Defining Homesteading in the 21st Century

So what is homesteading? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a homestead as “the home and adjoining land occupied by a family” and a homesteader as “one who acquires a tract of land from U.S. public lands by filing a record and living on and cultivating the tract” (Merriam-Webster, 1974 edition). These definitions are pretty broad and kindle reminisces of the myriad Homestead Acts enacted by the U.S. Federal Government that have been popularized by such literary works as the “Little House” series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932-1943), which later became a television series starring Michael Landon on NBC from 1974 through 1982; the Great Plains trilogy by Willa Cather (1913-1918), which has also been made into several movie adaptations, and James Michener’s “Centennial” (Michener, 1974), which became a miniseries that ran on NBC from October 1978 through February 1979.
The first of those homesteading acts was The Homestead Act of 1862 signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Anyone who had not taken up arms against the US, was at least 21 years of age or the head of the family, could file for a land claim of 160 acres. They had to build a house and live on that land for 5 years, improving and cultivating it before receiving title. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended all homestead acts (Wikipedia, 2014). So much for history but what about today?
The most popular view of homesteading today seems to be all about growing your own food. With all of the additives and preservatives (half of which we cannot pronounce); artificial colorings and sweeteners; chemical pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides that are used on our crops; and the myriad antibiotics and growth hormones that lace our dairy and meat products, it is little wonder that so many people are looking to raise their own food. Of course, with this attitude, we still look at that 160 acres of land to achieve this end. Many do not consider that a family can grow enough food to sustain themselves throughout the year on less than one-fifth of an acre. Today’s modern homesteads are often quite small. They are often referred to as micro-farms or hobby farms but they get the job done, teeming with life, energy and productivity.
How can anyone grow enough food on less than an acre of land? By using a combination of time-honored practices such as crop rotation, composting and companion planting with alternative methods of farming such as Square Foot Gardening (Bartholomew, 2005), lasagna or instant gardening (the layering of cardboard, newspaper, kitchen waste, grass clippings, leaves and/or dried manure/compost on top of a section of land without rototilling, which damages the soil) and vermicomposting (using earthworms to create worm “tea”, liquid worm castings). Heirloom and organic varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs are generally used and preferred, and seed saving for the next season’s harvest, instead of Monsanto’s Franken-seeds, is a common practice. The time-honored practices of canning and preserving, drying, freezing, fermentation and root cellaring are also employed so that this healthier harvest can be enjoyed throughout the winter months when the growing season virtually ends for all but the most southerly states. For many this is the sole extent of homesteading. For many we could add the raising of chickens, ducks, quail and/or geese for their eggs and, along with other small livestock (where permitted by zoning laws and regulations), for meat and/or dairy, and bees for their honey. But this is just one definition.
Besides the growing concerns for what is in our foods, people are equally concerned about our environment. Alternative energies such as wind and solar are becoming popular. Though the initial installation is often quite expensive, these systems help pay for themselves over time. There are many who consider the expense irrelevant when compared to the harm that fossil fuels and nuclear power contribute to our planet. There are also many new “green” energy suppliers that will provide your energy needs via a wind farm and through the local grid, i.e. you still receive your service through your local utility company, and a bill, but your supply portion of the bill comes through them. Others install solar panels on your roof, usually free of charge, but you pay a nominal fee each month for the service. This is actually a very convenient alternative to investing in and installing a photo-voltaic solar system, which can cost as much as $70K, almost half the cost of one’s mortgage. To cut down on that energy usage, despite the source being alternative, many homesteaders–like myself–will also use power strips for our electronic devices that we can switch off when not in use to decrease the “ghost” load; candles and/or oil lamps for lighting; hand-held/operated appliances (whenever possible) and investing in Energy Star appliances as the old ones burn out. Alternative approaches to heating/cooling the home are also employed: acclimating; wood stoves that use dead fall and/or bio-bricks instead of deforestation; pellet stoves, and propane (though a fossil fuel it is cleaner than wood, which produces a lot of carbon).
Another area that impacts our carbon footprint is cleaning supplies. The amount of chemical waste that gets dumped into our soil and into our waterways from household cleaning agents is frightening at best! Chlorine bleach can actually cause a person to become asthmatic. For those of us who are already asthmatic, the smell of this common cleaner screams torture at us. It is not a matter of “if” I will have an asthma attack around bleach, but “when” and how severe. And yet, I have been known to use it myself on occasion–despite my commitment to using more natural products like baking soda, vinegar (both white and apple cider), lemon, cornstarch and castile soap. I try to keep it to a bare minimum and I am constantly searching for alternatives to disinfect–especially when an illness hits the household, not wanting to further upset the upper respiratory tract by using harsh chemicals. Frugality, as much as concern for the planet and my fellow creatures who inhabit it, is an additional driving force behind the use of natural cleaning agents–I can clean my home much more inexpensively with baking soda and vinegar than I can with expensive chemicals.
Frugality goes hand-in-hand with homesteading. Its that old expression of Recycle, Re-Purpose, Use It Up or Do Without. Do it yourself also falls into this category–whenever and wherever possible. I am neither a plumber, mechanic or electrician so, when something falls into these areas of expertise, I leave it to the pros. This is actually a frugal approach as I might cause a more expensive repair trying to do something of which I know so little. I can learn, of course, but experimentation can be costly–especially without the proper tools. Again, I leave it to the pros! However, there are other homesteaders who either have experience in these areas or else possess more confidence in their ability to replace a damaged muffler or rusted out water tank. More power to you! I experiment in the kitchen, in the garden, with sewing and various other handcrafts; that’s enough experimenting–for the moment, at least. And I am always searching for ways to recycle or re-purpose.
These are just some of the areas that encompass homesteading. There are as many reasons for homesteading–and as many ways or methods of homesteading–as there are homesteaders. There are people in inner-city flats growing and canning tomatoes from a few containers on a back porch; they grow herbs in containers and dry them; they comb farmers’ markets or take advantage of produce sales at the local grocery store and can or freeze what they cannot use immediately; they knit; they sew; they do carpentry work. No acreage at all but they are still homesteading with what they have. You don’t need a huge amount of acreage; just the willingness to keep striving towards that reason you started in the first place. Homesteading is a state of mind, not just dreaming but doing. It is an ongoing process, a journey that is far more pleasing and satisfying to the heart, mind and soul than the end goal.
God bless you & keep you!

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