Our house was originally built in the late 1800’s. Though not aesthetically appealing, the satellite dish is the only way to stay connected.
A bountiful vegetable garden.
Our grandchildren call this our “second grocery store.”
Better to run downstairs when we run out of items than run 40 miles in bad weather.
Multiple, redundant backup systems for water include a backup generator for the well, rotating water storage and a Berkey water filtration system since “drinks are under the house.”
Our homestead’s original equipment provides a warm and inexpensive alternative to propane and is considered “aroma therapy” by the author.
Most of our waste is recycled, while some of it is repurposed around the house. This includes olive oil bottles, dish soap dispensers, commercial pickle jars repacked with refrigerator pickles and old fruit or jelly jars that now contain nuts and bolts.
A view of the property.
In early 2011, my wife and I decided we had endured enough of city living: the traffic, the noise, the crime, the din and the glare. Additionally motivated by rising food costs and our inability to control what went in and on our foodstuffs, we sought the serenity and self-sufficiency of country property. Though I grew up in a rural setting, hunting, fishing, gathering and gardening, I had spent the last two decades in urban environs, and my wife’s only experiences with country living were occasional visits to her grandparents’ cabin. We dreamed of planting huge gardens and raising our own livestock. Real pioneer stuff!
In 2012, I picked up a copy of The New Pioneer magazine, #155, containing an excellent article entitled “Are You Really Ready?” by J. Wayne Fears, wherein he detailed a number of important considerations such as proximity to groceries, fire protection, hospitals, schools and other amenities that most city slickers take for granted. My wife and I read it with zeal and included these considerations in our property search.
After 18 months of searching the internet and viewing thousands of homes online, scheduling 38 showings through 14 different real-estate agents, after having two accepted offers fall through at the last minute and almost exhausting the limits of our patience, we finally bought a house in the country. And though we re-visited the article while comparing homes, it became obvious that we had to make some sacrifices to secure our little slice of pioneer paradise.
The real-estate advertisement for our home stated: “Come to the country! Enjoy the tranquility and easy living only a country estate can offer.” Well, some of this statement was the truth. In the country it certainly is tranquil. But it would be the stretch of most anyone’s imagination to call a 100-year-old log home on 9 acres an “estate.” However, it’s the “easy living” phrase I would like to dispute.
When you are accustomed to city dwelling, very little is easy when it comes to living in the country. But we would not trade our country homestead for any piece of real estate in a town with a population larger than two. I merely wish to point out that easy is relative.
Once you develop the first-hand knowledge of your property and its idiosyncrasies, you then establish a plan to overcome its hurdles and cope with its challenges. In the beginning, these challenges ranged from simply frustrating to seemingly monumental, but, in the end, they merely required some adaptation from our city slicker ways. Here’s how we met them.
The Distance Factor
Though adequately forewarned by Mr. Fears, we selected our home with little regard to the distance to the grocery store. Or hospitals. Or fire protection. Or most any other services, for that matter, because we fell in love with the house and the land. We came out ahead on the schools, though. Our children have all graduated and moved out.
We didn’t think much about the distance to the grocery store—20 miles, one way. At first, this was a great inconvenience to my lovely bride who was accustomed to me making five or six trips to the store every week since I am the cook. When it’s only four blocks, why not get fresh meat and vegetables everyday? When it’s an hour round trip for a loaf of bread, it behooves you to plan ahead. We also underestimated the increased fuel costs for such travel and now had another reason to adapt our shopping behavior.
We started creating a list of items as we ran low, not after we ran out. Initially we only listed things when we ran out. Big mistake. Few things are more frustrating than being halfway through a recipe only to discover you are out of (fill in the blank—followed by a “blankety-blank”) or having a backed-up sink and the only drain cleaner to be found in the house are the words “drain cleaner” on your shopping list.
One Is None, Two Is One
When it comes to running your country home smoothly it’s important to create an excess inventory of items you use regularly. Our number-one rule became: “One is none, two is one.” Though this can be more expensive in the beginning, it pays huge dividends over time by reducing unnecessary trips to the store. We elected to set aside basement space for heavy-duty shelving to accommodate what our grandchildren jokingly call our “grocery store.” Each time we went shopping, we bought extra of each item on our list that had a substantial shelf life.
Over the course of a year, we were able to determine which items were in highest demand and then stocked “deeper” on these to avoid unnecessary shortages. It is so nice to take a leisurely walk to the basement for ketchup instead of heading out into the blustery cold for a drive of an hour or more in the snow to buy some.
A trip to the bulk-buy, members-only store is a great way of stocking your “home store” economically. With bulk quantities and discounted pricing, the reduced cost per unit can mean significant savings on items that have long or indefinite shelf lives, such as soaps, medicines, cleaners, garbage bags or toilet paper, which is never removed from our to-buy list.
Keeping In Touch
As both my wife and I work from home, being unplugged from the grid is not an option. Prior to our move, we contacted our existing cable TV/internet/phone service provider from the city to contract for services in our new country home. Here is the written response, “We have recently received the survey results for your residence. According to the survey it would require an extension of our cable 19,300 feet to reach your home. If you would like us to proceed, it would require a one-time payment from you in the amount of $122,398 to help cover the cost of construction.” I’m not kidding. So, hello, Dish Network.
We were fortunate to have an existing satellite TV/internet provider as a backup in our area, which we had investigated after reading Mr. Fears’ article. But this may not always be the case in rural America.
With satellite internet/TV service you can expect outages during inclement weather. A personal cellular WiFi hotspot can often overcome these temporary outages. And when you live on the outskirts of the middle of nowhere, online shopping negates some of the increased fuel costs.
You may also experience degraded cell service in the hinterlands. In the case of weak cell service, several companies manufacture “cell signal boosters” to help alleviate this issue, but some will not work without a dedicated high-speed cable connection, which our satellite service does not provide. So, check your cell signal strength while shopping for houses if a cell phone is a necessity. We have found no backup for satellite TV service, but TV isn’t all that interesting to us anyway.
We thought power outages were not such a big deal for us newbie pioneers. We’ve been camping lots of times. We have a Coleman stove, oil lamps and candles, flashlights, spare batteries and coolers for food storage.
But we hadn’t considered our well, which means we also have a well pump—an electric well pump. Without power, we have plenty of water but no way to get it out of the ground. In case of an emergency, normal homes have at least 30 to 40 gallons of potable water in their hot water heater. Simply follow the manufacturer’s instructions on safely draining it for drinking, but only in case of emergency. It’s better to avoid the emergency all together.
After the first full year in our new home, we adopted several means of ensuring that we had potable water for our emergency use. At least 50 gallons of water are stored in containers in our basement. A backup generator is now connected to our propane tank. And a Berkey water filter rounds out our multi-faceted emergency water sourcing.
Those of us city slickers accustomed to natural gas only think about it when we pay the bill. Propane is a different animal entirely. You must either monitor your tank regularly or have scheduled deliveries and monitoring provided by your propane company. Shortages or outages involving natural gas rarely occur, but when your propane tank runs dry it gets cold quickly and refill service may be several days away. In the Upper Midwest, propane hit record highs during the 2013-2014 heating season. By January of 2014, they had risen to $5.49 per gallon with limits on purchases. Better to have a backup plan. One is none, two is one, and there are a variety of methods to combat this problem.
By the time this reaches print, we will have completed installation of a wood-burning insert to our existing fireplace. Wood we have aplenty. Unfortunately, most of it is still standing upright, not sawed and split into pieces fitting the fireplace insert. And, it must be the right species of hardwood and be properly dried to work efficiently. So, selecting and cutting firewood for the future is my ongoing priority. For now, we purchased pre-cut and seasoned firewood to get us started.
For those lacking a fireplace or woodstove, they can certainly be added to most homes. Outdoor wood burners connected to the existing heating system are an option gaining in popularity.
Additionally, most propane companies’ offer pre-paid or “locked-in” pricing options to guarantee price. Another option is to purchase an additional, personal propane tank to take advantage of summer prices, which are usually at the lowest for any given year. Load up when it’s cheap and enjoy not paying premium prices.
Taking Out The Trash
I remember the days of merely dropping the garbage into the condo dumpster or leisurely dragging the cans to the curb every Thursday night. Those days are gone. In some rural areas you are required to dispose of your own garbage via a personal trip to the landfill. In our case, it was a trip to the landfill at $3 per bag or contracting with a rural waste disposal service. This service is not inexpensive. And, I still have to drag the cans to the end of the drive, all 75 yards of it, uphill. Even in the snow.
Recycling or re-purposing waste is one means of coping with this nuance, not nuisance, of country living. Many plastic containers can be modified to protect small plants in your garden from a late frost in spring, used as planters for starting seeds, to freeze and re-freeze water for homemade ice blocks, as scoops for feed, and other things. Glass jars with lids are great for organizing small parts, nuts, bolts, screws, nails, washers, grommets, etc.
Many remote areas also allow for controlled burning of paper products, yard refuse and other flammables. Be certain to check with your local ordinances prior to lighting up. Some require burn permits and impose other restrictions for burning waste.
As mentioned, it is not always easy to get water out of the ground and into the tap. It also often contains heavy deposits of iron and other minerals that affect both its taste and its impact on your home. Modern appliances such as dishwashers, washing machines and water heaters can be affected, as well as your sinks, showers and toilet bowls. A water softener or other filtering system, and even an iron mitigation system, may be required to offset these conditions.
I love animals. They are fun to watch and delicious to eat. However, I am a firm believer that all non-domesticated animals should stay outside. When we moved in, we discovered we had bats. Inside. We also have a variety of other small vermin who appear determined to get inside, particularly in the fall. Good windows and doors with well-maintained screens are a must. A thorough inspection of all possible entry points and applying the appropriate sealants are good investments.
We also fenced our garden. Helpful tip: Some varmints can and do climb. Since we didn’t move to the country to start a food kitchen for varmints, more direct measures were taken to protect our veggies. Some of the varmints wound up next to the mashed potatoes and gravy, others are on their way to becoming hats.
Over time, we discovered we hadn’t really made sacrifices moving to the country. Without a doubt, living in the country and maintaining a more self-sufficient lifestyle and property is not “easy.” It is work. It requires adaptation. But the trials and tribulations of adapting to our new country lifestyle have been absolutely worth it. There are some things you simply cannot get or do in the city very easily.
After a full year in our new “old house,” neither of us would even consider returning to the city. Or a town. The peace and solitude, the sense of accomplishment derived from growing and canning our own organic vegetables, and the opportunity to become more self-sufficient have turned two city slickers into newbie pioneers.
This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.
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