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The Sustainable Homestead

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It’s hard to overstate the impact agriculture has had on our lives. When the first farming practices began 12,000 years ago, humans transitioned away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of permanent settlements where crops and livestock could be farmed on demand. Cities, populations, and whole civilizations took root and grew in their wake. Farming looks a lot different now than it once did. Small, family-run farms have mostly been replaced by industrial operations. Agriculture equipment and chemical inputs have helped increase food production, often at the expense of the environment. This mass-produced approach to farming is unsustainable. In response, a dedicated minority is working to challenge the status quo and embrace regenerative agriculture—the practice of farming in conjunction with nature. Angela Ferraro-Fanning is one of those people. A self-taught permaculturist, Ferraro-Fanning owns and operates Axe & Root Homestead, a historic six-acre farm in central New Jersey. She’s also the author of The Sustainable Homestead, a book that seeks to share how she created her family’s homestead from the ground up and inspire others to reconnect with nature by embracing a slower, simpler, and healthier life.

More US farms are going organic

According to the USDA’s 2022 Organic Survey, US farms and ranches sold $11.2 billion in certified organic commodities in 2021—13 percent more than previous years. Certified organic operations are becoming more common too. The survey shows that between 2019 and 2021, the number of organic farms in the US increased by 5 percent.

“Farming and homesteading were never on my radar,” Ferraro-Fanning says, who previously owned a graphic design and web business. “After I had my first child, it sent me into this whole identity shift where I no longer wanted to sit behind a computer all day. The things that felt important with my design business didn’t feel important anymore. I wanted something more tangible.” Ferraro-Fanning made a deal with her husband. She would trade her paycheck for homegrown produce, learning to grow and preserve as much as possible. The goal was to get the absolute healthiest food for her family. With her husband on board, Ferraro-Fanning started her homesteading journey with a vegetable garden, which led to ducks and eventually beehives. One year, Santa brought goats for Christmas. It soon became clear that the homestead had outgrown the available space. Three-quarters of an acre was not enough to accommodate Ferraro-Fanning’s plans and that was their cue to move. They packed up what they could and transitioned their homestead to the six-acre farm they’ve called home ever since. The farm that became Axe & Root Homestead was constructed in 1775 and had only a handful of owners before the Ferraro-Fanning family. Despite already being a functional farm, Ferraro-Fanning had her work cut out for her. The soil needed to be resurrected, and Ferraro-Fanning wanted to find a way to bring horses onto the homestead. “I'm a permaculture farmer, which means that I try to mimic patterns in nature,” Ferraro-Fanning says. “Nothing is brought here because it’s cute and fuzzy. Every plant, every animal has a role here, and they have to serve more than one purpose.” Ferraro-Fanning eventually got two Clydesdales—Finnegan, who helps work the land, and Dozer, who is still learning—and five sheep. Horses and sheep live well together because their grazing habits protect both pasture health and each other’s health. These types of symbiotic relationships are common on the Axe & Root Homestead. From the ducks that help manage the tick population to the bees that provide honey and pollinate the crops, the animals play an important role in maintaining the overall ecosystem. The same goes for the perennial plants that help revive the soil, and the orchard, vegetable garden and berry bushes that provide healthy, organic produce for the family’s meals. This approach to regenerative farming works well on the Axe & Root Homestead. Despite a steep learning curve, Ferraro-Fanning found her success using scientific journals, books, and YouTube. She wrote The Sustainable Homestead to share her experiences and give amateur homesteaders a resource to help them triumph for the long haul. She also reminds that these homesteads belong to the future generations just as much as they do to the homesteaders. “It may sound morbid, but my time and space here is limited,” Ferraro-Fanning says. “So, even though I’m allergic to nuts, I maintain the chestnut trees here, and I’ve planted almonds and pecans. Because it’s not really about me. All of this is going to be inherited by somebody else eventually. It’s about building for future generations as well.” For Ferraro-Fanning, that future generation includes her two children, who at five and 10 years old sometimes help around the farm. Because Ferraro-Fanning wants her kids to enjoy the homesteading lifestyle, she never assigns them chores. Instead, they participate in the activities they like, such as picking (and eating) berries, collecting duck eggs from the field and tapping the maple trees for sap. Ferraro-Fanning suggests that anyone interested in homesteading take a similar approach: find something that piques your interest and start there. “There are so many things you can do to feel like a homesteader, even in a small space,” Ferraro-Fanning says. “You could grow in containers, subscribe to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) box, or shop at a local farm stand,” she suggests. “These activities are very empowering and offer a sense of accomplishment and pride.” “I think it’s so easy for people to get wrapped up in the nuances and the idea that if you don’t have a roof full of solar panels and a lot of land or animals, you can’t call yourself an ecofriendly homesteader,” Ferraro-Fanning says. “For me, it’s about accessible daily changes—and living on a sustainable farm is one way that I can do that. I'm not out to get on a soapbox or criticize anyone. By sharing this information, I try to inspire others.”

Homesteading on limited space? It can be done!

You don’t need a plot of land to foster your green thumb. Gardening on your balcony, windowsill, or in your backyard are great small-space options for urban homesteaders. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Survey your site. Every space is different. It’s important to understand what you’re working with. Do you have a sunny spot in your backyard or a room in the house that gets a lot of light? How’s the soil where you live? Would a container make more sense than digging into the ground?
  2. Search for inspiration. While it can be tempting to consult #PlantTok or Pinterest for what to grow, it’s wise to limit your purchases to flora that will thrive in your unique environment. For example, tomatoes can grow in containers or in the yard, but they require good drainage and full sun for most of the day.
  3. Ask for assistance. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The experts at your local garden center will be a great resource. They’ll know a ton about what plants will work for you and what you’ll need to help them grow.
  4. Get growing. Armed with the right materials and information, the only thing left to do is to begin. There will likely be a learning curve, but that’s OK. You can find additional information through books, podcasts, and YouTube. Whatever challenges arise, know that someone else has dealt with it too. Keep an open mind and remember: You can do this!

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