How to Start Your Own Farm or Homestead: Setting Priorities

The dream of a low-budget homestead is obtainable — after you consider your priorities and ability to keep your life simple.
By Steven D. Gregerson
January 2013
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There are hundreds of things to think about before planning and starting your new life, and “Creating the Low-Budget Homestead” will save you valuable time and money by steering you down productive paths and making you carefully consider others.
Cover Courtesy Paladin Press
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If you've ever thought about pursuing a self-sufficient lifestyle on your own rural homestead or survival retreat but feared you didn't have the money or skills to do it, Steven D. Gregersen offers advice for it all in Creating the Low-Budget Homestead. In this excerpt, Gregersen discusses how to start your own farm or homestead, and one of the first things to consider before getting started — the wants-versus-needs aspect of a rural, off-the-grid lifestyle. 

You can buy this book in the GRIT store: Creating the Low-Budget Homestead.

More from Creating the Low-Budget Homestead:

9 Tips for How to be a Good Neighbor in the Country 

Setting Priorities

I read an article this morning that debated whether or not the “modern woman” can “have it all,” possessing a highly paid, professional career, enjoying a fulfilling marriage, and being the perfect mother to her children. One of those commenting below the story pointed out that everyone featured on the program had at least one failed marriage, and many didn’t have children. Those who did have children had nannies to care for them. The only thing they had in common was that they had all risen to the top in their chosen careers.

Trying to have it all is one of the main reasons I’ve seen people fail at their attempts to live the low-budget homestead lifestyle. Everything has a price, and the wise person knows this. Satisfaction and success cannot be measured by the accumulation of possessions, wealth, or fame but must instead be sought through things like family, security, contentment, and a sense of fulfillment. Living like we do requires a completely different philosophy of life.

Comfort versus Convenience

I had a friend tell me once that he couldn’t live like we do. I was really puzzled by that, so I asked him what was so hard about the way we lived? He looked me right in the eye and said, “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about! On another occasion, I talked to someone else who said something about how many things we gave up to live the way we do. I was puzzled by that one too! Then I put those two comments together. What I believe both people were referring to was the issue of comfort vs. convenience.

The dictionary defines comfort as “a condition of ease or well-being; a feeling of being relaxed, cozy, contented.” It defines convenience as “something that increases comfort or makes work less difficult.” Synonyms include expediency, ease, and handiness. Which got me pondering the question: Do laborsaving devices make life more comfortable?

Example one: You are a wife in 1955. In the kitchen you have a refrigerator, gas or electric range, and an electric mixer. The utility room contains a wringer washer, you hang your clothes on a clothesline, you iron your husband’s shirts and jeans and your dresses, and you have a Hoover vacuum cleaner. In the living room you have one telephone, one black-and-white television with an antenna (no cable), and 13 channels to choose from. In the morning you fix a hearty breakfast and send your husband off to work and two of your four children off to school with sack lunches. You still have two pre school kids at home to care for. After school, your children are greeted at the door by the smell of home-baked cookies. They grab a couple on their way to the backyard to play. Your husband gets home an hour later, and you all sit down to a home-cooked meal and relax in the evening watching I Love Lucy, The Jackie Gleason Show, and You Bet Your Life on TV, or maybe you read a book or magazine while the kids play in their room. In your bedroom you have a bed, closet, dresser with mirror, and a radio. You have one car that your husband drives to work, and you all share one bathroom. The dog sleeps outside in his own house (which the husband shares with the dog on occasions). There is no automatic dishwasher, microwave, permanent-press clothes, computer, or video games, and you have no “outside” job.

Example two: You are a wife in 2012. In your kitchen you have a refrigerator, range, dishwasher, microwave oven, toaster oven, automatic bread maker, automatic coffee maker, blender, food processor, a telephone, and an electric can opener. In the utility room you have a freezer, automatic washer and dryer, vacuum cleaner, and a dusty iron and ironing board. You have two kids, one in school, one in daycare (no lunches to fix, but don’t forget to send lunch money). In the living room you have two telephones, surround-sound stereo, a computer, Internet connections, DVD player, Xbox, Wii, PlayStation version 99 (or whatever is the newest and latest), high-definition large-screen television, and satellite or cable service with 99+ channels, not including pay-per-view channels. You also subscribe to Netflix.

In your bedroom you have another phone, computer, television, stereo, and digital alarm clock, in addition to a sleeping apparatus (i.e., a bed), walk-in his and her closets, dresser with a mirror, and your own bathroom with double sinks. You have two vehicles—wife gets the minivan; husband gets the SUV. Everyone over the age of 10 has their own cell phone. Mornings begin with a quick cup of coffee (you’ll get breakfast on the road), kids get a bowl of cereal or breakfast at school (don’t forget to send money), mom drops the youngest at daycare on her way to work, dad takes the oldest to school on his way to work. Both parents work all day (you have to in order to pay for all of those “conveniences“) and eat lunch out. You have a rotating schedule telling you which kids are at what activities and who picks them up after work. You’ll need to stop at the store for your evening meal and pop it in the microwave when you get home, or just order takeout. Then you eat supper, stack the dishes in the dishwasher (or trash), swap clothes from washer to dryer, fold clothes out of the dryer, watch TV and/or get on the computer or help the kids with their homework. Later, dad is in his home office with his laptop finishing up his “homework” from his job, while mom is in the bedroom. Kids watch their own TVs or play on their computers or play video games in their own rooms.

Which couple lived the life of greatest comfort? Why? Which had the most convenient life? Why? Does convenience increase comfort? Why or why not?

One of the most important questions is “how much does convenience cost?” If both parents were not working full time, would all those conveniences be needed? Suppose one parent stayed home. How many of those expenses could be eliminated? How much would not be needed to pay for such things as childcare, eating out, multiple vehicles, cell phones and wardrobes? Now suppose you downsized on housing, which means you pay less in insurance, taxes, and mortgage. How much will that save?

You should think about the mental aspects of modern life. When was the last time you actually felt relaxed in the evening?

If you ever want to get off this treadmill, you’re going to have to reprogram the way you think and act. One of the first things to do is evaluate the difference between needs and wants.

Needs versus Wants

“Need” is a word we use with great ambiguity.

As I write, I’m looking at Lake Mead through the open back door of our 14-foot U-Haul truck that’s been converted to a motor home. My wife is outside soaking up the sun on a lounge chair.

We’re over a thousand miles from our home in Montana, where the snow lies deep and the thermometer still registers in the single digits at night. We aren’t going home until two things happen: we have to experience at least one day of 90-degree temperatures here, and the snow has to be gone from the yard at home. We really needed this extended vacation! Or did we?

I remember a question posted on a computer forum asking which was most important in a survival situation: fire, water, shelter, or food. The only correct answer is, “it depends on the situation.”

If you fall through the ice on a lake, the most important thing might be fire to prevent hypothermia. If you’ve spent a day in the desert without water, the most important thing is going to be water. If there’s a storm heading your way, the most important thing might be shelter. If your plane has gone down in the wilds of Alaska where you have shelter, fire, and water, the most important thing might be procuring food. What you need most depends on a lot of factors. Your needs as a homesteader must be evaluated the same way. On our homestead, we have certain needs that must be met. They are food, water, shelter, and paying our property taxes. These are essential, meaning that if you take away any, our life here is over (in some ways more permanently than others).

We have a couple of common household expenses that are wants but are very important to us. These are the phone and Internet service and insurance for the vehicle we’re driving. In tight financial times, these will go if necessary in order to keep the property taxes paid. If it comes to that, we can take bicycles or snowmobiles to town to use the Internet, we have ham radios for emergency communications, and we’ll park the vehicles. Everything else is negotiable.

We’ve established what’s most important to us and have planned our lives accordingly. We’ve found that by eliminating those things that were of less value, we have more time and money to pursue those things we really want. Hence, even though we make very little money, we still have enough to take our camper out for a few months every year for an extended vacation.

One of the most important skills needed for creating a low-budget homestead or retreat is the ability to differentiate between needs and wants. The more of your resources you use to obtain wants, the less you’ll have available for your needs. Meet your needs first; then prioritize your resources to get the wants you truly desire. In order to determine if an item is a need or want, we ask the following questions:

A. Will life cease if we are deprived of it? If so, it’s a need.

B. Will our quality of life be severely impacted in a negative way if we don’t have it? If the answer is yes, depending upon the degree of negative impact, it may be a need or it may be a very important want. It’s important to note that B is subjective and will depend on your goals and attitude toward life in general.

C. Assuming that something is an obvious want, we ask, “Is this something I’ll really use, or will I regret buying it and sell it later at a loss?” We also ask ourselves if we’d be happier not buying it and using the money saved for something we’d enjoy more (like traveling).

On those rare occasions when we’re feeling deprived, we remind ourselves that for the vast majority of man’s existence, there was no television, Internet, telephone, motorized vehicles, running water, indoor plumbing, washers and dryers, air conditioning, microwave ovens, refrigerators, or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Yet people who came before us still enjoyed life.

Suicide was less prevalent in the past than it is today, so it’s safe to say that more “things” do not make life more enjoyable. In fact, studies are proving that more things can actually lead to a lowering of life satisfaction. The best way to avoid clutter in life is to not get it cluttered in the first place. The best way to do that is to decide what’s really important and avoid those things that aren’t. Get your priorities right.

Think critically about your choices in housing, vehicles, tools, toys, and equipment. Do you need a large house or do you just want a large house? Do you need a new truck or just want one? Do you need more guns or just want more guns? Do you need a backhoe or just want one?

On the other hand, don’t take this to extremes. I know people who have 10 years of food supplies stored up along with thousands of gallons of diesel fuel and gasoline and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. If you have lots of money or you’ve acquired these things slowly over time and the responsibility of possessing them brings no added stress, there’s nothing wrong with this type of abundance. But if you’ve denied yourself and your family everything else to go to this extreme, you need to reexamine your priorities. There’s nothing wrong with wants and luxuries as long as you have your basic needs covered.

Determine what’s most important and then make that a priority. Above all, be very careful about going into debt even for necessities. There are low-budget alternatives to nearly everything.

I want to repeat again: one of the most important skills needed for creating a low-budget homestead or retreat is the ability to differentiate between needs and wants. The more of your resources you use to obtain wants, the less you’ll have available for your needs. Think critically about the choices you make.

Time versus Productivity

In a recent conversation, a man asked me, “Why are we busier now than when we had jobs?” I told him it was because we were now doing everything we used to pay other people to do!

There are times I’ve thought about getting a “real” job long enough to earn enough to hire someone with a dozer to come clear and level a few acres of our property for a larger garden and hay meadow. He could get more done in two days than I could in a month of hard labor.

If I got a job, I could make about $15 an hour. By the time taxes and Social Security are deducted, I’m making about $12 per hour. Plus there’s the driving time, which in our area would be about 90 minutes each way. Now figure in gasoline to drive to work, which at current rates will be around $120 per week minimum. I’m making about $480 per week take-home pay and spending $120 per week of that for fuel, which leaves me $360 for my effort. But remember, not only am I working 40 hours a week, I’m spending another 15 hours in travel time, plus losing another five hours per week due to the hour allotted for lunch. My job is eating up 70 hours of my time each week, and after taxes and fuel I’m “making” roughly $5.14 per hour of effort expended. (Remember, the government is taking $3 per hour right off the top before I see any of it.)

Now out of that I’ll have extra maintenance on my vehicle, plus the eventual replacement cost since it’s going to wear out much faster and we’ll have to pay insurance on an extra vehicle since my wife will need a licensed and insured vehicle while I’m at work. Since I’m in town every day, we’ll spend more for things we wouldn’t normally have purchased. So let’s pretend I’ll end up with an extra $150 per week to hire a dozer and operator to clear five acres of land. He’s going to charge me $100 per hour, and it will take him about 15 hours to clear and level that five acres. His fee is going to be $1,500. Now do the math. I have $150 per week to apply toward his work, so it’s going to take me 10 weeks to save enough to pay him. In that 10 weeks, I’ll have devoted 700 hours of my time to pay him for 15 hours of work. It would take me about 350 hours to clear and level that five acres by hand. Also, if I do it myself, I won’t be paying $1,200 to the government in taxes and another $1,200 to the gas station, and I won’t be insuring, maintaining, and replacing another vehicle.

The key here is that I’m not going to do it all at one time. In fact, it might take me a couple of years while devoting a few hours per day to the project, but that’s okay. There’s no rush, and I’d rather take the extra time working at home than spend it in the city breathing polluted air, putting up with the constant noise, enduring the harried atmosphere, and supporting the government, insurance companies, and oil industry. I’ve done enough of that in my life already. I’ve paid the price of convenience, and it cost too much.

Now, I could buy a tractor and backhoe and farm implements and get the work done in less time, but then I have other problems. If I didn’t pay cash, I’d have to use credit. Then I’ll owe a bunch of money, and I’ll have to use the equipment to make money. So, now I’m working 40 hours or more per week to pay for my equipment, plus liability insurance and other business-related costs. Now I’m a contractor rather than a homesteader, and I’m in the same trap I moved here to escape from.

Always remember that homesteading is your job. You’ve traded the nine-to-five rat race for your present life. So what if it takes three times as long to get things done!

We go through periods when we wonder if it’s worth it to grow our own food and directly provide for most everything else we have. For example, we were having peas for supper. By the time we’ve worked the ground, added compost (making compost is another task by itself), planted the seeds, weeded and watered the crop all summer, picked and shelled the peas, and canned or dried them, we’ve got a lot of labor in that jar of peas. Now, for those working a job, how many hours do you work to be able to pay 75 cents for a can of peas at the grocery store? At $10 per hour, it would have taken about five minutes of work to earn that money. Is our way convenient? No! But the finished product tastes better and is healthier than any commercial alternative you can get at a store. Is it an efficient use of time? No! But we are not dependent on factory farms thousands of miles away or migrant labor for the harvest or distant canneries or the petroleum industry for fuel and fertilizer or long-haul truckers or wholesalers and distributors or delivery trucks and grocery stores for our food.

Remember, this is your job. You used to spend 40 hours a week at a job, plus your commuting time and the time you were allotted for lunch to provide a paycheck to buy your food, pay your mortgage and insurance, and buy natural gas, electricity, or whatever to heat and cool your home. Now you’ve traded that time to directly provide those necessities.

If it takes me 50 hours a week to provide those things, I’m still “working” 20 hours less per week than I was before, and we end up with two or three months of vacation time every year to spend wherever we want to be.

The irony of the situation is that I used to work my regular job, then come home and work in my garden, pick huckleberries, and go hunting, fishing and trapping for fun. Now I get up every morning and do the things I’ve always truly enjoyed doing.

Fancy versus Functional

My grandfather was a frugal farmer. He never owned an electric air compressor. When he had a low tire, he pumped it up with a hand pump. I asked him why he didn’t buy an air compressor since they’d be faster and easier. He said he had lots of time and the exercise was good for him. When a tire needed repairing, he removed it from the rim using two broken leaf springs for tire spoons. I asked him why he didn’t just go buy tire spoons from the auto parts store, and he said he didn’t see any sense spending money for store-bought tools when his worked just as well and didn’t cost him anything. The wagon we hauled hay on was made from the frame of an old worn-out truck. He removed the drive train, cab, and bed and made a new bed out of used lumber. It was nothing fancy, but it actually worked better than the wagons sold just for the purpose.

It wasn’t that he didn’t have money. He just didn’t see the need for “fancy” when “free” (or cheap) worked just as well.

In another instance, I saw a man forge a knife with a campfire, a plastic trash bag, a piece of leftover rebar, and two rocks. He has all the blacksmithing tools he needs at his shop, but he did this to demonstrate a point: functional doesn’t have to be fancy.

Cultivate creativity. For example, my wife once got a nail in her tire out in the backcountry. She had a tire pump and “space saver” spare, which was completely inadequate for the road she was on. She pulled out the nail, gave it a liberal coating of superglue, and stuffed it back in the hole. Leak fixed, problem solved!

We live in an era where specialization is the norm. Go to a website catering to cross-country bicyclers and you’ll find endless discussion on the “right” bike and the “right” clothes. Skiers, both downhill and cross-country, are another example of people who focus on specialized clothing and equipment. There’s nothing wrong with having a specialized bicycle or anything else unless not having it would keep you from riding. Don’t become a slave to the “right” equipment or methods of accomplishing a task. In today’s society, “right” is a product of advertiser’s hype and has more to do with cosmetics than functionality. Remember, people crossed the United States with handcarts, covered wagons, canoes and horses. They got the job done.

Learn to make do with the things you already have and save yourself money and time.

Keep it Simple

We say that primitive people needed almost nothing to survive, but that isn’t true. They needed the same things we do: food, clothing, water, shelter, security, and friends, family, and community. The difference is that their needs were supplied locally and their circle of dependence was small. When they needed tools, they made them from locally available materials rather than order them from factories half a world away. When they needed food, they harvested it from their fields or foraged locally. When they needed security, it was supplied by the men in their tribe or village. When we say their needs were “simple,” what we mean is that their needs were supplied through simple—i.e., uncomplicated, low-tech—methods. The modern way of life is extremely interdependent.

An oil embargo in the Middle East leaves long lines at the gas pumps in the United States. A volcano in Iceland stops air traffic across broad areas of Europe, leaving people stranded in airport lounges while looking for alternate modes of transportation. Oil price increases lead to higher fuel costs, which lead to increased expenses for farmers in fuel and fertilizer, leading to higher prices at the grocery store.

One of the major benefits of the self-sufficient homestead is that you distance yourself from this interdependency. If the stock market crashes, it will take months for us to notice the effects. When oil prices increase sharply, we cut back on driving or leave the vehicles parked until things stabilize.

The key here is to keep things simple and local. That doesn’t mean reverting immediately to a Stone Age existence (although we’re working on the skills to do that if the need is there). What you want to do is keep whatever modern amenities you desire without becoming dependent upon them. I have an electric table saw and radial arm saw along with an air compressor, drills, sanders, and various other electrical tools. The stationary saws and air compressor must be powered by a generator, but everything else can be powered by our solar power system. Our electrical needs are supplied locally and completely independent from the power grid.

In addition, we have hand-powered counterparts to every item mentioned so if for some reason we cannot generate our own electricity, we can still build things. If you check your history, you’ll find it wasn’t that long ago when everything was built with hand tools. It just took longer.

I often receive calls from people wanting to set up their own solar power system so they can get off the grid. After a short conversation, they’re usually disappointed and shelve their dream, returning to the tyranny of the power company. Why? Because they want to live life off-grid in the same style and excess as they lived life on the grid. Unless you have piles of money to invest, that’s just not going to happen. You’re going to have to simplify your life and get down to what’s really important to you.

In summary, you’re going to have to make some choices. You can live free with less, or you can sell your soul to your “conveniences.” Option one offers freedom, but it’s going to come at a cost. Things take longer and life may not be as convenient. Option two offers you every comfort and convenience, but you’re little better than a dependent child needing others to provide your every need. And like a dependent child, you’ll live your life at the whim of your benefactors.

In this case, your benefactors are your employer (or clientele), the power company, the grocery stores, the oil industry, the automobile industry, the entertainment industry, and even the workers who harvest your food. Which option will you take?

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Creating the Low-Budget Homestead by Steven D. Gregersen and published by Paladin Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Creating the Low-Budget Homestead.


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