From the hilltop perch of their home looking out on the mountains of Boulder, Colo., Haley Fox and Andy Billipp go about their regular evening routine—assembling a meal from scratch. Using know-how from her job as a kitchen assistant in classes at the Culinary School of the Rockies, Fox, 25, swirls a pesto sauce of fresh arugula and mustard greens from her garden and preps homemade gnocchi. Meanwhile, Billipp, 26, tends to a venison top round roast from a deer he butchered himself.
Last spring, the couple vowed to grow and hunt as much of their own food as possible, barter for some, and spend no more than $50 a week on the rest. "It's forced us to do things we've always wanted to do, and also have a lifestyle where we're more involved with getting our food," says Billipp, who with Fox chronicles the project on their blog, "Field and Table." Fox chimes in: "Friends tell us we have frontier fantasies."
Whether it's for political, ideological, economic, or environmental reasons—or because it's just plain fun—a growing number of Americans are embracing elements of old-fashioned homesteading. And not just down on the farm. These days, you'll find "urban homesteaders" canning their own jam, growing greens in container gardens on apartment balconies, and fencing off a portion of their city or suburban backyards for livestock and beehives. "Growing your food is an amazing, sensual experience," says John Robbins, author of The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less. "It awakens something in us that's become deadened by modern culture."
For Steve McNulty, embracing a more self-sustaining lifestyle is a way to connect with the past. "I want to preserve some of these cultural heritages and do things my folks used to do, like canning and making soap," says the founder of the Triangle Area Homesteaders group, which boasts some 400 members in North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. Members connect on Meetup.com to swap tips and plan workshops on beer-making, composting, and gardening. They range from "survivalists to people looking to save money" to those "who want to reduce their carbon footprint or just live more simply. Some do it for religious reasons," McNulty says.
"Sustainability, economy, pleasure," is the motto of the Urban Homesteaders' League in Cambridge, Mass., a 970-member group that organizes instruction on such crafts as baking bread, preserving food, making raised-bed gardens, and tapping maple trees. Founder and Cambridge artist Lisa Gross says her interest in homesteading stems from a desire to shift away from a consumption-based lifestyle to one that's more environmentally responsible and focused on community. "It's combining life in the city with being connected in a closer way to a community—sharing resources, gardening tools, swapping," she says. Meetup.com lists more than 80 such homesteading groups throughout the country. Gatherings and skill swaps are typically free, and workshops often cost less than a movie ticket.
[See How to Live on $500 a Month.]
City chickens. It's a lifestyle rooted in "common-sense home economics," says Erik Knutzen, coauthor with his wife Kelly Coyne of the book The Urban Homestead. "Why water my lawn when I could use that water for a vegetable garden?" In the backyard of their Los Angeles bungalow, the couple (whose blog "Homegrown Evolution" documents their homesteading experiences) maintain a small vegetable garden whose yield supplies them all year. Four yard hens provide a constant supply of eggs, and small fruit trees dot the property.
While eating your own fresh eggs and home-harvested honey may sound irresistible, beginners will want to gain some special knowledge (and check local ordinances) before they plunge into beekeeping and tending livestock. Raleigh Briggs, author of Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable Nesting Skills, recommends do-it-yourself starter projects such as making household cleaners, which takes minutes and may require a trip only to the cupboard, and expanding your community by, say, creating a shared compost heap with neighbors or planning as a group to grow vegetables to share.
Container gardens can be an ideal first step for people who live in apartments and have access to outdoor space; you might also want to think about sharing someone's yard. Lisa Munniksma, managing editor of Urban Farm magazine, recently started a low-maintenance salad garden on her outdoor deck in Lexington, Ky., that includes lettuce, tomatoes, cauliflower, cucumbers, peppers, and basil. Her upfront expenses were only about $30, which covered an armful of terra cotta pots, soil, fertilizer, and seeds. The diminutive garden yields a surprising amount of produce, she says, "and there's satisfaction in saying, 'Look what I did myself.'
Gross likes the fact, too, that homesteading in the city is environment-friendly, maybe even more so than in a rural area, since you use fewer resources and leave such a small ecological footprint. Plus, she notes, conscientious urban homesteaders can get access to tools and supplies without a whole lot of driving. Not only is homesteading good for the pocketbook, Gross says, it's also "good for you personally, it's good for community, and it's good for the planet."