A Vegetarian Homestead? Might actually be more productive.


It doesn’t seem like those two words even belong together in the same sentence, does it?

I mean, when you envision a homestead you naturally picture a farmhouse with a backyard garden, maybe a small orchard off to the side, plenty of chickens running around and maybe a few goats or cows in the pasture.

You envision food production: fruits, veggies, and meat.

Can you even call it a homestead without farm animals? You gotta have at least one chicken, right?

I guess I’ve always assumed a homestead had to have animals on it. That’s all I’ve ever known.

But recently I’ve been reading a book called The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing, in which they chronicle their 60 years of homesteading off the grid… as vegetarians.

They lived self-sufficiently for sixty years without eating any meat whatsoever.

A vegetarian homestead? Is it possible?

Not that I’m considering becoming a vegetarian any time soon, but Helen Nearing makes some convincing arguments against having animals on a homestead.

Arguments I’m tempted to consider, especially seeing as our chickens are costing us more to feed than it costs to buy eggs at the store right now.

Although they did eat some animal byproducts at times, the Nearings were staunchly opposed to eating flesh of any sort. As Helen put it in her cookbook Simple Food for The Good Life,

Nature has provided man with an abundance of food for full nourishment instead of putrefying corpses, which repugnant diet decent folk would abhor if generation upon generation had not, through use and custom, habituated themselves to the ghoulish practice of making their stomachs the burial ground for dead bodies.

A lovely image of carnivorism.

No. It wasn’t really her way with words that got me thinking twice about whether or not we should be raising animals for meat, but rather it was her observation that animal husbandry is costly and extremely time consuming.

Here is a portion of what Helen writes regarding the matter,

Animal husbandry on a New England farm involves building and maintaining not only sheds but barns and the necessary fences, and also the cutting or buying of hay. Into this enterprise goes a large slice of the farmer’s time. Farm draft animals work occasionally but eat regularly. Many of them eat more than they produce and thus are involuntary parasites. All animals stray at times, even with the best of fences, and like all runaway slaves, must be followed and brought back to servitude. The owners of horses, cattle, pigs, and chickens wait on them regularly, as agrarian chamber maids, feeding, tending them and cleaning up after them. Bernard Shaw has said: “Millions of men, from the shepherd to the butcher, become mere valets of animals while the animals live, and their executioners afterwards.”

By not having animals, Helen states: “We thus escape the servitude and dependence which tie both farmer and animal together. The old proverb “No man is free who has a servant” could well read “No man is free who has an animal.””

Anyone who has ever owned farm animals… or any animals for that matter… cannot argue these points. They require housing, fencing or some form of security, food, veterinary care, cleaning up after, tending, etc. It is true that a homesteader can spend a great amount of time tending to the care of his or her animals.

Does it have to be that way? Isn’t that what homesteaders are supposed to do?

One of the things that appeals to us about homesteading is a certain amount of freedom we gain from it. Freedom to do what we want with our lives instead of feeling like we’re rotating around somebody else’s clock.

Do I really want to spend so much of my time feeding chickens, letting chickens out to graze, counting chickens daily to see if any are missing or lost, shutting chickens up for the night, fighting off predators, shoveling manure, applying fresh bedding, separating sick or injured birds, culling the flock, shooing chickens out of the garden, bemoaning plants they’ve dug up, cleaning chicken poop off the steps, brooding chicks, etc. etc…

And that’s just the chickens!

Truth be told, animals are a lot of work.

Is this how I want to spend my time? Don’t get me wrong, there are definite advantages to raising livestock. Not only do we benefit from their products, but animals are enjoyable at times, and are certainly entertaining and educational.  But is it worth the tradeoff?

What would a homestead look like without animals?

There would definitely be much less to worry about, and less money being spent.

The big question for us would be: Could we handle being vegetarian? Could we live without meat, and eggs, and milk, and butter… and yogurt… and ice cream…?

I think I probably would be fine. The kids would definitely miss certain things. My husband… I’m not sure how easily he’d be convinced.

Maybe we could just fish and hunt. We would still get our meat without the time and money invested in it. Maybe barter for eggs and milk? Seems like the best of both worlds, no?

It’s something to think about at least. Meat and animal products are expensive. There’s no way around it. If you raise it or buy it, it’s gonna cost you. I think of how much money we would save if we didn’t buy meat or other animal products (we just stocked our freezer with a quarter of a cow, at a $500 price tag). If we could live off of our garden produce and a few purchased staples, our grocery budget would plummet.

If the Nearings could live a lifetime without meat (I think Scott Nearing was a hundred when he died), is it really as necessary as we think to our diets? They seem to have gotten along just fine on the fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and grains they grew.

I dunno. This is just something I’ve been pondering over the past few days.

(By the way, I should add that I don’t agree with many of the philosophies or political views the Nearings held. However, their books are fascinating accounts of how they homesteaded off the grid for so many years, with valuable lessons to be gleaned.)

But What Would You Eat?

Naturally any carnivore would come to wonder what the heck you would eat on a vegetarian homestead. I grabbed a copy of Helen’s cookbook, Simple Food for the Good Life to find out what their meals looked like.

Helen’s cookbook is probably my all time favorite. Over the years I’ve collected many old-timey cookbooks, seeking out those which focus mainly on ingredients which can be grown at hand. The only other cookbooks that come close to this one in that regard are the The Little House Cookbook and the More-With-Less Cookbook.

What I love the most about the Simple Food cookbook is that Helen focuses on dishes which can be prepared with minimal effort and mess. A woman after my own heart, she despised the drudgery of cooking and washing dishes.

I staunchly determined, and tried to stick to it, that any recipes included in my book would be straight from the garden where possible, cooked slightly if at all, at low temperatures to kill fewer vitamins and enzymes, with little added flavoring and the fewest possible dishes, pans and utensils used. The simpler the food, the better, I think;

I’ve often told my husband that I wished we could just forage for all of our food so I’d have no cooking or dishes to do! I’d much rather be out in the garden or working with my hands building something. Helen shares my sentiments,

I don’t mind hard work, but I want it to be for a more long-lived purpose and intent. Why go to a lot of trouble, and use a lot of time and energy, just feeding the body? By keeping foods and meals simple and easy, the tasks may be so shortened that there is little labor involved. Keep frills and fanciness to a minimum. Keep fundamentals in the foreground. Try to get the most nourishment for the least effort.

I believe the work of feeding people could be simplified to such a point that it would take less time to prepare a meal than to eat it, whereas now it is usually the other way around.

The Nearing’s mostly raw diet with minimal prep work appeals to me greatly. When dinner guests arrived, Helen was known to plop a big bowl of freshly washed produce from the garden on the table for everyone to choose from and enjoy raw. Soup and a few vegetables (potatoes, winter squash, etc) were the only things she ever cooked. No bread. No pastries. No casseroles. Nada.

Think of all the time and dishes that could be saved by eating a meatless, mostly raw diet straight from the garden or cellar! It would definitely be a change from the typical Western diet.

Every day they ate the same basic dishes, with different ingredients according to season and availability.

Breakfast: fruit and herbal tea

Lunch: soup and soaked grains

Dinner: a big salad and cooked vegetables

She talks about using leftover salad in the following day’s soup. Their desserts were fruit or grains, perhaps yogurt at times, sweetened with honey or maple syrup.

I could totally eat like that. Once I got past my chocolate cravings.

The idea that running a vegetarian homestead could save us money and time by not having animals, and could save me time in the kitchen cooking and cleaning, is highly intriguing to me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Could you do it? Do you think having a vegetarian homestead would make life a little easier? Would you rather spend your time enjoying other pursuits, or is the food you get from animals worth the exchange?