For many folks, their ultimate dream might be owning land for a permaculture homestead, but it’s not always possible right away.

This was exactly our case. We knew the lifestyle appealed to us, so we wanted to find a way to start homesteading before even buying land.

start homesteading

Garden view on our first homestead

Too often people think that they will feel happy or feel they have made it when they finally have that thing, or get there (wherever there is). Now, I am not downplaying desires and dreams, but adding some reality to the human condition of wanting.

So when you are dreaming of having your own homestead, know that you can start right now, if you haven’t already.

Homesteading means different things to different people and it’s definition can change over time, as you change.

That is why you can be an urban homesteader or a suburban homestead. You might not be able to holistically graze livestock on your 1/4 acre lot but you can grow food, practice permaculture, make your own goods and more.


Start Where You Are

Our homestead journey started off in a regular-looking home, just outside the downtown area of our small mountain town.

We fell in love with this location after seeing all the small farms, homesteads and permaculture scene and decided it was a good place to start. Beth had been living downtown in a large city for the past few years, so she wasn’t ready to be out in the boonies just yet.

beginning homestead

Starting a garden at our rental in town

We compromised, and found a cute house on about a 1/4 acre of land, complete with a wood stove, clawfoot tub and a few fruit trees.

It was far from the rural homestead dream, but it was a perfect start in the right direction.

While living there, one day a week I worked on an organic farm. Lots of time was spent learning different food preservation skills, like canning, to store all the food we got from the farm.

We built a funny little chicken coop and kept 6 chickens in the backyard. It was here we got to have our first small garden and start to learn about growing our own food.

Even though it was a regular home (nothing special about it) we learned there was still so much homesteading we could do.

Plus, with each project that was completed or event we attended, the more opportunities to learn essential skills unfolded.

Making soup from our veggies

The local organic garden store held classes where we learned some great tips. There was a seed exchange where local farmers shared seeds from what they grew. I helped a friend with a broken leg tend to his sheep. It was the first winter I had the opportunity to split our own firewood and heat with wood.

Homesteading is all about doing what you can, wherever you are.

And we were quick learners, plowing through relevant books, and gaining lots of hands-on experience.

It’s no surprise that after a short amount of time, we started finding that this location was limiting for us – both because it was a rental and the desire to experience homesteading on a bigger scale. Our vision included at least several acres, livestock and more, which this rental could not provide. We wanted to take another step closer to our big homestead vision.

Maybe this is you too.

One Foot In Front of the Other

It was decided, it was time to move – but to where, and how?

While it was not possible to purchase our own place at that time, we were ready get farming on a larger scale, but still not sure exactly what to look for.

We scoured Craigslist for anything and everything that sounded promising. Our list of must-haves, and like-to-haves was not short, but I think our biggest asset was entertaining all the options and scenarios to getting what we wanted.

It wasn’t easy to stay positive though, when several leads came up short of expectations or were too expensive.

Often, I felt pretty defeated and believed we wouldn’t be able to find something, but Beth was great at pushing me to open my mind to all kind of possibilities. We looked into some unconventional living situations, helping us to get clear as to what we could and what we wanted to experience.

One scenario in consideration was renting a piece of bare land that had solar, water and a large garden established – but no dwelling. We would have needed to bring an RV or trailer on-site, but everything else was already in place.

While this was an enticing option, and a fraction of the cost of the rent we were paying, we found an opportunity that topped this…

Homesteading Overnight

I like to say we started homesteading overnight, because it really did feel like it.

One day we were living in our in-town house and the next day we lived on a full-fledged homestead.

Our new digs included a 450sq ft cabin on a 5 acre property, 1/2 acre garden, dozens of fruit trees, blueberries, goji-berries, chickens and more.

new homestead

View of our cabin from the garden

Did I mention it was RENT FREE?

How did we make this happen?

It was a work-trade opportunity on a small organic homestead.

In exchange for rent and any food we grew, we worked a set number of hours each week – doing everything from starting seedlings to helping install a full solar system. We helped manage the land, tend the garden, butcher chickens, build swales, tractor work and got to start practicing permaculture wherever we could.

Our cabin shared the land with a main house, whose owners just happened to be an integral part of the organic farming movement back in the 70’s. This older hippie couple had deep roots in the community and shared their homestead knowledge with us like we were their grandkids.

It was a dream come true for us.

For a while we forgot our desire to own a homestead, because we were living our dream on someone else dime!

homestead solar install

Installing a solar array on the homestead

Trust me when I say this is actually a pretty sweet place to be when look back to this time, because it’s it’s hard to afford everything a homestead needs at times. Knowing someone else is footing the bill for new projects, repairs, etc makes learning these skills a whole lot easier.

But alas, as we began to grow in our experiences, so did our desire to have the control of our land and it’s projects.

We had graduated to being capable and sufficient at running our own show. We were now reasonably seasoned homesteaders.

However, during the two years we were there, this amazing opportunity allowed us to save all the money we would have spent on rent, utilities and food, in addition to giving us the confidence to make the leap onto our own land.

All that we had learned showed us we were excited about this lifestyle, and we wanted MORE.

It was time to take this knowledge and take it one step further, push the boundaries more and become even more self-sufficient.

After our time on this old hippie homestead we bought our own raw land. Read about how we turned raw land into a permaculture homestead.

How Can You Start Your Homestead Overnight?

permaculture chicken homestead

Our backyard coop serving us on our homestead today

When we lived in town and were beginning to learn homesteading, we built a chicken coop in the backyard. That derelict coop is STILL with us years later and has seen life on 3 homesteads now. If that is not proof that our homestead started one day years ago, I don’t know what is.

So how do you start a homestead overnight?

You start right where you are, doing something new, or something different.

While it is possible to stumbled onto a homestead as we did, for many, it might be some time before that can even happen. It’s all about recognizing that you can do many sustainable homesteading activities where you are, right now. Even if you live in an apartment – you can grow veggies on your balcony. You can volunteer on a local farm and can the discarded veggies. The list of examples go on and on.

We decided to build a coop and keep 6 chickens.

If I could offer one thing to everyone out there wishing, dreaming, thinking they would like to live a different life out on the land – it would be this question:

What small step are you going to take towards your homestead dream?

Tell me about it in the comments below!

About Bret James

Hi, I’m Bret James. My family and I have created a recession-proof, sh*t-storm proof self-sustainable life. We grow a low-work garden, have an abundant food forest, raise animals holistically, have a stocked pantry of home grown-foods, harvest fresh rainwater, and live in an energy-efficient passive solar straw bale home - all in alignment with nature. And it doesn’t take all of your time, in fact, we run a business and even homeschool our son - all while living a life as outside of the system as possible.


  • Cory Layne says:

    I have been enjoying your blog posts. Except for your 9-month timeline, we have much in common. I was directed to your website as a recommended place to find an online PDC to get certified. I have wanted to homestead and live sustainably for decades, but other than a small vegetable garden and a few berry plants in various backyards, I never got very far due to my frequent moves, first in the military and later in my accounting career. I finally retired and made owning some land a priority. I started reading about permaculture and caught the bug long before I found the land. I completed Geoff Lawton’s “Permaculture Masterclass” online but was too late for last year’s online PDC.

    I bought 30 acres in SW Virginia a year ago with a run-down horse barn, a shed, and a beat-up trailer that the previous owner had gutted and started to rehab but hadn’t finished. It had new PEX plumbing and some new wiring, a new heat pump, and two pump houses pulling water uphill from a year-round spring about 1/4 mile downhill (about 750-ft vertical–very steep) from the trailer. I moved in last December where I quickly insulated the walls, installed used windows and doors, and installed drywall I’d picked up on CL for $4/sheet because the ends were damaged. Since the trailer has only 7-ft walls, I only had to trim off the two ends of the 8-ft sheets to get nearly perfect fit. Crown and base molding will cover any irregularities.

    The down payment on the land took most of my cash, so It was nearly spring by the time I got kitchen cabinets and sink installed as I was paying for materials a bit each month as retirement funds became available. Mostly recycled materials. Couldn’t wait another month to buy counter tops, so built my own out of A-C plywood with several coats of polyurethane. Serves the purpose for now but will eventually be the underlayment for custom counter tops. In between rehab sessions, I cleaned up the area around the trailer and inside the barn. The many trips I made to the local dump produced a ton of usable stuff to bring back to life.

    In May, 2020, a young family I’d met online through moved in with me. The deal was they’d provide the muscle and energy I lack, and I’d provide the land, skills, and maturity that they lacked. Gradually we are making progress on the farm, though our priorities differ sometimes. I wanted to devote the first year to building infrastructure. They wanted to get started on garden and livestock. So, I’m repairing buildings, reroofing the barn, clearing brush, and grading roads. They’ve filled and planted the four raised beds I built plus a vining field of pumpkins and melons, and planted flowers and herbs around the trailer and porches. They traded some excess solar panels for a dozen laying hens, a rooster, and a freezer full of grass-fed meat. We quickly built a coop in one of the stalls in the barn and fenced in a run outside. I later built a Chickshaw, ala Jason Rhodes, and they moved to the lower pasture. Soon after the chickens he added two pot-bellied pigs for which I built a shelter, and one rabbit in a second-hand hutch I picked up. They incubated 18 eggs that produced 15 chicks that were introduced to the flock a month or so ago. We were already overloaded with eggs and feeding the excess to the livestock and my Aussie Sheppard, until I talked them into selling all the Leghorns and keeping the Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rock layers, the mixed pullets, and a couple of the young roos. Made a little more on the sales than our cost + feed. Our first official income from the farm.

    Though we got a late start (mid-June), the first year garden was a semi-success. The pumpkin patch / vining field yielded well, as did green and waxed bush beans, corn, and potatoes, though we didn’t get any tomatoes for some reason (lots of blossoms, no fruit) and the lettuce and spinach bolted before we got enough from them. We’ve planted a fall crop of cool-weather greens, brassicas, and root crops and will be putting up hoop shelters over the raised beds this week to extend our season well past the mid-October frost date.

    I frequently get overwhelmed by all the work still needed. My list is mostly big projects like swales and terracing the south-facing hillside for food forest or orchard, so they take awhile to get crossed off the list, only to be replaced by half-a-dozen more projects. I’ve picked the site for my underground house with solarium front, and my young partners, Billy and Sharon, have theirs narrowed down to three possible sites. Eventually the trailer will be used for guests or Woofers as we expand our operations. We’d like to add 2 or 3 more families or singles to share the workload. Check out Billy’s “Wickershire Project” on YouTube for videos on his antics.

  • Liz says:

    Thanks for finding me on facebook, not sure how that happened but I’m glad it did. I’m a city dweller in Ohio and I have been so hesitant to put down roots (literally) because we’re renting. I finally said ‘what the hay’ last month and started some seeds. I’m also experimenting with some winter sowing in bottles in the yard. Your story is inspiring and I’m learning so much. Glad to be in on the journey. -Lizzie

  • Danyal Black says:

    You insight and experience is both encouraging and inspirational.
    I have been trying to homestead in the high mountains of Arizona. I find that the grow season is short due to frost. And I am overwhelmed with the all the “jobs” that come with Homesteading. I am married with a 5yr old. Our property, though large, is in an HOA that doesn’t allow chickens or goats, which I desperately seek for eggs and milk. I can garden but again only a small garden as our property isn’t fully fenced and the wild animals love our veggies.

    Until reading your page here, I was about to give up. But I will continue where I can in the hopes that 1 day I will get my own land outside of an HOA. Thanks for sharing and encouraging those of us still reaching for our dream farm land.

    • Bret James says:

      You are the only person that can make your dreams come true – and one day you will. Start where you are however you can, even if in a HOA!! Do what you are allowed and make the homestead dream as much of a reality today. Thanks for reading Danyal and happy homesteading to you and your family 🙂

  • elizabeth says:

    Silly me, there’s a course right here. See? I’m new to this.

    Well, I’m inspired because what I read in this page was very insightful and that inspires me to take the course.

  • Elizabeth says:

    This is the first site about homestead where I the story I read makes me believe that perhaps I can do it too, and I already learned a thing or two. Thanks for all the insights you offered.

    I’ve been a city girl all my life and the smallest city I lived is Las Vegas but I so wanted to have a taste of a natural living, with natural food without relying on health food stores, more oxygen (I have plants galore and people think they are out of Vegas when they enter my house, still, no veggies or edibles …huh…I finally have plants and flowers…so I was thinking, the place needs tobe closer to Vegas but there’s no such a place..and …I read about Sierra Nevada Mountains..Would that be an imposition to ask more about the place…perhaps a local broker…or a web site.

    I saw a few clips from a Permaculture guru, and to be honest, I didn’t learn even one thing, or one concept…just the camera showing all the goddies this guy have accumulated from his permaculture skills and because of that I decided not to take the class. So, my question would be: how do we learn permaculture? CAn we still use it, say on a two acres? Since I never planted, I don’t think I could handle 30 acres. I have plants now, and because it is so hot here (besides chemtrails) sprinklers are not enough, I water the plants about every hour and spray water on their leaves.

    I’d love to hear more about Sierra Nevada Mountains because I live in Vegas. Do you have chemtrails there too/
    Thank you so much for your time and courtesy reading my note,

    • Bret James says:

      Hey Elizabeth – all great comments and questions. I too came from the city and you can have any hybrid lifestyle between nature and city. Permaculture can be applied to any size of a place including a townhouse.For example, if you are growing food out back in a natural way, you are taking a burden off the petroleum based food system and doing permaculture. You certainly don’t need 30 acres to live sustainably 🙂

      I would recommend traveling through the Sierra Nevada mts and checking them out then finding a local relator (I don’t know of any for the whole area in general).

  • dawn says:

    is there a good way to find work exchange deals like what you found? i am thinking there is a website that helps people with property find people who want to garden/homestead… do you know of it?

  • Megan says:

    In the same vein as Rebecca and making things happen for myself, I think this is also pointing me towards being intentional about what I am doing. In so many ways I have experimented with growing food for years, but then I run out of steam, or don’t plan for the harvest and wind up losing it. I wound up with more tomato plants than I planned on this year, and I am trying out using straw bales from last fall to help keep moisture in, but I can go ahead and start planning out what I need on hand to be able to can the produce that comes from them, and the peach tree that is looking awesome this year so far. Thank you!

    • Bret James says:

      Hey Megan! This also makes me think of the permaculture principle, use small and steady solutions, which is to say that sometimes success is achieved not by trying to do it all but to do one thing completely. I know when life gets too busy all the small things fall through the cracks and I loose sight of those things, like the tomatoes. So that balance is key, at least for me, and not over-doing to tend the things that are already. Like you said, intention 🙂

  • Angela says:

    Thanks for putting this into perspective

  • Rebecca says:

    What struck me was the point that my homestead can start today. I think that falls into the category of making the things I want to happen myself.

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