When tough times threatened his livelihood, Robert made a choice. Instead of being a victim, he moved to the country, built a self-sustaining homestead, and lived life on his own terms. Read on (or listen to the interview) for his secrets to ultimate self-reliance.
What if we told you that it’s possible to live comfortably on just 15 thousand dollars a year...or less?
It may sound a little crazy, but that’s exactly what our most recent Preparedness Stories Contest winner, Robert, has been doing for decades.
He’s perfected a unique formula for self-reliance that’s made him almost food independent—and prepared him for disaster better than just about anyone you’ll ever meet.
“I almost feel bad about it,” Robert says. “With COVID virus and economic meltdown this year, everyone is having such a hard time, and this is one of the best years we've had. We haven't felt stressed at all about this thing.”
But it wasn’t easy. It took years of learning from the Boy Scouts, Polish immigrant farmers, friends, helpful neighbors, and lots of trial and error.
“You want to live a lifestyle that is a little different than everybody else,” he said. “You want to be self-sufficient. [You] don't want to be dependent on the government, or on the job, or the food store, whatever else.”
Below is our interview with Robert where he lays out in detail his secrets to a truly self-reliant, prepared life.
(For more of his Robert’s story, listen to our interview above.)
Robert’s Story: Lessons in Self-Reliance
SURIVIVAL FROM THE BOY SCOUTS
R: “I was born in Chicago. I never really liked the big city. I never liked urban areas. I didn't like living in Chicago.
I got into Boy Scouts. I made Eagle Scout and learned a lot of skills that I used later in life from scouting.”
GARDENING FROM POLISH FARMERSR: “When I got into college I had some friends whose parents were immigrants from Poland after World War II. They were Polish farmers basically. They grew a garden in a postage-stamp backyard. They basically grew most of their own vegetables living in that little space, so I learned how to grow things from them.
FORAGING IN THE FORESTS OF MICHIGAN
R: “[In college] my friends and I went up to Michigan quite a bit. [The family that taught me farming] had an area [up] there where they picked blackberries and apples.
I learned some more things about foraging there. It kind of reinforced what I had learned in boy scouts.”
LIVING FREE AND SELF-SUFFICIENT AT $9,600 A YEAR
R: “We were strange. Most people don't live like we do. We've never put any emphasis on making money. With our educations—I have a doctorate and my wife has a masters’ degree—we could have made lots of money.
But that never interested us. I mean, what's the point? We like living. We like being stress free. We like being able to come and go as want. We like being able to grow our own food. It's a different outlook.
For example, our basic income has probably been somewhere around 10 to 20 thousand dollars a year. One time a guy volunteered to do my income tax. He was a CPA. Afterward he came to me and said, ‘Ok, I know you don't really want to pay taxes, but tell me how much you really made.’
He didn't believe that anybody could live on $9,600 a year!
And we were doing OK on that. Like I said, we raised goats, we had goat milk. We raised chickens. We had the farm...homestead, whatever. We did pretty good with it. For the most part we learned to live on very little and to grow and produce most of the things that we needed. It's just something you learn to do.”
Robert’s Primer in Self-Reliant Living
HOW TO LIVE OFF OF CANNED FOOD: A SIMPLE ROTATION TRICK
EE: “[With everything going on these days] have you found yourself having to break into your supply? Or is your supply just a regular part of your rotation anyway in your daily life?
R: “Yeah, we live off of it, but then we replace it. During the year of course we use the food that we’ve canned. In the summer we can it and replace it.
What I usually do [is this]: for 2020 I'm eating the food that I canned in 2018…You take the older food first. Say I want to have green beans tonight. I'll look for green beans I have from 2018 and I'll use those. If I'm out of those I'll look for 2019. 2020 is left for last.
Of course, there are some exceptions. Sometimes there’s a year where you don't have a lot of one thing or another.”
EE: “Are you able to live that way in 2020, independently—with the fruits and veggies at least—not having to get very much at the store, just with the things in 2018 that you canned?”
R: “We can't grow thing like bananas, oranges, and mangoes. So we have to buy those.
And we have to buy milk. I'm not doing the goats right now—for about 10 years we drank goat milk. So we get into some of the powdered milk. Other than that, we haven't pulled from our stockpile much.”
EE: “It sounds like you have a pretty substantial supply. Where are you keeping this?”
R: “I have a utility room off my back door and it has large shelves there. [We also keep food in closets, under beds, and offsite.”]
THE HOMESTEADER'S BIGGEST CHALLENGE? WATER INDEPDENCE.
R: “The water is the hardest thing to stock.
I have quite a bit of water stocked up, probably enough for us to have for two to three months. Our well has enough water to last for several days of running continually.
The weak part of my prep, and I'm very concerned about this, is that if we lose electricity, I lose the well.
Now, I have a device that I can lower down in the well and pull water out, but it is very labor intensive. It would only pull out a quart in 15 minutes, so I'd have to be working at that for two to three hours a day. I'm still working on that.
We [do] store quite a bit of water. You've seen those big plastic garbage cans that you can buy at like the dollar store? They have a pretty tight lid on them. I've got three of those. They’re full of water. I store them outside. I put buckets along the side of the house that catch rain water. It can be used for flushing toilets.
For drinking, soft drink bottles hold up really well. They're heavier plastic. And so I wash out and put a little bleach in the soft drink bottles and we have those stored. I have probably about 200 of those soft drink bottles stored in my house.”
Other than that I could probably survive without going to a store for about a year.”
THE PREPPER'S GARDEN AND HOW MUCH YOU NEED TO [MOSTLY] SUSTAIN YOURSELF
R: “When we moved [to our current property] there was a pear tree and a fig tree. Some muscadine vines, too. And I planted three peach trees and some blueberry bushes.
We’ve grown different kinds of beans the last couple years. Mostly what I'm using now is heritage vegetable where you can take the seeds and use them again.
EE: “So these are things that you purchase the seed originally and then you grow the crop and save the seeds.”
R: “Yes, I still purchase seed but I also save seed.
I’m using the same system for sees that I use for canned foods. It works for me. The seeds I planted this year were 2018 and 2019 seeds primarily.
Now, I do buy some seed on sale at the dollar store that are hybrid seeds for certain things. I do collect the beans and the corn and some of the different seeds that I grew and then I replant them every year.
A couple years ago for example, we started with a new type of bean—new to us—called cranberry beans. But I planted some of these that I bought from an online seed company. They grew very well. I dried some of the seeds out and then I planted them again last year and they grew again, and then dried some more out and planted them again this year and they grew again.
And we had a pretty good harvest. I've done that with the black beans also. We grow most of the vegetables we eat.”
EE: “What's the size of your garden—your entire operation you've got back there?”
R: “Right now we live on a house with 1.39 acres. I make my garden rows 10 foot long. And I plant in usually double rows.
And I have about 14 or 15 rows like that with about a foot and a half between the rows (coming out to about a 12' x 35' plot).
I have a second little garden area where I plant things like cabbages. It's a shadier area where I don't want it to get direct sun. It's not that big. It's probably about 14' x 7'. I grow kale also, some of the green things there.
I also plant some things in containers—five-gallon buckets. I have 10 to 12 of those where I'm growing garlic, my herbs, and seasonings. I've got huckleberry bushes growing in there now. I've got some cabbage growing there too, and strawberries.
Between all that I've been getting enough food.”
EE: “What percentage would you say comes from your property versus going to the store to get.”
“I would guess about half or better. It's hard to say. On vegetables, most of it comes from our garden except for certain things that might be out of season.
For fruit, we do have to buy bananas and oranges and grapefruits, and some of the citrus fruits because we can't grow them. So, maybe half of the fruit.
Now, in terms of meat, we eat the deer meat but we do have to buy some chicken and pork chops once in a while. I'm still getting two deer a year. That's still a good deal of our meat. We don't eat deer meat every day. We eat it maybe three, four days a week. And then the other three days we have other meat.”
DON’T RELY ON THE GROCERY STORE—BE THE GROCERY STORE
EE: “I’ve also been thinking: for people who have gardens, usually what happens is [that the] garden supplements what you can get from the store—from the industrial food system.
Yours is the opposite, which is so much more secure a position to be in in a lot of ways. You can provide so much for yourself and you can go to the store and pick up the things you need to supplement. I think that's a really cool thing.”
R: “Yeah, I would say we're opposite of most people [in that way]. We're growing our food in our garden and getting deer meat and then supplementing [at the store] with other things.”
SUPPORTING THE GARDEN—AND THE PLATE—WITH FORAGING
R: “I go into the woods every year and I have done this since 1977, to pick blackberries. I pick as many as I can. This was a particularly good year. I picked four gallons of blackberries. I put them in small snack bags and freeze them and then use them in my cereals and things like that.
I do sometimes dry and dehydrate them. We make blackberry jelly every three to four years. The jellies we rotate on about a four-year basis because we don't need that many.
Like this year I made crab apple and blackberry and every year I make pear marmalade because we eat lots of that. It’s better than what you buy at the store.
Because we like flowers, too, and we didn't have a lot of money to buy fancy [ones], I found some Jerusalem artichokes in the woods. They have a nice flowering plant. They're sort of like a small sunflower.
So I transplanted a bunch in my yard along this little rock wall that I built and they have pretty much taken over the area. [The roots] are edible…You can dry the roots out and make a flour out of them. You'd just have to be careful how much you would eat.
We also have the acorns that you have to process to get the tannin out. But that can be used. We experimented a little with that in the past. We've made acorn meal and acorn bread.”
EE: “How did that turn out?”
R: “It's not bad if you get the tannin out of the acorn.
We also dug up some lamb’s quarter which is an edible wild plant and I put some of it around the edge of the garden. It'll come up like a weed; you can eat that and we do eat it with our greens.
And of course [there are] dandelions. They grow in the spring and you can use the leaves in your salad. I haven’t transplanted any of those, they come up by themselves.
I also got some huckleberry bushes started from some cuttings in a bucket. They had some small berries on them this year. I'm going to transplant those into the yard next year I think and see if I can get a patch of huckleberries going.
We just keep expanding and experimenting with new things. Lots of trial and error over the years and we're still learning. I'm still digging things up in the woods that I find and bringing them to the house and putting them in a pot and trying to grow them.”
EE: “Can I ask you one final question to tie this up? I know this is something our community would be really interested to know.
For somebody getting started, I think that they might be a little intimidated listening to all of this. If you did have a person come to you and say, 'I'm just starting from nothing,' what advice would you give them for getting on the path of self-sufficiency?”
R: "Well, there are about six or seven things I could say to do.
- First of all, you need to make a decision that you want to live a lifestyle that is a little different than everybody else because you want to be self-sufficient.
- Second, you need to educate yourself in how to grow a garden.
- And then start small. We started small. You start with a small garden, with maybe tomato plants and add a few peppers and a few squash and things like that. Increase it each year as you are able.
If you don't have a lot of space, you can grow things in a very small space. Learn how to grow things in containers. I know some people that even live in apartments but they grow things in their balcony in containers. Each year plant a little bit more.
- Learn which plants go together. For example, you can plant corn and beans, they are compatible with each other. You can grow squash under the corn. You don't need a lot of space.
- Get some books on foraging, on wild plants. What are plants that grow in your area? Even in urban areas there are wild plants that grow as weeds that are edible. Learn about your environment and nature.
- The next thing would be, look at how you can cut back financially. Instead of depending on having a lot of money for everything, try cutting back. Try making due with things that are cheaper.
Look for sales. Look for things you can get at thrift stores [clothes, etc.]. Learn to live with less. It takes practice, it takes time. For example, when I go to buy meat at the grocery store, I go early in the morning because they mark down the meat from the day before and you can buy the reduced for quick sale meat at sometimes half the price.
- Then I would say, when you're financially able, look at how you can get a piece of property, somewhere where you can start growing things. Learn how to do that."
EE: “Those are great. Thank you so much for being very vulnerable and sharing a lot of information about your life with us.”
R: “You’re welcome.”