Three Steps On Our Walk to Freedom

The phrase “walking to freedom” is common parlance in the back-to-the-land movement for getting out of the restrictions of an urban environment to a homestead (or farm) that allows you, at minimum, to cover many of your basic needs and live more sustainably. The end goal, once acquired, for many is to serve as a land base that could support your family (and extended community even) in the case of a disaster or SHTF situation.

Right now I’m a Prepper Lite. In our location in urban southeastern Wisconsin, there are very few risk factors I feel necessary to prepare for. There’s very low natural disaster risk. Momentary power outages, supplementary heat in the winter, a certain number of days clean water. Stored food in case of shopping disruption, income loss, sickness, etc. I’ve covered some of these and I’m slowly covering more. Anything more drastic, like a true SHTF, I can’t worry about because I don’t have the landbase to even consider doing that level of prepping.

But for a variety of reasons I’m interested in supplying more of our own needs, as well as bartering with others for what we can’t or don’t want to provide. Like with my post on animals I find homesteading incredibly therapeutic. Fostering a more direct connection to my small piece of the earth has done more for my mental illness than anything. From reading the likes of Joel Salatin, it’s something I believe in ethically with a passion. In an urban environment, there’s only so much can be done, both because of size and also because of legal restrictions.

For long-time readers of my other blog or those who came from my journals on a frugality/early-retirement forum, you know I’m pulling back from sharing many financial details. But I have to share a few here to provide context for our journey.

Step 1 – Get out from underwater. As best I can estimate, we currently owe $20-$30,000 more on our house than we would clear post-sale. It doesn’t pencil out particularly well as a rental property and I’m not particularly interested in land-lording unless we need to as a temporary bridge. So financial priority #1 is shoving as much free cashflow into pre-paying the mortgage while also building cash reserves.

Step 2 – Hoard cash. It’s always good to have defensive cash reserves. It shocks me in a country as rich as the USA is that so few people have even a rudimentary emergency fund. At the same time, I have to be careful how quickly I build cash. Mathematically it makes more sense to throw cash at pre-paying the mortgage than letting it earn a pittance of interest. It makes even more sense to fill a 401(k) or traditional IRA as a tax shelter.

I try to keep our federal income tax at zero or as close as reasonably possible both for efficiency and for ethical reasons.  Over the past few years my political views have changed drastically and I feel I have a moral imperative to give the government as little money as I possibly can, otherwise I’m contributing towards all manner of environmental degradation and violence in other countries.

Step 3 – Find the right property. There’s an immense amount of literature on this, much of which I’ve absorbed. Goals change and the only known about the future is the unknown. That said, my current expectations look like this:

Buying land with an existing house, financed with a traditional mortgage, somewhere in our current bio-region. Maria will more than likely still be working full-time and so we’ll need a non-killer commute. It’s possible by the time we complete steps 2 and 3 that interest rates will make financing land prohibitive, in which case we are open to buying raw or slightly improved land in cash and then cashflowing infrastructure, using it as a weekend or part-time homestead via a camper or mobile home. She would ideally love to design and build our own house instead of buying something pre-existing.

I don’t think I can adequately homeschool the kids and be a full-time farmer without burning out, but I would like to sell excess produce to help defer expenses and allow Maria to downshift her career earlier. I already do a (very) small amount, hence the “farmstead” description on this blog. Analysis of any property therefore has to include our own personal preferences plus an economic analysis of its agricultural potential, keeping in mind that the local food market is already quite competitive and will likely only grow more so in the coming decade.

My interests are very strongly in permaculture design and this cold-temperate bio-region provides good opportunities for interesting land design. One of most successful permaculture farmers, Mark Shepard, is in Wisconsin (albeit a dissimilar climate) and he uses annuals and animal agriculture to cashflow the long-term perennial design. I would love to have a property that feeds us now and feeds my grandkids a century from now.

Speaking of multiple generations, a possible wildcard in all this is a farm in my dad’s family that’s been in the family for about a century now. My grandfather died before I become interested in sustainable agriculture but he was one of the early pioneers of soil conservation during the Dust Bowl era. There’d be a certain poetry in keeping it in the family.

My aunt currently lives there, working in town, while the land is rented to a neighboring dairy farm for rotating between corn and alfalfa. There is a non-zero possibility of her leaving after she retires, us moving there as some sort of farm managers, with most of the acreage still rented out, but a decent portion for me to use as I wish. I’m not holding my breath about it but it’s something that has been discussed. The main challenges with this would be the extra politics involved, learning a new region (similar climate but hundreds of miles away), and a much smaller employment base for Maria to try and find income. I don’t think it will happen but wanted to mention it here.