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Going Back to the Land: The Rise of Homesteading in Appalachia

The “Back to the Land” movement is growing like wildfire across the nation as people reinvent what it means to be a homesteader, and Appalachia is one of the most popular areas for those looking to begin their journey toward self-sufficiency.

The Appalachian region has always been known for the expansive swaths of rolling green farmland laid out between the dense foliage of the mountains. Families have worked from dawn to dusk fighting for a living in these quiet rural towns for hundreds of years and passed down their heritage and livelihood through the land. Homesteading was once the only way to live if you wanted to survive, and although modernization has removed the necessity, people are finding countless new reasons why homesteading is a lucrative decision.

Despite the soil nutrient levels being subpar, people choose Appalachia for its slower pace, conservative views and sense of community. In the era of convenience and technology, people are trying to turn back time and embrace hard work to achieve a quiet, healthier lifestyle. In an article from Midwestern Citizen, Isaac Haught wrote, “A number of factors including the pandemic, questionable agricultural ‘developments,’ and price increases are causing Americans to search for more efficient and sustainable ways to produce food and energy for themselves.”

Homesteading gives people the opportunity to have control over what goes into their bodies by staying away from applying harmful pesticides to their crops or injecting unsafe hormones into their livestock.

This way of life also leads many to come together as a community and share the fruits of their labor. Neighbors and friends become family through this shared experience, and Appalachia, known for its southern hospitality, is the perfect place to establish this foundation of giving.

There are several ways to begin homesteading. For many people in the Appalachian area, the best approach has been to start small with trial and error, choose a specialty and share the responsibilities, while others have chosen to research heavily before beginning, then establish a large farm for a more single-handed approach.

Starting Small

In 2010, Keshia Miller moved from Hindman, Kentucky, to Rogersville, Tennessee, and bought 32 acres of land with the intention of hunting and possibly having a small garden. After marrying her husband, Ben Miller, from Bristol, Tennessee, in 2014, the Millers began to consider raising chickens for eggs, but their move into the homesteading lifestyle really began during the pandemic.

“It was after COVID started, which is I think a big factor for a lot of people,” said Keisha Miller. “Not being able to get food… We just wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible.”

“We kind of wanted to do something before COVID, but COVID really lit the fire,” Ben Miller added.

The Millers began their small farm – nicknamed by Ben’s niece as “The Farm in the Middle of Nowhere” – purchasing Rhode Island Red chickens for eggs to raise on their land, started gardening and bought cows to raise on Ben’s uncle’s farm. Several members of their church congregation also found the idea of homesteading appealing, and the Millers soon took full advantage of the community around them.

“You build a relationship that’s really a lifelong relationship,” said Ben Miller. "Your interests are the same. If you’re down and out, and they have extra, they’ll say here you go, and the same that we would do for them.”

After a few years of homesteading, the Millers have grown their resources. They raise Cornish Cross chickens for meat, Heritage chickens for eggs and Delaware chickens which are a dual-purpose breed. They can now incubate the Delaware chicken eggs, which has created self-sufficiency in having a continuous cycle of eggs to chickens. Some of the people in their homesteading community supply the feed for the chickens, and when the chickens are ready to be processed, they all come together to butcher 40-80 chickens twice a year and split the meat amongst the group. Through community member farms, the Millers also have a pig, rabbits and milk, and they continue raising cows on the uncle’s farm.

When it comes to gardening, the Millers work hard to create a hospitable soil environment to grow vegetables. They both agree that their land being at the base of a mountain does not help matters and provides slate heavy dirt, but they believe the secluded location is worth the extra effort. With proper soil care, the garden supplies an abundance of green beans, tomatoes, okra and peppers most years when the weather conditions are decent. Last year, they were able to can over 200 jars of green beans and 60 jars of tomatoes. Ben and Keshia Miller plan to grow and evolve their homestead by adding fruit bushes to the garden, raising their own rabbits, and bringing in goats and bees. The Millers do not consider what they do as homesteading as much as, “it’s just life.”

Preparation is Key

On another farm down the road, Mark and Karen Elam have chosen another route to homesteading. “It’s a saying that where you stand is where you sit. Your background dictates your position on things,” said Mark Elam, after 31 years of serving in the Army. “In the Army, I could never do anything. I couldn’t trap. I couldn’t barely have a garden. We wanted a place where we could just do stuff that we had never been about to do but raise as much of our own food as possible.”

When looking for a place to move to nine years ago in 2014, the Elams created a list of wants - including conversative values, proximity to a trauma center and snow for Karen - and needs – living close enough to the Atlanta area where Mark’s mom lives. Finally, Mark asked the head general of the Tennessee National Guard where he would suggest, and Northeast Tennessee was one of the locations the general pointed out. Upon moving to Rogersville, Tennessee, the Elams purchased 53 acres of mostly wooded land with several usable acres around the home and began growing their farm, which they jokingly refer to as “The Sanctuary,” in reference to what the Army calls the last two years before retirement.

The Elams do not view what they do as homesteading as much as a means of survival in the best and worst of times. “There are two different tracks that you can do,” Mark Elam said. “Normal life, you just farm to eat. On the second tract, if things go bad, how do you take care of your family?”

Although Mark makes the point that it is not feasible to assume anyone can be truly self-sufficient with the need for outside resources such as fuel, electricity and similar items, the Elams are working to become as self-reliant as possible. They currently have five freezers full of meat and pig fat, an abundance of chicken and duck eggs and plans to transform their grain house into raised beds full of wiggler worms to create their own nutrient rich compost.

On their farm, the Elams raise a wide variety of livestock, including meat such as Freedom Rangers – egg – Rhode Island Reds, Australorps and Barred Rocks. They also care for ducks, rabbits, pigs, hair sheep, guineas and cows, as well as a fully stocked pond. Honeybees are a newer addition to the farm, which Mark says is one of his favorite parts of homesteading despite being stung on many occasions during the honey extraction process. The Elams were also able to secure a grant from the Natural Resources Soil Conservation office to build a greenhouse, which helps extend their growing season.

Mark and Karen Elam spent many years planning and studying to begin their homestead and believe in doing extensive research before diving into any project.

“Two things you have to have are infrastructure and knowledge,” said Mark Elam. “If you have fences, then you could put cows in somewhere. If you have water, a backup well with a hand pump. If you have chicken coops to put something, whether it’s chickens or ducks and so forth. So, the infrastructure is there… The second part is the knowledge of how to do it.”

Resources Galore

There is an abundance of resources available in the Appalachian area for those interested in becoming homesteaders. There are extension offices in most counties that provide classes, such as master beef, sheep, goat and vegetable classes. The NRCS provides grant opportunities for greenhouses as well as fencing, barns, water pads and essential infrastructure for a successful farm. There are several conventions in and around Appalachia including The Homestead Festival in Columbia, Tennessee, The Self-Reliant Festival in Camden, Tennessee, The Homesteaders of America Conference in Front Royal, Virginia, and The Great Appalachian Homesteading Conference in Crossville, Tennessee.

If you are interested in harvesting honey, look to local bee clubs such as the Clinch Valley Beekeepers for opportunities to gain knowledge. YouTube is another valuable resource for homesteading with channels such as Perma Pastures Farm, Homesteading Family and Appalachia’s Homestead with Patara. Appalachia is rich in natural beauty with a myriad of resources at every turn, and homesteading celebrates the history and heritage of the land.


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