It started with a question on Facebook — How can I save money? — and it ended down a rabbit hole of people trading tips on raising goats and gluing wounds shut.
On a mom’s group, that clearing house of modern advice, the comments were what you’d expect: Comparison shop, clip coupons, meal plan. But then there was advice that felt rooted in another time. Grow your own veggies, even in the winter. Buy meat in bulk at the butcher or at a farm. Give feedback to companies about their products, good or bad — they’ll likely send coupons. Make your own laundry soap.
I messaged the woman who said that “saving money was her superpower” and she filled me in. She had always been frugal, especially as a young single mom. But for the last few years, a new mentality had taken hold: homesteading. She grew a sizable portion of her family’s food. Every year, she bought bulk vegetables at No Frills when they went on sale in late summer and preserved them to last through the year. She tried to be as close to zero waste as possible. She learned from homesteading groups online, where many from the “older generation” shared wisdom. Anybody can do it, she said.
I joined a few groups and my feed was inundated with people looking for advice on cheap land and how old children should be to help “process” the chickens they raised. There was a notable survivalist and prepper streak in some of it, especially in the U.S., where one man wouldn’t disclose information about his freezers, fearing he would become a target when “s— hit the fan.” Many decried what they saw as government overreach.
But mostly, it was people who were struggling with expenses and trying to find solutions. No matter the politics, the questions were more or less the same: How do I cool my chickens in a heat wave? How do I get rid of Dalmatian hair when I line-dry my sheets? Anyone know of a greenhouse that can be used in cold climates?
Self-sufficiency of all kinds has a long history, especially in Indigenous and pre-modern cultures. When people think of homesteading, they often picture the government settlement programs that offered the land where Indigenous people had long thrived to settlers — “homesteaders” — on the condition they clear it and make improvements.
But homesteading as a lifestyle is something different. It is rooted in the Industrial Revolution, when machines changed society and the balance of power shifted to cities. During this time of upheaval, a return to nature held romantic and spiritual appeal for some, while others wanted to ensure the simple ways were not lost, says Rebecca Kneale Gould, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont who wrote a book about back-to-the-land movements called “At Home in Nature.”
“Almost every decade, someone is doing this, writing about it, and saying this is the answer to society’s problems,” Gould says. It happened in the Great Depression, the postwar years, the internet age. It is always a countercultural move, whether it’s a left-leaning crowd looking to lessen their environmental impact, or evangelical conservatives looking to distance themselves from progressive values.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in “Walden,” his 1854 classic about his experiment with the simple life. While he was not striving for total self-sufficiency, he is a touchstone of the homesteading tradition, uneasy with the culture of consumption and incessant labour that came with industrialization, Gould says. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life,” Thoreau wrote, “to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
When the pandemic hit, many people felt the same. Lockdowns deepened, store shelves were unreliable, and then inflation spiralled out of control. The Homesteading Canada Facebook group went from 2,000 to nearly 20,000 people. They wanted to grow food, raise animals, and feed their family. They didn’t know how to start.
One in 10 Canadians experience food insecurity. Younger people, people who rent, and people who identified as Indigenous or Black are some of the groups more likely to skip meals, according to Statistics Canada data from 2020. Across the country, in backyard gardens and apartment balconies, people are trying to wrestle control back from the food system. Some call it homesteading, some call it farming, some call it living sustainably. Many are looking to the past for answers, but the land that fed previous generations has never been more contested or expensive, especially in cities like Toronto. Can it save us still?
As she sits on her porch outside of Parry Sound, an old rescue dog named Leonard snoring loudly at her feet, Maureen Bell-Wilson talks about how cool she used to be, with a fancy job in Toronto, a nice car, beautiful clothes.
That was a long time ago. Before she and her husband Dave moved to London, Ont., before he quit his radar job at the airport to help with the kids, one of whom is severely disabled and needs constant care. Before Maureen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Before she lost her licence, and her job. Before they refinanced their home. Before they sold that home in a recession. The conversation stops as Dave grabs the swatter and kills a deer fly. His sixth today.
When Maureen was little, her Grandma Alma would hang the laundry on the line sopping wet so it would water the rhubarb plants below. Maureen did the same, trying to squeeze everything she could from what little she had. She worked on a farm in exchange for food. Things became a little easier when her children were older. They bought a house for their son to live in at university, and paid the mortgage by renting it out. They were able to buy another, fix it up, and sell it. On it went. They eventually bought this house outside of Parry Sound with the same goal in mind, but the country was better for Maureen’s health, so they decided to stay. They sold their last London property, with a dream of living a simple life in the country. Surely that would be enough of a nest egg for long-term security.
But then the car died. Bills kept coming, and there were expenses for Maureen’s daughter. The car died again. They were running out of money. They sustainably foraged for food. They helped a local farmer with his harvest and asked to be paid in kind, happily accepting eight boxes of malformed carrots, five hens and one rooster. She canned the carrots, and soon enough, they had fresh eggs. They planted potatoes all over the yard. Dave, who has his licence, went hunting. They devoured books and learned how to take care of the land, how to manage poultry and cattle. How to stock up when the deals were good, how to preserve so food was available 12 months a year. How to pay the taxes. For years, they had an on-site bakery and commercial kitchen. They taught courses with local health units on cooking with a limited budget. It has been hard work, but good work, Now in their early 70s, they take no medication.
On a cloudy day, Maureen gives a quick tour before the rain starts. Pink and purple hollyhocks bloom along the pathway. Strawberries grow in hanging baskets rescued from the dump. Food is growing everywhere, and so is Grandma Alma’s circular logic.
In the spring, they drag the deadfall from the woods, and use those logs to heat their home. They collect the ash from the stove and dust the squash leaves to ward off beetles. They grow about 200 squash, to sell, preserve, donate and mix into their chicken feed. Those chickens lay eggs, and also produce “barn bedding,” a mixture of droppings and wood shavings that enriches the soil.
“Now the tree has gone all the way around, and its heated our house, fixed our plant, helped us make an income,” she says.
They budget $27.50 a week per person for groceries, and supplement that with a cash float that ebbs and flows with savings from previous weeks or money they make from the homestead. Maureen uploads the handwritten plan to her Facebook group, “Eat Well, Spend Almost Nothing,” which is all about “thriving and survival in an upside down economy.” They created the group when their public health course wound down as a way for people to stay in touch. It is a homesteading-adjacent group where people share their advice, triumphs and challenges. It has grown these last years, just like the need at the local food bank where they volunteer.
Having a homestead income is crucial. There are always bills, grandkids, treats to splurge on, like Dave’s favourite black pepper potato chips. They have their CPP and Old Age Security pension from the government, a few modest investments from the old days, and proceeds from crops and selling wholesale dinners through a local store. They grow and can so they have food year round. They trade with neighbours. It takes thoughtful planning and community.
“Homesteading in my mind is taking the best from the past and combining it with technology to do the best moving into the future,” she says. There is a lot of survivalist propaganda out there, Maureen says. They are not disconnecting from society. They are just trying to control what they can, to be more self-reliant, so shortages and inflation don’t hit so hard, so their home still functions if power goes out. (They have hydro so the pipes don’t freeze when they go away, but they primarily rely on the wood-stove and solar power.) You can’t just drive north with a tent. Winter is cold, local governments have rules. A different life is possible, she says. “You have to think it through.”
Jacqueline Dwyer is a community organizer and a farmer, not a homesteader. “Capitalism is dead,” she says inside the greenhouse of the Toronto Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective, which is dense with peppers and smells of basil. On this slice of farmland at Downsview Park, they grow food to sell and donate, lead workshops, promote food justice and have a teaching garden. Dwyer says there are more people exchanging seeds, bartering and growing food these days. People are fed up with doing everything they were told, only to find a good life out of reach. As Thoreau put it in 1854: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” People are overworked, underpaid, and tired of the dehumanization, Dwyer says. She knows a few who have moved off grid.
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“That s— is real,” she says, laughing. “Because I know enough people who have done that and they are not coming back.”
Dwyer grew up in Jamaica in a farming family. There was access to fresh food year round and her great grannies lived into their 100s. In Canada, she saw how the food system treated people and decided to do something about it. When her kids were little, she tore up the backyard and planted strawberries. Her eyes widen as she remembers the neighbourhood children converging for a feast, how peppers and eggplants and flowers began to spread through the public housing community. It felt powerful. She did it every summer.
“Those children learned these things are possible, but you have to live in a community,” she says.
While some homesteaders believe in rugged individualism, Dwyer says community is the only way. We need more city parks where farming can exist alongside recreation. It has to be properly managed, with strong leadership and a collective tool resource that makes it easier for people to transform their work into food. The people who need fresh food have the least access to land, and they can’t compete with developers.
“We are not planning for food. We expect that it’s just going to happen, when environmentally, the system has changed. We literally have to change with it and make physical plans for food, whether it’s growing on trees, vines, shrubs, or bushes.”
The City of Toronto has a network of community and allotment gardens, but Dwyer says that is not enough. Last year, the city reviewed its golf course holdings amid calls for more equitable use, but the golfers won the day, with improved public access in the off-season for hiking.
“We don’t need all these golf courses,” says Cheyenne Sundance, the farm director at Sundance Harvest, a 1.5-acre farm also at Downsview.
Sundance, 25, is a self-taught farmer and business person, not a homesteader. She is launching an incubator for Black farmers this fall, so people can learn, grow, make money, and see if the career is for them. “Sundance Harvest has proven that it is possible to farm with no lived experience, limited funds and with a pretty high overhead. I know that my knowledge should be passed on and I believe youth teaching youth is the future,” she writes on her site. She is currently fundraising for the project.
Urban agriculture is a good way to build community, teach, and grow fresh food, but Michael Widener, the Canada Research Chair in Transportation and Health at the University of Toronto, says it is difficult to see how urban farms could possibly sustain food needs at scale “in the current capitalist system that we exist in.”
As a way of life, growing and preserving your own food is labour- and time-intensive, he says.
“It shows that there are some serious issues with some of our social safety nets if there’s no other option.”
On the Homesteading Canada Facebook group, there are many rules, including “no religion, no politics, no fear-mongering.” There is already enough tension between the hunters and vegetarians; between the people who follow the canning science, and those who say that if a method was fine for their great-grandmother, it’s good enough for them.
Much has changed since Ethels and Eunices roamed the Earth. Extensive research is now available on the techniques and tools required to avoid botulism poisoning, which can occur with improperly canned foods. “If you don’t know that information, you could kill your family,” the group’s creator Heather Mitchell says.
In the U.S., citizens looking for advice can call their county extension office, a government and university-led initiative that shares research about agricultural methods and food safety. Ontario used to have a similar program, but by 2000, the funding had withered away, and the knowledge had transitioned to fact sheets, according to a 2010 article in the “Journal of Extension.” A spokesperson with Ontario’s ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs says there is an “Agricultural Information Contact Centre” that can be reached by phone or email. The ministry’s 19 offices throughout the province can also provide resources on food safety, plant and animal health.
“There is this lack of awareness and information that I think can be really problematic in Canada,” says Mitchell, who lives in Guelph and has a backyard brimming with food. “We don’t have the infrastructure to really support a whole bunch of people who just decided to go off homesteading.”
Some of the most influential homesteaders were Helen and Scott Nearing, who built homes in Vermont and Maine where they grew their own food, embraced environmentalism and rejected consumerism. They published “Living The Good Life” in 1954. It became a bible for the back-to-the-land movement.
“We maintain that a couple, of any age from 20 to 50, with a minimum of health, intelligence and capital, can adapt themselves to country living, learn its crafts, overcome its difficulties, and build up a life pattern rich in simple values and productive of personal and social good,” they wrote.
The Nearings are still an important resource, but many homesteaders turn to Facebook and YouTube: “6 things our Great-Grandparents did BETTER than us!”
Online, homesteading is a predominantly white space. “We have some diversity, but it would be great to have more,” says Mitchell of her group. The admins shut down inappropriate posts as quickly as they can and try to create a welcoming environment, but inappropriate takes pop up. A woman of colour was once looking for advice and an older white man said “Marry me, I can take care of you.”
“He was very upset when I mentioned it was not an appropriate comment,” she says.
For the most part, people are looking for answers to specific problems. What to do with a surplus of cucumbers. How to keep their sheep’s water from freezing in the winter. How to stop goats — a popular dairy source — from escaping.
“You don’t need to know who somebody voted for to share your goat practices,” she says.
Katie Daubs is a Star reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs
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