I am a homesteader. I don’t live on tons of acres. Heck I don’t even live on half an acre. I don’t get to have more than a couple chickens, let alone the goats I’ve been dreaming of, and I certainly can’t raise all of my own food. But still, I am a homesteader. A suburban homesteader. I live in an average town in West Michigan, I am lucky to be in a fairly homestead friendly town, which helps a lot.
I love where we live, I love my neighborhood and all the benefits that come with living close to downtown. I love sharing our suburban homesteading lifestyle on our blog and with our friends and family. I love finding out different ways my friends and family have been incorporating homesteading ideals into their lives no matter where they’re living. It’s brought up some pretty great conversations on what homesteading looks like in different areas.
Still, I have some pretty major limitations on what we can do. Some of those limitations are obvious, space being a big one, but there are also a lot of less obvious ones as well. But one of my favorite quotes is from Norman Vincent Peale, “Every problem has in it the seeds of it’s own solution”. I’ve put together my list of biggest limitations/problems with being a suburban homesteader and a few ways you can turn that limitation into something great.
Obviously the first and biggest problem that suburban and urban homesteaders have to deal with is a lack of space. When you ask someone on the street what they imagine when they hear the word ‘homestead’ they will give you some variation of Little House on the Prairie. Big open spaces, lots of gardening, lots of animals.
Our lot is 42ft by 124ft…little over 5200 sq ft to work with, I know homesteaders with gardens bigger than our whole lot! When you add in the house, garage, and an inexplicably cemented back yard we really don’t have a lot of room left to play with. I dream someday of having elaborate garden spaces, of being able to grow 85-90% of our food, of having so much space I don’t know what to do with it all!
One of my very first baby steps into homesteading was learning how to container garden in various apartments and rentals. I learned what items grow efficiently in small spaces and capitalized on that. I enjoyed being able to tote my tomato and pepper plants all over my porch in search of sun light. When I bought my house it felt practically decedent to have any space at all.
I joined the ranks of the Grow Food, Not Lawns movement by adding four raised garden beds in our front yard, I’ve still got my containers moving around the backyard (seriously who cements over an entire backyard) and I’m learning more about growing vertical. Space limitations suck, but it’s worth it to work around them.
Aquaponics, vertical gardening, container gardens, raised beds, and window gardens are just a few of the ways suburban homesteaders can work around space limitations on their lot. Research community garden options in your neighborhood, or leave the gardening in the hands of the experts and join a community supported agriculture!
When you’re homesteading in the suburbs you have a whole lot of problems making sure you stay legal. This is especially true if you live in a community with a Homeowners Association. These laws will limit what/how much you can garden, whether or not you can have any animals, and even what kinds of foods you can buy/eat.
Here in Michigan we aren’t allowed to buy raw milk, you can however get around the law by taking part in a cow or goat share where you get the raw milk from ‘your’ cow/goat. But this is not protected by the law and we’ve actually had a couple awful stories where milk shares were forced to dump thousands of gallons of raw milk.
Right to Farm laws were also weakened in the last year, this means that here in Michigan small farmers and homesteaders are no longer exempt from GAAMPS that are designed with commercial farms in mind. If you live in an area that is designated anything other than rural you are also up for challenges from your neighbors unless there is a law specifically protecting your garden/small livestock.
This can be incredibly frustrating, especially for people who live in smaller suburbs that are having a large influx of urban residents. But for all the bad news that homesteaders have been facing there is a bright side. People are waking up to the complexity of food politics. They are realizing that what you get at the store is not always as healthy, or delicious, as what you can get locally. And it’s an exciting time to be a suburban homesteader.
Urban chicken laws have been passed in a number of larger towns, including our own, and the same goes for urban beekeeping. Homesteaders have a great opportunity to educate their neighbors, share their knowledge (and garden bounty) and open up conversations about why we do the things we do. And don’t forget about the power of the squeaky wheel. Be the voice of change in local politics by educating your city council on the benefits of homestead friendly laws!
Lack of Community
When you live in an agricultural area you know where to find the best information, resources, and tools. You’ve got a history there, you’ve got knowledge and support, you’ve got understanding. Whereas when you’re a suburban homesteader you lack all of that. You’re neighbors think of you as ‘that house’, you miss out on the institutional knowledge that is passed down through the generations, and you rarely have someone to walk beside as you figure out this homesteading thing.
It can be incredibly lonely to be a suburban homesteader. Your friends and neighbors often times won’t understand why you would want to grow your own food when you can buy it at the store. They won’t understand the excitement of finding an unopened box of canning jars at the thrift store. They won’t understand the beauty of eating a meal that you grew yourself.
Rural/farm towns have grain stores. They have FFA clubs and 4H in schools. They’ve got farmers who’ve been working the ground for generations. The knowledge and community base is something they just can take for granted.
I couldn’t imagine being a suburban homesteader without the internet. I’ve been able to connect and commiserate with suburban homesteaders across the country. I’ve been able to tap into knowledge bases I’d never find in my town. I’ve been able to learn from the best of the best.
Even in the most urban of town I know you can find your community, if you know where to look! Check out local extension offices to learn from the experts, even if it’s not the most happening of place they will be able to point you in the right direction for more resources.
Connect with older generations, they’ve got invaluable knowledge and experience and most often would love to share it. I’ve learned so much about gardening and canning from my grandparents, and they’re thrilled to finally have someone in the family to share it with.
Being a suburban homesteader has it’s fair share of challenges, but I think the indomitable homesteader spirit finds a way to overcome. Do your research, find creative ways to work around your challenges, and never let your circumstances keep you from your dreams!