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Small-Scale Homesteading

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

Excerpted from Small-Scale Homesteading: A Sustainable Guide to Gardening, Keeping Chickens, Maple Sugaring, Preserving the Harvest, and More, by Stephanie Thurow and Michelle Bruhn (Skyhorse Publishing, 2023)

Co-author Stephanie Thurow’s Story

Fifteen years ago, we purchased our current home in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis on a .18- acre lot. For years I dreamed of moving to a quiet rural area with acres of land and rolling hills. I imagined it would have orchards of fruit trees and space to grow and raise as much food as our hearts desired. I envisioned goats and chickens, with plenty of room to roam. But I grew up in south Minneapolis and so did my husband. We were used to city life and its many conveniences, plus most of our family and friends are here.

With the birth of our daughter came my concern and desire for a healthy home. I abruptly became aware of the harmful ingredients in everyday products, such as our lotion and cleaning products. I suddenly cared immensely about the food we ate and the quality of what we consumed. I began to make as much as I could from scratch. Before I knew it, we were making our own lotion, yogurt, candles, cleaning products, bug spray, and so much more.

I’d already been preserving my own food for many years before my daughter was born, but during those years, I’d bought most of the produce I canned from farmers. As my daughter grew, so did her love of helping in the garden, so we kept expanding our garden space annually. She still eats the majority of our cherry tomatoes and rattlesnake pole beans to this day, a decade later. My daughter’s fascination with the garden (and all the critters found within) sparked something inside me and it felt more important to do even more with what we had.

Though our actual growing space is not very large, by utilizing it properly we’ve been able to grow several hundreds of pounds of food each year, tap our maple trees to make more than enough delicious pure maple syrup for the year, plus raise a small flock of laying hens that produce over 800 eggs a year.

The flavor of freshly harvested homegrown food is incomparable to anything from the grocery store. Not to mention that the fruits and vegetables are so much more nutritious when eaten fresh. And growing food yourself is much more affordable.

That being said, I’m still a city gal. I order from Instacart weekly and very much enjoy the convenience of the airport being a ten-minute drive from home. But it’s important to understand that a lot can be done, even without a lot of space. Not everything has to be done at once, either. Take your time, expand on your skills annually, and do what physically, mentally, and economically works for you and your family.

Soil Health

Soil is full of microorganisms like fungi, invertebrates, worms, bacteria, algae, nematodes, and protozoa. An average teaspoon of healthy soil contains between one hundred million and one billion living microorganisms.

When we till or use pesticides or herbicides, we destroy the existing microorganisms in the soil food web. Using fewer chemicals and moving toward organic gardening is a hope for all of us homesteaders.

Soil Style

How do you know what kind of soil you have? First, just dig in. How does it feel? Did you find any earthworms? Does it crumble or squish? Is it loamy or sandy? Does it stay wet after a rain or dry out quickly? Do plants grow well there? You can tell a lot about soil health by taking a closer look.

Interested in learning more about your soil? Soil tests are available through most state university extension offices and countless private labs worldwide. Most of these services provide a few different levels of testing and recommendations. Our local university performs basic soil tests for under $20. Some labs also offer home compost analysis.