This week, as we mark the anniversary of signing our nation’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain (though I believe King George didn’t get to read it until three weeks later due to the 18th Century lack of email and texting), I am reminded of the many ways in which an independent spirit manifests in the life and practices of homesteaders past and present.
In 1776, the majority of the American population devoted itself to agriculture, and the agrarian ethos wove its way into the founding paradigms of the upstart compilation of states. Good old do-it-yourself was part of the bootstrapping courage that gave these former colonists the chutzpa to bid the Mother Country adieu and then fight for that decision. The independent spirit of this bygone era continues today through the contemporary homesteading tradition.
Growing and preserving your own foods is a crucial pillar in a homesteader’s independence. Vegetable gardens, orchards, herb patches, and wild edibles in the woods filled pantries, larders, root cellars, and attics in the fall. People dried, salted, pickled, fermented, and canned foods to help them last through the winter and the lean times in the spring as the new crops were put in the ground.
Smoking meats increased their longevity, though today freezing is also an important source of preserving all manner of foods. It’s hard to imagine a modern homesteader without a chest freezer…or two or three. Vacuum packaging and controlled dehydrators are other more recent inventions to help the independent food preserver stock up and seal in home-grown goodness.
On many historic homesteads, enough food was put by for a year or two, to help through a tough season of drought or flood, wind or hale. In most modern cities, if the ability to ship foods suddenly ceased, the residents would be able to eat for three days—then the supplies would simply run out. That’s it folks, three days of food. Relying on a trucking system that uses fossil fuels is not food independence. Joel Salatin offers an apt explanation of true food independence in his book Folks, This Ain’t Normal:
“Food security is not in the supermarket. It’s not in the government. It’s not at the emergency services division. True food security is the historical normalcy of packing it in during the abundant times, building that in-house larder, and resting easy knowing that our little ones are not dependent on next week’s farmer’s market or the electronic cashier at the supermarket.”
Independence on the homestead also comes with diversity. When the chickens nourish the garden with their manure, which nourishes the farmer with fresh produce, which nourishes the pigs with garden and kitchen scraps, which nourishes the ground for next year’s garden, it makes sense how diversity keeps the cycles of production and regeneration going all on the same plot of land.
With diversification also comes the safety net that if one aspect goes awry this year, the other pieces in the farm’s orchestration can pick up the slack. The flea beetles might have eaten the arugula, but the potato crop was bumper—it all works out in the end. I was once asked by a fellow farmer what I do for crop insurance. My answer was, “diversification.”
Knowing how to make things yourself is also a pivotal part of a homesteader’s independence. It might be as simple as inventing roll-down sides for your chicken tractor from pieces of blue tarp to help the birds better shelter from the rain, or as complex as welding your own milking parlor stanchions. An understanding of carpentry, metalworking, and even textiles can help a homesteader with Yankee ingenuity. Why buy a braided mesh to string on your trellis for snap peas when you’ve got a mountain of baling twine in the barn and can weave your own? In the end, you’ll have greater pride in your own work than what you might purchase from a commercial industry.
Knowing how to fix things is the tandem virtue to making them. On the farm, with our antique equipment, something is liable to break down at any given time—especially in the middle of haying. A bit of wire, some baling twine, or duct tape and zip ties can help for a variety of problems, but other issues require a cultivated knowledge of machinery maintenance.
My sister Kara is the grease monkey in the family, and she and Grandpa have spent many hours crawling beneath a tractor or a baler with a “humph” and a “could you hand me a—.” We’re not experts—but you gotta do what you gotta do to keep the farm rolling. Waiting for someone else to fix it in the field can be the difference between stacking the hay in the barn that night or losing it to a rain storm.
The independent homesteader also comes with at least a wee dose of stubbornness. Tax the tea? Heavens! Tell me what to do? I’m gonna figure it out my way! So long as the stubbornness doesn’t run away with you, it’s a good tool for making you get up in the morning and pull every last weed in the garden, pound in the last fence posts even though your shoulders ache, and finish mucking the barn even when the sun sets and turns the sky a dusky gray. A healthy dose of independent stubbornness keeps you going to get the job done—all the way, the best you can, every time. It’s part of the farming bootstrap ethos, that extra nudge from inside for those days when you’re feeling low that you never give up.
This Independence Day, take time to share stories of how your family has struggled for its own independence—whether through growing food, immigrating to start a new life, or rebuilding after the ashes of tragedy. Keep that stubborn willingness to do your best, no matter what, and see the bright promise of this summer’s day. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com