First off, if you’re coming here from the “Things We Love” section of Harrowsmith’s spring issue, thank you so much for taking the time to stop by! I have been a huge fan of their magazine, books, and TV show since I was a teen, so it was an unbelievable honour to be featured; I’m still pinching myself!
Now that you’ve arrived, you’re probably wondering what the deal is with all these plant-based recipes. Don’t homesteaders raise their own animals for meat, eggs, and dairy? Isn’t that kind of the point? I used to think so too, but I’ve changed my mind over the years, and I’ll tell you why I still think I can get away with calling myself a homesteader.
My mom recently sent me a bunch of old family photos, and it got me thinking about where my desire to live this way came from. I always thought it originated from the fantasies brought on by things like Harrowsmith and Mother Earth News, but looking back, I’m starting to think that maybe it’s in my blood.
As a child, I used to build my own “houses” (complete with stick and grass furniture) in the coziest corners of my mother’s garden, harvesting goodies from the surrounding veg patch and fruit trees. Once I was a little older, in addition to my compulsive reading on the subject, I used to skip my university classes to watch Barbara Damrosch and Elliot Coleman’s wonderful show, “Gardening Naturally”, where I started to file away organic gardening tips, and learned about the inspiring Scott and Helen Nearing (the original plant-based homesteaders). I was hooked.
It’s not terribly surprising that I harbor romantic notions around homesteading, as I come from a long line of back-to-the-landers. Granted, that was kind of the way things were for a large part of the population a century ago, when the government would give land to anyone willing to develop it. My great grandparents on both sides of my mother’s family ended up settling in the Peace River region of northern Alberta, where the landscape is harsh, the winters are long and cold, but the soil is rich and fertile. They were stalwart Scots and Norwegians, so it wasn’t anything they couldn’t handle.
When my grandparents married, they quickly set about starting their family. Not having much money, but not wanting to work “out” (for someone else), they decided to become their own bosses and take advantage of some of that free land, carving out a homestead of their own.
They packed up their two small children and began clearing the land, milling the logs they felled into boards that were used to build their small house. As the family grew (they had six children in the end), every pair of hands was put to work clearing the land. My mom remembers spending a considerable chunk of their time picking roots, with the youngest child driving the tractor. (Ah, the good ol’ days of parenting – there are stories that would curl your hair!)
Things were often tough – the growing season was short, and my grandmother’s garden would regularly freeze without warning. Winters were hungry affairs, so there came a time when my grandfather had to take work at a nearby oil refinery. Unfortunately, not long after he started there, he lost the lower half of his leg in a workplace accident, and was unable to return. After a brief recovery (that wooden leg didn’t slow him down one bit), they headed back to the farm and turned their efforts to growing grains to feed their livestock, selling any extra to the Canadian wheat board.
As hard as life was up there, and as much as I’ve heard my mom say she never wants to be that cold ever again, she does have fond memories of the big skies and simple living. There’s something about the community bonds that are formed when you’re surrounded by others who share the desire to live a life of self-sufficiency and independence.
It was this that my husband and I were looking for when we decided to move to an island and grow our own food. We’re much less isolated than my grandparents were, which is both a blessing and a curse, but we’ve managed to find a community that moves at a slower pace, despite its proximity to the city. Our neighbors are also, for the most part, more like-minded and supportive of those looking for a different way of life, whether it be home-schooling, growing your own food, or just questioning the status quo. I feel at home here, much less like a square peg.
As for our unusual approach to homesteading, it was only after having my own chickens, and witnessing their unique personalities, fears, friendships, and love for things like sunshine and foraging, that I decided I could no longer support large-scale animal agriculture. My parents might not have been farmers themselves, but my dad was a hunter, and I saw that process first-hand many times. Taking the life of an animal is a brutal, messy, and sad affair – something most people never consider when buying pristine packages of neatly packaged meat from the store (and there are no fewer deaths among those animals raised for eggs and dairy). Since I won’t “farm out” the raising and slaughtering of animals for food, and am unwilling to do it myself, going without those things was the obvious solution. I realize there are farmers who care for their animals deeply, and are able to separate themselves enough when the time comes, but for me, the relationship I have with my animals literally took them off the table.
According to my mom, my grandfather was a bigger softie than his imposing stature and fiery temper implied, and he was notorious for rescuing the saddest looking animals from the local auctions. I used to think he would scoff at me calling myself a homesteader, but this has me thinking that maybe we’re not that different after all. I originally became a vegetarian as a direct result of bonding with his livestock, only to discover them in the stew pot the next time we were over. He thought I needed to “harden up” when I was furious watching him brand his cattle, but it makes me wonder if maybe part of him would get it.
Nowadays, rather than referring to those taking part in the homestead act, homesteading refers to anyone looking to live a simpler, more self-sufficient life by growing, preserving, and crafting their own food and necessities. I would argue that, by removing animals from the equation, we’re actually making ourselves more self-sufficient. The more that animals play a part in things, the more land, time, hands, and equipment are needed for producing feed (or the money required to bring it in from elsewhere). Raising animals for food is resource intensive, and while they can certainly make their own contributions back to a farm, they’re not critical to its success. If one imagines the world as a self-contained farm-like system (which it is), it’s not that difficult to draw conclusions about how best to deal with an exploding human population.
Sustainability aside, the best things about this lifestyle are setting your own pace, the closeness to the land and the non-humans that inhabit it, and the pride of knowing your food intimately. Doing meaningful work for yourself and your family instead of working “out” (and then having to hire other people to do the things you don’t have time for) is as good as it gets. Sadly, this is an ideal that not many can pull off these days; my husband and I are both employed elsewhere. We did do most of the work on our house and property ourselves, and yes, it’s true that it remains unfinished 10 years later, but we’ve saved a ton of money, and have learned so much. We finally have the life we’ve always dreamed of, and have no need for expensive vacations to “get away from it all”.
My grandfather died of a major heart attack shortly before his 60th birthday, despite being fit and spry for his years. There have been many times that I’ve wished he was still around so I could pick his brain, hear him sing his old songs, draw on his wealth of knowledge, and maybe even woo him with a decadent, homegrown, plant-based meal. Of course, there would be plenty of ribbing about my soft and silly ways, but always with a playful twinkle in his eye.
It’s often the little details that stick with us, and those are what I’m after. The small, seemingly insignificant, but infinitely meaningful things that make up a life.