I recently was able to have a virtual dialog with Herrick Kimball, also known as the Deliberate Agrarian. After reading his book, Writings of a Deliberate Agrarian, and following his blog, I wanted to share some of what he has to say with our readers. Kimball homesteads with his family while blogging and sharing his practical genius through his mail-order business Planet Whizbang. Yet, it is his insights into what he observes about society, faith, and the landscape that I am particularly interested in exploring and present here in the first of two parts. (Part 2 is now published here.)
For our readers who are not yet familiar with your blog or other writings, give us a brief description of your homestead.
We live on a 1.5-acre rural lot, near the top of a hillside, on a backroad, in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Most of our property is wooded. Fields and woods and streams are all around us. The nearest small town is six miles away, and the nearest small city is a half-hour drive. There is a single neighbor within sight of our house, up the road a ways.
As far as homesteads go, ours is unremarkable in outward appearance. We have lived here for the past 31 years.
There is, however, an unseen specialness to this little homestead. It is the realization of a defined objective that my wife, Marlene, and I had when we were married back in 1980. Simply stated, we wanted to put down roots and pursue a more self-reliant, rural-based lifestyle.
First came the most necessary element… land. We worked and saved (while living in a two-room apartment in town) to buy a piece of rural property that we could afford, without going into debt. As soon as we had land, we started gardening. We bought a pressure canner and learned to preserve our own food while living in the apartment. Then came the house, which we built ourselves, as time and money allowed (the original structure was only 16’ x 24’). Then came children (three boys, now grown).
Marlene pursued the traditional role of full-time homemaker, mother and helpmeet to her husband. She also homeschooled our boys. I worked for 22 years as a carpenter, then I took a job working in a state prison for 13 years. I never made a lot of money, but we made do with my one income. We drove used cars, shopped in thrift stores, and grew much of our food.
The concept of a man and wife, along with their children, all working together, within the context of a homestead, to provide for the needs of the family is known as a “family economy.” Our family economy here (when our kids were growing up) centered around things like creating and eating meals together, growing and preserving food, raising chickens, cutting, splitting and stacking firewood, making maple syrup in the spring and apple cider in the fall. Good memories were made, important life lessons were learned, and family relationships were strengthened when our family intentionally pursued a family economy. Our sons have now moved out of our home but Marlene and I still do all the same things, though now on a smaller scale.
We set out on this life journey by intentionally rejecting so many modern cultural expectations, opting instead to embrace more traditional patterns and values.
More importantly, this homestead has been a place where numerous intangibles have been cultivated. Concepts like contentment, patience, humility, and hope are not mere platitudes to us. They are the spiritual fruits of our Christian faith as lived and nurtured within this agrarian paradigm. These are the things that contribute to making our homestead a beloved refuge in the midst of an increasingly chaotic world. My agrarian writings are, essentially, a celebration of this Christian-agrarian way of life.
We often hear about the struggles of agrarians or homesteaders, financially and otherwise. It seems clear that you have been able to develop several income streams for your family. Can you describe a few of them and how you made them work for your family?
It has only been in the last eight years or so, with the success of my Planet Whizbang mail-order business, that Marlene and I have realized a measure of financial abundance. Prior to that, there were a lot of lean years.
But I’ve had an unrelenting entrepreneurial urge since I was a kid. I’ve dreamed up all kinds of ideas for making some extra money over the years. And, within the limits of our means, I actually pursued some of the ideas. A couple were marginally successful. Most were failures. But every idea I pursued was, in some way, a learning experience.
So it was that after developing my own homemade chicken plucker design (back in 2001), and seeing how amazingly well it worked, I wasted no time in putting together a plan book. I titled it “Anyone Can Build A Tub-Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker.” I had 100 copies printed at a local copy shop. Then I went to the internet to let the world know. That was the beginning of what has become an amazing home-business journey. More than 30,000 copies of that book have been sold so far. My small initial investment in printing those first 100 books launched and financed everything that followed.
While continuing to work full time at my prison job, I produced more how-to books. And I started thinking of other things to sell. My family helped with the Planet Whizbang business. A new dimension was added to our family economy.
By 2013, Planet Whizbang was consuming so much of my time (and generating sufficient enough income) that I left my prison job in the city. Now I work here on my homestead full time. The modest success I’ve realized didn’t come easy, and it didn’t come overnight, but it eventually came, and it is a powerfully satisfying reality.
If I can do this, others can do the same, and many are. The internet has made it possible for homesteaders in remote locations to create niche products, sell them all over the world, and make a living at it. It has never been easier to start a homestead-based business that generates a decent income.
My advice to anyone who wants to generate a homestead-based income is to avoid business ideas that involve growing food or raising animals to sell. Although there are people who make money with such businesses, I believe they are the exception. I’m persuaded that raising food for yourself and your family is a fundamentally important pursuit, but when it comes to making money, some sort of a cottage industry will be a better source of income.
Create a product or service (based on your personal skills and passions) that you can package and market to the world via the internet. Invest your spare time in learning how to do this. Start small. Think long term. Take it a step at a time. Let the business grow organically. If your product or idea does not resonate with buyers, develop another product.
Once you have a product that sells, develop other products that will interest the customers you already have. That’s exactly what I’ve done. Not every product is as profitable as the poultry processing resources I have, but every product does provide its own income stream. Innovation and diversification are important elements of my business approach.
You also need to develop an online presence. This is critically important. In my case, I started my Deliberate Agrarian blog back in 2005. I didn’t start blogging to sell products but, in time, I realized that my blog was a significant marketing tool, and I started using it more for that purpose. The fact is, people would much rather purchase a product from someone they know instead of an anonymous business entity. When you sell yourself to people first, they are then more inclined to buy the products you have to sell.
If you want to make money with a book, I recommend it be one that will enrich people’s lives by teaching them how to do or make something for themselves. How-to books tend to sell well for a long span of time. They needn’t be overly attractive (unless you want to sell them in a traditional book store), but they need to be neat, clear, complete and well organized. My plucker plan book is a perfect example. The book is a very humble production, but it delivers all the information. Next to the plucker plan book, my best sellers are “Anyone Can Build A Whizbang Apple Grinder & Cider Press” and “The Planet Whizbang Idea Book For Gardeners.”
Novels and memoirs may generate significant income for some homestead writers but they are exceptions to the rule. My own memoir, Writings of a Deliberate Agrarian is (in my opinion) the best book I’ve ever written, and it has generated some truly endearing reader response, but it hasn’t generated much in the way of income. Fortunately, I didn’t write the book expecting to make money. It was a labor of love. If you have a memoir in you, and you yearn to share it with the world (or even just your family), then do it, but don’t expect to make money selling it.
Now, with all of those things in mind, I would be remiss if I did not point out that I believe there is a spiritual element to the success of my Planet Whizbang business. That is a story in itself but, suffice it to say, Proverbs 3:5-6 provides key foundational wisdom for starting and succeeding at any homestead enterprise.
Debt and the family economy are issues you take on in your writings. Help us understand your thoughts of where debt might, or might not, fit into the family economy.
As a Christian I take the biblical admonitions about debt very seriously. Proverbs makes it clear that borrowers are slaves to their lenders, and in the New Testament, the apostle Paul says that if Believers can be free of slavery, they should be (1 Corinthians 7:21).
The idea of freedom from debt slavery has appealed to me from a young age. As a result, I’ve always put a higher value on security and financial freedom with little in the way of material possessions over perpetual debt slavery with lots of new stuff. Fortunately, I have a wife that has respected my convictions in this regard and embraced the same vision for financial independence.
This way of thinking is, of course, totally contrary to our modern financial system. Such a system encourages debt bondage and employs various schemes to draw people into the debt trap. More often than not, these schemes appeal to the “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16).
That isn’t to say that Marlene and I have never borrowed money. But I can tell you we’ve never borrowed much, never borrowed for long, never borrowed for frivolous things, and have never had any credit card debt.
In Writings of a Deliberate Agrarian I tell the story of how we built our house without ever having a mortgage. We did it by borrowing $10,000 from Marlene’s father to get started. The house was small (16’ x 24’), had no basement, no central heat, and tar paper “siding” for many years. Everyone’s situation is different and sometimes debt slavery is necessary, especially when starting out in life, or when facing a crisis situation. It isn’t a sin to borrow money. But I’m persuaded that being free, if at all possible, is a far better way to live.
One final point on this subject: With the availability of so much easy credit in this day and age, there is a tendency for people of faith to NOT exercise their faith when it comes to what they want in life. Which is to say, they don’t wait for God to provide (or not to provide, as may often be the case). Contentment with little is profoundly difficult to achieve in the midst of our materialistic culture. However, there is a difference between being content with little and being satisfied with little. It is the difference between working diligently and intelligently, while exercising faith, as opposed to striving to satisfy the “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life” that so easily besets us. It is a difference worth understanding.
You and your family been able to resist the “want-it-now” mentality that is so much a part of our Western culture. How have you cultivated this, especially with your children?
If someone is as passionate about avoiding debt as I am, “want-it-now” naturally gives way to a lifestyle of delayed gratification. For example, I tell people that I’ve wanted a successful homestead-based mail order business since I was 16 years old, and it only took me 39 years to get it. That’s a true story.
I’ve also long wanted to own more land beyond our 1.5 acres. I didn’t need more land, but I had a vision for more land. Debt free, of course. Then, just three years ago, the 16 acre parcel of woods and field next to us came up for sale. By then, our Planet Whizbang business had generated enough savings to buy the land. We didn’t have the money before that. The timing of land and money availability was a Providential orchestration, and it was a dream come true.
Our three boys have grown up knowing my strong convictions about debt. They’ve seen how hard Marlene and I have worked, and how we made do with little for a lot of years. They know we rarely took vacations, and didn’t indulge them with expensive playthings (while the neighbor boys had new four-wheelers that their parents bought them). But they never lacked for any of the material necessities of life. They had a home in every good sense of the word. And they had the rural countryside for all kinds of boyhood exploits. They also had opportunities to work at home and for local farmers to earn their own money (starting when they were around 13 years old). If they really wanted something, they worked and saved to buy it, just like mom and dad did.
In the final analysis, none of my sons are ideological clones of their father. But the examples they’ve grown up with have positively impacted them and will serve as a reliable foundation for all their life decisions, financial and otherwise. I see clear evidence of this, and it pleases me greatly. But I also see instances where they’re learning some life lessons the hard way.