February 26, 2010

A Self-Supporting Homestead?

I'm still musing about farming and homesteading. Not from a need to put a label on what we're doing, define, or defend it, but because we're trying to find the way to fulfill our dream.

My husband's desire is, and always has been, to stay on the homestead and support ourselves from our land. I'm not talking about making a profitable business out of it. I'm talking about making enough to comfortably meet whatever needs we can't meet for ourselves. He talks about self-sufficiency and getting off the grid. This is why we will never be a hobby farm. It is why we seriously consider whether or not we could make a living at farming (see Farm? Homestead? What Are We? ). And it also means that the question continually before us is, how?

Perhaps a better goal than farming, would be to work toward becoming a self-supporting homestead. Yes, I use the term "self-sufficient" a lot, but really, that's not what we're looking for in the strictest sense.

Complete self-sufficiency would mean being able to meet all of one's needs from the land and by the work of one's own hands. Well, some things I just can't do for myself. For example, I can't produce salt. Being an experienced handspinner and weaver, I can tell you that there's no way I can grow, harvest, process, spin, and weave enough cotton to make my own bedsheets. Because of that, I should probably use the term "self-sustaining," rather than thinking "self-sufficient." For example, if our food production is self-sustaining, then we can decrease our financial dependence on others and use our limited resources elsewhere, toward meeting needs we can't meet for ourselves. And that brings us closer to the dream of a self-supporting homestead.

There are two obstacles to fulfilling this dream I think - debt and lifestyle.

Of debt, we only have the mortgage. If it wasn't for that, Dan reasons, he wouldn't have to have a job away from the homestead and could devote all of his time and energy here. Not that we could eliminate the need for money altogether. Even if the mortgage was paid off and we could provide for most of our own food and energy needs, there would still be property taxes to pay at the very least. But think about it. How much is your mortgage or rent? What could you do with that money if you didn't need it to pay for housing? How would it change your life if all your debt was paid off?

Two obvious things come to mind: use the money for other things, for example, we could invest it back into the homestead; or, it would mean that many less hours at a job away from home. It would be that much less money we'd need to make.

Paying off the mortgage seems a near impossible task on our income. It took a long time to find something we could afford with both a little acreage and a livable structure. We were fortunate to have a small inheritance for a good down payment to keep our monthly payments low. We do pay down on the principle, yet at the rate we're going, we're looking at more years to get it paid off than Dan has until retirement.

Lifestyle changes to decrease our expenses are more do-able. Because of this, Dan and I often ask, what can we do ourselves? Even though we can grow much of our own food, to be truly food self-sufficient requires more than that, it requires changing how we think about our diet.

Case in point. Americans shop at grocery stores, where we can buy anything we want, whenever we want. We can buy tomatoes, grapefruit, and eggs all year long. Or chocolate, brown rice, and bananas. If my goal is to produce most of my own food, then I am faced with the choice of either trying to reproduce my customary diet, or learn to eat what I have available, either from the garden or from my food storage. I think about this as I prepare meals. More and more I try to work mostly with foods that we have the potential to provide for ourselves. The more I can do that, the more I can reduce the actual monetary income we need to make a living.

Other considerations, can we provide for any or all of our own energy needs? Heating, cooling, running the computer, the vacuum, and the deep freezer? This is more complicated to figure out. To be successfully implemented, this too requires a change in thinking. Decreasing our energy consumption is the first step. Learning to ration energy is another. After all, do I really need to run the dishwasher, the dryer, the mixer, the computer, and blare the stereo all at the same time?

One question that we've had to answer is, what are our expectations in terms of income? "Making a living" means different things to different people. Does it mean supporting a family of five persons, three pets, two vehicles, a $200,000 mortgage, and cable TV? Does it include an annual vacation, college savings, and retirement investments? Does it mean simply paying the bills, shopping at thrift stores, and eating out at (insert name of favorite cheap restaurant) once a month? Or something in between? How would you define it?

Is a self-supporting homestead possible? I don't know. Basically it all boils down to either increasing our income, or decreasing our expenses. We consider both. Do we have all the answers yet? No, but we're working on it. What I do know is that the goal is a valuable tool for setting priorities, making life choices, and keeping in touch with the natural world around us. And that's much of what this blog records, our journey toward our goal.

Related Posts:
Why We're Not A Hobby Farm
Farm? Homestead? What Are We About?
A Simple Life


bspinner said...

In other words you want to live sort of like the Amish. Work your land to produce your food and have enough animals to produce your meat and eggs but when you need a light bulb head to the local store for it. PERFECT!!!!! Are you planning any solar panels or wind turbines? I think that would be wondeful.

maggie said...

Your post has my mind churning for possibilities. :) Some that come to mind (although, they come with varying degrees of "hitches") include:
leverage your weaving and needle skills: offer one-on-one weaving tutoring (I would love, love, love to find this close to me) and/or classes in knitting your own dish cloths (I am a lousy knitter and would love to find these at my farmers market or other local outlet; also, offer a class to your local homeschool group- leave it open to kids and adults, or offer two classes, or post an add in the paper or free local ad spaces)
Or, if there is no local year-round farm store near you, consider talking to local producers about hosting one at your place. A local dairy near us carries meat, eggs, honey, fresh baked breads, and even dairy from other local producers.
Just thinking out loud here...

Leigh said...

Well Barb, we don't have plans to give up electricity, our vehicles, and buttons anytime soon, *lol. But we have been discussing solar panels and wind turbines. I'll let you know what we come up with and what we decide to do about that.

Maggie, keep on thinking out loud! All of these are possibilities we need to give consideration to.

Everett said...

It's interesting how you mention "a $200,000 mortgage" along with the cars and the cable TV as if that's a luxurious home. It certainly is in much of the US, but in other parts - especially in the urban West and East Coast cities - $200,000 gets you a 750 square-foot 1950s bungalow with a postage stamp yard in a blue collar neighborhood. It's not a bad home by or place to live by any means, but neither is it luxurious. Still, in other parts of the country - especially in the midwest - you can buy a big McMansion in the suburbs with a half-acre yard for that much, along with a two-car garage to park your shiny new SUVs.

I guess it's all a matter of perspective. People here in Denver can't believe how little we paid for our 15-acre former dairy farm, with house, in southwest rural Virginia.

Like you, we only have the mortgage and no other debt. I am so thankful for high speed internet access, which will allow me to work ON the farm even though I have a job OFF the farm.

Thanks for the inspirational blog post. Keep 'em coming; I subscribe and read every day.


Renee Nefe said...

we were kinda wondering about that... I mean there are certain things you'll have to purchase like salt, flour (or at least processing it), etc. Will you be making your own cleaning supplies?

I guess some for of income is always going to be necessary because the tax man never rests. ugh

Following your dream has made me consider simplifying my life quite a bit. I find myself not going somewhere just because it gives me something to do. And I've been considering my purchases... I may want that item, but do I really need it? and can I make due with something I already have?

I don't believe that I'll ever be as committed to the simple life as much as you have already, but cutting back is making my hubby happy. :D

Woolly Bits said...

I don't have debts to pay, but I have a kid, that hasn't even finished primary school, never mind university etc. and I don't think it is possible for two people to have a completely self-sustained life without any income from outside, be it gained or inherited etc. think of all the things you'd have to grow, cotton/flax for fabric, grains for bread, food for animals that you might want to eat. you'd have to make soap, you'd have to prepare your fibres, spin them, weave them, sew everything - there aren't enough hours in a day to do all that! I read John Seymour years ago and thought his ideas fantastic, but I also realised that this would only be possible in a bigger group of people. it's not much more work to grow grain for 6 or 8 people, but you'd have many more hands to help with the work! I think the only reasonable way of life is to do as much as you can reasonably do - and make the compromise of having to earn some outside money - to have as good a life as you can have. I am too practical to keep dreaming about a totally self-sustained life:)) and anyway, the Amish do all that in a large group as well, otherwise it wouldn't be possible..

charlotte said...

This is very interesting reading! I think it is almost impossible to be comletely self-supported, but I'm sure you can manage to be self-supported to a large degree. I think that people being self-supported to some degree and people buying local products, would reduce transport and pollution associated with transport a lot, plus providing a better income for local farmers, small enterprises, etc. I'm a big fan of the slogan "Think global, buy local".

Leigh said...

Everett, you bring up an excellent point about home prices and location. I agree that this is relative. Around here a $200,000 home would be an expensive home. I think too, that this goes hand in hand with local wages. Our realtor had a friend who moved to Seattle after being offered a job making twice the money he did here. Unfortunately the cost of living was so high that they weren't any better off there than here. Quite an eye opener.

Renee I think for most of us lifestyle is what we're used to. We don't really think about our spending habits or how we spend our time; we just do what we've grown up with or whatever's become customary. I think change requires motivation. For some folks that's a smaller carbon footprint. For others it's necessity because of the economy. Or like us, there's just a sense of satisfaction in working close to the earth.

Of course, not everyone is going to make similar choices to our, but we're happy with the direction we're going.

Bettina, I have no idea whether it's possible or not. As you probably gathered from this post, we are actually aiming for a comfortable compromise. How well we achieve that will all boil down to setting priorities and making choices.

Back in the 70s I was a part of a commune that was attempting a more severe back-to-the-land lifestyle than we want (you can read a little about that here. That didn't work out too well as there was group dynamics to deal with as well as the daily tasks of living. There were quite a few groups that sprung up, but I would doubt that any of them are still around.

Even so there is an amazing homestead / agrarian movement in the US. I find fascinating new blogs by these folks, and all with the same goal as us. They may have different motivations, but we are all heading in the same direction.

Charlotte, thanks! How much outside money we'll have to bring in will ultimately depend upon our expenses. I sincerely wish we could get that mortgage paid off. That would make a big difference.

Lee said...

I love this post. I agree with the sentiments and the goals 100%. Thank goodness for the blogs! If there was no Internet, we'd be solo crazy. Instead we can be crazy, but with company! :)

I'm also fortunate enough to have telecommuting employment, and I hope to keep this job for as long as the economy and corporate whims allow. The realities of a mortgage (and remodeling a wreck) unfortunately guarantee the need for an outside income. I've noticed a common theme among most books by self-sufficiency advocates -- they work from home, often writing books.

We realize that complete self-sufficiency is unrealistic, but I'd at least like to know how to do most things (grow food and grains, raise animals, butcher, preserve meat, build fences and structures, blacksmith, etc.) Along the way you find the things you are good at and the things you should pay others to do, and perhaps somewhere in the mix you can sell enough off the property to pay for what you need to bring in.

Unknown said...

Good Morn Leigh, thanks for the comments on my blogs! I am glad I came across your blog and am really enjoying reading it. You seem to be going through a lot of the same thoughts as we are right now and similar goals! I believe when it comes to a self sustaining life, a lot of what you do will reflect your "comfort" levels and what one is willing to do or not do. Good luck reaching your goals and I look forward to following your blog!

Julie said...

I think it sounds like your working towards that and thats a good thing! We are very lucky we sold our home on three acre during that time of high prices and waited two years before building this house so our morage is almost paid off.

Katrien said...

The distinction between "self-sufficient" (which sounds so arrogant) and "self-supporting" is very helpful! There is an element of responsibility in that word, like the teenager has become a grown-up: own job, own house, etc. It implies the closing of loops as well, to me. I love it, thank you!

I also totally second what Lee wrote: "Thank goodness for the blogs! If there was no Internet, we'd be solo crazy. Instead we can be crazy, but with company! :)"
These blogs of ours really do make a world of difference

Sharon said...

I've been surprised at how our expenses plummeted when we retired. Some reasons are obvious, less gas used and we don't buy ready-made meals or eat out, but there has to be more to it than that. We are still comfortable with half the income. I'm now starting to think about a wind turbine now.

Leigh said...

Lee, "crazy with company," well put!

I think you bring up a good point, i.e., that there is something inherently satisfying about learning and mastering (or not mastering) these skills. The same goes with being able to eat the food one grows and raises for oneself. And in regards to food, quality is something that I didn't' mention but would still be a motivating force even if we weren't thinking along the lines of self-sufficiency.

Rainbow Rivers, you're welcome. I agree, it's wonderful to find someone else who shares similar goals. It's not only encouraging, but I learn a lot from reading about how others are working toward their goals.

Julie, good for you! I know there is a tremendous sense of security in that. I'm truly looking forward to the day I can report that our mortgage is almost paid off.

Katrien, I hadn't thought about it, but you're right about the inferences of those terms. I like your distinctions and agree, there is an element of responsibility to "self-supporting." I think that sense of responsibility is largely lost in our modern world, but we truly do feel that way.

Sharon, interesting observation. I once heard someone on the radio, who was asking women how much their job cost them. When one factors childcare, transportation, work clothes, lunches, and ready-made meals in the evening, some women discovered that they were actually losing money by going to work. The show was a real eye opener.

Dan's thinking about wind power too! Do keep us informed about what you learn when you start to research it

Laura @ LivingOurWay said...

Your goal are similar to ours. Our big thing is...insurance. Any solutions for that one? MrLivingOurWay says we would just have to accept that if we got with something serious we would die. If he came down with cancer, I don't believe I would just be able to stand there and watch him die though...and I don't think he could watch me die either.

Dustine said...

Your goals are soo what I've been thinking about. shhh I'm not sure my husband know yet. :)

Hello, I came to your little blog via livingourway-I look forward to reading more sounds like you guys are enjoying the journey of learning to be more self sufficient.
I'm a stay home wife/mother, homeschooler, and aspiring homesteader. Currently working on turning our backyard into a garden, orchard,while maintaining a playspace for the kiddos.
In my humble opinion it is so satisfying to provide for oneself and I think in our modern world we are missing a sense of peace as a result of moving through life so fast.

Leigh said...

Laura, we don't have insurance. Haven't had insurance in over 16 years. There are several reasons for this. My background is in nursing (I used to be an RN with a BS in nursing) but having worked within the medical system, I have absolutely no confidence in it. Nor in the insurance industry, which is not offering a service, but making a profit. The product they sell is a false sense of security, based on worse case "what ifs." I think it would be wiser to put the money one spends on insurance premiums, into a savings account. Not a specified medical or health savings, which still controls your money, but in a regular savings, which is available to you whenever you choose. The fear here is that a medical catastrophe will cost more than one has in savings, but really, no insurance company is going to pay 100% of it either, which still leaves the patient holding the bag.

So, what do we do instead? For one thing, diet. Think about how many diseases are connected to diet and lifestyle, including cancer. If we choose foods and a lifestyle that decrease risk and increase health, then the potential need for insurance is lessened greatly.

We also use a lot of natural and herbal cures. True, this requires study and an understanding of what one is working with, but it is not some sort of spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Much of herbal medicine is valid and supported with scientific research. "Real" medicine knows very well the validity of alternative medicines, and often works very hard to eliminate the competition.

And if we have a medical emergency? We go to either urgent care and pay cash (happened once in 16 years) or to the emergency room and work out a payment plan with the hospital (which we've never had to do.)

What if one of us developed cancer? Well, most medical patients die of the disease anyway, oftentimes after prolonged suffering which is related from the treatments. No, we wouldn't just sit idly and watch the other die, but we would seek alternatives to maintain dignity and quality of life for as long as the Lord allows.

In the end it's a faith issue, and different ones of us have different comfort levels in regards to this. What we do is not for everyone, for very few probably. But it's what we are most comfortable with. In fact, I absolutely loathe the idea of the government imposing mandatory health insurance on us, which is what it looks like things are coming to.

Dusti, thank you so much for dropping by! I absolutely agree with you about lifestyle and that sense of satisfaction with life in general. I'm always delighted to find others in the blogosphere with the same goals and heart. I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

Anonymous said...

We live in an old farmhouse and the land around us that used to belong to the farm is now a state park. We have just under 2 acres and want to "get off the grid" as well. We already have chickens and a great garden but we need help in finding cows and goats. we can't have a lot since we only have 2 acres but we want to be self sustaining. There are plans in the works for solar panels and a windmill, possibly a cistern... you get the idea. We love the idea of being self sustaining but we need a little advice as we're new to this. If you want more info you can check out our website WWW.harlowfarmhouse.com

Sheryl at Providence North said...

Very interesting post! We think like this too. Shifting from one extreme to the other is hard and it's more of a continuous journey than a goal, I think.

We cannot be completely self sufficient. As you said, I can't produce salt, but do we really need so much of it in our diet? Can we slowly train ourselves away from the things we don't need, like salt and, uh, well...TV dinners? lol

Unknown said...

Well, really the best way to do it, in my opinion, is to follow dave ramsey's approach. Although I don't believe in all of his philosophies (I.E. paying off your home the day you close on it. The reason being is if you can get reasonably safe bonds, well before the bond bubble, you could get 6% off of your bonds, and pay about 4% on your house loan. Pretty easy math) But he does really show how to budget and let you know you don't need all of the things you thought you had. Anyway, you can get a pretty diverse portfolio and reasonably conservative to earn about 5-6% per year. Find out what you need per year and save enough to make that 5-6% meet your needs.

Leigh said...

Ryan, the bottom line is where is your confidence? What system do you trust? If you've read much of my blog, or the blogs of others like me, then you know we have no faith in our current economic system.

Being on the bottom rung of this country's economic scale (i.e. technically below national poverty level), I can tell you my concern about investments from this point of view. You see, for folks to get those returns, even modest ones, companies have to make profits. If not profits, folks start to sell off. Sounds simple, right? But when those companies can't make their profits through sales, they have to make them other ways. They do that by decreasing costs, right? And they decrease costs by cutting manufacturing expenses (cheaper materials, smaller packaging, etc), by cutting workers salaries, and by laying folks off. On paper, they seem to be doing great, but in reality, the little guys end up footing the bill for investors' profits. I know because my husband is the one who took 3 pay cuts since he started working for his company because they numbers didn't look good to investors. I'm the one who has walks away with less at the store because I get less for the few $$ I have to spend on food and other essentials. As Uncle Eric says, TANSTAFL ("there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.")

Unknown said...

For cow's on 2 acres you should check out Dexter cattle. Smaller than your average cow but super friendly and the beef and milk are really good. Plus if you want to be off the grid completely and need to plow a field these little guys are great workers.

Chris said...

I was going through some of the links in your sidebar Leigh, and came across this. While it may be dated back to 2013, it answers questions for me in 2016.

I've read much about investing and living off the returns in retirement. Everyone raves about it as sound financial advice. But it never felt right to me. It didn't seem fair that one can expect to be paid lots of money, for not doing any of the work involved to make the profit.

Your small, succinct reply, said it all. :)

Leigh said...

I've always felt the same way, Chris, that something just wasn't quite "right" about our world economic system. It preaches that our security is in money and investments, yet who hasn't known of or heard of folks who lose everything due to some turn in the stock market? Or worse, someone in the financial system simply stealing it. I know we could somehow lose our land, but that's where a greater sense of security lies.