Working In The Garden
Beginning to understand and disentangle yourself from the industrial food systems we all rely on can be as simple as reading a book or growing a few herbs in your kitchen window this summer. (Photo: Alicia Brown/Stocksy)

The Homesteader’s Guide to Surviving the Pandemic

Homesteaders were ready for this. Here's how to kick your self-sufficiency skills into high gear.

Working In The Garden

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Sow True Seed had to post a bouncer at the door. The garden supplier’s small storefront in Asheville, North Carolina, was so swamped in early March that staff began to let only six customers in at a time, long before social distancing became a state mandate. Inside, victory-garden vegetables, like tomatoes and squashes, were the first to go. Curated seed sets—the Homesteader’s Kit, the Preparedness Kit—vanished. Then the storefront closed, and for about a month, all of its employees became warehouse staff, frantically filling orders for as much as a year’s worth of seeds. Sales this March were double what they were last March.

Despite assurances that supply chains are intact, bare grocery shelves and market closures have underscored how fragile our global production systems are, especially when it comes to food. But this wasn’t news to small-scale farmers, homesteaders, or the organizations that support them, like western North Carolina’s Wild Abundance, a permaculture and homesteading school, and the nearby Organic Growers School, which supports local growers of all kinds. In the Organic Growers School’s workshop for aspiring homesteaders, instructors Lee Warren and Brandon Greenstein have long warned that there may come a time when self-reliance becomes imperative.

People have survived wars and epidemics through their ability to provide for themselves, Warren, executive director of Organic Growers School, says, “and because we’ve become so dependent on the larger system, we’re just vulnerable. And that’s not going to change in the short term.” As many Americans confront a world where basic needs aren’t automatically met for the first time, interest in self-sufficiency has, predictably, grown—and it goes beyond food. Demand for Wild Abundance’s survival-skills course, for example, has also spiked. People want to know how to build a fire.

Beginning to understand and disentangle yourself from the industrial food systems we all rely on can be as simple as reading a book or growing a few herbs in your kitchen window this summer. Homesteading may sound extreme, but it’s really just a lifestyle of self-sufficiency—and you don’t need to head west in your covered wagon to get started. As Warren teaches, homesteading is an attitude. Here are a few ways to get your feet wet.

Grow Your Own Food

“A great way to get started is to just get some stuff in the ground and start experimenting with growing,” Warren says. To ease into gardening, pick up a live basil plant at the grocery store and task yourself with keeping it alive. Houseplants, too, provide great practice for an eventual garden and a vital link to nature during days at home. If you have a sunny yard, patio, or even balcony, you can grow summer vegetables like peppers, squashes, tomatoes, beans, and eggplants. Special containers can even take the guesswork out of watering. You can order seeds by mail and pick up soil and other gardening tools in a single, careful trip to the hardware store, a business that’s considered essential.

Despite social distancing, you don’t have to go it alone. Wild Abundance offers a free virtual course called Top 10 Vegetables to Plant That Will Really Feed You. Over 7,000 people have already accessed the course, which is available to complete anytime. Organic Growers School has a wealth of resources on its website and YouTube. “Every state has sustainable-agriculture organizations at the federal, state, university, and NGO levels,” Warren says. She recommends a Google search to find one near you—that way the resources will be tailored to your climate and growing area. If you have the time and space, adopt some backyard chickens and enjoy fresh eggs. Many public and land-grant universities are required to provide taxpayers with free educational opportunities; these extension schools have historically focused on agricultural education, and they remain a valuable resource not just for growing and farming but also cooking, preserving, and other homesteading arts.

Reuse and Rethink

Homesteaders rely on creative reuse to harness every last bit of utility from household goods. It’s easy to turn vegetable scraps, for example, into vegetable broth. Inedible scraps, along with coffee grounds, eggshells, and other organic matter, go into the compost, which enriches garden soil. If you don’t have land, you can still compost. Many communities offer composting programs, or better yet, contribute your scraps to a grateful gardening friend—just make arrangements to add it to their compost pile when they’re not around. Consider adding a rain barrel to your property. “There’s going to be a big economic crunch going on, so we instituted a system of not wasting anything,” says Cherie Jzar, an urban homesteader in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Another important thing that people don’t think about is clothing. You’re at home, you don’t need to wear an outfit every day.” (To cut down on laundry, Jzar’s family also designates certain clothes for outdoor chores.) Hide your paper towels under the sink, and use a dish towel instead. Old T-shirts or sheets can become cleaning rags or—in a pinch—toilet paper, and mason jars can do just about anything. Do finicky tasks during the day, and rely less on lamps at night. Simply observe your consumption habits and begin to take manageable steps back.

Buy in Bulk

Buying beans, grains, and other dry goods by the pound is a low-waste, cost-efficient way to stock up on essentials. Protein-packed beans and chickpeas are remarkably versatile and keep for years. But don’t be afraid to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients. “One thing that’s kind of fun is the value of millet,” says Natalie Bogwalker, founder and director of Wild Abundance. Americans tend to be more familiar with millet as a birdseed than as a pantry staple, but it’s extremely cheap. (Many people enjoy millet’s uneven texture when cooked, but if you don’t, try making grits with it.) If electricity becomes unreliable for any reason, oats and buckwheat groats are beneficial in that they don’t require cooking; soaking alone yields an edible, healthy meal.

Practice Homesteading Arts

Seek out opportunities to do things yourself. Hone your cooking skills. If you’re a beginner, online resources like the You Suck at Cooking YouTube channel can help. If you’re an experienced home cook, branch out. Condiments like chili oil, pomegranate molasses, and sriracha are easy to make and lend complex flavors to homemade meals. Customize a hummus recipe. Learn to can and preserve food, starting with quick pickles. (This is a great habit to develop as summer approaches; you can learn to put away tomatoes and peaches at peak ripeness to be enjoyed in the winter, when it seems like turnips are the only thing in season.) Jump on the bandwagon and get a sourdough starter going. Your nearest extension school likely offers online guidance for all these skills. Making things with your hands, food or not, provides a source of satisfaction—and it’s something to do in the suddenly long evenings. Learn to knit or crochet. Practice your watercolors. Take up carpentry. Build something useful. One of Jzar’s first homesteading projects was to construct a swing set with her family. When something breaks, learn how to fix it. Make your own all-purpose cleaner or shampoo. Crafts and physical tasks can counteract the malaise of another night of Netflix and supplant the phantom productivity of online shopping.

Get Some Context

Two generations ago, almost half of Americans farmed. Today less than 2 percent identify as farmers, and their farms tend to be vast and industrial or small and entrepreneurial. Wendell Berry’s 1977 book The Unsettling of America is an excellent primer on how this happened, and it’s become a foundational text for local-agriculture advocates like Warren. “Big agriculture, globalization, and industrial food has caused a hunger crisis, health crisis, environmental crisis, and inequity problems. Wendell Berry made this obvious to us very early on,” she says. “But it has far-reaching effects and is even more true today.” (The consequences of consolidation are currently playing out: three meat companies control two-thirds of the American market, and we now face a widespread meat shortage.)

Wendell’s daughter, Mary Berry, continues her father’s work as executive director of the Berry Center, which advocates for farmers and a healthy relationship with the land. She recommends anything written by conservationist Aldo Leopold or Wes Jackson, cofounder of the Land Institute, a sustainable-agriculture organization. For a bite-size introduction to these issues, check out agricultural journalist Alan Guebert’s column, the Farm and Food File. And if you’re not quite ready to devote your bedtime reading to agriculture? “Jane Austen is an agrarian writer,” Mary Berry says. “Trollope is an agrarian writer.”

Cultivate Community

When you plant seeds in the ground, you embark on a collaborative relationship with the land. You become attuned to changes in season and the composition of soil, and you join a like-minded community. “A lot of people think of homesteading and self-sufficiency as a really individualistic thing,” Bogwalker says. “But if it’s going to be successful, it needs to be a community thing.” Farm and homestead experiences are hard-won, and community naturally springs up around swapping knowledge. Trade your tomato surplus for a friend’s fresh honey. Start a compost pile, and invite your neighbors to contribute. Call your gardening friend or a local nursery for advice. Make plans for the future. Season after season, in the face of uncertainty, planting seeds remains an expression of hope.