The Barndominium lifestyle and country living often go hand-in-hand with the romantic ideas of simplicity, friendly neighbors, independence, and self-sufficiency. That last principle—self-sufficiency—attracts many Barndo lovers. Some simply want to have a garden to grow heirloom vegetables. Others like the idea of having solar panels that enable off-the-grid power. And still others are interested in truly minimizing their reliance on external goods and utilities. Homesteading is a lifestyle with self-sufficiency at its core. It often includes subsistence agriculture, self-contained renewable energy systems, and even the production of basic home goods such as clothing and cleaning supplies.
Whether you want to go all in and start building your homestead or you are interested in becoming a bit more self-reliant here and there, we are diving into the basic considerations and ways you can incorporate the principles of self-sufficiency into your lifestyle through food and energy.
The first thing that comes to mind regarding homesteading is growing your own food. Subsistence agriculture is indeed a hallmark of homesteading. One of the more challenging aspects of growing almost everything you eat is learning how to plan and plant for year-round abundance. The precise timing of your sowing and harvesting seasons will depend on your local climate, but warm season crops are straightforward. These include cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, peppers, sweet potatoes, and watermelons, which are sown in late spring to early summer. These you can harvest until the early fall.
Things get a bit trickier when the weather turns colder. On either side of the summer harvest, cool-season vegetables are the go-to. Think beets, carrots, chard, kale, leeks, onions, radishes, turnips, and spinach. One way to support year-round harvests is to extend the growing season later in the fall by protecting plants from frost and harsher weather. Protection can be in the form of a fully equipped greenhouse, but there are smaller, simpler options too. Cool-season vegetables can continue to thrive in cold frames or low tunnels. Cold frames are wood frames planted in the ground and covered with glass to insulate the soil around plants and keep frost at bay. Low tunnels are like knee-high greenhouses that help protect plants against the elements. Incorporating these elements can produce longer harvest seasons. You can also recreate these cold frames and low tunnels in raised garden beds, which are a bit easier on your back and may help deter various pests from munching on your crops.
In addition to growing your own food, you may consider having livestock. The kinds of livestock a homestead has oftentimes depends on the acreage. Even relatively small acreage homesteads can support raising chickens, which provide a regular supply of eggs. Black Australorp, Pearl White Leghorns, and Red Stars are among the most prolific breeds. If raising chickens for their meat, other breeds are better suited. Goats provide milk for drinking, making cheese, or using in other products like soap. For larger homesteads (with at least an acre of grazable pasture per adult cow), dairy cows are a good option with the added benefit that they are less susceptible to predators than goats.
On homesteads of all sizes, pigs serve a multitude of functions, including eating a lot of things that would otherwise go to waste, contributing to pasture tilling and fertilization, and being a food source. Despite significant up-front investment, pigs require relatively little space and can produce valuable pork that you can sell or consume. As additional meat options, a large homestead can support cattle while smaller ones might be better suited to rabbits and ducks.
While producing their own food naturally leads homesteaders to eat more seasonally than the typical consumer, food preservation is a critical component to ensuring bountiful food options all year. A major consideration of harvest management is how much of it will go to immediate consumption as opposed to storage. Most people are familiar with refrigeration and freezing, but there are other long-term ways of preserving food.
On a homestead, being familiar with a variety of food preservation techniques comes in handy. Canning involves storing food in jars and using heat to kill bacteria. Enzymes that would otherwise cause food to spoil become inert through the heating process. It is popular for foods high in acid like fruits and chutneys. Traditionally done by leaving food in the sun and air, dehydration is another method and commonly used for legumes, meat, and spices. Sugar preservation increases the life of jams, and salt can help preserve fish and pork. Fermentation produces foods like cheese, yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Alcohol, vinegar, and olive oil all have preservation applications as well.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of growing your own food is that you also have to cook it! As part of harvest management, understanding and anticipating how much food will be consumed in a given period of time is essential. Both freshly harvested items as well as preserved items must be taken into account. When you put so much time and effort into producing your own food, you will also want to think how to use it most efficiently and minimize waste. Composting food scraps is one way to really maximize the value out of everything you produce. If you have pigs, they eat just about everything, so your leftovers do not have to go to waste.
Cooking from scratch, primarily using ingredients you produced, can be quite daunting and time consuming, so it helps to practice. It can represent a significant dietary shift if it is not how you are accustomed to eating. In addition to fresh foods, how will you incorporate preserved foods through various means? How you cook will also be a feedback mechanism for how much food you need to produce and will drive planning for future harvests.
If you are interested in living off-the-grid, minimizing your environmental impact, or having an alternative source of power, then renewable energy is the name of the game. In recent years solar power has become increasingly accessible and less expensive. According to a report prepared for the California Energy Commission, “Photovoltaic (PV) power systems convert sunlight directly into electricity. A residential PV power system enables a homeowner to generate some or all of their daily electrical energy demand on their own roof, exchanging daytime excess power for future energy needs (i.e., nighttime usage).” The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the cost for residential PV systems fell 64% between 2010 and 2020.
A truly off-the-grid homestead requires a much larger investment with more solar panels than the average residential system, but the declining prices of panels make this more attainable. There are even solar panel kits specifically designed for homesteading style applications. Installing these kits yourself often comes with a cost savings benefit as well. When planning where to place your solar panels, remember that they do not have to go on your roof and potentially detract from an otherwise attractive elevation. If you have the space on your property, PV systems can be placed on the ground to preserve the aesthetics of your home.
When it comes to solar, one important consideration is battery reserves. Batteries are critical to taking advantage of sunny days and minimizing vulnerability to extended periods of insufficient sunlight. Notably, panels can be motorized to move with the sun and maximize the amount of energy captured from sunlight in a day. Once again, for a homestead with power that is fully disconnected from the wider electrical grid, the investment is high. Batteries for solar-powered systems have a 5- to 15-year lifespan before needing to be replaced. Careful planning of a homestead site can lead to a lower need for power. For instance, quality insulation combined with well-planned orientation of the home relative to the sun minimizes heating and cooling costs; grey water and low water flush systems conserve water that must be moved around with power; and energy-efficient appliances reduce waste. There are other ways to supplement a homestead’s power needs as well.
Other Energy Sources
Wind is another common renewable energy source. Unlike solar which is a functional option in a wide variety of places, wind energy is a bit narrower in terms of ideal locations. If your homestead site has a hill, wide open field, or a spot that forms a wind tunnel, installing a turbine is one option for providing power to your homestead.
Let us not discount even the simplest sources of energy that people have had for a long time. Wood-burning fireplaces can do a lot to heat a space and wood-burning ovens can cook just about anything that modern conventional ovens can.
For any energy self-sufficient homestead, the best option is often a combination of energy technologies. Choosing multiple options provides redundancy and overlapping coverage to reduce the chances of running out of the energy you need. It is wise for any homestead disconnected from the grid to also have back up plans for energy needs. For instance, a gas-powered generator may be a good way to provide power coverage in the short term in the event of a storm that damages other energy-producing systems.
Homesteading has so many components to it. It might seem overwhelming to someone unfamiliar with it all but still interested in the concept. Whether you only want to incorporate one or two practices or intend to produce your own everything, the best way to get started is to start slow, make incremental progress, and build up the necessary skill sets, so you can make your self-sufficiency goals a reality.
Here are a few more skills you might want to try out and potentially incorporate on your homestead.
As wild bee populations have fallen for a variety of reasons including intensive farming practices and climate change, raising bees has grown in popularity. Bees play an integral role in many ecosystems, pollinating 80% of all flowering plants according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Bees and other pollinators are essential for gardens and crops to thrive. In addition to supporting your harvest, raising honeybees creates the opportunity to collect their honey as well.
Just as weather governs crop sowing and harvesting, weather determines bee nectar flows—times of the year when nectar is abundant, and bees produce more honey as a result. Nectar flows vary by location, so it is important to consider when this would be in your area. Diligent beekeepers ensure their hives are at their strongest right before spring nectar flows in order to maximize the amount of honey produced. This may require some supplemental feedings in the winter months. Other beehive management activities include hive inspections (do these on warm days to prevent the hive from losing too much heat in colder months), queen replacement, pest control, and honey collection. If you are opting for natural, treatment-free beekeeping, you would avoid pest control practices.
Honey is packed with healthful properties and can last for more than 1,000 years. In addition to honey, the hive also produces nutrient-dense bee pollen and royal jelly.
Tree tapping is the process of extracting sap from a tree. Although most people are familiar with the concept of using sap to make syrup (most commonly of the maple variety), there are other uses for tree tapping as well. Various trees produce saps with medicinal properties or applications as adhesives or waterproofing material. So how do you do it?
While Maple is the most common tree to tap, especially Sugar Maple, several other varieties can be tapped for syrup including Birch, Black Walnut, and Sycamore.
Let’s consider the most popular case for tree tapping: making maple syrup. First, you will want to select trees that are at least 10-12 inches in diameter as smaller trees could be damaged by tapping. Trees with a diameter of 21+ inches can probably take two taps. To extract a tree’s sap, you drill about a 2-inch hole into the selected tree at a slightly upward angle. Be mindful that the tree should be at least 10 inches wide. Smaller than that and you risk causing longer term damage to the tree and hurt your future sap seasons. After drilling into the tree, insert a spile (a small metal or wooden spout), and the sap will slowly begin to flow from the tree. You can collect sap about once a day throughout the season. To make syrup, all you have to do is boil the sap, and don’t be surprised when your gallon of sap becomes a mere 1-4 ounces of syrup!
There is a relatively small season for tree tapping—only 4-6 weeks in most places. It occurs right when winter yields to spring but varies by location, so be sure to check peak tree tapping time in your area so you don’t miss out.
Many homesteaders like to make their own clothes. This can be anything from raising fiber animals and making yarn or fabric to simply buying cloth and sewing your clothes. Collecting animal fibers, cleaning them, spinning them into yarn, and dying that yarn is time intensive, but it certainly can be done. If this is the route for you, consider which fiber animals you might add to your homestead. In addition to sheep, which are always top of mind for their wool, alpaca have soft hairs that can be made into fabric, and Cashmere and Angora goats also have hair suited for clothing.
If you cannot see yourself investing the time to make your raw materials, perhaps you may still be interest in sewing your clothes from purchased fabrics. Sewing your own items allows you to use higher quality fabrics than you might find in certain stores. Plus, raw materials like fabric do not have nearly the retail markup that most clothing does. Moreover, on a homestead, the whole point is to be as self-sufficient as possible, so it’s a good idea to at least know how to patch a rip in your clothes or sow a button back on that snagged on your fence. In addition to a sewing machine, you will need tailor’s chalk, scissors (there’s a variety but at least, wide bow scissors for detailed work and tailor’s shears for general purposes), a yardstick, a tape measure, grader square, hem gauge, seam ripper, sewing pins, and of course fabric and thread. There is a wealth of material online where you can find tutorials and sewing patterns to get started making clothes on your homestead.