The Homestead Bank Yields Dividends

As it seems most months are around here, May was interesting.  A family health emergency came up and the Skipper was needed; he ended up being away for three weeks and away from work for almost a month.  Then, as May wound down and June ramped up, work at his employer went through a quiet phase (as sometimes happens as projects complete and new ones haven’t begun yet).  He’s ended up home more often than at work over the last six weeks.  Although he’s using up some vacation time, and we’re tweaking to accommodate the smaller paychecks, and though we know it’s a temporary lull, there have been moments where I’ve looked at the bills and wondered how all this was going to work.

I have a distinct memory of attending an introduction to Permaculture workshop some years back, when we were new to this community and the idea of the homestead project.  During a Q and A session, a participant put up his hand and asked the Permaculture teacher, “is there a point at which this all pays off?  I mean lately it feels like all the money is going out—irrigation, seeds, building supplies, soil amendments–is there a point at which we start to see some financial savings?!”

I’m sure the answer was some version of “Yes”, but I actually only remember the question and how it spoke to likely what so many people were anxious about.  Over the years, I’ve participated in lots of discussions about whether growing food or raising chickens saves you money; mostly the answers look something like “Yes, but not if you compare it to the cheapest food you can buy;” “Yes, if you don’t factor in the cost of the original infrastructure, only the ongoing costs of maintenance;” “Yes, if you consider this a hobby/entertainment and don’t think of your time invested as something that should also have a $ value;” “Yes, if you factor in the health care savings of a healthier diet/lifestyle.” You know.  It does save you money, sort of, in the abstract.

I don’t track and quantify our homestead outputs.  For me, this homestead work is part resilience project for possible decline scenarios, and partly just how we want to live, how we want to spend our time.  We have the luxury of two “off-farm” incomes and don’t worry too much about “breaking even” with our products; for me the community-building social capital of sharing our surplus has become as important a part of the fun and resilience-building as any financial gain would be.

That said, there is no question that we save money thanks to our homestead production.  I don’t know about where you live, but around here food prices have noticeably increased over even the last year, and that’s only expected to continue.  The homestead keeps me out of the grocery store enough that I suffer sticker shock periodically when I do need something.  This past winter/early spring I remember balking at an $8 organic cauliflower and it’s $5 conventionally grown counterpart and wondering how on earth other people are coping!

So, over the last year or two, as I have backed away from the goal of self-sufficiency, I have nonetheless been regularly grateful for the way our homestead acts as a financial buffer.  Our stored foods and ongoing production have meant that the things that we still need to buy–and there are many–are still *supplementary* to our comfortable lives; they are not essentials.  Sharon Astyk talked about this in one of her books (Depletion and Abundance I think?): that it’s important to do whatever you can to make your home a productive one, in whatever circumstances you find yourself in, because every bit you can do for yourself *extends* the ability of your income to stretch further than it otherwise would.  Word.

Anyway, payday came and went last week, with Skipper’s cheque much reduced again.  I looked at the bills, paid what I could, shifted and strategized some other bits, and realized that, for the next two weeks, we needed to get by on…$125.  Ouch!  Now don’t worry, we do have a variety of safety nets, but I don’t like to draw on them if I don’t have to.  And because we don’t like to, I wasn’t thinking about them in that moment, I was just thinking about our bottom line.  Which looked depressing.

I stepped away from the computer and started to putter around the house, talking myself down from the panic of that moment.  I started to tidy and move through the fear, reminding myself where the money had gone, that this was temporary, that we were fine.  I thought about what we might need to buy over this next week or two.

And then it hit me.  We didn’t need to buy anything.  We had enough food stored and coming in from the garden to last us for months.  Neither one of us needed to drive anywhere, and both vehicles were full because Skipper was rotating through some stored gas and had just emptied the stored fuel into the truck.  There are two months worth of chicken feed in the shed, stores of homemade soap in the bathroom, I even just bought 2 large packages of toilet paper that was on sale, lol.

It suddenly sunk in that so much of the disconnect that I have often felt between watching the bank account shrink and yet knowing that we’re not spending money on anything frivolous was because this was where all of our money is going: into the homestead bank.  We ARE saving and investing.  It’s just that the savings don’t tally up on numbers on a spreadsheet.  They’re outside in the garden, in the soil, in the berries and the fruit trees, in the chicken run, in the stocked pantry, in the piles of wood on their way into the woodshed, transformed into the butter, pork and fish in the freezer (and whose purchase had in turn gone into the savings accounts of the friends and colleagues who had provided us with them).

Without really paying attention, we have taken significant steps out of the money economy.  Not by eliminating money, but by using it to invest in a real, tangible savings bank, rather than investing it in financial vehicles that are intended to grow more money.

Isn’t this what resilience actually means?  We’ve spent years building up this savings account.  Now, when the money economy is more fragile for us during this particular time in our particular circumstances, it’s time to draw on that account.  Rather than spending money on continuing to build our infrastructure and pantry over these next few weeks, we can coast on our savings for a little while.

So this is the answer to that question from years ago.  Yes, setting up a homestead takes money (though as with all things, the spectrum of how much is needed is vast).  But at some point, magically and mysteriously, the homestead reaches a point of dynamic stability (I know that’s an oxymoron, but it’s true!) and becomes a bank of stored value.  And then it really starts to yield dividends.