At What Point Am I “Real”?

by Lisa Linderman on March 17, 2011

in opinion and navelgazing

Half Acre Homestead 2009You all know the drill.  You hear about some überfantabulous person or family who is taking the whole urban homesteading thing to heart, body, mind, and soul, and you are amazed.  They raise chickens and ducks for eggs and meat, they have goats that provide milk for drinking and making artisan cheeses, butter, and yogurt.  Oh wait, one of their goats also provides fiber for spinning.  They have rabbits for meat and fiber, and now they have a hive or two of bees to provide honey and free pollination services to ensure a bountiful harvest on their espaliered, columnar, and dwarf fruit trees, from which they make homemade jams, jellies, juice, wine, pies, and dried fruit.  They plant a dozen varieties of tomatoes and have mastered the concept of vertical gardening to ensure maximum return from minimum space, leaving them with vertical areas full of peppers, beans, herbs, strawberries, and more.  They have a full medicinal herb garden from which they make exotic tinctures and salves, combining the herbs with wax from their hives and cold pressed oil from their own olive trees.  Next to that they have a full culinary herb garden that includes everything from chives to horseradish.   Their animals provide substance for a compost pile which churns out black gold that they use to top dress the gardens, and the chickens and ducks provide organic pest control to eliminate the need for chemical pesticides.  They grind their own Half Acre Homestead Coopwheat and have a corn shucker, know how to make hominy and brew their own beer using hops grown as a living sunshade, dandelion wine from the weeds in their very tiny organic lawn, and mead from the honey their bees provide.  They make salsa and can vegetables year round, ferment their own sauerkraut and kimchi, have kefir, sourdough and friendship bread starters living in the kitchen.  They capture rainwater in barrels and have a soaker system set up to take maximum advantage of it.  They make their own laundry soap and dry their clothes on a line and have a solar panel array to heat their water or perhaps even power their house.  They heat with wood, which they chop down or collect themselves, and they barter for things they need.  Their chicken coop and goat pen are built from reclaimed materials, and they make quilts from discarded clothing…

Seriously, are these people from Mars?   Who does this stuff?

I mean, yeah, it might sound kinda cool, and maybe the idea of sustainable practices and self sufficiency really pulls at you, and maybe you’re concerned about your foods from a nutritional standpoint or a humane standpoint, or you just want to save some money and energy.  But what if  the most complicated thing you’ve ever grown is a weed-filled lawn, and the only food you know how to make is microwave pizza?   This year maybe you thought about planting a pot of tomatoes or two, or maybe you wanted to learn to bake bread, and these Martian People just make you feel inadequate, like it’ll never been enough, like there’s no point in even trying when you can’t accomplish all that in a billion years…

Or maybe you’re lucky and full of confidence, and you don’t care what other people do, and that’s awesome. You just set out to do what you wanna do on your fledgling urban homestead, and there you go!  Whatever you do is your thing, and that’s cool.  But what if you’re not so confident?  What if you feel like…a faker?  A fraud?  An urban-homesteader-wannabe?

Here’s the great thing about urban homesteading:  it scales well…it has to, in order to fit into urban yards and even apartment terraces.   And everyone has to start somewhere.  Some of us started with a few pots of herbs grown inside on a sunny window, or with learning to make plum jam out of that tree full of sweet but really really small plums growing in the backyard.   As a hobby, it tends to snowball, as it’s all really fulfilling and The Backyard Homesteadinteresting, and no matter how much you know, there’s always more to learn.  (By that token, I would beware of anyone who claims to have all the answers, who has the only way to do things, who insists that you’re doing it wrong, even when what you’re doing is working just fine for you.)  Part of what makes the whole thing so much fun is that there’s always room to grow…and except for a few lifelong farmers who may have downsized and urbanized, we all started somewhere on a smaller scale than where we’re at now!

The Urban Homestead

Maybe to get started you’d feel most comfortable if you read a book on urban homesteading techniques, like The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, or Urban Homesteading:  Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living by Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume.    If the idea of chickens is what turns your crank, get hooked up with a site like Backyard Chickens, or a local chicken mailing list  — we are legion.  Check in at a feed store, ask about classes for new chicken owners.  If you like the idea of producing all your food someday, go for something like The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan.   Maybe grab a copy of Mother Earth News or Hobby Farm Magazine.  If what really excites you is the idea of homemade jam, call up your local Extension Office (usually through a state university) and take a canning class, or pick up the Ball Blue Book of Canning and go for it…it’s not as hard as it sounds.    See if there’s a local Urban Farm School equivalent in your area.     Or build a raised garden bed or till a patch of ground, plant some seeds that look interesting, and see what happens!

Whether you have a flock of chickens or you have started sourcing local eggs, whether you’re planting your very first lettuce crop or you’re on to exotic things like kiwi and sunchokes, whether you grow a whole patch of herbs or just have some oregano in a pot and big dreams, you’re there.  You’re “real”.  There’s no magic tipping point at which you go from being a “wannabe” to being “real”, you just have the dream and the desire and start learning and doing more and more.

Another great thing about urban homesteading is the people… I think most of them, if you asked them, would say the same thing: “If you’re interested and dreaming, and learning and starting some project or plan, you’re real.”    And when you make your dreams known, those same urban homesteaders begin handing you plant starts and swapping heirloom seeds with you,  and telling you about how to make the best compost tea, and trading recipes for jams and jellies, and offering up advice and assistance.  So if you find an ÜberUrbanHomesteader that isn’t so friendly or giving or makes you feel inadequate, no matter how much knowledge they seem to have, move on to the next one, because there are lots and lots of them out there who are wonderful people.  As a whole, urban homesteaders are a generous and  gregarious bunch.  Maybe that’s because they’re all so adept at and interested in making things grow…including relationships and people!