An Introduction to Modern Homesteading

Homesteading has become a trendy topic in recent years, and with good reason – many of us in the so-called “developed world” are searching for an alternative to the culturally bankrupt, consumer-driven rat race we’ve been sold as “modern life.” But what is homesteading, anyway?

The concept of homesteading in the U.S. dates back to The Homestead Act of 1862, which granted 160 acres of federal land – essentially for free – to any citizen willing to carve out a living there for at least five consecutive years.

From the Civil War era up until 1935, when President Roosevelt withdrew the public domain lands for the new conservation effort, well over a million Americans took up residence across millions of acres of the wild Western frontier.

This act exemplified both sides of the American Dream: in theory, it aimed to give every able-bodied citizen the chance to pursue happiness on his own terms; in practice, it expanded the reach of the colonialist federal government to the furthest corners of a land once populated by indigenous peoples, now decimated by disease and war.

Homesteaders all across the West were summarily pushed out of their settled lands in the early to mid-twentieth century as a result of economic pressures that aimed to consolidate their family farms into massive monocultures, as outlined in Steinbeck’s incomparable Grapes of Wrath.

Subsistence farming was no longer a financially viable lifestyle, leaving thousands upon thousands of families with nothing to do and nowhere to go. This was but one battle in the war between city and country life, and those who made it through that devastating period of transition did so largely by migrating to cities and seeking work in trades and manufacturing.

Today our cities are severely overcrowded, and most of the manufacturing jobs have been relocated to Asia. The frontier has long been settled, and our rural land has been ravaged and stripped bare by the scourge of industrial farming.

What does it mean, then, to be a homesteader in the modern era?

As I see it, the foundation of homesteading is built upon four core principles: working with the land, taking care of your own needs, and minimizing interactions with government and market forces – all while remaining where you live.

Work With The Land

In the nineteenth century, homesteaders (and regular folks alike) produced the majority of their own food for themselves, out of necessity. With no grocery store in sight – and indeed, often with few options for even traveling to a nearby town with amenities – you had to know how to garden, forage, hunt, and raise animals for sustenance.

With 160 acres under your stewardship, the only limitation was how much grueling labor you and your family could endure.

That kind of acreage is well beyond what’s realistic for most of us today, but fortunately it doesn’t take much space at all to begin developing a working relationship with the land that surrounds you, whether you own it or not. Apartment renters can make it happen, as can suburbanites – anyone can cultivate soil for productive purposes.

In the past, families toiled day in, day out to produce their own food, because if they came up short, they starved. Today we have the safety net of farmers’ markets and grocery stores, which means that food production in this era doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing game.

If you can produce half, or even a third, of the calories that you and your family consume, you’re probably a pretty hardcore homesteader. And if the rest of your food comes from local sources, then you’re also doing your community a big favor – after all, we’re not in this alone.

I should note here that working with the land responsibly in this era requires not only sustainable but regenerative practices in order to restore the soil health that industrial farming has wrecked. I’ll go into more detail on this in a future post.

Take Care of Your Own Needs

This goes hand in hand with producing your own food, but encompasses all other aspects of life beyond caloric needs.

“Off-grid living” is a very fashionable and sexy idea in pop culture these days; “the grid” has only been a reality for a privileged few in the world for a very short time, and yet those who rely on it can hardly imagine life without it.

Tackling water and energy needs on your own often requires a fair amount of specialized knowledge, ingenuity and/or sweat equity, but that only makes the process that much more satisfying.

And taking care of your own needs isn’t just about going off-grid. Homesteaders of the past knew how to fix their own machines and tools, build and repair their own homes and outbuildings, make their own soaps, store their own goods, dispose of their own wastes, and lots more.

You don’t have to ditch the grid or build your own house to call yourself a homesteader. And if you’re like me, entering the world of homesteading with zero practical skills or knowledge, you have to come to terms with the fact that there’s only so much you can accomplish in a day, or a week, or a month, or a year.

Self-reliance is a state of being that’s forged over a lifetime, and it comes in degrees. For actionable suggestions to improve your own sense of self-reliance, check out my post on the subject here.

Minimize Interactions with Government

Why did homesteaders of the nineteenth century agree to walk out into the woods in uncharted territory to fend for themselves? Well, like their colonial forefathers, many of them were probably seeking a life outside the purview of “the establishment,” where they could do as they pleased without intervention from a governing body.

Today there are many reasons to want the government out of your life, whether you skew left or right on the political spectrum. For those of us who believe that we can direct our own lives better than a government can, homesteading – especially the rural variety – sounds very appealing indeed.

Designing your own lifestyle involves recognizing the fact that if you don’t do it, the political institutions that rule over you will, and you will not be happy with what they’ve got planned for you – it mostly involves running on a hamster wheel to keep their bloated, grotesque apparatus called “the economy” rolling uphill for eternity.

If we have moral or ethical concerns about how the government uses our tax money – and I’m sure we pretty much all do – then the most pragmatic approach we can take in the face of aggression for non-payment is simply to live in such a way that minimizes our tax contributions.

What does this look like in practice? As Toby Hemenway puts it in his brilliant "Liberation Permaculture" talk from PV2, “if they can’t measure it, they can’t tax it.”

The government can tax the monetary transaction that takes place when you purchase an apple tree, but how would they tax the 50 clones of that one tree that you propagate and plant on your property?

How would they tax the fruits that those trees produce, that you and your family eat, barter with, and give away to friends?

The world of permaculture is replete with examples of systems which generate wealth that can’t be taxed, simply because it doesn’t translate to financial capital.

This underscores the importance of the eight forms of capital, of which financial capital is merely one. A person who values social, experiential, and spiritual capital as much as money is less likely to be money-driven, and thus less likely to have to interact with government and market forces on a regular basis.

It is crucial for anyone who wants to be a homesteader to work to distance themselves from political and market forces which attempt to exert their influence over our lifestyles.

Stay at Home

The biggest piece of the homesteading puzzle – and the part that most of us struggle with and often fail to achieve in modern times – is juggling all of the above while remaining at home.

This is one of the more romantic aspects of homesteading: you’re producing your own food, you’re fixing your own problems, you’re paying out pocket-change in taxes every year, and most importantly, you’re doing it all from the comfort of your own home, surrounded by the people you love, all day, every day.

One reason this idea is so appealing is because we all instinctively know that the way we organize our work lives just doesn’t make sense.

Why on earth would any of us want to give up the majority of the hours of the majority of the days of our lives to do something we don’t want to, isolated from the people we care about? Who would agree to that?

And yet that’s exactly what we do, because it’s what we’re told we have to do.

Homesteading offers an alternative. By working the land for our food, building and repairing our own things, and minimizing our need for financial capital, we can live in such a way that doesn’t require us to adhere to the culture’s sick and twisted job-centric lifestyle.

Even better, if we stay at home, we can homeschool our own children, and prevent them from being exposed to the toxic institutional programming found in public schools.

For many of us today, earning a full-time income from home may be untenable, so a more realistic goal might be to minimize the amount of time that we need to be away from the home to earn a living.

If you cut back on your expenses, could you or your spouse possibly go from full-time to part-time at work? Is there some kind of side business you want to pursue to generate some extra income?

As with the rest of the points in this post, making a living at home should be a transitional process. If you quit your job tomorrow and decide to raise chickens for a living, with no prior experience doing so, chances are you are going to fail and it’s going to hurt.

But let’s say you cut back your hours by 10% or so at work, and use that time at home to raise 50 chickens to take to market. If you fail miserably and sell none of your chickens, you can stock your family’s freezer with the highest quality meat on the planet, and you’ve still got your income from your day job. This is a much wiser strategy.

When you first hop on this homesteading bandwagon, it’s easy to fall in love with the romantic notions of fending for yourself and working with the land to provide for yourself and your family.

You might be tempted to drop everything and disappear to a cabin in the woods – I know, I’ve been there, too (literally and figuratively). But I must strongly advise you to take it slowly – that might even be a central theme of this website as a whole.

Homesteading in the modern era comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes, and there’s no one formula that would suit everyone. We all come to this table with unique goals, aspirations, skills, and knowledge.

No matter where we begin, we are all capable of learning how to provide for our own needs, on our own terms.