Establishing simple homesteading partnerships can start with a casual conversation.
I caught up with Bryce as he loaded a pair of speed skis into his beat-up pickup truck.
“Hey, I’ve got a quick question.”
Bryce slid the skis through the back window and between the bucket seats. “Yeah, what’s up?”
“Are you gardening this year?” I pointed to his front yard, which had not been covered with lawn since either of us moved into the neighborhood. Bryce loves fresh produce as much as I do and attempts to grow what he can in his patch of dirt.
He shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I need to get on it.” Every year, Bryce plants at the last minute, harvesting meager crops from neglected plants just before frost.
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“What if we gardened for you in trade for whatever produce you don’t need?”
His eyes lit up. “Yeah….” He scanned the barren dirt yard. “It is a lot of work for one guy.”
Unlike me, Bryce is single with no children. Even from his neglected garden, he harvests extra and offers it to my family. Bryce is often at work or playing outdoors. He knew a good simple homesteading partnership when he saw it.
Within minutes, we had a basic plan: His dirt, my seeds. His water, my work. His produce, my food preservation methods. Because his yard was just across the fence from my own, I could send my children to pull weeds or turn on the water. Bryce was excited about pickles, popcorn, and marinara sauce. And, I told him, if I ended up using more than my fair share of the produce, I’d give him fresh eggs from my backyard chickens.
Thus we established another simple homesteading partnership and Garden #3.
Slowly, we’re taking over the neighborhood. Garden #1 resides at my rented property. Here I have my chickens and the crops needing the most attention. A block away lies Garden #2, in the yard of a friend who eschews manual labor but loves a home-cooked meal. In the house to my right is the man who does repairs in trade for food for his family. The neighbor on the other side lets me glean apricots from his tree. And though the lady at the end of the block has no verbal agreement with me, she has a small beehive. I like to offer produce from my garden, made possible by her bees.
Living a mile south of downtown Reno, we don’t have access to the farms we want. We also live in a high plains desert, which limits most horticultural endeavors. Very few of us can “do it all,” and many have additional jobs and families to care for. But working within a tight group can share resources a long way.
Start Small with Simple Homesteading Partnerships
The first year I moved into this little house, my husband and I stayed up until 2 a.m. on many nights making tomato sauce from scratch, finishing canning peaches or preserving jelly from the grapes growing over the back fence. As people at church asked about my purple-stained hands, I realized few knew how to can. Even women of my mother’s generation couldn’t make jelly. As I explained how I preserved food, I gathered interest.
The next year, I had too many grapes and not enough time. I approached a few friends and asked, “Do you want to learn how to make grape jelly?”
“Yes!” they immediately exclaimed. “What should we bring?”
“Just the sugar and jars for your own jelly. I have all the grape juice.”
That year, I finished canning with the help of friends. My husband didn’t have to step into the steamy kitchen. More friends, happy husband. We all won.
Build Partnerships by Networking
You do not simply make grape jelly. You take pictures of purple-stained hands and post them on Facebook, touting your jelly-canning escapades.
Soon I received referrals to friends-of-friends wanting to learn. Katie referred me to Beck, who dearly longed to learn the art of canning. Soon Beck and I became good friends. We shared experiences through Facebook messages, meeting to exchange seeds and plants. Beck introduced me to Danielle, an avid gardener and canner who lived in upstate New York but now has a Reno apartment and three small children.
Danielle started a Facebook group, bringing together like-minded friends interested in simple homesteading. Beck and I help moderate. In less than a year the group has swollen to over 270 members. We discuss all things homesteading, share pictures and brag or offer items for sale.
Each year, I raise several hundred plants, keep what I need, and sell the rest to send kids to camp. I started the first year with about 200 plants, and since then the sale has snowballed. Now I start about 1,000 plants and sell on a first-come, first-served reservation system. It’s become so involved that last year I lost a few varieties because of unmonitored greenhouse temperatures while I worked two jobs. I had no time to market my seedling list and I made very little profit. This year, Beck and Danielle worked miracles. By creating Google docs to organize orders, helping with the work, and sharing the list, they’ve helped me pre-sell over 700 plants. We anticipate this year to be the most profitable. And guess who’s getting free plants for their own gardens? (Don’t tell. It’s a surprise.)
Have Something To Offer
“So how do we get into something like this?” asked David as I drove back from the cheese-making class.
Juana and David had accompanied me as I taught a dozen new friends how to make mozzarella in thirty minutes. Crystal, from the Facebook group, hosted the class and bought the milk. We both invited our friends.
“I don’t think we can,” said Juana. “We live in an apartment.”
I smiled as I passed convenience stores and housing complexes. “You don’t have to own chickens or have a garden,” I explained. “Just network and have something to offer. There are a lot of people who have those chickens but need help caring for them. What do you have that you could trade?”
Juana paused while she thought about it. “I don’t know,” she said. “I do crafts.”
“We can work,” said David.
“Really, that’s what a lot of farmers need most,” I explained. “A lot of us have the gardens or the animals, but we also have to make a living. We’d gladly share our produce with someone who showed up for a few hours to help weed or plant.”
Apartment-dwellers often have other skills valuable to farmers, including childcare, sewing skills, or technical knowledge.
My friend Caidyn posted on Facebook, “Up with the fishes in the morning!” He was out on Pyramid Lake, which is well known for large, delicious trout.”
“Are you pulling in any big fish?” I asked in a comment. “I used to trade homemade bread for fish when a coworker went to the lake.”
Caidyn and his family don’t eat much trout. He pulled in some 20-inchers but had released them. “Wish I knew,” he said.
I told him I would buy and/or trade for any decent-sized trout he caught. Caidyn was excited about the potential of another mutually beneficial decision.
Even those who aren’t “able-bodied” have something to offer.
Though my friend Beck would love to do more, a painful disability limits her movement. Beck’s Google doc saved so much time with my seedling sale that I’ll gladly share plants and produce with her. She also serves as my local media liaison for my writing and farming projects.
When you make your connections, be sure you reciprocate somehow. People offer each year to “take anything I don’t want.” Homesteading is such hard work that it doesn’t even make sense to plant something I don’t want. Any bounty I cannot immediately use or store goes to those who offer something in return.
Simple Homesteading Means Working Hard
While at that cheese-making class, I explained how to purchase good milk.
“Do not buy ultra-pasteurized,” I said, “because it’s heated so high the proteins get damaged. You’ll probably use regular pasteurized milk because raw milk is illegal.”
All the cheese-students paused. A few jaws dropped.
Only 28 states allow the sale of raw milk for human consumption. Some states allow sale of goat milk, and some limit sales volume. Where I live, I simply cannot purchase it. Though Reno sits close to the California border, where sale is legal, anyone with a Nevada ID cannot purchase raw milk within a Californian establishment.
“But….” I glanced over at Mandy and let her finish for me.
She said, “I just bought some baby dairy goats. I’ll have milk in about a year. And I live on a big dude ranch that needs a lot of work done. If you come help me, I’ll help you out.”
I’ve known Mandy for years. She means what she says. Though she has the land and the knowledge, Mandy also has three small children. Her dreams of sustainability and simple homesteading would have to wait many more years if it weren’t for homesteading partnerships. Mandy had attended the cheese-making class because she needed to learn how to process milk. She needed to network. Mandy’s milk will be legally accessible to friends if she gives it as a gift of gratitude for their hard work.
You don’t have to drive to an old dude ranch in the desert to enjoy these simple homesteading partnerships. Barb, my 75-year-old massage client, is not about to climb a ladder to harvest from her 30-year-old apple tree. Each year, she calls me up. “I don’t know how many the birds have left,” she said. “And I don’t know how many worms there are. But come get them.”
We have some rules for our kids: Clean up Barb’s fallen and rotten apples first. Be kind to her tree. Fill two buckets with the nicest apples and put them in Barb’s garage. Rake the lawn before we go. If Barb isn’t feeling well, she only has to get up long enough to let us know she’s home. We receive a tree full of free, organic apples and she gets free yard work.
Never make people regret their offer. Or it won’t be offered next year.
Know Your Circle
I share a unique agreement with two friends. With eight children between the three of us, we don’t have surplus food money. We also don’t want to use tight budgets as excuses to feed our children junk.
We’ve developed a money-saving shopping system. If we find clearance sales or produce deals and have extra money, we buy enough for everyone. We know the other two ladies will reciprocate in the future. That way, if apples are four pounds for a dollar in my neighborhood and the other two friends can’t leave their homes, we can all take advantage of the same sale. A similar agreement exists within our gardens. If I grow cucumbers and harvest more than my family can use, I contact them first. Usually, they put all the cucumbers to good use. If they can’t use them, I offer the food to someone else. When they have extra tomatoes or surplus canning jars, they ask if I need them.
This group exists because of trust and a shared vision. Members are only threefold because trust thins the further you reach from your inner circle. If we had different eating styles, this plan wouldn’t work. Feelings would get hurt if one felt more entitled or selfish than the others. We don’t plan to add a fourth member to the group because we need to keep that trust factor, but we’ll gladly tell others how to create their own groups.
Larger circles include informal scratch-my-back agreements. Last year, Amy lost her first chicken to overzealous dogs. Though the hen faded fast, she was still alive and suffering, and Amy couldn’t complete the deed herself. She contacted Sheryl, who contacted me. We handled the sensitive job with compassion. Amy has always been grateful. Just yesterday, she offered two wooden shipping containers, which would make excellent planter boxes. I deferred the offer to Beck. Those containers will soon be handicapped-accessible planter boxes.
Be The First Name For Referrals
As I explained to David how to contribute to a simple homesteading circle, I also detailed the importance of getting his name out there.
“Nobody can ask you to help on his farm if he doesn’t know you’re interested in helping,” I said. “So get on social networking. Volunteer at urban farming projects. Think about what you have to trade, and be sure people know about it.”
It could start with a blog or a cooking group. You could be a small-time neighborhood gardener searching for someone with similar tomato interests. Eventually, the network grows and you can access zucchini you can’t grow on your apartment patio or meat that’s unavailable at your grocery store.
In the six years since I stayed up until 2 a.m. canning with my husband, our endeavor has grown to an informal educational system. I write for national poultry and farming magazines, sharing the info with local groups. With plans to acquire a static teaching location, Beck and Danielle help offer classes within churches and homes. Friends visit Ames Family Farm for research as they determine whether they want to undertake homesteading endeavors. Each year more people learn how to can, then invite friends and family to learn the next year. When they have apples or need advice on how to make vanilla extract, they defer to the members within our simple homesteading community.
What tips would you share with someone interested in establishing simple homesteading partnerships where they live?
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.