The new homesteaders movement.

All of a sudden, everybody’s getting chickens.

Box of Produce

It started before the recession, over the past couple of years, but it’s really taken off in the past six months. Acquaintances talk of how many square feet their new garden plot is or how many varieties of tomatoes that they’ve planted. People under the age of 65 have taken to canning.

Three decades of increasing interest in farmers markets combined with a steady drumbeat of deaths from industrial foods combined with an awareness of one’s carbon footprint and “food miles” combined with the fear of an unknown—could this recession slide into a depression?—have combined to give people a powerful urge to be self-reliant. Newspapers across the country have started interviewing the elderly, to talk about what tricks they learned in order to survive the Great Depression, and many of us are taking notes. I don’t think it’s motivated by fear. Maybe we all want to produce something tangible, to have the satisfaction of contributing to the world something more real than the mortgage-backed securities and the collateralized debt obligations, created by the bankers and the mortgage brokers, that evaporated overnight last summer. Maybe we just want to know that, if all else fails, we can rely on ourselves.

Making Pickles

We tilled up another 250 feet of garden weekend before last. Our horse has produced a good batch of manure for us this year, and we’re doctoring the soil with that as we haul it up in the pickup. We’ve got nearly 100 tomato plants, of five different varieties. Onions and potatoes are in the ground. Lettuce, broccoli, and cucumbers are all under grow lights, waiting for the soil to warm up. There will be squash, blackberries, radishes, basil, rosemary, and a dozen other different food crops. Apple trees, peach trees, and chickens are all in the not-so-distant future. We put up about eighty cans of food last year; we’ll certainly do more this time around. We’re learning to make pasta and different varieties of bread. I made tortilla chips this evening.

Last week I attended a local food roundtable held by Rep. Tom Perriello. A few dozen people were invited, all involved in the production, distribution, and promotion of food in the northern end of the Fifth District. Everybody agreed that folks want their food to be local and everybody agreed that’s better for the economy, for our environment, and for our health. And it just doesn’t get any more local than your backyard.

I have to wonder if this is a fad, if this is another round of Y2K preparation for another disaster averted. Or maybe how we’ve been eating for the past sixty years is the fad, a fad that’s now fading.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

8 replies on “The new homesteaders movement.”

  1. I don’t know if it’s a fad or not. I grew up with a massive vegetable garden and I’m finally at a place where I can afford something more than an apartment where I can garden. Belonging to the CSA provided a lot of fodder for canning last year (apple pie mix, jalapeño jelly, hot pepers, etc.) and the same with my dehydrator. It’s a great feeling when one grabs for the basil or the thyme and there’s the memory of growing it.

    I’m more than likely moving out to the place I’m gardening at south of Oatlands on 15 in a few months. We’ve already turned over the 1200 sq ft by hand (small tiller, but it’s raised bed and hasn’t been worked in a few years.) Gotta play a little catch up this weekend and get some more compost and finish dressing the place for planting. And, like you, we’ve got stuff going under grow lights. Two concord grape vines just arrived today.

    So maybe it’s a fad, but I think it’s more a movement. Between genetically modified crops, salmonella, etc etc etc people are starting to say “hmm. where does this come from?” and I don’t think they’re liking what they see.

  2. One other thing: taste. Homegrown tomatoes just taste so much better than the pale, styrofoam things that are sold at every massive grocery store. That and one zucchini seedling for 75 cents gives you tons of vegetables with just a little bit of water and sun.

    I also feel there’s a sense of one upmanship or competition. You think your potatos are good? Well, wait until you’ve tried my green beans! I barter my horseradish for my buddy’s real maple syrup. Or I’ll swap my home brew for another buddy’s cherry wine.

    I grew up in the city and we always had a garden. Now that I have my own house, I have my own garden too. There’s a certain pride in craftsmanship/growing goods that people are returning too. I’m amazed by friends who are amazed that they can make their own jelly instead of buying it. You can almost see the lightbulb turn on when they realize that making the product you buy at the grocery store isn’t terribly complex, you can do it without all the byproducts and preservatives, it tastes so much better, and you can make what you actually want instead of picking between the three items on a store shelf. Can’t tell you how happy I was when my folks got me a pressure canner for Christmas.

  3. Waldo, I recommend using lard, tallow or coconut oil to fry up those chips. Much healthier than canola oil. Have you read Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon? I think you are ready for it. :-)

  4. I’ve been pondering chickens or guinea hens myself both for the eggs and for the added benefit of them eating grubs and ticks (damn deer ticks are rampant in our yard in no small part due to the farming of cattle and goats surrounding 1/2 our property). The problem being the cost/complexity of building a year-round coop/enclosure that both protects the fowl from local foxes and coyotes and provides enough shelter from the elements. Down the road at a farm goods store a pre-made chicken coop (maybe 5 feet tall by 4 feet deep by 6 feet wide) was almost $1K! At that rate the ROI becomes a joke.

    Along the same vein, Waldo you’ve got to check out the “Change” series, now up to 5 novels starting with “Dies the Fire” by S.M. Sterling. The plot device is a mysterious event that changes physics such that no electricity can flow and no explosive reactions can occur. So no engines, anything electrical, communications, nada. The author then goes on to describe who survives the ensuing “dying times” and how old skills are used to grow new civilizations. Fascinating read with great detail into the most minute details. The author’s research can almost be used as a primer for how to live “off the grid.” Be patient with the religious factionalism – it starts to resolve itself nicely by the 5th book (2 more in the works) “Scourge of God.” Those of you who have read the series – holla back!

  5. To Chris:

    $1K for a chicken coop?!? You’re doing it wrong. Very, very wrong. Google before you spend money nowadays.

    A chicken coop should not cost $1K. You can get pre-constructed wood sheds from Lowes, Home Depot, and shed companies much, much cheaper if you don’t know how to build your own. I’ve heard of people getting old children’s playhouses and converting them into coops. Click here for lots of info on many different designs.

    And if you’re interested in controlling the insect population, you can make cheap, lightweight, portable pens that you can move to different sections of the yard each day to let your chicken roam and eat as they need. And click here for more info on that.

  6. Waldo must have known why I haven’t been around to comment much. We are up to around 6,000 sq.ft. of gardens, not counting the 200 sf or so in the back for strawberries and herbs, onions, asparagus (next year!).

    We have done this for 6 or 7 years now, and I wouldn’t trade the fun and tasty veggies for anything from the store. (especially in the middle of winter)

    Tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, over 100 tomato plants, banana peppers, jalapeno peppers, bell peppers, etc. Ask me about my V8 recipe.

    So, get that tiller out, Waldo! Cut up some more of that stuff!

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