Welcome to another installment of Coffee With an Expert! Today, we’re having coffee with Esther Emery, a modern homesteader, wife, and mother of three who lives more or less “off the grid” with her family. Esther and her husband, Nick, are behind the popular YouTube Channel “Fouch-O-Matic Off Grid.” All questions have been asked by our readers and the Sweatpants & Coffee community. Esther, thank you so much for chatting with us!
1. I’m assuming that you have the internet. How does that jibe with your values / desire to be “off the grid”? Are there any other modern conveniences you enjoy?
For the first two years that we lived in our yurt we didn’t have Internet on our property. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t use the Internet. I ended up driving my car to visit friends or to sit in coffee shops, so that I could do social or income-related communications that most everybody in 2015 expects me to be able to do. It was awkward, and potentially hypocritical. But mostly it was just really inefficient. In the end we looked at how that was burning gas and money and time, and decided that the mature thing to do was to leverage our resources and ingenuity to get Internet on our property. It took a bit of investment and a bit of work, but it’s a more sustainable solution for life in the 21st century.
Any other modern conveniences?
Well, we have a Soda Stream for making drinks. We can’t usually serve cold water in the summers, but we can often make it bubbly!
2. I’m curious about sanitation! How do you keep things clean and safe?
We compost our waste! This can be a touchy issue. On the one hand, composting waste can be upsetting for reasons that we think are more emotional than scientific. On the other hand, there are major concerns when sanitation is completely unregulated, particularly if someone has septic running into or near a stream. We are personally very concerned about keeping our sanitation clean and safe. But we also understand there are some different ways to do that.
The simple rule of safety is don’t let your waste mix with water. Not your own water. Not anybody’s water. And if you’re composting it, you want to provide airflow to the pile, close off the pile from your living space (close the lid!), and add plenty of natural, carbon-heavy mulch. All that yuck becomes rich compost more quickly than you might think. Right now we have a composting outhouse, about 100 feet away from our yurt. When we move into our cabin we’ll be switching over to a barrel system, with a toilet seat in a regular indoor bathroom, and barrels underneath that switch out every six months or so. It sounds like it would be stinky and unpleasant, but if you follow the rules above, it’s really fine.
3. Winters in Idaho can be extreme! How do you get through a winter? What changes about your lifestyle when the weather gets extreme in any direction?
Well, the major issues of winter are three: the cold, the snow, and the dark. The first two are quite manageable. We heat with wood, and it’s just a matter of doing a ton of work to have that wood supply ready to go before the snow hits. The snow itself is also just a ton of work. We have a mini snowplow on our 4-wheeler, and we have occasionally had a neighbor help us out at plowing our 3/10 of a mile of private road. Of course there’s also all the shoveling, for ourselves and to reach all the animals, and making sure that we have food storage in case snow or ice makes the roads impassable. But still, all that is just work, and when you’re transitioning to a homestead lifestyle, work isn’t something you’re exactly avoiding.
The thing that breaks my back about winter is the dark, and the hours spent in our small space, and the cabin fever. Getting outside is really necessary, and we’re not in such an extreme situation where we don’t all get outside at some point in the day, at least for a minute. I’m grateful for all the manual labor out of doors for that reason, and the kids accomplish the same with sledding, snowman building, snowball fights, etc. But the winter remains a very introspective time. Lots of time for candlelight conversation, reading books aloud, hopefully getting lots of reading and writing done. And then in the summer we have the opposite, hours and hours of outdoor time and long days and very little quiet. It averages out, but over seasons instead of days.
4. How do/have your sleeping patterns changed when the household energy is being used more sparingly, and you may not have or use electricity/artificial light into the night?
Yeah, this is funny. My first year out here, when my kids were smaller, I fell into a sleeping pattern that seemed very strange. I would go to bed with my kids in the early evening, in full dark, but still early by grown up standards, then wake up in the middle of the night to write for a couple of hours before going back to sleep until the morning. Those midnight hours were very productive, and also pleasant, contrary to what you might expect. Come to find out there’s precedent for it. Some writers of the late middle ages thought the hours between “first sleep” and “second sleep” were the best time for personal reflection. I find this really fascinating, since I fell into that quite naturally, without knowing it was ever normal to anybody else! Since then I haven’t quite found that rhythm again, as my kids are older and we have more electric light. But I miss it!
5. What’s a sample menu of what you and your family might eat in a day? How do you get things you can’t grow yourself? What percentage of your food comes from your own efforts?
We only have one meat from our homestead right now, and that’s chicken. Chicken and potatoes and vegetables is a meal that we produce entirely ourselves, and we have that meal a lot. We also eat our farm eggs every day, either as breakfast eggs or in baked goods or egg noodles.
On the other hand I make several kinds of bread, which is good, wholesome food in a way, but also is made with ingredients right from the ordinary grocery store. And we don’t have a milk or cheese source on the homestead yet, although we’re working on that.
We’re not as far down the path to self-sufficiency as we will be, in a couple of years. But even then full 100 percent self-sufficiency is a dubious goal, not to mention probably impossible. We are most interested in limiting our consumption to things that we can trace to their source. We love to support neighbors and philosophical neighbors and we love to trade with people who are similarly concerned with ethical and sustainable lifestyle.
6. Do your children know or remember any other way of life? If so, what do they think?
Our children are quite young. I think they do remember another way of life, and even if they didn’t, they see other lifestyle choices at their friends’ houses all the time. But that’s not the same thing as being able to freely determine what they themselves prefer.
It’s a huge responsibility, to be a parent raising your children in opposition to mainstream attitudes or expectations. I know this really well because my mother raised me with counter-cultural values, and I have both gratitude and regret for how that played out in my life. Of course I never forget it’s a huge responsibility to be a parent at all. I don’t fall for the line that there’s some singular “right way” to parent and I need to organize my life around that. I know what my children most need is me, doing my best to live honestly and courageously, and taking full responsibility for meeting my children’s needs as best I can. All the rest is complicated. And when they’re teenagers, that will be another thing entirely.
7. What are some positive changes that you and your family have experienced since moving to the yurt in the woods? What are the obvious benefits, and maybe, what are some of the subtle ones? Are there any negatives you didn’t anticipate?
My kids have skills that I hoped they would have. They self entertain, are close to each other, love and care for animals, have strong bodies, strong imaginations and are moderately advanced academically without having to spend all their time tracking school work and school activities. My husband and I feel alive, romantically and personally, and have the satisfaction of accomplishment and lived integrity, frequently and in tangible ways. That’s all the stuff you would expect.
A more subtle benefit is that we’ve shed some unnecessary insecurities. I have often in my life been told that I am too strong or too loud or too opinionated. Those are not messages I’m getting from the woods. Thank you, tall trees! And my husband is not being told that he doesn’t make enough money or isn’t good enough at meeting the expectations of a boss. That alone is worth the price of admission.
There are obvious negatives, too. We’re tired, we meet failure all the time, it’s dark. A more subtle negative is that we now have to culturally commute to hang out in places we’ve been our entire lives. Some of our professional life peers have trouble knowing what to say to us, for example, and for some people it’s easier just to call us the crazy ones than to address the difficulty of attaining an ethical lifestyle in a crazy world.
Also, with the words “off grid” in play, it’s really easy for people to either have ridiculously high expectations of us or just completely misunderstand what we’re doing. There’s a bit of “whatever” in the way we experience distant fans and critics. People are dreaming their own dreams, and tend to want somebody to stand in. So that kind of interest can be exciting, but we can’t rely on it for personal support or guidance.
8. What’s your favorite go-to recipe?
Pretty much every week, once a week, I roast a whole chicken in the wood fired oven. It makes three meals, first as roast chicken, second as chicken tacos and third as chicken broth in some kind of soup. We also love to do cornbread in the cast iron skillet. It’s so fast, and it makes any meal feel warm and homey. Here’s that recipe:
Oil your skillet and put it in the oven while the oven warms, aiming for 400 degrees. Mix together dry ingredients: 1.5 cups fine corn meal, 3/4 cup flour, 2/3 cup sugar (or 1/2 c honey with the wet ingredients), 1 Tbsp. baking powder, 1 tsp salt. Wet ingredients are 1 cup sour milk, 3 Tbsp. melted butter and an egg. We usually use a duck egg. Mix wet into dry until just barely mixed, pour into the hot skillet and bake at 400 for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
9. What has been the biggest surprise about your new lifestyle? Conversely, was there anything which was exactly as you expected?
We expected it to be hard. And it was. The biggest surprise was how much this is a mental game. So much of what makes homesteading hard is that it’s hard to focus, it’s hard to determine priorities, it’s hard to tell what is and isn’t safe and what is and isn’t necessary when you’re so intentionally altering your values. And it’s easy to lose track of what you’re supposed to be doing in the first place! I remember worrying early on that I didn’t want us to be on the run from anything, because whatever we were running away from would just come with us. That has certainly been true. Our desires for ease and security and quick solutions and having people be impressed with us – all that stuff just came right along with us to the woods. Every day we have to ask ourselves (and each other), why this choice, and not the other choice? Why a timber frame cabin? Why goats? Why a sheet mulch? You can’t ever go on autopilot, or you’ll end up caught right up in patterns you were trying to escape.
10. What would you most like people to know about homesteading? What are the biggest misconceptions you get? What should people keep in mind if they’d like to try this?
The biggest misconception is that “the modern homesteading movement” is a cohesive group of people with a singular agenda. It really isn’t. Homesteading can mean completely different things to do different people. There’s also a misconception that homesteading belongs to some particular social group or political perspective. White men are the most visible homesteaders, absolutely. But white men are the most visible figures in any group, if you think about it. Media has a lot to do with what version of the story gets told, and there’s a lot of spin. In truth the impulse to essentially reverse the Industrial Revolution strikes all sorts of people, varying in race, ethnicity, age, economic class, sexual orientation, gender identification, and political interests.
That diversity is exactly why I do think we are a “movement,” and why I continue to use that word, even though we are obviously a bunch of scattered rabble who can’t agree with one another. We are a collective reaction to certain pressures in our society, and when those pressures become more intense, our numbers swell. I have a long range perspective on this because my mother (the author of a homesteading book called The Encyclopedia of Country Living) was a part of the 1970’s “back to the land” movement. That was a wave of opposition to industrial/post-industrial values that grabbed the imagination of many in the early to mid 70’s but had largely turned back before the decade turned again. I see another swell like that happening right now. Although we may not have the same language to speak of it (or the same people to blame!), we’re all responding to the more dehumanizing aspects of post-industrial economics.
Finally, to those who are thinking of trying this yourself? Or are in the middle of it already? Good for you! I have two pieces of advice. One, do a lot of soul searching. Two, start right where you are. It’s tempting to grab on to lifestyle change as a solution to all the problems, but as I said before, most of the problems will just come with you, no matter where you go. Also, the off grid move is really exciting, for a minute, but drama isn’t enough to sustain the energy it takes to live this way. So, know your “why” and know yourself. After that, just be courageous. Some people will get you and some won’t, but if you’re following your own path to integrity that doesn’t matter. You’ll walk your own way.
Esther Emery was a theatre director and playwright in Southern California, before she ran away to the woods, but that feels like a long time ago. Now she is raising her family off grid on three acres of nearly wild land in Southwest Idaho. She writes about faith and freedom and alternative lifestyle at estheremery.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @EstherEmery.