Living Off The Land

Emigrants became homesteaders and living off the land became the American Dream.

A farm with a scarecrow on it

Farming is an outdoor occupation and you’ll be outside every day. Look for a region where you like most of the weather and can tolerate the rest.

Photo by iStockphoto/Jeff Gardner

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My ancestors did it, and yours may have too. They jumped aboard steamships with no more possessions than they could carry, motivated by a belief that the good life they sought was at least an ocean away. The trip was full of adventure, the final destination was largely unknown, and, in the end, those with pluck, perseverance, grit and perhaps a bit of luck found their way to a life full of possibilities. Those early homesteaders traded huge amounts of labor for long-term security — and their spirit lives on in the 21st century.

Long gone are the land grabs and tree claims, but the modern homesteader, fueled by a belief in the new American Dream, continues to search for that good life. Yes, you can still carve out a wonderful life without the seeming security of two incomes and a mortgage to match. Yes, it is possible to feed yourself from gardens, orchards and animals you raise yourself. Yes, wooded property can be a rich and renewable construction resource. Yes, it is entirely possible to turn a piece of land into your own special place of production — even energy production. But first you need to find your little piece of paradise — and then you get to develop it just the way you desire.

Family constraints led me to develop several pieces of rural property into productive and sustainable havens where life and living seemed to meld amicably. Our place in rural Osage County, Kansas, is well on its way after seven years of effort. In each case, we had a need — often dictated by a job transfer — that included appropriate soil to grow food, hay and support fine pastures. The places needed to have water and fundamental utilities nearby. The more infrastructure the better when all else felt right.

We needed to be close enough to work, yet far enough to live away from it all. In some cases we took raw land and installed the infrastructure as we went, and in others, we simply improved upon or changed that which was already in place. We’ve built new homes, renovated century-old homes, installed water and sewer systems, torn out fencing, installed new, planted trees, harvested trees and built some cottage industries along the way. And you can, too.

Flip through the pages of this Grit Magazine special issue to get a sense of what it will take to find your place out where the pavement ends and to get it up to speed. Then sit back, relax and enjoy the in-depth articles that guide you through the pieces of the process that are most urgent. Or read it from beginning to end if you haven’t yet taken the plunge! But don’t be intimidated. Life on the land is one that can only be lived — not bought — so read everything you can, talk to experienced veterans, apply lots of common sense, a bit of romanticism and a lot of faith, and then simply take the plunge. Virtually every path to rural property and its development is different.

Whether you currently live in town or on 1,000 acres, we’d love to know what you are up to this season. And if you have any property procurement and development stories or projects of your own to share, send me a short letter (editor@grit.com) — and a photo or two if you can — and we just might publish it in a future issue of the magazine or on our website, GRIT.com.

Have a wonderful year,

Hank