Book Review
Title: "The New American Homestead: Sustainable, Self-Sufficient Living in the Country or in the City"
Author: John H. Tullock
Publisher: Wiley, 2012; 336 pages; $19.99

There are a number of ways people respond to pervasive reports of genetically modified food, peak oil, climate change and government funding crises. Some scream at television commentators and post maniacally on Facebook, while others write their representatives and pour their hearts into grassroots campaigns.

But there’s a growing movement of folks who decide to protect themselves and their families by taking steps to become more self-sufficient in their own homes, whether they be urban condos or suburban McMansions.

Having grown up on a family farm, John Tullock, author of "The New American Homestead: Sustainable, Self-Sufficient Living in the Country or in the City," recommends that readers join this "new breed of American homesteaders" not only to survive, but also to thrive — physically, financially and emotionally.

Tullock redefines "living well" to include self-sufficiency, thrift and slower lifestyles, painting a vivid picture of his own childhood growing up, gleaning and preparing family meals on the family farm and drawing parallels from those experiences to the modern homesteader’s ability to work at home (via telecommute) and go right out into the backyard to savor the sensory delights, pure foods and stress-busting effects of having a productive garden at home.

Tullock launches into this primer for the slower, good life by introducing its basis in permaculture — this term, a hybrid of "permanent" and "agriculture," "has evolved into a philosophy of sustainable living encompassing rural, suburban and urban lifestyles," according to Tullock, who goes on to elaborate that "The New American Homestead" offers knowledge and a plan for those who want to opt in to the permaculture values around "growing food, restoring local ecosystems, and nourishing your spirit from the space available" in and around your own home.

Tullock is also a big proponent of financially leveraging the natural abundance you cultivate, having been a micro-farmer and having authored a guide to monetizing your home micro-farm, so to speak: "Pay Dirt: How to Make $10,000 or More from Your Backyard Garden" (Adams Media, 2010).

If you’re interested in permaculture, eating more plants, eating more locally, having food on hand no matter what disasters take place in the world around you, or simply reducing your household’s financial and environmental footprints, "The New American Homestead" is an accessible resource that provides a nonintimidating foundation of knowledge and the resources you need to kick-start a plan for making your home more self-sufficient and growing some of your own food at home.

Here are three of the movements that Tullock explores, any or all of which might motivate you to pick up a copy and take steps, even baby steps, to creating your own new American homestead:

1. Locavorism. This is the idea, as Tullock describes it, "of obtaining your food from sources as close as possible to your home," with the intent to reduce the energy consumed in growing, processing and shipping your food. Additional advantages of eating locally, including from your own backyard, include the fact that fresh-picked food tastes better and is more nutritious than store-bought and processed foods.

Eating food from your own backyard, farmers markets and even regional producers offering food products online also reduces the carbon footprint your household makes (as meats require vastly more energy to produce, process and transport than produce) and promotes a diet based on Michael Pollan’s simple food mantra: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

2. Permaculture. In addition to the global permaculture values mentioned earlier, Tullock explains that home-based permaculture relies on some basic concepts and values that permeate "The New American Homestead," all derived from the notion that "humans cannot continue indefinitely to practice food production utilizing methods that exhaust limited resources such as oil, soil fertility and irrigation water. In alignment with these values, "The New American Homestead" espouses and demystifies techniques like:

  • organic horticulture ("avoiding chemical pesticides while using ecologically sound techniques to improve soil fertility and enhance productivity").
  • composting — "reusing (crop residues) at home" to produce a natural fertilizer and "desirable soil structure."
  • water management.
  • native plant restoration — choosing and planting local plants that flower, rather than producing food, "for their delightful appearance (and) also to attract beneficial insects."

3. Eco-urbanization. Tullock seeks to dispel the image of Ma and Pa living on hundreds of acres as the image of the American homesteader. In fact, he writes, "[a]s long as we employ appropriate permaculture technologies such as green building, local food production, alternative energy generation, cheap and convenient mass transit, municipal recycling, and green space restoration, living in cities and suburbs beats living sparsely distributed across the countryside, in terms of global sustainability."

In exhorting readers to "bloom where they are planted," Tullock holds out a compelling reason to try: "[T]he typical suburban lot of about a quarter acre or less should be able to generate at least half the fruits and vegetables needed by a family of four."

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