The Would-Be Small-Time Homesteader

Nowadays the term “Homesteading” has a broad definition meaning anything from getting the rest of that free government land in Montana and scraping life out of the bare earth to living on a suburban cul-de-sac with a couple of chickens.  Personally, I love it all.  There are a lot of different ways to live a life; and I believe that whatever you choose to do to make the earth a little healthier, make your self and your children a little healthier and manage it all while being kind to your neighbor is a step in the right direction.  We've learned a lot the hard way, but we are learning.  At this point, we are by no means experts, just a family trying to see what's possible.  Here are some steps we've taken to reduce our need, and some things we hope to be able to accomplish in the future.

1.      Hanging the Laundry This saves a ton of cash and the earth a bunch of CO2.  We have an outside line and a great clothes rack for inside that holds more than our outdoor line.
2.      Cooking Food  We don't eat a lot from a box, we don't eat much that has a list of ingredients.  I bake our bread, deserts and make our pasta.  But more than substituting the things we would have with homemade goodies, we just do without.  For a while I was religiously baking the crackers my kids love to snack on, but when I found myself in the kitchen rolling out and scoring dough over a hot oven while yelling at said children to “just let me finish this!” I figured it wasn't worth it.  I will occasionally buy crackers, or make them, but they just eat apples instead.  My 4 year old recently lamented the lack of cereal in the house.  We generally eat oatmeal, but I had her make her own cereal-like granola in the crock pot and now not only does she have her “cereal” but she feels a real sense of pride in her creation. 
3.      The Chickens We have ten chickens.  We have built two coops and moved one of them about three times due to poor in-visioning on my part. They are pretty easy to take care of, and when we had only six it was even easier but a half dozen eggs a day wasn't quite enough for us.    I swore we could never slaughter our own chickens, but after paying way too much money for chicken (because it really is only chicken after all) we decided to give it a go. It was well worth it and the best chicken I've ever had. 
4.      Fruit Growing berries is really rewarding.  If you choose the right varieties you don't need too much to get enough berries to snack on and preserve for the winter.  We have a black berry hedge that, when it's in the height of its season, gives me enough berries to can about five pints every other day while supplying my little ones with ample snacking pleasure.  We have also planted a 8x4 foot strawberry bed, but this year will be it's first fruit so I don't have any news about that just yet.  I also asked around at farmer's markets for fruits that were about to go south. Many farmers will just give them to you, glad to have them off their hands. It's a little extra work, but I still have a cabinet full of jam that barely cost me a dime. 
5.      Veggies We are really just starting out on our growing journey.  This will be the second year we have tried to grow our food in earnest.  We are still members of a CSA, and preserve a lot of the food we get from there.  Last year we decided mid-stream to see how much we could preserve and how long it could take us thought he winter.  We got to about February, which I didn't think was all that bad for a whim.
6.      Preserving Food We dehydrated a lot of food in an electric dehydrator last year, and are hoping to build ourselves a solar dehydrator this year.  While some of the things we dehydrated worked out great (mostly greens that were added to soups), some others weren't worth the energy we used (literally!).  Like zucchini, who's main value seems to be the water it supplies our bodies during the hot months, is not so valuable nutritionally in the winter shredded and dehydrated and baked into bread or added to soup.  So this year I won't bother.  What I do intend to do is to cook extra meals when the veggies are fresh and freeze them.  Freezing isn't the most energy efficient way of preserving food, and it won't be our only method, but I do have two kids and having meals from the summer ready to be thawed out and eaten in the winter sounds pretty good to me! 
7.      Cold Frames I did miss lettuce!! The lack of fresh greens though the winter was really unpleasant, so we have built two 4x8 foot cold frames that we have started our seedlings in and will also be growing greens in all winter. 
8.       Use the Library and don't buy things in general.  It's my feeling that we should be taking advantage of more resources that are shareable and free, don't need to be packaged up and shipped all around the world to get to us (whoa! I almost feel off my soap-box there).  The library is a really easy socially acceptable way to accomplish that. We do occasionally buy books, of course, when we have used the library's so many times we feel like we're in danger of needing to replace them. 
9.      Limited Paper Products There are no paper towels in my house.  No tissues.  No toilet paper—just kidding, we do have toilet paper.  But we use rags for cloth napkins for all the rest of it.  They get thrown in the wash and we use them again.  This saves a lot of money and it saves all that manufacturing, packaging shipping, selling, marketing etc. 
10.   Cleaning Products I make our cleaning products, mostly out of vinegar.  I also use Murphy's Oil Soap, baking soda, and essential oils for the smell and the disinfectant qualities.  It's safe, cheap and clean in all senses of the word.   

            These are some of the more major things we are attempting. Neither of us has had prolonged direct contact with a life of this style.  I grew up with the television as a second mother and hardly ate a vegetable that wasn't from a can until I was in my teens. During that time my mother, having grown up in rural PA, decided to have her own garden after all.  At this point my brother and I were so conditioned to canned and boxed foods that we heartily disliked the taste of these crunchy imposters on our dinner plate.  There are many who have more experience, ability and practice than we do at living a more self-sufficient life style.   At this point we are not self sufficient at all, just dependent on a different system.  We are dependent on the Farmers who grow for our CSA and the other families who buy a share.  We are dependent on the growers who sell or give us their not-so-great tomatoes. We are dependent on  the community supporting the library and the land trust that provides our garden plot.  We are dependent on the traditional system to provide us with a paycheck to pay our mortgage. 
            It would be great to be able to say that we can live entirely on our own, completely self sufficient, relying only on the earth, our wits, and our strength.  There certainly is a need for people to be less reliant on a system that is living on borrowed time and borrowed and finite resources.  Honestly, while we are clearing and making more of our property (.5 acre with a wooded portion and a house on it) more suitable for food growing, we don't really have enough space to really homestead.  We couldn't have many more animals than chickens and rabbits (we have attempted the rabbit thing but it was a semi-fail, so we're putting it off for another day), which means no dairy animals so no homemade cheese from our homemade milk. We don't have a source of water, or reusable energy at this point so we are on the grid and don't see a realistic way off.  We could have bought a house with more land and less mortgage, making it more possible to be self-sufficient.  I, however, wanted to be in a walkable area.   A place were my children and I would have access on foot to a library, a YMCA, parks and people.  My husband, who would have gladly traded all that for many more acres lovely obliged. He now does the one hour commute to to work every day to support the other systems of our life like preschool, clothing needs, mortgage and utilities.  We hope to reduce our need enough in the future to reduce the need for him to do that, but we're not quite there yet.  For now we have a life that walks the line, and does what it can with what it has.  It may not be as much as some, but I think there is tremendous value in groups of people with less land resource and more mortgage figuring out a way reduce their need together, and helping one another to make changes in their lives that support both healthy living and a cleaner earth.