Homesteading, or self-sufficiency as we tend to call it in the UK, is suddenly sexy. All of a sudden you can’t switch on the TV without seeing someone planting potatoes or gutting a rabbit. These days it’s sold as a valid and even fashionable lifestyle choice (River Cottage programmes, It’s Not Easy Being Green and many more). We’ve come a long way since the 1970s when we were invited to laugh at self-sufficiency (The Good Life) or gasp in horror at how hard it seemed (Survivors). So which is true – trendy pursuit, incredibly hard work, or just a bit of fun?
Moving towards individualism
Ever since the end of the tribal culture of the Celts, our society has moved further and further away from the concept of individualism and self-reliance. In the early 21st century we have become totally dependant on each other for almost everything that we need on a daily basis, from the food we eat to the clothes on our backs. This is very easy and very comfortable, but it makes our individual situation rather precarious, for without someone supplying us with electricity, fuel, water, food and other goods, we can do very little for ourselves.
Homesteading increases our self-reliance, and reduces our dependence on the machinery of modern society.
In the 1970s we worried about the Cold War, but now we have a new threat to the stability of our society. Our entire supply chain, from production to transport, depends upon a plentiful supply of cheap oil. Now, however, there is growing evidence that we have reached ‘peak oil‘, the point at which global oil production has reached its practical maximum. No-one knows for certain what changes this will bring, but worries about dry pumps and empty supermarket shelves should certainly make us think about where our next meal is coming from.
True self-sufficiency may not be compatible with modern life, but homesteading makes us more resilient to temporary shortages of food, energy and materials.
There is no doubt that successfully home-growing produce improves the quality of the food that we eat. Dissatisfaction with shop-bought produce is common, since it inevitably comes a poor second to home-grown in terms of quality, freshness and taste. Growing the food yourself also means that you know exactly how it has been produced – a real bonus if you prefer to eat pesticide-free organic food. Accidental contamination of food is another hazard, salmonella and melanin being two recent examples.
If you grow your own food, you have a source of truly fresh organic food that you can trust. Food scares are something that happen to other people.
The indirect effects of producing your own food are perhaps even more powerful than the quality of the produce. Families who move towards eating their own fresh produce all year round tend to base their meals around fresh, seasonal vegetables rather than meat. Without intending to, and often without noticing, they will reduce the amount of meat they eat and begin to prepare a much wider variety of dishes. Children can be encouraged to join in with the picking and preparing of fruit and vegetables, and annual family rituals like bringing in the pumpkins or making summer preserves soon develop. When the children grow these will be part of their childhood memories, and the skills you have given them may be invaluable in later life.
Homesteading can bring a family together, and move it towards a healthier, more varied diet.
The thrift aspect of homesteading is often touted by lifestyle gurus, but it is vital to remember that your own time and effort replaces the money you save. Be clear about how much time you can give your homesteading activities, and choose projects to match. Half a dozen chickens take very little time to look after on a daily basis, but a full-blown family vegetable garden will need no less than a day each week.
Homesteading can be hard work, but it is tremendously rewarding. Not only does the exercise keep you healthier, but as you get into the homesteading mindset you will find that the work is a pleasurable and connected part of your life, like having a relationship or caring for your children.
Trendy pursuit, incredibly hard work, or just a bit of fun?
The answer is all three – and the balance of them is up to you. If you choose (as a number of people do) to give up the day job, move to the most rural area you can find and go off-grid in a hurry, then without a doubt it’s going to be tremendously hard. Some people thrive on this kind of challenge, but many more become downhearted and move back to the city after only a few seasons. Choose your rate of change carefully, and try to keep your expectations realistic.
If on the other hand you just pop a wind turbine and a henhouse into the back garden, then at least you’ve made a start. In a few years time you might dig over part of the lawn to plant vegetables, or hunt for wild mushrooms or even make your own cider with friends. Who knows?
Whatever path you choose, homesteading can be a tremendous amount of fun. You’ll find yourself coping with a variety of unexpected (and sometimes absurd) situations; for homesteaders, a good sense of humour is more than an asset – it’s sometimes a vital survival tool. You’ll also find yourself looking for the answers to questions you never thought you’d ask. Where do you get compost worms from? How long do parsnip seeds last? Can you make yoghurt from sheep’s milk? Even with the vast information resource of the internet, finding reliable answers to unexpected questions can be a frustrating and time-consuming business. Here at Farm In My Pocket, we’re doing our best to gradually bring all that information together into a single searchable database – while running our own homesteads, of course!