How Much Do You Really Need?
by Rebecca Long
I subscribe to a number of homesteading blogs. One in particular chronicles the adventures of a single person running a small farm. While I certainly know nothing about the situation other than what is shared in the blog, I am often mystified by the stories that are posted. There are a number of activities that appear to yield little if any return. It would seem that this farm is a glorified hobby. Furthermore, the author continuously extols the virtues of the farming life without showing any real benefits. I don’t understand where the stamina and—more importantly—the financial support for this operation comes from. Judging from some of the comments posted, I am not the only one scratching my head.
So, why does a person choose homesteading?
Some people go into homesteading or farming to sell what they grow and thus earn a living. Others do it to live closer to the land and provide for more of their own needs, thus being more self-sufficient. I am familiar with people who choose to grow vegetables and raise animals because they want a better quality of food than is found in the grocery store.
For me, the answer has always been self-sufficiency.
Early in my adult life, I was blessed with the experience of working a seasonal job that I truly despised. I hated the job and I hated my life while working at the job. The only reason I stuck with it was because it was seasonal. However, after this job ended, I had time to reflect about what I wanted for my life; the experience made me aware that I did not want to have to be dependent on a miserable job to pay my bills. Besides, even if my next job was one I absolutely loved, how long would it last? It got me to thinking about lifestyles that required little or no money, which eventually led me to self-sufficiency and homesteading.
Now, a self-sufficient lifestyle requires a little more time for some tasks. For example: it will take more time and effort to care for a garden and some chickens than to go to the grocery store; but if you factor in the time you are spending at work to pay for the food, then, time-wise, it probably evens out. If you want the benefits to outweigh the work, then you must simplify. The question central to simplicity: how much does one person really need? You must decide what you really need and what you can do without.
I was lucky enough to come to this question before buying my property, but many people are already tied into a property and a lifestyle before they discover homesteading. There is this abiding myth that you must have several acres in a remote location in order to homestead and be truly self-sufficient. I am here to tell you it is just not true.
It is important to, first, identify your goals. If your goal is to lead a pastoral existence, then you may want to begin looking through the real-estate listings; but, if your goals involve self-sufficiency, or just food independence, then the best place to start is right where you are.
Initially, I had visions of the remote location where I could raise animals and vegetables. I would build a small home which ran on solar power and rainwater catchment. However, as it came time to begin considering properties, I knew that I did not have the skills or support system I would need for such a venture. Even a more developed country property seemed a little daunting because of the things that needed regular care and maintenance like a well and a septic tank. Plus, the distance I would need to travel between town and such a location seemed to ensure that I would be spending a lot of time in the car and a lot of money on gas. In addition, I would still be dependent on a car; and, knowing the fickle nature of things—especially mechanical things—it was a dependence I was not comfortable with.
In the end, I decided on a house in a neighborhood on the edge of the city limits. The neighborhood is quiet, being approximately a mile or so from the hustle and bustle of downtown. The houses in this neighborhood have some space between them (I prefer not being able to throw an egg into my neighbor’s kitchen window when standing at my own). Best of all—and here was the big selling feature for me—one of the neighbors kept a donkey. I figured if they could get away with keeping a donkey, then I could certainly keep the animals that I wanted. As my neighbor explained to me later, we are technically within city limits so we aren’t really supposed to have farm animals. But the area is still zoned as farmland—although it has been subdivided for 80 or 90 years—so “you can keep anything you want as long as nobody complains.”
That sounded like a good deal to me.
The property I bought—and now live on—has a small one-and-a-half-story Cape Cod sitting on two-thirds of an acre. If you go a mile in one direction you are in the downtown area. A mile in the other direction will put you out in the country.
Is it possible to lead a self-sufficient lifestyle on less than an acre of land?
I think so. I’ve read about other people who have done it and they are my inspiration; but again, I think it is a matter of defining your needs and deciding what self-sufficiency means to you.
Two-thirds of an acre is more than enough room to keep a respectable-sized garden. The advent of gardening techniques in the last few decades that make it possible to grow food in smaller spaces means that it is entirely possible to meet the needs of a household in less space than was previously thought possible. Last year, I attempted theRuth Stout method for the first time and had my best yield to date. Now that I have found something that works for me, I am hoping to improve on those results. Others use the square-foot method and the raised-bed method. Gardening comes with a learning curve, though, so it may take a few seasons to figure out what works best for you.
Fruit trees, apparently, don’t require much space, either. In my neighborhood there is a property much smaller than my own. They use fruit trees to line the property and receive a bounty of apples and pears every year.
Working with a smaller area requires considering what you don’t need to make room for. You may find that you can meet some of your needs without dedicating your own space to them. For example you might be able to barter with a neighbor: “I’ll give you eggs in exchange for some of that honey.” You may also find that you are able to get things from the wild. Mulberries, blackberries, and raspberries all grow abundantly in this area. Although a few of these “weeds” have volunteered themselves on my property, there are also plenty of wooded lots where I can collect them. This means that I don’t need to make room for berry bushes in my plan. Also, while I don’t eat meat, if you are a hunter and can get a buck every year, is it worth your while to raise a steer for slaughter?
I do keep some animals. My yard is not big enough for a horse or a cow—but I have never wanted to keep any animal large enough to trample me, anyway. Honestly, I don’t see any reason to. I am a vegetarian, so I don’t need to keep anything for slaughter; I won’t use the meat. I keep chickens for eggs but only a handful of those. The few I keep are more than sufficient for meeting my needs. Because they are small, they are easy to keep and don’t require a whole lot of space. Right now, I keep them in a pen for their own safety, but my long-range plans include putting a proper fence around my entire property. When that happens, I will let them roam a little more freely. Allowing them to free-range reduces the amount of food they require as they have access to bugs, grass, and dirt.
Another animal in my plan is goats and they will come after the fencing happens. I was trepidatious about getting goats. I am not a big milk drinker but I do enjoy dairy products; and, while goats are smaller than cows, I have read that some of them can be a challenge. Then, I heard about miniature breeds that are about as big as a medium-sized dog. As far as size goes, that sounds doable, and I don’t need a whole heard; two will suffice. I don’t know if they will be worth the effort of keeping, but, once I can afford the fencing, it is an experiment I am eager to try.
Other ways of being self-sufficient include reducing dependence on utilities companies. I don’t know about you, but I hate paying bills. While I may not have the resources to install a full rainwater harvesting system—and I’m not really sure the city would allow such a thing, anyway—installing some rain barrels seems very much within the realm of the possible. I am currently researching how to build a rain barrel; it doesn’t appear to be a daunting task. While I don’t expect to get drinking-quality water from my roof—at least not without some costly upgrades—there are a number of other things for which that water could be used to help alleviate the strain on my wallet. Best of all, installing rain barrels does not carry a large expense; neither does it require a great deal of space.
Speaking of utilities, last summer we suffered a nasty storm that knocked out the power for ten days. It is amazing the things you can do without. In Europe, the refrigerator is not used as much as it is here. There are a number of things that they simply don’t refrigerate such as eggs and cheese and in some cases other dairy products, too. When we lost power I wasn’t keeping any dairy products, but I did find I ate well enough without the use of a refrigerator. Similarly, we discovered cooking and lighting did not absolutely require electricity, either. In the end, I found I didn’t miss the electricity as much as I thought I would. I think my next project, after the rain barrels, may be trying my hand at building a solar oven.
So, what are the benefits of homesteading on a small scale?
With less space you really have to decide what is necessary and what you can do without. This has a tendency to make you more creative. Also, the less you have to maintain, the less time, energy, and money are required to maintain it. A smaller homestead can mean a simpler lifestyle and that’s a win for everyone.
What are some of the not some of the cons?
With less space, you may not be engaging in large-scale livelihood activities such as cattle ranching or growing produce for sale. Also, your neighbors are probably going to be in closer proximity which can be both a blessing and a curse. It is usually more of a problem for me when the chickens discover a soft spot in the fencing and decide to take themselves on a field trip. I worry that they may wreak havoc in one of my neighbors flower beds. This is a problem, indeed, if you are dependent on the goodwill of your neighbors to keep your animals… alive.
As you can see this venture is a work-in-progress. Buying a smaller property in a more traditional neighborhood means that I did not have to worry about meeting all of my own needs—such as water and electricity—right away. Plus, as I have had to keep gainful employment during this time, it would not have been possible to meet the needs of a full-scale homestead and a job at the same time. Also, living in a more remote location would have meant a greater expense just to get to work every day. I continue to work toward my goal of self-sufficiency, but I do it piece by piece.