By Matt Sutkoski
For Markey Read and Tim King, the “supermarket” is a short walk away from their house, through their lush garden of hostas and out into a bright yard full of vegetables and poultry.
They’re experienced homesteaders, operating Honey Dew Homestead out of their home on Old Stage Road in Williston. That means much of their food and livelihood comes from the land on which they live.
Homesteading for many probably conjures up a rough life of barely surviving off the land, maybe in the 19th century at the edge of the prairie.
Most homesteaders, Read and King included, live comfortable, conventional lives, though more self-sustaining ones.
The couple produce about half the food they eat yearly. Solar panels generate all the electricity they need. They sell some of the meat from the poultry they raise. And they’re able to work a large portion of their day jobs from their homestead, a stone’s throw from the suburban neighborhoods off Mountain View Drive.
Interest in homesteading is skyrocketing, though statistics are hard to come by. That’s because there’s so many ideas of what constitute suburban or urban homesteading. By Read and King’s definition, it’s more than gardening. It’s being at least self-sustaining, but it’s not necessarily 100 percent self-sufficient. They still go to the store and buy some food, clothing, household goods and such.
Read and King are increasingly finding themselves instructing and advising others on the art, fun and work of suburban homesteading.
Enrollment in their suburban homesteading class in Champlain Valley Union High School’s Access program increases year to year.
The couple has a full schedule this summer hosting tours of their property and working with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont on programs and educational resources.
“Homesteading is different from farming,” Read explained. “A farm grows a cash crop, be it meat or vegetable. Farms are generally for-profit businesses, a source of livelihood for their owners. By contrast, homesteading is a means to break even, to supply as many of one’s own needs as possible.”
The bottom line of homesteading is, of course, good. Food costs are low since they grow so much of it on their own. Read’s ability to can, dry and freeze food means the couple have a ready supply of nutritious food year round. Electricity costs are nil.
The tradeoff, though, is work. Lots of it.
This time of year is extremely busy—the heart of the growing season for both plant and animal.
Read and King have been busy moving poultry into outdoor enclosures, where it can feed on grass and grains. It makes for healthier, more nutritious meat and eggs, Read explains.
“It’s good for them to have good, fresh lawn to eat,” she said. “I like to know where they live and what they ate.”
Meanwhile, an array of more than a dozen raised beds brimming with vigorously growing vegetables in all varieties needs tending.
If it looks impossible to do all by yourself, it’s because it is. Read said she has two high school students working part time to maintain the gardens during the height of the growing season.
The couple also makes strategic decisions on what to raise and what not to raise. Because of their jobs, they need to be out of town occasionally.
With just poultry and vegetables, it’s easy to find someone to care for the property while they’re gone, and the operation needs very little maintenance over the winter.
However, if they’d chosen to get four-legged animals, like cows, they’d be tied down to their property, and less able to travel, Read said.
“You have to think about your lifestyle and what you want it to be,” Read said. “Being physically here during the day helps some, too.”
In fact, the growing trend toward people working from home frees up more and more people for urban and suburban homesteading. According to a 2012 U.S. Census report, 13.4 million people work from home, up 41 percent over the course of the previous decade.
The lifestyle leads to refreshingly varied days. Read said she can work at her business—Career Networks, a career and employment development center she operates out of their home—then go out at lunchtime to tend to the vegetables, ducks and turkeys.
“I can take a break in the middle of the day. It refreshes me,” she said
Urban and suburban homesteading takes planning, and members of a homesteading household need always be on the same page, Read said.
The couple gets away every October to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where they celebrate their wedding anniversary, and use part of the time to analyze what went right and what went wrong during the previous year of homesteading.
“We’ve got the routine down. We know how to make it happen,” King said.
Read said she can predict which households might succeed at homesteading. If only one member of a household embraces the idea and does all the work, homesteading is less likely to take root, she said.
Read and King manage to do their homesteading on five acres, with room to spare for a lawn and a lush, refuge-like shady garden of hostas and other ornamental plants.
“You can do this on two acres,” she said. Even an acre, if you’re willing to sacrifice almost all of your lawn and replace it with gardens and space for meat animals like poultry.
The couple think homesteading will continue to grow as more people want to do things themselves, know and understand the source of their food and try to reduce their effects on the environment.
“We’re living a little lighter on the earth,” Read said.
Honey Dew Homestead: living off the land
By Matt Sutkoski