Start with a bright October sun and blue skies. Add nearly 150 vendors and their wares, 50 speakers, and more than 5,000 attendees, including several hundred children.
Add in a few dogs, some chickens and goats, enthusiastic volunteers, lots of smiles and laughter, the smell of popcorn, freshly brewed coffee and handmade soap and you have a picture of the 2022 Homesteaders of America (HOA) Conference at the Warren County Fairgrounds in Front Royal, Virginia.
Once past the grassy parking lots crowded with hundreds of cars, vans, and pickups, you enter a wide, flat expanse covered with vendors’ tents, walkways lined with veterans and amateur homesteaders, and picnic table pavilions for take-away loads off their feet, eat, and converse with friends and strangers.
Those who have attended previous conferences—this year is the fourth event—renew friendships, and newcomers are drawn to conversations with total strangers. The spacious conference speaker building fills with people seeking advice on everything from working dogs to pollution-free living, practical food storage, composting or catching a honey bee swarm. And right from the start, people you’ve never met smile or nod at you like they’re friends meeting on the streets of a small town.
In the colorful 52-page conference guide, founder Amy Fewell writes: “Our goal here at HOA is to help you in every way we can, but also to make an impact on our country and beyond. To be a voice and a light where before there was no voice for this community and way of life.”
Believe me, this fellowship has a voice now and you can hear it loud and clear this afternoon.
sharing and learning
To help those new to the homesteading concept and to improve the knowledge and skills of veterans, vendors play a key role. Some sell their wares directly here, others, particularly those selling larger items such as electric fences or farm equipment, distribute brochures about their products or take orders for delivery. All of these people clearly know their stuff.
At Bee Guy Supplies, for example, the woman who operates the stall, Mrs. Crow, tells me why they sell special hives for carpenter bees and explains that these bees don’t produce honey, but they do help open certain flowers for the honey bees. Her husband, Brian Crow, who owns this business in Londonderry, Ohio, first became interested in beekeeping 14 years ago. He attended a lecture about bees in a garden club, was fascinated by the topic, became friends with the speaker and has owned a farm with 40 beehives for eight years. He and his family run a shop on site selling honey and beekeeping supplies. Every third Thursday of the month, Bee Guy hosts a seminar where various beekeepers share information and educate others about beekeeping. Everyone is welcome.
In addition, the family raises quail and chickens for meat and eggs, as well as rabbits.
“Everyone shares,” says Mrs. Crow. “And they want others to learn from it.”
That was true of every vendor I spoke to that day.
Others share in different ways.
Jeremy Kroening is Associate Editor at Homestead Living online magazine. “About 80 percent of our articles are advice articles,” he says, “and the rest is about the homesteading lifestyle.”
He reports a huge rush of visitors to the site in recent years due to COVID-19, with many people particularly interested in living healthier and growing their own food. Although he, his wife Amanda (a professional weaver) and their three daughters, ages 9, 7 and 6, live in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Jeremy edits more than just a homesteading magazine. The family bought a vacant lot next to their property in town, where they planted a 20-by-20-foot vegetable garden. One day they hope to add fruit trees and a chicken coop.
“For most people, the most appealing thing about homesteading is the connection to nature,” he tells me. “As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s important that we better understand how to take care of each other and the world we live in.”
Like Jeremy Kroening, others advertise magazines and websites and sell books on all sorts of subjects, including guides to major disasters.
Most conference attendees come looking for wisdom and technical skills to take home with them, but Angie and Steve Helton of Paintsville, Kentucky were here for a different reason.
Both husband and wife have long been attracted to homesteading, in part because they grew up on farms. They were also interested, Steve says, because of “the quality of the food and the independence.” Their three children, two daughters and a son, all nurses, do not go to school and work, and the couple began to make plans to buy their own farm.
Then, as is the case for so many people, COVID-19 hit and derailed those plans. Steve contracted the virus and although he felt little effect from it, he developed pneumonia. He ended up in the hospital from September 2021 to March 2022, spending most of his time breathing through a tracheostomy tube. At first he didn’t expect to live, he came through and today feels and appears healthy, but their dreams of a homestead have been put on hold for now.
If so, I wondered, what had brought them to Front Royal?
“We came to experience the fellowship,” said Angie. They have attended other conferences – they described this as by far the largest, with many more booths and people – and had traveled from Kentucky to meet up with friends they had made earlier.
“Everyone here has a common bond,” Steve said.
Take personal responsibility
During my visit, I was fortunate to hear part of a presentation by Wyoming-based Jill Winger, founder of The Prairie Homestead, an online site with over 1 million monthly visits. She told her audience that we live in a time and place where many people are looking for the easy way, and that “our culture has an anti-effort bias… It’s synonymous with bad.” The responsibility that comes with that Homesteading, she said, is an antidote to that attitude.
After declaring that “taking responsibility gives life meaning,” Winger also reminded her audience that homesteaders are “taking actions that make a big difference” and that they have “a larger sphere of influence than they realize.” Others see what we do, she said, and want to join in.
In an article included in the program, Winger also explores our culture’s notion of “ease.” She writes, “If you’re a homesteader, a homeschool parent, or a business owner, the money stays with you. And as tempting as it may seem to hand off responsibility, it’s not the answer. Not for me and not for you.” She ends her short essay by saying, “So the next time you say the words, ‘I wish someone would do something about…’ friend, remember that someone just you could be.”
This confident, doable code is probably as good a summary of the homesteading philosophy as we are likely to find.
Count me out… but count me in
Unlike all these people, I have no desire to raise chickens, plant large gardens, or milk cows, although I identified strongly with Winger’s statements about responsibility. My wife and I have homeschooled our children, and I have run small – shall we say tiny – businesses for most of my life.
But despite my lack of interest in becoming a homesteader, I would immediately return to next year’s conference. Here’s why.
As I wandered through this village of merchant tents, I saw several women with cross pendants at their throats. Two elementary school girls in headscarves hopped to an ice cream stand. At a nearby field, black and white boys were playing a game of touch football. Old and young mingled and I saw several men and women sitting in one of the dugouts, visibly strangers to each other but on the way to becoming friends.
And the only mention of politics I heard all afternoon came from a young chicken supply seller, bearded and ponytailed. I missed the first part of his conversation with a client, but as I walked by he pointed to a t-shirt for sale on the tent wall and said, “That’s my political philosophy right there.” The t-shirt read: “free range”.
The whole time I walked the fairgrounds I felt lighthearted. Here were men, women and children from all places and walks of life learning, sharing and having a great time. The bitter divisions we read about online every day were nowhere to be found in this crowd. They were united by a common interest and cause, a desire to make things grow and flourish.
Here, I thought as I walked to my car, is America as it should be.
Here is America as it can be.