OtherSpeak: Homesteading in Alaska

Today’s OtherSpeak contribution comes from Tabitha Stoltzfus, who homesteads with her little family out in the boondocks. I admire the choices she and her husband are making, and I asked her a few questions to get a picture of what their life is like. She is married to my sister-in-law’s brother, so we’re practically family. She blogs at Misadventures of an Alaskan Housewife. I hope you enjoy listening in on our conversation.

Hi Tabitha, I’m looking forward to this chat with you. I’m always interested in doing more homesteading than I am, and I’m curious about your choice to homestead in Alaska. What lead you there? Is this a dream that you and Andy shared from early on in your relationship?

Andy is a dreamer/visionary, and although we didn’t initially plan on this move, I’m not surprised that we ended up here in Alaska. Our journey started with our dream to live debt free, and we realized if that was our goal, we would have to move where we could afford land. We had both been in VS work before marriage, and didn’t have much money, so we began looking for land in states where you could buy more acres for less. We considered southern Ohio, New York State, and Maine before Matt Snader asked if we’d be interested in helping him start a church in Alaska.

Do you plan to stay long-term? What’s the hardest part?

We are here long-term, yes. The hardest part is being so far away from family. I’ve had to think of the pioneers who went west on the Oregon trail and didn’t even have communication with family back East. At least letters don’t take a year to get to their destination anymore and we have phones now!

What are the pieces you’re most proud of in your homesteading so far? Significant accomplishments? Lessons learned? Progress?

So far the most exciting thing for us was saving up and buying a skid steer last fall. There is not very much equipment up here in Alaska since it all either has to be brought up on a barge or hauled from the lower 48. This sends prices through the roof, so we bought our skid steer from PA, and actually bought a truck and trailer there as well so Andy could fly down and drive it all back up. Last year Andy was clearing land by hand, and it took a full day just to dig out two stumps. He turned over a 30 x 40 garden plot with a shovel, but this year we’ve been able to triple the size of the garden and clear more land without much effort. Having a skid steer opens up all kinds of possibilities for our homestead.

Tell me about your cabin!

We live in a 16 x 32 foot cabin with a half loft. There are lots of windows, which makes it feel much bigger than it actually is. We have a very open floor plan so that all the space is usable, and I do a lot of organizing and sorting so we only keep the things we need. Nothing makes a space feel small as quickly as having too much stuff!

Do you have particular goals?

We still have the goal of staying debt free, and we would love to see our homestead provide for itself. Our dream is for Andy to be able to work from home raising vegetables to sell. Most produce is shipped up from Seattle for Alaskan stores, and roadside produce stands are almost nonexistent. We’d like to change that. J

When you say you live “off grid,” what does that mean for your family in practical ways? What have been the gains for you? Any downsides?

We did not choose to be off grid. The electricity simply stops two miles from our land and is not available here. We first tried a wind turbine, but it did not produce very much electricity. Last year we bought solar panels, and this year Andy built a tracking solar array. Our solar panels are mounted on a post, and they swivel all the way around so they can face whichever direction the sun is.

In spite of being off grid, we live pretty “normal” lives. I use a French press instead of a coffee maker, and I mix all my cookies, breads, etc. by hand. But we do have a washer, dryer, two freezers, and a refrigerator. I do my laundry on sunny days when there is enough solar power to run the well pump and washer. The refrigerator and freezers are able to run all day on sunny days, but on cloudy days we only run the generator for a few hours, and then try not to open them much. We have learned so much, and it’s nice to be able to provide our own power and fix our own problems rather than waiting on an electric company if there is an outage. The downside is having to think about power all the time, and how long the refrigerator has been running, and if there is enough battery power for me to run the well pump so I can wash dishes.

What are you growing this year?

We have planted a big garden, and we’re trying a lot of things to see what works up here. Cold weather crops and potatoes do really well, but we’re trying a few other things too. In the big garden and raised beds, we have snap peas, pod peas, green beans, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, and a couple rows of corn to try. We also put in 78 strawberry plants and 50 asparagus roots.

Our small greenhouse has pepper and tomato plants as well as squash and a few watermelon. (I’m hoping at least one watermelon makes it to maturity! They cost $9 each in the grocery store in the summertime.)

In the orchard we planted blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, currants, apricots, sweet cherries, and plum bushes. We got plants that are supposed to survive -50 temperatures, but since we only planted them this spring, time will tell!

We also have four dogs, three goats, 30 laying pullets, and 100 meat chickens ready to butcher.

Do you have a worst homesteading disaster to share?

The biggest disaster for us since moving up here was when Andy was finishing the roof of the cabin and slipped off. He fell 16 feet and shattered his hip. The resulting surgery costs and 12 weeks on crutches set us back considerably, but we are still praising God that he can walk and wasn’t killed!

How do you get your children involved in the work around your home? Do you have a system for knowing what chores are age-appropriate, or make it up as you go?

We make it up as we go. 🙂 Gabe just turned 5, Jasmine is 3, and they already help a lot. There’s something about having a lot to do that makes teamwork necessary and important, and I love how our children enjoy being a part of planting the garden and taking care of the animals. Andy and I both try to include them as often as we can and encourage their love of helping. They bring us potatoes to plant, and hauled compost in their little sand pails when we planted the strawberries, and Jasmine is always very willing to run check on the baby sleeping in the cabin. Even Oscar, who just turned two, has small jobs that include him in the family team and make him feel important.

Tabitha and her three youngest

How often do you leave your homestead? How do you rejuvenate, and is your church a part of that? Do you have enough independence & solitude that you need breaks from it?

Yes, we are a long way from anywhere. We drive almost an hour to church, and the closest Walmart, where we do most of our grocery shopping, is an hour and a half away. Because of this, we shop every six months for the non-perishables, and then every couple weeks we get milk, eggs, and fresh produce.

Our church is small, and for being so spread out, very close relationally. We have a fellowship meal every Sunday and linger and talk over dessert and coffee. Most of us do not have family, so our church family has become that. In a word, we need each other.

As far as rejuvenating, we found that driving an hour to church on Sunday, with a meal afterward, did not make a very restful Sabbath. We wouldn’t even get home until 4 pm some Sundays, and by then our children had already taken their nap in their car seats. Almost a year ago, we started taking Saturday as our day of rest. An intentional break from work and going away to just refresh. It’s a wonderful day as a family to go on walks together, have a long devotions, catch up on sleep, study the Sunday school lesson, or read books. It has been such a blessing to set a day apart for intentional rest.

All photos in this post are courtesy of Tabitha Stoltzfus.

So are you energized or tired out? 😉 Any experiments or ambitions of your own you’d like to share? Or simply fresh gratitude for the little things?

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4 years ago

I love this post and the photos. Alaska looks like a lovely place to live. I think about the “luxuries” like reliable electricity, a nearby market etc and I feel incredibly spoiled. I could probably live without my Ninja coffee maker because I could use a percolator on the stove. Internet and phone would be very hard to give up. However I think it would be very interesting to live off the grid.
Thank you Tabitha and Shari!

4 years ago

How very interesting! I just found her Instagram account a few weeks ago and have really enjoyed the peek into a very different lifestyle. It’s intriguing to me, and I applaud anyone who is willing to work hard to pursue a dream.

4 years ago

Inspiring and interesting post! I enjoy reading about people who “live off the land” here in the 21st century and practice values such as were listed here.

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