HOMESTEADING ADVICE: Read Part#1 of a Real Q&A Session

A few weeks ago I got an email from a woman – MB are her initials – looking for advice on homesteading, and I thought our conversation was worth sharing. MB is 46 years old and currently lives in Toronto, Canada. She’s originally from a small farming town in Denmark and she’s given me permission to share our back-and-forth email conversation. Here’s her introduction to me . .

– Steve Maxwell

MB: I have no homesteading experience, but lots of motivation, energy and a variety of skills as well as a realistic understanding that this will be challenging. I’m contacting you because I believe there’s much I could learn from you. Based on my research, the place where you live – Manitoulin Island, Canada – is the area I want to move to.  Can I pick your brain for expertise and experience?  I’d like to hire you as a consultant for as much time as you can spare or as much time as needed for me to move towards this goal.

SM: Thanks for your note. I’m happy to hear from you. You’re welcome to send me any questions you like and I’ll answer them. No need to pay me anything, at least not at first (and maybe not ever). It really depends on how much time is required.

MB: A few more facts about me before I get to my first questions.  For many years I’ve wanted to try homesteading and now I am in a position where I am able to make my move. I have done much research, taking me down various avenues and by now have some idea of what I would like my new life to look like. As I am in a position to be able to buy land and building materials, tools, etc. outright, I believe I will only need to homestead for subsistence more or less.

SM: What sort of work have you been doing so far in life? Just curious. It’ll help me help you better if I knew more about your background. Do you have a partner or any children?

MB: I currently work at a desk job and have done so for a few years.  Previous to that I was a self-employed interior designer for about a decade.  In addition, I have worked as a financial planner and I am a freelance translator as well. Those comprise the most notable periods of my professional existence. I still design a bit and would most certainly design at the very least the layout and all the interior aspects of my new abode.   I am single and have no children. Some of my (lofty?) aspirations are to be fully off-grid (except for internet, of course) in some version or another, in a sustainably built tiny house – preferably either earth-bermed or underground, ala Mike Oehler. Additionally, if possible, I would like to buy enough land that I can invite others to come live on the property should they so desire.

SM: Probably the most value I can be is to alert you to possible problems and challenges. When I offer warnings it’s not to say that you can’t do something, only that there are challenges that might not be apparent. Many homesteaders I see fall into the trap of choosing to do a whole bunch of hard things at the start that add up to something that’s nearly impossible. We all need to choose our hard things wisely.

Off grid: Certainly very doable technically, but it is usually more costly than connecting to the grid for anything other than a very small amount of power consumption. Also, off-grid power systems require technical tinkering on a regular basis.

Earth-berm or underground building: Also very doable, but there are additional challenges compared with above-ground construction. I’m not convinced the trouble is worth the energy savings, but I could be wrong on this. I have seen one would-be homesteader get bogged down building an underground home when he could have been cozy in a more conventional house above ground in the same amount of time.

MB: Though I currently have no trade skills to speak of, I do have a good mind, I can perform minor handiperson work (change a hardwired light, paint, wallpaper, use a power-drill, that kind of thing) and am a trained & experienced interior designer.

SM: A good mind and a strong back can go a long way! I had no farming background when I came to Manitoulin 30+ years ago, and no experience living in the country.

MB: As a kid, I spent lots of time in my master-carpenter father’s workshop while he built two houses, a few cottages and two sea-worthy boats from scratch. What very, very limited farming “experience” I have comes from spending a lot of time on my grandparents’, aunts’ and uncles’ old-school European farms. My long-winded point is that at my core I am not a total city-slicker and, banking on genes, things learnt by osmosis and my professional training & experience, I hope to be part of the build of my home. Enough about me for now.

SM: It sounds like you had an interesting childhood. I’m sure you’ll do fine as a homesteader if you plan and act wisely.

MB: I have many questions, but it seems to me that the first step is securing the right property. So, what to look for when buying land?
SM: The main things are price, size, agricultural potential, forest cover and location. The real challenge is finding a piece of property that fits your wish-list that’s also available for sale. That’s the trick.

MB: How much acreage do I need?

SM: Five acres would be the minimum if you wanted to graze a few animals, but it’s nice to have more. Standard, old-time agricultural lots in my area of Ontario are 100 acres. I have 90 acres and wish I had more.

MB: Where should I buy in Manitoulin Island? A community (however small) of like-minded people nearby is key for me.
SM: It’s not easy to find like-minded people with enough love in their hearts to work together harmoniously in an emotionally sustainable way for the long term. Like-minded people are great, but I’ve found it necessary to have private realms and properties. When I came to Manitoulin in 1985, I had a vision of a community of people living on the same land and working together as a group. I called this imaginary thing “Manitoulia”. I even offered a close friend of mine co-ownership of my property for free. He never took me up on that offer, but I see now how truly rare it is to find people with enough submission, humility and love to actually live and work side by side for the long run. Various Christian communities do it successfully (Hutterites, Mennonites and Amish) but It’s challenging enough even with close family members and a close connection to God. Without these things I believe it’s impossible.

MB: How do I assess land properties for farming relative to what I need/want to grow?
SM: The best quick assessment is to see what the land is growing now. If land will grow a good crop of hay, then it can grow anything the climate will allow.

MB: How important is access to all-year roads?

SM: Yes, this is vital for a four-season homestead.

MB: How will I get potable water?

SM: You’ll need to get your water from a well. Most of the Island has good ground water, but the northern edge of the middle of Manitoulin is challenging that way. I can help you with this.

MB: I need a spot with natural beauty, peace and quiet.

SM: Yes! Very important to me too. Crucial, in fact.

MB: What considerations might I not be aware of?

SM: Quite a few, I suspect. Do you have plans to earn money as part of your homesteading life? You’ll need to figure that out. Also, there’s a danger I often see in people who have a heart for homesteading but no actual experience. It affected me at first, too. It took me years to get over it. We get a certain vision in our minds of homesteading, and it comes from books and magazines and (nowadays) the internet. But the reality of homesteading isn’t quite what I imagined it to be when I began. It’s every bit as good as I imagined (even better, actually), but reality is different than theory. Quite a bit different. The allegiance to theory is often the thing that makes homesteading harder than it needs to be for people starting out. The best wisdom I can offer is in a blog post I wrote a while back. Here’s the link below. Let me know what you think:

MB: I have a billion other questions, but this is a start.

SM: Send me a few more items from the top of your list of a billion questions and let’s see if I can help you more.

Come back next week for the next instalment in this homesteader Q&A session.