Starting an Urban Homestead

While I'm running my own small farm now and living rurally in a small village, the truth is that I've been a homesteader for years. From one Toronto apartment to another, I've been making my own jam, syrups, pesto, mead,soft cheese, bread and other treats for years and growing my own veggies and herbs on kitchen windowsills and in sunny dining rooms. When I move back to the city, I'll be transplanting my crops (at least the ones that aren't direct sown) and picking up where I left off.

Wait, what's urban homesteading?

"The goal of urban homesteading is to become a household that is self-sufficient and self-sustaining as much as possible. This includes growing your own food and making a lot of your own household products. Urban homesteaders often share a few similar goals:

  • Resist consumerism

  • Be good stewards of the land

  • Reuse and recycle

  • Support local shops

  • Share with others

  • Pass on homesteading skills

Before we go any further, I want to acknowledge that there's a segment of the homesteading community which can be aggressively self-reliant and hyper-independent. For me, that kind of homesteading excludes disabled folks, elders, folks with young children and lots more, and the more we pull away from respect for and connection with various types of difference, the less vitality and joy we have.

Permaculture and regenerative agriculture prove to us that the strongest systems are those which are diverse. Mainstream farming tends to be monocrops, and monocrops are vulnerable to so many more types of pest and illness. I think it's the same with us.

Humans are social animals, we heal and grow in relationships and my homesteading is rooted in permaculture and mutual aid. I want the joy and sense of confidence and resilience which homesteading brings me, but I also want to share these skills and the fruits of my labour with others. Building strong, supportive food systems and community ties is part of how we grow alternative economies and move away from businesses which rely on exploitation.

Through the years, when I've shared my homemade goods with friends, neighbours or coworkers, they've marvelled and asked "How did you learn to do that?". My usual response is "Practice, and a lot of trial and error". I've learned enough to make a number of recipes by muscle memory and to be able to create my own simply by looking at what's in my pantry and my fridge. Starting small and keeping a sense of humour and curiosity helped a lot.

Before I got started, it seemed intimidating and impossible. I had no idea how to sterilize jars for preserves or what exactly I was supposed to start seeds in when they called for a "soilless medium". When I talked to my family or my older friends about learning these skills, they simply shrugged and said they'd learned by watching their parents or grandparents do these things, or they'd learned them in Home Economics.

When I was in high school, we didn't have Home Ec. We had Family Studies, which largely consisted of teaching us about reproduction, the importance of avoiding premarital sex and handing us a plastic baby to take care of to teach us how difficult parenting was. None of this has been particularly useful in my life, aside from providing comic relief.

Much of what I learned about homesteading came from library books, blogs and Youtube videos. When I first started, it was with flats of Mason jars from Home Hardware and seeds and soil from Dollarama. I got the produce I used for jams, pestos and tomato sauces at local fruit markets. My point here is start with what you have and what you can afford, rather than waiting for what's perfect.

A note about the suggestions below: Sometimes, we can't physically do something because of a disability. Early on in running my business, I was trying to do too many things and was feeling afraid to ask for help, even though I was getting burnt out. A friend and fellow small business owner reminded me "Your job is to make sure it all gets done, not to do it all". This was a much needed and appreciated reminder.

If you're not able to do something, is there a friend or community member you can ask? Maybe you can skill swap. Some of the best gatherings with friends have been a group of us getting together and cooking, sewing or doing creative work together and sharing the results. If you don't have the fine motor skills to hem your skirt, maybe a friend who does can do that for you while you pot their seedlings.

*Learn how to make a few simple, delicious preserves or kitchen goods like jam, infused honey, pesto, salsa or syrups. Start with things that you enjoy, but maybe want to buy less of.

*Start a small garden with a few simple veggies and herbs. If you've got outdoor space, great. If not, you can do a fair bit inside if you've got some good sunlight.

*Start composting. I learned how to make my own compost from the Home Hardware website and chatting with an enthusiastic friend and fellow homesteader. This can help you cut down on the green waste you put out and provide lots of nutrients for your homegrown herbs and veggies.

*Learn how to hem a skirt/pants, patch a hole in your clothes and other simple clothing care/repair techniques. Giving your clothing a second life keeps it out of landfills and lets you enjoy what you love even longer.

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