Homesteading Economics

Summer 2014

Anneli Carter-Sundqvist and Dennis Carter created the Deer Isle Hostel and Homestead to offer budget lodging to guests; to teach sustainable practices; and to enjoy a homesteading life as independent of the fossil fuel economy as possible. Layla Motta photo.

By Anneli Carter-Sundqvist

Summer is an exciting time at the Deer Isle Hostel and Homestead. What for the rest of the year is a quiet and secluded place in the woods – our homestead – suddenly bursts with activity when each year Dennis Carter and I welcome hundreds of travelers from all walks of life. Our guests experience not just a good night’s sleep and a communal dinner each evening but also a way of life they might never have encountered before.

We opened in 2009, as a way to offer budget lodging combined with a firsthand experience in alternative living. The hostel is set in a 17th-century-style timber-framed building that Dennis built from the granite foundation, up. We also offer workshops and lectures each summer about the sustainable practices we use in our everyday life, such as food preservation, gardening, fruit tree cultivation and herbal medicine.

Dennis and I call ourselves homesteaders – a word usually referred to as a way of living in which one meets most of one’s needs, even financial, at home. For us, much of what’s considered a homesteader’s life has to do with financial freedom: We constantly strive for greater independence from the fossil fuel-based economy and for even more creative use of the resources around us.
We think about this as a positive-impact kind of life, rather than low-impact; we belong in nature, with nature, and our actions in the landscape shouldn’t necessarily be minimal but should rather focus on being beneficial and harmonious. It’s a life we believe in: It’s ethically and conscientiously sound; it’s rewarding and fruitful.

The hostel. Layla Motta photo.

We live year round in a simple, solar-powered cabin. We have a hand pump for water, cook and heat with wood and aim in all aspects to practice a high level of self-sufficiency. We’ve made choices that now enable us to live in self-reliance, with a very limited need for money. What not so long ago was dense woods we’ve turned into gardens and orchards big enough to provide us and the Hostel with organic produce year round, using natural island resources as fertilizers. We’ve set up the infrastructure to store the food with low-energy techniques using our own or recycled materials, by building wooden boxes to store root crops in the cellar and by learning about fermentation and pork processing. Instead of extending our season with greenhouses and plastic material, which require energy and cash input, we eat our freshly stored cabbage until late March and fresh greens from our wood and glass cold frames in early April. For the past couple of years, we’ve gone through months every fall and winter spending less than $50 on food, and some crops in our cellar overlap with next summer’s crop in the garden.

We have chickens and raise a couple of pigs each year that we butcher and smoke ourselves. We’re improving on feeding the livestock from local resources. We don’t believe it’s good for the animals, or us by extension, to eat grain – and that commodity depends on cheap fossil fuel. We’ve invested in hundreds of feet of mobile electric fencing that we use to make a large pen in the woods where our pigs can forage for acorns and forest debris, and we feed them gallons of windblown apples every day in the fall.

We grow fruit trees, cultivate shiitake mushrooms, grow garlic for a local market and forage for wild edibles and medicinal plants. We trade things that we produce, such as squash and onions, for things we don’t produce, such as goat cheese and coffee.

By growing and storing food, milling their own lumber and raising pigs, Dennis and Anneli live off the land, with limited need for cash. Anneli Carter-Sundqvist photo.

In the winter we manage our woodlot, and we have invested in tools and equipment – a human powered log-hauler and a Wood-Mizer sawmill among other things – to provide our own lumber. With an electric hammer drill and hand tools, we can split and shape granite boulders for foundations.

We have built adequate outbuildings: a chicken house, a woodshed and a smoke house; we do all the maintenance on our car, bikes and utility trailer; and we invest time in learning how to do all this.

One of the most important factors for this freedom from money is that neither of us carries any debt. To us, this is where a self-reliant economy starts: to not owe any money. After finishing school – and before we’d even met – we both worked hard and focused to save money and pay back our student loans. Dennis worked on Deer Isle doing landscaping and bought the property we’re still on together with a good friend, Andrew Donaldson, who later gracefully signed his share over to Dennis.

For years we’ve lived below the federal poverty line. Looking around at what we have, it’s hard for me to see how we, by any measure, could be considered poor in the midst of this natural abundance. Our own backyard provides quality, organic food, material to build shelters, fuel for heating and cooking, as well as recreation and beauty. It’s a paradox that if we were to work for somebody else to make enough money to officially be categorized as something but “poor” and to buy what we now produce, we would lose all that makes us rich – the connection to our land, since we would leave every day; the ability not to use the car very often; the independence and the empowerment of meeting our own needs and being our own providers.

We do go to work roughly 35 to 40 days a year. I do landscaping once a week in the neighborhood, and in late winter I usually prune some apple trees. Most of the cash we make from the hostel we invest back into it with the goal of growing it to a point where one day it will support us financially. By providing for ourselves, at home, we minimize our need to work for money, which in turn allows us to spend the time improving on how to meet our needs at home, from the gardens and the woods. Meeting our needs at home, from the land, also means we can reap the benefits and multiply them. We could go off and make money building a shed for someone, but when we stay home and build a hut for the hostel, that building can make the same money year after year. It will also give us other benefits, such as further experience in timber framing, a chance to train others and an opportunity to try various building techniques that paid work rarely allows for. Time invested in the gardens not only pays back with produce worth the equivalent of several months’ pay every year, but it adds to the beauty of the farm and, again, provides training for others and a unique experience for our guests, who get to see how the dinner food was grown.

One of many personal reasons for working at home is simply that Dennis and I have chosen to live together, so we like to spend our days together. We have chosen this place to live, so we like to spend most of our days here.

For us, homesteading is an excellent way to live in independence and self-reliance, and looking ahead 10, 20 and even 30 years, this seems perhaps an even more realistic lifestyle. It’s generally assumed and widely accepted that cheap fossil fuels won’t pave the way much longer for goods, food and materials from all over the world. Some things that are now taken for granted probably won’t be as abundant, if they will be available at all. Most people’s means of making a living and providing for their needs will change dramatically within a few decades, and fending for oneself might not only be an option but a necessity.
In many rural areas the availability of healthy food and goods is already scarce. Even in a comparatively developed place as the Blue Hill Peninsula, many residents drive far to access quality food, building materials and clothing – and they are still limited to the quality and diversity others make available. Delivery trucks drive far to get to these rural places – places that often have great natural resources that could provide for many of the residents’ basic needs if they were used thoughtfully.
From a political viewpoint, homesteading is a way to steer clear of many things I do not wish to support. A way of living where gains are earned through physical labor, practical skills and devotion to a place has largely been replaced in modern Western society by a way of living where gains are made by financial strategies and through depletion of resources, all without almost any physical or spiritual connection to the place or the people involved.

Politicians and economists often refer to “having a job” as a way to contribute to a growing economy, which, by extension, will lead to more people having more money to buy more things. Supposedly this growth will increase our freedom and make us happier. Well, I don’t see how growing an economy would give us, or this planet, what we need. To say that people should work for money – regardless of the conditions, the salary or possibilities for personal and spiritual growth – is to reduce the individual person to a disposable part in a system where advantages made at the expense of others are not only accepted, but expected. To stress the importance of increased consumerism is to ignore the environmental impacts that such an economy has and to encourage a system that heedlessly abuses local and global resources, as if no one and nothing depended on them.

Homesteading is a way to say “stop”; to show that I think the politicians and economists are lying when they say that money would buy me happiness. Dennis and I, and many others, choose to downscale instead, draw the line, go back to the source or back to the land. I’m not the only one rejecting the idea of limitless growth – I think we’re heading into a hopeful future where less will be more.

Homesteading is self-sufficiency, and self-sufficiency is a political agenda: With my organic gardens, the fermentation vessels and our root cellar, our sawmill, woodshed and solar panels, we have been able to move many of our needs for food, shelter and heating from the hands of corporations to the hands of ourselves.

Money, to me, often is used as a shortcut: If you can buy your way to what you want, your own skills matter less, and connections and a community for trading and helping hands lose their value. Creativity and problem solving are replaced with the far too common “I want it now” attitude. To me, a low-cash life equals freedom. Even if we have a business at home that through the summer meets most of our year-round need for money, I want that need to be minimal. Then the summers will be ours to enjoy the hostel and its guests, and to have time for canoe rides and hikes and swimming in the pond. If we keep making choices to live without a lot of things that would cost money to get, do or maintain, not only the summers but our entire year, our whole lives, will be ours to use creatively, using our skills and ingenuity to meet our needs.

About the author: Anneli Carter-Sundqvist grew up in the north of Sweden and came to Maine in 2008. This article is based on texts from the book she published this spring, “A Homesteader’s Year on Deer Isle.” See for more information.

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