Inside the Urban Homesteading Craze

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Authors of the book, “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City,” Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen grow fruits and vegetables, tend to beehives and raise chickens at their Los Angeles home. Photo: Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen live in a typical Los Angeles bungalow. But unlike the average American household, they’ve turned their one-twelfth-of-an-acre lot into an urban farm with a vegetable garden, fruit trees, two beehives and four chickens. The couple cans and preserves their harvest for the off-season, bakes their own bread and brews their own beer.

Coyne and Knutzen are part of a growing movement of urban homesteaders who want to replicate the lifestyle of the original homesteaders in a modern-day setting: making many of their necessities themselves or sourcing items locally, motivated by a desire to leave a lighter impact on the planet and have a direct connection with their food.

Urban homesteading takes the local food movement to the next level. Rather than buying local, seasonal produce to reduce the amount of miles food travels to your plate, an urban homesteader’s meal makes an even shorter trip – from the backyard or community garden to the plate.

READ: Family Embarks on 365 Days of Local

Also known as modern homesteading, the homesteading lifestyle can be practiced by apartment-dwellers in a city, as well as suburban single-family households.

“(Urban homesteading) is living the way your great-grandparents did. It’s about learning to feed and take care of yourself,” says Coyne who, along with her husband, wrote the book, “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City.”

A Strong Conservation Ethic

People are attracted to the homesteading movement for different reasons, but sustainability is at the heart of this do-it-yourself lifestyle.

Homesteading’s environmental benefits go beyond reducing the environmental impacts of conventional food’s production and transportation. By growing and canning their own food and making their own cleaning supplies out of vinegar and baking soda, homesteaders reduce product packaging from their household’s waste stream.

Homesteaders are super recyclers: They compost kitchen scraps to make soil amendment for their gardens and repair, rather than discard, household items.

READ: Save Your Food – Canning and Freezing 101

“(Urban homesteading) has a high conservation ethic. We’re always recycling, repurposing and repairing,” says Rachel Kaplan, co-author of Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living.

A homesteader might use rainwater to irrigate his garden, make biodiesel for his car or learn to repair his bike so he can drive less.

READ: A Budgeter’s Guide to Rainwater Harvesting

Sharing and trading are other ways homesteaders save resources: from sharing home repair tools with your neighbors to trading your homemade jam for your neighbor’s chicken eggs. Kaplan, who lives in the Northern California town of Petaluma, shares a chicken coop with her neighbors and grows fruits and veggies in her yard, a plot in the community garden and her neighbor’s yard.

Sharing also helps homesteaders build relationships and strengthen the local community – another important aspect of the homesteading way-of-life.

Slow Food and Saving Money

Increased health consciousness, the Slow Food movement and books like Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” are also bringing newcomers to urban homesteading.

“I wanted to reconnect with my food and find out where it comes from,” says Nicole Kramer, owner of FARMcurious, a startup that offers homesteading supplies and classes.

In addition to growing fruits and vegetables, Kramer collects eggs from the chickens and ducks she keeps at her Oakland home and hopes to raise rabbits to butcher later this year.

Saving money is a side-benefit of homesteading – which is why the movement has become increasingly popular during the economic recession. Knutzen says he and his wife have seen a heightened interest in their book and blog since the economic downturn.

The Name Game

And what would a growing movement be without its share of controversy? In late 2010, the Dervaes Institute, founded by a Pasadena, Calif., homesteading family that also runs several popular homesteading businesses, registered the terms “urban homesteading” and “urban homestead” as trademarks.

The Institute sent letters to homesteading authors and organizations, requesting that they only use the terms with permission or attribution, and several Facebook pages using the terms were taken down. Now the digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation is working with Coyne and Knutzen’s lawyers to petition to cancel the trademarks.

How to Get Started

If you’re intrigued by the urban homesteading movement and want to get your feet wet, the experts recommend starting small and simple: Start your own compost pile or grow one simple vegetable that is suited for your climate. If you live in a region with a harsh winter and a short growing season, grow potatoes or beets that store a long time, Kaplan advises.

READ: Guide to Composting in the Summer

“But you can conserve water and energy every day of the year; that’s not seasonal,” she says.

Kramer suggests finding something you’re interested in and taking one small step at a time.

“If you’re interested in energy conservation, learn how to make a solar oven online. If you’re interested in transportation, try making biofuels…if you like animals, grow plants that attract birds and butterflies,” she says.

Think that the homesteading way-of-life requires you to sacrifice your time, fashion sense and modern conveniences?

Kramer, who has a full-time job for a New York City media company in addition to running her startup, says homesteading has become part of her daily regimen and fits into her modern life.

“When you think of homesteading, you might picture a family in homespun clothes. But I’m a woman with a 9 to 5 job, I wear a suit to work and I have a nice hair-cut…you can keep your day job and still have a connection to your food,” she says.

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