The benefits and challenges of modern ‘homesteading’

By Tom Phelan - ReminderNews
Featured Article - posted Wed., Jun. 13, 2012
- Contributed Photo

“Homesteading” is a term out of history that has come to be popular again, but with a variety of meanings and nuances. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act, which allowed loyal U.S. citizens to claim and settle on 160 acres of government land. To hold the claim, the person had to live on the land, build a dwelling and grow crops. After five years of "homesteading," the person could apply for a title or deed.

Today the term has come to focus more on the activities of someone who owns some land, and has chosen to return to a more basic living style, commonly by growing crops and maybe raising animals for personal consumption. This movement to "get back to the land" has taken root in all parts of the country, not just rural and suburban communities. One form of the lifestyle has taken hold in cities, and is therefore known as “urban homesteading.”

Homesteading in New England should be an easy lifestyle to adopt. Although we have small urban areas, they are never far from arable land and the sources of every sort of crop, domesticated animals and agricultural expertise.

Why someone would want to turn to homesteading in the 21st century might not be readily apparent. Some feel the need to establish security and reliability of their food source and quality. Anyone with concerns about the use of pesticides, insecticides and chemical fertilizers, as well as the potential for tainted food, can feel safer by growing the food they eat - both vegetables and animals. They have control over the entire process, from seed selection to food preservation and storage and preparation.

Other reasons for becoming a homesteader include inherent readiness to handle a disaster, reducing the cost of living, and producing goods and services that can be exchanged with other like-minded folk through sale or barter.

Simple homesteading starts with basic gardening - vegetables and herbs. It is fairly easy to learn the basics of vegetable gardening and enjoy success at an early stage. Raising fruits and berries is a natural extension of gardening, and it too has an easy point of entry. But it does take longer to achieve a production level that contributes to the family sustenance.

Composting is a necessary activity for a self-sufficient homesteader. Anyone committed to the quality of the food they grow will accept the need to compost for the benefit of the garden. Composting is one hallmark of the now-popular concept of sustainable living.

Homesteading is almost certain to improve the quality of your life and diet. You can demonstrate it for yourself by starting small - with gardening, growing fruit trees and berries. As you become adept at the agricultural side of the lifestyle, you can also learn the related skills of canning, freezing and preserving what you grow. If you are ambitious, grow enough to share and barter with other homesteaders. If you need to keep the agricultural work to a minimum, find sources of local, naturally-grown vegetables, fruits, etc. Preserve them, and add them to your larder.

You won’t get into much trouble by growing your own vegetables, fruits, berries herbs and nuts. But the day you decide you'd like to have fresh eggs or goat's milk as part of your homestead, look out for government intrusion. Local codes and restrictions might preclude your involvement in some of these homesteading activities. In some towns, you can have a limited number of chickens, but including a rooster in that group might be a no-no.

It's one thing to raise chickens for the eggs they lay and the ultimate contribution they might make to the dinner table. But don't lose sight of the fact that feeding animals results in manure. With a reasonable number of chickens, the manure can be composted and reused to maximum benefit. Raising pigs takes the manure issue to an odoriferous level.

Remember also that animals require some type of shelter. The types of shelters you can build on your land within the constraints of local ordinances will determine the type of livestock you may include on your homestead. If you are a serious homesteader, your animals may have to be located miles away from your living space. Don't let that be a major obstacle. Engaging in cooperative homesteading with someone in a more rural locale could yield considerable mutual benefit.

One significant benefit you are sure to derive from the homesteading lifestyle: working in the garden and other activities should help to reduce stress.

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