Starting a Homestead from Scratch is no easy thing, but with a dream and a willing heart, we managed as a family of seven to live off-grid and homestead. Here’s our story, we hope it inspires you to pursue your dreams.
Starting a Homestead from Scratch
Our story… Starting from Scratch. It was perfect… the soil was moist and loamy; the large pines stood like gates into an ancient city. Our family used the small and narrow rabbit trails as our routes of travel in exploring our newly purchased, 5 acres.
My wife and I had finally stepped out; we sold all of our belongings that would not fit into our 34-foot motorhome and a borrowed 4×8 trailer. For the first week we couldn’t even drive into our newfound dream, but parked just outside of the property lines.
We took countless walks, painting pictures in the air with our hands. In our minds’ eye, we saw fruitful gardens and orchards. We knew that living the homestead lifestyle and starting from almost nothing was going to take time, but who cares? It’s going to be time spent together.
A dream remains a dream until a foundation is built underneath it. Our foundation took the shape of reading and gleaning as much “how to” as possible from the public library, the internet, and our favorite books and magazines.
Some of the immediate challenges that we faced were providing water, sanitation, shelter, and food preparation. You must establish the homesteading necessities first, to keep the sanity of your other half and your children! The building of your dream will run more smoothly when you have a dry place to sleep, an outhouse, clean clothes, and a full stomach. Production will continue at a steady pace, guaranteed.
Our first months of camping on our property were spent setting up these four basic systems and learning what we really needed to keep daily life running smooth:
We were really fortunate that we were able to have a drilled well on our property when we bought it. The only catch– there was no pump. That still meant no water, and for three months we hauled water from a neighbor. We used two 15 gallon water barrels in the back of our station wagon. We found a wonderful siphon online that hooked up to a garden hose, which we used to siphon water to smaller water containers, and to water the garden. We ended up watering our garden all summer by hauling water in and mulching extensively.
We found five-gallon water jugs at the grocery store to be very handy because they were so much easier to move than large barrels. This worked great for drinking water, hand & face washing, brushing our teeth, filling the tea kettle, etc. We fitted the top with a siphon hand pump, and with four or five quick strokes the pump gave a steady stream that would run long enough to fill a glass or wash hands. We placed a basin under the pump to catch the grey water from hand washing, and to keep our outdoor kitchen from getting muddy.
When hauling water, it’s very important to make sure that everyone is getting their personal water needs met. Water bottles are an excellent way to monitor this, especially with children. This was our first experience with rationing the basics of life. We learned very quickly what a wasteful mindset we had brought with us, and how we needed to change that mindset. The whole family realized what a precious resource water really is. In three months’ time, we had our well going with a new pump, a holding tank, and a generator for all our off-grid water needs.
It’s priority to set up your outhouse, composting toilet, or whatever you choose to use. We had to set up a temporary camping toilet until we could get a proper outhouse built. It’s great to have sanitizer and wipes when using a toilet outdoors.
Bathing comes next; keeping clean is important for sanitary reasons, not to mention your morale. A good old-fashioned sponge bath works wonders and is very refreshing. Warm up a kettle of water, pour into a large pan and sponge away. A large plastic tote works as a great mini-bath, especially for children, and solar showers work too. Another idea is to go big, and if you can get hold of a claw foot tub or a stock tank, build a simple privacy screen around your new outdoor bathing area. Then fit a length of galvanized pipe with a valve to a 55-gallon drum. Set the drum on bricks, fill it with water, and build a fire underneath to warm your homesteader’s spa.
Last, but not least, you must have a plan for laundry. This can be tricky if you have a lack of water when you are setting up camp. We started by using a wringer washer, plugged into our small generator. It worked well, but we did have to haul a fair amount of water.
If water is lacking, a hand plunger washer and a five-gallon bucket can wash clothes in no time, with very little water. We still use our hand plunger washer for socks & underclothes on a daily basis in the bathtub. We wouldn’t be without our clothesline during the summer months and large drying racks for the winter months.
This can take so many forms; one could write a book. A few suggestions: an RV, elk tent, yurt, micro cabin, camper, or trailer. We pulled up to our dream property in a used RV, not knowing if we were going to winter in it or push to build our small cottage home. We ended up using it for a month on our property, before selling it to help pay for the wood package to build our home. We needed shelter, and fast!
I looked on Craigslist and found a complete Costco carport frame; this one became our storage tent. I soon found two more tents that were badly wind damaged, and combined all the useable parts to come up with a metal frame measuring 10’x14’. Without a doubt, 140 sq. Ft. makes for a cozy living space for a family of seven. I called the local lumberyard and had all the needed material delivered to convert a carport frame into a bunkhouse.
Starting from the ground up I used:
Deck blocks to raise floor framing off the ground
2×6 for floor framing
¾” T&G OSB for the floor
Galvanized metal sheets for the walls and roof
2×4’s for the front wall
½” OSB sheets for front wall
30 lb. felt to cover OSB on the front
Bundles of cedar under course shake
A reclaimed wood door
A free 4×4 vinyl window
A couple of cans of expanding foam
The materials in this list cost around $600, but if you were able to even salvage the metal, you could probably cut the cost by a third.
Fitting seven people into 140 sq ft. was challenging! I quickly built a bunk bed with the lumber that was just lying around. My wife suggested building a sleeping loft that would fit three of the children. We stacked bunk beds up one wall. This compact shelter worked surprisingly well for us while building our home. We now use it for our well house and storage.
#4 Food Preparation
Outdoor cooking was an absolute uncharted adventure for our family. We needed an outdoor kitchen, so we looked around and found a reasonably priced canopy tent. Next, we scoured yard sales and found a vintage sink and cabinet for $10. To that, we added a kitchen island and an old trunk for food storage.
At a local hardware store, my wife and I spied a four-burner cooktop that was self-igniting. We were so excited! With our setup my wife soon had pancakes stacking up and soups simmering. We also used the cooktop to heat water for dishes and sponge baths. We were all surprised at how little propane the cooktop used, considering everything it was used for.
If I were going to do outdoor cooking over again, I would without hesitation use the “Grandpa Jakes” campfire cooker to help us enjoy the true HD Outdoor Channel–the campfire. This campfire cooker is the Swiss army knife of the campfire, and if I had known about it then, we would have saved lots of unnecessary effort in getting meals.
Next in the kitchen department was refrigeration. This took the shape of a Costco cooler buried in the ground to just below the lid, with heavy duty moving blankets to shield the top from the sun. We added a piece of tin to shed the rain. With four blocks of ice, the cooler kept acceptably cool temps for 3-4 days. It worked well enough, as long as we watched the water level from the melting ice. We soon found a propane fridge on Craiglist, and our food found an even better home.
With these simple steps set in place, we got our homestead up and running. Those six months of camping prepared us to start thinking in a whole new way, and a love for the pioneer life began to grip our hearts.
We’re far from finished yet, but every day brings something new, and the journey has been challenging and exciting for all of us. We look forward to continuing our homestead dream for many years.
By Daniel & Abby Jo VanHoutan
Note: this is our story reprinted from Countryside magazine Volume 96 Number 3 May/June, 2012
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