Off Grid Homesteading, Cob Plaster Workshop

The notion of off grid homesteading and tiny houses has been gaining quite a bit of popularity lately, which is definitely a good thing.  However, it's easy to romanticize these kinds of ideas from our desks without developing a full appreciation for all the challenges that off grid living involves.  I sat down with my friend Curtis Humphrey not too long ago to discuss these topics.  Curtis has been living on family land for many years now, developing ways to create off grid electricity and practicing the homestead lifestyle.  This interview only scratches the surface, as there are so many aspects to life on the land, and to cover any of those aspects in full would require more than one lengthy discussion.  For anyone who has the notion to just sell it all and go back to the land, please listen to what Curtis has to say. 

For the record, neither Curtis nor I are discouraging people from breaking free from the system and getting into homestead living, (quite the opposite in fact), but it's very important that you know what you're getting into if you do choose this course, and it's generally best to take small steps, building knowledge and skill bases thoroughly over time. 

Not long after we did this interview, Curtis invited me to a cob plaster workshop he and his wife Willow were hosting.  They built a tiny house on their land and were still in the process of putting the final touches on it.  The building is wood framed with cob walls, and putting a cob plaster on the ceiling was the task of the day's workshop.

Cob is just clay, sand, straw, and water.  Different ratios of these materials give you different consistencies for a variety of uses.  The walls of the house we were working on were already done, so we were now just applying the final coat of plaster.  We experimented with ratios, eventually adding more clay than was initially called for.  The surface we would be applying to first was the ceiling, which meant that it had to be pretty sticky stuff to stay in place once applied, but malleable enough to easily spread.

This also meant that our straw had to be fairly finely shredded, which is no easy task.  Curtis's system was to put flakes of straw into a fifty gallon drum and whip it around with a weed eater, which was more difficult than it sounds, and fairly slow.  It took several batches to get enough straw just for the small amount of cob we needed to plaster in the ceiling of this tiny house.  Without power tools, I don't know how we would go about shredding the straw.  I guess by taking handfuls and crushing them up and rubbing them together. 

The structure we were plastering is just one of Curtis and Willow's many projects on the land.  They plan to use it as a healing and gathering space, for meditation, massage, or retreat.  Initially they thought to live in this tiny house, but realistically, reducing the amount of stuff one uses on a regular basis to fit into such a small space (less than 200 square feet) is very challenging.  I can't say that I blame them for choosing to continue living in their larger more conventional house. 

There is a sort of paradox inherent to breaking free from the rat race.  Having less stuff and a smaller house is great, as we are generally way too absorbed with material culture, but homesteading is lots of work, and it requires lots of tools and equipment. 

One of the best ways to develop self reliance is to grow and cook fresh food.  But to do this properly, you need a big kitchen.  Cooking from scratch is more work and requires more space than microwave dinners.  Having tools like a vitamix, a juicer, a dehydrator, and cast iron cookware really helps with healthy cooking.  These things take up space, and some of them require lots of electricity. 

Canning food from the garden or orchards is a must if you want to live off the land, but canning equipment also takes up space, and canning in a tiny kitchen ranges from really inconvenient to downright impossible. You have to have lots of line space to work on, and multiple stove ranges with enough width to accommodate large cook pots.  And then where are you going to store all those canned goods?  Having a root cellar is ideal, but if you don't, you need a pantry.  Putting away enough food to last a small family for a year would require a pantry about as large as your typical tiny house. 

So as you can see, it gets quite challenging to balance out the desire to reduce the size of our living space and cut back on material accumulation with the practice of self reliant, homestead living.  Of course, we all have our own style and approach.  It's important, though, to consider the big picture of what we're trying to accomplish, and to weigh the many factors involved with all that needs to change in order for us to live in a happier, healthier, freer world.

Curtis with his worm farm

Curtis with his worm farm

Solar Dehydrator

Solar Dehydrator

Thanks to Curtis and Willow for inviting us out to their land and sharing their process with us!  They are doing such awesome work, and we have enjoyed getting to know them better this year.  They are an inspiration for how people can do what they can with what they have and have a positive impact, both on the land and on the lives of people around them.

A clever way to make steps and put old junk tires to good use

A clever way to make steps and put old junk tires to good use