Deciding where to start your journey can feel overwhelming. If you’re like we were — strung out on lattes, hunkered down in cubicles at stressful big-city jobs, living off biweekly paychecks — simply finding the time to think through the how, where and whenis challenging. Raising kids and paying a mortgage or student loans can add to the stress.
Start by focusing on survival and sustenance. Six main spheres guide our approach to self-sufficient living: water, shelter, food, energy (including transportation), finances and community (including entertainment). The spheres you decide to work on first will be based on your situation, passions, unique skills and finances. We all have limitations to achieving total self-reliance — but after you know your limits, you can strive to transform them into possibilities. (See “How We Meet Our Six Basic Needs,” later in this article.)
We chose to immediately adopt what came easiest, such as line-drying our laundry, or what offered the fastest payback, such as switching to more efficient appliances. Our back-to-basics start set the stage for taking more challenging steps later on that involved larger investments of both time and money. Assess what you already have that could serve your goals. For example, we knew our south-facing rooftop was well-suited for a solar thermal system, so we factored this asset into our plan to heat our domestic water.
4. Cultivate Your Relationship
For those embarking on their journey with a partner, not to be overlooked is the commitment you make with one another to find a shared vision. While Lisa and I have different approaches and skills, we support and encourage each other and evaluate our decisions along the way with a good dose of humor. There were no simple answers to the many difficult choices we faced. But splitting wood together, for example, allowed for plenty of time to strategize (and served as great marital therapy, too).
Improving our bodies’ health was also a priority. When we dropped watching TV, we became more physically active and had more time to devote to the projects ahead of us. Working on our farm became our best exercise plan. In the off-season, we view our gym membership as our preventive health care investment.
5. Change With the Seasons
We let seasonality dictate our diet — we gorge on strawberries in June and savor butternut squash soup in January. The seasons also guide the diversity of projects that make up our livelihood. Through the warm growing season, we dwell outside in the gardens and focus on generating income through our bed-and-breakfast and cabin-rental enterprises. During winter months, writing, photography, speaking and consulting generate most of our revenue.
6. Create a Homestead
While not essential, owning some land can become the foundation on which you cultivate self-sufficiency. We quit our jobs and moved from Chicago to our small rural property, committed to being wise stewards of the land — improving the soil organically, planting trees for windbreaks and wildlife, and using what the land offered us, such as plentiful wind and sun.
More is not necessarily better when it comes to owning land responsibly. Create a land-management plan that is both realistic and financially feasible. Your land should be an asset that creates cash flow and appreciates in value over time as a result of activities you undertake. Renting farmland is an option as long as the lease agreement allows for the projects necessary to accomplish your goals.
Our mentors and fellow homesteaders who live down the road, Phil and Judy Welty, built a log home in 1974 with funds from their prosperous maple syrup operation on the same site.
“The only thing we didn’t do ourselves was the foundation,” Phil says. With the help of his two young sons and his wife, he constructed their 1,400-square-foot home in one year, later adding a solar thermal system and a half-kilowatt wind turbine to meet their energy needs. About 90 percent of their food was raised on-site, including chickens for eggs, a couple of steers and a hog.
Heidi Hankley lives on a 7-acre homestead in the northern part of our county with her husband, Chip, and their two children. “After living in the city of Madison, we wanted our kids to grow up in the country,” she says. The straw-and-cob home they built includes a masonry stove and a solar thermal system, surrounded by a prairie and a kitchen garden. “We wanted to build a healthy house to raise and home-school our two kids in, and to make sure it provided plenty of creative space.”
7. Eliminate Debt
When your backyard serves as a farmers market, your kitchen as a restaurant, and your cellar as your supermarket, you essentially eliminate food costs. Producing most of our food allowed us to pay down our mortgage faster — plus, the quality of our food improved.
Translated from its French origin, mortgage means “death contract.” A mortgage (including interest charges associated with the borrowed principal) often works against folks striving to become more self-sufficient because of the demands placed upon the borrower. The same is true if you purchase a vehicle with a loan or credit cards. Get rid of these debts to reclaim your financial freedom.
We recommend that you strive to never buy anything that you can’t pay for in cash. When you do have cash saved from your various enterprises, invest in real assets, such as renewable energy systems that power your homestead or a fuel-efficient vehicle that reliably gets you around when needed. If you own a hybrid or diesel car, every mile you drive for tax-deductible business purposes can net you more than what it costs to operate the vehicle — another reason to become your own boss.