Stewart and Shannon Stronger packed up their family — a 5-year-old and 3-year-old and a baby on the way — in 2011 and moved from Michigan to Santa Anna, a small town between San Angelo and Abilene, to try their hand at living off the land.
They left a duplex bigger than the house they live in now and gave up access to a washer and dryer, electricity and running water.
"We lived in the suburbs," Shannon Stronger says. "It was a pretty drastic change for us."
The Strongers, who write the blog Nourishing Days, have written "The Doable Off-Grid Homestead" to give families like theirs a model of how to build life-sustaining things like solar water pumps.
They now have six children and a bigger appreciation for little things. Life off the grid is hard.
"It's not this idyllic 'Little House on the Prairie' situation," Shannon Stronger says.
They were drawn to it by their faith; they are Sovereign Grace Reformed Baptists.
Initially, they started with the basics: how to get food, shelter and water. They are still dealing with those basics. This spring and summer were particularly difficult. They had a late frost in April, and then it went to 100 degrees with little rain in the summer. They planted tomatoes and beans and squash. It all died. Then they planted beans, squash, black-eyed peas and collard greens and lived on that.
Some years there is little food; other years it becomes too much of a good thing. Two years ago was the summer of squash. Shannon Stronger says they ate so much of it that "it was not worth putting on the table and canning" because the children stopped eating it.
The kids, especially the younger ones, might be picky about food, but they do appreciate the work that goes into it. Some days the kids are busy working on their schoolwork through home schooling. Other days they plant the garden or work on chores improving the house or the land. The kids also help raise the animals, which are there to provide milk, meat and eggs. And, yes, sometimes that means butchering the steer they raised and named.
Butchering was hard for Stewart Stronger at first because he worried about doing it wrong and contaminating the meat. Now butchering a chicken is easy, and he divides up tasks for the older boys, who do the head cutting and feather plucking. They tend not to name the meat chickens, but the laying hens have names.
Initially, the Strongers were planning to stay in a tent, but a neighbor had an old camper and they stayed in that. They began building their home, figuring out how to build a root cellar that doubles as a place for food storage and a space to get out of the sun in the summer.
They started with carrying water to their living space. Now they have gravity-fed water; they catch it off the roof and have a dirt mound with concrete where they collect rain and then pump it to the house with a solar-powered water pump.
"When we first started to have to carry water ... we didn't realize how easy we had it (before)," Shannon Stronger says. "It took three months to get used to hauling water."
Sometimes they do everything right and it still doesn't work out, like when a bug infestation in the garden took out the crops. They also were used to crops that grew in Michigan or Minnesota (where she's from) that didn't grow in Texas. They're still hoping to find a solution for apples and blackberries.
"Every week, every month, there's something we're learning from our mistakes," she says. "It's kind of like parenting. You can read all the books in the world, but not until you get into it ... it's not as easy as it sounds."
"It doesn't matter if someone shows you," Stewart Stronger says. "You don't really know until you do it yourself."
The Strongers do work for a living in addition to working their land and home schooling their children. Using solar power, they can run their computers to do freelance work: she as a writer, he as a web producer. She has a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Michigan. He has a Bachelor of Science in management information systems. Sometimes, when they don't have enough power to run the computers, they go to the library or somewhere in town with free internet.
There are other ways in which they are not completely off the grid. As their family has grown, so has the laundry. Sometimes, they head to town to do laundry when it gets to be too much. If there aren't enough crops, they do go to a grocery store.
While most of the hours of the day are taken up with chores and school, the family does like to do fun things like riding bikes or reading. Traveling to see family is now difficult because of the animals that need to be fed and watered twice a day.
The way they have survived over the last seven years is by being honest with one another.
"There are times when you ask yourself, 'Do we really need to be doing this?' And re-evaluate why we do what we do," she says.
And they lean on one another. Shannon Stronger says she wouldn't make it a month without Stewart's encouragement. "He's always been a rock," she says.
Stewart Stronger says being patient has been the hardest thing, but a necessary thing. They've had to build slowly as they had money. Many things he doesn't miss, but the steady job and the steady paycheck would have made this process easier.
"You have to get the basics down," he says. "It's freeing once you do. You can start growing things. You can start watering the animals."
"If we could figure out how to grow food in the summer, if we never had to worry about water, it would be a game-changer," he says.
Even if they were able to do that, Stewart Stronger draws on his faith and says, "No one's ever self-sufficient; we're all God-dependent. ... We're at the mercy of God to give us rain. ... Everything he does is good. We take what he gives us. That doesn't mean we don't struggle."
So why do it? "There's a lot of fulfillment in doing things, in making things, rather than being consumptive in nature," she says.
For Stewart Stronger, it's about the family time they have. "Being able to see my children every day for quite a bit, that time you can't ever get back," he says.
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