Homesteading today is quite different than it was 150 years ago.
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. For $18, the head of the household could apply for a 160 acre plot, care for it, and in five years, if deemed to met the requirements, was the new legal owner.
Between 1862 and 1934, the federal government granted 1.6 million homesteads and distributed 270,000,000 acres (420,000 sq mi) of federal land for private ownership. This was a total of 10% of all land in the United States. Homesteading was discontinued in 1976, except in Alaska, where it continued until 1986. About 40% of the applicants who started the process were able to complete it and obtain title to their homesteaded land after paying a small fee in cash.
Now let’s think about this – $18 for 160 acres of land in 1862 would equal about $450 today, or about $2.81/acre! I don’t know if anybody has checked land prices recently, but we have acreages going from $8,000-$16,000 per acre! Even at $8,000/acre that’s $1.28 million for a 160 parcel of land that probably would not support a farming family.
Difference-numero-uno – cost. The cost to become a homesteader today is astronomical. Add on buildings, and the price per acre can go up. Sandy ground – cheaper, but not usually as productive; good black dirt – more expensive, but better yields. Now, you certainly don’t need 160 acres to be a “homesteader”. Many people of this modern movement get by on only a few acres, high density planting, low cost of living, frugal living, etc..
Second difference – the intent of the word. When the Homestead Act was created it allowed many people to pursue the “American Dream” – go West, own land, be your own boss. Today, it’s a “new” way of life (or an “old”, depending on how you look at it): one of sustainability, providing for you and/or your family without relying on stores and mass-produced products. There’s a wave of healthier eating and living, and “homesteading” is a perfect conduit for those with enough fortitude to learn, grow, and – most importantly – work for it.
How is this different from a “farmstead”? Not much. A farm is for agricultural purposes – a means to feed a family. Typically when one thinks of “farm” they might conjure images of livestock, fields of corn or soybeans. A farm can be large or small, just like a homestead. It also works better for the “funny farm” pun! Generally, a “homestead” is something that provides for a family – garden, livestock/meat, maybe fiber or crafts to use as well as sell to earn money for other expenses; a “farmstead” is perhaps seen more as the business of farming – to provide revenue for that family.
Why We Homestead/Farm.
It’s a part of our lives. We grew up on farms. We’re the type of people who could never live “in town” (and that includes the nearby town of 1,000!). We like having and mowing a yard, livestock to take care of – even in the worst of weather, the gratification of taking care of those critters is inexplicable – dogs that can run rampant through the neighborhood and be greeted by the friendly neighbor. We like the gratification of eating products from our own garden and labor.
On the farm we learned about hard work and hard knocks – life doesn’t always give you a handout. We learned how to fix things or if we didn’t know how, we used our skills from other projects to figure it out (aka – critical thinking!). We learned how to read animals, which can be harder to read than people. We learned that what we get out of life is what we put into it; what we get out of anything is dependent on how hard we work for it.
Don’t get me wrong – it can be rough! Stress at a conventional job is completely different than wondering if it’s going to rain enough – or ever stop – to produce food for your family, or a crop to sell at market; or maybe a steer gets sick, then passes on a disease to the rest of the heard, jeopardizing their health and your marketable value; or the markets aren’t performing and you have to sell at rock bottom price – and not your price, but the price that the markets demand, regardless of how much you think your product is worth or what your family needs to pay the bills.
No matter the nomenclature, this life – the life of growing produce, caring for animals, a personal means to providing for a family – is worth the work and effort required to be successful.
Be it “homesteading or “farming” – it can be a stressful, hard-working life. But it’s pretty amazing.