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.
As someone who got all my info from books and would rather read a book than do anything else, I hear you. Good for you for trying and good for you for expressing the intangibles that a family really needs to do something other than jump in cars every morning!
Amen to the family part – things are hard and easier by large degrees depending on family on hand. I see this very clearly whenever I try to can things alone – I’m very convinced canning is not meant to be an individual process. It goes so much smoother with a few extra hands! All that being said – after a couple years I much prefer cleaning, bagging and tossing stuff in the deep freezer.
Awesome post! I think as life gets more complicated more of us start believing that it would be SO MUCH EASIER if we just “simplified,” and homesteading really seems like such a simplification. But the reality is that there is no easy life out there — it’s all complicated in different ways. I know I really pine for a house out in the country where I have a garden and acres of land and homeschool my youngins, but the truth is that it would still require my husband to work a full-time job… and being out in the country does equate to a longer commute. There are pros and cons to every situation, and I think so much of being happy with where you are is choosing to be happy.
But Michelle Obama said that the kids would love vegetables if they grew them…
Oh my gosh, I think you described our life perfectly! Chickens, garden, home improvement, etc. Except we are doing it in the city….cause after a short stint in West Virginia we realized we do NOT like living in the country! We’re up in Pennsylvania now but in a small city, definitely not hanging with the Amish in Lancaster, lol! We are surrounded by Mennonites though, which is cool.
I have to say it’s kinda fun to do it in our little city corner plot. We’re close to activities and friends so we can stay home more. We homeschool so obviously school schedules aren’t a problem. Though I totally agree with you that having extended family around and a very very humble lifestyle is crucial to making full-time homesteading work. This is probably a good word of caution. I think my husband and I, like you guys, are prone to getting overzealous about the whole homesteading thing. Perhaps we need to scale back our expectations and instead focus on just replacing our non-organic fruits/veggies with homemade organic, hoping to break even. And yeah our chickens are 1/3 school project, 1/3 pets, and 1/3 fresh eggs 🙂 But maybe I need to let go of those visions of becoming self-sufficient on our small plot unless we can coerce the grandparents into moving in (unlikely) and become willing to drastically alter our lifestyle (also unlikely because…..Target…)
This is such an awesome post! I think you hit on some great points I know I tend to hve this “romantic” view of living off the land, but when it really comes down to it, I just know it wouldn’t work because of all the reasons you listed. Especially number 5, 6, 7 We’re just not willing to stay home all the time and give up Internet, electricity and going places. And, I can really related to what you said about not recuperating the costs of the chickens an gardens. We don’t have chickens, or a raised beds, all I have is a few grow boxes with some lettuce, kale and swiss chard in them, and I”m just really hoping that the amount of greens I get, is above the cost of the potting mix I had to put int them. I figure if I get enough for 2-3 nights a week, that saves us about $4-6 of our budget. It’s gonna take a lot of weeks to make up the cost of that dirt. LOL
I hear you, Kelly. Even starting (and now expanding) a backyard garden is time and labor intensive. July-August is a critical time to maintain and start harvesting, and being away a week or two can be risky, especially if it doesn’t rain. But in the end, I think it comes down to how much you enjoy doing it; I have found that the underlying reason for people’s actions or inactions tends to revolve around their will/interest to do it or lack thereof.
One more point, on a more philosophical level, to take from your post is this – acknowledging the lack of community, is the only solution then to be somewhere there is already an existing community? Or is it worth trying to rebuild the old support system from scratch? One of the headwinds we have today is the transience of the population which has made the existence of extended family in close proximity increasingly rare. But how do we rebuild the support system that once existed when mothers (and fathers if you go back before 1850) stayed at home if not by ensuring some way that children stay close and get married and raise their own families nearby? I’ve been accused of wanting children not to grow up by suggesting this, but in reality, it is the children who move away and glory in the extended adolescence of single life who are the ones not growing up. By staying close I mean to suggest that they do so with marriage and starting a family in mind and act accordingly, not mooching off mom and dad in the basement. Perhaps it does come down to how much “home” is valued.
This is so interesting; thank you for sharing your experiences, Kelly. I grew up in a rather isolated place in upstate NY (lots of Amish!) and in our small Catholic homeschooling world there were many families who aspired to live the homesteading life. My parents never delved into it too much (although we did have chickens!) but we knew families who tried and failed or had to scale back their attempts. I don’t think it’s impossible, but like you said, it’s a huge lifestyle change and it’s hard to do that in isolation with lack of familial support. Now, my husband and I are gardening for a second year in a row, but it’s more of a hobby for him than anything. If we were trying to supplement our food budget or do it for more idealogical reasons, it would be a lot of work and we probably wouldn’t bother.
This was all so interesting to me. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I grew up with a large garden and hunting father. I can remember many meals from my childhood where everything on the table was made / produced by my parents. Venison, veggies, grape juice. The bread was made from store bought products but even that was made from scratch by my mom. It was delicious.
Travis and I are pathetic gardeners but we do have the goal of producing enough tomatoes and such to make our own salsa and marinara sauce to get us through the winter. It’s the weeds that get us – every summer.
I love this post and I think I’ll be trolling the comment thread all day!! My husband comes from Old Order Mennonite stock (so…basically Amish) and the first time I visited his aunts, uncles, cousins I was completely mesmerized by the lifestyle. Make soap! Pick peas! Milk cows fetch eggs ride the horses! While I hope to have a homestead of sorts at some point in life, multiple failed gardens – except for chard and mint and chard and mint – have brought down my aspirations a lot.
I think to make a homesteading endeavor really work you have to be Barbara Kingsolver, inherit a farm, and sell the book deal beforehand.
I, too, tend to “romanticize” country life. I grew up in town but with grandparents on a farm and my parents and in-laws now live in the country. As a child I loved going to visit my grandparents on the farm, and helping milk the cows and feed the goats, etc. As an adult, I realize how much work living in the country really is. My in-laws are in their 70s and spend most of their days working outside, tending to the horses, painting or mending fences. My parents don’t have livestock but spend tons of time mowing grass. My kids love visiting grandma and running around outside, but I know Doug and I are basically lazy people or spend most of our energy working and homeschooling the kids. Just keeping them fed requires lots of work! I think for now we like living in town, which is only a 10 minute commute for my hubby. We’re close to church, friends, and our homeschool activities. The kids have friends in our neighborhood. Maybe when Doug & I “retire” we’ll move out to the country and have our grandkids come visit us! Oh, and where we live we can have chickens, and my kids are trying to talk me into it for the eggs alone. They are pretty darn cute, but becoming responsible for keeping one more thing alive around here might break me!
Loved reading about your observations. I’ve always wanted to homestead but I think it is more of a dream than something that we could actually do. My husband is in the military and we move every few years.
My husband and I never, ever had plans to be homesteaders. The only reason we are “farmers” is because we fell in love with an old house on a beautiful piece of land that happened to come with barns and 14 chickens. We have embraced the country life, with the big organic garden, canning, raising chickens and pigs, hanging clothes to dry and all. My husband still works, because there is no way we could afford for him not to. We don’t make any money off of this endeavor. We save quite a bit, but it ain’t gonna pay the bills.
You are spot on with your points about why homesteading is so hard. The isolation and lack of experienced women around to pass on the skills of homesteading are huge problems. I oftentimes wish I could pick up our property and move it north 20 minutes in order to be close to the kids’ school and my husband’s work.
Thanks for sharing this. As a city gal who often thinks about heading to the country to at least have more space and nice garden, (if not to be totally self-sufficient) I really appreciated your perspective. It’s so counter-cultural to live this way – you can dream the idyllic dream, but the reality is, it’s hard.
This is so interesting! While I don’t have chickens or yet have a large garden, we try to live these principles as best we can. I live in suburban Michigan and we aren’t allowed to have chickens or animals. I am a Mormon (who loves reading all things Catholicism on your blog) and members of our faith tend to also try to live this way too. One thing I’ve picked up from my mother-in-law (who has a garden the size of my family room) is grinding my own wheat. I buy whole wheat berries in bulk and have an electric grinder. (I can grind other things, but I mostly use it for wheat). I can handle baking my own bread with a toddler and baby. But not much else at the moment. My mother-in-law also cans everything herself from what she grows in her huge garden. She sews everything…my father-in-law can build anything. But you are right, it takes a support network to be able to accomplish these things. She grew up in rural Utah where you did these things because that is just what you did. I grew up in suburban Philadelphia (on the PA side) where nobody did these things and it has been really difficult to try to learn any of this far away from family. I don’t feel like I have anyone to learn these things from so I’ve mostly turned to the internet.
The thing about community and motherhood really struck me too. Since becoming a mom, I have felt very isolated, especially during frigid winters.
The one thing I was surprised about was that growing the vegetables didn’t make you like them. I hardly ate any veggies as a kid but eating them out of the garden is a new experience! I can hardly get enough of fresh veggies out of the garden. Same with berries.
Kelly, my husband cannot thank you enough for writing this. It all sounds spot on, and has, at least for the moment, disabused me of my romantic agrarian notions. But I do like our chickens and our front yard victory garden.
Ironically, one of the things that forced me to accept that we had to scale back our homesteading was reading Fr. Vincent McNabb’s “The Church and the Land”. At the beginning of the book he says (I’m paraphrasing) “the principle reason to go back to the land is to be able to worship God better”.
By consuming all of my time outside of work, I had to admit that homesteading was making it harder to worship God and fulfill my duties as a parent and husband. I still like a lot of the agrarian ideals, but for all the reasons Kelly mentioned, it just isn’t practical for us.
As far veggies out of the garden, I think we would have gotten more out of it, if we were better gardeners. All our favorites either died early, or never produced much.
This is such a well-written post Kelly. . . . Don’t take this the wrong way, but it makes me feel better about my husband’s and my decision to be utter and complete town-dwellers. If our local grocery story shut down all of a sudden, we’d be in a world of hurt, but that’s a risk we’re willing to take. . . .
I grew up in a house on a lot of land, and my family had chickens and a garden and the occasional goat, all as a hobby. It was very romantic to my parents. I, on the other hand, hated washing poop off the eggs and having the kitchen always smell like a compost bucket.
But, I sometimes wonder, should I at least aspire to grow/raise my own food? . . .
Thank you for your post! My family failed even at suburban living!
Six years ago my husband and I extracted our family from the car dependent culture of Tennessee. We now live in a city in the UK in a row house crammed with children, having given up a big yard (now tiny back yard), a second car, a driveway and garages (now street parking that is less than perfect)… But, the kids can walk to the little local shop for basic groceries (and candy unfortunately!). We can take the train from a station down the street or a bus up the street into town or to other cities. We don’t even have an allotment (victory garden) and only grow a few apples and a very elderly Rosemary plant. Most importantly for us, the kids are FREE by about the age of 12-14 to meet their friends in town by bus or train, to walk to school, walk to friends’ houses, youth group or sports fields (I don’t have to drive them!). We have all the problems of city living however, sometimes close to home – vandalism, drunken behaviour in the street, robbery… so nowhere is perfect!
I love the idea of country living, land, animals, growing food… but like reading about it best of all. Each family is different and children have different needs as they grow up. God bless you and your family!
Thanks for snapping me out of my illusions, I think I needed the kick. Here I am in suburbia, with a husband who works as a professional in the city, and I spend my time dreaming about homesteading. I had nearly convinced myself that we would be better off moving into the countryside somewhere and trying to live off the land. I was thinking about keeping chickens, growing vegetables, the whole nine yards. Luckily my husband was no nearly so romantic about that idea, so we have remained put, which is turning out to be a very good thing.
Babysitting for a week at a house with 9 chickens taught me that I am not cut out for the homesteading, poultry raising life.
Chickens are gross, man!
Before the parents left on their trip, they told me that chickens “will eat anything other than chicken.” Because I’m not hip to the chicken-rearing jive, I believed them. Two days into my babysitting adventures, I was flipping through a book that said that you can feed chickens anything — including chicken.
I may or may not have driven to McDonald’s to purchase some chicken nuggets for the chickens.
They may or may not have eaten them.
You and I live parallel lives it seems. This is us. We moved here thinking it was all going to work out like in the books and blogs. But most people don’t have 4 little kids with more to come either. We have decided to just be happy with chickens and a garden (a small garden). We too had to learn the hard way after many years of trying to get to this place where we could be “farmers”. However, like you, I hope to impart the wisdom of all this to my kids and hopefully they can make more informed decisions then we did.
Plus, you don’t have to go out in the snow and sleet to feed books.
That last sentence. Yes. Just a resounding YES!
This post was such a good one for me. We dream of moving further from Philadelphia (we are just outside, in a townhouse on a park). I imagine all the wonderful things about it. But I think most of your points would be very true for us too. Thanks for this, it is helping me think about it all!
I would venture to say that your husband didn’t just get a job in software development without getting an education first, your first attempts at homeschooling were possibly more difficult than now=just like when a person first learns to cook-you have to psyche yourself up for it where as now you just do it. There is a learning curve to EVERYTHING-I know how many mistakes you make when you first start learning new things and homesteading, gardening, etc. is no exception. And without family or community, well…very, very difficult. If you like being in town better than don’t feel bad about going back. You could work out the kinks in your homesteading lifestyle but it takes time and making a lot of mistakes. You could actually be the catalyst for a community of like-minded people suddenly appearing out of nowhere. That would make you a pioneer. But its not for everyone.
I understand how you felt you ‘failed’. I think the failing was just that you had your expectations way too high and wasn’t prepared for the full ‘jump in with both feet’ thing. if your children are used to processed food with flavor additives and sugar out the wazzoo, then yea they won’t be as eager to switch to fresh green beans or collards.. but you adapt. keep serving them. grow strawberries, one small bed at a time. then add some more. then add asparagus. and broccoli. and a couple chickens later, you have the beginnings of a wonderful little homestead that feeds your soul as well as yourbelly. so you won’t raise a barn or run a 100 acre farm. but you have a garden and fresh eggs and your kids still have extracurricular activities. it took me five years to transition from a 70hr work week to a homestead that supports me with a part time job. it can be done. do I go to movies and hang out in pubs with friends? no, we have potlucks around the fire pit and pizza parties around the clay woodfired backyard pizza oven. I found that I got the most help after I first helped raise someone else’s barn. actually a dozen barns. then my turn came :). dont give up. just continue adjusting and you’ll get there..
Gosh, I just linked on this from your “Top Posts of 2014” post. I live in one of the outer boroughs of New York City and this homesteading post really spoke to me. Not so much because I was thinking of homesteading, per se, but because I have been trying to simplify and so much of what you write makes me think that living a simpler lifestyle leads to self sufficiency in a way similar to that of homesteading. My house isn’t very big and most of my colleagues live in very well appointed places in the suburbs and drive much more elegant cars than I do. In my profession, my lifestyle does not fit in. It is sometimes a little uncomfortable not “keeping up with the Joneses”, but I am finding myself more at peace, especially knowing that I am not building up debt and channeling resources into material things that will ultimately be discarded. It is not always easy, but the spiritual benefits and peace of mind have made up for any discomfort. Thanks for the post.
I think you’ve done a valuable service here. My husband really wanted us to homestead and reads all the books and for a while there I was thinking we were going to be like the couple in the tv show “Green Acres,” but fortunately he’s realized it’s beyond our capacity for us to be self-supporting on the land. He is doing all he can on our little suburban property (“Farmocalypse Now”), and unlike the garden, his job provides a reliable positive return for his work. It’s hard to learn gardening etc. from books.
Gene Logsdon’s books (and he blogs as the Contrary Farmer) cover some of the same points as you in greater depth, though less humorously. He writes that most small-scale farmers need some source of outside income to survive, as well as greater frugality than interests me. His profiles of the Amish make me feel that we who don’t have extended family living/working together are much poorer than they.
Love this post! So grateful to have your perspective as my husband and I warm up our vegetable gardening skills in a small plot and contemplate moving further out into the country. We are fortunate to have family close by and willing to help, but being very recently postpartum the last couple of years during the summer has made weeding, harvesting and storage a challenge. Any tips for coordinating these challenges while breastfeeding/working within physical limitations? I’m guessing…scale back? Haha, but I really am interested!
Oooooh yes! And this time of year I always have such grand ideas 😉 Then by mid summer, all the stuff I’ve planted has dried up and died 😉
I’ve just decided to plant ONLY the things I really love. And frankly, thats pizza toppings for the most part, lol. Cant have enough basil…. 😉
And every spring we go to the feed store and see all those baby birds and think “what could possibly go wrong….” lol!
Thanks for your commentary and hope you’ve recovered from this tragically traumatic homesteading experience. But truly, what were you thinking?! A homestead on a one acre plot of commercial neighborhood land in New Jersey?! That is not sustainable for a family homestead. Better luck next time!
Great post.. Thanks for sharing 🙂
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