What It's Like to be a Modern-Day Homesteader
A Q&A with one of Charlotte's own.
Crystal Phelps Photography
Courtney Gleason and her husband, David (above), lived inside Charlotte's city limits from 2007 to 2015, until they decided to ditch the suburban home and move to a "dilapidated 1914 farmhouse" in Dallas, N.C. They have three children—two girls, aged 5 and 3 1/2, and a 1-year-old-boy—and this family of five lives as modern homesteaders, growing their own food via two large gardens and raising animals as well. The life of a modern homesteader is self-sufficient, but it takes work.
We asked Courtney what it's really like to be a homesteader in today's world of instant gratification.
Charlotte at Home: What inspired you to move out to a farmhouse and begin homesteading? Do you have a family history of a similar lifestyle?
Courtney Gleason: I was one of five siblings, and my mom homeschooled us. There wasn't a lot of extra money, so we grew a big garden each year and canned as much as possible for wintertime. We would drive all over the place, going to u-picks and foraging for blackberries and elderberries, and mom would preserve them in some way. We didn't have any animals, as we lived inside the limits of a tiny village.
David and I grew up about ten minutes away from each other in rural New York State. His hometown is even smaller than my own! His parents also maintained a garden and canned food, but not to the extent that my mom did. There were and still are a lot of dairy farms in his hometown. When he was young, many of the farms were small and family run, with pastured cows. In recent years, the dairy farms have changed hands or sold off, and most now operate as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
We both attended private, four-year colleges, funding the experience with student loans. We graduated with enormous debt, which quickly proved to be a major handicap and stress point. We read a Dave Ramsey book and decided we had nothing to lose by trying out the snowball method. It was during that debt pay-down period that we began our homesteading journey, though I wouldn’t have recognized it at the time. We started a garden and learned canning for ourselves. Our interests and capabilities grew from there—but it was 10 more years before we “outgrew” our suburban home and found a place with more land.
Courtney and David Gleason.
CaH: So what does a regular day look like for you? Do you have a "regular" job as well or do you stay at the house?
CG: David is a sales manager for Freud America, so his weekdays (and many evenings/weekends) are focused on that role. I care for our three children as well as homeschool our daughters. I have a website and organize a meet-up called the Homesteaders of the Greater Charlotte Region. In addition, I sell farmhouse-style and vintage-inspired housewares through my direct sales business.
Our days differ depending on the season. The summer harvest season (June–August) is the busiest season, and I try to weed and work in the gardens for an hour in the morning on most days. It’s really not enough time to keep up, but even that amount of time can be difficult with my little boy running around, trampling plants, and picking unripe fruits! Most of the work is done, by necessity, after the kids go to bed. They go down by 7 p.m., and the next four hours or so are crammed with summertime work.
David typically spends his evenings working outside while I stay inside in the kitchen, canning, freezing, or otherwise cooking and preserving food. This past week I turned 10 pounds of tomatoes into jams and pickles, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I expect to preserve double that or even more each week for the next two months, plus we have plenty more for eating fresh and for sale. Tomatoes aren’t the only food we grow and preserve!
In the fall and winter (late September–March), we do maintain a small outdoor garden, but we don’t spend a lot of time on it. This year, we hope to have a greenhouse to further extend our growing season—hopefully to year-round. We will also use it to grow our own started seeds for next summer’s garden. Other than that, most of our research, planning, and “fixing” is done in the fall and winter evenings. I also spend some evening time preparing meals for the freezer for later use.
CaH: What do you grow in your edible gardens?
CG: In traditional garden beds: asparagus, turmeric, ginger, horseradish, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, cucumbers, zucchini, various squashes, various hot peppers, green peppers, greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, garlic, onions, sunchokes, grapes, muscadines.
In edible landscaping throughout our property: figs, scuppernongs, blackberries, persimmons, plums, goji berries, blueberries, strawberries, elderberries, mulberries, jujubes, American cranberry, dewberry, aronia, black walnuts, and a variety of herbs. We have planted almonds, hazelnuts, regular walnuts, chestnuts, chinquapin and pecans but those are still several years from production.
We also raise ducks, pastured chickens, guineas, and turkeys. We’re in process of getting pigs as well. Our animals are pasture-raised, but we supplement with soy-free, certified organic feed. Animals need daily attention, no matter the season—verifying their water and supplementary food levels, gathering eggs, and just generally checking in. We grow the turkeys and, soon, pigs, for meat and occasionally have to cull a chicken from our flock. Those events aren’t frequent, but we do process everything ourselves.
Things are always changing on a homestead. It’s a continual process of learning and then expanding on that knowledge.
CaH: What are some common misconceptions about modern homesteading? What's the biggest question people ask you?
CG: There’s a tendency for people to view things in an “all or nothing” light. They think of the word “homesteader” and immediately assume that homesteading means living off-grid in a cabin somewhere. That’s just so far from possible for so many people including us... nor is that even necessarily ideal! However, we can live in a more self-sufficient way without fully exiting the modern world. That’s really what modern homesteading is all about.
CaH: Do the kids help out on the farm?
CG: Our daughters help by playing with our son and by doing a bit of weeding. They are a bit young to take on major tasks. We still involve them in as many activities as possible, though. They hunt for berries, collect eggs, feed the chickens, pick up sticks, weed, and plant. My 5-year-old especially loves to work in the garden, and she can identify a wide variety of plants.
It’s important for us to teach our kids where our food comes from and what ethical and sustainable food really looks like. We can get hung up on terms like “organic” as being of ultimate importance, but even that term doesn’t mean you’re getting the most ethically produced and processed, or even the most healthful, food.
CaH: What has been the worst part about homesteading? The best?
CG: Homesteading is a lot of work. In the summertime, when so many people are snoozing in the sun with a cocktail, we’re sweating it out, tying up tomatoes, weeding, and moving chickens around. We often have to turn down social events. We don’t get to put the work off indefinitely—there’s a little wiggle room here and there, but in general, the season determines the workload.
On the other hand, we love the rhythm of this lifestyle. We enjoy doing something so fundamentally important—feeding ourselves and our children. We love nothing more than feeding friends a farmhouse meal, fully grown and prepared by our own hands. Our work is meaningful. The food is fantastic. We have truly never been happier.
CaH: What else do you think people should know about your lifestyle?
CG: Fifty years ago, practically everyone grew their own tomatoes (and more). Eggs came from your own backyard or maybe your neighbors' yards. These days, hens aren't even allowed in many neighborhoods, and vegetable gardening isn't something people regularly do. There's a bit of a back-to-basics revival happening, and that's fantastic. It's still on the fringe in many areas, though—front-yard edible landscaping and backyard poultry aren't making their ways to newer neighborhoods with restrictive HOAs. It's a shame.
We should celebrate efforts for self-sufficiency. A homegrown vegetable or berry is beautiful. The quiet backyard hen eats excess food waste from our kitchens and rewards her keeper (and neighbors!) with a regular supply of eggs. I can think of few negatives to this.