Transcript: Olivia Reingold
My interview with the staff writer at The Free Press
“Once you question the food, you question everything.” That’s a quote from Rory Feek, a farmer and filmmaker in the growing homesteading movement, which is seeing numbers of Americans turn away from processed foods and rediscover how to grow what’s on their plates, sustaining their communities in the process. Feek made this comment at the inaugural Modern Homesteading Conference in Idaho — and my guest this week was there to take it all in.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Olivia, welcome to Lean Out.
OR: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.
TH: It's wonderful to have you on the program. As soon as I read your reporting last week, I knew I wanted to talk to you.
OR: That's so kind, thank you.
TH: I'm fascinated by the homesteading movement. I've been tracking it for some years. I made a radio documentary about it, and touched on it a bit in my book. At one point, it seemed to me like this was the secret fantasy of every overworked urban woman that I know — to get land, raise chickens, grow vegetables, make homemade jam. This still sounds kind of delightful to me. How did you come to this topic?
OR: This was actually an assignment, to be honest. The assignment was really rooted in a conference — I went to the first-ever Modern Homesteading Conference. There are obviously other conferences on this topic, but this was the first one of this nature. And I guess my philosophy is that conferences aren't really news. When I got the assignment … obviously, it's an honour to get to travel for reporting in general. I was like, "I get to go to Idaho, that's great. But what is the story here?" Then, I showed up and I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is quite a story." It was actually the story that has probably made me think the most out of anything I've reported on, weirdly. Because I think I'm used to speaking to people who are rather different from myself. Or things I'm not experiencing myself. Like speaking to someone in the throes of drug addiction, things like that.
But sometimes the simplest questions are the ones that go the deepest. And food —and “Where does it come from?” — actually turned out to be expansive. The kicker in the piece, the final quote, comes from a celebrity of the homesteading movement. His name is Rory Feek, and he gave a closing speech at this dinner, and he said something like, "Once you question the food, you question everything." That is certainly what I heard from people at this conference. That food is really the starting point.
Once you start to wonder, “Where does my food come from?” — it leads to a lot of other questions that, honestly, was both inspiring to me and anxiety-provoking. Realizing how fragile the modern system can be, and how little we really think about a lot of our choices.
TH: It is so interesting. Paint a picture for us. You arrive at this Modern Homesteading Conference — what did you find when you got there?
OR: The first thing I saw when I got there were these baby chicks, and kids playing. There were animals all around. There were sheep on display. There was an expo on how to shear your sheep. And I'm looking around, trying to figure out where to start, because it is pretty overwhelming. There are women selling vials of herbal medicine that they claim can cure the common cold. Eventually, I stumble upon this hog that is — I don't know what the respectful term is — deceased. I'm embarrassed to say I showed up maybe 15 minutes late. I heard that the butcher actually shot the hog. I don't know how public it was. I heard he took the hog into a trailer.
Anyway, at this point, the hog is dead and is hoisted up by a tractor. I was seeing the way people were staring at this carcass, and taking notes intently, and drawing diagrams, and shouting out questions like, "Tell us about your knives!" to the butcher. And not wincing at all when the head came off and the organs came out. It made me think a lot about myself and why this was so hard for me. The only time I looked away was when the hog's head came off. But these are people whose relationship to food and to the animals they raise is totally different. It's very respectful. There's a different understanding there.
I was really taken by this family, I believe they have six kids. They're called the Neelys. I think they're from Enterprise, Washington. They're in the story, and they were watching, and a lot of the boys were really excited. First of all, I could see all of the boys had knives clipped to their waistbands, which I loved. They clearly have a lot of independence back on their homestead. They were whispering to their dad, like, "Dad, that's the part we always get tripped up on," when the butcher was talking about unloading the liver, or something like that. When I spoke to them, part of their motivation behind this lifestyle was because they think it's really good for kids to have responsibility, and to help provide for the family. If they want the house to be heated in the winter, they need to help cut down firewood.
It was overwhelming. It was an overwhelming scene, but as soon as I lingered, there were just so many interesting people there.
TH: Olivia, what did you learn about the demographics of this movement? Who is drawn to it?
OR: The data available is pretty limited. There is one study that surveyed 4,000 homesteaders. Most of the people I spoke to at the conference seemed to be conservative, but I was surprised to see in this data set that actually, about 44% of homesteaders, at least according to the survey, identify as conservative. Then maybe about a quarter are liberal, and then 20% are independent. And then there are a few other affiliations too. It's hard to know.
I spoke to some people who — you know, there did seem to be a lot of vaccine skepticism there. For what it's worth, that just happens to have a strong political affiliation in the U.S. these days. But I think these are sometimes politically homeless people too. People who maybe are vaccine skeptical, but at the same time, may have more liberal fiscal ideas. Like, they totally believe in a livable wage, or more progressive concepts like that. [So] I think it is a politically mixed group.
At the same time, the average homesteader is probably under 50, married, and religious, and a lot of them are very active voters.
TH: It's interesting because when I started following this movement, it really did seem that — certainly there were some religious women, some conservative women involved — but it really did seem to be led by women with leftist politics. I'm thinking of the author of the seminal book Radical Homemakers that sparked this movement in the U.S. This is Shannon Hayes. But it does seem lately like there's increasing interest from the right. So much so that Mother Jones recently published a warning piece arguing that talking about the industrialized food supply and its impact on your gut and the planet is now a right-wing position. What's your sense of where the thrust of this movement is coming from, now, on the political spectrum?
OR: It’s interesting. When I started reporting on this, the first thing you do as a reporter is you read other people's coverage. I found a lot of pieces confusing the homesteader for a more paranoid, isolated, prepper type — at least according to the media. A lot of stories were grouping these two stereotypes together. But at the same time, I live in Brooklyn, and there's definitely an undercurrent of homesteading even in cities now, where it's not uncommon for a city dweller, or Millennial professional, to at least have a tomato plant and maybe plans to grow their own herbs.
Everyone has to eat, and once you dig into where your food comes from, I think everyone has alarms about certain aspects of our food system. But I have noticed that, at least in terms of the coverage, this is being portrayed as maybe a puritanical movement or some sort of regressive movement. I think perhaps people are also looping this in with the tradwife phenomenon. But the people I spoke to — some of them were culturally very Western, and wearing Wrangler Jeans or whatever. But a lot of people, for what it's worth, looked like my neighbours in Brooklyn. Very "cool," tattoos, nose rings.
I met a lot of very ambitious women, a lot of entrepreneurial women.
These are also people who are very active in their community. They're not hoarders preparing for doomsday. They are invested in the future. They're invested in the next generation, in rearing leaders of the next generation.
Oftentimes, I tried to press people on this — it was so benevolent, I couldn't believe it — but people were just like, "Yes, part of the reason why I want to be a homesteader is because I want to be able to give things away. I can tell there are people in my community who are hurting, and I want to be able to give food away." That is definitely not the prepper stereotype of someone hoarding simply for themselves. Who, when push comes to shove, they're going to close their doors and keep all the resources for themselves. These are people who are involved in their community. 90%, according to that study, are active voters.
So, I don't think the portrayal — writing about this as some sort of far-right phenomenon — really holds.
TH: One of the criticisms of this movement, from the very beginning, starting with the organic food movement, is that this is something for privileged people by privileged people. Certainly, when you look in Canada, the big barrier that you come up against when you start contemplating this lifestyle is the prohibitive cost of land. Is this mainly an economically-privileged movement, or is that a mistake to think about it that way?
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