Despite the fact that I eat, sleep, live and breath homesteading, I love to read about other people’s adventures in this alternative lifestyle. Tales of crazy individuals leaving behind their big city jobs and seeking a new way of life, more connected with nature and our food supply, are something I can totally relate to!
Even though the basic storylines start roughly the same – e.g. get fed up, try something new – each person’s experiences from that point forward are totally different. To me, the completely unique ways we all approach the same basic idea of self-sufficiency are fascinating.
There are a lot of homesteaders and small farmers out there living the dream. Yet, we are all mavericks, making it up as we go, and creating lives that make sense for us. There’s no one right way to become a small farmer or to start a homestead from scratch.
As the cold sets in and some parts of homesteading slow down for the season, I like to take mental vacations to other homesteads and farms through reading. Here are a few of my favorite inspirational reads for cold-weather that I hope will inspire you too!
1. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver
I am a long-time fan of Barbara Kingsolver’s fiction works. Her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, though, is a non-fiction book about her family’s year of eating seasonally and locally. Yet it reads just like her other popular works Prodigal Summer and The Poisonwood Bible. In other words, it is a total page turner!
It starts with the premise of Barbara, her husband, and two daughters planning to live only on local food for a whole year. It starts in early spring when fresh, local fruits and vegetable are slim pickings. But Barbara finds hope in the stalks of ruby red rhubarb and elegant asparagus.
From there, the story follows the families seasonal food encounters through raising chickens, making cheese, organizing an all-local-food 50th birthday bonanza for Barbara, and more. This is a great book to read cover to cover and also to revisit for quotes and words of wisdom every year.
2. Miraculous Abundance: One Quarter Acre, Two French Farmers, and Enough Food to Feed the World, by Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer
I am slightly obsessed with the French culture since I spent a lot of my early adulthood hanging out with French chefs and farmers, eating like the rich and famous, while living on a working-class budget. So, when I stumbled upon the video about Le Ferme du Bec Hallouin and saw how incredibly productive and beautiful it was, I had to buy their book too.
This book is a wonderful mix of personal stories, useful farm tips, and hope that we can change our farming practices and our relationship with nature and still eat like Gourmands. This book also takes you through the authors’ own experience gathering knowledge from the likes of ancient Parisienne market gardeners, John Jeavons, Eliot Coleman, and beyond.
I have already read this book several times, gleaning new bits of insight from it at each pass. Even though I just discovered it last year, I expect I’ll be pulling this one from my bookshelf for frequent visits to its pages in the years to come.
3. Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City, by Eric Toensmeier (with Jonathan Bates)
If you think you don’t have enough room to grow sufficient food on your postage stamp property, this book is for you. Two single guys buy a duplex on a run-down lot in town and turn it into a garden of eating. How can that not be an interesting read?
Of course, along with growing food, these two single male paradise lot makers also find “sweeties” (as in ladies to spend their lives gardening with) which makes for a bit of a dilemma. I don’t want to give anything away, but this is a great story about growing food in unconventional ways and building community by going bananas. (You’ll understand the going bananas reference once you read the book).
4. The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, by Kristin Kimball
What do you get when you cross a New York City journalist with a purist organic farmer? Disaster in the most delicious ways!
This book reads like the biggest mess of mistakes imaginable. Yet, with love and determination, this odd couple manage to pull off a full-service CSA that includes, meat, milk, grains, and all the vegetables needed to feed local families for a whole year.
This is one of those books that makes me think me and my significant other might just be mainstream on the living of the land front. We didn’t try to use horses and Amish equipment to become grain farmers at the same time as starting a dairy herd and processing livestock for meat. We kind of took things one step at a time.
Kristin and her (now) husband Mark, went all-in on a full-service CSA while also navigating the travails of learning to live together and plan a wedding. Their story, from Kristin’s wry perspective, makes for a dramatic and memorable memoir that proves the adage whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
It’s a totally entertaining and well-written read. Plus it makes you (or at least me) feel like your life is easy by comparison.
5. The Good Life Lab: Radical Experiments in Hands-On Living, by Wendy Jehanara Tremayne
This book is like homesteading meets Mad Max in the best possible way. Wendy and her partner Mikey are pretty radical thinkers and makers. From camel poo to papercrete, to biodiesel fuel and more, these extremely creative people have created a beautiful homestead using mostly things other people consider trash.
If you want to read a fascinating story about two “makers” opting out of consumer culture and creating a new kind of wealth with waste, this is the book for you. Not only is it totally beautiful with lots of drawings and inspirational ideas, but it can help you change the way you think about what you have to buy.
Like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, this is one of those books I re-visit annually to push myself to try new things and appreciate our alternative lifestyle even more. I don’t think any homesteading bookshelf is complete without this little gem within fingers reach whenever you need it.
6. Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening, by Sepp Holzer
This was the book that kicked off my interest in permaculture. Raising cows and pigs on steep mountain slopes, growing lemons at 4500 feet in Austria, making mounds as tall as people to harvest food… Sepp’s story sounds like a fairy tale too good to be true. Yet it is true. This guy is making miracles using permaculture.
Using completely non-traditional farming methods and working with nature, Sepp has built one of the most beautiful bio-diverse places you can imagine. With ponds and streams and lupine filled ancient grain fields, his farm is a veritable paradise on earth.
What I really love about this book though is that Sepp Holzer is a guy who tells it like it is. He doesn’t try to over-complicate his ideas. He makes permaculture real and simple in a way that more complicated manuals sometimes miss. If you have any inkling of an interest in permaculture-style homesteading, this book will win you over with its beauty, simplicity, and common sense approach.
7. The Contrary Farmer’s Invitation to Gardening, by Gene Logsdon
The late, great Gene Logsden was known as a kind of a curmudgeon. He was pretty skeptical about modern agriculture and had quite a few strong opinions about how we should provision ourselves. But his writings are so accessible and inspirational that I always feel like he’s an old friend.
In this work, he shared tons of great ideas for a home garden, home economics, and inspiration from people who are truly living simple and good lives. He offers views on how we can make a better world. Mostly though, this is a very accessible account of how to be a homesteader and love and care for your land.
From grain to grain alcohol, the garden to the kitchen, the coop to the freezer, and beyond, this book is full of practical wisdom from a life-long farmer and conscientious objector to environmental degradation. It’s entertaining and eye-opening and makes for a great cold-weather read.
8. Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money, by Dolly Freed
This is a classic self-sufficiency book written by an 18-year-old in 1978. But it still has relevance today. With information on making the most of freshly caught fish, using roadkill, gardening, and buying foreclosure homes, it’s got a little bit of everything covered to help you become less dependent on a paycheck.
Plus, the fact that it was written by a spunky teenager, self-named Dolly Freed, gives this work an upbeat, audacious tone that makes you feel like you can take on the world after reading it. With wisdom beyond her years, Dolly says, “It’s easier to learn to do without some of the things that money can buy than to earn the money to buy them.” Then, she shows you how in hundreds of ways.
Although I suspect Dolly was a pretty exceptional 18-year-old, the fact that she had this much information and life experience at that age gives me hope I too might grow up someday! This was one of the first self-sufficiency books I read, many years ago, and it still inspires me each time I pick it up.
9. Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, by Sharon Astyk
The thing I love about this book is that it tackles the idea that we need to have perfect “magazine ready” homes to be good people head on.
In one of my favorite passages (pg. 48), Sharon says, “The reality is that we’re going to have to offer other images of beauty, neatness, order and affluence to help people change what’s floating around in their heads.” She goes on to say, “[A] working home, whether rural, urban or suburban, does not look like a showplace. It should not. It cannot.”
When you use your kitchen to make homemade meals, cheese, vinegar extractions, fermented vegetables, elderberry wine, or bread from scratch just about every day, it’s near impossible to keep it looking like a showplace. So, for me, Sharon’s real-life homesteading approach to greater self-sufficiency and a different way to appreciate beauty make me feel better about my own efforts.
This is not a beach book. It goes pretty deep into the stigmas around self-sufficiency and the problems with our current economic systems. It also has a lot of heavy hitting how to. It will challenge the way you think and what you prioritize if you take it seriously.
Save this one for deep winter because you’ll want time to read it cover to cover and take notes.
10. The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living, by Helen and Scott Nearing
No self-respecting homesteader’s reading list would be complete without the most influential self-sufficiency biography ever written. The Nearings have influenced just about every other author on this list in some ways.
The Nearings reasons for becoming self-sufficient were both personal and political. But their experience has proved useful to generations of us who have followed in their footsteps. With lots of practical advice, interspersed with lessons in living well, this classic still has enormous value today.
Personally, ideas like leaving the skins of root vegetables on, scaling back my list of necessities, and planting my early spring garden in fall (e.g. garlic, leeks, collards, chicory, and dandelions) were all learned in the pages of this book. If you want to live simply, beautifully, and with as little dependence on outside resources as possible, this is the book for you.
There are lots of us out there trying to find a better way to live. We all have different ways to go about it. Reading each others’ stories, learning from those who have taken the path before us, and opening our minds to new ideas are great ways to enhance your homesteading skills in a hurry.
As the weather cools and the days shorten, if you have to be stuck inside, I hope you have the company of these great authors and their amazing experiences to get you through the long, dark days and nights of cold weather to come!