Fall is a great time to work on food preservation and other homesteading tasks. It is also a great time to build up your inventory of tools and supplies.
Having the right tools is a necessity for any homesteader. Some homesteaders create a one year, five year and even ten year plan for the tools they need to acquire.
TRIPLETT, N.C. — Every morning before commuting to full-time jobs in town, Jess McClelland and Alex O’Neill tackle a long list of chores. Eggs in the chicken coop need collecting; the vegetables need picking; a pair of 400-pound pregnant pigs need their medicine. After working all day in nearby Boone, McClelland, 24, and O’Neill, 27, drive home, descending a steep curved road to their 16-acre property in the mountains of western North Carolina. Then they work their land until nightfall.
They are modern-day homesteaders who have traded contemporary conveniences such as Uber Eats deliveries and a reliable internet connection to grow much of their own food and — as much as possible — live off the land in rural Appalachia.
“There’s a good sense of gratification that comes from it,” O’Neill says. “It’s pretty hard to grow all of this stuff and it’s satisfying when you see that first beautiful tomato.”
The number of farms in the United States has seen a steep decline, but some have turned to homesteading — in which property owners use home gardening, lumber production and other subsistence skills to take more control over their lives during uncertain times.
The definition of a homestead varies, and often depends on who’s doing the defining. For the purists, it means living exclusively off what you can grow, hunt, build or forage. Some even learn leather tanning and make their own clothes from animal hides hunted on their land. But for most, homesteading is more about relying on a combination of self-sufficiency and a healthy dose of community dependency. One might build a house out of timber from their forest, harvest vegetables from a backyard garden or eat eggs collected from their own chicken coops, but they’ll also pour milk they procured from a neighbor’s dairy cow onto store-bought cornflakes.
“It is indeed hard to define,” says Jason G. Strange, author of “Shelter From the Machine: Homesteaders in the Age of Capitalism.” “Homesteading is the extent people are engaging in subsistence production. Any time people are providing goods and services to themselves through their own labor.”
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Homesteaders are motivated by a range of forces, from a longing to take more control over life to wanting to seek a better diet, says Jessica Shelton, editor of Homestead.org. Most of all, it provides an opportunity to pursue a home life on your own terms.
“Some are sick of the hustle and bustle of modern life. Others want to move away from commercialism and all the plastic packaging that comes with it. Others still want to have the cleanest food possible for themselves and their family,” says Shelton, who grew up on a 300-acre cattle farm in the Ozark mountains.
“The reasons people decide to pick up and head to the country — or to begin a balcony garden in an apartment — are almost as varied as the people themselves,” she adds. “Being a homesteader doesn’t necessarily mean that you live on many acres of land and grow many crops. In some ways, being a homesteader is a state of mind just as much as it is a state of being.”
It’s a common misconception that the goal of homesteading is total self-sufficiency, says Natalie Bogwalker, 44, owner of Wild Abundance, a hands-on education center that teaches homesteading skills near Asheville. She defines homesteading simply as “living in a way that meets a lot of your needs from the land.” That can include gardening, permaculture, carpentry, building infrastructure such as water systems, agriculture systems and roads. A veteran homesteader who has been living largely off the land for more than 20 years, Bogwalker says community is a crucial part of making the lifestyle sustainable.
“The idea of one person having to master all of these things is kind of silly,” she says. “It’s so important to not try to do everything yourself.”
Bogwalker says she initially had a purist attitude. She traveled the world living in small intentional communities, focusing on developing wild survival skills while foraging food and growing what she couldn’t find. When she moved to North Carolina, she lived in a bark hut she constructed herself.
“I ended up getting super idealistic,” she says. “My life has become less purist and more integrated with modern life throughout time.”
In 2011, she bought a seven-acre piece of mountain land and began transforming it into a working homestead and school. She built a 12-by-16-foot log cabin from white pine trees on the land. Today, deer leather outfits she tanned hang on the wall next to a bow and arrow that belongs to her 6-year-old daughter, Hazel. Shelves are full of books about permaculture and native herb cultivation. A desk next to her bed looks out on a wide cherry tree in full spring bloom. Her living space feels like a treehouse.
On flat areas, she started gardens bursting with herbs, greens, potatoes, onions, peppers and melons. She unearthed a creek that runs through the property and dug two small ponds that provide a haven for wild frogs and other aquatic wildlife. Trees lining the road yield fruit and nuts five months out of the year. Along a trail in the woods she grows medicinal herbs, such as ramps, black and blue cohosh, goldenseal, sweet cicely, ginseng and spikenard.
Hundreds of people visit the property each year. They learn carpentry, permaculture gardening, foraging and natural building in open-air pavilions while camping on the property or staying in rental homes nearby.
During the covid lockdowns in 2020, Bogwalker’s phone rang constantly with people calling with gardening questions. While businesses around the country shut down and supply chains were disrupted, Wild Abundance had its most profitable year to date, as people flocked to the mountains to learn subsistence skills.
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“There has been concern about a breakdown of systems,” she says. “A good number of people feel skeptical about the longevity of our food systems as they are now. Covid really added to that.”
McClelland and O’Neill didn’t always intend to pursue a homebound life. While in college before the pandemic, they dreamed of building out a van and living on the road as digital nomads. And for a time, they did. They bought a 20-year-old Chevy diesel van painted in Scooby Doo colors and traveled the country in search of a place to live, only to return to North Carolina a month later.
“We had never even thought about homesteading seriously until covid,” McClelland says. “It made traveling around and moving seem not like an option anymore. We were finally stopped somewhere long enough where we realized we could do this and have a garden. And once we started, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the best thing in the world.’”
In January 2022, McClelland and O’Neill bought a two bedroom, one bath white country house tucked in the Appalachian High Country. It sits alongside a creek filled with trout and next to a steep wooded hill covered in white pines, tulip poplars and eastern hemlocks. A spring lined with rhododendrons flows down the hillside toward the property, bringing fresh water.
The home, which was built in the 1940s, had been vacant for years, but the land had previously been used for agriculture and as pasture for cows. A narrow path cut through the woods culminates in a small graveyard filled with neat rows of stones that date to the mid-1800s, with names like Opal, Virgil, Vexie, Myrtle and Carson.
“You definitely get the sense that things have been happening here for a very long time,” O’Neill says, surveying the gravestones. “It drives me to be a steward of the land.”
They got to work immediately, building a fence for their dogs, Chester and Mica, and preparing the land for cultivation using an old plow they found buried in a thicket of poison ivy.
When they bought the house, it was surrounded by a picturesque, but ecologically unproductive, lawn of green grass. Building out a homestead that uses available space for growing food almost always means disrupting the lawn, and McClelland and O’Neill dispatched theirs quickly.
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Behind the house, they prepared five 100-foot rows for food cultivation and planted peppers, greens, pimentos and Cherokee purple tomatoes. They plan to experiment with growing Miner’s lettuce, bitter melon, purslane and kiwanos, a West African melon that resembles an orange spiky cucumber full of lime green insides that make for excellent Jell-O.
Along the roadside, they’ve planted tulips and native wildflowers to sell at the flower market, to help them recoup the cost of the homesteading project. While preparing the land, they found a section that had been covered in fill dirt, so they used that to grow oregano, sage and other herbs.
They converted the cow barn into a chicken coop and filled it with around 40 hens and a rooster. They’re culling the trees in the woods behind the house, which make up most of the acreage, to create grazing land for sheep. They started deer hunting last fall, taking home 60 pounds of meat, enough to feed them both for the winter.
“The primary thing for us is to be able to produce our own food,” McClelland says. “I think it’s very powerful to have a connection to your food and how it’s grown and to be a part of that process.”
They also belong to the High Country Food Hub, where residents can order food online directly from local farmers and arrange a contactless pickup. The organization allowed farmers who lost their restaurant contracts during the pandemic to sell directly to a new customer base, and shoppers came in droves; sales increased by nearly 600 percent.
McClelland and O’Neill quickly learned that new homesteaders face a steep learning curve. McClelland studied agroecology in college, but says that the theoretical classroom work barely prepared her for the rigors of the real thing.
“None of them were hands on,” she says of the classes. “You learn the theory, but then you go and do it and there are so many variables when you’re growing things on the homestead. You have to make a lot of adaptations.”
The couple learned lessons the hard way. Weed control required immense amounts of time. Over the winter they covered the soil to starve the weeds of sunlight and learned how to use a flame weeder — “it’s a flame thrower, basically,” McClelland says — to remove the unwanted upstarts.
Late in the summer, a cold snap combined with weeks of torrential rain destroyed 100 pounds of their nearly ripe tomatoes after months of painstaking work tending them.
“There was nothing we could do,” O’Neill says. “We just had to watch them wither.”
When they planted hundreds of starts in 2022, they discovered that the soil nurturing their baby plants had been infested by termites. They cut their losses by saving seeds to use in the upcoming season. They bought new starts from a farm store or from friends who had extras.
Homesteading requires many upfront costs, which inflation has only made worse. Prices for lumber, chicken wire and even seeds have skyrocketed. Last year, O’Neill bought panels of wide sheet fencing for $27. Now the cost is closer to $50, he says.
They have found ways to make it work financially — and realized quickly that strong relationships with neighbors and other homesteaders help. They arranged a deal with the Boone stockyard for cow manure. They bought landscaping material from a farm selling off equipment, including Reemay gardening cloth and hoops at a huge discount. A friend lets them use a tractor.
For newcomers to homesteading, Bogwalker offers sound advice: Go slow. Instead of immediately investing thousands of dollars in building projects and agricultural tools, observe the land carefully for a full year before diving in. Noting where the sun hits during the growing season will tell you where to plant your gardens, and understanding the flow of water on the ground will inform where — and where not — to build.
“Burnout happens when you don’t do things like take a Sabbath or associate your self-worth with your productivity and purism,” she says. “The idea that you’re a failure if you don’t grow 90 percent of your own food? That’s when people quit.”
After two decades, she’s learned that it’s fine to give yourself a break and outsource needs to others in the community or the town.
“I could live but not thrive,” Bogwalker says of whether she could survive only on what she grows. “I really enjoy chocolate.”
Chris Moody is a writer in Boone, N.C. He teaches journalism and broadcast media at Appalachian State University. Follow him on Twitter @Moody.