Instagram and Pinterest are flooded with gardening and herbal medicine tutorials, as well as canning and dehydrating recipes. Young people are trading knitting patterns with their grandparents.
It’s wonderful to see, and even better to be a part of. Best of all, anyone can be a homesteader! You can adapt whatever space and time you have to a more fulfilling, sustainable, self-reliant life.
Common Homesteading Activities
We’re going to go into the four most common types of homesteading shortly. They’ll give you an idea as to what you can achieve with every type of space you have available to you. That said, there are certain practices that are very common to homesteaders worldwide. You don’t need to take part in all of them, of course, but you may want to incorporate some of them into your own plans.
Growing and/or Preserving Your Own Food
This is pretty much the foundation of modern homesteading. People grow whatever they can with the space they have available to them. Then, they preserve the harvest by canning, pickling, dehydrating, or freezing.
Alternatively, if you can’t grow your own food, you can still buy in-season produce from farmer’s markets. Dedicate a few hours to food preservation every other weekend, and you’ll have that pantry stocked in no time.
Many, if not most, homesteaders raise animals for one reason or another. The most common choices are chickens, but you could have ducks, geese, goats, sheep, cows, or various other species. It all depends on how much space you have, what you want to achieve, and what you’re comfortable with.
Do you want fresh eggs? Aim for chickens or ducks. How about fresh meat? Ask yourself whether you’ll be comfortable killing and eating animals you care for daily. If you’ve never butchered a chicken or rabbit before, go try that skill out at a farm first. If you feel that you can do so quickly and humanely, you can add livestock to your homesteading list.
Cooking from Scratch
Most homesteaders eschew pre-made foods in favor of making nutrient-dense, whole foods themselves. Prepare nourishing soups and stews instead of buying mass-produced canned ones. Learn how to bake bread. Mill flour from grains and seeds with a coffee grinder or hand mill.
Living in Harmony with the Land
One key aspect of homesteading is respecting and nurturing the land you share. Those who have already embraced eco-friendly products and practices already have ideas about this. Aim for organic cleaning and personal care products that won’t pollute the water table.
Hang laundry to dry instead of tossing it in the machine. Pull weeds instead of spraying chemicals on your lawn. Leave portions of your land wild to provide natural habitats for native pollinators, birds, and amphibians.
Making Your Own Household Items
When our ancestors needed various household items, they didn’t just pop down to the store to buy cheap overseas imports. They made as many as they could. This included carving utensils like spoons and cooking implements. Making their own arrows and fish traps, as well as throwing pottery for plates, bowls, and more.
Do you know how to weave a basket? Or build a chair? Could you create a makeshift oven if you needed to? How about building a barn or chicken coop? Some homesteaders also build their own cottages or cabins, but that’s a whole other article altogether.
Working with Textiles
Being able to make your own clothing and other textiles is vital for self-sufficiency. If you’re so inclined, learn how to spin various fibers into thread or yarn. You can use these for weaving, knitting, crocheting, felting, naalbinding (nålebinding), etc. Learn sewing basics, so you know how to make basics like quilts and simple clothes.
Reusing as Much as Possible
Early homesteaders (actually, most of our ancestors in general) didn’t waste much of anything. Today, many indulge in the common practice of throwing away leftovers, cooking scraps, torn clothing, and broken items. Learn how to reuse these in creative ways so very little goes to waste.
Keep a container in the freezer for scraps left over from cooking various meals. When the container is full, use them to make soup stock. Then compost whatever is left over to transform it into nutrient-rich soil. Learn how to darn socks and mend clothing. Transform worn-out cotton clothes into handkerchiefs, save other fabric bits for quilts or rag rugs. Save candle butts to meltdown and re-make. Same with soap slivers.
Main Types of Homesteading
As mentioned earlier, there are many different types of homesteading, and all can be adapted to your current living circumstances. For example, you could have:
- An apartment homestead: These are ideal for singles or couples, especially those who live in cities.
- Suburban homestead: This is an opportunity for suburb dwellers to transform their backyards into thriving food garden spaces. Depending on zoning laws, they can often include a few chickens.
- Small-scale homesteading: These are traditionally known as “hobby farms” and are generally less than 10 acres in size. They’re large enough to feed an average family comfortably and can support some small livestock.
- A large, more traditional homestead: In this scenario, you have over 10 acres of land to play with. You can dedicate large areas to various crops, plus have livestock pens, maybe a couple of ponds and/or orchards.
Let’s dive into what these homesteads could potentially look like.
Remember that homesteading is about being as self-sufficient as possible. That doesn’t mean that you have to give up on modern living and luxuries altogether. You can find the middle ground that suits you best, incorporating modernity with traditional skills.
Are you an urban apartment dweller but you dream about becoming a homesteader?
Here are a few of the projects you can engage in:
- Grow a container garden: You can grow edible and medicinal plants in any flat: just plant fruits, vegetables, dwarf fruit bushes or trees, and herbs in containers. Then, place them on your balcony or sunny window. You could even put a small greenhouse on your balcony to extend your growing season.
- Raise small livestock: You can raise two hens in many areas if you have permission from your landlord and space on your balcony. This is a great way to acquire fresh eggs without a ton of space.
- Preserve your own food: As mentioned, you can do this whether you’re growing or buying fresh produce. When something is on sale, stock up and can it, pickle it, or freeze it. Get a pressure canner for low-acid foods—experiment with different jam and jelly recipes, etc.
- Participate in a community garden or allotment project: Many urban areas offer community gardens or allotment spaces. You can participate in the communal work and harvest or cultivate your own assigned space.
- Alternatively, talk to your landlord about the possibility of creating a rooftop garden. That’s likely a big, sunny space that isn’t being used to its greatest potential. Furthermore, the chances are that other tenants would be interested in taking part in this project too!
- Make your own “stuff”: Carve spoons and bowls out of wood. Knit clothes and washcloths. There are all kinds of crafty things you can do in minimal space.
Urban homesteading is what got me into this lifestyle. When I was looking for all kinds of ways to save money, my husband showed me YouTube videos. They were all about self-sufficient people who live in subdivisions. That’s when it hit me: if they can grow all of their own food on a quarter acre, why can’t I do the same on two acres?
So we did. And that is exactly what an urban homesteader does. They have small gardens to feed their families, maybe a small flock of hens, and fresh eggs. Depending upon HOA regulations, some can even get by with having small livestock like goats.
A backyard homestead is ideal because it’s a very manageable space. In fact, if you plan everything well ahead of time, you can have a thriving suburban Eden in less time than you may think. Incorporate some fruit trees and nut bushes in guilds. Use intercropping and companion planting to maximize yields. You’ll be amazed by how much you can grow.
Small and Large Scale Homesteads
These are what you would consider typical homesteads. Most of these homesteads exist in more rural locations and vary from 10+ acres to over 100 acres. Smaller versions are often referred to as “hobby farms.”
On a small-scale homestead, you can transform two acres into a large garden, orchard, a berry patch, and grapevines. Add in a couple of greenhouses, tend some bees, raise chickens, ducks, maybe some rabbits or goats. You’ll still have room left over.
A downside to small-scale homesteading is that you don’t have several acres to devote to animal feed. As a result, you’ll have to purchase some of the food your animals need over the colder months. I don’t have enough room to grow all of the hay we need, so I buy it from local farmers.
However, if you live on a larger homestead, you could be completely self-sufficient in this regard too. Larger-scale homesteaders also have the opportunity to raise large livestock. This includes raising cows for their milk rather than goats.
What You Need to Do to Get Started
Before you even start shopping for soil or seeds, you need to do two things. Do some research, and come up with a game plan. The type of research and planning needed should include the following:
- What does homesteading look like to you? Do you want to grow and preserve vegetables? Or do you want livestock?
- Write down the budget you have to work with.
- Can you already grow food plants? Or do you need to learn more?
- Do you have outdoor space available to you? What can you work with?
- How much time can you realistically devote to homesteading?
- What are the main practices you dream of? For example, do you want to raise goats for meat and milk? Or do you want to raise species for their fiber, like cashmere? If so, do you have the skills needed to harvest and process their hair?
- What are the building codes and zoning regulations in your area?
- Want to raise chickens? Check with local regulations to find out whether you’re allowed to do so in your area.
- Are there items that you normally buy that you could make yourself? If so, do you know how to do that already? If not, add them to your “skills I need to learn” notebook.
Basic Steps to Starting a Small Homestead
After you ask yourself all of the questions on things you could learn to do, plants you could grow, animals you could raise, etc. you need to list them out in priority level. What is it you dream of most? Then, before you buy property or move anywhere else, start right where you are.
Start Small as a Trial Run
Do you want a large permaculture homestead brimming with food? Begin with three or four species. Aim for one of each of the four used in traditional crop rotation: fruits, legumes, greens, and roots. Additionally, choose varieties that you can preserve later. For example:
- Tomatoes: Make sauce or salsa, and water bath can it.
- Climbing peas: Use a pressure canner to preserve these.
- Cabbages: Transform them into sauerkraut or kimchi.
- Carrots: Pickle with your favorite seasonings.
Take note of how you feel as you’re tending and preserving these plants. Do you feel overwhelmed? Or do you feel like you’re ready to take on more?
Be Aware of the Costs of Homesteading
Remember that budget we discussed earlier? Use it to do thorough research on various locales. If land is healthy and affordable where you are, great! Otherwise, be realistic about how far away you’re willing to move to make this happen.
Land is more affordable in places like Georgia or Arkansas in the USA, or Manitoba and the Yukon in Canada. But it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of settling and homesteading there. Can you handle the weather there? Is the soil makeup suitable for your needs?
Will you still be connected to a power grid? Or do you need to incorporate off-grid living into your plans? If it’s the latter, you’ll have to look into alternative electricity sources. Do research on the pros and cons of off-grid hydro, solar, and generator-based power options.
Of course, costs will vary wildly depending on where you live. What someone will pay in Napa Valley, California will be completely different from someone in rural Tennessee. But here’s an estimate of what you’ll need to get going.
- Land to live on and cultivate: let’s say $40,000
- Housing: If your land doesn’t already have a house on it, you can probably build your own. Then you’d be looking at permit costs, lumber, electric installation, etc. Unless you’re going the pioneer log cabin route (which would still require a building permit). Otherwise, you can plunk a double-wide trailer on the site for $55,000 (or about $300 a month).
- Water: If your land already has potable water, great! Otherwise, you could be looking at $3000 to $5000 to dig a well.
- Septic system: $1,500 plus a couple hundred $$ every other year for maintenance.
- Growing Vegetables: for growing vegetables, you’ll need seeds, soil amendments, tools (or replacements), canning supplies (including staples like salt and vinegar): $1400 annually
- Barn (optional, if keeping livestock) $3,000 to $8,000 on average
- Chicken coop: $500
- Chickens: $50 to $100 per year for chicks, as well as about $350 for year-round chicken feed, mite protection, heating lamps, etc.
- Off-grid electricity: $2,500 a year on average
As you can see, starting out in homesteading can be quite costly, depending on which approach you choose. Check out our article entitled Urban, Suburban, and Rural Homesteading: Which Type Is Right for You? It’s full of helpful tips that can assist your location decisions.
Cost vs Return and Pros & Cons
We like to think that homesteading is a great way to live more authentically while also saving money. The truth is that while some things are cheaper, others are far more expensive and labor-intensive.
Look at a loaf of bread, for example. At a store, a loaf of whole-wheat bread is about two dollars. Or, you could make one over the course of several hours. If you don’t already own bread tins, you’ll need to buy those. Have you milled your own flour? If not, buy some, along with yeast, salt, sugar, and oil.
What about milk from your cow or goats? Okay, you have the ingredients. Then mix and knead the dough. Let it rise. Knead it again, then let it rise again before baking.
Your bread will be healthier, tastier, and more nutritious than the store-bought version. But how much did it cost in time, energy, and resources?
Be Realistic About Creature Comforts (and the Lack Thereof)
If you’ve grown accustomed to going to your local cafe for a latte or cappuccino, be aware that there may only be one within driving distance. And it probably won’t be open all the time. Your internet connection is likely to be weak and unreliable if you’re quite rural.
Additionally, remember that in rural locales, emergency health care might take a while to reach you. You’ll have to know emergency first aid so you can keep bad injuries or illness stable until an ambulance arrives. Same goes for veterinary care, if you’re raising animals.
Are you comfortable with the idea of going without certain conveniences? Learn backup skills like how to cook on a wood stove or in a fireplace, if needed. Or how to melt snow into drinking water.
You never know when you’ll have to draw upon ancient skills.
Homesteading Can Be Very Difficult
Are you dreaming of an idyllic, pastoral life out in the countryside? Homesteading does have many aspects of that, sure, but it can also be very, very difficult.
You will get injured. Perhaps not seriously, but expect at least your fair share of cuts, scrapes, bruises, and insect bites. Expect that some of your crops will fail at some point, and your animals may get taken out by predators or illness. You’ll have to deal with power outages, severe storms, and immense frustrations.
That said, you’ll also be able to spend a lot of time outside in the sunshine instead of stuck behind screens. You’ll get exercise, fresh air, and whole, healthy food. If this is a path that’s calling you, then yeah. You can absolutely do this.
Be sure to take advantage of our many resources to help you along your journey. We have you covered on topics like growing guides, canning, barn building, and more.
- Updated and co-written by Catherine Winter