This is an opinion editorial by Captain Sidd, a finance writer and explorer of Bitcoin culture.
Bitcoiners talk a lot about self-sovereignty, often from the perspective of privacy and physical security. However, what’s less discussed is the critical aspect of food and income security. Through my tour of Bitcoin meetups across the U.S.A. this summer, I found a growing interest among meetup attendees in food, nutrition and self-sufficiency. I met many homesteaders on the road who are building systems to make themselves and their families self-sufficient. Bitcoin meetups are expanding the reach of this lifestyle, allowing for the sharing of goods and services as well as critical knowledge around self-sufficient lifestyles.
For this piece, I interviewed Karl — a homesteader who hosted me during my Bitcoin meetup tour — in order to test out a new series on homesteading Bitcoiners I’m considering running in Bitcoin Magazine. I want these articles to help individuals and families expand their knowledge and practice of self-sufficient lifestyles. My hope is that self-sufficient individuals and families will use bitcoin to build larger self-sufficient communities, and over time these communities will reshape the world for the better. This is the peaceful revolution that I’ve stayed in Bitcoin all these years for.
I hope you enjoy our conversation!
Overview Of The Homestead
Sidd: Give me an overview of your homestead: what are you producing and how long have you been at it?
Karl: I started out in 2015 in the spring, and right now, I’ve yielded a lot from that journey. The first thing I did was set up an income stream with vacationers staying on my property — which we can get into later. To do that, I renovated the house to have two units: an apartment for myself, and a unit I can rent on Airbnb to tourists visiting the wine country in my area. To expand that, I'm currently working on a 20-foot tiny house, which will be another rental. I also have the 20-foot yurt that you stayed in, which is currently renting on Airbnb.
On the food production side, I quickly started planting a food forest and got chickens in short order. In the food forest I plant different perennial vegetables, berries, nut trees, fruit trees and I also plant my annual subsistence crops like garlic, squash, potatoes, carrots — those kinds of things. I have a rabbit colony that doubles as a cannabis garden. We produced 150 pounds of rabbit meat from that in the first season, and at the same time, we produced 40 pounds of cannabis in that area.
One of the biggest businesses we're growing into right now is our lamb meat. I think we're going to have 25 to 30 breeding ewes going into the spring. This year our 20 ewes that we bred produced 45 lambs. That was above average, so we’ve had a lot of lamb to sell this year. We didn't have to work too hard to sell them, between our friends, family, neighbors and then a couple went to Bitcoiners.
Homesteading As Income Generation
Sidd: We’ve talked in the past about income generation as a critical element of homesteading. Can you explain how you thought about income generation going into starting your homestead?
Karl: A lot of the homesteading resources out there are focused on food production, and not income generation. However, for me homesteading means taking a piece of land and combining it with your skills and interests to generate an income as well as allow you to live off the land. There are a lot of different ways people leverage their properties to make income. Jack Spirko of “The Survival Podcast,” talks about income generation frequently — taking your assets and matching them to your skill sets to produce income.
I came to homesteading with a desire to build this house called an Earthship, which is a passive solar home built essentially out of trash with a greenhouse inside opening to the south. The Earthship is not just a house, but a “ship” that provides your sustenance in the form of energy, water, shelter, heating, cooling and nutrition. However, the regulations were limiting on where and how and when I could build. I needed to find a place with lax building regulations, and I needed to make money while I was working towards building this house.
So I started thinking about ways that a piece of property I lived on could generate income. At the time, I was traveling across the South on a road trip from Los Angeles to Key West. On that road trip, I found a school bus in someone’s backyard that was listed on Airbnb, so I stayed in it for a couple nights. Once I realized you could put a bed in a school bus and people would pay to stay there, it clicked that I could similarly bootstrap this Earthship concept.
I was working as a film editor at the time and thinking I could work freelance to bootstrap the Earthship, but seeing the Airbnb concept and the tiny house craze take off changed my mind. I could generate income just off the property if I had spare space and a reason for people to visit. That’s where my thought process was leading into looking for the property to purchase.
The property I’m on now is in the heart of wine country. At first glance, that was a downside — but once Airbnb clicked for me, it made a ton of sense to host guests there.
Sidd: What factors were critical to you when evaluating land to purchase? In the past you’ve mentioned building codes, zoning, water rights — what other factors?
Karl: Figuring out those factors started long before I looked at land. I went down the permaculture rabbit hole around 2012-2013, watching lots of YouTube and reading articles. I was living in L.A. at the time playing around with a window garden and watching as much Geoff Lawton as I could.
All of those hours of research allowed me to create a checklist of characteristics for an ideal property for me. That's how I started my search.
I was looking for the following, which from my research would fit how I wanted to implement permaculture:
- 10-20 acres of land.
- Existing house in good shape.
- Hilly land.
- Running water and/or pond.
- Mix of mature woodlot and tillable land.
- Around two hours from an international airport.
That was also in tandem with my experience trying to build this Earthship in Los Angeles. I met with an architect about that, learned the specifics of the building and municipal codes in that area, the zoning laws and all which vary widely from city to city. That gave me a bit of an understanding for why I couldn't do the Earthship in L.A. and what kind of legal environment I needed in order for me to do it. I crossed those two things — my checklist for an ideal property, and what I needed from a zoning point of view to allow me to build the Earthship. Those years of studying were similar to going down the Bitcoin rabbit hole.
Permaculture And Bitcoin
Sidd: You mentioned going down the permaculture rabbit hole. Talk to me about permaculture and Bitcoin: What parallels do you see there?
Karl: Bitcoin just makes sense when looking at it through a permaculture lens. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who originated the concept of permaculture, wanted to create a culture and systems that would last through time without destroying itself from its flaws; a permanent culture. And what is Bitcoin? Bitcoin is a permanent money. In order to have a permanent culture, you need to have permanent money too. Money makes coordination between humans beyond trusted family and friends easier, so bitcoin as permanent money enables permaculture mindsets and practices to expand from the family or village scale to larger scales. That's why I think that they're made for each other.
Because of Bitcoin’s essence as a permanent money, it creates incentives to develop the same solutions you would arrive at through applying permaculture principles to your decision-making process. Take the permaculture principle of producing no waste, for example. People say Bitcoin is an inefficient database, but it’s very efficient when you compare it to existing systems that provide the same assurances around security, censorship resistance and so on. It's much more efficient.
Another permaculture principle is to integrate rather than segregate. In Bitcoin, you are integrating all of these different aspects together from the difficulty adjustment to hashing to public-private-key cryptography in order to create a very robust and resilient system. This mirrors the permaculture style of crop growth, where instead of land dedicated to just apples for instance, you have a whole food forest with apples living alongside peaches, cherries, plums, nuts and more occupying different levels and working with each other. You are no longer reliant just on the yield of your apples, which makes for a more robust food system.
This isn’t a principle of permaculture, but it comes out of practicing permaculture and I employ it often: stacking functions. The idea behind stacking functions is figuring out how I can achieve multiple goals with less work. For instance, I need to tap my maple trees for syrup in the summer, but I have to cut down brush to access them. So I put my rams under the trees, and they get to eat the brush while also clearing it so I can get in to tap the trees. With Bitcoin mining for example, homeowners with high electricity rates need to utilize the heat as well in order to compete, so the Bitcoin network is forcing miners to stack functions. You have to ask yourself at some point, “How do I use this heat?” So miners are practicing permaculture without even knowing it. Bitcoin drives this way of thinking naturally.
Using Mining Heat
Sidd: Speaking of mining, do you have any idea how you’re going to use the heat from the miner you have running at your yurt?
Karl: Yeah, for context I am mining with an S9 using the extra solar power in my yurt. Now that the days are getting shorter, I get about six hours per day running at just 500 watts. I am considering moving it inside the house over the winter and trying to use it as a clothes dryer. We can’t hang our laundry outside in the winter, so it would solve the drying problem while paying out sats. I don’t have gas on the property, so I could also use the electric heat for my water heater or home heat alongside the rocket mass heater.
I could also stack the clothes dryer with a greenhouse in front of the house. I could vent the clothes dryer into a vestibule where I can grow a few plants in the winter, like a small avocado tree or a lime tree. I probably won’t use the miner for heat, since I built a rocket mass heater that heats my home with wood. That is the most profitable thing I’ve built so far — that heater cost me about $1,200 to build, and it saved me about that much in power bills over the first year that I had it. The amount of wood and work that it takes to operate is minimal: people say you can feed it just by picking up sticks in your backyard, and that’s exactly what I did for the first year.
Sidd: I want to jump back to your cannabis plants and the rabbit pen, speaking of stacking functions. Can you tell me how that came about?
Karl: Sure. So I planted the cannabis originally so that I could see if it was worth it to apply for a license to sell cannabis wholesale. That license costs $10,000 just to apply, and then $2,000 to acquire the license, which needs to be renewed. Once I learned the price tag, I realized I can’t just try it and see if I do okay or not. I need to really know that I can grow cannabis here. I figured if I could produce four pounds per plant on average then it would be worth it for me to jump through all the hoops.
Putting the rabbits in there was an afterthought. We were struggling to figure out where to put rabbit cages for a colony. But we already had a fence up around the cannabis, so I added some chicken wire around the bottom of the fence and each cannabis plant. Rabbits are right at home and can munch on the cannabis when it's overgrown.
Zoning Regulations And Building Structures
Sidd: Speaking of licensing and regulations, I wanted to ask you what regulations you ran into that made it hard to build an Earthship?
Karl: One of the biggest was that I had to get electrical service installed on the property. I didn’t have to actually use any electricity, but I had to pay to run it up to the remote property I wanted to buy in L.A. I couldn’t just live off-grid using solar. I was looking for something cheap, so I didn’t want to buy a property with a house that had electricity hooked up just to tear down the house and build an Earthship.
I also had to improve a road to it, and build a sewer line, even though I would compost everything and figured I would just park on the street and carry materials to the site. The whole point of an Earthship is to have everything you need provided by the dwelling: electricity, water, sewage handling. So I didn’t need any of these expensive hookups, but they were required. The improved road alone was going to cost around $100,000.
Then you have the building materials and systems that run into a lot of building codes. An Earthship is made of tires and stucco, which doesn’t fit a lot of the building code in most cities. Plus, if you’re using water from a planter bed to flush your toilet, and it's plugged into the sewer, they have questions about that. I don't know if that's okay or not. I didn’t want to flush my toilet into the sewer, but that was required. I'm going to be flushing it into the bed in the front yard, watering my trees — I don't need your sewer system.
I started looking into zoning, searching for some loophole where I didn’t have to ask for permission or explain to some inspector what I’m trying to build. I found out that in my current area there is no code for houses for workers if they’re under a certain square footage. No permit necessary. My yurt, for example, is just a tent on a deck. It’s perfectly legal according to my zoning. The tiny house I have is on wheels, so it also doesn’t need a permit given I am in an agricultural zone. My friend who lives in a subdivision wants to do something similar, but he can’t because there are rules around how long a vehicle like that can be parked and occupied in a certain area.
Labor Of The Homestead
Sidd: What kind of labor is involved in operating your homestead? And how does that change across the seasons?
Karl: What we've learned is we have to create plans and schedules based on the season. Let’s start with wintertime. In winter, I don't have to do a lot of work with the animals. The sheep are in their winter paddocks where we top them off with water and hay. The chickens are in the food forest working away. The rabbits just need feed, and we aren’t harvesting any. I'm not planting anything because it's frozen outside.
Most of the work in winter is building things. I built the yurt all through winter, and put work in on the tiny house. I built the rocket mass heater when I first got started ironically, in the winter. So, winter is when I'm drilling screws and wrenching things together and tinkering around with building projects. If the ground isn’t totally frozen, I’ll put in fencing as well.
The spring is most chaotic, where I have a million irons in the fire. However, spring is my favorite time because that's when you get to see if the projects I was working on pan out or not. My grasses are blooming, trees planted last year wake back up, the pasture seed planted when it was still frozen takes root. I tap the maple trees for syrup, prepare the sheep paddocks and get the sheep ready for lambing. We plant trees and perennial stuff, do propagation and grafting. Spring is also when guests start to come in again. We start doing more laundry to service the Airbnb business. We also run out of fermented things in the spring, so I get hungry to plant my garden again. I move the chickens closer to the horses so the chickens can start composting the horse manure again.
Once summer hits, then our main focus is the sheep and the guests and just trying to fit in whatever little projects we can. It's mostly just responding to things breaking. Summer projects need to take a maximum of one or two days. For me, I'm doing things the hard and physical way as much as possible, without the assistance of tools and machines. The summertime is the most physically demanding, because that's when I’m moving the sheep fences all the time. I'm constantly preparing new soil for planting different stuff, moving things around. There are also guests here 24/7, so I’m giving tours. Mid-summer I’m harvesting currants and berries, then peaches, garlic and more. We process and store a lot of that.
And then fall, here we are. We're harvesting, picking apples, hickory nuts and planting acorns. Preparing the lambs for the butcher. Making plans for fall transplants, once the plants fall asleep. And then we’re in winter again.
Costs Of The Homestead
Sidd: What input costs do you have to operate the homestead?
Karl: A big one that always catches me by surprise is the veterinary bills. Maybe we call the vet more than we should, but we often think, if we lose this sheep, what’s the cost of that down the line? How far does that set us back? That animal could be producing lambs for many more years. So, we value paying somebody to come and make sure that if there's an issue it's resolvable, and guide us to do that. We probably spent a few thousand dollars in vet bills that weren’t expected this year, mainly because we had dairy sheep. Our horses were due for their big vet checkup.
We also buy a monthly grain order consisting of a couple hundred dollars in alfalfa pellets for the rabbits and chickens as well as pellets and hay for the horses. Our accounting isn’t very exact, but we’re saving money, so we're doing something right. We are cutting back our feed over time, since we’ve learned that the chickens can peck through the horse manure and the rabbits will eat weeds and trimmings from the food forest. So we made sure that we gave them a good solid feed mix to start, but once we were comfortable we started experimenting with how to cut that back with what we have around.
Starlink for internet and electricity — especially for guests at the Airbnb — adds up to $300-$350 per month. I know how to propagate, so we buy new plants sparingly. I'm turning that one tree into five more. We buy a new ram almost every year which is $400-$600. But we typically get to sell our old one and come out even on that.
Every new project is usually a few hundred bucks to get started, if it’s on a small scale. I think a lot of people want to go big right away, but they end up with a high input cost before they know what they’re in for. They don't have enough experience.
Regulations On Selling Products
Sidd: As you’re starting to produce more than you can eat, what regulations have you run into with growing and selling your food?
Karl: Well, I’ll give you one example. I make fermented stuff like pickles. My friends have eaten them and like them, so I thought about selling them. But I can’t even sell them at the end of my driveway, because they don't fit into the Michigan Cottage Food Law — which is generally excellent compared to other places. I need a certified kitchen to make those pickles if I want to sell them.
I also cannot sell a piece of meat I cut myself. I'm not allowed to slaughter it and sell it. I have to hire somebody to come over here and kill it. Then it has to go to a butcher to cut it up so I can sell it. When I’m only trying to sell 30 to 60 lambs per year, it makes no sense for me to go through all the costs and trouble to become a licensed processing facility. Or I have to take it somewhere to somebody, for somebody to kill it. And then, sometimes the butcher happens to be in the same place that they kill it, and sometimes it has to go to a separate butcher to cut it up, so I can sell it.
I think some homesteaders will get to the point where they just won’t comply. They will work on small scales within trusted networks, doing what makes sense and treating customers well. All of these problems that regulations address come from industrial scale, and small scale operations like a homestead don’t run into those same sanitation issues nearly as much.
Sidd: We’ve talked in the past about sharing your goods through Bitcoin meetups. Can you tell me a bit about the importance of Bitcoin meetups in your eyes?
Karl: My bitcoin is more valuable now because I'm part of this network. And I don't want to risk trading it away to get more dollars. I know I have people that I can use it with. People hear about my lamb as well, and they start asking me if they can buy one after it’s processed. I’m not even showing or selling it actively. I’ve made connections to sell breeding stock as well through Bitcoin meetups. I find a lot of interest at Bitcoin meetups in homesteading and getting to the source of your food. It is very demand-driven.
I am thinking about bringing the items I can legally sell and going on the road, just visiting Bitcoin meetups. If nobody buys it, whatever, I’ll eat it. But it could be the beginning of a small distributed network of people getting food and goods from each other. Bitcoin meetups could be a conduit for that. I think I’m also seeing a lot of demand because I'm so active on Twitter. I posted a couple pictures a day, at least, about what I'm doing. I don’t get much engagement, but when I go to the meetups, everybody has seen my Twitter. So I don’t have to show anything — they know what I’m doing and what I can sell.
Resources And Advice
Sidd: What are some of the best resources that helped you get started that you think a newbie to homesteading should dive into?
Karl: I can tell you about my journey. I didn't really have very much access to homesteaders being in Los Angeles. So I just looked on YouTube for as much of the stuff that I was interested in, like building Earthships and growing window gardens. I was just curious about permaculture in general. I watched every video Geoff Lawton made. I wasn’t able to implement it at that time, but it all built to what I’m doing now. When I finally did get this property I’m on now, I was filled with ideas and plans just from those videos.
Once my hands were dirty, I bought books on more specific subjects like raising sheep to deepen my knowledge while I was practicing. Then I started attending workshops and classes. For example, I just went to the Kalamazoo Bee School where I learned a ton about beekeeping in just a one day event, and they had vendors there selling the necessary gear. So I could buy everything that day and get started myself.
All that accumulated knowledge also helped me sort out what I needed to start and follow through on projects. I watched videos on different kinds of tools, and gained an understanding for what I might need when, what really saves a lot of time and effort versus only a little. And I knew what I needed long before I even started a project, so I could keep my eye out for deals.
I think the most important element to my journey was just being hungry for information. It’s like the Bitcoin rabbit hole — just go down the paths that interest you. Meet the subject matter experts and play around. Start to build the knowledge base even if you don’t use it now. As a side note, one of the biggest mistakes I made was trying to take somebody else's system or thing that's working really well and just copy it exactly, shoehorning it into my situation. Oftentimes that doesn’t work. It can be a starting point, but I have to manipulate the idea to fit my situation specifically. I see a lot of people new to this lifestyle becoming obsessed with techniques, but what counts is the ability to utilize techniques in a way that fits your situation.
Sidd: So what’s next for you on the homestead?
Karl: I’m thinking about setting up a homestead school or offering my property as a venue for some kind of classes. I want to have a bunch of cool little dwellings that people can rent to stay at during educational events, learn something and get their hands dirty on an actual homestead.
I could offer a permaculture design class, for instance. It could be a five-to-six day intensive course with permaculture fundamentals and hands-on activities: building a core for a rocket mass heater, digging a swale, planting a tree, opening a beehive up — whatever is available on the property to work with. That kind of hands-on experience is a different type of learning that’s hard to access in this field today, especially to experience it at a larger scale. I would add a Bitcoin element as well. I think that'll just feel natural in the future that Bitcoin and homesteading are fused together.
To me, it seemed inevitable.
This is a guest post by Captain Sidd. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.