This June, it will be six years since our family moved into our current home, situated on an acre of land and surrounded on a couple sides by protected farmland, and the other two by subdivisions. It was exactly what we thought we wanted.
Shortly after moving to New Jersey almost nine years ago, my husband and I discovered the ‘Back to the Land’ movement and homesteading. In fact our bookshelves to this day include multiple titles on raising plants, animals and self sufficiency. From our small apartment, the thought of providing food for our family that we grew ourselves sounded great. Embracing a lifestyle that allowed my husband to leave an unfulfilling job so he could stay home and provide for us off our own land? Even better! What could go wrong????? There were so many blogs and books written by people who had succeeded at homesteading- and those that didn’t, I just ignored. Plus, Catholic Agrarianism is a thing. Homesteading was not only a practical lifestyle, but a spiritual one as well. Surely God would bless us in this new crazy adventure!!
But many things did go wrong. Today, we’re not living off the land and we’re not self sufficient. In reflecting on why things didn’t go the way we expected I though back to my hometown of Lancaster, PA. Large populations of Amish thrive there doing everything I’ve failed at. I considered trying to meet and shadow an Amish family to learn their secrets. Maybe the key was moving back to our hometown. But what I realized was the Amish have maintained a culture and community that supports homesteading amidst a life centered around their faith. Once I compared them and us, it was easy to see how we could have floundered where they flourished. There were lots of reasons, big glaring reasons, I couldn’t ignore.
1. The Amish have lots of family help. Mom isn’t alone at home with a bunch of little kids trying to weed the garden, bake bread and hand wash clothes. She’s got her mother, mother-in-law, plus older or younger siblings of her own around to help; either under the same roof, or only a short walk away.
2. The Amish community supports a homesteading lifestyle. All the Amish are doing the same thing. Some will specialize in different areas (growing tobacco, woodworking, running a dairy herd, etc) but all Amish families are growing and preserving food, sewing clothes, raising animals, etc. If one family needs help with a hay harvest or barn raising everyone lends a hand, or equipment, to get the job done. And everyone knows what they are doing. On the contrary, Tony and I moved into our current house with the closest family two and a half hours away. Even now with his parents close by, you’d be hard pressed to find any other homesteaders in our neck of the woods. Most farms are either large operations requiring tons of migrant workers or backyard gardens run by busy families like ourselves in towns that probably don’t allow chickens. While we are blessed with wonderful Church and homeschooling communities, we are isolated from a supportive homesteading community. Books and blogs are great, but they’re not great mentors.
4. The Amish have experience. There are raised with the skills necessary to provide for themselves. Tony and I read all the books in the world, but with no hands on experience, it’s no wonder we had more failures than successes in the early years. Trying to provide for your family while learning is discouraging. I wish we started younger, like right out of college, so by the time the kids came, we’d have figured all this out and maybe made different decisions about where to live and work. It’s been almost impossible to switch gears midstream once we were locked into certain careers and places of our lives.
5. . The Amish have land. Even as they grow and expand and break more of it apart to give to their children, young Amish couples have a place to start without going into debt. Even if families sell their land (as it fetches huge sums now for development) they are relocating their entire communities to cheaper areas in Upstate New York and Canada or expanding numbers in Ohio. Without a huge mortgage burden and value in the land, the Amish are much more financially secure than Tony and I. Even though we bought a fixer upper in an area of Jersey with lower taxes, we have never come close to figuring out how to make enough money off our land to cover our monthly mortgage. When Tony was unemployed for six months, we hoped perhaps he could pick up freelance work and use his extra time to make our land work for us, but without experience we were uncertain how to proceed and heaved a huge sign of relief when he was gainfully employed with benefits again. Could we move somewhere cheaper? Not at this point in our lives because most areas with cheap enough land are too far from a good children’s hospital. Plus, there’s a downside to leaving everything you know in search of cheap land, namely no family (#1), possibly no community (#2) and isolation from everything else…see #6.
6. The Amish life revolves around the home. There’s no extra curriculars for the kids, all of whom can walk to school. There’s no family vacations or eating out or last minute field trips to the beach. During the spring and summer, farms can be especially demanding, but that’s okay when you’re always home. I don’t like being tied to a homestead. As it is, we need to get help to feed the chickens when we travel which can be tricky. And our yearly trip to Ocean City with my family is why our garden always got out of hand every July. But I’m not going to stay home just so I can water and weed a raised bed. Plus, to live in an area with sprawling fields we placed ourselves at least 30 minutes from most youth activities. Are there kids in the neighborhoods around us? Maybe. It’s hard to tell since we never see any, and now, without neighborhood kids, visiting with friends, playing a sport or anything social / extra curricular requires packing everyone up and driving somewhere. We are car dependent out here and, especially given the time it takes me to load and unload everyone, it is the worst thing I discovered about choosing this location. Plus, there’s no chance of Tony finding a job any closer to our house and gaining back the time he loses everyday in travel. Software jobs are surprisingly rare in the wilds of New Jersey.
7. The Amish have few material wants and other expenses. Without a mortgage, or a need for designer clothes, shoes, electronics, car repair, gas, electricity, and many of the things modern society needs, the Amish just don’t require a huge weekly salary. Medical care is primarily preventative and huge expenses are shared by the community. Even though our family has paired back considerably, we’re not living like the Amish. Expenses like wheelchair lift repair, clothing, Internet service, and electricity will need to get covered. The bit of food we do produce has hardly put a dent on our food budget and I don’t believe we’ve ever recouped the cost of setting up our raised beds or chicken coop.
8. The Amish have time. They’re not working one, or two full time jobs and then trying to run a farm too. Tony is gone from home ten hours a day (including his commute.) I’m trying to homeschool and raise my children without a lot of outside assistance. Trying to be self sufficient in the evenings and weekends doesn’t cut it, especially when you’re tired, and especially when, in our enthusiasm, we took on way too many new things at once. Gardens! Chickens! Strawberries! Home improvement! Yes, let’s do all of it and drive ourselves insane!!!! Maybe if our passions aligned more with self sufficient tasks, it would’ve gone better, however when given the opportunity to weed a garden, bake bread, put up pickles or read a book while the baby napped, I’d always choose the book.
Chalk it up to life experience. We’re not living off the land the way we expected, but we’re still very blessed. Knowing my husband and I, there was no way we would’ve heeded the naysayers and not done this to ourselves. But we’ve learned some valuable lessons in the process that I hope we can impart to our children that will enable them to make better decisions down the road. (Like, if you hate eating vegetables, don’t think that will magically change just because you grew them yourself.)
However, if you read this list and thought, hey, we’re young, have a great support network around us, low expenses that can be met at home and we enjoy being homebodies, homesteading might work for you. And even if you’re like us, and have to make a living some other way, taking on some homesteading tasks might be enjoyable for you, or educational for your kids (if you’re so inclined.) It can’t hurt to be knowledgable about self sufficiency, and circumstances might arise when it’s downright practical, but don’t assume jumping from the suburbs into Little House on the Prairie is going to work for you… unless, of course, you’re Amish.