The Difference Between Homesteading and Farming | Off Grid Permaculture
Difference Between Homestead And Farm

The Difference Between Homesteading and Farming

December 02, 2020

Daniel Mark Schwartz Profile Picture

Isn’t a homestead just a farm? People new to the off grid movement often wonder what to call the home that they are building. I know I was confused when I first started going off grid. Homesteads and farms are different, here’s how —

Homesteads are smaller plots of land, usually less than 100 acres, which grow food to support a single family unit directly. Farms are generally larger, averaging over 400 acres in the United States, which are designed grow crops for profit. Homesteaders generally live and work on their land, where farmers often don’t.

While this is the gist, there is a lot more to know about the differences, laws that apply to each, as well as other names like hobby farm, ranch, or redoubt that might better reflect what you are doing.

Farms are for Profit while Homesteads are for Sustenance

If is sell food grown on my homestead, does that make me a farm? In many cases the lines between homesteading and farming is not so clear. If a farmer eats their own food or a homesteader sells some of their produce, what does that make them?

Here are some ways to tell them apart —

  • Homesteaders grow a wide variety of food; Farmers tend to only grow one or two crops
  • Homesteaders eat a lot of what they produce; Farmers rarely eat their own crop, instead selling it and buying food like everyone else
  • Homesteaders tend to prefer low volume manual production methods; Farmers generally use large combines, tractors, harvesters, and other automated agricultural machinery almost exclusively

If I only produce a bit of food for sale locally, can I call myself a farmer? I commonly see homesteaders make a little extra selling produce they grow at farmers markets or to restaurants.

If you interested in selling produce or livestock for profits, I recommend a few awesome books on this topic —

Homesteaders Live on Their Property

The word homestead is tightly linked with the Homestead Act of 1862, signed in to law by Abraham Lincoln. This legislation gave parcels of Federally owned land to anyone who was willing to build a residence and improve the land over a five year period.

While this legislation is no longer in force — although there are some opportunities for free land to this day —

On the other hand farms don’t necessarily live on the property they work. At one time, many farmers also had a farm house residence adjacent to their fields. But, in modern times where individual farmers are working 1,000s and acres, there is no necessity that they on the farm land itself. Many farmers choose to live in small farm towns or other residences.

Homesteads are Generally Much Smaller than Farms

While there is no set size for a farm or homestead, modern farms tend to be much larger than modern homesteads.

The original Homestead Act provided 160 acres for each family. This is rather large by modern standards. Many modern homesteaders prefer parcels between 5–20 acres in size as a nice compromise in terms of cost and usability.

How much land do you need to be self-sufficient. I’ve found that 10 acres is plenty for a small family. Read more about choosing the right size homestead here —

The size of an acre was traditionally determined to be about the size that a single oxen team could plow in a day. With a planting season of about two weeks for many grain crops, 15 acres was the standard size considered manageable for a single oxen team.

Thus, it used to be a farm of many hundreds of acres was difficult to manage, and rehired many people to work.

Currently, the average size of a farm in the US is 444 acres. And generally this size has been increasing. With modern machines individuals farmers are able to manage hundreds of acres per person with the help of large scale automation and machinery.

Homestead vs Farming Laws

While the Homestead Act is no longer in force, some states currently have Homestead laws of a different kind.

For instance, Arizona has homestead laws that limit individual liability to creditors when it comes to their home. The idea being that someone going bankrupt shouldn’t loose their dwelling, or at least all of it. For more information on homesteading in Arizona, I’ve written this complete guide —

Besides these financial homestead laws, most homesteaders fall under typical residential laws for their state and county. For instance, where I live my land is classified as “rural residential.” This limits the type of activities I’m legally allowed to do there.

If you are thinking about buying property, or already have some to move off grid, it is vital to know exactly what your zoning laws are for your specific state and county, as they vary quite a bit.

Farms, on the other hand, are usually zone agricultural or industrial. This once again affects what they can legally do there. May limit how many people, if any, can live on the property. Also setting limits on crops, head of livestock, and types of produce processing they can perform.

Some land in the United States is designated agricultural land. This tax designation is an incentive for prime crop land to be used for commercial agriculture. Using it for anything else but a financial successful farm means you owe the government extra money.

Other Names for Homesteads

Does homestead really fit what you are doing? There are some other names off gridders might want to use to name their land.

Farmstead

A newer term for people that have a homestead where they also support themselves through commercial food production.

Most farmsteads produce organic or specialty food at a smaller quantity than typical industrial farms. Generally for selling at local farmer’s markets, through consumer supported agriculture (CSA) programs, or directly to restaurants.

Farmsteads are becoming increasingly popular as a way for modern family to take care of their food needs through subsistence agriculture, while they take care of their monetary needs by selling profitable crops.

Hobby Farms

A hobby farm is a small commercial farm operation, that isn’t really interested in competing the major farms on a price basis.

Unlike a homestead, a hobby farm is primarily interested in selling their produce, but the owners are more in to it for the fun of doing so, or for providing a service to their community, rather than making a huge profit. Or, maybe they just want put “farm” in their name.

Hobby farms may not be designated as commercial or agricultural entities, and can exist on residential land in many jurisdictions.

Food Forest

Very common in the permaculture community is the term food forests. A food forest is a designed ecosystem designed to produce food to support a family or community.

However, food forests are unlike farms or gardens in that they —

  • Mix many plants and animals together
  • Are designed to be largely self-sufficient
  • May not require replanting
  • Very low effort to maintain

The basic idea is to model the residency and productivity of a wild forest — that is to make something that will just keep growing back — but fill it with beneficial and edible plants and animals.

Ranch

Commercial and hobby farms that focus on raising animals, and particularly cattle, usually call themselves ranches.

Instead of “fields,” ranches usually comprise a number of unmanaged on semi-managed grass “pastures,” intended to serve as food for grazing animals.

If you are primarily interested in raising animals for meat, then you might want to call yourself a ranch. Although, in some areas people just like the name ranch, and prefer to call their homestead a ranch even if they don’t have a particularly large number of cattle.

Redoubt

A term from the prepping community, a redoubt is a secondary home or off grid location designed to serve as a retreat location in case of an emergency.

Many redoubts are designed with the capability of growing their own crops, and surviving off the grid for a period of years, or even indefinitely.

What is the difference between a redoubt or homestead? Generally, people don’t live on a redoubt full time. But, the most important distinction is the intent of using a redoubt as a safe location in a time of emergency.

What is the difference between homesteading and farming?

The difference between homesteading and farming is that homesteaders primarily grow food for themselves, while farmers primary grow food for sale. Homesteads almost universally live on the land they work, where farms may not. In modern times farms tend to be many 100s or 1000s of acres, where homesteads are most often less than 100 acres.

What is homestead farming?

Homestead farming is the practice of living and working a piece of land both on a substance level and to produce crops for sale. Sometimes called a “farmstead,” modern families are adopting this model as a means to be as self-sufficient as possible wile generating an income from their land for taxes and other manditory expenses.