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.
A Background: The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing
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?
Here are some of the benefits of operating a homestead that is vegetarian – or even vegan – as well as some tips to help you get started.
Benefits of a Vegetarian Homestead
1. Added Freedom – and Less Work
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?
I don’t know. There’s some upkeep requited in a garden, but not nearly as much. If you use organic, no-till methods of garden, you won’t have to fertilize it that often. You don’t have to bring your garden to the vet, and if you compost (which requires virtually no work besides dumping the bin and turning the pile every once in a while) you won’t need to do much to improve your soil, either.
2. The Health Benefits
There’s no arguing that the traditional “American” diet is filled with oil, fat, grease, sugar, and processed ingredients. This leads to a whole host of health problems, including heart attack, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, high cholesterol, obesity, and cancer.
The closer you can get to a plant-based diet, the better. You will weight less, carry less fat, and be easier on your joints. You will also stay more mobile.
While many homesteaders would argue that you need protein to survive and therefore can’t go without animals – the first part, of course, being true – there are plenty of other ways you can consume protein besides animal products.
3. You Don’t Have to Go Whole-Hog
The irony of that statement kind of sticks out, doesn’t it?
I’m kidding, of course. But know that in making the transition to a vegetarian homestead, you don’t have to become totally vegan overnight, cutting out major parts of your diet in order to commit to the larger goal. No, you can experiment, taking out certain portions of your diet (like red meat) at a time before making the complete transition.
And if you wanted to, you could keep some animals around for their products without necessarily butchering them, too. I mean, you’ll do almost the same amount of work raising chickens for eggs, but once you leave out the extra time and expenses involved with butchering them (if you were raising them for meat), you do end up saving a bit of time and money.
So if you’re not ready to make the complete switch yet, don’t despair – you don’t have to do it all at once.
4. You’ll Have More Space
Without animals to trample the grass or get into your vegetable garden, you’ll have much more room to grow the vegetables you care about- along with the time to tend to them as well.
You can plant orchards and other largescale growing operations. Instead of taking up space with a barn, you could put up a greenhouse or hoop house so that you can have fresh vegetables throughout the entire year.
5. You’ll Have More Money
I’ve already mentioned this, but animals are expensive. Whether you’re buying your meat and eggs from the store or producing them at home, they are going to cost you. It is simply less efficient to feed greens to an animal and then eat that animal than it is to just eat the greens (nutritional benefits aside).
However, there are other expenses you might not even consider besides the cost of feed. Animals require fencing. They need shelter. They need regular medical care, which can be expensive even if you go the all-natural route and avoid antibiotics and chemical dewormers. Long story short, going without the animals on a homestead can save some serious cash.
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.
Here are some other foods you can base your diet around if you decided to have a vegetarian homestead:
Vegetables: Consider growing nutrient-dense veggies that are also full of fiber. They will fill you up faster and make better use of limited garden space. Another good option is to consider growing veggies that store well without needing to be canned, frozen, or processed in any other ways.
This list might include root vegetables such as:
- Winter Squash
Fruits: A vegetarian homestead needs plenty of fruit. The side-bonus of getting rid of the animals is that you will now have more space for fruit trees and plants. Consider planting an orchard filled with fruits such as:
- Blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries
Nuts and Seeds: You can grow trees for their nuts, which make an excellent source of protein. Some to consider include pecans, which can be grown in more areas than you might think, along with almonds, walnuts, and more.
Nuts and seeds (which could include sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, or flaxseed) offer just as much protein as meat products and are also easy to grow. Plus, they can be stored without refrigeration.
Healthy Fats: If your growing zone permits, you can grow olives or avocadoes, both of which supply you with healthy fats and can be used to make oil. You can also grow these in containers indoors, which will give you a steady supply of fats year-round without relying on animal fat like tallow or lard.
Tips for Transitioning to a Vegan or Vegetarian Homestead
1. Make up for nutritional deficiencies
One word of advice is that if you are transitioning to a completely vegetarian or vegan homestead cold-turkey, it might be worth it to invest in a multivitamin.
While you’re preparing for the transition, you will likely be missing out on some nutrients that your body is used to receiving from meat and other animal products. A vitamin can help fill in the gap in the meantime.
2. Plan ahead – and plan accordingly
Remember that not all of your plants will be ready for harvest immediately. While most plants mature in a season, your fruit trees and nut producers will take more time – they could take several years in order for them to produce edible fruits.
3. Know that you might not necessarily save money right away
If you already have animals and can’t bear to part with them quite yet – particularly if you still plan on raising chickens for eggs or sheep for wool production, for example, and not the meat – you will still be spending just as much money and expending just as much energy as you would if you were still eating meat.
You can certainly wean yourself into a vegetarian homestead over time, but you won’t necessarily see major cost savings if you retain your animals.
4. Consider your homestead goals
Are you homesteading for pleasure or profit? If you only homestead for pleasure and don’t necessarily care about saving or making money, then the last point I mentioned probably won’t matter much to you.
However, if you are planning on a homestead that will be profitable, know that you will probably need to raise animals. While there are plenty of profitable vegetable farmers out there, they are generally producing products on a large scale – you would need to sell a lot of carrots in order to make up the costs of selling a hog.
5. Know what to grow
You can obviously start with your favorite vegetables, but you’ll also want to include some nutrient-dense options that will make up for what you are now missing in your diet from the meat, eggs, and milk.
Grow strategically and consider the size of your property and how many people you need to feed. You should also consider your climate and soil type and pick the plants that work best for your zone – without a reliable protein source to count on, you will really want to get your plantings right and have no room for failure.
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?
updated August 1st 2019 by Rebekah White