If you go to an online dictionary for a definition of ‘homestead’ or ‘homesteading’, you will mostly find
references to the Homesteading Acts, as illustrated below in this excerpt from Merriam-Webster online:
noun \ˈhōm-ˌsted, -stid\
: a house and the farmland it is on
:a piece of government land that a person could acquire by living on it and farming it when the western part of the U.S. was being settled
The word has since come to be expanded to include the act of small-scale farming, usually along the lines of a family aiming towards greater self-sufficiency, with less reliance on grocery stores for providing food and lesser dependence on public water and electricity.
In recent years, food has been the center of so much attention in the media and healthy eating circles. The garbage served at fast food restaurants and passed off as ‘burgers’, has been shown to contain a very small percentage of actual meat, and instead consist mainly of the substance dubbed ‘pink slime‘, a culinary atrocity barely fit for human consumption and bound to put even the most ardent supporter of window food off their appetite. Then there’s the EWGs ‘dirty dozen’, a list which details the produce found at stores which contain the greatest number of pesticides. Most of the produce you buy and consume without a second thought features high levels of pesticides. Hasn’t everyone grabbed an unwashed apple from the bowl and bitten in to it without a second thought? You’re getting more than fruit in that bite – and don’t get me started on the glue used to affix the product label.
image via ecomom.com
Then there’s issues with GMOs, and studies which show them to cause tumors and cancers in lab animals. Avoiding genetically modified ingredients is virtually impossible and sent me into a proverbial tailspin when I tried to get a handle on what we were really putting on our table at meal times. I wasn’t sure what to avoid, how to avoid it, and whether substances that I felt may be harmful – and I’m talking long term, the products where the long term risk hasn’t even yet been evaluated – might be concealed in things I was unwittingly feeding to my family. I’m a ’round the edges’ shopper, meaning that I rarely, if ever, venture into the center aisles of the supermarket for processed and pre-packaged products, preferring instead to stay on the outer sides of the store for fresh food and basic ingredients. I began questioning everything. This spurred me to provide even more for my family than I do already, to truly bring us closer and closer to absolute self-sufficiency.
Even milk, the supposedly most pure of substances, essential for nutrients and bone growth, the quintessential children’s drink, has come under the microscope. rBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin, is a growth hormone fed to cows, which causes a significant increase in milk production. It has been alleged that it is passed through into the cows’ milk and, when consumed by a pregnant mother, can pass from her to the child she carries, causing birth defects and higher birth rate babies. The fact that it is already banned in several countries is enough to place a large question mark over it for me.
Pregnant mothers are further concerned by Monsanto’s RoundUp contaminations, the key ingredient of which, glyphosate, has been found in breast milk, causing mothers to lobby the EPA to have the key ingredient of RoundUp recalled. In light of these issues, which are increasingly appearing in the mainstream media, people the world over are questioning the origins of their food, and what makes its way into their systems, and that of their children, ‘under the radar’. Even the most dedicated and vigilant parent is hard-pressed to protect their families and children from the effects of chemicals, hormones and genetically modified produce and ingredients when purchasing at the store.
More and more people are taking charge of their food, taking charge of the sources of their food, taking charge of providing for themselves. And that’s where homesteading comes in. As if you needed further convincing, it’s not just what’s IN your food. It’s the price of the food. Just in the last 12 months, from April 2013-2014, food prices have increased 1.9%, putting a further squeeze on families already struggling in a spiraling economy. With judicious management, investment in your own food, grown at home, need only be done once.
Heirloom seeds are an absolute must-have for serious homesteaders. They’re not significantly more expensive than the kind you buy at the store, which are usually hybrids, selectively designed and bred for productivity and hardiness. However, unlike the hybrids, the seeds of the resulting fruit or flowers can be harvested, saved and stored, and then used to grow the subsequent years’ crops. Hybrid seeds are often designed to be sterile, or will simply not ‘breed true’, for example, they are the result of crossing plant A with plant B, in order to obtain plant C. Therefore, should you retain seeds from plant C, you will actually end up with plant D.
Some stores are beginning to stock heirloom seeds, but the range was very limited. Online is the best place to get a great selection, and some of the varieties are really funky and interesting. Try Renee’s seeds, Baker Creek, or Seed Saver’s Exchange, as just a couple of examples. Even on smaller homesteads, such as those characterized as ‘urban homesteads’ by British self- sufficiency author, John Seymour, the drive to provide doesn’t have to stop at a small backyard garden, be it in-ground, in raised beds, or simply in pots or hanging baskets on a patio. Check your local ordinances, but most allow for a small number of rabbits to be kept, and these can be a great source of sustainable, all-natural meat. Breeds such as the New Zealand, Chinchilla or Californian produce a good number of kits per litter, and grow up fast to fryer weight. They will happily consume all spare vegetables from the garden, with only a small quantity of rabbit grain to supplement.
As the homesteading trend has really gained momentum, many townships and cities are allowing for the keeping of backyard chickens. While you may only be allowed to keep hens, they will provide a good number of eggs for your family, whether there is a rooster present or not. In places where a rooster is permitted, encouraging a broody hen to hatch her eggs, or purchasing an incubator and hatching them yourself, will allow for a self-sustaining flock, extra roosters for the pot, and a few spare eggs and chicks to sell to cover the modest feed bill for your birds.
Many people have an income from their homestead, be it in the form of selling excess produce, birds or livestock, or perhaps some form of craft or foodstuff created from the items on the farm. Eggs for eating or hatching, chicks, baby animals, yarn and raw fleeces are just a few examples. A small income is a useful thing even if you practically never need to buy anything in; feed bills and vet bills will accumulate all the same, and unless you have found a way to self-manufacture toilet paper and other mundane life essentials, you’ll still need cold hard cash for that!
On larger homesteads in rural areas, where there are few to no ordinances and restrictions on land use, people often opt to keep livestock to provide their families with milk and meat. These two products are often the most expensive at the store, and have the potential to be the most laden with hormones and steroids. Buying organic from farmers markets and stores such as Whole Foods is an option, but the price per pound can be staggering.
Keeping a cow for milk is one option, goats are a smaller and – many believe – easier to handle animal for a family on a small farm. The larger breed does give in excess of a gallon of milk a day, which can then be enjoyed as milk, or crafted into a variety of cheeses and ice cream. There are even breeds of goat which will be dual purpose, with extra wethers (castrated males) filling the freezer nicely for meat for the family. Milking sheep is a less attractive option, as sheep can be a squirrelly species and give less milk than your average goat. But for meat and fiber they are excellent, and grow to a reasonable size for culling in a relatively short space of time.
Even if you feel you don’t need one of the ‘extra’ products that your chosen species or breed offers, don’t overlook it. There will more than likely be people in your area who do want it, and who perhaps don’t have the time, space or capacity to produce it for themselves. Learn to trade and barter, the chances are they have something that can be useful to you. Be bold and ask – the worst they can say is no. In this climate of less available money, people are so much more willing to look for alternative ways to provide – even if all they have to offer you is a few hours’ labor fixing something you don’t have the skill to mend.
Part of the joy and strength in homesteading is the ability to look beyond the box, and step back to move forward, as in times gone by. Recall times spoken of by your grandparents, how people did more things for each other, how money was less of an essential currency and more of a by-product, and you will start to understand how homesteading works. The degree of independence that you attain on your homestead is a matter of ability and preference. Anything is better than nothing, and every little step you take towards providing a tiny bit more of your own food is a step towards true independence from the issues surrounding a modern-day trip to the grocery store. Don’t ever feel like a step is too small to make, because you know what they say about a journey of a thousand miles
For me, a homestead is a place where there is awareness of the issues, and action is being taken. It’s where a family comes together to create and provide, it’s where responsibility for food and provisions is part of everyday life. Big or small, urban or rural, there’s room in virtually everyone’s life for a few pots of tomatoes and cage of meat rabbits. And that right there, that’s a homestead.