Over 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.