2013 Homesteaders of the Year

Homesteaders make strides in self-sufficiency and sustainability.
By GRIT and CAPPER’s staff
September/October 2013

A typical pioneer homestead.
Photo By Fotolia/onepony
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This year we received a mountain of nominations for the 2013 GRIT and CAPPER’S Homesteaders of the Year recognition. Sorting, mulling, discussing and narrowing them was torture of the best kind. In the end, we selected three winners and three runners-up who embody, to us, the real spirit of a gritty homesteading tradition. Here we offer you a glimpse into the lives of our six Homesteaders of the Year.

Eric and Wendy Slatt (Winners)

City/State: Kershaw, South Carolina

How many acres do you have? 3 1/2

How long have you been homesteading? 4 years

Definition of a homesteader: I used to think a homesteader was simply someone who went out and made a life for themselves off the land they had available to them, but I believe it's a lot more than that. A true homesteader is a steward of the resources they have, someone who is not attempting to be the "master of their domain," but finding their place in the balance of caring for and working with the resources they have and the environment they find themselves in to perpetuate a cycle of self-sufficiency.

Do you have animals or crops or both? How many of each? Please name some of the animals you raise and/or crops you grow. We raise both animals and crops. We have six different kinds of animals, (chickens, pigs, cows, ducks, bees and turkeys), and 16 kinds of crops (apples, corn, blackberries, herbs and garlic to name a few).

Did you build your home or buy it? How old is your house if you bought it? We bought our house and it's 157 years old.

Do you produce any of your own electricity or water? (i.e. solar panels for electricity, rain barrels for electricity) If so, what? We have a well outside in the front yard to provide water.

How do you repurpose everyday items for use around the homestead? We use clean, empty, coffee cans to scoop up the food for our animals that we hold in clean trash cans. We've always believed in making do with what we have the best we can.

What sorts of projects are you working on right now/this year? We are working on finding a way to clear some of the trees in the yard to make room for another barn for chickens.

What are you most proud of on your homestead? My husband, Eric. He is one of the most tireless, determined men I've ever known, and even in the face of setbacks and obstacles, he never loses his faith and optimism. He's always willing to try something new and doesn't get discouraged if it doesn't work the first time. By his example and encouragement, our family has learned the meaning of perseverance, the value of teamwork, and the power of believing. 

Best thing about running a homestead? When you grow your own food and raise your own meat, you experience the vast difference in taste compared with a grocery store's food. You know you helped make this and it's perfectly healthy.

Hardest thing? When the weather takes a turn for the worse, and we're either faced with terrible drought and heat or too much rain to take care of the gardens.

What do your friends and family think about your choice to homestead? Some were skeptical at first, but family members have been proud and excited to see what we try to do around here and they really show support.

What percentage of your own food do you produce? Before we moved here four years ago, we didn't grow or raise any of our own food. The first thing we did was put in fruit trees and a vegetable garden. Then, we added chickens. Every year since, we've tried to do a little more without overburdening the land. Right now, we have vegetable and herb gardens, some fruits, chickens, pigs, cows, turkeys, ducks and bees. We use our own woodlot to provide fence posts as well as heating for our home, and well water for the animals and vegetation. We've had setbacks — drought, floods, etc. — but we've made progress, too. I look forward to the day we can figure out how to grow our own grains, and someday hope to say that 80 to 90 percent of our food comes from right here.

Favorite thing to cook? Egg Fu Yung

Where did you learn homesteading skills? Mostly from personal experience with advice and tips from friends along the way.

Favorite chore? Least favorite? Gardening is definitely a favorite chore.

Advice for others thinking about starting a homestead? Starting is probably one of the hardest things you can do. But if your heart is in it, and you're willing to push through even when it gets hard, you will definitely reap the benefit from it. Nothing comes easy, but when you actually put your heart and sweat into what it is that you're doing, be it taking care of animals or gardens, you are actually having a much healthier and more self-sufficient life. And when you take that first bite of your own food, the food you worked hard into making, you'll know that starting a homestead was the right thing to do.

Lewis and Eleanore Janetos (Winners)

Age: 86 and 84

City/State: Rollinsford, New Hampshire

How long have you been homesteading? 62 years together.

Did you build your home or buy it? Neither. It was given to us by my Greek father-in-law as a wedding gift. The home was built by Lewis’s great-great-grandfather before 1830.

What sorts of projects are you working on right now? The gardens are just beginning to grow. Apples and fruit trees are beginning to take shape. Until the crops are in, I am busy sewing “comfy pillows” for the local hospital. I have made more than 500 in the past few years.

What are you most proud of on your homestead? We invite schoolchildren to our farm to see how cider and maple syrup are made. They also pick a bag of apples to take home with them, as well as a jug of cider in the fall, or a bottle of maple syrup in the spring.

Best thing about running a homestead: It is a place to call your own and be proud.

What percentage of your own food do you produce? We go to the market to buy fresh milk and produce during the off-season. It has varied over the years from 10 to 60 percent.

Favorite thing to cook: Potatas Curv. It is a Swedish meatloaf made with pork sausage, potatoes and onions all ground up together and baked in the oven. I also have a great recipe for barbecue pork tenderloin made with Kansas City barbecue sauce.

Where did you learn homesteading skills? This family goes back 14 generations, and homesteading skills have been handed down throughout the years.

Danielle Figel (Winner)

Age: 32

City/State: Jersey Shore, NJ

How many acres do you have? Less than one acre

How long have you been homesteading? It found me at an early age. A life-long outdoor enthusiast, I have developed moderate homesteading practices since childhood, but did not know back then that there was a name for it. The pressures of being a teenager in high school and college made me lose track of how important self-sufficiency is to me and how important it is for the soul to connect with nature on a regular basis. However, within the past several years, I began to once again gravitate back to my passion for nature and living a simpler life. I have chosen to grab hold of this "good" way of life once again.

What is your definition of a homestead/homesteader? The overall concept of "homesteading" is different for many and quite often debated. This appreciation for simple living and growing my own food is what I personally consider the definition of modern homesteading. It has given back to me much more than I could have ever imagined — a sense of peace and happiness I could not have attained doing anything else. Through my submersion into homesteading I have already learned so much about living the simpler life and feeling even somewhat richer than those with expensive material possessions and luxuries that most Americans are convinced they need. Homesteading to me means living a more sustainable life and also sharing the excitement of the rewards of a simpler lifestyle with others, not to convince them to do the same, but to give them a glimpse of how fulfilling even small steps to self-sufficiency can be. Homesteading to me means living the way we were intended to live, living simply and humbly, and living in tune with nature, not against it.

Do you have animals or crops or both? How many of each? Please name some of the animals you raise and/or crops you grow. With less than an acre of property to utilize, I have fresh food growing everywhere there is ample sun and workable soil. I live in New Jersey, which is also called the "garden state," so I take full advantage of our rich but sandy soil by growing an array of produce. Because I have such a small amount of gardening space, I practice the method of intensive vegetable gardening. Intensive gardening includes raised garden beds, wide and multiple rows of crops that are closely spaced, vertical trellising, companion planting and succession cropping. An intensive garden provides more food with less space. Intensive gardening requires thought out planning for the best use of garden space. Some crops I am growing this year include the following: beets, three varieties of lettuce grown in rows, swiss chard in between lettuce rows, celery, sweet onions, basil, oregano, cucumber, snap peas, three different varieties of carrots, green and red bell peppers, banana peppers, several varieties of tomatoes, corn, horseradish, spaghetti squash, zucchini, crookneck squash, Yukon gold potatoes, red Pontiac potato plants, sweet potatoes, strawberry plants, blueberries and black raspberries.

Did you build your home or buy it? How old is your house if you bought it? Like many of the homes at the jersey shore, the structure needs to be extremely tolerant against the high winds of seasonal hurricanes, so it’s ranch-style, built "jersey strong" in the 1950s.

Do you produce any of your own electricity or water? (i.e. solar panels for electricity, rain barrels for water) If so, what? I really enjoy utilizing solar lighting, and I am in the process of planning a double rain barrel setup for water collection.

How do you repurpose everyday items for use around the homestead? I enjoy using upcycled materials to work for me both inside and outside. There are many items that can be repurposed that I find at yard sales and curbside. Repurposed wood is used for building the raised garden beds. Old buckets with holes drilled in the bottom for water drainage make perfect container planters for my sweet potatoes. Local wooden bushel baskets are normally used for harvesting crabs from the bay; however, I use them to grow my potatoes. Old soda bottle crates work excellent for all types of storage with a rustic appeal. Old glass and wooden windows work excellent as the lids for cold frames. Also an over the door canvas shoe holder makes for a wonderful vertical garden for strawberries.

What sorts of projects are you working on right now/this year? There is never any "down time" for my garden. I am always planting, growing, pulling, adding nutrients and re-growing. The intensive gardening practice allows for multiple crops within the same area to be harvested from early spring through late fall, provided that the nutrients in the soil are replenished often. I also dehydrate many of my crops for use in hearty stews and soups when the weather gets cold. I am usually always dehydrating basil, carrot greens, tomatoes and fruit. At the end of summer when the garden is bursting with color with dozens of red tomatoes, crispy green peppers, colossal carrots and juicy beets, this is the time I will think ahead for winter and starting canning and pickling.

What are you most proud of on your homestead? I take a walk through my garden every morning with a cup of coffee and admire the rewards growing as I reflect on all of the hard work put into the crops, from tilling, seeding, growing, weeding, harvesting and doing it all over again each year.

Best thing about running a homestead? Growing my own food and enjoying simple practices of homesteading gives me peace and happiness in an overstimulated world.

Hardest thing? Weeding under the hot sun during a summer heat wave here at the jersey shore is not the most fun thing to do, but it has to be done!

What do your friends and family think about your choice to homestead? My friends and family seem to really enjoy seeing and eating the bright and colorful produce that I share with them from the garden. It is fun to give them a glimpse into how fulfilling self-sufficiency can be. For my grandmother, seeing my garden stirs up her childhood memories of "victory gardens" and root cellars. Her stories of this are wonderful to listen to, and I'm so glad I can bring those memories to the surface once again to be shared with others like myself who are amazed and humbled by the way life was once lived, where homesteading was the norm. I hope it makes a complete comeback.

What percentage of your own food do you produce? During the spring through fall seasons I produce anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of my own food. I also dehydrate, can and pickle most of my own produce, as well as cold storage for my potatoes for months at a time, so during the winter I eat homegrown a lot also. Every year my goal is to consume more and more from what I grow myself and spend less at the grocery store. So far I think I have been quite successful at this slow conversion.

Favorite thing to cook? I love to cook. I am always trying out new recipes that include vegetables harvested straight from my garden. My absolute favorite thing to cook is to not cook at all. I enjoy freshly-picked raw vegetables chopped up with homemade salad dressing or homemade hummus, wrapped up in a fresh tortilla wrap. The array of colors, the aroma of fresh cut vegetables wrapped up all together provide an incredibly enticing meal for all the senses. I also am an avid fishing enthusiast so my catches from the ocean are brought right home to the plate. Again even with fish as a meal, the vegetables take center stage. My favorite way to cook fish is topped with fresh vegetables, wrapped in foil and grilled over a fire.

Where did you learn homesteading skills? Appreciating the outdoors was something instilled into me very early on in childhood. When playing outside I would construct "forts" out of my father's scrap wood, and I stayed outside every day until well passed dusk catching frogs and carving sticks into tools. My father is a carpenter and I learned as a child how to construct shelves, racks, boxes and more with the proper use of basic construction tools. My family grew a summer garden as far as I can recall, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and beans were the usual crops. My parents also taught me the importance of eating home-cooked meals. No matter how many hours both parents had to work when I was younger, we had a hot home-cooked meal waiting for us on the dinner table each night. I am forever grateful to my parents for letting me run wild and explore outdoors as a child and also teaching me all of the many important aforementioned homegrown values and skills that have carried over to how I strive to live today.

Favorite chore? Least favorite? The most upsetting time of year is tearing down all of the crispy dried plant stalks from the garden in the late fall. While I am thankful for the harvest, when I have to break the garden down I already miss the taste of a warm sweet summer tomato picked fresh from the garden. But not all hope is lost because this is also the time to start my cold frame crops and start cooking my soups and stews using the frozen and dehydrated vegetables that I harvested from the garden just a month or two earlier.

Advice for others thinking about starting a homestead? When you embrace even just some of the homesteading lifestyle values, you no longer have that anxiety about "keeping up with the Joneses." To know that your garden can feed you, that you can visualize a furniture masterpiece out of an old pile of wood, you are practicing skills that your ancestors did, and along with these skills you develop values that extend far beyond modern day amenities and luxuries. These skills are all quite powerful to have and practice. You then realize that you have all of the luxury in the world right in your own hands.

Andrew and Suzanne Cox

City/State: Smithville, TN since 2010

How many acres do you have? Just shy of 24 acres

How long have you been homesteading? We purchased our farm in November 2010

What is your definition of a homestead/homesteader? We believe that anyone anywhere can be a homesteader! It isn’t about how much space you have, but what you do with it. All that is required is a desire to be more self-sufficient, live modestly and do the best you can with what you have. That often requires a little ingenuity and a whole lost of re-purposing and thinking outside the box! 

Do you have animals or crops or both? How many of each? Please name some of the animals you raise and/or crops you grow. We raise three 50-by-75 foot heritage crop gardens each year as well as an area of fruit trees, berry bushes, and strawberries. Each year we try to add something new and edible. This year we added raised beds of strawberries and asparagus. Next spring we will be adding honeybees. We raise a little bit of everything both for ourselves and to sale. Our favorite crops are purple pole beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, popcorn, squash, peppers and French pie pumpkins.

Our family raises the majority of our own meat. We started with six chickens when we moved here and then added eight katahdin sheep and one steer to raise for slaughter. Our pigs arrived in 2011, and we now keep three to four breeders and grow out two groups a year on woodlands. These hogs are naturally raised on whole foods and pasture then sold to our friends, family and neighbors for their freezer.

In 2012 we decided to help promote rare breeds by increasing our poultry flock. We now keep 15 barred rocks and 17 buff orpingtons for egg production. They free range on four acres of fenced pasture. Our younger flocks of 120 rare breeders are speckled Sussex, silver laced Wyandotte, Salmon Faverolle, light Brahma’s, Americana, and Welsummer which we plan to start hatching in the fall.

We now have a pair of young milk heifers that will be bred soon, and a steer we are growing out. Our registered katahdin sheep herd now consists of 22 breeders. They are mostly sold as registered breeding stock but we have a few each year that are slaughtered for fresh grass-fed lamb. In the spring of 2014 we plan on adding a pair of registered Nubian milk goats. Our goal is to be completely self sufficient in meats and dairy products and as self sufficient as possible in the fruit and veggie area.

Did you build your home or buy it? How old is your house if you bought it? When we found this farm it was virtually a blank slate with two small trailers on it too small for our growing family. We could not afford to both buy the land and build a home, so we moved a doublewide onto the property until we can build. Our goal is to start construction on our home in three years, and then use this space for a canning and processing house. We would like to offer homesteading seminars and farm events in the future; our current home would provide the perfect space for this!

Do you produce any of your own electricity or water? (i.e. solar panels for electricity, rain barrels for electricity) If so, what? Andrew is in the process of designing a chicken coop with rain barrels that will collect rain from the roof and store for the chickens’ drinking water. We would like to incorporate solar panels into our home building plans and have discussed the possibility of a wind-powered barn. We have big dreams for a future as energy independent as possible!

How do you repurpose everyday items for use around the homestead? Our raised beds are constructed of repurposed deck boards from a remodel job Andrew did. Our summer pig shelters are made from discarded stock panels, bent over hoop style and secured to t-posts with a tarped roof. Our daughter's chicken tractor for her Americana’s was almost completely repurposed materials, all except the door latches and wheels. Our kill cone for turkeys and large ducks is an old leaky 5-gallon bucket with a hole busted in the bottom. Other retired stock panels were welded into a frame for a small trailer to be used in transporting pigs and sheep. Andrew stripped the display lighting and wiring from some discarded display shelves and installed them in our feed shed. A thermostat and radiant heater were all that was required to turn a small room into a thermostatically controlled brooder room. With some weather stripping and small trim, Andrew sealed the room off so well it stays 90 degrees inside and 72 in the hallway!

What sorts of projects are you working on right now/this year? Andrew is currently working on making a 3-point bucket/front end loader out of a mobile home tongue. He had cut and welded the metal into size and should have it completed soon. I am converting an old singlewide trailer into workspace for canning, sewing and home schooling. I hope to begin selling quilts and craft items from this workspace this fall. Next, we will begin construction on a new chicken coop for our rare breeders. Later in the year we hope to start on a structure that will have a storm shelter/root cellar underneath, and a smoke house on top.

What are you most proud of on your homestead? The thing we are most proud of here is not tangible. We are most proud of how close and happy our family is and how well we all work together. Our oldest children are just 6 and 7, yet they help with daily chores and have many responsibilities of their own. In exchange for their help, they have their own chickens and ewe’s that they can earn money from by selling eggs, chicks, and lambs. They already know the value of money and savings. Our kids have a strong sense of family and cooperation, knowledge of both life and death and have a sense of compassion and love for other people and animals. This is something we are very proud of, and is a direct result of their life here on the farm.

Best thing about running a homestead? There are so many good things; it is hard to pick just one! The thing I like most is raising our own food. Growing our own veggies and raising our own meats ensures that we know exactly what is in our food supply and what we are feeding our children. Gardening is very relaxing for me; I always feel a sense of peace in the garden. Andrew likes the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from seeing things he creates come to life and be useful here. He has done all of the fence and structures himself, including water lines, electric, feeders, catch pens, chicken tractors, pig shelters, raised beds and many other projects.

Hardest thing? The hardest part of homesteading is feeling overwhelmed. There always seems to be a longer to-do list at the end of the day than there was when we started. Successful homesteading is so dependent on outside forces such as weather and birthing that it is impossible to stick to a rigid schedule. You may have the best of intentions when you wake up, but a rainstorm or a ewe in trouble lambing can set the whole day back. It can be hard to learn to just roll with it, prioritize the most important things and leave the rest for when you have time. Things are never boring here!

What do your friends and family think about your choice to homestead? They all think we are crazy. Our parents kind of get us now, but mostly they do all think we are crazy! Of course, living the way we have chosen must seem that way. When our friends are enjoying their beach vacations we are putting up hay and weeding gardens. While they are on spring break we are birthing lambs and spreading manure fertilizer. It is hard for them to understand why we spend so much time and energy on things like hauling pigs to slaughter or canning green beans when we can just buy them at the store. We are slowly educating them though on the benefits of homesteading. A few have gotten chickens themselves, and others are now pork and lamb customers. It is fun watching the excitement for farm fresh foods grow in them! Perhaps one day they will be as “crazy” as us.

What percentage of your own food do you produce? Currently we produce around 75 percent of our own meats. That will go even higher now that we have the equipment to do sausage links and ground meats. We render our own lard for baking and cooking. Our gardens are preserved through canning, freezing, and dehydrating. This past year, we canned 100 percent of our jams, jellies, butters, pickles, and beans and grew 100 percent of our potato requirements. With our tomatoes, peppers, corn, okra, squash, pumpkins, melons, and assorted peas we are able to put up 20 to 30 percent of our families other food needs. We are hoping to increase that this coming year with the addition of honeybees, milk goats, and the breeding of our dairy heifers for both feeder calf and milk production.

Favorite thing to cook? I love to bake, especially yeast breads! My favorite would be homemade cinnamon buns, or my best friend's German lemon braid bread. Andrew is terrific with a smoker and makes the best hickory smoked pork. Several times a year we’ll smoke a Boston butt, I’ll bake some breads and desserts and we’ll throw together some casseroles and veggie dishes and have a get together with family and friends.

Where did you learn homesteading skills? My mother gardened all my life as a child. She canned and dehydrated vegetables from the garden. I learned a lot about gardening and canning from her. I graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a B.S. in Agriculture. There I learned a lot about animal husbandry, genetics, marketing, forages, and even drafting and design. Andrew grew up with cattle and construction. He has a B.S. from Columbia Southern University in Occupational Safety and is one of the best Masons in the state. Together there isn’t much we can’t figure out or design, and Andrew can build anything we dream up! We have been fortunate enough to meet some very knowledgeable people in agriculture willing to help us in our journey to self-sufficiency. Their names are listed in our phones contact list by what animal or crop they are best in such as Jim-Sheep or Nicky-Cows. They always laugh when they find out how we remember their numbers.

Favorite chore? Least favorite? Harvest time in the garden is always exciting! I love watching the bushel baskets fill to over-flowing and see the kitchen floor disappear in a sea of home raised vegetables! Lambing season is just as exciting. Every barn check is full of anticipation, and seeing those little fuzzy creatures for the first time would make anyone smile.

Processing day is hard, whither it’s us putting up our own chickens and turkeys or hauling pigs and lambs to slaughter. Death here is not taken lightly. We realize and appreciate the life of our animals and their role in our family’s health and nutrition. As a friend once said, “they have a happy and healthy life here on the farm, followed by one bad day.”

Advice for others thinking about starting a homestead? Start slowly, and build on what you have accomplished. Trying to start out too big too fast can quickly exhaust you physically, mentally, and financially. Don’t be afraid to try new things and think outside the box! Look for ways to recycle and re-purpose materials you already have, or can source from free local ads. Bartering is an excellent way to get things you can’t find for free! We have traded piglets for cows, and sows for machinery. Our best deals have been barters! Encourage your friends and family to be a part of your plans, you could use the extra help and they can help share in your harvests. Find knowledgeable people willing to share their advice and experiences with you. It’s always reassuring to have a number you can call when you just don’t know what to do.

Anything else you want to add? We homeschool our children. This gives us a wonderful opportunity to teach them important lessons through interaction and activity on the farm. We don’t do PE, we do farm chores. They learn science and math skills through the raising and selling of their own livestock as well as filling garden orders for customers.

Mike and Alison Buehler (Runners-Up)

City/State: Starkville, Mississippi

How many acres do you have? 5.5

How long have you been homesteading? Six years

What is your definition of a homestead/homesteader? We define homesteading as recovering fading traditions and discovering meaningful living.

Do you have animals or crops or both? How many of each? We raise Kunekune Pigs and plan to breed them for pastured pork, chickens for eggs and broilers for meat, bees for honey. We grow about an acre of fruits and vegetables for our own use. You can grow just about anything in Mississippi and we grow year-round. Fall and winter are our best gardening seasons because the pests are not as bad.

Did you build your home or buy it? How old is your house if you bought it? We bought our home from the man who built it. Rust Bouchillon was an engineer at Mississippi State University and he designed and built the Homestead for his wife and four children in 1975.

Do you produce any of your own electricity or water? (i.e. solar panels for electricity, rain barrels for electricity) If so, what? We produce about 1/3 of our energy with a solar array. We are an electric charging station for cars. We have a grey water orchard that is watered from the washing machine, a greenhouse to grow year-round with a solar water heater to keep it above freezing. We also catch about 1,300 gallons of water in rain catchment systems every time it rains which are dripped into the gardens.

How do you repurpose everyday items for use around the homestead? We use old chemical containers for water catchment systems and pig houses. We use old pallets to build almost everything from tables to outdoor seating. We use large wooden spools to raise our rain barrels up high enough to create pressure. We make compost bins out of commercial barrels.

What sorts of projects are you working on right now/this year? Right now we are working on creating rotational grazing pastures for our animals. We would like to move our animals often to new pasture and follow them with varieties of animals who will help keep the pastures healthy.

What are you most proud of on your homestead? We are most proud that our homestead is in Mississippi, the place that we love. We love restoring a rich way of life that two generations ago was common in our area.

Best thing about running a homestead? This is a family affair. Our kids learn real skills, we spend time with them, and we do a lot of projects together. They know where their food comes from. They know where their energy comes from.

Hardest thing? Going out of town. You have to plan ahead for someone to take care of the animals and plants if you want to leave town.

What do your friends and family think about your choice to homestead? I think they thought it was a phase, but now they are supportive of something that has become our way of life.

What percentage of your own food do you produce? We get about 2/3 of our food locally right now. We know who produces what we eat and how they care for what we buy. We would like to increase that percentage in the coming years. We use a 100 mile rule when we can to support health and the local economy.

Favorite thing to cook? Eggs. We eat more eggs more ways than you can count. Pasture raised eggs are so good for kids!

Where did you learn homesteading skills? We read every homesteading book and magazine we could get our hands on. We went to conferences like SSAWG and visited farms whenever we traveled. Then we just got outside and experimented.

Favorite chore? Least favorite? Favorite chore is caring for the pigs they are so funny and easy. Least favorite is weeding. Weeds are tough here and they never give in!

Advice for others thinking about starting a homestead? We think homestead knowledge is some foreign thing. It is really quiet natural to us. There is no secret ingredient or core body of knowledge that can replace just using common sense and improving as you go. Start with small successes to build your confidence. Grow in raised beds — it is so much easier. Start with chickens, anyone can raise them. Think about what would give your family meaning.

Anything else you want to add that we didn’t ask? My family took on homesteading as a hobby, but in six years it has become the way we live. We couldn’t imagine living separately from our basic needs again. We can’t believe how much richer our lives have become since we put our hands in the dirt!

Robert Reid and Britnee Atnip (Runners-Up)

Age: Robert Reid, III (28) and Britnee Atnip (23)

City/State: Gastonia, NC

How many acres do you have? 76 acres

How long have you been homesteading? 1 1/2 years

What is your definition of a homestead/homesteader? To us, homesteading has many different faces. It means learning how to be self-sufficient once again. It is getting back to the roots of our family and the property we live on. Homesteading is doing-it-yourself, living simply, and pouring your heart and soul into a greater cause.

Do you have animals or crops or both? How many of each? Both animals and crops. 36 chickens (35 hens- Barred Plymouth Rock, White Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, Rhode Island White, Buff Orpington, New Hampshire/1 rooster- Light Brahma). Family additions end of this summer: 2 pigs, 2 lambs. Crops: corn, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, onions, peppers, peas, radish, beet, cantaloupe, pumpkin, cucumber, okra, herbs, lettuce, cabbage, asparagus, eggplant, spinach, etc.)

Did you build your home or buy it? How old is your house if you bought it? Robbie’s Great-Grandfather built the home in 1895. His grandfather added on to the farmhouse in 1955.

Do you produce any of your own electricity or water? (i.e. solar panels for electricity, rain barrels for electricity) If so, what? Constructed four 55 gallon rain barrels. Use this to water our gardens. Have not had to use well water this year at all to water our gardens!

How do you repurpose everyday items for use around the homestead? Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Some examples of repurposing everyday items: old smokehouse is now our garden/tool shed, old benches have been turned into work stations, cast iron wash pot is now used as a planter for herbs, old antique dressers being turned into planter boxes with various flowers growing in it, old horse-drawn plows used as decorations around the property.

What sorts of projects are you working on right now/this year? This year we built a fence sectioning off some of the pasture to keep the cows out in order to have a safe place for our garden, chickens, and future animals. We built a chicken tractor that houses all of our chickens.

What are you most proud of on your homestead? We moved into the Riddle Farmhouse which had been vacant for nearly 10 years. Immediately we saw the potential in this beautiful piece of property and home and set out to bring back life to a place that seemed desolate, overrun with weeds, and more or less abandoned. Since then we have seen the inside of the house be transformed into an adorable southern-style farmhouse.

Best thing about running a homestead? The sun, sweat, and dirt-filled days getting the land ready for gardening, starting seedlings in our back porch, transplanting them outside, seeing the first sprout pop through the earth, and then fresh produce eventually makes its way to our table — food that has been started/grown/cared for/loved from start to finish by our own two hands.

Hardest thing? Balancing two full-time jobs and homesteading. Right now our jobs are supporting our true passion, which is our work here on the farm. Eventually we hope to one day be able to quit our jobs and solely work on the farm where we will host weddings, field trips for elementary students, and summer camps for children to be able to learn how to become involved in an art that has been lost by so many.

What do your friends and family think about your choice to homestead? Our friends and family at first thought we were slightly crazy. Honestly, I don’t know if they had faith that we would be able to balance full-time jobs and the amount of time and effort required to sustain a homestead. However, we quickly proved them wrong and everyone has been truly inspired by our accomplishments. Whenever any of our family and friends come out to visit they are absolutely amazed at our progress both inside and outside. We have breathed new life into the Riddle Farms property — including the farmhouse as well as the 76 acres we are blessed to live on.

What percentage of your own food do you produce? This year we are producing about 50 percent of our own food between the produce, chickens, and eggs. After learning to can and pickle this summer, adding on to our farm family with new animals, and learning how to become bee keepers and cheese makers we hope to see that percentage rise to almost 100 percent in the next year and a half.

Favorite thing to cook? Our favorite thing to cook is, without a doubt, zucchini cakes. They are like crab cakes but replace the crab meat with grated zucchini. We created our own unique recipes that include many different flavors, including, but not limited to jalapeno and cayenne spicy cakes, citrus cakes, cumin cakes, and a variety of herb cakes.

Where did you learn homesteading skills? All of our homesteading skills have been learned from information passed down to us, as well as trial and error. Our family members have been more than willing to share any knowledge they have with us, as well as our fabulous neighbors beside of us at Daisy D Farms who without their help none of this could have been possible. Every day we learn so many new things.

Favorite chore? Least favorite? We most enjoy starting new projects. Robbie’s carpentry skills still knock me off of my feet. It is so amazing to see plans he draws up from scratch on graph paper become a chicken tractor that is beautiful, efficient, and sturdy; a support system for rain barrels; a home for pigs, etc. Our least favorite thing is weeding the garden since it is such a huge amount of land to weed. However, we are adamant on not using any chemicals or fertilizers so the work that is put into keeping the weeds away is more than worth it to both of us.

Advice for others thinking about starting a homestead? Best advice is do not give up. Do not let others’ negativity or skepticism get you down. If you set your mind to accomplish something, you can. We heard so many people tell us “how hard this would be” and “how young we are to be able to succeed in homesteading” and “are we sure we want to do this? A lot of hard work and time will have to be put into what you want to do.” There is nothing more rewarding then waking up in the morning to the crow of a rooster, going out and working in the garden, and seeing the fruits of your hard labor become a reality.

Read more: Take a look at the 2012 Homesteaders of the Year in Homesteading Leads Individuals Closer to Self-Sufficiency.


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