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Opting Out: What Is Homesteading, and Why Does It Matter Today?

As part of our week-long series on people who opt out of society, Eva Holland follows the evolution of “homesteading,” from historic government policy to part-time lifestyle of self-sufficiency.
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Forest near Rzeszow, Poland. (Photo: mffoto/Shutterstock)

Forest near Rzeszow, Poland. (Photo: mffoto/Shutterstock)

An antiquated term that has recently been dusted off and refurbished, historically, “homesteading” referred to the granting of federal land, generally at little or no cost, to individual families for farming. It’s most closely associated with the opening up of the American West, especially in the last decades of the 19th century—post-Civil War—and the early decades of the 20th. The idea was to funnel young settlers into more sparsely populated areas and get them started working the land, building homes, and establishing themselves—and by extension, establishing the governments that had granted them land on the frontier.

The idea is at the heart of the early American dream: Land for anyone who’s willing to work it.

Far and Away (1992).

Later, in the 1960s and ’70s, homesteading became associated with the back-to-the-land movement. With the help of publications like Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News, “the original guide to living wisely,” disillusioned urbanites fled the cities in search of an authentic, self-sufficient life on the land. They embraced DIY building, farming, and gardening, and were early proponents of solar and wind power. Like many of the splinter movements of ’60s counterculture, the back-to-the-landers were reacting to the devastation and futility of the Vietnam War, and, later, with their emphasis on sustainable energy, to the OPEC crisis.

“Share This Land,” The Guess Who (1970).

Most recently, homesteading has been tweaked and put to use again, this time in connection with the latest do-it-yourself trends and the idea of increased self-sufficiency: of severing—or at least loosening—our ties to the big chain supermarket, the power grid, the consumer economy. Modern homesteading has a lot in common with its 1960s incarnation, albeit with a few contemporary twists. It encompasses everything from backyard chickens and rooftop gardens in Brooklyn to the composting toilet in the tiny house your friend’s friend built. Abigail R. Gehring, the author of several recent how-to books on contemporary homesteading and self-sufficient living, writes: “Homesteading is about creating a lifestyle that is first of all genuine. It’s about learning to recognize your needs – including energy, food, financial, and health needs – and finding out how they can be met creatively and responsibly.”

What might a modern homesteader look like? They have solar panels on their roof, and a vegetable garden in the backyard. If they don’t have livestock of their own, they drive out to that DIY farm every fall and slaughter their own pig, bringing home the meat. They knit, and they forage for wild mushrooms, and, if they live in the right part of the country, maybe they smoke their own wild-caught salmon in a rudimentary smoker they built themselves.

Portlandia (2011).

Gehring’s books on homesteading tackle everything from gardening to canning or drying food, beekeeping and backyard goats to geothermal energy sources and DIY bookbinding. There are sections on basketweaving; building your own stables, fences, and livestock pens; homemade herbal medicine; and the essentials of pottery. Companion volumes on self-sufficiency and what Gehring calls “back to basics” living cover baking, sausage making, homemade saunas, quilting, and wilderness camping, and even include instructions on how to build a dulcimer.

Of course, for most of us today, the time and effort involved in that level of do-it-yourselfing isn’t remotely realistic. And so while past iterations of homesteading clearly implied that the homesteader had fully committed to a life on rural land that they worked for their subsistence, these days the concept has room for part-timers, too. “Sometimes being genuine means letting go – at least temporarily – of grandiose schemes for acres of land, a home that is completely off the grid, and a barn full of animals,” Gehring writes. She encourages her readers to do what they can, when they can—whether that means a once-a-year pickling binge or a lone planter box producing a small supply of fresh herbs on a windowsill.

Call it a la carte homesteading. Looked at that way, many of us have dipped a toe into the homesteading movement—through knitting, or home brewing, or by baking our own bread. A term that once had a specific meaning defined by federal land-use legislation has broadened far enough to include pretty well anyone who’s inclined to put a little work in and then adopt it. The land may not be free anymore, but the title of homesteader is there for the taking.

We're telling stories all week about people who opt out of society on some level—homesteaders, back-to-the-landers, anti-government survivalists. Read the entire series here.