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On Starting a Homestead from Scratch: Lessons from our First Year, Part One

by Going Slowly

Over the course of the past year, we've chatted with many folks who are hoping to start a homestead. Like us, they've been dreaming of going "back to the land," of living a simple, self-sufficient life in the country. Quite often, they've sought our advice about how to make it happen. Thus far, we've had a hard time answering them meaningfully.

A big part of the trouble is that we just don't have much experience doing this. Another contributing factor is that we don't like telling people what to do. Every situation is different—we can only speak to ours with authority. Finally, we struggle because, while we want to be supportive and encouraging, we also want to be honest about what the process has been like.

Since we moved to our land, we've experienced a huge range of emotions about our decision, from over-the-moon elated, to really, really burnt out. We've felt both liberated, and trapped by this project on many occasions. The past year has been an incredible growing process. Below, we've tried to capture some of the most important lessons we've learned.

Us Hoisting Rafter

Becoming "self-sufficient" was the wrong goal

One of the biggest motivating factors for our move to Vermont was a desire to get away from society as we knew it. We wanted to take to the woods to create a life of self-sufficiency. Having been here a year, we can safely say that idea was marginally ridiculous. We still want to take responsibility for the whole of our physical survival, but being self-sufficient is no longer an end unto itself.

Instead, we've learned the importance of community. Hardly a week goes by that we're not humbled by how great our neighbors and friends are. It's hard to imagine having accomplished a tenth of what we have without them. Together, we create amazing things. We rely on each other. We support one another. In short, we are discovering interdependence as opposed to independence.

Tyler & Jeremy Working on Grindbygg Timber Frame Roof Decking Hercilia, Tyler, Tara & Jeremy Charlie Joanna & Tara Hammering Nails on Solar Shed Joanna Stripping Timber Frame Post Bark Charlie & Tyler Splitting Wood Tyler & Jeremy Reading Simple Pump Instructions

Building a Homesteading vs. Having a Homestead

When we first started this project, it didn't occur to us that there was a distinction between having a homestead and building one. Instead, our dream was a naive, smooshed-together amalgamation of both of those ideas: we wanted to live in a a beautiful, natural home we created with our own hands, surrounded by an abundant garden and menagerie of animals.

We still ache for that dream, of course, but the realities of getting there are really starting to sink in. Because we started on raw land, and because we want to do most of the building ourselves, our lives will likely be consumed by construction projects for several years to come. For some reason it never really clicked for us that building buildings was going to be such a huge part of our lives for so long.

While we're relieved to no longer live in suburbia, we realize now that our old home had vast potential. There was a huge lawn just waiting to become a massive garden (assuming the woefully obtuse, captious homeowner's association didn't object). We might've gotten away with bee keeping and raising chickens, too. All without packing up our lives to start from scratch.

Waters Community Gardens Greens

Growth will not be linear

Often, it feels like we're trying to do too many things at once. Frequently, it seems impossible to focus on one task because everything on our homestead is interrelated. We recently learned the phrase "Hodgepodge Growth" from a permaculture book, and we've been finding comfort in its aptness. As important as it is to prioritize the many tasks that need to be accomplished, it is also important to realize that growth is not linear.

For example, last spring we wanted to start building a house. To begin, we needed a foundation. In order to get the raw materials we chose to build with, we needed to make the site accessible for delivery trucks. And so, instead of merrily taking to the woods to build a house, we started by improving our road. A big part of that project involved clearing downed trees…

[Hodgepodge growth] can look or even feel scattered, but it may be just the opposite—the most focused way to go about the whole project. You will find that things are connected functionally that don't seem to have anything to do with each other.

The Permaculture Handbook by Peter Bane

Sleep, Creep, Leap

We learned this phrase at a permaculture workshop about growing nut trees in New England. Our instructor, Keith, used it to describe how some trees grow. At first, development will seem very slow. The tree might even appear to be dead as it builds a root system. When it has enough of a foundation to start diverting energy to above-ground growth, it creeps along slowly. Finally, after years of mostly internal growth, with a solid root system to feed from, it will leap out with explosive development.

Lao Flower

We've adopted this motto for our homestead. We're definitely in the "sleep" and "creep" phases of this project, as we gather information, learn new skills, and build the foundations for all of our plans to come. It's important to remember just how crucial these phases are, and to recognize that progress is being made, even if it doesn't feel like it.

To be continued…

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Love this post. Many of the points you make ring true for me as I restore a 100 year old house.
Posted by Martha on February 16th, 2014 at 8:11 PM
I love the idea of "sleep, creep, and leap." I feel like I'm just starting to come out of the creep phase (but just a little--I'm definitely not leaping yet) on my own farm journey. The tree metaphor makes so much sense, and actually makes me feel better about what has seemed like very slow progress for the past five years.
Posted by Meredith on February 16th, 2014 at 10:13 PM
Dear Tara and Tyler,
You have followed your heart to own a beautiful piece of land in Vermont, to start building your own home,and to work towards realizing your dreams. Tough as it is right now - all the sweeter when you look back a few years from now and see that your passion and perseverance served you well , and you are enjoying the life you have so dearly built. This piece of land will be increasingly valuable over time - due to the improvements you make on it and for the love and spirit that is infused ...........
Posted by Lynn and Dale on February 18th, 2014 at 8:02 PM
Feb 21st...!
So that's it, Tyler is the next GS member to get out of 'childhood'...:-)
Happy Birthday Mr Kellen!
I hope for you this next decade will be as full of achievements as the one your finishing today! Not an easy task, in your case.
Posted by David B. on February 21st, 2014 at 5:59 PM
Birthday Tyler ?
Posted by greer on February 21st, 2014 at 9:12 PM
Oups!...did not want to be a spoiler...:-(
Posted by David B. on February 22nd, 2014 at 2:26 PM
Tyler,hi,i think i may of asked you this before,what was the weight of your 12 x 16 timberframe,was it around 2000-2200 lbs,thanks.
Posted by BRUCE WOLLISON on February 24th, 2014 at 10:27 PM
Thanks so much for the kind words and perspective, we know you're right.

Thank you for the birthday wishes! Don't worry, you didn't spoil anything :)

Yup! I am officially 30. Feels good :)

I'm not 100% sure what the weight of our frame was/is but I was able to haul it safely across half the country on a 12x6 trailer rated for 2,500lbs. Good luck with yours man!
Posted by Tyler on February 25th, 2014 at 7:05 AM
If what you've been doing can be described as "sleep and creep", I can't wait to see what happens when you develop explosively.

Call me when you need help building your castle.
Posted by Jesse on February 26th, 2014 at 11:56 AM
Hah! Will do :p
Posted by Tyler on February 27th, 2014 at 1:42 PM
Thank you for sharing this! In our world of technology we've come to expect everything to happen instantly, and we forget about hard work... when I look at what we have to achieve, I think we'll have it all said and done in 15 years or so. You guys are already well on your way!
Posted by Magalie on March 1st, 2014 at 7:27 PM
Really like & enjoy your posts. "Self reliance" with strong bonds with your neighborhood community, rather that "self sufficient" is how I'd describe your endeavor. Best wishes
Posted by Meher Gadekar on March 8th, 2014 at 1:24 AM
Yes. My husband and I are building a homestead as well. I know that feeling of "too many projects"....it sometimes feels like we are spinning our wheels and I have to realize that I'm being impatient. This is a process that can't be rushed.
Posted by Sandra on March 8th, 2014 at 7:03 PM