Books: The Owner-Built Homestead

Books: The Owner-Built Homestead

“Reduced to its simplest terms, a homestead is an ecosystem in which humans evolve in mutual association and coexistence with plants, animals, and other life forces. In this cohabitation the various components of the homestead germinate, develop, and mature at varying rates for varying purposes, all interdependent and individually supportive of life therein.” – Barbara and Ken Kern, The Owner-Built Homestead. 

The Owner-Built Homestead, Barbara and Ken Kern, 1977 (Second Edition).

The Owner-Built Homestead is a classic text on neo-homesteading originally published by homestead gurus and consultants Barbara and Ken Kern in 1971. This book contains an incredible amount of practical advice and information about all aspects of carving a homestead out of wilderness. (Plans for the home itself are in far more detail in their companion book, The Owner-Built Home.) This includes such diverse topics as annual and tree crop production, water management, soil health, fence building, sewage reclamation, aquaculture and animal husbandry, surveying, and equipment maintenance.

nutrient cycle on homestead
The input cycle on a sustainable homestead. Notice nothing leaves the homestead.

I originally read The Owner-Built Homestead right after reading the the similar and contemporary text Farming for Self-Sufficiency by British farmers John and Sally Seymour, which focuses on many of the same topics. The major difference between the Kerns and the Seymours and other similar texts is that the Kerns focus almost exclusively on the practical aspects of everything. Whereas the Seymours frequently discuss the joy your farm will bring you and your family, The Owner-Built Homestead is more of a direct “how-to” manual. Further, the Kerns consumed a prodigious of literature on the topic, and and the book serves as an excellent bibliography on sustainable agriculture.

While The Owner-Built Homestead gives extensive advice about choosing a site all over the country, with important information on soil types, weather patterns, elevation, and land costs (that part is surely outdated), the book focuses the most on mountain/woodland homesteads. Many of the models are for a five-acre homestead, but can be applied to homesteads of a variety of sizes. The crux of the Kerns’ philosophy of homesteading is to take a holistic approach that views the entire homestead as working with nature and the natural nutrient cycles.

Self-sufficient bathroom
This text is notable for the many helpful illustrations.

The Kerns were heavily influence by F. H. King and his book Farmers of Forty Centuries, and many of the methods and philosophies described in the book are close to traditional Chinese farming. This includes extensive intercropping, careful water management, processing sewage, and aquaculture. One difference from traditional Chinese methods is that the Kerns are also believers in Ed Faulkner and Ruth Stout, and avoid all tillage in agriculture. This zero-tillage cultivation is crucial to preserving rich soil and reducing water waste, especially on a mountain farm.

One interesting part of the book is the contrarian view they take on animal husbandry. Most small farm writer focus on the value of the cow as a source of dairy and manure- it is considered to be an ideal animal to have on even small homesteads. The Kerns instead say that goats are better in almost every situation due to their hardy nature and lower need for water and food compared to their output. Further, the Kerns consider chickens to be unnecessary in most situations. Instead, the recommend keeping ducks in the same pond as your aquaculture production. All of the waste that would often go to chicken is either fed to pigs or into the wastewater system which ultimately feeds livestock and fertilizes the fields. The Kerns are also not proponents of using draft animals, believing that practicality dictates making use of mechanical farm equipment. The most radical departure from traditional homestead wisdom may be the advice to eschew beekeeping, which is considered a must by most homesteaders. The Kerns argue the honey has little nutritional value, it is more work than it is worth, and that there are plenty of pollinators out there!

The Owner-Built Homestead covers so many topics it would be impractical to cover them all here. Overall, the book is noteworthy for its helpful illustrations, practical advice, meticulous research, and wide array of topics. The text is perfect for a homesteading student of any knowledge level. I can guarantee after reading this book you will have more project and reading ideas than you will know what to do with!

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