backyard chickens

When it comes to sustainability, Mary Wood believes in walking the talk. Wood, who serves as Faculty Director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program at the University of Oregon’s School of Law, spends hours talking to students about the importance of respecting the planet.  But it nagged at her that she wasn’t doing everything she could to decrease her own carbon footprint.

“Asking government to do its part is one thing, but individuals need to do their part too,” Wood says.

Seven years ago, the mother of three and her husband decided to give urban homesteading a try. Wood explains: “Urban homesteading is a way of life that involves self-sufficiency on multiple levels, such as food, transportation, and energy independence.”

The first thing they did was cut back on car trips and use bicycles and public transportation to get around town.  Wood was also interested in local food, so that was the next area they tackled.  Inspired by books like “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver and “Depletion and Abundance” by Sharon Astyk, they put in a garden and installed a hoop house so they could grow year-round.  When fruits and vegetables were in season they visited u-pick farms and bought items in quantity, then froze, canned and otherwise preserved them.  They got chickens so they’d have fresh eggs.  A portion of the garage was turned over to dry storage, and they constructed a root silo (similar to a root cellar) to keep fresh vegetables.

The benefits have been numerous.  One common complaint about local food is that it’s more expensive, but Wood says the family is saving substantially on their food bill.  They get local, organic milk delivered to their home and don’t make regular trips to the grocery store, which reduces transportation costs.  They make many of their own staples, including bread.  “Packaging typically adds about one-third to the cost of a product,” Wood notes.  By using their own containers and not purchasing pre-packaged foods, they’re finding additional savings.

“I had no idea about the hidden joys behind this lifestyle,” Wood says.  Urban homesteading gives her family loads of quality time together.  It’s teaching her children to love nature and to base their self-worth on something other than material possessions.  It’s also teaching practical skills like money management, gardening, citizenship, and public speaking.

Wood’s children are also urban homesteading enthusiasts.  “Kids intrinsically love to bring home food,” she says.  She advises getting children involved in activities as early in life as possible, and giving them increasing amounts of responsibility.  Wood lets her children negotiate the price of food with farmers and do all of the online research for the family’s projects.

If older children are resistant to the idea of doing so much work around the house, incorporate activities into the things they already love to do.  For example, if they’re involved in a church group or a club, find ways for that group to participate in gardening or foraging.  And, if all else fails, you can always increase their allowance.  Wood uses some of the savings from her food bill to pay her kids for their work in the home.

Wood also points out that it’s fine to ease into the urban homesteading lifestyle, rather than trying to make lots of changes at once.  But she warns, “It’s contagious and addictive.  Once you start canning and gardening you’ll want to keep doing more.”

Sophia McDonald Bennett is a freelance writer from Eugene, Oregon. In her spare time she enjoys reading, gardening, spending time with family and friends, and dreaming up new recipes.