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4 Mistakes to Avoid for the Novice Homesteader

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A few considerations when making the transition to a more independent way of life…

By Greg Seaman, Eartheasy.com Posted May 4, 2011

HomesteadOver the years I’ve noticed that of every two new residents to our island community, one often gives up and moves on after a year or two. The reality of living through the winter, the isolation, the physical work, the school, or the community character don’t quite fit for some folks, who painfully repack their belongings and look for a new place to find their dream lifestyle.

While there are many ways to deflate someone’s dream of independent homesteading, here are a few common mistakes we see which are avoidable, and which new homesteaders might want to consider.

Of course there are many homesteaders today who ignored these ‘mistakes’ and created extraordinary, unique homes and gardens. But we found that with raising children, earning an income, and hoping to live more simply, there were always demands on our time which caused us to trim our grand vision to realistic proportions.

1. Poor Choice of Home Site

In summer, we see realtors showing properties to prospective new members of our island’s “off-grid” community. The seas are calm, the wind is down and the lifestyle looks idyllic. But people planning to be new residents should view their future property in all seasons to determine if the climate appeals to them, and to select the best homebuilding site on their land with respect to seasonal weather patterns.

Alternate energy options should be part of a pre-purchase appraisal. Is there south-facing exposure for a garden and for a solar power array? Is there a creek that can supply a micro-hydro system, or a path of wind for a wind generator?

Is the site so remote that you won’t have many visitors? This will matter if you have young children who’ll want their friends to be able to visit easily. Is the access suitable for you as you get older? We see this today in our community, with some older residents having to change their lifestyles due to access limitations.

Planning for year-round eventualities, and for the long term, is easily overlooked in the excitement of finding a great piece of land on which to establish a homestead. For more information about what to look for, see How to choose land for homestead living.

2. Building Too Large a Home

The freedom to design and build your own home without local building restrictions is one of the great appeals to living in rural or remote areas. This design freedom, combined with the energy of youth, can lead to visions of a palace where a thicket may stand now. But we see in our community that some large homes can become more of a burden than a comfort to homeowners.

The time and costs associated with building come at the expense of spending time raising children and otherwise making the most of a unique living experience. You can become a slave to your building project. Heating unnecessary space in winter, spending a lot of time in maintenance, and paying the cost for extra materials can bring unexpected costs in terms of energy or money, expenses which can build over time.

Our home is approximately 1200 sq.ft., and as a family of four, this seemed adequate. Now that the children are grown and moved on, we definitely wouldn’t want anything larger.

3. Over-Ambitious Garden Plans

Eating is one of the fundamental pleasures anywhere, but eating in the homestead setting seems even more enjoyable since there are fewer entertainments than in town. And so as eager young gardeners back in 1980, my wife and I drew up our starter garden list: four varieties of lettuce and tomatoes, potatoes, onions, leeks, two kinds of broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, bush beans, carrots, corn, chard, four varieties of squash, garlic, and more…

And fruit, of course, we need fruit. We planted 12 fruit trees to add to the pre-existing small orchard. We made this expansion without really having the pantry capacity to adequately store this many apples. And so many of our storage apples went bad and ended up in the compost.

Our grand garden vision also overlooked some more fundamental gardening basics, such as good fencing. Some sections of our old fence were patched with fishnet, and one fine morning we woke to see a few cows finishing off the last of our garden that spring.

It’s better to start a small garden, well-fenced, and then expand as resources and time allow. We had to develop the fertility of the soil before we could expect a fruitful harvest, and we had to develop a good compost pile in order to develop the soil. It takes some restraint to address the basics before planting the garden of your dreams.

In creating a large garden, we found ourselves spending more time that, in retrospect, we would have rather spent with our young children. Yes, they can help in the garden, but only to a point. If the garden were a bit smaller, we would have felt less pressure to tend it.

Today our vegetable garden is approximately 1500 sq.ft., which is more than enough for growing the crops we need while leaving several beds free for green manures between crop rotations. The orchard is now about 12 trees, which provides fruit throughout the summer, fall and winter, but is not an unmanageable amount to process and store.

4. Overlooking Your New Community

The nearest community, regardless of how independent you feel in your homestead, will become an integral part of your living experience. We have learned that entering a new community should be done with open-mindedness and respect for everyone. First impressions are lasting, and it’s wise to keep any negative opinions to yourself. Don’t judge others, and understand the culture of the community before putting forward any constructive criticisms. Don’t be in a hurry to bring change to an established community.

In return for simple common respect, we have been surprised by kindness and generosity, sometimes coming from persons we would least expect it of.

Hopefully your transition to a more independent way of living will be as rewarding as ours has been. We hope these few thoughts will spare you some of the mistakes we’ve observed, and will help you make the best of your energy.

Are you considering homestead living, or are currently homesteading? Do you have your own tips for the novice homesteader? Let us know in the comments areas below, we would love to have your input.

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GregAbout Greg
Originally from Long Island, NY, Greg Seaman founded Eartheasy in 2000 out of concern for the environment and a desire to help others live more sustainably. As Editor, Greg combines his upbringing in the cities of New York, Boston and San Francisco with the contrast of 31 years of living ‘off-grid’ to give us a balanced perspective on sustainable living. Greg spends his free time gardening, working on his home and building a wooden sailboat with hand tools.

 

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  • Bonnie

    Hi Greg: I subscribe to your Eartheasy Newsletter and was pleasantly surprised to find out this article was by you! Good to see you. Great information. Bonnie Johnson.

  • Greg Seaman

    Thanks Bonnie. I'm trying to balance my own posts with guests posts so this blog has more viewpoints. I appreciate your comments.
    Greg

  • Denny

    I think a mistake people make is not having savings or a way of generating income. You can try to be self sufficient but you still need money for lots of things like land payments, taxes, utilities and food you can't grow.

    • Miller

      So true. Pie in the sky ideas about living free from the land dont work without money.

  • maychild

    Good advice all around! My suggestion is to build good soil and your garden efforts will be rewarded. Take the time to develop soil, and not rush into planting seeds in questionable soil. This is what I have learned the hard way!

  • TerryG

    I'm glad you include commnity in your list. We depend on each other in my little corner of the world, and it sure helps to get along.

  • Jugar Bratz

    This is a nice article who wants to improve himself in gardening,

  • Robyn Stanley

    Sustainable housing practices should be at the forefront of our minds. The use of various sustainable techniques and materials, and facilitating green practices will enable a more sustainable life. The impact of maintenance and construction on the planet should be minimal. To enable more sustainable transport options, housing developments should be in close proximity to vital services such as shops, schools, employment and public transport. Alternatively they may be self sufficient ‘off-the-grid’ houses that require no public water, sewerage, or power services. Sustainable homes may also be linked to a power grid that is supplied using sustainable energy resources, or the homes may generate their own energy through renewable sources that may be fed back into the grid.
    Robyn Stanley
    Simple, Sustainable Living

  • Jennine

    Patience needs to be on the list. Even with the most modest designs, everything will take longer than you plan when you're off-grid, remote, and doing it yourself. It's good to develop a slightly ambitious schedule and plan because it helps keep you motivated, but being over-aggressive ultimately leads to burn-out and frustration. As long as you focus on the critical projects and get those done in time, anything else you can get done is icing on the cake. If something non-critical slips the schedule or doesn't get done exactly the way you planned it, that's ok… you've got more time and you've learned something :) Give yourself a break and enjoy the process; remember, you got out of the rat race to reduce your stress!

    • Greg Seaman

      Great comments. It's obvious that you live off grid! The last line of your comment says it all.

  • Kimberly McCauley

    I think a few more things to consider are the access to wild game. Preparations for harsh weather including unexpected droughts, snow storms that can block you in your home. Ways to keep rodents, bugs and dangerous reptiles from around your home that are non-toxic. And being aware if you are in a flood zone, or in an area that could potentially flood if a damn were to break or be released. In certain areas to be a homesteader, it is recommended that you try to incorporate the natural defenses of the earth (meaning buildng into or creating your home into a hill) to protect your investment from natural disaster such as tornadoes. Vehicles should be practical and suited to the needs of your family and chores, not to how they look or the "cool features". Fuel conservation should be considered in a vehicle as generally a homestead is far from a town where fuel stations are located.

    • Greg Seaman

      Great comments Kimberly. During the Depression would-be homesteaders moved to the B.C. Caribou region only to learn there was no winter game available.
      And practical vehicles is another good suggestion. They can be bought at low prices once they have a few dents and scratches.
      Here is an article with more on the subject: http://eartheasy.com/blog/2009/04/choosing-land-f

  • Kimberly McCauley

    If you have children, I would highly recommend a dog or a few dogs that are prepared to protect the land from coyotes or mountain lions as they WILL try to take any opportunity possible for an easy meal.
    Mules are a GREAT addition to any homestead: They are hardy, loyal, sure footed and can be used to carry large loads, game, play with the children and protect the home from coyotes. They are also more intelligent than horses and can help avoid unecessary risks.

  • Dean

    I am looking ahead to retirement (about ten years). I want to buy property in a place called Glacier View Meadows in the foot hills above Ft Collins, CO. Its at about 6500 ft. It offers basic amenities but would require extensive investment to make it livable (clearing, well, septic etc). There are wonderful views, trees, and other residents near-by but not on your doorstep. Its quite rockie as you would expect in the …Rockies. Still, it looks great.

    I can’t begin to caution readers enough to take Gregs first warning to heart: Check your home site. I was in Ft Collins for another reason just before Spring. The wife and I thought we’d check out the site in a different season than when originally viewed (late Spring early Summer). Well, I found the development but I couldn’t find the road to my lot. I mean there was snow everywhere and the signs were not always visible, not only that, but my truck couldn’t negotiate the road that had become slick in spots and loose in others. I cant begin to convey my disappointment but then, I hadn’t bought yet either. Caveat Emptor.

    Thanks for listening

    Dean

  • Pat

    A great resource for choosing a homesite on your land is the book A Pattern Language. This book was written a long time ago but the ideas still apply today. Lots of wise advice and ideas to take into consideration before you begin to build.

  • http://www.schoolofcreativebusiness.com Alease Michelle

    I love this website and how it helps guide and inform people on homesteading. There are so many good tips that are also applicable to city dwellers—that is why I love reading it.

    • Greg Seaman

      Thank you Alease for your comment. One of my biggest concerns over the years of developing this website is that site visitors may feel that our experience does not apply to urban and suburban environments. To the contrary, there are many sustainable living practices that apply to all lifestyles, and it is gratifying that you see this.
      Greg

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