Busting the Myth That Homesteading Is Hard Work

nourishinghomesteadWhat does it mean to live life almost completely from scratch? For over a decade and a half, author Ben Hewitt and his family have cultivated forty acres near the dairy-farming community of Cabot, Vermont. They built their home and outbuildings from scratch. They’ve raised animals, plowed fields, grown food, tapped the property’s maples for syrup, and cooked—from scratch. Far from the hard, soul-breaking work it seems to be from the outside, the homesteading lifestyle has thoroughly nourished the Hewitts’ bodies, minds, and spirits.

The Nourishing Homestead: One Back-to-the-Land Family’s Plan for Cultivating Soil, Skills, and Spirit (Chelsea Green, 2015) chronicles the Hewitts’ collected wisdom through the seasons, told via personal stories and straight-from-the-source advice on everything from harvesting garlic to rotational grazing and making butter. “We think of our homestead as an ecosystem, and we see our role in that ecosystem as being about more than our physical beings,” Hewitt writes in the book’s “Practice and Philosophy” chapter. “Our homestead does not exist as a separate entity from ourselves; in a sense, it is us.”

Calmful Living caught up with Hewitt recently to discuss the book and explore how wisdom from the homesteading lifestyle might apply to living any life well, wherever you happen to be.

Calmful Living: How long have you been homesteading?

Ben Hewitt: I was born onto a 165-acre homestead in northern Vermont. My parents had built a two-room cabin with no plumbing or electricity, and we lived there until I was six, which is about the time they decided it might be nice to have an indoor toilet and electric lights. It was also about the time my father determined that writing poetry wasn’t going to pay the bills; so he got a job about ninety minutes away and we eventually moved closer to his work, into a fairly conventional but still rural home, with most of the modern conveniences. They still live there today.

Before we bought our property in Vermont in 1997, my then girlfriend (now wife), Penny, and I were drawn toward a pretty pared-down existence. We’d always planned to have gardens, some laying hens, maybe raise a pig or two; but it wasn’t so much a homestead fantasy as it was a determination to live according to our personal values. The rest of it sort of evolved from there.

OC: You depend on your neighbors quite a bit out of necessity, and they depend on you. In the book, you talk about embracing interdependence. Why is it important for us all—homestead or no homestead—to overcome the fear of asking for help?

BH: Asking for help is hugely important and also hugely empowering. What we think of as independence, really, is just transferring our dependence on family, friends, and community into dependence on businesses and industry. We need one another and we need to be needed in order to feel useful in tangible ways. I think one of the healthiest and most humbling things we can do is not to offer help but to ask for help. It’s also one of the most generous things we can do, because it gives others an opportunity to be needed.

OC: How has your relationship to food changed over the years as you’ve learned to produce your own?

BH: Growing our own food has turned that relationship upside down. For instance, when we first got dairy cows, I had to overcome my resistance to drinking our own milk, even though I knew intellectually it was probably a fresher and more nutritious product. Now, I prefer it to store-bought milk. It’s much the same with most of the food we grow. To me, I’d rather go through the steps of slaughter and processing the animal myself, whereas most people would probably find that process unappealing. It has become natural for us to have our hands on every step of the process.

OC: Could some of the principles of homesteading be applied to modern suburban family living?

BH: Absolutely. Many of the principles aren’t specific to rural homesteading. The biggest commonality—for anyone, in any environment—is to seek opportunities to be of service to one’s community and to find ways to help others be of service. It’s also entirely possible to produce a meaningful amount of food in very little space, and of course there’s been a tremendous increase in community gardens and other ways to support and contribute to a vibrant localized food economy.

OC: What has surprised you most about homesteading?

BH: What’s surprised me the most is the extent to which my work with our animals and the land has totally transformed my view of the world. I used to see the world as a place of decline and scarcity, but that’s no longer the case; and I think that’s in large part because I live with the day-in, day-out abundance and generosity of the land and our animals.

That’s not to say there aren’t terrible injustices happening all the time, but I believe those injustices are, by and large, creations of humanity and are not inherent to the way the world works. They are not inevitable. And while it’s important to be aware of them, dwelling on thing beyond my sphere of influence does nothing to remediate these injustices, even as it negatively impacts my emotional well-being.

OC: To keep the homestead flourishing, you work long hours every single day. Has homesteading changed your perspective on work-life balance? On what “leisure” means?

BH: Truthfully, I no longer distinguish between “work” and “leisure” and “life.” It’s all the same to us, and we actually consider this a tremendous blessing. The modern economy and societal norms sort of force us into these false distinctions. It’s interesting; most of our friends and neighbors work the land in some fashion or another, and while from the outside I can see how it might appear that we’re all always working, it sure doesn’t seem that way from our perspective.

I’ll go down to our neighbor’s place at milking time, and we’ll stand in the barnyard chatting for a half-hour or more; there’s no one to tell us we can’t. Or I’ll stop up at our friend’s sugarhouse while he’s boiling maple syrup; we’ll shoot the breeze until midnight. He’s working, for sure. But it’s also social time. In a sense, it’s even leisure.

OC: Why is cultivating the spirit of “living as if abundance were the rule” as important as cultivating bionutrient-rich soils on the homestead?

BH: The way we perceive the world becomes what we reflect and return to the world. In other words, if we believe the world to be a cold and stingy place, we become cold and stingy. And vice versa. Actually, I think living as if abundance were the rule is more important than cultivating biologically active soils (though the latter is pretty darn important too!).

OC: What is one lesson from the homestead that anyone can use to make their lives—and where they live—more resourceful?

BH: Learning to rely on our powers of observation, rather than concept. This works from all sorts of angles, and one of the ways it works is by helping us understand that the stories our culture tells us—the ones we’ve all grown up with inside and that have formed our expectations and assumptions—are not the only stories worth hearing.

We carry so many assumptions, often without realizing it, about how we should live our lives; for instance, that we need to get a thirty-year mortgage and work a job we may or may not like for the majority of our adult years, until we can finally retire to do what we wanted to do all along. Or even that growing our own food and cooking is drudgery. Or that our children should thrive on standardized educational curriculum. Maybe if we stopped understanding these arrangements conceptually and instead starting observing whether or not they’re really working for us, we’d start to see that there are healthier, more meaningful ways of doing things. Or maybe we’d still think they’re great: that’s an option too!

OC: Is there one myth about homesteading you’d like to bust?

BH: That it’s hard. People always say to us, “Oh, you must work so hard!” I mean, yes, at times we do, but it rarely feels that way. And even when it does, the simple pleasure of good, honest physical labor is hard to beat. In fact, it occurs to me that maybe we do work really hard; but it’s actually such a pleasure that it never crosses our minds that we’re working hard.