by R.F. Mueller
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December 1976

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see also:
Energy in a Real World
Virginians for Wilderness
Forests of the Appalachians
Top: the house. Middle: "Pileated Peak" (formerly known as "Shipe's Mountain"). Bottom: barn viewed from Pileated Peak.

n a sense Homestead is an archetype of the "back to the land" movement that rests on the basics but drags some urban amenities along, making use of supplementary oil heat, refrigeration and electricity in general. However, with few exceptions, mechanical power expended is largely human and animal, with machines playing only a supplementary role. Typically, common spading takes the place of mechanical tillers and hand crosscut saws that of chain saws. It relates the basics of supplying shelter, water and food and in coping with adversity. It illustrates the importance of timing in working with nature. Thus raising vegetables can be followed from initial soil preparation and seeding to harvest and crop disposal and storage. Tenets employed are predominantly organic, avoiding industrial chemicals in coping with pests and problems generally. I hope errors and disasters are included as faithfully as triumphs. From the start our efforts were favored not a little by rich limestone-based soils, a gentle climate and our lack of indebtedness on our land and possessions. Our dwelling and most of the land of this tract is located on a southeast slope, which enables an early start to our growing season. Additionally our yard is characterized by a magnificent stand of mature Chinquapin Oaks (Quercus muhlenbergii), which, with a large Norway Maple (Acer platanoides), provide us with summer cooling and countless other amenities. Also, not a little of the natural assets of the place is owed to the presence of the strong, year-round-flowing Folly Mills Stream. Although the natural beauty of the place owes a lot to the hilly character of the land, this also severely limits the arable land available. It also helped a lot that both Betty and I came from rural backgrounds, as well as having advanced degrees, in my case in geology. Additionally, Betty had considerable practical knowledge of animals. To be found here in particular, is a rich detail of goat breeding and handling for milk and meat production, bee keeping and horse care and handling. So mostly we knew what to expect from most enterprises launched. Part of the impetus for passing along these experiences is the likelihood that the simple, low energy life style and skills they embody will assume a far greater importance in the future. Perhaps an extreme version of this life style is hinted at in the useful, if limited, foraging represented by fishing and the dandelion and cress salads mentioned. Additionally the accurate timing should give our observations considerable phenological value. Present corrections or comments are shown in brackets.

The author with his corn in the late 70s.
The author with his corn in the late 70s.

Homestead, which consists of about 29 acres of hilly land and a small swamp, is located in Augusta County,Virginia, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. at latitude 38 15 North. and near 1500 ft. (457 meters) in elevation. Bedrock is Paleozoic in age, and predominantly magnesium-rich limestone in composition, Our house, which has a rude earth floored basement, has 700 sq, feet of living space and indoor plumbing. There also is an oil furnce in the basement. Suffice to say the building is drafty, and leaks were common until we put on a new metal roof. Note also that a "species" of livestock feed I call "alfacorn" is according to my dear wife Betty (who shared all these experiences), not really a valid one. and represents some type of feed not identified. Also, it will be noted that spelling leaves something to be desired.

Adaptation of the Homestead Model to Large Scale Use in a Low Energy, Non-industrial Economy

General conditions:

It appears more and more, with the arrival of each day's news, that our high energy, industrial and consumer-based economy is exceeding the tolerance of the natural systems upon which it is ultimately based. We are perhaps fortunate that the two greatest looming problems , the exhaustion of resources and global warming and pollution, are not mutually enhancing. Our situation would be even more serious if decreases in resource use increased global warming instead of the opposite. While the simple life support methods of the Homestead experience present a practical alternative to modern agriculture, there are some obvious benefits of scale in the latter. Examples are the production of seeds, in large scale plantings in certain terrain and in plant and animal health.

Homestead type production methods are adapted to diverse topographies and terrains and less fit for large open and flat terrains. In the former human body strengths and skills can be applied in growing a diversity of crops over a range of temperatures and moisture requirements. Also, a variety of food and shelter can accommodate small animals. It represents perhaps the only way of supporting existing high suburban and semi-rural populations from local food and shelter sources. Its essence is small scale and site agriculture. Additionally, its labor intensive methods create a local source of healthy employment as less-healthy energy-intensive jobs vanish. While large scale Homestead life styles may seem retrograde, it must be kept in mind that many modern technological amenities will remain, albeit under more severe resource restrictions. An important example is the Internet, with all its knowledge enhancing possibilities. Even more important is the continuing presence of science in our approach to nature.

While much water for crops and animals in Homestead was derived from a stream, this is an unlikely source in a large scale non-industrial economy, except for indirect sources such as reservoirs. However in adaptations such as minnie-gardens on former lawns, this should pose few difficulties since the lawn's source of water will be available.

Energy / heat
One of the greatest sources of difficulty in adoption of Homestead methods to the future are energy, and particularly heat, demands. Above all, wood as a source of large scale heat is out, not only because of bulk transportation requirements, but especially due to the toxic contents of wood smoke.

One useful alternative, assuming an unshaded view of the southern sky, is solar hot water heating, a reasonably cost-effective technology. It is possible to build a year-round solar hot water heating system that operates without any need for electricity using technology no more advanced than that of standard residential plumbing. Such systems make much more efficient use of collector surface (and incidental mounting hardware) than photovoltaic systems, although the only form of energy they can collect is heat which (depending on the climate) can be the most important form.

It is important to note that the elimination of such features as lawns, formal gardens, out-sized dwellings, meat-centric diets and recreational vehicles will free a great deal of energy for more vital demands.

Although the original homestead makes use of labor intensive methods of pest control such as hand picking, some alternative organic pesticides such as Dipel 150 (Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies kurstaki, strain ABTS-351, for cabbage caterpillars) have subsequently become available. These are very effective and great labor savers. The use of chemical pesticides, including herbicides, will be far more restricted in the large scale Homestead model than in existing industrial agriculture. This is the case because of the intimate spatial association of dwelling and production sites in the former.


The location of Homestead: