[FoRK] The New Homesteaders: Off-the-Grid and Self-Reliant

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Tue Sep 22 08:53:29 PDT 2009


The New Homesteaders: Off-the-Grid and Self-Reliant

You may have heard about them: Off-the-gridders living in radical opposition
to modern amenities by growing their own food and cutting themselves off from
the rest of society. Not so. Sure, more people are choosing to cut their
dependence on the power grid, the grocery story and fuel pump. But these new
homesteaders are hardly radicals—they are simply DIYers who, for a variety of
reasons, revel in self-reliance. This is their story.

By James Vlahos

Photographs by Rob Howard

Published in the October 2009 issue.

New Farmer’s Almanac: In a 4500-square-foot lot in Oakland, Calif., Novella
Carpenter grows broccoli and lettuce right next to fig trees and passion
fruit vines. Included in her annual crop: 1095 eggs, 200 pounds of tomatoes,
16 quarts of honey, 40 rabbits and 210 quarts of goat's milk. In the U.S.,
more than 4800 farmers markets and 2500 Community Supported Agriculture farms
supply locally grown food. Studies have shown that organic methods, like
those Carpenter uses, can help soil store 1000-plus pounds of carbon per
acre. Other approaches can cause carbon loss.

The phone rang when I was shoeless and only a couple of sips into my morning
coffee. “Hi, it’s Novella Carpenter,” the caller said. “My goat is giving

Twenty minutes later I was crouched in the hay at Ghost Town Farm, pushing
away chickens and peering into the pen that housed the expectant mother,
Bébé. Her udder was so swollen she couldn’t get her hindquarters down.
Bleating, she clawed at the dirt with her right front hoof as if searching
for a stash of Vicodin. “Pass me the iodine,” Carpenter said. “We better wash

Similar birthing scenes have unfolded countless times in America’s agrarian
past, but none, I suspected, had the soundtrack of the Ghost Town
neighborhood in Oakland, Calif. As Bébé’s cries reached an apex they were
matched by the caterwauling of a police car siren on Martin Luther King Jr.
Way. Then came the intestine-undulating bass of hip-hop from a passing car.
Residents disagree on how Ghost Town got its name—for the isolation created
when freeways cleft the neighborhood from the rest of the city in the 1950s?
For the appallingly high murder rate? For the casket companies that used to
be located here? More unanimously accepted is that Ghost Town is a singularly
odd location for a homestead that hosts pigs, goats, geese, peaches,
potatoes, spinach and bees. Carpenter is living a version of the Laura
Ingalls Wilder fantasy all right, but hers is Little House in the ’Hood.

Carpenter, the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, is, by
her own admission, “a bit nuts.” If so, she has company—similar farms have
sprung up on city blocks in Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh and Detroit.
And food is hardly the only commodity that people are producing for
themselves these days. A small but growing number of American households
generate all of their electricity using wind, solar or micro-hydro. But
off-the-grid living has come to mean something more nuanced than cutting all
ties with utilities and society; for many, it’s about finding creative ways
to produce and conserve resources at home. Hundreds of thousands of Americans
capture rainwater in barrels, can food from their gardens, heat water with
solar collectors and commute by bicycle. We may be nearly a decade into the
21st century, but the self-reliant spirit of an earlier era—that of
homesteading pioneers—has returned with gusto.

At Ghost Town Farm, Carpenter cleared the head-high weeds from a
4500-square-foot lot and started planting. She didn’t ask permission. When
the lot’s owner discovered the squat garden he warned that he would soon
develop the real estate—that was five years ago. Now the lot is verdant with
lavender, sage and thyme; lime, rhubarb and raspberries; artichoke, collard
greens and avocado.

Strolling through the garden, I became overwhelmed by a feeling that could
only be described as vegetable lust. But something deeper than my appetite
had been stimulated, too. My grandfather once worked a small mountain farm in
Greece. He immigrated to California’s Central Valley in his 20s, opening a
produce stand and then a grocery store, but he never totally severed his
connection to the land. I remember strolling through fruit-laden trees in his
backyard as a boy. Now, I was gearing up for major changes myself—the arrival
of my first child, the purchase of my own home—and I had been thinking about
what sort of sanctuary I could create for my own family. The house I
envisioned was solar-powered and garden-ringed, a little safer, smarter and
more productive than the wasteful world around it. I was deeply curious about
the experiments of modern homesteaders because I wondered just how
self-sufficient I could be, too.

In the pen Bébé continued to push and, with a little gentle guidance from
Carpenter, the newborn’s head crowned. Then the front legs were out. Bébé
gave a final, anguished cry and the kid was born, a female, soon to be named
Hedwig. Twenty minutes later, she had a brother, Eeyore. The two Nigerian
dwarf goats wobbled about on untested legs and, undistracted by a car alarm
that had started to blare, tried to find their mother’s teats.

Tina and Bill Hodge with their daughter Tierra (center) in the kitchen of
their earth-berm home in California’s Surprise Valley. “I’ve been building
houses all my life and can say for sure that ferro-cement is much more
forgiving,” Bill says. “If it looks right, it is right. It’s more like
building a sculpture.”

America is dotted with remote, off-the-grid homesteads. Certain
regions—including western Texas around Big Bend National Park; the mesas
outside of Taos, N.M.; and pockets of the Sierra Nevada northeast of Lake
Tahoe—host whole mini communities. The Surprise Valley of northeasternmost
California supports another. There, where skyscrapers of light slant from the
heavens to the mirror-flat floor of the desert, I was crouched on a mattress
attached to a rope.

The other end of the rope was hitched to a Ford F-350. The tires spun and
soon I was hooky bobbing—surfing at 30 mph, a roostertail of dust in my wake.
I felt as gleeful as the Road Runner with Wile E. Coyote giving futile chase.
The truck stopped after a few minutes and, as I spat dirt clods from my
mouth, a pretty young woman in a red plaid shirt and a white cowboy hat
emerged from the cab. “You’re lucky you’re just visiting,” Tierra Hodge said.
“If you lived here we would have set the mattress on fire.”

I’d been introduced to Tierra through a tortured chain of connections—my
wife’s cousin’s father’s friend’s daughter, or something like that. She grew
up off the grid on land near here, and had agreed to guide me around a place
I never knew existed and introduce me to people who didn’t necessarily want
to be found.

The first stop was welcoming enough: a mountain homestead replete with mud,
solar panels, semi-clothed children, and chickens. Then we had lunch in the
town of Eagleville with Ed and Wendi Lutz, trompe l’oeil painters who’d
retired to build an off-the-grid retreat. Tierra said the place was
beautiful—circular, with deep wooden sills and colorful bottles embedded in
the walls—but the Lutzes refused to disclose its exact location. I’d told
them I was a journalist and might as well have said One World Government Spy.
“We have come to value our privacy,” Wendi said, eyeing me warily. That
afternoon we drove past a doomsday retreat, complete with its own private
airstrip, belonging to a wealthy Bay Area businessman. “He’s preparing for
the end of the world as we know it,” Tierra said with an enigmatic smile. I
couldn’t tell if she was mocking him or applauding his foresight.

The specters of financial crisis, climate change, uncertain energy reserves
and a fragile food supply loom large for the new generation of
survivalists—and though I don’t share their apocalyptic mind-set, I find
myself relating to the urge to run for cover. In April, the top-selling
action and adventure book on Amazon.com was Patriots: Surviving the Coming
Collapse, a work described to me by its author, James Wesley Rawles, as a
“survival manual dressed as fiction.” Its plot appeals to those on the
political right, who fear a too-powerful government—and the anarchy to come
in the wake of its inevitable collapse. Leftie off-the-gridders gravitate
more to the “grow-local” approach championed by author Michael Pollan. “We’re
using up the world’s resources more quickly than you could imagine,” says
Ruby Blume of the Institute of Urban Homesteading. “I think we need to be

Lately, homesteaders of all political stripes have settled upon a common
concern: globalization. The shock waves of any crisis—for instance, the
subprime meltdown—now spread far, fast and wide. Many doubt that major
institutions can be counted upon to save the day. “You’re on your own, your
job is at risk, and a lot of the commodities you rely upon are vulnerable to
disruption,” says John Robb, author of Brave New War, which describes how
terrorists could exploit global systems. To my ear, such statements straddle
the line between reasonable advice and hyperventilated threat. One day you’re
sipping a frappuccino. The next you’re using a pitchfork to fend off rioting
mobs. But even if I don’t fully agree with the dystopian diagnosis, I like
Robb’s proposed cure: “You’re going to have to start doing more for
yourself.” The beauty of the DIY solution is that the exact problem doesn’t
matter; greater self-sufficiency makes sense to survivalists and eco-utopians

In the early 1970s, Tierra’s parents established their own fully off-the-grid
homestead in Mendocino, and later in Surprise Valley, with the thought that
“when society crumbles, we’ll be able to raise our children in a safe
environment,” Tierra says. She and her sister, Celesta, grew up in a tepee;
her mom, Tina, and dad, Bill, supported the family by breeding llamas and
selling medicinal herbs. Instead of sitting in a classroom thear out of the
mainstream. I couldn’t do it myself, no matter how dazzling the mountain
scenery. And yet Tierra is proud of what she has achieved. “There’s a
resourcefulness to living this way,” she says. “You know that if all else
fails in the world, you’ll still be okay.”

Power generation doesn’t have to be a DIY enterprise. Witness Oregon’s Three
Rivers community, a subdivision with 250 solar- and wind-powered homes, or
the Villages at Heritage Springs, 500 solar homes planned for Southern
California. Other all-solar real estate developments are in the works in
Florida, Iowa and Colorado. Clayton Homes, the country’s largest maker of
mobile and prefabricated houses, has introduced the i-House, which includes
solar panels and energy-efficient appliances, for little more than $100,000.

Satellite Internet services have enabled people to stay connected even in
remote areas. Nick Rosen, who runs the website Off-grid.net, spends several
months each year living off the grid in the mountains of Majorca, Spain, but
seamlessly continues his work as a writer and technology consultant. The
notion that painful sacrifices are mandatory has been toppled, he says.
Modern energy technologies, well-insulated homes and power-sipping appliances
mean “you can live a fantastic, comfortable time off-grid.”

Curious to see how much luxury is possible, I arranged to visit the home of
Thomas Beck, an architect in Estes Park, Colo. Beck got his start in
residential work before he hit puberty, building multistory treehouses
complete with trapdoors and fireman’s poles. He began studying environmental
design in 1973, just as the OPEC oil embargo hit, and attended the National
Solar Energy Conference the following spring. “I realized then that oil was a
finite resource, but the sun’s going to be around for, what, 96 billion more
years?” Beck says.

Yet it wasn’t until recently that he built his magnum opus: a
5800-square-foot spread with a 270-degree view of Rocky Mountain National
Park. “When most people think a don’t think they’d picture this,” Beck said
when I arrived. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts style of architecture, Beck
used wood beams, stone and stucco to create multiple wings fanning out under
long diagonal rooflines. We passed through the front door, elaborately carved
from standing dead hardwoods, and proceeded to the Great Room—a cavernous
space with a flat-screen television, a dining table long enough for 16 and a
baby grand piano. Beams recycled from a century-old railroad trestle support
the lofty ceiling. In the kitchen, granite countertops could land a small

Yet Beck’s only utility bill is for propane. Outdoors, above a wood-fired hot
tub, rise two wind turbines that can produce 800 watts of electricity.
Integrated photovoltaic cells on the roof contribute another kilowatt. A few
dozen yards from the front door stands the power house: An array of solar
panels on top generates 1.44 kilowatts and, inside, three inverters charge
lead-acid batteries—32 in all. Three banks of evacuated-tube solar thermal
collectors heat water for both domestic use and the 3.5 miles of radiant
floor tubing that warms the house.

Beck stepped out to meet with a client and encouraged me to explore the house
on my own. I went downstairs, where a lap pool with 10,000 gallons of
solar-heated water acts as a thermal reservoir to help stabilize the home’s
temperature. I was tempted to go for a quick swim—but then chickened out. The
whole place, in fact, screamed “look but don’t touch,” and I wondered what it
might say about the broader movement for sustainability. This eco-mansion
took copious amounts of natural resources to construct. I would love to live
here. But, environmentally, it seemed a bit like a biodiesel-powered Hummer.
While an impressive showcase for off-the-grid tech, Beck’s luxurious spread
appeared no more realistic—for me anyway—than the Hodges’ bare-bones retreat.

Architect Thomas Beck designed and built his home in the Rocky Mountains. It
melds the Arts and Crafts style of the early 20th century with
energy-generation and storage technologies honed in the 21st.

The dream of living more independently from civilization is almost as old as
civilization itself. When Rome fell 1500 years ago, city dwellers fled to the
countryside, becoming some of the world’s first back-to-the-landers. The
Diggers of 17th-century England and Depression-era Americans similarly tried
to provide for themselves locally. By the late 1960s and early 70s, as many
as 1 million Americans, decrying consumerism and Vietnam, set out for what
they thought would be a purer life in the countryside. For inspiration they
read Aldo Leopold and Henry David Thoreau; for practical advice on everything
from carpentry to compost they clutched issues of the Whole Earth Catalog.
However well-armed with information, though, most of the would-be pioneers
lacked practical experience and abandoned small-farm living after learning
that it was—as Novella Carpenter indelicately put it to me—“a s---ton of

Carpenter knows firsthand about the travails of the back-to-the-landers. She
spent her early childhood on a rural retreat in Idaho. Directly emulating her
parents horrified her, but the apple fell only so far from the tree. “I
recognized that if my parents were Utopia 8.5 with their hippie farm in
Idaho, I was merely Utopia version 9.0 with my urban farm in the ghetto,” she
wrote in Farm City.

A few weeks after the goats were born, Carpenter and I strolled past a
graffitied warehouse across from the farm, then turned left on Martin Luther
King Jr. Way. Carpenter said that instead of tumbleweeds she sometimes
spotted “tumbleweaves,” the lost hairpieces of prostitutes, blowing down the
block. When we stopped in a small park to pick pellitory, a nettle-like plant
that the chickens love, Carpenter recounted a shooting she’d witnessed there.
I really admired Carpenter, but I thought she was more than a little crazy.
What made her urban version of utopia any better than the rural approach of
her parents?

“I find the country incredibly lonely,” Carpenter said as we headed back.
Ghost Town was diverse and intriguing; the menace of thugs was tempered by
the support of the community. We strolled past a bodega whose owner, a
goatherd in Yemen before he emigrated to the U.S., had taught her how to
slaughter livestock. And Carpenter pointed out a monastery occupied by
Vietnamese monks, one of whom had helped her chase down a runaway pig.

Carpenter’s urban farm is doubtless an extreme case study. But it also seems
to me the most tenable future for self-sufficient, environmentally
sustainable living. Homesteading, to be sure, needs the sense of hardy
independence that I’d found in Surprise Valley. And I certainly appreciated
the appeal of some eco-luxury à la Beck. But for homesteading to truly
transcend niche status—for it to have any appreciable impact on the world—it
must embrace the community spirit of Carpenter’s urban experiment. Maybe I’d
drunk too much organic goat milk. But after seeing everybody else, I knew
that it is Carpenter’s city setup I want to draw from to create my own
family’s future home—minus the gun-toting teens and the tumbleweaves, of

“People are always like, ‘I know where I’m going to go when the s--- hits the
fan, Novella—to your house!’” Carpenter says. “And my response to that is, if
it hits the fan, it’s going to hit the fan for all of us.” We left the street
and walked behind her house, where she scattered sawdust on the ground to
cloak the livestock odors. We tossed out the pellitory, and the chickens
scrambled to gobble it down. 

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