A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Questions... answered!

      We are back in the city. Philadelphia, city of brotherly love, and electricity, and wifi, and hot water on tap, and a pizza place down the street. It is definitely a different world than our life in Missouri, and as we have transitioned back into these changes, there is a part of my mind that has stayed aware of all the privileges and conveniences built into this life that I grew up taking for granted. Heating up water on a gas stove, hitting a switch to get instant light, twisting on the hot water to take a nice hot shower... what luxury! And how quickly I begin to take it for granted!
      Since returning back here, we have been asked many questions by friends, neighbors and relatives who are curious about what we are doing in Missouri, our lifestyle, our plans and the like. Since many of the questions are the same, and some people are probably a little more bold than others about asking them, I realize it may be helpful to put those answers out on this blog site!

So here it goes... (feel free to post any other questions I am forgetting in the comment section!)

1. Why Missouri?

     This answer is not short, but it is probably our most asked question of all, both by local Missourians and by people who live in the other 49 states who are puzzled as to the appeal of Missouri, or frankly, where it even is on the map. I totally understand, and in fact, that was my first reaction when I first learned about a little community of people who settled in the state. But the long story is that I visited them seven years ago, and then again five years ago, and then again four years ago, and so on until it started seeming like not such a bad choice of location. The same is true for Mike, and that is where we met, three years ago, about the time we were both deciding we wanted to settle there.

     You might imagine it being an odd choice for a fairly liberal set of young people to set up community, given that around us everything is mostly rural and conservative, but take into consideration that the 30 people or so that make up our community are from 30 different far flung states, from Texas to Vermont to Oregon to Florida to Michigan to Arizona, etc... Missouri is actually kind of geographic middle ground! And our town is on a major Amtrak line, not insignificant to a group of people who prefer to travel as ecologically as possible. Another major factor is that we can all afford to live there and live the lifestyle we want to. This is probably not something most people are aware of, but land ain't cheap most places... probably five-ten times as expensive even one state away, and even more as you get closer to urban centers. So the price is right in Missouri, at around $1,600-2,000/acre, and we are all able to be homesteaders without a cloud of debt trailing us our whole lives. Not only is land affordable, but taxes are almost nonexistent! This is a factor that I will admit I never gave much thought to before becoming a tax-paying land owner, and only now am I aware that we lucked into a good situation. We (our land trust neighbors and us) pay around $100/yr. for 60 acres with three buildings on it. Just for some perspective, where my parents live in rural Wisconsin, taxes are about $1,500 per acre/yr for land with one house. That can be a huge cost for a homestead/farm of even ten acres! And the case for Missouri (from a homesteader's perspective) go on--there are some of the most diverse and abundant hardwood forests in the country and consequently, we have very inexpensive raw lumber sources via Amish-run mills. (Again, not insignificant when you are building a house!) We get really good rainfall and you are allowed to do whatever you want with the water (in some places, it is illegal to divert water into so much as a rainbarrel!) There are no building codes, so building with alternative natural materials is possible. No septic codes so composting toilets are possible. And so on. Some good reasons, right? But more than all of that, having a community of people who are all invested in living our same lifestyle--coming up with creative economic alternatives, raising children together, building houses together, creating new culture, sharing resources, fostering a real sense of interdependence etc.--is probably the biggest reason we are choosing to live in Missouri.

Wood we bought at Amish auction, two loads of like this for $60! Nice stuff too, oak, black walnut and the like...

2. Where do you live while you are building your house?

      Most blog-readers already know this, but we do get asked this regularly.  We live in a 10'x10' camping tent with a shed roof structure overhead. We have an outdoor living area and kitchen set up and honestly, we pretty much live outside all the time in a fully "unconditioned" environment. I have come to love this way of life with the exception of when it is rainy or below 45 F. It really is not nearly as uncomfortable as you think it would be to be in the heat of the summer without air conditioning. At least for me. My neighbor Beth, who is part polar bear, has a really hard time when it gets above 90 F. I, on the other hand, feel miserable in cold or rainy weather and will be glad to have a cozy house to escape to. For now, it works well to split our time going back and forth between Philadelphia in the winter and Missouri the rest of the year.

3. So you have the roof on... what about the walls?

     They go in after the frame is up (unlike in most construction) because they will be made of strawbales! Some people have heard of strawbale building and others haven't, but it is becoming more and more common. Straw is a waste product from farming grains (wheat and rice are the two main sources of straw in this country at least) and they often become animal bedding. Hay is another thing--it becomes food for livestock in the winter months and is more nutrient rich, being a mix of dry seeded grasses. Strawbales are kind of like the building blocks we have all played with as kids, they stack right up easily and quickly to form the wall itself. Wood framing can be added to support windows and doors and bales can be cut and notched and sized specially for all sorts of niches. And bonus--it doubles as your insulation material! At around R-40 (this is very good insulation-wise), it is both very economical and environmentally friendly, not to mention just plain fun and rewarding to build with. Mice and bugs you ask? Fire? None of these stand a chance in the uber-tight dense packed bales, but mold does. Mold is the kryptonite of the straw-world. If moisture gets trapped inside the bale via rain or a leak or something, it is bad news. The mold that grows is bad structurally and bad for indoor air quality. So that is why when building with strawbale people put on the roof first, with generous overhang, and then the bales follow once they are guaranteed protection from the elements. Any number of materials can be used on the outside and inside of the walls, but breathability is necessary to not trap ambient moisture inside them. Clay plaster is great for this reason, it breathes and draws out moisture and it is as cheap as, well, you know what. Haha. Seriously though, we will probably use some oak siding on the outside and clay plaster inside. And yes, you get very thick walls and deep window bays.... kind of cool if you like the look!

Strawbale house in the works at the Possibility Alliance!

4. How long do you think it will actually take you to finish the house?

     It is a bit hard to truly know... home-building projects are notorious for going over-schedule, no? But my best guess is another two 6-month seasons before being at a good point to move in. We have been warned that when you move in, you lose momentum to finish things. So maybe better to tent it a little longer...

5. Is it like a commune?

     I think communes were the 60's and 70's version of "ecovillages" and  "intentional communities" that exist today. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of these all over the world now, and they don't have quite the same vibe of the old hippie communes, though I suppose it depends on the community. (Check out www.ic.org if you are curious what is going on near you.) But Mike and I are not even living in an intentional community. We are one of three homesteads (like a small diversified family farm) that co-own a 60 acre land trust (instead of privately owning a piece of land, we jointly form a non-profit that owns all 60 and we jointly make the big decisions about how we manage it.) That being said, in our neighborhood are several other homesteads and one actual intentional community of 12 people called Stillwaters Sanctuary, where we met. We collectively all form a community, and that is what we commonly refer to as "our community" since we share and do so much together. Still, not a commune. Not nearly that exciting.

6. How do you plan to make money?

      This, I can tell, is a burning curiosity for most people but one that only a few give voice to! Sometimes I wonder if people are secretly wondering if we are growing weed or something back in our woods, or have plans to, but we aren't and we don't. But it is a good question. I think everyone in our community has thought a lot about it, and have all have figured out different things, different enterprises to bridge the difference between total self-sufficiency (completely self-supported off the land) and total dependency on a monetary economy. Granted, it doesn't take nearly as much in Missouri, living the relatively simple lives we do, as other places. In a few years, we will be debt-free, we won't have the bills coming in (cell, gas, water, mortgage, etc.) that most people have, and we will be producing a lot of our food from the land.
     Still, I am not sure how much money per year we will need to meet the rest of our needs. It is a big unknown, and I get it that for most people money=security. The more of it in your life, the more secure you are. There is truth to that, but for me, owning and having a relationship with a piece of land also feels like security, having a tight-knit community helping each other out feels like security, and having a decent skill-set feels like security. Still, all of those things can't buy toilet paper, right? So... money. We currently make money with our construction business and we could continue our business in Missouri (build small local eco-houses?). We have thought of building a studio-arts space for classes, exhibits and space for me to work on my art, though I suppose being an artist is not exactly the definition of financial security. We have thought of opening an etsy shop online to sell furniture, crafts, arts and such, which is what our neighbors Brian and Teri just did, check out Brian's beautiful work at-- www.etsy.com/shop/AcornHillHandcrafts. We have thought of selling produce and value-added food products at our local farmers market in Missouri. And so on. I think we will figure out the right combination of all of the above to make ends meet and be happy doing it.

7. How will you get water?

     A few people have asked about this, and the answer is pretty simple. We are planning to set up a system where we can catch water running off of our roof and store it in a cistern from which we can then run plumbing into our house for normal use. There is still a learning curve ahead of us as to how to best do that, above-ground cistern that we can gravity feed to the house, or below ground cistern that we would then need some sort of pump for? What material for the cistern and how to manage the plumbing so it won't freeze in winter? I'm sure there will be lots of research and a future blog-post on the topic once we get to that point. As for our gardens, our pond is conveniently hooked up to a spigot that we can gravity feed downhill to most locations we would want to water. We haven't tested it on a larger scale garden but this past summer it worked pretty well on a smaller patch.

8. Will you have electricity/solar/wind power? How will you heat your house?

    These are good questions, and ones we haven't totally decided on yet. We are okay with being without electricity in our house and just using candles/solar lights and non-electric versions of most things (we have both adjusted to that lifestyle living at the Possibility Alliance and other places that operate without electricity, it is easier that you might think). But we have also thought of a few electric tools and appliances that we keep thinking would be nice to have--a chest freezer, a battery-recharger, a small water pump, a cordless drill, and so on. It seems something like solar panels or a small wind turbine are probably in our future for operating those things, and the deep-cycle batteries that go along with them since we are down the road a ways from the closest grid connection.
     As for heating, we are hoping that a big cast-iron wood-burning cook stove will suffice for heating our whole house. Lately, I have been researching different models and getting excited for the day that we'll be able to sit by our own stove. My dream model is called the "Flame View," (check it out- www.antiquestoves.com/margin%20stoves/flameview/) where you can actually see the fire through a side-loading door. With one stove, we will be able to heat 2,000 sq.ft. of space (not that we have that much), heat 20 gallons of water via rear-mounted tanks and a heating coil, bake in the oven portion, cook food on the cook surface, dry clothes on racks overhead, and so on, all from wood from our land! Though it is a pricey initial investment, it seems a very essential element of off-the-grid homesteading.

9. Will you have internet/phone?

     Yes to the phone. Before we left, our Amish neighbor Jake was explaining the best plan for us to get in a rather funny conversation... "it's called Verizon Home-Phone, and it doesn't involve any wires running into your house! They just put a box in there to increase the connection if you are having trouble getting the signal." The funny thing is that though he is probably one of the least tech-savvy people we know, he is totally in the same boat as us in terms of restrictions on what we can get. Amish aren't allowed to have any grid tie-ins, but they are allowed to have phone booths across the road on the corner of the neighboring field with a cellular connection in order to run businesses. To extend phone lines down to our land would be difficult and expensive, so we may just look into this Home-Phone business once we have a Home. Internet we are not sure about, but for now it works to check email and such when we are in town at libraries or coffee shops.

10. Why do you want to live that way?

     This is not a frequently asked question, but I suspect that it is the most-unasked question in people's minds!  Sometimes people do ask it though, and then I am left with a moment of hemming and hawing while I try to extrapolate a reasonable-sounding concise explanation without sounding crazy, judgemental or like I am a "prepper", which I am not. Amish Jake actually asked us that question once, "So have you always wanted to live like this? I mean, you weren't raised this way, were you?" Which makes me laugh, since he is the last person you would think would have questions about our chosen lifestyle!
     The truest answer is that we find it deeply satisfying to live simply, in relationship with the land and a beloved community, creatively meeting our needs with little impact to others and the earth we live on. Maybe instead of "little" impact, I mean "with full awareness and connection to" the impact we are having in this world. It is hard these days to feel meaningfully connected to the full impact chain of anything in our lives--from the hands that made the clothes you wear, or where the water goes after it leaves your sink, to what tree from where went into the chair you are sitting in as you read this! But we are all aware in the back (or front) of our minds that there are horrible atrocities being committed the globe over to mountains, waters, ecosystems, native peoples, people in developing nations, other species, on and on. We all know we are creating one hell of a toxic mess on the only planet we have, and it isn't right, but no one is individually to blame... right? It is totally overwhelming to be a caring, aware person, and much easier to remain unaware and keep going about your business, because really, don't we all have enough on our minds and hearts as it is? In the end, it just has felt right for us to choose a different lifestyle entirely, a more simplified and localized one, albeit one that is perhaps a bit anachronistic to our technology-trending, globalizing world. And not that we are "perfect" and non-complicit in all of the mess-making, (because we are still driving a car and using some electricity and buying imported things occasionally,) but we are at least trying a big experiment in living differently. And if it works and we're also having more fun while fulfilling all our human needs and wants, who wouldn't want to live this way?


  1. glad to see you back on line. I have been looking forward to this blog.

  2. A very interesting read, Julia! I feel proud to be "helping" you guys by having you help us with our home!

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