An attempt to define the indefinable; that urge that starts deep in the gut and isn’t helped by burping, or chocolate, or anything but digging your bare toes into Mother Earth. The impulse to answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with something other than an acceptable occupation like Butcher or Baker or Candlestick Maker-
The impulse to stand tall and announce:
“I am a Homesteader.”
Spelled Pronunciation [hohm-sted-er] – noun
the owner or holder of a homestead.
a settler under the Homestead Act.
1860–65, Americanism; homestead + -er 1
Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1) -
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.
Of course the above is a very basic and unemotional definition. It’s from a dictionary - it’s supposed to be boring.
In the last few years, my family and I have had the good fortune to travel and meet a number of folks who share our homesteading dreams and visions.
Some of these homesteaders have had the graciousness and good humor to fill out a survey I sent to them in search of The Real True Homesteaders - people who, for all intents and purposes, look absolutely (mostly) normal to society most of the time, but whose hearts beat with the rhythm of the seasons and whose fingernails are never quite clean.
These are the surveys and their answers.
These are their photos and stories.
At the end of each survey, I’ve added my own comments and observations - most telling, and what seems an integral facet of the homesteaders’ character - is the tendency to downplay their actual accomplishments.
Hobby Farm, Small Working Farm, Family Subsistence Farm - all titles for those pieces of land that are over 10 acres, and under 50 acres. With an area this size, there’s a good chance you can plant your house where your neighbors won’t be peering in your windows, plant your veggie garden most anywhere, grow enough to feed yourselves handily, and still have room for a yard, or flowers, or a swing set, or even (gasping at the luxury) a swimming pool.
Although I can’t remember a swimming pool on any of the following homesteads, there is still the overwhelming feeling of luxury on all of them - the luxury of being able to spread out some, breath deeply, and think, “This is country, and I love being here”.
LIVING THE COUNTRY DREAM, ONE MIRACLE AT A TIME
Profile A: Dulcimers and Hummingbirds on the Lazy River
Please state your name and state of residence: Milton and Corky, Missouri
How long have you been a homesteader? 11 years
Were you born to the homesteading life, or attain it? Please elaborate: Totally by accident. I worked for a bank in Gravette, AR and liked to look at the old books in a used bookstore there on my lunch hour. One day I found a stack of old magazines called Countryside Homesteading and Small Stock Journal. I thumbed through some and liked what I saw and bought 5 for $1 each. Milt and I then read them cover to cover and each payday I would go back and buy a few more. There were 60 in all and I ended up with all of them. They started in the 60’s when Jerry Belinger lived on one acre with his wife and small kids. They had goats, rabbits, chickens, a garden, orchard, and grew wheat, which they ground to make their own bread. They heated with wood. They were the perfect homestead at the time. That got us started.
How many acres is your current homestead? The papers say 11 acres, more or less.
How long have you been on your current homestead? 14 years.
Do you work off the farm? And if so, and you don’t mind sharing, what is your outside employment? We are both now retired but we owned our own office supply business in Joplin, MO, and I was in banking from 1968 till 2007.
How much of your income comes from something farm-related? And what is your goal? Very little. Our goal is not to make a living farming. We only
want to grow stuff for our own use and I also have fun making soap and spinning our fleece and selling a few things I make but that is for fun not profit. We do sell excess eggs and goat milk. We want to know that we will have enough to eat in these depressed times and we know we are prepared for whatever the future brings, whether it be storms or long term power outages or whatever - we are covered. It’s a good feeling.
What percentage of your food do you grow/raise yourself? And what is your goal? I have no idea. We grow our own vegetables and goats for milk and meat and we barter for goat meat also. I trade my buck’s service for a buckling ready to go to the butcher. We now have three ready to go. That’s plenty for Milt and me. We still shop at Aldi’s at least twice a year and watch for sales in the area for other things. We bought a hog from another homesteader last year. We are still eating from that hog.
Are you energy independent, if so to what extent? And if not, do you consider that an important or attainable goal? On the grid for power and on a well for water. We have a propane tank for the burners on our stove only. We have no plans to be off grid. We do have a good generator for power outages and it also runs our second well so we will have water for the animals and ourselves. There is also the river nearby.
Your own personal Best and Worst moments on your homestead: I really can’t pick a best moment. Bringing new baby goats into the world is way up there, though. Watching my garden sprouting in the spring. The first day the hummingbirds come home and the purple martins in the spring.
The worst day would be the death of our faithful rott/lab dog Roxie who was hit by a big rig while running to Milton and she…never mind. We still can’t talk about that one.
Another was having to get a neighbor to help me put down an alpaca that got a paralyzing worm that he shouldn’t have because we didn’t know about it and had not wormed him for it. It was 100 degrees out and Milt was gone on vacation with his sister so it was left to me to deal with him. I dug the grave and called the neighbor to do the deed, as I am deathly afraid of guns. I helped him carry the poor thing to the grave and I helped him bury him though I got an argument about that. I couldn’t ask him to do all the work in that heat.
Then of course just recently we had to put dear sweet Molly down when she got so weak she could no longer get
up. She was my first goat that I got after we had been here a year and she was a yearling at the time she she was 13 years old. Milton was here for that one and so he put her down and buried her for me. God bless him for it.
Every once in a long while, you come across homesteaders who appear to have sprung right from the ground they are living on - the match between human and environment is so perfect it’s difficult to imagine the people anywhere else and impossible to imagine the land under anyone else’s’ care.
If you could imagine a perfect little ivy covered house carved as a clock, Corky and Milt would be the darling little people who come out to chime the hours, then head back inside to make biscuits and gravy for breakfast, served with the most delicious sliced tomatoes ever plucked from the vine. And like a clock is hung on the wall, this little house is perched on the side of a hill - beautiful river down below and protective bluff up above.
From the little guest cabin that Milt built by hand, to the barn full of delightful furred and feathered characters, to the garden as full of butterflies as produce and flowers, to the totally cool cave (yes, a cave) this homestead couldn’t get any more welcoming.
Or could it?
Sitting on the front porch, overlooking the river while the hummingbirds whizzed back and forth between the feeders and my son was being given a dulcimer lesson, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect day or more wonderful friends to spend it with.
Caring for their critters, doing for themselves, creating food, crafts, everyday necessities and music - feeding tummies and souls comes as naturally to Corky and Milt as breathing. Nothing purchased from a store in the way of edibles or entertainment could be so good in all ways, ever.
There’s nothing elaborate about this homestead, or it’s homesteaders. Everything’s real, and honest, and true.
And it all says “Welcome Home”.
Profile B: Living Natural in The Natural State
Please state your name and state of residence: Krista, Arkansas
How long have you been a homesteader? My family moved to the country when I was 12 or so - that was the beginning of our homesteading excursion. My parents bought 20 acres of raw hardwood forestland. We cut a clearing, had a well drilled, built an A-frame house, fenced in the cleared area and got some goats, chickens and eventually a milk cow and a garden. My husband and I took over and bought the little homestead 9 years ago. We moved into the trailer house I was raised in that was now on the property, planted some fruit trees, broke up more garden space, fenced in more pasture for rotational grazing and got even more livestock.
Were you born to the homesteading life, or attain it? Please elaborate. I was born to homestead - have always wanted a place in the country growing up. I always enjoyed spending time at my grandma’s house. They had an outhouse, a billy goat that ran loose in the yard; we kids would play King of the Butane Tank with the billy goat. One of my aunts was always outside hanging out the wash. I’ll never forget the day the billy goat caught my aunt bent over the laundry basket, or the day we watched a cow have a calf in the middle of the pond. My aunt had to wade out into the pond and rescue the poor calf, and then get out of the way before its mama got her. Seems like there was always a fresh litter of puppies by the front porch, and jonquils blooming all in the yard. My cousins and I would pick blackberries that grew by the back porch and got many a switching for picking grandma’s grapes while they were still green. My other grandparents had my brother and me out fishing in their pond or riding Paw’s big bull, or out picking and helping process all the veggies that came out of their gardens. I love to work hard, the smell of manure in the morning, sloshing through mud and ice in the winter to cuddle up next to a warm cow in the barn. The achievement of raising a good crop of vegetables to feed my family, the tranquility of sitting in the woods watching the squirrels bounce form tree to tree, the dainty little fawns tiptoeing by, the chickadees flittering from limb to limb above your head, and kissing the soft muzzle of a warm horse.
How many acres is your current homestead? We have 20 acres here, most of which is in hardwoods. We do most of our farming on about 6 acres of cleared area in the front. Most of this acreage is an old gypsum mine, there are a lot of hills not conducive to pasture use and the soil isn’t useful for anything but the trees growing on it. Ours is a small oasis of hardwood forest mostly surrounded by pine plantations, so we tend to draw in a lot of wildlife, this is both a blessing and a nuisance, depending on the time of year. You either declare war come garden season or praise God deer are in the woods when you are freezing your rear off the first day of deer season.
How long have you been on your current homestead? I’ve been living on this homestead since 1989.
My parents and I finally got the A-frame built good enough to move in and we hightailed it outta that trailer park in town without a second thought. I’d live in a shack out in the woods before I’d live in town again.
Do you work off the farm? And if so, and you don’t mind sharing, what is your outside employment? I personally don’t work off the homestead; my husband works at a factory job keeping the machines running. The kids and I try to keep the gardens and animals in line.
How much of your income comes from something farm-related? And what is your goal? Not much of our income is from our homestead. Our goal is to raise healthier, cheaper food for our family. We try to break even on the raising of everything. I try to sell extra produce to pay for seed etc., and occasionally eggs, goat milk, goats, and rabbits to offset the price of feed. We’re just looking to break even and feed our family healthier food. We may not be rich but were way ahead of the game health-wise.
What percentage of your food do you grow/raise yourself? And what is your goal? We grow or harvest about 80% of our meat - that includes the deer we harvest each year off our property. We eat rabbit, chicken, pig, beef, goat and venison. Vegetables are about 60% - we have two big gardens each year and I try to can everything out of the gardens. We plant 3 times when weather allows and the last planting in the fall takes us through till spring most times. We don’t grow any of our grains yet. We have a few fruit trees that are big and have been bearing for quite a few years now, we just put in apple trees and a few peach trees this last year so I’d say we probably raise about 20-30% of our fruit needs at this point.
Are you energy independent? If so, to what extent? And if not, do you consider that an important or attainable goal? No, we are not energy independent. We hope to add some solar panels and batteries, at least for lights, in the near future, to our new home we’re building. We hope to include many ideas to make our new home more energy efficient, including composting toilets, rain gutters going to cisterns for garden watering and emergency home use, lots of windows to the south side to reduce electric needs, with a cellar under the north side of the home for fresh fruit and vegetable storage, and a wood heater planted right in the middle of it all. I think its going to be a very important issue in the near future to be as energy independent as possible as the economy has shown us how brutal it can be by doubling our food, energy, and fuel bills within the last year.
Your own personal Best and Worst moments on your homestead: I’d say a few of my personal best moments on the homestead were bringing a sick calf back from seizures to live a long and healthy life; the day I had to sew up Nanagoat’s teat while milk was squirting out at me; or the day my hubby and dad tackled a 600 lb. calf in ankle deep mud while I castrated him without getting killed.
My personal worst moment was when every single animal on the ‘stead decided to break out, while I was the only person at home, chasing animals and putting them in one gate only to have them head for the broken gate across the pasture and sneak right back out and be standing behind me when I finally thought I’d gotten everyone secured.
(end of Krista's survey)
On the license plates of Arkansas is “The Natural State”. And Arkansas IS beautiful - if you like things like trees, and water, and hills, and rocks…you know - Good, Strong, Natural Stuff.
And there’s a family in Arkansas who seem on the outside to be a perfectly normal family - mom, dad, three kids. But there’s something about them. It’s a calmness that’s not boastful, a quietness that’s not creepy, something inside that starts at the core and works its way outward - a strength and a surety that they are a single unit - hat whatever life throws at them, they can, and will, handle it beautifully. Calmly and quietly, with strength and togetherness.
I believe a good part of this strength comes from the fact that they know more about supporting themselves than I can ever hope to forget.
Its not just gardening, or preserving, or tending, livestock, or hunting, or butchering, or any other homesteading skill the rest of us are constantly absorbing as quickly as we can, but the whole kit-n-caboodle rolled up together that takes what we’re learning, as loosely related skills, and processes them up into an entire mindset and lifestyle. When Krista makes a wooden chest, it starts with selecting not the boards, but the TREES.
The children are home-schooled, but much more than that, they’re being home educated in so many life skills it boggles the mind. They know their food doesn’t come from the store. They know what food looks like, feels like, sounds like, smells like, before it’s on their plate. Food is plants and animals, and they’ve cared for them all the way from birth to the dinner table. The worth of that knowledge can’t be measured in a checkbook or a standardized test, and the maturity, grace and security that being contributing members of the family, beyond setting the table and loading the dishwasher, can’t ever be learned by working at McDonald’s after sitting all day in public school.
This is what family is supposed to be.
Krista and her family are living in the Natural State, in many more ways than one.
Profile C: There Really IS a Center of the Middle of Nowhere
Please state your names and state of residence: Neets and Fruityy, South Dakota
How long have you been homesteaders? Neets - 20 years, born on a farm. Fruityy - 4 years, grew up in London, UK.
Were you born to the homesteading life, or attain it? Please elaborate: Neets was born to it, as her parents were farmers and mom always had a garden and did all the preserving that goes with that. Her advice has always been invaluable. Her dad had wonderful reminders for the well being of livestock and she has found that they worked pretty well for raising kids, too. Fruityy, however, has finally been able to "scratch that itch" that she’s had all her life! Raised in a huge city, traveled the whole of Europe, most of Asia, and a few other places, she always had a wanderlust… that is, until she came here and looked out the west window at "all that sky".
How many acres is your current homestead? 32.9 acres
How long have you been on your current homestead? 19 years for Neets, 4 years for Fruityy
Do you work off the farm? And if so, and you don’t mind sharing, what is your outside employment? Neets works at an assisted living facility in the nearby small town (population 1,200) two nights a week. We both do odd jobs, mainly connected with wood, wherever and whenever. They are at the conclusion of a project that has extended over almost 18 months, a complete farmstead renovation.
How much of your income comes from something farm-related? And what is your goal? It is a small percentage at this point, sales of spring lambs and an occasional colt. We don’t ever expect that the farm itself will pay the utility bills, etc.
What percentage of your food do you grow/raise yourself? A nd what is your goal? We raise about 95% of the food we use. Meat-wise, it is a bit less as there is no beef or pork on the place… yet. Our groceries do include flour, sugar, shortening, toilet paper, etc. We will probably never raise any beef, but that is what our neighbors are for, right? Buy locally! We have, at times, traded a chicken or two for other meat. Everyone is happy!
Are you energy independent? If so, to what extent? And if not, do you consider that an important or attainable goal? No. We do heat primarily with wood in the winter, but we need gas for the chainsaw and electricity for the fans on the stove. With the cost of the solar equipment, we don’t see that as a viable option any time soon. Our LP gas bill for the whole of last year was less than $500. We have gone to a solar shower in summer time and foresee other small things going that route as well.
Your own personal Best and Worst moments on your homestead: Neets - So many good ones! Looking across the yards and realizing that WE DID IT! The fences and gates are a source of pride. Finding a newborn colt under the tree in the yard was very special. Having Fruityy become a part of my life put a new shine on all that is here. Specific stories are difficult to pin down. The best moments/hours are based on the general sense of living peacefully and contentedly. Looking across the new-mown lawn or sitting amongst the flowerbeds in the garden always gives me a sense of joy and calm. Coming home is always at the top of my list of best moments.
Worst moments include loss of life, of course. It is a grim reality that lambs will die, chickens will die, and occasionally it could be a horse, or a dog, or a cat that dies. It is gut-wrenching every time, though for different reasons. There are those times when one feels that one has come up against a wall, that there are things that seem impossible to conquer… like paying for hay. Then it is time to consider the options and remember that there ARE those who have and care.
One of the worst moments, as such, was coming toward the barn to check the ewes and lambs and seeing smoke coming out the door. We are 10 miles from town and there was no time to call a fire truck and wait for it to come. We don’t have a hydrant in the barn, just electric waterers. We grabbed buckets and used water, snow, and even ice that had frozen in the bottoms of buckets. There was minimal damage, considering the possibilities… we did lose two ewes. Even the memory still brings a hideous queasiness in my belly.
Fruityy - Though I have lived in large cities most of my life (1 million plus, pop.), I seem to have spent most of my life in preparation for the time here. I know how to perform a caesarean on a ewe… never actually DONE it, but I did know how [when I came here]. The best moments are when I’m not reacting like a "city girl", but coping in the most logical manner possible. I even surprise the neighbors with this ability, and I do take a sort of sense of pride in showing them that I’m not as naïve or helpless as they had assumed I would be. Best moments also include overcoming a terror where horseback riding was concerned, even to the point of training a new foal. Best moment was cantering for the first time… on purpose! Best moments for me nearly always include succeeding at something that, previously, was completely out of my realm of knowledge, and they almost always involve animals. I have learned that I CAN rope… though it may be a sheep I catch. That first catch was a surprise to both the sheep and to me - the rope burns round my ankles were a minor badge of honor, but I DID IT!
Worst moments, for me too, would be the fire, definitely, and yet, afterwards, it led to a sense of knowing that we had coped… and on our own! Bad moments often lead to some of the best moments, though neither of us wants to face one like that again. Loss of life is, of course, at the very top, as well. The questions of whether we could have done something differently that would have avoided the situation. Finding the dog dead on the road was a severely painful thing. There aren’t many truly BAD moments, it seems. There are just those few, the rest are challenges.
For both of us, some of the best moments are when we can share with others, either in the hospitality of our table or our gardens, or when we can arrive at a friend or relative’s house with garden goodies in tow. We take pride in being able and available when someone needs help with something, be it major (like a ewe that needs help lambing), or minor (putting up mom’s new vertical blinds). Whatever it is, we enjoy knowing that one of us has either the skills or the ideas to make it work. We both deeply enjoy that.
(end of Neets & Fruityy's survey)
I live in Texas. Texas is big.
But driving through South Dakota, Texas didn’t seem all that big anymore. South Dakota is more sky than land. More farmland than city. More wild prairie than cultivated acreage. More…. hey - what’s that?
My husband had just asked me how we would recognize our hostesses since we’d never met them before. Confidently I told him, “I’ll just know”, as I gazed ahead of us (wondering how on earth I’d recognize our hostesses since we’d never met them before).
Low and behold, up ahead of us was a very tall woman standing alone in an empty lot on the corner of our arranged meeting (at the ONE gas station in town). She wasn’t quite alone - she was holding a leash, and at the end of the leash was a darling, tiny, fuzzy goat.
Yep. We were here.
Neets and Fruityy live on a farm. Ask any child what a farm looks like, even if they’ve never been outside city limits, and they’ll happily draw you a picture of Neets and Fruityy's place.
Two story white farmhouse, pick-em-up truck, huge barn, chicken house, silo, veggie garden, pastures, sheep, horses, dogs, cats, and a baby goat sitting at the dinner table.
Neets and Fruityy live on a farm that is located roughly in the center of the middle of nowhere. Miles of open space, punctuated by farmhouses, sewn together with one-lane threads of dirt road, their place is (to me, anyway) the comfiest square of the prairie quilt tucked across the earth as far as the eye can see.
Beautiful gardens, dear old house, barnyard full of the usual cast of characters encountered on a farm, the general atmosphere is one of happiness, contentment and the natural assumption that each and every creature there has a unique personality, and that each and every personality is to be accepted and celebrated. So it doesn’t seem the least bit unusual for there to have been a tiny goat on a leash at the gas station, or that the same goat lived in the house.
Not, lived-in-the-house-in-a-pen-in-the-kitchen, but lived-in-the-house-slept-on-the-bed-ate-at-the-table-and-pottied-outside.
Petal came home to Neets and Fruityy's as a bottle baby, and she adapted to life as a house-goat with grace and assurance. I’ve had goats for years and although I know they’re personable and intelligent, I’d never had the inclination to bring one (officially) as "inside" as Petal lived. She’s not only a good house goat, she’s an excellent ambassador for the entire goat species - tagging along to the nursing home, the building supply store, even the plant nursery and behaving herself better than most two-legged kids.
When most people would’ve been listing the "why-you-can’ts" of having a house-goat, Neets and Fruityy pondered the “why-nots?”, and came up with nothing adverse that was noteworthy, and brought her in.
Their whole place is an exercise and testament to “why not?”
When most folks are winding down their workload and chores, especially those that can be chosen, sorted through, and made easier or discarded, Neets and Fruityy are farming - with all the hard nasty bits still very much in place.
But you can’t have a rainbow without rain, and you can’t fully appreciate the joys and small wonderments of farming without the difficult and sometimes heartbreaking bits. Neets and Fruityy know this, accept this, and fully embrace every accomplishment, but almost more importantly, embrace and own every heartache as well.
In their survey, both state that their best moments are the ones when they can say, “We DID it!” What makes them so special is that they don’t stop - every single “we DID it” is a launching point for the next project, the next hurdle, the next sunrise.
People who choose to work a farm, on any scale, take a tremendous amount of responsibility onto their shoulders - and the larger your piece of earth, the larger your shoulders must be.
Oh, to be sure, those shoulders need to be broad and strong to support all the physical labors that go with farming, usually with a "normal" job pulling around the edges. Shoulders that can square up and haul feed in the rain; wrestle with a downed fence during an ice storm; rest the shovel handle on while taking a breather between the tears that accompany digging a grave for your favorite critter.
But those same shoulders can hug several children to them at once - children smelling of fresh air and sunshine. They carry baskets of bounty from the garden, and armloads of baby animals rest tiny heads there - safe and content.
The shoulders of farmers are right where they need to be - the strength, the dividing line and support between clear heads filled with learning that never ends, and hearts filled with the love of their land and their place in it. Hearts that may break from time to time, that may grow so tired from worry and care, but that heal themselves magically with each and every small miracle - beating to the rhythm of Mother Nature herself.