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tractor on homesteadHistorical and Modern Homesteading

by Kate Esposito

Homesteading, or living off the land, will never be seen as a particularly modern lifestyle; many dedicated homesteaders trade their iPods and HDTVs for rain buckets and trowels. However, it is interesting to note that homesteading -- as it's thought of today -- is a relatively new practice that has greatly evolved over the past several decades.

How Homesteading Started in the United States
The original homesteading movement started in this country in 1862 when President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. The Act gave people 160 to 640 acres of free land if they met the following requirements:

    • They had to file an application to be considered.
    • They had to agree to improve the land, usually by building a structure on it.
    • They had to file to get an official deed of title.

Virtually anyone was eligible to become a homesteader (including women and freed slaves) as long as they had never fought against the U.S Government. This provision helped exclude anyone who served in the British Army -- a huge source of contention at this period in history.

These first homesteaders were, for the most part, simple farmers. They were more worried about putting food on the table for their families than building a sustainable lifestyle. In fact, many damaged the earth by trying to keep water, lumber, and nutrient-rich soil all to themselves. They dammed up streams, extracted oil illegally, and claimed land in the names of children who had no desire to tend it. It's said that irresponsible homesteading actually contributed to the Dust Bowl by causing mass erosion.

Sadly, if you are looking to claim free land today, you are at least two decades too late. The Homestead Act is no longer in practice in any of the 50 states. It was essentially replaced by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 which ceded almost all unclaimed land to the federal government. Alaska, with its thousands of acres of virtually unused land, kept homesteading alive until 1986 to attract more residents, but it does not offer up land today. The last claim was finalized in 1988.

Back to the Land
The second homesteading movement came about in the 1970s, when Americans became more environmentally and socially conscious. During this time tens of thousands of people -- the majority young adults -- fled cities and suburbia for more rural areas of the country.

Unlike the original homesteaders, these people didn't get their land for free. Most had to start with small farms of less than 20 acres instead of sizable estates. These homesteaders endeavored to be self-sufficient by selling produce and handmade goods to make ends meet. Some succeeded, but most didn't and ended up moving back to the concrete within 5, 10, or 15 years.

The two main sources of the long-term failure of this movement were monetary and relationship problems. It's not surprising that the people who stayed on their plots for good tended to be married or in committed relationships and had some experience with farming or rural living before they set out.

Imagine leaving your entire livelihood behind to live on a tiny farm with someone you just met, a dollar in your pocket, and a bag of beanstalk seeds. You have no electricity, no water, and just a vague idea of what to do. Congratulations -- you’ve just won a return trip ticket to the city.

Modern Homesteaders
Today's homesteaders have more in common with the second generation than the first, yet they are exponentially more prepared. The main difference between today's homesteaders and the back-to-the-
earthers is that modern homesteaders are not usually making a social statement against cities, but instead embrace homesteading for their own reasons. Many live on farms but there are good numbers of them in cities, suburbs, and anywhere in between. Most have a strong interest in the environment and the outdoors, forming communities and living on and depending on less.

Advances in engineering -- such as solar heaters, wind turbines, and hydroponic gardening -- keep modern homesteaders comfortable, and they have more employment options than putting up a produce stand. The Internet makes it possible for them to set up all kinds of businesses from wherever they live and provides a powerful networking tool to connect them to other homesteaders.

Homesteaders that live in urban areas can grow produce on roofs or in backyards. Many live off-grid while still in the confines of a city block or townhouse. The high price of gasoline and of food makes the practice more viable and economically sensible at this time than ever before. Now instead of being apart from society, homesteaders have created their own niche within it.