Homesteading · Urban Homesteading

The Lies, Half-Truths and Money Pits About Homesteading: Growing Your Own Food Is Like Printing Money

Urban homesteading is often touted as a way to live a simpler, more self-sufficient life, but that of course comes with some potential pitfalls. We started in the summer of 2014, putting our toes into urban homesteading, and it has been a huge learning curve. Not only did we have to learn the skills, but there comes the investment into hardware (farm equipment, solar system, water harvesting, and how to use it all). The concept that one can grow food (for nearly) free is often touted in popular memes, but is that actually true?

This past month Kirk and I sat down and really crunched numbers. Where was our money going? How much were we spending? The past 4 summers have been a non-stop rush to build beds, turn land, put in a greenhouse, and plant so much, in a rush to rely less on others. We were ignoring how much was going out, telling ourselves that it was OK to spend on our “proof of concept”. After all, we were learning skills, and the produce was rolling in.

I’ve always watched carefully how much I spend on potting soil, dirt, fertilizer, pots. I make compost lovingly out of our kitchen waste. So when Kirk showed me a bill, I gasped.

In all the money spent, what was shocking to me in particular was how much we spent on water. Yes. Water. We live in city limits, and are on both city water and sewer. It was nauseating seeing how much we spent. This was the eye opener for us. Because unlike a new hoe, this isn’t a one time purchase. Every month, we pay a base rate of around $46 from the local water company, even if we are not home. Our property has two meters, one for in and one for outside, so we can chart the usage year round. In summer our outside use is double from inside use. One month last summer (it was a very hot and dry late summer) our water bill was over $222. For ONE month! I don’t water lawns. I take short showers. But I had to water my crops. With temps in the upper 90’s, the plants needed water.

And that right there sucked so much joy out of me. If we had rural property, on a private well, or with irrigation rights, it wouldn’t be the issue. If we had less land being grown on, it would be less water used. But if you live in an area where water is charged for with a brutal market rate, suddenly those luscious organic tomatoes don’t look so cheap after all.

We had been lax on putting in a good irrigation system, and we paid for that. Any profits we made on our farm selling this year, were burnt up by the cost of water. Yes, we have excellent water tanks: I use them for watering the greenhouse. Ironically, my yearly plant starts, grown in the greenhouse, are profitable. The water is free, from the sky. I water deeply and never think about it. We use the same water for our fruit trees (we bought water bags years ago, and it works well). But without a means to pressurize the tanks and use them to do drip watering, the hoses come out, attached to the easy water (city water, that is).

$222 is a lot of money that we could have used for compost, to build richer beds. Or for any number of things. And that was just one of the hot months. In the PNW where we live we have hotter temps from May to mid September. Some years I am watering even in late April now.

I could have bought multiple shares in a CSA and sat on my butt inside, staying cool, and still had tons to burn on ice tea. I could have traveled this past summer, and not worried about my farm dying.

Another thing that opened up our eyes was the stack of urban farming and homesteading books we have accumulated. Every year more books come out, touting the ‘better life’. And I realized a harsh truth: none of the books talk about the cost of water in a city setting. Even at the week-long hands on course Kirk and I took in June with Curtis Stone in Kelowna B.C., water was not talked about (he barely mentions it in his book). Yet it is the #1 cost you will face in day-to-day operations, if you don’t have a personal well or cheap irrigation water.

However, don’t get me wrong: Our produce was superior to store-bought or off a large commercial farm. I knew how it was grown. What went into it. I enjoyed raising it, the hard work was made good-by the enjoying of it. I love working our land, and having my family involved. Having others try our produce, and their happiness over it, that is priceless.

I just have a bit better grounding now. It brings out the “no free lunch” strongly though. No, growing food is not like printing your own money. And you might need to watch how much you spend if you grow in an urban setting. In fact, it might even change how you grow.

My advice? Have a budget you stick to, and know how much your water is going to cost. You may find you need to keep your gardens smaller, and not farm commercially, until you can get in a good irrigation system. Or living rural may suddenly look so much better.