Crofting – Not Homesteading, part two

I think I am weary of the word “homesteading.”  It is an American term, drawn from the Homestead Act of 1862; Americans could stake a claim on undeveloped land, and if they stayed long enough, built an dwelling, and worked to clear and plant that land, they could file with the government to own it. Homesteaders in the American West came as something of a surprise to the native people who lived in the same land, and saw no need to develop it, cut down the trees, tear up the sod, and stay, come hades or high water. The word “Homestead” had a connotation of the established family farm; this is what the American government wanted these new settlers to do.

We are in maritime Canada, and while the British and French settlers who built here had no better record of cooperation with and respect for their native neighbours, somehow “homestead” doesn’t work as a concept in this place. Farms were carved out of the boreal forest, often with grim labour and loss of life. These tracts, when not claimed for the Crown, were deeded out originally in huge acreages, then divided and sold.

My Scottish ancestors would have, most of them, come out of the Highlands and Islands, where crofting is an established practice, protected and governed by law. A croft is a rented smallholding – perhaps part of a larger farm or estate – organized under certain principles; the rent is minimal, the right to the croft hereditary, the crofter has right to improvements he has made himself, and for rented crofts, there is a commons for grazing.  (Some crofters were able to buy their smallholding, but this seems to eliminate their right to the commons.)

This is why we are more like crofters than homesteaders. We are on less on than four acres; we rent at a minimal price (although more than a croft lease, it is still less than the equivalent house rental in a developed area), we share the improvements with our landlords, and the goal of this crofting is to restore the land to usefulness. We have an outside income, although small, so growing our own food and supporting ourselves without additional expense is necessary to our way of life.

The ex-urban lifestyle was popularized by people like Helen and Scott Nearing, who left academia (under pressure – Scott’s socialist philosophy made him unpopular among his peers in the 1930s) and settled first in Vermont, then in Maine, at a village called Harborside. They wrote books, invited like-minded young people to visit and work with them, and turned an old farm into a vital colony of agrarian research and philosophy.

The Good Life Center at the Nearing farm

Quite a few disenchanted young folks headed into the Maine woods to do the same. Some stayed on and did well; many got tired of the long winters, the hard work, and the lack of city amenities. The Nearings exemplified the benefits of their “good life” at Forest Farm – Scott lived to be one hundred years old, Helen, 91. Self-sufficiency, community of choice, and a rejection of consumerism were their goals. (For more on the Good Life Center, see http://www.goodlife.org.)

We don’t have much in common with the Nearings. We are Christians, traditional Anglicans who have sojourned a bit with other, more conservative Christian groups, but were called home to the Church of England – we have more in common with Back to the Land Catholics and hereditary Mennonites than we do with the homesteading movement of the 1960s. We are also not “preppers” or “survivalists”. We are more concerned with stewardship and community than we are in outlasting post-apocalyptic urbanites. Our agrarian philosophy would be closer to that of Wendell Berry, a farmer, philosopher and former academic who went back to the family farm. (A good introduction to Wendell Berry’s writing is at www.wendellberrybooks.com).

Wendell Berry

I think this has something to do with being Anglican. (Not that Wendell Berry is.) Our theology is organic, responsive to a changing world rather than reactionary; we are rooted in scripture and the tradition of the church, but we are also vernacular and adapting.

At the core of our life is Jesus Christ, who responded to the needs of the world around Him in His days on this earth. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, comforted the grieving. He was part of His community, as well as its leader. He didn’t stand out from His disciples (students, that is) by some badge of office, by dressing better than they, by choosing to ride rather than walk. When He was betrayed, an insider – Judas – had to point Him out to the guards. He ate with, walked with, talked with, wept with the poor, the ordinary, the common. That is what we are doing, and God has indeed brought us to that place.

But it has to be more than talk. (And I am afraid that we – Nicholas and I – were well-trained in Talk.) This has to be preached by doing. And the doing is not in isolation, in self-determined freedom, or in realizing the American dream of a freeheld, prosperous farm. It is in growing a place in a community – a community we know and that knows us – in cooperation, in caring, in communion.

I feel we have more in common with the crofters who share their common experiences via webpage and blog – asking for help, calling on neighbours and family, learning from others – than with the independent American freehold homesteaders. Our goal is to produce enough food to feed ourselves and others and to improve the health of our communities. We are trying to make do with little income – fewer taxes to pay, fewer temptations to face – and stay out of working for corporate structures we know to be destructive of comunity and environment. I know many homesteaders have these same goals, and they can call themselves what they want – but our roots are in the mother church and in the rocky soil of northern Britain.

For those interested in exploring what is happening in Scotland with crofting, see these blogs: The Barefoot Crofter (http://www.thebarefootcrofter.com) and Stonehead (http://stonehead.wordpress.com.)

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9 thoughts on “Crofting – Not Homesteading, part two

  1. Even though my roots come via Spain and Africa, our goals are quite similar. My grandmother, who was a Mulato woman, taught me that as long as there was growth in the garden, you will never starve….and it is a truth I hold on to very strongly.

    My spiritual believes stem from the same…He has given us this beautiful creation with everything that we, as its inhabitants, will ever need.

    It is our greed, I believe, that has made crofting so unpopular. I have read the Nearings books, and even though I don’t agree with their socialistic views, I have gleamed a great deal from their way of living.

    M.

    • It is a way of life, not just a stopgap until things improve. I find that while many people who are “homesteading” live much as we do, in the practicality of it, there are many who are stockpiling, wasting gasoline driving around looking for the ideal farm, buying boks and equipment and supplies for what they aren’t doing yet. Better to start small, do what you can afford, and just live the life doing what you need to do.

      • By some happy serendipity, I found your blog – in fact, I had a comment all ready to submit on an earlier post, clicked something, and lost it to the ether. But I kept reading. And I’m compelled to comment again!

        My father, though not specifically Christian, lives a life of humble, thankful, practical simiplicity on a property he was truly fortunate to find, in rural central Alberta. We have an awkward relationship, but each time I speak with him, I’m left feeling I can and want, to do more.

        The whole idea of this being a way fo life is so foreign to people; there would be many more happy people in the world, if only they would embrace more common-sense, practical ways of living.

        In the post I intended to comment upon earlier, you were outlining some things to consider before embarking on this way of life. What a sensible list! I can’t, at this point, do very much more (student loans and mortgage stand in the way), but I do try. I’m a professional woman, but I sew and cook and knit and during the spring and summer my husband and I spend as much of our free time as we can growing food. We love living away from the crowd, in a small village, with room to breathe and be silent. These are things I take away from conversations with my father and I’m very pleased to find someone else echoing his philosophy and values.

        Thank you for your insightful and heartening words. May more stumble and reflect upon them and be better for it.

        N.

      • Debt is the biggest thing keeping people from living as they wish! God bless you in your efforts.

  2. Magdalena, thank you for this. I have always felt a bit unsettled or detached in my situation here. I love J and love our home and animals, but it is Not My Land, and that has bothered me. We are a middle aged couple with a history with first partners and first families.
    I came here from a wandering life. I had lived in the country half my life, but post-divorce became a single mom in small towns until I entered university and we lived in apartments.
    J built this house in the forest himself, more than 20 years ago and raised his children here.
    He is older than me, and not as healthy, and I suppose he will die first. When that happens, his sons will inherit the place, which is natural and appropriate. I will then be faced with starting my life over from scratch.
    I am good at starting my life over, having done that several times. But I have had for 3 years now this naggin feeling that J has a good homestead, with the potential for it to be quite wonderful. I, on the other hand don’t really own anything other than a few sticks of furniture and my sewing and cooking things. I have thought over and over that all the work I put into this place, all the time and money and love and good intention, will just ‘evaporate’ upon J’s death and I will have nothing.
    To my mind it would be different in a place I owned, then I would be building for my future, making a home-place for my children and grand-children to come to which they would one day inherit. Here it will go to J’s heirs, who don’t even want the place and will no doubt sell it, split the cash and forget about it.
    Sigh.
    From here on I’m going to tell myself that I’m a crofter, farming on the owner’s land to our mutual benefit.
    That idea is a blessing to me. It fits my mind better. And when, however many years down the road, the boys do sell this place off, they will no doubt sell it to people who do want a country life, so my efforts will untimately go to someone who will benefit from them after all.
    Thank you for your ministry here to my uneasy heart. You’ve given me a way to see more happily the life the Lord has put me in. I’ll work on blooming where I’m planted.

    • I had to come to the realization that none of our five children will want a farm this far north, and crofting made as much sense as buying. Our landowners will pass this house and land on to the next generation, and we are stewards of it for the next farming generation.

    • Where do you live?

      In most jurisdictions, you are entitled to a portion of land you have lived on and improved; that is, he lacks the right to pass it all on to his sons.

      • My experience in the States is that inheritance laws vary greatly from state to state, and I had assumed that a pre-nuptial agreement would make the inheritance issue clear if the husband wished his children to inherit a family home before their stepmother. The widow’s portion of the estate doesn’t have to be the home; she might receive (or care to receive) money, other goods, or investments. Of course, she could be granted a life interest in it, which means the children would hold the property but could not sell it or make material alterations to it while she lived in it.

  3. The idea and way you present crofting is one that I think that my daughter and I would be happy with. I really don’t see my daughter’s children wanting to live off the land as adults, though they might change their minds. The town we live on the edges of is surrounded by large monoculture farms. We don’t want or need and couldn’t work 300 acres. We would like an acre up to maybe 5 acres for fruit and nut trees, gardens and chickens and a buffer for wildlife. If we knew that we could count on the land for at least my daughter’s lifetime (it would probably be a lifehold lease or 90 year lease) then the expense and effort would be well worth it. So far nothing even close has come up.

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