"The Nourishing Homestead tells the story of how we can create truly satisfying, permanent, nourished relationships to the land, nature, and one another. The Hewitts’ story is sure to inspire a new generation of homesteaders, or anyone seeking a simpler way of life and a deeper connection to the world." - Chelsea Green Publishing
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Over the last few months I've been reading through Ben Hewitt's latest book, The Nourishing Homestead. He co-wrote the book with his wife, Penny, and it has finally been released into the world! My Instagram feed tells me it is already in the hands of many of you, which is wonderful because I like to imagine you enjoying it as much as I did. Truthfully, I'm never going to be done enjoying this book. My copy is already dog-eared and showing signs of good use. The Nourishing Homestead will continue to be one of my go to books for reference and inspiration on our homesteading path.
This is the first book Ben has written that he considers to be a "how to" book. You will absolutely receive an education from these pages; furthermore, you will be told a compelling story as well. I don't think Ben has it in him to write a book without the story of human experience. And in this particular book, the story is of his family and the past (nearly) two decades they've spent creating a thriving homestead in northern Vermont, called Fat of the Land Farm.
For me, the "how to" element combined with the Hewitts' personal experience, was a bit like reading the literary love child of The Dirty Life and The Encyclopedia of Country Living. And you can't really go wrong with that.
I originally thought I would write a lengthy review of this book. Then I had the idea to talk with Ben instead. I guess you'd call it an interview, but I was thinking more along the lines of a good old fashioned conversation that happened to be recorded and we could share it here with you. I hit a bump in the road with a technical issue and we needed to switch our chat from a recorded call to written communication. You can find that conversation below, along with several of Penny's photos of life on the farm.
Do make yourself a mug of something steamy before you settle in, it's a good chat.
When you're done reading, be sure to drop your name in the comments if you'd like a chance to win a copy of The Nourishing Homestead. Ben's publisher, Chelsea Green, would like to offer the book to one of you!
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1. As Penny and you wrote this book, who is the reader you had in mind, and what do you hope they gain from The Nourishing Homestead?
To be honest, I never really felt as if we had a specific reader in mind. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that people come to my work (and presumably all writing) for vastly different reasons and come away from it with vastly different interpretations. Partly because of this, and partly because it felt to us like the most honest path to take with the book, we just ended up telling our story, based entirely on our experiences.
That said, there were subjects and experiences that felt important to discuss. Our experience with soil remineralization is one; as you know from reading the book, creating biologically active soils to raise nutrient dense crops is a huge part of what we’re trying to accomplish.
Also, we really wanted to make this work feel as accessible and joyful as it feels to us. Not necessarily “easy” or “convenient,” but definitely do-able. And of course the most meaningful and rewarding things in life aren’t generally those that are easiest or most convenient.
2. There is a section in the book called Guiding Principles, it contains a list of “touchstone principles, ideas, and ideals we can return to.” Penny and you have developed this list as a system to live by and to help guide you when “faced with a decision to which there is no obvious answer. Do we borrow money to build a bigger barn or do we keep getting by with what we have? “ This section covers several pages in the book and is quite extensive and fascinating. Can you share the most helpful, most revisited “touchstone principles?”
For me, the most important one is the first:
The way we think, act, and perceive the world is a reflection of the world we wish to inhabit. I think about this a lot, probably because it reminds me how much the quality of my life is a reflection of my actions, and my intent for those actions. In other words, it’s not just what I do with my physical being, but how I approach that work, both emotionally and spiritually.
Another one that feels particularly important to me is remembering that it’s ok (and even desirable) to define for myself what is logical and practical. In the book, I talk about this in the context of making butter, which according to the logic of the market, is a fool’s errand. I once calculated that it costs me something like $15/pound to make my own butter; obviously, from a purely financial point-of-view, making $15-per-pound butter isn’t that logical or practical. But the truth is, the logic of the homestead rarely conforms to the logic of the market. It will almost always be cheaper/faster/easier to allow industry to provide, particularly if one is not discerning about the quality of the products offered. What logic does the homestead conform to? The logic that what you eat and how it was produced matters. The logic of vibrant health. The logic of making a life, and not merely a living. I think these are really powerful things, but they’re not often celebrated in modern America.
3. Hindsight is an excellent teacher. Looking back, what is one thing that you “got right” from the beginning, in terms of the planning and development of your homestead? What is one thing you would do differently?
Oh boy. This is a big question. I think the one thing we “got right” is that we didn’t rush into things, and we didn’t take on a crushing amount of debt to establish our homestead. Partly, this was just luck; we bought land before land got crazy expensive, and we had building skills, so we built our own house (with lots and lots of help). But also, we had pretty modest expectations and we just let things evolve as we could afford to have them evolve.
If we could do anything differently, it would be to have created even more modest infrastructure. Certainly, a smaller house than the 2000-square feet we currently occupy. The older we get, the more we realize how little we really need to live a meaningful, peaceful existence. I’m almost prepared to say that for us, living a meaningful, peaceful existence depends on having the bare minimum of material goods and infrastructure necessary. I don’t pretend to know precisely what’s “necessary,” but I’m pretty sure it’s less than we currently have!
4. Many people who work the land as your family does, find themselves producing something for sale. Whether it be a vegetable CSA, whole or half pigs for meat, fruit orchards, honey, etc. You write about utilizing some of your goods as important items for gifting or trade, but you aren’t in the business of farming. How did you come to realize that farming as a business is not your path? Have you always known, or was there a pivotal moment when you realized this about yourself?
We struggled with this for a long time, always trying to figure out how to produce something to sell off this property. Letting go of that expectation was hugely liberating for us. I certainly understand why people want to produce food for money (and we do a bit of this, ourselves), and the world desperately needs people who can do so with integrity. But I’ve also seen how quickly and devastatingly people become burned out by growing food for money, and I’m grateful we are able to choose otherwise.
Also, I often say that we make money by not spending it, and there’s some real truth to this. So while we might not sell a lot of homestead products, we also grow 90% or more of our food, cut all our heating fuel and most of our building materials, and so on. I can’t say exactly how much we save on an annual basis by doing all this, but it’s not an insignificant amount.
5. Your farm currently produces approximately 90% of your family’s calories. How long were you living on the land before you felt it was a thriving place of production? Was raising, hunting, and foraging the majority of your food always the goal?
It’s hard to say exactly how long it took. It just sort of evolved over the years. We were fortunate to come to this land with a good bit of experience, mostly embodied by Penny, who’d worked on organic vegetable farms for many years. If I had to guess, I’d say it took us about five years before we were raising more than 50% of our food, but that’s really just a guess.
Also, I will say that we never had a specific goal for how much food we’d grow. We just like this work; it’s our version of a meaningful life. Sometimes it feels to me like the food is just a byproduct; it’s a positive side effect of our relationship to the land and our animals. I might not go so far as to say I wouldn’t do all this if no food got produced, but sometimes it feels that way.
6. For people just starting out on a homestead similar to yours, where do you recommend they place the bulk of their energy and resources?
I would definitely recommend starting literally from the ground up with a really good soil test and investing in whatever amendments are necessary to create vibrant, biologically active soils. I think people often get excited about beautiful barns and so on, and there’s nothing wrong with this, but the truth is, it’s the soil and land that really matters. You can get by for decades – a lifetime, really – with very simple, inexpensive, rudimentary infrastructure. But if you want to grow truly nourishing food, you NEED healthy soil.
7. You write in this book about creating infrastructure now (while you’re young) to ease labor output and secure aging in place, to the greatest of your ability. What are some of your best ideas for achieving this? And why do you feel it is so important?
For one, we’re really concentrating on bringing the bulk of our food production nearer to the house. Also, when I gather firewood, I take it from the furthest reaches of our property, while I’m still relatively young and capable (with exceptions made for deadfalls). We’re slowly transitioning to more perennial fruit and nut crops that don’t require quite so much annual maintenance. I also think our expectations play a big role; as I mentioned earlier, we’re realizing just how little we really need to live well. That’s definitely a big part of this process.
For us, all this is important because we want to live this way as long as we possibly can. We’re not old by any means – I’m 43 and Penny is 47 – but we’re old enough that we can imagine being old, if that makes any sense!
8. You’ve written quite a bit about money and its place in your lifestyle. You say that one of the ways you earn money, is to not actually spend money. One way you do not spend money is by packing food for your family when you’ll be out of the house for a few hours or for the day. Take us into the lunch pail of the Hewitt family... what sort of foods do you pack when you’re going to be out of the house for a half day outing?
A lot of it depends on the season and what we had for dinner the previous evening. So, maybe leftover chicken. Some kimchi or lacto-fermented green beans. We make beef jerky and that’s super-convenient. Liver pate and cheese is popular. In the winter, soup. We eat a lot of soup! Sometimes, we just make eggnog: Cream, egg yolks, and maple syrup. This is my go-to when I’m driving to a book reading. In August, we don’t go anywhere without a quart of fresh blueberries.
9. Your sons, Finn and Rye, are 13 and 10 years old. Based on your experience thus far, what has been the greatest benefit to them growing up on the land, outside of traditional schooling, spending above average time with family and community?
I think your answer – or most of it, anyway – is in the question: The benefit to them growing up on the land is having them on the land, generating that connection to the natural world. I mean, yes, there are all sort of skills they’re learning, and the responsibility of caring for animals, and all that is great. But for us, it’s much more that sense of reverence for the natural world and understanding their place in it that’s so critical.
And we feel blessed beyond belief to spend so much time in their company. Which is not to say it’s never a struggle: The boys are very passionate, strong-willed, critical thinkers. I think that’s great, it’s what I want for them, but it doesn’t always make for easy parenting!
10. The type of life your family lives is often viewed as "self-sufficient" - set apart and isolated by design. But the idea of self-sufficiency is not something you identify with. You talk about interdependency as a more sustainable approach to homesteading. Can you describe what you mean by interdependency? How does this look in your family and community?
Thanks for asking this question. I strongly believe that independence and self-sufficiency are detrimental. I also think they’re a myth, because the truth is, the less dependent we are on friends, family, and neighbors, the more dependent we become on industry and other forces beyond our control. Humans need one another and I think we need to need one another. The notion of the self-sufficient homesteader has always seemed a little sad to me, although I guess I understand why it appeals to people.
For us, interdependence looks like helping our neighbor, who is a dairy farmer in his late 60’s, with chores a few times per week. It looks like him helping us when our tractor is broken, or we need to borrow a tool. It looks like haying with another neighbor, filling their barn and then filling ours. It looks like trading our surplus of blueberries for a friends’ surplus of raspberries. And so on.
One other thing. It feels really important to us that we work to reclaim the skills and resourcefulness necessary to fostering interdependent communities. This year, we’re starting a “life skills” school called Lazy Mill Living Arts, which focuses on practical skills of hand and land. We are creating a space where people can share in these skills, both as teachers and learners.
11. Because I'm a daydreamer... let’s flash forward 100 years into the future. What do you hope is happening on Fat of the Land Farm?
Well, for one, my old bones will be dissolving into the soil. And I guess those of my children and maybe even my grandchildren, too! But I’d like to think that someone is planting seeds in the soil we spent all these years working to improve. I’d like to think they’re waking up every morning, excited for what the day will bring. I’d like to think they’re climbing into one of the apple trees Penny and I planted a century before to pick the ripest fruit. I’m not big on legacy, but if someone gets to enjoy an apple from a tree I planted… well. I think that’d be really, really cool.
Questions from folks on Facebook & Instagram:
1. Which animal does Ben think gives him the most bang for his buck?
Cows. Definitely. Milk, butter, beef, kefir, pig food, fertility, pasture improvement. And they smell great!
2. I wonder if there is a written resource he has found invaluable.
Ishmael and My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Probably not what you’re thinking of, but there you have it.
3. Do you think it gets easier each year? Or, maybe, when does the natural flow start to happen? I get discouraged and tired and the cost of food in the store begins to look like a deal!
Such a great question. Yes, it does get easier as systems and practices evolve, no question about it. But for me, a big part of things getting easier is just accepting that sometimes, things will be hard and working to maintain equanimity and good humor in these moments. I’m not perfect at this, not by a long shot, but I’m getting better every day.
4. I always have questions concerning homesteading for pleasure vs. profit... specifically regarding crop or meat shares. I’d like to find a way to provide for and support my family. Where might someone like this get started?
May I humbly suggest with my book, The Nourishing Homestead?
5. How can those of us who don’t necessarily live in rural areas contribute to our home economy in a practical way? What are some simple things we can do?
I really think one of the most important things each and every one of us can do is remember that principle I talked about earlier: That the way we think, act, and perceive the world is a reflection of the world we wish to inhabit. Not everyone wants to live like we do, nor should they. I think that what matters isn’t so much that everyone lives a particular way, or does anything specific, but that they live in a way that feels truly meaningful to them, that feels fulfilling, that feels as if they have some agency over their lives.
I guess that might not seem so simple. But in a way, I think it is, because it doesn’t demand that you only eat organic food, or only shop at the farmer’s market, or only use recycled toilet paper, or whatever. All you have to do is remember that what you do – and your intent for what you do – matters. Not just to you, but to the world at large.
I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m ducking the question. It’s just that I think it’s time to start looking beyond the obvious stuff – buy local, recycle, compost, etc, etc – and start thinking about the bigger picture of how we can create a world where kindness and generosity are the rules. And I think that only happens when we feel as if we’re living the way each of us were meant to live.
Thanks Ben for spending some time over here today, and thank you Penny for sharing your beautiful photos.
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I'm sure each of you would love to include The Nourishing Homestead in your personal collection, I can't recommend it highly enough. And your community would benefit as well by asking your local library to add it to their shelves.
If you'd like a chance to win a copy, compliments of Chelsea Green, than go ahead and let us know in the comments. Feel free to share a few thoughts on what is happening in your homesteading world, or how this book might be helpful to you. I'll announce a winner on Friday, 2/6. (This giveaway is open to folks living in North America.)
Best of luck, and happy homesteading!
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The giveaway is now closed, thanks everyone!
The winner is...
"Holy cow! (no pun intended) This conversation alone had me day dreaming about how to improve upon our little backyard. Ben's advice is grounded and practical. I love his thoughts on working the land now in such a way that it gets easier the older they get. I would love to be able to dog-ear a copy of this book. Thanks."
Check your inbox, spiritmama, for a message from me. Congratulations! :)