How to Start Homesteading in the US

homestead farming with rows of basil plants

When I wanted to start homesteading, I hit a roadblock. “I don’t have 200 acres like they do. How am I supposed to start if I don’t have that land?“.

The homesteading movement in the US has changed a lot over the past century, but the quest for self-sufficiency is still going strong. When I decided to get into homesteading, I was pretty lost. It was hard to find answers to the questions I had, “Do people still homestead?“, “How can I afford land?“, and “Don’t I need hundred of acres?“. So, with all of these questions, where do you start?

You can start homesteading by identifying your hardiness zone and what you can grow, preparing for the future, and learning to become more self-sufficient in any way you can. The world of homesteading is big, so take baby steps and you’ll be an efficient homesteader soon enough.

To answer the questions from earlier – yes, people still homestead in the US, a lot of land is still affordable (if you know where to look) and you don’t need hundreds of acres. Many people homestead on 1/3 of an acre or less, and some actually homestead from their apartments in surprisingly inventive ways.

Let take a further look at how people are homesteading today.

Do People Still Homestead in America?

Even though you can no longer homestead by receiving land from the US government, many modern homesteaders have changed the definition to mean living sustainably, self-sufficiently, and sometimes – off-grid. The homesteading movement is growing as a lifestyle due to our increasingly busy world.

The homesteading we know today is different than the homesteading from 100+ years ago. Back then, being a “homesteader” meant you had to be at least 21 years old or the head of the household. You also had to live on the land given to you, build a home, and improve and farm the land for at least five years. After that, the government handed you ownership of that land.

This changed in 1976 when the Federal Land Policy and Management Act went into effect. With this, the Homesteading Act ended, and the legal definition of homesteading changed. The Federal Government retained control over public lands (especially in the west) and people could no longer claim free land from the government.

Because of these changes, over the past 50 years, homesteading has taken on a different definition. Instead of working the land and receiving it from the government after a few years, the homesteaders of today strive for a simple, sustainable, and self-reliant lifestyle, much like that of our ancestors.

This may sound exciting, but homesteading and living off-grid isn’t for everyone. It takes a lot of time and effort (both physical and mental) to balance everything and make it work. The learning curve is vast while you get used to dealing with the seasons, loss, and repairs among other challenges. On the other hand, using your skills to craft, produce, and provide for yourself, and others, can be a true panacea to our dependence on technology, health crises, and the rat race.

Is There Land Left in the US?

While there is no longer free land from the Homesteading Act, many states still have cheap land. The midwest and far north have some of the most affordable land, where you can get farmland for $1,000 an acre. While this might seem expensive, farmland in California is often sold for $10,000+ an acre.

The cheapest farmland in the US can be found in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and North Dakota. For more information about pricing and regions, here’s a map of US farmland prices by state from 2017.

So, while old-fashioned homesteading and receiving land after a few years of hard work would be nice, land can still be purchased for affordable prices. Especially if you’re willing to live in the midwest or north.

However, some states and local laws still have versions of the Homestead Act in place today. Meaning, you can get ridiculously affordable land and sometimes even FREE LAND.

While there are some places you might not want to live, due to their extreme remoteness in the midwest, there are a few areas such as Buffalo, New York that could be more desirable and populated (depending on what you prefer, of course).

For more information about land, check out my page on how to find homesteading land.

How Much Land Do You Need to Homestead?

2 acres of land is generally a good size for a family of 4 on a homestead. The amount of land you need comes down to how much food you need to raise and what conditions you’re willing to live in. While it may be cheaper, land with unfavorable conditions can reduce your crop and livestock yields and require more work.

Some homesteaders look for 50 or more acres to raise their family and provide extra income from crops and livestock. While others stress at the thought of managing something that large and can make do on a fraction of an acre or even just an apartment balcony. A large part of homesteading is prepping, so do your best to prepare for tomorrow and make sure your time on the homestead goes as smooth as you can possibly make it.

I remember when I first got into homesteading after watching the documentary The Biggest Little Farm (showing the journey and struggles of Apricot Lane Farms). I remember loving the craftiness of it all, and when I wanted to start homesteading myself, I hit a roadblock. “I don’t have 200 acres like they do. How am I supposed to start if I don’t have that land?“.

The truth is that if you want to start homesteading, the best time to do it is NOW. While this might be cliche, it doesn’t make it any less true.

Start with the environment you have right now. If you’re currently on 1/3 of an acre, try installing a garden bed or two and growing your favorite fruits and veggies (make sure to check your hardiness zone and see what grows best). If you’re in an apartment, try your hand at herbs, sprouts, or microgreens. All three are easy to grow, nutritious, and typically don’t require too much sunlight or attention.

From there, get a feel for how much food you might have to grow to provide for your household. To give you an idea, depending on growing conditions, two people can live off of the produce provided from 1/2 acre. However, this is if you’re growing mostly vegetables. If you plan on raising livestock, you might need closer to one acre.

So, if you’re a family of four, you may want to lean towards at least two acres to allow enough room for the garden and livestock. Keep in mind that you will have loss on the homestead, with both produce and livestock, so growing 20-50% more than you need can help balance things out. Any surplus you might have you can simply barter, sell, or give away.

However, if you’re at the point where you’ve figured how much much land you’d like and are looking to purchase, here are some questions to ask that might help you narrows down your choices.

  • Are you wanting to stay in-state or move out-of-state?
  • What weather do you see yourself living in?
  • Are you familiar with the hardiness zone of that area and know what grows and doesn’t grow well?
  • What’s your budget?
  • Have you done the research and found if you can install solar panels, windmills, or septic tanks?
  • Does the land have access to water, like a well?
  • Are there any issues with the land like flooding, poor soil, or lack of mineral or other rights?

The Best States to Homestead

People are homesteading in every state across a wide variety of climates and environments. While each state has its challenges, you can make it work if you have enough determination. Make a list of what kind of land, weather, and community you’re looking for and sort it out with pros and cons.

Homesteading is best in Tennessee, Idaho, Virginia, Oregon, and Michigan. Many other states are good choices to homestead, but you may sacrifice affordable land, good soil, or convenient nearby city-centers.

If you want the overall best homesteading experience, then start with the top 5 states mentioned above. However, if you’re looking for places that are remote, scenic, or has incredibly cheap farmland, then you may want to consider a few other states.

Best Farmland

  • Oregon
  • Washington

Best Price for Land

  • Wyoming
  • Arizona
  • New Mexico

Best for Remote Living

  • Alaska
  • Nevada

Best Scenery

  • Colorado
  • Montana

Keep in mind, it can be incredibly challenging to homestead in the desert or other barren landscapes. Overcoming the lack of water, soil quality, and excessive heat are huge barriers that you probably shouldn’t attempt unless you have experience.

When you’re looking at states to homestead, also consider their property tax, income tax, sales tax, as well laws that relate to homesteading. Homeschooling, population density, and small business laws (necessary if you plan on selling almost anything on the homestead) are also good to look into.

3 Things You Can Do to Start Homesteading Today

Identify Your Hardiness Zone

In some of my first days learning about homesteading, I had no idea what a hardiness zone was. I remember seeing odd symbols like “8b” and “10a” in gardening and homesteading forums across the web.

But, it’s actually a pretty cool way to plan what plants to grow and how you should be growing them.

The hardiness zone is a range of temperatures (in 5º intervals) that gardeners and farmers use to plan their crops and growing seasons. This sort of planning helps them avoid frost and unnecessary plant loss.

This USDA map shows the hardiness zones that range across the US.

USDA hardiness zone map

Knowing your hardiness zone is important because frost can kill the majority of plants in a garden. This is why many people in colder climates choose to grow annuals instead of perennials (plants that last a year, compared to plants that last many seasons or years).

While most areas get some level of frost, a few areas in the south have virtually zero frost, which results in a year-round growing season. My hometown of Orlando, FL is one of those places, which is why the citrus industry does so well there. Citrus trees can take several years to grow, so keeping them alive through winter and frost is vital. By growing them in a climate with a year-round growing season, you can avoid the danger of frost altogether (unless there’s an unusually cold winter).

Know Your Region

Alongside the increase in popularity of homesteading, more and more people would agree to try to grow plants that are native to your area. Not only does this make your job easier (as you’re not fighting against the environment nearly as much), but it’s also more sustainable and reduces the chance of invasive species. Forget about trying to grow that citrus tree in the north and try your hand at wild blueberries. Take advantage of the hardy plants that have been growing in your region for centuries.

As an example, in central Texas, where I live currently, some edible native plants include yucca, thistle, sweet potato, sunflower, grapes, and onions. I prefer to simplify my garden, which means, sticking to plants that are best suited for this region and hardiness zone. For a full list, and a cool foraging website, check out Foraging Texas.

Another way to approach this is to research the plants you are thinking about growing and find any companion plants they might have. Odds are there are a few out there and both will benefit from growing near each other.

A good example of this are the Three Sisters that Native Americans often grew together. The Three Sisters are corn, beans, and squash. It was genius, really. The corn would provide a living trellis for the beans, the beans would climb and anchor the corn (while providing a boost of nitrogen in the soil), and the squash provided a living ground cover that would keep water in the soil and pests like raccoons out (the spiny branches can hurt!).

Learning more about the history of your region can increase the success you have with your gardens, livestock, and overall homesteading endeavors. See what the natives grew and how they worked with their environment, instead of against it.

Learn How to Become More Self-Sufficient

Becoming self-sufficient is more than growing your own food and raising livestock (although these are a great way to get started). But you can also learn how to sew, fish, hunt, barter, preserve, and much more. Homesteading skills are limitless, so pick 2-3 that interest you and take your time to learn those skills. You’ll quickly get better and will be able to apply your skills often on your homestead.

You can even become self-sufficient in terms of energy. Learn to go off-grid and rely on solar or wind power. Solar panels have become much cheaper over the years, to the point that they’re decreasing at an average annual rate of 62%.

If you have trees on your property you can learn how to harvest firewood and practice forest maintenance. During the winter you can use your cords of wood to heat your home and cook food.

And if you’re crafty on the Internet, you can also create some passive income (yes, this is touted by almost every millennial YouTuber out there, and while those might be scams, passive income is still a real thing you can build over time). If you dream of working less hours in the office and more hours tending to your garden or animals, then passive income might be a good skill for you to develop.

Although passive income takes time to build, finding remote work can happen sooner. After the pandemic, many jobs have transitioned to being remote and more people have taken to working from home. This is the perfect opportunity for you to start homesteading. As long as you live in an area with an Internet connection, you could homestead anywhere and still make an income by working remotely.

But don’t stop there! From foraging to selling handmade crafts on Etsy, there are so many more homesteading topics you can get into.

The motivation to be self-sufficient on the homestead doesn’t stop with you. The skills you build will allow you to share your rewards with your family, and if you play it right, can even build a good side-income (or main income!). Stay inventive and do what others aren’t doing. Grow speciality or unique vegetables, raise rare breeds of animals, or sell fancy colored eggs to your community. Keep an open mind with homesteading and you can create the lifestyle you want.